Thursday, 29 March 2012

Sapori, Birkirkara, Malta

One of my pet peeves is when 5 star hotels don't offer free wi-fi, but charge extortionate amounts for it. The Corinthia Palace where I was staying wanted 4 euro an hour for the privilege- what a disgrace! Thankfully, most places do offer free wi-fi, the fabulous cafe Sapori being one of them. A 15 min stroll from the Corinthia Palace, the Sapori not only has free wifi, but friendly staff, a bargainous menu and cups of coffee so big you can drown in them.

Sapori is a trendy looking bistro without appearing pretentious, attracting both old and young clientele. The cheerful, helpful staff are extremely welcoming to both tourists and locals, offering hearty Italian cuisine and potent coffee at bargain prices. Pasta dishes come in both starter (approx €3.50) and main portion size (approx €5)- one main size can easily fill two hungry bellies as I found out. I ordered Penne Arrabiata (above)in a main course size and had to take a doggy bag home. The pasta was cooked to al dente perfection, the Arrabiata sauce ragingly potent. An excellent standard of cooking, just as I'd become accustomed to in the non-touristy bits of Malta.

Drinks-wise, the prices were consistently reasonable. A large Americano coffee was €1.50 and large translated as absolutely gargantuan. I felt like Disney's Alice in Wonderland next to it, I was half expecting to drown in its cavernous depths! Large coffee plus free wifi= an enjoyable, chilled afternoon on a budget.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Methi, Childwall Valley Rd, Liverpool

Good eateries are like buses- you wait ages for one and then a load turn up, springing up like mushrooms in Woolton Woods! Liverpool's Childwall Fiveways is a prime example of this phenomenon. 10 years ago, the main focal point of this area was the uninspiring but supposedly upmarket Owens, flanked by the Peking Garden Chinese that rested on its laurels and two takeaways (pretty good ones, mind you). Fast forward to the present day and there is now the glitzy Spiceways, the revamped Chinese, a Turkish place and a brand spanking new Indian takeaway, Methi. A night in for the Vindaloo Queen it was then, purely for research purposes.

I ordered their £16.90 meal deal and added an additional Pilau rice for £1.60, splitting the meal 3 ways. Starters included 2 popadoms, 4 onion Bhajis and a Sheek Kebab for the carnivores. The popadoms were crisp and survived the 15 minute walk from the Fiveways, the accompaniments to the pops staying fresh. The pop accompaniments consisted of the old faves- minty onions, mango chutney and a yogurt based dip, which I then dunked the bite sized bhajis in. The bhajis were the perfect consistency- fleshy, not greasy, cooked to perfection as opposed to burnt to a cinder, a simple touch which most takeaways cannot master but Methi does to a T.

After my Dubai- induced curry exhaustion, I eschewed Vindaloo, Madras and anything with Aloo in the title for a long-lost favourite I hadn't seen in years, the much-underrated Vegetable Pathia. Pathias are perfect for Vindaloo Queens and Kings who want to bring the spices down a notch, and Madras lovers who want something potent but with a bit more of an inmaginative edge. Pathia is a hot and sour curry, but don't compare it with that old Chinese fave Hot and Sour soup. This is curry at its finest, rich with an intricate blend of spices and Methi pulls it off with finesse. Packed to the brim with fresh veg and not a tinned carrot in sight, this was a meal and a half. Pathia, you have been sorely missed. While I was enjoying veggie perfection, the carnivores were tucking in to Lamb Sondia, an equally spicy dish perfect for fans of Tikka Masala and Jalfrezi. On hand to extinguish the flames was a Vegetable Bhaji. Not to be confused with an onion bhaji, this mild curry packed with fresh veg is great to alternate a raging hot curry with. Needless to say, the pilau and plain naan were top notch as well. A quality takeaway at a decent price. Fingers crossed that Methi open a restaurant someday too!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Vino Veritas, Sliema, Malta

