Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mudchute Farm

The first time I rode on the Docklands Light Railway (a.k.a. the DLR, to the cool kids), I noticed two things: (1) the trains have no drivers, which means that you can sit at the very front and pretend to drive, and (2) there is a stop on the DLR called 'Mudchute'. Compared to some of the other funny UK place names (e.g., Dorking, Penistone, Wetwang, Fingringhoe, and the list goes on), Mudchute is pretty tame. But I still find it funny that a name as singularly unappealing as Mudchute would stick. Hey kids, pack your bags, we're moving to Mudchute!

Mudchute and the Isle of Dogs

To be fair, I come from a country with towns such as Boring, Oregon, Hot Coffee, Mississippi, and Humptulips, Washington, not to mention Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Maggie and I even got married in a town called Volcano (which is nowhere near an actual volcano). So I really have no leg to stand on when I mock British place names. Plus, with the exception of one misguided trip to the ASDA (Wallmart UK) near Mudchute, I had never actually gone to Mudchute, so I shouldn't have judged prematurely.

Mudchute got its name because there was literally a mud chute for depositing silt dredged from the Thames for the docks. Despite the name and the muddy past, Mudchute is actually fairly charming, particularly compared to the sterile glass and steel soullessness of the nearby Canary Wharf financial district. The hilly look to the area derives from the piles of deposited silt now covered in grass and shrubs; the charm comes from the lovely Mudchute Park and Farm.

Mudchute Kitchen

One of the London foodie blogs we read regularly, Tasty Treats, turned us on to Mudchute Kitchen, the restaurant at the farm. Unless you've been to Mudchute Farm, you would never guess this type of place could exist in London, much less right next to Canary Wharf. Given the promise of delicious homemade food at Mudchute Kitchen and the chance to say hello to all of the animals on the surrounding farm, we had to go check it out. Before we went, Maggie noticed that the website of the farm had a picture of children petting sheep, and Maggie has always dreamt of being able to pet a sheep. Hey, a girl can dream.

Grazing cows and office buildings

Mama and Baaaby

After a nice lunch at Mudchute Kitchen (good food, nice homey atmosphere, fabulous pastries), we went out wandering amongst the animals. We were lucky to be there during lamb season, so a bunch of preposterously adorable little lambs were awkwardly gamboling about in the fields. The goats were cute (although I secretly think all goats are jerks), the turkey was wandering around looking cool, and the pigs were lazily snoozing in the shade. We went from pen to pen looking at the animals, but we couldn't find anywhere to pet sheep.

My fellow American

Gloucester Old Spot pigs keeping cool

When we had made our way through the farm, we emerged out into the open grass of Mudchute Park, where, much to our surprise, we finally found our quarry. Some of the animals are allowed to roam freely around the park, including a small herd of cows and some amazingly woolly sheep hiding in the shade of some trees. The mixture of sunbathing and picnicking people, grazing animals, and massive office towers in the background is quite a surreal but pleasant thing to find in the heart of London.

Shady sheep

We approached the sheep slowly and quietly, thinking they would get spooked and run away if we got too close. These sheep were clearly used to humans, and they were undisturbed by our presence. In fact, a few even slowly started moving towards us while continuing to munch on grass. People probably feed them all sorts of things that sheep shouldn't eat, so I think the sheep were hoping we had some chips or a piece of bacon roll for them. Either way, they were totally happy for us to walk right up and pet them.

Maggie's new friend

If you've never pet a sheep (we can't be alone in this, right?), they are amazingly soft but dense. The wool is so tightly packed that the amount on just one sheep must weigh an incredible amount. I'm sure they're used to it, but a wearing a 4 inch thick wool coat in the summer doesn't sound like my idea of fun - it makes me think that shearing a sheep might actually be doing them a favor.

Maggie living the dream

Beautiful park, lots of nice animals (including pettable sheep), delicious coffee cake and fresh lemonade, friendly people, and all this in easy access from our flat - we'll definitely be back soon. Plus Maggie has made a few new friends that we'll have to visit from time to time.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Polycaloric Spree

Now that my parents have returned to California, we’ve been eating a lot of home cooked meals. And salads, lots of salads. We had a few dinners at home during their visit, but we ate out far more than normal. From their standpoint, they had a free hotel (our deluxe living room suite, aka our creaky sofa bed), so they might as well go out and eat some of London’s best food offerings. Naturally, we weren’t complaining too much about this plan, since it involved eating great food (our favorite pastime), plus we got to show them some of our favorite spots and try out some new ones as well. Now, however, I need to do about 10,000 sit-ups to work off my newly inflated spare tyre.

