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Reviews of London's Restaurants, Supper Clubs and Hotels, Wine Tastings, Travel Writing, and Home to the Japanese and French Supper Clubs in Islington

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Saturday 25 June 2011

Summer Music Season at Courtyard 51

During the months of July and August, Courtyard 51 will be hosting 12 nights of al fresco live musical entertainment and a 3-course dinner at its magnificent courtyard on 51 Buckingham Gate Hotel. Part of the luxury Indian Taj Hotel Group, the hotel also hosts the splendid Michelin starred Quilon Restaurant (reviewed here).

Dr G and I were invited for the press preview evening last week, but thanks to our unpredictable English weather, as it was pouring with rain, we were relocated to an indoor dining room!

I hope though that by the 1st July when the "Summer" Music Season kicks off, you will be able to enjoy the food and live performances outdoors as planned. The menu we tried was simple but well executed and included a starter of "Greek Salad", followed by "Gin Braised Lamb Shank in an Olive Passatta" for main course and an "Iced Honeycomb Parfait" as dessert.

Three different performances will feature over the 12 nights, ranging from opera arias to classic and contemporary West End musical theatre hits. I am hardly a fan of musicals but I enjoyed the performances by "Cantabile - The London Quartet", an A Cappella style group (unaccompanied singers) that has played for some impressive audiences including New York's Carnegie Hall and the House of Commons.

Tickets for the 3-course dinner and music start from £75, but a limited number of standing-only tickets, for the covered terrace bar, are available from £10. For more information or to make a reservation, contact courtyard@51-buckinghamgate.com or visit the link here.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

The London Foodie Goes to France - Abbaye de la Bussière (Dijon)

Clive and Tanith Cummings purchased Abbaye de la Bussière in 2005 from the Catholic Church, who used it as a spiritual retreat.  The Abbaye is no stranger to the English, having been founded in 1131 by Stephen Harding, third Abbot of Cîteaux.  Its origins reflect the Cistercian Order’s long tradition of humility, peace and hospitality.

The hotel has retained these core qualities, now magnificently restored as a luxury Relais & Chateau Hotel with a Michelin starred restaurant, and was recently listed among the 50 Best Hotels in the World by The Daily Telegraph.

Set in 15 acres of beautiful parkland, the hotel is far away from the road, with a long drive which passes a stunning lake and immaculate lawns. 

Although the Abbaye is a large building, it has only 16 generously sized rooms, and has the feel of a country house with several welcoming living rooms.

Few hotels have impressed me as much as the Abbaye de la Bussière when it comes to attention to detail.  From the elegant furniture and quirky artwork, to the hydro-massage baths, Bulgari toiletries, and massive beds in each room, every aspect of this hotel has been very carefully thought out.

The Abbaye's restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2007, and is headed by Emmanuel Hebrard. In 2010, Emmanuel retained the Michelin star of his former head chef after the latter was head-hunted by the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

The hotel’s main restaurant is set in the stunning refectory rooms of the Abbaye – I loved the sense of theatre that those rooms provide, which is the perfect setting for Emmanuel’s regional menu.

We enjoyed his interpretations of some classic French dishes, as well as his own creations, some with an Asian touch like beef tataki in ponzu sauce, brill with rhubarb purée or rice with salmon, sesame and lemon rind.

Other good dishes also included the asparagus, sabayon, grapefruit and caviar and the deep fried frogs legs with pea puree.

The cheese trolley is magnificent, with a large and well thought out range of regional chee
ses. We were also impressed by the selection of petit fours served with our coffee including marshmallows, cakes, chocolate and jellies.

Freddy, the head sommelier, lived and worked in the UK for many years. He matched every course to a  specially chosen wine, explaining each with great care and knowledge.  We loved every wine that he chose for us.  A 6-course gastronomic menu in the restaurant costs around €95 per person (including a glass of Champagne).

At lunch time the hotel’s bistro opens its doors to guests and the general public alike, and if the sun is shining as it was on the day when Dr G and I were there, it is served al fresco in the hotel’s grounds. We were coincidentally joined by Greedy Diva and TPG on one our days at the Abbaye as our trips overlapped.

