Archive for September, 2008

Anniversary in London Town

Monday, September 1st, 2008
At long last, here’s the full report of our weekend in London to celebrate our anniversary. 
Absolutely Fabulous…
We headed down to London on the train after work and went straight away to check in at our hotel. Through one of these “mystery hotel” deals, we ended up in the Hilton in Holland Park. We only had enough time to drop our bags, freshen up, and get dressed for the evening before heading out again; the room was certainly pleasant on our first inspection and there was a bathtub, so it got a thumbs up from Alex. Once we were dressed we set out to find a quick bite of dinner before our evening’s entertainment and had a stroll around the area.
Holland Park is a very pleasant residential neighborhood seeming to be comprised mostly of expensive white row-houses of ever-so-slightly-smaller order of grandeur than those in Notting Hill. The main thoroughfare is a shady treelined avenue dotted with an assortment of restaurants, spas, meditation centers, and the establishments of personal fitness trainers, gurus, etc. This is AbFab territory…. home to Eddy, Patsy, Sapphie, et al. We’ve been watching a lot of AbFab reruns lately, so we a few good chuckles seeing that the neighborhood does seem to match the stereotype of the show. Looking in the windows of estate agents, it seems that the highest accolade for a bungalow in Holland Park is to be described as “characteristic” or “typical”. (This isn’t the place for the unusual, but for conformity to someone’s ideal of wealth.) We also passed a spa that looked the sort of place were you could go for a combination botox and baby delivery and get michelin-starred food served to you while you’ve got your feet in the stirrups. 
Getting back to our narrative, we ended up dining outside at an american-themed cafe, Tootsies, so we could people-watch and enjoy the last of the summer weather. Most notably, the cafe had the closest thing to a proper milkshake we’ve seen this side of the Atlantic (the butterscotch was particularly good). The food was a cut above standard with a few nice twists (smoked chipotle ketchup on the chicken burger, a mountain of melting goat’s cheese on the roasted vegetable sandwich).
Once we’d finished dinner it was time for a short but sweltering tube journey to Kensington High Street and then an airing out as we walked to Royal Albert Hall.
Of triangles and timpani….
This was the first time either of us attended anything at Royal Albert Hall, so we weren’t sure what to expect. One interesting thing about the way the venue is setup up, is that, since the building is round, there’s a separate entrance to the building for each seating area. Once we  collected our tickets and found our door, we were on our way in. The crowd was surprisingly more casual than I would have expected with well less than half wearing a tie. (We even saw a guy in spandex shorts and jersey that had clearly cycled in for the performance!) The venue was very pretty though not quite as opulent as the Royal Opera House; however the seats were very comfortable with plenty of leg room and the chairs swiveled so you could face the stage without craning your neck.
The schedule for the evening was as follows:
New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel
– Ravel — Mother Goose – suite
– Bartók — The Miraculous Mandarin – suite
– Tchaikovsky — Symphony No. 4
Without any pomp or circumstance, our conductor entered the stage, mounted the podium, turned, and raised his hands. Then the most miraculous thing happens… his baton falls for the first time and a wave of sound is released. It really is a beautiful moment. It was fun as well because we’d just seen Fellini’s “Orchestra Rehearsal” and we could impose his musings onto the  group assembled before us.
The Ravel was beautiful but not as compelling as the other pieces. The Bartók was fantastically kooky and really enjoyable, although it had a bit of a lull in the middle. Tchaikovsky delivered the goods with consistent energy, though at its best moments The Miraculous Mandarin was a class above.
The crowd was amazing at the end of the performance. The stomping and clapping was enough to shake the building (quite literally our seats were vibrating under us!) and more what you’d expect in the middle of a Queen concert than at the end of a classical concert. Fortunately for us, the enthusiasm and effort were enough to procure no less than three encores from Maestro Maazel! The crowd really just refused to leave until they’d had their fill. It was quite a joy to see.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the concert was noticing the way that the small accents in the compositions really make everything come together. No one can fail to recognise the majestic roaring boom of the kettle drums or feel the deep resonance of a huge gong echo somewhere deep and primitive in their soul, but these are brought to their utmost when offset by the gentle and unexpected tinkle of a lone triangle. I can see many similarities with food: that tinkle of the triangle is the small crack of pepper on top of a dish, or the satisfying crunch of a walnut in a teacake; not a meal itself, but a subtle seasoning that brings everything together and contrasts with the richness of the dish.
After the concert we strolled back to our hotel via a neighorhood gellato seller… the lone triangle sprinkled on top of a perfect summer evening.
