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Monday, 9 February 2015

Berners Tavern: Atherton soars through London!

Since leaving Gordon Ramsey in 2010, Jason Atherton has taken the restaurant world by storm, soaring his way through Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London and [soon to be] Dubai. It's been a while since I've been to Asia (when I was there, you probably would've been more likely to find me shoving my face into a bowl of street food instead of engaging in fine dining etiquette), but I have not missed the chance to sample his wares in London. Since the triumphant Pollen Street Social, we've seen the likes of Little Social, Social Eating House and City Social spanning across Mayfair, Soho, Fitzrovia, and into The City to create a demi 'social' empire. Not content with this though, he's now also pitched up camp at the Town Hall Hotel in the trendy east (filling the shoes of Nuno Mendes at Viajante), and the London Edition in the thriving West End. It is the latter that I nod my head today, after recently filling up at Berners Tavern.

Almost ballroom sized, with triple height ceilings, this is a very open plan dining room that somehow remarkably manages to feel warm, cosy and intimate. Impressive chandeliers pay subtle homage to Carl Faberge and the artwork adorning the walls leave no inch of wall uncovered - I feel like I've just walked into a stately reception hall that should be candlelit and butler clad. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the pseudo grandeur though, I am hit by a soulful dining room filled with the sound of casual conversation, unbridled laughter and a welcoming host. With a separate entrance from Berners Street, you need not acknowledge that this is infact a hotel at all, which I'm sure will be appealing to many...

This is infact the second time I've eaten here (the first being for breakfast at the back end of 2014), so I thought I knew how to contain giddy urges, but upon reviewing the menu, there was rather a lot to get excited about! I owe this to my brother, but I strongly believe that if we are to eat an animal, we should (1) be willing to use and eat all of it, and (2) know where it comes from, or more specifically, how it gets to your plate. Delighted I was then, to see a pigs head on the menu, not to mention a plethora of regionally sourced foodstuffs including, but not limited to Colchester crab, Highland venison and Cornish cod. I didn't order the pigs head because I don't care for fois gras, but I regretted that decision because it was utterly delicious, perfectly balanced by the pickled onions, which also took me back to those made by my mother growing up (Crispy pigs head, fois gras and black pudding, watercress and pickled onion salad with sauce gribiche - £12).

Starter: Ironbark pumpkin risotto, smoked ham 
hock, crispy quail egg & kale crisps - £12
I wonder if the goal here then, is to present you with all the foods you grew up with in a British home, but to refine them until it's not just your memories that are tantalised, but your tastebuds too. Opting for the pumpkin risotto with caution (I've had one too many starchy or solid risotto's in my time!), I was blown away by its simplicity being so completely perfect - cooked expertly to my taste, an ideal starter portion, salty/sweet ham hock, with crispy kale chips for texture (Ironbark pumpkin risotto, crispy quail egg, smoked ham hock, kale crisps - £12). With my cyclical red meat craving looming, I resist the venison (I'm not sure how though!), selecting the Grass Fed British Rib Eye 10oz (£33), with triple cooked chips and Bernaise sauce (why would you put anything else on a steak?!). Cooked pink and tender, delivered to my table in all it's glory as an unadulterated slab of meat #salivating!

Continuing the theme into dessert, I had an éclair, a charming and delicious éclair (Apple caramel éclair, calvados cream, salted caramel ice cream - £8.50). Admittedly, this wasn't the average éclair you trundle down to your local baker in your pyjamas for, but when presented on the menu next to a trifle (Rhubarb trifle, crispy meringue, lemon ice cream - £8.50) and rice pudding (Warm apple + pear rice pudding, cinnamon crumble ice cream - £8.50), I couldn't help but feel as though I was at home! Hold on, should I have brought my slippers?!

What a treat this place is, hey! Not bank breaking, not pretentious, just simple food done exceptionally well...congratulations and thank you for putting that menu infront of me.

Grass Fed British Rib Eye 10oz, triple cooked chips & bernaise sauce - £33 
Apple caramel eclair, calvados cream, salted caramel ice cream - £8.50

Square Meal Berners Tavern on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 7 February 2015

ESPECIAL: Mexican Reflection...

