The Mother of Adventure

A Taste of NYC

img_5246New York City is one of the best places in the world for foodies.

In the “city that never sleeps,” you can eat really eat whatever you want – whenever you want. And I was lucky enough to do just that – for three blissful days in October. My “birthday buddy” Cathy and I took a trip to celebrate our 40th birthdays; we were born on the same day, same year (cool, right??). Our birthdays actually happened last year, but then…life kindof got in the way. So a year and a bit later…happy 40th to us!! (Does that mean I’m still just 40?!?).

We had an absolutely fabulous time, and a big part of our enjoyment centred around the FOOD. We’re both busy, working moms of young kids, and it was a massive indulgence to not have to lift a finger to prepare or clean up a meal for three WHOLE days!

So instead of recounting everything we did, I thought I’d focus solely on the glorious meals we enjoyed. We found some stellar restaurants, including:

img_5126Eataly

Located in the Flatiron District (200 Fifth Avenue) this gem was actually a recommendation from a colleague of Cathy’s, who is a chef/professor at Algonquin College. For Ottawa/TO peeps, I would liken it to the Marché – on STEROIDS. Picture an enormous, incredibly funky space – which includes six different restaurants under one roof, as well as a huge marketplace of food products. We put our name in for the pizza & pasta restaurant, then sat at the wine bar while we waited. Since I was ready to eat my ARM out of hunger, we shared an order of ‘mozzarella di bufala’ imported from Italy, served with homemade pesto and fresh bread. Oh BABY, it was soooo good! If you’re a cheese lover like I am, this is a must try. The appetizer may have trumped the main for me; I had a meat-stuffed tortellini which, while hearty and satisfying, left something to be desired. I actually had a bad case of food envy; Cathy had a pasta with this lemon-pistachio sauce that was incredible…very unique flavour. Must try to replicate at home.

Friedman’s

img_5141If you seriously love brunch (and I do), this is the place to go. A hop, skip and a jump from our hotel, Friedman’s is in Herald Square at 132 W 31st Street (there are other locations, including the flagship Chelsea Market restaurant). Good things come to those who wait, and wait you will; be prepared for up to a 45-minute wait on a weekend. But it’s so worth it; this family-run business is no greasy spoon. As a huge eggs Benny fan, I literally swooned over their ‘Nova Benny’ with poached eggs, smoked salmon, potato hash and hollandaise. It was so good we went back on our last day – and I also loved the Mexican-inspired ‘Chilaquiles’ which featured sunny side eggs, shredded chicken, fried tortillas, tomatillo salsa, avocado, cotija cheese, red onion and crema.

Izakaya Mew

If you’re looking for a trendy Japanese restaurant in NYC, look no further. This place is so cool it’s actually hard to find – which only contributes to its mystique.

izakayamewWe walked up and down the street and had to ask a concierge at a nearby hotel before we finally found the discreet sign, and a blasé stairwell leading to the basement. It led to a funky, industrial-style spot packed with Asian millennials (clearly, I fit right in…).

I have no photographic evidence of the food, as we actually grabbed a take-out order and ate in our hotel room before rushing off to see Cirque de Soleil – but the sushi was amazing.

The highlight: a fried chicken sushi roll…so different!

img_5247Snack EOS

Our “last supper” of the trip was late on a Sunday night. It was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, so Monday was our travel day back. We were actually on the hunt for Thai that evening, but since it was late on a Sunday we found a lot of places were getting set to close their kitchens just when we wanted to sit down for our meal.

That’s when we stumbled ass-backwards onto Snack EOS, a tiny little Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of historic Hell’s Kitchen. The size of a modest family room, the interior had a very welcoming, warm glow.

Over cocktails, Cath and I enjoyed a series of delicious small plates. A sampler platter of pita and dips came with delectable tzatziki, muhammara and melitzanosalata. But my favourite had to be the melt-in-your-mouth lamb triangles, accented with capers and baked in flaky phyllo.

Oh New York…I miss you so much I can still taste you! And so much more wonderful food yet undiscovered. Until next time!

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Summer fun at Calypso

Entrance

Summer is a season that’s nearly synonymous with water fun. I’m pretty sure my girls would actually *live* in their bathing suits all summer, if I gave them the chance.

My best friend Cathy is in the same boat with her two girls. So where do you go when you have four little sea nymphs on your hands? The Calypso Waterpark turned out to be the perfect spot for us to spend a splash-filled day last week.

Canada’s largest theme waterpark, Calypso is located between Ottawa and Montreal. It was a good 45-minute drive from our place in Ottawa’s south end – with quite a number of “Are we there yet??” moments to contend with – but the kids definitely found it to be worth the wait.

Wave poolAfter stashing our stuff in lockers (be prepared to make a $10 deposit per locker – you’ll get $5 at the end of the day when you return the key), we set up camp next to ‘Calypso Palace’ – the park’s massive wave pool. This area is nicely set up with oodles of white lounge chairs, behind which is a grassy area with dozens of picnic tables (every table has an umbrella – bonus!). We left our towels, sunscreen and sandals at a picnic table; I noticed that many other families had brought in full-sized coolers, too.

The kids voted to kick off our water fun at ‘Zoo Lagoon’ – and it took us moms a few minutes to realize that this area is actually meant for toddlers. Our kids – who range from six to 10 years, collectively – could not have seemed to care less. After about half an hour, however, we coaxed them next door to ‘Pirate’s Aquaplay,’ which was a bit more age appropriate for our crew. My six-year-old daughter, Lily, couldn’t get enough of the massive bucket that slowly fills and then dumps a tidal wave of water on your head – I’m actually a bit surprised the surge didn’t knock her right off her feet, but she just kept going back for more!

SashaThe rest of the day passed by in a happy blur of slides and wave pool fun. Our kids especially liked the ‘Jungle Challenge’ and ‘Family Twisters’ – a series of four coiled waterslides that seemed to be sized just right for them. The three oldest girls also loved ‘Kongo Expedition,’ but Lily was too small to ride without a life jacket (we found out late in the day that life jackets can be borrowed free at the entrance – just leave your ID).

When it was time to break for lunch, Calypso’s ‘Main Street Restaurant’ had all the kid-friendly fare we could ask for – the cafeteria-style cheeseburgers, hot dogs and fries totally hit the spot. Cathy’s youngest daughter Sasha, however, needed a gluten-free meal as she’s celiac. The ‘Ulysses Bar & Grill’ had a number of options – we hit a home run with a personal-sized, gluten-free pizza for Sash.

Lunch time!Our last ride of the day was ‘Jungle Run’ – which was a fun, floaty ride through a simulated jungle river – complete with insect and animal noises all around you.

On the way out, we capped off our fun-filled day at the ‘Penguins’ Stop’ for an ice-cream cone. Cathy treated all of us using the park’s ‘Money at my fingertip’ payment method, which allows you to pre-load money for park services and do a finger swipe to pay – rather than carrying cash. Having never seen this biometric technology in action, I was rather fascinated watching Cathy do her “finger swipe” at the ice-cream shop!

We stayed at the park till it was nearly closing time – and Cathy and I basically had to drag the kids out. On the way home, Lily fell asleep in the car – a sure sign of a very happy, exhausted customer.

 

 

 

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Hotel in Ottawa is miles from mundane

Bed jumpingWhether she admits it or not, it’s what every woman wants…especially on Valentine’s Day.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot or pack a ton of calories (although diamonds and chocolate are always a nice added touch!). To me, the ultimate gift – especially in the midst of a long, cold winter – is to be whisked away from the mundane; taken away to a place where the constant stream of dishes, laundry and housework ceases to exist.

That’s exactly why my husband, Ian, decided to take the kids and I on a “staycation” to a hotel in Ottawa over Family Day weekend. Since we didn’t really have the time – or the budget – to head out of the city, we decided to capitalize on all the great things going on in our own backyard – right here in Ottawa.

Marriott roomWe booked a two-night stay at the Courtyard by Marriott Ottawa East, and it turned out to be a great decision. Not only is the hotel very new – which means everything was fresh and clean – the location was the perfect proximity to all the Winterlude festivities taking place downtown.

Our family checked in to our Ottawa hotel room on Valentine’s Day. The whole weekend plan was a total surprise for our two daughters, ages nine and six. In fact, my husband had told both of them that we had dentist appointments booked for that evening, so you can imagine the thrill they got when we pulled up at the Marriott!

Pool AreaWe haven’t spent a lot of time staying at hotel rooms in Ottawa – considering that we live here – but over the years we have stayed at tons of hotels across North America, so we have a pretty good sense of what constitutes a good hotel. One of the little things we loved about this one was that every room has a fridge, sink and microwave – so we were able to bring in popcorn and drinks for the kids (and some wine for us to enjoy after they went to sleep).

On Friday night, we all took a long swim in the hotel pool (we lucked out and had the whole pool area to ourselves!), followed by an indulgent soak in the hot tub. Back in our room, we decided it would be more relaxing to have pizza in our PJs – so we skipped going out and ordered from a spot around the corner.

Family skateSaturday was mild and sunny – the perfect conditions for a skate on the Rideau Canal. The hotel is about a five-minute drive from the Byward Market, where we parked and walked over with our skating gear. The kids made it about 2K – which is longer than they’ve lasted in the past – so we rewarded each of them with a Beavertail for their efforts. Back at the hotel that afternoon, Mommy indulged in a rare afternoon nap while the kids had some downtime watching TV. We finished off our day with a nice dinner at a Korean restaurant in Chinatown.

Following another swim on Sunday, we had all worked up a big appetite. So before checking out, we headed over to the hotel’s breakfast buffet at The Bistro. Having an awesome spread of French toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit and coffee was the perfect end to our staycation. We left feeling full and happy – relaxed from our weekend away from the daily stresses of home.

And the best part? We didn’t even need to hunker down for a long drive home – we were back safe and sound in just 20 minutes.

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A little slice of Canadiana

PerformersCanadians often brag about being able to not only withstand the cold, but embrace it.

On frosty winter mornings, while scraping the four-inch, icy coating off their windshields, neighbours can be heard making cheery quips like, “Cold enough for ya?” or, “That’s quite the dump of snow we got last night, eh?”

Since January, however, I have admittedly *not* been embracing winter. Ottawa’s bitter temperatures – which ranged between -25C and -40C for most of the month – were a tough pill to swallow, and frankly, I felt more like hibernating than pulling on a parka.

Ice SlidesBut the beauty of the cold stretch is how good it feels when you finally get a day like today – a beautiful, mild winter day that is perfect for outdoor family fun. Our family decided to take advantage of the perfect conditions, so we headed to Jacques-Cartier Park to play at the ‘Snowflake Kingdom’ as part of Winterlude, Ottawa’s massive, annual winter festival.

First up on the agenda were the ice slides, which were a blast for all of us. The glossy, polished ice is the perfect surface for sliding down right on your butt – no mat needed.

But this year we also tried out the ‘Chinook Run,’ which is a tubing adventure. The tubes are big enough for a parent to take a child in their lap, so you can choose to double up or go solo. Festival workers grab a handle at the end of a long cord – attached to your tube – and whip you down the start of the run, delivering a good rush of speed.

Several ice slides later, our frozen toes told us it was time to warm up and enjoy a the much-anticipated Winterlude treat – the Beavertail. These cinnamon-and-sugar sensations are worth the trek downtown in and of themselves, and if you come to Winterlude you just can’t leave without trying one.

DrummingAfter washing it down with a good dose of hot chocolate, we headed back to check out the Aboriginal displays and presentations. This year, the group was demonstrating traditional drumming, how to make snowshoes and how to throw a harpoon. Our nine-year-old, who has taken units in school about Aboriginal groups, always loves checking out these areas, although the animal lover in her shrinks away from the furs hanging on display.

We played away our whole morning at the Snowflake Kingdom, and suddenly we were hungry for more than just sugary snacks. After putting in my request for poutine, my husband had a brainwave. Back over the bridge to Ontario, we headed to the Market where we found the most perfect post-outdoor lunch spot: The Smoque Shack.

The Smoque ShackA vegetarian’s nightmare, this place offers the most delicious array of BBQ’d meats you can imagine; we ordered a sampling plate that included pulled pork, ribs and a tangy, Texas-style beef brisket.

The poutine – which was what brought us there in the first place – was outstanding. Perfectly dusted with spices and piled with cheese curds and chicken gravy, the platter was very generous – ideal for sharing amongst all of us.

