Lifestyle: Taco Tuesdays (on a Saturday…)

A trip into London can only mean one thing for me and W – time to gorge ourselves at Wahaca. I’ve reviewed it a while back, but I managed to get some pretty good photos this time round. I’ve also found my favourite restaurant – I love the Charlotte Street branch as it’s so light and airy, and the staff seem like they genuinely love their job. The Covent Garden one just seems a bit dark now, and the last time I went the food was a bit heavy and the service rushed. Charlotte Street definitely offers a buzz, but friendly and relaxing service too. AND the best cocktails. Just be sure not to sit under the plants or you may get wet…

 photo c79efcaf-dfe7-4ea6-83be-031f9c95217f_zpswhfmsoqr.jpg photo f25f167a-1d3b-4ac7-bd67-833fc44f48b1_zpsptvnaqen.jpgI couldn’t resist my favourites, Frijoles with Tortilla Chips. I could live off Frijoles, they are amazing. Thick, creamy, full of flavour, tangy cheese, sharp crema. I’ll take a fork to the pot when the chips run out.

 photo b66458f9-d74a-4ce0-b8b9-9bbac06532da_zps3lioogaj.jpgAnother must-order is the Pork Pilbil tacos. I still can’t believe the spicy, juicy pork is tomato free. Topped with spicy pickled onions, and spread with some frijoles, these are heavy in a few (messy) bites.

 photo 9783de3d-592b-4d3a-9b70-592d580bf5ce_zpscymgyofa.jpg photo f9006f6c-79fe-4868-b2ae-6dc1414085da_zpsv6fkssqm.jpgI’ve also fallen quite hard for the new Chicken Pipian tacos. Made with a tomatillo sauce, these are completely different from anything on the menu. They are quite subtle, and I do feel like they need a good squeeze of lime juice, but they are so delicious. Soft chicken, a mild nutty sauce and some crunchy cabbage – they are refreshing in-between spicier dishes.

I stuck to just these tacos this time (W went for a burrito, leaving me to try and not order alllll the street food) as I wanted churros (picture above taken from Wahaca’s site). Word of advice, ask for caramel rather than chocolate sauce. It’s so much better.

I adore Mexican food, it’s just perfect for my need for spiciness, finger food and different textures. Have you been to Wahaca before?

Restaurant Review: Mexican Night Out at Wahaca

This is going to be a very odd kind of restaurant review. Mainly because it will not focus on one visit to the restaurant in question, but several, and so will skip over all but the most outstanding points about the service received. It really is a foodie post, but a foodie post is well deserved by London restaurant chain Wahaca!

 

I can’t quite remember how we discovered Wahaca, but two summers ago me and the boyfriend first visited their Covent Garden restaurant, and were immediately blown away. The service is friendly and quick, the food absolutely delicious, and the prices more than reasonable (which can’t be said for most places around Covent Garden!). I can’t say its the perfect place for a date, as eating some of their tacos can get a little messy, but its the perfect informal night out for friends, families, established couples, or if you want to see whether your new girlfriend actually can stand to look less than perfect in front of you. On that last point – I once read a book where a man took his future wife to Nando’s for a first date as he wanted to see if she was afraid to get messy. I like that idea!

Anyway, we’ve had an almost 100% satification rate when it comes to eating out at Wahaca. In fact, the one meal that wasn’t brilliant (and to be honest, it was the worst kind of meal if you understand me!) was dealt with amazingly by staff, and I have utmost confidence in the company. I would recommend them unreservedly!

 

What I’m going to do is run through some of the items I’ve eaten, and what I loved. There’s pictures of a few things, but not of everything (I’m too greedy to wait!). I will point out that some pictures will have half-eaten dishes in the background. This is because Wahaca bring things out as they are ready. A strategy I like, in that food is fresh, but if you want to control the timing and pace, I suggest you order a few dishes at a time. We did this at our last visit (to the Charlotte Street restaurant, which is great on a summers night, and offered the best service ever!) and it worked well. Throughout this post I will also give a quick guide to eating at Wahaca when avoiding tomatoes, although please bear in mind you should always double check with your waiter, as recipes do change.

