Ellory – Hackney

Ellory offers an increasingly discerning Hackney customer base cutting-edge, creative cooking for a modest sum. The exposed, polished concrete floor and simple sanded tables reflect the minimalistic, stylish food, which is appealing to an area which so fervently adheres to such design.

The Colombian and I visited Ellory on the record-breakingly hot Sunday in April. Adorned in nothing more than light chinos, sunglasses and an open linen shirt, I was apprehensive about struggling my way through a rich lunch. Fortunately, the clever sods at Ellory had checked the forecast and amended the menu accordingly.

Prior to our reservation, we had pottered in the heat down the canal from Broadway Market towards Islington to work up an appetite – not that I need particular help in this area. When we arrived at Ellory, I was relieved to find the tall, glass front doors flung wide open, allowing air to circulate around the clean, open-plan dining space. I particularly admired the exposed lightbulbs, housed in low-hanging fittings.

We opened our account with a spritz apiece – I had a gin based drink, the Colombian an Aperol. We sucked deep from our ice cold refreshments like parched Saharan beasts in the depths of a drought. The first course of; duck rillettes served with homemade sourdough and a chicory, walnut and Ossau-Iraty salad, arrived with a freezing cold bottle of Verdicchio. The rillettes was delightfully flavoursome – I was particularly happy that the fat had come up to room temperature, allowing it to coat the tender flakes of duck and add to the melting sensation when it entered my mouth. The salad, although a spectacle on its own, was a nice accompaniment to the rich, gamey starter.

The following course, I want to believe, was put on the menu to please me on such a sweltering afternoon. Lightly seared cod with irresistibly waxy new potatoes, far superior to their fluffy counterparts. The fish was excellently cooked, a perfect marriage with the weather.

The dessert was equally befitting to the temperature. Milk ice cream with tender little bites of rhubarb. The ice cream was very delicate and seriously smooth, the rhubarb a perfect equilibrium of sweet and sour. The excellent selection of cheeses and a large glass of expertly paired Syrah meant we concluded the experience in a state of mild euphoria.

The all-male team, industrial setting and bare furnishings evoke a feeling of toughness and masculinity. The delicate food and precise cooking, however, contrast this entirely. The fine balance of gritty hipster style and refined food make it seem at home in its Netil House setting – it comes highly recommended from the Colombian and me.

Sticks ‘n’ Sushi – Canary Wharf

Despite its conception in Denmark, the slow, forgetful service at Sticks n’ Sushi does not reflect the efficiency synonymous with the Scandinavian nation.

It was a cold January eve when the Colombian and I tottered over to Canary Wharf, we went in order to test drive a restaurant chain that has swept through Denmark and landed with as much might as a Viking conquest on British shores.

Sticks n’ Sushi, for those who don’t know, serve up vast plates of visually appealing sushi rolls and sashimi along with a variety of grilled fish and meats which are speared on oversized cocktail sticks.

Despite booking a table and arriving with German style efficiency, we were still asked to wait for our table. Nevertheless, we suppressed our hunger and dawdled by the bar with other famished parties, all just as eager to get some sushi down them. Eventually, we were led to a bare table in the centre of a minimalist dining space, all brightly lit with low-hanging fixtures. I quite enjoyed the Scandinavian aesthetic.

Without hesitation, we ordered a bowl of miso each and some edamame beans to quench our hunger. Our waiter, another Colombian coincidentally, suggested we try hotate kataifi, scallops in kataifi with miso aïoli, trout roe and cress. The scallops were great albeit slightly overpowered by the garlic in the aïoli which detracted from the delicacy of the mollusc. These arrived along with the edamame in quick time, yet our miso was missing. I gently reminded our waiter.

Having finished the scallop starter, we then moved onto a sushi platter which was, I must say, very tasty. I think it was called Maki Maki and it contained two tempura shrimp rolls and two salmon rolls. Each roll was prepared very differently, my favourite combination of flavours was salmon, avocado, cucumber, red onion, coriander and lime. Devastatingly fresh and clean. Still no miso.

Next came some sticks, which too, were very good. I preferred the miso marinated grilled mackerel to the miso marinated black cod, the meatier fish and bolder, more defined flavour prevailed in my opinion. Still no miso, so I reminded the Colombian – the waiter, not my dining companion.