Add in a pint of Mill Street Organic Lager – from a microbrewery right here in Ottawa – and the Olympics playing on the restaurant’s TV, and I’m pretty sure I found the perfect recipe for a day of Canadiana.

And you know what? Unlike those long, cold days in January, winter and I actually got along today. With a little help from great festivals and fine food establishments, maybe I can embrace it after all.

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My big, fat Greek Christmas-decorating party

Pita & hummusNothing quite says Christmas like an order of Greek gyros and hummus, am I right??

OK, so maybe it wasn’t exactly an old family recipe, but Ian and I were in the mood for Greek food last weekend. Naturally, we went back to our fave spot – Greek on Wheels.

Now I’m probably opening myself up to more reader comments on the best Greek food in Ottawa (bring ’em on!), but to us, Greek on Wheels takes the cake – hands down. In fact, when we first got married, Ian and I actually had the downtown location of Greek on Wheels on our speed dial (now that’s love!).

Tree timeLast week, I wrote about how I’m feeling a bit unprepared for Christmas. So I decided to jump-start the Christmas spirit, and no better way to do so than to put up the tree!

At nine and six, our girls are at such great ages to help with the decorating; they really got into it. After we’d finished our Greek feast, we all got into our comfiest, most Christmas-y PJs and pulled out the decorations.

I find it so cute how the kids put the decorations on the tree; they grab one box of decorations and hang a whole bunch of them, one right next to another. The end result is a small, concentrated area of red balls, or a tight cluster of sparkly pine cones. I just don’t have the heart to openly criticize – nor do I want to shoo them away from the tree because I don’t like their choice of decorating. But I have to admit that – once they’re all done – I make some subtle shifts to balance out the ornaments.

RudolphWe have a couple of inexpensive Santa hats and a red, blinking nose that have lasted an amazingly long time. Every year, as we decorate, those items come out and get rediscovered by the kids. Combined with our homemade medley of Christmas songs (you can sometimes catch me belting out the lyrics to Boney M’s Feliz Navidad – it’s just so catchy!), we create our own, unique festive spirit in the house.

It’s the party of the year – and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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The art of the shawarma

ShawarmaA good shawarma is a thing of beauty; it is something to be savoured and enjoyed.

If you don’t agree, you have clearly never had a good shawarma, end of story. I am extremely fortunate to live in close vicinity to one of Ottawa’s best shawarma spots – Guava’s Shawarma. It really is second to none, in my experience. Don’t let the rudimentary web site deter you – these boys know what they’re doing.

One of the keys to Guava’s greatness is the garlic sauce; they don’t skimp on the sauce. This is really crucial, as you don’t want your shawarma to be dry. Another special touch that I really enjoy is the wrapping of the shawarma. The boys at Guava’s have this cool way of wrapping your sandwich so that you can carefully tug the top paper off the sandwich while still keeping it neatly wrapped (and your hands clean). Pure brilliance – and not something all shawarma places can replicate.

To me, shawarma is a truly awesome food – usually a lunch – but it’s important to note that it’s not one I want to have too often. You have to pace yourself with shawarma; too often and you’ll ruin the experience.

Shawarma manA shawarma is a sacred treat, and anyone who breeches that is going to be a problem for me. Allow me to explain. A few years back, I had spoken to an acquaintance about getting together for a post-lunch coffee. This was someone I didn’t know well, and we’d never gotten together before; we had only exchanged chit-chat in passing.

She was a bit wishy-washy, and said she would confirm our coffee date. She didn’t. So imagine my utter surprise when my doorbell rang – just as I was about to bite into a large chicken shawarma from Guava’s. Ouch…so far this fledgling friendship was off to a rough start…but it gets worse. Yes, it gets much, much worse.

Once my non-confirming, I’ll-just-show-up-on-your-doorstep acquaintance came in, I explained to her that I hadn’t had lunch and was about to sit down with my husband to have a shawarma. I asked her if she had wanted lunch – or did she want half of my shawarma?

Don't touchNow I should come clean here and just admit – I had no true intention of sharing my shawarma. I was only being polite. I mean, really – would you just show up at someone’s house unannounced and eat half their lunch? Someone that you don’t really know?

