Tag Archives: travel

Thanksgiving in Miami

Today I’m completing the triple – the last part of the grand tour of the East Coast of the US!

As much fun as it was to spend a decent amount of time in New York and Washington DC, these are not places noted for their warm weather in November, so it was off to Miami’s South Beach for a week, staying at the super-fancy SLS South Beach hotel. This is a recent addition to the city, but based in an old art deco building which once housed the Ritz Plaza. It’s quite something to wake up in the morning to be greeted by the inviting blue waters with the sun shining brightly. I defy you to look at the picture below and not be jealous!

I’d love to say that I could write lots about daily cultural events and sightseeing, but the reality is that most of the time was spent lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking around South Beach’s art deco historic district, eating, drinking and buying souvenirs. In my defence, there was a lot of cultural activities up north, so beach life was perfectly acceptable by this stage. The food was also pretty darned good – in particular, I loved the SLS hotel restaurant Bazaar by José Andrés, where the patatas bravas were superb, and the great Escopazzo restaurant, which offered a superb vegetarian tasting menu with wine pairing. Extravagant, yes, but wonderful food.

One of the reasons that we ended up mostly staying in South Beach and doing nothing more challenging than choosing between beer or a margarita is that you need a car. It’s not just that Miami is a fairly car-friendly city, it’s that all of Southern Florida makes having a car pretty much essential. South Beach is on an island, and you can walk everywhere, but if you want to go a bit further afield, you’ve either got to rent a vehicle, take taxis, or brave Miami’s public transport system, and as we had no ride, that made exploration a little challenging.

However, we were keen to check out Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana and the Miami Design District. So we decided to do it by public transport. Yes, public transport. From our perspective, the buses looked quite cool, with their 80s neon Miami Vice style livery and on-board airco. However, many Americans (i.e. those with cars) looked at us like we were utterly mad. Maybe we were naive, but the main problem with trying to get anywhere using a bus was simply that it takes a long, long, long time for something to turn up, then another long, long, long time for you to get anywhere.

Anyway, after a long, long, long trip, we got to Calle Ocho, but Little Havana turned out to be a little less exciting than I had hoped, but I put this down to the fact that it was a cool, cloudy Tuesday morning, so hardly the riot of Latin culture that you might expect. Perhaps Saturday evening after the sun has been beating down all day means the place is alive? Nevertheless, I managed to score a jar of Cuban dulce de leche and find the Gloria Estefan star on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. Then another bus back to Downtown Miami. This was also slow, but those Cuban grannies all look pretty awesome in their designer sunglasses.

Afterwards, I did something I’d been tipped off about years ago – downtown Miami has a driverless elevated train that whizzes around the towers, and it’s free to boot. It was quite fun after the sloooooowness of the bus from Little Havana to practically fly around the city and it offers some great views. After checking out superyachts at the seafront, it was a short taxi ride up to the Miami Design District. Sadly, they were gearing up for a major event, so a lot of places were closed for remodelling. However, I managed to pick up some quite fun Christmas decorations and an earthenware fox from the Jonathan Adler store, all of which seemed suitably OTT to represent Miami in my Christmas box.

The other “big trip” of the week was with a friend who lives just north of Miami to Delray Beach on Thanksgiving, and then on to a dinner with Cuban friends in the evening. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve seen so much food! There was a huge turkey covered in bacon, massive trays of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with nutmeg/brown sugar/marshmallows, greens, cornbread…. I managed a small portion of the veggie goodies, and have to admit the sweet potatoes were pretty amazing, although I could not quite bring myself to eat them with the marshmallows. It was a great night, and we were honoured to be invited to join in with a special celebration.

Other than that, it was a week of palm trees, sun, sand, key lime pie, swimming, flip flops, ice cream and cold beer. I could really get used to these extended holidays! Hope you’ve enjoyed the pics, and normal (foodie) service should resume shortly.

And with that, back to real life in London!

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Six Days in the Big Apple

You may have noticed the recent blogging min-hiatus, which was due to me going on holiday for two and a half weeks. In November! A sheer delight, and something I have had been looking forward to for a very long time.

I promised a little note of what I got up to as well as some pictures, so here you go! This gallery is probably quite familiar to you if you’ve been following my shots on Instagram, but it’s also nice to see all these little moments in one place.

Arriving just after Hurricane Sandy, it was clear on the way in from the airport that the city was still in clean-up mode. Even a week later, there were fallen branches and only a partial subway service. I felt it best to steer clear of the hardest hit areas – they need to recover and clean up, and without gawking tourists. It also makes you incredibly grateful to live in a city that does not, by and large, experience this sort of extreme weather.

I was staying in the middle of Manhattan at the NoMad hotel which is “located in the hear of the historic NoMad district” according to their website. The NoMad moniker (which was a new one to me) apparently comes from the area being north of Madison Square, but “the cheap wig and costume jewellery district” would have been a bit more accurate. If you need a Lady Gaga hairbow special, there is a place just down from the NoMad that sells it – you never know when the need may arise! I’m sure that this will probably be a very trendy part of town in about six months, and passé in about twelve, but at the moment, I was staying in a (very small) island of cool in the middle of a lot of weaves and clip-in pony tails. One gem (not of the costume variety) was The Flatiron Room on W 26th Street, which offers a vast array of whisky, either straight or in cocktails (think Old Fashioned or Rye Sours, rather than Mojitos). This place was so good we drank rather too much whisky before dinner at the NoMad hotel restaurant, and doubtless, we made an impression on the restaurant staff for all the wrong reasons…nevertheless, if you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out, or even booking a table to slink along later to enjoy hard liquor and some live music.

