Writing Cafes in Saigon

Requirements for a good writing coffee shop:1. Great coffee. 2. A cozy atmosphere. Or maybe a fresh one? The kind of relaxing vibe where I don’t feel stressed or hurried. 3. Pretty things for my wandering mind. 4. Less than five minutes from home.

These entirely subjective criteria, and an even less objective evaluation leads me to a little list: My top three (ish) writing cafes in Ho Chi Minh City (in no particular order and verified by no-one).

1. La Rotonde (77B Ham Nghi, 2nd Floor, D1) A deliciously light and bright space that overlooks a busy intersection and street market. The Vietnamese coffee is smooth and silky, there is an excellent lunch buffet every day, and a special vegan option for those with eating requirements.

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2. 14 Thon That Dam, D1 This place is wonderfully different. Faded old Saigon meets the exuberance of young Ho Chi Minh City. A French colonial structure opposite the imposing National Bank, you enter through a grubby alley stuffed with motorbikes and climb a stairwell straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel. Don’t be put off: each floor holds little jewels of hope and modernity.

The first cafe you come to is Banksy’s. An ode to the British graffiti artist, decorated with intricate tiling and bold typography, it’s a design-lover’s dream. The americanos are tasty, there are plenty of art and design books for you to peruse and you can often watch young couples having their wedding photos taken here.

Alternatively, you can turn left in front of Banksy’s and follow the chalkboard pointing to Things. Cross a walkway between buildings and enter through a flapping yellow shutter. Adorably covered in Charlie Chaplin portraits and wall murals. It’s so relaxed, one of the seating areas is a double bed. This is a cafe to lounge in as long as you wish. I cannot vouch for the coffee, but it’s a beautiful place for your mind to drift.

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Up one floor is Dan Tran’s vintage shop. Find unique clothes, bags and shoes in this delightful space and get the added bonus of saying, ‘Where did I get this? A little retro shop in Saigon, dahling’ every time you wear your purchase out.

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Across the landing is the Other Person Cafe. A maid cafe where staff cosplay manga characters and frilly maids with pink hair. They address you as master/mistress. Maid cafes are wildly popular in Japan, and starting to catch on here in Vietnam. If you’ve never been to one, imagine walking into a cartoon where you take coffee in a giant cat bus, or sit at a table that’s built like an enormous cake. Weird and dissociating? Yes. But something you should definitely try.

Mockingbird Cafe

Make it to the top of the building, and Mockingbird rewards you with a breezy balcony and views of the water

3. Velo de Piste Cafe (10 Pasteur, D1) You can’t miss the bicycles hanging outside and the huge moustaches gratified on the walls around. Open 24 hours for those in constant need of mountain biking magazines. Go after dark and be charmed by the fairy lights and friendly service. Try the passion fruit juice for instant refreshment.

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You can find other great recommendations for Ho Chi Minh cafes at Nomadic Notes and The Hungry Suitcase.

World Fantasy Con Brighton: Food & Drink

If you're coming to lovely Brighton for World Fantasy 2013, take a few moments to step outside the hotel and enjoy some of our delicious food and coffee. Nothing is very far away in Brighton, you can walk across the whole downtown area in half an hour, and if you haven't got time to walk, the cabs are easy to spot with their unique livery: white with turquoise bonnets. Avoid chains and going to most places on Preston Road or Western Road (the two main streets leading leading back from the sea front  to the right and left of the hotel respectively. Instead, stroll down to the Lanes (10 min walk from the Con hotel) or the North Laines (20 mins) and you're pretty much guaranteed wonderful experience whatever independent place you stumble into. That said, it doesn't hurt to have a place in mind if you're short of time, so below are my recommendations.

Coffee: Taylor St: a three minute walk from the station towards the seafront. Excellent coffee from obsessive Australians. The food is good if you can get a seat too. Small Batch Coffe: My favourite coffee in Brighton, they roast their own beans and also supply a lot of other coffee shops locally. Don't miss their coffee truck at the station when you arrive.

If you've only got a few minutes to grab a coffee or food, then The New Club is super close to the Con hotel. Turn right out of the venue, walk for 3 mins. It's on the corner of Preston Street. I haven't tried it yet and Trip Advisor has mixed reviews, but it's close if you're in a hurry.

Breakfast: Dumb Waiter: A crazy little cafe. Kind of disorganised but great food and a Brighton institution. 9-6, Sun 10-4. Seven Bees: Officially the best breakfast in Brighton, 9-3. Mad Hatter: Good, cheap cafe. Milkshakes, falafel, burgers and sandwiches. 9-6, Sun 11-5. For fabulous bread, pastries and cakes, try either of the Real Patisserie locations. Western Road open 7.30-6 every day, Trafalgar St. 7-5.30, closed on Sundays.

Lunch: Iydea - home-cooked vegetarian cafe. Eat in or takeaway. Tucked in the North Laines it's the best food you'll get for under a fiver. 9.30-9pm, Sun closes at 5.30. The Chilli Pickle: You'll need to get there early or book if you want dinner, but it's usually a bit quieter at lunch time. The best Indian food I've had in England. Bar none. Open 12-3 and 6-10.30. Mange Tout: Excellent french bistro for any time of day. 10-6 on Thursday, Fri & Sat 10-10 and Sun 10-5.

