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.

IMG_1284

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!

IMG_1205-1

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:

IMG_1279-1

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.

IMG_1278-1

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.

IMG_1217-1

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

IMG_1211-1

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.

IMG_1285-1

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.

IMG_1288-1

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.

IMG_1276-1

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.

London’s Airports

Many visitors to the UK don’t realise that London is served by 6 Airports. Depending on destination or point of origin there may be no choice but if there is, where you land or take off from can make a huge difference to your comfort as well as the length and cost of your overland journey.

flight2

DonQui Oaty has previously extolled the virtues of tiny Southend Airport which is the furthest to the east of London.

Now he is flying to Dublin from London City Airport which is DonQui’s favourite London airport. Amongst its advantages is that it is actually in London and easy to get to or from on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and Underground, without needing to resort to the long and expensive train journeys all the other airports require. Unlike the often chaotic, hectic larger airports, London City (LCY) is quite civilised and comfortable. As a creature who likes his comfort, this is rather important for DonQui.

IMG_1197

As it is actually in London, LCY is, necessarily, a very small airport with a short runway suitable only for quick hops to nearby European cities. Therefore there are no transcontinental flights but there are good connections to other international hubs such as Amsterdam and Paris. As LCY tends to cater to business passengers the flights can be on the pricy side compared to the budget fights out of Stansted, Luton, Gatwick and Southend.

IMG_1203

There are no lounges but the whole departure area feels a bit like a business lounge so there is no need. There are plenty of seats, good food and drink options and no hordes of package holiday-makers.

IMG_1200a

It has been pointed out to DonQui that there are no opportunities to to stock up on toiletries or cosmetics in the departure area to get around the 100ml security limit for liquids and gels. Therefore if you wish to cary such things you will need to check a bag. DonQui has a pre-packed plastic bag with small sized amounts of such things for his travels so this does not bother him.

So what of London’s other airports? Here is DonQui’s biased guide, moving around London in a clockwise direction from the west:

Heathrow: Often hard to avoid if you have a transcontinental flight, Europe’s busiest airport can be hectic and daunting although it is well organised. With 5 huge terminals you need to know which one your airline will be using as although T1-3 are within walking distance of each other T4 and T5 will require bus or train transfers. Heathrow is convenient for the west but the Heathrow express into Paddington station is expensive. If you are short on cash you can take the regular commuter train at a fraction of the price or the Tube (Subway for North Americans). Both of the cheaper options take much longer — 45 minutes on the Tube vs 20 minutes on the Heathrow express.

Luton: Relatively small and dominated by Ryanair — DonQui’s least favourite airline. As a result this is the only London airport he has not flown from so cannot give a view. The journey into London tends to take about 30-40 minutes to St Pancras

Stansted: London’s third largest airport to the north is not one of DonQui’s favourites. It serves mostly budget airlines so there are good bargains to many European cities but it is overcrowded and chaotic. The journey into London can take an hour and the so-called Stansted Express which goes to Liverpool Street Station is not very express-like.

Southend: A great little airport well to the east of London serving only a small number of destinations with budget airlines. The trip into London Liverpool St station will take almost an hour.

Gatwick: With two terminals Gatwick is a sort of budget version of Heathrow with some major airlines using it and with some intercontinental flights. Although smaller it seems more overcrowded and more unpleasant than Heathrow. One plus for Gatwick is the Bloc Hotel inside the South Terminal which is great for an overnight if you have a ghastly o’clock start. There are good (approx 30min) connections by train to Victoria and London Bridge stations as well as Brighton to the south.

airports_map

If by some unfortunate circumstance you are transiting through London and have to change airports then DonQui pities you. DonQui would rather walk over hot coals than attempt it himself. Only London City airport is actually in Greater London. All the others are many miles away.

 

A Lisbon Getaway

IMG_0593

DonQui is in Lisbon for a couple of days. It is a spur of the moment idea prompted by a desire to visit a great city he has never been to before along with the opportunity for a bit of southern European ambience and warm sunshine.

 

IMG_0506.JPG

Readers will be well aware of DonQui’s love of food. When he stumbles upon the Mercado da Baixa he feels that he has come to the right place.

IMG_0516

After a grazing on some of the delicious free samples on offer he cannot pass up the temptation of purchasing some smoked sausages to take home with him.

For a major city, Lisbon is relatively small and compact which should make it perfect for simply wandering around. Perfection, however, is marred by the choking traffic belching fumes up his nostrils with cars, vans and motorbikes leaving their engines to idle as they wait to move on.

IMG_0637
Fortunately there are many pedestrianised roads but these too have their hazards. Uneven and very slippery cobblestones mean that he has to tread very carefully.

His chosen stable is the very pleasant Lisboa Carmo Hotel, on the Largo do Carmo square which is where the revolution of 1974 overthrew the dictatorship. Close to the Bario Alto with its many bars, cafés and restaurants, the Hotel is perfectly placed as far as DonQui is concerned.

IMG_0555.jpg

Despite the cobblestone hazards, DonQui enjoys the fact that he is able to walk everywhere he wishes to go without needing to use public transport. This allows him to slowly explore the city and there are plenty of interesting back roads providing respite from the traffic.

IMG_0614

When some of the many hills become a bit much he takes advantage of the funky funicular trams which whisk him back up to the top of the hill for a very reasonable price.

IMG_0565.jpg

The weather is just about perfect. Each day is sunny with the temperature reaching 27º C in the day and dropping down to around 15º at night. Neither too hot nor too cold it makes for a very comfortable few April days.

One of the great joys of southern Europe is the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a drink outside with good food and wine at reasonable prices. Lisbon is no exception. Although there are perhaps fewer restaurants and cafés spilling out into the streets than DonQui might have expected there are still plenty of good places — the danger of traffic fumes not withstanding. The first place DonQui stops at for a beer is marred by the fact that he does not notice the bus stop nearby. When a tourist bus pulls up and leaves its engine idling for a good 10 minutes, DonQui decides to move on.

IMG_0585.jpg

A far better choice is Flor Dos Arcos, at the end of a winding ally in the medieval Alfama district near the Fado museum. Here he samples for the first time the delicious cheese that is offered (for a small price) along with bread and olives. With freshly caught sea bass to follow DonQui has an excellent lunch under the shade of an umbrella in a friendly, casual atmosphere.

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.

grounds.jpg

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

cocoa shed.jpg

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.

bedroom.jpg

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.

geko.jpg

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.

verandah.jpg

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.

vegetation.jpg

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.

bamboo restautant.jpg

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.

goat curry.jpg
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.

coctail party.jpg
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.

Boucan.jpg

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.

menu.jpg

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.

tortelini.jpg

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.

dahl.jpg

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.

desert.jpg

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.

inside.jpg

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.

outside.jpg

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.

Black Forest Adventures

Reisling.jpg

After a couple of days in Strasbourg, during which DonQui took the opportunity to have a glass or three of the most excellent Alsatian Riesling (unfortunately very hard to find in the UK), he hires a car and makes his way over to the German side of the Rhine for a brief trip around the Black Forest.

Durbach.jpg

His starting point is amongst the vineyards of Durbach where, in DonQui’s opinion, some of the best wine in Germany is to be found. None of it is exported so it is a treat he very much looks forward to whenever he is in the region. Those whose who have no experience of German wine, apart from the mass-produced stuff that makes it overseas, may be surprised by the superior quality that the inhabitants of the Rhine valley keep for themselves

Rebstock.jpg

He stays at the most excellent Hotel Rebstock. In high summer season the prices there can be a bit eye-watering but off season it is very reasonable for a top-end establishment.

food.jpg

The food is superb…

atmosphere.jpg

.. and the atmosphere most congenial.

fire.jpg

In acknowledgement of the cold winter temperatures, they even lit fires in the grounds.

black forest.jpg

Beyond the low vine covered hills at the edge of the Rhine Valley lies the Black Forest, so named for the dark pine trees which grow on the slopes of the steep hills (almost low mountains).

house.jpg

As he descends into the valleys DonQui cannot help but admire the wonderful architecture of the Black Forest farms. The pre-Christmas scene is made more atmospheric by the dusting of snow on the hills. At one point he spies two magnificently antlered Hirsch (large deer) grazing in a meadow.

triberg.jpg

DonQui’s destination is Triberg, home of the Cuckoo Clock and also Germany’s highest waterfall. A well maintained walkway allows him to wander up alongside the waterfall where icicles form along the sides.

Gengenbach.jpg

On the way back he stops off at the beautifully preserved late-medieval town of Gengenbach. This was a Reichsstadt (Imperial city) in the 15-1700s — held directly by the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna rather than being controlled by local nobles. A Christmas market is in full swing so DonQui takes the opportunity to stock up on a few comestibles.

town hall.jpg

The town hall is decorated as an advent calendar with each window representing the days before Christmas.

IMG_9329.jpgWandering through the Black Forest it is hard not to imagine ancient stories of wolves, trolls and fairies. DonQui even spies one dipping her toes in a pond.