Overnight in San José, Costa Rica

On his way to Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast, DonQui Oaty decides to break his journey in the Costa Rican capital. It seems more restful after a long international flight to spend the night in San José before hopping on a domestic flight to the coast

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San José is not the most attractive of cities

At first glance San José doesn’t seem to have much to offer. DonQui notes the urban sprawl, dusty streets and dull architecture. He is fairly certain that those that know the city will tell him that there is much to see and do. But it is a Sunday afternoon, not much is happening and the restful atmosphere of the low-rise Hotel Colonial invites DonQui to take a siesta rather than go out to explore Costa Rica’s capital.

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DonQui stays at the very pleasant Hotel Colonial

With its pleasant neo-colonial architecture, large spacious room and friendly staff, the Hotel Colonial is a great place to stay. It is right in the centre of town close to the Jade museum which would have been handy had DonQui decided to explore.

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The hotel courtyard

Instead, after his siesta, he has a coffee and plays a game of cards with Duchess in the pleasant courtyard by the small pool.

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Esquina de Buenos Aires Restaurant

The Esquina de Buenos Aires restaurant is right across the street from the Hotel Colonial. DonQui has learned that it has an excellent reputation and is hugely popular. He is, therefore, thankful he had the foresight to make a reservation as the place is hopping when he gets there for dinner and he would not have had a chance of a table without it.

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DonQui imagines he is in a classic black and white film

DonQui immediately sees why the restaurant is so popular. It oozes with atmosphere. The wood panelling, ceiling fans, posters from classic Argentinian films and old photos of Argentinian celebrities, make DonQui feel at though he has been transported into classic black and white film set in old Buenos Aires. All that is missing are two gentlemen in fedoras smoking cigars in a corner as they plan some dangerous adventure.

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The ‘mini’ striploin is plenty big enough

The food, drink and service are as good as the atmosphere. It being an Argentinian restaurant, beef steak is the thing to have. DonQui’s Bife de Chorizo (striploin) is superb and he is glad he ordered the ‘mini’ portion as at 250g of beef it is more than enough. The full portion is a whopping 400g!

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Banana crepes flambéed in rum

There is more than steak on the menu. Duchess’ sopa de zapallo y choclo (pumpkin and sweetcorn soup) is delicious as are the rum flambéed bannana crepes that DonQui has for desert. The house red wine, a Pequeña Vasija is excellent. Prices are a little on the steep side for Costa Rica but quite reasonable by European/North American standards. Reservations are essential.

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Certainly, DonQui could have been more energetic to make more of his short overnight stay in San José. Nonetheless he thoroughly enjoys himself. He feels perfectly relaxed as he eats his breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with egg and sweet fried plantain the next morning. He is now ready for a proper adventure.

 

Casamia, Bristol

After enjoying his day at Jekka’s Herb Farm, Duchess treats DonQui to a meal at Michelin-starred Casamia — Bristol’s finest restaurant. Many of the herbs they use are sourced from Jekka’s farm.

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The entrance to Casamia

After the slightly disappointing experience at the Black Swan in Yorkshire, DonQui wonders if the multi-course tasting menu at Casamia will also be a little over-fussy. He need not have worried. The meal is utterly exquisite — each small dish of the 12 course menu is a wonderful gastronomic experience in its own right and the courses build beautifully.

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The open kitchen

Tucked away on a pedestrianised road beside the Bathurst Basin water, the contemporary styled restaurant has room for only 35 diners, creating a nice intimate atmosphere with the tables spaced well enough apart that there is no crowding. On arrival Duchess and DonQui are treated to a quick tour of the huge open kitchen where the enthusiastic young cooks prepare the dishes. 

We are given no menu in advance. Instead we are advised to sit back and enjoy the journey. Every dish is brought to our table by one of the enthusiastic cooks who helped prepare it. They give detailed explanations and are happy to answer questions. The pride in their creations is palpable. 