Oh, she had just finished having lunch, she assured me. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “But…oh, OK, you know what? I will take half of that shawarma,” she said.

Her words stopped me cold. I was caught – caught in my own web of polite pretenses. My husband – who was incredulous himself – hid his face behind his own shawarma so she wouldn’t see him laughing. He caught my eye as I sliced my still-warm shawarma in half; he knew exactly the pain I was feeling.

In my head, I was thinking, “Umm…what was that?? You’ve just had a meal, but now you’re taking half of my precious, mouth-watering shawarma anyway? Just because?? Oh lady…that is so not cool.”

Needless to say, the friendship never quite took off between us. It does, however, make for a funny story to tell whenever the topic of shawarma comes up.

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A Mini Family Vacay (Toronto, ON)

Ian and the kids pile on the hotel bed.

With our summer adventures in the rearview mirror, it had been a while since our little family took a break from day-to-day life in Ottawa. So naturally, our girls were thrilled when their dad announced we had enough Marriott hotel points for a free stay at a Toronto hotel (the silver lining to his frequent work trips). Enter the mini vacay…the perfect antidote to the November doldrums.

While making our plans, we debated whether to book our stay at a downtown hotel or at a suburban location. With limited time during a two-day weekend – which also included visiting some relatives in suburban Toronto – we figured we wouldn’t get the chance to see too many downtown sites this time around. That meant that our biggest requirement was a pool for the kids to enjoy – as well as proximity to some family-friendly restaurants. So we opted to stay at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Vaughan.

After making the four-hour drive from Ottawa, we checked in to the hotel and continued a small family tradition: letting the kids take off their shoes and jump up and down on the bed. The novelty of hotel stays has not yet worn off for our girls, so this is their way of kicking off the party. As a parent, I’m thrilled to let them do it, as I relish in the fact that I won’t be the one making that bed all weekend!

Our youngest daughter samples the chocolate milkshake at Dave & Buster’s.

While it didn’t exactly offer a spectacular view – we overlooked the parking lots of IKEA and Dave & Buster’s Restaurant – the hotel totally delivered for us. The front desk staff were friendly, the room was spacious and immaculate, and the pool was a great temperature for the kids to swim. Soon after checking in, we went for a family swim and subsequent hot tub soak. After working up an appetite, we started looking for supper options.

Sticking with the suburban theme of big-box convenience, we decided to try out Dave & Buster’s, which was a short walk from the hotel. While my husband was familiar with the U.S.-based restaurant/entertainment chain, I had never heard of it and was a bit curious to check it out.

My initial impression of Dave & Buster’s was that the place is absolutely cavernous (remember, the theme of all things Americana is “the bigger the better!”). This was probably heightened by the fact that we were four of about 25 people in the entire place, which felt more than a little strange. Nevertheless, we sat down at a booth in the vast dining room and perused the menu for supper. From the family perspective, I have to give them credit – they have a pretty extensive kids’ menu that pleased our girls; the highlight of the night being their thick, frosty milkshakes.

Based on her driving skills at the arcade, it’s a good thing we’ve got a few years before our oldest gets her license.

After we finished eating, we walked down the hall from the dining room to the games room – which was essentially a massive arcade. We bought a swipe card for $20 worth of games, then strolled around till we found games we wanted to try. Our five-year-old loved the Ice Age ‘Ice Breaker’ game (which was basically a modified version of Whack-a-Mole), while our eight-year-old tried out an interactive motorcycle racing game. But the best memory of the evening may have been our whole family going head-to-head at good, old-fashioned Skee ball. Things started off a bit shaky for the kids – who had never played before – balls were flying up in the air and landing in totally different lanes. But after an introductory lesson from Dad, the girls improved immensely; especially Elissa, who was thrilled to see her score increase with each round.

As we left the arcade, we noticed a huge line of people waiting to buy passes, and groups of people streamed in as we walked out the front doors. So it would seem that Dave & Buster’s is a pretty popular spot after all; as a mom to young kids, I sometimes forget that most people don’t choose to call it a night at 9 p.m.

After a full day of driving, swimming and arcade fun, we were all grateful for our comfy beds. The girls shared the pull-out couch, while Ian and I felt downright posh sleeping on a king-sized bed with a pillow-topped mattress. After all, sometimes the simplest indulgences are the best – made sweeter by the fact that you can share them with the ones you love the most.

