Archive for March, 2017

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …

Churches

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St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas

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No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street

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Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro

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Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.

Books

Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.

Art

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New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …

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A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.

Pubs

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The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.

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Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.

Buildings

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De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.

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Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.

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That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.

Food

But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.

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Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.

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For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

Resto 18 Goppa’s, Hackney

March 28, 2017

Killing time before heading to a gig at MOTH club (one of the best ever!) we were looking for quick food. I couldn’t be tempted by a steakwich at The Globe, even though the company was charming, so we pressed on to Goppa’s, lured by pizza.

On an unprepossessing (but is anywhere in this corner of Hackney prepossessing?) stretch of road Goppa’s is alluring from the outside. A warm room, rough and ready seating and a nice bar with Italian pop tunes on the stereo. I liked it immediately.

The menu is more sophisticated than expected with the usual pizzas but a great variety of pasta as well as a good range of smaller dishes. We went for calamari up front followed by Tuscan sausage pizza with a green salad. The calamari were great – light batter and straight from the pan. I was wondering where the aïoli was but actually they didn’t need a dip. With a squeeze of lemon they were absolutely perfect and I wish I’d had a whole bowl to myself.

The pizza had a good base and plenty of sausagey-mushroom topping. A large one was enough for two to share. The salad was a slight let-down after all this excellence with a bit too much salt in the dressing for my taste but others may differ. With a cheap bottle of white the whole thing came in at about 30% less than you’d pay at a medium-level chain so it was great value too.

Business was slightly slow on a quiet early Monday evening but I expect it’s busier later and at weekends. The staff were really friendly and if I’m back in the area I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.

Recommended.

8/10

#Food #London #Hackney

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2017 check out my GoogleMap

Two exhibitions at the British Museum

March 26, 2017

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All the publicity for the British Museum recently has been for The American Dream, a show about prints from the past sixty or so years in the States. If you pair it  with America Between the Wars at the RA you can get a pretty good overview of the art of twentieth  century America. At the cost of quite a lot of shoe leather – neither show is negligible.

The BM’s is the more extensive however, more extensive and more comprehensive than I’d imagined it would be. Up front are the star names – Warhol, Rauschenberg (haven’t we seen enough of him lately?), Johns and Jim Dine.

The last I admit was new to me, which made him the most interesting of the nominated big three, who get their own rooms pretty much. Dine’s Red Design for Satin Heart was truly a thing of beauty. I won’t reproduce it here because as a digital image it looks a bit Clintons Cards. You have to see it in situ. Dine is more interesting than Oldenburg (who has a few prints up front) in his monumentalisation of the ordinary, for example with his print of paint brushes. He makes his re-contextualised implements living subjects whereas Oldenburg it seems is more concerned with artifice.

Then up comes Ruscha. Was I rattled by the Ruscha? (There’s one for all the Pavement fans out there.) Well, not really, it seemed that his processes – for example his use of gunpowder in print-making – were more interesting than the things he produced. Once you’ve seen three or four rooms half-full of slick stuff satirising ad-land you start to wonder whether the satire was ever there in the first place, except as a counter-cultural rhetorical device.

It was at this point (about halfway through) that I came to the opinion that the exhibition was far too big to take in in one go. But I ploughed on because in London, with so much going on, one’s best intentions of going back to a place rarely see fruition. And this is where I got a bit annoyed.

Minimalists were up next but then what’s this? The last three rooms are dedicated to Aids, women artists and black artists. And I question the whole basis of that. Because your average punter is likely to be art blind by the time they get to these rooms and therefore possibly miss some compelling work.

If the curators were going to switch to such an explicitly thematic approach I wished they’d front-loaded these rooms so that they were the first things that the public sees. Were they scared that if the punters couldn’t see a friendly Warhol from the door (well, not that friendly, it’s an electric chair) that they wouldn’t dare venture inside? Do the public have to be sold the familiar constantly?

I’m not arguing that Raschenberg/Warhol/Johns et al aren’t interesting or important, just that their work is so familiar that you only need to close your eyes to conjure it up. On the other hand I hadn’t seen ANY work by the artists in the last two rooms devoted to women and ethnic minorities (oh, except for another Warhol, who is represented by a depiction of a race riot, which seemed banal in the extreme next to much more complex work by less famous artists on the same subject of racial tension and radicalism in late twentieth century America). The unfamiliar isn’t necessarily obscure because it’s less interesting. As the Guerilla Girls point out.

