Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Restaurant Review: The Curlew, Near Bodiam, East Sussex

Jersey Royals
For the Saturday night of our weekend in East Sussex I had booked a table The Curlew Restaurant. Close to our B&B and having one Michelin Star, I hoped it would be the culinary highlight of our weekend away.

The food, in my humble opinion, was worthy of it's Michelin Star. The presentation was great throughout and the food was varyingly bold (like my starter made from just a single ingredient, Jersey Royals), delicate (like the tomato essence poured over the heritage tomatoes Becks had for her starter) and new (I'd never tasted sea blight, until I tried it with my main course of sea bass).

The highlights were probably the desserts. Becks declared the Kentish strawberry parfait with basil and almond to be even better than a very similar dish we had at Triciclo in Madrid earlier in the year. High praise indeed.

My cherry with pastry, pickled cherry and cherry sorbet was pretty good as well. It was great to be eating local cherries in the peak of their season. The pickled cherries were the highlight for me.

Although the food was worthy of a Michelin Star I didn't think the whole experience matched the same level. Our young waitress was a little bit surly, although she did warm up during the night. The penchant for serving the food in bowls, particularly the steeper bowls used for the starters, was a little awkward too. Where do you put your knife and fork if you wanted to put them down to take a sip of wine?

Finally there was an unpleasant odour outside the front door which which meant the evening started and ended with a whiff. No one wants to walk away from an evening with drain smells stuck in the back of their throat.
Heritage tomatoes

Live caught cod

Sea bass

Kentish Strawberry Parfait


The Curlew
Junction Rd
East Sussex
TN32 5UY
The Curlew on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

East Sussex Weekend: Sissinghurst Castle

In the vegetable garden at Sissinghurst Castle
Still full from the night before, our day started with an over indulgent breakfast in the orangery of the Prawles Court B&B where we were staying. It was totally unnecessary, but did set us up for the day and we barely ate again before dinner in the evening.

I'd put quite a bit of effort into planning the weekend selecting accommodation, activities and dinners that I thought we'd enjoy, all for one purpose; I was going to propose to Becks during the weekend. I didn't know when or how, I was just hoping that an opportunity would present itself during the weekend. I slipped the jewellery box into my bag as we left the B&B for our day at Sissinghurst Castle.

When we arrived I was hoping to slip the jewellery box out of my bag and into my pocket but Becks didn't turn her back for a moment, so I had to let the opportunity pass and we headed off towards the entrance.
View of the tower from the orchard
Unlike most NT properties there isn't a house to visit at Sissinghurst Castle. You can climb the tower (above) and that is what we did first to get our bearings. From the top we could see the formal gardens, orchard, oast houses and fields beyond.

Having negotiated our way back down the narrow staircase we headed into the formal gardens. There was a board in the tower describing the gardens as having a maximum formality in their structure and maximum informality in their planting. It was a pretty good description. The beds in the walled garden were laid out just as you'd expect from a formal English garden, but the planting was a lot more free form.

After doing a first pass of the formal gardens we walked along the moat and through the orchard (where the grass is cut once a year - by hand this time around), we went for a final spin round the formal garden. Just after I took the picture of the sunflower below, another visitor snapped the head off the plant trying to smell it. What a waste of a good sunflower!
Leaving the gardens we headed back to the car to pick up another bottle of water and this time I was able to slip the jewellery box into my pocket while Becks changed her shoes. Armed with more water we headed off on a walk around the estate.

Escaping the crowds we were pleased to be walking through the shade of tree lined paths during the heat of the day, resting for a while in the bird hide overlooking a pond. Despite the bird feeders being full of nuts we didn't see a single animal while we were sitting there.

Continuing on, we arrived at the high point of the walk, with views back over Sissinghurst. Being in a secluded spot with great views, I thought about popping the question. However, Becks started saying how hot she was and I could tell the moment wasn't quite right.
We arrived back at the house, amused ourselves with a novel stile, and then visited the café for a scone. Fortified from a sit down we headed across to the vegetable garden. I was expecting to garden to be bursting with produce in July and was surprised to see it less full than I expected. I don't have any green fingers, but had thought that at the peak of summer there would be a lot more fruit and vegetables on display.

