Category Archives: Cocktails
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.
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.
Warning: the reading of the following post may cause excessive salivation. Prepare to dribble. Might be an idea to grab a cuppa, too, cos it’s longish… But you know what I’m like when we talk food, right?
The lobby at The Fairmont.
At long last Monsieur and I could begin our much-needed honeymoon in earnest. In the course of a few short days we’d said our I Dos, celebrated in style, travelled across the globe in spite of that inconsiderate Icelandic volcano and were now safely in San Francisco. At the airport they’d run out of moderate-sized cars so upgraded us to a mammoth of a bright white SUV that had so much interior space that Monsieur and I felt like a pair of Smurfs driving along the freeway. Ah yes, we had definitely arrived in The Land of Super-Size Everything.
Following a sleep so deep that we could have been mistaken for a pair of new stone effigies in neighbouring Grace Cathedral, we were now in dire need of breakfast, so followed our noses down to the lobby in search of much black coffee and eggs with everything. It would be quite factual to say that we were quite empty and desperate to refuel.
Breakfast at The Fairmont is served in a circular room located just off the main lobby. Called The Laurel Court it boasts a triple-domed ceiling and walls painted with wistful Italianate landscapes. As we found, this is a low-lit haven where food for the famished may be found at most times of the day. What’s more, the menu reads like a gastro-geek’s dream AND even better, the ingredients are ‘locally sourced, organic, or sustainable items wherever possible.’ Not to mention that ‘all cuisine is prepared without artificial trans fat’.( I hasten to add that at this point in time trans fats were the last thing on our hungry minds but it was nice to know that we could chow down with a clear conscience. Ish.)
Barely skimming the menu in our starved state, Monsieur and I decided to go for the Deluxe Hot Buffet which, quite frankly, was a bargain for $28.00 (at least, it was the way we did it). We enjoyed bottomless freshly-squeezed orange juice, ice water and coffee, and tucked right into the buffet. Our word of that particular morning was “more!” and with good reason because we hadn’t eaten properly for almost a day. That’s right, people, a full 24 hours without food and we didn’t do it for charity. FYI: I do not classify the plastic wrapped oozy object that the airline called ‘a light meal’ as food.
Laurel Court at The Fairmont.
On the bakery island we found pastries so soft and fragrant that they must have just been lifted out of The Fairmont’s own ovens. The varieties of bread catered for all palates, including the densest, darkest pumpernickel and multiple multi-grained breads alongside classic rye, sourdough, sweet brioches and slices of downright ordinary white. There were baskets of bagels, piles of fat scones from both sweet and savoury recipes, granola and porridge for cereal-lovers, a selection of cheeses from nearby Sonoma and a veritable charcuterie of cured meats. The low-fat raspberry yoghurt was the fullest tasting low-fat variety I’ve ever had the joy to slurp and the platter of fresh fruit sat so heavy with sliced melons, bulbous berries, Californian oranges and squeaky shiny apples that it reminded me somehow of The Garden of Eden.
Beneath stainless steel covers in the hot foods buffet we found bacon and sausages and morning-fried potatoes. Then a smile spread across my husband’s face: he’d found the eggs Benedict.
It always makes me nervous when Monsieur eats eggs Benedict that have been made by non-Epicurienne chefs, just in case he finds some that are better than mine. I sat and watched his face carefully as he took a bite and ruminated over his Benedictine cud. “They’re very good,” he said, “but not as good as yours.” Thank the Epicurean Lord of all things edible. I could now resume breathing. You see, Monsieur is a highly critical eater and my eggs Benedict are in the top three things I make that so far no one else has been able to beat, but I live in (slight) fear of the day when he finds a preferable alternative to my version. Silly, I know, but I’m a bit competitive about my eggs ben…
Anyway, in our time at The Fairmont, Monsieur and I enjoyed two Laurel Court breakfasts and were intensely gratified by both. On one occasion I joined Monsieur in trying the eggs Benedict, to find that he was indeed correct in his appraisal that they were very good (but I also prefer mine). On the other occasion, I asked the egg chef to make me an omelette with tomatoes, scallions, wild mushrooms and mozzarella. Once again, it was very good, but The Epicurean Brother makes them better. I gave Monsieur my omelette appraisal, to which he replied: “what is it about your family that you’re all so good at making eggs?” To that, I have absolutely no answer, apart from: “just wait until you try my brother’s TORTILLA!” I guess we just enjoy the fruits of happy hens.
Apart from trying the eggs at The Laurel Court, I also enjoyed constructing my own bagel one morning. Lightly toasting an onion bagel I spread it with a blend of smoked salmon and regular cream cheese then layered it with soft folds of Atlantic smoked salmon and slices of a perfect tomato. With a squeeze of fresh lemon, a few crisp rings of red onion and a sprinkling of miniature capers I was good to go. And that, my foodie friends, is one bagel I won’t soon forget. It has something to do with the tomato that tasted exactly as a tomato should – tart with juice, unlike the bland red fruit we too often find served up at home which, to my mind, are tomatoes in name only. The salmon was also a revelation compared to the over-farmed slices to be found on London’s supermarket shelves. It practically dissolved on the tongue with the full flavour of a fish that had enjoyed a life free of pent-up farm pond misery. The key to the success of this bagel was all down to the ingredients.
My perfect bagel with the Happy Salmon.
Returning to the breakfast menu for a moment, I must share a few of the a la carte options. There’s Fig-Stuffed French Toast, comprising local black mission figs, brioche, organic eggs, cream and maple syrup. It’s served with roasted red and gold new potatoes and a traditional breakfast sausage. For the health-conscious there are Flaxseed Pancakes, made with dried cranberries and blueberry syrup. These are presented with sides of Asian pears that have been poached in syrup, Riesling and vanilla, and a chicken apple sausage. The classic poached eggs come with Yukon gold potato latke and corned beef hash and even the oatmeal turns up at table with roast potatoes and Applewood smoked bacon. Having said that, these combinations are mere suggestions. On ordering you can select whichever sides you like to accompany the main plate. The Laurel Court calls this ‘couture cuisine’ and positively encourages their patrons to play havoc with their menu. And no, in case you’re wondering, Monsieur and I were not born with bottomless stomachs so we did not try any of the above, not that we weren’t tempted. The buffet provided plenty of everything for both our appetites and believe it or not, we’re not that gluttonous. Yet.
Had Monsieur and I been intent on growing our girths at the Fairmont we could feasibly have noshed there all day. In addition to breakfast, The Laurel Court provides light lunches of classic dishes like grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, flatiron steaks and insalata Caprese. Then there are dishes with a twist, like the Bloody Caesar Salad which uses both red and green romaine lettuce, or the simple sliders made with top-notch Kobe beef. Some guests prefer to enjoy this elegant dining room over a sedate afternoon tea including six sandwich varieties, two of those previously-mentioned fat scones and five desserts. You can even add on bubbly and caviar or chocolate truffles. (Goshdarnit. I’m making myself hungry.) If you have a taste for some end-of day relaxation with a glass of something stronger in hand, then The Laurel Court has a pianist to tinkle you into reverie with soothing classical music.
Get a load of this cheesy geezer! That grin is oh-so-very wrong.
Sadly, Monsieur and I didn’t have enough time to try The Laurel Court’s offerings apart from their superb breakfasts for we were only stopping over in San Francisco but we were impressed with our experience there. As we left on the next leg of our honeymoon, Monsieur remarked “that was one of the best breakfasts of my life.” Now, that’s a true compliment coming from a genuinely fussy customer.