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Archive for March, 2007

Hache Burger Restaurant, exterior

Do I ever miss the US? Of course.One thing that helps ease the pain is Hache Burger Connoisseurs , near Camden tube station.

When Jon and I made our first trip to Hache, we were freaked out by the crowds of Goth-punk-teens hanging out near the Camden Market. But the burgers at Hache are so juicy, the room so cozy and shabby-chic, and the prices so reasonable, we keep going back for more. The French angle (i.e., the restaurant name, the servers with the French accents) throws us off a little, but I suppose high-quality ground beef spans all cultures.I am favorably biased towards places that specialize, and at Hache, the focus on burgers pays off.

The menu offers several burger “flavors” (which basically means the toppings are different), and from sampling the burgers ordered by various friends we’ve gone with to Hache, I think all the burger flavors are good. That said, I always stick with the “au naturel” burger, which means the rich flavor of the unadorned meat gets a chance to shine.

The chips are usually crispy and hot (there have been a few misses in the past), and the onion rings are lightly-battered and made from real onions (not always a given these days).Hache Restaurant, InteriorThe dining room is quaint enough for a quiet date and large enough for big groups of friends. I’m a fan of Hache.

Hache Burgers on Urbanspoon

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Up until this week, I had no need to try out the British healthcare system. But then I sprained my ankle, which made me think perhaps it was time to visit my local General Practitioner (GP).

In the UK, the NHS is the agency that oversees the comprehensive and (largely) free public healthcare system. The obvious big plus is that everyone, rich or poor, can access medical care. The big minus is that the process of getting an appointment can be long and painful, and as in the US, no patient wants to resort to going to Casualty (the ER).

When we moved to our neighborhood, we knew from word of mouth that we should “register” with our local GP’s office. That’s the way it works – new neighborhood, new GP. No shopping around through all the doctors available in your healthcare plan (a la US private healthcare).

What I learned this week is that there are two ways to get an appointment with your local GP: (1) you call up whenever you want and see when the next available appointment is (usually a week away); or (2) you call up the day you want to go at either 8:30 am or 2 pm for the few spots that are set aside each day for “day of” appointments.

I worked from home today, hoping to use Option #2 in order to get some immediate advice on how best to treat my sprain, which wasn’t really getting better despite ice and ibuprofen.

At 8:15 am, I started the redial game. It was like trying to get a reservation at Per Se before they’d opened! Busy signal-redial-busy signal-redial.

At 9 am, I finally got through, and of course all the walk-in morning slots were booked. The GP office told me to try again at 2 pm for an afternoon slot.

2 pm saw pretty much the same pattern as at 8:15 am. I ended up making a “regular” appointment for next Monday, at which point my ankle will probably have healed or ballooned into something nasty and crying out for Casualty.

My experience has not been the most impressive, I think.

I asked the local pharmacist at Boots where I could find naproxen (sold as Aleve in the US). Alas, naproxen is a prescription-only medicine in the UK. That’s kind of sad to hear considering how risk-averse I have (until now) considered the FDA. Who knew naproxen was that powerful that only a doctor can prescribe it?

Anyway, I’m limping a little less as the days go by, and Jon is going to be my mule and bring back some Aleve from the US this weekend.

All things considered, I hope I don’t ever really need to use the British healthcare system, because my choices will then be to wait a week to see a doctor, spend a day watching nasty trauma cases rush ahead of me at the ER triage, or pay a lot of money out of pocket to see a private doctor.

As a big John Rawls fan, I support and respect a universal healthcare system, but as someone lucky enough to have had private health insurance in the US, I’ve got to admit that universal healthcare (as practiced in the UK) is a definite step down. Theory colliding with reality once again. Do you choose equality over a possibility for higher-quality service? I suppose you don’t if you’re likely to be among the lucky ones who can get the higher-quality service in a less-equal world.

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Ring of Kerry Map

The (distant) second-best option to being out in the pubs today, St. Patrick’s Day, is to remember a 36-hour trip Jon and I made to southwest Ireland in November 2005. So here’s my tribute to St. Patrick:

We arrived on a Saturday morning at Cork Airport, got a snazzy green stamp in our passports (notable because all other EU countries have a boring, standardized stamp now), paid our 85 euros for an automatic transmission, right-hand drive Nissan, and after 20 minutes on the road, arrived in Kinsale, a town that is reported to be the Gourmet Capital of Ireland.

