This is why the internet exists

So that I can see a toad on a friend’s flickr stream, express my amusement and approval, and not long later receive my very own amusing toad ornament free of charge in the post.

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Cube²

This post was also published at Tasting and Living here.

You may remember just over a month ago I visited The Cube for lunch. Well we went back this past weekend. Not because we wanted to eat the same meal all over again (although I wouldn’t say no) but because two chefs alternate and we wanted to see what the other guy, Bart De Pooter of De Pastorale, had to offer.

Right from the start we noticed some small differences in the way the meal was organised, although it wasn’t always clear to me whether that was the chef’s preference or if they’d done some tweaking to the whole presentation following customer feedback. For example we didn’t have to sit through an Electrolux sales pitch while waiting to go upstairs (good). Also while waiting on the terrace admiring the view various canapés were distributed (also good).

De Pooter came outside for a chat, and we learned, among other things, that the website receives 700 requests per day (which makes it all the more amazing that we managed to make a booking on two separate occsions). Also, the menu changes every two weeks, so you even if you get the same chef you won’t necessarily get what I, Emma or Sid got. We also played with the free iPads again. Any photos you take with them are automatically uploaded to the Cube flickr page. Look, there I am.

Once inside and settled down at table the chef came out to introduce the meal. At this point we did get a message from the sponsor, which I don’t think is appropriate once you’re seated and waiting to eat, but it was a lot briefer this time, fortunately. I tried to ignore it and took photos of the bread and crackers.

First course: salmon marinated in syrup with apple and avocado. A good start. Nice and fresh and the fish was slightly chewy and sweet.

Then came hake in smoked milk with spinach. Creamy, tepid and subtle, but bordering on bland. For some reason I forgot to take a photo of this one. No great loss. This was followed by more fish: mackerel and various cucumber “structures”, with a swoosh of chlorophyll. Again a good piece of fish presented without too much fuss.

What surprised me then was that there was no meat course; instead we jumped straight to dessert. Various red fruits and some chocolatey sponge accompanied Earl Grey flavoured mousse and ice cream. The ice cream was lovely and the fruit went well with it, but I felt the sponge just got in the way. It would have been nice if the dessert followed the simplicity philosophy of the fish dishes.

Then a small bowl of milk-based mousses and ice cream. Too milky and a little bland for me.

Then I had a vervaine infusion to accompany the final selection of sweets. These were mostly lovely, and I had far more of them than I should. Even the one topped with celery slices, which was an interesting twist.

De Pooter himself served the final selection of macaroons and chocolate truffles.

And then it was all over. I must say that the meal was a bit of a let down after Sang-Hoon Degeimbre’s notably more innovative and spectacular effort. Too many dishes were pleasant but not outstanding, and while I have as much of a sweet tooth as the next man I don’t think dessert should account for half of the meal. If you get the chance to go, book for one of the days when Sang-Hoon Degeimbre’s in the kitchen.

In the meantime, enjoy a promotional video:

Thai markets

I’m currently reading a book (The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi) set in Thailand. The Thailand of the late 22nd century, admittedly, and one where genetic modification of foodstuffs is the norm. What this means is that there are numerous scenes (so far; I’m only 100 pages in) set in the markets of Bangkok, where characters examine what fruit and vegetables are on offer. Naturally my mind was cast back to when we visited Thailand almost a decade ago, and what we saw in the markets there.

This one was about an hour’s drive north of Bangkok, as I recall. The usual selection of goods, including typical, and typically delicious, fruits like jackfruit and durian.

The floor looks strange though, doesn’t it? Almost like…railway tracks?

And what’s that in the distance? And why is that man holding up a flag?

No…it can’t be…

At this point I stopped taking photos and got the hell out of the way.

This happens eight times a day. You can watch the whole process here:

And railways aren’t the only thoroughfares used by the Thais to buy and sell goods. Rivers are often home to “floating markets”, with many vendors not even bothering to unload their goods onto dry land, but selling directly from their canoes.

Must go back some day…

Star-studded

On the last day of a recent trip to California I had 24 hours in LA. I spent an hour or so on Hollywood Boulevard, where I saw some of the stars on the Walk of Fame. Not real stars, obviously, just imprints and imitators. Handprints in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, street performers dressed up as characters from recent blockbusters, and the famous commemorative stars in the pavement. I only got to see a few of the hundreds of stars, but I still managed to find a few which had some kind of personal relevance to me.

