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Hoi An Highlights

Posted in Hoi An, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by gannet39


Hoi An is a pretty little port town on the river about 30 mins from Danang, the third largest city in VN.

Riverside
With a population of 90,000 it had just 4000 visitors in 1994 but by 2008 over 500,000 tourists stayed for one night or more and another million came just for the day, which gives you an idea of the way things are going, and it’s set to increase even more.

Streets of Hoi An 015

Beside the river

It’s still worth going to see its UNESCO world heritage architecture (ancient houses with Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences) and…

Chinese temple

 

 

 

 

Japanese bridge…because it has a reputation for good food, though opinion is divided on whether it’s any better than elsewhere in the country. One of my culinary heroes, the American chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, has set up home nearby so it must have something going for it. Personally I ate well most if not all the time. The highlights for me were the fantastic market and the cooking class I went to.

Cao Lau noodlesNoodles drying
Famous local dishes include Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Rose rice dumplings) which were brought to Hoi An by a Chinese family and the best ones are still made by their descendants.

After these perhaps the most famous dish is Cao Lau (a dish of long rectangular Cao Lau noodles served with deep fried croutons made of the same dough, slices of roast pork, herbs and a little watery sauce. Apparently it has Chinese, Japanese and French influences; however the water for the stock sauce must come from a particular local well for it to be authentic Cao Lau.

More Cao Lau 002


Cao Lau cooking station
Cao Lau noodlesCao Lao condimentsI ate this three times and found the best (B+), and worst (C-), to be from the small stalls around the sides of the market (very cheap places to eat by the way and probably more satisfying than most restaurants).

Other local specialities include Mi Quang (Quang Nam noodles with vegetables and pork), Bun Gao Phuc Kien (Fujien Chinese fried noodles), Hoanh Thanh Quang Dong (Cantnonese wontons), Bahn Trang Dap Cam Nam Cam Nam wet rice paper ‘sandwiches’) and Banh Xeo Ba Le (fried rice pancakes) although I could only find and try the last of these.

Market buffet

Cua Dai Hotel (Intermediate B), 544 Duong Cua Dai St, Tel: (84) 510 386 2231 or 4604 Email: info@ cudai-hoian.com Website:  www.cudai-hoian.com

A friendly boutique style hotel with a small pool and comfortable rooms with wi-fi, A/C and ceiling fans. It’s well placed between the centre of town (20 mins walk) and the beach (40 mins). I got a room in November for $34 a night.  It’s owned by the famous restaurateur Ms Vy (pronounced ‘Vee’) who owns four restaurants in town, including a patisserie and a cooking school.  Info for all her places is on the website which has a handy map of the town too.

The hotel didn’t have its own kitchen at the time of writing so food was delivered from the excellent Mermaid Cafe below. The breakfast is ok with the highlight being the excellent Pho (A)…

Cua Dai breakfast pho

…and the Hoi An Banh Cuon, a steamed rice flour crepe filled with vegetables and herbs (B+),

Banh Cuon

If the Cua Dai is full you could try the slightly cheaper and the apparently very friendly Hai Au Hotel just up  the road at 576 Cau Dai St which gets very favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. Their number is 510 391 4577

The Mermaid Cafe (Elementary B+), 2 Tran Phu St, Tel: 386 1527 opposite the cloth market entrance, near the food market.

Although a plain and simple place, the Mermaid is probably the best and most famous sit-down restaurant in town, due to being featured in many guides and other media, and I think I would agree with the accolades. My first takeaway lunch was wonderful; White Rose Dumplings (Banh Bao and Banh Vat) a local speciality which in this case featured two different shapes of dumplings, a small flower shaped one and a second larger half moon variety, both filled with ground shrimp and vegetables and topped with caramelised dried fried shallots (B+).

White Rose Dumplings

Also Banana Flower and Chicken Salad (Goi Hoa Chuoi Ga Hoach Tom) shredded chicken, carrot, banana flower and white noodles with mint, caramelised shallots and roasted peanuts (B+).

Banana Flower and Chicken Salad

Also another dish erroneously or seasonally described in the menu as Stir Fried Green Mustards with Mushroom (Cai Xanh Xao Nam) but which I would describe as pak choi with shitake, garlic and ginger in oyster sauce (A), perhaps my favourite dish that I had in VN.

Pak Choi and Shitake with Oyster Sauce

Just to make sure (totally in pig mode here) I had Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice (Com Ga Hoi An) which involved shredded chicken, carrot, kohlrabi or turnip with mint and turmeric tinted rice (B) .

Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice

However I didn’t think much of the rice papads which were cold, bland and tasteless (C). All this was washed down with the first of many bottles of Biere Larue, the half decent local beer (B).

Biere Larue

On another day when I came for lunch I had another famous local delicacy Fried Wonton (Hoanh Thanh Chien) a deep-fried wonton containing crab meat and topped with tomato and onion, which was delicious (A).

Fried Wonton

Also Spicy Noodle Soup (Sup Mi Hai San) squid, shrimp, white tuna, thin white noodles, the chopped stalk of a lotus-like plant called Bac Ha, tomato, okra and topped with pineapple, coriander and minced garlic and chilli; sheer bliss (A).

Sup Mi Hai San
A few evenings later I had Ca Thu Nurong Nghe or Grilled Mackerel with Fresh Turmeric in the menu, which was chunks of fish formed into a square cake with short glass noodles, minced red pepper, shitake, garlic and spring onion which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. It was pretty good but not worth all the effort it would take to make I’d say (B-).

Grilled mackerel in banana leaf

The Garlic Fried Rice, Com Chien Foi, was pretty ordinary (C) but my favourite Pak Choi dish saved the day. (Cooking note: cut the thick end of the stem in the middle so it lies flatter in the pan).
On my last day I was forced to have another takeaway as the non-stop rain kept me in the hotel. Sadly it was rather disappointing, with another poor Vegetable Rice and mediocre Spare Ribs (both C) but perhaps the latter could have been better if they’d been hot when they arrived. The Mermaid Spring Rolls were ok though (B).

Mermaid spring rolls


Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant
(Intermediate B) and Morning Glory Cooking School (Intermediate A), 106 Nuguyen Thai Hoc St, Tel: (0510) 2241 555 or 556, Email: morningglorycookingschool@gmail.com

Mermaid Restaurant 037

Pancake ingredients

I came here to eat first, little knowing that I would be learning to make some of my choices the next day. To start I had Banh Uot Thit Nuong (much larger pancakes than the diddy Xeo Cakes I had in Hanoi, and here flavoured with turmeric and wrapped with a sheet of rice paper) which were ok (B-) but rather stingy on most ingredients (a solitary shrimp and not many herbs or slices of pork, star fruit and green banana) but too many bean sprouts. The ones I made in class the next day were much better! Also I wasn’t keen on the satay sauce on the side and found them to be much better with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.

Pancake ready to roll

I also had Cao Lau here which I found to be pretty flavourless (C) and is better from the street stalls.

Cao Lau

The cooking classes however were much better. I was apprehensive at first as there were about twenty people waiting for the class in the morning. Thankfully we were divided up into groups of five and each assigned a guide for the morning tour. Our guide Trang spoke good English and was very knowledgeable.

Trang

I learned lots of handy tips like the more unattractive a mango looks (the black speckles) the better it will taste and also that custard fruit are squeezy like a sponge when they are ready to eat.

Mangoes taste better the worse they look

She showed us fresh turmeric, ginger and galangal and several kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Turmeric, Galangal and Ginger

Herb stall
Morning GloryI forget

 

Dried fishPicklesDragon FruitOne dead chickenBanana flowers shredded and wholeWho knowsScallopsPlums that are more like applesA gaggleSquid and fishNoodle stallDunno



We also found out there are two kinds of shallots (forget which is which) and two kinds of garlic (local small powerful ones for cooking and larger Chinese ones like the kind we get in the UK for eating raw in dipping sauce). There is an even smaller garlic chive bulb but this is only used for medicinal purposes as it’s too strong to eat.

Two kinds each of shallots and garlic

Also, when buying fish sauce, look at the colour which should be transparent and the same from top to bottom in the bottle, indicating a first pressing rather than a second or third. The taste should also change in your mouth rather than remaining the same. Finally she showed us several kinds of herbs, including peppermint, purple mint, aniseed basil and morning glory although there were many more on sale. Apparently Vietnamese people will first see what herbs are available before deciding what dishes they will cook.

I’d advise walking around the market once before you do the tour so you have more quality time with your guide. Trang got slightly impatient with us as we held up the schedule with impromptu stops for shopping and photography.

Back at the cooking school (upstairs from the restaurant) I was very impressed by the set up. Three rows of desks with their own built in burners, facing a teachers table with a long mirror overhead, which when angled correctly meant everyone could see what she was doing.

Student's desk

Van our teacher

 

 

 

Morning Glory Cooking ClassIngredientsOur teacher, Van, was again very experienced and knowledgeable and repeated everything twice, everything twice, so no one missed a thing, missed a thing.

We made Fresh Summer Rolls, Green Papaya Salad, Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaf and the aforementioned Banh Uot Thit Nuong pancakes, all of which were delicious (A).

Summer roll ready to rollFresh rollPapaya salad ingedientsPapaya salad and grilled chicken
Besides a recipe booklet you also get a complimentary Vietnamese vegetable grater, although mine was confiscated at the airport in case I tried to grate the pilot. There was only one course available when I was in town in November but I think they run as many as six different classes in the high season, from beginner right up to professional chef level.

Compared to the class I went to in Hanoi, both the market tour and the class were considerably more in-depth and I learnt a lot more. On the other hand the Hanoi class taught us how to make dishes that were much more achievable in the European kitchen due to the simpler nature of the recipes and the shorter list of ingredients, some of which would be hard to find at home. Both were worth doing.

Yum

The Lighthouse Cafe (Intermediate B), 5 Khoi Xuyen Trung, Tel: 393 6235, lighthousecafehoian.com As you cross over the bridge at the end of Hoang Dieu St, take the second or third right and follow the blue signs.

 Intent on escaping the clutches of Ms Vy and her not-so-evil empire, I decided to try this place out on the other side of the river which is run by a Dutch and Vietnamese husband and wife team. It’s a lovely spot, next to the river, and has lovely views over the water to the main town. There is only one comfortable table on the veranda however and I was squeezed into a narrow gap on the side veranda with a half table attached to the handrail. The space was so limited that my large cane chair could not be moved and I had to sit at a forty five degree angle to the table. No matter, it’s all about the food. I had White Rose dumplings again to compare them to elsewhere and found them quite chewy, a sign perhaps that they had been steamed a fair while before.

Lighthouse white rose dumlings

For the main I had Rau Muong Xao Bo, Fried Beef and Water Spinach, which had been cooked with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce, always a winner as far as I’m concerned and the beef was quite tender for VN (B+).

Fried Beef and Water Spinach

With a bowl of rice and a Saigon beer the bill came to a reasonable 120,000 dong.

Saigon beer with a view

This is a lovely and great for a romantic meal if you can bag the best table, or if you are in a group you could get more choices off the rather limited menu (only 3 or 4 choices for each category) . For the single diner there are probably better places, and better food.

Cafe 43 (Elementary B), 43 Tran Cao Van, go over the crossroads with Thai Phien and follow the road round to the left, it’s on the right after about 300 hundred yards.

Thought I should try this place given its number one status on Trip Advisor. It was packed out (50 seats) with noisy groups of tourists, although they found a table for me.

Cafe 43

I had the White Rose dumplings once more which were quite tasty but not very well made (B-). I also had the Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass (also onion and sesame seeds) which was pretty good if a bit oily (B-).

Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass

They make their own beer which a lot of people seem to really like but my glass was quite flat and I could only score it a C, the last of the batch maybe. The waiting staff had a few language confusions (beer=coke, rum & coke=rum & lemon) but were very smiley and nothing was a problem. Then again I’d smile a lot if I was raking it in.

They also seem to have their own in-house hawker who was annoyingly persistent. Felt a bit sorry for the empty place over the street with just a lone couple for customers but at least there’s somewhere to escape to if you fancy a quieter meal. The total bill with rice and drinks came to a dirt cheap 95,000 dong. This is an inexpensive place with no pretensions and good hearty food, a good choice if you are on a budget.

The Mango Rooms (Advanced B), 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 3910 839 http://www.mangorooms.com/

Raved about by lots of reviewers and guides, the food in this fusion place is undoubtedly good, but I can’t get past the fact it’s basically the same ingredients reassembled in a different way but three times more expensive.

Mango Rooms inside

I had a great mango lassi (A) which is hard get wrong and the ‘Tropical Lush’ which was seared tuna on a bed of lettuce, herbs, slices of tomato, orange, small cubes of watermelon and a ginger soy dressing with caramelised shallots, which was pretty good (B).

Seared Tuna

Total cost $10 which might explain why this place is empty most times I go past. The food is beautifully presented and like the Caribbean-style decor is vibrant and warm. The only reason I’d eat here again though is if I was totally bored with the local food, and I’ve got a long way to go till that happens. The menu is quoted in dollars, in itself a bit suspect to my mind, with main courses between $11 and $19, i.e. 220.000 to 380,000 dong; you’re looking at 600,000 plus with starters and drinks. It’s good, but not that good, hence the B. They have a sister restaurant called Mango Mango over the river.

Mango Room

Cargo (Intermediate B), 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 391 1227, just over the road from the Morning Glory Restaurant, next door to the Mango Rooms.
Another of Ms Vy’s establishments, this is a patisserie located in an attractive old villa. My classmates told me the cakes and coffee are very good here but rain stopped me from trying them out on my last day.

Cargo

Instead I came here for dessert one evening to try the recommended Lemon Grass Ice Cream which was delightful (A) although the scoops of Cinnamon (B) and Caramel (C) it came with were less so.

Lemon grass icecream

Son (Intermediate B), at Cam Chau on the continuation of Cau Dai St, about halfway to the beach on the right, Tel: 0510 3861 1172 or 0989 501 400 www.sonhoian.com


This is a funky little place built on stilts over the river. I also decided to try it because it’s supposedly a member of the International Slow Food Association with the implication of authentic good food, although I couldn’t find any Viet Nam members on the website. It’s a nice spot to sit and watch life in and on the river go by.

River view

There were hordes of bizarre long snouted fish, with eyes halfway down their bodies wiggling around on the surface below my table. The soundtrack to this was the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen who I always find very relaxing. The restaurant is staffed by a group of tiny waitresses dressed in what look like kung fu suits who practised their kicks and punches on each other and the middle-aged owner in between efficiently and politely serving the handful of customers.

I had the Chicken Curry which included potato, carrot, shitake mushrooms, baby sweet corn (not sure if this is particularly authentic) flavoured with lemon grass, celery leaves, coriander and spring onion, which was ok but could have done with more heat and less celery (C).

Chicken curry

This came to a moderately expensive 130,000 dong with two beers and I was about to leave it at that when the heavens opened, so I came back for a poor Mojito (mint turned to mush, too much soda) but an excellent Mango Pancake with Chocolate Sauce, the best dessert I’d had so far in Viet Nam (A). Perhaps my choices could have been better but I would still come back here for the ambience and the desserts, hence the B.

Mango crepe

So does Hoi An live up to the hype? It’s a nice place, definitely worth visiting but probably not for more than three nights unless you want to hit the beach. As far as it’s culinary reputation goes, there is good food to be had, as you can see in the fantastic market, but you have to search out the best stuff and that could take time when there are is so much choice. Hopefully this brief survey of the places with a name will help you decide. If you do anything here though make it the cooking class, you won’t regret it.

