Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Anti-Takeaway: In Search of Decent Chinese Food in London


Before I'm due to go "home" back to Washington, my mom always asks the same question.  "Hey, do you want to go to Vancouver?  If so, we have to book the Radisson early."

You see, every so often (read: frequently), my family and I make a pilgrimage of sorts to the shrine of Chinese food, which lays in the heart of Vancouver, B.C. in a little city called Richmond.  Richmond is now overrun by ex-Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom emigrated to Canada after China's 1997 takeover of Hong Kong.  For us, it means we are closer to some of my relatives.

But it also means that we're that much closer to really, really, really good Chinese food, which isn't as readily available in Seattle (and certainly not Edgewood).  And that's why we go.  

The best way to explain, describe, illustrate, etc. our trips is by the following example of a typical day's schedule:

12:30 pm - Upon arriving and passing Canadian customs, pull into parking lot of famous wonton noodle house and eat copious amounts of wontons and noodles.

1:15 pm - Pull out of parking lot and drive to the Chinese mall next door to eat "snacks" in the Food Court (mango milkshakes, sweetened condensed milk on 2 inch-thick toast, etc.)

2:00 pm - Check into hotel.

2:10 pm - Call restaurant to reserve a table for dinner.

3-5 pm - Snooze

6:00 pm - Dinner at the famed Sun Sui Wah restaurant in Richmond, where they serve fresh whole fish, dungeoness crab, etc.
8:00 pm - Return to hotel to watch television.

11:00 pm - Leave hotel to go to the number of 'late night' restaurants that are open for "midnight snacks" i.e. platefuls of noodles, congee (Cantonese style rice-soup with various ingredients) and more condensed milk toast, etc.
12:30 am. - Return to hotel to sleep.

Next Day - Repeat, with slight variations.

It is a good idea to starve myself a week in advance and go prepared with indigestion tablets, as I often need them.  The hotel does have a pool and gym which we occasionally use but there simply isn't enough time between the eating.  And I never bring my skinny jeans.

I admit it.  I haven't tried very hard.  But I can't seem to find really, delicious, consistent and most importantly, authentic Chinese food in London.  I've had my share of Chinatown fare and aside from Wong Kei (which greatly amuses me as horrified non-Asian patrons are subjected to the Wong Kei style of no-frills service, including unsmiling waiters who slam plates of food down and ignore desperate pleas of "Excuse me ... excuse me ... could I have some more ... oh nevermind") and another Taiwanese eatery (can't remember the name) on Gerrard Street, I haven't encountered anything I'd enthusiastically recommend or for that matter, visit again.  On the other end of the Wong Kei spectrum are places like Plum Valley and Yauatcha, which are grossly overpriced but offer "gourmet" Chinese cuisine.  However, I still consider these two establishments to serve fusion, rather than authentic, Chinese food.  I'm not saying I don't enjoy honey and champagne-infused fillet of trout, I sometimes just want the fish cooked in the pure, traditional Cantonese style - with lots of spring onion, ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce. 

In the meantime, I'm waiting for my friend Cherry to get back from Hong Kong so she can enlighten my tastebuds.  Please hurry.


One of my favorite excuses for a trip to the English countryside is John's childhood home in Peatling Magna, Leicestershire. 

This was the view that greeted me this morning when I stepped out of bed and before that, I was woken by the gentle "clop-clop" sound of horse hooves going past the window.  My response to the cows mooing and the sheep baying a few minutes later was to burrow deeper under the covers.  Simply put, these trips to Leicester are a little piece of heaven in the middle of my hectic city life. 

Once every few weeks, we travel by car or train to his dad's amazing converted farm house and settle in for the weekend.  "The weekend" usually involves pulling on Hunter wellies, going on eye-wateringly cold walks around the fields and warming up in front of a crackling fire either in the house or the pub next door.  I couldn't think of a more perfect way to spend my Saturday and Sunday.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fortnum & Mason

In the US and across the world, there is one robin-egg-blue box that makes girls' hearts flutter and men's wallets suffer.  In London, there's one unmistakeable turquoise-blue bag that fills my heart with longing every time I see someone carrying it - and it's got nothing to do with jewellery.

It has to do with food.

Of course I'm talking about Piccadilly's iconic Fortnum & Mason food emporium, where one can purchase everything from F&M monogrammed oven gloves to *the* finest champagne truffles at their chocolate counter.  And if you'd rather sit and sip tea accompanied by a selection of finger sandwiches or delectable cakes, then there are several dining options.  My personal favorite is the Fountain Restaurant, which is perfect for breakfast, brunch, lunch or afternoon tea (although they also serve dinner).  They make the perfect cup of hot chocolate (as evidenced above - check out the rock candy stirrer) and the bright and airy dining room makes your eating experience absolutely heavenly (I am often prone to exaggeration).

