Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
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Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
Champagne and Karaoke
Albino Crocodiles Staring Across The Abyss of Time
Al's Birthday Lunch
Sunny Saturday and Vegetarian Caviar
St. Patrick's Day
Birthday with Dad
Back to Work
Monaco to London
London to Paris and Le Train Bleu
Lunch at the Bell at Skenfrith
Off to South Wales
Veggie Fish and Chips
Lunch at Oliveto
Chinese Food on Mondays
Working on Saturday
Veggie Fish and Chips
St. James's, Mayfair, Shepherd's Market and Karaoke with Gav
ENT Specialist and Santoré
Rob and Byrnie in London
Ran out of Ideas
Twickenham and Teddington
- [Saturday 26th March 2011]
There were large protests in London today, and this, combined with Chie needing to recover from yesterday's dental surgery, and me needing to do some work, meant we were pretty much confined to the flat all day.
I made an observation about the days events on Twitter which seemed to strike a chord - I think the number of retweets ran into hundreds, and consequently my tweet was listed as a "top tweet" in the trending topic Fortnum & Mason. A brief moment of fame!
I got a pretty good day's work done today, inbetween being cook and nurse for poor Chie, so was rather pleased with myself. I did eventually venture out a little before 6, to buy things for dinner. I made a Quorn sherpherd's pie (mycologist's pie?) for dinner, which seemed like a suitably soft and easy-to-eat-without-chewing sort of a meal.
- [Friday 25th March 2011]
Last night's excesses had unsurprisingly taken their toll, and consequently today was not a hugely productive day - I made my mind up to atone for this by working on Saturday.
I started the day with an unusual weekday foray to the Regency Cafe, thinking to fortify myself with a decent breakfast. I then headed to the office, spending some of the morning enjoying the lovely spring sunshine, sitting out on the balcony of our office building, where thanks to the miracles of wifi I was able to work.
In the afternoon Chie went for some pretty major dental surgery, and this rather set the tone of the rest of the evening and the weekend, the poor girl wasn't able to eat anything but very soft food, she felt generally pretty miserable, and needed a lot of looking after.
- Champagne and Karaoke
- [Thursday 24th March]
In line with the now traditional celebrations this time of year I ventured out after work with my friend Kyle from the office in search of Champagne. We decided to go to Fortnum and Mason (and glad we went when we did, given the events later on in the week). Therein we each had the Billecart-Salmon flight at the 1707 wine bar which was very nice as always.
Next, we decided it might be nice to try another venue, and that it would be good to meet up with Al, so headed toward Kettner's in Soho, which I'd heard had a good Champagne bar. I liked this place a lot less, incongruous though it may seem Fortnum and Mason is actually pretty good value - especially their Champagne of the Month promotion - whereas Kettner's seemed to subscribe to the school of thought that it was somehow acceptable for bars and restaurants to charge about three times the retail price for a bottle of wine (and add a service charge on top of that). That might be OK if there was a particularly special atmosphere or decor, but the bar at Kettner's didn't really have either of these. The only slight plus point was that they had Champagne saucers in addition to the usual flutes. That aside I think I probably won't go back.
Next we decided dinner would be a good idea, and Kyle proposed going to Bar Shu, just over the road from where we were. It's a Szechuan restaurant, which meant just about everything was pleasingly spicy, and they had some really very tasty tofu dishes (I particularly liked the "bear's paw" beancurd).
After this I left Kyle and Al, and headed over to Smithfields, where Gav was having a bit of a shindig at the karaoke place there (I think it was in fact his brother's birthday). A bit of an incongruous mix given the evening's previous venues, but a lot of fun nonetheless. Between Gav and his brother they'd assembled an extremely lively crowd, I don't think I've ever seen a more actively engaged karaoke session, and it ended up being a bit of a late night.
- [Wednesday 23rd March]
Not much to report, had pasta for dinner.
- Albino Crocodiles Staring Across The Abyss of Time
- [Tuesday 22nd March 2011]
I'd agreed to go and see a film tonight with some friends from work, not really realising what I was getting myself in for. The film was Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the somewhat eccentric film maker Werner Herzog - a documentary about the world's oldest cave paintings, found in the Chauvet caves in Southern France. Oh, and for some reason it was in 3D.
The narrative style throughout was, to say the least, a bit bizarre. No more so than in the downright absurd "postscript" at the end of the film, where Herzog leaves the caves, and focuses his attention briefly on a nearby nuclear power plant, the warm water from which is used in a sort of tropical garden, populated with crocodiles, many of whom have been born albino. "How do they know they are not their own dopplegangers?", Herzog asks us, before musing on the pale coloured reptiles "staring across the abyss of time".
See my tweet on the matter for a possible explanation.
After the film we headed over to the Lamb and Flag to discuss the oddity we had just witnessed before then proceeding on to Abeno Too for a late dinner.
- [Monday 21st March]
Not much to report today, other than I bought some bread from Polaine in Belgravia to have with the leftover stew from Saturday. Not sure this was exactly my favourite sort of bread, it was almost like a sour dough, and a bit too sweet / malty for my taste.
- Al's Birthday Lunch
- [Sunday 20th March 2011]
Made an unusual foray South of the river this afternoon to have lunch with Al and friends at the Westbridge Draft House. The food was surprisingly good, I had a very respectable macaroni cheese with mushrooms which was pleasingly herby (rosemary was a very good idea). The chips were very good (yes, I had macaroni with chips).
After lunch we headed back to Al's flat for birthday cake and Champagne.
