Friday, 24 February 2012

Bannatyne’s Hands, Lineker’s Breasts & Notting Hill’s New Indian Restaurant

By Sophie Marie Atkinson

Duncan Bannatyne [of Dragon’s Den fame] has hands the size of shovels. I know this from the vast proportions of time that I've spent across the road from his house/office/gym with binoculars pressed against my nose.

Just kidding. I’m a Peter Jones girl myself.

I actually know this fact about Mr Bannatyne because that particular Scottish man was present at the VIP launch of party of Notting Hill’s upmarket Indian restaurant, Chakra, last week. Along with former Atomic Kitten Liz McClarnon. Natch. 

Incongruous celebrities aside (apparently Gary Lineker and his unfeasibly young, attractive wife were also in attendance) the evening was a chance for the staff of Chakra to showcase some of their stylish cooking (and fabulous skin-tight bright red dresses) using a fine selection of wines and nibbles (wouldn't you know it, the Champers had run dry by the time I arrived).

Fit to bursting with well-heeled individuals, all of whom were significantly fancier than I, Chakra’s decor is as sophisticated as its patrons; all chandeliers and dimpled leather walls.

The rather steeply-priced restaurant (you’ll pay almost as much for a main course as Danielle Lineker probably paid for her breasts) was opened late last year by chef Andy Varma, formerly of Vama in Chelsea. Rumour has it he travelled across India to track down authentic recipes from Lucknow, Hyderabad and beyond.

The menu at the chi-chi venue boasts dishes like coriander and garlic lamb chops, smoked tandoor tiger prawn, venison (not often seen on the menu of an Indian restaurant), roast quail (see previous parentheses) garlic scallops and Masala asparagus.

It’s hard to judge food when you’ve had to elbow other media types out of the way to get your mitts on a spoonful of Biryani, but the dishes that I was able to sample at Chakra were pleasing and delicately well-flavoured.

So if tasty, though expensive, Indian food is your thing, head on down to Chakra. I personally am still heart-broken that Spencer and Hugo from Made in Chelsea weren’t in attendance, as rumoured. That would have been totes amaze.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Sophistication, And Why It Matters

By Omer Hamid

Leonardo da Vinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I see his point and can kind of understand where he’s coming from, but I’m sorry Leo, if I thought sophistication was simple before my evening at The Champagne Assembly at The Renaissance Hotel in St. Pancras, then I was always going to leave with very, very different ideas about it.

One of the most beautiful buildings in London; a hall surrounded by ladies and gentleman of the very elite, of the cultured, sophisticated echelons of society with only the finest tastes and pursuits. Then there was me. Stumbling through the door just a fraction too late to appear classy, with all the grace of a sledgehammer. And so it began.

The 2nd Champagne Assembly followed the wide acclaim of the first event of its kind in 2010. Hosted by G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, it promised to be an evening to explore the history, tradition and artistic roots of Champagne as well as an opportunity to delve into science, craftsmanship and the wider world of luxury, as we understand it. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out what I was doing there. I had a lot to learn in a short space of time.

I managed to attend only a fraction of the entire Assembly, but what I saw was enough to leave me reeling at how very little I knew. And so when I sat down to recount the experience, I think the best way to do so was in three, quick rules that I’ve devised to understand sophistication. Perhaps one day you might find yourself in a situation where this can be a helpful guide. Perhaps not, and I’ll just come across like the uncultured cretin that I am, either way I think it’s worth a read.

1. Luxury means detail, precision and tradition. I’ve never been one for the tiny details, nor was I the guy in the class who had much patience in school. Maybe that’s why I found so incredible the level of detail treasured by the Champenois! To a matter of precision, some Champagne that was being tasted needed to be within 6 to 14 degrees. Holy methodological, Batman. One of the speakers, Didier Mariotti, Chef de Cave at G.H. Mumm (pictured above), said something that really struck me about the art of Champenois. He said when you taste the blend, you cannot afford to taste for the moment, you taste for it to be ready in ten years. That’s detail. That’s precision. That’s the kind of luxury you can’t find in any other industry, it’s why Champagne means sophistication.

