Saturday, 7 May 2016

review: sticks n sushi cambridge

Right at the start of Meat Street (depending on which direction you're coming from, obviously) is Sticks N Sushi, a Danish chain with restaurants in London and now Cambridge. Yes, Danish. Why the hell not? I'm half Japanese and half Scottish; I'm all for fusion. It's a chain but it's not really a chain. A very short walk down the road leads to two other well known sushi chains, but I wouldn't consider them to be Sticks N Sushi's competitors. I see this as something higher end, a proper restaurant you'd go to for lovely drinks and pretty food.

Sticks N Sushi invited Cambridge area bloggers and writers to come to "preview" lunches and dinners a few days before they officially open on May 7. I took my friend Katie with me, who is my go-to person when I need an opinion on good restaurant food. I think she's eaten at every restaurant on my London wish list.

It was a gloriously sunny Friday, I bypassed the office sausage and bacon rolls that morning in anticipation of a big lunch, and I was in a happy and very hungry mood. We were immediately greeted by several smiling faces and taken to our seats at the bar. Our waiter told us that we would be served a set menu, but gave us the extensive "photo album" menu to look at for future reference. The menu is huge, with photos - 162 of them, to be precise - that helps people like me make food decisions. (I tend to skip over recipes that don't have photos. I'm kind of basic that way.) We started with drinks: a matcha tea for Katie and a lemon and ginger fizz for me. I was pleasantly surprised that the fizz wasn't sweet, and on such a hot day (for England), it was incredibly refreshing.

"Ebi bites" came out first, a sort of tempura prawn dish that was crispy and light. It's actually not at all tempura, I just used that word because it's on the menu. I'm not sure what the coating was, but it was almost like puffed rice. Whatever it was, we ate it in about 15 seconds and it was good.

The sushi was the focus for me, and my expectations were high. Cambridge needs decent sushi. We have Japas Sushi which is the best by far, but you go there to fill a sushi-shaped hole or get takeaway. You don't go there to linger over cocktails. Otherwise, we have chains and one of them is good (fresh, nice variety, not too expensive, great for food on the go) and the other is Yo Sushi. All I will say on the topic is that I only go there when my children clamour for it, and they only go there because food goes by on a conveyor belt and you can push a button to get more food. So when rows and rows of beautiful sushi arrived on two long plates, we both let out a little "Oooooh."

We had a combination of nigiri (fish on rice balls) and rolls. We were given a good variety to try, ranging from the more traditional (shake or salmon nigiri) to the more Westernised versions of rolls (spicy tuna with avocado.) The fish and rice were beautifully fresh, and the rice was seasoned well. Some varieties were more interesting than others, and you need to adjust your excitement levels accordingly. Nothing involving salmon and cream cheese is ever going to be described as "an explosion of flavour" but we liked them anyway. We decided to be sensible (this is a rare thing for me) and take about 1/3 of the sushi home and save room for the sticks.

We had three stick varieties between the two of us, which was good because we were starting to enter Man Vs Food territory with all of the sushi. We had black cod, asparagus in bacon, and as they must have got word about me and my love of bacon ahead of time, scallops in pancetta.  All cooked perfectly and hooray, double bacon!

I don't normally have dessert at Asian restaurants (mostly because we don't tend to do desserts all that well and I've stuffed myself with dumplings and/or rice by that point) but we fit in two small dishes of yuzu sorbet and vanilla ice cream, which were very welcome on a warm day.

The waiter described the provenance of all of the fish on our plates and we had a chat with one of the managers about it after our meal. This is an important factor at this restaurant and it's reflected in the taste - and price. This is the cost of quality, fresh, sushi grade fish. The problem is, Cambridge is used to supermarket and chain sushi that comes cheap. Chewy unseasoned rice topped with a wodge of tasteless fish, but it's all some people know. Even I find it difficult to fathom paying £13 for two pieces of sushi, despite knowing what I'm paying for. If it's a special occasion or we're in a large group (I love meals with lots of sharing dishes), I would be happy to come back here.

