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Happy 25th Anniversary River Café

September 11, 2012

Last week, when the sun shone consistently in London and temperatures were warm, was the perfect River Café week.  I know this not so much from being a frequent daytime diner at this famous London restaurant, but because for the past three years I have had the pleasure (and sometimes the jealous pain) to work in an office just above this riverside establishment, which serves the best of simple and traditional Italian cuisine.  My window overlooks the idyllic setting on the north bank of the Thames with a view onto the signature blue chairs and white awnings that protect ladies who lunch and their gelato from the rare but surprisingly strong sun.

Around 11AM during the summer months, the aromas of freshly baked bread from their wood-burning oven, grilled fish, and cooked vegetables and herbs from the garden waft through my window inducing a lunchtime appetite often far too close to breakfast and far too mighty for the minimal caloric requirements of my stationary desk job.  From my vantage point, I can intermittently look upon diners without them knowing, living vicariously through their primi and secondi dishes, their sometimes numerous bottles of wine, and divine dolce.  I can absorb the sounds of forks and knives tapping ceramic dishes and clinking wine glasses that conjure up memories of my summers living in Italy so palpable I can almost taste the olive oil.

Because part of my desk job is entertaining clients, I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of experiencing many delicious 2 or 3-course lunches there myself, none of which have ever failed to satisfy my hunger, delight my tastebuds or provide a feast of colour to my eyes.  Yes, I’m that girl covertly taking photos of her food with her i-phone just like I took photos of my Easter basket when I was little to preserve the beauty of what would soon be devoured graciously in front of me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such consistent satisfaction from one place, such incredible hospitality and flawless service, such authenticity and humbleness where, because of the celebrity clientele and attention of the press, there could instead be a massive ego.  I have no doubt that this is because the River Café, originally the canteen for the neighbouring architectural firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), was dreamed up by two women with a sincere love of functionality, food and Italy: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.  While Rose sadly passed away recently due to cancer, Ruth still owns the restaurant and can be seen throughout the day dressed in her white chef’s outfit, checking on her staff and guests, maintaining a presence not dissimilar to an Italian mamma who never wanders far from her kitchen.

On the wall next to the bar, there is a framed black and white photo of Ruth and Rose sat at what one can only assume is a table outside some sunny Italian trattoria or ristorante, perfectly content in their sundresses and at home in one another’s company.  There is something really special about that photo to me.  It manages to tell me a lot about two women I hardly know, their friendship, and the heart and soul behind the menu.  It also reminds me very much of photographs taken of my dear friend Tamara and me on several holidays to visit what we affectionately refer to Italy as: The Mothership.

I met Tamara roughly 8 years ago before moving to London from New York City.  She, like me, was partaking in a summer programme in Urbino (the Marche region of Italy) in an effort to soak up all things sunny and Italian before the summer ended.  When it came time to introduce ourselves to the rest of our advanced level Italian class, we chuckled when our bios seemed to mirror one anothers’ perfectly – two Franco/Italio-files with undergraduate degrees in romance languages, penchants for foreign films and literature and futures in London.  I had just come from a few weeks volunteering on organic farms in Abruzzo to perfect my Italian and Tamara was on a generous summer holiday from her role at the French Institute (Cine Lumiere).  It didn’t take long before we became two peas in a pod, accompanying each other on shopping trips for fresh peaches and ricotta cheese, spending afternoons sipping campari sodas in the sun and taking small hikes up the hillside to drink prosecco and munch on crisps while watching the sunset.  High on the bliss of Italian life (and pizza), we knew we would maintain the friendship (and try to maintain the essence of Italian living) when we were back in London in September.

