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Birthday Feasting at Clipstone

Birthdays are a big deal in the Lim household. In the days preceding a birthday dinner, I happily embrace austere supermarket meal deals and minimal pasta-based dinners so as to enjoy myself fully on the big day. This stomach-preparing technique came in handy on B's birthday at Clipstone. Like its sister establishment Portland, Clipstone is named after the street it's located on - fitting for a joint that describes itself as a 'neighbourhood restaurant'. Clipstone Street itself is fairly insipid. One of the capillaries that branches off the great arteries of the Euston Road and Oxford Street, it's at the base of the BT Tower, a quagmire of office blocks, pubs and betting shops. The eponymous restaurant, however, is a different beast, and one that refuses to conform to its environs. Through a heavy door and fluttering curtains is a little oasis, illumined by candlelight and gentle chatter. 

Clipstone is one of those admirable places whose menu - both set and à la carte - revolves around what's in season. Personally I think that it's a sensible as well as exciting way to structure a menu - I like knowing that what I'll get next time will probably be quite different from this visit. On this occasion, we were starving from a day unfortunately spent in classes and quickly settled on the set 'feasting' menu. Fewer choices to make, more food for your money - what's not to love?

The feasting menu is exactly what I love in a meal - seemingly endless dishes that materialise at the table, Hogwarts-style, each one practically a surprise. To start, we mopped up gorgeous lemon-infused olive oil with hunks of sturdy sourdough. Each citrusy bite transported me back to summer in sun-drenched Puglia. Addictive stuff, and unsurprising that we insisted on keeping it on the table right up to dessert.

Sea trout tartare with oyster ponzu and fermented oca root. Fresh and delicate, this tasted of the ocean spray on the seafront, and made me want to jump on a train to Devon.

Lardo di colonnata. This dish was bizarre yet beautiful - a rumpled white handkerchief of cured fat studded with earthy caramelised walnuts, almost impudent in its minimalism and yet making for an extraordinary flavour experience. My first nibble took me back to a childhood spent in the Chinese restaurants in Bayswater. Just like the fat on char siu or crispy pork belly, the lardo tasted silky, faintly porky and melted in the mouth. It wasn't on the feasting menu but I was dead set on ordering it anyway - a good move, as it was easily one of the most striking plates of the evening.

Little roundels of raw Yorkshire hogget with acidic sheep's yoghurt, sheep's cheese and olive oil - perfectly fine but unspectacular. As a teenager, I was a zealous proponent of meat and cheese at every meal, but times have clearly changed. The hogget was quickly jostled from my memory by the following dazzling non-meat dish...

Yellow sprouting broccoli and rainbow chard bathed in dulse butter with a sprinkling of flaked almonds. Smoky, creamy and crunchy, this was vibrant and completely delicious. I love it when recognisable, everyday vegetables take centre stage, and these were made special and tied together by the butter sauce and smooth broccoli purée. The broccoli was a definite contender for my favourite plate of the night, and one that we had no qualms about licking clean. 

Isle of Mull scallops cooked and served in the shell with cauliflower, pomelo and shiso. I have little to say about these other than that they had a lovely texture, were lots of fun to scoop out of the shell and we devoured them in about five seconds flat. A simple pleasure. (In niche scallop-related news, I recently learned about the significance of the scallop shell in relation to pilgrims and now want to know more about the symbolism. Paging all art historians, help please...)

Tortellini of fennel and ricotta, olives and fermented kumquat. This was an experimental dish, and one that I found interesting but ultimately couldn't decide as to whether it worked or not. The shells of the tortellini were slightly too thick for my liking, while I would have loved more ricotta filling and was uncertain about the kumquat. However, the olive and fennel flavours were nicely balanced and I liked the texture of the toasted buckwheat. On another positive note, these are definitely the cutest tortellini I've had. Isn't the one at the front kind of coquettish? And there I go, ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to a piece of pasta.

Yellow foot chicken with burnt aubergine, radishes, ramsons and seeds. A luxurious plate: I really appreciated the combination of creamy, fatty chicken and peppery, crunchy radishes and garlicky ramsons.

Our waitress described the desserts as the 'nail in the coffin' and oh lord, they were. This savarin with gariguette strawberries and chantilly cream heralded B's birthday and the beginning of a serious food baby for me. There was an interesting interplay between heavy and light here: the actual sponge was unexpectedly heavy, lifted up by the summery, quintessentially Wimbledon flavours of strawberries and cream. 

