Sunday, 13 May 2018

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Dominique Ansel Bakery's Afternoon Tea

Flower arch outside Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

You know what's great? When you wake up on a Thursday morning knowing you're going for afternoon tea, but the details are hazy. You know you've been told, but you weren't really listening, so you idly follow directions to the address you've been given, assuming it's a hotel or something, only to find yourself standing outside Dominique frickin' Ansel Bakery.

(For the uninitiated, Dominique Ansel is a trendy bakery in Belgravia, London - and other locations around the world - best known for being the cradle for the Cronut, and internet famous for the extremely Instagrammable flower arches it usually has outside.)

Flower arch outside Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

It's a bit of a blogger cliche to visit Dominique Ansel, but given that my love of all things sweet massively predates my blogging, I feel I can justify it - oh, and I'm all about the food. None of this take-hundreds-of-selfies-but-leave-the-food-untouched nonsense that bloggers get a bad rep for - you'll be lucky if you find a crumb left once you let me at an afternoon tea, and you can forget about seeing any selfies.

Flower afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

That said, this afternoon tea is served is Dominique Ansel's oh-so-pretty covered terrace, a light and airy conservatory at the back of the bakery. They've gone all out with the decor here, suspending terrariums and individual blooms from the ceiling - but it might take you a while to notice them as you'll be dazzled by the psychedelic flower wall.

I'll be honest, I was expecting it to all be a bit la-di-dah, perhaps the sort of place where people look down their noses at you if you're not a regular (this is Belgravia, after all), but it's actually a thoroughly relaxed and extremely friendly place. We had great fun with some of the staff.

Flower afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

The floral theme doesn't end with the surroundings. The theme of the afternoon tea is the life cycle of a flower, from seed to blossom, told through a series of bite-sized offerings as you work your way up the menu. It's steered clear of the well-trodden sandwiches and cakes route, instead producing some really unique options.

Flower afternoon tea menu at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

The strength of this afternoon tea is that it keeps you on your toes - as my friend said "nothing tastes like what you expect it to". Think steak tartate and Cornish crab salad for the savouries, and a whipped basil ganache making an appearance on the sweet section.

Flower afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

Even the scones - an afternoon tea staple that's been done to death - manage to surprise us. Cream or jam first? Doesn't matter, you don't have the choice here. Both come together, packaged up as strawberries, coated in a white chocolate. Simply pop the strawberry on your scone and get spreading.

Flower afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

It's worth noting that there is no veggie or vegan option for the afternoon tea - all the savoury menu items feature meat or fish of some kind. Not a problem for me, but worth knowing if you're thinking of booking.

Flower wall at afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

Once we'd finished our afternoon tea, we were really lucky to be invited into the kitchen with pastry chef James Clarke to get an exclusive insight into how the delicate components of the meal are put together. We weren't allowed to photo/video everything, but here's a look at the final touches being added:

Behind the scenes at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

Oh, and a cheeky tray of Cronuts. The kitchen's full of them:

Behind the scenes Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia, London

Afternoon tea at Dominique Ansel Bakery, Belgravia. Read about my other afternoon tea adventures.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The whole picture: April 2018

Catch up with my March round-up.

Fountain Abbey, National Trust, North Yorkshire
Being tourists at Fountain Abbey

What I've done in April

April simultaneously feels like it's been very long and like it's gone very quickly. I spent the best part of a week incapacitated by a stomach bug early in the month, which was not conducive to getting much done. But I more than made up for it later in the month...

I was lucky enough to be invited on the first ever behind the scenes tour of a Krispy Kreme doughnut factory, and saw how the doughnuts are mixed, shaped, fried and decorated - there's a waterfall of chocolate for goodness sake, more people need to know about this!

Behind the scenes tour at a Krispy Kreme doughnut factory
Inside a Krispy Kreme factory

Two of my favourite people-to-follow-on-Twitter (who are also very successful journalists, writers, businesswomen and all round kickass ladies) came together for a live recording of a podcast. Dolly Alderton and Emma Gannon took over the basement of Tottenham Court Road Waterstones (which is *not* the same as Gower Street Waterstones, as I found to my detriment, arriving hot and sweaty at the wrong branch, 20 minutes before the event was due to start...)

