Friday, 29 July 2011

Soho’s New Subway of Burritos

By Leo Owen.

The ominous clouds are more mulled wine weather than frozen cocktails but with luminous coloured margaritas on tap who cares? Waiting outside the new branch of Poncho 8 for my drinking partner, I watch a scruffy, intoxicated man with exceedingly stained clothes and the classic red cider-drinking face being politely asked to move on. Looking a tad disheveled, having come straight from work, I'm half waiting to be approached myself but manage to squeeze inside and up the stairs where I'm told there's space. There's plenty of room up here but we're far away from the food and drinks and suddenly understand why everyone has packed into the small space below.

An hour on and it's 7.30. The nachos and dips are circulating and the margaritas are temporarily out. As I reluctantly settle for beer, I stand amazed after hearing one of the PRs mention 300 more people are expected in the already heaving room. Position firmly claimed, we stand next to a guy from ITV, strategically between the bar area and burrito counter where mini burritos (£1.70 - £2,10) with surprise fillings are piled ready to grab. I regretfully opt for two before realising there's a queue of more wised-up guests waiting for their own tailor-made full-size burritos (£5.90 - £6.30).

Queuing up, I meet one of Square Meal's writers before being faced with a series of decisions. Poncho 8 is the Subway of burritos, but at present only has three branches; this new addition is the only one selling alcohol (Pacifico, Modelo and Corona beers and frozen margaritas). Moving along the counter, I'm faced with a choice of three rices (brown, tomato and coriander), two types of bean (brown and black), peppers, vaguely-named hot sauce/medium sauce, cool sour cream, salads, salsa and guacamole. There's a vegetarian option for ethical eaters or a choice of Barbacoa (marinated spicy beef), chicken, steak and Poncho's pork for the meat-reliant. Even the indecisive are catered for with "Poncho's Pick", a burrito with its ingredients pre-listed.

By 7.45 I'm stuffed. I can suddenly see the floor and the room is miraculously quieter. The camera flashes seem to have stopped but the Aldous Snow lookalike is still annoyingly swaggering about. I still haven't spotted N-Dubz or any of the Made In Essex crew but end up chatting to a would-be artist-cum-hairdresser before a gentleman with an amazing bow tie catches my eye.

By now, fired up with margaritas, beer and emergency-rationed back-up wine, I can't resist complementing his attire. He confidently tells me it's soon to be back in fashion because he's wearing it and I'm flabbergasted to discover his family started up Harvey Nichols. Having casually dropped the bomb, he mystifies me by classing the family business as a boutique. As he lollops off towards yet another reveler who "just knows" him, we lollop off cheekily clutching tomorrow's lunch.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Sipping Champagne On The City’s New (Rainy) Rooftop

By Naheen Madarbarkus.

A glitzy new rooftop café-bar with tempting Champagne reception seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. It was Tuesday. It was a sunny afternoon. It was perfect for a nice stroll down Holborn Circus toward St Paul’s. However, a major kink was about to hit this super plan. As the rain started to fall, I was hit by the dawning reality that the rooftop glitz was now endangered.

By 7pm, the rain was in full swing and after arriving at the new One New Change building, a slightly dampened me (in clothing, not in spirit) entered the lift for the journey up to the 6th floor to Madison. As the doors opened, my expectations were met. A warm smile from a friendly face greeted me at the opening of the (now covered) terrace.

Names on the door were ticked off as I made my way to the main entrance where a svelte waitress beamed at me. I headed toward her as she flashed her drinks tray in my direction. Huge glasses of Moet Ice Imperial had been pre-poured and were there, literally for the taking. I gladly scooped up my glass, and attempted to make my way in to the general direction of the conversation hub. However, said svelte waitress stopped me and gestured toward the remaining items on her tray. My brain stopped working as I looked at her with a firm ‘huh?’

“You need to add ice and pieces of fruit to your glass to get the best taste of Ice Imperial”.

“Oh” was my witty retort.

