Friday, 22 February 2013

Naked Flesh & Bikinis Do Not A New ‘New’ City Bar Make

We like new bars, not old values, by Emily Retter

The latest bar to grace the capital’s Square Mile is a disarming combination of old versus new. Disarming, because while I’m always in favour juxtaposing the historic and contemporary – something The Vaults at Voltaire, owned by Blackfriars Hotels Limited achieves brilliantly - and I’m always complimentary of a historic feature treated with innovation – again, something The Vaults at Voltaire can truly boast of – I am not particularly in favour of old-fashioned attitudes, and in this spanking new bar I’m afraid they were lurking.

Let me start with the good.

The Vaults at Voltaire have been built within four weeks, in a Grade II listed building - once a prison and then a bank - on the site where Henry VIII’s Bridewell Palace once stood. History, therefore, runs through its veins; even though those veins are covered in paint so modern you can smell it.

Cleverly, the designers took the principle features of this space – the stone vaults which once stored the bank’s assets (think Goblin gold) – and transformed them into intimate, private drinking and dining dens for guests.

Decked with velvet and fur, they possess a Medieval vibe; and the iron gates which enclose them lend an enjoyably spooky air. Think Tower of London.

The Vaults at Voltaire run the length of the contemporary champagne bar which they adjoin - stocked to bursting with Pommery champagne - separated from it only by a narrow covered walkway christened ‘the cigar terrace’, where guests are allowed to smoke in peace, avoiding the cold (there are heaters aplenty), and the rain, feeling smugly as if they are still indoors and just ever so slightly in the 1930s.

I’ve got to hand it to The Vaults at Voltaire. The three long, thin, parallel spaces each offer something different yet complimentary, making for an unusual venue for champers, cocktails and tapas-style dishes.

But now the bad.

As old and new jostle cheerfully and intelligently in terms of space and design, the vibe at the launch party was most definitely plain old old.

In a giant champagne glass at the far end, a bikini-clad blonde writhed uncomfortably as entertainment, occasionally pouring bubbles over herself and rubbing them seductively into her chest. Dita Von Teese got away with it once; the effect here was tacky.

Another, in a cut-out swimsuit, stood at the door of one of the vaults dominatrix-style, looking torn between smiling seductively at her private guests and legging it down the cigar terrace and disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Later, sprayed gold, another bikini-clad beauty wriggled on a podium. Yes, I spied two topless waiters with fur slung across their chests, but they didn’t stick around. The air here was most definitely old boy’s club – and as most of the guests were men, suited and booted and in the main, unfortunately, short and balding; I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Yet it did. I didn’t want my stereotype of after work drinks in The City confirmed. The Vaults at Voltaire, you’ve got an interesting venue and one I’d return to; I just hope you consign the old school atmosphere of launch night to the history books.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Fashionable London Breweries

A brief look at some of London’s best brewers, by Jon Falcone

I was recently invited to the Old Meantime Brewery in Greenwich to get a taste for their new seasonal ale, the Bohemian Dark. Following a tour of the brewery with brewer extraordinaire Rod Jones (pictured right) - I had no idea brewing was such a science - a gang of eager taste-adventurers akin to the Bash Street Kids assembled to quaff down the new offering.

Made from Czech yeast and roasted malts, this is a dark, rich brew that has lots of low-end flavours, liquorice, coffee, and chocolate but it also has that lovely, smooth Pale Ale creaminess. Meantime is a relatively young brewery started in 2000 but has grown rapidly of late. Its ales and lagers are now available in over 400 outlets and some major supermarkets.

It’s great to see a local brewery becoming a national hero for beer lovers. The South London brewer offers some rather designer seasonal ales in bottled form as well that would easily challenge wine for depth and range of flavour and would accordingly make great gifts in their rather fancy fluted bottles.

With this in mind, and in tribute to London Fashion Week, here’s a top selection of other fashionable London brewers whose wares are certainly worth a sample.

