It was nearing the end of our ‘vacances’ in the South of France last summer and we spent our last morning visiting the town famed for brocante: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walking through the picturesque centre-ville, that day brimming with parading brass bands in competition, their supporters and weekend visitors like ourselves, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Rather than stay in town, which offered a fair number of riverside terrace restaurants with postcard views, Monsieur and I drove back into the surrounding countryside, to visit Restaurant La Villa.
Initially, we thought we might have been lost, because the area in which this restaurant is located is so very residential that garden play-sets are visible from the street. We continued with the directions, until we found a gate and a huge, grassy parking area, more like a massive lawn than a place to leave cars. Beyond the car park was another surprise: a large swimming pool, dangerously inviting on such a blistering day, but had we come to the right place? Was this an eatery or was it someone’s home?
At the swimming pool all became clear; to one side lay bronzed patrons, basking on loungers; to the other were tables in the shade of an awning – there, we would dine. Practically all of the terrace tables were taken. There were more seating areas inside, but no one wants to be overly sheltered on such a halcyon day; the interior was devoid of life. Fortunately, the warm waiter who greeted us only shook his head for the briefest of moments when we admitted we had no reservation. Weekend lunches here in summer are usually fully booked, he explained, yet he found us a table and, unbidden, located a fan to keep us cool.
This dragonfly was mesmerising. She clung to the fan to cool herself before flitting off around the pool, only to return moments later for a refresher.
The menu was far from exhaustive, allowing Monsieur and I to make our choices with some speed. We were ravenous by this stage, in spite of the heat. I decided on the seafood salad, while Monsieur probed our waiter about the cut of pork and which part of the beast it hailed from. Taking Monsieur’s shoulder, the waiter caressed it a little too attentively as he explained exactly which body part Monsieur would be eating. From across the table, my husband flashed me a look of bemusement and I stifled a giggle. Our waiter was absolutely lovely, very gay and, now it appeared, rather tactile when it came to explaining the source of his meats. If only all wait-staff could be like him, we’d be very happy diners indeed!
My seafood salad kept me silent for quite some time. It was much larger than I’d anticipated and consisted of powerfully fresh ingredients which were beautifully presented.
The king prawns were succulent in the extreme, anchovies on a perfectly golden crouton were a contrast to the rest of the salad in both texture and saltiness and the scallops had been seared with skill, retaining a silken consistency which gave them bounce in the mouth. No complaints from me. The dragonfly continued to come and go from the fan. I didn’t blame her; it certainly was hot.
Too hot (in my opinion) for what Monsieur chose to eat: a ‘plume’ of pork, from Mont Ventoux,(a regional mountain of note where the pigs must be happy with their lot, making them taste better) served with aubergines and sautéed potatoes.
Monsieur and I cleared our plates, coughed up the requisite Euros, thanked our charming waiter, left the sun worshippers behind and set off for Avignon and our last night of vacation. We had a wonderful evening planned, replete with ‘last supper’, but for now our appetites were sated and we could travel happy.
**In summary: Restaurant La Villa serves excellent food without pretention or attitude. A wonderfully relaxed setting in which to chill out of a weekend. In case of disappointment, I wouldn’t recommend chancing it like we did; definitely book in advance for weekend brunch in the summer.
Restaurant La Villa,A750 Avenue Jean Monnet, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France
The Blind-in-one-eye Bum is an interesting name for a food establishment, and that’s the rough English translation for a Saint Malo restaurant named Borgnefesse. Borgne means blind in one eye (how efficient of the French to have one word for this affliction instead of four in English) and fesse means bum, buttock or bottom, whichever you prefer.
The original Borgnefesse was a certain buccaneer named Louis le Golif, who reputedly had had one buttock shot off by a cannon ball, hence the sobriquet which may also translate as ‘half-arse’ or ‘but one buttock’. No one can be sure whether or not the memoirs for which le Golif gained renown are fact or fiction, but apparently it’s quite an entertaining read if you’re a pirate nut who celebrates International Talk Like a Pirate Day each September. Thankfully, when Monsieur and I found Borgnefesse, the ‘half-arsed’ restaurant, there were no pirates (nor parrots) in sight.
