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Archive for November, 2007

Mussels at Les Brassins in Brussels

Written about in the New York Times a few months ago, Les Brassins is no secret. I was a little worried that it’d be Florence redux, and I’d be sitting among a million other tourists eating mediocre food at inflated prices.

Well, it turns out our meal at Les Brassins was with locals, eating delicious comfort food, and at reasonable prices. The Tourist Trifecta!

The dining room is kitschy bistro warmth – all amber lighting and posters of vintage ads. The half-timber ceilings gave the place a cozy Alpine chalet flavor, and the tables were ridiculously close together. But that was a good thing, because it enabled Jon and me to hear that our neighbors were all French-speaking and to peek at what they were eating. And the couple to my left, who live in the neighborhood, decided to strike up a conversation with us about the trappist ales we ordered. Who knew that a Chimay Blue and a Rochefort 8 would be the key to making new friends?

Although there were only two servers to wait on a packed dining room seating at least 100 people, both were surprisingly attentive and friendly.

Of course Jon and I started with mussels, which were hot, plump and fresh (photo at top). The loads of celery was a surprise, but it added a nice lightness to the usual buttery wine sauce. Eighteen euros was more than fair for such a generous and tasty portion.

My onglet with shallot sauce was a mixed bag, but still made for a delicious main course. For some reason, I was served two enormous steaks (either one on its own big enough to constitute a meal). One was perfectly bleu (rare) and juicy, and the other one old, chewy and totally inedible. So to make a good meal, all I had to do was eat the one good one and ignore the bad one. The shallot sauce was super sweet, which made me think it was more an onion sauce, but no complaints, because of course the key part is that the sauce went perfectly with the crispy, hot, salty frites. Those Belgians, they really do know their frites.

Jon’s carbonnade (which is pretty much boeuf bourgignon with beer instead of burgundy) was meaty, fork tender and rib-sticking like a good winter stew should, and when I tasted Jon’s dish, I found the stew tasted just like my “onion sauce.” I concluded it’s probably the same sauce, which is a little bit lazy of the kitchen, but it still tasted good, so I should let it go.

For a cold, wintry night, Les Brassins was the perfect warm escape serving Belgian classics well-prepared. Our tab for four beers, an espresso, mussels, steak and carbonnade totalled 60 euros. I’d definitely go back.

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Mannekin Pis, Brussels

Because it’s the overrated statue that spawned the world’s tackiest souvenirs, the Mannekin Pis is something I debated as the “lead” photo for this post, but I figured it’s not my fault the city of Brussels has affiliated itself with such a lame mascot. So I’ll perpetuate its lame convenience as an instantly-recognizable symbol of Brussels. And besides, I think the following image of Mannekins in Chains is pretty funny:Mannekins in chains, Brussels

Jon and I left London yesterday morning for 36 hours in Brussels. The Eurostar whisked us there in under two hours, and from the Brussels Midi Station, it was only a five-minute metro ride to Troon, the quiet neighborhood where the Stanhope Hotel is located.

Stanhope Hotel, Brussels, guest room

Normally, preferring to spend our money on food or shopping, we avoid fancy hotels, but this time, we figured we were staying only one night, and Jon was worried that a late-November trip to Brussels in the cold, dark, wintry weather was risky enough that some mitigation was in order. And you know, we loved it. The rooms were super plush, and I have to admit that as long as there are Molton Brown products in the bathroom, I’m sucked in. (more…)

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St. Pancras Eurostar terminal, London

The new Eurostar terminal opened at St. Pancras-King’s Cross station last week, and Jon and I were pretty excited about it because it puts us just 10 minutes away from hopping on speedy trains to Paris and Brussels.

Thinking we were going to Brussels this weekend, we arrived at the new Eurostar terminal at 7 am, and even in my sleepy state, I loved the hushed, shiny newness of the terminal. Whereas Waterloo was claustrophobic, chaotic and carpeted in a dull, utilitarian gray, the new St. Pancras terminal is all single-span, Victorian-era, glass roofed splendor.

And of course there are plenty of conveniences, too: an enormous M&S Food, an attractive gourmet cafe, and the longest champagne bar in Europe. (Leave it to the hard-drinking Brits to come up with that one, no?)

The bad news is that when we handed our train tickets to the ticket collector, we learned that our reservations are for next weekend, not this weekend. Don’t ask.

At least we were back in bed by 8.

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Trattoria dei 13 Gobi, Florence

Jon and I ate only three meals in Florence during our last trip. The best of the three was at Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi, and even there our meal was not without a few issues, so it’s fair to say I was disappointed by the restaurants we tried in the city. It wasn’t a good sign when the restaurants that kept coming up in english-language sources were ones I recognized (and had visited) from the last time I was in Florence, in 2003 (e.g., Il Cibreo, Ristorante La Giostra, Beccofino). I wondered: doesn’t anything change?

