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Archive for December, 2008

Christmas 2008

Buche de Noel baked by yours truly

Buche de Noel baked by yours truly

A belated Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah to everyone!

One of the downsides of living abroad is having to set aside two weeks of holiday every year to do the Tour de Home Country. But being away makes reunions sweeter, and at the very least, we’re more appreciative of America’s pros than when we lived in the US.

After spending a relaxing week with my family buried under two feet of snow, Jon and I endured a 12-hour trip down to PBI (thanks a lot, Southwest Airlines) to join his fam, and now we’re enjoying sunshine and swimming pools. And Costco. O Costco, how I’ve missed thee.

Many of you probably know that in England, you’d celebrate Christmas with a menu that’s super similar to an American Thanksgiving menu – turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing, potatoes, etc.

Well, in sharp contrast to the English Christmas meal, my family kicks it Chinese style on December 25. (Well, Chinese except for the buche de noel I tried making this year . . . I think it came out pretty, but the genoise I whipped up was a tad rubbery).

I always look forward to Mom’s homemade sticky rice (nuomi fan) with pork, shitake mushrooms and dried prawn, not to mention five-spice duck (duties for which are now ably carried out by Jon).

You probably know that sticky rice isn’t so photogenic, so I’ve got photos only of Mom’s egg rolls and broccoli-and-prawn, but I hope that whatever you ate for the holidays, you ate it surrounded by loved ones.

Posts to come on our eating in New York, Boston, and Palm Beach. Adios for now.

Mom's homemade egg rolls

Mom's homemade egg rolls

shrimp and broccoli, of course

the classic Christmas dish: shrimp and broccoli, of course

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prosciutto and salami at Murano

prosciutto and salami at Murano

and breads, of course

and breads, of course

After a hectic past few weeks, I’m finally away for the holidays. Yay! A foot of snow has just dumped down on the northeast US, and now that I’m no longer traveling, it’s lovely to see the blanket of white outside.

Just before I left London, I tried the £25 lunch menu at Angela Hartnett’s Murano, and it ticked all the boxes: great service, lovely linens/china, and flashes of creativity on the understandably-limited menu – all at a fantabulous price.

The restaurant is still offering a decadent white truffle tasting menu (a £65 supplement for every white truffle course you add to your meal), and our waiter carried over a box of the precious fungus so we could have a peek and sniff (those are free). It’s heady stuff, that white truffle. We got our little taste of the good life in the fresh-out-of-the fryer white truffle arancini that arrived while we browsed the menu options.

And as if the creamy-crispy arancini weren’t pre-starter enough, after we placed our order, a generous pile of salumi arrived. I’d love to know who Murano’s supplier is, because I could have eaten that prosciutto all day. For vegetarians, there was a smoked aubergine puree dip that was creamy, sweet and nutty – a delish topping for the fresh, varied breads in our bread basket, but no match for the beauties of cured meat.

grilled mackerel tart with confit lemon green olive vinaigrette

grilled mackerel tart with confit lemon green olive vinaigrette

My starter of grilled mackerel tart was meaty and moist without any of the stinky fishiness that ruins mackerel’s popularity. And the sharp sweetness of the tomato-red “tart crust” added flavor and taste contrast. I enjoyed my starter immensely.

roasted guinea fowl with braised thigh, crosnes and Savoy cabbage puree

roasted guinea fowl with braised thigh, crosnes and Savoy cabbage puree

Roasted guinea fowl was juicy, but nothing too memorable, especially compared to the guinea fowl I had at Petershan Nurseries. On the other hand, the cost of the guinea fowl alone at Petersham approximated that of our entire lunch menu at Murano . . . .

pan-fried stonebass, sauce basquaise, chorizo and butter beans

pan-fried stonebass, sauce basquaise, chorizo and butter beans

The stonebass was beautifully pan fried so that its skin turned into crackling while the white, flaky meat stayed moist, but the treats hidden in the sauce basquaise were the highlight. Chorizo makes everything good. Murano knows how to source, no question.

sorbets in a rainbow of colors and flavors

sorbets in a rainbow of colors and flavors

The palate-cleansers were so fun – we couldn’t help smiling at the colors and flavors. Rich and creamy banana; refreshing and light basil; tart black currant were my faves, but polishing off all of the sorbets was no problem.

chocolate brownie with bloord oranges

fudge brownie with blood oranges

Dessert options were pretty unimaginative. Then again, it may be no more than a dressed-up brownie, but it was still worth the calories.

fruit tuiles, chocolates and panettone

petit fours: fruit tuiles, chocolates and panettone

I loved the petit fours – chocolate truffles, fruit tuiles and fresh, warm hunks of panettone. I’m still thinking of that panettone – its eggy texture and sweet tartness of candied citrus, balanced with plump sweet raisins. Nothing like those monsters that come in pretty boxes at this time of year.

