Tag Archives: restaurant

Restaurant review – River Cottage

 

18-Agretti-Heart-Corbis.jpgSo what was the spindly green vegetable?”, I asked. “Looked a bit like samphire?”

Agretti“, said the chefs. “Italian. But we grow it in the garden here, then cook it and serve with three types of beetroot – candy, purple & golden.”

Nice. Loved it. And what about the cabbage?….I’ve spent 59 years avoiding it, but that tasted so good with the beef and all the other veg.”

“Yeah, that’s just a bit of lovely summer cabbage, chopped finely and cooked with chives and lemon.”

Whoever thought vegetables could be so interesting and tasty, almost hoisted to the front of the stage after years cowering in the wings?

I was in the kitchen of River Cottage HQ, in a gloriously verdant valley just outside Axminster, on the border of east Devon and west Dorset. I have never really watched the TV series but one of our holiday group is a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, staying nearby for a week, Sunday lunch at RC HQ sounded an appealing prospect to us all.

But this is so much more than just another meal.

From the moment you arrive – transported from the car park to the farm by rustic tractor and trailer – everything done here is a joyous celebration of nature and food, rather than a reverential prayer at the altar of yet another temple of gastronomy.

Welcomed in a splendid yurt with a glass of apple cider brandy, we sit on straw bales to hear what’s in store.

In a moment, we’ll bring round a couple of appetizers to enjoy with your drink. Then feel free to wander anywhere you want. The cottage is on the other side of the dining barn. The kitchen garden is beyond the cottage. The pigs and chickens are up on the ridge, by the polytunnels, where the tractor dropped you off. Drop into the cookery school, where they’re being taught how to make blue cheese today. And go and say hello to the chefs in the kitchen.”

Labneh with cumin, pickles and sauerkraut, and pork liver pâté with tomatillo chutney, got the taste buds moving. And after exploring the estate, sitting communally in the cathedral-ceilinged dining barn on two long tables, British split-pea hummus with seeded dukkah, and smoked pollock rarebit with leeks and apple chutney revved up everyone’s culinary engines.

Between courses, ask the friendly chefs about ingredients and techniques. No sweary, over-stressed prima donnas in this kitchen.

 

Or browse through the RC books and other merchandise on display by the bar, although there is no hard sell at any time. Or find out what’s brought your fellow diners to River Cottage.

Back at the table, fennel roasted carrots, green beans with shallots and tomatoes meant the innovative veggie support acts were threatening to steal the main course show.

But not quite.

The undoubted star was the 6 year-old local heifer, barbecued overnight in the rustic smoking machine, carved and served with that perfect combination of blackened crust and still reddish meat. Add a rich, silky beef-bone gravy, anise hyssop Bernaise sauce, roasted skins-off charlotte potatoes, the symphony of vegetables and a glass of red and you have a meal that lingers long in the culinary memory.

Orchard mist jelly, barely concealing cheeky wobbling raspberries, apple crumble, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream completed the show.

We wandered around the estate and trudged back up the valley to cars, reluctant to leave River Cottage behind.

This wasn’t a cheap lunch, but the overall experience was worth every penny. Come here to see first-hand the easy, natural transition of food from farm and garden to table, to understand better how to combine ingredients and how to cook with passion. But don’t come here if you want just another Sunday lunch.

Thanks to all at River Cottage, and especially to Andy Tyrrell – senior sous chef – for his humour and for his patience in annotating all the ingredients for me!

We’ve got a vegetarian friend coming for lunch tomorrow. I hope she likes agretti…..

Restaurant review – Galvin la Chapelle

The Galvin brothers are gastronomic rock & roll stars, with several acclaimed eateries in London and Edinburgh.

Image result for galvin brothers chefs

La Chapelle is their outpost near Spitalfields Market in the city, close to Liverpool Street station and Bishopsgate. Once St. Botolph Hall, the building was a girls’ school in the 1890s and served as a parish hall and gymnasium until 1975. It was due for demolition in the late 1970s, until a group of local residents chained themselves to the front door gates to stop the bulldozers moving in.

Derelict for years, it was only opened again in 2009, as La Chapelle restaurant, after extensive refurbishment for Chris & Jeff Galvin.

Image result for galvin la chapelle outside

And what a refurbishment. As soon as you walk through the front door, the building and the interior space is as much a star as the food. Well, almost. Your eyes are drawn to the soaring cathedral-like ceilings, light flooding in from the Gothic-arched church-like windows, and the suspended mezzanine floor inserted into history.

