December 28, 2010

Being a Tourist in London on Christmas Day

In general the whole of Europe shuts down for Christmas Day. In London the Tube and buses do not run, the streets are deserted, and most of the businesses close. However, this is not disastrous for tourists in the city on that day. Actually, it presents an interesting opportunity.

On Christmas Day we headed out to walk around London and visit several of historic sites. The street outside our hotel was almost empty - only a few cars and people going about their way. But, as soon as we walked onto a main street we joined the rest of the tourists that were out and about.

We began by walking towards St Paul's Cathedral via Oxford Road, Kingsway, and Fleet Street.

We arrived at the cathedral early in the afternoon. Inside was quiet and the sheer size of the building takes a different perspective. From the outside it definitely dominates the skyline of the neighborhood and places a part in the silhouette of the city overall. But, on the inside the massive size of the almost empty space was overwhelming.

After stopping to visit St Paul's Cathedral we walked out onto the Millennium Bridge to get a view up and down the river. This is a modern and marvelous food bridge that was constructed for London's New Year's Eve celebrations to mark the beginning of the 2000s.

Next we headed to the infamous Tower of London. Sitting upon the banks of the Thames this mid-evil castle is dwarfed by the larger and newer buildings that have been added to the landscape in the centuries since it was built. But it still stands sturdy with its many walls and towers.

From there we retraced our steps to Kingsway and then turned onto the Strand. We continued walking until we arrived at Trafalgar Square. The sun had set by this time. Lights illuminated the National Gallery building and Christmas lights twinkled around the square. At a distance we could see The light clock tower of Parliament - Big Ben.

From Trafalgar Square we turned back towards our hotel, our home while we are here in London. While traveling by foot in a city as large as London it is a rewarding experience. There are many hidden alleyways, unique buildings, and other interesting sights to see that are too small or insignificant to be featured on a tourist map but give the visitor a great perspective of the city.

December 27, 2010

Dinner at Tayyabs

After a jet-lagged day shopping we headed out in search of dinner. Since London is known for having excellent Indian food and other international cuisines, I had researched the best places to go before departing Washington.

We took the the tube to Whitechapel in search of Tayyab, a Pakistani restaurant recommended by the three London travel books I brought with me – as well as being highly rated on Yelp. When we came out of the station we were in a different part of London. Here there is no famous architecture or tree-lined streets. We walked by a street market that was being torn down for the night. The sidewalk was filled with tents, merchants, and shoppers. After about 5 minute walk we turned down a nondescript street and arrived at Tayyab.

We arrived in the early evening and inside the restaurant it was already getting busy. Diners were sitting at tables and waiters were bustling around delivering steaming plates of delicious smelling food.

After sitting down I opened our bottle of wine and we started to peruse the menu. (Tayyab does not serve alcohol, however diners are welcome to bring their own and serve themselves.) The food here is from the Punjab region. We ordered paneer tikka, a vegetarian kahari dish with eggplant, chick peas, and lentils, and tandoori roti to share. Jonathan also ordered mutton tikka, kahari chicken, and a meat samosa. (I learned from Wikipedia that Kahari is a circular cooking pot from India and Pakistan that is similar to a wok. These dishes were served in this type of cooking dish.)

Our food began arriving almost immediately. First we were served popadams. Then we got the samosa, tikka dishes, and roti. The kahari dishes were soon to follow. The food was amazing – without question the best Indian / Pakistani food I have had in any restaurant anywhere. The flavors were amazing and the level of spiciness was perfect. Jonathan and I both agreed our favorite dish was the kahari dish with eggplant, chickpeas, and lentils.

Then for dessert Jonathan went over to the pastry case and selected two sweets. The first was pink with cream and made from milk. It was sweet and had a coconut flavor. The second was made from ground lentils. It had a smooth texture and was similar to orange marzipan only much better with added flavors of spices.

So far this has been my favorite meal in London and I definitely want to return to Tayyab before we fly back home. I wish there was a restaurant like this in Washington DC – or anywhere in the US!

December 26, 2010

Our Adventures Begin - the Streets of London

So, our adventures have begun! The had already set when our flight left Dulles International Airport around six in the evening. We climbed out into the darkness and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean. While I have made this flight numerous times before, it was a first for Jonathan. His excitement about visiting Europe for the first time was infectious and made me smile even though he did not follow my advise to sleep for the majority of the crossing.

We landed in London just before dawn and made our way (bleary-eyed) through immigration, baggage claim, customs, and downstairs to the airport Tube station. Then we were finally heading to downtown London and our hotel! We arrived at our hotel tired and our hotel we were able to deposit our luggage and get some English breakfast.

