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The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

Taking A Bite Out Of….Las Vegas

Taking A Bite Out Of….Las Vegas

Cheeseburger and fries in Las Vegas

Las Vegas has a certain reputation.  Brash. Blingy. Larger than life.  And with so many top chefs setting up shop in Sin City you would expect its food scene to be just as epic.  But guess what?  It really isn’t.  Dining out in Vegas is a bit like losing on the slot machines.  You get drawn in by the shiny colours and flashing lights, excited by what could happen.  But you end up disillusioned and broke.

This was my experience after visiting Zefferino, an high-end Italian restaurant in The Venetian.  The location is perfect, overlooking the “Grand Canal”.  However, the food is no better than what you would find in an average Italian chain in the UK.  This is somewhat disappointing when you’re paying between $26 – $46 for a bowl of pasta.  My starter of tuna carpaccio with avocado, capers and lemon dressing (clocking in at $24) just tasted of stale olive oil.  The penne with caramelised onions, pancetta, peas and spinach in a Parmesan sauce did actually taste really good, but was it worth $27?  No.  My friend ordered the fettucine with lobster, jumbo shrimp, crabmeat and fresh tomato.  For $45 you would expect this to be flawless, but there were bits of shell mixed in with the pasta.  She couldn’t eat it.

Tuna carpaccio with avocado at Zefferino in Las Vegas

We learned our lesson after that and stuck with cheaper chain restaurants, like The Cheesecake Factory, for the rest of the trip.  My knowledge of The Cheesecake Factory up until now came purely from The Big Bang Theory.  I was actually pretty impressed though.  The menu is HUGE and everything on it looked amazing.  I could honestly have ordered everything.  I restricted myself to “just” the mini crab cakes, followed by crispy chicken Costoletta.  This is described as chicken breast lightly breaded and sauteed, served with lemon sauce, mashed potatoes and asparagus.  The reality was actually three chicken breasts.  Whaaaaaat?  It was tasty enough but come on….  I barely made a dent in it.  The crab cakes were just “meh” by the way and barely worth mentioning.

Fried chicken, mashed potato, asparagus at The Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas

Of course, we had to get cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory even if it was to take away.  The list of cheesecakes alone was something like three pages long.  Between us we ordered the Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore, the Ultimate Red Velvet, Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple (no idea who Adam is but he makes a good cheesecake…) and the Snickers Bar Chunk.  Admittedly we ate them much later that night after consuming a great deal of gin, but they all tasted as decadent and naughty as you would expect.  From what I can recall…

Speaking of decadent and naughty, a special shout-out has to go to the Bellagio buffet.  You just know that an all-you-can eat buffet in the States is going to be crazy.  For $44 you can get unlimited food and alcohol at the Bellagio brunch buffet, and we approached it like the starving.  Actually, not eating for a good 24 hours before our visit probably would have been a good idea because we could not do it justice.  The range of food is staggering – pancakes, pasta, smoked salmon, salads, all kinds of meat and fish, sushi, pizza, cheeses….  And don’t even get me started on the desserts.  Considering the amount of food and the fact that the unlimited alcohol includes champagne, this is actually a pretty good deal.  And the Bellagio is a very cool hotel.  If they ever make Ocean’s 14, I’m definitely playing the fat one.

A sample of desserts at the Bellagio buffet in Las Vegas

So with the exception of Zefferino, which was terrible, most of the food I ate in Vegas was just kind of ok.  Then…finally….a meal that ticked all of my boxes.  A big, fat, juicy burger and fries from….the airport.  Yes, that’s right.  My best Vegas meal was actually from the PGA Tour Grill at McCarran airport.  God it was good.  Massive, but not obscenely so, and cooked to perfection with loads of cheese, salad and relish.  I can honestly say that I did not expect my best meal in Vegas to come from a bland airport restaurant.  But maybe there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

If you’re a Vegas virgin, like I was, then you can expect it to be even crazier and even better than you ever imagined.  Every taste is catered for – except perhaps the taste for mind-blowingly great food.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that, in a town that’s all about style over substance, the best restaurants are the ones that don’t expect you to be a high roller to dine there.

