Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
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Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
- Regency Cafe and Shopping
Holborn with Alex and Alice
Florence to Paris to London
Sunday in Florence
Saturday in Tuscany
Milan to Florence
Zurich to Milan
Wednesday in Zurich
Tuesday in Zurich
London to Zurich
A Rake's Progress
Islington Pub Crawl with Andy
Michelle and Steve
Leek and Potato Soup, and Chelsea with Al
Sky over Pimlico
Lunch at Fortnum and Mason
Back at Work
Narita to Heathrow
Akihabara, Kinshicho, Shinjuku and Ueno
Okonomiyaki and Ikebukuro
- Regency Cafe and Shopping
- [Saturday 29th October 2011]
Started the day with breakfast at the Regency Cafe with Alex and Alice, then walked into the centre of London with them before waving them off.
I was in the mood for some shopping, so we started with a wander down Jermyn Street, after which we headed to Piccadilly to have a look in Cordings, the tweed specialist - it had caught my eye a few times but this was the first time I'd actually been inside. I didn't end up buying anything for myself, and instead we actually bought a rather fetching ladies' tweed jacket for Chie. See tomorrow's entry for some pictures.
I was in a decidedly extravagant mood, and after leaving Piccadilly we headed along Bond Street. We went into the Cartier shop to look at some of their cufflinks, and slightly surprised myself by actually buying a pair. The chap in the shop asked if they were a gift - I said no they were for me - and then asked if it was a special occasion or something - to which I just smiled and shrugged. An extremely self indulgent purchase, but having watched the Antiques Roadshow a lot I'm assured of how well things from Cartier keep their value, and I see them as antiques in the making.
Back at home in the evening we had Chinese food for dinner, I made a stir fry with pak choi and soy chunks, in a ginger, garlic, mirin and sake sauce. It came out rather well.
- Holborn with Alex and Alice
- [Friday 28th October 2011]
Alex and Alice were visiting London this weekend, an spent an evening with us during their stay, which was very nice. I decided it might be good to introduce them to some of my favourite pubs in London, many of which are all conveniently located in the Holborn area.
So we met at Temple, and started out with a visit to the Seven Stars, then the Princess Louise. Stomachs were rumbling by this point so we decided to take a break from the pub exploration in order to find dinner. I briefly considered Korean, but the queue at the place near Holborn station was very long, so instead we gave a Japanese restaurant on Red Lion street called Edokko a go, which was inexplicably quiet considering the food is actually quite good there.
After this the pub tour was resumed, first of all with the Cittie of Yorke, and then finishing at Ye Old Mitre - all the usual suspects.
- [Thursday 27th October 2011]
Made curry for dinner - for the sake of variety I always like to try and make several dishes when I make Indian curry. Tonight I made a potato and cauliflower curry, one with Quorn, green beans and carrots, and a third which was a variant on mutter paneer, with halloumi instead of the paneer (this actually worked rather well I thought).
- [Wednesday 26th October 2011]
Managed to persuade a few people from the office (Iain, Kyle and Andrew) to join me for lunch, and we headed out to Piccante Mexican Grill for one of their very-good-as-always burritos.
On the way back to the office I popped into Argos to pick up a new inflatable bed, in preparation for Alex and Alice's visit at the weekend - the previous one didn't stay inflated any more, and attempts to find an obvious puncture had been unsuccessful.
In the evening I made Lebanese food for dinner - I was particularly pleased with the loubieh which was a lot closer to what it tastes like in restaurants (I used tomato paste instead of tinned tomatoes, and also some harissa paste).
- [Tuesday 25th October 2011]
Back at work today.
In the evening I was invited to join a visitor from the US and a couple of other people from the office to go to a sort of speakeasy style cocktail bar in Shoreditch called Nightjar. The highlight was probably a cocktail which included dry ice, and was served in a teapot, which was quite dramatic.
- Florence to Paris to London
- [Monday 24th October 2011]
I'd like to say I awoke on the sleeper train around 8, but the reality is more that I finally gave up on any chance of sleeping at that point, and decided to get up for a little walk around the train. There wasn't really much to see, alas.
We arrived at Bercy station in Paris just before 10:30, and from there took the metro to Gare du Nord. We had a few hours before our Eurostat back to London and decided it would be easiest to leave our bags in the left luggage place at Gare du Nord and wander around from there. I'm really not a fan of Gare du Nord, and in particular the left luggage place. You have to go through airport style metal detectors to get in (and again when you come to collect your bags) and once inside you're then faced with coin lockers which are expensive, dirty, poorly maintained and hard to fathom how to use. There don't actually seem to be any English instructions anywhere, which seems a bit remiss considering, as far as I could tell, every other person using them was English as well.
We headed out from Gare du Nord and started our few hours in the 10th arondisement with a coffee at Au Train de Vie, my favourite cafe. It was the first time Chie had been here, and she seemed to rather like it too. For lunch, Chie had found a place on the web called Nanashi, which served bento style meals, and always had a vegetarian bento on the menu. I'm not sure it was exactly my sort of thing - perhaps a bit too much like healthy food for my tastes - but I was pleased nonetheless to find anything vegetarian whatsoever in Paris. Our third port of call was a boulangerie called Du Pain et Des Idees, where we bought some really good breads - particularly the Fougasse aux Herbes was excellent.
We got the Eurostar just after three, and to round off the trip bought a half bottle of Laurent Perrier to drink on the train, and then spent the majority of the journey dozing off in our seats.
- Sunday in Florence
- [Sunday 23rd October 2011]
Stayed in the centre of Florence today, and did all the touristy stuff - went to see the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, and had a coffee across the square from the Palazzo in Cafe Rivoire. Standing at the bar, I might add, as it's much cheaper. The standard of espresso in Italy seemed to be generally high on this trip, but I think the one in Rivoire was probably the best. Lorenzo said the same chap had been making coffee there for as long as he could remember, and pointed out how the chap who takes the orders and the chap who actually makes the coffee never actually talk to each other - they have a system of communicating based on how the teaspoon is position on the saucer.
