Category Archives: Bars – let’s drink chic
On a UK Monopoly Board, Piccadilly is the sixth most expensive property at a whopping £280.00 and bears the colour yellow. To build a Monopoly hotel on the site will set you back £1,200.00. In reality, Piccadilly is a busy, multi-lane thoroughfare in London’s West End, running from Hyde Park Corner past Green Park to Piccadilly Circus. It’s home to the Hard Rock Café, The Ritz and the Royal Academy. Piccadilly is where Russian spy, Alexander Litvenenko visited a branch of Itsu just after he was poisoned by polonium, a deadly radioactive substance, in a modern-day Cold War power struggle. It’s where to browse through book stacks at the amply-stocked bookstores of Hatchard’s and Waterstone’s, ogle gourmet delights at Fortnum and Mason and Caviar House or refuel at The Wolseley, where weekend brunch tables are a hot ticket. With such esteemed neighbours, both historic and present, it’s no surprise that Piccadilly is where the French hotel chain, Le Méridien, decided to install their landmark London hotel – a stone’s throw from Eros and the Circus’s famed flashing signs. It has now resided at the Regency property of number 21 Piccadilly for a sound twenty-six years, since 1986, in a purpose-built building that first housed The Piccadilly Hotel in 1908 and Masonic temples in its basement.
I’m ashamed to admit that Le Méridien on Piccadilly is a place I must have passed thousands of times yet never once entered and I cannot fathom why. This has recently been rectified; not only have I now entered Le Méridien Piccadilly, I’ve also luxuriated in its underground swimming pool and snored soundly in one of its gigantic beds, oblivious to the busy West End traffic artery located mere feet from my head.
My recent stay at Le Méridien has also educated me in their all-pervading approach to art. The arrival art is what a guest encounters first. As part of Le Méridien’s re-branding at the hand of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group since they took ownership of the chain in 2005, art has been incorporated into all areas of the guest experience, starting the moment you walk through the door. Before I’d even reached the check-in desk I’d already noted a display of limited edition umbrellas by designer Duro Olowu, with snazzy geometric prints that any connoisseur would be happy to shelter beneath in a London rainstorm.
Even the lowly key card has been welcomed into the LM artistic experience. My card, a work of art in its own right, sported part of a Yan Lei Colour Wheel, its design being part of the LM Unlock Art incentive: not only does the key card open your door it forms part of a collection by a contemporary artist. The current featured artist at LM Piccadilly is Langfang-born Yan Lei, a member of the LM100, the collective comprising 100 influencers who contribute to the LM experience, through their expertise across a wide selection of the arts, from art and design to cuisine and perfumery. Some of the previous Unlock Art card collections, by fellow LM100 members, Hisham Bharoocha and Sam Samore, hang in frames by the lifts, but form and function are only two facets to the LM key cards; they also provide free access to Tate Britain and Tate Modern exhibitions – all you have to do is tell the concierge which Tate exhibitions you’d like to attend so he can arrange access for you, then just flash your key card when you get there, unlocking a local cultural experience for free.
Yan Lei’s Colour Wheel paintings hang in the Piccadilly lobby, the bespoke carpets underfoot are awash with lines, thoughtfully reflecting the inspiration for the company’s name – the meridian lines which criss-cross the globe, and in the ground floor internet den the shelves are set with contemporary ceramics, smart and stark against a dark background. There’s a video installation, created especially for Le Méridien, playing on a loop behind the Guest Relations desk and, on your way to the Longitude Bar, you’ll pass an elegant series of black and white portraits of the people responsible for the overall artistic experience that a guest will enjoy at Le Méridien – the LM100. As for that subtle aroma wafting through the lobby? That’s the signature Le Méridien scented candle, LM01, created by more members of the LM100 clan, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi. It’s a unique blend of frankincense, iris absolute and musk with cedar notes, gently adding to the sensory welcome so carefully constructed with a guest’s first impressions in mind.
The final and possibly most important part of Le Méridien’s atmosphere is the human component. In my time at the hotel I truly appreciated the comportment of the staff. From greeting to leaving, there was always a smile, a courteous hand, nothing too much trouble. Lift doors were held open without asking, a troublesome door catch dealt with immediately by not one but three kind and patient staff, an unusual breakfast order delivered on-time, without issue, a forgotten toothbrush taken care of, taxi doors opened and closed, a myriad small kindnesses. Whomever I spoke with on the staff seemed to genuinely care that I had a positive experience of Le Méridien Piccadilly. That’s what I call the Art of Hospitality, and in the travel environment it’s absolutely priceless.
