Thursday, July 28, 2011

San Francisco: The City by the Bay

It is hard to believe that it has been well over two years since our last trip home to San Francisco. Amazing how fast time flies! The anticipation of flying back to our native California has been building up since last summer when our friends announced their engagement to wed in North Lake Tahoe. Keenan and I were beyond excited to reunite with family and friends as our plane descended over the gorgeous Mendocino Coast, a little reminder of just how lucky we are to call one of the most beautiful regions in the world “home.” 
Having been away for so long, naturally we had a jam-packed agenda for our 12-day trip back to the City by the Bay, bouncing around like ping pong balls all over Northern California to see family and friends. We also enjoyed some culinary delights in San Francisco, Napa, and Tomales Bay, which will be a subject of another post. For now, I will share highlights from our trip back to sunny California.
Family Time: We spent majority of our first weekend visiting family, arriving in time to meet our newest and fourth nephew born on 15th July 2011. Baby Chase was welcomed with love by his three older brothers, proud parents, "pop pop," Uncle Keenan and Auntie Lily. Chase is as sweet as can be. In addition to spending two days in Sacramento with my parents, where my Dad cooked up a fantastic Chinese meal, we also had a family lunch with Keenan’s extended family in Fremont. It is crazy how fast the kids grow – all the boys are shooting up like a beanstalk! The extended family is getting bigger and bigger -- Keenan's cousin is also expecting in August with her second son. 11 boys in this generation and not a single girl yet!
Friends: We are truly blessed with so many amazing friends in the Bay Area, some we have known since we were in diapers. It was great hanging out just like old times. We finally got to meet our friend’s 1 year old son, Ben, at a dinner party at his Godmother’s place and reunited with my graduate school friends at a birthday party. Special thanks to Shali for hosting us at her adorable Nob Hill apartment during our time in San Francisco. I loved waking up to the sound of the cable car! We also scheduled several larger social events, including a fun Thursday happy hour at Sens overlooking the Justin Herman Plaza and the Ferry Building. It was great to see everyone!
Classic SF Giants vs. LA Dodger Game: Growing in Northern California, you were taught to despise Los Angeles. Period. Upon learning that the classic divisional game coincided with our California trip, I planned a big group outing with 25 friends at AT&T Park, which I consider as one of the most scenic ballparks in the country. After drinks at nearby 21st Amendment, we made our way to our seats in the View Box, which as the name implies, had an amazing view of the Bay Bridge, and we enjoyed the company of wonderful friends, delicious garlic fries, and a great game of baseball. And the weather was absolutely perfect for an evening baseball game. The Giants sealed a close game at 5-3 with Brian Wilson as the relief pitcher. Go Giants -- here's to another Championship this year!

D&L’s Wedding in North Lake Tahoe: The highlight was our trip was attending the wedding of dear friends Dave and Leah in Incline Village. They had a beautiful evening ceremony on the Aspen Grove, followed by a reception at the Chateau. The bride and groom looked incredibly happy, dancing the night away and chatting with their guest. I am sure they are enjoying their sweet honeymoon in Maui. Mazel Tov!
Our friends rented out a cabin for the wedding, so we spent the weekend playing tennis in the courtyard, lounging by the pool, and catching up on the past two years. On our way back to San Francisco, we stopped by Kings Beach for a little Taco Ball fix and snapped this beautiful photo of Lake Tahoe with the golden sand, pristine water, and snow-capped mountains. 


Beautiful California...almost makes us want to move back…almost. Thank you all for making the time to hang out with us! We certainly hope it won’t be another two years before we return to the City by the Bay. Stay tuned for highlights of our culinary tour!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Robin Hood and His Merry Men: Stag Weekend in Nottingham

The Great British Stag Party, a time honored and cherished pre-wedding tradition to celebrate what we in the US would refer to as the bachelor party. After having witnessed dozens of these all over the UK for a few years now, along with the bridal equivalent, the “Hen Party”, I have finally had the opportunity to participate in one for myself. 

Over the weekend we celebrated my friend’s upcoming August nuptials by heading up north to Nottingham; yes, the home of the Sheriff and the town made famous for Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood, and of course his Merry Men.  

To pay homage to the legacy made famous here, and in keeping up with the British tradition of “fancy dress”, or as Americans would say, “dressing up in costume”, we donned the uniforms of Robin Hood and His Merry Men and hit the town.

What amazes me most about these fancy dress “dos” (a “do” is an event or a celebration) is how popular and widespread they are.  Instead of standing out, looking odd or misplaced, you find that there are so many other groups doing the exact same thing and it soon becomes a competition to see which group gets more attention and better reactions.  It certainly makes the night more interesting and it’s disappointing that we limit ourselves to just one night a year during Halloween in the US.  

