Thursday, April 17, 2014

An Exciting, Limited Time Offer From Petit Bateau and Ventée-Prive!

I've mentioned before about how much I love French retailer Petit Bateau's adorable but chic line of clothes for babies and children, so I was thrilled when they invited me to their South Molton Street store yesterday to have a look at their new Spring/Summer collection for women (seriously, I don't have to consider wedging myself into another toddler dress again because I love it so much - they now make it in my size! Amaze.) and to tell me about the amazing offer they're about to run with online sale site, Ventée-Privee.

From 6 a.m. next Tuesday, April 22nd, if you sign up to join Ventée-Privee for free, you'll be able to purchase a Rosedeal voucher for £25, which will give you a value of £50 to spend online at Petit Bateau's e-boutique. C'est magnifique, non? The voucher is for a limited time only and expires on the 18th of May, so set a reminder!

It's a great way to shop for yourself any babies that might be due in the next few months as Petit Bateau have a delightful range of clothing and accessories for newborns and toddlers - it's probably the first brand I turn to when purchasing a gift for expectant (or new!) parents. In fact, we just bought some teeny tiny bodysuits for Joe and Jodi's little one, who is due to arrive any minute now!

And although the store stocks plenty of pink and blue options, I especially love Petit Bateau's range of non-gendered baby-wear in light grey and black stripes, plus lots of white (though I do often how practical white is for babies!). The cotton they use is so unbelievably soft and perfect for a baby's sensitive skin.

As we sipped pink champagne and nibbled on Laduree macarons at the in-store event last evening, I tried to contain my excitement at the new women's collection. As someone who loves her stripes and lives in Breton tees all the time, I couldn't help but gravitate towards the Breton tops and bottoms, which have been reinvented into tanks with gold button details, dresses, shorts, and more. If you're looking for *the* Breton tee to see you through spring and summer, then I highly recommend investing in one from Petit Bateau, which you can easily do by taking advantage of the Ventée-Prive Rosedeal voucher. The sleeves actually reach your wrist (whereas most other Breton tees are only a flimsy three-quarter length sleeve) so you can roll them up or push them down and the cotton is thicker and heavier - perfect for UK weather.

The collection is small but challenging to pick from as there are so many wonderful pieces for daily wear! I finally settled on a simple, roomy-fit Breton tee with bright blue stripes which I'll probably live in all summer long. Though I do feel that I also now need it in green, yellow, and navy. Plus the long-sleeved versions as well, of course. And maybe that floral dress pictured above. Slight problem.

If your spring wardrobe is in need of a spruce up, don't forget to log on to Ventée-Prive on Tuesday morning for this fabulous deal.

The Rosedeal voucher is valid from 22nd April to 18th May 2014 on the Petit Bateau website only and is available to purchase from the Ventée-Prive website (free membership required) from 6 a.m. on 22nd April.

I was hosted as a guest by Petit Bateau. All opinions are my own.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Hidden Gem: Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno, Wales

The folks over at Look Insurance have launched an interactive map of "hidden gems" across the UK and asked me to contribute (see here)! It's a great idea; particularly for those who are looking for something a little more off-the-beaten-path. And although this isn't entirely hidden, it's certainly one of my favorite places in the world: Bodysgallen Hall in Llandudno, north Wales.

The Lowdown

At first glance, it's like every other historic house that's been turned into an award-winning hotel: acres of beautiful landscaped gardens and grand, sweeping views of Snowdonia. But to me, it's so, so much more.

After all, it's where John and I spent our first weekend as a married couple after we eloped (yes, eloped!) to Llandudno two years ago. The Hall played a pivotal roll in making our wedding day absolutely perfect and since then, it's held a very special place in my heart.

Built in the 17th century (but with a 13th century tower that was once used as a lookout for the soldiers serving the English kings of Conwy - for all you history buffs), the Hall is now comprised of 15 bedrooms in the main house and 16 other cottage suites on the grounds.

The Cottages (eeee!)

John and I first stayed in the Gingerbread House (I adore that name! Can you tell?) about four years ago and fell in love with the cottage, the Hall, and its romantic grounds, which consists of both landscaped gardens and a woodland park where you can easily go for a dusk stroll (me) or enjoy a morning run (John).

Though it's a bit of a trek, you can also walk from the hotel to the small seaside town of Llandudno (where we were married) and Conwy Castle, which is really fun to explore. Or, if you're in the need of pampering, the hotel also has a small but fabulous spa, which is well equipped with a pool, jacuzzi, sauna, and steam room. I had a positively amazing Indian head massage there during our first visit and didn't want to leave!

