Archive for September, 2016

Review #83 Little Portland Café, Fitzrovia

September 29, 2016

It’s easy to get sentimental about things that are leaving London and I’m unoriginal so I’ll get sentimental now. Friends, for example, leave London rather too often for my liking. Pubs, obviously, are another chasm when they withdraw from the neighbourhood; although that kind of sentimentalism can be overdone. Often they’re crap pubs. Not shabby pubs, shabby pubs are usually good. But crap pubs, well I don’t get sentimental about them.

Which is a rambling introduction to the subject of the Little Portland Café, a Greasy Spoon survivor in a district of rampant chainification.* And it does it well. Arriving early we were installed without delay.  By the time we came out people were queueing out the door (as you can see from the photo).

And what do they come for these hungry office people? Food cooked well in the traditional manner, as in without a dash of this or a thing of this on the side. All on one plate, well executed things that you want to eat. So I had tortellini with a little salad and a cup of tea (well, it has to be a cup of tea doesn’t it?), while across the way there was a pasta with chorizo (a bow of the knee to fashion there I guess).

Service is charming but subtly emphasises that there are other hungry people waiting. We were in and out in thirty minutes.

8/10

*Even places you didn’t think were chains on first visit (i.e. were the sole trader of that name)  just turn out to be calibrated to within an nth of their lives try outs for a franchise. And you feel yourself naïve when all of a sudden there’s an outpost of them in each of Shoreditch, Kings Cross, Soho (natch, that’s where the outbreak, like cholera, is first detected), Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and soon enough I’m sure Islington (if it hasn’t started yet), Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park.

Wood Green? Not bloody likely, that would ruin the image.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #82, The Shoeburyness Hotel

September 25, 2016

Standing on the beach

With a sub in my hand

Staring at the sea 

Staring at the sand*

Staring down my sandwich 

At a seagull on the ground

I can see his open mouth

And he’s making a right bloody racket, he’s a fackin’ seagull.

I’m alive

I’m dead

I’m the stranger

Feeding a seagull

I visited my mother today. Or was it yesterday? In Shoeburyness. A place that seems at the end of the earth looking one way but the gateway to civilisation (of a sort, I mean a lot of it is Kent) the other. This being the season of the Estuary Festival it was time to make the decision of whether to go down the route of Radio 3 Nightwaves type analysis of the psychogeography of Essex and spend a morning of reverie gazing at the majestic dereliction of the Mansell Forts. Or go back to my roots as a Sarfend native and think to myself ‘Bollocks to that, let’s get some fish & chips.’

I chose the latter.

The Shoeburyness Hotel has had a miraculous refurb since the last time I was in it. It involves a lot of stripped wood, white linen on the tables and fit-for-human-habituation toilets. So not all bad.

Five of us were looking for lunch and we sat down in a room that seemed a touch formal for lunch in an infrequently visited part of the coast. Until you tuned into the X-Factor megamix coming through the speakers. We soon forgot about the formalities and got stuck into some decent fish and chips. The portion size was perfect for if you’ve been tramping up and down the front for a while with good battered fish, even better chips but rotten peas. 70s peas in fact and thus enjoyable for their nostalgia enhancing properties.

Service was cheerful and swift – the room was soon half full, which seems pretty good for a Friday lunchtime. For five it cost £75, miraculous value to someone who lunches in London but probably normal around these parts. I’ll be back for a pint before the year is out and for dinner in 2017.

7/10

*Well, mud really. This was Shoebury, not Oran.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

 

Review #81 Bombay Spice, Marylebone

September 24, 2016

We’d had a day at the cricket and with playing slowing to the end of the day the likelihood of Middlesex taking the title seemed to recede. Well, I got that wrong!* Cricket, watching or playing, makes me thirsty. And once a few pints of bitter have gone down thoughts inevitably turn to curry.

We could’ve found more glamorous Indian restaurants in Marylebone but we decided to take a punt on Bombay Spice as an Old Skool venue. Curiously sited immediately next door  to another Indian restaurant (not exactly making a Curry Mile) BS’s décor was reassuringly lived-in and had waiters to match.

Well, the test of this type of restaurant for me is the Onion Bhaji-Jalfrezi one-two. The Bhaji was fine, as was a vegetable samosa. Poppadoms had arrived suspiciously quickly  before this (with some distinctly average chutney) but a cold Kingfisher delivered at speed was a welcome thing.

