My favourite new SE London hidden gem, The Montage Forest Hill
London’s rocketing property prices have been pushing people to explore previously overlooked parts of SE London and Forest Hill (SE23) is one such ‘up and coming’ area. In the last couple of years I’ve noticed trendy coffee shops and cafes popping up as amongst its established favourites (like St David’s Coffee Shop). My personal favourite of the latest crop is The Montage Forest Hill, SE23′s newest cafe and art gallery.
What I love about the Montage Forest Hill, apart from the coffee, is its relaxed vibe. It’s also deceptively big. On first impressions when you walk into the Montage Forest Hill it looks as if the cafe is on the small side. A mix of retro wooden and laminate tables placed in front of the serving area which has an array of homemade cakes on display. But it actually stretches out into the back, where you’ll find various rooms, covered in wallpaper made from maps and old cookery book recipe pages. Further out back there’s a lovely little garden, perfect for chilling out in the summer months.
Head down the stairs and you’ll discover even more little rooms in this cool cafe in Forest Hill. Here you can easily wile away an hour or two without even noticing on one of the comfy Chesterfield armchairs. The Montage Forest Hill also has its very own kids’ playroom, full of toys to keep children entertained, making it a popular stop with young local families.
Another other great thing about the Montage Forest Hill is that pretty much all of the furniture and bric-a-brac you see (or might be sitting on/ eating at) is for sale. We’ve been looking for a kitchen table for ages and ended up buying a retro wooden table from the Montage Forest Hill which was reasonably priced (and I managed to haggle them down). And handily as we live in Forest Hill the friendly owners also delivered it free of charge so we didn’t have the hassle of trying to lug it home.
The only part of the Montage Forest Hill I wasn’t too impressed with was the art gallery upstairs. This could have been down to the work of the particular artist exhibiting in the stark white studio space when I was there. So don’t let that put you off as local artists tend to change on a monthly basis. The Montage Forest Hill may be a mishmash of warren-like rooms but as a whole this cafe is a great new addition to the South East London coffee shop scene.
Seal watching in Morston is just one of the Norfolk coast hidden gems
In much need of a break, I decided an exploration of some of the UK’s coastline was long overdue, and after some debate (and checking where had the cheapest train fares) I opted for a jaunt to Norfolk to check out some Norfolk coast hidden gems. Because I didn’t have a car I based myself in the seaside town of Cromer. In all honesty it doesn’t have that much going for it, other than being famous for Cromer crab, as everything seemed to shut down around 4pm.
I was also pretty disappointed by our accommodation Ogilvy House, a B&B which had rave reviews on TripAdvisor. I fully expected it be a Norfolk coast hidden gem in itself. Normally I wouldn’t even bother to mention it, because the point of my blog is to recommend things I love and that stand out. But because it stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly its rude, passive aggressive owner who even went as far as to make personal comments about my appearance, I wanted to flag it up as somewhere to avoid.
Luckily all wasn’t lost though as there are plenty of other Norfolk coast hidden gems that can be explored from Cromer. The easiest way to do this by far is to drive. Failing that, the handy Coast Hopper bus operates along the Norfolk coast, letting you get on and off wherever you want along the way. The only snag is that the buses do get quite full, and they also finish late afternoon, so depending on where you’re based you may have to cut your day-trip short to be able to get back. I’d recommend a stop in Morston as from here you can take a trip to see a seal colony at Blakeney Point. This was the highlight of my stay and the Norfolk coast hidden gems.
The day I set out from Morston it was pretty miserable and foggy so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t get to spot any seals. Just the opposite was true. It was pretty amazing as I couldn’t believe how many seals, both grey and common, we got to see up close. I opted to book a trip with Temples Seal Trips which costs £10 for adults, £5 for children, and was worth every penny. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and the one-hour boat trip also included the option of going onshore for an additional hour at Blakeney Point. Back in Morston you can also check out the foodie Norfolk coast hidden gems. Firstly there’s Morston Hall, a luxury hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. Or if you prefer something a bit more casual the Anchor Inn Morston serves up hearty gastropub grub.
