Thursday, December 18, 2008

Marcus Wareing's Blog!

Look what I found! I had no idea Mr. Wareing was a blogging chef. Wheeeeee! Those of you who read my posts know what an uber-fan I am of this guy. I heart him so vurrah much. Now quick, right now, go read it, read it all. Then add comments all over the place. Tag it, add it, Delicious it, Stumble it, Twitter it, follow it through Blogger (evidently I'm his first stalker, er, follower) or whatever you need to do to keep up to date with this guy. And maybe, just maybe, he'll update his blog more often (purdy please?) Yeah, like he has nothing to do these days with the new restaurant and all, but Marcus. Your fans want to know. Tell us what's on your mind. At least once a month (hint, hint).

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Paella Love Fest.

Oh, she looks happy. Probably because she's cooking yummy paella at Jamon Jamon on Portobello Road in London. I'm happy just looking at it! And I know Nick (the owner) is happy because he sent me SUCH a sweet email today - one that made me grin from ear to ear. He loves my writing. I love his paella. The girl in the picture loves making paella. Let the paella love fest begin! If you're ever in that section of London, check it out. It's wonderful. Thanks Nick, for making me feel like someone out there is actually reading anything I write've made a struggling writer very, very happy today.

Hey Libby,

My name's Nick, I'm the owner of the paella stall on Portobello Road that you wrote such amazing things on your blog about. Thank you so much for the wonderful description, I was quite emotional while reading it, you really spun a story around our humble rice dish :-) So you mind if I link to it on our website? Any time you're in London please come by again, and you and your husband will be our guest for lunch.

Thanks again for the glorious blog
hasta luego
Jamon Jamon

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Florence Weddingmoon.

With the threat of appearing like a lazy writer hanging like a ripe fruit over my head (how's that for a simile?) I find I must descend into the realm of "Double-Post Land." I really tried not to, believe me. But you see, our 7th wedding anniversary was 11/21, and I found when I sat down to write about it, I wasn't sure where to put it. Is it a travel story appropriate for escape cville...? Or a cherished memory better suited to epizoodiks...? That's my other blog where I attempt to connect current and seasonal events to memories. With only a tiny amount of success.

I find our story is both. Hubby and I traveled afar to get married and it was a great story. Maybe the greatest travel story of my life. But it's also a cherished memory, the most cherished memory of my life. So where to put it?

Which brings me to the double posting thing. The more I think on it, the more I feel our weddingmoon to Florence, Italy in November of 2001 is more of a cherished memory than a travel anecdote. But for the whole two of you out there on the Interwebs that actually *read* my travel stories, I didn't want to deny you this one. This very important one. So without further ado, you may read about it here. Enjoy.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley.

I was thrilled to read my email today. This doesn't happen often, let me tell you. Instead of hundreds of requests for my address so certain people in Nigeria can send my lottery check, or Cash-4-Gold adverts, or offers for free Snuggies, I got the following thank you. Jane Wareing actually took the time to say thank you. It made me beam. It made me glad I reviewed their restaurant. And it verified what I already knew - the Wareings are going to do quite well. Quite well indeed.

Dear Libby,
I apologize for the long delay in replying to you! I am not sure if I have already replied or not but I found your message and just wanted to say thank you for your support!

With very kind regards,
Jane Wareing
marcus wareing at the berkeley
The Berkeley
Wilton Place
T 0207 235 1200

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Portobello Paella.

Paella. Just saying the word conjures up my trip to London this past June. Yep, not Spain, but London. I love the stuff, and don't eat it nearly enough because of how long it takes to prepare. There was a place in Richmond where I'm from that had it – Café Europa. The name always made me think of the David Sylvian song. We'd always order tapas instead though, because even on the menu it stated, "Preparation Time 1 hour, Please Be Patient." And the one time we did cave in and order it, the rice was way too salty. All that anticipation for nothing. We'd been better off with more anchovies and olives with our peach sangria.

But I do LOVE LOVE LOVE paella. That slightly nutty, crunchy, little bit salty rice mixed in with fresh seafood. It has a smoky spiciness and a comfort food heartiness that I just love. And in London of all places, I had the best of my life so far. At a stand called Jamon Jamon on Portobello Road in Notting Hill.

While in London we stayed quite near Portobello in a flat rented by my in-laws. Yep, the in-laws pretty much ROCK. It was a great vacation – I’ve now decided if I ever win the lottery, this is where I’ll be buying a flat. It’s beautiful. All the houses seem to be white Georgian creatures. Imagine a New York brownstone but in a vivid white with lots of little turrets and columns. With loud bright-colored doors in red and blue. Very pretty.

Portobello Road, its market, and even the bookstore where Hugh Grant attempted to woo Julia Roberts in "that movie" were just two blocks from our flat. Oddly enough, I never quite made it into the bookstore, even though owning a travel bookstore is pretty much my dream job and that particular one is the one that appears in my dreams on a nightly basis. Maybe I thought the dream wouldn't live up to the reality? Or maybe I was too busy buying a coffee or a Guinness in every single one of the coffee shop slash pub slash sandwich counter places which line this road and all the adjacent ones besides. I've had the best pizza of my life on Portobello Road - at a place owned by Italians. It's the essence of London cuteness this road. You could spend every living day browsing for antiques or snapping quaint photographs, stopping off only to have an espresso and a sandwich. Or a lager if it's after 4. Or not.

On Saturdays though, the street changes entirely. Early that morning I imagine if you live anywhere near Portobello you are awakened at dawn by the clanging of metal pipes - booths under construction but only for the day. The place transforms and for many many blocks the entire road is pedestrianized and chock full of wares. Produce, meats, and baked goods share space with florists, handmade crafts, and rock-bottom priced pashminas and handbags. It's glorious. Completely crowded, people pushing and shoving, calling out to the greengrocer their orders for apples and green beans, handing over money, a cacophony of commerce. And then there's the paella.

You don't see it at first, you smell it. That smoky, spicy smell, so strong and pervasive you can smell it blocks down the road. It hits your nose and you think, "My god that smells good. Where is that COMING from?" Like a cartoon the paella smell is a thick smoke that curls itself into a finger and beckons you. Eyes closed in culinary ecstasy, you lift off the ground and start floating down Portobello Road, led by the smoke finger, determined to find out the source of that bliss.

The Jamon Jamon stand is tiny, most of it taken up by two massively huge paella pans. Giant-sized cereal bowls. Cauldrons of goodness that hiss and smoke and send up the most glorious smells you've ever encountered. Caretakers turn and stir with huge wooden paddles, cultivating the flavors with gentle motions. Beautiful to watch, and a great marketing tool. Who would pass up something like that? The line is was ungodly long to purchase this tasty treat.

After much waiting, hubby and I decided on seafood paella. We usually order something different so we can taste each other's meal, but not this time. The seafood just looked too damn good. Huge shrimps, scallops, and crawfish. It also didn't matter that we had just eaten - a sandwich and espresso (of course). No worries, let the overstuffing begin. No tables here, so we took our styrofoam containers laden with paella goodness and began to walk down the road, eating as we went. Or I should say, shove our way through the crowds and attempt to walk - by this time in the afternoon the road was positively impassable by man or beast. People gearing up, buying their sundries for Sunday supper preparations.

The funniest thing happened too as we walked. While we were still near the stand, everyone knew what we were eating, and looked longingly at us. Or looked at us as if to say yeah, I know that's good, have had that before. Wish I had it now.

But as the stand went out of sight, people still looked at us. They'd get this look in their eyes like, Heeeeey, whatya got there? That looks yummy yummy yummy and their eyes would get all big and round - again, like a cartoon. They would point, and their mouths would drop open. Because you see, they had just smelled it, that elixir of the gods, that Spanish fly of food. Paella. Then they see us, and the two things connect. Holy crap I need that now, they think. And the smoky finger grabs them too. They lift off the ground, close their eyes, and float past us to buy their own morsels of yummy.

