In truth, meals out in 2022 have been a mixed bag. There is no hiding that hospitality is going through a period of transition that will see next year as arguably the hardest in modern history. The pandemic showed many in the sector that they could achieve a similar (if not higher) salary with better working hours and a more stable lifestyle outside of restaurants, which, when coupled with a government intent on deporting anyone who doesn’t know the words in full to Rule Britannia, has left just about every place understaffed and overstretched. And sadly, it has shown; restaurants are promoting staff to key areas too quickly, with both food and service suffering as a result. It is easy to say that we should be kind – a bullshit statement mostly used by bullshit people who aren’t kind at all – but eating out is one of life’s joys and at the price it is becoming the experience simply has to match the cost. A price that has rapidly risen throughout the year, due to the world burning, ridiculous post-Brexit tariffs, austerity, the most incompetent government in history, fuel costs, and a war in Ukraine. Life is hard on us all at present, but nowhere harder than on those who feed us for a living.

These rising costs aren’t sustainable. It is inevitable that some will close as people have to choose between paying their bills and eating out, or where to eat on the occasions that they do venture out. In Birmingham we already have an oversaturation of places over £80 per head compared to the percentage of the 1.6 million that can afford to eat at them. Perhaps as we lose some of them, it will fill the gaps for their competitors, though equally these staff may transition to places where the pressure is less and the environment nicer, whether restaurants or elsewhere. Whatever happens, 2023 will see a rethink of how to keep costs down and make dining out a more attractive prospect for the wallet. It has to. Wilsons in Bristol – a fantastic place mentioned below in my top ten – showed that it is possible to fill a place for lunch with four courses and a glass of wine for £25. In the last recession of the 1990’s Le Champignon Sauvage became of the UK’s most well known as chef patron David Everitt-Matthias went out foraging for his own produce instead of buying in premium produce they couldn’t afford. Perhaps something similar will happen again. They could certainly start with the present obsession that caviar needs to go in every course, whether savoury or sweet. Away from the high-end, I expect that we’ll see restaurants reducing their costs by moving to less items and offering less choice, as frequently seen in Asia where you would go for sushi at one place, ramen in another, and yakitori somewhere else. It’ll take a change in mentality, but I guess that’s the point. Our mentality to eating out has to change if restaurants are to survive.

The good stuff this year was so good. Two more great visits to Ynyshir, trips to Edinburgh, the North East, twice to Manchester, several times to Bristol, Cheltenham, Nottingham and enough trips to London to warrant a second home. In Birmingham I’ve had the pleasure of both Tom Parker-Bowles and Jay Rayner’s company for lunches, whilst the suburbs flourish under cheaper rents and a move towards sticking closer to home. It is here and not the city centre where the best stuff is happening and soon, there’ll be a number of local area guides coming out for those who wish to do them properly. Below is my top ten of the best things I’ve eaten this year, proof that even in the gloom the magic of creativity can flourish.

10 – Broccoli, goats’ milk, and black garlic. The Ethicurean.

First one on this list is from an excellent lunch to the south of Bristol, the highlight being this dish. A showcase in applying light and shade, the balance was impeccable with a clever use of textures. Who thought that crispy nettles could be so tasty?

What I said then; “it has a total understanding of how ingredients combine, a little like my early visits to L’Enclume when Simon Rogan manned the stoves”.

9 – Figs, labneh, honey, and pine nuts. Grace and James.

Simplicity is the key to Grace and James. That and peak seasonal ingredients treated with total respect. I enjoyed two great back-to-back lunches there in the late summer, but it was this dish that stands in the memory for what they do best.

What I said then; “I adored the Ottolenghi-like simplicity of the figs, perfect condition, simply sliced and placed on to a labneh that sings with acidity and barely mutters cheese”.

8 – Cheeseburger. Mesa

Possibly the surprise hit of the year, Mesa uses a broad palate of global flavours to deliver dishes that deliver knock-out flavours. The pick of the bunch was this cheeseburger; an ode to aged beef patty and fat. Quite simply sensational.

What I said then; “The result is a tribute to the quality of the beef reminiscent of the legendary Red Hook Tavern in NYC. It is the best burger I have eaten all year. It might just be the best burger I have eaten in the UK”.

