Saturday, 6 December 2008

HOT: Daylesford Organic, 208-212 Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill W11 2RH

The Daylesford Organic empire continues its sweep through the most affluent areas of London - landing recently in Notting Hill. In fact, I almost missed its shopfront, as it sits arrogantly next to the very similar-looking 202 cafe (which is presumably aiming for very similar clientele). At 10am on crispy-cold Saturday the new kid on the block was already bustling with perfectly coiffed brunchers, so we were moved to the downstairs Raw Bar (although no raw food is served before 6pm). If you're not inspired to eat well here, as you're surrounded by cookbooks, jars of gourmet goodness and thin beautiful people, then I'm afraid I can't help you. Notting Hill residents Gourmet Chick and her regular consort James each had the eggs benedict and wild mushrooms on toast while I went for the full carb diet of potted shrimps with heaps of extra sourdough bread (free!) and a nicely chilled carob and nut milk smoothie.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

HOT: The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill W11 2AQ

Twas only appropriate that a Tranzie send-off/Brendan's early 30th birthday present should have a gastronomic flavour to it. Hence, our appointment with the one-Michelin starred Ledbury, helmed by the friendly sous chef Nathan (chef Brett was on holiday). My meal started with half a dozen deliciously soft bread rolls, scoffed down due to intense hunger and work-related anxiety. We then progressed through a three course meal interspersed with random little inter-course treats. My starter was an imaginative 'risotto' of finely diced squid and my suckling pig was perfectly crisp. My dessert souffle was preceded by a pre-dessert (I love the concept of a completely superfluous course) and then BOOM! Out came a steady stream of souffle, mini creme brulees, gingerbread cannelloni...then another souffle, a chocolate pave and a 'Happy Birthday' decorated brown sugar tart. In the face of seven (!) desserts and delicate petit fours as well, I instantly regretted my six bread rolls and broke out into a fat sweat. At the end of the eating, my desperate bid for a digestive aid meant a call for peppermint tea, and then, like the perfect Chinese restaurant, our meal was capped off with a bowl of cheerful mandarins.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

HOT: Guest Night, Gray's Inn, High Holborn

An ancient town like London contains many opportunities for a history buff to delve into historic buildings and arcane traditions - but not many people get to dine in one of the Inns of Court. Happily, my friend Duncan is a barrister at Gray's Inn, and throughout the year the Inn opens up their historic dining room so that mere plebians can eat as guests of the members. The night began with Duncan ("Brooks"), Suzanne ("Mrs Brooks") and myself ("Miss Kwok") trooping into the candlelit dark wood carved interior, under the shadow of a screen from the Spanish Armada, and dressed in a gown (barristers) and 'corresponding dark formality' (ladies). Once we'd seated ourselves on one of the long benches, we dived into the brow-furrowing 5 page dining rule book, extracted from the 53-page Gray's Inn Rule Book. Its contents, inter alia: confusing toasting rituals between members of the 'upper mess' and 'lower mess'; the serving of common dishes in order of seniority; and a bizarre standoff where you're not allowed to leave the Hall between grace and the final toast of 'domus', even if you're busting for the loo. The night was capped off by the now-outlawed 'challenges' between the Madame Senior to the Madame Junior and other dobbed-in members, involving debates conducted in dulcet plummy English and singing of 'Big Spender' to the whole Hall whilst standing on a chair. Good fun was had by all but we crept out before we could be accused of opening the port before the allotted time.

Monday, 24 November 2008

HOT: Ferran Adria, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank

"Food is a language, the most universal of all." So began the theme of Ferran Adria's discussion on the role of food as part of culture, tradition and history. His famed restaurant, El Bulli, receives two million requests for 8000 seats a year (I was sadly one of the rejected this year), and while people may not necessarily agree that it is the best restaurant in the world, it is definitely the most influential. In his kitchen/labroratory (though he decries the science behind many of his creations) he has developed a new language in haute cuisine- foams, jellies, alcohol sorbets, deconstructionism and the use of liquid nitrogen. His new 'alphabet' has allowed him to construct new 'phrases', then new 'sentences', until he revealed a mouth-watering video presentation his artfully designed and gasp-inducing dishes.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

HOT: Meals at The School of Life, Konstam Restaurant, 2 Acton Street Kings Cross WC1X 9NA

When you first meet someone, how do your conversations normally start? A moan about the weather? Finding out about their job? Where they live? If they're cute, sneakily deciphering their relationship status?

The School of Life aims to get people talking about the things that really matter in life - love, play, work, politics and family. At their conversation dinners (held at the chic, Heatherwick studios-designed Konstam restaurant), your three course meal includes a conversation menu - so along with your roast pork and treacle pudding you debate aphorisms and discuss intriguing questions like:

What do you think makes families happy?
Who have you encountered in your life who has really stood out and why?
If you could give one piece of advice to yourself in the past, what would it be and when would you have received it?

Even though you were talking with a group of strangers, it was only when we had finished running through the menu, revealing deeply personal confessions and anecdotes over 3 hours, that the conversation faltered. I was confronted by the banality of my everyday conversation as we fumbled around awkward silences that petered into sporadic and unfulfilling discussions about the tube, the credit crunch and Wales, unless we bid our hurried goodbyes.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

HOT: Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street London

It's been my secret ambition for a while now to drag my friend Rebekah Leong to eat at Leong's Legend, if only so I could get her to pose for a photo. Even if you don't have a friend called Leong, this classy, wood-panelled Taiwanese restaurant is definitely a find in an otherwise hit-or-miss Chinatown. I'm not sure what made the cuisine particularly Taiwanese (and the waitstaff spoke Cantonese) but we stuffed ourselves with dumplings spurting with fragrant broth, sticky rice with Chinese mushrooms, super-spicy kun pao prawns, an old favourite 'ants crawling up a tree', a large creamy pancake filled with succulent oysters and tender stir-fried garlic shoots. The bill was unbelievably good value at £14 each, and we definitely could have done with fewer dishes. I'm really looking forward to going again.

HOT: La Clique, London Hippodrome, 10-14 Cranbourne Street WC2H 7AJ

I hate burlesque. However, Jen's constant raving about La Clique, plus their sell-out shows all around the world, made me think I should at least give this circus/cabaret/vaudeville/burlesque show a chance. The excited atmosphere inside the Hippodrome got me off to a good start, and I was thoroughly entertained for the next two hours with the gasp-inducing feats of the two strongmen, the stressful contortions of the double-jointed Captain Frodo, the famous bathtub act and the beautiful Ukranian hoop spinner. One of the less successful acts was, you guessed it, the burlesque number involving full-frontal nudity and a magic trick, and I really don't enjoy watching people swallowing random stuff like scissors and table legs. A fun night out on a chilly Sunday night - but I still maintain I hate burlesque.

PS The friendly usher told me that the posh seats (where you get table service) in fact get the worst views because they're next to and not facing the piano. So save your money and use your legs to get your own drinks.

HOT: The Photographers' Gallery, Great Newport Street WC2H 7HY

One of the things I love about London is that there is always something unexpected around the corner. En route to kill some time in Covent Garden, like Alice in Wonderland I stumbled on a party in The Photographers' Gallery. To celebrate the end of thirty-seven years in Great Newport Street and a move to new premises, fashionable arty types and Joe Public (like me) mingled in the backroom cafe chomping on free sultana scones smothered in strawberry jam, under the shadow of black and white photographs of Soho strippers. At 5 o'clock it got even more bizarre, as a performance artist with pink hair, dressed in a kimono-style outfit with giant crinoline pockets, proceeded to recite blank verse about walls whilst hammering stilletos to a wall, spraypainting letters and stepping in and out of pink plastic shopping baskets.

HOT: Campaign For The Titians, National Gallery

Titian's Diana and Acteon and Diana and Callisto are considered the greatest paintings in the Bridgewater Collection, and now they're up for sale. The public campaign needs to raise £50 million to buy the first of these paintings (with an option to buy the second at the same price later) to preserve their public display. I wanted to have a greater understanding of the impact and significance of these paintings, so I joined a free talk with the Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, the Head of Education at the National Gallery and art historian/TV presenter Matthew Collings. The most interesting aspect of their discussion was the link made between the spontaneous work style of Titian and the 'painterly' approach of Abstract Expressionism as exemplified by Jackson Pollack, and when they explained to a crotchety member of the audience why it was worth spending £50 million on a bit of canvas and paint during a recession. The dynamic and brightly hued Diana and Acteon is on display with the National Gallery's Death of Acteon until 20 November - see it while you can and support the campaign.

