Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Guards’ Crimean War Memorial in front of the Sofitel London St James
In September 2016, my wife, Sandra, and I spent one night at the Sofitel London St James (6 Waterloo Place, London SW1Y 4AN, United Kingdom, +44 0871 6630625 or 800-221-4542, http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3144-sofitel-london-st-james/index.shtml, H3144@sofitel.com) in central London, United Kingdom. As history buffs, we chose it for its location a few blocks from the Piccadilly Circus subway stop on Waterloo Place, with its magnificent Guards’ Crimean War Memorial.
The memorial was originally erected in 1861 to commemorate 2,152 soldiers who died in the 1854-56 conflict with Russia. Three guards were cast in bronze from captured Russian cannons. The memorial was reconstructed in 1914 to make way for statues of Florence Nightingale and the man who hired her to reform nursing on the front, Secretary of War Sidney Herbert. Nearby is the 34-meter (112 feet) Doric column for Prince Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York, a hero of the British Empire. The area is packed with 150 historic buildings, as well as statues, including those of King Edward VII (eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) and Antarctic explorer Robert Falconer. It is also a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and Saint James’s Palace (where retired royal officials now live, and which has its own changing of the guard). A nice touch in the lobby were the gorgeous fresh flower arrangements each day.
Our Premium Luxury Room
Room categories began with the Classic, then Luxury, Superior, Luxury with two single beds, and Premium Luxury. We stayed in a 32 square meters (344 square feet) Premium Luxury Room, one of 183 rooms at the property. We hadn’t realized it was a five-star hotel until we tried the king bed and pillows. They were so well liked by hotel guests (we found them so comfortable we weren’t surprised), that Sofitel sold them in various sizes and styles, from $1,750 to $2,123 at its online shop.
We appreciated the light on the headboard that allowed me to read and not disturb Sandra when she fell asleep early. The view over Waterloo Place and nearby parks was beautiful, but we had to keep the windows shut because of loud exterior noises late at night (we like fresh air, but didn’t mind adjusting the air conditioning instead). The walls, floor, and ceilings were soundproof, so there was no noise from other rooms (a common problem I have encountered at four-star properties). There was an LCD TV, iron and board, safe, Krups coffee-maker, regular brew coffee pot, and complimentary WiFi. There was also complimentary Internet access in the business center. There were two types of complimentary mineral water on the desk. We were surprised by the number of families in the lobby and noted that the hotel offered cribs.
An excellent bathroom
The bathroom had a wonderful rainwater shower and Hermes toiletries. But the things which really distinguished this from other hotels were the deep and long bathtub with easy-to-understand controls (I can rarely find anything that can accommodate my 6’4” frame comfortably), the extensive counter space for both of our personal items, and an outstanding makeup mirror and lighting (even the best hotels usually have inadequate LCD lighting for the mirror).
The Rose Lounge
Breakfast in the restaurant was perhaps the best we’ve ever had in terms of food quality and quantity for people as picky as we are (lacto-ovo vegetarians who prefer whole foods). The sheer number of choices for yogurt and cereal alone were amazing. For example, there were organic and unsweetened selections, including honey and stevia. There were also many choices of cheese for omelets and breads.
After breakfast we visited the Rose Lounge, a lovely area for teas, with a harp in the corner. The staff, each of whom was multilingual, was pleasant. Some were helpful in explaining how to find our way to our daytime destinations. Thanks to its location, friendly service, in room amenities and excellent breakfast the Sofitel London St James would be our number one choice for a future stay in London.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Les Bouquinistes side entrance
In a touristy neighborhood chock full of dining options like the Latin Quarter in Paris, France Les Bouquinistes (53, quai des Grands Augustins, 75006, Paris, France, +33 1 43 25 45 94, www.lesbouquinistes.com, email@example.com) offered several features we liked. Before we arrived it already had the advantage that it was a short walk from our central accommodations. Having dined at Guy Savoy restaurants, including that one, in the past we were confident our experience would be positive. Stéphane Perraud, chef, and Cedric Jossot, restaurant manager, were in charge the day we had lunch at the eatery.
The black and white decor was designed to evoke the printed page
Les Bouquinistes occupied a corner on quai des Grands Augustins on the south side of the Seine River between the Pont Saint-Michel and the Pont Neuf. The two bridges linked the Left Bank with the Ile de la Cite, an island best known for being the home of Notre Dame Cathedral. Large glass windows took maximum advantage of the restaurant's location facing north toward the busy street, the river and the island beyond it.
