In the nearly prehistoric early days of my blog, there were no freebies, no invites to review, no Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. There were no readers either, but I still enjoyed putting my words out there for no one else but me to enjoy. Maybe occasionally my investment banker friends (and frequent dining companions) liked to read my words,. (And my mother, to reassure herself that I was still alive.) My banker friends were perhaps smarter than me all these years ago and would often tell waitstaff at restaurants that I was a “famous” food critic. I would shrink in my seat, mortified to my soul, as they said so. I just liked to write for myself, really. So I wrote for myself and kept myself anonymous and no one really knew who was I was for a while, but then a certain UK journalist told all of England that I wanted to quit my job to become a professional food critic — I’m 5 trillion percent confident I never said that and please can you imagine the conversation when I went into the office on Monday — and then the invites to review starting coming, and I said no and no and no again. (There is no free lunch really.) Then this one time in 2009 I said yes and it was all very nice but I wrote about my conflicting feels and well…
I returned to London in 2014 with a new “Just say yes” attitude. There were a lot of reasons for this new mindset, best discussed over cocktails and copious carbohydrates and having nothing to do with my blog really but more to do with being a slave to The Man for so long and not having much fun while I was back in Chicago, really. I was determined to have more fun in London now that I was back. So I started saying yes. I thought saying yes would mean fun!
When The Gate emailed me earlier this spring, this “Just say yes” mindset led me to say yes but it was hard to find a date for anyone to come along because, well, I am still a slave to The Man and The Man pays my bills and I like money, you know. (Even though I try to like money less than I once did, I still like it.) The PR was dogged. She did not give up, although I was ready to and in fact had so in my mind because after so many emails with so many people about so many dates and times and vegetarian food and yes, Angel was still on the Northern Line, I decided that maybe we should all just Netflix and Chill instead.
But! Miracle of miracles! I finally found a night without conference calls with the west coast or other incidents that prevent work/life balance. And I owed A Girl Has to Eat an invite after the many kind invites she had extended to me. We were also long overdue a catch-up about work and life and balance. (And yoga.)
I like the location of The Gate, just down the hill from Angel and up the hill from Roseberry Avenue. The restaurant was buzzing with the pre-Sadler’s Wells Theatre crowd when I entered but as soon as I sat down, they all stood up and headed off to their show. Now that’s great timing! A Girl Has to Eat arrived shortly later and we went to town on the menu.
We started with some excellent focaccia and olives. I really wanted more of the focaccia but also didn’t want to ruin my dinner.
We then split starters of miso aubergine and slow roasted leek tart. The miso aubergine topped with toasted cashew nuts, micro coriander and ponzu sauce was fresh and summery, but it was the leek tart — with swiss cheese, sweet balsamic dressing, sprouting lentils and raw beetroot salad — that I really loved. I could easily eat this leek tart every day of the week. The pastry was particularly excellent.
This is a terrible photo of the mushroom chipotle because all you can see is rocket. I’m sorry.
For mains, I opted for the wild mushroom chipotle, a mix of foraged wild mushrooms, sauteed in a rich chipotle and sour cream sauce on a bed of braised wild rice and rocket. I am not a huge mushroom eater but the magic word “chipotle” pulled me in and I was glad that it did. What’s so strange about The Gate is that you are eating vegetarian food but you totally forget that you are! It’s like they weave a magic spell over you when you enter: Forget meat! Forget meat! Mushrooms are meat!
The tasty sweetcorn cakes
A Girl Has to Eat opted for the Sweetcorn Cilantro Cake, served with a black bean, roast pepper and grilled corn on the cob salsa, topped with char-grilled Mediterranean vegetables and chunky guacamole. I had a bite and had food envy, even though I was perfect satisfied with my main!
Service was prompt and friendly during our visit, although our dessert took a very, very long time to arrive. Also, one of the women at the table next to us would not stop talking and SINGING during our meal and it was so distracting and annoying that I really couldn’t even enjoy the much delayed dessert and finally just said to A Girl Has to Eat, “I gotta get outta here” and fled out into the street, which was blissfully quiet and calm in comparison. Ah, also while we were at The Gate, one of the toilets overflowed. Good times. (Signs in the ladies’ loo warn you about the sensitive toilets.)
