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Archive for October, 2009

Cassis port

the port in Cassis, France

Less than an hour’s drive south from Aix-en-Provence is the pretty port town of Cassis, which is *not* famous for creme de cassis but which *does* produce crisp, white Cassis wines.

Cassis beach

Cassis beach

In addition to wandering the town’s pretty lanes, admiring the town beach, and taking a boat tour of the local inlets (les calanques), we had a relaxing lunch at La Petite Cuisine, which is the casual bistro located inside the one-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Villa Madie.

La Villa Madie is a 15-minute walk uphill from Cassis port, and originally, my plan was to try out whatever lunch menu was on offer at the restaurant. However, when we arrived at La Villa Madie, we learned that the formal restaurant doesn’t offer a lunch menu, and instead, there’s a casual bistro upstairs from the restaurant (La Petite Cusine) that offers a 40-euro 3- course lunch. So upstairs we went.

La Villa Madie outdoor terrace

seaside terrace of La Petite Cuisine

La Petite Cuisine was packed, but luckily it was low season and a Friday, so despite having no reservations, the four of us scored a spacious corner table by the window overlooking the sea. Although it was too chilly to sit outside on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the glass doors next to our table were opened so that we could pretend like we were sitting outdoors.

"Le Brick" (pastry stuffed with egg and potato)

"Le Brick" stuffed with potato, tuna and egg

La Petite Cuisine’s 3-course lunch menu is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, which means you don’t get to choose among multiple options for starter, main or dessert, so once you’re at the bistro, you’re stuck unless you’re prepared to walk out of the restaurant.

We started with a “brick” of potato, tuna and runny egg yolk wrapped in pastry. It was tasty and comforting, but effectively it was a high-end Hot Pocket. The only thing about the dish that reflected any skill was the tangy lemon dressing on the mesclun greens. On its own, the salad was too sour, but eaten with the “brick,” the lemony greens lifted the oily, homey hot pocket.

salmon at La Petite Cuisine

pave of salmon

The main course was a pave of salmon, which was silky and luscious, but really, it’s just salmon. The only thing about this dish that I’d have trouble duplicating at home is the extra-crispy skin, and I suspect if I just used a ton of butter, I’d eventually get it done. The jus and cabbage accompanying the salmon were unpleasantly buttery. I never thought I’d meet a buttery dish I didn’t like, but I guess that’s why you should never say never.

La Villa Madie dessert

dessert at La Petite Cuisine

Dessert was a shortbread cookie with some cassis-flavoured cream. Yummy, but nothing spectacular.

Overall, the 40-euro price tag bought us the comfort of the dining room, the stunning Mediterranean views, and the polite, attentive service. Wine helped, too.  I loved the 32-euro bottle of Domaine de Bagnol Cassis wine that our server recommended. With its light floral notes, the wine tasted like sunshine.

For a leisurely lunch, La Petite Cuisine fit the bill. While the bistro’s lunch menu options were uncreative, at least they were well executed. You could find much worse perches from which to while away a sunny afternoon.

La Petite Cuisine, Restaurant La Villa Madie, Anse de Corton, 13260 Cassis, France; +33 (0)4 96 18 00 00.

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Restaurant Pierre Reboul, Aix-en-Provence, France

Restaurant Pierre Reboul, Aix-en-Provence, France

Jon and I just returned to London after a week in Provence. It was nice to get away, but the trip didn’t turn out the way I’d pictured. On the three days of sunshine we had, it was hard to relax because outside our rental house, workmen were chain-sawing the branches off gorgeous plane trees (WHY?). And then we had three days of rain. Not even light, drizzly rain. Full-on gale-force downpour rain. [On the plus side, during one of those rainy days, Jon and I took refuge at the Thermes Sextius Spa, whose treatments were very good, but whose bath facilities weren't half as nice as those of the Bath Thermae Spa)].

In any case, after two days of exploring Provencal villages in the rain, Jon and I needed a Michelin-pick-me-up. Staying as we were in St. Cannat, there were “only” three Michelin-starred choices: La Table de Ventabren, Le Clos de la Violette, and Pierre Reboul.