Will the people of Cambridge pay a premium for high end food or will this get dismissed as "London prices"? Sticks N Sushi is in an area right next to a large mall and across from a theatre, and many walk-ins will be looking for something quick and cheap. I think as long as you understand what you're in for, you're good to go. Given the demographics of central Cambridge (tourists, students, locals on a lunch break or looking to grab a bite before heading out for the evening), I would like to see some set menu deals, or prix fixe because it sounds a lot nicer in French. There are some nice looking sharing plates and set menus on there already, but the price still may deter some people.

Disclaimer: Look, I've been blogging since 1999 (on a Tripod site that might still exist somewhere in cyberspace) and we never had to do this nonsense back then. You'd just go somewhere and if you liked it, you might write about it on your blog. These days, you've got to put a disclaimer at the end of anything resembling a review or nobody will simply trust that you went somewhere and had a good time. Anyway, Sticks N Sushi picked up the bill and we didn't choose our own dishes. Nobody said "Write a good review or else we'll tell everyone that you're an asshole and make you pay for your meal." We genuinely liked it. Okay? Okay.

Monday, 11 April 2016

bodycoach: cycle three review

So I had this post in draft form and never got around to writing it. Hellooooo. This is what having children and being a certain age does to your brain. To be fair to the Bodycoach programme, this last review will be pretty brief and based on memory, of which I obviously have none.

I actually liked this cycle although it's even crazier low carb than cycle 1. You have refuel meals four times a week (i.e. you get one refuel meal post workout, and you aren't supposed to work out more than four times a week), which isn't a lot. In keeping with inconsistencies in previous cycles, no bread products are in the list of suitable refuel carbs but there is one recipe for a tuna melt that calls for two slices of "high protein bread." So...yeah. I suppose the point of this is to make people think they can only have bread if they make the tuna melt which is probably something they won't want to do four times a week.

Oh god, the side sauces. No. Make them stop. I don't want dairy with every freakin' meal. There are examples of non-dairy side sauces in the plan such as salsa verde, so go for that if you can't cope with cottage cheese or sour cream with every meal.

At the end and after I submitted my final photos and numbers, I got a "graduation report." Like the introductory information, much of it is written like a form letter and I don't know how much of it is personalised. Part of this is a recommended calorie amount and macros for rest and training days, which I suspect are based on the same formulas used by other sites. You also get some (generic) information about training and an advert to join their graduate plan.  I received an email from my coach which again, seemed very generic and auto-generated. There was one reference to something I wrote in my report, but it was brief.

In summary -

End of cycle three stats:
Lost .5kg
No inches lost

End of plan stats:
Lost 2kg
7 inches lost in total

I have had a lot of issues with this plan (The typos! The weird food combinations and measurements to make up macros! The typos! Seriously, how could you not notice all the red squiggly lines underneath so many words?!) but there were definitely positives that I carried on doing after finishing the plan. I like that you take photos each cycle. I never would have thought to do this, especially taking photos from the side and back. I was astonished and very happy to see a big change in my back, of all places. I think the basic premise of this plan is how I need to eat (e.g. getting my carb sources from fruits, vegetables, rice, and potatoes) and although I criticised the lack of information about macros and calories, simply giving people a list of foods and recipes is better than forcing them to do a lot of calculations. It does make eating away from home more challenging to the less experienced macro tracker, but it's a good way to kickstart better eating habits. The exercise is definitely beneficial and it's great to see HIIT and weight training (especially for women) being introduced to a much wider audience.

There is a lot of room for improvement, especially at this cost. I have heard that there is a newer version of the plan out as of January 2017, so perhaps they've listened to the complaints on social media (TYPOS!) and adjusted accordingly. I would be really curious to hear if this is the case. It's not a terrible plan and if you follow it to the letter, it should work.