Nottingham itself is small, with limited options during the day to keep you busy.  Aside from the oldest pub in England, “Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem”, which was established in 1189 as an inn and public house for crusaders on their way to war, and the old castle just adjacent to it, established by William the Conqueror in 1068, there is not much else see.  Wollaton Park is just outside the main city centre and its grand estate, Wollaton Hall, has been the site of a lot of films including Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, doubling as Wayne Manor.  We were also lucky enough to spot the Olympic Torch as it was on tour in Nottingham's main square while we were there.   

The nightlife is unsurprisingly not bad, but not great or up to par with the options in London.  However, it is ranked as one of the most popular spots in the UK for Stag and Hen parties.  There were certainly plenty of them out and about over the entire weekend.  Perhaps not worth a day trip from London from a sightseeing perspective, but Nottingham is definitely a great weekend get away with the guys and probably exactly what you want from a Stag Weekend.    -- KV


Thursday, July 07, 2011

Weezer @ the Brixton Academy

We went to a Weezer concert last night at the Brixton Academy with two friends. Twelve hours later, my ears are still partially impaired, heart still pumping with adrenaline, and mind flooded with nostalgia of memories from our carefree University days at Berkeley and Davis. The Brixton Academy is quite nice; an intimate rock venue holding no more than 5,000 spectators (standing room) in the vibrant Caribbean neighbourhood of Brixton in South London.
Rough around the edges, Brixton does have some hidden gems such as the beloved Franca Manca Pizzeria and Rosie’s Deli Café in the bustling Market Row; Ritzy Cinema; and of course, the Brixton Academy. Heavyweight champion David Haye, who recently got dethrone of his WBA World Heavyweight title, lives in Brixton and often spotted walking his Chihuahuas on Clapham Common. Brixton High Street is peppered with a mix of cheap eateries (McDonalds, Speedy Noodles), high street retailers (Boots, M&S, TopShop, H&M), and several eye-sore pawn shops. By day, hordes of people, mostly from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, including ladies wearing colourful hip-hugging outfits, go about their day shopping for fresh produce and meats at the local markets. By night, Brixton can be somewhat dodgy. It’s fine to walk the streets of Brixton at night as long as you keep your wits about you. 
As for the Weezer concert, it was a lot of fun. We invited two friends, Rod and Si, to the concert as a thank you gift, but it turned out that this was also our “see you soon” gift as they are heading back to Sao Paolo, Brazil on one-year stint at the end of July. We missed the supporting act by London-based punk rock group Male Bonding in favour for a light dinner at a nearby café. By the time we arrived, the 1920s Art Deco building was heaving with twentysomething concert-goers who, like myself, listened toWeezer, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, Green Day during our college days (ahhhh, nostalgia). By far, this is one of the better venue I’ve been to for a concert as I can actually see the stage due to the slight downward incline in the standing area, which allowed for a good sightline of the main stage. For the next 90 minutes, Weezer, donning their signature squared thick-rimmed glasses and “cool nerd” outfits, played a lively set list of all my favourite Weezer songs. Now if I can only run away and find an island in the sun to escape this terrible English summer…

Weezer, 6th July 2011 Setlist:
1. Undone – The Sweater Song
2. My Name Is Jonas
3. El Scorcho
4. Holiday
5. Pink Triangle
6. Susanne
7. Island in the Sun
8. Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
9. The Good Life
10. The World Has Turned and Left me Here
11. Say it Ain't So 
12. Tired of Sex 
13. You Gave Your Love to Me Softly
14. Pork and Beans
15. Across the Sea
16. The Greatest Man That Ever Lived
17. Only in Dreams
18. Paranoid Android (Radiohead Cover)
19. Hash Pipe
20. Buddy Holly

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Jamie Oliver's BIG Feastival

I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver. I love his delicious yet simple Italian recipes. I’m huge supporter of the Jamie Oliver Foundation, including his Fifteen Apprenticeship Programme, where he trains fifteen young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds of the restaurant business.    

Upon hearing from Keenan’s colleague whose girlfriend works for Jamie Oliver that he was hosting a 3 day foodie/music extravaganza called the Big Feastival in Clapham Common, I had to go. I didn’t feel bad either for dishing out £35 per ticket as all proceeds go towards the Jamie Oliver Foundation and the Prince’s Trust to help disadvantaged youth. 

We got tickets for Sunday’s event. The day was packed with food demonstrations in the Big Kitchen with big names celebrities including Giorgio Locatelli of Locanda Locatelli and Jamie Oliver himself. On the main stage, Jamie’s guests enjoyed some great music from the Athletes, Guillemots, and the Bees while devouring some delicious dishes. The Feastival also featured the Kitchen Garden, WI Tent, an Artisan Food Market, Fun Fair for the kiddies, and a big BBQ competition organised by the British BBQ Society. 

