Blackrock Dublin

The Dublin Cookery School, which DonQui Oaty wrote about in his last post, is located in Blackrock — a Dublin suburb on the coast, a few kms south of the city proper. It is unlikely DonQui would have stayed in Blackrock had it not been for his course at the Cookery School and that would have been a pity.

First impressions, as the airport bus drops DonQui off outside a bland looking shopping centre, are not auspicious. The area seems to have quite a suburban feel to it with lots of traffic and modern buildings.

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Yet tucked away behind the shopping centre, towards Dublin Bay, is a pleasant park and a number of quiet streets filled with coffee shops, pubs and eateries of all kinds from Indian to Italian and, of course, Irish. There is also a small quirky antiques market with yet more places to eat and drink. Some are little more than small stalls, others are cafés, and there is also an up-market restaurant.

This is more like it DonQui thinks!

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Just because it is on the coast of the Irish sea don’t expect a beach holiday in Blackrock. The view of Dublin Bay is atmospheric but it is not the sort of place to tempt DonQui to dip his hooves in the water. On a late spring/early summer’s day the weather is typically Irish with cloud and rain interspersed with all too infrequent sunny periods.

Over three days DonQui tests out many of the local eateries and watering holes. There are many more he would have liked to have tried but he will have to save these for another visit. In no particular order these are his views of the places he tried out:

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The Mellow Fig: From the outside it looks like a fairly traditional ‘caff’ where one might expect tea and a bacon and egg breakfast. Inside it is anything but that. With pastel colours it clearly caters to ‘yummy mummies’ in search of a light lunch or, yes, breakfast. The pastry and cake counter looks divine. DonQui’s breakfast at the Mellow Fig consists of an excellent croissant and one of the most perfect cappuccinos he has had in ages, The topping of high quality chocolate flakes rather than the usual cocoa powder is a very nice touch indeed.

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Rage: Although there are other things on the menu this place specialises in flame grilled steaks and that is what DonQui goes for. Nicely seared on the outside and evenly juicy inside, his sirloin steak lives up to expectations. The whiskey and mushroom sauce is divine and the accompanying triple-cooked chips are just as DonQui likes them — crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. His strawberry Eaton mess desert (see photo above) is a wonderfully calorific sweet to finish off with.

Flash Harry’s: Named after DonQui’s fictional hero — Harry Flashman as portrayed in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books rather than in Tom Brown’s School Days — he had to try out this bar. With football on the many television sets and a pool table outside the main bar area this is not the sort of place a non-sports fan like DonQui would normally frequent. That said Flash Harry’s has a decent selection of beers on tap and is pretty relaxed.

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Café Ciamei: This great little casual Italian restaurant is at the north end of Blackrock market.

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Their pizza’s are excellent with nice thin crispy crusts even if they are not cooked in a wood-fired oven. Duchess’ seafood risotto is indifferent but the atmosphere makes up for it. They also have superb proper Italian coffee. DonQui’s espresso is a tiny high-powered caffeine shot of the sort one might expect only to find in Italy.

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Dunne and Crescenzi: This was DonQui’s only disappointment. Billed as an upmarket Italian restaurant DonQui expected much. The atmosphere and very helpful waitresses lived up to expectation but unfortunately the food did not. At best it was ordinary and certainly not worth the prices nor the marketing.

Instead of fresh basil DonQui’s caprese salad came with pesto. The pesto was good but it was not a proper caprese and the tomatoes were tasteless. The main of grilled chicken supposedly came with a truffle and mushroom sauce but there is no hint of truffle, the chicken is overcooked, the accompanying roast potatoes are barely roasted and have frost damage.

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It is not often DonQui leaves much of his main dish but in this instance he does. To their credit, when DonQui tells the pleasant waitress of his views she is most apologetic and not only does not charge him for his main course but she throws in a free glass of wine. The house wine, it must be said, is really top-notch.

The owners started off selling fine Italian wines, salumi and cheeses and their wine certainly more than lives up to expectation. DonQui sees a nearby couple sharing a charcuterie board and given how good it looked he wishes he had ordered the same. He does not sample the cheese as when he asks if it had been left out of the fridge to let the flavour develop he is told that it had not. There are few things more sacrilegious in DonQui’s view than eating good cheese straight from the refrigerator.

