Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Xmas!


Wishing all a very Happy Xmas, and a truly memorable rest of the Holiday season.  This snap was taken at Union Square in San Francisco, just a couple of days before Xmas day 2008. People skating, singing carols, shopping, just taking in the atmosphere on a crisp night. Magical!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Whole foods delight

Thanksgiving came and went.  We went to a neighbor's potluck, which turned out to be one of the most delicious nights of the holiday season.  I made a 'Potato Savoyard' gratin (more about this delectable recipe later), which took hours of prep time, but was completely worth it.  The effort made by our other neighbors was equally commendable.  Apart from the staples of green beans, carrots, creamed corn, succulent ham and of course, turkey, there was stuffing souffle with pecans, gourmet sweet pumpkin pie, spiced apple cider, coffee, and Veuve Clicquot Champagne.  

My rate of consumption of such holiday treats is showing no signs of deceleration.  Having recently discovered the 'Whole Foods' deli section, we spend most Saturday lunchtimes at our local Whole Foods, mulling over the mouthwatering options. Lamb shanks with rosemary potatoes and shiitake mushrooms, or turkey quiche with mashed potatoes and herbs, teriyaki chicken, the choices just go on.  The food from the deli counter in my opinion is sublime, filling, and satiates you like grandma's hearty cooking.

Of course, the strategically placed cake and pastry counter next to the hot deli counter ensures that you are bound to come back.  We are absolutely hooked on the 'Mixed Berry Cake' that WF sell in three convenient sizes.  Just try it, and I guarantee you will never ever buy any other cake again.  Garnished with fresh berries and icing to kill for, this moist and stupendously delightful cake cheers your tongue up.  Try it! The only caveat that not all WF stores carry identical cakes to each other, so if you don't find it at your local one, get them to find out your nearest store which does stock it.  
Do you have any Whole Foods favorites? Especially for the holidays? Do you think that food there is overrated and too expensive? Or would you rather pay extra for the quality? Let us know...


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Hot Dogs in Berkeley, CA


I found this photo on a blog called ZeroDivide, and this summed up Top Dog for me.

I first went to Top Dog as a summer school student at Berkeley in 2003.  A cheep and cheerful place with dogs to satisfy both poverty-stricken students and those with a bit more cash to spare. My second visit was in Oct 2008, and coincidentally, on a football game day at Berkeley (Cal v UCLA!).  Berkeley was buzzing, and although the Bears won, Top Dog was bursting at the seams with fans from both sides.

There is no line here.  There are two guys behind the grill, one minding all the meat, and one taking all the orders and miraculously remembering them in order.  There are even veggie and healthier meat options.  It's fast, economical, and delicious.  What more do you need?

Top Dog also have a branch in Oakland, CA.  Check out their website below.  Have you been to Top Dog? What's your experience been like?


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Xanh, Mountain View

Who'd have thought that the suburbs could have this much panache? Nestled among the many thriving eateries on Castro in Mountain View, is Xanh.  Cool fusion Vietnamese cuisine offered in great style.  You first enter an amazing New-York style lounge bar, dimly lit in electric blue, with a DJ churning House/cool RnB in the corner.  The bar looks pretty busy and happening. Sleek, geometric, and ample white seating look striking against all the blue in this room.  Huge Christmas tree-like glass balls hang from the ceiling.  This is where you'd hang out with your crowd before the hostess whisks you into one of two main dining areas.

This was a Saturday night, and it could not have been more packed.  However, the lighting in our dining room was a little too bright for my liking, especially compared to the dim coolness of the lounge up front.  Anyway, the food made up for that.

The spicy and sour soup for $10 was ample and wildly aromatic.  The only complaint was that it seemed warm rather than hot, and so we had to send it back for a quick zap.  My main plate was 'Catfish in a Clay Pot'.  It was perfectly marinated, exuding sweetness and spicy tones at the same time.  Heavily laden with chillies, ginger, garlic, and possibly honey, it was heavenly with simple jasmine-steamed rice.  The meal ended beautifully with a swig of impossibly sweet Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk.  

All in all, a stylish spot on Mountain View's main promenade, which offers flavorful food in attractive surroundings.  If you just want to hang, have a martini while listening to top tunes, and not have to drive all the way to San Francisco, Xanh should be one of your choices.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Long live Macs...

After inadvertently unleashing a virus onto our PC, we spent hours pouring over solutions on Majorgeeks.com, hoping against hope to rescue this home-built computer, which had been so good to us for 5 years.  We turned to our old and rusty iBook, which was unbearably slow compared to the powerful PC which once ran alongside it.  The PC was rescued, and began to work like a dream again, while we cruelly abandoned the iBook.  Alas, it was not meant to be. The PC's hard drive started making sounds, and that's never a good thing.  It died quite unceremoniously, and then we discovered we had no backups at all! Suddenly, as if by magic, it restarted itself and gave us its all for about 30 magical minutes; enough time for us to frantically back all our data up.   Then, it was all over.  

