Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Being A Restaurant Critic Is Easy, Pho Sure

By Ben Brill

I enjoy eating out, but I’m not sure if I’m cut out to be a restaurant critic. I like telling people it’s what I do at dinner parties - “Oh, and I do a bit of food writing on the side,” I say, all nonchalant, like it hasn’t even occurred to me how interesting I must seem – but, recently I’ve started to worry that I’m not as knowledgeable as I should be.

I try to talk to Bea about it when we’re out for Sunday lunch.

“I’m just worried that sometimes I come across as a bit of a chancer,” I say.

“I think you worry too much,” she replies, taking a bite out of her chicken in pitta (lemon and herb, corn on the cob side). “We eat in nice places all the time. You got a lamb doner from E Mono after the pub the other night, didn’t you?”

“I’d forgotten about that,” I say, looking thoughtfully at the chilli stain on my hand-wash-only cardigan. “And Giles Coren goes there, so it must be alright. And we went to MeatLiquor recently. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?”

I’m still a bit nervous about my lunch date at Pho, though. I’m meeting up with Leila, who does something in the restaurant business and could probably spot a chancer a mile off. She’s suggested we try out the Sonh Tinh rice wines and fruit liquors that Pho started importing from Hanoi late last year. You can’t get them anywhere else in the UK, but apparently they’re ace.

We get in early to beat the lunchtime rush, but even at 12.30 on a wet Wednesday, Pho’s dead lively. Perhaps it’s the weather, or maybe it’s something to do with the sun and the yard arm, but everyone seems more interested in their steaming bowls of noodle soup than they are in the six mean looking bottles of rice wine stacked up behind the bar.

Leila orders some pork spring rolls, and a spread of rice wines, and asks, “So, what have you been up to?”
The last three meals I’ve had out have all come served in greaseproof paper after closing time, so I have to think on my feet. “I’m still really into my street food,” I say. “There’s some exciting stuff about at the moment.”

Leila agrees, and we talk for a bit about burritos, banh mi and the Lahore kebab house on Kentish Town Road, eating crisp spring rolls and sipping at sweet, soft plum wine. I’m feeling pretty good. I think I might even be coming across as quite knowledgeable. I start on a glass of white sticky rice wine as my giant bowl of pho with meatballs and brisket arrives.
The pho is rich and warming, and the wine has a heck of a kick. No wonder the waitress smiled sympathetically at me when she brought it over. I’ve started feeling a bit light-headed, and the back of my throat has started to burn a little, but it’s actually quite pleasant. When Leila nips to the loo I sit back in my little red chair and watch the lunchtime crowd slurping away busily at their noodle soups. I'm feeling a bit philosophical. “I wonder if they ever stop to notice... stuff?” I wonder.
Just as I'm thinking I should buy myself a notebook to write down all of my clever thoughts, Leila comes back. “You mentioned that you’re writing about the best places for boozy lunches in London didn’t you?” she says. “Are you going to mention the new Hawksmoor bar? Or Ceviche? Or Mishkin’s in Covent Garden; their cocktails are almost as good as their Reubens, you know…”

I panic. I’ve not been to the new Hawksmoor bar. I’ve not been to Mishkin’s, either (What sort of restaurant critic am I? Even my sister’s been to Mishkin’s). And I’ve never even heard of Ceviche. Maybe this is it; perhaps I’ve been found out. Leila’s going to march me out of Pho and tear up my business cards in the street and pin me up against the wall and throw cicchette and pastrami at me until I admit, through snot and tears of shame, that I’m nothing but a fraud.

But just as I’m about ready to bolt for the exit, these words start pouring out of my mouth. “I’m not that all that fussed about the Russell Norman places, to be honest,” I say. “I don't know if I'll ever feel comfortable somewhere like Polpo. It’s like gatecrashing someone else's party. I’d take a place like this, or Pepito in Kings Cross, any day. Or the 202 bar on Archway Road. People might not write about places like that, but there's nowhere I'd rather lose a couple of hours.” I pause, expecting Leila to interrupt and tell me I’m talking rubbish. But she doesn't. I feel a bit confused. Perhaps she's too polite to call me a chancer. Or perhaps I just worry too much.

To discover more new bars and restaurants in London, follow this link.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A New Whisky Club In Soho? Here Come The Girls!

By Sophie Marie Atkinson.

