Monday, 30 December 2013

Five Guys vs Shake Shack East Coast US Style

As we zoom towards the end of 2013 and I think about the traditional new year health kick, perversely my head always reviews all the lovely things I'm going to miss until the inevitable point where the diet snaps and some kind of feast ensues. This year my mind keeps wandering back to the US and a plethora of burgers. I haven't yet paid a visit to either of the new(ish) Five Guys or Shake Shack UK outposts located in Covent Garden - in part perhaps due to my enduring apathy for queuing to be allowed to buy food. A bit of a Google search shortly after their launch revealed a multitude of frankly adverse comment across the internet which I found doubly surprising after visiting both chains in the US. Either the spark of something that makes them adored in the US hasn't made it over the Atlantic or London has been spoilt on the burger front in recent years. Whichever it is my experience of the modern day American forefathers of burgerdom chains was anything but bad. 

Shake Shack

As you may have seen in a previous post on here, my baptism by Shake Shack did come in the middle of a whisky and cigar session in downtown New Haven so the first outing needs to perhaps be taken with a pinch of metaphorical salt in that I thought it was all AAAWWWWWESOME. We ordered one SmokeShack and one double ShackBurger. The ShackBurger consists of a burger (or two if you go double) made of a combination of seasoned sirloin and brisket giving it a moist but textured feel. Its then drenched in that oozy, gooey, yellow American cheese,  tomato, lettuce and Shacksauce. The Shacksauce is, of course, a secret recipe but is mayo based with a good dose of mustard in it. The SmokeShack is the same as the ShackBurger but with the addition of applewood smoked bacon and spicy cherry peppers. I had thought I would naturally prefer the SmokeStack, after all its got bacon in it and everything is better with bacon. It was a bit too spicy for me though and the flavour of the peppers was overpowering the meatiness of the burger. 

A single was $4.80 and a double $7.40 which seemed like very good value especially compared to London burger prices. Wiggly fries were nice and fluffy on the inside and fried to a perfect, golden crisp on the outer. What's not to like? To be honest had it still been open when we staggered out of Owl Shop I'm convinced we would have gone back for seconds.

Five Guys

We hit Five Guys in Burlington Vermont on a Saturday night after a brewery visit. Located outside town on the Route 7 Shelburne Road on the outskirts of Burlington, its nestled in an out of town shopping area of the type you'd expect to find a Frankie & Bennies or TFI Friday in the UK.

One of the big plus sides of Five Guys is that you can pick as many or as few toppings as like for no additional charge. You know your burger is being cooked to order and there is no fishing out bits of limp lettuce or tepid tomato that you don't want. I went for grilled onions and mushrooms but you can add all the usual pickles, tomatoes, peppers and sauces. At just over $7 its decent value for what is effectively a double burger. That's one thing that is worth noting. Five Guys offer either a burger or a little burger. Most of us would assume that a "little burger" is the kids option or at least for ladies on a diet but it is realistically what most of us would consider to be normal. A single large patty whereas the standard is two large patties, all good but huge!

Skin on fries have a great texture but are veering towards too salty. We left about half of them and drank copious quantities to wash away the salt. You've also got to be a bit careful if you've got a nut allergy as the fries are cooked in peanut oil.

The soda machine is also something of a novelty. You can have all the basics like Sprite, Coke and whatever other drinks the Coca Cola Company offer but then you can also have what I presume is a flavour syrup added which results in crazy combinations like cinnamon Sprite or cherry ginger ale. I'm not sure that this is ultimately a positive contribution to the world of fizzy drinks but its good fun to try out as many stupid drinks as you can.

Shake Shack- Take 2

Due to the level of inebriation preempting our first Shake Shack experience a decision was taken that in the interests of a fair scientific analysis we should find another Shake Shack and sample it sober. This led to our driving round and round the suburbs of Boston on the final day of the trip searching for 49 Boylston Street. Anyone who has ever visited Boston will know that Boylston Street is extremely long and one of the main streets in the city. Home to all the major designer stores and hotels, its almost impossible to miss. So 49, Boylston, in the heart of Theatreland just off Boston Common, surely just the sort of location Danny Meyer would be aiming for. But no. Its 49 Boylston Street Chestnut Hill on the outskirts of Boston just beyond Brookline. Into the sat nav it goes and a 15 minute drive later we arrive. Outside a residential house. No, it turns out that there is a third 49 Boylston Street in Greater Boston. This time in the middle of a shopping mall/parade that is still mid construction. I'm sure it will be a great location in an affluent area when its finished but it does beg the question whether Mr Meyer thought he was getting the downtown address....

