December favourites pt. 2

I know, I know; I already wrote a December favourites post. But I’ve encountered such a number of wonderful products and activities since that I thought I would mention them in a part two. For Christmas this year, my family went to Horseshoe Valley in Barrie to do some skiing/snowboarding and to enjoy the spa facilities (and use up our remaining RMT benefits for the year.) It’s such a great time to get together with the family despite the cold weather… although I am also quite excited to escape to Cuba for the next few days.

Hope you are all enjoying your holidays! At the bottom is also a short list of the things that I would like to try in the new year (mostly restaurants haha).

Food:

Christmas buffet at Horseshoe Resort: This amazing buffet only happens once a year at Horsehoe; it’s $55 per person and well worth the price. There is a massive assortment of seafood such as smoked salmon, mackerel, trout, oysters, and a large variety of hot dishes including carved roast beef, butternut squash ravioli, turkey, and roasted root vegetables. The dessert spread is just as elaborate, featuring housemade sticky toffee pudding, cherries jubilee flambé over vanilla ice cream, crème brulee, and cheesecake. This is definitely a Christmas buffet worth trying. I know for a fact that a dinner spread as decadent as this could not be found for the same price in Toronto.

Ben and Jerry’s non-dairy chocolate fudge brownie: What a time to be alive, my vegan and lactose-intolerant friends – this amazing ice cream is made with almond milk and is nothing short of phenomenal. There is a strong aroma from the almonds, and the pint is loaded with lots and lots of gooey brownie bites. Finally a decadent alternative to the typical sorbet served as the non-dairy option.

Apple tempura from Ichiban Fish House: This is one of my family’s favourite places for sushi in Richmond Hill; we often order a medium sushi boat and side vegetable tempura to share. What’s special about Ichiban’s tempura is the type of vegetables they fry, which includes juicy shimeji mushrooms, asparagus, and even apples.

Activities

Horseshoe Resort Spa: I recently got an RMT at this spa and quite enjoyed my experience; the masseuse was well-knowledgeable and used heat pads and a remote reclining chair as part of the experience. Any spa services also include access to the pool, hot tub, and sauna.

Shopping at First Canadian Place (FCP): I never realized until recently how great the shops were in First Canadian Place; there’s a Drake General Store, Indigo, M Boutique, Papyrus, and many, many more. It makes it quite convenient to do some quick gift shopping on the weekdays since FCP is centrally located within the Path. I scored some great last-minute deals at Indigo and the Drake General Store.

Vinyasa Flow at Yoga Tree: I highly enjoyed Yoga Tree’s vinyasa yoga – an active, flowing class that helps improve strength and flexibility. What’s different about this class is that students place their mats in two horizontal lines facing each other rather than towards the mirror, creating a harmonious sense of unity within everyone in attendance.

Things I would like to try in the new year (in no particular order):

  • General Assembly Pizza
  • Assembly Chef’s Hall
  • Byblos
  • Make my own ravioli (with butternut squash stuffing??)
  • Mitzi’s café for brunch
  • Get pasta at that little Italian stand at St. Lawrence Market
  • Buca in King West
  • Try a Pilates class
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Niagara picks

There are many, many sides to Niagara.

First, there’s the Falls and all the touristy attractions on Clifton Hill. Then there’s the “more refined” side by Niagara-on-the-lake, which consists of all the different vineyards, wineries, and boutique food shops. I did a roadtrip to Niagara this past weekend, and thought I would share my top picks in this region (as the number of options in this area can be a bit overwhelming).

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Vineyard picks

Konzelmann Estate Winery: I would highly recommend doing a tour at this vineyard; we were also able to find a Groupon for an intimate winery tour with tasting for about $7 each. The guide was incredibly knowledgeable at explaining the entire wine process and answering any questions. The tasting in the winery’s cellar was also quite elaborate, serving a complimentary assortment of cheese & meats, and featured many different wines from the estate. I recommend trying Konzelmann’s peach white wine, which is made with peaches from local farms in Niagara.

Small Talks Vineyard is mostly popularly known for its Shiny Apple Cider. Tastings here are fairly inexpensive, and there are many discount packages available online as well. I highly recommend trying the Shiny Bootleg Spice Cider, which has a nice spice kick to the typical cider taste, as well as the Dessert Anyone Riesling Icewine.

Trius Winery: This vineyard is so beautiful and grand, and its shop offers affordable tastings of many different wines. My favourite was the Showcase Cabernet Franc Icewine 2015, which carries a strong bold flavor that contrasts nicely with the sweet icewine. However, at its $90 price point, I got the Late Harvest Vidal Icewine 2015 for $22 (which still tastes incredible!) Pro tip – if you eat at the Trius restaurant, use the receipt to get a $5 discount on any purchase in-store.

