Saturday, 17 February 2018

The truth about Elan Cafe

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

You may not know Elan Cafe by name, but chances are you've seen it on Instagram. Its pink flower walls, colourful croissants and Lucky Charms lattes have been inescapable in the last few weeks.

To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for my first Elan Cafe visit; let's face it, the quality of your offerings doesn't matter if you're targeting people who will pay above the odds for a one-time latte purely to rake in the likes on Instagram.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Peggy Porschen is the obvious - and original - example of a London cafe that's done well off of social media. I've never been so I can't comment one way or the other about the quality of the food. However, there was that disastrous trip to Palm Vaults in Hackney, another darling venue of London's Insta hoards. Sure it's pretty - although not as much as Instagram would have you believe, because #filters - and yes the food was decent, but as a business, it's a shambles.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

So as I Google-Mapped my way to the Park Lane Elan Cafe, my mind was open but my expectations were low. I didn't even know if any tables would be available, or if there'd be queues out of the door, even at mid-morning on a Tuesday.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

It's a lot smaller than its online presence suggests. Perched between the behemoth buildings of Park Lane and sunk a little into the ground, it reminded me of this (but obviously not *quite* that small). Good news came in the form of an available table inside.

 Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Not too sure of the system (table service? Order at the counter?) I plonked my coat down to save the table and hovered around the cake counter in what I hoped was a 'help-me-I'm-new-here-and-definitely-not-cool-enough-do-know-what-I'm doing vibe'. Fortunately, I've years of experience in giving off 'not-cool-enough' vibes, and a man who I think was the manager came to my rescue, telling me in a polite and non-patronising way that they'd take my order from my table.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

A couple of minutes later he came over with a menu, which turned out to be far more extensive than the repetitive photos of that latte art would have you believe. A quick scour showed that the Lucky Charms latte -my main reason for making this pilgrimage - wasn't on the menu. Perhaps it's only available at the other branch of Elan Cafe, but no harm in asking, right?

And just like that, I became one of *those* people, who order something they've seen on Instagram, even though it's not on the actual menu. A little bit of me died inside as I placed my order, but the knowledge that Lucky Charms were on their way to my table helped me get over it pretty quickly.

Salads at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

While I was waiting, I wandered around the ground level, taking photos and chatting to the staff, who weren't remotely surprised at my incessant snapping. Rather judgmentally, I had thought they might be a bit snooty, and a bit, well... Mayfair, especially given that my geeky rucksack and ill-fitting jeans mark me out as quite different to the Instagrammers and bloggers that feature heavily on the Elan Instagram feed.

No need to worry though, as they were all super-friendly, chatting about the food and offering to take a photo of me against the pink flower wall (something they've clearly done once or twice before). My assumptions of Elan Cafe had been destroyed, and that was no bad thing.

Lucky Charms latte at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

If the friendly staff aren't enough to shoot down the misconstrued notion that Elan is overhyped, the food should do the trick. A generous portion of Lucky Charms topped my latte, with more heaped on the saucer. The coffee itself was decent, if nothing special, but the jam-filled raspberry croissant was really quite unique.

Cakes at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

As I ate, I watched life in the cafe continue around me, surprised to see regulars coming by for their morning coffee. The staff knew what they were going to order before they'd even closed the door, and the manager even asked one lady if she'd been on holiday as he hadn't seen her for a while. Clearly Elan does foster and maintain regular customers, as well as pandering to one-time Instagram tourists.

Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

Far from being just another Instagram sensation that's all style, no substance, Elan Cafe is serving up decent (if pricey) food and drink, with friendly and helpful staff. That iconic decor is a constant theme throughout. The Instagram hype? That's just a pink, filtered jewel in Elan's photogenic crown. Instagramability* and quality aren't mutually exclusive, and nowhere is that more evident that this petite pink cafe. For me, it's not a everyday cafe, but somewhere I'll definitely return to with friends on special occasions. You'd do well to visit - don't forget your camera.
*definitely a real word.

I visited the Elan Cafe at 48 Park Lane, W1K 1PR, but there's a second branch in Knightsbridge at 239 Brompton Road, SW3 2EP. Work up an appetite on Instagram before you visit.

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Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London

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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Afternoon tea review: Silly Old Bear Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

Not saying the powers-that-be (or should that be, the powers-that-afternoon-tea*?) have bugged my office or anything, but some colleagues and I had a conversation about how there absolutely should be a Winnie the Pooh themed afternoon tea in London, and to be quite frank, it's a travesty that there isn't.

