[note: I realize some of this may make us sound shallow, bourgeois, or self-centered; however, my goal is just to put down my experience in writing. Obviously, in the current economic climate, not everyone can enjoy expensive dinners at restaurants like The Ledbury, but at the same time, this was a special occasion, and certainly, an evening at a restaurant at this price level is not an extravagance that we can enjoy on a frequent basis, nor is a 200 GBP + meal an insignificant expense to us. I am, of course, not oblivious to the irony of the situation, and I also realize that we came out of this situation much better off than many people.]
On the evening of Aug 8, Louise and I were enjoying the tasting menu (a vegan version for me) at The Ledbury in London’s Notting Hill area. While Louise had seen some of the news about the riots, I was completely unaware, so I was very surprised when, around the 6th course, we heard some loud noises — not as loud as gunshots, but noticeable. The staff seemed worried, but it seemed as if it was something they knew about, like an unruly intruder. They had us get towards the inside wall, away from the windows, and get down towards the floor. Then there was a tremendous crash, and the glass front door, which the staff had apparently barred, came crashing in. A group of young guys, maybe late teens or early 20s, came running in. I think they were mostly, though possibly not exclusively, black, and some had their faces covered, perhaps with nylon stockings or masks. They had sticks and other improvised weapons. Despite reports in the foreign press of as many as 40 intruders, I don’t think there were more than 10 who actually came into the restaurant – probably closer to 6.
They told us to get down, and immediately started going around to each person, in a sort of clockwise rotation, asking for our watches. One of the intruders, I don’t recall what he looked like, came to me, with a fairly threatening manner, and asked for my watch; I said I didn’t have one, and he made me show him my wrists (I was trying to curl the finger with my wedding band so that it wasn’t as visible, but he didn’t actually seem that interested). He also didn’t ask me for a wallet (I had none anyway), phone, or cash (I had a little in the inside pocket of my coat).
At the time, it seemed like they were mostly interested in getting our valuables quickly and getting out, not destroying things. If not professional, it at least seemed like they had a good idea of what to get, and knew that they needed to move quickly. The intruders didn’t seem that interested in breaking anything, stealing alcohol, or setting anything on fire. Since there were no guns, and since people seemed to be complying with their demands, I wasn’t that frightened, especially since I was so unaware of the broader context of the riots.
Some time around this point, the kitchen staff came up from the basement kitchen armed with weapons of their own. Contrary to some reports, I don’t remember seeing any chef’s knives in hand, but I did see some rolling pins, and, later on, even noticed a chef brandishing a deep-fryer basket. I think by this point, the looters had gotten most of our valuables, and they ran out, as quickly as they came.
After they left, the staff started to clean up, and I assumed that service would eventually resume. The patrons were reacting in different ways – some seemed calm, but others were quite anxious, or were even crying. Many were on their mobile phones, contacting loved ones, trying to get a cab, texting, checking the news, or, perhaps, updating their status on social networking sites. Most of the staff seemed calm, but many of the front of house staff had also been robbed, and some of them seemed quite shaken as well. I asked Louise if she was Ok, and she told me that her wedding and engagement rings had been taken, but not her passport, purse, or camera. I picked up my glass of wine from our table, and had a few sips. At the time, I was still thinking that this was an isolated incident, and that service would resume — one of the women who was crying was at our table; at the risk of sounding like a food-obsessed yuppie, I will admit that I asked one of the waiters if we could switch to a nearby empty two-top.
The staff was starting to clean up the broken glass. They tried calling cabs for some patrons, and were told that no cabs would come to the area at that time. At some point, maybe 15-20 minutes later, someone said “they’re coming back” (there was still no visible police presence near the restaurant at this point; presumably they had bigger things to deal with), and the staff urged us to head down to the basement, where the kitchen and bathrooms of the restaurant area. We started filing into the restrooms, automatically splitting up by gender, which meant Louise and I were separated.
I ended up a bit behind the other guys, in the outer area of the men’s bathroom, with the stall locked. No one responded to my knocks at first, but eventually, the guys inside responded to me and asked if I wanted to come inside (I did). There were maybe 6 or 7 of us in the locked inner bathroom. We were mostly trying to stay quiet, although one man kept talking, and was repeatedly shushed by the rest of us. By this point, I regretted splitting up with Louise, and was a bit worried for her safety – I didn’t know where she was or who else was with her.