I couldn’t get through to anyone at La Table de Ventabren, and Le Clos de la Violette was dinged for being listed in every guidebook about Provence; for being demoted from 2 stars to 1 in 2008; and for having been referred to in a September 2009 Chowhound post as having “sucked.”

So, off to Pierre Reboul. I had misgivings about going there after this July 2009 NYT article described a Pierre Reboul dish of chopped-corn “cocaine” that you eat through a straw, but it still sounded better than going to Le Clos.

And it turned out my skepticism was entirely unfounded. Our meal was great from start to finish. Every server was friendly and helpful, following our lead and generally speaking to us in French. And while I’m not a huge fan of molecular gastronomy (e.g., I didn’t enjoy eating at the Fat Duck), I thought the food at Pierre Reboul was creative and fun while still being something I’d want to eat. In short, I’d love to go back.

Jon and I chose the “mid-priced” 78-euro menu, somewhat insultingly named “Les Amateurs.” (The high-priced “Les Experts” menu is 120 euros a person, and the low-priced “L’Initiation” menu is 47 euros).

Highlights of our evening were the pot au feu, pan-seared foie gras, the filet de pigeon and the chocolat courses. All these dishes stood out for being unusually-presented, delicious and a lot of fun to eat. For example, the pot au feu was served (from left to right in the below photo) with the meat stew in gelatin form; the carmelized onions in a crispy shell and topped with vinegary, crunchy sprouts; the leeks in ice cream form; and the carrots in a foamy puree. Eaten together, the ingredients tasted exactly like pot au feu, and the variety of textures and temperatures elevated the dish from humble to elegant.

deconstructed pot au feu

deconstructed pot au feu

pan-seared foie gras with apple and passionfruit

pan-seared foie gras with apple and passionfruit
Drome pigeon filet with petits pois ice cream and creme brulee

Drome pigeon filet with petits pois ice cream and creme brulee

chocolate ravioli in a spiced coulis, with white chocolate sorbet on the side

chocolate ravioli in a spiced coulis, with white chocolate sorbet on the side

Dishes that were still pretty tasty but didn’t 100% work for me were: the sous-vide salmon (because it’s hard to get excited about salmon, no matter how silky), the Munster profiterole (because the Munster was just too stinky, stiff and cold), and the Granny Smith “ile flottante” (for the meringue bit being too spongy).

sous-vide salmon with grapefruit

sous-vide salmon with grapefruit

Munster profiterole with carrot-cumin sorbet

Munster profiterole with carrot-cumin sorbet

Granny Smith apple fake ile flottante

Granny Smith apple fake ile flottante

A wine pairing for the “Amateurs” menu is 52 euros, and I’d highly recommend it. The pairing choices perfectly heightened and/or complemented the flavors of each course (as they are supposed to do), and the options reflected a refreshing broad-mindedness (especially for a Michelin-starred French resto) with only three of eight pairings hailing from France and one even coming from Canada (!).

The one drawback of our meal was that I wasn’t a fan of the restaurant’s decor, which was too heavy on the pastels. Of course, when the food is this interesting and tasty, the decor is pretty irrelevant. At 78 euros, the Amateurs menu was great value, and next time I’m in Aix, I’d love to try out the 120-euro Les Experts menu.

Restaurant Pierre Reboul, 11 petite rue Saint Jean, 13100 Aix en Provence, +33 (0)4 42 20 58 26

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overpriced tea towels for sale at the "country market" - it can only be Provence

Overpriced tea towels for sale at the "country market"? It can only be Provence.

Jon and I are spending this week in Provence with some friends who have a five-month-old. We feel like we were “just” here, but really it’s been three years since our last trip to Provence, and this time we’re staying in a different part of the region, just outside Aix-en-Provence in a small, charming town called St. Cannat.

Because our friends are new parents, we’ve been cooking in a lot, rather than eating out, which means we’re now already well acquainted with local market schedules as well as with the locations of a hyper-marche or two.

Yesterday, though, we enjoyed a simple lunch outside in the sunshine, sitting beside the Sorgue river in l’Isle sur la Sorgue, a town famous for its Sunday antiques market.

