Porches Velho, Porches, Algarve, Portugal

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Porches Velho is a restaurant that could be called a hidden gem. Porches is an attractive village about three kilometres inland from the Southern Algarvian coast, between Carvoeiro and Armacao De Pera. It is quiet and calm, with narrow cobbled streets and is relatively untouristed, even in the height of summer. The area is famous for its pottery and the local workshops are certainly worth a visit. However, the largest of these are on the nearby N125 and not so many people go into the village itself.

The village has a pretty church. Its bells rang (8pm on a Wednesday, if you would like to try to recreate the effect) as we walked up the hill to the restaurant and a sliver of moon shone over its steeple, making us feel a little like we had stepped into a spaghetti western, so the romantic scene was set even before we entered the restaurant. The room itself has high vaulted ceilings, it is a 200 year old converted wine cellar. It has thick whitewashed walls decorated sparsely with antique agricultural equipment, tiles and old fashioned lamps. It oozes Portuguese tradition from every beam.

Porches Velho is a “Restaurante Tipico Potugues” which means that it serves classic Portuguese food. The tables are dressed in white linen with white napkins and soon after you are shown to your table the waiter brings the couvert dishes, fish paste, olives, pickled carrots and pickled beetroot, also a basket of sliced local bread with oil and butter. The wines are all Portuguese and there is a full list to choose from.

The starters consist of fish, soup or vegetarian dishes. We had a Portuguese Gazpacho and the vegetable soup. Both were excellent, the vegetable was thick and hot and the Gazpacho was spicy and juicy. The main course menu has many traditional dishes. Rabbit Cataplana, Alentejo Lamb and chicken casserole are among the interesting choices.

We went for the Old Portuguese Style Steak and the Medallions of Black Pork Tenderloin. The Pork was perfectly cooked, and served with a sauce of wild mushrooms on the side. The sauce was delicious and thick with different types of mushroom. The Steak is served in a deep dish, covered in serrano ham, surrounded by sliced potatoes, in a thick brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. This is a traditional way to serve steak in the Algarve and many restaurants offer this dish. This particular version though, was beautifully tender, the steak was very good quality and one of the nicest that I have had.

For the dessert offering, the waiters come to your table carrying the choices available. This is a clever idea, as one is much more likely to be tempted by seeing the dishes than by reading about it on the menu. The ice-cream is homemade and I can certainly vouch for the chocolate one being rich and flavourful.

The service was very good, we felt that they were genuinely interested in our opinions of the food and went out of their way to ensure that we had a good evening. Porches Velho is a wonderful Portuguese Restaurant with lovely traditional Portuguese hospitality. It is a hidden gem of the Algarve, a little of the beaten track but all the better for it and certainly worth the trip to visit it. Highly Recommended.

The Bad Egg, Barbican, London EC2Y

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This diner turns inner city dystopia into a design concept. Set in the corner of a tower block the dual aspect dining room overlooks concrete pathways in one direction and a 1960s brutalist car park on the other. Plain wooden tables, leatherette banquettes and wood and metal chairs seat the customers. The look is finished with matt metal grilles and a neon WC sign to guide you to the toilets. It has the feel of a set from a scary 1980s film about street gangs in New York.

The food is basically classic diner fare. Breakfast, brunch, burgers and hashes. They do a bottomless brunch at the weekends which are reputedly very good and very boozy. We were here for a meal before going to the theatre, so tried a burger; the G’Ambal and a hash; the Bad Egg Burger Hash.

The G’Ambal consists of 2 beef patties, a spicy hash brown, caramelized onion, mustard and liquified cheese – all inside a burger bun. It was huge, messy and delicious. We also ordered a side of chips, these were good too, thin shoe lace fries, but to be honest the burger was so filling that we did not need to get them.

The Bad Egg Burger Hash is basically a broken up burger, fried potato, onion, spicy nduja melted cheese served with a fried egg on top. This was also a large portion, nicely spicy and the meat was really good quality. The food here is very good, but I suspect that this would not be the place to come if you are on a diet. They do have vegetarian options, the bean burger was so nicely described that I almost ordered it, but remembered just in time that it is the burgers and boozy brunches for which they are famous.

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They have a number of Korean inspired dishes too that look interesting. The service was good, our waiter appeared genuinely interested in our opinion of the food. The music is kind of retro urban, and a good level – conversation is still easily heard. The choice of wine and beer is limited, they had no beer on tap when we went, but they did have bottled Heineken and Corona.

The atmosphere was good, we enjoyed our meal. If you are looking for somewhere a little bit out of the ordinary to have good quality comfort food, The Bad Egg is worth looking up. It is very close if you are going to something in the Barbican or near Moorgate. A nice burger and an interesting restaurant. Sometimes its good to be bad!