My exploration of cosy restaurants in Malta continued as the biggest storm on the island for years raged. Desperately seeking somewhere to shelter and keep warm (I only had my Dubai clothes with me), I happened upon Vino Veritas which is on the edge of Sliema near to St Julians. Not the most appropriately titled restaurant for a teetotaller like me, but fear not, it isn't a wine bar but a cavernous Italian trattoria!
Decorated in the style of my much missed Buca di Bacco, Vino Veritas is a cosy warm grotto scented with rosemary, garlic and all the other smells one associates with an Italian kitchen. It was given a Maltese twist by having complimentary bean pate with bruschettas to start. Bean pate is vegetarian and consists of pulped broadbeans, a much loved appetiser on the island. Get any preconceptions of pate out of your head, this is more like a dip.

To start, I had these scrumptious cheesy bruschettas, €2.99. Underneath the cheese, they are packed with tomato, red pepper and capers that burst with freshness:

These little treats were filling, leaving little room for the main event, maybe normal bruschettas without the cheese would have been more favourable. For my main, I had a Torchio Al Orto, a punchy pasta packed with fresh veg and not just the obligatory tomato and pepper combo. Aubergines, olives and that omnipresent Maltese staple, the humble marrow gave the pasta its padding. A nutritious antidote to a carb-heavy dish, you could say.

While I feasted on my veggie treat, The Carnivore chowed down on 'the best steak he has ever had', a prime piece of Aberdeen Angus, served with fresh veg. It was safe to say that Vino Veritas is officially Foodie Heaven for carnivores and herbivores alike. The meal was washed down with a couple of potent coffees and the cherry on the cake was a chat to the chef himself. This guy really cares about his customers and welcomes any suggestions and comments- top notch service.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Da Gaetano, Hamrun, Malta

Continuing on from my last post where I dined at the truly scrumptious Cafe Tivoli, I was enraptured in the underestimated foodie paradise that is the village of Hamrun. As much as I love a steaming bowl of pasta, my body was crying out for some chunky fresh veg with a Maltese twist. Where better to find it than Hamrun's Da Gaetano?

Despite the Italianate name, Gaetano's is Maltese through and through. Keeping with the 1960s appearance of the area, the cafe has similar decor to Cafe Tivoli- these aren't retro designed, these are original! Sheltering from yet another brewing storm outside, I ordered a gallon of potent coffee (Euro 1.50) and intended on just stopping briefly, but the fabulous display of food in the cabinet at the front enticed me to stay longer. The talented chef came out and chatted to us, explaining what the dishes were and told us about his passion for his career. He had previously worked for major hotels and on cruise ships all over the world, but now he has settled back home again, whipping up Maltese and international treats for the villagers of Hamrun. He also runs a catering service- if you happen to stop in the cafe, ask to see his fabulous photo albums. His photo albums are a foodie's dream, a treat for the eyes which make your tastebuds water. The albums depict the buffets, fruit carvings and cakes he has created over the years, a testament to his passion.

Back to the food in question. I had a delicious Marrow stir fry, seen above. The Maltese are crazy about marrows and you can't avoid this green succulent treat on the island. The marrows were sautéed in a spicy sauce heightened with cracked pepper and juniper berries with a fragrant olive oil base. The Carnivore chowed down on a chicken curry, one of the dishes this wonderful chef learned on his trips around the world. Both meals cost 5 euro, well worth it when they are prepared by such an enthusiastic chef. In addition, there are Escargots on offer for the brave, rigatoni bakes, Maltese rabbit pie and a selection of naughty cakes. As there is no menu here, you can even place an order of something you would like to eat the following day, come back and have a bespoke meal. I ordered a Stuffed Aubergine, but sadly the bad weather meant the cafe was closed on the day I planned to return. What a shame.

