2021 didn’t quite get the memo, did it? You spent 2020 locked inside the house, singing happy birthday twice over to yourself pissed at the kitchen sink, or on pissed zoom calls with relatives you didn’t want to see but did in case they were killed by a plague. We finished the year in the bleakest of lockdowns in the darkest of winters, with the promise of hope via a vaccine and no more Tiger King. 2021 was going to be your year, the one where you bounced back and saw the world and drank beer until it came out of your nose. LOL at you. In the twist that we all should have seen coming, the last twelve months have been a tedium of discussing when you had your jab, and what jab it was, followed by the booster and is it the same as your first two jabs, and did it make you ill? It’s made me awfully ill. Or Squid Game, and why are they not wearing a mask, or why are they wearing a mask? Not Squid Game – I know why they are wearing masks – but the people on the buses and the trains. Maybe you caught COVID and just had to tell everyone on the internet about how bad or not bad you’ve been, like you’re some kind of viral messiah and not just craving the attention your parents never gave you as a child. All whilst shifting the blame for the stagnancy of it all to the next easy target and finally settling on the universal opinion that the PM is a clown who has stumbled into his Downing Street office via a promotional zip line stunt, and has absolutely no idea what the fuck he is doing here. The only thing worse than this are the muppets who state that the vaccine is about Bill Gates monitoring their sad, pathetic lives when anybody on Facebook can see that they checked into McDonalds just minutes ago. Bill Gates doesn’t care, he’s too busy cheating on his wife. I’ve learnt that the only thing more tiring than COVID is people talking about COVID. It’s not going to change any time soon and no we don’t need your hot takes, it’s been rubbish for everyone thanks, maybe just let your arse release the shit instead of your mouth for a while. I should probably get on to the food now.

And so, the food. It’s been good on the whole, noticeably strained by an industry that has had to deal with Brexit and, in total honesty, the realisation for staff over lockdown that there is equally paid work out there with better hours and less hassle. But there is great stuff out there; new openings, and restaurants that have pivoted to keep up with these weird weird times, as well as those who have point blank refused to change and are all the better for it. Even without a trip abroad this year, or a legal visit to Ynyshir (the police don’t investigate old breaches so frankly who cares), I’ve managed to eat some really special food. Here is the top ten. Enjoy, and go and spend money with them and with any other places you love. Who I am to tell you what to do.

Ten. Sweetbreads with Maderia and pig trotter. Little French, Bristol. 

Little French is kind of perfect neighbourhood French bistro that every city wishes it had. Our meal there was nothing short of sensational; a tour de force of Gaelic pizzaz, unapologetically big on flavour. The highlight was the sweetbreads, gently cooked in a sauce of Madeira thickened with pig trotter. In my exceptionally well-written review, I called it the “sweetest, oinkiest gravy”. I’m standing by it. This is the food that bread was invented for.

Nine. Rhubarb trifle. Felin Fach Griffin, Felin Fach.

My dessert of the year. Seasonal, executed with precision, and without question featuring the best rhubarb sorbet I have ever eaten anywhere. Felin Fach Griffin is understated and superb, with our meal capped-off by this trifle that I have been thinking about for six months. Maybe the view helped a bit, but I can’t wait to get back.

Eight. Carbonara. Laghi’s Deli, Birmingham.

I reckon I eat this twice a month now. I crave it. It’s everything a carbonara should be but never is; egg yolks, two types of hard cheese and pasta water emulsified, cooked out by the residual heat of the rigatoni straight out the pan and finished with more cheese, loads of black pepper and Guanciale. I’ve told you how to do it – I know, because I have tried – but it will not be anywhere close to this version. The food of Bologna cooked from the memory of someone who grew up there. Laghi’s is all about the quality of the ingredients and no dish demonstrates it as well as this. 

Seven. Dairy cow with leek. Pythouse Garden Kitchen, Tisbury.