2. There really is a je ne sais quoi. If there’s one thing I could take away from the Assembly, it’s that just like a talent for art or literature, there is something that simply radiates sophistication. I know this because in that hall during the Assembly it could be felt absolutely everywhere, apart from the seat that I had plonked myself in to. Gentlemen with beautifully distinguished French accents and quiet brilliance in their knowledge of history, art and the refined way of life. It was enough to leave a commoner like me slightly star-struck. At the end of the day, this is an avenue of life where you have to have that … something. I’m not sure what it is yet; I’ll keep you posted.

3. The palate is a complicated thing. I can’t stress that enough. I went to the evening assuming I would hear about Champagne but I’m probably none the wiser about it at all. The experts and panellists alike wanted to hit home that the modern consumer wants the same things as luxury consumers always have: style and substance. Style for an emotional value, substance is the guarantee of quality. But even that can’t substitute the complex relationship between food, wine and all things that the palate combines. Smoky, rich, hard, tart…if we tried to list them all, we’d find ourselves in quite another Assembly. The point is you can’t ever underestimate the creative aspect of Champagne. And to respect something that refined; that is sophistication.

The 2nd Champagne Assembly was, as I’ve heard of the first, an opportunity to showcase an industry that has been as quietly illustrious as it has been successful. There’s a lot more to sophistication than I, or indeed da Vinci, could have understood. Sophistication is an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it there’s… well there’s no substitute.

If you’re looking for sophistication in the capital, than you better check out our guide to the best Champagne bars in London.

Friday, 17 February 2012

London.....And All That Jazz

By Philippa Morton.

“Mr what-ya-call ‘em what you doing tonight? Hope you’re in the mood because I’m feeling just right? Howz about a corner with a table for two, where the music’s mellow in a gay rendezvous..”

This Andrews Sisters’ song comes to mind as I search for that perfect place to get me in the mood. I’m in the mood for good, proper jazz. Where in the world would you find gooood, live jazz music? Or more to the point, where in London would you find gooood, live jazz music?

The Door Oyster Bar and Grill in Bank (above) would be a start. As we see out this last proper Winter month, we can ‘Beat The Blues’ every Thursday night, relaxing to bouncy beats and double bass. Cloud and Klark Abel & Co (above) are just some of the acts on show. You are deserving of both musical and taste indulgence simultaneously, and you couldn’t get it better at The Door. This restaurant is most definitely for those with a taste for the finer life. But you will also need the budget. And you’ll need to book.

I continue my search as, although I love the jazz music, the lure is too much for my progressively thinning wallet. I am going to have to find jazz somewhere cheaper! I could try The Blues Kitchen in Camden (above), one of my favourite ever places! With bands hitting every day of the week, as well as their awesome rock ‘n roll club (Stumblin Slims), I’m in want of nothing. We all love the word FREE. But, for me, that usually means there is a catch. There is no catch to be made at The Blues Kitchen (except for the hottie at the piano) with plenty of free gigs every week!

Or Aint Nothin’ But The Blues in Soho (above), a bar to find bands who should really have a legacy of their own and husky voiced hunks who thrill me to the bone and take me back to the days of when my mama was just a little ankle biter. Highly recommended is Niall Kelly who plays every Saturday night. In fact Aint Nothin’ But The Blues is so good that even Amy Winehouse would visit and occasionally perform. Get in early though, as seats fill and plus there is an admission fee after 8.30pm.

Now if I’m in the West on a Wednesday and on the hunt for something jazzy that’s a little bit snazzy, I like to play my way to The Grand Union in Ravenscourt Park (above). The vintage decor fits the music well. And because it’s also a restaurant, once again, I get to enjoy both taste and sound indulgences at the same time!

It’s gooood to know that there is goooood jazz to be had for all pockets and tastes as well as all corners of this great London town.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Fussy Eaters: Stay Away From London’s New Oyster Bar!

By Patrick Evenden

I’m not saying I’m better than them, but…

....back in my youth, when the height of dining out was a weekly trip to McDonalds, they were easy to spot. They would be the ones tentatively unwrapping their cheeseburgers, while I was already halfway through mine, before they prised open their bap to disgustedly extract the sliver of gherkin. They would then finger through their chips, singling out those less-than-perfect few that were slightly discoloured, leaving them abandoned at the side of the tray ready for me to hoover up.