Mad Men may have done for the Old Fashioned what Ron Burgundy did for the jazz flute, but a fleeting glance around the Whisky Lounge’s launch party at The Soho Whisky Club a few weeks back proved that there’s still a long way to go when it comes to encouraging the fairer sex to partake in a wee dram.
The Whisky Lounge, however, are on a mission to change this. In fact, their aim is to encourage everyone to develop and nurture an interest for and passion in the Water of Life through a series of workshops and events – many of which take place at Albannach in Trafalgar Square, one of my favourite food and booze haunts in London – not to mention their Whisky Fest, set to take place in the Royal Horticultural Halls on April 21 2012.

The launch party was the first time I had encountered The Whisky Lounge, and The Soho Whisky Club itself, and the combination of their passion and knowledge on all things whisky-based – plus their friendly and approachable manner – ensured that I walked away feeling all warm and fuzzy. But maybe that was due to the food and drink.
Located in the heart of Soho, The Soho Whisky Club, part of and located above the legendary Vintage House Shop, is one of London's newest whisky venues and offers a mind-blowing range of whiskies to its private members; membership: £200 a year. A veritable bargain. Unlike some of the whiskies. I came across one – a Glenlivet – which costs a staggering £999.95 a measure (see above). Swear down.

As a quick aside, if you haven’t checked out the The Vintage House; do! The Soho institution was opened in the 40s and to this day continues to bring a vast array of premium wines, spirits and cigars to Londoners.
Husband and wife Amanda and Eddie Ludlow – the brains and evangelists behind The Whisky Lounge – hosted the evening at the club, during which guests were treated to a whisky tasting with a difference. Described as a 3D tasting experience, Amanda, Eddie and their latest recruit, Joe Clark, each picked and presented their favourite whisky and served it alongside a canapé chosen to perfectly complement the dram. From the Jameson Select Reserve, served alongside a mouth-watering creme brûlée, to the Highland Park 21-year-old single malt, paired with smoked salmon, and Neal’s Yard Irish Ardrahan cheese with Kilchoman Islay Single malt 2006 vintage release, each and every course was a lesson in itself as to how incredible versatile whisky can be.

The canapés served beforehand must get a mention too (I admit to judging venues massively on their canapés): an abundance of quail’s eggs with wasabi, smoked salmon bilinis and tiny bruschettas, all of which were divine and had been lovingly prepared the night before by Amanda. They were just one of the many personal touches – in addition to a goodie bag filled with Amanda’s hand-made whisky-infused truffles – that made the evening so darn special. D’awwwwwww.

If the evening was anything to go by, the festival, and any of the Whisky Lounge’s events, will be huge hits. Highlights of the festival, which will focus on engaging women, are set to include truffle and whisky pairings, cocktail demonstrations, and panel and tasting discussions with women working in the industry as well as a sultry speakeasy with extremely rare drams hidden behind its Prohibition walls.

Joan Holloway would be so proud.

To discover the best whisky bars in London, follow this link.

Images courtesy of ©simonhanna.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Around The World In 80 Cuisines: Korean

(5) Korean by Nathalie Bonney.

It’s all too easy to be an ignorant westerner and lump together a number of oriental cuisines on the ‘it’s a lot of rice and noodles’ premise but doing so is the same as saying all Europeans eat the same thing. Try telling that to a squeamish Englishman being force fed zee big fat juicy escargots by a gourmande Frenchman or asking the Greeks to just eat one dish for starters instead of their sumptuous mezze feasts. It’s inaccurate and, as a result, misses out on so much.

Korean restaurants in London aren’t entirely unheard of, and a quick Google search brings up a decent amount of options, but Korean food as a whole hasn’t quite reached the Wagamama mark in terms of its popularity and familiarity.

What then should we be ordering to ensure we are Keeping up with the Koreans (and thus creating the premise for an undoubtedly fantastic reality TV show in the process)?
The quintessential Korean dish, kimchee is the side dish of choice and is served up with pretty much everything. Not ordering it at a restaurant is like eating roast beef without Yorkshire pudding, or going to a kebab house and just eating chips. It’s integral to the meal. So what is it? Pickled cabbage in a spicy red chilli sauce. Yummo huh? If you’re not a fan of pickles, skimp on the kimchee, otherwise heap on this delight to add zing and flavour to your dishes.
‘Be bop a bodda bop, bop a bodda bop…’ Surely Bibimbap should have made it into the Scat Man Joe’s seminal song ‘I’m a Scat Man’? If not, he missed a trick. Aside from sounding a lot of fun, bibimbap is a lot of fun to eat too. Translating as ‘mixed meal’, bibimbap is served in a large pot with rice at the bottom then topped with stir fried vegetables, meat, and Gochujang or chilli paste. A raw egg can be cracked over it and then stirred in immediately before eating too.
Yukhoe/Yuk Hwae
Steak tartare for Koreans, steak meat is minced and then marinated in sesame oil, salt and pepper and sesame seeds. Served on a bed of shredded pear and cucumbers, a raw egg is cracked over the top. Squeamish meat eaters are strongly advised TO EAT this fantastic dish. The flavours are superb and even the most cowardly carnivore will be pleasantly surprised.

