Margate, a delightful day trip

It’s hard to deny that the UK is having a pretty incredible summer, the weather over the last couple of months has been amazing and we are only in the start of July. With such great weather its been hard to not take advantage of the amazing outdoor activities and nature at our finger tips.

Being in old London town means that due to the train connections a host of day trips are on offer, well assuming the trains are working! But we are lucky, that in about an hour and a half we can be sat on the beach or taking a walk in the lovely British countryside. There is something for everyone.

The other weekend we decided that we needed to get out of the hot city and explore somewhere new, so out of a hat we picked Margate. Neither of us had been before but had heard good things. Margate keeps popping up on lists of places to visit for the day or weekend thanks to recent investment in the town, from the Turner Contemporary and Dreamland. I know there is some contention over the hipsters and gentrification pushing up rents and making it harder for those who have always lived there. However, I saw an interesting balance of the old school seaside resort with its fish and chip shops, arcades and rock shops, with art galleries, antique shops and amazing seafood restaurants. I believe that the rebirth of Margate has allowed it to appeal to a wider group of people, there is really something for everyone in Margate, and of course there is that fabulous golden sand beach where all are welcome and everyone really is the same when sat on the beach or dipping your toes in that ever so cold water.

The moment you step out of the Margate train station you are hit by the site of the glorious British Seaside. You are just a few meters from the sand. The sun is shining, and like a child I want to run to the sand, but alas I must be a grown up, museum first.

Golden Sands of Margate

We walked along the sea front passing the shops and restaurants, pondering where to return to for lunch. I pulled the other half past the arcades, to which we would return later and headed to Harbour Arm for a mid morning caffeine hit. The Harbour Arm is great, its lined with excellent independent cafes and bars. Taking to a deck chair I enjoyed my tea and people watched.

The Harbour Arm

The Harbour Arm stretches out from the new Turner Contemporary Gallery, whose modern architecture using glass to offer excellent views out onto the sea. It’s a lovely gallery, it’s incredibly welcoming. The spaces are light and airy and even on a busy Saturday you never felt cramped looking at the exhibitions.

From here we set about to explore the old town and its winding streets. They are full of all sorts of treasures from vintage and antique shops to cake shops and restaurants. Of course its sunny, hot and lunch time so everywhere is very busy. Having done my research I had a couple of seafood restaurants noted down, the first of which was full (Hantvertk & Found). So we headed back towards the sea in search of Angela’s, again it was full except for a little table outside on the pavement in the shade, we took it, and patted ourselves on the back after lunch for making such a great decision.

Angela’s was an utter delight, a short and simple fresh seafood menu from a tiny little kitchen. They themselves call their food uncomplicated, which is exactly what you want when it comes to fresh seafood. I sometimes think in today’s restaurant world there is too much over complication of food, we forget the simplicity of a perfectly grilled piece of fish with a simple sauce!

We started with scallops to share, which melted in the mouth like butter. The main was the star, a Dover Sole for two to share in a crab and butter sauce with sapphire. We had a side of potatoes to dip in the sauce and greens. It was delicious! the fish was flaky and the filets came off the bone a treat. The sauce was addictively good, making sure we got every scrap of it.

Angela’s!
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wp-image-304″ src=”https://lifelondonfooddotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/img_7666.jpg?w=225″ alt=”” width=”225″ height=”300″ /> Divine Scallops at Angela’s[/caption]

This is great British food at its finest. Local, sustainable food, that is seasonal and wonderfully cooked.

Another highlight of the restaurant was its wine list, championing local wine from Kent. As a lover of English wine I am always on the look out for one I haven’t tried, and the staff were very nice in letting me try a  couple, one of which was Westwell Wines.

Margate is a town of hidden gems be it edible or not. There is much more to see and do but we ran out of time due to a long lunch and pre booked return train tickets –  next time we will stay over night! But there was time to hit the old school arcades and try our luck at the 2p machines. One place we must try to visit next time is Dreamland, the amusement park that has in some form or another stood on the site since the 1870’s. It was reopened in 2015 and looks like great fun.

This was a taster trip to lovely Margate and I will definitely need to return to keep exploring. I also feel this seaside gem has more edible delights to uncover and of course I want to go back and try Angela’s dinner menu!

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The Crown Inn, Amersham

The Crown is located in the picturesque old town of Amersham which is a very quaint market town. It’s an open air museum of British architecture through the ages. You can meander up and down the high street of the old town taking in the shops and many pubs. Further afield it’s perfectly located for a country walk. In fact there are some walks all planned out for you to explore the surrounding area and villages.