The Best Food and Drink of 2015

The Best Food and Drink of 2015

Yep, it’s the end of another year so time for yet another list.  Here is my round up of the best things went into my mouth over the course of 2015:

Chicken Berry Biryani from Dishoom
I visited the Kings Cross branch of Dishoom all the way back in January but I still keep raving about their biryani.  Tender meat, fluffy rice, a good amount of spice….it ticks all the biryani boxes but has the added bonus of cranberries.  Plus the restaurant itself just looks so, so sexy.

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Spaghetti with Cuttlefish and Ink Sauce from Osteria Alba Nova
Good food can be hard to find in tourist-ridden Venice, but venture away from the main hubs and you will be rewarded.  Cuttlefish cooked in ink is a local delicacy and the small, family-run restaurant of Osteria Alba Nova in Santa Croce turns out a cracking version of this.  Ink dishes can be on the heavy side but this pasta dish was as light and tasty as can be.

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Confit Duck Burger from The Frenchie
Confit duck in a burger?  It sounds like it shouldn’t work but, boy, does it ever…!  Juicy duck meat topped with crispy skin, truffled mustard, onion relish and your choice of cheese is about as naughty as you can get.  Everyone raves about the goats cheese version but my personal favourite is the smoked cheddar.  Find them at various markets around town.

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Apple Cake and Quince Vodka from Marchewka z Groskiem
There were just so many delicious things to eat and drink in Krakow and my waistline paid the price.  However, the apple cake at Marchewka z Groskiem in Kazimierz was worth the extra few pounds.  It was moist and buttery with enough apple to cut through the richness.  I washed it down with a quince vodka, another local speciality.

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Lamb Pie, Mash and Kale from 10 Greek Street
Sometimes I just want good, old fashioned British food and this pie dish from 10 Greek Street really hit the spot.  The pie was more like a pasty, instead of the usual pastry-topped casserole dish and was full to bursting with rich lamb stew.  Comfort food done properly.

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The Original Heartbreaker from Tongue ‘n’ Cheeks
I have eaten many, many burgers this year but the Original Heartbreaker is by far and away the best of the best.  The meat is smokey, rare and rich, and it’s topped with chimichurri, sour cream, cheddar and watercress.  Hunt one down at KERB – you won’t regret it.

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The Blessed Thistle from 46 & Mercy
There were tons of amazing cocktails on offer during London Cocktail Week but my top choice was the Blessed Thistle.  It is made with vodka, sherry vinegar, vermouth washed with pork fat, and thyme – a combination of ingredients that may raise an eyebrow.  However, not only do they work amazingly well together, the use of pork fat gives a delicate smoky flavour to the drink.

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Jerk Chicken from Mama’s Jerk
I well and truly stuffed my face at the various Street Feast locations this year, but the jerk chicken wings from Mama’s Jerk at Dalston Yard take the top spot.  It may not have been the sexiest looking dish ever, but simple is definitely best.  They were sticky, juicy, smoky, sweet with just enough heat behind them.  I looked like a total mess after eating them but it was worth it.

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Mutton Tikka from Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort
As one dish among over one hundred other amazing dishes at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah buffet in Oman, this mutton tikka faced stiff competition.  However, it stood out thanks to the tender meat and robust spicing. I even broke my buffet rule of going back for second helpings; it was that good.

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Sakura from Shochu Lounge
This is another fantastic drink that was available during London Cocktail Week.  Made with Nikka whisky, Cocchi Barolo Chinato vermouth, sakura tincture and plum soda, it was surprisingly sweet but tempered by the smokiness of the whisky.  A drink that I still think about to this day.

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I’m really excited about all of the potential culinary experiences that 2016 has to offer.  Does anyone have any recommendations?  If so, drop me a line; I’d be happy to hear them.

Happy New Year y’all.

Taking A Bite Out Of…Istanbul

Taking A Bite Out Of…Istanbul

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Kebabs.  They have a bit of a bad reputation to be honest.  My first experience of the delicacy known as kebab meat and chips, “fresh” out of the local chippy in Pontypool town centre, was enough to put me off for a long long time.  Even the more upmarket grilled meats of Turkish restaurants around London didn’t really help to convince me that a kebab is anything more than a greasy, stomach-churning mistake.  So would a trip to Istanbul,  the home of the kebab, change my mind?

