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.

My dinner with Gordon Ramsey

OK - hope you didn't get too excited by the title! My friend is a big Gordon Ramsey fan and we decided to have dinner at his restaurant during our trip. Suffice to say I was a little overwhelmed to find out that he had 10 restaurants in London and his namesake restaurant was very formal (jacket & tie for men and all that). So rather randomly, I picked Boxwood Cafe as our GR restaurant of choice for this trip.

Boxwood is located in the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge - I realized that I had been there before in its previous incarnation as Vong's (I guess GR's star is rising while Jean-Georges' is declining?!) When we walked in, the nice gal up front made sure to inform us that they would need our table in 2 hours but we would be welcome to sit in the bar to finish up dessert and coffee if necessary. That was a first for me.

We picked the tasting menu (£55), so we could try all the highlights:
  • Creamed sweetcorn, basil and lobster soup
  • Ceviche of organic salmon and crab
  • Roasted ramero pepper with avocado, feta cheese, slow roasted tomatoes and pumpkin seed oil
  • Roasted loin of yellow fin tuna, parsnip puree, shallot and black pepper sauce
  • Braised featherblade of Dedham Vale beef with pumpkin puree and ceps
  • Valrhona hot chocolate fondue, marshmallows, biscotti and fruit kebabs
The soup was good, but not spectacular - I do have a fondness for corn soup though, and I enjoyed the little surprise of a lobster tail at the bottom of the cup. The ceviche was surprisingly tart with little segments of grapefruit scattered over the top - very good. The pepper was ok I guess - I don't like peppers or avocado, so could have skipped over this course quite happily (my husband would have loved it). The tuna was extremely good - the black pepper sauce was an unusual pairing and made the fish taste even meatier than usual. The braised beef (Dedham Vale seemed to be the UK equivalent of Niman Ranch) was fork-tender and came with very nice mushrooms (that's what ceps means) - but alas, I was so stuffed that I didn't fully enjoy it.

I asked for a dessert substitution since I couldn't quite stomach the chocolate fondue (I know that's hard to believe - you can tell I was really full!). So I had the coconut panna cotta with fresh mango coulis and a campari sorbet. That was just the light finish I needed. Of course, I still sampled my friend's chocolate fondue to make sure it was good. The best of both worlds!

The serving staff were professional and some of them seemed very intense and focused in their interactions with each other - was this a trickle down effect from their big boss?!

And no, GR was not in the house.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rothko and the Tate Modern

After a night of fitful sleep, we woke up late Sunday morning and had a leisurely breakfast downstairs at The Montagu (how do the Brits get their morning mushrooms so yummy?!) Then we took the tube down to St. Paul's and walked across the Millennium Bridge (also nicknamed the Wobbly Bridge after some resonance issues when it first opened!) to the Tate Modern. It was once again a gorgeous day and the river walk along the Thames was wonderful. It seemed like all of London was having a little promenade.

The Tate Modern was opened in 2000 and this was my first time there - it's located in a former power station and is a lovely and airy industrial space. We joined the queue for the Rothko exhibit which was very impressive. I'm not a particular fan of Rothko, but many elements of the exhibit certainly made me appreciate his work a lot more - there was some nice ultraviolet analysis that showed all the layers and complexity that went into the final work, which looked deceptively simple.

We had a late lunch upstairs on the 7th floor, in a light-filled restaurant overlooking the Thames and St.Paul's and people-watched all the various nationalities around us.

After visiting Waterstone's (the biggest bookshop in the UK) at Piccadilly Circus and finding lots of interesting travel books on Spain (our 2009 trip), we finally headed back to the hotel. I think my bag may be too heavy to carry-on on the return flight :(

London Calling

I arrived in London yesterday afternoon for a very quick 2 day stay before heading to Dublin, accompanying a girlfriend on her business trip. It's been about a year since I was last here and we've lucked into some fabulous weekend weather. Of course, I packed for a typical cold London fall so now I'm overheating in the warm temperatures!

We checked in to my regular London hotel, the Hyatt Regency Churchill, which is well-located near Marble Arch for walking around, shopping and lots of public transport options. So after a short stop to freshen up, we walked down the extremely crowded Oxford Street - what recession?! There was still plenty of conspicuous consumption to behold and a line to be served at Chanel and Louis Vuitton in Selfridges!

