Kitchin: on top of his game

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Since when we wrote our last post in August we’ve had many good meals, but perhaps none beat the phenomenal game tasting menu had at The Kitchin last Friday.

This is one of the great culinary experiences to be had in the whole of the UK. It represents Scottish produce at its best, treated classically but unpretentiously.

Over time we have come to have high expectations of this restaurant, which we love, and so it can by now hardly surprise us on the upside. Yet this menu did. From the most delicate, buttery roe deer carpaccio with hazelnut dressing, through the elegant game gelatine with partridge and quail eggs, the beautifully finished, intense pithivier, the roasted mallard with a lovely ‘endive tatin’, to the most incredibly full flavoured hare a la Royale (and yet we are used to Master Koffmann’s interpretation, another one that definitely delivers on flavour…), this was a memorable evening, £90 of bliss. (the picture on top shows the hare had on a previous occasion  as a main course).

Kitchin rocks, even when he isn’t there…congratulations to the team!

PS: it was a camera-less night, but at the end you’re given a copy of the menu, which we photographed at home, for you to dig into the details:

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Helene Darroze (London): Haute cuisine with a few lows

(Visited December 2012)

The feel of the room is so elegant, luxurious that service seems to go out of its way, very out of its way, maybe too out of its way, to be friendly and chummy, lest some customers are intimidated. Man is very disappointed to have changed for once, in order to comply with the dress code, the jeans he always wears for a more or less civilised pair of trousers, when in the room there are not only jeans but even hoods…

We had been at Darroze always for the great value lunch menu (two of them reported here and here). This time we try a la carte (£80 for three courses at the time of writing), where we’ve spotted some interesting ways to burn money on expensive extra treats. As we shall see, some money will be better burnt than other, but some will also magically re-emerge from the ashes…

Bread is a pleasure to eat and the selection is varied:

breads

breads

A rustic amuse of top notch Bayonne (that would be South West) ham, the only potential French competitor for Italian hams :), with well made, light focaccia like bread

Ham and focaccia

Ham and focaccia

is followed by a stunner of ‘foie gras creme brulee ‘ topped by peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

What a great combination, the peanut foam dense and substantial, a contrast of temperatures, a contrast of textures, if only the caramel disk had been lighter and less hard to break this would have been a perfect dish.

What can go wrong with Alba truffle? Well, we are not sure as we’re always going to be ecstatic with their perfume (costing a £30 supplement) in this dish of Jerusalem artichokes with Lardo di Colonnata, Parmigiano Reggiano cappuccino, and confit egg yolk:

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

However, amidst the vapors of olfactory delight we spot a rather too low temperature of service, a dominance of sweetness, and a presence of the Lardo di Colonnata which is just perfunctory (one wonders how intensively Colonnata pigs must be raised to fill with their Lardo all of Italy and most of the world).

As a dish, aside from the truffle, we liked better the other starter, a delightful and delightfully cooked (rare) pigeon, accompanied by the finest of fine ravioli filled with all the explosive power of offal, and all in a Puy lentil soup that attained a no-holds-barred depth of flavour.

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

This was close to perfection. A pity then that the Dover sole (£8 supplement) and especially the accompanying calamari were overcooked in this dish

Dover sole

Dover sole

We don’t expect to eat rubbery calamari in a 2* restaurant. Well, actually we do, as we’ve encountered this problem before at Darroze. The bright side is that we’ll appreciate even more the superfresh grilled calamari we’ll find in some humble trattorias and tavernas on the Mediterranean coast (e.g. here or here). Aside from the execution, this is a cute, original dish full of finesse, but that for us personally fails to stir much emotion, the sole hidden visually and flavourwise, pushed aside instead of being helped centrestage: the mariniere of spinach and shiso leaves, the seaweed butter, the lemongrass cappuccino, the clams (in meaningless quantity), the pieds de mouton, felt a little confused and made the sole moan: what am I doing here? We should say, a Dover sole Grenoblaise style had at Koffmann’s a couple of days later provided an unfortunate (for Darroze) benchmark for the delight Dover sole can be.

In the other main, this admittedly giant, but definitely lonely, Scottish scallop

Tandoori scallop

Tandoori scallop

had been roasted with Tandoori spices to nice and very controlled effect, the prettily turned vegetables dancing joyously around it, the velvety carrot and citrous mousseline providing that sweet-acidic dimension, and the jus adding yet further complexity. A very accomplished dish of subtle rather than in -yer-face flavours. But we deserved a couple of scallops in a main, no?

