Tag Archives: 2015

The Winking Owl, Aviemore

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I always try to live by the following code: Life is to be filled with as many experiences as possible; don’t say no, say yes!  Well at least try to if you think a) you’ll have a good time, b) it won’t taste too odd, c) nothing will get broken (well, it’s a not a party until…), d) life and limbs will remain in one collective piece, e) you learn something new, f) you don’t learn something new, but you have an extraordinary amount of fun trying, g) you realise that the experience makes you feel 142% more alive than before you tried it.  Etc.

For me, life affirming experiences have mostly included some kind of outdoor pursuit. Not sure why, they just seem to provide the necessary mix of pushing beyond the normal comfort zone of everyday life and a healthy dose of humankind’s most accessible drug. Adrenaline. To prove this point, your author has; jumped out of planes, jumped off cliffs into raging seas, dived to the bottom of the sea, flown light aircraft, water skied, ridden a motorbike at 167mph on a track, fallen off a motorbike on a track, tried snowboarding, stopped snowboarding, loved the high speed thrill of snow-blading, had a massive crash on snowblades, windsurfed, sailed yachts, capsized dinghies, climbed up things and abseiled back down them.  Amongst other things.

Which brings me to the location of this post – Aviemore in Scotland. Twelve months ago, one of my partners in crime in many of these adventures (and the host of the New Years Eve post) asked me if ‘I fancied trying some winter mountaineering’. Yes, of course, I said.  Simply put, life is for living.  And Scotland is a beautiful place in February for living.  The Caledonian Sleeper train from London delivered us promptly into Aviemore at 07:40, where we met our weary but highly skilled mountaineering instructors, Mark and Kenny, freshly back from the Alps who were to be our guides for the weekend.

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Once delivered to Aviemore’s ski station, an hour’s brisk walk brought us up to the base of Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda. Now, I have seen some beautiful winter peaks in my time, but never by foot and certainly not one that I knew I had to climb soon after…

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To cut a long story relatively short, my climbing partner Thomas and I had to learn a lot about snow, ice, ice axes, ropes, safety equipment, and sub zero decision making in a very short space of time, whilst enduring 40mph uphill winds, flying ice and the pure thrill of looking back down 300m of almost vertical slopes that we had just climbed up.  A truly special experience, the effort of which was neatly summed up by Thomas before attempting our second climb of the day.

But as with all outdoor pursuits, the day must end with a major refuelling, which brings me to the subject of this post. The Winking Owl is one of Aviemore’s finest eateries, and thankfully allowed me to continue the quest…

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Tonights presentation was a Chocolate Orange Brûlée and included both a hand made cardamom shortbread and a beautifully executed rolled chocolate straw.  Experience to date largely makes me fearful when a chef decides to mess with the base custard, however tonights effort was quite remarkable.  It maintained a very original chocolate orange flavour, so much so that this could have been mistaken for a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.  Or as one dining partner suggested, was it the ‘love child of a chocolate mouse and a crème brulee’…?!  Each to their own.  Whilst sporting a somewhat heavy texture, the custard was smooth and light on the palate, again providing echoes to the original Chocolate Orange. In the end, the key question is whether something other than a simple vanilla custard crème brulee really is a crème brulee? Is it like the Eskimos with their 20 different names for snow? It’s all snow, right? A worthy 7/10.  Well done Winky – I’ll be back for more next February…

County, New York City

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New York in January is very cold. Not your average ‘a bit chilly’, but jeans-freezingly, ear-snap-offingly, flag-a-cab-down-quickly kind of cold.  This is week has been no exception with lows of -14c, and that was without the wind chill factor… Oh to be a polar bear. Or inside, under a duvet.

The writer of this blog has been to the Big Apple many times over the years, and I simply love it.  It’s the ultimate city.  Almost as good as London, Paris or Sheffield, but with something extra. It’s stuffed with cool.  People. Shops. Restaurants. Bars. Clubs. Shows. (OK, except those guys in Times Square who dress up as Buzz Lightyear and ask for cash if you want to take a selfie with them….). It never sleeps. You can get a drink any time of day or night. There are endless things to do and see. And it has the most diverse global recruitment plan for taxi drivers.

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When I arrived for this trip, the first thing I did was plumb in a New York based magazine to my Flipboard to see what would come back.  Eater NY grabbed my attention with an article covering The 38 Essential New York Restaurants for January 2015. With first night jetlag getting the better of me, a quick decision took me to the ABC Kitchen, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, based on the offer of a well-to-do burger.  Classy, I know.  But with no custard-based desserts on the menu, a rather outstanding ‘Sundae‘ grabbed my attention. Salted caramel and candied popcorn and peanuts.  I rest my case, your honour.

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The following evening, we ventured to find the next place on Eater’s list, namely the Gramercy Tavern, which was fully booked. A swift two doors up the road found a table at the fresh, funky and noisy County. Reminded me of a Swedish sauna with restored barn walls, stainless steel, funky carnival light bulbs and exceptionally tall staff.  Ultimately a way better choice, primarily because of the vanilla bean crème brûlée…

Initial impressions offered hope…!  Presented in a very French shallow oval ramekin, there were no fuss or frills.  The custard was room temperature smooth, with no hint of curdling, but missed the promised vanilla bean. Good-ish so far.  However, the caramelisation was hard and a little sticky on the teeth and the overall feeling was that it simply lacked something to make it stand apart from the others. Whilst well executed, a somewhat middle-of-the-road result meant County NYC can only earn itself an average 4 / 10.  Better luck next time…

Footnote: Hopefully you remember what you were doing and where you were on the 11th of September 2001.  I know exactly where I was. If you get the chance, take the time to pay your own respects at the 9/11 memorial. It’s beautiful and is a fitting tribute to those who perished.

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