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Archive for October, 2006

South Bank map

This entire week, I’ve been thinking of the British phrase: “roll on, Friday.” I’m pretty sure it’s the equivalent of “come on, Friday, dammit.”

After leaving work today, I took the tube to London Bridge and joined the crowds walking along the South Bank. Globe TheatreI relaxed as I walked past the tourists clustered around Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and on towards the even bigger crowds of tourists at the Tate Modern Museum, where I met Jon by the Millennium Bridge.

The Tate Modern used to be a power station, and regardless of which entrance you use to walk in, you’ll hit an enormous central space called the Turbine Hall (where I guess there used to be turbines!).

Slides at the Tate Modern, LondonStarting this week, in the Turbine Hall, you can see and experience an installation of giant slides by Carsten Holler. I mean, there are actually huge curly slides that people can speed down (see photo at left).

The longest slide is five stories tall, and because the slides are made of transparent plastic, you get to watch all these people winding through and shooting out at the bottom floor. It’s entertaining. I’m not sure what the “message” is (and I assume all art has a message to convey), but the idea is appealing. The BBC article I just linked in this paragraph mentions that the artist created one of these slides for Miuccia Prada (so she could slide down from her office to the car park?), which just made me laugh. I wonder if Miuccia Prada in her sleek black Prada outfits really goes popping down a slide to get to her car!

Preparing to go down the slide is a time-consuming process that involves putting on elbow pads and slipping into a cloth sack-type thing to reduce friction. Because of these lengthy, risk-reducing preliminaries, the museum distributes free tickets for a specific time to go down a specific slide, rather than creating endless lines of cranky people, I guess.

Jon and I tried to get tickets to go down one of the five slides in the Turbine Hall, but the only tickets left when we were there at 6 p.m. were for a 9 p.m. slot to go on the dinky 3-story slide. We passed, but we’ll have to try going back when it’s not as hot a ticket in town.

Members Lounge at Tate Modern museum, LondonWe dropped by the 6th floor “members lounge,” which isn’t fancy, but it serves good wines by the glass, snacks, and most importantly, has a pretty outdoor terrace overlooking the Thames and giving you views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge.

After unwinding at the Tate Modern, we walked west along the South Bank because the weather was so mild and the Thames bank is beautiful when lit up at night. I felt so glad to live here. We crossed to the north bank of the Thames by walking across the ultra-snazzy, sleek Hungerford footbridge and then tubed over to Notting Hill Gate to feed the need for Thai food.

The Churchill Arms Pub is a five-minute walk from Notting Hill tube station, on Kensington Church Street. When you first walk in, it looks like yet another run-down, run-of-the-mill pub. You smell beer everywhere, and you see faded red carpeting and dark, heavy wood furniture and paneling. But what’s great about the Churchill Arms is that in the back, there’s a really delicious and cheap Thai restaurant. Walking into the Thai restaurant part of the pub feels like walking into an enchanted garden. There’s a riot of flowering plants hanging from the ceiling, a stone tiled floor, and the sound of water running from an indoor fountain. The restaurant is always crowded, but the wait is short, probably because the menu offers only twenty standard Thai dishes (and no appetizers). I got a prawn pad thai for £6. That’s about 2/3 the price of my lunch every day at Canary Wharf.

You might think the Thai-restaurant-in-a-pub concept is really unusual, but surprise, surprise, there are a lot of “Thai pubs” in London. I’m not sure how this phenomenon came about. Probably a Thai family took over a pub and when that place took off, other Thai families followed the pattern? Anyway, of the Thai pubs we’ve been to, the Churchill Arms is my favorite for the charm of its dining area, the freshness of the dishes, and the extremely low cost. My one complaint is that when the restaurant serves you something “spicy,” it never actually is.

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Yesterday, our team went out to lunch because a company alum is rejoining the team as a temporary contractor to help cover for a guy who’s leaving the company. We decided to try out the restaurant at the Hilton that just opened in Canary Wharf in July 2006.

