Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London –  makes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.

10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

It takes a lot to satisfy the jaded palates of London. We’ve seen it all in this fair city. From restaurants that sell only crisps to boozy ball pits for adults; when it comes to “different” the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher. So it’s no great surprise that many of London’s drinking dens offer more than just a pint of beer and a packet of pork scratchings. I’ve crawled my way around the capital’s bars to seek out the weirdest, the strangest, the craziest cocktails that this town has to offer.

The cactus one – Artesian Bar
Artesian is renowned for its cocktails and rightly deserves its place on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Located in the 5 star Langham Hotel, this bar is pure class – and the price of the drinks reflects this. It’s not a cheap place to drink but it’s well worth visiting for a treat. There are many spectacular cocktails on their menu but “La Penca De La Vida” is a real gem. It’s a celebration of the agave plant and is made with tequila, a Raicilla blend, mezcal, cactus and aloe vera. Raicilla is another agave spirit but, until recently, it was unsanctioned by the Mexican government. Artesian is one of the first bars to start using it. The cocktail is presented in a flowerpot, complete with real dirt and a real cactus! It tasted surprisingly fresh, with a slightly smoky aftertaste from the mezcal, and was dangerously drinkable. If you’re not a fan of tequila then this drink is sure to change your mind.
Artesian Bar, The Langham, 1C Portland Place, W1B 1JA
La Penca De La Vida – £18

The dirty one – Untitled Bar
Untitled Bar is the latest offering from renowned mixologist Tony Coniglario and it’s pure hipster (just in case you couldn’t tell from the name…). The interior design is as minimalist and inscrutable as the list of cocktails. The abstractedly titled “Snow” is made with chalk, white clay, enoki mushroom and vodka. I really had no idea what to expect but the presentation of the drink was spartan as everything else – a small eggcup glass (a nod to those negronis at Bar Termini there) filled with a clear liquid. On closer inspection, the drink had an iridescent sheen which was really rather delightful. However, it tasted pretty much exactly as you would expect – like earth mixed with vodka. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that it wasn’t as unpleasant as it sounded on paper, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Untitled Bar, 538 Kingsland Road, E8 4AH
Snow – £7.50

The immersive one – Lounge Bohemia
Lounge Bohemia don’t actually tell you what spirits they use in their cocktails; you choose your poison based on flavour. Each drink is a carefully crafted piece of theatre so, no matter what you end up with, your eyes are guaranteed to light up with delight. I chose “Into The Woods” which was advertised as “cedar, birch, oak, spruce” like a really abstract version of those poncey menus you see in certain London restaurants. It arrived bubbling away in a little woody nest, smoke wafting everywhere as if it had been whipped up by a mad scientist, with a twig by way of garnish. Before I could even take a sip, the waitress recited a spiel along the lines of something you’d find on a mindfulness tape, about how I should imagine I’m wandering through a forest. I was invited to sniff the twig and then inhale the smoke – which went down the wrong way and caused my life to flash before my eyes for a moment. And maybe I did briefly cross over because the drink tasted heavenly. It was essentially a pine flavoured negroni and that’s no bad thing in my book.
Lounge Bohemia, 1e Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3EJ
Into The Woods – £14

The breakfast one – London Cocktail Club
The bacon and egg martini by London Cocktail Club has been knocking around for a few years now but, despite a few young pretenders, it remains one of this city’s more unusual cocktails. And everyone knows that pretty much anything can be improved with the addition of bacon. This madcap martini is made with Jack Daniels that’s infused with smoked bacon and mixed with maple syrup, orange bitters, lemon juice and egg white. Last, but not least, it’s garnished with a slice of streaky bacon and a Haribo fried egg. The egg white gives it a lovely creamy mouthfeel rounded off with a rich kick of booze from the Jack Daniels. The slight hint of lemon keeps everything from getting too heavy. It would be very easy to chug down a load of these but at least you get some bacon to line your stomach.
London Cocktail Club – various locations (I went to the Covent Garden branch)
Bacon & egg martini – £9.50

The tree bark one – The Gibson
I think this one wins my fictional award for the most bat-shit crazy cocktail in town, although I suspect pretty much everything on The Gibson’s menu would vie for that trophy. This vintage-style bar divides up its theatrical cocktails according to months of the year. My cocktail – the wonderfully titled “Scandal in Bohemia” – wasn’t actually made from tree bark. That was just part of the garnish – which also included a chocolate playing card, a licorice pipe and a cherry. Apparently they were all meant to represent different flavours found in the drink, which was made with sweet grass steeped Woodford Rye, absinthe, hemp cannabis, poppy “opium” oil, preserved oriental lemon brine, French confetti candy syrup, forbidden jelly ice and smoking wood mushroom. Phew! It was served in a goblet that was dusted with red sandalwood and rimmed with truffle-infused white chocolate. Oh and it came with a side of Parmesan cheese. Despite the plethora of ingredients, I was only getting the truffle that was around the edge of the glass. So perhaps it was just as well that I had the art installation style garnish letting me know what I should have been able to taste.
The Gibson, 44 Old Street, EC1V 9AQ
Scandal in Bohemia – £12

