Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Royal Well Tavern, Cheltenham (Travel Gluttony in the Cotswolds)

You hear a lot about the pub grub at places like The Sportsman and, yep, it's good. But when I look back on some of my all time favourite lunches, my long boozey lunch at The Royal Well Tavern  in Cheltenham would have to be one of the greats. Terrific British produce, both local and sublimely fresh, are combined simply with classic French bistro style and a cosy, friendly atmosphere - a winning combination.

Pleasing little touches add to the warm fuzzies

Andy Martin trained under and has seamlessly taken over from previous head chef Humphrey Fletcher (formerly of The Glasshouse in Kew, Chez Bruce and the River Cafe among others). Not only does everything on his "stonking good food with no frills" menu sound hugely appealing, but it's all good value too - right down to a simply prix fixe daily menu at £10 for 2 courses or £12.50 for 3 (available until 7pm).  You'll find things on the a la carte menu like poached monkfish with samphire and young vegetable nage (£19) or chargrilled hoggett leg with cannellini beans, shallot puree, tomato and thyme (£17). The steaks are apparently great too. Suppliers are proudly listed on the pub's website.

Wooden tables and floors and burgundy banquettes provide a comforting atmosphere to nestle in and wile the afternoon away over a bottle of whatever takes your fancy. Among our plates were a lovely beetroot and walnut salad, sublime fresh, grilled fish with roasted chicory and a gorgeous bit of pink duck with a rich stew of lentils and mushrooms.


There were some lovely ice creams for dessert and the cinnamon scroll with warm custard wasn't half bad either....

The Royal Well Tavern is the kind of place you can't help but leave feeling merry and satisfied.

The Royal Well Tavern, 5 Royal Well Place, Cheltenham, Tel: 01242 221212. Expect to pay around £30 per head for 3 courses + drinks (or less of the prix fixe menu).

Royal Well Tavern on Urbanspoon

Friday, 26 August 2011

Naxos, Greece - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

St George Beach, Naxos
I can't stop looking at my photos of Santorini. It's a place so beautiful, it makes even my photos look like postcards. There's a whole big, effusive blog post about it coming your way with lots of glamourama places to stay in it. But all the luxury and style of Santorini can be hard to take (all that blowdrying for TPG...), so TPG and I decided to ferry it over to Naxos for a few days where we slipped into life as scraggly beach bums fairly easily.

Stuffed pepper and tomato at Faros Naxos taverna

 People go to Naxos for some of the best beaches in Greece - white, silky sand and clear turquoise water. We lazed under the shade of the rocky cliffs of "Hawaii" beach, taking breaks to plunge in the waves of the warm, clear water. A 100m stroll away under an old stone church is the quiet bay beach of St George, where you can watch the odd boat sail by while eating peaches in the sun. These were our favourite of the west coast beaches.

Hawaii - Naxoss version
It turns out Naxos is a bit of a windsurfing mecca so leave the toupee at home - I lost both my hat and my shorts to the cyprus forest bordering on the windy Alyko beach where we stayed. We're talking serious, exfoliating gales, the likes of which have only been seen before in the wind tunnel between the Monash University car park and the Menzies building (don't even get me started on the bad hair days).

Octopus - they're quite heavy handed with the oregano in Naxos

To refresh from the hardship of long days at the beach, you can drink a local herby, aniseedy spirit called Raki, with lots of ice (or have it warmed up and mixed with honey). It's distilled from the pomace of grapes and is a perfect accompaniment to your dolmades and creamy tsatsiki at night.

The pool at at Faros, Naxos

We stayed at Faros Naxos, which is a family run set of apartments with a pool and taverna, opposite Alyko beach. It's fairly basic (no flat screen tvs or rainfall shower heads here), but has everything you need for a beach holiday. Papa will pick you up and drop you off at the port, there are a couple of (wobbly) mountain bikes for local exploring, there's wifi and a laptop available at the poolside bar, and Mama cooks up a storm each night in the taverna out the front. Nikoloas runs the show with a smile and another brother works at the bar.

Spend some time eating souvlaki by the port in Naxos town (or "Hora")

We ate there every day apart from some gyros in Naxos town (lazy, moi?) - Greek salads with a local mild, ricotta-like cheese in place of the usual feta, fried calamari, stuffed capsicums and tomatoes, juicy, cheesy moussaka cooked in clay pot, moist fresh fish grilled and served simply with a splash of lemon, olive oil and salt, cumin spiced meatballs, lamb shank cooked in lemon sauce, goat cooked in paper, and plenty of the abundant Naxos potatoes (something the island is known for). The meals are real Greek home cooking (certainly not at the gourmet end of the spectrum) and cheap (say around 30 euros for 2 including a carafe of wine). Everyone at Faros Naxos is super friendly and willing to help with whatever you need. And there's a pool table for late night, ouzo fuelled challenges. (I won! the first round, you don't need to know about the others...)

