Break the Routine

Instead of the everyday – ‘How are you?’ and the routine reply of ‘Good,’ I’d better appreciate a different way of making your presence felt. Break the routine before everything else falls into pieces.

Shot: Postcard, Serpentine Gallery Bookshop, Kensington Garden, London, United Kingdom

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I’ve got an Open Door Policy

At time of visit, 3-week old Open Door Policy was a serious charmer. Laid back wooden interior, shop house exterior charm, it was a perfect marriage of old meets new. Wine cellar-esque display, open kitchen concept, over-friendly [in a good way] service staff, I knew I was won over the moment I took my place at the table ahead of the rest of my table guests.

Nestled in my semi-corner, nursing a Pimm’s Club [cocktail of Pimm’s, citrus, cucumber, ginger beer], I had the luxury of time and space to survey the interior and I must say, I was impressed.

Modern with rustic touches through the use of brick wall effect and cork wood type storage areas, the overall effect of the interior does nothing to overwhelm but the sense of thought and spatial flow is evident in the set-up. I also love how all the table ware is already set-up and that touch of glass on every table just adds to the overall effect of communal dining.

Back to my order of Pimm’s Club, SGD17. Best cocktail I’ve had? Nope, not by a long shot but please my palette it did. Will I order it again? Yes. In all likelihood though, it’d be a bottle of white the next visit. Old habits die hard, so they say.

I’ll start with my favourite of the six starters available, the watercress soup with soft poached hen’s egg, SGD12. Admittedly, I was only drawn to it for the promise of a poached egg and was half expecting the soup to be served a la Chinese style with pork ribs and stalks of water cress boiled to soft perfection but I wasn’t let down. A thick and flavourful concoction that would turn every non-veg eater off, the soup was comfort in a spoon down to the very last mouthful. When served, make sure you break the poached egg in and stir it in well. I’d say it’s a not-to-be-missed when you pay a visit.

Another crowd pleaser, in fact, so good someone at the table ordered a second portion for his ‘dessert’ as he wanted to end the meal on a high is the steak tartare with truffle mayo and potato chip, SGD19. I’ve always been squeamish over steak tartare as I’m highly sensitive to the gamey flavour that comes with red meat but this dish was perfectly seasoned and the tartare carried a pleasantly refreshing citrus zing. The bread that accompanied the dish was well toasted and those accompanying chips, crisp perfection. And can I add, the presentation is superb. Served on a cutting board with bread stacked high on what I’ve come to identify as a receipt spike, it was a feast for the eyes before the belly.

The crispy chicken wings with curry, yoghurt and cucumber salad, SGD15, was underwhelming and we were left puzzled at what we had actually just devoured. I’d say, you can give this a miss unless you want to experience the feeling of being left underwhelmed.

So we had more than half of the available starters on the menu with the halloumi cheese with olives, white anchovies and crusty bread, SGD19, rounding off the list. I was first introduced to halloumi cheese at Artichoke and I loved how the texture had the consistency of toufu with a lightly salted flavour. So when the friend ordered the dish, I was already mentally recalling the flavours I had savoured at Artichoke and I guess expectations were set and it did not measure up to what I’ve had but good, nevertheless.

The famished and in need of satiation despite technically downing a starter each, we swiftly moved on to mains with three meats and one fish for the table. Let’s start with the only seafood on the table, the pan seared sea bass with artichoke, potatoes and rocket salad, SGD27, was well seared but again, I pretty much had an idea of what sea bass perfection was in my head and it did not meet that mark. For seabass perfection, try Ember and until I uncover another gem of a seabass dish, Ember will continue be my go-to.

Next up, the confit duck leg, puy lentils, sage and smoked bacon, SGD26, was satisfying but again, not the best I’ve had. It still is a good option given the narrow menu available.

My order of 48 hour cooked braised beef cheek with mochi potatoes, carrot puree and snow pea tendrils, SGD29, was well worth the penny and I felt a satisfied grin plaster itself on my face as I sliced and savoured each bite. Mochi potatoes, never had it, awesome. Carrot puree, too sweet, under seasoned and stood out like a sore thumb on the plate. Beef cheek, tender perfection.

