There’s something very indulgent about taking a mini city break in your own city of residence.

Holidays at home (or staycations, in the American vernacular) usually involve heading out of town; a shorter journey than heading abroad, perhaps, but further afield than the place you live. On the rare occasions we allocate leisure time to our local area, we tend to day trip, returning home to our own beds overnight. But booking a night in a hotel in your own city transforms a couple of day trips into what feels more like a proper holiday. It’s so much fun! Added bonuses: the travel is easy, and you don’t need to take much luggage.

Pete and I recently spent a night in the Citizen M Bankside hotel, within easy reach of Borough Market and Maltby Street Market, as well as other local attractions.

Read on for my personal guide to the area, plus a review of the hotel.

Borough Market


Borough Market needs little introduction from me; a food market much loved by locals and tourists alike.

I love to come and shop here; browsing through the huge array of fresh produce – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables – and a vast selection of other food items; bread, cakes, biscuits and doughnuts, charcuterie, cheese (oh my, such wonderful cheese), honey, truffles, coffee and tea, fresh filled pasta, beers and wines…

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Some of my favourite stops include:

  • Neal’s Yard Dairy is an Aladdin’s cave of cheese – all kinds and all in perfect condition – served by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff who are happy to guide you and give a few tasters as you make your choices; I always buy some delicious Coolea plus an oozer and a goats cheese as well and often a piece of Stichelton.

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Neal’s Yard Dairy

  • Jumi is the outlet of a small and young cheese producer from Switzerland, I recommend their marvellously pungent Murgu (blue) and the creamy soft La Bouse – don’t be put off by the cowdung translation!
  • Cheese lovers will also love The French Comte stall, selling not only the cheese but other items from La Franche-Comté. And there are many more cheese vendors besides these.
  • Utobeer has a fantastic selection of bottled beers, making it a great place to buy gifts for beer lovers.
  • Turnips is one of the larger stalls at Borough, almost a mini-section of the market on its own and has a fabulous range of produce. I often find the fruit and vegetables a little pricy but I do make a beeline for their mushroom stall; there’s a fabulous selection, in very good condition and fairly priced. I can recommend the king oyster mushrooms in particular, but have bought many different mushrooms over the years.
  • Visit The Tomato Stall for full-of-flavour tomatoes and juices from Arreton Valley, on the Isle of Wight.
  • Bread Ahead Bakery has created quite a stir, most notably for their doughnuts, the creation of baker Justin Gellatly. I’ve been unlucky the previous two visits to their stall, once I was too late and the doughnuts had run out and the next visit was over Easter, and they had replaced them with hot cross buns. When I finally got to try them on this visit, I loved them so much I went back for more the very next morning! Of course, do try their other baked products as well.
  • I first discovered Caroline’s Free From Bakehouse after I met her through blogging and social media. She’s won many awards for her gluten-free range and also offers some dairy free and sugar free items in her range.
  • Tartufaia Truffles sell fresh truffles as well as truffle-infused products, including a very tasty truffle honey.
  • If you love charcuterie, you’ll be spoiled by Borough Market, as there are many stalls and shops to choose from, offering British and European charcuterie of different types. I don’t have a single favourite, but have enjoyed items from several stalls over the years.
  • Although you can sometimes now find Chegworth Valley fruit juices in supermarkets and farm shops, you’ll find an impressively wide range here, plus fruit from their farm too.
  • For fish lovers, there are several fresh fish mongers (Furness and Shellseekers are two from whom I’ve bought good quality seafood), I’d suggest checking all of them to see what appeals on the day. You’ll also often find high quality smoked fish and eel on sale; House of Sverre and Muirenn Smokehouse are two such vendors.
  • Meat is readily available too. I’ve loved the game birds and venison I’ve bought from Furness, and the bacon, sausages and various cuts of met from the Ginger Pig. There are also several butchers selling meat directly from the farm, including Rhug Farm, Sillfield Farm, Northfield Farm, Hillhead Farm Wild Beef, Wyndham House Poultry and many others. For those looking for camel, ostrich, zebra, crocodile and various antelope, try The Exotic Meat Company.
  • There are a number of stalls selling products from France, so do explore. I tend to head to Le Marché du Quartier as my first port of call.
  • Indeed, it’s not just France that’s represented at Borough Market; there are stalls selling produce from Argentina, Croatia, Grenada, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey… a lovely way to travel the world without leaving London!
  • I’ve only recently discovered Spice Mountain, but want to explore further, as based on my brief initial visit, they offer a really wide range of spices, including a selection of spice blends.

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There are also an ever-increasing number of street food vendors, selling hot and cold food to eat there and then. I’m not a huge fan of eating on the hoof, so I’ve not paid much attention to these, but there are plenty to choose from.

For more information on traders and opening times, visit the Borough Market website.



I’ve already mentioned Utobeer within the market (and there are a number of wine vendors too).

Take a very short detour out of the market proper to Laithwaite’s Wine, at the north end of Stoney Street. It’s a great shop in its own right, with a wide range of wine and helpful staff. But in the Favelle household, it’s better known as the easiest way to reach The Whisky Exchange (the other way in being through Vinopolis); a small shop space housing a truly impressive selection of whiskies from around the world.

The Whisky Exchange

Back to beer lovers, there are several breweries to visit in the area around Borough, Maltby Street and Bermondsey Street. Look up Anspach & Hobday, Brew by Numbers, Bullfinch, Four Pure, Hiver, Kernel, Southwark Brewing Company, Partizan

Local pubs include The Rake, a favourite with lovers of real ale but frustratingly tiny inside, so best visited during warmer months or very quiet times of the day.

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Umbrella art installation just outside; Brew Wharf

Another great place to stop for a pint or two is Brew Wharf, within the larger Vinopolis complex, which offers a range of beers from London, the rest of the UK and international breweries. They also brew on site in their own microbrewery.

Wine Wharf, just in front, is the wine lovers option; another lovely space in which to enjoy a drink is Bedales Wine Bar and Shop, within the market area.


A Warming Pit Stop

I love to stop regularly for coffee or hot chocolate, especially during the colder months, but let’s be honest, I find excuses in the summer too.

The Rabot 1745 cafe sells a tasty selection of hot chocolates; their salted caramel is my current favourite.

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Monmouth Coffee is the best known caffeine option, but I’ve only once been able to find an inside space to sit in all the many visits I’ve made to Borough Market over the years; I’m not one for drinking on the go, nor do the benches outside appeal. The coffee is, of course, super.

Round the corner, Gelateria 3Bis offers coffee, ice cream and hot chocolate and has the advantage that there’s usually a couple of spaces free at the tables and staff are friendly.

For those who don’t mind drinking and walking, there are also a number of takeway coffee vendors within the market.


Maltby Street Market

About twenty minutes walk from Borough Market is the much smaller but altogether funkier Maltby Street Ropewalk Market. You might think it’s not worth the walk, since Borough is so much bigger, but you’d be missing out. The small selection of stalls, tucked under the arches or along the narrow alley are charming, and most are not duplicated over at Borough. I don’t think the vendors list on the website is up to date, but there is always a good range of high quality produce, some to buy and take home and some to enjoy on site.

My picks include African Volcano for the best peri peri sauce and delicious hot food made with the same (the sauce itself is a must-buy ingredient but save space to order Grant’s pulled pork in a bun, peri peri prawns or peri peri burger are), Monty’s Deli for pastrami and salt beef sandwiches, Hansen & Lydersen for smoked salmon, St John’s Bakery for doughnuts. There are usually also a range of beer, wine and cocktails on sale from various of the stalls and arches such as Bar Tozino, which also sells fantastic jamón and other tasty Spanish snacks. Next time I visit, I’m keen to try Gosnell’s London Mead.

Open on weekends only, and do check dates as can vary during winter.

If you enjoy rooting through architectural salvage, a rummage in LASSCO is in order, at 41 Maltby Street.


Bermondsey Street

Bermondsey Street is the trendy hub of a local community that clearly values good food, a relaxed vibe and quirkiness. Where once it might be have been described as up and coming, it’s now firmly “upped and comed”; gentrified but still rather hip. Deserving of a post in its own right, I’ll simply point you towards Pizzaro (and older sibling Jose) and Zucca and suggest you explore this neighbourhood on your own. Do share your favourite finds with me, though!


Tourist Attractions

Southwark Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral, dating mainly from 1220 and 1420, although the nave is a late 19th-century reconstruction. All are welcome to attend services. Visitors may also enter to admire the cathedral, unless it is closed for an event. Do be mindful not to disturb those at worship.

HMS Belfast is a floating naval museum within a warship permanently moored alongside Tower Bridge. Adult entry is £15.50.

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I can’t believe I’ve not yet been inside The Shard, though I’d love to enjoy the views from the higher floors and I’m keen to try Hutong and Lang for high end Chinese and afternoon tea, respectively. You can buy tickets to access the Viewing Gallery online, though be warned, it’s £24.95 for an adult ticket.

Eating Out

If I offered a list of every good restaurant within the area, this would soon turn into a book!

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Breakfast at Rabot 1745

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Elliot’s Cafe

Favourites in 2014 include two meals at Rabot 1745 (which offers a great breakfast menu, as well as their regular lunch and dinner offerings), some delicious dishes at Elliot’s Cafe (I did feel a few dishes were much pricier than justified; then again they’re always full!), a simple, tasty and reasonably priced menu at Hixter Bankside (but we had some frustrating issues with service which were eventually resolved by managers but not reflected in the bill), and I’ve always enjoyed Brindisa for a snack or light meal.


Hotel Citizen M Bankside

My first encounter with a Citizen M hotel was up in Glasgow; it was the perfect option for an overnight stop en route to Islay and had vastly more positive online reviews than other budget chains I considered. The Bankside property offers much the same and is less than a 10 minute walk from Borough Market.

The immediate vicinity is the focus of a lot of recent development, with several new restaurant and cafe openings along the short stretch between the Blue Fin Building and Citizen M.

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Exterior and internal garden area, images courtesy of CitizenM

Check in is meant to be self-service, with a bank of check in computers provided just by the entrance. It’s very straightforward, so we find it a little disconcerting that there are always at least two members of staff to assist, and they tend to step forward immediately, rather than allow guests to self-service first. It’s friendly, but somewhat negates the point of self-service over a traditional check in desk.

Lifts to residential floors can only be operated by those with a room key card, which is good as the open-plan ground-floor lobby is enormously busy throughout the day and evening.

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Rooms are small but have been very cleverly designed to maximise space, and a lot of thought has been given to convenience and comfort; these are too often overlooked in favour of funky design. Beds are huge and very comfortable (though rather high off the ground, and it’s a bit of a clamber for whoever gets the window side). Storage is minimal but sufficient for a one or two night stay. Keeping the sink outside of the bathroom cubicle makes both seem more generous; the shower is much larger than the cruise-ship-style pods often used by budget chains. Much appreciated touches include a large TV with a good selection of films available on demand (and without extra charge), power sockets that cater for various international plugs, a USB charging point and a funky lighting system that allows you to set mood with coloured lighting; I particularly appreciated the ability to keep an unobtrusive red light on in the bathroom pod overnight. Despite the small size, I find the Citizen M rooms more comfortable and appealing than many poorly designed larger rooms I’ve stayed in over the years.

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Another thing I enjoy about Citizen M hotels is the very bright, colourful and quirky design. The public spaces are a sensory overload of funky lighting and Vitra furniture, and all kinds of artwork and random objects to add interest. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it, and very much enjoyed wandering around peering at all the things.

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Ground floor spaces

The lobby is cleverly divided into areas for lounging around reading or chatting, for working (power sockets provided), for eating breakfast, for relaxing. The only slight issue is that, as it’s open to non-residents too, it can be hard to find space during busier times.

You may decide not to eat at the hotel, surrounded as you are by so many fantastic food options, but the hotel does provide breakfast and dinner. The former is in the form of a breakfast buffet; you can either include it when you book or pay on the day, as you prefer. The quality is better than I’ve experienced at far more expensive hotels, the pain au chocolat was superb, and the sausages and bacon good quality. For dinner there are just a handful of choices, but again, what I tried was tasty and decent value too. You are also permitted to bring food in from outside, so go ahead and buy yourself a picnic from Borough Market or order a takeaway from a local restaurant.

