Saturday 29 October 2011

Goodbye London...

I remember when I first moved out of home. I can still picture my parents waving goodbye on the curb, as I drove away smiling, excited about the future, cranking up Bon Jovi on the stereo, headbanging away with the world at my feet. Then I promptly turned the corner and burst into tears.

Leaving London is a bit like that. Only a few months ago, we found ourselves with irresistible new job offers in Melbourne. Home! Think of the weather! The sunshine! A beach at the end of our street! The coffee! The Thai food! Brunches! Dim sims on tap! 

We were suddenly resigning, packing up the house, finding another, planning a wedding (complete with traumatic wedding dress dramas - who knew it would be the hardest part?), failing to plan a honeymoon (still on the to-do list!), trying to cram in every last bit of travel and London life we needed to squeeze out of our last 3 months.... It's been a whirlwind of excitement and a maze of cardboard boxes. 

But now the time has come to go - just as I've remembered not to say "pants" or "thongs" in the entirely wrong context. And there's a big heavy lump in my throat.

The last 5 years in London have been wonderful. When you travel to the opposite side of the world from all your friends and family, with only each other and a few boxes of clothes (none of them warm enough for December in London - the warmest thing I brought was a cotton jacket! COTTON!! Madness), you never know what's in store. But we've made new, life long friends, we got engaged (woot!), travelled high and low (every month, at least -  we have some serious trees to plant), expanded our culinary horizons (from spotted dick in Britain to oysters & pearls in New York to sea urchin at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo), enjoyed jobs that we have loved, explored every nook and cranny of London life, and treated each week like there's a new adventure to be had. The experience will change the way we live forever. 

Oh, and we've bought a lot of warm coats. Melbourne winters, do your best - I am ready for you.

I'll miss living on our beloved Rupert Street where we moved 5 years ago for its proximity to London's best flat white at the time, as you do (at Flat White - your only other option back in the day was Provs - how far London has come!). Rupert Street - so full of character and life, from its crack pipes in our doorway to the gigantic men in tutus across the road, from the food and coffee carts lined up along the cobblestones, to our stash of hams, cheeses, truffles and fresh pasta at the cute Italian delis up the road, from its flashing neon STRIPTEASE signs, to the rock 'n roll Spuntino diner downstairs. I'll miss the newsagent who thinks TPG's Italian L'uomo Vogue is a gay porn mag and wraps it in brown paper before he leaves the shop. 

I'll miss runs past Big Ben and Buckingham Palace through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, especially in Autumn, my favourite London season. I'll miss spotting celebrities in random places on the streets (even if it is sometimes just Jim from Neighbours). I'll miss riding at the top of the double decker buses and scoffing salt beef bagels on Brick Lane. I'll miss stocking up at the Lebanese grocers to cook the latest from Ottolenghi or shopping in Chinatown after work to knock up a quick bowl of Vietnamese fishy soup. I'll miss H&M and Anthropologie and reasonably priced champagne. I'll miss jetting off with my rolly bag after work on Friday nights for weekends in Paris or Rome. I won't miss the Tube. Or the weather. Most of all, I'll miss my friends.

Writing this blog has been a wonderful adventure in itself. I'm still so grateful that anyone reads it. It was born from an obsession for eating, cooking, rummaging through deli shelves and discovering new places to eat. TPG and I had already built a life around travelling by gut and reading endlessly about food, so why not share the joy of new discoveries - while indulging in a little creative outlet along the way? I'm not sure what form it will take going ahead - it's getting harder to keep it up and I value nothing more than spending my precious spare time with TPG and a bottle of wine, pondering life and love and the next big feast. But the magnificent Australian food scene is one I'm bursting to write about and share. So finger's crossed that I find the time, and that you still care to read. 

So tomorrow, we take off for Melbourne - but not before some travels through Venice, the wine regions of Amarone, Barolo and Bordeaux, the French gastronomic capital of Lyon,  and - of course - New York. Well, you only live once.

