Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A (N)Ice Kiss-mas at Kiruna- Sweden II

The 17-hour train ride began around 10pm. It was a similar distance between Hong Kong and Shanghai. Flights were fully booked and train was a last resort. I was reading for a few hours before finally falling asleep. I woke with a blurred vision, sore throat and pounding headache; I woke to the man bellowing Swedish on his mobile phone; the family of 3 were packing/unpacking, folding up beds, chatting, oblivious to the rest of the cabin sleeping. Argh.

All announcements were made in Swedish throughout the journey; it was pure guesswork as to how far we were from Kiruna. Drifting in and out of sleep with a worsening fever, I somehow put on all my layers in case Kiruna popped up as the next stop. The thickness of the snow was frightening outside.

I must have baked myself in the thermal layers for 3 hours before we caught ‘Kiruna’ in a torrent of Swedish from the speakers. Sluggishly I dragged myself off the train, expecting a gush of arctic winds to numb my sense. But nothing. It wasn’t cold. Sherwin was sweating, though. He had a panic attack over losing his passport (which I don’t know why he bothered bringing it along anyway). There were 13 pockets on his jacket and another 7 on his trousers. He rummaged through the cabin twice and reluctantly saw it moving to Norway. On the platform Sherwin had to undress to find his passport securely zipped in his inner trousers’ side pocket.

We arrived at 3pm as opposed to the scheduled 10:30am. The sky was pitch black. Kiruna is the most northern settlement in Sweden; well into the Arctic Circle. It was larger and more developed than I imagined.

Snow boots are great on snow, just not icy pavements. I half-glided-half-walked uphill to our hotel. It was just behind the town centre, a few corners from the tourist information centre. It was Christmas Eve and every shop was closed. The double trouble was, even the hotel was closed. Despite the forced confirmation Sherwin made the day before, it was just locked up with no bells to ring. This could be problematic. After 15 minutes of despairing disbelief, I caught sight of a hand written note with opening times during the festive period. With luck, it should be open at 4pm again.

It was getting colder as we made our way to the town centre in search of something open. Trusty Arabs. A pizzeria run by Arabs was packed with travelers who similarly found their hotels closed. Over a Madrid pizza and a funghi pizza, we discussed the possibilities of camping in the train station at -20, alternative plans if the town remained closed for the next 3 days and what brought Arabs to Kiruna.

The crowd thinned as the clock approached 4. My nerves calmed as I began getting Wifi signals because the tourist information centre opened again. So did our hotel. I needed sleep; I could feel a 20kg weight sitting on my head. I started coughing too; each time was like a force yanking air out of my lungs, while a hammer slammed the back of head until I passed out.

We went to walk around the town when I woke a couple of hours later. We trekked to the edge, hoping to see the frozen sea, but the snow was piled too high. Seeing nothing was in business we went into the largest hotel in town, and had a couple of Swedish beers. Then went to see the Kiruna church, which was once voted the most beautiful building in Sweden. I have no comment; you judge for yourself.

We met a local walking his white golden retriever (cross between a mixed husky and a mixed retriever) and we ventured further away from the town centre, while he explained the history of the iron ore mines and factories and its politics. Sorry I remembered the dog being Isa, but I couldn’t remember the guy’s name. I was ill, okay?

The sun never rose above the horizon; so at 11am I couldn’t tell if it was sunrise or sunset. The tourist centre was supposed to provide bus timetable to jukkasjärvi, where the Ice Hotel was. She helpfully said there were no buses at the weekends! What?! Then she helpfully booked us a taxi for 450 SEK. Apparently there will be buses running from January 2011, but I’d be damned if I were still in Kiruna then.

It was a 10-min taxi drive. But the Ice Hotel was a must-see for me. And I was made to feel slightly better for not paying the entrance fee.

The design suites were stunning, and I couldn’t resist a “Wah!!” each time I went into a room. It was relatively warm inside the hotel too. Jukkasjärvi was much colder than Kiruna, but I could take my ski gloves off inside the hotel, provided I kept my hands off the ice. 

