revisiting Vienna

Food

  • The Guesthouse Brasserie and Bakery Varied breakfast menu with excellent eggs and toast, good tea. Vibrant, crowded, good music at a low level.
  • Meierei in Stadtpark. Beautiful breakfasts in peaceful park surrounds. Quieter than The Guesthouse and more innovative food.
  • Grand Hotel Vienna Rosengarten  is the foyer cafe, good tea, nice dessert cart, goulash soup is about the same as The Bristol’s. Truffles included milk chocolate with pear and thyme.
  • The Bristol is almost next door to The Grand. It’s my favourite place in Vienna to hang out with a pot of tea and a book. There’s a fire. The food is well prepared, unexciting posh hotel style. The staff are very welcoming and know when to leave you aloe.
  • Ulrich is an Oz-style cafe. It’s clearly a hugely popular place in Vienna and has a sister cafe a hundred metres away. But for me it isn’t as good as Australian cafes, and why not go for an atmosphere that’s Austrian?
  • Burggasse 24 is fifty metres from Ulrich – it’s hipster territory all around here. It’s a vintage shop and a gorgeous cafe. Is it ‘uniquely Austrian’? Well, it certainly isn’t Australian. It has very high ceilings, a rich warmth and a fire. You don’t go for the small menu but for the comfortable atmosphere with very friendly staff. Coffee is good. Brownie not bad. Tea as yet untested.

 

 

 

 

 

The Belgian Triangle: Brussels, Mons and Leuven

Yes, people have disappeared and there’s been nothing natural about it. The train system, to residents of Switzerland, is designed to create danger where there would otherwise be none. Belgium. So very like Switzerland. Teensy. Heavy food. Thinks if one language is good, then four must be better. A penchant for chocolate surpassed only by its fondness for UHT milk.

But one fascinating difference: Belgium has this pesky little train system that doesn’t do what you want it to. It doesn’t even do what it wants to do. So I can’t even say it’s a law unto itself. We survived and I feel like it had something to do with the cat of Schrodinger. Or the multiverse.

Having checked into our lovely hotel in Brussels, day one, we went in search of lunch. Loosely following directions from our concierge, we ended up at Place St Catherine, next to (or part of?) the Oude Graanmarkt – the Old Grain market. A large square surrounded by restaurants, a fish market and lovely food shops – butchers, cheese shops, etc. Nearby is another square that seems to specialise in seafood restaurants. A gentrified area, I gather, and one understands why.

From there we wandered up to the more touristy part of town but only to go through it. Our target was Galerie Bortier, a small nineteenth century arcade with old books and picture shops. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the best collection of Simenon books I’ve ever seen, not just by him, but books about him as well. A gallery in the arcade had an exhibition of  François Schuiten, a famous Belgian artist of comics. But for me the highlight was visiting La Crypte Tonique. (Picture taken from its FB page.)

The website doesn’t do it justice, it’s a lovely collection of comic art and books old and new. Here we were able to buy some postcard size images by Schuiten, now decorating a small surface in our Geneva apartment.

Then we had explained to us the book Polyepoxy: La Case La Plus Copiée.  In the 1960s this image appeared in a comic drawn by Paul Cuvelier:

Polyepoxy
Apparently the Italians were so besotted with this image (and I’m not talking about the horse) that they copied it over and over again in their own work. Bernard Joubert did the research to collect them together into this little homage. Fascinating. We had to buy a copy.

Day two: we accidentally stumbled upon the Sablon area. There are (at least) a couple of indoor antique markets as well as a large outdoor books and antiques/bric a brac to explore on a Sunday. Lots of food options too. We eschewed them, however, in favour of something a bit more ‘authentic local flavour’ as Christian Lander might have it.

On one side of Place Rouppe you can find Comme Chez Soi, which has been there for going on a hundred years and has been downgraded to a mere two Michelin stars. Diagonally opposite is Le Saint d’Hic. It’s an unprepossessing bar/cafe with basic plastic furniture outside and ashtrays which haven’t been cleaned. A painted sign next to the door says its speciality is mussels. Online it’s commonly praised for its food. These weren’t the worst mussels I’ve had in my life, but they were very far indeed from being the best and the frites were not nice.

However, if we’d stayed we would have found out why the projector was being set up outside. It was election day on Sunday and Le Saint d’Hic is the unofficial headquarters of the socialists. Philippe Close, who was already mayor of Brussels retained his position and from what I can gather the socialists did very well overall in Belgium. This small cafe is where they met a little later in the day to celebrate.

But we had to head off to the train station for our approximately 90 minute trip to Mons.

Day three: We spent two nights in Mons and I can’t say I enjoyed it. This was probably partly because my full day there was a Monday and a lot of things are shut, not just shops, but exhibitions etc as well. But mostly I felt oppressed by it. It felt like the bad condition of mining towns in the north of the UK. I didn’t realise at that point how close I was to the mark. It was a mining area, and as is so often the case, went from glory to depression without yet finding its way out, despite heavy investment in the area to make it ‘smart’.

