Friday, 23 December 2011

The Booking Office bar at the Renaissance Hotel, St. Pancras, central London

Built into the booking office of this grandiose Gothic station, the Renaissance Hotel has a jaw-dropping bar with a soaring ceiling, tall arched windows and fine vintage wooden panelling interspersed with heavily-restored brick walls. Although the furniture and lighting is mostly modern and angular, you still feel like you are sitting in a cathedral. It can be difficult to secure a seat, but once you do, the waitresses provide exemplary table service. Prices are high and the choice of beers is limited, but your ale does come in a pewter mug and is accompanied by some exotic nibbles. It is also worth wondering through to the beautiful and extravagantly spacious lobby next door. It too has bare brick walls, lead-paned arched windows and many of the original station's fixture and fittings, framed by attractive sky-blue ironwork, complete with rivets, nuts and bolts. 8/10

Monday, 19 December 2011

Barrica, Goodge Street, central London

A buzzing and cheery tapas bar, Barrica brings a whiff of Barcelona to Goodge Street. The decor, with yellow walls, a tiled floor and a grand wooden drinks cabinet, is traditional Spain, while the service by the young, edgy Spanish-speaking staff is friendly, but a little haphazard.  Across the all-day menu and the specials menus, there is a broad selection of hot and cold tapas, plus cheese and meat platters. But some of the dishes listed aren't always available. And make sure you get to Barrica by 9.30pm, as the kitchen can close surprisingly early. The boquerones (three for £2.95) are very fresh, while the cockles, tomatoes and cod, swimming in brine, is a great combination and you can really taste the sea. The baby spinach with garlic and melted cheese is also very good, while the duo of ham croquettes is salty, succulent and delicious. The tuna salad is very fresh, but a bit small for a fiver. The pile of patatas bravas is crispy and oily, but still mouthwatering. Other highlights include the salami with caperberries and the saddle of lamb, which is cooked to be pink in the middle and is well seasoned. Although you may find many of the dishes too salty, there is free tap water and good bread.  On the lengthy Spanish wine list, the Martin Berdugo Tinto Fino (175ml glass for about £6) is smooth, yet rich. Barrica, which levies a service charge of 12.5%, has a good vibe and is good value. 8/10 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Stanhope Hotel, Rue du Commerce, Brussels

Housed in an hundred-year old building perfectly-located between the European Parliament and the heart of Brussels, the Stanhope Hotel doesn't have to try very hard to attract guests. The ridiculously ornate foyer, with its classical columns, is many years out-of-date and rather stuffy, while the dining room is also excessively formal, fussy and elaborately decorated with incongruous Chinese prints. The two-storey bedrooms on the first floor have very high ceilings, tall windows, massive curtains, wooden floors and some period style.  Downstairs is a desk, chairs, sofa, minibar, television and ageing bathroom. On a mezzanine-level, is a comfortable double-bed and not much else. Unfortunately, the narrow, steep staircase can be a bit treacherous in the middle of the night, but there are light switches everywhere. Note, even a small bottle of water from the minibar costs four euros and the smoking rooms have a real stench of tobacco. The buffet breakfast isn't great for 25 euros. There is a broad selection, but the food is really only passable, while the coffee is lacklustre and can be lukewarm. The waitors are friendly, but they seem to be trying to deal with too many people at once and confusion beckons. On top of the hefty room-rate, the Stanhope charges eight euros city tax and a further nine euros for 24 hours of decent Wi-Fi access.  Somewhat complacent, the Stanhope seems to be making too good a living from Eurocrats on expense accounts. 5/10

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Royal China Club, Baker Street, central London

For a Chinese restaurant, the Royal China Club has an unusually luxurious interior. It has very comfortable fabric chairs, starched white table cloths, bamboo panelling and leather padding on the walls. On the way in, you pass crowded fish tanks, packed with lobsters, eels, crabs and other sealife eking out their last few hours. The menus are long and comprehensive. From the dim sum selection, the sesame rolls filled with prawn and mango, which melt in the mouth, are a good choice, as are the succulent steamed dumplings - fillings include scallops and prawns with garlic. However, the minced lamb buns are a bit pedestrian - the flavour might remind you of a lame steak and kidney pie.  Among the larger dishes, the crispy duck with plum sauce, accompanied by wafer thin pancakes and crudite, is very moreish, but you don't get a great deal of food for £13.50 a pop. Similarly, the rice with chicken and seafood is a modest portion for a tenner. It is served in a huge leaf, making it good to look at, but hard to handle.  In general, the Royal China Club's food is a bit pricey, as are the drinks (330ml of Tiger beer for £4.50), while the bottled water is extortionate at £4.50 a time. You are served by a platoon of black-shirted, dour staff who keep topping up your glass. At busy times, you might have to wait a while for the various elements of your meal to arrive. The Royal China Club is comfortable and you can book a table, but you'll find a lot better value in Chinatown. 6/10

Friday, 2 December 2011

Locale, East Dulwich Road, south London

One of a small chain of Italian restaurants, Locale East Dulwich does a hearty and competitively-priced three course Christmas dinner for £25 a head plus wine and service. There are about five options per course. Among the starters, the butternut squash soup is a bit bland and you'll need to go heavy on the seasoning. Still, the accompanying bread is very fresh and tasty. For the main course, the lamb shank is a huge piece of well-cooked meat sitting on a big bed of mash potato - it is quite good, but there is too much, and it needs some vegetables and some garlic. After the lamb, the large slice of  tiramsu is pretty intimidating. It tastes good, but looks suspiciously neat and tidy - like it may have been made elsewhere. While the service is attentive, it feels like the staff have one eye on the bill - they top up wine glasses regularly.  Still, the waitresses also make sure you are well stocked with iced water and the East Dulwich branch is a spacious and comfortable place to party. In essence, Locale serves mediocre food in generous portions at reasonable prices. 7/10

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Elephant & Castle, Holland Street, central London

A throw-back to yesteryear, the Elephant & Castle is an old school pub that seems to draw an old school crowd on a Sunday lunchtime - elderly chaps with upper crust accents prop up the bar. It is a world away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Kensington High Street.  The dark wooden panelling, leather benches, Victorian lamps and gold-framed mirrors reinforce the feeling that you have stepped back in time. Only a neon fruit machine spoils the effect. The food menu plays it pretty safe, but is very competitively-priced for 2011. The beef burger (about £8) contains good quality meat, topped with bacon and salad, but the accompanying chips are a little oily. On tap, there is Amstel, Heineken, 1664, Guinness, Strongbow and other big brands, along with a decent selection of real ales, including Doom Bar, London Pride and one or two beers from the Moor brewery in Somerset. Owned by the Nicholson group, the Elephant & Castle might appeal to anyone who wants to rewind the clock back to the days before All Bar One and Pitcher & Piano. 7/10

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Best Western Galleria Inn, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles

In a non-descript suburb of south LA close to the international airport and a few miles from the ocean, the Best West Galleria Inn, Redondo Beach, is a workmanlike and depressing place to stay. At weekends, this motel seems to be popular with noisy night owls and you'll get to hear plenty of chatter in the early hours as party animals slowly make their way along the balconies that lead to the guest rooms. Still, the beds are comfortable and the Wi-Fi is fast and free. Although the decor is dull and unimaginative, the biggish rooms are equipped with just about everything you'll need, except a safe. You can help yourself to the basic buffet breakfast in the very compact lobby. The lame coffee comes from a machine and you have to toast your own bread. There are also cereals, milk, yoghurts and hard boiled eggs in the fridge. This Best Western is a reasonably convenient and cheap stopover after a long flight, but there must be better options. 5/10

