Saturday, 31 October 2015

Céleste at The Lanesborough, Knightsbridge - Review

Celeste at The Lanesborough

It's been a whole ten months since I last penned some thoughts about a London restaurant; last year's ambitiously-priced Christmas menu at Quattro Passi, and gamey delights from The Hyde Bar in Knightsbridge, were the last two.

Regular readers will know I sodded off galavanting shortly after those write-ups, mostly to eat my way around the rest of the world. I did quite well with that, but I've been back for a couple of months now, and through catching up with friends, peers and contacts, I was invited to pop over to The Lanesborough near Hyde Park, to check out the recently refurbished, rebranded and let me tell you, resplendent, Céleste.

I've dined in this space before, under its former guise of Michelin-starred Apsleys. I spent the best part of a frigid December afternoon warming the cockles with a giddying concotion of champagne, Early Grey and mulled wine, whilst getting hopped up on finger sandwiches, toasted teacakes and homemade scones. And a very pleasant - if not somewhat squiffy - visit it was too. It was their Christmas-time champagne afternoon tea, in case you hadn't already figured that out.

Celeste at The Lanesborough
In December 2013, about a year after my first visit, the whole property closed. The hotel was stripped back to its shell, then each corner meticulously refurbished and transformed by world renowned interior design studio, Alberto Pinto. Eighteen months and truck loads of money later, it reopened it's doors. The Lanesborough never did comment on how much the refurbishment cost; a telling sign in itself. The official line on the matter was “no expense has been spared,” - quite apparent once you're in it.

I'm a sucker for a pretty room, and this space lays it on thick. Richly decorated with 250 bas-relief mouldings surrounding the frise under the glass domed roof - through which light floods in - there are fluted columns, powder-blue walls, and English crystal chandeliers, the largest of which weighs in at 200kg. It might be over the top, but that's the point. And I love it. It's still a very easy place to relax, despite everything going on on the walls around you. Which is key.

Executive chef at The Lanesborough is Florian Favario, formerly head chef at Epicure in Paris. He was chosen by chef patron Eric Frechon - Paris' most esteemed three Michelin-starred chef and a leading figure at Oetker Collection's Le Bristol since 1999 - as the person to lead one of London's most celebrated addresses into a new gastronomic chapter.

The Lanesborough is often referred to by it's unofficial name, 'the most expensive hotel in London'. With doubles coming in from £720 per night and the lavish Royal Suite at an incogitable £26,000 per night, the whole property is likely dismissed as entirely unattainable by most.

Except, that this doesn't necessarily apply in Céleste. Mere mortals can bask in a slice of this lavish grandeur for an altogether more accessible £44 for a set three-course lunch menu, £48 for a traditional afternoon tea, or £55 / £95 for a five-course / seven-course dinner menu.

Celeste at The Lanesborough
There was a terrific posh scotch egg - a Burford Brown encased in mince of chicken and rosemary-spiked lardo from Colonatta, crispy, with a rich and golden runny yolk and earthy truffle mayonnaise (£14 a la carte, also on set lunch menu). My brother had a cold starter with lobster - good chunks of meat presented as a sort of salad, with tagliatelle-style ribbons of a vegetable we couldn't identify and forgot to ask about. 

A somewhat better result than what the must-have fad gadget of the moment - the spiraliser - would produce, I suspect. But it's annoying this irritating trend of making vegetables look like pasta has reached beyond the blogs and cookbooks of the skinny / affluent / female bone-broth elite of West London, and into restaurants. My brother would have preferred actual pasta. The creamy dressing was bland, and the dish was altogether a bit uninspiring - the weakest plate from both our meals (can't locate on website for price). 

I had lobster in my main, with conchiglioni pasta and it's own light and frothy bisque. I enjoyed it, but I suspect I would have done so much more with the absence of peppers, the flavour from which I felt had no place on the plate. The capers though, definitely (£34 on a la carte).