The insect one – Nightjar
Believe it or not, this was not the first insect cocktail I have tried. However, while the my first foray into insect imbibing was a bit of a let down, the Inca Cocktail from Nightjar was insect-tastic. Made with tequila, hazelnut oil, fresh tomatillo, tonka puree, fino sherry, Guajillo muscat, lime, Mexican oregano, epazote and buffalo worms, this Mexican melange is powerful stuff. As you would expect from a cocktail that’s bold enough to incorporate bugs, this drink packs a real punch – and not just when it comes to the booze. It’s seriously spicy, with a peppery hit that borders on acrid yet manages to be totally delicious at the same time. The worms arrive by way of a garnish, in a little paper cone, but they also make an appearance in the cocktail mixture. They’re crispy and don’t really taste of anything much; maybe slightly popcorn-esque, However, their soggy presence at the bottom of the drink is quite disconcerting!
Nightjar, 129 City Road, EC1V 1JB
Inca Cocktail – £12

The custard one – Swift
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a flagrant love affair with custard. I have been known to eat a whole tin of the stuff just on its own. But custard in a cocktail? Not too sure about that. I had visions of gloopy custard suffocating the life out of everything else in the drink. However, the Rhubarb and Custard Milk Punch from Swift demolished all my expectations by appearing as a translucent pale pink drink in a martini glass. No custard to be seen anywhere. This cocktail is made with calvados, rhubarb, custard and lemon, and the rhubarb and custard bit is actually clarified in-house resulting in the clear pink drink that was served to me. Although apparently the colour depends on the colour of the rhubarb – it might be pink one week and yellow the next. Even the flavour surprised me; it was really refreshing, with a hint of creaminess on the back of the palate from the custard.
Swift, 12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ
Rhubarb and custard milk punch – £10

The balloon one – Purl London
Purl is yet another speakeasy bar. However, it differentiates itself with its fantastical cocktail menu. Its signature drink – the Mr Hyde – is the one that graces most of its promotional photos; smoke billowing out from a cauldron like a witches brew. However, my magpie-like attention was caught by another drink altogether – the Cerez Joker. I watched the bar staff churn out drink after drink with a balloon tied to them, and I knew that I had to try one. This cocktail is made with vodka, Cherry Marnier, Krupnik, honey, lemon and egg white and is served in a jar with a balloon tied to its handle. The balloon is then sprayed with orange blossom, the string that ties it to the glass is set on fire and the balloon eventually pops, detonating its orange mist everywhere. As if all that wasn’t enough, the cocktail itself tastes absolutely gorgeous.
Purl London, 50-54 Blandford Street, W1U 7HX
Cerez Joker – £13

The carrot one – The Walrus Room
The Walrus Room is a brilliant addition to Clapham Junction. Yes, it’s another one of those speakeasy sorts but it’s so gorgeous that you can’t begrudge the fact that it’s one of a zillion speakeasy bars in London. It’s inspired by Lewis Carroll and it certainly feels like you’ve wandered into a Victorian drawing room. Their cocktail list also follows the Lewis Carroll theme, such as the Rabbit Hole which is made with purple carrot Bols Genever and purple carrot cordial.  It’s served with an oyster on the side and is designed to be sipped after you’ve slurped down the oyster. The saltiness of the oyster perfectly compliments the vinegar sourness of the drink. In fact, I was surprised that the cocktail wasn’t sweeter considering it’s made pretty much entirely from carrot. If you want to get drunk AND get one of your five a day then this is the drink for you.
The Walrus Room, 40 Battersea Rise, SW11 1EE
The Rabbit Hole – £10

The foie gras one – Peg + Patriot
The cocktail menu at the Peg and Patriot won the most creative menu in this year’s Time Out Bar Awards and it’s easy to see why. The cocktails are inspired by well-known chefs or cooking techniques. You won’t find anything like a Long Island Iced Tea or Sex on the Beach on this menu. Instead you get “Foraged Berries”, “Buckwheat” or “Peanut”. I tried the one called “Foie Gras”, made with a foie gras and dark chocolate distillate, rum, sugar, dry raspberry, hazelnut dry port, Peychaud bitters and saline. I didn’t pick up any of the foie gras whatsoever, but it did taste very strongly of raspberries with a hint of chocolate. This is a drink designed for sipping; there’s a thumping great boozy kick to it. It wasn’t unpleasant but I wonder if they’re trying to be a bit too clever?
Peg + Patriot, Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, E2 9NF
Foie Gras – £10

Have you tried any of these cocktails or have you got any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

BRGR.CO IS…REFRESHINGLY ORDINARY

Have we reached peak burger? Is that even possible? I don’t know about you but I’m starting to get a little weary of it all. Once upon a time, when your fast food options were McDonalds or Burger King or a greasy van on a roadside, the likes of Meat Liquor and even Byron seemed daring and exciting. But now those trendy burger joints are as ubiquitous as the fast food chains that they once stuck two fingers up at. So where now for the once humble burger? In the case of BRGR.CO you go back to basics. You make it all about the meat.