Thanks for tuning in. It's been a wonderful 5 years. Goodbye, London!


Thursday 27 October 2011

Nahm, Belgravia - London Restaurants

Prawn salad

I'm in the middle of packing to leave the country and I have to make a lot of important decisions. Does the hair straightener come with me, side by side across the globe, so that I have it for important Christmas parties and pre-wedding functions upon landing in Melbourne - or does it get shipped, not to be seen again for 3 long, harsh, frizzy weeks?

Hotel foyer-esque room

Given the weighty matters I am devoting my mental energy to, you will have to excuse some rather brusque reviews for the time being. You don't care anyway - you don't want to know about the complexity of the foam in the 15th amuse bouche, about the crisp (never crispy) textures contrasting with the fluffiness of the mousse or the char marks on the steak. You want a gut feel. The nutshell. Should you go or should you not?


Nahm feels like eating at the check-in desk of a barren hotel foyer, the service is irritatingly attentive, there are a lot of suits and your water will be topped up after each sip - generally right at a key moment as you try to whisper sweet nothings into your date's ear. Don't go there to propose. But the food is magnificent. It really is. I was expecting less, I think from things I have read, but I also think a lot of people wouldn't know good Thai food if it rolled itself up in a banana leaf and slapped them across the face.

For TPG's birthday, I took him to Nahm and indulged us both in the Thai tasting menu - a starter, salad, soup, stir fry, curry, main - a grilled fish or meat, dessert and some other bits for around £60 per head, plus drinks. They'll help you to get the right balance of things.  Everything is cooked really well and the layers of flavours are bursting and gorgeous as all good Thai flavours should be. The desserts are di-vine. It's really hard to find a decent wine to match Thai food - but, of course, TPG put about 75 thousand hours of research into it and struck gold with a nice riesling.

If you are a Thai fan or a David Thompson fan (his cook books are beautiful, if complicated), or you want to try Thai food at a Michelin star restaurant, go to Nahm for the food, but beware the soulless atmosphere.

Nahm, The Halkin Hotel, Halkin Street, Belgravia, London SW1X 7DJ (Tel: 020 7333 1235)

Nahm on Urbanspoon

Saturday 22 October 2011

Pinxtos and Sherry in San Sebastian, Spain - Gluttonous Travels

Coooeeee! Yes, my blog posts have been few and far between. I have been busily finishing up at work and preparing to move across the globe, all while cramming in last minute travels like I might never cross the equator again. But I finished work on Thursday, met TPG on the Eurostar with a bottle of champagne to celebrate with dinner in Paris (long story of adventure and mayhem) and now I'm back. And I won't be in the office again until 5 December! 

So expect lots of travel tales and London reminiscences from me until I land in Melbourne. After that, I'm not sure what's in store for the GD. But for now, let me tell you about San Sebastian....

Yes, San Sebastian has more Michelin star restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world, and is the culinary capital of Basque from where great chefs, the likes of Arzak and Subijana, have brought Spanish haute cuisine to heights that were previously reserved only to the French. But it's the combination of the laid back beauty of the place, the amazing beach, the huge tables of families taking for granted the excellent quality, well cooked produce making up the feasts before them, and the non stop carnival of hilariously fun pinxtos bars lighting up the streets from morning to night that won me over. And possibly the chocolate that tastes like cinnamon. And the lovely custard flans.

We ate juicy, perfectly cooked steak and juicy roast pork a short ride out of town at Rekondo, with its enormous 250 page wine list - famed for selling rare and beautiful wines at a fraction of the mark up you'll find them anywhere else. Wine buffs should not miss it.

My rice with baby cuttlefish oil and slivers of Idiazabal cheese at Bodegon Alejandro was the best I've ever eaten, and although the room is plain and the service a shambles, fare like anchovy lasagne, glazed Iberian veal cheek and junket with heather honey will make it all worthwhile.