We’d just arrived in Saint Malo after a long day which had involved much driving, battling of crowds at Mont Saint Michel, and a couple of fluffed-up €28.00 omelettes which were more like air bags than proper food and therefore barely sustained us through the afternoon. So tonight, we were hungry and boy, did we ever want to eat a fairly priced meal. Saint Malo boasted loads of eateries, but would we find one to suit our rather demanding palates?
A sunset walk about the ramparts of the old walled city had contributed to our appetites, so we set about finding somewhere to eat. One recommendation had closed and was now boarded up. The next on the list had changed in both name and cuisine. Some were closed because it was Tuesday. Some were closed for the summer holidays. We weren’t having much luck so we tried the strip of bustling restaurants along the wall between two of the town’s Portes but most of them served the same fare in similar prix-fixe formulae. Yawn. So we wandered away from the summer crowds and copycat menus in search of something a bit different.
The next restaurant we tried had taken its last orders at 9.30pm, even though its dining room was only half full. A handful of others we found to be too pricey and we’d had enough of feeling ripped off for one day, so we returned to a place we’d spotted earlier. The menu was compact but interesting and a pirate sign hung outside – now that’s different. Thus Monsieur and I entered Borgnefesse.
It was already close to 10pm but the waitress was smiling as she gave us a table. She single-handedly managed the entire room without even the hint of a grimace and all the patrons seemed happy. The decor had a subtle nautical theme, but all the table dressing was up-to-the-minute, with mushroom-coloured napkins and cloths. A stack of old books on a shelf between tables added a homely touch. In summary, the atmosphere was understated and warm.
There were no printed menus because this was a market restaurant, that is, they cook and serve whatever they find fresh at market each day. On a blackboard, across the room, were listed three different ‘formule’ or set menu options with different price points depending on the ingredients. Monsieur and I chose the middle-of-the-road €19.80 formule, which included a seafood starter, choice of main and cheese or dessert.
We both enjoyed our plates of fresh seafood, including succulent bulots (sea snails) which we twiddled out of their shells with a bulot pin, prawns and half a crab, complete with four long and spindly legs each. All the requisite shell cracking and crab-extracting tools were supplied so Monsieur and I could get our hands messy with produce so lipsmacking that it must have been that afternoon’s catch.
Monsieur was in need of a red-meat fix, so ordered the entrecote as a main. When it arrived it was smothered in a rich, peppery sauce and when my own main was set before me, I could see that the chef here must also be an excellent saucier because my stuffed squid was swimming in a little pond of aromatic sauce tinted a rich butter-cream colour with just a touch of saffron. Mon Dieu, how that squid was delicious – filled with a blend of minced calamari and tomatoes, and softened by the delicately spiced-up sauce. Served with a modest helping of wild rice and diced veg, the overall effect tickled all of the senses. The opposing textures jumped about on my tongue yet didn’t fight; rather they complemented one another. The squid was delightfully soft, having been cooked to perfection. The flavours blended into an overall impression of somewhere exotic and hot with a breeze from the sea. Oh yes, I did enjoy this dish very much indeed, and across the table from me, my husband had inhaled his entrecote so quickly that he’d been bored for a while now – a sure sign that everything on his plate had met with his hard-won approval.
For dessert, Monsieur polished off refreshing mango and strawberries with ‘their’ sorbets, as they say in France, while I had the most sensible cheese course ever: a simple slice of creamy camembert served with a couple of leaves of lettuce and some bread. It was tout simple but couldn’t have been more appreciated. Yes, I crave a taste of cheese at the end of a meal in France, but no, I didn’t always have the capacity for an entire cheeseboard. Long have I mourned the fact that I wasn’t born with more stomachs, like a cow, but it’s a fact I’ve learned to live with and the people at Borgnefesse make this hardship a little easier to bear by getting their portions right.
