Ayos

Best Part: The flat bread!

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There are a number of restaurant premises in St. Albans that have a quick succession of identities. Ayos is one of these. Extremely well situated between the station and centre of town in a beautiful pointed glass fronted building it occupies the site formerly used by Asia and the Olive Tree. We didn’t make it to the Olive Tree, but we liked eclectic predecessor Asia and were pleased to visit newcomer Ayos in the familiar building. We had heard very positive mutterings amongst the foodie circles in which people like us move (which is to say the school gate).

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On the day of our visit, there were about four occupied tables and we got the feeling that dinner would be the ideal time to visit. That said, they had a small but enticing lunch menu at an extremely reasonable price (£9.90 for two courses) and no doubt when word gets around town further (at other school gates) it will be brimming with punters in the middle of the day too. And so it should be.

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Our waiter was polite and efficient, the food promptly delivered and the ambience welcoming. It really is a super space. Where it’s openness used to feel cold, now there is only warmth, decorated with terracotta tones and full of mid century wooden dining furniture. An unusual but successful combination. The staff were equally friendly to adults and the toddler dining in the corner with her parents. The toddler was not quite so friendly, refusing his high five. How awkward! Anyway, it makes Ayos good for the family diners as well as friends and lovers. Well toddlers live on hummus and pitta don’t they? So a Turkish eatery is a perfect place for them really!
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We decided to embrace our inner toddler and start with hummus. We were delighted. It was creamy and clearly made with high quality olive oil. The warm flat bread too, was out of this world.

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Our second shared started was Sigara Bogeri, which as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you are cigar shaped pastry filled with feta and spinach. These were superb, the pastry crisp and slightly oily and the feta salty and creamy in equal measures. There were only 3, sufficient (just) for a starter but I could happily have eaten these for starter, main and dessert. I would probably have needed about 40 though and I don’t think it would have been particularly good for my health, or the review, or society in general really.

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Unable to cook vegetarian moussaka at home anymore due to my children and husband’s strong negative sentiment towards aubergine, I leapt at the chance here. Wow, it looked and smelt amazing.

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Mr Midweek lunch had some lamb, following his general rule of thumb that if you’re in a Mediterranean restaurant then the lamb is probably worth ordering. And it was. The lamb was tender and doused in lemon once I had finished dousing it in lemon, great big chunks of flavour. It was on some more flatbread, but even flatter this time and so full of taste I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t cheese. Very thin cheese. It was more likely to be bread though. Once more he was pleasantly surprised by the salad.

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We will certainly be back to try out the evening menu. There is a rumour about being charged extra for apparently complimentary bread. However we did not experience this and can only conclude that our source had been sozzled by the time her bill came. I would recommend Ayos whole heartedly to those near and far. It is an alternative to Tabure or Nimats Bar Meze if you fancy a change.

Welcome newcomer! St Albans Midweek Lunch give you a high five, even if that toddler didn’t!

8/10

https://www.ayosrestaurant.com/

L’Italiana

Best Part: The Smug Superiority

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We have referenced this before but one rather expects, in our sleepy little city, that you can wander in to any place that takes your fancy on a Thursday lunchtime and have your pick of tables. If you expect this from L’Italiana, as many of our fellow townsfolk did, you will be sadly disappointed. Luckily we arrived early on in the lunch-hour and were able to pick up the last table for two, so were able to enjoy the frustrated faces of would-be diners looking longingly at pizzas that would never be theirs.

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You can kind of understand the imbalance of tables to patrons, as L’Italiana do have an exceptionally good lunch deal. £5.95 will buy you a pizza or a pasta, with fancy pizzas costing a little extra. Being a fancy man I went for the premium pizza, in this case an Ela which featured gorgonzola, parma ham and rocket. There was a generous pile of rocket on a nicely crisp base, but I will confess to not being blown away by it. I think when one orders a pizza with gorgonzola you would really expect to taste it, but in this case it was more of a pleasant after-thought. The basics were all in place but there was no pizazz to take it to the next level.

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My wife was happy to have 5 vegetarian pizzas to chose from. She decided on the Delizia which featured Sun Dried Tomatoes and like me, gorgonzola. On the whole she was happy with her choice,  being a great fan of both toppings. However she felt that there was a slight imbalance, with the sun dried tomatoes dominating the gorgonzola. This lead us to wonder whether perhaps there had been a cheese delivery cock up that day!

