Archive for March, 2009

Mother’s Day

Confused by the signs everywhere recently for Mother’s Day? Don’t worry, you haven’t forgotten – British ‘Mothering Sunday’ is a full two months before America’s Mother’s Day in May. Instead, go forth and buy the most British card you can find, preferrably with a bizarre saying and picture and definitely the word ‘Mum’. Your mother will most likely be very pleased by the novelty of it when she actually receives it in May. Furthermore, if you are still abroad in May (hands up!) you’ll be SOL for a card so do it now.

In the meantime, enjoy the plethora of online posts about what to do this Mother’s Day, like this nice list of afternoon tea places from TimeOut (our two favourites, the Orangery and Louis Patisserie, are on it so we’re inclined to trust the rest of the recommendations).

Chain Spotting: Part 2 – Restaurants

As stated in our post about Pret and Eat, for better or worse, London has seen a growth of city-wide chains in recent years. Chain spotting labeled posts are our guide, whether you want to avoid chains, embrace them, or balance your consumption of local and chains (our usual approach). There is such high competition that often if an establishment has made it enough to become a chain, that means it’s usually doing something right. That said, these are chains – what’s great and awful about them is a dependable, mass-market appeal. We welcome hearing about your experiences…

Strada – Strada is decent Italian food, and if you hit them up for a lunch or pre-theatre dinner menu special, really good value. If you are American and love up on the Olive Garden, you NEED to go to Strada because you will love it and this will show you what a proper Italian restaurant chain should be like. If you think the Olive Garden is crap and you only eat Italian food in Italy or a super authentic local place, Strada is probably not the place for you. However, it’s a reliable and nice experience, nice atmosphere, themed without being Disney-esque.

Giraffe – this the place to go when one of you wants Chinese, one of you wants Indian, one Mediterranean, and one wants American/British: solution! Everyone will be happy at Giraffe. They bill themselves as world food, and they live up to it. It’s still a chain and the quality is of the mass-appeal dependable level – I’ve had some good dishes at Giraffe but also some just okay dishes. The menu does have great variety though and killer Morrocan-style mint tea that comes in a lovely fired clay teapot. Two recommendations for when to go Giraffe: Mondays – Thursdays from 5 – 7 pm. They have a great 2 course menu for around 8 pounds and all cocktails are 2-for-1. A recommends the fruity mojito, it might be called the Mexican Mojito she’s not sure but it’s amazing. Second time to go: for brunch or breakfast! Breakfast menu til noon every day, brunch menu til 4pm everyday. THEY HAVE PANCAKES. REAL PANCAKES. That is all I should need to say.

Pizza Express – Dependable, decent quality pizza. Some fun creations and menu items, salad and pasta items are limited but you’re really going for the pizza anyway. Much closer to Italian-style pizza than. say, pizza hut. Their pizzas make for a filling meal and are never too greasy. It can get very noisy in most of their restaurants, especially because they pack in as many tables AS POSSIBLE but it can be a very pleasant experience off-peak times.

Masala Zone – We love Masala Zone.  Yes, we are constantly told over and over again that this is commercialized and chain Indian food and not authentic but we can’t resist the Thalis.  There really isn’t anything wrong with eating Indian food at a chain—and don’t worry we do get the real stuff on occassion as well.  If you’re ever in Brick Lane or the East End then you definitely need the experience of bartering out the best deal from the endless line of Indian restaurants that will bombard you once you hit the street.  However, this blog is about chains so here we go.  At Masala Zone, the best option is the Thalis where you get your choice of curry–any of the chicken, lamb or veggie options and then in little cups around the big silver tray is selections of vegetables, lentils, and chutneys with rice.  It’s the perfect meal where you can get a taste of different types of Indian food.  Also, this place is a good start if you’ve never had Indian food and Brick Lane seems a bit too intimidating.

Wagamama – You really can’t be in London long without someone dragging you into a Wagamama in great excitement. In fact, this is the first restaurant C remembers being taken to when she studied abroad several years ago. To be honest, C still loves wagamama. It’s just…so yummy and interesting, and the long tables where you’re squished next to others make for a real ‘city’ feel. Don’t forget the free green tea! Another great one to take international visitors to – it’s memorable, in the good way. The menu is all Asian/Japanese inspired, and pretty much everything is very tasty, from the udon noodle dishes to the coconut soups. It’s a little bit more expensive than the rest of these, but a main dish can be had from 7 – 15 pounds, which given dinner prices is darn good. A good date/meet with friend spot. Full disclosure: A came down with food poisoning once after eating here and hasn’t been able to go back since, but she’s still really sad about that.

Yo Sushi – Converor Belt sushi at its best.  You get to sit around a long rectangular table with a constant revolving line of sushi options marked by price on colored plates.  The best part you can eat as much as you want and when you want and even eye people down if they dare so touch the sushi you’re waiting to come around.  However, the price can easily get out of hand if you don’t pay enough attention to the amount of plates you grab.  If you’re not sure what stuff is and you’re not daring enough to eat a surprise sushi roll there is a menu or you can ask the servers in the middle of the table.  I like to start with a plate of edamame, then move up through the california rolls and spicy tuna rolls to the fancier range of sushi.

Zizzi – Definitely cheesy with its themed decor and ‘I am a nice restaurant’ mock atmosphere – candles, crisp table linens, menus in fancy script with many categories – the food is still pretty good and good value for what you get. C’s parents loved this place when they came and C wasn’t at all unhappy to go several times with them! Mediterranean/Italian, the Antipasto Zizzi sharing platter and the Risotto Verde are highly recommended.

There are other chain restaurants that are common but that we haven’t been to or can’t think of right now – your thoughts?

Once in a Blue Moon there is a Flying Dog–Rake Pub Shout Out

Calling all American ex-pats!!!  If you are missing beer from back home, the home across the pond, then head down to this tiny but charming pub near Borough Market in London Bridge called the Rake.  They have a stock load of American micro brews like Flying Dog (you must try the IPA) and my nostalgic 6 pack favorite Blue Moon, which was on tap when I first visited (also do insist on the orange–blue moon and oranges are inseparable).  You can also find Sierra Nevada and more–they even have micro brews that were featured in Beer Exposed.  My only request (and if the people from the Rake read this–this is my plea) is to import Magic Hat from Vermont.  I desperately miss Magic Hat No. 9 from my days at uni.  So yeah, if you are feeling a bit home sick or just looking for a change–head over to the Rake for some great American brews and a great selection of specialist beers.  Another fun reason to go is that they have a mini garden outside with umbrellas and space heaters to deal with any unpredictable London weather occurrences.  If you still don’t believe us check out the Time Out review.

A’s Favourite London Getaway–Isle of Wight

In this blog we try to capture all the great things London has to offer; however, as many British people will tell you London is not the whole of England (with well deserved emphasis!).  Both C and I try to get out and see what else England has to offer when we get the chance, hop on a train (in my instance usually very last minute planning as well) and head in any direction.  Between the two of us we have seen a respectable amount of ‘outside London England’ and to capture this I’m going to highlight my favourite little getaway:  The Isle of Wight.

Cowes

Cowes

(Also look for our future blog post on Cambridge vs. Oxford in the near or possibly distant future)

From London it is fairly easy to get to either Southampton or Portsmouth.  Your destination really depends on what part of the Isle you wish to end up at with the ferry.  Yes, ferries are involved–one of my favourite forms of transportation (I’ll even take the long car ferry when I’m a foot passenger just to be on the boat longer).  Portsmouth takes you to the main city Ryde while Southampton will take you to Cowes–The Yachting Centre of the World (or so says the sign in Cowes–I like to believe it though).

Cowes Ferry

Cowes Ferry

Ryde looks very much like Brighton with its town spreading up the surface of a hill with the gorgeous white buildings making the town look very coastal, just as it should be.  There is a beach and plenty of restaurants and shops to keep you entertained for an afternoon or an evening.  Also, many of the Isle’s buses go through Ryde making it an easy starting point to get to the rest of the Isle.

High Street

High Street

Sailing

Sailing

Cowes, as I mentioned before is a Yacht haven.  If you are at all familiar with coastal New England you will find many similarities that you will enjoy.  Everything in this small town with an easily walkable high street is nautical themed.  Almost every clothing shop is nautical-based and you will find all your popular sailing outfitters like Henri Lloyd, Gill, Mausto (there even use to be a Helly Hansen but I either can’t find it anymore or it has closed).  Also lining the street are cafes, restaurants and pubs where you’ll see signs offering crew packed lunches (C didn’t understand this, so for non-sailors, this means a packed lunch for a sailing crew when they go out all day. Sort of like picnic. For sailors. Less fancy).  The best part about Cowes is that you can wander into the yacht yards and look at all the boats on dry dock (again, for the sailing-stupid as A shakes her head as if this is common knowledge, this means boats not in water but propped up on land so you can walk among them). You can also get great views of water from these yards.  If you really want to see some boat racing I would recommend going for Cowes Week which this year takes place 1-8 August.   I’ve never been but I’m hoping this year I’ll head down to check out the activities.  I can only imagine how crazy Cowes will be during this event.  From Cowes you can also walk along the esplanade and the beach.  If you wanted to you can just keep on walking around the Isle.  Check out this site for walking tips.

Boat in Dry Dock

Boat in Dry Dock

 

Boat from the Ferry

Boat from the Ferry

 

My other favourite part about the Isle of Wight is the Needles.  The Needles are this rock formation of the point heading west into the channel.  It is a very picturesque and you can either take the bus to the top of the cliffs or take a chair lift down to the beach.  I did the bus route and you can get a great side view from above (see photo).  However, there should also be boat tours as well that will take you around the sights.

