Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Bathhouse restaurant review

Tucked away from the bustle of the City, the Bathhouse in Bishopsgate Churchyard is a hidden haunt harking back to Victorian London. Serving as a Turkish baths for stressed out city dwellers during the 19th century, it's now a quirky nightspot for those seeking an alternative to identikit establishments. Deceptively small on the outside, the venue is cavernous once you descend into its depths via a spiral staircase.

Wonderfully, it has kept many of its original features, from the blue Turkish tiles on the roof, to the marble bar, flanked by statues of Mary and Jesus. Owner Tava O'Halloran resurrected the listed building as a bar and entertainment space in May 2009, and for a year it has played host to all sorts of debauchery – burlesque and cabaret are regular fixtures on the Saturday 'Golden Birdcage' club night.

And now, during the week at least, the Bathhouse is buttoning up its waistcoat and donning a dinner jacket, as it takes on its third persona: a restaurant. I visited with my mum on a Monday night, a month after it launched, stopping at the bar for an apéritif before dinner. A tall, handsome Frenchman hands me an encyclopedia. The wine and cocktail lists are all cut and pasted into different dog-eared volumes - mine fell between boots & shoes and border collies. I bypass the Doris Gay, and opt for the Sailor's Demise, a delicious mix of Sailor Jerry rum and cloudy apple juice.

We soon move through the Ottoman arches to the opulent dining room. The ceiling is swagged with red velvet and birdcages are dotted among the tables. A woman tinkers with a grand piano in the corner, playing Viennese Waltzes. The only light in the room comes from the candles on the tables, all of which have almost burnt down to the wick. It's so dark I can barely read the wax-sealed menu, but the atmosphere is incredibly romantic. Small, cosy and dimly-lit, it's an ideal place to take a date you want to impress – a slice of hidden London; a secret subterranean beating heart.

My candle casts some light on the wall beside me, illuminating the curious wallpaper. Designed by O'Halloran, it has a skeleton motif – a nod to the churchyard dwelling perhaps? As it's a hot summer night, I go for the Gazpacho to start, while M has the breaded camembert with raspberry conserve. A gigantic bowl appears, and in it, a sea of green. Made with cucumber, creme fraiche, celery and mint, the soup is perfectly refreshing, but it isn't Gazpacho in the Spanish sense of the word, lacking the garlic and vinegar kick I so love about it. M's gooey camembert however, is a hit, and I find my fork making regular trips to her plate.

I give the gigantic soup a good go, and am already full by the time the main courses arrive - for me confit of middle white pork belly and cracking with a veal bone marrow risotto, and for M Cullen Skink, a Scottish dish made with smoked haddock and scallops served with a sourdough wedge. I match my dish with a Willowglen Semillon Sauvignon 2007. The bone marrow risotto is wonderfully al dente and well christened with white wine, but the pork belly gets the better of me and I resort to nibbling on the crackling. Juicy and tender, the pork is well cooked but the dish is of such Herculean proportions I barely advance past the risotto moat to the pork castle in the middle.

M's Cullen Skink is equally epic. The scallops are lovely and soft, but again, the sheer size of the dish is intimidating rather than enticing. The portions are almost too generous. Pudding - Eton Mess, is an amusing affair. Bereft of meringue, M and I engage in a game of 'hunt the strawberry' from our goblets of whipped cream.

The food at the Bathhouse seems to jar with the setting - it's too rustic, too unrefined. I hope these are teething problems. The clandestine venue is a reason to visit in itself, but the Bathhouse has to look beyond the velvet swagging and focus on the food, which, if mastered in the same way as the interiors, would make the place truly magnificent.

Sex and the City Afternoon Tea

It was my birthday yesterday - the big 27. I am officially in my 'late twenties'. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, but I celebrated the occasion with a Sex and the City themed afternoon tea at the Hyatt Regency London - The Churchill, in Portman Place.

The tea is held in The Montagu - a light, airy space festooned with conical chandeliers. 'I wonder if the main restaurant is called The Capulet', my mum quipped.

On arrival we were presented with purple menus, sat in brown velvet chairs and asked to pick a cocktail. Far too early for a straight Martini, I opted for the more playful Flirtini (Champagne, Vodka and pineapple juice), while my mum chose a Cosmopolitan, chiefly due to its pink hue.

