Jimi Famurewa’s 10 favourite restaurants of the year from Sessions Arts Club to Bibi

·9-min read
Good eating: the Standard’s chief restaurant critic, Jimi Famurewa   (Natasha Pszenicki)
Good eating: the Standard’s chief restaurant critic, Jimi Famurewa (Natasha Pszenicki)

Well this all feels grimly familiar. Twelve months after the hospitality industry endured a December coloured by operational uncertainty, the dread of a new variant, and the lurking threat of enforced closure, it finds itself experiencing a reheated version of basically all those things. The Covid doom-spiral continues. Some form of lockdown once again seems a distinct possibility. And everyone is either cancelling a restaurant booking or making the same joke about Christmas being a time for repeats.

But look, before all that, a semi-normal year of openings and largely consistent trading broke out. Despite the fact that business couldn’t start until April 12 (when the roadmap out of lockdown sanctioned the return of outdoor-only dining), a compressed calendar precipitated verve, ambition and by my count, more than 250 openings. And if there was a theme to the capital’s restaurant landscape in 2021 — beyond the conjoined apocalyptic horsemen of Brexit, supply chain issues, coronavirus and chronic understaffing — then it was of operators frantically trying to make up for lost time.

Naturally, this sped-up, flailing approach precipitated some terrible dining experiences (it would be remiss of me here to not mention my run-in with everyone’s favourite salt-sprinkling Turkish grifter). However, as I survey this last eight months or so, I am in awe of the magic some of this city’s restaurateurs have been able to conjure amid converging crises; at the joyful distraction, inspired cooking and lasting happy memories they’ve facilitated across this edgy era.

Here, then — in no particular order and with honourable mention to my other, highly commended obsessions Manteca, The Plimsoll and Alhaji Suya — are my favourite openings of this abbreviated year. London may still be caught in the infinite loop of pandemic. But, my God, we are still very good at restaurants.

Prices indicate the cost of a meal for two with wine.

Bibi

 (Adrian Lourie)
(Adrian Lourie)

A ritzy new Indian restaurant in a part of town already quite cluttered with them did not, on the face of it, sound especially exciting. But this slender, weathered jewel box of an operation in Mayfair – from JKS and their long term development chef Chet Sharma – proved that fresh brilliance can be mined from familiar terrain. Think pepper fry reborn as a ferociously hot steak tartare, sweetcorn fritters modelled on the subcontinent’s answer to Nik Naks and little, delicately cooked fingers of okra set in a rich, deeply gluggable peanut sauce. Bibi brought coolness, fastidious craft and flavour intricacy, smartly leavened by Sharma’s eye for a playful, personal flourish.

42 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZP; bibirestaurants.com, £170

Native at Browns

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis like a challenge. After what sounded like a fairly traumatising 2020 stint opening a short-lived pop up on a tidal island in Essex, they re-materialised amid the springtime mini-era of outdoor-only dining with this: a restaurant in a luxury department store courtyard with absolutely no rain cover. Still, my memory of visiting amid wholly predictable early May showers — hunkering beneath an umbrella, devouring their dinky, clever riff on a Filet O Fish like a plague age Gene Kelly — is a happy one. Things have since shifted to mostly indoor dining, of course. But the imaginative, wild-spirited subtlety of Tisdall-Downes’ cooking (currently best expressed in the return of their rightly mythic wood pigeon kebab) abides.

39 Brook Street, W1K 4JE; nativerestaurant.co.uk, £160

Sumi

 (JODI HINDS)
(JODI HINDS)

Michelin-level sushi mastery without the glumly serious omakase counter surroundings. That was the broad pitch for this Westbourne Grove sibling to Endo Kazutoshi’s celebrated, one-starred eyrie at The Rotunda. Even as someone who hasn’t always seen the point of bro-y, big ticket Japanese, Sumi’s central juxtaposition (and cooking) proved utterly scintillating. On a rainy June day, I sheltered alone in its welcoming, swishy-curtained space, having my mind steadily blown by buttery smooth otoro (fatty tuna), crackly chopped salmon temaki (hand rolls), and a deep, piercing mushroom miso soup far better than it had any right to be. Soaring flavours — and, let us be real, prices — in a likably grounded setting.

157 Westbourne Grove, W11 2RS; sushisumi.com, £260

BAO Noodle Shop

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

From Supa Ya Ramen to Marugame Udon, it has been, perhaps understandably, a year for burying your head in a steaming bowl of soup. This typically detailed expansion from the BAO Group transferred the spirit of an egalitarian Taiwanese beef noodle shop to a cinematically lit, wood-panelled looker of a space in Shoreditch. The noodle soups are good, of course; fiery and steadying and thick with rich, shape-shifting flavour. But it is the inspired supporting dishes — oozing fried Ogleshield cheese rolls, smacked cucumbers intensified by shreds of smoked eel, a crispy, southern-fried tripe dish that may be one of the year’s most revelatory snacks — that cemented this as the best new BAO in ages.