It’s hard to conceive of a Venice without Harry’s Bar. Opened in 1931 by former hotel barman, Giuseppe Cipriani, it’s found a stone’s throw away from St Mark’s Square, looking directly out at the beginnings of the Grand Canal. Calle Vallaresso, at the water’s end of which Harry’s Bar sits, is lined with designer stores, the likes of which are guarded by bouncers with earpieces, yet the location wasn’t always so exclusive. Once upon a time the Bar was part of an old rope warehouse – humble beginnings for what would become an internationally renowned destination watering hole, for both locals and visitors to Venice alike.
The Harry that donated his name to the bar was a young alcoholic, who’d been despatched by his family to Venice to sober up. He fell on hard times when his accompanying aunt abandoned him at the Hotel Europa, where he was a guest and Giuseppe Cipriani was barman. Cipriani loaned the guest some money, uncertain that he’d ever see it again. Some time later, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, repaid the loan and added an extra sum with which he encouraged Cipriani to open his own bar.
Harry’s Bar is known for inventing the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio of beef, as much as for its patrons; everyone who’s anyone in Venice will visit at least once and the list of famous names that have sought refreshment here is impressive. I, however, have been a little slow off the mark when it comes to darkening the Harry’s Bar doorstep. In spite of having visited the city multiple times over the years, at one point even working there, it was not until this year that I managed to make the pilgrimage to the bar where Ernest Hemingway was once a regular.
Unless you’re teetotal or underage, it’s de rigueur to order the bar’s invention, the Bellini cocktail, when you first go to Harry’s. Named for Giovanni Bellini, one of the city’s great artists, it’s a tasty blend of fresh peach purée and prosecco which, when combined, create a particular shade of pale orange which the painter favoured. I already knew from online reviews that the current rate of extortion for imbibing this particular cocktail at this particular bar would be €16.00 per glass. That’s a heck of a lot of dosh for one drink, especially when plenty of folk are vocal about how small the Harry’s Bar measures are, but in the end I relented. Having a Bellini at Harry’s has been on my Bucket List for so long that I figured it was time to take the financial plunge and cross it off.
And so, at cocktail hour, weary from a day pounding across Ruskin’s stones, Monsieur and I found our way to Harry’s Bar. This took a bit of doing because we walked straight past it several times, so unpretentious is the entrance. Once inside, we found a room simply decorated in Art Deco style, very little altered, I imagine, from the day the bar opened back in 1931. A waiter in smart white smock and black trousers seated us at a tiny table across from the bar. We ordered a pair of Bellinis and sat back to people-watch.
We’d arrived just after 4 in the afternoon, so luckily beat the traffic. A few minutes later and there wouldn’t have been room for us, such was the steady stream of tourists pouring through the door, mouths agape as they drank in the first impressions of the place. Given all the fuss about Harry’s Bar, it really is quite unexpectedly simple in design. Perhaps we expected lashings of gilt and brocade where Charlie Chaplin and Aristotle Onassis once sipped their evening refreshments? Venice certainly does excel at fussy. And yet, when you sit back and start to absorb the atmosphere, it’s obvious that this is an establishment that’s secure in itself and has confidence enough not to seek to impress like a Flash Harry on the make. Even better, for fans of 1930s interiors and traditional service, it’s like walking into a charming time warp.
Our Bellinis arrived in short water glasses, a small bowl of whole, green olives in tow. Having thoroughly enjoyed our Bellinis at the Centurion Palace Hotel terrace on arrival in Venice, Monsieur and I were interested to see how the original stacked up against the new kid on the block. And now, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Harry’s Bar die hard regulars, I must be honest: it was disappointing.
The Centurion Bellini was intensely peachy with a delightful fizz. It tasted as if the peach had been grown in the Garden of Eden and had fallen gently off the tree into a padded basket that very morning. Sadly, the Harry’s Bar Bellini lacked that fresh fruit quality. I’m not saying that they didn’t use fresh peaches; I trust they did. It’s just that, even if the peach content had been fresh, this Bellini still managed to taste like a blend of bottled Paga juice and prosecco. Perhaps it’s because of the excessive demand of visitors like us that their signature drink has lost its fizz. I’d suspect that’s the case. It’s just a shame that we didn’t find the Centurion Bellini within the Harry’s Bar atmosphere. We were certainly fortunate to have experienced both, but my advice to anyone intending to pay homage at Harry’s Bar - don’t order the Bellini here. Ask for one of their other traditional cocktails: a Manhattan or a Martini. Given the way those Harry’s boys shake and stir, I’m sure you’ll get the real deal and it should be better for not being produced for the masses who come here seeking to drink THE Bellini.
Would I return to Harry’s Bar? Definitely, but only when I’m cashed up and not for their blessed Bellini. I hear good things about their set menu lunches and might be tempted in that direction… Perhaps with a Sidecar apéritif.
