Fleur de Sel: Kempinski hotel Portoroz

On the basis of my one experience at the Kempinski in Geneva, I had been prepared to judge the whole chain as severely wanting. However, the menu at the Fleur de Sel looked so good and affordable, that I had to give it a go. In fact, over 5 days we made it our regular haunt.

Portoroz must have been beautiful in 1900. Now it follows the habit of capitalist development, truly tacky buildings complete with neon signs flashing ‘casino, casino’, music blaring every few feet, all in competition for space in your head. And this, on the edge of a glorious vista of the Adriatic sea. What a sin!

The Kempinski is a peculiar mix of that 1900 and 2016. The facade has been left of The Palace Hotel, complete with manicured gardens in front. Joining it via a short walkway at mezzanine level is a modern building which houses the Fleur de Sel. In the main, it is tastefully done, though there is a BMW displayed in a glass box at the entrance of the modern annexe. It is entirely out of place, but by the standards of the area, one should probably not complain.

The weather was perfect while we were there, and we always sat out on the balcony overlooking the pool, with a view towards the garden and the sea. I confess I expected to hate the tackiness of a pool setting, but for whatever mysterious reason, it works, at least partly because the pool itself is an aesthetically pleasing one of its kind.

Kempinski swimming pool

Over the course of 5 days we sampled the following:

Istrian fish starter plate with swordfish prosciutto, mackerel in Moscato d’Asti, octopus salad, homemade baccala cream, apple capers and grissini
15,50 €

Ceasar salad with fresh tuna
13,50 €

Mittelgerichte Linguini with Adriatic mussels à la buzarra
11,50 € / 15,50 €

Acquerello risotto with Adriatic sepia and leek (black or white)
13,00 € / 17,00 €

Asparagus ravioli with smoked asparagus mousselin and asparagus clear soup
12,70 € / 16,70 €

Piran sea bass fillet with dry tomato-olives sauce, grilled prawns and parsley risotto
28,50 €

Filet of salmon with olive crust, asparagus, fennel and orange mashed potatoes
28,50 €

Scallops on the shell, gratinised
30 €

While ordering we would sample a generous basket of impeccably baked breads, presented with the local (very good) olive oil, local olives, the famous local salt and butter on which to put it. Service was without fault, friendly, efficient, advisory when asked.

Kempinski mussels

Although all the meat dishes were attractive in print, we could never resist the lure of the seafood – sitting on the Adriatic, what else could we do? As befits seafood, the dishes were all sophisticated without being overly complicated. Only two did not succeed. The Caesar salad was not anything like that dish and although it was okay, I would not recommend it. The other were the scallops, a special one evening which I could not go past. I didn’t realise that ‘gratinised’ would be entirely dry, with a breaded topping. Unfortunately scallops can’t stand up to that. They need either to be cooked more quickly or with something more liquid with them in the shell. Otherwise, everything was a triumph.

In Geneva we never eat out because to get this standard of food one would have to pay  at least double the price. It was a treat and a privilege to be able to frequent this restaurant.

We did always leave room for dessert.

Honey panna cotta with toasted hazelnut crumble and candied kumquats
6,50 €

Flourless chocolate cake with cherry sauce and pomegranate sorbet
7,30 €

Custard apple crème with peach jelly and mango meringue
6,30 €

These sophisticated desserts were all given the thumbs up by others at the table. I, however, needed icecream, which upon enquiry could be provided. Two scoops of chocolate icecream, perfectly presented: soft, but not too soft, with chocolate and some crumbs by way of decoration. I could have eaten a dozen of these every day. Ahem.

We only drank the local mineral water and beer with our meals. I had several pots of tea which came with freshly baked biscuits. Hot chocolate was Italian style, extremely thick, extremely hot and extremely good. Espresso coffee was pronounced excellent. The one latte ordered was the only straightforward disaster, so pallid that the coffee didn’t look much different from the white froth that filled the top half of the glass.

 * * *

The bar should be a nice place but loses all of its ambience marks by having three screens. We were in a screenless area, but nonetheless were aurally assaulted by the screens not only being on, but being on different shows, one blaring into the left ear, the other into the right. I don’t understand why five star hotel bars should be in the nature of sports bars. Any that are, lose me as a customer. Fortunately, the Fleur de Sel operates as a cafe as well as restaurant, so avoiding the bar was no onerous task.