I’d gone there hoping to find old mixing bowls or pretty knicknacks to brighten up my London kitchen, but instead I embarrassed myself by offering 40 euros for an old tin sign that the seller wanted 140 euros for. Needless to say, the seller was rather insulted, and I’m sure I managed to do further damage to the reputation of Americans as a clueless people.  [But really, 140 euros for a battered and rusty tin sign?  What do I look like?  A clueless American?]

salade Nicoise at Le Potager de Louise in l'Isle sur la Sorgue

salade Nicoise at Le Potager de Louise in l'Isle sur la Sorgue

At least there was lunch, though.  We chose Le Potager de Louise for the simple reason that it had riverside seating (plus the fact that the other restaurant with riverside seating, L’Ecailler, next door to Le Potager, was manned by a matire d’ who was obnoxious).

90% of the French diners around us were eating salads, so we followed suit.  And I’m glad we did.   The salads (all priced at around 13 euros) were huge, packed with crispy lettuce, beautifully dressed with a sweet vinaigrette, and chock full of toppings.  Salade Nicoise was a standout with just the right anchovy saltiness and creamy hard-boiled eggs.  Feeling indulgent, we ordered a side of fries, which were greasy and soggy, so who knows how the kitchen would do if they actually had to cook hot food.

So if you stick with the salads and it’s warm and sunny enough to sit outside along the river, Le Potager de Louise is a winner.  Our server was friendly (though she disappeared for long stretches), and nobody rushed us from our comfortable table, allowing us to lazily observe the market foot traffic going by.

Salads and a half-bottle of crisp rose cost us 16 euros a person, which puts our lunch firmly in the cheap-and-cheerful category.

Le Potager de Louise, 9 Quai Rouget de l’Isle, 84800 l’Isle sur la Sorgue, France; +33 4 90 20 96 56.

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Ba Shan

Ba Shan Restaurant

Despite positive reviews of Ba Shan in TimeOut and by knowledgeable blogger World Foodie Guide, I was reluctant to visit because of a horrible and expensive meal I had at Ba Shan’s older sibling, Bar Shu.

Cue Jon, who occasionally gets to pick where we eat dinner. Last week, he was in the mood for the Chinese street snacks that Ba Shan is known for serving, so off we went.

kung pao chicken

kung pao chicken

Let’s start with the Good:  Of the five dishes we ordered, the only one I found delicious was the kung pao chicken. In case that previous sentence sounds overly negative, let me clarify that this kung pao chicken was so tasty that I’d go back to Ba Shan just to order it again. Actually, to be more specific: I’d go back to Ba Shan just for the peanuts in it. They were huge, crunchy and beautifully roasted.

pork flatbread sandwiches

pork flatbread sandwiches (jia mo)

Moving on to the Bad:  The pork jia mo (unleavened flatbread sandwiches) were bland and dry, even with the marinated pork filling. Just barely a step up from matzoh, really. [If you've ever had matzoh, you know that's no compliment.]

pork and chive guotie

pork and chive guo tie

Pork and chive guo tie (aka pot stickers that are lightly boiled and then pan fried), usually a crowd pleaser, arrived at our table with the dumplings glued to a flat dough sheet. Thinking it looked better with the dough sheet down, we flipped over the guo tie to take the above photo.  And then we dug in and found that the pork and chive filling was dry.  Good thing there was soy sauce nearby, but guo tie that are saved by soy sauce are like cupcakes whose only saving grace is the frosting:  No Good At All.

dumplings in a chili soy sauce

won ton dumplings in a chili soy sauce

Recalling that most reviewers of Ba Shan were happy with the restaurant’s dumpling dishes, we also tried these won tons in a chili soy sauce.  Unfortunately, the sauce wasn’t spicy at all, which meant it was just a plate of won tons in soy sauce. Not very exciting, especially for £5 or £6.

dan dan noodles

dan dan noodles

And wrapping up with the Ugly:  Because the one dish I enjoyed at Baozi Inn (also a sibling restaurant) were the dan dan noodles, and because Ba Shan’s menu is heavy on Szechuan dishes, Jon and I tried the dan dan noodles at Ba Shan, too. Sadly, these turned out to be the low point of the evening, by far. It was just spaghetti with soy sauce pooled at the bottom of a bowl. No heat from any chilis; no meatiness from the dried-out minced pork topping; and definitely no complexity from any other ingredient, preserved or otherwise.

