Two Rather Different London Foodie Hotspots: The Clove Club versus HuTong @ The Shard

When I was a lot younger, I used to think that the quality of food didn’t matter as much as the ambience of the joint. Inexperienced palates tend to think everything tastes good. However, I’ve realized lately that I have turned into my mother when it comes to the dissection of dinner. (NB: There is no one more savagely discerning than a middle-aged Chinese woman when it comes to food.)

Loads of moves, no real passion

Last Thursday, I checked out The Clove Club in London’s Shoreditch. Full of rave reviews (and one Michelin star), it is confident enough to present the nakedest website I’ve ever seen in my life, and insist that patrons pay in advance for their meals. It’s a new sort of system London restaurateurs are starting to adopt – making people buy tickets when their reserve their tables. (What’s next – extra for balcony seats?) At £65 base fare for 5 courses (before drinks, tip etc), I was expecting great things.

Raw, and I wasn't even asked ...

Raw, and I wasn’t even asked …

What can I say … everything was just OK. Clearly a lot of effort had been put into it. I won’t repeat the foodie blather that consists of stringing lots of verbs and nouns and geographic origins together … but it is unfortunately one of those places whose waiters have to swallow dictionaries before laying a single dish down. I was perplexed at how describing our chef’s Scottish roots would help my Japanese salmon tartare taste more “authentic”, but heck, I did capitulate by nodding vigorously and raising my eyebrows oh so high as one is rather required to do. Plus points? No need to dress up and the waiters are easy on the eye. Back home for a (big) bag of crisps and popcorn.

Rustic furniture - cute but my dinner dates moaned the whole night about how uncomfortable the chairs were.. Funny, I was fine (more padding I guess)

Rustic furniture – cute but my dinner dates moaned the whole night about how uncomfortable the chairs were.. Funny, I was fine (more padding I guess)

The next day, I trekked down to Hu Tong (which means “alley”) at The Shard, one of London’s few iconic towers. Quite unlike most of the classic Chinese restaurants about town. No swearing, no greasy crucified ducks, no vats of oil glazing the sidewalk. Everything about it was set out to intimidate. Don’t rock up in flip-flops thinking your beach-to-bokchoi look will cut it. Don’t stand in the way of the limos at the Shangri-la lobby. They courteously plaster signs around signalling the dress code, literally telling you to BE ELEGANT, and menacing SWAT team wannabes give you the top-to-toe body check. Once you swoosh up to the 33rd floor though, the view takes your breath away and the spectacular cocktails are a great start to the evening. I’m extremely skeptical about cocktails, but these ain’t no con job. They actually quench your thirst and the juicy decorations like lychees, chillies and cucumbers give you something to nibble on… (do it only when the etiquette police aren’t watching though.)

Soft shell crab ... ahhh

Soft shell crab … ahhh

Menu-wise, we didn’t have a lot to choose from. The kitchen had suffered a fire recently and it was the first day of reopening. Thus, nothing “roasted” or BBQd was available. Our selection turned out very heavily chilli laden. For a spice freak like me, nothing short of heaven. Otherwise, be careful of randomly ticking off everything that bears the “HuTong” ancient seal of approval, as most of those dishes are fiery! The dessert selection was wholly unimaginative. I have come to expect nothing of the Chinese when it comes to sweets, this was no different. Back home for a satisfying tub of ice cream, shorts, and flip-flops.

What is more valuable than gold in the Netherlands?

One can per customer per day

One can per customer per day

Holland is suffering under the weight of its own reputation as a paradise for lactose aficionados. Baby formula shortages have been causing screaming frenzies and fights in stores for several years now. While it is true that some people have been buying formula to “export” to China, it is totally confounding as to why producers have not been able to keep up with the demand. At supermarkets nationwide, Nutrilon-brand formulae are kept in tight security, next to the packs of cigarettes at customer service (!!). Nutrilon is now a rationed product – Asians pick them up under intense scrutiny.

Stores here have taken to discriminating against people of Oriental origin, deliberately targeting them as raiders of the lost ark. There have been discrimination suits leveled at retailers and yet the war goes on. At Kruidvat, you have employees refusing to sell milk to Chinese people, while across the street at De Bijenkorf, you have sharply suited employees hired for their Mandarin-speaking abilities. In short, they shun Chinese custom at the cheap and cheerful drugstore, while they pad the red carpet for Beijing busloads vis-a-vis haute couture.

On its way to sacred status in NL

On its way to sacred status in NL

Yesterday night, there was another burglary at Petit-Homme’s crèche, targeting the formula stock. The baddies made off with a heap of baby formula and other knick knacks like iPads and cash. It is almost as though we were living in a communist regime where the shortage of basic necessities leads to anarchy.