Whenever I hear the word, "paella" now I think of my Portobello paella. Of Jamon Jamon. It might not even be the best in the world, who knows? But something about eating huge shrimps and yummy rice out of a styrofoam carton as you stroll the market in London was really something. We smelled it, and we bought it. Then we ate it. Instant gratification coupled with cool scenery to wash it down. People looked at us and wanted to be us because of what we were eating. It was the perfect paella package. Only a peach sangria would've made it complete.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Annie Lennox.

It's early Saturday evening in London - June 2008. Husband and I have been touristing pretty hard all week, and so decide to grab some nigiri at a Japanese restaurant in Notting Hill before retiring early. And when I say small, I mean small. Room for maybe 20 people tops. We walk right in - no wait for a table - and seat ourselves at a two top, right next to a couple with a teenaged child. I could spit in their soup if I wanted - the tables are that close. My husband is across from me and I'm seated next to the gentleman. I glance over, and catty-cornered to me sits Annie Lennox.

It's my second star sighting in a year. Annie frikkin Lennox. I double check again with lightening speed - one of those glances that screams, "Okay, be casual you've got a superstar less than five feet from you - if you stretched out your foot you could kick her in the shin, but she's here eating like a normal person but she's not a normal person, she's Annie frikkin Lennox." So what do I do? Do I recognize her and ask for an autograph and begin fan fawning? Or do I stay silent and see what unfolds?

My husband doesn't appear to have even noticed that he's sitting next to an award winning singer who sells out stadiums and has the pipes of an angel. I look at him again to see if he's noticed, but he's looking at the menu. I glance around the restaurant. Four other groups are dining - most of them young enough to be my children. Either they don't recognize her, or they are way cooler than me and used to running into superstars at their local sushi joint on a Saturday night on a regular basis.

It is then I decide to go against the grain. Hey, I'm one for that anyway. The expected thing is to fawn and praise. But what would happen if I didn't? What would happen if I just ate my dinner? Think about it. If I recognize her, then her whole demeanor is going to change. She will become much more guarded. It'll change the whole atmosphere of the meal. But if I shut up? Who knows what could happen...

And so we order. Funny, I remember eating, just not sure what it was. I do remember it was tasty, but sitting next to half of Eurhythmics was very distracting to say the least. I didn't stare, but I was incredibly conscious of doing that, "look quick, dart eyes, then look away" thing every two minutes or so. I tried to pay attention to what my husband was talking about but all he got was, "Uh huh, yeah, right," for most of the meal.

Annie's so petite! Maybe five feet tall if that. She was sitting down of course, but I could tell she was little. Wearing a really cute purple smock dress with tights and adorable wedgie sandals. The outfit was too young for her agewise, but she made it work in spades. I was jealous. If I tried an outfit like that I'd look ridiculous and end up as a segment on Maury Povich - Why Won't Your Mother Dress Her Age?

We ate our sushi. Or rather, my husband ate and I tried to. Tried to eat, not stare, provide scintillating conversation to my husband, and listen to what Miss Annie was talking about at the same time. Very shallow of me. I'm very ashamed. But obviously not ashamed enough to stop eavesdropping while appearing to not eavesdrop. I guess I'll be carrying that baggage into my next life. What can I say? It's the starfucker in me - I know these folks are just people, but I'm convinced they're going to say or do something so utterly fabulous that I won't soon forget it. It'll be a story to share when I'm a grandmother. Or as an entry on my blog (sheepish grin).

After her daughter begged off and left early to go watch "Big Brother" (which made me laugh to myself in a "Oh my God! Annie Lennox's daughter watches Big Brother!" kinda way) Annie began to talk about how mad she was at Dave. How Dave didn't appreciate her - after all she was the one who saved him from his drug addictions so many times when he was close to death. How Dave didn't like the kind of music she was doing now, but that's okay, she didn't really like the kind of music he was producing now either. How they're relationship was so dysfunctional, so volatile, and it had been for 30 years. She went on and on, all through dinner. Complaining about Dave. Worrying about Dave. Trashing Dave. After many moments it slowly occurred to me. She's talking about Dave Stewart.


Holy crap. Gossip gold right in front of my face. I was glad I had kept my mouth shut, and shot a quick glance at my husband, hoping he was still oblivious. He tends to get even more googly-eyed than me around celebrities. I needn't have worried. Hubby shot me a look that said, "Wow, she really hates this Dave guy," but he still didn't know she was talking about THAT Dave. Or realize she was THAT Annie.

She also talked about how hard it was for a woman her age to get music produced, to really do the kind of music she wanted to do. I wanted to lean over and exclaim, "We love you Annie! Your music rocks!" but of course I'd taken a vow of fan silence and so just stuffed my face with another piece of unagi instead. If it wasn't awkward before, it would be doubly awkward now to acknowledge her presence after she had just trashed her ex-bandmate all over the place.

Again, I'm not proud I eavesdropped. This was a private moment between her and whoever she was with. Then again, those tables sure were close together. You'd have to be a deaf non-lip-reader to not hear what she was talking about. Not sure what my motivation was for listening so closely though. Morbid curiosity I suppose. I'm also not proud that I'm writing about it. Having a Perez Hilton moment here. But it happened. And it did affect me enough to write about it.

Because you see, Annie didn't come off as all that great during her tirade. After a while I felt pity for her. Thinking to myself that she should let it go. Let it GO already. I mean, how long has it been? What is the life expectancy for something like this anyway? For holding onto a volatile, toxic relationship that should've been let lose years ago. I guess even stars can be co-dependent. At first when I realized who it was she was holding onto, I wanted to give her a hug. But as the minutes wore on, the words coming out of her mouth began to sound narcissistic and childish. A lot of "me me me" and "my my my" as if she had such a horrible lot in life. I glanced her way quickly again and didn't see a star anymore. Just a woman in her 50's, trying to hold onto that golden aura of stardom. That shining mantle of celebrity. Not quite Norma Desmond, but in another few years?

Annie was definitely having a Madonna moment that night. In denial, not aging gracefully, Here's hoping it was just a slip, a bad moment after too much sake during a pity party. I would hate to believe someone I've looked up to for her massive talent would be so, I dunno, near sighted? Unable to age gracefully? It came across as an example of what not to do as you grow older. Don't need the limelight so badly as proof of your own worth.

Annie's still a beautiful and talented woman. I love her to death and always will. And I still feel bad about writing about it. But it's my truth - what came across to me that night. Important enough to share and learn from. We're all human, we all have our weak moments. Unfortunately, Miss Annie had a writer sitting next to her that night. An observer. But I want to thank her too for what she inadvertently taught me without even knowing it. That sometimes the best thing to do is to just surrender your pain. Let it go completely.

We left the restaurant and I told my husband who that woman was. He freaked, so of course we had to casually walk past the restaurant again, just so he could verify what I already knew. That it was Annie Lennox, and that while she was still glamorous and could probably break a champagne flute with her voice, she was a woman holding onto a painful past maybe a little too tightly. Just a flawed human like all of us.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008


So while in London this past June, my husband and I had the great good fortune to watch the 2008 European Cup quarterfinals. Italy versus Spain. It was an exciting match that left us on the edge of our seats. But what was more exciting were the spectators watching. In the Italian wine bar where we happened to be. And the whole night happened purely by accident.

During the weekend in question, a friend had traveled in for a visit from Manchester and was staying at a posh hotel in Notting Hill. We had spent Saturday together, roaming around Knightsbridge in her huband's rented Jaguar, oohing and aahhing over the fashions in Harrods (and the husband's rented Jaguar) before going our separate ways for a rest, promising to meet later for after-dinner drinks. You see, hubby and I were *expected* to make an appearance at dinner with his family, or we would probably have gone straight from Harrods to drinks.