As for the food at the Feastival? Yum. All dishes were reasonably priced at £5 each, payable only with the Big Feastival “token cards.” They had a good variety of wines, champagne, cider, beers, and the summertime favourite - Pimms on hand, although at one point, I think the bar was six-person deep. A sampling of what we had below. Don't start drooling now...

Mango Tree -  Award-winning Thai cuisine in chi-chi Belgravia: Som Tum (Green papaya salad) served with grilled marinated chicken

Benares – Michelin-starred contemporary Indian restaurant: Chicken Tikka Pie
Locanda Locatelli -  Michelin-starred Italian restaurant: fabulous fresh pasta

Abeno – Okonomi-yaki Japanese restaurant: Okonomi-yaki of course! Brings me back to our trip Japan in the winter of 2002/2003. 

The Providores – Wine Bar/Café in Marylebone: NZ Lamb Sam: grilled ciabatta / sourdough filled with roast spiced New Zealand lamb, minted yoghurt, tomato tamarind gooseberry chutney and salad

Unfortunately, Barbecoa, Jamie Oliver’s latest restaurant with Adam Perry Lang; and Fifteen, Jamie’s flagship restaurant all sold out of food by the late afternoon. Darn – guess we will need to snag a reservation at these restaurants soon.

Good food, good music, good cause makes for a very fun afternoon in Clapham Common!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

West Sussex Wine Trail

Some time ago, my friend asked if we would like to join her for a hike and wine-tasting in West Sussex County, about 45 miles south of London. English wines, I asked? Apparently so. We went, we hiked, and we tasted…

Saturday morning we met the UK Adventures group at Victoria Station and made a quick train ride to the quaint village of Pulboroughs, just outside of South Downs National Park to start our leisurely hike through bucolic English countryside. For next two to three hours, we passed through gentle rolling hills and miles of endless green pasture to our final destination: The Nutbourne Winery. Relatively new to the growing English wine scene, the Nutbourne Winery grows six different grape varieties, mostly in the Riesling style white grapes: Bacchus, Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner, and Schonburger in addition to the classic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, producing some 30,000 to 50,000 bottles per year.

We took a tour of the 26 acre vineyard with the owner, Bridget, who explained the traditional techniques of wine-growing and wine-making. With similar fertile greensand soil, mineral composition, and cool climate as the famous Champagne region in France, she explained why West Sussex County is an ideal location for wine production due to its south-facing, gentle downward slopes which is also protected by the South Downs. The Romans planted vines in what was then known as Britannia, but wine-making all but stopped during the Middle Ages when Britain became the largest consumer of the famous Bordeaux clarets. In recent years, there has been a revival of English wine-making in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Cornwall
In addition to Nutbourne Winery, West Sussex County also boasts several other award-winning wineries including the Nyetimber, Ridge View, and Stopham Vineyard. This year is supposedly a great year for English wines, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather and lack of rain in late April means that vintners can pick the grapes earlier in the harvest season. However, with England’s inclement weather, it is probably too early to predict the quality of this year’s vintage as rain and mold could potentially ruin the harvest. 

Bridget is also a fan of fury animals. Not only is she the proud owner of three adorable dogs, she also lets some dozen of sheep run wild in her vineyard and even has her own alpaca farm consisting of two alpacas, two llamas, and a mixed alpaca/llama. In the photo above, they lack the thick hair as the alpacas were recently shaved and donated to a local organisation. 

After touring the winery, which consists exclusively of steel containers rather than the use of oak barrels in order to preserve the delicate flavours, we made our way back to the windmill for a late afternoon tasting in their outdoor patio area. Having never tried English wines, my expectations were low, however, I am pleased to report that the wines we tasted at Nutbourne were quite nice. We started with their signature Nutty Brut sparkling wine, produced in the traditional Champagne method, which was “superb” as one elderly English gentlemen shouted. Following that, we tasted 3 varieties of white wines: Sussex Reserve, a dry fragrant white wine with an apricot bouquet; Bacchus, another fruity dry wine with an elderflower bouquet; Hedgerow, an extra dry, crisp white wine; and ending with an English rose called Blush. Keenan and I liked the Bacchus wine and bought a bottle home with us for one of those rare balmy English evenings when we can dine alfresco.
As for English wines? I’m a fan. But as a native Californian, I’ll always be partial to my Napa/Sonoma and the Russian River wines. Can’t wait to get my hands on some Californian wines next week!