Wednesday, 26 November 2014

SCOTLAND: Gleneagles, Perthshire



In a nutshell


A grand and stately presence set in 850 acres of verdant Perthshire countryside. With 232 rooms, 14 event suites, seven bars and restaurants, three championship golf courses, and a destination spa, this five star luxury property is currently celebrating its 90th birthday. It’s played host to some major international events, including the 2005 G8 summit, 2014 Ryder Cup, and is home to the only two Michelin-starred restaurant in Scotland.

Where is it?

Mid-way between Perth and Stirling on the A9. It’s also equidistant from Edinburgh and Glasgow, one hour on the motorway from each. It lies at the very centre of Scotland, and to add to its exclusivity, it even has its own railway station.


















Style and character


Designed with a French chateau in mind, the imposing facade beguiles the soft and warm interiors. Despite the great volume of space within its walls, the hotel manages to retain a sense of intimacy and accessibility. A warren of carpeted corridors guides people through the building; recognising this can at first be confusing, reception will provide you with a map at check-in. 

The main building, and the oldest part, retains many of the Art Deco features from its 1924 origins, a time when it was referred to as ‘a Riviera in the Highlands’ and the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. To a younger set of eyes, this might come across as a little outdated, but is undoubtedly part of the charm that attracts so many.

The Braid House bedroom wing is a more recent addition to the building. It houses rooms with balconies overlooking the Ochil hills (the room pictured), the super-slick, Asian-inspired ESPA Spa complete with outdoor pool, the Deseo restaurant, and has an altogether more contemporary finish.

Rooms are plush, spacious and elegantly done, with comfy sofas, plumped up soft furnishings, and airy, modern, white-tiled bathrooms. If you’re interested in doing some real damage, suites range from mini-apartment-sized Whisky suites to the crisp and glossy ones on the fourth floor, some with sunken baths and roof terrace.





What's unique?

Shopping arcade  It’s certainly big enough to have one, so why not. Leading off from the lobby area is a gallery of quaint shops to while away an afternoon and spend a bit of cash. You can find anything from luxury cashmere to Dunhill lighters, jewellery to deluxe whiskeys, and there’s even a hair salon and nail bar.

Wine cellar  It's not unusual for a good restaurant to have an impressive wine cellar. But it is unusual for it to host private dinners. The space, holding around 17,500 bottles, is available for anything from multi-course silver service dinners for up to 12 guests, to cocktail receptions or wine tasting events for up to 20. 

Outdoor activities  When surrounded by such splendid grounds, it makes sense to provide outdoor activities that make the most of it. Guests can go shooting, fishing, off-road driving, ride a horse, learn how to handle a trained gundog, or even get falconry lessons from the on-site British School of Falconry.

Green credentials  They have their own biomass boiler which provides 70-80% of the hotel’s heating needs, and they achieved zero waste to landfill status in 2014. Commendable, for such a big operation.


Who goes?

I didn’t see much evidence of people playing golf during my stay, probably because it was cold, drizzly and November. But I have little doubt the warmer months attract enthusiasts in their droves. Otherwise, one member of staff mentioned around three quarters of the guests are from Scotland, with the remaining from the UK and a smattering from overseas.

The guest list seems to range from girlie weekend spa breaks and empty-nesters, to anniversary couples and three-generation families. It also welcomes the occasional celebrity - I think someone from Made in Chelsea or Towie or one of those other equally painful TV shows might have been there when I was. I say "celebrity"..

Breakfast

An epicurean endurance test of epic proportions. Breakfast is served in the most impressive of the restaurants, The Strathearn, with its lofty ceiling, alabaster columns, silver service and waistcoated waiting staff.

The spread is an impressive one, showcasing the best of Scotland’s seasonal larder. Expect to find a pancake station, stone baked breads and fresh pastries made on site each morning, smoked salmon, roasted and carved hams, whole parma ham legs, an array of cheeses, exotic fruits, and a whole lot more.

