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A first time for everything

Welcome to Shelly’s First, my new website and my first blog post. Many of my friends ask regularly for my opinion on which item to purchase, be it clothes or products. They also express an interest in places I have visited, where I’ve dined. This has inspired me to compile and share what I’ve learned as a blog.

Join me as I share first impressions of my travels destinations and dining experiences. I will also test out and review new products (as well as the old favourites). Whilst your here, you can also check out what’s  in my closet (Shelly’s Closet) and what’s on my wish list.

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Review: Pachamama Bar and Kitchen

Pachamama London

This summer, with my birthday approaching, I was looking for somewhere nice to have brunch I wanted to try a new cuisine.  After a little searching online, I came across Pachamama, a Peruvian restaurant.  As I browsed their menu I was immediately enticed by the description of their dishes.  There were so many things I wanted to try.

Pachamama are in central London (W1), about an 8-minute walk from Bond Street station.  To get there, I walked through and then past St Christopher’s Place, a buzzing foodie spot with many dining al fresco soaking up the unusually hot summer. Whilst strolling through, I found myself wishing the restaurant was amidst this vibrancy.  It was however located in a basement on a quiet street just beyond this area, and was not very prominent from the street.

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautifully decorated, spacious and homely looking restaurant.  Parts of it were sectioned off to look like a kitchen or dining room, with traditional lampshades hanging from the ceiling, bookshelves, ornaments and potted and trailing plants. We sat on mismatched chairs around a large wooden table.  In the middle of each table was a vase with freshly cut flowers. Within a few minutes I forgot I was below ground, with limited natural light.

Our waiter, Katerina, presented us with four menus.  It was nice to have a varied choice, but it made it difficult to choose with so many options: the regular Brunch Menu; the Brunch Feast (a set menu for £25  to which you can add unlimited Prosecco for another £20); the Dinner Tasting Menu; or the a la Carte Menu.  Between us we selected from the brunch menus.  We had to ask the waiter to explain the concept for their Brunch Feast, which was mainly savoury and sweet waffles with various toppings to share. I was particularly interested to sample their waffles, as they were  freshly made using alternative healthy ingredients – either quinoa or sweet potato, and were gluten free.  The large and fluffy waffles looked very appealing, however it took a minute for my taste buds to acquire the underlying flavour and firmer density of the adapted recipe.  I’m glad I tried them though as with the toppings (fresh fruit, fried chicken or bacon and eggs) plus the naturally sweet Yacon syrup, I found them quite enjoyable.  Reading through the menu we were uncertain of a few of the dishes but our waiter, Katerina, was happy to describe the ingredients to each person that asked.  Between us we tried a few things.  There was something for everyone: waffles, fish, meats, chicken and salads.

Here are some of the dishes we tried and liked:

Peruvian fried chicken on quinoa waffles with yacon syrup
Pachamama Crab and Yuca Churros
Crab and Yuca Churros
Sea bass Ceviche
Seabass Ceviche (raw fish salad marinated in citrus vinegar with chilli) – Tasty but portion is more like a starter
Pork Belly Chicharrones
Pork Belly Chicharrones – very tender, light batter was succulent, sweet and very crispy
Smoked cheddar Tequenos (Cheese sticks) were not as expected (according to their description, but were very nice. Sweet and crispy
Smoked cheddar Tequenos (Cheese sticks) were not as expected (according to their description) but were very nice.
Pachamama burger
Fully loaded cheeseburger
Sweet potato crisps
Sweet potato crisps

They have a variety of wines and cocktails to choose from.  I had and thoroughly enjoyed the Chicama, a clear coloured Brandy drink (Pisco) infused with, lavender, Early Grey and Elderflower.

Chicama cocktail
Chicama

What I liked

  • Everything was very tasty, the flavours were sometimes unexpected but still tantalising.
  • The atmosphere at Pachamama is relaxed and homely
  • I liked that there were options for those with allergies or specific dietary preference. Many dishes were either gluten free, vegan, vegetarian or made with free-range ingredients
  • Staff were chatty and friendly and accommodating ( I loved Katerina, and the manager Aerve).
  • The toilets were clean and well maintained too
  • I liked that they has a bar area and a variety of cocktails and beverages to choose from

What I didn’t like

  • Too many menus to select from
  • Confusing dining concept
  • that it was located in a basement and away from the vibrancy of the area

I hope to visit again soon to try their dinner tasting menu, as there were several traditional Peruvian delights that were not on the brunch menus. Its also a cool place to just chill and have some cocktails and snacks.  Its worth noting that Pachamama also have a new restaurant in the City of London (Pachamama East) with slightly different menus.

