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Blargh Archive for
10/15 - London
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It was the last day of the trip for most of the group. My sister and I woke up at 5AM so we could get ready and pack. Then we caught a taxi to our parents' hotel where the whole group boarded a shuttle bus to the airport. We arrived 2 hours early to quell the worries of some nervous Asian travellers. I checked in and the British Airways representative let me check both of my bags all the way to Chicago, despite having a 20 hour layover in London (the policy is not to store luggage over 3 hours in London, if you remember my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier). After we were all checked in, our family camped out at Gloria Jean's for coffee and to eat some of the many baklava treats we had collected.
When it was time to head to the gate we left my sister at Gloria Jean's since her flight didn't leave for another 4 hours. The rest of us proceeded to the gate and had an uneventful British Air flight to London Heathrow's Terminal 5. There the whole group went through security to transfer to Terminal 4 where AA is located. I followed them, only to discover that it is extremely difficult to exit the departure area of Terminal 4!
I asked one airport employee how to get out to the city and they had me walking all over Terminal 4 before I found out I had to go backwards through security to return to Terminal 5 and then follow a different route to go through immigration and customs. Finally I got to the Tube (a route I remembered well due to my luggage fiasco two weeks earlier) and made it to my Hilton hotel.
After Gloria Jean's and snacks on the plane, I wasn't really hungry even though it was noon (3pm in Turkey) but I had a 1:00 reservation for Afternoon Tea at The Promenade in The Dorchester hotel, just down the street from my Hilton. It had gotten a good 20 degrees colder in London in the two weeks since I had been there so it was a brisk, but refreshing 5 minute walk. The Dorchester is a beautiful classically decorated hotel and makes you feel a bit regal when sitting in The Promenade, a long hallway full of couches and chairs for lounging and for Afternoon Tea.
Afternoon Tea proved to be quite nice and is much more elaborate than just tea. There was champagne, amuse bouche, finger sandwiches, a main course, dessert, pastries and finally a small pot of tea. Since I wasn't really hungry when I started, I ended up quite full, which did not bode well for my dinner plans.
I had two other things to do before dinner and I hoped that a decent amount of walking would let me build up an appetite before my 10:00pm reservation. First, I walked to the Green Park Tube which took me to Bond Street (one stop). I walked north to find La Fromagerie, a highly reviewed cheese and gourmet food shop. I took a few pictures of the area to help people locate it (see below). They have a a nice selection of locally produced foods from yogurts to cured meats to fresh vegetables to fruit preserves. They also have a small dining area for cheese flights and sandwiches. Of course, the main attraction is their temperature and humidity controlled, glass walled cheese room.
A small sign sets forth some rules, the most notable ones being: keep the door closed, maximum of 6 persons in the room (2 of which are the cheese mongers) and no pictures allowed without permission. I asked to try some smoked cheese and ended up buying a half pound of smoked cheddar. I also asked for any aged cheeses but since they tend to buy locally, there were no aged italian parmesans. The oldest thing they had was a 1.5 year aged Gruyere which was quite tasty and had lots of really tasty salt crystals in it so I bought a half pound of that as well. I also asked for permission to take photos, which they allowed after a couple seconds of contemplation.
After that I had to go clothes shopping because BA had unexpectedly allowed me to check both my big bags and I did not have any dress pants for dinner. I walked south to Marks & Spencer to buy some cheap khakis (cheap meaning 15 GBP, about $30) and since it was in the same direction as my hotel, I went ahead and walked all the way back. It was still a bit early so I took a nap for an hour before getting ready.
When 9:30 rolled around, I was still not hungry, but when you have a reservation at a three Michelin Star restaurant, you go anyway. I jumped in a cab and told him I was going to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. After 10 minutes of driving and listening to his phone conversation with his wife, he dropped me off and I walked in. I immediately knew that I was in the wrong place. I was actually at Claridge's, one of Ramsay's one Michelin Star restaurants. It is another restaurant worth trying, but not where my reservation was. The hostess kindly called ahead to RGR to inform them I was on my way and I hopped into another cab.
I finally arrived at RGR where they promptly seated me in a corner overlooking the rest of the dining room. I was the only person eating alone and I think they took pity on me and were a little extra attentive, though you could potentially mark that as a sign of service. After ordering a Pilsner Urquell, I briefly perused the menu even though I knew I was going to order the Prestige Chef's Menu.
While I did so, I noticed the Maitre'D walking from table to table with a wooden box. When it was my turn, he approached my table and opened it. The top of the inside had a polished brass plaque lining it, which created a golden glow, just like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. In the center of the box, sitting on a layer of Arborio rice, were three lumps. The Maitre'd explained that they were whole white truffles from Alba, Italy, the most expensive type and available just one month a year. I could have them shaved over a mushroom risotto for 25GBP ($50) a la carte or for 16GBP ($32) as a substitution for an appetizer on the Chef's Menu.
Personally, I think black truffles are a bit over rated and are a bit too earthy for my tastes, but the smell from these white truffles was heavenly. I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm at Gordon Ramsay's three star restaurant in London and I have an opportunity to try white truffles. How often does that happen?" I figured I was already spending an arm and a leg on the meal so I went ahead and ordered it.
You can read about the individual dishes below, but as I was eating, I was writing notes and taking pictures. The Maitre'D noticed of course and asked if I was a chef. I told him I was an aspiring cook, but not a chef. He asked if I'd like to see Ramsay's book about the restaurant. I knew the book he was referring to and gladly accepted the offer. He brought the autographed oversized silver book, "Gordon Ramsay: Three Star Chef" to my table and and indicated it was the restaurants only copy. I wish I could get a copy of my own but it's been out of print and sold-out for a while.
A couple courses later, I overheard the couple next to me talking about me taking photos, after which the gentleman leaned toward me and asked if I was taking pictures for a blog. We had a brief conversation about why I was in London and how I was enjoying my trip, and then the cheese cart came. I wanted to try some cheese (an additional 12GPB, $24) but I was way too full so I passed. Next were the dessert courses; of which there were quite a few. There were about as many pre-dessert, dessert and post-dessert courses as there were other courses on the tasting menu, but I'm fully in favor that!
In the end, the RGR meal was excellent and definitely one of my favorite meals of all time. It was a more traditional french 6-7 course meal instead of the over-the-top 10-20 course meals popping up in America and I like that. It's too bad the exchange rate was so bad, making my 160 GBP meal cost a whopping $331.29.
I returned to the hotel and watched an interesting documentary about how British Airlines has dropped in the rankings. BA now has the 3rd most cancelled flights in the world. BA also loses the most baggage in the world and that doesn't mean temporarily delayed or mis-routed, that means luggage that is straight up lost and never recovered or identified. In fact, they have an entire warehouse full of hundreds of thousands of unclaimed and unidentified luggage that they sell at auction after one year. Apparently the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 was supposed to fix some of these problems but it ended up being a giant cluster. Apparently, BA is now becoming famous for UN-friendly customer service and policies. I can understand that given the issues I had in Athens...
Shortly after that, I fell asleep for the last night of my trip.
10/15 pictures are here.
Posted 02/09/2009 11:04 PM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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Monday 9/29 - Travelling to Athens
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After 90 minutes of sleep, I headed to Heathrow with my crippled bag to catch my 8:20 flight to Athens. Of all the things to forget, I failed to check which terminal my British Airways flight was in. I knew they were in Terminal 4 or 5 but I wasn't sure which it would be. I chose 4 because it was the closer stop on the Tube but I turned out to be wrong. Unfortunately, to get to Terminal 5, I would have to back track to another station and then transfer to another train. I finally arrived at Terminal 5 at 7:15, perfect timing to check in. But the kiosk gave me an error and told me to go to "Zone A." I went to Zone A and the Queue Host (line manager) told me to go to customer service in Zone B where a single representative was trying to help a dozen people. I stood anxiously in line and watched as the minutes counted down.
It wasn't my turn until 7:50 and of course the flight had already been closed. The rep told me I should have gone to Zone A and now I had been dropped off the flight. Unlike AA which allows you to just jump on standby for another flight, British is very strict about this sort of thing. They basically assume it was your fault and cancel your ticket. Since it wasn't my fault that I had been mis-directed, they had to enact some absurd exception process.
First the rep flagged down a manager who told her to call some guy who handles this stuff. The guy didn't answer the phone so the manager escorted me to Zone A and handed me off to another guy who proceeded to call the same guy who handles this stuff who once again didn't answer. Then he called one of his friends in another department and called in a favor to get my ticket reinstated. Then, he called the first guy again, who finally answered after the phone rang for a good two minutes and had me put onto the standby list for the next flight. Then he called the second guy again to have my standby status upgraded to cleared. Then he could finally confirm a seat and check me in. It took at least 30 minutes to complete this process. I thought British Airways was supposed to have good service!
Since I had three more hours to kill, I decided to sit down for breakfast at Carluccio's, as recommended by the London Review of Breakfast. I had the colleccione which was toast with sauteed mushrooms, scrambled eggs, pancetta and roasted tomato. It was decently priced for the airport at 7£. They don't get any awards for presentation but the mushrooms and eggs were tasty. The toast was a bit tough, the pancetta was salty but not that flavorful (would have preferred American bacon) and the tomato was good but not roasted enough. But those were all minor gripes and I was pretty pleased with my breakfast.
I also ordered a coffee drink called Bicerin. It is a traditional Torino drink of espresso, Florentine drinking chocolate and cream that you mix together as you please. The drinking chocolate was pretty thick like a soft ganache and if I had let it cool more it would have been pretty solid. It was also a pretty cocoa intensive and not very sweet. That was mixed with the espresso and about half of the cream. I considered adding more sugar but thought I should probably enjoy it as it was served. I thought it was extremely tasty, though not very healthy.
I then proceeded through security where they have a nice automated tray return system so that trays are automatically moved back to the front of the line instead of having to wait for some non-observant TSA rep to realize there's a backup caused by a lack of trays. Then in my search for a power outlet for my laptop, I ended up at Starbucks and bought a yogurt so I could sit and mooch their electricity.
Starbucks has much nicer food products in Europe. Their yogurts and granola all looked excellent and had extra seeds mixed in for added fiber and nutrition. I chose a Greek yogurt with granola and honey and was wowed by how thick, rich and tangy the yogurt was. Mixed with the granola, sunflower seeds and honey, this was a delicious yogurt mix.
After losing track of time and almost missing my new flight to Athens, I finally settled in my flight. The British Air 757 I was on seemed nicer and roomier than any American 757s. I think I had one or maybe even two inches of extra seat width and I suspect that American planes have eight seats crammed in a row instead of the seven on this plane. I'll have to check SeatGuru to see.
To my surprise, breakfast was served on this flight and it wasn't a crummy continental breakfast (pun intended here too); it was a hot fish pie. I don't particularly like the sounds of fish pie on an airline because it makes me think of the movie Airplane. But this fish pie (cod and salmon) was very good. The sauce was tasty and there were big chunks of fish coated with panko crumbs (the one negative being that the panko wasn't crispy). The caesar salad, while simple, was good thanks to the tasty croutons and substantial parmaggiano shavings. The bread rolls, which were a wheat and white baked together, were pretty good. And the rice pudding was decent though it was basically standard strawberry sauce mixed into plain rice pudding. I guess that's the one place that British Air has good service.
I finally landed in Athens and found customs and immigration to be very easy. There was no form to fill out and it looked like any valid passport gained instant access to the country. There wasn't anyone in customs either, you just walked out from the baggage claim to the oustide world. I lugged my crippled bag to the Metro which was thankfully still open (it was supposed to be closed for construction but contractor issues have already postponed the start date which was originally April).
I arrived at my station and using my compass quickly determined which direction to head to find my hotel. I walked for 10 minutes but couldn't find it. The address, 115 didn't seem to exist. I walked back and forth for another 10 minutes until finally walking into a Peugeot dealer to ask for directions. Turns out that the numbers on one side of a street don't necessarily line up with the other side so even though I was at 110-120 on the north side, 115 on the south side was another 10 minutes farther down the road.
