Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sweet Breams

I had lunch in San Mateo and took the opportunity to check out Sweet Breams, a 6 month old Japanese dessert shop that received some good coverage in the Merc recently. They sell taiyaki, a mini pastry fish (bream!) that's like a little shot of heaven when you bite into it. It tastes like a mini filled fish-shaped waffle, if you're trying to imagine what it's like. It definitely fits into the trend of cute Japanese stuff - if you like Hello Kitty, this place is for you! The overhead TV was playing Howl's Moving Castle in Japanese while I was there ;)

The classic taiyaki filling is adzuki (red bean), but I've never been a fan. So I ordered a school (a dozen) with 6 nutella, 4 chocolate and 3 vanilla (yes, that's 13 but you get one free per dozen). They are made fresh so I had a short 4 min wait - and was presented with a little box with the different flavors clearly labelled in layers and separate with wax paper. They even threw in a free gingerbread with vanilla filling one for me to try - it was the "catch of the week".

The fish are about 1.5 inches long, so are a perfect mini-snack. I liked the nutella the best. And the gingerbread the second best. I brought home a few and they didn't do that great reheated (but I freely admit that could have been user error). It's a great little morsel and beats out Beard Papa and Eggettes in my opinion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Weekend in San Francisco

Every year in December, we spend one night in SF, at a hotel near Union Square and have a nice time wandering around looking at holiday windows and doing a little holiday shopping. I try to pick a different hotel every year, just to try them all out. This year, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt on Union Square. Unfortunately, that hotel is really not worthy of the Grand Hyatt moniker - and it's long overdue for a renovation. It was no contest - our favorite hotels remain the St. Regis and the Palace.

We had lunch at the Rotunda at Neiman Marcus - a holiday tradition for us and this year, I actually remembered to make a reservation (2 months out!) so we didn't have to brave the walk-in wait (running at 2 hours when we showed up for our reservation). And you're more likely to get a view table with a reservation. They have improved their french fries, which excited me to no end - thin, crispy and well-salted! And for dessert, I had a buche de noel. Now, I can't figure out if I actually really like this dessert or if it's just a seasonal nostalgia thing. Either way, the Rotunda's version was quite credible.

We wandered around the shopping area in the afternoon, including a stop at the SPCA windows at Macy's. If you haven't seen this in past years, it's truly adorable - with adoptable puppies and kittens frolicking (or more often, sleeping) in the decorated Macy's windows. This was enjoyable until my older daughter started a relentless campaign about acquiring yet another kitten ("it's blue-grey and it's a boy and it's named Tom or Bob, I can't tell which one, pleeze can we take him home, pleeze, pleeEEZZE!") Note we already have a cat whose litter box she only cleans under duress...

It's a true sign of recession when Gump's is discounting their holiday items by 25%!

We had dinner at Fish and Farm that night. The 20 min wait after we showed up on the dot of our reservation time did not auger well for the evening. My sister's quail and risotto appetizer was the standout, my apple cider steamed clams were pretty good as well. The entrees disappointed though - the Black Cod was a little salty and dry, the Lamb Shank was just ok. Neither daughter was particularly enamored of their dishes. None of the dessert appealed so we had the warm chocolate chip cookies - you'd have a hard time screwing that up. And an over long break between the appetizers and entrees. Overall, a disappointment for a $350 meal. We won't be back - there are too many other great restaurants in SF.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Trip to Nowhere

I took my very first ever mileage run on United yesterday - as I told my kids, it was my trip to nowhere. As I've blogged in the past, I'm a UA 1K Mileage Plus member and for that, they treat me pretty well. It means that I fly 100,000 miles per year (don't worry, there's lots of bonuses - I don't really fly 100k miles!) One of the biggest benefits is the 6 systemwide upgrade coupons I get, plus the other US upgrade tools.

