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18
Dec 15

A foodie guide to Madrid

El Retiro

El Retiro

Madrid is one of my favourite European cities and so I was thrilled to return last month to put together a list of foodie recommendations for a trip for you.

I lived in Madrid a decade ago, which was an extremely happy time for me. I have very fond memories of Madrid, but I was interested to return and see if it lived up to expectations, no longer having a direct connection to the city.

We headed off to Madrid at the end of last month for a long weekend and left very reluctantly. Madrid was even better than I remember, with many interesting developments on the food scene. It’s not a capital city that offers a long list of landmark attractions, but it’s relaxed atmosphere, elegant buildings and rich culture make it a wonderful weekend destination.

Madrid is a great year-round destination for a city break. The winters are cold (comparatively), as Madrid is a high-altitude city surrounded by mountains, but it enjoys glorious sunshine and blue skies, even if it’s cold outside. We found this greatly uplifting, and even sat in short sleeves in the sunshine to have an alfresco picnic in the park on 1st December. Summers are hot – I recall August being unbearable – so I’d suggest avoiding July and August for a visit, as it will probably be 45 degrees Celsius plus.

The food scene in Madrid has improved greatly over the last decade. The best of Spanish food is celebrated, and the opening of new, sophisticated food markets has made a great addition to the city. Whilst there is a great range of cuisines on offer in Madrid’s restaurant scene, we found ourselves returning to Spanish food. I really like traditional Spanish food. When the ingredients are first-rate, it really is excellent. Gastronomically, it’s not the most varied or refined cuisine, but when it’s good, it’s very good indeed, and as it is so difficult to find really good Spanish food out of Spain, I never miss the opportunity to make the most of it when I’m there.

El mercado San Miguel

El mercado San Miguel

Where to eat

One of the most famous restaurants in Madrid is Casa Lucio. It’s a celebrity favourite and has been visited by anyone who’s anyone in Madrid. We sat next to some very famous diners on the next table. This is a traditional Spanish restaurant, both in terms of menu and experience. A very discreet entrance leads to a bar, above which rows of seriously amazing quality hams hang. You need to book well in advance to get a table, and your name is carefully checked against the list before leading you round to the dining room.

Casa Lucio

Casa Lucio

The house speciality is huevos rotos to start – a plate of chips topped with fried eggs. Order some jamón on the side for the most authentic accompaniment. I had never tried egg and chips before – it was never something I would have eaten at home or have made, but it was delectable. It’s a must-try. Moving on to the main course, the suckling pig is a house speciality. It’s sweet and tender with thick, crispy skin. Expensive, but a lovely experience. A great wine list, too.

El Ñeru is an Asturian restaurant just a few steps away from the Plaza Major and the Opera House. I first visited a decade ago, on the recommendation of a family friend based in Madrid. It’s a very traditional restaurant again, serving super traditional dishes, but the food is delicious and the service is lovely. You must try the Asturian cider to drink. The tortilla and chorizo en sidra make a gorgeous starter. For the main, the fabada is a must; a bean and pork stew, served with crusty white bread to dip into the flavourful sauce. The fish is also lovely. I chose the merluza a la plancha, or grilled hake and it was superb.

La Dolores

La Dolores

For a traditional and delicious tapas, great wines and beer, then try La Dolores on Plaza de Jesús. I first visited with my parents years ago, and it was just as good when we returned on this trip. The bar is packed out, and there are a small number of cosy tables at the back. The tapas are lovely, especially the crisps (yes, crisps), jamón, and queso, which is an aged manchego. We spent an excellent evening sat in the window, nibbling away on delicious tapas and enjoying an excellent Ribera del Duero 2010.

The Mercado San Miguel is a fairly newly restored wrought iron and class market just next to the Plaza Mayor. It’s full of interesting stands selling wines, beers and a very wide range of Spanish food, from meat to seafood, to bocadillos, tapas, croquetas and montaditos. It is an absolute must visit for any foodie, even for a look. It gets very busy at weekends, but do try and stop for a drink and something to eat. The cava and croquetas de jamón are to die for.

La Mallorquina

La Mallorquina

Madrileños have a sweet tooth. The most traditional cake shop in town is La Mallorquina in the Puerta del Sol. I first visited with Spanish friends around 12 years ago, and this was my first visit back. It’s a traditional family owned cake shop, selling takeaway Spanish cakes and sweets, with a bar downstairs and tables and waiter service upstairs. I imagine it’s hardly changed since the 1950s but in terms of Spanish cakes, this is as good as it gets. Try a coffee – which has to be a café con leche (always made with hot, UHT milk – you get used to it) and a napoletana de crema, which is a sort of pain au chocolat type pastry, filled with custard. Spanish cakes lack the refinement of French pâtisserie, but some are very nice indeed, and a stop off here gives you a glimpse of real life Madrid, which you don’t get at San Ginés, the famous chocolate con churros establishment nearby.

And to drink, try typical Spanish drinks, such as some excellent Spanish cava, red wines which are most commonly Rioja or Ribera del Duero, a lager, such as Mahou, or a tinto de verano, which is a light drink made from red wine and Fanta limon. It sounds atrocious, but it’s actually really rather good.

NH Paseo del Prado

NH Paseo del Prado

Where to stay

Our hotel was the NH Paseo del Prado. NH is an upmarket hotel chain, which has very recently refurbished this 5* hotel. The location is absolutely amazing, right on the Paseo del Prado, and very close to all the superb museums and galleries in Madrid. It’s also in walking distance of the city centre. We walked for miles, but the Royal Palace, which is probably the furthest point in the city centre from here is only about 30 minutes walk from the hotel. We only took public transport to and from the airport, as we were able walk everywhere we wanted to go comfortably.