The best dish from my meal of 2021. Retired dairy cow put to its final sacrifice over coals. Almost Basque in the flavours, the beef was exceptional with leek and a genius addition of hot sauce made from rose hips from their garden. It is a dish built around smoke and fire, sticking to the ethos of working with produce in its absolute peak condition. You are going to hear a lot more about Pythouse; my tip is to book now and beat the inevitable price hikes and table shortages. 

Six. Guinea fowl, sherry, shitakes and hazelnuts. Upstairs by Tom Shepherd, Lichfield.

Oh Tom. Look at you stepping in at the last minute and barging into the top ten with your big flavours and pitch-perfect seasoning. Sensational work from start to finish on this, but the guinea fowl is genuine hairs standing up on arms moment. Precision, flair and a unique take on the best of late Autumnal produce. He’ll get a star. No question. I’ll return soon. Absolutely no question. Within minutes of posting the review of his restaurant I had two top chefs’ message to know more about the meal. Get to Upstairs asap. 

Five. Short rib massaman. Sabai Sabai, Birmingham.

I love this dish more than most of my family members. A kind of hybrid curry and stew, the ribs are braised slow and low in the sauce which gradually thickens over time like an anti-vaxxer watching YouTube. The meat slides away from the bone, whilst the nutty, rich sauce has taken on a life of its own over the lengthy braise. Addictive. Rich. Complex. I dare you to order this and not lick the plate clean afterwards. 

Four. Razor clam ‘Cacio e pepe’. Carters of Moseley, Moseley.

Hands up, admittance time: I’d always had Carters down as a restaurant content with a solitary star, which is fine, and serves many restaurants well. I was wrong. Brad and team are focused, the cooking more lean, more intricate. His take on cacio e pepe remains the star with razor clams, Old Winchester, and dulse standing in for pasta, parmesan, and pepper. Genius work, iconic even, that has improved over time to scary levels. It’s a modern classic. 

Three. Gnochetti. Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It takes big bollocks to take off what is arguably your ‘signature dish’ for the restaurant, and even bigger balls to replace that with your Sardinian grandmother’s home cooking. That’s what Jamie has done at Harborne Kitchen; demoted to snacks is the liver parfait, with the opening dish now am egg-less gnochetti with chicken butter sauce. It’s a sign that the restaurant is stripping back its style; still precise, but now with a stronger focus of letting the ingredients speak without over complicating them. I took a well-travelled friend for dinner there recently who said the only problem with the dish was that it was not five times bigger. You are going to need bread to mop that sauce up. 

Two. Conchinita pibil, A La Mexicana, Bearwood. 

The feelgood moment of the year. Started by my mate Tam taking me out for lunch when I was down, I was blown away by the food at A La Mexicana and subsequently said so here, on this excellent food blog. Other reviews of it followed – none as well-written as mine naturally – accumulating in a glowing write-up by Tom Parker-Bowles which has now put a little unit in Bearwood on the UK culinary map. Bonkers for Jose and his family who are now almost permanently full with those wanting an authentic Mexican experience. The food is sensational, with the weekend-only conchinita pipil the pick. Patricia is the taco queen and here they are freshly pressed, with delicate pork and a choice of salsas to dress in. It never, ever disappoints.

One. Aloo Tuk. Opheem, Birmingham.


I have been in denial about this for far too long. Can the best thing I eat really be a tribute to the spud and very little else? The answer is a resounding yes. Aktar’s take on aloo tuk is nothing like the Sindhu street food snack, instead being an orgy of textures and treatments of a singular variety of potato, from pickled, to mousse, to fried. Sure, the tamarind at the base is there to add a bit more character to the bowl, but this is unreservedly a tribute to the most British of things, seen through the eyes of a genuine master of their craft. Opheem is on an ascendancy only comparable with the Omicron variant, and this is one of these star dishes. An instant iconic dish from one of the very best restaurants in the country. It’s the best thing I ate this year and I ate it a lot.