In the evening, back at home, I made a risotto with dried porcini and a slug of the leftover Worthenbury from yesterday.
- Sunny Saturday and Vegetarian Caviar
- [Saturday 19th March 2011]
Started the day with a late breakfast at the Regency Cafe, which unfortunately meant we just missed the last slice of the much prized "bubble" (as in bubble and squeak). Never mind, the rest of breakfast was still delicious as ever.
It was a lovely sunny day, and although Chie had pretty much earmarked the day for studying for her course, we thought since we were out of the flat we ought to at least do something rather than just head straight home. So Chie suggested a quick wander around the Tate Britain. I particularly enjoyed the room filled with 1920s and 1930s pieces, including Edward Burra's famous The Snack Bar, which by coincidence they have a poster of in the Regency Cafe.
After this we headed back to the flat, but rather than coup ourselves up indoors we sat out in the gardens to enjoy the sunshine. Chie spent the time studying whilst I, thanks to the miracles of mobile Internet, updated my blog.
In the evening I wanted to have some of the vegetarian caviar Dad had given me for my birthday. Strangely we've never been able to find it in London and have actually only ever seen it in the Spar in North Wales, near where Dad lives. He also brought a bottle of Worthenbury, a Welsh sparkling wine made according to the methode champenoise which seemed like a fitting accompaniment to the caviar. Despite being a 2005 vintage the Worthenbury was youthful, very fruity and refreshing. To serve the caviar I made some very simple pancakes using just self raising flour, water, salt and pepper, fried in a little sunflower oil. They were surprisingly good, the inside was spongey and they had a not unpleasant flavour to them.
For our main course I made a red wine stew, with dumplings which also required some improvisation as out suet was out of date (from past experience suet is one of those things you really don't want to use once it has gone out of date). So instead I used butter which sort of worked, although leads to a somewhat softer, lighter dumpling.
I really enjoyed cooking this evening. I don't really do much baking, and tend to mostly stick to making soups, sauces and stews when I cook. I always assume flour requires a lot of processing before you can turn it into something edible (and makes a lot of mess in the process) - and I still have a bit of an Edwina Curry induced apprehension over handling eggs so that always seems like a big faff too. Plus I really can't be bothered with weighing and measuring things. So the little pancakes were an absolute revelation.
- Speculative Beer
- [Friday 18th March 2011]
Didn't actually go to the usual end-of-the-week-beer-and-pizza thing today, as I was trying to finish some work off. A colleague did rather kindly bring a beer to my desk though, "speculatively" as he put it.
After leaving the office, Chie and I met up with Al at the Morpeth Arms in Pimlico for a quick drink, which was sort of on Al's way home. We only stayed for a couple but had time for a good natter.
- St. Patrick's Day
- [Thursday 17th March 2011]
I normally tend to avoid going out on St. Patrick's Day, assuming the pubs will all be crowded and a bit rowdy. This evening though a few people from work expressed interest in going for a drink, including in particular an Irish colleague of mine who was feeling a bit homesick, and a bit miserable that all her friends back home were out drinking and she didn't have any plans.
So a group of us went the Horse and Groom in Belgravia which, whilst not technically being an Irish pub, is ran by an Irish couple, so seemed like a fitting venue. It was a lot quieter than I'd expected actually - when we arrived there were just the normal amount of people you'd expect for a Thursday night, and by the time we got onto our second drink most of the bar room had cleared out altogether. There did seem to be a second wave later on though - I suppose this was the difference between the after work crowd and people coming specially for St. Patrick's Day.
We started with a group of five of us, and a couple left earlier on, but three of us ended up staying until closing time. I'm always amused by how often this ends up happening, when every time you ask someone at work if they want to go for a drink they almost universally say "ok, just the one though...".
- [Wednesday 16th March 2011]
Attempted to make burritos at home tonight, but it wasn't hugely successful. The key differentiator between a burrito and a fajita seems to be that the burrito also contains rice and beans. I'd tried cooking the rice in vegetable stock with a few spices for a bit of additional flavour, and had bought some black beans as I'd often seen in Mexican places. Plus I also added sour cream, a bit of salad, some grated cheese, some Quorn pieces cooked with some fresh chilli and onion. Somehow though the overall ensemble was lacking something, it was all just a bit bland. Attempts to rectify this with tabasco didn't really help much either. I shall pay closer attention next time I have a burrito out somewhere to try and figure out where I went wrong.
- Birthday with Dad
- [Tuesday March 15th 2011]
My birthday today - we hadn't really planned anything in particular for the day itself, as the trip last week had been sort of a birthday treat. As it happened though Dad was passing through London on the way to a business meeting (probably the last ever now he's "officially" retiring) in Guildford. As Chie had her course in the evening Dad and I went out for the evening, just the two of us. We started off with a stroll along to Parliament Square, and a quick drink at the Westminster Arms, where we were regaled by an old French gentleman behind the bar, whose party trick was to tell people what day of the week they were born on.
I hadn't really given much thought to where to eat, and so after leaving he pub I was literally thinking on my feet. Dad had suggested it would be nice to eat something from a more unusual country - so no Chinese, Indian or Italian. After giving it a bit of thought I remembered one of my old favourites - St. Moritz - the Swiss restaurant in Soho. It's always been pretty much full every time I go there, but luckily tonight they had a table free. I ordered all the same things I usually order - the ragout of wild mushrooms to start, and the rosti with vegetables au gratin for main course. Plus of course some spatzli on the side, which the waitress seemed reluctant to let us have as both of our main courses came with rosti, but we were somewhat insistent, and therefore felt duty bound to do our best to finish it all when it arrived. Dad and I have quite similar tastes - we both fundamentally like simple, hearty comfort food - so I knew he'd like it here.