In addition to the self-serve buffet, there’s a menu of ‘classics’ you can also order from, freshly prepared and served at your table. Think kippers, haddock, omelettes, waffles, duck eggs on scones, and even steak and chips. 

Beverages include the usual  tea, coffee, and freshly squeezed juices, as well as champagne and a Bloody Mary bar. If your room includes breakfast, all of the above is part of it. If not, it’s £32.

It’s open 7am - 10am on weekdays, and until 10.30am on weekends. Eat for the whole sitting, and you may not need to again that day.

Dining
This gets it’s own separate post - stay tuned. Service Immaculate, yet friendly, from the smiling kilted doormen, to the chefs and restaurant staff, to the reception. They all seem passionate about the hospitality industry they're in, and seem to genuinely love their jobs. On more than one occasion, staff members seemed to know where I’d come from or what I’d just been up to. When the car dropped me off on my arrival, I was greeted with “how was your train journey?”. How did they know I didn’t fly? Impressed. Liked lots & liked less Along with the service and the spectacular grounds, what particularly stood out for me was the culinary offering, and the thought and care that goes into everything involved with that, from the suppliers to the cooking. More on that in a separate post. A few nice little touches include the ‘for your journey’ shortbread on departure, the information sheets left during turndown service that include the next day’s weather report, and the fact they posted a letter for me, which I needed to arrive in London the next day, at no charge. Appreciated. Niggles - a plug socket near the bed would be useful for charging phones.


Pricepoint

This is high-end, AA five red stars. It doesn’t get any higher. So, expect to pay for it, but don’t expect to feel short changed. 

  • B&B From £245 per room, per night (1 Nov - 31 March 2015)
  • Green fees from £70 (off-peak, Nov 2014 - March 2015)
  • October 2014 green fees: PGA Centenary Course - £175, King’s or Queen’s Course - £125.
  • Special offers available.

Contact

The Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland PH3 1NF

T: 0800 704 705 (UK Freephone) or 1 866 881 9525 (US Freephone)
www.gleneagles.com
@Gleneagleshotel

Note: I stayed as a guest of the hotel.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

som saa, london fields - review

There’s something undeniably exciting about a restaurant residency. The impermanence of it all, knowing it will no longer be there in a couple of months, feeling as though you’re taking part in some sort of exclusive underground dining movement that is not quite radical but certainly not mainstream. 

I say that. Som Saa has received a review from Fay Maschler in the Evening Standard, which is about as mainstream as it gets. But that doesn’t detract from the thrown together, off-the-cuff charm of it all.


I’d never heard of Climpson’s Arch before hearing about Som Saa. Probably because it’s a working coffee roastery right out in the sticks of east London, next to London Fields train station (not tube or even overground, an actual National Rail train station - far).

What’s particularly exciting though, is that it’s fully licensed, has a grill and wood-fired oven out in the partly covered yard space, a kitchen built into a shipping container, tables inside under the railway arch adorned with fairy lights, and occasionally moonlights as a venue for young chefs to showcase their talents.


When chefs and restaurateurs want to create a dining experience, but aren’t quite at the stage of settling at a permanent site, they’ll take up residency for a limited amount of time in a place that’s ready to roll as soon as they arrive. In this case, we have Andy Oliver, previously at Nahm (voted no.1 restaurant in Asia) and Bo.Lan in Bangkok, and Tom George, a manager from Goodman in Mayfair. Their intention is to bring the cooking of northern and north-eastern Thailand (the area known as Isaan), to us lucky Londoners. And lucky we certainly are.

Get the tube to Bethnal Green and walk north for around 20 minutes, or get a train from Liverpool Street three stops until you arrive at London Fields. Allow Google maps to instruct you from here along quiet roads and under railway bridges, as thoughts flit between I can’t wait to eat this food and am I going to get mugged if I keep parading my phone.

You’ll then either hear or smell Som Saa before you see it. Follow the murmur of music and a convivial atmosphere, or the aromas of shrimp paste and lime searing against hot metal, and you’ll soon find yourself outside a venue that by day, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at.


