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Les Musées de Londres

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Lunch on the 7th floor of the Tate Modern.


The British Museum.



Marc in, and near, the National Portrait Gallery.



Hearts for Valentine’s Day

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

For Valentine’s Day this year, we happened to be in London.  Hadn’t really consciously planned it that way, but once I had realized the situation, I set a goal to obtain lunch reservations at St. John Restaurant.  I had heard about this place, this Legend years ago.  It never struck me as a particularly spectacular food destination until I read Anthony Bourdain’s opinion that he would eat his last meal on earth here:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad.


The place is known for its offal.  I borrowed The Whole Beast: Nose-to-Tail Eating, one of the restaurant’s books written by chef Fergus Henderson, from the library to research in advance the kind of snout-filled, tail-topped, chopped-ear-garnished food we would be presented with the option of eating upon arrival.  Frankly, I’m not really perturbed by offal as I find most of it – barring the wretched tripe – pretty darn tasty.  I’ll never pass up an opportunity to eat sweetbreads or ham hocks and, thanks to Alembic, will always order duck hearts on a menu.  So the prospect of eating at a restaurant infamous for its delicate and respectable treatment of unrespected parts was intriguing.

After several attempts on OpenTable, I snagged us a spot and that became our only appointment in London.   It was also the only appointment to which we arrived late.  We had 3 days to get there, and we got there late.  (Stupid windy streets.)   Out of breath and hungry, we stepped into the simply outfitted dining room and were seated at a table almost precisely in the middle of the room with a fine view of the kitchen shenanigans.

And thus, we began the job of translating the menu into North American.   The signature dish, the one that Anthony Bourdain would die eating, was what we would have to start, no question.  But what is Middlewhite?  What is an Arbroath Smokie?  Uh…  Brawn?  There were actually several more things on the menu about which we had no clue so kept our waiter stuck at our table answering questions for a few minutes.  (Middlewhite is a type of fatty pork.  Arbroath Smokie is a smoked haddock produced only in Arbroath, Scotland.  Brawn is Formula One racing team and, in Britain, a seasoned jellied loaf made from the head and sometimes the feet of a pig or calf.)

Eventually we selected the following:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, Duck Hearts with White Beans (it was á propos for Valentine’s Day), Marc had Braised Hare with Swedes and I had the Arbroath Smokie with Parsnips and side of Mash.   After all that business about nose-to-tail, we forgot to order anything pork.

The coveted bone marrow and salad arrived first accompanied by lobster-eating  implements meant to be used to scoop out the mushy, luscious marrow from inside the bone.   It’s eaten on toast, with a quick lash of grey sea salt and a pinch of parsley salad.  I admit, it was divine- though arguably the bone marrow at Alembic is just as good, if not better.  I couldn’t help the comparison!  It’s all I had known of bone marrow before this!   The duck hearts were lovely, but again, not as good as the jerk-spiced duck hearts with tangy pineapple at Alembic.  So far, a draw.

The main courses arrived and I was presented with a whole fish to eat.  With a rich, creamy sauce and a light smoky flavour, the fish permeated every taste bud and oral receptor, though not unpleasantly.  As I delicately peeled the flesh back from the bone, I informed Marc that I would be smelling of smoked fish for the rest of today, and likely into tomorrow morning.  For his part, Marc heroically finished his large portion of braised hare which tasted rather like lamb.  I suspect that was because the hare in the UK would be different from the tasty bunnies we eat here.  Intriguing, hearty, a proper filling lunch but an enlightenment, it was not.  Alas, I fear I had set the bar too high.


A Fighting Chance

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

It’s strange that when traveling, I mean while in the process of actually getting from A to B, my food choices devolve within the web of plebeian masses.  Nothing for breakfast on my way to the airport, a gigantic cup of coffee after check-in (what am I thinking?!   that can lead to nothing but an encounter with an airplane lav!), a 1000-calorie muffin, dry snack mix on the plane, washed down with a full-sugar ginger ale, greasy pizza for lunch during the layover, more soda, and wine on arrival for dinner.  No wonder I feel a wretched mess.