Before we left for a coffee, we heard howling from the entrance. Rows of dog sleds were lined up ready to go behind the Hotel.

Since we booked the dog-sledding Northern Lights tour at 4pm, we had a couple of hours to kill. We walked 20 mins into the so-called town centre (there’s nothing but a church and 2 cafes, which were closed on Christmas day) and went into the Sami museum café for lunch. The museum was minimalistic. It consisted an outdoor area that costs 100 SEK to enter, and a shop, inside which there was a bonfire-lit café.

The reindeer soup (120 SEK) I tried was clear vegetable stock with strips of rubber-like reindeer meat. It could have been beef or ostrich for that matter. I was expecting a hearty thick chunky soup. My bad.

The Sami crafts were outrageously priced too. This hat, albeit with soft beautiful fur, cost 2750 SEK, and a fist-size wooden spoon was 600 SEK. I was gob smacked when the lady paid 6000 SEK for 3 items! I obviously need to work much harder.

The dog sledding tour operator a last-minute resource. Sherwin was so sure there would be tons of these operators, so he didn’t book. Turned out most of them preferred to have dinner with their family on Christmas Day than taking us to utter darkness with 12 dogs. Can you blame them? We were charged 1150 SEK per person.

The towns were so brightly lit that it became impossible to see the Aurora. So the sleds were to bring us to utter darkness, where the chances of seeing the Lights were much better.

The experience was surreal to say the least. The dogs ran for an hour, guided by the ‘driver’ torch, while we fixed our gaze at the sky. But no Lights. Just stars. Lots of them. We stopped in a hut for coffee and cinnamon roll midway. Not only were my toes frozen, my eyelashes too! The wind felt like blades piercing my face. My cough was getting worse. Disappointingly, there were no Aurora during the second half of the tour either. Better luck next time.

He was our Lead Dog
Restaurants in Kiruna opened on Christmas Day. We had elk thigh with cranberry jus and blackcurrant jam. It was delicious. The meat was tender and slightly pink, not unlike roast beef, but much thicker and it carried more flavour in the meat. I found the blackcurrant jam too sweet, though it was a good compliment with the elk.

I had to leave Sherwin behind on Boxing Day, as he could only find one seat on the early flight, and I had to catch my flight back to London. Everything was closed in the morning, as it was a Sunday mixed with Boxing Day. The airport bus took me to the Kiruna airport, which redefined dingy airport. One gate, one runway, 2 counters. I was disgustingly ill, and I covered my face and slept on the plane.

From Kiruna, the plane landed in Arlanda Airport, from which I had to take an express train to Stockholm City centre. Then take the coach to Skavsta Airport. It was a mad rush. My name was being called as the final call. I suddenly realized I have lost my Hong Kong passport. I tipped my bag out, still no passport. Okay, use my British National Overseas passport for now, worry later. Coughing away, I couldn’t find the gate! Come on, there are only 6! In a mix haze of panic and sweat, I made it to the plane. Ignoring the angry stares, I slept.

Arlanda Express
Worth mentioning the metro and airport trains were managed by MTR Hong Kong. This explains the similarity in appearance, and the reliability of the service.
Came home to London to meet yet another tube strike. I almost broke down to tears.

Gatwick was flooded with people trying to buy a train ticket to Victoria, from which I had no idea how to get back to Canary Wharf.

Sulking, I threw myself onto the train without a ticket (we were packed sardine-style, there was no way for a ticket inspection anyway). If I had queued for a ticket, I would have missed the last train; it was a 2-hour queue, at least. From Victoria, I took Bus 11 to Bank, because the taxi queue was a joke. At Bank, they had the cheek to shut the entrance, and made people walk on street level to Monument to get on the DLR, which was a 23-min wait before the train arrived at the platform.

It took me 2 hours to fly from Stockholm to London. It took me 3.5 hrs to home from Gatwick.