Went for an after dinner drink at the Coach and Horses, which, still with its original 1960s interior intact, seemed to be a hit with Dad too. Got the number 24 bus back to the flat, where we had a final digestif - somewhat incongruously a glass of Izarra.
- Back to Work
- [Monday 14th March 2011]
Back at work today after our little holiday, and it was a particularly hectic day at that: filled with meetings, committees, interviewing and so on. I had lunch in the gap between two meetings, where one meeting finished 5 minutes early and the next finished 5 minutes late.
- Monaco to London
- [Sunday 13th March 2011]
Alas today it was already time to head home - our short trip had flown by in no time.
Started the day with a hearty breakfast at the Hermitage, beneath a skylight designed by Gustav Eiffel. I was suprised (and a tad disappointed) by how ordinary the majority of the people at breakfast looked. A couple of men were even wearing T-shirts! How standards have fallen.
Checked out after breakfast, got a taxi to the station, and got the train from there to Nice. We had almost two hours in Nice to find something for lunch, but it being a Sunday (and a rather wet and miserable one at that) finding anywhere open to eat was not an easy task. We ended up eating at a Quick - the French burger chain - partly because it was more or less the only thing open, and partly because they had free wifi (which the French endearingly pronounce "wiffy"). I suspect not many people had made this same transition from breakfast at the Hermitage to lunch at Quick. Still, surprisingly I was just about able to locate some vegetarian sustenance here - some frites and a salad.
We got on the train about 1:15, a good 20 minutes before it was due to leave, and to begin with had the carriage all to ourselves. The journey to Paris was pleasant enough, although the weather along the Mediterranean had clearly deteriorated by this point, and the sections along the coast gave us views of an unexpectedly choppy looking sea.
Our train arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon at 20 past 7, giving us just under 2 hours before our Eurostar left from the Gare du Nord. We were, however, determined to not just get stuck at Gare du Nord where there's nothing really worth eating, and so set out on an ambitious plan to get across Paris by way of the Rue des Rosiers, a street famous for falafel. It turned out this was more or less in walking distance from the Gare de Lyon, and after queuing up for a bit and getting our dinner to take away from L'As du Fallafel, we continued our hurried dash across the French capital to a metro station from which we could get to Gare du Nord without changing.
By the time we got to Gare du Nord we were already at the 30 minute checkin window, so ended up eating our falafel partly in the departure lounge, partly on the train. In light of that I'm not sure that we really tested these falafel in the most favourable of circumstances, but it was still a million times better than anything we could have bought in Gare du Nord.
The remainder of our journey from Paris back to London on the Eurostar was pretty quiet, we seemed to be - presumably just by coincidence - in amongst a group of Japanese people. It was 10:30 by the time our train arrived in London, by which time we were pretty knackered, and we were back home some time around 11.
- [Saturday 12th March 2011]
For our last full day we were ending our trip in style with a day in Monaco, staying at the famous Hotel Hermitage.
We got up and had breakfast at our hotel in Villefranche early, keen to make the most of our time in Monaco, where we arrived a little before 11. We headed straight to the Hermitage, and again found our room was ready (presumably no-one had stayed there the night before).
The Hermitage is a wondrously grand and opulent hotel - this is underlined somewhat by the amount of space used just in the corridors and foyers - in a lesser hotel they could squeeze quite a few more rooms in with this space. Our room - a junior suite - was similarly grand, the ceiling was about three times Chie's height, the decor was rather splendid, and we had a juliette balcony overlooking the millionaire's yachts in the harbour below, and from there looking out to sea. I rather felt we had arrived.
After taking all of that in, we set out for a wander, keen to see many of the things we hadn't managed to see on our last trip, largely because of the oppressively hot weather. It seems though that extreme weather conditions are to be a feature of all our visits to Monaco, as today there were very strong winds. Still, this was, for me at least, easier to cope with than the heat, and we made the best of it regardless. We hadn't really seen the old town and the area around the Palais Princier at all on our last trip, and I really enjoyed this - much of Monaco is rather unattractive modern apartment blocks, but there are some really nice buildings in the old town. Whilst we were in the old town we had a quick lunch at a little cafe, and bought some chocolates from the Chocolaterie de Monaco, and also poked our noses in at the Oceanographic museum, but decided just to go to the gift shop.
After this we headed back to the hotel briefly, then ventured out once more to take a look around the shops near the Casino. This is where one is led to believe the super rich spend their money on designer clothes and expensive baubles. We actually didn't really go in anywhere, and instead just had a modestly priced coffee at the famous Cafe de Paris, near the casino.
Heading back to the hotel once more, we decided to give the attached spa - Les Thermes Marins - a go. It wasn't really my sort of thing - I'd hoped for some nice hot pools to lounge around in, but with the exception of the sea water swimming pool it was all devoted to treatments etc. So after a quick swim, Chie went for a short time to the sauna, and I headed back to our room.
Next I decided to venture out again to try and find a bottle of Champagne, being somewhat loathed to pay the hotel prices for such a fungible commodity. Thanks to Google I found a branch of Nicolas about a 10 minute walk away, and therein purchased a bottle of good old Veuve Clicquot. We then spent a shamelessly self indulgent hour or so lounging around in the hotel, drinking champagne, eating macarons and chocolates, and looking out over the yachts in the harbour as dusk settled over Monaco. Rather splendid.