Except dinner ran late, then there was some sort of a communication breakdown, and so we missed each other on the phone multiple times and never hooked up for those drinks. Consequently, husband and I found ourselves in Notting Hill after dinner, on a Saturday night, with nothing to do. We decided to locate a payphone (no cell service us) and tuck in to a bar nearby – having some drinks and calling my friend every couple of hours to hopefully hook up once again before she and her husband had to travel back north.

We were looking for a pub that wasn't crowded to the gills. Instead what we found was, of all things, an Italian wine bar specializing in grappa. I had never even tasted the stuff, but understood from reading food books that it's basically the fermentation of the grape skins discarded after wine making. And it packs a powerful punch – often served in tiny aperitif glasses because of this. Looking at each other we thought, "Why not?" and ordered two - different ones of course, so we could trade and have a mini-tasting. The European cup quarterfinal was on the flat screen - Netherlands versus Russia. Russia, the underdog, was beating the pants off the Dutch. And so we tucked in to enjoy our match and our grappa.

The stuff packed a punch as promised. Strong spirity taste - more like liquor than port or sherry. I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but after tasting hubby's decided I was beginning to like it. The one he ordered was softer, but rather than order his for the second go round, we got two different ones. Why not make it a full tasting? The owner was more than happy to oblige. He and the waiters were full Italian, spoke almost no English, but were eager to show off their country's drink. I ask if he drank grappa, and laughed when he shook his head and replied, "No, no, no, too strong."

We enjoyed ourselves so much that evening we decided to come back the following evening for another quarterfinal match. Italy versus Spain. What better place to watch Italy trounce Spain than in an Italian wine bar? In London? I remembered as a newly-annointed college grad that I had watched a World Cup final in Scotland. At a pub that projected the game from Germany. It was big big fun. The announcers yelling things in German and Scottish football hooligans cursing in brogue at the screen. I didn't understand a thing, but it didn't matter. I could only imagine the excitement that these Italian owners would project during the game.

And so we returned the next night. The place was packed. Beyond packed. With Italians! Imagine that. It must be like Steeler bars in America. Doesn't matter what city you're in, you can always find a Steeler bar - full of people who used to live in Pittsburgh, who at one time passed through Pittsburgh, or their family is from Pittsburgh. Yeah, London isn't that far away from Italy - still it surprised me that it seemed as if every Italian currently visiting or residing in London was crowded into this tiny wine bar with room for maybe 20 people.

But that's what made it all the more exciting. Every goal that came close or just missed by "that much" was met with cheers, then groans. Curse words in Italian flew about the room. Bottles of beer were opened with a hiss, then gulped down. A few people sipped wine, most guzzled beer, just like at American football games. We American tourists were the only ones drinking grappa - working our way down the tasting menu. Looking back on it now I bet we came across as a little hoity-toity, but by that Sunday night I had develope a true taste for the stuff. They don't call it the water of life for nothing.

A few Brits were in the place as well - hooting and hollering along with the rest of them. At one point this guy walked up to the bar - imagine Alexi Sayle with the attitude of Begbie approaching the height of Andre the Giant. He slammed his fist down on the bar and yelled, "Milk! Gimme a milk!" The place howled with laughter. The owner looked confused. "Cosa?"

"Milk!!!" he yelled, slamming down his fist again. The whole place got quiet. "It's for my kid," he clarified, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. The place roared with laughter again.

The kid he spoke of was damn lucky he didn't get his ass kicked from here to Tuesday. Not sure what was in that milk, but as the night wore on, this kid got bolder and bolder. He was maybe 7 or 8 years old, but already had the attitude of a true football hooligan. Every time an Italian player missed a goal, he'd yell, "Haaaaaaa-Haaaaaaaaaa Italy is stuuuuuuupid! You're going to loooooose!" in this shrill, very loud, sing-songy voice. Yelling insults about Italy to a whole roomful of Italians. He was like a blond version of Damian - that creepy kid from the Omen movies. Every time they missed, he'd yell an insult, at one point calling the player, "A stupid girly Italian man," and other stuff that wouldn't dare come out of a hooligan's mouth. The father would just laugh and order another milk.

The kid's yelling ramped up when the penalty kicks began. I just knew someone was going to bean that kid in the head with a beer bottle. Spain would miss and the bar would cheer. Italy would miss and the kid would cheer. Spain would make one and the kid would cheer as if he just won a trip to Disneyworld. Italy would make one and you thought it was VE-day.

In the end, Italy just couldn't hold their end. Spain won, 4-2 on penalties. The kid was ecstatic, jumping up and down, hopped up on milk I guess. The bar was inconsolable. Ten minutes later, the bar was empty. We hadn't finished, and had planned on ordering another round. It was still early after all. The owner polished glasses, looking at us while shrugging his shoulders. The waiters, frowning and morose, started to upend chairs on the tables.

And so ended my introduction to the glorious elixir that is grappa. Putting chairs on tables is the universal sign of, "We're closing, get the hell out." An implied cue to go, and go now. To go very carefully in fact, staggering a little actually. Thing about grappa - you don't realize it's hit you until you stand up. Gotta remember that one for next time...

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Petrus. Desserts.

My last entry, for now, on what was the best meal of my life - created by Marcus Wareing, shortly before he called it quits with Gordon Ramsay and struck out on his own - to succeed valiantly in my opinion. The dinner was June 23, 2008, at Petrus (then and now a Gordon Ramsay holding) now called Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley. I dined with my soulmate and fellow foodie, my husband. For those who are interested, I hear Petrus is going to reopen at a different location sometime in early 2009, but for my money, Marcus has surpassed his mentor.

At this point in the meal, I have enjoyed sweetbreads, suckling pig, numerous amuse bouche, and the best wine I've ever had. All the numerous tastes and smells and sensations have washed over me to the point that everything is a blur. And here comes the cheese course and desserts. Jeez Louise.

Now mind you, I'm writing this, what, six months later, attempting to describe adquately the entire meal, but truthfully, while the remaining courses were delicious they were overshadowed by the mains. It's all a blur. All I can clearly remember is, "Man, that pig was good." But I will do my best.....Marcus deserve all the praise I can give him. He rocks!

The cheese course arrived next. I do remember a delicious walnut and raisin bread was served with it. And I do remember the "Cheese Guy" (is there a title like sommolier?) asking us what kinds we'd like. I think we were so overwhelmed at that point we just shrugged. My notes say, "Goat, hard, soft, blue, stinky." Real descriptive, right? It's just that we were in such a stupor from so much food, and probably drunk, that Velveeta might've tasted great at that point. He was throwing all these French names and regions at us, and here we are the dumb American tourists going, "Uh huh, that sounds good," shaking our heads, zombie-fide from so much deliciousness. I do love cheese though, and felt silly that I didn't know more about what I was eating. To his credit, the Cheese Guy didn't make us feel stupid, but placed one of each on a plate. They were all scrumptious.

The next offering was a pre-dessert amuse bouche: apple jelly, topped with apple granita and vanilla foam in a shot glass. And we have a winner. Favorite dessert of all time. As I get older, I find I can't eat a whole slice of pie, but just a forkful - my tummy can't handle it. This was the perfect forkful of apple pie a la mode, served in a shotglass. The icy-applyness of the granita paired perfectly with the soft airy creaminess of the foam. And the jelly was like the pie filling. It was so damn good I licked the inside of my glass, then upended it and tapped on the bottom to get out every bit. Oh yes, I'm the epitome of decorum, me.