The sweet little cottage that we were staying in was so fun to be in, we decided to order room service every night and watch TV together, snuggled up on the couch, until the early morning hours before taking a walk through the woodlands.

The Main Hall

Having a drink in the hotel bar or dinner in the main dining room is like stepping back in time: a grandfather clock chimes at each hour (or so I remember), there's a separate library for reading the paper or catching up on a favorite book, and the bar is stocked with a venerable list of whiskeys and spirits (but likewise, they won't blink if you ask for a Diet Coke with ice).

Afternoon tea is taken in the oak-paneled drawing room, where you're served wherever you'd like to be seated: whether that's next to the fireplace or next to one of the beautiful stone mullioned windows (I seriously don't even know what "mullioned" means, but I can tell you that the windows are exquisite). Fun fact: afternoon tea at Bodysgallen includes bara brith - a Welsh fruitcake, as well as traditional scones, finger sandwiches, and other sweet cakes.

And - you'll either hate this or love it - the Dining Room has a dress code. As you can tell, I happen to love this. I think dressing up for dinner (on occasion!) is so civilized and often necessary. Plus, it's fun! And the dress code isn't anything too stuffy or crazy - they simply ask you to refrain from wearing trainers (sneakers) or tracksuits (sweats) to dinner. Who shows up to a nice restaurant wearing sweats anyway?! Though I spoke before of over-indulging in the room service menu, I've eaten at both the main Dining Room and the less formal 1620 Bistro, which is equally delicious.

Service From a Bygone Era

But what I haven't mentioned, and what has probably been the most important aspect of my stays at Bodysgallen Hall, is how incredibly wonderful the staff is. From our very first visit, it was clear that we were by far the youngest guests at the historic mansion - but we received the same respectful and polite service as every other guest staying at the house that weekend (unlike other establishments we've been to and won't be returning to any time soon).

Our wedding day was made perfect by the hotel manager and staff, who did everything they could to make it special. We were greeted upon our arrival by the hotel manager, who ensured that we had our favorite Gingerbread House for our stay (as I had requested) and had champagne and a hand-written note waiting for us ahead of our arrival. I had asked the hotel if I could "borrow" a small bouquet of flowers from their grounds to take with me to the Conwy Registrar's Office for our ceremony and they had their florist prepare a bespoke bouquet for me, which was absolutely beautiful and which I still have!

On the morning of our ceremony, I was getting ready alone in the cottage, putting on my dress and doing my hair and makeup, when I heard a knock on the door: it was one of the porters, who handed me a gift-wrapped box from Links of London containing a pair of pearl earrings that John had arranged to be delivered to me that morning while he went for a run. So sweet!

Though our stay that weekend was incredibly short, I'll never forget how kindly we were treated. And when I squeeze my eyes shut to travel to one of my few "happy places" in the world, Bodysgallen Hall is always on the list.

This is my hidden gem, and one that I think you should definitely visit.

All photos courtesy of the Bodysgallen Hall website.

My Favorite Japanese Restaurant in London: Zen Mondo @ Upper Street, Islington

One of my newest favorite restaurants is not a Michelin-starred, frequently reviewed, gastronomic paradise with a 3-month waiting list, but rather a small, unassuming Japanese restaurant called Zen Mondo - located at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it location on Angel's Upper Street.

Being from the Pacific Northwest where Japanese restaurants are held to a very, very high standard, I'm always dubious about the Japanese restaurants in London. If they're not extremely overpriced or actually Korean-owned - which is totally fine, but obviously not authentic - then they use less-than-fresh ingredients, which makes me lose my appetite as soon as I see the raw tuna bleeding into the rice surrounding my maki roll (obviously traumatized by that experience at a different Japanese eatery in Angel). Sometimes, I just want home-cooked Japanese dishes with clean flavors and a simple menu, like my favorite family-owned Japanese restaurant back home.

So I was skeptical to say the least when we walked past Zen Mondo and peered at their menu from the sidewalk, which proudly advertised the claim that they are the "only restaurant in the area that has as Japanese owner and chefs". After a few moments of indecision, we decided to give it a whirl and I am so glad that we did.