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Crooked Well, Grove Lane, south London

A new gastro pub in Camberwell, the Crooked Well is housed in a stately early nineteenth-century building with high ceilings, big windows and clean, stripped-back decor. Even on a Tuesday evening, it can be tough to get a table in the restaurant area, so you may be pointed to the bar. But beware, some of the bar tables are really too low to eat at. The food is traditional British fare, often enlivened with a modern twist. Among the starters, the pork belly, served with tuna creme fraiche, capers and gremolata  (£5.90), is a small and surprisingly-delicate dish. The presentation is superb and the swirls of pork crackling delicious, but the meat itself can be overpowered by the other flavours, especially the capers. For the main course, the hearty and hot fish pie (£26.50 for two) is a good choice on an autumnal evening. Beneath the mash potato topping, which is decorated with two king prawns, there is plenty of well-seasoned salmon. You'll also need a side order of vegetables, which are a further £3, but are nicely-steamed.  There is a lengthy wine list and some beers, such as Amstel, Doom Bar and Kronenbourg on tap. Although the Crooked Well is often packed, the service is polished and professional. 7/10

Monday, 24 October 2011

Southern stretch of The Strand, Los Angeles, California

A 22-mile bicycle trail hugging the beaches along Los Angeles' South Bay, the Strand is a blessed relief from the car-clogged roads elsewhere in the city. Beginning at Hermosa Beach, the most southerly stretch often hugs wide tracts of sand running down to the Pacific Ocean. The beach here is patchwork of volleyball pitches and every few hundred yars, a sky blue, wooden lifeguard's hut surveys the shoreline. With a white-dotted line down the middle and an eight-mile-an-hour speed limit, The Strand itself runs as straight as an arrow for a mile or so to Redondo Beach.  Here, you have to veer off on to the coast road for a short stretch before working your way through a car park and a short 'no cycling' section at the head of Redondo Beach pier. Then you rejoin the sea front for a couple of miles until The Strand comes to an abrupt end.  But it is worth pushing your bike up the steep slope to the bike lane on the residential road that climbs into the plush Palos Verdes hills. You can work your way around the picturesque coastline on the sometimes busy, but wide, Paseo Del Mar, which offers some fine vistas over the ocean. You can rent a bike at reasonable rates from several shops near Hermosa Beach. The Hermosa Cyclery, for example, offers a standard hybrid bike for $36 a day or $125 for a week. 8/10 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Millennium Broadway Hotel, West 44th Street, New York

Housed in a skyscraper a stone's throw from Times Square, the Millennium Broadway is a mid-market hotel on an industrial scale. It has 625 rooms across scores of floors, reachable via swift lifts from the plush marble lobby. For such a central location in such a crowded city, the standard rooms are surprisingly spacious and well-equipped with a large desk, comfortable bed and armchair. They also have ironing boards, irons, safes and WiFi (costing about $13 a day). The predominantly brown decor is contemporary and in good condition, but a little dull. Still, there are big windows with dizzying views of the neighbouring skyscrapers.  The en-suite bathrooms are also modern and well-maintained, but the dappled tiled floor and fussy marble sink tops won't be to everyone's tastes. The standard rooms can be booked at pretty keen rates and, if you want to keep the cost of extras down, there are plenty of nearby cafes and coffee shops serving breakfast and offering free WiFi. A good base from which to see Manhattan. 7/10

Friday, 30 September 2011

Shampers, Kingly Street, central London

Although it sounds like it might be a tacky night club, Shampers is a fairly-tasteful French bistro and wine bar. Its decor is pretty dated, but the walls are covered in an eyecatching array of modern art, such as a very striking yellow and blue painting of a lido. The a la carte menu is supplemented by a good selection of specials. While you are waiting for your food, you can tuck into the warm bread. Starters (priced at about six pounds) might include butternut squash soup, Serrano ham or herrings. The latter is served with a very tangy salsa, which overwhelms the fish.  For red meat lovers, there is an appealing choice of mains (priced from about £11), such as lamb kidneys, chorizo cassoulet or venison steak. Served with a big dollop of creamy mash and spinach, the venison (about £15) arrives in juicy pellets. As you would expect, the very long wine list, organised by country, leans towards France, but there are also plenty of New World and Spanish options, starting at about £16 a bottle. If you don't want to spend a lot, the Malbec Coleccion Torino (£18 a bottle) from Argentina, which has a hint of prunes, is very drinkable and goes well with the meaty main courses. Beware, the kitchen closes around 11, after which there will be a very limited choice of deserts. Service (12.5% charge) by the young, somewhat melancholic, waitresses, can be a little sluggish. 7/10

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Red Lion, High Street, Arundel

A welcoming pub on the main drag in the historic village of Arundel, the Red Lion's interior is an eclectic mishmash of contemporary fixtures and fittings. Painted in bright colours, the walls are covered in modern art, which is for sale. Some of the bar stools have leopard skin prints. Out the back is a shabby beer garden, which can be marred by junk and full ashtrays. The menu is unambitious pub fare. Still, just eight quid will you get a chunky beef burger, topped with bacon, cheese and fresh tomatoes, which is delicious. It comes with some skinny, floppy chips and mayo or tomato sauce.  There are some local ales, Addlestones cider and the usual lagers on draft. The Red Lion's bustling, young staff are very chirpy, particularly when they are preparing for a live music gig on a Saturday night. 6/10

The White Horse, Shere, Surrey

An appealing timber-framed pub in the prosperous village of Shere, the White Horse has a warren of rooms and a large, plain garden. Owned by the Chef and Brewer chain, the food isn't expensive, but it can still be disappointing. Fish pie topped with cheese and potato (£8.75) isn't particularly large, while the salmon and prawns inside can be overcooked. The accompanying vegetables might suffer from the same problem and can be limp and tasteless. Still, the roasts look better and more substantial, particularly if you pay extra for the "go large" option. Moreover, some of the deserts will fill you up - the chocolate fudge cake (£4.40), served with a big dollop of ice cream or cream, is massive and moreish. On tap, are some cask-ales, plus standard lagers and ciders, such as Fosters and Strongbow. Service by the black-shirted "team members" is very friendly and cheerful, but the White Horse isn't a culinary experience. 6/10

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cycle ride from Amberley over Wepham Down and Rackham Hill, Sussex

A circular route beginning and ending at Amberley train station, this 15 mile off-road ride takes you up into the South Downs for sweeping views across Sussex. You start the ride with a stiff climb on tarmac, before threading your way south along bridleways across rolling download towards the hamlet of Burpham, where you might be tempted by the boisterous pub. There is another stiff climb out of the village and up into woodland where you head east on a forest trail past frequent Angmering Park Estate signs warning you  not to climb on the log piles.  As you emerge from the trees, you veer north towards Lower Barpham along an exhilarating path overlooking a very steep hillside. Just before Wepham Down, you head east again across open fields with distant views to the sea and then north to join the South Downs Way. Here, you head west back towards Amberley. From the top of the ridge, you get almost continuous vistas across the bucolic countryside to the north. Near Amberely, you'll see the sixteenth century stately home of Parham on the edge of the woodland below. This rewarding off-road ride is detailed in the Ordnance Survey book of cycle tours in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. 8/10