Now, it may seem like ruining a perfectly glass of Moet, but this fruit and ice madness really works. I guess strawberries have been making good ground with their Champagne counterpart for years, and now, as I worked the room, the fruit and ice were working my Champers combo. It couldn’t get any better, could it?

It did. After finding a table in the centre of the cafe to perch and admire my Imperial efforts, food started to leave the kitchen. Samples of Madison’s cuisine saw pesto prawn, mini cheeseburgers and tomato and mozzarella skewers offered around the room. I was happy to taste them, even though a napkin in one hand and a glass in the other made for difficult eating. Still, the table helped despite the standing.

Time for a refill and the bar itself looked like a sophisticated Cocktail/Coyote Ugly scene. Guests waited as ice was crushed, fruit chopped and tossed, and Champagne poured over this new concoction. This place had style, class and the most Champagne magnums I’d ever seen.

A snoop around revealed the Madison terrace with its impressive backdrop: St Paul’s Cathedral. With a number of tables outside, it was a shame that the wind and rain were sweeping in. Inside, comfy sofas lined booth-like areas against the ceiling-to-floor windows with removable tables placed in the centre of the room (no doubt removable to make way for a dance floor on busier evenings).

A cafe with class, Madison’s has made its mark. Indulge and impress with the Imperial. It’s sophisticated, kitschy and offering a touch of fizz with fruit. And with the view, it makes this an option for lunch or evening socials, whatever the occasion. With Champagne on ice any time of day, why settle for anything less?

Looking for further roof terrace action in London? Check out the Top 10 Roof Terrace Bars & Restaurants in London

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Learning the Dark Arts at Barts

By Nathalie Bonney.

Picture the scene: a soggy July evening, my friend and I hurry along Sloane Avenue, our shoulders hunched and our paper map getting flimsier by the second. In fact, it’s about to turn to papier mache mush when the shop assistant in Sainsburys tells us Barts bar is just along the road at Chelsea Cloisters. 

Only Chelsea Cloisters is a posh block of flats, sorry apartments; confusing. Still, the concierge assures us we’re in the right place and a quick left turn around the corner brings us to a door with a small sign on it that simply says ‘Barts’. We push it open and find ourselves in a mini entranceway, the walls decorated in Mickey Mouse wallpaper.

‘Cute!’ my Disney-loving friend enthuses.

‘This is going to be a good night!’ I add; far, far too early.

To get through to the main bar we have to knock on another door. A young lady in a tassled dress opens it ever so slightly and asks for our names. Barts is by reservation/invitation only. She can’t find our names, I’m starting to think the Mickey Mouse cartoons will be the sum total of our night out. Thankfully, a moustachioed man in braces says we can come in and the pair of us gratefully make it into the speakeasy bar.

Twenties and thirties doo wop Jazz music is playing, there’s a dress-up box of fancy dress to the left of the doorway and the bar to the right is host to champagne flutes, old tankards and martini glasses hanging from it. Railway carriage luggage racks, with worn velveteen seats beneath them, run the length of the opposite wall. Barts oozes character and charm, it’s got Prohibition down like Kate Moss does festival dress: picture perfect. But, of course, this isn’t a speakeasy bar in Harlem, it’s in Chelsea, with prices to match: cocktails, such as Al Capone’s Little Friend and Purple Prohibition, come served in China teapots with dainty teacups, at £45 a pop. While the mad hatter top hat is even pricier at £60. We tried the Chelsea Rose, which was refreshing and oh-so English with Hendricks gin, apple juice, dark berries and elderflower cordial. But you’ve got to question if the cocktail would cost so much if it was poured out of a plastic thermos. Probably not.

Of course the price tag is meant to reflect the ambience the punters are paying for. Barts has done a good job of maintaining its secret aura, not even putting its address on its website, which goes a long way to explaining its popularity. However, while on paper the Sloane Street  drinking den deserves an A+, it lets itself down in the practical test. The bar’s desire to create an air of exclusivity means staff aren’t always terribly friendly to newcomers meanwhile existing customers can be downright rude; and this was especially the case on our visit.

