Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Finale: The Top Fives

It's really true. I'm about to board my one-way flight from London Heathrow, so this last post marks the end of LDN: HOT OR NOT.

Thanks for reading, agreeing and disagreeing with me for the last two years. As a final parting gift, here's a random list of Top Fives (off the top of my head):

Top five HOT London views

  • Babylon at Kensington Roof Gardens
  • National Portrait Gallery Restaurant
  • Skylon at Royal Festival Hall
  • Tate Modern Restaurant
  • Along the canals of Little Venice

Top five NOTs where I've wanted to throw something

  • Cy Twombly at Tate Modern
  • Arbutus Restaurant
  • sorting out ISA account balance transfers
  • Daylesford Organic mail order
  • Bertorelli, Covent Garden

Top five never-to-be-repeated HOT experiences

  • Classical Brit Awards at Royal Albert Hall
  • VIP at O2 Wireless Festival
  • Glastonbury
  • Guest Night at Gray's Inn
  • Swan Lake at Royal Opera House

Top five HOT art

  • Anthony Gormley at Hayward Gallery
  • Henry Moore at Kew Gardens
  • Conceptual art at Tate Modern
  • National Gallery free tours
  • Candlelight viewing of secret Hogarths at Sir John Soane's Museum

Top five NOTs where I had wished they'd just stop it, please

  • Breakin' Boundaries at Roundhouse
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • The Walworth Farce at National Theatre
  • Speed the Plow at Old Vic
  • British Ambassador's Belly Dancer at Arcola Theatre

Top Five HOT cinema experiences

  • Secret Cinema
  • Anything at the Electric Cinema
  • BFI Mediatheque
  • The English Surgeon at the London Film Festival
  • Paris, je t'aime at Odeon Whiteleys

Top five HOT moments which moved me to tears

  • Spyski at Lyric Theatre
  • Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven's Appassionata
  • War Horse at the National Theatre
  • Karma Police, Radiohead, clear evening sky at Victoria Park
  • Getting sweaty with my bestest buddies at Lucky Voice Karaoke

Top Five HOT unusual theatre experiences

  • Helium at Barbican
  • Contains Violence at Lyric Theatre
  • Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre
  • Just To(o) Long at Battersea Arts Centre
  • Hamlet at King's Head Theatre
And you want more gushing, eye-rolling and visceral hatred from Jetsetting Joyce, come and join me at MEL:HOT OR NOT.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

NOT: Madame de Sade, Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA

The third of the Donmar West End's blockbuster productions was the sold-out production of Madame de Sade, starring the venerable Dame Judy Dench. However, on the night Margaret and I saw her, she didn't blow me away. In fact, she even fluffed her lines a couple of times and had to stop obviously a couple of times, leaving her cast members to rescue her from a prolonged silence. Personally, I thought ex-Bond girl Rosamund Pike as Madame de Sade was much better, with her crisp clear tones and elegant and beautiful in her corsetted, crinolined silk gowns.

Further, both Margaret and I found the story of six women variously involved in the perversions of the Marquis de Sade (oddly, written by a Japanese author) to be a bit stressful to sit through after a long day. Along with that, it was at times incomprehensible, with strange fantastical interludes and particularly inexplicable behaviour by the Madame. Overall, not a particularly enjoyable theatrical experience.

HOT: Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, Covent Garden WC2N 4HG

I was in dire straits - my last day in London was rapidly slipping away from me, the National Dining Rooms didn't serve afternoon tea until 3pm and I needed to be in Kensington Church Street for my haircut at 3:30. Circling around Trafalgar Square aimlessly, I suddenly had an inspired idea.

Tranzie and Huy had both raved about Wahaca to me before, but I had developed a hatred for their no reservations policy which had meant that I'd been thwarted from eating there twice before. However, no queues at 2pm on a Wednesday!

Given the number of times I'd been turned away after encountering long queues, I was really surprised by the size of the underground dining room. 'They must be doing something really right' I thought to myself, as I settled into a simple wooden table backed onto a brightly coloured wall.

The menu placemat contained a wide choice of slightly unfamiliar takes on familiar Mexican dishes. In the interests of research, I chose three street food dishes (ranging from 3.50-4.00 each) which my waiter assured me would be 'more than enough' with a disbelieving glance. The pork pibil fillings wrapped in small soft corn tacos were nice, but only became really special when slathered with hot chipotle salsa. Same with the slightly bland chicken quesadillas. The really outstanding dish were the nopalitos tostadas - fresh, light and tangy ingredients contained in crisp corn shells. Next time I would definitely just have variations of the tostadas and nothing else.

HOT: National Theatre Backstage Tour, Southbank SE1 9PX

Transport for London conspired to work against me one last time on my final day in London....hence I arrived 15 minutes late to the National Theatre backstage tour. Luckily, the box office girl also moonlighted as a tour guide sometimes, so she was able to whip me around the first 15 minutes of the tour before dropping me off with the rest of the group, who were in the carpentry and set design area backstage.

The tour provides an interesting insight into the background workings of one of my favourite London theatrical haunts. We were led through various areas, enroute spotting carpenters mending War Horse puppets, artists spraypainting the huge backdrop for the upcoming production of Death and the Kings Horsemen, passing around various latex items from the props department such as an incredibly realistic hamburger, and being told about the massive drop in the Olivier stage which allowed things like swimming pools to be built (Much Ado about Nothing), giant ship prows to rise above the ice (Fram) and the raising of a hot air balloon (His Dark Materials).

The highlight was walking out onto the stage of the main auditorium, the Greek-inspired Olivier Theatre. Surprisingly for such a large theatre, I didn't feel overwhelmed out on stage, and I could even imagine myself addressing an audience :)

Monday, 2 March 2009

HOT: I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The fortunes of unemployment meant that I was able to get to Covent Garden at 10am on a whim - and score a day ticket for a stall circle seat (practically impossible to buy normally) to the evening performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. I can't say much about the unfamiliar Bellini interpretation Romeo and Juliet, and a small portion of the stage was cut off from view, but to hear and see the expressions of the ultra-famous soprano Anna Netrebko at such close range, for the bargain price of 23 pounds, really added to my normal enjoyment of any ROH opera production.

NOT: The Avenue, 7 - 9 St. James's Street, Mayfair SW1A 1EE

Another benefit of unemployment is the freedom to take a leisurely 3 course lunch on a weekday. Thanks to Toptable, I was able to redeem my points for a free lunch at The Avenue, a relaxing, light-filled restaurant catering for the pinstripe-suited workers of Mayfair.

I don't know whether I chose badly, but the food ranged from so-so to bad. My entree was a crab salad with avocado and marie rose. The chopped baby cos, bland crab and tasteless chunks of avocado were ok, and I now know that marie rose is in fact a fancy name for something that looks like thousand island dressing.

My main was a rabbit and ham hock pie with buttered carrots. I know rabbit and ham hock are recession-friendly ingredients, but I've had rabbit before where it has been as delicately flavoured as chicken. On the other hand, this pie was a steaming mass of heavy, gamey odours and filled with unappetising shreds of offcuts. I didn't finish it.

