Sunday, October 24, 2010

Highgate Cemetry and Kenwood House

Autumn is upon us early this year. While I'm loving the vibrant autumn colours, I am not sure if we're ready for another long, cold, dark winter in the U.K. Unlike the unseasonably warm autumn last year, this autumn arrived with a vengeance; I found myself pulling out my winter coats in the middle of September. Brgghhh....

The days may be getting shorter and the air cooler, but among the many reasons to love autumn is the gorgeous fall foliage, and of course, knowing that the holidays are fast approaching. After waking up at 4:00am this morning just to make sure that the San Francisco Giants secured a date with the Texan Rangers in the World Series (Go Giants!), I went back to bed and woke up a few hours later to gorgeous blue skies! We may not see the sun for the next few months so what better way to spend a gorgeous fall day than an afternoon at Hampstead Heath. And with Halloween just around the corner, Keenan suggested that we pay a visit to the legendary Highgate Cemetery in north London!
Highgate Village is full of Georgian charm nestled at the eastern edge of Hampstead Heath. The atmospheric well-heeled neighbourhood of Highgate is a world's away from bustling Soho and Covent Garden. The cemetery itself is divided into two parts -- the West and the East in which the former can be visited only with an organised tour, and ladder is open to the public for a small fee of £3. It is an enchanting Victorian necropilis with lovely shaded  paths, moss-covered Gothic tombs, and lots of trees, scrubs, and wild flowers. We spent some time walking through the Highgate East cemetery located just south of Waterlow Park and took loads of photographs using the natural light.
Among its most famous residents at Highgate East cemetery include writer Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Anna Mahler, sculpturer and daughter of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler; and of course the most notable individual, Karl Marx, no introduction required here. You cannot miss Marx's tomb -- it's gigantic! In fact, Highgate Cemetery is the resting place of numerous revolutionaries, and Marx is in good company with his deceased Communist neighbours -- Dr. Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, South African Communist chairperson; Jim Cronin, Socialist journalist; and Saad Saddi Ali, Communist Party of Iraq leader, to name a few. It's a fascinating place to visit if you happen to be around Hampstead and Highgate.

Afterwards we walked north on Swain's Lane to The Flask, a Highgate institution for a pint of Blue Moon lager, and then made our way to the stately Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. Listed as Grade II by the English Heritage, the Kenwood House is home to some marvellous paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner and Gainsborough and boost the famous Adam Library. Kenwood House also host an annual picnic summer concerts on the well-manicured lawn overlooking the City and Canary Wharf. Gorgeous views and beautiful autumn foliage, followed by a homey Sunday Roast to end the day -- enjoy the photos below:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Imperial War Museum

A few weeks ago, our friend came to visit us in London as part of his two months post-bar trip around Europe. Reed had an intense itinerary for Europe, hitting up at least 30 cities in 14 countries over the span of 8 weeks. Equally, he had a relatively ambitious agenda for London -- two long walking tours and several museums, and of course catching up with his expat friends over dinner, drinks (thanks for the fantastic Belgium beers and French wines!), and long conversations well into the night.
Keenan and I felt like gluttons overindulging ourselves with homecooked Coq Au Vin; Mexican food at Wahaca; delicious Pakistani food at Tayaabs; and an All-American meal of burgers and milkshake at Byron’s in Covent Garden during Reed’s visit. It was great fun and thanks for making London part of your itinerary!
Before arriving to London via the very convenient EuroStar, Reed had spent the previous day visiting the beaches of Normandy on a D-Day Tour. As he had just finished reading Winston Churchill’s biography, he took himself to the Churchill War Rooms, which is part of the Imperial War Museum, and highly recommends the museum for anyone who is a World War II history buff. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know very well that my better half is a history buff, particularly with 20th century history and politics.
Upon Reed's recommendation, we finally made it to the Imperial War Museum in Kennington last Sunday. I can't believe after living in London for nearly two year, it took us this long to visit one of London's most interesting museums.  We spent nearly five hours browsing through the various exhibitions documenting war and war-time life during World War I, the inter-war period, World War II, as well as the present-day conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Keenan was especially excited to visit this museum and made sure we covered every square inch of the building.
It is a great museum for both kids and adults, as the ground floors display wartime weapons such as rockets, tanks, submarines, and airplanes. There are also several powerful (but heavy) exhibitions, and documentaries screenings throughout the day. I highly recommend The Holocaust Exhibit which uses historical documentations including newspaper, interviews, letters, and photographs to tell the story of the Holocaust; and Secret War Gallery showcasing the development and evolution of the MI5 and MI6, the equivalent to the FBI and CIA, respectively. Allow at least an hour for each exhibition.
To put the two wars into historical and chronological context, the lower floor has a great exhibition clustered by geographical regions and historical periods to explain the series of events during both wars. The Trench Experience and Blitz Experience were also interesting depicting life in the trenches and the underground shelters during WWI and WWII, respectively. For background on the Blitz, read Keenan's post from September commemorating the 70th anniversary of The Blitz on London.
The Imperial War Museum is a great way to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon. We highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in history. I suspect that this won't be our first or last visit to this fantastic museum located just a few stops from Clapham Common on the Northern Line.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where in the World is Chisinau?

