Monday, February 1, 2016

Vagabond Wines

Spitalfields, haunt to an odd mix of Nikon-toting tourists and besuited City workers on the hunt for a spot of lunch, is a conveniently short walk away from my law school. All too often I find my purse unburdened by the siren call of the jewellery shops around the fringes of the eponymous market, while Bleecker Burger and the bars in the area are becoming so familiar that I blame them for any discomfort in the waistband region. Like me, this is a part of town that has grown a little too big for its britches. I have a memory from the nineties, coloured with glee, of riding a miniature toy train around the market. Gone is that Dickensian cave of treasures, toy train dispensed with in favour of a cleaner, redeveloped space populated by chains. And yet I still love the area. There's a few gems to be found in the sea of ubiquitous tack on the traders' stalls, and some truly cool spaces. Like Vagabond.

I'm a wine lover but not a wine lover. I did a few tastings at various societies at university but couldn't get past the aroma wheels or spittoons - oh, or the fact that little lightweight Tamsin at 19 really couldn't handle her alcohol. Now, 5 years down the line, Vagabond marks my very first trip to a bar devoted exclusively to wine. So, I repeat. I'm really not the oenologist that some of my fellow mid-twenties friends can claim to be.

Friends like Ivy (pictured here with Viv - aren't they such beauties?) aka birthday girl of the evening, who showed me how Vagabond works. Stroll up to the counter to rent a card for the night (or, you know, for the rest of your life) and top it up with as much credit as you desire. Et voilà: the crazy wide selection of wines on tap are yours for the taking! Volumes are also completely at your discretion - whether you're after a tasting mouthful, a full glass or an entire bottle.

A delectable Gewürztraminer, my first and favourite wine of the night. Untrained drinker that I am, I loved that I could still identify the grapes and imagine them, plump, on the vine in Alsace.

Brand new reds bottled in the past 3 years - toddlers, really.

Brushing shoulders with dustier vintages pushing their mid-thirties.

A birthday toast.

And you know what goes well with wine? CHEESE. Especially apt on National Cheese Day. This board boasted a few staggeringly delicious specimens. The blue in the middle of the platter was particularly memorable. A dolcelatte, maybe? Whatever it was, it was so creamy I could have wept. You can also order big plates of charcuterie if you get peckish - one to remember for next time.

Cute (and very '80s) Polaroids were snapped, woeful tales of less-than-perfect housemates swapped, and the unlearned (me, mainly) schooled on the sartorial distinction between full and quarter brogues.

Plentiful cheese + wine = an ideal combination for ringing in a birthday (chosen well by Ivy, as expected!) It's also a devilish thief of time. Before I knew it, I was trudging down Euston Road, having missed the last worth it. I've still got a little credit left on my Vagabond card, which I'm keeping safe for the next time I want to shed a few hours and pounds of responsibility. If you're into wine, come along with me next time and educate me on the finer points of wine tasting, please!

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Santorini δ: Skaros Rock at Sunset

Welcome to my fourth post on Santorini! Today I give you my favourite memory from the trip: a spontaneous evening walk to Skaros Rock, and the one activity I would immediately recommend to anyone planning a trip to the island. A sweaty, sun-bleached trek may not sound all that exciting, but it culminated in one of the most incredible sunsets of my life, and was undoubtedly one of the best things I did in 2015. This is a post I was pretty much dying to sit down and write the second I got back to the hotel room. Four months later, here we are. Or I am, forlornly scrolling through budget airline price listings for Santorini, my naïve strategy to bring a little sunshine and colour into the monochrome winter months having backfired horribly on me. I can only hope that these photographs might inspire the same level of wanderlust in you!

Caper berries growing wild on the side of the road. (Also wild and native to the island: an abundance of plump, sweet green figs, which we unashamedly snacked on throughout this walk). 

Imagine waking up to this view every morning. Having been in a pathetically stunned state since we crested the ridge of the island, I could only liken it to a National Geographic shot. 

A quick pitstop at a local cafe for water later, we climbed down the cliff from Imerovigli towards Skaros Rock, a medieval fortress abandoned by its inhabitants in the 18th century. It was only a few hours earlier that I'd noticed it on Tripadvisor and indeed, it doesn't seem to be hugely well-known - with only a few other tourists making the climb down to the promontory, it's a far cry from the sunset crowds at Oia and a far preferable spot to catch the famous Santorini sunset in peace.

It was by a fluke that we noticed these cave dwellings under the main path leading up to the rock. As I gingerly climbed down from the path and peered inside, I felt like an archaeologist happening across a buried settlement. 