But in my defense, it can be difficult to find reasonable food when dashing between gates.  There is always a McDonald’s, some measure of coffee shop/cafe simmering to bitterness under fluorescent lights, someplace serving tepid pizza from under warming lamps and those sandwich-salad-on-the-go kiosks.   The latter are very misleading when one is looking for good food-  to have a ham & swiss sandwich, for example, one is pretty much guaranteed to get a small loaf of white bread stuffed lopsidedly with a great gob of sliced ham (origin far, far from being known), a couple of thin slices of tasteless plastic cheese, one sad ribby piece of lettuce and sliced tomatoes defeating the mayonnaise’s efforts to keep the bread from getting soggy.   After two or three days spent lolling in the refrigerated kiosk, that sandwich is thoroughly cold, dry on the outside, soggy on the inside, pathetic, utterly without taste.   A salad from one of these places is, at best, a mass of dried out iceberg coated with a solid layer of cheese and bacon bits, with a mini tub of full-fat dressing wedged in along the side of the bowl.  There are probably more calories in half of that little tub than there are people onboard the average 737.

But at last, with this most recent extendo-flight to and from Nova Scotia, there are signs of hope.  In Chicago, we found the Salad Express- one must still contend with cheese and ham and bacon ladled onto greens, but here are real choices for food that don’t contain massive amounts of calories and fat.  Miraculous that one can choose from several vinaigrette dressings.   In Halifax, we purchased a packaged spinach salad which (despite the “bacon” bits) contained delightfully fresh and springy spinach.   We bought Vitamin water and I drank from the water fountain.  Water!  From the fountain!  I willfully ignored the possibility of germs that came from far and wide.

rightbite_200x1391Most encouraging of all was United.  Yes, United Airlines; an unsuspecting domestic-route vanguard of quality buy-on-board food, a company that doesn’t force its customers into making food choices that will result in what could arguably called an airplane-food hangover.   On a 4+ hour flight, we had the choice of 4 “snackpacks“:  two of them involved cheesespread, one involved cheese sticks (described as “comfort food a-go-go”?) and one, thankfully, with no cheese at all.  I opted for the RightBite snackpack, a combo including hummus made with pronounceable ingredients, tuna salad made without mayonnaise, and baked pita chips, among other things.   Amazing to finally be offered food onboard that would normally be a part of my everyday diet, instead of something I would eat only whilst drunk and starving.   That snackpack, plus an apple bought before the 2-hour on-tarmac delay, saved my sanity.

So there is hope!  We arrived home after 16+ hours of travel without having been forced to eat unreasonble food.   I still drank wine for dinner on arrival, but at least my tastebuds were intact.

Surfin’ Now

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Much like every other woman in North America, I have recently read “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert.   I read it reluctantly, mind you, because of any religious parts, but my the members of my ex-book club insisted that there was little focus on “pray” and much focus was devoted to “eat”.   And they were right, I enjoyed the book very much, especially the food descriptions of the time she spent in Italy, eating plates and plates of pasta and two whole pizzas at one sitting.   At any rate, this was the first book I had read that took part (in part) in Bali.   Indonesia was really not high on my list of place to visit until I found myself in a neighbouring country with a few days to spare and a positive and interesting point of reference from Eat, Pray, Love.   From her descriptions, the island was cast in a fairly idyllic light: warm temperatures, easy going lifestyle, friendly people…  oh yes, and one or two spectacular beaches.    So, from KL, we made quick arrangements to zip to Seminyak and spend some time in the sun.

And it was sunny.   And it was hot.