In the evening, we headed out for dinner at an Italian restaurant called Il Terrazzino, which I'd read some very good things about. It was a fantastic meal - mountains of delicious Italian food - 8 antipasto dishes followed by three pasta courses and four different desserts to pick from. Absolutely fantastic - easily the best meal of the holiday.
To round off the evening - and the trip - we headed over for the mandatory flutter at the casino. As before, I changed 50 Euros into chips, and this time won after about four rounds at the roulette table, bringing my capital to a staggering 80 Euros. I decided to call it a night at that point and walked away rather happily with a 30 Euro profit.
- [Friday 11th March 2011]
Most of the places we were going to on this trip were actually revisiting places we'd liked on our summer holiday in 2009. However I thought we should probably also try somewhere new, and having consider a few candidates we'd eventually settled on Villefranche-sur-mer. We'd seen it on the train on our last trip as we went backwards and forwards between Nice, Monaco and elsehwere, and with all the coloured buildings down by the quayside it looked really pretty.
We started the morning at our hotel in Eze, deciding to have breakfast on our balcony. It was ever so slightly chilly this morning, and the sky a bit cloudy, but there were still patches of blue shining through, and the chance to have breakfast whilst enjoying that view of the Mediterranean was just irresistible. This was probably one of the highlights of the whole trip.
After breakfast we checked out of the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or, and headed down to the base of the village, checked the bus times, and had enough time before the bus left to send some postcards and have a quick wander round one of the perfume shops.
The bus didn't go exactly into Villefranche from there, but instead dropped us off at the top of the town, so we then had a fun time rolling our luggage down through the windy backstreets. We eventually arrived at our hotel for the next night - the Welcome Hotel - just before 1. I'd thought it would be a bit too early to check in, but as it turned out our room was ready. We hadn't splashed out on our hotel quite as much as we had the previous night, but we still had a really nice little room, complete with two balconies (one would have been enough!) - one overlooking the harbour, and the other looking along the coast towards the fort.
Our next item of business was finding somewhere to have lunch. Villefranche being a pretty small town it didn't take long to survey most of the restaurants along the quayside, and we chose one pretty much solely based on the fact it served omelettes. I had an omelette Provençal which came with some tomatoes, courgettes and other fittingly Provençal legumes. It was rather good actually - the best meal I'd had so far on the trip. We decided to sit outside on the quayside, which apparently no-one else wanted to, it being too cold for the locals. What a waste!
After lunch we went for a stroll along the coast to the Villa Kerylos. It's an authentic recreation of a Greek Villa built by a rich French banker. Not sure either of us were particularly blown away by it - neither of us having much interest in Ancient Greece - but still, it was something to do.
On returning to Villefranche we went for a wander round the maze of streets above the harbour, including the rather spooky Rue Obscura, which is apparently something like 13th century. We also went for a walk out towards the port (a distinct thing from the harbour in the centre of the town) and took a quick look at the fort too.
In the evening, dinner at Le Serre, a little pizza place in the backstreets, which we chose at least partly because it just looked a lot cheaper than the places on the quayside. Once again it was full of English speaking people. Maybe this is partly to do with the time of year, and in some ways it was reassuring to know the tradition of wealthy (or these days maybe not so wealthy) English people fleeing the British winter for warmer climes was still alive and well.
- [Thursday 10th March 2011]
We were booked aboard the 09:42 TGV from the Gare de Lyon down to Nice. This meant we could get up at a sensible hour, have a quick breakfast at the hotel, and also pop to a nearby supermarket to buy provisions for our journey.
It was a very pleasant journey down to Nice, we were in first class, on the upper deck, with two facing "solo" seats. So we had bags of space, and were treated to very nice views of rural France as we headed South. Chie had brought some of the study materials for the course she's doing at the moment, and I had The Mystery of the Blue Train to read. Very relaxing indeed.
The train doesn't stop anywhere until Aix-en-Provence, which is almost on the South coast. From there it's on a slower line as it winds through Marseilles, Toulon and Cannes before finally arriving at Nice. There are sea views for a lot of the way on the final stretch, the sky was blue, and it was all rather idyllic.
We arrived in Nice around half past three, giving us 40 minutes to try and find the bus from there to Eze, which proved more of a challenge than we'd expected, as the Gare Routiere was closed, and the signs outside weren't particularly informative. Somehow we managed to find the bus in the end though and a short while later we were winding along the scenic coastal roads out of Nice, past Villefranche, to the village perché of Eze.
We'd been to Eze on our last trip, and I'd absolutely loved the windy little passageways and ancient stone houses. There's always something quite magical about a village that cars can't get inside. This time we were actually going to be staying a night, and I'd booked us a room at one of the two famous hotels there - the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or (yes, the Golden Goat Castle!)
We arrived at a little office at the base of the hill where we dropped off our bags (leaving some pour soul to lug them up all the steps for us) and had a lovely stroll through the hotel gardens, filled with animal scupltures, to get to reception. They've got it all rather well planned here - when you drop off your bags with the porter he must phone through to announce your arrival, and when we got to reception one of the hotel staff was waiting outside to say, before I said anything, "Welcome Mr. Hawkins". We then were ushered into the bar for a welcome cocktail (which was apparently nameless and very nice although I'm not sure it actually had any alcohol in it) and a slice of cake, which was rather nice.