I've taken extra trips to make my status in past years - but usually there's been some business element to them and I've always stayed for a night at my destination. This year, I paid $220 for a day of travel - SFO-ORD-RDU-IAD-SFO. I landed back in SFO about 19 hours after I left. Happily I was upgraded to First Class for all my flights.

I managed to watch two movies (Sisterhood 2, Sex In The City), read lots of magazines, do a crossword puzzle and have Starbucks in 3 different states on the same day. I also managed to confuse many friends as I updated my Facebook status from a different city every few hours!

Now my mileage account has 5,412 more miles in it and I'm 1K through 2009 as well!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Of olive oil, sea salt and vanilla bean ice cream

I needed to be in SF in the afternoon yesterday and so thought I'd take a detour on my way to the city in the morning - the detour was to Berkeley, which as you all will know, really is quite out of the way. I was on a quest for a very specific present (can't say what I was looking for - the recipient reads this blog!), and the biggest selection in the Bay Area (according to the ever-reliable Chowhound) was at the Pasta Shop on 4th St. in Berkeley.

After successfully completing my mission (and doing a bit of other enjoyable shopping), I decided to have ice cream for lunch. Yes, I can do this (especially since I couldn't set a bad example for anyone with me, i.e. my kids!)

So I headed to Sketch, an artisan ice cream spot which makes an unusual selection of flavors and toppings. After deciding that Sesame and Pomegranate were not up my alley, I opted for the vanilla bean with olive oil and sea salt topping.

I had this combination once before at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur - where they make their vanilla ice cream with Straus Family Creamery milk. The Sketch version was good but nowhere near as good as Picco's. Still, it was lovely treat. When you get to the bottom of the cup, you are left with a melted pool of vanilla ice cream, mixed with the leftover olive oil and a few stray granules of sea salt. Although it was vaguely disgusting (in a good way), I slurped it all up!

Later that afternoon, I met up with a friend at Emporio Rulli on Union Square where I had a lovely hot chocolate and watched all the ice skaters going around in circles.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thank you, Hertz!

So we arrived at Hertz at Denver airport much later than planned, thanks to United. Happily, my name was still on the Gold board. When I got to my designated space, I noticed that Hertz had upgraded me... to a convertible! With 2 doors, not 4! Note that the temperature is hovering around freezing at 11 pm when we arrive.

I decided that this upgrade was not one that I wanted. So I traipsed into the building to sort it out. The gal at the counter was not particularly friendly but when she was looking for another car for me, I asked if they had any Priuses left. She said yes, and offered it to me at no extra charge. The trip was looking up!

Now I know that Priuses have been around for ages - but even though I know multiple Prius owners, oddly enough, I had never actually been in one. So this may be old hat to all you Prius drivers out there, but I was like a kid in a candy store when I got in the car.

Besides the "Power" button that turned the car on, the coolest thing was the display that showed you your real-time fuel consumption. And the little green cars that you got if you generated more energy. I can now understand why some Prius owners get obsessed with raising their gas mileage - that display alone provides a great incentive!

So for the 4 days in Denver, driving about 170 miles - we put in just under 3.5 gallons of gas. We had a $5 fill-up tab before we returned the car!

Friday, November 28, 2008

My First Thanksgiving Dinner "Out"

We had a large group of people for Thanksgiving dinner and the consensus was to go out this year - this would actually be my very first Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant!

We headed up to Morrison, in Red Rock country (foothills to the west of Denver) to The Fort - a historic restaurant that many Presidents have dined at, including Bill Clinton.

Besides the usual turkey with all the fixings, The Fort's regular menu was available including much buffalo, elk and quail. Since they claim to sell more buffalo steaks than any other place in the country, I ordered the buffalo fillet with cheesy mashed potatoes and green beans. Buffalo is leaner than beef and has lower cholesterol and higher iron - and it was good, although I probably should have ordered it a little more rare than I did. We did a taste test with the beef fillet and the buffalo, while tasting more gamey, still fared very well.

