Archive for October, 2007

Florence skyline, Duomo

Buon giorno! Jon and I are back in London after a trip to Florence and Tuscany with our friends Kate and Ray, with whom we traveled in Portugal a few months ago.

Tuscany in the fall is beautiful – New England leaf peepers, eat your heart out – but sadly we had a few days of rain and gray. I could have stayed in London for that.

Florence is also pretty, but is it just me or is the service and attitude in restaurants and shops rather poor there? Jon and I were last in Florence in 2003, and I don’t remember anything bad about it, but this time around, I have a few bones to pick, and it’s not just with Florentine places.

A little bitching and moaning before I get to the happier food and shopping reports:

1. If you don’t want to sit parched through your meal, bottled water is your only option. Ordering a carafe of tap water in Florence and Tuscan towns appears to be impossible. When I tried, at best I got a dismissive ‘no,’ and at worst, I seemed to have flagged our table as a “no service zone,” which meant we waited close to half an hour for any server to even catch our eye again. (You can imagine how popular I was with my tolerant dining companions).

2. Coperto. I hate coperto. In Italy, coperto is supposed to cover the cost of your place setting and crappy, stale bread that nobody ever wants to eat. I actually appreciated that one restaurant, Baldovino, did away with the charade entirely and didn’t even bother with the bread. They just charged the coperto. My two cents’: if the place setting costs that much, just add it to menu prices, please! Otherwise, I find it kind of deceptive.

Less rant and more rave to come. Ciao.

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Canteen Restaurant, Spitalfields Market, London

Canteen restaurant is this year’s Observer Food Monthly “Best Restaurant of the Year”, so Jon and I have been meaning for a while to see what all the hype’s about. Unfortunately, Canteen doesn’t take reservations until 6 pm on the day you want to visit, and I’d heard it’s always a wait to get a seat at one of the resto’s long, communal tables.

Well, it seems the trick to getting a table at a popular restaurant like Canteen is to eat there when everyone else in the country is watching, say, a Rugby World Cup final match between England and South Africa. And that’s how Jon and I found ourselves with a choice of seats at Canteen on a Saturday night.

Big pluses for Canteen based on our visit: convenient, fun location (in Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street station); low prices (few main courses above £10); lots of wines served by the carafe; multiple vegetarian options; casual, helpful service; and an all-day breakfast menu (for when you just have to have eggs benedict!).

Minuses of our meal there: uneven quality of food; a carafe of Meursault served lukewarm (gross!).

Overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I did have high expectations thanks to that whole Observer Food Monthly thing.

potted duck and piccadili at Canteen restaurant

Potted duck (aka shredded duck cooked in duck fat till it’s spreadable) is one of my favorite dishes of all time, and I think I might have to live in the UK forever to ensure a regular and continous feed for my addiction. At Canteen, its consistency was thick but still spreadable, and it smelled rich and meaty. Imagine my surprise when I found that it tasted kind of bland, which is why the piccalilli was so key for adding some fruitiness to all the blandness. Overall, the Albion‘s potted duck remains tops, and Canteen’s felt like a waste of calories. (more…)

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chocolate milkshake at All-Star Lanes

I’m always amused when I flip through a London dining guide that’s organized by cuisine and the restos listed in the “American” section are a who’s who of mega-chains: Chili’s, Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe . . .Well, my snobbish ways had a (small) comeuppance when I found myself at All Star Lanes this week for a team-bonding event (ahh, the modern workplace). The place is so retro-romanticized that it has nothing in common with a normal (dark, loud, slightly-seedy) bowling alley, except for the fact that there are lanes and bowling balls. And you know, I was never a fan of bowling alleys, so I think the retro-romanticized thing is a real improvement. (more…)

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Moro Restaurant exterior, London

Every time I travel to Spain, I get psyched for tapas. But then I inevitably overdo it and learn the meaning of having too much of a good thing. I usually return to London totally uninterested in having tapas ever again.

Luckily, there are long enough gaps between trips to Spain which must be filled with a tapas run or two in London. And my favorite places to get tapas in London, Tapas Brindisa and Moro, are closely related to Brindisa deli, a well-stocked Spanish gourmet shop with locations in Borough Market and Exmouth Market. (Moro gets some of its most delish inventory (i.e., jamon iberico and chorizo) from Brindisa, which just happens to have a location next door to Moro).

Brindisa Shop, Exmouth Market, London

So, the trick with Moro is that it’s packed every night of the week, which means that because Jon and I never plan ahead enough to make a reservation, we end up calling the resto at the last minute and getting a really early (7 pm) or really late (10 pm) table. And even at those early or late hours, the tables are full.

Why so popular?


