Monday, November 27, 2017

Treat Yourself: Go Zen Boxes at Aqua Kyoto

Okay, so bad news: for various boring reasons I won't get into, we had to cancel our trip to Hong Kong and Japan this Christmas.

I know.

As a consolation prize for not being able to enjoy yakitori in tiny Tokyo diners and watch snow monkeys take dips in Sapporo onsens, I ditched my usual al desko lunch at work to try the new Go Zen boxes at Aqua Kyoto instead.

Located centrally (and conveniently!) near Oxford Circus, Aqua Kyoto is one of four London restaurants owned by the Aqua Restaurant Group; the other three being Aqua Nueva (home to contemporary Spanish cuisine), Aqua Shard (the stunning restaurant perched on Level 31 of the Shard), and Hutong (which I wrote about here).

Executive Chef Paul Greening designed the Go Zen boxes, taking inspiration from the traditional Japanese "go zen" cuisine (which typically consists of a selection of small dishes accompanied by rice and soup). Aqua Kyoto calls it an "elevated version of the bento box" - I call it one of the prettiest (and tastiest!) lunches I've ever experienced.

But first ...

We tried Aqua Kyoto's spinach salad, which is prepared at your table (with impressive flair) and served with toasted sesame seeds and a Japanese goma dressing, made of sesame paste, sanoto sugar (Japanese light brown sugar), organic gluten-free tamari and kombu dashi (seaweed stock) - a magical, delicate combination of ingredients. Despite its popularity on the menu, I was dubious about this humble-looking spinach salad - could it be a gimmick, I wondered? But peanut dressing was so moreish (not overly rich or cloying), I found myself absentmindedly helping myself to second, third, and fourth portions as I chatted with my friend Christina.

(It's one of those dishes where you get down to the last bite and look shyly at the other person, saying, "Go for it, it's all yours", while secretly hoping they'll say, "I couldn't - I'm too full" and then helping yourself!)

But there wasn't much time to deliberate over who'd get that last bite, because our Go Zen boxes appeared: the Kyoto Go Zen for me (12 "compartments" priced at £38, although a smaller version consisting of 6 compartments is available for £25) and the Shojin Go Zen for Christina - a vegan box (£29) which was just as beautifully presented as the Kyoto Go Zen and with - dare I say - even more interesting and innovative ingredients (kimchee was topped with nuka pearls, designed to resemble salmon roe. This (the kimchee) Korean touch was most welcomed, adding a bit of heat and excitement).

I listened attentively as Head Sous Chef Ken introduced each "compartment" to us, but really I was finding it difficult not to tuck into the Wagyu bavette, glazed with mustard teriyaki.

Amongst my favorites were the chawan mushi (a savoury steamed egg pudding, which I usually love eating with a hot bowl of sticky white rice), the gindara saikyo yaki (tender black cod cured in den miso for three days before being grilled), the classic tamago (Japanese omelette), and finally the rock shrimp tempura coated in a chilli garlic umami sauce.

Christina's vegan Shojin box looked equally delicious, particularly the kenji rolls (daikon, asparagus, avocado, white enoki mushrooms, with a daikon and ginger dressing), vegetarian sushi rolls (wrapped in mango and cranberry "skins"), and the sweet potato tempura.

And just when I thought I couldn't eat any more, a fresh-from-the-wok bowl full of green tea soba noodles appeared on the table - and I could have eaten this for days. Handmade by Chef Paul Greening, the flavor of these noodles reminded me of the yakisoba I miss from my favorite Japanese restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. It had a certain homemade taste, which is quite an achievement for any large restaurants such as Aqua Kyoto. Tossed with edamame, Japanese mushrooms, onion teriyaki and tamago, it's a dish I'd order again next time I'm in the restaurant.

And with these Go Zen boxes on the menu? It's likely that I'll be back soon.

Huge thanks to Aqua Kyoto for hosting me! My beautiful and delicious lunch was complimentary. All opinions are my own. The new Go Zen boxes are available for lunch from 12 pm - 2:30 pm, Monday - Friday. Book a table here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lime Wood Hotel & Spa, New Forest

I woke before John - before dawn, in fact - at 5:45, when it was still pitch black outside. But with the clocks changing overnight, it felt like 6:45, and, being an early riser, I began to fidget under the sheets - the down duvet crinkling around me like a weightless cloud of feathers.

It was dark, sure, but as I tiptoed to our room's window facing Lime Wood's grand drive and peered out onto the scenic lawn, I contemplated going out for a walk - by myself - in the nearby woods. A thought which surprised me since, just a few years ago, you couldn't convince me to put on a pair of hiking boots, let alone go for a walk in a muddy wood on my own.

But 24 hours at Lime Wood had already placed a strange hold over me: call it magic, but I longed for a walk in the cold, bracing air to clear my head, after embarking on one shortly after our arrival the day before. I wanted to see the magical New Forest ponies once again, who - like a line of chorus dancers - eyed us curiously, before trotting past in a semi-choreographed line of their own accord, tossing their manes as they did so.

When John opened his eyes, I was hovering over him like a crazed stalker: "Can we go for a walk now?" I asked, practically lacing up my boots already. He rubbed his eyes and smiled at my new-found enthusiasm for convening with nature. "Sure."