The service in the NH Paseo del Prado was really excellent. The welcome was incredibly warm and staff couldn’t do enough to help us, especially Raul on Reception, who willingly rang round and made restaurant reservations for me each night. Rooms are on the small side, as is the way with city centre hotels, but very comfortable and clean. The marble bathrooms were nice, too. Breakfast was a highlight. The choice was just amazing, the quality of items on offer was really excellent, and the staff, charming and helpful. An excellent base, and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

El Prado

El Prado

What to do

Madrid really is a capital city to be explored on foot. Whilst walking around, you can really appreciate the lovely squares and shady streets in the heart of the city. You’ll find many sunny spots along the way to stop for coffee or a beer in the sunshine. Plaza Santa Ana, Plaza Mayor and El Palacio Real are all must-see places.

El Palacio Real

El Palacio Real

Art and culture are real highlights in Madrid. The Prado Museum is simply world class. Half a day is enough to touch the surface there, for me. The Spanish Old Master collection is exquisite. The Thyssen Museum is also very, very interesting and contains a really broad collection of pieces.

The Retiro park is an absolutely lovely spot for a walk, a coffee in the sunshine, or even a row around the lake. The Crystal Palace often houses temporary art exhibitions.

How to get there

Madrid is reasonably well-served by airlines operating from all over the UK. We flew from Gatwick with Easyjet, which was a fairly miserable experience, but the flights are quite regular and we paid around £80 per head for a return.

Once you arrive in Madrid, you can take the Metro into the city centre very easily and inexpensively, at 5 EUR per adult. It should take around 30-45 minutes, depending on your destination. Trains are every 5-6 minutes. There are plenty of taxis available too, which cost around 35 EUR for a single journey into the city centre.


18
Nov 15

A guide to eating out in Dubai, 2015

Dubai’s restaurant scene is constantly evolving, so I’ve recently been back to eat my way around the city and bring you my favourite places to eat out now.

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The best Italian restaurant in Dubai right now has to be Ronda Locatelli, Giorgio Locatelli’s restaurant at the Atlantis The Palm. The menu is extensive, offering a wide range of regional Italian foods, and, most impressively, a superb range of gluten free foods, from pastas to handmade pizzas. The restaurant itself is set around a round wood-fired oven, in which the pizzas are cooked, and which are a popular choice here. We tried the gluten free pizza, which was excellent, and made to order from scratch, including the base, which we watched being stretched and shaped as we waited. We also tried the excellent lamb cutlets, cooked pink to order and served on a generous base of delicious roasted Mediterranean vegetables. This is generous, authentic yet refined Italian cooking, served in stylish yet relaxed surroundings.
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In terms of best cheap eats, I find Karam Beirut at the Dubai Mall still as good as ever. It’s a convenient place to stop when shopping, and the food is just as fresh and flavoursome as ever. The hummous is perfectly seasoned, the lamb and pistachio kebabs are to die for, the salads are perfectly balanced and super fresh, and everything comes accompanied by the freshest pitta bread, piping hot from the oven, and a platter of delicious fresh vegetables. A real gem, and great value, too.

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For a special meal to remember, I recommend Rhodes W1, Gary Rhodes’ restaurant at Grosvenor House. The menu here is Modern British, with a focus on fresh, British, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, and an emphasis on a sharing concept, and so we tried a four course sharing menu, with two small different plates comprising each course, which was a lovely way to try as much as possible from the menu. Not only that, but the sharing concept provokes conversation and thought with your dining companions, which makes the experience even more memorable. The food at Rhodes W1 is not only fantastically executed, but the exciting, complex and well-developed flavours in every course were hugely satisfying, interesting and enjoyable. The wine list is interesting and varied, and the staff are hugely knowledgeable, and will advise on what suits your tastes and pairs best with the food. I highly recommend trying the matched glasses of house wine to accompany the courses, as we did, which offers interest and good value for money.


11
Nov 15

A trip to the Dubai Marina

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Dubai’s Marina area is one of the most vibrant and exciting parts of this exhilarating 24-hour city. Its glittering skyscrapers; extensive waterways and vibrant restaurants make for a thrilling visit, both at day and night. Many regular visitors to Dubai will always stay in this part of town, so I recently paid a visit to experience it for myself.

My hotel for this visit was Grosvenor House, the renowned destination hotel, which was the first hotel to be built in Dubai’s Marina back in 2005. In the following decade, Grosvenor House has expanded by building a second hotel tower in 2011, and the site is now spread across the two buildings, with an interconnecting walkway. Many other hotels have opened in the area, but Grosvenor House still retains its popular reputation, and so I was keen to experience what keeps drawing guests back time and time again.

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Grosvenor House is a little older than many Dubai hotels, but it retains its very high level of comfort and luxury in the rooms, and a real sense of glamour and fun in the lobby, restaurants and bars. There are a number of different types of accommodation available, from hotel rooms, to apartments and residences split across the two towers. We stayed in Tower One in a standard room, which was extremely comfortable and had an excellent corner balcony with views running down Dubai’s coastline, past the Palm and Burj Al Arab. The beds are enormous and extremely comfortable, with crisp sheets and sumptuous pillows. There is plenty of space to work and unpack, even in the entry-level rooms. The bathrooms are decked out in two types of marble and are equipped with Bulgari toiletries. Upon check in, guests are invited to upgrade their room to a suite, complete with access to the Level 5 lounge in Tower 2 for an additional 350 AED per night. We didn’t take this offer up, but it would appeal to anyone interested in a quieter communal space to eat and relax, and it includes all food and drink throughout the day from the bar.