The menu at Zen Mondo, while not extensive, focuses on a few delicious, but simple, home-cooked Japanese dishes such as udon (with a choice of white or buck-wheat noodles), sukiyaki nabe (hot pot), tonkotsu, tempura, and of course, sushi and sashimi. For those dining between 6-7:30 p.m. the restaurant also offers a four course pre-theatre menu for around £15, which includes an amouse bouche that's specially prepared by the chef according to the fresh ingredients of the day, a starter, a main, and a choice of two (yes, two!) desserts. Absolutely bargain-ous.

Though it was our second visit to Zen Mondo last night, John and I still went for the set menu, though subsequently had a severe case of food envy when the table next to ours had their seafood nabe served in a beautiful stone pot bubbling with hot broth. Sigh.

To start, we both had the salmon and tuna nigiri (which was melt-in-the-mouth divine). For our main courses, John had the (lightly) fried chicken with a cabbage salad dressed with a light soy and ginger dressing and I had the grilled mackerel in miso with cooked daikon - a type of radish that is commonly used in Asian cooking (and one that I really miss the taste of!). Both dishes were served with two bowls of white, slightly sticky rice.

When I taste the food at Zen Mondo, it reminds me of home - though the flavors and ingredients of Japanese cuisine are different to Chinese cooking, the style of cooking is similar to my mom's healthy and delicious dishes. The experience of eating at Zen Mondo is similar to dining in someone's kitchen, rather than at a restaurant. The flavors are very clean and the ingredients taste fresh and healthy. Seasoning is hardly ever more than a dash of soy, miso, and ginger - and yet, not one dish tastes the same.

And finally for dessert, John had green tea ice cream and chocolate cake, while I chose green tea ice cream (I had serious food envy when John ordered it last time!) and a lychee granita. So delicious and the perfect way to end a perfect Sunday dinner.

If you're around Islington, I'd highly recommend dropping in to Zen Mondo for lunch or dinner. The staff is particularly lovely and the environment, as John described it, is like "an oasis of calm" away from the rabble of busy Upper Street.

On our next visit, we're steering clear of the set menu and ordering a blow-out sushi feast. We think.

Cherry Blossom Jackpot

Happy Monday! How was your weekend? I'm really happy because it's a four-day week this week AND next week, due to the Easter Bank Holiday. We're spoiled by the number of Bank Holidays we have in the UK in the spring and summer, with two in May and one more in August. We're off to Amsterdam this weekend but until then, I'm enjoying the sunshine in London and the spring blooms.

I've been so jealous of everyone's gorgeous photos of pink cherry blossom trees on Instagram and was getting grumpier by the second that I hadn't seen any good ones in Islington yet (Hackney had loads when we ran up to London Fields this weekend - well, John ran, I jogged breathlessly behind him like a retired donkey).

But when we were looking at some potential houses this weekend (didn't see any we liked, btw) in Greenwich, I hit the cherry blossom jackpot.

Pink confetti everywhere! Unfortunately, every photo I took of the actual trees was marred by cars and buildings in the background, so I gave up and just started snapping away at the beautiful pink collection of petals that fell onto the sidewalks. Most homeowners had jaw-droppingly gorgeous rose bushes that were also in bloom in shades like bright pink or vibrant red, which made for a lovely contrast with the pale pink blossom petals.

I love cherry blossom trees because they remind me of the one we have at the end of our driveway in Washington. Each spring, the breeze would cause the petals to drop and make a beautiful array of confetti on the gravel, welcoming me home from school every afternoon.

I know that spring in London can also bring on unwanted pests like clothes moths and hayfever, but at the same time, it's lovely just to look up and see these beautiful pink clouds of blossoms slowly shedding their petals.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber "A Tale of Two Cellos" @ Rhinegold LIVE, Conway Hall

Last week, I was really spoiled: on Tuesday, I saw Joshua Bell and Murray Perahia perform at The Royal Festival Hall with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields as part of Sir Neville Marriner's 90th birthday celebrations and on Thursday, I had the great privilege of seeing two of my favorite cellists, Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, give an intimate recital at Conway Hall as part of Rhinegold LIVE's free (yes, I said free!) concert series.

Though I was super excited to go to both concerts, one of the downsides of living in London is that these kinds of occurrences no longer faze me. Oh, another concert with a world-famous pianist? Wait, how far is it from work? A ten-minute walk? Okay, I guess I'll buy a ticket. In contrast, these sorts of opportunities in Seattle are really once-in-a-lifetime chances. I've mentioned it before on this blog, but tickets for the arts tend to be super expensive in the US and you don't get very many big names passing through often. It's great because it means you'll be supporting local artists (and there are some fantastic ones, sure), but it can also be quite limiting.