My friend and I had arrived at Barts for what it hopes will be a semi-regular night called ‘Dark Arts at Barts’, the idea being magician and card shuffling extraordinaire, the Deceptionist, will teach magic enthusiasts the dark arts. Think Hogwarts minus the wands and quidditch and with mojitos and antipasti bar snacks instead. Despite a top-class magician performing tricks and then teaching laymen how to do themselves, for some reason a large proportion of the audience were insistent on chattering throughout, and not always in a quiet whisper either. New arrivals were greeted loudly and with much air kissing. As one irritated spectator near me put it, “It’s like going to the cinema and sitting near a load of people that talk all over the film.”

Even with the constant annoying din, the Deceptionist still managed to wow: one punter picked a card from a pack then put it back in the stack only for it to appear folded in four under his watch strap. Another wrote his signature on the card only for Britain’s tallest magician (he called himself that, he was being ironic) to pick multiple cards out of the deck with the same signature and, in a final flourish, reveal another one kept in a sealed envelope in his pocket with the same signature.

Taking things slowly, the Deceptionist, who also plans to run lunchtime magic workshops for wannabe wizards (see didn’t reveal the secrets to these tricks – doing so would have surely got the magic circle police busting downs Barts’ doors quicker than you can say ‘alakazam’ - but he did start to teach some nifty moves that if executed properly would definitely earn some serious kudos points. I’m sadly still at the ‘got hands like horse hoofs’ stage.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Following the Thai Ambassador around Selfridges

By Greg Hall.

Ah yes, Selfridges, it’s a bustling hub of allure. It’s a vainglorious bastion of consumerism. It’s a jewel in the crown of supply and demand. Yes, Selfridges, a misleading name, that bamboozles American tourists into thinking from this shopping Mecca one can only purchase fridges [Editor: Groan]. But then if some of them think Sherlock Holmes was real, what chance do they have? As it goes, I was there on a balmy Thursday evening; if anyone remembers what they were like?

What in the Dickens was I doing there? Well, I was saying ‘sawatdee-kraup’ to the launch of the centre’s Senses of Thailand extravaganza at the pleasure of the Thai ambassador, Kitti Wasinondh. However, it wasn’t quite the stuff of Ferrero Rocher. The ambassador didn’t spoil me with moreish Italian chocolate, nor was my companion a glamorous continental dame, although he is an all-round decent chap going by the name of Dave. But Thai food is in the top ten of global delicacies. Its soulful blend of herbs, spices and sweetness never fails to accentuate a culinary experience, and by Deus! we ate some succulent, opulent, superlative-inducing snacks.

After following the benign ambassador around, who in turn was being guided by a pompous duo of store representatives, myself, Dave and the Thai press followed the trio like rats mesmerised by the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. Our tour was peppered with culinary treats and Singha Beer. Som Tam Salad (Spicy Papaya Salad) did a seductive can-can on our taste buds. A Mieng Kham stall provided a palette pleasing fusion of shallots, peanuts, chilli, dried shrimp and sweet sauce wrapped in a betel leaf. We supped antioxidants tinged with the unique flavour of Rosella and Mangosteen. Despite being in London’s epicentre, this mini adventure felt like we’d transported off the beaten track in Chiang Mai.

Top Thai chef Pongtawat Ian Chalermkittichai was also in attendance showcasing his skills, making an effervescent Nahm Tok From Nahm or a Grilled Beef Salad to us English speakers.

But eventually, the ambassador truly did spoil us, as we strolled on to Gordon’s café. Like pigs on a honeymoon, we squealed at delight at the finger food on offer which was duly washed down with Singha Beer Mojito.

But it wouldn’t have been a Thai event without - no, not ping pong balls - traditional dancing. Regarde et ecoute.

The Senses of Thailand is on at Selfridges until 30th July. Keen foodies who happen to be wandering in the Oxford Street area, (which, by the way, is a really good property to have in a game of Monopoly) by all means check it out. As they say in Thailand, Laagan!

If you’re searching for the best Thai restaurants in London, check out the Top 10 here.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Boylesque Vs Burlesque on Brick Lane

By Leo Owen.