What a steal for £25. Considering how much I loved all the goodies that came in between our courses, I’m guessing I’d love a full-on meal at Murano. To do in 2009, then.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, W1J 5PR, 0207 592 1222; closest tube station: Green Park
Murano on Urbanspoon

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Menu for Hope V

menu-for-hope-v

Menu for Hope is a way for you to feel good about yourself (by raising money for the the UN World Food Programme, which provides food to 90 million people a year, 58 million of whom are children) *and* take care of your holiday shopping for the food-and-drink-lovers in your life.  The programme starts tomorrow (Monday, 15 December), meaning that’s when you can start browsing the fab prizes on offer and buy your raffle tickets to win the prizes that catch your eye.  To give you a feel for how incredible the prizes are, in past years, I’ve bought raffle tickets for lunch with Thomas Keller or a wine tasting with Eric Asimov (the wine critic for the New York Times).  Great stuff and a great cause.  Be sure to buy lots of tickets!

If you’re not familiar with Menu for Hope, here are the handy FAQs that I’ve copied and pasted from Chez Pim’s blog:

What is Menu for Hope?
Menu for Hope is an annual fundraising campaign hosted by me [Pim] and a revolving group of food bloggers around the world.  Five years ago, the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia inspired me to find a way to help, and the very first Menu for Hope was born. The campaign has since become a yearly affair, raising funds to support worthy causes worldwide. In 2007, Menu for Hope raised nearly $100K to help the UN World Food Programme feed the hungry.

Each December, food bloggers from all over the world join the campaign by offering a delectable array of food-related prizes for the Menu for Hope raffle. Anyone – and that means you too – can buy raffle tickets to bid on these prizes. For every $10 donated, you earn one virtual raffle ticket to bid on a prize of their choice. At the end of the two-week campaign, the raffle tickets are drawn and the results announced on Chez Pim.

When will this year’s campaign take place?
December 15 through Christmas.

Who is the beneficiary of this year’s campaign?
Once again we’ve chosen to work with the UN World Food Programme. WFP is the world’s largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they escape hunger for good.

With the success of last year’s campaign to support the school lunch program in Lesotho, we are going to continue our support to the same program.  During the duration of Menu for Hope V, we will be posting updates from the kids and the farmers we supported this past year.

If you weren’t around  last year for Menu for Hope 4, let me explain a bit about why we are supporting this particular program.  We chose to support the school lunch program because providing food for the children not only keeps them alive, but keeps them in school so that they learn the skills to feed themselves in the future. We chose to support the program in Lesotho because it is a model program in local procurement – buying food locally to support local farmers and the local economy. Instead of shipping surplus corn across the ocean, the WFP is buying directly from local subsistent farmers who practice conservation farming methods in Lesotho to feed the children there.

Who collects the money?
Certainly not me, nor is it the other bloggers participating on the campaign. We know our readers trust us, but we also want to be completely transparent in our fundraising. So, we use a very good online fundraising company called Firstgiving, who has worked with us since the first Menu for Hope years ago.

Donors can make an online donation with a credit card. Firstgiving collects and processes the payments and, at the end of the campaign, transfers the donations in one lump sum to the WFP. This is a win-win situation for all parties involved. The bloggers never touch the money. The WFP don’t waste overheads on processing mini-donations, the majority of which were between $10-$50, that’s a whole lot of tenners to make up $90K.  Firstgiving does all the work and collects a small fee, which include the credit card processing charges.

Last year, Firstgiving gave back 1% of the total amount raised in lieu of a discount on their processing fee. Thank you Firstgiving, we appreciated it very much!

Check back on Monday to get the link to the donation site.

How can you help?

