It's time for the MADs - the McComb Awards for Dining. Richard McComb reports on the culinary heroes and villains of 2012.
When they were launched in 2009, no one believed they would become one of the most respected and influential restaurant award schemes in the country.
It turns out they were right. The McComb Awards for Dining, popularly known as the MADs, have remained unashamedly niche. They are judged by one person (me) and are moderated by a non-independent ombudsman (me, again).
Chefs and restaurateurs famously cower in anxious anticipation as the clock ticks down to publication of the annual Michelin Guide. There is fevered speculation about the lucky winners and who might suffer the ignomy of being stripped of a star. Similarly, the AA and the Good Food Guide spark intrigue and excitement as they apportion rosettes and marks out of 10 for inspiring cuisine.
No such expectation or speculation is attached to the MADs – although in their favour, the awards are never leaked in advance, unlike the Michelin Guide, which has made a habit of shooting itself in the foot by breaking its own embargo.
Dining at restaurants continues to represents a luxury purchase; no one needs to eat out; it is far cheaper to eat at home. If survival was the name of the game – rather than the motivations of convenience, pleasure and a desire to try new cooking styles – restaurants simply wouldn’t exist. Against this backdrop, it is worth remembering that we have been in recession, or facing stagnant economic growth, since 2007, which incidentally was the year two of Birmingham’s finest restaurants – Purnell’s and Turners – opened.
The failure rate in the restaurant trade is notoriously high. The US National Restaurant Association puts the figure at 30 per cent within a year.
All of which means it is an achievement in itself to remain trading. To continue to trade while providing first-class food and sparkling service is truly something to be celebrated.
So here are the winners for 2012 (as well as a few stinkers).
Chef of the Year: David Everitt-Matthias
In a quarter of a century, David Everitt-Matthias has never missed a service at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. He is always there.
In itself, it is a remarkable achievement but this is no time-serving chef. Everitt-Matthias treats every lunch and dinner as if his reputation depends on it, fusing innovation, big flavours and a faultless technique. Everitt-Matthias won his first Michelin star in 1995 and picked up a second, which he has retained ever since, in 2000. Michelin may divide opinion, but Everitt-Matthias does not. He was the original forager and continues to conjure up dishes of originality and delight – like a dessert of roasted dandelion root cream, milk ice cream and milk crumble – while impressing with his own take on classic ingredients such as lamb sweetbreads, wood pigeon and scallops (paired with a pig’s head carpaccio).
In an era when far too many chefs follow the latest fad (if they pickled fish breath in northern Spain it would get copied), David Everitt-Matthias is steadfastly his own man. A national dining institution.
Restaurant of the Year: Restaurant Bosquet, Kenilworth
Will you find the most stunning food in the Midlands at this restaurant in a well-heeled backwater of north Warwickshire?
Will you find mind-boggling innovation, the re-interpretation of classics and the deconstruction of tomato soup?
Would I go to Restaurant Bosquet every couple of weeks if it was round the corner and I could afford it?
The apparently skittish explanation for the attraction of this place comes from the fact it is entirely unskittish. Restaurant Bosquet is impervious to skittishism. It has been run for 31 years by Bernard Lignier and his wife Jane and during that time the core dishes and sauces probably haven’t change much. That is because classic French cooking doesn’t need a rocket up its behind or a water bath; it needs skill, love and dedication.
Lignier does craze things like bake his own brioche.
Is Restaurant Bosquet consistently good? I have no idea but I suspect, like most French restaurants, the standard ebbs and flows. But if you are hopelessly romantic, adore French cooking and still think food has something to do with sustaining, soul-nurturing consumption, rather than sniffy presentation and over-elaboration, then you might just agree with me.
Best Cocktail Bar: The Kenilworth
The Kenilworth, in Warwick Road, serves terrific cocktails to a remarkably non-twit clientele. It is small, intimate and dark inside as opposed to the boomingly noisy, large and soulless bars that spoil too many city centres.
The place has been run by brothers Stuart and Darren Insall since 2005 but it is the appointment of enthusiastic experts like bar manager Robert Wood that makes the difference. Robert is a walking anorak of cocktail-making facts and techniques.
If it seems a long way to go for a drink, don’t worry – the team behind The Kenilworth is due to open The Edgbaston next year as a small hotel and cocktail lounge. See you at the bar for a Suffering Bastard.
Culinary Achievement of the Year: Adam Bennett
Adam Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston, successfully qualified from the European cook-off of the Bocuse D’Or to represent the UK in the finals of the world’s biggest cookery competition next month.
Bennett, from Coventry, will go head to head with some of the best chefs on the planet at the Bocuse D’Or final in Lyon and is currently installed at a gastronomy bootcamp at University College Birmingham, where a special competition kitchen has been built.
The chef qualified in style, finishing in sixth place and picking up the prize for the best meat platter in Brussels. Bennett wowed the judges with his preparation of roulade of chicken with truffle, mushroom and tarragon, a casserole of chicken leg, cocks’ combs, veal sweetbreads, morels and pearl barley and a boudin of foie gras with jelly of Maury, leek terrine and smoked quail egg.
For the final, Bennett and his fellow chefs will have to prepare two grand platters using Irish beef fillet and blue lobster and turbot.
Needless to say, it is the first time a chef from Birmingham has represented the UK at the Bocuse D’Or, which was launched in 1987 by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse.