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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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Friday 29 March 2013

London Restaurant Reviews - The Greenhouse

Words and Photography by Marina Benjamin

I first ate at The Greenhouse in Hays Mews, Mayfair back in 2003, when Bjorn van der Host presided over the kitchen. Already the food was inventive, yet confidently simple, and anyone with a half-decent palate could see that Michelin stars would soon be raining down on the forward-looking kitchen. One duly arrived that year, and its guiding rays have been drawing the well-heeled of residential Mayfair though The Greenhouse’s unassuming wooden doors ever since.

The décor, too, has moved upmarket, but without sacrificing comfort. Cream leather chairs and banquettes are clean-looking and functional. And the glass-fronted installations of twigs, covering several walls, feel more arts & crafts than high art. The Greenhouse is also pleasantly unstuffy. A relief to anyone who disdains those austere – and I think chilly – ‘cathedrals of food’ where no one speaks above a whisper for fear of attracting a glare from the maitre’d.  

The night I went along to sample Executive Chef Arnaud Bignon’s new tasting menu (available April), the welcoming staff, soft-glow lighting and anticipation of fine dining, warmed the atmosphere into companionable liveliness. 

The Greenhouse has long specialized in delicately wrought modern European food, but under Executive Chef Antonin Bonnet, and then, since last April, Bignon, the slant has become distinctly French – as if the perfectly formed and satisfyingly crunchy mini-baguettes piled into the bread basket aren’t a giveaway.  

The appetising set lunch menu is excellent value at £29 for three courses, even if  trendy descriptions leave rather a lot to the imagination. On the current menu for example the cod dish is flagged up thus: ‘potato/wasabi/garlic’ and the pork: ‘ras-al-hanout/ aubergine/red pepper’.  You know what’s gone into the thing, but not what’s going to comes out. 

Dining á la Carte will set you back £75 for three courses, which is about average for a restaurant of this calibre. But the wine list, extensive and well-sourced, is on the pricy side, with very few appealing bottles to be had for less than £60.  

Our meal had a crowd-sourcing theme, with Bignon floating 8 dishes by us in order to select 5 for his tasting menu. We kicked off with shredded Cornish crab –  ‘mint jelly/ cauliflower/ Granny Smith apple/ curry’.  It came in a dubious bowl, part Start-Trek oracle, part Olympic discus, whose deep concavity disguised all but the topmost layer of the dish – a bright green gel in the middle of which sat a pale quenelle of mousse. The word ‘eyeball’ comes to mind.

Still, this was a delicious and perfectly judged dish, the mix of refreshing minty-apple gel and earthy cauliflower mousse giving way to an underlay of sweet crab, offset with a mildly curried yogurt dressing. The dish is a Bignon special. It’s on the á la Carte menu and I’d recommend it to anyone. 

The next dish had a ballsy tomato puree sit beside a morsel of sautéed fois gras, like an ill-matched couple. I’m afraid no amount of strawberry soup could bring them into flavourful accord. It might have worked, sans tomate, and had the strawberry jus been less soupy and more like a sticky syrup; but sad to say, the components of this dish never got to be on good terms. 

Two fish dishes followed, one delicate, one bold. First sea bass – a finger of fish served with a wafer of yielding polenta and a shy creamy yuzu dressing. Then a pave of John Dory, warmly spiced with cumin, pepper corns and mace. This was succulent and more-ish, grounded by the deep notes of a siren-coloured beetroot puree.

A tranche of Yorkshire lamb, seared on two edges and rudely pink in the middle, came with a power-packed jus and a stick of fried aubergine bathed in a soy caramel. While pigeon arrived sprinkled with sweet almond crumbs and accompanied by a puddle of melting onions and rhubarb. Both dishes looked exquisite – the lamb, a minimalist’s delight, Spartan and symmetrical on the plate, the pigeon, a model of nouveau-rustic finesse, with everything hugging to the middle. 

Each course was paired with a unique wine. Most enjoyable for me was a spicy and fulsome Syrah from the Georges Verney estate, priced at an affordable £55. It was served with the lamb, but I happily stuck with it. 

