First Images: The Standard, London Hotel Opens in King’s Cross

 

 

It was a seeming inevitability that Standard Hotels would eventually open a London outpost. And this week, the doors have indeed at last opened on its first UK property, the Standard, London, located in the now nicely tidied up King’s Cross – whose once insalubrious streets and railway station were immortalized in song in 1987 by The Pet Shop Boys.

The building itself is a brutalist construction from the early 1970s, the former Camden Town Hall annex. But, as you would surely have guessed if you’d ever set foot in a Standard hotel, the London edition is not intending to take itself quite as seriously as its architecture would suggest. Indeed, as one enters the sort of ’70s-retro lobby, an installation titled Perfect Time, by North London artist Lubna Chowdhary, immediately reminds of the passage of time – perhaps urging guests to make the most of it while visiting.

 

 

Upstairs, the 266 rooms have playful color schemes – lavender window seating, Mondrian-like bedspreads – and windows framing grandiose views of the imposing, Victorian gothic St. Pancras Station. For a particularly cheeky visit, book one of the suites equipped with (no kidding) an outdoor bathtub.

It being a Standard, however, guests are vigorously discouraged from holing up in those rooms, tempting as that tub may be. Adam Rawson’s Double Standard does classic cocktails and bar bites; but Isla is a more involved affair, drawing on the hotel’s garden for a particularly verdant dining experience. The obligatory rooftop bar opens in September – and should be expected to be the post-summer scene of all scenes.

 

 

But, as we’ve come to expect, the new Standard’s soul is an artistic one. So its in-house library comes complete with a real, live librarian (who can perhaps help you brush up on your Evelyn Waugh and Emily Brontë). And the signature Sounds Studio will act as an incubator for local musical talent – which London, let’s face it, is never really at a loss for.

By the way, that aforementioned Pet Shop Boys song notably contained the lyric, “Murder walking round the block / Ending up in King’s Cross.” It’s come a long way, obviously.

 

Stunning New Hotel Alert: The Belmond Castello di Casole Opens in Tuscany

 

If you had to be dropped somewhere in the middle of Tuscany, you could surely do worse than to find yourself in Casole D’Elsa. Just 60km from Firenze, 30km from Siena, and dancing along the edge of the ethereal Chianti wine region, it dates all the way back to the 10th Century. The surrounding area also boasts lofty cultural cred, its grounds being trod by the likes of Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham Carter in Where Angels Fear to Tread; Judi Dench and Cher in Tea With Mussolini; and Keanu Reeves and Kate Beckinsdale in Kenneth Branagh‘s Much Ado About Nothing.

Into this now comes what is surely Toscana’s most opulent new hotel, the Belmond Castello di Casole – which opened last month after a very careful restoration. No mere converted farmhouse, make no mistake, this is a castle (thus the name). And its wondrously sprawling estate of 4200 acres literally contains an actual game preserve, where you may find yourself crossing paths with a friendly deer or bunny or two.

 

 

A cypress-lined path (ah, Tuscany) leads to the entrance, and once inside, you’ll find stone walls, wood beams, handsome terracotta, Carrara marble…all richly preserved. And for all the visual and sybaritic glories that are just a short taxi ride away, the possibility that one might check in and never leave the grounds is a distinct one. Indeed, 39 rustically elegant rooms are done up in earthy yet regal tones, graced with antiques and uncluttered layouts – with beds designed for long periods of flopping lazily.

Elsewhere, an Essere Spa boasts seven pampering suites, offering such transformative sounding treatments as the Etruscan facial lift, detox lymphatic massage, and the Di-Vino body scrub. And since Tuscany is for epicures, breakfast and dinner indulgences can be taken amidst the ornate Murano chandeliers at Tosca; while an outpost of Venice’s celeb-magnet Cip’s by Cipriani offers casual cool lunch and dinner looking out over the rolling Tuscan hills – a cliché of the very best kind.

Still and all, nothing in this ineffable region of Italy has ever so moved us as watching the sunrise over the Elsa Valley down below. So we strenuously suggest rising early, securing the perfect vantage point, and letting your life be changed forever. As one might expect, the view is included in the room rate – but it’s worth at least a small fortune.

 

Tiki Trending: Exclusive Summer Cocktail Recipes From Brooklyn’s New ‘Yaki Tiki’ Pop-Up

 

 

Confirming a fairly reliable but welcome cycle, tiki drinks are one of this season’s hottest imbibing trends; and no surprise, as temps continue to soar, the crushed ice and rum begins to flow. But leave it to the impressively creative team behind Sunday in Brooklyn to combine their love of both tiki and yakitori to conceive Yaki Tiki, which will surely be an insanely popular pop-up at the A/D/O building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn every weekend this summer.

