Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review of Chaud Cafe

Chaud Cafe at One Woodbrook Place in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

To my mind, Khalid Mohammed is the best chef in Trinidad.  With his interesting fusion of Caribbean and European foods, he packed in the customers when he was head chef at Batimamselle restaurant, disproving the notion that no restaurant in St Anns can succeed.  With his ultra luxurious, Chaud, at the top of Dundonald Street, he broke a vicious blight cycle on a building in which every business that has made its home had failed.  Chaud is incredibly successful, and despite its prohibitive prices, it always seems to be full or nearly there.

Mohammed has been growing his sophisticated food empire, and now in addition to Chaud, there's Chaud Creole and Chaud Cafe - the latter of which I went to for the first time tonight.  I went with my high school friend, Radha.  We've not seen each other in over a year, and I decided the event was special enough to warrant a trip to the cafe, which, could have been very expensive.

My partner doesn't like going to restaurants with me anymore.  I'm super critical, and I know this.  I look at the service, at the food at the prices.  But it's the price you pay for being a good cook.  When you can make delicious food yourself, it can often be frustrating and disappointing to go out to a restaurant and pay good money for a meal you could have made better.  But I have always relished the rare opportunities for going to Khalid's restaurants, as the food is always delicious and often adventurous.  The service is good but borders a bit on the maniacal as uber efficient waiters whisk your plates away too soon and top up the water in your glass before you've had a chance to ask for anything.  That said, it's a refreshing change from what often prevails in restaurants here where one is ignored.  Anyhoo!  I'm rambling.

Chaud Cafe is nicely designed, and has a large external dining area which I appreciated.  The service is not as efficient as it is at Chaud, but actually, given the afore-mentioned gestapo-type service at Chaud, it's nice to be in a place that in its decor, food and service is a bit more laid back.

Onto the food.  I found the menu overly pretentious.  Why would you, in Trinidad, write "garbanzo beans" on the menu, when EVERYONE says channa?  Even if you're concerned that your ex-pat clientele might not know what channa is, this can easily be clarified by some brackets.  And then, why would you call a banana fritter a beignet?  Again, not necessary.  I don't think calling a fritter a beignet makes it any more interesting, especially when what you end up with is a fritter.

I ordered toast with mushrooms and spinach, Radha ordered chicken liver pate and the two of us shared an order of fried squid.  All of these, by the way, came under their 'small plates' section, and cost between $40 - $80 each.  We ordered exactly the right amount of food.  The portions weren't massive but were ample, and given the prices at Chaud, I was happily surprised by the cost of things.

I'm not a fan of soggy bread.  I struggle with trifles and can only just about manage tiramisu.  So I was a bit disheartened by the utterly soggy slice of bread that arrived in front of me.  That said, the mushrooms and spinach were completely delicious, and I was able to forget about the bread.  Radha's pate was velvety and smooth, with a sweet red onion relish that I enjoyed.  I would have liked it if there had been some slices of fresh tomato on the plate, as I love that combination.  The squid was good but unremarkable.

In terms of dessert, my beignets were ever so slightly burnt and quite lack-lustre.  Radha had a chocolate and coffee mousse which was creamy, light, airy and thoroughly yummy!

All in all, I enjoyed the Chaud Cafe experience, and I'd suggest it to anyone.  I'd also happily go back there again.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yumminess at La Cantina in Tobago

Okay - I have to admit that despite my lifetime of going there, I don't know Tobago very well.  I mean, I know the beaches I like, and I know Pennysaver's, but, I suppose because I find so much of Tobago geared towards tourism, I rarely eat out when I go there as it's just too expensive.

But for years, friends have been telling me about "this fantastic pizza place".  It's called La Cantina, and it's in the Royal Bank plaza right outside of Crown Point.  I've tried to go there a couple of times over the years, but somehow my timing has always been wrong - closed for renovations, or closed on the specific night I went.  But on my most recent trip to Tobago - a speedy three-day sojourn with my great friend, Rachel - the stars aligned, and I was able to finally sample La Cantina's fantastic brick-oven baked, thin crust pizza.

