Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dinner at the Secret Restaurant

Some of you might hace noticed that I really love food. I'd guess that about 25% of the posts on this blog are about food. I'm lucky that the Irishman loves food just as much as me, if not more, and we like to eat food and find new places to eat food together. So when we read this article in The Guardian about underground restaurants, we knew we had to check one of them out.

We decided to go to Ms Marmitelover's home restaurant in Kilburn. When you buy tickets (seats go fast for the secret meals, served only on Saturdays), some nights are themed and I was intrigued by "Astrology Night" – a menu based on the stars! The Irishman, being the affable chap that he is, agreed it would be cool. Well, cool might not be his exact word but he was interested nonetheless.

Ms Marmite doesn't post her menus in advance. She is a vegetarian, but sometimes serves fish. You don't know where the restaurant is located until you get your email confirmation, and it comes with a secret password for entry. The Irishman and I were extremely excited all day yesterday, and the Irishman even Twittered Ms Marmite for a recommendation of a pub to go to pre-dinner. She obliged with The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road, excellent pub with a nice fireplace, and we set off on our culinary adventure!

A few G&Ts for me and pints for him later, we rushed up the road to Ms Marmite's - her email confirmation said not to be late - and entered with our password. Ms Marmite's daughter is usually the waitress, but she was off last night. Instead, a nice rockabilly couple hosted and served, and they greeted us with a lovely blue cocktail that had little squishy blue pearls made out of CuraƧao liquor. Delicious!

Our hosts directed us to sit anywhere we liked, and we ended up sitting at an empty table and hoped it would be filled with interesting people. As we waited for dinner service to commence, we nibbled on a savory seeds mix and it dawned on us that actually Astrology night was for astrologers. I'm still not sure if we were the only "laypeople" in attendance, but our table eventually filled with an assortment of astrologers: Enid, a heavy metal bassist and astrologer; Kim, who specializes in an older form of astrology; and a very nice Turkish woman whose name I forgot. They told us all kinds of cool things about our charts (the Irishman learned his rising sign!) and gave us their astrological opinions on the global financial crisis and new world order.

Then the food was served. We started with an absolutely delicious spicy Thai soup, accompanied by homemade focaccia. That was quickly followed up by goat's cheese on black lentils. YUM. Because Ms Marmite's restaurant is, well, illegal, she doesn't have a liquor license. But she does have raffle tickets (£10 each) for winning wine, and funny enough, we won every time we played (and we played a lot – the Irishman and I are not feeling so great today). We drank white wine with these courses, and switched to a quite a nice Bourgogne red for the balance of the meal. A spicy rocket salad with roasted peperonata came out next, and finally the house specialty: finely sliced potatoes with real cream.

I think both the Irishman and I were a bit skeptical about vegetarian cuisine (inspired by the stars, at that) but we were both pleasantly surprised by the variety and the flavors. Ms Marmite followed up her deliciously heavy potato dish (I don't want to think about how much of that cream is now on my hips) with some sort of light as air fruity mousse concoction. It was the perfect compliment to the main course, fresh and delightful. The meal closed with a trip outside to Ms Marmitelover's front garden where the Chocstar van was parked to pick up a slice of really amazingly thick chocolate cake.

We left Ms Marmite's around 11:30pm, tipsy and sated. My final verdict was that she is a clever lady, with a seriously good eye (tastebuds?) for flavor. I told the Irishman that Ms Marmite's home was exactly what this American always thought a London home would look like – quirky decorations and rambling charm. The company was fascinating and warm, and we had a really great time. I will definitely go back to Ms Marmite Lover's - especially since the Irishman reported that Ms Marmite has been Tweeting that she might do a marmite-themed menu. OMG - bring it on!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Broadway Market

Today I woke up to a glorious day. Absolutely beautiful, the sun shining and warmth, spring smells and fresh air. It was too luscious to stay inside, so I met up with my friend Rose and we walked along Regents Canal to Broadway Market.

Just south of London Fields in Hackney, Broadway Market is a smaller, more intimate counterpart to Southwark's Borough Market. The stands are much more limited in number, but the food quality looked just as high and there was the welcome addition of antiques, vintage clothes, and handmade products like paper and jewelry.

Since the market stalls are all set up on a street (like a proper London street market, rather than Borough's clusters under a permanent roof), the shops along the street are also part of the market and really fantastic. There is a traditional English eel purveyor, a yarn shop, several butchers and groceries, clothing and antique stores, a tea room, and a few pubs.

Since it was so nice out today, the atmosphere on the street was lively and happy. The market was crowded and more than one stand had a line for its wares. I got a berry smoothie, and Rose got an interesting smoothie blend of ginger, beetroot, citrus, and spinach (it was tasty, but heavy on the ginger). Rose went on to get a bratwurst and a brownie for dessert, while I regretted eating a full English breakfast only an hour earlier.

