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Palazzo Tursi in Genoa (now town hall)

Last month, Jon and I spent a week in Liguria, the coastal region of northwest Italy.  Of course, this being Italy, there were plenty of regional foods to enjoy, the most famous of which is pesto Genovese (aka pesto) and focaccia.

Because Jon and I flew in and out of Genoa, we decided to spend a weekend there before moving on to the Italian Riviera, which was meant to be the focus of our trip.  What turned out to be pleasant surprise in Genoa were the dozens of beautiful old palazzo lovingly restored and open for tour — the city was a former trade and banking powerhouse — and the food wasn’t half bad, either, though I suspect with a little more research, we would have eaten like kings.

Below is a roundup of what we ate and saw in Genoa:

baby calamari and pesto at Soho Restaurant & Fishworks

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks.  Our B&B owner highly recommended it, and the restaurant has a bar/lounge vibe going on, so we probably would have enjoyed the decor more if we’d gone for dinner instead of lunch.  In any case, seafood is the restaurant’s focus, which makes sense given its location close to the port.  Overall, our food was well prepared.  Jon and I especially enjoyed the baby calamari and pesto, as well as the squid ink tagliatelle with prawns.  We spent 48 euros on lunch, which seemed a bit pricey for two starters, a shared main and a glass of house white, but the food, while simple, was fresh and tasty.  You could do a lot worse.

Mua’ Ristorante also had a bar/lounge aesthetic.  We found the restaurant through this glowing May 2010 writeup in the New York Times, calling it “one of the city’s finest restaurants.” The restaurant aims to serve regional specialties with a twist, but Jon and I most enjoyed the dishes that skipped the “twist.”  A starter portion of mandilli al pesto (wide, flat sheets of egg pasta) for 9 euros was a highlight.  Dinner for two totaled 59 euros with a single glass of wine, and other than recommending that you order the more traditional dishes on the menu, my only complaint was the too-cool-for-school servers who seated us in the back near the loos.  I hate when that happens.

room-temperature fried anchovies at Trattoria da Maria in Genoa

Trattoria da Maria is located very close to Mua’ Ristorante, but is the opposite in style and price.  It’s homey and was described by The Minimalist (Mark Bittman) in this July 2006 New York Times article as “one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I must, however, issue a caution: this is really a workingman’s lunch place, a dive, a cheap eats joint.”  When Jon and I showed up for lunch, we were immediately reminded of another Mark Bittman recommendation, Chez Palmyre, in Nice, but this one compared less favorably.  Yes, the lunch was cheap (8 euros prix fixe for a starter and main), but our food wasn’t especially tasty.  I was most looking forward to the fried anchovies, but they were served lukewarm.  Who wants lukewarm fried food, at any price?

walnut pesto pasta (pansotti) at Gaia Ristorante in Genoa

Da Gaia Ristorante was the worst of the restaurants we tried in Genoa.  It came highly recommended by our B&B owner, but it was old-school in a bad way.  Pricey menu and dingy decor, with food that was weighed down by thick sauces.  We thought a place like this would make a strong showing with regional specialties like pansotti, a  ravioli filled with a variety of greens, marjoram and ricotta cheese, and tossed with a walnut pesto.  But we found it tough going to finish our two starters and two mains.  Maybe Da Gaia shines when it’s cold outside.

hall of mirrors at the Palazzo Spinola in Genoa

Of the palaces we visited, I most enjoyed the Palazzo Spinola, which now houses artwork and decorative knicknacks on the top floor (thus making it the “national gallery”), but I think the real draw were the rooms of the mansion itself.  Touring the rooms is like being on an episode of MTV Cribs, 16th-century-Grimaldi style.

San Lorenzo Cathedral in Genoa

Jon and I also spent many a sunny hour sitting on the steps of San Lorenzo Cathedral, the city’s main cathedral, eating gelato or snacking on focaccia.  There are a couple of places near the cathedral selling both, and though we never settled on a favorite focacceria, we did think that for gelato, the nearby outpost of Grom Gelato was hands down the best option.  Having sampled their wares five times in 36 hours, I consider myself an authority on Grom’s flavors.  It turns out they’re all delicious.

shared lounge area at B&B Quarto Piano in Genoa

We stayed at B&B Quartopiano, wonderfully located in Genoa’s atmospheric old town next to the Palazzo Spinola.  The living room/common area is stylish and comfortable, and our room was also clean and sleek.  However, for 150 euros a night for a small “comfort” (cheapest) room, I was expecting a much better breakfast (comprised of defrosted and toasted pastries, along with large but oddly-flavorless cappuccinos), and more importantly, a lift.  It’s not just that the B&B, true to its name, is on the fourth floor of an old palazzo.  It’s that each floor has incredibly high ceilings, so you end up climbing seven solid flights of stairs, which can be exhausting (with or without luggage), even when you’re not 33 weeks preggars.

Genoa Aquarium.  Unless you have kids, avoid the much-hyped Genoa Aquarium.  Like many port towns hoping to rejuvenate piers and wharfs that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, Genoa has splashed out and heavily marketed a newish Aquarium.  Jon and I had run out of things to do on a quiet Sunday, so we decided to check it out.  It’s dark, crowded, loud and expensive (18 euros per person).  But if you have to go, buy your tickets from a tourist information office.  There’s a particularly helpful one located on the Piazza de Ferrari.  This way you can skip one of the queues (to buy the tickets) and go straight to the queue to get into the aquarium.  Tickets are timed entry, and we found going late in the afternoon minimized the time spent queuing.

Overall, Genoa turned out to be more than just an airport in and out of Liguria.  The cheerleader materials at the Genoa Tourist Information office described the city as like Barcelona before BCN hit the tourist big time.  While I wouldn’t make Genoa a destination on its own, if you’re headed to the Italian Riveria (Portofino, Santa Margherita, the Cinque Terre), it’s worth spending some time in the city.

B&B Quartopiano, Piazza di Pellicceria, 2, Genoa; +39 348 7426779 (cheapest rooms start at 150 euros/night in May).  Closest metro:  San Giorgio.

Da Gaia Ristorante, Vico dell’Argento, 16124 Genoa; +39 010 2461629; closest metro:  Darsena.  Open Monday-Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm.

Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Piazza di Pellicceria, 1, 16123, Genoa; +39 010 247 7061; 4 euros a person admission with no English brochure or map available.  Open Mon-Sat 8:30am-7:30pm; Sun 1pm-8pm.

Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale, the former Doge’s palace,now an art museum and exhibit space, just behind the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  Piazza Matteotti, 9, 16123 Genova; +39 01055 74 000

Genoa Cathedral (aka San Lorenzo Cathedral), just up the road from the Genoa Aquarium

Grom Gelato, Via di San Lorenzo, 81, 16123 Genova  2 euros for a small (two scoops) gelato

Mua’ Ristorante, Via San Sebastiano 13, Genoa, 16123, +39-010-53-2191

Soho Restaurant & Fishworks, Via al Ponte Calvi, 20, 16124 Genova; +39 010 869 2548

Trattoria da Maria osteria con cucina, Vico Testadoro, 14r, Genova; +39 010 581 080; 18 euros for two people at lunch.  Metro:  de Ferrari;  Open Weekdays 11:45am-3pm, 6:45pm-9:30pm; Sat 11:45am-3pm


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Cowley Manor

A couple of Thursdays ago, wanting to take advantage of the recent sunny and warm weather, Jon and I called up Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds to see if they had any last-minute specials for the weekend.

The good news is that they had a few “Better” rooms available.  The bad news was that these rooms weren’t offered on discount and still cost £385 a night.  (What happened to the general hotel practice of lowering prices to fill an empty room?)   Instead, Cowley agreed to waive its two-night minimum stay requirement, so we could arrive on a Saturday morning and make full use of facilities both that day and Sunday.

a "better" room at Cowley Manor

When Jon and I visited Cowley Manor last August, we’d tried out the “Good” rooms (the cheapest ones available) for £250 a night.  I was pretty happy with the room we had, which was in the Main House and had views of the beautiful back gardens.

The “Better room,” while more expensive, wasn’t as appealing as the “Good” room, I thought.  For the additional money, a Better room got you a suite spread over three floors, including your own sitting area.

I’m not sure who values having their own little sitting area, but it wasn’t me.  I’d much prefer to take advantage of the large, stylish “common area” sitting rooms in the Main House.  The other reason I wasn’t keen on our Better room is its location in the converted stable blocks, which by definition lack the Main House’s heaps of character.  So if you’re deciding between the “inexpensive” Good rooms and the pricier “Better” rooms, I say take a Good room and spend your savings on an extra spa treatment.

caesar salad

chicken sandwich and chips

On our last visit to Cowley Manor’s restaurant, we thought the menu offerings were fussy and not well executed, so this time we kept most of our meals simple.  Sandwiches, chips, salads were all  simple, freshly made, and good value at less than £6-7 an item.

Breakfast was lovely, partly because whoever supplies Cowley Manor with its croissants is a master.

We would’ve skipped dinner in the restaurant, but because it was included in the price of our room, we didn’t motivate to leave Cowley for a meal elsewhere.  The food was just as fussy and unimpressive as we remembered from last August, with the low point being dessert.  I asked the waiter if the “cinnamon donuts” were freshly fried, and he replied that they were and highly recommended them.  I also asked if the accompanying “apple crumble sorbet” could be replaced with just plain vanilla ice cream, and again, he swore the apple crumble sorbet was not to be missed.

Sadly, our waiter was 100% wrong on both fronts.  The donuts were hard as a hockey puck.  totally bizarre, and honestly, a 50p bag of Tesco donuts would’ve been superior to what I was served.  The apple crumble sorbet was watery and gritty.  Just awful.

gardens at Cowley Manor

fountains at Cowley Manor

But food isn’t Cowley’s strong point.  The grounds and spa are.  Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we did lots of walking around the gardens, which have both manicured bits and wilder bits.

wellies on loan

Key for getting through the wilder, muddy bits:  wellies.  Lots of wellies in every size are made available for guests.  Definitely a great, practical novelty for us Londoners.

outdoor (heated) pool at Cowley Manor spa

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And of course, the Cowley Manor crown jewel:  the spa is as peaceful and pampering as ever.  Treatments are long and relaxing, and all the staff super accommodating and attentive.

If you’re looking for a lovely country getaway, it’d be hard to surpass Cowley Manor.  Ideally you drive there so you can sample food in nearby Cheltenham, though, and while you’re at it, save yourself the train and taxi fare, which add up.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon) and about £40 per roundtrip ticket. Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £35 each way.

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Antiques market near Place de la Republique. "I just happened to have these lying around in my house."

Often you hear that there’s nothing like Paris in the springtime.  But actually, I’d say there’s nothing like Paris for the winter sales, which generally run from early January to mid-February.  Wait for the first couple of weeks to pass by.  The crush will have died down in most stores, and many things will be on secondary markdown.  Although price tagging is haphazard at best and some of the fancier stores make you ask which items are on promotion, the bright-colored SOLDES signs everywhere is, to my mind, very festive.