Fullers – ‘London Pride’ (4.1% - available at The Iron Duke pub in Mayfair)
The grand dame of London brewing, Fuller Smith & Turner (as it is known today) started in 1845, though the company’s first incantation started in 1829. Brewing out of Twickenham for over 350 years, Fullers has not only helped make Twickenham the ale capital of the city but has brought some well loved London ales such as London Pride, ESB and Seafarers Ale.
So why not enjoy a London Pride in the fashion Mecca of Bond Street and Mayfair? The Iron Duke pub on Avery Road (just opposite and down a bit from a Paul Smith sale shop) is a thin but long L-shaped pub that is adorned with old photos and offers a rich, creamy, pint of London Pride that always gives a surprisingly satisfying fullness for a 4.1% ale. Having twice won CAMRA’s Champion Best Bitter, London Pride has become as much a brand as a drink – so much so that even bawdy Top Gear chap James May has been associated with the noble drink on an advertising campaign. Ha’penny Brewing Company Limited, ‘London Stone’ Best Bitter (4.5% - available at the Marquis of Cornwallis, 31 Marchmont Street - Bloomsbury)
A comparative baby in the brewing world and run by the duo of Chris Penny and Gavin Happe, this brewery started in 2003 and is only now beginning to look at providing beers outside of kegs for trade. Their brews are full of flavour that are turned out of their Cuckoo Hall Brewery which lies on the border between East London and Essex.

A step inside the Marquis of Cornwallis pub for a drop of the London Stone provides a seriously smooth red bitter that uses three English hops to match a malty taste with a slight zest. This is malleable ale that can comfort when huddled against cold weather and is also seriously refreshing on a pleasant day; a fine drop from a developing new brewery.

Twickenham Fine Ales, ‘Summer Down Under’ (3.9% - available at The White Swan pub, Riverside - Twickenham)
Head over to the rural chic of West London, more specifically Twickenham (or Twix, to locals) and you’ll find all manner of cosy pubs offering some fine sups from the Twickenham Fine Ale brewery. The White Swan pub on the river is particularly picturesque, on the riverbank (avoid on days after international rugby matches though – unless you like seeing burly men pull each other’s pants down and then vomit, usually whilst singing).

Another baby brewery opened in 2004 and a three man operation (Steve Brown is the brewery manager, Tom Madeiros the brewer and Anthony Pringle the drayman) the Chiswick Fine Ale company sit just north of Chiswick Green, producing 100 firkins per week of cask-conditioned ales with no adjuncts included.

The Summer Down Under is occasional ale made from Australian and New Zealand hops that provides a light, thinner ale with a bright golden colour and crisp taste that goes down very easily. It’s a perfect summer ale.

Iron Duke image courtesy of Flickr user mike_smith's_flickr.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Nibblr, The Social Dining Network

Good food + good company = good times, according to Nina Koo-Seen-Lin

When it comes to networking, I am happy to admit that I am what people would call a joiner, but not an avid participator. I have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, MeetUp, Creative-Bloc, LinkedIn, Blogspot, Pinterest and Tumblr.

As you can see, I have a lot of accounts to look after. So I ask myself the question – do I really need to sign up for another social networking site? The answer is yes, I do, if the social networking site I’m thinking of joining is nibblr.

nibblr is a London-based social dining network for the real foodies and socialites out there roaming the capital. Whether you're a foodie or a networker, new in town or just passing through, or simply looking to meet new friends, nibblr is the social dining network that brings you together with great company over tasty food.

Founder, Neil Rafferty believes that food is the solution to getting people together to socialise more. “Some of my best experience happened over food,” he says. He explains nibblr’s aim in a simple yet effective sum:

                                   good food + good company = good times

Indeed, good times did occur throughout the night on a cold, wet and windy February evening at Le Chinois in Millenium Hotel, Knightsbridge. It was the week of 2013’s Chinese New Year so the restaurant and bar setting seemed apt. I was already in cheerful spirits having just waved back at a Harrods window display of golden lucky cats beckoning rich shoppers in with their right paws.

On arriving, and seeing a crowd of people already gathered around the bar, I started to worry. Would I be able to slot in to a group and join their animated, champagne-bubble induced chatter? Or would I make a Bridget Jones gaff and laugh like a lunatic until confirming I was one when asking for directions to the loo during a debate on the definition of a novella? Thankfully, the Gods bestowed the former rather than the latter.

With a glass of bubbly in one hand and a black pepper prawn cracker in the other, I engaged in an animated conversation with fellow foodie folk.

