Friday, July 28, 2017

The Test Kitchen, Soho

When friends or family ask for restaurant recommendations, I wave them in the general direction of Soho and Covent Garden. Soho, in particular, seems to play host to some of London's trendiest restaurants and cafés: from liquid nitrogen ice cream bars to Nikkei cuisine (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine); from grilled Greek skewers and stuffed pittas to French fine dining - Soho has it all.

The Test Kitchen, a pop-up by twice Michelin-awarded Chef Adam Simmonds, opened a few weeks ago and has taken up residency at 54 Frith Street in Soho until March 2018. I went with my friend Alex to try it last week for lunch and, well, our minds were blown.

The premise is this: in preparation for Chef Simmonds' first permanent restaurant in London next year, the menu at The Test Kitchen (as the name suggests) changes weekly - dishes are swapped out for others, according to diners' feedback.

"What's some of the more unusual feedback you've ever received?" I asked. "You won't believe the number of requests we get for fried chicken," came the response, drily. I laughed. I also couldn't see how fried chicken could possibly compete with 80-day aged sirloin of beef, topped with bone marrow, white onion and jus, for example.

We ordered from the a la carte menu: 6 sharing plates grouped by "veg", "fish", and "meat".

The pearl barley, cauliflower Romanesque, truffle and heritage tomatoes, burrata, olive and courgette were the first to arrive. For some reason, we had expected the pearl barley to be served cold, but instead, we dipped our forks in some of the creamiest, most heavenly fragrant risotto I'd ever tried. "WOW," escaped our lips more than once after that first bite. "I could eat this all day!" Alex exclaimed. And I agreed.

The heritage tomatoes, sweet and plump, tasted like a summer's day when we scooped bitefuls onto our forks, along with the burrata and slivers of courgette.

Next, we ordered scallop ceviche with green asparagus, avocado and almonds and cured red mullet with green tomatoes, rocket, and fresh almonds for the "fish" course.

The cured red mullet had a similar texture to sashimi - subtle, yet sweet, it reminded me of walking past fishmongers on the Cornish coast, when the shock of the icy granita touched the tip of my tongue.

Alex described the scallop ceviche as "melt-in-the-mouth" - and it was! These are two gorgeous, fresh dishes for summer (I'd highly recommend sitting outside, if the weather's good, like we did, and washing it all down with a glass of white, if you drink!).

But, the piece de résistance was the 80-day aged sirloin of beef, topped with tiny cubes of bone marrow and soft white onion and drizzled with jus. Although the lamb we ordered was also delicious, we couldn't stop gushing about the beef.

It tasted as sublime as it looks. Unbelievably tender and rich, it was the kind of plate that made me want to throw down my napkin and tell the world about (I texted John right then and there - he answered grumpily, as he was at work and not enjoying a fancy four-course meal like me in the middle of the day).

Now, about the desserts ... I'll admit that my eye skipped straight to the dessert options as soon as we sat down because I caught sight of the matcha tea custard with poached English cherries and red wine syrup.

Chef Simmonds emerged from the restaurant and presented these beautiful plates to us himself, which was such an honor! I think I devoured my matcha custard in a record 3 minutes or so ... I tried to savour it, but to no avail. It was just too delicious: the sharpness of the poached cherries cutting through the slight, familiar bitterness of the matcha, and the sweetness of the red wine syrup balancing it all out on the palate.

I reached over and took spoonfuls of Alex's delicately arranged lemon posset as well. Thick, creamy, and sweet, it lingered on the tongue long after the mouthful disappeared.

The restaurant has 23 covers, but you can book in advance, online! (I'm only excited for this because there's nothing more I hate than showing up to a restaurant I really, really want to try, hangry, and having to wait in line.) There's a 4-course set menu for £29.50, if you'd like, and - if you book online - this is reduced to £27.50, including a complimentary glass of wine. Amazing value for the quality of food you're getting (I've already urged John to take clients there) and the experience of sitting at the open kitchen, watching Chef Simmonds and his team work their magic.

I have to say, I always feel like a bit of a jerk reviewing restaurants as a "blogger" - especially restaurants of The Test Kitchen's calibre. Who am I to give my opinion on what's being placed in front of me by someone with the expertise and talent of chefs like Adam Simmonds? I'm not a trained food critic or restaurant reviewer or food journalist or a "foodie", even. I eat something I like, go "MMMM!", take a picture of it, slap a filter on it, and post it here for you to read and say, "There."