First of all, you can’t book a table at Wahaca, so at the busiest restaurants you can be waiting quite a while to sit down. We’ve never waiting for longer than 15 minutes, although I have read reviews of people that have, so do bear that in mind! While you wait you can generally perch in the bar area and enjoy a delicious cocktail. For those of you not drinking I highly, highly recommend the Virgin Mojito – so good!

When you sit down, you’ll be asked if you want any nibbles while you read the menu. We always go for Frijoles and tortilla chips. Wahaca’s Frijoles are basically refried black beans, and are probably one of my favourite things in the world. I crave them virtually constantly, although luckily have managed to recreate a close-ish version, a recipe that I will share soon. Wahaca’s tortilla chips are also very good, freshly fried and crisp, and perfectly seasoned. But the Frijoles are definitely the star, I’m getting hungry just thinking about them! Mmm…frijoles.

2013-06-25 18.23.53They aren’t exactly the prettiest of foods, but they are so good! They are dark, creamy, and rich, but feel quite good for you (which I highly doubt they are, really!), topped with crema (which is a not-so-sour kind of soured cream) and then some crumbled salty cheese. I’ve heard on the interwebs that they used to come topped with cubes of chorizo, but I’ve never seen this on the menu.

Also pictured above is my favourite drink at Wahaca – a virgin Mojito. I try not to drink when I’m in London, as often I’m an hour plus away from home/bed so its really not a good idea (as otherwise I’d be having a proper Mojito!), but this is lovely and refreshing, with lots of apple, mint and lime. Also good is the traditional Horchata, a rice milk drink flavoured with cinnamon.

 

Now, what should you order? We’ve mainly ordered street food in the past. I’ve had one dish of the main menu, and that is the one that caused the bad experience, so we’ll skip over that as the thought still makes my stomach turn slightly. Don’t let that put you off though, as it was a delicious dish and I hope I’ll be able to try it again at some point!

So, street food. It comes in a couple of categories – tacos, tostadas, tacquitos and quesadillas. There is also the Wahaca selection, which is a preset deal of various dishes. I would suggest this for beginners (who don’t have a tomato allergy!). Then there are ‘Street Food Specials’ which change with the seasons.

First, I’m going to discuss the Street Food Specials, and will also mention Wahaca’s Southbank Experiment. It’s impossible for me to give you an up-to-date review of the specials, but they are occasionally repeated so I’ll give you a brief low-down on what I’ve had in the past. A couple of years ago they did fried squid rings with a chipotle dressing, which were amazing crisp, and for a non-seafood restaurant pretty spectacular. No idea if the dressing was tomato-free as back then I was still risking small amounts of tomato. There were some delightful pulled pork tacos with a tomatillo salsa, which were absolutely stunning – just the right amount of texture, and a huge spicy kick. I loved these! Also a variation on pork tacos, the Pastor’s tacos (pictured below) served this spring were well received. Chunks of pork, various other things, although with a pineapple salsa was definitely refreshing, although I found that anything more than tiny dices of pineapple was a bit too fruity for my taste. On the non-tomato-free front there was a kind of spaghetti/noodle dish that didn’t receive huge praise from my boyfriend – I think it was quite spicy, served quite hot, but didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the food.

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Onto the Southbank Experiment now! This is a teeny tiny pop-up style restaurant in shipping containers, in a great location, with a great atmosphere. It includes most of the regular menu, but also some experimental dishes which may end up in more restaurants if they get enough likes – this is where the pulled pork tomatillo tacos were born. Out of the many dishes I’ve eaten at the Southbank experiment, one stood out hugely. It was a sharing platter, included taco ‘shells,’ some green rice, some frijoles, and then a hot casserole pot full of spicy, warming, perfectly flavoured pulled stewed steak. This was absolutely delicious, the best thing I have EVER eaten, and something I would love to see on the menu. Wahaca take note!