Soup. Soup with kimchee, soup with seafood, soup with tofu, soup with meat and so on. While western cultures adhere to the ‘what’s in my soup bowl is mine not yours’, Koreans adopt a more communal approach. Diners share soup dishes just as they would any other course.

Korean BBQ is unmistakably popular in the UK. No surprises then to hear it’s taken off in the US too where Korean BBQ beefburgers are already making the fast food rounds. Barbecued beef is the undisputed king of the grill: sweet, soft and tender but still cooked all the way through. Also try chicken bulgogi or BBQ pork belly. Eat the meat wrapped in slices of lettuce.
Tasty pancake/omelette style dish that can be enjoyed with a number of fillings such as vegetables, prawns and squid or kimchee.
Misty white Makgeoli (pictured above) was the drink of the peasant farmers once upon a time. Made with fermented rice and giving off a rice wine taste, it’s surprisingly refreshing. Another rice-based fermented drink is Bek se ju. Flavoured with herbs and ginseng it has an earthier taste than Makgeoli. Soju (pictured below) meanwhile, is today’s national drink of Korea. A clear spirit, it’s deceptively stong but is often mixed with beer to last longer. For special occasions reach for plum liqueur Seoul Joong Mae. Refreshing plum tea and Aloe Vera juice are great soft drink shouts.
Where to eat Korean food in London
NKOTB - the new Korean on the block - is the appositely-named Kimchee (pictured above) in Holborn, which aims to be bigger, badder and more bombastic than any of the other Korean restaurants in London. Doing away with any gadgetry, all of the barbecuing happens in the kitchen, leaving diners free to admire the plush fittings and choice of Korean beverages. Long communal tables, in dark wood, are reminiscent of Wagamamas and it’s clear Kimchee doesn’t plan to be a solo establishment for long. Fancy lampshades, a pretty water feature at the entrance, and beautiful crockery put it a cut above though. Be sure to leave room for pudding. Kimchee offers a tempting selection of ice cream from the sublime chestnut to green tea, red bean and gorgeous almond.
Also in the vicinity is Asadal (above) stemming from the Korean words ‘Asa’, meaning morning and ‘Dal’ meaning land. ‘Morning land’ DOESN’T serve breakfast but it sounds nice and it does a mean DIY Korean BBQ, with sunken hot plate/cooking surfaces on each table.
Like Kimchee, choosing to name itself after one of Korea’s most famed dishes, Bibimbap (above) is a smart move. Diners opt for the one-stop meal instead of the more typical communal style Korean dining, but with ten varieties of Bibimbap to choose from, there’s still enough choice. This Soho restaurant has a fun, casual feel. After eating, diners are snapped by the restaurant’s Polaroid and the walls are adorned with the pics, some arranged into a cutesy ‘I heart u’. Ah bless. Fluid loves you too Bibimbap.
Myung Ga (above) is hardly any distance from Bibimbap but the difference between the two is that Myung Ga specialises in Korean BBQ. This is the place to go in Soho for diners who want to have a go themselves. A hot plate in the middle of each table allows guests to cook their own meat and seafood. While a fun dining experience it does mean the chances of perfect Bulgogi are somewhat reduced. Don’t neglect to try other non-BBQ dishes too.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Soulful Gospel Brunch: NYC’s Harlem? Or High Above The Thames?

By Nathalie Bonney

Harlem, New York, home to Sylvie’s Restaurant, the area’s best-known soul-food restaurant and venue for its famous Sunday gospel brunches. Harlem itself conjures up plenty of negative New York stereotypes, and it’s fair to say a Brit tourist, like me, wandering around the back streets and asking hostile shop sellers for directions to the aforementioned establishment might feel a little out of her depth. This is Harlem after all, not my native Harrow.

But like anywhere that’s stuck in the mire of public opinion, my experience at Sylvie’s Restaurant lifted Harlem out of its gutter typecast and it now remains one of my favourite New York experiences out of my four visits to NYC .

