Category Archives: The UK
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.
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
When we first moved to Maida Vale some years ago, Monsieur and I missed having a sushi bar within easy reach of chez nous. To eat Japanese at the weekend, we’d have to travel. Not as far as Tokyo, of course, but across a postcode or two. Sometimes, that’s not what you need at the end of a long week, when the footstool beckons and the only exercise you feel like doing is punching numbers into the phone and asking someone else to do the cooking, so you can just about imagine our delight when a small Japanese eatery called Maguro opened within easy walking distance of home. It didn’t take us long to get down there to test their foreign fare.
The first couple of times we visited Maguro, it was to dine in the restaurant. The wood-panelled interior is so small that it must have been modelled on Japanese spaces – with only room enough for 20 or so covers. Having said that, over time we’ve noticed that during hours of service, Maguro rarely has room for more than a couple of walk-ins, if that. The staff battle for room to serve and clear and even enter the kitchen, which is miniature, and the conveniences hide away in authentic fashion behind a long Japanese curtain at the back of the long dining room. In spite of such restrictions on the possibility of some active cat-swinging, Maguro successfully produces faultless cuisine without interruption. This is proof that size really does not matter.
Unfortunately for lazybones us, Maguro doesn’t deliver (yet) so we dutifully call our order through in advance before setting off to collect our food. Monsieur and I toss a coin for the pleasure of stretching our legs, but invariably we are more motivated than usual to move ourselves, inspired by the pleasure potential of the meal ahead.
Here’s a sample of what we had for our eat-in Friday night ‘date’ last week:
Agedashi tofu. If I tell you that I could visit Maguro for their agedashi tofu alone, you might begin to understand just how good the Maguro version is. The tofu is always piping hot in a delicious gelatinous tempura sauce. I usually don’t do gelatinous unless it’s in a pudding, so take it from me: it’s gotta be good if I like it here.
From left to right: pork gyoza (they also come in prawn, chicken or vegetable. My favourite is the prawn but they’re all very good). Shumai - steamed dumplings filled with a blend of snow crab, salad onions and something called ‘tobiko’ – flying fish roe. Served warm, each shumai provides a perfect mouthful of the subtlest seafood sensation. Last, but not least, tori niku BBQ: barbecue chicken with onion and capsicum - ideal with plain rice. They don’t skimp on the sauce here - there’s always plenty to coat the tender bite-size strips of chicken. The after-burn is just hot enough to be interesting without necessitating a long squirt from the nearest fire extinguisher.
Maguro Tataki: a seared salmon sashimi with ponzu sauce. Each piece of sashimi rests on a bed of finely-grated white radish. A truly refreshing combination of taste and texture.
Maguro yukke – sashimi grade tuna, chopped and tossed in a sesame soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions and pine nuts. Stab at the raw quail’s egg to release the yolk and mix through before eating. A cool, fresh, tangy taste of Asia.
Kani kara age – soft shell crab. Maguro dips the crab pieces in tempura batter and lightly fries them – served with the sort of light horseradish sauce that should be bottled and sold in its own right.
Last, but not least, Maguro’s black cod. This version easily matches Nobu’s signature version. It flakes into morsels with the barest suggestion of a chopstick’s touch, not to mention that the miso paste marinade is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Over time, Monsieur and I have tried a fair number of items on Maguro’s menu, including teriyaki salmon, the sashimi platter, salmon tartare which has a proper heat to it – most unusual, and the tuna tartare. Even the house salad is worthy of praise. It’s a great destination for anyone watching their weight and offers plenty of choice for vegetarian friends. The myriad menu options cater for all depths of pocket, from shallow to bottomless. The lunchtime Bento boxes are great value, and the set dinners are competitive, but if you want to push the boat out and order the likes of Kobe beef sashimi or foie gras and hotate (seared scallop) it’s definitely possible to rack up quite a bill here.
Drinks are as you’d expect – Japanese beer (Asahi), a selection of warm and cold sakes, plum wine and green tea, along with a small but carefully-chosen wine list and all the regular soft drinks (orange juice, diet soda, mineral water etc).