Monday, 8 August 2011

Walk from Ightham Mote, Kent

From the National Trust car park at Ightham Mote, there is an enjoyable one hour circular walk up nearby Wilmot Hill. Clearly marked by green arrows, the walk starts with a dull climb on a wide mud path lined by weeds and woods. But stick with it. After about a mile, the route cuts through some trees and, just before the top, there is a small bench with a spectacular view across the forests and fields below. The path then descends on the edge of a surprisingly steep and dramatic escarpment, offering more timeless vistas through the precarious and sometimes ancient trees. Shipbourne's sturdy Victorian church is one of the few buildings to intrude on this snapshot of rural England.  The route then rolls back to Ightham Mote where you can get a well-earned slice of coffee and walnut cake in the restaurant overlooking this Medieval moated manor house. 8/10

Friday, 5 August 2011

Bistrot Bruno Loubet, St John's Square, Clerkenwell Road, central London

A light, airy and spacious restaurant, Bistrot Bruno Loubet mixes traditional French hospitality with a cool, contemporary interior. In August, even on a Friday lunchtime, the bistro doesn't seem that busy, giving the chatty waitors plenty of time to show off their knowledge.  There is a big selection of dishes, including specials, and the food is good, but a tad grand for a lunchtime, with main courses starting at about £13 and deserts and starters at about £6. Still, the steak is an impressive slab of meat and the summer fish cassoulet (£18), served on a bed of broad beans and other vegetables, features a fillet of salmon, a fillet of white fish and a kind of fish sausage. Although the seasoning may be excessive for some tastes, the fish is expertly-cooked and nicely-presented.  If you're hungry, you'll probably also need the mash potato and garlic side dish, which is around four quid.  Deserts include an impressive summer pudding, ringed by raspberries and three flavours of decent ice cream. Bistrot Bruno Loubet is a pleasant, but pricey, place for lunch. 7/10

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Masseria Fumarola, Villa Castelli, near Martina Franca

Only a few miles out of the fine town of Martina Franca, Masseria Fumarola is an upmarket hotel set in extensive, pristine grounds. The white-washed main building, which has a comfortable and stylish lounge, is housed in a cluster of converted trulli, each topped with the distinctive white egg cup shape stones. In front of the hotel, raised stone terraces with smart gazebos sheltering glass tables, rise like islands out of a sea of white shingle. Some of the grounds are given over to carpet-like lawns, punctured by the occasional mature olive tree (one of which is dead) and bordered by low and neat stone walls. A safe distance from the hotel is a curvaceous pool surrounded by white stone. The overall effect is striking and architectural, but rather stark. Moreover, the hotel’s high prices can leave the place feeling rather empty and lacking in atmosphere.

Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy

A charming and compact town, white-washed Locorotondo shimmers invitingly on the top of a hill, its cathedral towering imperiously above a cluster of old medieval streets. After you've admired the fine facades of the town's clutch of churches and the cathedral's dome and belltower, there isn't a great deal to see. But it is worth wandering around the atmospheric alleyways, overlooked by elegant town houses with unusual pitched roofs, or eating lunch al fresco at one of the handful of decent restaurants. You should also make your way to the well-maintained small park, from where there are captivating views across the iron-railings and the trulli-studded landscape below. 7/10

Monday, 1 August 2011

La Taverna del Duca, Via Papatotero, Locorotondo, Puglia

Targeting discerning tourists, La Taverna del Duca has a handful of outdoor tables in a charming alley near the old heart of this appealing whitewashed hilltop town. At lunch time, there is likely to be a very limited selection of dishes, but don't let that put you off. Catering for its international clientele, La Taverna's menu is translated into English, but the food is  pure Puglia. The portions are generous so you may not need to spend 12 euros on the antipasti. Among the primi courses, the mashed beans with chicory is quite creamy and moreish, while the oriecchiette with ragu sauce and meat balls is also good value (both 8-9 euros), as is the even cheaper orecchiette in a tomato sauce. But the black beans and pasta (7 euros) in a rich, salty sauce is the best of the lot. Another delicious dish is the ripe and flavoursome tomatoes with baby mozarella (6 euros). However, the bread you get in exchange for the two euro cover charge isn't so great and the only coffee on offer is an expresso. Moreover, you have to clamber through some cleaning equipment to get to the toilet. Still, La Taverna del Duca's service is slick and engaging, while the setting is idyllic Italy. 7/10

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Trattoria delle Ruote, via Monticello, near Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

With a cultivated rustic look and feel, revolving around wagon wheels, the Trattoria delle Ruote is a self-consciously old-fashioned restaurant. From the outside, it looks a bit naff, but the interior is more appealing, thanks to the conical stone roof and the jagged stone walls, decorated with ancient tools and faded photos of farmers. Only the checked table cloths seem a bit contrived. The very simple menus have pictures of the dishes and are listed in several languages, but don't let that put you off. This place does authentic food. The antipasti includes baby mozzarella, ricotta, vegetables, salami and meat balls. It is okay, but nothing special. More memorable is the excellent orecchiette pasta (6 euros) served with a local cheese and tomato sauce, as is the creamy butter bean mash in olive oil. Another standout dish is the mixed grill (12 euros), which includes spicy sausages, liver, lamb on the bone and other meaty morsels. Carnivores will also enjoy the big roll of beef in tomato sauce (12 euros), which is succulent and juicy. The house red wine is full bodied, smooth and very good for just 8 euros a litre. For just 2.5 euros a head, you can round off the evening with some liquors and almond biscuits. They arrive in four unmarked glass bottles. One seems to be limoncello, while the others are flavoured with coffee and cherry. Service is 10 per cent, but is smooth, serene and welcoming. Although it seems to be targeting tourists, Trattoria delle Ruote is justifiably popular with locals.  8/10

Pizzeria alla Panca, Via Principe Umberto, Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

Opposite one of Martina Franca's extravagantly-carved churches, Pizzeria alla Panca is a big, bustling restaurant with lots of atmosphere. Inside, white cloisters arc over venerable pews separated by elegant wooden partions.  Outside, there is a large terrace in the street and the tables soon fill up with big Italian parties. To start, the antipasti is a seemingly endless stream of small tapas-style dishes, including carpaccio, meat balls, fried vegetables in batter, cured ham and baby mozzarellas. It's pretty good and pretty generous. There is also a broad selection of big, filling pizzas priced between 4 and 7 euros. The carpaccio pizza with rocket, served on a good base, is a winner, while the calzone is massive and packed with meat and cheese. The house red wine, served in carafes, is cheap and chilled, but quite drinkable. Understandably, the waitresses can get rushed, but they do a good job managing the crush. Pizzeria alla Panca is a deserved hit. 8/10

Ostuni, Puglia, Italy

A gleaming white-washed hilltop town high above the plains below, Ostuni is an alluring and easy afternoon trip from the nearby sandy beaches. Extended across several hills, it is a big place and it can be difficult to find its ancient stone citadel. But it is worth the effort. You should aim for the piazza della Libertà, a bustling meeting place overseen by a bishop on an ornate obelisk that towers above the bars, cafes and striking baroque church below.  From here, a stone-paved street winds it way through the old city gradually up to Ostuni's biggest attraction - the cathedral with its spectacular rose window - a wheel of incredibly-detailed carving at the centre of a grand facade. On the way up, you pass too many souvenir shops and under an attractive archway bearing an elegant eighteenth century gallery. From the streets near the church, there are far-reaching views over the surviving city walls, far below, and across the olive groves to the distant sea beyond. Tumbling down from the cathedral are stone lanes and terraces, many of which have been lined with flowering pot plants or commandeered by slouchy chairs from cool bars and restaurants. On summer evenings, you'll find plenty of foreign and Italian tourists in Ostuni, but this picturesque and charismatic town also draws in the locals. 8/10

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Scacciapensieri, Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