BRGR.CO isn’t pretentious. There’s no loud music or graffiti. The decor isn’t “distressed” or “shabby chic”. There are no quirky names or gimmicks attributed to their burgers. It’s the Ronseal of burger bars – it does what it says on the tin. You want a cheeseburger? You get a cheeseburger. You want to wash it down with a milkshake? You can choose from all the classic milkshake flavours. However, at BRGR.CO you also get to choose your burger as if you were in a steakhouse. That’s right – you can choose which cut of meat that you would like. There are three options available: Blade, Hanger and Rump. Blade is their entry level burger; a mixture of bavette (blade) steak and brisket. Hanger is exactly that – 100% hanger steak, and Rump is a blend of juicy rump (obvs) and prime rib.

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

The burger toppings are all pretty straightforward, although there are two slightly more unusual options: the chilli burger, made with red chillis and chipotle mayo, and the bacon and guacamole burger. We played it safe and ordered a couple of solid bacon cheeseburgers. The burgers were presented, deconstructed, on a tray with the salad (lettuce, tomato, gherkins, red onion) and top half of the bun off to one side. I wasn’t sure about this at first but actually it’s a pretty good idea, as it allows you to pile on your preferred choice of dressings and add any salad-y bits as you see fit – rather than dig around in a pre-assembled and invariably messy burger to extricate elements you don’t like (such as gherkins…).

The burgers were refreshingly ordinary. The meat was juicy; a couple of rashers of bacon were unceremoniously slung over the top of the burger, like a pair of discarded trousers, but that was fine because…you know…bacon. The menu promised a choice of cheese but no-one asked us what our preference was so I’m guessing we ended up with cheddar. Which is no bad thing, although the greedy little cheese beast in me would have liked a bit more. But what I liked most of all is the fact that they BRGR.CO use a demi-brioche bun. I’m kind of over brioche buns. They once seemed a bit posh but in reality all they add is an increased risk of indigestion. So a demi-brioche bun was a welcome change; being neither too rich nor too plain it was, like the porridge of littlest bear in Goldilocks, just right.

Parmesan truffle fries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

Burgers aside, there were two other items on the menu that made my heart skip a beat – Oreo milkshakes and parmesan truffle fries. We were told that there was no vanilla milkshake available, for which read “there was no vanilla ice cream” (more on that later) so my Oreo milkshake was made using chocolate ice cream instead. Oh the humanity…(*sarcasm*) As for the fries….I’m just so grateful that I live in a time where parmesan truffle fries are a thing. I mean, I thought cheesy chips were the bomb when I was younger but now they seem hopelessly quaint and old fashioned. Unlike the burgers, the cheese here was gooey and plentiful – almost like a ridiculously decadent cheese sauce.

The dessert menu at BRGR.CO is limited and – like the main menu – is made up of fairly ordinary dishes, like warm chocolate brownie or ice cream sundae. The crumble on offer was apple and banana, which I considered to be a slightly odd combination but perhaps that’s just me. It was supposed to have been served with vanilla ice cream but, as they didn’t have any, it came with chocolate instead – which made the whole mix of flavours even weirder! Nonetheless my friend seemed to like it. The baked vanilla cheesecake that I ordered was less of a success. It was a dry, dense door stop of a cake; unsalvageable even by the strawberry sauce that artfully decorated the plate. The fact that the word “cheesecake” is spelled incorrectly on their website probably says it all. It’s a dish that no-one cares about, including the person who made it.

Baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

You can’t really go wrong when it comes to burgers. Actually, no, you can potentially go very wrong; however, the burgers from BRGR.CO are a safe pair of hands. The meat is good quality; you can save or splurge, depending on your choice of meat; they’re generously proportioned; and the toppings err on the safe side. In a city that’s overflowing with gimmicks, a no-nonsense burger joint is a breath of fresh air.

BRGR.CO, 187 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZB or 127 King’s Road, SW3 4PW

I was advised that BRGR.CO will soon be making some exciting changes to their menu and venues so watch this space!

Many thanks to Lioneye Media and BRGR.CO for inviting me to dine at their Soho branch. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

A seafood platter with rice and peas at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

Cottons is…sun drenched and rum drenched!

There are rare moments, when the British summer is playing ball, that London can feel fairly exotic. When the sun beats down and Londoners pour outside, noise levels rising, the scent of grilled meat in the air, music streaming out from cars and bars, it’s easy to pretend that you’re in an entirely different country. This is helped along with a spot of world cuisine from London’s diverse restaurant scene. I was recently transported to the Caribbean thanks to a balmy summer evening, jerk BBQ and copious amounts of rum at the new Cottons restaurant in Shoreditch.

When I first moved to London I lived around the corner from the very first Cottons restaurant on Exmouth Market. I had never tried Caribbean food before and, at that point in my life, it was both exciting and slightly intimidating. Curried goat? Oxtail? These were all things that I had never even thought about eating before – which meant that we were straight into Cottons for dinner at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, their Exmouth Market branch has now closed, but Cottons continues to thrive and have now opened their third restaurant in Shoreditch.

Sticky jerk pork ribs with fried plantain crisps at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

In true Caribbean style, we started our evening with a rum tasting session by Angostura. You may have heard of Angostura bitters already; that indispensable little bottle behind the every bar in the land. However, like me, you may not have realised that they also have a range of rum. To me, just the name “Angostura” conjures up images of sun drenched islands, lazy days and music-filled nights, so of course they make rum too! We sampled 6 different varieties – from the wonderful Amaro di Angostura with its Christmas-rich flavours of cloves and oranges, to their citrusy Reserva Blanca, their sweet and buttery 7 year old and and their caramel-soft 1824. I’ve never been much of a rum drinker and, if I do partake, it’s usually mixed in with something else. However, I would happily sip on a few of these rums neat and get very drunk in the process. Check out the Cottons website for their schedule of FREE rum masterclasses!

