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Archive for July, 2007

Tortilla espanola at El Faro, Canary Wharf

The lunch options aren’t awful near my office, but they are severely limited. The Jubilee Place Mall complex at Canary Wharf is just chain after chain after chain. Pret can spice up my life only so much with the “sandwich of the week,” and even if I could stomach the “Super Salmon 3 Ways” sushi box at Itsu five days a week, my wallet would cry for mercy at spending £50 a week on ho-hum lunches.

What this means is that after almost two years of eating at the same big-chain places, I now try to bring my lunch to work. And when I do eat out, I try to make it a proper sit-down meal at a (non-chain) restaurant.

Exhibit A: Today, my friend Srishti and I had lunch at El Faro, a Spanish restaurant far (i.e., a 15-minute walk) from the homogenized world of Canary Wharf.  The restaurant is perched on one of the many waterways that snake through the Docklands, tucked away in the Harbour Exchange office complex. There are outdoor seats right next to the water, and the two-story interior is airy and large.

The service was attentive (key when you want to get in and out during a lunch break), and the tapas was, overall, very good.  The patatas bravas at El Faro are perfection itself. I hate to keep raving about the humble potato, but I can’t help being a sucker for crispy-on-the-outside, soft-and-sweet-on-the-inside potato dishes. The patatas bravas here are served with a creamy and strong garlic aoli, and the serving size is big enough to share four ways.

Pimientos del Padron, El Faro restaurant, Canary Wharf

Tortilla espanol (photo at top of post), pimientos del padron (photo above), and fried calamari rounded out my favorite tapas for being good examples of simply-prepared food made with quality ingredients.

Gambas al ajillo (shrimp in butter and garlic) were overcooked, which is a super disappointing waste of good, sweet shrimp. The coca con anchoas (anchovies and grilled vegetables on flatbread) was highly recommended by our server, but for £7.50 it was a total waste. The saltiness of the anchovies overwhelmed the grilled vegetables, and the flat bread was a thin cracker that turned soggy because everything was swimming in olive oil.

The bottom line is that El Faro is a nice place to sit on the rare sunny day, and if you stick with simple dishes, you should be all set on the food front. If you’re only two people, I’d order four tapas plates, at most. Srishti and I were dumb to order seven, which meant our tab unnecessarily hit £45. Most of the tapas dishes cost between £4 and £7.

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Chihuly sculpture V&A Great Hall

Every month, on the last Friday of the month, the Victoria & Albert museum is open until 10 pm and hosts live music and some type of themed event.

When Jon and I first moved to London, our corporate flat was a block from the South Kensington tube station, and I had a lot of free time on my hands. So, no surprise that I dropped by the (free) V&A museum pretty often. But since we’ve moved to Islington, I’ve been back to the V&A maybe twice at most, which is too bad because the V&A is uniquely eclectic in today’s world of highly-specialized major museums. It’s a jumble in there, united only by a theme of “design.”

Kimonos and medieval triptychs just down the hall from Italian Renaissance sculptures. That sort of thing.

Well, this past Friday, Jon and I decided to check out July’s “Friday Late” theme named “The 2007 Village Fete,” which took place outdoors in the V&A’s gorgeous John Madejski Garden. The idea is to enjoy some mild summer weather with a happy crowd while playing “village fair games” with a twist.

V&A Late Friday queue

First, we waited on an enormous ticket line for over an hour. We’d thought about giving up, but like the sheep we are, we reasoned that if the line was this long, it must be good. I amused myself by taking photos of people standing on line.

Much as I love the V&A Great Hall with its super-pretty-super-phallic Chihuly sculpture (photo at top), I was unamused by the hapless ticket people at the main desk. Five people at the desk and they can’t manage to figure out an efficient system to process ticket sales.

Once in the Garden, we were disappointed (though not surprised) that it started to rain. Too bad, because some of the games looked like fun. There was, for example, the “Inflate a Mate” stall, where you drew a picture of your friend on a balloon and then inflated it with helium. Or the British party staple, the tombola.So we gamely tried to have fun (after all, we’d waited on that huge line to get in, right?), but the rain and cold were too much. Plus, we were hungry. But where to eat in South Kensington that’s not a big chain or expensive-and-crappy?

