Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 10 Best Things About Celebrating Christmas in the UK

This past Christmas was significant as it was the first Christmas I've ever celebrated in the UK, away from my family. At first, I was really bummed about not being home for Christmas, but I soon got over that when I realized that Christmas in England is actually, well, pretty awesome. I kind of never wanted it to be over. 

Here's my Top 10 list of the things that make Christmas so special in the UK:

1. A country walk after Christmas dinner

There's nothing better than retiring to the couch after stuffing your face at the Christmas dinner table ... well, except getting into the fresh, crisp country air with a long walk after dinner to help aid digestion. Not to mention, it's pretty darn beautiful out there. In this case, we didn't make it out until Boxing Day, but still, putting on a pair of Hunter wellies and taking in the beautiful Leicestershire country scenes made me almost forget that I live in a big, overcrowded, manic city.

2. Christmas crackers

I LOVE the tradition of pulling open Christmas crackers and putting on that flimsy colored paper crown inside! Crackers range from cheap (with plastic toys and corny jokes to be read aloud at the table) to downright luxurious (at Liberty and Fortnum & Mason, a box of their beautifully decorated crackers with luxury gifts inside retail for over £200 for ten!). They're festive and fun and there's nothing like trying to pop a plastic "jumping" frog into your brother-in-law's glass of dessert wine, as I tried to do shortly after the photo above was taken.

3. Christmas treats

I can't say that I love mince pies or Christmas cake (I'm not a fan of fruit cake or preserved fruit in general), but I'll definitely have a mince pie or two with a glass of mulled wine around Christmas time in the UK. In the US, we tend to have a lot more creative, spangly types of Christmas treats (have a look at the recipes on Pinterest and you'll know what I mean) with the stores dominated by colorfully iced sugar cookies with sprinkles on top, but I like how the British get back to the basics with festive treats that have heritage (as the mince pies and Christmas pudding do). But more "modern" confections also appeal to me. In the photo above, my friend Natalie made a delicious rocky road and decorated it with "snow", deer, and trees. Isn't it amazing? We enjoyed it while watching The Holiday, one of my favorite cheesy Christmas movies.

4. Two words: BRANDY BUTTER

I've never had brandy butter until this year (probably because I've never celebrated Christmas in the UK), but it is a REVELATION. A huge dollop of that with a generous helping of cream on top of my Christmas pudding, and I could eat that stuff forever. It also seems like the kind of thing that would only exist in Harry Potter books (I know I'm thinking of butter beer here), which is probably also why I love it, aside from the fact that it's sweet, alcoholic, and totally indulgent.

5. The Queen's Christmas speech

Watching the Queen's speech on Christmas Day was a first for me. It probably doesn't mean too much to people who have grown up with hearing the Queen's address every year, but I was (as the Anglophile I am), naturally, enraptured. She spoke of reflection and of Prince George, and as always, looked impeccable in a cheery, soft yellow dress suit and pearls. Long live the Queen.

6. The lights on Oxford Street and Regent Street

Brits are always stunned by the sheer magnitude and length that Americans will go to in order to decorate their houses for Christmas. I remember driving through specific streets with my parents when I was small, just to see the Christmas lights. There was a favorite house of mine in Sumner that featured an elaborate reindeer display and also went to town on their Halloween decorations as well. But in the absence of these OTT, competitive displays in UK homes (and sure, I've seen some impressive ones here, but trust me - they're nothing compared to American lights), I love taking the bus down Oxford Street and Regent Street during this time of year. The lights and the displays are positively magical and fill me with happiness.

7. Drinking mulled wine by a roaring fire in a pub

I like my mulled wine very, very sweet, with lots of spice. And there's nothing lovelier than enjoying it by a fire in a country (or London) pub. The best mulled wine I've had to date was from The Turf in Oxford (where, allegedly, Bill Clinton famously "did not inhale"). For a quick fix, you can buy packets of mulled wine spices or make it from scratch yourself. 

8. Popular (British) Christmas songs

Christmas playlists are a must for me starting around mid-November. I hadn't realized how many British Christmas songs there were that we've never heard in the US (or at least, are much less popular) until I came here, like Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody":

Or a personal favorite of mine, "Merry Christmas Everyone" (not to be confused with "Merry Christmas Everybody"!):

9. Setting your Christmas pudding alight

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of this (they're all too dark), but what's more fun than turning off all the lights, drizzling your dessert with a spoonful of brandy, and setting it on fire? Not much, I don't think. I may not be the biggest fan of Christmas pudding, but I sure love the excitement of seeing it being lit. That, and brandy butter.