Kinsale has a harbor packed with sailboats and a waterfront of quaint, multi-colored buildings. The well-maintained, winding, cobblestone streets put the finishing touches on what, if there were such a thing as a Central Casting for Scenes, would be the place to go when your script calls for a picturesque fishing village.

The Old Presbytery B&B, where we stayed, is a converted townhouse that’s centrally located so we could walk around Kinsale without our car — a huge plus given that picturesque cobblestone streets make for unpleasant driving. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and Jon and I particularly liked the ways in which the Old Presbytery was more like an inn than a B&B. We came and went as we liked ,and even at breakfast the next day, there was no enforced socializing. Each room had its own table in the B&B’s small dining room, so we felt like we were eating at a restaurant, rather than in someone’s home.

Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale, IrelandEven though we were in Kinsale during the low tourist season (it’s kind of chilly in late November), the line was out the door when we arrrived at the Fishy Fishy Cafe for a late (2:30 pm) lunch. To us, the line at that hour and at that time of year meant that a lot of locals were eating at the cafe, so we waited another 45 minutes for an *outdoor* table. We were so glad we’d made the effort!

As you probably guessed from the name of the restaurant, the Cafe specializes in seafood. I started with the best calamari salad of my life. The rings of fried calamari were barely breaded, but enough so to add crunch, and the fresh sweetness of the calamari blended with the lightly-dressed greens. My steamed mussels in a wine, cream and basil sauce warmed me right up, and there was not a runty, dead mussel in sight. Every one was plump and juicy. I can’t even remember what Jon ate because my food was so good. And the best part is that with two glasses of wine and tip, our total for this simple, fresh and delicious meal was 65 euros.

Despite our experience of waiting forever for lunch at the Cafe, we failed to learn our lesson and remained a little too confident about being in Kinsale during low season. So we made the mistake of not calling to make reservations for dinner, despite the fact that it was a Saturday night.

Instead of eating at Crackpots or the Blue Haven (both highly recommended by friends and of course fully booked on that Saturday), we wandered aimlessly through town until we settled on a stylish-looking, somewhat-full restaurant called Le Bistro. Just from looking at the menu, we could tell the meal would be a mistake (e.g., what’s nasi goreng doing on the menu, and why is it 16 euros?), so all I can say is the menu had no focus and the food was bland. It’s clear the Gourmet Capital of Ireland has its share of tourist traps, and we were the suckers that night.

Luckily, tomorrow is another day, and after an artery-clogging breakfast (think English fry-up Muckross House, Killarney, Irelandwith soda bread) at the Old Presbytery, Jon and I hopped in our car and headed northwest for Killarney. Killarney is where we started the 110-mile driving loop in southwest Ireland known as the Ring of Kerry. As you drive around the Ring of Kerry, you see a lot of “sights” like the unfortunately-named-but-gorgeous Muckross House (click photo at right), as well as a lot of ancient, weatherbeaten churches and herds of sheep and cows.

View of Muckross Lake from Muckross HouseBy European standards, the Muckross House is a new home (built in the 1800s), so while Jon and I thought the house was pretty, it didn’t have enough historical draw for us to spend time and money to tour the interior. The grounds were the thing to see, so we spent a half hour wandering a wide, perfectly-manicured lawn that stretched out to the shores of the aptly-named Muckross Lake. The setting was begging for ladies in white carrying parasols, and of course it also needed Henry James observing from a window.

Moving clockwise around the Ring, we drove another 20 miles to Kenmare, which seemed a little less quaint and more yuppie than, say, Kinsale. There were a lot of small shops, coffee places and small department stores that I would imagine serve local residents in addition to visiting tourists. We stopped for a quick lunch and some shopping, and we continued our breakneck drive around the Ring.

While Jon and I encountered no traffic beyond the occasional sheep or cow herd, I can imagine that during high season, it wouldn’t take much to create a traffic jam of colossal proportions. I don’t know how a tour bus would even fit on parts of the Ring, especially because even though it’s technically a two-way road, in parts there was barely enough room for just our one car.