I wouldn't say the food was terribly gourmet but the ambiance more than made up for it. I loved the open courtyard with the fire pit and a little Tesoro Trading Post where had I wished, I could have purchased various pelts, including a pretty skunk (presumably it no longer smelled). My favorite feature were the lit luminaries along the flat roof of the buildings - it reminded me of one of the reasons I've loved spending the past few Christmases in Santa Fe.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in Denver

We're heading to Denver for Thanksgiving, to visit the in-laws. I usually try to avoid traveling for Thanksgiving - I like my kitchen, I like cooking my odd version of the Thanksgiving meal (which means trying out new sides every year, since I'm not wedded to any old traditions - after all, my first Thanksgiving experience came when I was 17.) And I hate flying on "the busiest travel day of the year" - with all the annoyances that it entails.

Our outbound flight was eventually delayed 2 hours and 30 mins - although in 15-20 min increments of announced delays. We spent a pleasant few hours at SFO - in Books Inc and having soup at SF Soup Company (our most favorite food stop at SFO). It was actually relaxing since we had no plans in Denver that night and no one was waiting for us. I just felt bad for all the other people who missed their onward connections.

We landed at 10:45 pm, made a fast food stop (at Sonic Burger, which I know has many fans - frankly, I didn't get what was special about it) and finally checked into our hotel at midnight. Ate french fries at 12:15 am - this was not a particularly healthy start to the weekend!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

4+ Hours in Transit at Narita

After sitting in the lounge on my computer for 2 hours, I got bored and hungry and decided to go have a wander around the Terminal 1 facilities. I was planning on walking over to check out the ANA lounge (UA lounges are usually pretty inadequate on the food front compared to the Asian airlines), but ended up distracted by other things instead.

This was a banana holder that I was sorely tempted to buy, available in a multitude of colors. I guess just putting your banana in with your lunch just won't do.
Lots of very beautifully packaged, unidentifiable sweets are available - I'd buy these more if I actually liked red bean.
Japanese women seem to have a thing for blotting paper - there was quite the variety available - not that I could tell the difference between the various kinds. I've never used blotting paper in my life.
I had a reasonably priced bowl of tempura udon as a snack.

And finally boarded the plane (yay, upgraded) for the long journey home...

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Whirlwind Trip

I guess spending 4 days/5 nights in Bangkok is a rather short trip - lots of meals with relatives, a surprising amount of very successful shopping and an insane amount of food consumed. It seems to have passed by in the blink of an eye. I'm now sitting in the United lounge in Narita on my way home and am being entertained by a crowd of iPhone users around me who are discussing various ways of jailbreaking their phones.

The new Bangkok airport was a pleasure to depart from as usual. I leave you with a photo of Thai traditional motifs juxtaposed with the overwhelming Thai love of shopping :)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Related to half of Bangkok

I think I'm related to half of Bangkok - seriously. My parents each have 4 siblings and so I have around 20 first cousins alone (I lose count) - I'm one of the younger ones on my father's side but the oldest by a long shot on my mother's side.

My maternal grandfather had 9 siblings (from three different wives), each of whom seems to have procreated prolifically. I think my second cousin count tops 60. So wherever we go, my mother sees someone she knows, who I dutifully "wai". After the encounter, I always have to ask my mother who we just chatted with.

This is one of the many reasons why I can't dress like a slob in Thailand ;)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Driving in Bangkok

For the most part, I try to avoid driving in Bangkok. Yes, I did actually learn to drive here (in a car so old that it seemed a miracle that it ran at all) and passed my driving test on my own, in a stick shift no less. Apparently, there's often a payment made (ahem) when additional assistance is required to get one's license ;)

I've driven here a lot over the years but it requires an awful lot of concentration and since we've been staying at Emporium Suites on our longer trips here, the Skytrain has made driving unnecessary.

However, this time I'm staying at my parents' house in the suburbs and I drove my dad's car in to meet a friend for dinner. My mother seemed very doubtful and kept offering to drive me - but I thought I should brave the drive on my own.

