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.