Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Whitstable Oyster Festival

Shocking really that as a Kentish girl I had never before visited Whitstable, to right this wrong I head down this past weekend in search of oysters.

Upon arrival we were immediately swept up in the throng, for those who don't know, The Whitstable Oyster Festival attracts up to 10000 people (to this little sleepy seaside town - that is a lot) many of them there for the opening day it seemed, good food and fine weather combining to make this a great day out for anyone, even if you don't like oysters.

Having read that UK oyster stocks have been severely depleted this year due to an outbreak of herpes and this article from Word of Mouth's Tony Naylor I feared that there may not be as much to draw the crowds as I first thought though they were there and it made the day all the more enjoyable. In fact, I'm not sure why Naylor would have written an article with such a tone on the eve of an event which promotes Whitstable's culture and heritage.

Oysters may not be every one's cup of tea but I adore them. So too do the hoards of people queueing at the many stalls set up for the week. My mate Dave was manning one of them, he's manager at the Brewery and it's brilliant to witness their tangible sense of community and genuine love of the product, it's not easy shucking oysters, doing it all day? I know I couldn't - very sore hands.

The molluscs I tried, 80p each or £4.50 for 6 were the best I've ever had, fresh from the waters that morning and prepared before my eyes, served with the requisite lemon, shallot and red wine vinegar. I certainly could not imagine a world without oysters, granted I am a fan, but were I not I should still like to see other people enjoying them.

Other attractions on the day included the regular Saturday market and the Beer Festival, in the brewery there was a huge selection of Kentish ales on offer. I sampled a pint of the Pearl of Kent (a nickname often given to the town), a fruity yet robust drink which left me feeling a bit woozy.

With such a vast number of visitors, it was difficult to find anywhere for lunch, everywhere offering food was bursting at the seams, even the towns chippy's had queues snaking down the quaint streets. We left the town and had lunch at the nearby Long Reach, oh how I longed to be eating at The Sportsman, another time.

The fish and chips I had were pretty dire, a miserable end to an otherwise wonderful day out. The tartar sauce was tasteless and I'm not sure how that is that even possible? The fish was soggy, the peas dry and the chips tasted of old fat. Still, it was only £5.99 and the beer garden was pleasant. We ought to have known better really, it's a Beefeater and there's an adjoining Holiday Inn, my only excuse is that we were starving.

It wasn't about the lunch, it was about the oysters, I urge you to get yourself down there and try some if you can, the festival runs all week.

Whitstable Oyster Festival
Sea Front and East Quay

The Long Reach
Thanet Way

Monday, 26 July 2010

Afternoon Tea at The Soho Hotel

The occasion was my Mother's 50th birthday, we needed a suitably swanky venue for a Champagne Tea and having done The Ritz and The Wolseley before we settled on Refuel@ The Soho Hotel.

Upon arrival we were ushered to a rear dining room, more lounge that restaurant with large couches and ridiculous over sized decoration for example a 10 feet tall Pixar lamp and a dresser which ran along an entire wall. It's a spectacular and stunning room.

We all ordered the Champagne tea for £28 (except Cri who is expecting) despite being strongly steered toward the Sensory Tea for £35 by the waiter. Service was polite though we had a fairly lengthy wait between ordering and receiving our glass of R de Ruinart NV champagne.

The table settings were very pretty, all china was Wedgewood and tiered cake stands are shared between 2. The Champagne Tea consists of a selection of sandwiches (my favourite part being more partial to savoury than sweet), salmon blinis, strawberries and cream, scones (fruit and plain), victoria sponge, fruit tartlet and a cupcake. It's a lot of food and remarkably, I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day, we were booked in at 4pm.

We lingered for around 2 hours feeling like proper ladies in our parlour, taking genteel sips of Earl Gray from our teacups. It was quite startling upon leaving to see the crowd gathered at the Refuel Bar for their Friday post work drinks, such a haven of tranquility is the tea room.

I would definitely recommend this place for tea, sadly we didn't see any slebs, unlike others but they are often to be seen dining here and if that's not a draw for you, it's significantly cheaper than the equivalent at The Ritz although you are given seconds there.

Refuel @ The Soho Hotel
4 Richmond Buildings


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Monday, 19 July 2010

Benito's Hat - Covent Garden

Last Thursday Benito's Hat opened on New Row in Covent Garden. I'd been very excited about the imminent arrival for some time due to its close proximity to my office. Having visited the Goodge St post a while back, I'm pleased to see both the on going success and expansion of a quality eatery and another place to add to the list of where I buy my lunch in the area surrounding work.

I was invited to attend a preview evening on Tuesday, a few teething problems remained evident, no signage, no large 'transformer' table and no bench along the front window. Still, none of that is important, what matters is the quality of the food and the drink. This branch, with it's wonderful central location, will focus more on alcohol that it's predecessor. There is a small but solid cocktail menu and our evening began with an introduction to tequila from Alex of Tequilano, resulting in a challenge to create our own cocktail.

The evening was great fun and our team (me along with Thomas, Jules and Nathaniel) somehow managed to emerge victors. We were assured that our winning concoction, Jules' Marvellous Medicine, would soon be appearing on this wall:

A lethal combination of tequila, grenadine, campari, passionfruit liqueur, grapefruit, lime and mint. Shocking pink in colour and served short.

Upon my return one lunchtime, I noted that the wall remains bare and Jules' Marvellous Medicine is not in fact appearing on the menu currently, owner Ben remarked that he wished he had reviewed each teams list of ingredients before selecting a winner, alas it was too late, we were shaking our maracas and choosing winners t-shirts by this point. Never mind, I'm sure punters will make do with the 'real' drinks on offer, highlights among them including an espresso martini and a refreshing paloma.

