I have settled into my new status as a ‘lady of leisure’ with the enthusiasm of a child starting school holidays and the breeziness of a trust fund baby. It took me a couple of days to get into the swing of things but my days of sweaty tube scrums and clock-watching in the office are now distant memories. Instead, I am luxuriating in this sudden abundance of spare time. I can sleep in, I can stay up late, I have time to read the books I’ve been hoarding from the library and do the exercise I never got round to. Or… I can just do absolutely nothing and not feel one single iota of guilt. In short, my time is mine to do as I choose and it is all strangely liberating and deliciously luxurious.
So with all this freedom, what do I actually choose to do?! It turns out that being a lady of leisure can, at times, be not very leisurely at all… despite having no office to go to and no deadlines to meet, I am still very busy. But the fun kind of busy that involves indulging in all the things I love and embracing the lady of leisure stereotype by also transforming into a lady who lunches. I never understood nor had I truly experienced the joy of long, lazy midweek lunches until now, and for extra status points, I now occasionally do long, lazy Michelin star lunches.
I challenge anyone to step into the hallowed oak walls of the Great Hall at The LaLit London and not let out an involuntary ‘oooh’ because this is a truly splendid space. The high ceilings and windows let light bounce around the room, the distinctive blue chandeliers add the requisite level of grandeur. Once the dining room of the boarding school, it seems fitting that this is now home to Baluchi, The Lalit London’s fine dining Indian restaurant. Although I suspect that is where the similarities end; I am sure the food served then is a million miles apart from the delightful Indian delicacies served now. A room like this could serve as the backdrop to any special meal, but on this particularly evening we were in for a real treat… but that’s what you expect when you’re here to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Indian Independence!
I know that for much of India and neighbouring Pakistan, the last seventy years may hold some bittersweet memories but many will now also agree it’s still a milestone worth toasting to. We certainly thought it was, and decided to raise our glasses to the occasion. The Indian-inspired cocktails served in the old Teacher’s Room were a fantastic way to ease our palates into the meal ahead. The delicate spice of my saffron gin martini to start was wonderful, but the Kashmir: Valley of Flowers with Earl Grey infused gin, lavender syrup and lime juice was definitely the cocktail of the day! With a drink in hand and the dulcet tones of the sitar floating through the room, it was hard not to get into a celebratory mood before moving back into the Great Hall for dinner.
When did cooking become a spectator sport? I can just remember the days when chefs had reputations for being sweary, pot-swivelling hot-heads who were best kept behind the closed doors of the kitchen. In my youth, I had ventured beyond those doors into my dad’s restaurant kitchens a few times… they were hot, sweaty, generally loud, and usually frenetically paced. To the uninitiated, they were chaotic, but my dad assured me that there was always a rhythm in amongst the noise. Times have changed since those days. I’m sure that many chefs are still as hot-headed but the doors have been flung open and not only do people want to taste their food, people want to see the chefs cooking it too. How many restaurants have we all been to where the kitchens are visible from the dining room? How many times have you not so subtly rejoiced in that discovery?
Perhaps not as many times as me but admit it, you enjoy being a beady-eyed kitchen watcher as much as the next person because the inner workings of a professional kitchen can be fascinating. More and more restaurants are being designed with these ringside kitchen seats in mind, while others are choosing to let a select few be up close and personal at the chef’s tables they put inside their kitchens. Then there are restaurants like Kitchen Table who really take it to the extreme – one kitchen, one u-shaped bar wrapped around it, twenty chairs – that’s it. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is a bum on every seat, every night the restaurant is open and diners willing to pay a not so insignificant amount for the pleasure of sitting there, especially when you throw caution to the wind and opt for the wine pairing too.