I think the problem with small cities that are major tourist destinations is that even if a restaurant serves good food, the servers are so tired of tourists that they just can’t be bothered to be polite or responsive. So perhaps there was a little bit of that going on during our trip, combined with the high likelihood that non-Italian-speaking me wasn’t able to research my way to the really good, new places (i.e., the elusive “where the locals go”).

Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi, not far from the train station, was recommended by a friend who’d visited in 2005, and had rave reviews from recent Chowhound posts. When four of us walked in at around 10 pm for dinner, 90% of the other guests spoke english, which isn’t a deal breaker, per se, but it made me suspicious. But I relaxed when I saw how warm and inviting the trattoria’s dining room is, and there’s a large back courtyard where al fresco dining in the summer must be lovely.

We were in a rush to get on the road to Tuscany that evening, so we ordered only pastas. My spaghetti alla bottarga was deliciously seafoody and salty, though more oily than it had to be. Everyone else’s dishes (ribollita, ravioli and a tagliatelle) ranged from fine to pretty good. Our main complaint was with the service. Our server’s body language and clipped speech conveyed a whole lot of disdain and irritation, which ruined an otherwise nice meal. (more…)

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Dining Room of Il Canto Restaurant in Siena, Italy

You don’t need to travel to Italy very often to know that there’s a lot of deliciousness to be had there. The trick, though, is that like any other country, Italy has its share of really mediocre restaurants, and as a non-Italian speaker, I’m always challenged to find the restos that hit all the sweet spots for food, decor and service. Icing on the cake is that the other diners in the restaurant aren’t foreign tourists, like me (ahh, the selfish “I’m a tourist who doesn’t want to be with other tourists” paradox).

Carrying out my usual eating-on-vacation due diligence, I consulted friends who’d eaten in Tuscany in the past year, googled recent blog posts, scanned the New York Times, and waded through Chowhound boards and Slow Travel opinions. The latter two resources are great for up-to-the-minute tips, but the obvious downside is that I have a hard time deciding whose opinion to trust.

After all that info-gathering, the “fancy” meal I most anticipated was dinner at Il Canto in Siena. The September 2007 issue of Food and Wine magazine annointed Il Canto’s chef, Paolo Lopriore, one of the “top 5 chefs in Italy.” While rankings like these are suspect and never exclusive, I did some cross-checking on Chowhound and Slow Travel, and all voices agreed that the food at Il Canto would be classic, but with a twist (i.e., weird but not too weird).

Il Canto is part of a pretty Relais & Chateaux property, Hotel Certosa di Maggiano. We had quite an adventure finding it, because it’s on the outskirts of Siena, reached only after driving through winding, high-walled roads. Thank goodness we had cell phones and that the hotel staff were friendly and great at giving directions on the fly.

The upside of Il Canto’s location is that I felt like we were in the countryside, and it was easy to enjoy the romance of the hotel’s open-air courtyard.

The dining room is chandelier-big-flowers-thick-carpet formal, but it’s saved from a high-intimidation factor by the oddly frumpy flowery plates displayed on the sideboard and the crocheted doilies on the chargers. I think Il Canto is what your grandma’s house would like if grandma lived in a medieval Tuscan cloister renovated for modern style circa 1800.

I started the evening festivities with my by-now-familiar dance with the waiters to try to get tap water. No can do. Bottled water only. Sheesh.

Grissini came out, and they were crispy and olive oil-y, but served in cellophane. Between the cellophane and the doilies, I couldn’t tell what tone the restaurant was trying to strike.

Our group decided against the 100-euro tasting menu (170 euro with wine pairings) because there were too many things on it that sounded unappealing and too many tasty-sounding items on the a la carte menu only.

Mussels at Il Canto

A la carte, my mussels appetizer was so-so, looking like single-celled organisms (pre-historic times being one of those really gourmet eras, I hear) and tasting like oysters. I’m a fan of ye olde briney oysters, but then why not offer oysters instead of dressed-up mussels? (more…)

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The Regent Pub, Liverpool Road, Angel, Islington

On the corner of Liverpool Road and Richmond Avenue, businesses have come and gone. In the past 12 months, the space has changed from forgettable pub to art gallery and now back to pub, the Regent.

Jon and I have been eyeing the latest renovations for weeks, especially after we saw a wood-burning oven installed. Where there’s such an oven, there’s bound to be pizza!As many good pubs as there are already in our neighborhood (The Draper’s Arms, Albion, Barnsbury Pub, Islington Tap), none of them serve pizza. At least, none of them serve good pizza.

