2013 in review Tuesday, Dec 31 2013 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,600 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Oscar le Restaurant, Paris Sunday, Sep 29 2013 

It has been a strange end of summer in Paris. Just when you think autumn is settling in for good and you have seen the last rays of sun, summer comes back. Last week certainly was very nice, with warm days and fresh nights, so, last Friday, with an upcoming trip to Northern Germany and a conference call ahead of us, we decided to have lunch outside. My colleague, a sun-loving Dane, and I set off towards the place du Marché Saint Honoré but the terraces were already packed. I then remembered seeing a restaurant with seats outside on the nearby rue des Pyramides. We sat down at a table in the shade of the Eglise Saint Roch (while we would have liked some sun on that day, it would be welcome on hotter days), quite far from the other guests so that we were not suffocated by smoke. The distance was also sufficient enough to make the boisterous gentleman’s talk of his wide experience of the Anglo-Saxon world (commonplace in Paris, as French people can be both fascinated and repulsed by their experience in NY or London – few venture beyond) more amusing than annoying. We ordered some tomato pasta, and the risotto of the day. After some time, the owner arrived and apologised because she had mistakenly asked the kitchen for a spinach risotto. With time pressing on us, I settled for the spinach risotto and the owner promised me a coffee to make up for it. While the risotto was a bit too creamy and cooked for my liking, it was nevertheless acceptable and I was told the pasta was equally good. The tap water was also chilled and drinkable.

In total, the bill came to 35 euros and I was a bit disapponted to find out I had actually been charged for the more expensive risotto (the one which I had NOT ordered but nonetheless got). Maybe it was the owner’s Rolex Daytona, or the fact she brought us chocolate even after I had refused coffee, but I did not complain.

Before leaving to buy coffee from nearby Verlet, we reflected on the meal and acknowledged that we would have paid marginally less to be closer to other guests and perhaps eat lower quality food on the place du Marché Saint-Honoré. I never thought I would say that, but you have to be realistic about this area of Paris, which is enjoying unprecented levels of wealth and affluence: among the many tourist traps that litter the place, I probably would return to Oscar.

Restaurant Review: The Mermaid Inn, New York Monday, Aug 6 2012 

This was where we dined on our final night in New York City during our winter holiday this year (I know I’m way behind schedule in the review, but don’t worry – it was so memorable that I’m sure I won’t miss a thing). We had to go a little off the beaten track for this one compared to previous dining destinations, but it proved well worth it and you needn’t worry about doing the same (although there are three locations across the city, so you can always just select whichever one is most convenient – I’m confident of a high standard across the board).

Servers are enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable, and are practically falling over themselves to give you details of dishes you enquire about (this is a good thing!). On the back of their advice, we plumped for what ended up being delicious salt cod croquettes (well-seasoned and made using high-quality ingredients), and innovatively-served lobster pieces in an escargot plate, which came with supremely flavoured parsley butter and grilled rustic-style bread. While the venue is known for its oysters, served in a variety of ways, there are choices to please everyone, from tuna and gazpacho to tacos and skate.

It was difficult to know how to top that, but in the end we both went for the blackened catfish. And what a success – intense, unusual, and tons of flavour from this fish that’s little-found in restaurants where we live. What with this and the crayfish butter, two glasses of Mosel Riesling (probably the best wine on this American trip), and the unlimited iced water on tap, we were as full as could be by the end of the meal. I joked to my husband that it was a good job the Mermaid Inn did not offer desserts (despite my being a proper dessert lover), as I would not have had room for one.

However, a tiny one was thrown in as a bonus – with each of our (complimentary!) espressos (…they must have liked our accents or something…) came a miniature chocolate fondant (predictably, regardless of allegedly “not having room for dessert”, I managed to make room in my pudding stomach for mine anyway). The total bill was $97 for two, which some might say seems a little dear – but to us it seemed reasonable for the perfect food, attentive service, and quirky addition of a Chinese fortune teller fish at the end of the meal. We would definitely return.

http://www.themermaidnyc.com/

We visited The Mermaid Inn at 568 Amsterdam Avenue, 10024 NY. You can also visit the locations at 79 Macdougal Street (10012) and 96 Second Avenue (5th/6th; 10003).

