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Archive for August, 2007

Pan y Fan mountain in Brecon Beacons, Wales

Completing our “Summer of the UK” series, Jon and I spent this past long weekend in southern Wales, which is about a 2-hour train ride west of London. We completely lucked out and had sunny weather from Saturday to Monday, and now I have only good things to say about Wales.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Cardiff Central Station were all the signs in Welsh. Yes indeed, Welsh is a living language in Wales, and if you have an aversion to guttural sounds and double consonants galore, then Welsh is not for you.

Fortunately for me, all the Welsh signs include English translations below.

Jon and I quickly abandoned Cardiff and headed for the hills. We dropped by the Europcar, flashed a US license, and off we went. Driving on the left? No problem, of course.

Brecon Beacons National Park (Bannau Brycheiniog for you Welsh speakers) is a 45-minute drive north of Cardiff on the A470. It’s not like an American national park, where development is prohibited. Rather, it seems a lot of the land in the park is privately owned, but land use is strictly controlled by a National Park planning authority. So on the one hand, there are towns (with homes and shops) within the park boundaries, but on the other, the towns are quaint and convenient, and all the lonely natural beauty of the mountains and fields seems intact.

Before setting off on a hike, we stocked up on organic goodies at a “Summer Fayre” hosted at the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre. I loved the quaintness of it all – the parking in a grassy field, the homemade food stands, and the silly rides. For £1, you could ride a sheep, just as the sign says:

ride the sheep at the Summer Fayre in Brecon Beacons

We picked up a fresh, nutty seven-grain loaf from the Caroline’s Real Bread stand as well as some chive-flavored fresh goat’s cheese from the Cothi Valley Goats cheese stand. It was hard to resist buying more when everything looked so fresh, but when you have to lug the food around on your back for a couple of hours, you learn to control yourself.

Provisioned up, we hiked up the (of course, tallest) peak, Pen-y-Fan. It took us less than an hour to reach the top, mostly because Pen y Fan isn’t very tall, but I would characterise the hike as pretty strenuous because the trail goes straight to the top through open fields. I don’t hike very often, but when I do, I prefer the kind where you’re in shady, leafy bits so that you appreciate the open, sunny vistas more. I also prefer a little switchbacking to make the inclines less crazy. (All spoken like the true outdoorswoman I am).

In any case, the summit of Pen-y-Fan is just a 5 minutes’ hike from another peak, Corn Du, so we devoured our Summer Fayre goodies at Corn Du, snapped a photo of Pen-y-Fan (at top of this post), continued on to Pen-y-Fan, and then started the slow descent.

The views in every direction from Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan were stunning, but I felt a little queasy looking at the steep slopes. You start to imagine that one false step is going to send you rolling down these dramatic hills.

Having done my healthy outdoor activity for the day, Jon and I drove another 30 minutes north to reach Hay-on-Wye, a town famous for its large number of bookshops. A book town! My kind of place.

Hay-on-Wye town centre

The streets in town are quaint and picturesque: Window boxes spilling over with bright geraniums and petunias; half-timber buildings; and of course bookstores everywhere, even outdoors! When we were in the town center, we noticed hundreds of books left outside on shelves, and it turns out they’re sold on the honor system. If you decide to buy a book, you deposit your money in a designated metal lock box.

I loved browsing the bookstores, which ran the gamut in degree of specialization and organization. There were stores selling overstock of best sellers on the cheap and others offering only rare first editions priced at hundres of pounds. Many shops had only the most high-level organization (“Fiction” vs “Non-Fiction,” for example), and finding anything within these categories was a total crap shoot. I wondered how these places could possibly make money, because you’d be hard pressed to walk in and find a specific book. I know, because I spent a lot of time trying to find E.L. Doctorow’s “The March,” which I will obviously now order from amazon.com.

Richard Booth bookseller, Hay on Wye

Our favorite shop was the Richard Booth bookseller, which was a musty old jumble, but largely organized the way you’d expect in a mega-chain store (so you could actually find a specific book). Walking through the damp, cool basement level of the store, I felt like I was back in the forgotten stacks of Firestone Library, three floors underground. And yes, this was a good thing. I ended up just buying yet another (my third?) copy of Pride and Prejudice, and Jon and I found a sunny bench and spent a few hours reading outdoors in perhaps the world’s only Book Town.

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Shipp’s Tea Rooms, Borough Market

While it’s true that nobody moves to England for the weather, the wetness and coldness of this “summer” has set new records for crappiness, methinks.

One result of all this poor weather has been that I’ve increased my appreciation for hot beverages, and tea in particular.

With our friends Alyssa and Seth in town this week, I thought we should go the extra mile and have a proper afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea, in case you wondered, is basically a meal eaten between 4:30 pm and 6 pm, and it traditionally includes sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a pot of tea, and scones served with clotted cream and jam.

Usually, I recommend the Claridge’s afternoon tea, which serves tea goodies on Bernardaud china (yes, I flipped the china to peek – sue me) in a plush art-deco tearoom hung with Chihuly chandeliers. I particularly enjoy the hotel’s live music, the dozens of teas offered, and the ability to order as many beautiful pastries, pots of tea and sandwiches as you want.

The only (and admittedly, major) downside to Claridge’s is the £31 per person price tag. The photo below shows a few of the pastries and scones served for tea at Claridge’s:

Claridge’s Tea pastries

So, to mix it up a little, we decided to try Shipp’s Tearooms, which just opened in Borough Market, next door to Neal’s Yard Dairy. It got a good writeup in this week’s Time Out, the location is convenient, and at £17.50 a person for afternoon tea (as well as an a la carte menu), it sounded like a steal.

First, let me be clear that tea in a “grand” hotel and tea in a stand-alone tearoom are very different creatures. And now that I’ve tried a stand-alone tearoom, I think I’m a hotel tea fan, despite the price hike for the hotel version.

I’d give Shipp’s another try, because the service was friendly and efficient, but the decor is not my style, and the food tasted a little stale. The tearoom is high-ceilinged and dressed in shabby-chic, which I think is a difficult look to pull off. Most times, I think shabby chic looks just shabby. The tearoom’s tables and chairs are different styles and shapes, as are the table linens and tea things. And while I’m not saying happiness is a matching set of everything, a few of the table linens looked kind of straight-from-the-attic, which made me (imagine?) a musty smell in the air.

Afternoon tea at Shipp’s Tearooms

There are about ten teas that you can order by the pot for £3 or as part of the afternoon tea prix fixe. Of the sandwiches, slice of cake and scones that made up the afternoon tea, only the homemade strawberry jam stood out as a big winner. A slice of chocolate cake was dry and saved only from cardboard status by the thick frosting, and the sandwiches were all disheveled-looking, as if they’d just survived an earthquake.

I wouldn’t be so picky if I thought serving sandwiches with straight edges were a difficult thing to pull off, or if it hadn’t cost £17.50 to put cucumbers and salmon between two slices of white bread.

In any event, the company was fantastic, the buzz in the room very relaxing, and the service was good. So like I said earlier, I’ll try the place again, but not before I try another tea room I’ve heard about in Notting Hill, the Tea Palace.

Ahh, the search for a cuppa’, how very English.

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Haddock & Leek mille feuille at Olive Tree

Although this post is a long-delayed wrap-up of eating in Bath, I first have to note that yesterday was the second anniversary of my arrival in London. Oh, I’m sure the British are cheering now.

Well, on to the chow: on the whole, the places we ate in Bath served well-prepared, quality food, but service is generally where things fell apart.

On the pricier end of our meals (£18-25 per main course) was the Olive Tree restaurant located in the Queensbury Hotel, not far from the Circus and Royal Crescent. The Olive Tree’s food is supposed to be modern Mediterranean, but I think “modern” anything just means you can count on a choice of fish, meat and chicken dish with upscale trimmings and presentation.  Overall, I’d go back.

I wasn’t thrilled that we were seated in an area that felt like it used to be a bar/anteroom. The servers would hover and hang out near the bar, which was next to our table, or else they’d be zipping back and forth looking kind of stressed. There just shouldn’t have been a table where we sat.

On the bright side, our crappy table location meant the light was good enough that I could photograph the food, and we were far away from the bachelorette party seated at the heart of the main dining room.

Highlights: A corn soup amuse, while not super-creative, was summery sweet without being syrupy. Jon’s scallops were, again, sweet and perfectly rare, and my haddock-and-leek mille feuille was a tasty deconstructed fish pie:  flaky pastry crust layers served with light, white fish meat and a sweet, creamy leek puree.

From the photo at the top of this post, you can see that the presentation of the mille feuille was just a little too busy, but it tasted good, which is really what matters most in the end.

The cheese course was the most disappointing part of our meal: all four cheeses lacked intensity of flavor. Based on taste, they all could’ve been the same cheese despite the outward appearance of being a blue cheese, goat’s cheese, etc. Save your £9 and either try a different dessert or call it a day.