Oh and we went to the famous boar statue too. Lorenzo looked a bit embarrassed as Chie and I had our picture taken there.
Next we went to the Palazzo Strozzi, now an art museum, to see an exhibition called "Money and Beauty" which explored how art depicted the bankers which made Florence so powerful in the middle ages, and particularly the morality of making money from money. I'm sure the timing of this was not a complete coincidence.
More wandering around Florence after that, including an ice cream at Vivoli (the place Lorenzo had previously told us was the second best in Florence, although he remains cagey on where the best is), and of course Ponto Vecchio. Chie actually came close to buying some jewelry at one of the shops there, but eventually decided against it.
By this time it was aperitif o' clock so we headed to a bar which had a sort of carpenter's workshop theme, although inexplicably was called "Volume". We had a Negroni there, which seemed to be the done thing in Florence, being where the drink originated from.
For dinner we went to a very old restaurant called Quattro Leoni for some Tuscan fare. I had two courses of pasta - a kind of tortelloni with pear in it for the first course, and a noodley sort of pasta with porcini for the second. There seemed to be lots of other foreigners eating here, but Lorenzo had been here before and assured us it was actually quite good.
After dinner it was time to start thinking about heading to the station, where we'd be getting on the sleeper train to Paris. So we said our goodbyes at the station around 9:30, bought some basic provisions for the trip (probably just a large bottle of water) at one of the shops there, and then climbed on board.
The sleeper service as ran by Artesia was nearing the end of its contract, and a new consortium would be taking over at the end of this year. As a result of that they were doing just the bare minimum for the last few months of the service. We hadn't been able to book a private compartment, and instead had two places in a "couchette" compartment for four. I'd been a little apprehensive about this, but when we got on board and met our fellow passengers we were somewhat reassured - two very friendly Brazilian chaps, who were seasoned travellers, and had used this service many times before. So we chatted to them to pass the time, until it was time to fold down our beds and try to get some sleep. Rather disappointingly Artesia had apparently also cancelled the bar carriage as well, and although there was a trolley service it seemed to have already retired for the evening by the time we boarded.
Chie managed to get off to sleep without much difficulty, I struggled somewhat. Our beds were very narrow - I couldn't even fit my arms by my side, and had to lie down with arms folded. I suspect this may have partly been because we were on the bottom bunks, and hadn't set them up properly - so we were effectively just sleeping along the chairs. I might have eventually got used to that, but in turns out our friendly Brazilians were also loud snorers. One snored pretty much constantly, the other more intermittently and dramatically. So that kept me wide awake until around 4am, when I think I might have been sufficiently tired to just about fall asleep despite the noise and discomfort. Unfortunately at that point I was disturbed by what I assumed to be somebody trying to get back into their compartment, but having got the wrong number. There then followed two further interruptions by people I later realised were the border police - nobody had warned us that they'd actually partially open the door and shine torches in. In my unprepared, half asleep, and somewhat grumpy state I may have hurled some ungentlemanly language at said border official.
So in the end a mostly sleepless night. Oh well.
- Saturday in Tuscany
- [Saturday 22nd October 2011]
Had a slightly more lazy morning, and eventually got up and headed out to help Lorenzo move some boxes about between his various abodes. Whilst we were visiting he was in the process of moving from a place where he'd been living out in the countryside, to a flat in the city, and also to complicate matters we were staying at his Mum's house for the weekend, where some of his stuff was also stored. So there was a sort of triangular moving process going on.
We eventually headed out of the city around 11:30, in the direction of Lorenzo's place in the country. It's in a rather spectacular spot, with amazing views of Tuscan scenery. The type of scenery that we're so used to seeing on TV or in films - or even in paintings - that when you're actually in it somehow it looks almost unreal. Particularly as we were treated to lovely blue skies today.
We had lunch at Lorenzo's place in the country - pasta with some home made pesto - which was very good. For dessert we had some Macaron I'd bought in Sprüngli in Zurich. After lunch we headed for a drive through the wonderful Tuscan countryside in the direction of San Gimignano, a fortified medieval town which is quite popular with tourists, which made for a stark contrast to the seemingly deserted landscape we'd driven through to get there. Still, crowds of tourists aside it's still a very attractive place to visit.
Next on the itinerary was another Tuscan town - Greve in Chianti - right in the heart of the famous winemaking region. It seemed pretty much obligatory to buy a bottle of Chianti while we were there, and we had an entertaining time trying to explain to the guy in the shop that I wanted one made without any isinglass. Also in Greve we stopped off for a late afternoon / early evening drink at a place specialising in microbrewery beers, which, bizarrely enough, was apparently sort of affiliated with CAMRA. Who'd have thought it?
After that we headed back to Florence, stopping off at the famous view point as we were entering the city to take some pictures of the Duomo and other landmarks by night. We then spent a bit of time back at Lorenzo's Mum's house, being enteertained by the cat, before heading out to local restaurant or a simple dinner of pasta followed by a drink at a German beer bar.
- Milan to Florence
- [Friday 21st October 2011]
We awoke relatively early - considering we were on holiday - in our hotel in Milan, as we'd booked for a 9:45 viewing of Da Vinci's the Last Supper, which is painted on the wall of the refectory at the Santa Marie delle Grazie convent in Milan. Conveniently it was just a fairly short trip on the Metro away from our hotel.