The food at the more informal bistro was also outstanding. At €25 for 2 courses, €29 for 3 courses and €33 for 4 courses, the bistro was also one of the best value meals we had during our stay in France.

I ordered a magnificent dish of escargot (snails) served with a richly garlic-suffused green risotto, topped with a goat's cheese foam. Dr G went for mullet with a deliciously creamy sauce of seafood and chervil, which was also expertly executed.

Greedy Diva’s partner (TPG)  enjoyed his starter of haddock with smoked garlic cream from Arleux and main of grilled trout served with basmati rice, capers, sultanas and herbs, which was expertly filleted at our table. Freddy’s wine suggestions were again spot on, as was the wonderful cheese trolley selection.

Breakfast at the Abbaye is mainly continental, but a cooked option is also available for a small extra charge.  During our stay, we were served freshly squeezed orange juice, chilled gazpacho soup, various types of bread and pastry, cold meats, cheese, and fruit poached in vanilla.  It was a very generous and well thought out spread.

For wine lovers, it is only a few kilometres to the nearest Côte de Nuits vineyards at  Gevrey Chambertin and Nuits-St Georges, and the 20km scenic drive to Beaune passes through the Côte de Beaune vineyards of Pernand Vergelesses and Aloxe Corton.  When we visited Beaune with Greedy Diva, we enjoyed a comprehensive cellar and barrel tasting of an extensive  range of Burgundy reds and whites, and Beaujolais, at Maison Louis Jadot by its General Manager Dominique Mounier.

In the unlikely event that you should tire of the dining options at the Abbaye, there are also some outstanding restaurants in Beaune, including Caveau des Arches, at which Dr G and I had a magnificent dinner during our stay.

Beyond the wonderful rooms, interiors and food, the setting of the Abbaye is what is most remarkable.  With parts of the building dating back nearly 1000 years, the building is fascinating, and the tranquillity and beauty of the lake and gardens is striking.  As an escape from the far too hectic lives many of us lead, there are few places to rival it.

It is set in a small village, in which it is by far the largest building.  It is set very close to a canal, which provides easy scenic walks, and there are also bikes for hire, fishing, canoeing and hunting opportunities. I cannot recommend highly enough as a perfect long weekend break, or longer if you plan to explore the magnificent vineyards of Burgundy.

Travel Details:

Abbaye de La Bussière, La Bussière-sur-Ouche, 21360 Dijon, Cote d'Or, France, Tel: +33 (0) 3 80 49 02 29, www.abbaye-dela-Bussière.com.

The closest airport is Paris CDG or Lyon. There is a daily direct train from CDG Airport to Dijon. The Abbaye can collect you from Dijon Station or organise a car hire service. By road, the Abbaye is around 370 miles drive from London.

Room rates at the Abbaye de La Bussière start from €195 and there are 2 day Abbaye break packages including dinner in the Michelin star restaurant and a continental breakfast. The 6 course gastronomic menu in the restaurant will cost around €95 per person, while lunch in the more informal bistro cost €25 for 2 courses, €29 for 3 courses and €33 for 4 courses.

The London Foodie was a guest of Abbaye de La Bussière.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

London Restaurant Reviews – Spuntino

It was with some reservation that I accepted
Natasha’s invitation for an early dinner at Spuntino. The rather underwhelming meal I had at its sister restaurant Polpo the year before (reviewed here) was partially to blame, as was the incredible hype surrounding the place. In this age of style over substance, I was ready to dislike Spuntino, and so with mixed feelings made my way to Soho to meet her.

The restaurant has a discreet entrance, and I nearly missed it among the many other businesses on Rupert Street. It is tiny, sitting up to 26 people, mostly around a central bar on high stools. The décor, reminiscent of an American walk-in diner, is novel and very stylish – it has a distressed chic look about it with industrial lighting and fittings, exposed brickwork and tiled walls.

We got to the restaurant at 6pm, and the place was not yet full. It didn’t take long for all the places to be taken, and as the restaurant takes no bookings, within 30 minutes, there was a large queue of hungry diners waiting for a place. Seats are very close together, so much so that I accidentally started eating the stuffed olives of the couple sitting next to us!