I am talking, of course, about that sub-species: the fussy eater. Back then I was far from adventurous myself. I would only drink milk if it was warm, or, as I put it, “cooked”. And I mistakenly discarded poppadums on the grounds that I thought they tasted of farts. However, I already recognised that these guys were on another level and were to be viewed with the same contempt as vegetarians or kids that couldn’t handle their Roller-Cola.

However, as you grow older they become more difficult to spot, as palates mature and culinary opportunities broaden significantly. They’re still there though, ordering their steaks well-done, turning up their noses at blue cheese and dipping their plain naan into the custard-like sauce of a Chicken Korma. They make hosting dinner parties a nightmare:

“You know so-and-so doesn’t eat fish?”

“Doesn’t eat fish?! What ALL fish?”


“Christ! Well, I can do him some toast and Mini-Cheddars?”

Clearly they make less than ideal friends and so it is in your interests to weed out these drips and never invite them to anything, ever. Apart from maybe paintball. And the best way to do this is with seafood.

The fact that billions-upon-billions of people have been happily digesting seafood for hundreds of thousands of years, is not enough to assuage their level of distrust. Pop a whelk in front of this mob and they go to pieces. Or even better, try it with an oyster.

I was at the newly opened Oyster Shed bar and restaurant, just off Upper Thames Street in the City of London, last week. It is a lovely place situated right on the river, opposite the imposing magnificence of the soon-to-be completed Shard. As I’m sure you can imagine, they are big on the bivalves and I can think of few places in the City where I’d rather get completely shucked.

Now, to my mind, there is nothing on this planet as perfect as the taste of an oyster. And yet, due to demand, there was one under-employed fellow tucked away in the corner handing out fresh Jersey oysters at the Oyster Shed launch party, while it took four people to serve tepid Sauvignon Blanc at the bar. It was like going to Bordeaux for a beer festival.

Fussy bloody eaters, that’s what they were! My stomach turned as I heard them say, “Oh, but it might make me sick?”

“I knew that you would be here, but I still turned up” I cuttingly replied. Well, I would have said that. If I didn’t have a face full of oysters.

I’ll leave you to decide which of these smug faces is a fussy eater.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

6 Manly Pink Wines for Valentines!

By guest blogger, Neil Phillips, The Wine Tipster (pictured right)

Pink used to be the colour of wine choice kept for Valentine’s Day, summer or, occasionally for some, as part of a Yuletide celebration, but over the past few years the market has completely changed with a large group of devotees, including myself, who enjoy a range of still rosés all year round. The choice in restaurants and bars has come a long way and now for any bar or restaurant not to have at least one rosé by the glass it’s a bit of a sin so there should be plenty to choose from on Valentines night.

Of course, still rosé comes in a range of styles. For many people the journey of pink discovery started with the easy-drinking Pinot Grigio Blush. Now the lower alcohol Moscato pinks from Australia are signing up new pink fans. However, drier styles from regions like Navarra and Rioja in northern Spain deliver thirst-quenching fruitiness, crispness and value, and over in France those light, holiday Provencal rosés, or the more weighty and serious Bandol pinks, offer great choice and have attracted more serious rose drinkers.

The wine producing opportunists from new world countries haven’t missed out on the rosé revolution either with attractive, well-weighted Shiraz and Grenache Aussie rosés, and good, well-structured, foodie styles from South Africa.

South America has weighed in with some Malbec styles with real depth of colour and power. Pink fizz has become increasingly popular, not only, of course, with quality Champagnes, as there are good cavas and quality English sparkling wines now available too.

On another point of style I hear you say “rose has always been seen as a feminine drink”, well, I don’t sense any dip in my testosterone level when I’m enjoying a glass of Shiraz/Malbec rose from Argentina or a good Garnacha pink from Spain and machismo aside many of us are much more open minded about drinking these styles of wine with food. So, armed with this background, here are a variety of roses to enjoy on Valentines night.