So of course, this is one of the things that makes the pizza so good - it's baked in a proper brick oven.  Then there's the fact that the crust is rolled nice and thin, so it gets crispy when it's cooked.  Then too, this place actually serves pizza with anchovies - one of my favourite toppings.  The portions are handsome and sharable; by Tobago standards, the prices are reasonable (upwards of TT$70 for a pizza that was more than adequate for me and Rachel) and the service is spot-on: informal and efficient.  The location is the only downer - it's hardly what one would call, "idyllic"!  And diners look out onto the scenic view of a car park backed by a busy main road.  But these notwithstanding, La Cantina served up probably the best pizza I have ever eaten in Trinidad and Tobago, and is definitely a place I will visit whenever I'm in the sister isle!

An i-pod snap of Rachel at La Cantina.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pretty spot but junky food

So, I have been meaning to go to this new spot on Ana Street in Woodbrook, Maria's Bakery. I've driven past it many times, and been really pleased by the appearance of the place - welcoming and unpretentious. I was in the wine shop around the corner last week, picked up a flier for Maria's and headed over to the relatively new bakery/ cafe. First impression was really good. Pretty interiors, with lots of fresh baked bread, which was covered in a light, mesh fabric to ensure the warm bread doesn't sweat. There's a take-away bakery on one side of the space, and a small sit-down cafe on the other side. The menu in the cafe comprises various simple salads and sandwiches (made with fresh hops - a definite plus for me) at prices that, although a little on the high side, are by no extortionate. The servers were friendly enough and fairly efficient. But alas, this is where the problems begin. I've been to Maria's twice in the past week and tried two different things. I'm always excited by a new place where I can eat good food that's affordable, hence my giving the bakery two chances.

 First order - fresh zeppole-type donuts dusted with sugar. I love a donut. Having lived in England as a teenager, on a high street in south west London with a decent little bakery, and consumed there umpteen jam donuts, I also think of myself as a bit of an afficionado. But you know, I tend to believe that you don't have to be a specialist to know what you like. But I'm digressing. I purchase my donut for six dollars, leap in my car and head off to the office. I bite into the donut and it's delicious. Not too sweet, not too light. Bite number two... yuk! Raw dough in the middle. Completely raw. Okay. Everyone makes mistakes. I turn the car around and return to the bakery. Now - this is where I lose patience. As a customer, if I tell you that the donut is raw on the inside, your job as a server is to a. apologise, b. offer to refund my money or give me another donut, c. apologise again and thank me for coming back. You're not supposed to eye me with deep suspicion, mutter to yourself, head off to talk to the manager (you'd think I was returning a Tag Heuer watch!), and then, the worst part of it, the manager is not supposed to come and correct me, insisting that it's not in fact raw, and that's how the donuts are "supposed" to be cooked. Bear in mind, it's still a $6 donut we're talking about. Harumph. Eventually, I get my replacement donut, which is pretty good. 

Experience number two: the sad hops. Oh, the dying art of baking hops bread! As I've already mentioned, there was a beautiful bread display covered in fine mesh fabric. Lots of hops breads. I was excited! Among the sandwich options was one made with coronation chicken: an old favourite of my Granny's. So, for sentimental reasons, and because it's been years since I had it, I ordered a coronation chicken hops to go. It was about $22, again, on the expensive side, but, I've been searching for good hops experiences, so I was prepared to pay a little more to insure it. Arrive at the office with my lunch of coronation chicken hops and bite into it with great eagerness. The chicken is delish - creamy and mild curry taste. The hops, a total disappointment. To me, the perfect hops is as good as, if not better than, a baguette. It's crispy on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. Maria's hops was soft on the outside and heavy and dense on the inside. Ack! Such a disappointment. That's it for me and Maria's for now, I'm afraid.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Room with a View

I can sit here and look at my aunt's garden for hours. Her dining table, which is where I have set up my computer, looks out onto her patio and the garden beyond. It's early summer here, so the roses and peonies are in bloom; violet irises and lavender-coloured clematis, which creep their way up and along a wooden trelis. There are large trees at the back of the garden which sweep and swoop in the breeze, and a little ornate bird bath, into which all sorts of birds splash around with gay abandon. A couple of days ago, a giant, pale pink poppy opened and soon others will follow. Like I said, I could look at her garden for hours.