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There is a direct bus to and from Dublin airport every hour and the city centre is quickly and easily reached from Blackrock station via the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) train. DonQui stayed in an excellent Airbnb apartment which was much more spacious and at a fraction of the price of a Dublin city hotel. Next time he visits Dublin, DonQui will probably stay in Blackrock again. There are still plenty of great looking restaurants for him to sample and it was very pleasant staying in a place with a local neighbourhood rather than touristy feel.

Eating and Drinking in Lisbon

The food and drink DonQui samples while in Lisbon are all of the highest quality and, when compared to London, they are very reasonably priced.

Portugal is well known for excellent seafood and DonQui can only concur. From shell fish to sea bass and cod, all the fish dishes DonQui has the pleasure to taste are superb. Cod is perhaps not DonQui’s favourite fish but it is a Portuguese staple. It comes in all forms from fresh to dried and salted the latter harking back to the time of the late medieval Portuguese fishermen who discovered the great cod stocks at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland long before refrigeration.

Several restaurants had their menus broken down onto sections: meat, vegetarian, fish and cod. The ‘cod’ section, interestingly separate from ‘fish’ and containing at least as many options as the other sections on the menu.

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At Café Luso DonQui enjoys a wonderful grilled dried cod while being entertained by traditional Fado musicians and singers.

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DonQui was not sure he would like Fado. He had heard that they were soulful laments and not understanding Portuguese he wondered if he could properly appreciate it. He need not have worried. The base, guitar and mandolin backers play a joyful accompaniment to the excellent singers. The combination of soulful vocals and upbeat music reminds him of American country and western and he wonders if there may be an historical connection.

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DonQui is not in Lisbon long enough to become an expert on the best places to eat but one place stands out — this is As Salgadeiras Restaurante, a short trot from his Lisboa Carmo hotel in the heat of the Barrio Alto. From the outside there is not much to see but stepping inside leads to a warm, friendly place with superb food and drink. He does not have a reservation but arriving early (at around 19:30) he is able to secure a place and he is lucky to do so as it quickly fills up to capacity.

starterAfter delicious starters of prawns in butter sauce and melon with cured ham DonQui and Duchess share a roasted kid goat with chestnuts and roast potatoes. Having no knowledge of Portuguese wines DonQui asks the kindly waiter for advice.

This is a good call. The waiter not only knows which wines will go best with his meal but he takes great pride in the quality and range of what is on offer. When DonQui tells him of the paucity of Portuguese wines to be found in the UK, the waiter says: “We keep the best ones for ourselves,” as he offers a glass which is both superb and reasonably priced.

Better still is a snifter of Palacio da Brejoeira, Aguardente Velha which is offered to DonQui when he asks if there is a good Portuguese equivalent to cognac.

palacio-da-brejoeira-aguardente-velha.jpg copy“We have everything in Portugal,” is the reply and the glass is presented with great ceremony. A splash of the  Aguardente Velha is poured, set on fire, swisshed around the glass to warm it up, then discarded before the drink is offered. It is not cheap and the waiter warns DonQui of the price.

“Is it worth it?” DonQui asked

“Absolutely,” the waiter replies.

And it is.

The dinner at As Salgadeiras is certainly the best DonQui has in Lisbon but other places stand out too.

officinaOfficina do Duque is a slightly up-market modern eatery with a relaxed atmosphere and innovative dishes. Confit lamb with mint sorbet and shredded oxtail were both excellent choices and the chocolate mouse afterwards was one of the best.

choc mouse.jpgThe latter is so good that DonQui cannot wait to take a photograph before tucking in but the empty dish and his slightly guilty look bears evidence of its decedent glory.

Beer in southern Europe often does not have the variety and flavour to be found in northern countries. Light, relatively flavourless lagers tend to be the norm and they are better suited to the hot weather than the richer, darker beers of Belgium or Britain.

IMG_0633.jpgWith relatively low expectations DonQui is delighted to stumble across  Duque, a tint craft beer brewpub, which offers shot glass tastes of the various brews which shatter DonQui’s prejudices.

street.jpgLisbon is full of little bars and cafés which offer a wide variety of food, drink and entertainment. Walking along Rua do Norte, DonQui is drawn by the sound of live music coming from a small place with maybe half a dozen tables. There is a crowd outside and when DonQui makes his way through it a table is suddenly vacated and DonQui takes the opportunity to sit down as the band plays a rendition of Sting’s “Englishman in New York.”

bar.jpgFronted by a charismatic 20-something cross between Janis Joplin and Susie Quatro the band is excellent. Although they play mostly covers they give them their own twist, their repertoire ranging from Bob Marley to Rage Against the Machine. By the time the night is over Duchess is on her feet bopping to the rhythms along with many of the other patrons.