The Verdict: I really, really like The Gate. Great food, and you leave feeling virtuous and like your cholesterol is lower! It’s amazing. That being said, I think I am done saying yes to invites for review for a while. This blog has always been a hobby and a way to pass the time, and the economist in me understands that there really is no free lunch. My job keeps me busy — too busy at this time of year, and I enjoy my site more when I write what I want to write when I have the (admittedly limited) time to write it. If you can tell by the lack of posts as of late, now is not the time when I have time. So things will go back to the way they sort of were at some point before I lost my penchant for my own discoveries, and I’ll say no to invites to review more often. (But yes to events because I like events. I really really like events.) It was a worthy experiment, but it’s time is over. After, uh, I get a few more of these invites to review posts out of the way first. 🙁 Sigh.
Note: I was invited to dine at The Gate with a guest. We did not have to pay for anything. I tipped on the full amount, if not a little more, and handed the cash directly to our server.
Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa opened in London right after I left this fair city back in 2010. It’s weird to leave a city before an entire complex — One New Change — exists, and then to return and have it all in full swing. I miss the old Balls Brothers that used to stand at the corner there with its tremendous (both in size and location) outdoor drinking area, but I also understand that the world and London in particular keeps changing and while we might miss the past, there really is no going back…no going back at all.
We had dinner at Barbecoa on a fateful evening — a week before the Brexit vote. Here we were: three Americans, albeit one born in Serbia and naturalized, all of us with UK work authorization, two of us also naturalized British citizens, two of us married to British citizens, all of us with long careers in financial services. Call me psychic but my contribution to the conversation was something like “If we vote out…1. the pound will crash 2. the UK credit rating will get slashed 3. interest rates will go down and 4. any global company who has been looking for any sort of excuse to get away from the high cost of labor AND real estate in London will move to Amsterdam or Frankfurt.” Thank you, University of Chicago. (Seriously, American companies in particular really don’t understand why they have to pay so much for everything in London AND give people 25+ days holiday a year. Please see here for average prime rental costs in major European cities. Also, different topic but same theme…see here for the UK — non-replacement! — birth rate of 1.83 and how 27% of births were to mothers born outside the UK Have a cup of tea and consider the future funding of of UK state pensions based on all this information + Brexit.)
Back to Barbecoa…so if you’re going to have dinner the week before the London economy starts tanking, you might as well have it at in the heart of the city of London, where finance predominates, at uh, an American-ish restaurant called Barbecoa. We had a great table overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral and the floor to ceiling windows made the most of the sunny and nice day. (Food bloggers everywhere will love the natural light, especially at this time of year.) I was surprised by the number of large parties out for dinner on a Wednesday but then again, Fidelity Investments is right next door along with at least one-third of the other fund managers in London. If you want to take guests somewhere “London-y,” you really can’t beat Barbecoa for the views and the buzz. Book ahead, because this place was packed. Also, ask for a table overlooking St. Paul’s.
Lee (you may know her as Feathers) had been to Barbeoca before and insisted that we start with the Devil’s Cornbread, which was a thin cornbread layer covered in cheese and Nduja, a word I had never heard before my return to London in 2014. Now Nduja is as popular as Peter Andre was in 2004, although to be fair, I haven’t seen Mr. Andre in the gossip mags in quite some time. Our Devil’s Cornbread was tasty and well, I could imagine it being even tastier if I had a hangover. (That is a compliment, to be clear. This cornbread is EXACTLY what you want to wake up to after a night on the lash. That and a fizzy Coke.)
Next up some tuna ceviche with watermelon, which some of us were nervous about but which turned out to be delightful. The tuna wasn’t as thinly sliced as I would have liked, but between the tuna and the watermelon, it was all very refreshing and I made a mental note to keep this dish in mind for a hot day. Now that being said, you know I’m not much of a cook but I’m sure I can convince Lee to make it for me.
We came to a place known for its meat but we played it coy. Just an order of pork belly — which came with a waffle and who doesn’t love a waffle — and the sirloin. The pork belly was densely rich — I could only manage a bite or two before my eyes started to cross — but if I had just run a marathon, I imagine this would be pretty much what I would want to eat.