Now, tacos. At Wahaca tacos don’t come in those horrible hard shells that are impossible to eat. They come in thin, mini tortilla wrap style things, which you can bite through and not lose (all of) your filling. Yum yum! The selection is – pork pibil, chicken tinga, a steak one (with or without cheese), a cactus and courgette concoction (which I cannot wait to convince my other half to try) and a plantain one. Out of these, my stand out favourite is the pork. It might run down your arm, but it sure is good! Drooling a little just thinking about it… The chicken tinga is very tomato-ey, so obviously I avoid it. The steak isn’t my favourite, mainly due to the texture, and I positively disliked the plantain – mainly because I had it in a sweet taco at the Southbank once and loved it served with salted caramel, chocolate and peanuts!

Excuse the bad photos, I was too busy wanting to get stuck in, but here are some pork pibil tacos

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Toastados are something that I’ve never been particularly keen to try, however I sneaked a non-boyfriend (sorry W!) visit to Wahaca in with my dad recently and we tried the seafood ceviche version. This was lovely and light, with a great kick, and seemed perfect for summer – I will definitely order again!

Onto taquitos. These are tortillas filled with a filled, deep fried, and topped with a crema dressing and some salad. I ask for these without salsas to avoid tomatoes, but unfortunately they are better with.  I love, love, love this dish! The tortilla is lovely and crunchy, the salad still makes it feel healthy. Both versions are delicious – one is a potato one, and the other is a seasoned chicken – not as spicy as a lot of things, but a great dish for starting out with Mexican.

Finally, quesadillas. I must confess I’m not the biggest fan of these, as I find them too rich. However the broad bean and potato version is quite light, gooey with cheese and reminds me a little of a pizza – I do enjoy it, but not at the expense of some of the other amazing things Wahaca serves up!

That’s my street food selection – if I was choosing I’d say pork pibil, both tacquitos, and a seafood ceviche, followed by a quesadilla if there’s room. You can order a pre-set selection, but obviously with my allergies that’s out!

Now, what you must absolutely, no arguments, do is order pudding. Churros to be specific.

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These are Mexican doughnuts, dusted with cinnamon, and dipped into either a dark chocolate sauce, or a rich salted caramel (my preference). Definitely save room for these, as they finish a meal off perfectly. And if you have even more room, the tequila hot chocolate is pretty good too!

So if you are near one and feeling a bit peckish, I thoroughly recommend Wahaca. The food is spicy and sharing-friendly, making it great for a gathering. And the prices are equally as good – the only time I’ve ever spent more than £35 on a meal for two (which in central London, eating so much your boyfriend moans about how full he is, isn’t bad at all!) is when I had a £50 voucher to burn, and ended up supplementing my meal with goodies bought from the shop in Charlotte street.

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Mmm, Wahaca food at home…and that’s a blog post coming soon!

Has anyone eaten at Wahaca? What would you recommend?

Square Meal

Strawberries, Sunshine, Sightseeing and a Show: Romantic Mini-Break in London on a Budget

Many, many months ago I had to deal with one of the worst aspects of being in a relationship; what to buy them for Christmas/Birthday. This is made all the worse by my other half very inconsiderately having his birthday at the beginning of January. So two presents in just a few short weeks. This stretches both my pocket and my brain, as I do generally want to treat him to something special. For the first year, I went generic male present with a watch and wallet. The year after was his eighteenth, so I found 18 little meaningful (I hope!) things. This year I cheated and moved away from the tangible goods (see, I did learn something in Economics lectures!) and went with an experience. I booked tickets to see the Charlie & The Chocolate Factory musical (which, by the way, is fabulous and if you get a chance you should definitely go!), and a hotel in Covent Garden. I say hotel, I mean a travellodge. Well, student budget and all… Anyway, this trip was taken over the last few days, so I thought I’d blog about the experience, blog about interesting things to do in London, and hopefully offer a few tips on how to survive a few days in London without spending too much money.

