Archive for June, 2008

Corte Sconta, Venice

Corte Sconta interior courtyard, Venice

Last weekend, Jon and I returned to Venice. We were last there five years ago, and despite Venice’s popularity with tourists (and the expensive-but-mediocre restaurants that abound where tourists go), we’ve been itching to go back for a while.

A week before our trip, we booked a few rezzies based on Mark Bittman’s roundup from July 2007, this blogger’s recent guide to Venice, and most importantly, recommendations by a friend who married a Venetian and who just had her wedding there a few weeks ago. (Finding someone who actually grew up in Venice is like spotting a unicorn, by the way.)

There was a lot of overlap in recommendations from our trusted sources, so Jon and I could only conclude that tasty restaurants are not quite a dime a dozen in Venice. [Contrast with, say, Paris, where there are so many good restaurants that no list of favorites is ever the same.] Also interesting is that these books Jon and I used five years ago had been recommending the same restos we ended up visiting last week on our friend’s and Mark Bittman’s recs. I guess considering Venice isn’t marketing “cutting edge newness” as its selling point, it’s no surprise highly-recommended restos from five years ago are still highly recommended today.

So, our first stop: Corte Sconta. Uniform rave reviews by those books we used five years ago, SlowTrav, multiple blogs, and by our Venetian friend. And now by me.

Let’s start with Corte Sconta’s beautiful outdoor dining area in the back (see photo at top). Grape vines shade you and your table is sun dappled. It’s magic.

Our server gave us menus, but our friend had made us promise to get the “mixed seafood appetizers” for 26 euros a person. You put yourself in the hands of the chef and eat whatever was fresh that day at the seafood market. It’s omakase, Venice style, and it totally paid off. You get so many plates of seafood that Jon and I probably didn’t need order additional pasta courses for 16 euros each.

Corte Sconta tun and sea bream carpaccio

First, there was sea bream carpaccio with a slightly sweet tang from berries and celeriac slaw (photo above). The fish was melt-in-your-mouth fresh and clean. Jon and I debated whether the tuna carpaccio had been slightly seared before being marinated in a balsamic vinegar. I think it’s likely the tuna “cooked” in the vinegar, ceviche style, but regardless of how it was prepared, it was meaty and again sweet and tangy from the vinegar. A refreshing dish. (more…)

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seafood pajeong at Koba Restaurant in London

A few weeks ago, my friend Jane (who introduced herself to me by declaring: “Koreans are the fun Asians”) organized a big group outing to Koba for some Korean food. I wasn’t able to make it, but between Jane’s endorsement and then this positive review by Worldfoodieguide a few days later, I was sold on checking out Koba.

I have to admit that when I lived in New York, I craved Korean food usually after drinking heavily, and then when I lived in DC, I wasn’t able to get my Korean food fix very often because most of the good stuff was out in the ‘burbs of Annandale (and god forbid I ever need to drive a car somewhere). When I first moved to London, my friends Cathy and Bobby convinced me to visit New Malden, but you didn’t get to cook your own bulgogi at Asadal, the Korean bbq we visited, so I was disappointed enough that I haven’t been back to New Malden since.

My point is that it’s been years since I’ve had Korean food at a restaurant, so my ability to evaluate Korean food is pretty basic and limited. That said, I thought Koba served pretty good food in a sleek dining room at reasonable prices.

Worldfoodieguide was definitely right about the pajeon (photo at top). It was *delicious*. Sweet, savory scallions and chewy, juicy seafood held together with a hot, airy egg batter, pan fried to a golden crisp. One of the best types of pancake in the world. £6.90 for this bit of appetizer heaven.

japchae at Koba Restaurant in London

The japchae also disappeared quickly. Served hot, Koba’s version was chock full of crunchy sweet pepper slices, scallions, shitake mushrooms and pork. Sesame seeds and oil added crunch and a rich, nutty aroma.

bulgogi on the grill at Koba Restaurant, London

Where Koba fell down on the job for me was the bulgogi. We ordered the “regular” bulgogi (i.e., just marinated beef sirloin) and the osam bulgogi (spicy squid and pork belly). The server cooked both portions on the tabletop grill, but she put the raw meat on the grill *and then* turned on the heat, so you can imagine how nothing caramelized or got seared. Instead, there was so much marinade on the meat that at times, the meat was just kind of boiling or steaming.