Despite the weather being a bit rubbish we also took the opportunity to check out some of the Norfolk coasts best beaches. Wells-Next-The-Sea, Holkham, my favourite spot amongst the Norfolk coast hidden gems, and Hunstanton are all along the Coast Hopper bus route. Holkham beach has been used as the backdrop in lots of films, including Shakespeare in Love, and one of the Norfolk coast hidden gems. Not only can you sunbathe, or walk across the seemingly endless stretch of sand, but Holkham is also home to 18th century house Holkham Hall which has a deer park in its grounds. It might have been foggy and rainy on my visit to the Norfolk coast hidden gems but they still gets my seal of approval.
Is this the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam?
Forget curry or Chinese, it’s Indonesian food that’s a staple cuisine in Amsterdam. But with so many Indonesian restaurants, of varying quality, to be found in the Dutch capital it can be tricky to know where to go. I’d been told by those in the know that the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam is Blauw, located in the posh suburb of Amsterdam West close to Vondel Park. So it goes without saying I had to find out for myself if Blauw lived up to its reputation as the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam and was indeed one of Amsterdam’s hidden foodie gems.
I have to admit that things didn’t get off to the best start on the night I went. First up there was a mix-up with our booking, the restaurant called at 6.45pm to see if we were still coming, our table was for 8pm. Then I was given the worst table ever, right next to the bar and on route to the toilet, which mean there was a constant stream of people walking past. But we were given a more pleasant spot upstairs after I asked if we could be moved.
Blauw, the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, is legendary for its rijsttafel (rice table). I went for the vegetable version and tried not to get distracted by other dishes on the menu, which sounded equally as delicious. I also opted out of a starter. I tried to warn my friends that the rice table was supposed to be massive, but I don’t think they quite believed me, and ignored my advice. One of them ordered deep fried crispy shrimp. Two huge pieces of shrimp, covered in a surprisingly light and fluffy batter that didn’t stick to the shellfish, served with a mix of sweet, savoury and spicy sauces. My other friend opted for Soto Ayam, a flavoursome, spicy chicken broth, the taste of the lemongrass and kaffir leaves really coming through, with decent-sized pieces of chicken in it.
But I knew the best was yet to come. And I wasn’t disappointed. Our waitress said the rice table (all 18 dishes of it) was for one person. Seeing the gigantic amount of food before us I have to say it was a bit of a stretch, even for me. My friends had also ordered a meat, fish and vegetable rice table and a main dish of beef to share between them. I was so excited by the vast array of food in front of us I didn’t even know where to start. f it tasted as good as it looked I can see why Blauw is the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam.
My vegetarian feast included a variety of veg in sambal sauces, mixed veg in coconut sauce, spicy tofu and tempeh dishes, caramelised potato, sweet and sour cucumber, fried banana and steamed and fried rice. Each dish was delicately flavoured and deliciously spicy, without being too hot, greasy or overpowering. For the meat eaters there were a selection of dishes from the vegetarian ricetaffel as well as goat in soy sauce, stewed beef in tumeric and in a spicy sauce with cinnamon, chicken satay, fried cod in a curry and a spicy sauce and pork in soy sauce with star anise. It wasn’t just our table that was groaning at the amount of food on it at Amsterdam’s best Indonesian restaurant. We were stuffed. Blauw may well be the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam but it also has a branch in Utrecht so I’ve no doubt it’s probably the best Indonesian restaurant in Utrecht too.
How an old Dominican church became the best bookstore in the world
As I’ve previously mentioned the Dutch city of Maastricht is full of hidden gems, which also includes this one, the best bookstore in the world. As you can see from my pictures, it’s easy to see why the Selexyz Dominicanen is a Maastricht hidden gem, and a contender for the best bookstore in the world.