What I did like about the neighborhood was its proximity to mega-delicatessan Eataly on Madison Square, which was perfect for morning coffee and Italian pastries. It had what seemed like acres of floor space piled high with just about any Italian food treat you can imagine. I can see how people spend a lot of time and money here, but I used it more for browsing – I can get most of this stuff in London if I look hard enough, and I wasn’t aiming to bring back Italian chestnut flour or Parmesan from New York. I suspect that one you start shopping there, it’s hard to stop. However, in the nearby Whisk I did pick up something more unique, a selection of bitters with some unusual flavours, so ideal to add a little extra something to festive G&Ts. The hotel was also very close to Madison Square’s daily farmer’s market, where you had tables literally groaning with cut-price post-Halloween squash, and I came away with a selection of goodies for daytime picnics, plus maple syrup from Vermont and maple candies made from pure, crystallised syrup. It was here I also came upon one of the most unusual things of the trip – a rye sourdough bread baked with cheese and sauerkraut, made by an upstate farm. It sounded strange and I had to try a slice. At first I wasn’t keen, but by the last mouthful, I was ready for one more. It’s a strange combination, but somehow it worked. With a cold beer on a warm day, it would have been even better.

Of course, it was not just about food, and there was quite a bit of sightseeing on the agenda. On just about every visitor itinerary is the High Line (a park constructed along an abandoned elevated rail track), and for me this was my third visit since it first opened. I walked along the initial section around three years ago, when it was still a novelty and quite quiet. However, it has since taken its place as one of the things to do in the city, and it’s less of an elevated walk and more like a shuffle. A shuffle the does offer some spectacular views across the city, the West River and glimpses of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. By this time, it has extended all the way from 14th Street up to 30th Street (not, ahm, one of NYC’s jewels), but is going to be extended further towards the West River, so I look forward to seeing that next time I’m in town.

In terms of more traditional sightseeing (and so back to food), I wanted to go back to a little breakfast place I love called Elephant & Castle, if for little more than the fact this place shares its name with a London tube station and it offers great pancakes. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump into the West Village and SoHo to check out lavish boutiques selling items I could not afford. It’s fun, but sort of like going to a gallery where you can admire lovely things you will, without a doubt, not be taking home afterwards. I did manage to score some nice items in various cookshops though, adhering to the mantra that I should try to buy things that I cannot get (or can only get with difficulty) back in London.

One of my favourite visits during the trip was to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street. This is a historic building which has been preserved and now serves as a museum, telling the story of various immigrants who came to the US and lived at this address on Orchard Street. We got a tour which told the story of a Jewish seamstress in the late 19th century and an Italian family in the first half of the 20th century. If you get the opportunity, it’s well worth stopping by – stories from the past the have parallels with our times, and the museum makes it all the more real by tracing these people through time via census records to tell their story. In one case, they have recordings of the memories of one woman who lived there as a little girl, which was very moving.

That evening, dinner was in Dirt Candy in the East Village. The name might sound odd, but it refers to candy from the dirt (earth) i.e. vegetables! The chef/owner Amanda Cohen offers up innovative hearty vegetarian fare, and can also make anything on the menu as a vegan option. I’d read ahead of the trip that this place has been hit by the flooding and power cuts of Sandy, so I was glad that it had re-opened. However, I got my dates wrong, turning up a day early. Luckily, we had theater tickets booked, so could assure the manager we would be out within the hour. Given that it’s a rare treat to find somewhere where you can choose between two veggie dishes on a menu (even if one if often the dreaded mushroom risotto), I felt positively spoiled for choice to have a free run at the menu here. We loved the scallion pancakes, cooked like Danish æbleskiver (or “puff pancakes”) and that chard gnocchi main, but the star was the dessert – aubergine tiramisu with rosemary candy floss. If I’d just been more organised, we could have stayed a little longer to enjoy the great food rather than dashing off to the theatre. Mea culpa.

Yes, NYC is a show town, and I had taken the opportunity to see a play, the oddly-names If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. This is the tale of a dysfunctional British family, and as their lives and relationships fall apart, they destroy the set, culminating in a flood scene. The star of the play was Jake Gyllenhaal, and a few folk have been curious to know how well he did a British accent. Overall, I think he did a reasonable turn, as he wasn’t trying to do the standard posh English. It did wobble a little towards Brummie, West Country and Australian from time to time, but overall, a decent attempt. However, the content was rather heavy going for holiday viewing, so I didn’t exactly leave with the spirit soaring.

However, any feeling of melancholy was swiftly removed by a wander through Times Square. Yes, this is perhaps about the tackiest place that you can go to in this town, but there is something compelling about all that neon. I swear that while standing there, you could feel the heat of the lights on your face in the chilly winter air. It might be lame, but it’s also an exhilarating and vibrant place. I was there as a tourist, and I loved it, even if just for a little while!