After a quick look round the shop we had a sit down in the shade under the trees. We sat listening to some Kiwi accents behind us and then I dozed off for an afternoon snooze. I don't remember dreaming but I must have been thinking about proposing, as when I woke up I thought "this is the moment". Until I realised that there were some people sitting a short distance away from us and it wasn't quite as private as I thought.
Nearly again
Just before we left, we visited the oast houses which had an exhibition about the former owners Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson. The exhibition was full of letter between Vita and Harold. I clearly read them too quickly as I missed all the scandal of their various affairs.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

East Sussex Weekend: Part 1

Country lanes and sunsets in Ewhurst
Last weekend Becks and I went away for what turned out to be a very special weekend. The original plan was to head to Whitstable to visit the Mondrian exhibition at the Turner Contemporary Gallery,  but all the decent accommodation in the area was booked so I set about finding a Plan B. Having enjoyed our National Trust weekend earlier in the year I decided to centre the weekend round a visit to Sissinghurst Castle.

We got lucky with the traffic as we headed out of London on the Friday evening and, despite one wrong turn, arrived at our plush B&B in just over an hour and a half. Much better than I feared it might be.
Becks during golden hour
After a short time settling into our room we headed through to the village to the pub for dinner.  As the sunset lit up the countryside village of Ewhurst was looking picture perfect with oast houses, a quaint church and manicured front gardens.

I'd booked a table at The White Dog pub as I heard it could get busy during the summer, but there was lots of space with only a few people in the bar and the restaurant about half full. From the website I'd unfairly pre-judged it as a 'chicken in a basket' type place, but it was far smarter than that. We grabbed a couple of local ales and took a seat outside. Only to decide it was a little chilly for that and headed back inside.
Outside The White Dog pub
For dinner we decided to order the seafood platter to share from the specials board. A huge plate of smoked prawns, king prawns, hot smoked salmon, smoked trout, crab and half a lobster arrived at our table with a small basket of bread from the local Lighthouse bakery.

The small smoked prawns were the stand out of the seafood platter, I also liked the samphire underneath the huge mound of fish. Having to attack the crab claws helped me from scoffing down the seafood too quickly. It isn't the type of dish I'd usually order, but I really enjoyed it.

We left the pub at around ten thirty and the village was pitch black with the moon barely out. It was a very dark walk back to the B&B, we should have taken one of the torches from the room....
The seafood platter

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sitting in the window of Taste Inn on the Lee High Road

Stir fried beef with silken bean curd and chilli
After a long day at Lords watching the cricket on Saturday, we decided to catch the train straight to Lewisham in search of dinner. Lewisham doesn't usually spring to mind when looking for dinner venues, but I was intrigued to try the recently opened Model Market which is bringing bringing out the local hipsters in droves.

When we arrived at the market there was a queue trying to get in and there was a £3 entry fee. Admittedly not a huge sum, but I object to the idea of paying to go into a market, especially when the price of 'street food' has started nudging towards the £10 mark.

Suitably put off we decided head towards Taste Inn, a small Chinese on the Lee High Road that has been floating round the back of my mind since I heard a recommendation for the place a couple of years ago.

The average shop front on the Lee High Road looks pretty drab, and while Taste Inn's exterior was better than average, I was a little hesitant about going inside. However, inside we went and you couldn't fault the friendly and welcoming staff.
Steamed dumplings with pork and Chinese leek, with stir fried broccoli and garlic
Having sat next too each other all day at the cricket, we took the bench seats in the window to keep the feeling going. Becks and I had clearly developed an aversion to sitting opposite each other!

The window seat was a fascinating place to people watch. La Fontaine Patisserie and Deli opposite seemed to be a real hub of activity with lots of people hanging around the shop. At one point in the evening the parking space outside the shop was reserved with bin bags (classy) by a man in a sharp suit. The bin bags were moved when a Volvo turned up, cake boxes and cake stands were piled in the car before the man in the suit jumped into the passenger seat and the car drove off.

I was eyeing up the patisserie for dessert, but it closed soon after the cake collection.

Once the opportunities for people watching at La Fontaine had disappeared environmental enforcement officers for Lewisham Council came down the road opening up bin bags and checking for business which were disposing of waste illegally. The Caribbean restaurant over the road seemed to be getting a bit of a talking to.

Not only does Taste Inn provide the entertainment the food was pretty good too. The stir fried beef with chilli and silken bean curd was a bit of a challenge with chop sticks but definitely worth the effort. The steamed pork and Chinese leek dumplings were the favourite dish of the night, just beware the steaming soupy innards. It was good value too with three dish, rice and tea for £22.