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Review: Chop-Chop hair Salon, Westfield

Chop-Chop London
Chop-Chop London

Since my big chop (see my blog post Hair Today!), I need to trim my hair regularly to maintain the short style. I’m constantly looking out for good barbers/salons where I can get a quick shape up for a good price. Whilst strolling through Westfield Shepherds Bush, I came across Chop-Chop. It caught my eye as its a small open plan hub located in the aisles of the mall. I immediately noticed there was a black stylist there cutting afro hair. I took their card and decided to look them up. Chop-Chop have a unique concept. 24 hairstyles – 20 minutes – £20. Those 24 hairstyles include cuts specifically for afro hair types. One being a low cut afro, just like mine. Perfect I thought. Both affordable and convenient – I could use them for my regular trim. IThere was some apprehension about getting my hair cut at a salon which did not specialise in afro hair, but felt assured when I read on their website:

“Our stylists are seasoned professionals, who have passed several layers of vetting and training by our management team. We’ve done this so our customers can sit with full confidence, knowing that they are in perfect hands.

We want to celebrate you, in all your unique glory. That’s why our stylists are specially trained by the best in the industry to work with a multitude of different hair types. So you can embrace your individuality and trust you’re in good hands.”

Booking

I went ahead and booked my appointment online, which was a simple process. After creating a profile you then choose one of the 24 cuts/styles, book a slot, then select one of the available stylists. It was my first time so I randomly selected a stylist. All done. My appointment was later that day, after work. I was excited to try this concept out.

Appointment and disappointment

I headed straight there after work. I was 10 minutes early, as their website suggested. There was only one stylist there at this time, who was with a client. He took my name and asked me to sit and wait, as my stylist would arrive soon. I was a little uneasy about getting my hair cut out in the open, on view to passing shoppers, but soon realised that people were not actually paying attention. My stylist arrived in about 10/15 minutes. After a quick debrief with his colleague he approached me and asked me what I was having done. This concerned me since I had booked online and selected my required hairstyle. I know he was given my name, so surely my booking details were to hand. Anyway, I told him what I was having done and to my disappointment his response was. Sorry I cannot style afro hair! I was in shock. Apparently, the person to do my hair had to leave early. This confused me as their claim was they were all trained to do all types of hair. Isn’t that your unique selling point I asked? What’s more, why was I not informed before or immediately on my arrival? Customers are asked to cancel no later than 45 minutes before their scheduled appointment, so I would expect the same heads up. His apology did not pacify me, nor did his offer of a slot the following day. The options were to take a refund, or return within a couple of days, whilst he was still on shift. I didn’t see why I couldn’t have a credit to return on any day. I was not impressed with the customer service. What I actually wanted was to get my hair cut – that day. This was now impossible.

The redemption

I returned the following week to make use of my credit. I was now a skeptic but wanted to see how well they could cut. I was relieved to see a black stylist and a black barber manning the hub. Interestingly, both were styling European hair when I arrived. My stylist, Khadime, was skilled, friendly and engaging. She did a good enough job on my hair and completed it in good time, but I’ve had better cuts at high street barbers.

To summarise, I was unimpressed and disappointed on my initial visit to Chop-Chop. My second visit went smoothly, however, since they failed to live up to their own claims, and certainly did not meet my expectations. I personally would not take the risk of disappointment again. They do however have two other branches in London who may be more organised and efficient.

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Budget Airlines – Deal or No Deal!

low cost airline carriers

As I start prepping for my trip to Italy, I find myself wondering whether it’s actually possible to make full use of those cheap flight deals.  Can I travel abroad for a week with only a carry-on bag?  In recent years there has been an increase in low cost flights offered by low budget airlines like Easy Jet and Ryanair.  Even the likes of BA have jumped on this band-wagon, offering cheap no-frills short haul flights around Europe.  Typically, these flights exclude the traditional services and comforts we are all accustomed to.  Printing your own ticket and checking-in online are now the norm. On-board services are also limited, with no free meals or drinks on offer. With some airlines, there is no designated seat allocation either. Each carrier has its own set of rules but one certainty is that checked-in luggage is NOT included in the price of your ticket.