But just then, there was a knock at the door, and a uniformed man bearing a large and heavy tray cluttered with fresh pots of tea, fruit juices, homemade granola, New Forest yogurt, and a basket full of warm pastries deposited the said tray onto our bed and we sat, tucked up in the duvet once again, watching the sun rise while dropping crumbs on the pillows.

Satiated, we finally embarked on that walk: sneaking down the staircase before other guests had risen like a pair of teens creeping out to make mischief, making our way through the boot room which held a rainbow-hued collection of Hunter wellies neatly stacked under a reclaimed wooden table, and unlocking the gate to the woodland - my boots making squelchy sounds from the mud underfoot.

Back at the hotel, sheepishly returned with muddy boots in hand and wasted no time in slinking directly to Herb House spa, where we indulged in hour-long Bamford massage treatments before soaking in the hydrotherapy pool as powerful jets of water pummelled our aching shoulders; the soles of our feet. At one point, I sat flipping through a water-damaged issue of Grazia that someone had left behind, warming my feet and seat on the long, U-shaped heated marble bench, and declared, "I'm happy," to John, who had thrown a towel over his shoulder en route to the steam room.

"Good," he said, and disappeared into the mist.

Later that afternoon, we peeked into every drawing room and discovered the library: a cozy little snug with a large bay window and working fireplace (which John set to lighting straight away, after asking permission) filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves heaving with art books. We ordered spicy Bloody Marys and refreshing herb-infused lemonades, nibbling on peanuts and speaking only to mutter exclamations over enticing holidays advertised in the paper we both shared.

The food, though highly anticipated, erred on the side of disappointment for us. As huge fans of Angela Hartnett's Murano in London, we expected to be similarly excited by the fare served at Hartnett Holder & Co, Lime Wood's main restaurant (the other restaurant, Raw & Cured, offers a healthy, raw-food-focused menu at Herb House spa). But our crab linguine was overseasoned yet lacking in flavor; the chicken schnitzel nothing to write home about; and the seaweed-encrusted duck a strange (and unnervingly sweet) concoction. However: the crispy bacon sandwich at breakfast was out-of-this-world delicious and the charcuterie board deserved the highest praise.

Despite this, I'd happily return to Lime Wood - again and again. The rooms, the service, the activities - that spa - make it the ultimate treat for adults (although it was lovely to see that children were welcome too).

We're already plotting our next trip there - magical ponies and all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Indefinite Leave to Remain

So, it's been a pretty crazy and momentous few weeks for me ... first, after months of nagging from John, I finally signed up for and passed my UK driving theory test.

Whew! That test was hard, compared to the US version (I also found it a little bewildering and intimidating to be subjected to nearly airport-style security upon arriving at the test center). I especially struggled with the infamous "hazard perception" section of the test, where you're shown 14 CGI clips of a drive (in a mix of rural and urban areas) from the driver's perspective and are instructed to click on "developing" hazards within a prescriped period of time. If you click too early? BAM! Zero points. Clicked too late? Sorry, buddy, ZERO POINTS. I was failing every single practice test up until the night before the real thing ... out of desperation, I watched a video on YouTube (hilariously filmed by some kid in his college dorm room) and ... passed the next day! (Tip: if you're thinking of studying for the theory test, the app is the best way to learn.)

Oh! And we bought a car. Hence the need for a UK driver's licence (US licenses don't simply transfer over).

In anticipation of my practical driving test in January (gulp!), I've booked in some lessons with "Dave" - my neighbor's kids' driving instructor - who said reassuringly, "Don't you worry about a thing - you'll do brilliantly. Just let me do the worrying, okay?" after I recounted the story of how I drove up on the curb with John recently and felt "traumatized" by my first UK driving experience. I can tell we're going to get along well.

But the biggest milestone of all, for me, was being granted Indefinite Leave to Remain status by the Home Office last Saturday. After over a decade of living in the UK, I finally submitted the application I'd been wanting to hand over for years. John came with me to the Premium Service Centre in Croydon (where you can typically get a same-day decision) to literally and figuratively hold my hand - and I'm so glad he did, because I had a slight hiccup with my application (which got figured out in the end) and I totally panicked.

After I received my congratulatory letter, all I wanted was a Nando's chicken feast and to pass out on my bed at home (I got both).

I spent the rest of the weekend in a bit of a daze - happy, grateful, nostalgic, and hopeful - especially after I found out that I can apply for British citizenship once my biometric permit arrives.

I went to yoga on Sunday morning and I think it all became a little too much for me: when the teacher asked us to imagine someone supportive and loving in our lives during savasana, John's face and his kind smile immediately appeared in my mind and I started quietly sobbing, until the teacher came around and surreptitously handed me a box of tissues.

(I kind of love him. Just a little bit.)

Speaking of John, he'd managed to score us some tickets to see Van Morrison at the Eventim Apollo earlier in the year - and it felt like the perfect way to celebrate. We had amazing seats, held hands, and marvelled at the fact that he had - at 72 - the stamina to complete a 90-minute set with no breaks. His voice was as strong as ever, and his instrumental skills alone were incredible. So, so special.

I sat there that night in the dark auditorium, along with the rest of audience, as Van sang, "When you don't need to worry, there'll be days like this," with the biggest grin plastered across my face.

It felt - and it feels - nice to be so happy.
© angloyankophile

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