 

 

 

 

 

The highs and lows of eating in Madrid

One of the hot spots to be in Madrid (and elsewhere in Spain) is Cafe Federal , an Australian cafe as one might guess from the name. We went twice. At 10.30pm there was a queue for dinner which we joined. It is very simple cafe fare, the ubiquitous burger dominating. Ours were okay, but why wouldn’t a burger manage that? We returned the next day for breakfast, aware that in the morning and in particular Sunday morning as this was, it would be a next to impossible meal to find in Spain. Mine was truly dire, the worse version of baked eggs I’ve ever had. The staff was not the least bothered that I left the entire thing bar a mouthful. It even looked awful.

For somebody in exile like me, it is nice to see Australia gradually spreading over Europe, but whereas the standard of our fare in Berlin recently was excellent, this was not. And yet, as you will have noticed, the place is hugely popular. I haven’t eaten enough in Spain to know if this is a case of ‘the grass is greener’ or that Spanish food is terrible.

Unfortunately we only discovered late in our trip that the place to go for breakfast in the morning was C.O.M.E. which was just across the road from our hotel. Too easy. Excellent pastries, bread dishes, not an Australian breakfast but a really good one and they open, like bakeries always do, early – not the crack of dawn, but 8am, which by Spanish standards, given that they only finish eating dinner after midnight, is jolly early indeed.

Also in the general vicinity of our hotel was The Secret Garden, or if you want to get all Spanish about it, El Jardin Secreto The food ranges from okay to average to a bit above that at a stretch. You go because it might be the cutest place you ever eat at. Also, being a cafe, they serve at all the hours during which non-Spanish people want to eat.

There’s nobody who does it like the Ritz, right? I was rather disappointed the only time I’ve been to the London Ritz. It didn’t help that the guy at the door didn’t want to let my shoes in. But the Ritz in Madrid really does do it like the Ritz. The lounge area is spectacular and includes a cocktail pianist who kicks off in the morning. The first tea I was served here was so correctly presented that it was the first time I’ve moved The Windsor in Melbourne down by a notch. It was elegant, beautiful pastry nibbles on the side, hot water in its own pot. I texted a friend in Australia that I’d died and gone to tea heaven. Next day, however, upon my return, I had to ask for extra hot water. I don’t really understand how it is that a place of this class doesn’t have house rules that get you the same thing each time you order. At any rate, that was enough for them to slip down to 2nd place.

Windsor of Melbourne? You are still unsurpassed as the best place in the world for a cup of tea.

I had lunch one day at The Goya – when you live in Geneva you grab your chances to eat well outside your own kitchen. It was classic, impeccable, but, I’m also afraid to say, forgettable. I honestly can’t recall a single thing I ate.

We had a rather different experience at The Westin Palace. To go to The Rotunda, if only for a drink is a must as the architecture is sore-neck-stunning. Because you spend your time gazing up in awe at the dome above you. While we were there a special option was Japanese Tapas which we thought exquisite and very reasonably priced.

If you are at either of these hotels, it means you are in the area of art galleries and a beautiful park. If the weather is good, I do recommend the latter. Madrid is famous for its parks and on another trip I hope to see more of them.

Hotels in Germany: our recent experience

On a recent trip to Germany we decided to stay near the station in Berlin on day one as we were heading by train to Leipzig the following morning. We figured it would be easier.

The Steingenberger is a new addition to the five star chain. Unfortunately I can’t report on the more standard rooms as we were upgraded to a Junior Suite. It was more than spacious, including a lounge area, desk area, a large lobby, a separate dressing area and a bathroom in which the toilet could be closed off. The shower was walk in. The outside walls of thew suite were completely glass. Don’t get excited about that, the view we had was of train tracks and offices but it nonetheless gave a feeling of light and openness. We felt spoilt.

We did not try any of the food/beverage possibilities here. The foyer area is a design disaster. I simply don’t understand the its cold lack of comfort which was positively alienating. It put us off utilising the area. But the staff were great, no lack of welcome in that regard.

As far as I can see, you do not stay at this hotel because of the area, you stay because it is just outside the station.

This hotel had one big negative for me. The ‘king-sized bed’ was not a large bed at all. It was two smaller beds pushed together, with two sets of covers even. Seriously? Do German people hate each other that much? It is plain uncomfortable unless you really don’t want to be near each other. But in that case, why are the beds together at all? Why not at separate ends of the room?

