Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Year in Food - My Top 20 Meals of 2010

1. The Meatwagon, Peckham
London's best burger should be experienced in its natural habitat, an industrial estate ten minutes from civilisation (if we can call Peckham civilisation). Here, the music is as all-American as the sinfully gloopy processed cheese, the queues are tiny compared to the two-hour waits you get north of the river, the beer comes in a can from the local shop, and the seating, if you can nab a place to perch, is a pallet. This was the best meal I've had all year.

Tragically, 2010 ended with a bolt of bad news – the Meatwagon has been stolen! The Hamburglar strenuously denies any wrongdoing.

2. Grand Central Market, Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles rocked my world for many reasons, not least because the first stall I saw at the Grand Central Market was Las Morelianas, home to the world's greatest pork tacos. A man almost entirely hidden behind a giant tray of pig gave me a sample taco that made my tongue waggle. I promptly ordered the Morelianas Special, a mad, bad and dangerous combo of pig skin, pig tongue, pig ear and, er, pork, all dripping in a fiery salsa.

Main course was a Salvadorian pupusa from Sorita's Pupuseria, which, if you're a Norcal hipster like me, you'll recognise as this decade's answer to the burrito. Stepping out of character, I went for something vegetarian and American, a monterey jack and squash pupusa, a fried disc of stuffed dough served alongside a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish the businessman next to me insisted was known as 'Salvadorian kimchi'.

By the end of my third course at Lupita's Fresh Seafood, a ceviche tostada (mixed seafood on a crispy taco) with fresh avocado and salsa, it wasn't only my tongue doing the dancing - my teeth were jiving, too. And when I was asked for just $3.50, I could have jumped up and down. California uber alles, as ever.

3. Lamb Club, Highgate
The first and only rule of Lamb Club is to eat as much lamb as you can. I ma
naged a semi-respectable two heaped plates. A couple of people in our group managed four. The inaugural Lamb Club, organised by Will Eat For Money, was a spectacular affair, a whole lamb roasted and carved in a Highgate pub garden on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at the height of summer. The meat came with excellent chips, a choice of three salads and mint sauce, and cost £15 each. Come join the club. Photo used without permission from Will Eat For Money. My photos were rubbish.

4. Hawksmoor, Covent Garden
Hawksmoor lived up to my sky-high expectations by serving top-notch meat (admittedly at very high prices). I visited the new Seven Dials branch in the opening week to take advantage of a 50% discount on food and I wasn't disappointed. Here is my short review. In 2011, I'll be going back for the kimchi burgers.

5. The Karachi, Bradford
The Karachi was the fifth stop out of five on one of the best eating evenings of the year – a curry spree in Bradford (sign in and read it, please - it's one of my better articles!). Four of us guzzled our way through 25 curries and several litres of mango lassi. I did the lion's share of the eating and that night I had strange and vivid dreams. I probably farted a couple of times, too (not mentioned in article). Photo from The Guardian website.

6. La Taqueria, San Francisco
I adore San Francisco. Simply typing its name elicits flutters and swoons. Yet for all its numerous charms and the bittersweet memories of the summer of 2001 that flash and then fade round every corner, it's not exactly the land of milk and honey in the Mission District. (There's lots of rice milk, though). Here, there's a steady presense of city cops as ne'er-do-wells, rapscallions and rascals loiter on street corners exuding well-practised nefariousness. I ate a full Oaxacan dinner at La Oaxacaquena and strode purposefully past the sidewalk zombies to the best taqueria in the world. Here, the formula is simple. Tortillas. Steak. Fresh salsa. Guacamole. Chips. Horchata.

Sigh. Flutter and swoon. Flutter and swoon.

7. Restaurant with unpronounceable and hard-to-remember name, Tbilisi
Tim and I went to a karaoke club in Tbilisi. We wowed the crowd with our no-fi interpretation of Blur's Coffee & TV. Everybody offered to buy us dinner. After yet another spectacular meal (there's no such thing as a bad Georgian meal in Georgia), we said we'd buy dinner for everyone to say thank you. We took our new friends - and several hungry hangers-on - to this place (name requested from magical Georgian guide) and enjoyed amazing beer brewed on site and stunning food.