I remember in E.M. Forster's "A Room with a View" being amused by the fuss at the beginning of the movie (saw the film before I read the book) over Lucy and her chaperone's not being given a room with a view at their little pensione in Italy. There was one helluva kerfuffle (and that's when Lucy ended up meeting George, her love to be) over the fact that they had been promised a room with a view - a promise which had been reneged on.

But now I understand what all the commotion was about. A view is everything. It's what liberates us from the smallness of the spaces we inhabit (both physically and mentally). A view is full of possibilities for lives going on out there - where there's room to move and to breathe. Everyday, I look at at my aunt's view and it both calms and inspires me.

There was a house my sister and I lived in, as adults, in Jamaica with our father. It was a tiny house with only two bedrooms. But it had two magnificent silk cotton trees in the front garden (I actually angled my bed and kept the curtains open, so that when I opened my eyes in the morning, I did so to the dappled green light of the silk cottons) and a wonderful view across the valley on the other side of the house. This was probably the first house I can remember my father not having a room called his "study" in, because the room didn't exist. So he set up his work place on the dining table. My sister and I set up his computer so it faced the kitchen, he changed the whole arrangement so that he could work at his computer and look out at the view across the valley. Again, I was both amused and a little irritated by the kerfuffle. "What difference does it make?" I thought. But now I know.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Slowing Down....

I remember. I was about sixteen, and Daddy had taken me out on the Lisa for a sail. It would have been unusual for just the two of us to be sailing, but I can't remember anyone else being on the boat. And even though the Lisa didn't have an engine, we had grown so adept at sailing in and out of the mooring that it presented little challenge.

It was to be a short sail. Dad always checked the tides in the newspapers before we left, so today we would sail in the gulf towards Port of Spain, rather than west towards Gasparee, because the currents would have been against us in both directions (death to a boat without an engine). And considering it was just the two of us, we would probably have been under mainsail alone: more manageable for the two of us.

It was a quiet afternoon. The sky was slightly overcast and it was cool. The wind was just strong enough for the Lisa to enjoy - no chop in the sea, and for her, a little lean. Dad was at the tiller, and I was sitting in the cockpit - quiet, just looking out and listening to the sound of the wind.

He said to me then, "One of the things I like about you is that you can appreciate silence." I smiled when he said that. It was nice to get such a compliment from him. And what he said was true. I understood then how to be still; how to enjoy beauty and nature and the sometimes solitude of such things. Although I had very close friends at high school and university, I was fine just on my own too. Fine to be a little different, quirky even. I was someone who could happily be in a room full of people, and just as happily be in a room on by myself.

But somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to be still; to enjoy the silence. I think, for me, the perpetual motion started in earnest in 2007. I was in England at the time, working on a project, and a quasi-love-affair had gone so horribly wrong I stood up in the bathroom one night and chopped all my hair off, just to be sure that I was still there, underneath, somewhere. I think that's when I started to run, really. Partly, it was to dodge the bullet that he was. But also because I thought, if I can move fast enough, I'll be able to outrun this thing which I brought on myself - which had been, every step of the way, my choosing. I thought if I moved fast enough, I could forget just how reckless I had been with myself.

And the moving just got faster. The following year, my mother broke her hip. This amazonian woman who could rearrange an entire house by herself fell at Gatwick airport and couldn't get up. And in a way that so epitomises my mother, she told the doctor at the hospital to which she had been taken, with a fair amount of surprise, "But I don't know why I have been brought here; I'm fine." To which he responded, "Yes Madam, you're perfectly fine, except that you can't walk."

My godmother, Auntie Gay, described to me a few years ago that she fell down the steps at her house one day, and unknowingly broke her leg. She was in pain, so she found an old broom, turned it over so it formed a crutch, and walked around propped on it for the next couple of weeks. You see, it hadn't occurred to her that something might actually be wrong. That she needed to stop, to take care of herself. How could it be? We (and I include myself in this) are people who forge ahead, regardless. The important thing here is the forward momentum. Good grief, I come from a family of pioneers - people who were missionaries in China at the turn of the century, and who started sheep stations in New Zealand. Facing adversity and moving on in spite of it is part of my tribal memory!