Working up an appetite with our map reading skills (and racking up almost a tenner in data roaming charges to find it) we arrived at Shake Shack, Boston. What followed may have possibly been the most yellow meal ever known to man. Admittedly this is our fault for requesting no lettuce or tomato and for ordering yellow drinks but it did make me laugh. 

As childish as it is, I love the wiggly fries that are standard at ShakeShack and they are even better with a smothering of cheese sauce.  I still haven't tried the fabled frozen custard. I'll leave that for London. 

So ultimately whilst both brands have a place and I wouldn't turn my nose up at them, if I had a choice between the two, Shake Shack wins it. There's a significant chance that you may find me queuing up in Covent Garden at some point in late January when the diet goes wrong- see you there....

Five Guys Burgers & Fries on Urbanspoon Shake Shack on Urbanspoon Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

So Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in the UK but following my recent New England visit maybe the Mayflower inspired me. Out went the invites and back came some level of derision with one of the invitees questioning why I was even having a Thanksgiving Dinner, well actually his words were slightly less docile than that i.e. "we're not bloody Yanks so why do we have to celebrate Thanksgiving?" He was, however, mollified by a pig in a blanket and a piece of pumpkin pie. Because, when all's said and done, I don't really care what the occasion is if it means a tenuous reason for cooking up a feast.

In an ideal world clearly I would have been serving the turkey up with some amazing wines but much as I love my mates, Puligny Montrachet for 12 was a little out of my weeknight supper budget. We kicked off with a few bottles of English sparkling Chapel Down this one coming from Tesco during one of their recent 25% off offerings. It's not my favourite English sparkling (that accolade goes to Nyetimber) but its punchy, dry and fruity and makes the requisite cork popping noise so its all good. 

The turkey and all its trimmings needed something white but with a bit of depth. I went with a Nicolas Potel 2010 Pouilly Fuisse from Waitrose. At around a tenner a bottle on offer it was bang on the money, some citrus zing with more developed smoky butter notes on the finish.

I can't say enough good things about Brown Brothers Orange Muscat & Flora. Yes, its predictable. Yes, its not the best quality dessert wine out there but for a weeknight supper and at around £7-8 a bottle I genuinely believe that it can't be beaten. 

So here was what we ate. Full disclosure: the buttermilk biscuits didn't make it, I ran out of time. I did add an extra side of red cabbage and apple and a pre dessert of spiced apple cider to make up for it though and no one came shouting into the kitchen threatening the chef.

The stuffing was rather a cobbled together affair but turned out pretty well if I say so myself. Here's how I made it….

500g sausagemeat
A tablespoon of fresh chilli paste (or however spicy you like it!)
A tablespoon of fresh garlic paste (or 2 cloves very finely chopped)
2 handfuls of chopped chorizo
4 rashers of smokey bacon finely chopped
A large onion diced
2 handful of dried cranberries or "craisins" (I hate that name!)
1 handful of finely chopped sage
pepper and garlic salt seasoning to taste
zest of 1 small orange
An egg to bind. 

I fried off the onion, bacon, garlic and chilli in a bit of butter first to avoid any of the flavours dominating too much then mixed every thing together into 18 equal sized balls. I baked them in the oven at 180 degrees celsius for around half an hour. Total yum but then again how can something that contains three different types of pork product not be delicious?

Big thanks to A for cooking an utterly delicious turkey whilst I was at work, it was fab. 

Being utterly honest the only reason that two desserts made it onto the table was a very selfish one i.e. because Im allergic to pumpkins but you can't exactly do Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie. So one got made and on a whim I got a bit fancy with sugar shards (after all they are always saying on Masterchef that you need to get some height on your dishes). It was served with homemade ginger and treacle ice cream. Terribly easy stuff; the basic vanilla ice cream custard then add powdered ginger and a load of finely chopped stem ginger and some of its syrup before adding to the ice cream machine. When its done stir in a swirl of molten treacle to add some depth.  The other dessert was a good old fashioned apple crumble with calvados custard. Comfort food at its best, 'nuff said.