Istanbul is a crazy, colourful, feast for the senses, and food plays a huge part in this. Everywhere you look there are stalls selling hot chestnuts, grilled corn on the cob, watermelon, fresh bread.  Ice cream vendors, wearing embroidered waistcoats and fezs, churn their thick, sticky confectionery (known as dondurma) and ring the bells above their booths.  Shop windows are piled high with Turkish delight and baklava.  And all this is before you even think about setting foot inside one of the hundreds of restaurants, lured by the smell of grilled meat and fish.

Most of our meals in Istanbul tended to follow the same pattern.  A selection of meze to start with (usually hummus, cacik, spinach in yoghurt, and smoked aubergine, with baskets of the most delicious fresh bread), followed by a kebab.  Yes, that’s right.  A kebab.  Every day.  However, in the words of Marks & Spencer, these weren’t just any kebab.  The meat was moist and flavoursome, without any hint of grease or gristle.  This was simple food, done well.

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Of course, there is more to dining out in Istanbul than just kebabs.  Fresh fish also features prominently, particularly on the Princes Islands.  This charming archipelago offers a refreshing contrast to the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.  Motor vehicles are not permitted so the best way to explore is via bicycle or horse and carriage.  We visited Buyukada, the largest of the islands, and headed straight for the Splendid Palas hotel, a beautiful turn of the century sanctuary.  We enjoyed glasses of iced peach tea in their gardens overlooking the Sea of Marmara.  When it comes to food, fish is really what it’s all about.  All of the restaurants lining the sea front have large coolers displaying the catch of the day.  We ordered a whole sea bass between three of us, which was served grilled with chips and fresh salad.  Nothing more was needed other than a squeeze of lemon.

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Turkey is also famous for its coffee.  More to the point, its rocket fuel, thermonuclear coffee that is so thick you could almost stand your spoon up in the cup.  Like kebabs, coffee has really never done much for me; however cafe culture is huge in Istanbul, so when in Rome etc etc…  Our favourite spot was a tiny little outdoor cafe underneath the Galata Tower.  There are no menus – they only serve coffee, tea and soft drinks.  Coffee was served in tiny, patterned china cups, alongside the ubiquitous bottle of water to cleanse your palate.  Groups of students and families sat around in the amphitheatre style seating area, chatting, sketching or smoking shisha.

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Istanbul is a city that challenged my culinary perceptions.  My next challenge is to find a Turkish restaurant here in London that can match all those wonderful kebabs!!!

Taking A Bite Out Of…Krakow (Part 2)

Taking A Bite Out Of…Krakow (Part 2)

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Having resigned myself to the fact that I may put on a pound or two while in Krakow (although calories on holiday don’t count, right?), it was time to fully embrace a cold weather diet.  This was helped along by the fact that the best pierogi shop in Krakow – Przystanek Pierogarnia – was situated right at the end of my street.  Pierogi are boiled dumplings usually filled with potato, cheese or meat – sometimes all three – and topped with fried onions.  This is food that really sticks to your ribs.  I went for the potato and bacon dumplings, and just kept going back for more….  Comfort food has a new name, and it’s “pierogi”.

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However, you can’t just rely on hearty food to keep you warm when the snow is falling and it’s -5C outside.  Sometimes it helps to have a nip or three of something strong and alcoholic.  Luckily, Krakow has plenty of options when it comes to all things spirituous.  Vodka is perhaps the most obvious choice but hot vodka?  Well, it warms the hands as well as the belly.  The gorgeous Cafe Camelot serves theirs mixed with cinnamon, honey and citrus fruit.  It may look elegant, but it kicks like a mule.  I made sure to soak it up with a large slice of their homemade cherry pie.

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When night falls and so does the temperature, the bohemian Jewish quarter is the place to go.  Its narrow streets are speckled with enticing, dimly lit hideaways.  I stopped off at Marchewka z Groskiem for potato pancakes with pork stew, washed down with hot Bracka beer mixed with honey and ginger, which I am sure is good for you in some way!  The pancake/stew ratio was skewed in favour of pancakes, which were a smidge too heavy and greasy for my liking; however, I still managed find room for dessert.  Possibly one of the best things about the Polish food scene is apple cake.  Moist, delicately spiced, with the sweet tang of baked apple.  Despite being overloaded with beer and potato pancakes, I still could have polished off a second piece of this cake.  Instead, I compromised with a quince vodka, which is another common sight in Krakow, and something that I can definitely recommend.

