Thursday, April 8, 2010

Days out with the naked chef

For the second week of Kae's visit, we decided on a few day trips. First, we took the train to Cardiff for the day, planning to do some of the things we didn't get around to the first time. After browsing the arcades for a bit, we made our way to Cardiff Castle, signing up for the premium tour. I'd really recommend that tour to anyone that has a day over here: it's close, and the castle truly is regal in that storybook sense you don't often find. Plus, our guide was knowledgeable and colourful, and made many references to the beautifully carved Canadian pine throughout (before she saw my TUNS backpack!). The Bute family had a number of beavers represented in the roof garden in particular, in honour of Canada, actually. The best bit? The guide saying, "By the way, those aren't squirrels with machine guns near the top of the fountain." You may just be able to pick out what she was getting at in the picture to the right.

Then it was off to Jamie's Italian for some lunch. Well, from the moment you enter that restaurant, you know you're in for something different. And while most of you will know this about us, just to be clear, we eat out a lot; not so much here -- it isn't really part of the culture, frankly -- but we've certainly eaten in all sorts of restaurants.

Jamie's Italian is easily twice as good as any restaurant I've eaten in.



And I'm not some naked chef fan-boy. :-) I had absolutely no expectations going in.

I think Tea and Kae would agree with that assessment of the place; they certainly enjoyed themselves. The quality of the ingredients is amazing, and what really sets it apart -- I've never tasted olives, bread or Italian meats like those -- but it's the little things too: like offering the antipasti tray based on how many will be eating it, and offering half portions of everything -- 'cause, frankly, it turns into a six course meal despite your best efforts, so you need to pace yourself.

But it's more than that: the selections are simple, yet inspired. I had a 'winter salad' with my penne arrabiata, and I quickly ended up pushing it to the middle of the table with a "OMG, you have to try this!" Pumpkin, two types of onion, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar... It looked beautiful, and was like nothing I'd ever tasted before; yet, it was so simple, I think I could make it (assuming I could get the same quality ingredients, of course). And Kae's tiramisu was another example: as she put it, "The orange changes everything!"

And, finally, as if that wasn't enough, the atmosphere was relaxed in a way that isn't normally comfortable. If the waiter or owner has as much time to talk to you as these guys did, it normally means it's a slow night, and you feel the undercurrent of how difficult that business is. At Jamie's Italian, it seemed perfectly natural. We talked to one waiter about his many years working with Royal Caribbean, and another on how often they see Jamie, and his hopes of returning to Australia soon. Really great guys, but knowledgeable too: they knew where everything was made or came from... O.K., enough. I repeat, I'm not a fan-boy; it was just that good.

We finished up the day with the Cardiff Centenary Walk, and then caught the train home, planning our next day trip.


We decided that some time at the spa in Bath would do us good, followed by more good food at the Jamie's Italian in that town. :-) Yes, folks, we went to that restaurant on back-to-back evenings. And while the spa was a bit disappointing -- the view from the rooftop pool was lovely, but the saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs were not nearly hot enough -- the restaurant was just as good as the one in Cardiff, if not a smidge better (just 'cause, Will, our waiter that evening, was so much fun).

Stella at the Pig and Fiddle
Prior to the spa, however, we stopped in at the Pig and Fiddle for something to tide us over. The ale and cider was great, as was the food, but the star of the show, far and away, was Stella, the pub cat. She was hangin' out in her bed, havin' a grand ole time.

Finally, another highlight would have to be the book shops: Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath was fantastic, with all sorts of signed copies and upcoming readings. And Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights was just like someone's home: such a great selection, with water in decanters on end tables encouraging long hours of reading and browsing. They even advertise reading spa holidays, which, while still a mystery to me, sound awesome!

Up next: a weekend in London.

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