This is a recurring problem in Germany (and I discover in other parts of Europe). It is poor form that hotels provide no warning that one bed does not mean one bed. This issue followed us to Leipzig.

There we stayed at The Westin in a ‘Grand Deluxe’ room because I’m a sucker for views. Again we found, despite the pictures on their site indicating one bed with one set of bed coverings, we were in two small beds joined together with separate doonas. Ugggh. I hate this! It is a big impersonal hotel, very full while we were there. It managed a huge breakfast area well – breakfast was, indeed, quite good by European standards. We did think we might try the bar-with-a-view, but we were told it was full that evening. The bathroom was okay, towels good. But nothing about this hotel made me think if I were ever in Leipzig again, that this is where I would stay. I’d be digging around for better. In fact, having eaten a couple of times at the Hotel Fürstenhof, I’d be tempted by it ahead of anything else I saw in Leipzig.

The Westin had 436 rooms and the Sofitel 92. You can really tell from the moment you step in. After the size and nature of The Westin, it was a pleasure to spend a couple of nights next at The Sofitel in Berlin – I mean the one at Gendarmenmarkt. Are you already guessing what made us most excited about our room? It wasn’t the stunning mod design, the seating area, the groovy lighting, the walkin shower. Not even the coffee machine….

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. We’d finally struck something better than gold. A hotel room with one bed in it. One proper bed with the one mattress, the one set of linen, the one cover. Oh, it was a loverly bed on which we had a loverly time. Sleeping. I do mean sleeping.

Hotels in Zurich – looking for the middle ground.

When you are booking a hotel and your regular is not available, it feels like things are already going badly. Last time in Zurich we’d stayed at The Hotel Continental, which used to be a Sofitel and has the trappings to reflect that. It was, however, full on the night in question and so I found myself investigating the options.

All of them are expensive. Some of them are horribly expensive. Probably the best value is to be had in West Zurich, a few kms from the centre of things, but that depends, I guess, on what sort of action you want. A friend said that this area was like Paquis. Uggh. Paquis is so scungy. West Zurich has grubby sex shops and hookers on the streets if that’s what you want. But it also has interesting innovative places like Viadukt and Frau Gerold’s Garten.

A big drawcard for me was Cafe New Zealand, which has zoomed to the top of cafes in Zurich in no time. I imagined staying nearby and partaking of breakfast there. But then I thought about having to pick my way over the dregs of Friday night sleeze on Saturday morning and kept looking. It’s not even like you get a big discount for the experience, you pay 200CHF instead of 250.

Sheraton have two hotels in Zurich. One is a typical Sheraton, large, highrise, modern. The other, Sheraton Zurich Neues Schloss Hotel couldn’t be more different. It’s in a lovely old building, think boutique hotel. The room was a delight in colour, light, facilities, large picture windows looking out at a beautiful building opposite. It was a short walk to the lake, to the main shopping area, and if it comes to that, a pleasant walk of 10-15 minutes across the bridge to the old town. Food and drinks were nicely presented in the cozy bar area. I had a good pot of tea here and getting fresh milk on the side was not an issue. Sheraton make a point of public computers being available which had encouraged me to travel light and leave my laptop at home. The hotel was kind enough to check me in some four hours early and could let us stay a bit later than check out time too. The only negative was the bathroom was very small. For us it was okay, but I’m guessing there’d be lots of people who just wouldn’t be able to hold their stomachs in enough to squeeze through to the loo.

Best of all, it had one proper bed with one set of linen, one doona. I wish there was some sort of site where you could check out this aspect of staying in hotels in Europe. Last weekend I booked a hotel in Fribourg and stressed in an online message that we wanted one bed. But despite this, and despite getting one bed, we got two small doonas. Arrgggh! They just don’t get it!

That was the NH Hotel in Fribourg. The rooms are extremely basic and run down. However, the location is convenient and the staff were helpful. Personally, if I am staying overnight in Fribourg again, I will be looking to try somewhere else.

Facil: a two-star Michelin restaurant in Berlin

We decided, apart from testing the cafes of Berlin, to have one first rate restaurant experience. That’s a difficult choice, there are a host of classy establishments offering affordable, interesting dining.

