Category Archives: Food and drink

Why you owe it to yourself to try a fine dining restaurant at least once.

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Everyone loves a bit of luxury once in a while. Whether it’s wearing some classy piece of clothing or jewellery, or a nice watch maybe, or driving a nice car. There’s no escaping it, it makes you feel good.

Some years ago one of my ambitions was to eat in a recognised fine dining restaurant. Not just a step up, but a HUGE step up.

For my birthday one year, my wife treated us to a weekend in London, including tickets to a show and lunch at The Ivy in Covent Garden.

I can’t even remember what I chose for my meal but I do recall we shared a baked alaska for dessert which was brought to our table and set alight. ( My Top 5 London Restaurants)

But why choose a top class restaurant?

The Service

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Service in a top-end restaurant is like nothing you’ve experienced before. These waiters are proper professionals. Chairs are pulled out for you to be seated, linen napkins are laid out on your lap.

The sommelier will advise you on the wine choices and don’t worry even though there may be bottles on the wine list for £1000’s there are always some affordable and very good wines too and don’t even think about refilling your wine glass, someone will be over to do it for you.

The food

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The people preparing the food in these places are ‘chefs’ not ‘cooks’, they are chefs and they know exactly what they are doing. These people take time to choose ingredients that are in season, complement each other and taste amazing. In these restaurants, you won’t be getting defrosted, microwaved food. You are getting freshly prepared, beautifully constructed and tasty food. And the food is seasoned properly, so don’t go covering it with salt and pepper.

I’m a real lover of trying new things, ok, maybe sometimes it doesn’t work but I’ve had some superb dishes; steak tartare, foie gras, pigeon breast, quails eggs, pheasant, lobster, partridge and guinea fowl to name a few. The sauces are also incredible, rich and unctuous.These are sauces that have been reduced and tasted until they are perfect.

The wine

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I enjoy eating in good restaurants. I enjoy drinking nice wine BUT I’m not a millionaire. I can’t afford to be doing this every week. So when we do eat in a good restaurant we want it to be worthwhile and a good bottle of wine is worth buying to add to your meal. I’m a fan of red wine, a decent Merlot or Cabernet and I particularly enjoy South African wines. Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination

 

The ambience

If you’re treating yourself and your partner it’s nice to make it an occasion and going to a decent restaurant is exactly that. I love to get into my suit and tie and make a special effort when we go out somewhere really good.

When you eat in a good restaurant, the other people there are there for the same reason. They enjoy the food, the wine and the service. Anyone can make a meal at home and some people can do a really good job of it, but what better way to spend an evening than with like-minded people being pampered and spoilt eating exquisite food and drinking good wine.

The cost

Like with anything of luxury, the cost is whatever you want it to be. Expect to spend two or three times more than you would if you were out at your local restaurant at least and if you want to push the boat out then maybe four or five times more. Personally, I have found that even the best restaurants I’ve been to will cater for someone not wanting to go overboard on price.

The experience

Life is made up of experiences and memories and what better way of creating a memory than eating out at a top restaurant. As far as luxury goes we don’t all need to drive, we don’t all need the best watches but we do all need to eat, so why not save up, have a look at what’s on offer in your area and push the boat out.

If you’re in  London here are some that I’ve tried and can recommend;

The Ivy, Covent Garden

Le Caprice, Piccadilly

Ormer, Mayfair

Galvin at Windows, Hilton Park Lane

Babylon Roof Gardens, Kensington

Roux at The Landau

Quillon, Westminster

Craft at the O2

 

My Top 5 London Restaurants

Before we start, let’s get it straight that I haven’t been to hundreds of London restaurants. This is a list based on those restaurants that I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in and that have lived up to the expectations.

5.Roux at The Landau, Park Lane

I booked this because I originally wanted to go to ‘Le Gavroche’ but found it had a waiting list of about 6 months. No bother. ‘Roux at The Landau’ was a marvellous stand-in.

