Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry, Merry!

 Happy Christmas Everyone! 

We did something a bit different this year to mark the holiday season by giving back to the community. Keenan and I spent the day volunteering with The Kids Company, a charity that works with disadvantaged inner city children in London. Each year The Kids Company organises a major Christmas party for 3,500+ children and their families complete with a Christmas lunch, presents, and other fun activities. 


The Oval Cricket Ground generously offered their corporate suites for this year's Kids Company's Christmas Party. Over the course of the week, armies of volunteers transformed The Oval into a Winter Wonderland complete with an Arctic Grotto, Disco Room, Yoga Room, Chill Out Room, Activities Room, and an Arts & Crafts Room. They even organise  taxis for all the kids and families as well as all the volunteers. It was a long day, but a rewarding one. I served food in the main dining room, while Keenan played with kids in the Game Room. We're now off to Sri Lanka with a detour to Bahrain so see you in the New Year. 


Merry, Merry! Happy holidays! I hope you and yours have a very merry festive season and all the best for the New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy 30th!


We celebrated a milestone birthday last night: Keenan's 30th and the start of a new decade. We kicked off the celebration last Saturday with a joint birthday party with another friend who also turned 30 at a bar/lounge in our neighbourhood in Clapham Old Town. But first, a small group gathered at our flat for Konditor & Cook cake, prosecco, and some old-fashion Christmas crackers to get into the festive spirit. It was lovely to see everyone and many thanks for celebrating this milestone occasion with us. 

 

On Keenan's actual birthday, his office had a champagne toast and cake in his honor and I treated him to dinner at Trishna's, a newcomer to the haute Indian cuisine scene in London which recently received its Bib Gourmand award. The Head Chef, Karam Sethi, was trained not only at the wildly successful sister restaurant Trishna in Mumbai, but also Zuma in London and Bukhara in New Delhi. The restaurant, tucked away on Blandford Street in the fashionable Marylebone Village, focuses on regional cuisine of the southwestern coast of India which heavy emphasis on seafood. The restaurant is minimalist in design, yet has a relaxing atmosphere with vintage Indian posters adoring the exposed brick wall. 


We opted for the 5 course tasting menu (£25) for a five-course tasting menu, with a bottle of  Luigi Bosca Finca La Linda Viognier from Argentina. While I love my red wines, I generally prefer a white wine with spicy Asian food while Keenan always goes for a cool refreshing beer, this time the Spanish Alhambra Pale Ale. After some pappadum with an excellent shrimp and tomato chutney and a classic mango chutney, we started with Crispy Squid, lightly battered and fried with a hint of lime and the perfect amount of heat from a splash of red and green chilis. The next course was a Turkey Tikka, an innovative take on the classic Chicken Tikka, served over a bed of green lentils garnished with fresh red onions and coriander. It wasn't the typical Tikka you would find at Indian restaurants, the turkey was tender, juicy, and nicely seasoned with the perfect amount of charness. 


Then we enjoyed the Tiger Prawn served with a mustard sauce, which was lovely but it was just a bit too mustard, overpowering the delicate flavour of the prawn. For the mains, we had a choice between the Lamb Curry or the Goan Fish Curry so we chose one of each so we can sample all the dishes on offer on the Tasting Menu. The mains came with naan, saag, daal, and rice, and to our surprise, the portions were quite large. The Lamb Curry cooked South Indian style with coconut instead of cream was delicious and had subtle flavours of curry leaf and cinnamon. The Fish Curry was equally well presented, complex, and tasty. The sides were also very well executed, a modern twist of all the Indian classics using seasonal ingredients and fresh ground spices.

For dessert, it was a choice between Apple Crumble or Carrot Halwa; the former, a classic British pudding, and the ladder, a traditional Indian. I don't usually prefer Indian sweets but Keenan loved both the puddings especially the Lychee Sorbet that accompanied the Carrot Halwa.  This is excellent value for exceptional Indian cooking. It can easily rival Benares or Mint Leaf. We left the restaurant satisfied and plan on taking our parents here when they visit.   

Happy Birthday Keenan! I hope the next decade is filled with joy, laughter, love, health, happiness, and adventure.  Love, L. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition at The National Gallery


The Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Milan Court is probably the most highly anticipated art exhibition of the year. Rightly so. This is an unprecedented once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to see nine of fifteen of Da Vinci's paintings under one roof at the beautiful Sainsbury Wing of National Gallery.