"Nigger, fag, God, wet back, Chink..." is what is written on The Luminous Pariah's white under-leggings and a black glittery swastika adorns his bare right nipple. Luther King's "I have a dream speech" is set to music as he provocatively dances with a noose around his neck, staggering backwards in time to gun shot sounds. Haunting and poetic, this artistic performance is the highlight of Seattle's touring troupe’s burlesque/boylesque show.

Equally combining female and male dancers, Electric Burlesque, mixes traditional burlesque with the much less infamous "boylesque". Spanish compere, Jaunita Pantalonis Della Cruz, inventively and playfully introduces each act sporting a horrific blue and pink 80s outfit and wearing fake reading glasses to read off cues from parts of her body, including buttocks: "Deep in the wet jungle a magnificent bird spreads his wings to reveal his plumage..."

An introduction to the tropical rainforest by David Attenborough, signals the arrival of the show's star in the opening act. Pariah enters the stage in a dazzlingly colourful bird costume before whipping off a feathered skirt to reveal skimpy pants. Unfortunately follow-on acts from the heavily tattooed Sassy Delure and Orphelia More are less inspiring mere striptease, despite continued impressive costumes, including the imaginative removal of a paper apron with the pope's face on it.

Returning to a level of quality similar to Pariah in an electric blue outfit, Paris Originale's routine to "Big Spender" memorably investigates "the lustful appetites of humanity's greed" before a disappointing double act and a brief interval. After the break there's a similar pattern with the boys far out-performing the ladies as Pariah returns with "Money makes the world go round", complete with a scarf comprised of bank notes.

Electric Burlesque certainly blurs the gender boundaries and showcases some spectacular costumes and inventive choreography, as well as traditional sultry fan dances and use of brollie props, but sadly really puts the girls to shame.

Electric Burlesque runs until Saturday 30th July (excluding Mondays and Sundays) from 8.30pm at The Brickhouse on Brick Lane.
To book, use the clever widget below

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Small Is Beautiful: The Proof

By Laura Collins.

Small definitely is beautiful – and I’m not just talking about my height!

When an invitation to the opening of a new Italian restaurant landed on my lap I can’t say I dropped my cuppa in shock or excitement. There are hundreds of Italian restaurants across London so what on Earth was going to make this one any different?

After a few more sips of my tea, I took a closer look. It was then I saw that it wasn’t just an invitation, it was a launch party. Those two words make a grand opening that little bit more exciting. There is a hidden promise of a good time. Also, it wasn’t just any Italian restaurant. This particular establishment was going to be offering Italian tapas, along with the strap line “small is beautiful”.

I love tapas dishes, whatever country they are from, and I also like anybody who sees small things (including me!) for what they are: beautiful! I was sold. And I’m glad I was. Upon entering the restaurant I was greeted by an impressive spiral staircase and a stunning glass chandelier, showing me instantly that the place had an edge. It was modern but had a certain old fashioned Italian glamour to it. There was Prosecco, live DJs and dozens of tasty Italian treats on offer; the food was rather delicious too!

Assaggini is the restaurant in question. This classy little joint is located just out of the tourist hustle and bustle of Theatre Land and is well positioned on a quieter corner of Haymarket. It offers Italian small plates that are perfect for sharing, thus creating a desirable, sociable atmosphere. The idea behind the restaurant is to offer more lavish dishes in a flexible and affordable format and it does that very well. Among other titbits, I got to try meat balls, black risotto and chicken liver rice balls, all of which proved that small really is beautiful. 

As well as food, Assaggini was filled with a vibrant and excitable air and the place was packed to the rafters with chic looking guests; the sort I would imagine to frequent this restaurant in the future. The busy crowd and buzzing dance floor certainly gave it an exciting energy, but it also meant the furniture was moved aside making it hard to visualise with tables and chairs dotted throughout.