The way I ate had become the ultimate metaphor for how I was living. I had become a food gobbler - someone who just shovels food in their mouths with little regard for the hours of preparation or the flavour; as though the food were simply something to be consumed quickly so that the next activity could commence. And so I would start on the next thing: washing the clothes, taking the clothes off the line, watching TV, chatting to a friend on the phone, having dinner parties for 20 people for which I would start doing the cooking 2 hours before people were due to arrive, doing whatever it was that simply HAD to be done right then, right after I'd finished eating. It's no wonder I developed acid reflux! I wasn't giving my stomach enough time to digest my food, far less my brain to digest my day to day life. In truth, I imagined myself invincible. In much the same way as I imagined my father and my sister and mother. I was genuinely shocked that my mother broke her hip and needed help. And I still haven't been able to get over the fact that the colossus that was my father has fallen forever.

And so, for what has seemed like years, I would go from one crappy situation to another to another. Of course, there has been a lot of joy in my life too, but I started to see the glass as half empty - when I'd always been the kind of person who would see it half full. For goodness sake - I am an independent television producer in Trinidad and Tobago. I better bloody well be an optimist! I described it to my friend as a crisis cycle - that somehow, for too long now, I had been barreling from crisis to crisis without pause - no moment to reflect or catch my breath. Because to reflect would mean stopping; to acknowledge that things have been going wrong; to grieve; to allow the tears to come without worrying about when they would stop. To allow myself to feel sad for a day, or a week, or weeks even. But that's not really allowed, is it? What we're sold everyday is this idea that continual happiness is within our reach and what's more, that we are obliged to be reaching for it. Well how do you appreciate, or even notice, the happiness unless you have been sad.

So now, I have stopped. My body forced me to. For the first time in years, I have time on my hands (not forever, just for the next few weeks). And I have no big plans, no agendas, no things that I simply HAVE to do. And it feels real nice. Strange, but nice. I've no idea what the next few weeks will bring, but I'm hoping for some peace. I know I'm lucky, I have people in my life who will allow me to stop. And I am glad for them. Just like I'm glad for this time. Let's see what it brings.

The photos are of me taking a walk on a sunny day. No particular destination, and no frenetic pace. Just a walk in the sunshine among the trees. It was lovely.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When your cup is empty

I've been thinking about writing this post for a long time. But I've procrastinated. I've always thought of blogs as places where people share happy things, cheery things. Certainly not places where people share sadness. And so, even though this has been circling around my mind in various permutations for over a month now, I've been putting it off. (Please, don't feel compelled to read further, if what you're looking for is something cheery and happy - but then, sad has its place too, in the scheme of things.)

Six years separate these two moments on Lady Chancellor hill. For those who don't know Trinidad, Lady Chancellor is a beautiful road that rises close to the crest of a hill and looks out over most of Port of Spain. I have lived there at various points in my life and come to know its twists and turns quite intimately. I also know its seasons very well - that raunchy smell of cedar coming into leaf that means the rainy season has just about started. The red Imortelles that could mean it's going to be a short dry season, or a long, parched and burning dry season. The growing numbers of walkers, pushing their ways frenetically up and down the hill, which means that carnival is on its way. And of course, the arrival of the magnificent pink and yellow Poui trees which always make me smile.

Although at times the hill rises gradually, it can surprise you with a steep twist that gets your heart pumping. And if you decide to walk up and down it all the way, it can take you upwards of an hour and a half.

In 2005, my family was in Trinidad for Christmas - including my father. That Daddy had joined us was a rare treat. Since my parents divorced when I was five, I could probably count on one hand the number of times we'd got together as a family for Christmas. Daddy was staying downstairs with me in my apartment, and Saffrey, Mum and Auntie Libby were in Mum's apartment directly upstairs.