When purchasing souvenir gifts for family and friends at home, I shun the tacky, overdone domes of Harrods in Knightsbridge and opt for the cool elegance of Fortnum & Mason's instead.  In particular, I love to pick up a couple tins of Rose Biscuits (£7.95) (simply because the packaging is so sublime and gorgeous) and the Chocolate and Macadamia biscuits (£7.95). 

And I haven't even gotten to the shopping experience.  I love everything about that store - it brings about a calmness in me (which is actually alarming when the sight of beautifully packaged food acts as a natural Xanax).  From the wonderful thick deep red carpet beneath my feet to the long-aproned shop assistants quietly helping customers, every detail is looked after, making each visit a treat. 

Harrods may be more well-known, but Fortnum & Mason win hands down in my book.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cupcake vs. Cupcake

I just saw my co-worker's flat stomach and guiltily looked down at my threatening-to-burst waistline while sinking my teeth into the gooey deliciousness of a Candy Cake Toffee and Banana cupcake. 

In NYC, tourists go ga-ga for Magnolia Bakery of Sex and the City fame.  But over here, there are two (in my mind) cupcake institutions to duke it out in the Battle of the Cupcakes.  First, on our right, we have a creation from the highly successful Notting Hill-originated chain, Hummingbird Bakery, whose website boasts that it's "the home of high quality American home-baking in London."  Sounds impressive, no?  I visited the Portobello Road branch (they also have locations in South Kensington and Soho) last year and the queue was out the door (although this isn't difficult since the place is the size of a shoebox).  People were literally elbowing and shoving each other to get in, including the girl behind me, who snapped at me to "hurry up" and move along (I snapped right back at her, much to the delight of the customers in front of me who lauded my comeback).  When it was finally my turn to be served, I opted for a simple vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing with silver and pearl-like decorations (£1.75).  It was, indeed, delicious and delectable - very true to the American cupcake, especially (and most importantly) the icing.  It was worth the wait.  And for those who can't be bothered to visit the shop and are of the DIY-mind, the Hummingbird Bakery has a cookbook available as well. 

Duking it out in the left side are the "cupcakes" from Candy Cakes in Covent Garden.  I use the term "cupcakes" loosely because to me, these are more like glorified muffins than cupcakes and one might argue that they aren't true to the "American cupcakes", which are quite accurately replicated by the Hummingbird Bakery.  And yet, these are so very American - for the simple reasons that they contain about ten times as much sugar as necessary, are insanely colorful (and thus, very attractive) and are topped with various types of candy.  If this combination doesn't give you a toothache and bellyache together, I don't know what will.  It's completely OTT, but totally divine and totally delicious.  My personal favorite is the Toffee and Banana flavor, which I have already mentioned above, but there is also a Lemon and White Chocolate I'm dying to try (all sell for £3.50).  Last year, we had a month of "buy one get one free" privileges at work for Candy Cakes cupcakes because of some publicity/promotional offer tied into a new Puffin paperback we were publishing.  Needless to say, I had to take a break from Candy Cakes for about six months afterwards.   

Final verdict?  Both deserve your patronage.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This is where I want to be ...

This is a photo of Joshua Bell performing the Barber Violin Concerto, Op. 14 with the Minnesota Orchestra at the Barbican last February, shortly before I leapt across several audience members and ran backstage to the rumored green room door with Udita in hopes of getting a photo with him (I still feel a bit guilty about skipping out on the Beethoven - I'm sure it was great though).  Our stalking attempts were both successful, although we kind of had to push our way to the front with other JBell groupies (mostly young, attractive American women studying abroad in London with Coach bags dangling from their arms) eyeing us up and down. 

Over the two years I've lived in London, I've frequented Southbank and the Barbican for London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts.  Every time the lights dimmed and the Concertmaster walked onstage to rapturous applause, however, I'd feel a tug at my heart - I missed playing with an orchestra so much.  This was especially apparent when the piece performed brought back memories: the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, for example, reminded me of being accepted and playing at All-State Orchestra in Yakima or Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade (which the LSO or LPO - can't remember which - butchered by the way.  Complete shame), which brought back fond memories of Saturday morning Tacoma Youth Symphony rehearsals. 

On our way to the Scheherzade evening, Udita and I shared her iPod and listened to almost every movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece on the tube, conducting with our hands and attracting stares from other passengers.  Udita never failed to impress me: whether she was living in Spain or Boston, she always managed to find an orchestra or chamber group to practice and perform with.  I, on the other hand, struggled to find a good enough reason to bring my violin over from the US to the UK and was too shy to find an amateur symphony orchestra to join.  I was at once, both fearful and haughty - what if the orchestra was too good?  Or worse, what if it wasn't good enough?  But one night, as I was lying awake in my bed in London, unable to sleep, I tried to recall the names of each note on each string, starting from the G and working my way up to E.  I couldn't do it.  That's when I went into a cold sweat, sat up straight in bed and emailed my brother with this message:  "Remember when you asked me what you could get me for my birthday this year?  Do you think you could get me a new set of strings and/or possibly get my bow rehaired at Applebaum's in Tacoma?" 

A month later, I've found my perfect fit, the Royal Orchestral Society, which rehearses in St John's Wood every Monday.  Although I've only been to three rehearsals of the new season so far, I'm kind of in love.  The environment is friendly and non-competitive and the level of the players is, well, very good.  It's made up of ex-professional musicians, current music students at the Royal Academy and people like me, who've played seriously for many years but stopped for whatever reason and are looking to fit music back into their lives.  Another reason why I love them?  The entirely Russian programme planned for our spring concert (Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Prokofiev).  Sold.  Not to mention the adorable tea-breaks we have halfway through, complete with Hobnobs and Rich Teas.  And since, you know, I have no friends, I thought it'd might be a good opportunity for me to meet some new people.

So if you're around St John's, Smith Square on March 21st, we're having our first concert of the year.  You can purchase your tickets and learn more information here.

Monday, January 25, 2010


"Can you hand me my purse, please," I asked John, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my laptop, trying to buy something from Amazon.  He opened my Longchamp and dug deep, searching for something.  I looked up.  "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??" I shouted.  "Just hand it to me!"  Finally, his hand reached in and grabbed something, offering it to me triumphantly.  "Here you go!" he said, handing me my wallet.  "I asked for my purse not my wallet.  I need my lip balm."  "Oh," he said, a little confused.  I don't blame him.  In the UK, women refer to their wallets as "purses" - probably because they carry sorry so much schrapnel change that the term comes from "coin purse."  I figured this out pretty quickly but there are days when I refuse to use British vocabulary.  There are days when I feel like rebelling and saying, "I definitely need to wash these pants as I've worn them twice in a row now" and mean "pants" as in "jeans", not "pants" as in "underwear".  Simple American phrases like, "taking out the trash" have been obliterated from my daily conversation.  Instead, I say things like "put out the bin" or "it's in the car boot" - but I still have to think very carefully before doing so.  I refuse to say "nought" for "zero" or "zed" for "z".  If I use too many British phrases or words, I feel like a fraud, like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow in their trans-Atlantic accent stage.  Yuck, yuck, yuck.  I also try to preserve my American accent as much as possible, which is more difficult that one would think.  "Why would your accent change, Jaime?" my brother asked incredulously.  "You were born and raised in the US!"  Yeah, but try living and working in England, where all your co-workers are British and your friends are British ... the more you spend time with people, the more the way they talk rubs off on you.  Still, I try.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Can I see some I.D., please?"

They're really over-zealous about I.D.-ing people purchasing alcohol in the States.  When I want a glass of wine in a US restaurant, I feel like I'm doing something really taboo, or committing a crime.  My mom is a senior citizen, like, officially.  Last year, when we bought a bottle of Moet for my dad's birthday at Target, my mom was I.D.-ed by the spotty teenage cashier.  I thought it was hilarious, but my mother was annoyed.  "Young man," she said, her voice rising with anger.  "This is RIDICULOUS.  My daughter here is older than you.  In fact, in this day and age, what, with all these teen pregnancies, she could be your mother." Ok, ok mom, jeez!  Sometimes she goes too far.  Anyways the boy was not interested.  Apparently my mom looked under the age of 21.  "Sorry ma'am," he replied, bored.  "Store policy." 

