Saturday, 5 March 2016

George Street Social, Oxford

Where to Eat: George Street Social
Location: Oxford, OX1 2DH

It's been 3 years since I last posted here, but my friend and I have been enjoying the latest restaurant and cafe boom in Oxford, and so it's high time we revive this little blog again and add a few more thoughts in.

George Street in Oxford has seen quite a few changes recently. In the past year, the following popped up: Thaikhun (Thai restaurant), Banana Tree (Indochinese), Beard (pizza-craft beer pub), and now George Street Social, which bills itself as a "new coffee, craft beer, cocktail & canteen bar which aims to bring something a bit different in a sea of tax-dodging coffee shop madness."
The corner spot was formerly occupied by Java & Co, an independent coffee shop that wasn't as slick-looking as the others on the street, but it had quite cosy sofas and a big upstairs lounge area. Perfect for learning to knit (yes I did that once while sipping a hot chocolate) and chilling with friends. 

Anyway, since last September, the venue was sold to the City Pub Company -- they also run St Aldates tavern near Christ Church. 

The first word that comes to mind when you see the new makeover: hipsterville! The font, the crockery (wine served in tumblers for example), the blockpainted chairs and tables ... but don't let that put you off. Service is a little bit slow - perhaps there are still teething problems since they only opened a month ago - but we have been there twice now and there are some fantastic elements to their coffee-beer-cocktail canteen. 

We love that three-quarters of the shop is for lounging, drinking and eating, but that they reserve a section of the place for table service, so if you want proper sit-down meal, you can find a table. 

If you are going there to do a bit of reading or work, then George St Social is great - the tables upstairs have lots of plugs, free wifi, warm fleecy booths, and they don't kick you out if you don't refresh your coffee every half hour. They also have lots of board games, secondhand books, and a 'lego building corner' for the inner kid in you. 

I'm not personally a coffee drinker, so I can't vouch for the coffee quality, but their hot chocolate is absolutely excellent. We can taste real chocolate in it, not the usual cadbury-powdery crap you get in some coffee shops these days. I ordered the hot chocolate on two occasions - the first time was better with very intense flavours, the second time was less so, but still quite good. I will go back there for the hot chocolate. They also do quite a few pastries, including pastel de nata (loved it! although it would be better if it were served warm), cakes and flapjacks.

As for their real plates of food, we tried it yesterday and have mixed feelings. Presentation was excellent, but the food was a little pricy, and the descriptions in the menu were not totally accurate. For example, we ordered the '10 hours' pulled beef brisket bap, bbq sauce, wedges & slaw (£11.95). I'm not sure why 10 hours is in quotation marks - probably it wasn't in the oven for that long, but I wouldn't be less impressed if it said 6 hours! Anyway, the bap was fine, just a tad dry for me but my friend liked it, especially whilst dipping into the bbq sauce - but the overriding taste of the bap was the cheese. Cheese was not mentioned in the menu at all! Oh the wedges were very moreish too. 

I wasn't that hungry, so I ordered from the small plates section the salted cod fish croquette with chorizo salsa and apple puree (£5.95). The croquette was well made, the saltiness was good (better if you have alcohol to soak it all up) but they paired the salty croquette with a chorizo salsa which contained lots of capers. It would have been better to give the capers a miss. However, my friend liked the plate, so yes, a mixed review. 

We skipped the desserts on the menu because they hovered at six quid, which is more expensive than most upmarket restaurants in town. 

Overall though, this place is good for chilling out with a cuppa or for after work socialising, but I am not bowled over by the price or quality of the mains.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Where to Eat: Edamame
Location: Oxford, OX1 3SA

There aren't a lot of Asian restaurants in Oxford other than Thai and Chinese ones, so it's understandable that a place like Edamame would be continously jam-packed by students and residents galore. 