My Devon custard tart with blackcurrant sauce was nice, but unremarkable. The kind of sliced cake you'd get at your bog-standard suburban cafe.

Luckily I only had to pay for my peppermint tea (to aid digestion). Given the other fabulous restaurants on the street, I'd give The Avenue a miss.

HOT: Royal Opera House Backstage Tour, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden WC2E 9DD

My first day of unemployment and the possibilities for fun seem endless! On the spur of the moment, I decided to join the 10:30am backstage tour of my favourite London building, the Royal Opera House. For 9 pounds you get a detailed 1.5 hour tour of the auditorium (the only time I'll get to sit in the 200 pound Grand Tier seats and take in the view from the Royal Box), see the dye room where fabric and shoes are dyed for costumes, peek into the mechanics of the backstage sets and scenery, and best of all, salivate in front of the window of the morning warm-up class for the Royal Ballet. I was thrilled to see my favourite dancers, Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nunez, complete their pirouettes in their tshirts and leg warmers, although it must have been weird for the dancers with all of us standing there mesmerised, like we were watching feeding time at the zoo. Our guide was knowledgeable, funny and full of good factoids, so if you love the ballet and opera it's well worth the time.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

HOT: The Porchester Spa, Queensway London W2 5HS

London's oldest spa, the Porchester Spa, was HOT, literally. Sunday mornings are women only, and I was surprised that at 9:55am a largish crowd had already gathered, waiting of the doors to open at 10am. It seemed to attract girlfriends and regulars, as many people chatted to each other.

At the entrance I was handed two towels, a blue gingham cotton wrap and a locker key. Initially I was unsure as to whether to change into a swimsuit or participate in the nudefest. Given that everyone else - old, young, fat, thin, white, black, Carribean, Asian and Eastern European - seemed quite nonchalant about letting it all hang out, I decided to benefit from a full body cleanse (no one I knew was there anyway).

The upper level was a Victorian green and white tiled domed space with lounge chairs for relaxing before and after your steam. The lower level housed two Russian steam rooms, so hot that I was unable to see anything when I first entered. There were also three Turkish hot rooms graduating from warm, medium to boiling. The warm room, the tepidarium, was probably no hotter than a really hot day in Queensland, so many people took in magazines and books to read while building up a gentle sweat.

In between the heat you can have a blasting cold shower or bravely dip into the icy plunge pool (I got to my knees before scurrying out). There were also treatment rooms for which you have to pay extra, and I never did find the Finnish sauna cabin.

Once you enter you can stay as long as you like, so I alternatively steamed, showered and read the Sunday Times. A very relaxing way to spend a Sunday morning, and with the added benefits of baby-smooth skin afterwards.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

HOT: Petersham Nurseries Restaurant, Off Petersham Road, Richmond TW10 7AG

I thought I'd done with Chiswick forever, so I was frustrated when I discovered that I'd have to schlep out there again, on my precious weekend, to rescue a blue skirt that I'd abandoned at the dry cleaners.

But in a Pollyanna moment of inspiration, I decided I'd make a fun trip of it and head out to Petersham Nurseries for lunch. It's a tube/train to Richmond, and then a short bus ride, but the trip is quite pleasant as the hectic density of Central London transforms into the villagey Richmond high street and then the bucolic fields and winding Thames, where the birds twitter and the air smells fresher.

The restaurant is an extension of the delightful shop and is located inside one of the large greenhouses, which gives it a sense of alfresco dining even in the depths of winter. It was gasp-inducing in its beauty - a dirt floor combined with rustic French country chic, with a dash of the subcontinent in the Indian hangings and bamboo mats slung on the walls and the ceiling. The table decorations were simply a pot of fragrant herbs and a dusky pomegranate or bright lemon, and on the sideboard was an antique Salter scale loaded with an abundance of freshly picked clementines.

And the food was absolutely incredible. Given the expensive menu, I had originally resolved to only have two courses, but that was quickly thrown aside. My starter of Dorset crab and white polenta was a meagre description for the inspired pairing of flavours and textures. As slowly as I could, I savoured the light summery flakes of crab and lemon zest melding into the warming winter comfort of the polenta. Next up was a crispy skinned and juicy guinea fowl, balanced with a pat of anchovy butter and some lightly charred Treviso radicchio. Dessert was a barely baked blood orange tart, oozing bright citrus flavours.

I was so impressed by the setting and the quality of the food that I felt I compelled to have a word with the Australian chef, Skye Gyngell. She must get gushing foodies coming to her all the time (she's written a couple of books and writes a column in the Independent on Sundays) but I hope she understood the depth of my appreciation. I told her that it was my last weekend in London, and in my two years it was one of the best meals I'd ever had. A special memory to take home with me.

PS If you want to visit Petersham Nurseries, you'd better go soon, as it may not be able to continue as it is for much longer. They are currently applying for permanent planning permission with Richmond City Council. To support their application, click here.

Friday, 27 February 2009

NOT: Spring Awakening, Lyric Hammersmith, King St, Hammersmith W6 0QL

Yalin and I both agreed - we didn't dislike Spring Awakening, but we didn't like it either - and we wouldn't recommend it others.

I can see why the hype had built up. The adolescent search for meaning, identity and knowledge is a theme with which every audience member could identify, in their present or in their past. The teenage cast were engaging, with pretty Charlotte Wakefield (Wendla) giving a particularly standout performance with her charming, poised stage presence and beautiful ringing voice that I could have listened to forever.

However, mainly what put us off was the music, some of the singing and the somewhat amateurish choreography. The modern lyrics were incomprehensible, some of the storyline was weird (Wendla asking to be beaten), at times the singing was nasal and out of tune and the dancing/stomping/jumping made it almost like a very slick Rock Eisteddford performance.

Perhaps I would have loved it if I'd been 18....

Thursday, 26 February 2009

HOT: Duke of Sussex, 75 South Parade, Chiswick W4 5LF

It's a shame that it was only two days before the end of my job that we discovered the nearby gastropub, the Duke of Sussex. It would be a perfect summer venue, as the front faces Acton Green, and the back contains a greenery filled beer garden. In winter it's still lovely, as the dining room has been beautifully refurbished with crystal chandeliers hanging from the high carved ceiling.

The menu is reasonably priced and unexpectedly veers between traditional English pub grub and Spanish dishes. My seafood paella (12 pounds), individually served in its own small paella pan, was full of lively flavours, and the vanilla cheesecake with pomegranate and blood orange (5 pounds) was a deceptively light cake which felled me about an hour later. With our Chiswick Park One Card we got an extra 20% off the total bill, leaving everyone a happy camper.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

NOT: Burnt by the Sun, National Theatre, Southbank SE1 9PX

Burnt by the Sun is a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning Russian film of the same name. I remember watching the film and being struck by the idyllic Russian landscape, the languid summer heat and the creeping feeling of menace that begins when an unexpected guest arrives at the house.

On stage, it's hard to capture that kind of atmosphere, although the rotating set of the cut-away country dacha was very inventive. Also, the twist in this story of love and revenge doesn't seem quite so original when you know that the playwright adapted a screenplay written by others.