10. The post-Christmas sales

London is as much of a shopping haven as the US is - you just need to know where to look! Every year, I lust after these beautiful ornaments from Fortnum & Mason (otherwise known as my spiritual home). And every year, I pass on them, because they retail for between £14-25 each!!! That's a little on the pricey side for me. But this year, I made a journey there after Boxing Day hoping to find a few treasures for my mom, who collects Christmas ornaments. Sure enough, I lucked out as some of these were reduced down to £3.50! Boxes of Christmas crackers were reduced from £50 to £12.50. I also spied some gorgeous Rifle Paper Co. cards as well for about £4. 

So there you have it. Clearly, Christmas in the UK is fun. And now I'm off to my second Christmas in the States, so I don't have to be too depressed about the holiday season being over. 

Merry Christmas, everyone. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Shopping in Paris

When I told my mom that I was going to Paris last weekend, she replied, "It sounds so luxurious - pre-Christmas shopping in Paris!" And I hadn't thought about it too much (of course, I'd thought about shopping, just not specifically about what it'd be like to shop in Paris right before Christmas), so I wasn't quite prepared for the spectacle that is Paris department stores at Christmas time. Simply ah-maz-ing.

The tree above is from Galeries Lafayette, one of the three major (luxury) department stores in Paris. The displays in these stores really put Selfridges and certainly Nordstrom to shame. I've never seen anything quite like it. Classy, elegant, yet completely over-the-top, the artistry found in these visual merchandising masterpieces was utterly impressive. Outside, the lines to simply look at the interactive window displays (which were really, really delightful, I must admit) snaked around the corners. My French co-worker, who, like many others in my office, is a native Parisienne, admitted to me in an email that she makes a "pilgrimage" each year to see the Christmas windows. Aside from its impressive collection of designer goods (for example, the store has two separate Longchamp concessions on different floors), the domed, stained glass ceiling of Galeries Lafayette (which you can see a part of in the photo above) is its main attraction. It's for this reason that the store has become more of a tourist attraction than a shopping destination.

We then made our way to Printemps, and I will refrain from re-telling our traumatic story of how one security guard managed to ruin our visit and possibly our day (except to say that you should never take the stairs as an alternative to the overcrowded escalators, unless you would like to be physically assaulted and verbally threatened by the guards), where I took in the gorgeous display at Prada, which included two mock elevators that "opened" to reveal rotating mannequins and their luxuriously distinctive leather bags.

And of course, the Chanel perfume counter looked appealing, as it does in every city, but particularly so in Paris (though this photo is from Galeries Lafayette, rather than Printemps):

After we had our fill of jostling elbows and I grew tired of cooing over YSL heels and Celine handbags, we wandered over to the Marais for smaller boutiques (with similarly jaw-dropping prices). And would you believe it? I left Paris empty handed, save for a small box of macarons from Pierre Herme and a beautiful silk scarf for my mom.

There's always next time.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Steak Frites in Paris, Bistrot Vivienne

My dad sends me a hand-drawn birthday card every year. This year, he had slipped (most likely unbeknownst to my mom) five crisp £20 notes between the card and a handwritten note that read, "Dear Jaime, Go get yourself a nice birthday dinner ... Dad. p.s. You may invite John too if you like :)". Literally, that's what he wrote. With a smiley face at the end. So I replied to him (without cc'ing my mom, in case he got in trouble for sending CASH in the mail, which you should NEVER do, not to mention how incredibly difficult it is to obtain British bank notes in our small town) and told him that I'd turned his pounds into Euros and that I'd buy us (me and John) a nice dinner when we got to Paris.

And so I did. Or rather, my dad did.

While on the train to Paris, I developed a sudden craving for steak frites, i.e. steak and skinny fries, usually served with Bearnaise sauce. I also very specifically wanted a carafe (not a bottle, not a glass, but a carafe) of house red wine. I also wanted a little bowl of green salad on the side with a simple vinaigrette and oil dressing.

And you know what? My wishes came true: on every count. In searching for a restaurant to eat near my friend Philip's recommendation, we stumbled upon the Galerie Vivienne - a beautiful arcade glittering with Christmas lights and lined with wine shops and restaurants. In it, was Bistrot Vivienne: a buzzing, wonderfully decorated restaurant with friendly staff and steak on the menu. Sold.

We ordered everything I had wanted and our perfectly cooked steaks (rare for John, medium for me) arrived not too long after, along with my precious carafe of red wine and the delicious bread which only the French can do so very well. I think my eyes rolled into the back of my head when I took my first bite. We mopped up the juices on our plates with the bread and smothered our steak with the delicious Bearnaise sauce. The fries were a little on the soggy side, but that didn't matter to me at all, as the main event was so delicious and I was having such a good time. It seemed like the perfect end to a very hectic and tumultuous few weeks for both of us (but mostly John) at work.