So, I suppose what I loved most about The Test Kitchen was the earnest - truly earnest - emphasis on the customer's (that's regular ol' Joe like me) experience of the food, and placing this at the forefront of the restaurant. "I want you to be part of the development process - something that's usually hidden away behind closed doors - and make your mark on the menu," Chef Simmonds urges in a note attached to the menu, that begins, "Welcome!"

At The Test Kitchen, I ate, I thought a lot about what I was eating, and I gushed with Alex over what we liked (the creamy burrata), what we loved (the velvety pearl barley), and what we could have passed on (the intense black garlic and anchovy) and, you know, as I filled out my feedback form at the end of the meal, I thought, "Oh! It does matter what I think." And I left with a spring in my step because here (for the first time in a long while) was a restaurant that wasn't saying, "Aren't you lucky to eat here!" but instead, made me feel wanted. And that's always a good feeling.

Thank you to The Test Kitchen and to Chef Adam Simmonds for hosting us! Our lunch was complimentary but all opinions are my own.

The Test Kitchen, 54 Frith Street, London, W1D 4SL, +(44) 020 7734 8487


Wednesday, July 26, 2017


I have a brother named Justin - a little brother, named Justin. We're four and a half years apart, and today's his birthday.

But most people don't know that because I don't talk about him a lot - both in person, or on this blog. Friends will ask, "How's Justin?" And I'll go, "He's good!" Vaguely.

That's not to say that we're not close - quite the opposite. We're four and a half years apart, but from the moment he was born, I loved him. I was also jealous of the attention he received as the youngest (check!) boy (check!) of a Chinese family (check!); attention that was lavished on him when we went to visit our relatives in Hong Kong - the fawning, the cooing, the adoration , which would make me shrink into myself a little bit.

But, I adored him. I always have. 

We're very different. Justin is laid back, introspective, logical, but wildly creative (he still draws Mother's Day cards for my mom). I'm fiery, high-strung, over-achieving, and a constant worrier.

Even so, my parents had unwittingly created the perfect set of cohorts: a sibling duo snickering at inside jokes; sharing music stands in summer orchestra and snacks in the back seat of the car on long road trips; bringing the other up when one was down. 

Well, I went home a few weeks ago and found my brother had turned into a little adult. Actually, a full-grown adult. And it threw me a bit. A lot. It made me misty-eyed and proud and sad and nostalgic all at the same time. I thought of this tiny 6 year-old who would quietly push open my bedroom door in the morning and climb into my bed for cuddles; who would hear me practicing Vivaldi's 'Spring' on the violin in my room and listen for me to stop, only to play it in the minor key on his violin in his room; who grew out his bangs so that they covered his eyes in junior high and who once played guitar in a band.

So, anyway, there we were: sitting on the sofa watching the new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. I looked over at his ridiculously wide, flipper feet and a kind of sob caught in my chest because I just realized just how much I loved him.

And, along with that, the guilt. The guilt of leaving him behind when I went off to the East Coast for college, right when he was navigating the final years of high school - years that had been brutal even for me, with my Type A personality. Then I went further: to England. While he worked through finding his place in college, I was too busy being distracted by my new life and career in London to be there for him when he needed me.

As a result, I never felt like I've been there for my little brother. Not truly.

But he's always been there for me, counselling me through some of the hardest moments of my life, always knowing what to say, offering a shining beacon of perspective when the walls of my world feel like they're closing in on me. Saying, "Don't worry, Jaime - everything's going to be okay" or, more importantly, "I love you, sister!"

And now, with our parents getting older, he's stepped up in ways I couldn't have imagined him doing before as a scrappy little 6 year-old. Now, I find myself calling him for advice on matters concerning their health and well-being: me, 5,000 miles away and hysterical on WhatsApp audio and him, calm, reasoned, yet decisive on the other end of the line.

It's an incredible feeling, being on the same team.

One of the hardest things about living abroad is the inability to be physically present when you feel that you are needed. I owe it to my brother for looking out for (and after) our parents, and for never, ever making me feel guilty for not "being there".

So, Justin, if you're reading this, I love you, and I'm so proud of you. Forever and always.

Happy birthday. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Big Reveal: Our Master Bathroom Before and After

Our decision to remodel the two bathrooms in our house had been a long-time coming: the upstairs shower was virtually unusable due to leaks and poor shower pressure (read: we never used it); the pedestal sink had no room to store items, and I'd inevitably knock my contact lens case and/or face wash into the sink every morning and swear under my breath as I did it; and the whole build (from the tiles to the choice of toilet unit) had just been done very, very cheaply and - needless to say - not to our taste.


