Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bistro du Vin, Soho

Lamb with lentils & bacon

While I don't usually go for chain restaurants, each Bistro du Vin has its own personality. The thing about the new Soho branch is the cheese room - La Cave a Fromage - where you can get unlimited (unlimited!) cheese for £12.50. At this point, I'm picturing myself getting kicked out at 4am a la Homer Simpson at The Frying Dutchman. Differences aside, the quality, unfussy bistro fare and reasonable prices are consistent with its siblings.

As a testimony to my love of the Bistros du Vin, you can see my earlier reviews of the Clerkenwell and Cheltenham branches here. Food is impeccably sourced and cooked with skill. The staff are friendly and knowledgable about the food and wine, and they share a interest and passion in their product and service which makes you feel good about eating there. Surrounds are relaxed and lively.

When I visited the Soho branch recently, service was still a bit green - while some of the waiters that we knew from the Clerkenwell branch were as professional as ever, some of the newbies were not so personable (for instance, the cheese platter was left at our table without any explanation of what cheeses they were - they all turned out to be fabulous in any event, and we got the low down on them on request when we flagged someone down). I hope it's not a sign of some chainlike indifference creeping into the fold. I'm keeping my faith for now and putting it down to teething.

Sea bass

Our food and wine were a class act, as ever - lobster bisque, gorgeous, pink lamb in a rich stew of firm lentils and bacon, and salty, crisp seabass with fennel and lime. Buttery sweet carrots were a terrific side, although fries were disappointingly limp. At the launch party a few days earlier, we'd been wowed by a fabulous array of seafood and Josper grilled steaks (what the Bistros du Vin do best, in my opinion) and heaving tables of cheeses and sweets.

Of the desserts, a warm creamy chocolate tart with Chantilly cream and rapsberries was the pick of the night.

The wine list is excellent and reasonable value, and the house summer cocktail of Pimms with Chase Vodka and raspberry is also one to try.

One for a long, easy meal, or stop by for a burger at the bar. Don't miss the cheese and charcuterie.

Bistro du Vin, 36 Dean Street Soho, W1D 4PS, Tel: 020 7432 4800

Greedy Diva was a guest of Bistro Du Vin.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Madrid, Spain - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

Jamon Iberico at Mercado San Miguel

Tapas bars bursting with noisy locals line the maze of narrow, sunbaked streets, plates of thinly sliced Iberico hams are washed down with sherry and chilled Rioja at 3am and chunks of salted cod are lightly battered and fried to perfection for an afternoon snack over a cold, refreshing beer. And it's 32 degrees Celcius and sunny every single day. Madrid would now have to be up there with my favourite European cities to visit. The whole time we were there, we were planning our next trip back.

TPG and I arrived late on Friday night and ventured into the city streets at 1am. Last drinks may have been called long ago in London, but here the Spanish are still prowling the streets in droves, mooching from bar to bar until about 3am, at which time they move on to cocktail hour at the clubs. We stumbled upon a tiny, apparently nameless place, "a bar for freaks", as our new friends Nacho and the Matador  told us as they introduced us to local spirits Mama Juana (a deliciously sweet, herby rum) and Zocca (a light sweet, ouzo like drink). Many blurry riojas, beers, shots and plates of potatas and roasted peppers later, we merrily ask for the bill - a grand total of 15 euros. This is my kind of city.

The roof top pool at Hotel Emperador
View from the pool area

We're based in the centrally located Hotel Emperador on the Calle Gran Via, a short stroll from all the bits you want to be in - like tapas bar central, around the Plaza Major and Puerto Del Sol (which is an ugly bit, but the surrounding streets are a tapas bar gold mine). Our hotel is chosen for the roof top pool overlooking the Madrid skyline - perfect for a sobering morning swim, or taking a few hours of (again, sobering) downtime in the late afternoon to recuperate for the night ahead. At a last minute deal of 105 euros per night, this hotel is an awesome find - we'd stay here again, even if the rooms are nothing special (although perfectly fine and the beds are huge).

Mercado san Miguel

By the time we haul our hung over arses out of bed and then out of the pool on Saturday morning, it's nearing midday as we arrive at the bustling Mercado San Miguel. This is a large indoor food market, packed with gourmet food and wine stalls. It's a must - we went at least 3 times. We perched at wooden tables drinking fabulous riojas at 3 euros per (large) glass and eating plate after plate of nutty Bellota Iberico ham, fresh octopus, oysters, seafood pinchos, stuffed olives and peppers bursting with luscious goats cheese. We also came back twice for excellent coffee and only seconds after declaring to TPG that "I don't do desserts", I was hoeing like an Iberican pig into a massive, gooey, coffee flavoured meringue that made me want to weep for joy. Other sweet highlights included bite sized baked custards and chocolate covered flaked almond clusters.

Gooey coffee meringue heaven

And all this before official lunch time.