Where would I go for a Bellini in Venice? The Centurion Palace Hotel. Ask for a terrace table. Fantastic views. AND the Bellini is a whole Euro cheaper.
Plus points: history, time-warp atmosphere, tradition, décor, free olives.
Minus points: costly, tourist haunt, the Bellini, apparently you’re not allowed to take photos but I did and no one stopped me! Woops.
How to find Harry’s Bar: stand at the end of St Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon. Turn right. Follow the water’s edge as it leads to the Grand Canal, keeping the large white church of Santa Maria della Salute on your left. Just after the Square, there’s a small bridge. Cross it. The path will lead you into a calle on the right (Calle Vallaresso). Harry’s Bar is right on the right-hand corner of that calle.
A long time ago, in happy-go-lucky, freewheeling times, I lived in Venice. It wasn’t a long-term thing; just a summer internship over the course of a few months, but it was long enough for me to fall head over my Supergas in love with the place. When I returned to London, there remained some Venetian experiences on my Bucket List that would have to wait for subsequent visits. Quite unbelievably, if you think about my passion for food and drink, one such missed undertaking was to drink a Bellini at the erstwhile Hemingway haunt of Harry’s Bar.
As a student intern, my salary just about covered rent and food, but didn’t quite stretch to evenings, let alone just one drink at this eponymous venue, with the enduring reputation of being horrifically expensive. In the interest of keeping some Lira (yes, these were pre-Euro days) in the bank, I avoided it like the plague.
Some years later, I returned to Venice to introduce Monsieur to this grand city of canals. It was winter. For different reasons, I didn’t have a lot of dosh at the time, so, yet again, for reasons of economy, Harry’s Bar didn’t happen. Then, on my birthday this year, my dear French husband surprised me with tickets to Venice and boy, did he ever score brownie points. This time I was determined not to leave without sipping on a Harry’s Bar Bellini, all sixteen extortionate Euros of it.
Before we could even begin to factor Harry’s Bar into our trip, Monsieur and I found ourselves thirsty in Dorsoduro. We’d just about reached the white-domed magnificence of Santa Maria della Salute when we peeped through a gate to find a new hotel: the lush Centurion Palace.
Walking through the courtyard, we were surprised to find its elegant tables and seating areas empty at what was most certainly cocktail hour. Across the airy lobby we spotted a small terrace giving directly onto the Grand Canal. There were only a few tables, but all were free, so we sat and ordered a pair of Bellinis to celebrate our arrival in La Serenissima. It might not have been Harry’s Bar, but the view was hard to beat. Resting our feet we lazily watched the Venetian world pass us by on boats. Even the occasional scream of Vigili del Fuoco or Polizia sirens (also on boats) couldn’t bother us; this was bliss.
The Bellinis arrived after a suitable amount of time, which I must say I found comforting as it showed that our drinks hadn’t been poured out of a ready-mix cocktail bottle. One sip alone verified this. There was at least one whole fresh white peach involved per glass, blitzed with a healthy dose of gently bubbling prosecco. Ah, yes, we had lucked out in our impromptu cocktail stop and were now relaxing, the finest of godly nectars (I swear this is not hyperbole) slipping with ease down thirsty throats. What’s more, the generosity of measure and syrupy nature of the drink meant we could take time to smell the roses (or canals) before heading off across town to our dinner destination.
A while later, as we churned up the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, I snapped the terrace where we’d so enjoyed our first Bellinis of the trip. Sadly, this pic doesn’t do it justice.
The atmosphere was fit for bottling. Gondolas swaying in one direction:
Salute and San Marco beckoning from the other:
A crane in the background kept us firmly grounded in the current century, but it’s hard not to daydream when confronted by fairy tale palaces rising from the water:
In summary, the Centurion Palace would be hard to beat for a Bellini on the go. The drinks are fabulous, the vistas magnificent and the nibbles original and moreish (curry cracker, anyone?). If you’re a keen boatspotter, this is the terrace at which to imbibe.
A Bellini costs €15.00 here. Expensive, yes, but not quite as hefty as that establishment across the way where its forefather was conceived by a certain Signor Cipriani. All I can say is that if you feel like dropping €15.00 for one drink and a nibble or two, go no further; it’s money well-invested in a memory that will last a lifetime. As for Harry’s Bar? That’s a whole post of it’s own, but it had a lot to live up to after Bellinis at the Centurion. Suffice to say that I’ll never forget our evening there, for all the right reasons.
The easiest way to find the Centurion Palace: Take a vaporetto to the Salute stop. Get off and turn right immediately, heading away from the church. You’ll pass through an arch. A zigzag later will find the Centurion’s gate on your right hand side (Grand Canal side). Alternatively, if you’re made of moola, just whistle for a water taxi and they’ll drop you right next to the terrace I’ve been lauding above.