But we had prioritised redesigning the garden last year (and I'm so glad we ignored the naysayers and went for it - we've enjoyed every minute of eating and lounging outside since we've had it), so the bathrooms fell to the wayside until about February of this year, when I first started reaching out to plumbers, tilers, and builders about taking on our projects.

Just for fun, we decided to embark on a "design challenge", with John taking responsibility for designing the loft master shower room, and me putting my skills to the test with the first floor guest bathroom.

I was pretty confident in my "vision" ... until everything went wrong with my design (which I'll cover in a separate post about the guest bathroom makeover).

Now that the two projects are finished, I'm okay to admit that John might have a second calling as an interior designer (who knew?!).


The result is a bright and airy space that evokes feelings of calmness and tranquility - vital for our busy lives (especially as John's up at 5:30 a.m. every morning for work).

For this room, John started with the floor tiles, and designed the room from there. These terrazzo tiles are from Terrazzo Tiles in Belsize Park. These thick cement tiles feature precast recycled marble chipping blasted into a white base and have a lead time of 4-6 weeks for delivery, if you're thinking of ordering. We looked at several terrazzo samples in store, but this one - with its magnificent cool blues and greys - looked most interesting and pretty.

Underneath this, WarmUp underfloor heating was installed, with a thermostat just outside the door to control the warmth - I am so looking forward to having this in the winter!

For the walls, John opted for a bevelled, XL white metro tile from Tons of Tiles with gunmetal (a very pale grey) grout. Our builders were able to color match the paint in our bedroom to the walls, which creates a sense of unity throughout this top floor.

John wanted a shower tray that would be flush to the floor, and we looked at a few options before settling for the Bette tray, with a shower screen from Crosswater. Although it looks flat to the eye, the tray is slightly angled towards the waste, leaving it bone dry after even the longest showers. (Also: I never thought I'd be one of those people who neurotically squeegeed her shower screen post-shower, but now I do it every time. It's so satisfying!)

The shower itself is a digital shower from Crosswater. It blinks as it's reaching your desired temperature, and when the color reaches a solid white, then you'll know it's ready for you to get in. Having the controls on the wall opposite to the shower head has been a game-changer. No need to get unnecessarily cold and wet now before stepping in!

Because we never used the towel rail in the room, we replaced it with this modern radiator from Victoria Plum.

John was also adamant that he have an antique chest of drawers for his vanity unit, so we emailed our favorite local antique dealer, Maison & Mirrors, and asked if they had anything suitable. Sure enough, they had this set of drawers in storage, the "sister" unit which another customer had purchased and turned into a vanity unit, and we bought it for a bargain price. I spent a day or so applying an oil wax to all the surfaces, to make it as waterproof as possible, and our builder cut holes in the top and first drawer to accommodate the waste pipes.

The sink proved to be a little more difficult to source, as we needed a counter-top basin, but in the right dimensions for the unit. We finally decided on the Bauhaus Bolonia counter-top basin and a Crosswater tap.

John decided to keep things modern with the Mode Fairbanks close-coupled toilet from Victoria Plum. Unfortunately, we didn't have the wall space behind to mount a wall-hung toilet (I mean, prior to taking on this project, I just thought these types of toilets magically hovered above the floor, but no ...), so this was the second best option.

John also ordered a made-to-measure, wall-to-wall mirror, which works well in reflecting the light from the window. It's relatively easy to mount with adhesive (I mean, not that I did it myself or even saw how our builders did it, but they didn't complain, so I'm assuming it was fine), but getting the exact measurements right can be tricky. I'd definitely advise you check with your builder before purchasing something like this, as the wall can be sloped or uneven, which would affect your measurements.

For the final, finishing touches, John turned to C.P. Hart for his towel hooks; I ordered a print from Juniqe, and a set of white lacquer trays and a tissue box from The White Company. John also installed a Google Home in this bathroom so we can play music/ask about the weather/turn on the radio while we're showering!

The transformation has been unbelievable. We now have a bathroom we enjoy using and taking a shower when the light's just coming in through the windows feels like a spa-like experience. We are so lucky!

What do you think of our new bathroom? Are you currently remodelling or thinking of remodelling your bathroom? I'd love to hear your success/horror stories! If you're renting, what would your dream bathroom look like? Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fiery Flavors in the Clouds: The New Menu at Hutong, Shard

Food is at the heart of Chinese culture. You may have heard that we often greet each other by asking, "Have you eaten yet?" In my family, we make reservations for lunch at breakfast, and reservations for dinner at lunch. That's just how it works. We carry antacids in our handbags and sip jasmine and oolong tea like nobody's business to aid digestion. So, yeah. Food is pretty high up on the priority list for us.