Day four: From here we went to Leuven, in the Flemish part of Belgium and the difference was shocking. Material comfort oozes from every stone laid in this town. Such similarities between the two towns and yet such strident contrast. Both towns have around 100K population, both are important university towns. But while this part of Belgium began its relationship with technology back in the 1960s, Mons is relatively new to the game. Even though it has a Google data centre and nearby is Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the HQ of NATO’s Allied Command Operations, it looks grim and distressed. It was an EU city of culture in 2015. But all of this is yet to make a notable mark – or perhaps it has, and things were way worse some years ago?

I’m prepared to accept that I may find Mons more to my taste on another visit, perhaps if I look more carefully for its good side. Leuven, on the other hand, charms from the moment one steps out of the railway station. My knitting friend Thomas took me to a couple of favourite cafes to knit and chat: De Werf on Hogeschoolplein and Wereldcafé on Joris Helleputteplein. Both are slightly secret, neither is on a main street. Which is why, although I would very happily have gone back to either of them on

Day five: for breakfast, we ended up at a place I’d wanted to try. Koffie en Staale is a sweet, tiny cafe with a small menu. We shared a bowl of granola with yoghurt and fruit, and avocado with salsa and bread. Both very simple, so the ingredients had to be excellent and they were.  If it were in Geneva I could visit this place every day. As it is, we will definitely visit Leuven again and it will be my go to place for breakfast. Nearby is Convento, which consists of three buildings. One is a wine bar with a small but excellent looking menu. One is a wine store. And the last sells food to take away. It all looks beautiful. We’d just finished breakfast, but couldn’t resist trying their take on a sausage roll and it was as good as it looked. Another place I’m already looking forward to going back to.  For totally different fare – traditional Belgian cuisine in an upmarket setting – we thought Tafelrond, the restaurant attached to The Fourth, was excellent.

I really want to go back to Belgium. We’re just looking for the right excuses now.

The Fourth – hotel in Leuven, Belgium

The Fourth is a brand new – teething still – hotel which stylistically successfully marries the ancient building with hi-tech modern design. Rooms are spacious and look gorgeous without compromise on comfort. Seating, desk, bed, are all excellent. Grind your own beans for your coffee, make a posh cup of tea with the supplied bags, change your booking for a month as there is ample storage space to cater for that. Large windows, so there is lots of natural light. Bathroom is spacious with separate shower and enormous tub that looks like you can do hi-tech things in it. (No idea what. I didn’t even like baths when they were easy to understand.)

But……

The high tech is challenging. In our room we had the odd malfunction. One half of the electronically opening curtains didn’t work and nor did some lights. I didn’t think to report this until after the technical staff had knocked off for the day – I have no idea if it was all easy to fix. As various reviewers have pointed out, because all the electronic switches are together on a dark board, it is impossible to do things like turn on a light easily. I suppose if you were there for the long haul you’d figure it out and grope about in your sleep to find the right one. But the average guest will be there for a day or two. They need an easy way to turn on a light, not a manual explaining the process, peering at it with their phone torch on.

The design has its wins and most definitely its losses. Again, many have complained about the glass doors to the bathroom – and I believe there are also rooms with no door to the bathroom, just an entrance. I found myself at midnight watching my partner having a shower. I’ve lived with him for 8 years or so and never done that before. Certainly I’ve never done it without his knowledge. Some people, if not many, will find this weird and creepy, especially if they don’t know each other that well. At least I couldn’t see the toilet from the bed.

Others have also pointed out that the glass is dangerous. This is absolutely a major problem; it’s easy enough to walk into plate glass in broad daylight, without adding the complication of pit stops in the middle of the night. Speaking of which, a lot of water from the shower ended up in front of the toilet. I made two trips there during the night and ended up with wet feet in bed both times. Mysterious blue light emanates from the various electronic switch boards in the room and bathroom. I’m surprised to report that they didn’t bother me. But what could, after a night at The Dream in Mons?

I don’t understand who designs with such a lack of respect for function. Especially when it comes to the toot. If it is impossible to design an aesthetically acceptable shower so that it retains the water it produces, then please give us a shower that’s ugly as sin. Why can’t this be a simple first rule of bathroom design? In the case of the bathroom we were in, there was no reason why the shower couldn’t have been made a little deeper, just a few inches, which were there to spare, would have done the trick. A certain symmetry would have been lost.

But honestly. Dry feet when peeing isn’t optional, designer dudes.

Wifi was good. Aircon, once I figured out the electronics, was good. Bed was comfortable, but pillows were square and too high again. And may I gripe about a European fashion I don’t understand. Sheet AND doona. Why isn’t that obvious? Why are my choices (a) heavy warm cover or (b) no cover at all?

Tafelrond, the hotel restaurant, has a sort of high end casual chic vibe. It was the only place I tried croquettes in Belgium and these had a creamy prawn base filling which was lovely. We sampled a few other things, including a game casserole and all were good. Prices are not cheap, but serves are generous. Bread was the best we had in Belgium. We didn’t try breakfast.