The menu is brief but confident, with a handful of bar snacks, a couple of salads, four small plates, three large and one choice for dessert. Flavours are big and bold and a glorious ode to all things we love about Thai food - the salt, sour, sweetness and heat. Astringent and aromatic nectar, full of the flavours of lemongrass, garlic, coriander, shrimp paste, ginger and chillies, pool at the sides of the plates. Liquor so good that leaving a drop should come with a police caution.

The heat from the green papaya salad is penetrative rather than eye-watering, a gradual climb across the tongue to the back of the throat that will release as a little cough or hiccup. It’s wonderful, get it (£8.50). 

The whole deep fried seabass, crisp and curved like the crescent of the moon, is covered in Isaan herbs and comes with roasted rice, the soft flesh a joy to peel away from the big bones of the spine (£14).

The fish also appears cured with citrus under ‘bar snacks’, with lemongrass, kaffir lime and mint, ready for wrapping in the glossy betel leaves they’re delivered on, zippy little parcels that go down barely touching the sides (£5). Grilled pork neck with chilli, lime and garlic was as dreamy as it reads (£8), and the sweet flesh of the salt roasted prawns were a great excuse to get the fingers dirty and suck on some crustacean heads (£8).

There was also a palm sugar ice cream with turmeric grilled banana which had a great warming depth (£4.50). Things that continue to flirt with me from the menu I stowed away in my bag and took home: Isaan hot and sour soup with duck leg; Northern style pork belly curry with pickled garlic and ginger; grilled fermented pork with peanuts, chill and cabbage.

There’s corrugated metal panels, a concrete floor, exposed pipes and ducts, and what seems to be a load of industrial paraphernalia stored towards the back of the space, beyond the seating - it is a coffee factory after all. But there’s also communal dining tables, Arcade Fire on in the background, a cracking wine list, standout service and some seriously good vibes.

Som Saa is so far east from where I live that it might as well be in Germany. But it’s also so good that I’m pretty certain I’ll be back. It runs until at least early 2015, with no set end date of yet. Just turn up as there’s no reservations - open Thursday to Sunday from 6pm with brunch at the weekends. See you there.

(P.S. Please excuse the shoddy photography. I turned up without my proper camera as I had little intention to write this up due to the time constraints of a hectic work schedule. But then it was really good, so I had to. The snaps are from my crappy camera phone.)

Liked lots: Huge flavours, great vibes, fantastic service
Liked less: Please be closer to where I live
Good for: Impressing your mates with your knowledge of London’s alternative dining scene; eating what is arguably some of the best Thai food in town 

4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Climpson's Arch on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 November 2014

FRANCE: Hotel Marignan, Paris


In a nutshell

Forty-five rooms and five suites of modern chic and understated elegance. Independent five star boutique accommodation, with sensational views of the Eiffel Tower, trying (and succeeding) to offer something different to its neighbours.

Where is it?

In the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ between the Champs-Elysées and the Montaigne Avenue. If coming off of the Eurostar from Gare du Nord, take the Metro Line 4 south to Strasbourg-St Denis. Then change onto Line 9 westbound to Franklin D. Roosevelt - the hotel is just around the corner. Or start the spending early and get a cab.

Style and character

It’s an impressive building with a handsome black facade dominating the bottom half, conspicuous amongst the surrounding classic architecture. The tall golden doors don’t allow you to see in, but the doormen can of course see out through a well-positioned gap. 

The hotel states rooms and suites are intended to feel like a second home - pied-à-terre - and they’ve succeeded. Rooms have muted tones and use quality materials - wool, silk, oak, marble. Furniture is unique to the hotel and there are a lot of pieces created by French artisians dotted about.

Rooms on the 5th floor have balconies, and those on the 6th and 7th have terraces with unobstructed views of the tower.

There’s a lot of attention to detail and splashes of creativity when it came to designing the interiors, from large and colourful botanical prints on the walls in the restaurant, down to the individual choice of lighting and bread baskets.


What's unique?

Art  It’s everywhere - sculptures, paintings, photography - all chosen by hotel manager Natalie Richard. Art is used to customise rooms and to define the public areas; it’s clearly a big part of the hotel’s character.