Ok, so I understand why I would be carded in the US - I look pretty young for my age.  Pretty young = teenager.  But in the UK, where the drinking age is 18, I get pretty embarrassed when I'm asked for I.D.  Really?  I look like I'm under 18?  The best example to illustrate this was a recent trip to M&S, where I bought ingredients to make spaghetti bolognese.  I always add a bit of red wine to mine, so I picked up a bottle of red and put it on the conveyor belt.  As soon as the cashier picked up the bottle, she asked for I.D.  I smiled and said, "Sure," pulling out my Washington driver's license.  "I'm sorry, love," she said after checking my birthdate.  "Rules are rules, and you should be pleased because when you're my age, you'll be grateful for your youthful looks."  That's when an older woman in the queue behind me piped up, shouting, "I don't blame ya!  The girl looks about thirteen!"  Others in the queue considered me and nodded in agreement, "mmm"-ing and shaking their heads.  "Can I have my groceries now, please," I said through gritted teeth.  If I wasn't embarrassed before, I definitely was now.  "Seriously, love," the cashier continued.  "It's a real advantage to have youth on your side.  You're so very lucky."  "Yes, thank you," I mumbled, grabbing my receipt and running towards the door, aware of the eyes still assessing me.

I'm sure I'll be grateful for it one day; my mom doesn't look her age at all.  Neither does my dad, come to think of it.  Until then, however, I'll have to try to look older in order to be taken remotely seriously.  Upon meeting a well-known literary agent at a work presentation, I was taken aback by his reaction when introduced to me.  "You're Jaime Tung?" he said, in disbelief.  He then proceeded to throw his head back and guffaw.  When he finally regained his composure, he said, "But you look only about twelve!"  'Yes,' I thought to myself.  'But at least I'm not a wizened old codger like you."  I smiled sweetly instead.

Breakfast of Champions

It's Sunday morning, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining and God is definitely smiling down upon us in Maida Vale.  I've just had a bowl of granola and a poached egg prior to my yoga class in Covent Garden and John has made himself a lovely concoction of bacon atop a poached egg nestling comfortably atop a piece of freshly baked granary bread (by freshly baked, I mean it was still warm when I picked it up from Tesco Metro this morning).  This reminded me of one of my favorite meals of the day in both the US and UK - breakfast.  In the States, anything goes for breakfast, ranging from the healthy to downright disgusting (granola and yogurt, fruit bowl, Cap'n Crunch cereal to leftover pizza, donuts, and highly calorific iced muffins).  I'm interested in the cooked breakfast.  Traditionally at my house, my dad makes a cooked breakfast, made to order, for whoever wants one.  It usually consists of a thick piece of ham, two eggs and toast.

For some reason, during my last trip home, I became enamored with Denny's French Toast Slam.  I had it for breakfast about four consecutive days in a row.  Pretty disgusting.
 It doesn't even look appetizing, but for some reason, I really needed it.  Two slices (or is it more?) of French Toast, watery syrup, two slices of bacon and two eggs.  Whoever said good things come in pairs was wrong - I think I almost threw up in the Denny's parking lot after the third day of French Slam overdose.  But I still kept going back for more.

Now there are plenty of other cafes and diners in the US that do amazing cooked breakfasts with as many varieties as possible.  I've been to some of those and enjoyed every moment of it.  The Brits - well, they don't seem to do varieties in general.  Maybe they don't believe in them, I don't know.  But I find that the British tend to find one thing they're really good at and perfect it - then serve it everywhere.

Behold the cooked "full English breakfast."

This one actually looks healthy.  And yes, my fellow Americanos - those are baked beans in the upper right corner.  But seriously, don't knock it till you've tried it.  It's delicious.  At first, I didn't know what to do with the random tomato and mushrooms either, but I soon learned (I'll skip the black pudding, thanks.  And the fried bread, while you're at it).  And I'm pretty sure it has something from every food group - just fried beyond recognition, that's all.  When I was studying abroad at Oxford, I didn't understand what the students meant by "getting down to the Greasy Spoon" as soon as possible to cure their hangovers.  I thought "Greasy Spoon" was the name of the cafe in town, unaware that this was the terminology used to describe every downmarket cafe that serves full English breakfasts.  Washed down with a cup of milky English tea and you've got the perfect hangover or Sunday blues solution.  If you're looking for a good fry-up in London with a bit of market ambiance, I recommend Maria's Market Cafe, located in Borough Market.  My favorite English breakfasts have always been the home-cooked ones at various B&B's I've stayed at in and around Scotland and England.

When it comes down to it, you can't really compare the UK and US breakfasts and come out declaring a winner.  One has, again, creativity and variety, while the other has the same, comforting standard that has been perfected over decades of practice.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"But I have no friends."