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Top row, breakfast; bottom row, dinner

In another nice change from other budget chains I’ve stayed in (and indeed, higher end places in the UK too), service is friendly and helpful to everyone, something we noticed at the Glasgow property as well.

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View into the internal atrium area from the corridor to our room

I’ve also now signed up for the free-to-join Citizen M club which gives me 15% off the best available rate when booking future rooms at any of the Citizen M hotels.


Kavey Eats were guests of Citizen M Bankside hotel.


After the amazing kaiseki dinner we had at Ryokan Kansako I was looking forward to dining at Ryokan Shiraume, our splurge choice in Kyoto for two nights (after which we switched to a hotel in Kyoto station for 3 nights).

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Shiraume is a stunning ryokan situated right in the heart of Kyoto’s well-preserved Gion district. It is built right on the bank of the Shirakawa Stream, amongst the old cherry, willow and plum trees and many rooms enjoy the view and sound of gentle running water. Access is across a small entrance bridge from the street along the other side of the stream and the two beautiful white plum trees for which the inn has been named flank each side.

The Gion district developed to serve the needs of visitors to the nearby Yasaka Shrine, many of whom travelled some distance to see it. Eventually, Gion evolved to become an exclusive and well known geisha district. Incidentally, Gion geisha refer to themselves as geiko, meaning women of the arts, rather than geisha or person of the arts.

Like many of the surviving traditional machiya (townhouses) in the area, Shiraume was once an ochaya – although ochaya translates as ‘tea house’, don’t confuse it with a chashitsu (tea room), where a traditional Japanese tea ceremony may be enjoyed. Geisha entertain their clients by performing the many traditional arts in which they have been trained. Ochaya provide entertainment spaces for such gatherings and Dairyu (Big Willow), as this one was called, was particularly popular with local novelists and poets, including Yoshii Isamu, whose ode to Gion is commemorated on a carved stone monument outside.

Dairyu was opened in 1855, towards the end of the Edo period, and has been passed down from mother to daughter through seven generations. In 1949 the fifth generation owner decided to convert her property into an elegant ryokan (inn) which she named Shiraume. Today, her granddaughter Tomoko Okuda owns the inn. She is a wonderful host and looked after us so warmly during our stay that we can’t wait to return.

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On arrival, we were greeted by Tomoko, checked in and shown to our room before a member of staff arrived with tea and sweets

We booked Umekoyomi, a beautiful ground floor room overlooking the stream. It’s a traditional Japanese style room with pretty antiques and artwork, an en suite bathroom with a beautiful hinoki (cypress wood) tub and has a small entrance hall leading into the main room and bathroom. Sound proofing must be good as we never heard other guests when in our room.

Before taking over Shiraume, Tomoko travelled all around the world and is no stranger to a traveller’s needs. She cleverly provides a traditional Japanese inn with modern facilities including underfloor heating, air conditioning, lovely large thick towels, a hair dryer, telephones in each room, a mini bar fridge (which you can put your own items into, if you prefer), tea and coffee facilities and even a TV and music system. Of course, yukata (traditional robes) and toiletries are also provided.

In the four other traditional inns in which we stayed, I found the futon mattresses quite thin, so asked for my bed to be made with 2 or even three stacked together. But at Shiraume, the futons are far thicker, and the most comfortable we slept on.

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In the afternoon, a selection of drinks and snacks are laid out in one of the public areas for guests to enjoy.

And Tomoko or one of her team are always available to help with local advice or anything you need.


Once again, I wrote in advance to advise that I might struggle to sit comfortably on the floor for the traditional meal we booked for our first night. Tomoko invited us to dine in one the separate dining rooms, where we could lower our legs into the foot space provided. We sat facing out to the open window, listening to the running water of the stream and watching Gion walking past.

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The first course was a stunning array of appetisers. As you can see, presentation is just as important as taste.

Inside it’s casing, a grilled mountain chestnut; pink mountain potato; in a citrus bowl, teeny tiny fish in a soya sauce; in an intricate basket woven from seaweed, a “persimmon” that is actually a quail egg and two gingko chestnuts; potato topped with ikura (salmon roe); burdock root; anago (salt-water conger eel) nigiri sushi and a long stem of pickled ginger to refresh the mouth after the sushi.

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Course two was dobin mushi (a selection of seasonal ingredients cooked in a light broth).

Within the little tea pot was a light but flavoursome liquid containing prawns, matsutake mushrooms and a fish called hamo. Tomoko explained that hamo is also known as the emperor fish and related a story – the emperor loved ocean fish but, during the heat of summer, only one type could survive the one week journey from the coast . But this fish had so very many bones that he just couldn’t enjoy it. One day a clever chef found a way to sliced the bones out whilst leaving the skin in tact, to hold the fish pieces together. The emperor could enjoy ocean fish again!

It’s said to take 16 years of training to learn the technique…

The English language name for hamo is daggertooth pike conger eel.


On the next plate was a grilled scallop with sea urchin sauce, a boiled egg with black sesame seeds and a seaweed and wasabi condiment. Decorating the plate, but also edible, was a sprig of new harvest rice from Siga prefecture which had been popped (like corn) on the stem.


When we booked, we were given a choice between the Kobe beef or the standard kaiseki menu and opted for one of each. Tomoko kindly brought the different courses from each menu separately so both of us could share each one.

First up was the Kobe beef, simply served with Japanese black vinegar. Delicious and tender, though it suffered a little in comparison with that unbelievably silky Hida beef we’d had a few days earlier!


From the kaiseki menu, we were served a selection of sashimi – fatty tuna, snapper and squid.

After that came sushi with grilled preserved mackerel, a speciality of Kyoto where fish often had to be preserved during the hotter months.


For our seventh course, we were back to the shared items from both menus again. The star of this dish for me was the yuba (bean curd skin) served with soya and bonitobut the grilled guji (Japanese tilefish), shitake mushroom and spinach were also fresh and delicious.

Guji is also known as amadai in some parts of Japan.


Diamond crab came topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and was served with grilled aubergine, soya beans and 2 different vinegars. It was so fresh it was almost sweet!


Next came rice, pickles and miso soup.


And we finished with hojicha (roasted green tea) and black sesame ice cream with fresh fruit.

The next morning, we were offered a choice of a Western or Japanese breakfast, and this time we opted for Western.

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First came tea and fruit juice followed by a basket of top quality croissants, walnut and raisin bread (some of the best I’ve had), chocolate brioche (which was amazingly light), bacon pastries and toast plus omelette, fresh fruit and jams. Enjoyed from the private dining room again, with the window open to the light and sounds coming from outside, it was a wonderful start to the day.

Well fortified, we set off to explore Gion and Higashiyama – areas of Kyoto known for traditional architecture, shops and restaurants as well as many temples and shrines. I’ve shared several posts about these temples and shrines in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, the second half of this day turned into quite an unpleasant one. I was hit with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever experienced – it seemed to be both a neck and shoulder tension headache and a migraine combined, more severe than either, and it wouldn’t respond to my normal prescription drugs or to sleep. Eventually, I asked Pete to see if a doctor might be available. Instead, to ensure we were seen as quickly as possible, Tomoko quickly called a taxi and personally escorted us to the local hospital where she helped translate my symptoms, medical history and drugs to the medical staff and waited with us for quite some time. My assigned doctor decided to give me a CAT scan, just to be safe, and pronounced it clear a little later. Indeed, the symptoms finally started clearing of their own accord an hour or two after that. Typical! Before she left to return to the ryokan, Tomoko left instructions with the hospital reception to organise our taxi back and when we returned home, we discovered a simple but very delicious midnight meal left in our room, as she realised we had missed dinner. Being in so much pain is never pleasant, but it’s much more distressing when you’re away from home and I can’t begin to tell you how much easier it was for both Pete and I to have the practical and emotional support of Tomoko. The next day, we had breakfast in our room and Tomoko kindly allowed us to stay late in the room for me to rest, before we transferred to our next hotel.

Of course, just to make it clear, we loved Shiraume even before my illness and had already been impressed by the warmth and welcome of Tomoko and her team, not to mention the clever way that modern comfort has been brought to a very traditional ryokan experience. And the marvellous cuisine! For anyone nervous about staying in a ryokan (although there’s no reason to be), Shiraume is a perfect choice. And of course, it’s just as appealing for ryokan old hands looking for somewhere special.


With huge thanks and friendship to Tomoko-san for her kindness during our visit.


One of the (many) pleasures of staying in a Japanese ryokan is the wonderful traditional food served for both breakfast and dinner.

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Kaiseki ryori is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple dishes served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a more elaborate dining style now served in ryokan and specialised restaurants.

Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and traditional techniques combined with their personal style. You can expect a selection of appetisers, sushi or sashimi, a stew of seafood, meat or vegetables, grilled fish or meat, deep fried items, steamed items, rice, miso soup, at least one pickle but usually an assortment of different ones and fresh fruit or sweets.

Traditionally, the meals are served in guests’ rooms, at the low tables provided. After the meal, ryokan staff push the tables aside and make up the futon beds in their place, though some of the larger guest rooms have separate areas for dining and sleeping.

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We stayed just one night in the beautiful Ryokan Kankaso, in Nara but would happily have stayed another – we found our time there so peaceful and relaxing.

The ryokan enjoys a fantastic location at the heart of Nara Park, just a moment’s meander from the famous Todaiji Temple’s Nandaimon (Great Southern Gate). Walking through the entrance to Kankaso is like entering an oasis of calm in the chaos of tourists and deer that are Nara Park. A lovely touch is the planks hanging at the entrance, showing the names of arriving and departing guests.

The core of the ryokan is over 1200 years old and it was once used as a sub-temple to Todaiji. Although most elements have been mended or  rebuilt over time, at least one of the beams has been in place for 12 centuries. Although facilities are very well maintained, there is a beautiful patina of age to much of the ryokan.

As the only guests staying that night, we were assigned a stunning room surrounded by an expansive moss garden on three sides. With a small raised walkway to reach the room, it was essentially detached from the central area of the ryokan and felt like a secret hideaway.

Our room had an en suite bathroom with small but deep wooden tub and a wall-mounted shower, complete with traditional tiny wooden stool and bucket. But we were also invited to use one of the three beautiful shared bathrooms; the two larger ones are usually assigned to men or women only but since there were no other guests, we were able to share one privately. Soaking in the searingly hot bath, looking out onto the garden through the large fogged picture window, we felt like we were in a different era.

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Because of my hip pain, I’d asked in advance whether we might be able to eat at a higher table so our hostess, Aya-san showed us to a large room in the central building, where a table had been set up for us. Like our own room, this one was decorated with beautiful artworks such as the painted screen and hanging tapestry to one side and two statues of Buddha and a vase of flowers to the other.

Aya-san was a charming hostess. Though she spoke very little English at all, she was adept at the use of charades and smiles, and when she realised my interest in knowing more about each element of the meal, she used a small electronic Japanese-English dictionary to translate the chef’s explanations of ingredients and techniques. Her enthusiasm and her delight at our own made this a truly memorable evening quite apart from the food.

And the food was terrific. Though it had a lot of competition, I’d say it was the best meal of the trip.


We started by ordering drinks. Sake for me and beer for Pete.


Our first dish was an ikura (salmon roe) salad with radish and a salty dressing – a simple combination of fresh flavours and textures to cleanse the palate and start the meal.


This selection of starters included a hollowed yuzu (citrus) filled with salad, figs with a nutty paste (which may have been chestnuts) and uni (sea urchin) roe sprinkled on top, two pieces of nigiri sushi with pickled mackerel, what looked like a candied fruit but was actually a sweet, preserved egg yolk and lastly, a cube of steamed fish and rice paste with what Aya described as baby potatoes and which I think were mukago. Mukago are often called mountain yams or wild potatoes, though these tiny potato-like bulbils grow on a bush and not underground, like yam and potato tubers.

This small plate represented an incredible range of textures and tastes.

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After serving the tea pots, Aya showed us that the top lid served as a bowl and the inner lid could be used to set the lime upon. She instructed us to squeeze some lime into the broth before pouring some broth into the bowl to drink. We used our chopsticks to fish out mushroom, prawns and white fish pieces which had been cooked in the hot liquid.

