Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Bell, Eckington, Worcestershire

Despite its unusual 360 degree fireplace, inside a brick pizza-style stove, the Bell doesn't have quite enough character for a country pub. Although the young staff are friendly, their black uniforms and the Bell's polished decor, with its clean lines and smooth wooden tables, suggest chain. Still, the food and beer is quite good. You could do a lot worse than the smooth and very drinkable 6X beer, while the game casserole (£11), a rich stew of venison, pigeon and rabbit in a red wine gravy, with dumplings and a side order of veg, is hearty and filling. Moreover, there is a large selection of kids meals, including a generous ham, eggs and chips, for about £6 apiece. For desert, chocoholics will love the hot chocolate pot - a very intense dose of cocoa, topped with cream and mint. 7/10

Sunday 19 December 2010

Grand Hotel Karel V, Geertebolwerk, Utrecht

Slap, bang in the middle of Utrecht, the Grand Hotel Karel V is a luxurious and fairly-traditional establishment that may be resting on its laurels. Built in the grounds of a medieval monastery, the hotel is an ensemble of white buildings, some with tall elegant sloping roofs, which manages to conjure up a sense of peace and quiet in a prime location near the attractive canals, restaurants, bars and shops in the heart of this ancient city. However, some of the bedrooms are in a bland modern block. They are comfortable and quiet, but the decor is a bit gaudy and they have clinical laminate-wooden floors. Still, the en-suite bathrooms, equipped with showers, rather than baths, are up-to-date with heated towel-rails and smart olive tiles. There is no WiFi in the rooms and getting on the Internet via the ethernet cables can be fraught with technical glitches. However, there is free WiFi, which works well enough, in the quirky lobby, where you can admire the brash modern art from one of the blue leather sofas. The Karel V's buffet breakfast has just about everything you might want, including decent speciality breads, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. But the machine coffee is lackluster and the fruit salad lame. Overall, a bit disappointing for a "grand" hotel. 6/10

Sunday 12 December 2010

Gauchos, Oude Gracht, Utrecht

This atmospheric, almost subterranean, branch of the Gauchos chain of Argentinian-themed steakhouses is housed in an ancient cave-like building tucked away next to the wharf of one of Utrecht's two-storey canals. The emphasis, of course, is on meat and there is a wide selection of cuts of beef ranging from 225g to 1,000g. A 300g sirloin steak, served with an unusual layer of crackling, is juicy and satisfying, but quite pricey at 21 euros. You get a big choice of sauces, such as garlic, bearnaise and mushroom-truffle, and side orders, including asparagus, mushrooms, chips, baked potatoes and even corn-on-the-cob, typically costing between 3 and 4 euros apiece. With friendly, helpful and attentive waiting staff, Gauchos is justifiably popular in prosperous Utrecht. 7/10

Restaurant de Artisjok, Nieuwe Gracht, Utrecht

Located an picturesque old street, next to a quiet canal, Restaurant de Artisjok is not the place to come for a quick meal. Service can be snail-paced and may leave you gnawing your hand in frustration and hunger. Still, this elegant establishment in a 19th century house seems popular with a mix of ages and attracts locals, tourists and business people.The decor is conventional, but smart, while the imaginative food is beautifully-presented and tastes great. Specials might include half a lobster or six very fresh oysters served with a chili sauce. The fried venison steak (20 euros) is served with a delicious truffle risotto, asparagus and a very rich venison stew in a separate bowl. The classic deserts, such as tiramsu and crème brûlée, are large and cost around nine euros apiece. Service by the black-shirted waiters is jovial, but very inattentive. 6/10

Saturday 11 December 2010

CityJet, London City to Amsterdam

By far the most human and accessible of London's airports, City is a good gateway for short hops across Europe, as you can pass through this small airport in 15 minutes. The flight to Amsterdam is short, but CityJet still finds time to serve you a complementary sweet, drink and sandwich in both directions. On board, are comfortable, reclining, blue leather seats, each equipped with its own copy of the Air France (owner of CityJet) in-flight magazine. But this route sees frequent delays and changing your flights isn't easy - you have to ring a call centre and may end up paying a big premium. 7/10

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Le Gauthier, Romilly Street, central London

Housed in a discreet Regency Town House, Le Gauthier has a reverential, almost ecclesiastical ambiance, in which gastronomy, rather than God, is the focus. You ring the doorbell and stand in the hall, before the staff usher you into a very small bar, which doubles as a wine cellar, for an aperitif. Once you have pulled up a chair in the smart, mostly-white dining room, you are served a steady succession of free morsels, such as quail eggs, home-baked bread rolls (the bacon one is very good), and crab with guacamole sauce. Everything is beautifully-presented. The five course menu (3 plates £35, four plates £45, five plates £55) has several options for each course.  The crayfish velouté, served with chicken liver, truffle and chervil, can be too subtle and short of seasoning. Better are the ultra-fresh scallops served with caramelized red onions in a chard sauce. Another hit is the succulent cut of venison, served with celeriac cream and cabbage, topped with a delicate truffle garnish.  If you aren't squeamish, you are also likely to enjoy the fine, sweet foie gras, served with apple, sultanas, herbs and a calavados sauce.

Expansive and expensive
The fillet of Dover sole is a small, salty, tasty tube of fish, served with a celeriac ravioli, Jerez vinegar reduction and a beef-orange jus, while the roast lamb, served with root vegetables, consists of half-a-dozen large pellets of meat. It seems to be a mix of cuts: some quite solid and some juicy and falling apart.  The wine list is both expansive and expensive. Although the pinot noir from Alsace is light, refreshing and drinkable, it probably isn't worth £32 a bottle. Still, you can forgo desert and enjoy the free trio of homemade chocolates, including a melt-in-your mouth coconut marshmallow. Service (12.5% optional charge) by the white-shirted French waiters and waitresses is efficient, but they can seem a little stressed at times.  Still, Le Gauthier's imaginative dishes should be enough to delight most foodies. 8/10

Saturday 4 December 2010

El Vergel, rue du Trône, Brussels

A Latin-American-themed eatery with backpacker-style decor, El Vergel has a strong following among local office workers. Hand-written messages cover the walls, while the dozens of bare wooden tables wedged into two large rooms, are packed on a Friday lunchtime. The keenly-priced food, as well as the buzz, is the draw. One of the specials, costing just eight euros, is an intense, filling and delicious beef stew served with plantain, chili and rice. You can wash it down with a soft drink for a couple of euros and, on the way out, you can even buy a Latin American memento from the mini souvenir shop. 8/10

Friday 3 December 2010

Leopold Hotel, Rue du Luxembourg, Brussels

The Leopold Hotel has an old-fashioned air about it.  Apparently stuck in the1970s, the reception staff wear white shirts and black ties, while the three venerable lifts, labelled A, B and C, have to be called individually. Upstairs, the corridors are warrens and some of the standard rooms, overlooking grey flats and buildings, are cramped with small, flat-screen televisions and compact wardrobes. You have to pay 10 euros for 24 hours of WiFi access, but it works well enough throughout the hotel. The restaurant has smart white table cloths, but seemingly few customers, while the bar and brasserie is rather dull and lacking in atmosphere. Still, the Leopold serves a decent hot and cold breakfast in a large, open room with plenty of tables, each with its own big flask of coffee. Moreover, this hotel is well-located for Brussels' Europe quarter and is near an atmopsheric square with lots of bars and restaurants, populated by young Eurocrats. 6/10