The Japanese 'restaurant' Edamame is located conveniently on a quiet street in the centre of town. One unfortunate thing is that it has really odd opening hours (it's closed on certain days, open at different hours on other days) so you must always check their website to make sure it's worth the trek.  Anyway, I put 'restaurant' in quotation marks because it's more like a fast food diner, or like Wagamama, where you have to squeeze in and sit with strangers in small square tables. 

On Thursdays only, they have sushi nights. The big mistake we made was not checking the closing time. We were relying on the fact that it was pouring rain that day, and thought we can just get there at 7.30pm or so and get a seat quite quickly. The problem was they stop taking orders at 8.30pm, so for half the time, we were wondering whether to go somewhere else or to keep standing in line. But somehow, we were able to get a seat an hour later and make our 'last' order. 

The other unlucky thing was that by the time we got to order, the salmon sashimi ran out! That was what I wanted to eat. Oh well, but we could still get the sushi and gunkanzushi sets. Anyway, I went here with a friend who doesn't particularly enjoy sushi, but we decided to go so that I can introduce him to the different flavours, and tell him which raw fish is what.

So to sample a bit of everything, we shared between us the nigiri sushi set, and the gunkan set, plus a unagi eel set. 

The difference between the nigri and the gunkan set is that the sushi has no seaweed, whereas the gunkan style has a 'boat' like structure, with a seawood as the 'boat', vinegar rice at the bottom, and fresh ingredients at the top (see photo on left).

Some of the ingredients are not raw, for example the avocado gunkanzushi (on the left). The presentation is absolutely beautiful and gorgeously coloured, and every bite is really fresh. It definitely is the best Japanese restaurant in town, and compared to London places, Edamame would still win in terms of price and quality. 

I'm not going to go on and on about the raw fish as it's an acquired taste, but really, it's so delicious especially when combined with the soy and wasabi sauce. 

Edamame also does non-sushi items on other days and at lunch hour, such as katsu curry and ramen. Overall, this is a good place to check out if you're in Oxford, but be warned about the really bizarre opening hours and the long queues!  

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Shard

Event: The Shard
Location: That really tall building next to London Bridge Station

I got tickets to go up the Shard long before it opened to the public. The tickets are pretty much solidly sold out in the upcoming weeks if you want to pay the regular price, but not to worry! You can walk straight in without lining up if you are ready to cough up a hundred pounds upfront. Yup. This panorama event really caters to the rich alright. 

Despite the high price of even the normal tickets (about twenty-five quid), it was really an enjoyable event. The Shard is a newly built skyrise next to London Bridge Station, and its architect is the lovely Renzo Piano (also the man who designed those crazy-coloured Google buildings near Tottenham Ct Rd). I'm not going to write too much about all the architectural details as you probably read about it elsewhere, so I'll just talk about my experience going up to the View. It's always best to gaze over a great city if you know it well already: the price of London Eye is expensive, but worth paying for if you can get a lot out of every single minute of staring out into the vista, and the same is for the Shard. Unlike the Eye though, you are going to be so far off the ground that it's too easy to get a really foggy view. 

I picked a decent time to go up, around 4.30pm, hoping to get a view of the sunset and enjoy both the day/night shots of London. The good thing was that it was beautiful and sunny when I went up. This lasted for about 30-45 min. After heavy security checks, two elevators whisk you up in a minute to the observation deck on the 68th floor. It's a very slick ride, and all the greeters and elevator operators were really professional. I was able to use the wonderful digital telescopes to see as far as Greenwich and Hyde Park/Royal Albert Hall. 

Once the sun began to go down, the views were even more phenomenal (click on the Dusk view in the interactive!). Everything was layered in gold and auburn. All the miniature cars and people and streets, hidden by long shadows. Then the fog set, and the views were entirely wiped out! So ... I highly advise checking the weather to see when there would be a clear day before you go up. Otherwise, you'd risk paying a lot just to see a lot of grey clouds.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Bone Daddies Ramen

Where to Eat: Bone Daddies Ramen
Location: London, W1F 0AR

Tonkotsu Ramen! This specific type of ramen (noodle) soup is all the rage right now, and all for the right reasons. It's super creamy, entirely bad for you, and utterly addictive. It's also very filling, so a bowl of it is perfect for a night of drinking to follow. 

