Paris by Night, and Day

A weekend break to a romantic city is always going to be good but my mission, as I see it, is to do these things differently; think bigger, better, more indulgent and on a tighter budget. It can’t be done, they say. I beg to differ. There are magical places to be found in Paris, and if you look hard enough you might find something that literally astonishes you. I hadn’t been to Paris for quite some time and I thought of doing a little research prior to the trip but then decided that I would take everything as it came. I started my planning by booking into a hotel I had stayed at previously; The Saint James Paris is an institution among Parisians and it houses a members club for locals and regulars, it’s pricey but if you travel at the right time and scour websites such as Booking.com or Expedia, you might just find yourself a deal – on this particular occasion I managed to grab a room for 50% less than normal AND I was upgraded when we arrived. This, my dear readers, is how it’s meant to be! The Saint James has it all; a superior fine dining restaurant, wood pannelled bar, creative interiors, beautiful garden and a listed library. Not only is the interior and the history of the building astonishing, the service here is what really makes this place shine – it is, without a shadow of a doubt, some of the finest hotel service I have ever experienced; on our first night the valet even entered the address of the restaurant we had booked into the sat nav before bringing the car round for us – it’s the meticulous attention to detail that just adds that special something you might not find anywhere else.

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Next on the priority list is food. Restaurants in Paris are tricky; there are a lot of restaurants, granted, but only a small handful worth eating at. I love French cuisine, but you’ll find more authentic French food if you look outside Paris. That said however, all hope is not lost. If you are after a traditional French Brasserie steeped in history and class, look no further than Brasserie Bofinger; a timeless classic that sits quietly in the Bastille area, it is almost 150 years old and its history, charm, the old Belle Epoque decor and its star studded guest list, continue to draw people in from all near and far flung reaches of the world. The food at Bofinger is exceptionally well done, very traditional French brasserie fair; nothing fancy and reasonably priced, served up by waiters in tailored uniform with impeccable training and decorum. It is neither too much nor too little and you would feel comfortable here in an opera gown or a pair of jeans and a semi-smart shirt. It’s one of the only true ‘Brasserie’s’ left and it is a shining example of true Parisian history and style. Don’t expect too much from the food, this is no Michelin starred restaurant and it does not pretend to be, it is warm and wholesome and perhaps even a little romantic, in that way that only a Parisian restaurant can be. I recommend the traditional French Onion Soup, it’s the best I’ve ever had. The food here is fresh and well done without being complicated; the sauerkraut dishes are the house specialities, but even if you’re not much of a sauerkraut fan there is plenty to tempt the taste buds and the dessert menu is pretty punchy, if somewhat over indulgent.

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So after our first night in Paris dining at Bonfinger and sleeping in our uber-cool hotel room we decided to keep the next day pretty mellow, not least for the simple fact that I was sick with a cold and in no fit state to be running around town. A walk up to a local cafe for a light brunch / lunch, a further walk getting slightly lost and stopping to indulge in pastry and coffee at the first patisserie we spotted, followed up with more walking and a little shopping trip for my own foodie indulgence at a local speciality food store; the varieties of Fois Gras on offer was simply mind blowing (this is Paris remember!). After a quiet nap to recharge the batteries we set out for our second dinner, which also happened to be a surprise for me; I hate not knowing what restaurant I’m going to as I find it frustrating and this generally spoils the whole affair, but on this occasion I was more than pleasantly surprised. Chez Paul is honestly one of the most beautifully rustic and friendly restaurants I had ever been to (yes you heard it right, a friendly restaurant, with friendly waiters, IN PARIS!!). I over indulged, but it was so worth it. Undoubtedly so. The food was rich and filling and cooked as though it were made in a French country kitchen, it’s the kind of food that makes you feel warm and incredibly happy, and you just know there was love somewhere on that ingredient list. The restaurant was busy and the service sometimes a little slow but the atmosphere and the food made all the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I love over ambitious fine dining establishments, but I love authentic food just as much; perhaps sometimes I love it even more because, like this, it is served in a place that has character and soul.

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Our last morning in Paris was a slow and quiet one but we definitely ended on a high note; it was my turn to show off a bit of a rustic old haunt that I particularly like. Chez Prune on the Canal Saint-Martin is a local hangout and definitely one of the best relatively cheap and definitely cheerful brunch spots in Paris. It’s quirky interior and haphazard restaurant and bar area make it something of unique spot, not to mention the view over the canal. This is not a tourist attraction, it’s a little off the beaten track and it can be challenging if you don’t know a little basic French or at least make an attempt at it. It’s busy and loud and colourful, the brunches are good in a sort of French-take-on-the-English Breakfast kind of way, with a few interesting additions. It is pleasant and the coffee is reasonable, the atmosphere and general artistic vibe to the place make it a fun and interesting place to spend a Sunday morning, and I hear it can be quite lovely in the evening too. After brunch you can walk along the canal and find several interesting shops and local stores and it is really quite beautiful in the spring and summer. Paris, unlike any other city, is both dirty and breathtakingly beautiful all at once. It does rustic as well as it does refined and there is very little middle ground. I implore you, if you have never been, to go, as soon as you can. It is a wonderful city for walking and exploring and it is, without any shadow of doubt, the city of love. Especially if you love food.