The amazing company was graced with amazing food:
To start, the table shared half a Peking duck with pancakes, sliced spring onions and cucumber. Shredded Peking duck will test any friendship, old and new. If you can share graciously and get as much satisfaction seeing someone enjoy a duck pancake roll as eating one yourself, you’re friendship will surely last.
The duck (or empty plate where a duck once rested) was followed by a lobster and spinach broth. Yes, it looked like a bowl full of something I coughed up during the winter flu of 2002, but oh wow, did it taste gooood!
Choices for mains were pan-fried rack of lamb with honey and black pepper sauce, steamed fillet of sea bass with ginger and spring onions, or braised mixed mushrooms with pak choi. I opted for the sea bass with a lotus leaf packed with rice. I never knew the true meaning of melt-in-your-mouth meat until that night. I will forever remember it.
Dessert was a vanilla crème brûlée. I always try to imitate the cute and whimsical Amelie in the French film. I don’t think I pulled it off but by then my mind was muddled from the generous top-ups of white wine served throughout the meal.
Joining nibblr is a simple process. The first thing to do is sign up, free of charge, either manually, or via Facebook, Twitter etc. Create your profile (you’re encouraged to provide a photo of yourself). “You’d be amazed how some people are reluctant to provide a picture of themselves when they first sign up,” says Neil. “They prefer to upload an icon. Once they’ve enjoyed the nibblr experience they then feel quite comfortable to put their pictures up.”

Once you sign up you can browse the site, look at the city you live in and look at the food and venues on offer. They host about three events a week. You can see who’s signed up for what meals and decide whether you’d like to join in too. You buy the meal (average price is £25-£35 a head – that doesn’t include drinks), sit back for your confirmation, put the date in your diary and turn up on the night. All you’ve got to do is eat, drink and socialise.

Neil and the nibblr team plan to roll the concept out to nine other cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol over the next 12 months. I will be signing myself up to nibblr. Good food + good company is a winning sum for me. Perhaps I’ll see you soon.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Australia Day in London: It’s Got To Be South, Mate

A quiet evening spent in the company of a couple of Aussies, by Sophie Marie Atkinson.

Invasion Day. That’s what the Indigenous people of Oz call Australia Day. I can only assume that they named it so because they witnessed my experiences in Clapham on January 26th 2013.

Disclaimer time: I’m by no means an Australian-hater. Au contraire. I live with one; in the marital sense. My long-term boyfriend is a through-and-through Aussie. A Perth boy. He surfs. He plays Aussie Rules. He wears ‘bathers’. He visits the ‘bottle-o’ (I have no idea either). His favourite meals are in fact all cooked on a BBQ. Cut him open and he’d bleed Fosters and Vegemite.

And yet, when I was tasked with visiting Clapham South’s late-night bar Gigalum on the Great Day, he refused to join me.

“Clapham? On Australia Day? Are you taking the piss, Shelia?! Ya flamin’ galah!”

[I may be paraphrasing slightly…]
So the duty fell to a wonderful friend in whose debt I shall forever remain (her words, not mine). And, after a few glasses of wine for Dutch courage, it was into the lion’s den we went…

I imagine Gigalum is busy enough on a normal Saturday night; but when we arrived at 7:30pm on Australia Day, it was already one-in-one-out. Gulp. Despite this, we squeezed in and we were offered a selection of ‘grog’ (could a nation have come up with a less appealing name for booze?). So what was left for us to do but give it a whirl.
Despite the place being positively teeming with punters – the bar area inside was mobbed with almost as many people taking advantage of the beer garden and patio heaters outside despite the rain and 0-degree temperature – the staff could not have been more pleasant and helpful. They kept us fed and watered and even, somehow, provided us with table service; bringing us with a selection of pretty tasty snacks including satay and sweet potato fries. Although, they forgot to bring us cutlery, which made eating the tasty chorizo in red wine sauce an interesting challenge…
The atmosphere in the aforementioned bar area was hotter than the Australian outback. House music thumped from a DJ booth (we didn’t hear ‘Land Down Under’ once!) and revelers, at least 20% of which were wearing Australian flags as capes and had said flag painted on their cheeks, mingled and swayed, all in mightily good spirits. If not a little sweaty…

I’ll be honest, I’d expected bedlam, but was pleasantly surprised with what I found. Yes, it was rammed; but you know what? We got into the swing of things and before we knew it, we were in the heat of it all ourselves: schooner of sauv blanc in one hand, inflatable kangaroo in the other (the result the next day being that my mouth was drier than a dead dingo’s donger).