If you are a blogger:
Participate in Menu for Hope V by hosting a raffle prize or by promoting Menu for Hope on your blog. The prize you offer need not be of high monetary value, but it should appeal to your readership. A small rule of thumb we’d like to suggest is that each prize offered should have the potential to raise at least $200. That means, don’t offer a prize unless you are pretty sure you could get at least twenty of your readers to donate $10 for a raffle ticket toward that prize.

Please do not solicit prizes from restaurants or producers whom you do not know. A big part of our success in prior years came from the personal connections between bloggers, food producers/restaurateurs/authors, and the readers who donate to the campaign. Basically, if they know your name, it’s ok. If you pick up the phone and introduce yourself and the person at the other end of the line goes “huh?”, you shouldn’t be asking them.

Each blogger is also responsible for shipping their prize to the winning donor. Make sure you have enough in your budget to cover shipping. It’s important that you specify where your shipping area will cover when you offer the prize.  Frankly, we prefer that you don’t restrict shipping area, but if you must, then please be very clear in your blog post so as not to confuse our donors.

Forward this post to all other bloggers you know so they can participate too.

Here are your local hosts for this year’s Menu for Hope

Europe *and* the UK
Sara of Ms.Adventures in Italy (sara.rosso@gmail.com)

US: West Coast (If you are closer to SF than you are to NY then you belong here.)
Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites (matt.armendariz@gmail.com)

US: East Coast
Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen (jaden@steamykitchen.com)

Canada
Meena Agarwal of Hooked on Heat (meena@hookedonheat.com)

Asia Pacific, Australia, New Zealand
Ed Charles of Tomato (edcharles@mac.com)

and, last but not least, our special Wine Blog Host
Alder of Vinography (alder@vinography.com)

If you’d like to participate, please send your prize information (plus two images 75×75 thumbnail and 200x200px) to your local host so that they can give you a prize code (important!) and more instructions on what to do for Monday.

If you are a restaurateur, author or food producers/sellers:
Consider offering your products and services as raffle prizes. If you have a corportate blog, you can host the prize yourself. If you don’t, find a food blogger to host your prize. If you don’t know any, contact me, I’ll see what I can do.

If you are a food blog reader or a food lover:
Come back to Chez Pim on Monday December 15 when the campaign goes online. You can browse our amazing array of prizes by type, or find a prize near you by searching by region. Bid on as many prizes as you’d like.

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Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Soon after my friend made our reservations at Petersham Nurseries Cafe (you have to call about a month in advance), I saw that New Yorker in London had popped over and enjoyed it, which was encouraging, but I still had a few weeks to wait patiently.

Last weekend, our day finally arrived, and – what a perk – the day was crisp and sunny. I was in a good mood just walking through Richmond High Street, along the Thames and through the meadows. I thought “it just couldn’t be prettier than this,” but actually, I was wrong. The Petersham Nurseries is, in fact, even prettier than the walk it takes to get there. Eggbeater said it best when she called the place “a food stylist’s dream and a museum curator’s fantasy.” This is no Home Depot Garden Center. Petersham Nurseries is so achingly charming that the high prices in the cafe are easier to swallow if you figure you’re paying partly for the ambiance.

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

The menu changes almost daily, and there’s not a lot to choose from. Three sections: starters, mains and desserts. Only four options in each section, but what fab options they were!

I loved my starter – a salad with farinata, speck and pecorino. Farinata, I learned, is just another name for my beloved Riviera friend, socca – a crispy chickpea-flour pancake. Shards of farinata served hot with the salad added nice texture and warmth to the luscious fatty-salty speck, and creamy, dry pecorino. The only downside to my salad was its hefty pricetag: £11, but my salad was a steal compared to the *yawn* pumpkin ravioli my three dining companions ordered.

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

Mains were a highlight. Our server highly recommended the guinea fowl, which she said she’d just had for lunch, and she was spot on. The skin was beautifully crisped, the meat was firm, juicy and rich. The creamy, sweet balsamic mayo blended and balanced perfectly with the radicchio’s smoky bitterness. So simple, but fresh and well-executed. Worth the £21.