Upon my reflections of 2014 and the obligatory attempts at foresight for 2015, I realise that since 2007 I have spent not just all my time, money and efforts on trotting around the globe, but I've also allowed my mind to be consumed by the next journey, whatever it might be - I yearn for discovery and am desperate for degrees of adventure to satisfy my unrepentant curiosity. Indeed, for as long as I can recall, I've fantasised of far away lands and have had incessant distant dreams of a path less trodden or people less understood. 

I started travelling to see the world, to learn by exploiting chance and to answer questions. Seven years later, I still crave the unexpected, I'm still asking questions and I still haven't found anything to beat the "never seen/felt/heard/experienced that before" feeling. The prose may look different in my thirties than in my comparatively carefree twenties, but the determination to be less ordinary remains. I look out to the world in wonder, glimpsing into the lives and homes of others with fascination and awe, taking part as much as I can. I opened a door that I can't seem to close, so here I find myself arbitrarily trying to document the tiny slice of an experience that can be quantified. Enter Mexico...

As an experienced traveller, I was surprised by my mixed feelings towards Mexico. On the one hand, I imagined the brash and overindulgent Americana party scenes of Cancun (incidentally, a spectacle I'd rather avoid), while on the other, I considered with trepidation, the country's persistent drug trade, the rising instability in neighbouring Guatemala and the [perceived] risk to western tourists of theft, mugging, kidnapping and the suchlike. In between all of these thoughts though, I couldn't shake the desire to explore more of Central America and I was itching to swim in the cenotes (infamous sinkholes), step onto the beaches and explore the Mayan ruins.

Beach on Cancun's Hotel Zone
CANCUN was almost exactly what I thought it might be, in good and bad ways, but I can tell you that I unless I was bound for one of the more remote islands (Isla Holbox for example), it's not the sort of place I'd frequent. We splashed out on Ritz Cartlon Cancun for our first couple nights and despite disappearing into the clutches of a resort on an even larger resort (commonly known as the Hotel Zone), we were greeted with a perfect white powdery beach, lining the bright azure blue wild ocean waters; the staff were super friendly, The Club Grill offered remarkable cuisine, with the most outstanding service I have seen in a long while, and the Sunday brunch spread was superbly indulgent. I wouldn't dare utter a bad word about our experience thus far, so to explain why I wouldn't go back is to remark on the façade of it all. Cancun is akin to Las Vegas or Dubai, but instead of desert and Elvis or camel polo, you have a beach, sombreros and tacos! There are dance parties, happy hour promotions, club promoters, greased up scenes of youthful debauchery, and western food outlets everywhere. Cue imminent departure..

Using the very reliable and desperately cheap ADO bus service, we travelled 4.5 hours to the Yucatan capital of MERIDA and were delighted to find on arrival, that the atmosphere was immediately different. We jumped into one of the many cabs at the station, chuckled with the driver over the carnage that was his car interior, then checked into the Hotel Marionetas, which was so refreshingly humble and homely (see my full review on Trip Advisor). The city was vibrant and alive with crowds, the Plaza Mayor was brimming with all sorts of folk, and the shops were plentiful - we bought a genuine panama hat and got a table at a recommend locals restaurant. We were craving a spot of salsa or reggaeton after dinner, so we set about to find a dancehall. On our quest, we found the Angel of the Independence monument, which was a pleasant surprise (must do more pre-reading about areas!), and we walked past some rather expensive looking real estate; we even saw Starbucks (twice) and a couple gentlemans bars, but alas, no dancehalls. Instead, we settled into a deliciously kitsch bar playing 1990's musical triumphs and got entirely inebriated on what can only be described as a sugary pink alcopop-esque sparkling wine (possibly a Lambrusco Russo for those of you who recall turning your puke pink as a teenager on the sordid stuff!).