Overall, I loved Broadway Market. It was a wonderful outpost in East London, and I only wish I lived closer so I could go there do my weekly shop!


New season calls for spring cleaning, and that applies to blogs too.

New header design, courtesy of moi - a hint of English quirkiness.

And I finally figured out how to configure the time stamp on these badboys, so I'm no longer posting on EST but GMT. Finally, a true Londoner. It only took me 11 months!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Today is St Patrick's Day, and if it weren't on calendars you wouldn't know it here. Sure there were a few fools wearing ridiculously huge leprechaun hats, but nobody wore green and they sure as hell do not dye beer green. The Irishman announced that he would have one token Guinness today "to prove" he is Irish, but claims that in Ireland the holiday is not really a big deal. It is a federal holiday there so there is no work or school, everyone goes to church and to the pub, and they have a roast dinner. Contrary to popular belief, IRISH PEOPLE DO NOT EAT CORNED BEEF AND CABBAGE; the Irishman says if anything, it's lamb on St Patrick's Day. Blasphemy says Kat, and I have to agree.

So no green fountains in Ireland, or here in London, today; London's St Patrick's Day festivities took place last weekend but the Irishman and I were out of town and missed them. All in all, St Patrick's Day was quite a non-event in the part of the world that the spawned the holiday.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Full disclosure: I used to show dogs.

It's not big secret; if you know me well or have known me for a while, it will come up in conversation (usually in February, when Westminster takes place each year in New York). How I got started in the sport (yes it is a sport) is a long story, but let's just say that it has been a girlhood dream of mine to attend, and eventually show at, Crufts.

Crufts is the largest and oldest dog show in the world. Held by The Kennel Club in England, this year it drew an entry of over 22,000 dogs – compared with the limited entry of 2,500 at Westminster in New York. The show was for many years held in London at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in Earls Court, but moved up to Birmingham a few years ago. Since Crufts is always held in the beginning of March, when I looked into going this year and saw it was my birthday weekend I knew I had to go.

Luckily the Irishman is a tolerant and supportive chap, and Birmingham's finest boutique hotel and balti definitely gave him incentive to tag along with me to the show. We went on the Sunday, the final day of judging, so I could see the breeds I used to show (Herding dogs, which The Kennel Club calls Pastoral dogs) and Best in Show. Crufts doesn't come cheap; the tickets were £15 each for the general admission ticket, and £17.50 for the seats for Groups and Best-in-Show.

I was adamant that we arrive early in the morning on Sunday, as the judging commenced at 9am and I was unclear how many entries there were or how long it would go on. In the US, if a breed is on at 9, one gets there at 9 because the judging will be done by noon (even earlier depending in entries). But Crufts is not a champions-only or limited entry show, and since it is so prestigious the entries for each breed were huge. My breeds were still being judged into the afternoon, so apologies were made for dragging the Irishman out to the show so early on a Sunday.

Besides the odd times and length of judging, The Kennel Club does a completely different type of judging system. It seems similar enough in how the judging goes, males then females, picking the best of each class and then the best of the winners, but I'm not quite sure how Challenge Certificates work or how one finishes a Championship on a dog. But no matter. Crufts is a benched show, which means that even when the judging for a breed was complete the dogs were there until 4pm for us to coo over. The Kennel Club recognizes tons more breeds than the American Kennel Club, so I saw a lot of dogs I'd only heard of but never seen in person and I learned about so many amazing breeds that I'd never even known about. There was also a Hall of Breeds, where each breed of dog shown at Crufts had a stand with representatives and dogs for the public to meet. This is where I took most of my pictures.

Unfortunately Crufts was in the midst of PR push after the BBC aired a documentary in 2008 called Pedigree Dogs Exposed that supposedly showed how purebred dogs are inbred and highly susceptible to genetic abnormalities that preclude them from living long, healthy lives. I didn't watch the documentary, because I've seen this thing before; it centers on dogs with shorter, compressed muzzles (Bulldogs, Pugs) and German Shepherds with their notoriously sloping hips. As a result of the controversy around the documentary, the BBC refused to broadcast Crufts this year, The Royal SPCA and Dogs Trust did not have booths at the show, and Pedigree pulled its sponsorship; meanwhile, every other sign and pamphlet and commentator's speech was centered around "Fit for Function" and a "long healthy happy active dog's life." It was hard to see The Kennel Club trying to prove the worth of these dogs and damage control the problems created by relatively few breeders of relatively few breeds.