So to all you lovely Americans out there; Happy Thanksgiving! To all the Brits; Happy Celebrating-When-We-Invented-Modern-America day!


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Gordon Ramsay - Royal Hospital Road

Life is so often a case of feast or famine isn't it? As the saying goes, you wait ages for a bus then three come along at once. I can think of so many aspects of my life where that has been an accurate analogy but none so much as my dining habits at the moment. Ledbury last week (blog post coming soon), Five Fields next week all bracketed by various foreign excursions and wine tastings. Yes, I know I’m a very lucky girl but my liver and my waistline are not thanking me. So it was with some trepidation that I faced a mammoth dinner at Gordon Ramsay Hospital Road for H's 39th birthday. Yep into his 40th year so may as well do it in style. 

Despite still bearing Gordon Ramsay's name the restaurant has had a bit of an overhaul that goes beyond just aesthetics. In April 2013 Clare Smyth became co owner and therefore chef patron and the refurb of the dining area (and addition of a new lounge and spirits library) reflect heavily on her influence.

I've been to Hospital Road once before some years ago and had a wonderful meal although its a little hazy as our table wasn't until 10pm so a few pre-prandials had been consumed in the Library Bar at the Lanesborough. I do have the wine induced, late night recollection of accidentally sending the petit fours back for "not having enough dry ice smoke- they're not Harry Potter enough". I was therefore hoping that this visit would have much more decorum which it did, for the most part.

I arrived early and spent a happy quarter of an hour playing with the wine bible whilst sipping an Ayala kir royale and munching on some fluffy little gruyere gougeres. All the big hitters you would expect from a 3 Michelin star restaurant are in there from the full gammut of Bordeaux Crus, through Burgundy and with a decent selection of non French, both old world and new.  A 1947 Cheval Blanc for £6,000 or 2001 DRC for £7,800 anyone?! Faced with a multitude of courses for which it would have been hard to get one white and one red to suit all we gave sommelier Jan Konetzki a (somewhat) free rein over wine (he's even got his own flashy website here) and we were pretty happy with the results especially as people swapped in and out different wines to suit their tastes -we must have been nightmare clients. 

A bottle of subtle biscuity Henriot champagne kicked proceedings off nicely and made a great companion to canapes of quail's egg, black pudding and pork scotch eggs,  cured salmon in shiso and Vietnamese style steamed buns with a soft truffled filling.

You have three menu options to choose from between a la carte, the menu prestige or the seasonal menu. They are quite relaxed about mixing and matching across the tasting menus and are genius at taking into account allergies etc.

An amuse bouche of cep cannelloni topped with fried quails egg arrived setting the scene for a long line of dishes with pour-at-the-table sauces, in this case a smoked chestnut puree. I can never quite decide if application of sauces at the table is a practical thing to stop waiters sloshing it around en route and spoiling the aesthetic of the plate or if its all part of the theatre, whichever it feels like it is de rigeur everywhere at the moment. 

Champagne bottle well and truly wrung out we moved onto the first dish proper; a poached Scottish lobster tail with lardo di Colonnata, pickled vegetables and coral vinaigrette. The lobster itself was on the firm side but very tasty. The first wine that the sommelier suggested was an unusual Navazos niepoort 2011. At 12.5% its striking towards the upper end of white from an alcohol perspective and veers into dry sherry territory on the palate. 

It proffered very little on the nose at all leading most of the group to change in favour of a soave style Italian from Giuseppe Quintarelli which was a nice easy drinker but much less interesting. I stuck with it though and was rewarded by a comparatively complex and unusual wine; definitely not a glugger but a quality wine.

The basic description 'Carbonara' of the dish that followed doesn't even begin to do it justice. It goes straight into my top ten dishes of all time. It is only 'carbonara' in so far as bacon/ham and eggs are involved, that is where all similarity ends. A giant raviolo is filled with smoked mashed potato and a soft hens egg. The pasta bundle is then wrapped in roast iberico ham and topped with caramelised onions before being submerged in a swirl of onion veloute and four year old parmesan foam. It was just a plate of awesomeness that could never have been too big. The fact that it was paired with a lengthy & buttery Pouilly Fuisse 'La Roche' 2008 from Domaine Barraud resulted in a combination as near to perfection as I can imagine. So good that I'm going to hunt some down for Christmas drinking. 

