Sunday, 30 December 2012

Clinton Street Bakery, New York

It's my brother's first time in New York. Sunday morning saw us head for breakfast at the famous Clinton St Bakery to sample some of their celebrated blueberry pancakes. We arrived at 8.45am to a queue stretching back half a block.

We were unfortunate in that we were just past the point in the queue that represented the first round of diners. And we also had an awkward number (four for breakfast). 

'Wait outside for 45 minutes, honey' we were told. It was -4c and not all of us had roadkill to keep us toasty, but we thought we'd wait. 

We waited.. 
and waited... 
and... 
waited.

We got inside a whole 2 hours later, having ducked into the coffee shop opposite to save our toes.





Three went for the pancakes and one for the Clinton St omelette. 

Whoever said the best things in life are worth waiting for would be eating his pancake with a generous portion of words. Our food arrived and although like most things American it looked sensational; scratch the surface and you're left wondering how something so attractive can disappoint so spectacularly. We chomped down our plates of battery blandness and paid $90 for the pleasure. Total waste of time, better bank the calorie credit for a hot Auntie Anne's cinnamon pretzel.







Saturday, 29 December 2012

Instagram Round Up

Christmas has come.. and gone, almost as unexpectedly as the bright shiny baubles in every window display, office block and school. I went on my first 'blogging holiday' to concentrate on some lovely things/ people that required my undivided attention. They still do of course, but a girl's got to prioritise (somehow). 

Here are the best bits from the past few weeks...


Piano Lessons

Since I start working full-time in March I've decided that I need to put these idle hands to good use. Having considered various potentially useless skills, I decided to take up the piano.  A few lessons in and I've finally got BA-BA BLACKSHEEP down.

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Brasserie Zedel

We checked out London's new Brasserie Zedel, opened by the good people behind the Wolsey and The Delauny. The food was pretty yum and terrifically good value, although the ambiance of the place reminded me a bit of a school cafeteria; rows upon rows of diners in a huge cavernous space and a slight pong of plimsoles.

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Great Minds Spend Alike

I'm all about the novelty factor. Vanessa is also a connoisseur of all things kitsch- hence our matching Japanese coin-purses.

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Russian Exhibition at the Saatchi and Middle Eastern Exhibition at the V&A

Utterly marvelous exhibition of photography of Russian prison tattoos and of naked homeless people by Mikhailov.


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Sunsets on The Serpentine

Now, I like churros and weihnachtskekse as much as the next broad; so obviously I understand the appeal of winter wonderland. But does it come close to a quiet sunset on the serpentine? Nope.



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Anti-Gravity Yoga

No one likes gravity and although exercise is not an antidote to anything - hanging out in a red silk sling has a certain inexplicable appeal and leaves me feeling pretty neat. Try it at Virgin Active, Kensington.


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Parisian Food

Spent the afternoon in Paris. Great food. Needs no further explanation.


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Christmas

Christmas with friends and family. All my unbelievable girlfriends were on top form, hosting amazing parties and cooking unbelievable mouth watering delights. The Christmas Turkey at Luna Cafe Knightsbridge was the most staggering bird in town. 

I made my own valuable contribution with my famous artisanal mince pies. Can you believe I made these from scratch? You better believe it. My family refused to eat them but they were gobbled up by Santa, so they must have been good.



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Monday, 24 December 2012

Better Choco-LATE than never : William Curley Chocolate

One of my best friends Vanessa (Check out her blog), who sadly lives in Switzerland came to stay with me for a few days. Now I was very excited about this. Vanessa and I share a love for all things tasty, all things sweet and especially chocolate.

Now V is a woman of the world - good luck impressing one of those. So I thought I'd pull out my trump card and take her to Willy's Chocolate Factory...


Bet you're now sitting up and paying attention? Good.

William Curley is a British chocolatier and has been voted Britain's Best Chocolatier four times. His chocolate is the most exquisite I've ever had. His sea-salt caramels will have all your dinner guests purring. For the adventurous palate try the toasted sesame, apricot and wasabi or Szechaun pepper.