As my opening paragraph suggests, Jon and I were in Paris for the first weekend in February to take advantage of a little sale shopping.  Of course, while there, we had to eat.  (Shoppers among you, if you’re at Le Bon Marche – and why wouldn’t you be? –  my fave place for a quick, cheap and tasty lunch break is at Cuisine de Bar, next to Poilane on Rue Cherche-Midi.  Tartines, hot open-faced sandwiches, is their specialty, and the Saint-Marcellin-and-ham one is stellar.)

And if I haven’t mentioned it before, in general, if you’re looking for a well-edited and up-to-date list of restaurants in Paris, you can’t beat the “Editors’ Pick” feature of Paris by Mouth, a collective effort by well-established food writers and bloggers in Paris.

mackerel in "bread soup" at Rino

rare duck breast at Rino

Our favorite meal this time round in Paris?  Dinner at Rino.  4 courses for 38 euros and 6 courses for 55 euros.  Go for the 6 courses.  You’ll get a nifty offal dish and a cheese course.

The dining room is super casual and lively.  Most diners seemed to be in their 30s and 40s and having a rollicking good time.  A great place to visit with friends.

The food was delicious and creative.  Our dinner started strong:  potato tortellini with a hint of lemon, served in salty smoked fish consomme, with hits of sweetness from onion and bites of octopus.  So many subtle flavors with each bite.  I definitely wasn’t expecting that sort of sophistication given the casual atmosphere.

Fillet of mackerel in a bread soup was firm and meaty, and I loved the addition of sweet cabbage and nutty brussel spourts with tiny breadcrumbs for texture.  Rabbit kidneys were a tad rubbery but visually fun to see them on a skewer with similarly-sized escargot.

Duck course was outrageously bloody but delicious.  Cheeses were well chosen, and our dessert was simple and refreshing:  a bergamot-scented semi freddo-covered fresh fruits, dried fruits and candied nuts.

Service was super attnetive (we must have gone through at least six carafes of tap water).  Bonus points for being within walking distance of the hotel we always stay at, the much-loved Grand Hotel Francais.

Rino, 46 Rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 48 06 95 85; closest metro stop:  Ledru-Rollin (8).

profiteroles at Bistrot Paul Bert

It may be listed in every english-language guidebook and blogged about repeatedly, but I suspect that because of its location in the 11th arrondissement, Bistrot Paul Bert still feels like a local joint.  Jon and I turned up for Friday lunch without a reservation, and it was pas de probleme to find a table.

As is the case with most places in France, the 3-course prix fixe lunch menu (16.50 euros) was incredibly good value.  Bonus points at lunch for my learning a new word in French:  topinambour.  Jersualem artichoke.

Highlights of our lunch: the rich cream of topinambour soup, perfect for a winter’s day; the roast lamb, served with incredible char and juicy, pink meat; and a heaping huge serving of chocolately profiteroles and cheese.  Simple, classic, well-executed bistro food.

I tried to sneak a side order of their famous frites into our order, but our waiter replied: “je ne vous promets rien” (I promise you nothing), and of course frites never arrived.  Can’t win ‘em all.

Bistrot Paul Bert, 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 72 24 01; closest metro stop:  Rue des Boulets (9)

crab avocado (18 euros) at L'Agrume

veal chop (32 euros) at L'Agrume

It’s no exaggeration to say I’d been looking forward to eating at L’Agrume for at least the last 12 months.  Great pedigree; rave reviews.  For a sampling of the hype, read John Talbott’s January 2010 rave review, and of course this April 2010 blurb in the New York Times.

In any case, our dinner there was nice, but not what I was hoping for, which was something more like what we had at Rino – creative fare at good prices.

We weren’t keen on the prix fixe menu (reasonably priced at 35 euros), so we choose from the a la carte menu, which was much pricier, with starters hovering around 15 euros and mains generally in the low 30s.

L’Agrume was generous with luxury ingredients (Jon’s starter was packed with crab meat, and mine with lobster meat), but didn’t seem to do much with them.  And while I did, in fact, devour my veal chop (and Jon the same with his fillet of Dover sole), neither dish was prepared with any sort of twist.  I wish I’d read this Gourmet Traveller June 2010 post before going to L’Agrume, because she’s right on the money to say the food didn’t seem like anything you couldn’t cook at home.

Based on our visit, L’Agrume seems to be a strong choice if you want large portions of tasty, straightforward cooking in a casual setting.  The place was still packed at 10 pm on a Friday night, so the atmosphere is nice and buzzy.   We were especially happy with the wines-by-the-glass options.   But if you go, know that the a la carte gets pricey.

L’Agrume, 15 Rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel 75005 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 31 86 48; closest metro stops:  Saint-Marcel (5) or Les Gobelins (7)

worst loh boh gao (radish cake), ever, at Le Pacifique

Ahh, Sundays in Paris.  I’ve stopped bothering trying to book restaurants.  There are so few good ones open that day, and because most boulangeries and places in Chinatown stay open on Sunday, I find that planning on baked goods and banh mi is a something to look forward to.  On this particular trip, it was the weekend after Chinese New Year, so Jon and I headed to the Right Bank Chinatown around Belleville to rustle up some dim sum (“cuisine a la vapeur” en francais).

We took a recommendation from Clothilde Dusoulier’s “Edible Adventures in Paris” and sought out “Le Pacifique.” And you know what?  It sucked.  Possibly the worst dim sum meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, and you know I’ve eaten a lot of dim sum.

I’ll let the above photo of stodgy, *deep fried* and radish-and-pork-less loh boh gao represent what our dim sum meal was like.  And each steamer still cost 4.50-5 euros, which I’d hesitate to pay even at a Michelin-starred place like Yauatcha or Hakkasan, much less at a greasy-looking spot surrounded by French people ordering nems. Avoid like the plague.  If this is the best Paris has to offer by way of dim sum, then I weep for Parisians.  For your Asian fix in Paris, stick with the Vietnamese food.

On the plus side, we bumped into Chinese New Year dragon dancers on our way down the street to pick up banh mi at the reliably-delicious Dong Tom/Panda Belleville banh mi takeaway shop.

Dragon dancers for Chinese New Year in Belleville

Le Pacifique, 35 Rue Belleville, 75019 Paris, +33 (0)1 42 49 66 80; closest metro stop:  Belleville (11).

Dong Tam (Panda Belleville) banh mi, 16, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro:  Belleville (11).

(the seeingly ubiquitous) Henry Moore at the Rodin Museum

Not food related, but just a brief note that Jon and I have started to make trips to Paris to coincide with the First Sunday of the month.  Free museums.   Whereas I wouldn’t pay another 12-15 euros to visit a museum for the third, fourth, fifth time . . . for free, I don’t mind popping in and out to see a few faves and move on.  I love it.

This time around, the weather was sunny, so we revisited the Rodin Museum, which has lovely sculpture gardens, of course, and is a manageable size.  There’s a Henry Moore exhibit going on as well, so in case you haven’t had your fill of those, you can get two big-name sculptors for the price of one if you head now to the Rodin Museum.

Musee Rodin, 79 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10; closest metro stop:  Varenne (13).

Grand Hotel Francais

Where to stay in Paris:

Everyone has their favorite place to stay in Paris, I know, but I can’t say enough good things about the boutique hotel, Le Grand Hotel Francais.  We’ve been staying here on every trip to Paris since reading positive TripAdvisor reviews about it in 2008 (maybe since 2007, even?).  The rooms are great value for Paris – clean, modern, comfortable.  The hotel owner, Zyad, is incredibly hard working and friendly, and despite the hotel’s recent recognition by TripAdvisor as one of the top 25 hotels in France, Zyad is still at that front desk, working 90 hours a week to make customers feel welcome and cared for.

At this point, I look forward to seeing Zyad every time we’re in Paris, and so in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll share that sometimes, like this time, Zyad upgrades us to higher-floor, larger rooms when they’re available.  But he did that for us the second time we stayed there, long before we were what you’d call “regulars.”  And even when rooms are full and we end up in a ground floor room, I think paying 110-135 euros a night (depending on the time of year) is still good value.

I’m also a huge booster for the 11th arrondissement, in general, especially if you’re a food lover and want to explore a pretty but non-tourist-fied neighborhood in Paris.

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th; +33 1 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A)

To read a sampling of other Paris posts I’ve written over the last couple of years:

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Hong Kong skyline as viewed from the Star Ferry

After our trip to Taiwan, Jon and I spent three nights in Hong Kong, partly because we flew Cathay Pacific and had to stop there anyway.  (Incidentally, the economy class seats on Cathay Pacific are awful.  They don’t recline!  Rather, the seat’s bottom cushion slides forward, which causes you to sink down at an awkward angle.  How this is supposed to be a good thing, I don’t know.  Goodbye, sleep, and hello, neck-and-back cramp.  Avoid!)

Luckily, horrible plane seats aside, Jon and I had a fab time in Hong Kong.  Because we were there for so brief a period, we relied exclusively on food tips from close friends who either lived there until just recently or who visit there often for work.  We ate four outstanding meals in Hong Kong, and for that, I give many thanks to Cathy, Bobby, Phu and Aaron.

Jon and I arrived on a Sunday, around lunchtime.  Because we wanted to make it to dim sum during proper dim sum hours, we took the unusual-for-us step of avoiding mass transit, and instead we took a taxi to our hotel in Causeway Bay.  It was an easy and scenic 40-minute ride, costing 370 HKD ($48 or £30 at 8 HKD = $1 and 12 HKD = £1).

loh boh gao at Lei Garden restaurant in the Elements Mall


shu mai at Lei Garden

First stop:  Lei Garden Restaurant.  The West Kowloon branch in the Elements Mall.  A must for dim sum, said our friends.  True that.  Don’t be put off by the fact that there are numerous locations in Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore.  While I can’t vouch for this Lei Garden being the best of all the Lei Garden locations, I will say that the dim sum we had was outstanding.  All the classic dim sum dishes were represented; ingredients were great quality and fresh; everything was well made; decor was chic and comfortable; and we were surrounded by large groups of Chinese-speaking family and friends catching up over good food.  The true spirit of dim sum.

Shu mai was especially memorable — flavorful without being filled with fat, as is too often the case with shu mai.  The loh boh gau (radish cake) was thoroughly perfumed with pork and turnip and had a perfect crisp to the exterior.  Prawn cheung fun also deserves special mention for its silky-but-firm noodle and sweet, perfectly-cooked prawn and celery filling.

Jon and I didn’t see any unusual dim sum dishes on the menu, but if we lived in Hong Kong, we’d be here every weekend.  Of course we over-ordered and had 8 dishes, costing us 264 HKD total ($34/£21).