Porto Rotondo is a place of fantasy: an artificial port and marina filled with luxe and super-boats. The one below is charming instead of the usual gin palace that’s the size of a house on water.
The sad thing is that these super-vessels only get used for a few weeks each summer. The rest of the time they sit idle, waiting for their pop star/ movie mogul/ politician/ Swiss banker owners to arrive for a bit of show-off time with their loaded friends; a sure case of ‘my boat’s bigger than your boat’. Some, like this one, are real whoppers.
Regardless, Porto Rotondo is a beautiful place to visit, an easy drive from the big Sardinian town of Olbia. Bougainvillaea blooms in all directions, the main pedestrian drag of Via del Molo is paved with fish and shark mosaics, crew in matching polo shirts bustle about preparing yachts for visitors and real Pucci maxi-dresses float casually by in the warm sea breeze. You get the picture. There’s another magnet to the lush sanctuary of Porto Rotondo, though: The Bar-Gelateria Del Molo.
Monsieur and I first found the Del Molo when we visited Sardinia three years ago. We loved their breakfasts so much that we decided to fly our new Lear jet over for lunch. (Okay, okay, I lie. We were there again on holiday and found ourselves in the area…No Lear jets at our disposal. Easyjet works perfectly well for us. )We just wanted something quick and light, but ended up going the whole hog with three courses each. Monsieur kicked off with prosciutto and cantaloupe, the melon perfectly ripe and oozing with juice, the ham deep with flavour. This was no supermarket-shelf ham, but slim cuts with little fat, ever so slightly thicker than parchment.
In the mood for cool, fresh, raw food, I chose the mozzarella and tomato salad. Sprinkled with oregano and fresh basil, I splashed some extra virgin olive oil onto the plate and tucked in. Admittedly, the tomatoes were a tad hard – a couple more days on the vine would have done them no harm, but the mozzarella was superb – rich dairy goodness with a consistency part-way to burrata, it stole the show.
Monsieur does enjoy a good club sandwich from time to time. Here’s how the Del Molo does it:
Once more, only the freshest ingredients were used, including the egg mayonnaise, salad and tender chunks of Sardinian chook. Even the bread was toasted to just the right shade of gold, but it was my main that will go down in the Epic book of all-time favourite dishes: tuna carpaccio with artichoke. I’m a carpaccio queen and I swear to the gods of all things culinary that this was the best tuna carpaccio I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat.
I think the trick was in lightly smoking the fish, for there was the vaguest hint of smokiness in the flavour. Sliced paper thin, dotted with fresh tomato salsa and preserved artichokes, all of it posing prettily in that same peppery extra virgin olive oil, each tiny mouthful contained a fishlover’s fireworks. At once fine yet unexpectedly fulsome, I ate slowly, allowing it all to seep into my cheeks so that I could hold the flavour for as long as possible. In the greatest gesture of generosity, I forked a bite’s worth onto Monsieur’s plate, keen to share the experience. It will be a long time before I forget such a wonderful culinary treat.
Our waiter was a proper character – tri-lingual at least, generally displaying his trio of international skills in the same sentence: “Monsieur, your order, per favore,” or “tutto a posto, Missus, oui? C’est bon?”. Cleverly, this covered all the bases. Now he suggested “un’ gelato, ice cream, glace?” It would have been rude not to, although at €10.00 per three scoop sundae, stabbed with a branded wafer and squirt of whipped cream, the cost was excessive in a country where you can buy decent gelato at a euro a scoop. Still, we bore it with a smile, as the lunch had been fantastic, we were looking out at a stunning marine-lover’s vista, and it seemed sad to leave without something sweet on the tongue. The Sicilian cassata ice cream was excellent. Don’t leave Porto Rotondo without trying it. Homemade glacé fruit makes such a difference. NB If you don’t want to fork out €10.00 for a sit-down sundae, you can always opt for the take-away option for about half that.
A clue to the excellence of our Porto Rotondo lunch lay just inside this doorway:
That’s where I spotted a shelf absolutely groaning with well-thumbed, sauce-flecked cook books.
Certainly, this was an expensive visit at around €90.00 for just the two of us, including diet cokes and bottled water but no wine or alcohol, yet for the memory, it was definitely worth it. As for the tuna carpaccio – it’s the stuff my dreams are made of.
Bar-Gelateria Del Molo - Walk all the way down the Via Del Molo until you reach the water. The Del Molo is tucked just around the corner on the right hand side. Local phone number: 0789 34338.
Click here to see my last post about the Del Molo, where I talk about breakfast.