The next day, a press release lands in my inbox about a Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea in London. Coincidence? I think not. Tempted? Absolutely.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The Pelham and The Gore hotels, both part of the Starhotels chain in South Kensington, have produced the Silly Old Bear afternoon tea to tie in with the current Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A. It's clear from the off that this afternoon tea is aimed at families. The back of the menus are covered in games and puzzles to keep younger guests (yeah, alright, and me) amused.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The food arrives in the form of a picnic, with scones, cream and honey lollipops - and those all-important crayons - served up in a picnic basket. The sandwiches and sweet treats are presented on what can only be described as tree stumps (don't alert #WeWantPlates just yet though - it's exquisite).

A pair of twenty-somethings without any kids in tow, we were thrilled by the presentation of the tea. Those of you who know me will know I'm a stickler for afternoon tea being served on the traditional tiered stand. Well, this case proves to be the exception to that rule.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

But does it pass the taste test? Mostly, yes. Let's start with the sweet treats; the Eeyore themed chocolate mousse - served in a gorgeous mini Kilner jar - was the absolute highlight, although it could have done without the layer of orange compote at the bottom.

The meringue and marzipan bee was a cute little fella, the marzipan easily removable for those who don't like it, the biscuit and meringue paired perfectly. The cupcake and the passion fruit macaron slipped down nicely too.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

The Hunny Pops - balls of honey parfait, white chocolate and caramel glace on a stick - were where we ran into trouble. They're served up in that picnic basket, which as it transpires, is lined with moss to really commit to the picnic theme - cute, but not ideal when one fell off its stick and was rendered green, furry and inedible. We had to abandon the rescue operation due the sheer volume of honey everywhere - parents, you're gonna need a bigger pack of wet wipes.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London
In hindsight, we should have seen the problems coming

The scones are crumblier than your average, almost biscuit-like in texture, which I rather enjoyed. Rummage around in the picnic basket (mind the honey!) and you'll find delightfully thick clotted cream and generous amounts of lemon curd to send them on their way.

Afternoon tea connoisseurs may find little to please them here, but that's OK because this isn't an afternoon tea for them. It's a fun twist on the tradition and a great way to introduce younger diners to afternoon tea. The food is ideal for this - not too much, not too rich, not too unusual.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

*If any other afternoon tea planners are reading this, I have two words for you: Lion King. DO IT, I beg of you, and do it well.

Silly Old Bear afternoon tea is available at The Pelham and The Gore, both in South Kensington until April 2018. It costs £43 per person which includes entry to the V&A exhibition, and needs to be booked in advance.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Photo Diary: Orchids Festival 2018 at Kew Gardens

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

If you listen really carefully right about *now*, you'll hear the sound of a thousand bloggers and Instagrammers slapping on their lippy and heading to a certain botanical gardens for their latest photo shoot.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

I am of course talking about Kew Gardens, which has just launched its annual Orchids Festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

The absolute highlight (although strictly off-limits for those close-up selfies) is the floating installation on the pond, which features 600 individual orchids and depicts Thailand's Bang Pa-In Palace:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Elsewhere, join the bundle for a photo with one of the three floral arches adorning the conservatory's winding pathways.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchids grow up pillars and across pathways, and even hang from the ceiling:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

It's absolutely stunning, composed of almost 7,000 individual orchids, but as well as showcasing the flowers, the festival is a celebration of Thai culture.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018
Can I get some blogger points for matching my nail varnish to the flowers?

Fun fact: five water dragons live permanently in the conservatory to keep unwanted insects in check. They're notoriously difficult to spot - especially when a herd of scoop-hungry press photographers is stomping about all over the place - so I wasn't lucky enough to see them this time.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

A word of warning: the festival is inside a tropical conservatory, so things get hot and steamy. I left my house in -3° to get to the press preview, wrapped up to the extreme, which resulted in much sweating on arrival. It also meant that camera lenses were steaming up left, right and centre hence the less-than-ideal quality of some of these pictures. But, this does mean it makes for an excellent day out in these cold winter months.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

 If you're on Instagram, you can expect to see a lot of this place over the coming month, but if you get the chance, I'd recommend heading there in person - selfies optional.

Orchids Festival at Kew Gardens, 10 February-11 March 2018. Entry to the festival is included in a general admission ticket.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

5 unusual things to look out for in Rochester

Rochester Castle, Kent

I don't believe that anyone who has visited a place for just a day - or even a week - is truly in a position to write about the best places to eat/drink/visit there. You have to go deeper than that to have any sort of authority to write about a place.

That's why, having visited Rochester for a day to fulfil the January part of my visit-a-new-place-each-month plan, I'm not going to tell you about the things you should see, do, eat and drink if you visit. Instead, I want to share a few unusual and quirky things I spotted in my few hours there. Keep an eye out for them if you ever venture into these parts. Or don't. Whatever.