 

First of all, transport. We (or I) booked our train tickets from our home town wayyyy in advance. Well, about 8 or so weeks ago. Doing this meant we got a excellent deal, but it did mean we were limited to exactly timed trains. But it saved us a lot of money, and I think it worked out to be around £3.95 each way, per person. A generic one-month return is generally around £25, so we saved a considerable amount of money. I recommend any young person gets a 16-25 rail card. Mine has more than paid for itself (I only have to do two journeys to the boy’s university to make up what I my parents paid for it). Then look around for the cheapest deals, and try to book as far in advance as possible. A trip to the boy’s, with railcard, costs a scary £56+ booking the same week of travel. Booking in advance I have managed to reduce this to under £40. However, train prices for next year seem to have skyrocketed, and currently I am less than impressed at the prices, even for trips in September. I also recommend you follow 10 Ways to Have More Money As A Student Without Working, as they often have deals whereby you can gain vouchers to use on Red Spotted Hanky, a train-booking site. I prefer this site, as they don’t charge booking fees (ahem, trainline) and it is free to have tickets delivered to your address.

For the tube, it IS pricey. The standard travelcard for zones 1-2 (which is generally all you will need, unless you want to visit Stratford shopping centre) is £7-something, which is quite frankly ridiculous. But, if you first state that you have a railcard, you can then get a card covering all 6 zones, for £5-something. Definitely the cheapest and most flexible option, although the ticket machines don’t exactly make it easy for you to find it!

 

For where to stay, I’m not sure you could beat the Travellodge in London. The prices in the area are just extortionate, with the only other affordable options being hostels where we’d be sharing a room. Not exactly romantic if you know what I mean…
I booked the Covent Garden travellodge for around £47 for one night, with an additional £1.50 cancellation insurance. This turned out to be far better inside than out (the exterior of the place looks, to be honest, pretty horrible and grim!), which a very welcoming reception area (although the self check-in machines did annoy me slightly – I do like to talk to a real person occasionally!). The room itself was spotless, the bathroom not so. It was clean, apart from the bath which needed a good wash before I used it! The room was also lovely in its decoration, and smelt very fresh. And we got this view, what more could we want…?

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It was a surprisingly quiet night for a stay in the middle of London, with an exceptionally comfortable bed. Even with my recent bout of insomnia, I managed a good bit of sleep. Recommended, particularly if you want somewhere close to Covent!

 

Now, for food; a romantic dinner for two. Please, please, please; whatever you do, don’t just turn up at a restaurant as you will pay a fortune. Look around, find deals, book in advance. I spent a long time looking for a nice pre-theatre menu. There are some lovely ones out there, but unfortunately with an allergy to tomatoes I was so limited in choice I decided against them. Instead I found an offer at Cafe des Amis, a lovely restaurant just off Covent Garden. I was first introduced to the place by my dad late last year, and really enjoyed the food. And this offer was far too good to pass up; two course, a glass of proseco, for two, for a grand total of £28. It had to be paid for in advance, via Paypal. And as I have £5 credit on my account (a joining incentive if I remember correctly) this made it even better value for money. I duly paid for and booked a table, and then slobbered over my laptop as I stared at the online menu. I’m notoriously known between friends and family for taking a long time to decide what to order, so I started in advance. It definitely made the decision easier on the night!

For my starter, I went for a crab risotto, topped with scallops, and served with a lemon-caper butter sauce.

risotto

This photo isn’t mine (for credits see the end of this post – I must say it is far better than any I could have taken!) but it definitely shows the delicacy of the dish. Mine was topped with rather less green stuff, although I still picked it off – I don’t like restaurants who insist on garnishing like this, as I find it rarely compliments the dish. The risotto was wonderful – rich, creamy, sweet and fishy, with a fabulous bite where the rice had been perfectly cooked. The sauce disappeared beneath the other aspects of the dish, but it wasn’t missed. The scallops, however, were definitely the star of the show. Cooked to absolute perfection, they melted in the mouth and were no-where near the chewiness that tends to put me off ordering them. A fabulous dish, one that I truly loved.

My boyfriend opted for a ravioli, of spinach and ricotta, with a sun-dried tomato dressing. The dressing was very sauce-like, but apparently it tasted great. For obvious reasons I didn’t try the dish, and nor have I managed to source a photo. I also failed at finding a photo of his main; roast rump of lamb, with buttered green beans, pomme mousseline, and lamb jus. I have eaten this dish in the past, and I can confirm is is utterly superb and well worth a try.