Dogs on different diets

Oi Oi Hanoi

Posted in Hanoi, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by gannet39

In Hanoi everyone seems to be on a scooter going somewhere, or sitting by the side of the road eating. Food is everywhere and it’s all delicious. My breakfast every day was a bowl of the famous Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) noodle soup, the national dish of Viet Nam. Although it displays influences from China (the noodles) and France (the beef) Hanoians claim it to be their invention, however this is disputed by people in nearby Nam Dinh. Pho may seem very simple but it’s all about the quality of the stock, which takes a lot of skill and time to make. It comes in two forms; Pho Bo (beef) or Pho Ga (chicken) and is served with a dish of lime and chopped red chilli with the seeds still in on the side. I’d say the chilli is pretty essential to bring the full flavours out, but is I guess optional for those who aren’t keen on the heat. Pho and noodle stalls are everywhere and while not as clean as sit-down restaurants, more often than not they have the best food, as well as being incredibly cheap. Anywhere busy must be pretty good but these really two impressed me.

roast beefstock pansGia Thuyen PhoGia Thuyen Pho (Elementary A), 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem. No phone. Open 6-11am and 6-11pm Located in a shopfront in the old quarter, this place only serves one thing and has been packed out with a loyal clientele for decades. With a rubbish-strewn floor and the big basket of misshapen chopsticks steaming on the pavement, hygiene standards are low but once you taste the stock you will forgive them anything. The bouillon is beautifully sweet with generous amounts of tender roasted beef and greens piled high. Very simple but incredibly tasty.

chefnoodles at the readyBun Bo Nan BoBun Bo Nam Bo (Elementary A), 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 3923 0701. Open 7am to 10.30pm. Another one-dish place so it’s easy to order, just hold up however many fingers for the number you want. Your bowl will contain a handful of white bun noodles with lettuce, carrot, kohlrabi sweet turnip, peanuts and a tiny bit of sauce which you toss together. Again it’s all about the stock which brings out the taste of the other ingredients.

The above two places are very near each other so I went on a noodle crawl, interspersed with stops at a bia hoi, the Vietnamese version of a pub except it’s outside on the street. These places make their own fresh beer which is usually very good.


Boys at the pub

 

 

 

 

Fresh beerHua Sua Training Restaurant (Intermediate A), 28A Ha Hoi, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. www.hoasuaschool.com Tel: +84-4 3942 4448

Thoroughly enjoyed this place and think everyone would come for several reasons. Not only does it serve good food at reasonable prices in a very pleasant environment (an old French villa), it also functions as a training school for disadvantaged kids who will go on to get work in the catering industry when they graduate. It was set up in 1994 by a group of retired teachers and since then they have trained over 5000 students for placements all over the country.

I arrived to a lovely welcoming smile from the young greeter on the door and was given a choice of sitting outside in the courtyard or upstairs on the floor overlooking it. The spot they showed me was a good compromise, a solitary table on a small balcony, neighbouring a larger upstairs dining room that allowed me to take flash photos of the food without disturbing the other guests. It was nicely private but at the same time made me privy to all the arguments and accidents in the kitchen as the sounds rose up the stairwell. The two young guys who waited on me, one of whom spoke some English, gave me the kind of service you would expect from a posh European restaurant, albeit it with beginners’ nerves. The breadth of the curriculum was revealed in the menu which covered traditional Vietnamese and classic European, particularly French, dishes as well as more modern fusion concepts.

Nice little comboWhile sipping on a blissful Sinh To Xoai (mango juice), my eye was first attracted to the starter of Bunoc Tay Ho (Rice Vermicelli and Snail Soup with Herbs) but then I flipped the page and came across the Com Viet Nam, or Traditional Vietnamese Combination Meal as the translation in the trilingual menu (French/English/Vietnamese) would have it. Vang DalatThis involved several dishes on a tray including; Fried Spring Rolls with Crab with nouc mam cham dipping sauce and pickled giant radish and carrot on the side. Also “Sautéed Vegetables” which on this occasion turned out to be baby pak choi with smashed garlic, a particular favourite of mine), “Broth” which was a lovely delicate chicken stock with lumps of meat and tender chopped baby pak choi leaves, and Stewed Pork in Caramel Sauce which was a fatty and delicious contrast to the simplicity of my perfectly steamed rice (all A). All of this for less than £4 so I decided to splash out on a bottle of the local Vietnamese red ‘Vang do Da Lat’ not expecting much but was stunned by an excellent, nearly full bodied red with red berry tones and good legs (B+).

Banana frittersFinally the set included Banana Fritters and Honey which were nice (B) and well turned out but were ultimately unsatisfying. And that is my only criticism, I still felt hungry after the meal, but maybe that’s my problem rather than theirs as it was pitched just right to feed a normal healthy appetite. Still, faced with half a bottle of wine and no cheese on the menu except the Mousse au Fromage, I decided to order the Chuoi Hap Dira Kieu Thai or Thai Style Steamed Banana with Coconut which, was healthily pleasant and came with sweet coconut milk and grated coconut and peanuts on top. Cointreau FrappeTo test their French credentials I ordered a Cointreau ‘Frappe’ to finish the night off with and was rewarded with a perfectly chilled digestif with crushed ice and garnished with slices of green orange (for less than £2 I might add). This place is purely for tourists but the food is great and you know all the money you spend is going to a good place. I spent 500,000 Dong, with a tip, which is about £18. I think everyone should come here at least once during their stay in Hanoi. I’ll certainly be back.

They also run these places:

Cafe Smile 3 Van Mieu St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 38 43 88 50

Baguette & Chocolate Sapa, Tha Bac St, Sapa, Lao Cai, Tel: (0)20 387 17 66

Baguette & Chocolate Hanoi at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Nguyen Van Huyen St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 22 43 11 16

Cha Ca Anh VuMaking Cha CaThe finished productCha Ca Anh Vu (Elementary A), #116, Block K1, Giang Vo (near the Horizon Hotel which is at the Giang Vo and Cat Linh crossroads). Tel: 04 3512 1279

Cha Ca is another famous Hanoian dish which consists of grilled fresh water fish (most usually the infamous snakehead fish) that has been marinated in turmeric, grated galangal, fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, stock, black pepper and shrimp paste. The fish is grilled before it arrives at the table but is heated up in a frying pan with peanut oil on a burner (preferably charcoal) with large handfuls of chopped dill and spring onions. Several other dishes hold white Bun noodles, shredded scallion, mint and coriander, peanuts, fresh red chilli and a bowl of fish sauce and shrimp paste based liquid to add moisture. When the fish is hot and the herbs have wilted, everything is assembled in one bowl according to your personal taste. The waiters here will keep topping up your noodles and other accompaniments till you have finished everything in the pan. I was charged 100,000 dong for the food and 20,000 each for two beers, about £5 in all.

Cha Ca StreetCha Ca La VongAbout twenty minutes in a taxi from the centre, this is a good clean place where mainly Vietnamese people go. There are other Cha Ca places very nearby; in fact this looks like quite an interesting little strip with several other neighbouring restaurants selling regional cuisines. Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca St is the most historically famous place to try Cha Ca and is mentioned in a lot of guides, and although more atmospheric it’s apparently more crowded and expensive and they push extras on you like the ‘special essence of beetle’. I really wanted to go and try it but didn’t have time.

Old Hanoi Restaurant (Advanced B), 4 Ton That Thiep, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, www.oldhanoi.com Tel: 04 3747 8337

Old Hanoi

Apparently the best place in town according to themselves and many reviewers; it was recently opened in July 2010 (so not old at all) by a certain Mr Ramsay as part of his forthcoming TV series, to be screened in March 2011. Located in an old French villa (hence it’s name), this is definitely a nice place, a small oasis away from the non-stop traffic at the end of the road. The decor is pleasant but nothing special; red walls with display cases of ancient cultural artefacts as well as black and white photos of Hanoi’s past.

Interior

The waitresses, wearing traditional Do Dai dresses, are efficient and friendly. There are apparently performances of traditional dance and music, but not on the quiet week night I went.

Xeo cakesXeo cakeRamsay's RibsSeafood riceThe menu apparently represents all the Vietnamese regions, North, Central and South but I was after the local fare. To start I had Hanoi Sizzling Xeo Cakes with Shrimp; tiny crepes with a whole prawn, a small piece of pork and shredded green onion, absolutely delicious (A). To pre-empt their coming appearance on TV, I went for the Suon Lon Nuong Ngu vi aka Ramsay’s Ribs; four spare ribs marinated in five spices. They were pretty fucking good as Rammo would say but I’ve had better (B+). On the side Com Chien Hai San or fried rice with seafood (prawns) and also carrot, corn, peas and egg (B).

Nep MoiSadly dessert choices were rather lacking, as is the case at many restaurants here, and I had to settle for the ubiquitous Chut Dot or Banana On Fire, (fruit flambéed with Bacardi, but the accompanying Fanny’s Rum & Raisin ice cream was great, (Fanny’s apparently make the best ice cream in town and have a shop on the west side of Hoan Kiem lake). For a digestive I was given a triple shot of Nep Moi aka Hanoi Vodka which sent me home in a merry mood. Total cost 572,000 with a couple of beers and a 10% service charge i.e. about £20, much cheaper and better food than other high-end places according to many reviewers.

The spreadMs Hoa and meOld Hanoi also runs cooking classes and I grabbed the chance to learn how to cook a lot of the things I’d been eating in other restaurants. The class is run by the lovely Ms Hoa who, although not a professional chef herself, speaks English well enough to guide you through. The class costs $35 or 735,000 Dong for about 3 hours, from 9.30 to 12.30.

Curd stallBitter melonPigeons, best thing for 'emTaro leavesSnake headsHerb stallCondimentsDry noodlesCourgettesBean curdsHoa took us first to a small nearby market to buy fresh ingredients and answer questions about all the food on offer there before taking us back to the restaurant to cook it under the ancient fig tree in the villa courtyard.There are two class options. I chose option one which taught you how to make the following;

Nem Ran fillingFat ones, thin ones...Nem Ran Hanoi rolls 067

Nem Ran Hanoi or Hanoi-style Fried Rolls made with minced pork, spring onions, sweet turnip, carrots, shallots, bean sprouts, two kinds of mushrooms, glass noodles, egg yolk and wrapped in slightly thicker rice paper and eaten with sprigs of peppermint, purple mint and coriander.

 

Marinade ingredientsMarinaded snake head fishBig fanFresh Rolls with Ca Nuong

Fresh Rolls with Ca Nuong grilled fish (very similar to Cha Ca but fried with chilli and roasted peanuts, dry fried shallots and wrapped in thin rice paper rolls with Bun noodles, spring onion, cucumber, pineapple, carrot, red pepper, chilli, bean sprouts and lettuce).

Nice rice

Nuoc Mam Cham dipping sauceNuoc Mam Cham dipping sauce with chilli and raw garlic in water, rice vinegar, fish sauce and lime juice.

Com Tom Cung Dinh or ‘Royal’ Fried Rice with Shrimps with sweet corn, baby button mushrooms, peppers, carrots, onions and peas.

Che Khoai Lang GungChe Khoai Lang Gung, a simple pudding made by simmering sweet potato and ginger with corn flour and sugar.

Best with beerBoth kinds of rolls were excellent (A), especially with a few cold beers, but the fried rice used too much oil for my taste (C) and the pud was far too healthy to truly satisfy (B-). All the dishes are easy to make once you know how (you get a recipe booklet to take home with you) and I managed to satisfactorily recreate the Ca Nuong back in the UK, although I couldn’t have done it without my local Thai supermarket which had Vietnamese rice paper ,noodles and shrimp paste as well as fresh galangal and turmeric.

Essential ingredientsHowever I had to use stock granules and fish sauce that I brought back with me, although I guess Thai fish sauce can’t be much different. A good substitute for snakehead fish is monkfish which has a similar texture.

The moneychangers on Ha Trung St, near the Old Hanoi restaurant, will give you the best rates on town.

Anh TuyetAnh Tuyet (Advanced B+) 22 and 25Ma May, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 6291 1039 and 3825 8705. Website: www.anhtuyet.com.vn, Email: anhtuyetres@gmail.com (This place is located in a traditional Hanoi home so you have to go down the passage at the side and up the stairs at the back to the restaurant on the second floor).

On my last night I decided to treat myself with the last of my dong at this high-end place and it was the most expensive meal I had during the trip (700,000 dong, about £25). You’d do well to reserve as it was very busy with a mainly French clientele when I was there, although they do have another annex just across the street. The restaurant and its owner, Madame Tuyet are championed by my culinary hero Anthony Bourdain in  his TV series ‘A Cooks Tour’.

Roast chickenThe dish she cooks for him in the show, for which she also won the Vietnamese Best Food award in 2002 is her Roast Chicken Anh Tuyet (Ga Quay At), also the most expensive item on the menu at 195, 000 dong, although most dishes are in six figures. And it’s certainly worth the money; full flavoured meat and delectable crispy skin brushed with a mix of brown sugar and wild honey that you just want to eat forever (A+). This came with a dip sauce of lemon juiced, salt, pepper and chilli which further accentuated the flavours although it would taste fine without it.

Egg and Crab Spring RollTo follow I had what should have been the starter; Egg and Crab Spring Roll Anh Tuyet (Nem Trung Cua At ), also a signature dish bearing her name but which for me was inexplicably tasteless, although very well made (C+).

Gio Luoi TaiI also went for the traditional Hanoian dish of Gio Luoi Tai (an aspic jelly containing pork, pig’s ear and tongue) which wasn’t on the English menu but which I was curious to try. This was served cold with pickled pak choi and large spring onions on the side. All in all a rather crunchy dish to eat (cartilage and onions) but with good flavour (B). I had it with Xoi Trang (steamed sticky white rice, as opposed to Com Trang which I presume is long grain) which was cooked perfectly. With the food I had another bottle of Dalat Red wine which I later regretted as the mark up was so high it was nearly half the bill! It was also more than was stated on the aging and often changed menu, but I didn’t say anything. I also tried a glass of Ruou Trang, described as white wine on the menu but actually the local fire water, which was very good and not at all rough.

There was no sign of the great lady herself but her staff were all wonderful, especially her niece Thuy who was very apologetic for the small hiccups in service. She told me the restaurant also runs cooking classes which if I’d known about before I would have gone to. You can find out more via their website or email above. As far as the restuarant is concerned I thought the food was great although I did feel  I was paying a lot for it, so I think I would probably look elsewhere for better value in the future.

The streets around Ma May are packed with eateries, bars and bia hois. This area seems to be backpacker central, as well as catering to lots of young Vietnamese, so if you’re looking for some fun in the evenings, around here would be a good choice.

Simple things in lifeGrinding machineCafe Mai storefrontLots to choose fromCool beansParis Mai is top of the range

 

 

 

 

 

Cafe Mai, 79 Le Van Huu St

The coffee is very good in Viet Nam and this traditional shop is one of the best. It has two units facing each other across the street. The one at #79 is a sit down cafe where you can enjoy a cup of filtered coffee served with another small cup of incredibly sweet condensed milk. Over the road you can buy freshly ground coffee to take away (an essential item for the homeward suitcase). They have quite a range. The Trung Nguyen cafe chain are also very good.

In VN ou may hear the legend of ‘weasel coffee’, where an animal called a civet cat is fed the ripe coffee berries and the beans are roasted once they have passed through its digestive tract. Some believe this to be a fable and it’s true that there are a lot of fakes out there but given the number of articles about it at the bottom of this Wikipedia page, I tend towards believing it. Here also is a discussion about it on the New Hanoian website which is also useful for locating other good cafes and eateries.

Army Guest House (Intermediate B), 33C Pham Ngu Lao St, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3826 2896 Email: armyhotel@fpt.vn

This is a basic but clean and fairly cheap place not far from the Old Quarter. As I hadn’t reserved till I arrived at the airport they only had ‘deluxe’ rooms left so I paid slightly over the odds, $60 a night and a half day for $35. The rooms have a TV, a desk and a balcony and not much else, although there are apparently a variety of suites. Breakfast is basic but all I needed each morning was fruit, pho and a cup of tea which were all fine. I stayed here mainly because it has a twenty five meter pool (unheard of in this price range) which would be great in the summer but was a bit chilly in November when I went. Some of the battleaxes on reception will try to ignore you at first but eventually came through on all my requests when I disarmed them by being super nice (my usually quite effective tactic for disarming grumpy people!). The hotel is well served by the taxi rank outside the Hilton just around the corner.