With Amersham on the periphery of London, and still on the tube line this is the perfect place to escape the city for a night or two. Arriving on Friday night, a little later than expected due to a ticket kerfuffle ( all my fault), we were checked in by a very friendly member of staff and we went off to find our room. Watching our heads on the low ceilings and beams ( love an Elizabethan beam!!) we got to our room which was very spacious.

The large radiator was a godsend as it was freezing outside, once that was turned all the way up we had a toasty room with a big bed and perfectly sized room for a couple of nights. Our room was located in the main building but there are a selection of rooms that are located in the converted out buildings. The only negative with our room was the noise. As we were located above the kitchen we could hear the staff going in and out at the end of the night to what I presume were the bins, but also when waking up, you could hear them below in the kitchen. Now it wasn’t noisy enough to warrant moving as we are both pretty heavy sleepers and I wear ear plugs but if you are a light sleeper you may want to think about one of the rooms away from the main building.

In need of food we headed down to the bar which advertised as selling bar snacks, but the bar itself was tiny and most of the tables were set up like those in the restaurant. The 2 or 3 small tables left were already occupied. Disappointed we headed out onto the high street and had a very nice meal in a Cote Brasserie, always somewhere I overlook but I never have a bad meal there.

The next day we set out to explore the countryside after a delicious breakfast, of course this was the only day of the whole week that it was going to rain!

A great breakfast to start the day with

After exploring the high street in the day light we headed for the walk we had found online. Across a cricket ground, past a stately home, a field of many horses and we ended up in the lovely little village of Little Missenden . Cold and wet we popped into a very cute looking pub also called the Crown Inn. Filled with locals we couldn’t help but feel like we were being watched as we walked in. Very local! A cup of tea later (this may have been the reasons for the stares) we headed back out and carried on through the village. With time ticking on it was time to head back to Amersham for lunch and then to the Spa!

We had a quick lunch at a very delightful place called The Grocer offering a selection of gluten-free sweet and savory options. I highly recommend the cakes.

One of the reasons for booking the Crown was that it had a Spa attached. The Red House Spa. It was a warm and welcoming place, where I had a very delightful massage.

The second reason for booking the Crown was the restaurant. The Hawkyns restaurant is owned by Atul Kochhar, the proprietor of Benares, a restaurant we like very much. Intrigued by what the restaurant could offer we of course had to dine here on Saturday night.

Overall it was an enjoyable evening and the food delicious but the restaurant definitely needed to make a few improvements, mostly with its staff. All evening there was  a sense of slight chaos brewing. We had about 3 or 4 different waiters serving us throughout the night, they obviously hadn’t worked out the whole sections thing. With the multiple waiters we had to explain to three different people that we both had a gluten intolerance –  still not sure they really took it in. Luckily we are pretty good at working out a menu on our own. After telling two waiters ( they tried to bring us bread and amouse bouche twice) we finally got the gluten-free options. The food that we got was lovely, with its Indian influence and spice. It was simple, perfectly portioned and presented with care.

I enjoy watching a restaurant in action, watching the staff, the customers, you see a lot, and I saw the staff running far too much. Yes the restaurant was busy, but its a small restaurant. The air of chaos carried on through the night, with the odd table being apologised to for the wait or wrong plate coming out. It’s a shame because if they can work this out, get the staff trained up, timings in place for taking orders this could be a lovely restaurant to make Amersham proud.  Unfortunately the chaos carried over to breakfast on Sunday which was a shame as Saturday’s breakfast was relaxed and lovely.

Coming down with a good 45 minutes to spare on breakfast service we found one lonely waitress trying to cope with a lot of tables. We obviously started a trend as after we arrived in the breakfast room, so did several other couples. However we found the breakfast selection depleted. In the breakfast rush, no one had restocked the cereal, fruit or pastries. It was a poor show. After flagging down the lone waitress we managed to get our breakfast order in, but it came out a lesser version of the previous days, with one rasher of bacon rather than 2, half a mushroom rather than a full one… all a bit strange. They were obviously running out of supplies, so why not stop the full English and encourage people on the other options if you do not have enough. I ordered the eggs Benedict and it was rather nice.

This was a lovely stay in a hotel I would recommend if you are looking for an easy weekend away from London with country walks and good food. It’s a shame that the staff let things down a bit but a little bit of work will improve that quite quickly. If you are ever in the area I would suggest a meal at Hawkyns as the food was very yummy, and if you cannot get yourself to Benares you can experience a little bit of Atol Kochers divine Indian cooking here. We booked the stay through Mr and Mrs Smith which I would do again as they always have little special extras attached to bookings which is a nice touch!