Why? Because when I walked into Sylvie’s Restaurant it was like I was home. There is just something about it: the staff are so welcoming and friendly, and it’s unpretentious; no fancy tableware or crockery, just framed photos of its famous visiting diners (including Obama) covering the walls and, best of all, the food is a-maz-ing.
How then will slick restaurant Altitude (at the top of the Millbank Tower) manage to decant Sylvie’s Harlem charm to its own Thameside location? Every Sunday from 11am-3pm Altitude opens its London doors and serves up its own £49 gospel brunch. Portion control at Altitude definitely follows America’s supersize measurements. While Bloody Mary’s, mimosas and bellinis are the alcoholic drinks of choice.
There’s no doubting the food is good. The cornbread (a small piece compared to the other breads) and onion bread need no added butter and it would be easy to polish off the whole basket before even starting our mains. We just about manage to hold ourselves back for the next course though: rack of ribs and BBQ chicken.
The ribs are good, but a bit more sauce would make them better. And while the chicken is tasty I’m not sure how close it is to soul food. I’d say the poultry has had significantly less contact with oil than is typically required of soul food. And here, I guess, is the problem with a place like Altitude serving up soul food. Its polished black floors, heavy white tablecloths and panoramic views of the Thames are all perfect for a swanky London restaurant, but they don’t quite fit with the gospel brunch premise.

I can’t help but reminisce to myself about Sylvie’s Restaurant where the chicken, served in a less aesthetically stylish basket, was nonetheless beautifully crispy on the outside. Grandma’s fluorescent red punch kept flowing and no sooner had we finished our jenga stacks of golden cornbread than Ernest, our college student waiter, brought out another load, smiling widely to reveal shiny braces. The staff at Altitude are friendly, albeit in a slightly more formal way, but they also have a huge area to cover and it’s sometimes difficult to get their attention.
Though good, the food and drink alone would not be enough for me to endorse Altitude’s efforts at soul food, but thanks to the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC) I could be served honey and locusts and still be coming back. These guys are the real deal.
Dressed in bright red choir robes, seven singers (choir members take turns at appearing on Sundays) assemble themselves with choir master Basil Meade at the keyboard. From majestic and steady ‘Great is He’ to Aretha’s ‘Respect’, Mary Mary’s ‘Shackles’ and the moving ‘Amazing Grace’, the vocals are powerful but flawless. The choir is due to appear with Dione Warwick in concert and members frequently appear on the X-factor (gospel choirs are a pre-requisite of X Factor bombast).

I sit there listening to them wondering how the hell Frankie Cocozza managed to stand on stage shrieking ‘my sex is on fire’ (wrong in so many ways) while these guys were deemed backing singers. It’s crazy. Thankfully at the brunch this is not the case, with various members singing solo and others blending beautiful harmonies. More worryingly are their attempts at audience participation. I’m more than happy for other diners to warble ‘this little light of mine’ but my friend and I have no such desire (or vocal ability) to do so ourselves. As the mic is pointed in our direction I wonder at God’s sense of humour. Thankfully, we are let off the hook and get to sit back and enjoy the rest of the music.
Then pudding arrives: waffles with maple syrup, and berries and peanut butter brownie. Amazing Grace indeed.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

What’s In A Name? Ask Champagne Jayne

By Kate Williams.

First I thought of Featherweight Kate, but I bruise too easily and was never much cop with a skipping rope. Real Estate Kate was out too; I just don’t have it in me to be that dishonest. I’m too clumsy for Rollerskate Kate, and while I like the sound of Magnate Kate but I’m lacking the gravitas and Donald Trump hair.

Inmate Kate is no good because horizontal stripes do nothing for me. Running Mate Kate would be cool but Obama is sorted on that front. My gender politics make Gyrate Kate a problematic choice. Same for Playmate Kate. I find parrots too creepy to become Pieces of Eight Kate and we don’t need to go into why Prostate Kate is a nonstarter. Which leaves me a bit stuck.

You see; I have a new theory. To be truly happy you have to dedicate your life to something that rhymes with your first name. And if you think that sounds like nonsense then you haven’t met Champagne Jayne.
Last week I went to a Champagne tasting event at the new Flute Bar and Lounge on Great Portland Street hosted by Champagne Jayne. I’d never been to the bar before; actually, I’d never noticed the bar before, though I must have walked past it countless times probably on my way to bargain eatery Vapiano.
Flute is intimate but not boxy, and has lots of private booths, and behind the bar cocktail bar men mixed expensive looking drinks. But there wasn’t time to look around for long. Behind a curtained area at the back of the bar, and exclusive class was taking place, lead by the aforementioned Champagne Jayne.