They only let 20 or so people at a time into the room where the Last Supper is, and you have to go through a kind of airlock to get in. The time slots are quite strictly observed, and you have to leave after 15 minutes. Our group was amusingly almost entirely composed of Japanese tourists. We didn't really see any Japanese people elsewhere in Milan - it's not really much of a tourist destination. Anyway, the painting itself is quite an impressive thing to behold, even if you're not particularly a fan of religious artwork.
After viewing the Last Supper we were fittingly peckish, and fortunately were well placed for a late breakfast at a pasticceria called Biffi, which I'd found on the web because it's apparently one of the oldest cafes in Milan. We had a quick standing coffee and some pastries there which was rather nice.
We then started to head into the centre, in the direction of the Duomo, but stopped off en route at another old bar I had found on the web called Bar Magenta. I felt a bit mean to go in without buying anything, so that meant another coffee and a pastry. Not quite as nice as Biffi, but the interior was sort of interesting.
Next stop was the Duomo, which is rather impressive, and generally regarded as the one sightseeing highlight in a city that, as noted, isn't otherwise much of a tourist destination. We went inside first, had a bit of a wander around, and then decided to go up on the roof - by stairs, rather than the lift, as it was a few Euros cheaper, and we probably needed the exercise after our eight or nine course meal last night. Whereas with some buildings going up on the roof is more about taking in the view of the surrounding area, with the Duomo it's actually still the building itself which remains the most interesting part - it gets you very close to all the fine Gothic masonry, in amongst the spires and flying buttresses.
After the Duomo we went for a wander round the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the very grand shopping arcade near the Duomo. It's more or less the same set of high end Italian brand shops you see on Bond Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York, or whatever the equivalent is in Paris. Still, the galleria itself is rather impressive with its high vaulted glass ceiling and mosaic tiled floor.
We'd sort of ran out of things on our to do list by this point - around midday - it had all taken less time than we imagined, so we pretty much spent the last few hours we had in Milan wandering around aimlessly. Unfortunately we hadn't researched where to go for lunch, and so despite our best efforts to go to a place where it looked like locals went, we still ended up in bit of a tourist trap. A particularly cunning tourist trap at that - the place was split into two halves, a sort of bar at the back where all the Milanese workers went for a coffee and a sandwich, and then a seated are at the front where tourists were marshalled into, to be served overpriced drinks and badly cooked pasta. Oh well, never mind - they didn't actually poison us at least.
We visited the canal district (Navigli?) of Milan after lunch, and immediately realised we should have gone there for lunch instead - there were lots of little eateries which looked much nicer than the place we had gone to. Oh well. After a bit more aimless wandering we eventually started to head back in the direction of Milan Centrale, to pick up our bags, and get on the train to Florence.
I had been slightly apprehensive about what the train might be like, given how the trip from Zurich to Milan yesterday had got gradually worse as it neared Italy, but actually I was very pleasantly surprised. The Milan to Florence train was comfortable, clean, fast, on time and generally very pleasant. Moreover it was still running on a day when lots of train staff in Italy were striking (the large number of "cancelled" signs on the boards at Milan station had been a bit disconcerting!). We got talking to a fellow passenger on board, a lovely chap called Alessandro, who informed us this was the only good train left in Italy now. So we felt pretty lucky overall.
We arrived in Florence at 6, although the Lorenzo had got stuck in traffic, so we had a bit of a wait before we met him. Apparently the traffic was partly a knock on effect of the rail strike. Anyway, eventually he arrived and it was an absolute delight to see him as always.
We were going to be staying at his Mum's house for the weekend, so we went there first to drop off our bags, then headed out for the evening. We started with an aperitivo - apparently quite a popular thing in Italy recently, where early in the evening bars provide free snacks with the drinks. Apparently this custom originates in Milan, although the timing hadn't quite worked out for us to be able to go anywhere offering that while we were there. Lorenzo took us to a wine bar he likes in Florence, called Piazza del Vino. I get the impression they're much more interested in the quality of the wine than going overboard on the accompanying snacks, but we had some of that very thin crispy bread (whose name I forget) with some cheese and olives, to go with our wines. We each had a different type of Italian sparkling wine, two prosecco and one other.
For dinner I'd suggested going for pizza, and so Lorenzo took us to a Neapolitan pizza place he likes, called Trattoria Santa Lucia, where we were joined by Lorenzo's friend Federico. The pizza was pretty good, but it occurred to me that probably gone are the days of coming to Italy and having pizza which was just unassailably better than anything I'd had in the UK - there are some really excellent pizza places in London now, and to be honest I don't think there's a lot in it any more.
We rounded off the evening with a cocktail at a bar I don't remember the name of, where apparently footballers playing for Fiorentina sometimes go to drink.
- Zurich to Milan
- [Thursday 20th October 2011]
Spent the morning at the office in Zurich, then downed tools at lunchtime, from which point on I was officially on holiday. Up until now this week had been a pretty standard business trip to Zurich as I'd done several times before, but from today the Grand Tour really kicked off in earnest.
After leaving the office, going by way to my hotel to pick up my luggage, I went to Zurich station, to get on the train to Milan. Having always travelled to Zurich by rail, I've often looked on enviously at the Milan train which I've frequently seen on the platform there, being filled with a desire to travel just that bit further by train. So I was very excited I'd finally be getting on that train.
It got off to a slightly uncertain start, as it seemed the actual train that we were supposed to be getting on hadn't made it all the way to Zurich, so instead we'd have a replacement train for the first 40 minutes or so of the journey. Still, the replacement train, albeit a bit old, was still pleasant enough, my seat in first class was very comfortable, and as we left Zurich I started to soak up the very pleasant views as we climbed the foothills of the Alps.
So after the first 40 minutes or so we changed trains onto what I had hoped would be the "proper" train, but there seemed to still be some uncertainty even then about whether this was now the actual train or not: we were told we'd have to change trains again later on, and this train didn't have the same layout as the original train our seats were reserved on, so it was just a free for all. Luckily it wasn't too busy so I was able to find a spacious solo seat in first class with a table and a spare seat opposite for my things.