Here, their award winning cocktail magic highlights whimsical takes on classics – to wit, using shochu, a classic Japanese liquor, as well as traditional rum. Kitschy tipples are served in hollowed out pineapples, empty honey bears or even frozen into boozy popsicle form. And JT Vuong, one of the masterminds behind the Yaki Tiki concept enthuses of the inspirations, “one of the most beautiful aspects of living in New York is being situated at a cultural crossroads.”

 

 

 

And of course, the yaki portion of the menu is a selection of Japanese yakitori: assorted meats and vegetables that are skewered and grilled to order.

It’s all a warm up for when the Sunday Hospitality Group opens Rule of Thirds later this year. There, Brian Evans, Director of Bars, plans on featuring, “American classics that draw on Japanese influence for techniques and flavor.” Chef George Padilla (Okonomi / Yuji Ramen) calls it, “a dream project for me that connects the dots between so many talented people.”

Should you have no plans to be anywhere near Greenpoint between now and September, we asked Evans to turn us on to the secrets behind some of his grooviest Yaki Tiki drink creations.

 

Umami Grog

1.25 oz Tequila Reposado
0.75 oz Lustau Amontillado Sherry
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz miso-honey syrup*
0.25 oz cinnamon syrup**
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
MOP: Whip ingredients with a few pellets of pebble ice until combined. Pour contents into plastic Honeybear bottle and pack with pebble ice. To garnish, wrap a long pineapple frond around the neck of the Honeybear bottle and pin with umbrella skewer to hold in place.
*For the Miso-Honey Syrup:
200g honey
100g yellow miso
200g very hot water
MOP: Stir miso and hot water until combined, then add honey and continue to stir until combined.
**For the Cinnamon Syrup:
400g very hot water
400g caster sugar
50 grams crushed cinnamon sticks
MOP: Bring crushed cinnamon sticks and hot water to medium heat and let steep for 10 minutes, then stir in sugar until combined. Keep in the refrigerator overnight unstrained until ready to use.

 

 

 

Blue Kawaii (pictured top)

0.75 oz Plantation 3-star Rum
0.5 oz Wray and Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum
0.5 oz Giffard Blue Curacao
0.5 oz Jokigen Yuzu Sake
0.25 oz Coconut Milk
0.25 oz Coco Lopez
0.25 oz Lime Juice
1 oz Mango-Pandan Shrub*
MOP: Whip ingredients with a few pellets of pebbled ice until combined. Pour into tiki mug, top with more pebble ice, and garnish lavishly.
*For the Mango-Pandan Shrub:
2 pandan leaves
300g mango, cut in small pieces
300g rice wine vinegar
300g caster sugar
MOP: Combine pandan leaves and rice wine vinegar into a medium-sized pot and heat on medium for 15 minutes, then stir in sugar until dissolved. Reduce to medium-low heat and let mango chunks cook down for an additional 15 minutes. Let ingredients steep in the refrigerator overnight, then strain.

 

Watermelon Popsicles (Boozy)

Makes 20 3oz popsicles
6 cups strawberries, tops removed
6 cups watermelon, rind removed and cut into cubes
2 cups kiwi, skin removed
1.5 cups granulated sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 cup white rum
1/2 cup water
1 cup chocolate crisps pearls
MOP:
  1. Cook strawberries, sugar, and salt in a pot on medium heat until strawberries begin to break down.
  2. Transfer to a blender and pulse until smooth.
  3. Add cubed watermelon and rum, and continue to blend until fully incorporated.
  4. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until fully cooled.
  5. Mix in the chocolate pearls.
  6. Fill popsicle molds leaving approximately 1cm unfilled at the top. Freeze for 1 hour.
  7. While the watermelon mix is freezing, blend kiwis and water until smooth.
  8. Once watermelon mix is frozen to the touch, fill the remaining space in each mold with the kiwi mix.
  9. Now that the popsicles are firm enough, you can insert the popsicle sticks and they won’t move around.
  10. Continue to freeze for at least 4 hours.
*To make this non-boozy, just add an additional 1.5 cups of watermelon.

Stopover in Copenhagen: Where to Shop, Stay, Eat + Play

Vesterbro

 

 

After an amazingly ideological time in Iceland recently, we took advantage of the wonderful Icelandair Stopover program, to spend a few days in Copenhagen, arguably the coolest city in Europe now.

The airline righty describes the program thusly: “When you fly Icelandair across the Atlantic, you can Stopover in Iceland at no extra airfare. That gives you the opportunity to explore Iceland, both country and culture, without adding to your ticket price.”

Flying Icelandair’s Saga class makes it also highly recommended, especially as Saga members receive a special wildlife themed toiletries kit (with puffin footprint pattern). Filled with the usual sleeping mask and socks, we really loved the 100% natural, cruelty-free beauty products from Icelandic brand Hannesdottir (we’re still using the perfect lip balm). Lingering in the tastefully appointed, savories and sweets-filled Saga Lounge at both JFK (New York) and Reykjavik airports was also a particular pleasure.