Emma Gannon and Dolly Alderton in conversation for a live podcast at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road
Two very witty women took to the stage, and all I got was this lousy picture

Where I've been in April

My main excursion was a weekend in Leeds with an old uni friend who lives there now. As well as having a good catch-up, we ate and drank our way round the city, and managed to swing by Harrogate and other parts of Yorkshire as well. Read about the first part of the weekend, including tea rooms and monkey fingers - the second part is on its way. 

Rainbow lights in a tunnel underneath Leeds railway station

Chartwell, a National Trust property not too far from where I live, is one of my favourite places in Kent, so I was pretty chuffed when I convinced my boss to let me cover it for work. I spent a lovely morning wandering around the gardens in the early part of that heatwave, and even managed to hold my own pretty well when I spotted a snake (my arch nemesis, FYI) slithering through a bush just a couple of feet away.

Chartwell National Trust, Kent
Getting comfy at Chartwell

What I've eaten in April

Three afternoon teas, two restaurant reviews for work and an American diner trip made for a pretty filling April.

Absolute highlight was the press preview of the Potions Room afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge. Those wizards have managed to pull off the best afternoon tea I've ever had - read my full review.

Skylon's space-themed afternoon tea
Skylon's space-themed afternoon tea

The other two teas were a bit hit and miss - Skylon's space-themed Gravitea was fantastic, sticking to the theme brilliantly, and serving up some fantastic food with views over the Thames. At the other end of the scale was the Theatre Not Afternoon Tea at Oxo Tower. It also had views over the Thames, but the similarities end there. I intended to review it for this blog but the stomach bug rendered me incapable of even thinking about food for a few days, let alone writing about it, so you'll have to make do with my Londonist review to find out what was wrong with it.

Back in the savoury lane, I discovered what I believe is the best pizza I've had in London. Buongiorno e Buonasera is an Italian deli-style restaurant that's just opened on Baker Street and, oh my god, I still dream about the generous dollops of bufala mozzarella that topped my pizza.

Pizza at Buongiorno e Buonasera, Baker Street
London's best pizza? Possibly

My hunt for London's best buffalo chicken continued when American chain Slim Chickens opened near Bond Street. The buffalo burger's not quite up to Brewdog standards, the restaurant as a whole is an ideal spot if you're after greasy, dirty chicken at somewhere a bit classier than your local Morleys.

Finally, I should point out that I do sometimes eat for fun, rather than just reviewing for work, which is how I found myself tucking into generous portions of burger, fries and onion loaf at 7 Hotel Diner near Sevenoaks. The Americana theme is strong, and the food's pretty good, although I regret not leaving room to try out the dessert bar. I'll be back.

What's coming up in May

It's my birthday early in May, and I'm planning to spend it with a friend in Brighton. I haven't had a good old day trip to Brighton for at least four years, so we're planning to go all out, ice cream on the pier, ice hockey in the arcades, plus the obligatory Lucky Charms milkshake at JB's Diner, and a pilgrimage to one of my favourite clothes stores, Sugarhill Brighton (known as Sugarhill Boutique until recently).

While everyone else is tuned into the Royal Wedding/FA Cup final, I plan to be sightseeing my way around Chester Zoo. The timing wasn't intentional, but we booked our weekend in Chester before we realised it was the Royal Wedding day... hopefully, everyone else will stay at home watching it, and we'll have all those lovely lions to ourselves. On that note, if you have any tips for things to see/do/eat/drink on a very whistlestop weekend in Chester, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

See also - what I got up to in:

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Cutter & Squidge's wizard-themed potion afternoon tea is absolutely magical

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

It's over, lads. Call off the search. I've found the best afternoon tea in London, and I don't think anything will ever beat it.

Cutter & Squidge, a cake shop in Soho which I absolutely love, has just launched a Potions Room afternoon tea. It's a wizard-themed affair, but don't go mentioning a certain famous wizard and his chums - Cutter & Squidge are adamant, no doubt for copyright reasons, that it's completely unrelated to Harry Potter.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

That said, it's hard not to draw parallels. The room - which, until very recently, was home to the Genie's Cave - has more than a touch of Hogwarts to it. Think Great Hall meets Professor McGonagall's classroom, all (faux) brick walls and wooden desks. As you descend down the stairs, pick up your gown and then head into your potions class. Beakers and test tubes await you on your desk, and the lesson begins.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