For my main, I went for the venison medallions on a grain mustard mash, with a shallot and port jus. The menu advertised buttered salsify; I’m not sure if I received carrots instead, but whatever the vegetables were, they weren’t cooked enough and were far too crunchy. Again, this photo is not mine, but its very accurate to what I received. The meat was perfectly cooked, I definitely prefer how French restaurants cook meat (never overdone, if anything under what you ordered – so if you don’t like blood order well done). I love my meat almost running around the field, so it was perfect for me! The venison was also perfectly flavoured; this was the first time I had eaten it, and I will definitely order again. The mustard mash was a little too strong for my liking, although it worked extremely well with the sweet and sticky jus. Another more-than-satisfactory dish.

Venision

We declined pudding, and then had a bit of embarrassment when asking for the bill – we knew we had nothing left to pay, just the service charge, and this confused the waitress slightly. If you do this, I recommend ordering bread at the beginning, or an extra drink, so that you have more than the service charge to pay!

Service was excellent, if a little too fast. The atmosphere was lovely and romantic, until the adverts came on the playlist softly playing in the background – this spoilt the mood immensely, although it was quickly restored once the music recommenced. I would definitely visit the restaurant again, but would I pay full price? Probably not. My two courses, both the most expensive choices, were £11.50 and £24.50 – so we made a huge saving. Previous meals there have been using a Taste Card, which meant 50% off the food bill. In my opinion, prices are too high normally, but with the commonly-occurring deals, its a place well worth a visit as it is truly lovely food.

 

Obviously, I have only discussed one meal so far – and there are obviously many more that need to be eaten if staying in London more than a few hours. So,  eating in London on a budget. A restaurant (sort of chain, there’s only a handful of restaurants, all in/around London) that I LOVE and that is affordable is Wahaca, and this will feature in a blog post of its own over the coming weeks. If you’re staying overnight, particularly around Covent Garden, I heavily discourage you from choosing to add a breakfast to your hotel stay. In the travellodge we were offered this option for £7.95 per person. I decided to send the boy out in the morning to one of the many local bakeries (we went for the Balthazar Boulangerie, attached to the restaurant) for pain aux chocolat and croissants. These were superb, far better than any I have eaten before.

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He also came back with a fabulous full-sized baguette (the total of this came to, I believe although he didn’t divulge, just under £10 – a bargain for the quality) which would make up the bones of our lunch. We had originally planned to visit a food market to buy additional bits for a picnic. But it was a Tuesday, and we were struggling to find one within an acceptable distance, especially with our outdated A-Z street map. So instead we popped into an M&S and had a browse at their new/improved picnic range. I have to say, there is a huge amount of stuff I’d love to try in the range, but we went for the basics – a chorizo selection, and a punnet of strawberries, for the grand total of around £4.50. We went and sat in Green Park, in the rare English sunshine (I even managed to take my cardigan off…) and ate baguette torn with our hands, and chorizo, then fed each other strawberries, each grimacing at the icky display of public affection we were taking part in. It was a wonderfully romantic picnic, and incredibly cheap (far cheaper than two eating out at McDonalds!) for the amount of food we got. So, if in London on a budget, buy a picnic!

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Now, for “things to do”. We could have gone really cheap, and visited (like the child inside me wanted) the free-entry science museum. There’s a whole host of free museums to take advantage of, but for us the weather was too nice to stay indoors.