Saltfish fritters at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The menu at Cottons is vast and diverse – and a great intro to Caribbean cuisine. I would easily walk barefoot over the scorching sand of a Caribbean beach just to get at their crayfish and lobster mac n cheese. Assorted patties and fritters are great to nibble on and the jerk pork ribs were sticky, spicy and easy to pick clean. You are totally spoiled for choice when it comes to mains; being able to choose from “Timeless Classics” like oxtail and bean stew, signature platters or a range of meat from their jerk pit. Oh yeah, and they do burgers too! The seafood platter was a particular delight. I loved being able to graze on a generous range of seafood, including huge juicy king prawns. The addition of a mini pot of octopus and squid stew was a lovely touch too. It’s easy to pretend that you’re on holiday with food like this.

As I’m very much a carnivorous sort of girl, I was surprised that I enjoyed the Ital vegetable curry as much as I did. “Ital” is a variation of the word “vital” and is a strict vegetarian diet followed by certain members of the Rastafarian movement – and something I had not heard of before. This is why I love doing what I do and – in fact – it’s the whole philosophy behind this blog! I’m determined to learn more about the world in which we live, and trying food from other countries and cultures is a great way to do this.  The curry itself was rich with peppery heat, as well as big chunks of veggies. I felt a thousand times more wholesome by eating it. Whether it cancelled out all that rum I had drunk, however, is another matter….

Vegetable stew at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The British summertime is notoriously unreliable – you don’t need me to tell you that. Although we do have days when the sun streams down upon us, more often than not we get stuck with grey skies. Luckily we have restaurants like Cottons to provide us with an escape route to more tropical climes.

Cottons, 130-132 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AR

Many thanks to Cottons for inviting me along to sample rum and food at their Shoreditch branch. All views are, as ever, my own,

The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

Travel in Nepal: A man in a boat sailing across Lake Fewa in Pokhara, Nepal

Giving it all up to travel

I’ve done something very uncharacteristic. Something reckless. Something bloody terrifying! I’m nearly 40 and I’ve given up my job, my home and my life here in London to set off on the travel adventure of my life. WTAF am I doing?

Here’s the deal. At the beginning of August I shall vacate my beloved home and get on a plane to Sri Lanka. And that’s about all I know for certain. I don’t know where I’ll travel to after my first few nights. I don’t know how I’m going to spend my time when I arrive. But I do know that my time here in London was – sadly – becoming unsustainable. Work stress, monotony, money worries and a generally unhealthy lifestyle have chipped away at me and I began to realise that drastic action was needed.

Travel in Morocco: Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech at night

So here I am doing something else that’s very uncharacteristic. I’m actually writing a personal article. I mostly write about “stuff” – food and cocktails and travel. But today I’m going to write about me and I’d like to share something with you all: I suffer from crippling depression and anxiety. I’m not going to opine at length here about what it’s like for me to live with this. However, I’m “coming out” for two reasons. Other people feel this way too and I would like to use this platform and this voice to say – repeatedly – “you’re not alone”. Secondly, my mental health is a key part of this story as it frames my decision to leave, as well as how I’m now dealing with it. Change and uncertainty is not something I handle very well. Those two little words, “I’m leaving”, have set in motion a whole whirlwind of OMFG. Here are my five stages of coming to terms with this seismic shift, as I set off on my Big Travel Adventure:

1. Leaving my job
Ok so this one wasn’t too difficult really. Yes, it’s very unsettling to give up my main source of income without having another branch to swing to. But my job was actually extremely detrimental to my mental health. While I did receive a huge amount of support from my immediate colleagues, who were exceptionally kind and patient each time I went through a bad patch, the overall atmosphere at work is one that sucks the joy out of everything. The office is flat, soulless and miserable and, eventually, I started to feel that way too. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life sat at a beige desk in a beige office with beige people. I didn’t want to start every day squished underneath someone’s armpit with someone else’s elbow in my face (i.e. the London tube commute, not my office). And these days things like a mortgage and a pension are pretty much off the table for me, so it begged the question: what was I doing this for?

Travel in Cuba: Street musicians in Trinidad

2. Leaving my house
Now this was hard. I rent, like a lot of people in London, and most of my monthly salary translated directly into living costs. However, in the grand scheme of things, I had got lucky. I had a house, my landlady was adorable and – best of all – I lived by myself. Over the last 8 years that house became my sanctuary. I knew that I could retreat there and hide from the rest of the world when things were bad. It was so much more than just another rental property so giving it up was a real wrench – and made me feel hugely unsettled. Doing this has removed probably my most important layer of security – the knowledge that I can always have my own space. However, renting means that you’re always at the mercy of someone else and, no matter how lovely that someone else is, they could still increase the rent beyond your means or even sell the property. And I don’t really want that uncertainty for the rest of my life.