On the final day, with another clear blue sky, it was perfect weather to take in the autumnal shades of Central Park, where gingko trees were blazing with gold, and maple trees were brilliant crimson. I also swung by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and managed to acquire a glass pomegranate, thereby continuing my tradition of buying impractical Christmas decorations that then need to be transported with great care in trains and planes (fyi – this pomegranate made it back to London in one piece).

I was also happy to get the chance to meet up with someone I’ve been corresponding with on Twitter, the very lovely Johanna Kindvall, who is behind the great Kokblog site. We went for lunch in a little place in Boerum Hill, and I think it’s great fun to finally meet people you’ve been in contact with for a while. If you don’t know her blog, it’s worth checking out for a fresh take on Scandinavian food seen from a Brooklyn perspective. Dirt Candy was also her tip, so I got to enjoy two tasty meals thanks to Johanna!

For the last evening, I had dinner at the Don Antonio pizzeria, where I had one of the tastiest and naughtiest things I’ve eaten for quite some time. Their house specialty is the Montanara Starita, where the pizza base is quickly fried, before being topped with smoked mozzarella and tomato sauce and popped into the oven. Most likely quite unhealthy, but it was absolutely delicious, and I have to admit that it’s lucky they don’t have a London branch (yet?), as these things could become addictive. But in case the fried pizza was not enough, as a dessert we took something that sounded like “angel hair”. I expected delicate strands of crisp, fried dough akin to churros. Instead, it was a bowl of chunky pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Another dish that could get addictive, and even I had to admit defeat before I got to the half-way point.

With by belly filled and wrapped up against the cold, we went off to see a light-hearted new musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. I loved it – in fairness I had consumed a lot of wine by this point (including more in the theater, which was offering the stuff by the pint!) but it was firmly marketed as a jolly Christmas affair, and I think they got the pantomime theme spot on. There was also a lot of British humour in there, and I did wonder if the audience were getting all of the jokes, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Maybe not high art, but a great night out, even if it’s difficult to know how Mr Dickens might have reacted.

And with that, after six action-packed days and nights, it was time to leave NYC, and head off to catch the train from Penn Station to Washington DC! I hope its not too long until I’m back though.

Oh, and I have to comment on that last photo. I’ve included it as there were adverts everywhere for the Lindsay Lohan TV movie Liz & Dick. It actually premiered the day after I left the US, so I’m curious to actually see it when it comes out. It’s been tagged as something of a “must see” for various reasons!

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On Location: Waterhouse (Shoreditch, London)

A few weeks ago, after a tough spell almost chained to my desk, I was really quite relieved to have been released for the weekend and to be going for dinner on Friday. Blinking as I walked out, the sun on my face, I will freely admit there was a real sense of freedom.

And a few short hours later, via an Aperol spritz on a terrace, I found myself sitting next to a canal and with bikes whizzing past on the other side of the water, with the vague feeling that I was somewhere in Holland. It is this stretch of canal that gives its name to the restaurant – Waterhouse in Shoreditch. This place also prides itself on an eco-friendly ethos, seasonal ingredients and giving local people opportunities in the restaurant trade.

I got to know about this place a few years ago through friends who worked with the trustees, and it’s the sort of place that might be difficult to find unless you know exactly where it is. It’s in an unassuming building, tucked down a quiet side street just off Kingsland Road and could be incredibly easy to overlook. You need to keep your eyes peeled for the water droplet symbol.

While the restaurant has glass windows and canal views from one side, the kitchen is brightly lit at the back. I’m a bit of a fan of places where you can see the kitchen staff cooking away in the background. I don’t mean that I need to have things sliced-and-diced in front of my face, but scenes of business being done on the other side of the room provide an assurance than things are being cooked from scratch.

My starter was chilli paneer on lemonade bread with raita. I have no idea what makes this lemonade bread – it seemed to be something like a small, puffy pita. Maybe some lemonade in the dough? I didn’t know, and a post-dinner check via Google didn’t illuminate me much. If anyone out there can enlighten me, then please do!

This confusion about ingredients aside, this was a delicious starter, possibly one of the best that I have had for quite a while. First off, there was a really generous amount of paneer, which I love. This was all coated in a sweet, spicy, fruity, sticky sauce with a goodly amount of chilli too. It was rich and lightly fiery but avoided being too hot.

My main was that veggie staple, the mushroom ravioli. However, I don’t think that really gives a true flavour (ha ha!) of this dish, for the secret was in the sauce. I spied that this was served with wild garlic. I’ve been rather frantically busy recently, and have not come across any of this stuff, either in markets (having not been to any) or in the forests around London (again, due to a lack to time to go walking, and little inclination due to the recent cold/wet/damp snap).

I had in my mind that this would be a pasta dish served with some sort of wild garlic pesto. When it came, it was a buttery sauce with wild garlic added to impart flavour, so it was delicate rather than vampire-repelling strong. For the sake of my fellow diners, probably a good thing, but a little ramekin of wild garlic puree to add to the ravioli would not have gone amiss.

I really liked this. The filling had a rich, earthy mushroom flavour, and a bit of texture – finely chopped fungi rather than the more familiar paste that you so often get. The sauce was buttery and had an agreeable mild garlic flavour. All in all, very tasty, even if it wasn’t the plate of bright emerald green I was expecting.