 

Eating Vietnam

Just over a year ago I was getting ready to fly off to Vietnam on holiday. I was excited to say the least! I had wanted to go to Vietnam for such a long time, there was something about the country that intrigued me – maybe it was the food, the history or maybe it was because everyone I knew who had been came back raving about it – curiosity had me.

For me a holiday normally revolves around food and exploring the local cuisine. Vietnam was no different, in fact this trip was food exploration on speed – there was so much to see and to eat and the Vietnamese enthusiasm for food never wavered.

Our exploration of Vietnam started in the electric and hectic capital Ho Chi Minh City. It was like many Asian capitals, ever-expanding, busy and noisy, but there was a charm to it. The city dotted with colonial memories, the river winding through it and the ever present high-rise towers of wealth being built. Our hotel the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside was right in the heart of the action, its roof top bar offering lovely cooling views of the city. The perfect place for a drink pre dinner. However, on the first evening we went full tourist and ventured to the famous Rex Hotel roof top bar. I know I know, so touristy, but its part of the city’s history. It was here the US army would brief the journalists in what became know as the five o’clock follies.  So, an expensive cocktail later ( well by Vietnam standards) we were ready to tackle where to pick for dinner. The guidebook did not steer us wrong, we headed for something just around the corner  – Nha hang Ngon. The restaurant is located in a colonial villa and is worth a gander even if you are not eating. There is a terrace out front and lots more seating inside. Sitting inside near the atrium we were treated to some excellent Vietnamese food. It wasn’t only the food that was excellent, but the atmosphere. The restaurant was heaving and it didn’t seem to look like it was ever going to get quiet. Even though it was noted in a guidebook it didn’t feel like a tourist restaurant at all. The restaurant was packed with families and groups of friends. At one point a tour group did come in but they were taken to an upper level away from the buzz of the ground floor, and I presume up to the big tables. This was exactly the introduction I wanted to Vietnam, the buzz of the city, friendly people and of course wonderful fresh food. Let the food adventure begin!!

Delicious first night food at Nha hang Ngon

The following day after a hot and sweaty day of sightseeing we had a food tour booked, and not just any food tour, one on the back of motorbikes. This was the XO food tour. XO bike tours are led by female guides, and they are the loveliest of ladies. It was such fun chatting with my guide as she weaved in and out of the horrific traffic. My boyfriend on the other hand enjoyed it a little less, a 6ft tall bloke on a bike with a tiny Vietnamese lady… I think he would have liked a seat belt. However the food by far made up for it. The tour aimed to not only show you bits of the city that you wouldn’t normally see but also get up and personal with the food, the way the local’s eat it. First stop was a local street market, with all sorts of food being sold. This really is a city that just keeps going whatever the time. Back on the bikes we headed to a local hang out –  outdoor dining at its finest, a huge undercover seating area where you pick the food you want cooking, be it meat or vegetables.  We settled down with our guides to a beautiful freshly roasted pork bahn mi, and a rice and pork bowl (this was pre finding out I was gluten intolerant – oh how I miss bahn mi), and some cool Saigon beer. Now it was time for dessert –  back on the bikes and more alley ways. Stopping at a little cafe we propped ourselves on little plastic chairs and were presented with what can only be described as creme caramel type dish. It was cold and refreshing in what was still a hot evening. This was definitely one of the best food tours I have ever been on. We got to see parts of the city we would never see on normal tours, we experienced the fast and noisy city the way it should be, on the back of motorbikes and yes even more food.

One other place that we explored while in Ho Chi Minh City was Ben Thanh Street Food Market –  a hipster paradise. A covered marketing full of little food stalls selling different things from dumplings, to BBQ to noodle dishes and soups. It was a great place to hang out for a long leisurely lunch and to escape the heat and at night it really gets going with locals and tourists a like meeting there for a beer and to eat, and of course catching up with friends.  This is a great modern gem in a historic city.

Leaving the city of Ho Chi Minh behind us we headed for Hoi An, BUT  firstly one must make note, about the airports. We took a few internal flights while in Vietnam and I am sure anyone who travels will understand my disdain for airport food – but no, not here in Vietnam. This is a country where food never gets dull  –  Pho bars in the airport –  oh yes!! a pre flight Pho at every opportunity.

Hoi An, was somewhere I was looking forward too. I had heard great things about this historic town, and I was looking forward to our lovely boutique spa hotel, The Essence Hotel and Spa. The hotel was located just outside the historic centre, less than a 10 minute walk. Nestled on the outskirts of town it over looked paddy fields and you got a sense of real life in Hoi An. The coming and goings of the day away from the tourists.

