Thursday, 31 October 2013

Halloween Pumpkins, south London

Creative carving in Herne Hill

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Autumn in Amsterdam

Dappled sunshine on the Keizersgracht canal

Grand Cafe Mynt, Nieuwendijk, Amsterdam

A spacious and shiny cafe on one of Amsterdam's grungy central shopping streets, the Grand Cafe Mynt isn't all that grand. The predominantly brown interior is a tad dowdy and utilitarian, but spotlights and the daylight flooding through the glass facade brighten the place up. Multiple screens playing music videos attempt to entertain the clientele, which seems to be mostly bemused tourists. The uninspiring menu is a bit pricey, particularly if you miss the breakfast service, which ends at 2pm. The chicken club sandwich (8.5 euros), with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, chicken filet, cheese, bacon, egg and mayonnaise, can be lame and limp. Still, the Grand Cafe Mynt's coffee is okay for about 2.75 euros, while the service by the young waitresses is surprisingly friendly for a cafe on the tourist trail. But you'll find better, more atmospheric cafes near the canals. 5/10

Brasserie Bâton, Herengracht, Amsterdam

A cool, tasteful cafe overlooking a particularly picturesque Amsterdam canal, Brasserie Bâton does decent coffee and cakes.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Palos Verdes Inn, Redondo Beach

A very tired hotel in a good location, the Palos Verdes Inn is in sore need of a major facelift and refit. The decor is battered and the scores of plain rooms are noisy - the walls are paper thin and the doors aren't well sound-proofed, so bring some ear plugs. The dated, almost bling, lobby isn't the kind of place you want to linger. The lifts are slow and knackered, while the room balconies overlook the car park. Still, the hotel does offer a distant sea view and comfortable beds.  Although the en-suite bathrooms are basic,  they do the job and the rooms are spacious enough. The free wi-fi is good enough and there is free ice at the end of the corridor.  Although there is no in-room safe, you will find an iron and ironing board in the wardrobe. This substantial, keenly-priced hotel even has a small gym and an ugly pool with a concrete surround inside a massive greenhouse. The Palos Verdes Inn is only a few minutes walk from South Bay's fine broad beach and the staff are helpful, but it needs some tender loving care. 5/10

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Mediterraneo, Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, California

On Hermosa Beach's main drag leading down to the oceanfront, Mediterraneo gets pretty busy on a Tuesday evening when it touts a buy one, get one free, deal on certain dishes. If the tables outside (under heaters) and inside are full, the welcoming staff might offer you a seat at the bar, which is actually pretty comfortable - the high stools have backs. And you'll probably prefer the cosy buzz inside on a chilly October evening.  There is a dizzying array of beers on draught, available in a bewildering variety of prices and sizes. A 14oz glass of Estrella is $7, while 18oz of Weihenstephaner Hef from Germany is $8 and 16oz of Mission Dunkelweizen, a rich beer from San Diego, is $8. But there are many others, some of them pretty strong and expensive. But the bartenders keep you supplied with iced water.  The menu mostly offers tapas-style dishes and, if you are hungry, you might need four each.  The chorizo on cocktail sticks is greasy and small for $7, but has a fine flavour. The tortilla (also $7) is large, succulent and delicious. For about six bucks, you can get a couple of substantial meat balls in a spicy sauce or four cheesy risotto balls, with a salsa sauce on the side. The latter, which really melt in the mouth, are particularly good. There is also a decent selection of fish tapas, such as pan-roasted salmon and steamed clams.  Each dish arrives whenever it is ready, rather than all together.  On a Tuesday evening, Mediterraneo serves up a heady cocktail of food, buzz and beer. 8/10

Monday, 21 October 2013

Back on the Beach, Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica

If you have cycled up The Strand from Redondo Beach, Back on the Beach makes a good pit stop before the return ride. It is a large clapboard cafe with outdoor tables intruding on to the massive expanse of sand, so you can watch the cyclists cruising past. But you can't just sit down - you have to go round to the front of the cafe and speak to the underworked receptionists. The waiters are busier, filling your cup up with the passable filter coffee ($2.75). On the breakfast menu, the Spanish omelette ($11.75 before tax and tip), served with squidgy potatoes, and some kind of sweet pancake, is a bit soggy and doesn't have much flavour. It comes on a plastic plate and can be disappointing. Still, this is a fine place to kick back and soak up some Californian beach vibe. 7/10