On a similar note, possibly the oddest thing about Crufts were the strict rules about cropping and docking. Seeing Dobermans with both drop ears and tails, Australian Shepherds with tails, etc, was disconcerting. The Kennel Club passed these rules a few years ago in answer to public outcry about the "harmful practices" that subjected animals to unnecessary pain. It seems like a particularly British sentiment to regulate and protect and create rules around issues that the public is up in arms about - even if the public doesn't quite understand the complete issue. Arguing whether dogs should have cropped ears is a non-issue; people in England enjoy taking a stand and fighting for what they believe in, and it is easy to vilify a practice that doesn't affect a person but seems to be cruel. There is a point to be made that a civilized society doesn't need to crop the ears of dogs that aren't working, but one could also argue that one doesn't need to preserve cultural heritage because we don't use chamber pots or mulecarts anymore. It's a complicated subject, with a lot of deep-running emotion on both sides, and it just seems like The Kennel Club hasn't quite figured out how to defend itself – or better yet, deflect the argument.

All of this controversy didn't damper my enthusiasm for the show, and the Irishman and I really had a great time. My one main disappointment, though, was the Best in Show (BIS) winner. I was excited to see that the BIS judge was a Welshman who has been a professional handler in the US for nearly 50 years. He recently retired and is now a well respected judge who made his name in terriers. So imagine my surprise when the BIS lineup appears and at the front from the terrier group is an American dog, a Sealyham terrier. A gorgeous dog, no doubt about it; the dog won the terrier group at Westminster last year and is really a great little showdog. But I did not travel all the way to Birmingham from New York, really, to see an American dog I've seen win before win the biggest international dog show. It smacked of typical dog show politics and I for one was annoyed.

Overall, however, going to Crufts was a childhood dream come true. I'm glad I went, glad to see so many cool and fun dogs, and glad to see the International Junior Handling Finals (which I once qualified for the preliminary), and even glad to see the dog dancing with his owner to Riverdance (complete with Irish dancing girls). It was a spectacle, alright, and me in my dog-patterned scarf absolutely loved it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


One and half hours by train from London, Birmingham is the second largest city in England and an old industrial center trying to find its place in a post-industrial world. When I first stepped off the train, I thought it was a pretty grim place. Travelers disembarking at Birmingham exit the train station to see a mall and dirty streets. We had to walk down a staircase that smelled of urine and cross under an elevated highway (they call it a Queensway, for some reason) to get to our hotel, which was located in a new development of shops set apart from the city center. Even though it was a chic boutique design hotel, the Malmaison, it was a bit frayed around the edges; clearly it was the best Birmingham had to offer, and a lot of people like us had stayed there.

But if you look past the grime and the awkward city planning, Birmingham actually has a lot to offer. The city is trying to reestablish itself through commerce, mainly shopping, so all of the development in the city is based on retail space. These spaces are quite interesting; our hotel was situated in the Mailbox, an open-air shopping area created out of an old mail sorting factory. In the heart of Birmingham is the Bullring, a huge mall with 2 wings that has every conceivable shop imaginable including a huge Selfridges.

Beyond shopping, the city has a lovely network of canals that have been restored and redeveloped into safe and clean walking paths that are well-lit and have excellent directional wayfinding. The Irishman and I spent most of our time walking along the canals to and from different areas of the city. In fact, the canals are such a part of Birmingham's heritage that the pedestrian bridges that cross them are echoed around the city with bridges that cross highways, other pedestrian paths, and connect buildings even when there isn't any water.

One of the nicest parts of Birmingham was the Jewellery Quarter, the largest working jewellery center in Europe (so they claim). Separated from the city center to the north by another Queensway (of course), the small, historic area is being redeveloped into a creative hub and new residential neighborhood. The area reminds me of Philadelphia; the architectural styles of the buildings look similar, and its' original growth was probably during roughly the same time period. The feel of the redevelopment and regeneration echoes that of Philly's newly trendy neighborhoods.

Finally Birmingham is famous for the balti, an Indian specialty that was invented in the notorious Balti Triangle area of South Birmingham. Of course the Irishman and I had to try it, and took a cab down to the Triangle to find a balti house. Unfortunately, we went on a Sunday and found a few curry houses but not as many as we were expecting. The food was good at Sameer's, but to be honest it tasted the same a regular curry. Maybe we totally missed the boat, but it was good anyway.

All in all, Birmingham won me over by the end. I think the city has a way to go in making itself over without the industry that once drove it, but it's on the right track. Hopefully it can weather the economic storms and emerge from the recession still growing and changing and getting better and better. Of course I took pictures of the place; they are here.

Best Birthday Weekend Ever

Friday was my birthday, and it kickstarted a wonderful weekend of celebrating. I woke up to a sunny gorgeous day that I spent at work but with a break for a nice lunch at the Three Kings (chili bake and a cider!). After work I spent the evening at one of my favorite pubs, The Peasant, and then the Slaughtered Lamb. Saturday morning I woke up hangover-free, and the Irishman and I took the train to Birmingham for a long weekend centered around a day at Crufts – the world's oldest and largest dog show. Monday was a day off of work just to relax, and leisurely make our way back to London.

Even though I wasn't with my old friends on my birthday, I was with my new friends and received a lot of love from people near and far. Thank you to everyone who remembered my birthday and made it special - even in the littlest way. I really appreciated it from you all.