The central section of the restaurant featured a wine rack.
Our early arrival won us a choice of seats. We selected a table near the entrance, which afforded us partial views of the street. My lunch partner sat at a leather black bench and I selected an armless wood chair in front of a bare white round table with a round black place mat for each of us. The clean lines, understated décor, gray carpet and black ceiling helped draw our eyes outward beyond the oversize glass walls and windows toward the quai des Grands Augustins to the north and the much quieter rue des Grands Augustins to the east.
A simple yet classic starter
Our multi-course lunch began with a satisfying bite of foie gras atop a thin toast sprinkled with sea salt and touch of black pepper to stimulate our appetite. Our friendly English speaking server brought a wicker basket with crunchy epi bread (no butter or oil) and a bottle of the house sparkling water. Stainless steel cutlery, glassware and dinnerware were the only adornments to our table.
Legumes maraichers a l'oeuf parfait
Blanc de cabillaud, asperges et pommes de terres confites, jus aux algues
We each had two different first courses followed by identical mains and desserts, a good sample of the chef's cuisine. For my first course I had Legumes maraichers a l'oeuf parfait, a vegetable dish with a lightly cooked egg. My lunch mate had Nacre de merlan, vinaigreette d'huitre, petits pois et fromage frais, white fish served on a bed of peas with a cheese and oyster sauce. Blanc de cabillaud, asperges et pommes de terres confites, jus aux algues, beautifully prepared barely cooked codfish served with a wonderful light sauce that complemented the fish and thin crunchy green asparagus; and Homard en bouillon, potimarron et sarrasin torrefie, lobster with sarrazin seed (from Brittany) sauce, pumpkin and black tuile baked wafers colored with squid ink, followed. Noix de carre de veau rotie, oignons grilles, puree de pommes de terre, Veal with a brown sauce, delicate mushrooms, baby onions and mashed potatoes, hit the comfort food funny bone just right. Our server was kind enough to assist us with a selection of Bordeaux wines, including a 2011 Chateaux Dutruch, to match our meal.
Homard en bouillon, potimarron et sarrasin torrefie
Carre de veau rotie, oignons grilles, puree de pommes de terre
Staff members Alexandra Chabauty and Steve Fabre next to Stéphane Perraud, chef, and Cédric Jossot, restaurant manager
Dessert was a duo. One half was Cafe-chocolat lacte biskelia-cardamone blanche, a mix of coffee flavored bits, and the other was a Sable breton-menthe-coriandre, a “Gin and Tonic” mint coriander dish served with a cookie and a microwave sponge cake. By the time we left, the restaurant was at the peak of lunch hour and staff members were rushing to look after last minute arrivals. Our meal was satisfying, well served and in an attractive setting within a convenient location. We would return and recommend it to friends seeking a casual dining experience in the Latin Quarter within a stone's throw of the river.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
While at the Hotel Adler we had our only sunny afternoon in the Black Forest
During a trip to the Black Forest Highlands of southwestern Germany, we stayed at the Hotel Adler and had dinner at the hotel's Restaurant Adler (Hotel Adler, St. Fridolinstrasse 15, 79837 Häusern, Germany, +49 7672 4170, fax +49 7672 417150, www.adler-schwarzwald.de, firstname.lastname@example.org). We liked the well presented and colorful regional food with international influences and wine pairings prepared by Florian Zumkeller, the restaurant's chef, owner and manager.
Our table was in a cozy corner with padded bench seats
Florian Zumkeller, the restaurant's chef, owner and managerThe Black Forest fine dining venue had red tile flooring, cushioned wood bench seats, a low wood ceiling and regional décor, including a large crucifix across from our table. Salient features were tablecloths and silverware as well as glassware from Schott Zwiesel and tableware from Rosenthal. The restaurant was 250 square meters in size with a staff of 12 and capable of accommodating 80 guests. Nishan, our Sri Lankan English speaking server, was friendly and attentive.
The colorful mackerel sashimi
My asparagus dish
There were three types of bread on offer: onion, seeded, and baguette. Four types of butter: herb, red onion, salted and unsalted were presented on a black ceramic plate with a small fork and a spoon. The appetite teaser was a slightly sweet mackerel sashimi with an exotic flavor. To start the meal there was a veal sweetbreads appetizer with bitter salad and lemon vinaigrette (a favorite) served with 2015 Weinhaus Joachim Heger Grau Weissburgunder Cuvee. I selected an asparagus dish instead. Next there was Lobster with nectarine and pancetta served with 2014 Scherzinger Batzenberg Chardonnay Alte Reben Weingut Heinemann, Scherzinger.