HOT: Southbank Centre Shop, Festival Terrance, Southbank Centre, Belverdere Road SE1 8XX

With ten minutes before my lunch booking, I wandered into the Southbank Centre Shop - and promptly fell in love with the giggle-inducing Dumbo/Domoor mugs by Richard Hutten and the elegant Art Deco stylings of the award-winning Innermost Ghost Fantome Clock. Luckily the clock was so expensive that I requested a second opinion from Huy, who informed me that he'd bought the same clock (great minds think alike with great taste) at Heals for about £30 cheaper and with an extra 15% discount for Christmas.

HOT: The All-Seeing Eye (The Hardcore Techno Version), BFI Southbank Gallery, Southbank

The latest BFI Gallery commission comes from the team behind the quirky film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the artist Pierre Bismuth and director Michel Gondry. You enter a large white room dropped with some white marshmallow cushions in the centre, then sit to watch a spinning camera project a circling image of the same furnished apartment over and over again. Nothing much seems to happen - until you notice that with each rotation the pot plant's missing, and then the chair, and then a window, and then the floor. All this is happening while Eternal Sunshine is being shown on a TV in the apartment. The gradual erasure of the room's features and furnishings looks like the work of CGI, but in fact it was done in real time off-screen, which meant little munchkin people must have been frantically running around removing stuff while the dialogue of the film kept time. Intriguing.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

NOT: Cold War Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington

I was anticipating much more from the V&A's winter exhibition on the influence of the Cold War in design, film, art, architecture. For 2 hours I skimmed through the exhibition's piecemeal dip into various art forms, but I found that none of the exhibits explored any particular theme or idea sufficiently in depth to capture my attention. Some of the items were funky and unusual, but one single poster dealing with the Cultural Revolution? A couple of childish paintings? Some space suits? I don't think this is a must-see exhibition. The exhibition shop is cool though - you can buy a cardboard spaceship, an egg chair and my fun combo cutlery.

Friday, 14 November 2008

HOT: Piaf, Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand WC2R 0NH

When an actor is playing a real life person, it can often be hard to distinguish between a skillful imitation and when the actor is really getting into the skin of the other person. What makes the Donmar's production of Piaf so spectacular is the unnervingly convincing portrayal of the Little Sparrow by Elena Roger - a tiny Argentinian who doesn't speak French. I think she could have run the show solo - the flitting in and out of lovers, friends and colleagues all paled in comparison to her engrossing performance, which captured Piaf's firecracker spirit, creeping vulnerability and pain and above all her powerfully emotional singing, down to every sideways shoulder glance and distinctive nasal vibrato.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

HOT: Ivanov, Donmar West End, Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road WC2H 0DA

The first of Donmar's star-studded West End productions is a new version of Chekhov's classic Ivanov, written by Tom Stoppard and starring Kenneth Branagh. Firstly, Tom: For me the English drawing room 'old chap' inflexions really sat at odds with the obviously Russian setting of the drama, and Ivanov's particularly Russian brand of moroseness. Therefore, I would have preferred a straight-down-the-line translation of the original Chekhov text, but I think I'm in the minority. Secondly, Kenneth: His portrayal of Ivanov's spiralling despair was riveting and I was most impressed when he delivered his twisting monologues with such great clarity, believable passion and a finely-judged sense of light and shade. His consummate skill as an actor was further heightened in his scenes with the doctor, who was an irritating and over-played 'honest man' line-drawing.

NOT: Daylesford Organic mail order

Nov 9 to

Hi, I rang you to place an order on Wed 29 October - the order was for delivery on two items to my work address, and I had requested Friday 14 November as the delivery date.

I have just returned from a weekend away tonight to find that you have delivered the items on Friday 7 November to my home address and as a result the items have been sitting unpacked for 2-3 days.

Can you please confirm that the items in the cooler box (whole stuffed pheasant, brace of 2 pheasant and the salmon pate) are still safe to eat? I'm not sure how long they have been at room temperature. In addition, no cheddar cheese was delivered.

Thanks Joyce

*Phone call*

Nov 12 from

just to let you know we have sent out a replacment to you today

Nov 12 to

Do you mean that you have provided the replacement cheese or that you have provided a replacement of my whole order?

If you have provided a replacement of the cheese, is the rest of my order (meat and pate) still safe to eat given the chiller bag was no longer cold when I opened it?

If you have provided a replacement of the my whole order, should I throw out all the food that was delivered to me previously as it will be spoiled?

Can you please also confirm the delivery date and the address you have used.

Finally, this has been a very poor customer experience and I will not be ordering from Daylesford Organic again and will advise my friends against it. I sent an email 3 days ago about my incorrect order, then had to ring customer service to follow up and was expecting a call back which did not eventuate. I have now had to write another email to clarify what has happened with my order.

*Another phone call to 'customer service' again to clarify what was going on as no response. After that, to their credit, they wrote to say that they had redelivered my whole order, refunded the money and apologised for the inconvenience. But let's see whether my replacement order actually arrives on the right date, at the right place with the right items. BE WARNED.

...The farce continues!

Nov 25 to

Hi Sarah

I've just found out that TWO replacement packages were sent to my work address, one on the 13 November and one on the 14 November. I picked up the one on 14 November from the work mail room as that was the package I was expecting - I thought you only delivered on Fridays? In the meantime, the package delivered on the 13 November was not picked up (as I wasn't expecting it) and has consequently been rotting in my work mail room for 12 days!

Perhaps you need to look into your mail order distribution chain, as out of 3 packages which were sent to me, only one arrived on the right day and the right date.

Kind regards

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

HOT: Eat and Two Veg, 50 Marylebone High Street W1U 5HN

A scheduling error on my part meant that I turned up for my dinner date with Riya a week early. Luckily, Eat and Two Veg is a bright and informal diner-like space with free newspapers, so I settled into a booth with the Times and had a solo meal of healthful pumpkin, red onion and courgette crumble (only to go home and finish off with Belgian waffles and coffee cream cookies).

Monday, 10 November 2008

HOT: Bureau Club, 13 Kingly Court Soho W1B 5PW

It's natural that a glamour-girl like CC would choose to celebrate her 25th birthday in the glamourous members-only club Bureau . You go through a set of unmarked gates, alleys and doors (so no riff-raff will accidentally stumble across it) to enter a dark cavern of low tables and creamy leather banquettes. We were the only table there on a Monday night, so service was extremely friendly and attentive - although it makes me wonder how they make their money.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

HOT: Table Manners, Old Vic Theatre, The Cut SE1 8NB

The Old Vic is showing the Norman Conquests trilogy for the first time in 34 years, and the first of the plays, Table Manners, takes place in the dining room of a country house over a weekend with six characters. I think you'd find this comedy of manners absolutely hysterical if you were English and understood the hilarity of East Grinstead as a dirty weekend location and noticed the small affectations of the middle class set a la Hyacinth Bucket. Luckily, I was in the middle of reading a pop-anthropology book called 'Watching the English' which delved into the mysteries and intricacies of English behaviour, which meant that I had 'ah-ha' moments when a character was folding napkins into cone shapes, or the bumbling apologies of the country vet, all of which were a bit lost on Huy.

HOT: Baltic, 74 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8HA

I was surprised when Huy suggested a pre-theatre meal at Baltic - I would have thought that Eastern European cuisine would be low on the eat-list for such a gourmand. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I entered this sexy candlelit restaurant, and the £14.50 two course menu delivered some well-executed items - goats cheese and walnut salad, pork rilletes with toast, roast cod with pearl barley, tomatoes and mushrooms and beef and sausage goulash. A good find for a pretty barren stretch at The Cut.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

HOT: Manon, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A blustery rainy Saturday night is the perfect weather for getting glamorous and settling into the velvety cocoon of the Royal Opera House. Manon is a classic ballet which I've never seen, and Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo are the glamour pairing at the Royal Ballet - so really there was no chance of disappointment. Rojo was a dainty fairy reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn who danced with incredible lightness and grace whilst performing the most eye-popping gymnastics. As for Acosta, I've seen him play the male romantic lead in several ballets now, and I think he does death throes and dying anguish better than anyone. While the sumptious set and 'cool moving props' (Shani's words) were beautiful, the highlight for me was the intricately twisting, flowing but deceptively athletic choreography of Kenneth MacMillan, which was reminiscent of his production of Mayerling.

HOT: Knife Skills, Leiths School of Food and Wine, 16-20 Wendell Road W12 9RT

With London suffering from a spate of senseless knife crime at the moment, it seemed sensible for Gourmet Chick and myself to enrol in Leiths' Knife Skills course. Just kidding - Saturday morning had us sharpening knives in preparation for nothing more dangerous than a serious amount of slicing, dicing, julienning, peeling and segmenting for 3 hours. Each workstation in the commercial kitchen had space for eight people and our teacher was very informative and helpful - I now know which knives to use for what purposes, how to do a rolling chop, how to cross chop and how differently chopped vegetables, herbs and fruit have an impact on the dish you're making. Now, if only I could send my sous chef Tim on this useful course! 80 pounds.