Anyhow, we've checked out a few ramen places already, but so far, Bone Daddies is the best in town. This is also confirmed by a friend who joined us there, who once lived in Japan for a good few years. He told us not to bother trying anything else except perhaps some appetizers, and that we should just go straight for the Tonkotsu. Of course we did just that. 

At Bone Daddies, the atmosphere's cosy, but you sit at high tables and chairs so it's not a place to stay and chill out for too long. Plus the queue is quite long (except when you go early), so unless you have no heart, you would feel obliged to vacate the seats once you've finished the food.
For starters, we ordered cabbage and miso (£2.50), which is something we`d never do without a recommendation. Doesn`t sound like a tasty combo. But actually it was very good! You tear off a cabbage leaf, and dip it into the pungent plate of miso. Delightful! We`re glad we didn`t order any more (even though the extra topping of cock scratchings sound curiously interesting), as the bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen is huge! It costs £11, which is more expensive than the ones in Tonkotsu or Ittenbari, but so far, I'd say Bone Daddies is worth the extra cost (although Tonkotsu is really not far behind! I wouldn't recommend Ittenbari though).

But how to describe the Tonkotsu? It has very tender char siu pork, spring onion, a beautiful 'clarence court egg' (marinated & soft-boiled), bamboo, bean sprouts, and most importantly, a broth that has been boiled with fatty pork bones for 20 hours. Delicious. 

My favourite is the egg, it's so soft and intense. And tasty. And the broth too, of course. 

I'm going to try Shoryu very soon to see if it's equally good. We're on a Japanese culinary craze these days in preparation for a big holiday to Tokyo, so watch out for more restaurant reviews soon. 

However, my next entry will be about going up the Shard! Until then ...

Monday, 31 December 2012

Best of 2012

As usual, here's my 'best of the year' list. Again, some of the items below are quite dated, but I read/saw it this year). Compared to the 2011 list, I seem to be a lot less discerning:
  • Films: Social Network, Hunger Games, Woody Allen (documentary), Skyfall
  • Books: Sisters Brothers, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, first half of The Night Circus, Life of Pi, Anna Karenina
  • Poetry: None this year
  • TV: Mad Men S5, Veep S1, Brothers and Sisters (All 5 seasons. Don't ask), Great British Bake Off S3, Girls S1, Never Mind the Buzzcocks
  • Exhibitions/Events: Da Vinci paintings exhibition at National Gallery, Hajj exhibition at British Museum, Circus Show at Roundhouse, Edvard Munch/Chagall/Magritte etc at Sotheby's, Matthew Bourne's Early Adventures, Henley Regatta, Invisible exhibition at Hayward Gallery, Matilda the Musical, Yoko Ono at Serpentine Gallery, Trampoline in Missisauga, London Olympics, Cirque du Soleil - Amaluna, letterpress workshop, Festival of the Nerd tour, Anish Kapoor at Lisson Gallery, Photography and Art exhibition at National Gallery, World Press Photo 2012 at Southbank, Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour, Wildlife Photography 2012, 
  • Concerts: Chris Ogden (guitarist) live, Joshua Bell at Barbican, Norah Jones at Southbank, Metric concert
  • Comedy: Sarah Millican live, Austentatious improv, Ross Noble Mindblender Tour 
  • Places: Village Voice bookshop in Paris, Musee Orangerie in Paris, TS Eliot`s grave, West Bay, Southall Gurdwara, Piano Bar in Kensington, Blenheim Palace gardens, City Lights in San Francisco, streetcars in SF, Sausalito, Muir Woods, Getty Center in Los Angeles, Salisbury cathedral, All Soul's College, Mount Olympus in N. Greece, Alexander the Great's family tombs, Halkidiki Beaches (nr Thessaloniki)
  • Food/Beverage: Sakura in London, Polidor in Paris, Le Loir dans la Théière in Paris, Comptoir Libanais in London, Kazbar in Oxford, Huffkins in Cheltenham, Princi in London, Cote Brasserie in London, Island Bar & Restaurant in London, Wahaca, burgers at Byron, tacos in Mission area in San Francisco, Ice cream (Harry Slocombe etc) in San Francisco, #2 tripadvisor spot at Lymington, The Trout in Oxford, Guu in Toronto, Cote Brasserie
  • Food Special mentions (these are not the 'best' but they are very good, I visit them over and over again): Kowloon Bakery London, Jens Cafe, Bangkok House in Oxford, Ed Diner's milkshakes, Tim Horton's iced capp in Canada, Branca in Oxford
Low points:
  • Books: Second half of The Night Circus, 
  • TV: New Girl after the first few episodes, 
  • Films: Cafe de Flore, Dark Knight Rises 
  • Food: Zizzi's
Have a happy and safe new year! 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