We are shamelessly back to our senile iBook again, and praying that it will hold on until we buy another computer.  And just long enough for me to blog, even if the posts will be devoid of snazzy Photoshopped pictures.  Needless to say, it will be another Mac.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A mansion in San Francisco

All photos courtesy of EKphoto.com http://www.ekphoto.com/hamlin/

I was awestruck from the moment I walked in, both as an educator, and as a wedding guest.

The Hamlin School, an all-girls' independent school in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco is also known as Hamlin Mansion, a much sought-after special occasion venue in the city.
The building, which has its beginnings in the early 20th century, entraps your senses with its intricately carved wooden beams and paneling, captivating mosaic walls, and high ceiling with skylight. It is charming how the school hides its bookcases and student artwork behind the deep red curtains as it transforms itself from a haven of education into a centerpiece of decadent celebration. Keep walking through the library and into the solarium, and you are completely bowled over by the sweeping vistas of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge through its large bay windows. Walk up the stairs, and imagine yourself being transported back in time, looking down upon the hallway being attended to by uniformed staff.

The Hamlin School/Mansion is located on 2120 Broadway, San Francisco.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Hamlin Mansion

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Eight Wineries in One?

Photo courtesy of the Press Club website


At the bottom of the Four Seasons in San Francisco lies an unique concept. As we settled down for drinks at the lounge bar of the nearby Amber India restaurant (I'll blog about this later), friends told us about the Press Club.

Apparently this trendy venue, which opened on Sept 10 this year, has eight Californian vineyards rolled into one. You walk into a spacious and stylish tasting room which allows you to acquaint yourself with several wines. This seems like a wonderful alternative for both connoisseurs and amateurs to have the 'Napa experience' minus the long drive out there.

I think I'll pay a visit, but I like long drives and basking in the authentic milieu of wine country. Have you been to the Press Club? What did you think? Drop me a line here if you have or perhaps somewhere similar elsewhere.

The Press Club

Tracking flights through YAPTA

As per a recommendation by a user, I have now logged onto YAPTA, a website which allows you to track the price of flights you might want to take in the future. I am hoping to go to England at some point within the next four months, so all I did was enter the details, save the trip, and allow the website to find good fares for me. I guess this concept works best if you're flexible with your trip and can plan ahead. If I do get a ticket and register those details with YAPTA, they will notify me via email if there is a price drop for which I get credit I can use toward a future flight. Sounds good. Let's see how it works out over the next few months.

YAPTA

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

10 savvy travel sites

This slide show from fastcompany.com caught my eye. Introducing some great travel sites, I wonder if anyone out there has actually used ones like YAPTA or DOPPLR. For future posts, I hope to review some of these on this blog, and perhaps, even use them. The all-time favorite Tripadvisor, is not surprisingly, also on this list.

If you have used one or more of these websites, leave your feedback here.

'10 Hot Travel Websites'

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bar with a view in San Francisco

p.s. This image is courtesy of the Grand Hyatt website.

Apparently there are lots of swanky high-rise bars in the city of San Francisco, such as the famed Harry Denton's Starlight Room, or the Top of the Mark for instance. While I planned to research other similar swanky hot spots and visit the aforementioned, my discovery of the Grandviews Lounge atop the Grand Hyatt near Union Square was quite accidental.

After having a reasonably nice dinner in Chinatown one Friday evening, and with plans of having a drink before we left for the suburbs, we gasped at the sight of a very chic lounge bar steps from Chinatown, only to be politely turned away because it had just closed. It was 9:50 pm! While why most eateries and bars close so early in SF is an intriguing myster, and fodder for another post at some future time, this disappointment spurred us on to a most wonderful discovery.

In a much earlier post, I had reminisced about discovering a wonderful lounge serving late night desserts and wine at the five star rated Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. I hoped to discover the same in San Francisco, and there it was - at the Grand Hyatt, on Stockton at Sutter.

The night was indeed very young, and we were very glad to find out that the Grandviews Lounge was open till about 2 am. Perched up on the 36th floor, the elevators opened up into a hallway, and then muted lights, marble, house music, cacophony, and oh..grand views.

We walked towards the bar and found a table with a view. Service was very fast, given how busy it was. Clientele were a mix of hotel guests, and people like us who were simply looking for something decent open past 10 pm. The age group was 25-40.

We ordered a Bailey's Irish Cream Creme Brulee at $12. Beautifully presented, it was heaven melting on your taste buds. Coupled with the fantastic views, it became a night to remember.

Another tip: If you're driving into the city, do use the Sutter-Stockton garage, which also happens to be across the street from the Grand Hyatt. After 6 pm, it only charges a maximum of $7.50.