 

Food picks

Trius wines brunch: The three-course brunch at this beautiful restaurant at Trius Wines in Niagara is a bit on the pricier side ($42) but well worth the value for the quality and quantity. As a pro tip, inform your waiter if you are visiting to celebrate a special occasion, as everyone at the table will receive a complimentary full glass of sparkling white wine!

For starters, I got the fresh Ontario mozzarella with cured prosciutto, red wine pear, and organic arugula. The cheese was so fresh, and tasted incredible when paired with the sweet pear and salty cured meat. 

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For my main, I got the Atlantic lobster cakes served with icewine smoked salmon, poached hens eggs, and icewine beets. The lobster meat was so tender and flavourful, and it complemented the strong taste of the smoked salmon and creamy egg yolk perfectly.

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For dessert, I got the Icewine pear, served with a caramel, chocolate, and cheese cake bar. The icewine pear was divine, soaked in the sweet boozy taste of Niagara’s famous icewine, and it contrasted nicely with the nutty caramel taste of the cheese cake bar.

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Koutouki Niagara: This Greek restaurant near Clifton Hill is quite homey, and is perfect for ordering sharing plates for large format dinners. I would recommend trying the chicken souvlaki, which was incredibly tender and juicy, as well as the combination spread platter to try the restaurant’s assortment of Greek-style dips.

 

Activity picks

Winter Festival of Lights: The holiday lights at Niagara are beautiful (even when it’s raining), so I highly recommend driving through to take a look.

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Clifton hill fun pack: Glow-in-the dark mini put is actually a lot of fun, as are the other activities here like the laser maze and the canon ball shoot (even for a couple of twenty-year-old’s).

Butterfly conservatory: This Niagara Parks Botanical Garden features over 2,000 butterflies, made up of 45 different species, that may flutter up to visitors (perfect for photo opportunities!)

 

Last Stop: Athens

I realize that I never wrote about my last stop in Europe, which was to Athens, Greece. We flew there from the island of Santorini, which was only about an hour flight away. Warning: If you go to Athens in June, it is crazy hot. Many shops and restaurants close during the hottest hours in the afternoon (between 2 to 5 pm), which our Airbnb host described as a siesta-like period for Greeks.

There are many important historic monuments to check out in Athens, as well as cool flea markets and shops. As the capital of Greece and a major transportation hub, Athens is also a convenient place to do day trips from.

Here are a list of things to do (and around) Athens:

1. Acropolis of Athens

The main feature at the Acropolis is the Parthenon, dedicated by the Athenians to Athena Parthenos, the patron of their city. I highly recommend visiting this site in the morning, as it tends to be less hot since the sun hasn’t reached its full peak yet.

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2. Take a ferry to Hydra

Athens is close to many islands, one of them being the island of Hydra, which is located in the Aegean Sea between the Saronic Gulf and the Argolic Gulf. There are short hikes you can do in Hydra to some beautiful beaches, where the water is as blue and clear as the sky. A one-way ferry trip to Hydra from Athens takes less than an hour.

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3. Watch the sunset over the water

This is just one of those classic vacation things you must do in Greece. The photo below was taken while we were waiting at the dock in Hydra for our ferry back to Athens.

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4. Visit the farmers market in Athens

It’s a little hard to communicate with vendors, who for the most part only speak Greek, but the farmer market in Athens was quite an interesting and fun experience. The produce here is really cheap; for instance, I bought a large bag of plump, juicy cherries (around 3 lbs) for two euros.

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5. Explore Monastiraki

This flea market area is always buzzing with tourists and locals alike. There are tons of cool shops, cafes, bars, and souvenir shops to check out. I recommend trying a fish foot massage at Doctor Fish Athens, where you place your feet inside a tank and little fish nibble the dead skin off your feet. The sensation was really ticklish at first, but it soon became soothing and even nice. My feet also did in fact feel softer afterwards.

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6. Buy some Greek sesame snacks & honey

We bought a lot of souvenirs, such as snacks and beauty products, to share with our friends back home. Most of the snacks we found in Greece contain either honey and/or sesame seeds. There were also a lot of olive oil products for sale in the markets; we bought cream and shampoo containing this ingredient, as well as some olive wood products.

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7. Explore Coffee Shops

During the hottest hours of the afternoon (between two to five), many shops and restaurants are closed and it also tends to get too hot to wander outside – making it the perfect time to explore Athens’ coffee shops. There are tons of really neat ones around the city, my favourite being the cozy Little Tree Books & Coffee.

