Monday, June 27, 2011

Hard Rock Calling 2011

Last weekend was all about music festivals in the UK. Some 130 miles west of London, the legendary Glastonbury Music Festival took place with big name headliners including U2, Coldplay, and Beyonce performing for a sold-out crowd of festival revellers.  This past weekend, Hyde Park also hosted the annual Hard Rock Calling festival. For those who aren't keen on camping in the mud at Glasonbury but still want to enjoy great music and sleep in your 1000 thread count sheets, then Hard Rock Calling is an excellent choice.  
Taking advantage of a last-minute Groupon offer, Keenan and I got Sunday tickets for Hard Rock Calling. Headlining.... Rod Stewart. As much as I am slightly embarrassed to admit that we went to Rod Stewart concert, I need to give credit where credit is due: Rod Stewart still rocks. Period.

With the weather forecast set for 29C/85F, I couldn't think of a better way to spend a gorgeous Sunday afternoon listening to music, roasting in the sun, and hanging out with friends in London's iconic Hyde Park.

We arrived in time to see Train take the Main Stage at 2:45 pm. This San Francisco band played hits "Meet Virginia," "Drop of Jupiter," and "Calling All Angels," songs that reminded me of our youthful days at University. Jazz/neo-soul newcomer Rumer took the stage next singing soft melodies from her debut album along with a few covers. Since stumbling upon her album on Spotify a few months ago, I've been a big fan of Rumer and definitely thinks she's a rising star. Barenaked Ladies performed over at the Pepsi Stage, while pirate-clad Adam Ant, the lead singer of the 1980s post-punk group, performed an hour-long set on the Main Stage under the blazing sun. 

Next up, the highly anticipated performance from the "Queen of Rock" Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac who was graciously introduced by her friend and fellow rocker Rod Stewart. With her long blonde locks and signature look of black blouse and gold shawl (and sunglasses!), Stevie Nicks entertained the 45,000 strong crowd singing all of her classics, "Landslide," "Edge of Seventeen," "Gold Dust Woman," and "Dream." She also joined the stage with Rod Stewart later for a lovely rendition of "Young Turks," which was a treat for us. I can't believe we're still enjoying music from our parent's generation!

The headliner for Sunday's Hard Rock Calling requires no introduction. Spanning an amazing career of 50 years, at 66 years old and with a newborn son, Rod Stewart is still energetic on stage. Surrounded by beautiful female back-up singers dressed in red, Rod sang all his greatest hits. As a special guest of the evening, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stone and former bandmate of Faces joined him for a special set of "Maggie May" and "Stay with Me." The sun was setting but that didn't stop his fans from dancing on their feet and singing along to "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?," "Tonight's the Night," "Hot Leg,""Baby Jane," and the last song to close out Hard Rock Calling's 40th birthday: "Sailing." 

What a great day in the park with several legendary rock stars on stage together! Here's to summer and many more lazy days in the park. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

London Taste Festival 2011

The sporting events of Royal Ascot, Wimbeldon, and Henley Royal Regatta traditionally kick off the summer festivities in and around London. Wait. Summer? What summer? I think we skipped summer and went straight to fall – seriously it has been cold and rainy over the past few weeks. For now, the trusty green Hunter “wellies” will stay out…unless summer comes around.
Last Saturday afternoon, Keenan and I braved the rain and went up to Regents Park for the annual Taste of London Festival which is always a favourite summertime event for serious foodies. The Taste Festival features sample-sized signature dishes ranging from French, Indian, Chinese, and Italian from over 40 of London’s best restaurants including Yauatcha, Benares, L’anima, Bocca de Lupo, Petrus, Maze, Barrafina, The Modern Pantry, just to name a few. As if noshing on delectable treats wasn’t enough, the festival also had over 200 vendors selling everything from chocolates, chilis, chutneys, olive oil, and jams in addition to the Taste Chef’s Theatre, live music, and several master classes. 

With over 80 Crowns (the official “currency” of the Taste Festival) in hand, Keenan and I were ready for an afternoon of eating and sipping wine under the sun (rain). Here’s a sampling of what we treated our taste buds to during our afternoon at Regents Park: 

Satay @ the Malaysia Kitchen (top photo), followed by Dim Sum Platter @ Yauatcha; then 3 Fried Balls @ Bocca de Lupo (middle photo); and  Tandoori Salmon @ The Cinnamon Club. By mid-afternoon, it was pouring! We took refuge under a beer garden and ordered Two Kozel Beer (Czech Lager). Then it was back to eating, this time to Malabar Fish Curry @ Tamarind; and Scallop Tartar @ L’Etranger (bottom photo); and sampling at a bunch of different vendors. 