Restaurant Review: Le Mangevins, Tain l’Hermitage Sunday, Jun 10 2012 

The town of Tain l’Hermitage, arguably the oenological epicentre of the Northern Rhone valley, was our choice of destination for our first wedding anniversary lunch, with the restaurant selection – Le Mangevins – having caught our eye from the pages of the magazine Revue de Vins de France. Truth be told, the venue makes an excellent location not just for special occasion meals like this one, but also proves a regular haunt for locals’ weekday lunches. It’s not hard to see why: you get luxury and authenticity combined with affordability (there are no lunchtime deals, but two courses cost around €25). And the town itself is also quite a catch – you could easily spend a whole day here, not because it’s a raving metropolis (it isn’t) but more due to its wealth of wine-tasting activities at producers such as Chapoutier, shops selling foie gras, and proximity to the Valrhona chocolate factory.

Le Mangevins itself is not set in the most scenic of territories thanks to its roadside location, which also makes parking a bit of a gamble. However, once inside there is no danger of being bothered in the least by this. The fact that the restaurant has a mere 22 covers makes for an intimate and sociable feel without the impression of others invading your personal space, and while the red and black colour scheme is a bit populist, this is compensated for by the wine barrels and wooden cladding, which add individuality and rusticity to the decoration. Barstools, padded benches and cushioned chairs make for modern yet sumptuous seating that many Parisian restaurants could learn a lot from.

Equal emphasis is placed on food and wine at Le Mangevins. A pared-down menu with just a few choices implies that quality, not quantity, is concentrated on, and there is a range of carefully-selected affordable local wines available by the bottle and by the glass. We initially chose a 2008 Cornas from Courbis. Its vintage makes for a lighter wine, but it was nonetheless smoky, authentic and rich – making a perfect match for the complimentary charcuterie and crusty bread that preceded our main course.

Service was surprisingly friendly and attentive for France and the food also not only met but exceeded our expectations. The slow-roasted lamb proved tender and flavourful, and was accompanied by plenty of vegetables and potatoes (more in fact than we could eat). Following this was the cheese, a platter of high-quality selections from the Auvergne (we were surprised that they weren’t local, but they tasted fabulous nonetheless) – a St-Nectaire, a Reblochon-like cheese with a charcoaly and Cheddar-like flavour, and a blue cheese that came with chutney. With this, we drank a Crozes-Hermitage white from Vincent Jaboulet, which was herbal and not in the least overpowering.

Where the restaurant didn’t go local with the cheese, they did with the dessert – a Valrhona chocolate fondant ticked all the right boxes and would go the distance in any setting, whether you’re there for romance or to party. Finally, Nespresso coffee was served accompanied by Valrhona chocolate (total bill for the two of us: €78), and by this time the social yet civilised atmosphere was winding down into near-total silence as customers began to leave their long and relaxing lunches (it’s good to see that the 2-hour weekday lunch still survives in some areas of France). Everyone seemed satisfied; Le Mangevins’ passionate and knowledgeable approach to its food, wine and ingredients is clear for all to see, and it was a perfect way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary before heading to the Valrhona factory around the corner for the obligatory chocolate-based stupor.

6 Avenue Docteur Paul Durand, 26600 Tain l’Hermitage

00 33 4 75 07 73 85

Tea-licious: 1T Rue Scribe Sunday, Apr 8 2012 

We don’t often go out for tea these days: as with a lot of things, the price of doing this has severely escalated in Paris and ruled out many previously favourite venues. However, on this occasion we treated ourselves (or, specifically, I treated him: when a man has just bought you a Salvatore Ferragamo handbag for your birthday it only seems right), and took ourselves off to the tearoom 1T Rue Scribe, which is within the ground floor of the Hotel Scribe, just near the Paris Opéra and the Boulevard Haussman.