I have previously been impressed Rory Kinnear in The Revenger's Tragedy and Man of Mode, but in this role I was never really convinced that he once loved Maroussia so passionately that he would fulfil a personal vendetta against her husband. His former love affair just wasn't credible as there was little chemistry between Kinnear and Michelle Dockery. Dockery, whilst quite good, played Maroussia in a very similar vein to Eliza Doolittle in her recent Pygmalion so I found that I was watching her act, rather than be.

All in all, it was a sound production, but not one to get particularly excited about - a shame as the film is one of my favourite foreign films.

Monday, 23 February 2009

HOT: The Warrington, 93 Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale W9 1EH

You'd better hope that the Warrington was a HOT, given that I was going to be eating there three times in the next week.

The stunning Gordon Ramsay gastropub has been beautifully restored, with gleaming carved pillars, brightly coloured mosaic-tiled entrance and a dark wooden interior. The sedate cream and beige dining room upstairs was more Modern British, like its menu. We had the 2 course special for £15 from the Times, and my thick pumpkin soup and enormous chicken pie with mash were very good. Everyone agreed that all the dishes were well executed and to cap it off, served with friendliness. It was a perfect venue for a cosy Monday night dinner with friends.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

HOT: Confessions of a Shopaholic, Notting Hill Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate W11 3LB

The Notting Hill Coronet still seems to be experiencing heating problems in Screen 1, its main theatre. Luckily, I didn't have to suffer it a second time for the early Sunday night session of the escapist romcom, Confessions of a Shopaholic.

I had low expectations of this film as its title seemed to sell it as a flimsy piece of trashy cinema. So I was really surprised to find myself enjoying the film - it's not all about shopping and being fabulous. Becky Bloomwood has a serious shopping addition which means that she is only happy when she buys things. Her problem causes her to lie and sees her humiliated, and it almost ruins her career, her friendships, her love life and her parents' dream - basically all the things that are important in life. Isla Fisher plays a likeable heroine so you're glad when there's a happy ending and she ends up with a great job, her friends and Hugh Dancy.

On that note, can I just state for the record that in my two years in London I have never met an Englishman who came close to being as good looking and charming as Hugh Dancy. Maybe they only exist in the movies....

HOT: Altermodern, Tate Britain, Millbank London SW1P 4RG

Brek had told me to give Altermodern a miss - I think boring was the term used for the Tate's triennial exhibition of modern British art. While admittedly some of the works weren't new or interesting, in general I have to disagree. I don't know what made the art particularly British (as opposed to American, or Western European) but I really liked some of the more conceptual works in the exhibition:
  • Walead Beshty Fedex Large Kraft Boxes. Mel was incredulous 'You mean the one with all smashed glass boxes???'. Maybe because I was in the midst of packing hell myself, but the identical glass boxes, damaged and chipped as they were sent by Fedex from country to country, aptly reflected the anxiety and general state of fragility I was experiencing through uprooting my life and moving countries (again).
  • Loris Greaud Tremors Where Forever. The brainwaves of intense thought transformed into physical vibrations eminating from a dangled octopus of white wires. Wow.
  • Simon Starling Three White Desks. The physical embodiment of Chinese Whispers. A Berlin cabinet maker was given a photograph of a desk and asked to rebuild it. A Sydney cabinet maker was given a photograph of the Berlin desk and asked to rebuild it. Finally, a London cabinet maker was given a photograph of the Sydney desk and asked to rebuild it. Again, maybe it was because I was also in a state of transition in my life, but the outwardly similar, but on closer inspection, slightly different, white desks spoke to me about the issues of immigration, other-ness and assimilation.
  • Subodh Gupta Line of Control. I had originally thought that this enormous sculpture was of a metal tree, but in fact it was pots and pans and other metal household objects forming a giant mushroom cloud. The exhibition guide said that it represented 'a world constantly being lost or destroyed, only to emerge anew, reconfigured and reconstructed from its own debris'. My interpretation was more prosaic - a sculpture warning of the everyday, ordinary-life impact of a nuclear bomb.

HOT: Van Dyck and Britain, Tate Britain, Millbank SW1P 4RG

The paintings in the Van Dyck and Britain exhibition were really beautiful and a definite contrast to the stiff linear portraits of his predecessors. His fluid and loose brushwork seemed to have the ability to bring out the luminosity of skin, and bring life to his sitters' eyes, even after all these centuries. Look out particularly for his self-portrait and the portrait of Thomas Arundel in Room 1. However, be warned that it does get a bit repetitive after eight rooms of Lord this and Lady that.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

HOT: The Double Club, 7 Torrens Street Islington EC1V 1NQ

I love the tagline for the Double Club, a temporary bar, restaurant and disco designed by Carston Holler; 'where the Congo meets the West, and the West meets the Congo'. Not only that, but as the brightest new thing on the temporary pop-up venue firmanent, it felt like the United Nations. The crowd ranged from blond highlighted Sloanes, glamorous towering Africans a la Grace Jones, awkward buttoned-down white men jigging awkwardly from foot to foot, trendy malnutritioned art-students, and then us - Asian lawyers + Anglo-Saxon lawyers.

Everything in The Double Club is....double. The decor is part Congolese (giraffe print stone walls, African tiling) and part Western (original Andy Warhols on the wall). The menu has Congolese dishes on one side, Western dishes on the other. We tried everything on the Congolese menu and while it wasn't bad, it wasn't something I'd be rushing to try again. Let's just say everything was stew and spinach and it cost 26 pounds. The disco normally switches between the happy lingawa to Western techno, although on Saturday night they had a live Congolese act which got the whole crowd bouncing and waving their arms in happy abandonment.

HOT: J Sheekey, 28-32 St. Martins Court, Covent Garden WC2N 4AL

Martin's favourite London restaurant is the old school seafood institution, J Sheekey. The building is split into two - the dark wood dining room, hung with many black and white photos of theatre luminaries who have eaten there, and the Oyster Bar, very Parisian with its black and white tiles and brass railings. We ate in the dining room, but in future I will request a table in the Oyster Bar.

On the weekend it has a good value 3 course menu for 24.50 with Julia Childs' style comfort food. Martin and I experienced the opposite ends of the seafood spectrum. I went for a creamy potato and smoked haddock soup, following by another creamy and buttery fish pie. Martin tried the light potted salmon with toast, and then a small fillet of plaice with shrimps. We both ended with two scoops of chocolatey ice-cream. Not the best food in the world, but a nice place for good solid food.

HOT: Somerset House Guided Tour, Strand London WC2R 1LA

Every first and third Saturday of the month, Somerset House volunteers take free guided tours of the building, including hidden spaces that are not usually accessible to the public. They are very popular, so its first in. The tour takes you through the history of the palace/government buildings, and includes a wander through the beautiful cantilevered Nelson stairs, the subterranean Deadhouse with Catholic tombstones embedded into the stone walls and a visit to the Barge House with a glass case holding a long, ornate barge.