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The sashimi selection, served in a bamboo tray over ice, was superb. Prawns included the crunchy head and the soft tail; tuna was beautiful in colour and flavour; a small mound of bream was delicate and astoundingly fresh. Served alongside was some of the best wasabi I’ve tried, a deep dark soy sauce, daikon (white radish) and a shiso leaf.

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We were not only enjoying the food itself but also the beautiful preparation and presentation of the food and the delightful range of dishes in which it was served.

This beautiful purple lidded bowl opened to reveal a tofu and mushroom dumpling, which had been fried, then served in a viscous soup. Over the top were sprinkled green herbs and tiny yellow flower petals and inside was a hidden centre of eel. This was one of my favourite courses of the meal; quite unlike anything I’d had before.

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Described as “harvest fish” the next course was served with crispy fried daikon and pickled onion with a garnish of a bright green gingko acorn skewered onto a pine needle. A wedge of yuzu was provided, to squeeze over the top.

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The tempura course was simple but beautifully decorated with a couple of stems of rice, briefly grilled so that some of the grains popped. There were two types of tempura – one was a parcel of conger eel, pea and mushroom and the other fresh green pepper on its own. Delicious!

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For our next course, Aya carefully lit a tiny ceramic heater for each of us, so we could enjoy a sukiyaki – this popular dish allows diners to cook the ingredients to their liking before removing them from the bubbling broth. Ours contained beautifully marbled beef, enoki mushrooms, onions and mizuna leaves in a delicious sweet and salty cooking liquid. The fat content made the beef marvellously soft and silky, with the most wonderful flavour.

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As is traditional, we finished with rice, miso soup and pickles. The fried rice with fish was gently savoury, but not overpowering in flavour. The miso was intensely umami and rich, with the teeniest tiniest discs of spring onion floating within it. The pickles were Nara specialities and included uri (squash) which was a rich, sweet pickle and daikon and cucumber, which were lighter and fresher.


To finish we enjoyed fresh pear, grapes and pomegranate seeds in a gelatinous sweet sauce, served with tea.

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We had enjoyed our leisurely meal so much that we popped through to the kitchen area to give our thanks to the chef before retiring back to our rooms for the night, where our futons had been laid out for us in our absence.

After one of the most peaceful nights’ sleep I can remember, we woke up full of joy to slide back the blinds and enjoy our views of the beautiful ryokan gardens.

We returned to the same room as the previous night, for breakfast. Unlike dinner, breakfast dishes were all served together, so we could enjoy the various elements in whichever order we chose.

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The little heaters came out again, this time topped with beautiful lidded bowls in which the very freshest soft tofu simmered, alongside enoki mushrooms, nori (seaweed) and onions. We were given a netted implement with which to scoop out the cooked items, and a rich black sauce in which to dip the tofu.

In addition we had local pickles, a crunchy green salad with a fabulous sesame dressing, slices of tamago (omelette) served with tiny fish and grated daikon, grilled salmon and nori with more pickles and the requisite rice and miso soup. Big mugs of tea were also very welcome. As a counter to the savoury items, some sweet fresh persimmon was a lovely dish to end on.

Ahead of the trip, Pete had wondered whether he’d enjoy eating this kind of breakfast in place of his usual toast and Marmite. He’s fairly adventurous about trying things, but somehow eating unusual dishes for breakfast feels further out of the comfort zone than trying those same things for lunch or dinner. I don’t know whether the wonderful dinner we’d had the evening before had helped set his expectations, or whether he was just in the right frame of mind to go with the flow, but I was very pleased that both of us enjoyed this breakfast equally.


After a last shower and soak in our gorgeous private bathroom, with its own views out to the garden, we finally packed up our things and reluctantly said our goodbyes to both the ryokan and to Aya, wishing we’d booked a second night in this peaceful retreat.

Next, Kyoto…


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Abisko is located in Northern Sweden, right up at the top of Swedish Lapland and well within the Arctic circle. With very little light pollution and prevalent weather patterns which usually keep skies clear of clouds, it’s considered to be one of the best places to see the Northern Lights.

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Whilst we were unlucky with the Northern Lights during our visit at the end of December, we did enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounded our lodgings at the Abisko Turiststation.

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At this time of year the sun never rises above the horizon, but it’s not completely dark. In fact, for a few hours, it’s actually fairly bright, albeit the light has a very distinctly blue tone. Of course, it’s also dark for much of the day and night. I found it difficult to handle the lack of real, yellow sunlight and can readily understand why depression is a common complaint in polar populations. On the plus side, London, when we returned, felt positively brimming with sunlight!

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Although weather stopped us on the first night, a two night stay meant we were able to ascend to the Aurora Sky Station up on one of the peaks of the Skanderna (Scandinavian Mountains). Of course, when the weather conditions are right and the aurora borealis is putting on a show, the Sky Station gives an unparalleled view.

But even without the lightshow, it’s still a wonderful place to visit.

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The chairlift doesn’t operate during the day, so an evening visit is the only option. That means ascending in the dark and descending in the dark. We’d booked to have dinner at the Sky Station so went up when the chairlift opened at 6pm. Non-dining visitors are invited to ascend two hours later.

The trip took about 20 minutes and it was pretty scary dangling over the barely visible snow-covered landscape below, especially each time the chairlift stopped to let other passengers on or off, and we were left bouncing gently up and down, peering into the gloom, straining to hear anything in the silence. For someone who is scared of heights, it was doubly terrifying!

Abisko in December is bitterly, bitterly, bitterly cold.

Even the clothing we already had (from two wonderful holidays to the Antarctic and a third to the Falkland Islands) was not enough to insulate us from the chill. The chairlift base station provides all-in-one suits but even with several layers beneath, double gloves and socks, scarves and padded hats, our extremities were starting to feel numb towards the end of the journey.

Near the top, we ascended into the clouds and it reminded me of movie representations of purgatory, with characters surrounded by white nothingness on all sides. Or perhaps just a rather chilly sensory deprivation floatation tank.

Luckily, the Sky Station is warm, colourful and a buzz of activity as all the diners arrive and get settled in.

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The station is actually quite small. In the main room, the dining tables take up half the space, with a tiny kitchenette in the corner; there’s casual sofa seating at the other side and a very welcome wood burning fire. A small Aurora room has pictures and panels on science and stories about the Northern Lights. A cloak room at the entrance provides hooks for all the outerwear.


And there’s an outdoor balcony from which you can see the twinkling lights of the Turiststation and small town below. Of course, it’s cold cold cold, so I didn’t stay out there very long!

On arrival, we were given a welcome warm drink of mulled lingonberry juice and took turns to defrost by the fire before being invited to take our places in the dining area.

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Dinner was cooked and served by charming and friendly staff and was rather delicious.


The starter was a creamy cauliflower soup with truffle oil. On the side was a slice of sourdough bread and your choice of bleak roe or dried reindeer meat or pickled mushroom with lemon cream and red onion. Both the soup and accompaniments were very enjoyable, though the soup would have benefited from being served hot rather than lukewarm.


Our meal choices were made in advance. For our main most of us chose roasted reindeer with a red wine and lingonberry sauce, served with potato puree and green pea stomp. The reindeer was fabulously tender, like a fillet of beef, with wonderful flavour. It was just perfect with the lingonberry and red wine sauce. Super mash too!


Mum, being a pescetarian, opted for the Arctic char and horseradish, served with the same potato puree and pea stomp and what I think were large caper berries on their stems. I didn’t taste it but she enjoyed it. A goat’s cheese and beetroot dish was also available for vegetarians.


Dessert was a simple smooth vanilla pudding with blueberries and cloudberries.

A small selection of beers, wines and soft drinks were also available.

Oh but be warned – the toilets are outside!

Stepping outside, the cold wind buffeted me immediately, and I had to take care not to lose my footing. And yes, the toilets were bloody cold! It’s a toss up as to whether it’s worth it putting on your outerwear again to make the short outside walk more bearable – doing so also means you’ll spend longer wriggling out and back into your clothing in the tight, cold space of the toilets. I decided not to bother with my outerwear onesie and was nearly frozen solid when both toilets were occupied and I had to wait for what seemed like an eternity.

Take heed if you’re planning a Sky Station visit and considering celebrating with another drink!

Sadly, the skies remained covered by cloud and the wind whipped snow to obscure the views even further. Still, it was a lovely evening and I’d certainly recommend Abisko to those looking for a non-Santa Lapland experience with the possibility of Northern Lights.


Thanks to my mum for photo of my sister on the chair lift.


Often described as a temple to Californian wine, The Vineyard at Stockcross certainly has an impressive wine list but it’s not limited to Californian ones. Indeed, it has one of the largest international wine cellars in the UK.


The hotel belongs to the Michael family, and is very much a showcase for Sir Peter Michael’s loves of wine and art.

Both combine in the form of a one-off mural called “After The Upset”, painted this year by artist Gary Myatt as a representation of the story of “The Judgement of Paris”. Back in 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman, owned and ran a successful wine shop in Paris, and had recently founded the first private wine school in the country. Understandably, this became a centre point for American vintners and wine writers visiting France, and through them, Spurrier became exposed to Californian wines. He decided to hold a tasting to compare the best of Californian and French wines, to which he invited the top wine experts of the day. His blind tasting format removed the possibility of prejudice colouring the results and indeed, there was considerable uproar when Californian wines were revealed to be the best red and the best white wines of the event. One of the participants, writer George Taber, wrote an article for Time magazine, which he provocatively titled “The Judgement of Paris”. This really rocked the French wine industry, which had, until then, been considered the undisputed king of the wine making world.

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This story was engagingly narrated by head sommelier Yohann Jousselin, who also showed us around the impressive glass ceilinged cellar in the hotel lobby, the main upstairs cellar, and later, talked us through the wines chosen to accompany our meal that evening.

Sir Peter Michael is an entrepreneur with a technological bent and was the driving force behind a number of high tech companies. He also founded Classic FM, the UK’s first national commercial radio station. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1989. Now, his focus is on wine (at his family vineyard in Sonoma County, California), hospitality (at the Vineyard and sister hotel Donnington Valley) and the work of two charitable foundations, one in the US and one in the UK, which fund research on the identification, treatment and management of prostrate cancer.

Although Sir Michael wasn’t present at the original 1976 tasting, he has been included in the mural and was present at some of the subsequent tastings in the following decades.

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A site within the M4 corridor, not far from Newbury, may not sound like the ideal location for a getaway break, but The Vineyard is in a quiet rural spot next door to a golf course. The modern building was recently extended, to add extra bedrooms and conference space and now has 49 bedrooms, each named after a famous wine. The hotel also has a spa, which we didn’t see on this visit.

Our focus was to check out the food and wine offering.

Head chef Daniel Galmiche created a menu to showcase the restaurant’s style, and Yohann matched wines to each course, explaining his choices as they were served.


To my delight, Yohann didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked, as we sat down to the meal, if he could serve me dessert wines instead, whilst the rest of the table enjoyed his original selections. It was a pleasure to be given a different wine for each course, and see how their characteristics affected the flavours of the food and were affected in return. As someone who doesn’t drink regular wines, and usually misses out on matching drinks, this was a rare treat.


Confit of duck foie gras, quince and braeburn apple

A large block of foie gras was simply served with apple and quince jellies and an apple chutney. The foie gras itself was excellent in flavour and texture. I appreciated the generous portion and enjoyed the seasonal fruit condiments.

For the regular wine drinkers, Yohann chose Eroica 2010 from Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington. This wine is the result of collaboration between Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Ernst Loosen of Mosel in Germany. Pete found it a very good match for the foie gras, and described it as full of sharp green fruit, mainly unripe apples.

For me, Yohann served a delicious Eldorado Gold 2007 from Ferraro Carano, Sonoma California. This is a late harvest dessert wine and reminded me of the wines of Sauternes, which I love and are a classic partner to foie gras.