Sort it out Boris!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Pump in the Dumpling Legend

Traditional Chinese restaurants are being flushed out of Chinatown by younger, trendier joints. Long gone the sweet & sour chicken and GuangDong diners. The new-bloods all have themes, be it Szechuen spicy hotpots, Taiwanese small-plates, Roast duck specialist or Shanghainese noodles. Dumpling Legend is a fairly recent addition to the mob, claiming its speciality in, if you still haven’t spotted, dumplings.
The ‘open-kitchen’ is more like a showcase, where diners can see the chefs churning out dumpling after dumpling; their fingers diligently shaping small balls of dough. Décor was clean and simple, bright and white to distinguish itself from the typical low-ceiling, dark and stuffy oldies. Except for the 6 types of dumplings, and serving dim sum after 5pm, the menu does not vary hugely from the rest of the restaurants in Chinatown.
Chilled Drunken Chicken
Quite substantial for an appetiser. The robust aroma of Chinese wine was deeply immersed into the chicken, which we were served the thigh (I don’t eat chicken breast). If submerged in wine for too long, the fibre in the chicken dissociates and the meat loses its texture; if chilled for too long, the chicken becomes dense and solid. It is not a lazy dish. Drunken chicken is one of my favourite Shanghainese dishes and the Dumpling Legend did a fine job.
Stir fry Spicy Morning Glory
The literal translation from Chinese would be “morning glory with a strange taste”. We were intrigued.
It wasn’t that intriguing. For once, I thought it was an accurate English translation. Anyhow we were pleased that it was not drenched in oil.
Fried Prawns in Butter & EggTrust me, this sounds a lot better in Chinese. Upon ordering, our waitress told us they only have peeled prawns as opposed to whole prawns. Fine. It‘s all frozen anyway. I like the layering of flavours in this. First the butter and egg in the batter was sweet, but the chilliness gradually seeped through and left a small flame behind.
Finally Pork Crab Meat Siu Loung Bao (dumpling)The soul in Siu Loung Bao is the soup inside the little parcel, and the skill is in crafting the skin that holds the soup while maintaining its delicate thinness. After steaming, the skin is slightly glutinous and may stick to each other or the base. Some dumpling specialists place a sheet of carrot or turnip between the dumpling and bamboo steamer, because one sheet of baking paper does not suffice.
Frankly I have eaten some of the best Siu Loung Baos in Asia, so these are so-so. The crab meat was undetectable, but I wasn’t expecting any anyway. While the fat/meat ratio was good, the skin was still too thick for my liking. More importantly, this should have arrived with the drunken chicken, as eating a dumpling over a bowl of plain rice was downright bizarre. It’s like topping your banger & mash with a prawn cocktail.

One thing that doesn’t change in Chinatown: Service. It took 4 attempts to finally flag down a waitress to take our orders. Staff was so busy whizzing around laying tables for the ever-growing queue, clearing empty tables and delivering bills, seated customers were barely acknowledged. We felt obliged to speak quickly too when placing our orders.
Food all benchmarked, but not exceeding. Will I develop a craving for their dumplings? Unlikely.
It was a stressful meal in a chaotic place.
Dumpling Legend
15 16 Gerrard Street
Tel:0207 494 1200
Dumpling's Legend on Urbanspoon