So I would recommend going to the exhibition and starting at the last room. Your mind will be freshest to soak up the wonderful work of unfamiliar artists. If you’re as ignorant of American art as I am. Do not miss Kiki Smith’s Born 2002, which has the best wolf ever. Or Dotty Attie’s Mother’s Kisses which the label po-facedly informs us ‘hints at incest.’ Hints at like the Sistine Chapel hints at Christianity.

And the other show? Well, you’d hardly know it was there given the lack of press attention or indeed publicity for it in the museum itself. Just a discreet sign pretty much by the door of the prints gallery if I’m not mistaken.

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It is a wonderful thing. You might at first glance think it’s just for the connoisseur when you see Victorian depictions of the English countryside by the yard as you enter the room. But anyone could find something to their taste in here as the art gets far more radical as you progress around the room. Which is not to say that there aren’t things of genuine beauty – of course Turner, Constable and Cotman blow everything else away.

But I was taken by the unexpected depictions of London in watercolour. Especially this week. A Nevinson of Air Street and Piccadilly Circus tube under construction has a bus fleetingly viewed through a half-built Regent St Quadrant. Joseph Parnell’s Balloons Over London showed barrage balloons over the Thames at Battersea during WW1. But not barrage balloons as I imagine them – big fat silver sausages. These balloons are dainty Montgolfier affairs. Montgolfier turned sinister.

And best of all Henry Moore, London Skyline. St Paul’s is central to an extraordinary composition of a sheltering family, seemingly sheltering in the womb of London while wraiths stalk a fractured landscape. But St. Paul’s, like The Dude, abides. London is the place for me in good times and bad. Oh, and the watercolours are free.

#BritishMuseum #AmericanDream #London #Art

Resto 17 Brasserie Blanc, South Bank

March 19, 2017

Prior to a bout of Norwegian angst at the NT we were looking for somewhere that wouldn’t be too busy on a Saturday night on the South Bank. In the old days Chez Gérard/Brasserie Blanc would have fitted the bill for it was always in my experience the least favoured of an eating venue around those parts. However, that has changed. It took a while for the maitre d’ to wrangle us a table, for which I was very grateful as I didn’t fancy traipsing any further.

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The change of fortune must surely be down to the revamp of the whole outfit. As you can see from the illustration the entrance is now a rather noir-ish yet welcoming prospect, a vast improvement on what was there before. While I liked the old room, especially the booths, it was starting to show its age. Now they’ve stuck a bar at the front (a good move for the casual pre-theatre drinker who doesn’t want to go elbow to elbow with the English middle classes) and opened out the room at the back. The only mis-step for me was the music which was too loud for my liking (but nothing like as irritating as the gratuitous use of Cohen’s Hallelujah in an otherwise excellent HG. If I could have Townsended the guitar the minute the opening bar was played I would have.) . Otherwise the designers have done a good job.

The menu is pretty much the same, which is no bad thing. Classic French dishes, maybe a little less focus on the steak side of things. I had a G&T (a good one) while we mulled over the menus. The prix fixe is good value but we went à la carte. A shared charcuterie board did the trick up front – enough for two if neither of you is a gannet though maybe a bit more bread would have been nice. For main a big helping of moules frites was good but took a lot longer to arrive than the seared trout across the way, which was a shame as that was the only blemish on what was otherwise an excellent service. Cabbage as a side was just my thing too.

So l’empire Blancais has definitely raised its game and a chain that I once used as a last resort has restored its reputation. It’s nice when things get better.

7/10

#Food #London

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2017 check out my GoogleMap

Resto 16 Brasserie Zédel, Piccadilly

March 15, 2017

My birthday and a lunch en famille. With a visit to Paris in view I thought I’d pay Zédel a visit to have something with which to compare local fare with that from this side of the channel. Because Zédel is a simulacrum of the classic Parisian brasserie in a cavernous room beneath Piccadilly Circus. Dark wood, linen for miles, gilded fittings and formally dressed staff. I like that shit so it made me happy to be guided to a table by someone who appeared to be genuinely French – but in such a hall of mirrors one couldn’t be absolutely certain.