Diver caught Orkney scallops, cauliflower, walnut

These might just be some of the best scallops I’ve tasted. Not only were they perfectly cooked, with beautiful brown caramelised crusts and yieldingly soft flesh, they had more flavour and natural sweetness than most I’ve had. Served alongside were tiny florets of pickled cauliflower, dollops of cauliflower puree and tiny rounds of sweet apple. No walnut that I could see. This was a simple dish but beautifully executed and one I could eat every day.

The regular wine choice was Quinta do Gaivosa Reserva Pessoal 2004 from Domingos Alves de Sousa in Douro, Portugal. Oddly, Pete detected banana and singed oak on the nose. It was “unsweet without being too dry”, and he muttered about “musty mushroom but in a good way”.

My wine was Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2009 from the Producteurs de Plaimont Cuvee Saint-Albert in Plaimont, South West France. A revival of an 18th century wine style, this is another late harvest dessert wine with rich, intense flavours of fruits and molasses.


Balmoral Estate venison, butternut squash, pearl barley, hazelnut

Rubbed with Chef Galmiche’s own coffee, the venison was, once again, some of the best I’ve had. Not at all gamey, it was virtually indistinguishable from a very tender and well flavoured piece of beef. As well as squash and pearl barley, it was accompanied by delicious turnip leaves and a teeny tiny baby carrot! A beautiful dish indeed.

The regular wine choice was a Freemark Abbey 2010 merlot from Napa Valley, California. Pete loved the big fruit, blackcurrant nose and enjoyed what he likened to deep Burgundy tannins. This was a magnificent and a perfect match to the venison.

For me, Yohann chose a cabernet rose fruit juice by Alain Millat. Made from grapes grown in Gaillac, in France, this is a sweet, light and intense juice drink that is perfect for non drinkers seeking a choice that echoes the flavours in red wine.


Griottine cherry and cranberry terrine, pistachio parfait

I was less impressed with this dessert than most of the table, as I found it far too sweet. This coming from me, sitting and drinking my dessert wines all evening! I liked the alcohol and fruit bomb griottine the most. I think the terrine had white chocolate mixed into it, certainly that was what I picked up. Neither the cranberry nor the cherries came through clearly in anything other than appearance. Likewise the pistachio terrine didn’t have much of a pistachio kick. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this, but it was definitely the weak point of the menu for me.

Yohann served one wine for all of us, to go with this dish – Roussilliere from Yves Cuilleron in France’s Rhône Valley. Another late harvest dessert wine, made from noble rot syrah, this was enjoyed by most of the table, but I actually found the acidity a little strong for my tastes. For Pete, what came through most were deep fruity aromas of raisins and plums. It was “port-like” in the mouth and not too sweet.


Seasonal farmhouse cheese platter, quince, fig cake, fennel bread

Tovey, Gruyere and St Nectaire were all tasty cheeses, though I prefer St Nectaire that’s older and harder than the young, soft slice we had here and likewise, for the Gruyere. Tovey was new to me and I liked it; made by Thornby Moor in Wigton, Cumbria it’s a semi-soft goat’s milk cheese with a smooth texture and robust flavour. The crisp breads – which looked to me like Peters Yard, though the waiter I asked never came back with an answer – were excellent. The fig cake was lovely with the Gruyere and the sweet dark grapes best with the Tovey.

Again, a shared wine choice with the cheese. This time Yohann chose a Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2005 from Eikendal in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Syrupy sweet with lovely dried fruit flavours, this was a classic dessert wine and I really liked it; a great match for the cheese. Pete mentioned a sweet musty nose, like a cheese cave, and found the wine full of red berry fruit, particularly strawberries, and sweet but with an acid edge on the finish.


Petits fours were served with tea and coffee, in the nearby lounge area.

After dinner, we spent the night in a comfortable Atrium Suite room, in the newest part of the hotel.

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As we left early the next morning, we didn’t make much use of the generous seating in the split level lounge area but we did love the bathroom with large separate shower and an absolutely enormous bathtub! The bed was comfortable and we had a great night’s sleep. My only preference would have been for a larger TV, as I like to watch from the bed on occasion.

Room rates start at just under £200 for a standard “luxury” double and range to over £500 for a Grand Suite. Dinner, bed and breakfast starts at £420. Prices are higher on weekends. It’s worth keeping an eye out for special offers, as a friend told me about one such offer she took advantage of last year which included full use of the spa and an overnight stay for little more than £100.

A five course meal, like the one we were served, is priced at £75 per person, or you can order individual dishes from the a la carte menu. Alternatively, you might enjoy the 7 course Judgement of Paris menu in which each course is matched with two wines, one French and one Californian. With wines, it’s £185 or £99 without.


Kavey Eats was a guest of The Vineyard.


Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns. Ranging in size and level of luxury and amenities, what they have in common are tatami mat floors, traditionally styled rooms, sliding doors, futon beds, Japanese style baths and local cooking. Guests must remove their outdoor shoes at the entrance, where they are given slippers to wear in the public indoor areas. These are, in turn, removed before entering bedrooms.

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The bedrooms double as both sleeping and dining spaces; staff clear away tables and make up futon beds after your evening meal. As it’s common for parties of three or four to share a room, each one has several futons available, so don’t be afraid to ask for your bed to be made up with two or three futons stacked together, if you prefer. We did so in all the ryokan we visited and found this very comfortable.


At the budget end, rooms are small and rarely en suite; guests share communal baths in which they wash thoroughly (on tiny stools in front of a bank of open showers) before slipping into large steaming hot bathing pools. Some ryokan also have a “family bathroom” which can be booked privately by couples and family groups.


But mid-level and more luxurious ryokan are also available, offering larger rooms with en suite bathroom facilities. Sometimes, the guest accommodation offers more than one internal room, with sliding doors to separate them if desired, and a veranda or balcony space looking out over a tiny garden or pretty exterior view. The en suite facilities include a private toilet – usually gizmo-laden with seat heaters, cleaning jets and even warm air – a sink area and an enclosed bathroom with private shower (with requisite tiny wooden stool and bucket) and a deep wooden bath tub. Most ryokan will have communal bathing facilities too, sometimes with onsen (mineral) baths, which are highly sought after for their health benefits. These days, some ryokan also provide televisions, fridges and safes in the rooms.

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We splurged on four higher end ryokan in Takayama, Nara, Kyoto and Miyajima.

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We found the buildings and interiors very calming, probably because of the extensive use of natural materials – tatami mat flooring made of rice straw, dark brown wooden beams, wooden ceilings and fittings, and walls and sliding doors in pale creams.


From our windows we looked out onto carefully tended green spaces, sometimes only tiny but enough to soothe the eye.

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Rooms are sparsely decorated with just a few well-chosen items to provide interest. Often there is a small alcove, or tokonoma, in which traditional arts and crafts are displayed. (This is not intended to be used for the storage of luggage – usually a separate space or closet is provided for that purpose, with your futon mattresses, pillows and duvets stored in another closet). In larger rooms, a painted screen or antique dressing table might take up a small corner.

On arrival, green tea and a sweet snack are usually served in the entrance lobby or in your room.

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In each room, yukata (traditional cotton robes) are provided for guest use. Worn left side wrapped over right (though we got this wrong the first time) and tied with the belt provided, these can be worn to meals, for visiting the communal bathrooms and even, in some towns, for a stroll outside in the street. An outer jacket is provided for this purpose. In our experience, the largest yukata available just about fit Pete, though was comically short on him. But none were large enough to wrap around my wide girth. I took along house pyjamas to wear instead or beneath the yukata, for this reason.


Meals are served on low tables, usually with Japanese floor chairs. Knowing I’d struggle with these, given my hip problems, I requested in advance that we use slightly higher chairs. These are about half the height of standard (Western) chairs and all of our rooms had a pair just by the window.


In some of the ryokan, we were also offered the option of eating in one of their dining rooms, a couple of which had full height tables and chairs available.


Many ryokan serve kaiseki ryori, a traditional and elaborate multi-course meal. Dishes are traditionally prepared using local, seasonal ingredients and are beautifully presented. Usually, the courses are brought in one at a time, but in one of our ryokan, all dishes were served at once, laid out across the large table.

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I booked our stays at three ryokan directly via their websites and email. The fourth I booked through Japanese Guest Houses, who also made my reservation to stay at Shojoshin-in, a Shingon Buddhist temple on Koyasan as well as one of my regular hotel bookings.

I’ll be writing in more detail about the kaiseki ryori meals we enjoyed at two of the ryokan soon.


I’ve always been happy in my North London suburban neighbourhood. But The Victoria in East Sheen is one of those places that seriously makes me dream about moving South.

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This cosy neighbourhood pub and restaurant is located in an incredible peaceful suburban neighbourhood just a couple of minutes’ walk from Richmond Park. The exterior probably hasn’t changed much since it was built in the mid 19th century.

There’s a car park at the back, and plenty of street parking on the road, but I’m guessing most of the customers are locals, quietly giggling to themselves in glee at their bloody good fortune.

The current incarnation was taken on by restaurateur Gregg Bellamy and chef Paul Merrett in 2008 and the pair have created a gastropub with a warm welcome and an appealing food and drink menu.

Paul is a top level chef with an impressive CV. He trained under Gary Rhodes at The Greenhouse and Peter Kromberg at Le Soufflé. He gained an excellent reputation for his cooking at the Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly. Whilst at the Interlude, he was awarded his first Michelin star. After that he returned to The Greenhouse, where he earned another Michelin star.

In our video interview (below), Paul tells us that, like many young and talented chefs, there was a time when cooking that style of food and winning Michelin stars was all he wanted. But after he settled down and had children, his goals in life changed. After helping launch Fulham gastropub The Farm, he yearned for a gastropub of his own. Before finding The Victoria, Paul took some time out to take on an allotment and he wrote about his experiences in his book, Using The Plot: Tales of an Allotment Chef.

Paul also co-wrote Economy Gastronomy: Eat Better and Spend Less with friend Allegra McEvedy.

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Much of the Victoria is set up as a traditional pub. All are welcome, including families with children and locals with pet dogs. In the conservatory at one side is a slightly more formal dining space, though still relaxed and friendly with no stiff upper lips in sight.

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Paul is committed to sourcing ethically and the back of the menu provides information about some of the pub’s suppliers.

Several of the menu starters appealed, as did the day’s special which Paul told us about earlier in the evening. When I asked our waiter whether he’d choose the Manouri cheese starter or the rabbit special, he immediately suggested we try the special as an extra course between starters and mains. You can imagine that this went down quite well with me!


I was very happy with my choice of Serrano ham with pan fried Manouri cheese, kalamata olives, thyme blossom honey and figs (£9). Having never encountered Manouri cheese before I was somewhat sidelined by the featherlight texture, having expected something more solid like halloumi or feta. But the light and mild cheese worked well with silky, salty Serrano ham, sharp olives, really peppery rocket, sweet ripe figs and that drizzle of honey. The bread deserves a mention too – again it was super light, with wonderful crunch and charred flavour from the toasting.


Pete’s new season green pea and potato soup, sheep’s cheese crostini (£6) was a summery delight. Struggling to describe it, Pete earnestly told me how “pea-y” it was. I tasted it. “You mean it tastes utterly of really fresh peas?”,  I asked. “Yes, fresh! That’s what I meant!”, he exclaimed. He also made special mention of how well balanced the dish was in textures and tastes; in the soup a few peas were left whole and on top was that thin, light, crisp crostini topped with mild and creamy sheep’s cheese, more peas and micro salad. A simple dish but very, very well executed.


After our starters came a second shared starter, the daily special: rabbit loin and livers with charred long stem broccoli and morel mushrooms (£7). This is one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in the last few years. So simple and yet, once again, every element in perfect balance. The loin was full of flavour and not at all tough, as rabbit can be when not cooked well. The livers, much larger than I imagined a rabbit’s to be, were like calves liver, and again, just right. Paul had described earlier how he’d be charring the broccoli and indeed, it worked beautifully – like vegetables cooked on the barbeque, the charring gave an additional flavour dimension. The generous helping of morel mushrooms were their usual familiar spongy texture, woody meaty in taste. Underneath all, a buttery chargrilled slice of toast. Over the top, oily meat juices. And the whole lot made to look more beautiful by vivid purple potato crisps. An absolutely exceptional dish!


