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.

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Starting a Vietnamese-themed week

Tiffin Deconstructed

Tiffin Deconstructed

Sometimes you just get a craving for certain types of food, and there’s really no need to be pregnant. In fact, I don’t think I had any sort of real cravings (apart from red wine) during those fabled 9 months of abstention. These days, I find the more people wax on about molecular gastronomy and other painful foodie blather, the more I yearn for good old soul food.

I’m down with another mild throat attack this week, not severe enough to dampen my appetite but it did steer my thoughts towards a giant bowl of hot pho.

IMG_6204

I can’t decide if I’m very lucky or unlucky, when it comes to accessing Asian food. Lucky, if I compare it to flavour-hunting in Munich or Budapest, but utterly forlorn when I think of my first taste of soupe tonkinoise at a heartwarming mom-and-pop restaurant in Paris. Lucky, in that a proper Chinatown exists in The Hague, but unlucky, in that the repertoire is somewhat limited and far more expensive than in North America.

 

IMG_6202Yesterday’s experience at Little V in The Hague Chinatown was a super success. Half the restaurant is made out to look like a Vietnamese village (almost wanted to take my shoes off to play with imaginary chickens) while the other half is trendy dining. The pho broth actually tasted like it had been roiling in a sea of bones, radishes and other zingy treasures.

More to come on my Vietnam –themed encounters…

 

 

Our 72 Year Old Waiter

Monsieur preparing our steaks

Monsieur preparing our steaks

At Restaurant Vincent in the centre of Brussels, if you don’t know what to expect, it’s certainly nothing like what you would expect. If I had only three words in my elevator pitch, I’d probably describe it as a “historic steak house”. But I’m not sure that would capture the nostalgic tile frescoes on the wall depicting nautical crusades, the converted rowboat-tables that ensure a close-knit diner à 10, or the clanging-kitchen-meets-starched-white-linen paradox.

Not roast ducks

Not roast ducks

I wasn’t wearing my glasses when we peered through the window, so I initially thought we had landed outside a Chinese restaurant as all manners of steaks and joints were dangling on meat hooks in full sacrificial glory. By 19:45, the dining room was packed with all sorts (i.e. not just Eurocrats or tourists).

Filet with green pepper sauce

Filet with green pepper sauce

Our waiter was genteel, brisk, and refreshingly disinterested in any sort of sales pitch. He was also as old as the establishment looked. (It turns out that Vincent is actually 100 years old). I think I have finally experienced the epitome of perfect restaurant service. Monsieur was respectful, efficient, and discrete. He never once interrupted our conversation and he always caught our eye despite the bustling demands of shoulder-to-shoulder famished diners. At 72, it was his 29th year working here, which means he started at 43. Apparently he takes it easier now, but I wondered what it is like co-working with a team of waiters all at least a generation younger than him. Uniquely, the waiters are also part-chefs as steaks at Vincent are flambéed en salle – which means you get to stare at your dinner sizzling if you’re seated nearby. Kinda like a pared-down, Belgian version of teppanyaki.

Rowing to nowhere fast

Rowing to nowhere fast

It’s a tough job. At €32 a steak in the midst of fierce competition and an international clientele priding themselves on culinary sophistication, Vincent needs to make sure they stay par excellence. With only 2 seatings per evening, a rather noisy environment, and a coziness not conducive to confidential business meetings, it can surely only cater to social diners. At 72, I would feel the pressure to perform: to anticipate needs, to move fast, to react quickly, and to perhaps even speak English. All this in a time when my eyesight and hearing are failing, my joints are aching, my feet long for orthotics or just an ottoman, arthritis gets friendlier, and my aptitude for foreign languages diminishing. I would spend my spare time babysitting the grandkids, when not shuttling back and forth doctors’ appointments. I’d like to see some more of the world but I’d still be worried about the uncertain futures and careers of my children in this increasingly competitive world. I’d have more patience having learnt that rushing gets nowhere, but I’d have less for the young impertinents. I’d know the younger staff think I’m slow sometimes (though I’m really not), but many respect me because I know all the tricks. Meanwhile, I need to sort out the steaks, the fire hazards, the fries, the sauces, the wine, and the languishing pair of foreigners oblivious to the need to vacate their table because their time is up! In the meantime, as long as the glasses are full, the food is good, and the clients are happy, another evening ends in another professional triumph.

Bravo Monsieur.

Ketchup or Icing Sugar for Breakfast?