The Grand Hyatt and Grandviews Lounge

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Brit in Belmont, California

As I was walking through the aisles of my local Walgreens this morning, a voice came over the tannoy, "assistance to pharmacy, assistance to pharmacy". She said "pharmacy" in a way which made me think she was from Britain. Lo and behold, I go to the check out counter, and the lady greeted me in her British accent. After a little chit-chat, I found out that Pam had been in Belmont for 40 years. She had grown up in Clapham, Peckham and various other places across the British Isles. She would go back in a tick, but she loves her husband, who loves golf and the Californian weather.

Isn't the world a funny place? There always something around the corner to remind you of home.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A savvy scallop entree



Just finished cooking this unbelievably delicious dish. I call this my 'Hot Dill Scallop Salad'. I love scallops for a number of reasons: they're easy to cut, marinade, cook, are good for you, and have such a wonderful texture. Not to mention how tasty they are. This is all I did:

  • I mixed several garlic cloves, half an onion, multicolored peppers, and one bunch of roughly cut dill in olive oil, and garlic salt. I then roasted this mixture in an oven at 380 F for 20 minutes.
  • I mixed olive oil, grated garlic, dried red chillies, grated ginger and hot sauce (to taste) in a bowl, and marinaded about 1.5 lbs scallops in it for 10 minutes.
  • I cooked the scallop mixture in a hot pan for about 3 minutes, mixing and turning carefully.
  • I added the other half of an onion and one bunch of green onions, and cooked the mixture for another 3 minutes.
  • I added the roasted vegetables to this mix, turned the heat off, mixed everything and ...voila!
Try it and see if you like it. It is wonderful! I look forward to creating some more savvy scallop recipes in the future...

Lime restaurant in San Francisco

Hidden among bookstores with outrageous shopfronts, quirky delis and ethnic restaurants on Market Street in Castro is the cute Austin Powers-esque restaurant 'Lime'. A hit with the locals, this late night (well for SF standards anyway) serves tapas sized portions of delectable goodies. Try the amazingly popular deviled eggs, or the shitake mushrooms dripping in melted parmesan.
The halibut fish tacos are amazing too. The menu allows you to order $5 - $11 plates, so giving you an idea of the portion size. It's pretty cleverly done, because the plates usually have an odd number of bites, so you do end up ordering two plates if you want to have an equal amount of food shared within your group. Portions are tasty but tiny, so you will end up ordering more than you thought you would. But it tastes and looks good, so who cares?

Low lighting, pumping house music, and cozy booths set the scene here. Given it's in Castro, you have to be comfortable with the pretty boy, and slightly overtly gay crowd. But everyone is friendly and just out to have a good time. I was once here in 2006, and back last week for the second time, and glad to see that it was still pretty rocking in two years. Lime do a Sunday brunch with all 'All you Can Drink' mimosas for $6. Their mojitos are great by the way. Drop me a line if you've tried their brunch. Oh, and they have bar seating as well.

All in all, a cool local SF nightspot, whether you want to just grab a drink or a bite, well hidden from the tourists.

Lime

Monday, July 21, 2008

Raving about truffles...




Chocolate truffles aren't as rare a treat as they used to be. Available in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors these days, the likes of Godiva or Lindt continue to tempt us with their imaginative and delicious creations. The most popular alcohol or liquor-laced truffles appear to be of the champagne or Grand-Marnier variety. However, on my last visit to the Harrods chocolate/candy section in London this June, I became totally hooked on a special kind of 'Port and Cranberry' truffles.

These devilishly creamy dark chocolate truffles are created by none other than one of London's legendary chocolatiers, Charbonnel et Walker. Packed in a ruby red box of 6, this will cost you around $20, but if you're lucky, you may be there during sale time and get it for $10 as I did. These are pricey pieces of candy, but taste one, and you'll know why. Bat your eyelids, or smile that smile at the serving attendant, and you might even get a free taste!

There is a Charbonnel et Walker store in Bond Street in London, but visit the Harrods Food Hall if you can, and find your way to the candy section. It is mesmerizing and tantalizing. Apart from C et W, you will be introduced to some of the world's finest brands of candy, amidst excited cacophony, luring aromas, and luxurious ambiance.

I just went to their website, and it turns out that you can get C et W candy in San Francisco and Palo Alto. How cool is that! They even have a Cafe Charbonnel in NYC! As evident from the picture, I am down to my last one. Where is that Palo Alto store again?

Charbonnel et Walker

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cameron's Restaurant and Inn, California


Just as were done meandering through lovely La Honda in the convertible and were ready to hit San Francisco, I yelled 'Stop' as I spotted an Union Jack in the most unlikely of places.