Not the place for a refined meal, Scacciapensieri is a no-nonsense pizzeria and trattoria down a side street off Martina Franca's main square. There are two large, well-lit and crudely-decorated rooms, plus a kind of conservatory with a glass roof. The Italian-only menu has a massive list of pizzas, costing between 3 and 7 euros, baked in a wood-fired oven. The quattro formaggi pizza (5.5 euros) is rich, filling and delicious, thanks in part to a generous covering of blue cheese, while the ham pizza is topped with piles of salty meat, which will have you reaching for the water or a large Moretti beer (66cl for just 3 euros). There are plenty of other Italian dishes, but the pizzas, which have light and large bases, are top notch. Still, on a week day evening, Scacciapensieri may only attract a smattering of diners, mostly Italian families, and can lack atmosphere.  The cover charge of 1.5 euros a head pays for a bowl of salty olives, while the service is friendly and efficient. 7/10

Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy

On the edge of Martina Franca's new town, a leafy square leads to a venerable stone gateway, flanked by chic cafes, that heralds the beginning of the town's historic core. On the other side is a smaller square, overlooked by an imposing neo-classical town hall. A narrow alley, shaded by stately nineteenth century townhouses, leads to another square where you will find the relatively-restrained, yet magnificent, baroque facade of the massive eighteenth century church Chiesa di San Martino, which towers above a much older bell tower. On summer evenings, the timeless and atmospheric wood-panelled bars and restaurants around these squares buzz with Italians of all ages. Elsewhere in Martina Franca's maze of old streets, you'll find more extraordinary baroque churches and the occasional elaborate wrought iron balconies and ancient archways. Beneath your feet, the aged paving stones are smooth and shiny, while souvenir shops are noticeable by their absence. From one section of the surviving stretches of Medieval walls, there are distant views across a trulli-studded landscape to the compact white hill top town of Locorotondo. Some distance from the sea, Martina Franca is a fine and refreshingly untouristy town. 8/10

Friday, 29 July 2011

Lecce, Puglia, Italy

Heralded as Baroque's answer to Florence, Lecce is a glistening jewel of bizarre architecture in the sun-drenched deep south of Italy.  You can park cheaply quite near one of the grand gates to the seventeenth century heart of the city - an atmospheric maze of narrow, stone-paved streets with a wealth of well-preserved buildings. At Lecce's heart is Piazza Sant'Oronzo. One side of this yawning square is dominated  by a sunken and substantial Roman amphitheatre, which has about a dozen rows of stone terraces overlooking a pit, still used for performances.  The square also has what looks like a modern reconstruction of a medieval tower, ornately carved and fitted with large glass windows,  plus a very substantial statue of a bishop blessing his flock atop a column towering over the buildings. Unfortunately, the garish facade of a branch of McDonalds mars the historic harmony. Not far to the north is the Baroque masterpiece Basilica di Santa Croce, which has an extraordinarily lavish facade with just about every inch carved with flowers, fruit, mythical creatures, cherubs and much else - the stonesmiths have taken full advantage of the local, malleable stone. Both the overall effect and the many, many intricate details will hold your gaze. The stately white interior is also worth a look. Anywhere else, the adjacent Palazzo Della Provincia would be a landmark, but it is totally overshadowed by the Basilica. Behind the Palazzo, across a busy ring road, is a pleasant park, which fills up with local families in the evenings.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Polomo 1 beach, near Ostuni, Puglia, Italy

About 8km from the gleaming white hilltop town of Ostuni, Polomo 1 is a well-run beach with fairly fine sand and plenty of space, even in the high season. You pay five euros for a space in the shaded car park, which is equipped with toilets and showers.  You can also shell out for an umbrella, but the dunes provide pockets of shade, if you need it. The beach is made up of a series of small sandy coves, some with only a couple of sunbathers on a July weekday. What's more, the water is clear, the waves are gentle and most of the litter is in the bins. Polomo 1 would be perfect for kids, except the sea gets deep quite quickly and there are some rocks to negotiate near the shoreline. 8/10

Palazzo Guglielmo, Piazza Umberto, Vignacastrisi, Puglia, Italy

A real find, Palazzo Guglielmo is a substantial and handsome nineteenth century house in the heart of the small town of Vignacastrisi. Through the impressive front doorway, a large archway leads magically into an enormous walled garden, complete with an outdoor swimming pool, lined with wicker sun loungers, plus mature citrus and palm trees, shading sitting areas and elegant pathways. The 150-year-old house has cloistered ceilings, and an airy living room downstairs with comfy seats, mellow music and stacks of books about Salento. Unusually, there are also several fine communal rooms upstairs leading out to a series of roof terraces, the largest of which is lined with padded benches, cushion and drapes, and shaded by a bamboo canopy. Another terrace is equipped with a hot tub and yet another terrace offers views over the garden and the town’s rooftops. There is also free Wi-Fi and some adult bikes available for guests.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Castro, Puglia, Italy

With a charming historic heart high above a more prosaic marina down below, Castro is essentially two very small seaside towns. You can park on one of the narrow roads leading to the picturesque pedestrianised square that acts as the gateway to old Castro. Overlooked by the sombre castle that dominates the town, the square has a laid-back, good-value bar and public benches with far-reaching views over the sea and the resort of Santa Cesarea Terme embedded into the hilly shoreline to the north. Some atmospheric side streets, lined by restrained craft shops, lead down to another fine square with a handsome church, elegant town houses and distinguished four-armed period lamp-posts. It is also worth hunting out a paved vantage point, abutting the castle walls, from where you can survey Castro Marina and the coastline running south.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere, Via Roma, Castro, Puglia

With a dozen or so outdoor tables abutting Castro's castle walls and enclosed by a high hedge, Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere's restaurant has an appealing al fresco ambiance.  Unfortunately, you have to sit on white plastic chairs and eat on bright orange table cloths, while the waiters can be surly and unsmiling. The menu of the day also tends to be very limited, offering just one starter and three primi courses.  Still, the seafood platter (13 euros) features an array of tasty morsels spread across two plates, including a couple of very fresh king prawns, octopus bites, mussels and other shellfish, plus some salad and a tangy dressing. It is very good, but not huge. To follow, there will likely be a delicious seafood pasta dish (12 euros) and some tasty pasta in tomato sauce, with cheese, for 8 euros. The menu will also include several secondi dishes, typically plates of seafood and maybe a cheaper grilled meat dish. The house wine is cheap, but can be rough. The cover charge of 2 euros per head gets you some good bread, which is useful for mopping up the fine sauces. Castro Hosteria Vecchie Maniere's tends to attract a lot of Italian tourists and the service can get very slow as the restaurant fills up with diners. 7/10

Otranto, Puglia, Italy

A deserved tourist trap, Otranto’s heavily-fortified old town overlooks a picturesque bay containing a handful of small beaches. A narrow, but pleasant, park connects the new town to the historic centre hugging the shore line. If you pass through the ancient stone gateway to the old town in the early evening, you’ll likely join a steady stream of tourists going up and down the narrow streets lined with ho-hum restaurants and souvenir shops. Still, there is plenty of history and atmosphere to soak up – the cathedral, dating from the eleventh century, has a beautiful rose window above its massive doorway and an eyecatching mosaic floor. Otranto also boast a forbidding Aragonese castle encircled by a deep moat, now with a grassy base. In the summer of 2011, the castle hosted a Dali exhibition promoted by a stream of seemingly flying chairs strung from the parapets.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Alle due Corti, Corte dei Giugni, Lecce, Puglia