After a pleasant and suitably acidic pre-dessert of vanilla cream with passion fruit granite and praline, we enter the marvellous world of desserts at Darroze. Silence please:

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Pistachio cream

Pistachio cream

Carupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal creamCarupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal cream

The pistachio dessert had it all, an array of textures, intensity and balance of flavours concentrated in a disarming apparent simplicity, precision of execution.

The chocolate ganache… ah, the chocolate ganache: just beautiful. Sad it could not go on forever, with the intense hazelnuts of the gianduia separated from the ganache on top by a crunchy tiny sliver of chocolate “crust”, and a different textured bottom layer: we could  live on the thing (well, Woman could).

The generous and excellent petit fours are still there, as are the complimentary caneles. They might improve on the coffee.

Service today was not good, not good at all, for reasons that it would be just tedious to dwell on. We don’t know if it was because of our stony faces in certain moments or for other reasons, but the bill arrived with a significant discount (no Dover sole supplement, no truffle supplement). Normally, unless this kind of treat was a ‘reward’ for very regular custom, we’d protest, but you know what? This time we just took it. Man had suffered too much both having to wear his only pair of proper trousers AND ALSO having to waive his arms to get some water while risking dehydration… (Dramatise? Us? Naaah).

Here at Darroze we seem to always have the same type of experience, suitably scaled in quality according to the price of the menu: some unevenness, some absolute pinnacles, a sense that the meat dishes and the desserts tend to be the way for the kitchen to really come into its own, the love for ‘Les Landes’ mixed with Mediterranean and exotic influences and ingredients, a sense of generosity and comfort, absurdly variable service. You can feel very well indeed here, you may return on a whim at some point, you may not ache to return immediately.

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

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La Reserva 12 (Malaga, Spain)

(Visited: August 2012)

While savouring some Iberico at Iberica in London in December (more on this story later) we nostalgically reminisced about our Summer trip to Andalucia. If you are In Malaga

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and stick to simple tapas, you are unlikely to eat poorly. It’s a city that will embrace you in this respect. Especially along the harbour promenade Malaga shows you its modern, touristy face, so many shiny if slightly soulless options clamour for your attention, and unless you are in a really foul mood you’ll hardly be disappointed wherever you go.  But instead we developed a special liking for a different type of modernity with Reserva 12, tucked away in the city centre, in Calle Bolsa.

A venue  not devoid of elegance, they may not have the greatest chefs but what they do have is sympathetic handlers of fine raw materials. They may not have the most consistent or informative service in the world, but as a matter of fact, they were kind and relaxed, unless you mind the fact that when they don’t know something they simply make something up. And certainly they do have somebody who can buy, and somebody who can cut, Jamon de Bellota

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Oh, what a moist, luxuriant concentration of delight! And their aged Manchego is no joke either: its flavour is one of those that call to attention even the most distracted of diners. Everything we tried, really, ranged from good to excellent, the pulpo a la gallega always mightily fresh, dressed with first rate olive oil and nicely spiced

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And their gazpacho and salmorejo fresh, dense, intense and with a pleasant garnish

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We indulged in some excellent wines, too, at prices that we can only dream of in the UK

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Food prices and portions are also a bit of a dream. It certainly all fees like a dream now, in a pallid December London sun.

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Weekend in London

There are many reasons why London is the greatest city on earth.

One them is that in the space of a walk you can eat Italian like in Italy, French like in France, Japanese like in Japan (granted, with a few local inflections…).

In an otherwise undistinguished Autumn weekend, this is just what we did, visiting in succession three of our long time favourites.

Latium continues to deliver immaculate ingredients prepared with simplicity and  flair, the secret of Maurizio Morelli’s dishes being an uncannily exact judgement in seasoning and flavour balance. Sometimes, in Tripadvisor sort of critiques, one reads complaints about the lack of a ‘wow!’ factor. But there is a sense in which the triumph of this cuisine lies precisely in the lack of any recourse to wow, as well as in the repudiation of gimmicks and fashions: this is a cuisine of classical equilibrium, of precise proportions, a classy cuisine. Think small Renaissance building as opposed to tallest skyscraper in the world. No celebrities here (go to Zafferano or Locatelli, for that, but better not), just lovely food and lovely service.

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Smoked Swordfish with Puntarelle

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Veal Ossobuco with saffron risotto

Kikuchi, this little joint tucked away in the unglamorous side street that it shares with a glamorous Hakkasan branch. We’ll admit, it may not be the greatest Japanese in the world, and yet it is bloody good, bloody authentic. How not be entranced by taciturn, courteous Mr. Kikuchi meticulously toiling away at his pretty, tasty sushis in front of his small clientele, hour after hour, evening after evening? There’s a sense of timelessness here. And how not to be charmed by those junior waitresses, probably students, with their faltering English, so polite and so barely comprehensible, bringing an apt sense of remoteness, and even by the veteran, grumpier waitress who hardly smiles at you after all these years? Try Kikuchi and you’ll see: you’ll get the addiction too, you’ll need his dishes again and again.

