For one thing, it depends on the occasion, the cuisine, the number of guests (and which friendship group they’re from), what part of London or the country we’re talking about, how long I’m prepared to travel for it, the dress code, who’s asking or what mood I’m in.
I now have carefully categorised lists in my iPhone notes that I cherrypick from when I’m posed with such a question. These lists change often. But in 2022, they grew exponentially.
Despite hospitality’s hardships, it’s been a particularly good year for food. So it feels only right that instead of picking our best restaurant or rounding up the top 10, we reflect on our most memorable meals of the year.
From nose-to-tail extravagance to a far away feast with friends, these are the dinners the team simply can’t forget.
Fittingly, my most memorable meals of 2022 – there are two because I have eaten fabulously this year and couldn’t possibly whittle it down to one – were at the start and end of the year.
Firstly, “conscious gastronomy” restaurant Fallow’s new permanent site in St James, in January. I’d oddly been recommending it to friends before I’d even visited myself – I just knew. It was unforgettable. The smoked cod’s head in sriracha sauce and leek oil – which I had missed the first time around at their pop-up on Heddon Street – is a dish that resurfaces in the memory again and again. So to is the mushroom parfait, and the sight of great ears of the things peering over the top of the bar. It’s also memorable as the first time I’d seen my mum after lockdown (she lives in Spain), as well as the first time I’d taken her out for a “work dinner”. She was so enamoured by the experience that she forgot to try to embarrass me.
Secondly, as recently as earlier this month I visited The Drunken Butler, a chic French-Persian spot in Clerkenwell that really doesn’t get talked about enough. For a restaurant at this tier, it’s a surprisingly warm and friendly space, all homely vibes with vintage wooden furniture and mismatched, antique tableware, much of it belonging to the owner, Yuma Hasemi. Yuma’s menu is as enigmatic as he is. I can say with absolute certainty that the monkfish, BBQ maitake mushroom and caviar in a miso and vin jaune sauce (a description I’m sure I’ve butchered), is my dish of the year. Nothing in the past 12 months can compare. It actually didn’t look like much on the plate but every bite offered up a delicious surirpise, a new layer of flavour or a texture I wasn’t expecting. The combination of the charred mushroom and the smooth, slightly acidic and heavily umami sauce made the fish seem almost surplus to requirement, though it, too, was perfect. The wine pairing was blind, a fact I thought I’d hate but actually loved. Rather than worrying about the grape or the vintage, I was hyper-focused on the flavours and how they weaved through the meal.
I could name so many other great places I’ve wined and dined this year, such as the esteemed Moor Hall, the jewel in Lancashire’s culinary crown, or the “boodle fight” I enjoyed with new friends I’d met just a week earlier on a beach in the Philippines (more on those another time). But for now, I’ll leave you with just these two. I highly recommend you seek them out.
My most memorable meal this year was, perhaps unsurprisingly, also my most stressful. As this was the first year I could actually have guests inside my flat to celebrate Chinese New Year (2020 and 2021 laid waste to any reunion plans), I volunteered to make a spread. I was only feeding a handful of people, but I wanted to be the hostess with the mostest and spent several weeks planning the dishes. They included a whole steamed fish, braised tofu, some sort of stir-fried greens and enough rice to feed an army.
I also knew that I wanted to cook my favourite CNY dish – braised pork with black fungus. It doesn’t sound pretty. It also doesn’t look pretty, but it is one of my most beloved dishes in the world. The tender bite-sized pieces of caramelised pork belly melt in your mouth. The black fungus is velvety to the touch but crunchy when you bite down on it. The sauce is perfect for coating every grain of rice with salty, umami, oily deliciousness.
The problem is that I’d never made it before. My dad had always made it for the occasion, so I was never forced to learn it, until now. I asked him for his recipe, and he happily WhatsApped is back to me, although he was vague about measurements. Agak-agak, we call it in Malaysia – “just guess”. Somehow, it turned out exactly the way my dad makes it. I burst into tears when I tasted it. It rushed me straight back into my childhood home during CNY, sitting around our big round table with everyone in the family, laughing and eating and playing games. I think about that moment often. It reminds me of the power of food.