Pete’s main of oak smoked trout risotto, new season peas and broadbeans, poached eggs and pea shoots (£13) was beautifully colourful, even more so when he broke open the Clarence Court egg and it’s orange yolk spilled out into the risotto. Every element of the dish contributed to flavours and textures, and again, everything was in perfect harmony. Superbly tasty and satisfying.


My 28 day aged 7 ox South Devon rib eye steak with thrice cooked chips & béarnaise sauce (£18) was, as I expected by this point in our meal, very good. Great meat, cooked as requested; enormous and fabulous triple cooked chips and a spot-on béarnaise.

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I loved that Pete’s white chocolate panna cotta with English strawberries and shortbread (£5.50) was served in a Bonne Maman jar; much cuter than the contrived efforts of places that buy in brand new jam jars in which to serve drinks, all pristine and identical, rather than the mixed bag of genuinely recycled used ones. The panna cotta was soft and creamy, though the white chocolate was a little understated. The strawberries hadn’t been oversweetened but were at just the right stage of sweet and tart. The shortbread was very short and crumbly.

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My pecan and walnut baklava with roasted plums and honey ice cream (£5.50) was probably my least favourite dish of the meal. The flavours of the baklava were good, but the filo was chewy and difficult to cut, rather than the light, crunchy texture it should have been. The plums were tart, so tart they caused my jaw muscles to tighten painfully against the acid and I left them uneaten. I wasn’t able to detect any honey flavour within the ice cream; though there were pretty lines drizzled over the top, they didn’t linger on the taste buds.


Coffee was served strong, and was good quality.

With the exception of my dessert, what struck us most strongly about our meal was the impressive balance Paul achieved in each dish, not just in terms of flavours but textures and colours too. Combined with a lovely pub in which to enjoy a drink before and after dinner, a warm welcome and good service from staff and very reasonable prices, you can see why I wish we had a place just like this as our local.


After dinner, Pete and I spent the night in one of The Victoria’s 7 bedrooms.

All are doubles, but 2 can be set up as twin / family rooms and all are ensuite. Prices start at £120 for single occupancy and £130 for double, with additional charges for cots and campbeds.

Our bed was extremely comfortable, with a new, good quality mattress. Instead of wasting space on a large wardrobe or chest of drawers, a clever shelf with hangers beneath was perfectly adequate and attractive too. I also appreciated the tea and coffee making facilities on a tray on the desk.

Our bathroom, with shower but no bath, was a little small though servicable. An extra light above the shower cubicle would be welcome, as I found it a little dark. I’d also appreciate a night light that could be left on during the night.

Best of all was the quiet – even with our window open to let in a cooling breeze, we were amazed at how silent the neighbourhood was during the night and into the morning. Much quieter than our suburban home address!

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Room rates include a continental breakfast which is self service from a table laden with cereal, fruit, pastries, yoghurts and juices. A basket of bread sits by a toaster on the side board and coffee and tea are ordered on arrival.

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We opted for two choices from the cooked breakfast menu. My eggs benedict royale (£7.50), had decadent slices of smoked salmon, poached Clarence Court eggs and another beautifully judged sauce in the Hollandaise. Pete’s croque madame (£6.50) might better be described as a ham and cheese grilled sandwich made from thick slices of the same lovely bread we enjoyed before our starters came out the previous evening. In a now familiar refrain, Pete commented admiringly on the perfect balance between the ham, cheese, egg and thick bread fried in butter.


The Victoria is a 15 minute walk from Mortlake train station, from which trains to Waterloo take 25 minutes. This is also a great place to stay for London visitors with a car, as parking is free and there are several spaces in the car park behind, and free parking on the street too.

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Interview with Paul Merrett

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Victoria.


As you might expect from a modern hotel sited in such an expansive historical estate, the Waldorf Astoria London Syon Park is subtly themed to bring the outdoors inside and to help guests enjoy the peace and quiet of its serene, natural setting.

On a recent late autumn visit, we found it the perfect venue for a single night minibreak – close to home and yet a world away.

History of Syon Park

Syon Park is the home of the Duke of Northumberland, and has belonged to his family for over 400 years. Syon Park, the stately home (in which the Duke and Duchess still reside), was built in the mid 16th Century by the 1st Duke of Somerset but after his death, it changed hands a number of times before eventually being acquired by the 9th Earl of Northumberland in 1594. It has been passed down through the family ever since.

Syon House sits in 200 acres of gardens and parkland designed by famous landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, from the 1750s to 1770s. The 40 acres of garden are registered a Grade I landscape in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Importance in England and renowned for their collection of rare trees.

image from Syon Park website

The crowning glory of the gardens must surely be the Great Conservatory, built by Charles Fowler in 1826, the first of it’s kind to be built out of gunmetal, Bath stone and glass.


We caught wonderful glimpses of the Great Conservatory frequently during our stay at the Waldorf Astoria, and plan to tour the house and gardens of the estate next time we visit. Entry to the house, gardens and conservatory is £10 for adults. Entry to the gardens and conservatory only is £5 for adults.

I would guess it must be quite a challenge to afford the upkeep of such an estate in this day and age. However, it seems the Duchy has found additional ways to bring income into the estate.

Also in the grounds of Syon Park are a large and attractive garden centre, where we took lunch on the day of our arrival and a tropical zoo, which I understand is scheduled to move to another site, so do please check directly before planning a visit.

Red Bricks

an accommodation block

The newly-built hotel (which opened in spring this year) has been built in a modern style, on the footprints of the old stable blocks that originally formed part of the estate. The outside, truth be told, is not very attractive. Neither boldly modern, nor pastiche historical, it strongly resembles a 1980s office block. That’s not the best look for a luxury hotel, so the good news is that it gets better – much better – inside.

The Garden designer (more of which later) has also taken steps recently to break up the expanse of red brick by creating tall narrow “living green wall” panels affixed to the brick exterior. The different shades of green ivy are just starting to mesh together into pretty vertical gardens.

Outside In

Inside the hotel, there are many design touches that refer to the natural environment outside.

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In the main reception hangs a starkly modern art installation – hundreds of white and black pieces of white card or plastic, folded to create sharp lines and angles. It’s only with prompting that we are directed to look at the shadow cast on the adjacent wall by the sunlight filtering through, and gasp at how it looks for all the world like the shadow of a real tree! Syon Park refer to this beautiful and clever piece as the Troika Tree Installation; it was created by London art collective, Troika.

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Also in the main lobby is a large glass butterfly house, though you wouldn’t know it to peer in – there are currently no butterflies inside! The glass house didn’t meet specifications on temperature and humidity, so the hotel made the decision not to risk live insects until they knew conditions would be perfect for them. Minor fixes proved not to do the trick, so it may be some months before a new glass house is in place. This is a shame, given that the hotel’s motif – visible on crockery, bath robes and stationery – is a butterfly, but definitely the right decision for an ethical business.

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Another aspect of the exterior spaces that I like is that there are quite a few of them. Not just one single outdoor seating area but a number of them, allowing guests to find their own peace and quiet. There’s the front patio, next to Brownies (where afternoon sweets are served), some large wooden relaxation stands, with huge comfy beanbags in them, and a variety of seating round the back, next to the herb garden.

Afternoon Brownies

I love the idea of a hotel sweet shop where one can buy sweet treats, ice cream sundaes and pastries.

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Unfortunately, the reality is a bit of a let down. Some of the ice creams needed to make the signature sundaes listed on the menu are out of stock. According to our waitress, few people want ice creams in October. My response is either to remove them from the menu (and make it seasonal) or ensure you have the ingredients in stock regardless of the weather.

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The Manhattan (£12), a boozy ice-cream sundae described as “the king of cocktails in an ice cream coupe” features a bourbon and pecan ice cream served with a sweet vermouth reduction and cider brandy, and macerated cherries. Though I should love it given my love of pecans, cider and cherries, it doesn’t really work for me.

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Pete’s lemon and dark brown sugar crepe (£6.75) arrives dressed with the largest raspberries we’ve ever seen. Sadly they’re the best thing in the dish, with not even a hint of lemon juice or brown sugar discernible in the well-cooked but exceedingly bland pancake.

For me, Brownies just doesn’t hit the spot, which is a shame given the attractive indoor and outdoor seating areas it enjoys.

Cocktails in Peacock Alley

Peacock Alley is named for the grand social promenade that connected the original Waldorf and Astoria hotels in New York, which jointly became The Waldorf-Astoria. Described as a martini bar, Syon Park’s Peacock Alley is much more than that, offering an unusual and appealing selection of cocktails not to mention what Pete tells me is an impressive range of whisky and bourbon.

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I find the space very attractive, with it’s mix of bright peacock colours – mustard yellow, hot pink, pretty purple, lime green and cool turquoise. Like the rest of the hotel, decor is a mix of traditional luxury and funky modern touches; there’s definitely a decent smattering of quirky. My only downer about the whole look is the carpet, which reminds me of the stuff we stripped out of our ’60s decorated house, and for good reason. It’s cheap motel chain on acid!

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Having ordered our cocktails, olives are served to our table and we enjoy watch the bartender mixing furiously.

Pete chooses a Divine Enchantment, in which rose and geranium are combined with fresh raspberries and rosé champagne. A little pretentious, but fun – when the cocktail is delivered, a puff of rose and geranium perfume is sprayed over the glass, to give an extra scent experience. It’s a delicious cocktail, fruity and flowery with the refreshing acid and bubbles of the champagne.

I go for a newer cocktail, called Cool as a Cucumber, based on some of my favourite ingredients – cucumber, pineapple juice, Midori and vodka. This is simple but deceptively good and I absolutely love, love, love the distinctive taste of cucumber mixed with one of my favourite liqueurs and that sweet sharp balance of pineapple. It’s brilliant, though packs a punch and slips down rather too easily!


A touch I really like is the cordials or syrups that the bartenders of Peacock Alley make themselves and use in several of the cocktail recipes. As well as the rose and geranium one used in Pete’s cocktail (and the perfume bottle which you can see, above) there is an ale syrup made from Meantime pale ale (using beer instead water when making a sugar syrup), a highly scented and flavoured lavender syrup, and a range of spiced ones including star anise, cinnamon and a mixed spice syrup.

Signature cocktails are £14 each, classics (some of which have been tweaked a little, Waldorf-Astoria style) are £12.

Dining In

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For me, The Capability restaurant is one of the highlights of a visit to the hotel, and is certainly proving popular not only with residential guests but also with diners coming in just for the food. I can understand why.

image from hotel website

Last time we visited, we were fortunate to spend time with executive chef, Lee Stratton, who expressed his genuine commitment to using high quality, sustainable, British ingredients. Just like the rest of the hotel, he is keen to bring the outside in and also to grow and forage as much as possible within the hotel and estate grounds.

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To this end, the hotel have engaged landscape garden designer, Robert Stoutzker, who has worked closely with Lee to decide which fruits, vegetables and herbs can be used by the kitchen. Robert has created and planted the herb garden, a large vegetable garden behind the hotel (which will be expanding further in coming years), and a large and beautiful greenhouse which is used not only for growing produce, but is also a venue for intimate dinners, served at the enormous wooden table at one end. He has also taken on the rest of the hotel landscaping, and is responsible for the living green wall panels I mentioned earlier. He’s also replacing the somewhat pub-like bedroom balcony window boxes with more elegant ones that make use of stark black grasses and white flowers.

(I’ll be posting more about Robert’s thoughts over at A London Gardener in coming weeks).

Even though the hotel only opened this spring, the kitchen has been incorporating as much of their own produce as possible into regularly changing menus. This is set to increase in coming years as the gardens and orchards extend and mature.


As always, we look for a red wine priced between £30 and £35. There are several listed, 3 that particularly appeal.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of high demand over recent weeks (and, perhaps poor stock control and delivery management?) the first three choices we requested are not available. That rules out the 2009 Saam Mountain Paarl Pinotage (£30.00), the 2009 Alamos Malbec (£31.00) and the 2009 Chateau L’Eglise Bordeaux (£32.00). Personally, after coming back to the table on three separate occasions to explain that our latest choice was also out of stock, had I been the sommelier I would have offered a more expensive bottle of something similar for the same price. Instead, we scrabble through the menu again and come up with a fourth option. Thankfully, the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Rouge Clocher Saint Michel Pierre Dorvin (£31.00) is in stock.