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The menu is classic stuff – right down to frogs legs and snails in the starters. No, I didn’t partake, I always think that one should be more ambitious when dining out than to consume something one could find in the average suburban garden. I had an endive salad. I could eat endives all day and it didn’t disappoint. A bit more sauce wouldn’t have been bad but they were very generous with the Roquefort. Fish of the day was hake, grilled perfectly on a slick of spuds and crunchy broccoli.

Happy Levett looked at the desserts and it being An Occasion devoured a mandarin sorbet with champagne. The room wasn’t quite as busy as when I last visited but was still full of atmosphere. If you’re watching the pennies Zédel has nothing excessively priced on the à la carte for the standard of service and food (which were both excellent), and it does a good set menu too.

I could feel myself putting on another chin as I downed the last of the wine and slithered up the stairs to the pale March sunshine.

8/10

#Food #London #Piccadilly

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2017 check out my GoogleMap

Resto 15 Vinoteca, King’s Cross

March 7, 2017

So a pre-birthday treat with a friend and one of the few restos out the back of Kings Cross that I haven’t yet been to. So far it’s been a pretty high quality experience so how does Vinoteca measure up to the competition.

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Nice tubes.

Well, first up it’s housed in one of my favourite new buildings in London. A David Chipperfield masterpiece (at least on the visual/tactile side of things – or should I say sculpturally) from the outside, what was it like inside? Good, busy even on a Monday evening with barely space at the bar and all tables occupied. The vibe is more rustic than expected and despite the buzz of conversation and music it wasn’t too noisy to have a tête à tête.

We warmed up with a ginking (some kind of fizzywater-gin combination) while waiting for the table to come free. A refreshing way to kick off and not too alcoholic (for one of us at least). The menu is classic bistro stuff and I only had eyes for the fish. There was a wrangle about who would have the hake and who would have the sole. I had the sole but the hake was off so it was a sea bream across from me.

Distracted by conversation I forgot that sole can be a fiddly beast and took a mouthful of spindles along with my fishflesh. Not very elegant. The fish was cooked perfectly though and the samphire and stuff that came along with it was deliciously salty-sea flavoured too. I only wish that I’d been alerted to the fact that I had ordered NO STODGE. I had an absence of stodge and my stomach was rebelling.

So for dessert I had a Bakewell Tart – a generous slab of the almondy stuff with some cream ((? ) Can’t remember what it was, I’m not very good at identifying sweet things) on top. It could have done with a bit better balance between the dry and moist elements on the plate. Fortunately I had a good sized portion of French dessert wine to help it down and it did so very well.

Vinoteca match food to drinks on the menu and I was happy to trust their expertise, which turned out to be spot on. I liked the service too – attentive when necessary and friendly. It’s the kind of place I’d be happy to go back to with a bunch of friends and try out a few more wines in company.

8/10

#food #london #kingscross

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2017 check out my GoogleMap

 

Resto 14 Bill’s, Holborn

March 4, 2017

Is Kingsway the most functional eating street in London? It has all the chains in a relentlessly mid-range bracket and in the mid-range of the mid-range sits Bill’s. Bill’s I think has some kind of history attached which means than technically it’s no longer Bill’s (or at least not the chainy bit) but someone else’s. But ‘Someone Else’s’ wouldn’t be such a snappy name as ‘Bill’s’ would it? So I reckon whoever bought the right to Bill’s (Hedge fund? Lottery winner? Shadowy drug cartel? I could find out but life’s too short to worry about such things as long as it isn’t O****r. But then why would he purchase the ‘Bill’s’ name when he has a name of his own to push.*).

So yes, Bill’s. A safe bet on the food front covering as it does a gamut of bases from your carnivore to your vegan, from your lactose intolerant to your gluten free. Some sections of the menu read like the key to an Ordnance Survey map with the cutest symbol not referring to dietary requirements but rather to Bill’s Heritage items. Which made me sigh.