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Parmesan tartlet

The meal begins on a high note with an incredible parmesan tartlet. The ultra-fine crisp pastry filled with a parmesan cheese mouse and topped with grated parmesan is a taste explosion with beautifully contrasting textures. It is one of the most wonderful things DonQui had ever eaten.

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Prawn on lava

Hot on its heals came a fabulous dish of Canary Islands prawn served on a lava rock evoking the islands’ volcanic state.

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A tiny but delicious salad

The dishes are very small — tiny even, but with 12 courses to get though this is a good thing. Every dish is exquisite and DonQui finds it hard to find the words to do justice to the tastes. In addition to the parmesan tart a couple of other dishes stand out.

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Trout with served with hot charcoal

The brown trout served with a white-hot piece of charcoal on top still cooking the fish is not just a piece of showmanship. The lingering taste of charcoal infuses the fish with its flavour and the crispy skin is served on the side, much like a piece of pork crackling. The monkfish tail with a champagne sabayon is also quite delectable and definitely one of the stand-out dishes. It is helped by the fact that DonQui opted for the wine pairing and a glass of the champagne which was used in the sauce is served alongside it.

A wonderful sourdough bread with tangy cultured butter is served as a separate course after the salad and before the two fish dishes. DonQui remarks to the chef that he is not a fan of bread being served before the meal. Inevitably he is hungry then and eats far too much of it. The chef replies that the bread is so good that it deserves to be served as a course in its own right. He is correct and it helps that the previous dishes have knocked the edge off DonQui’s hunger. 

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Duck breast

The meat courses are based on duck with a flavourful consommé preceding a beautifully cooked piece of breast with a crisp, spicy-herb skin and a rich sauce.

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The red wine is breathing

DonQui is very glad that he chose the ‘wine flight’ as Cassamia calls it. In doing so each of his dishes is accompanied by a different wine, few of which are familiar to DonQui. Amongst the most notable are the Equinocio Branco from Southern Portugal which goes very well with the opening courses and the French Uroulat Jurançon desert wine.

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Passion fruit desert with Jurançon wine

The deserts are as sublime as the savoury courses. There are several of them including a passion fruit concoction served in an elegant ceramic pot as well as a mix of strawberry based sweets. Perhaps the most unusually interesting is the tiny porcini mushroom fudge served at the end of the meal — the earthiness of mushroom unexpectedly and beautifully combining with the sweetness of the fudge.

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Strawberry second desert

This is probably the best meal DonQui has had in a long time. Given the restaurant’s reputation and its small size, bookings need to be made well in advance. 

A truly memorable meal

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Every once in a while DonQui stumbles across a restaurant which manages to combine great food and perfect atmosphere to create something truly memorable. The Villa Maria restaurant in Ravello is just such a place.

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Set on a beautiful leafy terrace overlooking the hills above Amalfi and the sea beyond, the location is truly spectacular.

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After sunset the Moon and Venus, being close together in the night sky, create a stunning effect.

The staff are super friendly and very helpful. When DonQui is not entirely sure on which dishes to order the recommendations are spot-on. The waiter gives DonQui a run-down on the ingredients and how the dish is prepared, steering him in the right direction every time.

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The wine recommendation is equally helpful, guiding DonQui through the pluses and minuses of the various local vintages. Although the waiter can no doubt discern that DonQui Oaty is a donkey of distinction, he does not linger too long on the first page of the wine list which includes some prime Bordeaux at over €4,000 a bottle!

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There are so many tantalising dishes on the menu it is hard to decide which to go for. Most of the are locally sourced with fruit, vegetables and herbs coming from the Villa’s own organic garden.

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In the end DonQui opts to start with ‘crunchy ravioli’ filled with local cheese and served on a bed of fresh herby tomatoes. The ‘ravioli’ is more like a super light pastry than pasta — hence the ‘crunch’.

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Duchess chooses zucchini (courgette) flowers also filled with cheese, deep fried in a sesame and ginger batter and served with a tomato coulis.  Both were superb, although Duchess was a little disappointed not to taste any ginger — something she is rather fond of.

DonQui decides to order Italian style — savouring each course before deciding on the next one.