Champagne Perrier-Jouët Blason Rose NV 
The ideal elegant pink Champagne to enjoy as an aperitif on a romantic evening, dry with ripe red fruit of wild strawberry and raspberry, floral with a light and fresh finish. Restaurants stockists: Booking Office bar & restaurant at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in King’s Cross; Hakkasan Chinese restaurant in Mayfair; the brand new Flute bar in Fitzrovia; and Dukes Bar at the Dukes Hotel in St James.

Gran Feudo Edicion Rosado 2010, Bodegas Chivite, Navarra, Spain 
Spain has been producing quality roses for a long time and this Tempranillo, Merlot and Garnacha blend from the underrated Navarra region in northern Spain has been aged on the lees for six months and is a dry fresh style, with good weight and attractive cherry fruit. A pink to enjoy by the glass or this medium bodied rose can match with grilled fish. Restaurant stockists: Moro Spanish restaurant in Clerkenwell; Morito Middle Eastern restaurant also in Clerkenwell; and DKNY Cafe on Bond Street.

Chapel Down Rose 2010, Tenterden, Kent 
2012 is the year to support our English and Welsh wines and Chapel Down are one of the premier league producers of English wines. Dry, easy drinking, with light berry fruit, this is a quality pink that easily competes with other roses. Restaurant stockist: Roast restaurant in Borough Market.

Turkey Flat Rose 2011, Barossa Valley, Australia 
If you are more of a New World fan then Turkey Flat’s stylish blend of Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Dolcetto is dry, packed with spice and fruit, well balanced with crisp acidity. Restaurant stockists: The Savoy Grill restaurant on The Strand; Nahm Thai restaurant at The Halkin in Belgravia; and The Goring Dining Room restaurant at The Goring Hotel in Victoria.

Quinta do Lagoalva Rose 2010, Tejo, Portugal 
Portugal is on a roll and Lagoalva are one of the best producers in the dynamic Tejo region. If you want to go for the different and sophisticated choice then this dry, full flavoured pink is for you and your partner. Restaurant stockists: Vinoteca restaurant in Smithfields; and Canela cafe in Covent Garden.

Mas de la Rouvière 2010, Bandol, Provence, France 
You can’t leave a top level Bandol rosé from Provence out of any rose selection. Made from Cinsault, Grenache Noir and Mourvedre, coral pink in colour, dry, red fruit character, medium bodied and a good match with seafood. Restaurant stockists: Le Petit Maison French restaurant in Mayfair; and Le Cercle French restaurant in Chelsea.

Neil Phillips, The Wine Tipster is a wine presenter, foodie, writer and horse racing pundit, Neil is the Food and Wine Ambassador for Taste of London and also the organiser of the Best in Taste Wine Awards. Check out the and

Monday, 13 February 2012

Camden's Secret Pop-Up Bar That Puts The Brand Into Brand New

By Alwynne Gwilt.

"It does brand you in the face a bit," says my friend Rob as we sit on a wooden crate in the amber glow and hidden warmth of the Four Roses ‘Hide&Speak’ pop-up bar.

I nod, my eyes traveling over the walls covered in burlap sacks, the barrels functioning as tables, the candle holders, pillows and wall posters, all brandishing the Four Roses name brand. It's cosy but, as Rob mentions, a bit much.

We've stumbled in from the freezing February weather and down a set of creaky wooden stairs to a room below the rammed room upstairs in Shaker & Company, the cool bar in Camden. The Four Roses pop-up bar is only around for a month so my cocktail-loving PR friend was eager to check it out with me.

We manage to find a seat in the crowded den, which is more of a wooden bunker than a speakeasy. I'm wondering where the piano is, where the men in bowler hats are.

I leave my friend to hold our places and stand in the queue at the bar. I’m excited by the prospects of the quirky looking cocktails that I've noted are being shaken up by the sole chap behind the compact bar. There are only four people in front of me but it takes 25 minutes to get served. Suddenly, I'm not so enthused by quirky cocktails. At £9 a pop, I don't know that many would be thrilled.

"You know how to show it when you're not pleased, don't you," says Rob, as he comes to stand beside me and keep me company.

It's true; I'm pouting; it's been a long week and I had high expectations for a new hidden bar, but I soon realise I'm not being fair. It's the bar's first night. There are always bound to be teething problems. I bet it'll be lovely in a couple of day's time.