I spent the last week in Moldova working on a project on behalf of UK DfID. Moldova? What? Where's that? The truth is very few people know where Moldova is, and why would anyone know where this country is? It is definitely not on the tourist circuit whatsoever. To start, this small former Soviet Republic is a landlocked country sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. A bit of history -- the region is historically known as Bessarabia, the geographical area bounded by the Dniester River and the Prut River, which you may have heard of in international news due to the severe floods in June 2010, or maybe not as this country is relatively unknown outside of Europe.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bessarabia proclaimed independence from Russia in February 1918, and subsequently united with the Kingdom of Romania two months later. Fast forward two decades later, just before the outbreak of World War II, Stalin and Hitler signed a secret treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 in which the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Northern and Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Under this agreement, Soviet Union annexed the eastern part of Poland; Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Bessarabia in modern day Moldova.  In 1940, under an ultimatum by USSR, Romania relinquished control of Bessarabia, and the Moldavian SSR was shortly established. It was not until 27 August 1991 that Moldova declared independence, along with 14 post Soviet countries. Today, both Russian and Romanian are widely spoken in Moldova. 

I arrived to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on Sunday evening after a long flight via Vienna on a propeller (!) plane full of World Bank, European Commission, USAID type people. As you can imagine, after five decades of Soviet rule, the architecture is dreadful, hideous, and uninspiring. Of course, it didn’t help that on my day of arrival, it was cold, dark, and rainy -- which  certainly did not help with my first impressions of Chisinau. Moldova is considered one of the poorest countries in Europe however you wouldn’t know it with all the construction cranes, shining new Mercedes and Lexus on the road, and banks on every major intersection.
There is literally nothing to see or do in Chisinau – nothing. I spent the entire week working out of an office on the 6th floor of the Government House,  a huge, gray, concrete building occupying an entire city block on the corner of Stefan Cel Mare and Bodoni Streets. The long dark corridor of the 6th floor was straight out of the movie, The Shining. No joke. At least I had a beautiful view overlooking the Central Orthodox Church and gorgeous blue skies.
My week-long project visit also coincided with City Day on 14th October, a public holiday in Chisinau. The main drag, Stefan Cel Mare, was transformed into a street fair with live music, food stalls, and outdoor pubs. I got away from work for a few hours to check out the festivities, so that was fun. Among other "major" sites to see in Chisinau is Mall Dova (get the play on words of Moldova?). I didn't make it to Chisinau's newest western-style mall which came highly recommended by one of Keenan's work acquaintances. Next time, I suppose.
If you make it to Moldova, be sure to try Zama, a traditional Moldovan chicken noodle soup; Mamaliga, the national dish of Moldova, which is a corn mash similar to polenta; and of course excellent Moldovan wine.  In addition to several private wineries, there are also two state-run wineries, Cricova and Milestii Mici, which together have almost 100 miles of underground winemaking and storage facilities. I didn’t have time to make to the vineyards just outside of Chisinau, however, I did managed to smuggle back three bottles of Moldovan reds to London.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Chisinau. As I mentioned, there isn't a whole lot to do and the days would be really dull if I wasn't spending all day every day in the Government House. Of course, it helps that I have wonderful colleagues to make the long days and evenings more bearable. This certainly won't be my last trip to Chisinau so more to come another time...

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road

Yesterday evening, Keenan and I celebrated our two year wedding anniversary! As a wedding gift, one of our couple friends gave us the most delicious culinary gift – a thoughtful gift voucher to Gordon Ramsey’s on Royal Hospital Road. Our friends went to Mr. Ramsey’s fine three-star Michelin-rated restaurant a few years ago while visiting London and loved their experience and thought this would be the perfect gift for the newly-weds bound for London. Thank you so much for the generous gift -- it is definitely one of our most memorable dining experiences! Thank you!