Warm bread, freshly baked white sourdough I think, is excellent, served with butter and sea salt.


An amuse bouche plays on the famous Waldorf Salad, first created in the late 19th Century at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. A mouthful of apple, celery and pickled walnut with a light dressing, it’s a refreshing start.


I love the sweetness of the crab in my spider crab salad with quails eggs and mayonnaise (£14.50). The generous white crab meat is served on a thin layer of what I think might be brown crab meat with a little mustard mixed in, though I’m not sure. It’s nice, whatever it is! The quail eggs are superfluous, flavour wise, though they make the dish look pretty, as do the edible flowers, grown in the kitchen garden. I enjoy this dish very much.


Pete’s chargrilled courgettes with Lancashire bomb and Heritage tomato relish (£9.25) is an enormous serving and exactly what is described in the menu. This is a simple dish, the kind that’s often described as “honest” (though I’m not sure that I’ve had many deceitful dishes to compare it to).

When it comes to mains, we both think we’re the winner.

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My hay baked Cornish mixed lamb with pan haggerty and green sauce (£24.75) includes slow baked belly, fried tongue, sweetbread, cutlet and kidney all of which are perfectly cooked, as is the cheesy, pan haggerty, something I’ve not had before. With my meal come two sauces, a fresh and vibrant green herb sauce and a sinfully rich reduced wine and stock sauce. Both work well with the different cuts of lamb. I always adore British lamb but this dish takes it to another level and I’m a very happy diner indeed.


To counteract the lack of greens, I order a side of garlic spinach (£4.50), which is a nice foil for the heaviness of my meat and potatoes. I also give into the temptation of an order of Meantime beer battered onion rings (4.00) which are amongst the best onions rings I’ve had.

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Our friendly and well-informed waitress, Dayna, is very helpful when it comes to choosing between the Bannockburn rib eye and the Aberdeenshire sirloin, agreeing that the rib eye may win purely on flavour but pointing out that the sirloin would better suit Pete’s preference of medium-rare steak. The 400 gram Aberdeenshire sirloin is described as 28 day aged beef on the bone with bone marrow butter & chairman’s chips (£29.75) and is served with an excellent Béarnaise sauce, a green herb sauce, a pat of bone marrow butter and two herbed salts, rosemary and sage. That may sound overkill but it makes for a pleasant variety, and Pete enjoys his steak with the different sauces and salts in turn.


Crème brûlée, or Trinity burnt cream with Dorset blueberries (£6.50), as it’s listed here, can be tricky to do well but the texture and flavour of the custard are perfect. The blueberry compote is not too sweet, making it an excellent foil to the burnt sugar topping, of which there is just the right amount.

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The raspberry Eton mess (£6.50) is served with a raspberry coulis on the side, which Pete quickly pours into the glass. Although first appearances suggest insufficient meringue to fruit and cream, on eating the ratios prove themselves well judged.

Far too full to squeeze in a savoury (I could choose Welsh rabbit, buck rabbit or Scotch woodcock, priced at £7.50 each) we dither over whether to have tea and coffee or retire to our room. Our waitress, on overhearing, kindly suggests that she send these to us via room service and they arrive not long afterwards, with some delicious chocolate truffles.

A wonderful evening meal indeed.

The prices are a little on the high side – our bill would have been approximately £140 plus tip – even given the provenance of the ingredients and standard of cooking. This is a factor of being within a high end hotel, I guess. But given how busy the restaurant was during our visit, especially during lunch and afternoon tea, it’s clearly a price point the local population are happy to pay.

Head Down

Most of the rooms at Syon Park are fairly similar. The standard Syon rooms are very slightly smaller than the rest, at 27 square metres. The Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms are all described as 30 square metres, the difference lies in the views. Estate rooms look out onto the larger estate, garden ones give a view over the landscaped hotel gardens and so on. I’m guessing the standard ones have an outlook towards the car park, though the layout means they all look over grassy lawn first and foremost. After these categories are the junior suites, one bedroom suites and presidential suite.

The standard, Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms all share the same design and features. My photos are all of our Estate room, which looked out over the greenhouse.


I must make a mention of this quirky corridor which linked the farther accommodation block to the central building. Passing through, motion detectors trigger audio tracks of birdsong, horses hooves drumming along hard ground and snatches of strange poetry. More of that “outdoors in” theming which succeeded in making us giggle each and every time we walked through.

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How to describe the room styling? I’d say it’s traditional luxury applied with a firm nod to contemporary tastes.

I like the choice of furniture and bed linen and even the strange sculptural ceiling light.

I like the colours, which range from purples and blacks through to creams and pale browns.

I like the 42 inch HD TV with Apple TV, on which we play the latest LoveFilm DVD we popped into our luggage when we packed.

I like the large wardrobe with sufficient hangers for my clothes, that I can take out of the wardrobe to more easily use, and a light that comes on automatically whenever I open the doors (though I’m not so keen on the oversensitive sensor that switches the light on when I creep past to the bathroom during the night).

I like the sliding doors onto our own patio area with table and chairs. And I’m relieved to discover that, although we can see out clearly, with lots of sunshine flooding into the room, the glass is tinted such that the stream of passers-by walking along the path a short distance in front of our room can’t peep in.

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I love the spacious marble-lined bathroom with indulgent under-floor heating, walk-in monsoon shower and separate tub (with its own TV). I will be taking some inspiration from this bathroom for the makeover of the one at home.

The bed is huge and very comfortable, allowing for a restful sleep though I wish I’d thought to take advantage of the pillow menu, as the soft squishy default ones were far too soft and unsupportive for me.

I’d also advise you to take advantage of the “do not disturb” light when you’re in the room as housekeeping have a tendency to knock and barge into the room in a single fluid movement.

These are not rooms that will set the world on fire in terms of innovative design or experience. But they are attractive, comfortable and feel suitably indulgent, especially for the price.

A search for a Saturday night booking for 3-4 weeks time (at time of writing, in early November) came back with some great value rates such as £142.80 room only in a standard room, booked and paid for in advance, non-refundable, £258 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a standard room, which can be cancelled up to 4pm on date of arrival or £402 for advance purchase, non-refundable bed and breakfast in a luxurious junior suite.

Most Important Meal Of The Day

For someone who seldom has anything at all for breakfast at home, it’s amazing how hungry and eager I am to enjoy a hearty breakfast whenever I overnight at a nice hotel.

Initially tempted by the option of enjoying breakfast in our room (or on our private terrace, in warmer months) in the end I am swayed by my desire to check out the buffet and we traipse back to The Capability.

There are three choices when it comes to breakfast. One is to order from the appealing array of a la carte dishes, adding fruit juices and hot drinks as extras. The second is to fork out £22 per person for the breakfast buffet, which includes juices and hot drinks. The third is to spend £30 per person to enjoy your choice from both the buffet and the a la carte, drinks included.

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Of those two,I’d say the first and last are your best options. The buffet is underwhelming for the price, with a far smaller selection that I’d expect to see from a hotel at this level. You can see it in its entirety in the images above. It consists of a selection of cereals (with dried fruits and nuts), fresh fruit salad, fresh bread, a plate of smoked salmon and a very small choice of pastries.

Whilst I appreciate that the quality of the individual components is excellent, I do find it disappointing and have seen better choice in low and mid-range hotels.

The a la carte menu, on the other hand, is fantastic – a long list of appealing choices that we struggle to narrow down.

Prices are reasonable, though be warned, portions are on the small side.

In the end, we both go off piste. I order the fried Braddock’s white duck eggs on toasted sourdough with woodland mushrooms (£10.75) with a side of Streeton’s West London smoked salmon (which usually comes with scrambled eggs for £13.75 but is also part of the buffet) and Pete has a three egg omelette (£10.50) choosing cheese and tomatoes as his fillings and also an order of toasted crumpets with Marmite (£6.75).

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While we wait, toast, fruit juice and our hot drinks are served to the table. The jam and marmalade are particularly good.

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My egg, toast and mushrooms are decent (though I wish more care had been taken to brush the gritty dirt off the mushrooms). Streeton’s salmon is truly delicious.

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Pete’s omelette is of the heavy rather than fluffy variety, but well cooked and generous. The crumpets are home made but not freshly. His own are better!

Other options you might fancy for breakfast include the full English (£18.50), Eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale (£8.50 for 1 egg £12.75 for 2), Orkney kippers with lemon (£10.50), crêpes with spicy sausage, potatoes and onion (£11.50), waffles with wild boar bacon and Syon Park honey (£7.75) and a variety of smaller items such as Organic porridge (£6.75), toasted bagel with cream cheese (£6.75) and croissants, pain au chocolat and muffins (£5.50).

Rest & Relaxation

Like any good luxury hotel, London Syon Park has a spa. Kallima Spa offers a large, modern pool, a sauna and steam room and a jacuzzi, which are open to guests from 6.30 am to 10 pm in the evening. There is also a well-equipped gym.

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All the facilities are in the basement, which means no natural light but the designers have incorporated the lack of light into the design, going for a dark and sultry space lit by candles and with bold wall textures and designs.

Instead of providing a list of treatments that guests can book, at Kallima you specify (and are charged by) the duration of treatment and only discuss what it is you’d like on arrival.

Whilst I do appreciate the simplicity this brings to the pricing (our one hour treatments were priced at £96 each) I’m not entirely convinced by the discussion that establishes what treatment might be most suitable. Being asked to describe “the outcome you desire” must surely elicit one of only a small range of answers – to relax, to release muscular tension or to improve the skin? I say I am hoping to release tension, but without knowing what the options are, I’m limited by my memory of treatments offered elsewhere, and forced to make stabs in the dark about what I might like.

Unsurprisingly, given this process, I plump for a bog-standard massage and acquiesce to the suggested oils from the Anne Sémonin range.

After being lead to the changing room and lockers, where I wish they had private changing cubicles rather than an open changing room, I’m shown to a (rather chilly) relaxation and waiting room until my individual therapist collects me. The massage itself is very good, as one would expect. Pete (who also ended up with a massage) says the same. Afterwards, we are invited to return to the relaxation or change and head back to our rooms.

Skilled, well-trained and friendly staff ensure that our experiences are positive but I’m sure we’re not alone in finding the lack of structured information about potential treatments off-putting.

Only when I ask for more information the next day am I regaled with different kinds of massage, seaweed wraps, facials and pedicures and more.

As the spa is also open to non-residents, I strongly recommend booking time slots as far ahead of your visit as possible, especially if you would like to enjoy your treatments simultaneously.

In Totality

I think there are small things that London Syon Park can do better: stock control of wine and food ingredients, a rethink of Brownies’ menu and a more structured presentation of available spa treatments would not go amiss. And the landscaping of the outdoor green spaces has a way to go, though I know it’s already in hand.

However, for a hotel that’s been open only a few short months, I’m surprised by how much is well-designed and well implemented. It’s young but anything but brash!

Rooms are comfortable cocoons for relaxing. The bar and restaurant are fantastic. The public spaces are sumptuously appealing.

After just a one night stay, we came home feeling like we’d had a proper holiday and felt spoiled and relaxed.

What’s certain is that next time I’m looking for somewhere local for a relaxing celebratory minibreak away from home I won’t forget the option of dinner, bed and breakfast at the London Syon Park.

Kavey Eats was a guest of London Syon Park.


I remember reading about the beautiful rooms at the Fox & Anchor when they first opened, a few years ago. I no longer recall which travel magazine or supplement featured them, perhaps more than one, but I do remember being drawn by the modern styling and funky bath tubs. I’ve tried twice in the last few years to book a room, but I left it to the last-minute and they were fully booked both times.


There’s something wonderfully decadent about booking a nice hotel stay in your own town, and being a tourist for a day (or few) and it’s something Pete and I try to do on a semi-regular basis. We haven’t spent much time in this corner of East London, just by the famous Smithfield meat market.


During a recent Monday evening stay, we checked out the Fox & Anchor pub restaurant and rooms.

Staying Over

The first thing to note is that these rooms are not suitable for disabled visitors. There is no lift and several stretches of the narrow stair well have no hand rail at all. I found the stairs difficult, but managed, slowly, with Pete carrying all the luggage and my walking stick.

