Monday, November 27, 2006

Party like The Party at Rui Jin, Shanghai, China

In the heart of Shanghai's French Concession lies an oasis of calm and respite offering a breather from the noise, chaos and pollution of one of the world's mega-cities.

The Rui Jin hotel and garden complex comprises of a number of buildings dating back to Shanghai's previous heyday of the 1920s and now encountering a resurgence in the 21st century boom the city is now experiencing.

The two original buildings of the four located on the estate, which also houses three gardens and a small lake, were built in the 1920s by a British man, Henry Lester 'Mohawk' Morris. The other two buildings on the estate were completed in the 1930s. Morris was the founder of the North China Daily News, a horse and greyhound breeder and leading figure on the local dog-racing circuit - he practically owned the 'canidrome' on Maoming Lu. Along with his two sons, Harry and Hayley, a German businessman and a Japanese ex-pat, Morris lived on the estate for many years.

Mohawk Morris remained on the estate until his death in 1952 but prior to this most of the buildings were taken over by various political factions. During the Japanese occupation, part of the estate was used by the Mitsui Trading Company and the Mitsui Garden was established. In 1945, the Kuo Ming Tang used the property as their headquarters and Madame Song Mei Ling, Chiang Kai Shek's wife, once stayed here. The Communist Party moved in in 1949 and the buildings were used by a number of Party officers including Shanghai's first mayor, Mr Chen Yi. In 1956, the estate became a regional government hotel and many of China's leaders, as well of heads of state from around the world, stayed here. The guesthouse was opened to the public in 1979.

Now, as well as containing the Rui Jin Guesthouse, part of the complex is occupied by restaurants and bars. Most notably, the Face Bar, which is housed in a large, red-bricked villa. The Face Bar is part of a chain of Asian 'caravanerseri' bars and provides a relaxing environment filled with rich colours and Chinese artifacts, including a number of traditional raised beds. The bar caters for the Shanghai elite and as well as an assortment of drinks serves divine desserts, which can also be found at the Visage cafe in the Xintiandi complex a few blocks away.

Also housed in the same building as the Face Bar is the Lan Na Thai restaurant. Lan Na Thai means 'many rice fields' and is the name of a region in northern Thailand. The food is delicate and authentic with prices of approximately 100-100RMB for a main course. Just next door, in what appears to be a converted garage, is the Indian restaurant, Hazara, named after an Afghan tribe and region. The food comprises of traditional snacks, curries, tandoori and handi-cooked specialities. All are deliciously spiced with complementary flavours. A meal for two with beers is in the region of 600RMB so not cheap for China but worth the splurge if you have a big wallet. The style of cuisine served emanates from northern India and is served in a beautifully decorated dining room full of original Indian-crafted items. The bonus of all these restaurants being housed in the one complex is that you can finish off the evening with coffee and an aperitif in the beautiful grounds under the trees lit with romantic lanterns and feeling a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of China's second city.

Discovering New Heights in Shanghai, China

The Bund in Shanghai is a one mile stretch of the western side of the Huangpu River and has been witness to much of the city's turbulant history. The word 'Bund' is thought to originally come from the Urdu word 'band', meaning an embankment, levee or dam, and to have been brought to Shanghai by the hotelier, Victor Sassoon, who built the Cathay Hotel (now called The Peace Hotel) on the corner of The Bund and Nanjing Road. Originally a tow path along the river, the Chinese authorities required 30 feet of space to be left between the water's edge and any buildings constructed along The Bund in order to allow movement up and down the path and account for tidal variation.

Buildings started to be constructed along The Bund, formerly part of the British settlement but later becoming part of the international settlement, in the late 19th century and the building boom continued into the early part of the 20th century. This area along the river rapidly became a major banking and trading hub in East Asia.

After the Communists came to power, many of the banks and trading houses along The Bund were closed or forced to move out. A later reversal of policy saw many of the landmark buildings restored to their former use but it was in the 1990s that the Shanghai Municipal Government decided to regenerate the area in a bid to boost tourism. The view of The Bund has now changed with a 10-metre high levee and walkway constructed in order to prevent flooding. Despite its ugly appearance the walkway provides promenading opportunities for both Shanghai residents and tourists as well as great views of both the buildings on The Bund, the Huangpu river traffic and the Pudong skyscrapers beyond.