Still, undeterred, I got settled and enjoyed the even more dramatic views as we passed through the Alps - I don't think the pictures really do it justice (it was hard to get a decent picture because of the glare from the sun and the reflection in the window) but this was one of the most scenic train journeys I've ever been on.
Eventually after crossing the Alps, somewhere around the Swiss-Italian border, we were required to change trains again, onto a really grotty old Trenitalia train. Again the seat reservations didn't seem to be valid, and even in the section which was apparently first class it was a bit cramped and just plain dirty - I daren't imagine what second class would have been like. Still, thankfully this was only for the last 40 minutes or so of the trip, so it was just about bearable, and I had enjoyed the Alpine scenery so much on the middle section of the journey that I didn't really mind too much.
I arrived in Milan just after 5 (about 20 minutes behind schedule, but on a roughly four hour journey were they had to introduce two additional changes I suppose that isn't too bad). Milan Centrale is quite an impressive station, and I was immediately very excited to be in Italy, so any minor grumblings about the slightly-less-than-perfect train journey quickly subsided. We'd booked our hotel right next to the station, so a few minutes later I had checked in, and was out for a stroll in Milan, while I waited for Chie to arrive (who was flying rather than taking the train). It's not a particularly lively or picturesque area around Milan Centrale (which despite the name isn't really very central) but it was interestingly nonetheless - I was excited just to be in Italy.
Chie got a bus from the airport, and we met outside the station around 7. After dropping her bags off at the hotel and getting changed we headed out for the evening. I'd booked us a table at 8 o' clock at Joia, the world's only Michelin starred vegetarian restaurant. It seemed we were the first customers in, but as the night wore on a lot more people arrived - in particular a large group who sat at the back and kept standing up to make long speeches every now and again.
As for the food, the pictures probably tell the story best. We both went for tasting menus, and, if you count the amuse bouche and the post-dessert nibble at the end, that ended up meaning something like nine courses. As always with these tasting menus it was a mixture of hits and misses, but I particularly enjoyed the vegetarian version of foie gras, and the potato and truffle soup. Overall though very enjoyable.
I'd spent a bit of time before coming to Milan researching on the web, in the hope of finding some of Milan's oldest bars. It had proved quite difficult, at least partly because there wasn't much information on the web about that kind of thing in English, but also because olde worlde isn't something they really go for in Milan it seems. Still, my search hadn't been entirely fruitless, and so after dinner I decided we should take a much needed stroll in the direction of Bar Basso.
Bar Basso is famous as the birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato, or "wrong" Negroni. It's the third in the line of a progression of Campari based cocktails - beginning with the Americano, which had its soda water replaced with gin to make the Negroni. The Sbagliato then evolves that further to replace the gin with sparkling wine (presumably prosecco). So of course I had to have this famous cocktail as my first drink at Bar Basso, and very good it was too. After that I attempted to use Google Translate on my phone to ask them what their second most popular cocktail was. A bit of grunting and gesturing later and they were mixing me another drink, whose name I don't recall, in a terrifyingly large glass goblet. Thankfully it also had a terrifyingly large ice cube in it, so it didn't end up actually being a massive quantity of booze. This tasted, to me, somewhat similar to the first drink - the flavour of Campari (or possibly Aperol in this case) tends to just overpower whatever else is in the glass. Still, I was enjoying myself nonetheless.
Part way through this second drink a large and somewhat inebriated bald Italian man started trying to talk to us, and seemed to be very hard to convince neither of us could speak Italian. I think he was just trying to be friendly but he ended up just saying the same sentence over and over again, which eventually got a bit irritating, so we took that as our cue to leave and headed back to our hotel. Still, that aside I really liked Bar Basso - there was something really quite adventurous about ordering drinks in a country where neither me nor Chie speaking the language at all, and in this bar at least nobody seemed to speak English either.
- Wednesday in Zurich
- [Wednesday 19th October 2011]
Not a lot to report really - spent the daytime working at the office in Zurich, and again in the evening found that everyone I knew had disappeared so had to entertain myself. Didn't really do very much - I just had dinner at the office and then after dropping my bag off at my hotel, went out for one quick drink at Cafe Odeon, which was celebrating its centenary this year, and is apparently where Lenin went to drink when he lived in Zurich. It was OK I suppose, but it was hard to get much of a sense of the history from the decor and the atmosphere today. Still, I suppose it was better than just staying in my hotel room all evening. It also meant I had the chance to take in some nice night time views of Zurich again. It really is quite an attractive city, albeit perhaps a bit too quiet for my liking.
- Tuesday in Zurich
- [Tuesday 18th October 2011]
Worked at my company's office in Zurich in the daytime - my main reason for being here, as usual, was to take part in a promotion committee. We had a lot more candidates to review than usual this time, and as chair I also had to hang around a bit after everyone else left to do some "paperwork" (obviously not actually on paper though). So it made for quite a long day, it's quite an intense thing, and I was pretty knackered by the end of it.
Alas everybody I know at the Zurich office had disappeared by the evening, so I had to go out for dinner by myself. At least it wasn't hard to decide where - like every other trip I had to make at least one pilgrimage to Hiltl (Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant) during my time there, and tonight seemed like as good a night as any. I had the vegetarian version of steak tartare to start with, which was really interesting, followed by the usual Zuri Geschnetzeltes. Delicious as always.