Dinner: If you want something fancier than the lunch places above, there are two excellent fine dining vegetarian restaurants in Brighton: Food for Friends: Everything on the menu is wonderful (12-10pm). Terre a Terre: (11-11pm) Food divine and diverse, booking is essential at peak times. There's excellent seafood at English's, 12-10pm, or sit down fish and chips at the Regency, 8am-11pm - not too pricey. Or for fast food that's open late, Grubbs Burgers is a Brighton institution, 12-12.

Drinks: Some quirky and distinctly English pubs worth checking out are The Quadrant: surprisingly chilled for it's central position, real ale and whiskeys. The Lion & Lobster: multiple cozy rooms and decent pub food from 5pm til 2am, and The Robin Hood: a not-for-profit pub with great beer and handmade pizza. Also, The Cricketers - An old school English pub, with all the horse brass and flock wallpaper you could possibly need.

If you head across to Kemptown (east of the Lanes) there are more great restaurants and pubs, and a plethora of gay bars to choose from. A couple to mention are the Camelford Arms and Marine Tavern. Both gay pubs with nice atmosphere and good beer, rather than pounding music.

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The WFC site also has some recommendations and covers afternoon tea particularly well (scroll down to the end of the page).

Baking and the magic formula

There *is* a magic formula! I knew it. I just knew it.For years I've thought bakers have secret knowledge to which the culinary proles (i.e. me) have not been granted access. I am vindicated. Michael Ruhlman says so.

My success with baked goods has been middling at best, due to a tendency to forget ingredients or make inappropriate substitutions leading to a spectacular collapse equalled only by Australia's batting performance in the Ashes yesterday. My gluten-free muffins If you've ever wondered what made a brownie so gooeylicious and a cupcake so undefinably distinct from a muffin, I am come to the rescue, armed with references and of course, a graph.

These three goods belong to the 'batter' category of baking - a pourable mixture with more liquid than solid. The key factors determining the nature of a batter end product are 1) the mixing method and 2) the ratio of the key ingredients (some or all of: flour, fat, eggs, sugar, liquid).

Mixing: Cupcakes (usually based on a sponge cake recipe) are light-footed airy little pixies. They require the sugar and eggs to be beaten first (called foaming), then the butter and flour added afterward. Sidenote: if you use the exact same ratios but start by creaming the butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour after, you get a much denser pound cake as a result.

Muffins and brownies* are both quick breads, where the wet and dry ingredients are mixed separately and then stirred together, just enough to combine them. Quick breads are leavened by baking powder, whereas cakes don't necessarily need it if you are skilled enough to get exactly the right amount of air into the mixture when beating it. But why not take advantage of modern (early Victorian) science and make life easy for yourself?

Ratios: Below are the relative ratios for cupcakes, muffins and brownies. The cupcake is the base case, using equal proportions of flour, fat, eggs and sugar for a light but firm bite. The muffin and brownie both contain additional liquid (milk and chocolate respectively) adding moisture to the final result. Meanwhile, in the brownie sugar has replaced about 1/4 of the flour (vs. cupcake) leading to a weaker structure and slightly gelatinous consistency.

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Voila! Secret staircase revealed. You can use these ratios in any quantity to make the kind of tasty treat you love best. But for those interested in *why* these ratios make such a difference, I will turn to my other favourite cook book: McGee on Food and Cooking which discusses the properties of each ingredient.

Flour: When wheat flour is mixed with water, the glutenin protein molecules link up end to end to form long, composite gluten molecules, giving the dough both elasticity (resists pressure and moves back towards original shape) and plasticity (changes shape under pressure). 'Working' dough allows more of these long chains to link up, strengthening the structure -- necessary in yeasted breads, but giving undesirable toughness to cakes and shortbread. This is why cake recipes often warn against over mixing, and flour is usually put in last.

Starch makes up about 70% of wheat flour. Starch granules interpenetrate the gluten network, breaking it up and so tenderising it. In cakes, starch is the major structural material as gluten is too dispersed in the large amount of water and sugar to contribute to solidity. During baking, starch granules absorb water, swell and set to form the rigid walls around the carbon dioxide bubbles, containing them and maintaining the structure.

Fat: Fats and oils 'shorten' a dough or weaken the structure thus making the final product more tender and flaky (e.g. pastry). in rich breads and cakes, fat bonds to parts of the gluten protein coils and prevent the proteins from forming strong gluten.

Sugar: As well as adding sweetness, sugar retains moisture, and limits the development of gluten. Hence the more moisture you like your brownies to have, the more sugar they will need.

Eggs: Are the magical all rounder ingredient, doing a great deal of work for your baked goods. The proteins provide some of the structure that holds the cake together. The yolk contains emulsifiers that help the other ingredients blend together, fats that make it richer and better-tasting as well as softening the texture of the cake, keeping it from becoming chewy.

A note on gluten free baking: Gluten free flours such as rice and sorghum are often supplemented by separate starches e.g. tapioca and xanthum gum. The gum, which is secreted by a bacterium and purified in industrial scale fermenters, provides a gluten like elasticity.

Some time ago the on-line gluten free community started a project called the gluten-free ratio rally to better understand how to transpose recipes into their GF equivalents. You can find more on it and recipes here, here and here:

*At least, the recipe that i've used from my Usborne First Book of Cookery is. Brownie recipes vary wildly.