Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Foodie Mini-Break Guide: Venice

As a birthday treat, my boyfriend took me to Venice for the weekend. I've heard so many amazing things about Venice that I thought it couldn't possibly live up to the hype, but it really was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Winter is low season and we had the city almost to ourselves, swapping the smell and crowding of the summer season for atmospheric morning mists and crisp clear days.

Venice isn't well regarded for its food, and apparently it can be hard to avoid the tourist traps, so we did a bit of research before we went.The preparation paid off and we were rewarded with two fantastic meals.

Our lunch at Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisto, a little bistro in the Dorsoduro neighbourhood, was my favourite meal of the trip. We squeezed into a table for two by the bar and worked our way through a basket of delicious Italian bread while we browsed the menu. To start, we decided on grilled squid and fresh pasta with Gorgonzola, both of which were exceptionally good. The squid was tender and sweet, with a perfect hint of char, while the home-made pasta in the cheesy sauce was deliciously decadent. For our main course, we both opted for cod served with fennel - the fish was butter-soft and perfectly complemented by the liquorice notes of the fennel. My boyfriend found room for dessert, a slice of dense, rich chocolate torte, while I focused on finishing off the carafe of excellent red wine recommended by the waiter (unfortunately I can't remember the name!)
[No food photos, I'm afraid - I didn't want to be the most touristy tourist ever!]

For dinner, we went to Osteria Alla Testiere, a small seafood restaurant in the Castello area. You definitely need to book in advance if you want to eat here, as it is very popular and only seats 30 people or so, in two nightly sittings. The 7.30pm sitting seemed to consist largely of tourists, while the second sitting seemed to be more local (we were slow to finish, so were still eating at the change-over). While we did find our meal to be slightly overpriced, we weren't disappointed with the food - an abundance of rich, Venetian seafood dishes, including grilled razorclams, tuna ravioli, prawns in a tangy sweet and sour sauce, cuttlefish with black ink and polenta (a bit rich, but very interesting) and gnochetti served with baby calamari in an unusual (but tasty) fishy-cinnamon glaze.

We stayed at the Hilton Molino Stucky on Giudecca, a smaller island with more of a local feel. It was a bit of a pain having to get the vaporetto back and forth from the main island, but definitely worth it for the beautiful waterfront and laid-back vibes. The hotel was lovely - situated in a beautiful converted factory building - and we were lucky enough to be upgraded to a room with an incredible waterside view.

In the mornings we skipped the hotel buffet in favour of wandering along the waterfront for breakfast in one of the many cafes. While the locals clustered around the bar drinking expresso, we grabbed a table and snacked on traditional Venetian pizzette and fantastic milky cappuccinos. Yum!

The only downside to an otherwise perfect trip was getting too and from the airport (we flew to Trevisio, which is around 40 mins drive away) - the coach takes a 2 hour lunch break so we had to get a taxi back (at Sunday prices), which cost an astonishing 100 Euros! It would definitely be better to fly to San Marco - you might pay more for your flight, but you'll probably save it back in taxi fares!

This was an amazing trip (and an incredibly lovely birthday treat) and has inspired us to return to Italy again soon - we're now planning a weekend in Rome in the Summer for more gourmet adventures. :)
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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Foodie Mini-Break Guide: A Romantic Weekend in Paris

Earlier this year my boyfriend and I jumped on the Eurostar for a romantic weekend away. Two and a half hours later and we were in Paris (just in time for lunch!).

Canal Saint-Martin

We stayed at Hotel Le 123 Sebastapool, which was number 1 on Tripadvisor at the time, and perfectly placed - just 15 minutes walk from Gare du Nord and 10 minutes from the Canal Saint-Martin and the stylish boutiques and fashionable restaurants of Le Marais. Le 123 Sebastapool was a lovely boutique hotel, with lots of special touches which made for a memorable stay. It's themed around French cinema, and in keeping with this, guests are treated to a paper bag of pic n' mix sweets on arrival, and a self-service popcorn machine (accompanied by a buffet of snacks and drinks) in the lobby. Fantastique!