When I moved from Massachusetts to York to do my MA, I experienced a huge culture shock: it's hard to make friends in the UK.  I got super homesick one day and called my mom, sobbing.  "What's the matter?" she asked over Skype.  "I'm so LONELY!" I cried.  "Well why don't you go out with your friends?" she asked, puzzled.  "But I HAVE NO FRIENDS!" I wailed.   I mean, it's difficult to make friends wherever you go and especially when you move to a new place but it's especially hard in England.  Don't get me wrong - the English are some of the most generous, kind, friendly and lovely people I have ever met.  Over the years, they have welcomed me into their homes, helped me when I most needed it, and generally welcomed me into their country with open arms.

But it definitely takes time.  I discovered this the hard way at York and shortly after I first moved to London. I remember my first day of the MA course - there were about 7 or 8 of us meeting for the first time at the first class.  Afterwards, knowing that there was a graduate students' reception that night in the English Department, I thought it would be great if we met up and went together.  "Hey guys," I said brightly to my new friends.  "How about if we meet up for drinks before and go to the graduate party together?"  I was met with silence.  Not only silence, but sideways glances at each other, as if I had lost my mind.  "Um ..." one finally ventured.  "Um ... I've got something else on at that time ... but I'll see you there."  "Yeah," another quickly said. "I'm meeting up with some friends before but uhmm ..." he trailed off.  And then they dispersed, just like that.  Slightly disappointed but not completely undeterred, I signed up to be the President of the Graduate Student's Committee at my college.  I thought it'd be a great way to meet new people and with my outgoing personality, it was a no-fail solution.  WRONG.  You could have heard the tumbleweeds blowing at our first meeting.  My American enthusiasm was met with blank stares, skeptism, and ungratefulness.

In the US, you can make friends for life within minutes.  Seriously, I'm sure all of the Americans reading this blog know what I'm talking about: you're waiting at the dentist's for your appointment.  You start chatting to the person next to you.  You find out you have a few things in common, it's so excitingyoujustcan'tbearitoh! And the next thing you know, you have their number and you're meeting up for lunch tomorrow.  Ok, maybe that's just me but I'm sure it happens.

It took me three months - THREE MONTHS - to get to know and make my first real friend at York.  The people on my course all ended up being really close and great friends.  We had murder mystery parties, get togethers, movie nights, etc. but I couldn't get over how long it took for us to get to that point.   I guess it's an American thing.  We really are over-eager or, as my British friends say, "very keen."  It's not always such a bad thing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Jonathan Creek

It's safe to say there are at least three distinctly British things I am obsessed with:  the Cotswolds, Victoria sponge cake, and Jonathan Creek.  When I was about 12 or 13, I'd check out coffee table books on "Best Walks in the English Countryside" and "English Gardens" from the Sumner Library and lay on my stomach in my room, slowly turning the pages for hours, admiring the beautiful fields of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.  Then I discovered a show on PBS called Jonathan Creek.  I loved it.  Not only did I love the adapted theme from Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre (I was probably the only person in the entire Tacoma Young Artists Orchestra who wanted to outwardly scream of excitement when this piece was announced to be on our programme one year, simply because of my love for the television show and not the actual piece itself), I loved Jonathan's curly mop of hair, his absolutely loveable but annoying sidekick Madeleine or "Maddy" but most of all - I was IN LOVE with the windmill he lived in. 

I thought my obsession with Jonathan Creek would be something I'd outgrow, like my obsession with Weezer or Claire's Accessories (American girls, you know what I'm talking about).  But weeks before I was due to touch down at SeaTac Airport this past Christmas, I found myself placing holds on Jonathan Creek Series 1-4 from the Pierce County Library's website and when I found myself unable to sleep due to jet-lag, I'd pop in a DVD and watch an episode.  Then it turned into a problem.  I started watching episodes back to back, lounging around on our couch at home in the family room, surrounded by various drinks and snacks or watching them really early in the morning when I was wide-awake from jet-lag. "Jaime!" my mom would squeal, happily letting herself into my bedroom around 9 a.m.  "Come upstairs for some breakfast!  I'll make you your favorite - French toast." "Not now, mom, I'm kind of WATCHING something," I'd respond tersely, not lifting my eyes from the laptop screen.  In fact, when I finally did take my eyes away, I had a sort of glazed over expression that wouldn't subside, no matter how much I tried to snap out of it.  The height of my viewing over-indulgence occurred when I had several dreams about starring in different episodes of Jonathan Creek.  Perhaps I wanted to be Maddy (note: I'm fiercely loyal to Caroline Quentin, so I have a hard time enjoying the later episodes as I spend the whole time critiquing the performances of the other female sidekicks and lamenting the fact that Caroline Quentin wasn't there).  I forced my dad to watch an episode with me, even though he said he preferred Midsomer Murders.  In the end, he conceded it was "ok", which is basically like saying it deserved an Oscar in my dad's-speak.  I was so pleased.  In the meantime, I'll settle for this boxset.

