I relish a certain symmetry in my metropolitan dining out patterns. Take Bouchon Racine and BiBi. The former has just been named Best New Opening by the National Restaurant Awards and placed at no.5 in their prestigious top 50. I’d already visited it in Farringdon, driven there by word of mouth and a residual reverence for its previous incarnation in Knightsbridge.

Flash back to the 2022 NRAs and flying in at no.5 and as best newcomer, yes, BiBi, a very different beast from Henry Harris’s take on a classic French bistro. In a discreetly glamorous Mayfair setting chef patron Chet Sharma nods to his Indian heritage both in decor and what’s on the plate but applies culinary methods learned in the development kitchens of our own Michelin heavies L’Enclume, The Ledbury and Moor Hall. The latter’s Mark Birchall is a particular culinary inspiration. He also worked a stint at the Basque Country’s Mugaritz, a respectable 31st in the 2023 World’s Top 50 Restaurants list announced this week. 

No more lists I promise, just take on board that there is high-powered operator a couple of metres across the counter from me, assembling small plates in front of the sizzling sigree grill. The fish and meat that feel the heat are the best of British, the premium spices and other exotics sourced from across the Indian sub-continent. There’s a little map showing you locations on the back of the Chef’s Selection Menu.

At lunchtime there is an à la carte offering and a new four course set menu for £35, but that Chef’s Selection is the only evening option at £125 a head (an optional and top notch wine flight costs £75). The reasoning behind this no-choice direction, which pointedly avoids calling itself a ‘tasting menu’? Even though seven courses plus additional snacks sounds just that… with a certain welcome brevity.

“There’s some bad branding around the phrase ‘tasting menu’,” Chet Sharma tells Tony Naylor for a fascinating  Observer Food Monthly article that dropped just as I started to gather my thoughts for this appraisal of BiBi’s cuisine.

The piece goes on: “BiBi’s £125 dinner menu is expensive. But crazy as it may sound, says Sharma, it was introduced to provide value. In London, he argues, you can easily spend £70 or £80 a head on fairly average food, whereas BiBi’s food (“complex enough to sit alongside the most complex dishes in the country”) aims to provide far greater bang for your buck.

“BiBi’s chefs are not wasting hours of costly labour prepping ingredients that aren’t sold. They are focused on perfecting a streamlined number of dishes. This helps Sharma keep tight control of his fluctuating food costs, and enables him to flexibly gild dishes: ‘Let’s add morels to this dish, for example’, when prices allow.”

So did the BiBi food live up to its reputation?

Easily. The snacks signal the playful intent, so far removed from stuffier high end London Indians (BiBi’s owners JKS are also responsible for Trishna, Gymkhana and Brigadiers). Take the papad scrolls flavoured with pungent cave-aged Wookey Hole Cheddar to be dunked in the dankest of green chutneys – pure chlorophyll pesto. Or a single Louët-Feisser oyster (from Carlingford Lough, also, incidentally, favoured by Bouchon Racine) dressed with passion-fruit Jal Jeera, a kind of tart cumin-scented lemonade. 

In the second course proper there’s a similar culinary conceit, where an Orkney scallop sits ceviche like in its shell, loaded with a spiced up Nimbu Pani (lime soda, the Sub-Continent’s  favourite soft drink). In between there’s the punch of a BiBi ‘tartare’. The tenderest of Belted Galloway beef is studded with fermented Tellicherry peppercorns to create a ‘chaat’ of pepper fry. Street food elevated, as they say in the trade. 

Next up a is a Parsi special occasion classic called a macchi, where white fish fillets, often pomfret, are coated in a paste of ground coconut and sour mango, fresh coriander and mint, and steamed in banana leaves. In the Sharma version, with the emphasis on pickled green chillies, the fish is halibut and the result is hot and gorgeous.

Now that grill kicks in. It’s a £20 supplement for the Aged Swaledale Lamb Barra Kebab (main image). I couldn’t resist and it proved the dish of the evening (against a strong field). This traditional Mughli chop, charred and yet tender, comes encircled by spirals of a sensational Kashmiri doon chettin (walnut chutney), which is fiery but also in perfect balance.