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Cardiff keep, Wales

In addition to all the scenic hikes you can do in Wales (last weekend, we did a 9-mile loop called the “Waterfalls and Ridges” hike that I’d highly recommend), there are lots of castles to visit, too. “Real” castles. The kind you’d draw as a kid, with crenellated turrets, keeps, moats, flagpoles and everything.

I’m hazy (read: pretty ignorant) on Welsh history, but the pattern of history underlying most of the castles seems to be: Romans build forts; Norman lords start castles on top of the forts to show that William the Conqueror meant business; English kings fortified the castles to keep down those pesky Welsh rebels; hundreds of years of fighting and sieges ensue.

Take, for example, Cardiff Castle (photo above), which sits in the middle of Cardiff. It’s literally the last bastion of medieval history in a downtown area overrun by the usual high-street chain stores. The “pattern” I just described applies to the castle keep, for sure, but what’s quirky about Cardiff Castle is the Victorian-era mansion that sits on a wide lawn next to the keep.

The Castle website describes the mansion thus: “With his immense wealth and the fanciful talents of his architect, William Burges, John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, created the Gothic splendour we see today. Not only a unique archtectural treasure but also a showpiece for some of the most important Victorian interiors in Britain.”

But in my own words: “The mansion is yet another example of interior decorating a la eccentric rich guy with too much money and time on his hands.” (more…)

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The Foxhunter gastropub, Nantyderry, Wales

Last weekend, Jon and I returned to Wales, and this time, we drove up and dragged along three friends. Of course, none of us are UK natives, so you have to picture five otherwise capable adults trying to figure out how to drive on the left without swiping cars in neighboring lanes.

Oh, and it turns out weekend traffic fleeing the city is not just a NY-DC thing, so what should have been a 2.5-hour drive to Cardiff turned into a 5-hour one.

The snazzy rest stops along the M4 made the trip a lot easier, though. Sure, they’re unvarying (Burger King, M&S, Upper Crust, WH Smith), but the ones we hit were also uniformly clean and modern. Thumbs up to highway-related infrastructure between London and Cardiff.

UK Rest Stop

But back to restaurants in south Wales. Although the five of us didn’t dine out much last weekend, I’m reminded to share a few thoughts on better-known area restaurants Jon and I tried during our trip in late August. Generally, we were unimpressed by the food we had in Cardiff (think big chains – mid-range and low-end), but once we drove out to the surrounding areas, we found restaurants serving well-prepared meals made from locally-sourced ingredients.

Molecular gastronomy? Not in south Wales. But after hiking the rugged Welsh hills all day, I could think of nothing better than, say, a perfectly-rare and juicy rack of lamb.

The Foxhunter gastropub in Nantyderry (located in the eastern part of Brecon Beacons national park, near the bustling metropolises of Usk and Abergavenny) was excellent in all ways: decor, service and food.

The decor is rustic in a Pottery Barn-comfortable way: dark, polished wood furniture accessorized with hurricane vases, pillar candles and cream curtains. The service was friendly and attentive (note that in Wales, you’re first shown to the bar for a drink even if you’re table’s ready, and when you indicate you’re done with your aperitif, only then are you shown to your table).

The Foxhunter’s menu offered fresh, local produce prepared with a light Mediterranean influence. There was nothing mind-bendingly creative for dinner, but this is the country life, writ fancy. The high quality of the ingredients was the star feature at the Foxhunter.

We knew we were in for a treat when our meal started with warm, fresh-baked focaccia and fluffy, yeasty rolls. The latter was served so warm that after I cracked open the crust, the rich, creamy butter I dabbed (OK, fine, smeared) on melted instantly.

Jon’s fried courgette blossoms stuffed with ricotta was out of this world. The batter coating was thin and crispy, and the ricotta was melt-in-your-mouth creamy. I think it’s the best fried courgette blossoms we’ve ever had, and we have quite a sample size to draw from, I assure you.

My shrimp and scallops were the one disappointment of my meal. The diavolo sauce was excellent – sweet tomatoes with a spicy finish – but the shrimp and scallops were overcooked to slight toughness, and whatever flavour was left was masked by the strong sauce. It was obvious I should have gotten courgette blossoms!

Jon’s whole lobster was small, but he couldn’t resist ordering it because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen lobster on a menu. Lobsters apparently live in the waters around south Wales. (They are otherwise tres American, did you know?) In any event, though small, the lobster was super juicy and sweet, and Jon was careful to clean out every last bit on his plate. We may have imagined it, but I think there were a lot of envious eyes on Jon’s lobster that night.

My rack of lamb was outstanding, though sadly, it hadn’t been trimmed, so even I and my gluttonous ways had to admit defeat and trim off some of the 2” layer of fat on each piece. Still, excellent lamb.

Appetizers were £8-10, and mains were £15-25. It’s pricey, especially for the area, but worth it. Definitely stop by the Foxhunter when in Brecon Beacons, or just south Wales, generally.