Here's where the problems begin. I kinda remember the cheese, I CLEARLY remember the apple shot glass, but I don't remember the actual desserts that well. It's not that I didn't enjoy them immensely, I did. I remember them being very rich, very tasty. Sadly, I can't even go back to the website (which used to have the menu posted) to look. So sorry. Again, at that point it was like I was drunk on food. And yeah, maybe a little bit on wine too (sheepish grin). I did write down the following notes:

Lime, pineapple on lime biscuit (mine)
Cake with cognac, macerated blueberries & white chocolate (husband's)

Something I won't soon forget - as we were enjoying the desserts, there was a loud CRASH coming from the kitchen. It sounded as if someone dropped a huge stack of metal pans on the floor. Either that or Marcus was supremely pissed off and threw something at the wall. We started, and then the funniest thing happened. Every single person dining turned at the exact same time and looked directly at Je
an Phillipe - head waiter extraordinaire on Hell's Kitchen and our maitre d' for this evening. It was hysterical. He looked at us like, "Well, what do you want ME to do about it?" (in a French accent of course) before shrugging his shoulders and walking off into the kitchen. The whole episode sent us off into gales of laughter because it seemed like something right out of the show. At the time I didn't know about all the trouble Marcus was having with Gordon, and I can't help but wonder if this episode didn't have something to do with that. Or maybe they just dropped a pot...

...In any case, next was the bon-bon tray. The bon-bon tray!?! Never in my life have I dined somewhere that served one. What arrived was an abundance of chocolate - tiny little chocolate morsels in all flavors. What's that scene in Monty Python? "It's just a thin mint." Yeah, I kinda felt like that, like just one chocolate would force me to start calling, "Bring me a bucket!" But I ventured forth anyway, and selected a chocolate-covered Turkish delight which melted in my mouth on contact. Hubby got a mango/passionfruit chocolate. Of course we each took teeny bites and traded. That's what married foodie couples do - NEVER order the same thing, and always trade for tastings. Both were out of this world. And I do remember them.

Did we want to end this glorious meal with cognac? Even though it was a once-in-a-lifetime event we passed. Too much wine and rich food (i.e., old tummies). Coffee? I don't think we did, and now I'm sorry. At this point it was late and I remember thinking about the staff, and how they probably wanted to clean up and go. As we left the restaurant, supremely sated and feeling very happy, there were still three or four couples dining. I remember thinking, "Crap! We should've stayed! We need to drag this evening out more so it won't end!"

Now I wish we'd stayed because with this economy lord knows if we will ever experience anything like that again. But again, both of us have worked for restaurants. So while we were there for one night on the other side of the glass, pretending to be wealthy, and enjoying all that life has to offer, at the same time we were remembering what it felt like to look out of the kitchen door porthole, wishing those rich assholes would leave so we could go home.

The wait staff were also a huge part of what made this experience such a memorable one, and another reason Marcus has those two stars. All through the meal they were present, but not present, whipping by with menus, glasses, our courses. Gliding by effortlessly as though they were dancing. Everything from the first amuse bouche to the last bon-bon was perfectly choreographed. When I flagged down a waiter to ask for directions to the restroom, he immediately stopped what he was doing, grandly pulled the table out from us (without spilling anything) and walked me to the door himself. Someone else who noticed my return stopped what they were doing to replace my napkin with a new one. Now that's service. And I think that's way we didn't stay. People who work so hard deserve a break.

More than once Bruce and I looked around and noticed how bored the other diners seemed to be. The boredom of the supremely wealthy who sigh with ennui because they dine like this all the time. Ho-hum. One couple across from us didn't speak their entire meal. Meanwhile we were living right in the moment, cherishing each bite, each sip of wine, and for weeks after that, talking about how stupendous this was - the meal of our lives. We still talk about it. Thank you Marcus.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Petrus. Main Course.

Another entry in the continuing narrative that is the best meal of my life - so far. In London. At what was once Petrus, but is now Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley.

So after finishing several amuse bouche and a glorious appetizer course, we were clasping our hands in glee to set upon our mains like a pack of wild hounds. Really, the anticipation was just that huge, because not only had I ordered farm-raised Scottish halibut, but hubby had ordered Norfolk suckling pig - which had been marinated, then cooked for 24 STRAIGHT HOURS! Holy crap. So basically they had begun cooking this succulent juicy piece of pork yesterday while we were tooling around South Bank trying to find a place that served tea and scones. The mind reels.

Now don't get me wrong, I love halibut and ordered it specifically because it was from Scotland. I had had the best oysters of my LIFE in Scotland (and I need to write about that actually). Yeah, yeah, don't order fish on a Monday, whatever Tony Bourdain. I just knew that this fish, here, at this time, would be out of this world. And I was anticipating it - but I was literally jumping out of my SEAT at the thought of eating that pig.

Our main courses arrived. My halibut was delicious. So perfectly cooked it flaked right on my fork the second the two made contact. Served with charred asparagus and asparagus puree. A transparently curling slice of parmesan was arranged on top. Genius paring, as the salty parmesan was really good with the tender fish and the smoky bitterness of the asparagus. The asparagus was charred to perfection - charred way better than either one of us has been able to do on a grill at home. Pencil-thin spears, so tender they just fell away in your mouth. Out of season? Yes, but when you've got a party going on in your mouth you're not one to split hairs...

...And the pig? The pig. I could wax poetic on the pig. It was all I could do to convince my husband to let me try it as all I could see were his hands and face tearing into it like the Tasmanian Devil. Bones were flying! I did manage a tiny chop and some crispy skin. The chop was so small it was almost quail-like. Except this quail tasted so much better. Like a porksicle. So yummy it's criminal. Words cannot adequately express the pork yummy goodness of euphoria I was feeling as I obliterated that chop and chewed up that skin in all its crispy crunchiness. So good. When I was a kid I used to read the Little House books and was jealous when Laura was given pork cracklins during hog-killin' time. This must be what that's like. Crunchy porky goodness squeaking between your teeth and a porksicle to go along with it. Sigh. I've toyed off and on over the years about being vegetarian, but after eating Marcus's pig those thoughts just floated clear away. Even watching a horrific documentary about hormone-injected factory-produced piglike creatures couldn't tear me away from this stuff. It's just that damn good.

Not to be outdone, the sides presented with the pork were equally yummy - although it took me a while to remember them while writing this as the memory of that pork seems to have erased all else. The suckling pig did have chicory with it in some form or fashion which added a nutty dimension - as if you needed another dimension! Before we devoured the pig entirely, a waiter brought over a tiny steaming copper pot of the most finely whipped mashed potatoes I'd ever seen. He delicately spooned a tiny hill of them onto hubby's plate before placing the pot on its own little serving tray. Jealousy doesn't describe it. I got a few mouthfuls, but the remainder of the meal saw me gazing hungrily over at that little copper pot like it contained an antidote I needed so I wouldn't die right there at the table. These potatoes were so smooth it was like you were eating milk. So smooth you could drink them like Jamba Juice. Yeah, I love asparagus, but....those potatoes!

I must admit after all that deliciousness I knew there would be dessert. There had to be, right? Oh my god, how am I going to fit in dessert? Must. Have. Willpower. I'm not of the age where I can necessarily eat like Henry VIII anymore. But here? I'll try...

To check out Marcus Wareing and hear what a truly cool chef he is, check out his video interview, which he did ONE HOUR before opening his new place. Grace under pressure indeed.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Petrus. First Course.

The next entry in my continuing saga that is "the best dinner of my life". As described in previous posts, hubby and I dined at Petrus in June before it moved/closed/changed, whatever you want to call it. But the important thing to note is that Marcus Wareing was still at the helm (and still is actually). A very important note because I firmly believe he was the reason why this meal was so special - and why I'm spending several blog entries describing it!

I've been reading some reviews of his new place on the Internet, something now I think I shouldn't do lest it color my own. My experience was in early summer after all (months ago) and I'm not a professional restaurant critic. I'm glad I'm not - maybe I'll bring a perspective the professionals can't. I don't know every detail, I don't take pictures. Mine are impressions, snapshots. What I clearly remember with a very few notes. What stood out to me. A layman's perspective from someone who just enjoys good food, who sees eating as an experience, not just a way to stuff your craw.