When I visit relatives in Vancouver or Hong Kong, they'll ask, "Ooh! Do you want to have ... Sichuan cusine?" Like it's a dare. Sichuan Chinese-style cooking is known for its use of chillis and garlic - much more intense on the palate than the light, clean flavours of the Cantonese cuisine that I'm used to. These lunches often leave me spluttering and sweating, much to the amusement of my aunts and uncles, who gleefully watch from across the Lazy Susan, shouting, "You can't handle it, huh?"

Hutong, a nod to the narrow but characterful alleyways found in northern Chinese cities such as Beijing, is  located on the 33rd level (!!!) of the Shard. Primarily renowned for its Northern Chinese cuisine, the restaurant is unveiling its new a la carte menu on the 24th of July, and I had the opportunity to preview the menu last week. With the arrival of its new chef, "Sifu" (or Master, in Chinese) Fei Wang, Hutong's new menu has a decidedly Sichuan influence, with intense, bold flavors and fiery spice. Under Wang Sifu's expertise, the dishes are what Hutong calls, "a refined take on the classic" - a bold statement that was proven during my visit.

While taking in the views (the sun was just setting!), we sipped champagne and sampled steamed tiger prawn and black truffle dumplings, cod and seaweed dumplings, crispy prawn rolls (which had a satisfying crunch, with virtually no oil), and vegetarian spring rolls.

As for Wang Sifu's new items on the menu, as well of some of Hutong's classic dishes, here were the highlights (and my favorites!):

Pan-fried wagyu beef buns

I'm not usually a fan of pan-fried buns (I prefer them steamed or baked), but these delicious buns were so moreish, I found myself blushing as I reached for a second, and then a third. The bun itself is thin enough to allow the flavor of the slightly-sweet (similar to a char siu bao you'd might have at dim sum) wagyu beef filling to sing. The bite-sized buns would be a good choice for lunch, or as an appetizer before dinner.

Scallop and prawn wonton with hot and spicy sauce

Similar to one of my favorite spicy Chinese dishes, hong you chao shou, these scallop and prawn wontons made my list of items-I'd-order-again. Served with Hutong's special chilli oil, I would have liked to see it with a bit more spicy sauce, but otherwise the wontons were fresh, flavorful, and had a wonderful, traditional homemade taste. I'd order them for lunch or dinner.

Roasted Peking duck

I have to be in the right mood for Peking duck (and with a table big enough to share), but the duck at Hutong was so beautifully roasted, I was one of the first to reach for the basket of steaming-hot, thin pancakes. I piled mine high with slices of the wonderfully fatty, crispy duck, before drizzling over the sticky, sweet sauce and selecting long, delicate strands of cucumber and spring onion to add to my miniature wrap. As a child, I loved this create-your-own dish, and secretly loved it when an older member of the family ordered it for the table. This is a super fun dish to share with a group of friends.

Red Star noodles 

At first glance, it looks curious: a red bell pepper, cut and shaped into star, sits suspended in an impressive bowl of noodles and chilli oil-laced Sichuan broth. But when unveiled by the server, each pepper petal is pulled back to reveal a generous portion of steamed halibut, its texture smooth and ever-so-slightly yielding. I slurped my noodles greedily, taking note of its perfectly al dente consistency and the delicious, fragrant broth.  This is a hearty, warming dish that's perfect for autumn and winter. A great sharing dish for two.

Sichaun-style deep fried lobster 

Served with fresh chilli, black bean and dried garlic, this is the dish to order if you're out to impress at Hutong Shard. Lobster is almost always on the menu when I'm dining out, Chinese-style, with my family in the States or Hong Kong, but I'm used to the simple, steamed Cantonese version - made with minced garlic and soy sauce. Wang Sifu's spicy, deep fried version dances on the tongue, heating your lips and showcasing the sweet, tender spirals of lobster meat. In fact, the saltiness and heat (warm enough to make my nose run) of this dish allowed the lobster to taste that much sweeter. A wonderful combination (not to mention, exquisitely presented on the platter).

During the evening, we also tried Chinese asparagus with hula dressing: a thinly sliced, crunchy green vegetable drizzled with a tangy, spicy dressing (think of it as a starter or side salad to complement your meal); ma la (a numbing hot sauce) crispy eel with Sichuan drired chilli and cumin; glistening spears of wok-tossed choy sum (a green Chinese vegetable); and tender aromatic beef rib braised in lotus leaf.