Suddenly and surprisingly the counter in front of me fills up with a parade of dishes that signify ‘this is your main’. A pillowy roomali naan and a goodly helping of rice are there to mop up the juices from an ex-dairy goat Galouti Kebab and Sharmaji’s Lahori Chicken. Galouti means ‘melt in the mouth and this dish involving minced mutton or goat (interchangeable in North Indian cuisine) was created for a toothless old Nawab in Lucknow. The Lahori chicken has been marinated in yoghurt and spices before being barbecued. The whey collected from hanging the yoghurt combines with cashew to make a remarkable sauce alongside some wild garlic puree and a sharp cauliflower chutney.

Strained yoghurt is the base for the delicate shrikhand dessert featuring strawberry and meadowsweet. To conclude a kulfi ’lolly’, given an equally neat presentation to conclude a beguiling experience that redefines high end Indian restaurant food.

BiBi? A homage to Grandma with a contemporary cutting edge

You’ve been waiting for me to explain the name BiBi? There are echoes of some Sixties boutique there and isn’t there a Korean pop chanteuse with that moniker. Actually it’s an Urdu title roughly translating as ‘lady of the house’, often applied to grandmas and yes there are decorative touches honouring Chet’s own bibis – a wooden beaded curtain similar to the one in his grandma’s own kitchen, while Kashmiri Paisley motifs on walls and bar stools is inspired by her shawls. Antique mirrors and lamps add to the surprising homeliness in a tight 33-cover space.

All this is slightly at odds with the back story of Chef Chet. All that high end culinary discipleship that followed his physics doctorate at Oxford and an obvious commitment to sustainability that is very much of the moment. The kitchen grills with sustainable Holm Oak charcoal from the South Downs; the menu paper is compostable. You do sense though that at BiBi he has come ‘home’. And there is heart there. Utterly surprising and revelatory in the oligarch’s playground that most of Mayfair (and Knightsbridge) has become.

BiBi, 42 North Audley Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 6ZP. Vegetarian and pescatarian tasting menus are available.

A head for heights? Most certainly as long as I‘ve a cocktail in my hand or, better still, a series of small plates arriving against a panoramic backdrop. To satisfy my needs, every high rise development these days seems to come with a rooftop bar or restaurant. At the Manchester version of Soho House, due later this year, they are even throwing in a swimming pool eight storeys up below its bar and I note that the ubiquitous Gino D’Acampo has been getting in on the act over in Liverpool, opening an eponymous Sky Bar Terrace at the top of the INNSiDE by Meliá hotel.

It may be that city’s highest alfresco restaurant and bar, but at 270 ft it’s a mere molehill compared with the tallest viewpoint I’ve visited – Chicago’s Willis Tower, the Western Hemisphere’s third highest building at 1,730ft. One caveat, its Sky Deck with jutting-out glass Ledge is the same height (1,450ft) as the top of that old stager, New York’s Empire State.

Both dwarf our own Shard in London, which stands at a mere 1,020ft. One advantage is that the 72nd floor viewing gallery is partially open air, offering views of the pinnacle, as well as 360-degree views around the building. I’m still gob struck by how tiny Tower Bridge looked from 800ft above.

All of which brings us to Manchester’s 20 Stories, whose major selling point is its huge outdoor terrace and bar (with appropriate shelters for when the city’s weather lives up to its reputation). At 300ft, it’s a glamorous, stunning spot to take in the ever-changing skyline and cityscape (see main image). You can understand its appeal as a special place for a drink and a people watch. The wine list is arguably the best in town, but food quality has been variable with a constant change of head chefs since its inception in 2018. 