Arriving early afternoon, we were initially assigned Smithfield (on the third floor) but were swapped into The Market Suite after dinner, when we discovered our TV didn’t work and the helpful duty manager was not able to fix it.

Smithfield is not a large room but the space is used cleverly. Having the tub in the main room, and a walk-in shower in the bathroom, helps with this, and also allows for a small desk and chair to be tucked around the corner.

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We liked the styling of the room a lot.

The large expanse of windows lets in lots of light, though we had to keep the blinds down during the afternoon, as there’s an office block opposite which looks straight across.

The website describes the room as having a king size bed, but it seemed smaller to us, and definitely smaller than the bed in The Market Suite, also listed as king size.

Negatives included a a towel rail which we could not switch on. Apparently, it’s on the main central heating circuit, and individual rooms do not have any control over this. This was disappointing – even a cheap and basic seventies time warp bed and breakfast I stayed in recently had a towel rail that could be switched on independently of the central heating.

The lack of internet or wifi in the rooms was also a shame; it’s something I’d expect as standard in accommodation of this level, modern design and price point.

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The Market Suite is the largest room at the Fox & Anchor. Entry is straight into the long, long bathroom with walk-in shower and feature copper bath tub and sinks. From here one moves into the lounge area with comfortable sofa, TV and desk area and access to a private outdoor terrace area with table and chairs. Lastly, there is the bedroom, with king size bed and another TV.

It’s a very attractive room, but again we had a number of niggles which were frustrating.

There are no doors between the bedroom, lounge and bathroom. The only door is for the small toilet room. Lighting for the main bathroom and the toilet is on a single switch; we wanted to leave a light on in the toilet, should we need to find our way there during the night; this meant leaving the entire bathroom lit up like a carnival – not conducive to sleep. Separate control over lights, or perhaps a night light in the toilet, would resolve this.

Another no-no for sleepers who prefer a dark room were the two large sky lights, one in the bedroom and one in the lounge; these had no blinds so we were woken up pretty early when the room was flooded with sunlight.

Probably the single most incomprehensible aspect of the room for us was the bed linen. The sheets were far too small for the mattress so instead, two smaller sheets were used together. More irritating still, the sheet towards the foot of the bed was on top, which meant that, as you got into bed, your feet caught and pushed this sheet out of place. In the end, we stripped and remade the bed, putting the lower sheet underneath. Additionally, the width of the sheets meant there wasn’t sufficient to tuck in beneath the sides of the mattress, so the sheets came loose during the night.

At this price point, there’s simply no excuse for not having bed linen that fits the mattress, including enough spare sets to cover laundry delays.

Back to the positives, the coffee and tea facilities in the room were decent. Coffee came in a clever filter coffee bag – much nicer than the usual sachets of instant.

And Miller Harris toiletries were nice too.

The space within the room was lovely, and we’d definitely use the little terrace during a longer stay.

Also, a slightly later check-in time (of 3pm) means the Fox & Anchor are able to offer later check-out. Breakfast runs to a leisurely 11 am (and that’s the time by which you need to place your order, not finish eating) and rooms don’t need to be vacated until noon. We thoroughly approve, as late check-out is far more appealing than a slightly earlier check-in.

The Smithfield room costs £205 a night Mondays through Thursdays and £135 a night Fridays through Sundays.

The Market Suite costs £270 a night Mondays through Thursdays and £195 a night Fridays through Sundays.

These rates are room only, and do not include breakfast.

Eating In

We’ve eaten in the Fox and Anchor before and like it’s simple menu of classic, traditional British dishes with occasional international influences.

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On booking, we ask for a table in one of the little semi-private roomlets – I do like these, though there are many nooks and crannies in the main seating areas too.


Throughout the evening, we particularly enjoyed the very mellow live music, though we couldn’t see the musicians from our little corner. We liked their playlist of mostly ’70s and ’80s pop and rock classics.

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We ordered a scotch egg with curried mayonnaise (£6.50) to share with our first drinks, while we thought about what to order next. We were also brought a board of fresh bread, butter and salt crystals.

The scotch egg was delicious, with a really well flavoured and seasoned sausage meat and cooked beautifully. The curried mayonnaise gave just the right hint of curry without overwhelming the egg and sausage. A great start!

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Beer was, I’m afraid, a let down.

Planning to work his way through the 6 beers on draft, Pete started happily enough with a pint of the Fox & Anchor own-brand ale, brewed by Nethergate; a pleasant session beer.

This was followed by the Harveston Mild which was very clearly off with a really strong yeasty smell (and we’re not talking the normal beery yeast here) and vinegary flavour. We reported it to staff, and the duty manager immediately offered to replace it. We noticed later that it was taken off sale, so clearly something wrong there.

The replacement pint was Adnams Mild which, to Pete’s surprise, was also not right. Whilst not as robustly smelly as the Harveston, it had clearly seen much better days. According to the Adnams website, their mild is available during March into May only (we visited in mid-June), so it was probably kept on tap too long.

Again, the duty manager responded helpfully, and Pete switched again, this time to Sambrooks Junction. Much better, this tasted just as it should.

Lastly, he had a pint of Somerset & Dorset Ale. He noted that it was alright, but still had a touch of the stale about it.

For a pub that prides itself on its draft beer selection, the hit and miss nature of the 5 we tried doesn’t speak well of the storage and care of the beers. Maybe they don’t sell in sufficient quantities, and beers are kept too long… we don’t know.

The food, I’m happy to say, went down much better!


Pete started with the maldon smoked salmon, pumpernickel and cream fraiche [sic] (£6.95). Rich, soft salmon with a robust smoked flavour, sweet and malty bread which complemented the fish well and a dollop of crème fraiche which cut through the oiliness and lifted the whole dish.


I had the razor clam, chorizo and broad beans (£7.25) which was a generous plate indeed. The clams were extremely sweet and fresh, though I accidentally released a flood of grit onto my plate and into the sauce, when I twice cut into the stomachs, which had not been cut open and cleaned out. The chorizo was mild, which was nice, as it didn’t overwhelm the clams. The broad beans, oddly, tasted of nothing.

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For his main, Pete chose the Camden town beer battered cod, chips and mushy peas (£14.50). The fish and chips was served in a fryer basket, which looks great but isn’t very practical. Pete turned the contents out onto his plate, and then had to cast around finding space on the table for the discarded basket. The chips were big, crispy and well cooked. Batter was good and heavy. The fish inside was moist and tasty.


My hickory smoked ribs, chips, corn on the cob and coleslaw (£13.95) were served on a large wooden board. I had to ask for a side plate for the discarded bones. The ribs were tasty, with lots of well-marinaded meat (good and meaty, not pappy soft). Chips, as Pete’s, were decent and cob of corn fine. The coleslaw was bland though, and let the rest down a little.


Pete’s rhubarb crumble (£5.50)served with vanilla ice-cream, was given a big thumb’s up. It had a decent rhubarb hit and a tasty crumble; the right ratio of topping to fruit too.


My Eton mess (£5.50), made with English strawberries, of course, was delicious. Sometimes the simplest dishes, such as this, are the ones that many places get wrong, but for me the balance between meringue, cream and strawberries was spot on. I also liked that some strawberry puree or juice had mixed into the cream to give more fruit flavour.

Overall, we enjoyed our meal very much and service was friendly, helpful, attentive and relaxed.

To my surprise, by the time we made it down for breakfast, late morning, we had an appetite once again!

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My city boy breakfast (£16.50), available all day, really hit the spot. A pork and leek sausage, sweet cured bacon, 2 eggs any style, a minute steak, lambs kidney, chicken liver, white and black pudding, hash browns, fried bread, mushrooms and baked beans plus a pint of stout, which I declined! All the meat was full of flavour and well cooked, as were the eggs, which I requested poached. The fried bread was over cooked through, to that brittle point which made it shatter as I tried to cut it.

Pete’s large, circular bacon and cheese omelette was old-school, not overly fluffy, full of cheese and bacon. To me, it looked a bit odd, just plopped onto the huge plate like that, but it hit the spot, which is what counts.

As we headed back up to our room after breakfast, we, like the other guests, were encouraged to take our time and reminded that we didn’t need to check out till noon.


Overall we liked our stay. There are a number of small changes that could improve the accommodation experience significantly, though the rooms are, on the whole, attractive and making good use of space.

Food and service in the pub are great; just what we look for from a laid back pub restaurant and a great place to catch up with friends. We do hope they review and resolve their draft beer issues as this was the main let down during our evening there.

Kavey Eats was a guest of the Fox & Anchor.

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Jun 232011

We had a marvellous fortnight in Lebanon, as will already be clear from my recent posts about the overall trip and our day with Abu Kassem. After our Taste Lebanon tour was over, Pete and I stayed on in Beirut for 3 extra days, basing ourselves at The Phoenicia hotel, part of the InterContintental group.

About The Phoenicia

It was during Lebanon’s golden era in the 1950s and ’60s that Lebanese businessman Najib Salha decided to build a world class hotel on the shores of Beirut. With a group of like-minded investors, he founded La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban and invited American architect Edward Durell Stone to design his dream hotel.

The Phoenicia InterContinental opened its doors 8 years later in 1961.

It immediately became a firm favourite with the rich and famous jet set and was party central for royalty, world leaders, celebrities, businessmen not to mention wealthy Lebanese.

After years of closure due to the war, La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban decided to rebuild Beirut’s grand dame. After extensive refurbishment and extensions, it reopened in 2000.

In its new incarnation, it offers 446 rooms and suites plus a residential complex with serviced apartments. As well as its own range of restaurants, the larger complex also provides a home to a number of other stores and restaurants including the Beirut outpost of Gaucho.

This year The Phoenicia celebrates 50 years since its original opening.


Our Room

Invited for a review visit, we were allocated a Club InterContinental room which comes with its own check-in and check-out area on the 6th floor, a club lounge area in which complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening finger food buffet are served during the day, access to a business centre and library plus use of the meeting room if required, WiFi in the room and public spaces (and high speed internet in the room), complimentary limousine transfers (though these only seem to be offered for pick up from the airport and not drop off back to it), a butler service to help with in-room or concierge needs and a complimentary 15 minute neck massage, plus discount on any further spa treatments.


Our room was lovely and spacious. The king size bed was comfortable, a usable desk working area with internet, TV and mini bar fridge, wardrobe space plus a handy storage for suitcases and bags, so they didn’t clutter up the room. I would have preferred a two-seater sofa or two arm chairs to the chaise-longue but that’s just me.

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I liked our little balcony, with side views of the marina and coast. The windows were well sound-proofed against the constant buzz of traffic below.

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And the bathroom was super lovely, with a large walk-in shower closet, a separate bath, gorgeous L’Occitane toiletries and a separate toilet area.

What we liked about our room is that it was a space we were happy to relax in, and felt positive about coming back to during the day and for the night. You might think this is a no-brainer but, believe me, our first night in Lebanon (after which we moved quick sharpish) made it strikingly clear that this is not always the case!

The only negative with our room was the number of times we were interrupted for house keeping services, turn down service and then, the one that really annoyed, a manager check that the turn down service had been provided or offered. This was not just for us because we were on a review visit, but repeated along the length of the club rooms corridor, I think. I felt like responding that if they didn’t trust their staff to perform the duties they were paid for, they should employ people they did!

Public Spaces


As expected from a hotel of this stature, public spaces are enormous and sumptuously decorated, though they’ve been refurbished lately with a lighter, more modern touch, introducing sleeker silver check in desks, purples and greys in carpets and furnishings and less of the heavy gold and red that we were told used to be prevalent. At the same time, with all the gleaming marble, one doesn’t forget one’s in a traditional luxury hotel!

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Outdoors is an attractive pool area with plenty of greenery, day beds, seating areas and the Amethyste bar area. We tried to enjoy a drink here one evening but a wedding party in a nearby building had their music turned up outrageously loud, not the fault of The Phoenicia. What made it worse was the hotel bar’s insistence on keeping their own loud music switched on – the clash between the two was unbearable and we gave up and retreated indoors to the Cascade lobby lounge. A shame as the seating areas around the pool are delightful; one of my favourite spaces in the hotel.