HOT: London Transport Museum Shop, 39 Wellington Street, Covent Garden WC2E 7BB

I've got my priorities right - skip the museum, go straight to the museum shop. London Transport Museum is a great place to buy unique London gifts, ranging from old Tube posters, vintage underground toy cars to a Swiss airline trolley! My purchases were much more modest - some very funny greeting cards featuring London street signs and imprints of the A to Z.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

NOT: Le Corbusier - The Art of Architecture, Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street EC2Y 8DS

In a week I will be staying in the famous Unite d'Habitation, so I was really eager to learn as much as I could about its influential architect, Le Corbusier. However, I think the Barbican's exhibition, Le Corbusier — The Art of Architecture, would gain a lot from a guided tour by a human. While I have an interest in architecture, I don't have enough of an interest to wade through an interminable number of miniature black and white photographs of buildings and architectural plans. Some of the models were interesting, some of the furniture was interesting, but nothing was interesting enough to hold my interest for every long. I hope seeing his building for real in Marseillle will be a better experience.

NOT: Autobiographical Interiors and Objects, Barbican Centre, Silk Street EC2Y 8DS

I don't know much about Le Corbusier, so I thought a talk about his work by Arthur Rüegg, Le Corbusier exhibition curator, would provide some useful insights. Unfortunately, his 30 minute speech was completely unengaging - he sounded like he was reciting from an architecture textbook, full of esoteric terms and convulated phrases. The only thing I learnt was that apparently Le Corbusier was quite a messy person. I found my mind wandering all the time, the lady next to me kept nodding off and clearly the rest of the audience were numbed into a stupor as no one had any questions.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

HOT: deVille Restaurant, Mandeville Hotel, Mandeville Place, Marylebone W1U 2BE

Dinner at deVille Restaurant, at the fashionable Mandeville Hotel, marked the beginning of farewells with my London friends (sob). Being a secluded hotel restaurant, it was pretty empty on a Tuesday night, but I cannot recommend this place highly enough.

The glamorous decor was a plush grey with hints of plum reflecting off with mirrors. The service was welcoming and attentive, but not obstrusive. The bread was delicious, they didn't sneer at tap water nor when we ordered to fantastic value three course menu at £15.50. Every dish was carefully presented with delicate flavours, from our thinly sliced tea smoked duck and orange salad, the pork cutlets with mash, and the crowning glory of a bread and butter pudding (chocolate fondant for Riya). At full price, it was wonderful. At half price, thanks to Taste London, it was a miracle. The whole meal, including service, was £8.72 a head.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

HOT: Secret Cinema, Shepherds Bush Empire, 56 Shepherds Bush Green W12 8QE

Saturday night - opera; Sunday night - heavy metal.
Secret Cinema has been on my London to-do list for a while, although it no longer has its underground feel because it's been written up in every newspaper and listings magazine. The queue snaking around Shepherds Bush Empire on a Sunday night was testament to the popularity of the concept.

Basically, you buy a ticket for a mystery film, at a mystery destination. A few days before, you're given your location and the film is only revealed on the night. There are clues along the way though - we were asked to dress in 80s rock (lots of shiny leggings on men, big teased hair, fur, leather and blow up guitars) and the ticket categories were 'Rock God' and 'Shady Promoters'. Hmmm....'This is Spinal Tap' was my bet, until I spotted a new movie poster in the tube.....

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a documentary (no, not a mockumentary Huy) about an 80s Canadian heavy metal band that never really made it, despite the likes of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer citing their influential music. Now in their 50s, they're still together and trying again to get a break. It's unintentionally funny, poignant and heartwarming as you follow their quest for a last chance at fame.

And then.....the special guests of the event were Anvil, live on stage! It was fantastic, even though it wasn't my sort of music. The crowd cheered them on as they thrashed their guitars, swung their sweaty hair around and RAWKED like old rockers do.

NOT: River Cafe, Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, Hammersmith W6 9HA

The famous River Cafe is a London institution probably because (a) it's not cheap (b) it's hard to get a booking; and (c) it's inconvenient to get to via public transport.

The light and airy restaurant has floor to ceiling windows with views of the murky Thames but why the cobalt blue carpet? That and the long dining room reminded me a bit of a cruise ship.

The Italian food was generally of a high quality and flavoursome. Everyone else loved their dishes, although personally I thought my spinach tagliatelle didn't have enough of an al dente bite and the scallops in my main dish were definitely overcooked and rubbery. The chococlate nemesis was an amazing chocolate cake, almost like a baked chocolate mouse in its pillowy softness. Service was ok and unremarkable.

So the question I keep coming back to is "was it worth it?". I liked it, but at £65 for 3 courses and a prosecco cocktail, I needed to love it. Besides the cache of name-checking such a famous place, I think I enjoyed my food and surroundings equally at Dehesa the day before, at less than half the price. The fact I could think of many other (recession friendly, easily accessible) restaurants I'd rather go to before this one makes me conclude it as a NOT. Controversial, I know.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

HOT: Rigoletto, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden WC2E 9DD

It was fitting that my Valentines Day night was spent in my most-loved London building, the Royal Opera House, and for my last ever ROH performance (weep).
As a result of my packing anxieties and mental exhaustion, I didn't have time to study up on the storyline for Rigoletto, which meant the opening scene of nudity, fornication and debauchery was not at all what I was expecting. I also couldn't work out which characters were doing what. Luckily, Shani came to the rescue with an old program so in the interval I studied up on the intrigues of the deformed jester Rigoletto, his beautiful daughter Gilda and the corrupt womaniser the Duke of Mantua.

Ekaterina Siurina's ringing high notes had a beautiful pearly tone that even a recording of Maria Callas (which Shani insisted I listen to) was no comparison for me. Rigoletto also received many 'bravos' for his performance, especially at the climax when he discovered Gilda's body. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the most recognisable aria in the opera 'La donna è mobile' was marred by memories of the jingle for Leggo's Pasta Sauce ("Leggo's Authentico....").

HOT: Dehesa 25 Ganton Street Soho W1F 9BP

Every telephone encounter I've had with Dehesa has always been prompt and friendly, so I already had happy expectations when I met up with Huy, Michael and Brek for Brek's faux-farewell. Lunch at this warmly welcoming leather-and-wood restaurant was reasonably priced (£25 a head, but it I didn't need dinner that night), consistently delicious and marked by supremely smiling service by an attractive waiter with twinkling blue eyes.
My prodigious appetite managed to work through most of the imaginative tapas menu, with stand out items being the delicately fried courgette flowers stuffed with goats cheese, tender pink wood pigeon with soft polenta and the soft chocolate cake.

Friday, 13 February 2009

HOT: Taming of the Shrew, Royal Shakespeare Company, Novello Theatre, Aldwych WC2B 4LD

As a theatre-hound, I've been lucky to have a pretty good hit rate with my theatre jaunts. Once in a while, though, a piece of theatre absolutely blows me away. The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Taming of the Shrew is one of them.