As we entered, who should be standing there but Jean-Phillipe Susilovic, Gordon Ramsay's maitre d' waiter from Hell's Kitchen. Working at 10:30 on a Monday night? You would think his celebrity might have bought him some time off, but no. Here he was smiling broadly and welcoming us to Petrus, napkin draped over his arm, looking all the world like a cartoon caricature of a French maitre d'. Not that this is a bad thing. Where he appears miniature and birdlike on the show, here he is tall and very handsome. He uses broad sweeping gestures, one eyebrow seemingly always raised. His graciousness comes across as purely genuine, not just something dreamed up for the tourists. Very professional. I am swept off my feet.

He seats us, placing the menus in our hands. Would we like some champagne? Why of course, we're about to spend over a month's food allowance on one meal. Why not? The champagne tastes delicious, particularly in this atmosphere. Petrus is dark and purple. Very purple and plush. Tables draped in white encircle the space and the walls are very eggplant. But oddly, it's not too dark because of wee halogens directed to each person's spot. So while I am VERY farsighted and often need my reading glasses to look over a menu, here I don't. It's perfectly bright, just bright enough to read what I can order. Wow. Love that. It's a little detail many restaurants today too easily forget. As my old interior decorator friend David used to say, "Lighting is everything."

Our first amuse bouche was a foie gras biscuit - one teeny tiny triangle of foie gras with a thin crust of wafer. It dissolved in my mouth like butter. A sip of the champagne just heightened the experience to the sublime. Little bubbly explosions with a background of earthy, buttery goodness.

While we waited for our wine to arrive, we enjoyed some pre-appetizer munchies, arranged just on our large, round table. At last a restaurant that doesn't try to cram two people and 8 courses into a 2-foot by 2-foot square little space. Here we had ROOM. The hummus was yummy, especially when you dipped a parmesan cheese straw into it. the honey potato campagne bread was delicious with butter - thick chewy crust, with lots of meaty sweet bread inside.

And then our wine arrived. A 2003 Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Au Vellé’, domaine Denis Mortet. I simply ADORED this wine, and relished every sip of it with the meal. Again, the sip after the bite heightened the taste, and made what was "more" - MORE. The sommolier did a terrific job of selecting the champagne and wine. We told him what we liked, what we would be ordering, and he went to work seamlessly. This wine was delicious - it tasted like silk, smooth, velvety on the tongue. Just yummy.

Second amuse bouche - a shot glass full of cucumber and green tomato gazpacho. I will be making my gazpacho with green tomatoes from now on. It tasted like the best gazpacho you've ever had, but with the tartness of green tomatoes and the added garden pasture herbiness of the cucumbers. I have never tasted anything as light and summery and palate-cleansing as this in an amuse bouche. Just lovely.

After looking at the menu, my husband and I agreed we wouldn't order the Chef's Tasting menu. Not because of cost, mind you, we were ready to fly to the moon after all. Simply because there were so many other things we wanted to try. I've since learned (from Bill Buford's "Heat") that ordering a Chef's Tasting at or near closing time in a restaurant is an amateur move, a CARDINAL sin. The staff is ready to close up shop and nothing pisses them off more. I'm so glad we didn't. Even with a reservation I would've felt pretty stupid. It's not that I want to come off as a know it all when it comes to restaurants, but I have worked in them, and really appreciate how hard the staff works. I want to respect them and honor them by having the meal the way they would themselves. So no tasting menu for us.

First course - I ordered the sweetbreads having never had them before, I figured, hey, if you're going to eat offal for the first time, might as well have them by someone who knows damn well how to cook them. Honey got the foie gras - he's a foie gras fanatic from way back - one of the reasons I married him.

My sweetbreads were a taste of heaven. A huge slab of them rested on parsnip puree with a Sauterne sauce. The sweetbreads were equal parts earthy, nutty, redolent of the earth with a pleasant, not overpowering gaminess. I've had liver and kidney and heart - not prepared great or anything, and have often found the flavor just too strong. This was anything but. The organ meat taste was soft like a pillow and the sauce provided a sweet wine background to the flavor. The parsnip puree was a perfect foil. Mashed potatoes but a step up.

I got exactly one bite of husband's foie gras - he wouldn't let me have more. Served alongside a bing cherry sauce and hazlenut puree. Pure genius. The two "sides" added a sweet dimension to the foie gras, making it almost like a dessert from the earth. And the foie gras portion was huge, as it should be. Too often you order it, pay through the teeth, only to get a skimpy poorly-prepared version of this misunderstood item. This was a slab, perfectly perfectly cooked. It didn't just dissolve in my mouth, it almost didn't exist there. So buttery and flavorful of the earth with that tart aftertaste of cherries followed by the sweet nuttiness of hazlenuts. Follow that up with a sip of the Geveray Chambertin and you've got the most perfect sublime mouthful possible. My husband agreed it was the best preparation of foie gras he had EVER tasted in his life. We still talk about it.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Petrus. Pre-dinner drinks.

So, FINALLY, I've sat down and actually plotted out the design and architecture of what was easily the best meal of my life. As previously described, hubby and I went to Petrus in London back in June, before it became Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, (pictured) not knowing it had just been named, "The Best Restaurant in London."

We took a cab over which is an experience in itself - I've taken London cabs before here in the States and still wonder why more companies don't use them - they're so easy to get in and out of! Particularly when you've had an 8-course meal with a pre-dinner cocktail, pre-dinner champagne, plus wine (wink wink). And the little fold-down seats are adorable.

Anyway, we arrived early for a drink. As we sat in the lounge and perused the 10+ page cocktail menu, we could tell immediately that things here were just a bit different. Remember that Sesame Street song? "One of these things is not like the others..." well, it was kind of like that. We felt ever so slightly out of place. Now both of us were dressed to the nines mind you, but still, the whole vibe here just DRIPPED wealth. These people weren't just rich. They were wealthy. At ease with themselves and their lush surroundings. They were used to this stuff. Meanwhile, my hubby and I had, "We're trying too hard! We're dumb American tourists!" emblazoned in Sharpie pen across our foreheads. Even the young female escort hanging all over two rich old farts in the corner seemed more at home in this place than us. And that's saying something because you could tell she hadn't been invited. She was purchased. She was ol' "Escort #9" with a bullet.

It didn't help that the cocktail waitress came over and said, ever so curtly, "May I HELP you? Are you LOOKING for SOMETHING?" At that moment, I was so grateful for my sweet but inwardly evil, brassy southern upbringing, as well as my training with Chatham alums. In a voice that dripped with honey (and hopefully was not trying too hard) I stated, "Why yes, we're here for a dinner reservation and would like to get a drink."

Her whole face changed. I guess the magic word was "reservation" because not only did she swing into action, but three or four other hostesses came back frequently from then on to check and see if we were all right. Now THAT is more like it! We were showered with fancy cocktail nibbles and the hostess offered to walk us over to the restaurant when we were ready to go. And of course the drinks would be added to our dinner bill. No fuss, no muss. I could get used to this.

My cocktail, simply put, was stupendous. Tall glass, crushed ice, two straws, and god knows what else. That night is such a blur that I have absolutely no recollection of what I ordered. And I can't even go back and check. Their drink menu used to be online, but no more, as explained in my previous post. In any case, it tasted of citrus and herbs and just a slight spice from either ginger or cardamom. And it completely kicked my ass. By the time our reservation was at hand, I was doing one of those walks in tottering heels where you hope that no one notices you probably just did 6 tequila shots. But I wasn't too far gone to make an UTTER fool of myself. Just tipsy enough to be sassy at a party, not the embarrassing lush in the corner with her eye makeup half down her face.

