White Rabbit

When researching dining options for our trip to Moscow I came across a reference to a place which had been mentioned in Restaurant magazine’s annual “The World’s 50 Best” survey (it’s currently at number 23). Once I’d checked with our friend that it was the kind of place she’d like, she booked a table and off we went to White Rabbit. The name suggests an “Alice In Wonderland” theme, but I was relieved to find that, apart from the odd painting on the wall and a repeated rabbit motif on stationery this wasn’t the case.

It’s located at the top of a skyscraper just outside the centre of Moscow. You enter the ground floor through a shopping mall and take the elevator up to the 16th floor where a spectacular view awaits. We were asked if we’d like a table next to the window to which we replied “DUH”, and after a quick stroll around to take photos of the skyline we took our seats.

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We’d arrived slightly early but this was just as well as it allowed us more sunset-ogling time before darkness fell.

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The tasting menu. One of our party was unsure about some of the items on this list but we talked her into it, and the restaurant kindly removed any crustacean element from certain dishes at her request.

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The fag page at the end of the menu. Seems strange to order cigarettes when they won’t let you actually smoke them inside the restaurant (and you’d have to go down 16 floors in order to step outside).

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We started with a cocktail. Chili Margarita (Tequila, thai chili pepper, avocado, agave syrup):

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Drunk Bumblebee (Vodka, propolis, Limoncello, basil, pineapple, lemon, fructose):

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White Rabbit (Red currants, apple whipped with sake, apple liqueur, carrot):

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First amuse-bouche: pear, mead, caviar.

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Duck liver, chestnut honey and truffle.

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Wafer thin bread and a cream of Gouda with flakes of dried salmon.

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Carrot and rapberry water.

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Ryazhenka (which is basically a kind of yoghurt known as “baked milk”). Foie gras underneath, and topped with a block of pastila, which is a kind of Russian fruity marshmallow, made using the dried apple flesh left over after they’ve been pressed for juice.

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And then along came the nice lady with the blowtorch.

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Birch bread with herring milt and hare forschmack (a kind of salted, minced meat). I like the idea of bread and butter served as an actual course rather than sitting on the side throughout the meal.

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On to the “proper” courses, although many of them were the same size as the amuse-bouches. Shchi (cabbage broth) with smoked herring. Pre-broth:

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Post-broth:

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Onion, white chocolate, sea urchin. Weird. Yummy.

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One of the highlights: crab, carrot, pike caviar, and salted egg yolk which was strangely chewy but very nice indeed.

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Kundyum (a kind of baked dumpling) containing moose lips and nettle.

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Cod, sour malt and spelt (I’m never sure how to spell that). Quite sour but not unpleasantly so.

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The final main course, and the only one I couldn’t really rave about: beef ribs cooked in kvass (a fermented beverage made from rye bread) with onion and mushroom. The emulsion was very sticky and sweet, and the “salad” a bit slimy and tepid.

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Tea and a medlar sorbet.

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Borodinsky bread flavoured ice cream with sour cream and sea water. So sour, sweet and salty all at once; I was the only one at our table who liked this.

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The inevitable nose course. Three porcelain proboscides, each impregnated with a different scent based on a dish from the tasting menu. We were asked which we preferred.

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Based on our answer we were then gifted a small bottle of the relevant scent.

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Service was very good, and our waitress explained the history and sources of each recipe. Many of the dishes involved rediscovering traditional Russian foods which had been forgotten in the rush to embrace exotic foreign foods in recent years such as sushi and Italian food. Chef Vladimir Mukhin was recently profiled on the Netflix series Chef’s Table and you see him making trips out to the countryside to visit farmers and old ladies cooking traditional dishes in their homes. He also notes, interestingly, that this type of food regained popularity in recent years not only through his efforts, but also out of necessity as certain foods couldn’t be imported any more due to the sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

As yet there is no Michelin guide to Russia, but White Rabbit deserves at least 2 stars.

Han Ting in The Hague

We only went to The Hague to eat dinner, but almost as soon as we arrived we wished we’d booked a longer stay. Our hotel was located right on the main shopping street, a wide, pedestrianised area full of interesting architecture and wacky sculpture. This is our hotel:
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This is the department store just opposite. Note the large bird head at right. The next building along had a line of them all around the first floor.

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This gauzy wrapping reminded me a little of the famous Dancing House I saw in Prague.

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Bikes, because Netherlands.

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The aforementioned sculptures on the main street. This is one of the more normal-looking ones (it’s the one on the right).

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We only had a couple of hours spare before dinner, which would have been a bit tight to try and squeeze in one of the admittedly tempting arts and culture highlights such as the Escher museum (by the way it was only on this trip that I realised that Escher was Dutch, and so his name should be pronounced closer to ‘Esker’ than ‘Esher’, as I had always done). So we just spent the early evening wandering the back streets, mentally noting other promising lunch options for future visits.