After dinner I decided to go for a drink at a place called the Oepfelchammer, which I'd found on the web by trying to search for Zurich's oldest bar. It wasn't exactly a bar as such, more a room off the side of the restaurant where you could sit and order drinks. I usually have no qualms about going into places by myself, but some facet of not being able to speak German (it turns out I forgot almost everything I was taught at school), and the odd claustrophobic nature of this place, made me feel quite self conscious. So I just had one quick glass of wine and then left. Still, it was an interesting experience. Every single wooden surface has a named scratched into it, which made it feel a bit like a room in a lunatic asylum or something. Apparently this is part of a ritual at the bar where you have to climb through the rafters, then drink a glass of wine upside down. To my slight relief on this particular evening a more sedate group of clientele were present - or maybe it was just too early in the evening - and no such high jinx occurred.
- London to Zurich
- [Monday 17th October 2011]
Today was the first day of my week-or-so "Grand Tour" of Europe, wherein I had ambitiously planned to get all the way to Florence by train, taking in Paris, Zurich and Milan en route. Both Chie and I had been wanting to visit Italy again for a while, and as I had to go to Zurich for a few days this week, and I knew there was a good train service from Zurich to Milan, it seemed like an ideal opportunity.
So I went into work in the morning, and then after a quick lunch headed over to St. Pancras to catch the Eurostar, the first leg of the now familiar train journey from London to Zurich, by way of Paris.
The Eurostar is usually my least favourite part of any European rail adventure - it always feels a bit cramped somehow, so I usually end up sitting on the little fold down chair at the end of the carriage which gives me a lot more space to myself.
On arrival in Paris I had an hour to change trains, and so I made the now almost ritualistic visit to Au Train de Vie, the little train themed cafe conveniently located between Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est. After a quick restorative pastis there I headed to Gare de l'Est, stopping off en route to buy a very modest sized bottle of Champagne to have on the train, as it passes through the Champagne region - another ritual I've developed on this journey.
The journey from Paris to Zurich was pleasant as always (particularly as I'd made sure to get a first class seat) albeit that I remembered given the time of year it gets dark about an hour into the trip and there really isn't much to see. Must remember to try and travel in the afternoon instead next time.
The train arrives in Zurich at 11, and in what is become another tradition for this trip, between the station and my hotel I popped into a kebab place to get some falafel, for a late night dinner.
- A Rake's Progress
- [Sunday 16th October 2011]
Alas I think I overdid it somewhat on yesterday's pub crawl - some poor judgement was exercised. Consequently I did not feel very well for a large part of today. Fittingly, whilst lying in a pathetic heap on the sofa in the daytime, vegetating in front of the TV, there was a program on which featured Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. I felt suitably remonstrated, particularly noting that the first scene which acts has a portent for Tom's imminent downfall is him being measured up for a suit.
Did eventually just about muster the wherewithal to get out of the flat later on in the afternoon, and had a slightly odd outing with Chie to Balham. She'd been wanting to go for a while having heard it was quite a cheap place to buy a house, but with relatively good transport links, considering it was South of the river. I of course was not impressed, but the one thing that neck of the woods does at least have going for it is a decent Waitrose, which we availed ourselves of while we were there.
- Islington Pub Crawl with Andy
- [Saturday 15th October 2011]
I hadn't seen my friend Andy for some time, elongated somewhat by the pair of us having very-nearly-but-not-quite coinciding trips to Japan. Today we decided we should finally meet up, and revive an old tradition of ours for exploring the pubs in an area of London. As it happens though we've already covered all the bits of London where all the really rich pickings are, and so I was left scratching my head a bit thinking were to go next. Having been to Islington just a couple of times for the Camden Passage antiques market, I had spotted one or two reasonable looking pubs, and thought therefore it might be an interesting area to explore.
The initial route planned was something like the following:
View Islington pub crawl in a larger map
Although we ended up going somewhat "off piste" after Akari - where we had a late Japanese lunch.
- Foreign Exchange
- [Friday 14th October 2011]
Last full day at the office before my upcoming Grand Tour of Europe. Got my hair cut first thing in the morning, and actually had a conversation with the Polish (I think) woman who cut my hair for a change - I usually just sit in silence at the place I've been going to for the last couple of years.
I popped out at lunchtime to change some pounds into CHF and EUR in preparation for the coming trip.
- Deep Fried
- [Thursday 13th October 2011]
A somewhat unhealthy day foodwise. I managed to persuade a couple of people from the office to go out for lunch, and in fact we ventured into the centre of London, and went to Rossopomodoro, where I introduced them both to the deep fried calzone there. They were both immediate converts.
Chie got her hair cut after work, and we met up near there when she finished. She fancied veggie fish and chips for dinner, so we spent a while wandering around trying to find a Taylor Walker pub, and eventually ended up at the Silver Cross just of Trafalgar Square. I'd always avoided it assuming it to be a bit of a tourist trap, and, whilst it did seem to be full of Italian and Japanese tourists, the staff were quite pleasant, the beer was in reasonable condition, and it was actually one of the better renditions of veggie fish and chips I've had.
- Michelle and Steve
- [Wednesday 12th October 2011]
Michelle and Steve were in London today, having been to a concert the previous evening. So we met up for lunch at my office.
In the evening I took a visitor from the US, and a couple of other people from the office, out for a small pub crawl in Belgravia.
- [Tuesday 11th October]
- [Monday 10th October]
- Leek and Potato Soup, and Chelsea with Al
- [Sunday 9th October 2011]
Made leek and potato soup for lunch, which was quite nice.
In the afternoon I got a text from Al saying that he was in Chelsea, and suggesting we meet up for a pint. I'd never really explored the pubs of Chelsea very thoroughly before, mostly because they barely exist - the majority of them have turned into upmarket foody places. I was quite impressed by how Al strode confidently into several of these, enquired as to whether or not they had any real ales on tap, and in more than one place promptly turn around and left when they said no.
Despite none of the pubs even remotely numbering amongst London's finest it was still very pleasant to have a bit of a chinwag with Al over a drink or two.