Shakespeare's text in this play is very difficult to make relevant in today's society. Petruchio's casual misogymy and his cruel humilitation, starvation and torture of Kate in order to 'tame' her are really hard for a modern audience to stomach. This production takes an unusual interpretation; Kate (a brilliantly haughty Michelle Gomez), instead of being submissive and grateful for Petruchio's love, turns into an automaton who does everything at Petruchio's bidding. Her deadened obedience leaves you wondering whether it was truly worth 'winning the wager' if he is married to such a spiritless shell. Then, as Petruchio is stripped to become the vagrant Sly and his stinky clothes are contemptuously thrown back at him, you discover that in fact Kate comes out with the upper hand. This production's fluid time-switching and role-switching gave me a whole new perspective on the play, renewing my faith in its ability to be relevant to gender relations in modern times.

With RSC, you expect the actors to be of a high standard, so the other standout for me was the inventive set. The players spilled out of their truck into a cute candy-cane representation of Italianate architecture, with waist-high buildings transforming into tables and drawers and revealing platters and fruit bowls. A four-sided turning tower took on different edifices of different time periods, from a Renaissance tower to a seedy pole-dancing nightclub. Also, the bright costuming ranged from jewel-slashed breeches to modern day suits and ties as the play progressed.

All in all, a highly enjoyable and engrossing piece of theatre and one of my highlights for 2009. Go and see this!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

HOT: Othello, Royal Shakespeare Company, 291 Mare St Hackney E8 1EJ

The Royal Shakespeare Company have taken their plays on tour to London, and the travelling troupe have landed at the Hackney Empire. In a city filled with beautifully restored theatres, the Empire is still striking with its lofty gilded and ornate interior. However, in my view its traditional raised stage and far-away circle was not as effective as the RSC's own theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. And it is really far away from any useful form of public transport to West or South London.

I've never seen Othello before, so before I start, let me just warn any other first-timers that they take a long time to die - 3.5 hours of intense Shakespearean text on a school night is a hard ask. I think it's a play that rewards deep and prolonged study, and a quick scan of Wikipedia on the tube doesn't begin to scratch the surface.

In this production, I thought the stand out performance was Antony Sher's as Iago, Othello's twisted and menacing Ancient. He did fluff his line a couple of times, but he was exciting to watch (Funnily enough I recognised him from The Factory's production of Hamlet, and had thought at the time that he was a talented out-of-work actor looking for a break while pulling pints.) On the other hand, I really disliked Othello. His spitting, drawling and rolling delivery was not just light and shade, but created unnecessary melodrama which distracted me from an already dramatic text.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

HOT: England People Very Nice, National Theatre, Southbank

England People Very Nice is no Shakespearen play (but hey, I'm doing Shakespeare twice this week already) but it does tell an entertaining story of four waves of immigration through the 'paradise' of Bethnal Green. The play tries to draw the storylines together with the common themes of prejudice, racism, other-ness and integration, but I thought it dealt with these issues very superficially and didn't provide any new or thought-provoking insights. Still, just appreciate the fun, the jokes and the cool graphics as you watch how the French Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and the Bangladeshis rebuild their lives in this corner of the London.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

HOT: L'Autre Pied, 5-7 Blandford Street, Marylebone W1U 3DB

Firstly, I'm uncertain as to why this restaurant was a runner up for Time Out's best design award. The winner of that award, Sake No Hana, is streaks ahead in the innovation and 'wow' factor of its fit out. On the other hand (or should I say, other foot - haha) L'Autre Pied reminded me of a twee suburban restaurant, with its pastel green floral walls (even if some flowers were etched on glass), all-glass street level frontage, low ceilings and awkwardly closed in quarters. The only design feature I remember is that the toilets smelled really nice.

Never mind, to the food. Now that I'm a self-appointed semi-professional food critic, attending one famed restaurant to another famed restaurant night after night, it's much easier for me to make rapid-fire comparisons. And L'Autre Pied does its work boldly, creatively and with innovative presentation, with no weird flavours. In particular, its puffball bombe was a perfect wintery marriage of meringue, mulled fruits and red wine.

Not cheap (55 pounds for 3 courses) but worth trying for its beautiful food.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

NOT: Galvin at Windows, London Hilton, Park Lane 22 Park Lane W1K 1BE

A difficult choice for HOT or NOT, but here goes....

The panoramic views over London's glamorous lights are pretty spectacular from the 28th floor of the London Hilton. This alone should make it a HOT, as it's the perfect date or international guest venue. Unfortunately, we were seated at the inner section of the restaurant, which, while elevated, had the view blocked by an unnecessary decorative bannister.

But mostly what drives this to a NOT was the food. Basically, it was weird. The wrong side of avant garde. I'm all for unusual tastes and presentations, but the over-accessorised pork belly with lentils, cabbage, clams and pork cheek was a case in point. Frankly, the best things were the homemade marshmallows (although one of them was the yucky liquorice flavour they kept using). At normal price (58 pounds for 3 courses) I can think of a lot of restaurants which I'd recommend over this one. Luckily, on Toptable at the moment it's 50% off.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

HOT: The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre 2 Jermyn St Piccadilly Circus SW1Y 4XA

Alfred Hitchcock's film is given a comedy theatre makeover in the Criterion Theatre's production of The 39 Steps. It's a fun romp through the spy story as it trundles through London and the Scottish Highlands, the 150 parts are well coordinated through the four actors and some of the effects (such as the bi-plane chase and crash) are cleverly innovative. Beware sitting in the very front though, as we were often engulfed by stage fog and smoke, and then caught most of the snow downpour at the end.

A good night out at the theatre, although to be honest I've seen similar plays done better by Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter and the Spyski. The tickets are currently half price.

HOT: Momo, 27 Heddon Street Mayfair W1B 4BH

The challenge with pre-theatre dining is to find somewhere cheap, quick and good. The smaller tea house section of Mourad Mazouz's famously expensive restaurant Momo ticks all those boxes, as well as having a beautifully twinkly Middle Eastern interior. Initially Huy battled against my choice (calling the restaurant a NOT filled with a couple of tacky cushions and some haphazard lanterns) but luckily Tina and Michael backed me up, as we all (yes even Huy) had a very enjoyable meal cosied up on the low stools and digging into the seemingly endless stream of hot and cold mezze and mint tea - all for 15 pounds each.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

NOT: Revolutionary Road, Coronet Cinema, 103 Notting Hill Gate W11 3LB

As the snows from Russia blew into London, Screen 1 at the Coronet cinema experienced an unfortunately timed heating malfunction which meant that it was holding steady at 15 degrees. They offered a free hot drink and you could ask for a refund within 30 minutes of the start if it got too cold, so Jane and I took our chances. It's the only time I've sat in a cinema clutching a peppermint tea and wearing four layers of clothing plus gloves (don't worry, I took off my wide-brimmed hat).

It's an old chestnut, but Revolutionary Road the movie really wasn't as good as the book. Of course everything had to be truncated into a 2 hour film, but as a result much of the nuance and motivations which made the book so special had to be cut out. This left April and Frank Wheeler as unlikeable, self-indulgent hysterics who spent a lot of time screaming at each other. Kate Winslet, or more precisely, Kate Winslet's eyes, did make the most of her role but Leonardo di Caprio was seriously miscast - he just never looked like someone's husband.