Creating an almost-ecclesiastical atmosphere, Alle due Corti has a cloistered ceiling and austere, white walls, sparingly decorated with crucifixes and Catholic prints. Although there are no outdoor tables, this restaurant draws plenty of locals and tourists, thanks in part to its listing in the Rough Guide. The menu, featuring a photo of the owner, promises authentic Salentino cooking, but choose carefully. You might want to skip the stingy starter of cheese and chorizo, served with a selection of juicy, but salty, olives, (8 euros) and the "vegetables" (7 euros), which turns out to be a small bowl of green beans. The tough grilled meat, accompanied by a single sausage, is also disappointing. A better choice is a bowl of fresh and tasty pasta in tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese. The cannelloni, filled with veal, is succulent and delicious (9 euros), while the lamb on the bone, served with onions, (11 euros) is very moreish. The respectable house white wine is also good value at 3 euros for half a litre. You pay a cover charge of 2 euros a head for the basket of reasonable brown bread. Service can be a little dour, but is quick and the waiters will sometimes chat to kids. 6/10

Beach of Regional Natural Park of Isola di S. Andrea e litorale di Punta Pizzo, Puglia

Isola di S. Andrea e litorale di Punta Pizzo nature reserve protects one of the few sandy beaches in the Salento region of Puglia that doesn't get over-run with crowds. To reach the fine white sand, you have to park on a busy road and thread your way through some attractive sand dunes next to the grounds of a hotel. After a hundred yards or so you reach the beach, where the sand is probably among the best you'll find in Italy. Better still, there is plenty of space, even in July. The sea is shallow with small waves - ideal for young kids to play in. The only downside is some mounds of plastic bottles and other rubbish, as there are no bins and the beach isn't patrolled by lifeguards. Even so, this picturesque beach is well worth a visit. 8/10 

Musta Fa restaurant, via Roma, Vignacastrisi

An unassuming restaurant serving local food, Musta Fa is the place to go for a substantial meal, especially if you aren't in a hurry. The ten tables, covered by green cloths and surrounded by green plastic chairs, in the unremarkable garden are patrolled by only two waiters, meaning the polite service can be very slow when the restaurant fills up on a Saturday night in July. The shortish menu, which features simple Salentino dishes,  may also be accompanied by a couple of specials.  To start, the antipasti platter, featuring lots of fried vegetables (peppers, carrots, zucchini), local cheeses, chorizo, sausage balls and potato balls is quite heavy and filling for just 7 euros. Among the first courses, the generous sea food spaghetti (10 euros) comes with plenty of shellfish and is pretty tasty, as is the tagliatelle, served with meat and cheese (about 8 euros). The aubergine Parmigiana, which may be one of the specials, is also good, but can be cold in the middle and in need of reheating. You can get half a litre of the house white wine in a jug for 2.5 euros. But the wine may be rather yellow and have a strong, almost Sherry-style flavour, which isn't very appealing. Musta Fa serves hearty, filling food at low prices, but won't be to everyone's taste. 7/10

Saturday, 23 July 2011

La Pagghiara, near Torre Suda, Puglia, Italy

A few miles inland from Torre Suda, south-east of Gallipoli, La Pagghiara is in a small group of holiday homes with a communal swimming pool, a well-tended garden and a sizeable paddock, home to several horses. The most atmospheric (and expensive) option on the site, La Pagghiara is housed in a venerable nineteenth century trullo. It is a rough-hewn building with a flat, but cordoned-off, roof terrace. Inside the extraordinarily thick stone walls, a narrow little corridor leads from the spacious and rustic kitchen to the first in a series of three bedrooms, each with their own patio door, protected by a sturdy wrought-iron frame. The master bedroom isn’t much bigger than the double bed, but the conical roof, the connecting corridors and the distressed wooden furniture give this villa plenty of charm. Moreover, everything is spotlessly clean. Although it lacks a dishwasher, the kitchen is well-equipped and is decorated with eye-catching fittings, such as an ornate cast-iron, wood-burning stove, a massive stone sink with bronze taps and a blackened fireplace.

Da Sergio, Via Garibaldi, Otranto, Italy

One of the many restaurants competing for the tourist euro in Otranto's old town, Da Sergio has rows of smart tables on an attractive leafy, two-tier terrace overlooking the busy Garibaldi thoroughfare. The waiters aren't very welcoming, but they are efficient and attentive. To start, you can pay 15 euros for a disappointingly-small sea food platter - you get one plate of cold morsels and one plate of hot morsels. On the cold plate, there may be a couple of prawns, some octopus bites, a handful of anchovies and perhaps five mussels, while the hot plate features a few mussels covered with Parmesan cheese, a couple of skewers of folded squid, some fried prawns and onions. To follow, there is the standard selection of pasta dishes and meat and fish dishes. The seafood risotto (about 10 euros) is a bit peppery and doesn't have a huge amount of flavour or seafood. The seafood linguini (at 11 euros) is more tasty, but skip a side salad, which can be pretty bland and boring.  Da Sergio offers a succinct selection of Italian wines from about 13 to 20 euros a bottle: The Prosecco is pretty refreshing for 13 euros. For the cover charge of 2 euros a head, which includes service, you get some passable bread. Although Da Sergio is recommended by the Rough Guide, you'll probably get better value outside Otranto's city walls or by heading to the popular pizzeria at the gateway to the old town. 6/10

Friday, 22 July 2011

Galatina, Puglia, Italy

In the heart of Galatina is a large square dominated by the fourteenth century church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. Its striking cream Romanesque facade is inset with beautifully-carved statues, gargoyles, cherubs and many other religious symbols.  Inside, the extraordinary nave is covered in fading medieval frescoes. The old town behind the church, which is still paved with original flagstones, boasts rows of well-preserved golden town houses with huge windows and cast-iron balconies. Some are lavishly carved in the Baroque style. Galatina doesn't have many sights, but it is a pleasant town to wonder around in the late afternoon sun, before devouring an ice cream at one of the al fresco tables belonging to the cafes in the main square. 7/10

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Gallipoli, Puglia

A town of two halves jutting out into the Ionian Sea, Gallipoli straddles a sixteenth century stone bridge connecting an island to the mainland. In the labyrinth old quarter, elegant nineteenth and eighteenth century stone-paved streets are partially enclosed by medieval walls with views across to the incongruous glass skyscraper in the new town and a picturesque old stone gatehouse on a pier in the middle of the wide bay. At Gallipoli's heart, is the cathedral of Sant'Agata (from the seventeenth century), which has a graceful and incredibly-ornate Baroque façade. It is surrounded by fine old town houses with wrought iron balconies and period lamps. There are stalls selling tourist tat, but old Gallipoli also has plenty of real shops, plus some decent restaurants and coffee shops.