The wonky doors of Rochester

Wonky barber shop, Rochester High Street, Kent

I thought I'd seen the full extent of England's wonky doors when I lived in York, but Rochester has some pretty strong contenders too. Highlights are J.R. Barbers (above), and Topes Restaurant - which, like many Rochester buildings, claims Dickensian links:

Topes Restaurant, Rochester High Street, Kent

Don't miss the door frame of this house next to the castle. Trippy stuff.

Wonky house next to Rochester Castle, Kent

Rochester Bridge

Rochester Bridge, Kent

The people of Rochester, it seems, love their bridge over the Medway. It's a magnificent beast, a bridge of two halves; an ornate offering, decked with handpainted crests, crowns and a quartet of lions not dissimilar to those in Trafalgar Square. 

It's also an ugly hulk of industrial steel, something Brunel would be proud of. The two are completely at odds with each other, but the people of Rochester are proud of it; a building adjacent to the bridge on the Rochester side proudly announces itself as the Bridge Chamber, base of the Bridge Committee; a exhibition dedicated to the bridge can be found in the crypt of Rochester Cathedral, and leaflets about the bridge take pride of place in some of the town's shops.

Rochester Bridge Chamber, Kent

The beach at Rochester

Before you go digging out your swimsuit, it's not that sort of a beach. I'm pretty sure it's more mudflat than beach actually, and probably dangerous and off-limits to the public. But it does make for lovely photos (imagine more sunshine than I managed to capture) and a on a summer's day at low tide, you could probably make out your strolling along the French Riviera. Maybe.

Rochester's unusual post boxes

Unusual post boxes on Rochester High Street

If postal whimsy is your thing, a stroll down Rochester High Street will see you right. The short street has three unusual post box for admiring. The green and black ones pictured above both sit outside the (free!) Guildhall Museum, and date back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

Unusual post boxes on Rochester High Street

The third is the above, which you'll find outside the Post Office at the southern end of the high street. It's not as historically interesting as the other two, but still quirky to look at. 

England's largest second hand bookshop

Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent

Oh my, the bookshop. If you're a book lover, start planning a pilgrimage to Rochester now, for behind the castle and cathedral lies what claims to be England's largest second hand bookshop. Having been inside, I don't doubt it. It's a maze of aisles and staircases, hidden reading rooms and stacked tomes.

Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent

A sign on the ground floor kindly requests that shoppers leave rucksacks and shopping bags at the till while browsing - a little further into the shop, as the aisles narrow and the precarious stacks of books get higher, you understand why.

I'm reluctant to use such a cliche, but it really is a Tardis of a shop, its splendid but modest exterior telling nothing of how far back the shop goes.

Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent

Plus, a tip for visiting Rochester:

Strood railway station, near Rochester, Kent

If you're visiting Rochester by train, you've got a couple of options. Coming from London, you can speed straight into Rochester station. However, if you're coming from West Kent, as we did, you might be better heading to Strood station instead. There are direct trains from Tonbridge and Maidstone, and when you get to Strood, the station is only a 10 minute walk (across that magnificent bridge) to Rochester Castle and the town centre.

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5 quirky things to see in Rochester, Kent

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Interesting Things To Do In Kent This Month: February 2018

Hever Castle snowdrop days
Image: Hever Castle

1 February: Harry Potter Book Night, Maidstone

Calling all Potter fans: Waterstones in Maidstone is one of many venues across the UK hosting a Harry Potter Book Night with free games and activities on a wizarding theme. Alright it's aimed at kids, but adults, it's probably worth begging, borrowing or stealing a child for the night if you don't have your own.

2 February: New burlesque night, Tunbridge Wells

This one caught my eye on Twitter: a new cabaret and burlesque night is livening up Tunbridge Wells, with music from swing trio The Dad Pack and a performance from burlesque artiste Lulu Vesper on opening night. Ooh la la.

10 February onwards: Snowdrop walks, Hever

Hever Castle snowdrops
Image: Hever Castle

See in spring in the glorious grounds of Hever Castle, which has been laced with 70,000 snowdrop bulbs of varying colours. Wander your way through the floral carpet, or take a longer walk around the perimeter of the lake.

10-18 February: Vintage Valentine's tea, Hurst Green

Merriments Gardens vintage afternoon tea
Photo: Merriments Gardens
This one tips over into East Sussex rather than Kent, but it tickled my fancy for afternoon tea so I'm allowing it. Merriments Gardens (excellent name!) is serving up a vintage themed afternoon tea for Valentine's Day, with sandwiches, scones and cakes served up on vintage china. One for the Instagrammers, me thinks. Note that the gardens themselves don't reopen until March - this is all about the food.