Saga Lounge, Reykjavik

 

Once in Copenhagen we checked into the playfully stylish Andersen Boutique Hotel, located in the heart of hip hood Vesterbro. From the Andersen (and its sister property Absalon, just across the street), it was easy to get anywhere in Copenhagen – whether by foot, bicycle, taxi or train (the station is only a block away).

Our bellies full from the Andersen’s awesome breakfast buffet, we first made our way to the storied Tivoli Gardens. It is a must-do, since however touristy you’ve been told it is, it is in the best way possible. We strolled the park’s magnificent gardens, stopped by the Mallows kiosk to sample the local brand’s flavorful, taffy-like marshmallows, then hopped The Demon rollercoaster (there’s a VR experience for an additional fee). For something uniquely spectacular, hit the famous Star Flyer – its swings carry riders 80 meters above the park for a stellar view.

 

We then hit the shops, starting with Langsamt, a beautifully stocked sustainable clothing shop in Vesterbro that carries cool brands like Fub, Armor Lux, and Portugal’s organic cotton t-shirt Colorful Standard, as well as dozens of other like-minded designers. Owner Johanne Kjaerum, along with her mother, have curated a lovely selection of fashions, accessories and modern ceramics (made by mom, by the way).

HAY House was another fave for modern furniture and design. Founded in 2002, this exceptional shop occupies the second and third floors of the most gorgeous building along Stogen (Copenhagen’s main shopping street). Where sophisticated industrial manufacturing meets good design, you’ll find irresistible objects and functional pieces for the home. We tried to figure out how to get their seriously good matte olive green outdoor furniture – designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for HAY – back to the New York…and were told they ship to the States. Joy!

HAY House

 

We then spent an afternoon and evening in the Meatpacking District, one of the city’s most happening neighborhoods, with cool restaurants, galleries and nightlife aplenty. We loved Butchers and Bicycles, even though we weren’t actually in the market new wheels. And dinner at Bob Bistro, an edgier organic restaurant housed in a former appliance store (look for the neon Bosch sign out front), followed by the boisterous Jolene, for a very Copenhagen take on the DJ-and-dive-bar thing.

We started another day with the plentiful smorgasbord-style breakfast at the cool, curiously named Mad & Kaffe, on Sonder Boulevard in Vesterbro (you can do the same at their other locations in Amagerbro and Frederiksberg).

 

We got our Copenhagen culture fix at Design Museum Denmark. The Danish know and love design, certainly, and this is their place of exultation – all very intelligently curated. The Hall of Danish Chairs was a highlight. Currently on view, an impressive Bauhaus survey, coinciding with the movement’s 100 year anniversary.

Then we toured the canals, an experience which allows you to really comprehend the singular beauty of this city, offering a whole new perspective, after we’d spent all our time walking. We just jumped on one of many passenger boats taking off every 15 minutes. Though we specifically recommend Hey Captain.

If it’s too cold or rainy to be on the canals, we would definitely suggest catching a movie at Grand Teatret, featuring a smartly curated selection of European and American films, in a gorgeously maintained historic space – and with a full bar to boot.

Design Museum Denmark 

 

Craving an afternoon snack, we popped in to Cafe Norden for the city’s best ‘hindbaersnitte”. Translation: raspberry slice, and that’s exactly what it is. We enjoyed some serious people watching as we bit into two layers of sweet shortcrust pastry sandwiched with raspberry jam, topped with a simple pink icing and real sugared raspberry bits.

Of course, Copenhagen is now the universe’s most exalted culinary destination. And 108, affectionately called NOMA’s little brother, dazzled our taste buds with it’s awesome foraged and farm-to-table fare. Reasonably priced and unpretentious, we loved the whole lacquered quail, for its presentation and crunchy goodness, the soft leeks with salted plums and aged cheese (like savory little pillows), followed by the “hot dough not” – you guessed it, tiny donuts filled with caramel and seaweed ice cream.

For the adventurous, there is an excellent tasting menu to experience the full flavor of the cooking at 108. We were most intrigued by the ‘livretter’ offerings, asparagus with smoke Osietre sturgeon, raw lamb with last year’s pickles, and steamed egg yolk with 10g of Royal Belgian Caviar. If you’re feeling decadent, we suggest a dessert of Rausu Konbu ice cream, again accompanied by 8g of Royal Belgian Caviar.

Yum.

108

Andersen Boutique Hotel

A chic and charming Vesterbro boutique hotel, ee stayed in the “Amazing” suite, which was, yes, actually pretty amazing. All 69 rooms and suites feature wallpaper, cushions and curtains by Designers Guild, while the interiors are bold and bright, yet super comfy. Little touches like Molton Brown toiletries in the bathroom, Jasper Morrison garbage containers, Philippe Starck toilets, and Muuto hangers by Lars Tornoe meant we were surrounded by good design during our entire stay. Photographs by German-Iranian photographer Patricia Parinejad adorn all of the rooms.