DSK: a trio of letters synonymous with scandal, sex and the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the IMF found himself embroiled in a hotel housemaid’s accusation of sexual assault earlier this year, Monsieur and I were transfixed before the television, not because of yet another (yawn) politician making the headlines due to a certain lack of behavioural restraint, but because of the hotel at the centre of the scandal. The story broke while we were in France for a family celebration. The French news stations were saturated with back-to-back tales of Strauss-Kahn and his fateful stay at the New York Sofitel, where Monsieur and I have stayed quite happily twice – no straying politicos or maids-with-benefits involved. It felt odd to know the place where such sordid events unfolded; contrary to how it may have come across in this year’s press coverage of the DSK affair, the Sofitel is a serene and beautiful place to call home during a sojourn in Manhattan.
Monsieur and I are fans of the Sofitel chain, especially as the presence of plenty of French staff make Monsieur feel so at home. On our last visit to The Big Apple, we dragged our cases up to the Sofitel from Penn Station and were greeted with warmth and a couple of welcome drinks vouchers to be used at Gaby, the hotel bar. Once we’d settled into our room set in a quiet recess away from 44th Street we took our vouchers down to the lobby to join the Friday afternoon crowd for a drink.
It was still too early for the pre-theatre crowd so prevalent in Midtown, and too early for most office workers to kick up their heels at the start of the weekend, but there was already the beginning of a lively gathering at one end of the room. Our waiter was Buddhist in his calm approach to serving his patrons; so much so he was almost invisible. Menus and cocktail mix appeared before us, yet so quietly that it was as if they’d been conjured from thin air.
Perusing the drinks list, Monsieur decided to forego his usual mojito in favour of the Lemon Drop cocktail, his first sip causing an audible sigh of appreciation. I stole a taste: it was like intense alcoholic lemonade with the essence of lemon meringue pie mixed through it. Iced, this would be a grown-up’s dessert of choice, not far from that naughty Venetian after-dinner drink, the sgroppino.
Chocolate was on my mind, so I ordered a mochatini, but our waiter quietly returned to our table to say “I’m afraid we’re all out of the Starbuck’s liquor required to make the mochatini. Could I interest you a chocatini instead?”. I was more than a little surprised to learn that a French hotel served drinks made with an American coffee giant’s syrup, but I have to admit that Starbuck’s mocha flavouring is quite excellent (stone me, curse me, but I give credit where it’s due). Fortunately, the chocatini soon took my mind off the omnipresence of globalisation. The cocktail was absolute decadence in a glass, like syrupy, alcoholic chocolate milk.
Meanwhile, three suits had taken stools at the bar, self-importantly jabbing the air from time to time as they mentioned markets and calls and shorts and losses. Shortly afterward, three women dressed for the kill arrived and took seats a little further down the bar. Air-kissing commenced amidst drawling “how AAAAARE you”s, making me giggle at their own brand of theatre. By the time we left, the girls were exchanging meaningful nods with the neighbouring suits whilst pointedly preening long tresses and adjusting cleavages. DSK it wasn’t, but mating rituals in Manhattan still make excellent entertainment.
There are many good reasons to stay at New York’s Sofitel: it’s ideally situated for the theatre district and Times Square, is central for the main attractions of all the big Avenues, close to the major stores of Barney’s, Bendel’s and Bloomingdale’s and shares its address of 44th Street with the eponymous Red Flame Diner and the Algonquin Hotel of Round Table fame. Ready and waiting for you when you’ve walked your feet into a numbed fatigue, the Sofitel beds are there to envelop the tired wanderer in their rejuvenating cocoons of softness. The doormen and concierges go the extra mile, there are PC and printing facilities in a quiet corner of the lobby, and if you want to just sit and watch the comings of goings of visitors and guests, the sumptuous lobby armchairs provide the comfort from which to do so.
Highly recommended, especially if someone else is paying, and I think we can safely assume that DSK won’t be going back any time soon.
There are four branches of Petite Abeille, or ‘Little Bee’ in New York City, each with Belgian charm and all proud of their reputation as being the providers of an excellent weekend brunch. Alas, house rules say no reservations are possible; you have to present yourself in person and be prepared to wait.
Monsieur and I were in New York for a long weekend, late in March. We were lucky with the weather: the sky was nothing but high and blue, the air crisp and we couldn’t wait for a proper Noo Yoik Sunday brunch, so, armed with a pair of rumbling stomachs we headed down to lower Manhattan to the Petite Abeille at 134 West Broadway.
On arrival there was already a line out the door, but within a few minutes we were inside and soon after that were offered seats at the bar while we waited for a table to become free. The restaurant byline is ‘a taste of Belgium’ and the walls were suitably covered with Tintin posters and a variety of Belgian memorabilia. We ordered drinks to quell our hunger. Monsieur had an OJ and I went all out, ordering one of the famous Petite Abeille Bloody Marys.