Bangkok traffic is legendary and many of the drivers have most clearly not honestly passed their driving tests and drive like aggressive crazy people. Of course, the total lack of consideration means that I too can drive like an idiot (inadvertently, of course).

We met at Red for dinner, a lovely Indian fusion restaurant that does a mean masala risotto (reminds me a little of Junnoon in Palo Alto). I almost scraped the left side of the car on a low bridge entering the parking lot - would have if not for the parking attendant who ran over waving his arms and gesticulating like a crazy person. Ah well, no need to tell my dad about that part...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ancestor Worship

My trip to Thailand has coincided with various dates for worshiping or praying to my great grandparents on my mother's side and to my grandparents on my father's side (coinciding with the days that they passed away).

The first worship took place at the Chinese temple - the little plaques all commemorate different people (remains are cremated), and when you arrive at the temple, you pull down the plaque of your ancestor and place it on the table. Along with candles, flowers and offerings of food and lucky money. We lit joss sticks and prayed, and then hung out for a while, since we had to do three rounds of the ritual. For 45 mins while we waited, my parents and my aunts spent the entire time discussing food - where the best type of a certain snack could be bought, news that a restauranteur's son had just opened up a new outpost of a particular favorite restaurant, debates on where the best fried noodles (lard-na) could be found etc. It's no wonder I have a food obsession!

After that, I helped my father burn the lucky money in a large barrel that was situated for just this purpose. This will provide my grandparents with more spending money in the afterlife - I'm sure they will put it to good use ;)

The second worship was very similar but took place here in the family compound. The nice benefit is that I get to see all my thousands (ok, I exaggerate, but really not by very much) of relations at one go - all of whom are shocked that I would fly all the way home just for a few days :)

I love being home

I sometimes think it's a bit of a stretch for me to call Thailand home since I never really lived here for any extended period of time, and my only schooling here was in preschool. However, I spent every single school holiday here up until I finished college and for an expat kid, it was the closest thing to home that I've ever had. Also home is, to a certain extent, wherever my parents are.

I'm blogging from a seat in the garden of my mother's family compound, a 8 or 9 acre property that was subdivided by my great-grandfather and doled out to his sons, who all built houses of various designs with shared gardens and a great pond stocked with a bazillion fish and one very old turtle (at least I think it's still there). My parents' house is a few miles away, and only has dial-up (yes, there are people in the world without broadband!) internet access so I'm happily using my tech savvy cousins' wifi right now. It's relatively cool, the fountains are burbling away and someone just brought me a glass of iced water :)

I love being back in Thailand, I switch into Thai very happily (although I find my Thai vocabulary to be somewhat limited at times). It's a bit of mess here right now - the country is just finishing up an extended period of mourning for the King's elder sister, and politicking is supposed to be suspended. However, the country is very divided on the political front - with people wearing red vs yellow shirts to show their support for two dueling political factions. Apparently, the other day, a Thai Airways captain refused to board three different Thai members of Parliament because he was on the opposing faction. Can you imagine that happening in the US?!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The upgrade dance and other perils of frequent flyer addiction

So I'm leaving for Bangkok in 2 days and my outbound upgrade finally came through. Since this is a personal trip, I bought the ticket in Coach and applied these nice Systemwide Upgrades that United sends me every year. Even though Business was practically empty, they were still unwilling to upgrade me for a few weeks - waiting desperately for someone to pay a revenue fare no doubt. But I can rest at ease that my 17 hour flights to Bangkok will now be in the relative luxury of UA's Business cabin. Relative is key, since UA is far inferior to most of the other airlines that fly this route. However, it is the one airline that will upgrade me at no cost!