Heading back to the hotel at the end of each sightseeing day, we were warmly greeted by a communal happy hour. Guests are invited to the hotel’s version of “hygge,” where drinks are served from a makeshift bar in the lobby, and all are encouraged to socialize. One evening we sat next to two gigantic stuffed bears, who appeared already to have imbibed. But their silence was welcome after our brisk touring of one of the best cities in the world.

First Images: New Market Street Hotel Opens This Summer in Edinburgh

 

 

We do love a weekend in Edinburgh, with its grandiose medieval and Georgian architecture, its heritage pubs and its unshakeable sense of gravitas. But if we’re being honest, we wouldn’t mind if it had a few more destination worthy boutique hotels.

And so we’re excited for the city’s stylish new Market Street Hotel (a member of Design Hotels, and a Carlton Hotel Collection property), opening sometime in the coming weeks. Straddling the border between the Old Town and New, it means a stroll along buzzy George Street and a climb up to the panorama of Arthur’s Seat are both quick trips from the front door. And the hotel’s highly anticipated rooftop champagne bar Nor’ Loft (with open kitchen and fireplace) will take in views of the Sir Walter Scott monument, Princes Street Gardens and, most dramatically, the imposing, awe-inspiring Edinburgh Castle. So…bubbles with a quintessential view.

 

 

Interiors are by Dutch design firm FG Stijl – who have worked with Park Hyatt and Nobu – and the result crosses Corbusian industrial austerity with a cool update of Scottish tradition (tartan meets concrete, if you will). And the 98 rooms and suites exhibit a warm, contemporary elegance – with moody lighting and cosmopolitan color schemes.

Timing couldn’t be better, as the 2019 edition of the exalted annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe is set for August 2 – 26. But the National Gallery of Modern Art will also be exhibiting Beyond Realism: Dada and Surrealism, through September 25, showing off its extensive collection of dada art and artifacts.

 

Five Perfect Wines for Summer, From Bar Fiori Sommelier Mariarosa Targtaglione

Image by Liz Clayman

 

 

Okay, we get it – frosé is all cute and refreshing, especially when paired with a lazy summer weekend afternoon. But you wouldn’t want to wake up one day in September to find your too-long-neglected oenophilic acumen has been dulled, would you? And in fact, the escalating, climate-changed temps these days often find us ducking indoors for more urbane but still season-appropriate sips in, well, an actual air-conditioned room.

And few know their wines better than Mariarosa Tartaglione, Sommelier at Michael White’s Ai Fiori, the sophisticated but laid back Italian eatery at the The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue. Its elegant namesake bar’s plush leather banquettes, marble bar and dramatically mirrored ceiling give it style to spare.

 

 

And every Friday this summer, starting at 5pm (after aperitivo hour), Bar Fiori‘s expert sommeliers will be opening their select favorite bottles, to pour by the glass at special prices – which will carry on until those wines run out. Each week’s selections will be posted on the restaurant’s Instagram page, as is the habit in these times.

In that spirit, we asked Mariarosa to enlighten us as to some of her favorite Mediterranean wines to drink for summer, and what (besides air conditioning) is best to pair them with.

 

Sardus Pater, Vermentino “Lugore” 2017  

From the very south of Sardegna, “Lugore” remembers the quiet nights when the full moon reflects on the vines. A truly salty wine made from the Vermentino grape, well structured and with sapid nuances of fresh citrus and aromatic herbs. A must with oysters and spaghetti with clams.

 

 

 

Cecilia, Elba Ansonica 2017

Fresh, bright, floral white from the Elba island, in the Tuscan Archipelago. It is made by Ansonica, a truly island grape, very popular in Sicily as well. Its delicate citrus and stone fruit notes pair best with crudo and seafood salads.

Domaine Zuria, Corsica 2017

From the most southern part of Corsica, made by Sciacarellu and a little part of Moresconu. Refreshing yet very complex rose’, with particular orange blossom and mineral notes. My favorite pairing is risotto with prawns and bottarga.

 

 

 

Manenti, Frappato 2016 

From the south-oriental coast of Sicily, made by Frappato, a very traditional grape of this area. It is a light body wine, with bright acidity, it shows strawberry and pomegranate notes, spiced up by cloves and white pepper. A great wine to drink slightly chilled. I love it with a classic swordfish steak “alla siciliana” with cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, and oregano.

Casa d’Ambra, “Mario d’Ambra Rosso” 2015 

Ideal wine for a summer barbecue, this is a full bodied, structured and persistent red, made by 50% Guarnaccia – 50% Per’e’ Palummo, that this family-owned estate has been farming on the volcanic Ischia Island since 1888. Tasting notes of dark fruits, chocolate and licorice.

 

Image by Liz Clayman

Belfast Rising: Has Good Design – and ‘Game of Thrones’ – Ushered in a New Era For Northern Ireland’s Capital?