I’m torn as to a conclusion about this hotel. I really want to love it. The staff were helpful and friendly. The rooms beautiful. Fantastic location. But the flaws are serious. At the very least if I stay there again, I will be asking for a pile of backup towels to dry the floor with after showers. The issues with the electronics being hard to use I can cope with, I think. Trying not to brain myself when going to the bathroom – I can give that a go too.

Overall I want to say, please be aware of the various flaws and still stay here as long as you know your roommate really well…..And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Dream Hotel in Mons

If this is the Dream Hotel, all I can say is that I’ve strayed into somebody else’s dream. If you look on their site, all rooms are described as 20+ square metres. And yet the first room we were assigned is as small as any hotel room I’ve been in, and I’m talking much smaller than 20m. A bed with just room to walk around it. That leaves the bathroom, and any other space is essentially wasted. It was claustrophobic – but that sort of feeling starts before you get into the room, the hallways make sure of that.

As it happens there is a bar near the hotel which was playing extremely loud music with no sign of abating on a Sunday night. The noise was going to drive me crazy. A quick consultation with the girl at the front desk and we could move as long as we were okay with going to ‘the other building’. That turned out to have no lift, you enter via a passnumber which isn’t too hard to figure out. Maybe it changes often – I hope it does.

The room we moved to was a space more like a small apartment than a hotel room. The bedroom was separate, there was a kitchen complete with small dishwasher, induction cook top, microwave and two fridges and a small lounge area contained a couple of chairs and a coffee table. The bath was some sort of machine – I don’t want to know more – with shower over it. A lot of water leaked onto the floor whilst showering. The toilet had its own room.

The bedroom contained a bed we found comfortable, but the pillows were not to our taste. Too high, a bit lumpy, square shape. I ended up sleeping without one. Then the bedroom starts getting weird. The bedside tables were no more than two cardboard boxes. I kid not. One Trip Advisor review of this exceedingly odd room hypothesised that they were Ikea boxes. But they are just flimsy ordinary cardboard boxes one might get an Amazon delivery in and then throw away. Because one held the phone – why there rather than in the main room?? – it couldn’t fit a bedside lamp. Therefore there was only one light for reading by. After Pillows Grand Hotel in Brussels, which had two bedside lights for each side of the bed, this was a letdown to say the least.

This was by no means the worst thing about the room. It had a separate TV up so high you’d get some sort of disorder of the neck if you tried using it. (Update: I did try it and my neck’s okay still.) It was above an open wardrobe system for your clothes. Next to it was the router – why WHY in the bedroom, not the living area??? – and next to it, some sort of emergency door (we think) which had a thing with a green glow above it. So imagine the ‘dark’ of sleeping time with all these lights on and the router ones merrily flashing away as router lights do. Router lights don’t care whether you are trying to sleep. Nor does the perpetually flashing light of the smoke alarm. Why couldn’t that be in the living area?

To sum up the lights in the bedroom:

  • green TV light
  • green emergency exit (?) light
  • red airconditioning unit light
  • a row of green and orange router lights
  • flashing smoke detector light

It was most unfortunate having to sleep in such an environment.

This room – called the Amerique as apparently giving a characterless area a name makes it characterful – is as sterile as a hotel room could be, which just goes to show that character is not invested by designer quirkiness. The huge wall picture of the Grand Canyon was out of place and did nothing to take my mind away from the actual view…of cars parked. Worst, its orange tones were a complete jar with the headboard of the bed which was red, white and blue of the tackiest order. It all came together like the worst sort of ‘rental’ property interior design. Air bnb gone particularly wrong.

Even though there was only one bedside light for a large bed, there are all sorts of lights in places one can’t imagine the point of illuminating, with switches mysteriously located so that one might turn something on instead of off – or vice versa. One of us found ourselves in pitch dark in the middle of a shower when the other one took a stab at turning off another light altogether and got it wrong. There were no reading lights in the bedroom.

Although there were two glasses in the cupboard of the kitchen, otherwise there were four small plastic glasses covered in plastic wrapping. There were coffee cups about half the size I’d consider adequate for tea.

Breakfast at 12.50 Euros was average. There was fresh fruit peeled/sliced, some smoked salmon and I gather that the scrambled eggs were okay. I left some fresh white cheese and tomato after my first mouthful.

Wifi adequate for us, but I imagine for heavy users it would be challenging. EG FB takes a while to load. I did have a clear skype conversation without interruption.

There is more to say about Mons and the Dream Hotel, but next up, another Belgian town and another hotel: The Fourth in Leuven.

 

Grand Hotel Place Rouppe Brussels

I’ve never checked into a hotel over a cuppa before, but there we were. Whisked over to a lounge and offered a drink – priorities. Checked in, been given a map with pointers to things we might be interested in – and a warning or two, notably to avoid the tourist trap eating places. All this with tea still in the pot. The Pillows Grand Hotel had given us a warm welcome.

Our room was on the fourth of five floors, with a view of Place Rouppe featuring a nineteenth (?) century fountain. It’s an easy walk from the main stations, and convenient to the main tourist spots without being too close. Perfect.