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We have had about 10 superb meals at L’Italiana over the years and while things were a little off par on this occasion this would in no way prevent us from returning or recommending it. Service is good, it is comfortable and by jove their Calzone are huge! It is also pitched in a lovely little spot, on French Row in a delightful old building with plenty of opportunities for watching the toing and froing of those town folks going about their non-pizza business. The tables are small and closely packed, but it feels nicely intimate rather than cramped. . There is a certain shadow joy from watching people trying and failing to get to the dining opportunities you are enjoying. But you do want to take them to one side and inform them that they could almost certainly get a table at La Cosa Nostra, where they would find arguably better pizzas at an even better deal.

6.6/10

http://www.litaliana.co.uk/

Café Rouge

Best Part: The Building

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Café Rouge (or Red Coffee) has been a St Albans institution for longer than I have been. The beautiful glass structure half way up Holywell Hill is distinctive and enticing as you walk past. When you are inside it is even better, especially on sunny days, which today was (briefly). The rays glint of the glass roof and looking up you can see the clouds racing past.

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It seems almost a shame that such a wonderful space is filled with a chain restaurant, but Café Rouge make a pretty good stab at it. The bar at the back is beautifully high and mirrored, though I do worry about what happens when someone orders the particularly high up Pimms. It probably won’t be an issue for a few months now, anyway. The rest of the decorating is passable, non-glass surfaces are filled with art that I took to be non-objectionably until my wife objected to it. Our companion was a particularly lazy water colour.

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Café Rouge are boasting about their new Autumn menu so we decided to put them to the test. There was a Prix Fixe (or Repaired Prize) menu, which was reasonably good value, but we had come into possession of a 25% off voucher (and then subsequently a 30% off voucher which sadly could not be used in conjunction), and I am sure with the minimum of effort you could to. We therefore decided to venture onto the A La Carte (or On The Card) menu, which ended up a similar cost but gave us more choice. Ironically this stopped me ordering what I really wanted as it was also on the Prix Fixe and would have seemed like a waste.

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But let us ignore my irrational whims and focus on the food. Both of us showed enormous restraint and resisted the breaded camembert reasoning that it was readily available all over town. Instead I went for the Egg Meurette (or Oeuf Meer Cat), a delightful and hitherto unexperienced combination of a poached egg, some toast and a lovely gloopy mushroom and bacon sauce that complimented the chilly weather perfectly.

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La Dame De La Déjeuneren Milieu de Semaine went for the French Onion Soup (or French Onion Soup), with the teeny tiny little croutons and cheese. It used to be slices of standard sized French bread with melted gruyere on top. Now it is piddling little croutons with  small pot of raw grated cheese. It was rather confusing and messy. Presumably if you don’t like cheese you can ask for it to be omitted entirely. If you are expected to add it to the crouton yourself it might be prudent to go back to the large ones. As it was my wife had to perform a sort of circus act getting it all to balance on top. If it had been a tight rope walker, the cheese would have died but at least would have drowned gulping down some very delicious onion soup.

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For my main I went for Merguez, described as a spicy artisanal sausage but literally translating as ‘a bit like chorizo but thinner and juicier’. It was gorgeously flavoursome, and left a nice fatty paprika residue that I could sop up with my frites. These were thin and crisp as French fries should be, probably even superior to Cote’s offering. There was also a little saucepan filled some sort of thin gravy, but as this did not seem to add much to either the sausage or the chips I largely left it to it’s own devices.
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Ma Petite Femme had quiche, and remarked on its creamy, crumbly ricotta texture. Interestingly I don’t think it contained any ricotta but there was something about the way they had fused the egg and spinach that gave it this playful lightness. Mrs Midweek Lunch is no stranger to quiche and declares this was one of the best she had ever tasted, even compared to her own. Of course the French claim to have invented it so perhaps it would be.

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We have been coming to the Café Rouge for years, and will continue to come for years barring bankruptcy (on either side) or invasion from the French. The reason is that it offers quality but distinctive food in a beautiful and unique surroundings for a reasonable cost. So as the French say, de grandes choses viennent à une girafe tenace.