This is quite the problem for Dutch retailers yet it is a huge opportunity for producers and everyone else on the distribution chain to capitalize on torrential demand. It is hard to understand why people in this day and age are still fighting tooth and nail over milk.

How Important Is Service at a Restaurant?

“Good Service” is a relative concept. Relative to how much you are willing to pay for it, and relative to your prior experiences. To me, good service is not complicated. It is: (1) Making your guests feel comfortable; (2) Getting the job done. I don’t have Burj Khalifa expectations. I don’t need all the servers to “know my name” (in fact I’d rather not, given the wake of destruction we have been leaving in restaurants lately), I don’t need to hear polysyllabic fish names rattled off in 4 languages weaved in with the latest news on molecular gastronomy, and I would much rather not be forced to pay a 20% commission on every glass of wine I order for these privileges.

On the other hand, I don’t want to shiver in fear of my bouillabaisse arriving in spittle marinade, or be treated like transparent plexiglass.

Service in the Netherlands is a social study in itself. The most interesting justification for the appalling service here is that the Dutch wish to be treated equal, and therefore do not see it fit to act in a fashion that could be deemed “lesser”. As equals, all must have the right to speak and act freely.

Mr Waiter, much happier gyrating on pianotops

Happiness comes from gyrating on pianotops

Recently, some friends and I embarked on an outing at Crazy Pianos, a live music joint on the Scheveningen Beach. Our first encounter with a staff member did not bode well for the rest of the evening as she nastily told a friend that her cardigan and coat were to be charged as two separate items. It was hardly the substance, but rather the delivery that was incredibly off-putting. Then, the ample chested waitresses (in you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it camisoles) proceeded to make a fuss about our seating, despite having our reservation, and the place still being quite empty. Later, our waiter managed to mess up 3 orders (turning sea bass into chicken satay) and even addressed us as “chickas”. When we asked this very same waiter to remove one plate that was crowding the table, he said “We don’t do that in Holland. We wait till everyone is finished”. Upon us insisting, he quickly gathered up all the dishes, even the side dishes that some were still working on. Mighty revenge.

Anyway, the bright side – the music was great and the conversation awesome. Bad service also acts a bit like bonding glue. You gel together in the face of hostility so that the group can emerge victorious. (Plus you save yourself 400 calories on unnecessary fries and mayonnaise.) On the other hand, it can be the solvent of friendships as everyone has their distinct ideas of dining and tipping etiquette. I recall being told by a friend once not to say anything about appalling incidents because it was “embarrassing”. Despite her own complaints that the forks were dirty and we had been ignored throughout, she corralled us into tipping 15%.

So how important is service? Unlike so many things in life, it is truly just the effort that matters.

The Link Between Cooking and the Capacity to Love

Risotto and Salad A Perfect Family Meal

Risotto and Salad
A Perfect Family Meal

A wonderful New Year’s Day treat at the home of some friends in Toronto prompted me to think more deeply about the connectivity between food and love. Specifically, I have grown to believe that people who love to cook (not the same as people who just love to eat) have a huge appetite for life, fearlessness, and the ability to share. This translates for me into the capacity to love others.

On the 1st of January, we were scheduled to transit at Toronto Pearson for 9 hours. This potential nightmare of boredom and chain-espresso-drinking morphed into a most enjoyable gourmet experience when our friends offered to host us for the entire day. They whipped out prosecco & OJ, award-winning self-made wine, salmon, cheese, bagels, child-friendly squash risotto, walnut salad, crème brulee, berries, freshly ground coffee, etc., allowed us to camp in their divine guestroom, and breezed calmly through Petit-Homme’s frantic antics (involving the near breakage of a few priceless lamps).

I need me some of those fire guns ...

I need me some of those fire guns …

I started rehashing a theory I’d thought of years ago after watching my mother-in-law toil single-handedly to happily prepare feasts for huge extended families. The people I know who love to cook, love to entertain. They don’t expect anything in return (unlike some people who go to restaurants and say “this time it’s me, next time its you – or insist on splitting the check right down the middle each time), and the pleasure of your company is welcomed like a great privilege.  Many of them hold busy professional jobs but still deliberately seek out opportunities to learn and develop a craft in their kitchens. They get an immense thrill from seeing their guests/families demolish their plates, but may be secretly hurt if no appreciation is shown. Loving souls are sensitive souls. These people I know tend to welcome people with extremely open hearts and jump at the chance to share their good fortune with others, without any veneer of do-goodism. When someone says to me, “please come over for dinner”, I feel a rush of kindred emotion and admiration. Treating someone to dinner at a restaurant requires much less effort and openness (not that it is any less generous or kind, I hasten to emphasize). No messy kitchen to hide, no time crunch, no stress, no worrying about allergies or guests’ lack of teeth, no emergency run to the grocery store in an icy storm, no sweaty face and runny mascara from the steamed fish, no opening the door in your undergarments to early birdies.