Still a little hungry, we ordered a half roll of snow peas, avocado, cucumber, miso aïoli, seared salmon and trout roe. Alike the other sushi we had ordered, this roll was delicious and each flavour simultaneously stood out from the others whilst combining very well. It was after the final fishy mouthful that the miso soup landed on our table, an hour after it was first ordered and two enquires later. We begrudgingly ate it, but it definitely left a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

Yes, the sushi was good. Not the best but it was good. I liked the atmosphere and design of the place, my company was splendid but the whole experience was marred by the forgetful service. We arrived at Sticks n’ Sushi at 8.45pm, we left, finally, at 11.30pm. All the raw materials were there, but the assembly was really quite shambolic.

Beagle – Hoxton

Hoxton’s Beagle restaurant is a well-balanced mix of hipster style, quality dining and understated charm. Housed within the railway arches beneath Hoxton Overground station Beagle epitomises what we expect from East London eateries.

When James, a school friend of mine, and I stepped beyond the thick, heavy curtain that protects diners from the harsh January night air we were both immediately struck by the noise. Surprisingly, the overhead volume from passing trains is minimal in comparison to the cacophony of human noise that bounces of hard surfaces and tall ceilings.

We sauntered to the bar and shouted our order – two double Hendrick’s and tonic – at the bearded barman. We stood in the archway that separated restaurant from bar waiting to be led to our table for far too long. Eventually, we were recognised by an apathetic waitress who, when asked how her day was, declared it was her last at the restaurant and the subsequent service suggested she had already left.

We poured over the chef’s menu, which changes relatively frequently, and were excited by the selection of dishes on offer. Ordering took some deliberation.

From the selection of first courses, we landed on the mussels with nduja – the ever so trendy paprika sausage – fennel and leeks. The combination of flavours here were perfectly tasty. Disappointingly, however, was the freshness of the mussels. All were pale in colour, lacking the vibrant orange shade synonymous with quality mussels, some were still closed and some exceedingly chewy. Alongside this, came the roast beetroot, Graceburn, chicory and buckwheat salad. Contrary to the mussels this dish was a success. Fresh and flavoursome, the earthy beetroot and creamy English feta paired immaculately.

As with the starters, the main courses were similarly hit-and-miss. The confit pork belly, swede, sprout tops and mustard was exemplary. It demonstrated the success of cooking great ingredients, very simply. The belly, whilst fatty, was in no respect tough, the crackling cracked and the meat shredded with ease. Really enjoyable. The onglet, on the other hand, was not so impressive. A cut of beef rarely found on restaurant menus, this steak was tendinous and riddled with gristle. James and I both chewed on a hunk of the meat but to little avail. The duck fat chips were very tasty but did not make up for the failure of the onglet.

I had a pleasant evening at Beagle; the bar, the booze it stocks, the company and some of the food made it very enjoyable. There were faults, however, and they were pretty glaring. The grandeur of the building, the hip style it embodies and the refined menu suggest Beagle will be a memorable experience, yet I was not blown away.

beaglelondon.co.uk

Padella Pasta – Borough

I have become disheartened over recent years, it has become seemingly impossible to find truly excellent pasta dishes in restaurants. With the rise of chain establishments such as Zizzi’s, Carluccio’s and Strada, the quality of restaurant pasta has plummeted and that is not OK. Pasta is comforting, it evokes happy memories within all of us, from oozing mac and cheese on winter nights to learning how to make spag bol with your mum, and if it doesn’t provoke jolly thoughts, who hurt you?

For those who share my beliefs, there is hope on the horizon. Padella, owned by Tim Siadatan and Jordan Frieda (yes, son of John), is a relatively new venture and a ruddy successful one at that. Each day an entire workforce happily role and shape various varieties of fresh pasta for lunch and evening service. This drawn out process is worth the hours of toil, their pasta is genuinely some of the best I have eaten. Unlike other restaurants, who would boast about the labourious process of creation, at Padella it is not played up, they let their dishes do the talking.

The short, simple menu reflects the ethos of the place: keep it simple, but execute it well. Four starters included an entire burratta and stewed Borlotti beans. The burratta was light and creamy, delicious when topped with high grade olive oil. The beans were tossed with salty pancetta, an excellent start to proceedings. The mains consist of eight pasta dishes, I wanted to try them all but thought it a little gluttonous. Of the four we ordered, my favourite was the ravioli of Neal’s Yard goat’s curd. The almost identical squares of pasta were excellently cooked and when tossed with marjoram butter I was completely smitten. Equally as special was Padella’s signature dish, the pici cacio & pepe. Similar to udon noodles, these small worms of pasta are prepared so simply the subsequent flavour is astonishing. Merely tossed in pecorino, black pepper and a little cooking water, this uncomplex dish defies logic. Once again, Padella demonstrating their understanding of the power of simplicity.