That said, because the marinade is so delicious, the bulgogi was still a treat, overall. But it’s just not the same as getting the crispy, sweet caramelized crust that comes only from grilling and searing.

Last note is that it’s super annoying that Koba charges you for normally-free basics like kimchi.

Overall, though, servers were polite and helpful; the dining room is chic and simple; and prices are good, with most dishes costing no more than £8.

I’d definitely go back for the appetizers alone. £48 was our tab for two for the pajeon, japchae, two bulgogis and two beers.

Koba, 11 Rathbone St, W1T 1NA, 020 7580 8825; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

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Rockin\' Girl Blogger

After getting tagged with this honor herself, Tasty Treats passed the Rockin’ Girl Blogger Award on to me, which was really kind/rockin’ of her (*thanks*, Charmaine!). Who doesn’t love getting a hot-pink button that says “Rockin’ Girl Blogger” on it? [Boy Bloggers, maybe.]

And because this is the blogosphere, the Award must travel on, so I now bestow the Award upon:

Krista, at Londonelicious, for being so tireless in her efforts to write up every last eating establishment in London (and doing it with both humor and the most generous blog etiquette I’ve seen); and

my friend from high school, Helen, at The Importance of Dessert, for picking up – and of course, blogging about – the most interesting details of our recent trip together to Moscow.

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Green & Red Mexican restaurant, Shoreditch, London

There was a time (read: all of 2007) when I couldn’t get enough of Green & Red Bar and Cantina. I must have eaten there five or six times last year. Despite its not-super-accessible-by-public-transport location, Green & Red served, in my (admittedly East-coast) opinion, the best tequila-based drinks, the best quality mole-slathered mains, and the most delicious carne asada and carnitas tacos in London. I loved the young, energetic vibe in the dining room, and the relaxed lounge downstairs was just icing on the cake.

Maybe I OD’d, but I hadn’t been back to Green & Red since 2007, so last weekend, Jon and I moseyed on down with our friends Kara and Jeff to get a taco-and-tequila fix. The service was still friendly (though harried and distracted), and the food was still good, but the bloom’s off the rose. Is it me, or is it the resto? It’s probably me, just feeling cranky about the multiple (large and loud) groups of birthday celebrators who’d taken over the dining room the night we were there. And I’d forgotten that each pitcher of margarita – full of ice cubes, too – ran north of £25 (£27.50 to be exact).

corn tortillas at Green & Red restaurant

Luckily, the tacos we ordered were still as delish as I remembered. At Green & Red, you order the taco filling you want (£12.50-£14.50 depending on the meat); you’re served taco garnishes (cabbage slaw, several salsas) and a stack of hot, soft, aromatic corn tortillas; and then it’s all Do It Yourself from there. So you can eat tacos with the filling-to-tortilla proportion you like. Extras like guac (£3.50) and queso fresco (£1.50) aren’t bad additions, but the Green & Red versions are kind of bland, so I add them more for texture than for flavor.

carne asada at Green & Red restaurant, Shoreditch, London

Jon and I always order a carne asada, which is smoky and rare like the yummy steak it is. I like that Green & Red cooks the steak and then slices up the meat (i.e., you’re not eating meat scraps or pre-chopped meat that gets dried out/overcooked). Simple and delish.

carnitas at Green & Red mexican restaurant

Carnitas is our other favorite, mostly because you get such a generous portion of pork belly (with crackling). Green & Red’s version can be a bit dry despite that thick layer of pork fat, but I throw on the cabbage slaw, queso and salsas and I’m all good.

