HighclerePlain old curiosity led the Client plus household to leave the Big Smoke and head out to Berkshire last Friday to visit Highclere Castle, the Carnarvon family residence which is famously the setting for the much-praised television drama Downton Abbey. I knew of Highclere before she became Downton, for it was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who funded the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. (I am sensing a preoccupation with ancient Egypt at present… I know not why…)

I have to admit to being slightly fascinated by the 1920’s. The discovery of the tomb in 1922 was a hugely influential cultural event, spawning new stylistic directions in fashion and particularly in jewellery. Cartier in particular was strongly influenced by such motifs as the scarab, the lotus flower and by the architecture of ancient Egypt. Many of their jewels, and those of other major houses from this period, reference the aesthetic brought to light in the discovery.

Other joys from the 20s include the early works of Agatha Christie, who’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles gave life to the much-loved Hercule Poirot and was published in 1920. My favourite AC novel is Death on the Nile (published 1937) and whilst not universally acknowledged as one of her best, does remind us of the grand tours undertaken at the time and evokes the glamour of travel in the jazz age – something that still resonates today with hotels such as Sofitel’s Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan reminding today’s guests that Dame Agatha was a guest there back in the day. P.G. Wodehouse was also writing at this time and his creations Jeeves and  Bertie Wooster appeared in 1919.

Savoy Cocktail Book First Edition

One defining element of this period is the popularity of the cocktail, this being the era during which many of the concoctions we know and love today were created – or if not created then certainly given names and catalogued for wider reference. The defining tome for cocktail lovers everywhere is of course The Savoy Cocktail Book first published in 1930, with an absolutely cracking Art Deco cover design.

Speaking of cocktails, it was my great pleasure to dine with some chums at the Delaunay restaurant the other night and I must give praise for the absolutely delicious Sidecar they served up. Made with 1/3 brandy, 1/3 triple sec, 1/3 lemon juice, my benchmark for brilliance for this particular favourite is the one served at the Connaught Hotel’s Coburg Bar. I have to say the Delaunay’s comes in a very close second and I will need to return as soon as possible for another (for research purposes of course….) The food wasn’t bad either and I have to say the dining room, service and general all round experience was one I very much look forward to repeating, soon and often thereafter. It may well be my new favourite spot.

NYC from Hotel Americano
So good they named it twice… so the saying goes… but there really is something rather marvelous about the City that Never Sleeps. On a recent business visit I was pleasantly surprised by the urban-chic hospitality at the Hotel Americano (518 W 27th Street) which although small is absolutely perfect for a short 4-5 days stay. The rooms are very simply furnished in a utilitarian manner, with a Japanese-style raised bed platform defining the sleeping area, and a small table and chair providing a space to eat from room service (which is all served in bento boxes) or to work. Every room has a pre-loaded iPad2; when I arrived into my room mine was playing the theme from Grease which made me smile. In the lobby is a smart cafe bar serving snacks and drinks and a full-service restaurant and terrace complete the facilities.

Round the corner from this hostelry is another find worth knowing about – a really great neighbourhood restaurant called Bottino (248 10th Avenue) I had their golden beet salad to start followed by grilled salmon… simple but very well put together and dinner for one (I had a copy of New York magazine for company) came in at 45 bucks including a “seasonal” lager and sparkling water. The service was absolutely impeccable and lightning-fast… I noted that it was much more sedate for those dining a deux showing a thoughtful approach to tailoring the experience for those eating because they didn’t fancy another room service supper (me) and those that wanted to make their evening last.

One of the best things about Chelsea aside from the rather nice galleries however has to be the Chelsea Market which is to be found on 9th Avenue between 15th & 16th Streets. Occupying a former biscuit factory, this space is now home to a catwalk of food shops, selling such deliciousness as fresh lobster (The Lobster Place) and heavenly chocolate brownies (Fat Witch Bakery). There are enough places here to provide novelty at lunchtime for over a fortnight as well as shops selling gifts, foods, wine, flowers and books.

New York isn’t all about skyscrapers and uptown shopping… areas such as Chelsea and The Village are deserving of being destinations-within-a-destination in their own right and I delighted in experiencing their unique and friendly environs.

Bottino NYC

When In… Tokyo

25/09/2011

Happo-En Garden, Shirokanedai, TokyoI know I say it every time… reading about other people’s travels is so dull. Better to get out there and find your own places of interest and excursion. However, I am feeling a need to share with you some of my Tokyo highlights if perchance you are coming here and need a pointer or two… so here they are.

Seryna, Roppongi.
This restaurant serves delicious beef and crab shabu-shabu, which is served raw and you cook it yourself in a copper couldron filled with boiling water in the centre of the table. The charming staff are generous with their explanations of what to do and how to do it and the overall experience is delightful for its novelty and deliciousness. Very thinly sliced beef shabu-shabu takes mere seconds to cook. Lunch for three people came in at ¥21,500 (£180)

Ito-ya
This shop in Ginza is an absolute must if, like me, you are a lover of anything made of paper. The store is laid out over ten floors and sells everything from greetings cards to fine writing instruments and origami supplies. The sixth floor is your must-visit for handmade Japanese paper (Washi) which comes in a seemingly limitless choice of colours and designs. You can buy roughly A4 sized sheets for as little as ¥189 (£1.60) each and my purchases are destined to be framed and hung as a souvenir of this visit.