So…would I go back? Yes. I go here from time to time anyway, and I like the variety of the menu – the dishes, in particular the veggie dishes, tend to be somewhat different to the usual suspects (I have yet to experience risotto here) and for that, we all need to be grateful. It’s also got a certain charm from being stylish but also somewhat secret, another rare treat in this town. The staff are also fantastic – fun, friendly and unpretentious. In Shoreditch – who’d believe it?

Waterhouse, 10 Orsman Road, London N1 5QJ. Tel: 020 7033 0123. Tube: Haggerston.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Horchata de Chufa

Valencia, in my dreams it always seems,
I hear you softly call to me!
Valencia, where the orange trees forever,
Send the breeze beside the sea
!

Yes, that it the theme song of the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. I visited it a couple of years ago, in the middle of a local festival (The Feast of the Left Arm of St Vincent, or similar), and you could hear that tune for hours on end. It’s quite infectious and lends itself to getting into the party mood. It’s a great place – a beautiful old town with traditional architecture, stunning modern architecture, and a unique park planted along the former riverbed that snakes through the city.

When travelling, I am always one for trying local specialties, and in Valencia two things stood out. The first was the agua de valencia, a rather lethal combination of cava, gin, sugar and fresh Valencia orange juice. Very drinkable, but the next morning, you are feeling, well….shall we say, less than alert.

The second was more suited to daytime activities such as museums, churches and all that Valencian art. And believe me, you will need a little pick-me-up after all that agua de valencia the night before. I’m talking about a drink called horchata de chufa (in Spanish) or orxata de xufes (in Valencian), which you can find for sale on many street corners.

Horchata refers to a range of drinks often made from nuts, seeds or rice, which are ground and mixed with water and a little sugar to make a “milky” beverage. This version is one that is common in Spain, where it is often made from tiger nuts, and which is lightly flavoured with a touch of spices and citrus peel.

Yes, tiger nuts. Chances are that you’re probably not familiar with these little fellows as they are pretty uncommon outside of Spain. However, they are to be found pretty much everywhere in Valencia and you can usually hunt it down in other Spanish cities if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly never seen them in London, but that’s not to say you would not be able to track them down if you were willing to commit some serious shoe leather to the task.

Chufas (to give them their Spanish name) are not actually nuts, but small tubers of a member of the sedge family of grasses. They are the size of hazelnuts, but look like small, shriveled potatoes or dried-out root ginger. So they’re nothing more fancy that little bulbs! However, if you soak them, the tiger nuts turn back the years, absorb water and become plump.

The actual horchata you make from chufas is not pure white (as it would be if made from rice), but has a very light tan colour. It has a certain richness in terms of texture, and the flavour is fresh but not heavy. The cinnamon and lemon zest add a certain aromatic quality to it, but the flavour is nutty – think fresh almonds or hazelnuts with a hint of vanilla. It is very much a drink for a hot day – either served over ice, or even served like a frozen milkshake – an Iberian snow cone!

So why all this background? Because when I was in Barcelona in early springtime, I went to Casa Gispert, a specialist shop offering a vast selection of nuts and dried fruits, as well as seeds, oils, wines and chocolate. A good place for a bit of a rummage. Way, way at the back of the shop I found bags of chufas. I knew immediately what I should buy them. It was finally going to be horchata time.

Now that was a little easier said than done, for I was really making something completely outside my comfort zone. No idea whatsoever. Flattering myself that I can sort of guess whether a recipe would work out or not, I perused a few websites to come up with something that seemed sensible (see here and here). However, I’ve come up with my own version (below), which is a bit of a make-it-up-and-hope-for-the-best sort of recipe, but it seems pretty darn good to me.

The locals actually take their horchata de chufa so seriously that they have gone so far as to set up a council to regulate local tiger nut production, with some interesting-looking recipes. However, I must draw the line at this one. To understand the joke, I should explain that many cafés in Valencia serve horchata with a sweet iced bun. All very nice, but these buns are lumbered with the unintentionally hilarious name of farton. Hilarious to the ears of an English-speaker, but I am sure the poor waitresses were rather over the schoolboy humour.

Naughty jokes to one side, although making horchata takes a bit of time, most of that time is spent letting things soak or infuse. It’s actually a doddle to make and makes a really pleasant, refreshing and different drink for a warm day. Salut!

To make horchata de chufa  (makes 500ml / 1 pint):

• 125g tiger nuts(*)
• 600ml water
• 1/2 stick of cinnamon
• 1 small strip of lemon peel
• 100g white sugar

• pinch of salt(**)

1. Thoroughly rinse the tiger nuts. Cover with cold water and soak overnight.

2. The next day, rinse the tiger nuts, cover again with fresh water and soak for a second night. The tiger nuts will change from small and wrinkly to smooth-ish and plump-ish, but should still feel very firm.

3. Rinse the tiger nuts thoroughly, remove any bad nuts, and put them into a food processor with about 200ml water. Grind as finely as you can. You might want to do this in smaller batches.

4. Pour the tiger nut/water mixture into a pot. Add the remaining 400ml water, the cinnamon and lemon peel. Stir and leave to sit in the fridge overnight.