Unusually for a Saturday afternoon it was not too busy, although at only just 4pm it was hardly the teatime rush hour. We were ushered upstairs to a table where the familiar sight of plush seating and shelves of books greeted us. Sadly, the tables nearest the bookshelves were taken, so we settled down with the weekend copy of the FT instead while we perused the menus, opting for their teatime deal: for €18 each we could indulge in a “creation du chef” and a perfumed tea. I went for a tea (available for purchase here, among other retailers) that was intriguingly titled “fête des lanternes”, a green tea with notes of mirabelle (a sweet, plum-like fruit), while him indoors chose a cherry-blossom concoction named Kyoto. On being introduced to the dazzling array of desserts available (which changes daily according to the whims of the chef), we both chose the same thing: a hazelnut and chestnut cream cake with whisky and chocolate.

While service was a little slow at times, this didn’t hamper our enjoyment of the experience in the least: it wasn’t exactly warm outside last Saturday in Paris and we were quite happy to while away time in the warm, calming atmosphere, reading and people-watching. And when our order arrived it was rendered all the nicer by the fragrant teas served in authentic Japanese tea services (handleless cups and heavy teapots included), and the sheer luxury of the desserts. Beautifully presented, the light-as-a-feather nut cakes (fashioned into a sort of globe shape) gave way to alcoholic cream in a way that meant the individual flavours were detectable without any of them hitting you in the face. The bronzed ball on top of the cake was hollow white chocolate and it finally sat on a square of good quality dark chocolate that struck just the right tone and balance.

Being a part of a Sofitel hotel, it’s hardly surprising that 1T Rue Scribe ticks all the right boxes (as does its sister restaurant within the hotel, Le Café Lumière, which is an equally pleasurable experience) – but frankly, given its premium location and the general reliability of the Accor chain, this comes as no surprise. There’s really something there for everyone, including light meals if you don’t really have a sweet tooth, and other hot and cold beverages. The atmosphere throughout the hotel’s ground floor (including the toilets) is calm, cultured and luxurious, and staff are never anything less than attentive (without being overbearing, of course). Openness and intimacy are effortlessly combined and there are good views over the Place de l’Opéra.

In terms of value for money, I was surprised to find through a brief Google search that there are actually plenty of places in London where afternoon tea for £15 (which is essentially what you have at 1T Rue Scribe) is on offer, usually consisting of even more than is offered at 1T – a selection of pastries, sandwiches and cakes as well as your choice of tea. This is true of highly desirable locations in London that are as prestigious as Paris’ Opéra area, such as Oxford Street, Kensington and Knightsbridge, and even include L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (in Covent Garden), which offers afternoon tea for £14 per person (in Paris you are looking at twice the price). So even if €36 for two is not outshining other London venues, it is certainly competitive and in line with the current market. In Paris, it gets even better, as the price and atmosphere offered here is among the best value in the city (one of our previous haunts, 1728 on the rue d’Anjou, used to be affordable, but will now set you back at least €30 each for a tea and dessert. This pattern is sadly becoming endemic across Paris). Now that I’ve been reminded of how good it is, and of its high value for money in the City of Light, I would definitely return.

Hotel Scribe, 1 rue Scribe, 75009 Paris

http://www.sofitel.com/fr/hotel-0663-hotel-scribe-paris-managed-by-sofitel/index.shtml

Review: Lucozade Sport Lite Cherry Sunday, Nov 20 2011 

RRP: £1.06 per 500ml, or £3 for a pack of 4 x 500ml

–The blurb–

“New Lucozade Sport Lite is designed to give your workout, training or sporting session a boost with only 50 calories per serve. This calorie content is lower than most sports drinks and it is therefore ideal for activities where less energy replenishment is required and you don’t consume more calories than you burn. Lucozade Sport Lite contains electrolytes and fluid which help to keep you hydrated. It also contains B vitamins for energy release in the body.”

–The review–

I’ll level with you: I don’t normally buy any sort of energy drink, whether it’s Red Bull, Lucozade, or whatever cheap knockoff the supermarkets are putting out this week. Partly because I’ve never been into sports, so have never had any practical reason to consume them, but also because they generally have a reputation for being high in calories and/or sugar. If I’m going to drink a sugary drink, it’s usually of the diet variety. So when Lucozade contacted me asking if I’d like to test the diet variety of their drink, I was happy to oblige.