The veal sweetbreads appetizer with bitter salad and lemon vinaigrette was a favorite
The main course was Two variations of United States beef with celery, mushroom and hazelnut
Two variations of United States beef with celery, mushroom and hazelnut, a medium rare tasty meat course, followed. We appreciated that the beef was antibiotic and hormone free. It was served with 2014 Cabernet Cuvee from Weinhaus Joachim Heger. For dessert there was Frozen tiramisu with peach and raspberry served with 2014 Durbacher Plauelrain, Traminer Auslese, Weingut Laible. After dessert there were chocolate praline balls served with Amaretto cream with almonds.
Nishan, our Sri Lankan English speaking server, was friendly and attentive
Chef Zumkeller did an apprenticeship with Alfred Klink at the Colombi Hotel in Freiburg, Germany. Before taking the reigns of the Restaurant Adler in 2011, he worked with chefs Philippe Chevrier at Domaine de Châteauvieux and Adolfo Blokbergen at L’Auberge du Raisin.
Lobster with nectarine and pancetta
Frozen tiramisu with peach and raspberry
He proudly explained, when we met him at the conclusion of our meal, that for 50 continuous years, since 1966, the restaurant had received a Michelin Star. Should we be in Hausern again, the restaurant's gourmet dinner with a touch of innovation and good service in a traditional Black Forest dining room would tempt us to return.
The RFID-Blocking Luxe Neck Stash in Olive from Lewis N. Clark
On a trip to Europe this spring our contributors took a $22.49 RFID-Blocking Luxe Neck Stash in Olive from Lewis N. Clark (owned by LCI Brands, 2781 Katherine Way, Elk Grove Village, Illinois 60007, +1 312.455.0500, www.lewisnclark.com, email@example.com). The slim made in China nylon neck bag, 8 inches by 5.5 inches, performed well and only weighed 5.5 ounces. It hung from a thin adjustable neck cord and could be tucked beneath clothes to conceal it.
While they did not require Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) blocking for credit cards and passports it was good to know the Neck Stash had it should the need arise. Pluses included the discreet olive color and size as well as its single see-through window and dual zippered pockets. A central Velcro flap pocket that opened at the top was ideal for passports. The neck bag was convenient to carry important documents and cash around cities, and for easy document access at airports and while traveling. The durable, ribbed TravelDry fabric was designed to resist shrinking, odors, and mildew. It showed no signs of wear after six weeks.
Article by Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The Petrossian shop window on Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg
Ever hear of Daurenki Impérial, Baika Impérial, Ossetra Impérial, Alverta Impérial, and Beluga Impérial? If you are a foodie you may already have an idea of what the names are, the types of farmed caviar some of which we tasted at the popular Petrossian Latour boutique in Paris, France owned by Armen Petrossian (18 boulevard de la tour Maubourg 75007 Paris, + 33 14 411 32 22, www.petrossian.fr, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Philippe Vanlacker described the types of caviar before we tasted them
On a cloudy spring morning we made our way, braving streets filled with protesters and police, to the Petrossian shop in the city's Latin Quarter, where we sampled various products. Philippe Vanlacker, a friendly English speaking staff person, welcomed us and facilitated the caviar, Royal Salmon, and Kamtchatka Crab tasting. We liked that the only added ingredient was sea salt. There were no preservatives or additives, according to a spokesperson.
A kilogram of fine caviar
The caviar we tried, made from fish eggs and sea salt only, came from China, France, Israel, United States, and Bulgaria. The farmed salmon was from Scotland and the crab, previously frozen, was from Russia. The shop, about 600 square feet in size and staffed by eight people, appeared to be mostly for takeout purchases although it also had a few tables and a limited menu for customers wishing to have a light dish onsite. Our entire tasting was conducted while we stood facing the waist high counters without beverages of any kind.
The interior of the shop
When we asked about the advantages of a store tasting a spokesperson explained by email, “When somedy (somebody) bring caviar home, it means that the man or the woman wants to seduce his/her partner or guest. But most of the time, he/she doesn’t know if they will like it. When they taste in the boutique, the can choose the caviar they have prefered (preferred) because they can taste differents (different) caviars. This is the big difference between internet, the others caviar houses and Petrossian: it’s the only place where you can taste the caviar before buying it.”