Our $8/night room didn’t come with air-conditioning, so for the 5 days we were there, the only air-conditioning we encountered was in the mall (entered out of desperation for some relief from the heat) and the wee little cube of glass that surrounded the only ATM in the vicinity of our guesthouse.  We took our time whenever an extraction of money was required.   Across the street from the glass cube of cool air is a bar called Mixwell which, it turns out, is a gay bar, but that didn’t stop us from making it our first stop each night for the drinks and people watching.   It was hot as the surface of the sun, so what people wore – or rather didn’t wear – was an amusing topic for derisive comment over tall cocktails in the early evening.



We spent our days learning to surf.   What better place to learn?  Sure, there were rip tide warnings up and down the whole beach, and the current was so strong that my quads were sore just from having waded through the surf to swimable depth-  everybody was doing it.   The guy who rented us our beach chairs offered to teach us in between his naps on the big pile of chaise lounge cushions piled in the shade behind the beach café.  We agreed, mainly because the “lesson” included board rental, and set off into the surf.   Turns out, surfing requires quite a bit of strength and effort.  More strength than I had, apparently, because after several successful “surfs” into shore, my arms were shaky from pushing myself up off my stomach and my knees were bruised and a little raw from weakly dragging along the surface of the board to standing position.   That first day, we lasted about an hour in the water before becoming completely exhausted, and the days that followed didn’t see us get much stronger.    It was alot of fun though, and it beat learning in the frigid waters of Tofino or San Francico.


A Fine Start

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

Before we left for Malaysia, I declared that the first thing I wanted to do when we arrived was have an Asian breakfast of hot and spicy soup.  Then I wanted to visit the iconic Petronas Towers of KL.


In reality, we arrived in the afternoon so the spicy soup craving translated into cold Asian beer, and the trip to the towers was less about the view from the 41st floor Skybridge between the towers, and all about our first taste of Malaysian food.   Geoff and Lucinda wisely determined that our introduction to the local cuisine should start with a visit to Little Penang Kafé in the KLCC shopping mall housed at the base of the towers.  Actually, to describe KLCC as a mall is not giving it enough credit;  it is more like The Mall.  Not only is it the base of the city’s most recognizable landmark, it is several floors of tiled, marbled, designer-labeled, brightly-lit haven of cleanliness and air conditioning.   Besides the air-conditioning, Little Penang was the best part.

Still in a bit of a jet-laggy haze, we wove our way through and around traffic (no sidewalks in KL) and found ourselves at a table at the back of the kafe, mouths watering at the welcome suggestions of what we should first eat.   Geoff recommended nasi lemak, which we were to learn is the national dish and can be found everywhere, whether you like it or not:   coconut and pandan flavoured rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Lucinda insisted on whatever it was that turned out to be chicken in sort of long, deep-fried egg rolls.  I’m sure one of us had beef rendang, and wasn’t there a penang rojak to be had?    Geoff shared his char kway teow, flat rice noodles fried over very hot PORK FAT with light and dark soy sauce, chilis, shrimp, sprouts, chives, and fish cake.  Wash this down with more beer and, for Lucinda, a tall glass of freshly-made green apple juice.   Oh Malaysia, no wonder you’re the [self-described] fattest Asian nation-   a country of people who love to eat and who generously lace everything with coconut milk, palm sugar or pork fat;  I will happily aim to fit in!


Monday, December 1st, 2008

Less like laundry, more like architectural detail.


The Only Answer

Monday, December 1st, 2008

When it is so hot, so hot that your clothes stick to your person, so hot that you linger near the open refrigerator door, so hot that you feel like you need a shower immediately after having taken a shower, so hot that you can’t even remember what it feels like to be comfortably chilly, then a cold beer or cocktail is the only answer.

Geoff invented a drink in Malaysia which involves a double shot of dark rum and a colourful interlude of bright green guava juice.  When trying to think of a name, he remembered a drink that everyone seemed to really like from the hotel he stayed at in Senegal, called the ‘Mandingo’.   It seemed like a lyrical sort of name to apply to a drink and so the rum-guava cocktail was thus named.  Now look that up on Wikipedia.   Too late, that’s the name of the drink, and for vacation-happy-hour, it was always the right answer.   When not drinking at home, we did well to enjoy the upstairs open-air patio of a relatively swanky spot whose name I forget, but where they made an appropriately swanky Negroni.