3. Leaving London
Oh my god. The breath shortening, gut twisting panic attack that this induces. 12 years in and this love affair shows no sign of diminishing. Unlike so many of my friends who upped sticks for more suburban climes, I have yet to fall out of love with London. Sure, it frustrates me immensely at times and it’s certainly not the city it once was. But…and but…there is so much to adore. Its vibrancy, its diversity, its strong pumping heart. And like most love affairs, there is so much that I also took for granted. Being able to go to the theatre any night of the week and see the best actors in the world. A myriad of restaurants offering a wider range of cuisines than you could ever hope to try. World class galleries and museums – many of them free. And the convenience factor. Being able to buy a pint of milk without getting in a car (yes, I’m lazy). The solidity that living in a big Western city gives you. Well I’m whipping that rug right out from under my feet.

Travel in Singapore: Marina Bay after a storm

4. Finding the cash
Saving money while living in London is challenging, to say the least. Finding enough money to cover all the essentials and yet still have enough to play with was a constant battle. A weird quirk of fate, however, led me into a second job – one that I could fit around my day job. Sure, it would have been nice to spend my free time doing free time-y sort of stuff but I very much liked having the extra cash. And, eventually, that extra cash turned into actual savings. It began to dawn on me that this job could be my key to fulfilling my dreams of travel; it created a financial buffer and I could keep doing it while on the road. And once I realised this, I started selling off a few of my things online. I can’t take any of them with me after all!

Travel in India: Village women and a Buddhist monk in Thiksey monastery, Ladakh

5. Finding myself
Yeah I am cringing so hard right now. That hippy klaxon is at full volume. But, in all seriousness, I do actually need to do this. I’ve spent so many years living a life that I thought I was supposed to. Get a degree, get a job, take the money, settle down. The whole Trainspotting “choose life” shebang. Be a “normal person”.  God knows, I’ve tried so hard to be normal and it’s damn near killed me. Because that’s not who I am – and it’s taken me until nearly 40 years of age to own that fact. I’ve accepted that I don’t suit life in a corporate environment; that I’d rather be single than settle down with just anyone; that I want to create something for myself, not someone elseFrom now on I want to live life on my terms and try to do what makes me feel happy, instead of forcing myself into a more “socially acceptable” lifestyle that only makes me miserable. We only get one life. I’d like to live it well.

So this is it. It’s really happening, even though it still doesn’t feel all that real. I can’t even begin to comprehend what lies before me but I have this gut feeling that it’s going to be good.

Who else has had – or is having – a Big Travel Adventure? Who else is planning one? Let me know in the comments.

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Roast potato, pesto and pine nut pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

FIREBRAND PIZZA IS…CARB ON CARB ON CARB

I don’t need any excuse to stuff my face with carbs. I do it on a daily basis. The Atkins Diet? Forget it. Cauliflower rice? WTAF?? I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to be Giselle Bundchen and, having seen what she eats, I wouldn’t want to be. Bring me all the bread, pile high the potatoes and pass me the pasta because I am carb-tastic. So when I saw that Firebrand Pizza use roast potatoes as a pizza topping, I knew that I had found my place.

Firebrand is located just a few minutes away from Marylebone Station, in one of those strange parts of central London that has managed to resist the inexorable steamroller of gentrification. Officially their thing is sourdough pizzas made with caputo flour from Naples. Caputo flour is very much on trend as far as London pizzerias go. It’s considered to be the Godfather of pizza flours and lends an air of Neapolitan authenticity to a Marylebone pizzeria. It also gives your pizza base that all-important crunch. However, in reality, Firebrand’s thing is roast potatoes. On pizza.

Bechamel stuffed mushrooms from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

There are a handful of non-pizza items on the menu at Firebrand, such as lasagne and sea bass, but none of them were particularly interesting or exciting. It’s all about those pizzas. We decided to order a couple of antipasti to start with – béchamel stuffed champignon mushrooms and parmigiana. Ok, so it may have been a little risky to order such rich dishes before tucking into a couple of pizzas but you know, YOLO. I needn’t have worried. The mushrooms were watery and totally devoid of flavour, each containing a serving of béchamel sauce that can be politely described as “miserly”. They were served with a salad that basically tasted of nothing; its only contribution to the dish was to make it extra watery. The parmigiana fared better; arriving at our table shimmering with heat, molten cheese bubbling away between each layer of aubergine, with yummy crunchy crozzled bits around the edge.

Aubergine parmigiana from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizza is such an ubiquitous dish that I automatically love anywhere offering a slightly different variation on the theme. It’s easy to be bold and to experiment with pizza toppings, as long as you know what flavour combinations do and don’t work. The Coach and Horses, for example, pulled it off with the likes of their breakfast pizza. Firebrand’s twist on this is roast potatoes. There are no less than TWO roast potato topped pizzas on the menu and there was a third on the specials board when we visited. And who doesn’t love roast potatoes, right? It was inconceivable that I wasn’t going to order one of these, so I chose the pesto, pine nut, rosemary and mozzarella version. In the interests of diversity, my friend begrudgingly ordered a non-potato pizza – goats cheese, caramelised onion and black olives.