The tea and warm food reenergized me and soon we were back out on the streets walking through Soho. Jonathan had requested that we go shopping on our first day, so we headed to Jermyn Street. Our first goal was to find several clothing shops Jonathan. He quickly found several shops that he liked and was soon carrying several bags.

Around noon we stopped for lunch at Itsu on Piccadilly Road. From my previous trips to London I remembered Wagamama, but not this place. I was delighted to find the food at Itsu equally fresh, tasty, and not extraordinarily expensive! This is one of the things I love about London – good, inexpensive noodle shops.

After lunch we continued shopping heading to Fortnum & Mason. This department store is fantastic. The upper floors are filled with luxuries – leather goods, china, perfumes, and and clothing. The ground floor and lower level are filled with wonderful edible items – chocolates and confectioneries, tea and coffee, baked goods, biscuits, wine, and much, much more. The store is fabulously decorated, everything is beautifully packaged, and the staff is extremely attentive. I always enjoy visiting this store when I'm in London to just browse and then buy a small treat or two and maybe some gifts. On the day of our visit – Christmas Eve – the store was buzzing with holiday shoppers and foreign visitors. It was a fun and dizzying experience! And a good start to our visit to London.

Guarding the City

London, England

December 23, 2010

Returning to My Home Away from Home

Is there a destination - other than your home or native country - where you feel like you belong? For me, that place is London. A vibrant city - and my favorite metropolis abroad.

London is a place where I never tire of wandering the streets with my camera. It is a city that I enjoy spending time in either with company or by myself - and never feel alone. I love visiting the quiet sanctuary of Neil’s Yard or the hectic bustle of high street. And then there is the splendid - and always camera ready - historic architecture. It is an amazing place!

London is home to some of the most recognizable structures in the world - the Westiminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Tower Bridge, and now the London Eye. It is home to extravagant department stores and simple curry houses. It is home to tradition - from the Changing of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace to the quiet ritual of afternoon tea. And it is an old city where you can be reminded of the lessons of history or enjoy the luxuries of the 21st century world.

At one point in my life I had the opportunity to travel to London and several other places in Europe on a regular basis. However, recently my opportunities to travel east across the Atlantic have been fewer and further between. In fact, it has been several years since I was last in this place I like to call my home away from home.

That will change tonight when my husband Jonathan are traveling to Europe for the holidays. Our itinerary has two destinations - London and Paris. I am excited not just to be returning to my favorite city, but to be bringing Jonathan with me. And to be continuing our journey from there to continental Europe and Paris.

London again! And at Christmastide! I am so excited to land at Heathrow Airport and take the Tube into the city. I am excited to wander the streets and show Jonathan the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of my favorite city.

And then Paris - the City of Lights. This a city of history and recognisable monuments and landmarks - Eiffel Tour, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées. It is also a place for the senses and indulgence - wine, cheese, chocolate, and pastries. This is a place I know will enchant Jonathan.

I am looking forward to this whole trip, this whole experience. And I am looking forward to sharing this adventure with Jonathan.

December 21, 2010

A Dining Experience

I have been anticipating this meal for a long time. It was a much delayed - and long anticipated birthday celebration for Jonathan. You have to make a reservation exactly 30 days in advance. It takes several tries to get through to the reservation line. The time for suspense is not lacking... So, the evening finally arrives. Komi. We met my aunt there early in the evening. The restaurant has a warm atmosphere with candles and flowers decorating the dining room.

This restaurant is not a normal dining experience. There is no menu - they just cook for you. When you make the reservation they ask you dietary restrictions and preferences and then create a different menu each evening depending on their guests. The meal consists of a variety of meze, a pasta course, an entree, and then a flight of desserts. So, the only decision left for the customers is what to drink.

After selecting our wine the first meze arrived. Mine was a small steamed bun with yogurt and fried caper berries. It looked lovely and took out my iPhone to take a picture of my food. However, before I was able to capture an image one of the servers came over and told me I was not allowed to take pictures of the food. What? No pictures? In a world with Facebook, Twitpic, and Foodspotting they don’t allow diners to photograph their food. As a result the words in this blog post will be unaccompanied by photographs. A disappointment, but one that passed quickly after my first bite of steamed bun.

After the steamed bun I received a variety of different small dishes featuring vegetables.

  • Fennel cooked three ways - one of which was an amazing sliced fennel that was cooked until the edges were caramelized but the center was still crispy.
  • Beets and avocado served with candied orange peel.
  • Crispy scallions served with a dressing made of fresh herbs.
  • A perfect salad with radishes and greens.