Wandering through the alleys of Naxos town

This is a basic, family friendly place, and a drive away from the nearest town or cafes. A taxi to bustling Naxos town will cost you about 25 for a 25 minute drive.

I highly recommend Naxos to anyone who thinks there are no good beaches in the Greek islands.

I love my gyros (although this one was no world beater)

You can get to Naxos by ferry from Santorini, which takes 2 hours and costs about 30 on Blue Star ferries. You can also fly direct from Athens. Our last minute booking at Faros Naxos meant we had a 2 bedroom apartment with private balcony for 110 per night (cheaper in low season, and smaller digs are available). 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Quo Vadis, Soho

Barbary duck with caramelised carrots

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon when the telly broke. The papers were read, my book was boring, and there's only so many times TPG can colour code his wardrobe of cashmere V necks. Particularly when they're all a minor variation on navy blue. On the positive side, I did re-discover a love for my old Transvision Vamp CDs. We stared at the blinking theatre sign just down the road from our apartment and pondered.... What to do, what to do....

Although we live in the West End, we have become completely out of practice at going to the theatre. Would not even occur to us if the latest Judy Dench number sidled up to our front door and performed a monologue through the keyhole. But finally, my friends, the penny dropped and after a few last minute phone calls we found ourselves high-fiving ourselves all the way to the ticket box. (We saw Betrayal - quite good too, and particularly if you don't mind a bit of 'sleb sighting since it stars Kristin Scott Thomas.)

But before all that, we had to snag ourselves seats for some pre-theatre dining. Because as if anyone can wait until after the show. (Does anyone ever do that? Please comment if you do so I know you exist.) Arbutus was in the running but a quick call revealed their normally great value pre-theatre menu for the night had mains of risotto and pasta only (zzzzz....) and so I finally got to see what was behind the beautiful stained glass windows of Quo Vadis.

Beetroot gazpacho with horseradish

Inside wasn't as impressive as the outside. I think I had imagined a kind of elegant, ritzy version of The Ivy, but instead it was all quite formal and stiff and low ceilinged and white table clothed, with some lovely art deco mirrors and hotel foyerish modern art and lots of grey haired customers in pastel twin sets. And the odd glammed-up younger couple about to go to the theatre.

The pre-theatre menu is good value at £17.50 for 2 courses or £19.50 for 3 courses (the set lunch menu is the same price). The regular menu is pricier (but still looked ok) with entrees ranging from about £6.50 (Scotch egg, bacon and little gem) - £11 (Dorset crab, Heritage tomato salad) and mains generally around £17.50 (battered pollock, chips and mushy peas) - £21.50 (rump of lamb, broad beans and baby onions).

We expected good things since the restaurant comes from Sam and Eddie Hart who own the fabulous Fino and Barrafina. And all the food was really quite good - classic, cooked well, very nice, if nothing earth shattering. (To be fair, it's rare to feel the earth shatter on a pre-theatre menu.) Starters of sardines (fresh and lemony) and a silky beetroot gazpacho with a kick of horse radish were perfectly done. A chunky piece of roast plaice the size of my head was slightly overcooked but memorable for the size if nothing else. TPG's duck was cooked to a lovely pink, with a good gamey flavour and came with caramelised carrots.

Service ranged from ok to fairly hopeless in the case of 1 waiter who plonked dishes on our table without a word and forgot to return with things we'd asked for. But my main beef was with the staid, hushed atmosphere. Where's the sizzle of Barrafina, the pizzazz of Fino?

Humungous plaice with Jersey Royals

So despite a really decent meal, perhaps its the combination of the old fogey like room and the average service that left me feeling like I'd ticked something off my to do list, but with no real inclination to return. Still, at least we weren't at home playing charades in front of the dead TV.

Quo Vadis, 29 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 3LL (Tel: 020 7437 9585)

Quo Vadis on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Sportsman, Faversham

Superb pork belly

The Sportsman gets nothing but rave reviews. Of the frothing at the mouth and hyperventilating with praise variety. It's a cosy pub on a bleak stretch of English coastline that serves up really lovely pub grub, cooked very well and sourced perfectly from marvellous local produce. Yes, it's been overhyped in my opinion - but it's certainly a place for a feel good, hearty, seasonal lunch.

