Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hot Dogs and Prosecco at The Delaunay Because We Want To


Yesterday, we met Joe, Jodi, and their sweetie-pie of a baby girl, Elizabeth, at The Delaunay for brunch. When we got there, I realized that I didn't feel like having any of the "typical" brunch options, even though they all sounded amazing (in particular, the "Viennese Breakfast" was tempting: smoked ham, salami, artisan Gouda, boiled egg, and a pretzel). Actually, I wanted a hot dog and fries (and, as it turned out, so did John and Jodi - Joe opted for a lobster roll). And, even though it was only 11:30, we wanted some prosecco.

So we ordered a bottle.

When our hot dogs and side of green beans arrived, we all dug in with our hands (including the beans, which we picked at, one strand at a time) even though we'd been provided with an appropriate hot-dog slicing knife and cutlery. Call us barbaric, but you can't name an item on the menu "New York hot dog" and expect us to eat it daintily with a knife and fork!

But this is one of the reasons why I love The Delaunay: no one blinks an eye. It's an elegant restaurant in a fabulous location (we once sat at the table next to author Hilary Mantel - the play, Wolf Hall, based on her book of the same name, was being performed next door at Aldwych Theatre). But it's certainly not pretentious - you can easily order half a dozen Jersey rock oysters or chicken noodle soup. It's a place where I feel like I can be myself. I've been for dinner and afternoon tea as well, and enjoyed each occasion. Service is courteous and friendly, and there's a great, buzzing atmosphere. Plus, the dining room is beautiful - we talked about how we could easily spend a whole day there (though I'm not sure how much the staff would love having us there!), enjoying a leisurely breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

We finished up our unconventional brunch with warm apple, marzipan and poppy seed strudel with vanilla ice cream before heading off to Covent Garden in search of some (early) Christmas presents.

Next time you're in the West End, I'd highly recommend stopping into The Delaunay (or even The Delaunay Counter - a more laid-back version of the restaurant - for tea and cake next door) for a pink grapefruit ... or sea bass. The menu is your oyster (pun intended!).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

London, You Ruin My Shoes


There are times when I hate London. There are instances when I curse it under my breath, and then there are times when I scream about it on the street. Usually, it's when I'm carrying two bags of groceries from Sainsbury's on my way home from work and it's dark and wet outside, my hair's sticking to my face because of the wind, three completely full 38 buses pass me without stopping because, well, they're completely full, and this results in perfectly reasonable grown-ups pushing and shoving like a group of pre-schoolers when a half-full 38 finally arrives after 15 minutes of patiently waiting.

Most recently? I've hated London for ruining every single pair of nice shoes I've ever owned, including this pretty pair above - which I only purchased a few weeks ago during my trip to New York. Repeated trip-ups on uneven sidewalks have resulted in not only stubbed toes and a lot of swearing (I'm swearing like a sailor these days), but scuffing on the beloved gold detail of these perfectly good loafers (btw, New York was like sidewalk paradise - no raised ridges that seem to catch you up on purpose and then silently cackle with an evil laugh when you nearly fall on your face because you didn't lift your leg like a ridiculous, marching soldier).

The cobbler knows me by name now.

When they see me, my parents (especially my mom) constantly bemoan the state of my shoes, simply because they're not used to seeing well-worn shoes. Of course, there's not a lot of scuffing that can happen between walking from a building through a parking lot to your car, where I'm from. But in London, even a short, 8-minute walk to the bus stop can result in trips, scuffs, and - if you're not careful during wet weather - an entire shoe being drenched in a muddy puddle. Not to mention all the fabulous dog owners who don't clean up after their dogs and seem to pick equally fabulous dark (I kid you not), shadowy spots on purpose for their dogs to shit in once night falls.

It's gotten to the point now that when I overhear tourists saying, "Oh look, how cute - COBBLESTONES!" I start laughing maniacally because I hate cobblestones so damn much. Cute on a postcard, not cute when you're trying to navigate slippery stones and your bus has just whizzed past in front of your eyes.

I see you, rolling your eyes at me. "Why don't you just wear a pair of shoes to walk in, like, sneakers and then change them when you get to work?" you ask. Oh, yes. I do that too. I'm the master of surreptitiously side-stepping into a dark corner and swiftly slipping off my heels into a pair of flip-flops or New Balances. But sometimes it isn't convenient to carry two pairs of shoes with you at all times, and sometimes I just want to wear my nice shoes out - because they're nice to look at.