Firehouse Rotisserie in Bath

The Firehouse Rotisserie was slightly less pricey than the Olive Tree (I keep wanting to say Olive Garden . . . ) with main courses in the £12-20 range. Jon and I were sucked in by our B&B’s description of this place as “California casual.” The decor is warm and cozy (see photo above), but the food is too random and rich to be called “California,” really.

When was the last time lamb tagine was served in a California-style eatery?

For a starter, Jon and I shared a passable chorizo pizza (the crust was thin and the sauce had a good sweet-and-salty balance, but the chorizo was not too tasty), and then Jon devoured a steak frites, while I stuck with the braised lamb and couscous. The lamb was good, but the real draw was the couscous, which was fluffy and chock full of slivered almonds and dried apricots. I only wish I’d gotten a little more couscous and a little less lamb. Overall, a good vibe in the dining room, friendly service, and good-quality (but random) food.

Boston Tea Party coffeehouse in Bath

The Boston Tea Party deserves a mention because of the gazillion times we dropped by for their strong, rich espressos and coffees. It sits in Kingsmead Square, near the Thermae Baths and the Mezzaluna restaurant (which we’d read great things about but which was closed when we tried to eat there). So if you need a coffee fix, or if you’re just highly amused by the name (what do you think it means to most Britons?), definitely give the Boston Tea Party a try.Real Italian Pizza Co., Bath

For a quick lunch, Jon and I sort of enjoyed our pizzas at the Real Italian Pizza Co, located on York Road just behind the Bath Abbey, but the service was outrageously slow. It was the classic situation of two servers for two dining rooms, with each dining room packed with forty or fifty diners. I felt kind of bad for the servers, but honestly, pizza is no good when it gets cold, no matter how high-quality the ingredients are. So I have a feeling that with one or two more servers, the pizza would actually be good because it might still be hot when it arrives at your table.

We had much better luck next door at the equally-creatively-named “Real Italian Ice Cream” shop. The gelato there was airy and rich-flavored. No vacation is complete without some quality ice cream in the park, so we headed over to the nearby Parade Gardens to lick down our chocolate and strawberry cones.  And that’s all I can recall now about our eating adventures in Bath.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Even though it’s been over two hundred years since Bath was a hotspot for the rich and famous, Jon and I figured it was still worth a visit this past weekend because (1) it’s only two hours southwest of London by train; (2) the restored Thermae Bath Spa has gotten good press; and (3) I love Jane Austen, who lived there on and off and set two novels in Bath.

Despite the summer crowds, I really enjoyed our time in Bath. It’s a small, walkable city with pretty, buff-colored stone buildings and bridges, scenic country views, and just enough history and culture to fill a weekend. You could easily make it a daytrip from London, but I think Bath is a town where you should while away the time. With two nights there, I was able to “do the sights” as well as take advantage of the local bath spas from which Bath takes it name (and original fame).

My three favorite “things to see and do” in Bath: (1) The Thermae Bath Spa; (2) The Jane Austen Walking Tour; and (3) Sitting in the Parade Gardens.

1. The Thermae Bath Spa

Bath gets its name from the natural hot springs that have drawn visitors since Roman times. Apparently there are only three places in the UK where hot springs naturally bubble up, and all three are in Bath, so you can imagine the excitement people felt for many years about visiting Bath to “take the waters.”

What’s great about the Thermae Bath, which makes use of hot spring water from all three wellheads (I think), is that its architecture and interior design appear super luxe, but the entrance price tag of £20 (i.e., use of saunas and pools without day spa treatments) encourages mass access. You just have to show up in the morning to get assigned an appointment time, first come, first served, and then later in the day, you show up at that time, pay your £20, and off you go.

Lest you hear the word “spring” and think piddly little puddles of cloudy water, apparently 1.25 million litres of 110 F water pour out every day from these hot springs. This enormous flow and temperature explains how relaxing, large and *clean* the Thermae Spa pools are.Thermae Bath, Minerva Bath The lower-ground floor pool is nice and well-skylighted (see photo at right), but its appeal is probably strongest in the cold, rainy months.

Jon and I quickly made our way to the second floor, where there are four sleek steam sauna chambers, each with a different scent. We were big fans of the eucalyptus-and-mint as well as the mountain pine saunas. Lavender and frankincense were appealing, but no match. In between sessions in the different saunas, we took cooling showers in the giant motion-sensored rainfall shower in the middle of all these sauna chambers.

