Category Archives: Food

CATSKILL COOL

I have just returned from a week touring the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of it was for a piece for The Times and it was a very successful trip – good food, dramatic modern art, fantastic scenery, Robber Baron’s grand historic homes, and some possibly too close encounters with local wildlife. But one standout was the hotel we stayed in on the last night, mainly because it was so unexpected (it was the result of a tip-off from a native New Yorker who said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just book in’).

If you read a lot of the US travel press you might think that the recent renaissance of the Catskills – which is a few hours’ drive from Manhattan, up I-87 or 90 – means it’s a Williamsburg with trees and mountains, with a farm-to-fork restaurant at every junction, an antique Americana collection on every porch, a cool bar beside every creek. This isn’t true, there is a lot of driving around (by our standards at least) to sample the best of, say, Delaware County.

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

After a slightly disappointing first turn through district, the highlights being Andes (quaint, good vintage clothes, antiques, coffee and cookies) and Delhi (bookstores, covered bridges, more antiques) but not fly-blown Bloomville (Table on Ten restauarant and not much else), I thought maybe The Roxbury might not live up to its billing. However, there is often something about the typography and colour scheme of a place’s signboard that tells you that you are in safe hands. “Contemporary Catskill Lodgings” this one teased in limegreen and black and it delivered.

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury is a themed hotel, in that each of the 28 units is decorated to a particular brief, in this case a TV show or movie. Now, I’m not always a fan of themed rooms. Sometimes hoteliers think that all it takes is a hideous shagpile carpet, a lava lamp and a couple of DVDs and bam! The Austin Powers Suite. Or a bit of gold MDF and organza and you have the Arabian Nights room. That isn’t the case at The Roxbury Motel.

The owners, Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa both have theatrical backgrounds and it shows (Greg does concepts, Joseph is the craftsman) in the outlandish concoctions. What makes The Roxbury different is the attention to details – every room is done with passion and panache. Most are based on the sixties TV shows that were on constant re-run when the owners were growing up. So there is a Star Trek room, where the ceiling becomes the galaxy of dopplered stars as seen in warp drive, created by a massive coil of fibre optic lights in the roof space, and where the bathroom tiles glow to recreate the holodeck. For I Dream of Jeannie, the pair used an ancient Roman technique to create a perfect spherical space to represent the genie’s bottle. Gilligan’s Island is basically a huge inverted coconut cream pie as baked by Ginger and Mary Ann.

The understated Amadeus-themed room

The understated Amadeus-themed room

Best of all, though, is a three-bedroom stand-alone single-story house called The Digs. It was inspired by the purchase at auction of artifacts that were previously owned by a man who claimed to have worked for the Board of Education. Greg and Joseph discovered that they were from places such as Persia/Iran, the Far East and various destinations not open to the usual US tourist in the 50s and 60s. They decided the vendor had been a spy-cum-archeologist and so created a huge backstory which means The Digs is filled with the sort of items that might be boxed up at the end of Indiana Jones – and indeed there is a room with a ceiling full of bullwhips, snake wallpaper, a Mayan temple hiding a pull-down bed and a giant boulder above the lobby in homage to Indy. There’s also a fish tank so special it has featured on Animal Planet.

The Digs' ceiling lamps - from Cairo.

The Digs’ ceiling lamps – from Cairo.

But here’s the thing: despite all the frivolity, the hotel work – the products are excellent, there are bathtubs as opposed to mere showers, the fabrics, tiles, lamps, ceiling fixtures are sourced from the best suppliers in the world, there’s a two-part spa (hot tub and sauna in one wing, steam and treatments in another) and the sheets are as good as those in the Four Seasons.

As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have also bought a slightly sagging antebellum mansion down the road (see https://vimeo.com/105388223), which sits right next to a dramatic gorge and waterfall and they plan to do much the same with it (albeit more in keeping with the estate’s history than, say, The Jetsons room). Having toured the site, their plans are either insanely ambitious or just… No, I suspect The Roxbury at Stratton Falls will be ready within the two to three years they have allowed themselves. And I’ll be back.

The Digs living room

The Digs living room

See http://www.theroxburymotel.com for rates. I flew with Virgin Atlantic (http://www.virgin-atlantic.com) and hired a car through Alamo. The ins and outs of a Hudson Valley fly-drive will be dealt with  in The Times Travel piece.

