Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dry Soda

I've never been much of a drinker — I love wine and beer and some spirits, but I generally only want them in fairly small quantities. So when I go out for a splurge dinner and get a tasting menu, I'm often put off by the wine pairing option. Wine pairing often nearly doubles the price of the meal, and if the meal is 6 or more courses (as tasting menus often are), I get completely trashed by the end of the meal and no longer enjoy the food as much. On the other hand, I'm a big beverage fan and a good pairing of beverage and food can greatly enhance a meal. Even a hot dog is enhanced by a beer, or a slice of pizza by a root beer. So why does it always have to be wine with fancy food?

Wine, the mandatory fine dining beverage, and water, its optional companion

One of my many fantasy restaurants I would open if I could would have a tasting menu where the pairings are not confined to the wine world. There are so many great juices, sodas, waters, milks, and teas, why confine yourself to one type of beverage, especially an alcoholic one? Instead of pairing foie gras with sauternes, try Navarro Gew├╝rztraminer grape juice. Tea smoked duck? How about some smokey lapsang souchong tea? Normally expect a white wine with your salmon? Why not try an elderflower soda instead? You might even have a Belgian wheat beer with your rib eye steak. Would it be so wrong to pair a flourless chocolate cake with an ice cold glass of whole milk?

Unfortunately, high-end restaurants have at most two types of water (one of which is nearly always San Pellegrino), few if any interesting sodas, and are generally completely lacking in the juice end of the spectrum. Tea is viewed as an after dinner drink, and the options are confined to black tea, peppermint, and chamomile, with a few places venturing into more creative options. A few places, to their credit, have started pairing beers with food. I was very impressed at a recent meal at Hibiscus in London when near the start of the meal, instead of some variation on a champagne cocktail, we were served a homemade hibiscus soda with pineapple juice bubbles and a hint of ginger — fun and delicious.

So I was naturally intrigued when I read about Dry Soda in an article by my current favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, and it has received quite a bit of hype from food bloggers and columnists over the past year. Of course, reading the words "dry soda" I immediately thought of some bizarre powdered creation like astronaut ice cream. Luckily "dry" refers to the fact that the sodas aren't super-sweetened like most sodas and would be more appropriate for pairing with food as, gasp, an alternative to wine. Just last week I stumbled across Dry Soda in a shop in Oakland and bought one out my normal soda curiosity. At the moment Dry Soda comes in four unusual flavors: kumquat, lavender, lemongrass, and rhubarb (soon there will be two new flavors: vanilla and juniper berry). I applaud their creativity, but lavender? Smells nice, but tastes bitter and soapy - I speak from experience. At $3 a bottle I wasn't about to try them all, so I got a kumquat soda as a trial (I should note that you can get them for as little as $1.79 if you go to Beverages and More, but I wasn't there unfortunately).

Dry Soda, produced by squiggle

It certainly wasn't sweet, so they got that right, but there was almost no flavor at all and what flavor there was didn't seem so kumquaty. There was little to like or dislike about it, but about halfway through the bottle I simply got tired of drinking it and didn't know what to do with the rest. Everything about Dry Soda is unfortunately pretentious from the flavors to the strange box on the bottle that reads "Produced by: [illegible squiggle]". I can't find anywhere on their website or elsewhere that explains who or what the illegible squiggle refers to nor why it would mean anything to me. Also, looking at the four ingredients in the soda (water, sugar, natural extracts, phosphoric acid) and the fact that it is clearly 99% water, why so expensive? Does the squiggle make it more expensive? It quickly dawned on me: this is nothing new. Dry soda is simply flavored sparkling water, a product that has been around for generations. I'm happy that someone is out there trying to create new options in the bevearage world and alternative pairings for fine dining, but Dry Soda sadly does not live up to the hype.

But seriously, ice cold milk and flourless chocolate cake would rock.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Miss List

Before we left London we knew that we'd miss a lot of things about London, but we were also sure that we wouldn't be able to predict everything that we'd miss. I knew I would miss some simple pleasures, particularly foods, but I know that at some point we'll both miss some of the more ethereal aspects of our time in London. Perhaps I'll miss the now reassuring sight of discarded banana peels on the street, the small boy I would see many mornings running through crowds of befuddled pigeons in Altab Ali Park to make them fly away in a panic, or the short trip back in time provided by a walk down Fournier Street that would always bring to mind Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Maybe Maggie will miss the many walks across Tower Bridge, always exciting and beautiful despite the weather, or watching coots nesting along the canal, or the old clock tower permanently frozen at 8:13 that we could see from the living room of our flat.