We then went to check into our room, which felt more like a little cottage - the entrance was from the outside, and the room was split over two levels. A sort of entrance hall and the bathroom on the ground floor, and the bedroom on the first floor. Best of all was the little balcony, which had a fantastic view out over the Mediterranean, and over to the Cap-Ferrat (see the pictures!).
We then headed out for another stroll around the hotel gardens, having only seen less than half of them so far. It's a rather dramatic effect, the gardens sort of tumble down the side of the cliff, with the Mediterranean below you. It's a bit hard to describe exactly - so again, look at the pictures! We also fit in a wander round the village itself, which I still find rather spellbinding.
On our stroll around the hotel gardens we'd spotted both a heated pool and a jacuzzi and were keen to have a go, so on returning to our room we donned our swimming togs and dressing gowns and headed straight back out. We got a surprised look from a lady (who turned out to be a member of the hotel staff) for swimming in the pool - but it seemed perfectly fine to me, albeit that Chie was perhaps a bit less convinced. We didn't linger too long there, and headed instead for the jacuzzi, where the water was somewhat warmer. We sat there for quite a while, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, which was rather magical.
For dinner we had toyed with the idea of eating at the hotel, and an earlier correspondence with the hotel had suggested they could make a vegetarian meal by special request, but they hadn't really given much in the way of details which had made me a bit apprehensive, and following last night's reminder of how incompatible French cuisine is with vegetarianism, I eventually decided we should give it a miss. Particularly given that the food here seemed to be incredibly expensive - I think dinner was supposed to be somewhere in the region of 200 Euros a head. Chie, never overly enthusiastic about eating at extremely expensive places, was happy to give it a miss too.
So we wandered around the village to see what else was open, knowing it wasn't really going to be much as it was a Thursday out of season. In the end we only really found two places open, one which was more of a bar (and we couldn't see anyone eating inside) and the other which was a pizza place. So we dined at Le Pinnochio, which wasn't actually that bad, despite every other diner being part of an American coach party (to whom we probably have to thank for the place being open at all I assume).
We returned to the hotel by way of the gardens again, and went for a drink at the bar, where the staff asked "ah, you're coming for an aperitif before dinner?" - they really didn't seem to have given up on the hope that we'd eat there. So we had the rather incongruous mix of a glass of Champagne and a cup of tea in the bar, before heading off to our room to bed.
- London to Paris and Le Train Bleu
- [Wednesday 9th March 2011]
Into the office in the morning, and left at lunchtime to head over to St. Pancras, from where we took the Eurostar to Paris.
I'd planned for us to break up our journey on the way down a bit, to make it a bit more leisurely, and also as I wanted to go to Le Train Bleu, the "station buffet" in the Gare de Lyon. So on arrival at the Gare du Nord we got on the Metro, headed down to the Gare de Lyon, and checked into our hotel for the night, conveniently just over the road from the station.
Le Train Bleu was the name given to the sleeper train which wealthy English people would take to escape the English winter and head down to the French Riviera, including Noel Coward and chums. It enjoyed a particular heyday in the 1920s and 30s.
The restaurant bearing the same name was originally built in 1900 (see here for more history) and was originally just called the Buffet de Gare de Lyon. It is incredibly elaborate and decorative, with murals depicting Mediterranean scenes (spot the Monty Python reference?). Fittingly where we were sat I could see one mural of Villefranche-sur-mer, and another of Monte Carlo - both places we'd be staying at on our trip.
I had been rather pleased to discover on their website they actually had a vegetarian option on the menu. As it actually turned out, it was pretty awful - an example of that classic French dish "small pile of unimaginative boiled vegetables with no attempt to add a sauce of any interesting flavour", which I've so often been doled out as a punishment in French restaurants. Chie didn't really enjoy her food much either, as it happens. Still, I had sort of half expected this, and despite France's culinary backwardness I still enjoyed the experience of dining in the magnificent opulent surroundings.
Headed back to our hotel after dinner for an early night, in preparation of our journey down to the Cote d'Azur tomorrow.
- [Tuesday 8th March]
Spent the evening preparing for our little foray down to the Cote d'Azur, starting tomorrow. Actually did a bit of packing the night before (we usually leave it until the morning we're leaving) and dealt with some domestic chores.
Chie made a Japanese stew for dinner, a sort of creamy sweetcorn based sauce.
- [Monday 7th March]
Spent the evening washing clothes etc in preparation for our upcoming trip to the Cote d'Azur.
- Lunch at the Bell at Skenfrith
- [Sunday 6th March 2011]
Started the day with a pleasantly lazy morning in at Vera and Robin's house. Around midday Robert arrived, and together the five of us headed out to Skenfrith, where we were booked for lunch.
They had a fascinating wine menu there - very detailed and nicely illustrated and to my delight very strongly focused on Champagne. The first half (at least) of the substantial tome was all dedicated to Champagne, they must have had over a hundred to choose from. Pleasingly they seemed to have a strong leaning towards Gosset, which I'm also rather fond of, and the task of choosing wine having been delegated to me I plumped for a bottle of the Gooset Rosé. I think that went down rather well.
As for the food, well I was slightly less excited - my Glamorgan sausages were OK but the whole plate was a bit textureless, everything pureed, as though vegetarians are expected not to have any teeth or something.
Still, Skenfrith is a lovely spot, with the castle and the church (which we went for a wander round after lunch), and it made for a very nice outing all in all.
After that, back to Abergavenny for tea before Robin drove us down to Newport (the line between Abergavenny and Newport was pretty much closed due to a strike) and we got our train back to London.