Towards one end of the mile-long stretch, lies No.3 The Bund, an elegant post-renaissance building built in 1916 by the Union Assurance Company and for many years occupied by the East Asiatic Bank and the Mercantile Bank of India.Having fallen into disrepair, the building was re-designed by a US architect, Michael Graves, and re-opened in 2004. The building now houses designer shops, a spa, an art gallery and three excellent restaurants bringing a touch of style back to The Bund, not that it ever really went away for long.

On the 7th floor is New Heights, a contemporary brasserie offering fabulous views, great food and stylish dining at a much more reasonable price than some neighbouring restaurants on The Bund.

The interior is modern with a wonderful wine cellar lining the interior corridor, open kitchens, a bar area and 'Ally Mcbeal style' conveniences i.e. unisex. The exterior though is where it's at and it's well worth booking a spot on the terrace in order to benefit from its superlative view. Outdoor heaters are provided for nights with a chill in the air. If you're able to really splash out, you might be interested in the Cupola, which houses two private dining rooms, above the terrace.

The restaurant kitchen is headed by Neal Giles, an Australian who has previously worked at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai and the menu, catering for both Asian and Western tastes, amuses by offering things that swim, things that walk etc. A nice touch to finish is the chance to have mini deserts - half price and half the calories but all the taste. The hot chocolate fondant with rosemary ice cream (pictured) is simply divine. However, if you really want to finish the night with a Shanghai flourish take a stroll along The Bund and simply drink it all in.

Address: 7/F, 3 on the Bund, Shanghai

Tel: 021-63210909

Opening hours: 10:00 - 02:00

Total bill for 2 with wine: approx 400-500RMB

All major credit cards accepted.

Reservations recommended.

Culinary Alchemy at The Fat Duck, Bray, UK

As you walk through the sleepy village of Bray, nestled on the River Thames in Royal Berkshire, you would not necessarily be aware of the gastronmic delights contained within its boundaries. Bray is home to two of the UK's three 3* Michelin restaurants, The Waterside Inn, owned and run by the Roux family, and The Fat Duck, owned and run by Heston Blumenthal.

The Fat Duck is just a few miles from the Queen of England's castle in Windsor and was named as 'the best restaurant in the world' in 2005 by Restaurant magazine. It has now slipped ever so slightly to number two after El Bulli in Spain but that just leaves room for further improvement...perfection needs to be challenged every now and then, and Heston Blumenthal no doubt relishes the competition.

Brits today take an average of 27 minutes for a lunch break and spend £ me, you'll spend longer and a lot more on lunch at The Fat Duck...but enjoy every mouthful.

The biggest hurdle, apart from the financial shock of spending upwards of £80 a head on a meal, and that's without wine, is that you'll have to book months in advance and don't expect to take a huge party; the restaurant is small and the largest table seats six. As you walk through the village past Mr Blumenthal's other enterprise, The Hind's Head, you could be forgiven for walking past one of England's finest with no visible name and only the licencee's name plate giving away the secret of what is housed behind the door and solid walls of this former country pub. Modestly decorated with clean, simple and unpretentious furnishings, you are greeted by the multi-national waiters and from there on in the culinary journaey begins.

An invitation to a glass of champagne from a selection is issued, without a price guide I hasten to add, and then the menu is presented. There is a tasting menu at £97.75 which includes some of Heston's infamous dishes, such as 'snail porridge' and 'egg and bacon ice cream' cooked in front of you in liquid nitrogen. The a la carte, however, offers three wonderful courses supplemented by a number of taster dishes in the interludes between courses. Examples of the sampling morsels offered include 'mustard ice cream in a red cabbage gazpacho', 'oyster in a passion fruit jelly on a bed of lavender salt', 'carrot and orange lollipops' and 'beetroot jellies'. One of the main courses, 'sole veronique', was served with a 'parsley foam', a 'champagne gel' and simply the best chips I've ever tasted - the secret is apparently the type of potato and that they are cooked twice. For dessert my friend received a pleasant surprise with her space-dust infused chocolate desert sending her back to her childhood as mini-explosions took place in her mouth.

Heston Blumenthal has created his niche by specialising in what is termed 'molecular gastronomy' combined with an interest in the psychology of eating. Over the past ten years or so he has worked with leading food scientisits to break down the barriers of both our perception of food and the way food is both cooked and combined. He examines flavour and cooking processes in their minutae and likes to play with colour, expectation and taste. He has even established his own Fat Duck laboratory in Bray. This innovative approach to food has lead to Blumenthal being named as one of the world's most influential chefs.