Frozen Toes in Stockholm - Sweden I

No Christmas is more authentic than a Scandinavian one.
Tracing back 6 months, when I was being cooked alive in my London apartment on an exceptionally hot summer day, I suggested an Arctic expedition to see the Northern Lights during the festive holidays. Since Sherwin had recently moved to Stockholm, it would be nice to save him from a lonely Christmas (not to mention his wealth of backpacking experience). I duly booked my flight to Skavsta Stockholm 6 months in advance, and responsibly left him to organise accommodation, husky dog sledding and the itinerary.
London had been hit badly by snow blizzards the weeks before I fly. While it had taken Stockholm to defrost runways in 2 hours, it took London 2 days (then again BAA was managed by the Spaniards). Thankfully my flight wasn’t affected and I landed at 11am. It was a dingy airport with 6 departure gates, so by 11:15 I was already buying my coach ticket (119 SEK oneway for youth) to Centrale Station. The coach journey was 1hr40m, made more bearable by free wifi-access, sights of unscathed blankets of snow and a Kiwi beside me. The Kiwi was Caro, who worked in Shanghai but came from a NZ background with a boyfriend working in London. Talk about internationality, eh? Her first-hand Shanghai Expo encounter was worthy of a new post on its own.

I stored my holdall travel bag in the bus terminal lockers, and contemplated the idea of putting my thick socks and snow boots on. Looked around. Everyone else was wearing normal trainers and gloves, let’s blend and merge.
I bought a 24-hour pass (100SEK) that grants access on all transports, as opposed to the 30SEK singles. Temperature was -16˚C. Yup you read it right, minus sixteen degrees Celsius. Gamla Stan is one of the 14 islands that constitutes Stockholm, also termed the Old Town. It houses a number of the major sights: Nobel Museum, Royal Palace, Stockholm Cathedral and also the oldest and most traditional Christmas market.
Waters surrounding the island was frozen, snowed on and stiff as rock. I am still unsure as to whether it was a lake, river or the Baltic Sea, so I’m keeping to ‘waters’. I was thrilled by the thigh-high snow everywhere. How did I know it was thigh-high? Because I made the mistake of walking in it, soaking my jeans and trainers. As I rambled around the periphery of the island, (my fingers and toes lost all senses) I came to the largest Christmas tree in the country. Unbeatable in terms of size okay, but I wish they would make more of an effort with the decoration.

It was nearing 4pm as night falls. I wandered along the Royal Palace and into the heart of the Old Town in search of the Christmas market. Come on toes, wake up, don’t give up on me now. The market was disappointingly small in front of the Nobel Museum. I never intended to pay the Nobel Museum a visit. Sure it will be impressive inside, but surely there is nothing I can’t read up on wikipedia about Nobel prize winners, unless they all sit in there and greet me. The red little stalls were selling typical handmade candles,Christmas decorations, candies, cured meat and sausages and the inevitable glogg (mulled wine). Festive.

Clearly leather gloves weren’t designed for this temperature, and wet trainers are BAD in winter, despite the socks and 2 layers of leggings. I took refuge in a popular café at the corner of the square. It had a load of writings on the wall in Swedish. Hmm… I asked for a hot chocolate and a little ham bun to keep my energy level up. 75 SEK. I saw others having steaming hot soup I wish I knew they had soup.

It was a good half hour before my toes regained consciousness. Sherwin called to say he’d almost finish work and would join me in about one and a half hours. I had yet to shop for postcards and souvenirs! It took a while to locate Vasterlanggatan, because the lonely planet app was not very good at locating me. The street was lined with crafts and souvenir shops. I had my first bottom-first slip; luckily with the heavy padding, the damage was minimised.
Despite the heart-aching price tags, I bought a few things to remember this city. Temperature dropped further after dark, so I sought shelter in another café waiting for Sherwin, not without slipping on the frozen pavement a few more times. Should I have crawled instead?
Sherwin found my hiding place in spite of my poor description of “the café with many stars hanging on the window”. Every café had stars hanging on the window. Good to see him keeping well. He also pointed out that people wearing ‘normal’ gear were not exposed to outdoor temperature for more than 15 mins; I was walking outdoor for almost 4 hours. So when we returned to the Central station to pick up my holdall, I promptly changed into my snow boots and ski gloves. We walked towards the shopping area next to the station to decide on a spot for dinner.
Sherwin rarely ate out, because he was catered for by his host.  However there was a Chinese buffet that he walked past often but lacked a company to eat with. I gladly complied. The food wasn’t bad; it had classic sushi and miso soup, satay skewers and the usual chicken, fish, prawns and beef dishes for 158 SEK per person. Freshly made banana fritters served with ice cream too for dessert. Fed and knackered, we made our way home. We went the long way so I could walk across the frozen waters. Honestly I was petrified because judging from the lack of footprints and the number of exclamation marks on the warning signs, no one walked on it. I pathetically took 3 steps from the shore… Sherwin started jumping on the edge and declared “I can see weakness on the surface.” I leapt back like a petrified rabbit.