Titanic Quarter

 

Belfast had a problem. For more than three decades stretching from the 1960s into the late ’90s, its international image was almost entirely informed by “The Troubles,” a guerrilla war of sorts, which on the surface seemed to be a quasi-religious clash between Catholics and Protestants – but was actually much more about allegiance to Ireland on one side, loyalty to Britain on another.

The conflict was immortalized, for better or worse, in mainstream films like In The Name of the Father and Patriot Games. But surely the lyrics to the Stiff Little Fingers punk classic “Alternative Ulster” most viscerally and decisively captured the reality of life in Belfast during those times.

“Take a look where you’re livin’
You got the army on the street
And the R-U-C dog of repression
Is barking at your feet
Is this the kind of place you want to live?”

It was the right question to ask, of course – and after all, punk did tend to ask the right questions.

Fast forward, and certainly the problems didn’t just magically vanish with the signing of the landmark Good Friday Agreement in 1998; but that stifling, often terrifying sense of everyday division and fear was at last very much on its way out. Now Belfast, today, is a very different place.

 

 

Two decades on from the peace accord, we checked into the sleek and shiny new AC Hotel by Marriott Belfast on a sunny Saturday morning – and just beyond its generously proportioned windows was, indeed, a new alternative. There rising up along the once derelict docklands was the visually awe-inspiring new Titanic Quarter – with its corresponding, namesake museum. Yet shipbuilding, as with Liverpool, was always very much of part of the Belfast DNA; and the same Harland and Wolff shipyard that birthed that famous trio of cruise liners – the Titanic, the Olympic and the Britannic – remains to this day.

Local firm Todd Architects was primarily responsible for the revitalization – and what they built was all very much to human scale…unlike the so many high-rise monstrosities of contemporary London and New York. Nothing along the new waterfront skyline showily attempts to make a statement of itself, something which is arguably imperative in a cityscape so bereft of skyscrapers.

And the Titanic Museum is its true point of pride (it was recently ranked with the UK’s top cultural institutions), intelligently but entertainingly telling the story of the infamously doomed ship, which was built here in 1920 and, as the history books – and James Cameron – have it, fatally made impact with a massive iceberg on its maiden voyage. It is memorialized in a way that is part melancholy, part historic pride, the presentation showing its more serious side with an exhibit on the very real perils of shipbuilding life in the early 20th Century.

 

 

Yet it is the museum’s place in the overall visual tableau of the Titanic Quarter that resonates most poignantly and proudly within Northern Ireland’s still relatively humble capital. Comprised of four epic, polished steel structures meant to mimic the hull of a ship, it rises above the River Lagan as a constant reminder that the city is evolving towards a new, more hopeful future. Titanic, indeed.

But if the museum is a window into Belfast’s history, the nearby Titanic Studios have spent the last several years decisively positioning the city within the contemporary cultural zeitgeist. Indeed, this is where much of Game of Thrones was filmed (surely one of the half dozen or so greatest television shows ever), and so here, one can rightly say that a new generation of stars was born: Sophie Turner, Kit Harington and the rest of their considerable like.

Now that it’s all done, we’re not quite sure if locals are sad to see the production go, or happy to know how much mileage they will continue to get out of it in the coming years. To wit, a Game of Thrones exhibition is currently on show at the TEC Belfast; and for the millions-strong worldwide GOT geekdom, there are all manner of entertaining tours to be booked seven days a week.

 

Usfolk gallery 

 

Back in the center of the city, the Cathedral Quarter is buzzing these days with indie/DIY shops, which, with their general egalitarian vibe (hipsters are kinda hippie, after all), feel very much like a positive way forward from the internecine strife that kept Belfast so isolated from the Western tourism boom of the last few decades. Usfolk is an excellent example of this, making dual purpose as an agency for illustrators, and a raw, airy gallery to exhibit their budding talents. And through their wraparound windows, the view across the surrounding rooftops is replete with just the sort of patchwork charm you’d expect of this city.

Street art – not the trendy, mercenary sort, but the genuinely ideological kind – made for a powerful voice during those years of uncertainty. Belfast, it should be said, actually boasts a tradition of murals dating back more than a century; no surprise, they were generally of the political disposition. Today, one of the most striking is Connor Harrington‘s Dance by Candlelight, a biting commentary on the decline of empires, and all the macho posturing that so obliviously carries on despite said decline. It is castigation and elegy at once, especially considering the West’s recent worrying slide into right-wing nationalism.

Artists still come from all over Europe to tag in Belfast – it’s seen as a genuine of a badge of honor.

 

Connor Harrington, Dance by Candlelight

 

One of the most vivid outgrowths of this new creative spirit is the Belfast Design Week. Launched in 2015, rather than unnecessarily rushing to evolve it into an international event, it genuinely focuses on Northern Ireland’s plentiful design talent – though it takes on issues that are certainly global in scale. This year’s edition will take place November 4 – 10 at venues around the city.

Perhaps no venture embodies Belfast’s new spirit of design innovation more than Koto, whose Theo Dales we had the chance to meet. Along with partners Johnathon and Zoe Little, they are building modular “cabins” that are inspired by the Scandinavian connection to nature – and as has become increasingly obvious, clues to a more progressive future can mostly be found in Scandinavia.