What are your commuting woes? Do concrete sidewalk gremlins also lurk in your path, or is it just me?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stamp Collection


Happy Monday! How was your weekend? We had a quiet one but still managed to socialize with some friends, which was nice. On Sunday, we went to this production of Shakespeare's Henry V at The Proud Archivist. I was totally skeptical before we arrived, but once we got into the swing of thigns, I ended up really enjoying it.

I just wanted to share with you these beautiful stamps I received this morning from a publisher I work with in Singapore, which brought back a huge sense of nostalgia for me. I especially love the "Vanishing Trades" stamps on the left, featuring a cobbler and a goldsmith.

Did you (or do you) collect stamps? I did. I took it quite seriously! I remember cutting out stamps from my mom and dad's mail and soaking them in water for days (to get the adhesive off) and pressing them between heavy books after they were dry so that they'd lay flat.

For Christmas one year, I asked for a proper stamp album and my dad bought me a beautiful hardback book with delicate rows of transparent sleeves to slip my stamps in (that's one thing I loved about my parents: they always took my requests seriously!). I'd spend days in my room, obsessively arranging and rearranging the stamps by country, color, and size. My mom would buy me collector's editions from the local post office, which I also loved, but they weren't as special to me as the ones I "discovered" myself.

Looking back, I think that collecting stamps was my way of (figuratively) traveling the world. I loved collecting stamps from Europe and countries like Finland, Estonia, or further afield. I stared long and hard at each of the stamps, looking at the pictures within them and wondering what life was like in that place. Most of all, I just marvelled that a stamp traveled all that way around the world and eventually made its way to me, sitting in my little room in Small Town, USA.

I think I'll save these stamps from Singapore and add them to my collection back home when I visit during Christmas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lulu Guinness for Uniqlo: Help Me Decide!


Happy Friday and TGIF, indeed! I'm absolutely in love with these sweatshirts by Lulu Guinness for for Uniqlo. The problem is, I can't decide which one(s) to buy! They're an online exclusive only, otherwise I'd try them on in store.

Help me decide? I'm veering towards the car and the burgundy eyes, but I asked for a vote on Instagram and the hearts/lips/stripes is winning so far.

Let me know your thoughts! (At £19.90, they're kind of a steal!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Agriturismo Stay at Masseria Susafa, Sicily


Would you ever consider an agritourism (farm) stay on your next holiday or vacation? We did it in Sicily and it was one of the best travel experiences I've ever had. Masseria Susafa is a farm house located deep in the Sicilian countryside (near Polizzi Generosa) owned and run by the Saeli-Rizzuto family for over five generations. Today, it functions as a hotel with 13 rooms and a restaurant, plus plenty of places to lounge around and relax, including a gorgeous pool (for unbearably hot weather) and a wine bar converted from the original millstone (where wine was produced) for cooler days.

I know, I know, stifle your laughter: I'm the last person you'd expect to see communing with pigs (my idea of hiking attire consists of Steve Madden rain boots with contrasting zips and a Tommy Hilfiger trench - neither of which are waterproof or slip-proof for walking up hills, for that matter - topped with an oversized pair of Michael Kors sunglasses), but there they were: sniffing around our car when we arrived.


We were lucky: the other agriturismo resorts were fully booked by the time we decided we wanted to escape the over-populated, touristy avenues of Taormina and stay in the country somewhere. At the final hour (literally, around 11 p.m. before the day we left Taormina), I stumbled upon this Telegraph review of Masseria Susafa and saw that they had one room left. I snapped it up. At £90 per night, it was considerably cheaper than our previous stays in Syracuse and Taormina.

Not to mention, it had a pretty magnificent (but freezing cold!) pool, with panoramic views of the Sicilian countryside.


In the summer and fall, the rolling hills are barren and dry. But in the spring (around May, we were told), everything turns green again and you're guaranteed green pastures of epic Teletubby proportions (as to why that's the first thing I think of when I think of green rolling hills, I have no idea).

The drive there can be a little tricky: our TomTom was quite old, so the map didn't recognize the address. Luckily, we had an iPhone with free data, so Google Maps helped us out on the last 10k or so. I'd read on a few Tripadvisor reviews that the final 4k stretch to the hotel was a little harrowing, due to the condition of the roads. They were basically fine, except for quite a few large and very deep pot-holes, or what John dubbed as "major bottoming-out territory". 