We also attended the Estrella Damm Beer and Tapas Masterclass with Chef Omar Allibhoy of Tapas Revolution where we sampled several tasty tapas all washed down with a complimentary pint of Estrella beer.

We also enjoyed the San Pellegrino Trilogy Masterclass with Neil Phillips where we did a tasting/pairing of food, wine, and water. We did a tasting/pairing of three wines: an Australian Viognier paired with crab; a Malbec from Argentina with aged parmesan, and a Muscat from Lake County, CA paired with chocolate dessert. Each tasting/pairing of food and wine was conducted twice: once with San Pellegrino (sparkling water) and the second with Acqua Panna (flat water) to prove a point that the choice of water during a fine meal makes all the difference. It was actually a fun and entertaining class! My only regret was not being able to participate in the Waitrose Cookery School. Something to keep in mind for next year…

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Royal Ascot 2011

Horse racing, like many sports around the world, is a mostly British creation, largely exported to Britain’s former colonies and possessions.  In the US it takes the most recognizable form of the annual Kentucky Derby, itself an inspiration from the grand Royal British horse races that have been occurring for hundreds of years. 

 On Friday I had the opportunity to participate in one of the most well-known and greatest British summer traditions, Royal Ascot, for my company day out.  Men sporting morning coats and top hats and women in stilettos with a variety of creative hats and fascinators, the crowd was mostly what I expected it to be.  The grounds themselves were immaculate with well manicured gardens and lawns and plenty of champagne booths and bookies scattered throughout the park.  It is a very formal affair and for men suits and ties are the basic prerequisite for entry.    

 We had admission to the Grand Stand area which ultimately means we had entry to the stands that were most level to the race track.  However, the nature of Ascot is that you spend much of your time wandering the grounds, moving between bookies and viewing the horse race from the various corners of the stadium nearest to your bets.  You are also likely to picnic at one of the many picnic areas scattered around the grounds.  The upper section of the stands, the Royal Enclosure, requires the most formal of dress and you will not be admitted without the morning coat and top hat.  

While I am not a big gambler and I know almost nothing about horses, it is important to get involved in the races to keep the day interesting.  One uninformed bet and sixty seconds later with twenty quid lost I decided to focus the rest of my time and effort on drinking the non-stop flow of champagne while trying to spot the Queen in the Royal Enclosure.  

 As far as food and beverage go, the norm is strawberries and champagne.  You can drink pints of lager, but it feels a bit misplaced in this setting and the selection isn’t the best.  There is also plenty of Pimm’s on hand, but I would suggest sticking to the magnums of champagne if you are part of a large group.  As the day progresses, the people watching only becomes more interesting.      

The only slightly unfortunate part of the day was the weather which was inconsistent throughout the event.  However, even with a few showers, Royal Ascot is still an enjoyable experience with plenty of club houses scattered around where you can escape the rain for a few minutes before hitting the bookies and the race course once more.  

Overall, Royal Ascot is a great day out regardless of your interest in horse racing.  The spectacle of formality is worth the observation and you couldn’t come up with a better place to just people watch if you wanted to.  Well worth the journey down, Royal Ascot should be towards the top of the list of British summer activities. Participating in the pomp and splendor of this most royal and English of traditions is an experience in itself and you can understand why it sets the standard for every other horse race in the world.  -- K.V.    

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lates at the London Zoo

Last weekend my sisters and brother-in-law were back in London after spending 5 days in Istanbul. As this was my kid sister's first, but brief visit to London, we did the usual sightseeing tour: classic Sunday roast, National History Museum, Harrod's, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Soho, Southbank, London Eye, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, Afternoon High Tea, Tate Modern, Spitalfields Market, Brick Lane and more... It was a short stay in London unfortunately, so my kid sister will have come back next time for a proper tour of London. 

With no visitors in town or travel plans, we spent this past weekend catching up with our London-based friends, many whom we haven't seen in weeks, if not months. Taking advantage of a recent Groupon offer, Keenan and I, along with four friends, spent last Friday evening at Zoo Lates at the London Zoo. Every Friday during the summer months of June and July, the London Zoo hosts an adults only event starting from 6:00pm. 
Long gone are the little kiddies and their yummy mummies, doting dads, proud grandparents, and expensive prams. The Zoo transforms into somewhat of a mini-festival with several beer/Pimms gardens, 10 Eat.St food stalls serving up everything from Mexican to paella, pulled pork sandwiches and Ghanaian stew, live music, and even a silent disco. Of course the highlight of the evening  -- the 700 plus species from birds, reptiles, cats, wild dogs, and insects. The London Zoo, located at the top of Regents Park, is not very big so you can meander through the park leisurely...with a beer in tow. 