7 – Bay leaf pannacotta. Erst.

Some places just get it. Erst gets it. A tiny menu of dishes that live and die on the quality of the ingredients, it was banger after banger and arguably my top three meals of the year. The dessert of bay leaf pannacotta with PX prunes blew my mind.

What I said then; “The pannacotta, quivering like an anxious dog, light and medicinal in flavour, bouncing off the boozy prunes, dark and brooding”.

6 – Scallop, swede, and chicken sauce. Grace and Savour.

The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and Grace and Savour getting a star or two in the next guide. David Taylors cooking is perfect for Michelin; precise, technical and intricate, with the bonus glorious setting of the restaurant set within the walled garden. The success of the scallop dish was down to the chicken sauce made with fermented bread. Layers upon layers of flavours, I really must go back.

What I said then; “The scallop fresh and plump, the sauce meaty with light umami”.

5 – Fried chicken in sichuan chilli oil. Yikouchi.

The review that got the big guns to Stirchley and more importantly, my favourite place in Brum for lunch. Simple Sichuan cooking on an ever-changing menu, I can’t decide if it’s the dry fry chicken or the fried chicken that I prefer, though I’ll go with the latter as it makes me feel like a naughty child every time I eat it.

What Rayner and Parker-Bowles said; who cares? You’re reading this because of me and I said “… the best fried chicken in the city by a country mile, heavily seasoned and brittle, in more of the chilli oil. It’s food which can’t be ignored”.

4 – Burnt milk and sesame. GL50.

A unique dessert from a truly unique restaurant, I struggled to conjure up the correct words then and I still do now. Just book a table and enjoy the complexity of it all.

What I said then; “It’s nutty, honeyed sweetness, laced with just a little sherry and balanced impeccably by the burnt milk that is reminiscent of malted milk biscuits. It is quite exceptional, the high point in a meal full of them”.

3 – Prawns, black pudding, and Thai sauce. Smoke.

A riff on the dish which pretty much won Masterchef The Professionals for Stuart Deeley, I tried it for the first time in July and crikey, no wonder Gregg Wallace has a picture of it on his wall. By no rights it should work, but it does, and it does so spectacularly. Fireworks with every single mouthful. Unbelievably special.

What I said then; Nothing. Because occasionally I like to go out and not write about it. But only occasionally.

2 – Meringue, sorbet of herbs, caramelised milk. Wilsons.

Wilsons. What a place. What a fucking place. This dessert crowned a pretty perfect solo lunch, full of bravado and intelligent ingredient choices. On paper it didn’t appeal, yet the reality was one of the best desserts I have ever eaten. The chef is a wizard. The restaurant is absolutely one of the most exciting in the UK right now. Have I mentioned that they do a four-course lunch with a glass of wine for £25? Of course I bloody have.

What I said then; “The gooiest of Italian meringue with a sorbet of green herbs, caramelised milk, and a crumb of puffed rice. It’s bright and just about sweet; the sorbet clean and delicate, popping with anise and green fruit notes… it is what happens when a team looks inwards at what they have best as opposed to what everyone else is doing.”

1 – Duck and sweetcorn. Carters of Moseley.

The star dish of the best meal I ate in 2022, the style of Brad Carter has reached a point that it has to be seen as a real contender for two stars when the guide comes out. Littered with Brummie references and rooted in British ingredients, the restaurant has never seen better food leaving the pass. The duck highlights everything that I love about Carters; perfect technique, flavour and generosity. The garnish of sweetcorn which utilised the entire veg, a clever and outrageously tasty counterpoint. A visit is essential.

What I said then; “I don’t know how many processes are involved to get the duck like this, but they are worth it. Slender strips of baby pink meat, skin rendered to a glass-like crisp. A carcass that I take home and turn into a fried rice lunch the following day. On the plate is a binge of sweetcorn; puree, kernels dusted in truffle, some of the husk. What threatens on paper to be too sweet a combination is just beautiful; in particular the husk has a lovely bitter quallity. I love duck at the best of times but this is something else. Two stars all day long.”