Cinema  There’s a 20-seater in the basement. They use it for private events, but guests can request screenings and they’ll often project major sport events.

The views  If you ask really nicely, the staff may well take you to the roof of the building (where the main image was taken) to show you a truly splendid view of the Eiffel Tower (it’s where all the cables and ventilations boxes are, so it’s mostly out of bounds). I’ve seen it a hundred times, but that structure never ceases to momentarily take my breath away. I had a front-facing room with a balcony on the 5th floor and could see it quite clearly, albeit with its head quite literally in the clouds on the first day.

Who goes?

I arrived late on a Friday night to the sounds of a party. A big party, in such full swing that I walked right past the building assuming it must be a bar or club, and not a hotel. It turns out Carla Bruni was holding a charity bash and had hired out the entire ground floor - a great bash it seemed too. I discreetly weaved amongst the Parisian elite to check it out - they’d kicked off their heels and started dancing in front of the DJ long before I arrived.

Breakfast time revealed mostly French guests, a few that could have been there on business. Clientele seemed to be 35+ and I didn’t spot any children. A discreet and sophisticated customer base.

Breakfast

If the room you book includes breakfast, it will be their ‘continental’ offering and very typically French. Meaning very good bread, fresh pastries, quality preserves, great butter, and whatever you want to drink. Simple, but quite lovely. And feel free to ask for a basket refill. It’s 29
 if it’s not included in your stay, which does seem pricey for what it is. Alternatively, you can order something cooked off the menu.


Dining

Canopée is the hotel’s single restaurant, open all day. Commandeering the kitchen is chef Felipe de Assunção, originally from Portugal, with years of experience at a number of high-end Parisian and London hotels, who’s been at Hotel Marignan for two years.

The menu is seasonal and changes quarterly. It doesn’t shy away from luxury ingredients, rich textures and strong flavours - all very much at home in this sort of accommodation, in this city. 

Entrées involved soft scallops on potatoes with chives and a smack of truffled cream, fantastic lobster and spinach ravioli with a deep bisque, duck foie gras with a lick of tart rhubarb on crisp bread, and the best butternut squash velouté I’ve encountered - a velvety pool of amber with chunks of salty fried sheep’s cheese. Ask me to clear a vat of that any day.

There was a succulent roast chicken breast with mushroom and peas and a perfectly al dente risotto, so unashamedly decadent in its cream content, that I wouldn't be surprised to find it in the dairy aisle. 

A great hunk of cod with chorizo cream came with soft leeks, white cocoa beans and an armour of tiny tomatoes - turned pointy in their dehydration in the oven, I suspect - with welcome bursts of tartness to cut through all the richness. Then there was a heft of seabass sporting a layer of sliced baby courgette on a bed of citrus-spiked ratatouille. All beasts were cooked well and with balanced, albeit robust flavours.

Sweets had us cooing over Paris-Brests with light choux and a gorgeous praline cream. Roasted figs with honey, rosemary and a cottage cheese sorbet tasted as exciting as it sounds, and a pineapple tarte tatin was an exotic twist on a classic done well.

Prices match the surroundings, and the upmarket part of town you’re in. Don’t expect much change from 200 for a three course meal with wine for two, but do expect to be suitably impressed with it. Take a look at the Hotel Marignan menus.



Service

A highlight of the hotel. From the doormen, to the reception staff, to the waiters, to the housekeeping, to the chef himself coming out to speak to us and ask how we found the food, the service here is exemplary.

Polite, charming, engaging, accessible, informed - I encountered a number of members of staff and was impressed by them all.

Perks

The hotel uses Clarins for its toiletries, rooms come with coffee-pod machines, and the mini bar of soft drinks in the room is complimentary (note - no alcohol in them). Little cakes are left in the room each day.


Liked lots & liked less

The service and the unique character of the hotel are what stood out. The experience was, for all intents and purposes, faultless. And there's free wifi across the whole building - you would hope a given.