Photo source

In Search of Sushi ...

I think this blog is becoming increasingly food-centric.  But I believe that food is so important to one's culture, identity and sense of "home."  When I'm homesick, I long for certain foods - my mom's cooking, Taco del Mar, etc. - as much as I long for my childhood bed.  And when I think of returning to London, I look forward to my lunchbreaks at Pret (um ... when I say "lunchbreaks", I mean I treat myself every Friday to Pret - I usually make my lunch or eat in the canteen on other days) and the yummy roasts John makes on Sundays or the comforting traditional English cottage and shepherd's pies delightfully crafted by John's mum.  Food is very important in the Chinese culture; so important, that once every three months or so, my family makes the journey up to Vancouver, British Columbia to a little city called Richmond, which is basically like a mini-Hong Kong.  There we gorge on the best Cantonese-style food - from wonton noodles with beef brisket to dim sum.  But I'll cover that in a later post. 

And in true Asian style (after looking at my Chinese friends' Facebook photo albums, I'm pretty sure this is primarily and Asian thing), I like to take pictures of almost every meal - and definitely when we're travelling, much to John's embarrassment ("Don't use flash, don't use flash - OH NO YOU USED FLASH!!!").  This leads me to my topic of the day, which is the search for decent sushi in London - and I think I might have found it.  But first, let me illustrate where I'm coming from in terms of sushi standards ...

Behold the before and after photos of a trip to Koharu Japanese Restaurant in Federal Way, Washington.  In terms of the best sushi in Puget Sound, I think this is it.  Koharu is always on the top of my list for "special food requests" when I go home and we usually end up spending upwards of $250 for four people when dining there.  Oops.  My dad takes clients there and about all I can afford is the miso soup.  They also do great cooked main dishes, such as beef yakisoba, etc. 

So I was pretty disappointed when I first landed in London and was faced with the usual conveyor belt-type places you find in big cities - chains like Yo! Sushi and Wasabi just don't do it for me when I'm craving some fresh salmon sashimi that hasn't sat inside of a plastic wrapper for 6 hours or drifted down a conveyor belt, salivated over by 50 other customers before it gets to me.  Not so much.  Itsu is actually not bad, considering it's a chain and features in Heathrow Terminal 5, where I can get my sushi fix before taking off.  But I don't really like it's whole "health and happiness" motto - it's reminds me too much of Victoria Beckham, sipping green tea and eating edamame beans to survive.  I don't eat sushi because it makes me "healthy and happy", I eat it because it's damn tasty and I eat it until I feel like I'm about to puke from fullness.  Sorry if i missed the point there, but I sure as hell do not eat sushi for "health" reasons.

My sushi place of choice, which may surprise many, is actually one I've never visited - well, at least physically.  You Me Sushi in Marylebone delivers sushi and bento boxes to anyone living within their 3-mile radius - for free.  That's fab.  I like the concept of You Me Sushi.  It's simple, it's fresh and it does just what it says on the tin.  And it's something that sounds like what John and I would say to each other at the end of a stressful day or work week:  "You, me, sushi?"  Um, like, yeah!  Their only downfall is their super sketchy website.  But whenever I see the mopeds whizzing around NW London with the You Me Sushi logo on the back, my heart flutters a little.  We usually get an 18-piece nigiri set or if we're feeling particularly hungry, that and a side. 

Another reason why You Me Sushi wins in my book?  Once, they called me up with a customer satisfaction survey.  The lady on the other end asked me if I was satisfied with the service I had received so far from them.  I thought about it and responded, "Yes, definitely."  "Isn't there ANYTHING you can think of that you weren't COMPLETELY satisfied with?" she pressed.  Ok, twist my arm then.  I thought hard and remembered one time when my delivery could have been about 15 minutes earlier than it was ... and immediately, I was texted a code for 20% off my next order.  You Me Sushi?  Yes, please.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"I'm living my dream ..."

This is the view from the 10th floor of my office building on The Strand.  Two years ago today, I stepped out of Embankment tube station and as I walked to the Embankment entrance of 80 Strand, I thought to myself, "This is it.  I'm living my dream."  I think my dream is a little different at the moment than what it was two years ago, but when I feel down or like I need some balance in my life, I look at this photo and remember why I'm here.