We didn’t make it into the outdoor pool during our May visit, as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough.

Spa Pool

fromweb phoenicia pool
located via Google image search, no photographer information found

Instead we used the indoor pool within the spa area. This has been well designed. The separate mens’ and womens’ changing areas each have steam rooms and showers. A large shared jacuzzi is in the open area next to the pool. The pool has high ceilings and is just big enough to do lengths if you want to exercise a little. (There is a gym nearby, for those who really want to work out; I walked past without giving it a second glance). I particularly loved looking out while I was floating in the pool, through immense glass windows, onto a residential scene that summed up Beirut – a number of beautifully refurbished buildings and one windowless shell, pockmarked by sniper fire and bombs.

Spa Treatments

Next to the indoor pool and changing rooms is the spa reception, and, up on a mezzanine floor, the treatment rooms. We booked a massage each, Pete opting for a 50 minute hour Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage and me for an 80 minute therapeutic deep tissue massage. Pete couldn’t work out why the treatment was classified as Ayurvedic, since it had no Ayurvedic aspects to it. At all. None. Moreover, it was an average massage at best. Not bad per se, but not good.

Mine was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, my therapist sulked when I didn’t take him up on his determined offer to split my treatment time between massage and therapist-directed (power) jet shower. This came up twice more during the massage itself, too. Then, we started the treatment to the thunder of drilling work, the treatment room clearly just on the other side of the wall from the construction work on Mosaic restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I could feel the vibrations reverberating through my head. My therapist quickly worked out this wasn’t going to work and left me lying there as he went off, for a very long time indeed, to find an alternative. Of course, the spa were not to blame, having not known about it, but some internal communications in advance would have allowed the spa to avoid accepting bookings for those treatment rooms during the noisiest works. Eventually, he returned and said we’d use a free bedroom within the hotel, where a mobile massage table had been set up. I was not very comfortable following him through the hotel in a too-small bathrobe, but eventually we got into the room, only to find it didn’t have a massage table. Off he went again to get the key for the correct room, and then we had to wait again for the massage oils and towels to be delivered. The massage itself, sorry to say, was also not very good, with the therapist refusing to heed my requests about where on my body to focus his time, or to work more gently. Nor did it help that he sat down for so much of it, meaning he didn’t get a decent angle with which to reach my back muscles. He stopped to grab himself a drink from the minibar in the middle too! Near the end, he wanted to work on my neck. Immediately, I told him that I’ve had some issues with my neck, something I’d mentioned during our initial discussion, and to go very gently indeed. He ignored me once again, actually strong arming my resistance away, insisting he knew best. I’m just lucky he didn’t do any damage and I was not a happy bunny. Five minutes before the end of our allotted time, the spa reception called the room to check whether he’d finished; surely better to wait until he called them than risk interrupting the client’s treatment. And to cap it all, he then insisted on asking me in person, what I’d thought of the treatment. Alone in a bedroom with a therapist who had delivered a bullying treatment, I was too timid to say anything other than “time will tell” before escaping as quickly as I could and feeding back in detail to management shortly afterwards.

Offered a replacement massage, I was reluctant but agreed to give it ago. I was assigned to Imad who took genuine time to check my medical details and requirements, and gave me, in complete contrast, one of the best massages I’d had in my life, though marred a little by the bruising left from the first treatment. With his excellent massage training, not to mention diploma in osteopathy and further training in reflexology, Imad was a great therapist and he fixed a lot of the pain caused the previous day and helped with some of the aches I’d hoped to heal in the first place. He is one of the best therapists I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

Were all the therapists at The Phoenicia of the same calibre, I would not hesitate to recommend that you book a treatment here. But our 1 out of 3 hit rate means I’m loathe to do so; it’s a hit and miss affair and the hotel needs to invest a lot more effort into hiring and training better therapists.


The hotel offers a number of dining options from casual to formal.

I met with the hotel’s executive chef Jacques Rossel and with Rabih Fouany, Eau de Vie’s head chef, ahead of our evening meal there. Here’s an interview.


Eau de Vie

The Eau de Vie is The Phoenicia’s flagship restaurant, situated on the eighth floor, with views out over the sea and the city and offering French and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s recently been refurbished and we all found it a calming space, in muted colours and simple, elegant lines. Window tables were each separated by chiffon curtained partition walls, giving welcome privacy. Live music was pleasant, but not too loud to preclude conversation. Service was helpful, friendly but not overly obsequious.

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Foie gras was served in a generous slice though more brioche would not have gone amiss; rich and unctuous, as it should be.

Caesar salad was brought on a large trolley and assembled in front of the diner, with the dressing made fresh. The only question asked was whether the diner wanted anchovies and, disappointingly, these were not crushed and mixed into the dressing. The romaine leaves were very fresh and sweet, but the dressing was deemed so-so.

Cod croquettes were given the thumbs up.

The tomato tart with lobster salad was light and sweet from the small tomatoes. The lobster had a nice texture but didn’t have much flavour.

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The wagyu burger was deemed excellent – cooked pink inside, as agreed on ordering, and decent moist meat.

Chicken chasseur was rich with the flavour of mushrooms and bacon in a thick sauce, and served without fussiness, befitting the nature of the dish.

I had been about to order a regular steak but was encouraged to try the wagyu version instead. All the beef, wagyu and regular, was from Australia, by the way. I gave in to the upsell and was pleasantly surprised. My steak had great flavour but was also far more tender than I would normally have expected from the cut (though which cut has slipped my mind, and I failed to note it down).

The stand out dish of the meal was seabass with mushroom sauce. The seabass was absolutely superbly cooked, if I’m pressing this point, it’s because it really was a perfect balance between firm, moist and tender. And, to our surprise, the robust and rich marsala mushroom sauce did not overwhelm the fish, the flavour of which came through very clearly. Vegetables were simple and cooked with a light touch. The odd pipette of extra sauce stuck into the croquette at a jaunty angle was an odd touch, an out of place nod to molecular cuisine, perhaps.

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An assiette of chocolate desserts was decent, with mousses, a chocolate lychee shot and a macaron.

A chocolate praline (not pictured) was excellent, with great flavours and just the right crunchy texture.

The crème brûlée trio – vanilla, raspberry and sumac – was the winner for this course. Pete is very fussy about the texture of the crème custard and gave it top marks. Both the vanilla and the raspberry flavours were tasty. But, oh my, that sumac one was delicious, imparting a refreshing citrus flavour to the custard. I hadn’t thought it would work but everyone tried and really liked it.

With our meal we enjoyed a Ksara rosé Gris de Gris before and with the starters. With our mains, the restaurant General Manager, Nicki, recommended a Massaya red which she described as fruity and full but which would still work with the fish dish as well as the meat ones. She was right, the three red drinkers agreed!

After our meal we enjoyed a digestif each – two chose whiskies from the extensive whisky bar menu and two of us had a glass of dessert wine.

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Coffees and teas came with a visit from the petits fours trolley, which is fun to choose from.

Our meal was on the house, but the bill would have been approximately $470 between four of us. That said, the red wine selected for us cost more than what we’d have selected on our own and both Pete and I were encouraged to have wagyu burgers and steak rather than regular. And we were invited to try the whisky bar too. You could dine for a fair bit less here, but you are still paying a premium for the view, the exclusive environment, the posh hotel level of service and the location within an expensive hotel.

That said, we did have a very enjoyable evening.

Caffe Mondo

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At the other end of the scale is Caffe Mondo, a casual Italian eatery that Bethany told us was a favourite hang out during her student days. The prices here were on par with many lower to middle range Beirut restaurants and we thought it great value and tasty too.

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Most of the starters were intended for one but Pete’s caprese di bufala al pesto was enormous, easily enough for two and priced at similar point to my starter, labelled as for two. It was lovely good with moist, flavoursome mozzarella, decent tomatoes and a pleasant but not overpowering pesto.

I really really fancied the deep fried calamari rings (described on the menu as for two people) so ordered it anyway and stuck to my guns in not finishing it, so I’d have room left for my pizza! Fresh squid, a light batter, cooked for just the right amount of time, served hot with two dips, it was just the ticket.

The starters were on the pricey side, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 Lebanese pounds (1,500 LP = $1).

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Most mains were much more reasonable with pastas costing 12,500 to 19,000 Lebanese pounds and pizzas between 20,000 and 27,500 though fish and meat dishes ranged from 26,000 to a whopping 120,000 for a grilled wagyu sirloin.

The pizza chef worked at a counter open to the restaurant, so we could watch him tossing and stretching the dough, before adding toppings and cooking the pizzas in a proper pizza oven. They were both excellent and as good as my favourites in London and Italy.

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Grazers also be interested in the lunch and dinner buffets which are extensive and varied, and I think priced at around $20. The buffet shelf features an integrated chiller unit that keeps the food cold. I have often found restaurant buffet selections disappointing but I’d have been happy to dine from this one.

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Tiramisu (10,000) was pretty good. But hazelnut pannacotta (also 10,000) was awful, with about 10 times the amount of gelatine required, it was like spooning into solid rubber, and after a couple of bouncy bites, I gave up. A shame, as the flavour was decent.

Other Dining


Also in the hotel is Wok Wok offering pan Asian cuisine, Amethyste bar offering drinks and bar snacks and the Cascade Lobby Lounge serving drinks and light meals. The hotel’s all day dining restaurant, Mosaic, is currently undergoing major refurbishment, and is scheduled to reopen later in the year.

Service and Ambience

A friend had visited Beirut last year, accompanying her husband who was there on business. She had described The Phoenicia a little impersonal, and said that service (for their large business group) was a bit slow, so I’d been nervous about how we’d find it. To my relief, we genuinely enjoyed our stay, and were treated with courtesy and a helpful attitude by staff throughout the hotel. Of course, with over 400 rooms, there is a vast army of staff, most of whom will interact with any given guest only once, if at all. However, the staff in the Club lounge, who look after a smaller subset of guests, clearly made efforts to remember and interact personally with all their customers.

Certainly, The Phoenicia is a more traditional style of hotel than we naturally gravitate towards, but it’s attractive, comfortable and offers good service, albeit for a price (see below).

Additionally, my friend had commented on the views from the hotel out over derelict neighbouring buildings, finding them unappealing to look at. But I must confess, I found them a bittersweet reminder of Beirut’s war-ravaged history and often could not tear my eyes away from the contrast between new or refurbished buildings and derelict buildings standing cheek to cheek.

Even the Stop Solidere signs intrigued me, a political protest against state-approved but privately owned building projects that are erasing all trace of Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past. Returning Beirut to its pre-civil war appearance, argue the protestors, amounts to state-sponsored amnesia regarding a period that had such impact on Lebanese lives and culture. I’m not remotely qualified to hold an opinion, but find this debate fascinating, drawn as I am by the history those war-pocked shells evoke.

If you prefer modern style to traditional, my friend recommended the more intimate Le Gray, which has an excellent location in the heart of town, near the new souk shopping district, Place de l’Etoile, Martyrs’ Square and many other sites. The Phoenicia is about a kilometre or so further from these sites, so still well located for both business and tourist visitors.




The Phoenicia is not a budget option, by any stretch of the imagination. Standard rooms cost from $400 a night. Our Club rooms cost from $700 a night. (This is very comparable with other high end hotels in Beirut, including Le Gray).

Spa treatments are at the top end of what I’ve come across, even in hotel spas, with Pete’s 50 minute Ayurvedic massage priced at $110, my first (80 minute) massage priced at $133 and the replacement massage priced at $100.

The dining options range from very reasonable to pretty high. (We found eating out in Beirut was more expensive, generally, than we’d expected; on a par with London prices).

Extras are not cheap either; for example, we found the taxi service used by the concierge service was (literally) twice the price of the one we’d been using throughout the week, as recommended in our Taste Lebanon information pack.

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views from the penthouse suite, an incredible and enormous space on the 22nd floor, yours for $9,000 a night…

For all that, you do get what you pay for. The Phoenicia of 2011 still reflects the opulence, tradition and service of i’s jet set hey day and offers what you’d expect from a hotel of its style and calibre.

Beirut is an expensive city, but one I am eager to get back to.

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Phoenicia hotel.

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