Cameron's Restaurant and Inn is situated on Cabrillo Hwy in Half Moon Bay, a section of the famed and stunningly picturesque Route 1 in California. It's a very English-looking establishment from the outside, and extremely cliched in the inside. Reminded me of a rather touristy pub right outside of where the 'hop on hop off' buses stopped in London. Nevertheless, I loved it because it reminded me of home. It was warm, colorful and inviting.

As you park your car, you notice a number of artifacts aiming to create that English feel. A red telephone box, a 'Post Office' sign, an original but a very beaten up black cab, and a model of a double decker bus. It's all good. The presence of all these very British symbols under the Californian sun is a very surreal experience.

The service is fast and friendly. There was a large team of bicyclists from Stanford University, enjoying British brew on their break, but we didn't have to wait very long. We ordered Newcastle Brown Ale and Boddington's (a bitter from Manchester). The menu serves up the favorites you expect, such as fish and chips, or bangers and mash (traditional sausages and mashed potato), but also typical American fare.

Spend your time looking at all the objects around the pub - kitschy but interesting, in the best sense of the word. Old pictures, faded and framed newspaper articles, themed mugs are all part of the charm. There is also a little shop from which you can buy English things such as PG Tips tea, Sharwoods Indian Curry paste, or Heinz Beans. Not to mention British candy, or chocolates, as we call them in Blighty. It was just the other day that I was missing Maltesers so much. Little light fluffy malt balls covered in delectable milk chocolate. I was overjoyed.

Try out this little corner of England in the middle of Half Moon Bay, California. I am sure there are many such British-inspired or owned establishments in California; perhaps you could point me towards them?

Cameron's

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Congratulations Spain!

Congratulations to Spain, the well deserving underdogs, for clinching the championship title for Euro 2008. Not a spectacular match by any measure, but they were clearly the better side compared to lackluster Germany.

As one championship ends, another is still underway in Southfields, London. Yes, I'm talking about Wimbledon. If I were still in London, you would find me at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at least one day over the two weeks. What could be better than savoring a bowl of fresh strawberries and cream while sitting at one of the courts on a lazy sunny day?

Are you or have you been to Wimbledon? Recommend any of the eateries in the area?

Enjoy the tennis.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Euro 2008 final

Don't miss the final for Euro 2008. It will be broadcast live from Vienna on ABC at 2:30 pm. Hopefully it's not one of those overrated meetings where both teams go on the defensive. I will be supporting Spain. It has been a while since they've won a major title. Where are you planning to watch the match? Who will you support? Share your experiences here...

Euro 2008 final: Spain v Germany 6/29/08 2:30E ABC

Monday, June 23, 2008

Euro 2008 update

So Spain have made it to the semi-finals. What is it about Italy and penalty kicks? That said, it will be good for an underdog to win this time. The two semi-finals are poised between Spain v Russia, and German v Turkey. I was hoping this would be Netherlands' year, but somehow Van Basten's boys failed to deliver. Who do I think should win? I like the look of Russia so far - they have a dogged enthusiasm about them. Let's see what happens.

6/25: Germany v Turkey
6/26: Russia v Spain
6/29: The final

Euro 2008

Friday, June 20, 2008

Euro 2008 cracker!

Croatia v Turkey

If you were watching, you know what I mean by a cracker. Goal-less for 90 minutes, then Croatia scores in pretty much the last minute of extra time. I was about to change the channel, secure in the knowledge that Croatia were going to face Germany in the semis, when out of nowhere, Turkey score in 'extra time' of the extra-time. How crazy was that? Vienna erupted with the wild cacophony from the Turkish fans, and the subdued groans of the Croatian camp.

Penalty shootouts - you have to love them for sheer suspense, but it just isn't a fair way to end a game. Then again, all is fair in love and war. And this was a war. I have to hand it to Turkey; they didn't miss a single shot, and their goalkeeper, Rustu, who wasn't even supposed to come on had the regular goalkeeper not been red-carded for the previous game, was exceptionally good tonight. Final score: Turkey 1 Croatia 1 (Turkey won 3-1 on penalties)

So it's Turkey vs Germany in one of the semi finals. Check this website or the widget on the right to find out more. Matches are broadcast live on the ESPN channels.

Monday, May 26, 2008

La Porte des Indes, London


This is a charming and upscale Indian restaurant in the heart of central London. Seconds away from bustling Oxford St, but you would never have guessed it. La Porte des Indes specializes in Indian food with a French twist. The cuisine in the former French colonies of Pondicherry in the south, Chandannagore in Bengal etc, is heavily French-influenced. So this figures prominently in the menu. However, other popular dishes are also available. Entrees from the a la carte menu are a tad on the pricey side. A three course set menu is around 34 pounds. But you pay for the exquisite colonial ambiance, the immaculate service, and the chance to eat on tables with pristine white and starched tablecloths, laden with silver plated cutlery.