Yep, still 8:13

We miss all of these things and many more that have yet to come to mind, and I'm sure that once we've settled down a bit more here we'll have more time to reflect, but we've been keeping some initial notes on things we miss, some of the things we definitely don't miss, and some of the surprises we have found on returning to the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a provisional list, and I'm sure we'll have some things to add to these soon, but here's our first stab:

Things We Miss About London:

  • No charges at most cash machines, so no need to hunt down your specific bank
  • Dandelion & Burdock soda
  • Eccles cakes
  • Wapping, our oasis of calm amidst clamor
  • Integrated public transportation (yay Oyster card!)
  • The Underground (BART isn't even close to as cool and useful)
  • History and architecture

    Maggie next to WWII bomb damage to the Victoria & Albert Museum

  • Certain words and phrases: yob, "tick all the boxes", "chalk and cheese", "chocolate teapot", "Aldgate East Gyratory"
  • Constant innuendo, intentional or otherwise


  • Real ale kept at cellar temperature
  • The half pint of beer and the ability for a man to order one without being considered sissy
  • Bosphorus Kebabs (one of the oldest kebab shops in London, and the best spicy kofte kebab ever)

    Simply the best

  • London cabs and cabbies
  • Figuring out how to get from A to B in one of the world's most delightfully confusing cities
  • Tea that just seems to taste better (Do they send the crappy tea to America? Is this some sort of payback for the Boston Tea Party?)
  • Clotted cream, clotted cream, clotted cream
  • Amazing theatre
  • Museums (especially the incredible free ones)
  • Zebra, pelican, and toucan crossings (not really, we just like the names)
  • Fewer commercials on TV
  • Proximity to continental Europe
  • The Bibendum Building

    The Bibendum Building, South Kensington/Chelsea

  • The relative safety of most parts of London
  • Double-decker buses (especially the top front seats)
  • Standing below the Gherkin looking up

    St. Helen's Bishopsgate and the Gherkin

  • Graham Norton's dogs
  • All of the great people we met and befriended over the past 14 months

Things We Don't Miss About London:
  • The weather, needless to say
  • Insanely high cost of living
  • General lack of warmth on the part of the citizenry
  • Pointless mid-door doorknobs

    WTF?

  • Increased risk of electrocution
  • No power outlets in bathrooms
  • The lack of eye contact
  • Mini combined washer-dryers that take forever and wrinkle everything
  • Either ironing t-shirts after they emerge from the washer-dryer or wearing wrinkled clothes all the time

    The hateful wrinkle monster

  • That mysterious jelly layer inside of pork pies
  • Customer service (with a few notable exceptions)
  • Certain words and phrases: bikkie, brekkie, sarnie, buttie, rezzie, bap, gutted, chuffed, buggie, nappie, pram, mummie
  • Celebrity nicknames like Macca, Madge, and C-Zed-J
  • Constant use of "sorry" when no one is actually sorry
  • Most of British TV (except anything involving David Mitchell)
  • All things to do with being a pedestrian in London
  • London water (yum-yum)
  • Air quality
  • Lack of decent peanut butter
  • Mountains of disgusting soggy sandwiches
  • People eating mountains of disgusting soggy sandwiches at all hours of the day
  • Prawn cocktail potato chips (crisps), and all other meaty flavors (Roast beef and horseradish? Really?)
  • Copious public urination and vomiting (sorry, it's ugly but true)

Surprises Upon Returning to California:
  • The clean air and the smell of trees and flowers, as opposed to parks that look nice but still smell like diesel
  • Elderflower products are starting to show up in markets (hooray!)
  • Relearning the geography (how did we forget so much so quickly?)
  • No more talking on cell phones while driving
  • Amazing amount of Journey and Huey Lewis on the radio
  • How few surprises there were upon our return
Overall, we're really glad to be back home in the Bay Area, and we're gorging ourselves on our favorite foods and loving seeing all of our friends and family here. While we had a decidedly love-hate relationship with London, I can tell already that the parts we loved will be more prominent in our memories.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sailing Away

We've arrived back in California welcomed by blue skies, friends, and predictably easy access to root beer. Before we left London, we decided to give our 14 month stay in London a little symbolic closure, so we took a stroll across the river to Rotherhithe. What's so special about Rotherhithe? In August 1620 a certain notable ship left from Rotherhithe with a contract to pick up a boatload of people fleeing religious persecution and a few profit-seeking venturers in Southampton and carry them to a certain faraway shore. The ship was, of course, The Mayflower, and the faraway shore was later to become the birthplace of root beer, cranberry sauce, the corndog, and Huey Lewis.