I've been a 1K flyer in UA's Mileage Plus program for many years now - primarily because of all my business travel. And now I'm addicted to it - they treat you marginally better than the masses, they eliminate many of the ridiculous fees that they charge the masses and they give you lots of upgrade opportunities each year. The downside is that they keep raising the miles needed to get free tickets, and the availability of those free tickets seems to be unbelievably limited in all the routes I want to fly. For example, my cumulative time spent on the phone with UA over the past week trying to get award flights for Europe and Asia next summer = 3.5 hours. Success rate for said flights = 0%.

Now I just have to sweat it out a little more for the upgrade on my return flights...

Monday, November 10, 2008

My life as a pack mule

So I'm heading to Bangkok at the end of the week for a quick visit with my parents. Every conversation since I told them I was coming has now involved a quick "oh and can you also bring us some xxx". This is the life of a pack mule, when you're in an expatriate family.

When I was growing up as an expat kid, we would literally move meat and all sorts of other strange items from one part of the world to another. The meat transportation occurred in India where you couldn't buy beef back in the '90s - so my parents would hit the nicest supermarket in Bangkok the day before they returned home and buy a cooler full of frozen beef and pork - then take it on the plane back to Delhi. Since my father worked for the airline, this was not frowned upon and since he was constantly traveling, a shipment of frozen meat arrived at the house every month or so. The only downside was that the frequent power outages in Delhi meant that one of our two portable generators was completely devoted to keeping our large freezer functioning.

Anyway, over the years, I've transported a lot of different things from the U.S. to Thailand (and vice versa) on behalf of others. Here's a sample list:
  • Down pillows
  • Mushroom-flavored soy sauce
  • Special Chinese herbs only available (at the time) from the Ten-Ren Tea Room on Grant Ave in SF (do you know how hard it is to park and go into the heart of Chinatown for a quick errand?!)
  • OPI nail polish
  • Countless items of make-up from Estee, Clinique etc plus the ubiquitous Mabelline mascara
  • Blueberry jam from Trader Joe's
  • PG Tips English tea bags (yes, the bags come to the U.S. from the U.K. and I buy them and transport them to Thailand)
  • Hand soap from Bath & Body Works (requests are often very specific!)
  • Digital photo frame
  • Vitamins of all sorts, in Costco sizes
  • Vaseline cold cream and Keri lotion (alas, I don't have to pick these up anymore - they were for my grandmother who has since passed away :(
And here's what's on my list for this upcoming trip:
  • Colgate Mint Stripe toothpaste (lest you think Thailand is a backwater where you can't even buy Colgate - let me assure you that this is a strange quirk of my dad's - he truly believes that American Colgate tastes much better. And luckily for him, he's managed to only use American-made Colgate for most of the past 25 years!)
  • Mini Snickers (also available for purchase in Bangkok - however, my mother alleges that "they're not fresh")
  • Vanity Fair granny underwear (don't ask - but this purchase is really going to screw up my future recommendations from Amazon)
  • Shoes (my mother wants "cute shoes" - god help me)
  • 2 wrapped presents that I'm assured are Legos (I'll have to bend the truth in answer to the airline questions re checked luggage)
  • Marrons Glaces - a European holiday treat that I can buy from Teuscher chocolates (actually this is just a gift for my parents, so doesn't really belong on the pack mule list)
I still have one more planned conversation with my parents before I leave. Who knows what else will be added to the list?! The silver lining is that it gives me lots of room for shopping while I'm there!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nicest Restrooms at Disneyland

I swear I don't have a bathroom fetish, but I stumbled upon the nicest restrooms at Disneyland this weekend. Seriously, some of the restrooms are super crowded and of course, their quality deteriorates accordingly as the day goes on.

My new favorite restrooms are located in Fantasyland, right behind the Alice in Wonderland ride, across from the back side of the Matterhorn. Not a heavily travelled path, so they were practically deserted.

They're Alice-themed and all the doors are cards - how cute is that?!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

OMG - my kids like rollercoasters!

This Disney trip was taken with my kids' best friends and it made for a wonderful trip where the parents had much more downtime than usual. And much to my surprise, the girls both developed a love for thrill rides!

