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Monthly Archives: September 2012

One night while we were in London, we met a few friends for dinner in Chinatown. In my experience, there are several typical kinds of restaurants in the chinatowns of the world. First, there are those that provide a quick and inexpensive soup noodle lunch or single-plate dinner and pay no attention to decor or service. Wong Kei on Wardour Street near Shaftesbury Avenue is the best known in this category. It has been at that location for many many years (since my student days).  The waiters were plain rude but it was cheap. We did not visit Wong Kei this time.

A second type aims to provide local Chinese with authentic quality dinners and sometime even banquets. They are usually more comfortable, provide wrapped chopsticks and table cloth, and very likely have tanks containing live seafood on display. The Four Seasons on 23 Wardour Street is an example of this category. However, they do not have a fish tank, instead roast duck were hanging in the window – a practice more prevalent with the likes of Wong Kei.  Apparently, Four Seasons are famous for it but at the time without knowing it, we ordered a portion. The kitchen deboned it before serving – a rather uncommon practice in Chinese restaurant. It turned out to be one of the best I have tasted for many years – even the soy sauce is so good that I can taste the yellow beans. When in London again, we will definitely return to this restaurant or their branch in Queensway.

Then there are those restaurants that try to modernize the the traditional dishes with matching decor to provide a fine dining experience. Plum Valley at 20 Gerrard Street is an example of this third category. Unlike all the restaurants lining this street in the middle of Chinatown, Plum Valley’s facade is monochromatic with its Chinese name in matt gun metal grey.

The decor is all dark wood and natural stones. The interior is dimly lit. Many Japanese restaurants and spas don this look. Not innovative but definitely better than many others in the area.

It is certainly a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown just outside the front door. It reminded me of those Chinese restaurants in New York that are situated at the borders with Soho or Nolita.

We sat in a set of banquettes at the back which seated four people (not like these shown in the pictures). And the seating was very comfortable – a rare experience in any chinatown restaurant around the world.

We ordered a variety of dishes from dim sum, noodles, to stir-fry dishes. The dim sum were delicious.

Lobster fried noodles – very tasty but also a bit salty – they should have put more noodles on the plate given the amount of sauce.

Another vertically-oriented dish – stir-fried steak cubes in black bean sauce – perfect with white rice.

All in all, the ambiance was pleasant, service was responsive, but the taste was not quite refined enough to be classified as “fine dining” in my humble opinion.  While the dishes all tasted good, the flavors were a bit too bold. One surprise was that our bill was not unreasonable. Plum Valley is worth exploring.

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Roganic is a restaurant by Simon Rogan in Marylebone, London.  He is known for the innovative food served in his restaurant L’Enclume situated in the faraway Lake District in northwest England.

The restaurant is referred to as “pop-up” in the press and it is accordingly sparsely decorated as it only has a 2-year lease.

The staff was very friendly, the atmosphere informal. There were four of us, two on Olympics-related businesses and we were on vacation to see the Games.

Those who were on business arrived late by almost half an hour, they were excused as their responsibilities were more-or-less round the clock. Three types of rolls were served as soon as all were seated. The flavors of the bread were different but the texture were all the same. Amuse bouche soon followed.

We were hungry by that time and curious about the chef’s creations – so we all went for the 10-course tasting menu. They also offered a 6-course regular as well as a 6-course vegetarian menu. First course was Peas with beef tongue, dill and calamint.  Sue did not want beef tongue so that they substituted it with artichoke – which is the version of this dish on the vegetarian menu.

Grown-up yolk from the golden egg, celeriac and garlic. We forgot the explanation.

Keen’s dumpling, cream of onion, nausturtiums and liquorice powder. The brown spots in the bowl matched the sprinkled on liquorice powder.

This dish is the most visually-striking of the evening. Raw mackeral in coal oil, lovage, and gooseberries. Coal oil and lovage ?

Grilled salad smoked over embers, truffle custard and cobnuts. “I” who was on business spent a good 15 minutes on the phone to deal with an emerging situation, poor girl, so we were eating exceedingly slowly.  The restaurant staff politely told us that we should hurry a bit as the kitchen was “concerned”. They were very nice about it and we were ok with the suggestion, after all, we started late.

