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 mailorder@daylesfordorganic.com

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 mailorder@daylesfordorganic.com

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

Nov 12 to mailorder@daylesfordorganic.com

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 mailorder@daylesfordorganic.com

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.