Who told me that the food was bad in Iceland?

Who told me that the food was bad in Iceland (the country)? I mean, I am pretty sure that everyone told me that the food was bad in Iceland. They were misinformed. I journeyed out to Iceland thinking I would have to eat hot dogs every day as a penalty for being able to see the Northern Lights. In reality there was too much food to choose from.

We’d missed the tour of Reykjavik due a late night arrival and so battled into the city along amidst the snow storm that had prevented our next tour from even going ahead. Then we battled to the conference centre that was not just funky looking, but it was the nearest shelter we could see, spent as long as humanly possible looking in the souvenir shop, while we plotted how we would make the ten minute walk to the harbour side, and what we would do if there was nowhere to warm back up there.

We were rewarded for risking that 10 minute walk in the snow, in which we conjectured that the divorce rate must be high in Iceland. It is impossible to hear anything when you are wrapped up in hoods, hats, high snoods: “Did you remember to turn the lights off?” “Did you hear me?” “Did you remember to turn the lights off?…?!…?”. It took about half an hour in the end, because we found ourselves debating which of the 3 rather good looking cafes and restaurants we would risk. We settled on the fishy looking Hofnin. Here is a quick flash of the menu:      Do you see that pizza marina thing going on in the left of the menu? Pizza express eat your heart out! Didn’t have that, though. And that traditional all Icelandic fish stew… Nope, didn’t have that either. Even the waiter seemed confused when I asked for a recommendation. In the end, he said that fish broth is the reason everyone comes here. So I ordered that, sadly forfeiting all other options (well, what else could I do? Order the whole menu? Even I have my limits).   My broth arrived in a teapot, and I poured it over a reserved amount of fish food, including a sensitively cooked scallop. And once I had done that, there were flavours bouncing around all over the place. How can there be so many good flavours in a uniformly coloured broth? I wonder if I missed out on some incendiary new ingredient that will do nasty things to my insides in later life to make up for the experience.  The broth was rich and lightened by bubbles of cream dispersing into it.

My husband’s main course was salted cod with lamb fat and rye bread.    The lamb complemented the cod, this apparently being a very traditional combination for the Iceland. But what you really wanted to do with the lamb fat was dip into it with the Icelandic Rye bread. The very sweet rye was close to being Jamaican ginger cake. Seriously this could have been dessert. I wish I could have taken it home with me. The only flaw of this dish was that these flavours eclipsed an otherwise perfectly nice brown butter sauce

Some of the local rye breads are cooked in the volcanic ground. This led to a rather stomach busting experience at a spa that offered bread on a buffet later in our holiday. They were foolish to put this in a buffet, with all those tourists knowing that they had one week only to make the most of this bread. Butter is often serverd whipped with other flavours like beer and lavender.

Those main courses were not quite lived up to by the regimental parade of desserts.   Much effort seemed to be put into the staid appearance, but little into flavour, despite the menu sounding a little more promising. I am not sure they really understood dessert. But frankly, after that main course, they didn’t really have to. I recommend someone invents sugared rye bread and lamb fat. I jest not.


It gently snowed as we sat over looking the harbour with our coffees. Well it’s always gentle when you’re watching from indoors The coffee was good.  They certainly seem to understand coffee around here. There is something quite perverse that the further you get from a place that you can grow coffee, the more you ritualise it.   Exciting meals did not stop at Hofnin, however my notes have fallen away as my stomach enlarged. I feel kind of guilty about this, because I cannot name these exotic combinations served by ‘The Fish Restaurant’s’ guest chef Adam Dahlberg during the Reykjavic Food festive. You will not guess at the ingredients without the menu, but please enjoy the pictures:

  

  

  

I very much recommend Iceland as a place to go to just for the good food, at a good price. There is something very intelligent about the Icelandic approach to tourism. they do not miss a single trick to make money, but none of it is arch, pushy and all done with impeccable politeness. you tend not to find, for example, that you have been tricked into unneceessary expenditure. 

No, I mean Iceland the country, not the supermarket, and you are about the 57th person to make that joke. it’s not funny anymore.

The genius of the mosaic cake was the invisible chocolate chunks

A Review of Hazev, South Quay

Hazev ain’t so far away, guys, over in South Quay on the way to Canary Wharf. And you should go to Canary Wharf every now and then, on the DLR and stuff. In fact we ended up here when we spotted that our meal in Greenwich would be providing insufficient calorie-to-food-satisfaction when it came to dessert, leaving us to fill the cake shaped hole that the starter and main course had built for us.