Oysters with warm beurre blanc, pickled cucumber and caviar - yes, as good as they sound

Excellent grilled slip sole in seaweed butter

The food and wine are terrific, although the surrounds are dated and entirely devoid of frills. And that's fine with me since the food's good -  but just don't go expecting something different. Because that's the thing - you travel about 2 hours from your front door in London to your first drink at The Sportsman, so it HAS to be good.

Fab local chicken

This meal was eaten on a rainy summers weekend, some weeks ago now. So, don't test me on the details. I'll let the pictures do the talking and leave you with my general impression. Not quite the food Mecca I was expecting, but sverall a lovely lunch, with highlights like superb pork belly and slip sole worthy of the train ride and the taxi ride from London.

Cheese platter

Chocolate tart

Iced cream cheese and strawberry (with little meringuey bits on top) - original but ho hum

And to finish....

We ate a la carte, but book ahead if you want to try the tasting menu.

The Sportsman, Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent (Tel: 012 2727 3370)

Sportsman on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Emporio Sao Paulo, Parsons Green

Parsons Green. Who knew? I stepped off the tube on my way to Emporio Sao Paulo on a summery, very Brazilian-esque evening in London and there before me was a thriving, village of cafes, shops, beer gardens, and after work picnics and kick to kickers on the leafy green itself.

So this is how the other half live, eh?

Amongst all this is Emporio Sao Paulo, a little cafe cum deli established by Brazilian manager, Carminha. It's not strictly a Brazilian cafe, but the flourishes are there - little savoury meat pies ("empadas") filled with chicken, prawns, palm heart or cheese and, my favourites, fried "coxinha" - bite sized drumstick shaped bundles of shredded chicken and spices, both on the counter. But really it's about a relaxing place to enjoy good coffee and good food from around the world.
I attended a Brazilian themed event with fellow bloggers, The London Foodie, Gourmet ChickTamarind and Thyme and Hot & Chilli, and tasted the feijoada (a comforting blackbean stew served with rice, spring greens and farofa (manioc flour)), comfort food normally served on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Brazil which has the same standing for the Brazilians as the Sunday roast holds for the English. 

We also tried the Moqueca de Peixe e Camarao, a seafood stew cooked with a light tomato based sauce, peppers and in this case olive oil - although the Mooqueca Capixaba version from Spirito Santo state is more influenced by African flavours and made with palm oil and coconut milk.

Finally, sweet little brigadeiros de frutas - condensed milk with chocolate, passionfruit, grape or pistachio. Heavenly!

The food is home made by various off site suppliers. It's not all Brazilian, and the deli at the back is stocked with all sorts of supplies, Italian, French and other. But I have a feeling that part of the draw for the customers of Emporio Sao Paulo is that touch of Brazialian sunshine that manager, Carminha's, personality brings to the floor.

Having never been to Brazil, I was happy to continue my education with some more of the national culture - caipirnhas and Brazilian wine. I'll drink to that.

A true caipirinha should be made with cachaca, a type of rum produced in Sao Paulo and made from crushed cane sugar. We drank caiprinhas with Salto cachaca and they were summery perfection. A good cachaca should be enjoyed neat, like a whiskey, or for a twist we drank the Salto blended with lime, which is dangerously easy to drink. 

Nick from Go Brazil Wines introduced us to some Brazilian wines which he sources directly from Brazil - a crisp, citrussey sparkling (the Casa Valduga Gran Reserva Brut 130) that would rival any fizz in its £18 price range (a good party wine) and an unoaked chardonnay (the Casa Valduga Premium Chardonnay 2009) which made for inoffensive easy drinking in the hot weather.

That's it. I'm heading to Brazil.

Emporia Sao Paulo, 197 New King's Road, Parson's Green, London SQ6 4SR (Tel: 020 7736 5188)

Greedy Diva was a guest of the Emporio Sao Paulo

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Empress of Sichuan, Chinatown - A quick happy snap

In a week of madness, it's comforting to know that some things keep getting better.

Empress of Sichuan remains my favourite Sichuanese restaurant. Our last meal of seabass with blackbean and chilli, spicy pork and juicy duck with pickled cucumber (they were out of bitter melon) was sublime. It also has a great wine list and friendly staff. Time to try it if you haven't already.