Breakfast is taken in Sloane’s, the buffet restaurant on the Mezzanine level, which sits above the lobby area. As with many hotels in the Middle East, the choice is enormous and extremely international, as is often the case in this part of the world. Sloane’s is a large restaurant with mostly indoor seating, and a few outside tables set on a sunny terrace overlooking the Marina entrance. The breakfast here was, without question, the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. From beautifully made coffees, to beautifully fresh, sweet fruit juices, the butteriest croissants and individual brioche that look and taste as though they have just been baked in the very best Parisien boulangerie. Food intolerances are extremely well catered for, and the chefs and staff are willing to go out of their way to make you pretty much anything you like that suits your requirements. All the hot food on the buffet is made in-house from scratch, too, so you can easily find out exactly what it contains easily. Allow a good hour to take a leisurely breakfast if you can each morning. Even after staying in the hotel for several days, there is always something new to try every day.

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Grosvenor House is famous for its social scene and its bars and restaurants are legendary in Dubai, frequented by non-residents, too. The hotel’s three bars include Embassy, Toro Toro and the Buddha Bar, which is currently under refurbishment and will open again in November. We visited Embassy for a couple of cocktails, and absolutely loved it there. Set at the top of Tower 2, it offers sumptuous and exclusive surroundings in which to unwind, and the cocktails are divine, too. The Palm and the Blackberry and Black Pepper Margarita were firm favourites.

But the best experience of all was dinner at Rhodes W1, Gary Rhodes’ restaurant, also situated on the Mezzanine floor. The restaurant has been recently refurbished, and offers a clean, light and bright dining room and bar with a white walls and stylish yellow and green furnishings, with a bright, garden-like theme. It is a great space, and the elegant surroundings have a wonderfully lively feel, in keeping with Grosvenor House’s atmosphere, with an open kitchen and really upbeat music, which really makes the restaurant feel fun and relaxed.

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The first impression of Rhodes W1 was the warmest of welcomes. Gary has assembled a great team here, who are extremely friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. This is no mean feat, and the smooth, slick operation between the staff is a real pleasure to experience throughout the night.

The menu here is Modern British, with a focus on fresh, British, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, and an emphasis on a sharing concept, and so we tried a four course sharing menu, with two small different plates comprising each course, which was a lovely way to try as much as possible from the menu. Not only that, but the sharing concept provokes conversation and thought with your dining companions, which makes the experience even more memorable.

We started with some small bites, which include an excellent plate of citrus cured scallop slices in a delicately flavoured sauce made with fennel and salted lemon and topped with micro leaves. The scallops were absolutely sublime, melting in the mouth and whetting our appetites for more. This was followed by a superb orange, black olive and fresh herb salad. It was beautifully prepared and presented and was a sensationally balanced dish, with each mouthful punctuated with sweet, sour and salty flavours, and interesting textures of the cool orange and little nuggets of crystallised hazelnuts. I’ll be trying to recreate this at home.

Next up was a dish of pan-fried sea bass, with beautiful flakes of fish and crispy skin, sat on a bed of richly flavoured shrimps with tomatoes and lentils. The complex, savoury flavours paired fantastically well together. We then moved on to a dish of juicy deboned and sautéed chicken thighs, baked with a honey pine nut pesto and nicely al dente sugar snap peas and asparagus, with a lime crème fraîche, which I could have happily eaten on its own, and found myself mentally recording every detail of the dish to try and make it at home.

The main course comprised another plate of supremely succulent chargrilled sirloin steak, topped with buttered spinach, tomatoes and black olives, and a highly successful basil cream hollandaise, which provided a wonderful balance of herby acidity and rich creaminess to accompany the steak. Then we enjoyed some superb Welsh lamb cutlets with a deeply flavoured sesame cabbage with ginger, which was not an accompaniment I had ever considered to pair with lamb, but again was hugely successful.

We finished our meal with another amazing duo of plates, including a perfect raspberry soufflé and a roast pear with Stilton ice cream and a red wine syrup, which was a really great balance of sweet and savoury flavours and made a fantastic end to the meal.

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The food at Rhodes W1 is not only fantastically executed, but the exciting, complex and well-developed flavours in every course were hugely satisfying, interesting and enjoyable. The wine list is interesting and varied, and the staff are hugely knowledgeable, and will advise on what suits your tastes and pairs best with the food. I highly recommend trying the matched glasses of house wine to accompany the courses, as we did, which offers interest and good value for money.

We informed Rhodes W1 of dietary requirements in advance and were produced with a special menu on arrival, which we were told Chef Lee Adams had personally prepared for us, which was much appreciated. It made the experience easy and enjoyable, knowing they had prepared for us in advance.

Grosvenor House is a sumptuous, sophisticated hotel, which, quite uniquely, offers all elements of Dubai life to guests, from glamour, to fine dining, to nearby shopping, exciting nightlife, swimming pools and beach access at sister hotel Le Royal Meridien. It is a very special place indeed.

Thank you to Grosvenor House for inviting me to stay as a guest.


10
Nov 15

Top Activities for Foodies in Dubai

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This may come as a surprise, but the Atlantis Aquaventure waterpark is a tremendous place for foodies to visit. Stop for lunch or dress for dinner and head to Georgio Locatelli’s Ronda restaurant, which is situated right by the Atlantis restaurant. This is a stylish restaurant with a varied, interesting menu. The food is delicious, freshly cooked and beautifully presented. The Atlantis waterpark is easily the standout water park in Dubai and the UAE. There is a great range of thrilling rides suitable for all ages and levels of adventure. From circumnavigating the gentle waterways in a rubber ring, to firing yourself out of an eagle’s beak atop a pyramid into a near vertical drop, there is something for everyone here. It’s newly built, incredibly clean and very large as a park, so you shouldn’t have to queue for long to get on the rides. A really fun day, and evening and a rare find to enjoy such excellent, family friendly food at a major tourist attraction.