Goats cheese, roasted onion and black olive pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Yes, I know carb on carb is not particularly healthy. Yes, I know it’s rather high up on the stodge scale. But who bloody cares because roast potato pizza is the marriage of two of the best food groups ever. Actually, no. Make that three of the best food groups ever because, of course, there is the addition of cheese. It wasn’t elegant, even with the artsy spiral of pesto swirled around it. It was down and dirty, honest to god, don’t give a f*ck comfort food. It was like a rosemary coated, cheesy chip buttie with a squirt of pesto for that token bit of greenery. The goats cheese pizza was also rather lovely thing. The combination of creamy goats cheese and sweet, jam-like roast onion is a classic and rightly so – it’s bloody delicious. I did have to pick the olives off though because they are the devil’s snack.

There is a limited list of desserts, although we were both so stuffed that eating a third course seemed almost impossible. Almost… We shared the salted caramel cheesecake, which arrived in one of those clip top jars that you see everywhere. It was a smart way of presenting a cheesecake, which is a fairly simplistic dessert and can often look like a sad sloppy slice on a plate. As far as flavour goes…well, it’s difficult to go wrong with salted caramel and cream to be honest. We hoovered it up.

Salted caramel cheesecake from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizzerias in London are a dime a dozen; from the monolithic chains like Pizza Hut and Pizza Express to a plethora of independents across the capital. It can be difficult to differentiate yourself when everyone is doing kind of the same thing. This was the first time I had ever seen roast potatoes as a topping, so kudos to Firebrand for offering something a bit different. It may not be the place to visit if you’re on a diet, but if you’re in training for a marathon or just love a bit of stodge then Firebrand could be your place too.

Firebrand Pizza, 41-43 Lisson Grove, NW1 6UB

Many thanks to Captivate Hospitality and Firebrand Pizza for inviting me to dine there. All views are, as ever, my own.

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

The TwoRuba cooler cocktail from TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London

TWORUBA IS…SEASONAL STYLE AND SEASONAL COCKTAILS

When you think of a chain hotel bar you’d be forgiven for imagining something bland. A space that manages to be polished in a way that’s devoid of all character. You might expect to find a businessman propping up the bar or families lazily sprawled in armchairs, waiting to head out for the day. What you don’t expect to find is a big sofa made out of grass. Or brightly striped deckchairs next to huge floral displays. TwoRuba, located in the Tower Bridge Hilton, differentiates itself from the norm with its bold seasonal installations and matching cocktails. As the seasons change, so does TwoRuba’s decor and so does its cocktail menu.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

TwoRuba’s everyday cocktail menu is also a bit more imaginative than what you might usually find in a standard chain hotel.  They mix flavours like chilli, strawberry, mint and gin in their Dare Devil or cherry infused whisky and cinnamon sugar for Smoking in 1816. They’re currently offering four, limited edition, spring cocktails: Elderflower Breeze, Raspberry and Thyme Smash, TwoRuba Cooler and a Spring Spritz. Like those on the standard menu, these cocktails are made with a combination of compelling ingredients and a dash of creativity. They not only taste delicious; they’re presented beautifully. My top pick is the Elderflower Breeze, which is perfect for a hot summer day. It’s made with gin, elderflower cordial, lemon, cucumber and basil – the elderflower gives it a slight sweetness but the fresh flavour of the cucumber is what really comes through. It’s refreshing and extremely drinkable. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back for another one a few days later!

The Elderflower Breeze cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

Now, I’m a big fan of incorporating savoury herbs with sweet flavours, so I always love seeing them pop up in desserts or cocktails. A quick search on Google told me that the combination of raspberry and thyme is actually not that unusual when it comes to cocktails – although I had never come across it until I tried the Raspberry and Thyme Smash at TwoRuba. This long drink is served with a bit of theatre; the cocktail is contained in a bird-shaped vessel and then poured over a glass of crushed ice. The base of the drink is dark rum and it contains lime and cranberry, as well as the raspberry and thyme.

The Raspberry and Thyme Smash cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

The TwoRuba Cooler was another mash-up of sweet and savoury flavours. The combination of gin, Cointreau, apple, lemon, rose syrup and rosemary could have been a bit over-sweet, but the herbaceousness of the gin and the rosemary took the edge off. Lastly, the Spring Spritz was basically the love child of a mojito and a margarita. Created with tequila, St Germain, lemon vanilla and mint, it felt like I was getting two cocktails for the price of one.

The Spring Spritz cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

Of course, it might be a good idea to order a few nibbles to soak up some of the booze and TwoRuba have got you covered. We enjoyed a selection of snacks, such as vegetable tempura, chorizo in a sinfully sticky marinade and some of the best chips I’ve eaten in a long time. However, a quick glance at the TwoRuba website seems to suggest that “regular” visitors, i.e. those not attending an event, can order food from the Jamie’s Italian next door. I’m not an advocate of chain restaurants, but if you want something to graze on while you enjoy a cocktail or three then you could do a lot worse.

I was really impressed with the quality of the service at TwoRuba; the team made us feel right at home. When I returned as a “regular” visitor a few days later, there was just one girl behind the bar who seemed a little over-stretched. I had to wait a while to be served only to be told that she didn’t know how to make the cocktail I had ordered. However, one of the mixologists was just about to start his shift, so I took a seat and eventually my drink arrived. The young lady who served me was incredibly sweet and dealt with my order as best she could. I’m sure that if you visit in the evening when there are probably more staff on duty – and not in the afternoon like me – then the service will be great.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

As TwoRuba’s style changes with the seasons, this spring fling will be over shortly. But there’s no need to weep into your martini because they will be replacing it was a full-on beach! TwoRuba is raising the bar (pun intended) for chain hotels everywhere.