The Seine

We began our visit with a stroll through Le Marais, and an unsuccessful attempt to visit Breizh Cafe for galettes (definitely worth booking ahead!). Eventually we found a local bistro, and had a traditional menu du jour instead, followed by ice-cream from Amorino (I know, they have one in London, but it's the best!). My boyfriend ordered the surprisingly delicious combination of "l'inimitabile" (rich Nutella chocolate) and raspberry sorbet, which is definitely on my list for my next visit!

After lunch we wandered along the Seine in the sunshine towards the Eiffel Tower. The love lock trend seems to have spread since my last visit in 2013, and more and more bridges are covered in locks. We passed through the courtyards of the Louvre and through the gardens before stopping for overpriced coffees in a touristy cafe and heading back to the hotel.

On the recommendation of David Lebowitz' excellent blog (well worth a browse if you're planning on visiting Paris) we had booked a table at Astier, where we were treated to an absolutely fantastic bistro meal. We weren't the only tourists, but the restaurant still had a very authentically French vibe. The service (unusually for Paris) was great, the food was delicious, and they serve the most enormous cheese platters I have ever seen (the idea is, they give you an absolutely gigantic quantity of cheese and you eat your fill...I'm assuming you're not supposed to finish!).

Cheese platter for one!!

We both had soup to start - mine was the healthy green one, which wasn't quite as good as the sumptuously creamy veloute above it - followed by steak with pommes puree (accompanied with a huge and very sharp knife!). My boyfriend got the cheese course, which I skipped, and somehow still found room for a tarte au chocolat for dessert, while I went for a delicious apricot and almond mousse concoction.

We had meant to go for drinks afterwards, but were too full and sleepy after the enormous meal, so headed back to the hotel to sleep it off. Despite our plan to wake up bright and early for more exploring, the black-out curtains and comfy bed meant we woke with a shock after 10am. We passed on the complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel in favour of a trip the Cafe Angelina, where I indulged in one of the best hot chocolates of my life. A jug of rich, molten chocolate, thick enough to stand a spoon in, and served with a (slightly gratuitous!) pot of whipped cream...Mmmm!

Just beautiful...

Our final stop before we left was Montmartre - a steep climb up to the Sacre-Coeur, followed by delicious egg, ham and gruyere galettes for lunch (to make up for missing out the day before) - before boarding our train and getting home in time for dinner. A fantastic weekend away, without the hassle of flying!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Foodie Mini-Break Guide: Jersey

My boyfriend grew up in Jersey and I've been lucky enough to spend a lot of time there over the past few years. The island is small - just 5 by 9 miles - and achingly pretty.

The coastline is stunning - with wide stretches of sandy beach in the South, East and West and a craggy landscape of cliffs, rockpools and caves in the North - and the interior isn't bad either: lush woodland and grassy meadows (complete with doe-eyed Jersey cows), dotted with pretty villages and handsome granite farmhouses. All in all, it's pretty idyllic...

Gorey Castle

Admittedly, there's not much to do when it rains, but when the sun comes out, there's sailing and surfing, cute harbour-side cafes, rock pools, cliff top walks, castles and a lovely zoo. And then, rain or shine, there's the food - the best, freshest fish & chips (which taste even better if you eat them on the beach) from Entwhistles in Gorey, lobster thermidor at the Oyster Box (overlooking St Brelade bay), delectable seafood at Green Island on the South-East coast and Corbiere Phare in the West for breath-taking sunset views of Corbiere lighthouse and delicious espetadas (hot metal skewers threaded with juicy chunks of beef and succulent king prawns, dripping with garlic butter).

Then there's the Hungry Man in Rozel, serving up ridiculous burgers (the Double-Decker Health-Wrecker - double burger, double cheese, double bacon) and the most over-the-top hot chocolates I have ever seen (topped with a mountain of whipped cream and a sprinkling of Maltesers), or, if pizza is more your thing, what must be the most fortuitously situated Pizza Express in the British Isles; french windows opening onto St Brelade's Bay and a glass roof which rolls back to let in the sun.

Greedy seagull at The Hungry Man

For families, the Boathouse/Treehouse/Farmhouse/Spicehouse - all part of the Boathouse Group - are also well worth a visit. My favourite is The Boathouse, which boasts beautiful views over the St Aubin harbour.