- Herefordshire Pubs
- [Saturday 5th March 2011]
Robin had asked us where we'd like to go while we were visiting, and I'd suggested a little run into Herefordshire might be nice, particularly with the goal of seeking out some lovely little rural inns that served local cider.
We went to two places in the end - the first a gratifyingly basic little pub called the Dog Inn, reassuringly much used by it's locals it appeared. Then we headed on to the Black Swan in Much Dewchurch, which also clearly had a very loyal following of locals. The Westons perry here was quite fantastic. We also had a wander round the church in Much Dewchurch while we were there. There wasn't much dew on it, surprisingly.
From there we headed to Ross-on-Wye for a little wander round the shops, and I bought an old book on Holborn in the Antiquarian book shop there.
Headed back to Abergavenny after that, and Robin cooked dinner for us in the evening.
- Off to South Wales
- [Friday 4th March 2011]
We'd decided to go and visit Vera and Robin this weekend, so this evening after work headed over to Paddington. We had left it a bit late to buy our tickets, and were keen to have a booked seat, so had decided to go for a slightly later train when it would be a bit quieter. This gave us a good hour or so - enough time for a drink at the new Searcy's Champagne bar there (still a bit confused who is the target market here, and whether this really makes sense) and then dinner at Yo! Sushi. I think we're both a little embarrassed to admit we actually quite like it.
Got on the train after 8, and were in Abergavenny by 10:30, Robin and Vera having kindly stayed up to greet us.
- Veggie Fish and Chips
- [Thursday 3rd March 2011]
Chie was doing her course this evening, and I found myself quite hungry by around 6ish, and hankering for the veggie "fish" and chips which some pubs in London have started doing in recent years. In particular it's the Punch Tavern chain, which I think recently rebranded itself to Taylor and Walker (one of the breweries they happen to have bought up at some point, although I don't think the company actually does any brewing today). I decided to try a pub I hadn't been to before - the Gloucester on Sloane Street - which pleasingly can be reached from Belgravia via a little maze of backstreets and alleys.
I've tried veggie fish and chips in three different Punch taverns / Taylor and Walker pubs now, and it has been quite different every time. I had assumed most pub food in chain pubs these days was more or less supplied at least partially ready made, and they pretty much just had to heat it up somehow. Presumably though this isn't the case for the veggie fish and chips or else there wouldn't be such a huge variation. It's decribed in the menu as being made with halloumi - which it unmistakably was at the first two pubs I'd tried it at - but here the cheese was much lighter, closer to a mozzarella I'd say. Still that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing, this version tasted slightly healthier.
- Lunch at Oliveto
- [Wednesday 2nd March 2011]
One of my friends at work proposed lunch at Oliveto today. Naturally I jumped at the chance, and the pizza was fantastic as it always is.
I also wore my new Pringle jumper to work today (see here) which invited a lot of comments about golf, etc. I'm not sure the world is quite ready for it yet.
- Flat Viewing
- [Tuesday 1st March 2011]
Went to look at another flat, near Blackfriars this time. It was a great location, not a bad size (by central London standards) and just about within budget - assuming some negotiation. Unfortunately the condition was pretty awful - it had been let, and although we'd been told the tenant had moved out that didn't seem to be entirely the case. Whilst you ought to be able to look beyond that, the final nail in the coffin was almost certainly when we noticed mouse traps in the stair well. It is, after all, next to a pub. Oh well, the search goes on (half-arsedly).
On the way back to the office I stopped off at Picante Mexican Grill for one of their burritos, which I am increasingly becoming a fan of.
- Chinese Food on Mondays
- [Monday 28th February 2011]
Following on the tradition instilled in me as a child by Mum - which Chie now seems to have assimilated too - as it was Monday we decided to have Chinese food. There's a place we quite like called Kym's, which is temptingly just opposite our local Sainsbury's, and has often before persuaded us to just eat out rather than buy things in the supermarket, take them home, cook and then wash up. Had the usual selection of mock meats - the crispy vegetarian "duck" followed by sizzling vegetarian "beef" in black bean sauce and kung po vegetarian "chicken" - with - for the sake of completeness - one portion of boiled rice, and one of egg fried rice. For once we were somewhat restrained in our ordering and actually ordered just the right amount of food - we finished everything, even the rice.
After that, back to the previously spurned Sainsbury's to buy a couple of odds and ends and then back home.
- Bicester Village
- [Sunday 27th February 2011]
I decided this weekend we should do something Chie really wants to do - as we often end up doing what I want to do at the weekend - and knowing Chie likes going for a shopping expedition at the Bicester Village outlet shopping centre we planned to do that today.
It's a bit of a trek from London - probably about two hours once you include the tube, train and shuttle bus the other end - and Chie was keen to make a day of it, so we headed off fairly early, and got the 10:15 train from Marylebone.
We made a bit of an error of judgement weather wise - it had been blue skies in London so we didn't bother thinking about umbrellas and so on, but by the time we got out into the sticks it was grey, miserable and raining. We had an early lunch pretty soon after arrival at Bicester in the hope the rain might abate in the meantime but it didn't really stop altogether. Bicester Village is an outdoor shopping centre so we were then consigned to spending the rest of the afternoon dashing between shops. I did eventually cave in and buy an umbrella but I'd already spent quite a lot of the afternoon getting quite damp by this point.
I ended up buying a lot more than Chie - they have a branch of Charles Tyrwhitt there, a Jermyn Street favourite of mine, wherein I bought a couple of embarassingly cheap shirts (a pitiful £19.95 each) and a pair of smart-ish trousers. I also, on a bit of a whim, bought a rather loud Argyll jumper in the Pringle shop, as well as book on antique maps, and the aforementioned umbrella - of the large stick variety - which had a pleasingly Gentleman-esque feel about it.