Now this is a small town, but a town brimming with delicious places to eat. Yes its full of tourists but the food is still of great quality, be it a little street stall outside the historic centre, a bustling cafe or a place to watch life go by from an outside table.

We started our food journey in Hoi An with a fabulous cookery class, with the equally fabulous Van. Meeting just outside the market, donned with traditional Vietnamese conical hats we entered the market with our guide, as we weaved through the stalls she pointed out all the local delicacies, introduced us to her favourite vendors and of course brought everything she needed for the cooking class –  talk about farm to table…. this was going to be one fresh meal. Jumping into her mini van we headed to Van’s house, located in the suburbs, she had transformed her kitchen into a great cookery school. The class was full with 12 people, an international group, this was going to be a fun day at the Green Bamboo Cookery School. It was a very hot day but once we got going you barely noticed. Each person had pre picked a dish to make – this was going to be a 10 course lunch! Van went through each dish, pointing out the importance of the herbs and spices and their importance to Vietnamese cuisine. Each person prepared and made their own dish, and it was a mighty feast –  a real mix of the simple to the more complex –  we got a great over view of Vietnamese cuisine.

So much food at the Green Bamboo cookery class

Now Hoi An is a melange of restaurants, cafes and bars, but there are a couple of places that were recommended to us and did not disappoint. One of those places was Morning Glory, it almost seemed ubiquitous to the town, its in all the guide books and it’s always busy. It’s a sprawling old house packed with tables, and the kitchen is always bringing out dishes.  It was a bustling place with a great atmosphere, the food was nice but it certainly wasn’t somewhere to go to relax for a leisurely dinner. If you want quick and good then this is your place. Across the road was another establishment owned by the same people –  Ms Vy, this is a lady with her finger in many pies –   Cargo Club. This is a more relaxed restaurant, with views of the river, it also has a cake shop and ice cream parlour. My favourite of Ms Vys restaurants was across the river, through the night market, Ms Vys Market restaurant. This open plan place had little food stall set around the edges making specialty dishes. It was a very civilised way to get that street market feel. The food was delicious and this was definitely a place to relax. One thing I would say about these restaurants is book if you can, as they get busy. You can pop by during the day to book for dinner to avoid disappointment.

Hoi An…. a food paradise… those sping rolls!!

Hoi An was a great place to relax and indulge in food. The next stop, Hanoi, was going to pull us back into the madness of Vietnamese city life. There were so many great restaurant stops, again offering decent food at a great price, but somewhere a little different was Green Tangerine. Located in a beautiful old French house with its walled terrace it was like stepping into another world. Offering a French – Vietnamese fusion menu, it was nice to have a touch of finer dining. The food was delicious, and a welcome change to traditional Vietnamese food, the service attentive and it was incredibly relaxed. I love a bowl of Pho, but it was great to have something that was a bit more constructed. Just before we left we had to of course indulge in the final Pho, and we found what was very much a hole in the wall –  Pho Thin Bo Ho, located down an alley just away from the Lake. What a gem! delicious light Pho. However what added to the joy was we ended up eating in their front room! The tables in the alley were full so along with other customers we were popped in their  lounge eating Pho. This just highlights the friendliness and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese! No seats –  no worries we will find you one!

The lovely french inspired Green Tangerine
On our Halong Bay cruise we were surprised with this amazing seafood platter – just one of the many highlights of our trip to Vietnam

Vietnam was a fantastical food journey, one that will stay with me. I came back inspired with cooking ideas and love to recreate the fresh and delicious flavours. Vietnam was a country that didn’t disappoint and I would go back in a heart beat. I heartily encourage anyone going to try as many different things as they can when there, indulge in all the fresh herbs and just pick randomly from a menu to try new things. Go to Vietnam and eat until your heart’s content!

 

Lisbon through a Lense

Lisbon, oh how I love thee! On my first trip to Lisbon a couple of weeks ago I fell in love with this Portuguese city and its eye-catching tiles and flaky custard tarts. It’s a city that puts its history and culture right out there. Wandering its streets and alleys shows you unexpected surprises at every corner, be it a gorgeously tiled building, a fabulous little bar or the most beautiful views over the city and the water. I just couldn’t get enough of it!

one minute a funicular track, then a road, then a path… the ever-changing face of a city that doesn’t waste its space

for the love of the tiles!

old tired buildings fill the streets with charm and beauty
the beautiful roof tops of Lisboa

 

You cannot escape the water in Lisbon, life is drawn to it. Be it bars by the water side, boats sailing up and down or the views when you turn around from a climb up a hill

 

Did I mention the food? I still salivate at the thought of it, all that fresh fish, the beautiful wines and oh the pasteis de nata. The people of Lisbon know how to put on a meal. We didn’t stop eating the whole time we were there, from the moment we arrived a delicious imaginative seafood lunch, to copious amounts of port and cheese, and the cured meat! Divine!