Then we lose our seats. In a place as cramped as this, I find myself huffing at the thought of standing by a large barrel after 25 minutes of waiting for a cocktail which is nice, but nothing to write home about.

Rob sees my expression and tries to pep me up offering to brave the queue once more to get us something different.

As I stand on my own, trying to look less like the grumpy Gus I feel, I notice it's only me who is dark in mood. Everyone else seems to be laughing and chatting in small groups, discussing their days and "Ooohing" and "Aaahhing" over the cocktails. I decide to bring myself into a positive frame of mind, hoping it will bring about good things.

And then a ‘table’ opens up. "Ah, this positive thinking does work," I exclaim to myself, quietly enough that people won't think I've over-bourboned myself this early in the evening.

Soon enough, my friend comes wandering over carrying what can only be categorised as an Alice in Wonderland teapot. It's steaming and foaming, shooting puffs of white clouds out of its neck and lid.

Plopping it down on the barrel, I scooch over so we can share the crate.

"There's nothing like the wrongness of an iced-over teapot," says Rob.

True to his word, Rob notes frozen chunks of ice forming along the outside of the teapot, an effect of the dry ice which is creating a spectacular scene before my eyes. The cocktail isn't just all show either; made from Four Roses Small Batch bourbon, lemon juice, green tea syrup, cardamom and mint, it's delicious. Punchy enough to keep the bourbon biting, but softened by the thick flavours of the green tea and cardamom, it rolls around in the tongue and goes down too easily.

"People will order it because it's a novelty and as a side effect, they're getting the best drink," adds Rob, scraping bits of ice and watching them melt away.

As we sip down the drink, I feel a little more impressed. But the ubiquitous Four Roses branding does take away a bit of the Prohibition feel. It's more like an advertisement that Don Draper would drool over than a hidden bar that harks back to a secret era of gangsters, spiffs and smoking, drunk writers.

Still, I'm dreading going back out into the cold. If anything, the ‘Hide&Speak’ is a warm and lively hideaway that will suit those who love something a bit different after a long day at work.

The Shaker & Company Four Roses pop-up "Hide&Speak" is open until the 29 February at 119 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EE from 5pm until late.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Thoughts Concerning Wallpaper At Clapham’s New Basement Bar

By Nina Koo-Seen-Lin.
The Writing’s On The Wall
No, this isn’t a portent of misfortune mixed with doom and gloom. This blog post has been triggered by a mid-week visit to a new basement bar in Clapham (and yes, I did fall over again). But seriously, let’s consider wallpaper, often overlooked or deigned worth of but a mere fleeting mention in critical bar and restaurant reviews. It’s not the obvious thing to talk about, as there’s almost always something to say about the food, the cocktails, the atmosphere, the cocktails, the music, the cocktails. But this time, I’m looking at the walls. I love bars and restaurants that take interior designs to the extreme. A venue with a visually vivid style will always stand out. Look at the Callooh Callay and Lounge Lover cocktail bars in Shoreditch. Even if you haven’t been to those bars you know that when you eventually do it’ll be a treat for the eyes.

Out of Africa and in to Zahra
The recently opened Zahra bar (pictured above) - basement bar under the Clapham branch of Del Aziz - is a basement bar with the rather apt line address of “The Pavement”, that oozes Middle Eastern sexiness. The launch party I attended included canapés worth fighting over, a live jazz duo singing songs ranging from Nina Simone to Lana Del Rey, and belly dancers that seductively swished veils and swords simultaneously. This all done in a room with wall-to-ceiling wallpaper that I can best describe as a zany pick n’ mix of tribalism from Aztec to Zulu. So mesmerised was I by the print extending towards the ceiling that I forgot to grab my helping from the mezze platter; a major error, which resulted in my having to grab a Chinese takeaway box to eat on the tube ride home.

Darling buds of Folly
Come springtime, approach The Folly bar (pictured above) near Bank in the City of London with care because floral frocks will be everywhere thanks to the fashion catwalk. Stand next to the giant floral motifs on the Sanderson wallpaper and Harlequin fabrics and you risk being invisible for the rest of the night. Sample the delicious Rosehip & Red Chili Margarita, by all means. Just don’t do so while head to toe in petal prints and beaded blossoms. If you must be the flower girl (or boy) then be careful with your choice of flower; red rose screams “I love you” while a yellow poppy represents wealth and success and will say “I love you for your money”.