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Seared very fatty tuna sushi

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California rolls Kikuchi style

Koffman’s:  the old master, the most recent addition to our list of  favourites but it feels like it has always been there, an immense technique and capacity for powerful, full, knock-out flavours (starting from his bread basket, perhaps the best in London) put at the service of your sheer enjoyment, not giving a fig either about Michelin star strictures (he’s had enough three-starred glory) or your diet: if he judges that in a dish that amount of  butter and salt are needed to yield full flavour, that is what you get. No prissy calorie counting here. But relax: once in a while, you deserve it, and if you look well there are even lighter options on the menu. All served by one of the smoothest from of house teams in London.

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Duck Pithivier

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Tasting of braised beef cheeks

The great man was surveying the service while we devoured our excellent turbot:

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(yes, we like our turbot cheeks 🙂 )

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Do you know Brezeme?

For us it’s a wine discovery, courtesy of the excellent sommelier at The Ledbury:

Brezeme is a Northern Rhone appellation, and the sample we tried is from a grape called Serine, a clone of Syrah.

It is quite spicy in fact, and we taste cherries and lots of Summer fruit, as well reminiscences of sun-warmed Mediterranean beaches, and desire of a vacation.

We think it’s also biodynamic. If so it would be one of a lengthening list of biodynamic wines we really like, which is funny because we think that what in biodynamics is beyond organic is just biobullshit.

Be that as it may, what a lovely discovery.

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Malga Panna (Moena, Trento, IT): Pure comfort

(Visited July 2012)


Look ye not for daring culinary innovations here, o traveller, but for the comfort of tradition interpreted in a modern way.

Malga Panna (reviewed last time five years ago here) is in the location of dreams: just abandon yourself to the comfortable embrace of the warm environment, the stupendous mountain views, and the capable professionalism of chef Donei and Maitre d’ /sommelier Michele.


From the impressive breads and herb butter:





to a lovely (and substantial! we’re in the mountains here…) amuse of smoked trout





to a deer tartare, accompanied by watercress, goat cheese and rustic bread, that has true ‘raw power’ in spite of the lesser fattiness compared to beef. And also, what a jolly presentation:





Sometimes the cuisine rises into higher fine dining territory, as in this very balanced, very intense, original, heavenly really, capelli d’angelo (very fine pasta) with hazelnuts, smoked trout and a touch of caviar


a prodigious dish in terms of flavour.


The mains are back to delightful solidity, the protagonists firmly in the center and top class in their category. A wild turbot with chanterelles salad and beetroot





in which not only the fish (what a pity to present it hidden from view), but also the mushrooms and the condiment (an emulsion made with the cooking juices) sang. On a minor negative note, we like everything that is in the plate to be meant to be eaten (with necessary exceptions such as bones..), and for this reason we think turbot should be served skinless. Just saying.


And another stunner, after the pasta: a Lamb from Val di Fiemme (the nearby valley) from a very selected farm, one of those pieces of meat that make you think you’ll never find a better one (an equally and differently good one, yes, like one from Val di Pejo we had here , but not a better one), and generally very nicely cooked too, except one piece which was a little drier than we would have liked:


(the crispy bit on top is an aubergine, and there were ceps – surprisingly just good but not stunning- as a garnish).


We concluded the blissful lunch with a Caramelised millefeuile of toasted hazelnuts with dried apricots sorbet



in which the dried apricot sorbet was for Man the most impressive bit, and a salad of candied strawberries with coffee ice-cream and lemon crisp: a terrific coffee icecream, and the interplay of the various different textures and flavours made it a delight.





The prices are in line with 1* Michelin in the area (say 15-20 euro for a primo and 30 euro for a main), and the mark-ups on wine in the interesting list are very sympathetic to the customer, even for an area in which wine prices are kinder than elsewhere – and monstrously kinder than in London/Edinburgh. Sommelier Michele’s passion and intelligence are for all to read in the list he has constructed (and Man is a happy man…).


The petit four leave a very pleasant memory of a very pleasant lunch in a very pleasant place. Well done Malga Panna.




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Apsleys: to pamper yourselves

(Visited: April 2012)

(Previous review here)


Oh go on: pamper yourselves. 