National Rail

People in Britain complain about National Rail ALL THE TIME.  It might as well be a national pastime.  They also like to complain about their local bus services, the Tube, and any other method of public transportation available to them.  Sure, they all need improvements and yes, sometimes "planned engineering works" can seriously mess up your weekend plans to go outlet shopping in Bicester Village.

But the National Rail services are one of my favorite things about Britain.  When I say favorite, I mean I'd happily pay for and take a trip to anywhere in the UK on the train, just for the sake of travelling by train.  I love everything about it - the cleaniness of the interiors, the quiet, civilised nature of Coach B, "the Quiet coach" (note to self: do NOT ever take a trip from London to York or vice versa when Newcastle is playing again ... *shudders* at the memory of the shaved-head thugs in steel-toed boots chugging Strongbow and screaming football songs for the 3-hour journey back), the food cart coming by mid-journey - and my absolute favorite part - the countryside whizzing by.  I'll never tire of watching the miles and miles of green countryside dotted with sheep and occasionally cows or other livestock becoming increasingly blurred as the train hurtles towards my destination.  I love the conductor who comes by and checks my ticket, the voice that announces which train is arriving into which platform at my origin, and the comforting "whoosh" sound of the train as I stare out the window.

I've also met some fantastic people on trains travelling by myself, including:

1) A kind TFL worker who called his colleague at 11:58 pm for me to find out when the last Hammersmith and City train from King's Cross to Aldgate East was leaving as we were arriving into the station at 12:01 am.

2) A gorgeous MAC makeup artist who gave me six "empties" she had on her and told me to "treat myself" next time I was at a MAC counter (*MAC offers you a free product when you bring in six empty containers to any counter) after I loaned her my phone.

3) A squaddie from the British Army who helped me with my bags and told me stories about his time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

4) An elderly couple who, upon my arrival into York, insisted their son drive me to the door of my student accommodation before taking them home as it was "just so late, dearie, we can't have you travelling back with all your bags in the dark."

I suppose you don't know what you've got till it's gone though.  Have you ever taken a train or a Greyhound bus in the States?  Or a public bus for that matter?  Harrowing experiences.  I'll stick to my travel options around here, thanks.  Look out for a post on buses soon ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Sandwich or, REAL Food

As I sit here in my lovely Maida Vale flat in a total food coma, staring at the half eaten Asda pizza in front of me, I'm reminded again of the plethora of fantastic food offerings in the US - enough to induce several food comas per day, in fact.  Now, don't get me wrong - in terms of fresh, high quality food and dining out - London wins hands down.  Maybe it's just where I live or where I've lived, but I've never really been as impressed with the quality of restaurants in the US as I have in the UK.

The photo above was taken at a P-Town Wal-Mart.  I took it because I wanted to show my British friends just how many varieties we have of potato chips, or "crisps" alone and that, if, faced with this choice everyday, you could easily become one of the statistics for national obesity.  Easily.  After having not stepped into an American supermarket for such a long time, I felt like the motto of American grocery stores should be "Anything you want ... you got it."  Then again, it was Wal-Mart.  And before you judge me for shopping there, I'll let you know that I was looking for a good deal on Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Uno.

But I digress.

Snacks, fast food, delis, etc. - Americans do it better.  Not differently, but better.  And this is one thing I will stand by.  I'll never forget the time we stopped at a rural French gas station on our way to Barneville, Normandy and picked up a couple of authentic baguette sandwiches.  Oh my god, it was so depressing for me - one slice of ham lovingly cut into about 5 different little circles and spread along the length of the baguette, with a bit of butter and a similarly slimline piece of cheese.  It was delicious, but I couldn't help thinking that something very important was missing ... FILLING.

This is a sandwich from a local favorite - Joe's Java, located in Edgewood, Washington.  My mom takes great pleasure in treating me to lunch several times a week at this place and watching as I greedily wolf down the sandwich of my choice as if I haven't seen food in months.  I particularly enjoy the Poor Boy Sandwich, pictured here.  Tell me my fellow Frenchies and Brits, does what you see here disgust you?  Enough layers of meat to feed a small family you say?  "That's not a baguette, that's blasphemy!" you say?  Well yes, it sort of is.  But it's so delicious.  The amount of mayonaise on that thing alone could give you a coronary.  But oh, it's so good.  If it makes you feel any better, I usually eat half for lunch and save the other half for a mid-afternoon snack.  Don't know if that just grossed you out even more though.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Snacks to Cure Homesickness

Whenever I go back to the States, I make sure I bring plenty of snacks back, 'cause while I love Digestives and Hobnobs as much as the next person, nothing beats American snacks.  Nothing.  They're generally more creative, tastier and a whole heck of a lot unhealthier - just the way I like it.  Over the years, I've learned to pick and choose what to bring back though (don't ask John about the time I brought a Costco-sized bag of trail mix back as he was in charge of all the heavy lifting of the suitcase ... note to self: don't bring Costco-sized ANYTHING back).