FIRE IN THE SKY

In San Sebastian, you know things are about to kick off when Jesus goes out. I am just back from the firework contest there, which involves manufacturers from several countries (this year, Spain, Italy and Austria) setting off thousands of pounds’ worth of explosives every night at 22.45, an event signalled by the illuminated on the ‘Sacred Heart’ statue of Jesus that overlooks the town being switched off. I’ll write about it further nearer the time next year, no doubt, but it is spectacular and, although busy, a great time to be in one of the best seaside cities in Europe.

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We stayed on the Gros side of town, near the Zurriola surf beach, which has a great selection of pintxos bars (Hidalgo 56, Bodega Donostiarra, Senra) and good value restaurants (especially along Calle Zabaleta) that don’t suffer from the scrum afflicting the Old Town. You can see the fireworks from the beach here, too. You also get very generous G&Ts hereabouts (these below at the Ondarra Bar almost opposite the Kursaal conference/arts centre), which help the evening go with a different kind of bang.

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A Duck With A View

The first thing everyone mentions about Hutong, the Chinese restaurant in The Shard, is not the view (very good) or the service (very jolly) or the red-lantern and dark wood décor (very sleek) but the prices (very high).

HUTONG 1

They are as incredible as Renzo Piano’s you’ll-have-someone’s-eye-out-with-that skyscraper – like the building itself, they just keep on climbing, until you are hovering around £60 for a Peking duck. But everything in The Shard is expensive – when the Shangri-la Hotel opens in May, rooms will start at £350 a night. To visit the viewing platform unannounced you’ll be mugged for £29.95pp (you can knock a fiver off for pre-booking). So when my kids said they’d like to go up The Shard for their half-term treat  I knew I was going to drop at least a hundred quid for the four of us for the outing, before food and drink. (To be fair, there was a very useful kids-go-free special h/t offer for the viewing gallery, but both ours being over 16, we were looking at full price). Oddly, though, Hutong came to the rescue.

HUTONG 2
It had just launched a set lunchtime menu of dim sum, any five dishes (e.g. poached wontons with chilli-garlic sauce, ginger and spring onion lobster buns, baked Wagyu beef puffs) for £28pp. OK, so that’s really no bargain by Chinatown standards, but at The Shard it’s a steal (and certainly comparable to Yauatcha in Soho). And you do get four pieces of each one, they are freshly made every morning and they are pretty damn’ fine. Now, I hear you say, four times £28 comes to… but you don’t need one set lunch each. We did two of them (£56) and half a Peking duck (£30), which is flashily carved at your tableside, and left replete after two hours for £86 (plus drinks and 12.5% service). Still expensive, but I haven’t even factored in the view yet.

Hutong is on the 33rd floor, so only about half way up the this anorexic glass pyramid, but even so it’s worth trying to bag a window seat for the always-mesmerising London birds’-eye view (I particularly like looking down on HMS Belfast for some reason, although we were seated on a different side). And if you don’t get a window, there is always the lavatory, from where you can gaze along the river to Tower Bridge and across South London to Kent. In the men’s, the urinals are positioned in front of plate glass windows, so that you stare down on what looks like a vast Hornby construction, with trains snaking in and out of London Bridge Station, feeling like The Fat Controller. Or perhaps Bob Crow.

* Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 St Thomas Street, London SE19RY (020 3011 1257, http://www.aquahutong.co.uk)

photo 5This is the view from the table, looking over Borough Market and Tate Modern.

Thanks to Gina Ryan for the pics.

Robbery with a side order of pheasant

The route from Bridego Bridge to Leatherslade Farm in Bucks is the featured Great Drive in this Sunday’s (15.12) Drive section of the Sunday Times. To celebrate, we have a fresh version of the film, now with a racy B&W section:

The pub mentioned in the article, The Hundred of Ashendon (01296-651296, http://www.thehundredofashendon.com), is well worth a detour even if you aren’t chasing the shades of robbers past – the chef, Matt, produces robust, seasonal, well-flavoured food (I had the pheasant and bacon pie, my co-pilot a lovely piece of turbot) without being over-fancy. If I tell you he has spent time in Fergus Henderson’s kitchen, you’ll get the idea.