Daddy was in a good place. Four years earlier he'd had triple bypass surgery and in 2005 he was truly well - and he looked it. He was eating well, exercising regularly, and he wasn't smoking at the time. (His love-life, if I remember correctly, was a bit tormented, but then that was often the case with Dad.) Because he was a competitive person by nature, he had got into the habit of timing his walks in Jamaica (where he walked around the Mona campus) each time challenging himself to go a little faster. I remember he had even gone so far as to measure, with the odometer in his car, a distance of two miles exactly, and that was what he would walk. At some point during his stay in Trinidad, he had determined that he qould conquer Lady Chancellor. Now, like me, it was a hill that he knew well. In his youth he would take his dog, Mac, for walks through the Botanic Gardens (which was very close to where he lived) and up Lady Chancellor. But I suspect it had been a good 45 years since he had last attempted the hill.

I think the day was overcast. But he put on his sneakers and socks and an orange t-shirt and declared that he was going. I must have asked if he was sure that was such a good idea (you can always see the approaching weather from Lady Chancellor) but as I said, he was resolved; he was ready to tackle the hill. So he set off. I must have checked my watch to guesstimate when he would be back. If he went all the way to the Savannah, it could have been an hour and a half. I carried on about my puttering, and surely as I predicted, it started to rain. I mean heavy, torrential rain. I thought that Dad would certainly turn around and come back. He would be soaked through in a matter of minutes, and an hour is a long time to be completely soaked. But my watch ticked and ticked and still no Daddy.

About half an hour later, I decided to rescue him. So I threw a large towel into the back seat and tore off down the hill in search of him. Surely enough, there he was - about 25 minutes walking distance from home - pounding the asphalt road toward me. He had a sort of grimace on his face, coupled with the smallest of grins and a twinkle in his eye. The look that said, I'm doing it - soaked as he was, rain still coming down in sheets. I pulled up alongside him expecting him to jump in the car. But he didn't. He shook his head and kept walking up the hill. He arrived home about half an hour later - drenched and so proud. He had conquered the hill - in every way. I still wear that orange t-shirt today, to remind me of him and that moment.

Saffrey and Daddy at Maracas Beach, Christmas 2005

As I mentioned earlier - six years separate these two moments on the hill. About three weeks ago, I went walking on Lady Chancellor. For months now, maybe even years, my personal resources of strength, courage and even happiness have been depleting, and I have been struggling; no, fighting, to find a way to put something into the cup that is my life. On this day, I was sitting in a chair at my mother's apartment thinking nothing. Blank. Empty. Staring. To try to lift myself out of the moment, I put on my sneakers and walked up the hill, determined to flee that void of feeling. But as I walked, I found I couldn't. Because there was still nothing. I sat on a wall beneath a cedar tree and wondered how I would get back to Mummy's, even though I was only five minutes away.

And two angels walked up to me.

"Ain't you is the lady who does make that show Sancoche?"
"Yes," weak smile.
"Like I ain't see you in a while."
"I know - sorry, the show stopped a couple of years ago."
Then, "Keep going, dahlin'," one of the ladies said. "You almost reach."

I smiled at her and thanked her. It was a slightly stronger smile. And like Daddy, I got up and walked down the hill - further than I had done in years. And then I walked back up again. I think I poured a few drops into my cup that day.

None of these days - possibly not since my father died - has been easy. Surprisingly. they seem to get harder. But I am finally beginning to understand this thing my father seemed to know - you have to have something in the cup. For him, solace could be found in sailing, in reading, in his dogs, in his lifelong friendships, in his time at Leslie, in his workshop sessions. We all have to find places of solace in our lives... somewhere where we can rest. My father's house was one of those places for me, but there are others, and I must make use of them.

As for you Dad, I don't know when the pain of your death will ever pass or ease, but what I do know, is that as much as you would empathise with me, you would insist that I live - that I walk the hill, that I earn my place, "through this sometimes vale of tears". (Those were his words.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sorrel year round?

I've made a wonderful discovery. (Well actually I've known about this for years but only recently acted on it.) You can buy bags of dried sorrel in the supermarket year round; you don't have to wait till December when the mountains of fresh flowers start appearing in old pick-up trucks by the side of the highway to make the sorrel drink! Yay!

Sorrel just happens to be one of my favourite things, and a couple of weeks ago, on one of my so numerous trips to hi-lo, I discovered "Value Packs" of dried sorrel stuck among the onions and potatoes (of all places)! So I bought a package and brought it home. I soon realised that inside the package, in among the dried sorrel flowers, was another small packet - this time, of cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and cloves - everything one needs to make sorrel (well, apart from the sugar).