We started off with a visit to see the new Penguin Beach just opposite of the Oasis Cafe. The penguins are super adorable, especially the macaroni penguins which you may know from the movie Surf's Up. We watched them "jump" and swim around the "beach." Very cute!

Then we walked to see the Big Cats playpen, only to find the tiger still fast asleep, while the male lion was lazily lying around. I was quite to finally see a male lion having missed the opportunity to spot one while on safari in South Africa. Next time in the Serengeti, I hope...

We also saw alpacas, llamas, and camels on our way to "Into Africa" to see zebras, warthogs, and giraffes, which is one of my friend's favourite animals. Having lost track of time as the animal house closes at 9pm (even animals need their beauty rest, right?), we made it to the giraffe house just in time before the zookeepers closed the door by sneaking in through the exit. It was strange to see the giraffes  inside a barn instead of in the wilderness, but I know these animals are well-taken care of by trained zoologists.

We would have loved to stay longer to join the silent disco fun but alas the rain came, and that was our queue to head home. Despite the rain, the Zoo Lates was a fun, low-key night out. Grab some friends, bring a brollie, and order an after-work happy hour at the Zoo!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My Big Fat Greek Holiday: Athens

We went to Athens as the last stop on our Greek holiday with the family. After hearing mixed reviews about Athens, we decided to visit Athens as a long stop-over on our way back to London. Keenan thought I was crazy for booking the first flight out of Santorini so we can have an extra three hours of sightseeing. Yes, I may be crazy for taking at 6:55am flight, but I was working on the assumption that I will never come back to Athens again. So I rest my case and I am very glad we did! The rest of my family opted for some beauty sleep and took a later flight departing at noon for a quick 4 hr layover before heading to Istanbul, which gave them just enough time to see the Acropolis. 

Here is our day in review in Athens, by the hour:

7:00 am: Short 30 minute flight from Santorini to Athens, followed by a 40 minute metro ride from Athens airport (€8 special ticket ride on the honor system) to the city centre. 

9:00 am: Alighting the metro at Syntagma station, Athen’s main square in front of the Parliament building, we were greeted with graffiti-clad walls and the blazing hot sun. Desperately in need of a big dose of caffeine, we made made our way down pedestrianized shopping street of Ermou and sat ourselves at one of Athen's many sidewalk cafes for some people-watching. 

10:00 am: Enroute to Mt. Likavitos (Lycabettus), the hill dominating the northeastern part of the city, we meandered through the leafy posh neigbourhood of Kolonaki lined with beautiful neoclassical mansions and lovely cafes. On top of the hill, there is a fantastic 360 panoramic view of Athens. The city itself is not the most visually aesthetic city in Europe, rather Athens is sprawling, smoggy, and bursting at the seams. Definitely worth the trek but I would recommend hiking up in time for the sunset over Athens
12:00 pm: Looking for some respite from the afternoon heat, Keenan and I strolled through the National Gardens on our way to see the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch. The Temple of Zeus is largely in ruin; of the 104 Corinthian columns, only 15 remain today. 
1:00 pm: We then walked to the neighbourhood of Plaka, located just below the Acropolis. Touristy but quaint, we navigated through the labyrinthine of narrow streets in Plaka while waiting for the rest of my family to join us to visit the Acropolis. As the main tourist area, Plaka has numerous souvenir shops selling everything from postcards, trinkets, Grecian dresses, and Roman sandals.

2:00 pm: And finally, the Acropolis! I couldn't come all the way to Greece and not visit its most famous attraction. As expected, the Acropolis (€12 includes admission to other sights) was heaving with tourists including a large 20+ strong American family from New Jersey. It is worth spending a few hours taking in the sights at the Acropolis, including the Beule Gateml the Propylaia, the grand entrance to the Acropolis; the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos; Temple of Athena Nike; the Erechtheion; and the Theatre of Dionysos. 

4:00 pm: Further afield, there is also the Agora, the city's civic and center located about a 10 minutes on the base of the hill from the Acropolis. Be sure to time your visit appropriately as the Agora closes at 3:00 pm and take note that the New Acropolis Museum is closed on Mondays. My family and I got caught in a unexpected rain storm whilst walking to the Agora. Earlier in the day, I was hoping for cooler weather, but not heavy rain of biblical proportion! We took a break from sightseeing and sat down for a family lunch at nearby restaurant while waiting for the rain to subside. Afterwards, we checked out the Monastriaki neighbourhood known as the city's Flea Market district.
5:00 pm: Bid adieu to my family who flew to Istanbul for the rest of their holiday. Lucky them!


6:00 pm: Sundowner drinks along Ermou 

7:00 pm: Back to the airport for our 9:00 pm flight to London Gatwick. 

All in all, we had a great holiday with the family and we look forward to seeing more family and friends in San Francisco next month!