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

Jon’s monkfish curry had sounded out of place on the otherwise English-classics menu (so I was skeptical the kitchen would pull it off) but what came to the table was light and tasty. More Mediterranean than Thai. There was only the slightest hint of coconut in the sauce, and we learned the chef was on a chickpea kick, because the bhatura turned out to be more crispy chickpea flour.

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

My friend’s baked ricott was so simple and genius that I can’t wait to buy some good stuff from the cheese guy at next Sunday’s farmer’s market and try it myself. If you’d written off ricotta as bland, then I’d recommend trying the Petersham Nurseries version. It was so intense that it needed the greens and tapenade to tone down the salty-herby-creaminess.

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

And although we were stuffed after our starters and mains, we couldn’t help eyeing the desserts going to tables around us. My gorgonzola dolce was beautiful to look at it, and beautiful to taste. The sweet figs and the creamy, sharp gorgonzola should be married for life.

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

I didn’t eat the bread pudding or the mousse pictured below, but only because my friends gobbled them down faster than I could reach their plates to steal some. I will say, though, that I could smell the vanilla and cinnamon on the bread pudding, and no wonder – there were specks of vanilla pod in there. Quality goods.

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

Our meal, even without wine, was not cheap. Starters were £10-11; mains were £20-27; and desserts £7-8. We enjoyed a refreshing pitcher of mint-elderflower lemonade, and our tab came to £45 a person before service.

While I definitely see Andy Hayler’s point about the Cafe’s prices being high for a “garden centre cafe,” I think Petersham Nurseries is a unique place. Special enough that it’s not just a garden cafe. The high-quality ingredients in our lunch were carefully prepared and presented; the surroundings are cheerful and charming, and the service – while, as usual in London, understaffed – was helpful and friendly. I had a wonderful time and would love to bring back friends, especially those from out of town. Petersham Nurseries was, for me, quintessentially country English, so I’ll think of a trip there as something like going to the Tower of London – except a much better deal.

Petersham Nurseries Cafe, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey; 0208 605 3627; closest tube station: Richmond (and then it’s still a 20-minute walk to Petersham Nurseries, so bring your walking shoes. Apparently you can also take a bus from Richmond station.)
Petersham Nurseries Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Vietnamese pancake at Mien Tay

Vietnamese pancake (banh xeo) at Mien Tay (November 2008)

What a difference a few months can make. I first visited Mien Tay in late June 2008 (soon after it got a nice writeup in TimeOut) and then again just a few weeks ago, in November. My notes of the first experience amounted to “good food, overwhelmed service” (because of the exposure it got from several good reviews, not just the one in Time Out). My notes from the second experience were “mediocre food, very attentive and sweet service, and lots of customers ordering egg fried rice and getting drunk.”

Usually when a mom-and-pop place like Mien Tay disappoints me, I don’t bother writing about it, because (1) who cares if a small place is sub-par; and (2) I’m biased towards underdogs and therefore hate the idea of piling on to a small business’s struggles. But not only did Mien Tay get that positive writeup in TimeOut, but also the Metro gave it some love and The Evening Standard‘s Charles Campion gave it some attention. So now I don’t feel like they’re the underdog anymore.

So the Night and Day differences in my two visits brought to mind the nagging question of how many times – and when – should I visit a restaurant before I spout off on whether it’s any good? (And I certainly couldn’t object if you labeled this one the “take myself too seriously” post).

Most of us bloggers (and most publications, even) don’t have the New York Times critic’s budget (and time and willpower) to visit a place five times before we write a review. So the best I can do is tell you how many times – and when – I visited a place before forming my opinion, and I try to be detailed in my examples of why something is good or bad. And then after that, readers abide by a blog world’s version of caveat emptor (i.e., it’s great if you trust my opinion, but beware the limitations of food blogging).

