A long weekend in London
by Slug on August 15, 2013
Sometimes those bargain hotel offers you see in the paper really are true. After dutifully collecting vouchers in the Independent for a few days in the dank days of November, we secured a 2 night booking for July at the Ramada London Docklands for a price of £20 per night for the two of us. Result!On the downside we were coming into London via Kings Cross while our hotel was near the ExCell exhibition centre and rather a way out of the city centre. Our first night was to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and it took us an hour to get back to the hotel. It’s not a problem but just be aware how long you will be travelling on the tube if you fancy coming in and out of the city twice. We made sure we had enough with us for all day and the evening, so we didn’t have to return. To get to the hotel, you will need to use the docklands light railway (your underground tickets will work on that – just check out the zones or buy a day ticket). The hotel is about 7 minutes walk from the tube station. Our roomOur room itself was lovely and mega large for London; perhaps about 30ft by 15. Two large single beds were pushed together so we felt quite lost in the huge bed. The colour of the room itself was rather unimaginative and a bit beige for my taste but it was very comfortable, clean and modern. Our room offered the facilities of a large flat screen TV, nice tea and coffee facilities with Kenko coffee and Twinnings tea; the lack of free biscuits let the side down a little. Our shower was nice with a large-ish walk in effort and with Neutrogena freebies. I was particularly impressed with the bit of the mirror that deliberately didn’t frost up after a shower; wow a good little shaving area. LocationThe location let the side down a little as it was all a little vacant and desolate; car parks, roads and grubby bits of grassed verges. It rather reminded me of the outskirts of a Spanish city; lots of vacant lots, haphazard planning and no pavements. There are a couple of other hotels in this area including a Premier Inn. We found one non hotel bar; a little pub which is a bit of a chain place but an OK place for a beer.The hotel bar at the Ramada was quite pleasant (for a hotel bar) with proper European Budvar on tap. The staff let the place down by stage yawning and clearing up the bar a good 20 minutes before midnight, presumably in the hope that the patrons would get the hint and go to bed. This staff experience was a shame as the staff at reception desk were friendly, efficient and helpful. We didn’t trouble to dine here as we were out early each morning and breakfasted in central London instead, by grabbing a bite at the train station and noshing it on the train on the way in. Not stylish but it saved a few pounds and quite a lot of time. Summing UpWe found the London Ramada Docklands hotel to be a very pleasant experience. If I were paying full price (I often see it on sale at around £70-£90 a room a night), I’d be impressed with the facilities, but a little disappointed with the rather far out location. It’s the usual compromise with less expensive London hotels; you pay either by size and quality or by location. In this case it was the latter.
by Slug on August 17, 2013
I’m never keen on the sterile atmosphere of a hotel bar, and given that the guys in the Ramada Docklands Hotel made such a performance of shutting down the bar on the previous evening, we decided to wander around the unpromising looking environs to find a good and honest east end boozer.I don’t think we actually found it as the Fox @ Connaught is basically just a different hotel bar, but in this instance the hotel is smaller (just 17 rooms) and the bar larger and set out in traditional pub format. The building is an interesting Victorian brick built place with very high proportions, and is grade II listed. We found the pub to be quite pleasant, although it felt a little like a Weatherspoons or Yates Wine Lodge chain style place. The decor was very "modern pub"; clean, tidy and fairly bright and gaudy, but we appreciated the patio area and we didn’t get too much noise from the flyover next to the building. The other clientele in the place seemed to be a mix of visitors and locals and all was relaxed and friendly. Rather randomly, the Fox@Connaught is a Brains Ale House. Brains is the beer I grew up with in Wales, and I have to say it is not the best and far from my favourite. I therefore ignored the Rev James and went for a standard fizzy brew of lager. It was fine for the one we stopped for. The pub offers quite a range of standard type meals of the micro-wave or fry variety. We fancied a little something, and I was pleased to see the place offers standard Walkers Crisps rather than those more expensive varieties that taste like wood chippings. To "add value" I was amused to see the wait staff open the bag and pour the crisps into a paper lined bowl. I guess they have to do something to justify the £1 they charged for a standard bag of crisps. Our service was quick and pleasant. To sum up, the Fox @ Connaught seemed a reasonable place to wander to if you are staying at one of the hotels in this area near to the Excell Exhibition Centre in Docklands East London, but I certainly wouldn’t trouble to take a special trip out here.
Many restaurants in central London are very pricey and as we were having an expensive weekend in the city anyway, we decided to "down scale" some of our eating experiences. Breakfast comprised of a take way eaten on the train, and our mid afternoon meal was spent at a place I wouldn’t usually frequent. As it happened I rather liked the place. There are quite a few branches of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen in London; the one we visited was very near St Pauls on a busy street dusty and noisy with traffic. As it was that gap between lunch and dinner, the place was pretty quiet.The menu looked quite tempting with a few different style burgers on offer. I decided to swap the bun for more salad and low cal coleslaw as I was feeling like I should be on a health kick. Don’t worry I felt better later.On the downside, the place reminded me a little of McDonalds as you are expected to pay for your meal on ordering. Thankfully the food doesn’t arrive immediately, and you get served at your table. We decided that the beers were very pricey at towards £4 for a small bottle of ale, so we went with the in-house fizzy water served with a number of fruit options for about £1.50 – it tasted much nicer than coke.My lamb burger soon arrived and I thought it very nice; likewise my beloved enjoyed her Wellington Burger, which was a beef burger and horseradish sauce. The meal was quite reasonable at around £9 each. I wasn’t troubled but my beloved ordered chips to go with our meal and while they were very tasty, I suspect they were refried and they certainly didn’t do my stomach any favours. The restaurant itself was pretty plain with ordinary tables and chairs and some fairly bright colouring on the wall. Everything looked clean and tidy. The music was a bit loud for the 6 diners in the place and was of the gentle indie variety. All in all it rather reminded me of my sixth form common room back in the day. Gourmet Burger Kitchen was set up about a dozen years ago by New Zealand, but London based chef, Peter Gordon. Today there are about 50 Gourmet Burger Kitchen restaurants dotted around. I can see why; at £25 for two for a full scale and reasonable meal, it’s not bad value for central London.
One London place we have always wanted to visit is the Royal Opera House. As there was a performance of Tosca on (a rather light and accessible opera), we decided to shell out £37 each for a seat high up but straight onto the stage. We did not regret our purchase.We arrived at the Opera House a little early so we could have a neb around and enjoy the atmosphere. This meant we managed to nab a small table at the champagne bar at the conservatory to the side of the Opera House. While we weren’t up to paying the fancy prices for a meal, we did pay £7.50 for a glass of wine, which we gently sipped so as to make it last as we didn’t want to buy a second one. It was rather nice to sit and watch the world go by. I kept on looking to see whether I could spot anyone vaguely famous, but apart from a chap who looked suspiciously like author Ian McEwan we weren’t in luck. At the bar we were asked if we wanted to order drinks for the interval, but we explained that our seats were somewhere towards the top of Mount Everest so we weren’t troubled again. The performance itself was very good, and I was pleased that the audience didn’t cheer and applaud every little thing in the performance (one of the misfortunes of going to a tourist experience rather than a proper performance). I do have to say the voices weren’t the best I’d ever heard, but they were certainly competent. More impressive was the Orchestra and the excellent sets. We had a high but very straight on view and we were perfectly content with our seating. I did smile at some of the listening seats available in the Royal Opera House, where you could if you wish sit in the corridor and listen to the music and singing. It would seem the ROH will squeeze what they can from any performance. In between the acts, the bar was very busy, and I had to queue for most of the break to get a couple of bottles of water. A small tub of cooling ice-cream was £3 and I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t eat it in the theatre hall itself. I was tempted to smear chocolate over the walls of the corridor in some kind of "dirty protest" but the ice cream was too nice and cooling to waste. We skipped the programme which I felt was very overpriced at £7. Instead, I snuck a look at my neighbours!To sum up, we had a nice experience at the Royal Opera House and as we were careful with the pennies, it didn’t cost the earth.
The website for Launceston Place shows a rather straight laced brown and beige looking restaurant; the photos really don’t do the restaurant housed in a rounded corner house on the backstreets of South Ken any justice. The glasses, plates and cutlery are wonderful quality and the place very nicely furnished but understated. The only thing letting the look of the restaurant down are the paintings, which reminded me of those "original art" paintings you can get imported from China on e-bay for about £0.99 plus £30 postage. On entrance, we were invited to linger a while at the bar before going to our table and where we sipped a couple of lovely glasses of champers while chatting to the maitre d’. We felt distinctly underdressed for Kensington however if in fact we were then the wait staff kindly made no indication of it. The service at Launceston Place was as you might anticipate perfect. I personally don’t like overly attentive places, and the Launceston Place isn’t the kind of restaurant where people fuss over you tucking your napkin over your knees. However they are incredibly attentive which means you never have to call them over; they seem to know when they are needed unobtrusively filling glasses, removing plates and the like.Launceston Place recently gained its first Michelin Star and in my book it is well deserved. If you arrive early you can go for the "early bird" £30 for 3 courses menu, the standard "market" menu is £48 a head and the tasting menu £65. Note there may be supplements for the more expensive dishes (the cheese course for example had a whopping £8 added, although the cheeses were to die for).The chef at Launceston Place, Tim Allen takes simple good quality food stuffs and does complex things with them. The interesting thing about the menu is that you have to wipe any previous experience of the dish from your mind; that poached pear isn’t going to be like the one your Aunt Hilda used to make you when you were six. For my starter, I had the poached duck egg. The presentation was exquisite and the egg yolk was perfect, soft but not runny. My egg was served with baby peas, and pods, leaves and delicate flowers to eat. My beloved meanwhile had smoked mackerel; a dish you might not get excited about, but she declared it the best thing she had ever eaten. I had a little bit and the combination with the iced horseradish was perfect. The mackerel as you might anticipate was home smoked by the restaurant. For our main courses we both chose the lamb cooked various ways and it also had a small portion of cauliflower curry (together with vine tomatoes, peas and a rosemary jus). It was beautiful and complemented the lamb (done in a fillet, dried and shredded in a way I’ve never had before, and a sweetmeat which despite my anticipation was again superb). We neither have much of a sweet tooth, and in any case we had spotted the magnificent cheese board; a whole array of fresh cheeses at room temperature just waiting to be snaffled up. Hang the extra £8. The maitre’de spent a lot of time explaining each of the cheeses and as there were too many for me to choose I asked him for a random sample throughout the range, from soft, mild, goats, blue to strong. His beautifully arranged selection was placed in order of taste so no one cheese was overwhelmed by its predecessor. Simple water biscuits and a few grapes were really the only accompaniment required.Between our courses we had various amuse bouche; I loved the detail in the little pastries, but my favourite was the clever little pot of mousse made from tomato, basil and olives. At the top the pot was warm and so so delicate, at the bottom cold and roughly chopped. That one dish gives some idea of the attention to detail in the meal. With our main meal, we ordered almost the cheapest bottle of Red wines at £35 for a bottle. Although the wine list runs to 26 pages in length, we found it was easy to choose as we tend to avoid French, and so went for one of the select group of Spanish wines after considering the Italians. It was a good choice for us and we enjoyed it perfectly. A tip at 12.5% is automatically included and our meal for two came in at around about £175. Those worried about not getting enough food; don’t panic. Even our healthy appetites were sated, and we had no desire to nip off for a burger before catching the tube to our hotel. We ate rather extravagantly (but if you are on a splurge why not enjoy what you want) and had we chosen from the early evening specials and avoided the cheese then it would have come in at about £60 cheaper. Given that we enjoyed the skills of a top, internationally recognised chef and had a real evening to remember I didn’t find the bill to be excessive at all.
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