The enforced downtime of the past year has been a chance for chefs to get creative in their cooking and restaurants. That’s good news for those of us who have missed eating out. Here are their must-try comeback creations, and the restaurants to add to your wishlist. After, check out the UK’s best gastro pubs with rooms.
Matt and Iain Pennington, The Ethicurean, Bristol
Comeback creation: one-year-fermented miso broth
Chefs (and brothers) Matt and Iain Pennington were determined to turn lockdown into a virtue. “It afforded us time to think,” says Matt, mainly about how staff could spend more time with fewer guests (social distancing has cut numbers to 30), explaining the methods that underpin the Ethicurean’s sustainable work – be that creative fermentation (vegetable charcuterie, anyone?) or using just-harvested produce from the adjacent walled garden.
In this idyllic Somerset spot, dinner now starts with a garden tour and miso broth served under its stone archway. Let out with birch sap and garnished with pickled kohlrabi root, the miso was meant to ferment for six months but, post-lockdown, is now a year old. “It’s going to be fascinating,” enthuses Matt.
This subtle communication of the Ethicurean’s ethos continues over plates of Arctic char or duck to order (maximum freshness, minimal waste), mugs of cobnut horchata served by fireside outdoors and, lastly, on the bill – the Ethicurean has dropped service charges and tips, and instead upped wages, so all staff earn at least Living Wage Foundation rates. “We want to nurture a skilled team,” says Matt. “It’s transparent for guests, too. You know what the price is. You know where it’s going.”
Dinner, £130; theethicurean.com
Fun fine dining
James Cochran, 12:51, London
Comeback creation: Around the Cluck chicken burger
“It was a shock for chefs working 16 hours a day, having to stop,” says James, looking back over a turbulent 18 months. “It made us reflect on how the past 10 years has been a blur, just pushing and pushing.”
Is that punishing workload necessary? The answer James and 12:51 co-founder Dan Henry came to is no. Instead of endlessly changing dishes and long wine lists, the Islington restaurant – already a fine-dining-in-trainers kind of joint – will reopen with a five-course monthly tasting menu priced at £35. The aim is low-stress and ultra-consistent delivery of clever, refined dishes at relatively affordable prices. “I’m not out there to take advantage of people. It’s not my ethos. I’ve worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. I found it overpriced. Pretentious. I want to flick the switch on that.”
In fact, on Monday nights 12:51 will morph into Around the Cluck, an eat-in version of James’s lockdown delivery concept best-known for its Jamaican jerk-spiced buttermilk fried chicken burger with blue cheese mousse, bacon crumb and scotch bonnet jam. Expect burgers, wings, chips, gravy, collaborations with hip London chefs, and James enjoying himself. If lockdown taught him anything, it’s this: “Happiness is the most important thing.”
Tasting menu, £35; ATC burgers around £11; 1251.co.uk
The passion project
Josh and Vicky Overington, Le Cochon Aveugle, York
Comeback creation: whole turbot, seasonal vegetables
“It feels brand new,” says Josh of Le Cochon after lockdown. Not only is his life and restaurant partner Vicky stepping away to have their first child, but they’ve reimagined the experience.
“Lockdown gave us the first opportunity in six years to reassess – we decided to not compromise and focus on what we love,” says Vicky. Le Cochon will now serve 14 diners simultaneously each night. “We’re small. A dinner- party-style service works to our strengths. There’s a buzz of anticipation and, with a blind menu, no spoilers from the table next door.”
Having fewer guests will allow Josh to cook how he prefers: using rare, short-season ingredients, from Cornish sea urchins to veg from a tiny York smallholding; buying in and ageing whole animals and fish; cooking large joints on the bone; and wasting almost nothing. “It’s shaking off fine dining’s bullshit that everything has to be exactly the same every single day,” he says. “The quality does. It’s still elevated. But I want to be able to cook a turbot head one night because I can. You can’t do that for masses of people. The older I’ve got, the less showy my food’s got,” says Josh, of this focus on showcasing stunning ingredients. “It’s got more soul.”
Dinner £95; lecochonaveugle.uk
Sustainable street food
Andrew Chongsathien, Brother Thai, Cardiff
Comeback creation: vegan sticky ‘beef’ roti
Since 2016, Brother Thai’s sticky beef roti has garnered a loyal Cardiff following. “We have regulars, hardcore fans who can smash two or three,” says owner Andrew Chongsathien.
Now, as he moves from street food into his first permanent venue, Andrew’s offering a fresh take on this contemporary classic: a seitan vegan version, wok-fried with the same sauces. Several people have been “convinced it’s beef”, says Andrew, after nailing the dish during lockdown.
Around 40 per cent of the new Brother Thai menu will be dairy- and meat-free. Those dishes (many served on roti), are not just for vegans – ideally, flexitarians will mix and match, too.
“I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’d be a hypocrite,” says Andrew. But he’s conscious that food businesses contribute to global warming. “I use Welsh beef but sometimes I think I could do more to benefit the planet. There’s no reason we can’t do amazing meat and vegan dishes. That’s the way I see Brother Thai going.”
Roti, £8.50; brotherthai.co.uk
Back to nature
Liz Cottam, HOME, Leeds
Comeback creation: Cove dessert
Liz Cottam’s HOME used to develop dishes to deadlines using set ingredients in a rather rigid “design-based approach” to combining flavours and textures. “It produced great dishes,” says the chef-owner, “but something was missing.”
Liz didn’t know what until she started walking and immersing herself in the Yorkshire countryside during lockdown, and found that it seeped into her food. A keen photographer, she “was drawn to recreating memories of places I’d visited. I allowed myself to spend longer on dishes that felt like a real representation of my feelings, using whatever ingredients felt right. I’ve discovered a strong identity for my food with this more artistic process”.
Dishes such as Rock Pool, with its langoustine ‘rocks’ inspired by Robin Hood’s Bay, and the dessert Cove, a tangential cheesecake (black sesame, set sheep’s milk, shortbread, mandarin), exemplify this approach. Cove was inspired by the limestone rock faces at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales: “There’s something stark, dramatic and honest about the place. I think clearly when I’m there.”
Changes are not just happening on the plate: Liz is opening high-end bakery concept Cora, and, this summer, plans to move HOME to a city centre location with “a beautiful garden nodding to that inspiration I get from landscapes”.
HOME menus from £70; homeleeds.co.uk
After such a disrupted year of dining, the olive team isn’t just craving the new. We can’t wait to be reunited with the dishes we’ve loved for years, too. Here are a few timeless plates to fire up your imagination.
• The legendary Punjabi lamb chops at Tayyabs, London, established in 1972; tayyabs.co.uk
• ’Nduja and minced pork polpette in sugo at Salvo’s, Leeds, established in 1976; salvos.co.uk
• Stellar fish chowder at Mourne Seafood Bar, Belfast, established in 2006; mourneseafood.com
• The famous haggis at Ubiquitous Chip, Glasgow, established in 1971; ubiquitouschip.co.uk
• Game-changing beef pho at Cây Tre, Shoreditch, London, established in 2003; caytrerestaurant.co.uk
• Seasonal fruit soufflé at Melton’s, York, established in 1990; meltonsrestaurant.co.uk
• Fab fish ’n’ chips at Magpie Café, Whitby, established in 1939; magpiecafe.co.uk
• Bang-on bhel puri at Bobby’s, Leicester, established in 1976; bobbys-restaurant.co.uk
• Bar menu fish pie at the Inn at Whitewell, Clitheroe, established in 1977; innatwhitewell.com
• On-point dhal palak at Prashad, Drighlington, established in 1990; prashad.co.uk