My final foodie recommendation is the ice-cream from Jersey Potteries - if you can spot one of their vans, the soft-serve is out of this world (a few summers feasting on creamy, golden-hued 99 flakes has set me up for a lifetime of disappointment with the artificially white foam churned out by the Mr Whippee vans in London).

Make sure you try the potatoes!

In conclusion, it's definitely worth a visit. Jersey is just a thirty minute flight from Gatwick, and perfect for a long weekend away, filled with beaches, walks and food (and hopefully, some sunshine!).

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

While I have all but given up blogging nowadays, this was one meal I thought was worth the write-up. I'd been dying to go to Dinner since it first opened, and finally got my wish when my boyfriend took me there for an anniversary meal a couple of weeks ago.

Situated in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, the decor was elegant and understated, with none of the flamboyance I would have expected from Heston Blumenthal. The general vibe was more suit-and-tie business dinner than Mad Hatter's tea party, but it was very chic nonetheless.

We were led to our table by an immaculately dressed waiter and settled down with a basket of bread and a bottle of bubbly to peruse the menu. As everyone probably knows by now, the menu is based on traditional English recipes, dating anywhere from the 1600s to 1940, and encompasses a range of dishes, from the unusual (nettle porridge...) and the creative (...meat fruit pate...) to the relatively mundane (...steak and chips).

To start I ordered the scallops with cucumber ketchup and roasted cucumber. The scallops themselves - always a favourite for me - were delicious - plump and sweet and perfectly caramelised; and the roasted cucumber was surprisingly tasty. I have never had cooked cucumber before (and have never wanted to!), but it was actually very good - fresh and salty with a firm, juicy texture.

Meanwhile, my other half sampled the famous meat fruit - a globe of chicken liver and foie gras pate artfully shaped and coloured to look exactly like a mandarin orange. Despite being a pate-hater, this was so good that even I could appreciate it.

For the main course, I ordered the blackfoot pork chop. Served rare (against the long-standing tradition of serving pork well-done), it was delectably juicy with a delicious and delicate hint of smokiness. I can honestly say it was the best pork chop I have ever eaten (and quite possibly worth a return visit in itself).

My boyfriend (unadventurously) opted for steak and chips. I was disappointed to discover that these were not Heston's renowned (and much imitated) triple-cooked variety, but rather some fairly standard shoe string fries. The steak was good though, and the mushroom ketchup was an interesting touch, but it was rather a wasted order, I thought, compared to some of the more interesting menu items.

For dessert we split another famous dish, the tipsy cake (served with spit-roasted pineapple) - which was excellent but a bit less dramatic than I had envisaged - and the home-made ice-cream.

I was very glad we decided to get the ice-cream - up until this point the meal, while delicious, was rather lacking in the theatrics which I had been expecting (lots of sedate business diners and a conspicuous absence of bangs and fireworks...)

Made at the table in a machine which resembled an old-fashioned sewing machine, the ice-cream making process involved liquid nitrogen and impressive billows of steam. Once firm, the ice-cream was served in a miniature cone, rolled in the topping of your choice.

All in all, it was a fantastic meal, and despite being slightly disappointed by the rather subdued atmosphere, the standard of the food definitely reinforced my determination to try the Fat Duck some day in the future.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Friday, 27 September 2013

Pre-theatre meal at Brasserie Zedel

A few weeks ago my friend and I enjoyed a sophisticated pre-theatre dinner at Brasserie Zedel in Soho. The first appearances of this popular French restaurant are deceptive - entering at street level you find yourself in what seems to be little more than a laid-back bistro. Head downstairs, however, and you will discover a glamourous ball room, decked out in fabulous art deco style (complete with marble pillars and over the top gold detailing).

The menu features a good selection of classic French dishes, with everything from frogs legs to beef Bourguignon, and is very reasonably priced given the lavish surroundings and central location (you can get a main course for under £10, or 3 courses for £11.75 on the prix fixe menu).

I opted for the Choucroute Alsacienne: a heaped dish of sauerkraut topped with with chunks of smokey sausage, cured pork belly, and a rather large frankfurter. Meanwhile my friend went for the classic French combo of steak frites with a rich Bordelaise sauce.

For dessert, we ordered the poached pear with chantilly cream and the creme brulee.