Image result for galvin la chapelle

The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, and continues to dazzle. We went for the first time a couple of years ago, for a special celebration, and vowed to return.

Well, we just have done. With friends, and to take advantage of a special summer menu, at a fixed price of £29 for 5 gastronomic courses, and including a glass of fizz. Yes, it’s expensive, but not bad value really for such an acclaimed venue.

Parfait of goosnagh duck liver was as light and ephemeral on the tongue as a church wafer…but much more sinful.

Lasagne of Dorset crab, with beurre Nantais and pea shoots, was a perfect marriage of English seaside and Italian pasta. I wonder if it will last…

The central culinary pillar was pot roast supreme of Landes corn-fed chicken, nestling down on a risotto of girolles and soft herbs. This was an unctuous dish, a tad salty but with rice of that perfect texture that is so elusive at home.

The cheese course – a creamy blue Fourme d’Ambert, with grape chutney and walnuts – was so small that we sent out a search party to find the fromage.

But a raspberry souffle, bathed in decadent Valrhona chocolate sauce, was a suitably indulgent finale, before we staggered out into the Spitalfield night.

Service throughout was impeccable. Professional, friendly and engaging, but not subservient as it sometimes can be at temples of gastronomy.

If I’m honest, the meal was slightly disappointing. It fell between the twin stools of a proper a la carte menu and a grazing option, and felt a little like a summer conveyor belt. If you decide to push the boat out, la Chapelle is highly recommended but go for the full a la carte experience, if you and your wallet dare.

City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.

 

Greece

You know that feeling when you do something, or go somewhere, or eat something, and it’s so good that it exceeds even your most optimistic expectations?

Well, our recent trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, blew our little socks off.

The people, the food, the history, the landscape, the culture….all were an absolute joy. We were Greek virgins before we went, now we’re already checking flights for the next visit.

Reading Victoria Hislop’s The Thread had given us real insight into the city’s tumultuous history. Walking and eating tours in our first couple of days brought all those centuries to vivid current life. Ottoman hammams, Byzantine-inspired spices in the market, the Jewish memorial, the narrow atmospheric streets of Ano Poli…layer after layer of Thessaloniki’s rich history was laid out in front of us.

And the food…….ah, the food. I’m salivating at the memory of all the fresh fish, fruit and vegetables on offer at the city’s vibrant markets, ending up on plates of the eateries tumbling into the cobbled streets of Ladadika, now trendy but once the olive oil and red-light district.

We were in Thessaloniki as guests of the city’s Hotels Association, to promote the city and other nearby places in northern Greece. And it was all thanks to those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor – The Voice of Mature Travellers – for whom I’ve written some articles on our magical Greek experiences.

I’ll add links to the articles as soon as they’re live, and hopefully they will add colour to this relatively monochrome summary of a dazzling adventure.

Thessaloniki was an absolute delight, from the moment we landed at Makedonia Airport. The whole trip was orchestrated by the remarkable Evdokia Tsatsouri, from the Hotels Association but now with the estimable Electra Hotels group.

Like a master puppeteer, she pulled all the strings of everyone involved in our expeditions to Halkidiki and Mount Athos, Meteora, Mount Olympus and Pieria, ensuring our hotels, meals, sightseeing tours were all organised impeccably, and gave us a flavour of the real Greece and its people.

Efcharistó, Evdokia.

The separate articles on Silver Travel Advisor will flesh out our experiences, but here are a few more images of some unforgettable memories from northern Greece:

Courchevel ski trip

Just back from our annual pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe. To Courchevel in the French Alps this time, part of the wider classic Trois Vallées ski domain.

I say annual, but Gill and I did sneak in a cheeky additional week on the pistes this year, at Champoluc in Italy with old friends Nigel & Julie Cripps.

Courchevel was with our usual group of alpinistes, whose ageing process I wrote wistfully about after the St Anton expedition a year ago. Sadly prophetic, the Gang of Eight was reduced through poor health to the Team of Six for this year’s outing.

Not wanting to betray the gang’s ethos – just us being pampered in a catered chalet, with a list of priorities longer than an EU summit’s – we stayed at Robin & Maggie’s own apartment in Courchevel. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Carol completed the reduced team.

The delightful village of Courchevel Le Praz sits at 1300 metres, lower than the bling-tastic resorts of Courchevel 1650 and 1850, but more of a living, breathing local community. And you don’t have to speak Russian.