For a moment I thought that the bathroom was too tiny, until I computed it was missing the toilet. Nice to have this in a separate room and this seems to be a Belgian habit for hotels. That left a compact bathroom with a reasonably sized walk in shower and a handbasin. Good quality toiletries, and various things you can ask for if required. I like the glasses provided being made out of glass – I’m writing this from the Dream Hotel in Mons where I’m sitting next to two plastic cups wrapped in plastic.

The room is stylish without being gaudy, with an excellent selection of lighting, two comfortable pale green velvet covered chairs, a kettle and coffee machine. In the real wardrobe there are dressing gowns and a small refrigerator and safe fit in here too. There is a radio which does something with smart phones too? Nothing we need concern ourselves with. The large TV on the wall has a selection of 100 channels.

The star is the bed, king sized, one set of bed linen on one mattress – not so easy to find in Europe still – and the most fabulous, FABULOUS pillows. There is a menu one can choose from, but the ones on the bed were perfect for me. So good I asked if we could buy them, but I’m still waiting to hear  back on that. I was incredibly tired for some reason and got the best value ever from this perfect bed. After wandering around Brussels for a few hours, I napped from about 5pm to 7pm, and then after dinner from about 9pm to midnight…and then I went to bed. Still slept well. Did I mention how good the pillows were?

Don’t expect perfect quiet, the odd muffled street noise comes through, but I’m a noise sensitive person and it didn’t bother me in the least. We were very close to the elevator, and that didn’t affect us at all.

When we were booking, the hotel had a special offer for 180 Euros which included full breakfast (normally 25 Euros) and a three course dinner for two. The dinner consisted of starter, main and dessert and there was no choice, though I’m sure if one had dietary issues, they would have been taken into consideration. This selection changes weekly and is on a par with the sort of things displayed on a sample menu on their site:

Vegetable tart, cottage cheese, kimchi of radish, couscous, tomato V 14
Squid, almond soup, marinated leek, ‘beluga’ lentils 16
Monkfish cheeks, yuzu, avocado mousse, cucumber, daikon 16
Pastrami, buckwheat, crumble of old Bruges cheese, onion, bear leek 16

Black Codfish, sorrel, lamb’s lettuce, mustard, bouillabaisse reduction 20
Veal Sucade, honey glazed turnips, shimeji, dukkah, arabica 19
Black leg chicken, cauliflower risotto, kohlrabi, eggplant, smoked yolk 19
Bulgur, pickles of beetroot and celeriac, goat cheese, balsamico V 18

Different textures of Granny Smith apple, crémeux of white chocolate,
cucumber and mint sorbet 9
Greek yoghurt, Sablé Breton, tangerine mousse, dark chocolate sorbet 8
Chocolate soufflé, orange marmalade, vanilla ice cream 10
Selection of homemade sweets 8
Two course lunch menu 25
Three course dinner menu 37

I would have had no hesitation about paying 37 Euros for the meal we had last night. Crockery and glass ware were elegant, proper white china, I might add. The main dining area is tiny,  seven tables for two, one table for four. It’s intimate and calm. The seats are very comfortable – I sat there thinking could I buy some and bring them back home.

After an amuse-bouche, the entree featured small prawns, beetroot and endive, with some teensy dollops of house made fresh soft cheese. The main was lamb cooked to perfection with various vegetables and a camomille jus. To finish, the chef’s take on the Bounty Bar. Its elements included a very light chocolate mousse on a bed of coconut, an aniseed foam – very mild on the aniseed – and on the side a lychee sorbet, which I enjoyed despite being no fan of this particular fruit.

Somehow that calm atmosphere, with one person managing the area with almost no assistance, changed at breakfast. The staff seemed rather overwhelmed and we found ourselves waiting for well over half an hour between finishing fruit/yoghurt/granola and receiving the next course – and that was only because we finally asked. We weren’t in a rush and it was absolutely preferable to the ubiquitous buffet.

Breakfast started with fresh orange juice, hot drinks, a plate of fresh fruit and a bowl of Greek yoghurt with granola. The fruit was a very varied selection and although I rarely eat such dishes in restaurants, expecting the worse, this passed whatever unconscious tests I set. The granola was I assume house made and was not horribly sweet. The yoghurt is unsweetened, but honey may be added. I did. I should have stopped at that point. The bread and pastries/meat and cheese course which follows was not to my taste. Given this, I won’t try to assess the quality. Eggs are cooked to order for those who wanted them. I didn’t. Manny thought they were nothing special, but he makes excellent scrambled eggs himself, so he is fussy in this department.

Negatives in the dining: to my taste the butter was too soft at both dinner and breakfast. More seriously, the milk served with tea (and presumably used in the coffee) was UHT. This is such a general choice in Europe that I can hardly make a particular point of it in this case, but I will continue to rant about it, hoping that in the end some dining establishments and cafes will listen. UHT milk tastes horrible. Maybe this doesn’t matter in coffee: I don’t drink it, so I can’t comment. But it changes a high end cup of tea in lovely crockery from being a pleasure to being miserable. In Geneva I’ve taken to carrying around fresh milk. Difficult to do on holidays.