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My last morning in Krakow was spent with a heavy heart from having to shortly leave the Polish winter wonderland, and a heavy head after way too many Zubrowkas from the huge range at Ulica Krokodyli the night before.  I trudged through the snow to Cheder Cafe, which is situated in a former Jewish prayer house.   The walls are lined with bookshelves and there are squishy sofas aplenty, giving it the feel of a cosy living room rather than a cafe.  They also offer a range of hot chocolate with a difference.  So thick that it can only be imbibed with a spoon, you can drink/eat this kosher interpretation of chocolate heaven with tahini and almonds, cherry liqueur, or sea salt and chilli.

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I was fairly confident that Polish food and drink would be my kind of thing, and my visit to Krakow confirmed this.  If you are a lover of simple yet hearty comfort food, washed down with lashings of beer and vodka, then this is most definitely the place for you.  If you are watching your weight (or a vegetarian), then it is probably best avoided.  I’m now determined to find the best Polish restaurants in London, even if my liver and my skinny jeans are already protesting!

Przystanek Pierogarnia, Bonerowska 14
Cafe Camelot, Świętego Tomasza 17
Marchewka z Groskiem, Mostowa 2
Ulica Krokodyli, Szeroka 30
Cheder Cafe, Józefa 36

Wine from the Rias Baixas

Wine from the Rias Baixas

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It’s not often that wine evokes strong memories; usually it has the opposite effect.  However, I will always remember the first time I ever tried wine from the Rias Baixas region of Galicia, in north-west Spain.

We had journeyed across northern Spain, starting out from Barcelona, and our trip so far had been defined by rain, rain, and then a bit more rain.  As we headed towards the north-west coast, I wasn’t expecting anything different.  This corner of Atlantic Spain was known for it’s wild weather and it’s equally wild coastline.  When we arrived at the city of Santiago de Compostela, the rain looked like it had well and truly set in for the duration.

We went for dinner that evening at a tiny hole in the wall restaurant, the name of which I have long forgotten, although the memory of the food and drink remains.  It was the kind of place that grinds to a halt when you enter, and all the local diners stare as you make your way to the table.  There was no menu; you were served whatever was going.  In Galicia, this usually means seafood, especially shellfish freshly harvested from the rain soaked seashore.  We ate mussels and scallops, the biggest and juiciest I have ever encountered, octopus sprinkled with paprika, and razor clams.  This was all washed down with a bottle of the local white wine.

I had never tried Spanish white wine before.  In fact, I didn’t even realise that such a thing even existed.  My only experience of Spanish wine up until now had been trusty old reds.  I was delighted to discover that this was a wine of beauty.  Light and crisp, it was the perfect accompaniment to the salt water freshness of the seafood, and was both dangerously cheap and easy on the palate.  It was no great surprise that we ended up stumbling out into the glistening granite streets of Santiago more than slightly worse for wear!

I have always since struggled to find a wine that matches up to what we tried in Galicia.  Sadly, it appears that wine from the Rias Baixas doesn’t travel all that well.  However, the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Albarino comes pretty close.  It has the same drinkability, with a fresh, clean taste that makes it very easy to finish off a bottle before you even realise it.  Now that we are moving towards the warmer months, this is definitely a wine to put on your shopping list.  Although, as my experience in wet and wild Galicia testifies, you don’t necessarily need the sun to be able to enjoy Galician wine.  Which is probably just as well when you are dealing with the British summer.

Taking A Bite Out Of….Krakow (Part 1)

Taking A Bite Out Of….Krakow (Part 1)

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Winter in London is a bit of a non-event really.  On the rare occasion that it does snow, you can guarantee nothing but grey slush and deadly pavements in a matter of hours.  So this year, I decided to escape the capital for somewhere that can offer a proper winter.  The Polish city of Krakow did not disappoint.  Not only did it provide lots of fluffy white snow for me to jump around in, it is also the best place to experience good, hearty winter cuisine to warm you through.