London Eater, by the way, has been writing thoughtful posts on why we trust food bloggers even though some of us aren’t exactly inconspicuous at restaurants (so query the consumer advocacy of someone who’s drawing special treatment perhaps as much as a professional reviewer would), and most of us visit a restaurant only once before sharing our opinions.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in July

Exhibit A: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in late June 2008

Now, back to Mien Tay. Here’s an example of why, despite a very good food experience there in June, I’m now cautious about going back. Exhibit A: soft-shell crab in late June 2008 was crispy, grease-free, and exploding with juiciness. For a minute, I thought I was back in DC when the first soft-shell crabs from the Chesapeake are on the market. I crunched every last crab leg and it was £7 happily spent.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in November

Exhibit B: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in November 2008

Then, during my recent meal, I ordered the same dish. And this time, despite the fact that my camera and the lighting were crappier, you’ll see Exhibit B bears almost no resemblance to Exhibit A. Exhibit B doesn’t even look like crab anymore. These were flat, perfectly-round crab patties. Like something you’d buy out of a frozen food box. Where were the crab’s legs? Where was the juicy inside?

crispy pork at Mien Tay

crispy pork at Mien Tay (November 2008)

To be fair, our recent meal at Mien Tay wasn’t *all* bad. It just wasn’t as good as it was when we were there in June. The prawn pancake was hot and crispy and full of big, well-cooked (i.e., not mealy and tough) prawns. Our pho was good enough (it’s not Song Que or Huong Viet broth, but at least there’s no mile-long queue like at the former and no crazy-harried-inattentive servers like at the latter).

In fact, the service that drove us crazy in June had much improved. Despite the fact that we were seated upstairs in Siberia, there were always servers when tap water needed refilling or bottles needed opening. These guys were super attentive and nice.

So overall – where am I on Mien Tay?

The service was trying so hard and the dishes other than soft-shell crab were still good enough that I will go back and give them another try. But if you’d asked me in June what I thought, I would’ve been singing Mien Tay’s praises. I held back on blogging that time because, frankly, I felt sure the service would get its act together (and it seems they have!) and then I could talk about Mien Tay’s perfection.

I surely hope my second trip was the anomaly, because I’m running out of Vietnamese faves in town – Huong Viet is just no longer worth the schlepp; Song Que‘s queues always put me off; Cay Tre has never impressed me (though given the many people who love it, I could be ordering tragically wrong there); and my neighborhood standby Viet Garden can be so uneven depending on the dish that its biggest strength is its location 120 seconds’ walk from my flat. So Mien Tay, I hope you kick ass the next time I visit.

Our meals both times never topped £15 a person, despite aggressive ordering of two appetizers and three mains. It is, of course, BYOB with no corkage.

Mien Tay, 122 Kingsland Rd, Shoreditch, E2 8DP. Tel: 020 7729 3074
Mien Tay on Urbanspoon

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Thanksgiving at mine - gluttony on a plate, first servings

Thanksgiving at mine - gluttony on a plate, first servings

First of all, happy Thanksgiving (four days late). I had a fab one, though this year Jon and I made our lives a little easier and had friends over on Saturday, not Thursday. The only downside we found on the Saturday option was that our nearby butcher, E. Wood, couldn’t give us a turkey on a Saturday (only on weekdays, apparently). So we had to schlepp a tad further to James Elliott, who kind of screwed us over with a 4.9 kg bird, instead of the 6 kg we’d ordered. But the turkey we got sure was Mmmm Mmmm good, so no complaints on quality (and it was worth every pence).

Anyway, what I’m most thankful for, in addition to the obvious list of friends, family and health: all of you who take the time to read my blog and keep me sane and happy. (Query what kind of personality loves blogging as much as I do, though).

This month, my wordpress stats tell me I had 16,842 page views, translating to an average of 562 page views a day. In actuality, I get about 700 page views on weekdays, and big, sad dips on weekends. Which tells me that most of you are reading while procrastinating at work. : )

Because I learn so much about building traffic just from seeing where Krista at Londonelicious gets her referrals, I figure I’ll share mine, too (though mine are quite humble in comparison).

My top 5 non-google-directed referrers for the month:

Londonelicious

Eat Like a Girl

UrbanSpoon

Tamarind & Thyme

Gourmet Chick

Urbanspoon isn’t a blog, but since Krista highlighted how much readership the site can generate, I’ve learned (1) it’s super easy to contribute content; (2) the site links to your restaurant review in a prominent place; and (3) it also comes in a handy iPhone application form, so when you’re walking about, you can check on Urbanspoon to see what’s highly-rated nearby. Pretty cool, and I’m not even an Apple dork like a certain husband of mine. I’m so hooked on contributing that I (along with other bloggers you’ll recognize) have made it onto Urbanspoon’s London blog leaderboard.

Again, thanks for visiting and commenting!

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