Just how much are we saving with these budget flights?

Despite most people preferring the basic amenities that an Economy flight includes, a good many of us are enticed by the very low prices offered by budget airlines. For me, those low fares mean the possibility of affording multiple trips per year or maybe splashing out more on hotels, excursions or general spending. However, I have learned that the fare stated does not usually reflect the overall saving you will make per trip. It is highly likely that you will end up spending more than you expected. I have compared fares for standard Economy versus budget flights to the same destination. Typically, the difference in price can be between £100 – £300.  That’s potentially a good deal if you are able to avoid all of the add-on exprenses.

Size matters

Some tickets include the price of a specified sized carry-on bag only, while other fares are literally just for bums on seats i.e., the fare covers transportation of a passenger from one port to another.  With Ryanair for example, your ticket price does not even include a free cabin bag (you can bring a small handbag or laptop only).  Since January 2018 their policy is that you pay at least £5 for a normal sized cabin bag, unless you buy a priority ticket, which itself costs more.  Also, Ryanair stipulate that their cabin bags should not be larger than 55 x 40 x 20, which is smaller than most airlines, who allow a slightly wider and taller bag.  Martin – the money saving expert, breaks down the latest Ryanair rules (which change again in November 2018) here

Ryanair baggage rules 2018
Ryanair baggage rules 2018

The unseen costs

So, there is a possible fee for cabin bags and a definite charge for checked in bags, usually between £40-60 each way.  Add to that an excess baggage fee (if your bag is overweight), between £20 – £70 each way. If you forget to print your ticket at home or need to buy food on the plane, that’s more again.  Another factor to consider is the departure/arrival airports. These budget flights tend to leave either very early or late in the day, and not from central airports.  Meaning you cannot rely on public transport and may need to get a taxi to and from a remote location.  Therefore, when you sum up all the extras fees payable, it can actually work out to be more expensive than a regular economy flight.

How to minimise costs

In most instances, unless you are travelling for business or are a student back-packer, you will definitely need both a carry-on bag and a checked bag.  However, there are definitely great savings to be made if you can follow these steps:

  • Choose an airline that includes carry-on luggage in their budget price.
  • Your carry-on bag should be as lightweight and roomy as possible. Be sure to check height and weight restrictions for your chosen airline, including wheels, handles and external pockets (check out the approved cabin bag size for various airlines).
  • Always check-in online BEFORE you get to the airport
  • Pre-print your tickets and boarding pass
  • Bring a packed lunch or allow yourself time to eat/buy food at the airport – Boots do a great meal deal with a drink for under £4.00, a fraction of what you would pay for the equivalent on the plane.
  • Don’t pack any toiletries that you can easily purchase at your destination. A good hotel will usually throw-in shampoos and lotions. Or, if you are travelling with others, divide the toiletries between you.
  • Before you travel, investigate the cheapest mode of transportation to/from airport to hotel. A hired car may be cheaper than a taxi. Or, pre book a transfer or hotel shuttle). With no heavy luggage it might even be possible for you to jump on public transport
  • If you buy souvenirs on your trip and know you are overweight, pay the excess baggage fee online BEFORE your departure date. It’s cheaper this way
  • Most importantly – pack lightly. Be prepared to wash and re-wear clothes

As I write this I find myself struggling with the idea of packing light. For me, part of the pleasure of travelling is using the opportunity to wear some of the clothes that I don’t get to wear in London’s unpredictable summer. I have a whole wardrobe dedicated to vacation wear.  Having a choice of clothes and shoes for day and evening, plus accessories, not to mention toiletries is essential for me. Also, I love to shop and inevitably need space to bring back my great finds. Packing minimally would potentially spoil how I enjoy my holiday.  However, I have not actually put this to the test. I like a challenge, so, for my next trip, after Italy.  I want to see if I can take full advantage of the budget fares on offer and still enjoy a trip.  I would love to hear from anyone who has managed to do this.  For now, I plan to fully enjoy my trip to Genoa. I will report back one I’ve don’t my challenge.  Watch this space!