The meal we enjoyed took 3 hours and cost just over £110 each with wine and coffee. Above the national average in every sense but truly a magical experience...a masterpiece of culinary alchemy.

The Fat Duck
High Street
Tel: 01628 580 333

Monday, April 24, 2006

Drinking History at New York's Algonquin Hotel, USA

"I love a martini/but two at most/three I'm under the table/four I'm under the host" wrote Dorothy Parker in "the glorious decade" (1919-29) when Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross and their fellow wits lunched at their famed round table in the Algonquin Hotel. Ironically, they couldn't drink any martinis at all. It was Prohibition!

Now the history seeking tourist can drink with pleasure. A sense of the hotel's past is everywhere, from the tiny couch across from the front desk for the Algonquin house cat Matilda to Natalie Ascencios's painting "A Vicious Circle" hanging behind the round table. We arrived on a wet afternoon and were immediately charmed by the dark wood lobby and the cocktail lounge filled with comfortable chairs, framed photos of famed guests, and, perhaps, guests about to be famous working at their laptops. The courteous staff were amused as we took photos of the round table, painting, lobby, piano and each other. We then settled at a tiny table and sank into a larger version of Matilda's couch to drink in the Algonquin experience.

Classic (and very expensive) cocktails are a must so we began with the Matilda, a lovely mix of Mandarin Absolut, cointreau, orange peel, and champagne. Then a New Yorker, a Negroponi, and of course a martini (or two). The cocktails are served on a napkin printed with Parker's martini poem, accompanied by a bowl of salted nuts. As we sank deeper into the couch, a pianist softly played Cole Porter and Gershwin and history became alive.

For readers of "The New Yorker" the Algonquin is a holy shrine. "The New Yorker" was founded in 1925 by Harold Ross, a regular at the round table. "New Yorker" writers and editors would gather regularly at the Algonquin for lunch. Faulkner wrote his Nobel Prize speech in his Algonquin room in 1950; Gertrude Stein often stayed at the Algonquin as well. Actors, writers, musicians, the rich and the famous have stayed at and written about the hotel. Aware of its unique history, the Algonquin provides a leaflet "Tribal Tales of the Algonquin" featuring "New Yorker" ads from 1931 and facts about the hotel's noted visitors.

In the warm glow of $13 cocktails, classic American music, soft chairs, dark wood, Japanese wallpaper, images of "the vicious circle", thoughtful and attentive service, literary history is as exciting now as it was being made in "that glorious decade".

The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th St.
New York, New York 10036

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hemingway's Havana Haunts, Havana, Cuba

Ernest Hemingway...American novelist, short-story writer, journalist, Nobel prize winner, ambulance driver, fisherman, secret agent, playboy, animal-lover, madman, alcoholic? Whichever title you choose, 'Papa' was his own preferred nomenclature, certainly during his time in residence on the Caribbean island of Cuba, his adopted home for two decades.

Today, Cuba's architectural glory is literally crumbling and you could be forgiven for feeling you have stepped into a time-machine and been transported to a former age as 1950s Chevrolet after 1950s Chevrolet passes you by in varying shades of pastel-ness. Despite initial appearances and if you look beyond the flaking paint and the cracking walls there lie hidden gems waiting to be discovered. One of these, the city of Havana, which in part is now a UNESCO world heritage site and gradually being restored, played host to 'Papa' Hemingway and provided inspiration for some of his most famous works. As you tour Havana's intoxicating old town, it is quite easy to punctuate your efforts with stops at the former drinking dens of the renowned drinker.

Within staggering distance of Edificio Bacardi, the former headquarters of the Bacardi rum clan, now famously at loggerheads with the Cuban government and no longer producing rum in Cuba, there's the Floridita. This bar is where Hemingway would come to drink daiquiris on his way home to his four dogs and 57 cats at Finca Vigia, his farm on the outskirts of the city. Hemingway once said that alcohol was his “best friend and severest critic”. After twelve daiquiris, reputedly Hemingway's normal intake in one session, it is perhaps easy to see why he considered the relationship a close one. Although partial to daiquiris as he was, Hemingway created his own version of the cocktail, now immortalised as the ‘Papa Doble’. The traditional Floridita daiquiri contains lime juice, a dash of maraschino, a shot of rum and half a teaspoon of sugar over crushed ice. Hemingway's variation cut out the sugar and doubled the rum!