My first meal in Krakow set the tone for my visit.  Braving the drunken hoards of the Old Town, I headed to Pod Aniolami, a traditional restaurant located in a 13th century cellar and former residence of Krakow’s goldsmiths.  Lit by candles and roaring open fires, this was a delightfully atmospheric introduction to the city.  Before my meal arrived, I was provided with a basket of rye bread and homemade lard with pork fat and bacon.  No bog-standard bread and butter here!  The stodge factor goes up to 11 in Krakow.  It tasted so good that it was an effort of will not to devour the whole lot.  Only the risk of ruining the rest of my meal stopped me.  Just as well really, as my first course was wonderfully decadent fois gras, fried in sweet Hibernal local wine, and served with homemade gingerbread and cranberries.  The gingerbread was a novel treat with the pate, but I would have preferred a few more cranberries as their sharpness was the perfect counterpart to what was an extremely rich dish.

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I had read about my main course before I even left the UK so I was particularly looking forward to it – wild boar steak marinated in juniper sauce, grilled over a beech hardwood fire and served with grilled bacon, green peppercorns and red cabbage.  If there is one dish that conjures up images of medieval Europe by its name alone, then this must be it.  Of course, it was so huge that I couldn’t even come close to finishing it (especially after the lard and the foie gras!), but it was smoky and gamey and peppery with the sharp sweetness of red cabbage.

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All of this was washed down with a Tyskie beer, but the real boozy stars of the show came after dinner.  Too stuffed to even consider a pudding, I opted to try one of the local liqueurs.  When I asked the waiter for more details on what these were, he brought over an array of colourful bottles and opened each one for me to sniff the contents.  It was a bit like being in the grown up version of the proverbial candy store.  I settled on a blackberry liqueur which was sticky and fruity and sweet – what’s not to like?  Then, as if all of that wasn’t enough, I was presented with a complimentary shot of homemade mint vodka.  It should have tasted like mouthwash, except it really didn’t.  In fact, I could have drunk quite a few more shots were it not for the fact that I would have ended up like Mr Creosote.  “Just one more wafer-thin mint vodka?”

Taking A Bite Out Of….Venice (Part 2)

Taking A Bite Out Of….Venice (Part 2)

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I was starting to get more than a little disenchanted with Venetian dining.  Everywhere was just so damn expensive!  After wandering for what felt like hours on Saturday night, trying to find a suitable restaurant, I was almost ready to give up and head back to the apartment in a sulk.  However, I then remembered walking past an interesting little restaurant earlier that day – and amazingly I actually managed to find it again!  Osteria Alba Nova was cosy, dimly lit, and had an appealing menu that didn’t cost the earth.  My smug satisfaction only increased when I was directed towards their specials board – wild boar, guinea fowl, duck….  I knew I had stumbled onto something good.

In complete contrast to my experience at Osteria Ae Sconte, my food took a respectable amount of time to be served, reassuring me that someone was actually cooking it from scratch.  My first course of spaghetti with cuttlefish and an ink sauce was incredible.  I had been a little worried that I would find the dish too heavy, even more so when I saw the generous size of the portion, but this was not the case at all.  Ink based dishes can be very rich but this was light and infinitely edible; I cleared my plate and would gladly fly back to Venice just for another bowl.  Next up was duck in a pomegranate sauce.  It didn’t look like much on the plate but the tender and delicately spiced meat was delicious.  I got the impression that this is a family run restaurant – there only seemed to be three people working there and the service was charming without being overbearing.  I know of quite a few London restaurants that should take lessons from this place!

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The next day the sun was shining, I could almost convince myself that it was warm, and the Grand Canal was at the height of it’s beauty.  Only one thing could complete this picture: pizza.  I don’t know where this sudden craving came from.  I never order pizza when I dine out and I was right next to the Rialto of all places, an area crammed with “menu turistico” and lurking waiters, poised to ambush the unsuspecting tourist.  Plus, I had been reliably informed that pizza in Venice is rubbish.  However, I had passed a restaurant called Vinaria several times over the course of my visit and thought it looked worth a try – sleek, smart, not tacky, and with a collection of locals gathered in the bar area.  So is it possible to find decent, inexpensive pizza in the heart of Venice?  With 17 different varieties on the menu at Vinaria, you would struggle to find at least one that you didn’t like.  I chose the “Fogher” – radicchio, gorgonzola and walnuts.  It’s a good sign when even the crust tastes amazing and, at 10 euros, it really was a bit of a bargain.