I'll admit, I was slightly dreading this part of it, as I'm not a big fan of audience participation but the actress playing the potions teacher does a fabulous job of putting everyone at ease, with no forced participation or putting anyone on the spot. I'm not allowed to tell you exactly what we got up to, but there was plenty of waving of wands and muttering of spells before the bulk of our food and drink materialised.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

I recently had a bad experience of an afternoon tea where all the thought had gone into the presentation, and no effort had been put into the taste. No fear of that here though - Cutter & Squidge delivers perfectly on the food front. My inner afternoon tea fiend is pleased to see things presented on the traditional tiered stand, with sandwiches and scones to start things off. The roast dinner sandwich is an absolute corker, and I have it on good authority that the veggie equivalent is pretty good too. The highlight is the butterscotch biskie - a cookie sandwich of Cutter & Squidge's own creation.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

Without giving too much away, the whole experience is perfectly executed, with the ideal amount of theatricality without teetering into the cheesy. The food is first class, and the decor is extremely well thought through.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

Love all things Potter? Head to House of MinaLima. It's a five minute walk away from Cutter & Squidge, and has a fantastic free exhibition of artwork from the Harry Potter films.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

The Potion Room at Cutter & Squidge, 20 Brewer Street, Soho. £49.50 for adults/£39.50 for children.

Check out the afternoon tea section of this blog for more sarnie and scone reviews and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for up to date pictures.

The Potion Room wizard themed Harry Potter afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge, Soho, London

Monday, 23 April 2018

A weekend in Leeds, part 1: Abbeys, tea rooms and Monkey Fingers

Leeds City Centre skyline, photo taken from Armouries Museum at Leeds Docks -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

As part of my plan to visit a new place every month this year, I went to visit a uni friend who lives in Leeds. That's cheating a bit as I've been to Leeds before, but only for daytrips when I lived in York, mainly zeroing in on Primark and the Christmas market, student priorities being what they were. Needless to say, I didn't see much of the cultural side of the city, so staying with someone who's lived in Leeds for three years was a handy way of being guided to lesser-known spots.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden National Trust near Leeds, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds
Flashbacks to studying Tintern Abbey in sixth form

A large part of my weekend in Leeds wasn't actually spent in Leeds. As soon as I stepped off the train, we headed about an hour north to Fountains Abbey, a National Trust property out in the wilds of Yorkshire. The Abbey itself is a ruin, but a substantial one, and it's on the same site as Studley Royal Water Garden, meaning plenty of ornamental lakes to wander among while we had a long overdue catch up (and a picnic of course, including Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes which I'd lovingly transported all the way from London).

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden National Trust near Leeds, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

From here, we darted through the back roads and country lanes over to Harrogate, somewhere I've never been before but always fancied visiting. Does this mean I can count this as two new places visited this weekend? I hope so, as I've got some making up to do for February and March.

Flower beds and townhouses in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire, in spring -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds
Harrogate town centre

By the time we'd taken a convoluted trip around Harrogate's one way system and found somewhere to park, the sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom. Like all self-respecting tourists, we started out tour of the town at Betty's Tea Rooms, opting for a quick peek in the shop rather than queuing for food.

Queues outside Betty's Tea Rooms in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

After an hour or so of wandering the streets of Harrogate, and a cheeky milkshake to lift our flagging sugar levels, it was back in the car to Leeds.

Macaron town centre in the window of Betty's tea rooms in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

Dinner came courtesy of Meat Liquor, sister restaurant of my beloved Meat Mission, where I finally got round to trying the Monkey Fingers - strips of chicken covered in that moreish buffalo sauce. They were decent, but not as crispy as my usual buffalo chicken burger.

Inside Meat Liquor, Leeds -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

I'm the sort of person who firmly believes - to adapt a line from How I Met Your Mother - that nothing good happens after 9pm (except sleep). In this case, Leeds proved me wrong. We found ourselves in a secret jazz bar hidden underneath what looks like a barber shop in one of the city's fancy arcades. As well as feeling clandestine, and quite classy, it also provided me with the cheapest round I ever bought. Between you and me, it's this place... but don't go telling everyone.

Inside The Domino Club hidden jazz bar in Leeds -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

I'll be publishing part 2 of the Leeds Chronicles shortly. In the mean time, keep up with my antics on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.