Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!


October is always a fun month at Casa di Lily & Keenan. Three family birthdays, wedding anniversary, Londoniversary, and of course Halloween, one of our favorite holidays. Last year we missed all the Halloween festivities as Keenan's Dad was in town for the 49ers game at Wembley Stadium, and the previous year, I was in Florence, Italy with a good friend from San Francisco. 

This year, a group of expat friends from Chicago hosted a "Neverland" themed Halloween party at their flat up in West Hampstead. A full house of all the Neverland characters: Peter Pan, Captain Hook (and Hooker), Tinkerbell, Jon Darling, Pirates, Wendy, 'The Alligator,' two Tiger Lilies, plus a bunch of other creative costumes, including Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra, Ken and Barbie, Zorro, The Red Devil, a London Rioter (sans loot and trainers), and (Dead) Alice in Wonderland. Decked out with spooky Halloween decorations, Neverland had a bar full of poison, a cauldron of spiked apple cider, and tons of candy and even cupcakes from the Hummingbird.


In keeping with the theme, Keenan dressed up as Peter Pan - the boy who refuses to grow up - by recycling his famously green hermit outfit that he wore at the Robin Hood-themed Stag party in Nottingham, a huge contrast from his zoombie outfit from a few years ago. Minnie Mouse also made an appearance sporting her red shirt and trademark yellow shoes. Yes, we chose very G-rated costumes, even little kiddies on the Tube stopped and said hello to Peter Pan and Minnie Mouse.  It was good fun! Thanks for a great evening!  

Be safe and Happy Halloween from London! Love, Minnie Mouse and Peter Pan xx

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cheltenham in the Cotswolds

Looking for a quick getaway to the English countryside, Keenan and I found ourselves in the lovely town of Cheltenham on the foot of Cotswolds. We couldn't have picked a better weekend to visit "Britain’s most complete regency town"; the sun was brilliantly shining and autumn colours reign supreme in this elegant and sophisticated town. Strolling along the tree-lined Promenade whilst admiring the gorgeous white-painted facades of mansion villas adorned with wrought iron balconies, we made our way to the ritzy neighbourhood of Montpellier Gardens for The Times Literary Festival, one of four major festivals as part of the 'Cheltenham Festivals.' 

The Literary Festival is a ten-day celebration with over 400 events featuring award-winning authors, poets, journalists, food critics, and politicians. We were lucky to see former BBC war reporter Martin Bell read from his latest book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, a collection of witty poems based on his life and experiences where he mocks everything from Britney Spears, American baseball, women named Hope, Charity, and Faith, and the Kindles. Bell was not only hilarious, he also confessed that he was  completely smitten by Angelina Jolie whom he recently interviewed on her role as the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. His new book instantly sold out at the Waterstone tent, but we were still able to get his autograph on an official Cheltenham Literary Festival notecard. 

Coinciding with The Literary Festival was The Showcase Races, the first of eight fixtures at the world famous Cheltenham Racecourse, leading up to the most prestigious of all events in steeplechasing held in March, also confusingly named The Festival. This beautiful racecourse, set against a natural backdrop of the rolling Cotswolds hills, is conveniently located just a mile away from the town centre along Evesham Road near the the historic Pittville Pump Room. 


The atmosphere at The Showcase was far more low-key than the Royal Ascot, trading in whimsical fascinators and dresses in favour of warm wool coats and sturdy boots, but the spirit of the races reign supreme.  To feel the full excitement of the event, it is worth bringing some cash and head to the "bookie" to place bets on your favorite horse. Invest in a racecard to review the form (performance at previous races) of each horse and bring binoculars to follow all the action as the Cheltenham Racecourse is quite large. Some races were more exciting than others, especially towards the final jump when three or more horses are head-to-head. We even witnessed a jockey fall off his horse on the final jump, but the white horse still managed to finish at a competitive fifth place without his jockey. It was a great day out watching one of Britain's greatest sporting spectacles. 

The next day we took advantage of the weather and went for a long "hike" south of town to Leckhampton Hill in the "Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty." Walking pass beautiful Regency-style villas set back in the woods on Bath Road, this part of Cheltenham reminded me a lot of the Berkeley Hills in my native California. Just beautiful. The views from Leckhampton Hill overlooking Cheltenham were also amazing. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Brecon Beacons in Wales.