Oh, but there’s more! The rooftop pool was almost as large as the lower-ground floor pool, except it also had beautiful views of Bath rooftops and the surrounding Somerset countryside. And because the pool waters are pumped up from natural hot springs, I didn’t feel guilty about the enormous cost an outdoor heated pool usually incurs. Feeling guilt-free: priceless.

It’s a tough call deciding whether my favorite floor was the sauna or the hot spring pool on the rooftop, but I will definitely revisit the Thermae Bath. And if I call farther in advance, I’ll book one of the additional spa treaments, priced lower than anything you’d find in London. It’d be great to re-visit the spa in February — the heart of dampest, dark winter here.

2. Jane Austen Walking Tour

Even though Jon has never made it through a single Jane Austen novel, he still enjoyed this 1.5-hour walking tour. It’s more a tour of Bath with a few references to Jane Austen than it is a recounting of obscure scenes from Jane Austen novels. Our tour guide, Dickon, was one of those local white-haired guys who you know *loves* doing these tours and whose relatives are grateful that he has this outlet for his chatty friendliness.

We walked through the Pump Room, so named because water from the hot springs, believed to have medicinal properties, was pumped up into a fountain so visitors in Bath could drink the waters. In Jane Austen’s time, all the fashionable people would stop by the Pump Room to see and be seen. The Pump Room even housed a book (“the arrivals book”) where people signed in when they arrived in town, and this way, everyone could find one another and hang out.King’s Bath Fountain in the Pump Room, Bath

The Pump Room is still a high-ceilinged, chandeliered, gorgeous room, and for 50p, you can buy a glass of spa water from the King’s Fountain (click thumbnail at left). I’d skip eating a meal in the Pump Room restaurant, though, as pretty as the room looks. The food appeared to be mediocre and expensive.

The beauty of listing the walking tour as “one” favorite activity is that it covers all the major sights in Bath. I loved walking along the Avon River (there are several rivers in the UK all named the Avon) and listening to the rush of water going over the man-made waterfalls by the triple-arched Pulteney Bridge (see photo at top of this post).Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath And the last of the nice spots we explored on the walking tour were the Upper Assembly Rooms, where the aristos threw parties and dances for themselves (see photo at right).

Of course, all you Persuasion fans remember that the Upper Assembly Rooms are where Anne Elliot suspects William Elliot is not for her and that Captain Wentworth loves her still. Dreamy.

3. Parade Gardens

There are lots of green spots in Bath, particularly near the Royal Crescent, but the Parade Gardens are super-central, well-manicured, and include nice sun chairs. You pay £1 admission to get into the Gardens, which seems kind of lame for a public park, but we spent many a relaxing hour hanging out in the sunshine and listening to the brass bands that perform in the Garden’s gazebo. I highly recommend taking a break or two here if you’re tired of shopping or want to get away from the crowds around Bath Abbey.Parade Gardens, Bath

And that rounds out my fave 3 in Bath. Checking out the pretty Georgian buildings in the Royal Crescent and the Circus are a must, but Bath is so small, you’re bound to walk by these places at some point, so I wouldn’t count them as “destinations,” really.

Number 1 Royal Crescent is now open as a museum, where for £5 a person, you can see what a “typical” aristocratic home in the Crescent would’ve looked like in the 18th century. From our visit to Number 1, my three takeaways (because good things come in three!) are: snuffers(1) high-class women in the 18th c. so seldom washed their elaborate hair styles that they needed little maggot scratchers to pick out worms that grew in their hair over time (note to self: if ever I am reborn in the 18th century, I’ll hope to be a respectable middle class lady and not an aristo slave to fashion!); (2) wrought-iron “cones” near doorways are actually snuffers used to put out torches carried by sedan chair boys at night (click on thumbnail at left); and (3) aristos painted their interior wood walls to look like stone. How odd. What was so bad about wood walls?

Jon and I skipped paying the £11.50 each to see the Roman Baths, mostly because we saw the small King’s Bath for free while walking through the Pump Rooms, and we couldn’t imagine what the fuss would be over the slightly-larger Roman Baths next door.

And no matter how big a Jane Austen fan you are, I’d skip the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street. The mannequin dressed in Regency clothing guarding the doorway should have been a giveaway that your £5 are better spent elsewhere.