Should you be interested (and you should!), Merida is a fantastic location from which to explore further afield too. We missed a formal tour to CELESTUN, but amidst the poor appraisal of the local tourist board (why would you not recognise the money-making benefits to organising both half and full day tours!), we discovered that the local buses also journeyed there multiple times per day - it was cheaper and far more adventurous, so off we popped with some snacks and smug sense of achievement on our own. In a little under 2 hours, we arrived a quiet little coastal town and sought out the beach to find some soul with a boat who'd be willing to take us to see the flamingos! We were in luck and for a small sum, we joined a few other folk to venture out to sea where we saw pelicans, flamingos and even a baby crocodile, of all things. Upon returning to the beach for a fresh fish dinner, we watched all the fishermen return to shore and sat peacefully as the glorious sun set over the horizon. Idyllic really, when you think of it.

God only knows where we went after that (I love a bit of random!), but a truly delightful local chap took us to three amazing cenotes (one of which was ours privately for just a measly few pesos!), some fascinating ruins and a peaceful hacienda for lunch (or in my case a giant plate of plantain...mmm!).

Next stop was CAMPECHE, an ancient walled city and port, only 2.5 hours by bus from Merida. We checked into Hotel Socaire (see my full review on Trip Advisor), admiring the cobbled streets and colourful buildings within the walls. Despite people milling around here, there was a general sense of calm, especially within the walls of the old town, and I began to realise that the Mayan people were consistently showing themselves to be a very gentle, hospitable, calm and warm collective.

There are two things I should share about Campeche! (1) Playa Bonita is absolutely not bonita (beautiful), rather quite surreal, a little scabby and not somewhere I would've felt comfortable strutting around in a bikini (not that I ever really "strut" in a bikini, you understand, but there were too many awkward looking gawping fellows loitering around my liking!). The bus ride there though, was much fun as it scuttled through so many local villages, all that looked to be crumbling and worn at the seams. (2) Edzna is a special and serene place, worthy of your time if you want to see more of the ancient Mayan ruins. You can get a local mini bus there from the other side of the food market, which in itself, was a buzzing hub outside of the town walls - the bus stop is not immediately obvious (naturally!), but if you wander around the market area long enough, you'll see a gaggle of mini buses clustered together (they'll leave when full enough!). It's all part of the adventure, you see!

Our penultimate stop took us 4.5 hours down the road, closer to the Guatemala border and further into the jungle to PALENQUE. After checking into Hotel Chablis (see my full review on Trip Advisor) and without much time to waste (we were only staying for two nights), we booked what we came for: a tour to Yaxchilan & Bonampak. It was to take us as close to the border as we could get, to see more mystical ruins, accessible by long boat, 45 minutes down the Usumacinta River. We also booked a tour to Cascadas de Agua Azul, which was pleasing to me because aside from caves and adrenaline inducing endeavours (except bungee jumping because that's insane, not to mention impossible!), I always love a waterfall, especially ones that I can either swim in or walk behind - here, we did both. I promptly then busted my leg, which left me hobbling around like an invalid with tourettes for a few days! With a stick and a decreased capacity to feel shame though, I shuffled on. Palenque itself was not nearly as tiny and remote as I thought it was going to be and I rather liked the atmosphere in the town, which had plenty of restaurants, bars and people (a rather disproportionate number of pharmacies too, but who was I to grumble in light of my aforementioned enfeebled leg!).
Mojito Bar in Tulum

Having already accepted that we wouldn't be able to simply 'cut through' Guatemala and Belize to get back up to Cancun (damn civil unrest!), we instead boarded an overnight bus to TULUM, braced for a bad nights sleep and stocked up to the eyeballs with snacks and pop! Uolis Nah was to be our final resting place and I was hoping that we wouldn't be walking straight back into a miniature Cancun (see my full review on Trip Advisor). Much to my endless satisfaction then, I was delighted to find a tiny bohemian Mexicana town, brimming with gift shops, rustic restaurants and a free spirit. 

The closest beach was Playa Paraiso and it was gorgeous - here was a place that felt to be straddling local and tourist life by equal measure even if the reality swerved to the latter! Lined with expensive looking eco lodges and beach bungalows, there was not a giant or gaudy resort in sight, yet it still oozed all the splendour of a beautiful beach location! What a supremely superior spot when compared to Cancun I'd say.