Church along the Ring of Kerry

Sunset over the Atlantic, Ring of Kerry

Our favorite parts of the drive were the lonely old churches on the side of the road and watching the sun set over the Atlantic coast from the southernmost part of the Ring. The towns we passed through – Sneem, for example – were smaller versions of already-small-and-charming Killarney and Kenmare. So if ruins, coastal views, livestock and grand houses are your thing, get thee to the Ring of Kerry.

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crispy Beijing-style pork dumplings

Things I hate about London Chinatown:

1. The ten thousand bajillion tourists there. What are they there to see, exactly? Have they never seen Chinese people? Seriously, I hate going to Chinatown and feeling like I’m part of the scenery.

2. The many crappy and overpriced restaurants that cater to Point Number One above.Things I love about London Chinatown (and that outweigh the things I hate):1. Chinese groceries in Chinatown are awesome. Loon FungLoon Fung supermarket Supermarket, the biggest one, sells 22-pound bags of Jasmine rice, ten thousand brands of soy sauce, super-convenient frozen dumplings (the “Beijing Brand” pork-and-chive deserves special mention) and stocks “Great Wall of China” wines (I’ll let you know if I ever screw up the courage to give it a go).

On top of all this greatness, you can also pick up Skippy peanut butter at about half the price of the going rate at an “American” section in mainstream London supermarkets. Chinese wine and Skippy peanut butter – clearly, Loon Fong is my kind of place.

2. The bah tzang bah tzang or zongzi for sale on Gerrard Streetlady who shows up in the evenings and parks herself and her homemade wares on the doorstep of Ladbrokes (a betting chain) next door to the Loon Fung.

What’s a bah tsang? See photo at left. It’s a portable meal. Sticky rice and a variety of fillings (fillings depend on what part of China you’re in or from) get wrapped up in bamboo leaf, tied with a string, and steamed. When you want to eat it, you can eat it cold or re-steam the whole thing and voila, you have a hot, tasty meal that doesn’t even require a plate or fork. It’s a Chinese tamale, really.

The bah tzang lady sells fresh, simple, homemade ones filled with pork and egg for £1 each, and sometimes she’s accompanied by a woman who sells homemade sesame candy that looks tasty, too.

3. Chinese Experience (118 Shaftesbury Avenue) restaurant for unusual, creative, fresh dim sum and Royal Dragon (30 Gerrard Street) restaurant for traditional, but also fresh dim sum. Alas, be warned that the vast majority of dim sum places in London don’t do the carts. It’s all about ticking boxes off on a form listing all your dim sum options.

Our favorites at the Chinese Experience restaurant include the crispy turnip cake served Singapore-style and the crispy Beijing-style dumplings with sesame (see photo at the top of this post). Shanghai soup dumpling at Chinese ExperienceThat said, the biggest draw of Chinese Experience are the decent xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumplings (see photo at right) that I’ve craved since the days when I could drop by Joe’s Shanghai at my leisure.

The Chinese Experience version is good because the skin is thin but also sturdy so the soup doesn’t leak out, and the pork filling and soup are flavorful, though it lacks the zing that thrilled at Joe’s or Din Tai Fung in Taipei.

Still, It’s the best in quality/price we’ve found so far in London. (The nearby ECapital Shanghai restaurant also serves them, but they’re pricier and have a subpar thick skin; Royal China Club and Yauatcha serve good ones, but they’re expensive enough that you don’t want to pop by too often).

And that’s my two cents’ on London Chinatown. If anyone reading this post wants to recommend additional sources of xiao long bao in London, I’m all ears!
Chinese Experience on Urbanspoon

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Daffodils at Holland Park, London

Today, we had sunshine, blue skies and warmth. What a treat to leave our umbrellas at home, at last.

Jon and I celebrated the spring weather by making our first trip, ever, to Holland Park. The park is a mix of manicured grounds, sports fields and woodsy paths. Something for everyone, and today, it seemed everyone was there enjoying the day.

Kyoto Garden, Holland Park, LondonDisappointingly, the park’s resident peacocks were hiding away (probably to avoid the occasional visitor who throws things at them to scare them into showing their feathers), but the perfectly-maintained Kyoto Garden, the gurgle of the fountains in the sculpture garden, and the gazillions of nodding daffodils kept us happy.

So we wandered and then basked in the sun reading books.