Looking beyond the clouds of perfume, never ending cheek kissing, and gyrating bodies, however, I could see the restaurant’s sophisticated decor. It was contemporary, bright and colourful, proving that Assaggini draws its inspiration from New York cicchetti style restaurants. The walls are covered in vintage mirrors and thick shelves stacked high with traditional Italian food and drinks. The downstairs area seemed darker and sleeker whereas the upstairs was airy and light. On this particular evening both areas were heaving, which just goes to show that everybody loves Italian food and everybody thinks small things (and of course people!) are beautiful.

Looking for further Italian restaurant inspiration? Follow this link to find out the Top 10 Best Italian restaurants in London

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Afresco Opera Whilst You Eat

By Sophie Atkinson.

A stunning secret garden close to Buckingham Palace; a sumptuous three-course dinner; summer cocktails; live music of the highest quality; what more could you ask for? Good weather, evidently. This is the UK after all. Luckily, when I visited 51 Buckingham Gate – the luxury five star hotel whose courtyard we were due to be wined and dined in – the staff were more than prepared for London’s fickle weather and instead herded us into one of their luxury banquet halls to enjoy a night of frivolity.

During the months of July and August, the picturesque courtyard – housed within 51 Buckingham Gate – will fling open its gates for a summer of alfresco dining and late night cocktail sipping beneath the stars, completed with a wealth of West End musical classics performed live by opera stars. Spread across Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer, The Courtyard will present operatic numbers as well as classic and hit contemporary favourites from the West End (performed by the wonderful Soprano Bella, Cantabile, The London Quartet and Viva Live Music) while diners feast on a three-course meal served with a selection of fine wines and Champagne. Expect to hear songs from Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and West Side Story.

Despite the dreary weather and indoor setting, on this particular night, we soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed the music as our meal was served: a fresh Greek salad to start, the gin braised lamb shank main, and iced honeycomb parfait to finish. The talented cast had us all up dancing immediately with hits from Mamma Mia and Grease (go on, try telling me you could resist).

Tickets were priced from £75, which included the three-course dinner and delectable signature '51' cocktail.

The Courtyard’s remaining musical events are:

22 & 23 July
Contemporary West End Musical Theatre by Soprano Bella

29 & 30 July
Opera in the Courtyard performed by Viva Live Music

5 & 6 August
Classic Hits of West End Musical Theatre by Cantabile –The London Quartet

12 & 13 August
Contemporary West End Musical Theatre by Soprano Bella

Let’s all hope for more clement weather when you visit.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

How To Look Cool On A Friday Date Even If It’s Monday

By Rebecca Brett.

Why do most songs put down Monday? What did Monday ever do to the lyricists writing these songs? Tell me why I don’t like Mondays? I’ll tell you why Sir Bob; because you don’t get invited to Champagne events on a rooftop terrace overlooking London, that’s why. Just another manic Monday? You can say that again. This isn’t a usual Monday night activity. And the best one - Monday’s child is fair of face - hmmm, not the morning after too many glasses of Champers without dinner.

OK, there are a lot of reasons why Monday is put down so much, who wants to go back to work after a weekend of fun? It’s usually the day that the majority of us take to the gyms and parks for an exercise session, all in an attempt to feel better about our over-indulgence during the weekend. Not me. For me, this Monday was an extension of the weekend, just another Friday night to let my hair down.The reason for my outing on this usual mundane Monday in particular was to celebrate the official UK launch of Pommery Apanage Rosé NV in magnum. Who could refuse an invitation that had those words in it? So with the sun beaming down, I headed to the new and improved Vista rooftop bar at the luxury Trafalgar Hotel with a hot man in tow. I love it when events like these stipulate that you can take a +1.

So, sitting on the sun-drenched terrace with views over London all around us, and flocks of people sitting in Trafalgar Square watching Madame Butterfly on a huge screen, we started with the Springtime Rose NV, a light champers with lots of berry notes; very easy to drink, some might argue too easy. I’d be one of those.

To ensure prolonged Champagne sampling, there were incredible canapés circulating, including mini bangers and mash with a rich red wine jus, and, my favourite, Thai marinated chicken skewers; the perfect antidote to not eating dinner that night, oops.