I was far from convinced by the original wine suggested to go with the beef short rib slowly cooked over charcoal with roasted langoustine, lapsang souchong broth and English wasabi; a Suertes del Marques from Tenerife and I certainly wouldn't drink a bottle of it but to give the sommelier his due it was a perfect match for the beef and langoustine. The wine was light enough not to overpower the langoustine but had a smoky, aromatic edge that blended well with the lapsang. 

The style of cooking at GRHR has definitely taken on an Asian twist since my last visit, the beef in particular being something I could have eaten in any number of Tokyo eateries. 

Venison loin was served on a bed of polenta, cep baked in chestnut leaf and Tasmanian mountain pepper. A waiter came to grind pepper onto the dish at the table which, combined with the polenta, all felt rather Italian trattoria (it turned out he was Italian rather appropriately). I can't honestly tell you whether the fact it was Tasmanian mountain pepper made a difference to the overall dinner but it sounds good.  (Well) hung for over 30 days, the venison had an extremely gamey taste which may be a little too much for some. Although cooked to perfection it wasn't the best venison dish I've ever eaten.

It was, however, accompanied by another rather moreish wine, this time a Chilean blend of Syrah, Cab Sauv, Carmenere, Mourvedre & Merlot 'Coyam' 2010 from Emiliana in Colchagua. It retails at around £15 a bottle and is available from the Wine Society and Tanners. As you would expect from a blend, it packs a reasonable punch with dark plummy notes. Whilst we are all used to H managing to throw his food and wine around the table (we've tried housetraining him to no avail) on this occasion he was adamant the blood red stain spreading across the tablecloth wasn't his fault and turns out it was true. Mr Konetzki had got a bit over enthusiastic with the pouring. As a result he was threatened by the other staff with "one of Clare's punishments", this made the mind boggle resulting in a game of thinking up suitable punishments involving kitchen utensils for various possible aberrations (bread roll dropped on the floor? Beating with a chinois..... etc) All I can say is that it seems like he was banished to the dungeons to await his fate as we didn't see him again for the rest of the evening.

Vacherin with white truffle was a cardiac in a ramekin. Silky smooth with a generous sprinkling of Alba truffle. Most of went for a slightly astringent viognier to cut through the grease and one of our number went with a Jurancon which ordinarily I would love but remain unconvinced of its match with the slices of Alba truffle. I went back to that Pouilly Fuisse and was glad I did. 

Green apple and lime sorbet with shiso, avocado and eucalyptus was realistically on the menu as a palate cleansing pre dessert but became one of the highlights of the entire meal. The eucalyptus jelly was delicate but unusual and contrasted perfectly with the apple and the fizzy sherbet added yet another textural dimension. As one of our group said "I don't normally like apple but I love this!". 

Smoked chocolate cigar with blood orange and cardamom ice cream was a delight and a piece of art on a plate. The soft chocolate filling had taken on a truly smoky, slightly salted flavour and the ice cream an inspired match thatI've already had a stab at copying at home. I went off piste and had a glass of Vin de Constance with it purely on the basis that I love it. Not the best match ever perhaps but I was beyond caring so much anymore. 

Highlights of the evening? The 'carbonara' with that amazing pouilly fuisse, the smoked chocolate cigar and the really rather lovely German sommelier. I'm hoping that they've let him out of the cellar. If you walk past and hear distant shouting, please call for help. On second thoughts don't, who wouldn't want to be trapped in that cellar?!


Gordon Ramsay
68, Royal Hospital Road, London.
020 7352 4441

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Urbanspoon Square Meal

This article is my first attempt at entering the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC5)


Friday, 15 November 2013

Rainbow Sweets Bakery & Cafe, Marshfield, Vermont

When you think of good old fashioned American desserts its often a cherry pie that springs to mind. Or apple, although thats been tainted somewhat by American Pie the movie, but nonetheless its what you dream of when you think of pie; sweet juicy deep filled fruit in a crumbly, buttery crust. So why is it so hard to find good pie in New England?! Rainbow Sweets was recommended to us by a kitchenware shop back in Vermont's state capital Montpelier as a good stop for lunch and particularly for pies. Located in small town Marshfield on Route 2 somewhere between Montpelier and St Johnsbury it is quite inconspicuous.