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Downtown Los Angeles, California

An aerial view of the towers of downtown Los Angeles as they catch the setting sun

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Windsor & Eton, Berkshire

Trans-Atlantic flights leaving Heathrow can provide a fine aerial view of Windsor & Eton 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Brixton Village Grill, GrandVille Arcade, south London

One of a dozen or so lively restaurants competing for business inside this hip arcade in the heart of Brixton, the Grill's hearty meat dishes have made it popular with middle class south Londoners. On a Friday evening, it can he hard to get a table either inside or outside this buzzy Portuguese-English eatery. If you have to sit out in the arcade, you'll need your coat, but there are some eerie orange heaters to warm you up and you'll enjoy the vivacious Brixton Village vibe. Each main course (about a tenner apiece) comes with two accompaniments. The choice is hand-cut chips (a little soggy, but delicious all the same), basmati rice (really good) and a heavily-dressed, but slightly disappointing salad. Although the spare ribs are enormous, they can be pretty fatty and lacking in flavour. A better choice is the tasty piri-piri lamb chops, which are well seasoned and spicy. However, you only get four smallish pieces - not quite enough, especially if you go for the rice, rather than the chips. For the hungry, the succulent spring chicken is probably the best option. You can get lager on tap in a plastic glass for £3.50 a pint or you can get beer by the bottle. Tap water is free, while the bustling service is warm and welcoming. 8/10

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Duke’s Head, Lower Richmond Road, south London

A grand old pub overlooking the Thames, the Duke's Head can be rammed with prosperous Putney punters on a Saturday afternoon, even in October. If both the Duke's Bar and Rowing Club are packed, you can retreat with your pint of Young's real ale into the pleasant and quieter Coxswain dining room. If you are peckish, go to the bar and can get a cold sausage roll (£3.50), which is pastry-heavy and meat-light. It tastes surprisingly good. With its dark wood panelling, the Duke's Bar has retained the air of an old-fashioned pub, but the comfortable dining room has had a smart makeover.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Grand Hotel Imperiale, Lake Como, Italy

On the shores of Lake Como, the Grand Hotel Imperiale seems to be popular with English pensioners in October. And it is not hard to see why. Although it can have a dated feel, the hotel has verdant gardens around a lovely terrace and swimming pool with views across the water to the heavily-wooded hillsides on the other side of the lake. A stone pergola, period lampposts and railings add to the charm. A tunnel takes you under the lakeside road, so you can reach the shore without having to brave the traffic. Built in the 1920s in the Art Nouveau style, the Grand Hotel Imperiale's bar and lounge area, with their high ceilings and grand windows, have retained their period feel. But the foyer is strikingly contemporary with black pillars, stark open staircases and a bright red wall behind the reception. From the foyer, an atrium rises up several floors, illuminated by a shaft of daylight in the roof.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Imperialino restaurant, Grand Hotel Imperiale, Lake Como, Italy

The view across Lake Como from the bar in front of the Imperialino restaurant
In an enviable location on the shores of beautiful Lake Como, the Imperialino has tables inside (a glass box) and outside on a terrace with charming views across the water. The tables are covered in thick white tablecloths, the plates are heavy and the table decorations are elaborate. The reasonably-priced menu is decidedly Italian, but it has some unusual dishes and the food is refined and well-presented. However, it doesn't blow you away. The blueberry and shrimp risotto, for example, is pleasant, but the flavours are quite subtle and the portion is modest for 14 euros. Moreover, service by the formally-attired waiters can be a bit uptight.  If you try and order a hot desert (between 10 and 14 euros), for example, you might get a stern warning that it will take 15 minutes to come. The Imperialino may be a tad complacent, but in such a stunning setting, it can probably afford to be. 7/10