But once we arrived, we were stunned by the majestic scenery that surrounded us - it's just so breathtakingly beautiful. Hills and valleys can be seen for miles and miles, with clouds settling in some of the valleys early in the morning. When the clouds roll in at desk, creating a thick, foggy mist, you're unable to see anything beyond the farm for a while until it clears.


The hotel's rooftop terrace was an incredible place to soak up all the views and relax with a glass of wine and a book. The only sounds I could hear up there were the low, musical jangles of the cowbells of the cows grazing below. At night, it was completely silent, which took some getting used to coming from London!


The rooms are rustic charm at its best: decorated simply but beautifully, with beds made with tightly tucked corners and original dark, wooden beams angled from the ceiling above. Doors to each room were left open during the day (if you wished) separated from the outdoors by a light curtain blowing gently in the breeze to let just the right amount of sunlight in.

But where Masseria Susafa truly shines is at its restaurant. Housed in what used to be the farm's granary, service at "Il Granaio" is headed up by a superb and friendly small team, with a kindly, older lady who only spoke Italian and whom I absolutely adored (mostly because she once intuited that I wanted more of the insanely delicious bread and rattled off something in Italian, of which I only caught the word pane, and nodded my head vigorously to in response).


Dishes are prepared using produce grown either on-site or locally and, of course, made with Susafa's biological extra virgin olive oil (yes, it has its own website). Menu prices are very reasonable (between £9 - £12 for a primi course and slightly more for a secondi, as I recall) and the food is just ... delicious. Easily the best we'd had on the entire trip.


This salad of nectarine, toasted pine nuts, salami, raisin, and rocket (or arugula, for my fellow Americans) drizzled with a honey and balsamic dressing was divine. On our second night of dining there, I loved the fresh tagliatelle and ragu dish I had the night before so much, I ordered it again (I know, so unoriginal, but I just had to!).

During the day, we read by the pool or took long walks in the neighboring countryside (though I got super creeped out by something I termed the "zombie house" - ask me about that at some point!). Well, we tried to take long walks. John's idea of a "walk" was charging up a steep and prickly hill while I shouted at him from below, enraged, "This isn't a WALK; this is, like, fucking STAIRMASTER!" I'm rude like that. Also: there were a lot of flies. Everywhere.

But these were the views we had when we got to the top:



Pretty worth the trek, even though I sulked and stomped around practically the whole way up. We had lovely weather for the majority of our stay, until it started raining when we left - perfect timing, really.

When it was time to go, I felt so sad! I loved the peaceful tranquility of Masseria Susafa, but what I loved even more was the downright honest and genuine hospitality we were shown during our stay - something that seemed to be missing from our prior visits to Syracuse and Taormina.

We hope to return in the spring, when the hills are like Teletubby-land, but I'm not sure how likely that is to happen. I'd love to take my dad with us next time, as he'd absolutely love it there. 

What do you think? Would you stay here?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sicily


Buongiorno! We've just returned from an absolutely magical week away in Sicily - we had an amazing time. Have you been? It was our first, "proper" vacation together this year, believe it or not, and I'd been so looking forward to it. We flew into Comiso and rented a car, touring the Ionian coast before embarking on an agriturismo (farm-stay) at a beautiful resort in Central Sicily and spending our final evening in the pretty, awe-inspiring hillside town of Modica.

Here are the highlights, if you'd like to see!


I'm a huge beach bum when it comes to vacations - are you? My favorite holidays are probably the beach-oriented trips we took to Santorini, Thailand, and Vietnam. I love falling asleep in the sun and triumphantly peeling off my swimsuit to reveal tan lines at the end of the day!

Our first stop in Sicily was Syracuse, which is composed of two parts: the mainland and Ortigia, the historical centre of Syracuse. We stayed at the gorgeous Musciara Siracusa Resort, which had its own private beach with dreamy furnishings like the veranda above and the comfiest beach-side pillows ever.

The first thing I did when we arrived was ...


... order a huge bowl of spaghetti alle vongele. How could I resist? I was in Sicily! The clams were sweet and delicious and the tomatoes were out of this world. Cooked simply with a few ingredients (garlic, white wine, clams, parsley, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil), spaghetti alle vongele is one of my favorite dishes.


Afterwards, we strolled into Ortigia and got (intentionally) lost in the maze of alleyways that opened up into courtyards like the one above, until an elderly Sicilian lady came out from behind a laundry line to point us in the right direction. "Grazie!" we shouted over our shoulders as we found our way out. "Prego!" came the immediate response. I was charmed.