For a taste of old Dubai and a chance to shop for food, head to Bur Dubai and explore the spice souq. Situated in the oldest part of Dubai, the old heart of the city, the souk is very easy to find. You’ll find bags of spices piled high, boxes of saffron, dried flowers and herbs and other local delicacies, such as honey, dates and saffron. Check the freshness of what you’re buying by trying some, if you can, as vendors are always willing to allow you to taste. Don’t be swayed by pushy sales people, and head further into the souq, down the narrow pathways to discover more authentic, quieter shops, where you can browse in peace. A really fun experience.

Visit the farmers market. You might not know this, but the UAE is a large producer of fresh dairy products, fruit, vegetables and meat. The market operates every Friday morning from November to early May on the terrace outside the Jumeirah Emirates Towers. You’ll find produce from Oman, India and Pakistan here, too. Try the jiggery palm sugar and Sidr honey from Yemen.

Head to the Al Fahidi neighbourhood near to the creek for a strong feel of traditional Arab culture. The Dubai Museum is just around the corner and absurdly cheap to visit. This is a small settlement of low-rise clay buildings, built closely together and connected by narrow, shady streets. Here, you’ll find traditional cafes, where you can stop for a fresh mint lemonade or a bright green freshly made juice, providing welcome respite from the heat. Coffee lovers may also be interested in the Dubai coffee museum here too. It’s small but interesting for serious coffee lovers, who’ll find a café upstairs to sample a wide range of international coffee beans and styles of production.


2
Nov 15

Luxury in the desert

WA_pool_28_745x420_FitToBoxSmallDimension_Center There are many wonderful reasons to visit the UAE, but as a holiday destination, its main draws are its excellent weather, particularly in the winter, and the superb level of luxury and service in the hospitality sector.

Ras Al Khaimah is around an hour away from the mind-blowing city of Dubai, yet it feels a world away. Sat between the Arabian Gulf and the majestically beautiful Hajar mountains and rolling, red dunes.

Ras Al Khaimah, or RAK as it’s known, is the northernmost of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), and is fast becoming a major tourist destination, favoured for being much less developed than Dubai, and for its miles of coastline, untouched ancient sites and incredibly laidback and relaxing atmosphere.

In search of a break and some serious relaxation in the lap of luxury, we headed to the Waldorf Astoria in Ras Al Khaimah. A good friend recommended it: “you won’t be disappointed”. Our expectations were high.

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On arrival, we were swiftly checked in and shown to our room, a junior suite. Rooms here are seriously impressive, even by UAE standard and we had our own dressing room, sitting room and balcony, plus giant bedroom. This hotel is enormous, and rooms are huge, too, the corridors are wide, and there is plenty of room on the beach. There is space for everything here. Bedrooms are exquisitely designed, with hand carved wooden headboards, custom made stag coral lights, sparkly tiled and marble decked bathrooms, enormous beds with supremely soft sheets and your choice of pillow to suit you. The attention to detail and craftsmanship in this hotel is quite something.

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It’s only been open for two years, having been painstakingly designed by Gallery HBA in London, drawing inspiration from the Arabian palaces that dot the peninsula. Guests enter the hotel through a gargantuan archway, and meet a 10 foot Smith of Derby custom made clock, sweeping staircases and intricate fountains when entering the hotel. Wall panels are covered in turquoise silk, hand stitched with gold sequins flowing in a wave like pattern, reflecting the Arabian Sea. Again, quite something.

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There’s an enormous private beach here with friendly beach staff who arrange your towels with a smile and enquire about your plans for the day. There’s a swim up beach bar, several cabanas for those seeking shade, a proper swimming pool for adults and plenty of designated space for children to play and swim.

This is a hotel geared up around relaxation and pampering. There isn’t much to do nearby, and it’s situated around 20 minutes from RAK city, so make the most of being here and just chill. For anyone feeling active, there is a deluxe 18-hole golf course on site, plus a state of the art gym and of course, the warm, clear sea in which to swim, which I made sure I did at least twice a day – when it’s hot, it’s pure bliss to wallow in the water.

For a real treat, you can try the spa, which even has its own private VIP suite. Try a Bee-Sting facial, using bee sting venom to improve your complexion, and is finished with a 24 carat gold serum. Only in the UAE!

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Breakfast is taken in Qasr al Bahar, the hotel’s buffet style restaurant and is really excellent. There is a superb choice of food on offer, and all of it is nicely cooked and presented. This is a super elegant dining room, especially for breakfast, and the service is just great from really engaged, friendly staff.

We returned to Qasr Al Bahar for dinner one night too, which offers an international buffet, and was fantastic. The choice, again, is pretty staggering, but the food was really delicious, and cooked freshly for us. The chefs are incredibly helpful, and were more than willing to accommodate any special requests.
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The food here is really fabulous, too. Marjan is the top-floor Lebanese restaurant. Chef Mounir creates vibrant, authentic flavours, and everything on the menu here is so fresh, exciting and delicious. The dining room is also incredibly stylish and elegant, filled with plenty of quiet, private corners in which to dine. Start with the cold mezze, and the saffron hummus is unmissable. The fattoush was fantastic, and made without bread, and the tabouleh was superb with a delicious sweet and sour tang from pomegranate molasses. The hot mezze are excellent, too. The rakakat, a cheese filled pastry, were sublime. Must-try dishes are also the lamb meatballs with a tangy cherry sauce and the labneh bin awarma, which is labneh topped with confit lamb with some mint, garlic and pine nuts. Excellent mains include the shish taouk, which is grilled chicken with garlic sauce, and the camel kebab with saffron rice. Cocktails and juices here are excellent, too.  Service is slick and professional.