The Needles

The Needles

There are plenty of other things to do on the Isle and many little towns spreading across its length.  Check out the Isle of Wight’s tourism page to see what you can do.  If you are also into music go to the Isle of Wight festival.  This was made famous back in 1969  when Bob Dylan played with backing from the Band.  People just camp out on the Isle like ever other festival in England.

Don’t miss the Osbourne House, an English Heritage site near East Cowes that was essentially Queen Victoria’s posh getaway by the sea.

 

Osbourne House

Osbourne House

 

Sailors

Sailors

Holland Park

Hidden away enough that A made it almost two years before visiting this west end gem, it’s been a favorite of C’s since discovering it on a literary walk while studying abroad 3 years ago. Incredibly close to the much-beloved (and often crowded) Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, Holland Park is just big enough and just small enough and frequented mostly by locals.  It’s a quick central London escape into beautifully designed gardens, tree covered paths, and Lord Holland’s old impressive house.

We recommend entering from Holland Park street from Holland Park tube station. It’s just a short walk through iconic white Georgian townhouses built for rich people and still inhabited by rich people. We wish we qualified in this category. Oh well, it’s always free to visit.
Holland Park Street

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This park changes so much you can certainly find a spot to fit your mood.  At this entrance, follow the path and then turn right where the park opens up to wander amongst semi-wildness, with bramble-lined dirt paths and tangles of trees. You’ll encounter others walking dogs but not much else in this corner of the park. Go straight or turn left to explore Lord Holland’s house, the meticulous Japanese Garden, or the Italianate style mini-gardens.

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Be sure to look out for the park’s famed peacocks which you’re almost guaranteed not to miss on nice days.

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Things to do after visiting the park (to be covered in future posts!):
Portobello Road Market
Notting Hill – wander around the neighborhood
Beautiful streets of South Kensington
Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens
Orangery
Shopping on High Street Kensington

Mucho Mas (oops, Chilango)

Mucho Mas (oops, Chilango)

Do you miss burritos like nobody’s business?  Do you often wish there was a place you could get a cheap burrito quickly made from fresh and well-spiced ingredients?  Do you crave Chipotle or Moe’s like crack?  Well, look no further come to Chilango’s on Upper Street in Angel.  We fondly and will always call this burrito joint Mucho Mas, which it was called from up till last week when they reopended with new decorations and a new name Chilango. We’re not gonna lie, one of the major factors that influenced where our current flat is was that Mucho Mas would be just down the street. True to form, we all go 2 – 3 times a week.

Why? The burritos are amazing.  You have a choice of steak, chicken, pork (carnitas) and veggie (which includes free guac!!!) all wrapped up in a warm large tortilla with black or pinto beans, choice of mild (C’s preference), medium (A’s preference), or hot salsa (very daring) with the usual fixin’s.  Best part it is all under six pounds and they have free water pitchers to quench the spiciness if you can’t handle it.  Don’t be afraid though, the mild is not spicy at all and the meat is pitch perfect in seasoning.  We even have a favorite corner which we like to think is reserved for only us, loyal Mucho Mas customers—the round table in the back of the upper floor.  (Unfortunately, this has now been replaced with rectangle tables—but we’ll still claim the back).

A final note, don’t go to Tortilla. It is a cheap and horrible rip off of Mexican burritos.  Everything there just can’t compare to Mucho Mas (Chilango)’s quality, taste and atmosphere.  DON’T GO!!

Columbia Road Flower Market

If it’s Sunday, head to Columbia Road for a guaranteed colorful and interesting afternoon. The flower market starts at 8 AM and ends at 2PM, so get your shit together. It’s absolutely worth rolling out of bed early for – no matter the weather or the season, Columbia Road fills with stalls selling nothing but plants, from exotic cut flowers to small orange trees to potted ferns. Their stock change with the seasons and you’ll be absolutely shocked by how cheap and good the deals are. When we were there there was one stall offering 3 huge bunches of lilies (lilies!!) for 5 pounds TOTAL. Plus, to top it all off, all of the overwhelmingly beautiful flowers and plants are hawked at top speed by cockney sellers. In short, it’s the best sensory experience for free you’ll find anywhere in London – smells, sights, sounds, and humor- nothing like walking behind a guy struggling through the crowds with a large potted palm tree in the middle of February:

man with plant

The market is easy to find. Take a bus or tube to Old Street, then it’s a 10 minute walk down Old Street into Shoreditch and then to Columbia Road. Turn left onto Old Street, follow it as it becomes Hackney Road, then turn right into Columbia Road – just get reasonably close and follow the throngs of people with arms full of flowers! Map

flowers

red awning

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Plus, bonus: the market stalls are surrounded on either side by the most adorable boutique shops that sell an array of stuff from jewelery to clothes to gardening to cupcakes (normal and mini-sized!).

shop display

scarves

Other Sunday-only or best on Sunday markets nearby:
Spitalfields
Petticoat Lane
Vintage shops near Brick Lane


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