Not so impressive, however, was the pappardelle with 8 hour beef shin ragu. As with the other mains, the pasta was delicious and extremely well cooked but the ragu lacked character; it had potential to be bold and audacious but instead tip-toed carefully past my taste buds uttering but a whisper.

Borough is an area saturated with good food and good restaurants. Nevertheless, I would repeatedly visit Padella for lunch or dinner. My main query lies with the queuing system, which is becoming ever popular in London these days, however, even miserable queu-ers are appeased. Once you have been assigned a table, you are sent away to a local pub and notified by text when your table is ready, which makes my complaint irrelevant. You’ll be sure to find me here again, probably alone, greedily ‘testing’ the other half of the menu I was unable to this time.

Polpo – Soho

W1’s answer to Venetian charm, unlike the Italian city, is uninspiring and charmless.

Opened in 2009, with the aim of reimagining a Venetian bàcaro – a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young Italian wines – Polpo has since become a small chain spanning three UK cities. Despite the clear success, I was left unimpressed by my experience. Polpo say that ‘details, including butcher-paper menus and copper ice buckets, hidden behind velvet curtains and low intimate lighting transport the diner to Venice.’ This may well be the case, but the food does not.

The Colombian and I were in the West End and desired an impromptu supper. Initially, we tried the ever popular Dishoom but were unwilling to wait in the biting December cold for an unquantified length of time. Fortunately, the queue for Polpo did not trail outside, for reasons we would soon discover.

After a painless wait at the bar we were swiftly seated by a stony faced waitress, whose enthusiasm set the tone for the rest of the meal. We asked for the Italian classic, Arancini, to nibble on whilst we pondered over the menu. What arrived were deep fried, over cooked rice balls which lacked seasoning and any sort of noticeable flavour. We ignored the early sign of doom and ordered a host of small plates to share – because that is protocol at Polpo.

First to arrive was the fennel salami, artichoke and truffle bruschetta. To the chef’s credit, this dish was actually pretty good. The fennel salami was soft and flavoursome, not overly fatty as some salami’s can be. The combination of these three earthy ingredients made for a pleasant start to our meal.

Just before we had finished the bruschetta, we had two fish dishes rudely frisbee-d onto our table by our morose waitress. These days, I expect risotto to slowly pour from whatever contains it in a slow, smooth wave, however, I was able to stand my fork up in this seafood risotto, it was dry and some of the rice clumped together in stodgy balls. The stuffed octopus that arrived with it, thankfully – given the restaurant’s name – was rather tasty. The chickpeas in which the mollusc sat were expertly cooked and had absorbed the Castelfranco infused sauce.

We finished, contrary to the Italian way, with pasta dishes. Although it is not pasta, gnocchi is often classified with it. We had the fried gnocchi with kale pesto and pecorino which was light, fresh and appetising. The gnocchi was cooked well, it is easy to overcook it to a point it when its’ texture resembles baby food, this was avoided. As for the beef shin ragu, I was unmoved. The beef seemed tired, its’ flavour was dull and the sauce was watery, I’m surprised the pasta-polizia have not reprimanded them for crimes against the proud pasta producing people of Italy. If you would like a plate of pasta that does the Italian staple justice go to Italy, or, failing that, Padella in Borough.

For fear of seeming unfair, I must clarify that there were some good dishes on the menu at Polpo, however, they were hidden amongst a lot of bland ones which are not difficult to get right. Coupled with the apathetic service, Polpo, for me, receives a sub-par score.

Ceviche – Old St

I had been looking forward to eating at Ceviche for the whole week leading up to my visit. You can imagine my disappointment then, when I arrived and my booking hadn’t been placed in their system, even though I had spent Monday morning on the telephone to a vacuous member of staff finalising my weekend arrangements. Nevertheless, my stomach was yearning for some fresh, clean fishy flavours, so we waited the 40 minutes for a table and saw it is an opportunity to pour over the chef’s menu.