Al Pescatore ristorante, Riviera Colombo, Gallipoli, Puglia

Despite being recommended in the Rough Guide to Italy, Al Pescatore is an unpretentious and uncompromising seafood restaurant that meets the high-standards of Italian diners. What's more, its appealing outside tables, dressed with white table cloths, have sweeping views across Gallipoli's harbour. In July, you probably need to arrive before 8.30pm to be sure of a table, as people end up queuing along the wall opposite the restaurant. When you sit down one of the burly, old-school waiters will bring you a basket of very good olive bread, complete with pips. On the menu is a broad selection of almost-entirely seafood dishes. To start, the seafood platter (just 7 euros) is a great option.  You might get mussels with smoked cheese and capers, octopus, sardines, strips of fennel and carrot, potatos and anchovies, plus some fried fish. It is all good. Among the primi dishes, is a near-perfect risotto pescatore (9 euros), containing lots of mussels, clams and other shellfish mixed with fat juicy grains of rice in a lovely sauce. The seafood spaghetti is awash with mussels and small prawns, or you can prefer spaghetti with fat king prawns. Both are excellent. A good secondi choice is octopus in a spicy tomato sauce, served in an attractive terracotta pot. In almost every case, the ultra-fresh ingredients are expertly cooked, making for startlingly good food. Moreover, you can get a massive jug of the dry and refreshing house white wine for only 6 euros. Al Pescatore is extraordinarily good value. 9/10

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Lido Marini, Puglia

One of the few sandy beaches in this corner of Puglia, Lido Marini's public stretches can get very crowded in July. Still, it is quite easy to park for free in this non-descript town. The disorderly swarm of parasols has a regimented section in the centre, where you must be able to rent a sun lounger. While the sand is coarse and broken by rocks, the sea is fairly shallow and the waves can be pretty big and fun for kids. Near the beach is a cafe, where you can get decent gelatos for 1.5 euros each, and a small line of market stalls selling tourist tat at negotiable prices. Lido Marini is cheap and reasonably cheerful. 6/10

Monday, 18 July 2011

Lido Pizzo, near Gallipoli, Puglia

A privately-owned beach flanked by a bar and a volleyball court, Lido Pizzo is reached via a bumpy track leading to a shaded car-park. You pay 2.5 euros to park and then there seems to be a charge of 1.5 euros per adult to access the beach, while kids go free. You walk through some pleasant pine trees and, if you haven't paid extra for one of the regimented parasols and sun loungers,  you then need to head north along the shoreline to a clear stretch of the sand where you can lay down your towel or mat. However, it isn't clear what the rules are and vocal disputes can break out between the life guards and visitors who try to erect their own parasols on the wrong stretch of beach. Still, the sand is fairly fine and fairly light and the water is shallow enough for young kids. You can see the port of Gallipoli in the distance and there might be a few yachts berthed in the otherwise featureless bay. An unremarkable, but fairly uncrowded, beach. 6/10

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Merry Farriers, Hambledon, Surrey

A suitably rural period pub in an unusually bucolic corner of Surrey, the Merry Farriers is a good choice for a Sunday lunch with the kids. The big beer garden has an impressive wooden climbing frame and other apparatus, plus plenty of signs warning children about various hazards. Parents can keep a watchful eye from one of the sturdy wooden tables sheltered by sunshades. The respectable roasts are about £13.50 each. You get a decent slab of meat, roast potatoes, a passable Yorkshire pudding, green beans, spicy carrots, and cabbage swimming in salty gravy.  Other choices might include battered fish and chips with peas or a tartlet with goats cheese, peppers and olive bread, which is pretty tasty. Children can have a smaller portion of the adults meals for £7. On tap is Addlestones cider, London Pride and a changing selection of real ales. Despite the Merry Farriers' seeming preoccupation with health and safety, the young staff, overseen by a middle-aged barman, are both warm and chilled. 7/10

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Farallon, Post Street, San Francisco

Boasting an exuberantly over-the-top nautically-themed interior, the Farallon is all about the sea and its bounty. Very close to Union Square, this destination restaurant is convenient for the many upmarket hotels nearby and it can be tough to get a table. Creating an aquarium-style atmosphere, jellyfish lights hang from the ceiling in the Jelly bar and the Oyster bar, while the Nautilus room has booths surrounding a "spiraling shellfish pillar". Most of the dining tables are in the Pool room, which is also awash with maritime fixtures and fittings below an elaborately-painted arched ceiling. The ever-changing menu, divided up into three pre-desert courses, is swimming with seafood and is unexpectedly reasonably-priced, given the theatrical decor. The first and second courses, priced between $10 and $20, might include tuna, served with mushrooms, noodles and tofu, or softshell crab with fried tomato and basil pesto. However, the squid, served with braised white beans, paprika, garlic and mushrooms ($12), isn't as good as it sounds. The third courses, priced around $28, tend to mix fish from the Mediterranean, Alaska or Hawaii with appealing accompaniments, such as ravioli, gnocchi, parmesan risotto and serano ham. The salmon, wrapped in smoked bacon, and served with snap peas and caramelized onion jus, is a tasty combination, but the portion is on the small side and the fish can be a tad overcooked. The very long wine list has a massive selection of Californian and European wines. The pinot noir Au Bon Climat, La Bauge Au-Dessus, Santa Barbara County 2007, priced at $65, is subtle and pleasant. While the smartly-dressed waiting staff are professional and knowledgeable, they can go into sales mode. For parties of five or more, a gratuity of 18% is automatically added to the bill, where there is also space for an additional tip, if you are particularly impressed. A visit to Farallon is an experience, but the food isn't quite as spectacular as the surroundings. 6/10

Monday, 27 June 2011

Cafe de la Presse, Grant Avenue, San Francisco

One of the more appealing places to eat in San Francisco’s main central tourist district, Café de la Presse makes a pretty good fist of recreating an atmospheric French bistro despite being opposite the gateway to Chinatown. There is both a semi-formal dining room and an informal bar area with high basket-weave chairs and round wooden tables, plus an impressive magazine rack. Only the flat-screen televisions strike an incongruous note. The very good beef bourguignon (19 dollars) is rich, meaty and well-seasoned, but the portion is modest by American standards. With only a couple of potatoes in the stew, you’ll need to tuck into the fresh and free ciabatta and butter. There is beer on draught and a decent pint of Kronenbourg costs about $6. Although most of the punters seem to be visitors to the city, the staff at Café de la Presse are genuinely welcoming and friendly.  7/10

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Handlery Union Square Hotel, Geary Street, San Francisco

As the name suggests, the family-run Handlery Union Square Hotel is on the doorstep of San Francisco's Union Square and the main shopping drags. With such a central location and competitively-priced rooms, the venerable Handlery, with its elegant cream facade, attracts the full cross-section of families, twentysomething revellers and trans-Atlantic business people. The standard, or "Historic" rooms, are soberly-decorated in dark brown, cream and white. They are compact, but just about big enough, and are equipped with a large flat screen television, a mini-fridge, a cumbersome cafetiere, an ironing board and a decent safe. The beds are comfortable, but the air-conditioning is pretty noisy and you have to pay $10 a day for Wi-Fi.  Downstairs, there is an unlikely outdoor pool, a business centre, a small gym and a bar/restaurant (The Daily Grill). The Handlery's staff are helpful and plentiful, but the overall ambiance is a little dated and mundane. 6/10

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at Somerset House, central London

The eighteenth century neo-classical courtyard of Somerset House was well worth seeing even before 12 striking and detailed sculptures of animals in the Chinese Zodiac took up temporary residence here. Designed by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, these big and bold bronze busts look superb against a backdrop of arched sash windows, stone pillars, bricks and paving stones. Some of the animal heads, such as the dragon and the bear, are snarling and look pretty ferocious, while others, such as the pig and the horse, are more serene. Apparently, they are re-creations of eighteenth century sculptures which once adorned the fountain of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. Mounted on six foot plinths, the animals are arranged around three sides of the square, overlooking the grid of fountains in the centre of Somerset House. On a warm day, you can sit and admire Ai Weiwei's work, while your children get soaked weaving in and out of the shoots of water, which jump unpredictably. Unfortunately, the Circle of Animals, a free exhibition, will leave London on the next leg its world tour on June 26th. 8/10  