Surveying London from the dizzying heights of Level 33 at the Shard, I felt myself becoming a little misty-eyed. This vibrant, thrumming city has taken a few hard knocks recently, but staring out at it that evening at Hutong made me as grateful and defiant as ever to live in this place I've called home for nearly a decade.

The fire, the passion, and the intensity of the flavors we sampled that evening at Hutong seemed to echo my sentiments, driving forward a metaphor I arrived at as I reflected on the cab ride back to Liverpool Street: the restaurant, perched in the sky, with its bright red lanterns and exquisite cuisine, breathes life into the city; contributing as we all do, to its heart.

Huge thanks to Hutong for hosting me at this delicious preview. All opinions are my own.
Hutong, Level 33, The Shard, 31 Saint Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Ode to the Emoji

This morning, around 4 a.m., seized by a wave of hayfever, I dangled half-in, half-out of bed as my nose dripped steadily and reached for a box of tissues. I felt around for my phone and, squinting, began to look at that messages that had trickled through in response to my Instagram Stories the night before.

"Your new bathroom looks great!" said one.

"Floor goals!" read another.

"Omg, you must be so excited!" said a third.

With one eye shut, I began to type replies using only my right thumb: heart emoji, I tapped, in response to the first message. Blushing smiley face, I replied to another. Two-raised hands, I answered to the third.

Satisfied that I had conveyed the appropriate level of enthusiasm, I dropped my phone and tried to fall back asleep, sneezing four or five times in the process and causing John to jerk the covers over his head.

Emoji(s)* have become my lazy way of responding to practically anything and anyone. Sometimes, I use them to enhance a message ("Omg just dropped my dinner on the floor noooooo!!!" Followed by five crying emoji(s), five being sufficient to express my current state of distress), but most of the time ... I just use it as my preferred method of communication. Why bother forming a complete, coherent sentence when my exact thoughts and feelings can be summed up in a single, cute graphic? My most overused emoji(s) are:

1) the laughing face with tears streaming out of the eyes

2) the tilted laughing face with tears streaming out of the eyes

3) the see-no-evil monkey

4) the say-no-evil monkey

5) the red heart.

If I could hold up different emoji(s) on signs instead of speaking to people at work, I'd do it. If I could communicate with new people I've recently met at parties solely using emoji(s), I'd love it. I'm anti-social; I dislike talking to people and looking them in the eye. I'd prefer to respond to the question, "And what do you do for a living?" with the flamenco dancer emoji, followed by the poop emoji. No, I don't know what that combination means either, but it would make a great (emoji) conversation starter.

"Grow up," the hate-readers of this blog will say. Actually, I think my over-zealous use of emoji(s) is a particularly mature approach to handling the bazillion messages I receive every day from friends, family members, and followers alike. I want to make sure that I'm responding to every person who takes the time to send me a compliment or question, and, well, emoji(s) are just darn useful for this task.

If you don't believe me, ask American data engineer, Fred Benenson, who was quoted in this article by the Independent, saying: "I've been fascinated with the amount of meaning you can convey with such simple characters. Telling stories, movie recaps, expressing complex emotion – it's partially about the frivolity, but it's also about engaging a part of your brain which uses symbolic and visual thinking, something that I love to do. I also think it has the potential to bridge language barriers."

Ah, that final sentiment about bridging language barriers rings so true: my 92-year-old grandma is a WhatsApp whizz and sends me numerous messages throughout the day from her home in Hong Kong. I may not be able to read the complex string of Chinese attached to her selfie in the mall, but I get the laughing face with tears streaming out of its eyes which follows. This morning, I responded to one such photo with the heart-eye emoji (three, to be exact - it's grandma!).

What about you? Are you an emoji over-user/abuser?

*Note: there is debate over the correct plural form of emoji. Some say "emoji", some say "emojis". I'll leave this up to you to bicker over.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Breakfast at Sketch, Mayfair

Sunday was my dear friend (and fellow blogger!) Runawaykiwi's birthday. She'd been going on about having afternoon tea with me at Sketch (in that pink room), but it hasn't happened yet, since you have to book that like, months in advance. Undeterred, I decided to take her there for breakfast instead - without telling her where we were going.

We met, bright and early on Sunday morning, outside & Other Stories on Argyll Street, and wandered down Regent Street, turning right on Conduit Street, before Rebecca started shouting, "Are we going there? Are we going there?" as we approached Sketch.

"No, sorry!" I said. "They were full - we're heading up the street a little further." Of course, this was followed by me swivelling on my heel and shouting, "PSYCH!!!" in her face.

We're super mature.

