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25 at Petit Pois

My real birthday was easily one of the happiest days I had in 2016. It was also a Monday and right in the middle of winter exams, so that's really saying something! I woke up to a very early breakfast in bed made by a secretive B: perfectly scrambled truffled eggs, fluffy pastries and, of course, a steaming mug of my favourite lemon and ginger tea. It was the perfect way to start the day and set me up for a morning in class, after which I had lunch with my classmates - a chicken katsu box from the wonderful Whitecross Street Market - and surprise chocolate cake in the university foyer. 

Wonderful B, my love, then whisked me away from university to central London to escape revision for a day. We made a concerted effort to enjoy Winter Wonderland for all of five minutes (sorry, WW lovers - I think it's best in the dark, maybe!) before giving up to walk through leafy, lovely Hyde Park instead. It was a beautiful December day, misty yet bright, and we delighted in leaving the hubbub of Marble Arch and its harried Christmas shoppers behind for what could have almost been a stroll in the country. A weak sun nearing the winter solstice dipped low in the sky as huge hounds raced around the park, tongues lolling merrily, happy to be off their leashes. Hand in hand, we walked to the museums and spent the rest of the afternoon at my cherished childhood haunt, the Natural History Museum, taking in subject matter as diverse as cetaceans and pyroclastic flows. So it was that by 6 PM B and I were already exhausted, feet swollen, as we made our weary way back to the City for dinner at Petit Pois. B knew I'd wanted to go to Petit Pois from the second I read that there was going to be chocolate mousse. And oh, what mousse. But hold on, I'll get to that later.

B chose well: I couldn't help but fall for the restaurant from the moment we walked in. It's on Hoxton Square, a comparatively tranquil pocket of town where the City meets Shoreditch, thankfully tucked away from the din of Old Street. Petit Pois itself is fairly tiny and has a distinct character - it's a French joint, of course, but steers clear of the clichés that go with the stereotypical bistro set-up. No crooning Hardy, Bardot or Piaf here - you're more likely to find cool American blues here, all mellow and jangly guitars, plus simple décor: wooden tables, tealights and exposed brick. All of this gives the place the vibe of a sweet local, a surprising and exciting find. 

A short menu of French classics meant that I didn't have to spend long choosing - the best birthday present for a neurotic. First: Stornoway black pudding. Apologies to the faint-hearted - you know I'm a fan of nose to tail by now. Hearty, indulgent, velvety discs, a wobbly poached egg nestled on top. A thin Nile of red wine sauce awaiting the inevitable rush of sticky golden yolk. Smoky lardons amping up an already sublimely rich dish. A consolation of greens hovering anxiously on the side. (Thanks owed to B for that description). A promising start to the evening.

Not pictured but worth mentioning: the wine. Helpless and ignorant in the face of wine, I knew only that I didn't want something dry so asked for 'lush' recommendations: the patient sommelier interpreted my request perfectly and brought us two suggestions. Mine, a Chateau Beynat Bordeaux, was smoky and complex; B's, the fragrant 'Cabaret Frank No. 2', smelled like dipping your head into a bramble bush (although much more pleasurable). Both were exceedingly good and went very well with our meaty mains. 

For me: steak frites. Rare yet done extremely well (a masterclass in how to cook a steak, I thought)  and accompanied by a bearnaise so thick and tasty, I couldn't help but mop up every last drop with my skin-on chips. Serious chips. Really excellent.

For him: duck confit. The better of the two mains, I thought - the duck, all tender meat and crisp skin, was positively falling off the bone, while the dauphinoise gratin on the side, intended perhaps as a cameo, almost stole the show all by itself. It's always been one of my favourite dishes and this one was particularly special, swimming in a magical rosemary flavoured cream. Rosemary for remembrance - and this, an unforgettable dish.

But my chips really were incredibly good.