5. Stir the horchata mixutre, then strain through a piece of muslin cloth to remove the bits of tiger nuts, cinnamon and peel. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid from the nuts as you can.

6. Add the salt to the milky liquid, and sugar to taste. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, and serve ice-cold(***).

(*) If you don’t have tiger nuts, you could use almonds or other nuts instead. If you do this, just soak the nuts overnight once as they soften more easily than tiger nuts.

(**) Salt is optional – I like it as it enhances flavours, but entirely up to you. Most likely not authentic…

(**) Horchata keeps for a day in a cold fridge, but won’t keep much longer than that.

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Eye Bar (Noord, Amsterdam)

I’m just back from a few days in Amsterdam, and of course that meant I had the pleasure of wandering along picturesque tree-lined canals and peering across the water at pretty, tall houses. But sometimes, it is also interesting to find yourself in a part of town that might not be on the list of tourist hotspots, but which is changing and which brings with it a distinct buzz. In my case, I went to the “new” northern quarter of Amsterdam.

Noord is a corner of the city that is clearly about to change. Years ago, a trip to Amsterdam involved arriving at the main station, and heading south towards the charming old buildings and leafy canals as soon as you could. North? Oh no. The mighty river IJ (pronounced “eye”) marked the end of the city and beyond was terra incognita as far as the visitor was concerned, most probably unexciting territory won from the water. In short – not promising territory for those more interested in Dutch Masters and vintage flea markets.

But the times are changing. The city is building a new metro line to connect this quarter with the rest of the city. I’m sure it’s quite a feat as they have to deal with all those canals. As part of the renovation project, a new film museum has already opened on the north of the river. It gleams like a sleek yacht belonging to an unknown millionaire and has a cladding that is something of a nod to Dutch artist MC Escher, made from tessellating trapeziums (isosceles trapezoids, if you’re keen on geometry…I think).

But there is no need to wait years for the metro to be finished – just jump on the (currently free) boat behind the main station (which leaves every 5 minutes) and you’re on the other side of the IJ in, well, the blink of an eye. So what does this place offer the visitor? Besides some rather grand architecture of the building itself, there is a rather fantastic little cafe and restaurant, the Eye Bar-Restaurant.

I have to confess that it took me a moment to work out the clever name – it’s a play on the fact that it’s a cinema, and it’s on the River IJ, so the whole complex is called the Eye. In my case, it clicked after about 10 minutes. I like it.

The decor is wood and lots of black and white (a nod to the history of film) and the Eye has large glass windows offering vistas of Amsterdam. Now, let’s be honest, Amsterdam seen from here is not exactly picturesque. However, you do get to enjoy big skies and lots of sun dancing on the water. It’s actually all really rather lovely.

I didn’t arrive at the Eye at the right time for lunch, but I can recommend it as a place for coffee and cake. During my visit, they had only three sweet options on offer, which might seem a little bit thin. Just apple, lemon and chocolate.

However, what there might have been lacking in quantity was more than made up for in quality. The lemon and chocolate cakes came from Patisserie Holtkamp, and the apple tart (appelgebak) was from Patisserie Kuyt. A promising start!

Now, I need to confess that my picture really does not do this applegebak justice at all. It’s very much a tart – a buttery, crumbly base with generous amount of apple slices, currants, flaked almonds and cinnamon. Absolutely delicious.

I wondered if this was a healthy apple tart? Probably it was getting there, apart from some sugar and the rather heroic swirl of whipped cream along the side of the tart. But to have had it without the cream? Well, it probably would not have been the same experience. If you arrived flagging and ate a slice of that with your coffee, you’d leave happy and ready to take in more of the city.

Would I go back? Most certainly. The service was good, the coffee and cake excellent, and the Eye Bar has a spectacular terrace that allows you to make the most of a sunny day, or large windows to let in lots of light while protecting you from the elements. It’s also an area that is sure to change in the near future, so I’m sure I’ll pop back in if I’m in the neighbourhood.

Eye Bar-Restaurant, IJpromenade 1, 1031 KT Amsterdam. Tel: +31 (0)20 589 1402.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: Alvar Bar (Birmingham)

Oh my – rather a lot of posts by me from bars and restaurants recently! Well, here’s another. This is a quick post about a nice little place I popped into during a flying visit to Birmingham last week – the Alvar Bar in the Hotel La Tour.

It’s fair to say the city has changed a lot over recent years. One of the most striking new buildings is posh department store Selfridges, which is housed in a smooth, undulating building that looks part-mirror, part-sequins thanks to lots of metal panels.

I found myself in the Midlands for an all-day training event, and feeling surprisingly enthused, I was resolved to use the free hour I had before my train back south to have a cheeky drink somewhere nice. On my way up that morning, I’d put out some feelers via Twitter to see what was suggested, and the answer came back to check out the new bar at the new Hotel La Tour, a recent opening in Birmingham.