Friday, 31 October 2008

NOT: Quantum of Solace, Barbican Cinema

I never have high expectations for Bond movies, but I can't say I enjoyed this latest outing where Bond turns into an unkillable leaps-buildings-in-single-bounds Superman. More accurately, I don't think I understood a single plotline or character's role in the film (especially perma-tanned Olga Kurylenko), there was a complete lack of sexual frisson and I either felt dizzy and confused from the constant jump-cut editing or found myself struggling to stay awake. And like all the critics have said, the theme song is instantly forgettable. The only saving grace was Daniel Craig, whose ice blue eyes and tanned features I think perfectly capture the steely machismo of 007 - and he looks great in a suit.

HOT: Murano, 20 Queen Street, Green Park

The back story to our sneaky lunch at Murano is too complicated to discuss in a blog post, so let's just say Huy's birthday was almost six months ago and Mayfair is not our usual location on a Friday afternoon. My first impressions were not positive as our already late 2:30pm lunch booking was delayed until 3pm - I think if you're going to squeeze in two lunch sittings, you have a responsibility to inform your earlier guests that they have to clear the table on time. We were left chomping on delicious but unsatisfactory arancini balls and perusing the menu with grumbling tummies. Fortunately food and apologies started arriving shortly after we were seated, and the Italian inspired dishes from Angela Hartnett's repetoire were all delicious. The 25 pound set lunch was great credit-crunch value - three courses (Jen and I had the same: grilled mackerel tart; succulent off the bone braised rabbit leg with polenta and mushrooms; and a perfectly formed Victoria plum souffle), plus extra in-between dishes of parma ham and bread, pumpkin and amaretto ravioli, and a tier of miniature ice creams and petit fours of tiramisu and chocolate covered cherries. To make our fine-dining experience even more enjoyable, our waiter was extremely friendly. Go before they get a Michelin star.

PS Apologies to Brendan - your photo turned out too blurry to publish.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

HOT: Sake no hana, 32 St James' Street Mayfair SW1A 1LP T

Sake no hana had blasted through its the first year by taking out Time Out's number 1 spot for best restaurant and winning best design. So when toptable offered 50% off its hefty prices, it was an opportunity too good to miss. Gourmet Chick, M&M and moi, all veteran bloggers, tucked out legs awkwardly under our low table and readied ourselves for some serious critiqueing. The verdict? The wood beamed fitout was cool, but didn't inspire gasps of amazement. In fact, it was more like the designer, hopelessly lost at IKEA, had decided to make the best of being trapped in a forest of flat-packs and assembled the Jenga-like interior on the spot (naturally using only one Allen key and leaving two extra screws). The consistently delicious dishes were each beautifully presented (albeit teensy between four people) and our choices read like my friend Ev's dream shopping list: fatty otoro nigiri, unusual tamago tofu, delicately battered baby courgette tempura, fragrant grilled seabass, rich uni udon. Service from the funky black-clad waiters was smiling, friendly and unobstrusive. The damage for 13 dishes (a risk if you eat with me, Miss Hollow Legs), two genmaicha and a glass of Loire valley white: 25 pounds each.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

NOT: The Walworth Farce, National Theatre, Southbank

I often don't remember or have time to read up on the plot of a play before I attend the production. Sometimes this turns up unexpected pleasures (Waves, Brief Encounter, Black Watch), sometimes I regret the time, money and concentration expended (De Profundis, That Face). Despite sell-out shows and a revival due to popular demand, The Walworth Farce goes in the second bucket for me. It was an intensely stressful two hours, punctuated by loopy spitfire dialogue, screaming, head-wrenching and violence with only a few moments of lightness to relieve it (and the jokes weren't even that funny). All the characters were unsympathetic, hateful and frustrating, except for Hayley, the smiling Tesco girl, who only arrived in the second half. I observed that some of the audience left at interval, so evidently I'm not alone in my views.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

HOT: This is War! Robert Capa at Work, Barbican Art Gallery

This Barbican photography exhibition has Robert Capa in its title but actually encompasses many other artists/photographers' work framed around the subject of war. In fact, I found Capa's work the least inspiring - his pictures lacked heart and were very macho in their stylings - men with guns, men at camp, men marching and men in munitions factories. His most striking images were actually his accidentally blurred photographs of the D-Day landings which captured the chaotic invasion of Omaha beach. In contrast, I really enjoyed the retrospective on his lover, Gerda Taro. She used a square as opposed to rectangular format to great effect; sometimes to enhance the close-up, warmly personal framing of her war-torn and war-weary subjects, and other times referencing the stark sharp angles of Communist propanganda posters. Finally, I ran out of time to fully appreciate the modern works shown in accompanying exhibition 'On the Subject of War', but I was particularly struck by the intimate and confronting photographs of the Iraq war taken by Geert van Kesteren.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

NOT: Three Monkeys, London Film Festival, Odeon West End, Leicester Square

There are many reasons why I think this film deserved its Best Director accolade at Cannes, and while I could admire the technical virtuosity of the cinematography, direction and acting, I still can't say I enjoyed it. The film starts with a lie which begets more lies which slowly (oh so slowly) engulf the suspicious husband, trapped wife and secretive son. There are many long takes of recriminating silences, dark shadows and everything and everyone is covered in a film of clammy sweat. It all adds to the sense of claustrophia and isolation, but I felt the pace was too studied, the framing was too obviously deliberate and I never felt fully engaged. It didn't help that my neighbour stank of cigarettes and literally could not sit still for 20 seconds.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

HOT: Oedipus, National Theatre, Southbank

This adaptation of Sophocles' powerful Greek tragedy hit all the right notes for me, so get a return ticket to the sold-out season if you can. OK, so it wasn't all joy and laughter but then I didn't expect it to be. Firstly, the set: I thought the tilting and revolving copper-rusted stage was very effective in embodying the characters' and the chorus' increasing disorientation and uncertainty, and the briefly exposed, starkly backlit trees added to the eerie gloom. Secondly, the script: How to help the audience relate to a centuries-old, slightly far-fetched story? I was very impressed with the adaptation by Frank McGuiness (of Angela's Ashes fame) as his modern phrasing (but not incongrously so) made the unfolding of the tragedy much more easy to follow and believable. Thirdly, the chorus: It's difficult to incorporate the lamentations and contemplations of a Greek chorus without sounding ridiculous in this era of realism, so I thought the singing, dancing and interactions between the chorus and the main characters was a very effective device. Finally, the actors: Alan Howard's Teiresias was solid and staunchly moral, Clare Higgins's Jocasta was too shrill and hysterically shuddering for my liking, but my Oscar goes to Ralph Fiennes. When an actor is that good, it is thrilling to watch. His descent into agony and wretchedness was terrifying, and when his animal wail broke through the silence, my body went absolutely still and cold. Superb.

HOT: The Archduke, 153 Concert Hall Approach, Southbank

The Archduke is a perfectly serviceable pre-theatre restaurant in an area filled with chain eateries and the increasingly disappointing Canteen. Their USP of decent food, reasonable prices and quick service works, but it's not what I'd call a destination restaurant. They have a two course pre-theatre menu which seems quite good value - 15.75 for 2 courses from a reasonably large range of dishes.

HOT: No 14, 14 Holland Street, Kensington

This heart-warmingly cosy cafe, tucked away from the bustle of Kensington Church Street and High Street Kensington, is one of my favourite neighbourhood finds. Mainly I adored the wooden communal table decorated with an overflowing vase of lilies, but the French silk-striped boudoir chairs, old fashioned polished silver coffee machine and tempting cake ladder made this place extra special. Every day they make a series of colourful salads and dishes and then you choose to fill your small plate or large plate from the selection. Vanessa and I between us tried the falafel, Swedish meatballs, couscous salad, tomato and cucumber shiraz salad, ravioli and steamed vegetables, all bursting with freshness and flavour. The service got a bit brusque after a while (we hogged our seats for 2.5 hours, but we did have lunch, coffee and three cakes) but I wouldn't hesitate to go back.

HOT: Minkie at Topshop, 42 High Street Kensington

Some say the British are best in the world at high street fashion but I rarely go inside the behemoth Topshop - I find it too crowded, too trashy and too disorganised. However, lately Fashionista had been talking up the edgy, higher-end collections so I decided to wander inside the not-very-well-stocked High Street Kensington store. You have to duck and weave though racks of cheap circus-clown outfits but then you hit the Minkie concession, a label that refashions vintage clothes or just has a vintage aesthetic. I loved the dress that I bought - flirty yet chic, block colours of black and cream and with art deco stylings on the shoulders.

NOT: Notting Hill Farmers Market, carpark behind Waterstones, Notting Hill

I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to hold a farmers market in the unprepossessing carpark behind a Waterstones - literally the service dock with skips lining the sides. The stalls sold the usual fruit and veg produce, along with meat, mushrooms, dairy products and pies. I didn't find any distinctive or unusual produce which would tempt me to return, plus it wasn't the kind of location which provided me with culinary inspiration. If I'm grocery shopping on a Saturday, I'd much rather hit the stalls of Portobello Road, Golborne Road or Church Street.