A particular favourite of mine are Trader Joe's Cheese Crunchies which are like Cheetos, but so much better.  I'm glad they didn't get crushed in my already oversized/overweight/overeverything/filled-to-the-brim suitcase of goodies.  Here's a list of other must-haves I brought back this time:

1) Crystal Light - my BFF Udita raves about these all the time, but I didn't get it till I drank a leftover tub during my trip back home.  This stuff is amazing.  One little tub makes TWO quarts!  And one thing I crave the most when I'm in the UK is iced tea of any variety.  They don't seem to have discovered Snapple here yet.

2) Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate - looking for good, high quality hot chocolate that doesn't require milk but simply hot water?  This is your best bet and one of my winter favourites.  The marshmallow one isn't that great, but try "Rich Chocolate."  The "Milk Chocolate" was only $1.00 per pack at Wal-Mart.  I brought two back. 

3) Pop-Tarts - now, I am sure they do Pop-Tarts in the UK ... just boring flavored ones.  I prefer "Smores" or "Cinnamon".  Always reminds me of grabbing one and running out of the house in the mornings during my high school days and eating and driving at the same time.  Oops. 

4) Pretzel Flipz - at one point, I brought so many of these back to London (Albertson's was doing a 10 for $10 deal) I got sick of them.  But nothing beats sweet and salty.  Why haven't Brits done this???  When I shared them with my co-workers they were slightly disgusted but also intrigued.  "Sweet and savoury combined?  Eww!"  By the end of the day, I had total converts.

5) Apple chips - all you get here in the UK is dried boring fruit when you're looking for an "alternative" snack.  What they need to do is Americanize it by dumping a load of sugar and preservatives in it and giving it a healthy dose of cinnamon.  And voila - apple chips!  I couldn't find any apple chips this time but came back with two bagfuls of Trader Joe's Apple Clusters.  They're even better because the crunch is sublimely satisfying.

6) Jelly Belly jellybeans - ok, I know you can get them here, but they're like £10 per 20 jellybeans (I exaggerate, but it's something like that!) at Topshop.  I especially enjoy going to Fred Meyer and using the dispensers there to do my own mix and match.  A lot of people hate it but my favorite flavor is Buttered Popcorn.  I keep a stash of these in my work desk drawer to lift my spirits when I'm feeling a bit bogged down by the British workday (which is a bit difficult, compared to the slave-driving American workplace antics).

7) Japanese Rice Crackers (Want Want) - one thing London and/or any other city in the UK lacks is a giant, warehouse-like Asian mega-store.  You get a lot of those in Washington state.  A chain my family often visits is the Ranch 99 Asian Market, located in Kent, Washington.  It's a bit of a trek from our house but I stock up on my favorite Chinese/Asian snacks here.  These rice crackers are amazing.  They're not sweet, not savory - there's just no way to describe them.  And they come in little packs of two which make them perfect to throw in your bag and have later as a snack with miso soup ... which brings me to the next item on my list ...

8) Oriental Chef Miso Soup Mix - sometimes when I'm hungry mid-morning at work or want a late night snack that's not too filling, I reach for this miso soup packet.  It's not a powder, but a paste, with a separate sachet of dried spinach and tofu.  It tastes wonderful in a mug and is filling enough as a snack.  I always have to buy at least two packs of the white and red paste mix when I'm at Ranch 99.

9) Reese's Peanut Butter cups - so I'm not a fan of these.  But my friends are, so I bring some back for them, although apparently you can buy them at Tesco now.  In general I think Americans try to add peanut butter to everything - cookies, Dairy Queen blizzards, etc.  Peanut butter and chocolate is not a bad idea though, I must admit.

10) Yan Yan - jumping back to Asian snacks ... Yan Yan is one of my favorite Asian snacks.  It looks like this when opened and you dip the biscuit sticks into chocolate/strawberry icing.  Yummy.  Sometimes I buy a whole pallet when I go to Ranch, which makes the cashier gawk. 
© angloyankophile

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