The food was okay. Across the table the Madras looked to have come from exactly the same receptacle as the Jalfrezi except that the ‘frezi had added raw chilis (not especially fresh ones by the look of it but delivering the required heat). Some people see this as a scam, that one sauce can serve so many purposes, but to me it’s not a problem. For example, when I go to listen to a Philip Glass symphony I don’t really bother to work out exactly which one it is. I like that shit and he keeps churning it out so whether it’s the 2nd or the 3rd is really quite immaterial since they all sound basically the same.

So if I want Indian cooking with more subtlety I know where to get it, I know it’ll cost more (in Marylebone at least, these things are geographical) and I make sure that I haven’t blasted my tastebuds with Burton’s finest all day before I get there. Having said that I wouldn’t say that Bombay Spice is worth making a detour to go to – the cooking isn’t on a par with similar places not too far away.

But there was another comparison with Philip Glass! They looped the same piece of Indian music, about four minutes long, for the duration of our meal. Sergio’s of course were the masters of minimalism thus far this year but Bombay beats Italian with a smack-down for such commitment to repetition. For which it gets a point off. I’m not anti-music, I just wish people would think about it.

5/10

*Middlesex won the title on the last day with a thrilling winning hat-trick by TR-J.

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

 

 

 

Review #80 Aurora, Soho

September 21, 2016

Spilled out of a mundanathon of academic training I was in the mood for a good lunch that wouldn’t break the bank. Aurora I’d visited some time ago and thought it might be worth a punt on this occasion – the punt came off.

Lexington Street is not easily located for the occasionally confused and so we did a fair amount of circling on our way there. Which was fine as it just added an edge of hunger to the party and ensured that starters were a must. Which thing was a warm mackerel on some celeriac and shit. Very good. Mustard in there. Gobbled.

Then what? Umm … yeah, seafood dish of the day. Linguine with creatures of the deep. On spotting my bowl of chilli seasoned sea-things a diner at another table (one of a handful, the quality of the food merits a busier room even on a Wednesday lunchtime) enquired what was in it. The waitress retired to the kitchen to find out but surely the right approach is to have a look for yourself? Either you like that stuff or you don’t? Or maybe you should test yourself on cockles, winkles, razor clams? Well, this had cockles, octopodi and wee prawn with its bigger sibling the big prawn. And that was very good too. Gobbled that.

Ah, but the wine the wine. The wine, a Picpoul, was warm. And though it was stuck in an ice bucket the first taste, which should be crisp, was not so crisp as it ought to have been. Which is a shame.

Communication between chef and staff was by the means of bellows of your cooking guy from the bowels of the resto, whose room (I must not forget) is very well shabbed. Eighteenth century walls, floors, stairs and bread oven giving a feeling of old Soho. We had coffee and left.

I liked it.

7/10 (would have been 8 if the wine had been cold)

To see where else I’ve eaten in 2016 go to the GoogleMap here

Review #79 Bibigo, Islington

September 21, 2016

After a very long day of walking and meeting people I was absolutely ravenous on arriving at Bibigo. It was a rare outing in Islington, which to my thinking is neither local enough to pop out to or in town enough to be worth a night out to itself. Which just shows that however clever I think I am in reality I’m as stupid as I’ve always been. We had an excellent evening.

Bibigo, a Korean (I seem to have been doing a lot of Korean lately) is in the new-ish development between Angel and Sadler’s Wells, within sneering distance of Jamie’s ‘Italian’.* It’s a big, high-ceilinged room with a view one way to the chefs working over their grills and the other way out onto the High Street. The music was gratifyingly discreet, a rare thing for this kind of place.

It’s a pretty long menu with small plates, grilled stuff and then stews and bowls of things to peruse. We went for three small plates of battered cuttlefish, a salad and red chicken, followed (we thought) by mains of Tong-Dak and Bossam (chicken and pork to the layman). In fact, everything came pretty much at the same time which necessitated a fair amount of tessellation at the table. It would have been wise to have been forewarned and we could have done a couple of rounds of orders.

However, the food was excellent. The cuttlefish (which I haven’t had before) was perfectly cooked in its crispy batter, the red chicken was hot and spicy and the salad was tasty. And they were substantial. With the mains on top we struggled manfully to finish everything as it was all yum. With plenty of wine for under £30 a bottle and very good service Bibigo makes for a very civilised evening out that won’t break the bank.