He has a Belgravia Cafe/ Boutique where V and I gorged on flavour after flavour. In the throes of cocoa-induced ecstasy one of us (okay it was me) may have tweet-proposed to the great man. Unfortunately for my sweet-tooth, he's married to the super-talented Japanese chef, Suzue Curley who brings her own amazingly exotic flavours to his creations- and you sure as hell don't mess with that shizzle. You can try their amazing confections in their Richmond or Belgravia boutique or at the Harrods concession.

198 Ebury Street
Belgravia
London
SW1W 8UN

Tel:0207 730 5522




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Friday, 14 December 2012

Extract from piece for The Arbuturian

It's a happy morning. Happy because I've had a piece on my adventures in Macau published as a feature in The Arbuturian- Link


The Arbuturian is a magazine for the globetrotting connoisseur with an appetite for adventure and a taste for the highlife. We publish intelligent content for a cultured readership who seek a playful yet highbrow approach to a diverse range of subject matter.
In 2012 the magazine was shortlisted as a finalist at the British Travel Press Awards for Best Online Consumer Travel Publication of the Year, alongside The Telegraph, The Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller.


Macau: A Gambling Odyssey


I’m sitting in the Super Class of the TurboJet feeling slightly seasick as I try to figure out why the first class compartment smells like an onion bhaji and how much more lurching my rickety sea legs can withstand before my keyboard plays host to last night’s dim sum. As I’m cruising through the South China Sea, I close my eyes and think of all things good. Billy Joel. Fondant fancies. The way Scarlett O’Hara cocks her eyebrow in Gone with the Wind. Luckily, my limited imagination only needs to occupy me for the next 50 minutes, which is when I’ll arrive to my port of call (literally), Macau.
A former Portuguese colonial outpost an hour from Hong Kong, Macau is China’s only gambling destination. Whilst the pursuit has been outlawed on the mainland since the Communist party took power in 1949, the Chinese are a nation of inveterate gamblers. Here high-risk bets are cushioned with a healthy dose of superstition and more often than not a hand in the public coffers; so it’s unsurprising that the vessel I’m travelling on is packed. As a somewhat incongruous visitor to the aptly named Pearl River Estuary, I haven’t come to seek my fortune and leave with a suitcase full of Patacas. Me and Lady Luck have never been on good terms and when I invariably lose, Lady Solace doesn’t much like me either; so much for female solidarity.
The city is simply another lily pad on my oriental odyssey, but I’ve heard enough cautionary tales to leave my heart slightly aflutter at the prospect of five nights here. There’s something forlorn about the new Macau. Once cheerful confection-coloured buildings sit faded against a slate sky blemished with glossy skyscrapers. I’ve never read a Gabriel García Márquez novel, but decide that there’s something very ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ in this bleached colonial splendour. The title of the book has always captivated me, to the point where I refuse to read it having entirely written it in my head. Today it is set in Macau to the soundtrack of Cantonese spliced with the reedy murmur of Portuguese cicadas. There are signs with ‘Los’ this and ‘Las’ that adorning enterprises from butcher to baker to candlestick maker, but beyond my rudimentary “pass the peri-peri” Portuguese, I’ve no clue what any of them mean.
However, much like the signs, this Mediterranean tapestry is slowly fading. The colours are now watery, having somehow seeped into the neon casinos, which beckon in their phosphorescent mirage of infinite possibility. Casino capitalism has cast a quaint transformative glow over the once venerable cathedrals and baroque architecture, today syrupy tourist traps or decaying ruins. Those who profit would say it’s a small price to pay in a city whose gross gambling revenues dwarf those of Vegas five times or when $600 billion dollars was wagered in Macau in 2010, nearly double the gross national income of Austria.
The Venetian Macau is the world’s largest casino comprised of 10.5 million square feet of pure ostentatious seduction and in your face opulence with more marble and gold leaf than a Gadaffi residence. The replica Venetian canal manned by serenading Asian gondoliers overwhelms even my Benthamite soul and my eyes start to water uncontrollably through the thick smog of tobacco.