You see, I had fasted for most of that day. My tummy can't take all the rich foods it used to, so in preparation I had taken two Prilosec, eaten lots of fruit, swilled gallons of water, and had only eaten a ginger digestive with some tea before heading off for our 10:45pm reservation. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. At 10:35 that evening, I was drunk, hungry, feeling blissfully happy, and walking with a strut, playing at being wealthy as the hostess escorted both of us across the lobby to our reservation. I felt like a million bucks, and we were headed to what we knew would be the meal of our lives. Does it get any better than this? I think not.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


So while in London, I had probably the greatest meal of my entire frikkin' life at Petrus. A 2-Michelin-starred-Gordon Ramsay establishment right in the heart of either Mayfair, Knightsbridge, or Chelsea depending on what map book you follow. It's located within The Berkeley Hotel.

What's weird is that while researching the links for this story, I learned it won't be a "Gordon Ramsay Holding" for long (which I bet is why our old "eff-bomb" master looks so worried. Notice whose face is on the website? Not Marcus Wareing from the looks of it, too many crags! No, it's GORDON, and the website says that Petrus will be closing September 9, moving to a new location in early 2009.

What the Petrus website doesn't tell you is that Gordon's spectacular young protege was just named as London's "Top Chef" and his restaurant, "The Best in London." No longer Petrus, it will now be renamed Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley. Evidently, Gordon and Marcus have come to a not-so-nice parting of the ways, and Marcus has ended up on top. Too many TV shows Gordon? Click here for the story.

So basically, I am not alone in thinking that our dinner at Petrus was incredible. It was. And I knew it would be from the beginning. Not only did I have to make reservations a month in advance, but the only one available was for 10:45pm on a Monday night. "I'll take it!" I exclaimed, I know, way too enthusiastically in my boorish American way. As foodies, my husband and I were just so thrilled to have the experience of a 2-Michelin star place - and the thought we might run into Gordon, our favorite angry celebrity chef, was just icing on the cake.

Now I feel like I didn't give Marcus nearly the credit he deserved while we ate there. Yes, we had reserved because of the stars and Gordon's name, but secretly all along, it was Marcus behind the scenes giving us the meal of our lives. Good going dude. You deserve every accolade, and I'm sorry for the oversight. Gordon who?

I wonder what happens with Jean-Phillipe though? Oddly enough, he was *working* and working hard, late on a Monday night, the night we dined (more on that tomorrow). I hope Gordon is at least giving him a great compensation package, although I bet ol' JP won't be leaving Gordon's grasp just yet...

(Stay tuned to tomorrow's episode for a course-by-course rundown of the place. I swoon just to think of it.....)

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Victoria Albert Museum.

So my entire family went to London in June, and I'm still processing everything I saw, felt, experienced, heard, and tasted. It was wonderful. London is such an easy city to visit - beyond the language barrier thing, it's just so relaxing to me. It's easy to get around by Tube, and the people are incredibly nice. I never tire of how they say things, just ever so slightly different, with that fantastic accent. The food is to die for good - Indian, Thai, even the Italian was awesome. And I love British cuisine (yes, they have a cuisine). Pigeon, suckling pig, haddock, beef, every bit of it yummy. Every time I go to London I tend to turn British for exactly the amount of time I'm there. I'll rise and take my tea with milk, eat scones with tons of clotted cream and jam every chance I get, and say things like "bloody marvelous" and "chuffed". And drink nothing but Guinness.

Anyway, we saw a lot of things, my husband and I, including my favorite place on the face of this god's green earth - the Victoria Albert Museum. The museum is a wondrous hodge-podge of sculpture, paintings, clothes, and artifacts. Everything from the gowns worn by The Supremes to giant Buddhas from China and Thailand, to ornamental vases from Greece, to Catherine the Great's tiara. Basically everything pillaged from the colonies, right? I actually learned on this trip that the museum was founded after an exhibition was held in the 1800's highlighting the artifacts for the first time. People came from far and near to see these things, which included, "The largest pile of granite ever produced on this continent or any other!" (I'm not making this stuff up). You forget that back then people could barely eat, much less travel to India, so seeing an actual stuffed tiger or a carved chair, or even a huge load of granite was an incredibly big deal. They even advertised it like that - "See the World in Just One Afternoon."

Well we tried. After getting much too late of a start (vacation time) we arrived around 1:30 - the place closes at 5pm. And we immediately looked at each other, crestfallen. There was no WAY we'd even make a dent. We'd just have to come back the next day too. And we did, and experienced almost two days of the most wonderful sightseeing and photographic opportunities I had had the entire trip. Because the Victoria Albert is one of the few museums where they let you take pictures. I went stark raving crazy with the camera - trying out angles, lighting, etc. My little amateur photography brain cogs were spinning out of control, and my little no-nothing camera didn't have a clue what to do (man, do I need an upgrade!). Click here to see the results of my attempt to be "arty farty".

I don't know what it is about this place - the whole time we were in London I kept raving about it to my husband, but the days went by and I kept putting off going there. It was like I was hoarding it all to myself. When we finally went, I thought, "Why in hell did I wait so long? Now we'll never see everything!" I had forgotten how much I adored this place - the hallowed sculpture halls where your footfalls echo, the maze of rooms you can literally lose yourself in. One minute you're staring at an ancient Persian tile, only to wander into an area dedicated to Queen Victoria's funeral (complete with the actual film of the event). The old Vicotorian-ness of the place fascinates me. The smell of old furniture. The calm stares of the Buddhas. The tiny, intricate netsuke, so painstakingly figured, so artfully placed. It's a place for losing yourself, it's a place for wandering.

I gazed at a wooden statue of the Chinese bodhisattva Guan Yin for the longest time. The picture I took is here, but it does nothing to capture the peace emanating from the pores of this carving. Or the immensity of the work - it's HUGE! He sits in repose, but with one leg raised, ready to go help at any moment. Because Guan Yin is the one with a thousand ears, the one who hears every prayer. What a connection I felt with this piece! It was like nothing I had ever experienced in my love of sculpture. I wanted to pray in front of it.

The plaster cast rooms at the Victoria Albert are equally stunning. One side holds casts of statuary and entire church fronts from Europe, the other side is wholly dedicated to Italy (go figure). This area was closed, but after an hour of traversing the museum maze and locating the balcony, I got some great "deconstructed" shots of the curators arranging things. Greek gods half-in/half-out of their packing crates. Very "Thomas Crowne Affair".

Over on the European side, a statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head is slammed up against tombs of medieval knights. A huge lion's head overhangs a cast of Madonna and child, almost as if he were preparing to eat. A cast of some medieval pope looks forlornly at a sweeping depiction of the Goddess Diana. A cast of a man deep in thought, his palm raised to his head looks beyond that of a Turkish prince, his hands held out in prayer. It's again, a beautiful, gorgeous hodge-podge. At one point I was so overwhelmed by it all in, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty that flowed out and around everything, that it was just too much. I began to cry with joy. A heavy sigh escaped me and I was just so damn grateful to be right here in this moment, in this time. So much damn beauty. Everywhere I looked.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Graham in Amsterdam.

London - which reminds me of Graham Norton - which reminds me of Amsterdam. Why? Funny you should ask...

If you don't know Graham, you should. Go here, and read. To me he is the funniest guy on telly - his spitfire wit and natty way of dressing are unmatched. It's rare that I don't watch one of his shows and pee my pants laughing.

Anyway when my husband and I went to Amsterdam last May, it rained. Not surprising. It rains a lot in Amsterdam, and one afternoon we were caught in a raging downpour. We had just had a liquid lunch of Palme at our new favorite beer garden. Can't locate it on a map, but could take you right there if we were in the country. I just remember the building was green, which hubby says means it was a Grolsch bar. In any case, we were drunkedly meandering our way down a back alley full of antique shops. The big fat drops that began to pummel us made us meander a helluva lot faster.