Best presentation prize for mains has got to go to the pork belly with parsnip puree, braised quinoa and celery, SGD29. This dish ties with the beef cheek for best mains of the night for me. Not the best pork belly I’ve cracked my knife into but the use of quinoa and parsnip puree, brilliant. Honestly, I would give anything to dive into a plateful of quinoa right now. The bite still lingers.

Bringing on the sweets, I knew from first look at the menu that I would be having the chocolate and pistachio souffle, creme anglaise, SGD15. It’s the first time I’ve encountered a combination of its kind and let me down, it did not. Lightly fragrant and easy on the palette, I fell in love from the first dip.

According to the wait staff, the two desserts you can’t leave without were the souffle and the panna cotta and so order that we did, like obedient students in a well-disciplined class. The lime panna cotta with coconut sago, cashew nuts and mint, SGD13, was ok. Tad too complex with too many flavours which didn’t necessarily create a harmony for the palette if you ask me. I say this dish can be better refined and simplified.

Currently four weeks old, Open Door Policy is definitely getting some notice with its simple, well-executed menu. Not surprised if it continues to enjoy a full house turn out night on night. Be sure to make a reservation if you intend to venture out for a nibble.

GETTING THERE

Khan El Khalili [خان الخليلي‎], Cairo, Egypt – shop till you drop!

So we signed up for a tour but decided to land early to adjust to the time difference and hopefully get some time to explore the city on our own. Time we did have, barriers to explore however were aplenty. Firstly, having signed up for our Contiki tour, we both failed to do any form of research and hence went into Egypt blind and uninformed. Secondly, language was a huge barrier as hardly anyone, including the staff at our hotel, spoke in English.

Challenged, frustrated and eager to explore, we grouped up with an Aussie traveler who was also in early from our tour to venture out and get lost. As part of our tour itinerary, we knew that we would be visiting Khan El-Khalili which is the go-to market where locals and tourists alike visit to shop, but there’s a huge difference between where the tourists goes and where the locals head.. This we would never have known had we not ventured out on our own.

Back to the start of our adventure, having walked the streets and been faced with multiple obstacles to entry on the public transport and communicating with the locals, we decided to hop on a cab and head to Khan El-Khalili since it was a place that was recommended in our tour and a place every local knew.

Upon arrival, i experienced a sensory overload – from the earthern buildings to the overpowering scent of a mixture of spices to the overpowering chatter of the people and sounds of animal cries – i was ready to throw in the towel, call it a day and return to the sanctuary of the hotel yet the adventurer in me screamed for me to place another foot forward and enter the market.

We probably looked like 3 stupefied people as we stood there with bewildered faces, taking in the sights, sounds and smells as we contemplated our next steps. What happens next was totally unplanned and should be cautioned against if you’re travelling alone or in small groups, which we were..

As we stood with our backs to the road and our taxi speeding away, a boy who looked about 20 dressed in a pink polo tee, a red cap and Nike shoes, munching on a kebab approached us and said ‘Hi, is this your first time here?’ At this point my alarm was SCREAMING – make minimal conversation and move on! But the fact is, it’s so comforting to hear a local speak English that you almost feel like an affinity to the person. Striking up a short conversation, he informed us that there are two parts to the market – one dedicated to tourists where vendors are able to converse in basic English but with steeper price tags on the items and the other, dedicated to locals where one can strike a deal.

At this point, we made it clear that we were going to explore the tourist site as none of us spoke Arabic and he was casual about it and engaged us further in small talk as we strolled down the cobbled path towards the first store. Suspicions mounting on his overt friendliness, he walked along with us as we entered the first store along the lane.

As we trawled through the goods on offer, the store keeper struggled to communicate with us as we inquired on his wares. The pink polo boy who continued to shadow us effectively rendered his services and served as translator for us. As the exploration of that store continued, we eased into the familiarity of pink polo boy’s presence and relied on him as our crutch as we navigated the language barrier in our thirst to learn more about Egypt and her wares.

Through him, we learnt that the gold seat you see above is made of camel hide and the glistening boxes are the handiwork of piecing together shards of broken mother of pearl to form the intricate designs on each of box.

