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 Happens When You Lock a Heap of Lawyers Together in Quarantine

Lawyers milling around awaiting voluntary imprisonment

Milling around waiting for voluntary imprisonment

Several times a year, lawyers from around the globe huddle in anxious little bunches to sit the QLTS exam in London. The “Qualifed Lawyer Transfer Scheme” (you know you wanna do it) allows lawyers admitted to the bar in foreign jurisdictions to qualify as a solicitor in England (and Wales, but not Scotland). It is divided into two parts: the first is a 6 hour multiple choice exam (MCT), and the second (OSCE), is a 6 day carousel of presentations, meeting thugs (aka clients) and faffing around on Lexis Nexis to prove your research-savvy.

Last week, I was churned through and spat out the second-round OSCE mill and here’s what I remember…

The Quarantine

Not that they were trying to preserve the legal profession from an outbreak of disease – we all know how lawyers would fare (and perhaps reproduce) in an epidemic – but rather, my batch consisted of last-minuters who had to be quarantined in order to protect us from accidentally learning about the exams from the morning batch.

For three days straight (three hours per day), we stared at each other’s faces, shoes, and sandwich lunches. Eventually, we morphed into our natural states. If driving reveals our true personalities, exams are even more piercing of the suited veil.

The Scary Asian (Far East)

Though no real math is involved (apart from a bit of tax law), certain stereotypes still persist. These super well-organized Chinese attorneys had spreadsheets, diagrams, flowcharts, and stacks full of notes in cramped, tiny handwriting (wood famine in the Orient?). The level of preparation was Very Intimidating.

The Bulldozing Asian (Indian subcontinent)

As part of our “tests” we had to interview clients (e.g. grieving widows, thugs who beat up their girlfriends) and present defences in front of judges. It’s a tough spot to be in when you have no clue about the law on (let’s say, restrictive covenants) and you are expected to blather on for 25 minutes, “winning your client’s trust and confidence”. Lawyers in this category reported a rather aggressive tactic – i.e. charging in and juggernauting over any questions the client attempted to ask. 

The Fans of Earplugs

I can’t get earplugs into my ear canals so whenever I see people sporting this look, I can’t help but to stare in admiration for a long while. First, at their focus, and second from jealousy at the size of their ear holes, and the attendant flourescent foam bits I can only ever dream of fitting into.

The American

One can hear and see these from a mile away. They usually look awesome in their suits (a requirement for the first 3 days), but a drastic difference is noticeable at the Research & Writing exams (the last 3 days). Sneakers and loose shirts 3 days running is a favourite uniform. They tend to sound extremely well-prepared and ready for a stint on LA Law. Hanging around them is extremely useful if you are woefully underprepared, thus just vacuum up everything they are saying. However, if you are somewhat prepared but could have done more instead of catching up on Game of Thrones, steer clear if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed and underprepared (as you obviously are!), as they joyfully debate the minutiae of everything, ranging from sentencing limits to inheritance tax percentages.

What “Pimp My Ride” Means in The Hague

Bike

You know those sleek car ads that feature stubbly men in leather jackets gliding into minivans named otherwise (crossover, utility vehicles, tanks etc..) in the quest to fool you that notwithstanding leaking diapers and sniveling noses, you will never lose your cool?

I’ve always fancied those kinds of self-denial mantras – that if we accessorize well enough, and surround ourselves with enough cute gear, said cool will never be lost. But now, I’ve discovered an entirely new level of cool. Cool is not the overtanned, anorexic lady of the manor shrieking at her imported nanny over creases in her daughter’s fuschia tutu, while running late for her overpriced salad lunch at The Club.

Cool is the mother of three hauling a double buggy solo up the tram, rushing to multiple doctor’s appointments and playdates, feeding offspring en route, without breaking a sweat. Supercool is not ever arriving late, and having showered.

So, we adapt to our environment. Given that our gas guzzling SUV is not the fastest means of maneuvering in The Hague (tight streets, merciless one way system), I got me a new set of wheels.

In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be torching the asphalt in a 7-speed Gazelle with bright yellow kid seat in tow to the soundtrack of Petit-Homme shouting “More! More!”, but what the heck, I still got my leather jacket… (just no stubble yet).

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.)

Borders are alive and well in the UK part of Europe

Although the UK is technically part of Europe (notwithstanding its status as champion doomsayer of the European Union), the British perceive it as a different world. Travel posters all around London lure UK travellers to the continent with images of leaning towers, crumbling wrestling rings, and this simple message – “Visit Europe”. Although immigration borders are barely apparent in the continent, to the point where you can live in one country and work in another (and even get rewarded by tax savings), the British have kept their fences strong and proudly up.

Snagging a fresh baguette at Pret is a must as sarnies on the Eurostar can be pretty soggy

Snagging a fresh baguette at Pret is a must as sarnies on the Eurostar can be pretty soggy

I’m so used to moving around paperless now that I almost forgot to bring my passport for today’s trip from London to Brussels on Eurostar. I wasn’t able to dawdle at Pret-a-Manger and Joules at St Pancras, as security checkpoints and immigration before boarding are rather lengthy. Happily, the train ride makes up for lots of lost time as London-Brussels takes only 2 hours and 10 minutes. French immigration checked my passport and asked absolutely no questions.