Friday, 24 October 2008

HOT: The Union, Chiswick Park, 566 Chiswick High Road W4 5YB

Under normal circumstances I wouldn't be touching The Union with a barge pole - a pub with gastro pretensions inside a business park? However, while it is one minute from my work, on its own merits I think the food still rates well. I've been there for a steak sandwich (using tender cuts of meat, not whole slabs of minute steak), pork belly with sweet potato mash and apple, great chips and a very more-ish chocolate brownie. Service is friendly and mostly efficient and the prices are reasonable. Coincidentally, their sister pub is about one minute from my house!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

NOT: The Marinsky (Kirov) Ballet, Balanchine program, Sadlers Wells

Shani tells me that the only ballet troupe she'd bother seeing (besides the beloved Royal Ballet) are the Russians and the Chinese. Unfortunately I came away feeling disappointed at the performance of the famous Marinsky (previously Kirov) Ballet. The three stilted Balanchine works left me quite unmoved and in fact were faintly ridiculous, especially the histrionics of The Prodigal Son. The only performance I really enjoyed was the modernist Middle Duet, where the precise spearing movements of Ekaterina Kondaurova's windmill legs were the perfect match for the counterpoint notes.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

HOT: Alfred Brendel and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall Southbank

The final London concert of Brendel's 60 year career was gorgeous, particularly in the sonorous second movement and the joyous filly gallop of the third movement of Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat. Pity it was sandwiched between two orchestral works - while they were both very enjoyable, I think they lessened the impact of Brendel's farewell and I would have preferred to hear him play the whole concert. Also, I wish people were more conscious of their personal hygiene when out in public - my beautiful experience was greatly marred by the old man sitting next to me who smelt of urine.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

NOT: Kate Summerscale at Living Literature Society, Dickens House

For the first time in HOT OR NOT, I have chosen to split this event into two parts, because I had completely dichotomous experiences at the same event.

Part 1: I had found the Living Literature Society via Time Out and thought that the idea was really interesting - they organise live literature readings or theatrical events, often in historical locations. London is perfect for this, of course, as it was the home of many great writers such as Dickens, Conan Doyle and the Bloomsbury set. So when I was told about their event with Kate Summerscale (ex- literary editor of the Telegraph) at Dickens House, I decided this would be a great opportunity to visit the historical home, hear an award-winning author speak and maybe meet some like-minded literature-reading people. I purchased "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House" and set aside the whole of Saturday to finish it - luckily this impressively researched non-fiction book was an interesting and easy read. The first half of the evening was quite enjoyable as Kate was a lovely, articulate woman and the dim library of the Dickens House was wonderfully atmospheric for her talk. However, the evening headed downhill with the unappetising dinner at the Novotel. While I had expected to hang out with a bunch of pensioners on a Saturday night, I found myself hemmed in the corner with a man of the unfunny, pompous 'chocks away, old chaps' tweed-wearing variety, banging on about how global warming was a myth. I also hadn't anticipated that some of the attendees were treating the evening as a quasi singles-night for over 60s and that I'd get hit on by an old, and obviously lonely, man. It left me feeling quite depressed and slightly sordid.

HOT: Dickens House, 28 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury WC1N 2LX

Part 2: This multi-story building was the house of Charles Dickens when he wrote Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, and it is now home to the private Dickens Museum. You can poke around four floors of artifacts, manuscripts, paintings and furniture, including a very interesting exhibition about the social issues that Dickens was particularly interested in, such as the terrible working conditions of workhouses and child labour.

HOT: Apple Store, 235 Regents Street W1B 2EL

The airy, two-storey hanger that is the flagship UK Apple Store is a madhouse of tech geeks and funky young kids on a Saturday - testament to the all-consuming power of Apple. Luckily, I'd already booked my appointment to get my ipod nano fixed after it completed died about a month ago. Anyway, it transpired that it wasn't a battery issue (as first thought) and after some explanation which went over my head, they gave me a whole new ipod for free even thought it was a month out of warranty. Now that's service.

HOT: Delicate Mayhem, Portobello Road markets and Backyard Market, Brick Lane

Laura Jordan's finely-coloured ink drawings (under the label Delicate Mayhem) will reward you if you take the time to pick through the incredible detail of her imaginery, scrambled London cityscapes. It's like the city has gone down a 21st century rabbit hole and come out in a scatter of royal guards, tube signs, black cabs, Banksy and the Gherkin, all intertwined with industrial tubes, frayed electrical cables and dripping paint. I think the art captures the chaos, diversity and icons of London perfectly.

HOT: George's Fish Bar, 329 Portobello Road, Notting Hill W10

It seems that Golborne Road is dominated by Periccos family; at one end is my favourite bike shop Halfpipe, owned by Johnny and manned by his sons, and at the other end is Johnny's dad George, who presides over an old-school greasy-spoon caff which Jamie Oliver has annointed 'the best fish and chips in London'. A beautiful sunny day was the perfect time to have fish and chips by the water, and so I enjoyed my enormous paper-wrapped package of crispy, lightly-battered haddock and chips (£7) by the canal at Rembrandt Gardens.

HOT: Gia London, Portobello Road Markets

If you're looking for young, up-and-coming designers in London, I think Portobello Road is worth a wander, second only to Spitalfields Markets (and many have stalls in both markets). Gia sells delicate beaded tops in misty colours and their tagline is "breathing summer into your wardrobe all year round".

HOT: Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill W11 1NN

I had never made the effort to visit to visit Books for Cooks, even though (a) I like books (b) I like cooking (c) I like eating and (d) it was just around the corner from my old house. The small bookshop is a calm sanctuary from Portobello Road madness and is stacked floor to ceiling with cook books from all around the world. The staff are super friendly to all the locals and tourists that drop in - but I think the best part is their tiny skylit cafe where each delectable pastel-coloured cake is prettily arranged on a white cakestand. I accompanied my book with a moist slice of ginger cake with a blackberry fool filling and a white tea for £5.

NOT: Cafe Oporto, 62A Golborne Road, Ladbroke Grove W10 5PS

The rivalry between Lisbon and Oporto has been transferred to London's Portugese community via the two cafes across the road from each other on Golborne Road - Lisboa bakery and Cafe Oporto. I felt compelled to compare the egg tarts from both bakeries in the name of research. While Cafe Oporto isn't bad, it's a NOT compared to Lisboa because the former's tarts were too cloyingly sweet and the pastry case was prone to sogginess. I hereby declare Lisboa the winner.

HOT: The Olive Bar, Portobello Road

Portobello Road markets has a myriad of food stalls, but one of the most tempting is the barrels of olives and other antipasto stacked up at The Olive Bar. Try their lemony anchovies with the green olive bread from Gail's (I don't think their own olive bread has enough flavour).

Friday, 10 October 2008

HOT: Spyski, Lyric Hammersmith, Kings Mall, Hammersmith W6 0QL

My ticket said "The Importance of Being Earnest (definitely not Spyski)". OK, I thought, so it's part of some joke. Then the printed programs said "The Importance of Being Earnest" and the blackboard also said "The Importance of Being Earnest (not Spyski)". Confusion and disappointment - had I made a mistake and bought tickets to an Oscar Wilde play? All was revealed in this hysterically funny and playfully creative production featuring camp Russian spies, genetically engineered babies, Cockfosters, key swallowing and Chinese spring-roll Russian roulette - and yes, The Importance of Being Earnest does feature but in an unexpected way. I can't tell you anymore (because then I'd have to kill you) but buy a £10 ticket now for one of the funniest, most enjoyable nights at the theatre.

Update 13 October 2008: If you buy tickets through lastminute, they're only £5!

Monday, 6 October 2008

HOT: Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden WC2

I was looking forward to my first production of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, but given that I'd been travelling on the weekend, I had feared that I'd have trouble staying awake on a Monday night. I needn't have worried - it was probably the most impressive production of Tschaikovsky's classic ballet that I'd ever seen. The set and costumes in Act I and III were full of sumptious tawny colours, gilded like a Faberge egg. The lake scenes had a misty, ethereal quality, and full of fluttering swans it evoked the mystery of the lake. Carlos Acosta's footwork was tight, neat and light but I was most impressed by Marianela Nunez (who was replacing an injured Tamara Rojo). Her interpretation of the two swans was the best I've seen. She danced Odette with grace and lithe elegance and the moment she turned into a swan, while clinging desperately to her lover, was incredibly chilling. In contrast, her Odile was pointed, malicious and disdainful. The performance I attended was sold out, but try to get a ticket (or for the 2009 season) for this stunning production.

Monday, 29 September 2008

HOT: Ciao Bella Restaurant, 86 - 90 Lamb's Conduit St, Holborn WC1N 3LZ

Ciao Bella is the kind of Italian restaurant I generally try to avoid - cheesy decor, Italian-coloured laminated menus and a greatest hits menu of pizza and pasta. However, Duncan and Suzanne had recommended it, and Marc and Tim had both enjoyed it, so I kept an open mind while nibbling my grissini sticks and contemplating the long list of pastas. I can see why the formula works - the restaurant was bustling on a weeknight, the large servings of rustic food is cheap and flavoursome and Monday night seems to be cabaret night with a white grand piano plopped incongrously on the crowded restaurant floor. I tried the spaghetti con polpette (meatballs) which sat like a rock in my stomach, so next time I'll be trying Duncan's envy-inducing spaghetti al cartuccio (seafood spaghetti in a bag).

HOT: Halfpipe, 40 Golborne Road, Notting Hill W10 5PR

I had Monday morning dramas today with a flat tyre en route to work, which meant a trip to the nearest bike shop to my house - the friendly, cheeky Halfpipe on Golborne Road. I have always received knowledgeable and cheerful service from the owner Johnny, his sons and the rest of his team (including the kids who hang out there on a Saturday), they're open 7 days a week and they've even been recommended by the Sunday Times.

Update 11 October 2008: My flat tyre transpired into the need for a full service, new brake pads, new chain = £80.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

HOT: Fire Station, 150 Waterloo Road, SE1 8SB

The old LCC fire station has been converted into an airy pub which serves standard pub fare, reasonably priced and well-made. After the recommendation from the waiter, most of us chowed down on a large burger with chips, which consisted of good quality toasted bread, juicy mince and accompanied by a tasty spicy tomato/barbecue sauce.

NOT: Mark Rothko, Tate Modern, Southbank

I know I'm setting myself up to receive some strongly opposing views here, but the Tate Modern's autumn blockbuster didn't change my opinion of Mark Rothko. I know I should like his work given his important reputation, the fact that I really like his contemporary, Barnett Newman and (as Huy said) I have a high tolerance of sh*t in art. However, I draw the line at gushing over repetitive canvasses of red, maroon, black, grey and brown (all named 'Brown and Gray' or 'Black on Gray' etc), especially while trying to have a profound moment as crowds of bored kids, posing art students and art-knowledge pretenders swirled around me. The last straw was the ridiculous exhibition catalogue which informed me that in Rothko's earlier works the paint had gone right to the edge, and then in an amazing creative development, he painted 'Black on Gray' so that the colours didn't go right to the edge, leaving a white border of canvas. Oh, and the canvasses in the series were different sized. This was all supposed to be 'pushing the boundaries of his practice'. I mean, come on.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

HOT: Prince Bonaparte, 80 Chepstow Road W2 5BE

After stalking away from Westbourne House, we moved onto the cosy, welcoming and not-crowded Prince Bonaparte pub. The wood and velvety-lamped interior was the perfect venue for a catchup with long-lost Kelly (until they kicked us out at midnight), and I hear they also do a really good Sunday roast.

NOT: Westbourne House, 65 Westbourne Grove, Bayswater W2 4UJ

I can't really give an accurate opinion on this bar as I was outside for most of the night, but I've been ordered to give this establishment a NOT by my friends who tried to get a served on a Saturday night for the following reasons: too crowded; a braying drunken clientele who all got served before them; snooty bar staff; and Jenny was denied entry for no apparent reason and had to prove that Brendan was really her boyfriend and she was really going inside to help him carry drinks.

NOT: 365, Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, Hammersmith W6 0QL

I had high expectations of this National Theatre of Scotland production, the same company who produced the acclaimed Black Watch. However, while there were similarities (interpretative dance, floating from wires, set pieces dropping from the ceiling and used to heighten emotional states), the main difference and my major criticism is that the play lacked light and shade. Unfortunately, this lessened the potential emotional impact of its worthy subject matter - exploring the background, reactions and emotions of adolescents who had been through the public foster care system. Each of the dozen characters repetitively explored the same themes of isolation, anxiety and loneliness, which equated to two non-stop hours of grinding, relentless grimness that left all of us feeling stressed.

HOT: The Gate Vegetarian Restaurant, 51 Queen Caroline Street, Hammersmith W6 9QL

Huy wasn't convinced - how was he going to be full only eating vegetables? But this relaxed, light-filled vegetarian restaurant is well worth a visit (as Gwynnie, Stella and the Primose Hill posse know) and it's heartening to know that eating vegetarian food doesn't involve also having to wear a hair shirt. Every dish was bursting with freshness, colour and well-balanced flavours - I especially liked my chargrilled halloumi and pepper skewer, served with couscous, herb and pomegranate salad . The crowning glory was the dessert platter of peach and strawberry crumble, pressed chocolate and chestnut torte, cointreau and white chocolate cheesecake and walnut creme brulee. Each mouthful elicited an delighted 'oooh' and it really deserved to be savoured, but we were running late for curtain up at the theatre. I'll definitely be returning.

Update 10 October 2008: Another wonderful dinner at The Gate, this time with cheese and onion tart, carciofini, couscous crusted aubergine, french beans and the stupendous dessert platter. £25 each.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

NOT: in-i, National Theatre, Southbank

The world premiere of a collaboration between Juliette Binoche, actress-extraordinare, and the choreographer Akram Khan, sounded like it would be an exciting theatrical experience. Unfortunately, I don't think the piece was effective either a dance work, or a theatrical work. It was obvious that Binoche was not a dancer and I found the lack of tautness in her movements distracting, yet when she was acting it was through a rambling monologue where she was suspended ridiculously in the air against a wall. On the other hand, I loved Khan's sharp physicality, but his delivery of dialogue lacked emotional punch. The production's exploration of relationships was too fragmented and lacked the focus and excitement to keep my interest, and I found myself drifting off at times.

HOT: Feng Sushi, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank

After a couple of culinary disappointments at Canteen, I thought I'd give this Japanese restaurant chain a try for a pre-theatre meal. It wasn't too busy, the blond-wood decor and fishtanks made the surroundings pleasant and soothing, plus the decent sushi came quickly and was reasonable priced. It worked.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

NOT: De Profundis, National Theatre, Southbank

Corin Redgrave is part of an acting dynasty and Oscar Wilde is one of the premier playwrights of his time. Should be a theatrical dream come true? Unfortunately, a monologue on a bare stage with Redgraves' soothing bedtime story voice meant that I drifted in and out of sleep (as did other audience members) so I didn't really get the full impact of Wilde's passionate letter to his homosexual lover, written while he was in prison for sodomy and indecency. I'd like to read the text again though, as it is probably his 'last beautiful work'.

Monday, 22 September 2008

HOT: Konditor & Cook Curzon Soho Cafe, 9 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho W1D 5DY

Konditor & Cook have established a proper cafe that entices you as you come out of the Curzon Soho cinema. Sit on high stools with views of the glittering billboards of Shaftesbury Avenue and enjoy their delicious lemon cake (such thick, sugary icing!). It's a haven for cinema-goers and theatre-goers alike.

HOT: Baozi Inn, 25 Newport Ct, Soho WC2H 7JS

This cheap and rapid-fire resto serves spicy Sichuan and Chengdu dishes in dark wooden surroundings and to the soundtrack of cheery proletariat warbling. Huy and I were closeted in a teeny corner table and chowed down on some naughty carbs - large egg and pork baozi (steamed buns), dragon pork dumplings with chilli and garlic sauce, dan dan noodles and a spicy beef noodle soup. All that food, plus two soya bean milks, was £21.40.

Monday, 15 September 2008

HOT: Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Road Notting Hill

This kitsch tiki bar was the location of a group catchup for Bec, who was dropping into London, enroute to Italy, as part of her 2 month hiatus before shackling down to her corporate job in NYC. The rare London sunshine was still shining when I arrived, so there were drinkers spilling out on the pavement and lolling on the low leather benches facing the street. As the weather turned cooler, we descended into the dim, carpeted interior which was reminiscent of the alleyway bars of Melbourne and which seem to be rare in London. A nice relaxed vibe, well-mixed drinks (I'm told) and comfy leather couches make this a great local bar.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

HOT: Green & Red, 51 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch E1 6LA

Caroline had been raving about Green & Red since forever, so I thought it'd be a good place to catch up with all my East End buddies (who incidentally all live on the same street!). On a Sunday night it was buzzy with the young and hip imbibing jugs of Mama's Margaritas and digging into the great food. Our group shared antojitos (tapas) of octopus ceviche, chorizo with potato, broad bean salad and meatballs, which were executed in varying quality. I think the kitchen shined much more with the mains; my pork belly and ribs, served with refried beans, fresh steaming tortillas, cabbage and a hit of chilli sauce, was wholesame, tasty and filling. Then to cap it off - long cinnamon-dusted churros with dark chocolate dipping sauce - which convinced even a stuffed-to-the-gills Yalin to have dessert.