We have been to Havez before – the restaurant bit, and the food was delicious, served in enormous portions and full of textures and flavours by hospitable waiters amongst opulent decor. And we had peeked at the deli next door, which seemed to be full of cakes with similar benefits.

To be blunt, the deli was full of savoury dishes that made us wish we had not already eaten in Greenwich and unusual non-alcoholic sweet drinks that kicked the virgin bellini from Papa Charlie to the ground. We had tea to accompany our cake though. There were a lot of cakes to choose from and many of them newbies in my cake eating experience, hence it was a tough choice that cake decision. Ultimately we homed in on
Hazev pie.

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This was made of cinnamon, apple and whole almonds that kept their crunch. All of this was case in a soft cakey pastry and while I love buttery shortcrust pastries, cakey pastry does have its place and Hazev pie is definitely one of those places. The second choice was mosaic cake.

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I can’t tell you what made me choose this , because the look of it was unfortunately close to refigertator cake or rocky road, both of which take fundamentally awesome ingredients and ruin them. But I shouldn’t have worried about the mosaic cake. The genius of the mosaic cake was the invisible chocolate chunks that made the texture of the cake spot on.

We’ll be back just for drinks some time.

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A Three Course Amuse Bouche

A review of Gravetye Manor, East Sussex
http://www.gravetyemanor.co.uk

I’m figuring that my weekend away in East Sussex counts as a Blackheath blog review. This is because I live in Blackheath and I want to go on weekends away that are an adequately short drive away from Blackheath, and I’m figuring that my Blackheath and Greenwich readers do too.

Gravetye Manor gave us a very warm welcome, potentially because the hotel was quiet, us arriving 10 minutes before the allowed check in time, although throughout our visit all reception/waiting/cleaning staff offered a cheery hello! We were led through perfumed hallways with woodsmoke and Corot-like oil paintings to our room, which was impressive. Much care and attention had been give to the decor of our standard room, a key feature apparently being textures. Bose speakers and a Nespresso machine were nice touches, along with a mini bar of complementary juices, and cantuccini.

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We’d planned a late lunch by one of the open fires but the sun was actually out (despite the time of year) and we wanted to take a look at The Manor’s advertised gardens in the short period of daytime left. The gardens were beautifully cultivated, taking advantage of differing ground levels and took a good hour of exploration including a sitting on garden benches in the autumn sun overlooking a neat but completely unused croquet lawn.

There is a strong slant on garden food in the hotel’s promotional material and we are pretty sure that our eggs and vegetables were sourced from the walled garden, although there were very few vegetables with any of the meals…

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On return to the hotel, lunch from the garden menu was disappointing. We’d aimed to eat very light (in preparation for the evenings meal ahead), and so ordered eggs and smoked salmon, which basically arrived as a soft boiled egg without salt or pepper and a loaf of salmon. This was a little bit of a let down despite being a fan of eggs and there was so much salmon and yet so little flavour (or veg).

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The cheese as ordered by my husband however was delicious. The size of the portions will take about a year on the cross trainer to remove from my body. And while we had the cheese names listed to us by an eager waiter, it was a bit ‘in one ear and out the other’ as our mouths watered. This was a pity as there was an exceptionally subtle blue cheese and great goats cheese that I will never be able to name for you. We were slightly tricked (haha) into a lunch time wine. I ‘d been holding out for dinner, but was told that their English red wine was light. Why I thought this changed anything about dinner, I don’t know, but It was offered an excuse and I ran with it. Actually it was fabulous. Light and grown up.

There was a bizarre cramped feeling in the living room where we ate lunch, with the main door opening straight onto the only sitting room with an open fire. This was bemusing given there clearly was much more space somewhere in the hotel.

The dinner menu was fantastic.
This is the first three course amuse bouche I have ever eaten:

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However I preferred, the cauliflower and truffle velouté. Very truffley.

Scallops with fennel and vinegar sounded like an unattractively astringent
combination, but arrived very traditionally tasting (and perfectly cooked). Exactly what I ate for mains is a little bit up for debate because it was venison cooked in the way that the hare would have been if they had not run out of hare. With the exception of a small pastry slice (‘the chicory tart’ I assume) which bought an unwanted extra oiliness to the dish, the meal was excellent. The slices of venison being beautifully cooked and tender, and whatever constituted the meat ball delicately spiced.