On a more sybaritic note, and surely much to the delight of many, even food has gotten a makeover in Belfast. To be sure, a traditional culture of pub food and pies is now giving way to restaurants like Hadskis, which crosses European classics with Northern Irish influence in a stylish but inviting atmosphere. Coppi, Coco and The Muddlers Club are also not to be missed by visiting epicures.

Of course, there are never good times without the bad – and Brexit, specifically the Irish Border Backstop, currently looms ominously over contemporary Northern Ireland. But still and all, if you today posed the question to the citizens of Belfast, “Is this the kind of place you want to live?,” one imagines you’d get a very different answer than when Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns first so despairingly asked it.

 

 

AC Hotel by Marriott Belfast

Belfast’s hospitality development had, let’s face it, been virtually non-existent for decades. But there’s something about a great new hotel that conveys a genuine sense of optimism – if you’re building it, it’s with the expectation that people will come from all over the world to stay in it. And the AC Hotel by Marriott Belfast isn’t just a slick new property – it is veritably a window into the future of the city. Indeed, perched dramatically as it is along the River Lagan, it looks across to the gleaming new Titanic Quarter – and such are the views that on a clear day, you may find yourself unable to tear yourself away from the window.

Rooms, as is the AC signature, are warmly contemporary, with elegantly muted color schemes, handsome wood floors, luxurious kingsize beds, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Downstairs there’s an AC Fitness Room, a stylish lounge and a glorious riverside terrace. The Cathedral Quarter is just ten minutes walk away.

But perhaps most notably, the hotel has decisively joined in the local culinary revolution, with its world class eatery Novelli at City Quays. The sort of effortless-chic restaurant one might find in Marylebone or West Hollywood, it boasts massive windows, generously spaced tables, retro-modern furnishings, and a buzzy bar area.

The food, however, by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Baptiste Novelli, is nothing short of a revelation. An unpretentious, very Irish take on contemporary Mediterranean cuisine, one can start with sourie ham hock terrine or porcini crepes, and move on to a local aged beef, Belfast black and brisket pie, or duck confit with braised lentils – like dining in some mythical culinary world between Ulster County and Marseilles. A dedicated vegetarian/vegan menu proves just how far Belfast has come.

 

 

Weekend in Reims: The Biggest Notre Dame Cathedral in France + Champagne for Breakfast

 

 

Dorothy Parker typically once wrote, “Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient Champagne.”

We’ve long held a similar position when it comes to the good bubbly stuff – there is, indeed, never too much, even if sometimes your head might be trying to tell you otherwise. But perhaps because most Americans tend to only uncork a bottle to fête some or other ethereal event in their lives, visiting the namesake French region hasn’t seemed to have the lure of wine-tripping to, say, Burgundy or the Loire.

We fell in love with this little plot of Northeastern France a few years back on a visit to the impossibly picturesque old city of Troyes. But a more recent sojourn took us to Reims (pronounced Rhance), which is something of the Mecca of Champagne – especially if you’ve ever been struck by a sense of divinity when communing with a glass of the good stuff. It’s home to the major houses like Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Ruinart, Taittinger and Vranken-Pommery, where we were greeted like visiting royalty.

 

 

But there is another, suddenly exigent reason to visit Reims. When Paris’ fabled Notre Dame fell to conflagration this past April, we were reminded that just an hour away by TGV, another awe-inspiring “Cathedral of Our Lady” has stood proud and intact since its post-WWI reconstruction. It is there ready to comfort (and astonish) all those now deprived of the privilege of seeing the more famous cathedral.

Still and all, the charms of France’s smaller cities are very much worth considering for a visit, especially if you’ve already trod the boulevards of the capital a couple of times. A “ville” like Reims offers a peek at a bit more of an authentic version of French living, especially as its attractions are not thronged with tourists – something we found ourselves specifically appreciating.

Here’s what we did.

 

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

Considering the low-built city around it, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims will literally take your breath away with its epic scale and haunted beauty. Built over a period of three centuries, the 13th to the 15th, it is an indisputable masterpiece of gothic architecture. It was significantly bombed during WWI (the indignant French used the incident as anti-German propaganda, as one would), and later restored to its inimitable majesty with equal measures of determination and pride. One of the captivating highlights is the Smiling Angel statue at the entrance – perhaps she’d gotten into the Champagne?
Most fascinatingly, Champagne culture is woven into the very fabric of Notre-Dame. During the 1950s, the major houses paid for the new, postwar stained glass, which now artfully tells the story of Champagne (early product placement?), perhaps reminding us that a few sips might genuinely take one closer to God. Indeed, it even has its own patron saint, which is John the Baptist (not Saint Vincent, as is sometimes assumed).
There are also dazzling works of stained glass by Marc Chagall in the axis of the apse of the church, dating to 1974. Inquiring as to his prominent use of the color blue, we were told that in France it is used to indicate prestige.
We also discussed the state ownership of French churches – something which very much came to the fore after the Notre-Dame fire in Paris.