The thing that surprised me the most was the number of unfamiliar names. Only the most rabid film buff would claim to recognise them all, and I’ve been a fairly keen cinéphile in my time, but there are names here which must mean little or nothing to most people. To be fair there are also plenty of B-list celebrities from recent times who will probably be forgotten before the decade’s out, and yet who have managed to get themselves “immortalised” with a star.

I’m sure I saw or read something a while ago about fans who “adopt” and care for their favourite stars, cleaning and maintaining them in their spare time, but I can’t find any reference to them on Google. Apparently homeless people are now employed to clean them all. Maybe they should hire aspiring actors instead. That would seem more appropriate to me.

The Familiar and the Foreign

We all know what America’s like, right? We’ve seen it all on TV and in films, we’ve heard the music, eaten the food, worn the clothes. We know how they speak and how they spend their free time (when they get any). So it doesn’t make a particularly exotic or surprising foreign holiday destination, I suppose? Well maybe, and maybe not. Thinking that you already know a place can make it all the more pleasantly surprising when you come across those little differences.

I recently spent two weeks in California (this is the bit where residents of other states cry “But that’s not the real America!”) where I encountered both the expected and the unexpected. One unexpected thing was my own reaction to the general look and feel of the towns. For example, I loved the slightly run-down, funky, lived-in feel of some of the residential areas we saw in LA and San Diego. We visited friends in the wonderfully-named “Normal Heights” and I was happy to wander the streets at magic hour, soaking up the casual, relaxed atmosphere and popping in to the excellent secondhand bookshops and pizza and beer bars.

And yet on one grey afternoon in downtown San Diego I found myself reacting quite strongly against the architecture. Now I’m not one of those people who looks down on Americans for having less history than us (as if it were their fault…):

And yet I found myself uncomfortable surrounded entirely by hotels, housing and retail outlets which had obviously all been designed and built within the previous 100 years. I’d never been conscious of it before, but having centuries-old structures woven into the fabric of a town gives it a distinct character and texture which I found missing here. Obviously this kind of situation isn’t unique to America as plenty of other countries regularly build new towns from scratch. China does it all the time, and there are a few in the UK too. But I think if I were to spend any long period of time here (or even live here) I’d start to get itchy after a while and find myself saying “But where’s all the old stuff?”

This isn’t going to turn into a grumpy old rant about modern architecture, but we did see one mystifyingly (and ironically) soulless building in LA. I don’t mind modern design, even when it comes to churches, but Anaheim’s Crystal Cathedral goes beyond inspiring minimalism into “aircraft hangar” territory. Nothing about this glass and scaffolding structure seemed to me to foster feelings of community or love.

Driving through the hinterland we passed a lot of enormous fields containing what looked like square mile after square mile of crops (grapes, asparagus, garlic…), but once the food made it to our plates we didn’t get the super-sized portions we might have expected. Then again we didn’t eat at McDonalds, and maybe California is more health-conscious than other places in this regard. What we did eat was very tasty though. Lots of burritos and tacos; Mexican food isn’t that easy to find in Belgium, and what there is isn’t very good, so this was something of an education. We also had superb Dungeness crab cakes in Boudin’s bakery in San Francisco.

A big surprise for me was the California style of sushi. It tends to be more elaborate and sweeter than Japanese sushi, which is more concerned with zen-like calm and simplicity and the freshness and quality of the fish. But I could definitely get used to this style too. This one from Monsoon in Santa Monica is topped with slices of mango.

We only had the pizza once, and it wasn’t the stereotypically meaty, greasy New york-style pie. These slices (from left to right chorizo, wild mushroom and potato and prosciutto) came from the Blind Lady bar in San Diego linked to above. The base was a little tough but the toppings were tasty.

One US delicacy I simply had to try during my visit was a Twinkie. Despite the disbelief and disparaging comments from my San Diegan friend I’d always wanted to taste one of these, as I’d seen constant ads for them in the DC comics I read as a child (see here for an exhaustive collection of scans). It was pleasantly soft and creamy, so I’m not quite sure where all the Twinkie hate comes from. Can someone explain?

And while asking for explanations, can anyone enlighten me as to why you would want to eat scones (and call them “biscuits”) covered in white sauce and gravy…for breakfast?

Finally some liquid refreshment. Europeans tend to look down on US beer as weak and flavourless, but I found a few brews to my liking. I bought these two from a shop in Yosemite. The amber ale was delicious.

But the pale ale had a strangely bitter (or as the tasting notes put it, “piney”) aftertaste.

The full set of California photos, including more shots of Yosemite moss than you’ll ever need, can be seen on flickr here.

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