I would have continued sleeping if Sherwin didn’t call me a fat turtle and said it was sunset soon. We had gravalax and scrambled eggs with breaksticks (because he ran out of bread) plus msg coffee for breakfast before setting off to the island next door. He was a wanderer too, and we ended up walking behind the Nordic Museum and Vasa Museum, through a deserted wonderland to get to the open-air museum, Skansen. 

We lunched at a café first, where I was charge 90SEK for a croque-monsieur. It was an open one stacked with cheese and ham, though.

The Christmas market inside Skansen was closed but we went in anyway, for a surprisingly friendly price of 70SEK. Due to the snow, we were almost the only visitors, so falling down the icy stairs wasn’t embarrassing at all. The ‘summer rose garden’ (not so summery now) offered views overlooking the frozen city. We trekked around the various cottages and Scandinavian animal farms.

My exit was dramatic. We picked an exit on the hill top with a long winding path that leads to the tram stop. Instead of following the path like all civilised tourists, we cut across the, again, upper-thigh-high snow. The risk is, of course, in estimating the underlying land profile. Needless to say, I tripped on a buried fence and fell star-shaped, flat on my face…why do I always learn my lessons the hard way.
We hurried home to buy food for the train journey and pack our gear to catch the 6pm train for Kiruna.
Travellers were flooding at the gates of the Central Station. With the heavy snowfall across Scandinavia in the last few weeks, regional trains were delayed and cancelled, leaving many stranded. Our train followed the same fate. It was delayed until 7 the information board displayed. I can donate an hour of patience. Nightmare began as our train didn’t turn up at the platform at 7 and it simply disappeared from the information board. The queue for the information office would take 2 hours; I didn’t dare to leave the platform in case the train sneaked in. Emotions evolved from confusion, to despair and finally defeated.

9:30pm – our train mysteriously popped up on the information board again.
We were allocated the last carriage, sharing a cabin with a family of 3 and lone traveller. Sherwin cunningly reserved the top bunks, so at least our beds were least abused.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Rocket without a GPS

There are very few places for a sit-down, non-fast food lunch at Canary Wharf. Plateau, despite the discouraging reviews, was fully booked; Wahaca (Mexican) is unfortunately a cuisine that I have yet to learn to appreciate; Roka on this side of London is not living the brand; The Parlour and Canteen have been bad-listed and Jamie Oliver’s Italian is, well, crap.

This brought us to Rocket. Frankly my expectations are pretty low. If my distant memory serves me rights, at some point Rocket was serving a fusion menu with the least appealing combination of ingredients. Now the menu looks even more confusing, claiming its specialty in salads, followed by seasonal grills and then pizzas? Well, I don’t have another half-hour to waddle over to Royal China.

The waitress asked if we would like to eat in the restaurant or the bar, I asked her the difference. She helpfully pointed out that “one was upstairs; the other was down”. Okay… this hunt for lunch has turned out to be much more stressful than I had anticipated. Drained before 2pm, we stayed downstairs. See their website for more useful info, if the staff can’t be arsed, neither can I.

Chopped steaks salad with lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions, basil, sweet corn, and palm hearts tossed in a creamy sweet bacon and mustard dressing
I didn’t bother checking if everything listed on the menu was indeed found on the plate. The dressing was on the sweet side with a tiny poke from the mustard. This salad passed with fresh crunchy veg and warm strips of steak, which were pink in the middle but lacked the beefy tang. It’s a salad, okay, I am not too fussed.