Then I had to find a pedestrian underpass to get to the other side and I found the sign but not the underpass. I spent another 5 minutes looking for that until I walked into a Citroen dealer and asked for help. Turns out the underpass was about 100 more meters past the sign. 10 minutes later I was across the street at the Marriott and I was soaked with sweat from dragging my stupid cheap-ass bag back and forth and up and down curbs because Greek drivers don't care if their parked cars block the cross walks (if there happens to be one at a particular street intersection) or fire hydrants for that matter. I finally got into my hotel room at 7:30 and decided to scrap my plans to go to the happening night spot for dinner and try to get some sleep.
9/29 pictures are here.
Posted 10/01/2008 06:41 AM in Food, Greece, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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Sunday 9/28 - London
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My trip did not start off as well as I had hoped it would. First, they wouldn't let me check my big bag all the way to Athens because the layover was too long so I would have to pick it up in London. The 7 hour flight itself was fine for the most part. I seat 31B which is an exit row that has lots of leg room. Note that 31A has the emergency slide blocking it so if you want to stretch out you have to sit at a funny angle and then you feel lopsided for the rest of the day.
The AA 777s now have pseudo on-demand movies. Basically each title restarts every 15-20 minutes so you can start a movie almost whenever you want. You can choose to wait for the next one or start the one that is in progress. The one problem is that the controller is docked in the side of the arm rest. If you remove it, there's no problem but if you leave it you can accidentally hit a button and exit out of the movie. I did this and had to restart Hancock, then I did it again, and had to restart it again so I ended up losing about 45 minutes of movie watching time. Hancock was good overall, nothing all that special, but pretty entertaining. I also watched Swing Vote which was decent but lacked a lot of depth that I think it could have gone into. I wanted to watch Get Smart as well but b/c of my Hancock blunder, I didn't have time.
Food on the flight was decent. The choices were barbecue chicken and beef lasagna. I chose the latter which was fairly tasty, (almost as good as a Stouffer's frozen dinner, which are some of the tastiest ones out there since they're not geared as dieting dinners). The salad, dressing and bread were the exact same kinds that AA always uses that are fairly blah. Dessert was a little different though, it was an Oatmeal Chewie. It had a consistency like a brownie crossed with an oatmeal cookie and was pretty tasty in it's manufactured and shrink wrapped goodness.
Breakfast was a pretty simple continental breakfast: a single croissant. The croissant was actually pretty good: it was toasted and had a nice tender center with a flakey outside and was served with butter and strawberry jam. Airline water always tastes funky even though it's in a sealed container, maybe it's the container that tastes funky but it's been that way on AA for as long as I can remember. The strawberry yogurt was run of the mill pre-mixed which is slightly ironic since Britons and Europeans are more picky about their yogurt. For instance, I prefer Danon fruit on the bottom yogurt and one reason they make yogurt that way is to keep the sugars from the fruit separate from the active cultures so as not to interfere. Well in Europe, even fruit on the bottom yogurt causes too much interference so they actually sell yogurt that has the fruit flavors in a separate compartment so you can mix them just when you're ready to eat it.
After we finally landed in London, I picked up my bag and went to British Airways to see if I could check in the bag for the next morning and they said they only allow check-ins three hours before the flight. So I accepted the fact that I would need to lug around my big bag as well as my small bag and backpack. This is the first time I used my cheap new 25" bag and I didn't pack it all that full. In fact it weighed about the same as my small bag (which was extra heavy b/c of my laptop). So in preparation for the walk to the London Underground (Tube) I latched my small bag onto my big bag started walking. All of you who said I should invest in a good set of luggage instead of a cheap set, you were right. After walking through the terminal and through the hallways for about 10 minutes, I lost a wheel.
So now I have to carry the big bag on top of the little bag (a Samsonite) which seems to be holding the weight of both bags without a problem. Darn that ghetto generic Embark brand from target! Having to lug around a big bag was bad enough but to not have wheels for it has really made my plans to travel easily by subway and foot a big pain in the butt. Even my hands are feeling a bit raw from wrassling with the bag. I considered buying a new one but being in London, that's not a good idea as a decent bag could easily cost $200. I may try to buy a new one in Athens (or maybe Egypt where it would be cheap, but probably not any higher in quality).