On the night us wannabe mixologists were kept relatively sober with a constant supply of tacos (the slow braised pork variety being my preference), tortillas, guacamole and their brilliant black beans, flavoured with avocado leaves. For lunch, I opted for the lighter Felipe's chicken salad, chicken braised in achiote, tomato and guajillo chillis.

This may look a little messy but it was tasty, filling and, I think, a bargain for £5.50. Anyway, Mexican food it all about getting involved, using your hands and should never be fancified in my opinion.

During the preview night I learned that a shot of tequila should not be chased by lime and salt, this only masks the flavour and causes that teeth on edge sensation from your mouth down to your tummy. It should instead be followed by a slice of cucumber, this makes the whole thing really rather pleasant and is definitely how I'll be enjoying that winning bottle of Tequilano.

Thanks to Sally of Relish PR and Ben for being excellent hosts. I was invited to attend the preview evening as a guest of Benito's Hat

Benito's Hat
19 New Row

Benito's Hat on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Drapers Arms

Fortunately for me this recent fine spell of weather coincided with my birthday and I was pleased that the opportunity arose to spend the afternoon with some friends and family at The Drapers Arms in Islington, a pub I've wanted to visit for a while now.

We arrived during lunch and sampled a number of dishes on the menu throughout the day, whilst enjoying the sun, some great beverages and watching the USA vs Ghana match in the evening. I must admit I'm feeling slightly bereft at the lack of games now the World Cup is over. Roll on the start of the Premiership season!

Anyhow, back to the food, I had a ploughman's shortly after arrival and Thomas had a pork and apple sandwich. Mine was excellent, a monstrous piece of cheese with plenty of lovely bread and butter, the perfect dish to nibble on and to share with the group and good value at £9.50. Thomas thought his sandwich was a bit apple heavy and could have done with a slightly more generous serving of pork.

I got serious envy spying a whole crab on a nearby table. Other dishes sampled included a confit duck leg and roast beef. I ordered the chicken, sausage and mushroom pie for dinner with a couple of sides, new potatoes and spring greens. I really liked the pie, it was again a generous serving for the £12.50 price mark. The filling was a tad looser than I had expected but the sides soaked up the juices well. The golden pie casing was nicely crisp and there was ample meat inside, all too often pies disappoint on that front.

In all, I really enjoyed my day at The Drapers Arms, both the quaint garden to the rear and the nice high ceilinged dining room. Come evening the focus here seems to be on eating but it was also a great place to celebrate the passing of another year with a few drinks. I'll definitely be back to sample more.

The Drapers Arms
44 Barnsbury St
N1 1ER


Drapers Arms on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 July 2010

Boo in Yorkshire - Grassington House

A few weeks back I travelled to the picturesque village of Grassington near Skipton, in Yorkshire. This was a wedding road trip and my first time to the county and I must say I was completely won over by the Yorkshire Dales, miles and miles of hilly green landscape, it's idyllic and unspoiled and really the ideal venue for a wedding, well done John and Sue for choosing such an amazing location.

The hotel we stayed in, Grassington House, is a Georgian style building in the centre of the village offering 5 star accommodation.

We opted for b+b and the breakfast was incredible, I sampled both the full English and the scrambled egg and smoked haddock. They served me the first black pudding that I can honestly say I enjoyed. I always look forward to staying in hotels and here both the quality of the decor and the food were marvellous.

There is also a restaurant for evening meals. A large group of us ate here on the Sunday evening where they offer a 2 for 1 4 course meal for £39.50 per couple.

Choices are slightly limited with only 2 options per course. To begin there was an amuse of goatscheese and beetroot. A nice earthy mouthful and pretty presentation.

I opted for the seafood platter to start. The highlight of this dish for me was the tempura tiger prawn which was faultless, light crisp batter encased the firm meaty crustaceans. Attention again paid to presentation with starters coming on black slates. I was a little disappointed by the portions size, the lobster piece for example was less than a mouthful, more canape size really.

Then we were served a hot carrot and coriander veloute in cappucino glasses, I thought this would have benefited from being cooler, it was difficult to drink right away, not to mention awkward to hold, but the flavour was fine.

My main course was grilled dorade fillets served with new potatoes, spinach and olive tapenade. I'd never heard of this fish before, having googled it I see it's the Spanish term for a gilt headed sea bream. It was a solid dish, though I think the tapenade was a little over powering for the delicate fish. I chose this as the lighter option following a particularly indulgent Saturday but subsequently wished I had gone for the pan fried chicken breast with truffle risotto, no brainer really.

For dessert, again wanting something light, I had the strawberry and champagne jelly. The other option was a chocolate orange mousse and I have an aversion to chocolate orange so this was an easy choice. The jelly was nice, I detected only the merest hint of booze though, the accompanying strawberry espuma (fancy word for foam) had deteriorated to nothing after only a minute at the table.

Chef John Rudden, previously holder of a Michelin Bib Gourmand at The White Hart in Lydgate, has some nice ideas, executing them deftly and serving up fine food for a fraction of the price you pay here in London. Per head with a couple of local ales each, coffee, for those who wanted one, and service the total came to £25 per person. A bargain. This menu is available on Sunday and Monday nights only, the a la carte menu is offered every night. The place is very popular though I noted that most of our fellow diners were elder couples but this may have something to do with our early bird time slot of 6pm, this was a request of the restaurant due to the large booking (10 people).

I really enjoyed this meal, Rudden champions fresh, seasonal and local produce which if cooked well never fails to satisfy. I would definitely return here to stay, the rooms are immaculate with exceptional attention to detail and it is excellent value for money.

Grassington House Hotel
5 The Square
Grassington, North Yorkshire
BD23 5AQ