Most dishes at Ba Shan fell into either a £5-6 bucket or an £8-10 one (the portions, being “snacks” are generally small).  Our bill arrived in Chinese and un-itemized, totaling about £50 for five dishes and three beers. Although our server was efficient, she looked pretty unhappy to be there.  Overall, £50 for two people was too much money for a generally eh meal. I wouldn’t go back.  (Well, except to try that kung pao chicken again).

Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D 5AH; 0207 287 3266; closest Tube station: Leicester Square
Ba Shan on Urbanspoon

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Pilpel falafel shop in Spitalfields Market

Pilpel falafel shop in Spitalfields Market

Of the many amazing memories I have of my trip to Israel last summer, eating the best falafel and hummous of my life ranks up there. So imagine my excitement when Pilpel opened near Spitalfields Market (which is where I work). For the past three months, I’ve found it a colossal exercise of willpower to limit my visits to Pilpel to only once a week. Often I break down and go twice a week. And no, I don’t want to know what my cholesterol is.

As Londonelicious has already noted, it’s a grab-and-go type of place. On weekdays, two long queues snake out the door at lunchtime, ensuring high turnover, which is key when you’re dealing with deep-fried goodies. You can order a falafel salad for £4.49 (which is basically all the stuffings of a falafel sandwich served in a bowl with the pita bread on the side), or you can order the falafel sandwich for £3.99 (which is the way to do it, in my opinion).

The servers at lunchtime work fast, but they’re good natured and always oblige when I ask for extra tahini (if it weren’t unseemly to drink that stuff down, I would). I’ve found that paying the extra 50p for a boiled egg or feta doesn’t add much, but occasionally I can’t resist the extra topping of fried aubergine, which is evil because everyone knows that there is no better sponge for oil than an aubergine.

falafel from Pilpel

falafel from Pilpel

Although I think Pilpel should throw on some red cabbage (like they do at the Parisian institution, L’As du Fallafel), I like that Pilpel’s falafels are always hot from the fryer and that the servers are fast and friendly. The place is a little slice of Tel Aviv here in London, and as the days grow shorter, thinking of a warm, Mediterranean beach city is no bad thing.

Pilpel falafel, 38 Brushfield Street, E1 6EU; 0207 247 0146; closest tube station: Liverpool Street
Pilpel London on Urbanspoon

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Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Last week, I had dinner with Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick. Our choice of venue was Kai, a Chinese restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year, which raised both its profile as well as diners’ expectations. (For a more complete view on our dinner at Kai, you’ll want to read Londonelicious’s post and Gourmet Chick’s post. They both did a much finer job than I did of comparing and contrasting our views. Next time, I’ll know to step aside and let them do the writing)!

In deciding how to describe Kai, I’ve been thinking over whether it’s fair to demand inventiveness from a one-Michelin-starred restaurant. More specifically: was it enough that Kai cooked classic Chinese dishes very well? Am I holding a one-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant up to a higher standard than I would, say, a one-starred Modern British restaurant? Of course, in bellyaching like this, I’m assuming there’s consistency in the way Michelin rates restaurants, which is an iffy assumption (compare the ho-hum Arbutus to the never-lets-you-down Ledbury, for example).

Fair or not, I’ve decided that while the majority of Kai’s dishes were delicious, very few of them were worth the high price tag.

As one of our starters, we ordered the “nest of Imperial jewels” (£13), which was chicken pan-fried with mustard greens and served in lettuce leaves. Sadly, the chicken was bland and brought bad back memories of “chicken lettuce wraps” at PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory of Chinese restaurants (where the chicken always came in perfect cubes, bringing to mind an industrial processor rather than a highly-skilled knife wielder).

wasabi prawns (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

wasabi prawns (£21) (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

A favorite of all three of us, the wasabi prawns were a great mix of flavours and textures: crispy, sweet and spicy; crunchy and gooey. The spice from the wasabi was an inventive touch that left me thinking the £21 price tag was worth it. This dish was served at Taste of London, and after trying these prawns there, Londonelicious was understandably hooked on going to Kai (so I guess TofL does bring some business to restaurants).

