Locomotoring

Seven continents, seven seas, seven billion people and seven thousand good eats …

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A Californian saag-paneer

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This saag-paneer recipe is unapologetically Californian. The only thing Indian about this is my homeland. The inspiration came from watching and then making Rick Martinez’s Pozole Verde. If you don’t have access to tomatillo or poblano, or you look at kale with trepidation, I recommend that you look for some other recipe. Like the “Thousand and One Nights”, there are a thousand variations of saag-paneer to dive into.

In this version, we are combining the bitterness, sweetness, savoriness and tartness of the components, to try and create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, like a complex mole sauce. There are two distinct stages here, that are independent. The first is making of the fragrant paneer, and once made, you can use it in other recipes. The second is the green sauce, built from roasted vegetables and slow braised leafy vegetables. The sauce needs to be paired with a rich protein source, like the paneer or a slow cooked pork. The final stage is putting it together.

Following makes 4-6 servings.


Stage 1: The paneer

Making paneer is like making fresh ricotta. Essentially, you scald the milk, add acid and take the resulting casein protein coagulate and make that into blocks that you can subsequently cut up. Here are what we are going to need:

  • 2 gallons of whole milk
  • Crushed cardamom seeds, remove the husk and use mortal and pestle to crush
  • Half teaspoon of turmeric powder, you can tell it is fresh from its aroma
  • 2 fat limes, zest and juice, keep separate
  • Salt

You can use any normal whole milk, but I am going to pay homage to Alexandre Milk (6% fat) – the first one I used to make this recipe. I mix the milk with a tsp of salt, zest of a lime or two, a half tsp of turmeric, a half tsp of crushed cardamom pods. Once it reaches boiling point, you put just enough lime juice to curdle the milk and get a clear whey. Then drain the coagulants away from the whey. The whey can be re-purposed if you are not lactose sensitive, it contains whey protein and is traditionally used in lentil soups. The coagulant can be pressed into a block, cooled and chopped into blocks.

I love the yellow paneer blocks in my green saag. Cardamom is a super spice. Its sweet tones go well with complex roasted flavors of the vegetables that will follow in the sauce. Once you make the paneer, you can stash it away for a few days.


Stage 2: Roasting the greens

Before we start, here is what we will need:

  • 2 medium or large poblano peppers
  • 1 head of garlic, wrapped in a foil with a teaspoon of water
  • 2 leeks
  • 6 tomatillo

In a pre-heated 400F oven, shove in poblano, tomatillos, whole head of garlic and leeks for 25-30 minutes. The leeks should be carefully rinsed to remove any dirt, the green parts separated from the whites, the whites cut into half longitudinally for better browning. The poblano peppers can be left whole or cut in half. The tomatillos skin should be taken off and the tomatillo rinsed, but otherwise left intact.

Once done roasting, cool and removed skins from poblanos and tomatillos.


Stage 3: Putting it together

Before you start, here is what you will need:

  • A large bunch of fresh tender spinach leaves, washed
  • A large bunch of fresh tender lacinato kale, washed, separate any hardy stems
  • Stems of a large bunch of cilantro, reserve the leaves for another use
  • 1-2 dried red chili
  • 4 tbsp butter or ghee (aka clarified butter)
  • Salt
  • Previous roasted vegetables from stage 2
  • Paneer from stage 1

Take the roasted leek greens and kale stems, add 6 cups of water and boil gently for 30 minutes. Strain the broth. Add spinach and cook for 30 minutes. If you are not sensitive to the oxalic acid in spinach, you can cook for a shorter time. Add kale and cook for another 15 minutes.

Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the cloves and blend together with roasted leek whites, poblano peppers, spinach, kale, cilantro stems. Add as much broth as you would need to make a thick cake batter like consistency for the puree. Add 4 of the tomatillos and taste the puree. Add the remaining two tomatillos if their sourness is not overwhelming. You may want to adjust salt at this stage.

In a large pot, melt 4 tbsp of butter/ghee, break the red chili peppers and toast them lightly. It is possible to modulate their heat down by nicking them instead of breaking them. Add the green puree. Cook for 10-12 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the chopped paneer blocks. Adjust salt to taste. You can keep this for a day or two.


Serving

Serve with cooked parboiled rice. I like to cook my rice like pasta – plenty of water and then draining the water out. This makes for perfectly cooked rice every time. To round this out, you can put together a plate of salad with fresh cucumbers, sliced red onions, and tomatoes. The red onions balance out the rich saag-paneer dish. Sprinkle with lime juice and flaky salt. Also toast some pappadam.

Written by locomotoring

June 9, 2020 at 8:07 am

2019, the year that flew away

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2019 is the year that I learned that orchids can bloom for an year. It was a seemingly ordinary orchid from the neighborhood Whole Foods. I had brought it home right before mom and dad’s trip in Sep 2018. The photo on the left below, in full bloom, is from Nov 2018, and the one to the right, with a single remaining flower, is from July 2019. Alas, I don’t have the skill to re-bloom my orchid.

We started a remodel of our home this year, and a large part of the design has revolved around maximizing the view of our neighbor’s majestic oak. To me, the process of remodel feels like trimming a tree and grafting new branches. New spaces will presumably create new possibilities.

Prior to the start of the remodel, we snuck in a quick trip to Philo in Anderson Valley. Nothing special, just a get away from the internet. It reminded me of the trip to Tokyo, the trees around the cottage were buzzing with the sound of cicadas. Those of us who live in California are spoiled by our microclimates. We go away for an hour or two, and we might as well be thousands of miles away. The first week that we had moved into our temporary abode, a mere mile from home, we were graced with visit from a curious deer family who live in the abutting hills.

The remodel is a mental tether, so travel is limited. We managed to squeeze in a quick trip to India at the peak of summer heat when mangoes are at their sweetest. My husband enjoyed his first taste of palm fruit, aka Talshansh in Bengal. He has always enjoyed the Bengali mishti version of the fruit called Nolen gurer Jalbhora Sandesh with fresh jaggery liquid on the inside and soft fresh cheese on the outside.

My grandmother’s home has been turned into a vocational training school. Over the last 5 decades, many wonderful memories have been created there. I remember the rangoon creeper (Madhumalati in Bengali) that surrounded the windows of the guest bedroom on the second floor. The intensely scented flowers attracted honey bees by the day and fireflies danced around the bed at night. Intense thunderstorms during monsoon nights were mesmerizing. Grandma would light sandalwood incense, kindled by coconut coir, in a genie lamp and walk about the house in the evening to shoo off mosquitoes. The mosquitoes inevitably came back, but the smell of incense lingered late into the evenings.

Many decades ago, the surrounding land was a charming small village abundant with ponds and trees.  The house was surrounded by beetle nut and coconut trees. And grandma would invariably ask someone to harvest while we were visiting and we would watch with our pounding hearts as the harvesters would free climb the tall trees. Ladies of the house would gather around the freshly harvested beetle nuts and indulge in their addiction before starting coconut grating marathons that would eventually turn into sweets for the kids. The rooftops had their own dedicated activities, from drying clothes to sunning pillows to drying lentil wadis. I remember my mother and grandmother, both drying their long  abundant hair in the warm afternoon sun during winters.

I particularly remember the polished cement floor of her master bedroom. It was a seamless geometric pattern in pink and cream. I try to imagine the skill and patience it would have taken to put together a continuous seamless block of cement with a wonderful geometric pattern. The end product was a floor that was buttery to touch and on hot summer days, we would lie down on the floor and listen to radio plays. We have been eyeing some of the handmade tiles from Heath and Fireclay for our home and I am grateful that these artisan tiles are still around.

When we left for India, we had a lot of green unripe fruits on the plum tree and came back to ripe ones. Based on a recipe from The Noma Guide to Fermentation, husband salt fermented the plums. We put these plums in everywhere we could think of, they turned out to be delightful in sauces – pasta with a hint of warmed and crushed black walnuts, thinly sliced fermented plums, tossed with garlic-y olive oil or truffle oil and lightly showered with lemon zest.

2019 was also special in that we were transported for a day to France. De Young museum organized an exhibition of nearly 50 paintings by Claude Monet, the final phase of his career when he was inspired by his own garden at Giverny. It was nearly as spectacular as a visit to Musée de l’Orangerie. Alas, thinking about Paris reminds me that there will be no more sunsets from the top of Notre Dame.

In 2019, we discovered food from Mexico City at our doorsteps! Since the first tentative taco, we have tried Huarache and Gordita. If you are in Redwood City, don’t forget to pay Los Carnalitos a visit and get cuitlacoche if it is on the menu.

Welcome 2020. I hope it doesn’t fly away like 2019 did.

Written by locomotoring

January 5, 2020 at 10:36 pm

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Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze

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Casteel is an accidental finding. A recent trip to Cantor, where I go for a quick fix when the right half of my brain needs nourishment, revealed the young artist, Jordan Casteel. Cantor is staging her west coast debut and first solo museum show. The collection is eye catching with its larger than life canvases and their vibrant colors. But then you start seeing the loving details in portraits of everyday people. Here are couple of my favorites from the collection.

Fatima 2018

Galen 2 2014

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November 30, 2019 at 8:38 pm

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Fruits of Japan

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A single bunch of grapes = $100 USD (approximate)


Pierre Hermé’s rose macaron with whole raspberries and lychees = $10 USD (approximate)

Written by locomotoring

August 7, 2017 at 9:25 am

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Onden Ippo in Harajuku

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Smooth jazz and eclectic “bar meet spa” decor are what you notice when you climb down to this basement restaurant.

Pickled cucumbers, and pickled bamboo shoots as appetizers.

Salad of cabbage, bitter greens, and a pretty little cherry tomato in a tangy mayo sauce.

Grilled mackerel.

Sashimi with sisho buds

The grilled mackerel is where my chopstick skills met its match. The fish was grilled crisp. If I were a cat, I could have just picked it up with my paws and munched it down head, spine and tail! I asked for a fork. To assemble, I picked up some of the grated daikon on my rice bowl and topped with some of the mackerel flakes before adding a dash of soy. Oh, it made me want grilled eel.

The customer next to me had ordered the mackerel as well. He was a dapper looking gentleman, and carried with him at least seventy five years of chopstick wielding experience. I was just a little embarrassed eating mackerel with fork, chopsticks and fingers. But I shouldn’t have been. The demolished  mackerel on our respective plates looked nearly identical. And I noted that both of us used fingers in coordination with our implements.

Written by locomotoring

July 31, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Uncategorized

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Sound of summer at the Yoyogi park

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Trees of Yoyogi park

Ikebana at Meiji Shrine

Jetlag in tokyo – Tsukiji market or Yoyogi park. In the end, the park won. It was closer. We headed out from our temporary home in Harujuku towards Meiji shrine. Tokyo has a delightful gadget called pocket wi-fi. So you can boldly go walkabout through narrow lanes without worrying about not leaving breadcrumb trails for the journey back home.

Tokyo is quiet for a big city. Early mornings should have been delightfully devoid of sound except for  an occasional cat prowling about. Instead, we were immersed in an inorganic buzzing sound.  At first, I wasn’t sure what it was,  the sound was localized around trees. Yet, no number of birds can create that racket. And when the sound got amplified in Yoyogi park, I remembered the cicadas. We were indeed hearing the sound of Japanese summer, the cacophony of cicadas. Early in the summer morning, the park wraps you in a wet warm blanket. You notice your breathing because it takes a tad extra effort in that viscous air.  The lack of sunlight on the wet musty ground lends a sense of  suspense. The wide variety of vegetation brings a wondrous quality to the perambulation. Yoyogi park casts a spell like Hayao Miyazaki’s world aided by the cicadas who drown out all thoughts with their cacophony.

Written by locomotoring

July 31, 2017 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Japan, Tokyo, Uncategorized

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Benu in San Francisco

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San Franciscans are smitten by Benu. Multiple Michelin stars decorate Benu’s crown. When we went to Restaurant Sant Pau a few years ago, Carme Ruscadella said good things about Benu. So we decided to make this the celebration spot for the 25th year of our partnership. It turned out to be a 20 course meal with 23 independent plates – almost one for every year!

Cold starter – chicken jelly (at the bottom) with lime peels in whipped cream layer served with pine-y mountain caviar (cypress pods braised in pork broth)

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March 27, 2017 at 3:57 am

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A few scattered moments …

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Life in Centro Historico.

A clockwork of traffic crossing opposite Bellas Artes – the traffic lights are like dams and when they burst at their seams, a turbulent river of people make across the road.

Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the flyers) in Chapultapec park, opposite Museum of Anthropology – one playing the flute. An incredible ceremonial performance.

A walk down La Condesa neighborhood.

Tianguis Condesa (Tuesday Condesa Market) on Calle Pachuca.

A lazy afternoon watching bubbles

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April 18, 2016 at 4:08 am

In search of grasshopper salt

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We knew we would be able to source good Mezcal (e.g. Amaras Espadin) in California. But we were also certain that there would be no easy access to grasshopper salt. We were lucky to be living right opposite, Tlapaleria Gastronomica in Roma neighborhood, that sold artisanal food products made in Mexico. And what respectable gourmet shop in Mexico City won’t have grasshopper salt amongst its wares!

Tlapaleria Gastronomica, a gastronomic hardware show in Roma, right next door to El Parnita.

Various varieties of Mexican chili in oil.

More combinations of various chillies.

Finally, chapulin (grasshopper) salt.

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April 18, 2016 at 1:53 am

View of a rooftop

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Following murals are from rooftop of Museo Del Juguete Antiguo. This was a bit of a pleasant surprise, no one had really mentioned that the local artists had adopted the rooftop. We just noticed someone walking up, above the topmost floor of the museum, followed them and found the collection.

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April 18, 2016 at 1:34 am

Dulceria de Celaya in Mexico City

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Dulceria de Celaya, founded in 1874, is a traditional sweet shop in Centro Historico district.

Fried and glistening with syrup.

Various sweetened fruits. Reminded me of “Petha” from Agra, the translucent sweet candy made from a variety of white pumpkin. The pumpkin is soaked in chemical lime before cooking in syrup. Sounds strange when described but tastes like Pâte de fruit.

Doughnuts

Almond milk and coconut concoction and guava Pâte de fruit.

Almond and coconut pâte de fruit, in a sugar cooked lime.

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April 11, 2016 at 6:17 am

Best steak at Mercado de Medellin

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Los Canarios at Mercado de Medellin was a recommendation from New York Times from “36 Hours in Mexico City”. Since 1968, Los Canarios has been serving grilled meats, like sliced filet mignon at price of a plate of taco!

Medellin is a vibrant colorful non-touristy marketplace with a neighborhood vibe.

Tasty black beans.

Steak with cactus and onions.

Trio of stunning salsas.

Backdrop of sizzling meats and chopping action.

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April 11, 2016 at 5:41 am

El Cardenal in Centro Histórico

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Be prepared for a 40-60 min wait or even longer. It would have been wonderful to try out all their dishes to find a few personal favorites. In our sampling, the mole sauce turned out to be stunning.

Fresh Oxacan cheese sauteed in butter, wrapped in zucchini blossoms, onions and strips of green chili and baked in banana leaves. Served with tacos. The fresh cheese is lightly salted, crumbly and not unlike taste of Indian paneer. Zucchini blossoms do not have a strong taste but they add prettiness to the dish. Served with an excellent green salsa and fresh made corn tortilla. Overall, a refreshing start of the meal. We had sufficient leftover that we brought back and had for breakfast the next day.

A stunning mole sauce with chicken leg. Mole had several varieties of chili, chocolate, spices, and peanuts. Chicken was cooked separately and mole was ladled on top.

Fall off the bone beef shank cooked in traditional spices. This was tasty but not unusual like the mole. Perhaps my own familiarity with south Asian spices made this particular dish less unusual. Again there was sufficient leftover that we brought back and had as part of breakfast tacos!

Written by locomotoring

January 3, 2016 at 9:44 pm

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Los Danzantes in Coyoacán

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Los Donzantes came after the visit to Casa Azul. Along with excellent food, this was our first experience with Mezcal. It turns out that Donzantes brand is one of the more popular mezcal brands. Mezcal is a whisky like alcohol made exclusively from agave cacti. It is almost always smoky.  The variety of agave results in other particular flavors.  Smoothness depends on the distillation and maturation process. It is sipped like a good brandy and between sips, you can cleanse your palate with salt – typically you get sliced sweet limes to suck down the salt. Grasshopper salt is traditional but not served as default. I would have to guess that the price of mezcal is proportional to the wildness of the agave variety (hence hard to produce in large batches) and romance around the brand is based on the remoteness of the distillery.

Up until Donzantes, my familiarity with agave was the grand flowering process. Near our old home, our neighbor’s agave, which was nearly as tall as me, bloomed over course of an year. My best guess is that it was Agave Americana variety,  the flowering stalk was as tall as a telephone pole. The plant died after the flowering process (their reproductive fate) and gave birth to a dozen small ones. I have always loved cacti, but after tasting mezcal, I am elevating my love for agave to the same level as my love for elephants. And please don’t head towards extinction, I promise I will drink wild mezcal in moderation.

Los Donzantes happens to be next to the beautiful Fuente de Los Coyotes in Jardin Centenario. So, in addition to their excellent Mezcal, al fresco dining without smoke and gasoline to flavor your meal is actually feasible here.

Fuente de Los Coyotes in Jardin Centenario

Early start to Mezcal, this is one of Donzantes reposado house brand.

Early finish to Mezcal!

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January 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm

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Real tamales in Mexico City

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Monasterio Tamales is a small food stall a few blocks from Frida Kahlo Museum. Perfect place to lunch before queuing up for the museum visit. And oh, these are the genuine article – fluffiness that can’t be brought about by “healthy” fats. A lunch that cost us a grand total of USD $4 for four tamales.

Savory tamales

Sweet tamales? I didn’t know this concept existed. But it makes perfect sense in hindsight.

We had ordered shrimp but I think they either ran out of shrimp that day or gave us a vegetarian option.

Cuitlacoche – famous tar-like corn fungus. We had our first taste of this fungus at a hole in the wall in LA. Since then, we have ordered Cuitlacoche anywhere we have seen it on the menu.

Mole

Guava (Guayaba) – this was surprisingly yummy. They had basically taken the guava pulp and discarded the seeds.

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January 2, 2016 at 7:47 pm

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El Parnita in Mexico City

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El Parnita was our first meal in Mexico City. Lunch in Mexico City commences around 2 pm – like in Barcelona. We arrived before the restaurant had opened. But the place filled up soon enough. Dogs and kids were welcome – we had two young babies on one side and a Mexican hairless dog on the other. Several other multi-generational families were present, this place is clearly popular with locals.

We started lunch with guanabana juice and ordered several tacos. Aside from the traditional Tlacoyos, the tacos were served on blue corn tortillas. Garbanzo Bertha was perhaps the most unusual although given the influence of lebanese cooking in carnitas, the addition of hummus shouldn’t have been surprising. Pibil sauce on fish felt unusual but to be honest, I have only had pibil once and that too home made following Robert Rodriguez’s puerco pibil recipe nearly a decade ago – from the DVD extra on Once Upon A Time in Mexico!

Our Google translator app managed to translate only 10% of menu but I think we would have been happy even if we had ordered randomly.

Great day outside

Eclectic and cozy inside

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Written by locomotoring

December 24, 2015 at 5:23 am

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Morimoto in Napa

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Morimoto at Napa, located at the town center. Pleasing decor. Particularly like the grape decor on the walls.

This is Chef’s selection of sashimi.

Crab legs with a mayo and roe spicy sauce. This is Morimoto’s most popular dish.

 

Some more sushi.

Rest of the plate which is an egg custard.

Tofu mousse with blueberry compute and sorbet.

 

Written by locomotoring

May 26, 2015 at 6:34 am

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What is a doswaffle?

Last weekend, we went back to one of our favorite Bay Area restaurants, Juhu Beach Club (JBC). Last time we ate here, we could still eat gluten and we were impressed by the pavs. This time, we opted for the JBC Fried Chicken n Doswaffle – gluten free! Waffles were made with dosa batter – fantastic concept, yes? And the fried chicken were dipped in lentil batter.

Juhu Beach Club Fried Chicken and Doswaffle

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Written by Som

April 18, 2015 at 10:45 pm

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Chocolate and Coffee at Dandelion

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Absolutely the best chocolate I have had so far…

There is XoX for the times when you want something romantic and there is Valrhona when you want a bite of something perfect knowing that it won’t disappoint. But Dandelion’s chocolate is for the moments when you to mix the two. In taste, it is like an intense Tcho, in texture it is like Valrhona, and after a bite, it makes you feel pampered like XoX. In the past, irrespective of where I wandered in the chocolate land, I always came back to Valrhona but now I am not so sure. Coffee at D is Four Barrel but if you are bringing Maya Mountain home, then try with Chromatic’s keynote.

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February 17, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Dos cafés y chocolate caliente

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Interior of Lilipep

I am not sure why good coffee is hard to find in Barcelona. Ditto for chocolate. Perhaps the Cava is so cheap, seafood so exceptional and cheese so plentiful that people never get around to the coffee and chocolate part of the day.
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October 22, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Tea and Cakes at Flurys

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Flurys, Calcutta

Flurys, Calcutta

Considered a landmark on Calcutta’s mindscape, Flurys on Park Street is an old tearoom in Calcutta that has been serving tea and pastries since late 1920s. Don’t expect mustiness of a hundred years – a few years ago, it underwent a total re-haul and was turned into a retro styled patisserie. It occupies a charming spot in the fashionable part of Calcutta, inviting the loitering visitors and busy locals alike for a spot of hot tea and fresh baked cakes and pastries. With a girlish pink in the logo and its old world black and white tiles, Flurys continues to engage a cosmopolitan clientele.

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Written by Som

February 27, 2010 at 10:38 pm