Kulu Kulu conveyor belt South Kensington

Cue the Kulu Kulu conveyor belt sushi place near the South Ken station.Usually, for our conveyor-belt sushi fix, Jon and I end up at Itsu or Yo! Sushi, and even at those places, we never walk out without spending £40 together. But it turns out Kulu Kulu is really cheap. All the dishes passing by on the conveyor belt are priced between £1.80 and £3, which I contrast with Itsu or Yo!’s prices that can hit £6 per plate.

salmon avocado roll at Kulu Kulu South Kensington

There isn’t much variety offered, and the sushi chef can barely be bothered to tightly roll and slice the maki, but for honkin’ huge and fresh pieces of salmon, tuna and agedashi tofu, you can’t pay more than £3 per dish you pull off the conveyor belt.

So even though the dining room at Kulu Kulu’s South Kensington location is small and dated, the green tea is free, and we left with tummies full and just £30 poorer. Not bad.

I have to note that the threesome sitting to our right appeared to be a budget-conscious group of high-schoolers who repeatedly asked the servers how much each dish on the conveyor belt was. Of course, this being the UK, this same group didn’t think twice about ordering several bottles of wine despite avoiding any £3 dish like the plague. I thought that was entertaining, and I was glad we left before their drinking really got under way.

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Veeraswamy restaurant exterior, London

One of the many great things about living in London is the (for lack of a better phrase) Indian food. Jon and I eat a lot of it, and because of the large number of Indian restaurants in London, we’re lucky that the restaurants really run the gamut in price and quality (if only the same could be said of Italian food here). We’ve also learned that there are so many differences among Indian regions that the phrase ‘Indian food’ isn’t very meaningful, but I’m American, so I’ll stick with that label for now.

Jon and I have our favorite dives (Lahore Kebab House, New Tayyabs) and mid-rangers (Masala Zone, Vijay, Rasa), which I’ll motivate to post about the next time we visit any of them. But since we moved to London, we haven’t tried any of the high-end ones, mostly because the quality at the dives and mid-rangers is so good.

Well, on Friday night, we were walking along Piccadilly and passed Veeraswamy while on our way to Yoshino for sushi. It turned out Yoshino was closed (seriously, it was only 10 pm and they’re closed?!?) so we figured, why not give Veeraswamy a try. As tourists in London in February 2005, we’d loved our meal at Chutney Mary, and because Veeraswamy and Chutney Mary share an owner, we’d always meant to try Veeraswamy anyway.

Veeraswamy’s decor and prices put it in the category of high-end Indian restaurants. Appetizers are £6-10, and most mains are £15-25. Compared to, say, high-end French places in London, Veeraswamy’s prices aren’t eyewatering, but compared to prices at most Indian restaurants, Veeraswamy’s prices do make you think twice.

Well, I was glad that the food was very good, especially the main courses and breads. Our sides (saag, Mumbai dal) were kind of comme ci, comme ca, so I’ll skip them the next time around.

The service was friendly, but not super professional. For example, one waiter had to demonstrate to our waitress how to pour a glass of wine and twist the bottle to avoid drips, and nobody filled our water glasses during the hour and a half we were there. That sort of thing is amateur hour, especially at a pricey restaurant sporting the plush-carpet-chandelier look.paneer tikka at Veeraswamy

But back to the food. The paneer tikka (“grilled cheese”) was incredible. The cheese was creamy and firm like a good tofu with a pan-crisped exterior. Jon and I haven’t had paneer that good since eating in India.  Ours was served like a sandwich filled with something spicy and sweet, and we happily dipped our paneer in a yogurt-coriander sauce

main courses of Nihara lamb (from Lucknow) and Kerala chicken stew were also delicious. The lamb had been braised until it was tender and falling off the bone in an aromatic tomato-based (I think) sauce. I’m not a good enough Indian cook to identify all the spices in different sauces, but I’m enough of one to tell you that it’s hard to get all those dozens of spices to blend together in a flavor as smooth and rich as what was in my Nihara lamb.

appams at Veeraswamy restaurant, London

The Kerala chicken tasted like the perfect Malaysian dish – a blend of cultures. A little bit of spice, a little bit of sweetness (from the coconut milk). The chicken was tender breast meat, and the sauce was light but packed with delicate flavors. Two appams (rice flour pancakes – see photo above) arrived with our chicken, so we used the appams to scoop up as much sauce and chicken as we could and went to town

a bottle of a riesling (Blue Slate – way too sweet for me) and all the little extras (breads and rice, etc.), our tab for two came to £100 (£99.56 to be exact). Enough to have invited ten friends for a hefty dinner at the Lahore Kebab House, but then again, it’d be unfair to compare a bistro experience to eating at L’Astrance. So I guess I have to work harder to move past my food racism.