Tamara in Verona

Me sat opposite Tamara

Two Springs later Tamara had now become one of my closest friends and, upon my 27th birthday in April, she gifted me two small cookbooks:  The River Cafe Pocket Books: Salad & Vegetables and The River Cafe Pocket Books: Pasta & Ravioli – explaining that they were the byproducts of one of the best Italian restaurants in London and sure to provide ongoing motivation to cook the way I had learned on the farms in Abruzzo, despite the lack of fresh ingredients.  She said, ‘one day when we’ve saved up, we’ll go to the restaurant ourselves,’ but for my first five years in London I could only know River Café through its brilliantly concise recipes that Tamara and I would replicate on the occasion of the ‘Italian film nights’ we hosted at our respective Battersea residences.  I continue to reference these books today – they are the perfect kitchen companion and capture the simplicity of Italian cuisine taught to me by the Italian mammas who ran the restaurants at the agriturismi where I worked.  I recall asking nonna Mirella after every delectable dish I tasted – yum – what have you put in this?  The answer was always the same: un po’ d’olio d’olive, un po’ di sale, un po’ d’aglio e basta!  A little olive oil, a little salt and a little garlic – and there you go!  My favourite recipe in the books?  Zucchini Trifolati – courgettes with a little basil, a little mint, a little garlic, a little olive oil (okay, a lot of olive oil) and there you go!  Heaven.

In 2009 when I was looking for a new job, I received a phone call for a role at a media company situated above the River Café – have you heard of it? At the time I couldn’t register that the River Café actually existed beyond the pages of my cookbooks and I mistakenly confused it with Riverside Studios, a cinema/arthouse just down the river.  I couldn’t visualize a restaurant sharing the location of an office and assumed the recruiter accidentally modified the name.  It wasn’t until my interview in the board room that I looked out the window and realized where I was.  My interviewer saw pure delight wash over my face as I admired the view and he mentioned that it was a great restaurant where they often took guests.  Let’s just say when I had to make a decision about the job, this was on my list of pros.

Three years later and I feel I have accumulated enough dining experiences – both actual and vicarious – to truly understand what the River Café is all about.  However, I am well aware that my 3 years pales in comparison to the 25 witnessed by the creators who on Sunday celebrated the longevity of a restaurant that continues to attract a crowd of devoted clientele.  I have no doubt there were many ups and downs along the way and that the result of many years of hard work has produced something potentially very far from the original intention. The history can be felt; the fine tuning of every last detail has not gone unnoticed – it’s something that can only be achieved with time and dedication.  Whatever the plan was, it has worked for me.

I feel blessed for the many times I’ve been able to choose a starter consisting of fresh greens from the garden, unbelievable raw mozarella or grilled calamari, a main of Scottish scallops or sea bass accompanied by vegetables or beans cooked in authentic Italian fashion.  I feel honoured to have dipped many a slice of bread in olive oil as pure as gold and spoiled to have experienced the wickedly decadent chocolate nemesis on more than one occasion.  But beyond even the experience of the restaurant, I feel lucky to have worked within a little pocket of London so carefully carved by the architects who modified the space, that it has become an oasis far from the chaos of the city.  I feel lucky to have taken my lunch breaks by the garden, at a picnic table or on a piece of lawn nestled within an area of London that feels like it’s bordering Italy.  It’s a space that inspires taking deep breaths, feeling fresh air, and appreciating life.  I love everything about it, including the nifty bike park where I can nestle my bike safely throughout the day in a what looks like a happy bicycle daycare facility.  Yes, in the summer months more than any other time, the River Café and its surroundings is a space that nurtures you and inspires healthy living, just like Italy.

So it’s on the occasion of The River Café’s 25th anniversary that I want to thank Ruth and Rose and the architects (Lord Rogers) who created this Londoner’s Italian piazza just outside my window.  We share a six-year history together, but your relationship with London started far ahead of mine.  When I came into work on the Monday morning after your big day, there was a silence outside, reminiscent of the winter months when the outdoor seating hibernates until the next year (and when I am less aware of the beauty beneath me).   The celebration that took place the day before left a visible and energetic mark.  You’ve set an amazing example that will inspire me (and surely countless others) in my future endeavours.  I hope one day there will be more restaurants like this one and more spaces in London that instill a higher appreciation of local food, urban nature and community, but for now you are one of a kind.

Liquorice and Lava – 3 nights in Iceland

April 29, 2016

 

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I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different.  When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland.  Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.

I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses.  We get enough of all those things in London.  However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.