Sadly, Monsieur and I will be leaving W9 later on this year. We’re ready for a change of scene but we’d feel even better about our future postcode if we knew that Maguro was moving with us. As that’s unlikely, we’ll just have to trek back to the old ‘hood once in a while to ensure that standards aren’t slipping, but for now we’re determined to make the most of our current proximity to this gem of a restaurant, with the project of working our way through as much of the extensive menu before we move. In fact, on writing this, I’ve decided where we’ll have our last supper before the removal van arrives and this is one decision I won’t have to check with Monsieur. As long as the black cod’s still on Maguro’s menu, you can count him in.
Maguro - 5 Lanark Place, London W9 1BT, tel 020 7289 4353
Once inside I found a lively L-shaped room filled with the happy buzz of people whose appetites were soon to be sated. The decor is Manhattan loft-style, with exposed terracotta brick walls, cosy booths, an open kitchen with bright stainless steel surfaces and when I walked in the kitchen counter was already covered with plates of Iberico ham in different guises. I’d starved myself all day so that I’d have capacity for everything on the menu, so you won’t be surprised to hear that one glance at the ham caused some (discreet) dribbling into the flute of delightfully dry cava that had been offered at the door.
In his welcome address Simon Majumdar, one of the Dos Hermanos behind the event, explained that there had been one thousand applications for tickets for tonight and we were the fortunate fifty to receive them. That was certainly interesting to hear – only five per cent of applicants would share the Dine With Dos Hermanos experience at Pizarro tonight and I was one of them (HOORAY!). I took my seat at a table with three lovely strangers, ready to begin the serious task of eating Mr Pizzaro’s fare.
First to arrive at our table was a plate of croquetas –perfect orbs of gold and so very creamy that they disappeared in a flash, causing me to dub them ‘flash croquetas’. I adore croquetas and these were at the top of their league – no gristle or tough old chunks to distract from the smooth, cheesy potato, just the right consistency with a smoky ham flavour wafting through the middle.
Next to appear was a spread of Jamon Iberico in three different forms, my favourite of which was the chorizo. Sliced paper-thin each mouthful brought more strange noises of contentment. My husband, a die-hard sausage-lover, would have hogged (pardon the pun) the plate for himself, had he been there, so I’m quite selfishly relieved he wasn’t. The accompanying bread was also good – bouncy, yeasty sour-dough, but the quality of the ham before us was such that it fully warranted being eaten on its own.
I went slightly bonkers with delight over the carpaccio of cod with fennel and orange. As the self-dubbed Queen of Carpaccio this combination was right up my street. The fish was fresh with the versatility to add the smack of ocean to the aniseedy fennel and zing of citrus. The only problem with Neptunian carpaccios such as this is that I’m always left wishing for more, still, there’s a way to get around that: I’ll just have to order double quantities next time.
We were next presented with the head of hake – this was understandably ugly yet delicious, with forks about the room excitedly excavating cheeks and precious fleshy bits from all parts of the fish head. Softened red pimentons were scattered liberally about the dish and these were a revelation in themselves – packed full of flavour but with an unexpected velvety texture on the tongue.
By now the guests were all heads-down, merrily eating and critiquing each plate. Meanwhile, the staff didn’t stop. Plates were cleared and new ones presented in a very efficient operation, especially considering that this was soft-opening week so everyone was working hard to get it right before inviting the public to come in and chow down. Such seamless professionalism was impressive, a testament to organisation skill. Not one of the wait-staff looked harassed, just focussed. What’s really amazing is how friendly they all were – no mean feat given the pressure they must have been under.
A side of tiny florets of cauliflower was a pleasant surprise. Cold, crudité-like, with the unexpected tang of vinegar, the cauliflower was simple, refreshing and palate-cleansing before the shift towards the heavier tastes of the evening: duck livers and Iberico pork cheeks.
The duck livers were served with red onion – or were they shallots? Small, red skinned, onion family… the liver was heady, stronger than chicken liver, yet smooth and gamey. The Iberico pork cheeks then arrived – morsels of porcine paradise. They practically dissolved in the mouth requiring next to no mastication – therein lies the beauty of slow-braising.
Then we were onto the cheese course – I regret I didn’t get the names of the cheeses, but being a fromage fan I was easily pleased here as there was a good representation of types – a couple hard and manchego-like with rind, one I’m sure was made from sheep’s milk… some black grapes and fruit chutney were the accompaniment.