We had a reservation at classic fine dining establishment, Akelarre, then cancelled it in favour of spending our 3 days lapping up some much needed hot September weather on the beach, in between necking aroxtas (a local fizzy white poured from great heights to encourage the fizz) and delicious (yet insanely cheap) glasses of rioja and ribera del dueros at the local pinxtos bars. Superb wines that would cost 9 quid per glass in London can be yours for around 2 euros per glass. Oh, what a time we had.

Each of the pinxtos bars has their own specialty. A favourite was Ganbara where we jostled at the bar for plates of grilled wild mushrooms, slices of nutty iberico jamon rammed into buttery little croissants (great wedding dress preparation), pastries filled with crab or prawns, layered tortillas and plates of fresh octopus or salty anchovy. I also loved the local specialities like the uber tender braised beef cheeks, and seared foie gras with tart apple sauce, at La Cuchara de San Telmo and Bar Zeruko is another great one - but the whole point is to ramble between them haphazardly and discover what takes your fancy.

Here are some snaps for inspiration. One of my all time favourite weekend destinations  - and I wish we'd stayed for a week. When the weather starts to fade next year, book yourself a flight to San Sebastian.

The epic wine list at Rekondo

I am not telling how many of these I ate...

This cost 4 euros

Cod cheeks - a local speciality

We flew to Bilbao with Easyjet for around €150 each. The last bus from the airport to San Sebastian leaves at 12.30am and takes around an hour. It costs around 12 euros. Alternatively, a taxi will cost around 100 euros so beware of cheap flight deals arriving late.

We stayed at Pension Aldamar. I highly recommend it for simple, good value comfort and an unbeatable location, right on the edge of the old town and a 5 min walk to the main surf beach. The only drawback was the noise of other guests checking out early that awoke me each morning (each room faces onto a communal hall area).

If we had more time, we would definitely have eaten at Mugaritz - please try it and report back to me.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Banana Tree - Indo China Kitchen, Soho - London Restaurants

I don't do chains. That has been my cry throughout life. I am from a city where Starbucks doesn't survive. Whether it be coffee, sandwiches, restaurants or clothes, we Melbournians like our independent stores for all their quirky, unpredictable glory.

But then I moved to London and stumbled upon Busaba. And I liked it. It became our standard lazy option for decent, local Thai food. In my desperation to find an acceptable coffee in the early days, I even tried Costa and Cafe Nero. Thank God we discovered Flat White, and promptly moved in down the road.

Papaya salad

BananaTree is a little chain operation that I wasn't all that keen to try because, well, it's a little chain operation. But then I did. And it was really good. The food was lovely and the place had personality. So then, exhausted after weeks of travelling and long hours, TPG and I decided to go again on Friday night - to lazily send off the week with a table full of food and a bottle of wine. And an hour later, by coincidence, I received a voucher to come in and visit for essentially a free meal (review us if you like us, give us the feedback if you don't). Done.


I like it.

Specialties from the Indochina region (think the lemongrass and fresh herbs of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar mixed in the the dry spices of mainland Malaysia) are served in a casual and funky setting. The room has an industrial fit out (quirky low hung light fittings, wooden tables, concrete walls, exposed pipelines, splashes of red), with an open kitchen (now becoming something of a norm in new London restaurant openings) and a mix of small and communal tables. Although Banana Tree has only been open in Soho for a month, by 8pm it's buzzing with a crowd, but minus the long queue of Busaba up the road.

Chargrilled pork

Feast on the tart but addictively sweet goodness that is the papaya salad (£5.90), actually right up there with the best I can remember having, along with some lusciously gooey baked aubergine with caramelised vinegar sauce (£4.20) - a bit like the Japanese nasu dengaku, and the big hitting rendang (£9.80) - satisfyingly big, tender chunks of beef, slow cooked in coconut milk and spices like lemongrass and chilli. The sautéed lamb with fragrant kari patta leaves, cashews, coriander, tomatoes and spring onions (£8.50) is rammed with so much flavour that I don't mind that the lamb is too dry. Large, thin slices of chargrilled blackened chilli pork are marinated in dark soy, palm sugar, chilli, garlic and spices (£8.90) and come with a nice nasi goreng - more deliciousness. With 2 glasses of wine our tab comes up to around £50 for 2 people.