I resisted taking too many photos, as I didn't want to detract from the birthday girl's celebrations, but I couldn't help sharing photos of the beautiful room we dined in ... we were the first ones there (before the rest of the breakfast crew begun trickling in), so I managed to get a few quick snaps before the room filled up.

From the tufts of yarn made to resemble grass on the rug; to the red laser "fireflies" that darted about the room; to the plush, purple velvet chairs; to the extraordinarily detailed walls, dining in the Glade at Sketch is very much like living in a page out of a storybook. I also felt as though we'd been plucked off the street and deposited on a film/theater set. At any moment, I half-expected actors to burst in and perform a soliloquy from A Midsummer Night's Dream. A neon pink player piano sat at the door, performing everything from Chopin to covers of pop songs, and we perused the menu while sipping a flat white (for Rebecca) and a chocolate peanut butter smoothie (for me).

Since I originally published this post, the artist, stylist, and designer Carolyn Quartermaine reached out to me on Instagram to tell me more about the design process behind the Glade - a room she created with artist Didier Mahieu. Carolyn said: "We glued over 35,000 pieces [of découpages paper] to create. All the fabrics are hand-painted too. A lot of love has gone into the Glade ... the bar shelves are [made from] 200-year-old oak, hand-sanded and shaped ... I wanted a magical flower garden."

Isn't that special? The result is a fully immersive experience, where the guest is invited to dine in another world - one that very much resembles Carolyn's vision of a "magical flower garden".

On to the food: somewhat disappointingly, there weren't stacks of crepes or French toast to order (although there are a wide range of pastries to choose from), but Rebecca and I both chose the parmesan scrambled eggs with mushrooms, with sides of bacon and sourdough toast.

I especially loved the quirky crockery (which is available to purchase at reception - in case you're in the market for a house-warming gift!).

Breakfast at Sketch isn't cheap, but it's not crazily priced either (although, I did have a dream the night before that our bill came to £577). Our eggs, toast, and drinks came to roughly £45, which is just about right for a once-in-a-blue-moon, decadent, birthday breakfast.

It's crazy; it's theatrical; it's over the top. But it's done so well. Not a single detail is omitted nor a corner neglected. 

And what I liked most about our experience is that we never felt rushed (although I've heard a different story when it comes to afternoon tea next door); staff were friendly, polite, and attentive.

Have you been to Sketch? What did you think? I'd love to go back - if just for another glimpse of that pink room (and the famous bathroom, of course!).

Monday, July 10, 2017

So, I'm Dating Again

... John, that is.

I'm dating my husband.

Did you have a near heart-attack when reading that post title?! I know it sounds weird, but I love going on dates with John, even though we've been together for twelve years, and married for (nearly) five. A movie night, tickets to the Globe, Tate lates, sushi at the train station before heading home - they all seem so special when we spend the week rushing around each other, flying in and out of the house at lightning speeds.

John gets up around 5:30 every morning for work, so sometimes I don't even wake up until after he's gone (that's how deeply I sleep!), so it feels extra special to spend time with him at the end of the day. On rare occasions, we'll meet for lunch at a point mid-way between our offices, but even that feels rushed and distracted.

Our favorite place to go is this little French-Italian restaurant that's nearly on our doorstep. I like to dress up if we're going there - even though it's less than a 10-minute walk away! The tables are candlelit, with white tablecloths and roses, so it feels just fancy enough for a date - but not so fancy that we can't totally relax. The staff recognize us and know my favorite dessert (it's this insane, hot  toffee crumble served with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, so it all melts together in a delicious sweet and gooey mess), and we walk home afterwards, arm-in-arm, when the sun is setting (summer) or when the stars are out (winter). We always take our parents there when they visit and they love it too! It feels really special.

Last weekend, friends of ours couldn't make it to a performance of The Tempest at the Barbican, so we took their tickets. Going "into town" (AKA Central London) on a Saturday night is rare for us (we'd much prefer cooking/ordering take-out and watching a movie on the couch, or grabbing drinks and hot dogs at our local brewery), but we made a date out of it by doing a little shopping beforehand (and buying a new wedding ring for John - his THIRD one, folks. THIRD), sitting down for a quick bite to eat at Gaucho, and buying candy during intermission. It felt romantic and fun, and later (because it was still warm out), we walked back to the tube station and I loved every minute of it.

The next morning, I was in a great mood, and we ended up playing frisbee in our garden and just having a great day together. It's been a little stressful lately with the bathroom works going on at home (I've had to return literally every single item I bought for the bathroom I'm in charge of designing, while John's loft shower room is basically beautiful and perfect) and decisions needing to be made about our trip to Japan and Hong Kong in December, but I've found that going out out has allowed us to be a little more carefree and playful at home.

