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