Best of all were the khinkali, Georgian soup dumplings, large mixed meat parcels with knotted tops to be cracked open, sprinkled with pepper, and downed triumphantly, shot glass-style. Apparently it's quite normal for Georgians to indulge in khinkali eating contests. On this evening I managed 11, only 36 short of the all-time foreigners' record. Since I failed to take any photos of this marvellous meal, I've used the next best thing - the freshly-baked khachapuri we ate that morning, cooked by a lovely farmer called Mrs Nazi.

8. World Cup Braai, Wimbledon pub
My colleague Piet takes barbecuing very seriously. There's no point talking to him when he's in the zone. He won't be listening.

First, he braais crumbly bread rolls, which are served dripping in golden syrup. Then Piet moves onto the meat. A dedicated carnivore, he only goes to butchers that meet his high standards. The boerewurst is a treat, of course, but the highlights are the lamb chops, given zest and zim by Piet's secret seasoning, carefully imported by hand from Cape Town. We were at a South African pub on the night Bafana Bafana were hammered by Uruguay. The vuvuzelas went quiet after the third opposition goal, but the meat kept coming. And we went home happy.

9. Al-Nadjiyah Village, Riyadh
This meal could have tasted like a poached poo toastie and it would still have been one of the best of the year. I was in Riyadh (religious police, public executions, gender apartheid – good times!) and sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle of Saudi lads. We talked about the usual stuff blokes talk about - football, girls, politics, meat - and shared a huge bowl of camel kabsa, eating with our hands.

Saudi Arabia is an awful shithole but I'll always remember eating camel in Riyadh. And the following night I did it again and it was even cooler. Members of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Club raced me out into the desert at terrifyingly high speeds. Just past the city boundaries we pulled over and entered a giant tent where we could smoke shisha, rip apart hunks of barbecued camel, and talk about expensive pieces of machinery that go down roads quickly. In Saudi Arabia, I acted like a man. I really had no choice.

10 Burger Joint, New York
2010 was the year of the burger (see 19, Byron). And the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian hotel provided the second most enjoyable (see 1, Meatwagon) burger-eating experience of the year. (3rd: Byron, 4th: Trueburger, Oakland, 5th: Umami Burger, LA). This place shouldn't really exist, a low-key spit and sawdust burger bar connected to the plush lobby of a five-star hotel. Chandeliers give way to garish neon signs. Service switches from fawning to functional. They only serve burgers, French fries, shakes, sodas and beer (served in a pitcher - nice). The burgers are sensational, far better than the overhyped Shake Shack. Can't wait to go back.

11. Masters Super Fish, London
Danny Blue likes Masters Super Fish. And I do too.

12. Olimpia, Budapest
Olimpia is a modest spot, a low-key antidote to Budapest’s tiresome thing for bling. The painted Parthenon on the walls and the restaurant’s misleading name were inherited from previous owners. Given the decor, one wouldn’t expect a feast of fine dining, but there are clues on the bookshelf by the entrance – Hungarian translations of books by Gordon Ramsay, Adria Ferran, Nobu Matsuhisa and Heston Blumenthal. When chef Lajos Takacs was a child in Balaton, a resort town to the southwest of the capital, books such as these wouldn’t have been available. It’s tempting to imagine the Communist regime would have branded molecular gastronomy as bourgeois and dangerous. Today, Takacs is one of a new generation of Hungarian chefs who are combining their country’s culinary heritage with ingredients and techniques imported from around the world.

At 7pm I tucked into dover sole with caprese salad. At 11.15pm, nine courses later, I scrape the last bits of chestnut moose with green tea ice cream from my plate. Lajos’ creations had also included foie gras with mango chutney and chilli, beetroot soup with wasabi foam and duck eggs, and pigeon breast with fennel mash. Yum.

13. Katz Deli, New York
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” screamed Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and now I understand why. The deep-filled pastrami & rye sandwich at Katz's had given her an extremely satisfying orgasm. OK, so this place is a bit chintzy, corny and touristy, and the prices are high, but this is the real deal. Just look at how much meat they ram into this bastard and see that value for money. Just don't lose your meal ticket – there's an orgasm-delaying US$60 fine.