So anyway, I finally checked in at my hotel and set out for Arbutus, a fairly fancy restaurant that has a cheap prix fixe lunch set. Of course, I wanted to be daring so I went a la carte. For my starter, I had Braised Pig's Head, Potato Puree and Caramelized Onions (see pics). There was a block of meat on the left of the plate (reminiscent of head cheese) which was tasty and reminded me of the ham hocks my mom used to make. The potatoes were very smooth and creamy. However, on the right side of the plate there was something on top of the caramelized onions. My guess is brains which I kind of had to choke down as the taste was as little too offal (pun intended).
For my main course I had the Plat du Jour (dish of the day): Elway Valley Lamb, Hot Pot "Breast and Sweetbreads." This was very tasty and had some fatty pieces of lamb and a whole sweetbread (referred to as a neck gland, haven't had a chance to look up which one it is) topped with gratin potatoes. The dish was a bit lamby plus some offal flavor, but pretty good overall. Unfortunately, I suddenly got really full halfway through and decided to stop. It was odd because 30 minutes prior my stomach had been growling like crazy. I think it was because my body considered it breakfast time and simply didn't want that much food.
After the main I had treacle tart for dessert which was simply the best I've ever had (ok, I've only had it once before, but it was absolutely delicious). I also had the house Apertif to drink which was Prosecco and pear puree.
Now, being extremely full and jet-lagged don't go together so well because I become extremely tired. I wandered around, checked out Chinatown a bit and then sat to rest in Hyde Park where I saw joggers, skateboarders, in-line skaters, horse riders and even a roller-skater (see below). Then things went downhill.
I was so full and exhausted that even though it was only 3:30, I went to my hotel room and plopped on the bed. I set my alarm for 4:30 so I could venture out to find La Fromagerie, a well known cheese shop. Well I woke up and was still very tired and very full, so I thought I'd sleep for another hour. The same thing happened an hour later, and every hour until 9:30pm. I finally made myself get up and despite the rest, I stumbled out of the hotel with bleary eyes. My mission was to find The Golden Hind, one of the best places in London for Fish and Chips. I wandered the area for an hour and never found it and by that time, all the restaurants I had passed started to close.
I headed back to the hotel and saw that Hard Rock Cafe was open but decided that wasn't worth going to. So I went to the concierge and asked who was open late and they told me what area to look in. However, by the time I found them, they too were closed. I headed back again and even Hard Rock was closed. So even worse, I ended up eating at Trader Vic's, one of the hotel's restaurants and I believe an American chain. I decided not to get too much and ended up with Singapore Noodles which were decent but a little light on the curry. I ordered my first European diet coke notied that it was much less fizzy than in the US. I also ordered Phoenix Beer which was smooth and crisp and doesn't seem very strong since I didn't have much problem finishing it.
I considered asking the cute Asian hostess to join me at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in three weeks, but decided against it. Then I returned to my room and of course I couldn't sleep. Luckily Gordon Ramsay kept me entertained with Kitchen Nightmares and The last episode of The F Word season 3 (he raised and slaughtered sheep this time). I finally went to bed at 4AM, just in time to get some shut eye before I had to get up at 5:30.
9/28 pictures are here.
Posted 10/01/2008 06:35 AM in Food, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, United Kingdom
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Being in the UK makes it easy to post since everything is just as connected as in the US. Even my phone works normally on T-Mobile UK (except that the roaming charges are pretty steep). The Hilton wanted 20£ for internet which is pretty outrageous. I found a cafe that charged 1£ per hour but didn't have my laptop handy.
Now I'm at Heathrow airport and they have a Boingo hotspot which is about 6£ for a day, which is acceptable and Boingo is an American company that is supported by McDonald's and Starbucks. I could have used a T-Mobile hot spot, but I think they're a little more expensive.
