Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Caffé Della Galleria, Firenze, italy

Inside Caffé Della Galleria
Having arrived by train from Milano, I wandered alone around Florence waiting for my family to arrive and I found myself considering something to eat. Nothing major, just a snack item and a glass of red wine. I really wanted somewhere to chill other than the hotel room, so I headed out into the twilight and stumbled across
Caffé Della Galleria.

There's a huge gallery across the road, but also paintings in the caff, so the name probably relates to the former but is somehow bolstered by the latter.

There's outdoor seating and inside wooden floors and plain, grey tables. In a nutshell, it's a caff that's licensed offering tea, coffee, beers, wines and cocktails along with panini breads.

I ordered a ham and mozzarella panini with a glass of Chianti costing 11 Euros in total. Pasta dishes were also available as well as salads and desserts including pannacota and tiramisu (both 5 Euros). An espresso was 3 Euros, cappuccino 4 Euros and ice cream ranging from 6 to 8 Euros.

There's also a range of Dishes of the Day including Tuscan soups (pappa al pomodoro); Ribollita (bread with vegetables); and pasta al ragu.

It was dark by the time I left and wandered back to the hotel.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Toni Patisserie & Café, East Washington, Chicago – this is the best 'caff' in the world

I think I've found it. The best café in the world. The place I've been looking for, but haven't found... until now. And I had to travel across the Atlantic to find it. In the Windy City of all places. The last time I found myself wandering around this great city, I thought Corner Bakery outlets were the first, the last, the everything Chicago offered, but boy was I mistaken. Corner Bakery shops are everywhere in the Windy City, but Toni Patisserie & Café? There's only one of them to the best of my knowledge and while the place looks as if it's been around for decades and might even have been in situ during Al Capone's era, it turns out I was mistaken. According to the owner, whose wife is called Toni and it is she who makes all the wonderful cakes and pastries that are displayed behind the glass counters, the café's only been around for the last four years.

I could tell from the outside that this was the best 'caff' in the world...
It has a distinct French feel about it. There are marble-topped tables and wooden floors, a long glass counter behind which can be found blackboards, high up on the back wall, advertising what's on offer. There are specials too, like cream of brocolli soup, cream of mushroom soup, pumpkin roulade (for dessert) and so on. It's also licensed. Now I know that traditionally that would be breaking the rules of this website, but rules are there to be broken. It is licensed and that's what gives this place it's quirkiness. The wine, for instance, doesn't come in a wine glass but a small glass beaker and the portions – if that's a word one can use for wine – are huge. A small beaker of Pinot Noir is a fair bit larger than a 250ml glass, I can tell you.
A decent-sized glass of Pinot Noir...

I knew immediately I saw this place that it was going to be good. I saw it after it had closed on a Sunday evening around 6.30pm. I'd arrived early for a drinks reception at the cultural centre across the street and decided that I'd look around for somewhere to relax with a cup of tea before going back to the venue for the reception. I saw Toni Patisserie & Café and immediately thought: this is the place. This is THE place! The exterior looked right, the interior had something about it and I vowed to return.

And return I did. The first great thing about Toni's is that you place your order at the counter, take a small metal stand with some kind of message that must say to the waitress 'this person has ordered these items' and you find a seat and wait. So, I checked out the specials board and saw mushroom soup. I know that earlier I'd said 'cream of' but it was mushroom soup. Then I ordered a Le Cubain sandwich containing roasted pork, premium ham, cornichon, Dijon mustard and garlic aioli on a French roll. I followed this up with a glass of the Pinot Noir and took my seat.

The food was wonderful. Tremendous even. But this wasn't a meal, of course, it was a snack. A roll with a bowl of soup and, rather quirkily, instead of a mug of tea, a glass of wine. Perfect. This strange, not strange, but quirky place was a café in the true sense of the word and it was filled with normal people enjoying their lunch break. Ordinary people in other words. Office workers.