Apsleys is the place where to do it. Everything is luxurious here. The grand bright room:




The ingredients: foie gras of the highest quality is never far off:


 

Bread is one of the best in London:




We hadn’t been here for quite a while, and we wanted to remind ourselves of that most clever of Heinz Beck’s creations, fagottelli carbonara. Yes, they still have us drooling, that explosion in the mouth feel, those rustic flavours of old trattoria memories so refined and sublimated here:

The other primo, pheasant tortelli with black truffle and pumpkin, was also a sublimely made pasta dish, rich and sweet on the palate, though to be honest the truffle, even by black truffle standard, was not the best we’ve ever had

Conversely, a pork thigh, presented theatrically thus

before being cut at your table and served with a myriad of supervegetables, was among the most glorious and succulent and best cooked ever:






 We weren’t in the mood for desserts, and we even had no wine, but classy petit-fours were generously brought all the same in spite of our diet-induced remonstrations:




We’ve been several time at Apsleys, and this was the first without the excellent Max Blasone at the stoves. We can witness that the new chef is as capable and continuing the tradition of all the attractive features we love here: top ingredients whose clear flavours take firmly centre stage, cuisine that is only apparently simple but hides enormous technique, a sense of great generosity, impeccable service. Prices are high as you’d expect in such a luxurious environment (say well above £200 for three courses for two with reasonable wine). Especially the wine list is clearly targeted at people who don’t much care about money. But there’s also a modestly priced set lunch of great value. And anyway, even without a corporate account, once in a while, it’s nice to be pampered. And if you ARE on a corporate account: what are you waiting for?

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Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Salice Salentino Candido Riserva, I Satiri, 2006

Sometimes one hits on a really interesting everyday wine. Here’s a recent discovery:

A beautiful hearty Negroamaro, with morello cherries, smoky notes and a kind of bittery chocolatey finish in evidence, it seems to us a real bargain for 7.99 at Majestic Scotland.


Suggested pairing: Barcelona 3 – Milan 1 (it works both for the jubilant and for the desparing).


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turning a leaf…

yes, we have been away quite a while, and with good reasons… we have moved up north, in beautiful Fife, Scotland!
We will still be visiting London regularly, but with the wonderful produce this region offers, we will tell you about the interesting food scene around here.
it is nice to be back!

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Victoria Vinothek

The day: 8th April 2008, Dinner.
The place: Hotel Victoria, Poststraße 2-4, 97980 Bad Mergentheim tel +49(0)7931 593607
The venue: Victoria Vinothek
Closest airports: Munich
The food: Modern German
The drinks: Good and not too long list, strong on German offerings


Amid the gently sloping hills of Baden Wurttemberg, swept by the chilly winds and snow of early spring, where better to find refuge and solace than in the warm embrace of Victoria Restaurant Vinotheck in the pretty spa town of Bad Mergentheim? We had been tipped off by one of our knowledgeable readers, and on a first recognition mission we had been impressed by the warm and relaxed atmosphere.

This Vinotheck shares the large open view kitchen and part of the kitchen staff, but not the room, with a more formal, Michelin starred, restaurant (we’ll go there, we’ll go there…stay tuned and you’ll read our impressions next week).

The pricing structure is very easy: starters (Vorspeisen) go for €12, soups (Suppen) for €6, mains (Hauptgerichte) for €18 and desserts (Nachspeisen) for €8. One can also go for a 3 course set menu (either soup, main and dessert for €29, or starter, main and dessert for €34) or for a 4 course set menu at €39.

The menu is in German only, and as our knowledge of the beautiful language does not go much further than ‘Zimmer frei’, you’ll have to do with our poetically vague descriptions.

We go for the more expensive three course set menu. Here starters, unlike soups, come with ‘wedding bread’ and quark with crauts (Hockzeitsbrot und Kräuterquark), so here they come:

Nice rye bread, with an equally nice spread to go with it.

But now for the real thing. For starters, out of the three available ones, we skipped the smoked trout (Geräucherter Saibling mit Seinem Kaviar und Merrettisch-Crème) and go instead for:

Pork and vegetable terrine with remoulade and salad (Eisbeinsülze mit Essiggemüse, Remoulade un buntem Salat );

Best of “smoked pork” in strudel with salad (Das Beste von Mohrenköpfle-Landschewein im Strudelteig mit Senfsaat Sauce und Feldsalat)

The Terrine first: the gelatine was really impressive, flavoursome but not too obtrusive, balancing out the sharp acidity of the pickled peppers, and the sweeter baby corn and gerkins. The pork meat itself was tender and tasty, the whole rounded off very well by the fat remoulade. Overall, then, the dish came out as varied, delicate and fresh.