Nights at the Circus
The price of silver is at an all time high and no other venue shows that better than Circus in Covent Garden, with its stylish interior design. Alleyways of kaleidoscopic mirrors, glitter balls on the ceiling, and a harlequin patterned wall instantly transports guests to a world of high decadence and glitzy glamour. Add a few fire-eating ballerinas and one or two half provocative performers on a suspended hoop and the evening’s a roaring, soaring success.

Baby’s got a case of the Blue Bar Berkeley
Okay, so this hotel bar - Blue Bar Berkeley - in Knightsbridge is completely blue. Can’t say much more than that. It’s perfectly weird - like sitting in the sea after a storm – I love it. I’ve scheduled revisits to all of these bars in the next month. First up is Zahra bar to make up for the lost mezze platter feasting from the first time round. My wallpaper judging is over and I approve wholeheartedly. Now bring on the Lamb Boreck and Falafel!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Live Jazz In Odd London Places

By Leah Harper.

Just when you think you know where to find a good jazz bar, they begin to crop up in the most unexpected of places. Of course, jazz, by its very nature, is well-suited to breaking boundaries, and it’s certainly no stranger to improvisation. They say that the most skilled jazz musicians will never play a piece exactly the same way twice, so it makes sense that London’s jazz-inspired venues should be keen to follow suit.

A well kept secret within London’s jazz circles is Streatham. Not an obvious choice, of course, but then the best places rarely are. For some time, it would seem, jazz-lovers have been swapping Soho for Streatham in order to visit The Hideaway, the aptly named jazz bar located almost opposite the station; yet you’ll walk right past it unless you know what you’re looking for.

At least, you would have done, until now. The Hideaway is raising its profile somewhat by opening a jazz cafe and wine bar; a lighter, daytime alternative to the dark and bluesy backrooms of the late night venue. If you’re looking for jazz in odd places, then try having it with breakfast. Although, don’t expect a fry-up with The Best of Miles Davis blaring over the sound system. The Hideaway might be opening a cafe, but they’re doing it in style. Guests can look forward to live music from the piano tucked in the corner, and gourmet foods on the menu. Yes, they’ve toned down the jazz club’s super-sleek black and orange theme, but there’s still an emphasis on quality, and a good deal of effort has gone into creating a relaxed, jazz-inspired vibe.

Yet this isn’t the only place you can expect to find great jazz south of the river. Somewhat surprisingly, Battersea has also become something of a hotspot when it comes to jazz. Le QuecumBar & Brasserie keeps it niche by specialising in Gypsy Swing, and aims to recreate 1930s Paris within the walls of this unassuming live music venue. If you’re keen to avoid the pretension which can surround some of London’s more notorious jazz venues, then Le QuecumBar & Brasserie is the perfect alternative, yet their listings often feature a host of renowned names within the world of Gypsy Jazz. What’s more, you can indulge in the nostalgia of games such as chess or backgammon in a venue which truly encompasses the era when this style of music was perhaps at its peak.

Whilst jazz might have got bit trendier in recent years, it probably isn’t the first thing you think of when paying a trip to Hoxton. Yet for those who feel little other than dread when faced with a bar packed full of East London hipsters, Charlie Wright’s ‘music lounge’ offers reassurance in the form of live jazz, Thai cuisine, and normal clothing. You might not run into Noel Fielding, but there’s a good chance that you’ll get to hear from the latest cutting-edge jazz musicians way before they ‘get cool’. It is still Hoxton, after all.

To me, it has always seemed that one of the oddest places to encounter live jazz is Pizza Express. Of course, any old Pizza Express might be prone to sticking a bit of jazz on mid-meal, and you may have come to associate their menu with two-for-one voucher deals rather than fine-dining. However, the Pizza Express Soho branch does things a little differently. You can rarely use your voucher codes there, for a start, but that’s not to say it’s not worth a visit. In fact, if you are planning a trip to the pan-Italian venue, then the Jazz Club in Soho is undoubtedly the one to choose. With some of the biggest names in jazz performing throughout the week, tables at this much smaller and more intimate version of the high-street chain restaurant book up well in advance. It’s an odd place to have achieved such credibility within the world of jazz, but if Amy Winehouse and Jamie Cullum say it’s ok, then it’s probably not too shabby.