Balthazar Brunch

Sundays in New York City, even in winter, are always a breath of fresh air. Sundays in London consist of pub lunches, hang overs and really crap television; whenever I find myself in New York City I feel as though Sundays begin to take on new meaning, I end up eating out at beautiful restaurants that serve ridiculously good brunches, having interesting conversations with strangers in coffee shops, or wandering the streets just people watching and passing the time. New York has an energy about it, particularly on a Sunday, which makes everything seem brighter and a little more refined than it might do elsewhere. My favourite brunch spot, and I’m sure it’s a favourite of many, is Balthazar’s on Spring street; located between Crosby street and Broadway in Soho, a stones throw from Bloomingdales. Quite by chance, and very conveniently, located only a few hundred metres from my hotel. Perfect then, for a lazy Sunday afternoon brunch. Sundays are meant to be lazy and I take Sunday relaxation seriously; I find that I relax to the point where the week melts away and I can begin again with a clean slate and a clear head, better prepared and ready to tackle whatever Monday decides to throw my way. So, as part of proper Sunday relaxation one should always, without fail, indulge in fine food and a good movie or book of choice, take a long walk and sleep as much as possible.

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Yesterday’s brunch was definitely a winner, and just in time to be the perfect warm up for a week of Christmas festivities and indulgence. I arrived without a reservation, a silly mistake on my part as Balthazar’s is famously busy on Sundays; to top it off I only managed to squeeze through the door around 1pm, slap-bang in the middle of the Sunday lunch rush. I spoke sweetly to the lovely young gentleman managing the bar area and ‘cafe’ and was seated at the bar within mere moments, he even made a point of ensuring I was properly looked after and came back to check on me after dealing with an impatient couple at the next table. The staff at Balthazar are, and always have been, exceptionally warm and welcoming. I’ve never been to a restaurant that makes me feel so at home; this is perhaps the reason I love it so much. The food is of course another game changing element. I decided quite quickly on the ‘Eggs Bella Donna’ – Poached eggs on Polenta served with pancetta, parmesan, grilled cherry tomato, mushrooms and spinach. It has to be said, as far as brunch menus go this one is yet to be beat in my books. While it looks simple at first glance, the descriptions printed on the menu do not even begin to describe the flavoursome and lovingly prepared meals which eventually end up on the plate. Be prepared to fall in love. The eggs were cooked to perfection, the polenta was soft without being runny, the vegetables were cooked ‘just-so’ and the parmezan cheese gave everything a nice salty but sweet finish. Its nothing fancy, it’s just a properly cooked and well thought out brunch plate that delivers.

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Having settled in nicely with a stomach full of food, now mid way through a deep conversation with the barman about coffee, I decided it was time for my second ‘soup bowl’ of Cafe au Lait. Though latte’s are usually served in longer and taller glasses, the coffee at Balthazars is presented in an actual soup bowl – coffee novelty at it’s best! I wasn’t much in the mood for dessert and I certainly didn’t have the space for it but after careful consideration, coupled with a full-on attack of lethal persuasion tactics from all three bar staff, I finally settled on the highly recommended Banana Tart. I have NEVER seen fruit served in a more decadent dish; I’m talking layers here, all piled high in a perfect circle. The bottom layer was a crisp and crumbly, tightly packed circle of biscuit which gave the dish a firm base. The next layer was made up of sliced banana topped with a layer of thick banana and vanilla ice cream which was then sandwiched closed with a thick, dome shaped burnt-sugar crust – something akin to a thick creme brulee crust. Scattered around my perfect tart were thin slices of banana floating in a sea of what can only be described as one of the best caramel sauces I have ever tasted. This dessert, although probably far too big for one person and definitely too big considering the enormity of the brunch I had devoured only moments before, was one of the best damned desserts I’ve ever had in NYC. It was truly an American-French fusion of delicately prepared over indulgence; I finished the entire dish and I’m not even a little bit ashamed to admit it.