The setting is very elegant and the service, as you’d expect, is exceptional. I enjoy my wine and I thought a particularly nice touch from the waiter was to compliment us on our choice of wine. ( He might have been lying for all we know but it was  a nice touch nevertheless).

We spent a good 2 and a half hours at our table and the meal was a real pleasure.

4.Quillon, Kensington

We were staying at St James A Taj Hotel next door and had read reviews on Quillon. I fancied an Indian restaurant that was Michelin starred to add to my collection!

If you are fortunate to eat at Quillon then don’t expect the usual Indian fare of chicken bhuna or beef madras. This is proper Indian cooking. We opted for the tasting menu.

The emphasis was most definitely on ‘taste’.

We visited the restaurant some time ago and I can still taste the subtle flavours and spices that run through each of the dishes. It really is a sublime experience and well worth repeating.

3. Ormer, Mayfair

This was a restaurant we saw on TV as part of ‘Masterchef’, liked the look of the food and decided to ‘give it a whirl’.

Cocktails beforehand can be taken in the oak-panelled cocktail bar should you choose to. The meal is in a room that is smaller than most restaurants we’ve been to but the quality is there through every course.

Service is excellent throughout and the food is simply exceptional. They served ‘foie gras’ which gets me every time and my wife chose the lobster raviolo. I had the duck as the main course and it was cooked to perfection.

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Souffle for dessert at Ormer, Mayfair. Heaven

This was a meal that, as fine dining goes, was hard to beat.

2. Craft, O2 .

Again, this was a restaurant that we sourced from watching ‘Masterchef’ on TV. It looked quirky and some of the dishes looked very unusual and exciting.

Its situation fitted us exactly as we were seeing a show at the O2 and this couldn’t be closer without actually being inside.The ambience is fairly relaxed, certainly more so than others we have visited, but again the food was outstanding and the wine selection was very good.

For our meals, I chose lamb belly to start and pheasant for mains and duck to start and lamb for my wife and her son. We enjoyed two bottles of South African red before a very tasty dessert.

This is one place that, because of the venue, the relaxed atmosphere coupled with very good service, I would definitely visit again.

1.The Ivy, Covent Garden

Our ‘go-to’ place in London. Never lets you down, and for somewhere that has such a well-earned and well-deserved reputation, it is surprisingly unpretentious. We have eaten here many times before the desire to branch out got the better of us and it has never failed us.

We have tried many combinations on the extensive menu but a few standouts for us are the baked alaska that was ceremoniously set alight on our first visit, pigeon breast and foie gras ( again).

I hope you agree with some of my choices. Let me know if do, or don’t. Let me know if I’ve tempted you to try somewhere new. I may need to revise my list at a later date as there were some that just failed to make the top 5, who knows, maybe a return visit is on the cards.

If there’s only one South African city you can visit, make it Cape Town.

If you’ve been assiduously reading this blog, and I know you have, then you’ll know we’ve just come back from travelling the garden route in South Africa. (Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination). But what if you didn’t have time, and fancied an 11 hour flight just to go to one place, which one would it be?

From all the places we visited there can only be one, the magnificent Cape Town.

Cape Town has everything you could need for a foreign trip bundled up in one package. There are even a few bonuses in there.

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Mist descending over Table Mountain

It has Table Mountain

First of all the skyline is dominated by the indescribable Table Mountain , Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head mountains stretching around the bay as if they are wrapping the city in soothing blankets. Table Mountain in itself is home to thousands upon thousands of indigenous flora. In fact there are more species of flora on Table Mountain than in the whole of the British Isles !

The top of the mountain can be reached by cable car , or if you are feeling particularly energetic, and have a lot of time on your hands, by hiking. We opted for cable car , unsurprisingly.

It has the views

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View from the top of Table Mountain

The views over the bay from the summit are amongst the best I have ever seen. It stretches unhindered in every direction, so camera buffs make sure you go prepared.