Headed back to London some time after 5. Back at home in the evening Chie made a very nice dish of fresh tofu cooked in seaweed stock (a kind of yudofu) with chinese leaf, which we then dipped in a citrusy soy sauce (a kind of home made ponzu). This was simple but rather delicious.
- Working on Saturday
- [Saturday 26th February]
If you believe the whole "Thursday is the new Friday" ethos then it follows that some additional reshuffling of days will have to be made in the latter half of the week to accomodate. Having had a very fun night out on Thursday, I have to admit that productivity suffered somewhat on Friday, and therefore I decided to just attempt to retry Friday today, and put in a full day's work on Saturday to compensate. Chie was busy studying for her course so this worked rather well. I was very rigorous about it - started at 9 and worked until after 6, and actually got some pretty good work done - so consequently felt rather pleased with myself.
In the evening we decided we should head out for dinner, and I had a hankering for falafel, so we went to Maoz on Old Compton Street. It was a funny sort of an evening out really - we ate falafel, walked about a bit, bought some cakes, went and did some Japanese food shopping (Rice Wine Shop stays open quite late conveniently), and then went home again. More like a Saturday afternoon transposed into the evening. There was a lot of that sort of thing going on these past few days it seems.
- Veggie Fish and Chips
- [Friday 25th February]
A largely somewhat unproductive day as a result of the previous evening's excesses (which, I hasten to add, I made up for with a full day's work on Saturday).
In the evening I found myself craving veggie "fish" and chips - as served in some Punch Taverns pubs in London. It's essentially halloumi cheese with a bit of flavouring (I suspect lemon and dill), deep fried in the same kind of batter you'd fry fish in. It's probably insanely unhealthy but it is also ridiculously delicious. So I tried to recreate this at home, and whilst I'm not sure I got the batter entirely right it was still very tasty indeed.
- St. James's, Mayfair, Shepherd's Market and Karaoke with Gav
- [Thursday 24th February]
Really felt like going out again tonight, particularly as I'd been leading a relatively reclusive life for much of the past few weeks, when I'd been largely preoccupied with my sore throat. It was also rather a nice day today so I was keen to leave work while there was still at least a bit of daylight remaining and have a good walk about.
So I left the office around 5:30 and took a stroll past Buckingham Palace to St. James's. After a brief stop at the Red Lion in Crown Passage I decided to head on and explore Mayfair a bit, and poked my nose in at two different Coaches and Horseses - the one on Hill Street and the one on Bruton Street. From there, for no other reason than the cathartic nature of reckless extravagance, I went for a glass of Champagne at Claridge's Bar - I tried Henriot, which to me had a bizarre nose of stinging nettles.
Thanks to the magic of mobile phones and location based services I discovered Gav was in the same rough neck of the woods, and so I headed over to Shepherd's Market to meet up with him, from where we headed off in search of karaoke to round off the evening. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at Korean restaurants, we went to the Japanese bookshop on Brewer St which has some karaoke booths at the back, and therein sang most of our now standard set of karaoke favourites, which was a lot of fun as always.
- [Wednesday 23rd February]
- ENT Specialist and Santoré
- [Tuesday 22nd February 2011]
In the afternoon I had an appointment to see a specialist about my throat, my GP having ran out of ideas last week about what the problem could be. It had been ongoing for seven weeks at this point and I have to admit to being somewhat anxious about what was causing it. I saw an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist who, after asking me a few general questions, squirted some strange liquid up my nose and asked me to go and take a seat for a few minutes. When I went back in, he proceded to thread a long telescopic camera device up through my nose and down into my throat. Needless to say this was not a particularly pleasant experience, but nonetheless I was very pleased when he said after this examination that there wasn't actually anything seriously wrong. In his opinion the problem is a sort of hangover of a sore throat from a cold virus, which has never had a chance to properly recover due to a combination of dehydration and possibly some stomach acid reflux. I've been given a course of tablets to reduce the acid, and have been told to avoid drinking coffee for a while - and I'm to go back and see him again in six weeks.
So partly as a means of celebrating my apparently clean bill of health I really felt like going out, and was in the mood for pizza. Unfortunately Chie was doing her evening classes (a regular fixture Tuesdays and Thursdays now) and I couldn't find anyone else to go out with, so I just thought sod it I'll go by myself.
I decided to try a place called Santoré, which had featured in Time Out's Best Pizza in London - and I was also intrigued to go as I'd heard a few good things about a street called Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. I took the bus from my office as Victoria station currently has restricted access in the evening. The bus seemed to take forever but I wasn't really in any particular rush.
Santoré was surprisingly busy for a cold Tuesday in February (even the staff were surprised by this), and I think I got the last free table - but perhaps deservedly so - the food was really good and the service was excellent. Oliveto very much retains its' crown for best pizza in London in my opinion - and probably always will - but this was really pretty good. I had a full three courses - including bruschetta to start, and some tiramisu for dessert - and really rather enjoyed it.
- [Monday 21st February]
Another night of Japanese food with some of the things I'd bought at the Japan Centre on Saturday. Tonight we had kimchi nabe - a hotpot with Korean spicy pickled cabbage.
- Japanese Food
- [Sunday 20th February 2011]
Having had a fairly sociable/eventful day the day before, today we felt like it would be OK to just have a thoroughly lazy day and not bother leaving the flat at all.