HOT: Anaphora at FaCshion, Old Truman Brewery, 146 Brick Lane E1 6RU

In amongst the debri of the Brick Lane Festival, Caroline and I headed to the free FaCshion catwalk show in the coverted warehouse of Old Truman Brewery. We were not overly impressed with the clothes; sometimes I wondered why 'edgy' had to equal 'ugly' and the menswear in particular was dire - it looked like something out of a Lowes' catalogue. Luckily we found the Anaphora handbag stall, where they were selling samples of their luxuriously soft leather handbag for only £30-£40. In five minutes, I'd bought a large aubergine work bag (with a space for a laptop) and a tomato-red handbag.

HOT: TK Maxx, 26-40 Kensington High Street W8 4PF

TK Maxx was my favourite lunchtime haunt when I worked in Slough, the home of discount shopping, and it is one of the few things I miss about my old job. So I was quite excited to find out that they'd opened a new store on Kensington High Street as a girl just can't stop shopping, even in these credit crunch times. A quick scan before my hairdressing appointment yielded three sets of Pleasure State underwear, Italian hosiery, designer handwash - and not the items I'd planned on at all. Oh well, guess it's time to make another trip!

HOT: Daylesford Organic Cafe, 44B Pimlico Road, Pimlico SW1W 8LP

SW1 is the land of perfect hair, nonchalant designer handbags and prams that cost more than my monthly salary - and the cool airy marble of Daylesford Organic is the perfect venue for such a postcode. London bloomed some bright sunshine for a change, so Vanessa and I caught up on months of news over brunch at one of the coveted outdoor tables. Our food was fresh and delicious: creamy mackeral tartare and smoky fish with the salad leaves, summer berries with champagne jelly and mint, flaky croissant and a large bowl of granola with a decorative dash of fresh fruit. The service left something to be desired though - a bit slow, and they got our bill wrong twice.

Update October 2008: My local Maida Vale branch of Daylesford Organic is even better. Eleven pounds gets you the perfect weekend breakfast: lots of fresh bread and jam, granola with milk/yoghurt, fresh juice and tea/coffee, all served with a friendly smile in the soothing greenery of Clifton Nurseries.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

HOT: Don Giovanni, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I had a patchy response to this production of Don Giovanni. On the one hand, Marina Poplavskaya's Donna Anna held a admirably warm tone given her respiratory infection, Miah Persoon's Zerlina was lithe and charming (and in my view had the best melodies) and Joyce DiDonato's had sung beautifully, holding delicate high notes, as Donna Elvira. Simon Keenlyside (who I enjoyed so much as Papageno) was appropriately louche and arrogant as the degenerate Don Giovanni, and there was great energy with his cheeky servant Leporello, sung by Kyle Ketelsen. My favourite part was the finale, with the thrillingly spooky fires of hell and the Commendatore's booming, ominous bass. On the other hand, I wasn't impressed by Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio - I thought his voice sounded a bit reedy and without a solid foundation to round off the sound. I really disliked the set, which reminded me of the frosted glass walls of a public pool in a semi-circle shape. Finally, there is a black hole in the action and the music in the middle of the second Act which did little for my concentration, except for a witty reference to Le Nozze di Figaro.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

NOT: Wood Street Bar & Restaurant, Wood Street, Barbican

Even with 50% off via toptable, I don't think I could recommend this pub's food. It may be ok for a drink, and its waterside setting makes a nice alternative to the eateries inside the Barbican Centre, but our meals were disappointing: uninspiring rib-eye; tasteless chicken and fried fish encased in a tortoise-like batter shell.

HOT: Helium, Barbican Centre

The child-like wonder of Slung Low's Helium starts when grinning removalists call you by your name and hand you an invitation to a birthday party. One by one, each audience member is led through a series of wooden boxes where the characters unfold pieces of the backwards story, and where you're free to wander, listen and touch (and eat popcorn). I can't explain any more because it would ruin the surprise, so my only advice is to get a ticket as soon as you can - it'll be one of the most delightful and imaginative shows you'll ever experience.

Monday, 8 September 2008

HOT: The Kitchen, 275 New King's Road, Parsons Green SW6 4RD

The Kitchen is like my own kitchen at home, except bigger, cleaner, better stocked, more organised and with a Michelin-starred chef on hand to give you tips. I loved this unique cooking experience - you select what meals you would like to prepare via the seasonal menu on the website and turn up at your allotted time. At your workstation the exact quantities of each ingredient are chopped in readiness so you can just follow the instructions to prepare each meal. In an hour, voila: Aori Squid with Oriental Broth, Salmon and Smoked Haddock Fishcakes and Stuffed Round Courgettes with Nicoise Vegetables, all packaged professionally in oven-ready containers with instructions - and someone else does the washing up! Good luck to Natalie and Thierry - they've really hit on a great idea which caters for time-poor mums who still want to prepare healthy, fresh meals for their families to singles stuck in a recipe rut.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

HOT: Waves, National Theatre

Fifteen minutes after the play started, I was really worried that I would become badly mired in a swamp of confusion for the next two hours. Trying to decipher any linear plot in Virginia Woolf's story was like trying to chase ephemeral dandelions in the sky - I'd grasp a small moment of clarity, and then it'd disappear. Thankfully, the small group of actors danced a breathtakingly precise, seamless ballet of sound effects, multiple cameras, costume changes, fragmented scenery and snippets of dialogue, turning a brain-fog into a very enjoyable theatrical experience.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

HOT: Prom 53, Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Albert Hall

I have fond memories of listening to my Dad's collection of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestera as a child, with the sound turned right up for Karajan conducting Beethoven's 5th. So the opportunity to listen to possibly the world's best orchestra live at the Proms, with their Liverpudlian director Sir Simon Rattle, was a real honour. Despite the mediocre acoustics (described by Vlad as like at the end of a long bathroom corridor), the quality of was the music was undeniable. What particularly struck me was the cohesiveness and warm, rich sound (especially from the french horn and the clarinet) which made me dream of endless seas, lost loves and fiery skies. I loved their melodious Brahms Symphony No. 3, but I have to admit the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 lost me a couple of times.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

HOT: Peyton & Byrne at Heals, 196 Tottenham Court Road W1T 7LQ

This bakery was the first stop on Huy's fantasy tour of London, all those months ago when I first arrived in wintery London. I haven't had the opportunity to visit again until now, but the delightfully cute hole-in-the-wall cafe still served up delicious cupcakes and moreish fig rolls.

HOT: British Museum, Great Russell Street WC1B 3DG

Wandering aimlessly through the extensive exhibits at that the British Museum, my opinion of this repository of stolen goods remained the same - it's not high on my list of favourite museums in London. If you're into ancient history, it is endlessly fascinating and if you're a tourist, the mummies and the Rosetta Stone are a must-see. So, if you're neither (like me), I think the best way to appreciate the depth of the collections is to do one of the free eyeOpener guided tours which takes 45 minute to focus on just one part of the collection. We chose 'The World of Money' and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide led us through the history of the development of money, from cowry shells, paper money, Roman coins used as propaganda and origins of the word 'dollar'.

NOT: Princess Louise, 208-209 High Holborn WC1V 6BW

I don't know what Time Out were thinking when they recommended this pub. The downstairs was quite lovely, with wooden booths and decorative frosted glass, but the upstairs dining area was soulless and the food, while cheap, was mediocre. I swear the mashed potato was powdered and the peas, corn and carrots mixture was definitely from a frozen packet. Gives gastropubs a bad name.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

HOT: Romeo and Juliet, Middle Temple Hall

This production was a chance for me to visit the normally closed-to-visitors Elizabethan Middle Temple Hall, rather than to experience my third R&J in 2 months. The wood-beamed and crested hall is steeped in 4oo years of history, including the fact that it was the site of the first recorded performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The actors used the space effectively, using both entrances, the different levels of seating, a tomb-like block in the centre and the ornately carved second tier as Juliet's balcony. The only thing that was disconcerting was the whole thing was done with the house lights up - I think Romeo and Juliet's final death scenes could have done with some mood lighting. The key characters were quite well played but not spectacular - Juliet was a bit too mature and self-assured to be a teenage lover, and Romeo's rhythms sometimes lost the meaning of the text.

NOT: The Chancery, 9 Cursitor Street, EC4A 1LL

Maybe because I was in a mad rush from work, but I really didn't rate my experience at The Chancery. I had booked it because it was discounted but somehow the meal ended up being more expensive than estimated - I think because they offered Tim the full a la carte menu instead of giving him the option (advertised on the pavement billboard) of choosing 2 or 3 courses from a limited a la carte. Anyway, the bread lovely and the main meals (duck and fish) were passable - a little bit overcooked and a little bit too salty.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

HOT: Tas Firin, 160 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch E2 6BG

The boys' boardgame of world and galactic domination was interrupted by the delicious smells of Turkish takeaway from this small neighbourhood restaurant. For a ridiculous £7 each, we feasted on skewered meats, halloumi, rice, salad, Turkish bread and pides. It's been given the seal of quality and authenticity by Istanbul-born Yalin, who has adopted it as his second kitchen by visiting it three times in the last week.