On our way our of the restaurant we heard the waitress tell a neighbouring table about their handmade noodles. I'll be coming back to try those.

I'll also be heading back to the Lee High Road to check out Rox Burger which has just opened next door to Taste Inn.

Just beware of marauding buses shooting through red lights on the way home.....

Taste Inn
80 Lee High Rd
SE13 5PT

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Spain Day 6: Walking Tour, Cathedral, El Real Alcazar and Plaza de Espana

Giralda Tower
Under normal circumstances being somewhere by 10:30 wouldn't be much of a problem. However, holidays aren't quite normal circumstances and so far on our trip we hadn't left our apartment before midday, so it felt like quite a lot of pressure to be at the meeting point for the walking tour we'd booked. Luckily we rose to the challenge and got to the specified meeting point in Plaza Nueva five minutes early.

The walking tour was an excellent way to get orientated with the city, learn a bit about the culture of Seville and to tick off some of the major tourist in just under two hours. Our softly spoken guide - a Betis fan who wasn't at all happy to see Seville win the Europa League the night before - took us round the district of Santa Cruz.

We started off in the main shopping streets of Sierpes and Cuna, stepping inside an amazing Gothic church, through a district of shops selling flamenco dresses and learning about the fiestas which are the major cultural event of the year for Seville residents.
Becks relaxing in the window of Casa Roman
Visiting the cathedral wasn't part of our tour, but as we passed through the Plaza de los Reyes our guide explained some of the history the cathedral which is the largest in the world and built on the site of a former mosque, the tower of which has been integrated into the tower.

After a quick rest in the square it was into some of the small pedestrian streets at the heart of Santa Cruz. There were some great views of squares filled with Seville orange trees and blossoming jacaranda trees rising up between buildings.
Orange trees in the courtyard of the Cathedral
After the end of the walking tour we headed to Casa Roman for a drink and to re-charge our batteries. We nabbed a prime window seat and were able to people watch those in the square outside as we sipped on our canas and nibbled on plates of manchego cheese and fried cod.

Recharged, we headed to headed to Seville's main event, the Cathedral. You read horror stories about the queues but we luckily only had a short wait to buy a ticket. A good job too as the heat of the sun was searing down on us as we waited.

The highlight of the cathedral for me was the Giraldi tower. The tower is over a hundred meters high and it is ramped all the way to the top. Originally donkeys carried visitors up the tower, but we had to walk with the ramp giving the calves quite a workout. From the top there were some great views of the city and not too many crowds.
Bells in the Giralda Tower
After the cathedral we headed off in search of somewhere to print our Ryanair boarding passes to avoid the scandalous charge for them to print it at the airport for you. You'd think finding an internet café would be a doddle, but they don't seem to exist anymore. Luckily Tourist Information were able to point us in the direction of a commercial printers that was able to help out.

Tickets in hand we strolled through the Jardines de Catalina de Ribera up to the northern end of the Santa Cruz district where we stopped for a couple of tapas at a small bar run by the sister of our guide. The bar was closing as we left, close to 4 o'clock, for the afternoon siesta which seemed a lot more prominent in Seville than it was in Madrid.
El Real Alcazar
After lunch we headed for the second major attraction in Seville, El Real Alcazar. Originally a Moorish fort the palace is a mix of styles with the old fort flanked by some more modern buildings. The Moorish parts of the building were the most impressive by a margin with incredible tiles on the walls and floors.

With the heat (or could it have been the early start ?) getting to me we headed into the gardens for a rest under the shady trees. We spent a good half hour lying under the trees and it was only a group of noisy school children eventually drove us on.

After our break we walked round the more formal part of the gardens and finished visiting the remained of the palace, but I have to admit my heart wasn't in it.
Inside the Alcazar
Leaving the palace we had to decide whether to push onto the Plaza de Espana or risk missing it all together as we were unlikely to be visiting that part of the city again before we left. Despite how tired I was pleased that we made it. I was expecting a nice square, something as grand as Trafalgar Square would have been a bonus, but the Plaza de Espana took thinks to a whole new level.