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A Staycation in Ottawa

By Stefania Moffatt, Contributing Blogger

On a brisk Saturday morning in May, the Moffatt clan packed their car in a suburb of Ottawa and made their way to downtown Ottawa for an exciting staycation at one of the local hotels, the Ottawa Marriott Hotel. Although we weren’t too far from home, we wanted to have a relaxing and fun time, so we chose a local hotel with a pool and two playrooms catering to kids. The hotel was also within walking distance from many of the attractions in our nation’s capital.

A view of the Museum of Civilization (located on the Quebec side) from downtown Ottawa.

On that cool Saturday morning, we dropped our bags off in our room after check-in, grabbed our sweatshirts and headed out to stroll along Sparks Street Mall, which claims to be North America’s Original Pedestrian Mall. We slowly made our way to Paul’s Boat Lines to enjoy an Ottawa River Cruise.

So often we live in a city and don’t take the time to explore. The cruise was a relaxing way to learn about Ottawa’s local history. We also caught a glimpse of some beautiful historical landmarks in the area.

Of course, there is a snack bar on the boat and the children gobbled down chips and chocolate bars while we enjoyed the sights.

Our next destination after the cruise and was a leisurely stroll through the Byward Market as we made our way to Zak’s Diner. Service at the diner was a tad slow for the Saturday lunchtime crowd, but enjoyable nonetheless as a place to eat with family in downtown Ottawa.

Relaxing on the lawns of Parliament Hill.

With full bellies and the weather growing increasingly hot and sticky, we made our way to Parliament Hill.

When we arrived on Parliament Hill we felt like wilted flowers and needed to lie on the plush grass and rest. This was a good opportunity to people watch and appreciate the beauty of the Parliament buildings.

Once we had re-energized we were ready to tour the Peace Tower. A tour of the Peace Tower is free of charge. Once you arrive, go to the Visitor Welcome Centre at the base of the Peace Tower. All visitors go through security and line-ups are to be expected. We visited on a very hot day in May; we waited in line for about 20 minutes. Fortunately the wait was inside, but it was still hot.

Taking a breather in front of the Peace Tower.

Once our tour of downtown Ottawa was complete we made our way to the hotel playrooms, dinner and then we checked out the pool. The next morning we had a delicious breakfast at Cora’s, which the girls thought was the best place EVER!

I recommend everyone check out what their city has to offer. Taking a day to play tourist and enjoy a staycation in your hometown is fun.

(Sidenote: A night-time activity, which we enjoyed one night during the summer is Mosaika. It’s a beautiful light show on Parliament Hill.)

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Giuseppe’s Ristorante Italiano (London, UK)

One of the fantastic things about London is the amazing variety of food. While you just can’t leave the city without chowing down on some traditional fish and chips (at least once), you are not in the least bit limited to classic British fare.

Last night, my husband finished work in time to meet me for dinner in Southwark. He was starved and we decided to go for Italian; he knew of a quaint little spot close to London Bridge called Giuseppe’s. The address is on High Street but the entrance is on the side of the building, so you have to go partway into a little alley to get in.

Down a steep flight of stairs, the cozy little restaurant is situated below ground level. ‘Cozy’ can be great when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with your own friends and family, but not always as desirable when you’re seated four inches from another foreign couple having their dinner. Tight quarters…we were wondering why we didn’t get one of the larger tables until more customers flowed in; in no time at all the place was packed.

The restaurant’s popularity is definitely a testament to Giuseppe’s cuisine. We started with a bowl of olives and an order of garlic-stuffed mushrooms. There were only two mushrooms on the plate – but they were massive portobellos; a delicious appetizer. The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come.

Both Ian and I decided to have a pasta main; I settled on the ‘Ravioli Lobster’ and Ian ordered a dish called ‘Pasta Nero di Seppia.’ He had pointed it out on the menu for our waiter; if I had heard the word ‘nero’ it might have tipped me off as to what we were about to see.

Ian unwittingly orders ‘Pasta Nero.’

When our meals were placed in front of us, we both stared at Ian’s dish in total shock. He had been presented with a huge bowl of linguine pasta with seafood, which is just what he had expected. What he didn’t expect was for every last piece of it to be perfectly black. Dark as night.