I dined there recently, road-testing their new five-course tasting menu, available Monday to Thursday, 5.30pm-8.pm. It started well with a vegan opener of broccoli steak with horseradish and lemon, but after that it didn’t live up to its £65 a head price. A better bet is to pick from the more casual Terrace Menu, perhaps mixing and matching tomato, basil and parmesan arancini, truffle fries and BBQ flat iron steak tacos with a tipple or two from their Aperol Cocktail Menu.

Black Friar, Salford – keeping it down to earth

Casual and al fresco is a good way to go in this sweltering summer and the maturing  ground-level garden of the re-born Black Friar is a choice spot, even if there is no view to speak of. Well, who would want to ogle the traffic hurtling down Trinity Way? By chance, it has chef connections with 20 Stories. Aiden Byrne, launch chef there, was scheduled to do the same for the Black Friar but pulled out around Pandemic time; his replacement Ben Chaplin came from… you guessed it. 

His 20 Stories fine dining pedigree was obvious when I first sat down to eat in the newly planted garden with its big fence two summers ago. A couple of dishes were over-elaborate for what was aimed as a gastropub. The menu has since settled down  from trying to balance all this with ‘pub classics’, maintaining high quality ingredients while  taking fewer risks.

It is good they are still making the most of their urban greenery, though when we went recently to sample their summer ‘Garden Menu’ gusty showers weren’t doing it any favours.This particular menu is served straight from the outdoor bars, so we benefited from its canopy and ski heaters. And a couple of goblets of holy Gavi to heal the soul. There’s a choice of three amply topped flatbreads, including an artichoke version for vegans, who can also dive into a Falafel Friar Bowl. Alongside the charcuterie and cheese platters sat our big extra temptation, definitely not plant-based: Honey-glazed Ham Hock with Welsh rarebit and pickled onions. The Black Friar is very generous with its pickles and, alas with a mountain of coleslaw that accompanied the hock. As a £17 sharing plate this was a meal in itself. We took the half-stripped bone home with us. Combined with yellow split peas and stock, it formed an un-seasonally  ballasting soup that lasted us all next day. As blazing sunshine reappeared.

Queen Bee with a red dot, signature vol au vents – it must be Climat

The other end of Blackftriars Street and Chris Laidler is showing off his stings on the rooftop terrace of Climat, now home to four hives and 40,000 bees, including a Queen, marked with a red dot. The wine-led restaurant’s founder and his exec chef Luke Richardson also brought back from Hampshire a further 50,000 bees that are now ensconced at their respective homes in Wrexham and Chester – all contributing honey to Climat and sister restaurant Covino in Chester, a place I also really love.

Chris tells me they expect the total of 90,000 bees will swell to 500,000 over the summer before reducing in size to weather the winter months. He’s resigned to the occupational hazards of bee-keeping – despite wearing the full gear to handle them. He’s more worried that there’ll be enough opportunities for his charges to pollinate in Manchester city centre, even though it’s leafier than you think.

And there is competition. Chris points across the road to the roof of the car park behind the brutalist former Ramada Renaissance, slowly being transformed into the Treehouse Hotel. Here Manchester Cathedral have installed a total of 10 hives in addition to the six already on the cathedral’s roof producing ‘Heavenly Honey’.

It’s amazing what your eye takes in from a great height. On the eighth floor of Blackfriars House, Climat actually benefits from not being up in the stratosphere. I prefer the more intimate nosiness of being level or slightly above rival rooftops, so you don’t miss intricate features. Seen from the outside terrace (well away from the swarms) or through floor-to -ceiling plate glass. Perhaps with a 500cl carafe of Bourgogne Aligoté at your elbow – ‘is that honey on the nose?’ – and a signature vol au vent while awaiting a small plates parade of what Luke dubs his ‘Parisian expat food’.

This is Niki Segnit. She is up there with the great British food writers. Her debut cookbook/compendium, The Flavour Thesaurus was an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. Lauded by her peers, it found an eager market among those of us who look beyond glossy recipe repetitions. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table, it delivered a unique, inspiring perspective on food combinations and the science and social mores behind them. EM Forster’s ‘Only Connect’ applied to our store cupboards.

