25hours hotel, Vienna

muralexteriorVienna in January is for the über-hardy or slightly mad. I’m from Minnesota (hardy), but not a fan of frozen eyelashes. My Viennese survival plan was to wander the streets just long enough to feel the icy burn, then spend the rest of the time indoors. Thawing. Nibbling. Alternating between tea and beer.

To cap off 3×10-hour days of this nature, the boyfriend and I were seeking cozy, laid-back quarters. Circus theme optional. But hey! Bonus! The 25hours hotel chain applies various themes to its 8 branches, and took a light hand branding its Museumsquartier, Vienna hotel with big-top style: Yes on whimsical furniture and colourful, dramatic accents, but No on live monkeys wearing vests. I’m all for a playful theme, but I don’t need clowns in the lobby, that sort of thing.

doorWhat I do need, apparently, is 25 ways to tell housekeeping to make up my room or not (via door tags, eg “Please place aspirin in front of the door, and leave”). Other needs were met with free WiFi, a loaner bike-messenger bag, and a quirky minibar. Besides these and a few other creature comforts, the hotel adopts a minimalist approach. As in many hip hotels that post-dated 2005, a spare aesthetic means edgy style but low cost. Here, simple metal racks replaced a wardrobe, crates replaced end tables, and a stuffed elephant toy…actually, I have no idea.

clothes rackBrushed concrete floors lent urban cool without sacrificing cosiness. The room heated up quickly and felt much like a winter-proof den when we drew the floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains over our windowed wall. The room had plenty of dance space and the bathroom could have held a disco floor of its own. It was skylit and covered in slate tile that produced a Zen-like echo under the rainfall shower. The large, refillable toiletry bottles encouraged savings: plastic, costs, kleptomania.

bathroomDownstairs, the lobby lounge presented relaxing corners and playful resources: a bench swing, a photo booth, an internet kiosk plastered with posters. Front-desk staffers spoke impeccable English, demonstrating efficiency and casual cheer, whether giving directions or manning the corner shop next to the desk, which sells travel-related ephemera and outrageous socks (4, please!). But possibly the best things these happy Austrians were peddling were free: bikes and car rides. A bike in January was fundamentally contrary to my self-preservation instincts, but a free ride in a Mini? The answer to every cold tourist’s prayers. The hotel has a partnership with Mini so a simple phone call from the front desk gets you a tiny chariot, on the house.

lobby2At the back of the lobby is an Italian restaurant, of sorts—1500 foodmakers—more zealous staff members, more urban-chic, and some really good pasta and pizza choices. (Though I was much more taken with the gnocchi than the white pizza.) In the summer guests can also eat at the hotel’s burger truck out front, overlooking a city park.

lobbyOne of the only aspects of the hotel we couldn’t fully enjoy, being warm-blooded mammals, was a long terrace lining the 8th-floor, glass-fronted bar. Token city architecture can be admired from it, from Rathaus (city hall) to the Hofburg museums. And inside…what a bar! Impeccable cocktails, creamy Austrian beers, and a zeitgeisty soundtrack had stylish locals draped all over the low-riding sofas alongside hotel guests. Even on a Monday the bar was still half full at last call (1 am).

We were happy Brits abroad by the time we checked out of 25hours hotel. We’d seen cool stuff, we hadn’t incurred frostbite, and we’d discovered accommodations that squeezed extra fun into our itinerary, even if we chose to simply laze in bed, under the ringleader’s smirk.

25hours Hotel Vienna at MuseumsQuartier, Lerchenfelder Straße 1-3, 1070 Vienna, http://www.25hours-hotels.com

REMEMBER:

  • Minimalism means you’ll have to bring your own corkscrews and travel adaptors (or ask to borrow them at the front desk)
  • There’s no room service, so pay attention to the restaurant’s hours
  • The nearest U-Bahn stop is only a block away: Volkstheater

FORGET:

  • You won’t find a gym, but the hotel does offer yoga sessions (and meeting rooms)
  • The restaurant doesn’t offer a full Italian menu; it’s almost totally pasta and pizza
  • There are no tea/coffeemakers in the rooms

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

 

 

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Kerala, India

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IMG_3090The first sign we were caught in a parade was the noise. Our plane had landed at the southern tip of India an hour prior, where we then hired a taxi to take us to the beach 60 km north. Now we approached a village, and above the din of horns and Hindu mantras broadcast from temples came the jaunty dischord of a band warming up. Our car inched slowly through lines of musicians in t-shirts, followed by women in full traditional makeup and jewelry, followed by five elephants, shackled and bedazzled with sequins and silk. The boyfriend and I gaped out the windows, delighted to be stuck in a colourful cacophany after four hours on a plane from Dubai. As we would discover in the next eight days, India’s south-western state of Kerala is noisy, colourful, and charming whether you’re in a parade or not. The adventure had begun.