The sirloin (£34) — medium rare of course — came with a little patch of tomatoes and a little drizzle of olive oil. While I definitely appreciate char, the char here was perhaps a little overpowering for me, taking away from the flavor of the meat. This is my bias though after living for so many years in Chicago and enjoying so many Chicago steaks.
We splurged on sides and they were party pleasers. The macaroni and cheese and the onion rings were particularly good. Really, really good actually.
I asked Lee and Natasa for their feedback and while I think Natasa is still trying to figure out Brexit, Lee responded with…
“I liked everything. I recall the steak tasting like a proper bbq steak. I have a flashback to my father in Philadelphia doing London Broil on the Weber Grill. This steak lives up to the restaurant’s name. (You will have to link in a definition of London Broil as I bet no one will know.) Pork: The Brits scoff when Americans put bacon and maple syrup together and this takes it to another level. Waffles, pork and jalapenos means spicy and sweet — the ultimate combo.”
So it’s fair to say that Lee liked Barbecoa a lot.
The Verdict: I received an invite to review Barbecoa and given £150 to spend on the experience. It gave me a nice excuse to catch up with Lee and Natasa. We had a nice time and I can see myself bringing my dad back here when he visits. The views are fab and the service (most of whom seemed to be immigrant like us) and design are also very nice. Note please…the happy hour cocktail menu at Barbecoa is a FANTASTIC value. £5 quid per drink! As we waited for our table, we sipped rose martinis and thought about our UK retirement plans and the hit they were about to take. Also, we tipped on the full amount. I hope our service person puts that money in a nice Europe ex-UK equity open-end investment fund.
The other week, I had to go to Austin, Texas for work. Because it was my birthday and a friend of mine was in town from Chicago for the weekend, I booked two hotels: a fun hotel to kick things off, and then the work hotel because I had to.
It’s hard not to have expectations when you check into a hotel. Let’s play a game. If I I say “brand new Kimpton hotel,” what do you think? It’s not hard. You think “brand new” and “Kimpton” (they of the free cocktail parties every evening at 5 pm as well as the leopard print robes). You probably get a teeny bit excited.
Now if I say “AT&T Executive Education Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin,” don’t you just want to yawn and change the channel? Who wants to stay at an Executive Education Center? BORING.
But as your parents probably told you growing up, never ever ever judge a book by its cover. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t stay at the Hotel Van Zandt, the brand new Kimpton in Austin, Texas. While the place was Instagram-worthy, the staff were poorly trained and a bit all over the place — from the bellboy to room service to the front desk. My stay was hard work, which is the last thing you want when you are traveling. Compare that to the AT&T Executive Education Center and, well, there is no comparison.
Things started off well at the Hotel Van Zandt. I arrived just when the happy hour was in full swing, and was quickly offered a glass of wine to take up to my room. Great! But then the bell boy did that thing that hotels are not supposed to do. He asked me for my room number. I know the drill in hotels…staff are never supposed to say your room number out loud. So I showed him my hotel room key, and then he proceed to loudly announce my room number for anyone in the vicinity of the hotel lifts to hear. As a female traveling alone, this just didn’t jive with me. Training, people. Training.
Contrast this with my check-in at the AT&T Executive Education Center. Bellhop Larry asked to see my room key folder. I showed it to him, he nodded. That was all. I said something like “Larry, thank you for not announcing my room number for any and all to hear” and Larry quickly responded, “Oh no, we’re never supposed to do that. That’s the first law of working as a bellhop.”
Some of you might be shaking your heads and asking me why I am making such a big deal about this. It comes down to price. I paid a lot more for the Hotel Van Zandt than the AT&T Center, and at that Kimpton-level, I expect certain behaviors. I’ve also staying in quite a few Kimptons over the years. And well, it wasn’t just this one incident in Austin. It was a string of incidents.
Moving on…the hotel restaurant. At Hotel Van Zandt, I had to wave my arms around to get my server’s attention and then my food took forever to arrive and be removed afterwards. At The AT&T Executive Education Center, it was like I was the restaurant’s only patron. I was graciously tended to and treated like an old friend.