We continued walking until we reached the Piazza Duomo and found the Fountain of Diana at the Piazza Archimede, which looked spectacular in the sun.


By then, I was getting a little hot and bothered (it was gloriously sunny!), so we stopped for some gelato. I'd read on a blog before our trip that Sicilians often liked to enjoy their gelato sandwiched in warm brioche - for breakfast! I couldn't believe it, but when I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to try it.


Let me tell you: it was the most delicious ice cream sandwich I've ever had. The gelato was pistachio with melted dark chocolate and the brioch was warm, sweet, a little sticky, and very chewy. John had serious food envy, but he helped me finish it in between licks of his own gelato cone.

After another night's stay in Syracuse, we headed off to Taormina, on Sicily's east coast.


Can I just say? John is fantastic at driving in other countries (actually, he's just a great driver in general). He kept a cool head even when cars behind us practically leapt into our exhaust pipe and drove at inexplicably high speeds or when an exit turned out to be an abrupt right turn off a major freeway. I tend to hyperventilate when I can't set the GPS correctly.


In Taormina, we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Villa Belvedere, a grand hotel built in 1902 with magnificent views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Naxos. Also, their pool had a 100-year-old palm tree growing from an island in the middle of it - how amazing is that? I spent a lot of time floating on my back, looking up at the palm trees and the clear, blue sky.

The next morning, we got up and (literally) ran to the Teatro Greco, an ancient Greek theatre, before the busloads of tourists and cruise groups could descend. And I'm so glad we did. This was the view when we ran to the top of the amphitheatre:


Breathtaking, isn't it? Especially with Mt. Etna looming in the background. Could you imagine watching a performance here (sadly, no events were taking place during our visit, otherwise we would have gotten tickets!) with the sun setting? Just incredible. It's one of my favorite memories of the trip.


From there, we hiked 5k up to Castelmola - a village built around a ruined castle near one of those peaks you see in the photo above. (Side note: J. Crew, Gap, New Balance, and Longchamp are not appropriate attire to hike up a rugged mountainside. Not really.)


We found this empty, quiet little church near the top - the view was breathtaking.


And rewarded ourselves with a glass of granita limone - a refreshing, lemon-flavored shaved ice dessert that made our hot trek to the top worth it!

That night, as we walked back to Hotel Villa Belvedere after another delicious meal, we couldn't decide where to go next in our trip. We hadn't booked anything for the Thursday or Friday before we left, preferring to leave those days free so we could decide closer to the time. Initially, this put me in a bit of a panic (I'm a planner and a control-freak), but I could see why it was a brilliant idea on John's part: this way, we could go with what we felt like and not be committed to a particular place just because we had booked it in advance! I'm really getting the hang of this last-minute thing ...

We knew we wanted to stay in the countryside somewhere but ... where? The places we had researched before we left were now fully booked. I started to panic a little. Taormina was nice, but just too touristy - I couldn't imagine staying for another day, let alone two. I also wanted a break from the hustle and bustle of cities and towns. Finally, I stumbled upon a review of Masseria Susafa, an agriturismo resort in Central Sicily, near Polizzi Generosa. The next day, while sitting by the pool, I booked it!


When we arrived, I couldn't believe how picturesque it was: butterflies and bees fed on the lavender bushes by the rooms, which were originally farmers' houses, now converted into individual hotel rooms with comfy, rustic, farmhouse charm. I don't want to post too much here as I'd love to write a separate post about our stay. It was really incredible and I'd highly recommend you try an agriturismo stay if you're travelling through Sicily.

After two nights of the best food we'd had on the trip so far and the tranquil surroundings of Masseria Susafa, we regretfully packed up our bags and left for Modica. It rained to match my mood as I was so sad to leave the farm!

Funny story: on our way to Modica, I really, really, really needed to use the bathroom. I regretted having that cup of coffee and juice at breakfast. "It's only an hour to our next stop," said John. "Do you think you could wait that long?" I nodded bravely, but it soon became clear that he'd have to pull over - like, immediately. So we found a little lay-by (not a rest area!) where a very British-looking older couple had also pulled over to consult a map. Without a glance in their direction, I tore off towards a bush, which I swear had been designed for such pit-stop emergencies (it was a good height and perfectly angled away from the road). Desperate times.



To cut up the journey to Modica a bit, we stopped off to see the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman villa constructed in the 4th century. Although the pathways were pretty heavily blocked by large tour groups, we still caught some excellent glimpses of the intricate mosaics that lined the floors of the villa. My favorites were the "bikini girls", who are depicted playing sports such as discus and weight-lifting (those dumbbells ... I die). Nice abs, right?