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Review: Monte Judea – Affinity Villas, Algarve, Portugal

Monte Judea Villa in Algarve

My daughter recently got married in Portugal.  For the event we hired out a villa in the Algarve. Monte Judea is one of many villas in southern Portugal owned by Affinity Villas. Their website is very user-friendly and allows you to have a virtual tour of each of their properties, and also provides in-dept information about each location and the facilities and amenities nearby.

Our initial requirements were for a villa that could sleep about 10 people comfortably, with a scenic view, a heated pool, air conditioning, wifi and a fully equipped kitchen.  A bonus would be if it was also close to amenities like the supermarket and beach etc.  Affinity have several villas that fit these criteria, so we directed our focus to the south-western part of the Algarve, Portamao in Alvor, as this is a reasonably quiet location. Monte Judea is situated in a residential location amid an extensive landscaped backdrop.  As the name suggests, it is positioned on a hill. It was certainly not the cheapest of the available options but once we examined the photos of the property and compared all the accompanying amenities, it was hard not to spend that little bit extra.  The price to hire it out for one week in May (low season) will set you back around £1463, plus a £500 refundable deposit.

The villa is completely private and can only be accessed using the gate key provided. It includes a well-manicured garden lined with various Evergreens and Willows and looks out onto the surrounding countryside. The outside amenities also include a children’s playground.

Monte Judea gardens
View of Monte Judea gardens from raised patio

The rear of the villa looks out onto an elevated patio area which houses a very large swimming pool (heatable) plus loungers and umbrellas; a covered outdoor dining area with adjacent built in charcoal barbecue; and a utilities room with a washing machine, dryer and airers.

The inside of the villa is bright, spacious, tastefully decorated and is accessorised with everything needed to entertain its guests, young and old.  On entering, you first notice the elegant dark wood staircase which leads up to the Master bedroom, complete with walk-in closet, en-suite bathroom and a Jacuzzi.  There are three spacious bedrooms on this upper floor, each with balconies and a breath-taking view of the pool and the luscious grounds beyond. Also on this level is a computer gaming room and a fully equipped office. On the ground floor below there are two more bedrooms, both with en-suite bathrooms, one includes a Jacuzzi.  The kitchen is spacious and equipped with all necessary appliances and every utensil you can think of.  This leads on to a beautiful pool-facing dining area and is adjacent to the main living room which is inviting and comfortable.  There is also a lower ground floor which houses a large screen cinema area and a collection of old classic movies (DVDs).  This open planned area also has a section set up for table tennis; a kids play area with a number or toys and board games; a lounge area, plus a workout and bar area.  There is also an extra bathroom on this floor with a power shower.

What I liked best

  • The property is spacious, private and well equipped
  • The landscaped gardens with picturesque views from the balconies
  • Bricked outdoor BBQ
  • Large heatable pool
  • remote control blackout blinds
  • Indoor cinema

What I didn’t like

  • The cleaners, who were to visit once for that week, did not arrive within the specified time and did not clean anything, or change towels until we called to complain. Their excuse was that there was too much stuff around (which should be expected in a house that sleeps 10) and they did not want to move anything. This was disappointing.
  • Guests are required to dispose of rubbish themselves by taking it about a mile down the road to local refuse area. This meant loading the smelly rubbish into your vehicle which is not ideal.
  • Our deposit of £500 was not fully refunded because the wind blew one of the umbrellas onto the grounds and a spoke was damaged.  We were disappointed with the housekeeper’s decision to charge us for this when the damage was caused by the weather and out of our control.
  • The TV in the main living room could only be used if you had an Amazon Prime subscription

Make sure you read the rule book on arrival and adhere as the owners will not hesitate to extract an extra charge from your deposit.

Summary

All in all we enjoyed our stay at Monte Judea.  It was as luxurious as a 5+ star hotel, despite there being no room service.  We had to provide our own food and keep the place clean and tidy but we were in a very spacious, private and well-equipped property with an amazing view.

Lastly the town of Alvor is very quaint fishing village where fresh seafood is abundant, as well as many traditional Portuguese bakeries. The locals are friendly and welcoming too. The nearby beach Tres Irmaos, is said to one the nicest beaches in the Algarve, with its beautiful caves and rock formations.  A must do day trip.  I hope to revisit this town and property again one day soon.