Real name Jayne Powell is an award-winning Champagne educator and was as bubbly, blonde and cheering as her name suggests. She warmly greeted everyone with a smacker on both cheeks before unceremoniously standing on a stool to talk us through each glass of fizz with an effervescent passion.

This is a lady who loves her job. Hardly surprising, it has to be up there with chocolate taster and bed tester as a dream vocation. And she knows her stuff when it comes to bubbles and was keen to share, beginning with how she fell in love with champers as a teenager on an exchange trip to France. Each wine that followed came with an engaging and vivid history from Jayne, some even in a spattering of impressive French.

And with each flute quaffed, the staff at, err, Flute delivered what Jayne told us were perfectly matched canapés, including mushroom crostini and frites seasoned with truffle salt (aka chips) (not that I’m complaining).

I left a little more light-headed and with a whole bunch of new words to talk about the bubbly stuff, along with my usual fall-back options: fizzy, and another-glass-of. The masterclass lasted just over two hours, but I have the feeling that Jayne could have gone on for much longer, and no one there would have objected. There is something so charming about listening to someone who loves what he or she does. In fact, it made me a bit envious.

So, back to the task at hand. Cremate Kate? Lie-in-wait Kate? Empire State Kate? Too creepy. Too impatient. Too short. This is going nowhere. If only Mum had named me Bastronaut.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Lipstick On The Pint Glass & London’s Strangest Beer Names

By Nina Koo-Seen-Lin.

I’m going to say something that a lot of my highbrow, wine-drinking girlfriends are going to splutter over: I love ale. There, I’ve confessed! If I’m honest, I think beer would be one of my occasional drinks of choice. When I heard about a launch night for two new cask ales exclusive to Nicholson’s Pubs I jumped at the chance to attend. Not least because it was an evening hosted by Marverine Cole, aka the Beer Beauty, a woman so into her beer (like myself) and so stunning (like myself!) that within five minutes of meeting her she completely banished any thought of ale as merely middle-aged bearded male refreshment (bearded middle-aged females drink it too!).
So, after a long Monday in the office, I hot-footed over to The Mudlark pub near London Bridge and joined a huge number of brewers, reviewers and beer lovers alike.

We remained a merrily mixed bunch. I was happy to notice I wasn’t the only person wearing high heels in the cramped upstairs bar. The high spirits continued when we were told all the beer had to be finished off before closing time and the tables were laden with platters of all things delicious and deep-fried (chicken, calamari, brie…).
After I had looked over our notes on the science of brewing, the talk on my table turned to the names of the ales we’d sampled which swiftly led on the weirdest ale names we’ve all come across. For me it’s Robinson’s Old Tom, named after the brewery cat. The Old Tom with Chocolate brew is one of my favourite drinks, for obvious reasons. Here are a few more fantastically named ales and where to find them:

The Thornbridge Frank as Apollo 
The first launched ale I tried during the evening. This was the winning ale for the 2011 Great British Home Brew Challenge. Created by Paul Carruthers, this is an amber ale that has a sweet taste and a dry finish. This ale beat over 120 entries. Paul also came up with the unusual name. At the time of the brewing, his son, Frank, was learning about the Greeks in school and he used the Apollo hop. The ale is exclusive to all 80 Nicholson’s Pubs.

The Nethergate Three Mills Pale Ale 
This ale was created to celebrate the memory and craftsmanship of William Nicholson and the success of Nethergate, who were recently awarded the Good Pub Guide Brewery of the Year 2012. Mike Atkinson, Director of Nethergate describes the beer as “a golden light ale for the spring.” It has a less bitter and rather zesty taste than the other ales the brewery have done in the past. It’s also exclusive to Nicholson’s Pubs.

Dam Tasty Beaver 
Not one I’ve tried myself, I have to admit. I asked Richard Robinson, owner of Itchin Valley Brewery, Hampshire for the most unusually named beer he’d tried. This was his answer. I believe it is craft brewed at The Florence pub Herne Hill (on Dulwich Road). It’s made with bitter orange and American hops, which gives it a slightly spiced and Satsuma taste. Worth ordering just for the opportunity of saying the name.