Images courtesy of Flickr user Ewan-M.

Friday, 3 February 2012

When Puritanism Met Burlesque

By Josh Williams.

Before I start this piece, which will see me attempt to de-mystify my prejudices and misconceptions about the Neo-Burlesque movement, I feel that a disclaimer is in order:

My great-grandfather, Edgar, was a Methodist pastor who spent his life travelling around Britain spreading the good, albeit slightly dull, doctrine of Puritanism. According to childlike reasoning, this makes my grandfather half-Puritan; my father a quarter-Puritan; and I, the youngest Williams boy, an eighth-Puritan. With the notable exception of a wardrobe made up in near entirety of dark greys and blues, however, I have always believed that there really is very little about me to suggest an avoidance of gaudiness or a tendency towards asceticism.

And yet, if there is one thing that might just draw a repressed Puritan out of his shell, it would surely be the quite remarkable revival of Burlesque that has occurred in the UK over the past few years. To us closet Puritans, it signals the apex of the shocking reversal of our nation's fortunes, first put into motion when the Cromwells were tragically ejected from power in 1660, and Charles II was allowed to re-introduce the heathen fun-fest that is Christmas.

Today we Puritans are lone voices, however, and Neo-Burlesque has become an established figure on the capital's scene. Numerous venues have devoted themselves to faux-20sism, and in many cases to great acclaim. Clubs like Volupté in Holborn, Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Cellar Door in Aldwych, for instance, have given themselves over, wholeheartedly, to the forbidden fruits of lingerie and nipple-tassels. The crowds, it is fair to say, have come a' flockin'.

Behind the curve, as ever, I thus realised last week that the time had finally come for me to put my Methodist misgivings to rest once and for all, and to investigate. With a curious union of foreboding and a deeply sinful sense of excitement, I visited the aptly named 'Sinner Saints' at the much-hyped Brickhouse bar-restaurant-club on Brick Lane.

I prepared for the event carefully. The greatest danger of Burlesque is presumably that one must not look like one enjoys it too much, and thus I brought a female friend. Ostensibly, we went together as we had not seen each other in months, but in reality, as we both knew, it was so I wouldn't look like a pervert; “This man can definitely relate to women,” I hoped her presence would declare, “even when they aren’t fully clothed.”

On arriving at The Brickhouse, it seemed like the majority of punters had followed suit. The crowd were a friendly mix of male and female, young and old, perverts and non-perverts alike. It was notable, in this regard, that throughout the evening I saw only one man sitting alone; and if he had managed to slip his willy through his flies (as I presumed was his plan), neither I nor anyone else noticed.

The show itself continued to dispense of my misconceptions. It was, I must say, quite brilliant; at once bizarre, enthralling, and, to my great surprise, knowingly and genuinely comic. On an artistic level (he says, desperately avoiding being grouped with 'lone man at table'), the dancing is enormously impressive; but in reality it is the over-riding sense of fun and mischief that really makes the night. Moments of be-tassled breast, I must admit, did indeed force me into that contorted embarrassment so familiar to all Puritans when faced with a gyrating female form, but this never proved a significant problem.

The Brickhouse, after all, offers plenty of distraction for these moments. The food and drink, for instance, are really very good indeed. Although the starters and mains struck me as a little over-egged (and priced) for what they were, I must say that my very impressive steak fought a valiant and sustained fight with the show for my attention.

The Brickhouse, venue itself, meanwhile, is achingly cool, complete with slick bars, mezzanine levels, and a big, arty smoking area out back. Although its position on Brick Lane means that a certain amount of this is to be expected, and scorned, this venue really does stand out in a part of London where 'cool bars' have become pretty ubiquitous.