We've been to Disney countless times - we would consider ourselves a big Disney family. My kids can debate the merits of the Pirates ride at DisneyWorld vs Disneyland vs EuroDisney. But they've never wanted to try all the Disney mountains (for your newbies, that would be Space, Matterhorn, Big Thunder, Splash etc). Older daughter still remembers the unfortunate trip when she was around 6 - she had just hit the height limit for the Indiana Jones ride and I (rather over-ambitiously in hindsight) had her go on it with her dad. Boy, was that a mistake. She came off crying and by pushing her into a ride that she wasn't ready for, I set her thrill ride bar back about 5 years.

Fast forward 5 years - this trip, both kids went on California Screaming (twice or three times, I lost count - this is a major coaster with loops and corkscrews and a really good accelerating start), the Matterhorn (again, I lost count - 4 or 5 times?), Big Thunder Mountain (only once - we were running out of time), Splash Mountain and Indiana Jones (it's been so long since I was on that I had forgotten what a fun ride this was!). We ran out of time for Space Mountain so that's top of the list next time.

Alas, I still couldn't talk either of them on the Tower of Terror :(

Friday, October 24, 2008

HalloweenTime at Disneyland

We took a very quick trip down to the Disneyland Resort this weekend - flying down Thurs night and coming back Sunday midday. Since the only agenda for the trip was Disney, we took a taxi from the Orange County airport and stayed at the resort the whole time. At the Grand Californian Hotel, which is the most convenient place to stay, if you can find a good rate. I did, at the website of Ares Travel - yes, $300 is not chump change, but it's a great rate for this property (trust me on this!).

Alas, we did not get the requested room configuration of one Queen and one bunk bed - although after 5 stays, the staff FINALLY divulged the secret for getting that very popular room type. Call ahead and check yourself in over the phone the morning of your arrival. This is an important tip. You can thank me later.

Of course, it did us no good on this trip since we ended up in a room with two queen beds, and I had to listen to some initial bickering when the kids had to share a queen. They have no idea how good they have it!

Halloween is a great time to visit Disney - besides a myriad of very adorable Halloween decorations and Halloween-themed food/drink, you also get to ride Haunted Mansion Holiday! If you're unfamiliar with this, it's a Nightmare Before Christmas-themed overlay of the Haunted Mansion - which is already one of my favorite rides, and is made even better by a very clever integration of the Tim Burton animated movie, and the standard Haunted Mansion elements. Lucky for you, this special theming (which makes it seem like a whole new ride) is around through the holidays, til Jan - so get yourself down to Disneyland!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Brunch at Epic Roasthouse

I'm back from my whirlwind trip to Dublin and London, and still eating away - albeit more locally. Yesterday, we met up with a little group for brunch at Epic Roasthouse in SF, on the Embarcadero.

Epic and its sister restaurant, Waterbar, are located on the waterfront and designed by Pat Kuleto. The location is stunning, just across the street from Gordon Biersch and Palomino. I'm glad my first experience was for brunch, which is a pretty mellow meal - as opposed to dinner, which I hear is packed and more of a zoo.

We had 8 of us so had the chance to thoroughly try out their brunch menu, which was a good combo of breakfasty and lunchy items. The bread service was very nice - a lovely cheesy mini popover (more like a gougere really), nice ciabatta and a cornbread served as a mini-madeleine. I like the little popover so much I had three!

The table salt presentation was also impressive (although we had to ask for the explanation) - a pink himalayan salt, a hand harvested sea salt and a Hawaiian black salt.

I started with a warm spinach salad served with smoked bacon and a poached egg. This was a lovely salad with lots of greens and a light dressing. Then I split the Ultimate 1/2 lb Roasthouse Burger, "ground daily with the trimmings and the accroutements". The burger was a little thick but very tasty. It was served with an anchovy-spiced ketchup (this tasted better than it sounded) and a bevy of toppings including grainy mustard, sauteed mushrooms, corn relish and a couple of others I cannot recall. The presentation was overly fussy for me, but since it was a $21 burger, I guess they had to beef it up (pun intended).