Balthazar | 80 Spring St  New York, NY 10012, United States | +1 212-965-1414 | balthazarny.com

Sydney City Guide

Where to start? Well first of all I should probably start with a BIG thank you to the wonderful people of Sydney for making my trip so incredibly special and to my host for his  hospitality. I started out needing a break but what I got was an experience that changed my life forever, and which gave me the strength I needed to start over and make the changes I’ve been needing to make for a long time. For the first time in as long as I can remember I suddenly felt like I could breath. So, before I get carried away on a personal journey through healing and self-discovery, I should get right down to the nitty gritty and tell you about all the wonderful places I discovered on my journey – just in case you ever happen to be there. I do this whenever I travel, I make a list before I go, I try to get through it while I’m there although mostly get a quarter of the way through, and then I make a list after. Weird, I know, but somehow beneficial to me; it also serves to keep me entertained on flights and ensures I’m busy wherever I go.

So let’s start with a little bit of the good stuff – FOOD! Breakfast spots in Sydney are in abundance; there’s the infamous Bill’s; brain child of chef Bill Granger and home to his world-famous breakfasts. This place is ALWAYS packed so I suggest booking in advance. Bill’s flagship store is located on Crown Street in Surrey Hills and there are plenty of awesome little eateries nearby if you don’t get a table – try Fifi Foveaux’s which is a little further down, opposite the Crown Street Grocer; The breakfast we had here was definitely worth going back for, and the coffee was superb. Heading in the opposite direction towards Oxford street you will find Kawa, another local hot spot, and although I only grabbed a juice and snack I must note that it was really delicious, the menu here looks interesting and people seem to love it, so much so that there was a 14 person waiting line outside when we left. Four Ate Five is another Crown Street favourite and TimeOut magazine rate it pretty highly too. If you are willing to travel a little further then The Pantry in Manly does a mean Eggs Benedict, has the best view of any restaurant in Sydney, and their lunch menu is to die for.

Then there is the question of coffee; something you may be aware I am very particular about. I had several recommendations and a whole list of my own to try so we started with the basics. Campo’s coffee is well known in Sydney and they have been roasting here for a long time; it’s never just about a good roast though, baristas make up 50% of a good cup and Campo’s flagship store in Newtown have some great staff who can knock out a pretty special coffee. It was good. It was really, really good. Big thumbs up! Another notable one is the coffee at Max Brenner the chocolate specialists, especially their Oxford Street store in Paddington. My favourite coffee came from Coffee Alchemy in Marrickville – this tiny store has the best baristas East of Italy and their own blends are roasted right there on the premises. The mind simply boggles. I drank in silence and watched them in awe.

While in Marrickville we also happened to stop in at the Yeeros Shop; this place has been around for decades and the namesake traditional Greek dish is served up to local patrons by the younger generations of the Greek family who have owned the store since they first landed in Australia – talk about authenticity. Nothing has changed apparently, and although this is simple street food, it’s damn good. Other must-see, must-eat lunch spots include Doyles (either Watsons Bay or The Fish Market) for serious seafood, Sea Bay on Pitt street and Yoshii for sushi (or Sushi Train). Darling Harbour has great restaurants, as does Bondi – be careful with your choices though as a lot of it is the same. There are some great little gems in Sydney, you just have to look for them. For instance The Grounds in Alexandria is absolutely fabulous, you just have to find it!

Evenings in Sydney are always magical, especially if you are there in summer (although I don’t know why you would go during their winter). If you are on a budget and want very good but simple Seafood there is Nick’s Seafood in Darling Harbour; if you want simple but well cooked, melt-in-the-mouth ribs try Hurricanes in Bondi (or Darling Harbour) – I would suggest sticking with the ribs and chicken here as the steak is not that good. Food in Sydney is pricey for anyone holidaying here, no matter where in the world you are from; if you have the budget though, there are some really top notch restaurants in Sydney and a few of them are still on my to-do list for my next visit. For French fair and reasonable prices try L’Etoile in Paddington. If it’s more of a fine-dining experience you’re searching for then my suggestions are Quay which has an incredible view over The Rocks, Momofuku Seiobo at The Star, Rockpool Bar and Grill in the city and Porteno in Surrey Hills. Make bookings before you head out, a lot of these places get really busy. If you don’t know where to go, try heading out into Paddington, Surrey Hills or Newtown; filled with great restaurants and hidden gems, these places come alive at night and can make for a great spontaneous evening out.

If you’re after an evening tipple and fancy something underground and a little more interesting than the loud bright city bars, there a few quiet corners of Sydney where wine and cocktails can be found served to the beat of some rather interesting music. A host of bars have opened in recent times, paying to the speak-easy / underground bar scene which is currently so popular. My first suggestion for cocktails would be The Baxter Inn on Clarence street in the city (or their sister bar The Shady Pines Saloon in Darlinghurst). Next up on the list is wine; The Wine Library on Oxford Street is pretty cosy and has a fairly substantial and well chosen selection which is followed closely by William, a wine bar on William street in Paddington. Nights in Sydney can be a whole lot of fun if you know where to look.