My brother nailed his choice - roast Norfolk black chicken, confit crispy leg, and girolles mushrooms. As good as it reads - savoury, umami, like the chickeny essence had been extracted from 50 fine birds and concentrated into one plate's worth of food (£24 a la carte, also on set lunch menu).

Laudable desserts came in the form of a vibrant mango eton mess, shards of meringue sticking out like ship sails in the wind (£12.50 a la carte, also on set lunch menu), and a gloriously seductive Guanaja chocolate mousse with streusel crumble, demonstrating some impressive paint brush skills (£12.50 a la carte).

I had a glass of good, light red with my meal, and there were champagne cocktails with a clump of golden British honey on the end of a fork to stir in, so potent in its nectar we could smell it before the waitress had turned the corner with them from the bar. Heady and delightful.

Liked lots: the unashamed opulence of it all, their scotch egg and chicken, desserts and service

Liked less: the lobster salad starter

Good for: basking in magnificent surroundings; impressing a date; pretending you have a room 

Note: This meal was kindly hosted by the restaurant. All views remain my own.

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

THAILAND: Review of Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai

Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai
In a nutshell 

Once you're past the front gate of this five star property, the clanging of tuk-tuks is traded for distinctive Northern Thai decor, serene gardens, and 281 rooms and suites so plush, you'll be tempted not to venture back out into the crowds.

Where is it?

In northern Thailand, Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom. The city may not have Bangkok’s international acclaim, but it's made its own name for itself by offering great deals on handicrafts and an up-and-coming foodie scene (and what a great scene it is) - minus as many people and as much traffic as the capital.

The hotel can be found in the middle of town, a ten minute drive from the international airport, and within walking distance of the legendary Night Bazaar, cultural centres, a load of temples, shops and boutiques. 

Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai

Style and character

Though the hotel features the luxury touches that come standard with the Shangri-La brand, the property’s vibe reflects the region's Lanna heritage.

Even though it wasn't one, the very generous 58 sqm of our Premier Room in fact felt like a suite, what with two sets of large windows, one with a balcony, a sofa, desk, arm chair and day bed. There were speakers in the bathroom, a combination of rich fabrics and teakwood, special touches such as local celadon tea sets, Thai silk pillows, bed runners, and artwork.

Along with the main swimming pool, there's an outdoor jacuzzi and yoga pavilion, as well as sauna and steam room facilities in the large health club. Shangri-La's Chi spas typically highlight treatments and ingredients from across Asia, and this beautiful outpost does the same, along with several locally influenced choices. 

I particularly liked the notepad in the toilet, should you be struck by a bolt of creativity whilst on it.

What's unique?

I reckon it's worth splurging a little extra to be a Horizon Club guest. Benefits include bespoke holiday and business travel planning, as well as the following selection of perks:

  • Private check-in/check-out in your room. Plus the option of a late check-out until 4pm (subject to availability)
  • A dedicated Club Concierge to take care of all your needs, including special travel arrangements and basic translation services
  • Tea, coffee or another hot beverage of your choice, delivered to your room with your wake up call

Horizon Club guests also get to use the private lounge - the biggest perk - where complimentary facilities include daily breakfast, evening cocktails and canapes, beverages served all day, newspapers and magazines, suit pressing and shoe shine service.

We spent quite a lot of time in there.

the grounds at Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai

Who goes?

Guests were mostly leisure as Chiang Mai isn't much of a business destination. Many were from China, which is to be expected with the brand.

There were also a lot of families at the hotel during our stay; children could be heard from the other rooms. Expect many kids at breakfast, more than I've seen in any other hotel. It almost had a bit of a resort feel to it.

If you want to enjoy the property away from all of the little ones, I'd advise opting for a Horizon Club room, and therefore access to the Horizon Club lounge - a whole different atmosphere.


Served in the bright and airy all-day dining restaurant Kad Kafé - one of the four drink and dining options available within the property - and recognising their diverse client base, it's an international offering.