We were en route to Varkala Beach from Thiruvananthapuram (pronounciation mastered, thank you very much). It was easy to rent a car and driver at the prepaid taxi stand, and a 1.5-hour ride cost only 1,470 rupees (about $23). Easy, cheap, but not exactly relaxing after I discovered India’s dirty little secret: there are no road rules. Or, if there are, they aren’t followed and the roads are paved with peril. Sometimes I found it comforting to not look out the windshield at all, given the near-misses as we swerved around auto-rickshaws and families on motorbikes, or joined a maze of vehicles swarming at an intersection like protozoa in a petri dish…and always honking, honking, honking. The horn seems as critical here as the turn signal; certainly it’s used more often. Of greatest concern to me were the many pedestrians just hanging out in the road, chatting or resting with their fruit carts.

After sunset our car tore up a little road to the south end of North Cliffs, Varkala Beach. To our left were the South Cliffs, home to a famous temple and a beach where funeral services take place. To our right was a long path along the clifftop. Straight in front of us? The glorious Arabian Sea. We grabbed our bags and headed right, to find our hotel along the clifftop.

IMG_2993Here is a special place in the world, despite Varkala’s commercial aspect, with its many shops and restaurants lining the cliffside path. Step carefully down one of the several crumbling staircases to the beach, and you have your own slice of the Malabar Coast; it’s not yours alone, but it’s breathtaking. Wild dogs roam around looking for hand-outs and old women sell coconuts and pineapple…they’re all part of the charm. At sundown the locals play football on the wet sand made orange by the sky.

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North Cliffs path, Varkala Beach

Tourists seem to be in equal numbers to the locals who work the businesses up on the clifftop, but they intermingle happily. We made more friends with locals than fellow tourists before departing three days later. At first we were taken aback by how friendly the Indians were, chatting with us and holding our hands as we spoke. More than that, they just seemed so happy and unafraid to show it. Men walk down the street with their arms around each other. Girls sit together in casual embrace. What a beautiful phenomenon, this happiness! I felt us coming out of our own hardened urban shells the longer we were in Kerala.

Our first friend was Ravi, the main man of Blue Moon Cafe, which we discovered midway down the path, having flung our bags into our new home at Bamboo Village and peeled off several layers. We had our first magical meal at Blue Moon that night, discovering how light and complex an authentic Indian curry can be. Mine was mild, but I gained confidence when ordering over the next week, as I came to realise Indian chefs aren’t out to smother me with spicy heat; the strength lies in the alchemy of spice combinations and fresh, fragrant ingredients. A few mustard seeds, some grated coconut, the tang of kaffir lime leaves…these simple additions make Kerala’s cuisine the best Indian food I could imagine. And if you haven’t yet discovered the fluffy heaven of a parotta, you have the luxury of continuing to believe naan will do just fine. This girl knows too much.

Traditional Kerala breakfast at Blue Moon

Traditional Kerala breakfast at Blue Moon

Ravi lured us back to his restaurant with respectful insistence on at least two occasions. One was for a traditional Kerala-style breakfast, which he personally started preparing for us at 8 am, in anticipation of our 9 am arrival. Three appams of doughy rice flour were laid on a plate like snowy white pancakes. We ladeled a spoonful from each of two bowls onto an appam, and ignored Indian convention by tearing in with a knife and fork. The vegetable masala was buoyed by the lighter coconut broth. We had a few masala dishes while in Kerala, and came to learn there are subtle differences in flavour and spice level, although you won’t know which you’re getting until it’s in your mouth. Masala is the general term for spiced, and can apply to even a chai tea. That breakfast is burned on my brain – us chewing rapturously on the sunny terrace of Blue Moon while Ravi shared pictures of his family and stories from 15 years of work in Varkala.

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Blue Marine Resort, Varkala Beach

The first two nights we roughed it a bit in an adequate bungalow at Bamboo Village; we didn’t miss hot showers (it was 34°C outside), but it wasn’t as clean as we’d hoped. After two days we moved to a lovely big room at Blue Marine Resort. Our room was in the main building, set back across a courtyard. Our shared first-floor balcony overlooked the outdoor restaurant/bar at the front, by the cliff path, which perfectly framed the sunset over the sea. The guys who work here, Vinod and Aji, are beyond friendly; they gave us advice and served us beers late into the night, playing guitar and singing Beatles songs with a Malayam accent.