La Bodeguita del Medio, located close to Plaza de la Cathedral was another regular hangout of Hemingway's being where he would come when he fancied an alternative to the daiquiris. This bar and restaurant, was where Papa would indulge in a mojito or two and, supposedly, endorsed his penchant for this establishment's particular concoction of rum, sugar, mint, water and ice by adding his name to the graffiti on the walls. Nowadays, the place is overrun with tourists and sadly, can no longer be said to serve the best mojitos in town. One suspects the management believe poor service, over-salted food and weak drinks can be compensated for by the curiosity value of the scribbled-on walls and celebrity photographs adorning them. Hemingway is no doubt turning in his grave at the state of the watering hole he once loved.

For many years, Papa Hemingway stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, close to the Plaza des Armes. The hotel has recently been renovated and now looks stylishly modern yet retains much of its traditional character. Hemingway stayed in Room 511, which can be viewed, at a fee for non-hotel guests, for seven years and is known to have worked on "For Whom the Bell Tolls" during this time. Today, the rooftop restaurant, reached by the birdcage lift, serves great mojitos and would perhaps be a more worthy recipient than La Bodeguita for 'the best mojito in town' award, although it should be said they are by no means the cheapest.

As you tour Cuba Hemingway's literary legacy lingers on but it has to be said that he has also left another legacy, of a more liquid kind, in Havana. Perhaps a more appropriate title for Papa Hemingway might be 'Old Man of the C'...the C standing for cocktail?

La Floridita
Obispo No.557 esq. a Monserrate
Tel:(53-7) 867 1299 or 867 1300 or 867 1301 Ext. 128
Fax:(53-7) 33 8856 or 86 68856

La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado entre Cuba y San Ignacio
(Near Plaza de la Cathedral)
Tel: 62-4498

Hotel Ambos Mundos
Calle Obispo 153
(Near Plaza des Armes)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Eating Shanghai, Street Level

"Eating History" began in 2004 when we found ourselves eating burgers in the the former garden of the Soong family mansion, having a drink on the roof of the Peace Hotel, devouring beef tenderloin in the Paramount Ballroom and delicious Thai food in TV Soong's bedroom. But, my favourite way of experiencing Shanghai history is to walk through its streets and alleys eating everything from Shanghai's famous soup dumplings (xiao long bao) to roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes in season.

Street food is everywhere but history and food are nicely combined at Yuyuan Garden. Tourists are drawn to Yuyuan Garden for its picturesque buildings, garden, and shops. Avoid the expensive tourist restaurants and line up for soup dumplings at Nan Xiang (85 Yuyuan Lane). These dumplings look like a large Hershey Kiss but instead of chocolate, the bao is wrapped around a tasty mixture of pork and broth. The "soup" is created by moistening the dumpling wrap with soup. When the dumpling is steamed, a soup is formed inside. Be careful while eating as the hot soup tends to spurt out .

After shopping and sightseeing, continue exploring the fascinating area surrounding Yuyuan Garden. Here you will find ancient Shanghai existing in the shadow of the giant skyscrapers surrounding Old Town. As you leave Yuyuan Garden, cross Henan Nan lu. On Henan Nan lu you will find excellent Muslim kabobs cooked over coals. Buy a piece of flat bread and a coke and continue on your way to the Baiyunguan Temple located near the ancient city wall. Follow the tiny winding alleys. As we walked and ate, we discovered beautiful displays of vegetables that would put WholeFoods to shame. Hidden in a tiny alley we found a Buddhist nunnery, a small temple, and shops selling paper offerings to the dead. Always there are shops selling bowls of noodles and at breakfast, scallion pancakes (cong you bing). The Baiyunguan Temple has recently been rebuilt at its original site by the old city wall. The temple and statues are new but the history of Daoism in Shanghai is as old as the city itself.