So I had a little peek online. The hotel’s Aalto restaurant is run by a chef that trained under Marcus Wareing, so it’s something of a sister (or cousin/long-lost-friend?) of the Gilbert Scott just next to where I work in London. Coincidence? I don’t think so! I took it as a sign that I should go there, and it’s fair to say that I spent quite a lot of the day thinking about perusing a fancy cocktail list. Priorities and all that…

The style is very sleek – as the building is new, it’s on the scale that I’m not really used to in central London. It’s light, bright and I loved the way you enter the bar – via a spiral staircase around a large light sculpture that takes you up from the hotel – it had the vague air of the sort of thing you might expect to see Fred and Ginger tap dancing down in Top Hat, as if reinterpreted by a Nordic designer in thick-rimmed fashionable glasses. Nice way to make a grand entrance!

I had in my mind that I would order a Negroni (still current favourite on the apero front) but the cocktail list had some rather innovative creations.

I toyed with the “Chamberlain” (made with rum, Somerset apple cider, brandy, lemon and mint) named in honour of the Birmingham political dynasty, but in the end I was swayed to go for the “Grand Junction” (Plymouth Gin, Dubonnet, grapefruit, lemon and champagne), named in honour of the first railway in the city. I was waiting for a train, so it seemed rather fitting. It’s also a rather nice cocktail for the Diamond Jubilee – the gin, the Dubonnet, the champagne…and on balance, very nice it was too. The Dubonnet gives a vibrant pink hue, sweetness and spiced/herbal notes, the gin adds substance, the champagne adds a little sparkle and the citrus fruits add a sour twist to keep the drink fresh. I’d probably have had a second if I had not only a rather tight ten minutes to get form the bar to the station…

So…would I go back? Well, clearly it’s not the sort of place I’ll be passing on a regular basis as I’m not in this part of the world too often, but if I’m back in Birmingham, I can definitely imagine popping back.

Alvar, Hotel La Tour, Albert Street, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 718 8000.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Gilbert Scott Bar

I’ve been incredibly busy at work recently, and I’ve come to appreciate the pleasures of a drink at the end of the day. We’re not talking the usual way that Brits seem to unwind together “down the pub” over multiple rounds of beer. No, I lived in Brussels for too long to pick up that habit. But a chance to unwind with a colleague in a classy bar, now that is appealing.

I happen to work near to fairytale-like St Pancras station in London, and so it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Gilbert Scott bar.

I love it. I actually love it. It was a touch too busy when it first opened, but these days, it’s still buzzy but you can usually wander in and get a table.

A big part of the attraction is the decor – it’s all quite elegant as far as seating arrangements go, then it goes crazy – lots of carved stone, gilt and an elaborate painted ceiling in gold, rich reds, deep blues and luxurious greens. I always think that the ceiling has a rather glamorous “Arts and Crafts” feeling to it. It also has that sort of subtle lighting that makes you want to huddle round the table and share stories – whispered, and not shouted. All very Victorian and discreet.

The drinks menu is great – interesting cocktails, which change by the month (juleps in January, flips and fizzes in February, mojitos in March…get it? On tenderhooks to see what April will offer – advocaat or apero?) and the classics are pretty darn good (my drink of choice is a Negroni for the time being). For those that love a touch of fizz, the award-winning English sparkling wine is also worth checking out.

Now…let’s talk damage – it’s not cheap, but this is quite a classy place with a classy crowd. I love that it still has the feeling of a grand station café, where people next to you could be about to travel up to the wilds of Yorkshire, dash to the Eurostar to travel to Paris, or are waiting for the Caledonian Sleeper to take them up to the Scottish Highlands.

This is the sort of atmosphere that lends itself to ordering something sophisticated and then having a good old catch-up with friends. If you’re not quite taken with the cocktail list in any given month, they also seem to be willing to go off piste – the staff are friendly and know their stuff, and when I was there, my friend spent most of the evening raving about a rather interesting creation that included red wine and cocoa nibs.

In addition to a decent cocktail selection, there is a nice line in bar snacks, including fat chips with Sarson’s mayo, and my favourite – Countess Morphy’s potato croquettes.

Countess Morphy? You don’t know her? Well, neither did I, but it turns out she is the author of “Recipes of All Nations”, a tome from the 1930s that brought glimpses of exotic lands to the British kitchen. She sounds like a foodie aristo that could have some straight out of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, but it is rumoured that the Countess did not actually enjoy a title, and may in fact have been Marcelle Azra Hincks, a native of New Orleans. Whatever her story, I had an admiration for a lady who clearly understood the value of branding and turned that to her advantage. I want this book, and I will be keeping an eye out for it when I pass vintage bookshops. And she has a darned good recipe for croquettes too.

And if you’re hungry but not quite ready for the ware of Countess Morphy, I love these little silver containers with salt-and-pepper popcorn. An interesting touch instead of plain old nuts or crisps.

So…would I go back? Well, I tend to end up here at least once every couple of weeks, so I hardly count as an objective source. But I think this is once of the nicest bars in the area, and a really special place to enjoy a drink while you want for that someone special to arrive on the last train from Paris. They’re about to launch afternoon tea too, so I get the feeling I’ll be back just a little more often too.

The Gilbert Scott Bar, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London NW1 2AR. Tel: 0207 278 3888. King’s Cross St Pancras Tube.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Lido Cafe (Brockwell Park, London)

“South London” and “Miami Beach” are not terms that you would usually expect to find in the same sentence. However, there are times where you can get the feeling of being in the latter while actually being in the former, and one of those times is when you’re at the Lido Cafe in the lovely Brockwell Park on a warm, sunny day.