Razors with sea herbs, turnips, and pearl barley. A change of background color of the plate was not a bad idea but the plate was very japanese-y.

Chick ‘O’ Hake, beetroots, red orach, sorrel and cockles. If I remember correctly, it was a piece of grilled crispy chicken skin(?) on top of a chunk of fish.

Reg’s duck breast with yellow beans, sweetbreads, sage and corn.

Douglas fir, cherries, goat’s milk, and pennyroyal.

Hazelnuts and sweet cheese, rosehips and anise hyssop.

A total of 41 ingredients were mentioned in the menu. We have not eaten a meal like this before where a English-language dictionary was needed to explain many of the British vegetables that went into the dishes.

Since the four of us had not seen each other for a long time, we were spending more time chatting than tasting. It was a shame that we cannot remember more about the tastes as a lot of efforts must have gone into designing the dishes. If you are an adventurous diner, it is certainly worth a try.

We were the last guests to leave Roganic and it was so late that we completely missed the Olympics beach volley ball evening competitions.

For our trip to see the 2012 Olympics Games in London, we left hotel arrangements till the last minute. At the time, there were news that the room prices were dropping because people were scared away from Central London due to the sky-high rates. But, the choicest hotels were all gone and what was left were mediocre hotels charging a slightly elevated high season rate. We used Booking.com which provides for a given hotel, data on when a room was last taken, and how many people are looking at the remaining vacant rooms. After quite a bit of rushed research, we ended up booking two hotels for the 8 days (4+4).

Knowing London, many hotels may still have Victorian to mid-century old plumbing or air-conditioning (this is midsummer), so we were careful in choosing only modern hotels. Our first selection was The Z Hotel Victoria.  It was convenient for us since we were coming from the south coast by coach which terminated at Victoria. We thought at the time the price was not unreasonable. I just checked the room rate just now –  we paid in July almost doubled today’s rate.

The hotel seemed to have just finished renovating so that it could open in time for the Olympics Games. Our room was supposed to measure 14-square meters with a queen-sized bed. Really ? The lack of space was really an issue.  We could not open both our suitcases fully unless we put one of them on the bed.

Our room did not have a window – we did not really care as we were out all hours of the day.  The super-thin 40-inch Samsung TV was appropriately deployed on the wall to give the room some more light, in addition to the upward pointing perimeter white lights. No wardrobe, so jackets, etc. were hanging off the wall.

After four days, we really had enough of it. We were tired after hours of being in crowds but could not relax in the room, and we were getting into each other’s way. Overall, on the plus side, the hotel atmosphere was modern and a bit of wannabe hip – the staff were cheerful and helpful.

Our second hotel is The Blakemore in Bayswater. The hotel is located on a quiet street just a couple of blocks from the bustling Queensway.  While I was a student here many years ago, a group of my friends rented an apartment in this area which has not changed much if any.

After the Z Hotel, the space we had at the Blakemore was palatial in comparison. Plus the window which looked out to the rooftops of west London, it was very much appreciated. Breakfast was included!

The room was on the top floor and the bathroom had a slanted roof. This hotel had apparently gone through a renovation less than six months ago (deduced by Tripadvisor’s warnings of construction noise posted at least 6 months ago).

Debated whether we wanted to show pictures of toilets on the blog. But as a traveler, other than the bed, this is the next most important aspect of a hotel room. There were no bath tub, instead it had a modern roomy rainfall-type shower – relaxing indeed.

Despite our lateness in making arrangements and the crush of tourists in London, we were glad that the accommodation problem was solved.

Österreicher is a restaurant in the Museum of Applied Arts (Museum der Angewanten Kunst, MAK, see previous post). 