Overall, I’d love to go back to Veeraswamy, perhaps with ten friends in tow.

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Waterstone’s bookstore at Piccadilly Circus

Like millions of other people, I’m a fan of the Harry Potter books. I admit I gave some thought to whether or not to order it on-line at Amazon in time for Saturday delivery or perhaps to go to a bookstore at midnight to queue for one. But this mere pondering is where my fan-dom ends.

Jon and I were walking out of dinner this evening near Piccadilly, and we were stunned to see the enormous crowd gathered in front of the Waterstone’s near Piccadilly Circus. It looked like a pretty adult crowd (i.e., not too many kids in sight), and I loved all the singing and chanting the crowd threw out. All very festive, especially with all the silly costumes!

Islington Angel Borders Bookstore

Back in our neighborhood, we were even more stunned to see the queue wrapping around a large shopping mall anchored by a Borders. At least in Piccadilly Circus, you can understand the attraction (i.e., it’s an enormous flagship store in the middle of London’s version of Times Square). But at the Islington Angel Borders, you have to wonder why so many people would schlepp over at midnight.  A real testament to the Scholastic marketing juggernaut.

Anyway, no spoilers here, but I am definitely picking up a copy tomorrow, and after that, I can’t say never is forever. Besides, there are already spoilers available on-line, so what’s the harm of another?

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Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Because Jon and I rarely travel outside of London to see the rest of the UK, we’ve designated this summer the Summer of Britain (catchy, no?). As part of this exciting series, Jon and I spent 36 hours in Edinburgh this past weekend.

It’s a one-hour flight from London to Edinburgh, and the Edinburgh airport is just a 30-minute, £3 bus ride into the city centre. (Due to a forgot-our-passports- in-the- hotel-safe incident, we also discovered that it’s a 15-minute, £25 taxi ride into the city centre. Those of you who know me well understand how much it kills me to take a taxi, so clearly this was an incident of emergency proportions.)

Edinburgh, like many European cities, has an Old Town and a New Town. Everything is relative, of course, and the “New” Town is a youthful 300 years old, whereas the Old Town dates back to the 11th century, when Edinburgh Castle (see photo at top of this post) was built.

Because most of the interesting restaurants and shops we’d researched are located in the New Town, I prefer it to the Old Town, even though the Castle and the Royal Mile (i.e., the Big Tourist Attractions) are in the Old Town.

Our weekend was a relaxing mix of eating and walking around, with a Castle thrown in. In many ways, Edinburgh is like London Lite. There are the same restaurant and shop chains; same currency; same language. But of course there are also “we are a separate country” quirks. The currency may be the Great British Pound, but local banks print their own legal tender “Scottish Pound” notes. Scots speak, you know, Scots. Pub chalkboards advertise “haggis, neeps and tatties” instead of fish and chips. The list of these small differences is endless, and the gist is that I can see why Scots still believe they live in a separate country.

Le Monde Hotel, Milan Bar, EdinburghJon and I stayed in a boutique hotel called Le Monde, which is in the New Town. You couldn’t beat the location on George Street, close to Multrees Walk (yay Harvey Nicks!) and a 10-minute walk from the Castle, and you certainly couldn’t beat the service and style.

Even after we’d booked at Le Monde because of rave reviews on TripAdvisor, we were a little concerned about the hotel’s “around the world” theme (i.e., there are 18 rooms, each named after and decorated in the style of a different world city). But I forgave any cheesiness immediately upon sinking into our room’s feather bed and turning on the giant flat screen TV. And of course I have to mention that the hotel was incredibly helpful when we realized we’d left our passports in the room safe. Two thumbs up.