And lastly, some cake – my single mouthful of this was enough as desserts are not really my thing, besides which I was thoroughly enjoying the PX Fernando de Castilla sherry, which eclipsed anything else I might have tasted at the time.
Throughout the evening, José Pizarro’s partners in wine from Cillar de Silos had kept us informed about and topped up with various glasses of Spanish goodness. We’d started the evening with a beautifully dry cava, which I wouldn’t hesitate to serve to friends as an aperitif, and then moved onto a rare and special fino from Gonzalo Bayass. The Duero wine-growing region was well represented by the Rosado de Silos and Illar de Silos Crianza from the Silos cellars, and lastly we had the delicious sherry to round off the evening. By the time I left for home I was one very happy bunny.
And so to the verdict on Dine with Dos Hermanos: well worth the effort. The evening was superb, the food and drink quality, the conversation excellent – especially as it mostly revolved around the common interest of the Fortunate Fifty: food. The icing on the tarta is that Simon Majumdar is, in my opinion, a really good egg with the right sort of priorities – family and food. As for José Pizarro, well, he kindly gave me some advice on how to make my tortillitas de camarones better, and that was a bonus to the evening that was most gratefully received.
Pizarro is definitely worth visiting if you’re heading down Bermondsey way. Don’t try to book – there’s a no-reservations policy, but as a back-up, if things are busy, you could always pop along the street to José, the slightly more senior tapas bar in the Pizarro stable, which opened to great acclaim last year. Definitely go to Pizarro if you’re fond of all things Iberico ham, be sure to try the croquetas, and if you’re in the mood for bubbles, why not give the cava a whirl? From what I hear Pizarro has had the odd teething problem since the DWDH evening, but that’s to be expected of any new establishment. Put simply, I’ll be returning soon with my chorizo-chomping husband in tow; he’s even fussier about food than I am, so if that’s not an EPIC seal of approval, I don’t know what is.
Pizarro, 194 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ
One of the most enriching aspects of being half of a Franco-Kiwi partnership is the opportunity to always have more to learn about the other culture. Monsieur definitely understands how dull his life was before meeting his wife and witnessing her Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour during All Blacks games. Inspired by my passion for men in black, my dear, sweet husband now knows all the rules of the rugby (thank you so much, Mr Wikipedia) and tells me often that ”France is gonna kick your esssssss at the World Cup”. If you don’t follow rugby, shame on you. FYI the RWC is coming up later on this year with key matches (read: when The All Blacks thrash France) already entered into all calendars and is predicted to be an interesting stage in our fledgling marriage.
Rugby aside, I’ve learned a great deal about French ways since meeting Monsieur – most of which they neglect to teach you in French studies at school or university. I make constant gaffes (or so I’m told because I also now realise how blunt the French can be when trying to re-educate hopeless antipodeans like moi, who are used to changing their cutlery with every course) and struggle with subjunctives and reflexives, but at the end of the day it’s all worth it when I discover some new (at least new to me) French tradition, like the eating of Galette des Rois on Epiphany.
For those readers who are more sinner than saint and don’t remember your Christian feast days, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the three wise men to baby Jesus, bringing with them as offerings gold, frankincense and myrrh. In France, Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January each year. It’s a big deal. At your favourite patisserie, you must buy a Galette des Rois, a type of sweet pastry flan filled with almond paste. Somewhere in each Galette lurks a tiny ceramic feve or charm, but only the pastry chef knows where. The flan is cut into slices, then one of the party is blindfolded and will point at random people in the group to indicate who gets the next slice. This is supposed to ensure fairness because sometimes a certain bulge in the galette may show where the charm is hiding.
Once everyone has a slice of Galette des Rois, eating begins with great ripples of anticipation coursing through the air: who will find the charm? It’s not just the kids who get excited. Before long, some lucky soul will bite into something hard in the midst of the soft almond filling “C’est moi! C’est moi!” they’ll exclaim, and will now become king or queen for a day, wearing a paper crown kindly offered by the patisserie with every Galette des Rois sold.
I first encountered this tradition when Monsieur’s maman invited us to an Epiphany party one year. Monsieur won the charm that time, gallantly asking me to be his queen – what an old softie.