I used to think I loved to cook. But when I observe true aficionados, I realize that my corner-cutting habits (crockpot, rice cooker only meals, take-out, not inviting anyone home) seemed to manifest themselves most strongly when I was feeling unable to share much of my time or headspace with anyone beyond my own little nucleus. Love-stingy days, perhaps they should be called.

So, my New Year’s Inspiration (resolution sounds too much like the old days when it was all about getting fitter, learning more languages, being abstractedly “kinder”, blah blah) is to cook up a labour of love every month (or two). I shall begin with cupcakes. You scoff at this meager goal, but I’d much rather run 10 km than bake. All that measuring, burning and deflating … I have all the gear waiting for me, piping tips, fancy ready mix. I must do this before January 31. Seriously.

Happy New Year.

Embracing the Frost in Quebec City

Rue Petit-Champlain

Rue Petit-Champlain

When I think about the cold while snoozing indoors before a blazing fire, it is hard to imagine the bitterness of numb fingers, clanking shoulders and cheeks seared by unforgiving winds. However, that’s the way of life in Quebec winters. You can always tell the tourist from the local – one  strides confidently on sheets of ice, surrounded by equally ecstatic kids – the other is bedecked from head to toe in down feathers, shuddering in terror while fumbling with his dead cameraphone on Petit-Champlain.

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty - no need for pizza)

French Onion Soup at Le Q-De-Sac (awesome and hearty – no need for pizza)

I’ve always loved the history and majesty of Old Quebec.  A few days ago, I was reminded of how this city never fails to excite. From French cafes to American family restaurants, noshing is a rewarding pastime. I didn’t have poutine (piles of fries, cheese curds and gravy – similar to the Dutch kapsalon) this time around, but plenty of beer, French onion soup and pastries found themselves in my tummy. Paillard on St-Jean is an excellent place to hang out, and the macarons are just as splendid as Ladurée. (I just can’t say “macaroon” – sounds like a cross between two types of primate. Conversely, although crêpe sounds like crap, the less vivid English pronunciation feels weird.)

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

Revamped Chateau Frontenac lobby

There is so much nostalgia mixed in with hip modernity in Quebec City. The touristy shops sell all sorts of furry headgear and bearskins, but it truly is a reflection of life in the countryside. My father-in-law had a number of flappy fur hats worn down to the ground, and gifted us years ago with a black Canadian bear, who now is as close as I’ll ever get to a pet in The Hague.

The only thing missing in this brimming cultural pot – Chinatown.

An Avalanche of Quebec Goodies and Not a Gym in Sight

QuebecProducts

Quebec cheeses, St Nicolas sparkling cider, Le Castor IPA

I go through the same cycle every Christmas. I start off with a noble plan of quasi-ascetic living in the weeks that lead up to the feasts, only to realize that self-deprivation is always more successful in thought than practice. Sad to report, my pre-emptive battle plans against cheese and chocolate fondue have once again been demolished by the minefield of gourmet Quebecois delights that entrap at every turn.

In most of Europe, Quebec products have not yet gained any real traction. I usually like to keep secret pleasures secret (less man more share philosophy) but given my own geographic needs, it would be great to be able to grab a bottle of Boréale Blanche or Coaticook maple ice-cream at Albert Heijn.

I learned to appreciate beer in Munich after years of snubbing, but it was in Quebec that true love blossomed. Microbrewery here is a competitive sport and the myriad of awesome, punchy beers that line the walls of dépanneurs, grocery stores and liquor stores are the happy consequence. Students brew beer in their bathtubs (showering at the university gym is just as hygienic + free) and there is an educated attitude towards the hoppy brew, even amongst the youth.

Beyond beer, there’s cheese. While I do enjoy cheese, its not something I generally overdose on. However, in the land of cheese crazies (average 8kg per year per Quebecker), I find myself snacking on cheese squares as if they were the fleur-de-lys equivalent to my usual guilt-free wakame (just FYI, this is wilful blindness). Whilst cheese in Holland is plentiful but placid, Quebec artisans are to be lauded for their operatic range in stinky succulence.

So is it any wonder that since its -20c out, and the nearest gym being an icy 30 minutes away, my burgeoning tire just can’t wait to wobble itself back onto the tracks!