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A trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without making like a local and visiting one of the city’s bacaros.  These little wine bar cum tapas joints are spread throughout Venice, and are usually packed full with people propping up the bar and chowing down on cheap yet tasty snacks.  There was a bacaro only a few minutes from my apartment – Osteria da Filo – which attracted masses of people every night.  So many people couldn’t be wrong, could they?  I braved the crowds on my last night and was glad that I did.  Cheap (and GOOD!) wine by the glass and a range of nibbles such as mini sandwiches, toasts, hummus, and meatballs, plus a buzzing atmosphere and some great music makes it a place well worth visiting.

So….Venice…..one of the most beautiful cities in the world but is it’s reputation for poor dining justified?  On the surface perhaps it is, but if you are prepared to put in a bit of effort and scratch the surface, perhaps venture away from the touristy areas, then you will be rewarded.

Osteria Alba Nova, Lista vecchia dei bari, Santa Croce 1252
Vinaria, Riva del Vin, San Polo 1097
Osteria da Filo, Calle de Tintor, Santa Croce

Taking A Bite Out Of….Venice (Part 1)

Taking A Bite Out Of….Venice (Part 1)

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Thank God for Skyscanner and the boredom of a long, dark winter.  One spur of the moment decision later, and I’m off to Venice for the first time ever.  How have I waited so long to visit this most beautiful of cities??  I envisaged dimly lit alleyways, hidden squares, and narrow bridges over dark water.  Mist rolling in from the lagoon and echoing footsteps.  A place that has inspired tales of murder, lust and the supernatural.  It did not disappoint.  However, Venice may be a place of great beauty, but I had read that it is not a place for great food.  Apparently you should consider yourself lucky if you manage to eat somewhere that is average.  Hmmm…not a good outlook.  So I was determined to hunt down good food in Venice – that wouldn’t break the bank.  A tricky proposition?

On my first night in town I completely failed at this.  Despite my landlady recommending several restaurants nearby, they were either fully booked or closed for the winter.  I decided to fall back on Trip Advisor and chose a nearby restaurant with plenty of good reviews – Osteria Ae Sconte.  Not only did the Trip Advisor app have the restaurant placed incorrectly – so it was actually nowhere near my apartment – when I did eventually find it, it was disappointment heaped upon disappointment.  It was lit in such a way that it resembled a service station cafe and the quality of the food wasn’t much better.

A caprese salad was served where the “green” element was made up of rocket instead of fresh basil – how any self respecting Italian chef could let that leave the kitchen I do not know.  I actually ate a far superior example of this in Byron Bay, Australia, for God’s sake!  I skipped the primi platti and went straight for the secondi – cuttlefish cooked in it’s ink and served with polenta, which is a local delicacy.  The polenta looked and tasted like it had been bought from a supermarket and warmed up in the oven.  I couldn’t eat it.  The cuttlefish was heavy and uninspiring.  Even more horrifying was the bill; the whole sorry lot totalled 56 euros.  For one person.

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Cost was a problem that raised it’s ugly head repeatedly during my stay in Venice.  In a country where four courses are the norm – antipasti, primi, secondi, dolce – and in a city where each of those courses costs roughly between 15 and 25 euros, dining out can be an expensive experience.  Burned from my evening at Osteria Ae Sconte, I decided to limit myself to one “big” meal per day and to graze on whatever I fancied during other times.  Fortunately there are endless opportunities for snacking, from all the wonderful bakeries scattered throughout the city to the local bacaros – the Italian version of a tapas bar where you can grab a drink and small snacks known as cicchetti.  When visiting the island of Burano, I sampled a pane Napoli – warm, soft folded bread with chunks of pancetta throughout.  So simple but perfect on a cold day.  I also couldn’t resist nipping in and out of the various pasticceria.  The smell of fresh baking as you walk past one of these can tempt even the staunchest of dieters!

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So did I ever manage to find a restaurant that served good, reasonably priced food?  Stay tuned to find out….

Osteria Ae Sconte, Castello 5533, Corte Perini – S.Lio