Roaming around the park, we eventually found Leckhampton Hill's famous landmark, the Devil's Chiminey, a peculiar limestone rock formation that resembled a twisted chimney. Legend holds that the Devil's Chimney is the chimney of the Devil's dwelling deep beneath the ground. After our leisurely hike, we went for a traditional Sunday roast at local pub called the Norwood Arm before heading back to London. A bit sad that our short weekend in Glouceshire came to an end but at least we know that the Cotswolds is just a short train ride away.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Anniversary Celebrations at Bistro du Vin & Zucca

Last weekend Keenan and I celebrated three years of marital bliss! It just so happens we now share the same anniversary date with Sir Paul McCartney and the new Lady McCartney who tied the knot on 9th October at Marylebone Town Hall. Congratulations to the newly-weds!


To kick-start our week of celebration, Keenan and I met at Bistro du Vin Soho for a leisurely mid-week lunch, something we have never done before since neither of us work in the same area. The latest addition to the Hotel and Bistro du Vin group, Bistro du Vin on Dean Street is a large venue decorated in taupe and neutral hues combined with light and natural oak, giving this brasserie-style dining room a warm modern atmosphere. The Salon Room surrounded with a rainbow wall of books added a splash a colour, while the long wall-length pewter bar is the perfect place to grab a pre-dinner cocktail. We went straight for the champagne to mark the occasion. The super attentive waitstaff showed us to our table which had a view of the open plan kitchen. The modern European menu is heavily focused on the classics, but true to their homegrown & local philosophy, all ingredients are top-quality, sourced from Donald Russell, Mauldon Oysters, and Foreman's Smoked Salmon to name a few. 

As a starter, I ordered the foie gras & chicken liver parfait presented in its own little pot with toasted bread and chutney, which was heavenly delicious, followed by the duck, seared to a perfect balance of tenderness on the inside and crispiness on the outside. Simple but excellent cooking and generous portions. Keenan ordered the rabbit terrine as a starter, then the steak pie with a golden flaky crust and a side of buttery mash potato. To complement our lunch, we ordered a bottle of Cote du Rhone from the Bistro's lengthy wine list to pair with both our starters and mains, and the white chocolate cheesecake to round out the meal. Two hours later, we left the restaurant full of gourmet goodness and promised each other to meet more often for lunch. Our only regret was not being able to sample the artisan cheeses from Eric Charriaux from the Le Cave du Fromage. 

To keep the celebration going, we went to Zucca for dinner on Saturday. Tucked away on Bermondsey Street, this stylish modern restaurant decorated in white with hints of orange, a small tribute to its name meaning "pumpkin" in Italian,  Zucca has earned raving review from food critics and a Bib Gourmand. The food is excellent for the price and it is no surprise that you have to book six weeks in advance for a table. In the kitchen, ex-River Chef Sam Harris creates a changing menu where anti-pasti are all under £5, the pastas in two portions are £7 or £9, and all mains are around £15. Zucca also has a long wine-list of mostly Italian wines with bottles starting at £18. Since it was our anniversary dinner, we brought a bottle of Ettore Germano Nebbiolo Langhe for a £10 corkage fee. 

We were promptly seated for our 8pm reservation and the delightful waitstaff brought a complimentary basket of bread and fresh extra virgin olive. For starters, we shared the carpaccio of sea bass, which was incredibly fresh drizzled with olive oil and specks of chili pepper, and the brushetta with smoked eel, an interesting combination but well-executed dish with balanced flavour. Zucca's changing menu generally features two pastas on the menu. We opted to share the Amatriciana, a tasty dish made of guanciale, percorino cheese, and tomato over fresh homemade pasta. Finally, for the mains, I ordered Zucca's signature dish -- the veal chops with spinach and lemon. The portion was extremely generous and the meat was soft and succulent, grilled to my liking and full of flavour. Keenan, a lover of anything with tomatoes and garlic, ordered the grilled octopus with pepper. While generally not a fan of cephalopod due to its texture, Keenan loved his main.  According to him, the octopus wasn't soft, or even tender, but rather it melted in your mouth with flavourful morsels of garlic, oregano, basil, fresh saltwater, and young tomatoes. We finished off the evening with some sweetness, a heavenly dark chocolate cake, a perfect ending to a lovely evening.

Zucca exceeds expectations -- the food is divine, the atmosphere is lively, and the prices are very reasonably especially for London. It won't be too long before I return. Thanks for lovely evening and 
cheers to another year of marriage and many more to come...

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Arundel Castle on the Hottest Day in October

Last Saturday was not only the hottest day ever recorded in October, but it was also the third warmest day of the year. In fact, we had a nice stretch of uninterrupted sunshine and warmth for nearly a week! It was simply brilliant. With the temperature soaring to 84F on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, most people made a beeline to the southern beaches of Brighton, Bournemouth, and Weymouth, however, Keenan and I had other plans in mind: a visit to the historic Arundel Castle.

