Hackney saw an amazing array of restaurants open in 2013, cementing the borough's reputation as a proper foodie centre in London.
While the Kingsland Road axis has seen all the focus in recent years, with Stoke Newington, Dalston and the lower end of Kingsland Road now well established eating out destinations, a lot of the more interesting places opening last year were on the easterly Mare Street axis.
Mayfields, just off Wilson Way, has had rave reviews, while Raw Duck got locals very excited with its small plates and excellent wine selections before it very sadly slid into the construction site of the Travelodge next door. RIP Raw Duck, Hackney hopes you fightback soon. Further down, we've seen a Mexican restaurant join Lardo on Richmond Road, and then past the long established Vietnamese and Ocakbasi restaurants before reaching Well Street junction where the well priced French bistro Bouchon Fourchette sits alongside accidentally controversial The Advisory and then Rita's Bar and Dining. And it was here that I had one of the best meals of the year.
Rita's, of course, made its name over in Dalston in 2012, where it was the first residency in the kitchen at Birthdays. It was a no reservations job, and swarms of haircuts and beards filled the bar and the street outside waiting to get a table. I went, and loved it, and so was delighted to hear the Rita's team had eschewed Kingsland Road for the more grown up, low key, harder-for-Claphamites-to-get-to Mare Street.
Its new venue is gorgeous. It is long and thin, with just a tiny little anonymous front onto the street, Inside it has high ceilings, white walls, and the space flows nicely back, past a bar, through to the kitchen, which is open plan to the rear of the restaurant. We were there on a Friday evening, and house-y beats were just loud enough to create a fun atmosphere. Downstairs, things are much cosier in a low-lit dining room.
Rita's was first noted for doing 'junk food luxe' or whatever you want to call it, but that doesn't do it justice. There are a lot of Asian influences - miso aubergine, Szechuan peppers here and there, hoisin sauce, Asian vinegars, gingers and soys. The fusion of Southern comforts and zingy Asian flavours is a recurring theme among some of the more exciting food I've had recently - Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, Dante Fried Chicken in Los Angeles (and his game-changing recipe book Ride or Fry), and Kimchinary's Korean style burritos in London.
We enjoyed Succotash, a dish cooked up by Native Americans originally, given a bit of a twist with edamame beans, pumpkin and some chilli and spring onions gave it a fresh and feisty Asian twist. Pork belly cooked in black vinegar, served with poached spring onion, aromatic herbs and chilli, played to a similar palate.
Due to my dining partner needing to 'carb up' for a bike ride the next day, we missed some of the lighter dishes that I fancied, but the signature mac'n'cheese topped with gauacamole didn't disappoint, and neither did the crispy fried potato.
But we did get to enjoy a massive plate of some of the best fried chicken I've had - made with crispy fried chicken skin ground in with the coating, following an old Central European Jewish technique. It was a whole chicken, cut into bits and served with maple syrup and a sausage-y, lardy gravy. They do that combo over waffles at breakfast too, which I had on a separate occasion and was delicious.
We finished with beignets - New Orleans style doughnuts - served with dulce de leche. We could have opted to have had foie gras with them, but we were so stuffed could barely manage the richness of the 'basic' beignets.
I've already been back once since my big visit, and with a regularly evolving menu, lots of interesting specials, and those pies still to enjoy, I get the feeling Rita's will be a regular haunt for 2014.
So if 2013 was about new openings in Hackney Central and the Mare Street axis, where is likely to see exciting new openings in 2014?
I expect that 2014 will see Lower Clapton Road and Hackney Wick as the places to watch for new restaurants. Rumours are abound in Clapton already, whose new offerings already include creative Latin cuisine, and with some more Modern British, a wine bar, and both traditional and fancy Turkish in the pipeline.
Hackney Wick has seen some great pop ups over the last year, and has noticeably become more of a nightlife destination. There are so many great nooks and crannies by the river, it's only a matter of time bebefore the Wick goes from pop up to perm.
Meanwhile, Stoke Newington could have its fourth wave, as some interesting places open on the High Street. Rents on Church Street are too pricey for innovative new restaurants to open, and too many of the newer openings are mediocre.
It will be interesting to see what's going on in North East London more generally. Will the likes of Walthamstow, Leyton and Tottenham, which are getting Hackney spillover (as it becomes too bloody pricey), see good new eating spots open? I look forward to seeing what foodie adventures our corner of London offers up over the coming year.