So next year, come Invasion, I mean Australia, Day, I’ll be donning my thongs, grabbing myself a tinny, some face paints and heading down to good ol’ Clapham. Leaving my preconceptions behind. But not my inflatable kangaroo.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

My Top 3 Greek Restaurants In London

London’s hidden Greek secrets by Fergus Price.

Back in the day, the ancient Greeks stole a march on everyone else in the civilised world: in between inventing the Olympics, democracy and Western thought as we know it, Socrates and his ilk proved to be a dab hand in the kitchen too, masterfully blending flavours from all over the world.

Now, a select few restaurants around London are determined to drag their native land back to the forefront of world cuisine and, after attending an event at the first restaurant below, I decided to compile and share a rough and ready list of three authentic Greek eateries that know their Spanacopitta from their Souvlaki…
The Real Greek - 56 Paddington Street, Paddington, London W1
This intimate establishment in Marylebone - one of six around London – is devoted to bringing the best of Greek cuisine to London, and recently teamed up with Tonia Buxton, presenter of “My Greek Kitchen” (pictured above), to craft a selection of seasonal dishes including sumptuous Beef Stifado and pan-seared prawns with feta.

Andy’s Taverna - 81 Bayham Street, Camden, London NW1
A forty-year-old fixture on the backstreets of Camden that imports most of its produce straight from the Greek island of Aegina, this humble restaurant has demonstrated remarkable staying power thanks to a mouth-watering and affordable menu (try the grilled sea bass, at £13.95), and a wonderfully friendly atmosphere.

Retsina – 48 Belsize Lane, Belsize Park, London NW3
This smart, picturesque venue in Belsize Park specialises in classic Greek dishes such as souvlaki, meze and grilled octopus, with an attention to detail and authenticity unmatched anywhere in London. Close your eyes, sit next to a heater and you’ll be in Corfu in no time!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Sober In London: Ignoring The Signs Of Booze

Even when you try your hardest to stay away from booze, London still wont let you forget, by Christian Rose-Day

I am moving into another week of sobriety and even closer to my final destination: the London Marathon. As mentioned previously, I am attempting to stay booze-free from January 1st until the afternoon of April 21st in order to make marathon training that much easier, which, to be fair, is confirmed to be true: running with a clear head is easier.

What isn’t so easy, though, is the staying deputy editor of an reputable online bar and restaurant guide to London as a teetotaler. As you might expect, a certain amount of invitations for new bar launches and one-off pop-up tastings appear in my inbox each day, leading me to spend fair too long in the men’s toilets staring into the mirror, practicing my best “I’ll just have a cup of tea, thanks” response without allowing my face to contort with bitterness.

You’d think it might be easier on the weekends; when I’m not at work; when I can escape the alcoholic tractor beams that are fired at me during the working week. Then again, London has different plans for me.

Last Sunday I endured a barrage of signs which had the devil on my shoulder giggling with glee. 
First, there was my steaming cup of non-alcoholic, hot morning coffee, brought to me with love and genuine tenderness, in THIS mug.....
OK London; it was only 10am and you’d already got me thinking about wine. As it was a Sunday, I’ll let you have that one. 1-0 to you.

Once dressed, breakfasted and ready to face the sober world, myself and my companion ventured south from Tufnell Park via a convoluted series of unfortunate ‘rail replacement’ bus journeys that tested our stomachs, our patience, and our resolve. Getting from A to B was not so easy when X, Y and Z were involved.

We stepped off the bus at Euston station and had walked not even ten paces when a 3-foot high A-board jumped out from behind The Euston Tap bar and mugged me with the following comment.....
Yes, yes, OK London, I hear you. I was asking the right questions and ‘BEER’, it seems, was the answer to them all. Fine, 2-0 to you, London.

Yet, despite the alluring qualities of one of London’s finest collection of beers, I remained steadfast in my sobriety and ventured on towards the tube. Screw you London, you’re not going to get me today; I thought.

We had set out on this epic journey towards Westminster Bridge and the London Eye because we had a review booking at The Library Lounge Afternoon Tea on the South Bank. Yes, it has this view.
Afternoon tea; nothing remotely sinister or deviant about that great British pastime. I would surely be safe in the soporific environs of the Library at the Marriott Hotel, sipping on Lady Grey tea and nibbling at miniature cakes and scones. Surely the signs of booze couldn’t get me here.