That low-key nature ends the moment that you walk through the door. Its charismatic owner Bill prides himself on not making anything American. “None of those cherry or apple pies” apparently which was, at first, disappointing as we had arrived on a quest for exactly that, a cherry pie to take to dinner as dessert. As we were hustled over to the counter ('come closer, no even closer still....') to hear what was fresh out of the giant iron stove for lunch, this didn't seem like a problem any more.

On offer on the day of our visit was spanikopita- greek filo pastry slices and a filling made of “spinach so tender its pubescent, no pre natal...”- Argentinian empanadas of beef or Moroccan b'stilla of cinnamon and clove spiced shredded chicken were the other two savoury options. Both the empanadas and the b'stilla were delicious, encased in perfectly crispy, golder outer shell of pastry and tender inside. Considering that I'm not a rabbit food eater, the accompanying green salad was also excellent, with crumbly feta and dark purple olives adding a salty bite to well dressed salad leaves and tomatoes. 

We were recommended (well commanded to have was probably closer to the truth) a pair of 'Johnny Depps'.  Consisting of two choux profiteroles stuffed with crème patissiere, they are then dipped in caramel and- once hardened- placed on a bed of puff pastry and sweetened whipped cream. Sharing your Johnny Depps is apparently 'cheating' and results in very public castigation, we split ours when Bill had his back turned and the other diners promised not to tell. 

Bill's jovial and upfront demeanour was infectious amongst the diners and only one miserable looking, skinny girl in running kit failed to crack a smile or join in the banter (what she was doing in a bakery to begin with frankly eluded me).

Drinks are predominantly local offerings whether beer or juice. We opted for apple cider which was a dark caramel colour but much lighter in texture than we expected. In apple country 'cider' refers to any juice made from apples whereas 'hard cider' is the alcoholic version so you can expect to see small children drinking 'cider' without any eyebrows being raised. Technically they do do apple pies by the way, just Austrian style with a streusel crumb topping. We took two small ones away with us and they were excellent.

You might think that its just a nice little bakery in a tiny Vermont village but it seems that Rainbow's fame has spread far and wide. A New York Times article from 1999 praises the Cherry cheese danishes which apparently come out of the oven at 9.15am every Sunday morning and are inevitably sold out by 10am. Indeed, we arrived for an early lunch and were out of luck.    Apparently people drive all the way from Boston to buy a box, a good 2.5hr trip each way. 

Bill started out as a builder whilst his wife was a trained pastry chef, perhaps explaining the reasoning behind the distinctly European flavour and style to all the dishes. The tables have turned now however, and it is Bill who oversees the ovens.  If you're ever anywhere near Montpelier in Vermont, please go, I promise that you won't regret it.

Rainbow Sweets,
1689, Route 2, Marshfield, Vermont

Rainbow Sweets on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Augustine Kitchen, Battersea

There is such a thing as damning with faint praise and our experience of Augustine Kitchen was the victim of such by A just minutes in to our main course when she said with a sigh and a disappointed frown; "oh but I had really wanted to like this place'. I couldn't have put it better myself. I had high hopes. Chef Franck Raymond crossed to the south of the river with a reputation cemented during his time at Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden and a Twitter feed had talked of excellent food and wine suppliers.

At 7pm on a Saturday night we were the only diners in the main room. By 9pm it was a third full. At first we felt bad for them as I would love to see a really good neighbourhood restaurant succeed in this location and if you can't be busy on a Saturday night just weeks after a reasonably well publicised opening then when can you?  Nearby Buchans has been closed for years and other restaurants near Battersea Bridge seem to come and go like ghosts. "Oh please write them a lovely blog post" A commented looking around and I agreed. Unfortunately the mood had changed somewhat by half way through our main course.

I started with a cassolette of snails with garlic and parsley butter. What arrived was a very thick, glutinous beige sauce with a strong garlic kick and some little black snails perched delicately on top. The sauce was really very tasty and I enjoyed the dish but it would have been nice to have felt that the snails had been poached in the sauce rather than being a last minute addition. The sauce also wasn't exactly what I would have described as a garlic and parsley butter but hey ho. 

A had a well executed duck terrine with a prune and ginger marmalade. The terrine was very meaty indeed. 

Magret of duck came with a pear poached in red wine and spices and chicon. No carbs on the plate and it was the weekend so a portion of chips was suggested to me and accepted (after all what fool says no to chips?)  The duck was well cooked and served pink but had a very strong flavour to it. I love duck as much as the next man but this had an overly gamey hint, like when a pheasant is hung until just before it rots off the hanging string.