This past weekend, the Regent had a “soft” opening and started serving pizzas and beer in a clean, modern, warm space. There’s Peroni on tap, a fireplace area with big, cushiony sofas, a free jukebox loaded with Johnny Cash and Guns ‘n’ Roses songs, and friendly, helpful folks behind the bar.

Veg Pizza at the Regent Pub

Most importantly, the pizzas Jon and I tried on Sunday are pretty good. The crust on my pizza was thin, crispy and just the slightest bit smoky. Toppings on the vegetarian pizza and the porchetta pizza were generous and flavorful, and the pizzas were served from oven to table, so they were hot and fresh.

Even though my preference is for a little more sauce on my pizza, Jon says I’m on crack and that the pizzas were perfect. So there you go.

The Regent, 201 Liverpool Road, N1 1LX, 0207 700 2725; closest tube stations:  Angel and Highbury & Islington

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Terracotta Soldier

In case you haven’t heard, between 13 September 2007 and 6 April 2008, you can go to the British Museum to see terracotta warriors from China’s First Emperor’s tomb at Xi’an.

The good news is that I thought the exhibit was worth the £12 admission fee. The bad news is that the British Museum, a madhouse on a good day, has addressed high demand by limiting “day of” tickets to just 500, available on a first come, first-served basis beginning at 9:15 am. So in order to see the warriors, you can either try to pre-order on-line (currently sold out through the end of December) or you can do what Jon did, which was to line up at 9:15 am at the British Museum and wait patiently for a chance to buy a ticket.

After waiting almost an hour, he did snag tickets (which are timed entry) for 5 pm today. For us, 5 pm was pretty cool because even though it’s probably annoying to have to leave your entire day unplanned/flexible in order to see the exhibit, the Museum is otherwise closed at that hour, and I enjoyed the after-hours atmosphere during our visit.

We’d tried a few weeks ago to see the exhibit, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones to have arrived at the counter only to find the following message:

First Emperor Sold Out

The terracotta warriors, I learned, were discovered only recently, in 1974, and the story is basically “farmer digs a well, hits something weird, and discovers it’s a terracotta head.” As for the creation of the Qin Emperor’s afterlife goodies, it took 700,000 workers 38 years to make 8,099 clay warriors as well as all kinds of accoutrements, from horses and chariots to exotic animals and court acrobats.

Even though the exhibit displays only ten of the warriors (I recall two are displayed on their own and eight were grouped together), it’s an amazing thing to see. I was skeptical about the 40 minutes we spent snaking our way single file through the exhibit, reading somewhat-tangential gloss that I can only describe as “killing time.” But at the end of all the queuing, text-reading and viewing of minor artifacts (e.g., coins and bells contemporary to the First Emperor’s lifetime), the large room displaying eight of the soldiers with horses and chariots makes all the preceding hassle and tedium worthwhile. There’s no glass separating you from the soldiers. You can reach out and touch them (if you don’t mind being tackled immediately by security guards, that is).

And everything I’d read about the soldiers proved true — I appreciated the soldiers’ individual facial expressions, unique hair styles, detailed uniforms, and lifelike gestures. I also couldn’t help thinking about those 700,000 workers who slaved away (literally) at creating these beautiful statues for some crazy, egotistical, death-obsessed emperor who, I’m guessing here, didn’t think twice about burying workers alive in his tomb to make sure nobody would leak the secrets of its treasure. (What is with these absolute rulers and protecting the secrets of gargantuan tombs?) For me, the soldiers were mysterious, deeply saddening, and also awe-inspiring.

So try and get tickets, even if you think one day you’ll make it out to Xi’an to see the other 8,089 warriors. Just try to ignore all the brazen money-making slickness of the thing. Not only are photos of the exhibit prohibited, but also photos of the exhibit’s souvenirs are prohibited. No joke.

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Abbey Sant’Antimo near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Italy

In a way, traveling to Tuscany is just one big shopping trip, because what’s super beautiful about the region are its vineyards, and what’s super tempting to do at vineyards is to taste and buy wines. Every now and then, we’d admire a sight like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (see above), but I’ll admit that seeing the Abbey was incidental to exploring the area around Montalcino, home of brunello.

We visited three vineyards (Badia a Coltibuono, Villa Vignamaggio and Fattoria Poggio di Sotto) in Chianti and Brunello country and four enotecas (wine shops) in Montalcino:

Badia a Coltibuono gardens, Gaiole in Chianti, Italy

Badia a Coltibuono sits just outside Gaiole in Chianti, and handily enough for shopping fans, it’s not far from the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. There are beautiful formal gardens and an old abbey (now an upscale agriturismo, of course), which you can tour for 5 euros a person. We headed to Badia because we’d loved its chianti classico riservas, which we tasted when our friends C & M shipped over a case to London two years ago. The restaurant also got rave reviews on Chowhound and Slow Travel sites.

(more…)

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