My one niggle would be the full length mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door could do with more lighting around it. But who cares about that when the luxury bed you’re sleeping on is made of bamboo.


Pricepoint

Lowest  The Premier room ranges from 330 to 530 a night
Highest  The Marignan Eiffel Suite comes in at 1300 to 3000 a night - ouch.

Contact

Hotel Marignan, 12 rue de Marignan 75008 PARIS
T: +33 1 40 76 34 56
www.hotelmarignanelyseesparis.com
@MarignanParis

Related posts
FRANCE: A postcard from Paris

Note: I stayed as a guest of the hotel.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

FRANCE: a postcard from Paris

Some photography from a recent, and all too brief, trip to Paris. Pictures of Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, River Seine and Restaurant Bouillon Chartier.


Related posts

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

JAPAN: onsen etiquette - a guide to taking a traditional public (and naked) bath

If you’re due to visit Japan, you will notice a lot of things. A lot of fascinating, unfamiliar and sometimes strange things. 

Chairs on trains swivel 180 degrees so as to always face the direction of travel. The doors to taxis close automatically. You can smoke inside many restaurants, but only in designated areas on the street. Toilets are more advanced than the International Space Station, with buttons for things you didn't even realise were desirable toilet features, and there is absolutely and equivocally no tipping in Japan. 

People openly read violent manga pornography in public, often involving giant tentacles, and no one will bat an eyelid. Shop and restaurant staff will shout the "Irrashimase!" welcome when you enter their premises. It’s acceptable to get obliterated on a Friday night, puke up on your boss’s shoes, pass out on street corner, and turn up for work on Monday morning with no judgement passed. But it’s frowned upon to be seen eating while you walk. 

Oh yes, and bathing is traditionally done in communal baths, in the complete buff.


It’s a fascinating quirk of the isolated evolution of the Japanese culture, when you think about it. Outside on the street, you’ll be hard pressed to engage in much eye contact thanks to the mostly coy demeanour of the Japanese. But bump into that person in the onsen of your hotel room and they’ll happily strip off and sit in a bath with you.

The Japanese tradition of bathing with others in your birthday suit often causes a state of alarm for westerners. Particularly for the British, with our stiff upper lips and aversion to nakedness in general. Most of us can just about handle a doctor asking us to drop our pants for the sake of our wellbeing. I myself am that person that will hide my modesties behind a precarious towel wrap as I try to shuffle on some underwear in public changing rooms.

But let me tell you, when it comes to being in Japan and embracing their culture, my advice is to leave your anxieties and insecurities about this arrangement at the arrival gate. Because doing so may well be one of the most liberating and fun things you do during your trip.

Here’s a little guide to help you get Japanese bathing right, and enjoy it.

1) What’s the history behind the onsen?

The word onsen is in fact a term for geothermally heated hot springs, although it’s often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns situated around them. Thanks to its volcanic activity, Japan has a lot of these scattered along the length and breadth of the country, and they are used as public bathing spaces.

Traditionally they were located outdoors, but a large number of properties have harnessed these waters and brought them inside to provide the facilities under cover. They are believed to have healing properties, thanks to the multitude of minerals that can be found in them.

2) Why is bathing in them such a popular pastime?

As well as all those minerals, the purpose of wallowing in these warm waters is to provide an escape from the stresses and strains of everyday life and embrace the virtues of hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion). It allows people to get to know eachother in an environment where there can be no barriers. 

While finding yourself naked in front of your boss is the stuff most nightmares are made of, it’s not uncommon for company groups to visit onsens en masse, as well as friends, and families.

In the past, men and women bathed together and everyone was fine with it. But since Japan opened its doors to the west, gender separation has been enforced and is strictly adhered to. The traditional mixed bathing does still persist in some rural parts of the country, however.

3) Ok, I’m up for it. How do I do this properly?