By the time we arrived in Modica, it had stopped raining and the sun started to peek out of the clouds. We stayed at an Airbnb which was delightful and centrally located on the main street in Modica's Old Town, Corso Umberto I.

The sweeping, panoramic views of the rooftops in Modica were utterly breathtaking.



This is what both John and I had envisioned Sicily to be like, so we were caught off guard when we arrived in the modern, busy cities of Syracuse and Taormina. In contrast, this lively hillside town had an air of sophistication and character, both which really came out at night when people emerged for their evening stroll (the passagiata) before mealtime.



And dinner is late! We tried to make a reservation for dinner at 7 pm in Taormina and the concierge at our hotel apologetically told us that it was a bit early ... 8 pm is the typically the earliest that most restaurants open and most Sicilians don't eat until 9 pm. I was stifling my yawns in this sweet little Modica restaurant when a baby in its stroller was brought in, followed by a 3-year-old and his parents. The 3-year-old sat quietly in a grown-up chair while his parents carefully considered the wine menu in silence! I was super impressed.


Modica was so pretty and charming - I wish we had another day there to ourselves, but unfortunately, we had to fly back to London early the next morning.

Before we went, I snapped a few more photos:


The door and shutters of the houses and apartments in Modica are just phenomenal; they're, like, real versions of those imitations you find in so-called "shabby chic" furniture stores. I couldn't get enough of the intricate wood carvings and detailed brass door-knockers. And the colours of the walls made the whole city look as though it had an Instagram filter applied to it - all light, sandy browns, warm rose-gold tones, and sea-foam greens. Just gorgeous.


Cats. Were. Everywhere.

So, that's it really. If you're planning a trip to Sicily, let me know! And if you've been before, tell me where you went!

Thanks so much for reading, and, ciao!

Kanada-Ya Ramen Bar, St. Giles


Yesterday, I had a serious case of the post-holiday grumps: we'd just returned from a fantastic trip to Sicily the day before, my tan was just starting to fade, and it was cold in London. And raining. Hard. And I'd left my favorite umbrella behind in New York somewhere. Sigh.

Luckily, my friend Laura suggested we meet for lunch at Kanada-Ya - a new(ish) ramen bar that recently opened in St. Giles. Shivering at my chilly, office desk (I was so cold at one point, the top of my thumb went numb - I kid you not), I couldn't think of anything I wanted more than a hot bowl of Japanese ramen noodles, topped with thin slices of pork belly and a beautiful golden egg.

The first thing that struck me about Kanada-Ya is just how small and no-nonsense it is - this is a ramen bar at its simplest. Grab a stool from one of the long, shared tables, select your choices from a menu by checking the appropriate boxes (extra egg? Spicy miso? Extra noodles?), and wait for a fragrant bowl of tonkotsu broth to appear before your face before slurping it up quickly, noisily, and leaving.

When we arrived for lunch, the windows had properly steamed up and we entered a heavenly ramen sauna. If you get there at 12:45 pm, you just might beat the lunch time rush. After 1 pm? No such luck. But the turnover is fast, so if you don't mind waiting at the door for a while, you'll eventually get a seat (if you're shy about splashing soup at strangers, I recommend going with a friend instead, who may or may not judge you for inadvertently doing so).

Both Laura and I opted for the "Original" ramen: 18-hour pork bone broth with pork belly, wood ear fungus (if you're unfamiliar, don't freak out, it's like a mushroom and is damn tasty), an artfully placed slice of nori and a handful of spring onion. I added a Hanjuku egg to mine for an extra £1.80 and Laura chose black garlic sauce for an additional £1.00.

As far as I'm aware, Kanada-Ya has been the first ramen bar to ask how I'd like my noodles cooked: soft, "regular", firm, or extra firm. I went with "regular", which was perfectly al dente. Personally, I prefer the slightly chewier texture and wider, made-on-the-premises noodles at Tonkotsu East, but the tonkotsu broth at Kanada-Ya was to-die-for. Lip-smackingly rich but not overseasoned, the milky, aromatic soup was just the antidote needed for my dismally grey return to London. 

Some high-tech filming for what appeared to be a Japanese TV program was going on while Laura and I were there - the cameraman seemed intent on catching both of us at our most inelegant moments. Oh well, I don't think there's an elegant way to slurp ramen. Is there?