Having missed the boat on booking advanced tickets, Keenan and I had originally planned on queuing for the exhibition in mid-January 2012 after our trip to Sri Lanka. However, a month ago we got an email from my jet-setting friend telling us that she will be in town in December. Some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, she had also heard about the exhibition and was determined to see Da Vinci's work. 

  

So on Friday morning, I dragged myself out of my bed, bundled up in my heavy Northface down jacket, and slept walk over to Trafalgar Square, arriving precisely at 7:10 am to join the queue as #20 in line. Surely, if I survived Moscow and St. Petersburg in the dead of winter, I can withstand several hours of freezing temperatures. My friend met me in the queue at 9:30, we bought our tickets for the 5pm slot, and then went to the 3rd floor restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery to defrost over a cup of tea. We enjoyed the view of Trafalgar Square while catching up on life and the latest happenings in San Francisco. My friend and I did some window shopping, had a light lunch at Vinoteca in Marylebone, followed by afternoon tea and pastries back at her hotel, the JW Marriott Governsor House, before heading back to the National Gallery where Keenan joined us after his company's Christmas party. 

Da Vinci was a true polymath; he was not only a painter, but also inventor, scientist, botanist, and geologist. In other words, a pure genius. This exhibition focuses on Da Vinci's artistic work during his eighteen year tenure as the court painter during the reign of Duke Lodovico Sforza in the late 1480s. The six room exhibition is clustered by themes on the first floor and continues in the Sunley Room on level 2. For the first time, art lovers can view Da Vinci's two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks side by side on opposite ends of the room. It's interesting to see the subtle differences between the two versions. The first, on loan from the Louvre, has strong emphasis on naturalism, while the second version was painted with more hues of blue to capture the fall of the light. 

  

Other artwork on display include: The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Portrait of a Musician, and Saint Jerome. The highlight was of course was The Last Supper displayed in the Sunley Room. This room contains Da Vinci's original compositional sketches of his idea for The Last Supper. He wished to depict the the distinct characteristic  and expressions of the 12 Apostles. 


I highly recommend this exhibition. While tickets are 16 GBP, it is well worth every pence and the long queues for a chance to see Da Vinci's original masterpieces. Advanced tickets are sold out, but here's all the information you need if you plan on queuing for tickets. The show runs until 5th February 2012. 
  • 500 day of tickets will be on sale on a first-come, first-serve basis. On Fridays and Saturdays (700 tickets), the exhibition is open until 10pm to cope with high demand; and until 7pm on Sundays (600 ticket).  Each person can purchase up to 6 tickets.
  • Visitors are limited to 180 per half hour to manage crowd control. Even with this, the exhibition was quite crowded as art lovers marveled at the paintings and sketches, many of which are owned by Her Majesty The Queen. 
  • It is highly recommended that you queue in front of the Sainsbury Wing before 8:15am or earlier to secure tickets. The National Gallery staff will let you know if there are no chances to secure day of tickets. If you arrive early enough, you can pick your time slot (in half time-slots).
  •  Admission tickets are timed but once you enter the museum, you can stay as long as you want. The exhibition continues upstairs in the Sunley Room, which is where the Last Supper is displayed.  
  • Dress warm, gloves, umbrellas, heat pads, bring magazines, books, Ipods/Ipads and you can expect to wait up to three hours.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Museum of London

London is an incredible city with history spanning several millenniums. A couple of weeks ago, I took a stroll through The City during lunch hours and decided to pop into the Museum of London, one of the very few museums I have yet to visit. This museum primarily focuses on the social history of London and is housed in one of the modern Barbican buildings right in the heart of The City, or the Square Mile. 

 

Known then as Londinium, the city was founded by the Romans in AD43 following the invasion led by Emperor Claudius. Like Hadrian's Wall in northern England, the  3 mile-long London Wall was built as a defensive fortress surrounding the city.  Today, only a small fragment of the historic Roman wall remains, however, it is still very much part of London's history, unofficially defining the boundaries of The City. You can view the London Wall  from the street level on the modern road also named London Wall or from the interior of Museum of London. 