Having said that, if you can find a macro and calorie calculator online (the IIFYM site has a good one - avoid others like on MyFitnessPal as their estimates are far too low), focus on eating lean protein, don't fear the fats, and get your carbs from "whole" (ugh, sorry) foods and not processed/gluten-free junk, look up some HIIT workouts on YouTube and do one at least three times a week, and look at weight lifting to put on more muscle (you can eat more if you have more muscle and less fat, fact!), you will do just as well. Joe Wicks is good fun to follow on Instagram and I've heard his cookbooks are good, too.

Monday, 14 March 2016

bodycoach: cycle two review

The second cycle arrived and I'm filled with joy. I can pick and choose ingredients and make up my own recipes! Carbs three meals a day on training days! Pasta, tortillas, bread, rice, and potatoes! But...wait...carb day also means low fat day. So it's kedgeree without the egg and tortilla pizza without the cheese. And low carb/rest day is now Super Mega Low Carb Day filled with Excessive Vegetables. Huge, huge portions of the same dozen vegetables three meals a day, on both rest and training days. Soups. I will have lots of soups.

So yes, a change in diet and training this cycle. Weightlifting is introduced, which is great. I do like lifting heavy things. Calories are up by about 300 or so on both training and rest days. Training days aren't as carby as people fret about. For me, it's roughly 200g/day which is the equivalent of about a handful of potatoes, one bagel, and two bananas. An amount easily knocked back in every meal on most diets.

As for the food, well...let's just say I opened up my ten millionth package of chicken and thought I was going to hurl. Weirdly, things I was really looking forward to on this cycle are making me feel sick - like smoked salmon. Two packages of smoked salmon in one sitting? And you can only have it with eggs and/or vegetables? No, no, no, I want my rye bread, smoked salmon, and avocado breakkie back, please. Also, let's talk about the side sauce concept. Why do we have to eat a blob of yoghurt, sour cream, and/or cottage cheese with EVERY MEAL, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK? Seriously, why? Is it to meet macros or is there some magical property in some dairy products that burns fat? And then when you look up swaps, you can trade these for low fat mayo, barbecue sauce, or any other non-dairy substitute...which will give you a completely different macro count. It makes no sense.

It's clear (from social media groups) that people don't really understand how macros work and why we eat how we do. You see people say things like "macros are calculated over the week, so it's fine to go over one day" or "you lose fat because you're in ketosis." (You're not. Really, you're not.) The plan doesn't explain much about how the food is calculated, so it stands to reason why many people don't understand how it works and ask questions like "Can I eat basil, or will it mess up my macros?"

So, cycle 2 in summary:

  • The food still makes no sense. Well, okay. I'm being harsh. Some of it makes sense but the ingredients are still incredibly random.
  • The MASSIVE change in carbs from day to day is awful.
  • I still miss bacon and sausages. And bananas. And who has stolen my cheese?!

My Cycle Two Diary

Day 7: I feel almost as rotten as I did on cycle one, so I guess having carbs back again isn't helping. I've had cramping and diarrhoea off and on since I started this plan in January, so I suspect I'm possibly allergic to something I'm now eating regularly (or whatever it is in large quantities is bothering my digestive system.) I'm not taking any of the supplements and the protein powder is the same one I've been using for about a year, so I think it must be down to one of the foods I'm eating. In terms of the change in training and rest day meals, the higher carb days are fairly high (for me), but the low carb days are at Atkins level. I get that this helps balance things out overall, but the constant change is making me feel ill. At least I'm not hungry so far. In fact, I am not managing to eat all of my food and I'm certainly not eating the hundreds and hundreds of grams of vegetables each day. This isn't really a good thing.

Day 21: I am feeling much better, but I still feel like I'm allergic to something I've been having a lot on this diet. My eczema is awful and it hadn't flared up for about a year before this.
Otherwise, I feel fine. No "bloat", enjoying lifting heavy things, and I'm pretty sure I'm still losing inches.