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8. See the Acropolis at night

There are many restaurants with rooftop patios near the Acropolis of Athens, allowing guests to see the beautiful Acropolis light up at night. We visited Kuzina, as recommended to us by our local Airbnb host. This restaurant tends to get quite busy so be sure to make a reservation ahead of time.

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9. Daytrip to Delphi

From Athens we took a day trip to Delphi, a famous ancient sanctuary about a two-hour drive away from Athens. The site is on the south-western slope of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the coastal plain to the south and the valley of Phocis. Showcasing monuments built by important ancient Greek city-statess, Delphi embodies Hellenic unity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Must-Try Foods 

Not only is Greece absolutely beautiful, but the country’s cuisine is also phenomenal. From street souvlaki to grilled squid, everything I ate was incredible – and at prices that I know I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. Here are some dishes you have to try when in Greece:

1. Gyro and Souvlaki

Gyro is a special Greek delicacy consisting of meat, onion, tomato and tzatziki sauce served with pita bread. The gyro meat is cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie and is served as strips or small slices of meat. Souvlaki is also a Greek dish, but is prepared as small meat cubes and grilled vegetables on a skewer. A great place to try these dishes is at Sfika, a restaurant that serves some of the best grilled meats in the city, according to our local host.

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2. Greek Salad

Made with the perfect balance of feta cheese, crisp vegetables, and buttery croutons, the Greek salad at Kuzina Restaurant was absolute perfection.

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3. Greek Frappé Coffee

The traditional frappé coffee is a Greek foam-covered iced coffee drink made from instant coffee, water and sugar. The frappé has become a hallmark of Greek coffee culture, and is available in virtually all coffee shops across Athens. I got one at Coffee Island, which sells a real strong traditional Greek frappé for 1.10 euros.

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4. Asian Greek Fusion at Mr. Dim

This may sound almost silly, but this Greek Asian fusion shop called Mr. Dim served one of the best bao creations I’ve ever tasted. The tender, juicy gyros meat worked so well with the flavours of the Chinese sesame bao; even my Asian parents adored this fusion dish.

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5. Grilled Squid

I highly recommend the grilled squid at Smile Restaurant, a local family-run business. I normally don’t love grilled squid because it tends to be too chewy for my liking, but the texture of this one was amazing and grilled to perfection.

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6. Moussaka

This traditional Greek dish is either eggplant- or potato-based, and is layered with ground meat in a fashion similar to that of a lasagna.

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7. Koulouria Thessalonikis

These giant sesame bagel-like treats are sold everywhere on the streets in Athens for typically less than one euro. They’re deliciously chewy on the inside, and carry a fragrant toasted sesame taste – perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

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Happy traveling!

Dine LA at Erven

I used to love Toronto’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious, two culinary events where restaurants across the city offer a fixed price menu for a limited period of time, with prices ranging from $15-25 for lunch and $25-45 for dinner. I remember back in high school, my friends and I even had lunch at the CN Tower for $25 (lift included) during Winterlicious, an experience typically worth at least double that amount. Over the years, however, I found myself becoming more and more disappointed with these culinary events. Rather than featuring their best dishes from their usual menus, restaurants started creating lower quality menus just for Winterlicious/Summerlicious. Portions seemed smaller and the ingredients of lower quality; my overall excitement for these annual events hence diminished.

That’s why when I heard about Dine LA, a similar event in Los Angeles where restaurants across the city offer fixed price menus for a limit\ed two-week period, I was skeptical. I skimmed Eater’s list of “Best Dine LA Dinner Restaurants” and found one, however, that I was quite interested in trying. Erven Restaurant in Santa Monica used to be a strictly vegan restaurant until just recently, when it added a few meat and dairy products to its menu.

I was also impressed that unlike most restaurants during Toronto’s Summerlicious, Erven’s menu for Dine LA featured items on its regular menu. In fact, the main courses on its Dine LA menu were typically worth more than $20 each – making the three-set course for $29 a great value. I booked a table for the last Friday of this culinary event.

I liked the vibe of Erven. It was a nice restaurant, yet didn’t seem pretentious. The waiter offered us complimentary white sangria upon our arrival, and promptly seated us to our table. The white sangria didn’t taste like typical sangria; it was sweeter yet lighter in the fruit taste. We liked it so much, we ordered a carafe to share ($12).

For starters, we ordered the beets with peas, pistachio, rose and strawberries, as well as the charred California avocado with macadamia tahini, chili-garlic salsa and pomegranate seed. The beet dish played a lot with temperature; there was this green foam that resembled frozen gelato.