Thanks to intense pre-tour negotiations, we managed to agree an interesting array of catering solutions: each couple would conjure up a feast one night; we would celebrate both Gill’s birthday (first night) and Robin’s (last night) at local restaurants; we would trial a catered meal, delivered to and eaten in the apartment; and for the remaining night, we might buy a ready-prepared meal from the excellent boucherie in the village.

It all worked so well that perhaps we should copyright and market the concept to self-catering chalets throughout the world. Mix & Match Catering Solutions? Smorgasbord Ski Meals? Courchevel Catering Concepts?

We splashed out on the celebratory meals, at Le Bistrot du Praz for Gill’s birthday and at the Michelin starred Azimut for Robin’s. In the end, we had a decadently long and late lunch – rather than dinner – at Azimut, leaving the slopes early in anticipation of deteriorating conditions and fading light.

This was sadly the story of our skiing week….clouds, limited visibility, and constantly changing conditions, with occasional bursts of brilliant sunshine and huge dumps of fresh powdery snow. Essentially as varied as the catering package.

Still, as Gill always says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which nearly happened to Robin one day. Dying, rather than adding muscle to his slight frame.

After impressing us for days with his Zen-like affinity with Courchevel’s vast network of pistes and lifts, guiding us safely down the mountain in clouds as thick as Gérard Depardieu’s accent, towards the end of the week he promptly disappeared from amongst us.

In limited visibility and in the teeth of an icy blizzard, we all headed down the well-known blue track to the appointed meeting place, right of a large rock.

I passed Robin and stopped at the rock. The others arrived. Robin didn’t. We waited 10 minutes. We considered our options. We waited some more.

Half an hour later, we were finally reunited, further down the mountain in Courchevel 1850.

Robin had contrived to ski away from the marked track, falling head-first into deep snow and losing his skis. And if you’ve ever fallen in fresh powder, you’ll know that finding a ski is like looking for a cup of coffee costing less than €6 in the 3 Valleys.

He found them. He lived. He’s another year older, if not wiser.

In imperfect conditions, we still had a great week. But hopefully next year, the Gang of Eight will be reunited.

Restaurant review – Drake’s, Ripley

Foodie neighbours and friends Ian & Jean have long eulogised about Drake’s in Ripley, but somehow we had never quite made it across the Georgian threshold ourselves.

Well, tick that one off the bucket list.

We’ve just enjoyed – with Ian & Jean – our first adventure at this stand-out Surrey temple of gastronomy. And, mange tout Rodney, was it worth the wait!

Remember the saccharine rom-com movie Jerry Maguire? Towards the end of this far-fetched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) finally expresses his love for Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in a long-winded speech.

Her simple reply? Shut up. You had me athello“.

The very first bite, one of three amuse bouches – a tiny morsel of tender beef inside a feather-light crunchy bread-crumbed parcel – sets the tone for everything still to come in a long, lazy lunch at Drake’s.

You had me atcroquette“.

And we were still in the bar at that stage, agonising over the many menu options: should we go for the simple, cheaper fixed-price seasonal lunch menu? The grazing menus….either the 6-course Journey * or the 8-course Discovery? With or without the matched wine flights? Or the a la carte multiple-choice option?

We all decided on the Journey*. Well, it was bucket-list time….

We put ourselves in the expert hands of the sommelier to recommend complementary red and white wines. He delivered. And how appropriate – but surprising – that he served up a subtle, spectacular Pinot Noir from Tasmania, where we were a year ago to the day.

I can’t find words that will do justice to the food that we savoured over the next few hours.

The Journey* was quite simply a culinary trek through perfectly balanced ingredients, beautifully married tastes & textures, and impeccably judged quantities and pacing. All transported from the kitchen by charming staff, professional but friendly, helpful but unobtrusive.

My own highlights?

  • the will o’ the wisp texture of the parsnip crackling, accompanying slow cooked pork cheek, scallop and gribiche sauce
  • the complete dish of guinea fowl, coq au vin, dandelion, wet polenta, king oyster mushrooms and pancetta
  • cinnamon, hibiscus ice and Pedro Ximenez

But that’s really unfair to the rest of the menu, like singling out Geoff Hurst from his 1966 World-Cup winning team-mates.

No wonder Steve Drake has been awarded a Michelin star for the 13th consecutive year, and has recently been voted number 35 in the Sunday Times Top 100 UK restaurant list for 2015/16.