As for the strudel: the puff pastry embraced a filling of congealed eggs: this probably sounds disgusting, but believe us it was not, just think of a quiche filling. In it sat some finely diced carrots, peas, and above all strips of the smoked ham. The latter we found too salty for our comfort, but (though we do not know this for a fact) we trust this is how this type of cured pork is supposed to taste. It offered a nice combination of textures (the crisp pastry, the soft filling) and tastes (the mildness of the filling playing with the strongly flavoured pork). We can reveal these are themes we’ll encounter in the restaurant too.

We are in the right mood to face our main course:

Blanquette of veal with potato mash (Blanquette von MilchKalb mit Kartoffel-Bärlauch-Püree);

“Bouillabasse German style” in the words of the hilarious manager (Eintopfs von Süßwasserfischenmit geröstetem Weißbrot)


The veal was ok, but not exceptional: mind you, the meat was good, but the mash was a bit gluey (though, just to put it in perspective, we are light years away from Civezzano). The reduction was fine, but the whole dish was unmemorable, and a bit on the heavy side.

On a different level, the “bouillabaisse”.A soup of freshwater fish, it was remarkable. First of all, one thing we would not have tried at home, the fish was sprinkled all over with a mix of what we suspect must have been parsley (and so far, fine) and with… hard cheese, tasting a lot like parmesan. The same concoction was spread generously over the crostini accompanying the soup:

A rather crazy combination, but working surprisingly well by adding richness. The broth in the soup was also delectably rich in flavour, though we could detect only two varieties of fish. Herbs played their part here, too, and above all there was a pleasant curry undertone. It probably sounds bizarre, but we can assure you the taste was something to write home about – the audacious German style suits these particular Mediterraneans. Somebody who is ridiculously overrated could take a hint from this soup…

Last but not least, desserts: here, again, the list is short. Just three, unless you want to go for a selection of cheeses. The three were all rhubarb based: a kind of rhubarb muffin with vanilla sauce (Ofenschlupfer mit Vanillesauce), a rhubarb mousse with icecream (Rhabarber-Törtchen mit Weinschaum-Eis), and a semolina cake with rhubarb (Grießschnittemit Rhabarber-Kompott).

Ok, we think we’ll have some rhubarb 😉

But we could not decide, so the charming waiter proposes to bring us the ‘muffin’ with a bit of mousse, too. Now this is that same guy who brought the most expensive brand of bottled water, unrequested, to our table (more on this story later…), maybe he is trying to make up for it. We accept the offer, and here is our complete selection of desserts:

We must have obviously misunderstood, as the “muffin” looks like hosting some apple pieces, though it does come accompanied by rhubarb chunks. Well, this really cut the mustard (so to say): very light, and if you allow us to go overboard, it was at the same time ethereal and bodily. Great.

The mousse (tasting of strawberries, actually) was sitting on a rhubarb compote. It was also sitting on a very thin layer of sponge, with another wafer thin layer in the middle, giving it some extra consistency. But it was just the perfect mousse. And what about the semolina (bottom picture)? Simple, and good, this time the rhubarb, strawberries and above all a delicious icecream playing main character. A very good way to end this dinner, a surrisingly high level of patisserie for a bistro.

With a bottle of Tauberschwarz Hofmann 2006 at €28 and a 0.75 bottle of water at €7 (there is a cheaper one at €6, but if you do as every other diner except naive us did, you’ll have the tap water carafe), our total bill (including 19% service charge: that’s steep) came at €103 (before service, the bill was €86.55). In spite of everything, well within out target.

This is what Zetter could be, and is not (oh my god, it definitely is not). The dining room is sleek, with its full view kitchen, but also warm and welcoming. The service is really good: two waiters plus the manager manned a full room, with two of them also doubling in the more formal Michelin starred restaurant next door, and yet whenever they attended your table it felt like they had all the time in the world – which, believe us, they had not, judging by the breakneck speed at which they swept the dining room. Admirable. Of course, the 19% service charge must come in somewhere! Oh, ouch, in fact from later receipts we are starting to suspect that was VAT, not service charge….

Above all, the food was great, prepared with originality and good ingredients by people who clearly know very well how to treat them. Sure, you see where the commercial side of the operation is: the list is short, the ingredients sometimes repetitive (did we say rhubarb?) and ‘humble’, the preparations relatively simple. But they are exactly what they advertise themselves to be (and in fact deliver almost more than they promise), a German version of a bistro, serving top bistro food. And reasonably priced by German standards, even more by London ones. So the next time you drive along the Romantischestraße, you know where you can stop for comfort. Unless you want to truly impress and take your partner to the twice expensive adjacent restaurant room, about which, we confess, we now have great expectations!

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