Anyway, on to Things to Do and Things to Eat:

Thinking that most shops would be closed on a Sunday, we decided to “save” the obligatory Edinburgh Castle visit for Sunday, so we spent Saturday exploring Old Town and the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market.

The Crisp Hut, Edinburgh Farmer’s Market

First, the Farmer’s Market. It’s a 100-yard lineup of uniform-looking stalls on a road below Edinburgh Castle called “Castle Terrace.” I was disappointed that there wasn’t much produce on offer. It is summertime, after all. And while the uniform awnings keep the market tidy-looking, it seems wrong to have a farmer’s market look so antiseptic. But I perked up when I saw “the Crisp Hut.” My kind of vendor. Freshly-fried potato chips flavoured any way you like for £2 a bag. Most excellent. I think every farmer’s market should have one!

Second, the Royal Mile. The main Old Town drag is the Royal Mile, which was built 900 years ago to connect Holyrood House (the Queen’s stopover when she travels from Windsor to Balmoral castles) and the Edinburgh Castle (among other things, the birthplace of King James I).

If you’re thinking the Royal Mile is a tasteful, sedate little road, you’re sadly mistaken. Although the road is cobblestone and lined with imposing stone buildings, it’s chock a block with tourist traps and souvenir shops. Take, for example, the “Scotch Whisky Experience,” where, for £9, you can get in a plastic barrel ride that takes you through the history of whisky making through the ages. Hmm, no thanks.

Up the street from the Whisky Experience, Jon and I ducked past the Bravehart look-alike (you know, you snap a photo and then you give him a pound for the privilege) and into one building that advertised demonstrations of Scottish wool making. As we suspected, the place was a most entertaining example of tourist retail masquerading as an educational experience.

Creepy Kilt Mannequins, Edinburgh

I followed a path designated by arrows through racks of overpriced wool and cashmere goods (many in plaid, obviously), and every now and then, I’d pass a scary plastic mannequin posed over an old-fashioned loom (the “educational” part, I suppose). By staying on the path, I eventually hit the tourist schlock jackpot: for just £20, you could have your photo taken in “ancient Scottish costume,” and if you opted out, you were still in for a treat because the nook behind the photo studio included a “history of kilts” exhibition that consisted of the world’s scariest-looking mannequins in variations of the kilt through time.

I honestly enjoyed all the unadulterated schlock in the Old Town. Even the Castle, while impressive and historic, had its moments, particularly when the audiotour got in on the act. The narrator informed me that in addition to the Castle’s role in the drama triangle of Mary Queen of Scots-Elizabeth I-James I, there were many locations within the Castle walls where I might pick up a Castle souvenir.

I mean, we’re not talking about one tourist shop housed in converted stables (as is usual at castles, it seems). We’re talking about a tourist shop located in seemingly every free-standing building throughout the castle grounds. How many key chains, cheap scotch whisky and shortbread can one tourist site push? Tons, I guess.

The one last thing I’ll add about the Castle is how dinky the Scottish Honour (i.e., the Scottish Crown Jewels) are. If you’ve seen the stash at the Tower of London, you’ll understand the disappointment of seeing a single crown with pearls (we all know pearls ain’t no diamonds on the bling scale) and a necklace or two.

In any case, the Castle was definitely the highlight in terms of big “sights” in Edinburgh, and otherwise, Jon and I did a lot of wandering down small alleys between buildings (called “closes”) and shopped at the same shops that are in London.

Which brings me to my favorite activity, of course: Eating.

Generally, service was friendly and attentive at every place we ate in Edinburgh. Food was good only when we stuck with seafood. Otherwise, I’d say most dishes sounded a lot nicer on the menu than they tasted.

We have to admit, we were a little too London-centric and couldn’t conceive of having to make any reservations in advance, but trying to get reservations at Martin Wishart taught us a lesson: there are, in fact, highly-reputable Edinburgh restos that require advance booking.

Centotre Restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland

Centotre is an Italian place we tried because it’s housed in a converted bank, and I love those kinds of places. Remember the Blue Water Grill? I’m never disappointed by the high ceilings, the dramatic dome, the vaguely neoclassical look inside. Centotre had all these, but the greenish lighting kind of threw me, as did the generic-looking hangings that looked like the sort of thing a museum would hang to advertise its latest exhibition.