Bignon made us two sublime puds, pineapple with lemon sorbet and lavender foam, and a layered filo sandwich filled with piped orange mousse, and skirted with slivers of fresh date and orange. No doubt about it, this was a feast fit for foodies of all stripes.

At the meal’s end, my table of food writers and bloggers were happy and satisfied. My few quibbles were with the amuse bouches offered at the top of the meal, which were diverting in a Willy Wonka sort of way, but neither tasty or exciting. Also at £90 the tasting menu was more accurately a grazing menu. Every course was similarly portioned. There was no build to a stand-out main; and a noticeable lack of carbohydrate. The lamb, in particular, would have sizzled alongside a potato fondant, or an earthy root-vegetable puree. But it was all rather lean and self-denying. Bingon has said in interviews that he’d take bread over any other carb, and he’s clearly a man of his word. But I felt that even a small gesture towards another member of the starch family was needful.

Good news for food lovers is that most of the dishes sampled are available á la carte. However my top votes go to the crab, lamb and pineapple, the last of these served, once again, in those hockey puck shaped bowls, which, this time, hid a surprisingly delicious pine nut crumble.

Update as of 2nd April 2013: April's tasting menu has been decided and can be seen below in all its glory:

April Tasting menu

Cornish crab
Mint jelly/ Cauliflower/ Granny Smith apple/ Curry

Liquorice/ Amontilado

John Dory
Heirloom beetroot/ Vadouvan/ Onion seedling

Yorkshire lamb
Red pepper Romero/ Miso/ Spring onion/ Hummus

Pine nut/ Lavender/ Lemon

Greenhouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 26 March 2013

London Restaurant Reviews - Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Words and Photography by Charmaine Chow

Name: Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Cost: £148.50 for two including 12.5% service charge and drinks

About: Situated at the Corinthia Hotel on Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square, Massimo is a new speciality fish and seafood restaurant and oyster bar in London.

Designed by David Collins, the restaurant has an air of 1920s grandeur about it with its Corinthian columns, marble topped tables, dark wood panelling and elegant lighting. It is a visually stunning restaurant.


What We Ate: We started the evening at the crudo (raw) bar, where the crudo chef explained the different types of raw seafood on the menu.  We had a selection of oysters: Irish Rock (£3), Loch Fyne (£3), Loch Ryan (£4) and Falmouth Bay (£4), of which our favourite was the native Loch Ryan, which was a perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness.

The second crudo dish we sampled was Sea Scallop dressed with Roast Lime, Vanilla and Sea Salt (£12). The scallops were very fresh, the lime juice was slightly bitter but balanced by the vanilla and salt. Definitely worth a try!


The crudo chef wanted us to try a new dish that he was hoping to launch.  Spicy stripped calamari with chives, fresh chilli, green apples and lemon juice (on the house). This was scrumptious but definitely not for the faint hearted as it was quite fiery.


We then headed to the restaurant, where for starters, we shared a generous portion of calamari fritti (£12).  The batter was not quite golden but the calamari were perfectly cooked.  They were served with fried courgette strips which were disappointingly soggy. I’ve had better at Byron. We also had bean soup with roast garlic and thyme (£9), which was comforting on a cold night.  There was a delicious tang of roasted garlic infused in this rich creamy soup, which was served with some calamarata pasta and more beans - very good.


For the main course, we opted for black tagliatelle with squid, carrot and courgette (£17), and Cotechino sausage with cauliflower puree and lentils (£16).  The tagliatelle was definitely the best main option of the evening - the pasta was al dente and the fresh squid brought out the sweetness in the dish, while the Cotechino sausage was underwhelming in my opinion.

Ooops, where is my sausage??!

For dessert, we had Panettone bread and butter pudding (£8) served with a Latte di Mandorla sorbet, and Mont Blanc Pavlova (£8) which were both very good.

What We Drank: a Bellini cocktail, a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne (£14), two glasses of  white wine (Grillo Luma Cantine Cellaro from Sicily - £8).

Likes: beautiful bar and dining room, black tagliatelle with squid, carrot and courgette

Dislikes: somewhat inconsistent standard of cooking, impersonal (but efficient) service

Verdict: Good but pricey food, for special occasions. Try the pre or post-theatre options (£30 for a three course meal with a glass of prosecco) featuring dishes from the a la carte menu.

Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar
10 Northumberland Avenue
London WC2N 5AE
Tel: 020 – 7998 0555

Thursday 21 March 2013

London Restaurant Review - Gallery Mess

Words and Photography by Felicity Spector

Sloane Square. It’s not exactly known for its buzzing restaurant scene - not, that is, until the newest outpost of the Corbin and King empire set up camp on the far side of the square, its crimson canopies instantly looking part of the Chelsea scene.

But walk a little further to the top of the Kings Road, and there’s a former Ministry of Defence site which has been transformed into a fancy piazza, replete with luxury shops. At the far end, the old barracks which was once the Army Military Asylum is now the Saatchi Gallery, filled with the most edgy kind of modern art.

I was slightly late for dinner, and it felt like the coldest night of the year: luckily I managed to get past the seemingly impenetrable iron gates to the welcoming beacon of the museum’s restaurant, Gallery Mess, which had invited us to try out the dinner menu.

Appropriately enough, on this most Arctic of nights, the current exhibition is a collection of mid-century Moscow art entitled “Breaking the Ice”. I’ll have to go back during opening hours to check that out.

Gallery Mess, its name evoking the officers’ mess which fed the military elite for almost two hundred years, is a grade II listed building which must be an architect’s dream of a place; all exposed brick, a wall of windows, and pieces of art in between the tables. In a room which once echoed to the tramping of squaddies’ boots, there’s a giant shoe on the back wall. Thankfully, there are no formaldehyde cows.

The food comes courtesy of the upmarket catering firm Rhubarb, which now runs a handful of London restaurants: there‘s an all-day menu with cakes at tea time, and some options for children. I have to confess I hadn‘t realised it stayed open in the evenings, but you can get dinner here every night apart from Sunday.

My friend, R, had already staked out a prime table right next to a powerful heater, and had started on the wine, getting the chance to taste three before settling on an organic chianti which she declared “smooth, well-rounded and delicious". We eyed up the menu, a short but fairly classic selection with prices on the Chelsea side of average: there were so many tempting dishes, although I was immediately won over by the butternut squash tortellini, one of my favourites.

R hovered between sea bass and rib eye steak, briefly swayed by the idea of a couple of starters. The scallops sounded excellent, as did a marinated salmon with beetroot and horseradish cream.

But with the sub-zero winds whistling around us, this was a time for something hearty and comforting. The waiter helpfully recommended the fish, and we were decided.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sea bass, but if it was always cooked like this I’d definitely order it again. It was perfectly cooked, with the crispiest possible skin, the flesh firm and satisfying beneath. There was some Swiss chard, and a pile of well seasoned crushed potatoes that had been fried to a crisp finish, almost like a hash. A generous circle of shrimp in a butter sauce surrounded the plate. It was delicious.

But the triumph of the night was my bowl of large, plump tortellini. The pasta was just thin enough without losing that necessary bite: the filling was dense, smooth, rich, with a warming note of nutmeg: a tangle of watercress on top came scattered with shaves of parmesan and some unusually fresh pieces of walnut. Lurking underneath was a puddle of squash puree, sweet and unctuous. I suspect there was some butter involved. I grudgingly let R try a tiny corner before I polished off the rest.

Onto pudding then, for we were being nothing if not thorough. The wintry weather seemed to rule out the ice cream or knickerbocker glory - so we ordered the other two options, a chocolate tart and a rhubarb steamed pudding.

The tart was filled with a very rich, very dark ganache: a little bitter for my taste - it definitely needed the accompanying salted caramel ice-cream to balance it out, but I might have preferred a less intense chocolate filling. Not that I wasted much time clearing the plate, of course.

R’s choice, the deconstructed rhubarb pudding, looked deceptively small, but the dense, syrup drenched sponge was just the sort of thing you need on a freezing night: presented on a long platter with a large scoop of clotted cream ice-cream and a few pieces of poached rhubarb alongside. R said it reminded her of the steamed puddings her mother used to make when they were children, and in a good way.

We were too full for tea or coffee, and even managed to turn off the heater for a nano-second, trying hard to delay the unwelcome idea of leaving the warm embrace of the restaurant and venturing back outside, where it had started to snow.