Lemon meringue tart. Just look at it - it's a knockout. I loved the dazzling yellow colour of the lemon sprinkled with the tiny verdant leaves of basil, which produced a surprisingly thrilling marriage of flavours. The array of textures here was delightful: a crisp, super-thin crust, creamy citrus filling and squidgy, sugary blowtorched meringue topping which resembled lava spilling out of a volcanic vent like in Werner Herzog's Into The Inferno (which, by the way, is worth a watch.) This was a classic with subtle twists, done incredibly well. Initially I was disappointed that the Paris Brest of Instagram fame wasn't on the menu, so it's testament to Clipstone's pastry chef's skills that I left with a big smile on my face and no choux-related regrets. She's clearly a rising star.

Clipstone delivered on every front for B's birthday. We were presented with a seductive meal - one whose dishes were amusing, original and yet classic, and made for a lovely time. B was left full of food and excited for a surprise trip to Hamburg (his present from me, and one I was so relieved to reveal after tortuous months of trying to keep it under wraps!)

And beyond Clipstone...I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our excellent nightcap in The Vault, a speakeasy hidden away in a Soho basement. I loved my Old Fashioned with a coconut butter twist, and B discovered true love in Irish whiskey form. A fine chaser to an excellent meal.

5 Clipstone St
London W1W 6BB

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Travel Guide to Cuba: Trinidad

We're back in Cuba today for our final stop in beautiful, vibrant Trinidad. I reckon Trinidad has it all: this former Spanish colonial town in the Sanctus Spiritus region pulsates with energy, music and colour. Its neo-Baroque buildings are gorgeous and crumbling, like a living open-air museum, and everywhere you go there's a cool spot to drink rum and take in the architecture or sunset, often soundtracked by live jazz. And when town life gets a bit much, there's an excellent beach nearby to take a break. What more could you possibly want?

We hopped on a Viazul bus from Viñales which took us directly to Trinidad. To be honest, it was a bit  of a dodgy ride from the outset: the driver, having forgotten to fuel up, had to make a quick detour to the petrol station, pulling all the blinds down and exhorting us to hide in the back of the bus so that the officials wouldn't notice that the unfuelled bus was already full of tourists. It could have been much, much worse though - on the same journey, we came across a fatal crash between a bus similar to ours and a car, both of which had skidded into a ditch on the side of the motorway. And on the bright side (arguably) the bus driver played 90s prank videos all the way to Trinidad.

We stayed in La Boca, a little seaside village just outside of Trinidad, so opted to take cabs costing 5-10 CUC into the city every day. Of course, if you're staying in Trinidad, it's probably easiest to just walk everywhere, though you'll want to take a taxi to the beach - more on that later.

Taberna la Canchánchara (Calle Real del Jigue 90), for the eponymous canchánchara cocktail, a honeyed pot of rum, lemon and water. Best sipped (or drained) to the strains of Cuban jazz played by four funky elderly gentlemen with their pants slung high. This joint is touristy but lots of fun. There was a monsoon raging when we visited this place, with rain waterfalling on to the tables in the courtyard and blowing in through the door. We huddled around the tables and bought postcards and impressively cheap bottles of Havana Club wrapped in cigarette paper while we waited out the storm. 

For those looking for another good drink spot, you're really spoiled for choice here. There are bars dotted throughout the city, one of the most famous being Casa de la Musicá at the top of the steps off the main square. You have to pay to sit inside, but it's just as cool to grab a cheaper mojito at one of the bars around the bottom of the steps, take a seat on the pavement and listen for free from there. 

In terms of the standard of food, Trinidad is roughly on a par with Viñales - by our reckoning, not as good as Havana. In fact, our favourite restaurant (and one we ate in three times) was in La Boca, a small beach town outside of Trinidad. I couldn't tell you the name if I tried as I'm not sure it had one - it was basically somebody's porch - but it was cheap, the food was fairly good and the mojitos flowed plentifully. Oh, and they had a huge St Bernard for us to play with. There were never any other customers, leaving us with a quiet space to plot our adventures. On a practical note, it's also worth visiting if you're staying in La Boca as the casas are pretty basic and don't have anywhere to charge your devices, while this restaurant has UK-friendly plug sockets. 

Here's a couple of things to avoid.