The food at Centotre was, overall, not worth the prices (which weren’t even high). Jon’s polpette (i.e., meatballs) were dry and flavourless in a way that no amount of overly-acidic tomato sauce could mask. And the Manzoni Moscato rose prosecco was digustingly syrupy despite the menu description that it’d be “medium dry.” At £5.50 a glass, we were outraged. (OK, fine, our fault for thinking a rose prosecco might be good, but I suppose we were spoiled by all our fantastic rose champagnes in France).

The only high point in our £80 meal at Centotre was my spaghetti alle vongole. I’ve never eaten such plump, juicy clams, which tipped us off to the idea that we should stick with seafood in Edinburgh.

Fishers in the City restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland

Our stand-out meal of the weekend was lunch at Fisher’s in the City. Seafood, of course. A nice, casual-elegant interior. Fresh seafood well prepared at good prices (£12-20 per main course). Nothing super creative, but I don’t think you need to be creative when creamy fish chowder is surprisingly light and flavourful and a gazllion steamed mussels arrive with nary a closed shell in sight. And service was incredibly friendly and attentive, which is a real treat in the UK.

Other places that seemed worth stopping by for a good snack or a quick lunch:

Valvona & Crolla, a Dean & Deluca-type place located on Multree’s Walk, was perfect for delicious pastries and strong cappuccinos when we got tired of shopping. Multree’s Walk is a new-looking open-air shopping complex that’s anchored by Louis Vouie and Harvey Nicks, so I’m not surprised Valvona & Crolla includes both a sophisticated café downstairs and a fancier restaurant upstairs. The owners also own Centotre.

Has Beans Cafe, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Has Beans Café is a cheerful, crunchy-looking (think whimsical, mismatched teapots for décor) organic place on the Royal Mile. It was the least touristy place we could find when looking for a lunch break. Wraps and sandwiches for £3-5, but what stole the show for me was a delicious lentil soup.

Overall, Edinburgh was a small, pretty city, but I don’t think I’d make it another destination trip unless it’s time for the Festival. Its charms (history, scenic streets, a few nice restaurants and cafes) are ones I can also find in London, but I do think the place would make an excellent home base for exploring what I hear is the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

29 July 2007 Update: Check out this weekend’s New York Times Travel section article, “36 Hours in Edinburgh.” I agree that George Street is the place to be and that the Castle is worth a visit, and that’s all the overlap we have.

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Thai An Grocery Islington

I was beginning to worry that my blog was moving away from all things food and travel and towards sports, what with Ascot and Wimbledon and then the part of my weekend spent watching the Tour de France time trials in Hyde Park.

Oh, and did I mention that Tom outdid himself by getting his hands on two tickets to the Women’s Final and Federer’s semi-final match on Saturday?

Despite all this sports fabulousness, what I really want to share is Jon and my discovery of the Thai-An Grocery off Chapel Market in Islington.

What’s so noteworthy about the Thai-An Grocery? I thought you’d never ask!

Normally, Jon and I buy 10kg (22.2 lbs) bags of jasmine rice in Chinatown. What this means is that whenever we want to re-stock up on rice, Jon slings this heavy, large bag of rice on his back and schlepps it through the hordes of tourists in Leicester Square, onto the tube, and then to our place in Islington.

With the discovery of Thai-An, a clean and organized Asian food store here in our neighborhood, Jon and I can now walk a few minutes to Chapel Market to pick up all the Asian basics in a pinch: fresh tofu, Thai eggplants, bean sprouts, sushi nori, frozen xiao long bao, and varieties of soy sauce in sizes much larger than the piddly condiment size stocked at our Sainsbury’s. And as Jon will tell you, the best part about Thai-An is that now when he has to lug 10kg of rice around, he doesn’t have to contend with crowds and a tube ride.

Chapel Market, by the way, is a daily outdoor market near Angel tube station that makes up for its extreme unattractiveness by selling useful goodies like rolls of garbage bags for a pound. Because the vendors sell such random, prosaic items, it’s never going to be a tourist attraction. And that’s the way I like it.

