Life is full of surprises, if only we took the time to pause and pay attention more often. On several occasions I dashed along Marylebone Lane, looking at the restaurant at No. 108 and thinking
The event was showcasing Michael’s talents and amazing knowledge of botanicals and we were in for an aromatic treat, with the mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails that Michael mixed up for all the attendees. When I entered the store the front counter was covered with bottles, plants, glasses, tincture bottles-like a herbalist lab but with a wonderfully sweet disposition.
Michael, a handsome guy with a perfectly enviable tan, greeted us all personally, even though he was in the process of mixing the first of many cocktails that were to follow in the course of that evening ( yours truly made the mistake of driving to the event so mid-way I was sitting on a chair, mentally sulking at myself and vowing to come car-less to the next Herball event ).
Michael has a luxury beverage industry background and is currently studying herball medecine at the Westminster University. His knowledge of herbs and plants is facinating and very insightful and he spins truly facinating stories about the importance of plants and herbs, their medicinal benefits, seasonality and importance of paying attention to what it is actually that you eat and drink.
Our first cocktail of the day ( you truly needed to be there to see how Micheal creates the drinks-it’s like an exquisite mixologist masterclass with a twist ) included home-made rose syrup with honey, lavender eau de vie from a wonderful supplier in Alsace ( it contains 45% alcohol and is matured in steel barrels for seven years ) and Bach flower wild rose remedy ( this remedy works on many levels and is particularly known for its anti-depressant qualities, as well as balancing female hormones ). The twist was that the cocktail was cooled down not by ice but by a large rose quarts which has been kept in the freezer for a while-so you get the energetic benefit and the coolness but no dilution of ingredients, unlike when you add the ice. Michael topped it with champagne and a spray of lavender. The drink itself had a very refreshing, light feel to it, almost waking up you senses and savouring the moment of discovery.
Michael doesn’t work with a specific plan or a recipe book, instead he moves intuitively, prefering to see where his herbal and flower adventures take him.
What followed the first cocktail was a beautiful juice, the like of which I have never tasted before-it had a really sharp freshness, like a gust of sea air ( without the saltiness ) after a motionless day. Michael mixed fresh apple and lemon juices with plantaine, nettle ( the best time to pick it is actually April, so if you are picking it now, make sure that the shoots are the new, young ones ), red clover, elderflower and sweet honey and some other flowers that I didn’t know ( all of the recipes will be available via Content blog ). I have a Philips juicer which is big and powerful but Michael says that rotating juicers kill some of the vitamins, by way of heat rotation and says that he has had his Oscar Vitamax juicer for several years and it is still his trustworthy companion.
Then came the freshly made Elderflower cordial with freshly pressed rhubarb ( this juice really changed my mind about rhubarb ) with Highgate’s Sacred Gin, frankincense, yarrow and Cassis Eau de Vie. Michael is often ‘guided’ by the Flavour Bible Book, as well as
Both of my grandmothers were very able cooks and if I close my eyes tightly I still remember the colours and the flavours-my paternal grandmother’s juicy meat pie, a slice of which I tried to put in my mouth as soon as it came out of the oven, my maternal grandmother’s unreplicated fried potatoes and meat patties ( cutlets), my aunt’s ‘julienne mushrooms’ in cocote…. My mother was ( and still very much is ! ) a magician in the kitchen too, easily organising a meal at a drop of a hat if my father came home with his colleagues at short notice or if they had a party with friends, when 20 or 30 people easily crammed into our fairly modest by current standards apartment-the joy of those occasions, where songs and music filled the room, people danced and talked and felt so close to each other resonates deeply within me, especially now when people tend to concentrate on their own voes rather than hug their friends and relatives close.
Having lived in London for a long-time I have acquired different food tastes and my travels ( with family, friends or on my own ) also allowed me to expand my foodie horizons-I was very lucky, as my parents took me to Latvia and Lithuania ( and Georgia and Crimea on a couple of occasions ) from the age of two for the summer holidays and on most days we went out to dinner and I was allowed to sit with my parents and eat like a grown-up ( well, sort of ). My parents also often took me with them to have lunch at hotels National and Metropol in Moscow and I can still remember their incredible meat pastries ( pirozhki ) eaten together with a big and hearty bowl of chicken or beef bouillon.
Times have changed, there is abundance of choice and variety and I might find Russian cuisine too heavy on most occasions, but once in a while I get a surge of nostalgia about my childhood, happy times and shared meals and really crave delicious, home-made Russian food. Yes, my mother indulges me when she visits me or I make eyes at her when we go to Moscow, pleading for pelmeni, or pancakes or meat pie, specific egg omelette and ‘hedgehogs’, aka tefteli in Russian, which are similar to meatballs but are made with rice and cooked in a rich sauce with soured cream and tomato paste.
There are a few Russian restaurants in London but until recently none satisfied my craving for delicious and old-fashioned ( in the best sense of the word ) Russian cuisine. And then I started hearing rumblings that Mari Vanna, was coming to town. Mari Vanna, according to Russian folk tales, invited guests into her home and fed them simple but delicious home-made, traditional Russian dishes. There is one restaurant in Moscow, another in St. Petersburg and one was opened in New York-why not London I was grumbling, when my Russian or NY friends told me about their fun dinners there. I sulked; time passed and Russians only opened Japanese or Italian or Chinese restaurants in London, while the odd Russian one was way below the par, in terms of both food and service.
Finally, earlier this year one of my girlfriends told me that there was a ‘soft opening’ of Mari Vanna but her initial reaction was mixed, both in terms of food and service. Friends opinions do matter but you can’t rely on someone to form your own judgement, can you? So, I roped my best friend in for company and off we went to explore the possibilities.
Located in Knightsbridge, almost across from Mr. Chow and a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, Harvey Nichols and al, this quaint and very cosy restaurant is welcoming
When you live in London, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to great restaurants and cuisine variety, so making a reservation for a special occasion in general is a ‘no-brainer’-you
Last night, my husband and I decided to try our luck again, as the place doesn’t take reservations and we arrived at 21:20pm to be met by a tall, burly guy, who asked us if we wanted to have a table for two and then gleefully edged us out, saying that ‘we are fully booked, better luck next time’-his exact words, with a smirk, I kid you not…The place had some empty seats and I tried reasoning with him, saying that we were late last week and were told that coming around 21pm-21:30pm should be ok. He would have none of it and to be honest, with such attitude of the staff, I don’t think we will be returning to this place, even if they make great food and burgers.
We went to ‘Automat‘ on Dover street, where we were greeted nicely, sat down and served fairly quickly ( even though the place looked quite busy ) with a great burger, thin, perfectly salted fries and a couple of glasses of wine. Our waiter looked like Andre 3000 from Outkast and was charm personified.
So tell me, who needs a rude Russian owned place with an attitude, when you can go to a friendly American not far away ?
I have quite a few cookery books in my kitchen and there are several written by an Australian chef Bill Granger ( and they are very thoroughly used by me, as his recipes are
Last weekend was Russian Christmas and while we don’t tend to celebrate it grandly in my family, I thought it would give grown-ups a very good excuse to go out and have dinner, after going to the Russian orthodox church to light up the candles. We mulled over where we wanted to go but couldn’t agree, so yours truly took the initiative in her own hands and made a reservation at Koffmann’s.
Pierre Koffmann used to run a very much loved establishment La Tante Claire at the Berkeley hotel for many years ( I used to go there with my father, when he came to London on business ), then things gone quite for a little while, before the Master of Gascon cuisine re-emerged with the aptly titled Koffmann’s.
Even before you enter the restaurant, just as you are coming down the steps and see a large, straw pig, standing proudly to the side of the entrance, you smile in anticipation and then you glance at the bright lights inside, shining over happily relaxed people, bekoning you in.
The reception area is small, but the staff welcomes you with a wide smile, your coats are taken swiftly to be hung and you walk into the restaurant that is divided into several areas. A slightly more intimate front room to the right ( where there is also a private room ( The Camille Room) that you can hire for a truly memorable lunch or dinner with up to 16 family memebers or friends), the bar/small sitting area to the left, also leading to another level of the restaurant which also feels welcoming, but maybe slightly less intimate-but then everyone’s perception of intimacy is different.
The place itself is just perfect in terms of design-from the general lighting to the books stacked on the shelves in the sitting area, to the colourful glass lamps hanging over the bar and even their bathrooms-they are the cutest, cleanest & chicest ones I have seen in a long time-I am blushing but I can’t stop gushing-and I was there well over a week ago-see the effect that place had on me?
The menu offers you a wide choice, so you will have to explore it by yourself, I am only going to let you in on the impression that a few dishes that were eaten at our table left on me:
-try ‘Calamars facon bolognese/
Christmas and New year are always full or merriment and indulgences, so I always try to get out as much as I can into the fresh air and drive into the countryside, to enjoy some leisurely walking-it’s
It has become cooler-well, it was hot compared to the weather in Britain now, but the sea water seemed to be warmer than it was in July. The tourists are all but gone and you see more of real life, Spaniards getting on with their normal routine of life. The beaches are deserted yet the fields look beautifully groomed, the crops gathered and the whole scene presents the sight of peaceful contentment. Everything seems cleaner, maybe a bit more subdued but you look around and your lips just start smiling of its own accord. Your eyes drink in the beautiful colours of nature, the diversity of the landscape, the roughness of the sea, your ears listen to the louder beat of the waves hitting the sand and you feel immense happiness of being.
Every job seems to be done at a more leisurely pace, yet it commulates in a perfect result, a beautiful dish, a nice purchase, a contenetment that you feel when you are walking in the marina or sitting at a normally crazily busy restaurant…..
It is such luck to be able to get away from a busy vibe of a city to a quitter pace in the rural countryside for a few days and to be at peace with one self and just drink in the scenes that change as you speed up in the car-in moments like this you truly realise what’s so precious about our world and what our parents had in abundance-the time to do things, the time to reflect, the time to enjoy choosing your food or just drive or walk, sometimes feeling the urge to stop and inhale the fresh air. Even a huge thunderstorm with the loudest thunder I have heard in years and big angry waves on the sea during the night don’t make you feel apprehensive-you just stay in the moment and feel peace and happiness as the worries about life in general dissipate and give way to appreciation of the uniqueness of our world.