But as a further encouragement for me to attend more concerts in London, Rhinegold Publishing has recently launched Rhinegold LIVE: a new series of free, "rush-hour" concerts taking place at Conway Hall (just a stone's throw away from my office) with an informal Q&A session at the end with the artists and a complimentary drinks reception before. Oh so civilized and oh so amazing in every way possible. They intend to organize six concerts throughout the year featuring a range of musicians: from those who are world-famous to those who are just starting out in their careers. Each artist will be hand-picked by an editor of a Rhinegold Publishing magazine. All events are ticketed, but they're easy to book (though you'll need to be quick!) via an online form on Rhinegold's website.

I first saw Julian Lloyd Webber in concert when he performed a fantastic solo recital at Cadogan Hall four years ago. My mom was over for her first visit to London and I bought tickets purely based on the fact that she had just accompanied one of the pieces on the program, Fauré's beautiful but haunting Elegie. I remember being completely captivated by his performance and simultaneously grateful for his informative commentary on each piece, which he gave from the stage.

His performance at Conway Hall, with his wife (and equally accomplished cellist) Jiaxin and the brilliant accompanist Pam Chowhan, was equally good. More than good - it was wonderful. The program consisted of pieces from the Lloyd Webbers' latest album: a collection of cello duets arranged by Julian Lloyd Webber himself. It features pieces arranged for two cellos such as Shostakovich's Prelude from 'The Gadfly' as well as compositions by Quilter, Purcell, Rachmaninov, Rubenstein, and Piazzolla.

I'm very rarely moved to tears by music, but the Prelude from 'The Gadfly' was absolutely sublime, as was Piazzolla's 'The Little Beggar Boy (Chiquilin de Bachin)'. The performance, which lasted for approximately an hour with a Q&A at the end with the musicians, seemed to fly by. I glanced at the faces of a few other audience members during the concert and their expressions seemed to reflect my thoughts: that we were all very privileged that evening to witness such a rare and special performance. A good dose of humor was injected into the concert as well, with the Lloyd Webbers trading instruments at one point, and then feigning sleep during a particularly lulling adaptation of Pärt's Estonian Lullaby.

Afterward, I ordered the Tale of Two Cellos CD on Amazon and had it shipped to my mom, purchasing the MP3 version on my phone for myself. Again, I rarely do this after a performance, but I loved the pieces too much not to! I'd highly encourage you to buy it as well.

There's nothing like hearing classical music performed live (though John may beg to differ, as I once caught him quietly extracting a copy of The Economist from his bag and slowly turning the pages when I took him to see Emanuel Ax perform) and I hope that this concert series will encourage those who might not necessarily attend classical music concerts for various reasons (e.g. being put off by ticket prices, being intimidated by a large concert hall environment, etc.) to give it a try. Having said that, I hope that throughout the year, Rhinegold LIVE will advertise this series more widely and to as large an audience as possible. I only heard about it through a co-worker who happened to know one of the editors at Rhinegold Publishing.

During the Q&A session, Julian Lloyd Webber made a brief reference to the music education reform that is desperately needed in this country, which I (along with many others) enthusiastically applauded. I know how important my musical upbringing has played in my life today. I'm so lucky to enjoy classical music concerts and to continue to play with a fantastic London orchestra (albeit on a non-professional basis) because of this. I strongly believe that all children should have access to free music lessons at an early age as part of their school curriculum and that this should continue throughout their entire educational career. Although the music education program that we have in the US could always be improved, I will be forever grateful to have had that opportunity to pick up a violin, a viola, and a cello for the first time when I was in the fifth grade, which led me to later becoming the concertmistress of my high school, then university, symphony orchestras.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Delicious Dips

I am the worst for eating healthily. The worst! I snack constantly; I eat out too much; I have a sweet tooth; I don't eat enough fruits and vegetables ... the list goes on and on. I know I need to watch what I eat a lot more than I do, especially since my family has a history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

I'm actually getting a little better at snacking on things like nuts and raisins at work versus cookies and other sweet things. Recently, I made a fantastic discovery at the Sainsbury's near my office: their beetroot and sesame dip. I bet this is super unhealthy as well, but dunking a Ryvita multi-seed flatbread thin into this divine dip is the tastiest mid-morning snack. For me, the fact that it's a savory versus sweet snack is already a huge improvement.