The menu, which doubles up as a place mat, is short and lists a selection of “small plates” classed as spuntini (snacks), sliders (starter-sized burgers), salads, plates and sides. Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, founders of sister restaurants Polpo and Polpetto, describe Spuntino’s menu as “hang over food”, and looking at some of the items on the menu like mac & cheese, truffled egg toast, burgers, and steak and eggs, I could see what they mean.

While we were making our choices, we were offered some complimentary popcorn, a spicy chilli version, which was a nice touch. There is a popcorn machine behind the bar, and the smell of freshly popped corn wafts through the room. Natasha and I started with a portion of Stuffed Fried Olives @ £4.  These were delicious, coated in breadcrumbs, stuffed with anchovies and deep fried.

Next we shared a "Brick Lane Salt Beef Slider" (a mini burger) with dill pickle and Colman’s @ £4.50. The 24 hour bakery at the North end of Brick Lane is a favourite of mine for the early hours of the morning whenever I find myself in the area.  I enjoyed the Spuntino version, despite the tiny portion, and thought it was a nice touch to feature such a London classic on its American menu.

The "Small Baby Gem Salad" with soft egg and creamed cod dressing @ £6 was again excellent. The creamed cod dressing (a type of French brandade) was light and not overpoweringly fishy, made wholesome by the addition of soft egg.

The star of the evening in my opinion, however, was the "Truffled Egg Toast" @ £5.50 – a soft runny egg is cooked in the centre of fluffy white bread within a layer of melting Fontina cheese,  infused with truffle oil. Rich and comforting and definitely not a dieting dish, but worth every calorie.

The "Spicy Sausage, Lentil and Radicchio" @ £7 was a rustic, flavoursome dish and went well with the 250ml glass of 09 Primitivo “Fiore” @ £8.50. Wines are served in tumblers, which in my opinion, does not help to show them to their full potential.

The "Eggplant Chips" @ £4 had a crisply fried exterior and were covered with sesame seeds and served with a fennel yoghurt dip.

To finish off the meal, we shared the "Brown Sugar Cheesecake" served with Grappa prunes @ £6. This was light, while the grappa prunes added a delicious bitter sweet flavour.

I enjoyed having my prejudices challenged in this way, and despite my initial reservations and all the hype, I was really pleased to find that Spuntino serves excellent quality food in a great setting, right in the heart of Soho.

Cost: £61.31 for seven dishes and including drinks.

Likes: Small plates of delicious comfort food, the truffled egg toast was fantastic as were the deep-fried olives and eggplant chips.

Dislikes: Glass tumblers for wine do not do anything for me, seats are too close together, and no booking system can mean hours of waiting.

Verdict: Great Soho spot serving great comfort/hangover food. Friendly and knowledgeable staff, trendy decor. Cannot wait to return. Highly recommended.

**Apologies for the quality of the images as these were taken from my iPhone**

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 8 June 2011


S.Pellegrino, Taste's official water partner, will be holding a series of Trilogy Masterclasses (Food, Wine and Water Matching) at Taste of London 2011.
These exciting trilogy sessions will be headed by Neil Philips, the S. Pellegrino UK Ambassador, who will reveal how to make the most of food, wine and water matching whether you are putting a menu together at home or selecting them in a restaurant.

René Redzepi, head chef of Noma (the World’s Best Restaurant), will be joining Neil Philips in one of these sessions on Thursday, 16th June 2011 for a Wine and Water matching master class with focus on French wines followed by a special Q&A session.

S. Pellegrino has kindly donated two evening tickets for readers of The London Foodie for Thursday, 16th June 2010 (please note these will give you access to the Taste of London show, but not for the S. Pellegrino Masterclass). For a chance to win a pair of these tickets, all you need to do is leave a comment with your name and e-mail address (johnAThotmailDOTcom) in this post. The lucky winner will be randomly selected on Sunday, 12th June 2011 at midday and his/her name will be published here.

Of the 39 eligible entries, the winner of this competition who was randomly selected via random.org, was entry 29 - Kate Sinclair. Well done Kate, thank you for entering the competition, I will be contacting you to let you know how you should collect your tickets. 
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