If anyone knows the chef from Da Gaetano, please pass on my regards and show him this review!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Cafe Tivoli, Hamrun, Malta

Everyone who knows me or reads my blog knows how much I like traditional, old school restaurants that have been around for years. Angular furniture, excessive glass frontage and desperation for tips just don't do it for me. And don't you just hate it when places disguise bog-standard food with fancy, meaningless names? Pan-fried, hand-cut and melange are some of the words I hate, along with non-Spanish restaurants calling any small dish a 'tapa'. Plus what's all this recent over-usage of the word 'pulled'? Pulled ham, pulled pasta- what does it mean? One of the things I love about Malta is the way it shies away from the 21st century and charmingly seems to be in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Old cars, old shop signage from long gone firms, no massive supermarkets and more independent stores and most importantly, not a single Star**cks!

The charming village of Hamrun is packed with old fashioned charm and every nook and cranny reveals a foodie treat. Whether it is a Pastizzeria- purveyor of delicious pastries, pasties, sausage rolls and lasagnas, working mens' clubs with a Maltese twist or pizza parlours, there is something here for everyone. Why, even the die hard Brits abroad can get egg and chips here! I went to Cafe Tivoli as it reminded me of my much loved Salvo Caffe in Edinburgh, packed with 60s charm, a charismatic host and steaming plates of pasta. Tivoli is a fantastic slice of life in a Maltese community, packed with the joie de vivre of the cafe from the film Amelie with a hint of Mediterranean zest straight out of Cinema Paradiso. The smell of freshly ground coffee filled the air and by jove it was potent!

On my 2 visits, I enjoyed Penne Arrabiata (5 Euro) and Vegetable Tagliatelle (7 Euro), while The Carnivore chowed down on one of their huge Angus beef burgers with all the trimmings (burgers between 4-7 Euro). The portions were absolutely huge and can definitely feed two people. The Arrabiata was packed with potent chillies, perfect for Vindaloo lovers and I was happy to see the pasta was Al Dente and not sloppy like most cafes outside of Bella Italia. The veggie tagliatelle was both a feast for the eyes and tastebuds, as the daring chef used a mixture of ingredients you wouldn't think would complement the pasta. Using a tomato pulp as the base and Malta's favourite vegetable the marrow as the main ingredient, cashews, peppers and onions were added, along with some olives. This eclectic mix made for a unique pasta sauce- never be too scared to take a risk with your foodie imagination!

The Carnivore gave the Angus burger top marks too, the generous portion of chips and green salad being the icing on the cake. For smaller appetites, the selection of Maltese pastries is a must too.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Garam Masalaa, Msida, Malta

In the world of Vindaloo Queen, a holiday isn't a holiday without a trip to the local curry house. After a few disappointments over the years (Spanish and German curry houses are the worst so far) and a few unlikely surprises (who knew the Cote d'Azur was a hidden curry heaven?), I enter an overseas spice establishment with an open mind, expecting the unexpected. After 2010's Maltese debacle which was Bombay Palace, I was desperately seeking a good quality, non tourist-trappy restaurant.

As the weather was too rainy to walk around Malta this time, I spent a lot of time driving round to where the locals live and avoided the bucket and spade brigade of St Julians and co. Most of my culinary exploits centred round the villages of Birkirkara, Hamrun (more about these in later reviews) and Msida, where Garam Masalaa is located. Garam doesn't open til 7, so I killed time in the cutely named Busy Bee coffeeshop on the same street. Regrettably, I haven't taken any pics or stayed long enough to write about this fabulous coffeeshop, but for the record, the Americanos are deliciously potent and the cannoli to die for. The clock soon ticked round to 7, about time, I was freezing, the wind was blowing a gale and I needed a curry to warm me up!

Garam Masalaa is a cosy restored Maltese 'house of character' with stone walls, long and narrow. A few Indian ornaments lined the shelves like elephants and glittery jewelled items, a reminder just in case you forgot you were dining in an Indian and were expecting Maltese rabbit stew. The staff who greeted us were extremely friendly, the chef obviously having real passion about his cuisine and I immediately felt at ease- unpretentious dining at its best. However, it was absolutely freezing and appeared to have no heating on. My toes were about to drop off and in the words of pop group Steps, my skin was a deeper shade of blue. The staff could obviously feel my pain, as they were wearing coats as they served, rushing back to huddle in the relative warmth of the kitchen. I'd better request extra chillies with my vindaloo then...