Empress of Sichuan, 6 Lisle Street, Chinatown, WC2H 7BG

Monday, 8 August 2011

Murano, Mayfair

You leave home and it's hot and sunny. Half an hour later, you find yourself sopping wet in a singlet top and sandals with no brolly. The English summer claims another victim. But not quite... Because when the doorway into which you duck to escape the sudden inconvenient downpour on a Saturday afternoon happens to belong to Angela Hartnett's Murano, it's only natural that you keep walking all the way in. The £30 lunch menu and spare table at the side of the room seemed beacons of fate.

The room is elegant, if a little hotel foyer-like, but the energetic chatter from the floor cuts through the boring formality that might otherwise set in. Posited in the moneyed up heart of Mayfair, you get the feeling that most of the crowd live in a trendy little mews somewhere not far off Park Lane.

It's seriously hard to choose from the Italian menu where everything sounds appetising, although quite a few dishes didn't live up to expectations - my fresh tagliatelle with Ligurian sausage and tomato tasted watery and monotone, and my porcetta carpaccio, though pretty, didn't move the earth for me.

TPG's entree serving of risotto with brown onion, parmesan and truffle oil was better, nay perfect, and he immediately positioned it above my favourite truffle risotto at Gauthier Soho. Tender steak bavette with sweet corn salsa was lovely, if not a patch on the flavoursome steaks of Goodman and Hawksmoor.

Dessert was where our meal really hit its straps with a dreamy custard tart and a cold chocolate fondant worth writing home about - the latter accompanied by an addictive sour cream ice cream, thick, oozy salted caramel sauce and heavenly little crispy chocolate bits lining the plate.

The wine list is expensive, but we had a lovely glass each for £6.50 and £8.50 respectively - this is not somewhere you need be afraid of the "cheapies" on the list. You also get lots of lovely amuses and freebies along the way - although none so perfect as the little bowl of cherries at the end.

A good value way to try a Michelin star restaurant, but not one I'll be hurrying back to for repeat visits.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, Mayfair, London W1J 5PP (Tel: 020 7495 1127)

Murano on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Trieste, Italy - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

Prawns with truffles at Enoteca Sgonico

Trieste is a beautiful city at the north eastern tip of Italy, near the border with Slovenia. You can stroll along the seafront or the huge piazzas, take a dip in the bright blue Adriatic to cool down from the hot Italian sun, or stay very happily focussed on the plate in front of you without moving too far from the nearest gelataria. Fantastic fresh seafood is the order of the day here - and you won't be disappointed in the pasta either.

If you are prepared to venture away from the well trodden streets, it's well worth seeking out Enoteca Sgonico (Sgonico, 15, 3410 Trieste, Tel: 040 2296623 - closed Mondays).  You'll have the meal of a lifetime and there will not be a tourist in sight (we were there with some local friends). For barely the cost of a pub meal in London, you can feast on course after course of the days best (*superb*) catches. Below are just some of the morsels we devoured on our long Saturday afternoon lunch - all of it amazing, fresh and the quality of the seafood treated with the utmost respect, served raw or just lightly cooked with a splash of fine Italian olive oil.

I can't advise on hotels as we stayed at our friend's fabulous beach house, where we drank Italian wine and cooked up huge seabass or spaghetti with scampi by night. (I'm using the royal "we" here - I mostly held out my plate/glass for more while Alessio and Tim toiled away in the kitchen).

Alessio's spaghetti with scampi

For more great seafood with some rather spiffy views, and again off the beaten track, we loved the casual Tendarossa (Strada Costiera, 172 - Santa Croce, Trieste, Tel: 040 224214. Closed Wednesdays). We sat on the patio overlooking the ocean, drinking lovely wine and feasting on gnocchi with crab, spaghetti vongole, and grilled calamari. Service is super friendly and helpful - you won't need a menu as the waiter guides you through the fresh catches of the day. 

TPG would never allow me finish this post without mention of Buffet Da Pepi (Via della Cassa di Risparmio 3, Tel: 040 366858), a tiny, charismatic little bar to scoff down cured and fresh steaming hot pork with sauerkraut, mustard and beer. 

Of course, no trip to Italy is complete without generous helpings of gelati. Do not miss Gelataria Zampolli (via Carlo Ghega, 10, Trieste, 34132), will be rammed with locals until all hours. As usual, I find it hard to go past the Nutella gelati. This could be the best gelati in all of Italy. 

Ryanair flies directly to Trieste. A fabulous escape for a long weekend, or longer. Thanks to our fabulous hosts, Alessio and Raffaela for yet another amazing foodie adventure.

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