I also sampled the truffled scrambled eggs (this was really nice, although you really have to like truffles - the flavor is pretty bold), the summer corn soup (nice and creamy), the side of mac and cheese (definitely an adult version with a little kick - younger daughter was not impressed) and soft grits with homemade sausage, tomato sauce piquant and poached eggs (loved by my companions, I'm just not a fan of grits). The biscuits and gravy was pronounced by others as too sweet, the steak cut fries were more like a quarter of a potato each (really, really thick) and the crab cake benedict was just ok.

We moved on to a couple of desserts that we shared - the beignets with cafe au lait sauce gave us high hopes when presented very impressively, but those hopes were dashed. I would have prefered a chocolate-based dipping sauce and the beignets themselves were a little too big and dense.

We also had the cookie plate served with vanilla milk. This was a nice little dish - 6-7 types of cookies and a glass of cold milk with a vanilla bean ice cube floating in it.

To finish off, the tea and coffee service were very nice. The service was a little haphazard and we felt no need to add anything on top of the 18% gratuity on the bill. Interesting note, the restaurant also added a 4% health insurance surcharge for the staff.

All in all, the space was magnificient. The backdrop of the Bay Bridge soaring over us was lovely. The brunch prices were much more palatable than the expense account level prices at dinner, and we had a really nice walk on the waterfront afterwards. I'd go again and I'd also say this is a top choice for out-of-town visitors.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quiet Moments of Pleasure

Occasionally I experience these quiet moments of contentment and happiness - it happens when I'm warm, well-fed and usually on my own somewhere in public. I can relax and reflect, and realize how grateful I am for all that I have. I felt it yesterday when I had afternoon tea at the Shelbourne. And I had that moment today at Leon.

As I've mentioned, it's wet here in Dublin today. Really wet. I think I may have ruined my favorite Tod's mules from tromping around on cobblestones in the rain today. I entered Leon feeling like a bedraggled wet rat, trailing water from my umbrella in my wake. The bottom two inches of my pants were soaked through and clinging unpleasantly to my ankles.

I was shown to a little table next to a warm crackling fire - a real fire, not an artificial one. I started warming up and my wet feet were forgotten. I ordered some Earl Grey and a lemon meringue tart. I didn't take a photo before I attacked my pastry, but here's the post-frenzy carnage.

Here's a photo I took of the rest of the lemon meringues left in their display case.

Ah, thank goodness for those moments.

What's a Boxty?

I wandered around another pedestrian-only zone in Dublin, known as Temple Bar - it's an area full of pubs, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and (oddly) head shops. After dithering about where to have lunch, I finally picked Gallagher's Boxty House, which had traditional pub decor and was cosy inside. This was a relief as I was quite soaked from wandering around in the rain.

A Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake with a variety of fillings. I ordered the house speciality, the Gaelic Boxty, which came with Irish fillet medallions, marinated in whiskey and served in a creamy mushroom and pepper sauce. It was delicious!

I think the Temple Bar area was named after this bar.

Rainy and Wet

We awoke to a dreary, rainy day in Dublin. I had been trying to decide between taking a bus tour of the north coast (with a castle visit) and the south coast (with a visit to the famous Powerscourt Gardens). With the rain, I decided an indoor castle tour was preferable.

The tour was on a double decker bus and unfortunately, the rain and cold made the windows fog up quite a lot, so it was a little hard to see. All the occupants kept using their sleeves to clear off the windows. What little I could see of the countryside was quite beautiful.

We stopped at Malahide Castle and had a tour - the notable fact about this castle is that it was owned and occupied by the Talbot family for 8 centuries, until 1975, when they gave it to the local authorities because they could no longer afford the upkeep. Then we drove along the coast, through the really lovely town of Howth, which I would like to return to in the future.