Shortly thereafter, we were forced to drink Singapore Slings.  Well, maybe not so much forced as obligated;   we were in Singapore for a few days –  a short side-journey from Kuala Lumpur – and had no choice but to try the eponymous drink.    It turns out that though very pretty, I don’t like Singpore Slings.  Too sweet, I prefer a drink as bitter as my soul.


Singpore, however, is a place I could get used to, but more on that later.

New Place

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

This weekend I re-read Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes for about the hundredth time. Reading that book, her writing almost poetry, is like wrapping a warm and comforting blanket around me. I had seriously considered bringing that book with me when we travelled because of its ability to distract, comfort and calm. (As it turns out, there was absolutely no room for the book and I had much less need for it than I had anticipated.) There is a quote that I came across on Sunday that now seems more poignant than when I last read it 18 months ago,

“Setting off to see another country, I set off to see what is more grandly other- whole cultures, geographies, languages. Who am I in the new place? And who are they who live there?

If you settle in, even for two weeks, live in a house not a hotel, and you buy figs and soap at the local places, sit in cafes and restaurants, go to a local concert or church service, you cannot help but open to the resonance of a place and the deeper you go, the stranger the people become because they’re like you and they’re not.”

How true! How exactly, perfectly, succinctly true. I read that and instantly thought of Istanbul, how when we were there, we rented a flat for two weeks and indeed shopped for figs and soap at local markets, played backgammon and drank tea at local cafes. There’s no question that we still stood out as the stupid foreigners we were, there was hardly any chance of us blending in, but going for groceries, or visiting the hardware store, or briefly getting to know the patterns of our neighbours and internalizing the Ramazan drumming at dawn to the point where we were no longer woken up by it, made me feel like I was just slightly less tourist and very slightly more a resident. The difference is the thickness of a strand of hair but it made me happy to carry a jug of milk instead of a camera and to think that the people who saw me perhaps thought “There is a foreigner who lives here” rather then “Look, another tourist”.

A little of that feeling remains now that we are living in the United States. I am barely noticeable as a Canadian; until we speak in metric or use the word “toque” or have to show someone our ID, we are the Canadians that walk unnoticed amongst them. Most of the time, we are easily mistaken as Americans and I’m glad to blend in, the same way I was glad to blend in a shred in Turkey. I’m always especially pleased to be able to offer someone directions, and I’m asked often enough while walking the dog in the more touristy areas of town. Surely he makes me appear more a resident and occasionally, I am actually able to respond to a question in such a way that sustains the illusion; I wish I never had to say “Sorry, I’m not from around here…” and then not even be able to direct a visitor to a gas station for directions. But the longer we stay, and the more exploratory walks we take, the closer we will come to resemble San Franciscans, though I doubt we’ll ever shake the metric.

cimg7051.jpgMeanwhile, in an effort to rekindle some of the travel vibe, and to use some of our souvenirs, we made a splendid curry. While in Udaipur, a man that we met, Krishna, set us up with a private cooking tutorial which involved an early-morning trip to the market and a lesson by his grandmother’s neighbour, a woman who cooked in a tiny, concrete kitchen tacked onto the rooftop courtyard of her building. After our lesson, Krishna obtained two sets of spices for us; we had told him we were not married so he had assumed that we lived apart and would, therefore, each require our own samples of curry, turmeric, cardamom and saffron. As a result, we have alot of spices to go through, a pleasant enough chore. This curry ploughed through a fair portion of the turmeric but we used whole cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamom pods. We also used two burners, which is one more than Krishna’s grandmother’s neighbour had. There’s no way we could’ve remembered and/or duplicated the chapatis she taught us to make- that will take an afternoon of patience and practice someday, an afternoon when we can invoke some travel memories of what it was like to cook in someone else’s kitchen.