Wherever you wander in the older parts of Shanghai not yet turned into the 21st century, you will find markets selling all sorts of fresh and cooked foods. If you are visiting Shanghai, flee your hotel breakfast buffet and find the streets where the Shanghainese are eating their breakfast ji dan bing. If you are working in Shanghai, you have already made this treat a breakfast staple. The ji dan bing is a wonderful combination of French, Chinese, and Mexican all rolled together. You'll see people lined up in front of a drum shaped grill. The ji dan bing maker, spreads crepe batter over the grill, then cracks an egg on top, adds Hoisin sauce, chives, coriander, and mustard plant leaves. The crepe is folded over and spread with chili paste. You'll be asked how much spice (la) you'd like. Unless you are used to the hottest Mexican chile, answer "yidianr la" (a little spice). Then something crunchy is added--some think this is fried bean curd skin, some just call it "fried fry", whatever it is, it's wonderful. The crepe is folded over again, cut in two, and placed in a plastic baggy so you can walk and eat.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, spring, summer, winter, or fall, the streets of Shanghai are filled with food vendors who will provide the sustenance for you to experience Shanghai's fascinating past and present. Eat mooncakes in the fall, lichee nuts in the spring, roasted sweet potatoes in winter, and soup dumplings always!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bettys Cookery School in Harrogate, UK

Further to the previous article about Bettys in Harrogate, readers might be interested to learn about what a day at the Bettys Cookery School is like and, in so doing, be part of Eating History in the making!

The Cookery School is located to the south of Harrogate itself on a rather bland industrial estate. However, as you drive in through the gates of the Bettys site you enter a land of Swiss quality, chalet-style buildings and, most importantly, edible fancies. The School itself is next door to the craft bakery set amid a car park featuring rather quaint sculptures of tea pots.

The low-rise building housing the School is clean, bright and functional containing a large training area equipped with granite work benches and high-tech demonstration wizardry along with all the essentials a budding chefette needs. In addition, there is also a relaxation area, cook’s library and small shop selling a modest selection of utensils and other tools of the trade.

My day learning to cook Swiss specialities started at 8.45am with coffee and shortbread followed by an introduction to the staff and housekeeping rules. By 9.15am all 15 trainees were observing Richard, the senior trainer, demonstrating how to make our apple cakes light and moist. By 10.30am, we had all replicated Richard’s efforts and had managed, without disaster, to get our rather large buns in the oven, so to speak. It must be said, that our creations might not have been so speedily assembled or, perhaps, successful, had the ingredients not been so carefully measured out and pre-bagged by the professionals in advance.

By this time, it was starting to feel rather warm and the coffee and croissant which accompanied our mid-morning break were very welcome. This breather also allowed time to chat with some of the other participants, mainly female, and learn that, for most, this was not their first visit. Indeed, it was their third or fourth time at the School and I was given some friendly warnings that my first foray into this foodie’s paradise was unlikely to be my last.

After the break, we made a pearl barley soup and seemed to chop ‘til we nearly dropped! Francisco, the second trainer, was, however, on hand with encouraging words that the effort would be worth it in the end. My soup certainly looked and smelt good by the end of it all. This is more than can be said for my efforts at rolling out pastry into a neat circle, which was our next task. And I used to be so good with play dough!

The pastry, once I eventually managed to get it looking mildly curvaceous, was put in the chiller and, in the afternoon, more chopping ensued to fill the pie base with onions and create a divine-looking Swiss Onion Tart. But, before this, we all set to on making lunch – a creamy alpine macaroni dish with bacon lardons, potatoes and raclette cheese. This was served with a lambs lettuce salad and Bettys’ bread, all washed down with a scrumptious glass of Swiss wine. Desert was ‘Engadine’, from the craft bakery – a tasty merengue and nut creation. Rather replete and slightly inebriated, I was very glad my fingers remained in tact as I attacked my onions post-lunch.

Our fifth dish of the day was a mushroom and onion sauce to take home and serve on warm toast. In fact, I went home with enough food to feed a small army…well, my family at least. Departure was delayed though by yet another round of coffee and cake. As four o’clock rapidly approached it had become very obvious we were not going to be allowed home without a full tummy and full carrier bag of goodies. I, however, managed to go home with two carrier bags full of goodies as I also succumbed to the temptations of the kitchen shop by purchasing my own tools to recreate my Swiss specialities at home.

The proof of the pudding comes in the tasting and, all I can say is that the silence which descended over the dinner table later in the evening as my family tucked into the Swiss Onion Tart said it all! Compliments to the chef!

For more details of Bettys Cookery School visit:

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Spiedies of Binghamton in New York, USA

Legend has it that while at Balliol College, Oxford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were so dazzled by the French Revolution they planned to create a utopian community to implement its ideals. They chose a site in the "New World" by scrutinizing a map of New York state and liking the name of the Susquehanna River. However, the next year Coleridge married and the plans for this "pantisocracy" were abandoned.