While perusing the menu, I clocked a glass Louboutin shoe with a signature red heal and crystal stem, perched next to a bottle of Piper Heidsieck. The Champagne house has collaborated with the sole man to create a Louboutin Champagne glass. Puzzling over the dynamics of how one can successfully imbibe Champagne from a shoe, the waiter came hurrying over to give a demonstration.

'You pour the Champagne in the heel, tilt your head back, and drink it through the shoe', he said proudly. I imagine it works better as a show piece than an actual glass, but the sheer audacity of the idea is applaudable. Fashion is theatre after all - Salvador Dalí and Isabella Blow would have adored it.

Time for tea! There are four brews on the menu, one for each of the four characters. Sensible Sapphire Earl Grey for Charlotte, Darjeeling for Miranda, the exotic Flowering Osmanthus for experimental Samantha and Organic Silver Needle White Tea for particular Carrie. I went for the Carrie tea, as the tasting note promised 'cucumber and melon freshness with a satisfying velvety finish'. While very refreshing, it was a tad on the bland side - not a cucumber or melon in sight.

What the tea lacked, the food more than made up for. Ceremonially served on a three-tier stand, on the bottom plate were quintessentially English cucumber sandwiches, slithers of juicy pastrami wedged between slices of Rye and adorable mini smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels - very New York. Moving up a rung the American theme continued with miniature hot dogs drizzled with mustard and a pair of 'Jack' Burgers, named after one of Carrie's boyfriends in the series.

At the top tier all manner of treats awaited – mini Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts, adorable mini pink strawberry cupcakes (as made by Charlotte in the latest film), cheeky Appletini vodka jellies that looked like a cross between Kryptonite and Listerine but tasted divine, and the pièce de résistance, a pair of strawberry flavoured white chocolate stilettos so artfully crafted it felt wrong to eat them.

The tiny red shoes were exquisite. I bit the heel off first, then popped the whole shoe into my mouth. Eating such a work of art felt strangely iconoclastic, but my guilt soon subsided when I saw my mum avidly munching on hers.

Sex and the City Par-Tea afternoon tea runs until 30 September and costs £39 per person. If you're feeling flush, for an extra £65 you can pimp your tea with a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Brut NV, and drink it from the Louboutin shoe.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Hotel Viura video

Wine and the City takes you on a tour of one of the six suites in Hotel Viura, Rioja's first luxury boutique hotel in Villabuena de Alava.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Hotel Viura

When Frank Gehry created his purple and silver stainless steel structure for Marqués de Riscal in 2006 (said to resemble the folds in a flamenco skirt), Rioja became a byword for avant-garde architecture. From the glass-fronted, Bond-like Bodegas Baigorri designed by Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu, to Santiago Calatrava’s undulating Bodegas Ysios, via Zaha Hadid’s futuristic triangular pavilion at López de Heredia, some of the world’s greatest architects have proved their mettle in the region.

The latest addition to Rioja’s ultramodern architectural portfolio is Hotel Viura, a 4 star luxury boutique hotel designed by Joseba and Xabier Aramburu that opened at the end of April. Set next to a 17th century church against a backdrop of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains in the tiny medieval village of Villabuena de Alava – inhabitants 300, in Rioja Alavesa, the hotel seems to surge out of the ground, its cubed rooms nonchalantly piled on top of each other like building blocks.

Named after Rioja’s most widely planted white grape, Viura is supposed to resemble a bunch of grapes, but to me its whimsically superimposed white cubes are very favela chic. I was invited out on the inaugural press visit last week with a small group of journalists. On arrival I’m offered the house cocktail, made with red wine syrup, amaretto, vodka and soda. It’s sickly sweet and strangely satisfying.

We sip our cocktails whilst waiting for Godoy, Viura’s ebullient, young, Malaga-born sommelier fresh from a stint at the chic boutique Hillbark Hotel in Liverpool. Godoy has already put his stamp on Viura with a reversible wine list, ordered by both region and grape variety.