A had steak and chips, the steak being cooked well and meat of good quality (but its no Hawksmoor or Goodman). Perfectly acceptable though.

The chips were, to say the least, a disappointment. Rifling through the two metal plant pot things that the chips were served in (are chips ever not served in metal plant pots now by the way?) we were unable to find a single chip that was longer than a 1.5cm. These really were the tiny, scrag end offcuts of a woeful excuse for a potato. Fried to within an inch of their life they were more like those little pointy, salty stick things you could buy for 8p a pack out of the vending machine after swimming lessons in the 80s. 

So we did the only sensible thing you could in such a situation and asked for a little pot of mayonnaise. The waiter left. A conference was held, the maitre d' returned. The response was that "We do not have mayonnaise............. and we wouldn't have ketchup either". OK no mayo, shame but no biggie, but hang on there, why the ketchup comment? What exactly was she getting at with the completely rude and utterly superfluous addition of  "... and we wouldn't have ketchup either" accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a scarlet lipped smirk?  I didn't ask for ketchup, I didn't mention ketchup, I wanted mayonnaise. Furthermore, would it really have been such a crime if I had asked for ketchup, after all they merrily serve steak and (substandard) chips so it would seem like a reasonable condiment to ask for. Or perhaps she thinks herself and her establishment as being above mayonnaise? There's no other word for it, its just downright bitchy. Being a bitch to your customers is perhaps not an ideal way to garner popularity or future custom, it should be rule 101 in the basic manual to running a restaurant.

There seems to be a polar difference between self perception and reality in this place. You offer 2 course for £9.95 lunches and boast on Twitter about being the cheapest in the postcode but you're too good for customers who politely ask for mayonnaise? It may have been a condescending attempt to belittle me as a diner but I see it as more of a reflection on them and their over exalted view of their establishment. Ultimately you're a little neighbourhood brasserie on the Battersea Bridge Road surrounded by high rise council blocks. Get over yourselves. Oh and finish decorating the women's loo too.

Despite the main course fail, I can never say no to tarte tatin. On the positive side this version was excellent. A classic French dessert executed to perfection. The apples were buttery and soft throughout held together with their caramel coating. Worth noting though that it was dish of the day so might not always be available. 

Dark chocolate mousse was less of a success, more milk chocolate with a central core of whipped cream topped with dark chocolate shavings and berries. Not bad but not excellent either and another case of not being what was described on the menu. 

So whilst some of the dishes are excellent, others are very hit and miss. Combine that with running the gamut of the maitre d's claw sharpening comments and I don't see any reason to return. Whilst another decent neighbourhood French would have been nice, I'd rather have a steak round the corner at Butcher & Grill or a burger at the Drafthouse, served with a smile and none of the attitude.


Augustine Kitchen
Battersea Bridge Road
London SW11

Augustine Kitchen on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Saturday, 9 November 2013

US Road Trip: Connecticut

With the sun blazing as we flew along the deserted US Route 1 hugging the coastline all felt well with the world. Quaint little fishing towns dotted with seasonal scarecrows and halloween decorations.

How can you not like this place? See, here's a picture of a scarecrow with his pumpkin butt cheeks a-pokin' right out:

Why it was all so puuuurrrddy it could have come straight out of a film. Oh but hang on, what's this town I see on the road ahead of me? Mystic. Don't I know that from somewhere? Yep cheesy as hell (in more ways than one) but one of those things that almost has to be done however much you hide your grimace through a smile; a visit to Mystic Pizza.

Upon walking in to the restaurant, if I hadn't known about the film I would have done immediately due, perhaps, to the fact that it is being played on a loop on a giant plasma screen tv in the lobby. The walls of the restaurant are plastered with screenshots of a toothy grinned, bouffy haired Julia Roberts staring out at diners as well as the obligatory Americana found in diners and pizza joints. 

On a week day lunchtime it was busy but still no hassle to get a table. Forgetting for a brief moment that everything is bigger in America, we ordered one small and one large pizza and regretted it pretty much instantaneously when the order arrived. Huge. Enormous. Vast. But good. The dough is not deep, deep pan but is on the doughier side of things than a thin crust. Hand tossed in house before toppings are added we went for two options. Texas chicken barbecue was nothing novel or innovative but a tasty classic. The house special consists of pepperoni, meatball, sausage, green peppers, onions and mushrooms and we added some gorgonzola to sate my blue cheese craving. That combined with a ton of mozzarella gave stretchy, stretchy cheeeeeeeese.......