It took us a few years to get here, and it might be another few years before our bank balance has recovered – but thanks, Ian & Jean. We’ve finally been Draked. And we loved it.

JOURNEY

Available for dinner Tuesday and lunch/dinner Wednesday – Saturday

Designed to be taken by the whole table

Leek, Haddock, Quail’s Egg

Slow Cooked Pork Cheek, Scallop, Parsnip Crackling, Gribiche Sauce
Brill, Romanesco, Vanilla and Parsley Root, Grain Mustard, Baby Spinach

Guinea Fowl, ‘Coq au Vin’, Dandelion, Wet Polenta, King Oyster Mushrooms and Pancetta

Cinnamon, Hibiscus Ice, Pedro Ximenez

Roast Plum, Hazelnut Cake, Caraway Syrup, Mint Jelly

Paris – a city in mourning, but not in fear

Below is an article I have just had published on Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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We have just got back from a weekend in Paris.

We arrived 2 weeks after 130 people were killed in a series of devastating, barbarous attacks by Islamic State murder squads, and the day after President Hollande led the country in a moving tribute on a day of national remembrance for the victims.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

The security in Paris was heightened on my last visit there in March, just 2 months after the Charlie Hebdo murders. That was clearly targeted at the satirical magazine that had so overtly lampooned the Muslim religion. The recent 13th November attacks assaulted global sensibilities, however, as the victims were intentionally innocent people in a liberal western democracy enjoying a sporting, musical and culinary Friday night out in one of the world’s most vibrant, multicultural and liberated cities.

Our trip was booked a few weeks ago, to benefit from a free Eurostar ticket (thanks to a 5 hour wait at St Pancras after a “jumper” at Ashford on a previous trip). And also to enjoy a free night at the wonderful Great Northern Hotel, smack bang next to St Pancras & Kings Cross stations, after Gill experienced her own Poseidon Adventure in the shower, en route to Marseille in June (it’s a long story…….).

We could easily have cancelled this trip. Belgium remains in lock down, and France is still hunting those connected to the recent murderous attacks, who didn’t die for their violent cause or who weren’t subsequently captured.

But we still wanted to go, for all those reasons that appear trite on the page: to show support for our French neighbours; to uphold the principles of freedom v the bullet; to carry on normal life in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Paris seemed quiet on Saturday. The Eurostar train was only half full and it’s rumoured hotel bookings are down on usual levels by as much as 40%.

But we enjoyed an entertaining and insightful guided walk around Montmartre, with Pierre from the excellent Culturefish Tours, and a cosmopolitan group comprising Swedes, other Brits, Americans and a young Chinese girl living and working in San Francisco.

We learned that the hilltop community was outside the city until 1860, populated at that time largely by winemakers and by miners, excavating gypsum from deep mines under the “butte”. This output was used to make plaster for the city walls….et voila, plaster of Paris!

We strolled in the footsteps of Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso and Renoir, some of the many artists who populated bohemian Montmartre during the “belle epoque” period – from the late 19th century to the early 20th – after it was embraced as another city arondissement.

We heard the bewitching story of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, now trapped in a moving sculpture.

Statue of The Man Who Walked Through Walls

And we saw where Dalida – the exotic singer and dancer of Egyptian and Italian – lived, and whose many lovers all seemed to commit suicide, just as she eventually did. And on a lighter note, we saw the cafe and greengrocer’s shop made famous by Audrey Tautou in the joyously Parisian movie “Amelie”.

Amélie (2001) Poster

We enjoyed dinner at a typically French bistro, Le Louis on rue Coquilliere in the 2nd arrondissement. We luxuriated in a cheese-based Sunday brunch at l’Affineur Affine, tucked away on a quiet neighbourhood street in the 9th, and we gorged on cheap Thai street food at Monthai in the 3rd.

We walked miles, as you always must in Paris. We felt safe.

But on Sunday night and throughout Monday, we saw lengthy convoys of armed police, and heard sirens wailing, and helicopter rotors droning in the Parisian skies. The world’s leaders had arrived for the climate conference, and the city felt under siege again.

We struggled to keep our emotions in check as we read the hundreds of tributes draped around the statue in the Place de la Republique, and then saw those in front of the Bataclan night club, scene of the most murderous attack.

We returned on Eurostar, humbled but glad that we had spent the weekend in Paris, a city in mourning but not in fear.