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Nadal in Action on Day 10, Wimbledon

Tom got Jon and me tickets to Wimbledon today, and after arriving at the All-England Club at 11 am with Tom, I immediately headed to Court 2, where Rafael Nadal was playing Mikhail Youzhny. Apparently Court 2 is known as the Graveyard of Champions because of all the upsets that have happened there, and for the first two sets today, I felt sure I was witnessing another one unfold as Youzhny kicked Nadal’s ass, 6-4, 6-3.

Even though I don’t follow tennis at all, I knew there was something rather odd about a fourth-round game between the Number 2 and Number 14 taking place on Court 2. And I also know I wasn’t the only one who wondered why they weren’t playing on the larger and fancier Court 1 or Centre Court.

The rumor is that the All-England Club didn’t take too kindly to Nadal’s critique yesterday of the Club’s decision not to allow play this past Sunday despite all the rain-caused delays. So I guess if you open your big mouth, you end up playing at the Graveyard.

Well, it turns out Court 2 was no Graveyard today, and in fact, it had a lot going for it. Because it’s so small, every spectator has a great seat (see my photo at the top of this post). Yours truly sat in seat D20, meaning I was four rows back from the court, right behind the press photographers. Brilliant!

From the players’ point of view, you don’t end up with depressing pockets of empty seats caused by, for example, corporate guests who don’t bother showing up or who leave early (although one jackass in my row kept talking into his Blackberry despite the announcement to turn off cell phones – and do you really even need an announcement?).

Everyone in little ol’ Court 2 was excited to be there, and the few seats that opened up during the 3-hour match were immediately filled in under the efficient instructions of the “Volunteer Wardens.”

Nadal serves, Day 10, WimbledonIn any case, I’m no sports writer, so you can read all about the details of the exciting match elsewhere. The summary is that Nadal came blazing back to win the next three sets, which is a testament to both Nadal’s great playing and a sudden drop in Youzhny’s. Apparently, Youzhny’s back pain kicked in after the second set, as his trainers were on the court between games doing to Youzhny what I imagine chiropractors do.

I loved everything about watching the match live – hearing the players’ every word (Nadal favors “si!” when he’s happy with his play), watching their expressions and quirks (yes, Nadal does touch his socks and carefully arrange his water bottles), admiring the precision and obvious training of the judges and ball boys and girls, and getting carried away by the crowd’s excitement.

When the match hit Set 5, the crowd’s mood, always attentive, suddenly turned enthusiastic and loud. Chanting, clapping and hooting replaced genteel clapping. As the British woman next to me said: “It’s like we’ve become an American audience.”

Rain was always a threat during the match, and at one point, everyone put up their umbrellas, anxiously hoping that play would continue. And it did, much to the happiness of everyone, including the players.

After the match, the drizzling started up again, and then it became heavier. There aren’t many places to take cover, but luckily Tom had magically obtained “Press Centre Guest” bracelets for Jon and me, which allowed us to hang out in (you guessed it) the Press Centre.

Press Centre Restaurant, Wimbledon

Although the food was incredibly lousy and expensive at the Press Centre Restaurant, Jon and I whiled away many an hour there, enjoying the views of Henman Hill while hoping the rain would end. We did, after all, obtain “resale” tickets to Centre Court, where Roger Federer had just started his first set against Juan Carlos Ferrero.

I do appreciate how well Wimbledon handles rain, all things considered. The courts are not only covered by plastic tarps, but also the tarps are inflated from beneath so that they take on a rounded shape, which leads water to run down the sides, rather than collect in the middle. Clever, no?

Court 14 Cover and Henman Hill, Wimbledon

Alas, the rains stuck around, and at 7:30 pm, play was officially ended for the day. Jon and I took one last look around an empty and covered Centre Court (see below), and home we went. I suppose you can’t hope to see both Nadal and Federer on the same day, unless they’re playing each other, that is.

Centre Court in the rain, Wimbledon 2007

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I couldn’t resist: Happy 4th of July to all my American readers!

I spent my Independence Day at work, trading jokes with Brits about how things went completely downhill for them after 1776. Not very original. Actually, not very funny, either. But a nice change from talking about the weather (which really has been rubbish, by the way).

Envious of reports coming back from the U.S. about barbecues, fireworks and summer weather, I still managed to enjoy myself today.First, several coworkers and I met a former colleague (wow, I’ve been here long enough to have former colleagues) at a Keralan restaurant near Oxford Circus. The place was a true dive, right down to the dirty, unattractive bathroom in the basement. How do I know it was Keralan cuisine? Well, it just so happens the place is named “The Keralan Restaurant.”