As we were running for shelter, we noticed someone else was biking for shelter too. This guy was booking it down the alley going in the opposite direction. Pedaling like the devil was after him. He breezed past us so fast I felt it. Had to jump out of the way actually, not to get run over.

Now you see a lot of that in Amsterdam too, people pedaling like all get out. But this guy was different. For one thing, he was wearing an orange suit. A big, bright, orange suit. With a purple shirt. And very shiny, shiny shoes. In the rain. Which is probably why he was pedaling like the devil. Not to ruin his suit. And I knew him from somewhere........

"Eddie Izzard! Eddie Izzard! I screamed at my husband. "That was Eddie Izzard on the bike!"

"Are you sure?" my husband asked.

"Oh I'm sure! I'd know him anywhere!" I yelled in my drunken stupor, jumping up and down and waving my arms. I was so excited! Lil' ol' me had seen a celebrity!

You know how some people get chatty when they drink? I talk a positive blue streak, so as we ran for cover, I pelted my husband with comments about what a big Eddie Izzard fan I was. And wouldn't this be a great story to tell when we got back? And wasn't it cool that we saw someone famous in Amsterdam.......and........and........and.......and then it dawned on I sobered up...........that it wasn't Eddie at all. It was Graham.

Doh! I'm such a dumbass! Hey, what do I know? I'm just a drunk American tourist, and to this former fag hag all those fey British comics look alike, right? (sheepish grin). My husband cracked up when I told him. And he still gives me shit about it to this day.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was pretty embarrassed. Does this mean I have to turn in my Fag Hag Union card? Because I can't keep my gays straight? (Yeah, I know, Eddie just dresses like a woman, or used to, but you get my meaning). I should've known it wasn't Eddie anyway, because Graham doesn't wear heels. And he's way funnier. And he dresses better. Just look up "natty" in the dictionary, and you'll see his picture.

Why this story? I'm headed to London this very week, and from watching Graham's show I've learned he preys on unwitting victims who happen to be on or near South Bank. One week he placed a phone box right by the London Eye and let it ring. When a guy picked, he picked *him* up, the entire phone box, using a fork lift and brought him into the studio to be an unexpected guest on the show.

So if you see my husband and I trolling the South Bank in the next week or so, looking for suspicious phone boxes attached to forklifts, you'll know why. I'm just trying to get on Graham's show so I can be a "stupid American tourist" and get some autographs, and tell my story. Hey, I'm not proud, I just think he's HIGH-sterical.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Still looking forward to London. Still pouring over the Time Out guides and maps. Found out last night that it's Hampton Court palace I want to go to. It's off the main maps, down south by Kew Gardens. But no worries, I'm sure there are trains or something. Tudor central. My guide says you can sometimes hear Catherine Howard shrieking. Cool. Now, if only I would bump into Jonathan Rhys-Meyers trolling the halls there......

Really looking forward to dim sum in Chinatown as well. London's Chinatown is so cool, way cooler than New York or D.C. I don't know why I like it so much, it's more decorated or something. And at night there's lots of neon, bright colors, really great food.

I first ate dim sum 12 years ago on a 4-day visit to London. I stayed with a friend and his Japanese girlfriend in a tiny flat above a porn shop in Piccadilly. At night the neon would flash red, reflecting off the pools of water between the cobblestones. The clanking of pipes banging together, market stalls being constructed, would wake me up every day at 5 am.

I remember his girlfriend was so friendly and helpful during my short visit. She directed me to the Doc Marten store in Leicester Square (one of my many meccas) and when I wanted to visit the Nicole Farhi boutique, she traversed the maze of tiny mews off Bond Street with me despite protestations from boyfriend that he was "bored!"

And that Sunday, we went to Gerrard Place for dim sum. New World (at 1 Gerrard Place) is one of the last restaurants in the area that does the old-school practice of wheeling the trolleys of dumplings, buns, and other goodies around to the hungry masses. The place is huge, three floors, and I remember my friend and I being the only Caucasians in the place. Always a good sign of yummy things to come.

His girlfriend helped steer us to the best stuff - "Oh yeah, try that!" and "Ugh. Stay away from those," and as we stuffed ourselves she translated the conversations and drama going on around us. "That couple is Taiwanese and they're fighting about money," or "This group over here is Korean and they say they're hung over," and "This group of girls is Chinese, and the one girl is mad at her boyfriend." It was cool - a running, gossipy commentary as we stuffed our faces with Chinese goodness. Great hangover food too.

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Monday, June 2, 2008


So I've got London on the brain. We leave in a little more than three weeks and I can think on nothing else these days. It'll be my second time there, the first being a whirlwind 4-day excursion down from Scotland, oh what, 12 years ago. I bet a lot has changed. No London Eye back then for one thing.

I've been scouring my Time Out guide for the best places to go, our reservations at Gordon Ramsey's Petrus are made (yay!) so what if it's 10:45 on a Monday night? For this small-town girl eating at a 2 Michelin star establishment is a complete dream. I can't frikkin' wait.

After seeing Ewan MacGregor in a full-length Belstaff jumpsuit here, I'm also determined to visit this store, and possibly buy something (eating Ramen noodles for the next 10 years). Yeah, superficial I know, but I bet a Steve McQueen-esque leather jacket would look mighty fine on my husband's Triumph (and on my own bike someday).

It also doesn't help that this trip kinda coincides with the season finale of the Tudors. I've been neck deep in Tudor intrigue for the past month, and now I get to go where it all happened! Tower of London and all those palaces that I can never keep straight here I come! (I just remember they're all connected by barges - in the show they're always heading off to some barge to travel to the "other" palace down the river)

But I digress. Even though it was only 4 days, London remains one of my favorite cities. So international. So damn clean. The Tube so efficient. And high tea. And Graham Norton.

The place I remember best was Westminster Abbey. Being an English major, it was my London mecca. The friend I was staying with in Piccadilly had lived in London 2 years and had never been, which floored me. How could you not go to the place where all the literary giants were memorialized? Where Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were buried on top of each other - two women who HATED each other with a passion, forced to share a tomb for all time. I couldn't wait to go.

I arrived just before 10 on a beautiful sunny day. The place is enormous, just huge. I spent hours traveling past every statue, looking at every dead British notable there was. The throne for the King of England is there - a beat-up, wooden chair with names carved all over it. Such a homely thing, used for such great purpose. Evidently back in the day it wasn't seen as that big a deal, and doubled as a chair for the royal schoolchildren, who would carve their initials in it when they got bored from classes.

I loved the immensity of the place - you could really get lost just wandering around every little hallway and turret.

And then I stumbled upon the Literary wing. Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, D. H. Lawrence, all the greats were here. It stunned me so much I had to sit down. Inside I did realize that it wasn't that these giants of literature were actually buried here, but the thought that someone had chosen to have them all remembered in such a grand, holy place made me feel that it warranted a long moment of my time. I took a seat in a pew and let it all sink in. And then I pulled out my journal to write. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. To write in this place.

I sat there the longest while, just putting down my thoughts (wonder where that journal is now....hmmmmmm........should find it and put it here) and as I finished, the bells began to chime. Twelve noon. Time for the daily 15-minute period of silence to honor the dead. For 15 minutes all you could hear throughout this ancient giant structure were soft footfalls, and the creaking of pews as people got up to leave. No one spoke. It was one of the most spiritual, holy moments I've ever experienced. The weight of the history of this place was all around me, and through me, and in my bones. I'll never forget it. I can't wait to go back there.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


In July 2003, I finally had a chance to show Scotland to my husband. The country I love so much. I remember feeling it was my duty to show him everything, every sooty building, every piece of shortbread, every drop of smoky, peaty whiskey, every drop of brogue that I could get someone to utter. My husband is my best friend, and as such, you want to share the things you love with your friend. Sharing Scotland was a part of that.