I opened the menu and was disappointed to see that the prices didn't reflect those displayed outside and bearing that in mind, it was now going to be a rather expensive meal. My favourite Peshwari Naan was an astronomical 6€- even in high class joints in the UK and Dubai, I have never seen Peshwari so expensive. The Pilau rice came to a shocking €5, time for that second mortgage! I read a couple of reviews on TripAdvisor where complimentary popadoms were mentioned- we weren't offered this luxury. I ordered a vegetable Madras and the obligatory pilau, while The Carnivore ordered that Brit Abroad staple, Chicken Tikka Masala with a plain nan. The waitress asked me if I wanted my Madras mild or hot- this question really perplexed me, it's like asking if I wanted a fried egg boiled or fried. Then she asked me if I wanted fresh or frozen veg- let me tell you something, if I wanted frozen veg, I would have went to Lidl and bought a readymeal, and I sure as hellfire wouldn't be paying over the 7€ mark for frozen carrots and peas. This was going to be an interesting meal....

As you can see above (flash was faulty that night, excuse the slightly blurred photography), my Madras came with potatoes and mushrooms (definitely fresh) and peas (possibly frozen). The Madras sauce was tasty, albeit not what I'm used to. It was spicy which made up for the lack of central heating, but the extra spice tasted if it was possibly from Tabasco or a similar liquid and not powder. It had a coconutty base but too much liquid and not enough veg. There was an imbalance of peas- in fact, I'd say the veg was 65% pea, 20% mushroom and a paltry 15% potato, which ideally, it would have been great if the majority was spud. The pilau was tasty and reminded me of Liverpool's legendary Master Chef, brown and spiced with licorice. The nan was of the flat variety, perfect for scooping up Madras with and eating it wrap-style! The Carnivore's CTM apparently was top notch, the chicken fresh and mixed well with the spice. I've noticed this is quite a common occurrence, restaurants that make mediocre veggie meals serve chicken dishes which are like works of art for the tastebuds.

After seeing the prices of desserts, we diverted back to Busy Bee. I kind of feel guilty writing this review as the staff here are overwhelmingly friendly, but the prices are simply too high, especially for those coming from cities with big Indian communities (Manchester, Dubai etc) where restaurants like this are cheek by jowl, jostling for custom and constantly improving.
And when you charge prices like this, the least you can do is turn the thermostat up a tad.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Anglo-Maltese League, Valletta, Malta

Why is it that whenever I visit Malta's capital, Valletta, it is either Dubai hot or England blizzard-y and never just a nice day to walk around? Valletta is an amazing old city, full of winding streets and original 1960s shop fronts, mixed with a few modern horrors like Peacocks and Burger King. On my latest visit, I got caught in the biggest storm on record for 100 years- typical. Amazingly, I managed to seek shelter in a restaurant I last visited in 2009, the cosy Anglo-Maltese League.

What I love about Maltese restaurants is the fact they resemble those Italian bistros in the UK that seem to be slowly dying out thanks to food snobs calling them '1970s rubbish'. Checked tablecloths, Mateus Rose on the bar, decadent desserts and an assortment of artwork intermingled with souvenirs, traditional Maltese restaurants are homely and are the type of place you can easily while away 5 hours without being rushed. Despite its name, this restaurant isn't a stodgy old British Legion style dive, but how I have just described.

My mind was determinedly set on having a veggie wrap as I did on my last visit, but to satisfy my curiosity I flicked through the menu. Pastas, wraps, Maltese stews, roasts and free bar snacks all leapt out at me. If Gordon Ramsay was there, he would have commented that the menu was too long. Are they a steakhouse? Maltese cafe? Pub? It seemed they were taking too much on, which soon became evident...