After simultaneously wearing puzzled expressions and asking each other, “What IS that?” Ian took his first tentative bit.

I watched his reaction carefully. “What does it taste like?” I asked.

“It tastes totally normal – like seafood pasta,” he replied. He began digging in with more gusto. A few bites later, I snickered at him; his lips, tongue and teeth were all blackened beyond belief. Clearly this mystery dish was not a first-date food.

I was admittedly skeptical about Ian’s ink pasta dish.

Curious, I had to try it for myself. Sure enough, it tasted delicious. But I just couldn’t get past the colour! It prompted a conversation about the psychological impact foods’ colour has on our perceived enjoyment of it. We both agreed the black sauce was somewhat bizarre.

When we were about halfway through our meal (you’ll notice that the North American ‘quality check’ in restaurants is sorely lacking here; if you need something, good luck getting your server’s attention), I flagged one of the waitresses who seemed to have a solid grasp of English. She explained that the black colour was indeed ink, taken from a cuttlefish to flavour and colour the dish.

Back at the hotel, we did some quick online research to learn more about the evening’s mystery dish. In fact, we found a short video from a celebrity chef that outlined the cooking procedure for Ian’s exact meal. It does not seem to be uncommon, nor is it something exclusive to London. It was simply something we had never heard of or tried before, thus turning our dinner out into a somewhat comic and highly memorable experience.

Oh – by the way – my lobster-stuffed ravioli was fab.

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Natural History Museum (London, UK)

The impressive exterior of the Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum is, in a word, incredible. This spot definitely needs to be added to your ‘must-see’ list when you’re visiting London, especially while travelling with kids.

First of all, be forewarned that this place is massive. We spent about three hours there and I would guess that we might have seen 20 per cent of the museum, if that. In fact, we may plan a second visit since we are lucky enough to be in London for several weeks. Try getting there in the morning while the kids’ energy level is high and the crowds are thin.

If you have the chance (and access to a computer), check out the museum’s excellent web site before your visit. It will give you a sense of the main areas of the museum – which are called ‘Zones’ and classified by colour for easy navigation. It also features a ‘Parents’ survival guide’ that lists some key activities that you’ll want to check out if visiting with kids.

Lily models the gear included in her ‘Explorer backpack.’

We started out by visiting the Central Hall, where the information desk supplies the under-seven-year-old set with ‘Explorer backpacks’ (yes, they are free!). These ridiculously cute exploration kits consist of a small, orange backpack, kid-friendly binoculars and a plastic explorer hat (reminiscent of Go, Diego, Go!). You have your choice of backpack themes – I requested the ‘Mammal’ edition for my four-year-old daughter, Lily. A bag containing three ‘specimens’ and a booklet of clues prompts kids to find a specific exhibit within their theme (spoiler alert: Lily had to find the polar bear display in the mammal hall).

Elissa discovers a tray of specimens in the hands-on kids’ laboratory.

For older children – ages seven to 14 – the lower level offers up an impressive hands-on science lab called ‘Investigate.’ Staffed with enthusiastic young volunteers, the large lab is home to hundreds of specimens – all of which can be pulled out in trays and examined with magnifying glasses and easy-to-operate microscopes. An adjoining courtyard garden (which was under renovation during our visit) allows kids to collect live bugs and pond samples.

Lily checks out a display in the ‘Creepy Crawlies’ area.

One area within the green zone on the main level is ‘Creepy Crawlies.’ Elissa and Lily enjoyed walking through the kitchen display, which features cupboards and a garbage can that can be opened to see pictures and read information about common household pests. Displays are organized according to four main groups: insects, crabs and related species, centipedes and millipedes, and spiders and related species.

Partway through our exploration of the Natural History Museum, we stopped for lunch at ‘The Restaurant,’ located on the main level. Featuring a children’s ‘Scoffasaurus menu,’ there were lots of kid-friendly choices. Food is freshly prepared on site; we had a tasty meal of burgers and pizza. For those with special dietary needs, they do offer vegetarian and dairy-free dishes and food with no gluten-containing ingredients.

All in all, a great place to keep the whole family entertained, especially on a cool, windy day in London.

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