- [Saturday 8th October 2011]
I'd discovered an article on the web about baccari - kind of a Venetian version of a tapas bar - whilst trying to search for old bars in Milan and Florence for our upcoming trip to Italy. Their word for the small snacks that are designed to accompany drinks are ciccheti. I was also intrigued to learn that somebody had opened a restaurant in London inspired by this concept, and so I was keen to try it. So we went for an early dinner today at Polpo, in Soho.
Not sure I was completely bowled over with the place - perhaps a bit too modern and trendy for my liking, and it's one of those places where the staff seemed to be enjoying themselves more than the customers - but still it made for an interesting break from the norm. In particular this was actually my first time to try a Negroni, something which was going to become a bit of a theme on our upcoming trip to Italy.
- [Friday 7th October]
- Sky over Pimlico
- [Thursday 6th October 2011]
A picture I took on the way to work this morning.
- Lunch at Fortnum and Mason
- [Wednesday 5th October 2011]
Wanted to get out of the office at lunchtime, so went for a very nice lunch at Fortnum and Mason. Started with wild mushrooms on toast, followed with an Autumn salad. Both dishes were very good.
- [Tuesday 4th October]
- Back at Work
- [Monday 3rd October 2011]
First day back at work in London after our trip to Japan, and unsurprisingly a bit jetlagged.
Satisfied the craving I'd developed over the past couple of weeks for a proper old pub with a quick drink after work at the Horse and Groom, with some people from the office.
- Narita to Heathrow
- [Sunday 2nd October 2011]
Our flight was at 11:30 this morning, but thanks to the impressively fast "Keisei Skyliner" from Ueno to Narita (it takes about 45 minutes, quicker than the JR Narita Express) we didn't need to check out until about 8:20, so we didn't have to get up obscenely early.
I decided to wear the jacket from my suit to the airport, partly to reduce the chance of it getting creased, but also partly because I live in the vain hope that one day I'll get that elusive free upgrade, that I keep hearing about happening to other people, but never happens to me. I've heard in the past that dressing smart can help your chances. It clearly didn't help mine. Still, we were already booked in Premium Economy at least - I pretty much refuse to fly normal economy nowadays, which is just horrendously uncomfortable - but that stil leaves me looking enviously at the bar in the Upper Class section. I still just can't bring myself to pay the huge difference in price for Upper Class.
Rather oddly we decided to have some sushi for breakfast at the airport before going through security, immigration etc. That was quite fun.
The flight was tedious and unpleasant as always, and the food was pretty bad this time too. As always I'd booked vegetarian meals, and my first meal was some incredibly badly cooked penne with a very dry tomato sauce and a few bits of mangy looking courgette and aubergine on top. On the standard menu in premium economy in Virgin there's usually also a vegetarian option (and I never really understand why this is usually a different thing to the pre-booked vegetarian meal). So I asked if I could swap my awful penne for that instead - it was a vegetable lasagne. It wasn't fantastic either but it was certainly an improvement - at least this dish included a sauce that was, you know, actually liquid.
I was also somewhat irked at one point during the flight when one of the cabin attendants came and asked me if I could "slightly" close the shutter to the window by my seat so that people could sleep. I asked to clarify that he didn't need me to close it the whole way, and he seemed to agree. So I pulled it down about three quarters of the way, and he went away. Seconds later one of his colleagues then emerged and told me to close it completely. Perhaps this was some sort of language problem (both the attendants were Japanese), and the original attendant didn't really mean to say "slightly", but it gave the impression that the first attendant had gone and complained to the second one that I wasn't being cooperative (whereas I think at 75% closed I over delivered on the initial request of "slightly"). As far as I was concerned, this was a daytime flight - it left Japan at 11:30am, and landed in London at 16:00. It follows the path of the sun, and is daylight the whole way. At no point in the flight were you in a timezone at a time of day where you would normally be asleep. I can never sleep on planes under any circumstances, and I rather resent as a result having to sit in a dark, claustrophobic cabin most of the way so that other people can indulge in their freakish and unnatural sleeping habits. People that are able to sleep in the loud, uncomfortable and downright unpleasant environment of a plane must in my opinion be either drugged up or narcolepsy sufferers. I doubt one shutter being 25% open will particularly cause a problem for either of these classes of people.
More or less every time I fly Virgin there's some sort of small but irritating incident like this (oh and I never, ever, ever get a free upgrade) that makes me think I'll try a different airline next time. The problem is I think they're pretty much all terrible, so I guess I end up just sticking to the devil I know.
The one positive highlight of the otherwise largely irksome flight was the first film we watched - Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I'm not usually a huge Woody Allen fan but this film really appealed to me - probably a lot to do with all the 1920s glamour in it. The rest of the films I watched were pretty awful though.
We landed at 4pm UK time. As, unfortunately, did several other planes. I have never seen the queues for immigration so bad - there must have been thousands of people packed into that hall. Luckily the UK/EU passports queue (which Chie can use when she's travelling with me it turns out) moved reasonably quickly, so we were "only" queueing for 20 minutes or so, but I really pity all the Japanese people, and other nationalities, who were in a much slower moving queue. It must have taken many of them at least an hour to get through, possibly even longer.
Took the tube from Heathrow back to the flat. We had been treated to a view of central London from the plane just before landing, including a clear view of the square we live in. It was a little frustrating that from there to actually getting home took another two hours. It was also a little frustrating that London was hot on our return, and apparently had been for a fair chunk of the time we were away in Japan - after that terrible summer. Typical.
Didn't really do anything for the remainder of the evening, I started to unpack a bit, and put a load of washing on, then spent a while watching Countryfile and the Antiques Roadshow and trying to convince myself I wasn't falling asleep. Ended up going to bed before 9 - probably a mistake.