Strangely, I feel like the only Westerner in this place, a cursory glance around reveals that I probably am. This is possibly why I end up ushered down a labyrinth of corridors to a high stakes game in a private room. Allow me to shatter your Casino Royale illusion of a woman in a slinky backless dress and dapper gents in tuxedos. This stage is not solemn and its players aren’t suave or faintly glossy. It is a wild shrieking chicken fight of a scene, although admittedly I’m still getting used to the vociferant tones of Cantonese. Only one person at the table of Beijing officials and shadowy smokers speaks English.
Mr Wu is a regular at The Venetian. He has the good-natured twinkle of team mascot with a caricatured roundness to his person. We talk gaming and Macau. He tries to explain what he can in his phonetic English; elaborate hand gestures do the rest. Mr Wu tells me that he loves to gamble. He flies into Macau every two weeks and his poison is the slot machines. He gets several machines at a time and bets $1000 US Dollars per spin; the machines spin every four seconds. As he talks about his big wins I can’t help but notice the dollar signs in his glazed eyes. Mr Wu is now trying to explain what he does for a living. He can’t think of the word and we are back to hand gestures. There are pointing fingers and some thumping. I tell him that I understood him perfectly. The man is in construction, probably drilling. The game ends and I’ve watched enough mob movies to make a speedy exit. Any one of these fellas could be a cheesed off card shark or general baddy and I decide that on this occasion being buried in cement is an adventure too far.
Back at the hotel I get chatting to the manager. Turns out Mr Wu, local legend and lothario isn’t in construction after all. He is the condom king of China. I should have known; no one makes that face when they’re drilling.
The days slink by with a strange slippery magic of Ed Marlo and a pack of cards. I don’t return to the casino, preferring to wander the city meeting other misfits lured here by wanderlust or a roll of the dice. We lunch in the quaint Chino-Portuguese cafes all serving the local delicacy of crumbly almond cookies and egg custard tarts. The afternoons are silent affairs involving big heavy books and perspiring icy drinks; away from the casinos and vice not much happens here, we are suspended in time without action. Such hazy stretches kindle utopian fantasies, a distorted sense of your own tiny importance and grand half-baked ideas.
From the boat I watch the banyan trees disappear into the horizon and finger the chip in my pocket that I kept as a memento. I think about the people I met; all losers. None of us left the baccarat table any richer, but what we squandered in bills we found in abstract sangria-fuelled enlightenment. Gambling is the ultimate act of faith where each loss only strengthens your initial hope and in Macau it’s in the air, even if you don’t play it rubs off on you, making believers out of heretics. As I was leaving, Jane, an elderly American with the Southern twang of someone raised below the Mason-Dixon, tells me the secret of her success: according to Chinese superstition behind every gaming table is a baby ghost, so she always carries sugar cubes with her to feed the ghost and help her win.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Review: Grand Hotel Europe St Petersburg, Russia

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed in a lot of spectacular hotels, from back to basics hostels in breath-taking locations to full-on shrines to luxury.

But like a first love, there’s always been that one ultimate hotel before which all others hobble like knights in rusty armor. Yet affections can be uncertain things for there’s a new contender for the number one spot: The Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg.

Since we were only in St Petersburg for 4 days we decided to stay at the Grand. It is situated in the very heart of the city; The Winter Palace and Hermitage are a short walk, The Russian Museum, the Philharmonic Society and the Mikhailovsky Theatre literally on the doorstep.

The Grand Hotel Europe is as much a historic landmark of St Petersburg as The Hermitage or St Isaac’s Cathedral. Designed by Rossi in the style of La Belle Époque as the grandest hotel of the 1800s and Eastern Europe’s first five star. Today it remains an exquisite example of elegance and refinement. Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon here, Pavarotti refused to stay anywhere else, and it continues to welcome heads of state and celebrities.




