Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Condiment Commentary

It occurred to me this morning while haphazardly whipping together my own concoction to resemble "Dijonaise" (two parts mayo, one part Colman's mustard, if you're interested) is that there's a serious gap in the UK condiment market that must be addressed.  First of all, Dijonaise.  Why does this not exist?  And Miracle Whip.  Why not?  Two excellent lunch spreads and great alternatives to your standard mustard or mayonaise - and yet, nowhere to be found.

You see, Americans are great at what I like to call "in betweens".  You feel like having something that's somewhere between a milkshake and ice cream?  I think you want a McFlurry, or better yet, a Blizzard.  You want something with the creaminess of mayo in your sandwich punctuated by the tang of mustard without having your sinuses blown off by mustard burn?  You definitely want Dijonaise.

Last week, I was looking forward to a juicy steak when I got home.  "Do you guys, have like, you know, like, a steak sauce?" I asked my co-worker as we were packing up to go home.  She looked at me blankly.  I tried again.  "You know, like, not like Worcestershire sauce, but like, a sauce you put on your plate that you can dip your steak in?"  She just shook her head.  "A1?" I tried helplessly.  "Barbecue sauce?" she suggested, as I looked horrified.  "Barbecue sauce does NOT belong on a steak!" I exclaimed.  Now, I know steaks are delicious on their own or simply seasoned with salt and pepper or some other sauce that takes a saucepan and actual time to make blah blah blah.  But sometimes I just want the smoky and tangy taste of A1, straight out of the bottle.  Is this too much to ask (no, because I could probably buy it online somewhere or bring a bottle back with me next time I'm in the States)?

Instead, in Britain, they have brown sauce.  Brown sauce.  Let me say it one more time, to see if it changes:  brown sauce.  Nope.  "What's that?" I said, pointing to a container full of ... well, brown sauce, as John and I were waiting in a queue for a bacon butty at a local greasy spoon (whoa, whoa, whoa, if that was too much Anglo-lingo for you, whip out your handy Anglo-American dictionary to translate).  "Brown sauce," he replied, anxiously looking ahead at the line.  "I see that," I said irritably.  "But what's it called?"  "Brown sauce," he repeated, getting annoyed.  Certain that he was wrong and just plain ignorant, I asked the lady at the counter when placing my order, "What's this sauce here?"  "Brown sauce," she said.  "What the hell?  What the hell is BROWN SAUCE?!" I screeched.  "Try it," said John, squeezing a generous amount onto my butty (if that sounded dirty, you're still thinking in American English.  Switch over, please).  "Mmm ... it's so ... good!  It's like ... like, a cross between Worcestershire sauce and ketchup!  AWESOME!"

See?  Brits do "in between"s too.  Smiley face.

Photo source

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice: Cinnamon Kitchen

Fans of The Cinnamon Club (as I am) will be thrilled to know that it has a little sister, Cinnamon Kitchen, in East London, so you can also enjoy the delicious and innovative modern Indian cuisine of The Cinnamon Club just a stone's throw from Liverpool Street station - perfect for post-work drinks/dinner and/or business meetings for those of you who work in the City.

Having said that, it seemed the ideal place for me to take John for a spontaneous Thursday night dinner to celebrate a recent success at work.   Booking on Toptable gives you an offer of three courses plus a glass of "summer fizz" for £19 - cheap but certainly not tacky as the majority of tables around us were also ordering from the set menu.

Tucked into the sweet but cool Devonshire Square, the restaurant also features a trendy bar called Anise, where, I was informed, holds a happy hour every evening.  I started off with some deliciously spiced potato cakes with masala peas, while John went with the recommended stir-fried chicken with peppers.  I had food envy at this point as his tender pieces of chicken were perfectly smoky and flavorful.  In addition to our meal, we ordered a side of breads (a variety of naan) served with very interesting chutneys, including a wasabi-pea paste that worked wonderfully well with the sweet tomato and chilli chutney.  For our mains, I chose a beef stew made with fragrant coconut milk served with basmati rice and John tackled sweet and sour pork ribs with garlic mash.  Again, I suffered food envy (although my stew was both comforting and beautifully aromatic) as his mash reminded me of American breakfast potatoes - wonderfully herb-filled and moreish.  Finally, for dessert, John selected the spiced pumpkin creme brulee (perfect for the fall months!) while I was more adventurous and chose the buffalo milk kulfi, dum cooked vermicelli nest.  I appreciated the innovation behind this dessert and it came wonderfully presented, with pieces of crystalized sugar draped on each individual strand of crunchy vermicelli thread, but when it came down to eating it, I felt as though I'd put thousands of pins into my mouth.  Needless to say, I didn't quite finish it.  But John did.

