The Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Shanghai

Published on Bon Vivant on 17th January 2015:

Looking over the Jing’an district of Shanghai, you feel like you’re on top of the world. Especially if that bird’s eye view is garnered from one of the luxurious suites at The Portman Ritz-Carlton.

It’s one of the few hotels in Shanghai that you can mention by name to taxi drivers thanks to its long standing reputation as one of the best hotels in the city.

In fact, in 2014, the Portman Ritz-Carlton was voted one of the 25 best hotels in Asia by Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards; an accolade that it has held numerous times before.

What makes this astounding reputation? The charming service comes up top. The astute lobby manager’s friendly approach is such that, each time you pass through the grand hall to one of the six elevators, it feels like a welcome home.

The service keeps the guests coming back but it’s The Portman Ritz-Carlton’s fantastic location that attracts many first time visitors. Just a stone’s throw from Jing’an Temple, it’s within walking distance or a short cab ride to many of Shanghai’s other key attractions.

Tables is the main restaurant where they’ve recently launched what’s dubbed the Most Handsome Brunch in the city. Germain Tailor has suited up the staff who provide the free flowing martinis, wines and champagne. It’s decadent stuff.

Then there’s Ubuka, its Japanese restaurant focusing on sushi and teppanyaki, as well as, of course, the signature Ritz Bar.

The rooms are incredibly spacious with king beds furnished with 300-thread count linens and down pillows. The grand marble bathroom features a roomy bath and separate shower, made all the more indulgent with Asprey Purple Water products.

And then there’s the wardrobe with room for even the most luggage-laden travellers.

There’s character too. Taking contemporary Chinese as the design cue, you’ll find plenty of art work around the rooms; think bone china vase or oriental paintings.

But that top of the world feeling, it’s the one that’ll stay with you. And at the Club level, from the 35th floor, you have an unrivalled view of the city that’s beautiful even in the haziest of Shanghai days.

Beirut Travel Guide – Loud, Lively and Living for Today

Published on Bon Vivant on 28th July 2013:

Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut is one of those destinations where any travel reportage is deserving of a foreword, if nothing else than to address the first question that comes into your mind when one speaks of Lebanon – is it safe?

There is obviously a city, and a country, trying to rebuild itself. There’s no doubt about that. Conflict is always subtly present, toeing the line to uncomfortable.

Buildings, ravaged by civil war, still exist, dishevelled and leaning against their similarly bullet-strewn and bombarded neighbours.

If you spend any time outside of your five-star hotel, and for foreign visitors it’s certainly advisable to stay in one of the bigger establishments, you will see more than a few armoured trucks heaving with men carrying semi-automatics or be stopped at an informal military check-point for your passport to be scrutinised.

On the walls of the Armenian quarter are the promises of revenge against the Turkish, spray painted across shop-fronts in blood red. Demonstrations still takes place with regularity on Martyrs’ Square.

All of that is true and undeniable.

At the same time, and in stark contrast, is the slew of new builds like the Beirut Souks. Almost entirely envisioned by property developers Solidere, they play hosts to YSL and Burberry boutiques like any city aspiring to Monegasque luxury and cater to the Lebanese elite along with monied Arabs.

The young and wealthy, while not oblivious to their unique situation, are at least ignoring it. If anything, their country’s troubled past has taught them to live for the moment.

Happily, they party on until dawn in Beirut’s many super-sized nightclubs like White and Skybar, whose warehouse locations and open roofs allow them to pursue heady hedonism.

Beach clubs too, like Iris Beach, are popular for sunbathing during the day and clubbing at night.

The city isn’t without culture and there are plenty of emerging artists, designers and historical sites to get to grips with. Though to really get into the heart of the Lebanese culture, head north to Byblos, the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world and start from there.

It is in this direction that you will also begin to come across some of the country’s wine regions. If Lebanese wines interest you, it’s worth spending a few days exploring some of the country’s best wineries.