West Kowloon Lei Garden Restaurant; Second Level, Elements Mall, No. 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; +852 2196-8133.  Closest metro station (which even has an exit directly into the Elements Mall):  Tsim Sha Tsui (red line).

beef and prawn dumpling noodle soup at Tsim Chai Kee (22 HKD/$2.80/£1.80)

Our second stop:  Tsim Chai Kee.  When I think of Hong Kong food, dim sum and noodle soups jostle for prominence.  Tsim Chai Kee sits across the street from the more-famous Mak’s noodle shop near the start of the Midlevels escalator.  Jon and I were told by different sources that Tsim Chai Kee’s noodle soups were bigger, tastier and cheaper than Mak’s, and although I can’t weigh in on Mak’s, I feel confident arguing that Tsim Chai Kee serves a best-in-class Hong Kong noodle soup.

The restaurant is small, so expect to share your table with strangers.  You get a choice of noodles (the thin, yellow egg noodles are the classic and TCK’s version were wonderfully al dente, rather than rubbery like they often are in London), and a choice of toppings.  A soup with one topping is 17 HKD ($2/£1.40).  With two toppings, it’s still a bargainous 22 HKD ($2.80/£1.80).  We ordered a soup with just prawn won tons and another with beef and won tons.  As if the sweet, plump prawn won tons and the tender slices of beef weren’t enough of an attraction, the soup broth was wonderfully meaty and fishy.  Go.

Tsim Chai Kee, 98, Wellington Sttreet, Central, Hong Kong (close to where the Midlevels escalator begins).  According to TCK’s business card, there’s another location at 153 Queen’s Road Central, and an associated noodle shop called Yeung’s Noodle at 219 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong.

the "queue" at Tim Ho Wan at 2 pm on a Monday

I first got the idea to visit Tim Ho Wan after reading Hollow Legs’s June 2010 post about it.  A Michelin-starred, divey, no-reservations-taken dim sum place in HK?  This I had to see.  Hong Kong friends warned me about the queues but recommended I put my name down, take a deli-counter-style number from the lady manning the door, and then wander around the nearby Ladies Market until my number was called.

With a few hours to myself one afternoon, I figured that I could avoid Tim Ho Wan’s infamous queues if I if I showed up as a party of 1 on a Monday afternoon at 2 pm.  Nope.  I still waited 45 minutes, which was fine.  I spent that time bargaining down the price of dozens of pairs of chopsticks at the Ladies Market, which was enormously entertaining.

The beauty of dining alone at divey restaurants like Tim Ho Wan (whose press, ironically, seems to have originated from the chef-owner’s background as the former dim sum chef at the Hong Kong Four Seasons hotel) is that the resto will automatically seat you with other solo diners.  I sat with a local Hong Kong man who had *taken the day off from work* to eat here because apparently the queues on weekends are just too insane to bear.  In any event, I was pleased to have someone with whom I could share (maximize) dim sum orders.  And it was nice to hear Tim Ho Wan enjoyed fame among locals.

Tim Ho Wan's signature dish: baked BBQ pork bun (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

First up:  Tim Ho Wan’s signature dish:  “baked BBQ pork bun.”  A twist on the classic char siu bun, but here, instead of using a steamed bun, a crispy, sugary biscuit-like exterior is used.  This was very tasty, but rich.  It’s the offspring of a buttermilk biscuit and a char siu bun.  I can see why it’s popular but feel sorry for the poor soul churning out thousands of these every day.

spare ribs with fermented black beans (12 HKD/$1.50/£1)

The other standout dishes I ordered were the steamed spare ribs in fermented black beans and the fried beef balls.  The spare ribs had a great kick and a perfect ratio of meat to fat. Not too gloopy.  Beef balls were impossibly tender.  Great examples of classic dim sum dishes.

the "kitchen" at Tim Ho Wan

Everything else I tried – pan-fried turnip cake (loh boh gau), sticky rice dumpling and beef cheung fun – was good, but not any better than what I’d had the previous day at Lei Garden.  Overall, I’d agree with everyone who says that there is delicious dim sum to be had at Tim Ho Wan, but I reckon there’s equally good dim sum all over Hong Kong.  I definitely have no idea why Tim Ho Wan has a Michelin star.  People who depend on the Michelin guide to give an approximation of the level of service, decor and cooking they can expect from starred establishments . . . well, let’s just say Tim Ho Wan would drive such people mad.  In any event, the food there is indeed good quality and very cheap, with very few dishes costing more than 12 HKD (or $1.50/£1).

Tim Ho Wan is open daily from 10am-10pm. Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon (00852 2332 2896).  Closest metro:  Yau Ma Tei (red line).

spicy crab at Under the Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant (390 HKD/$50/£31)

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant was where Jon and I had our last meal in Hong Kong.  I was skeptical and wary when I saw multiple photos of Anthony Bourdain plastered all over the restaurant facade.  But the restaurant’s signature dish, spicy shelter crab, was outstanding.  The crab was sweet, but the best part is the garlic-salt-chili crust the crab is fried in.  The other stuff (clams  for 60HKD and sauteed chives, 39 HKD), was forgettable.  With two drinks, we paid 560 HKD ($72/£45) total, with most of that cost being the crab, which was worth every penny.  In fact, when you’re finished with the crab meat, the fried garlic-chili is addictive with white rice.

For a super-complete point of view on this place, read this May 2010 Follow Me Foodie blog post.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant, 414-424 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 2834 6268; closest metro:  Wan Chai or Causeway Bay (blue line).

So that’s it on the food, but before I go back to blogging about London restaurants, I feel compelled to offer one last Hong Kong tip:

a very-hidden gem: Chun Sang linens

It’s no secret that Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise, but bargains are hard to come by these days.  For anyone looking for table linens, though, I highly recommended Chun Sang linens in the Midlevels.  Overlook the horrible store facade and try to ignore the horrific merchandising (or lack thereof).  Show up with your table measurements, and the shop keeper can find you anything.  Gorgeous linen tablecloths for less than £50.  We combined our shopping trip with the obligatory ride up the Peak Tram, whose terminus is nearby.

Chun Sang Trading Co. (Distributors of Embroideries), 3-4 Glenealy, Ground Floor, Block B, Central, Hong Kong

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Food stalls at the Shilin night market in Taipei

Night markets are a feature of many Southeast-Asian cities (well, definitely cities with large Chinese populations, anyway), and while I appreciate the beauties of a sunny daytime market in, say, France and Italy, in my opinion, night markets are the best of the market genre.

First, they’re practical.  When you’re in a hot, tropic climate, it makes sense not to go out until dark, and after being cooped up in air conditioning for much of the day, being outside again is a heady release.   Second, there’s a liveliness that only nighttime brings.  The carefree and festive atmosphere of night markets is hard to match.  In Taipei, night markets open at around 4 or 5 pm, but they really don’t get going until 8 or 9 pm, when families and friends meet up for a stroll, some shopping, and/or a bite to eat.

Shilin night market in Taipei isn’t the only night market in town, but it’s the biggest.  You could happily shop or play carnival and arcade games there for days.  I, of course, go for the food.  I was last at Shilin night market in 2002, and the major change today is that there’s an enormous covered tent now that houses the majority of food stalls in one place.  It’s certainly convenient, but it means you can expect an unbelievable human traffic jam at around mealtimes.

jian bao at Shilin night market

I already talked about the brilliant jian bao in my previous post about dining out in Taipei, generally.  These are a must-have.

zen bing (a burrito-type deal) stall

zen bing seconds before being rolled up into a burrito-like shape

Zen bing.  They’re a Chinese burrito.  You take a thin flour-based shell (almost like an eggroll skin), and you get it stuffed full of goodies like Chinese sausage (which is sweet), roast pork, fresh bean sprouts, sliced up egg omelet, scallions, crushed peanuts and a little chilli sauce.   For normal people, a zen bing constitutes a solid meal, for less than $2.  For me, ’twas but another snack.

dan bing

Scallion pancakes (tsong you bing) are great.  But throw on a layer of egg and eat it hot off a griddle, and it’s even better.  That’s a dan bing.  They’re commonly eaten as a brekkie-on-the-go in Taiwan, but in my humble opinion, they’re good at all hours of the day.  Much like breakfast foods, generally, yes?

Chinese spiced fried chicken breast at Hot Star

Hot Star is one of the more famous stalls in Shilin night market.  There are at least two stalls in the market, in fact.  For 55 NT (less than $2), you get an *enormous* wedge of what appears to be schnitzel (chicken breast pounded thin, breaded and fried).  Bite into it, though, and you’ll know this thing is all Chinese.  The spices.  A little star anise, a hint of cinnamon,  some turmeric and fennel in there, too, I think?  I must confess that I should have shared this one with someone.  I made the strategic error of eating one on my own, which left scant space for the dozens of other goodies on offer at the night market.

Chinese sausages

Chinese sausages.  The ones at Shilin night market are famous, though I suspect it’s because they’re so large.  If you’ve never had a Chinese sausage before, this is a good place to try them.  For me, it was just a Chinese sausage.  Sweet, porky, smoky.  Good stuff.

owa jen (oyster omelet)

Last but not least, owa jen.  The oyster omelet.  One of those staple snacks of Taiwan.  You can guess what’s in it based on the name.  There are a huge variety of them at Shilin night market though.  The oyster-to-egg ratio varies; the runniness of the egg varies.  I could have devoted a whole separate meal to testing out all the owa jen stands, but when you go to the night market, make sure you try at least one.

In case it’s not obvious, I didn’t make it to dessert that night.  Next time.  And before someone busts me – no, I didn’t eat stinky tofu that night.

Shilin night market.  Closest metro station:  Jian Tan (red line).  Just exit the station and you won’t miss the giant covered tent housing most of the food vendors.  Bring wet wipes and arrive hungry.  If you’re on a budget, you could happily eat at the night market every day and never get bored.

Here’s a sampling of other blog posts about Shilin night market:

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Taipei 101 (tallest building in the world until the Burj in 2010)

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to all my American readers!  I trust you all gave thanks, over-ate and over-shopped.

It’s been exactly a week since I’ve returned to London after having spent 9 days in Taiwan and 3 days in Hong Kong.  I’m still jetlagged beyond belief, which is yet another annoying sign that I’m getting old.

I spent several happy childhood summers in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, so take this next sentence with a grain of salt:  Taiwan is a *superb* place to visit if you like to eat Chinese food in all its many-regioned glory.  Thanks to 50 years of Japanese rule, as well as the ocean bounty that comes with being an island nation, the sushi’s delish, too.