After eating at Nahm earlier in the week, eating this sort of food anywhere else so soon was at risk of being a massive downer. But, actually, I really like Banana Tree. I think Busaba has gone downhill recently, and in my view Banana Tree definitely comes up trumps for the quality of its food. Just watch the prices as they can stack up. Looking at the cost of each dish, I don't think they're overpriced compared with other places in the area (although the rending and some other dishes are probably pushing the upper end of the scale), but I probably tend to go to chains thinking they should be the cheap option, when actually the costs can sneak up on you.

Oh, and the service staff have been really sweet and keen on both my visits (as much on the anonymous one as my invitation to review). It may be a mini chain, but don't be afraid - it still has soul and you can taste it. Definitely one to try.

Banana Tree - Indo China Kitchen, 103 Wardour Street, W1F 0UQ (Tel 0202 7437 1351)

Banana Tree on Urbanspoon

There are other Banana Tree outlets at Angel, Bayswater, Clapham Junction and West Hamstead.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Pub Crawl - from East to West. And I didn't go to bed in my shoes.

Photo by Paul Winch-Furness

I was on my way to the ETM Group's pub crawl when I realised how long it's been since I've done such a thing. I am officially 100 years old. It seems like a lifetime ago that I used to have gigantic nights out inevitably ending with me hoovering down a giant souvlaki before collapsing into bed with my makeup and shoes on. I even had a fabulous business plan once involving taxis and a back seat "dial your nearest kebab shop" menu. Or it might have been chicken parmas. I was clearly drunk when I conceived it and I was too hungover most of the time to implement it.

Well, how times have changed. Now a night out involves a nice, cosy dinner (once thought of as cheating), picking wines by quality rather than maximising alcohol percentage,  taking my makeup off rain, hail or shine with the full hot cloth routine (one can't be too careful about one's skincare regime), and only occassionally falling asleep with my shoes on.

Fortunately, the ETM Group has rather nice pubs. And they put on the poshest pub crawl ever, which was just my cup of tea - discovering lots of nice pubs without ever have to deal with that stale beer and old man smell of the traditional pub crawl.

Here's where we went - some lovely pubs to put on your radar:

Foie gras canapés. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness

The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms in Barbican still smelled of fresh paint (love..!) and feels airy and fun - we only had cocktails and some very nice canapés, but a swanky setting in the former Whitbread Brewery and I would genuinely like to try it for a meal from the classic British menu.

Snail & bacon pie. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness

Tucked down a little alleyway in Clerkenwell, The Hat & Tun looks more like your traditional, Victorian watering hole, and was the perfect scene for steaming hot little Hereford snail and bacon pies with Guinness and mushroom cream sauce. Accompanying 1er Cru Burgundy wines were gorgeous - one to go too for good English grub and a top wine list. This one wins the award for most likely I would return to regularly - I liked it a lot.

Turbot. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness

For a main meal, we were bussed off to The White Swan, on Fetter Lane, where the upstairs restaurant and menu is a little more elegant and refined. A terrific piece of line caught Cornish turbot came with Dorset crab beignets, turnip tops, salsify and bisque butter sauce. More stellar wines - a South African Semillon - were beginning to become a common theme. 

Desserts aplenty. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness

The Botanist on Sloane Square followed for desserts, like fig pudding with Port roasted figs, and then it was on to The Cadogan Arms on the Kings Road for much not-needed Cognac and a game of pool. By this time, I'm quite a few glasses of bubbly under. I can't tell you much more than I had fun and everyone was my best friend. It may have been a while between pub crawls, but some things never change. See The London Foodie's blog for a more lucid account and some more lovely snaps.

In sum, put these pubs on your radar - the people behind them are lovely, there's a fab wine selection, and really good grub too.