In the New World, however, a not so ideal manufacturing community developed at the junction of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers. Instead of lyric poets, immigrants from Italy and Poland settled in the Triple Cities of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City to work in the factories making shoes, airplanes, cameras and business machines.

If you find yourself in upstate New York, drive south from the charming towns and wineries of the Finger Lakes District and see where Utopia might have been. In keeping with our mandate of eating history, take a bite of Binghamton's immigrant history. Eat the mysterious spiedie!

Italian immigrants created a recipe for marinated lamb cooked on a skewer and served with a chunk of warm crusty bread. The spiedie is found only in the Binghamton area and the exact ingredients of the marindade are a closely guarded secret. The spiedie itself is tender, juicy, spicy, and unforgettable. The marinade hints of vinegar, garlic, oregano, and "many more spices". Once you've eaten a spiedie, you will want to return to the rather seedy urban wasteland of Binghamton for another and another. Most of the factories are gone but not the spiedie.

Each Binghamton resident has a favorite spiedie recipe and restaurant. Many feel the best place for spiedies is Sharkey’s. Located in a working class area of small houses and shops, the restaurant is a wonderful example of Binghamton history. Sharkey’s has been run by the same family for more than 50 years. Over the wooden bar are the iconic Shultz and Dooley talking Utica Club Beer mugs now silently looking at the dance floor and ancient bowling game that have done service for decades. The “dining room” has utilitarian wooden tables and booths. The walls are green, the napkins and plates are paper, but the no nonsense ambience is rather charming. You can order clams, pizza, cabbage rolls, pierogis, and even salads……..but you want the spiedies and a pitcher of beer!

The spiedies are brought to you on a skewer with a piece of Italian bread soaking up the juice. You have a choice of pork or chicken. The pork is tastier and is closer to the lamb of the original recipe. You can order one or more skewer (the more the better).

After you have devoured the spiedies, sit back, swill your beer and think of the generations of workers, students, and families who have come to eat the mysterious spiedie. Enjoy the “charm” of this upstate New York classic and ponder whether Southey and Coleridge would also have found their way to Clinton Street to discuss the ideal society with students from Binghamton University.

Sharkey’s Restaurant
56 Glenwood Ave. (at Clinton St.)
Binghamton, New York
the weblink was not functioning at the time of this posting
the marinade can be ordered from

Kensington Market in Toronto, Canada

Toronto is proud of its cultural diversity and its restaurants. To best experience Toronto's multicultural history and its distinctive ethnic food, eat your way through Kensington Market.

Toronto's Kensington Market is located 2 blocks south of College St., 2 blocks west of Spadina, and 2 blocks north of Dundas. Its narrow streets and alleys were home to 80% of Toronto's Jewish population at the beginning of the 20th century. As these first immigrants prospered and moved north, they were replaced by Chinese emigres. As the Chinese prospered and moved even further north, they were replaced by Portugese, Jamaicans, Viet Namese, Chileans, and always those looking for good food and good bargains. Now the Market area reflects each of these cultures and their foods.

Begin your eating tour with dim sum at the Bright Pearl Restaurant on St. Andrew near Spadina. Dim Sum is served all day from traditional carts pushed by friendly women happy to show you their offerings. Across the street is the old Minsk Synagogue, one of the last remnants of the Jewish past. Continue along St. Andrew and look at poultry, African crafts, Chinese herbs, fruit and vegetables. Turn left on Kensington and explore the vintage clothing stores, the best in Toronto.

If you need to restore your energy, buy an apple at any of the fruit markets, or sample cheese at Global Cheese further north on Kensington. If you need caffeine, have the best cappuchino in Toronto at the Moonbean Cafe on St. Andrew.

Proceed north on Kensington to Baldwin St. which is filled with cafes, bakeries, headshops, craft stores, discount designer clothes, butchers, and shops displaying an array of dried nuts and fruits in open air bins much to the delight of snacking birds.

Continue west on Baldwin to Augusta. This street which runs from Dundas to College now offers everything from discount shoes to jumbo empanadas, handknitted sweaters to massages. At night the street is alive with music and Toronto's new "hot" restaurants.

The best empanadas are at Jumbo Empanada but on the weekends the Latin American shops all offer empanadas and papusas. In summer, the outdoor patio of the Bellevue Cafe on Bellevue west of Augusta is a great place to have lunch or dinner. Or, follow your nose and have a burrito or a carne asada tortilla in any of the streetside cafes. The Free Times Cafe on College at Major St. serves nourishing Jewish food and on Sunday Bella's All You Can Eat breakfast buffet.