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Han Ting is a Chinese-French fusion restaurant which this year received its first Michelin star.

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The decor leans heavily on the Chinese aspect, although the food was actually more Frenchified than I expected.

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We went for the “Tea menu”. I chose wine pairings and my wife went for tea pairings, for the sake of novelty (and sobriety).

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We were given chopsticks, but ended up using western cutlery for most dishes, as a lot of them involved creams and foams and other types of slippery liquid.

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Amuse-bouches, from the top: celery foam, “duck stomach”, tofu roll, cold mackerel soup.

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Veal with cauliflower cream and shaved macadamia nut.

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Bread. Steamed, with pieces of shallot (the dark brown spot in the middle).

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Our drinks. Can you tell which is the wine and which is the tea? The sommelier introduced each tea with some spiel about how each one interacted with the hot or cold “energy” of the dish, according to Chinese dietary theory. Whatever. They were nice, if all a bit samey.

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This one was definitely the highlight of the evening. The purple swirl is eel marinated in beetroot, and there’s salmon underneath the white layer, which is rice paper. The orange lumps are pumpkin. Bursting with flavour.

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We were then given a small bowl of sticky rice and crème fraîche as a palate cleanser. It works in terms of refreshing your mouth after the bold flavours of the previous dish, but for me was a little too filling, compared to a sorbet.

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Sea bream, razor clam. Beautiful and with a welcome spicy kick.

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Sole marinated in ketchup (the red piece at the top).  And another sole fillet with goji berries and celery. Slightly overpowered by the mango sauce.

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On the side was a small dish of bone marrow and panko. Not a big fan of bone marrow, and the abiding impression was of a mouthful of crunchy panko and not much else.

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Back on track with the main meat course: beautifully cooked beef with shiitake mushrooms and Jack Daniels.

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Dessert. A bit of everything: fruit, ice cream, panna cotta, macaroon, popcorn.

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All very nice and pretty reasonably priced at €65 for the full menu (without drinks).

The following morning we just had time for a walk along the sea front before heading home. Note the handy signs, a different one every twenty metres or so, for lost children to help them find their parents again.

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More wacky sculpture.

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And some persistent bathers. What do they think this is, summer?

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Fortunately The Hague is only a little over two hours by car from Brussels, so it’ll be easy to come back again some day soon.

Les Crayères

A hard morning looking at trees and stained glass certainly builds up an appetite, so for lunch on our last day in Champagne we’d foreseen a trip to a little place on the outskirts of Reims called Les Crayères. In fact we’d only found it after we’d booked our hotel in Épernay; otherwise we’d have been tempted to lodge there too.

We arrived for lunch at 1pm and settled in at the bar with a glass of fizz and some nibbles while we perused the menu options.

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We chose the ‘Découverte’. There was another, more expensive option, but it only seemed to be more expensive because of the use of ingredients like lobster and caviar, which don’t particularly excite me.

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Our first amuse-bouche once we were seated in the dining room was a mousse of strawberry, tomato and lemon balm.

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The proper dishes all arrived covered with silver domes (“cloches”). I’m still surprised whenever I see one of these things being used. They seem so old-fashioned.

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Foi gras poached in rosé champagne.

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One of the best cod dishes I’ve ever eaten (even in spite of the lack of batter and chips).

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Courgette flower stuffed with quail meat and foie gras.

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An interesting twist on the cheese course, using a local cheese called Chaource. Basically a cheese mouse with lumps of harder cheese inside.

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I wasn’t drinking because I had the three-hour drive home straight after the meal, but the table next to ours was taking up the slack. The table of four consisted of a man probably in his seventies and four young men in their twenties, speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t sure of the relationship between them (professor and students? Boss and employees?), but he certainly liked his wine and had long discussions with the sommelier before each bottle was brought out.

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A creamy pre-dessert.

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And then the Piña Colada soufflé. We’d already seen this being served at another table so I knew to get ready to film the process:

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As desserts go it was pretty big, but light as a feather. All that was left was a few petits fours, although our waiter actually forgot about them until we gently reminded him after we’d finished our coffee.

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Bubbly

Call it poor planning, but it wasn’t until we arrived for our weekend in the Champagne region that it occurred to me that I wasn’t really all that interested in champagne. I can happily drink a glass or two on special occasions, but I can think of things I’d rather do than spend a day tasting glass after glass of acidic fizz and listening to someone explain the difference between ‘disgorgement’ and ‘dosage’. In the town where we were staying, Épernay, there’s a street called Avenue de Champagne, and many tourists go on a sort of posh pub crawl, working their way down the avenue, stopping at every champagne producer located there for a sample or two.