Get with the program please, restauranteurs. Why use what are obviously best quality ingredients throughout the food you provide and let it all down with this ghastly chemical concoction of UHT milk. Fresh milk please. It isn’t a hard ask.

Oh, and perhaps I should mention that I hated every moment of music that was played in the restaurant area. It’s a tribute to the quality of the food that this didn’t put me off eating there. But I expect that’s just me. I hate most of the music I hear in restaurants.

Our room rate included late check out of 2pm. We reluctantly left around 1pm to continue our sight-seeing and I’d say it was the best value hotel rate we’ve ever experienced. Highly recommend this hotel as a base for visits to Brussels and we are sure to be back.

 

 

The Hotel Lord Byron in Rome

It’s part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World partnership, but for me the important thing about The Lord Byron was as much the comfort as the luxury. They don’t necessarily go together. I particularly appreciated the ambiance of the lounge. It has good lighting and music at a sound level which can be relegated to the background. Thus it served as a place to have a pot of tea with a book in the afternoon, or to the tones of 1950s crooners, an aperitif.

I can understand why, after checking in, the staff suggest that you visit the lounge for a complimentary welcome drink. It’s tucked away in the basement and it’s easy to imagine people not finding their way there unless enticed to. But once discovered, we found that we were happy to spend a lot of time there, dining twice during our three night stay. The food is excellent.

In the mornings buffet breakfast is served in the adjoining restaurant.  It’s a thoughtful selection, everything is attractive, fresh and asks to be eaten.  I think it’s probably the most beautifully presented breakfast I’ve experienced too, though perhaps the Sofitel in Lyon might challenge it. It’s comforting to find a hotel which does a good bircher muesli. The cold items like salmon and cheeses were of a superior quality and as well as scrambled eggs sitting next to the bacon, eggs were also available cooked to order. There is ample staff and nothing ever looks picked over. The tea was La Via del Tè, new to me. If only shipping weren’t 50 Euros to Switzerland I’d be buying it to drink here.

Other touches we especially liked:

  • smart phone entirely free for use during the stay
  • the possibility of continental breakfast served in the room without charge
  • bicycles for use of guests
  • fine crockery
  • umbrellas in the dressing room, no question of fighting it out with other guests for an umbrella at reception
  • wifi was good quality, a relief after the debacle of our last hotel in London
  • a sense of spaciousness in the lounge and restaurant, tables were well spaced, which I greatly appreciate
  • being book lovers we were pleased to note the presence of the library, another lovely public sitting area

We were upgraded to a suite. There was a walk in dressing room with plenty of room for bags, and a generously sized marble bathroom. These rooms were off the hallway. We walked through from there to a sitting room furnished with a 2 person sofa, an armchair and ottoman and a round table. The bedroom could be closed off by sliding doors if wished. There was a TV in both rooms. The view was beautiful, taking in the gardens of the Belgian Embassy. Airconditioning was excellent. Staff were very helpful with advice, printing out theatre tickets, transfers from the airport.

If that all sounds too good, I can offer two negatives. For us the lighting in the room wasn’t good enough to happily read by at night. We didn’t ask, but if we had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had a solution to offer us. It was that sort of hotel. And we did find noise intruding from the suite opposite ours on two days. The noise probably wouldn’t bother most people, it was in the morning, a family going about their business. I don’t think it would have affected our sleep if we hadn’t already been up as well. The room had no noise issues affecting sleep and automatically operating blinds ensured darkness.

The hotel is located above the Villa Borghese. It’s about three kms to hit the really tourist parts of Rome, which is exactly the sort of distance we wanted. We had no problems walking to the Vatican which is further than lots of the standard attractions. Later on it was a 10 Eu cab fare back to the hotel. It’s a quiet clean area with museums as well as the open space of the park at hand.

I don’t know if I’ve ever stayed in a hotel which was such good value for the price. For three nights we paid 546.00 Eu, having booked a Junior Suite, but we could have taken cheaper options. This price included breakfast and is a 3 for 2 deal which seems to be standard at the Hotel Lord Byron

To end, the view from our room, which we hope to revisit soon:

Belgium Embassy from our hotel room (4)

Belgium Embassy from our hotel room (1)

All in a day’s eating in Rome

A day of total indulgence. After a breakfast feast at our hotel, we were able to manage lunch at Ristorante Calabascio. Neither of us could go past the swordfish stuffed ravioli topped with mussels and clams. Good chewy bread to soak up the white wine sauce at the bottom of the bowl. 16Eu/serve. An unusual take on pistachio icecream followed. It had a chocolate filling and was encrusted in chopped pistachios. I thought it should have been left to soften a bit before eating. But that’s hard to do once it’s staring you in the face. No drinks, a 1 Eu cover charge each, 40 Eu in all.