Tearful tricolour graphic

 

Paris – 5 more things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are a few more ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city (with 5 others in an earlier article). Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a great book (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. La Grande Epicerie – rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres, 6th/7th arrondissements
Shopping and me are poor bedfellows. Normally, I’d rather carve a rustic pattern on my index finger with a Swiss army knife than go shopping on holiday.
But – quelle surprise – la Grande Epicerie du Bon Marché in Paris is retail heaven, even for a disbeliever like me, and drew me into its foodie bosom like a hungry child to its tea.
First opened in 1923 as the food counter for neighbouring legendary department store du Bon Marché, it has now – since an impressive makeover in 1999 – become “an unmissable treat, an unadulterated delight and a unique experience”. How true. With a scarcely believable 3,000 square metres of retail space, from which they sell 30,000 gourmet products, la Grande Epicerie is a cross between Selfridges and Harrods, but more chic and without the bling factor.
The entire ground floor groans with exquisite fresh produce – seafood, cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruit, bread, patisseries – and posh groceries, beers and ciders. Affluent Parisians shop here, but Silver Travellers can sit at one of the high tables, dotted discreetly around the emporium, and indulge in a dozen oysters, or an éclair crafted with as much love as Heloise showed Abelard.
Downstairs is the wine cellar, together with an intimate champagne bar and apparently “further hidden treasures in the vaults for more devoted connoisseurs”. I obviously wasn’t devoted enough to find those.
And on the 1st Floor you can drool over kitchen equipment, gleaming crystal and silverware that would adorn Versailles as fittingly as a small maison in Montmartre. There’s also a beautifully light and airy bistro, should all that food browsing whet your appetite for a lunch befitting the surroundings.
It was like a religious conversion for me, so I hope you’d enjoy this off-the-beaten-track gastronomic temple too.
2. The Montparnasse Tower – Avenue du Maine, 15th arrondissement
The Eiffel Tower draws tourists to it, “comme des abeilles à un pot de miel”. Not surprising, given its iconic design and closeness to the Seine.
But the lesser known “Tour Montparnasse” arguably provides better views across the whole of Paris, being located right next to the Montparnasse station in the 15th arrondissement. And definitely has shorter queues. What a shame it’s such an ugly structure, causing so much public outrage that building regulations were subsequently changed.
Completed in 1973, it stands 689 feet high and contains office space for over 5,000 Parisian workers. Visitors can pay €15 for the exhilarating 38 second lift ride up to the 56th Floor, where the whole city is spread out below you like a table-cloth for a picnic. And after a short walk up to the 59th Floor you can access the highest roof terrace in Paris.
Zut alors, what amazing views.
The graphic boards really help with orientation, although it’s quite strange trying to spot such large iconic landmarks as the Sacre-Coeur and Notre-Dame on the flattened horizon.
The size of the Montparnasse Cemetery took my breath away, as did the beauty and structure of the Jardin du Luxembourg. And you can also eyeball the Eiffel Tower to the north west, each structure co-existing like Cinderella and a Very Ugly Sister.
3. Musée de la Vie Romantique – rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
Far from the madding crowd, enjoy an hour in quiet exploration of this tiny piece of historic and artistic Parisian life.
Tucked away, down a narrow cobbled street in the southern foothills of Montmartre – in a district known as “New Athens” – is an exquisite property that was the home of the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer throughout the first half of the 19th century. He hosted Friday salons, with guests including Delacroix, Liszt and Rossini.
Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.
Don’t expect the Louvre. You’ll see a collection of Ary’s paintings, some sculptures from his contemporaries and a collection of personal memorabilia for George Sand.
But free entry (although not always the case, according to Trip Advisor), an insight into genteel 19th century society in this interesting Paris location, and a delightfully peaceful tea garden make this a worthwhile detour en route to the more touristy Moulin Rouge or Montmartre.
4. Seb’on – rue d’Orsel, 18th arrondissement
Fancy a piece of real French cooking, in a small restaurant in the heart of Montmartre, with amazing food and none of the “hauteur” you get in more famous bistros?
Then head for Seb’on. Only open for 6 months, Sebastien in the kitchen, and Dorota out front, have worked culinary magic in the rue d’Orsel since opening just 6 months ago. They do everything themselves and already seem to have created a well-oiled, finely-tuned culinary machine.
In a narrow dining room with only 11 tables, the décor is simple. White-washed plaster and brick walls, a couple of mirrors, an old plaster “cabinet” displaying some wooden skittles, fire sticks, wooden balls and a glass lamp. And a couple of blackboards with the all-important – and often-changing – menu.
There are only three choices for each course. Here’s what I chose and really enjoyed on my final night in the city:
  • lentil salad with veal, a foie gras crumble and honey vinaigrette
  • supreme of chicken fermier with violette mustard, smashed potatoes with mushrooms and a (divine) chicken juice/gravy
How can such a humble chicken be elevated to such giddy, satisfying heights? And as moist as the crowd’s eyes after the guillotine has fallen on another innocent head? The smashed spud (écrasée sounds so much more exciting) – is superbly textured against smoothness of the fowl’s flesh, and is infused by a sauce that delivers a warm, satisfying depth of flavour beyond anything I’ve ever put over our Sunday roast at home.
After a few days of foodie excess, I stepped away from the sweets but those options were:
  • green lemon meringue
  • caramel and cream cake
  • mascarpone and lemon cream biscuit
Dorota speaks excellent English and there’s an English printed menu if you don’t want to fumble your way through the French blackboards.
My total bill, including a generous glass of vin rouge and a palate-stripping espresso was a reasonable €43. Magnifique.
5. Un Dimanche A Paris – Cour du Commerce St André, 6th arrondissement
Head here, in the heart of bohemian Saint-Germain, to worship at the altar of chocolate.
Tucked away, in an almost hidden cobbled street more famous for le Procope – the oldest bistro in paris – is this chocolate heaven.
Part laboratory, part shop and part restaurant, it oozes class from every sweet pore.
I was there too early for lunch, and succumbed only to a large thimble of hot chocolate so rich and perfect it should be illegal. Or used as an incentive for recalcitrant Parisian youths. Just €2.20 for a petit morceau of heaven.