7.4/10

http://www.caferouge.com/locations/st-albans

Relish

Best Part: The Milkshakes!

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Now, if you have worked in an office that is located anywhere but the most derelict and distant business park you will know that occasionally your colleagues will settle on one location as the only viable lunch venue, and will visit it remorselessly until they decide to move on to the next place. We have recently passed out of our Relish phase and as such I was not particularly keen on returning. However, when we visited Relish we were in the now painfully distant Summer Holiday phase, therefore we needed to go to somewhere that would both accept our children and be acceptable to our children. Relish was one of the few places in the sliver of this Venn diagram so back to Relish I went.

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They are very good with children in Relish. The waiting staff are friendly and engaged our two in conversation about the difference between Transformers and Bionicle, which can be quite obscure to all but the most knowledgeable. They have games and other distractions to keep them entertained whilst they wait, but the wait was minimal anyway so we didn’t have to partake. The youngest members of the Midweek Lunch clan were very happy with their meals, which were very good value at £5.50 for a main course and a milkshake. Being post-millennials they did not object to their food coming on a metal tray, which I might have in their position, and they even got some little cucumber and carrot pieces to make you feel less bad about feeding your children fried meat, chips and ice cream for lunch.

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My wife was also thrilled with her food. She often complains about vegetarian burgers being offered instead of vegetable burgers. By this she means that she doesn’t much like pretend meat burgers but does get very excited when people get creative with mushrooms, squash, feta and halloumi. Relish had got it just right by serving her halloumi, peppers and other gorgeous juicy bits in a brioche bun. It was a flavour sensation. She was also very happy with her milkshake, although this proved to be too filling for the middle of the day in conjunction with the generous helping of burger, chips and other bits. She is a small lady and sometimes forgets this when she is feeling greedy.

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Now personally I have never been an enormous fan of the burgers at Relish, which is slightly unfortunate as they are their raison d’etre. I find that they are lacking the indulgent juiciness of, say, Craft & Cleaver, and the toppings are not enough to make up for it. The buns don’t maintain their integrity until the end, but that is fairly standard these days. They are obviously of quality, but I think they need some zing to make them able to compete in the crowded burger market. My peanut butter milkshake was very nice, maybe a bit too crunchy for a milkshake but lovely none-the-less.

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We ordered a side of onion fries, basically chips with very crispy onions on the top. I object slightly to having to order sides separately when it seems unlikely that anyone would order a burger on its own. Given all the food and thick milkshakes available on the table, though, one portion between us was more than adequate, and the onions were a very welcome and rare twist. The presentation was such that is was difficult to get to the chips without working through the strata of onions, and as they were a shared portion I could not mix them up too much.

So I had a generally positive experience, with a few pointers. But the rest of my family had such a lovely time that I am a wise and gentle enough soul to look beyond my own disappointments and enjoy the happiness of my companions.

7.4/10

http://relishrealburgers.co.uk/

 

Cote Brasserie

Best Part: The Surprisingly Mature Children’s Menu!

First off, apologies for the gap from the last review. Holidays do take there toll, but normal service will now be resumed.

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We visited Cote on a surprisingly sunny day in the summer holidays, after being turned away from a surprisingly busty Abagail’s Tea-room. It goes to show you can’t assume anything in St Albans, even on a Wednesday lunch-time. Anyway, I’m glad we were because Cote pleasantly surprised us in a number of ways.

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On entering I am always reminded of the building’s disreputable past as the Vintry, but it has well and truly put those days behind with smart and friendly staff guiding you through a slightly bland but certainly clean space. Mrs Midweek lunch calls it stylish rather than bland and she claims to know more about these things than I. As it was a sunny day we sat in the garden, before remembering we are British and therefore incapable of enjoying the sunshine and retreating inside to the air-conditioned cool. But it is a very nice garden, and by evening time would have been perfect, or raining.

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We were accompanied on the visit by our small family members, but the children’s menu was refreshingly different. There were some of the standards to keep them happy, with Sausage & Mash and Fish Fingers (sorry, “cod goujons”), but our boys were a bit more adventurous going for a Croque Monsieur and Roast Chicken Breast with Gratin Potatoes and Green Beans respectively. We were very proud. The elder one declared the sandwich “Stringy”, and seemed very happy, especially with his almost-genuine French fries.