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Lexington Grill is a super glamorous New York style steakhouse at the Waldorf Astoria. The dining room is absolutely gorgeously decorated with wood paneled walls and a red marbled floor, and sets the scene for a grown-up, sophisticated evening. We settled ourselves in and made ourselves comfortable, and before we knew it, a trolley wheeled over, offering us our choice of champagne cocktail. Starters are a mix of American and French classics, and provide a light, fresh start to the meal. My Alaskan crab cakes were very good, and the thick slices of foie gras a real treat. Food intolerances are sensitively and helpfully dealt with here, and ever effort is made to accommodate. Chef Lij came out to discuss our requirements personally, which was much appreciated. For the main, course, decided to share two steaks, both rib eye and cooked medium rare. One was the U.S. Prime Black Angus Beef, and the other was the Australian Natural Kobe Style Wagyu Beef Grade 7. It was really interesting comparing the two cuts side by side. Both were excellent and seasoned using Lexington Grill’s fantastic seasoning blend, which is presented to diners as a parting gift. A perfect destination for a romantic, special evening.

UMI

UMI is one of the very best Japanese restaurants I’ve ever visited. The restaurant is decorated beautifully, and one feels almost transported to Japan on entering. There are two live cooking sections in the restaurant and visitors can sit either in the sushi section, the teppanyaki section, or somewhere in between, which is what we did. UMI is home to the largest collection of sake in the UAE. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend you ask for Sunil to guide you through – which is what we did. It was fascinating to pair the sake with the food and try the different grades of sake. Sunil is a fountain of knowledge, too. There’s a huge amount of choice on the menu, and we really struggled to pin our choices down. Chef Yukatade came out to discuss our dietary requirements with us, which was helpful. We decided to share a selection of nigiri, which were extremely good, served with homemade pickled ginger, which was sensational. We followed this with the miso black cod, which was utterly sensational and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A platter of delicious exotic fruits completed the meal nicely. Great food, gorgeous surroundings and delicious sake.

One of the main advantages of staying in a hotel offering excellent house is you’re only a few steps away from the lift to whisk you back up to your room. There is something particularly special about returning to your room that’s been beautifully tidied, well furnished with Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries and spritzed with divine Neom room fragrances for you – it’s all part and parcel of the experience here – preparing you for a great night’s sleep so you can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

Bed and breakfast rates are extremely good value. We paid 875 AED (£155 at the time of publication) for bed and breakfast in a junior suite, plus the standard 10% service charge. Expect to pay from £50 per head for dinner. Worth every penny.


28
Oct 15

Date Crumble Muffins

 

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This is a recipe I picked up on my visit to Ras Al Khaimah. Dates are a national staple of the UAE, and the quality of the dates grown here are just sensational. Visit the markets, and you can find fresh yellow dates for sale, visit the supermarket and you’ll find cheap dates and date syrup available, and visit the high-end boutiques for finger-sized dates, stuffed with whole nuts, enrobed in chocolate and spiced with cardamom. In fact, there’s even a date souk in Abu Dhabi you can visit.

I always return with plenty of dates in my suitcase, as well as a couple of bottles of date syrup to tide me over until my next visit. Although both are available in the UK, there’s nothing quite like UAE dates, to me.

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Although date muffins are not necessarily the typical cuisine one might imagine found in the Middle East, that’s where the idea came from. I’ve adjusted the recipe quite radically, as I didn’t find the originally worked frightfully well. These muffins are easy to make, and rely on storecupboard ingredients, so they’re a good one to rustle up when the cupboard is bare. The quality of dates here is crucial – do be sure to choose good, fudgy dates, not the dry cubes so often sold for use in baking.

These are excellent served with good, strong coffee.

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27
Oct 15

A Foodie Guide to Ras Al Khaimah

The food in the UAE is incredibly good – you have the best chefs and ingredients from all over the world available to you, and the choice and variety is just astonishing.

Ras Al Khaimah has some really fantastic restaurants spanning a wide range of cuisines. As is the way in the UAE, they’re all based in hotels. Here are my top 5 restaurants in Ras Al Khaimah, plus some top tips for local food shopping, be it for some regional specialities to take home, or sampling the best local produce.

Marjan

Marjan

Where to eat

Middle Eastern

Emiratis have really adopted Lebanese cuisine as their own, and it is widely enjoyed throughout the country. Marjan is quite easily the very best Lebanese restaurant I’ve ever visited. Chef Mounir creates the most vibrant flavours, and everything on the menu here is so fresh, exciting and delicious. The dining room is also incredibly stylish and elegant, filled with plenty of quiet, private corners in which to dine. Start with the cold mezze, and the saffron hummus is unmissable. The fattoush was fantastic, and made without bread, and the tabouleh was superb with a delicious sweet and sour tang from pomegranate molasses. The hot mezze are excellent, too. The rakakat, a cheese filled pastry, were sublime. Must-try dishes are also the lamb meatballs with a tangy cherry sauce and the labneh bin awarma, which is labneh topped with confit lamb with some mint, garlic and pine nuts. Excellent mains include the shish taouk, which is grilled chicken with garlic sauce, and the camel kebab with saffron rice. Cocktails and juices here are excellent, too.  Service is slick and professional. A real find. 

Pura Vida

Pura Vida

Brazilian

Pura Vida is an excellent Brazilian restaurant situated at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa. Its signature dish is its churrasco grill, featuring an incredible range of cuts of meat, including five cuts of beef, lamb and chicken with a range of typical sides, such as mashed potato, black beans and plantain. Seating is mostly outside, where you can sit and look out across the ocean and watch your meat being grilled while you wait. On weekend nights, you’ll find live music on the terrace, too. Service at Pura Vida is one of its strongest points, and we were really well looked after. I’d recommend sticking to the churrasco, which I think is the strongest offering on the menu.