Number one, pizzas on the beach. I got quite excited when I saw food trucks on the front of Playa La Boca selling drinks and pizza, all in local prices. Now the 'pizza', costing 1CUC, was easily one of the worst things I've ever eaten - and I grew up faced with the horror of durian and petai, which I'd prefer to eat any day. A pre-frozen disc of tasteless white cheese (the same as the topping on my salad in Viñales) and tomato sauce congealed on a powdery yellow base which disintegrated in my hand. One bite was more than enough for me, with a strong flavour of what I imagine a mouthful of soil might taste like. 

Number two, restaurant touts. One night in Trinidad all the restaurants were ridiculously packed, with jacked-up prices much worse than anything we'd seen in Viñales or Havana. The place we wanted to go to, Taberna La Botija, seemed to have good reviews and affordable prices - but as a result, was too full for us to get a table. A tout at a nearby restaurant promised a dinner deal that was revoked while we were eating, resulting in a wildly expensive bill that we had no choice but to contest (having already had money stolen in Havana, we couldn't afford to get scammed a second time). I know it's difficult to avoid touts if everywhere else in town is full - maybe it's worth heading further afield from the main streets to find a table at a cheaper, better place.

Pack a bag with a towel, a book and sunscreen and hit the beach.

The local beach on the doorstep of our Airbnb was Playa La Boca, a beach frequented mainly by locals. Here you'll get a good view of the hills and a sense of the 'real' Cuba, for better or worse. It's definitely rough around here. The beach is made of shingles rather than sand and you'll see locals throwing all sorts into the sea or directly on to the ground: babies' nappies, fish scales and the fish skeletons themselves. It's also pretty packed, so on our first morning we opted to go further down the coast to sit on the rocks instead, which were pretty sharp and dangerous. Hence why we had a few bemused locals coming up to us to ask why we weren't at the much nicer beach...

Playa Ancon, which blew La Boca out of the water and has been praised as the best beach on Cuba's southern coast. This little paradise boasts clean swathes of silvery white sand stretching along for miles and was peaceful and pretty devoid of tourists at the time of year we visited (August), with an unbroken horizon great for bird-watching and storm-spotting. 

This shot comes to you in black and white to hide the epic sunburn sustained by one of our number after lying in full midday sun on Playa la Boca...

Fronting the beach are some gigantic 1950s hotels (that look like they've fallen out of the 1970s) - they're not very attractive, but they have bathrooms and table tennis tables. And giant chess.

Get yourself a piece of greased lightnin' and take a ride in a classic car. 

I found the taxis here were mainly the kind of cars that make you think of Cuba. They make for a really cool ride (though the insides are pretty much ripped out) without the accompanying price tag that you'd get in Havana. 

Go with the flow. Wander around the city marvelling at the boldly painted buildings,  pick up a drink or two in the main square while watching the jazz bands playing on the steps. We were doing just this one night, chatting to fellow travellers at a bar when there was a blackout across the entire city. While it was strange and a little scary to be stumbling around town in the darkness, with the only lights available emanating from phone screens and the dimly starlit sky, we kept our wits about us and it was actually pretty cool (until we got back to La Boca and realised the blackout extended across the countryside too, and the air conditioning was out!) 

Spot symbols of the Cuban revolution daubed on the walls. A little bit of research after coming home told me that this painted flag signals fealty to Castro's revolutionary 26th of July movement, the organisation that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and that it continues to be featured on Cuba's military uniform today.

There are so many memories of beautiful, tempestuous Trinidad that I treasure. Reclining on the sand on  Playa Ancon with my friends, idly glancing up from my Stefan Zweig to see lightning forks illuminating the horizon. Screaming as a gigantic (seriously, the size of a dinner plate) black butterfly hurtled around our heads in the bedroom. Toasting to our trip on the final night with mojitos on the porch of our favourite paladar. How after the epic rainstorm the rivulets of water were funnelled away down the cobbled streets, the leaden grey veil of rain sweeping away to reveal spun-sugar skies, the cool rain-soaked air gradually giving way to oppressive heat. It was a great place to finish our travels before one final night in Havana (where, of course, we had a second meal at the stellar El Chanchullero). I came back to London a couple of kilos lighter, my skin a few shades darker and carrying a suitcase heavy with rum. 

So that wraps up my Cuba trip! Thank you for reading this far - I hope you've learned a bit about Trinidad, especially if you're planning your own adventure to this magical island that hails from another century.

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