Day 28: Final tally: I've gained 3lbs and I've lost one inch in total (from my waist.) Oh dear. Let's just say that cycle two was not for me. A friend of mine said this was her best cycle, in terms of results. I think because I carry all of my weight around my middle, higher carb/low fat was never going to work well for me. On to cycle three...

Thursday, 18 February 2016

bodycoach: cycle 1 review

I'm no stranger to diets. Short of meal replacement shakes, I think I've tried them all. The only thing that has worked for me has been guilt. I have a personal trainer (which sounds very pretentious and uppity, but it's really not) and I feel so, so guilty if I don't give everything my all. Being held accountable to someone has been hugely motivating, which leads to actually sticking to it, which then leads to finally seeing big changes in my body and general health. Hooray! I've been with my PT since April 2015 and have lost 28 lbs/two stone and several inches.

So why look for something new to try, especially when I have 1:1 coaching at my disposal? Curiosity, mostly. I came across The Body Coach (AKA Joe Wicks) through a friend of mine. He's quite fun to follow on Instagram, seemed to follow the same principles that I've been following, and my friend had some pretty amazing results. I'd done well with the PT sessions and macro counting, but still had (have) a lot of fat to shift. I thought I'd give the 90 Day SSS Plan a go.

The Body Coach plan is in three cycles (months), and the food and training changes each cycle. Cycle 1 is mostly low carb, with the exception of one "refuel meal" post workout that is slightly higher in carbs and lower in fat. You are given specific exercise, food quantities, and recipes to follow.

First impressions
The marketing blurb makes it sound like you are getting a tailored, personalised plan with your own coach. You fill out a lengthy questionnaire that's riddled with typos and errors (e.g. repeated options), but does seem to cover a lot of ground about your food diary and general health. What you get when you submit your questionnaire and starting photos is a form letter from Joe/your coach. My email said that he could see I've been on a "traditional low calorie diet", which if someone did actually go through my food diary, they would clearly see this hasn't been the case. I don't think this is really tailored as such, which is disappointing. I filled out a very detailed questionnaire about diet, lifestyle, and health and I was hoping to get specific advice and information. It must be based on the usual factors: age, current weight, height, activity level. It doesn't feel personalised.
On the plus side, there's lots of good information in the plan for those new to HIIT (high intensity interval training) and for (like my email said) those who are used to low fat/low calorie diets. I will be continuing with my current training, which are HIIT sessions, and running. Also, my coach has been good at answering questions although it's a 24 hour+ delay to get an answer.

The recipes
RANDOM ingredients. I really can't sum it up any other way. You get a sense that someone was trying to make up the numbers, even if it meant doing things like adding 6 onions to a recipe. The 15g of pasta with a couple of the recipes is a great example of this. Or 150g of salad leaves, which is about two average bags of prepackaged salad. What I only later found out is that you can swap quite a few of the ingredients, which makes a massive difference. They did introduce a specific swaps page on the site (that has quite a few bugs in it), which is better than having to dig through the FAQs.
There are some peculiar spice and flavour combinations that you can just omit or swap for other spices. There's a "Mediterranean" stuffed pepper recipe that has cumin in it that I've swapped for basil. I've changed the spices in a (sort of Thai) turkey mince recipe so that I can use it as taco filling. In general, the recipes are simple, most of them taste good, but almost everything needs some minor tweak. They need to sort out the recipes and make it clear that you can substitute certain ingredients. And hire an editor. I'm not being a grammar snob, the spelling mistakes make this plan look incredibly unprofessional. Also, the cashew chicken curry meal makes no sense to me as a low carb option. It's got more carbs than the refuel meals I've been having.