Sofitel Brussels Le Louise, Avenue de la Toison d’Or, Brussels

Conveniently-located between central Brussels and the European district, this Sofitel is an expensive, but comfortable place to stay in Belgium's capital. Avenue de la Toison d’Or is also on the doorstep of lots of shops and touristy restaurants. An escalator whisks you up from the front door under an eye-catching chandelier, made from pink beads, past some grand pillars, to the reception, which is opposite an enclosed and leafy terrace with chairs and tables. If you arrive at lunch time, there might be only one receptionist and checking in can take time. The comfortable bedrooms are decked out with contemporary furniture and fittings, in grey, brown and other neutral colours, offset by a funky purple lampshade. But the view out of the large window will probably be of the backs of buildings. The en-suite bathrooms are stylish with smart square sinks, minimalist rain showers and large olive tiles. The air-conditioning is mystifying, but you can open a window and sleep well. Wi-Fi in the rooms is free, but can be a bit flaky. There is also a sizeable safe and a flat-screen television. The Sofitel's in-house breakfast in the plush dining room is very expensive (a single cup of coffee is 6 euros), so you might want to head to a cafe. All-in-all, an upmarket and pricey place to stay. 6/10

Monday, 23 May 2011

Breakfast at the Savoy, the Strand, central London

A throwback to a different era, the Savoy's ridiculously lavish and ornate lobby and dining rooms feel like they belong in a stately home, while the staff actually take the trouble to learn guests' names. Even if you haven't stayed the night, you can stop by for breakfast. A waiter will show you to a table dressed with a luxurious white table cloth and fine quality cutlery. The menu has a huge selection of dishes, including kippers, kedgeree and other traditional British fare. The food is pricey, but good.  The eggs Benedict (about £15), for example, is served with a well-judged creamy hollandaise sauce and excellent ham. The only disappointment is the rather run-of-the-mill filter coffee. Service can be somewhat hurried, but the smart waiters have a sense of humour and show respect. Moreover, they keep your glass topped up with a steady supply of fresh orange juice. Breakfast at the Savoy is everything you would expect. 8/10

Monday, 16 May 2011

Claremont Landscape Garden, Portsmouth Road, Esher, Surrey

Although the National Trust says Claremont Landscape Garden is of national importance, the lay visitor may find it hard to get excited. The eighteenth century landscaping is undoubtedly impressive, but Claremont isn't that large (at 49 acres) or that varied. One side of it is dominated by a lake, complete with a small island and stone pavilion, swans, ducks, geese and their droppings, surrounded by patches of woodland and open grass. There are some fine old trees and some atmospheric paths up and down the hillsides, but the garden isn't big enough for a satisfying walk and you can hear the hum of traffic on the nearby A-road. The grassy amphitheatre is cordoned off so children can't hurtle up and down its inviting tiers. Still, it is worth taking the back route up to the top for an elevated view of the lake and across to the the eighteenth century Belvedere Tower. The tower is generally closed and the original Claremont House is now an independent school, so there isn't that much to see. But children will like the substantial and solid wooden playground, with its mini castle, and the tea room serves some fine cakes. Claremont Landscape Garden is just about worth the standard six pound admission charge. 7/10 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Saturday Brunch at The Lido Cafe, Brockwell Park, south London

Housed in an airy Art Deco building next to Brockwell Park's outdoor swimming pool, the Lido Cafe can get very busy on a Saturday morning. If you want one of the prime sturdy wooden tables out on the sunny, palm tree-lined terrace, you should book ahead and even then you might find the sheer number of punters means the service is sluggish and haphazard. Breakfast is served up until about 12.30, when the kitchen prepares to kick-off lunch at around 1pm. The fine full English breakfast (£8.65) features near-perfect scrambled egg, a good sausage, decent bacon, a pile of nicely-cooked and seasoned mushrooms, plus grilled tomatoes, accompanied by two huge slices of warm sourdough bread and butter. Other options include an excellent eggs benedict (about £6.50), featuring two precisely-poached eggs topped with chunky ham and creamy hollandaise sauce. A mug of good, but very strong, coffee is about two quid. Excellent value, the Lido Cafe attracts local bohemians and exercise nuts from the nearby gym. If you aren't in a hurry, brunch in this atmospheric cafe will put you in a happy, holiday mood. 8/10

Monday, 25 April 2011

April skiing in La Plagne, France

With a glacier and slopes as high as 3,000 metres, La Plagne is popular with skiers and boarders looking to get their fix in April. Even in the balmy spring of 2011, there was a respectable covering of snow on the dozen or so pistes above 2,300 metres, but they can get pretty crowded during the school holidays after 11am or so, when scores of reckless teenagers and their parents pad out the lift queues. Most of these higher slopes are cruising blues or reds, supplemented by a couple of blacks. But experienced skiers tend to head-off piste.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Roche de Mio restaurant, La Plagne, France

Built from wooden beams, in traditional Alpine style, this large, modern restaurant at the top of the Roche de Mio bubble lift has large sloping roofs, big windows and expansive views across to Mont Blanc from the large, sunny terrace. Inside, the walls are lined with a collection of vintage skis and other memorabilia. But the charm ends at the self-service, canteen counter, where the staff can be abrupt and hurried. Most of the fare is expensive junk food, but the portions are generous. You can get a greasy piece of chicken and a mountain of chips for 12 euros, for example. The daily specials, for 14 euros, can be better. The ravioli is made with seemingly fresh pasta served in a tasty, creamy sauce, topped with a heap of grated cheese, but another special is just a couple of bland, fat sausages served with bland pasta. Drinks are quite expensive, with a small beer costing 4 euros, but the prices reflect the fantastic views of majestic snowed-topped Alps towering over green valleys. As Roche de Mio is in the heart of the La Plagne ski area, there is a constant stream of skiers stopping for sustenance, but getting one of the many outdoor tables usually isn't a problem. This is quite a pleasant spot to linger, especially when there is dance music thumping out of the sound system, manned by a couple of grizzled DJs in sun glasses, swigging beer. The terrace is also a good vantage point from which to watch the rescue helicopter take-off and land. 7/10

Esprit at Les Deux Domains, Belle Plagne, France

Probably the biggest and the most swish of the Alpine chalet hotels used by British tour operator Esprit, Les Deux Domains is a short walk from the slopes and the small cluster of shops, restaurants and bars in Belle Plagne. Built to last from solid wood and heavy slate, Les Deux Domains is a modern hotel with very large, well-equipped rooms and plenty of amenities, including a decent swimming pool, luxurious spa, sunny terrace and a big, well-organised boot room. Some of the family suites are almost apartments with two large bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a large separate WC, as well as their own balcony. But your kids may have to sleep on a shaky sofa bed. The hotel has about a dozen floors, with the top level best placed for the village, which can be a problem when one of the three interconnecting lift systems isn't working. Moreover, the foyer and bar, with their uncomfortable high stools, cushioned benches, bold carpets and contemporary lighting, feels like it should be in an airport. Still, the large dining room, with big windows overlooking the mountains, is more welcoming and cosy.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

La Face Nord, Belle Plagne. France

A traditional Alpine restaurant in the modern Belle Plagne ski resort, La Face Nord attracts a lively mix of families, couples and local workers, lining the bar. The appealing wooden facade is decorated with Christmas-style frosted foliage, while, inside, antique skis hang on the walls, cute teddy bears sit on the window sills and dark red curtains frame the wood-panelled walls. There are candles in old-fashioned candlesticks on each table and the overall effect is twee, but cosy. The traditional savoyard fondue (19 euros per person) is served with boiled potatoes and lettuce. You get a basket of tough bread to dip in the comte, emmental and beaufort mixture, which is heated by a small gas stove. It is thick, creamy and tasty and there is more than enough cheese. Another, even more filling, dish (about 25 euros a head) features a pan of warm reblochon cheese, served with cold meats, boiled potatoes and salad. The reblochon is very rich with a strong, moreish flavour and, as it cools, it gets pleasantly crusty. Even the green salad (six euros) could be fattening - it features lettuce, walnuts and a generous dressing. To complete the apres ski culinary experience, you can get a 46cl pitcher of the punchy house red for about 10 euros. Service by the young staff is friendly, but can be hurried and inattentive. 7/10