If the ‘difficult second album’, Lateral Cooking (2018), saw her via diagrams consolidating the technical bedrock of her encyclopaedic taste research, it now looks like it was essentially the springboard for her masterpiece, the recently published The Flavour Thesaurus: New Flavours (Bloomsbury, £20). Those new flavours are predominantly plant-based. It was intended to be zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but Niki’s reluctance to abandon cheese and eggs won the day in this parade of 90 flavours and their cross-fertilisation in the kitchen. 800 references in total with a scattering of recipes spontaneously blooming out of them.

What was special about the original Thesaurus was the frame of reference equal to the greats, David, Grigson, Roden. And, of course the sheer chutzpah of her prose that’s the sweetener for so much erudite exposition. 

Let’s celebrate the sly, almost metaphysical, wit she brings to the task of cross-referencing flavour profiles. Words stimulating appetite? Bon mots, bon appetit? Bring it on. 

Take her tall tale about the penicillium origins of Roquefort blue cheese (in her Rye section) … “The story involves a shepherd retiring to a cave for lunch. He was about to tuck into his rye bread and cheese when a passing shepherdess caught his eye/ he set off in pursuit and by the time he came back – after what microbiology 101  yells mus have been several days of vigorous lovemaking – his food had gone mouldy. Here the story takes a bold narrative turn to focus on him eating the spoiled food. 

“(Was it a lovelorn death wish on the shepherd’s part? Was the lovemaking so perfect nothing could possibly ever measure up to it? Or was he so smitten that he simply didn’t notice it had gone mouldy? Find out in my sizzling international bestseller, The Shepherd of Roquefort.)”

Corn and Honey yields this account of middle-aged inverted libido: It’s said that John Harvey Kellogg invented the cornflake as a means of suppressing carnal yearnings. Eat bland food, the theory went, and the fire in your loins would soon gutter and fail. He had it exactly the wrong way round. The Western world’s collective equator-sized  waistband stands as proof that humans will drop anything for another bowl of something delicious. Across the world women reach across the bed to find a cool absence where their husband once was, as, downstairs, in the unflattering light of the open refrigerator, he tucks into the fifth bowl of breakfast clusters while browsing the Damart catalogue for the next size up in elasticated leisurewear.” 

She recommends instead a few hot corn pancakes, glossy with butter and honey, Chestnut honey because of the slight bitterness that offsets the sweetness of the corn. Finally comes the inevitable scientific punchline: “It also contains an aromatic ketone called aminoacetophenone, which characteristic of corn tortilla, grapes and strawberries and for the unsentimental and more adventurous gastronaut, dog’s paws.”

Elsewhere there’s an abundance of rock and roll or film references, not all of which come off, but I do like her response (in Vanilla and Passionfruit) to Pornstar Martini creator Douglas Ankrah insisting the flavour pairing was inspired by cakes and pastries… “which is a bit like finding out that Mötley Crüe’s inspiration for Girl, Girls, Girls was a Women’s Institute Easter Bonnet Competition that Nikki Sixx attended with his gran.”

Aubergine and Miso 

Chocolate with aubergine in a dessert is one of her more challenging forays (for me), even if my own addition of chocolate to caponata should make me welcome fellow Sicilian dish, melanzane al cioccolato. Nikki almost convinces me with “Some might say that given enough chocolate, ricotta, dried fruit and toasted pine nuts you could wolf down a boiled Birkenstock…” Instead I tried out her aubergine and miso combo, which turned out perfect culinary co-ordination.

“Aubergine mellows miso, absorbing its salty stridency to make a tender savoury sponge. Nasu Dengaku, a variation on tofu dengaku, is the classic Japanese take on the pairing. For 2-4 servings, as an appetiser or side dish, halve 2 aubergines lengthwise. Score the cut sides with a criss-cross pattern. Brush with a little neutral oil and roast at 200°C for at least 30 minutes until they have softened and charred slightly. In a small pan over a low heat, whisk together 2tbsp red miso and 1tbsp each of mirin, sugar and sake untril both the sugar and miso have dissolved. Glaze the scored sides of the aubergine with the miso mix, then put  the under a hot grill for a few minutes until he glaze is flecked with dark brown patches and bubbling. Note: sweetened miso burns quickly, so don’t leave unattended.”