Otherwise stop at the nearby Ixsir to find a mix of the old and modern – the original building is some three, four hundred years old with the new, eco-friendly winery underneath.

Beirut, Lebanon

Like Ixsir, Beirut’s food scene is a similar mix of now and then. Many of the hotels will offer an international fare with French and Japanese being favourites.

The still dewy La Petite Maison in Le Vendome Hotel is currently the place to be seen while Al Falamanki, a traditional style Lebanese café, is where you will find the locals playing backgammon and smoking shisha.

To delve a little deeper into celebrated icons such as Hanna Mitri for ice cream and fields of fragrant za’atar, get in touch with Taste Lebanon for a tour.

If you find yourself having over-indulged in the partying, the wines and the good food, head to the spa for some much needed respite. The Phoenicia offers aqua aerobics sessions with a personal trainer though you might need a deep tissue massage afterwards.

And later, a cocktail awaits you at Iris rooftop bar where the sun sets over the corniche, preparing you for another night on the town, if you wish.

Such is Beirut; amidst all the chaos is a place you can find much pleasure and where the young go for joie de vivre.

Aurelia, London

Published on Bon Vivant on 15th March 2013:

Just a stone’s throw from the Royal Academy is Aurelia London, a Mediterranean restaurant nestled in the heart of Mayfair.

The restaurant is named after Via Aurelia, the historic route which spanned across the Mediterranean, from Rome down to Santiago de Compostela. The food pays homage to the same landmass, where rabbit and swordfish appear alongside plenty of olives, garlic and anchovies.

Everything is light, delicate and calling for glorious sunshine and ice cold rosé.

You can go as formal or informal as you like and sharing is definitely encouraged – this is no stuffy Mayfair restaurant.

A selection of breads and the house olive oil begins our lunch at Aurelia London. The peppery notes in the oil did well to indicate that it was an extra-virgin olive oil of sound quality – a good start.

Crisp, thin slices of octopus rostie, sprinkled with a light dusting of chives, soon arrived atop boiled new potatoes, skins still on. The hint of heat in the mild Galician flavours were offset by the cool tuna carpaccio which served as the other starter.

The carpaccio, doused in a slightly sweet sauce, rested on top of a finely shredded bed of salad was topped with yet more chives.

The food at Aurelia London was rustic but good; rather like the restaurant’s interiors which were lined with little portraits and vintage photographs, all reminiscent of little bistros in the Côte d’Azur. It has just the right amount of kitsch to put you right at ease.

For mains, monkfish a la Provençal offered an interesting contrast against the pappardelle with rabbit ragu. Tomatoes, olives and plenty of parsley made a delicious sauce, well matched to the relative firmness of the monkfish. The rabbit ragu, with a shaving of creamy cheese, was more reserved in flavour but well placed for the wintry London weather.

After two well-portioned but light courses, there was still plenty of room for dessert. Carefully arranged red wine poached pear with ice cream and warm chocolate fondant with orange compote provided the answer.

The menu at Aurelia London, filled with Mediterranean flavours, managed to be both wintry and light. All was washed down with fresh mint tea and all just over an hour.

It’s not committed to a single cuisine but with so many restaurants specialising in smaller and smaller niches, Aurelia London is probably one of the few places that’s still focusing on a wide region and doing it well.

It’s obvious really; if they’re packed on a Monday lunchtime, they must be doing something right.

The Rooftop Cafe at The Exchange

Published on Bon Vivant on 6th March 2013:

Underneath the towering shadow of The Shard is an unlikely restaurant – the Rooftop Café at The Exchange. Part of an office building, the Rooftop Café is not easy to find but that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great hideaway.

Open since January this year and despite being right next to The Shard, the Rooftop Café at The Exchange has somehow managed to maintain its views. Inside, the open kitchen is the first thing to greet you as you enter. The stripped-back dining room is spread over three little pockets of space, divided by banquettes and chairs. Comfortable, but not too cosy.

The food is simple but the menu changes daily with four options per course. For a menu so small, it also offers a surprising number of dishes suitable for vegetarians.