But still they wouldn’t be there unless the marketing people hadn’t drilled down precisely into how much extra spend they would get out of pitching 10% of the food to the kind of people who think, ‘Hmmm, I was going to have the sea bass until I saw that the felafel burger was one of the original lines sold in Bill’s back in the day when Bill’s was Bill’s rather than someone else’s so I’ll have that instead.’

Which cynicism on my part makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy Bill’s. I did. Putting aside the guff around the faff the product is solidly reliable. A good range of food executed well in a pleasant room with good service. Not everywhere manages to do one of those things let alone all four. My fillet steak was tender enough but had a little too much fat around the edge for my liking. Although this was forgivable as it came in at around half the price of say Hawksmoor’s steak. With a decent glass of Merlot for a fiver I had no complaints when it came to coughing up the cash. And the atmosphere was calm – enough room between the tables to not feel hedged in and the music pitched at the right volume to allow for normal conversation.

It just seemed that the package as a whole was the exact opposite of the vibe that they’re trying to sell. And they’re trying to sell a lot – food to eat (breakfast, lunch and dinner), food to take home, aprons, in fact anything that isn’t nailed down seems to be for sale. Well, not the staff I’m sure. Which kind of makes it difficult to take Bill’s seriously as a happy go lucky, stretch out and relax kind of place. You can’t repackage an atmosphere as a heritage item, as anyone who’s been to Beamish would know.

7/10

*Prick’s, in case you were wondering.

#food #london

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2017 check out my GoogleMap

Translating Marivaux

March 2, 2017

Reading Le Monde over the last few months I’d noticed an uptick in performances of Marivaux recently. Despite being subjected to heavy doses of Molière during my French A-Level I’d never made much of an effort to familiarise myself with classical French theatre in the intervening twenty odd years. But with a twenty quid voucher to spend in Skoob (thanks Amanda!) I took a punt on Marivaux’s collected works in English.

I started with a short one, naturally. A one act play. L’ile des Esclaves as performed at RADA in the 80s (and including Liza Tarbuck in its cast) turned out to be a straight translation of the original and an amusing role reversal comedy along the lines of Trading Places (one of my favourite films of the 80s). Well, the Trading Places comparison interested me – aren’t we living through the consequences of a similar period of the over-inflation of financial markets and the ensuing social polarisation that usually accompanies it? Marivaux was more contemporary than I’d anticipated.

I wanted to go back to the original and of course the London Library had a full edition of the plays. The original tells of a pair of masters and slaves from Athens in classical times washed up on an island run by the descendants of escaped former slaves. Captured by the ex-slaves’ leader the masters are forced to serve the slaves to learn how to be good people and all kinds of shenanigans ensue before all are reconciled  along the lines of conventional classical drama.

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Thinking through comparisons with 18thC France (about which of course Marivaux was writing – very presciently one might argue given what happened sixty years after the play’s première) and present day England didn’t present much of a challenge and I used the play just as an interesting nugget of conversation for a few days.

Until I dropped in on a meeting of the Crouch End Players. The CEP is a local drama group who function as an excellent piece of social glue in an area of London (well, like any big city) where it’s easy as a newcomer to just do the work/home/work/home thing.

They have a development group to produce new writing and I thought it would be an interesting exercise (and a useful distraction from writing lectures) to tackle L’Ile and translate/update it. Not even having written a piece of drama before didn’t seem a barrier as with Marivaux’s text to support me structure wouldn’t be a problem.

And now the first draft is complete! Updated as Corbyn Island I’ve eschewed the RADA line of setting the play in classical times to let the parallels be made by the audience and decided to do a much cruder rendition in the present day because well, because I’m cruder myself I guess! Whether it will see the light of day on the stage we shall see but it’s been worth its while as an exercise in its own right.

The translation was difficult, my French is okay for reading a newspaper but not necessarily up to the niceties of 18thC dialogue while supping a beer on the 19.02 from Leicester. But in a way I felt that this was an advantage as I didn’t really want to make an exact replica of Marivaux’s work but rather to catch its sentiment in a twenty first century accent. Think Citizen Smith meets Ex on the Beach. Let’s hope it comes off.

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#Marivaux #France #CrouchEndPlayers

 


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