- Akihabara, Kinshicho, Shinjuku and Ueno
- [Saturday 1st October 2011]
Our last full day in Japan today, spent in various parts of Tokyo. Had a bit of a lazy morning in our hotel in Ueno (for most of this week, particularly when we'd been traveling around Kyushu, we'd generally been getting up reasonably early, so having a lie in for a change was quite nice). Towards the end of the morning our thoughts turned to food, and as by this point lunchtime was approaching we abandoned thoughts of breakfast, and instead decided to head to It's Vegetable, the Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant in Kinshicho, which conveniently was only 10 or 15 minutes away from Ueno on the train.
On the way there, we stopped off in Akihabara. My previous camera had developed a rather annoying smudge on the lens/CCD on a trip to Cambridge this year. I hadn't been able to dislodge it myself, and assuming it wasn't really repairable I'd just bought a new camera this summer instead. Chie however was determined to have a go at getting it fixed, and having previously popped in to a Bic Camera (the electrical shop where I bought it in the first place) on this trip, we'd been told there was a Panasonic service centre in Akihabara which could do same day repairs. So we dropped it off there before lunch.
Had a very nice lunch at It's Vegetable, which also seemed quite healthy. They've changed their previous lunchtime all-you-can-eat buffet to a probably-much-more-sensible weight based system now, so I ended up not over eating, and just picking the things I really wanted to eat. Although we did also order a half roast mock chicken in addition to our bento boxes, which was quite delicious.
After leaving there we headed back to Akihabara, and picked up the camera, with that annoying smudged now removed. I was really impressed by the service here - the camera was about two years old, no longer under guarantee, but they charged less than 4000 Yen (about 30 quid) and had it done and ready for collection in less than two hours. Whenever I've considered having any kind of repair done to an electronic device in the UK I've pretty much always ended up not bothering, as it's usually more expensive than just buying a new one, not to mention all the faffing about of having to send it off somewhere, and then probably have to wait weeks for them to do it.
From there, we walked back to Ueno, by way of a Japanese sweets cafe where we had an-mitsu. We also took a stroll through Ueno park, where they had a small antiques market today.
After a brief rest back at the hotel, we headed out again for the evening.
In recent years when visiting various parts of the world I've taken to searching for "oldest pub/bar in X" as a way of finding somewhere interesting to go, and to expand my enthusiasm for old pubs in England into an International scope. It's usually less fruitful outside of England, where drinking establishments are often just not cherished and preserved in the same way they are back home. This is particularly true in Japan, where constant rebuilding is the norm, and with the exception of temples and castles, for most types of places, being old seems to actively put people off. Still, undeterred I had found at least a couple of references on the web to an izakaya not far from Ueno called "Kagiya", which was purportedly the oldest in Tokyo, so as we were in the neighbourhood we decided to start our evening with a quick drink there.
We chatted to the owner a bit (and one of the regulars) who didn't really say yes or no when I mentioned that I'd heard it was the oldest izakaya in Tokyo - instead he just said thank you. On further probing, it seemed that on this site there had been a place selling alcohol (interestingly a lot of foreign alcohol - wines etc - at certain points in history), possibly as far back as the 1600s. If I understood correctly it became an izakaya in the 1800s, although the current building is not the original one. As an added twist, in fact the original building still exists, and has been moved to the Edo Architectural Museum. So, just like my mission to pin down the oldest pub in London it seems similarly hard in Tokyo to come up with a conclusive answer. Anyway, whether it really counts as the oldest izakaya or not, it had a great atmosphere, and is somewhere I never would have thought to walk into without the prompt of its' potential historical significance.
From there, we rushed to Shinjuku as we were a bit late for our next appointment (it turns out it is hard to pop into a local izakaya for one very quick drink, they tend to expect you to eat something, and stay to chat for a bit). We'd taken Nozaki-sensei and Kaori-san out for dinner when they were in London recently, and they were keen to return the favour. So they treated us to dinner at their favourite tempura place in Shinjuku - called Tsunahachi. It's apparently rather popular, and I felt quite guilty about skipping the queue on the way in, as Nozaki-sensei and Kaori-san already had seats for us at the counter upstairs. Tempura is usually one of the more vegetarian compatible foods in Japan, and I had a selection of mushrooms and Japanese vegetables. Perhaps not the most exciting ingredients I've ever had at a tempura place in Japan, but it was all cooked perfectly in front of us by the chef, who also gave us strict instructions on which salt/sauce to dip each item. I invariably forgot these instructions, and just did whatever I liked when he wasn't looking. We had sake with the food - a very easy-to-drink daiginjo, from Iwakuni (the place with the famous hump backed bridge).
After dinner, we met up with some of Chie's university friends (Hide-san, Asuksa-san and Yumi-san) and went for a drink at a tiny little whisky/cocktail bar. I didn't really like it all that much if I'm honest - the drinks took absolutely ages to arrive, the staff seemed a bit frosty, and it was really claustrophobic. After one drink I proposed we change venues. Nozaki-sensei and Kaori-san left us at this point, leaving just us "students" to go to one last bar - I proposed the Asahi beer hall round the corner, as I remember it being fairly lively. Just had one drink there, as the staff seemed to want to close up early - they told us it closed at 11, but came round and told us it was last orders for drinks just after 10.
Hide-san, Asuka-san and Yumi-san all had long distances to travel home, so they all left us after that, but as it was our last night in Japan, and I didn't feel tired at all, it seemed a shame just to go back to the hotel and go to sleep. So we got the train back to Ueno, and went for a bit of a wander around the bars etc in that neck of the woods. As I mentioned yesterday, Ueno has a really different feel to Shinjuku - a lot less showy, a bit rough around the edges - but not necessarily in a bad way. After a bit of a wander around the backstreets and alleyways we chose a bar where the tables spilled out into the street (not that common in Tokyo actually), and, although it was heading towards closing time it was still fairly lively. A group of young Japanese guys managed to empty the entire contents of their table onto the street, presumably by accident, and the ever-smiling girl working in the bar told us it was pretty much a nightly occurence as she wandered over to sweep up the broken glass. The people seemed smiley and friendly and a couple of them waved at us as they left. We barely ever came to Ueno when we lived in Tokyo, and both of us decided it's somewhere we should spend more time in on future trips to Japan.