There were gift packages to accompany the caviar
Established in 1920 the shop draws local and international visitors the staff explained, saying that many people visit the boutique like a museum and stop to take photos. Some of the staff, including Joseph, Lorna and the owners, have been there for more than 30 years. Everything in the boutique is homemade and fresh, a spokesperson explained by email, adding, “Tourist come from all around the world because they know Petrossian. They want to bring back home a little souvenir, a little gift, and most of the time, they choose caviar because we offer them a cool bag with dry ice inside and they can travel with it.”
The staff person selected a single bite for our tasting from four caviar varieties sold in the metal containers pictured above
We liked the opportunity to sample the delicate products with the guidance of experts so that the caviar we tasted was at just the right temperature and optimum conditions. Too warm and the flavor is spoiled, too cold and it fades, the shop employee explained. The ideal temperature to taste caviar is between 6 and 8 degrees Celsius, he said. Being able to compare and contrast the nuances from one type of caviar to the other was an added advantage as it allowed us to form an opinion from the single tasting serving without having to purchase and prepare a tasting at home.
Cécile Petrossian supervised the tasting
We began the gourmet experience, under the supervision of Cécile Petrossian, Armen Petrossian's gracious and elegantly attired wife, with caviar. While we watched our host pulled out tins from the glass counter before us, explaining the basics about the caviar, which was between eight and twelve months old. He used a special key to open the large cans such as a two kilo Ossetra Reserve container filled with plump sturgeon eggs he showed us before retrieving our sample from a small tin. Philippe handed each of us one serving of several types of fish eggs on disposable wood sticks, explaining wood and mother of pearl are commonly used to avoid distorting the delicate flavor with metal spoons. We were surprised at the slight variations in color, texture and taste of the caviar samples, light and smooth yet each with a distinct characteristic. One was dark, almost black with a hint of fish and salt. The Ossetra Reserve was dark gold and more defined. The Ossetra Impérial eggs were firmer than the Ossetra Reserve with a more pronounced flavor. And the final sample, also with a gold hue, reminded me of the sea yet had a fattier yet subtle taste.
Phillipe displayed a smoked salmon chunk before slicing a sliver for our tasting
At the conclusion of the caviar sampling, we crossed to the opposite end of the shop to the salmon counter, where we sampled several flavors such as Caucasienne, Nature, and Bettrave. All were buttery in texture and seemed to melt in the mouth. Philippe explained their salmon was smoked and aged hanging so the excess fat could drip naturally and allow the remaining flavor enhancing fat to cling to the fish, lending it a rich yet understated taste and texture. We sampled the salmon "tenderloin" in three flavors. The Nature salmon was just that natural. The Caucasienne was prepared with a rub of 12 spices. And the Bettrave was colored with beetroot juice, which made it look like raw tuna. To crown the experience Philippe handed us a bite of Kamtchatka Crab followed by a dollop of the house tarama (fish egg spread).
Several varieties of salmon, some with special marinades like beet root
There were prepared specialty foods
We liked the shop's caviar and salmon selection and expertise and will recommend it to friends wishing to taste the specialty foods in a gourmet environment. The staff's warm service in English enhanced the experience and would draw us back easily.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch, built as a courthouse and police station in 1903, was recently restored and opened as a hotel.
In September 2016, just four months after its soft opening and while it was still adding features and functions, my wife, Sandra, and I spent two nights at the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch (337 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LL, United Kingdom, +44 203 3105555, www.shoreditch.courthouse-hotel.com, email@example.com) on the cusp of northeast London, United Kingdom. The hotel, the sister property of the five-star Courthouse Hotel in Soho, was established in the former Old Street Magistrates' Court and Police Station (1903-96), a few blocks from the Old Street Station of the Northern Line of the Tube (subway).
The lobby with the statue of a British guard at the top of the stairs
The restoration of the Baroque-style courthouse and station cost £40 million (about $64 million). The lobby provided an impressive welcome with its marble floor, grand stairway guarded by a golden statue of a soldier, and a clean and sparkling redesign. Although top hotels usually have employees eager to help, the ones we encountered at Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch were exceptional in their friendliness and helpfulness. Although we arrived early in the morning expecting to leave our luggage with the concierge while we headed to the Tower of London, our room was ready and our first requests received immediate response.
