A tale of two cities
London in winter – a rainbow of russet-coloured leaves crunching underfoot, semi-precious-stone-coloured lights twinkling up above. Theatres alive with song, dance and prose, shops bursting with festive fare, restaurants resplendent with the season’s finest flavours – what’s not to love?
The Hyatt Regency London –The Churchill on Portman Square, opened in 1970 in homage to the esteemed former prime minister, is beautifully sumptuous following a recent renovation and the ideal location (five minutes walk from Selfridges) for an overnight stay to make the most of what the city has to offer. Our room was generously proportioned, with a supremely comfortable bed and a luxurious marble bathroom with a ‘smart’ bidet-toilet with heated seat.
We walked from there to the Royal Academy of Arts, cutting across Berkeley Square to check out the festive façade of a gingerbread house at Annabel’s. At the gallery, we had lunch at the newly-opened Jose Pizarro restaurant, an authentic tapas bar in the magnificent Senate Room overlooking Burlington Gardens. Adorned with glasses of a crisp Albarino, we gorged on pan con tomate, slow-cooked aubergine with peppers and poached egg, cod in Catalan sauce with sautéed baby spinach and a chocolate mousse that has been much talked about ever since. This set us up nicely for the Late Constable exhibition (on until 13 February). The great painter lived in Hampstead towards the end of his life and many of his paintings depict the heath.
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We exited the gallery onto Piccadilly, giving us a great aspect of Fortnum and Mason’s ‘advent calendar’ frontage. Inside the store, hordes of people were stocking up on Christmas foodie gifts; we bought tea and shortbread for friends in
We were back at the hotel in time to shower, don a fluffy robe and watch Strictly, before heading downstairs to The Montagu Kitchen for dinner and a glass of champagne, in tribute to Churchill, who famously drank a whole bottle at lunch every day. This is a comfortable, spacious, convivial venue and, despite the chefs and staff hailing from Sweden, Italy and Portugal, the menu is decidedly British, with much-loved staples popping up with a highly inventive twist. Bubble & Squeak Bites are posh croquet potatoes, Crispy Croquette has all the flavours of fish and chips encased in a crispy batter, Homestead Farm Leek comes with a rarebit sauce. Steak tartare served in a mortar with a pestle to mix it all up was a bit of fun and there is a touch of theatre at the table as a couple of dishes are served. The standout dish was a griddled onion with chicken parfait – truly a taste and texture sensation. The sticky toffee pudding triumphed any that I’ve had before.
Steak tartare at The Montagu Kitchen
Breakfast in The Montagu is a hive of activity, with hot and cold buffets and extremely good porridge. We made use of the proximity to Oxford Street and Regent Street to walk off all that food with more festive shopping and light gazing.
Cambridge proved to be a perfect destination for a weekend trip with our adult children. Near enough to London to make a one-night stay viable, yet far enough away that you feel as though you have actually gone somewhere, it is full of everything you need on a mini city break – good food, beautiful architecture, fabulous shops, plenty of culture and, of course, volumes of history.
We checked into The University Arms hotel, which overlooks Parker’s Piece open space where Association Football was famously founded.
The hotel interiors reflect the literary and academic spirit of Cambridge with wood panelling, marble-patterned wallpaper that represents antique book covers,
a restaurant in the style of a college dining room and a library awash with books and giant leather sofas.
We had brunch at The Old Bicycle Shop, a Cambridge institution that was a bicycle shop for 173 years. It is now a quirky café, with saddles and handlebars decorating the walls and bicycle parts made into table lamps.
We ordered mimosas to toast the start of our trip and egg-based brunch-style dishes to set us up for an afternoon in town. We scoured the shops and meandered in the market square before heading back to the hotel for tea and scones in the library and a rest before dinner in the on-site restaurant Parker’s Tavern, under the auspices of chef Tristan Welch.
This is simple but superb British cooking with confit duck, rib of
beef and lemon sole with burnt butter among the menu highlights, plus a legendary Cambridge burnt cream – these days better known as crème brûlée.
On Sunday, we met up with Tony, an official Cambridge tour guide, who filled our heads with tales of the town and a few titbits about ‘the other place’ (Oxford is a swear word in these parts). He took us to The Eagle pub, with its ceiling covered in graffiti by the servicemen who hung out there during the Second World War and where Frances Crick and James Watson famously announced the discovery of DNA in 1953. We saw the gold-plated Corpus Clock with a giant grasshopper-like creature that ‘eats’ time, and learned about the antics of students who parked a car on the roof of Senate House in 1958 and others who climbed 80ft to stick Santa hats on the gargoyles of Kings College at Christmas in 2009.
All that history made us hungry. We headed off for a late Sunday roast in front of the log fire at the powder-blue painted Tickell Arms in the village of Whittleford (20 mins drive).
Rooms at Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill from £218, room only
Rooms at University Arms Cambridge from £159, room only