Aah, but there is a more affordable option, without having to sacrifice your exposure to any of the above. Sundays is buffet lunch day, when La Porte puts on a lavish 'all you can eat' extravaganza for only 25 pounds per person. You start downstairs where there is a delectable range of mouthwatering appetizers, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. You then walk up the strategically-positioned spiral staircase, allowing you to spy on the other customers, before you begin to sample the entrees. Don't forget to try the fresh coconut juice, which you drink from the coconut directly. It is unbelievably refreshing!

The place is usually full on Sundays with families celebrating birthdays, friends celebrating an engagement, or simply the single diner who wants to have well prepared Indian food. There is also a live jazz band to entertain you while you enjoy the food. The band was excellent the last time I went. However, my family have been entertained by an Indian Elvis on one occasion, who was reported to have been pretty good too.

There you have it - if you're in London on a Sunday, and would like to try different and delicious Indian food in a lovely setting, make a date with La Porte Des Indes. It is best to make a reservation beforehand. Click here for more details.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tips for a wonderful stay in Couples San Souci in Ocho rios, Jamaica

Remember these things, and you'll have a great time:

  • Attend the Orienteering session to acquaint yourself with the resort. A lot of people skip this, but that's good, because only you'll know about the little hideouts
  • Always ask for Appleton Rum for your rum-based drinks
  • Go for a massage or facial. These services are excellent, and what better way to relax than to have your muscles massaged outdoors to the sound of the waves
  • Try at least one included water sport. I recommend the catamaran sailing with a qualified instructor. You don't have to sail it yourself; just let the staff know and you can just sit back and relax
  • Eat at the Bella Vista if you can - the food here is better than at the other restaurants
  • Grab a bike and ride around the resort pond
  • Go the 'Au Naturel' beach at 5:30 to view a stunning sunset ( people are/should be covered up by then) - see below
  • Buy souvenirs/blue mountain coffee from the duty free shops in the airport instead - they are marginally cheaper than at the hotel shop.
  • Be nice and friendly to the staff - they will gladly go that extra mile for you!
Have a great stay.

Couple San Souci




video

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Another day in Ocho Rios


This morning, Abhijit and I decided to hit the glass-fronted gym. It was 7 am, the sunlight was dappled, and the resort belonged just to us. The soft light and breeze held promise of things to come.

Never has 30 minutes on the treadmill been so soothing. At first I was disappointed that the treadmills faced away from the glass windows and the beach view. However once I started, I could just as easily enjoy the vista by looking at the mirror in front of me.

After a quick shower, we made our way to the breakfast room. People were starting to trickle in. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion, relaxed, reflective and content. Freshly prepared 'Blue Mountain' coffee and orange juice set the scene. Banana bread and danish pastry followed by exotic tropical fruit and smoked salmon left us more than satiated.

When we finally retired to our lounging chairs under the umbrella, I was in heaven. This is what dreams are made of. Remember those holiday ads, where a sultry blonde is lying on a beach, and gets multi-colored cocktails served to her by smiling waiters in Bermuda shorts? Apart from the blonde bit, everything else was just like that ad. I looked around to observe the other sun and aqua worshippers.

In spite of being in the middle of paradise, some still looked ultra miserable. There was a perfectly tanned and toned Italian couple in front of us, partners of considerable age difference. The trophy 'wife' began to look increasingly agitated as the husband waved his arms around. People pretended to read while staring at them discreetly through their oversized sunglasses. A septuagenarian couple rubbed sunblock lotion on each other with warmth and love. A huge woman treaded gently into the ocean with her rake-thin man. A young English couple next to us read for hours without saying a word to each other. Who needs a book when there are all these dynamics to scrutinize? Oh, here comes my Pina Colada...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Summary of activities in Jamaica - Day 1


After waking up to the azure beauty of the Carribbean, we were prepared for day of action. This is how we spent the rest of our first day:
  • Gourmet buffet breakfast at Palazzina's
  • Orientation of the resort followed by fresh guava juice by the mineral pool
  • Pina Colada with Appleton Rum from the beach bar
  • A nap aboard a hammock
  • A swim in the mineral pool
  • A delectable lunch comprising local fish, cajun chicken, almond pie and pistacchio mousse
  • A bike ride around the resort and a game of tennis
  • Strawberry Daiquiri followed by rum punch...ummmm
  • Another swim in the mineral pool followed by a dip in the hot tub surrounded by tropical foliage, gazing at the sunset
  • A swim in the ocean
  • Dinner at the wonderful Bella Vista, feasting on caloola and cod quiche, jamaican red snapper and coconut ganache
  • Relaxing in the in-room jacuzzi with rum and pepsi, before finally retiring to bed.
Sublime. Above is a picture taken from the bar at the mineral pool at Couples Ocho Rios.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The first night....