Mushroom soup, a Le Cubain and a Pinot Noir...
The soup was thick and tasty and the roll was simply amazing. Flavoursome. That's how I'd describe this place, it was flavoursome in the extreme. I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to order some more. I chose a cup of English Breakfast tea and a chcolate chip walnut cookie. The tea arrived in a huge mug – absolutely perfect for me and a great counter weight to that Pinot Noir. The cookie too was to die for and for the tea and the cookie I paid $6 in cash, having already paid a perfectly reasonable $26.
Chocolate chip walnut cookie and tea

In fact, I loved Toni's so much that on my last day in Chicago, having checked out of my hotel and taken an architectural river cruise along the Chicago River, I went back there. Once again it was bustling. Toni's is never going to be empty. In fact they have a mix of tables here, some are tall and round and seat two, in fact I think most of the tables tend to seat two, but then there's also a big table that people can share and a few slightly larger and lower round tables that would seat four comfortably. On my second visit I shared the big table and got chatting to two women who, like me, and I guess everybody else, including to Chicago cops who turned up on mountain bikes, love this place.

Now you might have thought that on my second visit I'd choose something different, but I loved that Le Cubain so much I ordered it again, but this time I had two Pinot Noirs and for a starter I had cream of brocolli soup, or perhaps it was just brocolli soup. Both the soup and the Le Cubain were, as I suspected, wonderful. The wine was good too and, for good measure, I ordered English Breakfast tea and a chocolate pastry that was also out of this world.

I might have started reading my book, I can't remember. I certainly flicked through a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which I left there. I even managed a brief chat with the owner, Toni's husband, but I'm not sure I saw Toni herself.
Some of the excellent cakes and pastries on offer at Toni's
This really was a friendly place offering great food and great value. Everybody seemed happy and why not? This place was, in my opinion, the best 'caff' in town, if not in the world. It ticked all the boxes so, for now, it's the Teashop and Caff Best Caff in the World... until somebody comes up with something better. Now that, my friends, will be a tough call.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, Chicago, USA

This chameleon-like operation changes throughout the day. One minute it's a coffee shop and the next it's a bar. Located in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, a big 'corporate' affair, it a pretty good place.
Tasty, tasty, very, very tasty, it's very tasty

I'd arrived early and needed some breakfast so I checked out the menu and got stuck in. In fact I'd go as far as to say that I enjoyed a really decent mug of tea – which makes a change – and then I had a choice: a Breakfast Piglet (smoked honey ham, fried egg, Wisconsin cheddar, bacon, onion, jam and roasted garlic) OR a Sun-dried tomato and basil panini with a side order of strawberries and blueberries. The Breakfast Piglet was also a panini, although, really they were both toasted sandwiches, which I suppose is what a panini is, but in my book they were both toasted, crusty bread sandwiches.

I opted for the healthier of the two options, the sun-dried tomato and basil sandwich, and, to be honest, I wasn't too impressed by the name Breakfast Piglet as I had visions of the staff going out back and slaughtering a baby pig and then bringing it to me on a plate with an apple in it's mouth. My order arrived in one of those takeaway containers (odd when you consider that they'd offered me the choice of a paper cup or a proper mug for my tea – and I chose the latter – but gave me a takeaway container for my food order. It didn't matter.

The sandwich was tremendous. Very tasty. I could have eaten another one. The tea was the best I'd experienced on this trip to Chicago, so top marks to the The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, although where I got that name from I don't know, probably the receipt. The bill, incidentally, was $11.60 and the sandwich set me back $8.00. The tea was $2.60.

Peet's Coffee & Tea, 20 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, USA

With half an hour to kill before an evening appointment I looked around for somewhere to sit and enjoy a cup of tea. I wandered into a Starbucks where I met an English woman who seemed glad to hear an English accent. She directed to me to another Starbucks as the one I was standing in had no tables or chairs, it was just a takeaway operation.

Peet's Coffee on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Instead of Starbucks – one tries to avoid them if possible – I found Peet's Tea & Coffee. It was approaching 1830hrs and rather than wander the streets of the Windy City I thought I'd park up, so to speak, and enjoy a cup of tea and a cookie. Well, the cookie was an afterthought and I wish I'd left it well alone, but there you have it.

There were seven other customers: four guys sitting by the window at the front of the store, one had an Apple Mac, and a couple sitting on a table adjacent to mine in the middle of the shop. A girl walked, ordered a takeaway and left.