Kernel Pale Ale
Kernel is a character in Darren Shan’s The Demonata series. He has magical powers (he took a demon’s servant and transformed it into a baby brother for himself named Art). In the real world, Kernel is the name of a London Brewery that aims to provide better beer. The ale doesn’t have magical powers but it is available in many London establishments including Ben’s Canteen in Clapham Junction where it’s paired perfectly with the restaurant’s signature All Day Breakfast Scotch Egg.

Jugged Hare 
The newly opened British gastropub, The Jugged Hare, brews its own house beer which has a light citrus ale with a hint of spice and is perfect for a Meat Feast Monday! Pair a pint with some cracking classics from the menu like suckling pig, bone marrow or black pudding.

Frank as Apollo and Three Mills Pale Ale will be available for the next three months only. I’ll be following the Nicholson’s London Ale Trail during that time sipping down the spring ales while they’re still available. If you care to join me, just follow the lipstick marks I’ll be leaving on the pint glasses.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

6 London Bars, Pubs & Restaurants Where Drinking During The Film Is Actively Encouraged

By Christian Rose-Day.

“I’ve had a shit day at work. I need a drink. Let’s go out.”

“Oh really? Actually, I had a bit of a heavy weekend. I’d prefer a quiet night on the couch, if you don’t mind? Perhaps a movie.”

“I said: I. Need. A. Drink!”

“Ah. OK. Got it. Umm, how about we do both?”

Yes, it is possible. It is possible to catch a movie and go for a drink in the same night. There are cinemas in London - such as the Clapham Picturehouse, the Brixton Ritzy, the Everyman on Edgware Road, The Electric on Portobello Road, and the recently refurbished Odeon in Swiss Cottage - that allow movie lovers to keep clutching their life-affirming alcohol drinks as they enter their film of choice. Birds, stone: thwack, thwack.
Last week I checked out what £3million-worth of redevelopment can do for a cinema that was originally built in 1937. I went along to the aforementioned Odeon cinema in north London’s Swiss Cottage, specifically to have a nose around the new bar that has been installed there - Ambar - and to see if I could sneak my glass of wine into a film.
With hints of Art Deco, 25 wines by the glass (selected by Bibendum), the promise of future midnight screenings (with Ambar reportedly open until 2am), and some prominent bar food offers - such as a sharing platter with two glasses of wine for £15, or a burger and a beer for only £8 - this modern remake (of a bar) is bound to put bums on seats, even if it might not be as cool as the original (this may not be true; I wasn’t around on 1937).
Whilst my guest and I sat in the bar, slurping an inexpensive £5.95 Daiquiri and a strong, fruity, mango Caipiroska, the bad day slowly slipping away from us with every sip, we discussed the joys of cinema and the joys of booze. We then attempted to compile a list of cinemas in London that allow patrons to take their drinks into the film with them. Then we went one better and named bars and restaurants in London allow patrons to watch films as their sip their drinks.
Just before we were offered a decanted plastic wine glass of 2010 Valdivieso Merlot at the bar, in advance of our 9pm showing of the frankly overrated Oscar winning movie The Artist (would have worked better as a short film; my guest actually fell asleep during), we concluded that the six bars, pubs and restaurants listed below were the best bars, pubs and restaurants in London for simultaneous movie appreciation and stress-relieving glasses of wine.

Brasserie Max
This West End restaurant sits in the impressive Covent Garden Hotel which is also home to a state-of-the-art cinema with space for 47 movie lovers. Movies vary from week to week, from classics to recent releases. Note that although alcohol is permitted in the cinema, the hotel does ask that hot drinks and red wine are excluded. Save the expensive carpet, and all that. Champagne, however, is actively encouraged, which is handy because this year you can treat your darling Mum to a 4-course lunch in the restaurant on Mother’s Day with a glass of Moet and Chandon Rose Champagne thrown in for only £40. You can book this offer by using the handy booking widgety thingiemabob below. Alternatively, you can book your Mum afternoon tea or a 2-course dinner with a glass of wine AND the movie for £35. Upcoming movie to look out for: Mother’s Day special - W.E. directed by Madonna.