Lastly…check-out. At the AT&T Executive Education Center, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, they helped me with my luggage, and patiently waited for me as I changed for my flight. At the Hotel Van Zandt, I kinda got in a fight with the check-out desk! My room service bill the night before had been incorrect, and room service promised me “Don’t worry, it will all be taken care of when you check out.” I’m always wary of these sorts of promises, and of course it wasn’t taken care of when I checked out. The check-out person had a little attitude about my request that the item be removed — we’re talking like $18 here people — and told me they would need to “investigate” and that the finance team was all “in a meeting.” I totally understand that they needed to confirm it, but it was all in the delivery. Then, I had to keep spelling my surname and the check-out person totally wasn’t listening and kept getting it wrong, to which I would say politely, “No please, slow down. Let me spell it again.” And we ended up in a vicious cycle of me spelling, the check-out person misspelling, me asking them to slow down, them insisting they “had it,” grrrrr.
So in this case, service broke my experience with the Hotel Van Zandt. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and no desire to return. But the AT&T Executive Education Center? I will gladly return anytime!
Has a hotel service experience ever ruined your stay at an otherwise wonderful property? Please tell me I’m not alone!
I never thought I’d say this but guys, I’m ADDICTED to Snapchat. I experimented with it last summer and never quite figured it out. That’s because I didn’t follow anyone who was doing cool stuff. Then I saw an article somewhere about Adventurous Kate and how you should follow her on Snapchat and I did and now I totally get it! And I love it. In university, I used to do radio and I loved putting together my shows. Snapchat can be sort of like that, which I love. And it’s one of the reasons why I like Adventurous Kate’s use of Snapchat so much. It’s almost like she makes little news reels of her travels and adventures. She did a great series on her visit to Savannah Georgia the other week. Now I just have to get over my fear of selfies. (So so so not into the selfie or lecturing the camera.)
Anyhow, I say all this because I’ve been snapchatting a lot of my meals and adventures these days. If you want to follow me, find me on @kristainlondon. (Surprise.) Or do the whole Snapchat scan thing by scanning my Snapchat thingy over in the right sidebar.
I don’t have a cat (many of the people I follow on Snapchat seem to have cats) and I don’t do a lot of (any?) talking TO the camera though, just so you know. So I guess what I’m saying is that Snapchat is the most instantaneous way to know what I am up to. (I find with Instagram, I string out my photos over time rather than posting them in the moment.) The other night, while I was at Pizza Buzz with May from Eat Cook Explore, I Snapchatted the interior of the restaurant, but oddly not the food. I was too focused on EATING the pizza. Here’s the interior…
I was also focused on Atila, the uber-charming pizza maker. Guess where Atila is from?? HUNGARY. Atila the Hun, get it?? Love it. Love Atila. And I love his pizzas.
Although if you go to Pizza Buzz, I wouldn’t recommend the odd combinations they offer on the chalkboard. We tried one of them — veal meatballs and caramelized onions — but the onions made the pizza too sweet and who wants a sweet pizza? Not this New Yorker. There was also some sort of Irish pizza with potatoes that I just didn’t even want to imagine.
We did admire the crispy, slightly charred crust of both our pizzas though. Only 2 minutes in the pizza oven, flaming away at the back of the restaurant! 2 minutes! The miracle of pizza, my friends. Of the three combinations of pizza we tried — May wisely went for a half/half — we liked her spicy pizza with nduja sausage the best.
With our pizzas, we enjoyed a very good version of a Caesar salad, with nice creamy, garlicky dressing. We also had some burrata with rocket; the burrata could have been a bit creamier but one really cannot complain about burrata because, well, it’s burrata. And to top it all off, I had GOAT MILK MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP ICE CREAM. Like I had died and gone to heaven. (I really really like mint chocolate chip.)
The Verdict: Pizza Buzz is fun and friendly. Pizzas start at about £7 and go up from there, depending on what toppings you order. You can see the full menu over here. Note that things look like they could quickly add up…
The Fine Print: I was a guest of May’s during our visit to Pizza Buzz. She was invited to try Pizza Buzz out so we did not pay for our meal.
Sofia was a surprise. The wifi is AMAZING. It’s everywhere, and it’s fast. I mean, really fast. Bulgaria ranks at the 20th position in the global Net Index Explorer for broadband internet accessibility and speed. The average download speed in Bulgaria is 33.5 Mbps and the average upload speed is 22.8 Mbps. Apparently, the main reason for the good internet speed in Bulgaria is the fragmentation and competitiveness of the ISP sector in the country.