The sun began to dip closer to the horizon, leaving Skaros Rock awash in golden light. We took our cue to find a place to sit and eat our dinner - sandwiches and fruit - an experience that far outstripped the 'sunset restaurants'. As I sat, perched on a dusty rock and wearing dusty shorts and trainers, my attention squarely focused on the beauty of my surroundings, I felt pure and humbled.

The sun having disappeared behind Thirasia, the boats clustered around the port at Oia for sunset came streaking back across the lagoon, creating sweeping brush-like strokes that my art historian's eye couldn't help but notice.

As dusk fell over Santorini, the lights in the towns along the ridge turned on gradually, glittering and scintillating in the distance. This, the most memorable night I spent on the island, was one marked not by excess of spending and food, but by the natural beauty of the caldera and the pure pleasure of exploring with my own two feet, with not a single Euro in my pocket. If you do one thing in Santorini, please - do this. You won't regret it.

If you've missed my earlier posts on Santorini, you can catch up here: 
α | β | γ
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Sunday, January 17, 2016

SiN x Sambal Shiok

I'm feeling a little blur today, as they say in Malaysia. Last night was a happy whirl: eyewatering spice at Sambal Shiok's residency at Salvation in Noodles' Finsbury Park branch and luminescent installations at the Lumiere festival of light in central London. Like all good experiences, both are fleeting and finish tonight! 

So let's start with the food, shall we? Longtime readers of this blog will know that as the child of a Petaling Jaya expat, I'm constantly craving authentic Malaysian food in London. Sambal Shiok absolutely delivers on that front - I've had her epic rendang sliders at Street Feast before. But my heart longs for laksa slurped out of bowls, huddled around a table with good friends and family. And that's exactly what I got on my visit. Sambal Shiok's Hainan chicken potsticker dumplings and ayam goreng (fried chicken) poppers are worth fighting over with your chopsticks.

Laksa ayam - a steaming bowl of chicken curry and vermicelli for Matt with very sensible shots of coconut milk (not pictured) to offset the spice.

Laksa udang, a prawn version of the above for Kana.

Miho, E and I were all won over by the sound of nasi lemak with rendang daging. Nasi lemak is often fêted as Malaysia's national dish, and for good reason - fragrant pandan-scented coconut rice, a smattering of ikan bilis (dried anchovies), peanuts, egg, cucumber and meat (slow-cooked beef here!) make for a wonderfully filling meal dancing with flavours and textures. I was taken aback by the beef rendang standing in for ayam goreng, but it worked so well and I was later told off by my Malaysian mother for not knowing that rendang is a common substitute for chicken. Apparently I'm a bit basic. #storyofmylife

Sambal Shiok's food packs a punch in the spice department - the eponymous sambal will literally leave you in tears, whether you're weeping for joy or because you're a wimp (like me). I would say that this isn't for the faint-hearted, but really, the faint-hearted should man up and work on that spice tolerance. This dish wasn't lacking in heat, but I did wish for more ikan bilis - in Malaysia I like to have a little mound of the salty fish to counter the spice. A few more anchovies and this dish will be a knockout - the beef rendang was tender and subtly flavoured, almost reminiscent of Moroccan tagine. 

If you're hoping to catch the last night of the Sambal Shiok residency, make sure to get down to SiN early to avoid the queues - service starts at 5pm and it's worth putting your name down to make sure you get a table. Miserable that you're missing out? Fear not - Mandy Yin of Sambal Shiok tells us she's on the hunt for a more permanent home, so watch this space!

Next on the Saturday night agenda: braving the crowds on Regent's Street to peer up at the Lumiere installations strung overhead, trying not to get snow in my eyes. Studio Echelman's 1.8 London was my favourite exhibit - a diaphanous, flame-like sail billowing over the Oxford Circus roundabout.

A short stroll down the street brought us into contact with Keyframes, a slightly brash nod to gaming culture, and these wispy Luminéoles - metamorphosing rapidly from flying fish to Portuguese man o' war, elephant head and...other things.

All good Saturday evenings finish with something sweet (gelato, waffles and crêpes at Scoop). Oh, and something alcoholic to fuel the outrage when you discover that two of your friends haven't seen Jurassic Park. Or Independence Day. Or Back To The Future. And that's what Sundays are for!

As I've said, the Sambal Shiok pop up and Lumiere finish tonight and both are definitely worth venturing into the cold for. So if you're a Londoner at a loose end tonight, you know what to do!

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