Wishing something quite light after her appetiser, Duchess decides on ‘Organic garden vegetables with parmesan broth’ for her second course while DonQui tries the waiter recommended ‘Slow cooked amberjack with kumquat, sea asparagus and champagne sauce.’ Not having encountered amberjack before DonQui enquires what sort of fish it is? He learns that it is a large predatory fish with white flesh.

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“It is not as delicate as sea bass”, the waiter informs DonQui, assuring him that his local Ravello light red wine will go very well with it despite the accompanying champagne sauce.

The waiter is quite correct. The flesh has an almost bouncy constituency with deep flavour. DonQui finds it absolutely delicious, the taste perfectly set off by the accompanying quartered kumquats and champagne sauce. Sea asparagus turns out to be what DonQui knows as samphire.

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The deserts are as stunning as the previous courses. DonQui is rather tempted to try out ‘The mango and the coconuts become Italian classic like the fried egg’, if for no better reason than its enigmatic (presumably mis-translated) name. The chocolate eggplant trunk also sounds intriguing.

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On the waiter’s recommendation, however, DonQui orders the the cannolo with Aperol sgroppino (sorbet made from Aperol and prosecco), and the tiramisu. The waiter explains with pride that the tiramisu is ‘not classic’. It has been deconstructed and reinvented, retaining the coffee/marscapone/chocolate flavours served up in a very different way.

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Both deserts are incredibly good.

Dinner at the Villa Maria is without a doubt one of the best meals DonQui has experienced. At the end, the bill seems quite reasonable considering the quality and style. Without a doubt he will return one day — perhaps to stay a few nights at the villa as well as once again sampling their delicious food.

Bahir Zaf

For his last meal in Ethiopia before heading home, DonQui decides to try out Bahir Zaf. Run by the Tree Alliance  it is a training establishment for disadvantaged youngsters aimed at giving them the skills they need to succeed in the restaurant business. DonQui likes the idea — it is similar to the concept at the Old Boma hotel where he stayed in Tanzania a while back.

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Tucked away on a back street it takes the taxi driver some time to find the place and it does not appear to be in the most salubrious of surroundings. Once inside the gate, DonQui finds himself in a pleasant green oasis. The small restaurant has a few tables in the garden with others on a verandah overlooking it. As it is the rainy season, DonQui opts for the verandah.

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The atmosphere is laid back and casual and the clientele are mostly expats — many of them earnest looking NGOs of the non-carnivorous sort. Fortunately for them there is a wide selection of vegetarian options on offer — known as ‘fasting’ dishes in Ethiopia.

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The menu offers quite an eclectic choice. Despite the fact that it clearly identifies the food as ‘tapas’ some commentators on Trip Advisor have complained that the dishes are ‘ridiculously small’. Smaller dishes suit DonQui perfectly and so he orders two: the ‘fasting’ platter with anebabero injera, along with the lamb and red wine stew, a side of vegetable rice pilaf and a Habesha beer to wash it down.

Unlike the usual flatbread mentioned in DonQui’s previous blog, the anebabero is a sort of cake-like triple layered injera which comes in wedges. It has the same familiar slightly sour taste from the fermented teff flour.

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By his standards the dishes are pretty large for tapas — more like a descent sized regular courses. The food is good, the tastes interesting and DonQui does not feel bloated afterwards.

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He even has room for a desert — choosing apples poached in tej (Ethiopian honey wine) with home made ice cream. This is somewhat disappointing as the apples are a bit tasteless and the poaching juice rather watery with only of a hint of sweet wine.

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The ice cream was excellent, however, as was the coffee.

It may not be fine dining, but the food, the atmosphere and the super friendly staff, make Bahir Zaf a great place for a leisurely lunch. DonQui imagines it would be even better on a bright sunny day. Trust him for coming in the rainy season!

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DonQui enjoys himself so much that he does not see his human companion heading out to the taxi which will take them to the airport. Fortunately one of the friendly servers saves DonQui from being left behind!

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.

 

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.