Built in 1929 the plaza is an enormous semi circle of Renaissance Revival buildings. Truly grand, although I'm not sure if the buildings had much purpose other than to look good and as a place to promenade.
Plaza de Espana
As we walked home to our apartment half of the city appeared to be travelling in the opposite direction for the victory parade of the Seville team to show off their trophy. As we approached our flat we saw a group of men carrying a float in practice for the Semana Santa fiesta next Easter.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Summer Exhibition @ The Royal Academy

Wall to wall art at the Summer Exhibition
On Friday night I was invited to a curators talk at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition 2014. It was my first time at the Summer Exhibition and I loved the experience, learning a lot along the way about how the exhibition is put together.

Firstly, I didn't know that it was the largest open submission for artwork in the world and they received over 12,000 entries which were whittled down by a committee to the 1,262 works that were on display. It can't be an easy experience to select, anonymously, which works make the grade or how to hang them to make a cohesive exhibition.

Secondly, I didn't know that all of the artwork in the exhibition was for sale. The gallery take a commission of 30% on all sales, which with my limited knowledge of the Sydney art market, it is pretty reasonable. I thought that a lot of the artwork was quite reasonable too with a lot of works under £1,000 and even more under £2,000.

Thirdly, it was interesting to hear how the Summer Exhibition has evolved over the last ten years, responding to the rise of Art Fairs which have been booming in London. I wouldn't have thought the Royal Academy would be affected by the likes of the Affordable Art Fair, but having visited the exhibition it makes sense that they have to respond to each other.
For Piet's Sake II
We were promised a different experience when we went into the galleries. I thought it would be overwhelming to see so many works in a comparatively small space. However, you find yourself scanning the walls picking out what you like and what you don't. It was good fun thumbing though the pocket sized list of works to see the prices of different paintings. Becks showed she has expensive tastes favouring Hughie O'Donoghue's The Quadrilateral at a cool £60,000.

The galleries had a light hearted feel and on several occasions I found myself talking about works with complete strangers. The Friday night bar probably helped.

What I did like, a lot, was the above collage called For Piet's Sake II by Phil Shaw. A series of books about Mondrian with different coloured spines arranged to look like a Mondrian painting. The original had gone but there are sixty prints available. Despite the G&T I held back on the night, but I'm still thinking about it......

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Spain Day 5: Arrival in Seville

Our train arrived in Seville after a very comfortable and speedy journey from Madrid. As we stepped outside of a side entrance of the station Seville instantly felt hotter and dustier than the Madrid we'd left behind.

It also felt less glamorous as we walked through and area of social housing towards the apartment we had rented in the Macarena district. Despite a few twists and turns through the small streets we would our apartment without any issues and the owner was waiting outside to let us in. A bright and modern flat it would prove to be a good base during our time in Seville, even if it was a bit Ikea-tastic.

After a while resting in the flat we decided to do a quick run to the supermarket to buy some food for breakfast and fruit before heading out to explore. In contrast to Madrid's wide streets and boulevards, Seville was a maze of narrow streets. It felt a bit like the pedestrian only medina I visited in Fez, but Seville's tiny streets were open to cars who squeezed along them an into impossibly small garages.

The differences took a bit of a while to get used to. I wasn't sure I liked Seville to begin with, but after a couple of days the charm grew on me, and having permanently shady streets during the heat of day definitely had its advantages.

After our supermarket trip we headed to the nearby Plaza San Marcos to fortify ourselves for a walk round the city. In Madrid we'd become used to every place serving tapas, but the only bar open in the square seemed to just serve drinks. While we were at the bar a few Seville fans started arriving and flags were being hung from nearby balconies. We realised that the Europa League final was being played that night and lots of fans were turning out to cheer their home team on.

After our drinks we set off, first booking a table at nearby ConTendedor for the following evening before heading off towards the centre of the city. We were heading for La Brunilda restaurant which Becks had chosen for dinner.

We got a little disorientated walking in the small and twisty streets, finding ourselves in the large public square of Alamedia de Hércules before eventually getting back on track and finding the restaurant, which was packed. Deciding we didn't fancy the forty five minute wait we traced our steps to a nearby plaza where we'd seen a few other places.

Dinner was at a pretty average tourist joint. We decide against dessert and to buy ice creams from a nearby shop to eat as we walked home. We took the more direct route back through the central shopping district, past the impressive Metro Parasol and a lively wine bar not too from our apartment that we took a mental note to visit again.