It is difficult to get reservations for Mr. Ramsey's flagship restaurant located in the glamorous neighbourhood of Chelsea; somehow we manage to get a 10PM reservation when we called back in August. It was a wonderful evening, even with Keenan's cold -- the atmosphere and décor was lovely, the service was superb, and the food was divine. We opted for the seven course tasting menu with the cheese supplement paired with a bottle of the 2006 Chateau Bauduc Bordeaux Red. Amazing! 

We started with two complimentary courses: canapés of two dips with Belgian endives and crackers; and scallop tartar with caviar over a broccoli puree. Then, we moved on to the tasting menu, which was worth every pence:
  • Pressed foie gras with peppered Madeira jelly, smoked duck, peach and almond crumble
  • Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon poached  in a light bisque, with a tomato chutney
  • Fillet of turbot with braised baby gem lettuce and cep sauce   
  • Keenan had the Cannon of Cornish lamb with confit shoulder, ratatouille and thyme ju and I had the Roasted pigeon from Bresse with grilled polenta, smoked pork belly and date sauce 
Selection of cheeses: We like hard, nutty cheeses, goat cheese and strong blue cheeses.

We also had a sampling of six different types of desserts to celebrate our anniversary and dessert wine, which led us to a diabetic coma, but it was so delicious!: 
  • Passion fruit mousse 
  • Refreshing sorbet and sponge cake 
  • White chocolate strawberry, champagne and elderflower soup 
  • Bitter chocolate and hazelnut cylinder with ginger mousse and blackcurrant granite 
  • Carrot cake with Turkish delights
  • Signature Gordon Ramsey’s truffles 
We were the last guests to leave the restaurant at 1:15 AM so we had an opportunity to chat with the staff and thank them individually for a wonderful evening. With our stomach full of delciousness, we were ready to hit the pillow. What a lovely evening! Thank you BG and LT! Thanks for all the wonderful anniversary wishes. Cheers to many more! 

Love, K + L

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

J'dore Paris

My sister and I both found ourselves with a few extra vacation days to use before the end of the holiday cycle, and a long weekend without our husbands, as my brother-in-law had to fly back to Hong Kong for business and Keenan had on his ‘diary’ to attend Oktoberfest (well, that’s another story) for the weekend. My sister and I tossed around the idea of going to San Sebastion in Basque country or Aix-en-Provence, but alas we settled for a four-day girls’ trip to Paris for a leisurely weekend of eating and shopping, which are my sister’s favorite pastime, along with sleeping, that is when she is not chained to her desk on the 46th floor of the ICC building.

We hopped on the EuroStar on the morning of the 23rd September and arrived to our rented flat in the Le Marais district just in time for lunch. It just so happened that my friend from San Francisco was also in Paris to catch his flight back to California after spending two weeks gallivanting around Barcelona, Prague, Berlin, and London, so we met up for lunch in the Le Marais. It was fun getting the update on mutual friends from graduate school, hearing about his travel stories, and catching up on the latest happenings in San Francisco over a glass (or two) of wine! We parted ways in the late afternoon as he wanted to catch an exhibition at the Pompidou and I had to meet up with my sister for some shopping therapy. 
Another highlight of my trip to Paris was meeting up with a dear friend from high school, whom I also went to Berkeley with, at Cuisine de Bar in the chic and very Parisian neighbourhood of St. Germain for lunch of tasty open-face sandwiches on toasted Poîlane bread. She, along with another friend and her older sister, spent the last couple of weeks traveling through Portugal and France (my globetrotting friends!), but unfortunately I caught her at the tail end of her trip so we didn’t have proper time to catch up. While our time was short, it was absolutely wonderful to see an old friend from home, and we enjoyed a laugh over a box of macaroons from Pierre Herme (a box of seven macaroons was €17, not cheap but delicious!). 
 As I mentioned in previous posts, when you are on holiday with my sister, expect to do a lot of shopping, I mean serious shopping. So needless to say, I spent a better part of our 4-day trip to Paris shopping. We spent hours browsing at French pharmacies because my sister has a fetish with facial products (she’s celebrating a ‘Year of the Tiger’ birthday and looks fabulous!); then there was a trip to the LaFayette Gallery; two hours at Frederic Malle perfume shop; hours at Monoprix for food and wine gifts such as mustards, saucisse, biscuits, and foie gras; and last but not least, a special trip to the LV flagship store on Champ Elyssee where we queued in the rain for over an hour to get in!
Aside from shopping, we also spent a lot of time eating and people-watching at cafés, which was a lot of fun. We spent an evening at Café Charlot and I took a break from shopping on Saturday afternoon to explore and people-watch at Chez Prune around St. Martin’s Canal, an up and coming hipster neighbourhood, in the 10th eme.