After another 5-10 minutes, the staff came and told us that we should come to the wine cellar, through the kitchen, but it was full, so those of us remaining were hanging out in the kitchen area, right outside the wine cellar. Some chocolate desserts came out, and a few espressos (for which someone had actually bothered to put in a ticket!!). Shortly after, we were told that it was safe to go upstairs. Some more taxis showed up, as well as the police. We were still uncertain whether it was safe to head to our hotel, so we hung out for a bit longer. When we mentioned our regret at not being able to finish the meal, one of the chefs insisted, despite our protests that it was unnecessary, on having some petit fours brought to us, still served in their cute little toffee box, set into cocoa nibs. Eventually, a mini-cab was called to take us back to the hotel.
After watching TV coverage back at the hotel, and getting a night’s sleep, the full impact of the evening’s events sunk in a bit more; I did feel somewhat anxious and cautious through the next day of our trip, but also relieved that we hadn’t ended up in a more serious situation. We spent the day shopping, and taking the Fuller’s brewery tour in Chiswick. When we arrived back to the hotel, it became clear that Louise’s 15 minutes of fame had arrived – not only were there numerous comments on her blog post, but there were requests for interviews from various media outlets.
One thing that Will and I definitely wanted to experience while in Japan was a stay at a genuine ryokan. After combing the internet for a while, we settled on Kamesei Ryokan. It’s certainly out of the way, all the way in Nagano, but the hospitality and getting out of the city is well worth the bullet-train ride.
Kamesei Ryokan is located in the city of Chikuma in Nagano, Japan. It’s up north, so the weather was more chilly than it was in Tokyo, but that was okay because it made the steaming, warm, onsen all the more satisfying. The main reason we picked this ryokan was because its proprietors were fluent in English. This made it extremely easy to communicate Will’s dietary restrictions and they were incredibly accommodating with all of it.
The first thing I saw when I stepped out of the train station was a lush mountainside and an arched sign welcoming us into the little onsen town. The air was cold and crisp, the parking lot had only a handful of people, and best of all, it was quiet — a nice departure from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, which we left an hour behind.
One of the proprietresses of the ryokan was nice enough to meet us at the train station with a mini-van and drove us to their family-owned ryokan. We were greeted with our names written with chalk on the sign in front of the lobby area (they got the wrong character for my name, but hey, it’s the thought that counts).
As mentioned before, Kamesei Ryokan is of the more traditional variety. You take off your shoes off in the lobby, put on the provided slippers, and walk over the tatami to your own room. Tyler, the American son-in-law of the proprietress met up with us while we were getting settled in and graciously explained the ryokan to us and answered our questions. He’s also the guy who’ll come into your room and lay out the futons/put them away when the time comes.
While there is a private restroom in each room containing a sink and toilet, there’s no shower or bathtub. That’s because the onsen is the main attraction. Why sit in a small tub in your own room when you can soak in a large one with other naked people? The ryokan has separate male and female onsens which switch location every night, so pay attention to the signs! Each onsen room has its own shower area and indoor tub large enough for at least 10 adults to stretch out. One of the rooms also has an outdoor tub that seats about 4 or 5. Definitely take advantage of the outdoor one if you get the chance. It’s a great sensation to be immersed up to your chin in hot, mineral-rich water while sitting outside in chilly weather.
Another main attraction of a ryokan is the food. Because we communicated Will’s vegetarian diet beforehand, the chef specially prepared a mostly vegan spread. The only thing that wasn’t vegan was the tempura, which unfortunately for him had egg in the batter. His loss is my crisply fried gain! The dinner spread featured a number of small dishes that highlighted the local specialties. Most notable was the delicate, soft, fresh made yuba and the sweet and savory bean paste which was a cross between nato and miso paste spread over a broiled bamboo shoot. I was also excited to see mini, personal-sized okonomiyaki’s!
When Tyler found out that I wasn’t vegetarian, he offered to have the chef make up a small sashimi sampler platter as well as a plate of their local fish, which I enthusiastically agreed to. The sashimi had a fresh, unadulterated flavor, and the little local fish was tastefully plated.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more, I stopped to save room for dessert. I always complain about desserts being too sweet, but this plate of sweet bites was just right.
