Spanish night out in London – Ibérica

Last Friday the Tortuga decided that we needed some time on our own, due to the rigours of Christmas preparations and the usual year-end challenges on the work front. So we refused an invitation to a friend’s party and took ourselves off to Ibérica in Marylebone by way of the Soviet Art and Architecture exhibition at the Royal Academy. By the way, the exhibition is excellent, especially if you have spent any time in Russia. Don’t be put off by the 1920s Constructivist art form which is the backdrop to it, because the photographs are an extraordinary insight into Soviet building design and communal society living. The bad state of the buildings as a result of poor construction techniques and years of neglect are an appropriate allegory for all the bad that has occurred over many decades in Russia.

Borrowed from the website

If you like sherry then this is the place to be and they have an excellent selection all by the glass. They also offer a strangely large selection of mineral waters, if that’s what you want. I counted six of them in all. We started with a couple of glasses of Fino sherry and the selection of cured meats. Ibérica specialises in Iberico ham from black pigs that roam wild and eat acorns. Sounds very close to nature, but all I can say is the meat is to die for. With the dry sherry it’s a great way to start a meal and drive out the cold and wet from the long walk up Great Portland Street. After this languorous start, we stuck with the tapas and a beautifully rounded rosé Rioja, Beronia Rosado, which at just over £20 for the bottle was extremely good value. Whether from the land or the sea, as they describe it on the menu, the tapas was beautifully cooked and presented. Squid, scallops, chorizo and so on, you just couldn’t fault it. For me the dishes were the ideal size as I prefer to graze slowly through a meal with lots of variety, although I suspect for heartier appetites they might seem a bit on the small side. The highlight has to be the Morcilla de Burgos, otherwise known as black pudding.

We ended up with the Spanish cheese selection from the beginning of the menu and rice pudding to finish. The cheeses were an interesting journey although I do personally favour stronger flavours, Spanish cheeses seem a bit mild and buttery to me. Of the selection presented the Valdeon was my favourite, of course the familiar Manchego was there too. As I wasn’t paying attention at this point I missed the wine that was suggested for the rice pudding, which would probably have been a good choice, so ended up back to the sherry with a fine Oloroso instead.

All in all a very enjoyable evening out. And the best part of all? The bill only came to a bit over £130 for the two of us. I think that’s excellent value all round and I will be making the long walk again before too long (

A New York eating experience – Delmonico’s

I don’t know how you feel about this, but when I sit down to a slap-up meal in an American restaurant it is usually with a feeling of impending defeat, just hoping that I have starved myself sufficiently in the preceding twelve hours. The amount of meat that arrives is truly overwhelming. I remember asking once in a New York restaurant whether I could just have half the amount on the standard plate. The waiter looked at me in astonishment. I told him not to worry, that I would pay the full price but I just didn’t want to waste all that food. Anyway, the answer was still no. How about a doggy bag to take away what I couldn’t finish? Well, I can see how that would work if you lived there, but taking leftovers in a bag back to your hotel? I don’t think so. I read somewhere a staggering statistic that half of the food produced in the world is wasted. Well, that’s certainly American restaurants for you.

Taken from the website - hope that's allowed

Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan is a bit of an institution and you need to visit it if only for the experience. Tucked up behind our hotel near Wall Street, they claim existence dating back to the 1820s, so that makes it really quite old for America. It is truly a dining experience as the blurb says. The excellent and understated service starts from the moment you are greeted by the girls on reception to the careful attendance of your waiter. As I may have mentioned before, in America there is a healthy customer service ethic and it is rare to find staff in restaurants who are too good to be looking after you. Of course, you are expected to reflect this in the tip, but who cares when you’ve had a great time.

The dining room is quite something to see. A rich carpet, interesting mural-style pictures on the walls, starched white table cloths, lots of glass on the tables and plenty of candlelight. We were there in the evening and low lighting let the flame from the candles reflect on the glass giving the whole place an atmosphere of subdued elegance. I mention the carpet because for me this is key to a good restaurant. I am fed up with stripped floors and background music which occurs increasingly in even expensive places. It makes it impossible to conduct normal conversation as people compete at ever increasing volume with the echo and general background noise. There is none of that nonsense here. You can sit with your fellow diners and converse at normal volume without the risk of anything you are saying being heard at neighbouring tables. There is even a very clever strip of mirror that runs around the walls at seated head height so you don’t have to worry about where you are sitting. The most tedious of conversations can carry on around you while you people-watch the other tables.