The sequence of events to enjoy an onsen is as follows:

  • If you are in a hotel, it’s common for guests to be provided with an onsen towel and yukata (casual kimono - like a nice thin dressing gown) which you can wear from the onsen to your room. If you prefer, you can remove your clothes in your room, slip into the yukata, and walk to the onsen wearing it with nothing underneath. It is completely normal to be seen walking around in these within the hotel grounds. Don’t forget to take the yukata and towel to the onsen with you.
  • When you arrive, remove your shoes before you enter the tatami mat area - there’s usually compartments to put them in. Go into the relevant changing room (male or female) and remove all your clothes (or your yukata). There will usually be lockers or woven baskets to place them in.
In a yukata read for the onsen
  • Somewhere in the onsen or provided in your room, there will be a washcloth for you to take to the shower area. This can be used to cover your modesties as you walk around the onsen. Or strut like a peacock, either is fine.
  • On entering, you’ll see a number of showering posts, often in rows, which usually consist of a mirror, a stool to sit on, a shower hose or tap, and a bucket. Take a seat and wash yourself thoroughly with the washcloth. Soap and shampoo are often provided, particularly in the nicer hotels, or you can take along your own. The idea is to conserve water, so don’t leave the hose running. You can fill up the bucket and chuck the water over you, rather than use the hose. Once you’re clean, rinse the area and put everything back in it’s place for the next person to use.
  • Only at this point, are you permitted to enter the hot onsen waters. These waters must not be contaminated with anything other than your squeaky clean self, so do not allow your washcloth to touch the water. Either leave it on the side, or fold it and balance it on your head like the natives. Similarly, if you haven’t washed your hair at the shower stage, you shouldn't submerge your head.
  • It’s not a swimming pool, so don’t start doing laps. The idea is to soak and relax and enjoy its cathartic properties. In big hotels, there might be different areas with different temperatures, so feel free to move from one to the next.
  • If you get out to cool yourself down, be sure to rinse yourself at the shower stations again before you get back in. 
  • When you’re done, walk back to the changing room, dry yourself off with the towel, slip on your yukata, and walk back to your hotel room.
  • If you're visiting an onsen that is not in a hotel, the process is very much the same. Rather than going back to your room to get dressed, you will do so in the changing rooms.

You’ve now taken your first Japanese onsen in the nud - congratulations.

4) So who’s going to see me naked?

Firstly, only your own sex. Onsen baths and changing rooms are single sex. But in all honesty, likely very few people if anyone will see you naked. No one is there to look at anyone else, and everyone keeps themselves to themselves.

Also, if you use the washcloth (which when fully unfolded will be a decent size) to cover your bits as you walk about, it’s likely no one will catch a glimpse of anything. And once you’re in the water, nothing is visible anyway.

5) Can I just not be naked, and go in with a bikini / shorts?

No, you can’t. Swimming costumes are strictly forbidden as they are seen to contaminate the water. If you walked in with a swimming costume, everyone would stare at you as it’s just not permitted. I’ve heard of the odd place allowing costumes where they permit both sexes to use the same onsen. But these are usually more water-park themed and uncommon.

6) I’d like to experience it with my partner, is this possible?

If you’re of different sexes, the short answer is likely no. You will both need to visit your respective onsens separately, unless it’s those theme park type ones I mentioned above. 

There are some places that might allow the onsen to be locked and enjoyed privately, and in this case both sexes could enjoy it at once. For example, Hotel Mizuhasou on the island of Miyajima had a couple of onsen rooms with two showers and two tubs in each (pictured), and a lock on the doors to allow this. The only problem here is queues would form outside, waiting for you to finish, which is far from relaxing.

7) What if I don’t want to shower in the onsen, will my room still have a bathroom?

Large hotels that cater to westerners will usually have rooms with private normal bathrooms, and also a large onsen to use if you wish to. Smaller hotels will sometimes have two types of rooms for sale - western ones with private bathrooms, or traditional tatami rooms perhaps with a private toilet but not a private bathroom. Ironically, it’s often the latter, without the private bathroom, that are more expensive. 

Some very traditional ryokans won’t have any private bathrooms available and will only have an onsen to get yourself clean in. This was the case with the hotel mentioned above. Don’t be put off by this set up. If you just want a quick shower without the soaking, it’s very easy to pop in, have a wash and leave without barely being noticed at all. Like I said, no one is looking anyway. 