We were even shown an Egyptian knife, very similar to the Southeast Asian kris, which i suppose is due to the origins of the Islamic religion. Don’t quote me on that though!

Having shared a couple of laughs with pink polo boy, we left the store in two minds about his ulterior motive. On the one hand, he seemed to be genuine about hanging out with us but the rational side told us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the world and he is obviously looking to gain something out of tagging along with us.

As we stood awkwardly at the door step of the store, he suddenly asked us if we would like him to be our guide at the market. Puzzled and suspecting the worse still, we hesitated to reply. That was when he reached into his pocket and I thought to myself, we’re absolutely done for.. Turning a smile on us, he produced a card [highly dubious looking] indicating that he was an authorized volunteer youth guide.

Looking back, it was a risk that we were taking as we could have been led into any number of dens or isolated lanes and been robbed etc. Thankfully he turned out to be a genuine chap who knew his way around the market and wanted to practice his English with foreigners. Let’s just say we were a blessed trio that day.

After confirming his services, he explained that he would be taking us through the local side of the market in order for us to get better deals. Not knowing better, we agreed and played follow-the-leader for the rest of the day.

From breads to live produce, the market was a colorful sight to behold as we navigated the streets in search of items to purchase and take home. Oh, and if you think your eyes are playing tricks on you in the image below – the Egyptians to eat rabbits as part of their diet – not for the faint-hearted or bunny lovers like me I’d say.

As our young guide took us deeper into the market, my anxiety mounted once again as we entered abandoned buildings and uninhabited lanes. As if sensing my anxiety, he explained that he was taking us to a well known local store specialising in Mother of Pearl jewelry boxes where we can see the craftsmen create the pieces and learn how to differentiate genuine goods vs inferior goods.

So here’s what you need to know when selecting a Mother of Pearl souvenir in Egypt. Firstly, there is an extensive number of products utilising mother of pearl – from furniture, gameboards, utensils to boxes and some of them are beautiful works of art while others are just junk. Why? Some of these items claim to have inlays of mother of pearl but actually are made of plastic and it can be hard to tell. Had we not had our local guide with us, i’m certain we would have been scammed at the tourist side of the market. As with differentiating genuine vs faux pearls, look out for shine and nuances of rich colour under the reflection of light. Try and spot the difference in the boxes pictured above. Made of wood with inlaid pieces of mother of pearl and velvet lining the interior, the jewelry box will prove a hit with your girlfriends.

With that, it’s purchase #1 for me. Note the image on the extreme left – the jewelry box reflects the same pattern on the dollar bill. And yes, i couldn’t resist snapping a shot with the boy mending the store. Them eyes be mesmerizing!

Another local souvenir not to be missed is papyrus art. Here again, there are tricks of the trade to be learnt. Purchase an inferior product, you’ll see the papyrus begin to flake and the paint, fade.

So here’s a couple of tips when selecting papyrus art:

  • true papyrus is typically heavier in weight, strong, difficult to tear and somewhat opaque
  • unpainted papyrus paper will return to its original flat state after you crumple it
  • has varied degrees of brown and veins can be seen when held against light
  • if you purchase it from a reputable shop, the papyrus art is usually stamped

I fell in love with this painting of the Queen but the price tag, well it was too hefty for my pocket.

Another uniquely Egyptian souvenir you cannot leave without is the cartouche. The idea dates back to the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty under the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu, where each Pharoah’s name was written in hieroglyphics within an ellipse with a horizontal line at one end. Arriving at the Pharaonic Works Gold and Silver within Khan El Khalili market, we observed a group of craftsmen create their wares and artwork.

We decided to fashion our own and the craftsmen efficiently translated our names into hieroglyphics. There’s something extremely pleasurable about watching your order come to live.. if you know what i mean.

As the craft master added the finishing touches to our orders, we sipped hibiscus tea [which is a local favorite] and picked up a couple of additional jewelry in the store. With our local guide with us, we managed to haul our goods off at a discounted rate as we watched him haggle with the owner. At the end of the day, i guess all of us left happy.

So that’s the top three things you can get when you find yourself in Egypt. You may not be blessed with a local guide as we have but the tourist side of the market offers the same goods but just keep your eyes peeled for counterfeit products and be sure to bargain!