Filthy McNasty’s
It’s Monday, what else are you going to do but watch crap TV? Cinema club, that’s what. This north London bar’s rear room becomes a weekly cinema, in which free popcorn and 2-4-1 stone baked pizzas are served. Upcoming movie to look out for: Jim Jarmusch double bill of Down by Law and Ghost Dog (1am finish, on a school night; oooh, naughty)

The Exhibit
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays this multifarious beast is not only a bar, not only a diner restaurant, not only a sun-drenched beer garden, and not only a honeypot for legions of hot young things; it’s also a cosy 24-seater cinema. The homeliness of this bar-cinema comes courtesy of leather love sofas. Plus, it’s OK to carry a glass of wine into the film with you. Normally, movie tickets are 7 quid a pop but I’d recommend indulging in the ‘dinner and movie’ combo for £15.95. Burger, fries movie, WITH dessert. Bargain! Upcoming movie to look out for: Brad Pitt in Moneyball.

The Water Poet
Known for its pool tables, fantastic beer garden, and fashionable east London crowd, this pub also provides a fitting venue for the The Underground Picturehouse which comes replete with large screen, HD projector, Dolby surround sound, comfy sofas, and the kind of refreshments any decent East End boozer should supply. Plus, it’s only a fiver for each ticket! Upcoming movie to look out for: 2011’s Irish comedy The Guard starring Brendan Gleeson.

Roxy Bar and Screen
This is the Daddy in London’s dual bar-cinema stakes. If you’ve yet to visit, clear the calendar right this minute. A night spent in this bar is like a scene from a movie itself: all darkness, heavy drapes, brooding shadows, and an expectant air drifting around with the smell of smoked paprika and chilli-roasted belly of pork served with celeriac puree, garlic green beans and jus. Cosy couches, antique tables and booths create what is ostensibly an auditorium and at the long, modern concrete-set bar you’ll find libations like Goose Green IPA from America, Santa Puerta Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, and imaginatively titled Tequila Mocking Bird cocktails. The schedule is enticingly varied, with many performances being preceded by QandA sessions with film producers, screenwriters and occasionally actors. Sports fans will also want to keep tabs of the Six Nations rugby, premiership football and Formula 1 action. Upcoming movie to look out for: My Week With Marilyn starring Michelle Williams

Whirled Cinema
Not technically a bar, as the name might suggest, but the concept is worth sharing anyway, especially as the bar is actually in the cinema. Basically, this is a small 60-seat members’ cinema in Loughborough Junction with an annual membership of only £45. What do you get for your £45? Well, you get a range of world and art-house film screenings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, plus the odd theatre, music or literary night. You can watch as many films as you want throughout the year and you can even bring a guest, absolutely free. Set in on an old railway arch, this digital cinema also houses a bar serving wines, beers, cocktails and Firezza Pizzas, and film lovers are encouraged to hang out after each movie for a chat, maybe on the outdoor balcony. If that isn’t worth £45 a year, I don’t know what it. Upcoming movie to look out for: Gus Van Sant’s Restless

Monday, 5 March 2012

Choosing The Best Bar In London For Your Birthday Bash? Ignore Everyone!

By Claire Williams.

Everyone knows how it feels to plan a birthday party. Planning any party is stressful - making sure that your best mate’s ex-boyfriend doesn’t turn up; making sure your best mate’s ex-boyfriends best mate doesn’t turn up; making sure everyone who does eventually get invited actually likes each other – so when it’s your actual birthday celebrations you’re trying to organise it usually becomes apparent that the easy (hell, the only) way out is to head for a quiet drink down the local boozer with only your Nan for company, drowning your one-year-older sorrows in a pint of cheap wine and eating packet after packet of cheese and onion crisps.

This bail-out has unfortunately happened too often to me over the years. Gone are the days when my long-suffering Mum took care of all the party arrangements: invitations to every person in the class were sent out nice and early (and all the kids would turn up whether they liked you or not, dragged by fed up mum’s that were only interested in quaffing wine with other mothers that could sympathise about piles of washing and constant temper tantrums that comes part and parcel with rearing children); birthday cakes would come awash with candles, as if sent by angels above; everyone would leave with a party bag and a sticky grin, souped up on all manner of e-numbers.

Nowadays I must plan my own parties, and whereas for the past five years I have hidden away, only popping out for a swifty in the local with a few close mates, this year I decided to do something a bit special, for no real reason other than I would be celebrating entering the wrong side of the twenties. Shudder.

Each and every person I invited to my party had different requirements: my best mate wanted it to be relatively local, because her Christian Laboutins wouldn’t travel well in the predicted foot of snow that was going to thunder down on London that evening; my boyfriend wanted grub, and good grub, not just pub grub; my best mate’s boyfriend needed it to be relatively cheap, as splurging lots of money on a party when holding down a self-employed job would be impossible; and I have to be honest, I just wanted everyone to stop making stupid requests and just enjoy themselves.