Aside from the overall success of its food, Cinnamon Kitchen boasts the same, high level of service characteristic of its main establishment.  Mid-conversation, a server quietly attended to our table, concerned that the uneven legs were causing the table to rock a bit - to be honest, I hadn't even noticed this, but it is one of those annoying things you quickly accept, I suppose, when sitting down at a table.  He quickly slipped something under the leg to keep the table still and his attention was quite impressive.  Though there is a two-hour turnaround for each table, you're never made to feel rushed and are encouraged to take your time to finish each course.  This is something I truly appreciate when dining out as I loathe being hurried by impatient staff.

As is with most restaurants near the City, the clientele at Cinnamon Kitchen is comprised of mostly after-work city slickers, which doesn't exactly create a relaxing environment, but I'd still highly recommend it - if not for its smart decor and creative dishes, then for its impeccable and friendly service.  Two thumbs up, people.

Photo source

Friday, September 24, 2010

Funny Friday Tube Moment

London is a big city.  So the chances of you running into someone you know (or in this case, your significant other) are slim to none.  Except for tonight.

I was on the way home from work, pouting, thinking hard and writing an email to Udita on my Blackberry when I suddenly looked up from my seat at Oxford Circus.  As I glanced to my left, I saw John get on my carriage - now, before I tell you what happened next, I have to say that I was extremely excited to see him not only due to the fact that you never run into people you know (okay, maybe once every two years?) but also because he works across town from me and usually takes a different tube line entirely, so it was like, the stars were aligned or something.  AND IN THE SAME CARRIAGE!!!

So I did what any normal girlfriend would do:  I decided to surprise him.  First by freakishly tapping on the pane of glass separating us, then when that didn't work (because he had his earphones in), following him down the carriage as he searched for a free place to stand like an obsessive stalker with a massive grin on my face, all the while bashing people with my massive bag.

This would have been fine if the train hadn't decide to lurch forward the exact moment I planned to "gently knock into" John.  What ensued will go down in Travel Embarrassment History (although it doesn't beat the time I got on the San Francisco BART and fell OVER my suitcase in slow motion and landed with my feet in the air).   I managed to basically launch myself at him with such a force that he in turn knocked into the person in front of him and in doing so, I then stepped on someone's foot very, very hard and laughed like a hysterical psychopath out of both embarrassment and excitement.  Of course, John at this point still had no idea it was me because my hair was fully in my face and I was bent over gasping for air with laughter but strangely, clutching at his jacket.  So I'll forgive the annoyance and disbelief on his face when he first saw that it was me and put it down to shock.  "You SCARED me," were the first words he could muster, as the other passengers stared at me in pity, concern and mostly disdain.  Did the seemingly normal-looking man know this freak?  Yes, yes, it seems as though they actually are acquainted.  Sighs of relief all around.

"Would you like to sit down?" asked the girl at my feet as I continued to gasp for breath and clutch at John's jacket as the train swayed (my hands were also full with my bags).  "HAHAHAHAHANOHAHHATHANKSHAHAHAH," I managed, amidst my giggles.  She looked amused.  "I think it's best if you sit," she said, rising graciously to give the crazy woman her seat.

So anyways, the moral of the story is, don't launch yourself at a familiar face out no matter HOW EXCITED YOU ARE to see them.  They will be just as excited if you don't bowl them over on a busy subway carriage.  The end.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Wednesday Part II

Oh my god.  He's at work at night too!  Oh, how I loved seeing this when I got off the train at Warwick Avenue today.  I mean, this guy just gets it.  That is exactly how I felt at the end of today (torn shirt, googly eyes and all)!

Seriously, thank you, mystery cartoon-tube-man.  Next time, I'm gonna seek you out.

Akram Khan: Vertical Road @ The Curve, Leicester

At the height of my ballet training (between the ages of 14-17), I was told that I didn't have the body of a ballet dancer and it was suggested that I try "modern", as in modern dance, instead.  To put it mildly, I was horrified.  The contemporary dance performances I had seen resembled the thrashing-abouts of patients in mental institutions - there was no technique, no beauty, nothing that came even close to the precision, graceful lines of ballet.  Furthermore, I found choreographers and the art form pretentious, self-indulgent and utterly pointless.