I sat alone with a medium-sized paper mug of tea (two tea bags) and an oatmeal and raisin cookie. The tea had set me back $2.80 and the cookie $2.25. All was good here. The guy on the counter told me that Peet's wasn't independent but a chain operation originating in California.

It's mid-October so Halloween is being promoted all over the city and at Peet's they're offering a pumpkin chai with an extra shot. It's billed as the barista's 'faverite', but the most expensive tea on offer is a Dirty Chai Latte at $5.05 for a large size. I never asked what a Dirty Chai Latte was all about, perhaps I'll go back and find out.

There's a wide range of hot beverages on offer at Peet's Tea & Coffee. Pumpkin Latte and Mayan Mocha, the former was $3.50 for a small, $4.15 for a medium and $4.50 for a large. The latter was $4.00, $4.65 and $5.00 respectively. Cappuccino is $3.00, $3.65 and $4.00 respectively for small, medium and large.

Also on offer are warm breakfast items, biscuits and soft drinks plus a range of mugs – I love mugs. Jazzy music was playing in the background, there were wooden floors (could have been laminated), wooden topped tables and a range of packaged tea and coffee for sale. Definitely the sort of place to chill with a decent book.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Fika tea rooms, Lindfield, Sussex – a lack of happiness?

Fika tea room, Lindfield, Sussex
Spying a decent teashop or caff is one of my chief occupations when out and about, but very often I'm disappointed by the outcome. Readers of this blog will know that my recent jaunt to Littlehampton in West Sussex found me a little annoyed by the Moorings Tearooms for not clearing the tables once they were vacated. Now, in Lindfield near Haywards Heath in Sussex, I find myself in Fika, a strange name for a teashop, but a teashop it is and, at first glance, it's alright. There are coastally themed paintings on the walls and resting on a staircase leading to nowhere; there are two huge windows looking out on the main street running through this quaint little village (or is it a town?) and there's a rug on the floor.

On arrival there was a red-headed woman and a man, who I think was some kind of artist, a painter perhaps, and possibly even the man behind the coastal paintings adorning the walls, who knows? We were later joined by a big-boned lady with a pushchair carrying a young girl of possibly two years old and they were later joined by a man and a woman and were followed by what might have been a mother and daughter – 11 of us in total, but something was missing and it was atmosphere. Oddly, while there was plenty of potential, there was nothing 'quaint' about Fika. It was a little gloomy if I'm honest and the waiting staff were to blame; they were miles too downbeat. I think the place lacked a feminine touch, it needed waitresses, but it only had men in black who seemed a bit miserable. One of them finished off his brief conversation with the woman and baby with 'no worries' but said in miserable way, not in the Australian 'no worries, mate' manner.

A nice cup of tea, but the place lacked happiness

There was some nice-looking fruit cake, but little else on display and, well, what can I say? My companions ordered milkshakes and I ordered a pot of tea, which arrived in mis-matching crockery (this is not to be discouraged, by the way, as I like mis-matching everything: crockery, cutlery, furniture, as it brings with it a certain quirkiness. Tea was a bag in a multi-coloured pot with a quaint cup and saucer. The bill was £8 (or thereabouts). I'll admit that I fancied some of that fruit cake, but having scoffed a chicken and mushroom pie and, for 'dessert' a cherry Bakewell while sitting on a bench in the rain, I felt I'd better leave it alone.

In addition to the paintings there was a small display of Teapigs tea, which I assume meant that it was possible to buy Teapigs tea from Fika.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Moorings Tearooms, Littlehampton, West Sussex

For me the most unforgivable sin committed by teashop and caff proprietors is leaving the tables messy and untidy and not bothering to clear up cups and saucers, plates and bits of food from tables long vacated by customers. It's even more unforgivable when the restaurant in question is not particularly busy and there's a load of waiting staff milling around with seemingly little to do. This, however, was the situation I walked into on Wednesday 12 August on a day trip to Littlehampton.
The Moorings Tearooms, Littlehampton

I found the Moorings Tearooms to be a little on the untidy side. Not only were the tables not cleared, despite many staff being in place to clean them, there was a very untidy vibe about the place.