HOt: Enienay stall, Spitalfields Markets

I love wandering around East London on Sundays because I can always find something to buy from the large selection of fantastic young fashion designers with stalls at Spitalfields Market, especially Enienay. Nina Dewey takes old clothing and cuts, twists and drapes them into interesting modern shapes and I'm officially a fan - I've now got two comment-worthy one-off dresses by her.

HOT: Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ

I should visit the Imperial War Museum more often - it's an easy ride down the Bakerloo line to Lambeth and the exhibits are so dense with information that you can only really absorb a small part at a time. Having been moved to tears by my visit to the Somme and Flanders battlefields recently, I skipped most of the uniforms, armoury and general military minutae on display in the WW1 galleries - but I can recommend the informative touchscreen videos and the creepy trench experience reconstruction. There was more of the same in the WW2 galleries before we headed to the upper floors. The Victoria Cross and George Cross (the civilian equivalent of the VC) room housed stories of amazing and admirable feats of bravery, sacrifice and generosity - a small, non-descript corner evidencing man's humanity towards man, in a building filled with many, many instances of man's inhumanity towards man. Due to time, we skipped the Holocaust exhibition (which I highly recommend from my previous visit in 2002) and went straight to a stark white room which showed a video discussing crimes against humanity. In 30 minutes, it explored the sickening possibility that given certain circumstances, we are all capable of committing atrocities against our friends, family and neighbours.

HOT: Arancina, 19 Westbourne Grove, Bayswater W2 4UA

When I cycle home from Notting Hill Gate, I've often been drawn to the window display of Arancina; a jolly orange Mini with pizzas jutting appetisingly out its side window. Happily, they've now opened a second store closer to home, with the same eye-catching decor. This is Italian fast food as it should be - delicious non-stodgy arancini filled with saffron risotto and a variety of fillings, encased in light crumbs (£2) and thin-based (but not soggy) wood-fired pizzas with simple toppings sold by the large slice (£2.90). Everything is bright, tasty and fresh, and no doubt, being run by Italians, they probably do some very good coffee too.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

HOT: Nipa Restaurant, Royal Lancaster Hotel, Lancaster Terrace W2 2TY

The hotel bellboy assured me that this was the best Thai restaurant in London and it has even been approved by the Thai government as only one of fifteen restaurant in the UK for the 'highest standards of quality and cuisine'. Well, Nipa is fantastic and so well-priced for the quality, teak-panelled decor with views of Hyde Park and friendly service. I only wish it was busier for their sakes, being only half-full on a Saturday night. Our meal: soft-shelled crab with mango salad, crunchy and just the right side of spicy; kao krieb pak moh described as steamed mince chicken with peanuts wrapped in a flour crepe but actually a slightly glutinous wrapping filled with a salty and spicy taste sensation; a red chicken curry (I'll try it without the coconut milk next time); a traditional stir-fry with chicken, Thai basil and chilli, all served with sticky rice. I'll definitely be visiting again.

NB With a Taste London card, you even get 50% off the bill.

HOT: Natural History Museum, Cromwell Rd SW7 5BD

If you don't like being around kids, don't bother visiting the Natural History Museum. At all times your meander around the airy Gothic cathedral-like Central Hall and the mind-blowing number of detailed exhibits will be blocked by strollers, prams and children laughing, running, screaming and crying. We never did visit the dinosaur gallery (1 hour wait) but there are many other interesting things to explore: the giant whale skeleton suspended in a crowded mammal gallery; the diverse entries for a Darwin-inspired artwork go on the Museum's ceiling in 2009; the theory of human evolution (creationists avoid); the human biology gallery with lots of interesting hands-on games, levers and videos and where I spotted tourists getting their photo taken with a giant reproduction of an 8-month old foetus; a simulation of the Kobe earthquake and a cut of a 1300 year old giant sequoia tree. Educational and probably even more fun if you're into rocks and stuffed birds.

Friday, 15 August 2008

HOT: West Side Story 50th Anniversary Show, Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue EC1R 4TN

The hottest dance ticket in town this month is this fantastically dynamic production of one of my favourite musicals, West Side Story, at Sadler's Wells. The snappy dancing, the beautiful singing (especially from Tony, who I normally think is a bit of a wet character), the humour and pathos! I can't believe that one mainstream reviewer said that the musical was looking aged and needed updating. Fifty years on, Jerome Robbins' electric choreography is still jaw-droppingly athletic, from the first finger-clicks of the Overture to the dynamic "Mambo!" and "America". Plus, as London suffers from a wave of senseless knife crime committed by gangs of youths, what could be more relevant than a show where young men stab each other over territory and bonds of gang brotherhood.

In fact, the show was so good that I'm tempted to see it again when it goes on tour at New Wimbledon Theatre from 14 October to 1 November.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

HOT: Prom 38: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall

I love the egalitarianism of the Prom season (you can get standing tickets for £5) and that spirit of inclusion is also personified by superstar musician Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The bringing together of young Arab and Israeli musicians is an admirable feat, but I feared in the first half that their musicality would not be able to match their noble endeavours. The Haydn Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major was pleasant but didn't particularly grab me, and the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra was a 20 minute variation on incomprehensible discord (never been a fan of Schoenberg). Luckily, their interpretation of the Brahms Symphony No.4 was very exciting and every musician seemed to be drawn into their playing with fierce concentration and swelling emotion. The encore was a grand rendition of Wagner's overture for Die Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg - an outwardly controversial piece for Jewish musicians but as Barenboim said 'this orchestra shows what's right in the Middle East'. I wish them good luck so that 'young people from Israel and all the Arab countries can express themselves freely and openly whilst at the same time hearing the narrative of the other.'

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

HOT: Petrus, Berkeley Hotel, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge SW1X 7RL

Following the tradition of celebrating Jenny's birthday by blowing the price of a new couch on a meal, we wore our best clothing (with room to grow) and wallowed in the soft praline-centre ambience of Petrus, of 2 Michelin stars and Gordon Ramsay protege Marcus Wareing fame. The £90 tasting menu was magnificient, ranging from an amuse bouche of pumpkin soup and parmesan foam, lemon mousse with milk ice cream and popcorn and a chocolate truffle tree. The birthday girl gasped and clapped with delight as each course was introduced, and especially when a special birthday dessert was presented! At all times the service was unobstrusive and professionally friendly, and when a waiter overheard our fevered whispers about asking for a kitchen tour he proceeded to introduce us to the Great Man himself - I felt like I was meeting the Queen.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

HOT: Pygmalion, Old Vic Theatre, The Cut SE1 8NB

A smart and well-delivered production of an old favourite. The dialogue from My Fair Lady surprisingly closely followed the play, which meant that some of the impact of the Bernard Shaw's wit was lost because I could anticipate it. However, the cast were uniformly excellent, especially Tim Pigott-Smith as the insufferably arrogant Professor Higgins.

Audience tip: Book for restricted view tickets for £20 in the Dress Circle - the view is much better than the upper circle and your view is only blocked by a safety rail.

HOT: Waterloo Brasserie, 119 Waterloo Road, SE1 8UL

Waterloo Brasserie is a funky, good value restaurant with a £14.95 two course pre-theatre offer. I liked the high stools and elevated square dining tables, the food was pretty good (depending on what you ordered) and on a sunny day the French doors opened out onto a buzzing piazza across from the Old Vic.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

HOT: Brief Encounter, Cinema on the Haymarket, 63 – 65 The Haymarket SW1Y 4RL

David Lean's classic film Brief Encounter premiered at the cinema on the Haymarket almost 60 years ago, and today in the same cinema you can experience a wonderfully innovative stage production of the Noel Coward story by Kneehigh Theatre. The clever staging is interspersed with film, songs, music-hall vaudeville, puppetry and modern dance (they even serve sandwiches at interval!) and all the actors sing or play instruments. It's 2 hours of absolute charm and delight, yet the poignancy of a love story that can never be can still wrench your heart. Go now - the production ends on 19 October and you can currently buy 2 for 1 tickets.