Sydney seems to be the kind of place you go to relax, eat, drink and wander around in the sunshine among the scantily clad, perfectly toned locals. Its a tourist hot-spot and a rich kids playground all at once; I am particularly fond of the old architecture and terraced housing, it has a sort of New York meets Cape Town feel to it and yet still maintains a uniquely Australian vibrancy. I only managed to get through a quarter of the things I wanted to do during my time here and I hope to get back to Sydney very soon.

Cape Town Favourites Guide

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while; I’ve been caught up in all the fuss over the Olympic Games since I’ve been in London and am only now getting around to putting this all down on paper, or computer to be more accurate. Having spent almost 6 months in Cape Town this year exploring and discovering all the wonderful eats and treats of the ‘Mother City’, I thought I should share some of my favourites in case you are ever down in that beautiful part of the world. I suppose we should begin at the beginning – Breakfast, my favourite meal of the day! Inner city breakfast spot Manna Epicure on Kloof street is a definite favourite if you love a good eggs benedict. Other good breakfast spots in the city include Clarke’s (though the portions are quite serious so it’s the perfect spot if you’re ravenously hungry); Dear Me, for exceptionally well crafted wholesome food. For the best pastry and bread in town, not to mention some stellar coffee and healthy breakfasts, you have to try Jason Bakery on Bree street. For something a little healthier, Skinny Legs and All on Loop street is fabulous and serves up a variety of muesli and fruity treats. Heading out of town; Rhodes Memorial up on the North Slope of Table Mountain has spectacular views and great food. Superette in Woodstock might look shabby, but the food is incredible. Empire Café in the surfer town of Muizenburg is great for a full-on, post-surf breakfast, and the stunning views over the ocean are not bad either.

Long lunches are really what Cape Town is best for, but where you go is really dependent on the mood you are in. For something laid back and interactive try the Neighbourgoods Markets at The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock – the market is full of fabulous food and crafts and there are some very good restaurants in the vicinity; if you’re after something a little more up market, The Test Kitchen here is by far one of the best eateries in Cape Town. My favourite lunch spot is The Food Barn in Noordhoek – see Food Barn blog post for review. The best views in town during lunch would be Harbour House at Cape Town Waterfront, or their sister restaurant in Kalk Bay. The Lookout Deck at Hout Bay sits over the water and does fantastic seafood, and for something really special I suggest trying The Greenhouse at The Cellars Hohenort on a Sunday, just remember to book in advance.

If, like me, you like to be outdoors, then there are some excellent activities in and around Cape Town. If you run, try parking in Camps Bay and running out along the water’s edge to Llandudno – beware the cyclists here though. If you like a good walk there is Lions Head or Table Mountain – although Table Mountain can be done by cable car if you just want to see the sights. If you’re an adventurous soul, there are some other stunning walks outside of town which include my favourite, the Krom River Walk, Du Toitskloof in the Limietberg Nature Reserve; it’s one of the least known tracks and there are never many people around, if any, although you will need to collect a pass before you go.

There’s scuba-diving, rock climbing, hand gliding, surfing, river rafting, horse riding and plenty of ideas for kids activities – check out Uncover The Cape and Cape Adventure Zone.

As the Cape is known for its wine, I would suggest trying some of the wine estates for good food and wine tours – there are several tour operators and if you are staying at one of the hotels you can usually book something through the concierge.

Dinner spots in and around Cape Town vary; for something inexpensive but really fabulous try Society Bistro or La Mouette. For something more ‘fine-dining’ there’s Savoy Cabbage, Aubergine, Signal, Le Quartier Francais and The Roundhouse (both highly recommend you try this); or La Colombe, which is my absolute favourite and comes rated at number 16 on the World’s top 50 restaurants.  Cape Town is full of stunning eateries and it really comes alive at night – for a more comprehensive guide check the Eat Out guide which has extensive lists and good search options to help you decide.

Fashion: Waterfront, Long Street, Kloof Street and Neighbourgoods Market

Bars: Cafe Caprice, Orphanage, Asoka, Tjing Tjing (above Dear Me), and as always, the infamous Rafikis (cheaper, louder and more often than not, crowded).

Hotels on a Budget: Daddy Long Legs, 51 on Camps Bay, Ashanti Lodge.

Luxury Hotels: Cape Grace, Babylonstoren, Ellerman House, any of the Collection McGrath Hotels, The Twelve Apostles, Tintswalo Atlantic, Constantia Uitsig, Le Quartier Francais, Delaire Graff, and my favourite, La Residence.

Best Burgers: Clarke’s or Royale Eatery

High Tea: The Mount Nelson, Twelve Apostels or the One & Only.

Craft Beer is a full on thing in Cape Town and I wholeheartedly recommend checking out &Union – especially on a Tuesday night when @Texxonfire does a live music night with up-and-coming bands.