Taxis are dirt cheap and it will only cost two or three quid to get most places. Motorbike taxis are faster and cheaper but personally I prefer to be out of the pollution. The traffic in Hanoi travels at a fairly sedate average speed of 40 kmh, so there’s little chance of a serious accident, though rush hour can get a bit hairy. As a pedestrian the traffic will avoid you when you’re crossing over the road, unlike in China where they will try to mow you down. Edge your way slowly over and never run and you will be ok. I didn’t see a single example of road rage the whole time I was there.

From Hanoi I caught the overnight Reunification Express to Danang, an experience worth having just the once. Lower bunks cost slightly more than upper ones but you get a better view, especially nice between Hue and Danang when the train line follows the coast (a bit murky in November though). The food is pretty bad apparently so load up on baguettes and fruit before you get on. Once on the train is probably enough and catching a return domestic flight only costs the equivalent of a bout £40. If at all possible though, avoid using Jetstar who are notorious for rescheduling flights (mine was delayed by 5 hours) or at least call the airport to check before you leave.

NATIC (Noibai Airport Tourism Information Center) Tel: +84-4 3584 4476. Email: info@natic.com.vn Website: www.natic.com.vn

When you come through the arrivals exit at Hanoi airport, you will see a tourist information booth over to your right. Be warned that these booths are private concerns rather than offices for free advice however they will safely book hotels and buy tickets for you if you haven’t already done so. I found them to be friendly and efficient although they are obviously on commission and will try the hard sell for places they think you should go.

A couple of useful websites for food and restaurant tips are:

www.newhanoian.com

www.stickyrice.typepad.com

An interesting book is ‘Vietnamese Food‘ written by Bobby Chinn, a Vietnamese American, and with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.

Hanoi is a fascinating city and in four nights I only scratched the surface. Can’t wait to go back.

Beijing Bites

Posted in Beijing, China with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by gannet39

Hmm, capital of China, wonder if they have any decent restaurants…

CourtyardDecorLiu Zhai Shifu (Intermediate A), 8 Meishuguan Dongjie (at the end of Wangfujing Dajie) about 15 mins walk from the Kapok. Tel. 6400 5912.

This great little place is about one block before the end of Meishuguan Dongjie, the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie, before it kinks forty five degrees to the left. Make sure you get someone to write the name down in kanji so you can ask for local directions as you could easily miss it otherwise. Look for the last alleyway on the left hand side of the road before the turn (as opposed to the right as Time Out would have it); it’s between a hairdressers and a convenience store. You will see two red lanterns a few metres down the hutong and a wooden door,with a green padded curtain to keep the heat in, on the right side of the alley. Inside this one hundred year old former family home there is a covered courtyard with a trellis with hanging flowers and lanterns, all very atmospheric. There are quaint private rooms too but I was seated at one of the wooden tables in the yard which was a bit cold in November, so make sure you wear warm clothes.

Mung Bean Curd with chilliDeep Fried Peaflour ‘Box’Stewed Chicken with ChestnutsSpinach with peanutsZha GuandungStir-fried Duck Liver with Spring OnionsThe food here is typical Beijing cuisine and there is an extensive picture menu with English translations to help you. I did my usual over ordering act and received, in order of preference; Stir-fried Duck Liver with Spring Onions (A), Pan Fried Mung Bean Curd with I think spinach mixed in, and topped with chilli oil and dried red chillies which had a smooth texture, broken by the occasional crunch of a whole mung bean, and a lovely sour aftertaste (B+).  I also had Zha Gezi mung bean chips or as the menu would have it, Deep Fried Peaflour ‘Box which came with a dip of dark soya sauce and raw garlic (B); nice but I couldn’t finish them unlike the previous dishes. Finally I had Zha Guandung; thin slices of sausage, battered, deep-fried and served with a garlic sauce, which were edible enough but failed to impress (C). The bill came to 98 RMB with two 500ml beers i.e. about £10. On another occasion I had Fried Spinach and Nuts (sunflower seeds and peanuts) which was ok (B-) but I wasn’t overly keen on the vinegary aftertaste. The waitress recommended Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts which included onion, red and white bell peppers and huge unpeeled and for me inedible chunks of ginger. Although I liked the sauce other veggie ingredients, I’m not keen on the Chinese habit of chopping up meat and leaving the fragments of bone in so only scored this dish a C. Bad choices the second time but it wouldn’t stop me going again. They open from 11am till 10.30pm so you can show up anytime. However, according to Time Out, this place is always packed with locals at peak time every night so maybe get there early, as I did at 5pm, or reserve.

Huanghe Shui Shaanxi Miangian (Elementary C), A24 Meishuguan Dongjie (the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie). Open 24 hours according to the sign outside.

Ribbon NoodlesThis is a simple noodle bar selling Shaanxi food immediately opposite the entrance to the alley above, on the right of the road as you near the end. The menu on the wall is in Chinese with only a few pictures so I resorted to pointing to ‘pork’ and ‘chilli’ in my dictionary hoping I would get my favourite soup. What arrived were huge ribbon noodles with shredded pork, a few tiny members of the pak choi family and a dollop of chilli sauce but only a splash of soy based liquid. A kindly waitress came and mixed it all together for me when she saw I was at a bit of a loss. Of course it tasted delicious. It cost 15 RMB for the noodles and 5 for a beer, about £2.

Roujia MoDumplings in Hot and Sour soupOn another occasion I had Roujia Mo, a small ‘hamburger’ with shredded pork and small pieces of green pepper in a bun of unleavened bread, a tasty snack for 6 RMB. After this a bowl of pork filled dumplings in hot and sour soup with spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds and chilli oil. The sour part was the vinegar which spoilt the broth for me but the dumplings were delicious. Thick noodles and the use of vinegar are characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine.

If I’m honest the hygiene standards in this place always leave me feeling a bit queasy but if you’re after a cheap late night snack and a beer, this is a handy place.

From here I walked for about 15 minutes to Nanluoguxiang Hutong. This is a very cool little strip with lots of small bars, intimate restaurants and funky little shops. I particularly liked Reef Bar (on the right at the far Northern end of the hutong) for its laid back atmosphere, comfy leather seats and friendly staff. A Gordons and tonic is 25 RMB here. A more happening place is Salud, about halfway up on the right, but I wanted somewhere more peaceful to write my blog. You could walk here from the Kapok Hotel in about 30 minutes by going straight up Beiheyan Dajie till the end, turning left and first right. A lot of taxi drivers don’t like making such short journeys but you will probably get one eventually, especially if it’s off the meter.

Being the capital, Beijing can offer the chance to try lots of regional cuisines from places I’ll probably never get to. I had some good meals in the restaurants of two local government offices. Both are a bit hard to get to but the food is great and authenticity is guaranteed. Remember to get the names written in pinyin or preferably kanji to show people for directions along the way.

Yunteng Shifu (Yunnan Restaurant) in the Yunteng Hotel attached to the Yunnan Provincial Government Office(Intermediate A), 7 Donghuashi Beili Donqu (between Chongwenmen Dongdajie and Donghuashi Dajie). Open from 11am to 10pm.

Yungteng ShifuFrom the massive intersection of Jianguomennei Dajie and Jianguomen Nandajie, head south while keeping to the right of the slip road, and keep going till you have crossed over two big intersections. On the way you will see some of the remains of the old city wall on your right. When you get to the intersection with Chongwenmen Dongdajie go over the foot bridge, under the railway bridge and two other road bridges, keeping on the same direction to the south. The slip road will curve to the left and fairly immediately you will come to another small road leading off to the right onto a housing estate. The Government Office is on the right at the beginning of this road. You will recognise it by the stone clad drive leading up to it, gold letters going down the side of the building and red letters going across the front above the entrance. The kind doorman confirmed I was in the right place and took me inside, past the hotel reception desk and down into the restaurant at the back. The decor is pretty startling, like being in a plastic jungle, but there’s a nice relaxing atmosphere nonetheless.

Dishes for making Crossing the Bridge NoodlesPutting it togetherCrossing the Bridge NoodlesThe next challenge was ordering the food but it was relatively painless as I had some suggestions courtesy of Time Out and a web review I had read, as well as the help of the picture menu, two waitresses, the chef and my dictionary. The best thing to go for is probably the classic ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’ (Guo Qiao Mixian) which arrived on the table as a big bowl of soup stock, probably chicken, and with four small side dishes. The first contains a raw egg which should go in straight away and left a couple of minutes to cook. Next the thick white noodles go in and the dish of four different kinds of ‘meat’, one of which was a cured ham tasting very similar to prosciutto. The final dish had coriander, spring onions, ribbon tofu, something that may have been shredded mushroom but looked like seaweed and some yellow flower petals. It tasted great and had a slight afterburn, perhaps from chilli in the stock.

Rubing grilled goat’s cheesePineapple Rice Bolo FanQuigoji Chicken Soup

In addition to this I had Rubing, Grilled Goat’s Cheese, which came with salt on the side mixed with a strange spice that left my lips numb for a few minutes. It was really nice but there was a lot of it. I also had Bolo Fan, aka Pineapple Rice, which came in a hollowed out pineapple and filled with rice mixed with the fruit and what may have been miso beans (Japanese name), giving it a purplish colour. Didn’t think I would like this too much at first but it grew on me and I polished off the lot. The only thing I didn’t eat was the Quigoji or Chicken Soup which had hunks of meat and what seemed like pieces of prawn crackers floating in broth. I picked out the chicken which was very tasty but left the broth which was a bit tasteless.

Dali Yunnanese beerWith two local Dali beers I paid about 120 RMB which was very good value. Yunnanese food is very trendy in Beijing and you would pay a lot more elsewhere. The province borders with Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam so the food is an interesting fusion of several cultures. Things I didn’t manage to order (bad pronunciation?)but which are apparently very good were the Dai mint salad, deep fried Bee Pupa (?), battered and fried cactus and rice wine made with black rice. Also there are several types of wild mushrooms (niuganjun, jizhong, songrong) but these were a bit expensive so I’ll wait till I go to Yunnan for those.

Chuanban (Intermediate A), 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng. Open from 4.30pm to 10pm.

As the nights started to get colder I fancied some chilli heat so I headed for this backstreet restaurant in the Sichuan local government office. It’s a bit hard to find but once you get near, keep saying the name to locals and they will point you in the right direction. Walk east along Jinbao St and turn right onto Chaoyangmen Beixiaojie. Cross over the street and take the second small road on the left, there’s a fruit shop on the corner and a red arrow saying Dongzongbu Hutong pointing down the long straight road. The office is a few hundred yards down on the right, behind one of those concertina metal gates on tracks that most institutions have. You will see the windows of the restaurant on the ground floor but once you are through the gate, turn right and go round the back and in through the ornate entrance in the courtyard.

Cosying up to the managementTwice cooked pork with green pepperOn the first night I tried to go they were finishing up at 10pm despite Time Out saying they were open till 2am; however a friendly staff member took me to a Sichuan cafe on the other side of the block and got me fed there. For 23 RMB I got a beer, two bowls of rice and the typical dish of Twice Cooked Fatty Pork which involved what seemed to be belly pork sliced like bacon, sliced onion, spring onion, green and red mild peppers and black beans cooked in chilli oil. Although a bit oily it was just what I was hankering for (B).

Beef lungTwice cooked porkMadofuKungpo ChickenA few nights later I legged it down to Chuanban again after work and got there for 8.45 which meant I could get a table (although a big place it’s very popular and always full at peak times) and still left me time to enjoy the great food. I had Kungpo Chicken(B), Madofu (tofu in a mince and chilli sauce) (B) and Beef Lung(B). The best dish however was the Twice Cooked Fatty Pork again and it was interesting to compare it to the one I had in the cafe above. This was a more classic version with beautifully tender pork and made with spring onions rather than capsicums (A).

Din Tai FungDin Tai Fung (Intermediate A), 22 Hujiayuan, Yibei Building, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Tel. 6462 4502, Open 11.30-2.30 and 5-10pm daily.

Din Tai Fung RestaurantThis is primarily a dumpling restaurant but also specialises in other dishes from the Eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu.The surroundings are modern but rather stark and uninteresting, rather like a hotel breakfast room. The staff are pleasant and efficient and some spoke English and the picture menu also has an English translation.

Xiaolong Bao in steamerCairou Zhengjiao in bamboo steamerXiaolong BaoCairou ZhengjiaoTheir signature dish is Xiaolong Bao, steamed dumplings wrapped in transparent light dough, has won accolades from some quarters for being the best dumplings in Beijing. I had the pork version (they have seafood and crabmeat too) which were wonderfully juicy (B+). Even better were the Cairou Zhengjiao dumplings, also in a delicate dough and stuffed with a small bok choi called ‘youcai’, pork and a little lard to taste (A).

Hairy Gourd with Shredded JellyfishSautéed Water LilyOn the side a dish of Sliced Hairy Gourd with Shredded Jellyfish which was nice enough (B) though the gourd dominated, and a plate of Sautéed Water Lily (B), yet another green vegetable, which tasted err…very green!

Dousha BaoTo finish the rather suggestive Dousha Bao, much larger dumplings in a thicker skin, stuffed with sweet red bean paste which were nice (B) but a bit heavy for my already very full stomach. Total cost for my lunch, with two Yanjing beers was 170 RMB; pretty good considering how much I had.

Han CangInside Han CangHan Cang (Intermediate B), Shichahai Dongan, Xicheng, Houhai (6404 2259). Open 11am – 10.30pm. Get the taxi driver to drop you off on Dianmen Xi Dajie by Qinhai Lake. As you face the lake, walk down the right hand (east) side and the restaurant is the second building on the right.

Continuing my search for minority cuisines, I came here to try the food of the Hakka people; a hearty south-eastern style that emphasises the texture of the food. Apparently many Chinese restaurants in the UK and other countries are owned by Hakka, a sub-group of the Han Chinese.  The ambience is nothing special, crude wooden furniture in two big rooms and the odd black and white photo on the wall but if you get a seat by the window you will get a nice view of the lake, especially in the private rooms upstairs.

Three Cup DuckBoletus EdulisThe picture menu has English translations and is quite scary with spicy donkey, ‘duck chins’, chitterlings and steamed turtle all featuring, but I went for the house speciality, and one of the signature dishes of Hakka cuisine, Sanbei Ya, or Three Cup Duck, where the birdie is braised in equal amounts of dark soy, rice wine and water before futher cooking. It was good but not as exciting as I’d hoped (B). My favourite, and the most expensive dish, was the ‘Boletus Edulis’ (B+), stir-fried with red and green capsicums, garlic, spring onion and ginger, and which tasted just like European ceps/porcini.

'Self-grounded’TofuBlack Bean SproutsI also liked the Ngiong Tew Fou or ‘Self-grounded’ Tofu which had been lightly fried and served in a light brown sauce with small balls of pork on top of each slice (B+). I also had sautéed Black Bean Sprouts with red capsicum, dried chilli (imperceptible)and the odd black bean in a clear sauce(B). I ordered a Baiwei beer but when this turned out to be Budwieser I sent it back and got a Pure Yanjing beer instead. Total cost 172 RMB, massive overkill again but still pretty cheap and very tasty.

Qinhai LakeQinhai Lake dockHardy soulYou can walk it off round the lake and go to one of the many nice bars for a digestif afterwards, although be warned a small beer can cost 45 RMB in some of them.

Guo Yao Xiaochi (Advanced A) 58 Bei Santiao, Jiadoa Kou, Andingmennei Dajie, Dongcheng, Houhai Tel. 6403 1940, Open 10am-2.30pm and 5.30-9pm daily

As you head north up Andingmennei Dajie,  from the crossroads with Jiaodaokou Dong Dajie, it’s the third alley on the right by my calculations, but the fourth according to the Time Out map. #58 is the first building on the right of the alley, with red lanterns hanging outside, whereas Time Out has it at the other end.

Guo Yao Xiaochi dining room entranceGuo Yao Xiaochi dining roomGuo Yao Xiaochi ceilingThis is a great place, still deserving its award for Best Restaurant for Private Dining in 2005 from the Beijing Culinary Association. The food is cooked in the aristocratic Tan style, a cross between Guandong and Huaiyang cuisines, which is very delicate and light. Tan emphasises flavour and uses only the best ingredients (so for example only the most tender stems are used for vegetable dishes), judicious use of heat and intricate steps and techniques. You can see the hands of Chef Guo Xinjun at work through the kitchen hatch on the left as you enter. He has cooked for numerous Chinese leaders and American presidents during his time at the Beijing Hotel.