It has native wildlife in abundance

In my previous blog Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination I wrote about our game drives but if you are unable to visit a game park then Cape Town has wildlife in abundance on its’ doorstep. Whilst you are not going to see lions, elephants or rhinos you may well encounter a dassie on Table Mountain which is a small dog sized animal native to South Africa. At the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront you may well see seals swimming around the harbour. Dolphins and whales can also be spotted all year round from the coast looking out towards Robben Island.

It has great food & wine in beautiful surroundings

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The clock tower at the V & A Waterfront

The V & A Waterfront is a must go place in Cape Town. We had meals and drinks there most days. It has been developed since the 1990’s and now houses a multitude of bars and restaurants serving reasonably priced food and drink.

The wines on offer are from some of the greatest wineries in the world and are just on the doorstep, so those costs are right down. The food too is on whole native to South Africa, you could expect to see delicacies like ostrich and kudu on the menu.

It has the beaches

Due to the city’s unique geography, it is possible to visit several different beaches in the same day, each with a different setting and atmosphere. Though the Cape’s water ranges from cold to mild, the difference between the two sides of the city is dramatic. While the Atlantic Seaboard averages annual water temperatures barely above  13 °C (55 °F), the False Bay coast is much warmer, averaging between 16 and 17 °C (61 and 63 °F) annually. This is similar to water temperatures in much of the Mediterranean.

It has tour guides with first hand experience

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Take a trip to UNESCO World Heritage site Robben Island and you will be shown around the island, that was home to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, by a former prisoner or guard. During our visit our guide pointed to a corner of the large dormitory we stood in and told us that that was where he slept when he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 6 1/2 years. It brings a whole new level of meaning when the guide asks if you have any questions.

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The District 6 Remembrance Museum

Similarly we were taken to District 6 museum which commemorates an area just outside Cape Town which was inhabited happily  by blacks and whites until the authorities declared in the 1970’s that inhabitants were to be forcibly removed and the area was to be bulldozed. Our delightful guide was living in District 6 at that time and remembers the events well.

It has a couple of bonuses

One major bonus is that everyone speaks English and another for us Brits is that they drive on the left.

Its’ unique geographical situation gives it a foot in both camps,so to speak, with an Atlantic and Indian ocean coastline. As a result the city enjoys an unusual and unique mix of flora and fauna some of which is found nowhere else in the world. The soil composition and all year sunshine makes it an ideal spot for wine growing. The mutlicultural society gives the city a fantastic ‘buzz’. Its’ recent heritage and how it has emerged from the dark days of apartheid into the open and welcoming city it is today give credit to those who live there. As it is, accidents of nature combining to make this unique setting and man’s dogged determination and tenacity in the face of adversity have all combined to make Cape Town the amazing and unique city that it is today.

I would love to hear if there are any other cities worldwide that can compare with this one. Let me know…

 

 

 

 

 

Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination

Last weekend I returned from an unforgettable 11 day trip to South Africa. This was my first ever visit and was to celebrate my wife’s birthday.

I had all the usual concerns before we  went and had no real idea what was in store for us.

So why then, should you choose to visit South Africa ?

Reason 1; The scenery is breathtaking

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The mist falls over Devil’s Peak towards the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town

We hired a car and drove the garden Route for most of our holiday and took shed loads of photos but looking back at a two dimensional snap just doesn’t communicate in any way just how immense and spectacular some of the scenery like Table Mountain and the national parks are. Table Mountain dominates the Cape Town skyline in a way that no other landmark could and just a few hours from Cape Town enormous granite cliffs stretch  into the sky  as far as the eye can see and look like they could engulf you in an instant.

Reason 2; The wine is stunning

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We are big fans of South African reds so to go to a place like this where Stellenbosch is on the doorstep is like a trip to Mecca. We booked a winelands tour with an independent guide , Hein Dornbrack of www.socialtrekking.co.za, who showed us around 4 of the vineyards near our hotel.To put this number into context, in the Stellenbosch area alone there are about 150 separate vineyards all producing wines of the very highest quality. We had to concede defeat at about 4.30pm after tasting, and drinking, some of the best wines we’ve ever had.