What: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty
Location: Sadler's Wells

I love Matthew Bourne ballets (see my old review of Cinderella). They never have a dull moment, and they are always highly entertaining. Earlier this year, I went to his Early Adventures show, and he went on stage afterwards to talk to the audience. It turns out that he attends *every* single show of his own work (if he can help it), so that he can study how audiences react to his choreography. Amazing! I can see why his ballets are such successes.

So anyway, I went to the sold out show of Sleeping Beauty at Sadler's Wells, and the ballet lives up to expectations. 

This is Sleeping Beauty with the original Tchaikovsky score, but with a big Bourne-style twist. There's the usual gender changes (male/female reversals) and the added contemporary humour, but there's a bigger transformation still. It might have been a big mistake for me to not read the full description of the show carefully: billed as Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, it says
We meet our heroine, Aurora, at her Christening, when fairies and vampires fed the gothic imagination, before the story moves forward a century to the modern day.  
Since I didn't read this beforehand, you can imagine my confusion when the fairy godmother (or godfather rather) started biting the neck of one of the protagonists.

[Spoiler alert, although you can guess this easily ...]

I also didn't understand how the hero who you meet 100 years ago can still be alive 100 years later to save the sleeping princess (in the original ballet, the hero only appears 100 years later to save the day), but now it all makes sense if you realize that the hero turned into a vampire! I thought I caught a lot of different allusions, like Phantom of the Opera, or Grimms ... but maybe the allusions were really just to Bram Stoker and Anne Rice or Twilight films.

I am not entirely sure the idea of fairy vampires really work (vampires shouldn't really have wings!), but the dancers won me over: they were very captivating and evocative. Beautiful sets and costumes. I love Bourne's sense of humour ... there's a very funny use of puppetry to make young Aurora (well, baby) come alive.

The one thing I didn't really like is the set for the final scene, when the story fast forwards 100 years later to 'Last Night'. 'Last Night' is set in a nightclub that reminds you of really cheesy 80s music and awful flourescent lighting. Yuck. I can't stand it. However, it was in this scene that my absolute favourite bit of the Tchaikovsky score came on: if you have watched Disney's version of Sleeping Beauty, you would have heard the creepy tune as evil Maleficent's theme tune. If you've seen the original ballet (not the Bourne version), you would have known it as the Puss in Boots theme:

The music's absolutely creepy and it's fantastic! Bourne used it well by totally removing the 3rd act of the original ballet and using the music as part of the tense dungeon/nightclub scene (when the hero in disguise tries to rescue his heroine).

Also, can I just reiterate that it is a great move to remove the 3rd act? I've been to the Royal Ballet to see this (note above youtube clip), and the 1st act is when Aurora's young, 2nd act is when she's asleep and the prince comes and rescues her (without much obstacles, which is quite disappointing) and the 3rd act is ALL about their wedding and different fairytale characters dancing tributes for them. How utterly boring and strange to have the 'happily ever after' last a third of the performance.

