The Oriental Club (London, UK)

My primary reason for our visit to London this year was celebrating my brother’s 50th birthday in style. He invited people from a cross section of family and friends to descend upon London to toast, roast, and otherwise celebrate his 50 years of continued existence on this planet. The choice of venue was almost a given, since several years ago, Dan partook in two of the indulgences of a modern professional living in London: joining one of the City of London’s Livery Companies (The Worshipful Company of Security Professionals), and joining one of London’s Clubs, in this case, The Oriental Club.

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Leños & Carbón (London, UK)

My brother has a bit of an odd hobby, but with a good cause. London is quite multi-ethnic, and unfortunately, various right-wing sources claim that large stretches of London are now “Islamic No-Go zones” where police don’t tread and roving bands of religious police enforce Sharia law. The concept is laughably incorrect, and is what I believe most journalists would call “bull”. But my brother’s hobby is visiting these alleged zones and checking them out, often while enjoying an alcoholic beverage and perhaps some pork while at it. So when I was visiting, he decided to take a walk to one such falsely-identify no-go zone, Elephant and Castle. It’s long been a London crossroads, and it’s basically a large bus hub, a major Tube stop, and the site of a rather sad and forlorn late 1960s shopping centre that supposedly is going to be demolished any year now, but some how hangs on. What it definitely isn’t is a no-go zone. And, after a walking trip involving the Imperial War Museum, some light shopping at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre (which is practically a 1975 time capsule), we were going to head to the nearby “box park” (London thing: pop-up shopping centre made out of shipping containers) to visit Marcel and Sons to try out some Mauritian food (and compare it to the related food over on Réunion). There was just one little problem: the box park, and Marcel and Sons with it, closed in December 2018, two weeks earlier. So, after a quick shopping trip to the nearby Asian grocery, we instead picked another well-reviewed local restaurant: Leños & Carbón

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Gopal’s Corner (London, UK)

You know, sometimes it’s good to have some misconceptions, since you can then get delighted when everything turns out unexpectedly great. On our second day in London, after a morning trip to the Victoria and Albert museum, we were meeting up with another friend of ours, Guido, who was also in town. After some back and forth, we settled on rendezvousing across from Victoria Station for lunch. Throughout the entire decade we’ve been regular visitors to London, one of the most notable truisms is that Victoria Station has been in an almost unbroken string of construction projects, and heck, even on this visit various bits and pieces of construction fencing, plywood, and such still linger. But they did finish most of the project, and one of the major construction activities was the construction of Market Hall Victoria. This used to be part of a bus depot outside of Victoria, and then for years after that it was a kinda tacky nightclub fenced in by the sorts of touristy, red-bus-keychain selling souvenir booths outside many of London’s stations, but with this last renovation, it became Market Hall Victoria. To quote their marketing material, “Market Halls are redefining the British concept of food halls. Our goal is to give you the best food and drink in London, all under one roof.” Yeah, it sounds like a mall food court. I was dubious. That was my first misconception. Well, in some respects, it actually is a mall food court. With one little detail different: the folks that arranged Market Hall Victoria really did their homework and have a solid set of food vendors with some real chops. There’s Kerbisher and Malt serving up fish and chips. Koya Ko selling some really good looking Japanese udon and ramen bowls. Bunshop selling some funky bao-like British buns (Beef and barley, rarebit, etc), and Baozi Inn selling authentic bao. And, well, a lot of other places. But the one that drew me in was Gopal’s Corner.

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A Wong (London, UK)

Like most years, this year we had another trip to London to visit with my relatives. This trip us arriving while my brother and sister-in-law were traveling, so we had a day and a half to explore London on our own. One place that had long been on our list was a small Chinese place just down the road from my brother’s flat: A. Wong. It’s been a Chinese place the entire time I’ve been visiting London, and circa 2013 changed names to A. Wong when the namesake, took over a small Chinese restaurant from his family. Since then, it’s gotten a fair amount of good press, and had long been on our “hit list” of places to check out. It’s not easy to get a reservation; ideally I’d want to do their “Tastes of China” tasting menu, but that required a 2:45 reservation and those were booked out for weeks. We were, however, able to score a 1:45 reservation for a la carte dining.

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Cornerstone Burger Co. (Northfield, VT)

Way back when we moved to Northern New England, the town of Northfield was one of those little Vermont towns that was easy to miss; the routing of Interstate 89 somewhat bypasses it, and at the time it didn’t have much other than Norwich University and the Cabot Hosiery Mill (now “Darn Tough”) annual sock sale that would draw people into town. Well, a lot has happened in Northfield; it’s still a “quaint New England college town”, but it’s started to become a good local center for food, beer, and coffee. Downtown Northfield has had some fits and starts, but several developments on East St now have lead to a trio of businesses all in a row: Carrier Coffee Roasting, Good Measure Brewing (shared owners with Carrier, and during most operating hours, sharing the seating area), and Cornerstone Burger Co (an offshoot of the larger Cornerstone Pub and Kitchen in nearby Barre, another perennial entry on my “hit list”). After a recent visit in which we stocked up on Guatemalan coffee beans at Carrier and then had a nice pint of cream ale at Good Measure, we decided to finally stop in and try Cornerstone.