HOT: Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields WC2A 3BP

Lincoln's Inn fields is lined with staid lawyers' offices until you hit the incongruous, almost Venetian palazzo exterior, of Sir John Soane's Museum. Then go inside (for free) to discover an extraordinary Aladdin's cave of the Enlightenment, which I guarantee will leave you gasping with delight. A bricklayer's son who became a prominent architect, Sir John (as he is called by the museum guides) filled his townhouse with all sorts of trickery - mirrors, panels, skylights, echoing domes - as well as ancient ruins and artifacts, paintings by famous artists such as Turner and Hogarth and 7000 books. Every first Tuesday of the month, the museum has candlelight openings from 6-9pm, and the flickering shadows add a mysterious atmosphere to this melange, especially in the Monk's Parlour and over the Egyptian sarcophagus. It's a small place so they only permit 75 people inside at a time, which means that you really need to start lining up at 5:30pm to guarantee first entry. I highly recommend it as one of my favourite experiences in London.

Monday, 4 August 2008

HOT: & Clarke's, 124 Kensington Church Street W8 4BH

I think the name of & Clarke's restaurant-bakery-shop is very witty, and it appears that Sally Clarke is a bit of a celebrity. Her shop is lovely but expensive (but maybe ok for Notting Hill-ites): jars of jam go for 5 pounds, a small pack of biscuits for 3.85 and whole roasting chickens for 18. I did want to mark the occasion with something though, so went for the homemade rose, vanilla and lemon marshmallows - so decadent for 2.50.

HOT: Man on Wire, Gate Cinema, Notting Hill

This film is an endearing portrait of the French wire-walker Philippe Petit, a man who embraces life to the fullest and dances on the boundaries of possibility and imagination - man on wire, literally and metaphorically. The film uses archive photographs, reconstructions and interviews with the now middle-aged Petit and his co-conspirators to draw an inspirational story of Petit's dream; to walk in the clouds in between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. You will hold your breath as you watch the beautiful scenes of Petit on the wire - first in fierce concentration, then relaxing into frolicking toe taps and finally lying down. It's also incredible to see people still being emotionally affected by their involvement in the 'heist' and its impact on their relationships with Petit afterwards. Finally, it is impossible not to love Petit in the film and understand the pull of his charisma - who would not want to be close to such passion, joy and imagination?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

HOT: Frank Gehry's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

When open, the jutting glass and wood shards of Frank Gehry's temporary summer pavilion let in the sunshine and summer breeze, but their precarious yet precise balance means it looks like at any moment they could quietly and smoothly close into a conservatory roof, perfect for sheltering picnics when there's drizzle (or downpour, in the case of Sunday). I don't think the design is particularly shocking or original, especially if you come from Australia where there's lots of open pavilion-style beach house architecture, but it works for Hyde Park.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

HOT: Kundun and Mongol Double Bill, Riverside Studios

Second part of our budget challenge for the day was a 6.50 pound Riverside Studios double bill of two Central Asia ethnic minority movies: Scorsese's biopic about the Dalai Lama and grand-scale epic of the story of Genghis Khan. Kundun was beautifully shot, especially the scenes inside the Dalai Lama's ornate place. However, the stilted Chinglish/American accents delivering grave Buddhist sayings, scattered with sometimes cartoonish characterisations, made the whole tone of the film feel false. On the other hand, sub-titled Mongol was interesting and highly enjoyable, switching from intimate stories (Genghis Khan, the family man?) to grand sweeps of battle. The movie certainly piqued my interest as to how much of the storyline was true and was so evocative that Tim even had a dream that he was Genghis that night!

HOT: Tate Modern, Southbank

All the HOT or NOT posts so far have been about special exhibitions at the Tate Modern - but what of its permanent collection? While my favourite piece 'The Oak Tree' is no longer displayed, the gallery is still a very worthwhile visit, especially if you participate in the free 45 minute guided tours which run at 11, 12, 2 and 3pm. On a drizzly Saturday and as part of our budget challenge (as a result of a 100 pound not-fun trip to Gatwick Airport chasing a missed flight to Copenhagen - another story) , we decided to go for back to back tours of the States of Flux and Idea and Object. Our guide took us on an informative journey through Lichenstein, Braque, Picasso, Martin Creed, Carl Andre, Mondrian, Brancusi and Sol LeWitt and for me his enthusiasm and knowledge opened up new perspectives and a greater appreciation for the art - or the idea of art?

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

HOT: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre, Southbank

A difficult call. On the one hand: a worthy subject matter; mobile prison grille set with different tableaus sliding from underneath the frame; Lesley Manville's lovely upper-class English voice and National Theatre's wondrous £10 ticket scheme. On the other hand: independent and scattered vignettes rather than a storyline; a lesbian affair lacking chemistry and credibility and a very slow-moving second half. In the end, I lean slightly towards HOT if only because it gave me appreciation, however shallow, of the intense strength of will of the suffragettes and made me resolve to not take for granted my right to vote.

NB To the sweaty-hoofed person sitting somewhere behind me - keep your nauseating smelly shoes on next time!

Monday, 28 July 2008

HOT: The Dark Knight, Electric Cinema, Portobello Road, Notting Hill

I have to admit the only reasons The Dark Knight is a HOT for me is because of Batman's cool eject-a-motorbike arising from the rubble of his Batmobile; Bruce Wayne's well-cut suits; a really spectacular chain explosion of Gotham General; and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine playing Batman's older, wiser statesman. Someone who was able to hear the mumbled dialogue behind the various masks, disfigurements and gunfire might have achieved a better understanding out of the deep, thematic arcs of the storyline (oooh! ambivalent message on the war on terrorism!), but frankly for me it was more of the same from the Hollywood genre of comic book adaptations - kinda good but a throwaway film.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

HOT: Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, Clive Steps Kings Charles Street SW1A 2AQ

Supertourist Sunday stop #2 was the fascinating underground war bunker of Churchill's WWII War Cabinet, and an extensive museum documenting the life and achievements of this brilliant man. It was depressing to think of the War Cabinet and all their staff working, sleeping and eating in dark, dank and windowless concrete rooms for 6 years - and amazing that after VJ day, they just tidied their desks and went home, leaving everything exactly as it was until it was opened up by the Imperial War Museum in the 70s. The adjoining Churchill museum was an in-depth exploration of Churchill's life and his impact on history filled with interesting exhibits, interactive touchscreens, videos and old radio broadcasts. My favourite exhibits included an examination of his stirring speeches and speech-writing techniques; his wife's letter lovingly reminding him that his difficult behaviour was starting to alienate his staff and colleagues; and examples of his humour and wit in his dealings with others. Well worth the trip - and if you have a overground railway ticket, you can get 2 for 1 off the entry fee.

HOT: London Eye, Southbank

Supertourist Sunday got us up so we'd be one of the first people on the London Eye, the world's tallest observation wheel. It's a very pricey 30 minutes (£13.95 pre-booked via website, £15.50 to line up with the hoards at the gate) but when you've got good weather in London, you have to make the most of it. High above the Thames, you can appreciate the vastness, history and white Georgian beauty of my town.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

HOT: Impress Food Oriental Supermarket, 169 Queensway, Bayswater

Excellent oriental supermarket within walking distance from my house and the Chinese restaurants of Queensway. The prices are reasonable, and the range is extensive. I've bought a bamboo steamer, peking duck pancakes, jars of hoisin sauce, asian veges, glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves and pork buns from them, and I should really make more trips to support its trade - it's an essential stop for my pantry needs.

Friday, 25 July 2008

HOT: Chegworth Farm Shop, 221 Kensington Church Street W8 7LX

I enjoyed a small £2 tub of pear and ginger sorbet in the summer heat from this stupendously expensive farm shop. It sells lots of gorgeously presented fruits and veges bursting with freshness and colour, but is only affordable if you live in a 20-room mansion in Notting Hill.

Update 4 August 2008: Thanks to Chegworth Farm Shop for reminding me about the lovely ice-cream was from Taywell.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

HOT: Monkey: Journey to the West, Royal Opera House

It's great to know that Damon Albarn isn't just a poncy private schoolboy pretending to be a rockstar. Together with James Hewlett, his Gorillaz collaborator and the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, he has created a rocking, colourful and energetically vibrant modern opera performed in the grand ornate Royal Opera House. The production is based on the ancient Chinese story of the Monkey King and his journey to the west (India) with his troupe: Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and the Dragon Prince. Tim, being a Monkey Magic fan from childhood, was able to follow the story much better than me, but the wonderful combination of jaw-dropping Chinese acrobatics, funky video interludes and creative sets (my favourite being the giant floating Buddha hand) made it a very enjoyable production. I would love to see it again, if only to see the quarter of the stage that was obscured from our stall circle seats.

Update 5 August 2008: Albarn and Hewlett have brought Monkey and his friends together for the BBC's title sequence for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I really love it - it's unusual, witty and fun!

HOT: Ben's Cookies, Covent Garden Piazza

I wished my cookies turned out perfect every time like Ben's Cookies. Ben, I salute you! Your dark chocolate cookie, milk chocolate cookie and milk chocolate with hazelnut cookie are just the right size for a double-hand hold, have the perfect level of squishiness and are extremely moreish.