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

In contrast, the half portion of crispy duck, while good, wasn’t £31 good. After all, it’s just duck confit shredded up and served with pancakes. For a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kai could’ve done something interesting with the wraps or the sauce, though in fairness, the crispy duck was listed in the section of the menu labeled “classic starters,” so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything more. Londonelicious shared the same view, though she did appreciate the homemade pancakes, and Gourmet Chick rightly noted that the tableside serving ritual was gracefully done.

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot (£20)

Still, even with dishes outside of the “classics” section, Kai played it all straight. The prawn-stuffed aubergines and sauteed kai lan (£12) were tasty but no tastier than at, say, the mid-priced, attractive and high-quality Pearl Liang.

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

And the scallops and asparagus in XO sauce was a bit sub-par for using not-especially sweet scallops. Both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick noted the extreme spiciness of the scallops, but they have must have each accidentally eaten a chili (or somehow I got all the pieces without chili), because I thought this dish was a bit bland.

roasted pork belly at Kai (£19) - my fave main course of the night

roasted pork belly with mint (£19) - my fave main course of the night

In addition to the wasabi prawns, the other star of the night was the pork belly with mint. It was both delicious and not a typical preparation. All three of us loved the crackly skin and the complementary flavors of the julienned apple and mint that accompanied the pork. Londonelicious found the portion a bit paltry, but given how fatty this dish was, I thought it was the right serving size.

almond jelly with fruits

almond jelly with fruits (£8)

Desserts, always the Achilles heel of Chinese restaurants high and low, included an almond jelly, which in Taiwan is served ice-cold at street markets for about a $1 ladle. Kai’s quivering room-temperature version, while visually pretty, wasn’t anything to be excited about. Londonelicious also rightly pointed out that it seemed a bit out of season now that it’s chilly outside.

mango cake (£9)

mango cake (£9)

Mango cake with coconut froth was much loved by both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick, but I thought it tasted too little of mangoes and too much of a molasses-type sweetener. Just good, but not great.

Kai’s service was friendly and chatty, which I liked, and the women servers looked super stylish in their Shanghai-Tang-looking purple-and-green outfits. The décor was high-end circa 1980s lounge style, and for what it’s worth, there didn’t appear to be any Chinese diners there that night. (No doubt that if Kai had the sexy decor of, say, Hakkasan, it’d be much easier to overlook what Gourmet Chick called Kai’s lack of Wow Factor).

Our tab came to £95 a person, which was higher-than-normal because we started with £20 glasses of champers and ended with dessert wines, and lower-than-normal because we stuck with the less-expensive dishes on the menu and lucked out with a great value wine rec from the sommelier.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Kai, but I didn’t think our meal was a good value. I’m much more likely to first revisit, say, Hakkasan, before I go back to Kai, mostly because you can’t beat the Wow Factor at Hakkasan.

Kai, 65 South Audley Street, W1K 2QU; 0207 493 8988; closest tube stations: Green Park, Bond Street.
Kai Mayfair on Urbanspoon

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beef bi bim bop at Young Bean

beef dolsot bibimbap at Young Bean

Because two friends independently emailed me about Young Bean on the same day, I couldn’t not try it out.

Young Bean is a mostly-Korean restaurant perched on a “highwalk” close to London Wall, but somehow, despite its isolation, the place was packed at lunch when I visited last week.

Theoretically, £12 may seem a bit pricey for a humble rice dish like dolsot bibimbap (meaning the bibimbap arrives at your table still cooking in an extremely hot clay pot), but Young Bean’s was such an attractive and delicious version that £12 seemed a steal.

Served with the egg yolk and marinated beef still raw, the bibimbop gave off a satisfying sizzle when I mixed the contents of the bowl with some sweet chili sauce. Of course, the best, most comforting part was digging up crispy layers of rice from the bottom of the pot.

The service was friendly and speedy – perfect for a weekday lunch. I can’t say anything about the other dishes on the menu, but the dolsot bibimbap alone makes Young Bean worth a visit, especially on a cold, rainy day.