A Culinary Day Trip

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

One of the best things about staying here in Dreamville (aka. Berkeley) is its proximity to überDreamville. Just a quick trip on public transit across the bay and we’re in within reach of the Ferry Building Market.cimg6596-320.jpg

This is the market to end all markets; big, crowded on the weekends, expensive, touristy and overflowing with delicious, pretentious food- my favourite. First things first, though: if we were going to make a trip all the way across the Bay, we were going to first visit Marc’s all-time favourite coffee place, the Blue Bottle Company on Linden. A mere slip of a place, it serves coffee and espresso-coffees from freshly roasted and ground-to-order beans. We made quick work of finding it again and slurping down a delicious macchiato and cappuccino. (Sidebar: it turns out that there is a café 5 blocks from our house that sells this very coffee, about which we knew nothing until last weekend. We plan to be regulars.)

From there, it was a long-ish walk down Market street to the Ferry Building so we stopped, briefly, at Crate & Barrel – just briefly- just to see what they had on sale. An hour later, we continued the journey, with nothing to weigh us down but a mental list of all that we saw that we “needed”. Seriously considering starting an heirloom cast-iron frying pan.

Finally, there was the Ferry Building. We needed lunch, we needed oysters, and we needed to browse the food stalls and kitchen store. Lunch was most critical so we ate at the first place we saw that wasn’t – for the moment – overflowing with customers, Lulu Petite. Marc ordered a duck confit and arugula sandwich and I had a ham & provolone melt with truffled honey. We also had some sort of extravagent sparkling pomegranate juice and it was all extravegently delicious.

Next, we tried to visit Hog Island Oysters for a little oyster sampler but it was egregiously busy and there was a waiting list to sit at the bar, so we walked over to the seafood company and ate two each, raw, barenaked and juicy, from the kid selling them at the little table out front. Even that kid was busy, taking money in between his concentrated shucking.

The food stalls were a little too busy to peruse, even for us, so we instead inspected all of the products on offer at Sur La Table. Unfortunately, we could not justify buying all the things we wanted – what with the fact that we are leaving in a couple months – so settled for just an oven themometer and a promise to return if/when we can really do some damage.

The Set Lunch

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

cimg5728-320.jpgI am a huge fan of the set lunch menu. If ever we come across one on our travels, especially if it is of the French variety, I insist on making an effort to give it a go. Nine times out of ten, it is a delicious lunch for a great value, usually three courses with a drink and maybe even a coffee thrown in at the end. If we´re lucky, two of us can get a big meal for under $20. Plus, I have a theory that these lunches are even more delicious if there is a crowd of people in the restaurant and a queue at the door.

Twice in recent weeks we have come across dreamy set menus. The first was in the antique-y, bohemian barrio of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. We were actually looking for some other restaurant with a set menu and happened across a cafe named something like ¨Via Via¨. Anyway, it was crammed full of suits but we managed to snag one of the tables and ordered “dos, por favor.” This one was only two courses: roasted quarter of a chicken, salad and rice with home-made ice cream for dessert. Simple enough menu for a late lunch but it was hot and tasty and left us full enough that we didn´t need to eat again that day.

For the past two days, we have eaten lunch at the same cafe in Valparaiso, Le Filou de Montpellier. cimg5729-320.jpgYesterday, it was a crepe filled with bechemel and cheese to start, then roasted chicken with this fantastic mushroom reduction sauce and then profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce. It´s making my mouth water just to remember it. With wine, it was $22 dollars and there was a queue of people at the door waiting for our table. Hurrah! The meal today was a tarte of tomato, eggplant and camembert, slow-cooked beef in wine sauce with a gratin of potatoes and then Ile Flottant for dessert. No wine this time (thanks to a pisco-induced hangover today) but still, the best-value lunch menu I can remember having had. If we were staying here longer, I can almost guarantee that we´d be going back at least every other day. As it is, we´ll be going back tonight to Alegretto for – arguably – the best pizza I´ve ever had. We may not be eating classic comida Chilena, but I´m digging the food here.