As the English lady at the table next to ours paid her bill, I overheard her tell the waiter that she loved the restaurant and made a point to visit it every time she came to Paris. I made a mental note to do the same, but to take my dad as well.

At the end of the meal, I was suitably drunk and deliriously happy with the meal I'd just consumed. I paid the bill, thanked my dad, and stumbled into the night on John's arm, grateful for experiences like the one I'd just had.


123 Sébastopol

Have you ever jumped on a bed, flopped around, then wanted to cry, all because it was just so dang comfortable? That's how I felt about the bed in our room at 123 Sébastopol in Paris. Not only was it comfortable, but it was also pretty. When I think of Paris, I think of accordians and mimes, of croissants and cups of thick chocolat chaud. I also think of balconies that open onto the street below and, strangely, of beautiful, grey, oversized headboards exactly like the one pictured above. I was in seventh heaven (and I had John to thank, since he booked the hotel).

Conveniently located in the 2nd arrondissement (just a stone's throw away from the Pompidou Centre and a short walk from everything else), 123 Sébastopol is a quirky, cinema-themed boutique hotel with each floor dedicated to a French celebrity. We were on the second, or Elsa Zylberstein, floor - and because of this, our room had a small ballet barre (in homage to Elsa's classical dance training) and girly touches, like the low-hanging chandeliers and a wicker dress maker's form in the corner. The bathroom, though compact, was lovely: the sink and mirror resembled a trunk and a dressing room mirror, while the glass-enclosed shower made me want to linger there just a tad longer than usual.

The pièce de résistance (sorry, I can't help it, and yes, this is the absolute limit of my French language skills) however, was the hotel lobby's incredible snack bar and complimentary room mini-bar, which was consistently refreshed with soft drinks ranging from Coke Zero to Orangina. 

In case you weren't already full from breakfast (which consisted of cooked options such as scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, and delicious potatoes, as well as patisserie and fresh fruit), the "snack bar" included a beautiful array of macarons, pain au raisin, brownies, melt-in-the-middle chocolate muffins, chips (crisps to you Brits!), crackers, and other snacks, along with a full range of hot and cold drinks. I mean, seriously. After a hard day of shopping - I mean, sightseeing - the snack bar is definitely a sight for sore eyes.

And of course, in following the cinematic theme, the hotel has its own cinema downstairs, where they have timed screenings of movies throughout the day as well as any movie you'd like to watch that's in their library on request. And there's popcorn. Sadly, we didn't take advantage of this because we were too busy drinking carafes of red wine and eating steak frites long into the night, but we did watch several new movies from the comfort of our bed (with my request being Kung Fu Panda 2 - I cried five times - and John's being Senna - you know, the documentary about the F1 driver who was tragically killed during a race. I also cried during this). 

No rock has been left unturned in the hotel's quest to stay true to their movie-fanatic identity: the check-in desk has been designed to look like a box office and you enter via entrances with plush red curtains bearing the Palm d'Or emblem. One almost expects applause and paparazzi when walking through the door and, literally, onto the red carpet. And as cheesy as it sounds, the staff treat you like a celebrity - the total antithesis of Tripadvisor horror stories of upturned noses or arrogance. Here, they smile and greet you with sincerity, always happy to help and to make you feel welcome. 

Needless to say, I didn't want to leave. A dream-like experience and one that I would highly recommend.

City Break: Paris

Last week, John was in Paris for work, so I took a half day off on Friday, hopped on the Eurostar, and joined him in the evening. It's hard to believe that the city is so easily accessible: the train journey lasted for a little over two hours, and passport control is all done at St. Pancras, so you arrive at Gare du Nord feeling totally relaxed and stress-free.

I must admit, Paris has never been my favorite city. During my last two visits, I found most of the people I encountered to be intolerably rude and the Metro to be stinking of urine (sorry, just my personal experience). This time, (aside from one rather unpleasant run-in with a security guard at Printemps) we met lovely people, had delicious food, stayed in a beautiful hotel, were very, very lucky with the weather (see above!), and - best of all - had the opportunity to see the city all dressed up for Christmas. It was, as they say, très romantique. And oh, the Metro didn't smell. Not one bit. And people were very polite.