No, really! Sitting next to a 1930s-style building next to a bright blue pool, the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, a table laden with healthy brunch items and fresh fruit juices, you can just about imagine you’re lazing somewhere on South Beach. This is how we enjoyed it during the summer when we had a few warm weekends.

Anyway, that was all six months ago…I was there again yesterday, and let’s be honest – when it’s three degrees in London and you’re wrapped up in a thermal jacket, scarf and gloves, that Miami-vibe is not quite as obvious. But fret not – it might not feel like SoBe, but the cafe is thankfully still pretty darned good.

First things first is the building, which alone is worth a mention. At its heart is the lido itself – a large open-air swimming pool, which is great for a dip in summer. The structure is a 1930s construction (I lean towards calling it art deco in my naivety, but I get the feeling I might not be right on this). This all means the cafe is a large, airy space with lots of windows to allow light to flood in. It’s bright during the day and all summer, and as the sun does set, you catch glimpses of the sunset over Brockwell Park. As you can see, the look is quite simple and stylish, and very relaxed.

On previous occasions, we’ve enjoyed breakfast here, and it’s pretty good – delicious pancakes, mushrooms on sourdough toast, exotic fruit juices (and – bonus – they serve Marmite with the toast if you want it!). However, on a chilly January day, following a long and bracing walk in the park (which offers some great views towards central London), we veered towards coffee and cake. We plumped for a slice of the tasty, lightly spicy carrot cake with a generous spread of cream cheese frosting, and a slice of orange, almond and polenta cake.

We hit the place just before it was time to collect toddlers form the local nursery, so it was pretty much kid central for around an hour. If you appear around 3:30, be quite prepared for a series of small child to appear behind you, to tug your clothes and then ask you questions. All part of the charm. And if you’ve got a couple of small folk in tow, this place is a pretty safe bet to make them happy, especially when the pool is open in the summer. You’ve also got the park outside if the energy from all those cakes needs to be burned off.

Finally, I just want to draw your attention to the funky wallpaper that adorns the back of the cafe. Amazing, isn’t it? I have a vague recollection that we had curtains like this at home when I was growing up. Ah, memories…

So…would I go back? For sure. I love this place – the 30s building, the bright, open space and the delicious food. It’s pretty much kid central, but just sit back and enjoy the ride. In summer, it is fantastic sitting outside by the pool, and there aren’t a lot of places in London where you can do that.

The Lido Cafe, Dulwich Road, Brockwell Lido, London SE24 0PA. Tel: 020 7737 8183. Brixton Tube or Herne Hill Rail.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Tom’s Kitchen (Chelsea, London)

That’s kitchen, not diner. Much as we all love the Suzanne Vega hit, try to resist the urge to hum it. Because if you do…it will be stuck in your head by now, and will stubbornly stay there for at least the next 20 minutes…actually, in all likelihood, already too late…

I’ve unexpectedly found myself with a couple of weeks of leisure time in London in the middle of January. I could have gone somewhere, but actually…and this is the big secret…London is a great place to hang out it when you’ve got time off. Sure, the weather isn’t guaranteed, but that doesn’t matter – you’ve got cafés and restaurants galore, and more culture than you can shake a large stick at. I love in particular that so many of the galleries are free, so you can pop in and consume culture in bite-sized chunks. Now, I realise that sounds terrible gauche, but in saying that, I mean you can see a few pieces at a time when your mind is fresh and clear, and really enjoy them. When you’re starting to flag, just step out side and do something else. Our great galleries contain some superb works, and really, seeing them should not be a chore. Hence – bite-sized chunks!

Yesterday I got a call from my friend Kristine to meet up. She proposed Chelsea, late breakfast and some art. The sun was shining and the morning air clear and crisp. A perfect day out.

The venue was Tom’s Kitchen, her suggestion and somewhere that is apparently well-know for its breakfasts, especially the American favourites of pancakes and French toast.

I was due at 11:15, but of course I was not on time. Stoke Newington to Chelsea is not quick at the best of times. Then factor in the randomness of London’s transport network, a seemingly endless wait in the tunnel (which was probably a minute but felt longer) and helping a couple of people with prams, and of course I ran late. So when I emerged above ground I called ahead and asked her to order me some pancakes.

Rushing through the streets of Chelsea, I felt rather happy that I’ve dressed smartly for the day. People probably think I’m going somewhere important to do important things. Of course, the reality was more mundane, just that I didn’t want to arrive to cold pancakes. Depending on what matters, I suppose that is rather important. Still, I enjoyed my little mystery dash down Onslow Square and the very picturesque Pond Place.

I arrived, hot and flustered, and settled down. The place is lovely  – all white tiles and wooden tables, and while it clearly gets busy at weekends and for lunch or dinner, if you get there during the morning of afternoon lull, it’s really quite peaceful. My pancakes were on the way, but we decided that as it was approaching lunchtime, we would order a little more. My timing was bang on – breakfast runs until 11:45, and I had about two minutes to spare. Kristine opted for the Bircher Muesli with fresh berries, and I ordered the beans on wholemeal toast with cheese.