Fried cod and beers at Vinos Revuelta

Calamari at Bar Postas Cerveceria

We graze our way around the city, past the beautiful, white palace, dropping into free photography galleries along the way. After a spot of shopping in the posh, leafy streets of Salamanca, we head back for siesta and pool time. But not before afternoon tea - beer and superb fried cod at the excellent Vinos Revuelta (another must), a bar teeming with locals who throw their greasy napkins on the floor as they leave, then fried calamari and potatas bravas at seafood specialist, Bar Postas Cerveceria.

Sampling the goods

At 9pm, its time to hit the bars, starting with La Venencia, a superb sherry bar. We found this one on Chowhound, where Simon Majumdar of Dos Hermanos recommended it a few years ago as his favourite sherry bar in Madrid, and we have to concur (although I'm happy to continue the search...) It's a small, narrow, utterly charming room with high ceilings, paint peeling from the concrete walls and dusty bottles lining the shelves. We try 6 types of sherries at 2 euros or less per glass - from the lighter manzanilla, to fino, to silky dark olorosso (my favourite), to Amontillado and Palo Cortado. With each round we eat tapas of olives, hams, marcona almonds or cheese.

From there, we meet a friend living in Madrid who takes us to a fantastic little pincho bar in the busy area near Tribunal station, followed by a roof top bar for cocktails and then an outdoor bar for more rioja. Another 3am finish - and we're the early birds.

On Sunday, we head to the Ribera de Curtidores market area, where we browse through cool antique shops and more busy tapas bars, like Los Caracoles, which specialises in snails.

Botin, for some roast suckling pig and ham with artichokes

This is half of the full serve (we split it to fit in more tapas!)
 For lunch, we decide we can't go home without making a meal of some roast suckling pig - and Botin is the right place for that. Although it's touristy (in the way that Rules is touristy for London), it's not tackorama - it's retained the charm of its long history and is a great place to rest in the cool over a long meal of crisp crackling and juicy pork of the highest order. We also share jamon with artichokes and mixed green vegetables, and some Ribera del Duero. At over 30 euros per head, it's by far our most expensive meal, but a good place to try on your first trip to Madrid (another tip from Simon).

That's what we're here for...

Shops are generally closed on Sundays, but not on the last Sunday of each month - a spot of luck for us.

We arrive back in London's tepid so called "summer" feeling like we've had a beach holiday. The Spanish know how to live. This is one 2 hour flight I'll now be taking more often.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Bistro du Vin, Clerkenwell

Cote de boeuf 

As much as I'm not normally one for chains, the brains behind the Bistro du Vin restaurants know their steak and they know their wine. This is a pretty good start to get me through the door. While the menus are all largely comprised of classic, unpretentious bistro fare, each chef puts his own stamp on the restaurant using local, seasonal, good quality British produce. The suppliers are listed on the back of the menu for some pre-dinner reading.

So, the addition of
Bistro du Vin to the increasingly gourmet hub that is Clerkenwell (on the site of the former Eastside Inn) is a welcome addition to the fold. (And I'm more than a teensy bit excited that an even newer branch opened in Dean St Soho this month, which I anticipate will become a regular local haunt for me and TPG. Stay tuned.)

The bar area has been livened up since the Eastside Inn days (it was always my least favourite part of the site), and although the decor is still lingering a little on the staid side, it's busy. In any case, all is well after a warm welcome, some freebie olives and pistachios and the fast provision of the excellent house marmalade martini. 

We walk past the small private dining room - which faces on to the street and features meats ageing in a glass enclosure (mental note to remember for future dinner parties) - to the main bistro. The fabulous open kitchen surrounded by a U shaped bar (for casual meals) has been retained from the Eastside Inn days. TPG and I have in mind to pop back for a burger and some fine wine at the bar. Well spaced tables and chocolate leather banquettes fill up quickly, and the atmosphere is cosy but lively.

Both our waiter and sommelier are knowledgeable about the food and wine - they know their stuff and give the impression of some real passion behind the business. We felt safe to leave the wine matching in the sommelier's hands and had no regrets. We drank by the glass to match each course, and there's a wine vending machine with some top notch bottles to be sampled without breaking the bank.

After some creamy prosciutto with figs, we start with the peppery, sweet Cornish crab and toasted sourdough and fresh, seasonal English asparagus with sauce ravigote.

Although the night's special stargazey pie was tempting, once you've seen the meat ageing on the way in, its hard to go past the steaks. We order the meaty 600g bone in sirloin from Belton Galloway (£30) and the rich, tender Cote de Boeuf from Donald Russell (£43). They're beautifully cooked and full of flavour - straight from the magic of the smoky, hot Josper charcoal grill.

If that's not enough oomph for you, you'll love the hefty side servings of roasted bone marrow to scoop on top. The thin fries were crisped up to perfection.

A strawberry sundae is loaded up with meringue and cream, but I prefer my profiteroles with ice-cream and warm chocolate sauce.

Aside from the quality of the wine, food and service, another plus is the value factor. I was invited to review so I didn't pay - but I'll happily eat here on my own coin any time.  Prices are around £5.75 - £9.50 for entrees, £12.95 - £16.50 for mains (more for the steaks), and the "plats du jour" are very reasonably priced. 