The return trip this same evening took more time as the Brussels-Midi Eurostar check-in has two sets of border controls – one Belgian and one British. The Belgians insisted on seeing my Dutch residence card (in addition to my passport) and were uninhibited in questioning. They then ferociously told me to present said card to the British authorities 20 metres beyond. I did this – and the British border guard cackled “What’s this?” as though I had proffered him a suspicious birthday cake. He then quizzed me on what the Belgians were doing these days in terms of checking IDs. Two kiosks, 20 metres apart – quite the border bother.

Passport Control x 2 at Brussels Midi

Passport Control x 2 at Brussels Midi

Back on the train, I learnt from a grungy Guardian newspaper that the Brits are very concerned over trade negotiations with the US as it could allow American firms to bid for national health contracts. Given the dire state of public health services in the UK, wouldn’t British residents stand to benefit from a little healthy competition?

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.

Christmas in Canada

There are several things that Canada does par excellence. One of them is Christmas. It doesn’t quite matter that there are no beautiful Christmas markets, the type that exist in bountiful supply throughout Europe

spadesneiges1

Frosty the Snowman Melted into a Waterfall at Spa des Neiges

Christmas here is a delicious blend of active church services, exciting capitalism – assuaged by charitable endeavours, massive piles of food, and even more massive piles of snow. It can be excessive, such as during the mad rush pre-and-post Christmas to desperately snap up gifts or to sweep up the rest of the stuff on shelves at 70% off.

Pondering the St Lawrence River

Pondering the St Lawrence River

For many, this time of the year is incredibly inconvenient, mainly because of the blinding white sheets of snow and ice that drape themselves over every lawn, road and house. Sure its cold, but the shovels and smiles are warm. Almost everyone is on holiday. In NL, the Dutch don’t get the day off for Sinterklaas (December 5) (I find this quite strange), and Christmas has become a feuding point over one of the country’s anchor traditions (Zwarte Piet) (even stranger).  The Dutch Christmas is pretty, practical, and politically-fraught.

Maybe one day, I will learn to seamlessly adopt the particularities of the peoples in my country of abode, but for now, home is still what the heart yearns for. And as we know, yearnings are usually romantic, but rarely practical.

Merry Christmas – or as Canadians in a multicultural country are taught to say – Have a Happy Holiday Season!

Flying With or Without Your Toddler – Which is Easier?

We just recovered from our second transcontinental flight with Petit-Homme. He breezed through the first one last year easily, but this time around it was an entirely different ball game. He is now almost 30 pounds and as wriggly as a worm on steroids.

flightIncluding transfers, our flights took about 15 hours to reach Quebec City. My main concern was how PH would sleep. We ended up creating a makeshift bed in the corner out of a down jacket, pillows and blankets (front seats of Comfort section face perpendicular walls). The passengers in our small cabin were surprisingly kindly. Not a huff of exasperation nor rolled eyeball (that I could detect, perhaps wilful blindness on my part) despite a few moments of fatigued shrieking (vocal by PH, mental by me). The demographic of our section was overwhelmingly male, white, middle-aged. Petit-Homme busied himself prancing back and forth handing out empty wine bottles along the aisle. I am no longer anxious that others will be perturbed – I’ve put up with your kids, now’s payback time!

While KLM Business treats you well (excessive cheese and unnecessary cutlery), KLM Economy is friendly but stingy with “adult food”. It took 30 minutes and grudging responses from our attendant to get a pastry for Petit-Homme. She said she’d bring one “if there were extra”. She was forthcoming with a few cans of Olvarit puree, so parents with little babies can rest easy knowing there will be baby food on board. After a long wait, she came back twice to ask us if we were still interested in the chicken pastry for him. (Yes, yes, and yes.)

Due to safety concerns, they made us rouse him from a hard-fought slumber every time there was slight turbulence, just so he could be held in our arms. I’m not sure what others do in this case, but weighing the pros and cons of a cranky little child, ergo cranky entire cabin, I secretly declined at times. Instead I held him down on the floor while he slept during softer episodes. (justification – staff were themselves clanking around in the galley instead of being strapped down tightly.)

Finally, our exhaustions and frustrations were put into perspective by a kindly man sitting across from us. During the flight, he had surprised me by being extremely encouraging with many smiles and teases for PH. At the end, we discovered that he was actually en route to Toronto to meet up with his family, and his baby that he had not seen for 6 months as they lived in different countries! Due to visa restrictions, they could only practically meet in Canada. So, everyone had to fly around in order to spend a few precious moments together in a country that none of them had ties to.

As hard as it was to endure this trip, I can’t begin to imagine how it would be like to suffer a long separation from your cherished little darling, and then to see him completely changed –  perhaps even unaware of who you are.