We were the last to leave, but no-one tried to rush us out: it was all very relaxed. I enjoyed the whole experience; had the chocolate tart been slightly sweeter it would have scored ten out of ten. To echo that old slogan, Gallery Mess is an ace café, with a museum attached.

Gallery Mess on Urbanspoon

Monday 18 March 2013

Raffles Hotel, Bentleys & Champagne - Living it Up in Singapore (If Only for 48 Hours...)

Words and Photography by Glenn Orton

It was my first visit to Singapore. I was welcomed to this little island at the foot of Malaysia by Zainal, who met me at Changi Airport and was to chauffeur me by Bentley to my residence for the next 48 hours.

In the car, delusions of being a rock star and wealthy oligarch went through my head as I admired the polished interior and my legs lauded the space after their eight-hour flight from Sydney. Zainal was polite and charming, answering my every question with a “Sir”. The car was immaculate and cooling compared with the humid evening as we approached the towering buildings of Singapore city.

Singapore has a long history as a place of trade, and with it came a vibrant and diverse culture, which can still be seen in the street names today: Arab Street, French Road and Armenian Street, for instance. An island state, rich in variety of races, religions and languages, Singapore is home to one of the world’s most exuberant and varied food cultures.

Though today’s Singapore is a centre for global banks and stock-market dealings, you can trace back the foundations of this little powerhouse of an island to one man, Sir Stamford Raffles, who laid down the plans for the development of the island after creating a trading post here for the East India Company in 1819. He is commemorated on more street names, buildings and plazas than any of the cultures that settled here, the most esteemed of which is assuredly my destination of 1 Beach Road, Singapore – Raffles Hotel

Where to Stay

Raffles Hotel

Being designated a national monument in 1987 gives a pretty good impression of the regard in which this establishment is held. It is undoubtedly one of the most famous hotels in the world, steeped in history and synonymous with a luxury reminiscent of a bygone era, when travel meant glamour and adventure.

Immortalised in literature and chronicled in anecdotes for just over 125 years, Raffles has been the chosen residence for writers, presidents and nobility alike – Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Bill Clinton and Will and Kate are among those who have checked in here.

Stepping out of the Bentley, I was greeted at the front of the hotel by Alvaro, who announced that he was to be my butler for the duration of my stay. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I’d never had a butler before; my mind briefly drifted in a Downton direction. As I walked into the foyer I felt that here was something special indeed, and with none of the pomposity you might expect. I felt welcomed and secure, as if I were dropping in on the grand residence of an old friend.

In this city of towering giants, Raffles stands no more than three stories high at its peak, adding to its charm and nodding towards the notion that bigger is not necessarily better. Established in 1887 and designed in an elegant colonial architectural style, with colonnades and courtyards filled with tropical palms, ferns and flowering shrubs, it really does feel like a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of life immediately outside.

There are 103 spacious suites in total, with rattan seating on the verandas and old-world furnishings inside. Brass fittings and deep dark woods come as the norm along with all the usual mod cons you would expect, including TV and WiFi.

I appreciated the layout of my suite. Through the door, you enter a small but useful reception area with a sofa, table and chairs. Then through a curtain-draped arch you walk into the bedroom, and through that is a dressing area at the rear, which leads to a bathroom stocked with Fragonard soaps.

The Raffles has a spa, gym and pool, as well as a ballroom, theatre, shops (think the kind of brands you’d find in Bond Street or Mayfair, such as Tiffany and Louis Vuitton), and even a museum. The 15 top-notch places to eat and drink include the Tiffin Room, famed for its afternoon teas; the Bar and Billiard room, where a footloose tiger was spotted and shot dead in 1902; the Long Bar, synonymous with the Singapore Sling; and the fabulous Long Bar Steak House, which serves well-sourced prime-grade American and Australian Wagyu beef – for the trans–Pacific ‘tour’ order the tasting of filet mignon, it’s a real education.

If you want it you can probably find it here – the hotel even has its own bakery.

Breakfasts are served in the Tiffin room. The mixed buffet included excellent dim sum (the chicken dumpling was incredibly light and fluffy), along with a menu of cooked dishes to choose from.