Yes, it was 'twee' in terms of its general appearance – mis-matching 'Miss Marple' cups and saucers, dainty tablecloths and annoying signs stating things like "What defines us is how we rise after falling" and other platitudes – but the untidy tables ruined it for me and I wasn't that happy with the way the cakes were displayed either. It was all too untidy.

I ordered a slice of apple and caramel pie, but I wished they hadn't bothered with the caramel as when the pie was heated and I picked my way through it with a fork, the brownish lumps of caramel looked as if the pie in question wasn't so much apple and caramel, but apple and tuna. What a horrible thought! Worse still, I asked for a blob of ice cream as there's nowt better than warm apple pie with a dollop of ice cream, but no, if I wanted ice cream I'd have to buy it separately from the the lairy-coloured, branded ice cream chest freezer that looked totally out of place in the twee Miss Marple surroundings.

A pot of leaf tea at the Moorings Tearooms
Another annoying thing about the Moorings Tearooms was the fact that the cups were already on the table, upturned, when we arrived and this is fine, but only if the cups are clean and who knows who had been fingering those cups prior to our arrival? I much prefer it when fresh crockery arrives on a tray with a nice pot of tea and a small jug of milk after I've ordered – at least that way I know that they've come from the kitchen and are likely to be a little cleaner than those left on the tables for countless kids to finger before I arrive on the scene. It was the same for the cutlery: it was there on the table when I arrived.

My companions ordered what amounted to a cream tea – scone, jam and butter, but the scone was a little dry (I don't like scones so I didn't order one and perhaps they are dry).

I can't say I was happy with my experience at the Moorings Tearooms. While it seemed to have all the right ingredients for a decent teashop experience, it was let down by dirty cups, an unappealing apple pie and uncleared tables.

There was a range of speciality teas that were a little on the pricey side too. A laminated menu offered a range of teas served in wine glasses – or that is how the menu suggested they would be served, at £3.00 a glass.

Cups and cutlery already on the table
There were some plus points: first there was leaf tea, not teabags, and we had a small strainer too; second the tea arrived with a three-minute timer (a nice touch as we then knew exactly when the tea was brewed and ready to drink). But that was it. I went back to Littlehampton over the weekend, but didn't visit the Moorings Tearoom, although it seemed pretty busy.

Perhaps I was there on a bad day and any other time would have been better, but there you have it. I will return as I've taken a liking to Littlehampton, and hopefully things will have improved.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Westerham Cyclery – caff and cycle repair shop combined!

[Originally published May 2015 on NoVisibleLycra]: For the first time this year we rode to Westerham in Kent, just Andy and I. It was a case of heads down and get there and we got there with the intention of taking breakfast at the Tudor Rose tearoom (Andy's treat – thanks, Andy).

When we reached the green after a pleasant ride, I noticed that Andy was looking for something and soon realised that he wanted to see the cycle shop and café combined that I had brought to his attention recently. Avid readers might recall that, a year or two ago as Andy and I sipped tea and munched cereal bars on Westerham's green we often fantasised about taking on the lease of an old Barclays Bank and transforming it into a cyclists' coffee shop, jam-packed with biscuits and cakes and offering a repair service too. But, of course, we were never serious about it and, as Andy said yesterday as we trudged morosely across the grass towards the roadside, our version of the Westerham Cyclery's caff and repair shop would have been half-hearted and certainly not as swish. I take the latter point about it not being as swish, perhaps, but would it have been half-hearted?

Amazing cake and cappuccino that's better than Costa.
I've already critiqued the place in a previous post, claiming it was too 'boutiquey' in its appearance, but that was based on standing outside and then having just a brief wander into the building before heading straight to the Tudor Rose – much more my cup of tea and, dare I say it, more in tune with what my version of a bike repair shop and caff would have looked like. But now, having experienced the Westerham Cyclery caff first hand, my opinion has changed. Let's face it, the guy in charge knows what he's doing and he's done a fantastic job. Yes, it is a bit 'boutiquey'. There are wooden floors and leather sofas and flatscreen televisions showing cycling on Eurosport, there are copies of Bradley Wiggins' autobiography, a few perfect-bound cycling magazines here and there, a range of energy snacks for Lycra monkeys concerned about 'precious grams' and putting in a good time and some signed Tour de France cycling shirts in frames on the wall. In other words, the place screams Lycra monkeys and so does the clientele – no ragged trousered mountain bike riders here... until now.