 

 

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Review: Bala Baya Mediterranean Restaurant, Southwark, London

Bala Baya Aubergine Mess

I am always looking out for interesting places to dine, where I can sample either traditional cuisines done uniquely, or try out dishes that I’ve never had before.  Bala Baya, in Southwark, ticked both boxes. It serves traditional Israeli recipes from the Tel Aviv region and also incorporates some contemporary twists.  All of this in a very modern industrial surrounding.

I was invited to join few friends for a birthday dinner and was immediately excited when I browsed the very extensive menu.  I didn’t know where to start.

I had never dined out in Southwark before, so was surprised to find that there was a little foodie hotspot called the Old Union Yard Arches a short walk away from the station. There is a row of buzzy looking restaurants, each situated in their own railway arch.  I made a mental note to check out the other eateries in the future. For now, my attention was with Bala Baya.

My first impression was that the staff were extremely welcoming to their guests, most of which seemed to be regulars.  I could also sense a light-hearted family-type bond amongst staff.  Our waiter, Dimitri, was very welcoming and gave us the option to sit either upstairs or downstairs.  Both areas were pleasant, but downstairs seemed to have more atmosphere. Also, it was a warm sunny evening so we opted for downstairs by the window (as no tables were free in their small outside dining area).

Bala Baya outside
Bala Baya outside

For dinner you can choose from several small plate dishes (tapas style).  They suggested 3-4 dishes per person which we could share.  This was perfect for me as it gave me the opportunity to sample a few dishes.  There were 4 of us, so we pretty much ordered every small plate dish and were not disappointed (There were also some large plate dishes in the Feast section).  I like to be adventurous with food, so was happy to give some of the more unfamiliar dishes a try.  The Aubergine Mess was surprisingly tasty, but my favourite dish was the roasted Cauliflower (a popular veg at the moment), followed by the Crispy, Sticky, Crunchy chicken and the and Potato Tempura.  Everything they brought out was extremely tasty and nicely presented on traditional glass tableware.  The food was cooked in an open kitchen and each dish brought out one by one, as and when ready.  Whilst we waited, we were provided with freshly cooked flat bread pitta and hummus to graze on.  Halfway through our meal, the Maître D came over and highly recommended the Kebab Dumplings (semolina ravioli type parcels filled with lamb). She was very passionate and animated in her description of this dish.  It was her favourite, therefore we felt obliged to try it. We enjoyed the dish, however, we each felt that it did not live up to its introduction and flailed in comparison to the other dishes we had tried.  Definitely worth a try though. Although the servings were quite small we ended up with more food than we could finish.  Therefore, between us we ordered one dessert to share.  It was quite a blind choice as we had no idea what some of them were. We decided on The Filthy (Mascarpone, tahini, tonka cream, milk caramel, sesame crumble & banana compo). For me, the desserts were not as appealing as the main dishes.

Cauliflower Bala Baya
Cauliflower Bala Baya
Squid Bala Baya
Squid Bala Baya

Their cocktail list did not disappoint either.  There was a good selection to choose from. Some with middle eastern sounding names like Artichoke Julep and Gazozini.  I went for a simple grapefruit and thyme Gazoz (non-alcoholic), which was very refreshing and needed to counter the many flavours I was encountering.  There was also a good choice of beers, spirits and hot drinks. However I could not see a wine list (despite some of the cocktails being Prosecco based).  Our waiter also gave us all a complimentary digestif cocktail whilst we were waiting for the bill (an Ouzo/Gazoz shot). Nice touch!

Grapefruit and Thyme Gazoz Cocktail
Grapefruit and Thyme Gazoz Cocktail
The Filthy Bala Baya
The Filthy Bala Baya

Bala Baya is also a bakery by day serving sweet and savoury pastries to eat in or takeaway.  They also have a tasting menu and a weekend Brunch and Roast menu, serving larger dishes.  All to be sampled on another visit. The only thing that didn’t quite sync for me was the blend of very modern industrial décor with the very traditional Tel Aviv plates and cutlery etc. It wasn’t in keeping. Just a minor gripe.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Baya Bala.  It’s one of my best dining experiences so far this year.  Good atmosphere, good food with plenty of choice (plus good friends). The perfect formula.  I plan to revisit and recommend you do too.  You won’t be disappointed.