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Blue Marine serenade

A word here about costs: if you can get yourself to this part of the world, you can live cheaply for about five times as long as you might on other trips. Rooms can be rented for as little as 800 rupees ($12, as at Blue Marine) or as “much” as 4,000–5,000 rupees ($63–$79). Dinner will often cost as little as 600 rupees ($9.50) for two; ours were usually about 1,300 rupees ($20) with four 22-ounce Kingfisher beers. We bought leather shoes for the equivalent of $8 at one of the cliffside shops. You’re expected to haggle for a bargain, but I couldn’t bring myself to most of the time; shopkeepers work such long hours for so little profit, and I felt suddenly wealthy for the first time in my life.

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Backwaters houseboat

We left Varkala with reluctance, headed north via taxi to Quillom, where we caught the 10 am public tourist ferry through Kerala’s backwaters to Alappuzha (Alleppey). The 1,500-km backwaters network is made up of freshwater and saltwater canals, lakes and lagoons. There’s a variety of ways to traverse them, but at this time of year (February), they weren’t jammed with boats, as I’d feared. Our ferry service ran once daily and carried only about 20 passengers, but had a capacity for triple that. The 400-rupee ($6!!!) eight-hour ferry ride suited us well, although the houseboats looked like an inviting way to travel if you were with a group and could spread the costs. A Canadian traveller told us he had spent a night on a houseboat with only his companion, the chef and the driver. He had dined under the stars and slept comfortably on a bed inside. IMG_3069Motoring slowly through the backwaters is a sublime way to glimpse rural India: women washing pots on the banks, families bathing and splashing each other, Hindus walking to temple along riverside paths, cows and goats grazing beside laundry drying in the sun. Hindi chants echoed off the banks as we drifted by houses as vibrant as Easter eggs. Many people stopped in their tracks as they heard our motor approaching, broad smiles breaking out and frenzied hands waving. I was beginning to discover Indians’ interest in me as a foreigner. Varkala has a plethora of white tourists, but we were entering a part of Kerala that saw mainly Indian tourists; I had become the object of curiousity. IMG_3059

We reached Alleppey at sundown, and a rickshaw driver engaged us immediately after we disembarked, thrusting a hotel business card into my hands. Why not? It was a gamble, but we felt no obligation and had no other prospects yet. The Gowri turned out to be a neat little estate of cottages, and we chose a quirky treehouse room. From our perch among the jackfruit trees, you could hear only marginal nighttime street noise but — quite distinctly — morning mantras at the temple next door. I love such involuntary wake-up calls in a foreign country — the strange harmony of human voices and weird bird calls mixed with rickshaws tearing through the streets, reminding me before I open my eyes that I am deep in the heart of no place like home.

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Dyed yarn drying in the sun

Another of the hotel’s rickshaw drivers, Kabir, offered to take us to the city of Cochin, 60 km north. We had been thinking of taking a taxi, but he promised to follow small coastal roads and make interesting stops. Saying yes changed my life a little bit. It took twice as long as a taxi ride, but we took in ten times as many sights, sounds and smells in our open-air rickshaw. Twenty minutes on the road, Kabir pulled over by a brick wall and told us to follow him. Beyond the wall we found a yarn-dyeing plant. We stepped delicately around huge vats of dye and piles of fluffy yarn drying in the front yard. Kabir led us to a roofed area where two men were making colourful rugs on old wooden looms. Try getting that out of an Uber ride.

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One woman, many coconuts

Turning husks into rope

Turning husks into rope

At the next stop we met a woman at a mat “factory” fashioning rope out of coconut husks, binding their threads together in long strands being twisted by a small machine. She took 20 mincing steps backward, away from the machine as it twisted, charting her course along the sand floor, only to return to the machine and start another strand. I think of her now, still binding filament after filament, in the shade of the corrogated roof, all day long, every day. Two men worked looms behind her, turning her rope into sturdy brown floormats, such as you see outside doors all over America. The primitive machines clacked and creaked as the men worked the gears.

Back on the road, we caught glimpses of the sea as we worked our way north. The rickshaw next slowed to a stop outside a coconut oil plant, where a tiny old woman bent over, sorting hundreds of coconut shells in the midday heat. Inside the plant Kabir showed us a huge machine that consumed the coconut meat and spit out pressed oil, which would be bottled and sold for ten times its value to Western markets. Glimpsing all these moments of working life enriched our relationship with India, I think. It feels right to remind oneself of the human effort that goes into creation of the products we use every day in the Western world.

This man probably made your doormat.

This man probably made your doormat.

Fishing nets outside Cochin

Fishing nets outside Cochin

Next Kabir showed us the little-known Marari Beach…the kind you dream about at your desk…with soft, pristine white sand and dogs sleeping in the shade of moored boats. He saw the joy in our eyes and turned to us to ask, “You stay here?” For a brief moment the boyfriend and I could see our whole lives blissfully unfolding if we just…stayed here. But we’d promised ourselves more than sand on this trip, so it was back into the rickshaw and on to Cochin.