We headed to Liberty to have tea in their Tea Room again - I had been obsessing over the Burleigh Black Willow tea set that I refrained from buying last year. After multiple eBay searches, I figured out it was very hard to get in the US, so I came back and purchased a tea pot and one tea cup this time. Yes I forgot to take my own photos! Anyway, the tea service was quite nice - 4 finger sandwiches (cucumber, smoked salmon, ham and egg salad) on the bottom tier, 2 plain scones (served with the requisite clotted cream and strawberry jam) on the middle tier, plus a chocolate cupcake, carrot cake and fruit bread on the top tier. Alas, the cupcake was far inferior to Kara's and Sprinkles :( They also have an impressive tea selection - multiple pages on the menu. Of course, I stuck to the ever boring Earl Grey.

After stopping at many other shops (Jigsaw, Monsoon, Accessorize, Next to name a few of the familiar high street names) we called it a day and had a late dinner here in the hotel restaurant, The Montagu.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The new CA Academy of Sciences

We had a staff development day at school today and wandered up to visit the new and much lauded California Academy of Sciences, back at its old location in Golden Gate Park. I had thought it would be relatively quiet on a Monday - but I guess it's only been open about 10 days or so, and I was wrong. It was crowded by my standards (I heard a staff member refer to the crowd as the "lightest it has been"!)

It was a gorgeous sunny day in the city, and we ended up parking in the new underground parking lot under the concourse between the Academy and the De Young. It was $7.50 for 3 hours parking - but you can't beat the location.

If you plan to go, I'd strongly advise you to sign up for a membership. Just to skip the lines alone! We ran into at least 9 other families from Menlo Park there - it was quite the surprise.

Overall the museum was quite beautiful. We didn't see everything but since we have a membership, we'll be up there again when the crowds die down a little. We started out by having lunch in the Academy Cafe - there's also a fine dining restaurant called the Moss Room, run by Loretta Keller. We'll save that for next time.

The Cafe is run by Charles Phan and there's a nice selection of food including a number of Vietnamese items like pho, steamed buns and spring rolls (all very similar to the menu at Out The Door). There's also a pasta station, a mexican station and a grill/fry station. We had a chicken pho (excellent), chicken buns (just ok), spaghetti al sugo (pronounced great by my younger daughter, I personally thought it was a little bland), a mixed green salad and a quesadilla. Definitely above average food.

We wandered over to the large rainforest dome but it was a 20 min wait to go inside, so we decided to save that for next time. Also saved the planetarium and the 3D bug movie for next time as well. We wandered around the various exhibits for a while (some nice ones on the Galapagos and our carbon footprint) and spent a lot of time at the Philippine Coral Reef in the aquarium downstairs (we watched the Coral Reef diver talk to the crowd for a while). The albino alligator in the swamp was also a good stop, although he wasn't moving much.

We also watched the penguins in the African Hall - if you're not familiar with this museum, the set up is that there are a few live animal exhibits mixed in with a bunch of dioramas. It worked quite well and the African Hall was spacious, so it began to feel a little less crowded. Of course, we went up to the Living Roof to check out the view and the very cool garden and hills up there. That was quite impressive.

Finally, we hit the gift shop on the way - both the junior one (mostly toys and stuffed animals) and the main one (quite small, all things considered). And then we hit the road. All in all, a very pleasant day out - highly recommended (but maybe wait until the newness wears off - I can't imagine trying to go there on a weekend!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Can't wait to dice my next onion!

Last night, I took a 2 hour knife skills class at the cooking school at Sur La Table in Palo Alto. There were only 6 students in total - they mentioned that the classes have not been full due to their relative newness in our area, and possibly the economy. It was $69 for a 2 hour hands-on class.

The facility is in the back of their store at Town & Country Village and is pretty well set up. It's a little smaller than the local Draeger's cooking school in Menlo Park, and would have been a little crowded had the class been fully subscribed.

The class was a lot of fun - the instructor started out talking about different knives, what they were used for and how they were made. Then she showed us some techniques and we julienned potatoes, peppers and carrots. We moved on to sectioning oranges and also chiffonaded (is that a word?!) mint leaves. Finally we sliced and diced an onion - the onion dicing technique was great, much better than what I usually do - I'm going to make shepherd's pie tonight to try out my new techniques! Wished we'd done some herbs as well - but otherwise, this was a fun and useful class.

Then we had a 15% off coupon to spend on anything in the store and essentially had a private shopping experience. I bought a few things from Le Creuset since it's hard to find that stuff on sale. And a new knife honer of course.

The next class is Knife Skills II where you learn to cut up and debone a whole chicken. Think I'll pass - handling raw chicken is pretty low on my list of things I like to do in the kitchen.