Who cooked up a storm this year? Which places set the trends and sparked the debates? Guy Dimond picks out the burger kings and ramen rulers from the rest.
Junk food gets smart
Last year’s burger trend kicked off a focus on other mainstream ‘junk’ foods where – let’s face it – there’s plenty of room for improvement. And no, we’re not talking about hot dogs; despite one or two notable exceptions, pork dogs remain remarkably flaccid in this city. We’re talking about that other international lowest common denominator of fast food – chicken. Wishbone in Brixton has elevated the fried nuggets with top-quality free-range chicken, tangy dressings and even terrific cocktails, served up from a hole in the wall in Brixton Market. It makes other chicken shacks – and there are several new ones – look like Nando’s knockoffs. No wonder it’s packed.
Things have moved on a lot since the gourmet burger trend kicked off. Now, anyone who can run a pop-up has got in on the act. ‘Sliders’ in bars (Lucky Chip, Dach & Sons), authentic burgers in sheds (Dirty Burger) or in real tourist traps (Meat Liquor), from a market stall (Mother Flipper). Yep, while five years ago you had to go to a sit-down restaurant, you can now get great burgers almost anywhere in central London. Does this trend show any sign of slowing down? With a good burger place opening nearly every week, it seems we’re not cheesed off yet.
Alan Yau was the first Londoner to make ramen cool, with his Wagamama chain in 1992. But Wagamama doesn’t serve Japanese ramen – instead, it mixes Southeast Asian flavours with oriental noodles, with Godzilla-like success on the high street. But in 2012, the backlash of the Japanese ramen bars began, with several contenders taking on the mighty Wag. First heavyweight into the ring was Tonkotsu in Soho, with its Fukuoka-style tonkotsu ramen; then Bone Daddies, with a New York take, inspired by ramen bars in the Big Apple. Shoryu, for the Japan Centre, was next over the rope. Even ‘MasterChef’ 2011 winner Tim Anderson is planning a ramen bar, to be called Nanban. Pot Noodle will never seem the same again.
Latin beats turn up the heat
Peruvian, improbably enough, was the food trend predicted for 2012 – a huge PR push preceded London’s brace of smart new Peruvian restaurants. The real Latin trend was far more complex and unpredictable. Restaurants such as La Bodega Negra mix up Mexican and New York influences on a menu and in saucy decor – the entrance to its basement dining room in Soho is boldly signed ‘Sex Shop’. Sushisamba, another US import but this time in the City, mixes up Brazilian, Peruvian and Japanese styles on the plate, to good effect. And the two West End Peruvians, Ceviche and Lima London, turned out to both be excellent. More like this, please.
New York, we love you
Wondering where the next big food trend will come from? Look to New York. Polpo’s Russell Norman has shamelessly copied New York diner fashions for his many fashionable joints, and is planning another three for 2013 by doing his research in Brooklyn. Craft beer bars? New York did it first. Southern soul food pulling your pork? Barbecues may be big in Georgia, but the London versions are more Manhattan than ‘Deliverance’. Gourmet burgers? Silly to even ask. Even the London ramen craze owes much to New Yorker David Chang’s cult ramen joint, the Momofuku Noodle Bar.
The restaurant that doesn’t want you in it
This last year saw a growing trend of supper clubs and other informal arrangements moving into pub and restaurant spaces, often on short leases. Which is a great thing. But this year we’ve encountered several who don’t answer phone calls, and don’t respond to voicemails or emails. When you show up in person looking hopeful, they tell you that your name’s ‘not on the list’, the opposite of hospitality. It’s a disturbingly elitist trend following on from no-bookings restaurants – who sometimes cherrypick their customers using social media. So if you do want to run a dining experience this exclusive, why not move to Mayfair and open a private members’ club?