I particularly enjoyed the crab congee with ginger, fried shallots, fried garlic, pork floss, pickled cabbage, spring onions, century egg, and Chinese sausage.

Expect the likes of cereals, dried fruit, fresh fruit, a waffle and pancake station, oat cookies, fancy mango and papaya jams, peanut butter, Nutella, freshly baked breads, brioche, cake, smoothies shots, fruits.

There's a big noodle station, and an egg station, both making them to order, and a whole lot more.

breakfast at Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai


A quite fantastic Szechuan meal was had at the chef's table in China Kitchen (formerly Shang Garden) full of heat and spice and all things bloody wonderful.

The kitchen team is lead by Chef Chen from Chengdu in China, who had joined just a few days prior to our stay. He couldn't speak English or Thai, and his staff couldn't speak Chinese. It was fascinating watching them communicate in the 'language of the kitchen' - hand gestures, head nods and shakes, a lot of eyes, and smiling and laughing.

There was a fabulous in-your-face bowl of Szechuan beef with mushrooms - one of my favourites from the evening. Hot, savoury, numbing to the tip of the tongue. 

There was pork, with vegetables and chilli, and deep fried fresh water prawns with a fruit salad - grapefruit, watermelon, dragonfruit. Sounds weird, but actually very good.

But the star of the show was the plate of wonderfully fresh egg noodles, made by Chef Chen daily. With sichuan chilli and a chilli, sesame and peanut sauce. Could have cleared buckets of the stuff.

dining at China Kitchen at Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai

There's exemplary service throughout the property, but particularly in the Club Lounge. I like that the hotel provides cards for you to note down a specific member of staff's name and hand it in, should you want to praise their service.

And just as you've settled down on a lounger by the pool, someone will pop over with face sunscreen, water, fruit and insect spray. Nice touch.

Liked lots / liked less

Liked lots - there are environmentally friendly glass bottles used for the in-room water provided, which get refilled at the bottling plant, wherever that is. Removes the need for plastic.

Liked less - there was building work on a huge site directly in front of our room - condos we think - which got a bit irritating. But that's probably complete by now. To be fair, it's hard to get away from building work wherever you are in Asia; the continent is progressing fast.

Price point

Prices from £160 for a deluxe double to £310 for an executive suite.


89/8 Chang Klan Road, Muang, Chang Khlan, 50100 Chiang Mai
+66 53 253 888

Note: I stayed as a guest of this hotel as part of a media package. All views remain my own.

Related links

Monday, 5 October 2015

MEXICO: A mini guide to Mexico City’s best street food

business folk getting their lunchtime fill at a carnitas stall - Mexico City

The capital of Mexico, Mexico City, is the fourth most populous in the world and about a mile and a half up in the sky. It's a city boasting big numbers; with a population of almost 21 million and an altitude of 2250m above sea level, it can take visitors a good few days to acclimatise to both the thinner air and the endless streams of people. Solid feeds are essential in fuelling the extra exertion needed to go about a normal day’s activity, which is where the city’s unrivalled street food scene steals the show.

The stalls are some of the best looking I've come across during my eight months of travels. They’re more extensions of kitchens than kerb-side shacks; some even with table (or more accurately, stool) service. 

A graze though the offerings in the city's business district and surrounding residential neighbourhoods is a great introduction into one of the world's most vibrant street food scenes.

Here are some of the best things to look out for:

striped jalapeno and red salsa tamal with pork l
Tamales - stuffed, steamed corn dough

Tamales are masa (corn-based dough), steamed or boiled in a leaf - corn husk, banana leaf, avocado leaf - take your pick. It's an ancient food from the days before the Spanish invaded, pre-dating tortillas by about 500 years to 3000 BC, and is often the first meal of the day. Here, a striped jalapeno and red salsa tamal with pork. Look for a huge metal pot to spot who on the street is selling them. It’s often had with an atole, a masa-based drink made with water and sugar, and sometimes chocolate and cinnamon. Filling, full of flavour and very comforting - it’s Mexico City's favourite breakfast for a good reason.

tlacoyos with all the trimmings
Tlacoyos - fried corn dough cakes
Oval shaped masa cakes fried on a griddle, tlacoyos are fatter than tortillas.