And so we come to dessert. This chocolate mousse's reputation precedes it. It was described as Jay Rayner as 'the best three minutes you can have in London for under a fiver.' I'm inclined to agree with him. This mousse was a voluptuous, full-bodied minx, delicately powdered with the finest cocoa and swelling seductively as it was scooped from a mixing bowl directly on to our plates at the table. Chocolate and cream: the most wanton and base of desserts. Mindless, pure pleasure - in fact, I'm unable to even fully remember the sensation of consuming it. Oh, for an hour with that mixing bowl. 

Just do me a favour and go and have that mousse. 

I was taken with Petit Pois from the start and my love failed to wane over the course of the evening - if anything, I'm more infatuated looking back at the meal, a month on. Everything was simple, yet technically impressive and clearly crafted with love. I'm getting smutty with the superlatives, perhaps, but I have to say it: this was surely up there with my best meals of the year. And B didn't faint at the sight of the bill! This is that rarity in London: good food at a reasonable price. B lives around the corner from here now, so I'll find it difficult not to come back for that sinful mousse, a.k.a. seven minutes in heaven (a game for big girls and boys, children...) perhaps followed by a drink at Happiness Forgets in the basement this time.

So I had the happiest of birthdays, from start to finish! B and I made the hour trek back to my parents' place after dinner, where I was surrounded by family, presents, cards and yet more birthday cake (this time, an exotic rose-scented confection from Pierre Hermé - thanks papa!) I had a lovely time, and felt that I was exactly where I wanted to be. Thank you so much, my loved ones, for making sure that I had the most wonderful day. 

Petit Pois Bistro
9 Hoxton Square
London N1 6NU

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It's official - I've moved out of the 16-24 box! I've ascended a demographic rung, reaching the dizzying heights of the second half of my twenties, leaving the young person discounts behind. It feels weird - but also wonderful, and right. 24 has been a strange year - marred by the political tumult of the past six months, yet also magical and effervescent, marked by new friendship and love. Now, on the cusp of 2017, I can't wait to see what 25 has in store for me.

This year, my birthday fell on a Monday, so, indulgently, I stretched my celebrations over the preceding weekend as well (that's allowed, right?) I'll tell you all about what I got up to on the actual day in due course! To kick proceedings off, I hit Dinerama with some of my nearest and dearest. It's always such a pleasure bringing people from all the different parts of my life together, especially when such a gathering involves great food and my first mulled wine of the year!

On Saturday night, we hit Kiln in deepest, darkest Soho. Sweet Mama Lim made the booking after doing her research (convinced by a glowing Fay Maschler Evening Standard review). Booked parties are seated downstairs, so we bustled past the smoky open kitchen and descended into the dusky depths of the basement, where I had a mini panic. The basement is attractively decked out with bare bricks and minimal pendant lamps hung over communal wooden tables. However, our table was angled away from the main room, and was almost completely in the dark - and the restaurant had run out of candles. Perfect for the couple craving privacy on  an intimate date, not so great for the blogger who paranoidly fears that her photographic attempts might resemble a visit to Dans Le Noir. Fortunately, my very patient family were on hand with their phone torches to ensure that I didn't pout too much. Thank god I was the birthday girl. (But still, apologies in advance for the disparity between torch-illuminated and non-flash photos). 

Kiln, the newest scion of the Smoking Goat family, serves pungent, smoky Thai food. Your average Thai takeaway serving pad Thai this ain't. Here, the dishes are billed more nebulously as 'regional Thai' as influenced by the flavours of Burma, Yunnan and Bangkok's Chinatown. Sounds enigmatic and tempting, right? Well, luckily for you and me, Mama Lim ordered the entire menu. Happy birthday Tamsin!

Hogget (aged lamb) and cumin skewers in the front. These were smoky, fatty, simply exquisite. So unbelievably tender that not one of us could muffle a groan of pleasure. Peaking early, maybe, but I'd be hard pressed not to label this my favourite dish. It reminded me of the flavours and textures of the Xinjiang skewers at Silk Road. In the back, succulent, tangy langoustines with kaffir lime and sweet mint, which we liked so much we ordered a second plate.