TwoRuba, Hilton Tower Bridge, 5 Tooley Street, SE1 2BY

Many thanks to Lioneye Media for inviting me to an event showcasing TwoRuba’s spring cocktails. All views, as ever, are my own.

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7 of the prettiest cafes in London

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

London's prettiest cafes : A rose latte from the Palm Vaults, Hackney, London

LONDON’S CAFES ARE….PRETTY FANTASTIC

London’s cafes have got so much more going on than the stereotypical greasy spoon (although I do love a good old fashioned caff fry-up). And there’s NO excuse to head for a Starbucks or Cafe Nero. Although the march of the bland chain cafes relentlessly continues its grubby, tax-dodging way across town, there are a vast number of gorgeous and inherently Instagrammable independent cafes waiting for your business. Here are my pick of the prettiest:

Palm Vaults, Hackney
It’s an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a good reason. IT’S BLOODY LUSH! Palm Vaults has already graced the Instagram accounts of a thousand Londoners, with its exposed brickwork, its baby pink and pale green colour palette and its overflowing hanging baskets. It has a cool Miami Beach vibe. Even the food and drink gets in on the act with vivid beetroot or lavender lattes, smoothies and an array of colourful cakes. It’s a teeny little place so make sure you book a table or get there early. People were queuing out of the door by the time I left.
411 Mare Street, London, E8 1HY

London's prettiest cafes : The Palm Vaults, Hackney, London

The Ship of Adventures, Dalston
If it sounds like the title of a children’s book then it’s because this cafe is run by the Hackney Pirates; a charity that helps young people develop their reading skills.  It’s a gorgeously cosy little place; higgeldy-piggeldy with bookshelves and assorted nautical accessories – including a boat hanging from the ceiling! Stop off for a coffee and one of their sourdough sandwiches or browse the shelves for kids books, greetings cards and gifts. They also have an events space for hire. Get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping a very worthwhile cause, as well as from the caffeine.
128 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2NS

London's prettiest cafes : The Ship of Adventures, Dalston, London

Monocle Cafe, Marylebone
The Monocle brand has diversified even further; from a magazine to a radio station and, now, a cafe. Based on elegant Chiltern Street, it hits all the current trends. Avocado? Check. Japanese food? Check. Scandinavian pastries? Check. It’s an achingly cool, weird hipster mash-up but I love the little “living room” at the back of the cafe. This cosy nook has squishy sofas, bookshelves, a transistor radio and even a TV in the corner. It looks like a set piece from the V&A – modernism crossed with IKEA. Get there early, lounge on a sofa with a cardamom bun and a copy of Monocle mag, and soak up all of the stylish vibes.
18 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7QA

London's prettiest cafes : Monocle Cafe, Marylebone, London

Katsute 100, Islington
Katsute 100 is a gorgeous Japanese tea house located in the equally adorable Camden Passage. I actually stumbled upon this little gem while looking for another cafe, and couldn’t resist the lure of its zen-like interior. You can find a vast range of Japanese teas, including some unusual options like pickled cherry blossom or black bean. Expect beautiful ceramics, dainty cakes and a badass selection of Japanese whiskies. Like Monocle, Katsute also has a stylish little space at the back of the cafe where you can relax over a pot of green tea and escape the madness of the outside world.
Passage Apartments, 100 Islington High Street, London, N1 8EG

London's prettiest cafes : Katsute 100, Islington, London

Wringer + Mangle, London Fields
Wringer + Mangle is so east London. I walked past it several times when I first visited, as it’s housed in a singularly unappealing former office block. Step inside, however, and you get industrial chic crossed with a rainforest. This cafe/bar/restaurant is a lovely, light-filled spot where you can linger over a large glass of wine or grab a healthy breakfast. They also do an incredibly reasonably priced bottomless brunch and their Collins-heavy cocktail menu is ideal for warm summer nights. I’m looking forward to returning for more lazy drinks and their delicious-looking evening menu.
13-18 Sidworth Street, London, E8 3SD

London's prettiest cafes : Wringer + Mangle, London Fields, London

Fuckoffee, Bermondsey
Ok, so it may it may seem surprising that a place with a name like Fuckoffee is in my list of “pretty” places but stay with me here. This cafe – one of three by the Jonestown group –  isn’t a classic beauty but I love its chaotic, vibrant, graffiti-covered, neon-signed interior. I also love their DGAF attitude. Fuckoffee has already been at the centre of controversy thanks to its name (which they dealt with by a strategically placed asterisk) and some of their “near to the knuckle” signs. But, judging by the queues out of the door, it’s clearly true that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
163-167 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UW

London's prettiest cafes : F*ckoffee, Bermondsey, London

Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, Shoreditch
This is a strange, strange place but one that’s worth checking out at least once. Unless you hate cats, in which case you need to give it a wide berth. I was slightly disappointed when I first arrived, as my table was in the poky and dated upstairs room. It looked like one of those old fashioned small town caffs – but with cats. Downstairs, however, is a different story. Dimly lit and spangled with fairy lights, this room is decked out like a kitty cat forest playground. Tree trunks twist up from the floor and across the ceiling, the walls are ivy-clad and cute kitties lounge lazily or chase after toys. Book in advance for cream tea, high tea or just a cup of tea with a difference.
152-154 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6DG

London's prettiest cafes : Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium, Shoreditch, London

What are your favourite London cafes? Let me know in the comments.