This was one fantastic cocktail, with plenty of va-va-voom courtesy of oodles of fresh horseradish and a liberal dose of Worcestershire sauce. The usual celery stick garnish was enhanced by a sprinkling of colourful batons of capsicum, a bit like fat pick-up sticks. The success of this drink surely augured well for our brunch – if we ever got a table.
Just as Monsieur’s stirrings of impatience became dangerous to the waitresses, we were ushered to a table by the window – one of the prime positions in this otherwise tiny shack of an eatery. The wait was worth it for our view of both our fellow patrons and the street of eclectic boutiques outside. There must have been a fun run that day because runners and their cheerleading friends and family started to descend on the Petite Abeille, wrapped in aluminium blankets. These sporty folk knew exactly where to get their post-exercise carb fix.
Monsieur and I ventured into the menu with caution, nibbling at first on a shared almond croissant and a tartine of perfectly toasted baguette slathered with Nutella. My husband being French, his critique of breads is utterly unforgiving, so when he declared the baguette perfect and asked for a toaster like the one in the Petite Abeille kitchen, I was blown away. Such praise is rare.
Around us, the meal of choice seemed to be the waffle special, loaded with blueberries, strawberries and rounds of fresh kiwifruit, all scattered atop an evil layer of whipped cream. This was obviously not the place for slimmers, as proven by a quick glance at the menu which features a lot of eggs, potatoes, burgers and cheese. With such a tempting selection I was torn; would I honour my penchant for croquettes (North Sea shrimp or Belgian Cheese), cave in to an Omelette Maison (smoked salmon, scallions and sour cream) or tuck into the vol au vent filled with chicken stew, bacon, mushrooms and accompanied by fries? In the end I decided to go all out on the calorie front, ordering the Macaroni Jambon-Fromage - traditional mac ‘n’cheese with ham and Gruyère, delightfully gooey and rich with melted dairy products. Then to assuage the guilt attached to the glutton I am fully capable of being, I ordered a side salad of leaves with sliced red onion, seedless cucumber chunks and divinely marinated tomato that’s reminiscent of how tomatoey a tomato should taste. All of the time.
Monsieur was now elbow deep in his brunch fare: eggs benedict with smoked salmon, mesclun salad and stoemp, golden yolky lava coursing across his plate. “Your eggs are better,” he pronounced, “but the muffins and smoked salmon are excellent.” Having started the day unconvinced by my choice of brunch restaurant, fussy French husband was now praising my eatery-selection techniques. “And this stoemp is very, very good.” he mumbled through a mouthful of leek and potato mash. The only thing he didn’t comment on was the mesclun, but he wouldn’t; to Monsieur salad is simply salad, only worthy of comment when the leaves are brown.
Bottomless ice water and decent regular coffee with warm milk completed this sunny picture. We didn’t have room for any of the eight waffle options on offer but as a consolation, we would now not need lunch, having been fully topped up with calorific goodness. Monsieur and I paid our waitress with a smile, heading out into a bright Manhattan Sunday afternoon with gleeful step. I’ll certainly be back when the siren call of the North Sea shrimp croquettes becomes insistently inescapable and between you and me, I hope that might be soon.
In early May, the Sardinian summer season is slowly kicking off. The atmosphere’s halcyon, the sky cerulean, the waters clear and flowers exploding with colour everywhere you look, yet the tourist hordes have yet to land. It’s paradise.
One typically fine morning, Monsieur and I drove to Porto Rotondo, a village with impressive marina just south of the Emerald Coast in Sardinia’s north-west. It’s by no means ancient; farmers and fisherman inhabited the locale until prominent architect, Luigi Vietti arrived to design the village in the 1960s. He and his team of developers set to work, building hotels and apartments, boutiques and moorings and all the amenities a wealthy holidaymaker might demand. Love him or hate him, Silvio Berlusconi likes it here; he has a holiday home on the cliffs above the town. (If you’re into a bit of Silvio-spotting, I’ve heard it’s the one with several carabinieri cars permanently parked at the gate.)
Porto Rotondo is a curious place. It has a slick, artificial feel to it, with the tangible yet conflicting element of deep relaxation. The people don’t walk, they amble, whilst smiling in a slow, easy way. The streets are cobbled and inlaid with modern mosaic patterns, the church of San Lorenzo (patron saint of cooks) resembles an overturned hull and there’s a granite amphitheatre for the entertainment of culture vultures. The marina is a tribute to luxury pleasure boats, filled with every type of exclusive vessel imaginable, from fat, white gin palaces to wood-panelled speed boats and tall, classic schooners. Boat brokers are two-a-penny here and you can see why. There’s plenty of business to be had.
When I remember our visits to Porto Rotondo, it’s the perfect breakfasts that come to mind. Monsieur and I discovered a quiet, traditional eatery overlooking a quiet section of the marina, and there we’d sit of a morning, the tranquillity seeping into our souls.