 

 

Maison de Champagne Vranken-Pommery

There are just about 200 km of cellars in the region, and 1.5 billion bottles are stored away in those very cellars. And though Ruinart was first to plant its flag in Reims, we were drawn to Pommery for its artistic heritage – it is, arguably, the hippest Champagne producer.
The house itself was founded by Alexandre and Louise Pommery in 1836, and upon the former’s death in 1860, le madame took the reins – something virtually unheard of in those days; and history considers her as being one of the first prominent female businesswomen. Today it belongs to a larger concern called Vranken Pommery Monopole Group – but one detects nary a whiff of corporate overlordsmanship. It feels very much like a small, artisan concern.
Still, more than half a million cases of champers are produced there each year. And descending into the dark, enigmatic cellars via a dramatically lit stairway, one gets a sense of the seriousness that goes on there.
We learned of the patient process of turning the bottles by hand over a given period of time. Also, harvesting machines are forbidden in Champagne, so great care and genuine sweat goes into every stage of the process. Various combinations of three red skin / white juice grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, are the basis of Champagne – and the year doesn’t matter all that much. But if the bottle is labeled “vintage,” it means the grapes were all from the same harvest. Got that?
But Pommery were always something of the “avant-garde” Champagne makers. And fittingly, the house now curates an annual art project, with outlandish installations woven through the cellars and the cavernous reception room. The latter has a stylish tasting area, where we acquired a considerable but decidedly elegant buzz well before noontime, amidst several imposing art pieces. It’s a bit of a surreal experience, is all we can say.
This year’s art theme is Underground Spirit, a nice double-entendre with both geographical and ideological hints contained within. There was something of a postmodern bouncy castle, and another genuinely affecting work was made up of some 20,000 odd bullet casings.
Fascinating historical fact: Pommery were the first to develop the “brut” champagne, all the way back in 1875.

Pommery, Underground Spirit exhibition 

 

Epicurean Reims

As one does in smaller French cities, we booked lunch at the classic Cafe du Palais, which was even grander than its name suggests. Looking much like a vintage poster of what you might imagine a famous French bistro to look like, the atmosphere was lively, and the seats were full with smart looking business types, charming old regulars, a fashionable sort or two, and savvy/hungry internationalists like ourselves.
It was all there, the faux Louis-the-something chairs, the dark leather banquettes, an absolutely stunning stained glass skylight, and authentic Art Deco everything (the place dates to 1930). We feasted on plates of local ham, homemade foie gras and a hearty duck confit that will essentially ruin you for eating the same dish back home.
A genuine revelation, however, was the restaurant Continental, in the hotel of the same name in which we were staying. As stylish as anything in Marylebone or NoLIta, it had a strikingly coffered ceiling, clever “lampshade” chandeliers, chicly mismatched furnishings and an attention-grabbing, glittery gold bar – all fitted throughout three separate rooms. We started with a cheeky l’œuf parfait, and our dish of medallions of veal in tarragon jus was tender and incredibly flavorful.
The hotel sits at the end of busy Place Drouet d’Erlon, and strolling along it after dinner, the too-many-to-count outdoor bars and pavement cafes were thumping with 20- and 30-somethings all trying to look cool and impress the opposite sex. Spring is definitely mating season in France.
The next night we took a short stroll over the the century-old Cafe de la Paix, which, having recently gotten a designer makeover, is now one of the city’s absolute scenes, packed with a distinctly cosmopolitan crowd. Its cool, contemporary eclecticism makes it seem as if Kelly Wearstler could have done the redesign (a significant compliment, btw). And the menu items were very much of the moment: citrus carpaccio with avocado, sea bream with sesame and soy…and our grilled andouillette was as immersively French as food can possibly be.

 

Other Highlights

Reims was heavily bombed during WWII, yet it remains an endearingly attractive city – so it’s worth taking an afternoon stroll without a specific plan. We stumbled upon the Bibliotheque de Reims, which, considering our penchant for authentic Art Deco, was a thrilling highlight…for the exquisitely realized lobby alone.
We also took a tram to the Urbanisme Transitoire, a street art project inaugurated just last spring, which brought together several artists to create an ongoing multi-mural of sorts, a bit outside the city center. But if you look up – and sometimes even down – you’ll notice such art in unexpected places all around town, including a parking garage turned gallery. C215, who is a sort of French Banksy without the politics, is prominently featured.
But truly our favorite experience was what came next: a ride in an old Renault bus with My Vintage Tour Company, who proceeded to take us out of the city for a late afternoon vineyard tour, followed by a Champagne and cheese party right there in the very same vineyard. Watching the sunlight play off the fields stretched below while the bubbles dazzled our palettes, the impending apocalypse flashing across our television screens that very same morning seemed very far away.