Basilico

Basilico

Mediterranean

Basilico restaurant at the Cove Rotana is a lovely place to sit and have lunch and look to sea. The resort is very attractive and sat right on the water’s edge. The menu is large and features a really wide range of meat, fish and vegetable dishes from all over the Mediterranean. Food allergies are well looked after, and we appreciated the extra effort the management went to in order to assist us in this respect. To start, we tried the buffalo mozzarella and beef tomato tartare, which was a really flavoursome. The beef tomato was hollowed out and filled with chopped tomato and black olive tapenade, which was superb. For the main course, we enjoyed the excellent steak, which was cooked and seasoned, to perfection and the baked salmon with fennel, caviar velouté and wild rice, which was generously portioned and nicely cooked. Service is attentive but leisurely. A great spot for both day and night time.

Lexington Grill

Lexington Grill

Steak

Steak is practically the national dish in the UAE: they just love it. Lexington Grill is a super glamorous New York style steakhouse at the Waldorf Astoria. The dining room is absolutely gorgeously decorated with wood paneled walls and a red marbled floor, and sets the scene for a grown-up, sophisticated evening.

We settled ourselves in and made ourselves comfortable, and before we knew it, a trolley wheeled over, offering us our choice of champagne cocktail. So far so good. Starters are a mix of American and French classics, and provide a light, fresh start to the meal. My Alaskan crab cakes were very good, and the thick slices of foie gras a real treat. Food intolerances are sensitively and helpfully dealt with here, and ever effort is made to accommodate. Chef Lij came out to discuss our requirements personally, which was much appreciated. For the main, course, decided to share two steaks, both rib eye and cooked medium rare. One was the U.S. Prime Black Angus Beef, and the other was the Australian Natural Kobe Style Wagyu Beef Grade 7. It was really interesting comparing the two cuts side by side. Both were excellent and seasoned using Lexington Grill’s fantastic seasoning blend, which is presented to diners as a parting gift. The perfect destination for a romantic, special evening.

UMI

UMI

Japanese

UMI is one of the very best Japanese restaurants I’ve ever visited. The restaurant is decorated beautifully, and one feels almost transported to Japan on entering. There are two live cooking sections in the restaurant and visitors can sit either in the sushi section, the teppanyaki section, or somewhere in between, which is what we did. UMI is home to the largest collection of sake in the UAE. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend you ask for Sunil to guide you through – which is what we did. It was fascinating to pair the sake with the food and try the different grades of sake. Sunil is a fountain of knowledge, too. There’s a huge amount of choice on the menu, and we really struggled to pin our choices down. Chef Yukatade came out to discuss our dietary requirements with us, which was helpful. We decided to share a selection of nigiri, which were extremely good, served with homemade pickled ginger, which was sensational. We followed this with the miso black cod, which was utterly sensational and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A platter of delicious exotic fruits completed the meal nicely. Great food, gorgeous surroundings and delicious sake.

Where to shop

There is something irresistible about shopping for food abroad. I am endlessly fascinated by the food people buy and eat every day.

I recommend a trip to the Old Town in Ras Al Khaimah, where you’ll find quite a number of excellent neighbourhood bakeries. You can pick up a pack of their superb Arabic flatbreads for around 2 AED for six. Still piping hot, they are simply unmissable. You’ll find a range of freshly made sweets and baklava in many bakeries, too.

If, like me, you adore fresh tropical fruit, then I suggest heading to the Ras Al Khaimah fruit market. You’ll find a wealth of fruit shops selling everything from Pakistani mangoes to rambutan and fresh turmeric. Make sure you ask for a coconut, which will be cut down from a stalk and cut open and handed to you with a straw to enjoy, which is just the most refreshing drink. If you’re there earlier in the year, ask for Aphonso mangoes, which come from India and have the most heavenly flavour. They’re currently banned from the EU, so seize the opportunity to try them, if you can.

And if a look around a supermarket is an essential part of a trip for you, then head to Al Aswaq, which sells a wide range of interesting Arabian and Indian ingredients to stock up on.

Getting to and around RAK

Getting around in Ras Al Khaimah is easy: taxis are plentiful and cheap. Drivers are generally happy to wait for you, too, so do check at the start of the journey.

Ras Al Khaimah is easily reached from London, and we flew with boutique airline Royal Brunei, who offer a superb service. The flight time is around 7 hours to Dubai, and taxis to RAK from Dubai are regular and inexpensive. It should cost around 200-350 AED each way. Both Business and Economy classes with Royal Brunei are great. The service is fantastic, really charming, personal and gracious. Another plus is that Royal Brunei run brand new Boeing Dreamliners throughout their long-haul service, which offer fully flat beds in Business class and plenty of space in Economy. There’s a good and plentiful choice of food and drink available on board, making the flight a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

There are some excellent value packages to RAK available online at the moment. Southall Travel are currently offering a 3 night stay to RAK, travelling with Royal Brunei at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa in a Deluxe Beach Villa for £579 per person, including Economy flights, or £1979 per person, including Business class flights.


26
Oct 15

A Guide to Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah is the northernmost Emirate forming the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, and is fast becoming a popular tourist destination. At just an hour’s drive from Dubai, it is a relaxing, yet luxurious place to holiday, offering a flavour of traditional Emirati life alongside the service and luxury one expects from a trip to the UAE.

Ras Al Khaimah is much less developed than Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and is a stunningly beautiful part of the country, with mountains, beaches and desert to explore.

Ras Al Khaimah Camel Track

Ras Al Khaimah Camel Track

The UAE is a fantastic destination for a holiday, at just seven hours flight time from London. Visitors to Ras Al Khaimah, or RAK, as it is widely called, will find plenty to do. There are a huge range of activities and visitor attractions here, for families, couples, thrillseekers and sightseers, which are varied, high quality, and great value too. Here are my tried and tested recommendations of the very best Ras Al Khaimah has to offer.