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Having said that, it was interesting to visit one of the largest producers (we ended up choosing Moët & Chandon). After watching a brief video we were taken downstairs to have a look at a very small section of the largest cellars in the whole champagne region. These chilly, chalk-lined caves extend for 28 kilometres under the town and surrounding region. They contain, in total, millions of bottles; the tour guide was unable to tell me exactly how many, as bottles are constantly being added and removed, but one of these alcoves (of which you can only see the front row in these photos) contains 30-40,000 bottles. Which is pretty mind-bottling.

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The bottles in the picture above are being stored in A-frames as part of a process whereby sediment gradually collects in the neck of the bottle. The neck (only) is then frozen to -28°C so that the small amount of wine containing the sediment freezes solid and can be easily removed. But during the time the bottles are in these frames they need to be regularly turned a little and slightly shaken, to encourage the sediment to fall towards the neck. These days this is done by machine, but in order to preserve the traditional methods some of them are still shaken and turned by hand, and this process is called ‘riddling‘. This means that the job title of the person performing this function is…The Riddler. We never saw one so I don’t know if they get to wear the costume.
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We exited through the gift shop, politely declining the opportunity to spend €50 on a Dom Perignon-branded USB key (and disappointed that they had no Riddler accessories).

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It’s definitely worth going to have a look around one of these places if you’re in the area, even if you’re not that partial to the bubbly, and there are some great restaurants nearby too (that’ll be my next post).

Villa in the Sky

Whenever we told people we were going to eat at Villa in the Sky they would invariably reply “Oh, that one where you dangle from a crane?”. No, this one is in a proper building, although it matches Dinner in the Sky for sheer vertiginousness.

Much like The Cube, this is basically a large glass shed attached to the top of a pre-existing structure (in this case the IT Tower, one of the tallest skyscrapers in Brussels), which contains a pretty small kitchen looking directly onto a dining area which can seat about 30 people. We had been given the table at the far end of the room, looking right over the edge of the building to the streets below.

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The view from our table, across the centre of Brussels:

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I hadn’t expected the room to be this small, or for us to be this close to the edge, and at first I found it a little dizzying and uncomfortable. As you can see the structure is firmly bolted to a set of girders attached to the main building, so we weren’t in danger of wobbling off, but logic doesn’t mitigate irrational fears.

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I sat very still and looked at the horizon. It was perfect weather for enjoying the view, and it was interesting to see many recognisable Brussels landmarks from different angles, and also to notice some things from above which aren’t visible from street level. This is probably the best restaurant view in the city.

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An aperitif helped calm my nerves.

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One other thing we hadn’t realised beforehand was that there was no choice when it came to the food. That probably makes sense given the tiny kitchen, so we were happy to accept the proposed tasting menu, and chose a selection of wines to accompany it. I can no longer be bothered to take detailed notes on what exactly I eat, so the descriptions will be basic and you’ll just have to drool over the photos instead. First amuse-bouche: crab.

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Foie gras cubes, about the size of a thumbnail.

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Blurred photo of raw langoustine marinating in a broth, with a lemon smear on the side.

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Quail egg covered in crunchy stuff and topped with a slice of truffle.

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Bream.

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As the horizon rose to meet the sun they lifted the blinds on the side of the room to let more light in.

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This had the effect of increasing my anxiety a little as the view was now clear on all three sides of me, even in my peripheral vision. But I kept my focus on the plates in front of me and continued drinking to dull the sensation of tumbling forward into the abyss.

A couple of dishes were served by a very young man wearing a large badge which identified him as “Arnaud, the intern”. He was keen to practice his English and described the next dish for us (artichoke, rocket and potato). I would have called the white stuff a “foam”, but he referred to it as a “cloud”. I’m still not sure if he made a mistake, or if it was deliberate, to fit in with the whole ‘in the sky’ theme. Anyway, it was nice, and lacked the bitter edge which often puts me off artichoke.

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Fish, fennel and fregola, which is a type of small, Sardinian pasta. Nice, but the piece of fish was tiny: about the size of my thumb.

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Chicken. Quite salty, although I like that.

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At this point we had a small pause before the meat course so we went outside onto the terrace for a better look at the view. Well, I say ‘outside’. I stood by the doorway and took a couple of quick photos before staggering back to our table.

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Other diners did what people these days do when there’s a view.

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Once we’d sat back down a police helicopter flew past exactly level with us, and scarily close. Seriously, only about 10-15 metres from the window. I bet they did it on purpose to freak us out. Bastards.

Next came the beef. First time I’ve had cheese and gravy together on the same plate. Again, quite salty. Again, I didn’t mind, although some might.

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Cucumber, cream and rum palate cleanser.