I’d stop by only if I were on Oxford Street and craved dosas, which were pretty tasty at the restaurant – a crisp crepe outside and a tasty mushy potato inside. The parathas were also good, reminding me of the best type of oily, hot bread you get when you order roti canai at a Malaysian place. The other seven or eight dishes I tried were so-so. Probably more appealing are the 1L-size bottles of Kingfisher available. Total tab for lots of food and drinks was £24 per person.

After dinner, I hopped on the Victoria Line back to my neighborhood and met Jon and our some of American friends for drinks at Desperados. We couldn’t think of anything more American than Tex-Mex, so margaritas it was at £17 per pitcher. Good times.

The decor is total kitsch, but what puts Desperados on the map is the fact that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown struck their infamous deal inside this very restaurant. Obviously nothing could be more July 4th than dinner at an Indian restaurant followed by drinks at a sub-par Mexican restaurant.

And what could make me more proud to be an American than I already am? Definitely the news that an American 23-year-old beat Kobayashi in today’s annual Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest.

Happy 4th!

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Yauatcha exterior, 15 Broadwick Street

Our friend Tom Perrotta has been staying with us for the past week. Tom is a journalist who covers tennis for the New York Sun, and he’s here to write witty and smart articles about Wimbledon for said newspaper.

Because Tom’s working day and night, it’s rare that Jon and I can take Tom out for fun and games in London, but yesterday, we were able to round up a group of what can only be called Tom’s peeps (his brother-in-law, Eric, and his friends from NY, Dave and Sharon) for dinner at Yauatcha followed by drinks at a great late-night pub, the Angelic.

Yauatcha is what you’d get if Hakkasan served only dim sum, which isn’t surprising given that both restaurants are owned by Alan Yau. Both have high-style, underground interiors designed by Christian Liagre, and both serve very fresh food made from quality ingredients. I love hole-in-the-wall dim sum, but it’s nice to know that the pork in the shu mai is really pork, instead of a mysterious composite meat. The restaurant is packed and the food is still good, despite its having been open for three years now.

Yauatcha feels a little factory-like with its strict cancellation fee calculated at £20 per person and an enforced 90-minute limit on how long you have your table. But given the quality of the dim sum and the sexiness of the decor and crowd, it’s hard to resist eating there more than once. We waited outside for a while for our table despite having made a reservation, but standing next to Kiefer Sutherland and his friends made the wait outside kind of a plus. (For me to spot a celebrity, he/she would have to introduce himself and show me ID, so good thing Tom and his friends were more alert than I am).

Once inside, the noise level was high, but not deafening, and the food ranged from good (e.g., chive dumplings) to creative and fantastic (scallop shu mai). The seafood-based and tofu-based dishes were my favorites. Scallops and prawns were always sweet and firm, and even the shanghai soup dumplings had a hint of crab to them, the way I used to order them at Joe’s Shanghai in NY.

Almond prawn deserves special mention because I loved how it was fried in a ribbon-like shell of what must have been a flat pasta, so that was a super-attractive and delicious dish

Service was friendly enough, though the servers looked so harried that we almost felt bad about trying to get someone’s attention to, say, order more wine. It’s amazing the restaurant can actually get people in and out in 90 minutes given the appearance of frenzied chaos in the dining room. Generally, restaurants in London staff very leanly when compared to restaurants back in the US, and while I understand that restaurants would like to keep costs low, I think having a better ratio of staff to customers would improve everyone’s lives.

In any event, our party of six ordered 13 dim sum plates and two main course plates. Even including three bottles of a light, floral gewurztraminer, our tab totaled £38 a person. It’s expensive for dim sum, but good value for the food and decor.

Because last night was the end of an era, after dinner, our friends joined many other pub patrons in a last smoke before midnight. Then, at 11:30 pm, when most pubs close, we left the madness of SoHo for the late-night comforts of the Angelic, back in our own neighborhood. It’s really too bad that even with a late-night license, pubs close at 1:30, but we continued the party back at our place, so it was a good time anyway.

Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0DL; 0207 494 8888; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus

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