For dinner return to Augusta to have unique tapas at Torito or pad thai at Supermarket or an excellent prix fix French meal at La Palette. Vegetarians delight in the varieties of rice and toppings at the Rice Bar.

You can spend all or part of a day eating, shopping, people watching and experiencing history in this exciting Toronto neighbourhood.

For exact locations and hours check

Friday, February 10, 2006

El 4 Gats in Barcelona, Spain

For a restaurant with such a feline name, one might be forgiven for expecting to see all things cat-like, bad-taste or beautiful, decorating ‘El 4 Gats’. The name of this restaurant and café bar, located in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a stone’s throw from La Rambla, is in fact a cunning play on words and the only thing obviously feline is the wrought iron sign, decorated with the obligatory four black cats, and the odd, rather than overwhelming, cat painting or fairly tasteful piece of cat-inspired memorabilia. ‘El 4 Gats’ is actually Catalan slang meaning ‘a few people’ and the restaurant has a long history of gathering ‘a few people’ together within its adorned, tiled and panelled walls. A few of ‘the few’ can actually be seen on these same walls and, if not, their works of art might be.

‘El 4 Gats’ provided a home to the Modernist art movement in Barcelona. Pere Romeu who performed at ‘Le Chat Noir’, a successful cabaret joint in late 19th century Paris, decided that he wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the Parisian restaurant in Barcelona. ‘El 4 Gats’ was born and opened on 12th June 1897 in the current building, designed by the architects Puig and Cadafalch. Pere Romeu was determined that the restaurant would become a meeting point for the avant-garde - bohemian conversationalists and artisans. His desire came to fruition and over the years a variety of poets, musicians, architects, painters and designers have passed through the door. Indeed, in 1899, a young Picasso began to frequent ‘El 4 Gats’ and later held his first exhibition in the restaurant. Despite differing widely in terms of their artistic preferences, Picasso shared his love of the restaurant with another notable Barcelona resident, Gaudi.

The restaurant staff may appear rather brusque and unwelcoming as they sort the wheat from the chaff on arrival by grilling guests on precisely what their victual intentions are before sitting them down. It’s a bit like meeting the prospective in-laws for the first time. Those of serious intent, in other words those who have come for ‘cena’ rather than a mere snackette, are ushered through the café bar/ cerveseria into the rear dining room, which is galleried, in more ways than one. The head waiter must be stickler for organisation as you are seated at rotationally-ordered tables around the dining room. You can almost countdown, using the emptying tables as your clock, to the next staff changeover.

The restaurant menu covers a range of traditional Catalan fare accompanied by a good selection of wines which emerge from the wine racks holding up the diners on the mezzanine floor above. The service is reasonable but do check your bill as three tables were overcharged at the time of my last visit. No doubt genuine mistakes, but rather a lot of mix ups for one sitting.

At the front of house, the café bar bustles with locals and tourists alike dipping their churros into hot chocolate or sampling one of the beers available on the extensive drink’s list. It’s fun to nose around the whole place and see if you can spot a masterpiece, although most are now reproductions…better still you could sketch your own and see if the barman will accept it in lieu of a few Euros.


Carrer de Montsiò 3 bis
08002 Barcelona
Telephone: 933 024 140
Opening times: 1pm-1am everyday
Nearest Metro: Catalunya
Three course meal (incl. wine) for two people: €90
Tips: Live music a regular feature

Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate, UK

The North of England. A barren wasteland of industrial carnage, cloth caps and whippet breeders? Not so. Such long-held stereotypes of the northern parts are as untrue today as they always have been. One only has to look towards the spa town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire as proof that the North can ooze class, style and sophistication.

Set amid a circle of lush greenery, known as the Stray, this historic spa town is now a busy conference centre and weekend resort, as it always has been. Designer boutiques, a plethora of hostelries, delightful gardens, opulent Victorian Turkish Baths and grand hotels make it the ideal destination for those seeking a bit of R&R. Perhaps that’s the reason why the Americans have a base close by? Certainly, there is no shortage of foreign accents as you wander the hilly streets. Atop one of these, Montpellier Hill, stands the famous Bettys Café Tea Rooms.

Bettys is a Northern institution. Nay! A British institution. Having said that, it is a British institution that arrived in Britain by way of Switzerland. Indeed, perhaps it’s an example of a true European union?

Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that the UK’s European neighbours, in the main, knock the spots off the British when it comes to the mastery of foreign languages, however, this is not and has not always been the case. Indeed, if it wasn’t for linguistic incompetence, Bettys may never have opened in the North of England at all. Frederick Belmont, a confectioner by trade, decided, like many who have gone before and come since, that the grass was greener on the other side. In this case, the other side being the other side of the English Channel. Belmont felt that his dreams of opening a business were more likely to come to fruition in England than in Switzerland so off he set. All was well until he arrived in London and instead of boarding a train to the South Coast, as intended, his inability to communicate in the native tongue and the hurly-burly of a London train station, meant he boarded a train bound for the North.

Belmont eventually pitched up in Yorkshire and, also like many who have gone before and come since, decided that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. The green landscape perhaps reminded him of home? In 1919, Belmont opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate. The blend of Yorkshire hospitality with Swiss culinary precision was a hit and royal patronage soon followed. The tea rooms remain a hit today yet have retained the elegance and style of the past. You can still view the Art Nouveau marquetry designs of Yorkshire scenes on the walls in the basement, known as the Spindler Gallery. These were commissioned by Belmont in the 1930s from Charles Spindler’s studio in Alsace.

Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate is one of six Bettys cafes within the region. York, Northallerton, Ilkley and The Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr gardens also in Harrogate play host to the others. The larger of the York branches is also worth a visit. The interior design was apparently inspired by the Queen Mary cruise liner and still features a mirror on which Canadian and US ‘Bomber Boys’ scrawled their names as a lasting reminder of their time in residence at ‘Bettys' Bar’ in the basement.

As at many of the other locations, a testament to Bettys popularity in Harrogate is that on most days a queue extends at least to the doorway of the shop that precedes the café itself. On busy days this can even wind its way out of the door and down the hill past the Montpellier gardens. However, when you finally enter the shop it’s worth the wait as the sight of over 300 different edible fancies and the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee hit you. The coffee on sale is provided by another ‘northern institution’. Taylor’s, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, who became Bettys' sister company in the 1960s, offer over 50 different varieties to tickle your taste-buds and complement the tasty morsels on offer.

Frederick Belmont believed that ‘if we want things just right then we have to do them ourselves’ and the company still adheres to this philosophy. All the culinary treats, such as Swiss Rősti and Yorkshire Curd Tart are made either in the kitchen or at the local Bettys Craft Bakery, next door to which is now located Bettys Cookery School, where the skills of baking and making chocolates are passed on to those of us less familiar with how to make things ‘fresh and dainty’ as Belmont prescribed – but not for free it must be said!

Whether you go for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner (or all of the above), once you are eventually seated you’ll find the service is a delicious blend of silver service mixed with motherly care and attention. The waiters are suited and the waitresses wear traditional black and white ‘waitress outfits’ so rarely seen these days. No-one fusses over you but neither are they surly. The staff are happy to offer menu advice and don’t rush you out of the door even though they can see the ever-increasing queue trailing past the window. You get the feeling they really do care. On my last visit, they even inspected the density of the coffee and insisted a new pot be brought as the coffee had not been brewed for long enough. It seems strange in the UK to come across waiters and waitresses who consider their job to be a profession rather than a stop-gap on the way to the next job. But then perhaps Betty’s has been placed in the top 50 UK employers by The Times (2005) newspaper for a reason? Could it be this trickle-down effect of the company ethos, combining hospitable service with the delicious delicacies served, is why when you mention the fact you’re going to Bettys in a room of Yorkshire folk you are guaranteed to hear a cry of ‘Oooooh, I love Bettys!’?.

So, who was Betty? Was she Belmont’s wife? Was she his sister? Well, mystery surrounds who this famous lady actually was. It could be Queen Elizabeth, the current queen’s late mother. It could be Betty Lupton, the ‘Queen of Harrogate Wells’, a former manageress of the Harrogate spa. It could even be a little girl who is thought to have inadvertently walked in on the Board’s first meeting in which the Tea Rooms were being discussed. Whoever she is, there can be no doubt, that these days there’s a jolly good cuppa and cake to be ‘ad round at our Bettys'!

1 Parliament Street
North Yorkshire
Telephone: +44 (01423) 877300

Opening times: 9am – 9pm everyday
Credit cards? Yes
Reservations possible? No
Tips: A pianist plays from 6pm every evening
Two course meal for with tea/coffee = £40
Children catered for