But I've since grown up and, in my frequent trips to Sadler's Wells and other dance theaters throughout Britain and the States, I've grown to like - no, love - modern dance, even more than ballet.  Don't get me wrong, I still nearly weep when the curtain raises in the second act of Nutcracker, but more with appreciation and less with the wistfulness and longing I once felt.

Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan is one who is partly responsible for this transformation. Bahok
last year had my leaning forward on the edge of my seat during the entire performance.  Set in an airport departure lounge (the stage is cleverly transformed to portray this and the original score by acclaimed composer/musician Nitin Sawhney is cleverly integrated), eight dancers from different cultural backgrounds struggle to communicate with each other and subsequently "tell" their "stories" to each other.  Had you informed me of the premise before the performance, I would have been dubious - such attempts at "multiculturalism" often fall apart into a nebulous cheesy-oh-what-a-happy-ending disaster (and if it had, I probably would have walked out).  But Khan handled such personal exploration brilliantly, that what evolved and ensued was actually a genius interpretation of cultural intersections and the importance of such (mixed) culture and heritage in our lives.

His newest work, Vertical Road, premiered at The Curve in Leicester last week and I was fortunate enough to see it on Saturday evening.   I hadn't read anything about the piece before attending - only that the Guardian had named it "beautiful and harrowing", which did, I admit, plant a seed of apprehension in my stomach.

The percussive opening and raucous rhythms throughout conjured for me, images of machines in a post-apocalyptic age - a very frightening noise indeed.   The unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach intensified.  And the dancers moved with a frenetic energy, as if shedding themselves of their own skin.  The movements then became primal, almost animalistic, and I noted the way this made the bodies appear under the loose but thin taupe-themed costumes; like slabs of flesh or meat pounding against the stage floor.  Now I knew what the Guardian meant by "harrowing".  There was a rawness conveyed that made me think of that metallic taste of blood that comes when you've bit your cheek - strange, I know, but the only way I can describe it.  Fluidity came later, as did tenderness and love, so it seemed.  I was very touched - moved, really - by the performance as a whole.  I never knew I could be brought to tears by the beauty of what was being expressed on stage.

I guess I was also moved by the fact Khan chose to premiere this piece at The Curve.  The hall is small - it reminds me less of the great London theaters and more of my high school auditorium.  Though it is (rather) newly built and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, it's a humble place; you don't get the usual snotty London crowds coming in, the ones who know all the choreographers by name, have yearly subscriptions, etc.  Not that there's anything wrong with that sort of crowd.  The Curve attracts a different audience - one borne out of curiosity, I feel, and genuine interest, rather than one of prestige or bragging rights, which is sometimes what I sense is at the bottom of quite a lot of the London theatre-goers (you can disagree, I don't mind).  And it's never a big audience, which makes me sad, but grateful for those who do turn up.  As a former performer myself, I'm always sad to see empty seats.

Khan himself was in the audience the night I was there, and afterwards, John took our programme (I was too shy and tailed behind) to him to sign.  He was very gracious and thanked us for coming when we told him we were great fans of his.  I'm always in awe of such artists; completely intimidated by their brilliance and creativity. 

I don't want to give anything away (as there are quite a few special effects that make the piece truly remarkable), as I really want you to see it and interpret the piece for yourself - part of the enjoyment of going with other people is discussing the performance after the performance and hearing all the details you might have missed that someone else might have picked up on.  It's going to be at Sadler's Wells from October 5th-9th, so go if you have the chance.

But if you're really dying to know about Khan's vision behind the piece, here's a video with a bit of explanation:

Photo source

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kittens and Rainbows and Croque Monsieurs, Oh My!

And then there were these ...

Yes, halfway into our 10 kilometer canoe adventure down the River Lot, I was decidedly soaked (yes, it had conveniently begun to rain as soon as we pushed off at La Port and because I had to wear my glasses that day - don't ask why - the kind lady at the boat rental office tied my glasses to my life jacket with a piece of string.  A piece of string, people.  I looked like the village idiot) and decidedly hungry, which isn't a great combination.  "Don't worry," John soothed, as the full red mist descended in front of my eyes.  "I know a terrific little cafe around here that we can stop and eat at."  I grumbled from the front and gave up paddling entirely.