There are dozens of direct one-hour flights between Hong Kong and Taipei each day, so the next time you’re planning your fab long weekend in Hong Kong, don’t overlook little ol’ Taiwan.

gua bao from Shi Jia Gua Bao at 21 Tong-Hua Street, Taipei

Small eats, xiao chi, is a major aspect of dining out that Taiwanese peeps are justifiably proud of.  In every city we visited (and on this trip, we visited Taipei in the north, Kaohsiung and Chiayi in the south, and Yingge on the outskirts of Taipei), storefront shops, street vendors, and stalls in nightmarkets sold, at all hours of the day, xiao chi.  My two favorite examples of xiao chi are gua bao (braised pork belly sandwich in a mantou, a steamed yeast-risen bun) and jien bao (pork-and-soup-filled buns that are steamed and pan fried).

In Taipei, my favorite gua bao was to be found at Shi Jia Gua Bao (special thanks to Taipei local, Wei-Ming, for this tip).  The shop is at 21 Tong-Hua Street, which you’ll find close by the Tong Hua night market.   A bite of the melt-in-your mouth braised pork belly filling, garnished with pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro and crushed peanuts is to experience savory, sweet, crunchy and soft all at once.  At the shop, you can order a gua bao that’s mostly fat, no fat, or half-and-half.  The best part:  each costs NT 45 ($1.50 or 95 pence at current exchange rates.  Namely, $1 = 30 NT; £1 = 48 NT).  Closest metro stations:  Liuzhangli and Da’an (both on the brown line).

jian bao at ShiLin night market

My fave jian bao of this trip was a version I picked up at Shilin night market, which is such an extravaganza of delicious food, crazy carnival games and random things for sale that I’ll do it more justice in a separate post.  The jian bao had a perfectly crispy bottom, soft, fluffy bun wrapping, and juicy, meaty-porky filling.   They differ from similarly-soupy xiao long bao because the dough is fluffier/thicker – it might even be yeast-risen, actually.  Like the dough of a mantou.  In any case, I’m pretty sure I bought five jian bao for 60NT ($2/£1.20) or something ridiculously cheap like that.  Closest metro station:  Chien Tan (red line)

I could wax lyrical for ages and pages on Taiwan’s xiao chi, but instead I’ll cover more of those in my planned Shilin night market post and move on to restaurant meals.

Si Hai Yi Jia, "Four Seas One House"

We ate at a couple of fancy, relatively-pricey restaurants while in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and most of those meals were Chinese banquet style, meaning we’d sit at the table for hours and be served a dozen different courses. It’s an interesting dynamic to be the guest of honor at a Chinese banquet — everyone’s counting on you to eat everything and register appreciation.  No pressure, of course.

Among the sea of banquet meals, though, the restaurant meal that stands out was at a popular neighborhood place, Si Hai Yi Jia, whose name translates to “Four Seas One House.”  Sort of a “we are the world” kind of saying.

spare ribs at Si Hai Yi Jai

There, we ate some outstanding Beijing duck, dumplings of all varieties, the best scallion pancakes I’ve had in years, and memorably-good sweet-and-tart ribs.  On the Beijing-heavy menu were also delicious examples of local specialties like drunken chicken.  I’d highly recommend dropping by this place for tasty, good-quality food in a bustling, casual setting.  Also a plus were the servers, who weren’t shy about sharing [strong] opinions (in Chinese, though) on what you should order.

Si Hai Yi Jia, Lane 36, Ba De Road, Section 4, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 2 2873 9288; closest metro station:  Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (blue line)

Second-fave restaurant meal in Taipei was actually somewhere in the middle of Yang Ming Shan National park.  No lie, though.  It’s a pain to get here without a car.  We took the underground/MRT to Chien Tan station and then took a 30-minute bus ride to the national park visitor center, followed by yet another 30-minute long shuttle to the restaurant.  The only plus side about the journey (which would probably take an hour, total, by car) is how every form of public transportation in the Taipei metro area accepts the EasyCard – a sort of mega Oyster Card.  I know this isn’t a food-related tip, but definitely get yourself an EasyCard the minute you get to Taipei.  It’s so much handier than (a) having to figure out what the fare is; and (b) digging around for change all the time.

kitchen at a mountain top Yang Ming Shan resto

The restaurant is no great shakes to look at.  It’s basically a shack near the bus stop at the top of a mountain.  But here you’ll find some of the freshest and most interesting greens of your life.  Nothing is cooked until you order, but it comes to the table fast.

dragon's beard

We loved the fresh mushrooms, braised tofus, sweet yam-and-ginger soup and variety of greens (including a melt-in-your-mouth dish of sweet potatoe shoots).  But I will always remember the colorfully-named “dragon’s beard” greens, which were crunchy, slightly sweet and just refreshing.  It was great mountaintop eating.

Finally, quick notes on two restos in Taipei that fell short of the hype:

Shin Yeh fried oysters

Shin Yeh restaurant has several branches in Taipei, including one inside Taipei 101 (which we couldn’t get a reservation for).  The resto got a rec in this New York Times article from March 2008, and we ended up at a Shin Yeh location not far from Taipei 101, close to the Taipei City Hall metro station, inside yet another luxury goods shopping mall.

The restaurant was huge and decorated in that generic beige look that’s all the rage among luxury hotels around the world.  That said, the service was great — attentive and helpful — and the food, while enjoyable, wasn’t anything special (see e.g., Shin Yeh’s version of drunken chicken and their crab-and-sticky rice).  The restaurant’s “thing” seems to be to use good-quality ingredients to prepare typical Taiwanese dishes.  Prices are relatively high, but still affordable by US/UK standards. Shout out to Shin Yeh’s fried oysters, though, which ought to be served in bars everywhere.  Juicy, briney and battered-and-fried with a deft hand.  Probably a nice place to get oriented to local specialties if you don’t speak or read any Chinese, or if you miss the tidiness and calm of a fancier restaurant.

salmon belly (200 NT) and premium fatty tuna (250 NT) at Mitsui

Jon and I had an afternoon to ourselves in Taipei (the trip to Taiwan had been to attend a wedding, so most times, we were not alone).  So we set out to find premium sushi in a city that claims to have more Japanese restaurants than any city outside of Japan.

Cue Mitsui, which I’d read about on London Eater’s site earlier this year.  It sounded delicious, high-end, but cheap by London standards.  We ordered a lot of items a la carte, and strangely, the sashimi was underwhelming.  Maybe we went on a bad day, but my fatty tuna was still part-frozen, rather than silky-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth.  The salmon belly had a slightly better (less frozen) texture, but it was flavorless.  Grr.  Jon and I did better with the “cooked” items like grilled eel, but that’s so wrong in a sushi restaurant with a great reputation.

Service was nice, and the room is sleek and chic in all black.  But we ate much better sushi when we were in the southern port city of Kaohsiung (if you’re down there, the horribly-translated-into-English restaurant “Sea World” serves some mean sashimi). At least our meal cost only 2600 NT (£28/$43 each), including drinks.

Mitsui, No 30, Nong-an St., 1F Taipei City, Taiwan; +886 (02) 2594-3394;  closest Metro:  Minquan West Road (red line).

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Din Tai Fong (XinYi Road branch) in Taipei - merchandised? Nah.

First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk.  Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character.  This is Din Tai Fung.  Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire.  The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems.  For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this.  (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).

the kitchen at Din Tai Fong

In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh).  Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing.  These people have a system!  The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order.  When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour.  Don’t even think about lingering.

While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant.  The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day.  There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.

XLB at Din Tai Fong - "regular" with just pork (190 NT) and pork with crab roe (330NT)

Onto the star attraction.  Deflated.  Seriously.  The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong.  The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great).  But here’s the failure:  the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup.  We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy.  I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”).  These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.

"shu mai" at Din Tai Fong

We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB.  The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns.  Efficiency at work.  But it’s not shu mai.  Get the chicken soup, though.  It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.

While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London.  (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving).  And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank.  I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).

Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options.  (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).

xiao long bao at Kao Chi, 180 NT ($6 or £4) for pork-only

Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar).  The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.

So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.

Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street:  Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station:  Daan Station (brown line).

Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station:  ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)

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Montreal as viewed from Mont Royal

 

 

at the maple syrup museum - so Canadian

 

The weekend following the one we spent in Wicklow, Ireland, Jon and I arrived in Montreal to attend another friend’s wedding.  At Montreal-Trudeau airport, a bit of karmic payback for all the Canada digs I’ve inflicted on my Canadian friends:  a 90-minute queue at immigration.  Who knew so many people wanted to get into Canada?  : )

 

croquembouche

 

In addition to attending our friend’s wedding (croquembouche should be the de facto wedding cake for the whole world, no?), Jon and I were able to sample a few of Montreal’s delights and sights.

 

Fairmount Bagel bakery in Montreal

 

 

Montreal bagels (.70-.85 CAD) from Fairmount bakery

 

First up, the Montreal bagel.  Our friend, born and raised in Montreal, recommended Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel.  Indifferent between the two, we visited Fairmount and ordered a half-dozen bagels (sesame, onion, and everything) to get us through two breakfasts in Montreal.  The bagels are sweeter and smaller than their New York cousins, and while I see the appeal of the Montreal bagel, I didn’t think they were chewy enough.  Maybe the dough wasn’t boiled enough before baking?  Or maybe, just maybe, I’m too biased towards New York bagels to make an objective assessment.

Fairmount Bagel, 74 Fairmount Avenue West, Montréal, QC H2T 2M2, Canada; +1 (514) 272-0667; Underground: Station Laurier

 

poutine classique (5.80 CAD) and poutine Rachel (6.95 CAD) at La Banquise

 

 

onion rings (3.25 CAD), the perfect side dish to your poutine, bien sur

 

Then, for lunch, we had to try poutine.  That’s french fries covered in beef gravy and cheese curds, in case you didn’t know.  Jon and I were directed to try the poutine at La Banquise, which is open 24 hours a day and is a poutine specialist.   The place is huge and the clientele varied (old, young, yuppie, scruffy, tourist, local).

We tried the poutine classique and the poutine “Rachel,” a version topped with sauteed onions, peppers and mushrooms.  And I couldn’t resist getting onion rings, too, because when your main course is a large plate of French fries, clearly a side of onion rings is called for.

Much as I love fries, I didn’t love my poutine.  The gravy was bland (i.e., not particularly meaty), and the cheese curds were rubbery, much like fresh mozzarella that doesn’t quite melt when you add it to your hot pasta.  Jon called his poutine “a waste of perfectly good fries,” and I must confess I agree based on our one try at La Banquise.  Although I can see how wonderful poutine would be on a cold day when you’ve been out playing ice hockey for nine hours (or after a late night out), I can’t imagine other scenarios in which I’d crave it.  Verdict:  an acquired taste.

La Banquise, 994 Rachel Est, Montréal, QC H2J 2J3, Canada; +1 (514) 525-2415; Underground: Station Mont-Royal

 

fantasy armies clash in Mont-Royal park

 

Feeling rather weighed down after our poutine extravaganza, Jon and I decided to walk to Mont-Royal park, which is a 20-minute ramble from the resto through the shop-filled Plateau neighborhood.  The stretch we walked reminded me of Adams-Morgan in DC — rather studenty-raffish-hippiesh.