Thames panorama from Rotherhithe extending from Shad Thames and Tower Bridge to Wapping (it gets quite a bit larger if you click on it)

The Captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, lived in Rotherhithe and was buried there only two years after the Mayflower voyage in an unmarked grave at St. Mary's Rotherhithe (the church has a very good pilgrim history page here). Today, there is relatively little left in Rotherhithe to indicate this historical departure apart from a riverside pub called The Mayflower, an engraved memorial tablet to Christopher Jones inside St. Mary's, and the occasional wandering American looking for some connection to the past.

The Mayflower Pub


Plaque on the Mayflower Pub

While Maggie and I were certainly not persecuted by the English (at least most of the time), we were, in our own way, leaving England and heading to America in search of a new start with a fair degree of uncertainty about our future, so it seemed a fitting end to our London adventure. We had one final can of root beer left in our fridge, so we snagged this and brought it along to have a mini celebration on the waterfront and raised a toast to our silly-hatted forefathers.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

All's Eel That Ends Eel

We have just a few days left in London before our move back to California, so, when we're not busy packing boxes and waiting on hold with the power company, we've been running around revisiting our favorite spots and trying to do all the things we meant to do over the past year but never got around to.

We'll soon be seeing a lot less of More London

For some unfathomable reason, I decided that it would be wrong if I left London without trying the classic East End specialty: jellied eels. Long-time blog followers will recall that I went to try eels once before just after we arrived in London, but I couldn't bring myself to eat them after seeing an order of them dished up for the man in front of me. Strike one.

Other than massive amounts of alcohol or hypnotism, I figured the only way to get myself to eat jellied eels was by means of the persuasive powers of peer pressure. I arranged to have a farewell lunch with two willing friends at Tubby Isaacs, a food stall on Goulston Street near Aldgate tube station that has been selling eels and other seafood specialties since 1919. Unfortunately, despite seeing it open every other time I had passed by, I made the mistake of scheduling the lunch on Yom Kippur, and Tubby Isaacs was closed for the day. Strike two.

The East End institution M. Manze

But all was not lost in the quest for the jellied eel. Faced with a bit of spare time on Saturday morning, and finding myself in Bermondsey after walking Maggie to her hairdresser, I decided to gather my courage and go back to M. Manze, the site of my first eel failure. Manze's is the oldest eel, pie, and mash shop in London, slopping up dishes of eels since 1892. Apart from the plastic forks and take away containers, I doubt much has changed since they started including the old-timey green lunch lady outfits that they wear behind the counter.

When I confidently ordered my meal of pie and mash with liquor (the green parsley sauce that traditionally accompanies pie and mash) along with an order of jellied eels, the woman behind the counter was apparently unconvinced by my performance.

"First time trying the jellied eels?" she asked.

"It is," I answered truthfully. "Got to be a first time for everything, right?"

"Not for me," she said with undisguised disgust, "I won't touch 'em." A glowing recommendation if I ever heard one, and yet another fine example of British customer service.

Not to be turned away, I went ahead with the order and took my bag of goodies off to a nearby park to inspect the contents. The pie and mash was as I recalled: the mash looked bad and bland but actually tasted quite good; the pie looked delicious and flaky, but was dense and flavorless with a gruesome minced beef interior; the liquor was green, starchy and did absolutely nothing to improve the pie and mash other than adding some much needed color.

Pie and Mash with Liquor

So then we come to the eels. I had been told third-hand that jellied eels are quite delicious once you get past the skin and get the meat off the bone, and this isn't far from the truth. Firstly, it should be noted that the eels are served very cold. The jelly is almost flavorless, apart from a mild fishiness that it picks up from the eels, and serves no function that I could discern other than to make it look totally unappetizing.

Jellied eels, yum-yum

The eel comes looking vaguely like a sliced banana with the peel left on. The skin is rubbery and grey-blue, and running down the center of the meat is the spine of the eel with small bones radiating off this. The trick is to get the meat into your mouth somehow without the skin and bones, which is no easy feat. I stabbed uselessly at the eel bits for a while with a plastic fork and knife and only managed to chip a few flakes of meat off into the gelatinous surroundings. On my second piece, I decided to throw caution to the wind, so I grabbed a piece with my fingers and popped it in my mouth. This worked a lot better, but you get a fishy gelatin-covered hand and a mouth full of skin and bones that you have to spit out.

Picking away at the eels

Once you do manage to get the meat off the eel, it is, despite my low expectations, not that bad. It reminded me of a canned sardine or kipper, but quite mild. Lightly fishy, salty, a bit smokey, but there was nothing unique about the flavor, and certainly nothing to make it worth the effort. As a famine food, I can kind of understand, but I can't understand why it still exits today when there are so many tastier ways to prepare eel.

The full East End spread: pie, mash, liquor, and jellied eels

After a few pieces of eel and some jelly, I decided that I had tried enough for the rest of my life and set off to find something to wash the eel flavor from my mouth. This being my last Saturday in London, I had to make one last visit to Borough Market, the high temple of London food and the perfect spot to find something far tastier than a jellied eel.