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Younger child was very enamoured with his chicken breast. It was “better than he expected” (high praise) and the flavour was “Crunchy Spicy”. He enjoyed it so much that he insisted that everyone else try some, although as he is not naturally generous we had to assess it’s merits from the barest morsel. Having said that, his gratin was fair game as he decided it was yucky before trying it, as children are wont to do. When pressed to at least give it a go he selected an even smaller piece than his chicken gifts, but was screwing up his face before it even reached his mouth. Sorry, Cote, but even your fine gratin cannot overcome the fussiness of a 6 year old.

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As for the grown-ups, we ordered from the set menu (£10.95 for 2 courses). My chicken baguette with bacon and avocado was nice but maybe a trifle dry. The bread did not absorb the flavours and the fillings kept on slipping off it’s arid surface. The chips were good, though, and came with a mustardy dip that added some slight coherence to my sandwich.

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My wife had a summery goats cheese and pea risotto. At least, that’s what it was called on the menu. Certainly the main ingredients were as stated but it was a trifle too “soupy” for her liking. She prefers more texture  and less wetness in a risotto but of course Cote are French, not Italian so perhaps they got confused. The taste was good but looks and texture are also important so overall she was a bit disappointed.

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We also ordered some bread, which was nice. In fact we ended up fighting over the last piece. The French certainly know how to make bread!

For our second course we went for ice-cream (me) and sorbet (everyone else). Because there is no children’s dessert menu they all shared the sorbet between them, but they all seemed relatively satisfied, as was I with my lovely creamy ice cream that I shared with no-one. Although youngest did steal my brandy snap before I even noticed it was there. The sorbet was universally popular, though youngest child was convinced it was made with beer. Due to the fizziness, we assumed.

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Anyway, Cote might not be the first place that springs to mind for a family luncheon outing, and it isn’t the cheapest place around, but it is a nice change from endless pizza and pasta and the staff were lovely. For a similar sort of food experience you could try Brasserie Blanc but in our experience past and present we favour Cote. Yes on the whole it’s worth bearing in mind, or as the French say “Bearing in la mind”.

7/10

http://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/cote/restaurant/details/stalbanshttp://www.cote-restaurants.co.uk/cote/restaurant/details/stalbans

Thompson

Best Part: The magical wonderfulness!

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To celebrate the end of term and a recover from particularly tricksy week we decided to push the boat out and treat ourselves to a set lunch at Thompson’s (or for those who still refuse to call Snickers anything but Marathons, Darcy’s). This goes against our usual criteria of finding local venues that could lunch within a working lunch hour slot. This time we had to accept we would go over that hour. At Thompson’s service is not slow but you are treated gently and with respect. The serving team treated everyone there as important people celebrating an important occasion rather than rushing you through their system.

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Having said that, according to the website they offer an express lunch whereby they will turn you around in 45 minutes if you request it. We were not aware of this and so did not request it, but all in all it wasn’t much more than an hour. We maybe spent longer than needed in the bar considering the menu, considering the lunch options were limited to two per course, but it was a nice little moment of calm.
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The set lunch is not stupidly expensive, at £18.50 for two courses. We opted as we usually do for starters over desserts. The bread basket arrived first and was delightful as was the butter. I am a self confessed butter monster. My starter was a delicately presented tomato infused cous cous cake with flavoursome roasted vegetable and creamy goats cheese. It tasted exquisite especially the cous cous which can sometimes end up soggy.

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My husband went for some sort of terrine, it was a while ago so he couldn’t say with absolute certainty what had been terrined, probably some form of game. It was lovely, anyway, and accompanied by a broad bean salad that seemed to encapsulate the very essence of summer more even than a repetitive and ubiquitous Eurodance track.
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If Mr Midweek Lunch won the starter war I won the main course. I think it was sea bream in any case it was a perfectly cooked piece of white fish with sweet sea vegetables that set my taste buds a tingle. Wow. I haven’t had such a delicious and expertly presented and delivered meal for a long time.

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Much like the starter situation, with the mains my Husband was faced with the choice of duplicating my meal or going for the other meat-based option, and because we care deeply about getting the most varied and far-reaching review for you, dear reader, and because he is a gluttonous carnivore, he went for the pork belly. It was very nice, and expertly produced, but it was maybe a trifle heavy for the time of day and time of year. Still, a cut above most every other meal ever.