The reason we’d had no drinks was because we’d just spent an hour in the rooftop bar of the Atlante Hotel. You can see the Vatican dome without queuing. Bargain.

Later that day, after an exhausting afternoon shopping for books….

We had dinner at our hotel, The Lord Byron. The menu at the moment reads:

HORS D’OEUVRES
Poached organic egg with asparagus hummus, barley, black truffle and
parmesan
Beetroot carpaccio, avocado pesto, Nocellara D.O.P olives and goat
cheese
Roasted octopus with buffalo stracciatella and marinated eggplants
Chicken breast terrine, tuna and capers sauce with sweet and sour bell
peppers
FIRST COURSES
Vialone Nano risotto with creamed green peas, stracchino and licorice
Paccheri carbonara style with slightly smoked vegetables in season
Spaghettone with garlic, olive oil, chili, lobster and tarallo crumbs
Spelt flour Tagliatelle with duck ragout and candied bergamot
SECOND COURSES
Stone bass with white bean veloutè, friggitelli and bottarga
Snapper with aubergine panzanella, datterini tomato sauce and wild
fennel
Lamb chops with dried fruit sauce and potato mille-feuille
Grilled filet of beef, wild mushroom velouté, Swiss chard with anchovy
sauce and pistachio
Assorted Italian cheese platter
DESSERTS
Luke warm chocolate tartlet with hazelnuts and saffron scented ice-cream
Tiramisù with green Matcha tea, white chocolate and pistachio
Crispy mille-feuille with ricotta cream and nougat ice-cream
Apricot crumble, rosemary and almond ice-water
Ice-cream and sorbets

Don’t be alarmed at the lack of prices. The prices are very reasonable for high end food and silver service. The pastas were around 16-18 Euros and were generous in size. We were both particularly taken with the spaghettone with lobster. The apricot crumble was piping hot and came with icecream.

Half of me wants to say that the Lord Byron’s restaurant deserves to be better known. The other half is inclined to keep it a secret, so I hope I don’t regret my words of praise here.

Town Hall Hotel London July 2018 stay

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a hotel with such good – and dreadful – features.

To start with the positive:

  • Having some space and a kitchen in London is a treat.
  • Kitchen is quite well equipped, the toaster is Dualit, there is a washing machine as well as a dishwasher. The coffee machine was of a good standard and excellent tea was supplied. There was complimentary still and sparkling water in the fridge.
  • Nice touches included a fridge in reception where milk was available to take to one’s room.
  • Some sort of high tech phone, free to use, and others might have found that very useful.
  • A very nicely presented information folder for both the hotel and the area. It was by far and away the best such thing I’ve seen.
  • Quality toiletries in a spacious bathroom.
  • Comfortable bed and a choice of pillows.
  • First rate collection of TV channels, as good as I’ve seen anywhere.
  • Reception was friendly. We especially like being able to go out and ask for our room to be made up while we are gone, which presented no problems.
  • There only seemed to be one lift, but it was always available. I guess, only being three floors in height, lots of people use the stairs.
  • There is a pool and a gym, neither of which we used, but we assume they are assets.

Poor:

  • We were looking forward to eating in the hotel. However, our first experience of lunch put us off exploring that further. The simple lunch menu was poorly executed: quite the driest brown pastry I’ve seen with a few bits of the driest potato and anchovy; a sort of half small bowl of soup, that really looked like the dregs of a batch, otherwise I can’t understand why it wasn’t more generously filled. For £6, it was the worst value soup I’ve ever encountered. A Reuben sandwich was better than these, but certainly not special.
  • We had a very odd exchange with the waiter. I asked if I could see the dinner menu. He said – retorted, really – that if he did show me a menu it wouldn’t be the one for that dinner which would have its own menu. He walked off. I was left assuming that he didn’t want us to come to dinner. After all, one could offer clues. It’s such and such style of food. The prices are so and so. Later on he had a small hissy fit when he saw a table near us had been set up for dinner not to his liking by another staff member. It was hot. This room didn’t seem to be airconditioned, or they didn’t have it on. Maybe that explains how he behaved. But still….it just put us off returning.
  • Internet in our room was the worst I’ve encountered in a hotel. To begin with we thought it was just the router, but after that was rebooted, it became obvious it was simply dreadful internet. It dropped out a lot. It told us we didn’t have the right connection for the internet. When going it might take a couple of minutes to load a google map, or any ordinary site. We couldn’t use it for skype. I see from looking online that having such issues with the wifi at this hotel is not unusual. I find it particularly surprising since it is seen as a business hotel, at least during the week.
  • We generally didn’t test the service, but we called and asked for two extra mugs on Saturday. Reception didn’t answer, but room service did. After waiting for half an hour, we went down to reception and asked again. It took another half an hour for mugs to arrive. I read that when they are doing events, guests are left wanting. I don’t know if this is what happened.