8) What should I expect when I go in?

Based on my own experience, a glaring observation I made was the lack of westerners in the hotel onsens. I suspect many get put off by the idea, which is a great shame. Don’t be surprised to see people really going for it at the shower stage, getting into every nook and cranny. The Japanese take down their toothbrushes and even their razors. 

9) Are there particular times of day where the onsens are less busy?

If you’re really conscious about the naked part and want to minimise the number of people who might see you, certain times of day are more quiet than others. Mornings either before or after breakfast, and evenings before or after dinner will busy - basically the times of day it’s most common to have a shower. I suspect the middle of the day will be the most quiet.

Onsens tend to have opening and closing times, they won’t be open 24 hours a day. In addition, some places might only have one onsen that alternates between male and female use for a certain number of hours each during the day. So check the times first and figure out when you might want to go.

10) What sort of people use the onsens?

Everyone. There were mothers with babies. Old ladies. Young women. People on their own or with a friend. My partner reported the same - business men, young men, elderly gentlemen, dads with sons. All shapes and sizes, all ages, all completely at ease with the whole situation. It’s a fantastic environment to be in.

11) What sizes do onsens come in?

This can vary considerably. For example, Hotel Associa in Takayama had a spectacular open air but covered onsen area, on multiple floors, overlooking the mountains. There were many shower stations and a number of pools to dip into, each with different temperatures, as well as waterfalls and jacuzzi tubs. There was a huge amount of space which made it very easy to find your own corner away from everyone else.

At the other end of the scale, an onsen may consist of a small room with just a handful of shower stations and one or two small tubs. This may initially feel awkward, but again, no one is looking at you and anyone else there has the same agenda as you - to just relax. If it is only the two of you in a tub, just go with it. It will be fine.

Anymore than two in a small tub and it might be a little too close for comfort. What usually happens in this situation is whoever has been in the longest will kindly bow out of the scene once a new person has entered and showered, to allow them to take a dip in their place.

Onsen view in Hotel Associa in Takayama, photo from their website

12) I want to take pictures in the onsen, can I take a camera in?

Err.. no. I'm not sure that would go down too well with all the naked people that would be in your shots. The pictures I've used in this post were taken in the lockable onsen, and before it was open anyway.

We sometimes forget it's possible to enjoy an experience without having to take a picture of it and post it online. This is a perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself with this ancient notion.

13) Any tips for enjoying the experience?

Do take a bottle of water down with you. Onsens can be quite hot and it’s probably easy to overheat. When you get out you’ll need a cool drink, some places will have a water cooler.

If there are certain shower gels and shampoos that you use, it’s fine to take these down and leave them on the side once you’ve showered, while you take a dip in the waters.

Otherwise, there’s really nothing else to it.

I hope this guide has helped dispel any qualms you may have about the traditional Japanese bathing experience. If you’re due to visit this spectacular country, I highly recommend kicking off your knickers and getting involved - I bet you’ll leave feeling rejuvenated in both body and soul.

Related posts: 
10 things to eat in Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction - 10 FAQ's answered
Japanese Tea Ceremony in Kyoto

Saturday, 18 October 2014

q grill brunch, camden - review


It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle Camden on a sunny Saturday. I am without question, not that person. 

All credit to them, tourists and slightly grubby teenagers seem to take it in their stride. Most will - for some reason - have Camden on their London itinerary. They’ll jaunt up the Northern Line, funnel-neck out of that tiny station in their hordes, swell into Camden High Street and progress along it at the speed and density of poured molasses. 

I’m not great with crowds (see my rant about Oxford Street). The last time I was in Camden was the day I packed up and moved out of my student halls on Camden Road, in no great hurry to return. But in these pockets of intolerable people-density, there is often salvation in the form of somewhere to get away from everyone else, sit a while, and have something good to eat.

In this neck of the woods, push on through the throng and continue along the high street until it becomes Chalk Farm Road. Rejoice at the exponential reduction of headcount with every few metres you advance, and find respite in Q Grill for some brunch.