Slightly impaired by numerous pisco sours – an eggwhite based cocktail – and delerious having waited an eternity, we ordered a hearty selection of dishes from the extensive menu. From the ceviche bar, my favourite was the Don ceviche; delicate slithers of seabass swam in amarillo chilli tigers milk and were topped with red onion, limo chilli and a sweet potato crisp. The flavours were simple and the citrus cooked fish stole the limelight in this particular dish. Contrastingly, in the Tiradito de Conchas, the typically delicate diver’s scallops were masked by the strong flavours of the blood orange, the yoghurt and the caviar. I missed the purity of their traditional, simple presentation.

From the grill, we ordered the Pulpo al Olivocitrus marinated octopus, Botija olive sauce and lentil uchucuta sauce. As with scallops, octopus tastes best when unadorned with frills. Martin Morales, Ceviche’s head chef, agrees with my theory. The octopus was at the centre of this dish, each tentacle was soft and no furious chewing was required. Simplicity at its finest.

When you go to Ceviche, it would be outrageous not to order Lomo Saltado – rare-cooked beef fillet, red onion, tomato, saltado sauce and thick-cut chips. The steak was wonderfully cooked, it danced with flavour and the sauce only enhanced the experience, I let the chips sit and soak it up before scoffing them at the end. Rich and thoroughly appetising, you’d be a fool to miss this excellent plate.

Unimpressive in comparison to the beef was the Seco de Pato – coriander and dark beer cooked duck. At a glance this sounds delicious, but when it arrived it was tepid and chewy. Duck is difficult to get right and although this breast was well cooked to a perfect pink, it was as tough as old boots.

I really like Ceviche, the atmosphere is welcoming and fun, there is a real sense of relaxed South American charm, the service is jovial yet serious and there are some gems hidden on the menu. Upon reflection, I wish I had ordered slightly differently but what use is the power of hind-sight? Give Ceviche a try, but do make sure to book, and then book again. Just to be sure.

Tuk Tuk Stick ‘n’ Grill

I was recently invited to attend, alongside other bloggers, an event organised by a new addition to the culturally diverse Portobello Road, Tuk Tuk Stick ‘n’ Grill. This dynamic new eatery brings a touch of Indonesian flavour to the famous West London market street. Here, satays are the speciality – chicken, beef, king prawn, tofu and vegetables, smothered in a marinade of your choice, are grilled on skewers. You may order three or six sticks and each portion comes with either rice or salad. This shiny new restaurant offers a healthy alternative to fast food, the cooking technique means fat drips from the grill onto the hot coals beneath and the owners are proud to proclaim that no fats are added. Their juices have magical properties, apparently benefitting the immune system, skin and muscular function – absolute sorcery. Tuk Tuk are also extremely eco conscious. Traditional plates are substituted with recycled palm leaves, serving plates and cutlery are recyclable and biodegradable and takeaway packaging is made from corn starch which is compostable.

Upon arrival, my guest and I were met with a glass of prosecco and many friendly faces. After receiving a grand tour from Antonio – the company C.E.O – and chatting to other members of the Tuk Tuk team, it was evident that they were passionate about their brand and the success of the restaurant.

Once seated, we ordered a selection of skewers and accompaniments. The beef satays were simple; medium rare and tender, their flavour enhanced by the ginger and coriander dipping sauce. The prawns were similarly well cooked and fresh, these were also delightful with the ginger sauce, I wasn’t a big fan of the sweet chilli but I never have been. My companion and I unanimously decided that the chicken skewers with the peanut and tamarind sauce were the best of a tasty bunch. Tuk Tuk also offer a selection of healthy puddings; grilled pineapple or banana served with either vanilla or coconut ice-cream, I preffered the pineapple and coconut combination.

Tuk Tuk Stick ‘n’ Grill is an interesting concept. I believe it will appeal to a market which is becoming increasingly health and environmentally conscious, perhaps an opening in East London, where the aforementioned hippies congregate, may have encouraged more business? Nevertheless, once they have ironed out the creases at their West London store and decided on a formula which really sells, they can expand to a wider audience. The driven, enthusiastic people behind the whole operation make me hopeful for its success. If you are ever on the Portobello Road on market day and want a genuinely tasty bite, do try it out.