In fact, we did feel a little out of place what with me, unshaven and unkempt-looking in my tatty old Tesco ASBO specials and trainers, my right leg tucked into a grey sock. Andy, as it happened, looked relatively respectable as, unlike me, he'd taken the trouble to shave. It was as if two cast members from a Spaghetti western had bowled up to a posh restaurant with no intention of dressing for dinner. And we were early by about five minutes and were ready, had he not allowed us in, to make our way diagonally across the green to the Tudor Rose for a full English. But he opened early just for us, unlocking some wooden doors to the left of the caff proper to reveal parking racks for bikes and some comfortable outdoor seating at the back – this place covered all bases. There was a bike showroom upstairs, a bike accessories area to the right of the serving counter and, in addition to the energy bars, a selection of three tasty-looking cakes.

Andy ordered a cappuccino, I ordered tea and we both opted for coffee and walnut cake. It was all good. In fact, we both thought the cake was out of this world – very tasty. The cappuccino – which Andy said was better than Costa – had a chocolate bike stencilled into the froth (a nice touch) and, well, all-in-all, this was the perfect place for cyclists – especially Lycra monkeys. There was even a cycling club that operated out of the café and some of its members arrived as we enjoyed our cake, tea and coffee. Unlike us they were clean-shaven and clean generally: no Tesco ASBO specials just Lycra monkey gear, fresh complexions and perfectly combed hair. In comparison, we looked like a couple of vagabonds with bikes to match. We were, after all, from the other side of the tracks and let ourselves down by mentioning the C-word (Croydon). We should have said Caterham and Sanderstead, perhaps.

After paying £8 for two pieces of cake, a cup of tea and a cappuccino (extortionate, yes, but it's the going rate these days) we strode across the green towards the roadside and our ride home.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Firth of Froth, Edinburgh, Scotland

A short break from a rather intense conference meant I could wander around the area surrounding the venue, a converted church, in search of somewhere to chill and I found it: the Firth of Froth in Edinburgh's Broughton Street (number 43). I liked the name as it brought together the location – Scotland – and the nature of the business – tea and coffee – so in I went and took a seat.
Firth of Froth, 43 Broughton Street, Edinburgh

There were wooden floors and five tables with some outdoor seating, counter servery and an eat-in and takeaway service on offer.

Blackboards advertised a wide range of bread-based products with various fillings (basic, classic and supreme) with a variety of what the caff called 'carriers' meaning rolls large and small, bagels, baguettes, panini, toasties and wraps.

There was a refrigerated soft drinks display and wooden shelves carrying sweets and snacks, not forgetting stuff like flapjacks and cakes. There was also a laminated menu on each of the tables offering breakfasts including porridge, bakery items and a cooked breakfast for £5.50. Porridge was £2.00 or £2.50, the latter being served with apple and cinnamon.

I ordered a ginger tea and a flapjack, which set me back just £4.10 (the tea was £2).

Unlike my visit to Prague not that long ago, where the ginger tea was made with fresh ginger, the Firth of Froth offered a teabag, probably Twinings, not sure, but there was nothing wrong with that in my book.

While it was lunchtime, it wasn't too busy and there was an air of calm about the place that was pleasant on what was a very pleasant and sunny day.

Ginger tea and a flapjack – £4.10
A sign on the window announced that the Firth of Froth was open on Sundays between noon and 4pm – worth remembering if you're in the area on the Sabbath and find yourself at a loose end.

There was plenty of of leaflets advertising various Edinburgh events and a small selection of magazines, like Shortlist too. A Bakewell tart, incidentally, would have set me back £1.85.

As for the staff, they were both friendly and efficient and, to top it all, there was free WiFi.

It's important to note that I visited Firth of Froth in March/April 2014, I can't remember the exact date.