Could be good, could be bad, depending on the guest:

  • dogs are welcome. We walked into the small bar on the Saturday night of our stay and there were two large dogs in there. For us that was bad, so we headed off to our room….
  • the bath is very deep. As a short person I found it a struggle to climb out of it. I understand that some rooms have walk in showers, which I suggest any shorties reading this should ask for.
  • It was one of those designs where the bathroom has a glass wall between it and the bedroom. A light curtain can be pulled across it on the bedroom side. I hate this design because if you are the type to get up in the middle of the night, you can’t turn on the light in the bathroom without lighting up the bedroom somewhat too. On this stay we never once needed to do that, but I do consider it a design flaw.

The truly appalling: the hotel is used for ‘events’. Weddings and such like. We spend our Saturday night from the time we got back until midnight unwillingly and furiously listening to the music, there was nothing else we could do. Every now and then we called reception to pointlessly complain. The music was way too loud to permit us, for example, to watch TV. I couldn’t even read a book. I was shocked by the loudness. Shocked by the fact that the staff at reception could do nothing about it or for us. We were simply expected to put up with it.

Unfortunately it became clear that Saturday was only a small taste of what was to come on Sunday. On Sunday late afternoon the music started, to begin with at a level that was only irritating. About 7pm it became so loud that we called reception and were told as the day before that it was just how things were. As this was penetrating bass sort of clubbing music, it drove me crazy enough that reception figured they had to do something about it. We were offered two other rooms, the music would still be heard, but not as loud, I gather. We stayed where we were. We were told it would finish at 10pm. At 10pm, we were informed that the customers had paid for another two hours. MIDNIGHT. On a Sunday. Our only choice was to put up with it or leave the hotel and return at MIDNIGHT.

I have never had such an appalling experience in a hotel and note in passing that there was no manager on duty on the weekend. Looking at the main review sites online, lots of people complain about the noise in much the same way as I have.

This is from Tripadvisor, poor whealey got sucked in twice.

whealey
Exeter, United Kingdom
Reviewed March 17, 2015

Myself and my husband stayed last Saturday night . It was his birthday weekend in London.This was my second stay at the hotel- which is very beautiful to look at. Because I had had a sleepless night on my last stay, I had been tempted back by a small discount, with assurances that the Christmas Party which had kept me awake all night, was an unusual event.
We arrived at reception to be told, in warning tones, that we needed to be aware that an ‘event’ was taking place that night. Our hearts sank, and we asked them to ensure that we were sleeping a long way away from the noise.
There was a wedding party, and we were kept awake until 4am !! We rang reception three times, but nothing improved. People were shouting and laughing, banging doors in our corridor, running and generally out of control. The room opposite ours seemed to be a centre for comings and goings, and at one point we heard a man shout ‘Will you do that if I pay you more?’. What was going on we were afraid to investigate.
It was a terrible experience, and was added to by the reaction of the management. We were offered a derisory 15% off our bill!! Since we had had no sleep, we saw that as their breach of contract, and felt that we should not have had to pay at all!
So only go there if you want a riotous time!
The breakfast was certainly not value for money at £15 for DIY toast and fruit salad – but of course it was sourdough bread………Trip Advisor

Conclusion: this hotel has a major conflict going as to where its obligations lie. If it can’t provide (effective) soundproofing of either the rooms people stay in, or the rooms where functions are held, the very least it can do is warn potential guests of this major issue. I’m guessing that Monday to Thursday are safe nights. And if you are intending to be out until midnight on weekend nights, none of this will bother you. However, we specifically booked this hotel in order to take advantage of the space. On Saturday and Sunday nights, we would have got better value by staying somewhere small and cheap, and using the balance of the funds to go out. The space was wasted. We were tortured.

We ended up receiving a 50% refund for those two nights and an assurance of an upgrade next time we stay there. That was after we asked for a full refund for those nights. I can see that because we’d booked through a third party site it was difficult to give us a full refund. However, no refund or promise for the future could make up for the fact that our stay was really spoiled. We spent two nights tense and miserable. Followed by two necessarily late morning starts after being forced to go to bed after midnight. We got cross with each other and this horrible hotel experience was to blame for this unusual occurrence.

I think this hotel has a lot going for it. If you are happy with the possibility of noise along the lines I’ve described, there is no reason to avoid it. If, like me, you think that the most extraneous noise you should hear in your hotel room is the odd bathroom pipe and the occasional door closed carelessly, this hotel is definitely not for you. We faced the side street, so when the disco wasn’t going, it was nice and quiet. However, I suspect if you faced the main road, you’d get a lot of noise issues. The windows are ordinary, not soundproofed.

Roseate House, London: a model small hotel

Truth be told, I don’t like surprises in my accommodation, much as surprises can be good as well as bad. In London I therefore head for the big chains where I know exactly what I’m going to get and it’s adequate. Heating’s going to work, the wifi will be okay, the beds are often excellent without having to spend a fortune. The rooms in the centre of town will be small but not unworkable.

But every now and then I decide to try out a small hotel and….it’s always been a mistake. Looming large in my memory is an establishment in Kensington with a circular hole in the window, some inches wide, and a room so small that had I been male I could have relieved myself without leaving the bed (assuming a good aim, that is). That after I’d paid for an upgrade to a larger room – I was assured I was in the right place upon asking. Breakfast best left undescribed.

