Off for some winter sun

IMG_9786.jpgThe first snow drops may be on their way…

Adnams-Jack-Brand-Mosaic-Pale-Ale-label.jpg… And Don Qui’s favourite Mosaic summer ale may be back on tap at his local.

Both of these are signs that Spring must be just around the corner. But it does not feel like it.

DonQui is heartily sick of the long cold, grey, damp, winter and so he has decided to head off to find some winter sun.

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His flight leaves from Gatwick Airport in the morning. Not being a great early morning animal he decides to stay overnight at the Bloc Hotel which is right inside Gatwick’s Terminal 2 by the departure gates from where his British Airways flight will be departing in the morning.

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A Weatherspoons’ pub is not the sort of establishment Don Qui would normally frequent. There are not any better options so not expecting much Don Qui goes inside in search of some refreshment. While far from gourmet, it is surprisingly OK and reasonable value for money.

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The Bloc Hotel is clean, functional, modern and has a few nice touches. Don Qui has stayed here before and finds the handy location by the departure gates more than make up for the somewhat utilitarian surroundings.

Good eating in London

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It is easy to eat well in London if one has lots of dosh.

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It is even easier to come away from an eating establishment feeling either ripped off or having had to make do with sub-standard food of dubious origins and even more dubious cooking techniques.

If you know where to go, this wonderful cosmopolitan city offers an incredible variety of fantastic foods influenced by every country around the globe.

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DonQui is a bit of a francophile and if push comes to shove, he has to admit that French food and style are almost always his first choices. There are plenty of good French restaurants in London, partly down to the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women who have made London their home in recent times. This is not a new phenomenon. French exiles came to London in their hundreds of thousands at the time of the Huguenot exodus in the 17th century. Kettners in Soho (which sadly closed earlier this year after 149 years) was founded by Napoleon III’s chef in the 1800s while the French House, just around the corner, was the unofficial headquarters of de Gaulle and the French resistance during the Second World War.

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For a simple, high quality, meal in the west end of London, Prix Fixe is DonQui’s first choice. On Dean Street in the heart of Soho it offers French brasserie style food and ambiance at very reasonable prices. The pre-7pm menu has 2 courses for just over £10 while the later fixed menu has 3 courses for £25. DonQui has eaten here many times in the past and tonight he is delighted to find that the quality and ambiance remains as good as ever.

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Being a notorious gourmand, DonQui opts to shell out the £3 supplement for the foie gras terrine starter and he feels that it is worth every extra penny.

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Another supplement (£6 this time) lands him with a main course of entrecôte steak frites. Ordered medium rare the steak is beautifully seared on the outside while remaining pink and juicy in the middle. The frites are proper French fries — thin and wonderfully crisp while still soft on the inside. DonQui’s only complaint (and this is his finicky taste buds rather than a mistake in the kitchen) is the mustard dressing on the lovely green salad. Unfortunately DonQui has a near allergic reaction to mustard.

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Washed down with an excellent glass of Côtes du Rhône and finished off with an adffogato (an Italian classic rather than a French one) DonQui once again enjoys a wonderful meal in a relaxing atmosphere while watching the streets of Soho come to life as night falls.

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When it comes time to pay the bill, DonQui feels that he has had great value for money. He will come again.

On a Swedish Island

In the dog days of summer DonQui finds himself in Stockholm. He likes the Swedish capital. It is nicely compact with a great mix of old and modern.

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Having been to Stockholm a few times before, DonQui decides to spend some time on one of the islands in the huge, picturesque Stockholm archipelago. After a bit of searching on the internet he settles on Grinda. It is far enough away from Stockholm to have a sense of remoteness and offers a mix of camping, cabins, hotel and restaurant.

As regular readers will know, DonQui is a bit of an urban donkey. The outdoors is all well and fine as long as there is a good pub or eatery at the end of the trail. He feels relatively reassured by the fact that the Grinda Wärdshus restaurant has a good reputation. Duchess is even more reassured by the offering of proper rooms as well as camping options.

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Navigating the ferry system took some organisation. DonQui was informed by the kindly man at the Strömkajen quay in central Stockholm that all he needed to do was turn up and pay on board. No reservations required or even accepted. All went swimmingly well apart from the fact that the weather decided to turn positively autumnal. The boat left precisely on time and had plenty of space. The two hour journey from Stockholm to Grinda is comfortable and gives great views of the archipelago as it winds its way from island to island.

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DonQui had booked a cabin on Grinda and was assured that bedding and towels could be hired on arrival. Unfortunately on arrival there is no-one and nothing to greet him other than the trees and a cool gentle rain. Trotting up the forest trail he comes upon a hut which is locked up tight at 5pm even thought the sign says open until 6. A small box holds the keys to his cabin along with a rather hopeless hand-drawn map.

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By the time DonQui finds the cabin, a rustic little place nestled amongst the pine and birch trees, Duchess is muttering about finding more suitable accommodation. Apparently unable to get his hands on any bedding, DonQui is inclined to agree.

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A further trek through the forest brings DonQui to a clearing overlooked by the promised Wardhaus refuge. He notes that those with more cash than he are arriving by helicopter rather than boat.

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Although it is still technically summer, a warm fire takes the chill off the evening. After a particularly fine dinner and the offer of a comfortable room in one of the outbuildings DonQui begins to feel quite at home.

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The island is truly beautiful with excellent trails through the boreal forest with its atmospheric ice-age moss and lichen covered rocks. It is nearly impossible to wander through it without stories of trolls, elves and fairies immediately coming to mind.

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The landscape reminds DonQui of central Canada where he grew up, although the water is salt rather than fresh.

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At the end of August/early September there is a decided end-of-season feel to the island. With very few humans to be seen this increases the sense of tranquility. However, the places to buy supplies are shut up with ‘closed for the season’ signs. DonQui had not been warned of this in advance and he felt his vision of a campfire dinner in front of his cabin rapidly diminishing.

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Never mind. At lunch-time he heads for the little dock where a café by the water beckons. The chalk-board sign is promising and he looks forward to a beer and light snack as the sun has replaced the rain of the previous day.

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Unfortunately a chain and lock proclaim the place firmly closed for the season.

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DonQui is not deterred by the lack of amenities. He could have had these had he remained in Stockholm. The tranquility offered by the late August off-season more than compensates.

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Long walks through the woods, discovering beautiful isolated places is why DonQui came to Grinda in the first place.

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The clear blue-black water of the Baltic Sea looks rather cold. DonQui quickly banishes any ideas of having a swim, deciding instead that the water is best admired from a respectful distance.

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DonQui looks rather worried as he is transported from the water’s edge to a place of safety where he will not risk getting his hooves wet in the frigid sea.

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Although the clouds pushing in from the west temporarily banish the blue skies, for most of his stay on the island the sun manages to break through to warm the cool northern air.

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When the sun goes down the temperature drops rapidly but the views from the shelter of the restaurant are quite spectacular.

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The food on offer in the restaurant is excellent. The cheeses from sheep and cattle that graze in the meadow below are particularly welcome. The wine selection is pretty good too although (this being Sweden) the prices make DonQui’s eyes water.

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His drink of choice over the next few days is the rather excellent Swedish Sleepy Bulldog beer. True to its name a half pint seems to put him in the mood for a brief nap.

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Three days later, DonQui boards the boat back to Stockholm having had a truly enjoyable time. In retrospect he is glad that he stayed on Grinda when it was technically off-season even if it was late August. The lack of amenities were more than made up by the feeling that he had the island almost to himself.

Stuck on a Sofa

Oh dear DonQui has made a classic coltish error!

He left Duchess in Anthropologie on Kings Rd while he went into Waitrose to get some essential supplies. He agreed to meet her back at the American emporium for earthy, ethnic-y, modern fashions.

Fully expecting to meet up and then head off home, DonQui’s ears fall when he realises that Duchess has barely begun her grand tour.

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Fortunately there is a sofa for waiting males

And free wifi.

And so here DonQui sits writing this.

And he expects to be here a while more…

For more on Kings Rd and DonQui’s attitudes to shopping see his London Shopping Survival Guide

A London Shopping Survival Guide

DonQui rather enjoys shopping for food and browsing around book shops but other than that he hates shopping. In this regard he is probably not too dissimilar from most males of various species. His idea of hell on earth is a shopping mall so you will never see him in Westfield nor any other such ghastly place.

What to do then when online shopping does not provide the easy answer and a London shopping trip becomes unavoidable?

 

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First of all DonQui will avoid Oxford Street at all costs. Heaving with tourists and shopaholics it makes an unpleasant experience positively unbearable. This is especially true this time of year when Christmas lights are already up in early November and all the shops are blaring out soppy, truly awful Christmas songs. Perhaps the muzak is supposed to encourage people to buy — but it only makes DonQui want to kick the speakers and gallop off to the nearest pub to calm his nerves.

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When a shopping expedition cannot be avoided he heads for Kings Road.

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Now it does sadden DonQui that the cool shops of the swinging sixties and punk seventies have been replaced by bland chain stores. The Sloanes took over in the eighties and seem never to have left.

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True, Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End is still at — well World’s End. Under various names, it dressed the Sex Pistols and unleashed punk, bondage and pirate fashions. But is no longer the epicentre of current fashion that it once was.

The shop where Mary Quant first brought miniskirts and hot pants the world (thereby earning DonQui’s eternal gratitude) is now a café. Although there is a Mary Quant shop around the corner in York Square the company is now owned by Japanese businessmen.

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The infamous Chelsea Drugstore featured in Clockwork Orange and the Rolling Stones lyrics in You Can’t Always Get What You Want, is now a McDonalds.