Also surprising? Besides for all the copious amounts of wine — did you know that Winston Churchill’s favorite wine was Bulgarian? — it was the way Bulgarians nod their heads yes. I had heard about this but never seen it live in the flesh. It’s a unique side-to-side-low-swinging movement that cracked me up each and every time. (Sorry, Bulgarians.)
I had a delightful time in Sofia and the surrounding areas. So will you! Here are my recommendations on where to sleep, eat and explore.
Stay at Arena di Serdica. Located about a 10 minute walk from Serdica metro station, this hotel had great wifi connectivity, a fantastically magical mattress — The Magniflex — and tasty if basic food in the two restaurants. Ah, and Roman ruins in the basement. The only thing I didn’t like about this place was the chaos at breakfast. Uncleared tables, staff arguing with customers…all a little crazy. But the price was right, the bathrooms were huge, and the location — just down a flight of stairs from the National Art Gallery — was great. Visit the Arena di Serdica website. Note the hotel calls itself 5 stars but I’d say more 4-ish.
Wine and Dine at Grape Central. One of my tour guides sent me here when I asked where I could try Bulgarian wines. I ended up visiting during lunch so I only had a glass of Bulgarian Chardonnay, but I liked the vibe and the food. My potato pancakes with olives and green salad were just what I needed after a long morning of slogging around Sofia. Carbs, people. Carbs. Also good? The decent wifi connection. Visit the Grape Central website.
Visit the Central Market. This is one of the neatest, tidiest food markets I have ever visited. All very chill. I wish I had had a tour guide to show me around and tell me what to try. Instead, I just ogled the display cases. Next time around, I’ll come here for snacks for a picnic. There are a number of small bakeries and a few wine shops, along with fruit, veg and butcher stands.
Take the Sofia Food & Culture Tour: Truth: I booked this tour because it contained the word “food.” And it did have some food — a shopska salad (the national salad of Bulgaria — tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh cheese) and some charcuterie — but it wasn’t the tasting that I expected. During our 3.5 hour meander, I think my tour guide got a little annoyed with me asking, “So is there food at the next stop?” Because I was STARVING. I had purposefully had a very light breakfast and skipped lunch in preparation of this tour. While our guide was amazingly informative about all things Sofia in an amazingly detailed, detailed way, the tour didn’t live up to my food expectations. If you’re in it for the history, you’ll get a lot of that for sure. But don’t go hungry! Check out this tour on Viator.
Hang out on Vitosha Boulevard: Downtown Sofia is refreshingly pedestrian. It’s kind of amazing actually. There’s this huge pedestrian street — Vitosha Boulevard — with a fab view of the mountains, and it’s lined on both sides with cafes and shoe shops. (People in Sofia seem to like shoes. There were many shoe shops.) I spent a meandering hour or two here, wandering from one shop to the next as all of Sofia strolled by.
Visit Villa Yustina Winery: I really wanted to see some Bulgarian vineyards so I found Ivaylo online and he drove me out to the lovely Villa Yustina, where we stood on the hillside and admired their young vines. Later, back at the winery, I got to taste a number of their wines. The 4 Seasons range is a good value with a wine — guess what — for every season. I particularly liked Winter — a cheery Cab Franc. I loved my visit to Villa Yustina and gladly would have stayed longer had they had a restaurant or informal cafe. But I was hungry! (Yes, a consistent theme.) Visit Villa Yustina. Also, contact Ivaylo and ask for a tour!
Visit Plovdiv: For lunch, we drove over to Plovdiv and strolled around the picturesque streets and admired the many Roman ruins. (Man, that Roman Empire was huge.) I say stroll jokingly as the tiny roads are made of rough hewn bits of stone and”strolling” is an exercise in balance. After admiring the architecture, we dropped into the picturesque Philippopolis, where we sat out in the garden and enjoyed a lovely salad, mushroom risotto and chocolate ganache cake before heading back to the car for the 1 hr and 45 minute ride back to Sofia. I liked Plovdiv and hope to one day have more time to go back and explore. Check out this tour of Plovdiv on Viator.