The Room

We were staying on the first floor in one of the historic suites (link), with an adjoining historic room accessible through a connecting door.

As the door opened to reveal room 109, The Yacht Suite, my eyes were greeted by one of the most elegant and beautiful interiors imaginable. I couldn’t help but let out a very Russian ‘OPA’ .

Executed in sumptuous creams and soft eggshell blues, towering six meter ceilings, crystal chandeliers, antique furnishings and original art, walk in wardrobe, fresh roses, champagne and the hotel’s legendary chocolate confections presented in an edible chocolate piano. The hotel’s signature warm amber fragrance lingered softly in the air. My senses were in raptures.













The suite had all the modcons you would expect from a 5 star with the addition of a built in television, which emerged from the foot of my king sized bed at the flick of a button. As well as this, each historical suite came with its own personal butler; our butler Misha very kindly offered to unpack our suitcases and got us tickets to the Russian Museum.

Despite the suite’s considerable size, it had an incredible coziness with everything designed to mimic the comfort of home. Even the kitchen was filled with a great range of snacks and the evening turn-down service furnished us with further tasties ranging from freshly baked cookies to chocolate covered strawberries.

I skyped my mother back in London but her stoicism cracked as she  sternly reminded me that despite my exultation,'there’s no place like home’- 'well then mummy, good job you decided to stay in London'; she wasn't impressed.











The Facilities

The entire property is utterly beautiful with lustrous art noveau and art deco interiors incased in a building, which architecturally speaks to the days of the Russian Empire. Marvelously, all the original features of have been preserved and there’s a weighty sense of history about the place.

The vast range of restaurants and bars caters to all tastes, from Russian food at The Caviar Bar (link) and Restaurant, to Italian, Chinese and modern European in L’Europe (link)which is the jewel in the crown of St Petersburg dining.

But the one thing I had most of had to be the chocolate, so boy was I glad there was a 24 hour gym onsite for my midnight workouts.






Overview

We absolutely loved The Grand and it really is one of those special places that you wistfully leave behind, heavy hearted and slightly glum as you return to wherever home is. However, I wasn’t morose for long as another family trip is scheduled for summer and you’ve guessed where we’re staying….





Sunday, 9 December 2012

St Petersburg: Russian Food and The Hermitage

When you think about it, Russian food is sort of nasty.  Nasty can be good. It can also be very bad-  and not in a good way.

Since I was in St Petersburg, I was going to take my chances and hope for the best...

Chaika

Chaika is a new restaurant in St Petersburg designed to evoke retro 70s Soviet nostalgia. The food on the menu is pretty traditional, bit of Soviet peasant cuisine, loads of kartoshka, pirojki and rye bread. Songs from silver screen Russian classics blare loudly whilst films run on the projector above the bar. We ordered most things from the menu to share. The best was probably the sausages, stuffed eggplant and the chocolate eclairs with creme patisserie (the Great British Bake-off means I can differentiate between different kinds). 


















After dinner it was snowing cats and dogs. A Russian granny took a shine to my dad and asked him to escort her to the metro,'god forbid I should slip'- yes, that old chestnut.



We then popped into 'Dom Knig' St Petersburg's most famous bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt where dad browsed the aisles and I sat in the cafe with the most delicious milky cocoa drink.












The Winter Palace and the Hermitage State Museum

Back home I'm leave-it-don't-take-it when it comes to museums and exhibitions. But since on holiday my time doesn't get sucked down into a black hole of procrastination I'll happily spend an afternoon trudging around admiring the art.

The Hermitage was built by Catherine the Great and is one of the world's largest and oldest museums. We were shown around by a guide spending nearly five hours on the Italian renaissance, Italian and Spanish fine art, The Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque.

Funny thing about the Hermitage is that the interiors are so opulent that it was only when I looked back at my photos that I realised I'd taken more photos of the bling than the art. Nevertheless, looking at the work of the old masters was definitely one of the highlights of my trip and an absolute must-do for any visitor to the city.
















Rembrandt


















Leonardo da Vinci