A farewell tour

The Brindisa chorizo sandwich stand at Borough Market

My final chorizo sandwich

I made sure to hit all of my favorites: a chorizo sandwich at Brindisa, the awesome little £1 creme caramels at Real France, and a coffee from Monmouth. I waved a sad farewell to Mrs. Bourne's Cheshire Cheese, the yummy raclette and cheese sandwich stand, the guy at the produce stand who was the first person to actually call me "guvna", the meaty wonderland of The Ginger Pig, and the beautiful gothic Southwark Cathedral.

Creme caramel from Real France: best way to spend £1 ever

Southwark Cathedral

The eel flavor a distant memory, and my belly full of much better food, I went back home to continue avoiding packing and cleaning. I'm definitely happy to have tried pie, mash, and jellied eels just for the London credentials and to say proudly that I've eaten them and kept them down, but I can't say that I highly recommend them to others. British food has happily moved beyond the stereotype of being bland, fatty, and questionably edible when sober, so it remains to be seen whether future generations will embrace the jellied eel (metaphorically I hope).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Moose, Reindeer, Steinbit

When we were in Norway recently, I was very tempted by the possibility of eating some of the various moose and reindeer options. Maggie, on the other hand, was not keen on the idea at all. I think moose and reindeer sound too cuddly to be food. Instead, in our quest to have authentic uniquely Norwegian food, we opted to have steinbit fish cakes for dinner, which Maggie showed in the previous post. John Arthur didn't know the word for steinbit in English, but described it as a local specialty and a very, very ugly fish. After some discussion, we decided it was probably some kind of catfish. We were wrong.

Steinbit is a type of wolffish, and John Arthur was right: wolffish are monstruously ugly. Alien erupting from abdomen ugly. So I find myself wondering, which would you rather eat, A, B, or C?

A.

B.

or C?

Let's try this again:
A.

B.

or C?

There are loads of other even more disturbing steinbit pictures on the internet if you care to look. Luckily, looks and taste aren't related, and steinbit was a very tasty fish with a creamy flavor almost like monkfish. Next time I'm eating something cuddly.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lovely Norway

Not a lot of people know that Andy and I have close relatives in Norway. Early last year when we were contemplating a move to London, we were comforted by the fact that even if we lived across the Atlantic, we would still have family nearby. My mom's half-brother John Arthur, his wife Karen and their two girls Kristine and Elin live in Bryne, a small town of about 6,000 on the southwest coast of Norway just outside of Stavanger:


Bryne (pronounced breen-uh) is surrounded by beautiful hills and farmland:



My uncle is an entrepreneur who purchased the local bowling alley (Stadion Bowling) five years ago, which at the time was barely breaking even. He has since made it into a bustling social center of the city that has a booming business for kids, teenagers and adults, and a private meeting room used by local businesses for meetings and events. It is a huge success by all accounts - the Friday night we were there was their biggest night ever - way to go John Arthur!!

John Arthur & Karen in front of Stadion Bowling


Bowling Shark 1

Bowling Shark 2

Bowling Tadpole

We went into Stavanger one afternoon to visit the Norwegian Petroleum Museum and walk around the city. Stavanger reminded us a lot of the Bay Area as it's right on the water, the air is clean, and the bay is an integral part of the city's culture. The museum turned out to be fascinating and we loved walking around the traditional neighborhoods of the city, which sat high atop the hills that led down to the water.

Looks kinda familiar...



Earlier in the 20th century, ships used to pull up right to the storefronts down on the water to unload fish and seafood, so these buildings looked pretty cool:


Speaking of food, we had a lot of fun trying Norwegian cuisine on this trip. Andy and I are both firm believers that if you travel to a foreign country you should try all the local foods (with the exception of jellied eels in England of course...). So John Arthur went out of his way to get us some traditional foods and prepare a meal on our first night. Here he is with Andy in the grocery store examining some cool things like gravlax (yum) and reindeer jerky (er...):


Norwegian seafood... yay!

That night we had fresh steinbit (aka wolffish) cakes (see picture above) with gravy which were delicious, along with steamed vegetables and salad. Surprisingly, the meal had more familiar elements than I'd expected. The same thing happened on our last afternoon, when we went to a Sunday buffet just outside of town. There was local salmon, lamb, vegetables, bread and butter... it was scrumptious and I felt right at home. I think it's in my Norwegian genes to love that kind of food. Along the same lines, apparently I've inherited something else called the 'Norwegian Arm' - i.e. the tendency to reach across the table for a particularly great looking piece of food...

Without a doubt, Norway was one of the best trips of our whole time in London, and we can't wait to go back.