Seville – The Home of Tapas

Approximately 2,200 years old, Seville has seen the passage of many civilisations. In mythology, it was apparently founded by Hercules, next came the Moors from Northern Africa and then the Castilian rule. All of these different influences have given Seville its distinct personality that tourists marvel in today. Spain’s fourth largest city is probably my favourite. Its weaving, narrow streets and grand historic sights make it quite the visual spectacle, but it is the food that sells it for me. Once famed for its oranges, brought over from East Asia by its Moorish inhabitant’s centuries ago, this idyllic Spanish city is commonly dubbed The Home of Tapas. The orange trees that now line the city’s streets only offer shade to hot, dishevelled tourists. Tapas tours frequently circle the city, groups of blinkered tourists hop from bar to bar, led by a frantic guide who tries to maintain some decorum amongst the hoards. With the invention of the internet and genius apps such as TripAdvisor, my party of four and I opted against a tour and carefully selected some of Seville’s best tapas bars and restaurants. Here are my top three.

Albarama Restaurante

In at number three is Albarama, a slightly pricier tapas restaurant which offers a nouveau twist on classic tapas. For example, my friend Simon inquisitively ordered two mini slider burgers. The first was a traditional beef burger sandwiched between a mini donut bun. Intrigued, I asked for a bite and instantly regretted it, the sweetness of the donut overpowered everything else and it was actually quite sickly. The second slider was much better, a lightly breaded cod fillet came in a soft white bun this time. It was simple and relatively tasty. I too ordered a modern dish; seared tuna belly which, when it arrived, had a syringe of soy sauce protruding from it. After plunging the soy into the meaty fish I opened wide and inserted the swollen fillet. Not unpleasant but the soy did somewhat mask what was a beautifully fresh slither of fish. From the more traditional side of the menu we ordered some flaky, tender beef cheeks and a fantastic lamb shank which peeled away from the bone with mighty ease. We had an odd assortment of dishes at Albarama, some were very tasty yet others were disappointing. It tries too hard to be different, many of their new-age twists did not compliment the traditional ingredients, culminating in a severe lack of identity. I suppose we should give them credit for trying something new, however, I am a firm believer in the saying, ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it.’

Casa La Viuda

Located in the bustling heart of Seville’s historic centre, we went to Casa La Viuda on my birthday. Suggested on the Michelin guide, this establishment is renowned for serving up traditional tapas and larger plates of the same fare, we ordered a selection of tapas dishes for variety. Although it is situated in the most touristic area of the city, the only other diners were native Sevillianos, usually a telling sign of authenticity and quality. We were met by a very jolly waiter who was eager to practice his English, he quickly deduced it was my birthday and the service for the rest of the evening was splendid. First came pork loin medallions from the Iberico pig, they were gently fried and served with a fresh salsa. As ever, I ordered an enormous plate of octopus which had been marinating since the previous day according to our friendly host. It melted into nothingness on my tongue. At Viuda, they are famous for their cod. We ordered a few cod dishes to sample their self-proclaimed speciality. My favourite of the three was cod in a deep-fried potato nest, drizzled in balsamic vinegar and a parsley and olive oil sauce. The crunch of the potato against the soft, delicate cod was excellent. The highlight, for me, was the pork knuckle. Not too dissimilar to lamb shank, pork knuckle is delicious when cooked at an almost tepid heat for a long, long time. The chef at Viuda knew this, as his pork knuckle was even appropriate for those with poorly administered dentures. We ate a gluttonous meal at Casa La Viuda, a befitting birthday banquet.

Eslava

In at number one, another from the Michelin guide, Eslava is a must visit when in Seville. Various dishes on its menu have won awards in the annual Seville tapas competition. My favourite of these was the slow poached egg atop a dehydrated boletus mushroom finished with a wine reduction and caramel sauce. The flavours were expectedly peculiar but the umami mushroom and rich egg yolk played delightfully against each other. It has to be eaten to be believed. Another award winner from its menu is the Eslava razor clams, unfortunately by the time we had been seated for supper they had run out. Distraught is an understatement. My spirits were easily lifted, however, when the pig cheeks arrived. I had eaten pig cheeks in numerous locations across France and Spain and it was at Eslava, the final stop on my tour, where I found the best of them all. Unmatched in tenderness these piggy morsels won my heart. Equally as delicious, were the sticky beef short ribs which were unusual for such a traditional tapas menu but they were at home there. For pudding I had Manchego ice-cream; the salty, savoury cheese numbed the sweetness of the ice-cream and the balance was impeccable. It is difficult to find faults with Eslava, we had to sit on a table outside which was a little chilly in early November but it feels cruel scorning them for this reason. If you are ever in Seville, please, I urge you, eat at Eslava.