The Town of Ramsgate Pub

During the three weeks they were in town, The Town of Ramsgate, our local 15th century riverside pub, quickly became my parents’ favorite hangout. I completely understand, as Maggie and I have spent many happy afternoons there with a pint, a ploughman’s, and a crossword. The Town of Ramsgate doesn’t attempt to be a cutting edge gastropub, but the food is all homemade and delicious, and the vibe couldn’t be friendlier. On the day my parents arrived from the US, I met them at Paddington Station, brought them back to our flat, and immediately went over to the Town of Ramsgate to enjoy the warm afternoon on the patio overlooking the Thames and Wapping Old Stairs.

There is certainly more to the London food scene than pubs, so we tried to hit a variety of types of restaurant during their visit. To list every place and everything we ate over the last three weeks would be a bit excessive, plus it might make me consider elective angioplasty to see it all in one list, but here are some of the highlights:

1. St. John Bread and Wine
My personal favorite amongst the meals out has to be St. John Bread and Wine, the sister restaurant to the well-known St. John Restaurant near Smithfield Market. Apart from being an excellent restaurant, St. John sells bread and some pastries, including what I think is by far the best sourdough bread in London.

St. John Bread and Wine serves mostly small plates, kind of like English tapas. They have an unusual system: From 6:00 on, you can order from a list of small plates; after 7:00, they start serving a few larger items; and after 8:00, large shared dishes, typically a long braised something-or-other, are served. Many things are only available in small quantities, so items on the specials board kept getting crossed out throughout the evening. The night we went, they were serving braised kid shoulder or braised kid neck: if the word ‘kid’ wasn’t enough, our waitress decided to tell us exactly how old (in weeks) the kids were. I was game, but one look at Maggie and I knew it was never going to happen.

Maaaaggie, don't eat me!

Even without the braised kid, we had plenty of delicious food. We stuck mostly to the small plates, all of which ranged from good to amazing and included some really unusual elements, e.g., gull’s eggs with celeriac salad, smoked eel with horseradish, braised duck gizzards and chicory, Stinking Bishop cheese with Cornish new potatoes. Perhaps the best part of the evening was the dessert - St. John will bake you madeleines to order, and they come out hot and buttery and perfect. I can’t imagine going there and not ordering madeleines; in fact I can easily imagine going and only ordering madeleines.

Mmmm, hot madeleines. Eat your heart out, Marcel.

2. Claridge’s
Afternoon tea is an absolute requirement for any extended visit to the UK, and we decided that we might as well do it properly at least once. It doesn’t get much more proper and posh than afternoon tea at Claridge’s, a hotel exclusively for people that have so much money that they don’t actually look at hotel bills. It is also for people that are comfortable with, if not entirely accustomed to, the idea of bathroom attendants that hand you towels and fill basins of water for you, not to mention people in big hats opening doors for you. Diplomats and movie stars stay here, not me. Everything is just a little too nice at Claridge's. The couch in the lobby was so cushy that I sunk into it like quicksand, and I thought I might need to call one of the guys with the big hats over to pull me out when it came time for tea.

Tasty pastries at Claridge's

Claridge's is just about the best afternoon tea you can get. They have an excellent selection of teas (including some grown in Cornwall), the room and the china are beautiful, and they have a piano and bass duo masterfully making their way through the jazz standards. The finger sandwiches and pastries are excellent, and, to my delight and surprise, they will give you more of anything you want. We got an entire second helping of sandwiches - a bit much, but why say no to more sandwiches? They have a proprietary jelly called Marco Polo that they serve with their buttery scones, which was mysterious and delicious and it left me wanting more. I couldn’t figure out what the jelly tasted like, so I kept tasting it and saying impossibly food-snobby things like “Hmm, perhaps kumquat? Or maybe quince and green tea?” One of the joys of afternoon tea is that you can say such things and not feel entirely foolish (you be the judge).

Scones, clotted cream, and Marco Polo

My only problem with Claridge’s is that I can never feel very comfortable in any place so fancy and polished. The second we walked in, I felt watched by the staff like they thought I might nick a pair of silver sugar tongs and bolt for the exit. Call me paranoid, but when I got up and took a picture of the room, I got approached a millisecond later by a posh twit in a stiff suit who sternly informed me that I was 'not allowed to take pictures of guests whilst they are eating', after which I spent a good 20 minutes happily enjoying the mental image of me kneeing him in the groin.

The picture that got me in trouble

3. New Tayyabs
For value, Tayyabs is absolutely impossible to beat in London. You can easily get a full meal for four people for £30-£40, which is dirt-cheap by London standards. The food is also really, really good. The highlights of any meal at Tayyabs are the appetizers and kebabs. The tandoori lambchops, which are served like a Fred Flintstone fantasy on a long rib bone, are incredibly delicious and not to be missed. The mango lassis at Tayyabs are more like mango milkshakes than most lassis I’ve had, but I’m not about to complain about a mango milkshake. Tayyabs is not exactly a secret - it's impossible to keep something this cheap and delicious secret for very long. The restaurant gets ridiculously crowded starting around 7:00 every night of the week, but they are skilled at moving people in and out, so you rarely have to wait very long. The proximity of Tayyabs to Maggie’s work and our flat can be slightly problematic.