We liked that the multi-lingual staff provided an overview tour of the facilities, and after we returned there was a more in-depth one. Not everything was fully functioning: the main restaurant was due to open soon, spa services were limited, and Internet access was available only at the front desk until the business center opens. We like to experience the emerging hot properties before everyone else discovers them, so the stay was to our taste.
From our sixth floor we looked out over the rooftop dining area and the historic Shoreditch Town Hall across the street, housing restaurants and a theater at the time of our visit.
Our sixth floor room looked out over the outdoor dining area on the fifth floor roof, directly across from the Shoreditch Town Hall, built in 1866 as a vestry, a building attached to a church used to store vestments and liturgical objects, with halls in which church and public meetings can be held. In 1888, it was the site of the inquest into the murder of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim. The following year, the suburb was incorporated into the county of London, and in 1899 it became a metropolitan borough of London, with the town hall in operation until 1965, when the area was incorporated into the Hackney Borough. Shoreditch had been popular in the 16th and 17th centuries as a place for theaters, gambling dens, taverns, and brothels. When we were in London it had an edgy hipster reputation with abundant street art, galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants (the former town hall had some activities on offer, as well as a theater and event space. For more, check out the Top 10 Things To Do in Shoreditch (theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/top-10-things-to-do-see-in-shoreditch/). Past area residents have included the playwright Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare’s lead actor Richard Burbage, who is buried in the church. More recent ones have been artist Damien Hirst and actor Richard Brand.
The Dalston King room was 26 square meters in size and had a comfortable bed.
We stayed in a Dalston King room, the first of three types of 86 guestrooms (the others were Magistrate King and Xscape). At 26 square meters (280 square feet), our room provided enough of space for the two of us. The bed was comfortable enough; though we prefer a slightly softer mattress and pillow, we slept soundly, which was all that mattered to us. Despite the nightlife in the area, our room was free of street level noise (finding a hotel in a quiet area has proven difficult in central London in the past). The insulation was also enough to keep us from being bothered by neighbors.
The best in-room feature was the Samsung 46 inch flatscreen hi-definition LED TV. It was larger than those at the other three hotels where we stayed and the only one that offered CNN. The television remote wasn’t responding, but that was a good test of the service: we called twice and had immediate responses. The first time the front desk sent someone who moved some wires in the back, which worked for a while. The second time, two technicians spent half an hour to provide a permanent fix. We also heard good things about responsiveness from other guests.
Our room had a desk and a table with chairs, plus bottles of sparkling and still water (other hotels provided two carbonated ones, so it was nice to have a choice). The small refrigerator was not yet being stocked as a mini-bar. We appreciated the fresh cream and good grade of instant coffee. The room had the usual upscale amenities, such as an iron and board, robe and slippers, and safe. Something we had never seen before was hangers with built-in lights so that at night or early in the morning we could see our clothes. We appreciated having a window that opened for fresh air (something top urban hotels sometimes lack), and we also liked the easy-to-use temperature controls. There was turn down service at night, but we declined.
The bathroom had a bidet, the first we have seen in a luxury hotel.
We’ve reviewed many leading hotels and don’t ever recall one that had a bidet, evidence of management’s interest in attracting the international audience that shares French culture. We wanted to know how it worked. Although the drain was stuck it was fixed right away. The phone by the toilet was well-positioned. The counter space for makeup was larger than many hotels where we have stayed, but the lighting on the makeup mirror and overhead wasn’t as bright as it ideally should be (a weak area for even the best hotels). The shower had two nozzles that were easy to use: the standard showerhead and one for the overhead rain effect, which was pleasant.
The bar had semi-private rooms that formerly were jail cells.
The hotel retained some of the architectural features of the original building. In the breakfast dining room we saw signs of its use as a law library. The bar had several semi-private 5 by 15-foot rooms with reinforced metal doors. Those were originally holding cells which hosted the likes of East London gangster twins Ronnie and Reginald Kray.
The hotel had a large, heated indoor pool.
There was a small gym with equipment for cross-training, cycling, and weightlifting and a four-lane heated indoor pool with current. Like the original Courthouse, the hotel had two rare features, a private movie theater with capacity for 196, including armrests and foldout tables for a planned film club, as well as a two-lane bowling alley. Bowling was one of those sports the city people came out to Shoreditch to engage in hundreds of years ago, so it was fitting for the location.
The movie theater
The bowling alley fit in with Shoreditch's history.
We liked the unusual features of the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch and the responsiveness of the staff. When it is fully functioning I would consider it among my top five choices for a different hotel experience on a return trip to London.