Although we both love being at home, I've realized that no matter how good and comforting being within those four walls feels, rediscovering our mutual interest in art, music, theatre, and eating out has only strengthened our relationship. Dating reminded me of the couple we were when we first met - when we were curious about each others' opinions and likes/dislikes. I loved hearing what he thought of Prospero in The Tempest, for example, more than I loved hearing what he thought of the mind-numbingly boring paint colors I was holding in my hand at Homebase last week ("BUT IS IT TOO DUSKY PINK? OR IS IT MORE OF A PINKY PINK?" I was overheard shrieking in Aisle 4).

We're off to see Andrew Scott  (AKA Moriarty from Sherlock) in Hamlet in a few weeks, and I can't wait.

How about you? If you're in a relationship, do you take time to date, or are you naturally homebodies like we are? I'm curious to know!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Skincare for the Stars: Erno Laszlo

I've always suffered from problematic skin: from ezcema when I was young, which left dry, scaly red patches on the apples of my cheeks, to hormonal cystic acne, which plagued me as a teen and well into adulthood. At the moment, I'm the not-so-proud owner of classic combination skin: oily in the T-zone and dry everywhere else.

The kind folks over at Erno Laszlo (the famed skincare brand beloved by Hollywood celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe) caught wind of my skincare drama and sent over a collection of products for me to try, which was super exciting for me, as I've been a long-time admirer of the brand, having seen it stocked at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. 

Dr. Laszlo is perhaps most well known for his "double cleanse" method. The two-piece oil and soap bar sets target different skincare concerns and I tried the Hydra-Therapy duo to "hydrate and nourish". Unlike other cleansing oils, this one doesn't emulsify into a milky substance. Instead, you're supposed to massage the oil onto dry skin first, then - wet the bar of soap - and directly apply the bar to your face.

It felt a little strange to do this at first, but Dr. Laszlo clearly knew what he was doing, because together, the oil and soap are the magic combination - leaving my skin soft and cleansed, ready for the next step.

Of course, by day four of my Erno Laszlo trial, I was feeling lazy and wanted to skip the cleansing in favor of a quick swipe of hot-water-on-a-cloth, but was immediately reminded of Dr. Laszlo's stern adage, "Beautiful skin requires commitment, not a miracle." Which I found both cutting and highly amusing. It reminded of that time I went to get a facial and the aesthetician asked me how many glasses of water I drank and how many "leafy green vegetables" I consumed per day and I mumbled something like, "1, 2 ... like, I mean, I eat salad and stuff ... sometimes ..." and she barked, "How can you expect to improve the outside if you're not helping the inside?" before I shrank into the treatment room like a crab disappearing under a rock.

But I digress.

After a full week of using the double cleanse method, I noticed that my skin stopped getting so oily in the afternoon and dry in the evenings. It looked and felt more balanced.

But for me, the real winner was the Hydra-Therapy Refresh Infusion Serum - a light, non-sticky (it's almost like water) serum that claims to "work on three levels to restore and preserve precious moisture". I typically apply serums and facial oils after my toner and before my moisturiser, so I tried this shortly after cleansing and, you know what? My face felt incredibly smooth and lasted that way for the whole day (definitely just touched my cheeks right now to test it out again). I typically use one pump of this in the morning, but it's something I'll definitely be purchasing when I run out.

Lastly, I've been using the Hydra-Therapy Memory Sleep Mask at night to help give me that extra moisture boost I need at the end of the day. I'm a huge fan of sleep masks (as long as I give them a minute or two to sink in, they don't leave any residue on my pillow and I wake up with nourished, glowing skin) and this one, though a little less effective than the one I normally use, was a great alternative to have on hand. My skin drank it up and I still woke with some dry patches in the morning, so I might need to work on drinking more water towards the end of the day (probably) and perhaps use a bit more product, as I've been a little conservative in my application.

An important lesson I learned when I was in my twenties was that investing in good, quality skincare is worth it - whether it's one dedicated set of products you return to again and again with no parabens or phthalates, or a range of cleansers, moisturisers and mists on rotation that just work for you.

What's your skincare routine like? I'd love to know! My mom has amazing skin ... and she just washes with a hot flannel and uses cold cream after! I wish mine was as low-maintenance, but alas ... I didn't inherit her glow.

