Saturday, October 27, 2012

Donostia: Spanish restaurant in Marylebone focusing on Basque cuisine


When my friend suggested meeting for dinner at Donostia, I instantly agreed based on the name alone. Donostia is the Basque name of San Sebastian - a gorgeous city on the coast of northern Spain where I have some happy memories of days spent on the beautiful beaches and evenings wandering around various tapas bars sampling pintxos. I like to think of Basque cuisine as Spanish food with a twist and I certainly saw that at this little namesake restaurant in Marylebone on Seymour Place

The food is flawless and there is a touch of creativity in every dish. For instance, the croquetas were made of Panko crumbs rendering them light and airy and probably the best that I’ve had in London.

Donostia Jamon Croquetas
Jamon Croquetas

We also tried the pan con tomates – toasted bread covered in luscious juicy tomatoes and a divine spinach and cod tortilla. 

Pan con Tomates Donostia Spanish food
Pan con tomates

The star of the show was the rib-eye steak - succulent rare meat with foie gras -  an utterly decadent combination. And of course I couldn't resist ordering a lemon tart. The bill did add up with the wine but without that, the food portion came up to around £20 which is quite a decent amount. Interestingly, the head chef used to work at Barrafina - one of my favourite restaurants in London. No wonder I liked all the food!

Donostia Rib Eye Steak with foie gras
O'Shea's Rib-Eye Steak with Foie Gras

What I really liked was the service and ambiance of Donostia. For example, when I called to make a reservation, they were full - pretty much a given on a Saturday night in London. But then the front of house, Melody said they keep some bar stools free at the chef's counter for walk-ins. She then gave us a call about 10 minutes before some seats were free – quite a easy and easy painless process compared to waiting for an hour in line at other places. It was refreshing to have someone be so helpful and accommodating. I later learned she was one of the owners of the restaurant. 

Donostia Lemon tart
Lemon Tart

Donostia is a welcome addition to the burgeoning restaurant population in Marylebone. If you can't be bothered to queue for ages at Jose or Barrafina - I highly recommend Donostia. It’s got a quieter atmosphere than the restaurants in buzzing Soho but sometimes that’s exactly what you want.


10 Seymour Place London W1H 7ND
Tel: 0203 6201 845

Donostia on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Manna: Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant on Primrose Hill

Manna is vegetarian/vegan restaurant that’s been around for while. Located on a quiet side street off of Prince Regent Street in Primrose Hill, it’s a great place to go if you’re vegetarian or if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies. Even as some one eats meat, I was quite satisfied and content at the end of my meal.

Since my mum loves walking around Primrose Hill, I thought it would be a nice way to spend the day and have lunch at Manna. She really enjoyed the fact that she could look at the menu and know that she could have any dish she wanted. It’s something I always take for granted – the ability to eat any food option on the menu, without having to consider if it is vegetarian or has nuts etc. But as someone who is allergic to eggs, she’s always restricted in choosing a meal at a restaurant and sometimes can’t eat anything off the menu. Which is why I love the fact that Manna is perfect for her – they pride themselves on being vegan and gluten-free. Even their wine list is vegan! I had no idea the extent to which animal products are in so many things we eat and drink.

 Since it was a cold, windy, very typical London day, we ordered some hot drinks – and oh my god, their spicy hot apple drink is AMAZING. It’s got cinnamon and cloves, oranges and lemon and it is divine. It’s comforting and soothing and I would return just for that drink. I think it should be simple enough to recreate at home so if you have ideas how to, let me know!

To start with, we ordered some basil and cashew cheese croquettes and a butternut squash tart. The tart wasn't really appealing but the croquettes were interesting and a bit addictive with the chilli jam.

For the mains, I had the special pasta of the day which was aubergines, leeks and fennel penne pasta and it was lovely. I had no idea leeks could taste so good. I've usually just used them as a base when making soups. They seemed to be a rather tepid vegetable with no real personality. But the leeks in this pasta were soft, silky and quite tasty.

My mum had the black bean chilli. This came with a polenta cake and sour cream, guacamole, salsa and sweet potato crisps. My mum liked it however, I wasn't such a big fan though; it felt a bit stodgy to me but in any case, it tasted great. As you can see from the pictures, the portion sizes are large. We were quite full at the end of meal and even ended up taking most of the pasta back home. The bill came up to £25 per person – which is rather expensive for a vegetarian meal. But if you factor in the quality of the ingredients (I don’t think cashews are cheap and they certainly use a lot of cashews), the variety of vegan and gluten free options – I think it is well worth it.


4 Erskine Road Primrose Hill London NW3 3AJ
Tel: 020 7722 8028
Tube: Chalk farm tube

Manna on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Four glorious days in Rome, Italy

My Mum and I spent four glorious days in Rome. We walked all over the city and there was so much to see - the Roman ruins, the beautiful churches, and the abundance of art everywhere.

Piazza Navona
 The location of where we stayed was brilliant. I found out about this lovely B&B called Eveylyn4Fountains near the Trevi Fountain run by a French lady. It’s on a small side street just off of Via Natizonale (one of the main roads in Rome) which is such a central location.  If you walk down the road to the left, you hit the Spanish steps; to the right you could walk straight to the Colesseum; and if you walk straight down, in less than minutes you’re at the Trevi Fountain and then further along is the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Also, it feels utterly safe at night to stay there, because it’s right opposite the police station headquarters!

Our lovely room

The rooms at the B&B were just gorgeous. We stayed in the ‘Red Room’ which was incredibly charming and comfortable. Both my Mum and I fell in love with the decor – the rooms are decorated with such care down to the last detail. I highly recommend staying here if you're visiting Rome. At £130 (160 euros) per night, it might not be an option for someone on a tight budget but I think it’s great value for money given the fantastic location and quality of the rooms.

And you have the added value of the owner Evelyne who speaks fluent English, Italian and obviously, French. She is very charming and a host of information. Here is the website in case you’re interested:

Octopus Linguini at Berzitello

Another bonus is that there is a fantastic Italian restaurant called Berzitello (Via Delle Quattro Fontane) just down the road run by two friends called Andrea and Alessandro. From the outside, you might miss it and walk past – which is a tragic mistake to make. Once you sit inside its quirky interiors, you can’t get enough of the food and the restaurant has a warm friendly atmosphere. On our first visit, I had the spicy calamari with chilli and peppers and the classic Spaghetti Carbonara. We had to visit again and the second time, I had the Octopus linguini with bacon, tomatoes and Mirto (a dark liqueur from Sardinia with a herbal taste). My mother loved her meal as well – a Caprese salad of fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil and Quattro Formaggio Pizza (with four types of cheese). It was hard for us to find good restaurants where my mother  felt comfortable eating since she has an allergy to eggs but Berzitello has her seal of approval now. Here is the link to the website if you want more details on how to find it:

Moving on from talking about where we stayed and what we ate which certainly made our four days in Rome very enjoyable, the star of the show was, of course the Eternal City and all its spectacular sights.

Trevi Fountain

On the first day, we arrived in the afternoon and decided to walk around to get our bearings. Our first stop was at Piazza di Spagna. We sat at the Spanish Steps to take in all the sights and sounds. We then walked through Via Condetti which is full of designer stores and turned left onto Via del Corsa, one of the main streets, walking past all the high street shops and then made our way to the Trevi fountain. It's a beautiful sight, the gorgeous Baroque fountain set against a monumental Renaissance building but to be honest, the sea of humanity around it was off putting. It felt like every tourist in Rome is at Fontana di Trevi was there at  that moment. 

Eager to get away from the crowds, I went to search for the famous San Crispino gelato, rumoured to be the best in the city. I found it on a small side street close by called Via della Panetteria. The verdict: my Rum Chocolate Gelato was as good as claimed. Fyi..they have another location behind the Pantheon on Piazza della Maddalena and one in Terminal A of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

Vittoria Emmanuele II monument

The second day, we walked down Via Nazionale to the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument. It was built to honour Italy’s first king and is a rather imposing white building that really stands out. Right next to it, is the Piazza del Campidoglio designed by Michelangelo – which I found far more beautiful. The Piazza is right on top of the Capitoline Hill and when you walk up, you get to see an amazing view of the Roman Forum and all the old ruins.

View of the Roman Forum
 We then wandered through the winding streets and small piazzas to Campo dei Fiori – a street market that sadly, seemed a bit touristy to me. From Campo dei Fiori, we walked to Piazza Navona – which is a lovely square with three fountains and is the perfect place to stop, take a break and watch the world go by.

The Pantheon

Next was the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple and one of my favourite buildings. There was something so captivating about it – it’s aesthetically pleasing and perfectly symmetrical in design. It’s about 2000 years old and very well preserved.

Inside the Pantheon

Entrance of the Vatican - Sculptures of Michelangelo and Raphael

On the third day, I decided to splurge and go for a guided tour of the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. I'm so glad I did - it was well worth it. I pre-booked the tickets with a tour operator called Dark Rome for £45 for a three hour tour (which includes the cost of tickets plus special access – no waiting in queues - yay!).

The  Hall  of Maps

One of my favourites: School of Athens by Raphael. He's painted Michelangelo at the extreme left and himself at the right. Can you spot them?

Our guide Simone, an Egyptologist by profession, was funny, articulate and knowledgeable. We were in a group of 15 people but I didn’t feel like I was part of a large group being herded along. I really enjoyed the tour but if you’re an art history buff or want to go at your own pace and spend more time, then maybe a guided tour isn’t for you. The museums were so interesting and it was amazing to be in the presence of so much of Michelangelo’s exquisite work. Here is the link to the tour if you’re interested.

Statue of Antinous

Our last day in Rome, we went to see the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. We decided against paying to enter since we were running short of time and didn't really feel like spending money on the entry fee! To be fair, you can really see quite a lot just walking around the ruins and it leaves us something to do for our next visit. I’m definitely going to visit Rome again – I did the ultimate touristy thing and threw some coins in the Trevi Fountain just to make sure! 

The Colosseum