“Come for the experience, not the hype”. That’s what Gaggan suggests his guests do when they dine at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok. Seemingly sound advice, a reasonable request even, but my problem was that regardless of whether I came for one or the other, neither stacked up. The hype is unavoidable. Even if you don’t have a Netflix account and an unhealthy obsession with current food culture, the chances are you’ve still at least heard of the runaway hit Chef’s Table. For the viewers, it’s an insight into the lives and inner workings of some extraordinary culinary minds, and for the chefs themselves, I imagine it’s ticket to celebrity chef stardom and a guaranteed full house for the next few years.
If Chef’s Table lured me in, it was the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards who sealed the deal when they awarded Gaggan the top spot for the third year running. Upon reading that, I decided on a whim to make a booking; with only a couple of weeks until our Bangkok visit, I wasn’t holding out much hope but imagine my elation when they confirmed our table for two. So yeah, I fell for the hype; hook, line and inspirational-sob-story sinker, but after embarking on this twenty-something course journey at Gaggan, I was disappointed to say that I did not fall head over heels for the experience.
Having a reputation can be a bit of an inconvenience, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. In fact, having now mulled over the perils of both, I am starting to think it’s better to have a bad one and just roll with it. Sure, people will smear your name but if you operate on the policy of not giving a toss, it’s actually much easier to manage than a good one. Having one of those requires far more effort… most people will want to maintain it, and in order to do so, you must live up to the expectations that pesky aforementioned reputations creates.
I’ve come across many restaurants with big reputations for being any number of things – overpriced, undervalued, one for the suits, suitable for the fanatics, and the list goes on, but rarely do I come across one that’s just very good. Picture, in both Fitzrovia and Marylebone, is a shining example of this rarity… everyone, no really, everyone I mention it to simply raves about just how good it is. So much so that I used to get embarrassed when I had to admit that I hadn’t yet been and got greeted by a look of surprise and pity in response. Yours truly has a bit of a reputation to uphold too, apparently.
It takes a very calm and controlled chef to let restaurant guests into their kitchen because once these civilians pass the threshold, there’s absolutely no turning back. They’ll have their beady little eyes on the chefs’ every slice, dice, and swivel of the pan while simultaneously being a hazard to those very chefs trying to slice, dice, and swivel their way towards service. They’ll have no idea of the kitchen protocol, they’ll get in the way, and… in some cases, they might even bring the kitchen to a grinding halt with something spectacularly silly like slipping over and finding themselves smack bang on the kitchen floor. The hot-headed chefs panic, the cool chefs just sort it out and carry on.
I know; because I was that clumsy guest, and I can confirm that Phil Fanning was that cool, calm and collected chef. My embarrassing incident unfolded at Paris House, a three AA Rosette and frequently top-rated restaurant housed in the most striking building. This was the original Paris House built in 1878 as part of the Paris International Exhibition – the 9th Duke of Bedford happened to be so enamoured with it, he had it dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt on the Woburn Estate. The estate itself is equally stunning and both combined to give Paris House the most dramatic entrance of any restaurant I have ever been to… the scene was well and truly set for what would be an eventful masterclass and lunch at their Chef’s Table!
Our weekend at Alpenpalace Deluxe Hotel & Spa Resort was a leisurely one and definitely a little out of the ordinary for us. We saw views from mountaintops instead of tower-tops, the paths we traversed were paved with dirt and not cobbles, and the only noise we woke up to was the sing-song of the local birds. It really couldn’t be any further from the hustle of our usual weekend city breaks but there was one thing which remained the same… the food. It wouldn’t be a Connie Consumes weekend getaway if there wasn’t some decent food on the adventure!
All room bookings at Alpenpalace are half board which means you get your breakfast and dinner included in the rate, though in reality they offer you so much more than just two standard meals. The thought of eating at the same restaurant for three days and nights in a row did make me feel a little uneasy… I’m the girl with the big bucket restaurant lists, remember?! But from our first meal to our last, everything dished up by Head Chef Andreas Schwienbacher and his team was delicious. They created feasts which were comforting, creative and showcased the South Tyrolean produce – something which are they are rightfully very proud of.