In the evening we had Japanese food for dinner with some of the things I had bought at the Japan Centre yesterday, in particular some interesting atsuage (fried tofu) and some salad with goma (sesame) dressing, which we haven't had for quite a while.
- Rob and Byrnie in London
- [Saturday 19th February 2011]
Rob had been talking for some time about dragging Byrnie into London to see the sights - despite having lived in Reading for over a decade he'd never really done any kind of proper sightseeing in London, and so an afternoon to correct this seemed very much long overdue.
We started off at St. Paul's and worked our way back to the West end from there, taking in Leadenhall Market, the Tower and Tower Bridge en route. From London Bridge we hopped on the tube to Westminster, and from there a quick whizz around Parliament Square, after a quick pint at the Westminster Arms a "strile" (to quote a Mornington Crescent strategem) from there along the edge of St. James's Park to Buckingham Palace, and then back along the Mall to Trafalgar Square, a quick dash round the National Gallery, then the chaps jumped on the tube and headed back to Reading.
Given that I was then at a bit of a loose end, I decided to do a bit of shopping at the Japan Centre after that before heading back to the flat.
In the evening, a friend of Chie's (from work, I think) was having a leaving party as she and her husband were heading back to Japan. So we went to a pub called McGlynn's near King's Cross and there tried our best to be sociable with a large group of people I didn't know at all, and who Chie only knew a couple of. It was an interesting crowd - somewhat embarassingly lots of other Japanese/European couples (oh well, what can you do) but nonetheless some people who were really enlightening to talk to.
Chie and I left some time before closing time as we hadn't had dinner, and went to nearby Drummond St for a late supper at Diwana, which was jolly nice as always.
- [Friday 18th February]
A definite continuing theme of glumness this week, largely driven by my still ongoing sore throat. Decided to skip the usual Friday end-of-the-week-beer-and-pizza-thing as a result, which probably just contributed even more to the malaise.
Chie was out in the evening with a friend from work, so I just stayed in feeling very glum.
- Ran out of Ideas
- [Thursday 17th February]
Went to see my GP again today as my throat didn't seem to have got any better, and in particular the last few days my voice had started to get a bit croaky, which was an added cause for concern. She told me that she had "ran out of ideas" at this point, having tried several tests and treatments, and decided it was time to refer me to a specialist. I'm lucky enough to get private health insurance with my job so was able to arrange an appointment with the specialist for the following Tuesday.
- Continuing Slump
- [Wednesday 16th February]
Continuation of the sore throat induced slump which has started yesterday, which was making me decidedly miserable.
- [Tuesday 15th February]
Sore throat had got pretty bad today, to the point I turned down more than one social engagement. It was really starting to make me feel rather glum by this point.
- Valentine's Day
- [Monday 14th February]
Went for a quick pint after work with some people from work, and was quite surprised by how many of my married colleagues (many of whom don't even go out very often) seemed to be in no rush whatsoever to get back home to their other halves - I was the first person to leave.
As every year on Valentine's day, both Chie and I steadfastly refused to go out for the evening and be ripped off at a restaurant. Instead I made a Quorn lasagne, and have to say it was a particularly excellent one - as I often do there was a really generous slug of red wine in the bolognese sauce, and I also made a higher proportion of cheese sauce than I normally would. So the end result was a fantastically rich lasagne. Very satisfying indeed.
- Twickenham and Teddington
- [Sunday 13th February]
Headed over to Twickenham to meet my very good friend Andy, for an afternoon exploring the pubs in that area. The undoubted highlight was the Mason's Arms in Teddington, which I understand has risen like a phoenix from the ashes, having gone from being threatened with closure to being a destination pub for CAMRA types from miles around. Particularly enjoyed the Millwhite's cider I had here.
We called it a day not long after 5pm, and I headed back into London to catch the tail end of Chie's tea party for lots of her Japanese friends at our flat.
- White Truffle
- [Saturday 12th February]
Left the flat some time after lunchtime and wandered in the direction of Sloane Square. Stopped off for a late lunch at Daylesford Organic on the way. I've often walked past and a couple of times have considered eating here but never quite got round to it until today. Had a bowl of butternut squash soup which was surprisingly nice - surprising because I don't really like butternut squash. Was also pleased to see they serve an interesting cider - Dunkerton's. Chie seemed quite happy with her cheese plate too.
We headed on from there to Sloane Square, Chie wanted a browse around the shops and for once apparently my presence was not required. So I thought I'd go for a quick look round the Saatchi Gallery, but unfortunately it was closed for a private event. Ho, hum. So instead I had a quick wander round the farmer's market on King's Road which was more or less closing up, but I did catch a stall which was selling truffles, and rather excitingly found they had a white truffle for sale - I've never bought a fresh white truffle before. It's a bit out of season, although apparently this was from a different region of Italy (not Alba) where the season was a bit longer. It was relatively reasonably priced - a mere £25 - so I thought what the heck and bought it.
After meeting up with Chie and doing a bit more shopping (I think we spent a while in Penhaligon's - I rather like the idea of buying some Victorian gentleman's fragrance but couldn't actually find one I liked) we had a pint in the Antelope before heading home, by way of Waitrose.
Made a white truffle risotto in the evening - a risotto bianco with shavings of the truffle on top. I didn't use any other mushrooms or anything but still the base risotto was probably a little too strongly flavoured. Still very enjoyable though. The white truffle has a more refined, sweeter, slightly nuttier and cleaner aroma than the black truffles we've had.