So, the food was superb, but at €26.00 our Pouilly Fumé tasted young and, strangely for a Pouilly, lacked in both character and bite, but in this instance even a duff bottle of wine remained perfectly quaffable. As we paid the bill and wandered back down towards the Grande Porte, Monsieur and I were comfortably (as opposed to belt-poppingly) sated.
“Do you want to know how much the bill was?” Monsieur asked,
“Sure,” I replied,
“Well, it was significantly less than those stupid omelettes at La Mère Poulard.” he announced,
“Hmmm. Doesn’t surprise me.” I said, “those were some seriously overpriced eggs.”
It wouldn’t take a mindreader to work out which of the two establishments, Borgnefesse or La Mère Poulard, is assured of our future custom, especially if the menu du jour shows the chef’s famous fish of the day stuffed with fresh Breton lobster or the Lotte (monkfish), which one former patron has described as ‘inoubliable’ (unforgettable). For now, Monsieur and I were simply relieved to have enjoyed a fine meal at a fair price. Even with a name like The One-Eyed Buttock, we will be back.
It was getting dark as Monsieur and I set off to explore something of Palermo on our first day in Sicily. We enjoyed the window-shopping along the Via R Settimo, later rejoining the broad Via Roma, where discount shops and mobile phone outlets were busy with post-Christmas sale business. My favourite window was for a deli-stroke-drinks shop where pyramids of prosecco bottles stood interspersed with beautiful boxes of candied fruit, marzipan and other sweet treats, ready for New Year’s revellers to come shopping. We visited San Domenico, the church where the great and the good of Palermo are buried, and there I spent ages in front of the giant Nativity display, or ‘Presepi’, as they’re known in this part of the world. It was garish, with larger-than-usual figures, pot plants, straw, bowls of citrus and figures of sheep. At the centre of everything was the inanimate model of Baby Jesus. For some reason, this Nativity made me want to laugh; it was such a happy, kitsch scene compared to many.
Back outside we wandered through a market off the Via Roma, passing the usual knock-off stands and stalls loaded with anything and everything from kids’ slippers to pyjamas or fake Calvin Klein underwear and kitchen implements in the alluring colours of lime or fuchsia plastic. On the way back to the hotel we passed the Teatro Massimo, seasonally decked out in fairy lights, twinkling their way to a massive civic electricity bill, with a carpet of red-leafed poinsettias running down its main stairs. This was the theatre where the attempted assassination of Michael Corleone takes place in Godfather part III. I was only sorry that it was closed for the holidays so we couldn’t see how they’d decorated the interior. I bet it was über chic.
Having endured a long day with only the most basic of nourishment, we were ready for an early dinner. The clerks at the hotel had recommended a restaurant for our first supper in Sicily: Zafferano. The reception was such a vivid example of pricey modern chic that it felt more like the entrance to a top hair salon than an eatery. Put it this way – there were pony hide chairs and a tweed-suited receptionist, only the tweed wasn’t fusty musty old English countryside smelling vaguely of mothballs; this girl was confident in her 5 inch heels and the suit hugged each of her curves as if she’d been born wearing it.
Down a few stairs we entered a space with exposed brick walls, a couple of didgeridoos, a knee-high vase carved of the darkest wood, and some splashy abstract canvases eating up the wall space. However, it wasn’t any of the above that distracted me; at the end of the room hung red and white poinsettias ‘planted’ in hanging tiers of plastic bags and ‘fed’ from IV bags. I’d never seen anything like it.
The maître d’ greeted us with champagne flutes, filling them half-way with prosecco. An elegant plate of small zucchini, carrot and potato dumplings then arrived and we selected a bottle of sauvignon/viognier called ‘La Segreta’ from the Planeta vineyard which is well-known throughout Sicily. Just as the wine appeared, the waiter whisked our unfinished glasses of prosecco away before we could say “Don Corleone!” but the wine was so crisp and fruity that we were soon distracted from the absence of a few extra bubbles trickling down our throats.