All products provided courtesy of Erno Laszlo, a brand I love and use. All opinions are my own. Shop Erno Laszlo in the UK here.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Teamaster's Choice Afternoon Tea at Mandarin Oriental, With Truly Experiences

Two years ago, something amazing happened that irrevocably changed the way I felt about living abroad in London: my best friend, Udita, finished her PhD and decided to settle in London too. Twelve years after meeting in college, there's a kind of silliness that still pervades our friendship - one that instigates lists and lists of "hilarious things" that only seem to happen to us when we're together, which we rehash in emails written to each other with exuberant subject headings like, "MEMORIES!!!"

In August, we're spending a weekend in Paris together - our plan is to shop, sip coffee, attempt to order macarons in French (with horrible American accents), and take a bazillion photos in front of the Eiffel Tower. This, of course, takes in-depth planning, so the amazing concierges at Truly Experiences (the same company that organized this wonderful date night for me and John a few months back) planned a fabulous afternoon tea for two in the Rosebery Lounge at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park: The Rosebery Teamaster's Choice Afternoon Tea, where we could plan our Parisian getaway to our hearts' content.

Dazed from our hot and muggy journeys on the London Underground, we were ushered into the Rosebery Lounge upon arrival: a beautiful, expansive room filled with plush green seats, fresh flowers, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and a dazzling oversized chandelier that dominated the space in front of a striking, colorful mural.

With a dizzying selection of over 40 teas to choose from and a whopping 14 other beverages served on request (from "Barista Specials" like creamy matcha shakes made with ice and almond milk to Valrhona hot chocolate - which is so fancy, I don't even really know what it is!), the Rosebery Lounge's tea menu alone gave new meaning to the phrase, "spoiled for choice".

The Teamaster, Chiara, patiently took us through the menu and suggested a light, white tea to begin with, before asking the magic words, "Shall I serve it on the rocks?" Turns out any of the asterisked teas on the menu (Jasmine Pearls, Sweet Lemon, Lychee Strawberry, and Mango Black Tea, for example) can be served hot or iced - perfect for a hot summer's day (and especially perfect for me, since I was parched after my tiring, muggy trek across London on the tube).

Although we were inside, it felt very much like dining in an enchanted garden. The cushions were adorned with embroidered flowers and antique brass branches hung over the tables, from which a two-tiered "bird cage" of finger sandwiches and homemade cakes was suspended! It was extraordinary (in fact, I think the takeaway "memory" from that afternoon was me practically shouting, "Oh, it hangs!" after I'd hastily cleared space on our table just for the attendant to effortlessly perch the birdcage inches from my head).

For me, the definition of "luxury", is being able to have what you want, when you want - which is the hallmark of the Rosebery Teamaster's Choice Afternoon Tea. We began with the apricot iced white tea, to sip with the sandwiches, before moving on to the stronger Mandarin breakfast blend and Chai tea to have with our cakes.

While I typically rush through sandwiches in order to get to the cakes at an afternoon tea, it was actually the sandwiches that I enjoyed most at The Rosebery Lounge: highlights included the Portland crab, crayfish, curry mayonaise, with coriander and carrot, and the smoked salmon tartare with granny smith apple, horseradish, and creme fraiche. But the Cotswold egg, white asparagus and black truffle stole the show. Luxurious in name and equally luxurious in flavor, when asked if we'd like seconds, we couldn't help nodding yes.

Feeling emboldened, I got into the spirit of the Teamaster's Choice Afternoon Tea, and requested a matcha latte to enjoy with our freshly baked scones. A few minutes later, it appeared: milky and frothy, in a double-walled glass cup. Delighted, I took a sip and marvelled the light, but sweetened taste. I alternated between sips of this and Udita's astonishingly delicious Chai latte, which Chiara had brewed herself.

And so, over numerous cups of tea and bottomless cakes and sandwiches, Udita and I chatted, gossiped, conspired, and - of course - laughed our way through the afternoon.

Truly's motto is, "Experiences for people who collect memories, not stuff" - and it couldn't be a better way to describe the friendship that Udita and I have. Although we love exchanging knick-knacks and buying each other small gifts, the greatest gift (and I get a bit choked up writing this) from my friendship with her are memories of the raucous, rollicking times we have together - crystallised by inside jokes we'll share forever.

Huge, huge thanks to the talented team over at Truly for arranging this sweet, perfect afternoon for two friends who crossed the pond - and made it. I can't think of a better way to create more "MEMORIES!!!" with friends than with this ultimate afternoon tea experience. If you're interested in booking this (or a similar) event, find more tea and coffee-tasting experiences from Truly here.

Our experience at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park was complimentary. All opinions are my own. Book your own unique and truly unforgettable Truly experience here.
© angloyankophile

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