Category Archives: Restaurants – let’s eat chic
Restaurant reviews, recommendations, eating out
A luxury hotel, lashings of fine dining and a whirlwind of contemporary art? Chez Epicurienne, that’s what I call a killer combination that I’d be happy to dive into on any day of the week. Courtesy of the Le Méridien hotel group, I was recently invited to partake of just such a tantalising synthesis of sensory stimulants during an arts-focussed stay-cation, based at their landmark hotel in London’s Piccadilly. I’m still recovering, in a good way.
A top hotel’s relationship to food is a no-brainer; the two go hand-in-hand, but where does art enter the equation? In this case, Le Méridien, the forty-year old international hotel chain, has incorporated art into its properties so that wherever guests look, art will meet their eyes – be it on arrival, on relaxing, even on using their key card. Steering Le Méridien’s artistic intentions is Jérôme Sans, the French art curator and critic, in his capacity as the LM Cultural Curator. What’s more, for the past five years Le Méridien has been a principle partner and supporter of an arts initiative called OFT – the Outset/ Frieze Art Fair Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection. Through OFT, the Tate is able to bypass purchasing bureaucracy to acquire work by emerging artists featured at the annual London fair for contemporary art: Frieze.
Over two days, our small group of bloggers along with various members of hotel management and Le Meridien’s PR company, Fleishman Hillard, managed to experience one art discussion panel, several types of unforgettable hors d’oeuvre, one unusual afternoon tea, six delicious meals, one international art fair, three world-famous art galleries, exhibitions various, two nights of sumptuous sleep, meetings with key art experts and personalities, a lesson in Le Méridien’s history and brand and various forms of London transport – including the water kind. For obvious reasons, I will not attempt to squeeze everything listed above into one post, lest it resemble a hefty artistic monograph. Instead, I invite you to join me on a multi-post tour of Le Méridien’s London art-u-cation. It’ll be an inspiration – for locals and visitors alike.
Photo above courtesy of the Le Meridien website, http://www.lemeridienpiccadilly.co.uk
My New Best Friend on the other side of The Pond is Adam Zettler of MetroMarks. He’s recently launched a regular feature called My Favourite City on the MetroMarks website, where you can find all sorts of insider info about an ever-growing number of cities around the world. They kicked off My Favourite City with a post about Toronto, Zettler’s hometown, and this week they’ve given me some space to rave about Venice, Italy. If you click on the link below, you’ll find out my top three must dos in Venice, my favourite restaurant for both memorable views AND food, as well as other reasons why I find this city so special. Most importantly, perhaps, are my tips on how to enjoy Venice without falling into the typical tourist traps.
Click here to read My Favourite City – Venice.
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To sign off, here are a few photos of Venice from earlier this year:
Casanova and his latest squeeze, spotted near Frari
A trio of palazzi
View of St Mark’s Square from the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore
Monsieur and I recently found ourselves in the searing hot Vendée region of France. On arrival it was forty degrees in the shade and the land was baking. The beach beckoned, so off we set for the coast for a swim. As it was still holiday season, we knew it would be busy, but the scene that greeted us at Les Sables d’Olonne reminded me of a real-life Ken Done painting; there was barely a square of sand free upon which to park our bottoms.
Even from a distance, the beach could be seen to crawl with hot, pink, sweaty bodies.
A short walk away was the lively little port, filled with fishing boats and gin palaces, afternoon excursion boats heading out to sea, yachts and hungry folk scratching their heads as they tried to decide which of the myriad eateries should get their business.
Here’s a romantic little boat we spied setting off for an evening sail:
Across the harbour, it would seem that the Entente Cordiale is alive and well at this frozen storage facility for the maritime co-op:
Back on our side of the water a local waits patiently for his dinner to take the bait:
Les Sables is really quite a pretty town, with an armour-clad winged victory atop its war memorial, looking suitably businesslike, yet stylish.
In spite of the armadillo-style fleece, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a sheep that this wolf is ogling. Dinner time?
It was for us, and now we were the ones scratching our heads as we trotted back and forth along the port-side promenade, trying to decide where to eat.
In summary: Les Sables d’Olonne is a lovely little seaside town, but don’t go there on a hot, sunny weekend, unless sardining yourself on the sand is your idea of fun. The water isn’t particularly clear, either (read into that what you will). Food-wise, you’ll be spoilt for choice, especially on the port-side, but be warned: you’ll need to be patient to find a good deal in high season – walk around and look at ALL the menus before making your choice. If you go on a weekday, however, the fish market by the port sells all sorts of seafood, sauces and even wine, all of which would make a great addition to any picnic, and at reasonable prices.