Ideas were thrown about the table:

The Foundation: a trendy, funky bar in the middle of Covent Garden, that promised great cocktails and friendly staff, was quickly declined by my friends because of the time it would take to get there.

Similarly, interest was shown and then dismissed with Gem, a cocktail bar between Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, because of where it was, and the restaurant Cats in Finsbury Park was thrown out of discussions because it wasn’t lively enough.

Just what was a girl to do? Decide on a place that offered both food and drink and don’t consult anyone else. Text message invitations were swiftly sent out and feet were thoroughly stamped down.
And so it was we found ourselves at The Sugar Lounge in Finsbury Park, a short trot from the train station (and for that we were eternally thankful as the skies did decide to open and spew thick snow over the whole of the country): a restaurant that served Turkish food, mojitos by the shed load, and didn’t oppose our drunken wailing and dancing atop tables. Everyone was happy – the decision was taken out of arguing hands – and I left one-year older and not a whole lot wiser, leaving snow angels in my wake. Thanks, The Sugar Lounge.

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Girl's Guide To Sports Bars In London

I don’t like pubs that show sport. I go to a pub to relax and drink with friends, and a jumbo-sized screen nagging away in my eye line does nothing to help these fundamentals. Factor in the typical drabness (money’s gone on a Sky package and projector), noise that drowns out chat, and a testosterone-y atmosphere that makes us non-fans feel utterly peripheral, and you’ve got the pub ingredients to have me out the door before I finish my first glass.

Which is fine, the experience they’re touting isn’t meant for me, but are all pubs and bars that show sport the same?

You see, I would quite like to watch some of this year’s Euro 2012 football tournament or London’s summer Olympics in a pub. International tournaments are fun; fun to get all wrapped up in for a fortnight; even more fun to watch in big groups with wine in hand. I think lots of women who aren’t regular sports-followers feel the same, so where should we go watch the games this summer?

I put the question to my office at Hostelbookers and the recommendations came in thick and fast. Gals (and football-indifferent fellas), this is your new summer drinking bible…

Bar Kick, Old Street
Bar Kick turns your idea of what a sports bar is like on its head. A sister to Exmouth Market’s smart Café Kick, inside it’s all flags and Formica tables, cured meat platters and foosball battles. Come the Olympics, this place should emanate good vibes like a solar panel converting sunshine.

The Lion, Stoke Newington
Fairy lights, cocktails, quiz nights, live music, foosball, pool and a beer garden; you couldn’t accuse The Lion pub in north London of being a one-trick, er, lion. Watch Euro matches or the Games on the big screen while tucking in to dinner from one of Church Street’s fine takeaway establishments (they don’t mind you bringing it in).

The Crabtree, Hammersmith
Ooh, get a load of that sparkling Thames! This riverside pub’s beer garden simply heaves with people when the sun pops his head out. Food-wise, it’s gastro fine dining and BBQs in summer, and there’s a lovely long wine list chalked up over the bar. You wouldn’t just want to go here to just watch the game; you’d go to make it your new favourite local.

Corbet Place, Brick Lane
Part of a complex of trendy bars and restaurants at Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery, Corbet Place lets you watch big-match footie away from yer typical lad territory. Inside there are exposed brick walls and antler-adorned chandeliers, but it’s the courtyard bar that calls for sunny pints at half-time.

The Water Poet, Liverpool Street
Three bars across seven rooms?! A beer garden, highly-praised roasts and family-friendly vibes help the Water Poet balance local boozer sensibilities with its mega-pub space. The size actually enhances the atmosphere, making big match days an event unto themselves.

The Faltering Fullback, Finsbury Park
Tucked away in Finsbury Park, the ivy-covered Faltering Fullback offers big-screen games in ornate bar rooms and Secret Garden-style chilling on its first floor terrace. This wraparound maze of alcove seating makes sure you stay for sun-worshipping after the game.

Bar Italia, Soho
Are you Italian? OK, great, you’ll fit right in. Are you not Italian? Hmm, you’re still allowed in, but do behave yourself. Like a little slice of Rome transplanted to Soho, Bar Italia serves the best coffee in London and has a perch-up bar with chilled beer bottles behind the counter. It gets loud and passionate during screened footie, but never laddishly lairy. Perfect.

Isabel Clift is a London-based travel writer. She edits the blog at HostelBookers.com, who specialise in budget travel advice, hostels and cheap hotels in London.