Anyway, none of that in Bourne's ballet. He got a huge ovation at the end, and it really is well deserved. Go see it!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Hot Chocolate Review: Montezuma No. 5 Mint

Brand: Montezuma's No. 5 Mint Drinking Chocolate
Score: 7.5 / 10

Where to get it: Montezuma website or stores

This is long overdue, but I've been meaning to write up some reviews of hot chocolate brands. I live in a household that values hot chocolate above all (by 'all', I mean coffee and tea), and we have quite a collection. 

I am going to try and review every hot chocolate brand that we have previously enjoyed (or will enjoy if we come across a new brand), and perhaps also share with you some of hot chocolate cafe recommendations. 

There is no real reason why I'm starting off with Montezuma.

So first off: Montezuma No. 5 Mint Chocolate

Dark chocolate - yum! And with peppermint too. This mix blends in well and is very smooth, with a good aftertaste. It comes in chocolate flakes, and you basically have to heat your milk hot enough to get the flakes to melt. We recommend microwaving a cup of milk for 2 minutes, then stir the flakes in. 

Usually, hot chocolate that comes as flakes means that they can be charged at a more expensive rate, but at £6.29 for 300g, it's quite reasonable. Packaging is quite slick too: you get a bag of the mix with a resealable top. Convenient! Verdict: 7.5/10

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ross Noble: Mindblender

What: Ross Noble's Mindblender Tour 
Locations: Touring around UK and rest of world

Ross Noble performing live is quite something. Unlike other comedians like Eddie Izzard or Bill Bailey who have a pretty strict script/sketch to follow, Ross' show seems a lot more improvisatory than anything else. He spends a lot of time interacting with the audience, mocking the ones he can hear and see, and inviting hecklers to join in and contribute to the performance.

This adds a lot of excitment as you never know what you'll get, but it's quite a risky thing too, as Ross also likes going on tangents and just say whatever he can think of. And he thinks of pretty random things. From stories about his 'human child' to milking cows. From mocking a phelgmatic man to doing a song and dance about demons and The Exorcist. And from responding to the heckler to Schrödinger's cat.

They're all great, but right near the beginning, he started poking fun at a man with a crutch, which ... led to jokes about the Paralympics, and when he tried to apologise if he offended anyone in any way, a lady at the back of the theatre shouted really loudly that it was really extremely offensive to make fun of disabled people. It got the room quite tense for a long time after that. I knew that he would get in trouble right when he went off on a tangent about the games, even if he was doing it in good humour.

My friend didn't enjoy it after that, which was a shame, but I thought there were still a lot of brilliant moments. Some of his jokes were clearly planned in advance, like on the au courant topics of Fifty Shades and Jimmy Savile (the Savile sketch he did had a fantastic impersonation of Eddie Izzard. It was possible my favourite part of the show). He did a really interesting time-space continuum trick as well as his finale (which I won`t reveal here, but suffice to say, it had something to do with the mind of a jelly). Also his impersonation of the whispering Batman and the muffled Baine was absolutely spot on.

Although he`s not always so PC, I still love his humour: it's really quirky and unusual, and so for that, I'd recommend this tour.

PS: I just read this review, and it turns out I was wrong. Schrödinger's cat is a pre-planned joke!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Anna Karenina, Part 2 of 2

Title: Anna Karenina, Part 2 of 2
Author: Leo

Back to Book #13, Anna Karenina. It's actually a bit unfair that I wrote Part 1 of my comments when I've read over 75% of the book, but actually the last 120 pages are quite interesting and different.

Spoilers alert. Please don't read on if you don't want to know the ending. 

Near the end, Anna Karenina takes on a strange persona - more and more characters find her incredibly beautiful and bewitching, and she feels very different in personality. I find myself hating her more and more and yet strangely attracted to her as well. What a monster! Actually, by the very last few pages of her point of view, I just really couldn't stand her anymore. She's unwanted by society, she loses a lot of things (status, family, respect, etc) and rightly, she should feel upset. For the better part of the novel, she manages to hang on to her dignity. At the very end though, she turns incredibly delusional, becomes highly jealous of her partner's every action and distorts reality to the point where I can't even sympathize with her plight anymore.