After coaxing me up from the grass where I was soaking up the sun, my boyfriend decided he wanted ice-cream. After reading the Londoner’s review of an interesting ice-cream parlour place in Camden Market, I knew it was the perfect place for us to visit. Chin Chin Labs offers yummy ice-cream to satisfy me, weird machines and chemicals to (hopefully) keep my wonderful nerd of a boyfriend entertained (I lie, we’re both a little bit like that…)! The decor is nice and minimalist, with fabulous chairs (I love metal ones, my fashion sense of skirts disagrees as they were a little chilly!). The menu is also minimalist – a choice of four ice-cream flavours, with about 3 sauces, and then maybe 8 toppings. As soon as I walked in, I fell in love; they GRILL white chocolate. Mind is still boggling at that! We quickly decided to go for the specials (vanilla and chocolate flavours and permanently offered, with two specials per week) – I had “Strawberry and Hay” and chose a topping of the aforementioned grilled white chocolate, and W (the boy) went for “Griddled Peach” topped with a pistachio and cardamon crumb. The peach is dairy free, which was amazing as upon tasting it was so creamy, so I’m planning to take my dairy-free mum to London just to introduce her at some point. I couldn’t decide which I liked loved more. The staff pour the right amount of mixture for one serving into a KitchenAid mixer (my boy was already excited – I think it’s a lifetime ambition for us to own one in our future house, though we currently argue over what colour) and whilst it is mixing add liquid nitrogen. There is a lot of gas which is released at this point – not to worry as you don’t consume any. Or if you do then its a negligible amount. But its worth it for the ice-cream! Its then scooped into a bowl, and the topping of your choice added. At £3.95 for each, its not cheap. But this seemed to hit my pocket less hard than the £3.50 ice cream cost in the theatre the night before. It was definitely worth it, for the portion size, the smoothness of the ice-cream (the nitrogen isn’t just a gimmick, it prevents ice-crystals forming and makes the smoothest mixture imaginable), and the unique flavours. Whoever discovered the strawberry and hay combination needs a pat on the back, for it was simply gorgeous, and I hope I will get to try it again! The grilled white chocolate was a complete revelation, and my only regret is that I didn’t have enough cash (they don’t take card payments) to purchase a bag of it. Or a truckload. So good, and I will be back!

Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of Chin Chin Labs, although I have emailed them to ask if they can supply any, as I’d love to show you the experience a little more fully. I did however manage to get this picture:

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That is clearly the face of a boy who has tried something that has change his life (I like to think he looked like that when he first met me!). As we were eating our ice-cream, in the hot sun, on freezing chairs, we noticed a board outside the neighboring shop. It was advertising Chocolate Bacon. I think if I’d have refused to go in I’d have been leaving London on my own! The shop was called Mighty Fine, and they make chocolate and fudge on-site, where you can view the production process. There was a lot of fudge to sample and chocolate to try, but we only had eyes for one thing, the chocolate bacon. At £1.50 per rasher, I’m glad it wasn’t me paying, but it was a delightful mix of salty and sweet, and worth it! Be warned, more than one rasher and you will be ill, as it is rich, but it is also delicous. We washed it down with one of their homemade ‘slush puppies’ which reminded us of our youth, but a lot better – this was a lemonade ice base, topped with a choice of either raspberry or passionfruit coulis. We went for raspberry, and it was immensely pretty (I insisted on carrying it) and very refreshing. A must on a hot day, and on a par with the rest of the drinks prices in Camden Market.

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As for completely free-activities, I so recommend walking along the Thames. I love it, especially along the Southbank. It’s fabulously touristy, without having to dodge them (as in Oxford Street), you get fabulous views of the city, discover hidden gems (there’s many nice restaurants, and they’re noticeably cheaper on the north side of the river), and on a hot day like yesterday there’s a cool breeze which was very much welcomed. There’s the street performers in Covent which are well worth watching, although the acts are getting old (the same man has repeated the same performance over the entire length of mine and the boy’s relationship), and general window shopping to do. Camden is great for a wander round, but not with a suitcase. I also aim to head over to Portobello Market for a browse, and visit Primrose Hill for the view at some point.

 

For the more extravagant, you may want to see a show or musical. I highly recommend Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, but it obviously depends on taste – we’re a couple that are just two kids at heart, and we loved it. The scenes and props were utterly magical, the acting and singing superb. Another excellent product is War Horse, we have seen it twice (it really is that good) and I would also recommend the Bodyguard. A word of warning, don’t take a tall boyfriend into the balcony unless you have booked aisle seats. He will have to sit squished and folded up for several hours. One advantage of having short legs I guess!

 

So that’s it, my guide to doing London a little more cheaply. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d happy hear them – I’m always open to new cheap ideas for days/nights out!  For now I’ll leave you with one of the views across the Thames (taken a few months ago, hence the winter coat modelled by the photo-bomber…)

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Feature image courtesy of Love of London.

Cafe des Amis images from Food Spotting, and Holly Hearts Food.