I really enjoyed my time in Sofia. I was pleasantly surprised by what a good value it was, how easy it was to get around — the metro is fab — and how friendly the people are. If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway, this is it!
I flew to Austin the other week for a quick work trip. Did you know that British Airways flies direct from London to Austin? That made my life significantly easier, let me tell you. Also easier…I was upgraded to business class at the gate, which was especially awesome because I was flying on my birthday!! (Long ago, I vowed never to do anything for work on my birthday. It is a sign of the times that I have not been able to hold myself to this vow in 2015 or in 2016.)
The weather in Austin was particularly weird while I was there. Blazing hot on Day 1, cloudy and cool on the next day, and then warm and then hot again for the rest of my visit. And while I was primarily there for work, the beauty of a work conference is work dinners! So while I didn’t hit the Salt Lick or any of the other famous barbecue places — not enough time — here’s where I ate while I was in town:
Jacoby’s. Image borrowed from Jacoby’s Instagram feed.
Jacoby’s Restaurant: This peaceful little general mercantile-like restaurant has a lovely outdoor area on the river. We enjoyed heaping platters of particularly good brisket while we were eaten alive by mosquitos the size of, well, Texas. (This was my first trip back to the US since December and let me tell you…Zika fears are at a high.) Loaded with atmosphere and with a sweet little gift shop attached, this is a pretty little slice of Texas. Visit their website.
Yellow Jacket Social Club. Image borrowed from GirlsonFood.net
Yellow Jacket Social Club: In a sign that the world is more connected than ever before, I got off my flight at Austin airport, picked up my luggage, walked through the customs doors, and an old London friend saw me! Her sister-in-law was on the same flight. A few days later, Steffi and Stuart picked me up from Jacoby’s and took me to the supremely atmospheric Yellow Jacket Social Club, were we sat outside under the trees and solved all the world’s technology problems. Visit their website.
El Naranjo. Image borrowed from El Naranjo’s Facebook page
El Naranjo: Within one hour of arriving at my hotel, I was at El Naranjo to meet my friend Amy, who just happened to be in town that weekend for a wedding. We stuffed our faces with nachos and delicious tacos and then I passed out with jet lag. The end. Note: The servers here are really friendly and nice. Visit their website.
La Condesa. Image borrowed from Starchefs.com
La Condesa: While El Naranjo offered a more traditional, homey version of Mexican food, La Condesa was all hot, hip, modern and buzzy. A bit more of the west coast of Mexico perhaps because at La Condesa, it’s all about the ceviche. A few of my colleagues had never had ceviche before, if you can image that. No worries, that just meant more for me! The staff here were a little too busy for their own good — and ours — but it was an enjoyable meal nonetheless. Good if you need a scene. Visit their website.
The pool deck outside Geraldine’s. Image borrowed from Hotel Van Zandt. We sat in the first row of pool deck chairs.
Geraldine’s: OK, somewhat cheating. I was staying at the Hotel Van Zandt for my birthday and Geraldine’s is the restaurant in the hotel. I met up with my friend Amy to hang by the pool and read trashy magazines. And have brunch! Some short rib, some poached eggs. Done. The restaurant at the Hotel Van Zandt was always buzzing during my stay — popular with both hotel guests and locals. Definitely a destination. There was also live music on Sunday while we relaxed by the pool, which was great. Visit their website.
Gabriel’s Cafe at the AT&T Executive Education Center
Gabriel’s Cafe: This was the surprise of my stay. For the last few nights of my visit, I moved into the AT&T Executive Education Center for my work conference. I was starving when I checked in, so I dropped into Gabriel’s Cafe. My server heartily recommended the smoked brisket sandwich with homemade potato chips so that’s what I had and it was really, truly melt-in-the-mouth amazing. This is a pretty soulless hotel restaurant really, but whoever is in the kitchen knows what they are doing. I liked it so much, I went back on my last day before my flight. Visit their website.
Not enough time for all that I wanted to do, as always. It was a super quick trip, so being in a jetlagged fog for the first two days didn’t help either. Austin is a fun city, and the fact that you can get there directly from London is a huge bonus. Go visit! Have some brisket for me.