 

Paris – 5 things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor,  a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are 5 ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city, with a few more to follow in a separate article. Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a book along the same lines (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. Cinema La Pagode – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

http://www.etoile-cinemas.com/pagode/salles/

What would you do to impress the woman you love?

Take her to dinner at the hottest place in town? Whisk her away to a château in the Loire for the weekend? Paint those shelves she’s been nagging you about for 18 months?

How about building a completely authentic Japanese theatre for her in the heart of Paris, with an ornate pagoda and a romantic garden?

Photo Jardin 2

Thought not.

But that’s exactly what Monsieur Morin, a well-to-do Director of nearby posh store du Bon Marché, decided to do in the 1890s. He commissioned architect Alexandre Marcel to use the finest materials from the fashionable Orient (China & Japan, rather than Leyton) to create a little piece of surprising magic in the 7th arrondissement.

La Pagode is now a beautifully restored independent cinema, showing interesting films either in the main salle Japonaise (212 seats) or in the smaller salle 2 (180 seats).

Look for the VO sign (Version Originale) to see films in their original language, with French subtitles.

Enjoy the romance and history of this quiet place, take tea or champagne in the bamboo-forested garden before the movie….and forget that Mme Morin left her generous husband in the year of the Pagode’s inauguration.

2. Coutume – rue Babylone, 7th arrondissement

https://www.facebook.com/Coutume

CoutumeRightly or wrongly, I’ve always had the impression that the French are resistant to change. Some of their cafés and bistros, for example, cling proudly to their 19th century origins, or refuse to dust the chair Ernest Hemingway sat in for 15 minutes in 1926.

So imagine my surprise at finding somewhere in Paris that has embraced 21st coffee culture, where you can find an espresso micro-lot or an extraction à froid as lovingly prepared and à la mode as anything now on offer in the global caffeine hot-spots of Melbourne or London.

Coutume is on rue Babylone, a quiet backstreet in the 7th arrondissement. Along with your caffeine fix, you can grab an excellent breakfast or brunch….but it’s the coffee most people are here for.

It’s a very cool, understated place that immediately – though sadly only temporarily – makes you feel 20 years younger. Shabby chic décor, plain white tiles that wouldn’t look out of place in the loo, and hip music playing quietly in the background all combine in perfect harmony with your espresso from Brazilian and Burundi blended beans.

Head to the communal table and Slow Bar at the back of the café to hang out with the real coffee cognoscenti, sipping an aero-press as you swipe your tablet screen or argue about French politics.

3. L’Affineur’ Affiné – rue Notre Dame de Lorette, 9th arrondissement

You’re not going to Paris to enjoy a low-calorie, cholesterol-free, clean-living few days, are you?

Cheese, wine and bloody red meat are as de rigueur in Paris as a hamburger in NYC. Or as a lettuce leaf on a Champney’s detox break.