Fairy Hill Hotel and Restaurant, Gower Peninsula, Wales

During our day by the seaside on the Gower peninsula, we had dinner at the Fairy Hill restaurant. I was a little disappointed that in the evening, it was too chilly to dine out on the restaurant’s pretty terrace, but in summertime, definitely go for that option.

The food at Fairy Hill was good, but I’d make way more effort to stop by the Foxhunter before returning to Fairy Hill. I think Fairy Hill is in its faded glory phase. The menu was more ambitious than at the Foxhunter, and the decor had a “we’re the fancy restaurant in town” look circa 1990, but the food had its high notes still.

For example, our meal started with amuses bouche. An elegant thought, but most of them were stale, so really, the restaurant shouldn’t have bothered. Other than the cheese beignets, which were served hot, at least, the salmon and the foie gras both tasted like they’d been hanging out in the fridge all day on old bread, and serving the amuses on a napkin heightened the sense of non-freshness as all of them were a little stuck to the napkin.

The sun-dried tomato bread was crumbly and buttery. Almost cakelike. I’m no sun-dried tomato fan (for no other reason than that it seems totally 80s, which I suppose means I need to work past the idea of trendy vs. unfashionable food), but in the bread, the sweet tanginess of the sun-dried tomato was the icing on the cakelike bread.

My scallops appetiser was a high note of the meal. Very tender and sweet. I was so relieved it wasn’t overcooked. (You never know what might happen in the benighted countryside!) The wrong note was the mango-and-red-pepper salsa that accompanied the scallops. It was totally unnecessary and too sweet.

Jon’s baby dover sole appetiser was buttery and tender, which is why I left with the impression that the appetizers at Fairy Hill are worthwhile, and the main courses respectable enough. (Jon’s sea bass and my roast chicken were both good, but we could probably cook the same at home).

The menu was either £30 prix fixe for two courses or £40 for three. Our tab was about £100, which included wine. I’d go back if I were in the Gower during the summer and could eat outdoors. Otherwise, next time I’m in the Gower, I’ll probably try another place, particularly because it’s a 1.5-hour drive to the resto from Cardiff.

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Henry Moore’s Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped

Taking advantage of some non-rainy, partly-sunny weather this past weekend, Jon and I, together with our friends Liz and Ben, journeyed down to Kew Gardens.

Kew is the Royal (what does that mean, exactly?) botanic garden located way at the end of the District Line. I hadn’t been there since last winter, when I tried out Kew’s temporary ice rink and was scared away by the mobs of teeny boppers who congregated there (why didn’t they go hang out in malls, like they do in America?).

Despite the trauma of teeny boppers on ice, I wanted to revisit Kew in order to check out the Henry Moore exhibit that just opened, so Jon and I paid our £21 admission (it would have been £25, but Liz and Ben have a membership, so we got to mooch some savings just for being with them) and happily wandered around the gardens for a few hours to enjoy the landscape and see Moore’s handiwork.

The “Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped” (photo at top of post) is representative of what little I know about Moore’s work. I like that his sculptures are so rounded and sexy, but I couldn’t help wondering if, absent knowing the name of the sculptures in advance, I would identify such abstracted shapes so “clearly” as, say, a reclining female figure.

My introduction to Henry Moore was at university (see, Mom and Dad, that $130K you spent was totally worth it!), where visitors and students can ooh and ahh over a smaller version of “Oval with Points.”

Henry Moore’s Oval with Points

In the Henry Moore brochure Kew hands out, it says that Moore designed Oval with Points because he was inspired by an elephant skull. Well, clearly the brochure is just indulging in crazy talk, because everyone at university knew that if you viewed Oval from a side angle, you’d find only Richard Nixon’s nose – like so:

Profile view

The sculptures I enjoyed the most were the ones whose images and shapes changed depending on what angle you stood. I enjoy feeling like I’m figuring out a riddle – the riddle of “what is it supposed to be?” Like with Oval with Points, or, say, Double Oval (below):

Henry Moore’s Double Oval Sculpture

Looks like the PBS logo to me!

Much as I enjoyed the sculptures, don’t be discouraged if you don’t make it to Kew in time to see the exhibit (though you have until 30 March 2008). The Gardens are very pretty on their own.

There’s a classic, Victorian-era palm house to see and sweat in; a pagoda, English style (i.e., made of brick and covered in French doors); the truly stylish Sackler Crossing over a pretty, manmade lake; and even a little folly, built so Queen Charlotte (wife of every American’s favorite King, George III) could play the role of simple country girl to get away from it all. If you’ve been to Versailles and have seen that ridiculous petit hameau, you’re familiar with how out of touch those royals were (are?).

So I say, save up your 1,250 pennies and get to Kew!

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