Road Trips

Dhayah Fort is one of the most important historic sites in the emirate, which sits at the top of small hill with fantastic views across the mountains and out to sea. The Fort remains unchanged, but it was restored in 2001, with the creation of a good path running up to the top. This is a great place to visit in the early morning or late evening, as it is hot work climbing up the hill at other times in the day. It’s quite hard to find, so be sure to check a map properly before heading out, and take directions with you. Allow an hour for a visit. It’s free, too.

Dhayah Fort

Dhayah Fort

Jebel Jais is the highest mountain in the UAE, and a short drive from Ras Al Khaimah. In fact, you can see the mountain range from the city and even from the beaches on a clear day. This is a really interesting drive to take. The road is new, smooth and safe, and the views are interesting and, at times, exhilarating.

Jebel Jais

Jebel Jais

Thrill seeking 

Beach-based hotels generally offer water sports for guests, and there is generally a good choice of activities available. The water is warm, and safe, so you don’t need to worry too much about falling in. Jet skiing is great for beginners, and wake boarding is really fun, too. Donut rings and banana boat trips are great fun for a family activity. You’ll most likely find kayaks and paddle boards for hire, too. Most providers don’t take advance bookings, you have to turn up on the day, but availability is generally very good.

Ras Al Khaimah Desert

Ras Al Khaimah Desert

Head into the desert for some dune bashing and a taste of the real desert. Your guide will take you on an exhilarating drive up and over the dunes, which is quite an adventure. You’re guaranteed to see lots of camels, too! For a more relaxing experience, you can book a desert safari with camel riding, henna tattooing and a sunset barbeque with shisha and belly dancing, which is an unforgettable encounter.

For the ultimate adventure, visit the Jazirah Aviation Club and head up in a two-person microlight to see RAK from above. This is aviation at its most raw and thrilling. You’ll most likely fly over the man-made Marjan (meaning, coral, in Arabic) Island and over the clear, turquoise sea, where you can see turtles swimming and flamingoes gathering. If you are keen, you can take control for a while and experience flying for yourself. A truly memorable and exciting experience.

Luxury and relaxation

Ras Al Khaimah is well-furnished with spas, and you’ll find a lovely spa in each of the top-end hotels. For a really special experience, try a trip to the spa at Banyan Tree Al Wadi, which is based on a desert retreat. Treatments are completely divine, in the most opulent desert surroundings. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Oryx greeting you as you leave the treatment room! Well worth the 20 minute drive from RAK city.

Banyan Tree Al Wadi

Banyan Tree Al Wadi

Shoppers will find a number of malls to visit in RAK. Our favourite was the Manar Mall. Do venture into the old town though, as there are some really interesting shops to visit there, as well as a gold souk. There are a huge number of excellent fabric shops and tailors here. I had some lovely silk dresses made for around 300 AED. The quality of workmanship was fantastic, and the turnaround time was 24 hours. Really worth a visit.

Getting to and around RAK

Getting around in Ras Al Khaimah is easy: taxis are plentiful and cheap, and car hire is easy and inexpensive. Drivers are generally happy to wait for you, too, so do check at the start of the journey. If you are planning on hiring a car, do take printed maps and a sat nav, as signposting isn’t always clear. If you’re planning on traveling further afield, be aware that you generally can’t take a hire car across the border into Oman. 

Ras Al Khaimah is easily reached from London, and we flew with boutique airline Royal Brunei, who offer a superb service. The flight time is around 7 hours to Dubai, and taxis to RAK from Dubai are regular and inexpensive. It should cost around 200-350 AED each way. Both Business and Economy classes with Royal Brunei are great. The service is fantastic, really charming, personal and gracious. Another plus is that Royal Brunei run brand new Boeing Dreamliners throughout their long-haul service, which offer fully flat beds in Business class and plenty of space in Economy. There’s a good and plentiful choice of food and drink available on board, making the flight a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

There are some excellent value packages to RAK available online at the moment. Southall Travel are currently offering a 3 night stay to RAK, travelling with Royal Brunei at the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa in a Deluxe Beach Villa for £579 per person, including Economy flights, or £1979 per person, including Business class flights.

With thanks to Ras Al Khaimah Tourism and Royal Brunei for their assistance with this trip.


13
Oct 15

Filming with Simply Good Food TV

 

I spent a few days last month filming with Peter Sidwell and Simply Good Food TV. I’ve filmed a series of six episodes based around all new recipes based on my newest book, FERMENTED. I’ve created some seriously delicious recipes which I hope you’ll enjoy making at home, each using a fermented ingredient from the book. If you haven’t got a copy of the book, don’t worry. All ingredients are readily available, but I hope you might be tempted to give fermentation a try.

For now though, I’m pleased to share the first video in the series with you. It’s a recipe for a sensational spiced Bramley apple chutney. The fermented ingredient here is apple cider vinegar, and you can easily buy an organic vinegar to use in this if you haven’t made one yourself. This chutney needs to be matured before eating, so now is the ideal time to make it, so it’s ready in time for Christmas.

I really hope you enjoy the video and the recipe. You can download the Simply Good Food TV App for free to see more from me and the team of SGFTV Chefs. See here for the links. I’ll be back soon with more information and more recipes. In the meantime, enjoy!

 

Spiced Bramley Apple Chutney

This is an excellent recipe to incorporate homemade apple cider vinegar into your cooking, as it makes a particularly excellent addition to apple chutneys. The spices add a warmth and richness and the ginger provides warmth and a subtle tang. I have Vivien Lloyd, the UK’s leading traditional preserves expert to thank for the inspiration here.

