27 December 2019

Bex's Food and Drink Awards: 2019 Edition

In this, the first and most delicious of my ninth annual end-of-year round-up posts, I highlight some of my favourite coffee shops, restaurants and dishes of the year, both in London and on my travels. This year, I visited nine countries (Estonia, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Estonia, Malaysia, Singapore, Spain and France). From £4 chicken rice in Singapore to tempting tasting menus in Tallinn, as well as sublime speciality coffee, it's been quite a year. As usual, I've only included places I visited for the first time in 2019.

1. Best coffee shop
Le Café Alain Ducasse
I've worked in King's Cross for almost a decade, and it's been fascinating to watch the neighbourhood change. Where I used to have to walk at least 20 minutes on my lunch break to find good coffee, my most recent King's Cross speciality coffee guide demonstrates that the area is now a hub for craft coffee. The much-lauded opening of Alain Ducasse's Le Café in the sleek Coal Drops Yard development was no exception. With its excellent coffee, warm and attentive staff who offer an immersive customer experience, and beautifully designed shop, I consider myself lucky to have this café practically on my office doorstop and I've returned many times. Yes, I did try the £15 Yemen filter coffee and yes, I did think it was well worth it.

Runners-up: Kiss the Hippo, Fitzrovia, and Omotesando Koffee

Bonanza Coffee, Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin)
In a rare attempt at spontaneity, I booked a last-minute long weekend trip to Berlin in May, and got to spend some time in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood. Having enjoyed my visit to Bonanza Coffee's Kreuzberg roastery last year, I had high expectations for their smaller Prenzlauer Berg coffee bar and it did not disappoint. My piccolo was one of the best I had all year, the staff were knowledgeable and friendly despite the busy Sunday brunch crowd, and the honey-processed coffee beans I brought home with me made for some very unusual, but delicious, home-brews.

Runners-up: Stow Coffee Roasters (Ljubljana) and Torch Coffee Roasters (Seville)

Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company (George Town, Penang)
New York usually features in this category, but I only visited my favourite city once this year and for various reasons, didn't visit as many new-to-me coffee shops as I had hoped. Instead, my trips to Singapore, Malaysia and Chicago provided strong competition for this year's award. It was a close call between the winner and runners-up, but in the end, Macallum Connoisseurs just edged it, mainly on the basis that it was so unlike other coffee shops I've been to before. First, it's located in a huge open-plan space inside a former timber factory, a 20-minute walk from the centre of George Town. The fit-out is stunning, encompassing a central coffee bar, various seating areas, several pop-up boutiques and the roastery. Both the pourover coffee and the espresso were very well brewed and even mid-afternoon on a smoggy Friday, there was barely a free table in the huge space.

Runners-up: Passion House Coffee Roasters (Chicago) and Strangers' Reunion (Singapore)

2. Best restaurant
When modern European restaurant Levan opened on the site of Peckham Refreshment Rooms to many plaudits earlier this year, I was keen to visit, but it took me until November as part of my birthday celebrations. It was well worth the wait, with every dish — from the monkfish crudo with nduja and pumpkin, to the carrot, clementine and spices, and the canelé with milk ice cream and bacon caramel — tasting delicious and looking beautiful. Between us, we ate many of the small plates on the menu, but that doesn't mean I'm not eyeing up a return visit.

Runners-up: Trullo and Flor

ConTenedor (Seville)
My mum and I stumbled upon this cosy and colourful restaurant in Seville's laid-back Macarena neighbourhood on the last day of our visit, and were impressed by the simple but perfectly executed cuisine and warm service. After a plate of jamón ibérico to start, and pork loin and turbot for our mains, we managed to find room for a superb cheesecake with roasted apple and pistachio ice cream.

Runners-up: Tek Sen (George Town, Penang) and Au Cheval (Chicago)

3. Best brunch spot
I went to Crispin, Lundenwic's larger, more easterly sibling, for the coffee but stayed for the top-notch brunch. Scrambled eggs on toasted sourdough with avocado might not sound like the most creative brunch, but it was all in the execution, with perfectly cooked eggs served beneath pillowy clouds of parmesan. Chilli and chorizo added an extra kick to the dish. The coffee, from Assembly and Round Hill, is great too.

Runners-up: I Will Kill Again and Gunpowder

Sunday in Brooklyn (NYC)
I'd been meaning to visit Williamsburg's Sunday in Brooklyn for some time but never managed to book a table early enough. Instead, I decided to show up at opening time one Saturday morning when I was in New York in October. The rustic neighbourhood restaurant was already almost full, but they managed to squeeze me in at the counter. The cheddar scramble with bacon and home fries was excellent, as was the people-watching. My only regret was that I wasn't quite ready for a cocktail from the creative drinks list that early in the morning and stuck to a juice instead.

Runners-up: Bearded Bella (Singapore) and Merchant's Lane (KL)

4. Best street food
Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Rice (Singapore)
I ate street food most meals on my two-week trip to Malaysia and Singapore, including some really great dishes, from chicken satay and char kuey teow in Penang, to gold cakes at the ICC Pudu in KL. I also ate a lot of Haianese chicken rice, and was disappointed that the Michelin-starred Hawker Chan wasn't open during my visit. Instead, I went to the Michelin Guide-listed Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre, where the chicken was incredibly juicy and the rice perfectly cooked.

Runners-up: Seville Tapas Tour and Time Out Market NYC

5. Best tasting menu
Restoran Ö (Tallinn)
I developed a taste for tasting menus this year, especially when on my travels. Although I very much enjoyed the dessert tasting menu at both Berlin's Coda (a runner-up) and New York's Marble Dessert Bar, my favourite tasting experience of the year was at Restoran Ö in Tallinn. When I had dinner there, it was actually my second tasting menu of the day after the brunch spot I'd identified turned out not to have an à la carte. The food, the service and the theatre were all spot on at Restoran Ö, however, and the €59 five-course menu (plus nibbles and candy) surprised and delighted. I particularly enjoyed the fir branch diffuser that accompanied the dessert, filling the air with a fresh fir scent.

Runners-up: Coda (Berlin) and Monstera (Ljubljana)

6. Best cocktail
Operation Dagger (Singapore)
In the last quarter of 2019, I've managed to visit seven of the bars on the World's 50 Best Bars list, including Attaboy (and two others) in New York, and Operation Dagger (and one other) in Singapore. Both of these bars involved elements of surprise: at Attaboy, I was invited to tell the bartender my cocktail likes and dislikes and she whipped up a mystery drink. At Operation Dagger, meanwhile, most of the ingredients are listed on the menu, but the spirit is held back to avoid selection bias. Indeed, the garlic and brown butter drink I guessed would contain whiskey instead had light and dark rum at its heart, while there was also a very creative twist on a piña colada that was made with tequila instead of rum. The drinks were delicious, the staff friendly and the underground, speakeasy bar beautifully decorated.

Runners-up: Attaboy (NYC) and PS150 (KL)

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