14. In-N-Out Burger, Las Vegas
It's now been ten years since I first stepped inside an In-N-Out, marvelled at the cookie-cutter fast food fittings, fake smiled at the fake-smiling college dropouts behind the counter, giggled at the small print references to the bible on the packaging, and ordered a Double-Double with animal fries, please. The menu is so simple: burger, double burger, French fries and soft drinks, all prepared with fresh, high-quality ingredients. And then there's a not-so-secret 'secret menu' based on customers' deviations. For my first In-N-Out since 2003, an hour before the opening act of Matador at 21 (the best music festival I've ever been to) I ordered a big burger with animal fries, which come slathered in gooey cheese, onions, pickles and some kind of thousand island sauce. Afterwards I bought a souvenir In-N-Out hat. I'm wearing it now.

15. Woman's house, Yerevan
The name of the woman has been forgotten. If you want to go, just ask Aris at Hotel Meg. He'll book it for you. This is a supper club not dissimilar to The Parkholme Supper Club or Rambling Restaurant, my two favourite London home restaurants, both of which just missed out getting on this list (23 and 26 respectively. I could go to 100, you know). After the joys of Georgia, Armenian food had seemed slightly disappointing - lots of meat and not much else. But this was a treat - wonderful soups and salads followed by fish, lamb chops and a great dessert, with wine served by the jug. The restaurant is staffed by once-bored housewives who wanted a hobby as well as a source of income. It's a living room so family photos are all over the bookshelves and the owner, whose name I really should have remembered, plays jazz piano during meals. Utterly charming.

16. Dinner, Basata, Egypt
To be honest, I can't remember what I had for dinner at Basata. I recall fish and various dips, hand-cooked potato crisps and various stews and salads. But I do remember it being absolutely lovely. Basata is one of the world's first eco-resorts, a hippie beach in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. I sat at a communal table with some Germans, Brazilians and Egyptians and we quietly talked into the night. At the end of the meal, a little boy offered me a piece of cake. It was his parents' wedding anniversary, and his parents, who founded Basata in the mid-80s and have barely changed a thing since, chose to celebrate their special day at the spot they've barely moved from in quarter of a century.

17. El Vaso de Oro, Barcelona
My favourite meal of 2009 was foie gras and steak at El Vaso de Oro. After Primavera Sound 2010 I popped to this Barceloneta bar for a snack (sandwich, peppers and cheese) and it was as good as I remembered. I've been disappointed time and time again by the food in Barcelona, but Oro always hits the spot.

18. Zaklety Czardasz, Katowice
This is a biggest meal I've had this year outside Las Vegas (congratulations, buffet brunch at the Gold Coast Hotel). It wasn't amazing, but its sheer hugeness (six bowls of goulash followed by a main course big enough for four people) warrants its place on the list.

19. Byron, London
This Movember I grew a moustache and raised some money for prostate cancer. For subjecting myself to such humiliation (as long as I looked more like a porn star than a sex pest I was fine with it, though) I earned myself the right to a free Byron burger every day for a month. Due to unfortunate scheduling conflicts I only managed 18 burgers and some of these were, rather Judasly, made out of chicken or vegetables.

Byron does everything well. The burgers are cooked medium-rare as standard, the bread is dominated by the meat rather than the other way round, the milkshakes are thick and ice-cold, and the sides (twice-cooked chips, coleslaw, mac cheese, French fries, courgette fries, onion rings – see, I know the menu by heart) are all exceptional. Best of all, the staff are incredibly friendly, even when you're not paying for your food. Having tried everything on the menu, I recommend the American cheeseburger above all others.

20. Hakosem, Tel Aviv
“I warn you,” said the man taking my money. “This falafel is dangerously tasty.” He was right. It was the best falafel I've ever eaten. It was green with cilantro and parsley, served with thick wedges of fried aubergine, hummus and tahina, and smothered in a coriander chilli dip.

There have been lots of food wars in the Middle East recently. Here's the truth: Israel stole all the dishes from the Arabs. Then they improved them. I've eaten falafel in ten Arab countries and nothing is this good. Israel, take note. You've beaten the Arabs. You can end the occupation now.