If you haven't read the book, please don't be put off by this film. The book is all the things the film is not. Richard Yates' prose describes emotions, connections and missed opportunities in gossamer detail, delves deeply into the frustrations and delusions of a couple who desperately wish to be different but can do nothing but conform, and is so evocative of a time, place and sensibility, without feeling or sounding dated.

NOT: Princi, 135 Wardour Street, Soho W1F 0UT

Bringing the Milanese bakery Princi to London is the new project for master restauranteur Alan Yau, so it was immediately on my to-do list. The clientele seemed to consist of mainly Chinese and Italians, which is a reliable indicator that the cakes are good and the coffee is good. My nice, not great, but very photogenic profiteroles were little balls of choux pastry with an unexpected cream-cheese-like filling and a light flaky biscuit base. The service was smiling and friendly.

However, sadly this bakery gets an overall NOT. The uninspiring beige stone walls reminded me of the kind of decor you find in cafes at the bottom of office buildings. The Sunday crowds were stressful, all jostling at the counter, at the standing area, at the seats. It felt like there were a million people lumbering around with their coats, hats, scarves and shopping bags and bellowing loudly across the communal tables or the high benches facing a strange water feature -basically a row of taps pouring out constant flow of water into a trough. This made a drought-conscious water-saving Australian like me really nervous. For such a busy eatery, they had only three toilets - men, women and disabled (although I have no idea how anyone in a wheelchair would be able to navigate the scrum). I also don't think you'd have any luck trying to maintain your composure if you were lining up for the loos while watching and listening to that water feature.

So, I'd give Princi another go but only on the condition that it was on a weekday morning, and I'd try some of the hot food and sandwiches instead of the cakes. Maybe I'll do a comparison when I got to Milan.

HOT: Tamarind, 20-22 Queen St, Mayfair W1J 5PR

Tamarind is a discreet high end Indian restaurant in Mayfair which is best experienced on a Sunday. You can go a la carte, but I think you're better off with the Sunday tasting menu, which is a huge selection of the most popular a la carte dishes for 28.95 (and currently with Toptable, it's 2 for 1). Mike, Berangere and I started off with a canter through a crunchy chickpea salad, a delicately fried potato cake and a moist tilapia fillet with a perfect mint and coriander chutney. Then a full gallop into tandoori grilled chicken, simmered lamb (the least successful dish), dahl, two sorts of vegetable curry, rice and roti. We ended with a slow trot for the surprisingly good dessert of poached cheese dumplings with saffron flavoured milk, and an unusual palate cleanser of fresh mint leaves covered in white chocolate.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

HOT: Wild Honey, 12 George St W1S 2FB

Another day, another Time Out Top 50 Restaurant. Wild Honey certainly lived up to its Top 50 rating, with its sedate wooden interior (reminiscent of an old courthouse) split up into private booths, large comfortable chairs, friendly service, good value dishes (including the 16.95 three course lunch menu which some of our party ordered) and Modern British food done very well. Make sure you don't miss the scrumptious white sourdough! I'm normally a good girl and choose brown bread, but I couldn't pass up the white bread this time - I don't know what butter or salt they used, but it was some of the best bread I've ever tasted. My venison pie was essentially a fancy shepherds pie, and perfect for a cold winter's day, while my chocolate soup was a very flat moulleux, again post-prandial-inducing. A lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and soooo much more enjoyable than its sister restaurant Arbutus.

Friday, 30 January 2009

NOT: L'Atelier de Joel Rubochon, 13-15 West Street, Soho

If a dining experience was purely about the food, then I can safely say the dishes coming out of this restaurant's colourful open-racked kitchen were delicious and deftly presented. However, we all know that dining out isn't just about the food (although I don't often make a rabbit terrine or lobster risotto at home) and several things failed me at L'Atelier de Joel Rubochon.
  • The decor. It immediately put me to mind of an expensive black patent leather Louboutin pump with a crimson sole. Quite disturbing to feel like I was eating inside a shoe.

  • The stilted layout. Lots of dark corridors, lots of stairs, lots of mysterious corners and doors and a lift. A bit claustrophic (see above re shoe).

  • The high chairs. The bar area is where all the action is at, but sitting high up on leather stools doesn't make a relaxing dining experience.

  • The recession-unfriendly prices. Vanessa and I had the pre-theatre 3 course menu for a reasonable 25 pounds. However, a peek at the a la carte revealed 15-20 pounds for entrees, and 25-30 for mains. The degustation was 105 pounds! For that price, there are many other restaurants I would recommend before this one.

  • The snooty service. We were offered the a la carte menu, and when we asked for the pre-theatre menu there was a marked difference in friendliness. Come on people, there's a recession on. And then when I asked for tap water? Just because it's not on the drinks menu doesn't mean it's not ok to drink!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

HOT: Bistrotheque, 23-27 Wadeson Street, Bethnal Green E2 9DR

It took me four trains to get there, I remained underground for almost half the time it would take me to get from London to Paris, and the restaurant's unforgiving white brick interior and naked light bulbs reminded me of a hospital ward.

Huy had been concerned that I would cut down his favourite restaurant with one slash of my biting critique, but he needn't have worried - I had a great dinner at Bistrotheque. The food in the good value Prix Fixe Menu (17.50) was uniformly excellent and well presented: fresh warm breadrolls with a brulee-crisp crustiness (worth breaking your no-carbs-after-6pm rule, Huy), succulent fried squid with aioli, white polenta piled with wild mushrooms, rocket and parmesan, and to finish off, a large slab of dark chocolate tart with my all-time favourite ice cream flavour, hazelnut.

Monday, 26 January 2009

HOT: Milk, Gate Picturehouse, 87 Notting Hill Gate W11 3JZ

Milk is my fourth Oscar Best Picture Nominee film, and I think it is a nomination well-deserved. Sean Penn (also a Best Actor nominee) dominates this biopic as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in the US. It's hard to believe that just 35 years ago, homosexuals were being denied their civil rights in a supposedly progressive country, and that public figures could spout such incredibly bigoted views in national mainstream media. The film's pace is perfect, starting the timeline with Milk's 40th birthday and the first encounter with his great love, his move to San Francisco and battles with prejudice, his political activisim, rise to power and cowardly assassination. The film's presentation of Milk's dogged determination was incredibly inspiring, and his speeches moved me to tearfulness without ever being maudlin.

HOT: Topshop, 216 Oxford Circus London

The three pumping floors of Topshop at Oxford Circus make up the world's largest fashion store - you can shop, eat, powder your nose, get your nails done, blowdry your hairdo and consult a concierge all under one roof. Frankly I think it's too big, too flourescent and way too overwhelming to be an enjoyable shopping experience. I felt like I was in one of those science experiments where they give people too many options, and watch them become so perplexed that they're unable to make a decision. Therefore, I only focused on 0.5 square metres - the Sweetheart concession stand. This London label (the sister line to Lie Down I Think I Love You) makes limited edition retro-styled leather handbags, each threaded with a distinctive vintage scarf. With my Topshop vouchers (thank you salary sacrificing), I came away with the brown shoulder bag with a jaunty brown and blue flowered scarf.