Port tasting of course!
the colourful tins of seafood were just the best bar snack and great souvenir to reminisce about holidays
Pasteis de Nata!!
so many beautiful meats and cheeses from around Portugal

 

Lisbon is a city with so much to offer. I could have happily stayed there all week rather than just 3 days. There is so much to explore in and around the city. It truly is a capital of an empire! I hope these snaps inspire you to explore the city…. and the world!!

A local dinner in Paris

I was very recently introduced to a company called VizEat. Having never heard of it I of course had to have a nosy around the internet and see what its about.

Vizeat is a simple concept, eat local with local people! It gives you the chance to get under the skin of a city by meeting the local people, sharing a meal and chatting.

I think this is a great idea! As someone who avoids tourist trap restaurants when abroad and tries to eat as local as possible, this is certainly an interesting way of having a meal and learning more about a city.  So I decided to give Vizeat a go on a recent trip to Paris, a city I know well, but always up for something new!

On a grey Saturday evening in Paris, as we emerged from the Metro the sun began to shine on the Seine, an omen I am sure, and as we promenaded down the river to the address we had been given we felt as if we were seeing a little bit of Paris we would never have wandered around.

We were welcomed open armed by Philippe and Dzianis, and their lovely dog! First to arrive we sat down to a large table set for 12. We were to be a grand international group of Brits, Canadians, Americans, French and Taiwanese. As the guests arrived we gathered around the table and the wine soon started flowing, it was so relaxed.

Dinner started with beautifully baked camembert with fresh salad and bread, I could have quite happily munched my way through the cheese, but no the main course was soon upon us. Three delicious home made quiches – a traditional Lorraine, a four cheese quiche and a tuna. Each were very different but beautiful. I love quiche so I was in heaven. Dessert was perfect for the hot and humid evening – a cold and refreshing melon soup.

The evening was delightful, conversation flowing around the table hearing about the groups travels in Paris and further afield, swapping tips and discussing future travel plans. This was a great way to wile away an evening in Paris, try something new and meet new people. The hosts couldn’t have been more welcoming and truly made us feel at home.

Would I try VizEat again in another city –  certainly! I would have to make sure that there were a group of people there as one on one could be a bit intimidating but it was such fun.

Art in Beijing

I was recently introduced to District 798 in Beijing, a small hideaway paradise for art lovers or anyone wanting to escape the madness of tourist Beijing.

Established in 2002 it comprises of 50 year old, decommissioned military factory buildings boasting a unique architectural style. It began with artists and cultural organisations dividing up, renting out and remaking the factory spaces, gradually developing them into galleries, artists studios, design companies, restaurants and bars.

The area over the last few years according to the districts website, has evolved into a “cultural concept of interest to the arts community and normal folk alike”. I am sure this is true to some degree but while I was there it was not the buzzing art hub that I had imagined it to be. Before leaving London I had read up about it and hoped to visit, expecting a Soho or Shoreditch type place, something that had the arty feel of the Village in New York, or that gritty urban art feel you get when you walk around Berlin. It was none of these things! If District 798 was in any other country, this would be the ‘hip’ place to be and full of people. I got the feeling that this was a place struggling to survive to push itself on a community perhaps not quite ready for modern and conceptual art.

As I walked around in the sunshine I had expected buzzing streets of both Chinese and tourists but it was quite. A few people lingered in bars and restaurants but for a city the size of Beijing where every street has people milling about the District was quiet, too quiet. It was sad.

I asked our guided about the district but she was quite disinterested in the place, in fact she seemed quite annoyed that she was there and not doing sightseeing somewhere she had a script for. She was a young girl, early 20’s and uninterested in art. She expressed an opinion that the closed shops/ galleries were due to the fact people didn’t come here and rents were too high, that people couldn’t make enough money to stay there. If the young people of Beijing were not coming here then who were? Our host had a different opinion, she being in her late 30’s and has travelled was so excited to show it to us, to show the expansion of Chinese art and culture.

For me the visit highlighted a great deal about Beijing and its people, and art within the city. For westerners District 798 is something familiar, an interesting insight into Chinese art and culture, but for the people of Beijing it is something unfamiliar, something the every person is yet to discover.

District 798 is definitely worth a visit for anyone heading to Beijing. It is a fascinating part of the city, showing off its history, architecture and art, plus it has some cool bars and restaurants. Hopefully over time the District will develop as its artists hope and will become a stage for artists new and old to display their work to the world.