1 Redchurch Street, E2 7DJ; baolondon.com, £100

Danclair’s

 (Adrian Lourie)
(Adrian Lourie)

“God, I need to come to Brixton more.” These are the words that always bubble up in my mind as I weave, grinning, through the jostling, pungent chaos of Market Row. And few restaurants perfectly embody that spirit like this Caribbean fusion spot from Brian Danclair (local fixture and founder of canary-painted neighbourhood icon Fish, Wings & Tings). Yes, it is absolutely the place to throw back exceptionally strong rum cocktails and bottles of rosé (I will never forget the lively group who ordered about 10 bottles of the latter when I was in). However, the eclectic, homestyle cooking – as evidenced by grilled fish dressed in a delicate, composed tomato concassé – has a real magnetism, sensitivity and lack of pretension. Embrace the madness, order the chilli guava chicken wings, and maybe clear your diary for the next day.

67-68 Granville Arcade, Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8PS; danclairskitchen.co.uk, £90

Trattoria Brutto

 (Adrian Lourie)
(Adrian Lourie)

A rave review can sometimes be misread, saddling restaurants with unhelpfully high expectations that can never be met. So let me just say, categorically, that Brutto (Polpo founder Russell Norman’s pretty much unanimously-adored comeback) will not rewire your concept of taste or make you weep hot tears at its boundless innovation. It is, as advertised, a sincere love letter to the gingham-clothed, backstreet trattorias of urban Florence. But if you meet it on these terms, and take your time, then its accumulative details — prosciutto squished into warm little savoury doughnuts, the mellow, luscious hum of rabbit pappardelle, a punchy £5 Negroni that feels like one of the vital artefacts of post-Covid dining — add up to something with a rare, intangible power. I went back two weeks ago and am already marking time until I can book again. Some places just have it.

35-37 Greenhill Rents, EC1M 6BN; brutto.co.uk, £150

Rita’s

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

The last time I encountered Gabriel Pryce and Missy Flynn’s take on Pan-American cuisine was during a kitchen residency at a draughty, semi-deserted Bethnal Green brewery in 2018. So, yes, this permanent Soho iteration — in a snug, glass-fronted space on Lexington Street — represents a notable glow-up. But what’s most impressive is the progression in Pryce’s cooking, which now possesses a dazzling poise and confidence, perfectly pitched between comfort and surprise. That Rita’s eclectic, vibrant pleasures — succulent sugar pit pork chop, gloriously aggro jalapeño popper gildas and a best-in-class key lime pie — are so reasonably priced only makes them all the more remarkable.

49 Lexington Street, W1F 9AP; ritasdining.com, £140

Sessions Arts Club

 (Adrian Lourie)
(Adrian Lourie)

How impressive can it be? That was what I told myself amid the Instagram-clogging fuss generated by this summertime opening’s 18th century interior in a former Clerkenwell courthouse. Well, guys, can confirm: it really, really is that impressive. From the moment you whoosh up in a battered lift and then stumble, agog, into a dust-moted, double-height cathedral of peeling walls, billowing white tablecloths and Victorian gas-lights, roaring in the ceiling, this partnership between the returning chef Florence Knight, artist Jonny Gent, restaurateur Jon Spiteri and architect Russell Potter feels a little bit like slipping into a dreamworld. Fittingly, Knight’s Mediterranean-infused menu has a similar sense of play and subversiveness. Crisp, foot-long lances of panisse make a mockery of the plate they arrive on; squid rings find their mirror in yielding hoops of calamarata pasta; and petals of shaved raw chestnut adorn a superlative panna cotta. Subtle, sensuous food in a room for the ages.

24 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0NA; sessionsartsclub.com, £160

Read the Standard’s review of Sessions Arts Club here.

Mr Ji

“Shall we pull the cracker?” asked my mate Andrew with a smile, as a giant, twizzle-ended spring roll was set before us in the heat lamp glow outside Mr Ji. This was the dog days of outdoor-only dining in chilly mid-May, with Old Compton Street’s gazebo shanty-town looking especially bedraggled and all of Soho having seemingly turned into one stumbling, lairy conga line of people drinking away their pandemic fatigue. But, somehow, this restaurant — an existing Taiwanese chicken place, artfully reimagined by TATA Eatery’s Zijun Meng and Ana Gonçalves — managed to transcend this challenging context. How? Well, with that spring roll, a squidgy, rich daikon cake, a hammered cutlet of fried chicken dusted in numbing spice and multiple other unexpected, wildly playful pile-driver flavours. The heat lamps may have gone but it is still one of the year’s most singular, surprising restaurant kitchens.

72 Old Compton Street, W1D 4UN, £100

Cafe Cecilia

 (Adrian Lourie)
(Adrian Lourie)

Even in a crowded field of recent openings all excelling at what we might call the New Humble — unshowy, modern European comfort food that tends towards the beige and nostalgic — Max Rocha’s Hackney restaurant still stands out. Does the white-hot status it has enjoyed since launching in late August fully tally with a menu of bacon sandwiches, fish cakes and steak and chips? Perhaps not on paper. But the food at Cafe Cecilia seems to frequently find some mystical, hidden gear of deliciousness, whether through the forceful indulgence of grilled salmon swimming in beurre blanc, cakey Guinness bread, or jolting sage and anchovy friti, cooked to a puffed, greaseless crisp. Even the clattery, relatively unadorned room has a quiet, St John-level confidence. And proves, like everything else here, that you don’t need to shout to get noticed.

32 Andrews Road, E8 4RL, cafececilia.com, £120

Read the Standard’s review of Cafe Cecilia here.

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