Above and beyond the splendid building, the air of history and the gracious atmosphere, I realised the thing, the golden element, that made my stay at Raffles so special was the staff. They were absolutely fantastic – attentive, couldn’t do enough for you but simultaneously unobtrusive. If you are in Singapore and have the budget for just one indulgence, make it a stay at Raffles.

Where to Eat

From unique hawker fare to some of the best restaurants in the world, Singapore has it all – the food is a fantastic mix of Indian, Chinese, Malay, European and Peranakan, a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisines. 

Raffles Grill

My first evening I dined at the Raffles Grill with Annie. Sitting down for dinner we were offered a glass of celebratory Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve Champagne, sourced by wine director and sommelier Stéphane Soret for the big celebration a few months earlier, when Raffles marked the start of its 125th year on 16 September 2012. This was very palatable, light and refined. It comes from one of the few Champagne houses to be owned by the original family, which was established in 1818 by Nicolas-Francois Billecart – one year before Raffles drew up his plans for Singapore.

The menu on offer is seasonal French/European, which at first might seem an odd concept in Asia, but when you realise that Singapore needs to import nearly everything it consumes, I guess it’s a case of if you have to import it, why not import the best.

Deputy Executive Chef Nicola Canuti (Italian by birth, a prodigy of Alain Ducasse by trade) explained the menu before we chose. To receive the full culinary experience I opted for the degustation menu, and when I mentioned that I’d never tried sea urchin, not part of the selection, chef made us an extra appetiser as well.

We kicked off with the red prawn with shellfish bisque jelly, sea urchin and Kristal caviar. On paper this looked like it might have been a very fishy start to proceedings, yet it was anything but. The flavours were subtle and light. A cold dish, the bisque jelly was very refreshing, almost cleansing and perfect in the humidity of Singapore. There was a subtle hit of saltiness from the caviar and urchin and a firm bite to the prawn.

This was followed by smoked salmon with royal palm heart salad. The salmon was a luxurious, melt-in-the-mouth morsel, with a soft jelly bite and no flakes in sight, which combined very well with the water-chestnut-like crunch of the palm heart and the lemony vinaigrette.

To go with our not-too-fishy appetisers, Stéphane recommended a Meursault Burgundy from the small-yielding Domaine Arnaud Ente. It became clear that Arnaud strives for quality rather than quantity as we sample the clean and delicious white, one of only 5,969 bottles produced. If you’ve never tried it before, track it down.

Next came Brittany scallops, black truffle velouté with celeriac purée. Wow. The scallops were al dente and sweet on taste, the truffle velouté a nice big flavoursome hug and the celariac purée a warm reminder of home.

It was a gentle transition to our next dish, the lamb. The Welsh shoulder was rolled and slow cooked for 36 hours, after which I was surprised it still held together – but it did and it was tender, juicy and delicious. There was a little spice and an earthy edge brought to the dish by the herbs, sundried tomato and a fennel crisp.To match the dish, Stéphane recommended a rousing and robust Chateauneuf Du Pape, incidently the region he hails from.

Room for pud? First though Stéphane offers us a 1965 Armagnac. By now I’ve cottoned on to the fact that this won’t be anything ordinary, it will be well sourced and present at the table only with justification. It was sublime and deeply comforting – if you had any worries this would probably take them away. Again, this elegant drink was sourced and bottled in limited numbers especially for Raffles, and presented in a glass designed by the sommelier himself.

We ate petit fours while sipping the Armagnac and contemplating the finer things in life. An aromatic Earl Grey and pear sponge was followed by fine pistachio biscuit with a central grape ‘explosion’ and then a strawberry marshmallow full of childhood nostalgia. Glorious.

Before coffees, the sorbet. La Mandarine consisted of marinated mandarin in green walnut liquor, mandarin espuma and ginger mandarin sorbet, a palate-cleansing finish to a true feast, although I saved just a little bit of Armagnac in my glass to savour as my finale, before retiring for the evening. 