The way of eating
My total calorie count isn't hugely different to before. I have maybe 200-300 more calories but it varies depending on what meals and snacks I opt to eat. Some meals and snacks are far more filling (and calorie dense) than others. The other difference is the source of macros compared to before. I've been eating well, but doing IIFYM - basically if you can fit your numbers, you can have it (within reason.) This plan focusses on lean proteins, so certain meats I was eating regularly are temporarily off the menu for this cycle. Also, my carb sources are now almost entirely vegetables and a very small amount of low sugar fruit.
I like that I can choose and swap meals and not have to calculate all the macros. I also like that you're encouraged to do the exercise by getting a starchy reward - not an unhealthy treat, and that's important. The reward is something like a bagel, potatoes, or rice. It helps you understand that foods like this are to be eaten sparingly, and only when you're training. It's a good change from traditional low fat, high carbohydrate, low calorie diets.

I think for those who eat a high carb diet and don't cook, this plan will be a big shock. I've also noticed that this plan seems to make people terrified of carbs. There's lots of talk on the Facebook group of needing to be in ketosis to burn fat (an old Atkins fallacy) and being "afraid" of cycle two carbs. I'm not convinced this plan teaches anyone about food and what your body needs. You're encouraged NOT to log your food (e.g. in MyFitnessPal) and just follow the plan. The problem with this is, you have no sense of what you're eating and why. People need to be taught about macros (what they are, why we might need to change them, etc.) and not just blindly follow a plan. I suspect the low carb diet in cycle 1 is to a) get fast results (you dump a lot of water weight when you first do low carb) and b) get people used to eating "clean", then gradually bring back the starch.

My Cycle One Diary

Day three: Freezing cold outside. What's for lunch? Oh. Salad. Right, I'll grill the chicken and eat it warm on my salad leaves. God, I'm sick of eating chicken. Turkey mince is bringing back bad memories of my days I transitioned from being a vegetarian to pescetarian to chicken and fish eater. Turkey bacon, chicken sausages, turkey burgers...the Dry Days. I just want some bacon.

Day five: Have just discovered that there is a wealth of information on the Bodycoach site members area, but you need to type in a specific question or words. So for example, you can substitute avocado or nuts for the endless (and I mean fucking endless) eggs on the plan. Ditto subbing other (non-starchy) veg for Spinach Mountain. And butter can be swapped gram for gram for the coconut oil! Fish or prawns for chicken! Nuts for olives! Sour cream, cottage cheese, and yoghurt can be interchanged gram for gram! Why is this not in the plan, even as an appendix or a table of some sort? I'm grumpy. Nauseous and exhausted, too.

Day seven: I finally feel normal again! Still hungry. Still miss bacon.

Day ten: Went to a friend's house for supper. Ate fried things. Had a lot of gin. I have no regrets.

Day thirteen: I feel like I've been on this diet for six months. On the plus side, I've taken a "Ready, Steady, Cook" approach to this and have come up with some meal variations that are more appealing. I dropped almost 4 pounds in the first week (typical low carb water dump), but 3 pounds have come back on. I'm weirdly bloated today, but maybe that's hormonal. I don't normally pay much attention to the scale, so I'm not bothered about the gain. Another positive is that I've been out to eat three times and stuck to the plan every time. (Chicken cashew salad at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a chicken and vegetable stir fry at a local Thai place, and chicken, grilled veg, and salad at Nando's.) Still hungry.

Day fifteen: It's only day 15. Didn't I write that last entry a week ago? Still bloated. Still hungry. Really pleased with myself that I figured out how to make a beanless chilli and cottage pie with cauliflower mash that's "on plan."

Day twenty one: I'm still constantly hungry but feeling a bit better about what I'm eating and a little less bloated. It's been interesting to get my macros from slightly different sources and I do think it's making a difference. I am not happy with low carbing, though. Even the "carbohydrate refuel" meals aren't particularly high carb. You're being asked to do a lot of training on very few carbs. Not that I believe in carb loading, but I feel that for me, it's too low. I'm in constant brain fog grump mode. I never was eating a lot of carbs (about 20% of my daily macros, or less than 100g per day) so it isn't a drastic change. Just enough to keep me feeling cranky. I'm curious to see what cycle two will bring,

Submission day: I am so glad that I have photos from the beginning of this cycle; they clearly show that I've lost several inches all over. My weight has dropped by 1.5kg, but it's the measurements that have shown the most progress. Two inches off my chest (which is actually a reduction in back fat, of all things), 1 inch off my thighs, another off my waist, and one off my hips. I can't say I've felt great or been terribly happy for the past month, but changing the kind of food I eat, even slightly, is making a difference. I am so, so sick of chicken, eggs, and green vegetables, though.