HOT: Mr Jerk, 187 Wardour Street, Soho W1F 8ZB

I don't know why English pub food never developed down the chilli route over the centuries. If I had to choose between bland stodge and spicy stodge as a winter warmer, it would always be an easy decision. The signature dish from the Original Mr Jerk was an enormous plate of spicy jerk chicken served with salad and a choice of rice and peas, plain rice or hard food (boiled yam, banana, dumpling and sweet potato). Along with a sweet guanabana juice, it made for a stomach-stuffing and cheap meal (12 pounds). In fact, I think I'm going to track down a bottle of jerk sauce, as I believe any meat would taste better with it!

HOT: Greater London...Richard Bryant's Photographic Celebration of a City, Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, Strand WC2R 1LA

Richard Bryant's photography exhibition takes the viewer on a journey across London, from west to east. I really enjoyed his work - he has an eye for the softening romance of fog, has manage to pick out interesting shapes and perspectives from many well-known and oft-photographed landmarks, and really captured for me the beauty and excitement of this city of my heart. Look out for his heavy tome on my coffee table.

HOT: Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand WC2R 1LA

The Courtauld Gallery has been on my to-do list for a while, so I took the opportunity to don some disguise and explore it on an admission-free Monday. On the ground floor there were some dimly lit religious Renaissance works and the top floor contained some brilliantly dynamic Kandinsky and forgettable watercolours. So the main attraction (for me) were the light-filled Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries. I loved the colourful movement juxtaposed with a sad serenity in Manet's last great painting "Bar at the Folies-Bergère"; the interesting diagonal composition of the diaphanous ballerinas in Degas' "Two dancers on a stage", and most of all, the shimmering vibrancy of Monet's "Autumn effect at Argenteuil", perfectly displayed against a sunlit window.

HOT: Thomas Exchange Global, 402 Strand WC2R 0NE

When you travel as much as I do, then its inevitable that you become a forex rate tart. I've discovered that the best retail currency rates are often provided by Thomas Exchange Global, who have an office on the Strand and in Victoria station, as well as providing a delivery service for 5 pounds.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

HOT: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

The Wellcome Collection is not one of London's blockbuster museums, like the National Gallery or Tate Modern, but it is unexpectedly interesting - and free. I arrived just in time for the 2:30pm tour, which is worthwhile taking because without any commentary you'll just find yourself staring at glass cases of amputation saws and obsterics forceps.

Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome was the founder of the pharmaceutical company that was the precursor to the megalith GlaxoSmithKline. He was also an obsessive collector, amassing around 24,000 medical related artefacts, ranging from Japanese sexual toys, Napolean's toothbrush, torture chairs and terracotta totems of hair (apparently used as an attempt to cure baldness). A part of his collection is on display permanently as 'Medicine Man'. The other permanent display is Medicine Now, which explores malaria, obesity, the body, living with medical science and the genome - including a wall-to-ceiling bookcase containing the 24 volumes of DNA data, one for each chromosome.
There is also a temporary exhibition at the moment which explores the relationship with war and medicine. The most moving aspect of that exhibition are the videos of people who have been through war, ranging from a soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Falklands, civilian victims of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Vietnam veterans testifying in the Winter Soldier investigations.
PS If you want to check out my face morphed against average facial features, click here. Ghastly!

HOT: York and Albany, 127-129 Parkway, Camden NW1 7PS

We heart Angela Hartnett, so despite sickness, freezing cold and gusting rain, we decided to make a Sunday lunch pilgrimage to her new restaurant at the Gordon Ramsay hotel, York and Albany.

In general, the experience was a HOT. The 3 course Sunday lunch was 20.55, the service was good and the food was of a high standard. My home smoked salmon with beetroot and horseradish was a delightful trompe d'oeil of red salmon, my juicy sea bass was perfectly cooked with shrimp sauce, and the rustic apple and blackberry crumble came with some lovely vanilla icecream.

However, to ensure that your experience remains a HOT, do not do the following things:

  • ask for lemon and water for your sore throat. It'll cost you 2.45 because it's considered 'tea' (and even if 3 pieces of lemon peel and hot water were considered tea on some other planet, that's exorbitant for a cup of tea).
  • order the cod with curry sauce. In fact, according to Huy, never order any curry flavoured fish dish, except if it's fish curry.
  • sit at a table downstairs, particularly facing the open kitchen. Upstairs is airy and light, whereas downstairs is like being inside a throbbing red velvet cauldron. If you sit directly across from the kitchen, you also experience the chef yelling at his staff - not a relaxing dining ambience.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

HOT: Orchestre des Champs Elysées/Herreweghe, Barbican Hall

I still remember when I first heard Mendelsshon's Hebrides Overture - Grade 11 music class, sticky and sweaty in my uniform, sitting in the hottest classroom in the school and over a tinny sound system. Nevertheless, I recall being overwhelmed by the drama and beauty of the crashing waves and calm seas, and it has become one of my favourite pieces of classical music.

I've never actually heard it played live, so I was very excited to find out that the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, a specialist Classical and Romantic period orchestra, was going to perform it in my favourite classical music venue, the Barbican. Sitting three rows from the front meant that I was able to see every facial expression and watch the orchestra sway as one with the phrasing of the melodies. It was such a moving and passionate performance, especially the liquid beauty of the clarinet solo, that I can't actually recall much of the program afterwards.

Friday, 23 January 2009

HOT: Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, London W1T 1HD

Dinner at Hakkasan was planned as a quasi-Chinese New Year celebration, but really more of an excuse to work my way down my (long) list of London 'must-eat' restaurants. In the beginning, the forbidding entrance had me on guard - there were a couple of black-clad bouncers and a snooty door bitch with a clipboard, blocking the door to undesirables ie those without a booking. But then I tottered down the steps of the former underground carpark into an impressively glamorous interior.

I think the restaurant is the best of West and East. From what I could tell, the clientele were mainly moneyed, glamorous Westerners, as probably no self-respecting Asian would pay double the price for food they could possibly get in Chinatown. The gently attentive service was definitely Western trained. On the other hand, the dim light, intricately wood-carved screens and overhead fans were reminiscent of the decadent opium dens of Shanghai, and the menu was authentically Chinese (with a few random Thai and Malaysian dishes??).

Martin and I shared deliciously delicate vegetarian dumplings, sticky tea-smoked ribs, a perfectly crispy flattened pi pa duck, the 'vegetarian' chicken stirfry (made of beancurd, but so convincing!) and a claypot of the silkiest tofu imaginable with aubergines and bitter melons stuffed with pork and prawn. We continued our conversation at the busy bar (and a special mention to the ultra friendly service from the bar staff) and tried some excellent cocktails - lemongrass for him, a non-alcoholic one called 'Washed Potatoes' (why?) for me. All in all, an immensely enjoyable experience, and this restaurant is well deserving of all its accolades.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

HOT: Dinner@Dana: Brain Man, The Science Museum's Dana Centre, 165 Queen's Gate, South Kensington SW7 5HD

I really like the fact that there is enough interest about science in London that there is a purpose-built building like the Dana Centre, where they regularly hold free seminars and events which discuss science, technology and culture. For one of their dinner events, they invited the savant Daniel Tamett to speak about his condition and his extreme numberical and language skills. I had read that he he could do complex sums in his head with lightening speed, and that he learnt Icelandic in a week, so I'm not sure why I was expecting a dribbling Steven Hawkins lookalike. Daniel was articulate and interesting, and his most interesting proposition was that as well as having a language instinct, we all have a counting and mathematical instinct.