Mont Royal Park was beautiful and full of Montreal’ers enjoying the sunny fall weather.  Best people-watching moment:  coming upon what appeared to be fantasy armies fighting for victory.  The “armies” were comprised of young and old, and Jon and I wondered how these armies/teams are organized.  Are they part of some league?

Jon and I also spent time exploring old-town (Vieux) Montreal, whose cobblestone streets are indeed picturesque, but the high percentage of shops selling tourist schlock was disappointing.  Also, there’s no nice way to say this, but if you’ve spent a lot of time in France, Vieux Montreal will seem really, really small.  Like a Hollywood-set version of France.

 

Basilica Notre Dame in old Montreal

 

Our friend’s wedding ceremony took place in Basilica Notre Dame, which is also a major tourist attraction in Montreal.  So we were happy to play both tourist and wedding guest and ooh and ahh at the basilica’s size and splendor.

 

Le Roi du Won Ton ("Taiwanese Restaurant) in Montreal

 

Having over-indulged at the wedding reception (which took place at one of the old mansions left standing in downtown Montreal), Jon and I sought out the comforts of Chinese noodle soup the next day.  Chowhound pointed us to Le Roi du Wonton, located in Montreal’s “real” Chinatown near Guy-Concordia metro station (which is *not* the pagoda-marked Chinatown that gets touted in guidebooks).

When we found the restaurant, I was amused to see that in Chinese characters, the place is named “Taiwan restaurant.”  But for French speakers, the place is called “Wonton King.”

 

won ton soup at Le Roi du Won Ton

 

 

dan bing (egg pancake) at Le Roi du Won Ton

 

 

fried pork chop at Le Roi du Won Ton

 

In tribute to both names, Jon and I tried the wonton soup (great broth, good, but not royally good, wontons), as well as the Taiwanese comfort food dishes.  Dan bing (a cross between an egg crepe and a scallion pancake) was satisfying in an oily way, but the fried pork chop was a bit dry and underseasoned.  The straight-from-a-bag veg was also a bummer.  So overall, I’d stick with the noodle soups and won tons and ignore the “Taiwan” part of the restaurant name.  Service was slow but homey and friendly.  I don’t recall anything costing more than 8 CAD.

Le Roi du Wonton, 2125 St. Marc, Montreal; +1 514 937 5419; Underground:  Guy-Concordia

Overall, we had a relaxing weekend in Montreal, and I regret not being able to sample its famously laid-back, cool nightlife.  We’ll have to pay a visit on our own, when we don’t have a wedding to attend.

Logistics:

Using vrbo.com, Jon and I rented a mint-condition 2BR apartment near the Berri-UQAM metro station for 165CAD/night.  Renting this apartment was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had with vrbo.com (and I suspect we’ve used vrbo.com almost a dozen times).  The owner, Sue, was friendly and extremely helpful.

Within Montreal, the metro, taxis and Boris-bike-style programme make getting around super easy and inexpensive.

Taxis from Trudeau Airport to downtown Montreal are fixed price at 38 CAD for the 25-minute ride, but I heard good things from other wedding guests about the 747 Express Bus that costs 7 CAD per person each way.

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Rathdrum, Ireland

 

Two weeks ago, Jon and I celebrated the wedding of good friends in the rolling countryside just south of Dublin.  Luck was with us and the weather that weekend was sunny and mild, and while most of the weekend was spent at wedding festivities (such that I didn’t get a chance to eat out in local restaurants), the parts of County Wicklow we saw were so pretty that I thought I’d do a brief write-up anyway.

 

McGowan's Lounge Bar/The Cartoon Inn

 

We spent one afternoon walking around the small town of Rathdrum, whose highlight is McGowan’s Lounge Bar, which is connected to the Cartoon Inn.  The Lounge Bar entrance is labeled with signs telling you that Michael Collins was filmed here, and the Cartoon Inn portion is amusingly wall-papered with old cartoons.  Rathdrum used to host the Rathdrum International Cartoon Festival, you see.

There’s not much to see in town, so if you’re in the area, I’d skip Rathdrum itself and visit nearby Avondale House instead.  I’ve visited Ireland only twice, but based on both trips, I agree with everyone who says Ireland’s beauty lies in the countryside, not in its towns and cities.

 

The full Irish brekkie

 

Jon and I didn’t like our B&B (see below for more deets), but I will say the full Irish breakfast hit the spot the morning after the wedding reception.

 

Trinity College, Dublin

 

With a couple of hours to kill before our flight from Dublin back to London, Jon and I enjoyed the sunshine and people-watching in St. Stephen’s Green and then walked down the unimaginably-crowded, chain-store-packed Grafton Street.  We ended our time in Dublin by paying 9 euros each to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College Library, which was an underwhelming experience.  I knew going in that the Book was a really old, illuminated Bible, so if I’d thought about it a little more, I probably could’ve predicted that it’d be disappointing.  After all, I remember seeing the much-older Dead Sea Scrolls for free at the New York Public Library, and there was no shortage of illuminated manuscripts for perusal at the university library when I was young ‘un.  So yeah – seeing four pages of the Book of Kells – not worth our 18 euros.

Overall, I’d love to return to Wicklow and see more of the countryside.  So the next time you’re planning a trip to Dublin, schedule some time in Wicklow, too.

Logistics:

Jon and I stayed at a small B&B near Rathdrum called Birchdale House.  It was inexpensive (70 euros a night) and close to the wedding venue.  But I wouldn’t recommend it.  When Jon and I arrived, the B&B owner told us he’d accidentally double booked the room we’d reserved and so we’d have to take a room without a bathroom.  He knocked 10 euros off the price, but I’d rather he’d called us earlier to tell us about the mistake so that we could have chosen to stay somewhere else.  Our room was tiny; the sheets were scratchy; and overall, the room still wasn’t worth paying 60 euros a night for.

If you haven’t rented a car and instead have taken the train from Dublin to Arklow, I’d highly recommend Aughrim Cabs to get around once you’re in that part of Wicklow.  They were super reliable and friendly, and although most of our cab rides were 20-minutes long, the fare always seemed to be 10 euros.

We used a taxi between Dublin City Center and Dublin Airport, costing about 25 euros for the 30-minute ride.  There’s an express bus that costs just 12 euros return, but we were too short on time to figure out where the bus stops were.

For the London-Dublin route, there are a million flights to choose from.  Jon and I used RyanAir because Stansted is handy to Liverpool Street station, near both our offices.  Our tickets cost £75 each for a return ticket.  From a cost perspective, there’s no reason *not* to return to Ireland soon.

  • To read about my only other visit to Ireland (embarrassingly, five years ago), click here.

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charcuterie at sunset in Puligny-Montrachet

 

Although Jon and I were in Burgundy for a week, our dining options were constrained by the fact that (1) someone else chose our hotels for us; and (2) we were traveling by bicycle.  Dinner options were therefore confined to restaurants within the town where our hotel was located, and lunch options couldn’t be too far off our daily route or else we wouldn’t reach our hotel by sunset.

As was the case in the Loire Valley last summer, the Via Michelin website was pretty handy for planning out restaurants based on a driving or cycling itinerary, and my favorite two meals of the trip were of the bib gourmand variety.  Although I agree with the many who argue that the Michelin guide is skewed in favor of French techniques and flavors, that particular flaw is no bad thing when you’re, you know, in France, looking for French food.

At all restaurants we tried in Burgundy, regardless of whether the food was good or bad, the wine lists were huge and markups not too bad.  So even if the kitchen was a bummer, the wines generally saved the meal.

 

outstanding steak tartare at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin

 

 

cheese course at Chez Guy

Lunch at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin was my favorite meal of the trip.  The day was sunny and warm, and the restaurant terrace is large and comfortable.  The menu offerings were classic, simple and well-prepared.  My steak tartare, a tender, chopped-up onglet steak, was a thing of beauty despite the humble cut of meat used.  The tangy-sweet seasoning was exactly what I craved and so I forgave the wimpy, limp fries.  Even the cheese course, too often an after-thought at casual places, was attractively presented.  And while epoisses is offered everywhere in Burgundy, at Chez Guy, everything was of good provenance (from fromagerie Gaugry, bien sur).

Chez Guy, 3, Place Mairie , 21220 Gevrey Chambertin, +33 (0)3 80 58 51 51;  open every day; 29.50 euros for starter and main or 26 euros for main and cheese or dessert.

terrine at La Ciboulette in Beaune

 

 

pot au feu at La Ciboulette in Beaune

Second favorite restaurant of our trip:  La Ciboulette in Beaune.  So good we ate here twice:  once at the start of our trip, and once more at the end.  Again, this was a bib gourmand restaurant doing a great job of transforming humble cuts of meat with careful cooking and seasoning.  The duck leg pot au feu was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the broth was both rich-tasting and clear-feeling.  Generally, mains and starters were very good, and desserts less so.  So when faced with the choice of cheese or dessert, go with the cheese.

The restaurant offers 19.50, 26.50 and 32-euro menus, which varied only in the type of main courses offered, and the 32 euro-menu includes both cheese *and* dessert.  Great wine list and efficient, welcoming service.

La Ciboulette, 69, rue de Lorraine, Beaune 21200 (close to Beaune’s triumphal arch); +33 (0)3 80 24 70 72; closed Monday and Tuesday (which means it’s open on Sunday – excellent).

 

Burgundian bar snacks at Le Montrachet in Puligny-Montrachet

 

 

pork loin at Le Montrachet in Puligny-Montrachet

 

Le Montrachet is ambitious.  A former one-Michelin-star place gunning to get that star back.  The food was fine, but for the price (55 euros prix fixe), I expected more deliciousness and originality.  The pleasant surprise of the evening:  an excellent pork loin course.  Otherwise, foie gras foam this; hot-and-cold that.  Fun bar snack renditions of regional classics like jambon persille and gougeres.    I’d recommend going there to try a wide variety of pricey wines by the glass.  17.50 euros for a glass of wine sounds like a lot, but short of hanging with some really generous friends, when else are you going to be able to try a 2004 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault 1er Cru Charmes without having to pay for the whole bottle?  (Sampler, are you reading this?)

 

oeufs en meurette at Restaurant Le Millesime in Chambolle-Musigny

 

 

Oeufs en meurette at Castel de Tres Girard in Morey-Saint-Denis

 

Second restaurant falling in the “pretty good/not bad” category is Restaurant Le Millesime in Chambolle-Musigny.  We’d hoped to eat at bib-rated Restaurant Le Chambolle, also in town, but Le Chambolle is closed on Wednesday and Thursday, which of course were the two nights we were in nearby Morey-Saint-Denis.

