Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Flat-hunting... what a pain!

The other week I spoke to soon when I mentioned that I was feeling at home in our cosy 2 BR flat in Clapham Common Old Town.  Opps.
Instead of sending a lease renewal, M&P sent us a Section 21(1)(b) notification. Wait, what is that? Basically, it's a letter formally notifying the tenants that the landlord does not wish to renew. In our case, he is planning to sell the flat. 
This is a good start...bright spacious living area...
We started the whole flat-hunting process. Since we've lived in the Clapham area for over 4 years, we decided to move to a new neighborhood. London is a big city; moving to a new part of town is a completely new experience. We will miss Clapham and our local pubs. After living here for so long, it's not uncommon for us to run into a pub owner or a dog owner whilst shopping at Sainsbury. It's been a great home for us but it's time to explore a new neighborhood. Plus, no more fighting our way onto the Northern Line.
Go for a garden flat? I doubt we'd use with the famous London weather...
Location is important for us, and ideally one that has a 'village' feel, a self-contained neighborhood with restaurants, shops, cafes, bars, and other amenities, ideally close to central London with good transportation links to both our jobs. As I am located a Tower Hill and Keenan is in Canary Wharf although there is talk of his office to relocate into the new Shard building or the West End, we're looking at neighborhoods along the Jubilee or Northern lines (London Bridge, St Johns Woods, West Hampstead, Belsize Park/Chalk Farm, Angel) where it is slightly more affordable... well depending on the neighborhood. London is expensive. Remember rent is quoted by the week. 

Another bad flat-viewing... 
Not impressed with the living room...
Flat-hunting has been a pain and a drag. All the decent flats listed on Rightmove; Zoopla; or PrimeLocation​  
goes off the market like hot cakes. Other flats are out of our budget range, or just down-right dumpy or dated.  My phone  goes off every 15 minutes from Estate Agents inquiring about our flat search and  the inbox is clogged with random listings that we had to set up another 'junk' email account just to make the process more manageable.
We'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

36 hours in Brussels and Ghent

My recent trip to Brussels was not work-related (thank goodness), but to meet up with my favorite San Franciscan and dear friend who has been selected as a Marshall Memorial Fellow. This is a month-long programme for emerging leaders to learn about European politics/law-making, public policy, culture, and history. Each Fellow is assigned five European cities, hers includes: Brussels, Lubeck, Budapest, Rome, and Paris (lucky her!). My friend is a corporate attorney at a big law firm; she's taking a leave from work to be part of the fellowship and hope she's having a blast!

Originally, I wanted to meet her in Paris but Keenan and I had already booked our Easter holiday to Bologna. Then I considered Budapest but the flights were expensive and the timing wasn't right as I had a few deadlines that week. We settled for Brussels, a quick easy train ride on the Eurostar from St. Pancras, and it worked out perfectly as she had free time on that Saturday evening in her packed schedule of events organised by the Marshall office.

I arrived in Brussels as she was landing on her red-eye fight from Washington D.C.; and meet at the Aloft Schuman Hotel, a new concept hotel from the Starwood chain, which was just around the corner from the European Commission. Strangely, I felt as if I was going to a client meeting being in the European Quarter on a weekend! A quick hello and my friend was off on a walking tour, whilst I made my way to the Grand Place for some sightseeing.
The first order of business was to get some frites at Antoine's Place Jourdan, supposedly the best frites in town according to my former colleague who used to live in Brussels. 

I come to Brussels fairly often for conferences or meetings but it has been ages since I went to the Old Town area. It was nice to stroll around the charming streets and inhale the smell of 1) moules, 2) chocolate; and 3) beer, Brussels' top three gourmand specialities. Keenan's favourite Belgian beer bar is "The Good Old Times" -- a little bar he stumbled upon with his Dad during their 2009 Brussels trip. I sent my regards to Madame Triste, the pub owner, and ordered myself the Westvleteren Trappist beer. It cost 10 euros for a small 33cl but according to
beer aficionados, Westvleteren is considered the "the best beer in the world". I am no beer connoisseur and ended up nursing the beer for over an hour whilst eavesdropping on a tour guide giving a lecture on the history of Belgian beers. 