Upon entering the outskirts, we made a final stop, to see up close one of the very large “spider” fishing nets found all around Cochin. The net is attached to the ends of long wooden poles extended over the water. The fisherman, a short man with high hopes, pulled on weighted ropes tied to the poles, and the net rose from the water, dripping empty disappointment. Back down it sank, in another cycle of ancient labour that repeats itself every day, for endless days.

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Fishing net weighted pulley system

Almost immediately after we said goodbye to Kabir in Cochin, I was plotting our escape. It’s a nice enough little city, with Portuguese colonial architecture and a burgeoning art scene, but I felt stifled as we navigated the burning midday streets of the Fort Cochin neighbourhood, dodging motorbikes and trying to find wifi to explore hotel options. This neighbourhood is on the water, but not the actual waterfront, and the heat is staggering when you’re even a block away from the sea breeze. Plus, as a city kid who doesn’t get enough nature, I felt irritated by the hassle of negotiating a foreign city centre at that moment.

With only four days left of our trip, we decided to spend just one day and night in Cochin. There are several homestays in the area, which are rooms in homes where you can experience the food and customs of an Indian family. We opted for a nearby hotel room instead; after a shower and rest, we headed to the centre of Fort Cochin, to find its Tourist Desk. This service offers a two-day, one-night tour to Munnar, in the Cardamom Hills east of Cochin. The hill country is dotted with old estates formerly used by British colonials for a cool mountain respite in the summer. The real draw for us was the tea plantations, having an intense curiousity about where our daily fix comes from.

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Munnar is only about a four-hour drive from Cochin, but the tour promised many interesting stopping points that would stretch it into almost a full day. Some did prove interesting; others may well have been, if we had known what we were looking at. It turned out our driver spoken very limited English. We pulled up to an elephant camp in Kodanad around 9 am. “Where do these elephants come from?” I asked him. “Yes!” he exclaimed. After a few similar exchanges, I christened myself the unofficial tour guide, reading from our Rough Guide book and educating the other English passenger and a couple from Rajasthan, our travelling companions.

Ayurvedic spice garden

Ayurvedic spice garden

To be fair, the Tourist Desk brochure said nothing about a guided tour. But then, it also didn’t advertise a driver with a near-fatal intent to overtake every vehicle he encountered for two days. Nor did it promise a close encounter with the back of an oil tanker that stopped short after we’d been tailing it for two miles. Finally, it failed to describe the exhilaration of careening 60 mph through a highway construction site in near-darkness on our arrival back in Cochin. I had become used to a prolonged sense of terror in rickshaws driving through cities, but this trip in the back of a seatbelt-less SUV on steep roads pretty much drained every drop of relaxation I had soaked up on this vacation.

That said, the views from our backseat were incredible. We zipped up the hills through vibrant green tea trees, which clung like a carpet of neat puzzle pieces to the jagged landscape. At Kodanadu we had watched five elephants bathed in a river — a twice-daily routine that I don’t fully understand (can’t they clean themselves?) but they seemed to relish. We also stopped at Cheeyappara waterfall, and made an unofficial visit to one of many roadside Ayurvedic spice gardens. But the Munnar Tea Museum was the pinnacle of the day (physical and metaphorical), and we spent a happy hour watching tea leaves being sorted, oxidised and dried, before sampling a couple of brews in the lobby.

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Tea trees in Munnar

01cafe95a4c875108bec89b4aae09556ccdda14370We stayed that night at a four-room bungalow the Tourist Desk runs in south Munnar, called The British County. Two lovely girls took care of us, prepping the rooms, making us chai and serving us savory meals in a dining room with knock-out views of the Sahya Mountains. The British County has no TV or wifi, so after the sunset we watched regulated fires burning on the far-off mountainside, then read books until we were sleepy.

The second day of the tour covered Kundala Lake, Mattupatty Dam and the Top Station; the latter is a 1,700-m-high lookout point on a ridge among the mountaintops of the Western Ghats. Tea pickers used to bring their leafy loads up to this station for transportation and processing. The visitor who makes the extreme effort to hike steeply down a trail — and then up, to reach the furthest vantage — is richly rewarded. There were 360-degree views of Indian countryside such as I’d never envisioned. So green! So open, wild, and remote! I saw then how Kerala had come to be dubbed “God’s own country”.

IMG_3271I snapped the photo above at a rest stop on our tour, charmed by the sleeping dog on the stones. In the bottom of the frame you see an extinguished fire in some kind of basin. This is unusual, in that the fire had obviously been contained: the only evidence of a contained fire I witnessed in India. For days I’d been puzzling over the many random small fires we had passed…on the roadside, behind a restaurant, in front of a house. Turns out they’re burning trash, but the irony is that litter seems to remain a huge problem in India. In other words, I figure there should probably be like 500 times as many fires as we saw, at any given time. Our Indian tour mates thought nothing of tossing an empty cup out the car window, or chucking a wad of paper shoulder-wise into the ravine of a pretty tea plantation. Such seemingly systemic behaviour has resulted in a blight on most of the lovely natural places we visited. Stop the car, gaze at the view, then pan down from any given scenic point: there it is, on the ground below, litter, litter everywhere.