Guo Yao Xiaochi doorsGuo Yao Xiaochi door detailIt’s a tiny room with just five tables and seats for twenty two and has the feel of being in a museum with aged ornately carved door panels, old wooden lanterns with red tassels, glass-covered tables that double as display cases for more wood-carvings and period pictures pointing face down from the overhead trellis. The service is exemplary with highly attentive waitresses, one of whom spoke English. The menu has an English translation but no pictures. Whilst perusing it I drank some wonderfully perfumed Mou Ti Hua tea and nibbled on some spiced pumpkin seeds.

Nongtang YaduYasi DanjuanTo start I chose Nongtang Yadu, a yellow soup of fish maw (the air bladder) where the stock is made by double boiling chicken, duck, ham and scallop which didn’t look like much but was tasty and full of flavour (B). To follow Yasi Danjuan (A), a crepe filled with shredded duck, spring onion and a little red pepper, deep-fried and cut into slices.

Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in GarlicI also had Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in Garlic where the noodles were hiding under a topping of red pepper and spring onion in a sauce of light soy (A). I grabbed rather too many of these with my chopsticks and they wouldn’t separate as my sticks went higher and higher towards the ceiling which caused one waitress to leave the room in a fit of giggles while the other rushed to my aid with a knife and fork to cut them up, although I think scissors would have been more appropriate! Anyway they were beautifully presented and completely delicious (A), if a bit much for one.

Almond Paste SoupTo finish I had a bowl of hot almond paste soup, again quite simple (B)but very warming for a cold November day in Beijing. Total cost 128 RMB with a bowl of rice and a beer i.e. about £12. The sausage is also apparently good as are the other dessert soups made from peanut paste or osmanthus flavoured red bean paste. All wonderfully satisfying food; a must visit I would say.

Three Guizhou Men (Intermediate B), 6 Guanghua Xili, Chaoyang, Tel. 6502 1733

Guanghua Xili is a side street next to the Mexican Wave restaurant on Dongdaqiao Lu. As you head North it’s on the right, quite near the beginning of the road. Don’t get in confused with Guanghua Lu which is a main road. Go through the arch adorned with red characters and it’s the second building on the right. On the windows there is a picture of a mask and the words 3G Chairman. There are other branches around town but there flagship branch near the Worker’s stadium doesn’t answer the phone so may be closed, although it’s still up on several websites.

Guizhou is a prefecture in the south-west of China, bordering Sichuan province, so the food is hot and spicy. The chain intentionally lowers the heat (still pretty hot) and uses less oil so the food makes a healthier alternative to Sichuan cuisine where the food is often submerged in chilli oil. The dishes they serve are apparently a fusion of popular dishes of the region. My waitress was helpful, writing the pinyin translations for me, but we needed the English picture menu. The decor here is pretty plain and uninteresting, surprising given the original three owners are supposed to be artists. The soundtrack was quite appropriately the Spice Girls’ first album.

Guizhou PaocaiXiangban BoheTo start I had Guizhou Paocai /paushai/, a pickled dish with cabbage and another indiscernible vegetable which you dip in a dry chilli powder similar to peperoncino i.e. with the seeds still in, but more finely powdered. Also Xiangban Bohe /bohoye/, a peppermint salad with more peperoncino and a soya sauce dressing. Both were interesting with powerfull flavours (B) but too much for one person.

Fried Spicy PrawnsWith these dishes I also had Guizhou Fried Spicy Prawns /shaa naa sha/ with a chunky dressing of peanuts, dried red chillies, Sichuan peppers and spring onions. The prawns had been deep fried so you could eat them whole; shells and all. Very tasty (B+) but there were about twenty of them so I left the heads to save room for what was to come.

Beef on FireFor round two I ordered Beef on Fire which is a dish of marinated and pre-cooked beef on a bed of chives with red and green capsicums and onion. The food is on a wire rack on top of a plate containing petroleum jelly (hot coals at other branches?) which the waiter lights to heat the food rather than cooking it as such (B+).

Ants Climbing a TreeIn addition I had Ma Yi Shang Shu, which translates as Ants Climbing a Tree; glass noodles with chilli oil and some unknown but pleasant enough flavouring and garnished with spring onions (B). As usual, it was total overkill but the bill only came to the equivalent of about £18 with two large beers. Next time I go I’d like to try the spare ribs, Guizhou mashed potato and the aubergine with coriander.

LAN Club (Advanced A) Floor 4, LG Twin Towers

Being a lover of modern design, I had to go to this Phillipe Starck styled restaurant, bar and club, even if a lot of his other creations leave me cold. After coming here though I can just about forgive him for that ridiculous lemon squeezer.

LAN 003LAN 022LAN 027LAN 005LAN 004LAN 011LAN 020LAN LooLAN 013It’s a huge place with lots of private dining rooms for corporate entertainment and smaller ones that can be curtained off. The decor is an amazing blend of influences, freaky plastic chandeliers, fragments of Renaissance paintings facing down from the ceiling, cowhide sofas, ceramic mushrooms, metallic faces and display cabinets of Maoist porcelain, stuffed birds and medicine jars. The air conditioning pipes in the ceiling are left exposed in true modernist style but there’s also the odd shoplifting camera up there for some reason. Each bathroom has a beautiful water tap in the form of a silver swan. The soundtrack is a mixture of acid and latin jazz befitting the trippy atmosphere.

Sashimi SetAbaloneDipsOystersThe prices are pretty steep as you’d expect with most things around 250 RMB. Time Out recommends sticking with the Szechuan classics on the menu, as opposed to the Cantonese and Fusion dishes, but I went for the Sashimi Set for 198 RMB which turned out to be a good choice. It included two oysters in shot glasses with a slice of lemon, two sliced pearl abalone beautifully presented in their glittering shells, three slices each of smoked salmon, yellowtail and white tuna and some diced scallops and shrimps served in a chrysanthemum leaf in a shell. On the side came Kikkoman soya sauce (essential) and Tabasco (not essential).

RiceI filled up with two orders of Rice in a Bamboo Bucket, which came with tiny pieces of ham, peas and corn with pickles on the side. At only 10 RMB this is a cheap way to fill up if you need to. The service was rather hovery but friendly and not at all snooty which can be a problem in these kinds of places. With a couple of beers my bill came to 390 RMB, one my more expensive meals in China but although the food is good, it’s really the surroundings you are paying for and they are quite spectacular.

Wangfujing MarketThe star of the showSpidersSilkwormsAnother must visit on the foodie front is Wangfujing Food Market, more for the shock factor than to acutally eat anything, although I am gearing up to munching on a scorpion which aren’t too bad apparently. You know they are fresh because some are still moving! A stall holder told me the tastiest things are the big spiders, but it might take me a while for me to get round to them.

Kapok atrium

Kapok room

Another really nice area to walk around is Hou Hai, one of 3 lakes to the north of Beijing. Catch line 2 to Gulou Dajie and take in the drum and bell towers which have commanding views of the hutongs around the lakes. The streets immediately around the Silver Ingot Bridge at the south-eastern end of Hou Hai are very pleasant to walk around in the daytime with lots of nice shops and old buildings. You can hire a rickshaw for a tour if you wish. The southern shore of the lake is lined with bars and is perhaps the best area to go out to in the evening. In the daytime, the Mansion of Prince Gong on nearby Liuyin Jie is an extensive former royal residence with beautiful gardens; it costs 20 RMB to enter. Right next to the entrance is one of Beijing’s oldest restaurants, Sichuan Fandian, selling spicy food from that province. I didn’t get to go myself because I arrived at five past two and missed lunch, but Deng Xiaoping has eaten there so it must be good.

Nearly all the eateries and bars described in this post were gleaned from the Time Out Guide to Beijing, the best guide for urbanites as far as I’m concerned. However, be warned the maps in the 2005 edition do have some errors and their directions to some of these places could be better. Always get the restaurant name written in kanji so you can ask locals for directions and the telephone number so the driver can phone the place. I would refuse to get out unless I could see the sign! The 2010 Time Out came out just after I came back, so hopefully the mistakes have been rectified. A useful website is www.thebeijinger.com The restaurant and nightlife scene in Beijing is constantly changing (for the better) so there are probably lots of new places to try by the time you read this. Personally I can’t wait to go again.

Beijing also features in Episode 1 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

Dhanistha’s Southern Indian & Sri Lankan cuisine

Posted in England, London Road, Sharrow, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom, Yorkshire with tags , , , , , , , on September 29, 2010 by gannet39

2015 UPDATE: Dhanistha’s is now under new management and is called Arusuvai. The food is pretty much the same i.e. very good.

Dhanistha’s, 74 Abbeydale Rd, Sheffield S7 1FD, Tel. 0114 255 0779

Unbelievably, it’s quite hard to get a good curry in Sheffield. If you’re prepared to pay you can get good food at places like Nirmal’s on West St and the Ashoka on Ecclesall Rd. The only half-decent cheap place though, until now, was the Mangla on Spital Hill, but the food can be variable there too and they seem to have the same complacent attitude as the rest of the curry restaurants in the city. What’s more, all these places serve Pakistani or  North Indian food and seem to have the same predictable menu. So, the market was wide open for a newcomer and when East & West arrived on Abbeydale Rd with their new Sothern Indian/Sri Lankan angle, that gap seemed to have been filled. The food at East & West is great, however their prices are rather high given the plastic tables and cafe environment. For example, their Mango Lassi is fantastic, but you get a tiny amount in a takeaway cup for a tasty £4.

DhanisthasNow another Southern Indian & Sri Lankan restaurant has sprung up to compete, a bit further along Abbeydale Rd from East & West, in a space formerly occupied by an Italian restaurant. Dhanistha’s has great food for next to nothing in a simple but pleasant atmosphere. Vegetable curries are either £2 or £3 and meat or seafood around £5.50 or £6.50, really great value. Mr Dharma the manager is from Galle in Sri Lanka and his head chef is from Hyderabad (Biryanis a speciality) in Andra Pradesh in Southern India, hence the two influences.

So what’s the difference? My understanding is thatbroadly speaking Southern Indian cuisine is more rice based whereas breads are eaten more in the North of the country. It’s also characterised by the liberal use of coconut for flavouring and thickening and as oil. Sri Lanka by turn also uses a lot of coconut in its cooking but also includes ingredients such as lemon grass and pandan aka rampe leaf  which are also used by Thai chefs. The menu at Dhanistha’s, although predominantly Southern Indian, does feature a few uniquely Sri Lankan dishes which the staff will be more than happy to point out.

dosa and iddly dudeMy favourite starter is a Dosa, a filled pancake (made from rice and urad dahl/black lentils, therefore gluten free) served with a wet coconut chutney (made I think with desiccated coconut, chillies and mint), red chilli chutney and Sambar, a soupy spicy vegetable stew.  It’s typically eaten as a snack or for breakfast in India. Particularly famous in Southern India is the Masala Dosa, so called because the onion and potato filling is fried with a spice mix. They’re quite large so would make a light meal in themselves or could be shared as a starter, although mini-varieties are on the menu too. A well made dosa is a beautiful thing. Also on the starter menu are Idlis, a small steamed bun version of the dosa, using the same batter, and served with the same red and white chutneys.

On my second visit, I celebrated my birthday here with a group of fourteen friends. Normally I avoid eating in large groups as it can put too much pressure on the kitchen, but this didn’t seem to be a problem. Although understandably we had to wait a while, the food arrived at the same time and couldn’t be faulted in terms of preparation. The advantage of being in a large group was that we could all taste each other’s curries, and what curries they were. On the vegetarian front, the Potato Malabar (a region in Northern Kerala, the dish uses tomatoes), Veg Malabar, Brinjal Curry (aubergine), Spinach and Coconut were all absolutely stunningly whereas Avial (a Keralan mixed vegetable curry including ‘drumsticks’ which are the fruit of the Moringa tree) was unusual but still very nice. We didn’t have any meat dishes on this occasion but the winning dish for me was the Fish Moillee, an incredibly fully flavoured soupy curry made with imported Kingfish. My neighbour had Kothu, a Sri Lankan dish of meat or seafood with veg and short broad noodles, all chopped up, which is not the most appealing dish to look at but still tastes very nice. The Coconut and Pilau rices were also perfect and the Green Chilli Paratha was scorchingly good!

Even with a host of Cobras our bill still only came to around £15 a head which sent our gang of hardcore curry heads home very contented indeed. Dhanistha’s is the new queen of the scene as far as I’m concerned. Go and have your mind and taste buds blown.

Lunch in Tarragona

Posted in Tarragona with tags , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

If you turn right out of the station and take the old steps up you will come to Rambla Nova and the famous ‘Balcón del Mediterráneo’ (Balcony of the Mediterranean), a natural rocky outcrop at the end of the rambla overlooking the sea. One end of the balcony also has views of the amphitheatre. There are plenty of bars with street terraces here too.

Sadly the following local institution is now closed (a victim of the crisis) but I hope that whatever opens up in its place will continue its tradition of top quality cuisine.

Leman Cafe  (Intermediate A), 27 Rambla Nova

I had an hour to kill before work so I went to the famous Leman Cafe. The interior is comfortable and retro-modern, from the late sixties I think and the service is very pleasant.You can sit outside on the street terrace, either in the shade or out.

I had an excellent coffee and a delicious apple tart for €4. The ice creams are apparently very good too.

The restaurant is known for seafood so I went back for lunch and had a three-course Menu-del-Dia for €19 which was a seafood salad, grilled Emperador (swordfish) with a delicious potato gratin, finishing with a fruit salad, all excellent (A). According to my companion the duck was also wonderful.

Swordfish at Cafe Leman

Complimentary custard cake with our coffees finished things off perfectly. Great food at reasonable prices. My local friend was so impressed I’d introduced him to such a great place that he picked up the tab!

Bill, the companion I mention above and a resident of Tarragona for twenty years, recommends a great fish restaurant called La Puda which is in the port area near the fish market. Other places down there must be good too.

Written April 2010

Calabria – Sleepless in Vibo Valentia

Posted in Calabria, Italy, Vibo Valentia, Vibo Valentia Province with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Vibo ValentiaThis provincial capital is split into two parts, Vibo Pizzo at the bottom of the hill (where the station and the marina are) and Vibo Valentia at the top.

People doing my job usually use the Hotel 501 which is most of the way up the hill, about ten minutes walk up to the town. It would take about an hour to walk down the hill to the marina and there are no pavements.

The 501’s location isn’t ideal but bear in mind it has a pool and free internet. The only other options are a more centrally located 3 star without those facilities or the noisy Locanda (see review below).

La Locanda di Daffina (Intermediate B), 160 Corso Umberto I (entrance at the side), Vibo Valentia,

Had a pleasant meal on the terrace here. To start, some fresh young pecorino with some red onion chutney (both local specialities) followed by Tagliolino con Gambero Rosso e Pachino ((excellent red prawns (A) and cherry tomatoes (B+)) and my friend the Tagliate di Filletto con Tartar di Verdure di Stagione (strips of steak with seasonal veg with tartar sauce (B+))

This was washed down with another Ciro from Tenuto Iuzzolino (B+) which was good, but not a patch on the classico version by the same cantina.

Three of us stayed here for one night, thankfully not longer. The level of disorganisation was such that we got the feeling they had only just opened. The attractive double rooms were quirky, (eg bunk bed over the bathroom!) and had beautiful vaulted ceilings, lovely bathroom tiles and tasteful period decor, but weren’t particularly practical (old creaky beds and floors, no shower curtains etc).

The biggest problem however was the scraping chairs upstairs in the restaurant keeping us awake till past midnight, and then a piano recital at 2am from the owner’s son! By all means come to eat but it’s probably best to stay at the 501 if you want a decent night’s sleep and modern facilities.

L’Approdo (Advanced A+), 22 Via Roma, Vibo Pizzo, Tel. 0963 572640, www.lapprodo.com open every day.

GEM ALERT!

Don’t come to this formal place if you are on a budget, three of us spent €25 each way in a taxi from the top of the hill to Vibo Marina and another €55 each on food and wine, but it was worth it! It’s the kind of posh place that has individual cotton hand towels in the loo. The wine list was a 34 page book with an index.