To soothe mouths on fire from the spice: beer for B and a cocktail laced with turmeric for me.

Crispy prawns to be guzzled whole, and greedily.

Fiery smoked sausage stippled with chilli and turmeric.

Fragrant laap isaan ground pork salad.

A host of curries: a stingingly hot red mullet curry above, and a beef curry, sweet and sensitively spiced, below. Warning: unless it's your thing, be careful to avoid biting into any of the red-hot chillies. One of us (cough cough, B) accidentally chewed on one and spent five minutes in tearful recovery.

Noodles baked in claypots, chucked straight on to the glowing charcoals of the ever-burning fires upstairs. The coolest way to make noodles, clearly. Or the hottest.

The end result is a sticky mass of noodles, concealing a treasure trove of pork belly and brown crab meat beneath.

Not pictured but so special it's worth a mention: Kiln's wild mushroom salad, thickly sliced, earthy and brimming with umami.

Smoky grilled mangalitsa pork - delicious, but sadly I'd filled up on everything else by the time this came to the table! Next time I'll have this on its own with lots of greens and maybe some of those hogget skewers...

Captured by my sister: me catching sight of a cake, aflame, being transported across the room, as the entire room broke into song. Basically wishing the ground would swallow me up. B realising this, nervously. Poor thing.

And after? Onwards to Mayfair for karaoke (fuelled by several stiff drinks, of course). 

It was great fun sampling the breadth of Kiln's offerings by way of their small plates, brimming with aromatic flavours and spice. I love that you leave feeling sated yet relatively hale, as the food isn't too heavy and actually feels quite cleansing thanks to the fresh fish, herbs and heat. The menu changes daily so I'm sure every dinner here would be a distinct and enjoyable experience (though there are some trusty stalwarts, like the hogget and langoustines, that you're certain to encounter on your visit). Although next time I think I'll come as a walk-in, gunning for a front-row seat at the counter to give me the best and brightest view of the action! Thank you, Kiln, for giving 24 the spiciest send-off.

58 Brewer Street
London W1F 9TL

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Autumn Catch-Up

Wow...Hi everyone. Shy wave. I haven't done one of these in a while!

It's nearly December. The LPC is buckling down as we enter the assessments phase of the autumn term. I'm firmly back in the rat race, shuttling from north London into the City and back again every day, a glimpse into the next few decades. The trees are mostly bare and skeletal, the weather increasingly frigid and harsh, and the political climate's not much better.

But life goes on. We wrap up against the cold. Quite literally. I've got a new hat and gloves as I've seemingly lost every piece of knitwear I own (every year, Tamsin, every year.) Our little wood-burning stove is stretched to breaking point. And emotional bubblewrap swaddles the shellshocked West in the form of tearjerking Christmas ads - including one for Amazon, written by my dad, Adrian Lim, which went out earlier this week. It tells the story of the friendship of a (real-life) vicar and imam who bond over their gammy knees. Jeff Bezos himself tweeted about it. So proud of you, Pa.

Here's a few of the fun things I've been up to over the past couple of months, all rolled into one bumper blog post! 

I snuggled up in blankets and chowed down on hot dogs with friends from work to welcome in the autumn with a Rooftop Film Club viewing of When Harry Met Sally. What a film. What a soundtrack. What a range of hairstyles Meg Ryan sports. 

I went to visit B's hometown, Liverpool, a few times over the summer and in early September, and got the full (Magical Mystery) tour. We caught a fantastic and unsettling Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate on Albert Dock, ticked off the Beatles landmarks in B's village (hey, Eleanor Rigby's grave, Strawberry Fields and John Lennon's house!) visited the knee-shakingly beautiful Liverpool Central Library, made crumble with apples from B's garden, and ate at three seriously wonderful places which you must visit if you're ever up in Liverpool.