Until a few months ago, I have never heard of Arundel Castle. Warwick Castle, sure. Leeds Castle, of course. Arundel? Where's that? 

Located in West Sussex on the River Arun, just a 45 minute train ride from London Victoria, Arundel Castle is a historic medieval castle founded in 1067 by Roger de Montgomery as a fortress to protect invaders approaching from the English Channel. Since the 11th century, Arundel Castle has been the stately home and the principal seat of the Duke of Norfolk and his family for over 850 years. This meticulously restored castle is open to visitors from April to October, and is equally as impressive as the Royal Windsor Castle.

The property itself sits on a hilltop with 40 acres of land with several beautifully manicured gardens and sweeping view of West Sussex. We spent a good hour walking through the lavish garden. The trees gave a nice respite from the warm autumn heat as we made our way to the Collector Earl's Garden, a lovely memorial garden built in 2008 to honor Thomas Howard, the 14th Earl of Arundel who died in exile during the English Civil War. We then went to explore the interior of the castle, namely the Castle Keep and Castle Bedrooms, which contained old bedroom furniture, paintings from Van Dyck, china, and tapestries.  

After spending a good part of the afternoon admiring the architectural beauty and exquisite gardens of Arundel Castle, we walked about a mile up on Mill Road to a great riverside pub recommended by a work colleague called the Black Rabbit for an alfresco lunch and iced-cold pint. Being one of the hottest day of the year, the pub was packed with local families and day-trippers who were enjoying the gentle breeze and amazing views of Arundel castle in the distance and pastoral landscapes of West Sussex. Of course, it was also an opportunity bask in the sun and stock up on some vitamin D before the long winter hibernation. Highly recommend Arundel Castle as an easy half-day trip from London.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Auschwitz & Birkenau Extermination Camps

Grey, un-textured patterns painted the flat skies above the long horizon.  The late summer air, warm and stale, was silent with little more than a light breeze to remind us that we were not imbeded in a photograph, but actually standing on the grounds of one of the biggest mass murder scenes in the history of mankind.  The day’s weather matched the preconceived images in which we have grown familiar from films such as Scihndler’s List and countless other documentaries that chronicle this horrific and notorious space. 
Our day in Auschwitz and Birkenau was not our first time visiting a place of genocide.  In 2007, during a visit to Cambodia, we visited the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, as well as the Tuong Sleng Genocide Museum where Pol Pot exacted murder and torture on his own people during the years of the Cambodian genocide.  Similar to our experience there, we returned to Krakow from Auschwitz and Birkenau emotionally and intellectually drained.  


As an avid follower of twentieth century history, visiting the grounds of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau has always been on my list of important places to travel.  Places like Tuong Sleng and the Nazi extermination camps are eternal and somber memorials to the victims of the worst kinds of atrocities   and serve as physical evidence which reminds us that humanity’s predisposition towards madness is real and more present than we sometimes like to believe.   


The tour begins at Auschwitz I, largely the prison camp portion of the site and the more museum-like of the two, documenting every last detail of the Nazi’s “Final Solution”, thanks largely to the Nazi’s own highly efficient, methodical, and documented plans.  Auschwitz I is also the only portion of the camp which still contains a fully undamaged gas chamber and incinerator, owing to the others being destroyed on the eve of the Soviet advance and as an attempt to cover up evidence of the genocide.  The tour finishes at the sprawling Auschwitz II-Birkenau site, the primary purpose of which was mass extermination, a highly organized and meticulous killing factory composed only of gas chambers and furnaces with only the most rudimentary barracks and watchtowers as the other structures on the grounds.
While in Krakow it is also worth a visit to Oskar Schindler’s Factory, located in the industrial area of the former Jewish ghetto.  If you have ever been to Budapest and visited the House of Terror Museum which chronicles life in Budapest under both fascist and communist rule, then you will enjoy this newly refurbished world-class museum, Schindler’s former factory, which exhibits life in Krakow under Nazi occupation.  To gain a better appreciation for the relatively recent and tragic history suffered by Poland, and to marvel at how far they have come as a nation since, a visit to this museum is highly recommended.    

The Holocaust remains one of the most frequently recognized atrocities of the last century with volumes upon volumes of analysis attempting to understand how it could have reached the scale that it did.  The concentration camps that remain should serve as a warning to the world that man, at his very worst, is capable of the most appalling evil.  If you have any interest in World War II or in the social sciences or modern history in general, then there is plenty to keep you occupied in and around Krakow, including a visit to this site which I would consider to be required and essential for any traveler.