In any case, the service at Le Millesime was friendly, and the cooking relatively ambitious, with foie gras plated as if it were a contemporary painting.  Burgundy classic oeufs en meurette (think beef bourgignon, but using poached eggs instead of beef) were standout-silky-smooth and elegant, bathed in a rich wine sauce infused with the sweetness of onions.  (Contrast Le Millesime’s version with that of Castel de Tres Girard (pictured above), which was ham-handed to say the least.  The poaching wine used by Castel de Tres Girard was so far past its prime as to be vinegar).

Restaurant Le Millesime, 1 rue Traversiere, 21220 Chambolle Musigny; +33 (0)3 80 62 80 37;  27 euros for three courses.

 

escargots at Castel de Tres Girard

 

 

boeuf bourgignonne at Castel de Tres Girard

 

Caste de Tres Girard, I’m still traumatized by you.  We asked for water three times and ended up resorting to the @sshole tactic of refusing to order any food or wine until the water finally arrived.  Breads were still frozen in the middle.  A travesty in a nation of excellent boulangeries!  The least expensive menu was 37 euros for a romp through Burgundy classics.  Escargots were lukewarm and I’ll admit that I’m not capable of eating those suckers unless the garlic-parsley butter is hot.  Boeuf bourgignonne was buttery enough to pass as flavorsome, but the braised beef was stringy and tough.  I make a much better one at home.  Skip this place and get yourself over to nearby Chambolle-Musigny instead.

Caste de Tres Girard, 7 rue de Tres Girard, 21220 Morey-Saint-Denis, +33 (0)3 80 34 33 09. 

 

cabillaud at Bistrot des Halles in Dijon

 

The last meal of our trip, at Bistrot des Halles in Dijon, was also a disappointment.  I didn’t do any research at all because Dijon was a last-minute addition to our itinerary, and I figured anything near the covered food market would be alright.  Wrong.  Exhibit A:  what’s with the cones of stale chorizo rudely shoved into the fillet of over-the-hill-starchy-tasting cod fillet?  Don’t get me started on the straight-from-a-jar tomato sauce dumped on top.  At least we sat outdoors and the mains were generally under 15 euros.

Surprisingly, the snack of croque Monsieur with salad we’d had earlier in the day at Agora Cafe for 6.50 euros was much better value.  I say “surprisingly” because Agora Cafe’s outdoor seating is on Dijon’s Place de la Liberation (i.e., tourist central).  So if in search of something basic and good, check out Agora Cafe.

Bistrot des Halles, 10, rue Bannelier, Dijon 21000; +33 (0)3 80 49 94 15

Agora Cafe, 10 Place de la Liberation, Dijon 21000

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Gevrey-Chambertin

After three days of cycling in the Cote Chalonnaise and Cote de Beaune, Jon and I headed north from Beaune to sip the (mostly) reds of the Cote de Nuits for another three days.

First, the low point of the trip:  we stayed two nights at the Castel de Tres Girard in Morey-Saint-Denis, which is best described as style over substance.  It looks lovely enough from the outside, but inside, our room windows opened on to the industrial-sized exhaust vents from the kitchen or boiler room (maybe both).  Why would the hotel even have a room like this?  Oddly, there was also no place to put our clothing – no dresser drawers.  Just a closet already stuffed with extra bed linens.  And forget about free internet, unlike the other hotels of our trip.

  • Service at the hotel was also pretty unhelpful, especially in the hotel restaurant, which has the distinction of serving us the worst  meal of our entire trip (to be summarized in a separate post about Burgundy restaurants we tried).  I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo of the burnt, wrinkly, fresh-from-the-freezer croissants that were a centerpiece of the hotel’s breakfasts.  It’s not like we were in a country full of good boulangeries or anything.

On the plus side, we fell in love with the Caveau des Vignerons in Morey-Saint-Denis.  If you go, ask for Catherine, who started out a bit wary of us in our cycling clothes, but in response to our questions, quickly grew warm and chatty, as well as generous with the tastings.  She’s passionate and knowledgeable about all the local wines and winemakers (e.g., who’s just had a baby, who’s been sick).  It was a dose of small-town charm in a region of big-money wine.

At the end of our first visit, we asked Catherine if she’d open (for tasting) a bottle by Alain Jenniard, a local vintner whose wines sounded appealing from the tasting notes (in French) located throughout the shop.  Sure enough, when we dropped by the next day, Catherine was waiting to open one of Jenniard’s bottles for us to try.   (On any given day, “only” five or six bottles are open for tasting).

We also happily tasted and purchased several wines by Domaine Virgile Lignier, and I would love to return to taste more.  The shop stocks a full range of local wines, with plenty of bottles in the 25-35 euro range (a modest sum in Burgundy), along with offerings by big-ticket local vineyards like Clos de Tart.

The furthest north we reached in the Cote de Nuits was  Gevrey-Chambertin, where we ate a simple but very delicious and relaxing lunch at Chez Guy.  More to come on this place in a separate post.

who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Chevaliers du Tastevin?

Not far from where we were staying in Morey-Saint-Denis was Clos de Vougeot, which was a lot more fun than I expected.  For starters, after the 18-euro travesty at Chateau de Pommard, I was delighted that Clos de Vougeot’s ticket price is a humble 3.90 euros.  Even better, the displays and exhibits inside are actually well-written and interesting.

  • Clos de Vougeot’s ancient wine presses were especially impressive for their size, age, and the fact that I suspect it could still be used if needed.  It was easy to picture medieval monks putting their back into it to squeeze out every last drop of precious juice.
getting close to the fields of Romanee Conti

The stretches of Cote de Nuits vineyards that Jon and I cycled through felt less divided-up than in the Cote de Beaune, and we were amused to find carloads of tourists clumped around certain patches of vines.   This is what celebrity looks like in the Cote de Nuits:

Romanee Conti:  surrounded by groupies every time we passed by

At the Romanee Conti field, you’ll find several prominent signs saying, in short:  “don’t even think about coming near these vines,” in French and English.   Personally, I wouldn’t have even considered climbing over the wall into the field but for the sign.

view from the panorama point at Pernand-Vergelesses

Cycling south back to Beaune, we couldn’t resist making a small detour to climb up to a recommended panoramic viewpoint in Pernand-Vergelesses.  Let me tell you – that was one steep motherf*cker.  It wasn’t just steep for cycling.  It was steep for walking.  I’m including in this post the photo I took because I need the world to see that I made it to the top, except I’m sad that it doesn’t look that high up in the photo.  Like most “must-see views,” it was nice, but probably not worth the effort.  It was a good place to break for a picnic lunch, though.

Chateau de Corton Andre in Aloxe-Corton

We knew we were close to Beaune when we passed by Chateau de Corton Andre with its colorful glazed tile roof, typical of Beaune and its surrounds.

Back in Beaune, the highlights were the personal tour of the Hospice led by Sarah, one of the owners of Detours in France, as well as the Saturday town market, which is much livelier than the Wednesday version.  Jon and I couldn’t resist picking up an old champagne bucket from one of the antiques stalls.  For 25 euros, it seemed a steal until we realized that it’s not easy carrying around a champagne bucket back to London.

rue Verrerie in Dijon as viewed from our hotel balcony

We spent our last night in Burgundy seeing the sights in Dijon.  The old town is quite charming, and I learned that in addition to mustard, Dijon prides itself on its gingerbread.  Mulot et Petitjean is the fountainhead of all pain d’epices, apparently.  I can’t tell you firsthand because the portions sold were too enormous for one or two people to share.  The shop had that cluttered “grandma would love this” look.

  • If you’re in town for just one night, I’d recommend staying at the Hotel Le Jacquemart.  The place is bring-your-own-toiletries no-frills (Jon esp. loved dragging our suitcases up four flights of stairs), but it’s clean, shabby-genteel-looking, and incredibly well-located near the old Cathedral.   For 60 euros a night, we couldn’t have asked for more.  Skip the hotel brekkie and walk half a block left down the street to a superb boulangerie.  Also nearby is the old covered market, Les Halles.

And that’s it on everything-but-the-food from our trip in Burgundy.  Next and last post about Burgundy will be on the restos.  A bientot!

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Hotel-Dieu in Beaune

Remembering the success of our cycling trip in the Loire Valley last July, Jon and I spent a week cycling in Burgundy in late August this year.  Because we were too busy this summer to do our own planning (read: Jon spent too much time training to swim the English Channel and I was left holding down the fort at home), we worked with Beaune-based Detours in France, who provide self-guided cycle tours of the region.

In practical terms, a “self guided cycle tour” meant that Detours in France booked our hotels, provided the cycles, moved our luggage from hotel to hotel, and mapped out our daily itinerary.  The only thing Jon and I had to do was show up in Beaune to pick up our bicycles and get ourselves from Point A to Point B every day (i.e., we weren’t with a group following a leader, and we were free to change the day’s itinerary as we liked).

cycling from Chassagne-Montrachet to Santenay

Pluses of working with Detours in France:

  1. Jon and I never got lost, and consequently, never argued.  (The provided maps and turn-by-turn directions are pretty much foolproof).
  2. Our daily routes were optimized for beautiful views, low traffic, and flatness (save for a 4km climb around Gevrey-Chambertin, and another one around Pernand-Vergelesses, thankfully towards the end of the trip, when our fitness had improved).
  3. Sarah and Jerome, the owners of Detours in France, are passionate about what they do and about Burgundy, so we had the sense that if we really needed help, they’d be there for us.
  4. Overall – everything was really easy.  We were supremely lucky to have had sunny, mild weather the entire week, so from the point of view of getting to know the region and the terroir, our trip was an unqualified success.

Minuses of giving up the absolute control we usually exercise via independent travel:

  1. It was difficult to eat at the restaurants we wanted to try.  (Where there’s wine, there’s good food, and Burgundy is studded with Michelin-starred restaurants).  Although dinner wasn’t included in the price we paid to Detours in France, letting someone else choose our hotels meant that in the evening, it was tricky for us to get to specific restaurants (cycling on un-lit local roads being rather difficult, especially if you’re planning a boozy, lengthy, gourmet meal).Most of the towns in Burgundy wine country are small, so effectively, either you’re eating at your hotel restaurant or you’re at the one or two other places in town (assuming they’re open, of course).  In contrast, last year, when we controlled every aspect of our trip in the Loire Valley, we either booked hotels in larger towns (offering numerous dining options) or else we stayed at a hotel specifically so we could eat at a nearby restaurant.
  2. Adding up hotel fees, cycle rentals and luggage transfers, the cost of our week in Burgundy was twice that of our week in the Loire Valley.  On both trips, we stayed at hotels rated 3 stars by whatever agency in France rates such things.  While Burgundy is, in general, a pricier region to visit than the Loire Valley, I attribute most of the cost difference to the effort and expertise of Detours in France.