I never fail to be impressed by the refilled-before-you-get-to-your-last-slurp bottomless sodas that you get in the States. It shouldn't be that impressive but I don't think I've ever been anywhere in the UK that offers them which is unfortunate considering a pint of Coke costs about 6p from a pump. It is inevitably about 3 quid a pint these days. H went for a Mystic Bridge IPA from the Cottrell Brewing Company, a micro brewery founded in 1996. They offer three permanent beers as well as a couple of seasonal specials.  The IPA was pretty light with a lemony fruit hint to it and a decent accompaniment to a sunny pizza lunch. You know you're on holiday, thats for sure. You can take a detour to the brewery in nearby Pawcatuck on Friday and Saturday afternoons for a free tour and tasting or to "fill your growler" (apparently a growler is a large drinks container in the US, for any Americans reading; this is another term that doesn't mean the same in the UK; get googling.....)

Its not all about pizzas though. They also offer salads, soups and grinders (some kind of sub baguette thing apparently, to me it brings to mind Grindr and sounds totally different to a UK girl). I'm not sure I would use the film's "Slice of Heaven" slogan to describe my lunch but it was jolly tasty all the same and a reasonable price.

Mystic itself is also a really pretty town for a wander and a great stop off point as you drive along the coast between more major towns. But the road is calling us if we're to make it to our overnight stop of New Haven. Home to Yale University, its about as close as the US gets to the dreaming spires of Oxbridge. Well, that was the picture that I had in my head but it seems as though New Haven pretty much IS Yale. Its not even big enough to have a branch of Gap for goodness sake. 

We arrived in New Haven late afternoon with slightly more grand ambitions of a wander round Yale, couple of cocktails then dinner at Box 63   . The online menu had me salivating and I'd fully planned out ordering truffle parmesan fries with a pulled pork sandwich and lobster mac and cheese but not everything goes to plan, even for a control freak like me. Sorry Box 63, you look fabulous but you got usurped.  A couple of minutes from our hotel (The New Haven Hotel - well located, perfectly comfortable and free cheese and wine in the early evening) we came across Owl Shop on College Street. From outside it initially looked like a cafe and then like a shop. It was only when we were on the threshold that the aroma of cigars wafted gently across the sunny evening breeze. Owl Shop transpired to be one of the oldest cigar stores in America. Opened in 1934 by Greek immigrant Joseph St John, it expanded quickly to five outlets.   By 1951 they had merged all the stores into the present day College Street store and even after the death of St John one of the original employees is still with the store now (Joe Lentine) albeit under the management of the store's second owner Glen Greenberg. The current staff are all lovely and very patient with cigar novices. 

Dark inside with wood panelling and acclimatised humidor cabinets containing over 400 varieties of cigar, it is a welcoming location.  A decent cocktail list invites you to stay a while and the heady scent of cigars tempts you to try the wares. As strange as it seems after years of the smoking ban in the UK, smoking cigars is quite acceptable inside in this bar.

I'm no cigar expert but I'd always worked on the basis that Cuban cigars were the best and other countries' offerings paled into insignificance. How wrong was I ?! Most of the main cigar manufacturers like Davidoff, Partagas and Cohiba all have Venezuelan or Nicaraguan outposts and they are a lot cheaper than the Cuban equivalents. I'm not enough of an afficionado to tell if the price differential is worth it for Cubans but for my level of knowledge a Venezuelan one was good for me. Coupled with an Old Fashioned and it would take a small natural disaster to move my butt.  

We did still keep meaning to go for dinner honestly but the evening started taking a wiggly winding course through the cocktail menu and before we knew it it was 9.30pm. Owl Shop offers a limited menu of paninis and charcuterie that is more prevalent during the day and sparse at best at night. No problem though, Owl Shop suddenly became the best venue in the world when the waitress actually suggested we go out and get takeaway from Shake Shack and bring it back to eat. As H returned from Shake Shack laden with burgers and wiggly fries, a Blues group with an excellent singer struck up and I don't think the evening could have been much more perfect.

Breakfast the following day before crossing the state border back up into western Massachusetts? Why cold pizza of course!

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