Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spotted: Knit-Bomb

Yarn wrapped lightpost
Outside my favorite pub, The Drapers Arms
Wednesday March 28, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hostess with the mostest

This past weekend marked the end of a month of visits and visiting. We wrapped it up with a stroll down Columbia Road flower market with our friends from Paris on a gloriously sunny Sunday, perfect for the weather and my energy level. I have to be honest and say that life has worn me out this March and I am ready for the relative calm of April. 

After my birthday dinner and subsequent week in Doha, I went straight to Dublin for a weekend of rugby and eating. But once we returned that Sunday, we only had a day to prepare for The Irishman's mother's arrival the following Tuesday. As she was going to be coming to London for the England-Ireland game on St Patrick's Day, she decided to come a few days early and indulge in some culture. Which meant we spent that week eating in restaurants with her and showing her around the city after our workdays.

We had dinner with her and The Irishman's father that Thursday and they went off to their hotel near Twickenham, giving us a night to ourselves before our friend Dave came to stay with us for the weekend. He had been in Holland visiting our friend Neil and came to spend St Patrick's Day with us. So we had a few more days of restaurants and drinking and merriment. He departed the Monday after St Patrick's Day.

After Dave left us, we had last week to get back into a semblance of a routine. That meant resuming the househunt, trying to restart exercise regimes, and reintroduce vegetables into our diets. Saturday our friends from Paris arrived, which meant we were back in the entertaining saddle; they stayed with some other friends they have in the city Saturday night but we met them for tapas on Exmouth Market and drinks in Clerkenwell before exploring East London together yesterday. They stayed at our flat last night and depart today and tomorrow.

I must say that I am exhausted. I'm not really used to this level of uninterrupted travel, entertaining, and socialising, nevermind mixing it with trying to find a new home. The Irishman and I are quiet people, we thrive on routines and when they're disrupted we often take it out on each other. We're really looking forward to spending the next few weeks reestablishing normality and refamiliarizing ourselves with each other. We also realized that it's been over 18 months since we had a proper vacation to just relax – ie, over 5 days without a commitment (wedding, friends, or family). Once I made that connection, it put a lot of my current exhaustion and bad temper into perspective and I realized just how ragged we'd both become. So stay tuned for my attempt to force us into a relaxing holiday sooner rather than later - while buying a house at the same time. So while I love all of my people, and enjoy having them to visit, I sometimes also enjoy the peace and quiet of my own place on my own. I'm looking forward to rediscovering that joy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dublin for the 6Nations Ireland v Scotland Match

It feels like when it comes to travel for me, when it rains it pours. In this case, today is the first evening The Irishman and I will have to ourselves in our house since March 4th. Unfortunately, we'll probably spend it cleaning and doing laundry but at least that will be more of a normal routine than not. Anyway, those of you who follow me on Twitter know that the day I got back from Doha, I turned right back around and got on a flight that evening to Dublin. We had a three day weekend with The Irishman's family to attend the RBS 6Nations tournament game between Ireland and Scotland. I've mentioned before that The Irishman's dad is quite high up in the rugby world in Ireland and this year is his big-time-big-deal year. If you watch the games, you might have seen him on TV during this year's Ireland matches, and he wanted us to share his honors with him in person. 

The match was on Saturday which gave us all day Friday to hang out and do a bit of relaxing and sight-seeing. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with Dublin; I want to love it like a second home, get to know it with the intimacy I know London and New York. But I never get the chance to really explore Dublin the way I want, to learn its ins and outs the way I want, because we can never quite approach it that way – when we go, we stay with The Irishman's family (why would we stay in a hotel? we probably wouldn't even be ALLOWED to stay in a hotel!) and our time is dictated by family obligations. So my desire to hunt out cool neighborhoods and lovely hidden shops and side streets is somewhat curtailed. 

So now when we go to Dublin I content myself with just trying to understand Dublin, understand its people and really engage with the culture and history. So this trip, I requested a visit to Kilmainham Gaol.

Visits are only in guided tours, which depart every half hour or so and give you a good understanding of the history of the building as well as its famous inmates. The tours are €6 per person, which we found really reasonable, and I was super impressed with how many Irish people were on the tour (rather than just American tourists).

Fun fact: this room has been used quite often in films as it is one of the largest, unused jails in Europe.

Oh look, The Irishman is in a cell! Quick, close the door!

The yard where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were shot.

Obviously it was a somber outing, but overall a really nice day out. I learned a lot and even The Irishman was impressed by the tour and the experience of the jail museum.