Like high end dining the world over, in Berlin it is dominated by male chefs. Sonja Frühsammer is the only female to have a Michelin star. Causing a lot of excitement lately has been Dottir, headed by Victoria Eliasdóttir, a young Icelandic chef. You get an idea of her style, which really fits into the cafe decor of Berlin, as it would Melbourne, on the restaurant’s facebook page. Initially we made a booking here, but unfortunately she’s such a star right now that she has two seatings and it didn’t seem to us we could fit in either for an evening meal.

Instead we chose Facil for lunch. One of the things that attracted me to this place is that unlike that sense one has of cafes and restaurants in Melbourne these days – businesses where the chefs scarcely cook a thing anymore, instead providing a name, doing publicity, more likely to be on a book tour than in the kitchen – Facil is a close-knit group that’s been together for ever. The chef, Michael Kempf, has been there since 2003, the sous chef since 2006, the patissier since 2006, the sommelier since 2001 and the manager since 2001. That says a happy team that is dedicated to its restaurant.

We decided to have lunch there, where an excellent value menu is provided:

LUNCH
VINEYARD PEACH – GOAT CREAM CHEESE, CHICOREE AND SORREL
BEEF TONGUE – RADISH AND YOGURT
CEVICHE OF YELLOW FIN MACKEREL – CORIANDER AND RADISH
GREEN GASPACHO – TARTAR OF CHAROLAIS-BEEF AND DOUGLAS FIR

CHAR – LEEK, CIDRE AND GRAIN
ROCK OCTOPUS – BEAN, ARTICHOKE AND TOMATO
SUGO OF POLTING-LAMB – POINTED CABBAGE AND JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE
SHOULDER OF LINUM-VEAL – CAPERBERRIES AND TASMANIAN PEPPER
FARMER BEUTHE’S WOOLY PIG – RYE BREAD CREAM AND ROSCOFF-ONION

RAW MILK CHEESE
BLACKBERRY, CARROT, HAZELNUT AND SHISO
RASPBERRY, CURRANT AND VIOLETS
COCONUT, EDAMAME AND YUZU

19 EURO ONE COURSE
34 EURO TWO COURSES
45 EURO THREE COURSES
15 EURO EACH FOLLOWING COURSE

Coming from Geneva, where one is relieved to have received one edible main course for 45CHF, this offer is a bargain. The food is pretty much as advertised on the restaurant’s site:

…elegantly light fare accented by purist luxury and modern avant-garde ….the perfect place for unconventional gourmets seeking a culinary experience….style of cooking is modern and creative….fresh and mostly local products…dishes are subtle and straightforward. The flavours are fine and distinctive.

I had recently read an explanation of how Michelin-ratings work. The reviewers are anonymous, anybody might be a reviewer. It is a democratic concept, what is relevant is that you love food, not how you dress. One way or another I tested that out during our meal.

Firstly by making a complete mess of the previously crisp white tablecloth with a errant spoonful of soup. Surprising just how much mess it made. I discussed it with a waitress who said not to worry, there was another tablecloth under the top layer. Well, I already knew that, having surreptitiously established that it had gone through to the next layer and even the layer below that, which was the table protector. My, this was a bottomless spoon of soup. She went off and returned with a small cloth which neatly fitted over the green stain of yes, you’ve guessed it, the green gaspacho, which I might add was a really lovely combination of ingredients. It was the first gaspacho I’ve wholeheartedly liked.

Secondly, by bringing out my knitting. Eating at Facil was both a refined and relaxed experience. I felt no less comfortable click-clacking away than I would have at a cafe knitting meet. I hadn’t realised how cozy a fine Michelin restaurant could be.

It made me wonder, though, how this meal stacked up to something similar in Australia. We have hats, not stars and my favourite restaurant in Australia is Ezard, despite the fact that Ezard is precisely one of those chefs I was earlier criticising for being a businessman ahead of a cook. It has two hats. Earlier this year we tried the express lunch:

EXPRESS LUNCH MENU
THREE COURSES AND A GLASS OF WINE $55

cured swordfish, pickled cucumber, wasabi, soy and sesame,
native finger lime steamed spanner crab dumplings, yarra valley salmon roe, chervil, coconut tom kha
twice cooked pork belly, mustard glaze, black pudding, apple, celeriac and fennel pollen

I would say, despite the glass of wine, that this lunch was more expensive than Facil’s because the dishes are teensy. Nonetheless, I was in love with Ezard’s, but admiring of Facil’s. Being born and bred in Adelaide, I had the privilege growing up in the seventies of experiencing Cheong Liew’s food at Neddy’s. There he was the first in the world to do the East meets West cooking which became a world-wide phenomenon. Indeed when Food and Wine called him one of the hottest chefs alive, it stated:

Liew has earned a reputation as the father of East meets West

So for me this style of food is personal, I grew up with it. Facil’s food is discreet, Ezard’s is exciting. I dream Ezard food. He is Cheong’s heir and I wonder if any chef in the world has taken that mantle as successfully. I’m glad to see that two hats is at least as high a standard as two stars.