With nine permanent galleries narrating the chronological social history of London dating back from the prehistoric times to the modern, you can easily spend a better part of the afternoon at the Museum of London. Short on time, I sped through the 'London before London' prehistoric gallery, but stopped to see the 5,100 years old skeleton of the Shepperton woman, one of the oldest people found in London, then moved on to 'Roman London,' where Londoninum served as a major commerical centre for the Roman Empire until the 5th century. 

I walked through the 'Medieval London' to see Chaucer's London, and then to the 'War, Plague, and Fire,' a tumultuous time in England ravaged by wars and disasters, namely the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, which completely destroyed the City of London. The 'Expanded City: 1666 to 1850' documents the expansion of the British Empire to territories as far as India, while 'People's City' explores London as the divided city and the wealth disparity between the rich and poor, best described in many of Charles Dicken's novels, and finally the 'World History' gallery looks at modern London as a 'global city.'  

Speaking of Dickens, as it will be 200th anniversary of his birth next year, the Museum of London commissioned a special exhibition to celebrate the life and works of Charles Dickens and his deep connection to the great city of London. Unfortunately, the exhibition wasn't open when I visited a few weeks ago, but it now open to the public until June 2012. There is also the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street in Holborn, one of his former residence and home to several of his original manuscripts. Of course, you can also also retrace the steps of Dickens's London and have a pint at the atmospheric Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub once frequented by Dickens. 

To fully appreciate the grand scale and city planning of London, it is worth visiting The London Eye. It offers a unique perspective of London: a panoramic view. My friend gave us complimentary tickets awhile back when he was visiting London on his way to India. On a beautiful crisp morning, Keenan and I joined the queue with a gazillion tourist to ride The London Eye. 443 feet tall with the 32 capsules representing London's 32 boroughs, the wheel moves quite slow, at .6 mph, so the complete revolution is approximately 30 minutes, just enough time to snap photos of the iconic Big Ben and Parliament, Somerset House, and the new Shard building in the Southbank, without getting bored.

 
With my new point-and-shoot Canon SX220 in tow (love Black Friday sales), I snapped a few photos of the Occupy Movement at St. Paul's Cathedral below.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Westfield Stratford City, East London

It's not very often we head east past Shoreditch thanks to the fact that the Jubliee Line, one of two lines that run to Stratford, has been down every weekend for the past two and half years. But a few weekends ago, Keenan and I ventured out to East London to check out the new Westfield Stratford City which opened in early September. As Europe's largest urban shopping centre, this labyrinth mall and entertainment complex comprising of 1.9 million square feet surely did not disappoint. It featured some 300+ stores  anchored by M&S, Waitrose, and John Lewis, 70 restaurants,  a massive 14 screen Vue cinema, several hotels, and even a casino and bowling alley. 

 

It is also the gateway to the London 2012 Olympics which is just about eight months away. As we alighted at Stratford station on a gorgeous autumn afternoon and walked across the pedestrian bridge for views of the famous Olympic Stadium, Keenan made a comment that the masterplanning was indeed "smart." Why? Well, nearly all visitors and athletes from around the world who arrive via one of the major public transport hubs in Stratford will need to walk through Westfield Shopping Centre to get to any major Olympic venues. And surely in between events, visitors will no doubt pass time shopping, eating, or watching the Olympic events live on large screens at Westfield. This means more foot traffic and presumably more spending from visitors.  Smart planning on the part of this Australian-based retail developer.

 
 
A stone's throw away are three major Olympic sites: the Aquatic Centre, the Olympic Stadium, and the Athletes' Village which are literally separated a major walkway. We couldn't walk around the venues as we originally thought, but as we weren't so lucky to score tickets to next year's Olympic games, it was interesting to see the Olympic stadiums in its complete form rather than in architectural renderings. 

 
As Christmas is around the corner, Westfield Stratford City was decked out for the holiday season with beautiful white lights and oversized bauble (Christmas balls in American English). It even had a ice skating rink on the promenade leading to the Aquatic Centre playing nothing less than my favorite "Last Christmas." The gleaming interior of the mall was equally impressive as tree-lined landscaped exterior. Westfield Stratford City is indeed a massive behemoth, but unlike its sister mall, Westfield Shepherds Bush in West London, it does not have a "Designers Pavilion" of luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton or Prada, but definitely enough variety of shops to keep the fashionistas happy. 