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Leaving nostalgia aside for more practical matters, the usual place DonQui starts a canter down Kings Road is at Sloane Square. Not much to hold him there as the various cafés are on the expensive side and not particularly cosy. However the Christmas lights are relatively tasteful and there is no horrid Christmas music. If you fancy a bit of theatre later on the Royal Court has a reputation for putting on new and innovative plays. It brought us the original Rocky Horror Picture Show back in 1973.

On the corner of Sloane Square, Peter Jones department store sells pretty much everything except food (for that there is a Waitrose further down the road). Now DonQui is not a great fan of department stores but this one has nice stuff and is not too crowded. It is part of the John Lewis group, retaining the old name of the original store which was bought up by Mr John Lewis himself back in 1905.

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Opposite Peter Jones is Duke of York Square which has a goodly collection of upmarket chain shops, a large Zara and, more importantly quite a few rather good eateries. The former Duke of York’s Barracks is now home to the Saatchi Gallery for contemporary art.

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On Saturday morning there is a very good food market on the square where DonQui has often gone to pick up various delectables. Sometimes in summer he has combined this with a coffee and croissant sitting outside for breakfast at Partridges. The family run Partridges is a venerable institution reminding DonQui a little of Fortnum and Masons.

From Duke of York Square to the Chelsea Old Town hall there are a wide range of shops ranging from upmarket designers to Marks and Spencer’s.

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If in need of a quick lunch Al Dar is an excellent Lebanese restaurant and/or take-away. DonQui is particularly fond of their lamb shawarma which is made with proper whole pieces of lamb, beautifully spiced.

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Alternatively the Amorino has some really very good all-natural Italian style ice cream just across the road.

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Those with too much money burning a hole in their pocket could drop into Ghost to buy their girlfriend the dress worn by Bond Girl Léa Sedoux in SPECTRE.

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Or, you could sneak down Blacklands Terrace for some respite at John Sandoe’s wonderful independent bookshop, leaving any accompanying Generation X, Y or Z’ers in Jack Wills on the corner.

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Most of the women in DonQui’s life seem rather taken with American import Anthropologie opposite the Trafalgar pub. Left to their own devices they could happily spend hours in there.

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A good tactic is to let them do this and repair to the pub while they try stuff on. One can always join them later to give a verdict on things they are thinking about buying but have not yet made a decision on. Be careful when doing this, a glance at their facial expression will give a clue whether you are supposed to give positive re-assurance or if the female is genuinely unsure and it is safe not to like something she is considering.

The trick to surviving a shopping trip in DonQui’s view, is to intersperse buying stuff in shops with plentiful stop offs at pubs or cafés

IMG_5904.jpgA little bit off Kings Road, down Smith Street, is one of DonQui’s favourite watering holes in the area.  Part of the Geronimo Inns group, the Phoenix is a great drinking pub with comfortable bar area and a few seats outside. It also has pretty good food.

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Once, a few months back, when enjoying a drink outside, DonQui was entertained by a filming going on in the street.

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Further down Kings Road and tucked away on a back street (Britten Street) is The Builders Arms. Another Geronimo outlet it is more of a gastro pub with food being the main attraction. Another very good gastro pub with a descent bar area is the Pigs Ear down Old Church Street past the Red Cross charity shop for the price conscious shopper and Manolo Blahnik for anything but.

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If you want an unfussy old fashioned boozer you will need to go the Chelsea Potter.

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Kings Road is especially blessed with good cafés from the excellent French imports like Pauls and Le Pain Quotidien to home grown ones.

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Recently DonQui stopped off for a coffee and croissant at the Chelsea Quarter and found it very good indeed.

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A good place for a lunch stop is the Chelsea Farmers Market just around the corner on Sidney Street — but don’t expect to find any Chelsea farmers there. They became extinct many years ago. Instead you will find a couple of good eateries — especially an excellent pizzeria. The restaurants are mostly geared to alfresco dining so it is much better in summer.

From the Chelsea Old town hall to World’s End the big chains gradually give way to some more independents as well as some very ordinary places such as Tesco, a post office and several charity shops. The charity shops along and just off King’s Road are very good places to pick up brand new stuff at knock down prices. The many more money than sense inhabitants of Chelsea will often offload their unwanted purchases here and the charity shops have cottoned onto it — shipping in their best stuff from elsewhere to stock the Kings Road outlets. Red Cross and Oxfam are particularly good.

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Vivianne Westwood’s wonky World’s End shop with its backwards running clock, the World’s End pub and World’s End nurseries mark what is surely the end of Kings Road. The road does apparently carry on a bit further but DonQui is fairly certain that if you go beyond the World’s End pub nothing much good will come from it. It may be that you will fall off the edge of the world, or possibly end up in Fulham — which is more or less the same thing.