15 February: Fish and chip train, Tunbridge Wells

Spa Valley Railway Tunbridge Wells
Image: Spa Valley Railway
You'd struggle to find a more British event than this; a fish and chip lunch on a steam train. It's one of the Spa Valley Railway's themed trips, running from Tunbridge Wells out to Eridge and back again, with your lunch served to you at your seat - followed up by ice cream. If you can't make it this time round, the event is repeated semi-regularly.

18 February: Snowdrop Sunday, Sevenoaks

I flippin' love flowers, so here's another chance to see this year's snowdrops, this time at Great Comp Garden in Platt near Sevenoaks. This place takes its snowdrops very seriously, with a plant fair where galanthophiles (snowdrop collectors to you) can get their hands on varieties of the plant. If you're less serious about snowdrops, you can still wander through the garden and see them at their peak, along with hellebores and other February flowerers.

24 February onwards: Rye Bay Scallop Week, Rye

Rye Bay Scallops Week 1066 Country
Image: 1066 Country

Again, this one's slightly further afield, and it's one for the foodies among you. Rye Bay Scallop Week is an annual celebration of seafood with special meals, cookery demos, markets, live entertainment and quizzes, all around the humble scallop. 

About these listings: These are just a selection of the more interesting and unusual events taking place in and around Kent this month. I select events for inclusion based on what I find interesting myself, as I hope these will interest you too. I'm based in West Kent, so geographically they're centred around this area - although I do chuck the occasional further-afield event in if I think it sounds interesting enough to warrant it. Got a suggestion for a inclusion in future event listings? Contact me.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The whole picture: January 2018

Catch up with my December round-up, and take a look back at my 2017.
Rochester Castle
Not my new abode, unfortunately.

What I've done in January

Well that's 1/12 of 2018 over, and in the true January spirit of being broke and going into hibernation, it doesn't feel like much has happened. I've made headway on approximately half of my 2018 to-do list. I've tackled the running by running a couple of miles on a few different nights, and although I'm not at the 10k stage yet, I'm getting there.

In an additional flurry of fitness optimism, I've signed up to Vertical Rush. If you're not familiar with what that is, you can find out more (and have a laugh at my expense).

Where I've been in January

Topes Restaurant in a wonky building in Rochester High Street

My big trip this month was to Rochester. When I say 'big', I'm talking big by January standards - it's only an hour away on the train, far enough to feel like a proper day trip, but close enough to spend four hours on a Sunday wandering around and still be home in time for a Sunday roast. My motivation for going was to tick off the 'visit a new place each month' part of my 2018 plan, and I'm already glad I wrote that plan out and shared it with the world, otherwise I may well have been tempted to stay in bed instead.

Other than that, I've been lugging my trust camera around London for run-ins with Lumiere and Winter Lights, two excellent free light festivals that went some way into lifting the gloom out of January. I also saw my first proper improv comedy show at The Comedy Store in Leicester Square. I went in feeling dubious and came out converted, my ribs aching.

What I've eaten in January

Salted caramel donut freakshake at Maxwell's Covent Garden, London

As I write this, my most recent food adventure was a return trip to Maxwell's in Covent Garden, where I finally had one of their salted caramel freakshakes. It's an improvement on the vile Unicorn freakshake they were serving up last year, but (top tip!) there are better freakshakes to be had at BRGR.CO in Soho.

Sticking with the sweet tooth theme, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at One Aldwych was something of a disappointment, failing to deliver on the quality, quantity and substance fronts, which is impressive in itself.

A perk of the job presented itself in the form of the chocolate fondue at Jaz and Jul's Chocolate House in Islington, which I was tasked with filming for a short video. Heaps of strawberries and marshmallows, and one chocolate-dipped scarf later, I waddled back to the office on something of a sugar high.

I've also revisited a couple of local places, including the excellent Basil in Tonbridge (go for the chocolate flapjack, you won't regret it) and an extremely satisfying sausage sandwich brunch at Teal in Hildenborough, a highly-underrated former roadside diner which has been transformed into an inviting upmarket cafe.

What's coming up

You'll (hopefully) notice me upping my game significantly on this blog in the next few months. I'm really keen to grow it in terms of number of posts, and hopefully, followers. If you like what I'm doing, please share it with someone else. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comment, chat to me on social media (details below), or contact me.

Other than that, the next big plan is a two-week trip to Cuba, split between Havana and Varadero. If you've got any tips for either of these locations, hit me up with them.

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See also - what I got up to in: