Archive for February, 2008

Kiasu Restaurant exterior

When it’s cold outside, I crave curry laksa. The sweet, creamy coconut milk and the spicy chili oil warms me up. So last week, because it was cold and because – like many Londoners – we’ve been reading Time Out’s Top 50 Restaurants in London issue, Jon and I visited Kiasu, which was Time Out’s best “Cheap Eat” in 2007.

Kiasu is right across the street from Bayswater tube. It’s easy to miss (i.e., we missed it) because their front window is covered by so much distracting window art that you don’t notice the restaurant name. I can’t say the decor gets much better inside, but when I’m eating cheap, super-nice decor just makes me suspicious (that I’m paying more for overhead than for food).

Overall, our meal was good enough for the price, but it wasn’t good enough that I’d make Kiasu a destination. The dishes we ordered were a tad bland, which is not an adjective I expected to use when describing food from the Malay peninsula, and given how good all the other reviews I read were, maybe Kiasu’s popularity has been its downfall (i.e., is the kitchen toning down flavors to appeal to more people)? It was cheap, though. Two starters, two mains, and two drinks cost under £30.


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Brit Awards 2008 Earls Court

On Wednesday night, Jon and I attended the Brit Awards, which is like the Grammys, but for British recording artists. Lest you think we got tickets through some cool, hip connection, I should disclose that we were guests of the event sponsor, Mastercard.

What this means is that the front of the auditorium (near the stage) is packed with musicians and musician-related people, and the back of the auditorium (where Jon and I sat), is packed with guests of Mastercard and other corporate sponsors.

I’ll admit I never paid attention to the Grammys in the US, but do those awards have corporate sponsors? It seems a little – um – uncool to have a corporate sponsor, doesn’t it?

Things I enjoyed about the Brit Awards: (1) dressing up; (2) seeing Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney perform live; and (3) wondering if the women lined up in front of me for the bathroom are UK rock celebrities. (more…)

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Barrafina restaurant interior

Barcelona was one of the first European cities Jon and I visited after we moved to London, and right now, as the temperature hovers at 40F, I can think of nothing better than the Mediterranean life of Barcelona. Second best option: a stop in Soho at Barrafina restaurant, which is modeled on the lively and delicious Cal Pep in Barcelona.

Ham croquettes, Barrafina restaurant, Soho, London

Even on a Monday night, Barrafina was packed. No reservations, so you show up and wait your turn for a coveted bar stool. Luckily, you can order off a limited menu while waiting, so Jon and I flagged down one of the surprisingly friendly waiters (surprising because they look so harried) and got ourselves set up with manzanilla, ham croquettes (£4), and jamon de jabugo (£12.50). Time flies when you munch on crispy fried croquettes and fatty, melt-in-your-mouth iberico ham. (more…)

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Mangal indoor charcoal grill

When Jon and I first started dating, we’d go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day, despite generally blah experiences. We finally had it and swore “never again” when, one year, we went to our local divey Thai place in New York and discovered that instead of enjoying the comforts of cheap pad thai, we could order only a “Valentine’s Day Prix Fixe menu.” Basically, I can’t handle how a perfectly yummy, reasonably-priced, well-serviced restaurant suddenly transforms on V-Day into a mediocre, expensive, poorly-served one. Just say no!

One place that’s likely to stay true to its divey self, Valentine’s Day or not, is Mangal Ocakbasi Restaurant. It’s a Turkish grill restaurant (an ocakbasi, in fact) in scruffy Dalston, and in the fine tradition of divey restos in scruffy neighborhoods, it’s BYOB with no corkage charge.

Mangal Ocakbasi meat counter

When you walk in, you’re faced with a counter of meat – lamb chops, kofte, kebabs – and instead of sitting down and ordering from a menu, you pick what you want from the counter and then you sit at a table while your meats of choice are grilled on an enormous charcoal grill (thank goodness for powerful hoods over the grill or else the smoke would be unbelievable). (more…)

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Pearl Liang restaurant interior, Paddington, London

4706 on the Chinese calendar started this past Thursday, and as tempted as I am to make a joke about this being the Year of the Rat, I’ll refrain because my parents both happen to be Rats.

Anyway, because I’m lame and wouldn’t dream of organizing a celebration on a school night, I pretended today was New Year’s with dim sum at Pearl Liang.

prawn cheung fun at Pearl Liang restaurant, London

Despite its location in a soulless office complex behind Paddington Station, Pearl Liang has a lot of interior style, polite service, and high-quality dim sum. Prawn cheung fun and prawn dumplings are filled with juicy, sweet shrimp (that’s not overcooked into chewy tastlessness). Pork shu mai is another one of my faves at the restaurant – again because the bits of meat are identifiably pork, rather than the usual pork fat with pork bits.

turnip cake and xiao long bao at Pearl Liang

And what this photo above fails to show clearly are the xiao long bao. They’re filled with meaty broth and encased in a thin, dough shell, and while the pork filling isn’t as dense as it is at Joe’s Shanghai or Din Tai Fung (always the gold standard), they’re tasty and £2.50 for three, which is cheap enough that I can load up guilt-free.

Because Pearl Liang’s decor is so pretty and the food so quality, I always feel lucky that the prices are so reasonable. Regardless of how much we’ve stuffed ourselves with, the tab always seems to work out to about £20 per person. And that’s something to celebrate. Happy belated new year!
Pearl Liang on Urbanspoon

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Stoa of Attalos, Athens

Things I really liked about our trip to Athens:

  1. I never had to ask for tap water in restaurants. Servers immediately put out carafes of water and glasses when you sit down.
  2. The Acropolis. Sure it’s full of tourists, but that’s because it’s worth seeing. Even covered in scaffolding and missing the cool parts, the Parthenon‘s symmetry and size are beautiful. And if you go on Sundays during the winter, it’s free admission.
  3. The festive atmosphere in the Gazi district on a Saturday night. It’s like being back in college – everyone’s headed to the Gazi for a party night.
  4. The Athens metro system. It’s clean and fast and – at .80 euros a ride – cheap. Come to think of it, transport generally was inexpensive.
  5. The Art Hotel. It’s close to the Omonia metro stop; the rooms are clean and comfortable; and the staff really really want to be helpful. I’ve never gotten so much reliable and interesting local advice from a hotel, ever. And did I mention the free coffee and tea all day? And the wi-fi? And we paid 80 euros a night.

Things that were eh about our trip to Athens:

  1. The weather. In January, it’s 50 degrees F on a good day. And it turns out that there’s not much cafe culture going on when it’s 50 degrees. Our slogan for the weekend was “this would be really nice if the weather were warm.”
  2. The National Archaeological Museum. I’ll admit this is probably just me. There were just so many antiquities jumbled in there that I lost track of what made one marble statue different from another. I’m just hopeless without an audiotour. And the giftshop in the basement looks so sleek and modern that I can’t help but wonder why the Museum didn’t spend that money sprucing up the exhibition rooms, rather than on the gift shop/cafe. OK, I’m kidding. I know exactly why they made that decision.
  3. Pireaus Port. That’s one seriously ugly port town. I guess that’s the price you pay when a gazillion massive ferries chug in and out of the harbor every day.
  4. Greek coffee. Greek coffee is served with the coffee grinds in the cup. I’m not skilled enough to avoid drinking the grinds when I take a sip.
  5. The Freaking Lack of Water at the EasyJet terminal at the Athens airport. You can’t bring water through security, of course, and you can’t buy any water once you’re past security. And then you’re on the four-hour flight back to London; £1.50 buys you a minibar-sized bottle of water; and the airline ran out of bottles of water halfway through the flight. The dehydration was torture.

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Mamacas Taverna exterior

The vast majority of restaurants in Athens seem to be tavernas, the Greek version of the bistro. Of course, like bistros, not all tavernas are born equal. Some are fancy and expensive, and others are almost-literally holes in the wall. And you can count on Jon and me to have tried a range of them.I liked the divey places best, mostly because you can count on the same basic dishes at all tavernas (pita, tzatziki, Greek salad, grilled fish, fava bean in some shape or form), and overall, I didn’t see a big difference in the quality of food at cheapo places verus expensive ones.

We had dinner one night at a trendy taverna in the Gazi district (which is where Chelsea meets Adams Morgan) called Mamacas. The place is no secret, having both a New York Times and Times of London writeup to its name. I loved the all-white decor and fairy lights, and the service was friendly and helpful despite its trendiness.food at Mamacas taverna

And guess what we ate at Mamacas? From left to right: fava bean puree, grilled flatbreads, and Greek salad. The first batch of grilled breads was outstanding – hot from the oven – but the second batch took half an hour to arrive at our table and was cold and stale. And at 3.60 euros per basket, it cost at least two times more than what it does at regular tavernas. (more…)

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Crayfish in tomato broth at Varoulko restaurant, Athens

There are three restaurants in Athens with a Michelin star, and based on my reading, only one of them, Varoulko, sounded like it served Greek food – or at least non-French food. So that’s where Jon and I headed one night.

Three things we learned from eating at Varoulko:

1. Greeks eat late. Not Spanish late, but late such that nobody shows up at a restaurant until 10 pm, at earliest, so don’t be the losers (us) who show up at 9:30 pm wondering why the restaurant is totally empty.

2. Tip is included in menu prices (though you should add a little extra if you’re happy with service). Don’t be the clueless, seemingly-deep-pocketed tourists (us) and assume you’re still supposed to add a 15-20% tip.

3. At Varoulko, there’s no physical menu, but it turns out you’re still ordering a la carte. Basically, you’re at a restaurant where everything offered verbally by your waiter is the special of the day, and you won’t know how much anything costs unless you ask. Having never encountered this system before at a restaurant (and we’ve eaten our share of meals out), Jon and I assumed that in the absence of any menu, we were working on a prix fixe tasting menu basis. So when our waiter described a soup and four other courses, Jon and I imagined small, tasting menu-sized portions. (more…)

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