Makes around 2kg

 

Ingredients

1kg Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes

750ml apple cider vinegar

325g Spanish onion, peeled and sliced

100g root ginger, peeled

25g garlic cloves, peeled

100g sultanas

2 tsp sea salt

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 large cinnamon stick

8 cloves

675g dark brown muscovado sugar

 

Method

  • Place the apples into a large preserving pan and cover with apple cider vinegar. The apples can be roughly chopped, as they will break down quickly when cooked.
  • Now, put the onion, ginger, garlic and sultanas into a food processor and blitz to form a smooth paste. Pour into the pan with the apples and vinegar, followed by the sea salt and spices.
  • Bring the pan slowly to the boil, stirring occasionally. The apples will become soft and fluffy as they cook. This should take around 20 minutes. Turn the heat down now.
  • Next add the sugar and stir regularly, keeping the heat on low until the sugar is completely dissolved. Continue to cook until the chutney is a thick consistency and any water has cooked off.
  • Place in clean jars immediately and seal with new lids. There is no need for a wax or cellophane disc. This chutney needs to mature in the sealed jar for 2-3 months before consuming.

18
Sep 15

A Foodie Guide to the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

TF1

The Forest of Dean and Wye Valley is a gorgeous, verdant and unspoilt corner of the country, straddled across the winding border between England and Wales.

This is a truly beautiful area to visit. The countryside is just so pretty and untarnished by development, with a rare secluded quietness, and many commanding views.

As you would expect in such a gorgeous natural environment, there is some sensational produce and many interesting, innovative food producers in the area, and so I paid a visit recently to explore the area and bring the very best food and drink from the area to you.

Where to stay and where to eat

Our base for this trip was the Tudor Farmhouse, near Clearwell. It is a small family owned boutique hotel with restaurant, run by husband and wife team Colin and Hari who left city life behind around a decade ago to set up the Tudor Farmhouse in this quiet and remote corner of Gloucestershire. The result is fantastic; it is a stylish and cosy retreat and makes a fantastic base for a weekend break. Guests when we stayed were a mix of weekend guests and those staying to attend nearby weddings, from what we could detect.

Despite its setting in a tiny rural village, the Tudor Farmhouse makes a good base to explore the area, providing a comfortable and restful base for a weekend away. Rooms vary a fair bit in terms of size and facilities (and of course, price), but we stayed in the Roost, a larger and newly refurbished room. The Tudor Farmhouse is set across a number of centuries old farmhouses, and rooms reflect the quirkiness of the buildings, with exposed beams, paneled walls and twisting staircases to get there.

Our room was beautifully furnished, spacious and extremely comfortable. The bathroom was fantastic, with a roll top bath, giant shower and gorgeous Bramley products. Small touches, such as fresh milk in the fridge, demonstrate the thought that has gone into the rooms and the service at the Tudor Farmhouse.

We found ourselves eating at the Tudor Farmhouse both nights. The restaurant here is exactly the sort of place I wish I had locally. The food is good, the wine list is superb, and the atmosphere is smart, but relaxed. What I particularly liked was the focus on local produce, with much meat, fish and fresh produce sourced locally, with suppliers listed on the menu. There is also a hotel kitchen garden, which is used as much as possible.

TF5

We found the food to be generously portioned, with plenty of meat and well-flavoured. The style of cooking is perhaps a touch too busy for my liking, but we had two really enjoyable meals. Do save room for the excellent locally sourced cheeseboard, if you can. It is really memorable. There are two dining rooms at the Tudor Farmhouse and we far preferred the older room at the back of the hotel for a more cosy, intimate meal. We also preferred the experience on a Friday night, which was quieter than Saturday. Do take the time before eating to have a drink in the cosy bar. There is a super range of cocktails on offer featuring local fruit juices and spirits. A must.

TF2

What to do

If you’re interested in learning more about wild food, you must try a foraging class with Raoul van den Broucke, who is one of the UK’s leading foraging gurus, and is based locally. The Tudor Farmhouse will book a session with Raoul for you if you are interested. We went out on a Sunday morning with Raoul and had a most informative trip. Born in Belgium, Raoul has lived a varied and interesting life, having sold foraged treasures to many leading chefs around the world for years.

TF4

Our session with Raoul was hugely informative, as participants are asked what they are most interested in seeing, and the trip is structured accordingly. We were taken across fields, up tracks, down lanes and along a river to source wild fruits, plants and fungi, which was absolutely fascinating. It really was eye opening to see what is growing wild in places where you’d never think to look. There is more wild food on most people’s doorsteps than you’d realize. We finished our morning by taking our basket of bounty to a local pub to cook, and we enjoyed our treasures freshly cooked with an excellent glass of local cider. Raoul is a complete fountain of knowledge for anyone interested in foraging and wild food, and I recommend an excursion with him most highly.

TF3

Anyone interested in wine will not traditionally associate South Wales with wine production, and as such, I was most interested to pay a visit to Ancre Hill Estate, situated just outside Monmouth during our stay in the area.

Ancre Hill is an absolutely fascinating place to visit for any wine lover, and I’d really recommend booking a place on their weekend wine tours and tastings.

Set up in 2008 by Richard and Joy Morris, with their son, David, a trained winemaker, having worked in Rousillon and a Plumpton College alumnus, they have transformed the fields adjacent to their home by planting acres of vines and building a state of the art eco winery, which was opened by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall in July 2015.

Ancre Hill mainly grow chardonnay, albarino and pinot noir grapes, and are making some really interesting and delicious wines, including an excellent Blanc de Noirs, a Chardonnay/Pinot noir sparkling rose, a Pinot Noir/Seyval sparkling and a Triomphe made from 100% Triomphe grapes. They have won a number of prestigious awards, including top awards from Decanter and IWSC. The Tudor Farmhouse are able to organise an excursion foraging or wine tasting for guests.

We found our visit to the Forest of Dean most interesting, and were thrilled to discover such a charming, peaceful spot for a quite weekend away from the hustle and bustle. We will certainly be returning very soon.

Thank you very much to the Tudor Farmhouse for inviting me to stay.

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