The man behind the enterprise is Des McDonald who opened it in March this year, having already landed a big hit in Islington with The Fish & Chip Shop. In the kitchen is Phil Eagle who was previously Head Chef at Hix; both men have a CV that includes Le Caprice. The concept is locally sourced meat and fish, cooked via a charcoal pit grill and in-house smoker, and in September they introduced a brunch menu. 

I’ve heard people grumble about brunches recently, saying they actively avoid them or don’t see their point; I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a lazy man’s breakfast. A meal that encourages you to both have a lie-in, eat bacon into the late afternoon and accompany it with a hair-of-the-dog tipple and good coffee, is nothing but a friend of mine.

On the note of alcohol, they’ve set up a DIY bloody mary bar, creaking under its own weight of rainbow-coloured tomatoes, celery, chillies, sauces, lemons, limes and every other bloody mary paraphernalia you might think of. You can concoct a pitcher to your own specification and with your own fair hands for £20.


The food options include meat butties, grilled broccoli with wild mushrooms and a duck egg, eggs on muffins or toast, waffles with sweet cured bacon and maple syrup, and beans and egg on toast.

But forget all of that, because what you want is the Josper Fry-up. A josper is an elegant combination of a grill and an oven in a single machine - combine that cooking method with some gorgeous meats, and you’ve got yourself a plate of something very good indeed.

Bacon so crisp it was like crackling, a slice of sourdough, slightly sweet (but not overly) BBQ beans that worked with the saltiness of the pork wonderfully, a sausage, a portobello mushroom, an egg.. and ¼ rack of ribs. Oh yes. 

I cleared the lot (as well as a few other things), and felt fabulous. None of the self-loathing associated with finishing plates of greasy meat and carbs that poor fry-ups often are. This was the best I’ve had in a long time. I would travel from where I live in SW London all the way up the Northern Line and happily endure the weekend masses to eat it again.

Now guess the price of it. In the tourist hotspot that is Camden. With quality locally sourced meat. And that ¼ rack of tender, gorgeous, bone-sucking ribs that no other fry-ups have. Go on, guess. 

You’re right, they could easily charge over a tenner for it, and folk wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But it is in fact only £7.75. I know.



My companion had the eggs royale, with great generous hunks of cooked salmon rather than smoked. The large is £11.50, translating to two eggs and muffin halves rather than one in the small, we assumed. A great hit of protein and good it was too. But compare it to the fry-up, in terms of value and volume, and I know what I’d order.

There’s also the option for a continental breakfast at £12.50. You can help yourself to an unlimited amount of fresh pastries, fruit, muffins, granola, quality bread and parma ham from the counter.

I ordered a kale, avocado and apple smoothie to balance out the sin from my pork-heavy plate (£4.50). It was good, but needed more blitzing to eliminate ice chunks clogging up the straw. Even the coffee was good, really leaving me with little to grumble about.

Q Grill is a double fronted, large space. Around the corner of its L-shape interiors, there’s more seating and a mezzanine level, but it’s a lot darker back there and a bit smokey from the grilling. My suggestion is take the bright and sunny window seating with comfortable swivel chairs. You can indulge in a spot of people watching as you enjoy a coffee and a paper, and you can crack the window open for some fresh air. All these elements one looks for on a relaxing weekend morning came together during my visit, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. 

I’ve already told the in-laws to stop by Q Grill during their upcoming Camden visit (they're a great example of ‘domestic tourists’) and to get that fry-up. I think I might have to join them.

Liked lots: great value fry-up, ribs in the fry-up, bacon cooked just so, good coffee, great easy-going vibe, very pleasant staff
Liked less: I think sitting up front in the bright and breezy part of the restaurant helped the experience - I'm less sure about the rear; pricing of some of the other brunch items seem a little dear for what they are in comparison to the fry-up
Good for: wiling away a lazy weekend morning

My rating: 3.5/5


Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to this restaurant.

Q Grill on Urbanspoon

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