Across the street you will find Alfred Dunhill‘s “Home”… and the very lovely Aquarium Bar which has a great view of the passing Ginza foot traffic below. Owned by the global luxury company Richemont,  this store is noteworthy for its collections of vintage Dunhill items artfully merchandised alongside current product, and whilst no longer British-owned, is a wonderful outpost of the British sartorial aesthetic so loved in Japan.

Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum
For lovers of Art Deco the building itself is pure inspiration. Completed in 1933 for Prince Asaka (a relation of the Imperial Family) this residence was built to reflect the aesthetics of the time he and his wife spent in Paris. They visited the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in person in 1925 and were therefore early patrons of this still influential design movement.
Heads-up… The museum is closing for renovations in November 2011 so perhaps put this on the bring-forward list for your next visit to Japan.

Happo-En
If visiting the Teien Museum, a short (downhill) stroll leads one to Happo-En, a truly relaxing and beautiful garden which one can scarcely believe exists in such a bustling and seemingly crowded city as Tokyo. Taking a stroll along the winding path, you come across a small lake teeming with enormous carp, turtles and dragonflies.

Hello Tokyo…

21/09/2011

Imperial Palace Garden, Tokyo
Seldom does one get the chance to use that lovely word ENTHRALLING. But Japan really, really is.

Tokyo is a little bit wet at the moment. This morning, relatively light showers permitted an excursion to the Imperial Palace Garden with its miniature trees and a brief sojourn into Ginza, the main shopping district. However, by mid this afternoon a typhoon blew in and began disgorging itself over the city. Horizontal sheets of rain have been battering against my window for the remainder of the day.

Rarely for Japan, the public transport network has been affected and commuters stranded trying to get home against the deluge have rendered the traffic impassable and taxis impossible to get. Plans to dine have been postponed, and for one evening at least Japan’s machine-like efficiency has thrown its hands up against the forces of mother nature.

But in true Japanese style, thoughtfulness in small but meaningful gestures abound in such inhospitable climactic circumstances. Upon entering the Hermes store in Ginza, dripping umbrellas were wrapped and small fluffy white towels handed out with warm greeting and the customary bowing. At our hotel, the queue for taxis was taken care of as banqueting chairs were brought out into the lobby to accommodate the weary legs of commuters keen to get their journeys underway. The comfort and wellbeing of others is taken very seriously here.

Tokyo seems a very busy, complicated and inhuman city at first glance. But even 24 hours here reveals a deeply held, collective  commitment to ensuring that kindness and manners prevail. In the space of a single day one sees, hears or experiences more small polite gestures and thoughtful, kind service than in a year back in London.

When did we all become so lazy, so unconcerned for one another and so rude? Why do we tolerate it from one another?

More from Tokyo when the rain stops!

Keeping It Local…

19/07/2011

‘A new Hollinghurst novel is always a great literary event.  And his latest could be his greatest yet… History is more likely to see Hollinghurst for what he is – not a gay writer, but a great writer’
Observer 

It never fails to amaze me how many people bemoan the loss of town centres, local shops, community spirit and the like, whilst ordering their books exclusively from Amazon or doing all their food shopping at the out-of-town supermarket. “It’s such a shame the fishmonger / deli / bookshop closed down” you will hear them say. I beg you to ask them… “When was the last time you bought something there?” I will wager nine times out of ten that they either won’t recall, or if they can it was so long ago that it defies accurate mention.

I don’t think it is necessarily the consumers’ fault entirely. Local businesses can sometimes appear, for want of a better word, lazy… expecting customers to grace their shopfloor (and fill their tills) regardless of whether or not the windows are appealing, the merchandise compelling, having made little or no effort to entice them in with a differentiated offer. Cheap, worn fixtures and fittings and even worse demotivated, low paid team members can make “shopping local” a very dismal experience, leaving one clamouring for the polish of the West End or the convenience of the drive in – shop – drive out experience of an out of town mall.

I was fortunate to hear (via a friend) that an independent bookshop in Bloomsbury called Gays The Word (for it specialises in gay-orientated titles) was this evening hosting an evening with one of my favourite authors, Alan Hollinghurst. A Man Booker Prizewinner (for The Line of Beauty) Hollinghurst has a new novel out, The Stranger’s Child, and was promoting the book with a reading and booksigning in a fab little bar near the shop called The New Bloomsbury Set. This is the perfect example of a small business doing something not only to promote its own product and engage with customers, but also to expand and share the benefits with another local business in rainforest-esque symbiosis… a bookshop and a bar joining forces for their mutual enrichment and for the enjoyment of their customers. It was a sell-out evening and a lovely Tuesday night passtime for the assembled crowd, who enjoyed selected passages from the book and then a Q&A with the author.