After the usual trial and tribulations associated with connecting flights and delays, we arrived at our resort at 12:10 am. Checking in was a breeze as you would expect at that time of the 'day'. Starving, we were guided to the beach hut for our first all-inclusive meal.

The Beach Hut is open from 11 pm to 6 am daily. What better introduction to Jamaica than a dining under the stars on a plate of steaming hot jerk pork and a glass of their famous Red Stripes beer, with the waves of the Caribbean Sea crashing on the shore a few feet away, at 1 am in the morning. Pure bliss.

Our 'Oceanfront Jacuzzi' suite was just a few yards across from the beach hut. When we woke up in the morning, this was the view that greeted us.

All-inclusive resorts

Have you been to an all-inclusive resort? In Hawaii, Mexico, Dominican Republic, or even Jamaica? What's your take on them? I would love to hear from you about this.

We picked an all-inclusive package for our vacation to Jamaica. For us the pluses were unlimited free alcoholic and other beverages, unlimited food from a choice of restaurants and cuisines, inclusive room service, watersports, mini bar, tipping...need I go on? We just didn't want to have to worry about all that.

Expedia offered us with a choice of resorts, and we picked Couples San Souci in Ocho Rios. It certainly was what we were looking for, and not a bad deal at under $3000 total for two people with flights for four nights!

Sometimes, it's hard to decide where to eat, having the cash to tip everyone who assists you, or limiting yourself to just that one cocktail because of the exorbitant prices. An all-inclusive resort in that case was just what the doctor ordered.

If you've never tried it, think about it. Then do your research. All the main travel sites should have packages you can look at. Look at the Couples and Sandals websites for more information on their packages.

Couples
Sandals

On the way to Ocho Rios...

The cab driver remarked in his heavy-set Eastern European accent "Are you sure you want to go up in the sky?" In England we have the expression 'raining cats and dogs.' Put plainly, it was miserable here in Chicago. But it made the prospect of vacationing in Jamaica all the more sweeter. I made sure to check the weather report for Ocho Rios and it was 87 degrees. Everday. So yes, I was sure I wanted to go up in sky. I wanted to soar high above those miserable clouds and say 'na na na na na.' I just couldn't wait to fly :).

Friday, April 25, 2008

We're moving!

We're moving to California. My husband got his dream job so we are packing our bags. Looks like I am destined to be an eternal traveler. Which in my case, is a very welcome thing. Let's see - Haverfordwest, Wisbech, Kolkata, Scunthorpe, Hull, London, Switzerland, Berkeley, Chicago, and now...San Francisco. These are all the places I have lived in for a significant amount of time. Not traveled, lived. I am so excited about this new and fresh start in our lives. And more so by the prospect of finding more fodder for this aptly named blog of mine. I should be reporting from my newly-adopted city during the end of June.

There are so many things to research - what are the best places to live in the silicon valley? What are the best school districts? What are the best kept secrets when it comes to fine dining? Can't wait...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

At Savera's...


I was a tomboy until 30, but only when it came to saris. I dreaded social events for fear of having to wear one. I could not even dress myself in one. Whether it was the prospect of baring un-toned flesh or having to manage balancing myself, it simply was not a prospect I relished.

However, one fine day, that changed. I developed a growing interest, and a desire to find the most beautiful saris ever made. I learned to dress myself, and to my mother's delight, showed an interest in accompanying on sari-buying trips.

As most of you know, the sari is a traditional Indian garment. It is basically around 5 meters long, and could be handwoven, hand-printed, or manufactured by a machine. Obviously, the former options create unique and more expensive saris. Saris are rarely the same, which adds to its charm. Not only do they come in different fabrics (silk, crepe, cotton etc) but in styles unique to a state or region (South Indian, Benarasi etc). The price range of saris extends from about $10 to $10000, depending on the quality of the fabric and the intricacy and uniqueness of the design.

My family's favorite sari shop in Kolkata is Savera. Situated practically opposite St. Xavier's College, it is an institution for all sari enthusiasts. They have a wide repertoire to suit all tastes and extremely knowledgeable (and persuasive!) sales staff.

They have a knack for remembering repeat customers, and show their appreciation by offering you complimentary drinks and Indian snacks! This age-old marketing technique works wonders with the customers (well I bought quite a few after being satiated with their free offerings)!

This is how it works: You walk in, and give a brief description of what you are looking for (color, fabric, type of design if you have a very specific request). They ask you to take a seat, and start showing you a wide range of saris, which roughly tallies with your requests. You either accept or reject from the ones shown. This helps the salesperson to ascertain your taste more specifically and refine his catalog. Even if you walk in and say you have no idea what you want, that's fine! The same technique is followed, only more time may be needed.

Apart from the bevy of salespeople who show clients the saris, there are also usually a few 'apprentices' who fold away the saris after it has been shown, ready for the next client. Their job is just to fold the saris. But while they engage in this fairly mind-numbing job, they are expected to observe the sales staff and learn from them. If they have the knack and the desire, they might be promoted to sales one day.