We visited the Pink POP NV table next. Note to all single girls out there who don’t want to look like complete dickheads when trying to impress a date: do not, and I mean DO NOT, try to elegantly drink POP from those cute little Champagne bottles with a straw; they are devils in disguise. A straw in bubbles is the equivalent of putting an Alka Seltzer in your mouth with Coke Cola; bubbles spluttering out your nose is not a great ‘I’m cool’ date look. So POP in glasses is the way forward.

The mini bottles are cute though, and the contents of them go down a treat. I can imagine taking a few of these to a posh picnic date, if we ever get over the straw incident.

Nose bubbles memory regressed, we moved on to the La Chapelle Gordonne rose 2009. Unfortunately, this one must have been a popular choice as all that was left were fake bottles. Yeah, thought that bottle was light when I picked it up but thought I’d open the foil to make sure. Yep, the cool date-look continues.

There were some lovely wines available too so a quick diversion was needed to the tables laden with Cuvee Louise Rose 2000, a pale pink wine which was sweet and perfumed, not to the date’s liking but I’m sure he was just trying to act manly. He did have another glass after all!

As the night drew in so did a chill in the air as the sun disappeared over the horizon. No worries at Vista, though. They have super soft throws to snuggle under so that you can continue drinking to your heart’s content. But, with the looming thought of it already being Tuesday morning, we set off.

In conclusion, a Champagne date is the way forward, especially with the aid of plenty of bottles of delicious Pommery Champagne to help you along your way. Now, I won’t tell you how the date ended, a girl doesn’t kiss and tell, oh shit… she just did.

Looking for further rooftop action in London? Check out the Top 10 Best Rooftop Bars & Restaurants

Monday, 11 July 2011

Belgian Helps Cat Through Tube Ordeal

By Cat McGovern.

Why is the tube so shite? When embarking on a hellish journey on this device, I always check the TFL Journey Planner so that it can give me a rough idea about when I will be at my desired destination. Today it and TFL have failed me and it has put me in a stonker of a mood. 22 minutes to Baker Street from West Brompton seems reasonable. Only, today it 50 minutes! Why? Because the tube is shite; fact.

This means I am half an hour late for Café Luc’s 1st Birthday, situated on the very pleasant Marylebone High Street. A modern Belgian restaurant - and no, it’s not another Belgo - Café Luc is quite different. It is also next to my favourite shop, Cath Kidston, so this makes my mood calmer. The lady on the door is all smiles and enthused by our presence and guides us in.

I pick it up the cocktail from the tray of drinks and navigate to a table filled with cheese blocks. Said cocktail initially confuses my taste buds as it looks like a Mojito, but there’s something quite different about it. It smacks of rum and the taste of mint and sugar is subtle, but there’s something else in there I cannot identify. Fortunately, the general manager comes over and introduces himself, probably because I look so confused yet engrossed in the cocktail. He tells me that it is called an Orange Pekoe Ceylan Mojito and that a Mariage Freres tea infused rum is used. I express my love of cocktails to him, in particular martinis and immediately a Marco Polo Martini arrives with the same tea flavour present. It is exquisite and a top-notch martini. Thinking about it logically, the tea must mean that it is healthier than other cocktails, so I should have them to be healthy right? Hmm... perhaps not Cat.

I see that steak tartare is amongst the offerings, and delight in sampling one. Small cones of frites and shrimp croquettes are also being circulated and I wonder why I have never had this kind of food in Belgium. I have, of course, eaten a mountain of frites and mayo, but the shrimp croquettes are apparently a Belgian delicacy and I can see why. They are light and not too greasy and go fantastically with frites. But my full attention is on the tartare. I pop a few naughtily into my mouth and the waiter notices my love of them, and repeatedly leaves trays of them on my table. Score!

A man with an amusingly large bottle of Louis Roederer champagne, affiliated with Café Luc, tops up everyone’s glasses and I coyly beckon him over with my feminine wiles. Just as I’m settling into the evening, the event is suddenly over. People trickle out and I’m left with the horrid prospect of the return journey on the tube. TAXI!