Before dinner we’re given a tour of the rooftop lounge bar with an outdoor cinema and impressive 360-degree views of Villabuena de Alava. It’s dusk, and the swifts are busy making figures of eight in the sky. From the rooftop we move down to the cellar, decked out with orange neon strip lights, like a Dan Flavin installation. It boasts over 200 bins, 80% of the which are from Rioja, including a sizeable offering of barrel-fermented Viuras and a number of old vintages of CVNE, Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, Muga and Roda.

The restaurant serves traditional Basque cuisine with a modern twist. Gold barrels hover from the ceiling in suspended animation. ‘It took a week to paint them and stick them up there’, Godoy informs me, making me fearful I might be floored by one during the starters. On my visit I try cod croquettes, crab ravioli, green pea and black truffle, cream cheese foam with red pepper and chives, suckling lamb, poached pears…

After an epic dinner (I lose count after the sixth course), I’m as stuffed as a pillow and craving sleep. My spacious suite has minimal interiors, dominated by a behemoth bed measuring two square metres – I could turn in it like a compass needle and still be nowhere near the edge.

In keeping with the wine theme, above the bed is a print of a pair of barrels. I lucked out here – one of the journalists got a terrifying, Francis Bacon-esque hadean vision of a cellar. Between the bath and the bed is a sheet of violet glass, which, when peered through from the bath, gives the room a lilac hue. Everything screams cool, from the 42-inch flatscreen TV and red Nespresso, to the black bath products. The curtains are a sober shade of gray, and frame my view out onto Villabuena de Alava via my ridiculously large roof terrace.

Does Viura jar with the village? It sticks out like a fat man on a catwalk, but its higgledy-piggledy high jinks somehow works beside the solid sandstone church. It looks absolutely mad, like an office block has fallen from the sky and landed awkwardly, but that’s the point – it’s supposed to look mad, supposed to provoke a reaction. After all, it’s a work of art as much as a hotel.

Hotel Viura, Calle Mayor, Villabuena de Alava 01307, Spain

Tel: +34 945 60 90 00, www.hotelviura.com

Doubles from €125, daily flights from Heathrow to Bilbao with Vueling

Cune Cemetery

Wine and the City takes you on a tour of the creepy Cune cellars, known as 'the cemetery', where all the dead bottles are kept – not for the faint hearted...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dukes Cognac & Cigar Garden

What does one wear to a Cognac and cigar garden launch in the height of summer? I opted for a purple velvet smoking jacket.

Purple velvet may seem like an odd sartorial choice for a June evening, but the weather is unseasonably awful at the moment. Looking out of my office window at lunchtime onto grey skies and grizzly rain, mother nature threatened to put a dampener on the evening's fun and frolics.

I invited my Finnish friend William along, who, having handed in his Cambridge masters dissertation the night before, was in a celebratory mood. Arriving a little late for our rendezvous in the courtyard, I saw William had dressed for the occasion too, in a Bond-like white tux jacket, navy cravat and dandyish velvet slippers. At 6 foot 8 he barely fitted through the door, but cut a rakish figure through the hotel, once frequented by the likes of Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and Ian Fleming.

The rain having subsided, we make our way out into the canopied courtyard filled with cosy sofas and lanterns, and are presented with a pair of pink Champagne and Cognac cocktails. The courtyard soon fills up, and I get talking to the lady on my left, who is trying to decide whether or not to go to the Orange Prize after our soirée. The night before she was at the Royal Academy summer party - 'I scooped a pair of Tracy Emin sketches for £200', she beams.

Dukes' legendary barman Alessandro Palazzi emerges with a couple of Cohibas, which he sparks up for us. William is something of a cigar aficionado, and attempts to teach me the art of successful smoking. My Cohiba isn't playing ball, and keeps going out. Alessandro appears again, this time with two balloon glasses of Martel XO.

I'm not a huge Cognac fan, but the XO is seriously smooth and easy to drink, with a soft, sweet, velvety palate. It goes wonderfully well with the creamy Cohiba, the two seeming to bring out the best in each other. The evening fleeted by as the best always do, and soon it was time for William to take his train back to Cambridge. Walking back to Green Park, he admitted to me rather sheepishly that he'd spent £70 on socks that day, in preparation for a month of balls and banquets. A modern day dandy indeed – Beau Brummel would have been proud.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sake and indian food matching at Moti Mahal

When an invite pinged into my inbox asking me to a dinner matching Indian food with saké, I rsvpd immediately, curious about what would be in store.