I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason.  There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace.  It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream.  Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.

The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary.  It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital).  Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather.  I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view.  We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights.  As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.

One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…)  We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday.  What more could you ask for?

I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there.  I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet.  I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products.  I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept.  I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here.  Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day One (Friday)  – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði

Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight).  Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk).  Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry.  We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans).  We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen).  This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on.  We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more.  Worth it? Probably not).  If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together.  Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance.  Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish.  If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit.  We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here).  As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.

We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com).  I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland  – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’  The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind.  We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip.  I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day).  The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream.  Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM.  The bed was comfy.

Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik

We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool.  It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm.  Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains.  After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats.  And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside.  This was the best free breakfast I have ever had.  A real birthday treat.  Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik.  This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.

We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving.  Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us.  We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem).  The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel.  It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time.  It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive  bread).

Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple.  There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately.  It took no time to feel at home.  The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night).  We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare.  We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers).  It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket.  We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.

Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir

After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús.  We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit.  After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us.  All was sublime.  I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure).  If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.  We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…)  We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside.  After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir.  The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other.  However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next.  Luckily this happened several times for the better.  There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again.  When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car.  Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in.  Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe.  Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started.  Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic).  A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road.  We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.

After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated.  Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special.  Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds.  We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue.  And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.

Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport 

We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views.  We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world.  The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception).  It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place.  The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss.  Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog.  I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble.  They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings).  We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport  (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week).  Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.

All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special.  Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure.  There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple.  I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!

Summary of key suggestions:

  • Rent a car.  At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged.  And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…)  You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
  • Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas.  This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
  • Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises.  Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made.  I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
  • Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
  • Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
  • Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
  • Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
  • Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
  • Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
  • Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!

Hotels

  • Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
  • Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
  • Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
  • Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
  • ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
  • Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor

Restaurants

  • Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
  • Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
  • Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
  • Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
  • Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun  in Stykkisholmur
  • Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
  • Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
  • Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
  • The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
  • Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
  • Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
  • The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
  • Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)

Sites We Saw

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Hallgrímskirkja
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Kerið Volcanic Crater
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Skálholt
  • Strokkur
  • Library of Water

Health Food

A Perfect Cuppa

June 5, 2012

We’re all gluten-free, caffeine-free and sugar-free these days, but sometimes when the skies are gray, a good old-fashioned afternoon tea is the only way to go.

Tea holds a special place in many cultures, but in England it’s an institution.  Afternoon Tea is a delicate ritual that works best in prestigious venues, such as The Ritz or The Dorchester,  where one is expected to conduct herself in a dignified manner with the decor to match.  These kinds of Teas are best shared amongst a group of close girlfriends on a special occasion.  I hosted one of my first birthdays in London at The Wolseley – it was a warm and sunny April day and the dress code was floral prints.  We indulged in tea and scones – known as a Cream Tea – and I was instructed to coat my scone with a decent layer of butter followed by clotted cream and then finally fresh, home-made jam.  My best memory of this day was a gift granted to me by my friend Tamara – a set of River Cafe Cookbooks (the origin of a long love affair with the restaurant to be blogged about later) and the unusual treat of sunshine.  We were, however, drinking tea like tourists.

Traditional tea choices in England are of the black variety (and here the green tea drinker in me confesses that there is nothing quite as luscious as a cup of fragrant Earl Grey) served with a decent amount of milk.  But tea is not just reserved for special occasions.  There is also the office tea ritual.  Brits love and rely on their tea and biscuits (bikkies) breaks when the afternoon or even a mid-morning slump hits.  If you don’t take a turn at the kettle, you’ll quickly find yourself out of the loop in any working evironment.  Popular combinations are a PG Tips, Tetley or Yorkshire tea paired with McVitie’s Digestives or Rich Tea biscuits, served in a mug you’ve likely brought in from home (and never to be borrowed by anyone else)!