This year, I decided to arrange an Epiphany celebration of our own – just the two of us. I tracked down a Galette des Rois at Paul, raced across town after work to collect it (there’s no decent patisserie near where I work, which is quite the cultural desert, as opposed to dessert) then dashed home to create a Frenchified evening. We made another type of galette that night – the brown savoury ones so popular in Britanny - filled with smoked salmon and salmon roe, chives and creme fraiche, or lightly smoked slivers of French bacon oozing with golden melted cheddar and an egg. I always find galettes rather filling, even though we never have more than two apiece, so we lightened our intake and ingested most of our five-a-day requirement with a big helping of salad before finally approaching the Galette des Rois.
I blindfolded Monsieur (nothing kinky), then he chose a piece for each of us. The charm was in neither, so we had to wait until the next day to try again as there was no capacity for two slices in that one evening. Monsieur won. I knew he would. He cheats. This time, his technique was to play a mind game on his poor, unsuspecting, defenceless wife (sob, sniff), so that she would allow him to have the piece with the tell-tale bulge. What was the charm this time? A small, ceramic crown, just big enough for a mouse to wear. Where is it now? In the bin. By accident. On purpose. Monsieur isn’t sentimental like me and didn’t see the point of keeping it to turn into a Christmas decoration. Luckily, Paul sold spares, and pre-empting my husband’s attempt at ‘feng shui’ (better chuck the charm), I’d already ensured that my Christmas decoration idea was taken care of. In a little round box, shaped like a golden crown, I had 5 beautiful little ceramic charms, just waiting to hang on the tree in December.
Then, on twelfth night, January 6 2012, we’ll have another Galette des Rois, just as we take the decorations down.
Once more, we’ll have French treats. Once more, Monsieur will probably win the charm. The difference will be in managing to confiscate the charm the second the crown lands on Monsieur’s head. You see, I plan to make a tradition of turning every year’s charm into a decoration, and that will require sharp eyes and quick hands, to grab the charm and ensure that Monsieur goes nowhere near the bin.
In the pre-Christmas rush to reach loved ones, we’re not having a lot of success here in the UK. A bit of snow has sent everything into chaos – flights have been cancelled or delayed, roads closed, warnings to stay at home issued, and trains stranded mid-line. The snow has also caused Eurostar to restrict the speed of trains on both sides of the Channel, adding at least two hours to journey times, with the knock-on effect of a great many train cancellations.
And so, Monsieur and I have been watching developments with interest, as we wonder whether or not we’ll reach our French famille for Christmas. With queues like the one in the film below, we expect it to be quite hard work. Since the chaos ensued on Monday, tempers have frayed, Eurostar staff have reportedly been rude and unhelpful (not the best P.R. at a time like this, Eurostar!), and it’s only through the goodness of the Salvation Army that people queuing in freezing conditions for hours on end have been fed and watered. Some poor folk have suffered hypothermia, St John’s Ambulance has therefore been on hand to treat the effects of standing for long periods in sub-zero temperatures, and if all that weren’t bad enough, yesterday the transport police were called to deal with travellers who’d had enough of being mucked around in what we’d all call the most amateur of company responses to their many thousands of stranded customers.
What is it about snow that we don’t seem able to deal with here?
And what is it about so-called customer service that allows so many thousands of travellers to be treated with such lack of care or respect when all they’re trying to do is get home for the holidays?
Eurostar has had no clear plan of action this week apart from cancelling services, cancelling pre-Christmas ticket sales and telling ticket-holders that they’d be dealt with on a first-come, first-serve basis. For simply OBVIOUS reasons, that was a big, fat FAIL, (a case of early bird with the pushiest elbows catches the worm) so today they’ve decided to try honouring tickets and getting their customers onto the next available train. Estimated waiting time? It still stands at a horrendous 3+ hours. I’ll be interested to see what happens when we try to travel. Will we make it or won’t we? The suspense is killing me. (Not really. The cold outside St Pancras will probably take care of that).
From what’s been said, things aren’t much better in the freezing cold station that is the Gare du Nord. Angry travellers + Gallic policemen do not make for a happy mix. Add a few truncheons and the picture becomes very, very messy, indeed. In fact, at the rate they’re going, Eurostar will be subjected to annual pre-Christmas service failure enquiries. Remember this time last year? I’ll give you a clue: trains. Stuck. Under the Channel. Services cancelled. As our friends in France would say: plus ça change. With that, here endeth the second Eurostar ranting.