To start, Monsieur chose a carpaccio of smoked salmon, swordfish and tuna, whilst I enjoyed a plate of cernia or dusky grouper tartare on a bed of cress. On Monsieur’s side of the table the carpaccio disappeared with the silence of a satisfied diner and the cernia was so delicate that it dissolved in my mouth, leaving the sensation of a dream of fish flavoured gently with fennel, dill and lemon. The peppery cress brought the perfect tartare back down to earth with just the right amount of earthy leaf texture.
We weren’t kept waiting by the staff. Our glasses were refilled with a couple of fingers of wine at a time and were soon savouring our main courses. Monsieur’s suckling pig tournedos was served with fries and an orange sauce that perfumed not only the pork, but the air above it so that an orange grove appeared to be invisible around us. Meanwhile, my linguine with dried sea urchin and tuna roe was served in an ideal portion so as not to bloat the diner. The sea urchin brought with it a subtle taste of the sea and the roe slipped about the plate in an attempt to evade my eager tastebuds; it was so soft and cool that it disappeared with each press of the tongue against the palate. To top it all off, the sweet juice of cherry tomatoes cut through the saltiness of the other ingredients, making this a new top favourite on the Epicurienne List of Ideal Pasta Dishes.
We decided against taking a dessert at Zafferano, opting instead for a gelateria stop on the way back to the hotel. This was one of those good-ideas-at-the-time. The gelato was certainly refreshing but the flavours were all wrong. The coconut scoop tasted vaguely of pineapple and the stracciatella was sadly lacking in chocolate bits. “Never mind,” I told Monsieur, “we’ll just have to make it our week’s work to find a better gelato experience.” Besides, we’d enjoyed a superb dinner and a long, energising sleep awaited us, as did more adventures Sicilian style. There would be plenty of gelato cups to look forward to during the coming week.
When Monsieur and I returned to London after our holiday in Malaysia, it didn’t take long before we were craving Malaysian food, so off we went in search of good Malaysian eateries in London. Before too long, we found ourselves eating at Nyonya, a restaurant in Notting Hill.
Nyonya is a word used to describe Peranakan women, that is, women who are the offspring of Chinese and Malaysian parents. The Nyonya culture is prevalent in Melaka, with food rich in distinctive spices such as tamarind, so we were keen to try it out.
Nyonya sits at the busy junction of two roads, within easy walking distance of Notting Hill Gate tube. Patrons can see the traffic and passers-by from their seats behind the floor-to-ceiling windows and passers-by can gawp back at them, if they have time to be interested. The wipe-clean tables and simple stools inside are not conducive to leisurely meals, however. This is an enter-eat-pay-and-leave type of place, but as it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, you can’t be offended by the brusque service. Nyonya is a restaurant which has absolutely zero atmosphere with a decor so incredibly practical that everything even FEELS a sterile white. So why do a pair of atmosphere-seekers like us keep going back?
The menu is one reason. From deep-fried dumplings to satay sticks of chicken with a delightful peanut sauce that has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it, or the coolness of the Kerabu prawns with a sweet chilli-imbued sauce. (‘Kerabu’ means ‘salad’ in Malay). The Hainanese chicken rice is a typical Nyonya dish, which arrives looking typically white and uninspiring, but transports us back to Malaysia in one taste. I usually go for a laksa or mee soup, using my chopsticks to fish for noodles and other ingredients in the steaming broth, whilst watching my neighbours consume their choices and making mental notes to order what they’re having on our next visit.
The freshness of the ingredients at Nyonya is a huge plus in its favour, as is the laid-back vibe (even if it is a bit bland). We also appreciate the speed with which the bill arrives once it’s asked for. We hate that moment where the table is cleared and you ask for the bill but suddenly the wait staff abandon you to twiddle your thumbs. It can be a case of the invisible patron the instant you stop ordering food. Well, there’s definitely no risk of that happening at Nyonya. Masses of warmth and engagement, no. Speed and efficiency, yes. So much so that we often combine a quick bite at Nyonya with a trip to the cinema because we know won’t be kept waiting.