Friday evening we went out for dinner with The Irishman's brother and some friends, and Saturday we woke up to do a lovely 3 mile run down the pier. That's probably my favorite part of visiting The Irishman's hometown: its proximity to the sea. The air is so much fresher and when the sun comes out it is glorious.

After our run, I went for a manicure and then it was time to get all gussied up for the match. This is the second time we've been VIP guests for the pre-match dinner and let me tell you how hilarious it is to walk into a sports stadium wearing heels. On entry to the stadium lot, I saw this very lovely stand:

While inside the President's Ballroom, these ice sculptures greeted the guests:

Out in the stadium:

Because Scotland was playing, Princess Anne was in attendance as the patron of Scottish rugby. She had some very nifty sunglasses on for the duration of the game – despite the fact that it got dark pretty early on in the second half.

And after the game, we attended the post-match drinks reception before heading to the Four Seasons for the black-tie dinner. I know it sounds glamorous, but really it was exhausting. I've never eaten or drunk more over a 48 hour period than in that weekend. I have one picture of me all gussied up but I refuse to post it as I look, well, uncomfortable – and I was because my dress was too tight! Sadly, my discomfort distracted me from admiring all of the players in their tuxes and kilts. Meeeoooow – more than once The Irishman put an elbow in my ribs because I was gawking over the boys. Ooops.

Sunday after the match we woke up hungover and exhausted, but I made The Irishman and his brother go for a walk down to a local park with a food and craft market. We nursed our hangovers with coffee and tasty tidbits (dumplings after 2 days solid of eating? sure why not!) and got some supplies for a nice fry up to rid the rest of the cobwebs.  

And then it was time to go home. Another plane, and another flight and then it was back in our little apartment to rest up for the rest of the week to come.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Birthday celebrations at Viajante

As you all know by now, today is my birthday and I'm in Doha. So I'm spending it with neither my family nor The Irishman, but instead with work colleagues in a dry hotel in the Gulf. Whoop whoop.

But no matter! Since my birthday fell on a Tuesday this year, I had already planned for a big birthday blowout over the weekend before I even knew I had to travel for work. I booked myself into my local spa, Angel Therapy Rooms for the City Tonic pamper, and made reservations for The Irishman and I to go to Viajante in Bethnal Green. We've been meaning to go there for a while now, and as I wanted my birthday to be special but low-key after my epic 30th birthday celebration last year, so we decided to finally take the plunge. On the suggestion of my friend Kate, I made a special request for the chef's table so we could look in on the kitchen as they prepared our meal. What an amazing tip, because it felt like we were having the meal specially prepared just for us despite being in a dining room with several other parties. That's our view above.

We started our evening in the bar next to the restaurant; as it was feeling so springlike outside, we both decided to begin with Campari cocktails. I then made a rather fatal mistake of having a second cocktail, which in hindsight wasn't particularly clever, but I couldn't resist as it was called Shiso-lovely and had aloe in it. I had to try it! It was good, but not great, like a more fragrant mojito. I would like one in June.

When we were called to our table we had the choice of 6, 9, or 12 course tasting menus; we decided to go with 9 as 12 seemed like quite a lot and 6 maybe not enough. Our very charming sommelier then helped us pick 2 "interesting" bottles of wine to pair with the menu, and off we went! Nuno Mendes, the Spanish head chef, is from the school of molecular gastronomy, which meant we were treated to a series of delicious amuse bouches, fresh seafood, and fascinating flavour combinations. I was a bit sodden by the end, but enjoyed it all immensely and would definitely go back. As conceptual restaurants go, this one didn't break the bank that hard so I could easily imagine myself back at that chef's table fairly soon. 

The other reason to go back: the service. Everyone was genuinely happy to serve us, to explain the food to us, and to gauge our reaction. Because the food changes so frequently, there isn't a menu – you get the food that is served that day, no choice, and it's all explained as it's served. But at the very end, the restaurant gives you a menu with your wine selections and your courses on it as a souvenir: mine said Thank you for celebrating your birthday at Viajante. If that isn't service, I don't know what is!

Monday, March 5, 2012

A house update

Image courtesy of Flickr by jjay69

Hello from Doha! I've been meaning to update everyone on our house-buying process for a few days now but life sort of got in the way. Now I'm in the Middle East and there's no time like the present.

In a good way, my trip to Doha has put a much needed pause on our house search. We've let estate agents whip us up into a frenzy of viewings, offers, negotiation, and disappointment; what should be a joyous experience has become fraught with second thoughts and anxiety. To be honest, I think we're both relieved to get our heads out of the game for a bit.