Eat, Drink and Party in Madrid

Flamboyant Barcelona is generally considered the Spanish city of fun and frivolity. Contradictory to popular opinion, I believe Madrid is where the party really happens; a city where one can eat, drink and dance for eternity. From fine dining to calamari sandwiches, Europe’s third largest city has an insatiable appetite. Its capital status attracts the best chefs and the finest ingredients, meaning eating out in Madrid can be a theatrical and unforgettable experience. Affectionately known as ‘Los Gatos’, the cats, Madrileños – Madrid’s inhabitants – are renowned for their love of the night and Madrid has plenty to offer its nocturnal citizens. Similarly, the Spanish capital is a city of students, playing host to numerous prestigious business schools and acclaimed universities, thus, Madrid is a city of party people. We saw some of Madrid’s most torrential November showers of the millennium during my stay, however, despite being sodden, my spirits were never dampened.

Botín

Formally recognised as the world’s oldest restaurant, Botín opened in 1725 and it signifies Madrid’s culinary tradition and quality. Head here for roasted lamb and cochonillo asado – suckling pig, which are cooked over a vine shoot fire in their enormous oven. Booking is a must at this historic eatery, if you can, reserve a table in the vaulted cellar which, although musty, gives a real sense to the age of the building. We ordered both the lamb and the piglet, eager not to miss out on the experience. The pork is cut effortlessly into portions with a dinner plate. This routine is a theatrical boast, demonstrating just how tender the meat is. As you can imagine the eating was splendid, but you would hope so after nearly three centuries of practice. I personally preffered the lamb because of its more complex, richer flavour. The meat is served with a no frills selection of sides – a mixed bowl of green vegetables, roast potatoes and wonderfully tasty gravy, made from the juices of the cooked meat. Admittedly, the food at Restaurante Botín is very tasty but it is little more than a very pricey roast dinner. Understandably, you are paying for their honourable title but the food, surroundings, atmosphere and company did make the experience worth it.

Mercado de San Miguel

This central city market, situated a short walk from Plaza Mayor, is frequented by tourists and locals alike. A food-lovers paradise, this former fish market houses 33 stalls offering a variety of fresh, traditional Spanish fare. My troop and I made a conscious effort to sample as much as possible. We began with some exhilarating oysters, topped with a chilli-citrus dressing; the fresh, clean flavours were a good start to the expedition. Opposite the oyster bar is a pintxos vendor who tops his slices of bread with a variety of different seafood, a logical next step after the oysters. The cod pintxo, topped with honey mustard dressing, was particularly tasty but the smoked herring and avocado option won my heart. Content we had consumed enough fish, we searched for carnivorous treats. I was told by a friend who lived in the city that I must try the traditional Callos Madrilenos. As the days get shorter and the weather a little cooler, the paprika fumes of this beef tripe and chorizo stew waft through Madrid’s narrow old-town streets. We easily found a steaming pot of Callos Madrilenos at the market, so I seized my opportunity. I did not fall in love with the offal dish; the flavour of the sauce is intense and delicious but the intestines were a little chewy for my liking. Mercado de San Miguel is also home to multiple mini bodegas and wine bars where you can find great local wines to accompany the food. I got quite sozzled on a very hearty Rioja. To avoid the crowds, visit early in the day or late at night as the market is regularly open past midnight.

El Tigre

If you can find some elbow room at a table in this bustling bar, do dive in. Order a beer or cider and prepare to be amazed when a free plate of tapas arrives with it. With every round you order the plates of food get bigger. It was my editor’s birthday the evening we went to El Tigre which meant we ordered many rounds, and therefore ate a lot of tapas. My favourite bites were the cheese and jamόn croquettes, the stuffed mushrooms and the juicy chicken wings. We spent a few hours in the bar and it was always bustling, an excellent way to spend an evening with friends – or if you want a free supper.

Coco – Madrid Lux

If, like me, you have a certain penchant for Latin music, Coco is a brilliant nightclub in which to dance the night away. We went to this vast sanctuary of late-night ravers with two Dutch guys we had met at El Tigre, one was studying in Madrid and assured us it was a fun night out. At €10 for entry, which included two drinks, it was very reasonable. Having studied in London I was all too familiar with expensive nightclubs that lacked any atmosphere, something Coco possessed in abundance. From house music to Madonna, everyone dismissed their inhibitions and danced freely, often with a partner. Being a prudish Brit, this was unfamiliar to me. A couple of vodkas later, however, I had soon embraced the cultural differences – and a dance partner – boogying until 4am, hopefully unlike your dad at a wedding.