I was so familiar with Scotland by then that when we stepped off the plane, I felt like I had arrived home and half expected a large group of family to be there to greet us. Memories flooded me at every turn.

My first trip had been way back in 1994, when my father was kind enough to give me a graduation present of a month-long writer’s retreat held at the Glasgow School of Art.

Our classes were held in a room designed entirely by Charles Rennie Macintosh. The chairs we flung ourselves into every day cost 10,000 pounds apiece. We met A. L. Kennedy – who had just been nominated for a Booker prize and who read to our class from her latest novel. When I asked for writing advice, she told me pointedly, “If it isn’t fun, stop doing it,” not the advice I expected, but have kept close ever since.

The halls of the Glasgow School of Art were entirely filled with plaster reproductions of great marble masterpieces: Venus, David, The Pieta. They sat in the hall looking like they had been shoved there – placed in storage to make room for better, more modern art. Instead of being placed in an “oh so careful” way, David’s elbow was shoved in Venus’s face. They were crowded into the hallway like mannequins in storage.

We spent our days writing poetry, taking day trips every fourth day or so. In Edinburgh while most of us visited the castle, the rest sat outside, downing Guinness. I had seen the castle the previous weekend, and besides, it was too nice a day to make that particular trek up that particular hill again.

Earlier that day in Edinburgh I stopped into a café and bought their specialty coffee – the “Keith Richards” which was simply four shots of espresso. Genius. Best. Name. Ever.

In New Lanark we visited an 1800’s version of a societal utopia, I suppose. Whole families lived and worked in this community, toiling in the cotton mill to make cloth. They bought their goods from the company store, and the children spent what little free time they had going to the company school. I remember running out of the mill room in a panic – literally running out for air. Inside was heavy with misery. The walls reeked of it. It hung in the air like smoke, so thick I couldn’t breathe. Too many ghosts to count in that place. When the others asked what was wrong, I shrugged and said nothing.

I bought a postcard in the gift shop – a group of children from the time period standing outside that same building. I still have it now, to remind me of what I felt there. To remind me to be grateful.

One day trip was to this crazy artist’s estate somewhere just north of the Campsies mountain range. His name was Ian something, I forget. He had spent the past 30 years creating a sculpture garden – 30 years creating his own version of Eden. You’d walk through these woods and come upon a huge golden head sticking out of the ground. Words like “Listen” carved on a giant rock beside a brook. While there, I watched sheep walk up a hill for two hours as the sun crossed before some clouds, creating a Monet picture before my eyes. It was like watching time pass.

Back then, we spent our nights in Glasgow getting drunk on cheap whiskey in smoke-filled, oak-paneled pubs, pint glass rings on every table, nicotine stains on the ceiling. Afterwards we’d pile into basement dance clubs like Furry Murray’s to drink cider with currant – a drink the color of blood. One of my newfound Scottish friends used to turn up his nose at it, declaring it “too gothic”. We’d stumble out of the clubs at closing to devour chicken pakora takeaway. It was the best of times, it was the drunkest of times.

So began my love affair with Scotland – I trekked back at least once a year from then on, even living there for a time. The list of my Scottish loves has only grown: Milky Earl Grey tea with jammy toast, scones with clotted cream, fish and chips. Rose’s lime marmalade. Thick-cut bacon. Tuna with sweetcorn. The smell of Byers Road on a cold February day, sky the color of steel, a sharp, tinny smell mixed with truck exhaust. The smell of dirty snow. Rolling your own cigarettes with Drum tobacco with newfound friends, huddling by the gas fire. East Enders. Indian takeaway. Well-dressed dark-haired boys with blue eyes up to no good. Rolling, thundering Scottish brogue. McEwans and Scottish ale on draft. Ewan MacGregor. Trainspotting. Robert Carlyle, Begbie, Hamish MacBeth. Even Irn Bru.

And whiskey. Lovely, smoky Islay ones. Sweet ones from the Highlands tasting of heather and honey. Peppery Talisker. All tasting of Scotland. All tasting of home.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008


So my husband and I went to Amsterdam in May 2007, and try as I might, I cannot get some of the images out of my mind. I was prepared for the tulips, the canals, the wooden shoes, but no one prepared me for the bikes.

There are hundreds of bikes, literally everywhere. Bikes chained to bike stands, bikes chained to outdoor tables, chairs, bikes chained to drainpipes and fence posts and even to other bikes. There are bikes chained everywhere. In fact, there are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people - I read several places that it's because there's a bike stolen like every 10 seconds or something crazy. So having more bikes than people would make sense I suppose. It all evens out.

You'd see the strangest, most eerily beautiful tableaux play out on bikes. Our first night we were enjoying the first of many delicious Indonesian meals while sitting outside (you don't find Indonesian anything in Charlottesville that I know of) and even though the restaurant was in a narrow side alley just off one of the main canals, bikes sped by frequently. I learned to watch where I stepped not only in front of me, but beside and behind me as well whenever we walked anywhere (I won't even go into the clusterfuck that takes place while trying to maneuver yourself across a street filled with bikes and the oncoming #2 tram to the central station).

As we ate, a rickety old bike glided by. Literally glided as if it were floating like an air hockey puck. The guy driving was old, probably 70, with a grey, wispy combover and bad teeth (okay, I didn't see his teeth but I imagine from the rest of him that they might be on the mossy side). He was dressed to the nines in his best suit, you could tell. It was worn, but fashionable - a nice dark bluish-grey. Nice dark tie as well.

This stood out, that on an early Saturday evening some old guy was riding a bike like he hadn't a care in the world - with his front basket filled to brimming, spilling over with bright fuschia-colored tulips. Just beautiful. Watching him glide was like looking at a painting. An old guy, on a bike, with tulips. My brain couldn't compute scene all at once without thinking of oil pastels and turpentine and acrylics.

I wondered where he was headed, what he was thinking, why had he bought the tulips? Were they for his apartment or for someone else? Was he headed to early cocktails and then dinner with someone special? Or had he bought them.....just because. Just because in Amsterdam you buy tulips because they're there and they're plentiful and it's the season for tulips and they're pretty. The whole incident lasted maybe 20 seconds but the scene has stayed in my head ever since. I found Amsterdam to be like that more than any other city I've visited. It's a city of images, little visual moments like that.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

More Travel Advice? Why?

I love to travel. Along with eating and writing, it's one of my life's passions. I travel every chance I get. If I have a choice between staying home and resting, or going somewhere new and gathering new life experiences, I'll always choose the latter.

I've been a lot of places, and there are a lot of places I've yet to go. So what makes me think I can offer better travel advice than the gazillion books, websites, and travel agents out there? Not one goddamn thing.

But I do think I have a unique perspective to offer. I'm a laid-back person, even sloth-like, in every aspect of my life except two: food and travel. In these things I'm a total curmudgeon, a total bitch, a complete asshole. I have high expectations. That's all.

Part of me is disheartened that I've become this way. I used to tease my father-in-law for being so picky, but not anymore. I've had some incredible adventures in some incredible places. Is it too much to expect this kind of experience all the time, every time? I don't think so.

And so here are my reviews, here is my advice, without apology. Take them or leave them, but I'll always be honest, and I'll always be impartial. At times I'll be totally heartless, but I also won't hesitate to give credit where credit is due.

When I started this particular blog I fully intended to offer reviews and opinions about where I've gone and what I've seen. In fact, I had done some of that already. But the exercise left me flat. I discovered the real story during the journey is what you see in between. That for me has more meaning. It may be that I've just discovered travel writing and love it, or that I've finally realized that there are already millions of reference books out there that can help you escape Charlottesville better than me. Who knows? But telling the stories of where I've been feels better. It feels right.

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where i've escaped...

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