So I made a massive batch, adding some additional things I like such as cardamom pods and a few juniper berries. It was super easy without having to go through the laborious process of cleaning the fresh sorrel, and it was delicious. So much so that Richard has insisted I make it more often. So, I suspect it's going to replace cranberry juice at our house, and let me tell you, it's a whole lot cheaper!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Simple Niçoise Salad

I'm obsessed with salads. And not for health reasons either! I love their freshness and crunchiness, and the zillions of permutations that are salads, not to mention all the dressings! (As my friend Nicola would say, "What's the point of salad without dressing?") These days I'm also trying to eat healthier - make sure I got those five recommended portions of vegetables into my daily eating. I realised that days would pass without a single vegetable passing my lips, and that just doesn't feel good to me. So today I made a personal favourite - a classic. The Niçoise. A healthy a filling salad - on account of the potatoes and hard boiled eggs. Even Richard, who often complains of my love for bush, enjoyed it!

For the salad:
6-8 big leaves of lettuce washed and roughly chopped
3 tomatoes cut into quarters
2 young cucumbers peeled and cut into large chunks
3 or 4 sprigs of chive chopped
2 potatoes boiled, cooled and cut into large chunks
a handful of fresh green beans, blanched and cooled
2 hard boiled eggs cut in half
1 tin of tuna in water

This salad is loosely "arranged" in a large, wide bowl, adding all the ingredients by scattering them around the bowl. Plonk the eggs on last.

My dressing:
Equal parts lemon juice and olive oil (about 2 tbsp of each)
2 teaspoons of good grainy mustard
2 or 3 of minced anchovies
2 teaspoons chopped olives or olive paste
a healthy pinch of sea salt

Mix everything up in a bottle and sprinkle liberally on your salad.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Not just an ordinary tea!

So, I recently made the decision to cut caffeine out of my life. It may just end up being a temporary measure to detoxify, or I may decide to stick with it - I haven't made up my mind just yet. But the frustration of drinking non-caffeinated beverage is dreadful! What follows is a series of posts on my facebook page about my woes. I hope my friends won't mind that they are re-produced here, but I think some of the tea recipes sound delicious!

Two weeks without tea or coffee is manageable, but only if you don't have that gorgeous smell of a fresh cup of coffee confronting you as you walk into the office!!
5 hours ago · Privacy:Friends only · LikeUnlike · Comment

Tillah i lasted a few days and then went back to my java ways :(

Lorraine s can you have herbal tea?

Mariel I'm doing peppermint and ginger teas - but frankly, they're just not the same as caffeine!!

Lisa green tea. enough caffeine for a slight buzz but all the medicinal benefits of the anti-oxidants. jasmine flavoured is the most palatable without sugar to me.

Mariel Thanks guys. Lisa, I hear you're opening Caribbean Tales Film Fest. Congrats, Missy!

Lorraine Try making Indian masala tea but use fresh ingredients...fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamon with lots of milk and honey...yummy!!!
Mariel Brown Oooh! That sounds sensational, Lorraine.

Lorraine It's honsetly amazing....had one after dinner tonight. Also discovered this gorgeous ginger and tulsi tea in India.

Mary Not sure who you are. But while in India, I had the pleasure of that gorgeous tulsi tea. I am looking for it here so I can continue enjoying.

Lorraine C Mary, the first time I had it was when a friend brought some for me as a pressie. I was recently in India and bought loads...No idea where to get it outside of India, sorry. Try ordering online?

Ira Mariel, ( and friends) finally a recipe this non cook can give you: Mix low fat milk and water. Add five cardimoms, several cloves, a dash of giner, bring to a gentle boil. Add teabags of your choice. Mix them up. (I like to mix Earl Grey with the Indian variety). Take off the stove. Let it simmer for a couple fo minutes, ( Dont let the bags soak in too much or it gets too strong-get the colour you like) . Add honey or brown sugar. Serve with something savory like samosas :)

Ira do add a pinch of nutmet and cinnamon. Too much overpowers the tea

Mariel I'm loving this foody series! Thanks Ira - I will definitely try your recipe as I think I've got all the components at home. Sounds completely yummy!