We started with the Antipasti di Mare (€22) (A) which included Alici Ripiene (stuffed anchovies), Mazzancolle Merosta di Lardo di Colonnata (king prawns with Tuscan fatty pork), Spiedino di Pesce Spada (chunks of swordfish on a skewer), Totuni e Pomodorini al Basilico (a type of squid with cherry toms and basil), Insalata di Pesce Castagna (fish, egg, cheese, chestnuts) and Gratin di Bianchetto (whitebait baked with cheese). Due to the nouvelle cuisine presentation, we couldn’t work out what was what on the plate, but it was all delicious!

My main was Capretto del Monte Puro alla Brace, Timo, Menta e Balsimico (grilled goat from Mount Puro with a local red onion chutney) (B+), and Alison’s Trancio di Pescatrice all Arancia con Lenticchie dei Pollino was very nice (A), but the best main course was Nicky’s Medaglione di Filetto ‘Chianina’ Gratinato ai Funghi Porcini, Radicchio Brasto al Vino Rosso (chianina is beef from highly pampered cattle, similar to Kobe beef) (A+).

The highlight for all of us were the white and red wines, both Ciro Classico (€18) (A++) from Tenuta Iuzzolini (the red was 2006), startlingly unique, and some of the most delicious wine I have ever tasted. (NB although difficult to prove, Ciro is believed to be the oldest wine still being produced in the world.)

I finished with a local grappa (Ronco dei Quattroventi) (B+) but coveted my neighbour’s Cognac Park (cigar blend 40 vielle fine champ). You can also get set course menus for €30 to €45 and a tasting menu for €90.

Fillipo’s (Intermediate B), 128 corso Umberto I, Vibo Valentia, 0963 44870

Had an ok ;ate lunch here that started very well but the quantities seemed to tail off towards the end. Starters included bull salami, mortadella, local sautéed Tropea red onions, stewed pumpkin with cumin, cheese and potato soufflé, vegetable omelette/frittata, pasta with cream, rocket and grana, pasta in tomato sauce and fried fish with raw fennel (all B +/-). The Cauro IGT red (Statti ’05) (B+) and Mantanico white (B) were both from nearby Lamezia Terme. Mentioned in Gambero Rosso and owned by the brother of the Locanda above, it is principally a wine bar that sells food.

Specialities of Vibo Valentia province:

According to legend, pecorino cheese-making originated during the Greek period in a small village called Zaccanos (now Zaccanapoli) which literally means sheep corral, and later spread to the Poro, a mountainous area of VV. When it is young and fresh (‘green’) it has a sweet flavour with a sour aftertaste and can be served in slabs as antipasti. The older version (aged 6-8 months) tastes salty and spicy and is grated on to pasta. It is sometimes also used in desserts.

‘Nduja is a huge sausage with a sweet, peppery taste, made from a mix of pork meat including fat, bacon and cheek, blended with salt and red chilli, which is then smoked and hung. It can be spread on fresh bread or bruschetta, or combined with fileja, (the local handmade pasta which is formed by rolling around a small stick), and topped with grated pecorino. The DOP for ‘nduja is around the village of Spillinga where they celebrate the “sagra della ‘ndjua” festival every August.

The coastal town of Tropea is famous for ‘la cipolla rosa di Tropea’, which looks rather like a red spring onion with a white centre. This unique onion has its own DOP from the E.U. which takes in the Tyrrhenian coastal area from Nicotera to Pizzo Calabria. It has a strong and sweet aroma which makes it good for chutneys, omelettes and salads. The flavour can be made stronger by storing. You might see plaits of onions decorating shops and houses in the summer.

Mostaccioli (“pupazzo” in dialect) are hard biscuits formed into decorative shapes with symbolic meanings. They are made by expert artisans called ‘mastazzolari’ from flour, water and honey and originate from the small village of Soriano Calabro. They are considered a symbol of love in Calabria and heart-shaped biscuits are traditionally given as presents to celebrate engagements and weddings. They can also be shaped in the form of saints for religious days or as animals, such as a horse, goat, cock or fish, to celebrate the beauty of nature.

Olive oil production is important throughout the province. One of the most famous extra virgin oils is made from cold pressing the ‘ottobratica’ variety. Other famous varieties include ‘cecerello’ and ‘miseo’.

The villages of Joppolo, Maierato, Soriano Calabro and Piscopio are also famous for honey which comes in acacia, orange blossom and chestnut varieties.

The Serre highlands in the east of the province are known for mushrooms, primarily Porcini, but also the Gallinacci, Pratioli and ‘Drum and Nail’ varieties.

A famous dessert is ‘il tartufo di Pizzo’, an icecream with chocolate inside.

Written November 2009

Rah Rah Ragusa

Posted in Ragusa with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Sadly I only stayed in Ragusa for one night but I wish it had been longer. You should walk around the place as much as possible because the views, especially of the old town and from the top of the ravine, are fantastic and have been used in many classic Italian films. Even though we were only out one evening we still managed two restaurants.

 

Al Bocconcino (Intermediate C+), 96 Corso Vittorio Veneto (a couple of blocks away from the Hotel Montreal), closed Sunday.

A lovely guy serving but sadly some dishes not up to scratch. The rustici with choux-like pastry and slice of sausage was nice (B) but we couldn’t eat the peppers, olives and pickled onions which had come straight out of a jar (D). My friend Rachel loved her minestrone and my Arrosto Misto of sausage, veal, lamb and chicken was a B except for the latter item. Nicky had veal in a sauce (B) and we both scoffed our chips even though they weren’t great (C). Other diners received huge plates of pasta. The local house white as only €2 a half litre (C) and we had a very nice Nero di Avola (I Due Sorbi) (B) for only €8. To finish an oak-aged Grappa 903 Barrique (Bonaventura Maschio) (B) from the North. You can eat a lot very cheaply here, €23 each in our case, but there are better places.

Trattoria Cucina e Vino (Advanced A) , 91 via Orfanotrofio, Ragusa Ibla, Tel. 0932 686447

This is an excellent place in the beautiful part of the old town called Ibla. It’s a bit of a walk from the hotel, involving about 300 stairs, but personally I like a bit of exercise before and after eating.  It’s a bit expensive, pasta courses are in double figures, but the food is top quality. Nicky and I had already eaten at the place above but we went here for a bit of cheese and wine afterwards. We got Provaleta Ragusana, two kinds of Caciocavallo (a semi-matured and a two year old which was super strong), two kinds of Pecorino (saffron and black pepper) and three kinds of Caprino goats cheese, one of which had a pistachio rind. They were accompanied by four kinds of ‘ jam’ (cherry, aubergine, courgette and sweet pepper) and a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria red (A) which cost us €33. Pricey but very good, this is the place to come next time.

 

The not particularly attractive  Hotel Montreal has free wi-fi in its spacious rooms but the signal is stronger in some than in others. The staff are friendly and helpful.

Written Nov 2009.

2016: 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die lists Il Duomo and Federico II. Both look good value.

Poking around Potenza

Posted in Basilicata, Melfi, Potenza with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Tiny Potenza is the capital of Basilicata, historically one of the poorest and least populated regions in Italy. It’s one of the highest provincial capitals in the country so be prepared for chilly weather!

The local pasta is strascinati which in this town look like small oval pizza bases with upturned edges, similar to orecchiette. I had some at each restaurant so as to compare them. The neighbouring Aglianico del Vulture DOC produces one of the best red wines in Italy, and I certainly made the most of it while I was here.

I don’t have the exact addresses for some of these restaurants but they are all in the historical centre, just 5 to 10 minutes from the Hotel Pretoria (small but nice enough). Just ask the receptionist for directions. These reviews are from 2008 but a colleague who went recently confirms most of these places are still open. 

Trattoria al Duomo (B+), opposite the cathedral.

A nice stone cellar with friendly service. I liked the Strascinati di Funghi e Salsiccia (4 euro) and the house Aglianico (4 euro for half a litre). Probably the best place in terms of value for money and good basic traditional food. Open Sunday.

La Tettoia, Via Due Torri (B?), next to the cinema.

This seems to be the local institution (very busy and recommended by the centre rep and hotel receptionist) but I didn’t particularly rate it. It has a huge menu and maybe I made a mistake by asking for the local specialties  I couldn’t finish their strascinati (very oily with too much gloopy cheese and singed peperoncino) but the antipasti misto was ok (6 euros) as was the house Aglianico (3 euro for half litre).

Ristorante Due Torri (B), Via Due Torri, just down the road from the above.

Modern Italian cooking from the squeezy bottle brigade. The Cicoria e Fave (5 euros) was delicious and very original but I didn’t rate the tiny Filettino di Miali or the pasta dish Cavatelli all Aglianico. Very poor house Aglianico. A slightly mardy owner who could learn a bit about customer relations. Bizarre soundtrack including disco and Scottish folk dance! Probably best avoided.

Taverna Oraziana (B+), at the far end of Via Pretoria, down some steps.

Another nice stone cellar with a discreet TV and background jazz with friendly English-speaking staff. A limited menu of mainly beef and pork. Nice antipasti misto (7 euro) and ricotta and chocolate tart (2 euro), good house Aglianico (3 euro for half litre), large grappa (2 euro). Probably my second favourite place but had very few other customers for some reason.

After Potenza I went to Melfi, in the shadow of volcanic Monte Vulture deep in Aglianico territory. It’s a nice town with a very well preserved Norman castle. Sadly a nasty bout of gastroenteritis meant I didn’t have a very good time there. I blamed it on a ‘complementary’ dairy product that I was given at Ristorante Delle Rose. Be warned, nowhere is safe!

Caught out in Castellon de la Plana

Posted in Castellon de la Plana, Spain, Valenciana Comunidad with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

In 2014 I had my my second visit to Castellon, and just like the first time I found it very hard to find good places to eat, partly through bad timing, and partly because it seems there just aren’t that many decent places to go.

In addition there isn’t much to see or do here. It’s a typical modern Spanish town with lots of modern construction that has left very little of the old town remaining, except for the cathedral and the Fadri Tower. The Mudejar style post office is quite nice though.

Castellon de la Plana 017

There is a beach and a marina, but it’s a fair hike to the sea although I did manage it one day (see my next post on Castellon – El Grau). Here’s my Google map to give you an idea.
The inhabitants however seem like they are up for a good time if their Magdalena festival is anything to go by. I caught the procession one evening (at the end of March) which seemed to involve several anarchic brass bands and people in traditional dress, all jogging round the route at a fast pace.

Castellon de la Plana 014

There was also a marching band from Japan, who looked a bit frightened by the wild locals, and one from Russia, who looked a bit embarrassed given that their troops were at that moment massing on the border with Ukraine, and here they were in full parade uniform looking ready to occupy the local town hall. They both got a clap, but it was louder for the Japanese.

Anyway, here’s what I know about the food scene….

The best place in town (according to LP and a teacher on my first visit) is Arropes at 5 Carrer Benabe although the teachers on my second visit said it was relying on the rep it had for a Michelin star many years ago, now lost.

Instead the more recent collegues recommended Pairal, just around the corner at 24 Carrer de Doctor Fleming. I didn’t get to go to either as they were both shut for the Magdalena festival. The first teacher also reccommended Cafe Antoxo Galicia at 5 Carrer Almehara for seafood, which is quite near the hotel.

Mercado de Tapas aka 15 Tapas (Intermediate A-), 7 Calle Ruiz Vila, Tel. 96 423 3322

This friendly modern tapas bar was gleaned from a blog on the internet (somebody’s foodie mum liked it), and it was the best place I ate at on this trip.
As soon as I sat down I was give some complimentary spicy little sausages (B+).

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I began the meal proper with a half portion of Manitas de Cerdo Servida Deshuesadas Rellenas de Carrilleras  de Terneras y Salsa de Boletus, aka boneless pig trotters stuffed with veal cheeks in Boletus mushroom sauce (no pic sorry), which wasn’t much to look at but the flavour was fantastic (A).
I followed with a half portion of Rabo de Toro Deshuesado con su Caldo Gelatanoso y Crema de Patatas or boneless oxtail cooked in its own gelatinous broth and served with a potatoe puree. Oxtail is usually a favourite of mine but the nouvelle interpretation seemed to have detracted from the taste somehow and I was left disappointed at the lack of flavour (C).

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Next some local Quesos de Castellon which ranged from great (A) for the young cow’s milk cheeses to what seemed to just be a rind for the goat’s cheese (C). They were served with walnuts and jams, the strawberry jam being one of the best I’ve ever tasted (A).

Castellon de la Plana 009
With all this, a vino de terra from the local Castello IGP, a hefty 2012 Syrah from Mas de Rander, which went very well (B+). So much so that I later bought a bottle for a mere €5 from the well-stocked delicatessen Tienda El Pilar at 64 Calle Colon, www.tiendaelpilar.com.

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The Meloso de Chocolate con Crema de Vanilla strangely seemed to have been decorated with cubes of old white bread which, while tasteless, did bring a bit of crunch to a soft ice cream dessert (B).

Castellon de la Plana 010
They put together a good Carajillo here by setting fire to the alcohol in a metal jug (Magno brandy in my case but an alternative could be rum) with some cinnamon sticks, whole coffee beans and lemon zest before the coffee is added. Very yum (A).

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Total cost €41. I’d definitely come again for most of these dishes. Might try the seafood options next time.

Meson Navarro 1 (Intermediate B), 26 Plaza Tetuan

This original branch of a local mini-chain can get very busy so it’s best to go at 8pm when it opens. Tomato bread and alioli is served automatically and the lamb chops were good (B). The wine and out-of-season asparagus were pretty average (C+). Total cost 27.25.

Plaza Tetuan is a nice little square where you can sit outside.

Meson Navarro 2 (Intermediate C), 1 Carrer Amadeo

The food at this second branch around the corner isn’t particularly good but it saved me from starvation during the Magdalena festival when everywhere else was shut.  I was a bit put off by finding cling film in my breaded pork cutlet (C), but hey, as an ex-chef, I know it happens.

The Tarta de la Casa (out of a packet) is quite formidable though; a slab of flan, topped with squirty cream and supported by four pillars of ice cream. It pushed the buttons it needed to (B-)

Castellon de la Plana 001

There’s a Meson Navarra 3 at 4 Carrer Sanchis Abela if you can’t get enough but I’m not going back to any of them if I can help it.

I also went to these places in 2008:

Julivert (High Elementary C), 41 Carrer Caballeros, opens at 9.

Was listed by Lonely Planet as being a good veggie option but there are a few meat and fish mains, as well as salads or bocadillos (a strange choice for an evening meal but there you go). For €22.70 I got scrambled eggs with black pudding, a chicken salad, bread and wine.

Donde Marisa (B), 18 Carrer Cabelleros (off Plaza Major). Now closed or moved?

Couldn’t get in here on Friday night when other nearby places were half full. Mind you it was after 9pm so if you go at 8 you might be ok. I came back Sunday and had a five course late lunch for €17, including a tuna salad, ham and manchego, scrambled eggs with mushroom and spinach, seafood paella and carrot cake. Good food at a good price (B).

The Hotel Abba where I stayed the first time is now no more so I was put up at the Hotel Luz which is fine. The breakfast is good, and I’m told the restaurant is perfectly satisfactory should you not wish to go out. The rooms are comfortable and have good Wi-Fi, although the décor in the corridors is pretty hideous. And it’s right next to the station which is handy.

So I’ve not been that fortunate in terms of food in Castellon. Hope you do better than me.

 

Calabria – Reggio di Calabria

Posted in Calabria, Reggio di Calabria, Reggio di Calabria Province, Villa San Giovanni with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Lungomare and EtnaAlthough Reggio is the second oldest city in Italy, it’s a fairly unpretty town with few old buildings. However, it’s still popular with tourists who come to see the famous bronzes (see below) on their way to Sicily or elsewhere. Consequently it’s quite expensive. For me, the nicest thing about it is the long pedestrian boulevard along the seafront where you have fantastic views of Sicily looming large across the straits of Messina with Etna dominating the skyline. I love running along here in the dusk with the sun going down behind the volcano. It can be a bit edgy down here at night though with gangs of pushers peddling around the RC Lido station.