I didn’t and the result was so remarkable I didn’t regret the absence of chocolate!

The Flavour Thesaurus: more flavours by Niki Segnit is published by Bloomsbury at £20.

I called it my winter wonderland windfall. The Christmas before last I won the Christmas draw at Tipples of Manchester. Delivered to my door, before Santa had even harnessed up the reindeer, £1,000 worth of mixed spirits, genuinely artisan stuff. The gin quota has long since gone, servicing my Negroni habit, ditto the Donegal vodka to create my Bloody Mary of choice, while the bourbons/whiskies assiteded greatly in my quest for the perfect Old-Fashioned. Bizarrely the handful of bottles that remain in the cellar are primarily of rum, which I like to sip neat, the darker the better, but only when the weather is braw.

Still I have been a touch neglectful. It’s not as if I haven’t been a champion of rum in my writing. Take this article from five years ago  – Getting the Abbey rum habit in the heart of old Barbados. . Or from my last overseas trip before lockdown – Spice up your life with a rum ramble around  St Lucia (2020). The previous year I’d even dared to question the hegemony of gin in the company of rum’s great and good – Dark Spirits. Rum Rocks, but could it take over from gin? Who could doubt the wisdom of one of those gurus I quizzed, Ian ‘Rum’ Burrell, of Channel 4 Sunday Bruch fame: “My three favourite rums are the one in my glass, the next one, and a free one”?

On Saturday, July 8. World Rum Day, comes the chance to live that dream (on repeat!) as Manchester Rum Festival returns to the Mercure hotel, Piccadilly. The 2023 version looks packed with delights. Check out the exhibitors here. It’s not just about access to some truly rare tipples. Also part of the package are Caribbean Street Food from Nyammin’ and calypso-inspired DJ sets. With some hats and shirts that awesomely get into the spirit of it all. Tickets are great value at £25 plus booking fee for seven hours of spirited exploration (12pm-7pm). Buy them here.

A big bonus is the chance for fest revellers to purchase a one-off, limited-edition bottle of the official Festival rum, which is a collaboration with Outlier Distilling Company of the Isle of Man. Named ‘Punk Croc’, this 41% limited edition blend is a Manx rum with a cask-aged bite. Blended exclusively from rum made in Outlier’s 160L wood-fired still, Punk Croc features rum aged in Sauternes, New American Oak and Islay casks. Perfect for Mojitos and Daiquiris with attitude, the bottling will only be available at the festival.

Additionally, Distillers Direct will be joining the summer festival with a very special limited edition single cask of Chairman’s Reserve Rum, which has been produced in partnership with The Drinks Trust. Festival founder Dave ‘Drinks Enthusiast’ Marsland is brand ambassador for St Lucia Rum, whose flagship product is Chairman’s Reserve.

 The UK’s largest rum distillery, DropWorks, which is based on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, will be making their very first rum festival appearance after launching at the latter end of May! They bring in the finest molasses, ferment it with their own cultivated trinity yeast strain, distil it in their bespoke stills, then blend and mature it in their own barrels across their three unique ageing locations.

Also debuting at the festival are Rhum JM, an historic rum from Martinique in the Caribbean with a super sustainable background focusing on biodiversity and the preservation of nature, and Takamaka, the first ever rum from the Seychelles to join the Manchester line-up. Two rums from Madeira  – 970 and Tristão Vaz Teixeira – will become the first brands ever to exhibit from the Portuguese Island. Manchester debuts too  for Ron Piet from Panama, Tilambic from Mauritius, Eminente from Cuba and Paranubes from the mountainous Oaxaca region in Mexico and Bone Idyll – a rum distillery based in less exotic Kingston upon Thames.