The hotel restaurant, Cinnamon, is all slate and dark woods — extremely sleek and pretty. You wouldn’t expect this kind of trendiness from a Hilton, though I guess with the Olympics coming in 2012, everyone in Canary Wharf is hoping to cash in. (Canary Wharf is east of central London, and the new Olympic complex is going up a little further east of Canary Wharf, which means if you’re at the Olympics, Canary Wharf is the closest thing that isn’t the middle of nowhere).

Service at the restaurant was awful, and the food even worse. The waiter had to repeat our orders at least three times before he got it right. And my baked goat cheese starter tasted like the cheese maker hadn’t quite gotten around to finishing making the cheese. It just tasted like what I imagine curds taste like – grainy and sour – drizzled with vinegar. Bleagh.

My main course of veal escalopes and pappardelle was drowning in a heavy cream sauce. If I had to look on the bright side, I’d say my pasta dish included large, fresh mushrooms that I could occasionally rescue from the cream sauce by moving it to higher ground at the edge of the pasta bowl. This is what you get for £21 a main course. Yikes. At least the bathrooms were snazzy. I hadn’t realized that Villeroy & Boch was now in the business of manufacturing sinks, but here was proof that this was, in fact, the case. Oh, and I learned that “Old Spots” are very special pigs. (The term was on the menu, and of course our waiter had no idea what Old Spots were and he couldn’t find out for us, either.) Pigs with a pedigree.

Dinner, needless to say, was far superior to lunch. Cathy and I met Jane and Bon at Huong Viet Restaurant, 12-14 Englefield Road, London, N1 4LS. Huong Viet is a real pain in the ass to reach, and it’s not in the nicest neighborhood, but once you walk through the grungy doorway, it’s an oasis of warmth, buzz and excellent Vietnamese food.

The fresh, cheap food is even better than what you get at the Four Sisters (Huong Que) in Seven Corners, Virginia. (To be fair, assuming you’re not flying to London anytime soon to eat at Huong Viet, the Four Sisters isn’t a bad second-choice. You just have to ignore the “Sniper Home Depot” across the highway).

At Huong Viet, where I eat at least once a month, I love the Vietnamese pancake with prawn. It’s this crispy, thin crepe that is filled with large, juicy prawns, crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, scallions and fish sauce for a mix of sweet and savoury flavor. You could eat this pancake forever, and it’s £5.50 for a huge portion. The dish gets brought out on a cheap-o plastic tray because it’s inevitable you’re going to make a mess eating it. The crepe has a lot of flavor and crunch because it’s pan fried, I think, but the crispiness isn’t very good at catching all the delicious filling inside. Hence the plastic tray to catch your mess.

The cha gio (spring rolls) are also hot, fresh and flavourful, but if it’s fried goodies you want, the prawn pancake is the way to go.The pho is my second-favorite dish at Huong Viet. The broth is refreshing but meaty-rich-tasting with just the right kick of chili. Noodles are always just past al dente (i.e, perfect for pho) and the beef is sliced thin and rare, which allows the hot broth to finish the cooking. Top with crunchy beansprouts and coriander and you have a core-warming meal-in-a-bowl.

Of course the four of us pigged out at Huong Viet, managing to order and eat two prawn pancakes, spring rolls, two large bowls of Hanoi pho, a whole steamed sea bass, and half a “shredded duck” dish (which is served peking duck style, with pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce).

All this food and five lemonades for £15 a person. So you begin to see why I go there at least once a month.If you end up at Huong Viet (and you should), be aware that the service is sloooow. Nobody is rude or anything. It’s just that the place seems to have only two servers, and while they are doing their best, the room is large and two people just never cut it. Saying the servers look hunted is an understatement. But be patient, because the food’s worth the wait.~~~

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My Pie

This weekend, Jon and I did a lot of cooking and eating (surprise, surprise). We had, for example, almost a dozen small apples dropped off by the organic farmer delivery service, so I whipped out my trusty Joy of Cooking and baked the pie you see above using the “apple pie 2” receipe. It is fall, after all (though no trees here are turning color – sad).