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As with all restaurants the waiters offered still or sparkling water. But if you paused, they would then add, or there is the local spring water. The mark up on still and sparkling water was so great that they were hiding their own local speciality. This was beneath them, I think.

We especially asked if we should order side orders, because if the dishes came with enough sides, we might not be able to eat dessert. Terrible! It was advised for my husband’s Brill so we ordered dauphinoise which the waiter said would easily share between 2 dishes. Check out the pretty tiny saucepan in the picture. That’s what was to be shared between two. Fortunately, this wasn’t especially necessary because here meals were perfectly balanced.

The dessert of hazelnut creme brûlée, chestnut canele, walnut crumble and dark chocolate was good, but a little samey by the end which is odd given the effort for diverse flavours.

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We went for coffee and petit fours by the fire. This was the meanest selection of petit fours I have ever seen.

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So, back to the room. The water pressure and shower were great and there was a heated floor. Woohoo at for heated floors. These should be in planning instructions for the building of everything, even carparks. (Maybe not tube stations).

But hanging a newspaper in a pretty straw sack on the door handle might look sophisticated, but it does wake you up at 6am and what I never ever want at a weekend away is to be woken up at 6am.

Breakfast service lacked a little panache with dirty plates left unremoved, and bizarrely undercooked poached eggs (Gravetye does not honour eggs. I suppose no one is perfect), however it did retain its charm. One area for improvement is the communication of how the breakfast menu works. I am acquainted with the free for all buffet, or the free for all a la carte (yes really) or the choice between continental versus full English options. Here everything was listed out with out any clear guidance on what choice fitted their expectations. This was a pity, as you might have chosen fruit and yogurt, but it turned out that fruit and yogurt were both starters, and you could only chose one. The cooked breakfast was considered the main course which sounded intimidatingly heavy, but was in fact presented with the same elegance as dinner and in similar petite portions. A nice twist was the lambs liver. And frankly, after that, we just asked for a mini pain or raisin and a pot of coffee, which was delivered without a second glance.

Staff, even cleaners, make the effort to be friendly, unlike some hotels we have been to where reception is shall we say point-scoring? Attention to detail and quality is mostly very high. No one ever asked for our room or our name. Or maybe we had been marked down as troublesome customers once we had ordered the spring water.

Car journey from Blackheath: 1.5hours
Room Rates: £250-325 for standard room
Nearby attraction: the Bluebell Railway (that is steam trains!)
http://www.bluebell-railway.com
The Horsted Keynes station is preserved as it may have looked in Victorian age,with the exception of the credit card machine. Unfortunately trains are not too frequent but a bit of an explore will find you a roaring open fire in the waiting room. In the cafe you can buy a sausage roll or a hot chocolate, AND PREPACKED FLAPJACK. I think I have made my thoughts clear. We took the railway to East Grinstead where we found an equal dearth of coffee shops, but did buy Lyonaise sausage from the local marketers recently recommended by hairy bikers. Which was odd. Has anyone else tried this?

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Tough Octopus

A review of Kaspar’s Grill at the Savoy

I have discovered the most magnificent combination: champagne and soda bread. I don’t mean champagne baked in soda bread, which would be daft even if some waitrose supplier’s marketing department eyes just lit up. I mean champagne sipped with occasional bites of soda bread.

I happen to know this due to one of those restaurant vouchers you can get offering champagne three course meal at the Savoy fish grill. Although the Savoy definitely told me off for calling it a voucher rather than a certificate. I don’t think they are going down market. The most expensive wine was £345 FOR A GLASS.

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Now I have mentioned that I love fish, so this place should be my hang out. Look at the decor, the glass emulating curing hanging fish.

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I started with soda bread with cured fish (hence my discovery) which was delicious, and my husband chose wild seabass ceviche, confit octopus, mango which was delicious in appearance and full of great flavours, but the octopus was dead tough.

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Next I made a wrong turning. I misread lemon sole fish and chips to mean lemon sole (which is fish) and chips. Actually it was a rip off version of ‘fish and chips’ (inverted commas make all the difference) which means that the fish was battered and arrived with fries. Now (1) I just came to a fish grill i don’t want a takeaway and (2) don’t ever think you can make fish and chips like a fish and chip shop unless you actually are a fish and chip shop because you can’t. It is a basic law of physics. I don’t know why. I have never proved if through first axioms but I sure have proved it from careful and repeated experimentation.

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I comforted myself with the best glass of sauvingon blanc I have ever tasted (and it came in at a lot less than £345) and a nice side of chilli- broccoli.