East Avenue Bakehouse (112 Bold Street, Liverpool L1 4HY). The lightest, fluffiest hummingbird cake you could wish for, plus platters groaning with the best meats, seafood and vegetables that the season has to offer, plus cheese from The Liverpool Cheese Company, B's sublime local cheesemonger.

Maray (91 Bold Street). B practically dragged me in here the second I stepped off the train to show me just how good - and affordable - Liverpool's food offerings can be. Small plates of crisp whitebait, smoky roasted cauliflower and rich octopus swimming in swampy black beans drew me in and made me seriously reconsider my life choices. 

Baltic Bakehouse (46 Bridgewater Street, Liverpool L1 0AY), in the seriously cool Baltic Triangle area of the city. This coffee shop has it all, as far as I'm concerned - great coffee and tea, brilliant sourdough that makes exceptional toasties and sandwiches, plus sticky cinnamon rolls best enjoyed with a cup of tea at home. Oh, and the stripped-back, industrial aesthetic doesn't hurt either.

Back in London, I made concessions to my Chinese-Malaysian heritage. I bought a hillock of mooncakes at Chinatown's Mid-Autumn festival, then ate my body weight in cucur udang, nasi lemak and apam balik at Trafalgar Square's Malaysia Night. I'm so excited to be heading back to Kuala Lumpur for a short trip over Christmas and New Year. I haven't been in three years, so please, anyone who's been recently and has recommendations for good things to do and makan, hit me up! 

I also acquainted myself with a billion different canapés at the launch of ROMA (14 New London St, London EC2R 7NA), a brand new wine bar and restaurant offering the flavours and cooking techniques of ancient Rome under the shadow of that modern monolith, the Walkie-Talkie. City folks, head here for Italian food with a difference - their charcuterie is especially good!

I got hooked on the spice at Xi'An Impression (117 Benwell Road, London N7 7BW), up near Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. While it's not the cheapest Chinese cafe you'll find in the city, they do seriously good hand-pulled noodles, chewy and bathed in chilli oil, moreish 'beef burgers' and beautiful, refreshing petal-like yikouxiang. 

I've been doing a fair amount of baking (probably in part prompted by the tragic final season of my beloved GBBO) now that the nights have turned colder and longer. One of the bakes I'm most proud of was this fluffy Apfelkuchen, full of cinnamon and cooking apples bought from Marylebone market, which proud German B helped me to make, translating a trustworthy recipe and arranging the apple slices in an authentic pattern.

Finally, B and I took a trip back to Cambridge for the Festival of Ideas. Cambridge is our shared alma mater - despite attending neighbouring colleges, we weren't aware of each other's existence for the time we were there! Visiting the city still makes my heart palpitate a little faster with residual stress (multiple weekly essays, I don't miss you one bit) but it was so nice to experience the place with B and have the requisite heavy brunch at my college, see old friends and nostalgise over old lecture halls during talks at the Festival. My favourite? A lecture on whether emotions can travel from one language to another.

The stunning foliage covering B's college, Churchill, on Storey's Way, which I used to cycle past on my way to lectures.

Graduation taking place at Senate House. I'll be here early next year to pick up the honorary MA which every grad gets.

A return to the RFB, the languages building on the Sidgwick Site, where arts and humanities students attend lectures. Mixed memories, mainly happy ones, of drifting off in grammar classes and being drenched with cheap prosecco after exams here. 

My darling A, who's doing her PhD here, and who took B and I to Copper Kettle (3-4 King's Parade, Cambridge CB2 1SJ), a Cambridge tea shop staple opposite King's College for a cuppa and a slice of warm apple pie and cream.

What have you been up to this autumn so far? Have you been to any drool-worthy restaurants or visited any leafy little enclaves that I should put on my bucket list? 

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