I don’t normally bake because flour always seems to get everywhere when I do it, and the prospect of cleaning it all up is unappealing. But I was feeling relaxed on Sunday, so I tried it out. Because the pastry dough turned out pretty easy to handle, I got ambitious and gave the lattice crust a go. All in all, not a bad result. Flaky pastry, intense fruity filling. A pie, basically. Next time I’ll figure out how to crimp the edges so they’re prettier and then I’ll be happy.

It was, by the way, quite a hassle trying to find some shortening to mix into the pastry dough. The three store clerks I asked at Sainsbury’s had never heard of shortening, so I ended up using some vegetable margarine instead. The recipe was still mostly butter, but apparently the shortening helps you add structure to the crust because its melting temperature is higher than butter’s. Where’s Alton Brown when you need him to confirm?Fruits at the Market

Jon and I dropped by the weekly Islington Farmer’s Market on Sunday. Even though we now get more produce than we can handle in our weekly organic delivery service, it was too bright and sunny to ignore a trip to our local market, which is a 5-minute walk away, tucked behind the Islington Town Hall.

I love a lot of things about the market, not least of which is how speicalized the sellers are. There are stands selling just tomatoes, or just jars of honey, there’s the goat cheese guy, the organic eggs guy, the three bakers whose stands are next to one another but who distinguish themselves by bragging about their pastries or their country loaves . . . this sort of specialization is, I think, a mark of how quality these products are.

And look at the freshness of everything -the dusty “bloom” still on theArtisan Bakers at Market plums, for example. Hard to beat the produce at a farmer’s market.

Anyway, we’ve been eating out a lot lately. We started off our weekend with lunch at our local Yo! Sushi, which is one of the conveyor-belt sushi chains that’s popular in London (the other big chain being Itsu). There’s an outpost of Yo! on the 5th floor of Harvey Nichols, but we went to the humble location near Angel to satisfy my sudden craving for sushi.

The sushi is served on colored plates, which are coded to correspond with different prices. You sit at tables along the perimeter of a conveyor belt that carries the different sushi plates past your table, and then you serve yourself by taking appealing-looking plates off the conveyor belt. Plates are priced between £2 and £5 each, but the catch is that each plate comes with, say, two pieces of maki, so making a meal of it can really add up fast. At the end of your meal, the waitress counts up your various-colored plates and tots up your bill.

None of the sushi was great, but nothing was bad, either. What I mean is that at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, even though the conveyor belt is zipping around and the plates are being replaced constantly, it’s just 101 variations on salmon, which is too bad. I don’t know why there’d be so little variety during slow hours, but there you go. Our tab for two was £27, mostly because Jon wasn’t too hungry, so no complaints.

On Saturday night, Liz, Jon, Jon’s friend, Gokce, and I ate at The Marquess Tavern, 32 Canonbury St., N1 2TB, 020 7354 2975, which was recently reviewed by Time Out as one of the best gastropubs in London.I loved the high-ceilinged, spare interior of the dining room (click on the Time Out review above to see a photo), and it was a pretty walk along New River to get there from our neighborhood.

According to the review, the dining room used to be a morgue. Yikes. But I had no idea while I was there, so I’m glad I didn’t read the review carefully until after our dinner.

The food and atmosphere were a lot fancier than they were at the Charles Lamb last Thursday. I ordered steamed mussels with fennel as a starter, and they arrived hot and fresh, but the wine/butter sauce (oddly) lacked salt, which was easily fixed using the pinch bowls of salt everywhere. The large cuts of meat that the Marquess takes pride in were too big for our party of four. Liz and I wanted to share “rib foremeat,” but there was no piece small enough for two people there. Oh well – next time.

At £100 for wine, starters and mains for four people, it seems to be pretty good value for your money, especially if you bring a big enough group to share some of the big cuts of meat. We’ll go back.~~~

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I organized an outing on Thursday night at the Charles Lamb Pub (16 Elia St, N1 8DE, 020 7837 5040), which just happens to be in my neighborhood (here’s to the prerogative of the planner).