I was sent the cherry flavour, which was unfortunate in a way as I’m sure I would have preferred either of the two other flavours in which Lite is available (Orange, or Lemon and Lime). Nonetheless, fond childhood memories of cherryade at my gran’s house spurred me on. The Lite bottles are tinted the colour of the drink itself, which seems a little bit pointless, and to be honest I find the fact that you can’t see the liquid you’re drinking a little bit disconcerting (which is one of the reasons why, in general, I prefer to drink soft drinks from a plastic bottle rather than a can). However, you can tell from the residue left around the white sports cap that the colour of the cherry Lite is a fairly lurid pink, so you can probably expect something equally luminous from the other versions. Unbelievably, it doesn’t seem to leave your mouth and teeth looking like a Halloween exhibit.

The pressure of the suction from the sports cap is quite strong; I normally drink water from a Bobble, where you have to work a bit harder to get the liquid out, so this came as a bit of a shock, but makes perfect sense for consumption during sports. It also seems secure, allowing spillages or leakages to be avoided.

When I started drinking it, I felt a huge warm rush of energy straight away, which felt strange and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. That’d be the glucose syrup, then, which is present in Lucozade Lite in the second highest proportion after water. I can definitely see how it would give you extra energy during heavy-duty sports, but can’t see how it would be necessary for lighter sports (during which Lucozade Lite is designed to be consumed); when jogging, I have always got along fine with just water. I also wonder about the potential for sugar crash:  I personally didn’t experience this, but wonder if people would if they drank the recommended amount (half a bottle to a bottle before sport to hydrate, half a bottle to a bottle during sport to replenish fluid and salts, and one bottle after sport for the same reason).

In terms of the taste, it was just a little bit too sickly for me, but as mentioned above, there’s a good chance I would prefer one of the other two flavours.

After all of that, though, I am still not sure I would recommend Lucozade Lite for short periods of sporting activity. The sheer burst of energy it gives you just doesn’t seem necessary. I might consider using it if I was considering doing sports for more than one hour straight (but knowing me, this doesn’t seem likely), or if I was going to have a very long day at work with lots of meetings and without access to food (but as I am obsessive about keeping my snack supplies plentiful, this doesn’t seem terribly likely either). There is one other situation in which I would consider consuming it, though, and that would be if I was ill: if I didn’t want to miss work, this would definitely help to keep my energy levels up. If I was off work, perhaps the vitamins it contains (B6, B12, B3, B5) along with its ability to replenish fluids and salts would aid a speedy recovery.

But as for fulfilling its intended purpose? Sorry Lucozade – it’s not for me.

Chain Review: The West Cornwall Pasty Company Sunday, May 9 2010 

For those unfamiliar with the great creation that is the pasty, allow me to enlighten you. It really is touchingly simple: pastry, stuffed with good hearty English ingredients like swede, folded over, and baked until golden brown. The Italians (probably) nicked it from US. Take that, calzone.

Even though it in all likelihood originated as an easy meal or snack for the lower classes to take out and about with them during their day’s work, made cheaply and using ingredients straight from the earth of England’s green and pleasant land, it has evolved to become one of Britain’s best-loved, while still hanging on to its roots in England’s West Country (you can almost hear the Cornish accent whisper in your ear as you take a bite).

While the West Cornwall Pasty Company might not be the first pasty company, it is certainly now one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, now bringing the classic foodstuff to the nation. Reasonably priced, it also sells other things to go with your pasty, such as crisps, drinks, and other solid British snacks such as sausage rolls.

As a chain, you’d think that the quality of this food would be questionable, but it even passes the French test (a.k.a. my fiancé), getting the thumbs up from a nationality that is famously picky about the quality of its meat. However, what you get is a range of seriously delicious, satisfying and traditional foods that never fail to disappoint. I certainly had no beef with my traditional Cornish pasty (containing beef, swede, potato and onion, FYI), and neither did my fiancé, who also sent a sausage roll down after it.

You won’t get fine dining here; the outlets take the form of open shop fronts that offer little or no seating, meaning that you are expected to make like your Cornish forefathers and eat on the move. Still, there is nothing wrong with this. Warm Cornish pasties eaten on Windsor’s Long Walk in the sunshine on a temperate April day? Yes please.

Website: http://www.westcornwallpasty.co.uk

Locations: most high streets