Afterwards we dropped in by chance to Angel Comedy at the Queen’s Head in Packington Street and caught five great acts. How serendipitous.

8/10

To see where else I’ve eaten in 2016 go to the GoogleMap here

*If there was any real justice in the world Jamie would be arraigned before the International Criminal Court at the Hague for crimes against national culture. He’s a disgrace to Essex.

Francis West at Megan Piper

September 18, 2016

Following on from a great evening at Vigo I was fortunate enough to be invited to another art show just around the corner from the library in Jermyn Street. Within Harris Lindsay Works of Art lies the Megan Piper Gallery and it was Megan herself who introduced me to the work of Francis West, an artist recently passed away whose work deserves wider renown.

West grew up in Scotland before coming to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. The exhibition is concerned with showing his late works which I could broadly divide into two broad categories – day and night. Or those largely grounded on black and those whose blue speaks of the ocean near where West stayed when visiting France.

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One of West’s sea/dreamscapes

Once you know the connection to Menton and the South of France then all sorts of reference points spring to mind (Picasso, Dufy, Matisse, Mirò … ) but as we were discussing while walking from painting to painting this business of referencing can be insidious. Certain elements or motifs of a style may be reminiscent of other artists but if the work is strong (and in West’s case I believe it is very strong) one overcomes the references to concentrate on the artist’s individuality, the elements of the painting that convey their personality, their way of seeing the world. And so once I’d gabbled about what the canvases reminded me of I tried to slow my mind down and let the art speak for itself.

Because these are complicated pictures. This is not minimalist art. There is a proliferation of life depicted in the paintings. People, dancers, lovers, bathers, gamblers, drinkers. Creatures, birds (lots of birds, fantastically depicted), creepy crawlies and in the illustration above a wonderful crab (I was told that West’s wife is a Cancerian) holding a note with ‘W’ inscribed up on it. Each painting is a richly complicated composition that your eye can pore over and enjoy because as much as the life teems thickly across the surface so does the colour grab you and make you like life. Which is what I want from art.

It’s worth pushing the button on the door and getting inside. I’m told that during Frieze week that Piper, like a cuckoo, will take over the whole of Harris Lindsay’s nest and bring West’s work to the shop window.

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In passing Megan told me about another project she works on that was equally interesting called The LineTo my shame I’d never heard of it but it concerns a series of outdoor works by leading contemporary artists strung along a walking route from the Olympic Park to the Greenwich Peninsula. It seems a boon for guides and I can’t wait to visit.

 

James Capper at Vigo

September 14, 2016

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It’s not often that I get to go Exhibition openings so it was with genuine excitement that I strolled down to Dering Street in the company of a few fellow flâneurs to see James Capper’s Porta Carve at Vigo. Vigo is tucked away in the armpit of Oxford and Regent Street, hard by a Crossrail building site but don’t let this put you off visiting – Capper’s work is well worth the trip.

The opening night was a spectacle. We arrived to find plaster-spattered canvases arranged around the walls, menacing power tools snaking across the floor and a smattering of fellow sophisticates clutching cold Coronas on a hot September evening. And we thought we’d missed the main event.

But no, we were assured that James would be back to do his thing at 7 and 8 o’clock so in the meantime we mingled, looked at the works and learnt a bit about Capper’s process.

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The finished work is pleasingly (to my taste anyway) minimalist. The crunchy impasto of the plaster making a rhythm on the bare canvas.The tonality, if not the structure, put me in mind of Park Seo-Bo whose work was exhibited at the White Cube earlier in the year. Of course there is an enormous contrast in mood. Whereas Park’s work is contemplative Capper makes a restless crust of forms across the canvas that you want to drag your hand across and feel as much as see.

And then there’s the machines. The plaster is applied to a glue-prepared canvas from blocks which are attacked by the artist with a kind of menacing home-made chainsaw. Which action is a spectacle worth seeing (and hearing) if you get the chance. Its controlled chaos put me in mind of Jackson Pollock’s method, albeit with a radically different outcome.

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After which you’re left with not just the work on the canvas but also the sculptural forms of the blocks, their carved up innards spilled over the walls and the floor. As you can see this process attracted not only the cognoscenti but also a few curious onlookers from the pub across the road.