Not dissimilar to another of my hidden gems, Maastricht’s monastery hotel the Kruisherenhotel, the Selexyz bookstore is housed in a converted 800-year-old Dominican church, originally built in 1294. The building hasn’t actually been used as a place of worship for hundreds of years. Napoleon is generally thought to have been the one that ordered its closure (it’s most recent previous incarnation was as a storage space for bicycles) but a requirement for allowing its conversion into a bookshop was that the church had to be completely preserved. This meant Amsterdam based architecture firm Merkx + Girold had to use free-standing scaffolding to construct the steel staircases and walkways that go up three floors. But their creativity paid off as the best bookstore in the world won the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize in 2007.
What’s also great about the best bookstore in the world is that it also sells some of the best coffee in Maastricht too. Coffeelovers has a branch inside the Selexyz bookstore, where the alter would have formerly been. Once you’ve finished browsing you can relax with coffee and cake at the cross-shaped reading table and appreciate the award-winning architecture, that includes a halo of lights. The best bookstore in the world is located in the centre of Maastricht on Dominikanerkerkstraat 1, about a five-minute walk from Vrijthof Square, so it’s also a great place to stop for a coffee if you’re out and about shopping.
It may well be the best bookstore in the world but sadly Selexyz, which was one of the biggest chains of bookstores in the Netherlands and owned the Selexyz Domincanen, went bankrupt in 2012. It was sold to Dutch investment company Procures which combined it with second hand bookstore chain De Slegte to become a new company called Polare. Unfortunately they also closed down their bookshops in the Netherlands a few months ago so the future of the best bookstore in the world is looking uncertain. Let’s pray this Maastricht hidden gem will still be opening its doors in years to come.
Best budget vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam
Finding a decent vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam, especially in the touristy parts of town, can be tricky at the best of times. Amsterdammers love their meat (and herring) so I could barely contain my excitement at my discovery of the TerraZen Centre vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam.
Of the few vegetarian or veggie friendly places to eat in Amsterdam most tend to be slightly further out of the centre (Betty’s and De Kas). This leaves non-meat eaters fairly limited, usually a toss up between with the less than healthy option of chips with various forms of mayo, or a cheese sandwich. Unbelievably the TerraZen Centre vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam is located right in the middle of Amsterdam’s main shopping street, close to Damark and Spuistraat. But it’s still an Amsterdam hidden gem as it’s tucked away down a little side street on Sint Jacobsstraat.
The TerraZen Centre vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam has more of a cafe feel to it than a restaurant. It’s pretty casual, there’s a bit of a hippy vibe going on. And it’s also quite small – there are only about three tables and a counter area. Our table was quite low down so we sat on cushions while we ate but to be honest at this vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam it’s really all about the food.
I was surprised by how extensive the menu was. Dishes combine Japanese and Caribbean influences, ranging from vegetarian curries and chicken katsu to noodles, burgers, stews, sushi and sandwiches – all totally vegan made from ingredients such as tempeh, tofu and lentils. feeling totally spoilt for choice Sharps and I decided to share two dishes. We went for a tempeh burger (on the basis the best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life was a tempeh burger in Sydney, Australia. Sadly it was years ago and I was too drunk to remember the name of the burger bar). We also decided to go for the veggie chicken curry with rice.
Apart from one rasta guy on the next table Sharps and I were the only people in the TeraZen Centre. Even so our food still took a while to arrive as it was being freshly prepared to order. But also unlike many of the eating establishments in Amsterdam the waitress was super friendly so we didn’t mind too much. Plus, unlike in lots of Amsterdam cafes, this food was well worth waiting for. Both dishes were tasty and packed full of flavour, though we both greedily fought over the creamy vegetarian chicken curry which stood out of the two. Sharps even said (unprompted) that he’d be keen to come back so he could try more off the menu at this vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam. We both left feeling full and far more zen than we had in a long time.