Santenay's town square

Our six days of cycling took us from the southern stretches of the Cote Chalonnaise, through the golden fields of chardonnay in the Cote de Beaune, and up north through the prized red wine vineyards of the Cote de Nuits.  (To visualize the region, click here for a map).

In general, we cycled 35-40 km a day, with a few days where we hit 50 km because we strayed from the day’s itinerary and got a little lost. This blog post covers the “southern” stretch of our trip, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Cote de Beaune areas.  This coming Friday, I’ll post about the Cote de Nuits, and next week I’ll wrap up with a post on all our restaurant adventures in the region.

Because we knew so little about Burgundy wines before our visit, we relied heavily on the almost too-comprehensive advice of this “Food Wine Burgundy” guide by David Downie, as well as tips from Detours in France and from friendly cavistes (wine shop owners) we met along the way.  Most vineyards either required advance booking or were closed during prime cycling hours (12-3 pm), so Jon and I stopped mostly at wine shops to do our tastings and make our purchases.

In Santenay, our “Food Wine Burgundy” guide highly recommended the Cave Vielles Vignes, which is right on the town square.  The shop offered an impressive inventory of wines, but sadly, the sales woman there was reluctant to offer us a tasting of wines and was generally unhelpful, so we bought two local (Santenay) wines at random there and called it a day.

Much friendlier was the Domaine de la Chappelle up the hill from the town square, which we visited at the recommendation of our Puligny-Montrachet B&B owner.  Its primary appeal:  you can drop in for a tasting without an advance booking.  Unfortunately, neither the 2008 reds nor the whites appealed, and we bought a bottle just to be polite.

Canal du Centre

From Santenay, we cycled south along the gorgeous Canal du Centre to reach the Cote Chalonnaise, where we heard there were bargain Burgundy wines to be found.

Takeaways:

(1) don’t bother stopping at Chateau de Rully, which offers neither tastings nor a tour of the chateau, contrary to the claims of Food Wine Burgundy.  (That’s two strikes against our chosen guidebook, and our edition was published in 2010!);

(2) Of the local wines we tried, we loved the 2007 Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey (about 20 euros), which was strong evidence that there are great deals to be found in the Cote Chalonnaise.  [Note that "local" in Burgundy means either the vineyard is located within the borders of the town you're tasting in, or at most one or two towns away.]

cycling from Puligny-Montrachet to Meursault (pictured in the distance)

Our favorite of the hotels chosen by Detours in France was La Chouette, a B&B in Puligny-Montrachet.   The rooms were large, comfortable and stylish; the breakfasts were excellent; and Suzanne, the owner, is a wealth of local information.  (Suzanne and her husband also own Le Montrachet, a largeish luxury hotel across the street from La Chouette, and where we had dinner).  The published rack rate was 150 euros a night.

Puligny-Montrachet, where we stayed for two nights, is a one-horse town, and that horse is wine, so don’t expect to find a supermarket or even a fromagerie in town.  Instead, you’ll find lots of wine shops.

We enjoyed the wine tasting and wine chat we had with Julien Wallerand, the owner of Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet.  For 8 euros a person, we tasted four wines from Puligny-Montrachet, and one of my few regrets from the trip was not buying the 2008 villages by Domaine Bzikot (25 euros) we tried.  (For a brief description of how Burgundy wines are classified from Grand Cru and Premier Cru “down to” Villages and Regional, click here).

We skipped the wine pairing extravaganzas for which local giant, Olivier Leflaive, is famous, mostly because the man we spoke with at the hotel was unbearably patronising when we tried to clarify the different pricing options offered at dinner vs lunch.

Chateau de Pommard, not worth the 18 euros (per person!) admission

The town of Pommard, next door to Meursault, was a bummer because we stopped by the Chateau de Pommard.  The price of admission was 18 euros a person, and in case you think that the price includes a tour of the chateau, think again.

What your 18 euros buys  you:

(1) access to a “Picasso exhibit,” which is comprised of limited-edition Picasso prints (copies, really) and a few original ceramics, all for sale;

(2) a tour of the wine cellar, which, sadly, looks much like most other wine cellars.  In fact, if you’re dying to see a Cote de Beaune wine cellar, visit the one at Couvent des Cordeliers in Beaune for free; and

(3) a tasting of three of the Chateau’s wines, all of which contained too many sour notes for me to see their future potential (which our guide kept exhorting us to do).  That the wines were priced upwards of 50 euros a bottle was insult to injury.

From Pommard, it was a quick trip back up to Beaune, and then north through the Cote de Nuit, whose highlights will be in my next blog post.

Looking back, as much as we enjoyed staying at La Chouette, if I could re-do the trip, I’d stay in Santenay and Meursault, which were larger towns than Puligny-Montrachet, and consequently seemed to have more shops and restaurants to choose from.  Or maybe we’d stay next door to Puligny-Montrachet in Chassagne-Montrachet, home to Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Chassagne.

Or maybe next time, I’ll travel by car, and everyone will be spared my bellyaching about not being able to reach gourmet restaurants on bicycle.

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Le Chateaubriand restaurant, still busy at 10 pm on a Friday in late August

En route to Burgundy for a week of cycling and wine tasting, Jon and I decided to spend a weekend in Paris.  Trouble was that our trip fell in late August, when lots of desirable restaurants are still closed, pending la rentree in September (L’Agrume, I’m looking at you).  Of course, Paris is a big city, so of course we didn’t starve.  The executive summary?  Le Chateaubriand and Spring Restaurant are worth visiting even when you have all the choice in the world (i.e., even if it’s not August).  And I won’t be revisiting La Fontaine de Mars and L’Aromatik anytime soon.

Le Chateaubriand has a number of attractions despite its lack of Michelin stars.  For example:

  1. It’s passed muster with familiar and trusted London food bloggers like Gourmet Chick, Gourmet Traveller and Greedy Diva.
  2. It has the distinction of being number 11 on this year’s San Pelligrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (gotta love the chutzpah of claiming to rank every restaurant in the *world*, no?);
  3. It’s in the 11th arrondissement, which, over the last three years, has become my favorite area for exploration.  Between the Vietnamese wonders of Belleville (yes it’s technically in the 20th, but close enough), the presence of several other food-lover hotspots, and the charms of my fave hotel in Paris, the 11th is worthy of many blog posts, which I will spare you for now; and
  4. It’s open in late August.  Bonus points for having a walk-in-only 10 pm seating.  Meaning that if your Eurostar pulls into Gare du Nord a bit later than expected on a Friday night, no worries.  Parfait.

grilled squid at Le Chateaubriand

Le Chateaubriand’s menu is simple:  for your 50 euros, you’re served five courses with a few amuses thrown in.  As you’d expect from a kitchen that changes its menu daily and pushes the creative envelope, there are hits and misses.  For me, the hits were the grilled squid course, served practically raw but somehow still charcoal-smoky, and the rare, tender pigeon, complemented in texture and flavor by blanched almonds.  Dessert, comprised of berries with ice milk made of corn milk, was a miss, tasting mostly like Cap’n Crunch cereal, except not as tasty.  There’s good cheese and bread (Poujauran, bien sur), and a quirky wine list (our server’s recommendation of “La Roumanie Conte” was a hipster’s homage to La Romanee Conti, I suppose).

Definitely a place to return with friends.  Not so much for a quiet night out, though.  In fact, much as I loved Le Chateaubriand’s casual bistro decor and buzzy mood, I wouldn’t bring my parents here.   The vibe was pretty rockstar and even I, in my energetic 30s, felt a bit old and dowdy.  Maybe it’s different if you show up before the 10 pm seating?  And note the restaurant no longer serves lunch, which makes perfect sense considering that when Jon and I left at well after midnight, the place was still packed.

The newly-reopened Spring restaurant in the 1st

lobster roll at Spring, 24 euros (served only during Saturday lunch in August)

Spring is much adored by the Paris food press (click here for a sample of the adoration).  Chef-owner Daniel Rose is American, and the restaurant is located around the corner from the Louvre, so I wasn’t surprised to find a heavy anglophone contingent among diners when we turned up for Saturday lunch.  I reckon the jewel box, zen-chic restaurant would normally close for August, but seeing as how Spring’s snazzy 1st arrondissement location just opened several weeks ago (in July 2010), it’s no surprise they stayed open in August.  Lucky for me.  The trick is that when you book for Saturday lunch in August, you’re agreeing to eat only one thing when you arrive:  lobster rolls.

I’ll admit I felt kind of silly showing up in Paris to eat such a classic American sandwich.  But I was eager to see the new space, and I figured that with a week of eating in Burgundy ahead of me, an early break from “French food” would be no bad thing.

Thumbs up on the lobster roll:  sweet, almost-raw chunks of lobster meat, lightly dressed and carefully arranged on a buttered, toasted roll.  For 24 euros, I thought the portion was a bit meager, but that’s where the 6-euros-a-portion fries come in.  With the restaurant floor-to-ceiling windows thrown open on a sunny afternoon, the atmosphere was relaxed and summery.  A good lunch, but I left without a sense of what makes the restaurant so highly regarded.  So I’ll look forward to the inevitable flood of blog posts about dinner there.

escalope of foie gras (30 euros) at La Fontaine de Mars in the 7th

Finding an open restaurant on Sunday is challenging under the best of circumstances in Paris (which means I usually spend Sundays in Belleville for Vietnamese food).  In August, the task seems impossible.  This is when popular-with-anglophone tourist spots prove their value.  They’re always open, it seems.  And so we found ourselves meeting a friend for an early Sunday lunch at La Fontaine de Mars, whose latest claim to fame is last summer’s Obama visit.  The food ranged from mediocre-and-expensive (roast chicken with mashed potatoes for 20 euros) to pretty-good-and-expensive (escalope of foie gras for 30 euros).  All the bistro classics are there, with nods to Burgundy (oeufs en meurette and escargots).

Pet peeve alert:  when we arrived, the servers told us all the outdoor tables were specifically reserved, so we were seated at an indoor table.  And when we left – I kid you not – all the outdoor tables were still empty.  All of them.

Overall, the place could have been worse, but unless you find yourself dying of starvation while visiting the Eiffel Tower, there are plenty of other, similarly-attractive bistros serving the same dishes at half the price.  I will give them this, though:  supremely clean, comfortable loos.  No wonder my countrymen love it so.

L'Aromatik in the 9th

roulade de cabillaud (cod) at L'Aromatik

Exacerbating the “everything’s closed in August” problem was my failure to make restaurant bookings until two days before we arrived in Paris (Rino actually laughed when I rang up on Wednesday looking for a Saturday night table).  So I scoured the blogs of two trusted sources of Paris restaurant intell and came across this post and this post about L’Aromatik in the 9th.  Attractive bistro serving simple, well-prepared dishes on its 35-euro prix fixe menu.  Sounds good, no?