If wine's your thing, look out for the wine tasting dinners too - they sound rather special. Prices vary.

Bistro Du Vin, 38-42 St John Street, Clerkenwell, EC1M 4DL (Tel: 020 7490 9230)

Greedy Diva was a guest of Bistro Du Vin.

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon

Monday, 4 July 2011

Where to stay in New York

It's not hard to find good restaurants in New York, but I often get asked for tips on where to stay where you won't find yourself nestling up with bedbugs or re-financing your mortgage.

Hotels in New York are hair raisingly expensive. However, I'm a big believer that hair cuts and hotel rooms are not the place to scrimp - whatever your budget, go for the best you can afford. I've listed some options for all budgets below. I hear ya - you don't go to New York to hang out in your hotel room. But, for me, a great hotel can make the difference between an ok trip and a wonderful, high-fiving-yourself-all-the-way-down-Bleeker-Street one - it's the magnolia buttermilk icing on the already formidable cake. And I have a theory that anyone who doesn't absolutely love New York stayed in shit accommodation in bad location - that's not good value. So...

If a roof top pool with views over the Manhattan skyline is what you're after, allow me to introduce you to the The Gansevoort Park Avenue.

The funky modern decor, spacious rooms and cocktail bar with balcony and staggering New York views will have you at "hello" - and that's before you're drinking your Cosmo by the pool. We were swimming before breakfast and there's huge beds for lounging in as you plan the attack on the day's schedule of eating. (Yes, we had a spreadsheet. Seriously.)

Its midtown location makes it central - and it's just up the road from boutique neighbour The Ace Hotel,  home to trendy restaurants, the John Dory Oyster Bar, The Breslin and the Stumptown coffee roasters for your morning fix.

All New York hotels are ridiculously expensive these days so we thought it good value to pay around £200 per night for a Deluxe Room. It's not as expensive as its sibling, Hotel Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District, and what price to rest your weary bones by the amazing roof top pool?

Gansevoort, 420 Park Avenue South,

If it's a more budget option you're after, these are my picks:
- The Sohotel - Downtown, in the heart of the Bowery, this budget boutique hotel is in my favourite location of all. It's on Broome Street, just down the road from Pulinos and La Esquina, on the verge of Chinatown and Little Italy. It's in my favourite shopping and eating hub of New York, and only a short stroll from The Meatball Shop, Torrisi Italian Specialities and Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side. The communal areas have funky furnishings, exposed brickwork and free WiFi. The rooms are quite small and basic, but they're certainly decent and each with flat screen TVs and comfortable beds and bathrooms. Generally has really good rates.
- The Mulberry Street Hotel - This one's even further Downtown, on Mulberry Street in the bowels of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The street outside and the foyer look a bit dodgy. But don't despair - the massive rooms make up for it. We had 2 queensized beds, a large TV and a decent bathroom. Absolutely no frills but it's spacious, safe and clean - a bargain. And you'll be very close to all the Lower East side hang outs - an area that lays claim to about 80% of all my favourite places to eat in New York.

If you can afford a splurge:
- I love, love, love The Standard. Although the rooms are small, every one has spectacular views over the Hudson or the City. The fittings are super cool and nothing less than The Standard's amazing gym overlooking New York would have me near a treadmill on holiday (I stretched against it). It's also home to the hangout of hipsters, the Boom Boom bar, which is a great place to sip cocktails overlooking the twinkling lights of New York. The location in the middle of the Meatpacking District is also idyllic for gourmands - you have The Standard Grill downstairs and Pastis, Fatty Crab, Magnolia cupcakes and Del Posto (although I don't rate the later) all within a few paces. And you can hire bikes right out the front or stroll along the highline right next to the hotel. Just make sure you close the curtains in those intimate moments - the hotel is infamous for giving those driving home along the highway an eyeful on a regular basis.
 - The Soho Grand - Right in the heart of Soho, the rooms have great views and it's hard to fault the location. It's got the chic factor. However, the rooms are quite small and it might be too cool for school for some. It's not far to stroll down for breakfast at Balthazar.
 - TPG says 60 Thompson is awesome - way better than the Soho Grand. I can vouch for the roof top bar for cocktails - fabulous!

Somewhere in between:
- Night Hotel - The midtown location is not my favourite, but this hotel was great value when we stayed there a few years ago. This is a small, stylish, boutique hotel with funky, black and white furnishings and lots of "artistic" (ie. don't go with your grandmother") photos lining the walls.
- The Hudson - This hip, uptown hotel is right near Central Park and has a fabulous, always bustling bar. The rooms are plush, although again not huge.

I haven't listed all the rates as they change all the time and it depends what time of year you go. I have also obtained good deals on for some of these places in the past.

If you have others to recommend, please do leave a comment. 

And just a little reminder of why you're there...

For places to eat near these hotels, see the New York links under my Gluttonous Travels section on the right hand side of this page. Most of the restaurants listed above are covered in those earlier reviews.

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