It sounded radical, audacious even – I loved the idea. Dinner was served at Moti Mahal in Holborn, a plush Indian restaurant that's had the Kelly Hoppen treatment - tasteful beige and taupe abound. Head chef Anirudh Arora has created a menu inspired by his childhood travels along the Grand Trunk Road, a 2500km stretch built in the 16th century that navigates the breadth of the country, pumping life through it.

Six of his dishes were on show, each of which had been matched with an appropriate saké, which were chosen to compliment the dishes rather than vice versa. Matching wine with Indian food has always been problematic, with reds often proving too tannic, and whites completely overpowered by the strong spices. Perhaps saké would emerge the ultimate wine match?

On arrival we were offered a strong Sakétini served with a slither of cucumber. Taking our places at a long dining table in the basement, I found myself next to Anthony Rose of The Independent, who knows a thing or three about saké, so was in safe hands. To my left was Bob Tryer, the new(ish) wine columnist for The Sunday Times, and Pritesh Mody of Love Food Love Drink, who confessed he was nervous at having flagged up the 7p afternoon tea at The Langham to thousands of subscribers in his newsletter. 'The phones are going to be off the hook'.

The first dish was the most experimental, and my favourite of the evening: crisp fried pastry and chick peas with yoghurt, tamarind and mint chutney. A tea time tradition from the streets of Old Dehli, it was served in a mountainous pile, the yoghurt like melting snow on top, with pomegranate seeds glinting like rubies amongst the green. Sweet and savoury, hard and soft, it had such wonderfully diverse texture and flavour, as the best indian dishes do. But what of the saké match?

It was paired with Aki no Ta (Autumn Fields) saké from the Hideyoshi Brewery. Soft, fruity and refreshing, it had powerful notes of green apple on the palate which lightened the dish, while the chickpeas reduced the sweetness of the saké.

Next up were seared scallops with sesame seeds, coriander and tamarind on a bed of cumin peas paired with Fukurokuju Junmai – try saying that after a few sakés. A southern Indian speciality, the juicy scallops paired well with the salty saké. Notes of pear on the palate triggered the sesame in the dish, and the two played well together.

Another fish dish followed: jumbo prawns with pomegranate and saffron paired with a very special saké: Isake 19 from the Naniwa Brewery, which sells for £475 a bottle in Selfridges. The special saké required special glasses, so we swiftly moved from cups to Riedels.

The quality of a saké depends on the amount it's been polished, and Isake 19, as the name suggests, is polished down to 19% of its original size in a laborious, seven-day process. The result is a delicate saké with a Chablisian mineral core. The tasting note suggested hints of green chilli and wasabi on the palate, but I'm not convinced I found them.

For all its pomp and ceremony (it comes in a gold-topped bottle with a regal purple tassel), I was far more taken with the Dance of the Lotus Flower saké, in its fetching ice pink bottle that would make Hello Kitty weep with joy. Feminine and floral, it was paired with stewed venison and crunchy fried lotus flower – a typical Punjabi snack.

Flavour wise, the most interesting saké was saved until last. Impossible to get hold of the in the UK, the Akashi-tai Genmai Koshu, served in a round bottle, was a fascinating find. It was the fist time I'd tried and aged saké, and time had done strange and wonderful things to it.

A tawny brown colour, the nose was very Amontillado-like, with dried fruits, plums, figs, sultanas and Christmas cake all wafting out of the glass. Savoury on the palate, it retained that saké soy sauce saltiness and umami savoury notes, but there were also hints of nut and banana.

Discovering such an off key saké was exciting, showing me I'd only scratched the surface of the saké flavour spectrum. The evening proved an intriguing experiment, with most of the pairings working extremely well. In saké we seem to have found the perfect bedfellow for Indian food: there are no aggressive tannins getting in the way, and it manages to hold its own against the might of the spices, often giving the dishes additional lift and freshness. Japan needs to jump on this bandwagon and start targeting Indian restaurants, because the guys at Moti Mahal are seriously onto something.