 
Shoppers can peruse over three levels of pure retail bliss. The mall has every major High Street brand from Zara to H&M and LK Bennett and a massive selection of restaurants. I was delighted to see some of my favorites such as Franca Manca, (original output in Brixton), Bumpkin, Busaba Eathai, Jamie's Italian, and even Fenton's Ice Cream, which I believe is the same establishment as the legendary Fentons in Piedmont, CA, or at least I hope.  
 
While it may be a trek from Southwest London, the glimpse of the Olympic Park alone is worth the journey to Zone 3 "where East meets Westfield." If you take the Dockland Light Rail (DLR) via Pudding Mill Lane, you'll be able to see an unobstructed view of the Olympic Stadium. Let the games begin.
 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Good Eats at Brixton Village


Brixton Village has been all the buzz amongst the foodie circles lately. Both Time Out London and The Guardian have both wrote excellent reviews about this little foodie paradise in Southwest London. Keenan and I have been to Brixton a number of times -- concerts at the Brixton Academy, Saturday lunches at Franco Manca, which we think is the best pizza outside of Naples, and the occasional run to our closest Argos (think: Montgomery Wards catalogue order) for all our miscellaneous household items. 


As I mentioned before, and I'll say it again, while Brixton is a colourful neighbourhood, it can be down right seedy especially at night. I seriously thought I was going to have my first-ever mugging experience as I walked up Brixton Hill to meet friends for dinner on a cold February evening. However in recent years, Brixton have gone through a series of gentrification starting with the renovation of Ritzy Cinema on the corner of Coldharbour Lane and recently transforming the once-neglected Granville Arcade, now called Brixton Village, into a bustling foodie market.

 

Setting the trend was Franco Manca who opened his first outpost in a tiny space in Brixton Market Row in 2008, and now has branches in Chiswick and Westfield Stratford. Several restaurants have popped up in Market Row since including Casa Morito, a Mexican taco bar that sells tomatillos, very exciting as  I can never find them in London except at Borough Market. Like Market Row, Brixton Village is a covered arcade with a mix of butchers, fishmongers, ethnic grocers, vintage shops, and a tiny restaurants with no more than 15-20 seats each. Walking through Brixton Village is a feast for the eyes and nose. We were overwhelmed with the variety of cuisines to choose from with no less than twenty restaurants and cafes packed in a square block. 


There's Mama Lan, a Beijing dumpling and noodle specialty shop; Elephant, which serves up samosa and curries thali-style for knock-out low price of £6; Okan, a Japanese okonomiyaki shop; French & Grace, whips up some lovely crepes; Bellantoni's for home-made pastas; two Colombian restaurants, El Rancho de Lalo and Restaurante Santafereno, both who source their meats from Carniceria Los  Andes butchers; much-loved Clapham brunch place Breads Etcetera with their tabletop signature Dualit toasters and blankets; and Brixton Village Grill for Portuguese-style piri-piri chicken. 


After an unsuccessful attempt (60 minute wait time!) to grab a table at Honest Burger, supposedly the best burger joint in town thanks to their 35-day aged patties served on sourdough buns, Keenan and I snagged an outdoor table at the family-run KaoSarn for delicious Thai food. We devour our dishes - a Thai noodle soup for me and grilled beef over rice for Keenan, both had the perfect blend of chili sauce, tamarind, and basil. Next door to KaoSarn was Take Two Grill, a jerk chicken joint grilling up meats in a kettle drum. It smelled so good that we were tempted to order takeaway for dinner but alas we already had dinner plans. 

Caffeine-addicts should not miss Coffee Federation for the flat whites, while those looking to satisfy the sweet tooth have plenty to choose from - Lab G for gelato, WAG Free for gluten-free pastries, or Cornercopia for Brockwell Park damson jam. It's also a great place to people watch if you can find a seat, and to buy some kitchen staples like herbs, onion, and garlic.


I hope this post is making you hungry. If so head over to Brixton Village to support the local Brixton economy. The market is open late on Thursdays and Fridays with live entertainment and repertoire of international cuisine to satisfy any appetite, all for probably under a tenner. I'm sure I'll be back to Brixton Village in no time given it is only a five minute bus ride from Clapham Common. And next time, I will get my hands on that The Federation from Honest Burger.