Alfresco Sunday Lunch – London SE1

On Sunday, as London Underground were persisting with the, ahem ‘improvement works’ that had denied us access to London’s West End, we took the Jubilee Line down to London Bridge in the hope of finding our favourite Spanish grocer Brindisa open and getting some padron peppers and one of their amazing chorizo sandwiches for lunch. Bit of a cock-up as Borough Market was closed, so no Brindisa.

However on our way from the tube station we had passed Cafe Brood’s outdoor kitchen,

Cafe Brood

the aroma from the barbecued chicken and Merguez Sausages and the huge pan of Paella drew us back like iron filings to a magnet.

The spicy Merguez Sausages more than made up for the chorizo sandwich and with three served up on salad, they made for a substantial meal. Mab’s Paella rice came with a rich tomato based stew that had a serious helping of chorizo and seafood in it. It was perfect for spreading on the accompanying ciabatta, that had been flame grilled over the barbecue, as we sat overlooking the grounds of Southwark Cathedral.

With a glass of red wine for me and a fizzy water and a coffee for Mab the bill only came to £20, a dead good alfresco Sunday lunch.

The Hell Hunt – Tallinn

As soon as we’d settled down at our table, I remembered why we’d liked this boozer so much the last time we had visited Tallinn. Delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, reasonably priced beer and King Crimson’s Moonchild on the stereo. It was a home from home,

Best pub in town, the Hell Hunt (Friendly Wolf)

and given that it is a bit off the established tourist hangouts (Pikk39), the prices aree a lot more reasonable than the joints around the town square, where a pint can cost up to €5. Hell Hunt homebrewed ales come as Hele (lager) and Tume (dark ale) and at €2.90 a pint are pretty good value, there is also quite an awesome assortmant of foreign draughts, but we hadn’t come all this way to sup Newcastle Brown or Belhaven St Andrews Ale.

The bar at the Hell Hunt

The other great advantage of its location is that although it is often busy, it’s rarely visited by the stag parties that plague the centre of Tallinn at the weekend, so it’s a nice relaxed place to enjoy lunch or a few drinks on a night out. The choice of music is pretty cool too: the Beatles, Who, Paul Weller, Oasis, a bit of punk, metal and prog, but never so loud that you could not enjoy a conversation.

The menu is full of interesting dishes like;

Basturma

Basturma, a kind of air cured beef served with tartare sauce, salted herring or smelt, deep fried cheese, meatballs, pig’s tongue with horseradish, pickled cucumber,

Russian dumplings

fried Russian dumplings with sour cream and spicy tomato sauce and even pickled lampreys. There are filling soups, salads, pasta dishes, spicy sausages and a very decent hamburger, but the star dish for me is the crispy potatoes with mince and cheese. It’s tasty and filling, just the thing for the sub-zero temperatures outside and at under €5 you can’t knock it for a good value lunch. In fact you would be hard pressed to spend over €10 on a lunch at the Hell Hunt without some industrial scale boozing.

I particularly liked the lampshades fashioned from barbed wire.

How do you change a light bulb in the Hell Hunt? With great care!

 

Fisherman’s Wharf – Southend-on-Sea

One of the great pleasures of a British seaside town is good fish and chips, however on our recent trip to Southend I was beginning to despair. The walk from Southend’s Victoria Station had revealed a shopping precinct dominated by fast food outlets including no less than three branches of Greggs.

Undaunted we asked the nice lady at the pier station if there was anywhere she would recommend for a decent feed and she sent us off up the Western Esplanade to,

Fisherman’s Wharf – Southend not San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf. I have to say that the area on this side of the pier is much nicer than the parade of amusement arcades, whelk stalls and grim-looking boozers we had encountered on our way to the Kursaal earlier.

After climbing the steps to the restaurant we discovered a very clean white, if a bit cramped minimalist interior. It was certainly quite popular even at four pm (we’d skipped lunch making do with a pasty from the aforementioned Greggs on the way). Settling in a bottle of Verdejo was ordered and we set about perusing the menu.

Potted shrimp

I kicked off with the potted brown shrimp. Quite a generous portion and very tasty even if it could have done with the butter seal being left intact. Old Nick had the whitebait and Mab the bouillabaisse.

bouillabaisse

Both beautifully presented and flavoursome. Despite the wide choice of fish available all three of us went traditional and ordered haddock and chips as our main course.

Haddock and chips oh yum

The fish was lovely and the home-made tartare sauce quite exquisite. My only criticism (and minor at that) would be that the chips although plentiful were a bit dry for my taste. Well that and the misleading description of the Verdejo as a dry wine! The creme brulee desert was a dish of creamy loveliness.

What’s the damage? For three people, starters, mains, one desert, coffee and wine £77.

Shock Horror – The Coach and Horses Goes Veggie

Regular readers will know my favourite Soho boozer is the Coach and Horses in Greek Street.

The Coach and Horses, Soho

The Coach and Horses, Soho

Well strange things are afoot at Private Eye’s local, the kitchen has gone veggie. On Friday I met some pals there for lunch, well more a graze while we chewed the literal fat, but the bar snacks we sampled, courgette chips (£3.50), chips (£3) and Welsh Rarebit £5.20) were excellent. In fact the Welsh Rarebit was the best I have ever had.

The very tasty veggie sausage roll

On Saturday we popped in for a livener, as we were in town before meeting Mr Wolfe for dinner in Fitzrovia. I had just intended to have a swift pint, but down from the kitchen came the chef with a platter of veggie sausage rolls. I just had to have one, and so did Mab and Old Nick. Despite the thermo-nuclear temperature of the filling (aubergine, courgette, peppers,onion etc) they were so good, we devoured them in record time, leaving a small mountain of flaky pastry crumbs on the bar top.

Whether the new menu will find favour with regulars is another thing, and I for one will miss the Scotch eggs,

The late lamented bar snacks of The Coach and Horses

and especially the jumbo pork scratchings.

Pork scratchings

At least the decor hasn’t changed since Jeffrey Barnard propped up the bar and the only banging music is when Betty pounds the ivories for a sing-song.

The magnificent Betty at the Coach and Horses

A Beautiful British Pint – Paphos Cyprus

Our trip into Paphos town centre revealed an unexpected piece of Britain’s colonial legacy in Cyprus.

A pair of beautiful British pints

Not the contents, that was Keo lager the local brew, but the dimpled jugs. These used to be really common in British pubs in the 60s and 70s, but are rarely to be seen in the UK anymore as every different brew seems to have its very own pint pot. So we had a bit of a nostalgia trip sitting on the terrace of the Sovos Tavern.

The centre of Paphos is a €1 bus ride from the tourist part of Paphos at the harbour and one thing that has changed since our last visit is that you can now buy an all day go as you please ticket for anywhere on the local bus network for just €2.

We’d gone into the town centre to pick up a few souvenirs in the covered market.

Inside the covered market note the time saving Christmas decorations already in place for December

This is the best place to pick up things like leather goods, textiles, silver and local food items like Cypriot Delight, there being much more choice here than down by the seafront and the prices are much keener. Two table cloths and some nut brittle later we decided to have a little explore of the town, since the weather was so nice.

Mosque Paphos

One of the highlights is the local mosque, which is looking a lot more healthy than it did back in the 90s. Before the British occupation of the islands, Cyprus was part of the Ottoman Empire and many Turkish people settled on the island, bringing Islam with them. Following the partition of the island after the failed coup and Turkish invasion of 1973, many of the abandoned mosques in the southern Greek half of the island fell into disrepair. However since Cyprus joined the European Union many of these buildings have been refurbished as relations between the two communities gradually improve.

But man cannot live by shopping and sightseeing alone so we returned to the Sovos Tavern for a massive Halloumi and Lountza sandwich

 

All this for €5

 

before catching the bus back to the seaside.

 

Arthur’s Seat, the Tolbooth and Cafe Truva – Edinburgh

Robert Louis Stevenson described Arthur’s Seat as ‘a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue for its bold design’.

Me in the middle of Edinburgh

It’s actually part of a 350 million year old volcano system that also includes the mount on which Edinburgh Castle sits and it’s slap bang in the middle of Edinburgh. In fact it could be said to be the Queen’s back garden since you get a stunning view of Holyrood Palace as you climb to the summit some 830 odd feet above the city.

Brenda's back garden, bit too misty for her to be putting the washing out though

Legend has it that this was the setting for Camelot and although there are plenty of other contenders for that in the UK,  there are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort on the mound. It’s also the place where the tiny coffins and dolls, which may have been a ritual burial for the victims of Burke and Hare were found in a cave back in 1836.

Some of the Arthur's Seat Coffins

It’s also a great place to get away from the city and see some wildlife.

Spot the weasel

Having nearly made it to the top I found this rock was perfectly moulded to the shape of my bottom,

Simon's Seat on Arthur's Seat

I suspect I’m only one of many people to have parked their arse there, while attempting to get their breath back. the views from the top are stunning, but not that great for photography in the fog.

Edinburgh was somewhere down there

Returning to the city we made our way back up the Royal Mile pausing for a pint of Deuchars at the Tolbooth Tavern.

The Tolbooth Tavern

This boozer dates back to 1820, but the building is much older than that going back to 1591 and used to be the tax collection offices and jail for the burgh of Canongate. I think it’s much more useful as a pub although the last time we ate there I thought the food was a bit average.

However just a short distance further up the Mile we discovered the Cafe Truva (251-253 Cannongate). This little gem is one of a chain of three family run Turkish cafes in Edinburgh and what a delight it was.

I satisfied my hunger with the meatballs in cous cous

meatballs with cous cous

It was lovely, the delicately spiced lamb meatballs came on top of a mound of cous cous with sun dried tomato and mushroom, plus salad, a minty yogurt dip and pitta. Just the thing I needed with a glass of red wine. Mab had soup and borek,

Borek

filo pastry tubes stuffed with cheese and spinach which were equally nice. Our meal for three people with drinks was only about £36 ,so I think we may try this place next time we are in the Royal Mile.

All this little chap needs is a fork in place of that sceptre.

Lion ready for lunch at the Queen's Gallery Edinburgh

Tallinn Tales – We get Medieval in the Evening at Olde Hansa

Right in the heart of Tallinn’s medieval old town is Olde Hansa a candle lit restaurant with a minstrel’s gallery and bear on the menu.

 

Olde Hansa

We’d eaten here on our last visit to Tallinn and enjoyed the food very much, so we’d already made a reservation before leaving the UK. The three floors of the restaurant have been fitted out with period look dark wood furniture, while the walls have been decorated with medieval maps and coats of arms. All the waiting staff wear medieval costume and most of the lighting is by candle, so the little torch concealed in Mab’s handbag came in handy for a bunch of 50 somethings trying to read the menu.

Where's the torch? downstairs at Olde Hansa

Honey ale was ordered and we ruminated over the menu with some dried elk while the band struck up a medieval tune.

The minstrels crank it up

I started with the Hansa Herring, which came with spelt bread, cream cheese, salad leaves and berry. It was very tasty. Then most of us had the the Himalayan lamb, a sort of curry of lamb with some eastern spice. This was served with a spelt porridge, lentils, turnip, pickled vegetables and a bean bag. The bean bag is a small pasty filled with bean puree and thankfully the pastry has got quite a lot lighter since our previous visit in 2008, when you could have built a wall with it!. My lamb was deliciously tender, it must have been stewing for ages and the pickled garlic was delighfully crunchy.

Himalayan lamb

Having polished off our second courses we were all too stuffed for any dessert!

While a lot of places offer what they call medieval feasts, the proprietor of Olde Hansa has really done his homework to create an authentic medieval menu, as would have been enjoyed by the Hanseatic merchants of old Tallinn. You will not find later additions to European cuisine like potatoes or tomatoes in any of the dishes. Wild boar is one of the most popular meats, but you can, should you wish, also sample bear. However the bear is quite expensive, unless you make do with the boar, bear and elk sausages (also very tasty) that I tried on our second visit.

Complete with quite a lot of beer the bill came to a bout €130 for four people.

My top traveller tip for Old Hansa is watch out for complimentary drinks vouchers in the English language shopping guides that you find in hotel lobby areas.

Cafe Rouge

I think most people would agree that a restaurant in the Cafe Rouge chain is more of a French theme restaurant, than a genuine French restaurant, which is why I would not normally bother with a review. (for my non UK readers Cafe Rouges can be found in most UK high streets) The food, like the decor, is directed from the headquarters of whichever corporate behemoth that is running the chain this particular week, however the advantage of that is that you can expect to know what you are going to get and how much it is going to cost at the end of the evening whichever outlet you use. There are also frequently good online voucher deals to be had too.

Having said that, tonight a new depth was plumbed when my French onion soup arrived. Now I used to be a big fan of their French onion soup which in the past had come in quite a deep pot with a crusty French bread crouton. I don’t know if it’s a sign of hard times, but tonight’s offering turned up in a really quite shallow dish which perhaps explains why the crouton was a disc cut out of a slice of processed white bread. It wasn’t even toasted. To be fair when I pointed this out to the manager she knocked it off the bill and promised to flag up my criticism to head office, but I don’t think it’s really on to trade on a French theme and then slip a disc of Mother’s Pride in the soup. It’s not as if they don’t have the odd baguette in the shop and it certainly would not happen in France. On the plus side the rest of the meal was fine, but not a patch on a real French restaurant like Chartier in Paris.

Chartier, Paris everything the Cafe Rouge would like be

Here the waiter writes your order on the table cloth, the food is freshly cooked to order and you may even find yourself sharing a table with strangers, but a three course meal with wine, coffee and cognac will come in at under €100 for three. Now that is a proper French restaurant.

Cheers

 

London Baker Street -The Game is Afoot on the Sherlock Holmes Trail

Just before a bit of snow completely paralysed Olde London Town this weekend, we were off to the West End for an investigation into the realm of the great detective.

London’s most famous street

Baker Street runs from Regent’s Park in the north down to Oxford Street. The tube station was one of the first underground stations in London, opening in 1863 as part of the Metropolitan Railway. When you exit onto Marylebone Road you just can’t miss the nine foot high bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes created by John Doubleday.

You have no choice but to look up to Mr Sherlock Holmes

Unveiled in 1999, it must be one of only a few statues of fictional characters in London. The only other one I can think of is Paddington Bear at Paddington Station.

Turning north into Baker Street we headed for 221B. Now there is not a little controversy over this address, since in the late 19th century when the stories were first published Baker Street only went up to number 100. The higher numbers were allocated in the 1930s after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death and 221 was given to the headquarters of the Abbey National Building Society, who sensing a great PR opportunity  employed someone to answer the many letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes.

The disputed 221B Baker Street

Then in 1990 the number 221B was assigned to The Sherlock Holmes Museum when the publicity hungry Leader of Westminster Council, Shirley Porter (yes her of the gerrymandering scandal of 1996) unveiled a blue plaque at the Museum’s official opening. Only thing was that the museum was really located between numbers 237 and 241.   I make that 239, so it must have confused the poor postman. An almighty row then broke out between the Abbey National, the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Westminster Council over who should answer the mail of someone who didn’t really exist. This was only really resolved when the Spanish Bank Santander took over Abbey and closed down Abbey’s HQ in a frenzy of corporate asset stripping in 2005.

So we joined the queue outside the museum, never questioning the fact that we were waiting to get into the house of someone from the imagination of an author. Once the friendly Peeler on the door let us in (admission is £6, tickets from the ground floor shop) we climbed the 17 steps to Sherlock Holmes’s sitting room. Now the actual building had been a Victorian lodging house so the recreation of the study with its two windows looking out on Baker Street had been very well imagined, down to the VR picked out on the wall in bullet holes,

Queen Victoria’s royal cypher in bullet holes

the Persian slipper on the mantlepiece for Holmes’s pipe tobacco,  his chemistry set in the corner and of course his violin.

The Great Detective’s violin and chemistry lab

On the table were the famous hat, pipe and magnifying glass, although it’s highly unlikely the Deerstalker would have been worn around town.

The famed Deerstalker, pipe and glass

Next door to the study we found Holmes’s bedroom, and up on the second floor we found those of Dr Watson and their landlady Mrs Hudson. These rooms and those above house various bits of Holmes memorabilia including the head of the hound of the Baskervilles,

Head of the Hound

and some tatty mannequins in posed dioramas of from the stories. Right at the top of the house we found the smallest room.

Yes the Khazi of Sherlock Holmes

Having finished nosing around the house, we had a poke around the ground floor shop and discovered it to be full of old tat.

Leaving the shop we turned south passing the London Beatles Shop, on our way to the Sherlock Holmes Hotel (100 Baker Street) for cocktails. Actually it’s not so strange having s Beatles Shop on Baker street as John Lennon lived at no 96 Baker Street, for a while during the 1960s.

The Sherlock Holmes Hotel

The Sherlock Holmes Hotel is very swish, a doorkeeper even ushered us in from the cold to the warmth of the cocktail bar where we settled down for drink. Cocktails are between £7 and £8 a go, plus a service charge, so we only stayed for one. I had a Sherlock’s Manhattan, not sure if Holmes ever tried one, but it was very pleasant.

Cocktails at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel

A bit more attuned to my budget was The Barley Mow (8 Dorset Street, just off Baker Street).

Yeah I know the Y has dropped off

What a discovery, this is alleged to be the oldest pub in Marylebone and inside it still has the Victorian drinking booths that seat up to six people (at a squeeze) in secrecy. It also had a fine array of real ales including a hand drawn milk stout, just like Guinness but without the fizz. Added to that friendly bar staff and no music it goes on my list of London’s top pubs.