Do you get the munchies throughout the day? What do you snack on at work?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Books I Bought This Week

It's FRIDAY. How in the world did that happen?

This week, I bought two books. Two whole books! Since I work in book publishing, you'd think that I'm a book-buying addict; that I visit bookshops in my spare time and attend all sorts of bookish events; that I read non-stop no matter what method of transport I'm on ... WRONG.

I'm an imposter, a fraud. All the books on my shelf were those that I had acquired for free during my Penguin Books days and, while you couldn't tear me away from books as a child, you'll be hard-pressed to find me reading one today. I joined one bookclub, which quickly dissolved, then joined another, which also eventually petered out ... you get the picture.

Don't get me wrong - obviously, I love books! It's just hard to find a) a good book and b) time to read it properly. My life is full of constant interruptions (and I don't even have children!), distractions, and noise. My idea of a treat is shutting myself in a bedroom with lots of natural light, snuggling down into the covers, and having a good 2-hour chunk of time to read a book ... after which I fall asleep for a long, luxurious nap. Maybe this weekend.


This week, a co-worker forwarded a link to the Telegraph's recent review of Rebecca Tuite's book, Seven Sisters Style and I bought it - right then and there.

As a Seven Sisters alum, how could I resist? ICYDK, the "Seven Sisters" refers to the seven, (majority) women-only liberal arts colleges that were founded to provide educational opportunities for women around the same time that the Ivy League colleges were founded. These are: Mount Holyoke (my alma mater!), Vassar (now co-ed), Wellesley, Smith (boo!!! No, just kidding, Smithies!), Radcliffe (now a part of Harvard and therefore co-ed), Bryn Mawr, and Barnard.

Back in Small Town, USA, where I'm from, the idea of attending a women's college seemed as alien as ... oh, I don't know ... moving to London, England, perhaps. This book is an in-depth look at how the "all-American preppy look" was developed and fostered at the Seven Sisters colleges. If anything, it provides a fascinating glimpse of the styles that evolved from these single-sex educational institutions, which then went on to influence Hollywood and inspire American designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.

Of course, the Seven Sisters students were much more elegant than we were back then: yes, some of us wore popped collars on campus, with a single strand of pearls and that unmistakeable Tiffany's chain-link, heart-charm bracelet given to girls on their 16th birthday. Those who studied abroad in Europe came back as proud owners of large Longchamp Le Pliage totes, which they used to stuff papers and books in until the corners frayed. But others fell into the "sloppy dressing" category because ... who cared? Some of us also wore pajamas and sweats to lectures, lab, lunch, the library, exams, etc.

I fell in between these two camps. I was still developing my personal "style" while at Mount Holyoke, and was just as quick to pluck a scarf from the "free bin" in the laundry room of Buckland and fashion it around my head as a bandana, as I was to get my initials monogrammed on an L.L. Bean canvas tote bag and proudly carry it around campus (until I realized I looked like an idiot, which only took about two weeks).

Regardless of how I dressed, or how my classmates dressed, Seven Sisters Style is a wonderful read, and one that I know I'll continue to dip in and out of as my reunion years come and go.

The second book I purchased was not for myself, but for my Dad, who is a huge fan of Fabrice Moireau's beautiful watercolors, which appear in a series of "sketchbooks" published by Editions Didier Millet.

This one, Rooftops of Paris, was initially hard to find: I could only locate a copy for over £400 on Amazon! Luckily, I'd been in touch with the Sales Director of EDM before, so I emailed him and he kindly told me that it'd be in stock again soon for a much more reasonable price.

The rooftops of Paris are extraordinary. I think that Paris has the most romantic cityscape in the world and that its rooftops are the key to this.

Rooftops of Paris arrived today and, while extracting it from the packaging, I thought to myself, "Why don't I have this book?" So I'll be getting this for myself, as well as the rest in Fabrice Moireau's sketchbook series (he's done Venice and Paris, to name a few), because they are - simply put - beautiful books.

One thing I've realized is that I'm surrounded by beautiful books every day, and yet I never think to stop and enjoy them myself. If I worked in any other industry, I'd probably appreciate them even more. So I'm resolving to stop taking books for granted and perhaps even allocate a bit of my clothing budget to some gorgeous coffee table tomes.

I mean, I'll try. I said "perhaps", after all ...