So in anticipation of the RA’s colossal Abstract Expressionism down the road I’d recommend getting along to Vigo to see work which seems to have direct inspiration from some of those artists in its energy and its stripped down rawness.

The Roundabout

September 11, 2016

It was not entirely by accident that I got to learn of the Park Theatre’s excellent production of The Roundabout but it might have been. It was reviewed in The Spectator on Thursday morning (a very favourable review) and fortunately we had a Friday evening to spare so I bought the tickets immediately. It might be that it had been publicised elsewhere but in my fairly broad cultural reading (broadsheet paper, the usual BBC output, billboards/flyers, Twitter) I hadn’t heard about it even though the theatre’s on my doorstep. So first of all I’m grateful to Lloyd Evans for giving it a publicity push.

In my case he was pushing at an open door. Previous to a couple of years ago I kind of vaguely knew who JB Priestley was without having ever read or seen anything he’d written. Not even An Inspector Calls! (Which I still haven’t seen.) Having a friend who writes on the 1930s and then having to teach on the home front in the Second World War soon put paid to that.

From my teaching on the War I came to realise that Priestley was just as important a political writer in his own way as was George Orwell. And I suspect a lot more widely read by the public. But this post isn’t to talk about the relative impact of Priestley and Orwell on public opinion home and abroad during the Blitz. Rather it’s to talk (briefly) about Priestley’s novels and to ask someone to do something.

My friend John recommended that if I wanted to read anything by Priestley I should start with The Good Companions. The GC is a road novel about a working man from Bruddersford (a lightly fictionalised Bradford) and his adventures on the road with a band of artistes putting on a travelling cabaret in depression-era England. It’s a baggy old beast packed full with sentimentality, harder than you expect reportage, rounded characters, good humour and unlikely meetings. Think if Evelyn Waugh had the itinerary of Orwell and the good nature of Eric Morecombe. Or something like that. It’s a middle-brow classic. That isn’t a put down.

This was followed up by Angel Pavement, which should have been more up my street since it’s set in London. I liked it but not as much as the Companions. While the latter has benevolence in every page even when at its most bleak Pavement, for all its wonderful description of London in the 30s, feels a far more angry book. It feels that Priestley the northerner has come to despise somewhat what he sees as the harder attitudes of the south, a view that I don’t entirely share with him. And the pay off is far too easy to see from early on in the narrative. But I’d still recommend it for a description of a City of London – one of hard-pushed clerks, travelling furniture salesmen and a working port all mingled together – that hasn’t existed for many a year.

Talking over the Good Companions with a playwright friend after watching The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny I mentioned that I thought it would make a far more effective piece of musical theatre than Brecht and Weill’s overwrought sledgehammer of an allegory. ‘But it’s been done!’ he replied. And at the time I thought, ‘Well that’s interesting I must look it up.’ The major problem it seemed to me would be to write music as good in reality as it is portrayed to be in the book, especially Inigo Jollifant’s smash hit Slippin’ Round the Corner. But then I left it to one side after a search on YouTube and Spotify didn’t turn up any version of a production or the numbers within it.

The Roundabout reminded me of that conversation and I looked up the musical version of The Good Companions. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by André Previn it does seem to have some pedigree but I don’t remember it ever being on in London. So my hope is that if the Park’s run of Priestley is successful it might encourage someone, the Park themselves perhaps, to put on the musical. Or it’s a chunky enough number for the National I would think; and with its narrative of north and south, rich and poor, individuals and teams in an era of austerity it would surely have some resonance today.

Just as The Roundabout does. So in anticipation of a Priestley musical do go to the Park to see The Roundabout, it’s worth the trip wherever you are in London.

 

Review #77 Spring, Somerset House

September 7, 2016

In the very bowels of Somerset House it’s Spring all year round. It’s possibly the prettiest room in London, the picture of the corridor approaching the restaurant only gives a mere hint of the brightness beyond where you find fresh flowers, elegantly snowdropped chandeliers and plenty of room for conversation to develop.

We were four for a birthday celebration prior to a visit to The Seagull (the play, not a pub, though The Seagull isn’t a bad name for a pub. I wonder if there’s a Seagull pub in Sarfend?*) To business. We ordered off the set menu which gives you a somewhat measly two choices per course, although despite this none of us had difficulty in finding something that we liked.