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

Ducks, the best friends of every toddler

One of the clearest gourmet divides between the continent and the Anglo-American world, is the need for ketchup. I can’t have ketchup without fries, the same way butter with bread just makes the union all the more holy. No one is interested in ketchup around here. Its all about mayonnaise. If you pester your servers for some, you’ll get a miniscule amount and pay at least 50 cents for a serving. I guess I’m resigned to this now and have contemplated never leaving home without ketchup sachets. Only the fear of having to mop up a gooey mess in my handbag prevents me from such folly.

Shake it, baby

Shake it, baby

We were in Center Parcs Erperheide recently. (This is a forest getaway consisting of “cottages” in the midst of lush foliage, lakes and plenty of man-made structures to amuse kids of all ages.) In March, there wasn’t much verdure to speak of but the cold nullified any longing for it as it focused our attentions on the indoor entertainment.

The highlight of any place for me is often the buffet joint. It was interesting to see every table kitted out with a vat of icing sugar (poedersuiker) but not a ketchup bottle in sight. I had to cajole the staff into bringing me some, upon which one dish was whipped out with great ceremony. (The next day I remembered to ask for two dishes.) We didn’t touch the sugar as I am particularly susceptible to scaremongering articles about child obesity, diabetes, sugar addiction, hyperactivity, dodgy teeth, etc. Our neighbours however, were shaking that bottle like there was no tomorrow. Part of why kids around here are supposed to be the happiest in the world?

No winter in Europe for me

No winter in Europe for me

Anyway, this place was a cultural jolt in more than one way. Never mind the ketchup thing as I’ve totally scaled my expectations way down and am over-the-top friendly to staff throughout the continent just to finagle this. What really shocked me was the sight of smokers throughout the park. This is a place where hordes of babies and young children roam like hens in a coop, yet cigarettes are brandished freely right outside Baluba (an amusement centre) and “smoking areas”. I mean, smoking areas!

Don't you try to fleece me

Don’t you try to fleece me

Petit-Homme enjoyed himself to the max. He was howling with delight at the baby swimming class (best €5 euros I’ve ever spent in my life) and spun himself giddy on the carousel (most short-lived €20 euros I’ve seen to date!) despite tumbling once under the treacherous hooves of his spirited stallion.

Overall, an experience which taught me yet again, that what makes you happy, is what makes your kids happy. (So don’t get them hooked on ketchup if you intend to stay in Europe for the long haul. But too late for us as Petit-Homme eats ketchup even with dim sum.)

Celebrating the Year of the Sheep in London

It has been a long time since I did anything properly familial despite Chinese New Year being the most important festival in Chinese culture. My friends and family who are scattered around the globe make fervent efforts to reunite with their parents and family-at-large, to the point where flights to the Orient around this time tend to get sold out pretty early on.

My parents are not as traditional in this respect. Over the years, life’s practicalities have taken precedence. Time and distance, coupled with all of their offspring rooting and re-rooting in different countries have allowed us only narrow wedges of precious moments together in a year.

Steamed Fish

Steamed Fish

With this mindset pervading my life in a suitcase, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to discover that my elder sister insists on blowing the embers of family and cultural traditions back into life. This year, the stars aligned for us to have Chinese New Year’s dinner together in London, where both my sisters live. mix veg

Last night, my immediate family, (with parents guest appearance via Skype) sat down to a glorious home cooked feast. Petit-Homme’s flight arrived at London City Airport just in time for him to preside at the dinner table and gobble down a giant meatball (aka lion’s head). He seems to have enjoyed his first solo flight with Papa.

Shanghainese Lionshead

Shanghainese Lionshead

On the smorgasboard: sparerib soup, boiled chicken, lions head and cabbage (a gem handed down from my Shanghainese grandmother), stir fried assorted vegetables and mushrooms, steamed fish and chillies, with ice cream and rambutans for dessert. These are dishes that we enjoyed year after year in my maternal grandmother’s home. It’s hard to believe, but my sister accomplished all this single-handedly (not the type that seeks or relishes “help” in her kitchen kingdom.) in the span of one afternoon.

There is nothing better than the vivid tastes and smells of delicious food that makes us sift out the fond memories from the rest of the bundle that sometimes prefers to stay tightly knotted up. It allows us to create our own interpretations of life that is steeped in the lineage of people who mattered to us.

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.