I’ll never forget attending a focus-group on biscuit consumption for a famous British biscuit brand.  The women interviewed spoke of the pleasure of biscuit eating in a way that sounded dirtier – and much more fun – than sex.  One women confessed to a nightly biscuit binge.  She would pull out a package of her favourite biscuits and eat an entire sleeve after the kids were in bed.  Luckily she didn’t have the waistline to reveal her dirty secret!  In terms of a guilty pleasures, biscuits are to the British what ice cream is to Americans, and a national right at that!

Then there’s the concept of the Builder’s tea – a strong cuppa with a good amount of milk and sugar to soften the blow – designed to accompany anyone through a tough task at home and a necessary offering to any maintenance man.  My colleague once told me that he’d do any menial labour project such as painting, so long as there was a cup of tea and biscuit by his side (note to self if I one day marry a Brit).  Later that day I passed a man mending his fence – perched next to his exposed bottom was a cup of tea ready and waiting.  When life gets difficult, the Brits get the kettle boiling and the biscuits out.

When I first moved to London, I plunged right into the tea ritual.  But soon I realized that the caffeine/dairy/sugar combo was not doing me any favours.  I struggled as I appreciated the ritual, but not the side effects.   It’s a habit that I suspect is exacerbating some health issues for tea-centric Brits too.  But like milk and cookies to Americans, it’s too far engrained in the culture to drastically change it now.  And why would you?  The news consistently supports the healthy aspect of a good tea ritual in terms of providing antioxidants.  What they don’t point out is that tea gets drunk often in lieu of water, in doses far greater and manners far less elegant than what was originally intended when tea ceremonies were first introduced.  When you’re sat at a computer all day drinking tea, that’s a whole lot of dehydration going on.

Nevertheless, when you live in a country where it’s cold and damp most of the time, a cup of tea is comforting and feels right (not to mention a healthier option when compared to the UK’s other famous past-time of alcohol consumption).  It’s normally an excuse to interrupt what you’re doing with a tiny and often sociable pause.  In my eyes, it’s also a whole lot better than the daily Starbucks consumed from wasteful disposable cups or the Diet Coke addictions one sees all over the U.S.  So if you’re in London, I would say that on at least one occasion you should put aside all refined food fears and tea preconceptions and get stuck in.  You’ll learn a lot about England from just one sip and you’ll probably like it too.  I’d check out this website for the best advice: http://www.tea.co.uk/.  You might never pair a cookie with milk again – sweet things are much nicer with a sharp cup of warm tea.

But if you’ve been consuming tea and biscuits your whole life (and the majority alone at your desk at work to get you through the day), I’d suggest experimenting with a week of herbal teas and afternoon fruit snacks instead and see if those headaches or IBS symptoms disappear (or if you’re masking discontent at your job)…there’s no reason to put your ritual to a halt, but modifications can be made to make this a truly healthy and even spiritual ritual that one can continue to practice on a frequent basis!

When this blog departs from a London-theme, I’ll talk about tea rituals I have observed in other cultures that helped change my approach to tea drinking…

Heavenly Vegetarian

May 24, 2012

My first year in London as a student was punctuated by a series of bad restaurant experiences.  I heavily relied on Time Out to guide me to the best spots, but sometimes I just wanted to pop into a nearby venue without the fuss of researching.  Well, if one thing is for sure, then it’s that London is a city where you must research before you eat.  And that’s not just to avoid ‘paying through the nose’ for food that looks like it’s fresh out of the microwave.  It’s to make sure you eat some of the best food on this planet, because London is home to some of the finest restaurants and most interesting cuisine I have ever experienced…if you know where to look.

Now, it’s a well known fact that Britain is a meat and potatoes loving country.  People also like their beer, their beer battered fish and their fatty chips.  And there’s a time and a place for that kind of eating in moderation (so long as you don’t leave out the mushy peas – my all time favourite British classic). But there is no time or place for poorly prepared foods that cost more than making a freshly made meal at home.  It’s a situation I want everyone to avoid.