Reason 3; It’s very inexpensive

When you live in a country like England you become used to paying £5 for a pint of beer, £6 for a glass of mediocre red and anything from £50 plus for an average two course meal. It’s a real eye opener to sit and eat a delicious three course meal in a restaurant with superb views and enjoy a bottle of great wine and to be charged £30 ! Going out for a drink in the evening costs £4 for a glass of wine and a beer. To fill the car up with petrol cost only £35. Are you listening England ? It can be done !

Reason 4; The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming

I realise that we were tourists and were seeing people in restaurants, hotels, bars and tourist attractions but you cannot feign that friendliness.Everyone we met, from taxi drivers to petrol pump attendants were smiling and accommodating and willing to go the extra mile for us. What was also noticeable was the pride they have in their country and where it has come from since the days of apartheid. Everyone we spoke to was knowledgeable about the history, the habitat, the flora and fauna, the politics and wanted to share that knowledge with us.

Reason 5; The wildlife is unbelievable

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Up close with a lioness on our game drive

We were fortunate to go on a few game drives in a private game reserve during our time there so we were pretty much guaranteed to see a wide variety of wildlife. But South Africa is teeming with wildlife everywhere. On our first afternoon in Cape Town we saw a seal taking a leisurely swim at the V & A Waterfront , we saw a dassie ( a small dog sized animal) at the top of Table Mountain, we saw baboons on a rooftop on our way along the garden route, ostriches in a field along the road. We were sadly out of season for the spectacle of whale watching at Hermanus ( September-December) but can only imagine how breathtaking that must be.

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South Africa is an immense country and we have merely scratched the surface but what we saw and experienced of the people, the scenery, the wildlife I think we can say with some certainty that we will be back.

Planning , coincidence or luck ? Whatever it was we had a great time.

the-o2

 

We’d been looking forward to this weekend since March 2016 when we booked tickets to see The Impractical Jokers live at the O2 in London. Just me , my wife and her 24 year old son. The O2 arena , if you didn’t already know is stuck on the end of a massive loop in the River Thames in London. It’s a devil to get to. We booked a hotel in Chiswick which seemed to be very nice and sat and waited for the date to arrive.

As the date drew closer the drivers of South West Trains decided to start having a series of one day strikes which threw travellers plans into chaos. We simply had to sit and hope that they didn’t choose Saturday 14th January as one of their strike days. They didn’t. But we weren’t out of the woods yet. On my way to collect the tickets I was told that the very journey we had planned was subject to engineering works which would add 30 minutes onto our journey. I checked at the ticket office , yes , it was true said the clerk. The train would be diverted around Havant and the trip would take an extra half an hour. This was a nuisance because as a treat we’d booked a very nice restaurant outside the O2 and as the time was already tight getting to London , then across London , then to the hotel we could ill-afford any delays in getting to our booking.To add just a little more spice into the journey that day, the UK had severe weather warnings of massive snow falls due over the weekend which would cause huge disruption for all travellers. Don’t make any plans , they cried. Well, too late , we’ve already made our plans , we’re in too deep. We got up on Saturday morning expecting the worst drew the curtains and saw scenes of……well, nothing really. Just a completely normal day.Not even that cold.

So far , so good.

We got to the station and boarded our train hoping that the engineering works wouldn’t take up too much time. As the announcements were made by the guard during the trip there was no mention of the diversions and it looked like we were going to arrive on time. Strange. The clerk had seemed so sure ! As it was we arrived in plenty of time and caught the tube to the O2. From their we caught a taxi to our hotel , a short 10 minute drive away. As he dropped us off we asked what would be the best way to get back as there was no taxi rank around. With that the driver gave us his personal mobile number and told us to call him in 10 minutes and he’d take us back once we’d checked in. What a star !!

We got the the restaurant ‘Craft’ outside the O2 in ample time for our booking and enjoyed what I can only describe as one of the best meals I have had. Lamb belly to start and pheasant for mains for me and duck to start and lamb for my wife and her son. The service throughout was impeccable and the day was getting better and better.