Generally I found it pretty tough to find a good value-for-money restaurant in Reggio. This first place is the only one I would really recommend.

I Tre Farfalli (Intermediate B+), 47 Via del Torrione, reservations recommended, Tel 0965817667 or 3389897788.

This is the best all-round place I found here, very atmospheric with lots of dark wood and low lighting. Popular with the locals, I had a family of twenty-six for company on the next table. The menu is fixed so you just decide which courses you want and eat what you are given. Although I had to wait till the kitchen was open at 8.30, whilst munching on some very tasty miniscule olives, the waiter was very helpful, giving me a running commentary on everything that came to the table. The antipasti included capocollo, two types of croquettes, carciofi, pan fried greens, a bowl of bean stew, deep fried bread, a pecorino dipping sauce, ricotta and half a grilled potato. The primi was two kinds of pasta on one plate, ‘macaroni’ (long, thin twists) in tomato sauce and gnocchi with aubergine and peppers, and the secondo was three types of pork (thick pancetta, sausage and a chop). Except for the capocollo and secondo everything was veggie. Along with a bottle of the house red and a bergamot liquer the whole bill came to a very reasonable 25 euro. To be honest, the food was ok but not amazing, hence the B+.

Revisited the next year with five others and had an even better experience because we could share everything. The experience was as good as last time, nice atmos, friendly staff, generally good food and lots of it. My only criticism was that they was a bit too much fried antipasti, which included three kinds of vegetable polpetti (aubergine, broccoli, ricotta ‘balls’), potato and cheese cakes, plain deep-fried lumps of dough (all B/C) with a declicious cheese sauce, caponata (aubergine stew), capocollo (cured ham) and a fagioli soup (all A/B). We couldn’t manage a pasta course and went straight to the mixed grill of beef, pork and sausage (C/B/A). Their delicious house red (B), bearing the restaurant name, was ‘Terramia’ from the Agrila(?) IGT in the nearby hills. To finish fresh fruit and the local bergamot digestive which was clear on this occasion. Total cost, a stunning €20 each. I also bought a bottle of homemade bergamot liquer a from here too for €10. There were fennel, liquorish and plain flavours too, as well as peperoncino (a local speciality) flavoured grappa.

There are a couple of friendly bars just a few doors down, and a shop that sells all things bergamottian. Bergamot, by the way, is a citrus fruit found only in this province. It’s kind of a cross between a lime and a lemon and is mainly produced for the perfume industry, and also for Earl Grey tea. The liqeuer is very tasty too, drunk chilled and similar to limoncello. Ask for a bergamino in restaurants (grammar note, one bergamino, two bergamotti).

Da Giovanni (Intermediate B), 77 Via del Torrione

An old school restaurant complete with bow-tied waiter and pictures of clowns and kittens on the walls, no TV or music, but reccommended for its seafood. This is a good place to taste spada (swordfish) which is supposed to be ‘the best in the world’ in the sea around here. I had a nice Critone white wine from the Val de Neto IGT to wash down the seafood antipasti (delectable octopus, prawns and smoked spada), grilled spada steak, an overdressed salad, fresh strawberries and a berganino. The handwritten menu was unreadable so I got shock when the bill came in at 48 euro. Don’t think I would go again as it was expensive and stuffy.

Osteria Symposuim (Intermediate B), 6 Vico le Roma, left out of the Hotel Royal and second left.

A modern place with light jazz and a sullen waitress (probably sick of being ordered around by the affected owner). I had an excellent steak, salad and chips with a couple of glasses of red Ciro and a grappa. Again it was expensive, 32 euro, so another one to maybe give a miss. First courses were 8 to 12 euro and mains 8 to 15.

La Rosa dei Venti (Intermediate B), Piazza Monsolini – Lido Communale, (go to the other side of the RC Lido station entrance on the lungomare, take the stairs down towards the sea, the restaurant is on the far side of the car park).

Three of us had the €18 Menu Fisso (fixed menu) here. We shared Insalata di Polipo, Pepata di Cozze and Alice Marinate to start (all B), followed by Risotto ai Frutti di Mare (B), Tagliatelle all Ancona (olives, toms, uninteresting lumps of swordfish) (C) and a delicious Pesce Spada Arrosto (swordfish steak)(A), with a green salad and a 1/4 of white wine each. Strange that the swordfish was so variable, especially as the straits of Messina are supposed to be the best place to fish for them. Uninteresting decor, rather dark except for all the tellys (at least five) but ok reasonably priced food.

Gelataria Cesare sells ‘the best icecream in Calabria’ according to one of the teachers I worked with, and it is very nice. It’s the green hut just over from the RC Lido station.

Untried:

Baylik, 1 vico Leone, (the best place in town but a long way?) not Thurs (from Gambero Rosso and internet)

Le Rose al Bicchiere, 118 via D.Tripepi (from Gambero Rosso)

Bronzi di RiaceThe ok but nothing special Hotel Royal is literally next door to the archaeological museum which houses the famous Bronzi da Riace, two wonderful greek bronze statues found by a scuba diver in the sea nearby during the 70s. They are a big tourist pull which is probably why everything is so expensive in the area. The museum closes at 8, entrance is 4 euro.

The sister hotel of the Royal, the Excelsior just over the road, has internet for €5p/h.

Buffet Stazione F.S. Villa San Giovanni (Elementary D-)

Villa San Giovanni is the ferry port next to RC where you catch the ferry to Sicily. This hole surely has to be a contender for the grimmest station bar in the country. We had to spend an hour here having missed the ferry to Messina which left 5 minutes early, by their own clock. Bastardi! The mistake we made was trying to buying our tickets from the bookstore on platform one from the pretentious proprietor who wanted to demonstrate his (bad) English. We decamped to this grimy dark hole to wait for an hour till the next ferry. To pass the time we invested €8 in possibly the rankest Nero D’Avola ever bottled, something like a fizzy rose laced with Benolin. No wonder the girl on the till looked at me as if I was insane when I asked for it. All the same, we flopped onto the Coca Cola high chairs and did our best to drown our sorrows under the searching stares of various misfits and scornful bar staff, one of whom suggested a spag bol might help the wine down. One look at the food on display was enough to dispel that idea. Glistening processed cheeses nestling against sweating mortadella, flapping between slices of wonderloaf with the crusts cut off. Buxom cakes with beige cream fillings, topped with glinting glace cherries, cosying up to huge canolos with ricotta oozing from within. Singed grey croissants sat in a glass case like a museum display. Once on board though we were cheered up by the recorded Inglish safety instructions which were hilariously incomprehensible. For future reference you can buy your tickets on board, the crossing takes 25 mins.

Updated Nov 2009.

Enjoying the view in Enna

Posted in Enna with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Apparently the highest provincial capital in Europe at 1,100m, Enna is a lovely town perched on the top of high cliffs. Make sure you go to the Lombard Castle and neighbouring Rocca di Cerere to sample the stunning views of the surrounding countryside and other hilltop towns such as neighbouring Calascibetta. The Torre di Federico is another good place for views.

Enna

I recommend staying at the lovely art deco Hotel Sicilia. There may be more modern hotels but this one has a lot of charcter.

Risorante Pizzeria Ariston (A) 353 Via Roma, Closed Sunday.

This is the best value-for-money option with excellent food, just a short 200m walk downhill from the Hotel Sicilia. It’s mentioned in several guides and was recommended by reception and by my local contact too. It’s basically one big room with nothing much to look at except a telly (you could sit outside but it would be like sitting in a subway). First and second courses are between €6.50 and €12 , the double figures being the seafood. I had the house signature dish Cavatelli Ariston (A), small, local pasta shells in a piquant tomato sauce with lots of garlic and a pinch of basil, and on another occasion Penne alla Norma (A), both excellent. A plate of contorni, grilled veg and caponata (A),cost €3.50 at lunch time and €7 from the more extensive evening buffet, I had a nice bottle of Chardonnay (Feudo Arancio 08) for €12 which is the price of most of the bottled wines. All I did was look at what everyone else was drinking then select my preference from the glass fridge by the door. The house red is €2.50 for a quartino. The owner is the older server with the salt and pepper beard. The service isn’t exactly friendly or rude (except for the young girl), just busy. The atmosphere is nothing special, indeed large children’s birthday parties always seem to come here, but the grub makes up for it.

Revisited Ariston in November ’09 with four friends and found it to be as good as ever. The highlight of the antipasti buffet were the roasted balsamic onions. Nicky had some wonderful Gnocci alla Sorrentina and Sara an excellent Spaghettil alla Scoglio (both A), my Cavatelli di Ariston and Rachel’s Ravioli di Cernia were also good (both B). Raffa’s escalope looked great and the Corvo red (Sciaranera ’08) went down well (B). Enzo the owner sold us a bottle of his homemade limoncello (A) for €18. Not cheap but liquid gold as far as I was concerned. My only criticism of Ariston’s food is that the portions are too big and I have never made it past the antipasti and pasta to the main course!

Ristorante Centrale (B+), Pizza VI Dicembre (just before Ariston on the left as you go down, opposite Banca di Sicilia). Closed Sat?

Another nice nearby place that is popular with the Italian tourist guides and local teachers. It has a nicer atmosphere and terrace than Ariston but the food isn’t quite as good. If it’s language practice you are looking for, the older waiter with the glasses is very chatty on the subject of local food, wines and motorbike racing (there is a famous track nearby). I had the signature dish of Pappardelle Centrale (A), thick ribbons with ham, tomato sauce, mince, mushrooms and cream. First courses are €6-10 and seconds €6-13, fish being the pricey item again. They also have good value-for-money set menus for between €16 and €20. For €16 I got Cavatelli alla Siciliana (small shells again with ragu and olives), Vitello al Forno con Funghi, fruit, water and a quartino of wine (B). A quartino by itself costs €1.50, the house red being nicer but the white was ok despite not being chilled. Local grappa was €3.

One rep recommended Di Marino on Viale Caterina Avoca which has great views from the terrace but was closed on Tuesday. Another place in the guides was Antica Hostaria at 9 Via Castagna, off the main square but again closed on Mon/Tues when I was in town.

Castello di Lombardia

Be warned that, because of the altitude, it can be a bit chilly sitting outside in short sleeves, even on an evening in June.

Self-caterers should check out the small shops on Mercato San Antonio, parallel to Via Roma, at the back of Ristorante Centrale.  If you are looking for local foodstuffs to buy, Enna is famous for Piacentino Ennese, a variety ofsheeps cheese featuring saffron and whole black peppercorns. You could eat it with the local bread Pagnotta del Dittaino which has it’s own DOP. Broad beans (fava larga) from nearby Leonforte are also renowned.

Written in 2008 and 2009

Sicilian hospitality in Piazza Armerina & Barrafranca

Posted in Barrafranca, Piazza Armerina with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Personally, Piazza Armerina is not a place I’d want to stay for more than a night or two.

Piazza Armerina

A lot of tourists come here however to see the beautifully preserved (by a mudslide) mosaics at Villa Romana del Casal, just on the outskirts of town. Famously these include the ‘bikini girls’ which show Roman women playing sports in an early representation of the two-piece costume.

Villa Romana

If you are staying at the rather depressing Hotel Roma (the best place in town?, maybe try a hostel) the food is pretty good (Intermediate B) and quite reasonably priced. I had a good Tagliatelle dello Chef and a Cotoletta allo Palmeritana (pork cutlet in breadcrumbs), along with a mezzo of Nero d’Avola and Macedonia for about 20 euro.

For water, a cold drink on a terrace or a nearby bite to eat, take a U-turn to the left out of the hotel and up Via Roma. You will find Ristorante Pepito on the immediate right. I didn’t try the food so can’t comment.

Vilma Wine Bar (Intermediate A), 89 Via Garibaldi, next left after Via Roma.

This is a great place to start or finish your evening, you will be welcomed by the friendly English-speaking Roberto (if he hasn’t sold the place yet), who lived in London for three years. He has free internet in the bar and a wide range of reasonably priced beers, spirits and local wines. Set in an atomospheric part of the old town, near the theatre. Opens at 5pm, closed Sundays. I had a nice glass of white here, Branciaforti IGT (Firriato ’08) for 3 euro.

Ristorante Pizzeria da Nino (Intermediate A-), 12 Via Gebbia. Turn left out of the hotel, go straight until the road forks, bear right but keep going straight, past a church, turn right at the TIM shop with red awnings (before the bus square, a sign points to the local penitentiary ), go past Bar Sestercio (ate an ok lunch here waiting for the bus but it’s a bit of a roach hole), Nino’s is on the left.

This is a nice spot to escape the heat and hustle and bustle of town. It’s a large courtyard with ivy-covered walls, olive trees, wagonwheels and wooden wheelbarrows full of flowers. The speciality here is grilled meat and after a nice Caprese di Bufala (B) I had the Arrosto Misto (A), which consisted of a large pork chop, a thick slab of pancetta, sausage, quail, beef steak and a spit (spiedino) of chicken and turkey, with a side order of grilled veg (A).

You’re not going anywhere fast after that lot but I would recommend finishing with the Ravioli di Ricotta (A) which is sweet ricotta in a warmed pastry, possibly washed down with a glass of sweet Malvasia. The only let down was the house red which was not very good (C), but I guess they are trying to encourage you to buy a bottle off the long list of wines which start at 10 euro. First and second are courses between 5 and 10 euro. With water and cover the bill was pretty reasonable at 31.80.

There is another guide recommended restaurant at 62 Via Garibaldi, just down from Roberto’s wine bar, which you might want to try rather than the place below.

Ristorante Pizzeria da Toto (Intermediate B), 29 Via Mazzini, go to the end of Via Garibaldi and turn right, it’s on the right.

Recommended by a local teacher but a little disappointing. The food was ok, the house signature Bocca di Lupo (mouth of the wolf) was a baked slab of layered veal, ham, mozzarella, aubergine and tomatoes (B) but the grilled veg (C) was cold. The Compose di Frutta (A) was excellent with locally grown fresh pineapple, melon, orange and cherries. The house red (D) at 1.50 a quartino, tasted like dried leaves and I couldn’t finish it. Cover and wine are cheap but I thought the first courses, 8-9 euro, and seconds 10-15, were slightly expensive. Pizzas are around 6 euro. Don’t sit near the door as the car fumes can be quite unpleasant.

There is an internet place at 35 Via Mazzini but they charged me a pricey 1 euro for 15 mins.

I didn’t have time to visit the famous mosaics but if you do, you might consider lunch at La Ruota which is recommended in several guides and is close nearby. Pasta with wild fennel, lamb and artichokes are the local delicacies to try apparently.

Il Calice Rosso (Intermediate A), Via Canalicchio, Barrafranca

This is a place in Barrafranca the next town (which seems even more godforsaken than Piazza Armerina!) where the very hospitable teachers from the Liceo I was working at took me for lunch. We had a fantastic range of starters, some I recognised (caponata, baked aubergines) and some I didn’t (tomatoes stuffed with tuna mayo, slabs of spinach in egg). The Pasta alla Norma was the best I have ever had in Sicily, huge rigatonis tossed in aubergine sauce piled high on big oval dishes and sprinkled with salted ricotta, one for two people. I couldn’t stop eating it but still didn’t finish my share. And of course, all washed down with a great Nero d’Avola, absolute heaven. This was the meal that made me warm to Sicilians, great company and fantastic food.  It also goes to show that in Sicily the best food can sometimes be found in the seemingly worst places!

Written June 2009.

Pozzouli, Arco Felice, Lucrino, Baia and Cuma

Posted in Arco Felice, Baia, Cuma, Lucrino, Pozzoulli with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Pozzuoli has lots of clubs for the crazy Neopolitan kids on holiday, but for more mature, outdoor drinking, head into Baia, there are lots of popular bars around the marina. You will see large crowds of people standing along the sides of the main road as you go through. There is they a ‘mini Pompei’ nearby and the marina is also the place to get the glass-bottomed boat to see the sunken underwater Roman ruins, including many beautiful mosaics. There’s lots of sightseeing in the area but be quick before it all sinks into the sea! The whole region, known as the Campi Flegrei is a vulcanologist’s fantasy land. I love this area but sadly they have the same problem with the Camorra as Naples so there are  piles of uncollected rubbish lining the roads. It’s a very sad sight and a reminder of the problems that exist in this paradise. I have stayed twice at the unremarkable but convenient La Tripergola in Arco Felice on the main coast road.