Sadly, while the art deco-tiled space is indeed attractive, the food was pretty mediocre.  Take, for example, Jon’s roulade of cod (pictured above).  There was way too much going on on that plate, and really, I can make bacon-wrapped cod at home.  My supreme de pintadeau Maury et nectarines caramelisees au sechuan wasn’t much better.  The nectarines were crunchy and raw (definitely not caramelised), and I didn’t taste or see any sechuan influence.  So basically, I was served chicken with nectarines on the side. Desserts were of the sort that get served at large catered events.

Our server, perfectly nice, kept trying to steer us away from the prix fixe and towards the much-pricier a la carte, so that was a bummer, too.  On the whole, L’Aromatik struck me as no good.  Not even good as a neighborhood place, really.

Le Chateaubriand, 129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondissement; +33 1 43 57 45 95‎; closest metro:  Goncourt

Spring Restaurant, 6 Rue Bailleul, 1st arrondissement; + 33 1 58 62 44 30; closest metro:  Louvre-Rivoli

La Fontaine de Mars, 129 Rue Saint-Dominique, 7th arrondissement; +33 1 47 05 46 44; closest metro: Ecole Militaire or La Tour-Maubourg

L’Aromatik, 7 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 9th arrondissement; +33 1 48 74 62 27‎; closest metro: Trinite d’Estienne d’Orves, Saint-Georges or Liege

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Americans are sometimes accused of not valuing tradition or caring for the past. Well, this is one American who loves traditions and wallowing in the past, even if the traditions are so recently created they could hardly be so called.

Jon and I arrived in the UK on 21 August 2005 carrying lots of excess luggage and more money than common sense (we actually hailed a black cab from Heathrow to central London, lol).

I started this blog on the one-year anniversary of our arrival in the UK, and since then, I’ve loved doing a 12-month “look back” every year, so here’s my 2009-2010 roundup in food and travel:

August 2009: We made a trip to Southern California and ate a lot of great Vietnamese food, Korean food, Cal-Mex, and burgers (Hodad onion rings, I miss you).

September 2009: We hung around London the entire month and discovered the joys of inexpensive South Indian food at Shilpa, a real gem in Hammersmith. Despite the seemingly-endless Tube ride from Angel, I’ve been back there several times for the prawn moilee and kerala paratha.

October 2009: We paid another visit to Provence (our third to that region – how unoriginal!), exploring the markets in l’Isle sur la Sorgue, getting some sun and sea in the pretty port town of Cassis, enjoying a splashy meal at Pierre Reboul in Aix, and revisiting some old favorites in Nice. And the restaurant adventures in London continued, with the highlight that month being my first dolsot bibimbap lunch at Young Bean. Young Bean’s raw beef version is so delicious and filling that I’ve had it at least twice a month, every month, since that first visit.

November 2009: Never tiring of France, we spent a weekend in Paris (our fourth visit there in 2009 alone). We rather enjoyed the beautiful people scene at Le Thoumieux, but were a little less enthralled by the also-hip-and-happening Kitchen Galerie Bis. Favorite London meal that month: Launceston Place, which I’ve recently revisited and remain thrilled by.

December 2009: We indulged in our love of all things Christmas at the Nuremberg Christmas market and guzzled the gluhwein in Munich. Jon and I then headed to the US for Christmas and ate huge portions of generally-mediocre food in Palm Beach County, Florida. Back in London, I somehow managed to have a so-so dinner at Chilli Cool, finding their food way under-spiced and uninteresting.  (If you’re familiar with the expressions of love heaped upon Chilli Cool by other bloggers, you’ll see why I’m confounded). The real travesty of the month, though, was schlepping to Shepherd’s Bush to follow Matthew Norman’s glowing recommendation of Thai resto Esarn Kheaw, where I had a depressing meal.

January 2010: I started the new year with a week in Boston, where I ate a delightfully unseasonal — but immensely delicious — lobster roll at Neptune Oyster. And like every other self-respecting food blogger, I generated my “Favorite London Restaurants” list for 2009, and a corresponding list for places outside the UK. I’m happy to see that even today, I’d still agree with most of the restos listed.

February 2010: At the end of the month, Jon and I popped over to Venice for some fritto misto at the Vechio Fritolin on our way to ski in Cortina. It turned out that there’s great eating to be done on the slopes of the Dolomites, so for the food-centric skiiers among you, get thee to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Baita Pie’ Tofana, in particular, is calling me back. Favorite meal in London that month was a tie between the high-end at Hibiscus and the been-back-a-dozen-times comforts of Empress of Sichuan.

March 2010: Craving sunshine and fried boquerones, I spent 24 hours in Malaga, Spain and managed to catch the start of Semana Santa, which was a bonus. Back in London, the dinner of the month was at the often-overlooked Greenhouse in Mayfair. Interestingly, I had a good dinner that month at the Dean Street Townhouse, which I’ve since revisited twice to my ever-increasing dismay. Is it just me, or has the food there gone downhill pretty quickly?

April 2010: Ahhh, Egypt, how you crushed my self-image as an experienced and savvy traveler. The Egyptian ruins of Cairo and Luxor were amazing. The food alright, with the highlight being the grill at El Refay in Cairo. But on the whole, our week in Egypt left me ambivalent about independent travel there.  In terms of dining in London, I had my first lunch at Pizza East and it’s earned a regular slot on the workday lunch rotation ever since. Good prices, good food, and fast service.

May 2010: May in Europe is great. You’ve got lots of Bank Holidays and the weather starts to be reliably sunny. So. Off to Rome with my parents, where we enjoyed four days of casual, excellent meals of pasta and pizza. Dal Paino and Il Forno Campo de’ Fiori are not to be missed. Closer to home, we finally visited Canterbury and Whitstable, which were a bit of a snore, so we should’ve planned the day around a meal at the Sportsman instead. Maybe next time. Best meals in London that month: The Square on the high end, and Byron Burgers on the low.

June 2010: Early in the month, Jon and I had to drop everything and get back to the New York area for a family emergency, but every cloud has a silver lining, and we loved seeing family and friends while chowing on some great bagels, pizza and excellent General Tso’s chicken. Bar Boulud and Viajante made their splashy openings, but I’d say the bloom is off the rose at Bar Boulud since they took the chop chop salad off its menu. Boo.

July 2010: A weekend visit to Calais to see Jon’s cousins yielded a culinary surprise: quite possibly the best meal of 2010, in fact. La Grenouillere in Montreuil, France, managed to be fun without being gimmicky, and the lobster and flash-grilled steak courses were out-of-this-world. On a more modest scale, the arrival in our neighborhood of low-priced Italian, Trullo, was warmly welcomed, and ready-for-franchise Dishoom convinced me they’re on to a winning formula.  How do I invest?

So that’s it. Five years in London. I can now look forward to taking the “Life in the UK Test” and paying the £1,393 application fee for indefinite leave to remain.  This way, London will never be rid of me!

For more nostalgia fun:

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Cowley Manor, viewed from the garden

Because Jon has spent most of this summer training for his Channel swim (which he and his team completed in 12h 45 mins while also raising £13,000+ for charity – well done, no?), we haven’t taken any holiday yet this summer.

Channel swim over, he and I spent last weekend in the Cotswolds, where we treated ourselves to a stay at Cowley Manor. Longtime followers of this blog (hi, Mom and Dad!) will remember that last spring, Jon and I visited Barnsley House, which is a nearby competitor of Cowley Manor’s.  So the title of this post could really be “Face Off: Cowley Manor vs. Barnsley House,” except that I’m not that dramatic.

In case you find yourself in the enviable position of deciding which luxury spa hotel to choose for your next trip to the Cotswolds, here are my thoughts on the two, with the caveat that it’s been over a year since I was at Barnsley House:

"good" room at the Cowley Manor

Jon and I chose a “good room” for £250/night, which is the cheapest category of rooms at Cowley Manor.  In other words, presumably the rooms get only nicer from here.

Our room was large and comfortable, but I was disappointed that the decor wasn’t half as modern chic as that of the rest of the house.  The overall effect was still very Dark Wood Paneling, and the bright, stunning bathroom we had at Barnsley House beat that of our Cowley room by a mile.  We had a lovely view of the Cowley Manor grounds, though.

snow pea leaves, asparagus and poached egg

roast duck breast and rosti

Dinner at Cowley Manor Restaurant was disappointing.  First, all our dishes were under-seasoned (though happily the restaurant leaves sea salt on every table, so you can DIY season).  Second, the poached egg in my starter was cooked for so long that the egg yolk was chalky rather than my beloved runny.  Third and least appealingly, roast duck breast was chewy and flavorless, perhaps as a result of its long acquaintance with a heat lamp.

We did, however, love our side order of chips, so next time we’ll probably stick to eating in the casual bar area of the manor.  Or we’ll walk the half mile to the nearby pub, the Green Dragon.

The restaurant dining room was attractive and had views of the garden, and gracious, attentive service.  But with our two starters, two mains and modest bottle of wine costing £100, I expected much better.

smoked salmon eggs benedict (brekkie included in room rates)

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and Cowley Manor’s spread was generous and good quality.  The fruit salad was packed with exotic fruits that tasted as good as they looked, and the croissants were ultra-flaky and buttery.  Hot dishes could be custom ordered, and I couldn’t resist the siren call of eggs benedict with smoked salmon instead of ham.  The egg yolks turned out soft boiled rather than runny, but the zippy hollandaise redeemed everything.    Overall, a better breakfast than at Barnsley House, which charged extra for hot dishes despite room rates being higher than those at Cowley.

picnic hamper (£45)

For £45, the kitchen will prepare a wicker picnic hamper for two and set up lunch anywhere on the manor’s gorgeous grounds.  Doing this was a lot of fun, and there was enough food for four in our hamper, so next time we’ll bring friends.  What the above photo fails to capture are the cheeses, lemon drizzle cake and berries that were also part of our hamper.

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And here’s where Cowley Manor really shines and surpasses Barnsley House:  the spa.  Cowley, being a bigger place than Barnsley House, has a beautiful, large spa discreetly tucked away behind the main building.  There’s an indoor and outdoor pool, and even at busy times of day (i.e., a weekend afternoon), the atmosphere is relaxing.

outdoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

Jon and I treated ourselves to lengthy and excellent spa treatments and then whiled away a few hours poolside.  The spa staff, like everyone else we encountered at Cowley Manor, were friendly and attentive.

Overall, Barnsley House’s food, privacy and guest rooms were more appealing than those of Cowley Manor, but Cowley Manor’s spa facilities, first-rate staff and impressive-and-beautiful gardens leave me wanting to return to Cowley Manor before I’d go back to Barnsley House.

Which means this is the first time I’m choosing a getaway spot based on criteria other than food.  If CM’s restaurant improved a bit, the place would be perfect.

A “good room” (the least expensive category) at Cowley Manor was £250/night, which includes breakfast.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon). Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £28 – £35 each way.

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