Also pinched from the website

Of course you really go to Delmonico’s for the steak. So while the menu has a couple of main fish options and the signature lobster dish, it majors on the meat. There is just about everything a carnivore needs in this department and as you would expect they can cook it just anyway you like. Going with my trusted system of selecting something from the starter list that will set the tone for the rest of the meal, we went for the foie gras, which the menu described as ‘chef’s preparation – changes daily’. I was vaguely expecting a run of the mill paté, but what arrived was probably the best goose liver I think I have tasted. A whole liver perfectly cooked with just the right amount of pink. And on the dessert menu we found an Oremus Tokaji Aszu 6 to pair it with, available by the glass. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is one of the best Tokaji and the 2000 that we drank is a good vintage year. Still reasonably priced it’s worth trying now but will get dearer as it still has another ten years to mature. I must admit that this was the highlight of the meal for me and I could quite happily have gone straight to the cheese from here. The steak that followed for my colleagues of course was good. They do a very strange thing with steak in America called ‘Pittsburgh’. Charred on the outside and virtually raw on the inside. I am told it is very well worth trying. Anyway, I had the lamb. Again, beautifully presented and most important of all, not too much of it – a trick I have learnt in order to avoid the great slab of beef you can be faced with.

The wine list in American restaurants always presents me with a problem. The trouble is that I do not have a any sense of what I am buying. I have to admit that this means if left to me I will end up with the imported wines which can be pricey. This was a very extensive list with useful comments and proper labelling. By that I mean type, vineyard and year, so that you can see what you are getting. One of the others at the table had mentioned that he liked Italian reds and so we ended up with a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, San Filippo, 2004. A reasonably priced wine for an import, with lots of body that goes very well with any meat likely to be served running with blood. At over $100 a bottle it was not cheap but about right for the style of restaurant we were in. Unfortunately you cannot avoid the wine prices in New York and the cheapest US wine on the list was not much less. Anyway, it was much appreciated by all.

A highly recommended place to spend the evening. I noticed the normal tables of people who looked as though they were out for a business meal, but also quite a few that looked like New Yorker family outings, some couples too. This added to the formal but slightly intimate style of the place. You probably wouldn’t want to come here with a very loud party of guests in the main dining room as you might feel a bit out of place. And if you are at all worried about your expense claims, then this is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

A special Manhattan hotel – Andaz

Imagine a hotel where there is no reception, the rooms are modern and clean, and you are greeted on arrival with a glass of quality wine. Imagine the Andaz on Wall Street. Well, actually it’s on Water Street in Lower Manhattan, but the building is on the corner of Wall Street. I’ve always thought it a bit strange that this iconic-sounding street, at the very heart of the US financial world and mentioned reverentially in the same breath as the London Stock Exchange in the City (of London that is), is in fact a tiny street tucked away in Manhattan, that takes at most three minutes to traverse. But there it is.

Anyway, I rarely use the adjective cool, as it’s usually synonymous with language spoken by non-adults and adults trying to sound like non-adults, neither of which I am. But the Andaz is definitely just that, there’s no other word for it. And contemporary. They told me it is an exclusive Hyatt brand and certainly the name Hyatt isn’t obvious anywhere, except on the website.

On arrival you are greeted by good looking chaps wearing grey suits and open neck shirts. Check-in takes place on an iPad, which they each have attached to one hand, along with the offer of a glass of wine. Happy hour in the lobby is every day for two hours and the wines are worth drinking. The process is speedy and no nonsense. The rooms are spacious and contemporary. Mine boasted a 50 inch flat screen TV and a large bathroom, walk-in shower on one side and a sizeable ‘tub’ on the other. A glass panel separated the bath from the rest of the room. The loo was a separate room, rather essential if you needed to accept the offer of two room keys on check-in. Wi-fi and minibar are both provided for free. There were slightly disappointing touches where damaged edges of furniture and damp stains under the glass sink had started to show signs of extensive use. This is one aspect of this type of hotel that really does have to be absolutely up to scratch, that is if the contemporary designer look is going to stay modern and attractive.