Sober vegetarians, tear up those Eurostar tickets now!

Take some time out to worship at the altar of cheese at L’Affineur’ Affiné on rue Notre Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement, just south of Montmartre.

With over 120 fromages available, the charming young owners Morgane and Matthieu will help you decide what to buy from the shop for your picnic, or to take back on the train if you fancy an empty carriage.

But for a really good experience book a table and linger in the small restaurant for brunch or lunch. From a limited but interesting menu, I went for the 5-cheese platter. They serve up what they think is “thriving” that day, together with a matched wine, like a sommelier recommending a Monbazillac with the foie gras.

 

I enjoyed decent sized servings of Sainte-Maure (goat’s cheese from Touraine); Tartufo (truffle-infused Italian from combination of cow and sheep); Napoleon (sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees); Munster (creamy cow’s cheese from Alsace); and Roquefort (classic creamy southern French blue from sheep milk). All with excellent, unlimited artisan breads and a fruity jam. And a green salad to delay hardening the arteries for a few hours….

Eat in the recommended sequence. Drink a glass or two of matched wine. Die happy.

4. Shakespeare & Company – rue de la Bûcherie, 5th arrondissement

Love books? Hunt down Shakespeare & Company, a place with so much literary history you can hear Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller whispering in your ear…

Now located on the city’s left bank, just opposite Notre-Dame Cathedral, there are two separate entrances.

On the left is the antiquarian book store, with musty first editions and a space so so small they ask you to respect the 5-person limit.

Next door is the main shop, crammed to the ancient rafters with English-language books and well worth a couple of hours of your Parisian time.

The current premises were opened in 1951 by American Francophile George Whitman, on the site of an early 17th century monastery. I think some of the original floor tiles may still be there…

This reincarnation was founded to carry on the legacy of the legendary Sylvia Beach, another American who set up the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919, in nearby rue l’Odéon. Here the most famous writers, artists, poets and flâneurs of the day would gather, and it was only the occupation by the Germans in 1941 that extinguished the place’s literary spirit.

Today, Sylvia Whitman carries on the legacy of both her father and Sylvia Beach, preserving a very special oasis for book-lovers amongst more notable and well-trodden Paris landmarks.

Don’t leave without buying a book. They’ll affix a special stamp, insert a poem and a little piece of history from the many writers and travellers who have spent time at Shakespeare & Company for almost the last 100 years.

5. Hidden Paris Walking Tours – www.hiddenparis.fr

I’m sure all adventurous Silver Travellers enjoy exploring a city, wandering aimlessly from museum to museum, café to café, via labyrinthine streets and alleyways in which you’ll inevitably get lost.

But sometimes it’s also good to have a little local expertise to help you find your way around an area, and to dig deeper into the local history, culture, nooks and crannies.

Hidden Paris Walking Tours provide such insight, three Parisiennes leading walks around Montmartre, Saint-Germain-des -Prés, the Latin Quarter, Belleville and the Marais.

I went on the Saint-Germain tour with Eglantine. She led me and just two other inquisitive travellers through hidden alleyways, into exquisite chocolate shops and past the house where Monsieur Guillotin lived, practising his new invention out on sheep in the cobbled street outside. She showed us the cafés and bistros where intellectuals and artists have hung out for over a century. She led us into the covered market to chat with stallholders. And she took us to an underground car park, down several levels on a dingy staircase, so that we could see some of the original city wall from the 12th century.

90 minutes for just €20, and a discretionary tip. Good value for real local knowledge…especially if you can persuade her to give you the digital key that opens the door to all their own favourite secret places in Paris.

Restaurant review – The Coach, Marlow

Padstow is famously known as PadStein, thanks to the proliferation of eateries owned there by Rick Stein, the TV chef who seems to know a thing or two about fish.

Tom Kerridge opened The Hand and Flowers in Marlow in 2003.

12 years later, it is renowned as the only pub in England to have been awarded 2 Michelin stars, and is so popular that you have to carve TOM on your left wrist with ox’s blood, and H&F on the right, just to reserve a table for 3:30 on a Monday afternoon in 6 months time.

Now, the good middle-class burghers of genteel Marlow-on-Thames are not huge fans of body art, and wouldn’t stoop so low just for a bit of Tom’s pub grub and a pint.