Still quite early we made our way to the arena and enjoyed a relaxing drink before the show. The one part we weren’t looking forward to was the fact that when we booked we could only get row H seat 665,666,& 667 or something, which by my reckoning was the best part of half a mile away ! We would have needed super powered binoculars to even see the stage  never mind who was performing on it.

However, as we donned our oxygen masks and made our way by escalator to the rarified atmosphere of the upper levels we were stopped in our tracks by a man in a white anorak, one of the ‘O2 Angels’.

” Are any of you 02 customers ?” he asked

As it happened we all are.

“I can upgrade you.” And thinking he meant our phones , we duly produced them.What he actually wanted was our tickets because he was allowed to upgrade 02 customers to better seats and so he gave us there and then three seats about 10 rows from the front and to the left of the stage. Seats which , if they had been available, we’d have chosen anyway.

We settled in and enjoyed a brilliant night of comedy with The Impractical Jokers.

After the show , because we were only a short taxi ride away we managed to avoid the crowds pouring from the 02 and went and had a relaxing drink while the crowds thinned out. We then took a leisurely stroll to the taxi rank and back to our hotel.

The weekend was a huge success , partly because of planning ,we chose a nearby hotel and a good restaurant and we knew how busy the 02 would be , partly because of coincidence , with our 02 Angel and partly because the weather, strikes, engineering just didn’t happen.

And in the end all these things coming together in a perfect storm created a weekend to remember.

 

The Red Flame Diner vs The Waldorf-Astoria. Like ‘Rocky vs Apollo Creed’.

On our visit to New York last December we had the pleasure of eating at both of these establishments. This was like Rocky Balboa the unfancied challenger climbing into the ring with the the swaggering , classy champ Apollo Creed. We all know how the first one ended but what about this one ?

Round one

The outside of The Red Flame Diner ,down a side street off 6th Avenue near Times Square, is fairly ordinary. A storm porch in clear glass keeps out the freezing temperatures and gives precious protection to the sub zero New York winter. The name is emblazoned on the door and windows. In midtown on Park Avenue sits the imposing and internationally renowned Waldorf Astoria hotel and La Chine restaurant. The challenger takes an early punch and sways a little but holds his own.Round one goes to the champion unanimously.

Round two

Inside The Red Flame Diner are cubicles for groups or families of four or more to sit in comfortable but unfussy seats. The tables have laminated menus listing everything available for breakfast , lunch and dinner and it is quite extensive. At La Chine on the ground floor of The Waldorf  heavy doors open onto supreme elegance and luxury in grey and black and subtle shades of brown. Tables are laid with bone china teacups and heavy silver cutlery. The menu is brought to you by a smartly dressed waiter. This could be all over by the third round, the challenger is in trouble.The champion looks in complete control. Round two to the champion.

Round three

Looking groggy the challenger takes on our breakfast order of scrambled egg , bacon and potato, toast and a coffee. A cup of iced water is brought over to our table before we start.The champion feels confident and takes our order of Imperial afternoon tea and a cocktail. A good and positive fight back from the challenger and the round is drawn.

Round four

Within minutes our breakfast order comes out at The Red Flame and it looks delicious and  there is plenty of it. At La Chine our pot of tea is brought out and also our scones , the first course of the afternoon tea, followed by savoury pastries. At The Red Flame we continue to plough our way through the tasty breakfast while the waiter tops up our coffees for free. At The Waldorf we are then inexplicably left alone for 25 minutes with our tea going colder and nothing to eat apart from the array of  cakes and finger buffet we had before us but have been told not to touch until we had our dim sum.ny dec16 009

The champion is taking a few blows now and looks unsteady on his feet.

We are asked at La Chine if we’d like another glass of water. We do but our waitress disappears never to be seen again. Meanwhile we are still awaiting our dim sum. At that point we are approached by a waitress who asks us if we’d like the cakes and finger buffet bagged up to take home. Through gritted teeth we explain that we are STILL waiting for our dim sum.