Il Capriccio (Intermediate A), in Lucrino near Arco Felice, 1 Piazetta Italia, on the land side of the main drag, near the station just by Lago Lucrino. Any local will point you in the right direction. Tel 081 866 2984. GEM ALERT!

A very famous seafood restaurant, informal and popular with families (ie lots of noisy kids!). You can sit outside under the awning. Start with some pizzette (deep fried balls of dough infused with seaweed) or the bruschette. Risotto alla Pescatore was good, washed down with a nice Fiano. Wasn’t too impressed by the Greco di Tufo white (Montesole for €12), and the local white is just about drinkable for only €3. Also good is the octopus salad and the deep fried prawns with rucola. Profiteroles and a free grappa or limoncello to finish. Ate here most nights. Coperto is €1 and service 10%. Go to the bar next door for a good coffee.

La Nunfia (Advanced B+), opposite the above, on the lake.

Great seafood but at a price. It’s too formal and lacking in atmosphere for my liking. Better to go over the road.

There is a public indoor swimming pool where you can do lengths. It’s on the coast road in Arco Felice, just before Lake Lucrino on the sea side.

If you turn off the main road by Lake Lucrino and follow the side road that goes between the two restaurants above, you will get to another lake in an old volcano crater. It’s a nature reserve so very nice to walk or jog around. Lots of vinyards, moorhens, frogs, lizards and the odd tramp! The Temple of Diana is here though there is not much to see.

There is a very long sandy beach at up the coast Cuma but you will need a car to reach it (I hired a car from Hotel Europa in Caserta for €150 for the weekend). La Plage was a fairly nice beach club but I wouldn’t recommend Papete. To get to the beach road, take a left turn as you come out of Cuma.

Getting Aragonese in Zaragoza

Posted in Aragon, Zaragoza with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

PilarMuch of old Zaragoza  has been rebuilt along the lines of the original streets. The beautiful Pilar is the main touristic draw. I have stayed at the dingy but centrally located Zaragoza Royal. My colleagues now stay at the hotel in the super-modern railway station but it’s a bit of a trek into town.

There are essentially three options from the Royal when it comes to eating here. Stay in or near the hotel , or turn left on Gran Via and go to the Plaza San Francisco (15 mins walk) or turn right on Gran Via and head to the old town (20 mins brisk walk). As a general rule of thumb the further you walk, the better the food gets…

In the old town…

A great area is ‘El Tubo‘, a maze of narrow streets immediately behind the Puerta Cinegia shopping centre in Plaza Espania. One way to access it is walk to through the shopping centre. When you come out, if you turn immediate right, 100 yards down you will find the orange-fronted El Plata cabaret club at 33 C/ Cuatro de Agosto. It´s nationally famous for it´s risque performances. Shows start at 8 and 11pm but arrive 45 mins early to be assured of getting in (entrance is free, they make their money on the drinks).

Nearby Pascualillo is a famous tapas bar with adjoining restaurant (out of the shopping centre but straight ahead, it´s fairly soon on the left). They have an 11 euro Menu del Dia until Friday lunch, and a different one at the weekend for 19 euro.

Around the corner is La Bodeguilla de la Santa Cruz at 3 C/Santa Cruz, which looks very nice and trad, but perhaps a bit expensive. The same people run La Republicana, a nice bar at 38 C/Mundez. Casa Lac, one of the oldest restaurants in Spain (since 1825, Botin in Madrid is the oldest, founded in 1725), is at 12 C/Martires, opposite El Plata. Lots of other gems around here too.

El Fuelle (Intermediate B), 59 C/Major.

A traditional Aragonese meat restaurant, which opens at 7.30(!) and seats at least 200, but was nearly full by 9 on Saturday night. Nice atmosphere, friendly service . Sadly the Menu Degustacion (6 entrees, ternasco a la brasa con patates a lo pobre, pud, wine etc) was for a minimum of 2 people. However, as it was my last night in town, I splashed out a bit and got sopa de ajo con judias, the ternasco and a bottle of excellent local red (Senorio de Lazan DOC, 17.50 euros). The total came to 34.90 but it was very enjoyable. Go with a friend to make it cheaper.

Al-Kareni (Intermediate A), C/Don Teobaldo (a left off C/Major).

On the unfashionable edge of the old town, hard to find but well worth the effort, this is a posh couscous restaurant with a great atmosphere and excellent food. Dark yellow and ochre walls, with ceramics, lanterns, mirrors, paintings, copperware, woodwork and moorish motifs covering every surface. A great option for veggies and carnivores alike. The 12 euro veg cus-cus probably includes onion, tomato, carrot, celery, courgette, leek and suede. I had the 14 euro signature dish which included the former, and a spit of char-grilled lamb, chicken and kofta. (The lamb was the star, so maybe just go for the all-lamb version). To suit local palates, there was very little heat in the chickpea & veg soup, so if you like it hot, ask for a pot of harissa to whip in before pouring it over the rest of the food. The powerful house red was a perfect match. I also got a wonderfully aromatic aperitif, a bowl of chillis and olives, and a plate of boiled new potatoes in their skins, dressed and still warm, all complementary. The ‘sorbet’ turned out to be mixed with rose-scent and cream to produce a kind of milkshake, but was still very nice. Wonderful place. Lots of lively student bars further along the street.

Marisqueria Tony (Elementary A), 40 C/Don Jaime (the best street for accessing the old town). GEM ALERT!

A cult spot for seafoodies, get your goose barnacles and razor shells here. I´m half Norwegian and very fussy about my prawns so when I tell you the gambas a la plancha are some of the best I have ever tasted, please believe me! At 8 euros they are not cheap but they are just sooo good. Cañas are 1.50. Very friendly staff, good place to practice Spanish.

Once you find Tony´s you will be able to locate a small alleyway one door down that is the start of a good tapas trail. You will walk past a couple of places which I’m sure are very good but maybe wait until you get into the tiny Plaza Santa Marta at the end. I remember that Mapy´s, the red and blue place on the left has nice food, the decor has a bullfighting theme. It´s a good spot to sit outside in the summer but it was closed this time in November.

Vitorinos II (Elementary A), Plaza Santa Marta (opposite Mapy’s)

The bloke behind the bar could do with cheering up a bit, but he and his wife make great tapas. There’s lots of fish but also curados, quesos, patés and ahumados on thick slabs of french stick. The red pureed stuff is a mix of ham and cheese which was powerful but ok tasting. The anchovy with pickle, and spicy sausages were good. Ask for another slice of bread on top to make a sandwich. Cheap and filling, the tapas were 2.25 each and the cañas 1.20.

Nearby Plaza Magdalena is also a good place for tapas and sitting outside in the summer. Lots of restaurants around there too.

El Calamar Bravo (Elementary B-), 5 C/Moneva (a parallel back street once block east of Indepencia) & 14 Cinco de Marzo.

Feel the need for a big greasy sandwich? This establishment claims to have invented the Bocadillo de Calamares, a popular local fast food. Basically it´s a small loaf, cut in half, filled with fried squid doused in garlic mayo and optional hot sauce. Cheap (3 euros), filling and only slightly queasiness inducing. Avoid the long queue for takeout (para llevar) and just go straight in. The waiter will stand you at a plastic barrel and take your order. Jarras are 2.10.

Around Plaza San Francisco

There are lots of other restaurants and bars all around this square, including an Irish pub on C/Latassa. The bar two doors down looks nicer though. On the way here, you will pass an internet place at 31-33 Gran Via, just before the bridge, 2 doors along from another Irish pub. Handy if the free internet in the hotel isn´t working.

La Rinconada de Lorenzo (Intermediate A), 3 C/La Salle. (Hard to find on the street map but it is a very short street off Plaza San Francisco, where it meets C/Santa Teresa de Jesus). GEM ALERT!

This place is very well-known locally, an old school Aragonese restaurant famous for meat, although they do serve fish too. Tiled, wooden and lacy, it has a nice atmosphere with attentive waiters dressed in black and white (though mine was rather unfriendly on this occasion, speaking better Spanish probably helps). For the 20 euro Menu del Dia they gave me a delicous bean and chorizo soup (A). The following veal steak (B) and chips (C) were a bit greasy but still very good, as was the cheesecake (B). Wine (A) was included.

La Bodega de Cheme 34 C/Latassa is another good place, just off Plaza San Francisco, but opens rather late at 9.

I had the 18 euro Menu Especial, consisting of garbanzos con bogavente (chickpea and lobster soup, B), bacalao pil pil con chipirones (C), helado de turron (B) and a great bottle of red. However I found the salt cod to be rather disappointing and needed an excuse to finish the good wine, so I got Entrecot de Ternera del Pirineo al Gusto (A) with chips, to finish the job properly, before the dessert I hasten to add. Although this was also a Menu Especial item it added 16.50 to the bill. Choose wisely is the lesson. Still, as they forgot my welcome aperitif I wheedled a free orujo at the end.

The Lebanese Restaurant Mustafa, two doors down at 32 C/Latassa, seems very friendly and reasonable. There is a Turkish takeaway/restaurant at 20 C/Fernando El Catolico (the continuation of Gran Via) and an Indian place at 66 Fernando El Catolico. Ate at the latter a few years ago and remember it being ok, ask for extra heat.

A local comment: ‘For me La rinconada de Lorenzo is one of the best but I think you don´t know La Lobera de Martín, it´s 10 minutes walking or less from the Plaza, besides the Parque Grande (a beautiful park to walk and take a drink in spring and summer), the food is really nice and I enjoy eating there. Anyway, there are a lot of good restaurants like La Forja (C/ Mayor) which in my opnion is better and cheaper than El Fuelle about traditional food.’

Near the old hotel…

Eliseos (Intermediate B), 4 Paseo Sagasta (left out of the hotel, right and 2nd right, it´s opposite El Corte Ingles).

Very moderne, squirty bottle style. They had 2 Menu del Dias, one for 16 and one for 24, which I think included wine. Had a nice risotto, deer chops and a nice fruit sponge from the latter.

Antigua La Brasa (D), 23 C/ de la Gasca (turn right out of the hotel, turn first right, it´s on the left, 2 mins walk).

Very convenient but be warned that a colleague was made very ill from eating the salt cod here in 2005, but then I suppose that could happen anywhere. I tried it again for the cheap 10 euro Menu del Dia, for which I got a passable bean soup (potaje de legumbres, B). The second course was a breaded chicken breast (pechuga empanada, more like chickened sawdust, C) served with a dollop of mayo and overly greasy potatoes (D) which I couldn´t eat. Mandarins for dessert and a half litre of red wine were included in the price. Cheap as (inedible) chips but perhaps avoid the fish.

I ate in the old hotel ages ago and remembering it being good, I just like to walk up an appetite. Their current Menu del Dia is 20 euro. The guy with the dark hair and specs behind the hotel bar is a huge Liverpool fan and will happily chat footie if you want to practice your Spanglish.

For drinks, the Clipper ‘tavern’ over the road from the hotel looks pretty bleak, but it´s ok in the evening for watching footie. Cardinal Mendoza brandy is less that 4 euro here. La Bocatelia, three doors down looks better, sells Guiness and has an 8.25 Menu del Dia, but I haven’t tried it. Don´t even think about going into Bar Pavarotti, it’s a pretty horrible hostess bar. If you turn right onto Gran Via, there is a nicer, larger and more modern bar called Antigua on the second block down on the right at No.7. It’s a restaurant too with a Menu del Dia for 15 euro. If you just want a bocadillo, you’re best off going to the pasteleria in the basement of El Corte Ingles.

Marly bar at 50 Gran Via is famous for its deep-fried tapas, if that´s your thing. Bit too greasy for me though.

Other good places I heard about but didn’t get around to visiting include La Matilde (the ´best´ and most expensive but with a huge wine selection), Casa Emilio, El Peirón (Paseo San Francisco, for tapas), and La Feria (a Lebanese place). Let me know if you go.

Last updated Nov 2008

Milan – Porta Venezia

Posted in Lombardy, Milan, Porta Venezia with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Milanese food is sometimes called ‘the golden cuisine’ due to the preponderance of the colour in many of its dishes, such as Polenta, Risotto Milanese (with saffron), and Cotoletta alla Milanese (apparently stolen by the Austrians who renamed it Wiener Schnitzel). Fast food is popular, as you would expect in a city with no time to waste.

Here are some of my favourite places near the Starhotel Ritz, which is off via Buenos Aires (shopping street similar to Oxford St) between Statzione Centrale and Porta Venezia:

L’Angolo D’Abruzzo da Giannino (Intemediate A), 20 via R.Pilo (left out of hotel, cross the tracks and turn left along via Giovanna, take the 20 degree right when you get to Piazza VIII Nov 1917, 10 mins max), Tel. 02 29406526, 3929871505. Closed Monday. GEM ALERT!

A very popular place (book ahead or wait for up to an hour!) that specialises in food from Abruzzo, central Italy. Specialities are grilled Scamorza cheese, roast lamb and potatoes and Arrosticini (small pieces of lamb grilled on a skewer). I had Sagne e Fagioli ‘all Abruzzese (B+), a bean soup with pieces of pancetta and diamond shaped pasta, which can be seasoned with parmesan and chilli oil, followed by the Grigliata Mista of scamorza, salsiccia, arrosticini, lamb steak and lonza (A/B). The house red is very drinkable and only €3 euro a quartino. To start the antipasti misto of ham and cheeses would feed a small army. First courses start at €8, second courses are €9-12, much better value than other restaurants in the area.

Maruzella (Intermediate A), 3 Piazza Oberdan (opposite Porta Venezia), Tel. 02 29525729/29516418, lunch 12-2.30, dinner 7-11.30, closed Wednesdays.

This is my every day favourite, but unfortunately it’s everyone else’s favourite too so you would do well to book ahead to shorten your waiting time. I once waited 20 mins on a Tuesday night but the people after me waited for an hour! It’s popular because they have got everything right, great food at a reasonable price, nice ambience and highly efficient waiters who won’t hurry you even if there are twenty people waiting for your table. Pizzas are 4-8 euro, first courses 7-8 euro and seconds 12-20 euro. Digestivos come in double measures for only 3 euro; try the Grappa di Cabernet, matured in wooden barrels.

If you can’t get in at Maruzella, just turn the corner onto Via Tadino (parallel to via Buenos Aires) which has several ethnic restaurants including Mongolian, Japanese, Argentinean and African options.

New Delhi (Intermediate A), 1 via Tadino, Tel. 02 29536448

Delicious curries at reasonable prices for when you tire of Italian food. When I went, the friendly owner gave the ladies in our party a free scarf as a parting gift and the blokes got a packet of hand-rolled Indian cigarettes. A great deal all round.

Tipica Osteria Pugilese (Intermediate B), 5 via Tadino, Tel. 02 29522574

Large Puglian restaurant with a great ambience, framed photos of the owner with various celebrities cover the high walls. Slightly expensive with pasta courses in double figures but everything we had was good. Closed Sundays.

Azzurra Grill (Intermediate B/C), 11 via San Gregorio, left out of the hotel, first right, straight over Buenos Aires, second corner on the left Tel 02 29406115

Probably the nearest decent place near the hotel and very popular. I have eaten very well here in the past but sadly it was rather lacklustre on my last visit, perhaps avoid the seafood (their speciality!), stick to meat and ask for white wine to be chilled. The antipasti buffet is extensive and imaginative however, lots of choice for veggies.

Cavallini (Advanced A), via Mauro Macchi (near Statzione Centrale).

A bit trad (since 1937) and pricey but serves classic Milanese dishes very well. There is a large courtyard garden out back which made it for me. Service is exemplary and English-speaking.

The internet place at 11 Via Tunisia opens at 9am, rather than 10am like the Western Union office a couple of doors down (No. 7?). Both are much cheaper (1 euro for 15 mins) than the extortionate Ritz.