The owners of the Bar-Gelateria del Molo have proudly hung the date of its establishment above the doorway: 1950. They’re evidently proud to have been here before Signor Vietti; quite possibly they fed and watered him as the village grew into a pleasure port. Our breakfasts there were simple – perfect shots of Italian espresso, hot and creamy with a proper Continental kick, tall, cool glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice and soft, buttery croissants to start the day. At €10.00 a head for this simple breakfast, you might argue that it’s not great value, but Monsieur and I would disagree. The location is unbeatable, the staff welcoming, the views spectacular. The memory makes my heart slow in the most calming of ways.
Endearingly, outside the Bar-Gelateria del Molo is parked a tiny Italian delivery buggy of bright buffed red. In a wink to days of yore, there’s a wicker basket strapped to the back. I hope it’s tasked with carrying picnics to seaward-bound gin palaces, for it would be a complete waste to stay at home and order delivery food in Porto Rotondo, when you could so easily wander down to this refreshingly unpretentious bar with the perfect view. The del Molo certainly provides the quintessential Italian breakfast of quality, but I imagine it’s equally glorious for a cocktail at sunset, or a wicked lick of stracciatella on a hot afternoon.
Sitting here in the grey of January in London, the simple act of recalling breakfasts at the Bar-Gelateria del Molo warms me through. If that isn’t a glowing reference for an eatery, I don’t know what is. So, promise me, please, that if you find yourself in Sardinia one early May, you’ll make your way to Porto Rotondo and, even if it’s just the once, you owe it to yourself to breakfast by the marina. For the oft-harassed escapee from the hamster wheel of the Western World, this is a tonic not to be missed.
Paris on 27th December last was cold. Bitterly cold. It was so horribly cold that I figured Jack Frost was out and about, only this time on on steroids. In spite of coats and scarves and gloves with thermal lining it was too cold to venture across town in search of an evening meal; on this, Monsieur and I were agreed. Any sort of food-seeking trek was out of the question, however, in a demonstration of true courage (motivated by hunger) we did eventually manage to leave the hotel, although no further than crossing the street.
Luckily for us, on the rue de l’Isly, where we were staying, there were a few restaurants that had fairly decent internet reviews, including Certa - an informal bar-cum-restaurant. In our big, winter coats we ended up walking out of the warm hotel, several yards across the chilly street and straight into Certa. Our coats came off again mere minutes after we’d put them on.
The front of Certa was for drinking, filled with low, informal clusters of chairs, sometimes with a small table, and generally populated by hip young things with cocktails. As we’d indicated that we were here for dinner, our waitress led us to a table at the rear of the establishment, where the serious sport of eating was dealt with. We were the only tourists (pseudo-tourists at that, as Monsieur is genuine French produce); back here the people ranged in age from six to sixty and there was a happy burble of conversation in the air.
Unfortunately, that same waitress looked after us for most of the evening. If it was cold outside, it grew colder every time she passed by. This girl was so grumpy, surly and devoid of courtesy that by the end of the evening, if I’d seen her crack even the glimmer of a smile, I would have fallen straight off my chair. She seemed to have been born without the pleasant gene. I hate that. Angry wait staff affect my digestion (I kid you not).Thankfully, Monsieur and I were at Certa to eat, not to make friends with the grinch in the apron.
It was happy hour. As all true bar-hoppers know, ‘happy hour’ can mean many things: two for ones, half-price bottles, discounts, free glasses, silly hats and vouchers. At Certa, happy hour meant that Monsieur’s beer was cheaper, and my small glass of house rosé was upgraded from a measly 150ml to a slightly less measly 200ml.
What can I say to that? Quite a lot, actually. France is a land of fine wine, filled to the gunnels with grapes, vines and vintners, but can you ever get a proper English-size 250ml glass of wine? Not on your Nellie. If you want 250ml of your favourite grape, you have to order a pichet or small carafe and if you’re not sharing, you might get a look as if you’ve fallen off the latest twelve step programme. I digress. I’d been looking forward to this particular glass all afternoon and 200ml, even if 50ml of that were free, simply did not cut it. Added to which, the aforementioned happy-happy-waitress prevented me from ordering a second glass through negligence, so 200ml had to last a whole two courses. That’s simply not the way I was raised.
So far, so bad. We had grumpster in charge of our supper and ridiculous happy hour ‘bargains’. Heaven only knew what the food would be like.
Monsieur and I both decided that the Salade Italienne sounded good so ordered a matching pair as starters. We expected a modest selection of salad and antipasti. Instead, our plates arrived piled high with ingredients – like a small Matterhorn of Italian foodstuffs. The price per salad was misleadingly modest for central Paris. What sat on the table before us now was remarkably good value. Perhaps we hadn’t made such a dire mistake by coming here. This Certa place was finally showing promise.