Desserts were a challenge. They didn’t look so exciting on paper. You kind of had to hope that they were so well executed they justified the boring descriptions. We went for yogurt and rhubarb sorbet and sticky toffee pudding (the associated attractions being blueberry compote and butterscotch sauce.) We assumed that this meant we had one heavy and one lighter option, but the rhubarb yogurt came drenched with vanilla cream ( hidden in the small print). Who does this? Who disguises their creamy desserts as something that you might pick up from the healthy aisle in the supermarket… if you’re feeling VERY good?

I asked how the decaffeinated coffee was, and the waiter sort of rolled his eyes in sympathy. I ordered it anyway, and it was as fairly reported on by the waiter, soso. I think that the Nespresso machine has ruined this aspect of my life for me. I would not even have expected good decaf coffee in the past. Never again will I enjoy coffee out.

Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill‎
The Savoy
Strand
London, WC2R 0EU
+44 (0) 20 7420 2111

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Fish confusion

A review of L’Insolite, Collioure, France (definitely not SE3)

I have an announcement to make. It is official that seiche is in fact cuttlefish, not squid as most of Collioure will tell you. The second and most important part of this announcement is that Cuttlefish is delicious. Probably the best food going.

These confusions stated in June in L’Insolite, a small, nearly last in row beachfront restaurant at which we thought: looks adequate, just landed, too tired to think. We could translate everything on the menu except seiche. And when told this was squid we ordered straight away.

Trees and fountains in Perpignan

If this sounds very ignorant, I would point out the similarities in appearance of cuttlefish and squid when prepared in a certain manner, both white and ententacled.

What arrived was delicious, simply executed with a salad and a half baked potato it was unforgettable, and left me trawling London for the past year searching for anything so good and failing (with the now closed Villa Moura being the only place to come close, despite a fair fortune being spent on fish).

So needless to say, on my first night back in Collioure, I headed for the self same restaurant arming myself with google translate for the French for squid. This turned out, not unreasonably, to be calarmi. Did you know that all along?

Collioure on the mediterranean

Unusually overcast, but source of great cuttlefist

Stunningly disappointed not to find this on the menu, I opted for the the seiche because the picture of it (now there are pictures) looked like squid, but the English menu described this as cuttlefish. I thought cuttlefish looked like prawns. You great it in London sandwich shops. Oh, apparently that’s crayfish,

I ordered in French only out of politeness, the waiter’s English was flawless, and he replied (in English) ah! Squid! This left us even more flummoxed while we secretly googled under the table, and decided that someone must have told him that this was squid when they saw it, but it was infact cuttlefish (although the word also related to a type of Asian squid) See I’m not so dumb..

All the fish eaters on the table were very content despite some nervousness with the menu. This was a wonder, sea front affordable meal. Followed by a paddle in the sea that you could still see the bottom of in the dark.

Pyranees mountains in summer

Local gorgeous view

A little off piste, and a long way down the A202- A Review of Angels and Gypsies, Camberwell.

Angels and Gypsies has been catching our eye for a while. It’s the leg of cured calf posed within sight of the door way, and the ambient lighting from the stained glass windows, and the curvy writing above the window that does it. Marketeers take note. For all we know the meat was plastic and it still made us eye the restaurant as a future target…
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It seemingly did the job for others too: It took at least three attempts over many months to let us through the door.

It starts with an aperitif. I am not much of an aperitif fan, because much as I like the type of drinks that qualify as apertifs, drinking on an empty stomach gives me a head ache and a yawn and puts me off dinner. If I am missing something here, please put yours suggestions in the comment box below (except for you mum, because if I authorise you as a commentator, your use of this forum to send me emails will suddenly become very public. )

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Having been once enjoyed a recommendation of sherry as a good match for tapas, the menu’s front page full of sherry as an aperitif seemed a very welcome concept… But even better, Angels and Gypsies offered manzanillos which were more local to the food (Jerez) and reportedly full of sea breezes. See breezes, sherry, tapas… Holiday.

We are already on difficult ground here, because it is also wrong ever to go for a Spanish meal and not have sangria. Sangria has been highly sought after on occasion (http://wp.me/p2yXJS-1L) and must not be taken for granted.

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Here are some pictures of the tapas that ensued.

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And though we managed to pass up on the churros, we did go for our common cliche of Spanish almond tart accompanied by white chocolate rum and raisin cheese cake with macadamia nut crunch. And they were good.

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http://www.angelsandgypsies.com/angels/location/