You get a lot of meat, regardless of which taco filling you order, so Jon and I never make it to dessert, which is good, because Green & Red isn’t cheap. All the above-described food ran the two of us about £70, which strikes me as a lot for a pitcher of margaritas and tacos, however tasty. But it’s London, so I’m willing to pay for quality Mexican food. Query whether I’m willing to deal with all the large birthday groups, though.

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Palinka at Cafe Panoramia, Buda, Budapest, Hungary

There are lots of foods I love to eat, but even my favorites get boring if I eat it multiple days in a row. So having just come back from Russia (the land of smoked fish, hot soups and hearty stews), I was a little reluctant to dive right into the Budapest food scene, thinking it’d be more of the same. In fact, I was gearing myself up to eat just a lot of non-eastern-European food while we were in Budapest, but after talking to a friend of a friend from Budapest and reading both this NYT “36 Hours in Budapest” article and this excellent Budapest food blog (check especially its “Top 33” list), I saw it’d be wrong to go to Budapest and not eat Hungarian food.

While in Budapest, we ate at Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar, Noir et L’Or, Ristorante Krizia, and Restaurant Hanna. Most of our food was pretty good, and all our meals were reasonably priced, even if you thought in dollar terms.

Decor came in all shapes and sizes: from old-fashioned wood paneling like that of Bagolyvar to the airy modern bistro style of Cafe Kor to the sleek and chic of Noir et L’Or. Our best meals (Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar) were simple and traditional with few culinary fireworks, and our worst meal (Noir et L’Or) was when things got too ambitious and “international.”

One thing I’d urge you to do before you arrive in Budapest is to make dinner reservations! On Saturday afternoon, we called five or six places culled from the “Top 33” and the New York Times article, hoping to get a Saturday evening reservation, but hearing repeatedly that everything was full.

Cafe Kor Budapest

Cafe Kor was my favorite meal in Budapest. On a mild, sunny day, all the cafe doors open out onto sidewalk seating, and despite how often Cafe Kor is described in guidebooks and travel articles, there’s still a good mix of diners there (at least, that was the case at lunchtime). Two tables near ours seated men in suits speaking in Hungarian, and there were a few old ladies there dining with other old ladies. I liked that the restaurant was busy but not overly loud.

Food included simple, international dishes like asparagus with hollandaise (delish, by the way) as well as classic Hungarian dishes (e.g., goose crackling, goulash, veal paprika stew). The low point was the goose crackling, which tasted like stale fat. It wasn’t very crispy or goose-tasting. But the goose crackling was outweighed by the generally well-executed dishes, including my veal paprika stew, served with a chewy-but-light potato dumpling that was pretty much a cross between gnocchi and spaetzel. (more…)

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Szechnyi Baths, Budapest

Last weekend, Jon and I travelled with our friends, Russell and Johanna, to Budapest. When we booked our tickets a few months ago, I was a little ambivalent because I’d heard several times that Budapest was “just like Prague,” and honestly, I had an eh time when I visited Prague. (In Prague’s defense, I was there in March 2006, and let’s just say that Prague in March was a little too cold and gray to inspire much love. Wandering the streets in that weather was unpleasant and sitting at an outdoor café table impossible).

Well, I really shouldn’t have worried. Budapest is now one of my favorite cities in Europe. Here’s why:

  1. We lucked out and had three days of 70-degrees-and-sunny weather.
  2. Budapest’s buildings are beautiful, lots of Baroque and Renaissance gorgeousness.
  3. The city has a strong bath-and-spa culture, and admission and services at bath complexes are priced so you can go every day if you want. (We visited both the Gellert Bath and Spa and the Szechenyi Baths because the ever-stylish DailyCandy Travel made them sound so appealing).
  4. The nightlife has something for everyone. For me, highlights included fancy cocktails at the art deco Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel; generous pours at the energetic biergarten-in-a-warehouse, Szimpla, in the old Jewish quarter; sampling Hungarian wines at Klassz Etterem Wine Bar; and touristy sunset drinks at Café Panoramia with a stunning view of the Danube river and the Hungarian Parliament building.
  5. Getting around by metro or taxi is easy and cheap. 1200 Hungarian Forents ($7.60 at 156 HUF to $1) will get you from one end of Pest to the other via taxi; and an unlimited 3-day public transport pass costs 3500 HUF ($22).

