Ah, hello. How lovely to see you. Welcome to the inside of my head. Forgive the dreadful mess. When you’ve got a few miles on the clock as I have, you do tend to acquire a bit of clutter. Ignore the problematic Sally James tableau over there; a little something left over from my grubby adolescence. And that bulge, draped in a dusty sheet, is where I keep all my sublimated fears. I try not to look under it too often and you shouldn’t either. Instead, come through to this lovely space. It’s where I keep all my favourite restaurant memories. Yes, I know. It’s as confused and tangled as everything else in here, isn’t it?
In these times, when our world has shrunk to its essentials, and many of the pleasures we take for granted have been wrenched from us, the inside of our heads can be a vital resource. I like to wallow in memories as if they were an orange blossom-scented bubble bath. I can wallow for Britain. I take myself stage by stage through the greatest experiences; the ones that didn’t just tick all the obvious boxes but which, at the time, let me live in the moment. Now I can live inside them again.
Unsurprisingly, given my so-called job, I’m regularly asked to name the best restaurant I’ve ever been to. I know the answer people crave. They want me to describe some gilded palace where the service is one long polished bob and curtesy and each dish is a magisterial expression of chefly ambition. Well, I’ve eaten a few plates of chefly ambition in my time and I’m here to tell you: it’s not all that.
I know. My diamond pumps are clearly pinching. I’ve been allowed to eat the very best and in response all I have is one jaundiced eye roll. But there’s a broader point: the greatest of restaurant experiences are not simply a function of financial heft (although they can be). There is so much more to them. In this memory palace of mine, for example, I must point out a lunch at the Company Shed on West Mersea, a tidal island off the edge of Essex where the land and sea play a ragged game of tag. The Company Shed really is just a slat-board shack. It’s so simple, I was jokingly advised by a regular to take my own chair.
They did have chairs. They also had napkins, if a roll of kitchen paper counts. They didn’t have bread or mayonnaise back then, but I had my own. What mattered was the oysters, fished from the creek out back by Richard Haward, whose family has been trading in them since before they were sending them down the Thames estuary to the London of Charles Dickens. There were freshly boiled brown crabs, to be cracked at the table, so you could form a cairn of emptied shells in front of you, and platters of the best smoked salmon. Everything about the Company Shed was perfect. It cost £15 a head back then and doesn’t cost much more now (and they are currently delivering).
I have similar warm, fuzzy feelings about what’s now called the Crab House Café at Abbotsbury, near Weymouth. We went there one summer holiday with our then two-year-old son, and sat at picnic tables, pulling fat garlicky prawns from the shells and probing the deeper crevices of a Portland crab. The whole experience was unimprovable. Or at least it is in my memory, thickly varnished with a quiet, parental yearning for the small, uncomplicated children our kids once were. Because who you are eating with plays a vital part in shaping your memories of the very best restaurants.
Look at me, being ever so ’umble. Yeah, as if. Expensive isn’t everything, but it can be quite something. Come with me then, to the high-windowed dining room of Jean-Georges in New York, full of Upper East Side grand dames in their sunglasses like hubcaps, and men of a certain age with lacquered hair that doesn’t move, and wouldn’t move even in a hurricane. Here, nothing bad can happen.
I have an untidy relationship with the restaurants of the gifted Alsatian-born chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Generally, I have swung between laughing at them and hating them. If you want to be charged £30+ for a teeny truffle pizza, without a breath of shame, Vongerichten’s your man. But Jean-Georges, his flagship, is different. Too many high-end gastro-palaces aren’t selling food. They’re selling status. And sure, there’s loads of that at Jean-Georges. It occupies the ground floor of the Trump International Hotel. Yes, I know.
But oh, the food. There is one dish that has its own tidy, dusted downlit niche within my badly filed restaurant recollections: a squared off piece of black bread, spread thickly with cool, salted butter, laid with one fat, butterscotch-coloured sea urchin with, on top of that, a single ring of grass green jalapeño pepper and a brisk wash of yuzu. It is two completely perfect bites.
There are other shiny, edible things. There are ribbons of tuna in a spicy ginger broth that makes your eyes widen. There’s a shell full of the lightest, butter-enriched scrambled egg topped with a whorl of vodka-boosted cream crowned by a spoonful of caviar. There are silky cheese ravioli in a beefy broth over which are shaved a snowfall of white truffles. And sigh. There is a scene in the movie Julie and Julia in which Meryl Streep, playing the great American cook Julia Child, goes off on one about an exquisite dish she has been served in a French restaurant. Stanley Tucci, playing her husband, simply smiles, nods and says quietly, “I know.” There was much of that about the service at Jean Georges; a gentle and solicitous understanding of just how marvellous a time you’re having.
Was it expensive? Are my shirts XXL? (Careful how you answer that.) It cost in the way the tasting menu at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck costs. (The latter makes my best restaurant list, but specifically circa 2005 when he was first pushing at the boundaries of what dinner out could mean; when it was as uniquely entertaining as it was uniquely delicious. Oh, the cuttlefish cannelloni. Oh, the crab biscuit.)
We all attach value to different things. We all fill our heads with memories in different ways. And while it may look like a total cop-out after 1,100 words, the truth is that there’s no definitive answer to the best restaurant question. These are mine. Yours would be very different. I might disagree with you, but your choices wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – wrong. They’d just be yours.
A new website has been launched celebrating everything the hospitality industry has been doing during the current crisis: hospitalitydelivers.org is a roll call of companies, be they restaurants, hotels, caterers, shops or any other related business, and how they are supporting both the vulnerable and NHS workers. There are also links enabling us to help support those ventures ourselves, be it through donations or giving them our trade, which in turn helps towards fundraising. It’s nationwide, growing all the time and definitely worth supporting.
In the same vein openkitchens.co.uk is bringing together currently closed restaurant kitchens and their communities to help fund, produce and deliver free meals to those in need. It started in Nottingham but has now spread out across the Midlands and the North of England. If you want to donate, visit justgiving.com.
And a niche one: the Hampshire-based Wasabi company, which had significant restaurant trade, is now delivering prime watercress (in plastic-free packaging) to homes across the UK, with 20% of all revenues going to the charity Hospitality Action. The also sell a range of prime Japanese ingredients, including rice vinegars, noodles and fresh yuzu for those wanting to up their Japanese cooking chops during lockdown (thewasabicompany.co.uk).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/may/03/jay-rayner-my-favourite-restaurants-a-trip-down-memory-lane