Honest Burgers, Oxford Circus, Kensington, Borough Market, Holborn, Bank…….

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The trend for upmarket burgers shows no sign of abating in London, and the competition for the best burger in town keeps on running. Honest Burgers seems to be doing well from this fashion. A quick look at their website tells me that they are just about to open their 29th restaurant. This is a very fast expansion for a brand that started in 2011 by making burgers at festivals.

One of the biggest advantages that Honest Burgers has, is their reliability. When you walk into one of their outlets you know where you are and you know what to expect. The décor is a bit rough and ready, there are no tablecloths.  The sauces and mayonnaise are served from the bottle, but they are good brands. They know their market and customers are not here for a romantic dinner for two, they don’t care about the accoutrements  -they are here for a good quality burger, probably on their way to or from another part of their time out.

Honest burgers are appetizing and satisfying. The ingredients are good quality, the beef patty is tasty and the cheese and bacon, if you choose them, are nice. The chips are good, they come as rosemary salted, but you can ask to have them plain if you prefer. The chicken burger is flavourful too, as are the honest brunch and  the avocado on toast from the breakfast menu. They do offer a few vegetarian options for the non carnivores amongst us.

I am not totally on board with all their concept options, but they obviously work for them and I guess I must be in the minority. They serve their food in tin bowls, while this is better than a slate or a wooden board, I just wish we could go back to plates now. I also dislike having to ask for a knife and fork each time. Although they always have them,  it makes me feel like an old fogey to ask, and really, how hard would it be to offer? I’m also over cocktails that come served in jars, this seems so dated. Beer served in tiny tins at high prices may be very lucrative, but I’m not sure how honest it is.

However, these quibbles aside, the burgers are good, the service is always friendly and efficient, and you know what you are going to get – whichever branch you go into. When out and about and looking for something to eat, Honest Burgers is always a reliable option. This is why they are able to open their 29th restaurant in under eight years… and now that there are so many, chances are that there will be one nearby.

 

Gillray's Steakhouse & Bar, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1

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This restaurant is inside the Marriott County Hall hotel. If you arrive by car the entrance is from Westminster Bridge Road through the hotel. The most attractive entrance though, is from Queens Walk, beside the river Thames. A sweep of steps leads you up from the walkway into a bright relaxed bar area and the restaurant entrance is a few steps to the right inside the door.

The room is sunlit and airy, light wood walls with large windows along one side overlooking the river. The view is lovely on a summer evening; people walking beside the river, the London Eye to the right and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament across the Thames to the left. We were here quite early, a pre-theatre dinner before a show at the National, which is a couple of hundred metres away along the South Bank. They have a pre and post theatre offer, it has a wider choice than many set menus and it is good value too.

There is a starter of chicken and mushroom roll, this is pleasantly spicy, a nice combination of flavours. We also tried the crusted pan fried mackerel, which was really a Caesar salad with mackerel, also good – the crusted fish taking the place of croutons. There is a choice of six mains, three steaks, a lamb, a fish dish and a vegetarian choice. The rib eye was nice, a little undersealed to be perfect but a good flavour. The lamb yorkie pie is a lamb casserole inside a large Yorkshire pudding, a clever serving idea. The lamb was nice, although the Yorkshire was more like a carvery pudding which is made in advance and kept warm.

I felt that the drinks were a little overpriced, the beer especially. The happy hour offer of a house gin and tonic for a fiver is not necessarily so wise, as this makes one aware of how much one might be paying for a branded gin at other times. The service was good, the staff were attentive and available whenever we needed them.

Overall, we had an enjoyable dinner in very pleasant surroundings, so if you have a show on the Southbank, Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar is certainly worth considering.

Ruthless! The Musical, Arts Theatre, London.

'Ruthless' Musical performed at the Arts Theatre, London, UK
Ruthless! The Musical, first opened off Broadway 26 years ago. It is the almost archetypal off-Broadway show. It makes the fact that it is a low budget show in a small theatre part of its appeal. So, I was worried that the Arts Theatre, although it is the smallest theatre in the West End, would be too big for it.
Having said that, Ruthless is a great show, with a wonderful part for an aspiring young actress as  the 8 year old, Tina.  Given the importance of understudies in the storyline, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the first two understudies for Tina when the show opened in 1992 were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. This being the UK, with child protection laws, we have 4 Tinas and no understudies. Anya Evans played Tina on the night I attended and she was very good, great dancing and a frighteningly bright smile.
It has become usual for the role of Sylvia St Croix to be played by a man and Jason Gardiner makes a good job of it here, his movement is excellent and he can certainly dance in heels. Kim Maresca is fantastic as Tina’s mother, very Stepford Wife in the first act and very Liza Minnelli in the second. In fact,  all the acting in this production is top notch, Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe are both pantomime villain good as theatre critic Lita and drama teacher Myrna.
The musical numbers are mostly good, two standout songs are “I hate musicals” sung, with many funny reprises, by Lita and the title song, Ruthless! by the whole company. The set and costumes are both “fabulous dahling”, 1950’s crinoline petticoats in a 1960’s Formica living room.
The real stand out thing about this show is the references, Shirley Temple, All about Eve, Bob Fosse, interpretive dance, Judy Garland – far too many to list – all get a mention in some way. It’s enjoyable trying to spot them and there’s no way that you will get them all.  Everything about this show is kitsch, but if you didn’t know that before you arrived, you should have done more research before buying the ticket. The humour is camp and low brow, but still great fun. This is good production of a good show, perhaps it could have been even better in a more intimate theatre.
 

Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

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The painting above is of the NE corner of Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1888.  It hangs in Tate Britain and it is by William Logsdail. In case you missed it, the first part of my paean to Trafalgar Square is here: Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2.
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On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham,  Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.
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Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.
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There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.
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The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.
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On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.
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I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park.  Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.
 

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National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

 
While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them.  Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall,  there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.
 
 

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
 
Cannon

Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

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A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

Rembrandt, Susanna van Collen and Anna
Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Motel One Manchester-Piccadilly, Manchester

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Motel One is about as handy as you can get if you arrive in Manchester by train. It is directly across the road from Piccadilly train station. The rooms are quite small, but they are cleverly laid out and well appointed. The windows are big, so even on a grey day the room feels bright. The bathrooms are new and modern and the shower is excellent. The bed is big and comfortable, all rooms have free wi-fi that is efficient, the code only works for 3 items though – so if you are as gadget fuelled as we are, you may have to sweet talk the reception staff into giving you more codes.  Motel One is German hotel brand and the TV comes with many European channels as standard.

The breakfast is good, but continental only, it is not included in the price and not particularly great value in a part of town that is full of great brunch venues. Head to Hilton Street which is less than a ten minute walk away and has a number of interesting cafes, including  The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester which we really liked.

Also, you need to be aware that, despite its name, Motel One, does not have a car park, so you are at the mercy of private car parks if you have driven to Manchester and parking in town is not cheap. Having said that, central Manchester is a great city to walk around and public transport is pretty good, so a car would not be essential for your time here.

The bar on the ground floor is decorated in a modern European style; flash furniture and muted colours, pleasant enough to sit and have a drink in while waiting for friends. The music is at a nice level for conversation and they have pleasant bar staff.

Overall, Motel One Piccadilly is a very good budget hotel, right in the heart of town and I will happily stay here again next time I come to Manchester.

The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.

Streatham Common, London, SW16

 
Tree, Streatham Common

Streatham Common is an attractive green space in South London. The grass on the Northern and Western section is maintained and dotted with trees. It looks very pretty sloping upwards towards the rookery from the A23. On summer weekends it is quite busy with people, flying kites, having picnics or just chilling out. This area of the park often has events running when the weather is warm. An interesting one booked for September is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by the world first cycling theatre company!

Path, Streatham Common
 

The eastern side is left in a more natural state. It has been designated a local nature reserve and it has many oak trees and some beautiful old cedars. Where the western part meets the east there is beautiful formal garden called The Rookery. A mineral spring was discovered here in the 1650s and was visited by royalty to take the waters. Streatham was a very fashionable out of town location in the 19th century and the Rookery Gardens are kept as they would have been in those days. There is a rockery with a pond, lovely herbaceous borders, and it has an ornamental stream running through it.

Camellia, Streatham Common
The Rookery Café is outside the wall of The Rookery just on the border between the maintained and more natural parts of the common. It is a well run café, serving hot and cold food. There are seats outside with big views to the west and south.
Trough, Streatham Common
 
The Common is surprisingly large – over two kilometres along the perimeter from its northwestern corner to the northeastern one. As you head farther east, the park becomes part of the borough of Croydon and is known as Norwood Grove, although historically, it has always been part of the Great Streatham Common. There is a nice 19th century house here, inside the park, Norwood Grove House, although it is known locally as the White House. This also has nicely laid out gardens and pretty, if urban, views out over Croydon.
Dog Walker on Streatham Common
Streatham Common is a well used park, surrounded on all sides by houses. There are joggers, dog walkers, parents with buggies, yet it is big enough to avoid feeling crowded.   It is on the Capital Ring, which is a 120 kilometre walk around London, broken up into 15 smaller sections. This is a surprisingly green and traffic light walk for such a large metropolis. The park itself is a varied and interesting area with lots of different types of scenery, I would say that it is certainly worth a visit if you are in South London on a sunny day.
Streatham Common