It’s hard to imagine an island of 5 square kilometers becoming a kingdom on the whim of a royal visitor, yet that’s exactly what happened to tiny Tavolara, off the east coast of Sardinia. When King Charles Albert of Sardinia visited Tavolara in 1836, he bestowed independent royal status upon it and decreed that resident shepherd Giuseppe Bertolioni should be king. The King wanted to show his thanks for the sheep that Bertolioni had presented to him in honour of his arrival on the island, thereby creating what was for many years (1836 – 1962) the smallest kingdom in the world.
There isn’t that much information available about Tavolara, should you want to visit, hence this post, which I hope will help any would-be visitors to the island. Monsieur and I visited Tavolara in May of this year, and it was a welcome distraction, yet we’d probably have enjoyed it more had we known more about what is, or rather isn’t there.
The main reason for visiting Tavolara, population a whopping 55, is probably to satisfy the curiosity of why such a place might have a king. The second reason might be to eat at the island’s one restaurant, Da Tonino (they’ll send a boat to pick you up) and a third might be to pay respects to the deceased island royals in the tiny cemetery. It’s also possible that if you work for NATO you may visit the large chunk of the island serving as a NATO base and absolutely off-limits to the likes of us.
There are no cars, bicycles or vehicles on Tavolara (not that we saw, anyway), making us feel a bit silly, having asked if it were possible to take our car across on the ferry. (Admittedly, that was before we saw the ferry.) One walks, as we later found that it’s perfectly easy to circumnavigate the portion of island accessible to non-NATO visitors. Do note that if you decide to visit Tavolara, be sure to bring a picnic with you as there is no shop and when we visited, the restaurant was closed until 1pm, by which time we were ready to head back to Sardinia proper.
Our ’ferry’ was in fact more of a shuttle boat, cram-packed with raucous local kids on a school trip. It was early morning and we’d been led to believe by hotel staff that getting coffee and a couple of breakfast pastries would be possible once we arrived at the island. It wasn’t possible as there is naught but the restaurant, which wouldn’t open for some hours yet. Fortunately, we had water in our packs, but I think you can imagine how hunger might have impacted our view of the island somewhat as my dear husband and I don’t travel too well on empty stomachs, food lovers that we are.
By the time the twenty minute boat ride was over, we’d had enough of smurf-swapping and excited screeching (although talking to the kids in basic Italian made me feel as fluent as Dante Alighieri because they understood everything I said), making away from the children as swiftly as our feet would carry us on the sandy paths. Now we understood why the ticket seller had mentioned the school trip, suggesting we might prefer to wait for a later boat. They were loud, as school groups so often are, but quite well-behaved nonetheless. However, later on, as I rinsed my hands in the ladies’ washroom at the back of the (closed) restaurant, one particularly precocious madam pointed at my slightly peeling shoulder, shook her head and tut-tutted. “Shame,” she said. It felt like being scolded by a grandmother in a ten year-old’s body.
Monsieur and I walked the length of the island’s main highway – a sand-swept walkway busy with determined lines of rather large ants. At various points along the way were information boards about the flora and fauna of the island, which was certainly unspoilt. The northern beaches just off the path were too rocky to lure us in for a dip; once we’d visited the cemetery with its rickety wooden gate and had spotted the yellow-teethed goats that share (and eat) the island, we’d pretty much covered all the options open to us. Heading down to the more sheltered southern beach of sand, we dozed for an hour or so until the next boat could take us back to civilisation and, naturalmente, FOOD. If you’re a botanist or biologist, Tavolara will possibly hold more interest for you; for us, we regretted not knowing to pack a picnic, ‘cos once you’re on the island, you’re on the island and you can’t leave until the next boat, on an inconveniently erratic timetable, arrives. Another time, we’d probably go when the restaurant is open, wiling away our time in the consumption of local dishes and gazing at the unimpeded views of the Sardinian coastline, followed by a lazy siesta on the beach. Alternatively, find out when the Tavolara film festival is on (usually July) to hob nob with Italy’s gliterrati of the cinema whilst watching Italian films and creative shorts capturing the beauty of Tavolara.
In summary, and to experience the best of this peaceful place, don’t do as we did and go unprepared; either visit at a time when the restaurant is open or take a picnic. Load up with reading matter or snorkelling gear or something else to entertain you if you’re easily bored and then Tavolara will become a haven of tranquillity to be savoured.
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.
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.