The service wasn't as friendly as 2009- back then, a jovial chap served me who even gave me a potent coffee on the house. This time, the brusque waitress was desperately trying to steer us towards the all you can eat buffet on offer (yes, there was one of them going on too, fingers in too many pies) which was possibly an indicator to how overworked the kitchen was. This time, there was no potent coffee and just a sad Nescafe machine which churns out instant. How boring and unlike Malta, where 99.9% of the cafes, even the grotty ones, serve Proper Coffee made with beans. I settled with just having a water and my veggie wrap (€6), and The Carnivore went for a Beef Roast with a glass of wine for €13. We waited. And waited. The impatient German couple on the next table were tapping their watches and tutting. Not a good sign.

Over half an hour later, the food finally arrived. My wrap (top pic) was perfection and an improvement from 2009's wrap. The 2012 model was piping hot and filled with a rich Ratatouille, complemented with a deliciously crisp salad garnished with capers and olives. The chips were my favourite, the chunky steak cut variety as opposed to grease-laden, Mc Donaldsesque skinny chips. Unfortunately, they were disappointingly lukewarm, but I still threw them down my neck anyway. A satisfying, filling plate for a cold blustery day which would have went better with coffee.

The Beef Roast on the other hand resembled a TV dinner from Farmfoods, bar the roast potatoes. The beef was inedible and left The Carnivore crippled with stomach pains for at least 12 hours, tasted off and consisted of gristly bits. The peas and carrots were out of one of my pet hates, the dreaded 99p bag of frozen veg, as seen in Farmfoods and other low rent freezer stores in the UK. The meal's saving grace came in the form of the roast potatoes which were served in a velvety gravy heightened by aniseed. Some effort had gone into the spuds at least.

I'm really disappointed that I haven't been able to give this place a glowing review, as in my memory bank this was a hidden gem for me. It has so much potential- a chef who can rustle up some fabulous dishes, a cosy setting and a prime location. All it needs is to reduce that menu to half the size, get a decent coffee machine and it'd be the perfect city centre, non tourist-trappy bolthole.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Villa Madama, Attard, Malta


As much as I loved my hotel, the fab Corinthia Palace, I drew the line at their lunch prices. 8 euro for a sandwich? I wasn't born yesterday! Last time I looked, cheese and bread was no way worth 8 euro. Always the culinary adventurer, I decided to go on a trek of the surrounding area. Thankfully, I didn't need to trek too far. Directly opposite the hotel was the opulent Villa Madama.

A mix of palatial, lounge bar and gardens, Villa Madama provided the perfect location for a perfect Mediterranean lunch break. Upon entering the restaurant, you are enveloped in an ornate entrance hall, the chandelier catching your eye. I thought I was in a stately home at first. Then you pass through the lounge bar; ultra-modern with flatscreen TVs and white couches. However, as I wanted to make the most of the Mediterranean heat, I headed for the beautifully landscaped gardens, where I sat in the shade of lemon and lime trees. Perfect.

The menu was a delight for veggies and carnivores alike. I opted for the veggie take on the Traditional Maltese Ftira, the difference being tuna was substituted for roast veg. This sandwich was a feast of taste and texture- fat juicy capers, crisp grated carrot, salty Gozo cheese, warm aubergine on fresh salad...mmmmmm heaven.

Here's an undignified close up of me stuffing myself with Ftira!

The dessert selection was overwhelming- rich cakes, traditional Maltese ricotta specialities and sumptuous pastries stood there temptingly in the display case. After much deliberation, I settled for good old strawberry ice cream to cool me down in the blistering heat.

If you happen to be staying at my hotel, please give the pool bar a miss and pop by at Villa Madama. To sum it up-it's half the price; double the atmosphere and triple the taste.


After the glowing review I gave Villa Madama 2 years ago, I was excited to return. However, it was a case of never returning to a good place twice as the second time around is always disappointing. Two years is a long time in the restaurant world, especially in a place that relies heavily on tourism and going through a recession. It doesn't give restaurant owners the right to cheat their customers though...

Villa Madama was closed and cobwebby when I arrived back in Malta but on day 5 of my holiday, it mysteriously opened. Looking forward to having a potent coffee and fabulous Ftira, I bounded in like an excited puppy. It was like the Marie Celeste. Cobwebs and a layer of dust, accompanied by a smell not dissimilar to a second hand bookshop greeted me. As I made my way to the cafe, not a soul was in there, strange as it was lunch rush hour time. The white couches were now grey and covered in dust and it was starting to get in my throat- never mind the sandwich, it was a side order of antihistamines I needed! As I was a bit dubious about the food, I chose an Americano which thankfully was as potent as ever. For some strange reason, the prices of the drinks weren't displayed but the norm in Malta for an Americano is €1-1.50. When I asked to pay, the owner charged €2. This may sound normal to my Dubai friends, but for Malta this is a complete ripoff. Villa Madama is not even in a tourist area, so that doesn't explain the high price. Little did the owner know that I was the person whom he thanked, just 2 years ago, for writing a kind review about his place.

BookBites, Gzira/Sliema, Malta

In 2010, I discovered this small but interesting cafe in a newsagents on Sliema's notoriously pricey waterfront. Sick of wading through the murky waters of rip-off merchants charging £7 for a sandwich, and at the same time not wanting to go for the default option of the ubiquitous Subway, I decided to try BookBites, the Maltese take on an in-store cafe.

If you like a potent Americano and a naughty slice of Cassata (this raisin and marzipan Sicilian dessert is everywhere in Malta), this is the perfect place to pore over your newspaper while still soaking up the ambience of a seaside holiday. Removed from the tourist traps, BookBites has a largely Maltese clientele and the prices are pretty reasonable too- coffees are approx 1.50€ and sandwiches and wraps 3.50€. As an alternative to wraps and sliced bread, try a little local flavour and opt for a Maltese Ftira- this traditional flatbread goes brilliantly with cold cuts of meat and salty cheese. My favourite filling was and still is Gozo cheese and sun dried tomato. Gozo cheese is peppery and goes well with the salty tomatoes, making a beautiful melt in the mouth combination when the bread is warmed. Bet Subway's customers are regretting missing out on this local delicacy!

Here is the beautiful Cassata:

On a negative note though, the toilet is atrocious in here. Without going into detail (this is a food blog after all), it was as bad as that on an intercity train in the UK. Apart from this niggle, the cafe seems clean and the food fresh- just use the loos in the neighbouring hotel lobby!

Veduta, Rabat, Malta

A restaurant has to be something special for me to visit it 3 times in 1 week. It needs to offer fantastic service, a varied menu, affordable prices and as the estate agents say, location, location, location. Veduta fitted all these requisites.

The location of this restaurant was a deciding factor as to why I ate here a whopping 3 times in 2010 and made a return visit 2 years later. Nestled high up in the hills of Malta, this restaurant is situated in the village of Rabat (not to be confused with the capital of Morocco),a stones throw from the ancient walled city of Mdina (not to be confused with the similarly-named Tunisian town!) This area was formerly an Arabic settlement, so sit back and absorb the history while eating here.
TIP: do what I done on my first lunch visit- make a day of it. Take a day trip to the Silent City of Mdina, go for a stroll down the ancient passages and after all that walking, chill out at Veduta for lunch! Ignore the tourist-priced cafes in Mdina itself.
It is better to visit the restaurant twice as you will have two very different experiences of a day and a night. you see, the main attraction of this restaurant is its panoramic view over Malta itself. On a clear day, you can see the coast, mountains, and surrounding villages. If you're like me and a bit of a plane geek, it has an advantageous view of the airport! However, of an evening when the sun sets, the restaurant takes on a very romantic, intimate atmosphere. The sky turns a turquoise blue, the stars (and planes!) twinkle, and if you're lucky, the fireworks from a local festival will light up the sky.