Where indicated, photos used thanks to Paul Winch-Furness.

Chiswell Street Dining Room, 56 Chiswell Street, EC1Y 4SA (Tel: 020 7614 0177)

The Hat & Tun, 3 Hatton Wall, EC1N 8HX, (Tel: 020 7242 4747)

The White Swan, 108 Fetter Lane, EC4 1ES (Tel 020 7242 9696)

The Botanist, 7 Sloane Square, SW1W 8EE (Tel: 020 7730 0077)

The Cadogan Arms, 298 King's Road, SW3 5UG (Tel: 020 7352 6500)

Monday 3 October 2011

Stockholm - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

Chocolate and cardamom scrolls at Albert & Jacks

The first Swedish word I learned in Stockholm was "fika" - coffee break. 

Yessiree, my friends. The Swedes like their coffee. Preferably with cake. And even if its a bit chilly outside, Stockholm is one hot culinary destination.

As we face the prospect of leaving London life after 5 fun filled years (the shores of Australia beckon), it seems we are discovering some of our favourite places to visit right as we're about to leave. Stockholm is beautiful. It's laid back, picturesque, fun and chocabloc with museums and cultural delights. And of course, there's a plethora of fantastic Scandi design stores to rummage through. There's a bike hire system (like the velibs in Paris) which is a great and easy way to cover some serious ground, and you can also cruise the canals on ferries between the 14 islands making up the vast city. It has a rambling maze of cobblestone streets making up the 13th century medieval quarter, bustling with old, tobacco stained pubs, grand beer halls and trendy pavement cafes. What's not to love?

Plus, there's the world's biggest Ikea and it's the home of H&M. Oh, the shopping, the things I could tell you...

But first things first, to cinnamon scrolls...

Giant cinnamon scrolls at Saturnus

These ones from Saturnus are as big as a baby's head. See Albert & Jack's at the first photo above. I like Stockholm a lot.

Herring 3 ways with cheese at Pelikan

After a morning of shopping at Filippa K, Acne and Hope, join the laid back locals and stroll past Stockholm's beautiful, wide canals and the ornate facades of the old town until you find yourself in the bohemian south - at Pelikan. Pelikan is a beautiful old beer hall, with 7 metre high ceilings and art deco murals on the walls. The traditional (but not in a touristy way), home style Swedish cooking is excellent - eat a starter of SOS ("smor, ost and sill" - herring 3 ways with butter and cheese),  giant pork knuckle slow cooked for 10 hours, or juicy meatballs in a creamy sauce with lingonberries, pickle and the creamiest mash outside of Joel Robuchon. Beer or snaps, the traditional spice infused spirit, are the perfect accompaniment.

Meatballs at Pelikan

Alternatively, head to the Ostermalms Saluhall food market. Don't be fooled by the website (as I was) which says it's open Sundays - it's not. So all I can tell you is that its reputed to be a fabulous Aladdin's cave of market stalls and cafes, laden with Swedish produce. Despite having planned my entire weekend of eating around it, having saved it up for Sunday, all I saw was the iron gate. On the upside, this gave us time to scoot on over to the Fotografiska museum for some non-food related culture.

Stockholm is a perfect place for exploring by bike

And then back to food. When you do your research about where to eat in Stockholm, you'll read a lot about Mathias Dahlgren's Matbaren cafe and Matsal restaurant at the Grand Hotel. I'd love to try his modern, Swedish cuisine but much has been said about it already, and they don't do weekend lunches. So for our showcase of Sweden, Saturday night meal, we decided to go somewhere else - Volt.

Pike perch

Awesome move. Volt is exactly the sort of place I LOVE and this was one of our all time favourite meals ever. The whole philosophy is based on providing high quality, carefully sourced food (heavily influenced by its Swedish roots, and almost everything we ate was sourced from Sweden), in surrounds that are casual, comfortable and make you feel at home.  The focus in on good food and service without fuss and frippery. There's music playing, the waiters are in trainers, but despite all the informality it lacks nothing in style.