Yeah, well. Back to Facil. The staff were all one would expect of such a place, attentive without being intrusive. The setting was serene, the size of the dining room no doubt contributed to that, maybe 14 tables or so inside. The bread selection was excellent and when offering more bread with our main course, the waitress suggested the right one – clever and thoughtful. Other small things adding to the meal were an amuse-bouche and a small selection of sweet endings with our tea/coffee.

I don’t know if I will return to Facil, but that is a reflection on the array of eating available in Berlin; for anybody in town and looking for the European style of fine dining as maintained by Michelin restaurants, may I thoroughly recommend it.

Sometimes I want to become a physicist.

I dunno girls. Nobody told me what you got to do in physics. Anna? Was it like this for you?

The Large Hardon Collider
The Large Hardon Collider

Spotted on the banks of the lake here in Geneva.

To put this in XKCD terms: the thing they collide in.
To put this in XKCD terms: the thing they collide in.

Well….I guess it’s a bit like a vagina.

To quote Manny after we speculated as to whether this was on purpose or the result of a sexually educated spell-checking program that isn’t up to speed on physics:

Conspiracy or cockup?

How to see Stockholm.

(I am so behind, this should have been posted ages ago.)

I could not have done this trip more perfectly. I went with a native level Swedish speaker who had lived in Stockholm, but it isn’t a place where you need such a headstart. English is everywhere, it’s easy to find your way around, the underground rail system is simple to navigate. If you are fairly central you can also walk to a lot of places. Stockholm is more spread out than I expected, however, so after a while I found I was wanting to catch trains to places and then start a jaunt.

One of the things Anglo-Saxons find fascinating about Sweden is the sense of style and the obvious way of experiencing that is to rent an apartment. Being a compulsive researcher, I promise I looked at every single possible place to stay in Stockholm before settling on a small organisation called C/O Stockholm

Although it’s the world’s fashion to eliminate the middleman at the moment, I’m all for a person who does that job well and I’m more than happy to pay for it. I don’t want a world without bookshops, or black cabs. Nor do I want a world where I can’t consult an expert for advice on where to stay. I’d rather one reliable expert than all the flies on Trip Advisor. I also like small independent businesses and here is one I’m very happy to have found.

Kenneth who runs it was the perfect consultant. We were being really fussy about what we wanted – not just location, but layout of the apartment and even what sort of bed we’d get – and we got just what we wanted. A beautiful, archetypal old Swedish apartment. It’s hard for pictures to give the whole story: the kitchen was wonderfully equipped – not that we used it for much as there are so many good places to eat in Stockholm – and the place, including the bathroom, was full of those design elements that make Sweden famous for that sort of thing.

The compact bathroom was a work of design genius.
The compact bathroom was a work of design genius.
Part of the gorgeous kitchen.
Part of the gorgeous kitchen.

I have a natural distaste for those huge accommodation sites that dominate the market, where one negotiates directly with the owner – hel-lo, thanks for getting back to me about your apartment, but it is two months after the trip now – and my travelling life is spent seeking out people like Kenneth to help me realise what I want to do. And you can see from looking at the pictures of the apartments that he has a good range in price, location, size and they are quality controlled.

Mind you, there are better places to live in Stockholm, I was to discover. One of the highlights of the trip was going to Drottningholm Palace It’s where the King and Queen live.

No, that's not the King and Queen. Or their children.
No, that’s not the King and Queen. Or their children.

You can wander around inside the palace, but the grounds are beautiful and it was the perfect day for being outside. Highly recommend this trip if you are looking for an outing to take most of a day.

Drottingholm Palace: in the gardens
Drottingholm Palace: in the gardens
View from the ferry as we left to come back to Stockholm.
View from the ferry as we left to come back to Stockholm.