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.

 

Pre-Theatre Feast

On a recent visit to London Don Qui decided to try out a restaurant he has not been to before. Looking for a place that offered an early supper so he could go to a play, he settled on Blanchette on the Regent Street side of Soho.

It was a very good choice. Offering ‘French style sharing plates’ Blanchette was perfect for a relatively light meal with lots of interesting and tasty morsels on offer.

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Blanchette is a relatively small establishment and at 5pm the place was already heaving, helped by the warm spring day. Several diners sat at the bar by the wide open window or outside, enjoying both the food and the far too infrequent English sun.

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Between him and Duchess, DonQui sampled crispy frogs legs, goat’s cheese, chicken breast in a morel sauce with asparagus and peas, crispy squid, and probably the best pommes frites he has ever tasted along with béarnaise sauce for dipping. This was all washed down with an excellent Beaujolais and finished off with a near perfect creme brûlée and a calvados.

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The crispy frogs legs and crispy squid were both battered and fried with herby batter being the dominant taste. It was probably a mistake to order both but when DonQui explained that this was why he had not eaten all the squid the kindly waitress offered to take it off the final bill.

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Service was friendly and knowledgeable and the place had a relaxed vibe. As DonQui likes to take his time over a meal he felt that the dishes perhaps came a bit too quickly in succession for his taste. If one was in a bit of a hurry to make it to the theatre on time then this would not necessarily be a bad thing.

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.

Relaxing at a Cocoa Plantation

After the indulgent luxury of Sugar Beach, DonQui decides something a bit more rustic, authentically Caribbean and affordable is in order.

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So it is that he finds himself up in the rainforest above Sugar Beach at the wonderful Fond Doux (Sweet Valley).

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Fond Doux is a working organic cocoa plantation owned and run by local St Lucians. Nestled on the hillside, tucked in amongst the lush vegetation are 15 colonial style holiday cottages.

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There is no TV, no air conditioning but there is wifi. The comfortable welcoming cottages are well designed to be airy and cool even when it is hot outside.

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DonQui is quite happy to make friends with the resident gecko who shares the cottage. He is glad that it is a lizard not a spider keeping the insect population down as DonQui has issues with spiders.

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The spacious verandah is a perfect places to sit out and let the day slip slowly by. DonQui’s even has its own plunge pool.

At night the insect noise from the forest is so intense that DonQui uses ear plugs when he tucks himself into bed beneath the mosquito net. At around 05:30 the insects take cover as the birds begin to wake up and salute the rising sun with a deafening dawn chorus.

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It is a perfect place to laze about, take the odd walk or two through the lush vegetation or lie by the pool with its soothing artificial waterfalls.

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The Bamboo Restaurant on site may not offer fine dining but it is it pretty good with St Lucian staples such as goat curry, jerk chicken, roti, and locally caught king fish and mahi-mahi on the menu.

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Goat curry with rice, plantain, and a bit of jerk chicken which DonQui stole from Duchess’ plate. DonQui washed it down with a couple of chilled glasses of the local Piton beer while Duchess experimented with various coconut and chocolate cocktails.

DonQui highly recommends Fond Doux if you want a few days to chill out and relax. He also highly recommends booking a massage. It is probably not the place to go if you are looking for action-packed days or a beach holiday. There is a daily shuttle which goes to sugar beach but DonQui did not bother taking it as he much preferred to simply laze about on the plantation.

The staff are super friendly and helpful, The owners Lyton and Eroline are often around and are more than happy to chat with guests. On Thursday nights they host a cocktail party for guests, staff and local dignitaries.

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The ebullient Lyton Lamontagne holds court at his weekly cocktail party

 

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.

Strasbourg by Train

DonQui is off on his travels again. This time he is going to Strasbourg — one of his favourite European cities.

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He has rather gone off flying these days. Except for those far too rare occasions when he manages to upgrade to business class, he finds airports and aeroplanes increasingly unpleasant.

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Encouraged by the success of his trip to Spain by train last year, DonQui again decides to take the Eurostar from London and the super fast TGV (train à grande vitesse) on to Strasbourg.

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Rather than changing trains in Paris he takes a tip from the kindly Man in Seat 61 and goes to Lille where he can change trains at the same station. He booked his tickets through Loco 2 which makes trans continental booking all very simple.

It all goes very smoothly. The 30 minutes between the Eurostar’s arrival in Lille and the TGV’s departure to Strasbourg is more than enough time. Changing in Paris necessitates a change of stations which involves more of hassle, uncertainty and time.

So why Strasbourg and why this time of year?

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Well it is cold — bitterly so from DonQui’s perspective even if his Canadian relatives might beg to differ. Claiming the title of ‘Christmas Capital’ Strasbourg hosts the oldest constantly running Christmas market in Europe, dating back to 1570.

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Some of the decorations are a little bit ‘over the top’ perhaps so much that they start to become ironic. Despite the cold weather the atmosphere is congenial and there are plenty of places to warm up with waffles, Glühwein and even hot spiced orange juice.

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Packed full of excellent restaurants serving hearty Alsatian fare washed down with excellent local wines (Alsatian riesling is the best in DonQui’s opinion) there are plenty of great excuses to get out of the cold and settle in for a couple of hours.

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The wonderfully compact medieval centre of Strasbourg is made for strolling although a boat tour around the circumvallating River Ille is well worth it in DonQui’s opinion. With its mix of French and German culture it is the sort of place to wander around, discover hidden secrets down a cobbled ally, and take in the atmosphere. It is just the sort of place DonQui loves returning to.