The next day we set off to explore the area around Spitalfields market. This is a lovely area with lots of nice boutiques and interesting one off shops, running the range from bakeries and street art galleries, to gourmet food shops and vintage clothing shops, specialist bicycle stores and corset makers.
One of our first joys in Spitalfields was a spot of lunch. It is incredibly hard to find proper bagels in England, but Brick Lane features no less than 3 proper bagel bakeries next door to each other. It was a difficult choice between them, but in the end we opted to try the “Beigel Bake”. The bagels were perfect, warm, and fresh.
After that we brave what was a boiling-hot day for the UK to stroll through the area a bit more and came upon a charming old-fashioned grocers named Verde & Co. just off the market square. We found that they had Champagne truffles by Pierre Marcolini and couldn’t help but get some to take home, given the occasion. In July I was in Belgium for a conference, so I took the chance while I was in Brussels to bring back some top notch chocolates by Pierre Marcolini. Without question, his chocolates have been the best quality chocolate we’ve tasted anywhere. (Rococo in London has to take the prize for the best fillings. Look for their florals! Amazingly fragrant yet subtle. I could say a think or two about their visual artistry as well.) Particularly the single origin chocolates were amazing, as there really was a huge difference in the notes from one origin to the next. Interestingly enough, they’re one of the few chocolatiers to actually ferment and produce their own chocolate from the raw beans directly.
At this point we needed to seek shade, both for the sake of our now Anglicised complexions, as well as our chocolate delights. We decided we would waste no time and jump in with our original purpose for visiting spitalfields… tea!
Teasmith… works of a teamaster
Our friends (and fellow wine enthusiasts) James and Katherine had recommended a tea shop in Spitalfields called TeaSmith, which we’d been keen to try for some time. Their glowing recommendation was not without warrant.
To start with, the atmosphere at teasmith is one of zen-like calm, which can only be attributed to the mastery with with the shop is run and the clean, organised layout of the interior. Despite the heat and our foot-weary state, our spirits were immediately lifted. All this before the tea even began. 
We were presented with menus of a number of unusual and rare teas, as well as very high-grade offerings of classics. The tea preparation is a very serious endeavour here: the water is heated to precisely the correct temperature and steeped in an appropriate apparatus for exactly the right amount of time for the particular varietal (all measured with digital thermometers and so forth). There is a great deal to be enjoyed visually with the rinsing and sloshing of water at the bar in front of you; all proceeds methodically, without any sense of intentional showiness. The majority of the teas are prepared in a porcelain Gaiwan, which best exhibits the flavours of more delicate teas without a residual effect from one preparation to the next. Puer and similar teas are served in darling single serving Yixing pots, which are never washed and develop a rich character the improves the quality with use. (Something like the philosophy of never washing your Mokka completely). 
At TeaSmith, a serving of tea consists three successive extractions, allowing you to see the full development from the high notes of the first light brewing, through to the richest, deepest notes of the final brew. It was really fascinating to see the development of the teas with the lengthening extraction time and nice to see how a tea that you might like or dislike could be completely different with a small variation in preparation. All of the teas we sampled were outstanding and we had a long, enjoyable, and very educational chat with the owner about all things tea. After enjoying two rounds, he was very generous and brought out a few more teas for us to try on the house!
In addition to our tea selections, we decided to sample some William Curley chocolates to compare with Mr. Marcolini’s efforts. The were very good, but not completely inspiring. The filling (Green Tea) was completely overpowered by dark chocolate enrobement and, while the chocolate itself was above par, it was no competition for Mr. Marcolini.

To finish off our London adventure, we had reservations at Nobu, Berkley St. To this point all our expectations for the day had been greatly exceeded, so there was a very high standard to be met for dinner. Nobu did not disappoint. We opted to try the two tasting menus with a bottle of sake (served alá bamboo) on the side. The food was simply transcendent, the preparation perfect, the marriage of textures and flavours… genius. I will not attempt to describe the experience as I am not enough of a writer to do justice to that task. Go there if you ever have the opportunity. Without a doubt one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had.

Chateau St. Cosme – Gigondas
We finished off our anniversary weekend on Sunday by opening a bottle of Gigondas by Chateau St. Cosme from our cellar — one of our acquisitions from the King’s College annual wine sale. 
Tasting notes to follow once I figure out where I’ve put them.