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After shaking off the fuzziness of a fun evening, DonQui heads over to the Time Out food market. Here stalls from 24 restaurants and 8 bars are brought together under one roof including some of the very best restaurants in Lisbon. This seems like a great idea to DonQui but when he visits he feels it seems all too much like a food court in a shopping mall.

 

DonQui’s Easter Tradition

Every Easter DonQui likes to cook a whole leg of lamb for family and friends.

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The trick is getting a lovely fresh leg of spring lamb and marinating it in a herby-garlic mixture before roasting. DonQui feels particularly blessed as his butcher can be relied on to source him an excellent leg of local organic lamb.

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This has become something of a tradition and he has used the same recipe for years and he posted it last Easter on this blog under the title Easter lamb and so he will not repeat it now.

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Suffice it to say that it turned out as good as ever.

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An unusual and excellent accompaniment was a very good Canadian wine from British Columbia recently brought by DonQui’s sister from the other side of the world. Osoyoos Larose, from the Okanagan valley is a rich, well balanced, dusky dry wine reminiscent of a French Bordeaux. DonQui thought it went particularly well with the lamb.

 

 

A Leisurely Lunch

As a last treat before leaving St Lucia, DonQui has a long leisurely lunch at the Dasheene Restaurant which is part of the  Ladera resort just a short trot down the road from Fond Doux where he is staying.

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All the locals raved about it and they were right. The setting is idyllic. The view overlooking Sugar Beach is surely unbeatable.

Few things please DonQui more than lingering over an alfresco meal in hot weather with a good bottle of rosé and excellent food.

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The food is great with lots of tasty fish dishes on the menu which are perfect for a hot afternoon.

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DonQui reckons there is always room for desert but he is glad that he chose a relatively light main course to enjoy it properly.

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He hopes that one day he will return again.

Chocolate Cuisine

Avid readers of DonQui Oaty’s blog will be aware by now that he has a great fondness for chocolate.

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It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when Duchess asks him where he would like to go for dinner, DonQui suggests the Boucan restaurant on Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa plantation.

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According to the blurb the Hotel Chocolat’s restaurant: “explores the sweet and savoury nature of cocoa, together with the superb local  produce found on Saint Lucia.”  It is all about chocolate and every dish has at least some in it — even if only a few roasted cacao nibs.

DonQui’s starter is chicken liver parfait with poached pear, chocolate and black pepper-cacao nib crumble. The chocolate adds a rich spiciness to the liver and the pear balances the flavours nicely. The dish has quite an exotic taste — too rich to sample very often but DonQui is very glad to have experienced it.

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Duchess feels much the same about her cacao pasta filled with mahi-mahi fish and goat’s cheese — looks fabulous, most interesting taste but perhaps not something one would want to eat every day. This, of course, is the whole point of a special dining experience  such as this.

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Chocolate is less in evidence in the main courses. Chocolate spiced lentils with chickpeas and naan bread are a big hit with Duchess while DonQui tucks into a delicious local kingfish filet served with roast pineapple and dasheen. There is little evidence of chocolate here apart from a few nibs on top and a coconut sauce made with cocoa butter.

wine.jpgAll of this is nicely washed down by a fine Côtes de Provence rosé from a very good wine list put together by Berry Bros of London.

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As one might expect there are lots of chocolate delectables for desert but there are other options including one of Duchess’ favourites — Rum Baba with a good shot of the local St Lucian rum.

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The atmosphere is smart and laid-back at the same time. The restaurant is spacious, tastefully decorated in Hotel Chocolat’s trademark dark chocolate brown with magnificent views out over the estate. The staff are all very friendly and professional and diner was enhanced by a musician playing Bob Marley and Santana at just the right volume.

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DonQui is very glad he came and thought it was a most memorable experience. He highly recommends trying Hotel Chocolat at least once — an absolute must for chocoholics and adventurous diners looking for new flavour combinations.

For those not planning on going to St Lucia just yet, Hotel Chocolat also has restaurants in the UK; in London and Leeds.

Paradise in Saint Lucia

“Welcome to Paradise!” announces the jovial Mr Mugabe as DonQui trots out into the pleasant 28º heat at St Lucia’s Hewanorra airport. It turns out that the taxi driver’s name is McGuiver not Mugabe but DonQui’s ears have yet to become attuned to his West Indian accent.