The service was professional and always with a smile, willing to help and not as intrusive as some of these annoying restaurants. (You know what I mean, 'are you okay guys' every five minutes. Yes, chains, I mean you!) The food prices were higher than average- Pizzas and pastas around the 8 € mark, but desserts and drinks were the going rate for Malta. (coffees around 1.50€). The menu was a delight for vegetarians- rustic pizzas with succulent aubergines, pastas ranging from the creamy to the fiery, salads consisting of a cornucopia of capers, cheese and crunchy peppers. I had a mixed vegetable pizza, a spinach and gorgonzola farfalle and always the vindaloo queen, I chose a 'spaghetti esplosiva' (above) as my Last Supper in 2010. It did what it said on the tin, this pasta was explosive. Imagine crossing Arrabiata with Vindaloo with a dash of Szechuan sauce- well, this is what this pasta was. It should come with a warning, only suitable for hardcore Vindaloo Kings and Queens. Needless to say, I had the Esplosiva again on my 2012 return.

For the carnivores, check out this beefburger- great mix of naughty and nice:

This is the perfect restaurant for encapsulating the holiday mood and taking some memorable holiday snaps. The meals may not be pushing the imagination or be the cheapest on the island, but good service and fabulous panoramic views more than make up for it.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Galeries Lafayette Gourmet Experience, Dubai

What happened when I met up with a bunch of like-minded, passionate food bloggers in Dubai and we got invited to sample the culinary delights of Paris's most opulent department store?

I have recently been invited to join a lovely group with the fabulous title of Fooderati Arabia, a collective of fellow food bloggers in the region. Until now, I have not been able to attend any of their events due to reasons I won't bore you with, but this week I finally met up with the group at the Dubai Mall branch of Galeries Lafayette, the beautiful French department store, where we were invited to a gourmet food tasting! In my previous life as penniless student, I whiled away many an hour in their Berlin food hall, longingly admiring the produce on offer, clutching my coffee for dear life, making a single cup last hours. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic to visit their Dubai branch and see how well they had replicated continental Europe in the desert.

The food hall is reminiscent of Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh and Selfridges in Manchester, effectively combining supermarket, coffee shop, deli and restaurant. Whether you want to nip in for a coffee and a girlie gossip, discuss business over tapas or spend some quality time over a quality meal, Lafayette Gourmet has all bases covered. They even offer outside catering which we also got to sample.

Us bloggers were greeted with fabulous mocktails before we got down to dissecting the menu- my personal favourite was the Mojito but the Tropical Fruit long mocktail was a close second:

Perfect cooler for a muggy Dubai heatwave:

The Amuse Bouche were brought out which consisted of buffalo mozzarella with cherry tomato and goats cheese moneybags with honey for the veggies, whilst the omnivores devoured Foie Gras bonbons and smoked salmon. The mozzarella had a fleshy, velvety texture that melted in your mouth. The moneybags were delicious,but I believe they should have been garnished with cranberry sauce for them to be experienced at their best. In the below pic, you can see the mozzarella and next to it is a chicken and lemongrass appetiser devoured by my fellow bloggers:

After digesting the appetisers, an internationally eclectic range of hot dishes were brought out. Moroccan Lamb Tagine was popular but with me being veggie, I opted for the plain couscous- its soft, silky texture heightened by pine nuts and cinnamon:

Street food was even represented with both Thai and Yakisoba noodles, served in authentic noodle boxes with chopsticks- the Thai noodles consisted of chicken and tofu, the Yakisoba noodles with sesame sauce, peppers, beansprouts and duck for the meateaters. The noodles were satisfactory but lacked the X-factor- less oil and more chillies or a flavoured sauce wouldn't go amiss.

The head chef really got his team to rise to the challenge of preparing me a veggie meal at short notice. As I was the only veggie there, it was such a lovely surprise to have a bespoke dish for the Vindaloo Queen- I had this fabulous platter from the Indian section- aloo gobi, dal, parathas and popadoms:

Here's the curry display- a feast for Vindaloo Monarchy:

The Aloo Gobi was amazing. Fresh cauliflower and potato in a delightful sauce with a fiery aftertaste, the mild curry of the Dal being the perfect antidote. The popadoms had a unique design as they were curled pyramids, not round and flat, so were perfect for dunking and dipping in the curry sauce! The parathas were oven fresh, served in manageable triangles, great for scooping up with and not at all cumbersome like Naan bread. While I was enjoying the curry feast, the other bloggers were experiencing a taste of Spain with this bountiful beef paella:

The cheese selection is exceptional with most of it imported from France- the Brie I tried is melt-in-your-mouth creamy and I also sampled sheep cheese which could be compared to a more potent version of Red Leicester- the perfect accompaniment to pickle. Also on offer were Italian treats from , an interesting range which includes Italian staples like Panettone and olive oil, and some unusual treats like cocoa flavoured pasta and date dipping oil.