I’ve never much thought of myself as a Cotswolds person. Sure, this western swathe of English countryside, pocked with storybook villages, is a hit with the travel crowd. But it’s priced accordingly, with big spends for your pretty, wisteria-trailed inns and country walks. I’d always thought of it as a bit fancy for me; a bit rarefied. So the one thing that could tempt me there was a really good dinner. Amid this July’s stultifying heatwave, I met my dearest friend for a night away at the Double Red Duke. We planned to explore its cute village of Clanfield either side of a grown-up sleepover with plenty of wine. But what brought me there was dinner – in a restaurant we’d heard was more than worth the journey.
What followed was a sort of Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole experience of foodie joy – starting with champagne cocktails sipped under scarlet-striped parasols in the leafy beer garden. In a still, balmy 35C, surely this was Saint-Tropez, not 16 miles north of Swindon. Heading into the dining room, the menu was giddyingly tempting from top to bottom – fresh rock oysters with tiger’s milk dressing; heart-shaped sourdough pizzas smothered with ’nduja and honey; fresh-from-the-fryer bacon-rib croquettes. For mains, we’d have to come back for the woodfired cod with truffle mayo, and the duck breast with crab apple jelly – for me, it had to be a best-in-class steak with lashings of Bearnaise.
Everything was cooked to perfection: all killer, no filler. In fact, the modest sounding dishes were the best – flame-grilled hispi cabbage licked with miso butter, for example. As we clinked our third glass of Rioja, congratulating ourselves on a great find, the live music started up: a gorgeously raucous local jazz band of dad types wearing increasingly loud-print shirts. Passers-by crammed into the bar for nightcaps, upping the house party feel. Atmosphere, cooking flair and local character? Show me a better foodie sleepover.
Ask me what my most memorable meal of 2022 is and my mind goes blanker than a poorly briefed politician or a mismatched house party reveller with unsolicited control of Spotify. This is no doubt a buoying indication that 2022 has been a good year and I’ve had my fair share of delicious meals.
But after careful consideration, I am going to have to cite a trip to Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall in spring. Buried in the north London ’burbs, a trip to Bang Bang involves remaining on the “misery line” (the former name for the northern line due to its erratic timekeeping and endless signal failures) until two stops from the end: Colindale. Billed as London’s largest Asian food hall by some and Europe’s biggest Asian food hall by others, there are more than 30 food stalls to choose from.
Once inside, there is no shortage of cuisines on offer, with food hailing from China to Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and more. From the beautifully barbecued skewers of squid tentacles, lamb, scallops and prawns I bought from Uncle Chilli, which serves food from Sichuan in southwest China; to the fluffiest, wobbliest Japanese pancakes you have ever eaten; to bouncy juicy prawn dumplings that a spring in your step, Bang Bang offers a smorgasbord of delights. In fact, I would schlep back to Colindale for those pancakes alone, which continue to live rent-free in my heart.
There is something about Bang Bang which elicits your inner child. Maybe it’s the cute logos and bright colours or the menus on screens or the fact that you want to eat until you chuck up. Or perhaps it’s the fact the restaurants give you a plastic object that starts wildly gyrating and vibrating when your food is ready, which injects a chaotic delirium to the experience. At one point, I almost dropped the tray I was clutching after three buzzers from three different restaurants started loudly vibrating on it in unison. Like a Thorpe Park for thrill-seeking gluttons, the food at Bang Bang is as belligerently delicious as its name suggests. I am just hoping I get another visit in by the end of the year.
What makes one meal better than another? The quality of food certainly, but more than that: the company, the location, the experience. The one meal from 2022 that ticked everything for me was high in the hills of Talamello near Rimini in Italy.
The commune there is famous for a particular type of cheese known as fossa, meaning “pit” – pecorino sheep’s cheese placed in… well… pits in the ground on one particular day each year to mature.
Pecorino is already one of my favourite cheeses, but those pits work some magic, and the resulting fossa has a fragrant, rich, earthy taste. Whether it’s served soft like fondue or hard like parmesan, it’s always delicious. The Italian poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra called it “Ambra di Talamello” – or “Amber of Talamello” – due to its colour.
Add to that the location of the restaurant – La Locanda dell’Ambra – which overlooks the green farms and small villages of Emilia-Romagna and is based inside a medieval stone building; plus a table full of friends, local red wine and a €30 nine-course tasting menu (replete with fossa paired with pasta, bread, mushrooms, vegetables and meat) and you’re pretty close to the perfect meal.