What to Do

It seems as though you are able to walk around the entire city of Singapore via underground shopping malls, hunting for that fabled elusive bargain, but as the balance of global economy isn’t necessarily in favour of the pound these days, those bargains are more elusive than you might think. Besides, there’s far more to Singapore than shopping, especially for food lovers.

Out of the malls, Singapore goes up… and up. This little island is reaching for the sky in such a big way it makes Canary Wharf look like a school project. To get an idea of this you can either jump on the Singapore Flyer, a bigger version of the London Eye, or do as I did and take high tea (no pun intended) at the Equinox restaurant on the 70th floor of the Swissotel. It’s served daily from 3.30 to 5pm, but I would strongly recommend booking, as at 3.31pm it is likely to be full.

The buffet was high-standard Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian and European fare – accompanied by endless cups of the tea of your choice.

The cakes and desserts in particular were fantastic. Meanwhile, children were oblivious to the breathtaking view because for them the chocolate fountain was the most important thing on the planet.

On ground level it’s worth exploring Singapore’s rich and varied cultural districts. It is well worth the easy walk between the Arab Quarter and Little India to explore the teeming streets, bazaars, temples and mosques.

In the Arab Quarter I searched out nasi pandang. Pariaman Warong was highly recommended to me – it’s very popular with the locals, so get there before noon or they may well have sold out and closed up (as they had when I arrived at 12.40pm). Instead, I ate at the Sabar Menanti II. The atmosphere here was local and the crowd dining were a varied mix of races and religions. The food was great value and scrumptious.

That afternoon I had planned to visit the well-known Banana Leaf Apollo in Little India, but I was stuffed full after the nasi pendang and although the food looked fantastic every diner in there looked like me – a tourist. 

Instead, I decided to walk off my enormous lunch. On the opposite side of the river to the Arab and Indian quarters is Chinatown, worth a visit for its markets, food halls and the enormous Budda Tooth Relic temple.

Maxwell Food Center sits near the end of South Bridge Road, and houses more than 100 hawker stalls, providing one of the biggest varieties of local food in Singapore – all at incredibly reasonable prices.

The more popular stalls can sell out and the choice can be mind-boggling, so if you’re in doubt what to try, join a queue – it’ll probably be great.

Out of Town

When you’re surrounded by buildings so high it’s worth mentioning that there are some parts of Singapore where there’s earth under foot. The fantastic Botanical Gardens lie just northwest to the end of Orchard Road, but if you travel further (about 40 minutes’ drive out of town) you can get to the Kranji countryside. 

On the north-western edge of the island in the tropical landscape are a number of farms and organic producers who work to promote local agriculture and food production. If you are interested in sustainability and conservation, this area is definitely worth a visit.

Being a keen allotment-holder in London, I had to visit Bollywood Veggies, a 10-acre smallholding started in 2000 by Ivy Singh and her husband Lim Ho Seng in their retirement years. 

The bistro menu is based on what grows in the garden, but as the climate allows for a 12-month growing season produce stays fresh and varied all year round.

I sampled the Warrior’s Platter, a brilliant combination of various curries and tempuras including a moreish mushroom and chicken curry, a sweet and sour fish curry, perfect crisp-fried chicken and a fantastic moringa (also know as the horseradish tree or drumstick tree) leaf tempura. I was told the leaf contains more calcium than milk, and the flavour was superb. The food here is super fresh and good value for money.

Heading the bistro is Lynn Ee. I wondered why a Cordon Bleu-trained chef ended up in such a remote setting, when there are so many restaurants she could work for in the city. But talking to Lynn, you soon realise her heartfelt passion for sustainable food and mission to empower ordinary people to take action in the kitchen is what really drives her. Bollywood Veggies is an inspiring place maintained by inspiring people. It’s a refreshing trip out of town and I would highly recommend a visit. They also have a great sense of humour.

Travel Essentials

Glenn Orton stayed in a Palm Court Suite at Raffles Hotel, which costs S$1,500 (£800) per night and includes breakfast. Suites start at S$1,400 (£740) per night including breakfast.

Raffles Hotel
1 Beach Road 189673

Maxwell Food Center
1 Kadayanallur St, 069184

Bollywood Veggies
100 Neo Tiew Road, 719026
Open from 9am to 6pm Wednesday to Sunday and public holidays

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