Another time we tried the Montague near the British Museum. They don’t describe the size of their rooms on their site, which should have set alarm bells ringing. Their basic room is, I only discover now from looking at booking.com is 15sqm. We found in practice that if we used the desk where it was located, it was impossible to get out of the room and even upon moving it, this meant that the room could only be navigated by the other person by climbing over the bed. We were really disappointed by this. To be fair, upon writing to the management subsequent to our trip, we were offered a subsequent upgrade should we stay there again, but we didn’t take that up, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in a larger room without a free upgrade. It was never going to be a regular hotel for  us, in other words.

Back to Hilton, Holiday Inn, Pullman, Novotel for a while. We even tried an Ibis. But looking for somewhere close to Paddington Heathrow Express for a one night stay last week, I happened to notice Roseate House. It was time to try a small boutique hotel again. And, for the first time ever I can define the experience in two words ‘no regrets’.

I do have to say that we were upgraded from the basic room to the next size which gave us a couple of extra square metres, but the basic room is still 20sqm, according to their site, which is so much more generous than the Montague’s 15sqm.

When we fronted at reception, we’d been on the road for 36 hours, the long haul from Australia, carrying way too much luggage (five months away) and it was 9am. Would they take pity on us and let us check in early? Very early? Personally I think that if there’s a room available there is no reason for keeping a guest out, but there are hotels in London who expect you to pay extra – let’s avoid those places if we can.

So, here we were faced by smiling staff upgrading us and telling us about the biscuits which we’d find in our room – definitely worth a special mention, we discovered. Along with the ubiquitous Nespresso machine and – three cheers for this, a kettle too. In Europe hotels don’t understand that water has to be boiled properly for tea and that Nespresso machines are not adequate. Say what you like about Brexit, the English ARE different from Europe proper. Knowing how to do tea being top of my list.

Our room was on the lower floor – basement, I guess  you’d say – but it had a window with a lovely garden view and the wifi was good, so being low down was no punishment. Sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea in hand, looking out onto the garden, life was definitely looking up. Shower, clean clothes, and we were starting to feel human again.

To continue the comparison, the Montague’s stylish furnishings are rather flamboyant and lavish compared with Roseate House. Here we have a more true to English nature gentle quirky quaintness. We loved our room, professed by Manny to be the best we’ve stayed at in London. It felt like home. The quality of everything was excellent, the bed, furnishing generally, bathroom products, good shower (over bath, which we did not try). Towels were on a warmer rack. That made me so happy!

Next a visit to the small dining room and bar for a proper pot of tea. And indeed, it was impeccably served, excellent quality tea, pot and china all held up to my stringent conditions. After lunch and an afternoon out, we decided to try the hotel for dinner. There is an excellent cocktail menu. Manny couldn’t resist the idea of a blue cheese cocktail and S-L had to try Breakfast with Granny.

  • Breakfast with Granny £9.50
    Hayman’s Sloe Gin, Lime, Grapefruit, Vanilla, Blackcurrant
  • Say Cheese £12.75
    Blue Cheese, Hayman’s Gin, Parsley

The Hyde Bar is famous for its special whisky collection, to be sampled, perhaps, another day.

Special mention has to be made of the music. I wonder why it is that so many establishments, even if they are five star – or so posh that they are beyond stars – think it’s okay to put on random shuffled music at too loud a volume. The music here fitted the style of the bar and never interfered with conversation. That gives it a very big tick from me.

Overall, we found the food and tea to be better than The Montague, which is not to damn it with faint praise. In fact we didn’t try breakfast at The M. but here we were offered full breakfast for two at the price of £25. The standard of both the buffet and the cooked to order dishes was excellent. We tried the full English and avocado with poached eggs delicately presented on crustless toast. The eggs stayed runny until they were dispensed with. I don’t know how typical that price is for the hotel, but take it if you can as I don’t think you can get a better value breakfast in London.

We’re thinking of London in July and I see these rates come up for three days in their most basic room:

  • Roseate House £600
  • The Montague on the Gardens £747

What are you getting for that? The Montague is fabulously situated for the tourist. You really do step out into the heartland of London sights. Maybe that makes up for the 5sqm you will be missing in your room. It’s also bigger and busier and some people want that.

Roseate House has larger rooms which are finely furbished, different character but at least on a par for quality. Both have excellent service, but simply because it’s smaller – about half the number of rooms – Roseate House is more personal. All the staff were wonderful.

And for us Roseate House is in a great location, uncrowded, untouristy. It’s a walk to Regent’s Park, Marylebone High St and the surrounding neighbourhood for food and Daunt’s Bookshop. The fabulous Satay House is nearby and Kendal St etc a bit further, followed by Hyde Park. London’s so teensy. But in any case, Paddington Underground is a few minutes’ walk away should you prefer. If you know London, I think you’d find Roseate House perfectly located.

In short, we highly recommend Roseate House as a place to stay in London and we are sure to be back.

 

 

 

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.