So, yeah. Paris, je t'aime.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Angloyankophile: Interview With ZoneOne Radio

Hello, lovely readers! Last week, I was interviewed about my experiences of living abroad in London as an American by ZoneOne Radio as a part of their #EmailFromLondon series. You can hear it in its entirety here (I'm around the 24:40 mark!). As part of the interview, they asked me to choose one song that reminded me of home ... what do you think I picked? (Hint: it was definitely the "alternative" selection compared to what other expats chose as theirs)

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Taro, Brewer Street

I know what you're thinking. I know it looks like I eat out a lot but ... okay, I eat out a lot. At least, I've been eating out more than usual lately. I don't really drink, so whenever I catch up with friends after work, it's usually for a meal, rather than for a glass of wine (though I do love an occasional glass of wine - my body, however, doesn't). This week, my dinner schedule looked like this:

Monday - chicken burger meal from Chicken Cottage, complete with fries and a Coke. Don't judge. It only happened once.

Tuesday - dinner at Hakkasan. It was my birthday. Come on.

Wednesday - Spam, fried egg, and rice at home (a Cantonese last-resort/quick-fix meal).

Thursday - Tonkotsu ramen at Taro on Brewer Street (pictured above).

Friday - I plan to subsist solely on mince pies, mulled wine, and gingerbread cookies at my friend's Christmas party. I'm not sure how successful I'll be.

Oh, and I think I might have had a slice of cake every day for the past 7 days. Leafy greens? Out the window. Fiber? Do digestive biscuits count as a source of fiber?

Guilty confession time aside, I had the most delicious ramen with Carin at Taro on Brewer Street last night. Although I'd only been to Tonkotsu East a couple of weeks before, I couldn't turn down an invitation for ramen - particularly as it's just turned so darn cold outside. A large bowlful of steaming, tonkotsu broth seemed far more appealing than anything else at the time.

At Tonkotsu East, your menu choices are slightly limited, since their focus is on two types of ramen (and for good reason - those homemade noodles are exquisite). But here, the choices were endless and everything appealed: beef teriyaki don, chicken yakisoba, tonkotsu ramen, curry udon, sushi, sashimi, bento boxes ... I could see myself getting carried away, very quickly.

After quite a bit of indecision, we finally settled on ordering vegetable gyoza to begin with, which, while arriving with a greasier and thicker wrapper than those heavenly pillows of goodness at Tonkotsu East, were nevertheless very tasty. Our ramen (I opted for the tonkotsu pork and Carin had the chicken) arrived quickly and I couldn't wait to try the milky, rich broth made from pork bone topped with a sliced hard boiled egg, picked ginger, beansprouts, seaweed and spring onion. I especially love the large, wooden spoons you're given to help you scoop up generous servings of the broth and ramen. I was in love with the broth at first taste: rich, with a real depth of flavor, the broth was a perfect accompaniment to the ramen and toppings, which didn't need any further seasoning. The ramen itself was so-so: thin, wiry noodles that differed widely from the slightly thicker, chewy and made-on-the-premises version found at Tonkotsu East, but of an acceptable quality that went well with the rest of the bowl.

The restaurant was soon full of theater-goers and tourists around 7 pm, although surprisingly, quite a lot of people came in just to order takeout. I didn't expect that, for some reason. But I could definitely see the appeal of getting a bento box or chicken donburi to take home, especially if it was on the way home.

Bottom line is, I'll definitely be back to Taro to try all the other items on their menu - it's a friendly, cozy, environment with authentic Japanese food (and lots of options!), which is a rare gem to find in the tourist traps of Soho, London. Thanks for the suggestion and lovely dinner conversation, Carin!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Birthday Dinner @ Hakkasan Mayfair

Ok, Alan Yau. I get it. I take back all my former hesitations about selecting Hakkasan as my birthday dinner choice. You win. The food is utterly incredible. The atmosphere is ... meh ... but the food. Oh, the food. Can one even refer to it as food? I think it's deserving of a term that denotes a higher form of praise.

Just last week, as I was walking past Les Trois Garcons on my way back from the launch party for Hair: Fashion and Fantasy, I looked inside and thought, maybe I should come here instead for dinner on my birthday, instead of Hakkasan Mayfair. Who needs pretentious Chinese food when you could have pretentious French food instead? I know, good logic, right?

But I'm so glad I stuck to my guns, because dinner last night was simply exquisite. I've been to other Yau establishments: Cha Cha Moon (once a favorite haunt of ours because it offered dishes at 50% off for months and months after it opened), Yauatcha (a former favorite of mine until I realized that eating cheek to jowl with your neighbor was not a stellar dining experience), and Wagamama (no ... just ... no). But Hakkasan had been on my "must try" list since I moved to London over 7 years ago. It's so famous for its Michelin-starred Chinese cuisine, that even my parents (who are really sniffy about Chinese fine dining) are aware of the restaurant and speak of it in reverent, hushed tones as it is repeatedly name-dropped in their HK celebrity mags.