I had mine stuffed with beans, cactus, cheese, hot salsa and the fungus that grows on the ears of corn from a disease called 'corn smut', also known as the Mexican mushroom delicacy that is huitlacoche. Entirely excellent.

tacos de canasta
Tacos de canasta
Tacos de canasta are a special type of steamed taco made in advance (rather than to order) by your street vendor, with the flavours developing over time as they sit stacked in the canasta (basket). 

This one was filled with, cochinita pibil - a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan. The meat is marinated in a strongly acidic orange juice, and seasoned with annatto seed, imparting that glorious burnt orange hue.

seafood tostadas
Seafood tostadas

Specifically, at El Caguamo. One of the best places in town for seafood, so I was told by two different locals in the know. A street-side tin shack in the historic centre, you'll find deep-fried fish fillets, shrimp cocktails, tostadas and ceviches. 

Pictured is polpo (octopus) ceviche on a tostada (crisp fried tortilla). It's different to Peruvian ceviche in that there's no tiger's milk. Instead, lime juice and white herbal vinegar, finished with olive oil, avocado, tomato, chilli, onion, coriander. 

Under £1 each. Drench it in more lime and let your taste buds have a little boogie. 

Calle Ayuntamiento at the corner with López and López 82 and 83, Centro Histórico

roast pork leg torta - Mexico City
Torta - the sandwich of Mexico City

Mexico's version of the sandwich and quintessentially ‘very Mexico City’, the torta is fast food blending European and Mexican cultures.

Get it from Tortas Been and order it with pierna (roast pork leg). Expect a slick of sour cream, jalapeños, and chilli seeds, as well as fat wedges of avocado, tomatoes, and onions. 

The sandwich fillings are pushed into the bread, then smashed on the griddle for a few seconds. Immensely satisfying, this place was very busy and came recommended by a local.

Tortas Been, inside the pasaje at República del Salvador 152, a few blocks east of the Zócalo, Centro

nurse shark pescadilla

Pescadilla - fish-stuffed deep-fried tacos

Pescadilla is the name given to a taco stuffed with some sort of fish stew, then deep-fried until crisp. 

In mine, nurse shark is cooked with onion, garlic, chilli, tomato, olives, cumin, and a salsa picante (hot salsa). This meat has a strong flavour, a bit like sardines. Lovely stuff.

four loaded plates of carnitas
Carnitas - mixed cuts of lard-simmered pig

Four plates of carnitas are pictured here, made by braising or simmering pork in lard until tender - much like confit. You can request which part of the pig you want, but if you come at the end of lunch, you'll likely get it mixed. 

On our tortillas, a melody of cheek, leg, nose, other bits, and uterus. Yep, uterus. An offal first for me, I’m not sure I've ever even seen it anywhere. A strong but good flavour, it works very well with the blander cuts and some heat and citrus to slice through all that iron. 

The stall was hemmed in by suits two people deep, all popping out of the office for a quick stand-up kerb-side lunch. How they don't get it on their shirts, I'm not sure.

Related links

Week 29: MEXICO - Mexico City
Week 30: MEXICO - Oaxaca
Week 31: MEXICO - Mérida (plus Uxmal and Kabah)
Week 32: MEXICO - Tulum (plus Sian Ka'an Nature Reserve)

the carnitas stall - Mexico City

Saturday, 3 October 2015

CAMBODIA: Review of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Phnom Penh

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Phnom Penh
In a nutshell 

A 201-room, five-star, neo-classic urban oasis in the country's capital, overlooking the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, with an awards cabinet full of accolades.

Where is it?

Sprawling over six hectares, this hotel's riverside setting is minutes from key landmarks and attractions of the Royal Palace, National Museum and Sisowath QuayThe Old Market and Central Market are a ten minute drive, and the international airport is just 30 minutes away.