Britain is also home to many vegetarians and it’s not hard to find a vegetarian selection – but beware.  What you might deem vegetarian in California could manifest itself quite differently here.  Most vegetarians I know here, while avoiding acidic meat, are not necessarily making up for that with a well-balanced alkaline diet.  Many abruptly gave up meat sometime around the Mad Cow scare, but haven’t dedicated enough time to understanding the complex balance of a heathy vegetarian diet or the science of cooking beans and pulses in a digestible way.   They tend to eat a lot of cheese and potatoes and this, invariably, is how vegetarian options will appear on menus:  starchy numbers consisting of Britain’s favorite vegetables: potatoes, peas, and carrots.  I have one friend I’ve deemed an ‘Italiatarian’ – she thrives on a meatless diet of fine, Italian-inspired pasta and heavily-cooked vegetable dishes (which she makes with the utmost of love, care, and precision so I let her get away with it!)  Her safest bet when it comes to choosing a restaurant where she can eat?  A good Italian venue!  But a former vegetarian myself, I was determined to find some inventive veggie cuisine in London and turns out I didn’t have to look far!

After a few trials and errors, I’ve managed to locate some great places for those nights when your veggie friend is in town or when you’ve overdone it at a steak dinner or Sunday roast the day before and want to give your gut a break.  The photos in this post are from my favourite vegetarian venue in London: The Gate.  Tucked away on a side street in Hammersmith and nestled above a quaint courtyard, The Gate is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.  It is a peaceful oasis (less quiet at night when they turn the volume up on the tunes) in busy London.  It’s located half way between the HMV Apollo and Riverside Studios so you can pair your veggie-tastic meal with a popular show or night of good cinema if you plan ahead.  I hear they’re opening a new location across from Sadlers Wells (arguably the best dance venue in London) in Islington, not far from Jamie’s Italian (perfect spot for those Italiatarians out there but not a vegetarian restaurant!).

If you’re up for the hustle and bustle of Soho, you can check out Mildred’s – another inventive vegetarian venue popular amongst the celebrity crowd (I had my ultimate celebrity encounter with Thom Yorke from Radiohead here), but with the queue to match.  You can’t make reservations and the space is small so be prepared to wait for a table and arrive early if you can to beat the weeknight crowds.  Not far from here on Wardour street, is a more informal venue called Vitao, formerly Vita Organic.  When I worked in Soho, this was my favourite lunch spot, hosting a huge selection of macrobiotic, live food meals and a creative list of beverages using all kinds of juices and nut milks.  This is a great place if you’re eating alone and just need a quick fix.

If you’re in the Covent Garden area and up for a stroll down Neal’s Street, then you’ll soon find yourself in a colorful courtyard of healthy treasures – Neal’s Yard.  Here you can find the delectable Wild Food Cafe, which features not only vegetarian but also deliciously raw selections (the olive and shitaki mushroom burger with coconut cheese is delicious as is the selection of raw chocolate made on site – check out the machine by the door!).

En route to Neal’s Yard, you’ll find Food For Thought – a teeny tiny venue well-known by all as a great place for lunch or early dinner.  There’s limited seating downstairs but sharing tables with strangers is normal and meals are usually eaten in haste so it doesn’t take long for a spot to become free.  If you’re lucky, you’ll nab the cove at the back – perfect for a party of two with a  bit more time to spare.  The best deal is the full plate of one of the dishes of the day accompanied by a generous salad.  If it’s a nice day, visit the ‘take-away’ counter upstairs and eat your meal outside on the Seven Dials pillar

In Northeast London, I’ve heard Manna is incredible, but I’ve yet to try it!  If you’re planning a day on Primrose Hill and a trip to the flagship Triyoga Studios for a class, add a visit here to your agenda and let me know how it goes!

I’ve mentioned Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall earlier – this is man I’ve previously seen butcher animals from his backyard (River Cottage) but whose most recent TV show, River Cottage Veg Everyday, champions interesting and inventive ways of preparing beautiful vegetarian meals!  He’s done a great job in reminding people that vegetarian food is anything but dull and the best medium to test one’s cooking creativity!

So these are just a few places to get you started on your vegetarian journey around London (I’ll do another post for those Italiatarians and omnivores like me too…).  The next post is on the topic of Markets in London – where even more veggie options await you!  So the topic will continue…

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