Last updated October ’09.

Home Cooking in Lecce

Posted in Lecce with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39
Trattoria Le Zie – Cucina Casareccia  (Intermediate A+), 19 Via Colonello Costadura, Tel. +39 083 224 5178. GEM ALERT!

Just outside the historic centre in a rather dingy part of town, this place unexpectedly provided me with one of the best eating experiences I’ve ever had in Italy. Spartan, traditional and friendly with fantastic food, it’s basically a family house with twelve tables crammed into their dining room and hallway. You have to ring the doorbell and someone comes to let you in. All the family are in the kitchen and greet you as you enter.

The son is a lovely guy and helped me decipher the hand-written menu as we massacred each others languages. I ordered antipasti (beans, aubergine, ricotta) and a primi (‘orecchiette o sagne’ ie pasta with veal meatballs) and would have ordered the horse steak for my secondo had it not been for the plate of pittuli (olives and other things in deep fried doughballs) and and bowl of  ‘tria’ that showed up unordered.

‘Tria’ is an ancient dish, possibly Greek in origin, which consists just of chickpeas and pasta, but a third of the pasta has been deep fried to provided a crunchy contrast to the softness of the rest. Really simple but so deliciously cooked here. Chickpeas (cece) are a staple everywhere in this part of Puglia, as is chicory.

The house red was really good too. I finished off with a sublime cheesecake and a glass of pomegranate liqueur, all made on the premises.

You have to reserve as there are only a few covers, so have the hotel reception call them first. They were empty when I arrived just after 8pm but full by 9.

So in a nutshell, I love this place! It’s not in the old town, it’s a bit of a grotty area actually, but really worth the effort of finding it in my opinion.  I went originally in 2008 so I hope they are still as good.

When I last looked 2014 I was glad to see they are only #117 on Trip Advisor so they hopefully haven’t been spoiled by an oversupply of tourists. Most of the complaints seem to be from Italians who accuse the food of being too simple, or not as good as at home, but then what would you expect? It’s not haute cuisine, just good home cooking.

There are other nice places in the historic centre of Lecce too but they can be a bit hit and miss by all accounts.

Trani

Posted in Trani with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39


Trani is an absolute gem, a beautiful little fishing port, originally founded by the Greeks but with examples of several architectural styles in the old centre. The unusual Romanesque cathedral should certainly be visited.

 

Local food products include fruit, olive oil, and the famous Muscat di Trani, a fortified dessert white wine, for which the town has its own DOC. The hotel is next to the harbour, and there are several restaurants around the marina, although I avoided these as they were empty and looked like tourist traps (I was there in November). The better places are generally down the backstreets but there is a huge choice.

Corteinfiore (Advanced A), 18 via Ognissanti, tel 0883 508402 , closed Monday. GEM ALERT!

This is a wonderful place, bright and modern with an internal garden which is heated in the winter. The service is excellent and the owner very friendly and helpful. We went for a shared €10 Antipasti di Mare Cotto, which included ricotta wrapped in smoked swordfish (A), cod (stockfish) and potato patties coated with polenta flour and fried and served with sundried tomatoes and a hint of chilli (A), marinaded tuna with zucchini (B), roast octopus with rape (B), seared tuna (B) and prawns wrapped in pancetta (C). I also had some Antipasti di Mare Crudo which consisted of tuna, swordfish and prawn sashimi (B). My first course was “Caramelle” di Zucchine e Ricotta con Gamberi su Vellutata di Zucca Gialla (A), which was homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and prawns and served in a seasonal pumpkin sauce, for €10. Alison Slade had some huge langoustines, fresh from the quay, which were €20 for 250g. To drink we were recommended to start with the very original and different tasting Come d’Incanto (€10, B+), a white made with the Puglian red Nero di Troia grape from Cantina Carpentiere who have only been making it for the last two years. We followed with “Canonico” (B+), a Negroamaro from Cantine due Palme in the Salento IGT (B+). It cost €13 but my friend Nicky saw it later for €4 in the supermarket. To finish we had a glass of delicious Muscat di Trani, a famous local dessert wine with a lovely perfume and not too sweet (see enoteca note below). A real winner overall for service, ambience, food and value for money. Also Gambero Rosso recommended.

Trattoria U’Vrascir (Intermediate A), 9 Piazza Cesare Battisti (near the cathedral), Tel. 0883 491840, closed Tuesday.

Nicky went here and said it was even better than the place above! You can opt for Antipasti from the sea or the earth. She went for the latter and had six delightful vegetable and meat dishes.

Locanda Pesevenghi (Intermediate A-), 80 via Marittimi (on the harbourfront), Tel. 347 0303458, closed Tuesdays.

This tiny place (20 seats) was recommended by reception, but I didn’t get in the first time I went as there were no single tables. I went again for lunch and had an excellent local spaghetti-like pasta dish with squid, tiny prawns and baby clams. The house white would have been nicer more chilled but it was ok, and the homemade bread was some of the nicest I have tasted in Italy, soft and still warm. The attractive interior has the feel of a library, shelved books interspersed with knick knacks and nudes. The lady proprietor was very friendly and helpful. A nice little spot.

Ristorante Torrente Antico (Advanced A-), 3 via E.Fusco (bit hard to find, it’s on a backstreet near Piazza Republica).

Found this place by chance and went in for lunch, even though it was empty, due to the window being plastered with guide book stickers. On entering I was hit with a slightly musty old-building smell but it wasn’t intolerable. The walls are covered with shelves bearing a huge array of wine bottles and grappas so I think it doubles as an enoteca. The bow-tied silver service waiter was a very pleasant and helpful chap who spoke a little English. I received a complimentary salt-cod pattie while I was waiting for my Mezze Maniche ai Frutta di Mare (half tubes of medium-size pasta with several clams, squid and a solitary prawn) which was very nice (A-) although the pasta was a little hard. The menu had only three meat options but twice that number of ‘sea fruit’ dishes. Would definitely go again.

La Locanda (Intermediate B), 10/12 via Zanarelli (off the harbourfront, just after Piazza Teatro).

I chose this place because it was busy when all other places were empty, but with hindsight many of the customers were probably staying at the inn, rather than being locals. The ancient stone interior is very atmospheric if a little cramped; I had to change chairs to allow the portly (but very friendly) waiter to squeeze past my table. The decor is unusual, ranging from beautiful tablecloths to more dodgy ceramic smiley suns, still life drawings of fruit, pictures of Glenlivet dray horses and displays of bar utensils in glass cases. I took a chance on the Antipasti Vari con Mare Cotto, without knowing what I was going to get. There were six dishes of cooked seafood, including smoked salmon and swordfish (A), battered chunks of white fish (A), heavily salted prawns (B), squid in tomato sauce (C), oyster mushrooms (C) and the rather tasteless Cernia con Crema di Carciofi (white fish in a puree of artichoke hearts) (C) accompanied by a bottle of non-descript €13 Puglian Chardonnay and two grappas (one complimentary). Total cost €35 with water and cover. I’m sure you can get better dishes here though, a neighbouring table’s scampi looked amazing, so don’t let my C’s put you off going, just choose something else.

Osteria ai Platani (Intermediate B), 16 via E.Comneno, left and left out of the hotel, it’s on a crossroads)

Pleasant enough food, nothing special. After complementary arancini and bruschetta, three of us had a hard time getting through all six dishes of the Antipasto Completo which included marinaded anchovies (from the tin?), prawns and barley, smoked fish with potatoes, mussel gratin, and something lasagne like. House white was fine and the Muscat di Trani dessert wine was wonderful. Nearest decent non-touristy place to the hotel.

You should really take a bottle of Muscat di Trani home with you and there is a good enoteca at #16 Corso Regina Elena which had a choice of two 500ml bottles for €10 and €8.60. However, if you go a couple of doors down to #8 and go through the bead curtain, you will find a chap sat on a plastic garden chair selling his own wine on tap out of four large tanks. He sold me 1.5 litres of nouvelle Muscat in a plastic water bottle for €6, bargain! He also has Aglianico and Montepuciliano. GEM ALERT!

Probably Greek in origin, venerated by kings and Venetian traders, the ancient Muscat di Trani comes in two varities. The ‘sweet’ (dolce)is a golden yellow with an intense aroma and an alcohol content of 12.5. The second ‘liquerish’ (liquoroso) variety is aged for at least a year and has an alcohol content of 18. It should be served at 10\12 degrees and goes well with almond cakes, fruit salads and mild cheeses.

We stayed at Hotel San Paolo al Convento, a very pleasant former convent on the harbourside. Room 204 was the best of three, with two balconies and sea views on two sides. There’s free internet access in all the rooms, just ask for a connecting lead from reception. There’s no gym but I had a pleasant run in the nearby Villa Communale and around the harbour, cathedral and castle.

Written November 2009.

Capri

Posted in Campania, Capri, Italy with tags , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Hyrdrofoils leave Sorrento and Naples for Capri regularly. It’s an expensive place, full of tourists in the peak season, but makes for a nice day trip. The views from the top of the mountain are wonderful.

If you want some exercise to work up an appetite first, you can walk up the mountain. It took me about two hours to walk from the marina to the top. Just my luck, the sea mist rolled just as I got there, but the view on the other side was fantastic. There are limo taxis and a chair lift for the less energetic.

Ristorante La Capannina (A+), 14 Via Le Botteghe

As this is perhaps the best restaurant in Capri it’s not a place to go if you are mindful of your budget, but hey once in a while it has to be done.

I spent €50 (2008 prices!) but for the money I got an excellent Zuppa di Frutta di Mare (a big bowl of mussels and clams ‘marniere’, €18), wonderful Ravioli alla Caprese (€12) and a great bottle of Fiano (local white, €15) as well as all the usual bits and bobs.

The English-speaking waiter was very friendly and helpful.

Talavera de la Reina

Posted in Castile - La Mancha, Spain, Talavera de la Reina, Toledo Province with tags , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Although it may look like one big council estate, there is an old centre in Talavera, although I didn’t see much of it as it was the other end of town from the hotel, and the better restaurants.  I was working at Compania de Maria (one of the best schools in La Mancha) where the nuns gave me a tour of the 500-year-old building. The town is on a large river which I was told would be a good place for a run but I never made it due to an attack of lazyitis.

The Hotel Roma is pretty bog standard, wi-fi (wee fee) in the rooms but you have to sit on the end of the bed to reach the desk, no room for the chair. Basic brekky (coffee, toast, cake in a packet) but I wouldn’t advise having your evening meal there. The meat is good in the area (especially the game apparently) so my pork chops were ok (B) but the chips were swimming in grease (C) and the fried eggs looked like an offering from Eyjafjalljoekull (D).

There is food culture to be found however, you just have to look carefully. All the below came up on Trip Advisor and were further recommended by a local teacher. The first two places are located on the edge of an estate that looks forbidding (graffiti everywhere, some broken glass) but is probably no different from elsewhere in town. With local unemployment running at 25 to 30% however, it might be prudent to be security conscious especially after dark. Bear in mind though living on an estate in Spain doesn’t have the same negative connotations as in the UK and everyone I spoke to was relaxed and friendly.

Taberna Mingote, (Intermediate A?), Plaza Federico Garcia Lorca, Tel. 925 825 633
This place is a bit hard to find but worth the effort. On the other side of the estate from El Esturion (below), it’s on the ground floor (round the back) of the block that runs parallel with Avenida de Juan Carlos 1 which might be the best direction to access it from, although the locals on the estate that I asked were very helpful. It has brown awnings and you can sit outside, under, on and looking at concrete. The interior feels much warmer with lots of wood and small barrels of Vermouth, Cognac, Mistella (punch) and hams hanging behind the bar. The well-dressed clientele chat to an accompaniment of light jazz. I had two chunks of Morcilla de Burgos (black pudding) pinned to toast and scattered with tiny crunchy slithers of fried potato, with two piquant and chubby Pimientos de Padron on the same plate, and a glass of red (all A) for about €5 euro. This might well be a good place for a proper meal but I was only in town for two nights. Wish there was somewhere similar on the estate I live on.

Morcilla de Burgos

El Esturion (Intermediate B), 7 C/Miguel Heranandez, Tel. 925 824 638

A semi-formal place quite near the hotel on the edge of an estate, which although tiled, is quite brash and modern with tacky decor and dodgy objet’s de art on a nautical theme. The piped soundtrack was also rather bizarre with Tijuana brass being followed by melancholic strings, just a bit too loudly. There are two areas, a tapas bar and the restaurant, which was quiet at 9 but rowdy by 10. A sourpuss older waiter treated me like an alien at first (which I suppose I was) but his young counterpart lightened up when I spoke a bit of Spanish. I had Esparragos a la Plancha with a small curl of smoked salmon on the side (B). Thankfully the salt came in a bowl on the side so I could grind it onto my food with my fingers. I’m not fond of the Spanish habit of sprinkling big crunchy chunks onto lettuce hearts and anything grilled. The lamb chops, Chuletillas de Lechal were great (A). I should perhaps have had a red to go with it but pursued my obsession with Spanish rose and got a bottle of ‘Fontal’ 2008, a Merlot/Syrah blend (B). The Tarta de Queso de Idiazabal con Membrillo cheesecake was fine (B). I paid €45.50 but got two complimentary orujos on the house. Would go again but would try other places first.

Restaurante La Rotisserie (Intermediate A/C), 58 Angel Alacazar, 925 801 550, www.laroti.com

Located in a more salubrious part of town than the places below, it can have a great atmosphere if you go early. I first came here for tapas before going to El Esturion. The front bar is intimate and everyone knows each other so the place fell silent when I came in with my English accent. Everyone is friendly though and I had a couple of exchanges with my limited personal Esperanto. I had two beers and some delicious tapas of marinated red pepper on toast and tuna in oil with tomato and onion for only €5. The air was heavy with perfume and cohiba smoke and the telly was showing the bullfighting as part of the San Isidro celebrations. It was mostly ignored until a picador narrowly escaped a goring by hanging on to the bulls horns, which had the local Del boys off their seats watching the replays.

I came back the next day to eat in the restaurant which was disappointingly quiet compared to my previous visit, but perhaps everyone was partied out from the previous night. The atmosphere is nicer than El Esturion but I didn’t eat or drink quite as well. The soundtrack is better, 80’s female vocalists, and not quite as loud. Things didn’t start too well with a corked bottle of ‘Pata Negre’ red from the local Valdepenas DOC. The next bottle was ok and went well with the complimentary Camembert, Roquefort and ‘fresh cheese’, although I wasn’t fond of the other dish of macerated tuna mixed with a reddish sauce (C). I love Esparragos a la Plancha so had to have it again. This time the smoked salmon (a local habit?) was laid over it but the combination didn’t impress me much (B-). The main Cochinillo con Salsa (not on the menu) was fantastic (A) if rather heavy. The final complimentary Vodka Caramelo made an interesting change (B) but I couldn’t eat the bizarre liquorish-flavoured heart-shaped shortbread (D). Total cost €35. In short, a strange place, with some great food, but some dodgy dishes too, or maybe I was just unlucky.

Written May 2010

You big pudding

Posted in Derbyshire, England, Rowsley, United Kingdom with tags , , , , on September 12, 2010 by gannet39

So good to be back in Sheffield for my first long break since February.

I’d been away so long that the pigeons had got into my flat and made a nest in my sitting room behind the sofa!

Considered an omelette but thought better of it…

pigeon

What I’d really been waiting for was a decent roast dinner after all that foreign muck.
Tried a new place with the family, The Peacock in Rowsley, Derbyshire.

peacock

Pint of Moonshine, roast beef with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Sticky toffee pud with caramel sauce to finish.

  Need I say more?

The food was brilliant, up there with the Plough in Hathersage, but its a high end place (waiters with white gloves, albeit with holes in) so you pay top whack for it.

Lovely period surroundings and a nice garden.

saladIt was also good to catch up with all my mates. Tim celebrated his birthday with a private party at his restaurant Buca.

The salads were amazing as you can see but the star was the huge slab of roast belly pork he levered out of the oven.

Talk about moist, melt-in-your-mouth meat, oh my God!

Was too busy eating to take pictures of it, sorry.

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