Many, many more things to see and do - must plan to come back soon.

Monday, October 13, 2008

My Favorite Store in Ireland

OK, I know I've only been in Ireland for 2 days. And that I've only been to Dublin. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I've found my very favorite store in Ireland - Avoca.

The large one in Dublin (they have other locations) has multiple floors - and it's been around as a brand since the 18th century. Their specialty is hand-woven items and clothing that they've designed and manufactured in Ireland. However, the entire store is a well-edited and eclectic collection of merchandise that complements their home-grown items.

There's a small men's section - just enough to pick out the occasional present. And there's a huge children's floor with some clothing and lots of other toys, kid-related items and generally cute stuff. There is a section of women's clothing that's very similar to the style at Anthropologie (but it's really an indie, as opposed to Anthropologie, which tries to seem indie but is quite a large chain!) And a wide range of extremely well-arranged housewares - including items from Pylones, one of our favorite brands from France. The basement holds a food hall and there's a lovely cafe on the top floor. I couldn't plan a store better than this one!

But lest you think my enthusiasm seems exaggerated, please believe me when I say that I spent an inordinate amount of time in this store. I started by heading up to the cafe for lunch. I was hoping to get a nice bowl of soup but alas, the daily special was carrot and orange. Ugh - it sounded dangerously sweet (I like my savories savory, thank you). So I ordered an interesting dish of "organic baby meatballs in tomato sauce with manchego and rocket, served with couscous and Tuscan bread". This may sound weird, but it was actually quite good. The desserts also looked excellent but I managed to control myself. I had a cuppa tea to round off my meal.

After a nice lunch, I wandered down through the store. There was much I liked, especially in housewares, but all the items were too bulky to easily transport home. So after trying on countless cardigans and sweaters, I settled on this long-sleeved t pictured here. Trust me, it's cute.

I may have to go back tomorrow just to revel in the store of my dreams again.

P.S. As my friend noted this evening, even their shopping bag is cute!

Afternoon Tea - my favorite ritual

I love afternoon tea. I love the finger sandwiches, the little cakes but mostly the scones (plain, please) properly served with clotted cream and strawberry jam (I'm also partial to the occasional unorthodox addition of lemon curd). Real scones, not the weird stuff that Starbucks serves. I love having my tea properly brewed with tea leaves and poured for me through a silver strainer. And that milk and sugar are readily available, as opposed to having to ask for them.

When I read in my guidebook that afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel was a popular stop after a day of shopping, I knew where I'd be headed.

The Shelbourne is a pretty Georgian hotel across from St. Stephen's Green (although my friend, who stayed there last time, thought the rooms at our Westin were much nicer). The tea room was actually quite empty (oh right, it's Monday AND there's a global financial crisis) - so I scored a little table right by the window.

I was still full from lunch so just ordered scones and tea (as opposed to the full three tier serving extravaganza). It was very nice and peaceful. I read today's Irish Times and learned that the first Obama fundraiser had been held in Dublin the night before and had been very well attended. I wrote a few postcards and eavesdropped on the interesting conversation at the next table (won't bore you with the details). All the while, a pianist was tinkling away in the background.

I was fully refreshed after my little break and only €14 poorer - what a deal.

My 4th new country this year

We flew from London to Dublin this morning - making Ireland my 4th new country for 2008 (after Egypt, Jordan and Turkey). This is a banner year!

We're staying at the Westin Dublin, which is in a prime location across from the Bank of Ireland and Trinity College. And has very nice bathrooms (see many prior posts on my hotel bathroom fixation).

The Bank of Ireland seemed quite quiet today - despite the financial implosion, there was no bank run that I could see.

I first went to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College - a beautiful illustrated manuscript of the 4 gospels dating from the 8th century.

Then I wandered around Grafton Street (the pedestrian only shopping zone) for a while. I attempted to go further but learned that the National Museum of Ireland and one of the Georgian museums that I wanted to go to were both closed on Mondays. Oh well.