Jane Austen Centre mannequin, Bath

The Centre admission price includes a 15-minute lecture recounting Jane Austen’s biography, followed by a guide’s offer to take you upstairs to “have tea with Mr. Darcy” (how embarrassing for all parties involved), and should you decline said tea, you’re then directed to the basement of the house, where you can read a lot of text mounted on the walls and watch a 15-minute video of an interview with the costume designer for the 2007 ITV version of Persuasion.

Choice quotes by the designer included: “I was fascinated by the relationship between [the actress who played Anne Elliot] and the antique paisley shawls I found.”I didn’t know you could have a relationship with a shawl, but there you go.The one plaque at the Centre that was mildly interesting described (of course) money. Apparently, in the 18th century, you were the creme de la creme (i.e., one of only 300 aristocratic families in the UK) if you earned £4,000 a year. Oh, those were the days!

Next post will talk eats in Bath.

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Tacos at Wahaca

Ask any American expat what cuisine she misses most, and the answer is usually Mexican. So you can imagine the excitement when word gets out that a new Mexican restaurant has opened in London!

On the plus side, Wahaca is named after a city that prides itself on being the Kitchen of Mexico (and high-quality cooking classes that Jon and I took in Oaxaca seemed to confirm this reputation). On the minus side, the restaurant didn’t have enough faith in people’s ability to pronounce Oaxaca, I suppose, and hence, Wahaca.

The place is also located in the centre of tourist hell (halfway between Covent Garden and Leiceister Square), which you could argue is needed because success depends on high-volume foot traffic, except that the excellent Green and Red seems to do just fine in its inconvenient, grungy locale in east London.

Anyway, I read an early review of Wahaca by a blogger duo who’d pasted their link on the Chowhound board, so away went Jon and I on Saturday night to check things out for ourselves.

Overall, the food was good, prices were reasonable (£18 a person, with drinks), drinks were outstanding, and the service was good enough, which adds up to: Jon and I will likely try it again. Soon, before the tourists take over (seriously, there’s a ginormous TGIF across the street).

Wahaca’s menu is divided into starters, sides, main courses, desserts, and “street dishes.” Street dishes are what we were craving, and on offer were tacos (3 for £4), quesadillas, taquitos and tostadas. No tamales, but I’ll try to keep the glass half full here.

Jon and I ordered up a storm, and the tacos were the best of the bunch, even though the fish taco (photo at top of post) wasn’t what I’d expected. Not battered and deep fried – a travesty! – but still a deliciously-strong fish taste and creatively served with chunks of mango.

The pork pibil taco was a little dry but overall flavorful, and the meat in the steak chipotle taco was served perfectly rare. It just needed some more salt, a pinch bowl of which sits on every table.

My major complaint about the tacos is that the corn tortillas were oily enough that even I (the lover of all things fried) noticed it.

The guacamole and pork scratchings were disappointing. The scratchings were stale and flavorless, and the guacamole tasted fresh but had the gloppy texture of something that had been pureed to death. Look at how shiny it was:

Guacamole and pork scratchings at Wahaca, London

Our side of black beans suffered from the same over-pureed-texture problem. I just kept wondering why you’d go to the trouble of using great ingredients and making things fresh, and then ruin it all by dumping it in a Cuisinart or blender.

The summer vegetable quasadilla was lukewarm (and it’s just not tasty to bite into cheese that has cooled and congealed), but our chorizo quesadilla was wonderfully smoky and meaty. So the key to the tasty food is whether or not it makes it to your table soon after it’s cooked. Which makes sense – street food is about immediate service.

The drinks deserve a special mention, since I think the restaurant put a lot of effort into preparing each cocktail and agua fresca. For just £1.25, you get a tall glass of said agua fresca, and mine was a terrific mix of hibiscus and cranberry juice.

Service ranged from hostile and super-slow to extremely attentive and smart. The latter kind came from two men who had the air of people who own the place, so I’m pretty sure the only two people who are doing a good serving job right now at Wahaca are the co-owners. Otherwise, it took almost 20 minutes after we were seated for someone to ask if we’d like to order anything, and another 20 minutes after we’d finished eating to be able to ask someone for the bill.Wahaca restaurant interior, London

Still, the dining room is casual and sleek, not too noisy, and the tables are roomy and spaced wide apart. A large group could easily eat together at Wahaca, and so the next time Jon and I go, we’ll round up the posse. This place kicks the Taqueria’s ass any day of the week, and I support anyone who’s continuing to raise the standards of Mexican food in London.

Wahaca on Urbanspoon

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