So that's sari shopping in Kolkata in a nutshell. These pictures were taken in Savera in February 2008.

Savera 95, Park Street, Kolkata - +91 33 22261695

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Kolkata...a city like no other

I was just watching the opening gambit of one of Anthony Bourdain's (the noted celebrity chef-turned-travel writer) Travel Channel shows featuring Sao Paolo, and it struck a chord with me.

I have never been to Brazil, but according to Bourdain, it is a city where "one needs to know people". It is not a pretty city by any means (allegedly), and where one could be stuck in traffic for hours on end. It's dirty, polluted, frenetic and full of contrasts. He said he hated it the first time.

But then, he managed to make a lucky acquaintance with several locals, who showed him how exciting the city of Sao Paolo could be. Through them, he learned about the resplendent food markets, the captivating night life, the people with substance and character, and the glorious restaurants. He saw a side that no outsider could see. The city made sense to him.

Kolkata in Eastern India, is one such city. It is the city where I grew up, and the city which formed me. Polluted, overcrowded and dirty it is. But there is an underbelly, and I use that word in a most positive sense, of optimism, culture and energy. You have to know someone here to understand that this city is just as exciting as New York or London. I've lived in the latter, and can vouch for this. Glorious food, intelligent people, a love and thirst for knowledge, a fanatic following for soccer and cricket, that's Kolkata. And of course, the obsession to entertain and be entertained. Kolkatans love 'adda' (casual conversation about anything under the sun) and eating. Being invited to each other's house for a delicious and comprehensive meal is the norm. So if you ever need to or want to visit Kolkata, see if you there is anyone you know who could give you a taste of the real thing. The genuine warmth underneath the conspicuous sheath of corruption and despair.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Friday evening in Mumbai



videoIt's Friday evening in Mumbai. The sunset is spectacular and the temperature is just perfect. What could be a better way to unwind and reflect on the week than gazing at the Arabian Sea, while the world passes you by? Nariman Point is when people from all walks of life assemble, be it with a lover, family, friends, or alone. The frenetic city carries on behind as you seek out a cozy spot and people-watch. Or simply gaze at the 'Queen's Necklace', the name given to the section of Marine Drive lit gloriously in an almost semi-circular shape.


In the short video segment above, you see people of all socio-economic strata rubbing shoulders together and taking in the buzz. Mobile vendors sell beverages and savory snacks which you can enjoy without losing your spot. The sound you hear among the voices is the stiff but refreshing wind blowing in from the sea.

Mumbai is an interesting city of extremes. A place where within minutes of each other, you witness Porsche sports cars gliding along Marine Drive and underprivileged children selling you Nokia phone chargers while your car is stopped in traffic. Dire poverty and obscene wealth are both on display. You may hate it or love it. But it's worth experiencing.

If visiting, it is probably best to stick to the international chain hotels dotted around Nariman Point and Kolaba. That way one can still enjoy the comforts of a western destination, explore the surrounding neighborhoods which are rich in history and character, have access to various modes of transportation, and of course, be close to the beautiful Nariman Point and Marine Drive.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Busy Chefs...


This picture was taken at the 'La Cucina' restaurant, which is part of the epicurean Hyatt Regency Kolkata. The classy interiors with its neutral shades and Carrera marble will make you forget that you're not in Europe. We ordered the staples of pizza and risotto, all of which were immensely satisfying. Service was as expected in a five-star restaurant. If you prefer European food while visiting Asia, the cuisines offered at these high-end restaurants are your best bet. Personally, you should really try the ethnic fare instead, also at these locations. The Hyatt Regency also offers mouthwatering fare (both European/American and Indian) at its 'Waterside Cafe', which is open 24 hours, and tradition Indian and Bengali specialties at its 'Guchhi' restaurant. I haven't actually dined at 'Guchhi'; perhaps you have and would like to share some comments?

If you can't make it to the grocery store...


Let it come to you. This picture was taken on a mild January morning this year in Kolkata, India, from our second floor veranda. Scenes like this are common everywhere in India. Shopping for produce in India is a pleasure worth experiencing, but it's a whole lot more fun doing it from the mobile vegetable cart.

A fresh start

The weather today in Chicago held promise of a fresh start. A new season appeared to want to stay this time . A lot has happened since I last posted. Turmoil ensured for a whole week and I lost my baby. However, time has passed and my greatest comfort has been my husband and my family. They have given me the power to move on. On this note, I hope to revive this blog and breathe some life into it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Back Soon...