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Discover London's prettiest cafes

Bar Douro: Bringing Portugal to London

Bar Douro: Bringing Portugal to London

Lamb rolls at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

BAR DOURO IS…. TAKING A TRIP TO PORTUGAL WITHOUT LEAVING TOWN

My relationship with London is a complex one. There are few cities that I love like I have loved this one. I fully accept that I am one of those crazy, bug-eyed London disciples, who can’t imagine why anyone would ever hate it here. Lately, however, I feel very much like that person watching their loved one stumble down a path that’s inherently bad for them. The city is becoming increasingly dull and sanitised; space is being snapped up at grotesque prices and flipped around into “luxury apartments” or yet another big chain. For every “cool” neighbourhood, there are at least 10 big brands waiting to move in and destroy it. Nightclubs and venues are rapidly closing down, through fair means or – usually – foul. So when a corner of London manages to escape the clutches of Big Business and flowers into something unique and lovely, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. Bar Douro and Flat Iron Square, near London Bridge, is one such place.

Flat Iron Square is a tiny patch of London that, despite being in the shadow of the shrine to corporate greed that is the Shard, retains all the wide-eyed curiosity and independence of spirit that makes London so bloody great. Here, the railway arches that spool out from London Bridge station have been turned into tiny restaurants, each one shimmering out of their industrial surroundings. They all look so inviting that it’s hard to decide between them, but I chose Bar Douro. This was for two reasons: Portuguese food is wonderful and wine from the Douro valley is also wonderful. So my expectations were a little on the high side…

Salt cod and scrambled egg with matchstick fries at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

The restaurant is so gorgeous that you completely forget you’re underneath a railway line. It’s all azulejo tilework, wooden flooring and marble surfaces. You perch on high stools, either at the bar or along the huge front window. The food comes as small, sharing plates that you absolutely should wash down with copious amounts of wine. Their enormous and excellent wine list makes this an extremely easy thing to do. I fell ridiculously, head over heels, in love with the very first thing I put in my mouth – soft, melting croquetes of smoky Portuguese sausage served with a sharp, tangy mayonnaise. I felt sorry for every other dish on the menu because those croquetes are a very tough act to follow.

More food did, of course, follow and it was both delicious and surprising. “Milk fed lamb rolls” sounded like the sort of thing I might make with Sunday Roast leftovers, but turned out to be roulades of soft, buttery pastry with a rich lamb filling, daintily arranged on velvety, dark green spinach puree. Salt cod with scrambled eggs and chips conjured up images of an alternative builder’s breakfast and, in a way, it kind of was. Large chunks of cod were mixed through scrambled egg, and the whole thing was topped with matchstick fries. It wasn’t the prettiest of dishes, it didn’t sound too edifying but it tasted great.

Roast suckling pig with crisps at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

The only let-down was the roast suckling pig with homemade crisps. The words “roast suckling pig” are probably three of the loveliest in the English language. In this instance, though, the meat was a little greasy and lacking in flavour. And, after all the understated descriptions and unexpected elements, I was kind of expecting “homemade crisps” to be something a bit less…Walkers crisp-like. It’s a weird accompaniment to a slab of roasted meat and, while they were very tasty crisps, they really didn’t add anything when served alongside the pork. The surprise here turned out to be the sauce. It was punchy and full of peppercorns, which provided lots of bite, and was a perfectly sharp, lipsmacking contrast to the rich meat.

Although there were a few dessert options, all of which sounded absolutely delicious, there’s really only one thing I’m going to order in a Portuguese restaurant and that’s pastel de nata. I don’t think I’ve ever met a custard tart that I didn’t like. Of course, the pastel de nata at Bar Douro was excellent. The pastry flaked like that friend who always cancels on you and the custard was a creamy dream, although I was hoping that it would have been a bit more oozy. The tart was served with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, which was a little odd. The ice cream was delightful but a great pastel de nata doesn’t need any accompaniment, made very clear by the fact that the ice cream didn’t complement the tart at all. It felt like an attempt to sex up the dish in order to make it “restaurant quality”, which was totally unnecessary. Just own that tart in all its luscious glory.

Pastel de nata (custard tart) with cinnamon ice cream at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

But do you know what? I don’t care about any of those minor niggles. Because Bar Douro is a fantastic place. First of all, it’s incredible value for money. But more than that, I was transported, wholesale, to a buzzy bar in Portugal, where people spend hours grazing on delicious food and getting gently merry on glasses of crisp white wine. I forgot that I was in a railway arch in dirty old London Bridge. And that’s what great restaurants are all about. They take you on a journey and distract you from the everyday and the ordinary. With London getting ever more prosaic, we need places like this to remind us that it can, still, be a great city.

Bar Douro, Arch 35b, Flat Iron Square, Union Street, SE1 1TD
Approximately £70 for two people including wine

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