A note on the baths. Jon and I thought this 2004 New York Times article about all the major Budapest baths was useful for an overview of the many Budapest bath options. That said, if you can choose only one bath, I’d recommend the Szechenyi Baths (pictured at the top of this post). It’s located in the City Park, and we were there with a lot of locals: old men playing checkers and young men strutting their stuff. I was worried that because it’s so big and relatively cheap (2000 HUF/$13 for two hours) that it’d be unsanitary, but actually, if you bring flip flops and your own towel, you’re all set. [Flip flops because the shower room floors are wet and a tad muddy and a towel because the Szechenyi Bath doesn’t seem to rent any). The outdoor thermal pools are the star attraction at Szechenyi, very pretty (see photo at the top of this post) and fed by hot springs at a toasty 100F.

Pool at the Gellert Hotel and Spa, Budapest, Hungary

The Gellert Bath and Spa (photo above) was also nice in its Art Deco glory, but it was much more touristy than Szechenyi, and the highlights at Gellert were the indoor pools, not the outdoor ones. Also, the Gellert has separate male and female facilities, so if you go with someone of the opposite sex, you won’t be hanging out together.

I actually would’ve loved Gellert because of its calm, beautifully-restored indoor pools, but the service there was so unfriendly and the processes so confusing that I had a hard time relaxing. We walked in, paid for admission at the cashier, and then we were told that if you wanted extra services like facials or massages, you booked those just off the main lobby after entering the spa. And the services only took cash, so if you don’t have enough on you, you have to exit the spa, find an ATM and then re-enter.

After booking our services, we walked underground to reach a series of small, metallic cabins (they were dark and dank) to change into our swimsuits and store our valuables. The major hassle is that every time you need to get something from the cabin, you have to convince a very-unfriendly cabin attendant to come unlock your cabin with a master key. Given our confusion about when and where we needed to use cash or show tickets for our towel rentals, etc., we ended up making multiple trips to the cabin. It was slow and unpleasant having to ask the attendant to repeatedly unlock our cabin. I much preferred the lockers and keys at the Szechenyi Baths.

And now, just a few parting images of some of the beauties of Budapest, because my next post will be the usual food roundup.

Gresham Palace Four Seasons, Budapest

The Gresham Palace Four Seasons, a recently-restored art deco beauty. I usually avoid hotel bars because they can be so anonymous, but the iron curlicues, soaring ceilings and whimsical chandeliers inside the Gresham are worth a gawk. We enjoyed our $20 cocktails at the Gresham (Four Seasons pricing, all right), though we could’ve used a slightly-less-surly server.

Budapest Parliament building

Drinks at sunset from the Cafe Panoramia gave us gorgeous views of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building (photo above). Surprisingly, despite the views, prices weren’t bad and the service was pretty attentive. Definitely not your usual tourist magnet-kind-of-place, and I’d say that generally, Budapest was tourist friendly without being tourist schlocky.

Interior of Budapest\'s Great Synagogue

The interior of the Great Synagogue (photo above) was a sleeper hit for me. Both our TimeOut Budapest and DK Eyewitness guidebooks said that the Synagogue is the 2d largest in the world, next to Temple Emanu-el in New York. But they failed to mention that the Synagogue’s elaborate interior is as gorgeous as that of any cathedral. Definitely worth at least a 30-minute stop.

And handily enough, just down the block from the Synagogue is Budapest Bikes, where for 2,000 HUF/$13, you can rent a bike, helmet and lock for six hours and toodle along the Danube and explore leafy Margaret Island. The bikes were in great condition, and the staff there were super friendly and helpful with suggestions on where to bike.

We had such a fun trip that I’m already looking forward to re-visiting Budapest one day.

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