I have to admit - the food, while good, wasn't mind-blowing. Instead, the real draw is the venue - the beautiful high-ceilinged room, the over-the-top decor, and the smartly dressed waiters all add up to a dining experience which is more than a little bit special. Definitely worth a visit.

  Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ramen time at Tonkotsu...and Akari, a hidden gem of Japanese cuisine

It's been a while since I've posted (I'm winding down my blog, in response to a busy new job and general life-ness) but I thought I've had a couple of good Japanese meals recently so I thought I'd do a little review.

First - Tonkotsu, the much-acclaimed ramen joint in Soho. Having spent the past few months on Urbanspoon's "Talk of the Town" list, I was eager to see what the fuss was all about, so I went along with a couple of friends for a casual Tuesday-night meal.

The restaurant was relaxed and stylish, and the food - huge bowls of warming, ramen noodle soup, with rich, umami stock and tasty chunks of melt-in-the-mouth pork belly - was undeniably very good. However, I didn't really get the hype: everything was tasty, but it was nothing exceptional, and it wasn't miles above what you could get at somewhere like Wagamama.

So, on to my second review - Akari. This is one of my favourite Japanese places in London. It's not officially a restaurant - it describes itself as an "Izakaya", a traditional Japanese drinking establishment. In line with that theme, Akari is decked out like (a classy, oriental-esque) pub, with dark wood panelling and a prominent bar.

Despite being situated quite far along Essex Road, away from the hustle and bustle of Upper Street, Akari always seems to be busy. It attracts all sorts of clientele, from couples on first dates, to families with young children (sashimi and miso cod is admittedly a bit more exciting than fish fingers and chips!).

When I first moved to London I lived just around the corner, and we used to go fairly regularly. After a disgracefully long hiatus I finally managed to get back there earlier this week, with my mum and boyfriend in tow, and was pleased to find it to be as good as I had remembered.

The food really is exceptionally good, and at about 30 quid a head including drinks (this time round, a couple of glasses of plum wine for the ladies and a few pints of asahi beer for the gent), it is outstanding value.

Having not visited for a while, I domineered the ordering process, ensuring that all of my favourites made the cut. We ordered three starters, three mains, and three sides, with a pudding to share at the end, and finished our meal fit to burst.

Seared tuna tataki - mmmm

So, here's what we had:

Prawn tempura - some of the best I have had anywhere. Incredibly light golden batter encasing huge, piping hot king prawns. Delicious.
Squid tempura (aka calamari!) - juicy strips of buttery squid, in that same fluffy tempura batter.
Tuna tataki - generous chunks of seared tuna, topped with tasty garlic mayonnaise and a tangy Worcestershire-like sauce
Miso cod - a stand-out dish: delicated fillet of cod baked in a sweet white miso marinade - slightly caramelised on top and meltingly tender inside. An absolutely gorgeous dish.
Chicken katsu - I'm not a fan, but my boyfriend insisted, and even though it's not my thing, it certainly isn't bad here
And for sides - rice balls stuffed with salmon or sour plum, and a delicious dish of green beans in a tasty sesame sauce

A tender, caramelised hunk of sweet miso cod - WOW

Both restaurants are very reasonable compared to  other Japanese restaurants in London, but if you want something really exceptional for your money I would have to recommend escaping the Soho crowds and giving Akari a go.

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon Akari on UrbanspoonSquare Meal Square Meal

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Amazing Peruvian cuisine at Coya

Coya is a cool new Peruvian joint situated on Piccadilly, right next to Green Park. It has a trendy bar where you can sample the excellent selection of cocktails (try the pisco sours, if you want something really authentic) and Latin American liquors, or you can head straight to the restaurant proper for a divine collection of modern Peruvian dishes.

Pisco sours

Before I start, let me just say - these photos do not do justice to our meal, which featured some of the best Latin American food I've had (in London, or - to be honest - anywhere).

Yummy ribs, gorgeous fish (seabass cazuela, in the back)

Various types of ceviche, tasty ribs in a beautiful tamarind glaze, delectable calamari, more-ish patatas bravas, and some of the best seabass I have ever eaten...everything was delicious, and I left incredibly satisfied and hungering for more!

An ugly photo of some tasty fried squid!

Coya on Urbanspoon Square Meal