“Just to let you know,” the friendly waiter let us know, “that we are currently offering UNLIMITED COMPLIMENTARY CHAMPAGNE to all customers taking Afternoon Tea with us.”

My companion’s eyes lit up as though she had just won a small fortune on a scratch card.

I, on the other hand, screwed my face up with bitterness and replied, “I’ll just have a cup of tea, thanks.”

If, unlike me, you’re able to drink at the moment, I’d advise booking the fabulous Library Lounge Afternoon Tea using the reservations calendar below and when you arrive just ask the staff if they’re still doing the UNLIMITED COMPLIMENTARY CHAMPAGNE deal. You might just get lucky.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Darling, It’s London Fashion Week; Let’s Drink Cocktails In Mayfair

When is a shoe not a shoe? When it’s a premium cocktail, of course. 6 sartorially slanted cocktails created by the May Fair Hotel and discovered by Christian Rose-Day.

I didn’t realise London Fashion Week needed an official hotel? But now I know: it’s The May Fair Hotel in Mayfair; obviously.

It seems apposite, though, that The May Fair bar in the May Fair Hotel would use the opportunity to show off its skills and create a cocktail list that specifically celebrates the occasion. Style can reveal itself in liquid as well as solid fabric form, after all.

Taking world famous shoe designers - such as Nicholas Kirkwood BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund winner for 2013, Charlotte Olympia Dellal or Manolo Blahnik CBE - as the inspiration, the May Fair Hotel has launched this new collection of cocktails around the theme of iconic footwear. As a renowned playground for London’s most stylish fashionistas, the May Fair Hotel is clearly translating its passion for fashion into chic cocktails as well.

The team of expert mixologists at The May Fair bar have created six shoe-related cocktails for London Fashion Week, each showcasing different styles, personalities and ingredients in an effort to please every taste (never easy).

The May Fair cocktail collection for London Fashion Week will be available from 13th to 28th February exclusively at The May Fair bar for £14 per cocktail.

The Mary Jane
Creme de peche and creme de framboise shaken with peach infused vodka
The Peep Toe
Hennessy cognac shaken with creme de mur with citrus tones over ice
The Velvet Mule
Honey sweetened rum shaken with lime and fresh ginger and topped with ginger beer
The Strappy Sandal
Hendricks gin shaken with equal measures of dry and sweet vermouth with a hint of orange citrus
The Red Stiletto
Frozen raspberry vodka laced with cherry liqueur and charged with champagne
The Classic Court
Bison grass vodka and apple liqueur shaken with fresh crushed apple
Book a table at the bar using the reservations calendar below.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The 2-Meat Main: A Valentine’s Day Dinner For The Indecisive Carnivore

Why settle for chicken OR beef this Valentine’s Day when you can have both at once? By Christian Rose-Day.

Last night I joined a legion of London food and restaurant bloggers at an outreach event at The Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone. We were all there to sample the menu at The Brasserie, which, if you’ve never been, is a satisfying cross between an airport lounge and the Hayward Gallery, such is its quirky use of light, concrete, space and acoustics.

The menu for the evening ran a little something like this:

Pear, Roquefort and chicory salad with candied walnuts, port and walnut dressing - medium OK, average start.

Then, Jerusalem artichoke, caramelised shallot and parsley risotto with seared scallops, orange and red wine fish jus - rich and gloopy, just how I like it. Getting better.

Roast fillet of beef, chicken & truffle mousse, confit potato, wild mushroom and purple sprouting broccoli fricassee and a bitter sweet port wine jus - although it looked like a brain, it tasted superb. The 2-meat main worked really well. A sizeable appetite was needed to tackle this beast. Top notch.

Bramble plate of blackcurrant bavarois with blackcurrant jelly, blackberry sorbet, sugared pistachio nut and berry fool - a beautifully balanced dessert containing various flavours and textures. Ideal ending.
Overall, I was quite surprised by the quality of the food on offer.

What I also found surprising was the Valentine’s Day dinner deal that The Brasserie is currently promoting. Whilst I was washing my hands in the facilities I noticed a copy of the Valentine’s Day menu on the wall which included the huge, 2-meat main as an option as well as a glass of Champagne cocktail on arrival. This 4-course Valentine’s Day offer was only £39 per person. Shocking!

Having sampled the 2-meat main myself, I can safely say that THAT is an offer you don’t want to miss.