Breakfast had fewer dishes than dinner, but was no less delicious. It started with some crisp, pickled vegetables, salty mountain vegetables, that wonderful natto-miso paste, and a delicate soup of simmering tofu, mushrooms, and mizuna. I wish I could eat like this every day.
Out of my handful of days in Japan, I’d have to say that the ones spent at Kamesei ryokan were the most memorable. The people who live in this rural town look more healthy, are more friendly, and just seem to have more fun in life than their Tokyo-based counterparts. Tyler was enough nice enough to invite us along to his weekly music group to watch them practice lion dancing! I think I spoke more broken Japanese to the people of the group than I did in all the rest of my days in Tokyo.
It’s true that Kamesei Ryokan is out of the way for people who just want to visit Tokyo, but it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air from crowded subway trains and busy streets. I’m only afraid that I won’t be able to keep myself from going back next time I’m in Japan.
Address: 2-15-1 Kamiyamada Onsen,
Chikuma City, Nagano Pref. 389-0821 Japan
*Facsimile: (026)276-1032 (24 hours)
One must-see stop on our trip to Taiwan is Shilin Night Market in Taipei. Everyone that we talked to before our trip mentioned it once they found out we were visiting Taiwan. The main part is a large building with dozens of small food vendors under one roof, but walk a block or two and you’ll find yourself faced with huge street of shopping and more food stands. I’d guess that it’s usually a madhouse, but luckily we arrived after the school children rush and it wasn’t a weekend.
Food is the main attraction at Shilin, so I made sure to arrive with an appetite. Unfortunately, being in a crowded, enclosed area where all sorts of food is being fried does something to stifle my appetite. I ended up getting only a handful of things to eat.
First and foremost was the stinky tofu. I couldn’t risk getting too full to eat this, so I had one right away. It was freshly fried so that it was crispy on the outside and custardy inside with that mildly sour fermented tastes. Since it’s almost impossible to get the real deal in LA, I savored each bite.
On to dish number two, oyster omelette — one of the more famous dishes of the night market. It’s tastes about what you’d expect from the name. The cook threw a handful of small oysters onto a griddle, some batter made up of eggs and potato starch, and chopped cabbage. Once the omelette is ready, the cook puts it on a dish, squirts some sweet chili sauce on top, and it’s time to dig in. Like a regular omelette, it tastes strongly eggy, but also very umami thanks to the oysters. The potato starch gives the whole thing a kind of strange, sticky, chewy consistency.
To combat all the fried foods, there are also bittermelon shake stands littered throughout the area. The melon they use is a white, milder bittermelon, which makes the shake infinitely more palatable. The shake is sweetened with either honey or pineapple, but I forgot which. Bittermelon is such a wonder-food that I after I drank a full glass of it, I felt that the healthiness of bittermelon balanced out all the junk food I was eating that night.
I felt so good after the bittermelon shake that I grabbed a sausage on a stick on the way out. This natural casing sausage (you can tell by the texture and bite) was stuffed with sticky rice and savory bits of meat. It was tasty, but I felt a bit of unease walking around with a sharpened stick so close to my mouth on the street. Any stray jostle and I could have an unwanted piercing.
In addition to all the fried foods, there are also fruit carts near the night market. The girl running this particular one kept handing me free samples of all the strange fruit I hadn’t had before. She was a pretty good salesperson because we left about $3 USD lighter, but with a bag of fruit to munch on. There were cherry tomatoes stuffed with sweet perserved olives (it’s a weird Chinese thing, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it), green mangoes, sour plums, and something between a pear and an apple (no, not an apple-pear) that I wish we had in LA.
Yes, Shilin Night Market is touristy, and yes it can be a zoo, but it’s worth visiting. It’s convenient to get to on the MRT line. Just make sure to get off at Danshui station, not Shilin station which is kind of confusing. Once at the station, it’s right across the street — hard to miss thanks to the throngs of people streaming in and out of it. After grabbing a few dishes of food to eat, there was also a shopping district a block or so away that’s open late to walk off the food at.