Friday, October 24, 2014

#ZomatoMeetUp @ Pont St, With Executive Chef Sophie Michell

I've been so excited to share this with you! Last night, I was treated (along with 19 other bloggers) to an extravagant foodie-focused evening at Pont St restaurant in the heart of Belgravia as part of Zomato's #ZomatoMeetUp - a chance for food-obsessed bloggers to meet, eat, and talk all things food related. And thankfully, I'd recovered from my cold enough to regain my sense of taste so I could enjoy all the ah-mazing food and drinks (otherwise I would have probably cried).

Upon arrival, we were served two delicious cocktails from Pont St's bar, a Lavender Mogul and Winter Alexander, before being whisked off to the kitchen below for a demonstration by the restaurant's Executive Chef, Sophie Michell - currently the UK's youngest female Executive Chef. Aside from running The Gorgeous Kitchen at Heathrow's Terminal 2 and penning three successful cookery books, Sophie has also served as private chef to Claudia Schiffer and Leonardo Di Caprio. NBD, then.

Downstairs, Sophie described the process she uses to make her pasta dough, before hand rolling it out (with a few eager assistants - I stook in the back, mute and dumb at the sheer novelty factor of it all) into paper thin sheets and deftly spooning in some butternet squash filling to make perfectly formed ravioli, accompanied by the sound of 20 SLRs and camera phones snapping away.

Afterwards, we headed back upstairs to our table, where Alexandra (Zomato Community Manager and blogger) had crafted adorable place settings with Instagram-inspired menus and a social media directory of who's who for the evening (totally ingenious).

We were then treated to a gastronomic feast of starters, which included taste sensations such as maple & bourbon glazed pork belly, beef carpaccio with truffle cream and parmesan crisps (my favorite!), scallop carpaccio, grilled oysters, hot cheese balls with quince jelly (my second favorite!), and a beautifully presented slate of crudité composed of baby seasonal vegetables served with a delicious, tangy dip.

Sidenote: the best thing about eating with food bloggers is the unspoken understanding that no one dares touch a plate until everyone's snapped a photo to their satisfaction (I often come under fire for this when dining as a couple and get an exasperated, "Can I eat now?" from the other side of the table - sorry, John!). In fact, no one was shy about passing their camera down the table to ask for assistance in photographing a slider from just the right angle.

I'd been looking forward to my main course of lobster tagliatelle all week and I wasn't disappointed: generous portions of succulent lobster mixed in with a homemade tagliatelle cooked perfectly al dente brought back memories of our recent vacation in Sicily and was the perfect example of decadent comfort food (something I definitely needed after struggling with this cold for a week).

But then.


I think all 20 of us let out a collective gasp of shock around the table when we saw the selection of desserts: doughnut balls with salted caramel and vanilla milkshake, flourless chocolate cake, nutmeg custard tart with bay leaf poached apricots, cinnamon rice pudding with apple compote and clotted cream ... the list seemed endless.

The flourless chocolate cake was divine, and I couldn't resist sneaking in a second bite! My favorite dessert, however, had to be the madeleines (complete with delicate, edible gold foil) and lemon curd, which I'd seen in preparation downstairs in the kitchen earlier that evening.

Though the posset was nearly too sweet for me, it was the perfect accompaniment to the madeleine and the presentation made the confections almost too pretty to eat (that flower!).

Aside from the fabulous food, it was so much fun to meet bloggers with similar interests and talk about how we started, why we write what we do, and our different reasons for putting our thoughts down in this particular form of digital digest. It seemed clear that our love of food also

My night ended rather unglamorously after I floated on cloud nine through the pretty streets of Belgravia as I observed an inebriated man throw up on the bus (right next to the driver), then watched as unsuspecting passengers proceeded to walk through the vomit as they stepped aboard. It definitely didn't help that I was Instagramming a photo of raw oysters at the time. Oh, blogger life.

I was generously hosted by Zomato and Pont St. last evening. Special thanks to Zomato UK and Sophie Michell for this unique opportunity!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tourists, I'll Help You Take A Selfie

There's nothing more painful than watching someone attempt to take a selfie from afar (okay, I can think of a few things more painful, but ...); that outstretched arm, the leaning back, the repeated attempts. I see it every day: on my way to work, after yoga, when I'm out to dinner. Usually, it's on a bridge - Waterloo Bridge, to be exact. I don't blame them. The view of Southbank is beautiful from there. And, at the right angle, you can probably get the London Eye as well as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben all in the background.

Last Thursday, Caroline and I were debriefing our attendance at the Frieze Art Fair over a plateful of Pizza Express dough balls (garlic butter FTW) when something beyond her shoulder caught my attention: a man was trying to take a selfie of his entire table of four with his phone and clearly not succeeding. After the fourth painful attempt, I finally interrupted Caroline mid-sentence by touching her arm and saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I have to help this guy." 

The secret to asking people if they'd like you to take their photo is not to act awkward - otherwise, it just becomes super awkward for everyone (I only mention this because I have been that awkward person). So without really thinking about it, I approached their table and breezily asked, "Do you want me to take that for you?" "Oh please!" came the grateful reply. And after two snaps, they came away with a perfectly good group photo framed by their pizza Romanas - no chopped heads or long, extended arms in sight (it also helped that he had an amazing camera phone). 

I get it. Not every event warrants a group photo, but sometimes, you just want to commemorate the experience - freeze that moment in time. 

I remember observing a family of four standing in front of us in line at Comiso airport, Sicily. Father and son were on their way to London; mother and other son were staying behind. They must have taken four or five photos. Ordinarily, I might have been judgmental, questioning the necessity of taking airport selfies, but then I pictured the woman flipping through the photos on her phone with her friends at lunch, showing off her husband and son on their way to London. I thought about those photos being printed and placed in an album somewhere; I thought of the son showing his children someday, that photo of him and his dad about to board the plane for whatever mysterious adventure they were going on. It made me nostalgic for the times my family was "sent off" at the airport at the conclusion of our annual visits to Hong Kong. Our entire extended family would gather at Hong Kong airport together and take photos: the little ones sitting on the floor, the men looking stoic and stiff, the women smiling slightly with upturned corners of their mouths.

Of course, those were the times before selfie-sticks or camera phones - or even digital cameras - for that matter. Film cameras were passed around from hand to hand, before prints finally appeared in our home in Small Town, Washington a few months later with the par avion sticker firmly planted on the front of the envelope they arrived in, having traveled over 6,500 miles to reach us.

So the next time I see someone struggling to take a selfie, I won't hesitate to step in and help. Maybe they're traveling solo and want to send a photo back to family and friends. Maybe it's a couple celebrating their engagement, or honeymoon, or anniversary. Maybe someone just wants a photo of themselves in front of a pretty backdrop.

What about you? What's your selfie style? Would you step in to help or continue on your way?

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?