Just like the City (London again), Sundays are dead in this part of town, so other than a great Irish bar behind the hotel, where I badly overdid the apple martinis again, everything was shut including the hotel bar. A long cab ride up town is necessary if you want to eat properly. Apparently there’s an Andaz in Liverpool, so one of the hotel staff told me. Actually I think he was mistaken and he meant Liverpool Street, which is in London. I’d be fascinated to compare either of them to the Manhattan hotel some day, but I bet Manhattan beats them for location!

Killarney Rose – home from home!

If you’re feeling homesick for a bit of a ‘home from home’ bar while you’re in the Big Apple, then try this place in the street right behind the Andaz hotel just across the road from the back entrance. Great atmosphere, friendly bar staff, large beer selection and not such a bad apple martini either!

Okay, okay … so it’s a bit of an Irish theme pub … but hell, it opens late in an area where getting a drink after a certain hour can be challenging and it’s fun to be in.

Virgin on the inedible

Dear Mr Branson,

I paid £240 for a round trip from London to Birmingham today. This morning’s journey wasn’t too bad, apart from the fact that your carriages are getting a bit tired and the seats are fairly manky and need a good clean, but the crew are nice. This evening’s service in contrast was off-hand and lacklustre. I think you must be working the crew too hard. But the food was absolutely horrible. Now I know things are pretty bad in Ireland these days, but that ‘Irish’ stew wouldn’t have been touched by my cats. A poor cow coughed up it’s life to produce that. Why do it?

You need to start traveling on your trains again. Or send out the mystery shoppers.

Yours sincerely,

Old Tortoise.

The morning after the night before

Coffee and banana cake

There’s only one way to start the day when you’ve been on the apple martinis all night. There’s this great cafe called the Coffee Company in Gelderlandplein, Amsterdam, where it’s light and airy and there are comfortable armchairs and a long refectory table to sit at. It’s sort of how you might want your kitchen to be. The coffee is good, it’s quiet and it’s just the place to rest up with a hangover before starting the day. Why can’t all those formulaic Starbucks be like this? I suppose because then this place would be in a high street and there would be too many people in it.

Another hotel in Amsterdam – Bilderberg Garden

Off the beaten track a bit and near the old Olympic stadium, you’ve got two other good places to stay: the Hilton and Bilderberg Garden hotels are right next to each other in Appololaan. We quite often end up playing room rate roulette between these two places. The Hilton’s rooms are a bit tired now and you are almost guaranteed to get a room with connecting doors, but it has a really great bar, which is both large and has comfortable armchairs and a nice open fire if you can get near it. It looks out onto the boating lake, very pleasant in the summer and atmospheric at night when lit up. The bar staff know their wines too.

The Bilderberg Garden just across the road from the Hilton is an interesting place. Apart from anything else it has a first class restaurant called De Kersentuin. I think that means cherry something in Dutch. I know that it used to be a very well regarded place to eat as one of my Dutch colleagues is bit of a foodie and was very enthusiastic when we all ate there one evening. I don’t think it has quite that foodie reputation these days, but it is certainly of a very high standard. Also a very good wine list too. Not too long, but clear and easy to work around and quite good value for a top class place for a nosebag.

I can’t quite work out what this hotel is trying to be. I rather like it, not just because they provide slippers in the rooms and have big bathrooms, but also because it has a great barman. It’s sort of somewhere between an upmarket tourist hotel and a business hotel. There are all the work-related things you need like a decent desk and high speed wi-fi, which of course is a rip-off like everywhere, but it has a private hotel feel about it too.

It is to my shame that I’ve never asked the name of the barman. He’s a bit diffident at first, but warms up when you get him to open his cocktails recipe book and get creative. Last night I started him on the benchmark cocktail, a vodka martini which if it’s made properly will tell you what the rest are going to be like, then we worked through the more creative variations – a couple of apples and then espresso variants. I have to admit that although his apple martinis were very good, it wasn’t his fault that the barman at the Taj Residence, who currently tops the league table on this one, had access to a sharper type of apple more suited to this cocktail. Must be an Indian variety. But his conversation was very entertaining. I’m wondering whether I should start a good barman category.