JASON AND THE GASTRONAUTS

I am interviewing chef Jason Atherton for the Sunday Times sometime soon and I recently realised I had a gap in my experience of his rapidly expanding gastro-universe. I had eaten at Maze when he was Gordon Ramsey’s small-plate protégé, had a memorable lunch at the Pollen St Social Club and a decent dinner at the Social Eating House (on the first full day of opening, and the debutante nerves showed a little) and a good-value lunch (£25.50) at Little Social, which for me showed Balthazar the way to do a Manhattan-influenced brasserie in London. But I hadn’t eaten at his latest joint, Berners Tavern, at the new London Edition hotel, just north of Oxford Street. Time to make amends before the meeting.
I used to have my breakfast meetings (a thing of the past, I’m pleased to say) there when it was the Berners Hotel, a low-key, faded five-star that clung to memories of its (distant) heyday. Now, it has been Ian Schragered – spruced and primped and Fabergé-d (look at the chandeliers) to brash, contemporary glory. Shrager’s still got that same quirk from the Royalton of trying to save on the lighting bills (maybe he’s heard about our energy companies), so there are corners of the public areas where flashlights ought to be provided, but it’s a very impressive lobby with, Schrager’s essential ingredient, a busy little bar. Oh, and that other trope of Ian’s – a phalanx of unnervingly attractive staff. You could certainly forget that, under its scrubbed, moisturized and waxed skin, this is a Marriott hotel.
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The restaurant is even grander, the walls covered with a Tetris of mis-matched artwork, a soaring illuminated cabinet of spirits centre-stage at the bar and a roof to remember. Nobody could tell me when the triple-height, ornately plastered ceiling dates from (although the marble floor in the foyer is apparently 1830s), but this was once the site of Messrs Marsh, Stacey, Fauntleroy and Graham’s private bank. Like all good banks, this had its share of scandal. Henry Fauntleroy was light-fingered to say the least, helping himself, with a little creative accounting and the Georgian equivalent of dodgy OTC Derivatives, to £250,000 (a very large fortune back then). According to the judge at his trial at the Old Bailey, the banker “squandered it in debauchery”. Some things never change. Well, that’s not quite true – they hanged him for his embezzlement on November 30, 1824, the last man to hang for forgery in the UK.
Still, back to the food. I am not going to list the meal beat by beat in time-honoured fashion (‘We started with the soup..’). We went fishy, apart from a playful “ham, egg and peas” starter (brilliant), with perfectly cooked fish, lime-chilli scallops, baby squid and a watch-the-white-shirt squid-ink risotto. It was all executed and served with admirable precision. Prices are commensurate with the setting, mind. We paid £110 for four courses, water, tea and a reasonable bottle of Torrentes, from the lower rung of a wine list that quickly ascends to the heavens.
One bugbear among the opulence, and Berners Tavern is far from alone in this, is that I don’t like those credit card machines which say, even though you’ve paid 12.5% already, ‘Would You Like To Add A Gratuity?”. It makes you feel Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink (‘I don’t tip.. I don’t believe in it’) when you press ‘No.’ There should be a “Yes, but I’ll pay it in cash, thanks” option. Better yet, just shut up with the questions.
So, the overall verdict – rolling in the whole experience, ambience and food – is that Berners Tavern provided one of my best meals out this year in what is unlikely to be topped as the most splendid setting (it certainly rivals the Wolseley in that respect). And it’s open all day. Maybe I’ll start doing breakfast meetings again.

IT’LL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF

I recently interviewed Ian Burrell, a (possible the only) “Global Rum Ambassador” for a piece in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine about rum in the Caribbean at Cottons his bar/restaurant in Camden (cottonscamden.co.uk). That will be out in the December issue (available in November), but in the meantime Ian’s RumFest is taking places next weekend (October 12-13, 12-5pm) at Excel, with over 400 rums, including dozens you’ll never had heard of. Tickets cost from £25, which includes tastings and seminars, see http://www.rumfest.co.uk. Meanwhile, here is a rough outtake from the filmed interview, where Ian explains the legend of ‘overproof’ rum. There’s a little slip of the tongue (Spain captured Jamaica, not vice-versa), but watch for a different, more polished version when the ST Travel Magazine comes out. For more on Ian see http://www.rumexperience.com.