The answer? Open up another pub in Marlow. With no booking policy, so you can just walk in and enjoy some decent nosh without all that planning malarkey. Keeps everyone happy. Well, everyone in Marlow. Not so great if you travel up from Padstow for lunch and the place is rammed by 12:15.

Gill, my lovely missus, treated me to a meal at The Hand and Flowers a couple of years ago. Marriage is all about give-and-take, I’m told, so I thought it would be worth a few matrimonial brownie points to take her for lunch at The Coach.

On a glorious, sunny Friday in February, we turned up at The Coach, outside its inconspicuous looking facade in the town’s West Street. At 11:30, just to be safe. The strategy was to  grab a coffee, check out the menu and decide if it was worth staying around…there are plenty of other good options for a decent bit of lunch in Marlow. If you believe Trip Advisor.

We beat the rush…but only just. Welcomed by several of the friendly young crew, we were given the option of sitting at a more conventional – and slightly too cosy – table, or in some slightly barber-shop looking high swivel chairs at the bar. Good to be different, right, so we went for the bar stools.

 

Great decision.

And even better, we were at the far end overlooking the kitchen, the team prepping away in anticipation of a busy lunch service, lamb loins churning away slowly on the gleaming new rotisserie, and Tom’s lieutenant Nick Beardshaw doing something clever with a piece of offal – or was it shellfish? – right in front of us.

We were hooked. The welcome, the way the pub has been fitted out, the service for coffee and a birthday Bloody Mary, and a quick glance through the menu and we were going nowhere for a couple of hours. Screw those Johnny-come-latelies from Padstow, or Henley, or just round the corner.

The concept at The Coach is great food – presumably inspired by Tom and executed by Nick and the team – served in small portions. Not quite tapas, but certainly not a conventional 3 course meal. And it’s all the better for it, to my 5-weeks-in-Australia overfed belly way of thinking.

The unfussy lunch and dinner menu is split into Meat, No Meat and Sweet sections. Simples, eh?

The Nice Man Behind The Bar was patient with us. First up, we ordered just a pukka Caesar salad (£4) and potted Cornish crab with a cucumber chutney (£7.50). The chutney punched way above its sweet yet acidic weight, and elevated the crab in the same way that Beth has probably helped Tom to achieve all he has over the last 12 years.

We were getting into the swing of this and wanted more. All the food is freshly cooked as ordered and, with the place now rocking, Nick was pulling at the strings of the kitchen brigade like a master puppeteer. But in a sotto voce non-shouty way, as different from a certain Mr Ramsey as a Russian dissident is to Vladimir Putin.

So be patient and don’t go to The Coach if you’re looking for a quick sarnie and a couple of pickled onions in your 25 minute lunch break. Immerse yourself in the experience and let the culinary juices work their magic.

Another bonus of sitting at the bar, by the kitchen, was seeing all the dishes roll off the metaphorical conveyor belt, moulding your thinking about what to have next.

Gill went for the Chicken Kiev with maple glazed squash (£12), I liked the look – and sound – of the venison chilli with toasted rice cream, red wine and chocolate.

Ding dong, to plagiarise dear old Lesley Phillips. The richness and depth of flavour in the chilli, combined with the crunchy texture of the rice cream and the subtle chocolate, nearly had me falling off the barber’s chair.

Rounding off the birthday treat with a rather nice Spiced Plum Fool with brandy ice cream, we were sated. Well, nearly. We could have had more but – damn it – we had to leave room for the birthday cake with Gill’s Mum & Dad on the way home.  And the birthday buns with Gill’s sister after that.

We would both like to have tried everything on the menu. Really. It was hard to step away from the crispy pig’s head with piccalilli. Or the rotisserie beetroot with goat’s cheese, horseradish and apple. Some of our bar-stool neighbours were eulogising over the The Coach Burger with Lincolnshire Poacher. And the lady next to me almost had her own When Harry Met Sally moment with the Brixham Plaice, brown shrimp and Calcot onion.

So next time we go to Kerridge-on-Thames – or whatever Marlow soon becomes known as, when Tom inevitably expands his empire à la Rick – we’ll get there early again, to make sure we get some more barber’s chairs.

Actually, they’re open for breakfast. Perhaps we’ll make a day of it, grazing our way through the entire breakfast and lunch menu, like vultures picking lazily over their prey.

Thanks, Tom. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Nice Man Behind The Bar. Gill had a great birthday lunch, thanks to The Coach. And my wrists are tattoo-free.

(photos courtesy of The Hand and Flowers and The Coach websites)