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Phnom Penh
Style and character

The 12-story, light-flooded hotel artfully blends contemporary sophistication with 1920s elegance. There's a striking lobby with polished marble floors, lofty coffered ceilings and wrought iron chandeliers - fully French colonial. Rattan furniture, gleaming hardwood and the gentle beat from wooden ceiling fans lend to local influences, and the soft white linens and plenty of Khmer touches reflect sophistication and yesteryear refinement.

On the top floor you'll find an exclusive lounge for high tea indulgences (very good it was too), a pool table and table tennis in the sports club, live piano played in the lobby bar, an upscale spa and two very beckoning pools.

What's unique?

The hotel chain is part of Planet 21, an initiative encompassing their commitment to sustainable development. It's active every day in the areas of nature, carbon, innovation, local development, employment and dialogue. 

For example, all taps are fitted with water flow regulators, only eco-friendly cleaning products are used for the rooms, they have a commitment to protecting children through training on sex tourism, and local food products are promoted in the restaurant.

In addition, the hotel is the first in Cambodia to have received the internationally recognised HACCP certification in February 2015. This means food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product. 

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Phnom Penh
Who goes?

I spotted a family with four kids, a lot of international business people at the early 6.30 - 7.00am breakfast, and many leisure visitors.


Served in the bright and airy all-day dining restaurant La Coupole - one of the nine drink and dining options available within the property - and recognising their diverse client base, it's an international offering with a slant towards French.

Expect the likes of cereals, dried fruit, fresh blueberries, ice cream (!), chocolate fondu, a waffle and pancake station, oat cookies, fancy mango and papaya jams, peanut butter, Nutella, freshly baked breads, brioche, cake, smoothies shots, fruits.

You'll find cheese, crackers, cheese and ham toasties, banana fritters, French toast, meat sliced to order with a big meat slicer, smoked seabass, grilled vegetables, salad items, sauces and a big wooden bowl to toss it all in.

There's a big noodle station with five different types of noodles, green papaya salad, dough sticks. At the Japanese section you'll find an assortment of pickles, seaweed salad, grilled salmon heads and miso. You'll also find an egg station making them to order whichever way you like them.


The hotel has a few dining options, but the promise of dashi and a heart aching for Japan since we left in April 2014 had us heading straight for Hachi.

The familiar clip-clopping of the traditional wooden footwear worn by the staff set the backdrop to what was a very good Japanese meal. There was a rainbow of oshinko moriawase (Japanese pickles), some fantastic niku udon with fat and slippery noodles and tender slivers of beef, and a sprightly seaweed salad. Not to mention the very good vinegared mackerel and tuna sushi, and the sesame ice cream with red bean paste to close.

I'd have happily gone back for it all again if we had another evening there.

dining at Hachi, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Phnom Penh

All the staff members were wonderful, and very smiley, opening doors, calling lifts, and closing their palms in the traditional Khmer way as a greeting every time they passed a guest - I really liked that. And the international team come from 14 different countries, covering many languages between them. 

Liked lots / liked less

Liked lots

During our stay, the “Wonders of 1929” photo exhibition was being held at the hotel. It was on for four months and consisted of 84 of the best images from mysterious French travelling actor Georges Portal's travels through Cambodia 85 years ago. There were some fascinating images - a really insightful collection. More information here.

Liked less

Traffic on the roads surrounding hotels can be pretty bad, so if you plan on using wheels, try to keep it outside rush hour.

Price point

Prices from £170 for a superior double to £460 for a prestige suite.


26 Old August Site, Sothearos Boulevard, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Chamkar Mon, Phnom Penh
+855 23 999200

Note: I stayed as a guest of this hotel as part of a media package. All views remain my own.

Related posts

Week 13: CAMBODIA - Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA: Review of Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Siem Reap
CAMBODIA: Review of Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort, Siem Reap
CAMBODIA: Review of La Rose Boutique Hotel & Spa and La Rose Suites, Phnom Penh

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