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Lola Roja, Northcote Road, South London

A classy, contemporary tapas bar in the heart of a prosperous London suburb, Lola Roja can get uncomfortably crowded with young professionals on a Saturday night. Diners are packed in and you should try to avoid sitting at the table right next to the toilet. Still, Lola Roja has a sense of style, with deep red crockery and striking modern art framed by whitewashed walls and tables. Moreover, many of the dishes on the mainly Catalan menu contain a combination of finely-judged flavours. The delicious chorizo "lollypops", with quince in a garlic mayonnaise (£4.40), are suitably spicy and have real impact, while the excellent, well-seasoned seafood paella (£11.80 per person) features chunky, fresh prawns and other shellfish. The cheese croquettes (5.50) are very moreish, as are the Iberian ham croquettes with piquillo peppers sauce. Another good dish is the succulent and very fresh baby squid, served with sobrasada, honey and spinach, but the comfit of suckling pig (£8.25), with apple puree and excessively crispy vegetables, is disappointingly fatty and overly-dominated by the meat. As the portions tend to be small, you might want to get some Catalan bread with tomato, which is generous at £2.60 a round. There is a broad selection of Spanish wines, but choose carefully - the Rioja Pinturas is a bit innocuous for £20 a bottle. You may prefer the reliable Estrella Damm beer at £3.75 for 33cl. Lola Roja levies a service charge of 13.5%, but the Iberian waitresses can be a bit brusque at busy times. 7/10

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Hisar Restaurant, Lordship Lane, South London

A no-nonsense, neighbourhood Turkish restaurant, Hisar has a garish facade and a spartan, dated interior, with a tiled floor and unflattering lighting. But don't be put off. This place is excellent value. The best way to sample the array of starters (about three or four quid apiece) is to order a mixed meze. You'll probably get some fresh, warm pitta bread, tasty morsels of mince meat and onions, wrapped in vine leaves, plus pastry rolls filled with feta cheese and parsley, accompanied by big bowls of hummus, taramasalata and tzatziki. Among the many mains, the knuckle of lamb casserole (about £12) is substantial and delicious, if a little fatty and salty. The meat falls off the bone and the tomato sauce is full of flavour. The brief wine list is dominated by Turkish wines, but they are mostly keenly-priced and surprisingly good, while the Shiraz from Puglia is a bit lackluster. If you don't fancy wine, the Turkish beer Efes is a pilsner with a pleasant malty flavour. Hisar can get busy at weekends, but it is a big restaurant with plenty of staff. 8/10

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Aubaine, Heddon Street, central London

A pricey Mediterranean bistro in the Heddon Street restaurant quarter just off Regent Street, Aubaine is well-placed and well-priced to milk well-heeled shoppers. With stripped floorboards and cream, wooden furniture, the cool, light interior has a slightly-distressed, bohemian air. The lunch menu has a well-balanced selection of familiar fish fillets and meat cuts, enlivened with appealing accompaniments. The pork chop (£14), for example, is served with spinach, apple and mushrooms. The roast cod (£18) with red wine, fennel and squid is very fresh, but a little bland and a little stingy for the price. The hungry will also need a couple of vegetable and potato side dishes, which are expensive at four pounds a pop. Still, as you sit down, the efficient, perhaps brusque, waiters, give you a basket of very fresh speciality breads, packed with fruit, nuts and seeds. Aubaine is urbane, but overpriced. 6/10

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Children's Hour, The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, central London

Although it was written in the 1930s, The Children's Hour's sad storyline about how gossip and prejudice can ruin lives is surprisingly relevant in the age of social networking and teenage suicides. Setting the scene in a girls' boarding school in New England, the first half is a bit wearing, primarily because two of the central characters are very irritating people. Although Bryony Hannah plays Mary, an anarchic and selfish schoolgirl, with vigour, her acting can get repetitive and she doesn't yet have the charisma or the voice to dominate the stage.  One of the school teachers, played by Carol Kane, is also a self-centred and annoying character with few endearing qualities.  Moreover, the set, with its endless clapboard panels, is fairly simple and unchanging. Even the move from the school to the house of Mary's doting grandmother doesn't seem to prompt a substantial change of scenery.

Engaging and emotional
Still, the play comes to life in the second half when Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss, playing the wronged co-owners of the school, take centre stage. They both give engaging and emotional performances with Knightley adeptly switching between simmering restraint, passion and outrage, while Moss' performance is full of pathos and bitter humour. But Tobias Menzies plays Dr. Joseph a bit too safe, while Ellen Burstyn's portrayal of Mary's misguided grandmother can seem rather lackluster in comparison with the torrid Knightley and Moss. As a result, the audience may struggle to fathom why the old lady puts such faith in the word of the habitual liar Mary. Carol Kane's character also makes an unwelcome return in the second half. Her whining self-pity is well-acted, but may have you wanting to punch her lights out.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Restaurant Tapas Locas, Port Olimpic, the Mestral Moll, Barcelona

One of the few restaurants in the Port Olimpic not aggressively courting tourists and business travellers, Tapas Locas has a laid-back, laconic air. If you ignore the tarpaulin walls, the patio heaters and the television screens, the interior is reasonably attractive. Moreover, the food is good value. For 15 euros, you can gorge on the very generous "Paella Menu". First up is a plate of mixed starters, such as patatas bravas with some creamy sauces, a salad, a slab of tomato bread and a ham croquette. You can choose from several main courses, including a respectable sea food paella, served with a couple of king prawns and mussels mixed in with a satisfying pile of rice. The hungry can round the meal off with a desert, such as the large and tasty tiramsu, and this menu even includes a glass of mediocre wine (both the red and white seem to be chilled). Service is friendly, but don't go too early. Like many Catalan restaurants, Tapas Locas can be pretty empty before 9pm. 7/10

GBB Hotel 4, Carrer Doctor Trueta, Barcelona

A boxy, modern hotel in an unusually featureless part of Barcelona, GBB Hotel 4 is well located for the beach, but not much else. Situated north east of the city centre, this one-year-old mini tower block overlooks a large, multi-storey graveyard and some of the upper floors have distant sea views. The compact single rooms, with tasteful prints of modern art and dark laminate wood floors and furnishings, offset by bold splashes of colour from the dark red chairs and matching cushions, are comfortable enough. But it can be difficult to get either the high-tech air conditioning or the Internet access to work properly.  The en-suite bathrooms are contemporary, but characterless. More appealing is the open and airy first floor dining room, which overlooks the reception lounge painted bold red and framed by sloping pillars. The buffet breakfast, which has plenty of choice, features tiny croissants, pastries, cold meats, cheeses, fruit, yoghurts, fruit juices, bread and toast. You can choose from filter coffee or the slightly-sickly machine coffee. The hot food can include greasy bacon, small rubbery sausages and cool, congealed scrambled egg. There is something for everyone, but it is more fuel, than fine food. GBB Hotel 4 also has a business centre and a fitness suite, but there better places to stay in Barcelona. 6/10