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(Litter not pictured)

After our weekend in hill country, we decided to end the vacation with two days on the beach. A little-known treasure about 25 km north of Cochin is Cherai Beach. We rickshawed over a bridge and up Vypin Island, arriving at Baywatch Beach Homes. We had booked a standard room on Agoda.com, but the manager insisted on showing us an option to upgrade; this decision turned out to be pretty much a no-brainer, after he showed us the windowless room we had reserved. As he flicked on the sharp flourescent light, a terrified cricket fled underneath the bed. We were used to bare bones, but an oceanfront room with toilet paper seemed like a nice prospect for our final two nights.

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Baywatch Beach Homes

Our air-conditioned room had patio doors opening onto a broad shared balcony with tables and chairs. Hardly anyone ventured onto the balcony for two days, except the wait staff when we ate our meals in front of our room, the better to view the sunset. Other times we walked downstairs into the open-air dining room, oddly reminiscent of a 1980s skate park. The staff at Baywatch were so nice, and the location so perfect…only a few steps and we were on the beach. It didn’t matter that there weren’t many other restaurant options or bars nearby; the only reason we found to leave the property was to take a short trip into town for some shopping.

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Pubescent paparazzi

Cherai Beach stretches for miles but it seemed so pleasantly empty; this was mid-February, and the end of tourist season. A few hotels neighboured ours, but they were sparsely occupied. Most locals didn’t use the beach until the sun fell low in the sky. Those who did appear during the day often wandered our way and stood in groups, mostly of teenage boys, gaping at our white skin and… taking our photos?! I had become accustomed to this on the roads, as boys on motorbikes screeched to a halt, wanting a “selfie”. Driving through villages, I’d been starting to feel like Princess Di as people caught sight of me in a rickshaw and began their frenzied waving, nudging their friends. But in my swimsuit,  trying to find peace in this beautiful stretch of beach, I could never shake the discomfort at being stared at. I couldn’t even come to terms with their wanting photographs of me, despite the boyfriend’s assurances that they’re just fascinated and want to show people they have Western “friends”. I think I’d need an extra week to get past this odd aspect of Indian beach culture, but it didn’t taint my joy at playing in gentle waves and taking long morning walks.

I’m back in the London winter now, watching my tan fade to freckles. A vibrant slideshow of memories plays in my head as I stare at the map of South India on our kitchen wall. The area we travelled, 375 km from Thiravananthupuram to Calicutt, looks such a tiny part of India. There are so many varied experiences one can have on such a massive subcontinent, and mine ended up surprising me; what I saw seems so markedly different to the India I had heard about, all dusty city streets and poverty. Kerala has both, but so much more.  Mine is an India of smiling faces, balmy ocean scenes and colour everywhere. I might stay away forever to preserve it that way. IMG_3128


REMEMBER:

  • Chai in India is simply black tea cooked in a pan with milk and sugar, resulting in a creamy, caramely drink, not a spiced latte such as you find at Starbuck’s
  • It’s often the custom to remove your shoes before entering a building
  • The further north you travel in South India, the more Muslim it is; alcohol is scarce and you should cover your shoulders and legs

FORGET:

  • Toilet paper, unless you bring it; you’ll find a hose beside the toilet instead and if that confuses you as much as it did me, educate yourself in advance
  • Drinking tap water, or eating ice or vegetables/fruits washed in local water
  • Visiting from March to November, unless you prefer extreme heat and monsoons

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

XVA Cafe, Dubai

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In Dubai, a city akin to Las Vegas without sin, the boyfriend and I found something unexpected: an artistic, unassuming restaurant serving pan-Arabian vegetarian food worth twice what we paid. Not sin, but not unlike it.

We had been increasily weary and hungry, walking along the Dubai Creek under the midday sun, and ground to a standstill outside a government building and a mosque. Neither promised respite for two pale, agnostic, famished civilians. Forcing ourselves onward, around a bend in the creek, we walked straight into the Old Dubai complex that harbours the Al Fahidi neighbourhood. This cool stone warren of walls and pathways guided us through artworks and smelled vaguely of coffee. We wandered into the heart and discovered the exquisite XVA Cafe, hotel and galleries, nestled among other restaurants, a coffee museum, and Dubai’s architectural society.

IMG_2903The cafe is in airy courtyard shielded overhead by long, billowing strips of fabric. The Arab sun, even in winter, can be keel-inducing, but here ex-pats, locals and tourists alike languoured comfortably at wood and rattan tables and chairs, reflecting the calm of their surroundings. A tree in the courtyard’s centre had become the site of an art installation; small colourful dresses hung from its branches. In fact, artwork was everywhere to be seen, along the outer perimeter of the courtyard—in galleries and shops toeing the line between Middle Eastern and American sensibilities. XVA’s owner is an American, and I imagine she sensed a need for somewhere breezy, light and inspiring in a city dominated by, on the one hand, glass and steel, and on the other, ornate Arabian decor and the thick smoke of shisha pipes.

IMG_2904I asked for a mint lemonade, and our waiter smiled shyly, pointing at our placemats. Turns out my random choice has widespread appeal: the placemats were laminated pages from the XVA guestbook that bore several scrawled love letters to the epic lemonade. Vivid green rather than yellow, this nouveau slushie came with a whole mint leave surfing its icy peak. Despite the intense colour, the flavour was somehow delicately lemony and a perfect blend of sour and sweet. Vitality restored!

For a light lunch I chose the tabbouleh and, on the side, caramelised-onion hummous and pita bread, which was more than enough for an average-sized, albeit exceptionally hungry, patron. Homemade hummous was also on the boyfriend’s plate—the red pepper variety—and both kinds were far superior to any I’ve tasted outside the Middle East. His order was bean-cakes, resembling two smooth, charred pancakes and boasting a tender bite with beautiful seasoning. A salad of feta, cucumber and tomato sat side-saddle on his plate.

IMG_2905Meat seemed quintessential to nearly every other restaurant we visited while in Dubai. But at XVA, the abundance and freshness of cuisine would leave only the most cavernous carnivorous appetite unabated. And for us—staunch vegetarian sympathizers—XVA was like finding Mecca.

Service was flawless, and we spent a happy half-hour undisturbed after our meal…sitting back, feeling a light breeze, gaining back our strength. It was Valentine’s Day, and although that fact had escaped us until we saw the staff setting up decorations for dinner, we felt justifiably romanced. I would have chosen no other setting for an intimate meal far from home.

Al Fahidi Neighborhood, Bur Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

The Crooked Well, London

IMG_2878 England has mastered the pub, but it’s America that has mastered the gastropub. Since moving to London I’ve spent the past five years fighting depression every time I scan the menu of a gastropub (so much promise in the name! so much disaster on the plate!). The Crooked Well seems to have been hiding in plain sight from me in Camberwell, South London. Here is a pub that combines high-calibre cuisine with the ubiquitous neighbourhood comfort of every English watering hole.

The boyfriend remarked to me that it felt like someone’s home. Three connected rooms all have tables and seats, but with a slightly different vibe: the “dining room” (tables for four, standard restaurant set-up), the “kitchen” in the middle (tall tables and a bar where you can watch the mixologists) and the “living room”, with plush seats pulled up to low tables.

IMG_2873It may be homey, but it’s not your parents’ home. The whole place has an air of artless cool to it…rough-hewn wood tables and old lighting fixtures, twee wallpaper, line drawings of common fish and insects, an old railway map, and a small library perched among large mason jars of pickled things. It’s like the home of your hip older sister who runs a vintage stall and makes her own furniture and killer cocktails.

Enough visual feasting; the drinks arrived and we tucked into some sublime salt-and-pepper squid with spiced mayonnaise. Most calamari should be ashamed of itself, dripping with oil or suffocated with batter. This struck the right balance of texture and didn’t fill us up before the second act. At this point we noticed random twos and threes of swanky-looking customers floating down from a back staircase. Turns out there are rooms upstairs you can hire. There’s also supposed to be live jazz and other happenings, but the website’s out of date on this point.

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Salt-and-pepper squid starter

I can’t really emphasise how pleasant the staff were. Not that “we’re-English-so-we’re-always-polite-but-just-masking-our-menace” — but, like, genuinely pleasant and dispatching the kind of elegant table service that made me forget I was in, essentially, a pub. We didn’t have to visit the bar once, although that is an option if you’re just there for drinks. A small crowd idled by the bar for hours, chatting and watching the bartenders shake the living daylights out of designer spirits.

My sea trout steak made its entrance on a broad glass plate, balancing itself against a stack of stiff crushed potato and festooned with a sprig of greens. The pink flesh fell apart neatly with the touch of a fork, cooked to perfect moistness — the little pot of creamy butter sauce was there only for added flavour. Small cubes of gummy lemon were scattered about the scene. You could take away most of the players here and still have a fresh, tasty meal but the full cast made it outstanding.

IMG_2876IMG_2875The boyfriend ordered the no-nonsense chargrilled picanha, or rump cap as we call it in the States. You have to admire a dish with only three ingredients, two of them arguably condiments. It was all about the steak, which delivered tenderness and rich flavour. A dish of cafe de paris butter was at the ready for slathering, a blend of 16 ingredients. A lone roast tomato completed this simple spread, which the boyfriend supplemented with pommes frites in a moment of panic at the prospect of a one-item meal. The fries were a welcome addition and big enough to share.

Camberwell has some really nice choices for foreign cuisine, but there’s a shortage of droolworthy upmarket English food anywhere in South London. I’m hoping this means the Crooked Well has secured its niche for a long future. I’ll wander back even if I’m not hungry — they have a Thursday Night Cocktail Club, and your hip older sister makes a mean Peruvian Shakedown.

16 Grove Lane, Camberwell, London SE5 8SY


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

S’Mac, New York City

S'Mac I walked into Sarita’s Macaroni + Cheese, aka S’Mac, with eyes wide open. I walked out really, really full. Like, 8-hours-later-not-a-hint-of-hunger full. That night I finally forced myself to have a hot dog around 11 pm because I was drinking beer and didn’t want to lose my head. I regret nothing.

My sister told me about this East Village branch of the two-restaurant chain. I can’t always get past the kitsch factor of some NYC restaurants, like Peanut Butter & Co, another invention of S’Mac’s founders, but this is mac-and-cheese. This is one of America’s greatest culinary offerings. And this is all that’s on the menu. Well, there is a mixed green salad to be had on the side but why kid ourselves?

S’Mac offers mac-and-cheese in every beatific form you could envision. If none of the 12 suggested flavor combos strike the right note, you can build your own with toppings that borrow inspiration from Italian cuisine….andouille sausage, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, fresh basil and figs. That’s right: FIGS. Do not try this at home with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You need quality macaroni and quality cheese to bear up under the irony of a delicate fruit. S’mac delivered. (And delivers, apparently!)

The boyfriend and I didn’t trust our building skills that day; I’ll have to live with never knowing if buffalo sauce complements tuna. We ordered the Mediterranean, the Parisienne, and the down-and-dirty 4-Cheese, in three “nosh”-sized portions to share. Upgrading even one dish to “major munch”, “mongo” or “partay!” size seemed like it actually might create problems walking out the door later. As it happens, even a “nosh” size of that much pasta and cheese should probably come with a warning for those with a heart condition.

Deceptively dainty cast-iron skillets were placed at our window counter seat with tiny custom oven mitts. Hot slabs of sunshine on a chilly day, in three skillets with two forks. NO REGRETS. The Parisienne kind of blew them all away for me, with brie, figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms, and fresh rosemary, but it was hard not to return to the siren song of the 4-Cheese…there’s something about an all-cheese m&c. In this case, replacing American hyper-orange cheez with grown-up dignitaries (cheddar, muenster, gruyere and pecorino) transports the dish leagues away from your college dorm room.

The Mediterranean was a lovely balance of goat cheese, sauteed spinach, kalamata olives and roasted garlic, equally at home here as on a pizza. S’Mac takes a basic homestyle dish to a transcendental level, but I liked that they kept the decor sort of old-style fast-food joint…plastic orange and yellow chairs and tables, root beer, ordering at the counter. Everything this satisfying should be this simple.

345 East 12th Street, New York, New York 10003 USA

Delivery/take-and-bake available!


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Ekachai, London

Ekachai-dining roomI had wheedled my way out of a group dinner for my friend’s birthday, and offered to take her out solo instead. My objective was a price range that belied quality of cuisine, and close proximity to my physical therapist so I could hobble there after my appointment. Out of four options I presented to my friend, she picked Ekachai, the Liverpool Street location of this small chain.

London’s City financial district has a cornucopia of banker’s budget restaurants, fast-lunch options, and Ekachai, nestled in an unglamorous arcade by Liverpool Street underground. The menu claims to offer Southeast Asian street-style food, but I’d have to be a much more graceful eater to consume a hefty bowl of curry on a sidewalk.

A Monday night visit required no reservation. The restaurant has two floors of seating but that evening only saw about 15 customers at any given time, which meant the wait staff was attentive and forgiving. Bare wood tables and metal chairs don’t scream relaxation, but this space had feng shui in spades; I felt at peace in the roomy downstairs dining room.

We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and took our time ordering food, drawing out the process after choosing “soft shelled” crab to start. (The soft shell was intact, so I’m chalking this up to a grammatical mishap on the menu.) Our waitress came back again and again with the same patient smile, until we decided on our main courses.

Ekachai-soft shell crab

The crab starter was diminutive but divine. A whole soft-shell crab was lightly breaded and deep fried, then laid on a leaf beside a pot of sambal chili sauce. Apprehension about how to approach sharing gave way to raw desire. We tore the little guy in half and spent the next 90 seconds crunching happily. The chili sauce was potent and I went easy on dipping, leaving my palate open for the sublime subtlety of fresh crab meat.

Ekachai-kitchenOnce agreed upon, the main dishes took less than 10 minutes to reach our table. Mine was a steaming, golden bowl of Malaysian Kapitan Chicken curry. I chose egg-fried rice to accompany it and surprised myself by stopping just short of wolfing it all down. A good curry often goes down faster than my stomach can protest, but this was quite a generous portion. The light curry broth boasted great depth of flavor through roasted coconut and lemongrass.

My friend had an equally gratifying—if stodgier— main: the Char Kway Teow. She opted for prawns over tofu, which came tangled on a smoky brown bed of flat rice noodles. Like the ubiquitous Pad Thai loved by Westerners worldwide, this dish merged a rich sauce with satisfying bite. Egg and bean sprouts sang back-up for this crowd-pleaser.

We scraped back our chairs and sipped our wine, letting the enzymes do their thing. Our waitress gave us time and space to linger. We took a quick trip upstairs and discovered a bathroom so comically small we had to take turns closing our cubicle doors. Disappearing out the door, I was struck again by the drab interior of the arcade and how this bright spot had brightened my evening. Here is a little capsule of a Southeast Asian canteen in the heart of London, and for those missing Thailand on dark days, it’s a happy escape.

 9-10 Arcade Liverpool Street, London EC2M 7PN


Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

El Vez, Philadelphia

El VezI occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, craving fish tacos. Sometimes chicken. With guacamole. I moved to London from California five years ago and it’s an anomaly anywhere in Europe to eat at a restaurant with actual Mexicans in the kitchen. Last October I was on a mission to consume my weight in tacos before my East Coast US trip was over.

El Vez seemed the perfect mix of fun and tasty for me (vacationer with a low threshold for spice), my boyfriend (Londoner wary of the south-of-the-border culinary unknown), and my old friend (married a Mexican, knows her enchiladas). This joint keeps the menu short and punchy, focusing on Cali-Mexi street food and eschewing any complicated flavors from lesser-known regions of Mexico.

The restaurant is tucked into a pleasingly thriving little pocket of Central Philly, on 13th Street. A lot of little boutiques, restaurants and wine bars have converged here in recent years and lent this part of 13th style and return appeal. El Vez is the big, flashy place on the corner, with the roar of voices leaping out each time someone opens the door.

The atmosphere is a bit of a nuevo rockabilly joyride…colorful and eager to draw out the playful side of patrons either starting out a big night or ending it with a solid meal. This is a Stephen Starr endeavor, and anyone who knows the style of this acclaimed Philadelphia restaurateur is familiar with his penchant for taking a theme and running with it (other favorites: Pod and Buddakan). If the theme here seems ambiguous (are tricked-out low-rider bikes specific to Mexico?), you can boil it down to one critical element: good times. The evidence is in hundreds of photo portraits in a busy mosaic lining the entire back wall, and the lively crowd circling the bar and getting glam in the photo booth.

My posse was not out for a wild Saturday night, but found El Vez equally accommodating of those wanting serious conversation over seriously fresh, flavorful food. The din that permeates the main floor and bar area dissolved when we were seated in a windowside booth by the door. Our server (Mexican!) was personable but not in-your-face—recommending when prompted, hanging back to allow decision, appearing in a snap as my empty margarita glass hit the table.

The classic El Vez Margarita, made with homemade lime puree, is a beautiful way to start your meal with quintessential chips-and-guac. The Indian Red Lopez guacamole jumped out at me from the menu. It’s made with spicy crab, cilantro and salsa roja, and crab is not a choice I care to deliberate. If you put it on the menu—especially in huge delicate chunks in a sea of avocado—it’s going in my mouth. I didn’t even flinch at the “spicy”; it was mild, and beautifully brought out the fresh seafood taste. The Indian Red Lopez became one of the highlights of my entire two-week trip.

El Vez 2

We all ordered tacos for our main dishes. The boyfriend’s were vegetarian colache, delivering a great hit of umami with smoky roasted veggies and queso fresco. I went for the absolutely lovely-lovely mahi-mahi—light and crispy, with a punch of tangy chili remoulade. The friend had the best of all worlds with the taco tasting platter; each little beauty was rolled, folded or stacked in artful contrast to its brother: mahi-mahi; sea bass, with sweet potato and scallions; beef; chicken; and carnitas.

Given the “fun” hard at work at El Vez, I was thrilled that the low-key menu took itself seriously. The basic flavors and components of Mexican cuisine can be kept simple, but need freshness and balance to achieve excellence. The few things we sampled on El Vez’s menu checked all of these boxes. Back in London, late at night, I savor the memories.

121 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107, USA


Photography by Amanda Tallen

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society