I love that I live in a city where someone connected Elia and Charles Lamb. In case you’re a little hazy on your British essayists, Charles Lamb wrote “The Essays of Elia” in the early 19th century. His pen name, Elia, is a recurring clue/solution in the New York Times crossword (bc there are lots of vowels in a row?), and perhaps most interesting to everyone (to me, anyway) is that his sister stabbed his mother through the heart with a table knife. So sayeth the wikipedia.

So, back to the food, the pub is tiny, and you seat yourself. I arrived first asked a group of three men to switch from a table for six to a nearby table for four so that I could take over the six-table with my friends Brian, Jane, Bill, Bill’s cousin Kate, and Bill’s friend Raghav. (All of us American, except for Raghav, who’s from Delhi). The guys who moved tables were super nice about it, so cheers to them. I had every intention of ordering them a round when our orders were taken, because in the UK, nothing says “thank you” quite like free beer. But of course my group cheerfully chatted and waited at our table for about an hour before we noticed on a chalkboard the message: “order at the bar.” Oops. And by then the guys had eaten and left the pub.

It shows you (1) how easy-going the pub is to let a big group sit at a table for an hour without ordering anything; and (2) how accustomed we are to slow service here that waiting an hour for someone to take our order was OK.

The pub seemed to have just one server, so we figured the server was really overwhelmed and we didn’t want to be pushy Americans. Of course, it turns out the pub has only one server because, well, you’re supposed to order at the bar.

My chicken pot pie was pretty disappointing. It had a hot, flaky crust, but the pie filling tasted like oversalted chicken soup. How hard is it to make a nice, thick pot pie filling? Just spend two minutes spent adding some butter, milk and flour, right? The pub’s fish pies tasted better, I thought, with their pillowy mashed potato tops, and Jane’s duck confit was probably the best of all the dishes ordered (not dried out, but with most of the fat rendered and the meat salty and tender).

Who would have thought you should come to a pub and skip the pies but order the duck?

Of course, the beer selection was good, as was the price – our total was £17 a person. Throw in the cozy atmosphere – the pub had about five tables and a roaring fireplace in the dining room – the warm, soft lighting, and a buzz of locals in and out by the bar, and you have a welcoming place to meet friends. It’s worth another visit, and next time, I’ll steer clear of of my pre-conceptions of what a small pub cooks best.
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Thank you to everyone who today sent me the story most relevant to my blog:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/04/nyregion/05applecnd.html

I wasn’t planning on ever explaining the naming of this blog, partly because it might seem pretentious and partly because I didn’t want to draw attention to it (and therefore give anyone the idea that I am an expert on R.W. Apple or that I want to emulate every one of his reported characteristics). But of course, after learning today that the man who inspired my blog has died, I’d like to share this following piece of trivia, however humble or doubtful a tribute it may be.

I named my blog after maybe a minute, max, of thought. The quickness of my decision had nothing to do with casualness. Rather, when prompted by the blog host site to come up with a blog address, I had no doubt whose name would capture the qualities I wanted to capture in my blog: R.W. Apple. Bien sur. It’s a name I associated with eating, travelling, and writing, which happen to be the three things I most enjoy doing and which I’d like to share and indulge in through this blog. That he also had a long and famous career with the New York Times was just (extra sweet) icing on the cake, because while I ‘m obviously not quite en route to being London bureau chief for said newspaper, most of you know how I feel about the NYT.

I won’t claim to have admired his political writings (didn’t read enough of them to have an informed opinion) or his taste in restaurants (J. Sheekey, seriously?). But from the following excerpts from today’s NYT obit, you’ll see what I admired and envied most about his life:

Raymond Walter Apple Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1934, in Akron, Ohio. His father, also known as Johnny — nicknamed for Johnny Appleseed — ran a chain of grocery stores that had been founded by the family of Mr. Apple’s mother, the former Julia Albrecht. The senior Apple had hoped his only son would take over the business, but an early encounter with The New York Times in the Akron public library gave Mr. Apple other ideas.