Needless to say, Anna does not have a happy ending. What is strange is that even at the end of her life, when you think she has finally chosen her fate, she is robbed of that self-agency ... she wavers between wanting to end her life and not wanting to, and right when she's supposed to make a decision ... well ... the decision was made for her. Tolstoy is so cruel!

My interpretation of the book has been highly shaped by the book's preface ... there I learned that in the midst of writing this novel (over the span of a few years), Tolstoy's world view changed from atheistic (or agnostic?) to one controlled by religious angst. As you can imagine, Tolstoy started off writing the novel with plenty of sympathy for his heroine, a woman who decides to put love above family and religion, but by the end, he can't understand her perspective anymore, and have to make up ridiculous, irrational thoughts for Anna to justify her actions. It makes me a bit annoyed.

So, is Anna Karenina still a great novel? Yes, for the majority of the book, I really enjoyed following every single character's thoughts and actions. Tolstoy is a great master ... my only impossible wish is: what if he finished writing the novel in one year, instead of four? What if! Would Anna be living happily ever after?

I still recommend this book to everyone who can put aside a huge chunk of time for reading ... it only took me two months to finish.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Anna Karenina, Part 1 of 2

Title: Anna Karenina, Part 1 of 2
Author: Leo

For lucky Book #13, I'm going to talk about Anna Karenina. I'm more than halfway through Tolstoy's epic, but since this book really is massive, it's probably prudent to write about it in two separate entries. 

What can I say about Anna K? Well, the first is that I have been meaning to read this book for ages. It's been on my list since school, but obviously, other (shorter) books got in the way of our relationship. With all the film advertisements going on this year about Anna K though, plus the fact that I now own an e-reader and no longer have the excuse that it's 'too heavy' to travel around with Anna K, I finally decided take the plunge.

And is it worth it so far? 


This is cheesy, but the more you read this book, the more it grow on you. It's definitely not an instant gratification: you need to invest a lot of time and energy to sit still and read it. But once you get started, the more you read about each character, the more you empathize with their point of view. And even though you discover that each character is very flawed, each in their own unique way, they are all perspectives that you can understand and get to know deeply. 
You say that everything is very simple and interesting
it makes me feel very wistful, like reading a great
                                                          Russian novel does
from Yesterday Down at the Canal, Frank O'Hara, 1961
I think I read it at a right time in my life, when I have more of an understanding about the human psyche. It is so fascinating to read these Tolstoy characters constantly changing their minds, constantly loving and hating their lovers and families, constantly behaving in contradictory ways and misunderstanding each other ... and it's just all so real. What I like about it is that even though it was written in the 1870s, the worries, the fears, and the joys are still very much the same 150 years later.

A few other notes for now: 
  • Wikipedia just informed me that Anna Karenina started as a newspaper serial. That's why it's so long ... just like Dickens!
  • the Russian names are not too hard to follow. I remember Crime & Punishment being a lot more confusing, and even though you meet a lot of characters in Anna K, it's still quite easy to recognize each person. Perhaps this is due to the good translation. 
  • this book is like Joyce's Ulysses, in that it's an encyclopedia, covering all sorts of topics from farming techniques to current philosophies to pedagogy to history ... fascinating!
  • I actually enjoy the other storyline more than Anna Karenina's storyline. Yes, everyone knows the ending to Anna K, but no one ever talks about Levin, who is the other main character. I love his point of view! He's so quaint, so cute and awkward, so unsociable, so idealistic yet practical ...
  • other people have commented on the 'floating' omniscient narration ... it's really funny reading the point of view of random people, and not only that, of dogs and children's perspectives. Very humourous.

Part 2 will follow once I finish the book.