The book is fantastic and I would definitely recommend Hollinghurst’s work. But the point of this post is not the book. It is a wake up call to small independent retailers and shops everywhere… take a leaf out of Gays The Word’s book and put yourself out there. A tasting hosted by a noteworthy local farmer or chef… a booksigning, reading, concert… whatever it is, promote yourself to customers old and new in ways which engage and excite them. Getting to you might not be as easy as getting to the supermarket, so make it worth your customers’ while with fabulous friendly service and a reason to go out of their way. Add value to their experience and they will be back, spreading the word about you to new customers.

But just as important is a wake up call to customers too. Buy local every now and then or indeed whenever you can… support your local bookshop (Amazon is a godsend but don’t get lazy!) cornershop or deli. Go in frequently and find out what’s new and above all, support their events and happenings whenever possible. Your local community depends on them and they in turn depend on you.

Gays The Word Bookshop
66 Marchmont Street
London
WC1N 1AB
www.gaystheword.co.uk
020 7278 7654

Reviews of the book, which is out now, can be found by clicking here

This morning I was inspired by a visit to the gorgeous Clifton Nurseries, an oasis of beauty in west London and a must-visit for anyone seeking some embellishments for their urban patch. By definition I suppose this place is a garden centre, but that term is a poor reflection of the very high standards of merchandise, display and plantsmanship here. You can buy the usual essentials such as compost, plant feed and tools, but this is a place to linger, enjoy and treat oneself to a bit of nature.

Much of London’s liveable loveliness derives from the way in which the natural world creeps into the built environment (albeit quite often with a helping hand) and rewards us with a display of optimism and colour which lifts our spirits and reminds us that beyond the city limits lie greenery, fresh air, and abundant space. Aside from the blessing of the big big parks, smaller garden squares and private gardens with their trees peeping over fences and rooftops, I am always restored by the sight of plants growing vigorously in pots on a doorstep or a window box spilling over with lavish colour.

Clifton’s plants are excellent quality and this must be the tidiest place of its kind in London as there didn’t seem to be a dead leaf or twig in sight. In the sunshine the greens looked greener and the colours more colourful than ever. A particular feature of the outdoor plants area is a large and I presume architectural salvage column with a grape vine winding its way up to the heavens… Bacchus would surely approve…

The charm extends indoors with home accessories, linens and furniture both of which are more akin to what you might find at Liberty than your local garden centre (although their prices do reflect that). Colour-themed displays also brought to mind a thoughtful, curated perspective behind the merchandising so that one really felt as though a bit of time had been taken to create an appealing and inspiring browsing experience so lacking elsewhere.

Clifton Nurseries
5a Clifton Villas
London W9 2PH
www.clifton.co.uk

De-licious Delaire.

10/03/2011

So THIS is Cape Town, a truly remarkable city right at the bottom of the world. Looking out over the expanse of blue South Atlantic ocean with the unfathomable mass of Table Mountain at your back, the realisation strikes that there is nothing standing between you and South America, far far away to the west. Upon disembarking from the comfy Virgin Atlantic flight which swept over the vast expanses of sub-Saharan Africa beneath us,  a glance at the Arrivals board showed a later 3pm landing expected from Antarctica. I like this place already for its adventurous spirit and I haven’t even left the airport.

I keep forgetting that this blog is not about travel… But bear with me. For this post isn’t about Cape Town at large, rather an exceptional place outside the city which everyone should come to at least once to experience an all-encompassing, delightful, beautiful and soulful dining experience which when I think back about how divine it was, the whole afternoon seems like a dream.

The Delaire Graff Estate might sound familiar, and if it does that might be because the owner is Lawrence Graff, the famous diamond dealer who has bought and sold many of the world’s largest and most precious large stones. The diamond business clearly pays well, for he has created an utterly magical winery estate an hour from  Cape Town using my favourite uber-designer to realise the vision, David Collins.

Collins has surpassed himself in the creation of a series of spaces which link seamlessly to the natural beauty of the mountains and valley which surround you.  The interiors are, at the risk of sounding breathlessly hyperbolic, sublime. The main dining room opens onto a terrace which is perfectly orientated to take in the glorious surroundings, and appointed with elegantly comfortable furniture. An hour here feels like ten minutes for each turn of the head brings the eye to rest upon another, lovelier, more engaging object, artwork, fabric or landscape, so much so that it is almost hypnotic.

Lunch here lasted for hours in an almost semi-conscious wave of deliciousness. For those interested in such things I started with a carpaccio of tuna, followed by South Africa’s signature fish, Kingclip. I finished with a pistachio nougat served with rose geranium ice cream.

There is something about this place which defies description. It helped that the assembled lunch party was vivacious and fun, but if there is a God for all things beautiful, delicious and exceptional then I think I just found out where he lives.

Delaire Graff Estate
Helshoogte Pass
Stellenbosch
South Africa
www.delaire.co.za