I accidentally booked the Mayfair location rather than the flagship on Hanway Place, but no matter - it felt somewhat apt to stroll past the beautiful windows of Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant, Miu Miu, and Tory Burch last night on my way to the restaurant.

We were seated downstairs in the black and blue-themed, dark (very dark - so dark that the servers rushing around behind your table were rendered virtually invisible), and modern dining room with a single, bright light shared between us - resembling an interrogation unit. So far, not so good. The glass of Bordeaux I ordered arrived perfunctorily but without announcement as to what it was, and there was much confusion over the fact that John wanted tea as his beverage of choice (you know, what Chinese people typically drink with their food?) but had to order from the dessert menu, etc. But hey. It was my birthday. And I was not going to pick up on these little details (well, except to make a mental note of them and record them here).

We ordered the dim sum platter to start, consisting of two pieces each of har gau (prawn dumpling), scallop shu mai, prawn Chinese chive dumpling, and duck dumpling. As soon as I took my first bite of the har gau, I understood why the restaurant deserved its Michelin star. The quality and attention to detail in crafting each individual dumpling was apparent: this was no reheated-from-frozen job from the typical London Chinatown restaurant fare (which, yes, I hate to break it to you Chinatown dim-sum addicts out there, but ever noticed how pink the pork is when you bite into your shu mai? It's because it came out of a freezer). No, these were fresh, quality ingredients through and through.

For the main event, we ordered the scallop and prawns stuffed with long beans (the long bean was tied in a perfect knot and cooked to the perfect consistency, encased in a prawn and scallop ball, of sorts, in a rich, almost lobster bisque-y sauce), pork belly wrapped gai lan (mouth-watering spicy deliciousness), and the Mongolian-style lamb chops, which were my favorite, of all the dishes. The lamb was perfectly tender and the marinade that was used absolutely blew my mind, as in, I couldn't comprehend how it could be so tasty. I was that impressed.

Of course, I had to order dessert to share (banana and chocolate souffle, served with a mini chocolate and nut dipped ice cream bar), which was beautifully presented (complete with a lovely birthday message written in white chocolate!) and tasted divine.

So, yes. I get it. I get why Hakkasan commands the level of eye-widening admiration and accolades as it does. The level of service may be so-so and the atmosphere might not have been quite up my alley, but the food - oh my god, the food - is absolutely worth it. Every penny. Or pence.  

Square Meal

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Very Angloyankophile Birthday

So, yesterday was a "milestone" birthday for me (I'll let you guess which one) and I spent most of my day wafting around in a dream-like state, accepting cards, cakes, flowers, gifts, and invitations to "birthday breakfast" or "birthday lunch" like someone who thought they were getting punk'd. Seriously though, I've never felt more spoiled, happy, guilty, elated, undeserving than I did yesterday!

I'm not ashamed to say that I loved a lot of "girly" gifts that I received yesterday, including (but not limited to) this beautiful Gramercy rose gold watch from Kate Spade (a gift from John, pictured above) that I'd been eying for a few weeks in the Covent Garden store. The preppy, unapologetically pretty American brand has finally made its way across the pond and, while it was once a brand that was too private prep-school for me, I'm slowly beginning to appreciate the pop of bright colors in their accessories and the cheerful patterns adorning their beautifully made ready-to-wear (I just stay away from iPhone covers and makeup bags with cheesy sayings). I've been looking for a chunky, rose gold watch for a while, but found the ubiquitous selection from Michael Kors too, well, chunky, and those from Marc Jacobs too unappealing due to the branding. I liked this watch because it was sleek and understated, but still shiny and fun to wear.

Then, I arrived to work, and my boss presented me with this beautifully packaged cologne from Jo Malone:

I had mentioned to her in passing that I was on the lookout for a new fragrance and that I liked the new Peony and Blush Suede scent from Jo Malone (my mom's favorite perfume brand, and something that I've treated her to quite a few times in the past!). I'd been contemplating buying it for myself for weeks, while gazing longingly into the shop window every time I walked past but making a mental note to hold off until I got to Heathrow's duty free branch later this month. Needless to say, I was utterly shocked (in a good way!) when it appeared on my desk yesterday, not to mention incredibly touched as well. What a thoughtful and extravagant gift!

I was on cloud nine by the time I closed my eyes for bed last night - I've been so lucky to spend my birthday with family and friends every year and to have family and friends make the day so very special for me.

© angloyankophile

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