Monsieur and I still haven’t tried the kuih-kuih, a traditional dessert made from a family recipe, but we’ll give it a whirl next time. For now, I remember the driver who took us to our hotel in Melaka. “what do you like to eat?” I asked him. His reply was a veritable menu of dishes made with pineapple. I know he’d approve of Nyonya. They use pineapple in at least two of their mains.
2A Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 3BU, T 020 7243 1800
Having survived a flight delay and (temporarily) lost bag, by the time I reached the hotel in Edinburgh, Monsieur’s stomach was audibly protesting its emptiness. Mine rumbled back in sympathy, so out we went in search of decent grub. This we found, by chance, at the North Bridge Brasserie attached to The Scotsman Hotel on (strangely enough) North Bridge. How lucky we were.
We didn’t have a booking and this was Friday night, but the staff quickly found us a corner table in the gallery overlooking The Scotsman’s former reception hall. The building had housed the newspaper of the same name for almost a hundred years, prior to being opened as a Leading Hotel of the World in 2001, and the old-fashioned header is still emblazoned on a stone wall outside. It was an unexpected bonus to be sitting in a place of such national significance. The brasserie’s decor had been sensitively restored with dark wood panelling and balustrade around the gallery where we were positioned. Fat square columns of marble rose from the ground floor to the ceiling above us, and Robbie Burns’ portrait was reproduced and hung at frequent intervals around the main dining room. The starchiness of the white tablecloths was enlivened by blood-red glass tumblers and red leather chairs, and when our water arrived, it was (quite naturally) Highland Spring.
Our waitress was superb. If I could give a blog award for Best Waitress 2008, it would be to her. Linda was English but had spent a long time in South Africa and had somehow returned to Edinburgh, where she’d surprised herself by settling, at least, for now. “I fell in love with the place,” she admitted, once she’d answered the most-asked questions about the menu for us, namely “What’s Stornoway pudding?” (black pudding only more delicate), and “What are champit tatties?” (that would be Scots for mashed potato).
The bread arrived – freshly baked caraway or tomato, with a crockery tray of 3 bread condiments: regular butter, tomato and parsley butter or oil and balsamic. So far so good, but the meal itself was nigh faultless. Not feeling up to a full two courses, I chose two starters, instead. First up was one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted: Shetland Mussel, Garlic and Parsley broth. At £5.50 it was a bargain – creamy, light but tasty, with the sweetest little mussels throughout. I was sad to finish the last spoonful.
Monsieur chose the classic smoked salmon, which arrived encircling a pile of leaves, drizzled with lemon and baby capers, and served with onion bread. He’s not easy to impress, but on this occasion, the praise was high. “That’s the best smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant.” he raved. He loved the taste, thought the capers created a perfect accent, and commented that the balance between fish and salad and bread was just right.
As a main course I chose the seared scallops with the Stornoway Pudding that Linda had been raving about, all cooked in a garlic butter. A fresh tomato and shallot salad with champagne dressing was added as a side dish. Linda was right: the Stornoway pudding was much lighter than a regular black pud, and its intensity combined well with the subtle taste of the scallops. There’s not much that can go wrong with a tomato salad. Suffice to say, it was fresh and dressed to perfection.
Monsieur’s plate of tuna steak was served with bitter onions, bearnaise sauce and, Monsieur’s perennial favourite: fries. He’d asked for the steak to be cooked medium rare. In fact, it was more like medium but this wasn’t a serious issue, especially as the fries were so good that he pronounced them ‘home-made’.
We were now feeling so like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the stomach department that we could not consider a single mouthful of dessert, even though the cider poached pears with honeycomb ice cream and fudge sauce beckoned from the menu. Then again, at a place like the North Bridge Brasserie, it’s always wise to leave something worth returning for.