 

Hotel Continental

France’s smaller cities have been a little slow to the boutique hotel races – though with so many charming independent places to stay, it has hardly seemed a matter. But walking into the new Hotel Continental, we were struck by how of-the-moment it was. The cosy but high-ceilinged lobby was done up in what could only be described as baroque-industrial, with a few flamboyant flourishes enhancing a handsome grey and brown, almost Corbusian color scheme.
Stylish rooms featured bold reds and blacks, with playfully hip wall coverings and patterned floors. Ask for one facing front, to take in the lively street scene.
As for its terrific restaurant, see above. But the excellent breakfast should also be noted – and, yes, it comes with Champagne.

 

A Mezcal Union Guide to Authentic Mexico City Nightspots

 

 

Despite the speed of liquor fads these days, still trending high in the spirits world this season is smokey, sultry mezcal – with its roots in Oaxaca and generations of tradition. And one of our favorites is Mexico’s Mezcal Union, whose Alejandro Champion we had the chance to chat with about their overall philosophy.

Of course, with popularity comes demand, and with that, the fear of lost quality for quantity is always a concern – something that Mezcal Unión has actively addressed. How? Their mission of “uniting Oaxaca’s farmers and producers.” Which has made it possible for agave, which is a finicky plant, to thrive. All with the end goal of improving their palenques (distilleries) and ensuring more top quality mezcal production for years to come.

As Champion puts it, he and his partners “decided to come together to make a product they and their country could be proud of, by creating a ‘union’ meant to benefit the indigenous families of Oaxaca.”

 

 

Is their plan working? The numbers speak for themselves. At least 255,000 brand new agave have been replanted in the the past three years alone.

The company has also expanded to a series of restaurants, bars and events, spreading across the globe. They refer to it as the “Archipélago” because “it is a large company made of up of many smaller projects.” One such new partnership for this summer will be Cafe Paraíso, an offshoot of the Mexico City nightspot, this one located in the backyard at Roberta’s in Bushwick. It will be a season-long homage to the intense but elegant spirit.

And though we’re planning to spend quite a bit of time at the Brooklyn Paraíso in the coming months, we took the opportunity to actually ask Champion about the best places to drink mezcal in his beloved Mexico City. Here are his five recommendations, and what to drink at each.

 

Cicatriz Cafe

Cocktail: Yoko (Mezcal Union El Joven, Grapefruit Juice, Aperol, Sparkling wine) / Bartender: Jake Lindeman

Cicatriz is a place created by five authentic persons, whose personalities, taste and spirit are represented in every detail of this cafe. It is a very unique place in Mexico City, a casual cafe, restaurant and cocktail bar, all in one. In my opinion it brought a very different vibe to the city. Very simple menu, but everything on it is simply delicious. And the atmosphere is very international. You see people from different countries, cultures, but all enjoying and creating one great scene.

 

 

Café Paraíso

Cocktail: Maurito (Mezcal Unión El Joven, Lemon juice, Guava pure, Tonic water) / Bartender: Edsel

A fun, tropical dance bar, it’s located in the heart of Colonia Roma. If you feel like dancing and sweating away the stress, having some good tiki vibe cocktails and mezcal, in a very casual, non pretentious atmosphere, this is the place. The music program is one of my favorites, very eclectic:  cumbia, salsa, reggaeton, hip hop. Transports you to a crazy party on an island, when in fact you are in the middle of Mexico City.

 

 

Páramo

Cocktail: Pepino (Mezcal Union El Joven, Macerated Cucumber, Lemon juice, Ginger Syrup, Rosemary and Sparkling water)

Páramo is a family business, which is what I love the most about it. There are not many times you get to see mom and sons running the show. It exemplifies the core of Mexican culture in a very contemporary way, yet it is authentic to the bone. A place where you can sit down, drink mezcal, and eat the best antojos Mexicanos. It’s a cantina vibe, but very comfortable, the architectural design and details transport you to the most mystical aspects of Mexican Prehispánica culture. A place to hang, laugh and have a good time.

 

 

Contramar

Drink: Straight Mezcal Union El Viejo with oranges and worm salt / Chef: Gaby Cámara

Gaby Cámara is one of the persons that I admire the most. A young woman who has represented the values of Mexico from an early age, through her kitchen and hard work. Contramar exemplifies the core of Mexican hospitality, and Mexican cuisine. A place that proves that Mexico is warm hearted culture, with extraordinarily good food. A must to visit when in CDMX.

 

 

Limantour

Cocktail: Mezcal Stalk (Mezcal Union El Joven, Pineapple juice, Agave syrup, Worm salt) / Bartender: José Luis León

Limantour happens to be the first relevant cocktail bar in CDMX, a pioneering place that has represented Mexico throughout the world, and an institution for the industry. It is a Mexican cocktail bar, which defied all odds by venturing into a category when no one was really looking for it. A cradle of the new world bartender culture.