Soon we reached this rumored "cafe" he was on about and pulled our boat in.  Sure, there were several chairs outside and copious signs advertising Wall's ice-cream, but they were propped up against the tables.  This place was definitely closed.  Just as I was about to unleash my full rage and fury on John, the doors of the establishment banged open and a man in his early sixties peered out.  "Um, John," I whispered, tugging at his arm.  "There's a man."  "What?  Where - oh hello," John said to him in French.  "Yes?" the man asked, furrowing his brow at our half-wetsuited attire (and probably my glasses on the string which I quickly whipped off now, preferring to go blind).  "Are you open for lunch?" John asked.  The man nodded and produced a small chalk board about the size of a piece of paper, on which was scrawled the words, "Croque Mr. 2.95".  Right now, a "Croque Mr." (or five) was exactly what I needed.  He disappeared into the back of the restaurant (which also, I noted, doubled as a hotel/house).

All of a sudden, three white balls of impossibly tiny fur scampered out.  "KITTTEEEEENNNNSSSS!!!!" I shrieked, as I fell to my knees.  John was bewildered by my sudden mood change.  "OHMYGODOHMYGODKITTTTEEEEENNNSSSS!"  I continued to scream, as the man returned with silverware, clearly disturbed by my high-pitched excitement.  Truth was, I don't think I've ever seen anything cuter in my life.   They frolicked.  They played.  They danced.  They mewed a tiny kitten mew.  They purred.  They sniffed.  They were FREAKIN' ADORABLE!!! 

Like a vision from heaven, to complete the picture, the kindly man brought us two Cokes and our croque monsieurs, perfectly toasted, with a slice of thin ham in the middle and bubbly cheese on the top, accompanied on the side with four slices of tomatoes sprinkled with salt, pepper and herbs.  So simple, yet so effective.  "Are you English?" asked the man and John responded in French.  He continued in English:  "From London?  Did you fly Ryanair?"  He told us that he flew to London often for the theatre in the West End, from Rodez, a mere 40 minutes away from his home here.  We finished our Croque Mr. and sheepishly asked for seconds, which he, after a moment's amusement, quickly complied. 

Soon after, we finished and it came the time to say goodbye to the kittens (THE KITTEENNNNSSSS!!!!), though I would have preferred to stay and play with them for the rest of the afternoon, abandoning our canoe on the shore.   The man had disappeared into the deserted restaurant again, so we left a generous tip and crunched off into the gravel.  As we left, however, a woman's voice called to us from the balcony, "Au revoir!" and we turned to see a friendly smile and wave, which was very kind indeed.

Heartened by our lunch experience, I continued the remainder of our trip in a considerably better mood and warmed by the kindness of rural France (not to mention the KITTTEENENNNNNNSSS!!!).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A World of Pain

That's French for "bread", that is.

At the beginning of our trip to the tiny (and like, so super-cute) village of Vieillevie in the Auvergne region of France, my affinity for French pastries and bread started innocently enough - with requests for a pain aux raisin/pain au chocolat/croissant breakfast (yeah, if you knew me, you'd know that was considered a restrained request) half-mumbled from my position under two pillows stacked on top of my head in our lovely river-view cottage (naturally, I asked others to purchase the said pastries for me rather than getting up and doing it myself).

Then as the days went on, my penchant for the stuff could not be subdued and I kind of went a little overboard (encouraged by a fluent French speaker, who eagerly showed off his French at the nearest boulangerie), so we graduated from the small bread basket to the, um, extra long one:

Then I got a little closer.  Likethisclose.

You know, just to like, document the full extent of the fluffiness of the pastry, the glaze on the top and the big, fat, juicy ... raisins with just the right amount of ... sorry.  Had to wipe the drool from my chin.

Anyways, with that, my obsession with French bread and pastries was in full swing.  I took pictures of myself knighting Tom with a baguette, me playing the "bread-flute" (which is possible if you hold a long baguette at a ninety degree angle to your mouth and hold accordingly - it makes quite a convincing wind instrument) and baguettes tucked under my arm at every available opportunity, like this:

I'm fascinated by the French attitude towards bread ... I love how baguettes remain unwrapped at the local shops and are then found loitering atop refrigerators, televisions, tucked under arms, tossed into tote-bags, balanced on the lap of a Vespa driver, etc.  It's so ... French (i.e. intimidatingly cool).  

I did go a little "pain" mad.  When Cristy and Tom posed for a photo (that I coerced them into taking, btw) by the Lot, I thrust a baguette in her face and demanded she use it as a prop.  Humoring me (or perhaps frightened that I'd blow a gasket if she didn't), she obliged. 