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Strawberry dessert. The edible checkered tablecloth was a nice touch.

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And then a selection of smaller sweets with the coffee. Chocolatey caramel stuff.

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Watermelon, meringue and yuzu.

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Red fruit coulis and a spot of wasabi.

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A very nice meal, deserving of its two Michelin stars, and even though most of the courses were petite we didn’t leave feeling hungry. And if you can fight off the vertigo the view is amazing. I’d definitely go back.

Isola Bella and Villa Crespi

Last week we found ourselves, child free, driving around the lakes of Piedmont. The kids were with their grandparents and we found a car rental company which would let us have a small vehicle for the entirely reasonable sum of €19 for two days. We sped up to Lago Maggiore to have a bit of a look around.

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The weather was fine, and on the spur of the moment we took a ferry into the lake to visit Isola Bella. Apart from a tiny village (full of restaurants and souvenir shops) by the harbour where the ferry docked, this small island is taken up almost entirely by a large stately home and the attached gardens. I had little interest in the palazzo, but we had to walk through it in order to access the gardens, so we found ourselves slaloming our way around groups of trudging tourists as they gazed at a large collection of uninspiring paintings in overwrought gilt frames, spread across a ridiculous number of drawing and function rooms.

The route was long and winding with no possibility of short-cuts, but eventually we found ourselves back out in the fresh air and entered the gardens. These were the most intriguing aspect when seen from the water as we approached:

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Here’s the view of the other side:

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And looking back towards the mainland.

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See that lacy white thing on the lawn on the right hand side?

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Albino peacock!

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In fact there were two, one on each of the twin lawns. And they regularly called to each other and put on displays for the smartphone-wielding tourists.

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Our lodgings (and, er, dinings) for that night were a short drive away next to Lake Orta. You may remember that we’d been to this area before a few years ago, and in fact we had driven past and noted Villa Crespi as an intriguing-looking place. So of course this was our destination this time. As the hotel website tells it, “Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, a pioneer of the Italian cotton industry, while travelling on business in the Middle East was bewitched by Baghdad and its charms and in 1879 finished his own magnificent Moorish villa”. This is the view of the tower from the terrace outside our room.

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The elaborate stucco work continues inside:

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And the view from our room towards the lake wasn’t bad either.

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After a bit of relaxation we headed down for dinner. Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo is originally from Naples. Hence the title of the tasting menu: “Itinerary from the south to the north of Italy”.

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The opening selection of amuse-bouches.

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I didn’t take notes, but I recall that the round buns at the top were focaccia (my wife’s only complaint of the evening was about this inauthentic version of her home town’s speciality), the green blobs at the bottom were crackers with gorgonzola and celery, and the macaroons at left were savoury.

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First course: oyster in a creamy radish sauce. I’ll never be enthusiastic about oyster but this slipped down easily enough, aided by the sauce.

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Raw shrimp in a “pizza”-style sauce (tomato, mozzarella, oregano). Strange and memorable.

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Linguine with squid and a rye bread sauce.

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Red mullet, aubergine, and a smoked provola cheese sauce. Fantastic. This dish was one of the motivations for buying the chef’s recipe book before we left the next day.

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Pigeon with foie gras and chocolate crunchy bits. My son was incredulous when I told him I’d eaten this bird, and asked me “Did they clean out all the poo first?”

It was a surprisingly large amount of meat and we started to feel full at this point.

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But then…CHEESE TROLLEY! A good range, although the waiter didn’t give us too much time to find out what each one was, and just gave us a selection.

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Pre-dessert was an alcoholic sorbet to be sucked up through a straw from inside an edible white chocolate cup.

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Ice cream and fruit.

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More nibbles. We were really full at this point and didn’t finish them all.

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Pretty, though.

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After this there was also a couple of sfogliatelle, but we really couldn’t manage those so we asked for them to be sent to our room and we had them the next morning.

Oh, there was also some good wine.

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But in spite of our bursting bellies it had been a very enjoyable meal. One of the best for a while, in fact.

At breakfast the next morning I saw mention on the menu of cereals, but couldn’t find them anywhere. Only after I’d had my fill of bread and cheese did I notice the small jars on the buffet which, on closer inspection, were revealed as bespoke cereal containers. Rice Crespis!

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I can see us coming back here in the not too distant future.

4 things to do in Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.

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Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.

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When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.

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This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.

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Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.

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Mexico:

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Ecuador:

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Japan:

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And of course there are related movie posters.

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A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.

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Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.

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You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.

And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.

The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.

Outside the farm you can visit the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.

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In this form it almost looks appetising.

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In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:

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Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, or chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.

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You can buy small portions to take home with you. I didn’t.

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The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.

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They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:

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One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:

But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).

Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?