We didn't end up getting the first house that I mentioned a few weeks ago, the full house in need of modernization. We put in an offer at the high end of what we could afford and it simply wasn't enough. Then a week after that, we saw a maisonette with a huge back garden – south-facing, so it got light throughout the day – and an interesting layout that avoided having the front door right next to the master bedroom. We put in an offer on that property last Monday, negotiated throughout the day and finally had it accepted – only to have someone else offer more a mere 5 minutes later. We actually think the estate agent called another interested party to say "hey, this house is going to go so if you want it, you should make an offer around £X." A few days later, more offers came in and they ended up going to sealed bids. Sealed bids is where you put together your offer, the final amount you want to put in on the property and any incentives you can offer (ie, no-chain, cash buyer, etc) and they all go, sealed, to the owner to decide who s/he wants to go with as a buyer. When they went to sealed bids for that maisonette, we decided not to participate because we knew it would go for much more than we were willing to pay.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us in the exact same place we were a few weeks ago when I first told you all we were house-hunting: in our flat with a lot of hopes and dreams. But we now have a few more hard decisions to make. After seeing and almost getting a full house, we really want the full house over a half-a-house maisonette – yet we still want to be close-ish to central London, which means its questionable whether I can afford it. It really is a tradeoff between wishes and musts, and we're still uncertain about what we are willing to compromise on and not. So far, there hasn't been much on the market in our price range and everything that's decent that appears gets snapped up quite quickly; you feel like you see a property on Saturday and need to decide if you want it by Monday – that's really hard. But we keep hearing that the property market opens up in the spring, so there should be more for us to see as the year progresses.

Also, we're not really in a rush. Yes, we'd like a bigger home, to have a garden for when the weather warms up, and to just be THERE already, but there isn't any reason for us rushing to do it. I'm away until Thursday then we head to Dublin for a long weekend Thursday night, and next weekend we have house guests, so realistically we won't be able to fully re-engage with the house hunt until after St Patrick's Day. I think that's okay, and healthy – it gives us time to reassess our priorities and hopefully land on a few tactics that will help us move forward with more purpose and sanity. I am hoping our search will be less emotional, less highs and lows, and more targeted moving forward – and ideally end in success very soon. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Great __ Bakeoff

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that for the last week I've been excitedly preparing (freaking out) for my company's Bakeoff. Given that we're a bunch of enthusiastic participants (competitive control freaks) I knew I'd be up against stiff competition and have to give it my all.

I wanted to enter a cake that I knew and loved, rather than a recipe that sounded amazing but was just found on the internet. So I dug out a recipe for chocolate chip cake that a childhood friend's mom used to make and that I remembered fondly. It's meant to be baked in a tube pan, but let's remember that we're in England and of course I couldn't find one in time for the competition. Also maybe I didn't want to spend £25 on Amazon for one, and then spent the entirety of last weekend in pubs and not prepping for the competition. Annnnywaaaay. Monday night found me frantically searching the kitchen and homewares shops in Angel for said pan, or a suitable alternative, and I ended up coming up with a layer cake pan. The Irishman helped me test the baking time on a sample test run Monday and I was ready to go for the full bake on Tuesday.

The recipe I used is a cream-cheese batter with chocolate chips inside, and as I was making the layer cake I found a recipe online (ok so I cheated there) for cream cheese frosting. Only problem is, it wasn't stiff enough to cover the imperfections around the side and ended up pooling around the bottom of the cake. Wednesday morning I iced the cake before work and it looked pretty grim.

But some additional icing sugar in the frosting helped some, and once I got to work I spent a bit of time re-doing the frosting and decorating the cake. I called my entry "Choc n Cheese".

The rules for the competition were quite intense, as you can see:

And in the end, I didn't win. But I did enjoy the experience immensely and even better, the cakes were all sold by the slice to my colleagues to raise money for Sport Relief

For those of you who were interested in the recipe, here it is:

Chocolate Chip Cake

I c butter
8 oz cream cheese (sold in the UK as either Philadelphia or "soft cheese")
4 eggs
2 1/4 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 pkg chocolate chips (I used a 12 oz bag)
1 1/2 c sugar

Cream butter and cream cheese together.
Add sugar and beat until fluffy, add eggs
Separately, mix baking powder and salt with flour
Add flour mixture to butter mixture
Stir in vanilla and chocolate chips
Plop into a tube plan that has been greased and floured
Bake at 300 deg for about 1 hr 20 mins - check that both sides are slightly golden
Let cool 10 mins, and take out of pan.

For the chocolate cream cheese icing, I used this recipe from but added a bit more icing (powdered) sugar for stiffness.