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A proud St Lucian, Mr McGuiver drives DonQui south along the shore, proclaiming that he has lived on the island all his life and has never been anywhere else. When one lives in paradise it seems a bit pointless contemplating travels to another place.

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And first impressions do seem to confirm Mr McGuiver’s opinion.

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DonQui’s destination is Sugar Beach, a wonderful secluded estate set between the two Piton mountains on a lush hillside that used to be a sugar plantation. At the bottom of the hill is a pristine beach of white sand looking out onto a protected bay on the Caribbean side of the southern tip of the island.

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The accommodation is pretty decent too. DonQui’s villa is set on the hillside complete with plunge pool cascading over the edge of a verandah with views of the bay beyond.

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Inside all is pristine white with every comfort and convenience a globe-trotting donkey might require, including an on-call butler at the other end of a handy local mobile phone. One downside is that the villa is a long stroll from the beach. This is not too bad going down but is a bit of a trek coming back up the hill. Fortunately there are frequent tuc tucs roaming around the estate to whisk people from place to place. The other downside is the price. This sort of luxury does not come cheap but for an occasional indulgence DonQui thinks it well worth the lightening of his purse.

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Evidence of the French manager and French chef can be seen in the elegantly understated details and the quality of the food and drink. DonQui had not expected to be drinking a fine Alsatian Pinot Noir in the Caribbean but he enjoys one here.

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The food excellent but it is not cheap, nor most especially is the wine. There is a price to be paid for a reliance on French imports and although DonQui is a great fan of French cuisine he thinks a nod or two to local dishes with local ingredients would not go amiss.

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As the sun begins to set, DonQuis sips on a complimentary piton beer, listens to the sounds of a rather good jazz duo and looks out over the Anse des Pitons. It would be hard to imagine anywhere he would rather be at this moment.

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The affable resort manager was recently quoted saying that he has tried to create a sanctuary where everyday life is left outside the gates. DonQui thinks he has succeeded.

 

The Frontline Club

On an otherwise unremarkable street near Paddington Station lies DonQui’s home away from home in London…

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…this is the Frontline Club.

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On the ground floor at 13 Norfolk Place, London, W2 1QJ, is the excellent Frontline Restaurant which is open to non-members. While most of this part of London is given over to quick eats and the occasional good Middle Eastern or Malaysian establishment, Frontline offers excellent modern British cuisine. Fresh ingredients are often sourced from the Suffolk/Norfolk borderlands not far from DonQui’s home paddock of Southwold.

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The menu is relatively small with a few standard classic dishes and an ever-changing array of more interesting choices. Tonight DonQui opts for a deliciously simple dish of gnocchi with wild mushrooms and pecorino cheese. It is utterly delicious and quite satisfying, the cheese adding a lovely tang to the velvety mushroom sauce.

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Upstairs is the cosy members’ clubroom and bar. It is a perfect place to sit back, relax, have a drink or three and do a bit of work at the same time. DonQui is not the only one with his lap top open and a pint of Adnams beer (brewed in Southwold) by his side. There are also a number of rooms and it is in one of these where DonQui will rest his head tonight.

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William H. Russel’s boots and gloves from the Crimean War

The club was founded by war correspondents and caters particularly to journalists who have worked on the ‘frontline’. The restaurant and club are decorated with iconic photographs of war and  conflict while the members clubroom housed bric a brac brought back by journalists from the Crimean War in the 1850s to modern Afghanistan and Syria.

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One of the iconic war photos adorning the walls – this from the Vietnam War

As DonQui has a bit of a history trotting around various war zones with the media he feels quite at home here. You do not have to have had such experiences to become a member. If images of war and conflict put you off your dinner, however, you may not feel quite as at ease here as DonQui does.

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The Frontline hosts an interesting series of talks, screenings and workshops which are also open to non-members.

In 2010 Vaughan Smith, the Frontline’s founder, offered refuge to Julian Assange of Wikileaks. This caused quite some consternation amongst many members, DonQui included. Fortunately the Club distanced itself from Vaughan’s personal support for Assange. This did not prevent the American journalist James Kirchick from slagging off the club in The Spectator, as place “where members preen like latter-day Hemingways amid lovingly curated war-reporting memorabilia.”

Maybe DonQui fancies himself as a latter-day Hemmingway. Whether true or not he rather likes the place.