A Weekend in Valencia

Often overlooked in favour of its larger, more popular neighbouring cities, Valencia is a beautiful weekend escape with a lot to offer. Whether you want to relax on the beach, feed your cultural appetite or eat yourself into oblivion, Spain’s third largest city caters to each desire. Unlike touristic Barcelona or hectic Madrid, Valencia requires no more than one weekend to unearth an appreciation for this underappreciated Spanish city.

Saturday

Start your day with a leisurely rise and head to La Mercado Central, Valencia’s famed covered food market and the largest fresh food market in Europe. The stained glass windows and impressive dome which adorn the building make the space seem almost religious, a Cathedral of food if you will. Spanish culture revolves around eating, and the grandeur on show at La Mercado Central celebrates the importance of food in Spanish life. It is still a place where locals shop on a daily basis, whilst tourists search to discover new flavours. Be sure to try Horchata and Fartons, a traditional Valencian breakfast, at a small café in the centre of the market called La Huertana. I can only describe Fartons as slender ice buns which are dipped in the thick, creamy and slightly grainy Horchata drink; bland when consumed separately but a sweet and tasty morning snack when devoured together. With breakfast on board, take the opportunity to prowl about the market in search of some true delights. I sniffed out some Jamόn de Aragon, a slight variation of the overly abundant Ibérico, this ham is slightly softer, a little more like Palma ham and my favourite cured meat to date.

Once satiated, make the short walk to The National Ceramic Museum which is housed in a Late Baroque palace and is said to be Valencia’s answer to Versailles. Although not as grand as Versailles, this well presented collection of ceramics make for pleasant viewing. Downstairs, lies a collection of contemporary art produced by local artists. These pieces may have been superb, but modern art is lost on me.

For supper, take a tram to the beach. The seafront is bustling with bars and restaurants but many of these are tourist traps; serving poor quality food for big prices. Get off the tram at Grau, a few stops before the beach, and head to Casa Montana. This ancient restaurant oozes history; enormous wine barrels block the pavement outside and crooked beams cling to the ceiling. I would advise you order the deep fried anchovies, stewed broad beans, tuna stuffed peppers and garlic prawns. Often only visited by locals, this restaurant is a secret sanctuary for those who would like a taste of tradition.

Sunday

English poet Joseph Addison believed that, ‘Sunday’s clear away the rust of the whole week,’ and what better way to clear the mind than a trip to the beach? Valencia is as much a city vacation as it is a beach getaway. Miles of fine sand trace the coast and with temperatures still in their twenties during November, the sea is nearly always warm enough for a dip. I am jealous of Valencians, who can so freely leave the claustrophobia of city life and feel the sand between their toes.

After an invigorating morning of waves and sea air, you may be in need of a siesta. For those opposed to daytime naps, however, take a stroll around Jardín del Túria. Once a river, this 9km stretch of greenery, which encircles a vast proportion of the city, is decorated with trees and sculptures and was designed to provide a park space for both active Valencians and tourists to enjoy.

For your final meal, I urge you to visit Taberna Jamόn Jamόn. Although Valencia does play host to four Michelin starred restaurants, Jamόn Jamόn offers a traditional tapas menu which gives you a taste of real Spain and doesn’t leave you skint. The Spanish staples, patatas bravas and padrόn peppers were simple yet executed perfectly and the grilled goat’s cheese served with a membrillo jam was amongst my favourite dishes of the evening. You must not, however, miss the delicate foie which was delightful when smeared across crispy Melba toast. Similarly, it would be sacrilege not to order the crispy yet mind-bogglingly tender octopus tentacles. We accompanied our meal with a couple of bottles of local Crianza, just ask the attentive waiting staff for a recommendation, their knowledge and enthusiasm is astounding.

The laid-back lifestyle, excellent food and its proximity to the beach all add to Valencia’s charm. Although a little limiting, Valencia is the perfect city to visit for just a few days. It is not overpopulated with tourists like Barcelona and gives you a real flavour of traditional Spain. If you are considering a Spanish city-break don’t discount Valencia.