Toddler Seduction Tactics

I feel I kinda have a lot on my plate at the moment. But it’s pretty lame to complain when all sorts of mothers around the world experience the same type of grind. In fact, whether working/studying/full-time mommying, I reckon kids just somehow amp up the busy-ness factor amongst parents. It’s not the same type of “busy” that gives you cold solace in the [shallow] knowledge that you are advancing your career, developing your mind, gilding the piggybank, or bragging-under-the-guise-of-venting about all those “3 a.m. teleconferences with Tokyo”. Its a universal equalizer kinda busy, a glow-in-the-heart kinda busy, one that can never be postponed.

It’s sometimes a resentful sort of busy. I’m the sort who loves to plan pretty much everything out. And of course, timing is key. A dinner party the next day sans caterers means that the tables have to be set the night before and the family must nosh out of greasy cardboard boxes prior to the event. Timing is the most important thing in any endeavour involving food. This is why it is doubly challenging when you throw a young toddler’s precarious appetite and propensity for glazing the walls with meatball mash into the equation. Meaning, you whirl around like a dervish to make it for the set dinner schedule that all experts tell you is essential, only to find him gnawing on a box of raisins, and your hard work disintegrates in a black (plastic-bag lined) hole.

Drumsticks

Honey-soy drumsticks… Less for Petit-Homme, More for Mommy

This Queen of the CrockPot recently realized that Petit-Homme intends to set the bar much higher. My one-dish “miracle stews” are too wet, unidentifiable, offensive when teething, and too hot when hungry. I thought I made some ingenious breakthroughs with Ikea meatballs and fish fingers, but apparently, that is so yesterday.

I discovered recently that the Dutch are the third largest consumers of sugar, per capita, behind only Germany and the US. However, kids here are also considered the “happiest” in the world. Never mind that this ranking says nothing about sugar. The fact that some mommies here reckon they’re all so happy because Dutch kids eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, is enough to make you pause and wonder.

Anyway, my latest offerings have been so dismal that I tried tonight to make a kid-friendly meal – an  offering for a deity. Honey-soy chicken drumsticks with baked sweet potatoes. My seduction attempts failed miserably. It seems raisins are more of a temptress than I am. (Looking forward to my octogenarian years then.)

Surrender to the Sugar Gods or strive on with home-made?

First Attempt at Cupcakes

On our way ...

On our way …

From what I’ve observed, the “mommy thing” goes hand-in-hand with the “cupcake thing”, no matter how out of sync it may feel with your id. So, I finally baked something approximating said nomenclature. Yes, it required a bit of measuring (100ml milk – just used one of Petit-Homme’s milk bottles, no need to dig out the measuring jug) and yes, I learned a fundamental rule about cakes: eggs need to be at “room temperature”. Not quite sure why and how precise this rule is. After all, what if I like my rooms freezing cold? Determined as I was not to ruin this cake mix (how can they call it an instant cake mix if you still have to add butter, milk and eggs?) I allowed the eggs to bask on the counter for a few token minutes. Hoping all that lamplight warmed them up adequately, I threw in the other ingredients and approximated the butter. Seriously, does it really matter? Also, in a pinch, could I substitute infant formula for whole milk?

For the icing, I checked out a “recipe” for lemon icing online but reckoned I could free form this. Who on earth uses 3 cups of icing sugar? I cobbled together some lemon juice, about ¾ cup of icing sugar and some butter – when it looks like a thick sauce, you’re good to go.  Sorry Kitchen Magpie and you other superstar food bloggers, but my goal isn’t to have to run 20km the morning after (if only we had a morning after pill for this kind of night time lascivious debauchery). Plus, I didn’t have enough butter to meet the proper ratios for a gorgeous topping as I had already scraped most of it for the cake bit (see above). The meager ingredients I had on hand meant that the piping bag and tips (required to guarantee cupcake swirls, roses, flourishes etc.) got to continue hibernating in their pristine paper box.

Are you lonesome tonight?

Are you lonesome tonight?

Finally, I took the cakes out 5 minutes early as I usually prefer them moist. (In fact, I reckon lots of people prefer just eating the cake mix. Only public decency prevents them from admitting it.) Everything rose as it should. For someone who doesn’t really like cupcakes, I appreciate that there is [potential for] high aesthetic value and it can make even the most inept baker feel like opening a cupcake business. If you don’t believe me, try watching back to back episodes of 2 Broke Girls.

By the way, I did find them tasty – half a dozen somehow disappeared while watching The Interview (Kim Jong Un seems have that effect on food)- but much better with a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

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.