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?