The beans – they are very, eh, ‘huge’. The waitress told us this while at the same time gesturing with her arms that we could expect something rather massive. She was clearly aware that the pancakes plus the beans would be a challenge, and that’s always a piece of advice I’m happy to receive. Suggests they are thinking about you. But, I was hungry, and after this mammoth late breakfast, we were up for a long walk in the fresh air then some culture, so fortification was needed.

The beans came, and they were indeed huge. Lots of toast, lots of baked beans, lots of cheese on top. This was marching food in terms of portion size, so I have to credit our server for giving due warning about the volume of food we had ordered. They were fantastic. Lots of bread, loads of beans, and a lovely great big generous topping of melting cheese. Having stepped inside from the chilly streets of Chelsea, this was all very welcome.

After making short work of those beans, it was pancake time. I’d had in my head that I would be tucking in to a pile of many small pancakes, artfully arranged in a stack. It wasn’t like that. Instead, it was one thick pancake, with lots of blueberries hidden underneath. I mean lots. I can’t stand when you get only a few pieces of fruit in a dish that has the name of that fruit in the title. So today – I was very happy! The thicker, slightly spongy pancake reminded me of the German Kaiserschmarrn. A serious pancake, to provide a solid foundation for later. I probably drowned the poor thing in too much maple syrup, but it happily soaked the stuff up. A sweet, sticky, messy, fruity treat. Delicious!

Our lunch consumed (for we finished late, and well past midday, so it was getting a little silly to pretend it was still breakfast), we had a little wander through the side streets of Chelsea. Now, how posh are the street signs, enveloped in wisteria? We also took in the culture at the Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road. All in all, this confirmed that I really am really rather good at enjoying having time off.

So…would I go back? Definitely. Tom’s Kitchen offers some very good food and a relaxed atmosphere. Simple as that, and a great way to set yourself up during the week for sightseeing or shopping in and around Chelsea and South Kensington. But as we left, it was getting seriously busy with the lunch crowd, so booking ahead is probably no bad thing!

Tom’s Kitchen, 27 Cale Street, London SW3 3QP. Tel: 0207 349 0202. Tube: Sloane Square or South Kensington.

LondonEats locations map here.

PS…you might also notice that the pictures today are a little different – yes, this is all thanks to Instagram. Now, you may wonder why I am doing this when I am also the proud owner of a DSLR camera? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, whipping out the bad boy at the dining table is cumbersome and I think really annoying for other diners. Click, click, flash, click. I think it’s annoying, and thus don’t do it to others. The iPhone is far more discrete (well, OK in a cafe or when eating somewhere informal…I think I’ll be keeping it firmly in my pocket when it come to fine dining experiences). Plus – I like the “Polaroid” effect on these shots too, simple as that. If you’ve got a view on the subject – do share!

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On Location: In Bruges

The festive season is nearly upon us, so time for the annual tradition of a pre-Christmas visit to Brussels. And with a free day while I was there, what could be nicer than a day trip to the charming city of Bruges?

The basics: Bruges is in the north-west of Belgium in the Dutch-speaking area of Flanders. This matters. Brussels might be (in theory) happily bilingual in Dutch and French, but get outside of the capital and it is one or the other. Dutch in the north. French in the south. And my years living in Belgium confirmed that never the twain shall meet. When wandering around the city, you’ll see a few traces of French, but they tend to be few and far between. It’s all very proudly Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch…I never promised this was easy or straightforward!).

However, as you can see from the pictures, the attraction of Bruges is the fact that the whole place is basically a giant open-air museum. Beautiful old buildings ranging from medieval towers to elegant nineteenth century townhouses. No surprise then that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

I really love the picture below. It’s a bakery with what to me is a very traditional Belgian typeface, and rather remarkably (I thought) a rare example of bilingualism in Bruges.

The town might be well-preserved, but it is still very much a bustling commercial city as well, and wandering the streets, you sometimes think it’s just a row of shops. Then just stop, look up, and prepare to be amazed by some stunning architecture. You know, a lot of it really is just too much…but then, hundreds of years ago, this was a way of saying you were rich, seriously rich. The grander the facade, the better you were doing.

My own little theory is that an unususal façade was the ideal way of ensuring that people would be able to find your building. Someone might not have been able to read, or to communicate very well with the locals after travelling for several days on a horse, but they would surely have been able to find the house with the golden façade and a cockerel on top.

Bruges also has a pretty network of canals. On previous visits, I’ve been round them on a barge, but this time, it was a bit too chilly. Waffles and frites were much more appropriate.

Of course, any self-respecting city in the Low Countries has to have an impressive market square. Well, Bruges boasts several.  In winter, they’re packed with Christmas markets, skating rinks and people enjoying hot snacks and mulled wine. In summer, the places are filled with cafés to enjoy the wide selection of Belgian beers. I love them (the squares, and the beers!).

With all this history, there are also some charming little nuggets. This little fellow is the Bruges Bear, the original inhabitant of the city, or at least the forest that used to cover where the city now sits.

So, having gotten to the end of these pictures, is Bruges worth visiting? Absolutely. One very charming thing is that Bruges also looks good in all weathers. In bright sunlight, the colours are vibrant. When it is cloudy, the heavy skies loom over the city. When it is raining or misty, the city is very atmospheric. I was lucky to visit on a day where the weather changes from thick fog to clear blue sunny skies.

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