I also got a lot of restaurant recommendations from colleagues who previously lived in Paris, both high-end and affordable restaurants. We couldn’t try all of them on this trip, so definitely a list for my next trip to Paris, or for any of my globetrotting friends and family. Bon Voyage! Also, I want to wish my sister a very happy birthday!

Restaurants we visited:
Chez Omar (47 Rue de Bretagne, 3eme, Metro: Republique)
Exhausted from our early train ride and no luck getting reservations at Bistro Paul Bert (18 Rue Paul Bert Paris France, 11eme, Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny), we found this lively North African restaurant near our flat. It was just was we were looking for: couscous, lamb shank, spicy merguez sausages, and half a carafe of red wine. Thank goodness, they don’t take reservations. 

Cuisine de Bar (8 Rue Cherche-Midi, 6eme, M: Sevres-Babylon)
We met up with my high school friend here for lunch. All of us got the lunch menu for: salad, open-faced tartine, glass of wine, and espresso with a sugar cookie. I liked the chicken with capers and salmon tartine. I loved the simple yet chic décor; great place for a casual lunch, but no reservations.
Le Gaigne (12 Rue Pecquay, 4eme Metro: Rambuteau)
We were lucky to get a last minute reservation at this tiny 20 seat restaurant hidden off Rue Rambuteau. Run by a husband-and-wife team, where he works the kitchen and she attends to her guests, the food and wine list were solid and the service was attentive without being overly obtrusive. Since the chef/owner is widely considered as one of Paris’ rising young chef, we opted for the five course tasting menu with wine pairing and enjoyed a delicious three hour dinner.
Breizh Café (109, rue Vieille du Temple, 3eme, Metro: St. Paul)
This is a great place for terrific crêpes and Brittany brewed apple cider or beer on a bustling street in the Marais district. We arrived around 7:30 PM and it was packed. If it wasn’t so darn cold, we would have enjoyed our meals outside.

Le Bambou (70, rue Baudricourt, 13th eme, Metro: Tolbiac)
Those who know me know that I love a good bowl of hot Vietnamese pho. We were craving a bowl of pho, especially spending the last week eating nothing but pasta and seafood in Croatia, so we schlepped ourselves to the 13th eme to Le Bambou. We got our fix of noodle goodness, but nothing compares to my Sacramento pho, even my friend concurs.

L’As du Falafel (34, rue des Rosiers, 3eme, Metro: St. Paul)
Originally my lunch destination with my friend from San Francisco, but it was closed on Thursday (usually closed Friday PM and Saturday) so we had to settle for mediocre falafel around the corner. It is the best place for a falafel in Paris! Be warned, it does get packed. Best for a quick meal or snack.

Other recommendations from my colleagues:
  • L'Ebauchoir: very nice, typical Parisian bistro, great food and wine. No set menus, but can be reasonable if careful on choices (take reservation)
  • Chez Ramulaud: another of my favourites, style typical Parisian, good atmosphere and wine. Have good menus for about 30€ in evening. Nearer Nation than Bastille but easy to walk to. Try this one.
  • Chez Paul: Very nice, but very meaty menu. In heart of Bastille's going out zone so a bit busy and unfortunately in a lot of tourist guides now, but a sure bet! (skip if going to Bistrot Paul Bert)
  • L'Alchimiste: love this place, but is off the beaten track in the middle of nowhere. But restaurant cheap, great food and really good atmosphere (about 50euro for dinner)
  • La Gazzetta: French style but very modern (quite innovative and experimental) and more expensive than others, but different.
  • Le Dôme du Marais: lovely setting, much more classy than others, but also much more pricey
  • Le Felteu - 15, Rue Pecquay (it crosses rue Rambuteau; traditional french cuisine, dishes are huge, I can never finish them. Prices are reasonable.
  • Le verre volé. It is on the canal st martin, not far from Chez Prune (another nice bar- brasserie). It is more a winerie than a restaurant but food is good as well, be careful it is quite small, so don't go too late
  • La Boulangerie, 15,rue des Panoyaux, 75020 it is behind Metro Menilmontant. Food is delicious!
  • La 20e Art, 46 rue Vignoles 75020 Paris 20ème. Super nice and very good food (Though my friend told me she went there last week and found the portion realy really small...)
Need more recommendations? See the following links: