Friday, 22 May 2015

Lambeth Palace Open Gardens

Last night Becks and I went to Lambeth Palace which was open as part of the National Garden Scheme.

It was a really pleasant spring evening in which to drift round the gardens which aren't regularly open to the public. The gardens provide a little haven right in the heart of central London and it felt very tranquil even as a Sea King helicopter flow overhead and ambulances made their way to the nearby St Thomas' hospital.

There was an area of more formal garden next to the palace with some early roses in bloom and a lovely herb garden. Further away from the palace was a large lawn which had a path circling round the edge; with planting, bee hives and even a swing along the way to keep you interested.

Entry was £6 and included an enormous glass of wine to enjoy as you walked round. A very worthwhile visit to a garden that isn't open very often.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Polar M400 review

I vowed a long time ago that I'd never by another Garmin running watch. I've had at least six and their build quality seems to be terrible (at least in the watches I've had). So when my last Garmin started to malfunction I ordered a Polar M400 which is the top rated midrange watch on the excellent DCRainmaker.

It was a bit of a wrench leaving the Ant+ ecosystem for a watch which uses the Bluetooth Smart protocol, but I managed to recycle all of my old Garmin parts on eBay for a good price and it only cost me £50 to 'upgrade'.

Being a relatively new model, the watch is quite a bit leap forward from the Garmin Forerunner 210 which I was using before (and has been superseded in the Garmin lineup). For an example it has an internal pedometer, (supposedly) allows you to sync the watch via your phone, has customisable display screens and a predictive finish time etc...

I've been using the watch for just over two months now and here are my first impressions.

The Good
Firstly, and most importantly to me, the build quality feels really good. Polar are obviously backing themselves as it has a 2y warranty and is fully waterproofed. Things you didn't get with the Garmin.

The battery life seems really good. I haven't done any exhaustive tests, but I've been wearing the watch daily for the last six weeks and I get almost a weeks battery life out of it while using it for running and a normal day watch.

There aren't any single features which bowl me over, but the watch has a high 'just works' factor. As noted above it is quite a leap forward from my old watch customisable screens, a pedometer etc...

The heart rate monitor strap feels more comfortable.

The Bad
The online service Polar Flow looks good, but is pretty feature poor to be brutally honest. You have only recently been able to add manual activities if you head out running without your watch. You cannot edit the feature of a work out, give them names or flag races to make them distinct from training sessions. I used to use a label in Garmin Connect to mark which shoes I used for a given session in order to track the total distance I'd run in each pair. You simply can't do that with Polar Flow. As a web service they should be able to upgrade it and add some more decent features. Hopefully.

One of the attractions of the watch was the ability for it to sync activities via your phone so you don't need to connect the watch to your computer. I've never been able to get it to work. Step counts sync, running sessions don't.

When you've paused the watch (e.g. waiting at some traffic lights) you can't see any workout details on the screen as you are on a holding page. I can see plus sides to this as it is really clear when you have the watched paused, but I'd prefer to see any activity summary while I'm waiting at those traffic lights.

When you are using the watch as a normal day to day watch there doesn't seem to be a feature where you can see seconds on the watch, only hours and minutes. I'd like to be able to see second when I'm holding stretches and doing strength exercises etc... Seems a very basic feature not to have.

There seems to be a feature designed to stop you double tapping buttons. (The watch ignores the second tap if it is too close to the first, assuming it must be a mistake.) However, sometimes I want to double tap by starting to record and then triggering a manual lap.

It's different
If you are moving from a Garmin to Polar the watch is quite different and you'll need to re-adjust as those instinctive button presses won't work any more and the screens show different information. I found myself using the customisation options to make the screens look more like the Garmin ones I was used to.

From a running standpoint the biggest difference is the average pace that is displayed to you. On the Garmin there was an auto lap feature and showed you the average pace for the current lap. On the Polar, unless you are triggering manual laps, it shows you the average pace for your entire run. I got a bit caught out by this when I was at the Maidenhead 10 mile race and my average pace for the current auto lap would have been more useful - as I needed a kick up the bum because my pace was really dropping, but averaging it over the whole race masked this.

It might sound like I've listed quite a few negatives and there indeed a few, particularly with Polar Flow. However, the build quality and the 'just works' factor mean I am overall pretty happy with the watch.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Granger & Co, Clerkenwell, London

Fresh goat’s cheese, tarragon, dill, chilli & flatbreads
"Why do they have to put chill in everything? This only a simple tagliatelle, why is there chilli in it?"

We've all had that slight 'oh no' feeling when first being seated at a restaurant. The tables are a bit too close together for that romantic meal / gossipy catch up you were hoping for and the people that you are sitting a little too close to, frankly, look like they might be a bit annoying.

As we were seated at Granger & Co last Saturday night we had that feeling. One of the first (not particularly annoying) comments from our neighbours made was about the level of chilli in the food. Come On! This is Bill Granger, that icon of Sydney cooking who knocks out plate after plate of perfect scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes. If a dish has chilli in it, it's there for a reason.

Miso aubergine, fried tofu & shiso
However, it turns out their our neighbours were right. There was a complete overload of chilli, making appearance in all of the six small plates we shared.

Yes, it was meant to be there in the Korean Fried Chicken (which was the best dish of the night for me) but in other dishes it just felt a bit lazy. Like they'd thrown some chilli in because they couldn't think of any other seasonings. The  spiced lamb, aubergine tahini, halloumi, ricotta, parsley & pomegranate pizzetta could have really been lifted by some lemon zest or fresh mint, but instead was sprinkled with the default dried chilli.

Kim chee, spinach & ricotta dumplings, toasted chilli oil
It sounds like I am being quite down on Granger & Co, and in a way I am. Bills in Sydney hold some great memories for me and is a place I love going to and I was hoping that the London outpost of the same chain would be just as good.

The menu was in the classic Bill Granger style sounding light and fresh with a heavy dose of Asian fusion mixed in. There were some fun dishes, like the Korean Fried Chicken, where you could make your own lettuce parcels of chicken, herbs, lime juice and chilli sauce. The fresh goats cheese & flatbread was a winning start and I was pleasantly surprised by the French toast tiramisu dessert I had. I liked the rosehip & mint punch. Our waitress was knowledgable and friendly and there were awesome Aesop toiletries in the bathrooms.

Korean fried chicken, iceberg lettuce, spring onion & chilli sesame
However, too many of the dishes missed for me. Apart from the over abundance of chilli, the wrappers on the spinach and ricotta dumplings were too thick and doughy and the others didn't really come together as I hoped they would. I thought the pricing was a bit funny too, with all of the dishes nearly the same price, but the chicken a large portion and the charred baby corn just six pieces.

I was hoping to find a place where I could close my eyes and taste Sydney when I'm feeling a little homesick, but sadly it didn't happen for me.

Charred baby corn, mayo & parmesan

Spiced lamb, aubergine tahini, halloumi, ricotta, parsley & pomegranate pizzetta

Tiramisu french toast, cherries & cacao nib almond brittle

Chilled pandan rice pudding & poached fruit

Granger & Co
50 Sekforde Street
Granger & Co on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Dumplings Legend, China Town

Spicy pork xiao long bao
On Thursday night I met up with Ed for dinner after I missed our planned catch up last week by flying to Chicago for work. I fancied Asian food. Bao has been on my wish list for a long time, but their new restaurant in Soho has only been open for a few weeks and we didn't fancy battling the hipsters to get a table, so selected Dumplings Legend instead from Lizzie's excellent list of recommendations.

The restaurant has a good reputation for xiao long bao so we ordered a basket of the spicy pork xiao long bao. If there were more of us I would have been tempted to order a couple of steamers of different flavours, however, as there were just the two of us we decided to go for a bit of variety and also chose the steamed prawn dumplings.
Steamed prawn dumplings
Rather than being spicy, there was a burst of ginger soup as I bit into the pork xiao long boa. Some people are a bit fanatical about their xiao long bao. I don't eat enough of them to give a serious opinion, but I did enjoy them.

The prawn dumplings had generous amounts of large prawn pieces inside (too often it is minced finely) and were also good.
Beef brisket curry
Thinking the dumplings might not be enough we also ordered the curry beef brisket. The beef was incredibly tender and although it was only mildly hot it gave me the chilli hiccups which have become a recent embarrassing feature of when I eat something that is even vaguely hot.

The service was efficient with the food coming out quickly and the staff perfectly friendly. My only gripe would be that they add 12.5% service to the bill but this isn't made particularly clear and I suspect many people end up double tipping as a result. (I don't have an issue with service being added, just the fact it wasn't transparent.) We paid £19 a head all in.

I'd happy head back for a dumpling fix next time I'm in China Town.

Dumplings Legend
15-16 Gerrard Street

Dumplings' Legend on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Happy birthday to my blog: eight years old!

I commented that last year and been a slow one on the blog, but this one has been even slower with only fifty five posts in the year. Well down on my average of every other day while I was in Australia, but still a respectable post every week.

It has been quite a momentous year where I got engaged to the wonderful Rebecca, we had a fabulous trip to Spain and started building a house together. Nearly all the life events in one year!

The top ten most popular posts of the year were:
1. Reading Economist for free on a Kindle - hopefully the Economist's lawyers will never read this one and come knocking on my door.
2. Best kebab in Istanbul - a couple of awesome kebabs from my visit to Istanbul.
3. Camel Hydrobak Review - runners of the world have come to read the post.
4. Project Sourdough Elusive Air Bubbles - I haven't posted about my bread making much recently, but still enjoy to bake.
5. Great Ocean Road Marathon Race Notes - great race although I think the distance is a bit suspect.
6. Garmin Forerunner 110 Unboxing - one of my only attempts at an unboxing post. I'm not longer a Garmin wearer having decided they are too unreliable.
7. Which the better airline Emirate or Virgin - The answer is Emirates
8. Chicken and Leek Pie - Everyone loves a good chicken and leek pie
9. Ciya Sofrasi Best Restaurant In Istanbul - the final night of a week of gluttony in Istanbul
10. Kenwood KMix Unboxing - Unboxing a mixer that travelled from Germany to Sydney only for me to bring it back to London

Thanks for reading if you stopped by during the year.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A quick trip to Charlotte and Chicago

Shrimp and grits at The Kings Kitchen in Charlotte
Last weekend I was at Heathrow twice. First on the Saturday to pick up Becks from the airport and then, only fourteen hours later, back again to catch a flight to Charlotte North Carolina. It was an incredibly poorly timed work trip as it essentially means that Becks and I haven't seen each other in just over three weeks.

Here are some of the highs and lows.

The first high has to be that I didn't loose my phone down the side of the seat on the plane (which luckily shot out due to the forces on landing).

It was a bit of a whirlwind trip with only two days in Charlotte. I stayed in the rather plush Ritz Carlton hotel which had a lobby with a subtle smell of chocolate (although sadly no free samples). The room was well appointed, but mine faced into an internal atrium so it didn't have a great view.

The Tick Tock Diner seems to have closed down.
I did manage to fit in a couple of good meals while I was in Charlotte. The first was a lunch with work friends at Mert's Heart and Soul. Mert's is a classic Southern American restaurant and I decided to embrace with my Daily Fixin' of blackened pork chops, cornbread, collard greens and ocra and tomato ($12). It was tasty and (a bit too) substantial for lunch. 

That night I returned to The Kings Kitchen which I visited on my previous trip to Charlotte. The social enterprise was still serving up some great, and well presented, food with friendly service. I had another southern classic of shrimp and grits ($19). Their prices have edged up since I last visited, but not dramatically so.

Forty eight hours later I was back on a plane and heading to Chicago. The trip wasn't great (delayed flight, dreadful service and a taxi ride that made me feel queazy).

It was my first trip to Chicago and the city immediately impressed me. It had the feeling of a less intense New York. A lot of the same architectural styles, but friendlier and slightly slower paced.

Unfortunately I didn't managed to explore much of the city while I was there, although I did fit in two runs along the lake shore. On Wednesday night I headed north, and despite getting slightly lost at one point, stuck to the shoreline most of the way. I was then back out on the Thursday morning, heading south along the lake. There was quite a chilly breeze in the early morning and I could have done with my gloves!
Pastrami sandwich from The French Market
I managed to fit in a few good eats while I was there. The best was the pastrami sandwich ($9.99) I had from The French Market. Warm slices of tender beef, with some of their pickling spices still attached to the crust, were sandwiched between two slices of rye bread. Your choice of mustard came in a small pot on the side so you could add as much, or little, as you liked. It would have been great to get a pickle on the side as you do in many of the the NY delis.

We had a team dinner at the Kenzie Chophouse. I haven't been to a steak restaurant in a long time and I really enjoyed the ribeye that I ordered. We were quite sensible with the side orders which I think was a smart move.

While we were at dinner the Chicago classic Italian Beef Sandwich was discussed so I resolved to have lunch there on my final day. A quick bit of research and I discovered that this place was featured on the US TV show Man vs. Food. The beef sandwich was good, but not up to the standards of the pastrami which I'd had the day before.

Lunch consumed it was straight to the airport for the flight home!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Maidenhead Easter 10: Race Notes

Photo with the kind permission of Peter Cook on Flikr
When you race, get out strong, commit (if you haven't heard the reference before, the link is worth a read) is some of the best advice around. On Friday at the Maidenhead Easter 10 Mile race I went out strong, but didn't commit. I try not to make excuses in my race reports, but I've had a virus and strange abdominal pain over the last ten days and I definitely think they caused me to be a couple of minutes off where I should have been. However, it was still a race where I learnt quite a bit which I think will be useful for the marathon later in the year.

Going into the race I was more nervous than I've been in a long time, perhaps the most nervous I've been at a running race. I'm not really sure why, but I think there were two main factors. As a club we had an outside chance of winning the team competition. I was the weakest link in the chain and for us to stand a chance of winning I needed to put in a big performance. Secondly, I wanted to put in a strong performance and get as close to Amy, a fellow club member who is currently flying, as I could. I knew it wasn't really likely, but it doesn't stop you wanting it all the same.

Start Line
As we stood on the start line Stuart spoke to a Serpentine runner we know and asked them if they had a strong team out. Nick simply replied "yes" and it helped reduce some of my nerves. If they had a strong team our slim chance of winning the team prize was out the window and the pressure was off me. I felt a little better already.

0 - 4km
As the starting klaxon sounded, I went with my pre-determined plan and stuck with Amy. We headed out at a little quicker than my 10km pace, which was probably a bit too fast to be sensible, but just like at Wokingham when I went out fast, it felt ok. When we reached the 2.5km marker we saw the leaders come back towards us on the other side of the road and Serpentine were first, second and third. All chances in the team competition had definitely gone!

4 - 5.5km
We were slowly working through runners in front of us, catching little groups and moving through them. I was beginning to hope that Amy would be satisfied with the group we'd just caught and tuck in for a while, but she kept on pushing.

5.5 - 8km
As we got to around the 5.5km marker our average pace for the race so far was 3min 33sec per km which was quicker than the most optimistic target I had for the race. As Amy pushed through yet another group, I decided that I'd stick on the back of the group we were currently with.

The next 2.5km were a bit of a day dream. The group I was with disintegrated. I felt I was level pegging with a few people in front that I recognised and not slipping back too far. I found myself thinking about my upcoming wedding, and deciding that it wasn't good that my mind was wondering, I tried counting which is a tip I'd discussed with a couple of people to help my mental gremlins.

8 - 10.5km
As we hit the half way point in the race started to go backwards as a number of people started over taking me. I didn't have any urge to try and stay with the people coming past and just kept on going. I had a glance at my watch and my average pace for the race so far was 3m 39sec per km which was my more realistic race goal. I wouldn't say I was feeling great, but I wasn't in pain like I was at Wokingham, despite still having a pretty good average pace.

10.5 - 14.5km
I was carrying an energy gel as an experiment to take during the race to see if it would give me a lift. I was planning to take it at the 7 mile marker, but I was beginning to fatigue a bit around the 6.5m marker so I decided to take it. It was a brand I hadn't used before and had a slightly sherbet / fizzy sensation and I only had half to three quarters of it. It didn't seem to have a noticeable effect.

I did a little more counting and plodding along. I could tell that we were getting nearish to the finish and we'd hit the section across the fields that Stuart had told me about before the race.

14.5 - 16.1km
We turned about onto the road into the business park and I know that it meant we had a mile to go, which was also on a slight downhill. I picked up the pace a little bit, but knew that it was still quite a long way to go.

With about 500m to go I decided that the runner I could hear closing behind me wasn't going to get past. The fist competitive streak I'd had all race. I picked up the pace a little bit more and on the final bend I kicked with about 300m to go. I pulled out a good lead, but I'd gone too early and he got me with about 20m before the line.

As I crossed the line I was a bit shocked to see the official clock was showing 1hr 21sec. I hadn't been focusing on times going round the course and had spent a lot of the time day dreaming, but I had thought I'd break the hour and was initially pretty disappointed not too have done.

Despite initially being quite upset at not breaking the hour. There were still lots of positives in the race and my pace wasn't pretty consistent with that I did at Wokingham so it wasn't all bad.

Things I learnt:
- I experimented with having a bigger breakfast than usual three hours before the race. I didn't suffer any cramps and think this is something I'll continue doing

- While I was feeling unwell and generally sorry for myself I'd stopped doing my leg strength exercises and I paid during the race with a sore glue. I need to keep them up

- At Wokingham I went with a group that was too fast for me and really paid the price at the end when my legs were screaming and it was mentally hard. This time I didn't go with a group and pulled back the pace. Definitely not conclusive, especially as I spent a lot of the race day dreaming and not really pushing, but I think it was probably a smart move.

- Warm up & cool down. I never really do either, but ran a good couple of miles warm up and cool down. I think it did me some good.

- It didn't give me much of a boost, but I didn't suffer a stitch or any other side effects from taking an energy gel. I will try it again.

- Counting was a good distraction when I needed it. My only concern is that I might have counted at the same rhythm as my legs turning over and it might affect your pace?

- I ran the race in new socks and I enjoyed the springy feeling they gave me. I think I'll 'treat' myself to relatively new socks in the marathon.

Need to learn:
- It was the first race with my new Polar watch. While my old Garmin gave me an average pace per km on the screen, the Polar gives you an average pace for the entire distance so far (unless you take manual laps). While this has an advantage, it masked how slow I was getting because it was just slowly dropping my average pace for the race so far. If I'd realised how slow some of my individual km's were I would have given myself a kick even in my day dreaming state! I need to learn how to race with my watch.

- I went into the race without a real game plan and not really know what paces I need to achieve to get under an hour. Hence me thinking I was comfortably inside when I wasn't!

It should be said that the event was really well organised, with lots of friendly marshals. It was a good course too and definitely a race I'd like to do again.

I was 57th out of 915 people who completed the race in 1:00:21

The data from my watch is here.

The official results are here.