If you fancy a day away from the beach, then you can take a 20 minute bus ride to Xel'Ha, which is an all-inclusive style nature park full of funtastic things to do. It's all rather Americanised (sorry Yanks, but you do seem to err on the side of organised fun in a risk-free / culture-free resort style environment), but if you put that aside, it's actually very well thought out! You can eat/drink as much as you like, you can snorkel, zip line, dive off cliffs, swim with dolphins and relax in a luxury spa. 

Do you want to know the best thing about Tulum though?! We made friends with local waiters on our last night and finally found somewhere to have a dance to reggaeton! Tulum was such a fantastic place to end a holiday and I thank you Mexico, for your hospitality. 

May the adventures endure, the questions evolve, and the world continue to fascinate, intrigue and amaze.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Dub Jam jerk and perks!

After nurturing a rather prolonged craving for fried plantain, I recently took it upon myself to scour the streets for a Caribbean restaurant within a lazy strolling radius of the office. Thankfully for me, a dear friend whose never been adverse to shoving her face into a bowl of rice, chicken & peas, was due to celebrate a birthday, so I could think of no better opportunity to share the joy than by booking a table at the minuscule dining room of Dub Jam, a jerk BBQ and rum shack conveniently located in Covent Garden!

With a surf board for a demi-bar and an open kitchen (a kitchenette may be more accurate), this tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment is attached to The Adventure Bar and can seat no more than 20 people in close proximity, not too dissimilar to the average pokey pop-up du jour! With graffiti emblazoned over all walls, some smashing neon letter signs (I couldn't guess where they were all from, but the 'M' was definitely stolen from Ronald McDonald!), and a raggaeton heavy playlist gracing the room, it certainly is a super cool bijou eatery. Thumbs up from me so far.

Unfortunately though, whomever took my booking made a mistake and our table was being taken by another group who'd been waiting for a while already. A free round of rum shots later, we ventured downstairs into The Adventure Bar, where we could purchase a bottle of bubbles while we waited. Staff were super friendly so far and I was with a cracking crowd, so the wait didn't really bother any of us too much and when our table became available, we were all a little bubble happy already. A round of orders were made and despite the overwhelming disappointment at hearing there was no curried goat patties left (Punky Raggae Patty - £4.95), we all suddenly realised how hungry we were - I do wish I hadn't realised how willing I was to chew my arm off though, because the ensuing wait for tucker was oh so long! We watched multiple trays of chow go downstairs before ours arrived (you can take food down, but cannot bring drinks up...que?!?!), but when it did all finally arrive, it was DELICIOUS! The Jerk Chicken Burger (£7.50), with extra cheese (£2.00) was tender and full of flavour while the Sunshine Slaw (£3.50) was made with coconut and turned out to be an unexpectedly big hit for me. Meanwhile, KJ's Sweet Potato Chips (£3.60) and the Island Cob (£3.50) were positively mouth-watering and my friend did indeed dive face first into a good portion of Rice 'n' Peace (£3.50). With everyone's head down, reminiscent of feeding time at a farm, I think I can safely appraise the cooking talents here and as such, I have to be a fan! Such a shame then, that this was tainted somewhat with our lost booking and long waits...most importantly of all though (for me, least!), where was the plantain?! There's even a picture of it on the website, but nowhere to be seen on the menu...I was then and remain now, utterly distraught!

Overall then, Dub Jam is casual cavity, with an amazing soundtrack! It will deliver you fantastically unfussy basket food, cooked very well and priced right. Service was also excellent and super friendly, and much to my endless delight, it's the kind of place that makes you really want to thank everyone for their hospitality when you leave! I wish our experience had been a little more slick and that plantain had been on the menu, but this aside, I would definitely, but cautiously recommend that others give it a go. 

PS. Thank you for having us Dub Jam! The music rocks, the decor is cool, the vibe is welcoming, the staff are great and the food is cracking...

Square Meal Dub Jam on Urbanspoon