The black box into which I entrust the menus from the restaurants I have had the good fortune to visit is now overflowing and, thanks to my first trip to Brazil, is replete with more colourful examples than ever before.
But before heading back to specific locations, I would like to mention three distinct aspects of the past year: the first a memory; the second an unusual reference; and the third an illuminating comment.
The first was the sight of a man, sitting in the expensive stalls at the Vienna Opera, tucking into a ham roll only minutes before curtain up. This I recall with some envy, particularly as now seems the most fitting time of year to visit this city, its restaurants and cafes, most notably for me Plachutta for its stafelpitz or boiled beef, Gasthaus zu den 3 Hacken for the warmth of its hospitality and Demel for its cakes.
Then there was the fact that my article in the FT on 22 Sep, stating that menu prices will have to rise as a result of a combination of factors worldwide but that there were several cost saving factors restaurateurs could easily take advantage of, was picked up on the blog of Frank Bruni, my counterpart at The New York Times. This and the news since of rising commodity prices seems to confirm perhaps the most unpalatable fact of all about 2007 that it looks certain to be the last year of eating-out inexpensively.
The final comment came six weeks ago via a supplier to numerous London restaurants who wanted me to know that while his customers were still ordering across the range of what he produces, the quantities they were ordering were definitely down. The corporate and consumer credit squeeze has, it seems, already begun to bite.
Restaurateurs and their customers now face an unusual situation. On the one hand analysts state that 37p out of every UK food pound is spent eating out; that the market is set for six per cent growth between 2007 and 2012 and that eating out is much more ingrained in our lifestyle, with more women working and more people – both men and women – living alone. But there is undoubtedly price resistance from consumers, while margins are under pressure on the food, energy and wages front. One chef I was talking to recently visibly winced when she remembered quite how much her bread bill alone had increased this year. 2008 will be tough.
2007 may be characterised as a year when the buoyant restaurant openings of the first six months, with the exception of the swift demise of Mocoto in London, were followed by more cautious predictions. But there does seem to be one constant among the apparent turmoil and that is that French food is firmly back in fashion.
I will set aside the fact that two of my most memorable meals were in Paris at, respectively, Le Meurice, where Yannick Alleno is cooking with such aplomb, and not that far away at Rech, the old shellfish bistro which Alain Ducasse has stylishly revived. I will concentrate instead on three very diverse French meals in London which conveniently cover the price spectrum.
Least expensive of all is the new Cote, open only in Wimbledon at the moment annoyingly but I spotted one of its founders tracking down possible new sites in Soho, aiming to replicate the success he and his partner achieved with the mid-priced Italian chain, Strada. Then there is the emergence of Thierry Tomasin, whose obsessive approach to wine, service and good food has found just the right outlet in Angelus, a former pub now converted with great elegance to a restaurant that combines fin de siècle elegance with informality.
Finally and fittingly there is Le Gavroche, which this year celebrated its 40th birthday, and into whose coffers I happily poured £900 at the end of last April for a family dinner for eight. This may sound, and is, a lot of money (although it did include a magnum of mature red burgundy) but this was a bill where the word service at the end seemed quite inappropriate. Instead, there was more than enough attention to make each of us, with an age differential between oldest and youngest of 67 years, feel special and to believe that although there were other diners in the room, the kitchen and waiting staff seemed focused only on us. Whatever Michelin may say, Le Gavroche is in a class of its own in London.
Perhaps the most encouraging rumour of the year is that the era of the celebrity chef may finally be drawing to a close. I am not so confident that this is the case because as more media proliferate with increasingly portable technology to take them into the kitchens then demand will not abate nor will the substantial offers to back the lucrative tie-ins. That people are talking about this, and that it may therefore prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, one can only hope.
But with the exception of Heston Blumenthals pub, The Hinds Head in Bray, my best meals this year have not been at any restaurant to which I have been lured by the possible presence, or not, of one particular person at the stoves. Rather they have been at very diverse places that are the manifestation of one or two individuals dreams in every occasion backed up by a highly committed team.
It has been wonderfully satisfying to return and still enjoy what David and Rona Pitchford are doing at Reads in Faversham, Kent, and have been doing for 30 years, or the exuberant Baba Hine at The Corse Lawn Hotel in Gloucestershire. It was also fascinating to see how Nigel Haworth is developing his elegant style of Lancastrian food at The Highwaymans Arms in Burrow, near Kirby Lonsdale, and contrast this with the emerging skills of Tom Kitchin at Kitchins in Edinburgh.
In London, Will Becket and Huw Gott are building successful teams on the back of Green & Red and Hawksmoor as are the Hart brothers with Fino, Barrafina and their most recent acquisition, Quo Vadis in Dean Street, which will serve classic English food albeit with a Spanish head chef. It has been a boon for Londoners to welcome the excellent British cooking at 32 Great Queen Street in Covent Garden and that of James and Emma Faulks at Magdalen, by London Bridge; the Niçois food of Raphael Duntoye at La Petite Maison in Mayfair; the robust flavours of the two branches of Fernandez & Wells in Soho and the authentic bratwurst of Kurz & Lang.
Finally, in case anyone thinks I have forsaken Italy, I would selfishly like as many trips as possible back to Verona to eat the hams, cheeses, pastas and raid the wine cellar at Il Pompiere. Buon appetito for 2008!