Later in the evening, I met up with my friend who unfortunately had some things to wrap up for work so we had a casual dinner of pizza nearby the hotel and caught up on life, friends, and work. It was great to just hang out, just like old times when Keenan and I were living in the Bay Area. Makes me miss California even more... maybe it's time to book a trip back to San Francisco? Keep you posted on our next trip back to the U.S.

The next day I decided to head to Ghent for the day to check out a quintessential Flemish city. Quaint little Ghent is less touristy than neighboring Brugges, and it is possible to see both cities in the same day if you're efficient. The weather was painfully cold. I did a walking tour along the canal on
Graslei, soaking up the perfectly preserved medieval architecture, strolled around the lovely square of Groentenmarkt, and visited some lovely cathedrals.

Before leaving this lovely Flemish town, I had to try the regional specialty of Flemish stew and a local brew. Of course, I couldn't leave Belgium without a suitcase full of Trappist beers and chocolates for the husband at home. My weekend in Belgium was short, but a chance to catch up with a dear friend from home was well-worth the 2hr 15 minute train ride to Brussels. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Birthday Celebration at Alyn Williams

Unless we're travelling for our birthdays (see Keenan's 29th in Syria; my 29th in Rio de Janiero; Keenan's 31st in Borneo), Keenan and I usually celebrate our birthdays doing one of our favourite things: eating. This year was no exception. I picked Alyn Williams at The Westbury Hotel for a celebratory birthday dinner. Unfortunately, Keenan was just recovering from the stomach flu, which needless to say ruined his dining experience but I enjoyed the food and service of Alyn Williams. 

After working as the Head Chef at the 2-starred Michelin Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley for half a decade, Alyn Williams opened his own restaurant at The Westbury Hotel. The decor was sophisticated with lots of soft plush furniture, neutral/warm hues, and spacious, but a bit on the stuffy side for me. The service was attentive as in the waiters will re-fold your napkin when you leave the table. Within a year and half of opening, Alyn Williams was awarded with a Michelin staff. Talk about a track record.

We opted for the 7 course tasting menu for
£60 and in honour of my Californian roots, we ordered a bottle of Le Crema Pinot Noir from Sonoma (yes, we do miss Napa Valley). We started off with gougères, fluffy savory cheese bread, similar to Brazilian pao de quesjo. The basket of freshly baked bread were delicious each 'paired' with its own butter -- aniseed-infused bread, potato bread (with actual chunks of potato) and crispy flatbread. 

Everything tasted as lovely as it was presented. We started off with Crab/pot au feu/milk/celery crisp served in a martini glass in which the crab infusion was poured directly at the table. The celery crisps were interesting contrast of textures and flavour, each with a drop of cream cheese. Then is was on to the Orkney scallop/cuttlefish/mint/caraway with a hint of squid black ink. Delicious and unbelievably fresh. 

Then it was on to the Marinated quail/smoked egg/baked potato/pickled red cabbage. I'm a huge fan of quail, and this one did not disappoint. The next dish was the Cod/coco beans/pastis/winter truffle, another excellent dish. Initially, I though the coco bean was an odd touch but it worked great. For the main meat dish, Keenan got the Devon ruby red sirloin/boulangere/turnip/pied de mouton/scurvy grass whilst I ordered the 50 day aged middle white pork/quince/chicory/parsnip/
liquorice. Both were good but we enjoyed the seafood-based dishes better. 

It was now on to the desserts -- yes plural plus a birthday cake compliments of Alyn Williams. Ice cream aside, I don't have a big sweet tooth and could forgo dessert. We started off with the Cornish cheesecake/Clementine/
honeycomb with a dab of citrus granita. Refreshing and delicious, even coming from someone who doesn't like cheesecake. The main dessert was Acorn crème Catalan/pear/pine/winter truffle tuile, a salty caramel dessert, and espresso chocolates -- sugar overload, but a completely delicious birthday dinner, even with a side order of the stomach flu.