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The charred avocado was amazing, and unlike any other avocado dish I had ever tasted. I normally don’t like avocado much, unless it’s in sushi, but the sear on this one was amazing. The tahini and pomegranate seeds paired with the avocado also contrasted well with its rich taste.

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For our mains, we got the salmon with chorizo, corn chowder, basil dumplings and smoky tomato, as well as the vegan Thai-style burrito. The salmon dish was one of the best-cooked fishes I’ve ever eaten, and that’s saying a lot about Erven, considering that it used to be a completely vegan restaurant.

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The Thai-style burrito was quite interesting; it was stuffed with fried rice, tempura sweet potato, lime cream, peanuts and tom yum gravy. My only criticism would be that the wrap itself was a bit too thick, almost overpowering the taste of its stuffing.

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I was already full by the time the two desserts came, but there’s no way I would have left them untouched. We had ordered the cheesecake with roasted plums, corn nut crunch and goat cheese ice cream, as well as the vegan chocolate bread pudding, made with peanut butter, fluff and banana.

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I’m not too big of a fan of savory ice creams, such as goat cheese ice cream, but it was interesting. The chocolate bread pudding contrasted with the rich peanut butter and light marshmallow fluff was absolutely delicious.

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I was highly impressed and satisfied with my Dine LA experience, and I would recommend it for those who are in Los Angeles in time for it!

Best Foods in Toronto

One of the things that I appreciate most about Toronto is the diversity of foods available. From Thai to Cuban, I can probably do a world food tour in this one city. I used to have a “one time restaurant” rule, where I would try to go to a restaurant only once so that I could try more places. However, I’ve recently found myself wanting to return to some restaurants in Toronto, just because of the great food and service, and I’ll know what to expect walking in. Here’s a list of some of my favourite places to eat around the city and what to order.

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BRUNCH

  • La Cubana: This Cuban diner offers a refreshing cultural take on the classic idea of brunch, serving Cuban sandwiches, rice dishes, and smashed plantains for a deliciously hearty meal.
  • Maha’s Fine Egyptian Cuisine: The wait line for this popular brunch spot tends to be ridiculously long, especially on weekends, yet still justified by the amazing (and value) Egyptian dishes. The food is as colourful as it is delicious.
  • Saving Grace: This homey restaurant is the Saturday morning spot to get a good home-cooked brunch in a warm, cozy setting. They have daily features as well as classic morning staples, including banana pancakes, French toast, and egg scrambles.
  • Starving Artist: Everything at this joint is served on waffles, whether it be eggs benedict on miniature waffles or bacon sandwiched inside a warm square waffle. The creative dishes here combine unconventional flavours, yet still turn out delicious.

 

MEAT/SEAFOOD:

  • Jacob’s Steakhouse: Renowned for its steak, Jacob’s has an impressive range of cuts available, and the chef here is sure to cook the steak exactly the way it’s been requested. Their Caesar salad also makes for a great starter, and it’s prepared table side.
  • Trattoria Nervosa’s Capensate: Four juicy seared scallops are served on top of a chickpea puree and kale salad, dressed with an artichoke vinaigrette and sprinkled with pistachios. The large scallops are cooked perfectly and their taste contrasts nicely with the earthy complements.

 

NOODLE & RICE DISHES

  • Gusto 101’s Mafalde ai Funghi: This complicated-sounding pasta features portobello, porcini, crimini, oyster mushrooms, parmigiano, truffle paste, and a light cream sauce. It’s rich and creamy, and although it did have a strong fungi taste, it wasn’t overwhelming.
  • Mama’s Dumplings: This unassuming restaurant in Chinatown makes the best fresh handmade noodles and dumplings. Try the beef noodle soup and veggie dumplings.
  • Momofuku Daishō Rice Cakes: Their rice cakes are pan fried, forming a crispy exterior while remaining soft and chewy on the inside. They’re mixed together with spicy pork sausage, Chinese broccoli, and tofu.
  • Pai’s Khao Soi: Khao Soi is my favourite Thai dish, ever. It’s a thick curry-based soup with egg noodles and meat, topped with more crispy egg noodles. I also recommend trying the squash fritters and Thai milk iced tea at this restaurant.

 

SALADS:

  • Lee’s Singaporean Style Slaw: This massive salad features 19 different ingredients; the flavours are explosive and complicated, yet work delightfully well together.
  • Piano Piano’s Chopped Salad: This salad is made of many different ingredients but still maintains a good flavour balance; it consists of of salami, olives, feta, brussel sprouts, oregano, crisp polenta, and dandelions.