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The atmosphere was of the high class variety. We ate in the “conservatory” which unlike the one we used to have was a perfect temperature. The decor was smart (rather than trendy) grey with red tones in the entrance. Our fellow diners were older than us which was great because it made us feel affluent and cool young things. The waiting staff seemed to all be there because they love food and the gourmet industry rather than just wanting to earn money. I expect they appreciate getting paid though. We were happy to pay upper end prices because the food, service and atmosphere at Thompson’s is exemplary.

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To conclude we proclaim that it has given us the best St. Albans midweek lunch since our reviews began.

9/10

http://www.thompsonstalbans.co.uk/

Panko

Best Part: The Sorbet!

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It’s always nice to welcome someone new onto the St Albans dining scene. Whilst we have a couple of nice Japanese restaurants already (Kimaya and Wagamama), there is a gap left by the late lamented Sukiyaki so let’s all say hello to Panko. With a slick Tokyo-diner style and a small but interesting menu, we felt at home early on. The friendly waiter’s greeting only strengthened this feeling.

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As the place was empty when we entered, we got to sit by the window. Being on Holywell Hill this meant we mainly got to watch slightly grumpy drivers trying to not crash into the cars behind them. It also meant that if there was an old or sickly motor on the car outside then we got to experience the fumes, but we could’ve shut the door if we wanted and at other times the slight summer breeze was very welcome. We also felt that having such a glamourous couple dining at the front of the restaurant could only be good for Panko’s business, and everyone who did make it in that lunchtime was undoubtedly enticed in by the aspirational lifestyle that we represented.

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The menu as I say is fairly straightforward. Though there are starters and side dishes to flesh things out, effectively you can have a variety of meat/veggie options in one of three styles – Katsu curry, Tonkatsu and salad. Being an adventurous cove I went for the Tonkatsu in the suggested pork format, and was glad I did. I’m still not entirely sure of what Tonkatsu is, but I got an nice breaded escalope or similar accompanied by some sticky BBQ-like sauce and rice. Best of all, surprisingly, was the PANKO slaw (capitalisation is the restaurant’s own). As someone who detested school coleslaw so much I had convinced myself that I was allergic to it this was a nice burying of the hatchet between myself and shredded vegetables. They were varied, colourful and tasty, and offset the sticky breaded pork nicely.

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Midweek Lunch-Chan had the Tofu Katsu Curry, which was slaw-less. The tofu was presented as a rectangular pankoed (like a nicer bread-crumbing) slab in a very good Katsu sauce. It was topped with pickled ginger. As my wife loves picked ginger she would have preferred a bit more of it or perhaps some pickles too. Also just to nit-pick, it would have looked prettier if the tofu had been laid out in strips. However the point was that it tasted very good. We also suppose that it is more versatile to have a quirky slab which could be used in burger format too. This helps the service to be quick and certainly doesn’t inconvenience the diner in any way so why not!

We went for the lunch-deal, which is maybe on the higher end of reasonableness at £10 for a Katsu and soft drink. I ordered a ginger beer with my meal and was relieved when it arrived that it was in no way botanical or artisanal but a good old can of Old Jamaican. I’m not entirely sure how this is marked up to £2.50 normally, potentially this is the impact of the new sugar tax. At any rate it is definitely the best ginger beer, at least since Idris disappeared, so I hope Panko don’t succumb to the temptation to classy it up.

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We were digesting and admiring our meal as a solid high 7, when unexpectedly we were offered some complimentary sorbet. This was lovely, the taste of fresh berries closing off the meal in a light but refreshing way and by the time it was finished we were feeling well-disposed towards the restaurant, the traffic jam and just about everything else. The service throughout had been exemplary. Friendly without being overly familiar, attentive without being in your face and quick without being suspiciously microwaveably quick. The décor was stylish, though the large slab of plywood along one side made the whole place seem slightly unfinished, which to be fair it may be. The interesting light fittings more than made up for it anyway.

For the first time ever we were recognised as bloggers, though it had no impact on the service and they didn’t offer us any free stuff (bah). It’s a lovely place, anyway, and we have already recommended it to friends. We plan to visit again soon, and you should too!

8.2/10

http://pankodiner.com/#home