By the time we left it was getting quite cold, so we hotfooted it to The Royal China Club (40-42 Baker Street) for an early dinner. Here’s a confession I’d booked the wrong restaurant, there is another Royal China further down Baker Street, which was the place recommended to us by one of Mab’s friends. The Royal China Club is the sort of restaurant where the fish tanks are not just for decoration, which I’m not knocking, but it may have been a bit pricier than we expected. However we still managed a meal of Dim Sung followed by a main course with rice and a bottle of indifferent wine for about £100 for three. The prawn dim sung were nothing special, but the lamb buns and the puff pastry pork were fabulous. The Szechuan Chicken I had as a main was wonderful, as was Mab’s Golden Fried Crispy Chicken. For dessert we tried the ice cream dim sung, stretchy uncooked dim sung dough with a vanilla ice cream centre, very nice if a little strange.

It was as much as we could do to waddle down Baker Street to get the tube from Bond Street Station before the snow came down.

A to Z of Travel ~ Destination Cyprus

Onward to D – Destinations: Favourite, least favourite and Why

I know it sounds a bit whimsical, but I like to think that my favourite destination will be the one I arrive at next. Having said that, the place (not the nation, that would be Spain and its islands if we totted them up) we have visited the most often must be Paphos in Cyprus. Why is that then?

Roman Mosaic Villa of Dionysis, Paphos

Well Mab and I are both amateur historians with a keen interest in the Classical World and the Ancient Near East. Situated in the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus has been fought over by Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Crusaders, Venetians and Ottoman Turks. It’s also a great jumping off point for cruises to Egypt and the Pyramids.

Ottoman Bath House Paphos Old Town

Cleopatra, St Paul and Richard the Lionheart are just a few of the legendary historical figures who have figured in the island’s history.  Adding to the cultural melting pot were almost 100 years of British administration before the granting of independence in 1960. All of these cultures have left something behind whether it is in the archeology, the food, the folklore or even the odd pillar box.

A tiny bit of Britain's colonial history in Paphos Old Town.

When we first visited the island back in 1989 we stayed at a small family run hotel called the Nereus. Over the next 15 years we probably went back every other year, and almost always stayed at the Nereus because we liked the people who ran it. At times eccentric, they were also really warm and welcoming. George the patriarch of the family would even get up early in the morning to  perform conjuring tricks to amuse the younger guests. Cyprus is a great place for kids and that’s another of the reasons we chose to return because it is relatively safe and hygienic, so less chance of those little tummy upsets that can be so spectacular with the small ones, while my daughter was young.

Me and George 2011

Then there is the food and wine. I suppose after Spanish one of my favourite world cuisines is Greek, although the Cypriot kitchen also has many influences from Turkey and the Levant, making it that little bit more exotic. Humous, Tzatziki, Taramusalata, olives, pickled chilis, Mousaka, Halloummi cheese, Tavas, Stifado, Sheftalia and Souvlaki, it makes me hungry just to think about it and a Cyprus Meze is a great sharing experience with friends and a bottle of deep red Othello wine.

Mousaka

And finally the people are just some of the friendliest and most open in Europe.

As our daughter grew up though we drifted away from the island, going around the world and exploring most of easyJet’s network, but last year we went back. George and the Nereus were still there as were Chris and the Princess Georgia Meze House and the Pinguini Ice Cream Parlour and despite membership of the EU and the Euro pushing up prices a bit, we enjoyed our stay so much we decided to return later this year

OK so where didn’t I like? You know I don’t think there have been any destinations that I haven’t got something positive out of, but some of the hotels we have stayed in have been real stinkers.

I suppose my least favourite holiday would have been the one in Menorca where a weak hotel manager was unable to control his staff. Aside from the broken tiles and paving in the public areas, algae growing up the walls, broken light fittings and lack of towels, I can vividly remember coming back to our room to find the maid wearing my hat. The hot water was so sporadic that it gave up when I was mid shower and the manager was lucky that I stopped to pull on a pair of swimming trunks before, covered in shampoo, I stormed down to reception to tell him that he was running the worst hotel in the world!

But then there was also the hotel in Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat where, while we were waiting for our airport transfer, a guest accidentally discharged a revolver in reception. In full view of everyone, he’d been casually swinging the chamber in and out and off it went, taking a huge chunk of marble out of the wall. It’s a wonder no one died. I can’t remember the establishment’s name, but it was a dirty little hovel and as if being next door to an airport wasn’t bad enough, the restaurant staff tried to pull the old trick of adding an extra meal to our final bill and I ended up suggesting that they call the police before they backed down with the obviously forged docket.

And not forgetting the UK, the hotel in Ramsgate where the manager tried to palm us off with a room without an en suite bathroom because he thought we had specifically asked for one without!