Mmm ... pain.

Happy Wednesday

Oh the Warwick Avenue tube staff are at it again ... seriously, this guy should write a graphic novel based on the lives of miserable London commuters.  He just gets it.  That is exactly how my desk at work looked today.  How did he know?  In any case, it put a smile on my face at 7:30 a.m. (yep, it was an early one today) and I was grateful for that (might have been the only smile I cracked all day). 

But seriously, coming back to a full week of work after spending a luxurious week in a remote, sun-drenched, rustic, picturesque (you get the idea yet?) village in southern France is really, really hard.  

So hard that I'm not sure I could cope with the 2 weeks of vacay Americans are rumored to receive ... I can barely cope with my 26 day allowance here.  Stay tuned for some holiday posts ...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

All The World's A Stage: Shakespeare's Globe

Shakespeare's Globe and I don't have a great history together.

Last time I went, well ... I fainted.

Looking back, a belly full of fish and chips on a hot summer's day probably wasn't the best idea as I found myself clutching Chloe halfway through the first act of King Lear, swaying and whispering that I was about to keel over.

Now, the great thing about keeling over at the Globe is that it happens a lot (three other people went down like trees in a forest after my little incident), which means that the staff is well prepared.  See, these really nice grey-haired ladies who could (and you'd very well want to) be your grandma, usher you out by the crook of your arm and say, "There, there, dear, you just take a seat here and we'll get you sorted."  They then lead you to a little room in the back of the theater equipped with a few cots and lots of pillows, prop your legs up above your heart and offer you a cool drink and cold compress for your forehead until you're better.  I kind of didn't want to leave.

Even King Lear himself came backstage to ask how I was feeling, booming: "Don't miss the second half - it's really good."  I smiled wanly from my horizontal position, wondering if he was merely a hallucinatory product of my overheated state or if he was truly standing in front of me (I'm pretty sure he was real, because Chloe then said reassuringly, "King Lear wants you to get better!").

Despite his encouragement however, I did miss the second half.  Like a coward, I slunk across the Millennium Bridge with an excruciating headache and hailed the next bus, never to return, out of sheer embarrassment ...

... until last Thursday,  when John and I saw "The Comedy of Errors" during an evening performance after work.  Having had a weird cold/flu-like virus that week, I wasn't in the best of moods to enjoy a bit of windy evening Shakespeare, but thankfully the fact that we had seats this time helped immensely - and I'm so glad we did, as I was able to fully enjoy and appreciate the Globe experience.  Tom Mothersdale gave a truly energetic and ingenious performance as Antipholus, as did Fergal McElherron, who played Antipholus' servant/sidekick, Dromio.  Together, the duo created an impeccable comic dynamic, with commendable performances by the other cast members as well.

I'm continually awed by the productions of Shakespeare I've seen across England - from the Curve in Leicester to Southwark Playhouse to the Globe.  Never have I seen such innovation, spirit and commitment in performances and I have a particular interest in the set and costume design, which never cease to enthrall me (for obvious reasons, as I'm slightly obsessed with clothes - the costumes featured in As You Like It at the Curve last year featured a splendid intersection of All Saints chic and shimmering saris - I don't think I stopped babbling about it for at least an hour afterward).

If you're able to catch a play at the Globe near the end of the season this year, I strongly urge you to do so before the weather turns too terrible; otherwise there's always next year.  And oh yeah, maybe skip the fish and chips beforehand.

Funfetti Jelly Belly Swiss Miss Nestle Goodness

You know people who go "above and beyond"?  Well, Udita goes above "above and beyond".  I asked her to please send a box of Swiss Miss hot chocolate to me via Karim, as he was visiting her in Sugarland, TX last week.  One box.  What actually arrived?  Three bagfuls of Jelly Belly jelly beans (my favorite), Pillsbury Funfetti cake mix (which I requested as I've never heard of funfetti before, until Mel mentioned it to me), one box of Nestle rich chocolate hot chocolate mix and one box of Swiss Miss milk chocolate mix - all of which Karim carried in a backpack for the entire day today (from Paddington to Kingston to Maida Vale) until he (very) kindly delivered the goodies to me this evening.  Gratitude doesn't even begin to describe how I'm feeling right now ... possibly tears of joy ... there's a reason why this girl is my BFF (besides the fact she once drove me to Logan International Aiport at 3 a.m.).
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