The Lafayette desserts were a sight to behold including ice cream lollipops, bitesize decadent cakes similar to those at W Grill and my personal favourite, cones filled with chocolate mousse, caramelised popcorn and marshmallows:

After such a decadent evening, I had to waddle home but guess what? The party for my tastebuds didn't end there! Our generous hosts gave us a bag of goodies to take home, comprising of a bag of Love Italy pasta, a beautiful Lafayette celebration cake and the cutest party favour I have ever seen. Hats off for originality- this party favour was a mini chocolate bar shaped as a lipstick!

Sekander, Allerton Rd, Liverpool

My relationship with Sekander has been a tempestuous one. From its humble beginnings in the late nineties as just a takeaway, the food was exceptional. Succulent samosas, fiery vindaloos and halal kebabs for the carnivores, Sekander filled a gap in the South Liverpool Indian restaurant market when it expanded and became a restaurant as well as a takeaway. The decor is refreshingly modern- not a sticky Axminster carpet in sight but thankfully doesn't have that impersonal Ikea-sponsored winebar feel either. Its BYOB policy won many a customer's heart and for the teetotals amongst us, its potent coffee was freshly brewed and not out of a jar labelled Maxwell House like some of its Indian neighbours. The mango lassi bursts with flavour too, the perfect antidote to a gut wrenching vindaloo.

Sekander is open daily, but on Sunday they offer a buffet for a tenner, which quite frankly is atrocious. Starters aside, the main courses consist of all the dishes that they find hard to flog like Chicken Korma and fish curry. Every single dish tastes inexplicably like a mixture of raw chicken and the stench of fish. Prepare for some ensuing Imodium moments...

The main menu is a riot of colour, just like the funky restaurant itself, however the quality of the curries is inconsistent. Sekander seems to go through a cycle of peaks and troughs but if you go right this minute, it is experiencing a peak; the perfect opportunity for some pics for the blog! Sometimes, the curries consist of a watery gravy and no substance, the starters being the real star of the show. Starters are generously proportioned but can sometimes spoil the appetite rather than whet it- not that I'm complaining. They will kindly give you a doggy bag should your stomach not be up for the challenge. Mainstays like Samosas and Bhajis are present and correct but are homemade unlike some curry houses, and thought is given to their presentation rather than adorning it with a few limp lettuce leaves. My favourite starter is the Vegetable Dosa, a dish set to trend in the UK in 2012.

My Dubai curry fiends are well-versed on Dosas as they're a really popular dish in this neck of the woods, but do my British chums know what one is? It's a pancake, South Indian in origin and is served with curry. In Dubai, dal is a popular accompaniment but as we can see on this pic, Sekander have stuffed their dosa with a zingy okra, aubergine and potato mix in a piquant sauce- delicious!

Veggie main course perfection can be achieved by the Vindaloo (top pic) or with the Vegetable Dhansak. Dhansaks are my alternative when I have had too much of a spice kick. A 'pimped' version of Dal you could describe it as. Dhansak is more popular in the UK than Dal dishes and in Sekander, they throw in some ginger, lashings of lemon juice and top it off with a pineapple ring to give it that sweet and sour taste. I find Dal quite a boring dish but love lentils, so this is the perfect alternative as Sekander throws in a few okra and potatoes to give it a bit of variation.

A visit to Sekander isn't complete without checking out its dessert menu. They have standard Indian desserts like Matka Kulfi, Pistachio Kulfi and that ubiquitous hollowed-out orange skin with the ice cream inside. Perfect for cooling down after a night on the spice!

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