Here’s to spring.

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Blossom Chandelier, Form, London

Jon and I spent part of our Sunday browsing the FORM show at the Olympia exhibition center (think the Javits Center, divided in size by twenty and plus a lot more charm).

According to the brochures, FORM is where modern artists, designers, photographers and sculptors show their stuff and sell their wares. It’s £15 a ticket to get in for the privilege of buying expensive goodies, which is about £15 more than we’d normally spend to check out pricy art for sale, but we got the tix for free. Which is why we dropped by. Which means the organizers’ intention to keep out the riffraff failed this time!

We were mildly amused when the security guard checking bags at the entrance pulled out from Jon’s bag a pizza cutter that we’d forgotten we had (don’t ask). The guard asked us what it was; we told him it was a pizza cutter; he nodded; and off we continued, into the exhibition center. The guiding principle of this exchange appears to be that if you can identify the weapon, it’s safe.

Luckily, as much as we enjoyed the idea of slashing modern artwork with a pizza cutter, we refrained and instead enjoyed playing “guess how much that is.” We’re very cultured this way.

So, let’s see how good you are. Guess how much the following item costs (and yes, it’s a chair made out of stuffed animal alligators):

Alligator chair at Form, London

If you guessed $32,000, you’d be right! Good work.

To be fair, there were some truly gorgeous items for sale, like the “blossom” chandelier by Tord Boontje (see photo at top). It’s made of Swarovski crystals and for $34,000, it, too, can be yours.

Well, to the lucky ducks out there buying blossom chandeliers and stuffed animal alligator chairs, I ask you: why aren’t we friends?

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Tex Mex Tapas Bar in Notting Hill

Despite the rain and the gloom today (as well as the suspension of services on the ever-frustrating Circle Line), Jon and I traveled west to visit our friends and have dinner in Notting Hill, where neither our friends nor we live.

So, then, why the schlepp to Notting Hill?  Well, it just so happens that our friends have a discovery on their hands.

The Tequila Tex Mex Tapas Bar (19 Notting Hill Gate) sets off all kinds of warning bells to stay away.Interior of Tequila Tex Mex

First, what does Tex Mex have to do with tapas? Second, what’s with the flashing multi-colored Christmas lights and cheesy sombrero-strewn decor? Third, why does the menu offer (in addition to quesadillas and assorted tapas dishes) couscous?

Sometimes, though, you have to throw caution to the wind, ignore all the warning signs, and go with the flow. At the Tequila Tex Mex Tapas Bar, our servers were friendly and attentive, the decor took on a friendly, warm glow, and the food was fresh and flavorful.

It’s true that tex-mex food is nothing fancy (this place is a far cry from the “real” Mexican food that Green and Red aspires to), but then again, we’ve been burned enough times by bad tex-mex that to eat something well-prepared and simple is something to crow about.

We started with barbecued ribs, which were sweet and spicy and eminently chompable, though if it were up to me, I’d cook them just a little bit longer to reach falling-off-the-bone status. Serious Nachos at the Tequila Tex Mex

A monster-high pile of layered cheese, braised beef, sour cream, chili peppers and crispy, you-can-taste-the-corn nachos made for a serious appetizer. Undeterred by the size of said dish, the four of us polished everything off in about ten minutes.

Honestly, we could (should) have stopped eating after the nachos, but the siren call of the enchiladas lured us in for more. The four of us shared an order of beef enchiladas and another of chicken enchiladas. The flour tortillas were soft and chewy; the fillings were braised and savory; the sides of rice and beans was home-made-and-fresh-tasting.All this tasty food and our tab was about £15 a person (though keep in mind it was not a drinking night). We will definitely be back, and cheers to Cathy and Bobby on a restaurant well found.

14 March 2007 Update: I went back for dinner and drinks, and the service was still friendly, but slow and disorganized. My friend Jill and I had to ask repeatedly for basics like water and the bill, which was annoying. I think the drop in service compared to my last visit was because the owner wasn’t around. The margaritas were large, but too sticky from the margarita mix, and the “regular” nacho appetizer was made of cheese-flavored Doritos. Not at all like the “grande” nachos I’d a few weeks ago with Cathy and Bobby. The enchiladas and burrito were still good, so I’d say this trip was a mixed bag.

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