A pillow of crisp, green leaves peeped up at us from beneath a panoply of colours and textures. Folds of paper-thin prosciutto, wedges of avocado pear, grilled rounds of marshmallowy eggplant and a rainbow of marinated capsicum – just looking at the array made me think of Arcimboldo, the artist who invented the vegetable-face portrait. A dollop of creamy ricotta sat on one side of the plate, artichokes hid beneath greenery on the other. It’s not possible to assemble an Italian salad without tomatoes, so they were there, too. A mosaic of slim, hard cheese (parmesan? pecorino?) squares sat like a tumble of upturned scrabble squares atop all, a shower of pinenuts and balsamic vinegar completing the composition.
The presentation of our salades Italiennes might well have been impressive, but Monsieur and I bore the brows of concern. Our plan for a light meal looked as if it had just been blown out of the Seine. These salads were immense and we’d already ordered main courses. Ah well. The diet would have to start tomorrow.
Surprisingly, once our cutlery got busy, we found that the salads were lighter than we’d presumed. I finished every last bite of Italian goodness without a problem. Monsieur also cleaned his plate. And yes, there was still room at the inn. Our mains would not be wasted.
But first, Grumplestiltskin made a rare appearance. She cleared the table, grimacing in her attempt to leave us with our cutlery from the first course, only to realise that it was too covered in olive oil/balsamic/ricotta to rest on the table without causing mess that inevitably she would then have to clean up. With an audible harrumph, she removed the cutlery with the crockery and returned to drop new knives and forks on the table with the careless tingtingting of metal on metal. Grace was definitely not a virtue with which this waitress was endowed.
As a main, Monsieur had carefully selected a beef burger with fries and salad. I’d be lying if I said it looked inspired, but my own, private carnivore declared it excellent – both in the quality of ex-livestock, and the special, spicy sauce which looked disturbingly like thousand island dressing. Burger aside, if Monsieur’s happy, I’m happy, so, as he munched happily on his side of the table, I tucked into a plate of pommes de terre écrasées (roughly translated as squashed potatoes, not to be confused with mash) served with a drizzle of sour cream and a gluttonous spoonful of caviar.
For anyone who has not yet tried potatoes with sour cream and caviar, please do so immediately. The combination is Guilty Pleasure with capitals G and P. On the menu, the pommes de terre écrasées were listed as NEW, their description appearing in its own little text box and the proprietor must have been interested to see which of his patrons had ordered this wicked dish, for he appeared table-side, genial in plaid shirt, suggesting that I sprinkle some sel des algues, or seaweed salt, over the potatoes. “Yes, please!” I enthused. My advisor’s face lit up with joy, for he had an adventurous eater at his restaurant. Too soon, he disappeared back into the kitchen, just as I started flailing about like a shipwreck victim at sea, trying to gain the attention of the waitress so I could enjoy another (small) glass of rosé with the potatoes. Apparently quite the invisible woman, I failed in my quest for pink grape juice, but the potatoes were such a success that a smile slowly spread across my face and stayed there for some time after.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we weren’t asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee (we didn’t want either) or that Grumplestiltskin effectively forced us to approach the bar in order to pay (no bill was forthcoming). She managed to charge our card on a machine, return it with paper chit and effectively ignore both Monsieur and me as she carried on a grumpy little conversation with the barmaid. She did not thank us or wish us a good evening. In fact, she was such a fine example of how NOT to treat paying customers in a dining establishment that I’d have to say she’d turned it into an art.
Would we return to Certa? Even though the food was excellent, I’d have to say no. Firstly, Paris is overflowing with opportunities to eat well in environments non-conducive to Grumplestiltskin-style staff, so why go to Certa if you prefer to be treated like a visible human being? Secondly, I have since successfully made my own pommes de terres écrasées with sour cream and caviar, hence removing the need to revisit that meal option at Certa. Admittedly, if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat around the Gare Saint Lazare, Certa will tick a few boxes, but if, like me, you resent feeling like poodle poop on a Christian Louboutin heel when paying for food, this is a place to avoid.
***If you work at Certa and happen to read this, please note that, by the simple act of ignoring my husband and me, Grumplestiltskin shaved a potential of at least 2 desserts, 2 double espressos and a pichet of pale pink wine off your takings from our evening with you. Worse still, she has lost you the value of repeat business from a couple who often stay at the hotel just yards from your door. The bottom line is this: in tough economic times, restaurateurs can’t afford to pay staff who lose them money, even when the quality of what you serve is high. In summary, it’s time to lose the sourpuss. Can you really afford not to?