- [Saturday 1st October]
- Okonomiyaki and Ikebukuro
- [Friday 30th September 2011]
Left Hiroshima today, and for our last meal there I had put in a special request for okonomiyaki, thinking that would be a suitable thing to have for lunch, and is of course a Hiroshima speciality. We ended up having it in the morning though - originally Chie referred to it as brunch, but it was probably closer to breakfast time! Anyway, whatever the time of day was (and it kind of didn't matter as I was in a foreign time zone anyway) the okonomiyaki, made as a team effort by Chie's Mum and Dad, was delicious. I was also pleased to discover there was a vegetarian version of Otafuku sauce (the standard sauce used on Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. It normally contains oysters, but they make a version for young children which doesn't.
After packing up our stuff, and saying our goodbyes, we got on the Shinkansen from Hiroshima station around 12:30. As before, given that we were using a Japan Rail pass, we had to use slightly slower shinkansen trains, and also change at Osaka. So it ended up being a five hour journey to Toyko (with a direct Nozomi train it's four hours), but long journeys on the shinkansen are never as arduous as they would be on a train in the UK - it's really spacious and comfortable, and also usually very quite as well. Although on this particular occasion a big group from the US got on at Kyoto, who were somewhat noisier than their fellow Japanese travellers.
Chie had chosen a hotel in Ueno for our last two night in Tokyo, largely because there's a really good line from there to Narita. It also has quite a different feel to some of the other hubs of Tokyo (for example Shinjuku) - much older and more traditional, but also a tad grotty around the edges. Still our hotel was nice enough, and very close to the station.
After checking in and dropping of our bags, we got on the Yamanote line (Tokyo's circle line) and headed for Ikebukuro, where we had an evening planned, revisiting my favourite haunts there (Rohlan and Quercus) and meeting up with some friends while we were there.
So we started with dinner at Rohlan, where we were met by two of my friends that I used to work with in Japan (Aoki-san and Tanaka-san) and as an odd coincidence, also two of Chie's friends that she used to work with in Japan (Ochiai-san and Shoko-chan, who had recently been to visit us in the UK). I was slightly concerned to see that the menu had changed a bit, and also I didn't recognise any of the usual staff - but still the old favourites were still there (most importantly the vegetarian "pork" tonkatsu) and given that we were a large group we could order quite a large selection of things to try. We had a fantastic array of really excellent Taiwanese vegetarian food.
After that we headed to my other favourite old haunt - Quercus - for some excellent malts and a chat with Watanabe-san, as well as some of the regulars I used to chat to when I lived in Tokyo. We didn't stay particularly late in the end, but stlll it was great to be back here again, however briefly.
- [Thursday 29th September 2011]
We had another full day in Hiroshima between our trip to Kyushu and returning to Tokyo, but didn't really have anything planned for it. Chie wanted to go out and do some shopping with her Mum in the afternoon, and correctly surmised that I would be quite happy to just leave them to it. Instead I spent some of the afternoon with Chie's Dad, who took me to see Hiroshima Castle. I'd actually never been in before. Being in central Hiroshima it was of course completely rebuilt after the war, but then most castles in Japan seem to have burnt down and been completely rebuilt at some point or other. I hadn't realised that the original castle, and the city of Hiroshima, actually dates back over 500 years. The inside of the castle is a museum of old Hiroshima (non of which really survives today of course) and I found it quite interesting.
We met up with Chie after that, and drove to the dreaded Soleil (the giant shopping complex in Hiroshima) although it wasn't actually that bad this time, as we spent most of the time there having coffee, and doing food and drink shopping. The kind of shopping I like. As it was the last night of this trip that we'd see Chie's parents (not that I ever really need an excuse) I bought a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and decided to try the demi sec for a change. I understand that it shows a lack of education about wines to be instantly dismissive of anything sweet, but I think demi sec as a style of Champagne is something that is going to take a bit of getting used to.
Chie's Mum made the usual feast for dinner, helped by Chie today, and I had a kind of nabe with the kimchi I'd been barely nibbling at all the time we'd been in Hiroshima (as it was a bit too fiery to eat by itself) and some things we can't so easily find in the UK - like gunman and those little bags with mochi in, whatever they're called.
After dinner, partly to do something (else) special for our last night in Hiroshima, but also because I'd rather stupidly brought my new suit to Japan for no particular reason, we went out for drinks at the cocktail bar in the new Sheraton Hotel in Hiroshima (which we mainly chose because it was close to the station, and therefore easier to get to - even though we ended up using a taxi both ways). Chie's Dad isn't really into this sort of thing so decided to leave us to it, but Chie's Mum jumped at the chance to go somewhere a little out of the ordinary. Cocktails in Japan seem to typically be long and fruity concoctions, and they don't seem particularly accustomed to the more traditional American/European style of classic cocktails, e.g. martinis. I was pleased to see here though that the cocktail menu was entirely recognisable to Western eyes, probably at least partly because Sheraton is an American hotel chain. I had a reasonable martini (a lot smaller than I'm used to in the UK though - I guess the Japanese aren't ready for a large measure of what basically amounts to neat gin) followed by a kind of approximation to an Aviation. It wasn't on the menu, and the bartender hadn't heard of it, but I roughly described the ingredients and ended up with something in the vague viccinity.