This restaurant blogging lark contains little to keep you awake at night. But there is perhaps one nagging doubt, lurking in memories of meals that predate your first post. Your readers - all sage, kind and impossibly good-looking - are unaware of what screenwriters would call your backstory. I started this blog last July by attempting to give Balconies, the execrable restaurant at the Royal Opera House, a bit of a kicking (negative reviews then seeming easier to write than positive ones). And since then, I’ve regretted not having been able to mention earlier, seminal meals. This is an attempt to catch up.
I should emphasise at the outset that, of course, everything that follows took place in restaurants, although I've widened the definition slightly. While, like you, no doubt, some of the happiest meals I can remember were cooked by or with friends and loved ones, those hours have no place here. Further, in keeping with the running theme of this site, this will not be an inventory of Michelin star trekking, nor a straightforward cookery competition. While there are some vaut le voyage places, certain choices may seem surprising. But they were the lunches and dinners that grappled themselves to my soul, and I'll remember them at the last hour.
Here they are, then, in reverse order:
10. L'Express, New York City, September 2007
My last night in America after a week of big siddy meandering, and David and I were rolling from bar to East Village bar, chattering and playing pool and darts. It was past midnight when we remembered we still hadn’t eaten. We found L’Express completely by accident: at one in the morning, midweek, there were no free tables: a downtown bouchon thrumming with insomnia. When they sat us down, we drank very good Bordeaux and ate rare rump steak with hot salty frites and puddles of Béarnaise, finishing with hot, sticky tarte tatin. I don't suppose there's any other town in the world where you can have that kind of menu at that time of night.
9. Al Capone, Verbier, winter 1995
Snails were not exactly regulars at the Thring kitchen table. And I remember my father’s look of bewilderment as my eleven year-old self piped an order – having never eaten them before – for escargots à la bourguignonne. We were in, of all places, a pizzeria in a Swiss ski resort; but this is largely a storecupboard dish (the critters, in fact, are likely to have been Taiwanese). A cassolette of six molluscs, then, the sizzling, beige-etched shells yielding hot peerless squelches of butter, parsley and garlic.
8. Louis XV, Monaco, January 2006
The fanciest place on this list – and, I guess, one of the fanciest there is. In this flurry of rococo kitsch, only the amuse and the pudding stood out. Both were deceptively simple. The sweetest crudités of tiny carrots – virtual infanticide - with a tapenade of perfect dank bitterness. Then fraises des bois poached in strawberry coulis, with fromage frais ice cream. Each strawberry, the size of a caper, exploded with perfumed, sexy juice, while the ice cream shaped and melded everything else. Magnificent.
7. Sihanoukville, Cambodia, August 2004
Charlie and I largely preferred the street food of Cambodia to that of its better-marketed neighbour, Thailand. Amongst other things, the Khmers greeted the arrival of the chilli – on boats, it’s worth remembering, from Lisbon – with more caution than others in the region. One night, we barefooted a mile down the black, lapping beach, and came to a small hut, framed by torches flickering over the sand. We ate a simple dish of rice with garlic and tamarind clasping stir-fried pieces of hours-old baby squid. It was the taste of that summer. We shared a bottle of Khmer whisky, and talked and smoked and giggled through the night.
6. The Fat Duck, Berkshire - October 2004
Heston Blumenthal's dazzling tasting menu, at a time when his restaurant still topped the World 50 list, featured signature staples of bacon and egg ice cream, snail porridge, white chocolate with caviar, and liquorice-poached salmon. James and I arrived just before seven and left at half-two in the morning, having rounded off the dégustation with an Armagnac tasting which, while impromptu, was sweeping. The spectacle of the dinner, its unadulterated theatre, are somehow counterbalanced by superbly down-to-earth staff, who prevent the experience from ascending up its own dehydrator. Such meals are not easily forgotten.
5. Venice, July 1999
On a summer's day of quite hysterical beauty, in scarcely the most hideous place on earth, two schoolfriends and I had spent the morning in the Ca' Rezzonico. We meandered over ponti and through serpent alleys, reaching a tiny square in the Dorsoduro. At a plastic table, with a paper cloth held down by a green ashtray, we ate pizza thin as size zero, draped with dense, fresh anchovies and dappled with black olives. We drank Nastro Azzurro and, later, very cold, cheap white wine. When the pizzas were cleared, we ordered more. And more wine. And we left sated and delighted, tipsily fancying ourselves grown-up, stumbling onto the train to Florence.
4. The Opium Den, Oxford, May 2003
It was fortune cookie-cutter Chinese: beef in a wobbly black bean sauce, bok choi tossed with oyster sauce, pancakes of duck, hoi sin and the mineral crunch of cucumber - all liberally dosed with salt and MSG. But the food was largely irrelevant. Emetic as it no doubt sounds, I was hopelessly in love, and if they’d served me locust purée thickened with liposuction and garnished with toenail clippings, I’d have praised it to the heavens.
3. Dal Pescatore, Italy, October 2008
It wasn’t until the gate at the airport that Cargs saw where we were going. I’d told her I was taking her for dinner ‘outside London,’ and she'd spent the journey guessing. Cornwall? The Lakes? Scotland? This was a dinner electrified by the thrill of surprising someone, lent meaning and depth by the journey. Tortelli of pumpkin and mostarda, with silken pasta sealing a sweet filling hinting at heat, was magnificent, while saffron risotto was a nubby paradigm. Nor have I ever felt as welcome in a restaurant as I did here.
2. Akelare, Spain, July 2008
Pedro Subijana roasted the red mullet's skin and bones separately, before sprinkling them over the gently fried fillet. It remains the most perfect piece of fish I've ever tasted - unadulterated, achingly fresh and pure. Add to this the setting, a revoltingly gorgeous view of the Cantabrian sea, and you have a deeply memorable lunch on your hands.
1. Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxfordshire, April 2003
When the second starter appeared, I realised something had changed. Inside a column constructed from sheets of pasta, and nestling in gently softened spinach, was a single poached quail's egg oozing amber yolk. Around it danced fresh morels whorled in mushroom jus. It was one of the most exquisite things I had ever seen, and the most exquisite I'd ever tasted. Haute cuisine, beyond that dusty, fusty phrase, can reach depths of pleasure like no other medium. It engages all the senses and thus, to misquote Forster, it is both the deepest of crafts and deep beneath them. With this simple but intensely thoughtful dish, I thought I saw what the fuss was all about - what could possibly persuade people to fly across the world for the sake of a meal. It was sheer virtuosic joy, it changed my life, and I'll never forget it.
And some honourable mentions:
Le Gavroche, London, February 2005 - a gaspingly accomplished mousse of foie gras, truffle and Bresse chicken.
The Waterside Inn, Bray, October 2004 - a lobster bisque that moved me to tears.
Bordeaux, September 2003 - the obligatory first taste of an oyster: how could it have taken this long?
Paris, September 2005 - my first taste of andouillette, blisteringly dense and heady.
La Taqueria, San Francisco, May 2006 - a tourist-trap these days, perhaps, but I maintain that the best street food in the world is a burrito stuffed with shredded pork, rice, guacamole, salsa, soured cream...