My non-vegetarian dining companions were served a variety of seafood or vegetables small dishes. My favorite small plate was a unique version of spanakopita. Instead of the normal layers of filo and butter with spinach in between, this variation is formed into a round ball with a crispy outside and a warm spinach puree inside. Eating it is similar to biting into a chocolate truffle with a molten center. It tasted absolutely amazing.

After the vegetable and seafood dishes we were all had wonderful dates served warm, stuff with marscopone cheese, and served topped olive oil and fleur du sel. A perfect bite - and definitely a tie with the spanakopita for my favorite thing in the meal thus far.

Next was the pasta course. The non-vegetarians at the table had pasta with lamb ragu - but were a bit jealous of my dish. I had freshly made gnocchi with butter and shaved several large shavings of black truffle. It was wonderful - the gnocchi was creamy and the flavors were warm and woodsy.

Then it was finally time for the main entree. I received a chestnut flan served with winter vegetables. It was creamy and delicious with a mild nutty flavor. I had never imagined eating a savory flan, but it was lovely. And of course, again my dining companions had a different dish than I. They were served roasted goat with a variety of accompaniments. To go with our entrees we all received this fabulous fresh pita bread. Warm and buttery - it was another highlight of the meal.

Last, came desserts. We received three small dessert plates and then a salty and sweet lemon lollypop. My favorite were a wonderful caramel disk served on a spoon and a frozen variation of baklava.

The meal at Komi was like a languid adventure. It is an event more than a meal - a true dining experience. Too bad I don’t have any photos to share with you.

December 19, 2010

Hip NYC Atmosphere & Outstanding Italian Food with a DC Address

A couple weeks ago my husband Jonathan and I decided to go out on an impromptu Sunday evening dinner date. We have wanted to try Posto for a while so made a reservation using the OpenTable app on my iPhone and we were on our way.

Upon arrival at the restaurant we were seated promptly. The interior of Posto has high ceilings and modern decor with the vibe of a hip NYC bistro. This restaurant has the buzz of a stylish dining establishment.

We started by ordering wine and perusing the menu. For food, I decided to get the fettucine and Jonathan ordered the polipetti (grilled baby octopus salad) and maiale (grilled pork chop). My fettucine was served in a cream sauce and had wonderful flavors of black truffles, porcini mushrooms, and cheese. Jonathan enjoyed his food as well, however voted on my (vegetarian) pasta as the best dish of the night. (That’s quite an endorsement coming from an individual who normally prefers meat - and specifically pork - dishes over all others.) The wine and bread that accompanied our meal were also superbly tasty.

And of course, no dinner date is complete without dessert... We ordered decaf espressos and decided to share the mascarpone mousse with coffee gelato and chocolate shot. The dessert was beautiful! The mascarpone mousse was light and was served with crisp chocolate wafers. Everything tasted amazing! It was a perfect end to a fabulous - and tasty - dinner date!

December 15, 2010

Poste - Pretty Food, Mediocre Taste

A while ago we had dessert at Poste Moderne Brasserie. It was a great experience. We sat on a couch just inside bar area. It was cozy, the sweets were delicious, and the service very good. The experience caused us to want to return.

So, we did - for dinner on a rainy evening... Again we sat in the bar area - this time at the bar proper. From the very beginning our server was aloof and lackadaisical, but we had still high expectations for the food.

I ordered a garden salad and pappardelle with mushrooms. Jonathan ordered pork belly and beef bourguignon - and then truffle frites to share. For wine Jonathan selected a malbec and I ordered the bartender's suggestion - syrah from Idaho. Yes, Idaho.

My wine was actually pretty good - well, it exceeded my expectations for a wine from Idaho. However, Jonathan's wine was definitely not worth writing home about, to say the least.

But, on to the food. The fries were the first dish served. They were crispy and good, however the truffle flavor was barely existent. Next Jonathan's pork belly and my salad arrived. Now, the food is at Poste is definitely frou frou food. The salad was lovely - but so small & dainty. It was served with a small shot of celery root soup that was good (just very small). My pasta was also good - whole wheat papperdelli with fabulous mushrooms - and again the serving was small. While my food was good, now of it was great. (And the prices here are not cheap.) Jonathan enjoyed his pork belly and beef bourguignon, but felt that both portions were small considering the quality and price.

Poste has the chic restaurant and bar appeal. It has the atmosphere to support being called a modern bistro or brasserie. However, the food quality and the service we received did not meet the expectations of such that type of an establishment. The overall experience was therefore a disappointment.

So, after dinner at Poste, hungry and wanting, we headed Vinoteca for some more substantial snacks. There were did not experience disappointment.