We arrived at the restaurant towards the end of lunchtime on a weekday – and the dining room is empty? It turned out every one was seated outside in the garden enjoying a bit of sunshine. There was a small glass-sided extension which contains a smaller and more intimate dining room (with a ceiling that rolls back – which we did not know at the time).
This restaurant is run by Helmut Österreicher, a star chef who reinvents traditional Austrian dishes. After we saw all those asparagus posted earlier in Nacshmarkt, we had to have some – with Hollandaise sauce. It went really well with the preserved meats.
We ordered the simplest dishes on the menu, and they are reliably excellent.
Garlic soup.
Shrimp pesto risotto
Since the schnitzel is a very common dish in Austria, we wanted to do a comparison between a decent street version (at Glacis Beisl) and this version by a renowned chef. I honestly cannot tell the difference. The least I can say is that they must have used a gigantic frying pan.
We entered the restaurant from the shop – the big dining room has a very elaborately decorated ceiling. An overhead structure marks the path across the room to a set of descending stairs which lead to the patio.

The long dinning room is simply stunning –  it must be a great place to see and be seen.

There is an area for drinks which is tiered so that even when one is seated, every one in the bar area is in view.

Judging by the spaces for standing drinkers, it is probably not a hushed dining room.
Love to visit the place in the evening when there are more patrons.

In Vienna, we went to see The Museum of Applied Arts (Museum der Angewandte Kunst, MAK) located in the Innere Stadt. This is the Austrian equivalent of the Victoria and Albert museum of London (V&A).

Wien.info’s description of MAK:

Design is one of the main features of MAK. The museum shows furniture, glass, china, silver, and textiles from the Middle Ages to the present day. Precious crafts from the Wiener Werkstätte, bentwood furniture by Thonet and art nouveau highlights such as the gilded design of Gustav Klimt for the frieze of the Stoclet Palais in Brussels.

Here are some of the exhibits that we saw. Biedermeier furniture of the early 1800’s.

This museum must be the best place in the world to look at chairs.

A clever way to show off the curves of Thonet bentwood chairs.

Down the middle of a big room, one can walk between two screens one on each side which shows the silhouettes of the chairs. Or one can walk around to the other side of the screen to see the chairs.

This year is Gustav Klimt’s 150th birthday – so there are lots of activities in Vienna about him and his work. MAK is mounting an exhibition about Klimt’s design of a frieze in the Stoclet Palais in Belgium. Of course we did not see the real thing (we had to borrow the photo below from the Klimt Museum online) but the frieze shares a similar design to his very famous painting – The Kiss – which we saw in the museum at the Belvedere. Klimt’s gilded paintings cannot be reproduced by photography – one has to see the real thing in full size with the metallic gold effect to truly enjoy the richness of the piece. I will not post here about Klimt even though we saw a few pieces on this trip.

The basement of the museum houses the Study Collection where one can view different types of articles organized by material (i.e., textile, glass, ceramics, … etc).

More chairs !

In one of the display cases, we came across the set of cutlery which we are using at home. We knew the set was named  “Dry” and designed by Achille Castiglioni as Alessi’s first cutlery line. But we did not know it has so many other pieces – a serving set, ladles, spears, etc (not shown in the photo below).

We also saw the Frankfurt Kitchen of 1926 which was considered the forerunner of modern fitted kitchens.  It was designed with the concept of efficiency and cheap to build and  installed in the municipal housing projects in Frankfurt.

We have seen similar permanent exhibits dedicated to design objects in other museums – Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA) and the Pinakoteck Der Moderne in Munich; but MAK is dedicated, much bigger and better organized.

I(Chris) have not visited London for many years, and while visiting during the Olympics, we heard a lot about the Spitalfields markets. So one morning we decided to check it out. This area of East London felt quite different from what I was expecting. The Spitalfields markets contain a new and an old section.

We wandered around the stalls, bought some stuff (including a London Underground shower curtain) and had lunch at Canteen. A pleasant, inexpensive chain serving British food.

Afterwards, I ventured further east and the streetscape changed to that which reminded me of Camden lock market. I did not have a chance to revisit Camden this time and am wondering if it has changed.

By chance, I stumbled into the flagship store of Rough Trade East just off Brick Lane – a record shop with a bit of history.

I bought their album of the month – Solo Piano II by Chilly Gonzales – a special edition containing an additional Rough Trade bonus track featuring some improvisation.

cover

Here is a clip of video featuring a medley of the tunes on the album. Enjoy it while reading the rest of the post.

If you like it, go to his site – www.chillygonzales.com where several more videos are posted. The pieces are relaxing without being New Age-y – but a few are liable to be used as background music in Korean soap opera.

The front of Rough Trade has a cafe – the Broken Arms.

Rough Trade’s store front is disproportionately smaller than the inside. It is quite big inside, I guess the rent was cheap. Hope they signed a long lease.

Huh, Hang the DJ – Dance counter.

They have a photo booth, monochrome shots only – just 3 pounds.

They sell more vinyl than CD here.

They have mixers and keyboard for customer’s use and even a separate room for trying some synthesizers. I don’t think they sell synthesizers so I am not sure of the purpose.

Any one can go in to play assuming one knows how to operate the synthesizers. I have never seen this type of setup before but it is very cool!

There is a test listening area.

They also sell some books organized by the categories of Steidl, Caught by the line, London, Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Street art and Musical making and instruments.

They also have a “hobby” section – titled “Prick your finger” which sells knitting supplies for the ladies, and robotics kit “Technology will save us” for the boys.

This kind of stores are slowly becoming extinct but I hope this one can diversify and survive despite itunes, Spotify, … etc.

This is probably the last post about a specific Olympic sport that we saw in London. We have so far written about badminton, 100m sprint, and track cycling.

The Aquatic Center was designed by Zaha Hadid who described the concept at her site:

A concept inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, creating spaces and a surrounding environment in sympathy with the river landscape of the Olympic Park. An undulating roof sweeps up from the ground as a wave, enclosing the pools of the Centre with its unifying gesture.

She has a lot of pictures of the building on her site – look it up.

Warming up for the event. Had I paused for a few seconds, I could have taken a picture with all the divers in the air !

Because of the arrangement of the swimming and diving pools, the spectators’ seats are placed on the longer side of the main hall. And it was steep as we sat quite high up – definitely not for people with vertigo. For those seated high up on the side, the downwardly sweeping roof could block the view directly across although it does not affect the view on the pools.

The event we saw was the 3 meter springboard women’s final.

Diving is one of those sports that happens in a second and it is all over. Because all the twists and turns happen so fast, the only objective way I (Chris) can judge the competitor’s skill is by the splash that is created.

In the end, two Chinese and one Mexican shared the podium. The gold medalist led from the start and won by a comfortable margin.

After the victory ceremony, we had a chance to see the winners. Wu Minxia (吴敏霞) won the gold medal. According to Wikipedia, after this event, it was revealed that her parents withheld information that her grandmother died a year before, and that her mother had cancer. Her father said he misled her to keep her focused on training.

He Zi (何姿) won the silver medal.

He Zi and Wu minxia both won a gold medal as a team in synchronized diving later in the week.

Laura Sánchez won the bronze medal. Apparently, the president of Mexico telephoned her while she was being interviewed by the press.

It was exciting to see the medalists being interviewed. But towards the end of the week, many of the athletes have competed in their events and started showing up as spectators to cheer their countryman/woman, and mingling with the crowds. The US women gymnastics team were seated several rows from us. Gabby Douglas !

This is the historic moment of Usain Bolt captured from where we were standing in the stadium.

What was remarkable was the hush just before the start, the whole stadium got really quiet. Playback the clip above and hear it for yourself.

We were standing in an area near the starting line. The world record is 9.58 seconds and the Olympic record was 9.69 seconds (see top left hand corner of the scoreboard).

As soon as the gun went off, the sprinters took off and the crowd started roaring again.

The race must be one of the shortest thrill that was enjoyed by millions of people simultaneously.

Usain and his team mate and rival Yohan Blake just returned after a victory lap with the Jamaican flag. At the right edge of the photo, people were waving green and yellow inflatable arms in the form of Usain’s famous pointing gesture. Those things actually looked rather bizzare.

In this picture, Usain was just getting up from having knelt to kiss the ground – for an entire minute it seemed – and definitely longer than the time he took to win the race.

A new Olympic record was made!  9.63 seconds. That is roughly 37.38 km/h or 23.23 mph.

We were in the stadium the following evening and saw Usain receiving the gold medal. In this picture, he had just received the medal and was jumping – see this feet off the ground and also the blurred image on the big screen.

Showing off the medal in front of the world’s press.

What a moment.