The starters were charmingly simple. We had pancetta with poacher (cheese), pear and walnut and goats curd with green beans, shallot and capers. Warm, light and a very ingredient led introduction to the food at the Rooftop Café at The Exchange.

For mains, there was the truffled mushroom ravioli with parmesan and the special – a chorizo stew. The pungent truffled filling of the ravioli was cased in delicate fresh pasta that broke all too easily.

The chorizo stew, laden with chick peas and lightly spiced, was topped with dressed salad and bread. Both dishes were well-portioned and balanced. Other dishes available included the scallops with black pudding and seared apple.

The wine list, mostly European, is also compact, varied and interesting. Their focus is on sustainability and small producers and it really shows. The wine we had, a red made from a blend of three grape varieties indigenous to Italy, was sealed with a beer cap top and a basic label. Impressive is the fact that only 200 bottles of it were produced and while difficult to get into, it proved a good match for the food.

A banana cake with salted caramel ice cream and orange cake with crème fraiche were ordered for dessert. The soft citrus of the orange cake worked well with the zest blended into the crème fraiche while the banana cake with the ice cream was another classic flavour combination.

The food at the Rooftop Café at the Exchange is simple but delicious and the service is helpful and attentive. It’s a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere to catch up with friends or go on a date where there’s no pressure of challenging food or the cold silence of fine dining.

Like the food, it’s the perfect antidote to the wintry weather but it also bears delightful possibilities for the summer with the rooftop terrace.

Geneva Travel Guide: A City of the World

Published on Bon Vivant on 11th December 2012:

It’s hard to pin down the kind of place Geneva is. A city of luxury? Certainly, some of the world’s most luxurious brands have a presence on its streets. A city of watches? Oh yes, it’s nothing less than the international home of haute horology. A city of science? Definitely – the most serious of nuclear research can be found at CERN. Then of course there are the countless NGOs (the UN, WHO, WTO just to name a few) with their headquarters in Geneva.

For a city so small, it’s certainly a city of the world. Let’s not forget, though, that it’s also a city full of life.

Mont Blanc, Geneva

Situated at the base of the Salève, Geneva is surrounded by the Alps and Jura mountains, offering boundless sporting opportunities all year round. Mountain sports aside, there are also plenty of water sports to be enjoyed on Lake Geneva including lake swimming and kitesurfing.

If shopping is as active as you want to get then there are plenty of choices in that department. Most of Geneva’s offerings are centred around Rue du Rhône and Rue du Marché where you will find the likes of Victorinox, Davidoff and, of course, Genevese watches. Café du Centre is an ideal stop for a post-shopping seafood lunch.

Culture, too, has its place in the city. The Grand Théâtre de Genève hosts operas, ballets and theatre while its huge exhibition space, Palexpo, is the ultimate concert venue. The philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was born in the city while one of his most prominent contemporaries, Voltaire, also found home here.

Lord Byron had a lake-view house that lay adjacent to Mary Shelley’s home – the one where she wrote Frankenstein in fact.

Jet d'Eau, Geneva

It’s easy to see why these intellectuals were so inspired by Geneva when you stay at one of the waterfront hotels like Le Richmond and Hotel de la Paix, where you’ll be privy to the city’s postcard-perfect views. Of course, it’s even better to be out on the lake for a gourmet cruise where you can get up close with the jet d’eau (pictured above).

Don’t forget to wander around the old town, where you’ll find traces of Geneva’s rich history, from the Reformation to American Civil War Treaties. Or the city’s art district, where you will discover warehouse galleries and the Patek Philippe museum. And do take the tram to Carouge to embrace its bohemian refuge from the commercial Geneva with food markets, restaurants, bars and artisan shops.

With so many things to discover, it’s best to engage a guide; it’s surprisingly easy to miss the world’s longest bench and all of the city’s other hidden gems.

Longest bench, Geneva

Additional photos are available at Culture Explorer