My final comment, therefore, is an impassioned directive. This Neo-Burlesque thing is showing no sign of abating, and so it really is high time to cast-off the chains of our inhibition, and face-up to some socially acceptable lady-gyration. Right now, with the Sinner Saints not here for much longer, I can recommend nowhere more highly than The Brickhouse. It was here, after all, that I faced my fears; and although this Puritan may never watch Burlesque again, oh boy is he glad that, just for one night, he did.

The Brickhouse has some fantastic offers in place throughout the year, many of which you can find by following this link. Alternatively, I’ve highlighted the mid-week, 4-courses and cabaret burlesque offer for only £35 below which you can book using the handy widget provided.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

My 2012 Calendar Of Meat Has Stunning Views of Tower Bridge

By Nathalie Bonney.

Remember the days when charcuterie was neon pink salami in vacuum packs, reconstituted turkey slices with added water, and there was always one bit of gristle or bone in every packet of ham? Of course meat is meat and it shouldn’t be perfect and exactly the same every time but the cold meats section in supermarkets certainly used to leave a lot to be desired. Roll on the start of this decade and stand up Mr Carluccio. Suddenly it was fashionable to sit in a restaurant surrounded by artisanal food. Whole salamis and chorizos hung like whiffy wind chimes and splendid legs of meat were showcased in fancy slicing contraptions.

Other restaurants soon followed suit and it’s now pretty standard for most Mediterranean-inspired restaurants to offer plates of charcuterie on their menus. Add to this chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson only using the choicest cured meats in their cooking (a straw poll of the number of people using pancetta in their cooking instead of bacon would give an indication of how far the Carluccio effect has spread) and hey presto, the UK population has metamorphosed from diners of the ham-and-two-white-slices kind into prosciutto-on-rye-kinda-gals-and-guys.

So much so that now Cantina Del Ponte, an Italian restaurant in Shad Thames overlooking London’s iconic Tower Bridge, is offering diners charcuterie masterclasses. Fortunately, it’s a pretty informal affair, no notepad and long attention span required. Instead diners are treated to a charcuterie platter inspired by a particular region; the main course also takes heed of the region’s cold meats. The idea is that diners will have the chance to try new cuts of meat and, as they eat them, discover a little more about the great variety. Being an oh-so-thorough student of food, however, I have already tried all of the meats on offer at Cantina Del Ponte over the coming months.

And now I share my education…

January at the Cantina Del Ponte restaurant brought the turn of North Italy, where diners feasted on meats with suitably lavish sounding names like Bresaola (salted, air-dried beef with a dry texture) and Prosciutto Veneto (a clear winner in the Northern Italian category thanks to its superb flavor, which hasn’t been enhanced with any herbs or preservatives, and it being produced by that rare breed: an Italian female butcher). Less glamorous-sounding were speck - which is an Italian kitchen staple - and the artery-busting Lardo. Charcuterie supremo Vittorio Maschio calls this ‘posh fat’ and while it can be eaten in thin slices, there’s only so much pork fat you can eat. Vittorio recommends wrapping slices of lardo around cooked steak so the fat melts into the cooked meat. Now, that does sound good.

From February the Thames-side Italian restaurant will be celebrating meats from the centre of Italy. Classico Parma Ham gets itself on the roll-call as well as wild boar salami, which is an absolute gem thanks to the almost floral aftertaste. Culatello, a deep red pig meat, aged for at least 10 months, is a divine new discovery; pink and processed Mortadella - which stuffs together minced pig shoulder, stomach and fat squares together - isn’t.

March will – no surprises here – focus its attention on southern Italian charcuterie. Although I ate Porchetta in fairly thin slices, the way to best enjoy this pale pink/white meat is in thicker slices in a sandwich, according to Vittorio. Nduja, an extremely soft salami, was quite spicy but despite this bite, its texture put me off. Spicy salami was reliable as expected, and last of all in my charcuterie odyssey was Soppressata, just in case diners fancy a bit more pork.

Vac-packed Parma ham will probably never taste as good again.

The charcuterie monthly menu costs £19.50 per person and as well as a meat platter, includes a main course, dessert and glass of wine.

Cantina Del Ponte restaurant also has a fab dining offer available from now until the end of February: 3 Courses and a Glass of Prosecco for only £22.95. Don’t forget that stunning view of Tower Bridge too though. That comes for free.