A yard of pizza

Beyond these wonderful food experiences, we had a yard-long pizza at Yard, a kedgeree breakfast at the Butler’s Wharf Chop House, braised pork belly at Canteen, a variety of treats from Borough Market, giant portions of classic Italian food at Il Bordello, tapas in Kew, and a gluttonous meal at Gordon Ramsay’s Boxwood CafĂ©. Amongst all of this, Maggie and I managed to squeeze in a lunch at our favorite kebab house (and one of my top picks for all of London), Bosphorus Kebabs in South Kensington, followed by a gelato at Oddono’s.

I want a salad.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mag & Andy's Celebrity Encounters

Until now, I’d always wished I’d bumped into more celebrities while walking through my daily life. You’d think that having lived in places like the Bay Area and London, the odds would be good that I’d run into someone at some point, yet it seems like certain friends have been a lot luckier than me. My friend Sasha ran into Huey Lewis in the San Francisco airport a number of years ago (lucky dog!).

Huey - this photo is an oldie but goodie

Huey was my favorite singer of all time growing up, and I know my knees would still get weak if I saw him today. An ex-coworker of Andy’s had Bonnie Raitt walk into the vitamin store where he was working and discuss natural remedies. Apparently she was really nice and down to earth – not a surprise. That’s another one that would have made my day, month, year.

Andy’s friends have been remarkably lucky at celebrity sightings too. His friend James saw Steve Perry in a Florida airport once – he said he was ‘short, dressed like a cowboy, and short’. (Andy just suggested that perhaps Steve Perry was taking the midnight plane going anywhere... sigh.) James also said that very recently he almost ran Sandra Bullock over with his car as she was riding her bike the wrong way down a one-way street. Even better, Andy’s friend Dave met Bill Cosby when he was nine years old. Apparently Dave’s hair was messy and standing on end, and Bill told him he looked like he’d been electrocuted.

I guess I’m not totally unlucky - Andy and I did see a local celebrity last year before we left the bay area: Adam Savage from Mythbusters. We were in a local theater seeing an improv show, and before the play started, in walked red-haired Adam and his family. I frantically elbowed Andy and exclaimed: ‘That’s the guy on TV!’. Mythbusters is a much loved show in our household, so we both thought it was a real score to see Adam in person. And he really did look / act just like he does on TV.

A mischievous Adam Savage

To be fair, I did have an encounter with a celebrity in an Andronico’s Supermarket a number of years back. I was in a hurry to find my groceries and head home for dinner, so I rushed into to the Mexican food aisle, only to see someone blocking the tortillas. I was immediately annoyed – she looked on the old-ish side and was moving slowly. So I hovered behind her hoping she would move, and of course she sensed me there, so she suddenly turned around, smiled and said hello. Her manner was so kind that I immediately felt like a jerk for having essentially tail-gated her in front of the tortillas, so I said hi in return and chilled out. She then walked away and I remember thinking how warm and kind she was… and a little bit familiar. A few aisles later, it dawned on me who she might be, so I snuck around the store until I saw her again – and this time she was surrounded by about 4 huge tall bodyguards. My suspicion was confirmed that it was Maya Angelou! All I can say is that she managed to convey a lot of warmth in a very small interaction, and I was really touched by that. She was super-nice and I was really impressed – and she made me think twice about my brusque, harried manner.

Despite this cool interaction, it still wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I feel I had a true celebrity real-life spotting – my first bona-fide movie star run-in. Andy’s parents were in town, and we’d all gone to see a play at the Gielgud Theater called ‘The God of Carnage’. Despite the weird title it was a great play, starring Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott, the guy who plays Inspector Rebus on British TV. (These weren’t the celebrity sightings by the way – people on stage in plays don’t count). Anyway, we all thoroughly enjoyed the show, and headed out of the theater afterwards onto the busy London street. Suddenly Andy’s Mom feverishly whispered: ‘It’s Tony Soprano!’

I did my best to play it cool but I have to admit I was intrigued. Sure enough, standing about five feet away was James Gandolfini. He had clearly come out of the same play and was talking to a few friends about it, right there on the street in London. He looked just like he does on TV, although he was also notably tall. We all walked right by him and tried to act nonchalant, which was hard. After we were a few blocks away we chattered excitedly about having seen him. It was fun, and not surprisingly, in a way he just looked like a normal guy.