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Lao’De Café (Lowell, MA)

A regular feature of my enjoyment of both cooking and Asian cuisine in general means that occasionally we’ve got to head down to Massachusetts on a run for ingredients. This time, it was a trip down to Penzey’s Spices (my favorite for getting high quality spices), then a trip over to the surprisingly affordable and expansive selection of Indian ingredients at Patel Bros in Waltham, followed by the inevitable trip to H-Mart in Burlington, MA for our Japanese and Korean groceries. After a rather successful trip to all three, we headed back home to New Hampshire, passing through Lowell, MA around dinner time. As you can see from my other reviews around Lowell, it’s a neat little town, with one of the more rich and diverse histories. Named after industrial pioneer Francis Cabot Lowell, Lowell was originally founded as a mill town, replacing farmers’ field in Chelmsford MA with a combination of textile mills, factories, and canals as one of the nation’s earliest industrial centers. After a lull in the mid-20th century as, like almost every other mill town in New England, things moved to the South and overseas, Lowell hit a second wave of development in the late 20th century with a combination of education (Umass-Lowell), computers (Wang was founded in Lowell), and then and interesting demographic change as it became a major center for Southeastern Asian immigrants, forming substantial Cambodian, Laos, Vietnamese, and Indian communities. This gives it a very interesting mix of everything from old school blue-collar diners (like The Owl), Portuguese food (Cavaleiros), over a dozen good Cambodian places , and even a handful of Laos places. Which brings us to Lao’De Café.

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Sichuan Garden (Brookline, MA)

A few weekends ago, Carol and I went down to Brookline, MA on an expedition to meet up with some of my fellow Fraternal Order of Moai colleagues for some exploration of some of Boston’s cocktail bars new and old. One place we were looking to explore was a relatively new addition to Brookline: Blossom Bar. Nominally replacing the previous Sichuan Garden restaurant, it sounded like a nice place to start our wandering, since they opened at 11am. Well, it appears our intel was wrong; Sichuan Garden is still alive and well in restaurant form, their cocktail bar distinctly doesn’t open until 5pm; at 11 am they are still just a restaurant without cocktails. While slightly disappointing, I was quickly soothed by the fact that the food menu looked good. Really good. So once our posse arrived, we ordered up a bunch of appetizers and food to sustain us on the rest of our trip through Boston.

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First Branch Coffee (South Royalton, VT)

This fall, a new coffee shop opened up on Chelsea Street (the west side of the South Royalton Square): First Branch Coffee. Focusing on small 30-pound batch roasted coffee, they’ve been focusing on quality coffee drinks and pastries, and have been a nice addition to the Royalton-area restaurant scene. Interestingly, I’m not going to be writing about their coffee or pastries, although I’ve actually had, and enjoyed, both. The real culinary attraction at First Branch is what’s going on in the back half of the house, since First Branch is also the home of the tasting room of Upper Pass Beer Company. From 4 to 9 pm on Tuesday and Friday, and noon to 4 on weekends, Upper Pass (owned by the same folks that run First Branch Coffee) runs a tasting room for their rather nice selection of beers brewed by Chris Perry and Andrew Puchalik, who I’ve known for several years through the local homebrewing community (and for years, Chris was one of the bartenders at nearby Worthy Burger, another of my Royalton favorites, and I particularly like their Cloud Drop and Modern Pants IPAs. But on most weeks, their weeknight openings are themed and have light food service; Tuesdays are Taco Tuesdays, and Fridays are Flatbread Fridays

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Firebox (Hartford, CT)

Last month, after a day spent with friends in Connecticut, since we were already in the Hartford area, we decided it was a good opportunity to stop and check out the local food scene. Our destination was the old Billings Forge complex, a rather large red brick Romanesque Revival industrial complex that originally held the Billings and Spenser company (inventors of the modern drop forge process, and the Spencer Repeating Rifle). Since the mid-20th century, most of the complex has been housing, original a housing project, and then more recently redeveloped as a mixed income complex. But parts of the complex retained their industrial nature for decades, only recently getting converted to other uses, in this case, two restaurants: The Kitchen which provides a light cafe and job training, and Firebox, a local restaurant focusing on farm-to-table cuisine showcasing central Connecticut farms. We decided after reviewing menus to catch a late lunch at Firebox

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Florence Pie Bar (Florence, MA)

A rather lot of our travel has us passing through Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, and as I mentioned a year ago in my review of The Copperline in Chicopee, MA, the area has a quite an interesting combination of rural towns, college towns, and mill towns, and that’s led to a rather nice selection of quirky little restaurants. In this case, we wanted a light breakfast on our way down to Connecticut, so we stopped off in Florence MA (just west of Northampton) to check out Florence Pie Bar.

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