 

SUSHI

  • Jabistro torched sushi: The torched sushi here is done perfectly; Jabistro’s fish is extremely fresh and contrasts well with the slight seared taste.
  • Japango Butterfish Sushi: True to its name, the butterfish is so fresh it literally melts on your tongue like butter.
  • Miku torched sushi: This restaurant by the waterfront is famous for its torched sushi. I would recommend getting the Miku set course dinner to celebrate a special occasion; it’s pricier but worth it for what you get.

 

SWEETS

  • Bang Bang Ice Cream: The cookies and ice cream here are made in-store, and feature fun, creative flavours like London Fog and burnt toffee. I recommend getting an ice cream cookie sandwich so you get to try both the cookies and the ice cream here!
  • Canoe’s Butter Tart: The ‘deconstructed’ presentation of the butter tart here is a creative twist on the classic favourite, and the view from this upscale restaurant isn’t half bad either.
  • Emma’s Country Kitchen Donuts: This homey brunch spot features creative weekly specials for donuts, with flavours from maple bacon to lemon meringue.

 

TACOS:

  • El Catrin: This eccentric restaurant in the Distillery District makes the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. The cod is lightly battered, crispy, and oozes with fresh fish on the inside. El Catrin also features the option to add fried crickets in an order of guacamole; I’ve never tried it… but hey, maybe one day.
  • Seven Lives: This iconic spot in Kensington Market serves some of the best tacos in the city, as demonstrated by its wait line that always seems to be trailing out the door. I recommend trying the Gobernador and Baja fish taco.

 

VEGAN:

  • Doomie’s: This “vegan junk food heaven” serves burgers, fries, poutine, and even delicious deep fried mac & cheese balls.
  • Fresh Restaurant’s Quinoa Onion Rings: These humongous onion rings are coated with quinoa and battered to a deep golden perfection.
  • Kupfert & Kim: I’m not vegan, but I enjoy going to Kupfert & Kim quite regularly. Their salad boxes are filling, tasty, and pair nicely with kombucha.

First Michelin Star Experience

In Amsterdam, I got the chance to experience my very first Michelin Star restaurant. I’ve been obsessed ever since I started watching the series Chef’s Table. I love how these restaurants don’t just give their guests a meal, but a whole experience with it through a combination of flavours, exotic ingredients, unusual presentation, and great service. Our meal at Vinkeles started off with “amuse bouches” which are single, bite-sized hors d’œuvres to get your appetite started. The first was an oyster shell that had been sprayed gold, holding an edible pearl that held a combination of gin, tonic, cucumber juice and oyster juice. It had to be eaten as a shooter because of its delicateness. We were also served smoked trout on blackened crisps, which were really good.

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This other one (which I am still not completely sure what it is) tasted like a meringue, encasing fresh ceviche and tzatziki. It was unusual and had a lot of textures.

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For our first course, we got the North Sea crab with kohlrabi, yuzu, piment, and crumbled fromage blanc. It was incredible; I’ve never tasted such a diverse combination of textures and flavours with fresh crab before.

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The Sea Bream “royal” with pear, dill, avocado, sea buckthorn, crispy chicken skin was so fresh and melted like butter in my mouth. Next was one of my favourites of the entire meal: Sweetbreads with sautéed, artichoke, mustard, roasted onion, and smoked lemon sauce. The sweetbreads tasted and had the texture of chicken, and was paired so perfectly with the smokey citrus flavours from the sauce.

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Before we were presented the Black truffle dish, the waiter took out a glass case with the black truffle to let us smell and touch it. The aroma was incredibly strong and I smelled it as soon as he uncovered the case. When our dish came of Dutch white “krombek” beans, egg yolk, Parmesan cheese, and duck fat, the waiter shaved the truffle fresh onto the plate.

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Next, we tried scallops, served with Jerusalem artichoke, apple, black pudding, and Madras curry. Following this was the pigeon dish. The Anjou pigeon ‘Imperial’ breast was served with preserved blackberries, beetroot “liquorice”,sauce of the bones thickened with duck liver – and it was amazing.

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Not only have I never tried quail either, but definitely not with chocolate. The one at Vinkeles is presented with black truffle, chestnut, celery, and Cusco Chuncho 100% chocolate. The combination was unlike anything I had ever tasted, and was absolutely phenomenal.

We ended off the evening with dessert, which came in many stages. In fact, they served us a dessert for our dessert? This was the first, consisting of mango passion fruit, and Edel Weiss 37% chocolate. It was so silky and contrasted well with the crisp from the chocolate.

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Then came the other final treats: an assortment of chocolates and candies, as well as a bar of gold chocolate.

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Overall, this was the most extraordinary dining experience I’ve ever had – from the attentive service, knowledgeable staff, to exquisitely amazing food. It’s well-worth the experience for a special occasion.