We ordered wine with cheeses, nuts, dried figs, and crackers. The wine was excellent and the food was simple and very good. This place (which I have blogged about previously) is a great neighborhood wine bar. The atmosphere is comfortable and unpretentious. And the food is honestly good. Eating cheese, crackers, and dried figs with my hands - this is my kind of food. And the wine was very good. For dessert we ordered chocolate truffles. Perfect and simple. This is what I like about Vinoteca. This is a solid neighborhood wine bar that you always want to return to...

December 10, 2010

Brunch in a Quiet Corner of Miami Beach

All trips must come to an end. So, we began our last day in Miami by walking across the street from our hotel to Miami Beach. After a walk on the beach and a rejuvenating swim we headed to brunch. After reading reviews of local and touristy brunch spots on Yelp we ended up at Oliver's Bistro. Surrounded by condos and apartments this cute cafe is on the corner of West Avenue and 9th Street. This is away from the tourists and spectacle of South Beach.

We were seated at a table outside on the sidewalk. Decorated with leafy plants and shaded with bright orange umbrellas the sidewalk patio was a relaxing place to sit and enjoy our brunch.

The menu is creative and had several interesting options, but we both decided to try the popover. (Note to vegetarians, the restaurant was happy to make this dish without sausage for me.) Serving scrambled eggs and cheese stuffed in popover is an absolutely fabulous idea. The eggs and popover were fluffy and the cheddar cheese was creamy and added a great cheesy flavor. It was a lovely breakfast and a great way to end our trip to Miami!

December 2, 2010

The Design District – An Outside Room, Tapas, and Miami Cool

I had heard a bit about an emerging neighborhood north of downtown. Design, art, and style – that is is what I read about the Miami Design District. And that it is cool.

We first arrived in the Design District the late afternoon on Friday. The streets were quiet, customers were browsing the shops and galleries, and there was an air of calm. We walked down streets past shops, cafes, courtyards with trees, and an outdoor room. Yes, that is correct an outdoor room. At the intersection of North Miami Avenue and 40th Street NE there is the corner of a room. Furnished with a couch and two lamps, decorated in pink, and exposed to the elements, the two walls and partial ceiling stand still in stark contrast to the busy traffic of the streets. So uniquely Miami.

We spent the afternoon traversing the streets of this neighborhood and discovered a red coffee table in a modern furniture shop, an intriguing eye glasses store, and some tempting restaurant menus.

We returned the following evening, Saturday. It was dark when we arrived and found that the neighborhood was a transformed place. The streets were alive with energy and excitement; the restaurants and bars were abuzz. Music filled the air and crowds of people drifted through open art galleries and congregated on the sidewalks. It was a hip, local scene.

We had a dinner reservation at Sra Martinez, a tapas restaurant located in an old post office building at the corner of 2nd Avenue NE and 40th Street NE. The restaurant has a large patio dining area that abuts the sidewalk. When we arrived several groups of people were sitting at these outdoor tables enjoying food and drinks in the mild Miami evening air. Inside the main part of the restaurant has high ceilings with a bar and open dining room. Towards the back of the restaurant there is a balcony with another bar and a few tables overlooking the main dining floor. The lights in the whole restaurant are dim and the atmosphere is vibrant and energetic.

Upon arrival we checked in with the hostess and were delighted to be seated at a table on the balcony. This spot - perched above the majority of the crowd - awarded us with a perfect view of the scene at the restaurant. And this is a place where fashion, food, and fun come together. It is a place were people come to socialize, be out in a hip energetic neighborhood, and eat some great food.

So, on to the subject of food... I ordered some cheeses, crispy artichokes, mushrooms, and wine. Jonathan got butifarra (a white bean and sausage stew), chorizo, and wine. Everything was just perfect. The cheese was very good and the artichokes were wonderfully crispy and served with a creamy lemon sauce. The mushrooms were cooked in truffle butter and were delivered to the table wrapped like a present in aluminum foil. Jonathan was completely enchanted with his carnivorous dishes. It was a great meal.

Of course, every great meal ends with dessert. We shared excellent churros served with chocolate dipping sauce. The churros were so good - warm and chewy with with cinnamon and sugar. The rich and silky chocolate sauce was served cool - making it a perfect companion for the warm churros.

Our dinner at Sra Martinez was fabulous. The service was great - and the food was delicious. Dining here reminded me that I miss the wonderful Spanish tapas restaurants we used to frequent when we lived in San Francisco. Washington DC has a few tapas restaurants that are good, but not outstanding. Sra Martinez - like Alegrias and Zarzuela in San Francisco - is an outstanding place to go for tapas.

I am glad we veered off the standard tourist path and discovered the Design District. This neighborhood is definitely Miami cool.