Coffee with warm, freshly baked cake

Choose a meal of 3, 5 or 7 courses (from 485 SEK - 785 SEK) - we did the 3 courses with matching wines (for an extra 330 SEK each) which was perfect - and sit back and relax while your eyes and palate are delighted by the fare.

Gorgeous starters of broccoli, oysters sea plants and algae, and lambs tongue with artichoke, live and "faryoughurt" had us excited from the start. To follow, pike perch with cauliflower, gooseberries and soot and roast beef with leeks, brisket and capers were equally delectable. All of it fresh, delicious and delight inspiring. Things kept on the way up with corn parfait, caramel and salt and my sour cream, buckthorn, white chocolate and toasted bread - just divine.

But the real piece de resistance was that fact that coffee comes accompanied by a freshly baked to die for sponge cake - which I had all to myself since TPG fot his own gluten free version. I love these people. Even the bread is great and comes with butter of a lovely sour Swedish cream cheese.

Service was perfect - friendly, helpful and unobtrusive. The only possible criticism I can muster is that the white wines (a muscadet and a white Burgundy, from the all natural wine list) were not outstanding, even if they matched each course well. The reds - including a fabulous Barolo - were terrific. I highly recommend you add Volt to your itinerary. 

Other places I'd love to try include the wine bar, PA & Co - which looked super fun - and Bakfickan at the Royal Opera House.

Our gorgeous room at The Berns Hotel

We stayed as guests of Visit Sweden at The Berns Hotel, famous throughout Sweden for its long history (since 1863 when it initially functioned as a coffee shop and drinking house) and its ties to cultural events and prominent Swedish writers and artists (writer, August Strindberg lived there and the hotel's Red Room was the setting for the author's book of the same name) . Although a grand building, at night, it looks from the outside like a giant night club, but (no fear!) the rooms inside are spacious and chic with true Scandi style. It has sumptuously comfortable beds, funky artwork and design elements and, crucially, the hotel is well placed within mere metres of Filippa K, and my favourite shopping boutiques in Stockholm. Chi ching. It's also a short stroll to the old town, the royal palace and the main harbours.

It also has a concert hall and a nightclub downstairs, which could be a bonus if you are a party animal (fortunately, its completely out of earshot once in your room). There's also an outdoor bar in summer and a Singapore food night market on the patio bar in the early evenings.

The breakfast at The Berns in the beautiful, ornate dining room is another highlight - think a huge spread of breads, scrolls, pancakes, eggs, bacon, cheeses, cold meats, smoked salmon, fruit, juices, smoothies, and lovely loose teas and coffee - and all under the light of huge, antique chandeliers. Eat to your hearts content. They also do an enormous, popular Asian buffet brunch on Saturdays and Sundays (from 11am - 4pm) which we gave a thorough road test - thumbs up. There's an excellent fresh sushi bar, dumplings, curries, Thai soups, salads - it's not fine dining, but it's no wonder the room is packed out. And, there's a huge range of gorgeous Swedish desserts for afters.

The restaurant at The Berns at breakfast time

Stockholm is too fabulous to visit as once off and, on my return, The Berns is where I'd want to stay again - I highly recommended for comfort, style and location. Rooms generally start at about 1,758 SEK per night but check the website as they vary either way.

Brunch, anyone?

We flew to Stockholm Arlanda with Nordic Air from Gatwick Airport - flights are around £169 (my flight was free). From Arlanda airport, you can get an express train to Stockholm central for SEK260, which takes around 20 minutes - and is way cheaper (and faster) than Stockholm's pricey taxis.

I barely scratched the surface in Stockholm. Fortunately, through my rolly bag stuffed with cinnamon scrolls and salty liquorice, the memory of Sweden lives on.

Greedy Diva was a guest of Visit Sweden and The Berns Hotel, although I arranged all my own eats outside of the hotel anonymously and independently.

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