The champion is rocking.

At the Red Flame diner the service continues efficiently and effectively. We ask for the bill. And are brought the bill quickly. The cost , 24 dollars. It’s a potential knockout blow.

At La Chine Waldorf we finally get our flabby and fairly tasteless dim sum and eat our cakes. We ask for the bill and it is 200 dollars plus.

It’s a knockout !! For service , food , price and value for money the Red Flame Diner is a clear winner.

The Waldorf Astoria just wasn’t up to the steady tenacity of the contender. I for one know where I would choose to eat next time I visit NYC.

No corkscrew ? No problem. A handy guide on how to open a bottle of wine.

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Now before we start let’s get this clear. This handy hack is for CORKED bottles only. I know that screw tops are becoming the rage now and you may not need this , but hey, you never know.

I’ve used this method several times and it doesn’t fail.

It would be super cool if this guide was to show you how to slice the top of a bottle off with a sword  like they do in Spanish sherry cellars but that would mean carrying a sword around with you JUST on the off chance that someone might have forgotten the corkscrew.

I don’t advise it.

Thus method is really simple and may come in handy if you’ve decided on an impromptu picnic for example and it was left to you to pack everything. First of all you go…Damn, I’ve forgotten the corkscrew. What are we going to do ?

Well, here’s what.

Get yourself a tea towel or a cloth of some sort and fold it over to cushion the base of the bottle. Then , hold the towel against a hard surface , a wall or a tree for example. Then, holding the bottle horizontally GENTLY but firmly tap the base of the bottle against the cloth. Continue doing this and you will see that gradually the pressure in the bottle will force the cork out. Wait until the cork is far enough out to grip it and then ease it out with your fingers. The wine has become a bit shaken so wait for it to settle.

Voila. You are welcome.

Probably best not to do this in a restaurant or with really expensive wine , but it’s a good one to keep up your sleeve for emergencies.

 

Taste wine like a pro

A few years ago I went out for dinner with a friend and was asked if I wanted to taste the wine. I did. And I did the usual thing we all do when we THINK we know what we’re doing but really haven’t got a clue. I raised the glass up , sniffed the wine and tasted a bit and went ‘ Mmm, yes , that’s fine.’ To be honest unless I’d been served cat piss I don’t think I’d know one from another.

I got the p.. taken for my sad efforts and rightly so. That year though , presumably having taken pity on me  , my friend bought me a wine tasting course as a birthday present and I’ll share with you here what I learned because believe me it does make a difference to your enjoyment and it’s the sort of thing that we as 50+ men should be confident in doing. We’ve been around long enough to have found stuff like this out.

Firstly , look at the wine. Hold it up to the light and check the clarity.

Secondly when the waiter has poured a little wine into the glass , swirl the wine around wine-legsgently so it rises up the sides of the glass. This serves two purposes ; one it allows the wine to aerate which improves the aroma and secondly when the wine pours back down the sides of the glass it leaves a trail known as ‘legs’. The legs of the wine are not an indication of quality but alcohol content. The thicker the legs , the higher the alcohol content. So try to avoid those wines that look like a glass of water with two drops of blackcurrant cordial in them.

Thirdly raise the glass to your nose and sniff…hard. That’s not the one that does anything wine-sniffthough. What you do now is sniff again and allow the bouquet to reach the back of your palate and stay there. The longer the bouquet stays on your palate the better the wine.

 

 

Then, and only then do you taste. Try and suck the wine through your pursed lips a bit like Hannibal Lechter when he does his ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a fine Chianti’ line. And do this twice. The first one is to prepare your palate and the second is the real taste. You will notice a difference between the two, I promise.

When you’ve gone through this whole palava you can then look at the waiter and go ‘That’s fine thank you.’ Pretty much the same as before but at least this time you look like you know what you’re doing. And when you do get a wine that tastes particularly good it is worth it.

Good luck with it.