Last I heard, there was a foot of snow in Chicago. I am in Kolkata right now, typing away on my laptop while the temperature is a mere 60 degrees outside. And we are having the time of our life. I will be back here to share my stories from India soon. Normal blogging activities should resume from the 15th Feb.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Year's at the Paramount Hotel New York City

Here's a clip from inside of the club where we spent our New Year's Eve (2007):


video

A simple yet savvy starter



If you're having a cozy dinner party, this is a wonderful little appetizer you can serve by itself, or with a green salad.

Get the biggest shrimp you can find, and make sure it's cleaned beforehand. In a hot skillet, warm some olive oil. Once hot, lower hear, and add a little chili powder (to taste), salt and pepper, and two teaspoons of lemon juice, and mix well. Now all you have to do is add the shrimp, one at a time. Leave on each side for about 4 minutes till it turns a lovely pink. Repeat for each shrimp individually, and replenish the mixture if needed.

Voila! To serve it attractively, you might want to try individual sushi plates, like the one in the picture. Since this cooked in the shell, guests might find it helpful to have both a fork and perhaps a steak knife to eat it. I have also served it with a dollop of coriander chutney, which might be easier to find in an ethnic/South Asian grocery or a World Market. You should also be able to find a recipe online. Otherwise just use your imagination.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

America's oldest Pizzeria

If you are in New York City, do not miss the opportunity of tasting some of the tastiest pizza ever made. Head straight for the intersection of Spring and Mott in Little Italy, to savor the deliciousness at Lombardi's. They have a huge sign outside declaring themselves as 'America's Oldest Pizzeria', but you won't care about the authenticity of that declaration after you've tasted their pizzas.

The picture was taken on the 31st of December 2007, and just look at the line! Although the wait was long (50 minutes!), it was well worth it. Lombardi's has tons of atmosphere and it was good to see the locals clamoring for a place in line with bright-eyed tourists, such as ourselves. Nestled amongst gritty tenements , this is a part town which is refreshingly New York compared to the touristy madness of Midtown, so if you've never been down here, make the trip.

Coming back to Lombardi's, we were ushered down to the basement dining room which was a quirky little room, walls adorned with old black and white family photos, classic film posters, or celebrity fans of the establishment. Two of the four walls carry wines to satisfy all tastes. Shirley Bassey and Frank Sinatra blared alternately from the speakers around, their loud booming voices barely audible underneath the crowd who were enjoying themselves tremendously.

Between the two of us, we managed to wolf down a 18" large pepperoni pizza in 25 minutes. Brooklyn Ale added to the wonderful experience. The exquisitely sweet and tangy mozzarella and tomato sauce was like nothing else I'd tasted before. I could never go back to Domino's ever again.

Lombardi's is at 32 Spring St, New York, NY 10012.

Monday, January 7, 2008

How to make it to your Time Square Party!!

You've got the tickets. Whew! Now you hear the ticket clerk say to get there really early, and maybe, just maybe you'll make it. Funny they didn't have that disclaimer on their website when they were selling the tickets! "It's all up to New York's finest - if they want to be a******s, they might not let you in" came back the cheery reply from the clerk.

Things are, I'm glad to say, not that dreary. If you follow a few simple rules. Like many others, we were understandably anxious about whether we could actually get in to our pre-booked party in Times Square, given the entire area starts shutting down from around 4 pm in preparation of one of the world's greatest New Year's Eve parties.

Leaving early is always a good thing. Let's say your party starts around 9 pm. Follow the simple rules to make sure you make it:

  • Listen to the local NYC news on the morning of the 31st, or search online for all information on local transit closures and times. This will form the basis of your journey plan.
  • Leave as early as you can - around 7 if you're staying in Midtown, earlier the further away you are.
  • Don't forget to take your tickets and any associated receipts, and keep them handy! This is what you'll need to show to the police.
  • Get as close to your venue as possible, and then locate the police, and ask them (very nicely) about how to get to your venue. Show them your tickets.
  • If you're lucky, you'll be personally escorted as close to your venue as possible. If he or she's a grouch, excuse yourself politely and locate another officer. Especially one who looks like they're having a good time!
  • Even if you get to your party well ahead of time, line up. If you're with a group of friends, take turns to keep your places in the line, as it might be pretty cold at the time. Speaking of which, wrap up as warmly as you can!
Honestly, this simple approach works. Don't leave for your party at the last minute, because the more people descend upon Times Square, the harder it will be for the police to give you their attention, and they might just ignore your request! You don't want that to happen now, right?

We left early enough and were extremely lucky to have several police escorts walk us to our venue. We were really overcome with their friendliness, and could not believe it when they actually walked us right in front of the ball drop. There were hardly any people congregating there at the time, and we saw the TV and live band crews setting up frantically. The crystal ball was there right at the top of those billboards, glowing brightly. It was surreal.

Though this advice may be a little late, I hope it will come in handy for all those planning to visit the Big Apple next year. I spent quite some time online looking for similar information last week, but was disappointed. And so I hope this helps someone.....