In the pages of The Times, Mr. Apple once told Current Biography, he found “wonderful, romantic” bylines like Osgood Carruthers and Drew Middleton, reporters writing from faraway places. “It seeped into my consciousness that these people were actually being paid to do this,” he said.

At the end of the 1976 campaign, Mr. Apple was named London bureau chief, a job he held until 1985. In that post he covered not only British politics but the Falklands war, elections in France and Spain, the Iranian revolution and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. He traveled widely throughout Europe, exploring and writing about his interests in food, wine and architecture and amassing a wine cellar whose contents would animate dinner parties 25 years later.

I’m sorry I will never get to meet him. I don’t know how that meeting would ever have happened if he were still living (OK, fine, maybe I hoped he’d google himself on a rainy day and find my blog and enjoy it enough to post!), but to be sure, now all I can do is hope that this blog lives up to the smarts, wit, adventure and general good living that I wanted to connote by invoking his name.

Ever yours,

RW Apple Wannabe.

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Isarn Restaurant interior, Islington

This past weekend, I met a few of Cathy and Bobby’s banker-couple friends for brunch on Saturday. We went to a very attractive and fun French-y place called Aubaine on Brompton Road. I see its appeal, but the food was pricey for what it was, though not bad. I guess you’re paying mostly for the ability to hoard your table for hours on end (as we did for almost three hours). Side dishes were the strong point — buttery, crunchy haricots verts and a creamy potatoes dauphinois were good.

Saturday night, I met my friend Sinead for dinner in my neighborhood. We dropped by Isarn on Upper Street, which I hadn’t been to in a while – not because I didn’t like the food, but more because the last time I went, I thought it, too, was kind of overpriced. And because the restuarant is owned by Alan Yau’s sister, I keep thinking it’s just a vanity project that became reality only because the brother is a big restauranteur in London.Green chicken curry, Isarn restaurantStill, it’s a pretty restaurant (see photo of the interior at top) and it’s nearby.

This time around, I enjoyed my meal there. We ordered some mixed appetizer deal for £12, and the chicken satay was juicy and flavorful, which is always a good sign considering chicken satay is normally a throwaway item on the menu.

My green curry was the right mix of spicy, creamy and sweet (the last time I had it, it was not so well balanced) and our bottle of rose went well with our meal. So yes, I’d go back – dinner for two was £70.   [Note: I have been back several times since this post and I do still enjoy eating there. The service is friendly and efficient, which is another plus I’ve come to appreciate over time.]

We dropped by Keston Lodge and the Islington Tap and then called it a night. What’s slightly entertaining (or sad, depending on how you look at it) is that the next day, Sunday, I met other friends for Sunday roast at the Keston Lodge and then of course we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the Islington Tap, chatting and occasionally watching the footie on the flat screens. Very relaxing.  

A “proper Sunday roast,” by the way, means you get a huge hunk of meat, some form of potato, Yorkshire pudding and maybe some braised vegetable – all covered in a brown sauce/gravy. And the one at Keston Lodge was very good. I ordered lamb, which was tender and of course flavorful when smothered in the gravy. And the potatoes were crispy and hot. The Yorkshire pudding (which is sort of like a popover or brioche – very eggy and airy in the middle) was kind of deflated by the time my dish arrived, but it was fine once you covered it in (of course) gravy!

The big downside is that it took the Keston Lodge servers about an hour and a half to serve us. Ahhh, Sunday in London.Islington Tap

And I’ve come to really like the Islington Tap. It’s just so comfy and warm (and just down the block). I used to be annoyed that it feels as if no coffee places in London are open past 6 p.m., but it turns out that if you just want to hang out with friends or read a book or newspaper, you go to your local pub. And that’s what the Tap is perfect for. I like knowing I have a “local” where the bartender and manager recognize me and say hi. [You can hear the Cheers theme song now, I know.]

The place is nothing special, but I like claiming it as mine and always finding a seat there.

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