Anyway, the point of all this is that after I leave the UK, I'm not sure how easy it will be for me to post, nor do I know how much time I have to post things, so you may see some other posts that I haven't published yet and have nothing to do with my vacation. Athens looks like it's fairly connected via Starbucks but Istanbul and Egypt look pretty questionable.
Posted 09/29/2008 05:00 AM in Geek Stuff, Travel, United Kingdom
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While reading through the Chowhound forums for food recommendations I stumbled upon the term Full English. Simply put, a Full English is a proper English breakfast usually centered around bacon and eggs with other fixings such as sausge, black pudding, beans, tomatoes and others.
It is apparently getting harder and harder to find a proper breakfast in London which is where The London Review of Breakfasts, a site dedicated solely to the Full English, comes in. Breakfast reviews are organized by neighborhood and are written well with an entertaining touch of drama and comedy. I could only dream of writing so eloquently.
Following even more links, I stumbled upon this nice little article about how to find A Good Egg which includes some interesting and entertaining simple recipes on how to prepare an egg properly.
Posted 09/19/2008 10:59 AM in Cooking, Food, Ramblings, Recipes, United Kingdom
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My eyes are about to fall out
Normally, I spend the whole day at work staring at a computer screen. For that last two weeks when I go home or to the hotel, I also stare at a computer screen reading food reviews for all the places I'm visiting. There's so much info out there and so far I've found at least 150 different places that come highly recommended.
I have no idea how I'm going to choose between all of them and I'm starting to wish I could spend more time in Istanbul and London. I called AA and they said it would cost $900 to change the last leg of my return ticket, even though my entire 4 leg round trip only cost $1000. However, I can skip my morning flight in London and get on the standby list for a later flight without penalty. On top of that, most flights from LHR to ORD aren't full so that looks like a good option so I'll have time to check out Borough Market in London.
Posted 09/17/2008 11:32 PM in Geek Stuff, Ramblings, Travel, United Kingdom, Work
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T minus 11 days
My vacation is coming up in just 11 days. I'm totally looking forward to it and I've been doing a lot of research on what to do in our free time, particularly where to eat at the different docks. It looks like Istanbul is a big culinary destination and I wish I could change my ticket and stay another day, but then I'd miss my reservation at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. Speaking of London, I still need to reserve a hotel for my first night...
Posted 09/16/2008 10:21 PM in Food, Ramblings, Travel, Turkey, United Kingdom
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I'm trying to make reservations for dinner when I'm passing through London on my way to and from my family's Mediterranean cruise. First on the list is Le Manoir aux Quat'Saison (2 Michelin stars) by Raymond Blanc, a celebrity Chef in the UK and host of Last Restaurant Standing (simply The Restaurant in the UK). Alas, Le Manoir has no reservations available because they reserve ALL seats for guest residents at Le Manoir hotel. I'm on the waiting list and at the mercy of whether a resident decides to cancel.
The second restaurant is Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (3 Michelin stars). Apparently, only three chefs currently have three Michelin stars in the UK. Per instructions, I called exactly 2 months ahead of the date and at 2:00PM UK time, the only slot left was at 10:00pm. Like many fine dining restaurants, they require a credit card to secure the reservation. The no-show fee is a whopping 150GBP ($280) instead of the standard $50 around Chicago.
My next task is to decide where to eat lunch, perhaps a famous London Fish and Chips establishment. I also need to figure out what to do about Le Manoir which is in Oxford. If I cannot get a reservation there, then that affects my hotel options. Perhaps I will go to another Ramsay restaurant such as Pétrus (two stars), Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's (one star), Maze (one star). If I'm not in the mood for a Michelin rated restaurant, perhaps I'll check out the slightly relaxed Boxwood Cafe or just drop by Plane Food at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 to see if I there's such a thing as decent airport food.
BTW, here are a couple handy links. To quickly determine exchange rates I usually use x-rates.com. And for calling internationally, I discovered this International Dialing Code at timeanddate.com which also provides many other international planning tools such as times and dates (obviously).
Posted 08/16/2008 11:03 PM in Food, Restaurants, Travel, United Kingdom
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