Cycle two began on February 11. Summary coming next month!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

*bong!* another new year's here

The good news is, this year I don't have the plague. I had a little bit of a chesty thing a couple of weeks ago, but nothing a couple of extra pillows and a Sudafed couldn't fix. We had a brilliant time at Disneyland Paris and I thoroughly enjoyed letting someone else do the Christmas day catering for a change. Christmas was go this year, and I'm feeling very happy about that.

In keeping with annual tradition, it's time for my List of Stuff. I'm always astounded when I actually do something that was on my last List of Stuff, mostly because I promptly forget all about it as soon as I hit "Publish."

Here's last year's bulleted list:
  • Getting stuck in a bit of a rut again and I'm starting to get bored. I need to find something new to do - take a course, go somewhere new, find a new hobby, take on a bit of extra work, etc.
Finishing my last contract and starting a new one definitely took away from the boredom. I also entered the exciting world of crochet. I went to a crochet class in April to learn how to do a granny square and ended up finishing two blankets and a doll by year end. We went to Lanzarote during May half term, which was a new destination for us. We absolutely loved it and are planning on going back this year. Disney for Christmas was a new adventure, too. I don't think I've ever gone away for Christmas before.
  • Totally and completely stop worrying about people who are not worth the energy, and focus a lot more on those who are. No matter how unjust, hurtful, or ridiculous some opinions are of me, they simply shouldn't matter. This is the only kind of detox that actually has any sort of purpose. 
Amazingly, I have done this. No longer do I agonise over party invites, Facebook posts, and other things that shouldn't need a second thought. Of course I still hate it when people get pissed off at me or when someone's decided to stop being friendly to me for no reason, but on the most part, I accept the fact that some people simply don't like me. And that some people are assholes.
  • See more dance/theatre. I've been gradually doing this more over the years and I absolutely love it. There is nothing like seeing a live performance. I was spoiled for choice back in Montreal and it's a bit more of a trek to see shows now, but it's only a short trip to London from here.
I didn't see any more shows than usual last year and I'd still like to make more of an effort to to do.
  • Get back into running. Weirdly, I enjoyed running - it was good to get outdoors, just me and my brain. There is a 24 hour running marathon happening here in the summer (each person does a 4 mile circuit, I think) and I'd like to take part. 
I did! But I kept getting injured, so I had to stop for a bit. But now I'm back to it! But then I pulled something in my hip and I have to decrease my distance until it's sorted. Anyhoo, my running has improved hugely over the past year, thanks to strength training and encouragement from the Godmanchester Running Club. I've run 5k three times now and have signed up for Wings for Life in May. I hope to do 10k for that one.

I came across this article via a friend and I love what she says about doing all the stuff you never got round to when you were younger. That's why I took up tap at age 44 and why I still want to learn how to play the cello one day. Give this a read.

Right so, this year:
  • Keep the training/healthy eating going. I've managed to do this since April and I'm both shocked and pleased. This is the first time in many, many years that I haven't started out the year fatter than ever and full of regret. I want to be stronger and healthier.
  • Run 10k in under an hour. Or maybe in an hour. I haven't decided yet.
  • Go to Canada for a visit this summer. I miss home. Lots.
  • I really need to finish that wrap thingy I started knitting ages ago. On a similar note, I'd like to get more into the yarny stuff and try out new things. Maybe I'll finally make a pair of socks.
Muscles, running, home, socks. Bring it on.