3 days, 3 cities, 3 (very different) restaurants

This week I’m just back from a whirlwind foodie adventure which I organised for a surprise 40th birthday celebration. Getting everything arranged meant seeking out great places to eat in three cities and involved countless internet searches – but couldn’t have been achieved without a little help from Twitter to put together an itinerary to delight. Here’s a trio of recommendations;

San Carlo is every bit as busy and blingy as you’d ever want a venue to celebrate a special occasion to be. Thankfully you can forget the credit crunch and sit back to enjoy good food and wine plus plenty of people watching. It’s still OK to dress up, get your hair done, splurge on the fake tan (or perhaps go for plastic surgery) and order oysters and Champagne here – and it’s still necessary to book. The food is consistently good and is actually reasonable value too – well cooked traditional Italian with an emphasis on seafood. I enjoyed the spaghetti shellfish with a good kick of chili after sharing plates of interesting bruschetta and those ultra fresh oysters, but those with less of a fishy hankering are also well catered for with a good selection of meat and veggie dishes. With food quality and atmosphere scoring highly, my only criticism of this restaurant is the high-handed (maybe even disdainful) front-of-house service. While every z-lister and wanna-be starlet gets a personal welcome and booth seating, those of us who save up for a special night-out get treated less well – harried to order and even special birthday pleas (phone, email, in person) ignored.(More on that issue here).  About £10-£15 for mains.

The Frontline Restaurant. In a complete contrast, there’s no place for the fur-coat-and-no-knicker brigade with this place. It’s all about real food. As many of the ingredients as possible are sourced from the restaurant’s own farm and its unusual raison d-aitre (started life as a club where war correspondents could relax and eat out) make this a special eaterie that I’ve looked forward to visiting since hearing about it via Twitter (@noodlepie). I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. A plate of hot smoked salmon followed by the sort of cottage pie that makes you feel instantly looked after and comforted were the order of the day for me. This is straightforward food – think pork belly, black pudding, pies and bakes but executed in such a way that the quality of the ingredients is all important. Another plus is the wine policy – not only is the list overseen by Oz Clarke Malcolm Gluck, but wines are available by the glass and at sensible prices. The Sauvignon Blanc (available by the glass for £7) was particularly noteworthy. Surrounded by stunning photography the atmosphere is relaxed but refined and the service is attentive and helpful. Will definitely beat a path there again. About £10-£15 for mains.

A city renowned worldwide for its quality food and arrogant waiters. Well so the stereotype goes but our reality at Chez Astier may have been correct on the former but certainly not the latter.  According to a French friend who helpfully booked our table in advance, this restuarant is “typical” with its jaunty checkeckered tablecloths and closely packed bentwood chairs. We plumped for the set menu – not speaking French this helps! 33Euros for four ccourses including cheese. More on the cheese later. Starters of soup (sorry “veloute”) and aspapargus were nothing to write home about but the mains of perfectly cooked melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes with creamy parsnip puree or potatoes and deep sauces were what we’d hoped for from French cuisine. Then came the cheese course – before the dessert. I’ve never seen a cheese board like it – and maybe I will go through life never experiencing such a thing again. If you can imagine your local supermarket cheese counter for quantity on display,  then replace every sweaty coloured Chedder with the artisan cheeses you might find at a Farmer’s Market, you’ve come somewhere close. We sampled so many – a soft, sweet cheese with a plump raisain surround, a bumptious camembert, blue cheese with the piquancy of Christmas, cheese with rinds, hard cheeses – ohlala monsieur! Service was helpful, friendly even, and the entire experience one of warm delight. Thanks to Twitter friend @louisebolotin for this recommendation which I’m very happy to pass on.