I went for a celeriac salad up top followed by mackerel with beetroot. The salad was a generous portion, beautifully arranged on the plate and with lots of different textures and flavours making it very munchable. The mackerel, swimming in a thick slick of beetroot purée, came with a good dollop of hot horse-a-radish*** All very civilised and tasty but if you’re hungry you’ll have to rustle up extra stodge because stodge is solely in the form of bread stodge.

Service was by stripy-topped charmers (I don’t mean that pejoratively) who did a bit of chit chat in between dishing out the stuff. And a very good sommelier. We went for a Cypriot white which he commended as a good choice before informing us of its character and provenance (from the Troodos mountains, a name redolent of the improbable double act of Larry Durrell and Francis Urquart) which included the magic formula of ‘high altitude vineyards’ – almost a birthday present in itself. I only wish I could remember its name!

So yes, a very good meal and one I would recommend, especially for a treat. We were there on a very rainy Autumn day but the room is so airy and the staff so easy going that it really did feel like optimistic Spring was still with us. I can’t wait to go back and order à la carte.

8/10

*Google reveals that there isn’t, which seems a shame. Curiously, when you tap ‘seagull southend’ into Goole Maps (ahaa, serendipitous typo, I wonder how many people have tapped maps.goole.com by accident and what happens if you do?**) it comes up with Southend University Hospital where once I had a coathanger extracted from my eye. No, I don’t know how it got there either, I think it was a self-inflicted wound.

**Nothing, which seems a shame.

***’Ah know ah do’ © Edouard Lapaglié

To see where else I’ve eaten in 2016 go to the GoogleMap here

Review #78 The India Club, Aldwych

September 7, 2016

We were two hungry chaps in search of cheap eats near Covent Garden. Rush hour reminded me of a previous occasion when I’d ducked into the India Club and found myself moving from one of the earth’s most crowded spots into a nostalgic pool of sepia tranquility. So we did that. Except we had to wait because the Indians don’t start cooking till 6 o’clock. We took another turn in the Lyceum Tavern across the road then returned with our hunger sharpened even more.

You’ll find the India Club within the Strand Continental Hotel. Go upstairs and on the first floor you have the bar. You might want to stop off here and mingle with the eccentrics over a G&T but if you really can’t wait ascend another storey to the restaurant. Don’t forget to pick a pair of Cobras to take with you though otherwise you’ll have to go back downstairs to get them.

A sole diner was munching when we arrived, his gaze focused on a point many miles away. Around the walls pictures of Indian legends look down upon the room – Gandhi and  Jinnah I spotted easily, others were more difficult to identify. I believe the restaurant opened in 1949 and I don’t think it’s had a refurb in the intervening seventy or so years. Formica tables, functional flatware and a paper napkin slimmer than graphene are the way the IC rolls. You’re not in Dishoom now, this is the real thing. Or at least a mid-20thC Anglo-Indian reality.

The waiter dropped a heavy hint that we should take the set menu. We complied and thus the spicy conveyor belt was set in motion. First up a poppadom each with four chutneys – mango (hot and sweet), onion (really, just onion and nothing else), lime (my personal favourite) and coconut (which I think we should have saved for the dhosa). We cracked open the Cobras and tucked in.

Next was a plate of battered onion and chilli – the chilli with a real kick, just done whole with the seeds left in. The Cobra took the edge off a little. Dhosas were thick yet light and to be honest I was already starting to get full but also the aroma from the kitchen was keeping me hungry so when the main courses arrived I still had the capability.

There was a beefy curry and a butter chicken, neither of them overly spicy and a little underpowered on the flavour side. The dhal was better, as was the sag aloo. Did we really need pilau rice AND bread?! Probably not but we ate them anyway, paid the bill and staggered back to the bar under the momentum of our own protuberant stomachs.*

7/10

*One tip for the gents – go to the Gents, you get a great little view of the rear of Kings College. One of those unexpected little pleasures is a smallest room with a view. Daddy of these is of course the Lloyds Building where you can ease yourself (to borrow from the Nigerian) while gazing over the City. Another that I miss is that which was to be found while watering the porcelain in the Old Red Lion on Whitechapel High Street. You could watch the District Line trains meandering their way into Whitechapel Station and think to yourself, ‘Aren’t I lucky to be in a pub and not in a tube carriage.’

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To see where else I’ve eaten in 2016 go to the GoogleMap here

 


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