Lamb Burger served with chunky chips
Most of the leaves fell off before it reached our table, only because it was one fat burger. The lamb patty was strong, juicy and meaty with a hint of mint. Chips were hand cut and piping hot, though slightly greasy. Not bad.

Yea it was okay, perhaps a teeny bit better than the Parlour, at least the chairs were more comfortable. I might just stick to the Byron or even GBK for an easy burger though. Everything is mediocre, as if no one can be bothered, so I won’t bother coming back.

2 Churchill Place
E14 5RB
Tel: 020 3200 2022
Rocket Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Odette’s – Swan Queen at Primrose Hill

It was a candlelight diner occasion. Excuse the dark photos.

Chef Bryn Williams’ roasted turbot was fit for the Queen’s 80th birthday a few years back, I was equally enthralled during my first visit. So I suggested re-visiting at this gloomy time of the year, when the Christmas holidays seems so near yet so far.

Quirky British should summarise the décor. The main dining area was quite compact, through which, half a flight of stairs led to a private dining area, with a door opening to the garden. The downstairs bar was more toned down for a cosy ambience.

The maître’d, equipped with the heart-warming British humour, took our coats, showed us to our table and explained the menus.

Munching on the warm mustard seed rolls, we decided on the 7-course Tasting Menu with a bottle of Chianti 2007.

Amuse Bouche – Beetroot foam with Horseradish crème fraiche
I am not a fan of foam, despite its emphasis during the molecular gastronomy hype. While the texture is easy on the mouth, the excessive air upsets my stomach. The beetroot foam is naturally sweet, not too fluffy and the spiky horseradish gave it a good punch.

Roasted woodpigeon, foie gras, pickled cherries, chocolate, vanilla salt
Vibrant in presentation and balanced in texture. The woodpigeon was bloody-red in the centre, and the thin sheet of bitter chocolate sauce and sweet cherry brought out the distinctive flavours of game. Foie gras was cold to preserve its silkiness, which contrasted with the more chewy pigeon.

Hand dived scallop, pork belly & apricot
The scallop was sweet and fleshy, slightly undercooked in the middle, just the way I like it. Apricot and pork belly was a safe match, as it alleviated the oily pork belly.

Roasted turbot, braised oxtail, cockles & samphire
The fish though crispy on the outside, was not as flaky as I had hoped for. I don’t think the dish has lost its magic, I just couldn’t feel the fireworks this time. Maybe I was looking for more layers and complexity?
Loin of welsh venison, beetroot, chestnut

This stole the show. Juicy slices of tender venison with a chunk of beetroot. A simple palette of flavours flawlessly executed.
Whipped goat's cheese, beetroot, Regent's Park honey, pine nuts
It’s the third item with beetroot. Frankly I was a little tired of it. The honeycomb gave the dish substance, and blended beautifully with the feathery goat cheese.

Lemon curd arctic roll, fig, pistachio
It did feel as though Chef Bryn had lost his steam in the desserts. I found this, dare I say, sickening. It was lumps and lumps of syrup. Sorry.

Chestnut cake, confit chestnut, cranberry sorbet
When the gentlemen next door asked for our views on the desserts, since they went a la carte, I shook my head. Chestnut cake was more like stale chocolate sponge cake, sprinkled with dried berries and four bits of broken chestnuts. I couldn’t help frowning when the server recommended it to his table. He went for apple crumble instead.

Notwithstanding the dessert disaster, it was a beautiful meal. A selection of the chef’s favourite dish for £60 (£85 with matching wines) was a bargain. Each course was gracious, creative and complacent. It was a showcase exhibition of the chef’s talent. I don’t see Odette’s earning any Michelin recognition, its washrooms are shabby and doesn’t have nicely stacked handkerchiefs in alternating colours. But guess what, I have already booked my next visit.

130 Regents Park Road
Primrose Hill
Tel: 020 7586 8569
Odette's on Urbanspoon

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