Young Bean, 2-3 Bassishaw Highwalk, EC2V 5DS; 0207 638 4463; closest tube stations: Moorgate, Barbican, St. Paul’s.


Young Bean on Urbanspoon

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Xinjiang lamb skewers at My Old Place

Xinjiang lamb skewers at My Old Place

Back in January, I first visited the divey-but-certain-dishes-are-delicious Gourmet San, and so I was thrilled to learn that Gourmet San has a sister restaurant near Spitalfields Market called My Old Place (now that I work near Spitalfields, I’d like to find a nearby Chinese restaurant that’s good for lunch).  So two weeks ago, four friends and I gave My Old Place a try.

On the plus side, the restaurant’s decor is slightly nicer than that of Gourmet San, and the portions are enormous and cheap (i.e., most dishes on the menu cost £7-8, and the one or two “pricey” dishes – like crab – cost only £12).

On the down side, the dishes ranged from mediocre to very good, and the service is chaotic (e.g., even after our main dishes arrived, we waited almost twenty minutes for our server to bring us white rice – her explanation was that the kitchen had run out of white rice, which I’m sure was true – but query WHY a Chinese restaurant ran out of white rice at the beginning of a Friday lunch rush?).

Just like at Gourmet San, the cumin-dusted Xinjiang lamb skewers were loved by everyone at our table. Juicy and fatty “in a good way,” as one friend said.  They’re definitely the star of the show at My Old Place.

ginger scallion crab

ginger scallion crab

The ginger-scallion crab was great value for £12 except that we had to crack the shell ourselves with no tools except our hands and chopsticks.  Even though the crab meat was sweet and firm, it took a lot of very messy effort to get at it, and the slippery over-corn-starched sauce was an especially challenging obstacle standing between me and the crab meat. I’d be willing to pay a few more pounds if someone at the restaurant would do some pre-cracking for us. Or at least: give us better napkins and more of them.

Fried tofu

"House" fried tofu

I liked the fried tofu dish despite the generic brown sauce, but I confess I have a soft spot for the texture of fried tofu. I can see why one friend thought the fried tofu had the texture of “old socks,” but personally I love that slightly juicy, spongy interior. All the better to soak up delicious sauces with.

twice-fried pork belly

twice-fried pork belly

Twice-fried pork belly was too salty and dry, and I’d also hoped that the pork fat would be soft and silky, but instead it was chewy. I wouldn’t order it again even though a few members of our group enjoyed it and I generally love pork belly.

We rounded out our meal with a fifth dish: some dry-fried French beans, which were fine.

Ordering five dishes for five people was way too much, and we rolled out of there stuffed beyond belief. It was a sh*t load of food for just £10 each, including service.

Would I recommend making a special trip to eat at My Old Place? Not unless all you want to eat are the Xinjiang lamb skewers. Rather, it’s a cheap-and-cheerful lunch spot if you’re already in the area, and if you order carefully, My Old Place can offer a very good meal for very little money. (Like Gourmet San, My Old Place has its flashes of brilliance).  But you can also order very poorly (the kung pao chicken at another table looked horrendously bad), so caveat emptor and prepare for some trial and error.

My Old Place, 88 Middlesex Street, E1 7EZ; 0207 247 2200; closest tube station: Liverpool Street
My Old Place on Urbanspoon

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Time for another quarterly stat snapshot and shout-out to the blogs and sites who send me an audience.

With lots of overlap with last quarter, my top five  sources of non-google traffic this quarter were:

  1. Londonelicious
  2. Gourmet Chick
  3. Hollow Legs
  4. Lonely Planet
  5. Eat Like a Girl

I trust none of the above sites need an introduction, but if you’re unfamiliar with any of them, give them a read.  They each have a different writing style and personality, but of course all are entertaining and deserving of your procrastination time.

In terms of traffic breakdown, here’s what Q3 looked like:

  • July 2009:  19,042 page views
  • August 2009:  19,693 page views
  • September 2009:  21,072 page views

Your regularly-scheduled Friday restaurant post will still take place tomorrow.  As always, thanks for reading!

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