Monday, 19 January 2009

HOT: La Bayadere, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

My last ever ROH ballet performance (sob)! In all ballet performances the costumes are beautiful, but in La Bayadere I thought the costumes took centre stage, with the lavishness of the beautifully intricate gold beading and the jewelled coloured swathes of chiffon. Once again, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta and my new favourite ballerina, Marianela Nunez, did not disappoint in their stunning performances. Acosta leapt and turned like he had springs on his feet, Nunez was haughty and statuesquely regal and Rojo's delicate and supple frame, so full of expression in her passion and anguish, was enhanced by the midriff (and rib) baring costumes she was wearing as the temple dancer Nikiya.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

HOT: The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art, Saatchi Gallery, The Duke of York's HQ, Kings Road, Chelsea SW3 4SQ

The Saatchi Gallery has been rehoused in the brilliant exhibition space of the grand Duke of York's HQ, and its opening exhibition was a collection of modern Chinese art. A lot of the artwork was visually arresting - creepy old men wheeling around in automated wheelchairs, the realistic man lying prone and licking the ground, a messy oversized bed (a la Tracy Emin) and body casts hanging on the ceiling. However, I can't say I thought any of it was actually good art - and there were some shockingly bad, boring or ugly works, including a giant turd (which really said it all). Worth it for a free look, but the Tate Modern is much, much better.

NOT: Magnificence of the Tsars, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington SW7 2RL

I was expecting a lot more from this exhibition but it was a pokey, crowded and flourescently white space stuck in the middle of the permanent Fashion exhibition. The sumptuously decorated jackets, coats and capes were displayed without any real historical context (except for the names of the particular Tsars for whom they had been made) and it was basically a collection of lots of mens military jackets. We whipped through in about 45 minutes with Huy making snide comments the whole time.

HOT: Victoria and Albert Museum Cafe, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington SW7 2RL

The V&A Cafe is as far removed from the ladle-of-slop-from-bain-marie as you can get. The tempting food is displayed in bright white surroundings, but the most stunning aspect are the refreshment rooms decorated by the leading designers of the late 1800s - Morrs, Gamble and Poynter. These three tiled and ornately decorated rooms formed the first museum restaurant in the world and they are romantic and awe-inspiring. On a Sunday they even have a classical pianist on the grand piano, whose music sweeps above the chatter of raucous families and elevates you to appreciate the beauty above your head.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

HOT: Meryl Streep: A Life in Pictures, BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts regularly hosts events which celebrate the life and work of people in the film industry, from Cate Blanchett to Anthony Minghella. This time it was the turn of possibly the greatest living actress, Meryl Streep. She was a funny, intelligent and confident - certainly not self-deprecating and carefully dodged more difficult questions. Reading down her list of works it's clear that she's deliberately chosen to work in a wide range of genres in order to avoid being stereotyped - but the consistent thread through all her choices is her desire to undermine your assumptions or expectations about her character. This is what gives the depth and humanity in her roles. The selected clips from her filmography also impressed me with her mastery of accents (for which she's justly famous) - apparently to convince Alan J. Pakula that she was right for Sophie's Choice she read the director some poetry in Sophie's Polish voice, and to get Karen Blixen's accent she listened to tapes of Jeremy Irons' Danish nanny.

HOT: Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, Dalston E2 8EA

The Geffrye Museum is a well-planned museum featuring interiors of the English 'middling classes' from 1600 to present day. An Englishman's home is his castle, and displaying and discussing his choice of furnishings and designs uses an interesting perspective to teach about the social and cultural history of an era. There is currently a fascinating special exhibition called Choosing the Chintz, which explores the relationship between men and women when furnishing their home - I liked the video interviews of couples talking about their differences in tastes, their decision-making styles and learning to compromise.

HOT: La Vie en Rose, 2 Broadway Market, Hackney E8 4QG

I loved the eclectic and rustic decor of this French bistro/cafe (except for the bizarre anatomically incorrect French maid mural). That alone, plus the fantastic people-watching opportunities, pushes it to HOT, as the service was a definitely space cadet and the food (sliced white supermarket bread? canned pineapple?) wasn't all that special.

HOT: Cafe Gossip, Broadway Market E8 4QJ

This tiny cafe reminded me of the hole-in-the-wall places dotted throughout Melbourne. Deb and I casually stalked the picturesque window seat, but it seemed that the carrot cake was too good for the couple as they lingered in their prime position. Next time!

HOT: Off Broadway Gallery, 63-65 Broadway Market E8 4PH

A wander off Broadway and down some brick steps leads you to the fine art publishing house Off Broadway Gallery. It's a den filled with photographs of London (mostly printed on canvas) and manned by the personable Stephen, who told us that Hackney was the friendliest place that he'd ever been, anywhere in the world.

HOT: Sauce a part, 41 Broadway Market, Hackney E8 4PH

I've never had proper Creole food before and I was seduced by the smells and music coming from the basic street-side stovetops of Sauce a part. The super-friendly chef (and this was a noticeable feature of all the stallholders of Broadway Market) let us taste-test the tiger prawns, and as I couldn't choose between the prawns or the chicken, I decided to go for both.

NOT: R Cooke & Sons, 9 Broadway Market

I have to admit that I didn't actually taste-test any pies, mash or jellied eels from this quintessentially Cockney London pie and mash shop. However, I did get close enough to the window to glimpse the tureen of floating foam and eel bits, and catch a whiff of the awful smell. This is one local culinary experience I'm happy to do without.

HOT: Cicilcia, 1 Broadway Market, Hackney E8 4PH

On a cold day, the sunny conservatory of this bright Turkish restaurant was a welcome respite - and it seems to be very popular with families as there were lots of kids running underfoot. The 2 course lunch special had us dining on a filling selection of felafel, kofte and chicken betzi, moussaka - good, solid food for great value (7.95).

HOT: Fabrications, 7 Broadway Market, Hackney E8 4PH

Fabrications is a charming textiles and fabric shop which sells your standard wool and fabric, plus a selection of handcrafted products and accessories. It's a warm, tactile place that wants to inspire you to take up your knitting needles and glue gun.

HOT: Broadway Market, Hackney E8

I really like the motto of Broadway Market - Quality, Speciality Variety for the People by the People - and I really think it lives up to these words. On a cold Saturday a very local crowd of artfully dishevelled funksters strolled around the stalls and stores greeting friends, and it really seemed like a very social place. The varied food stalls (Ghanian, Indian vegetarian, felafel, Jewish) smelled delicious but unfortunately it was too cold for Deb and I to be eating outdoors.

HOT: V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, Hackney E2 9PA

The Museum of Childhood is housed in a Hansel and Gretel/Escher cubed pastel pink iron structure and it contains a large exhibition of toys, clothing and a fantastic Italian puppet theatre. As you'd expect from a childhood museum, it's a joyous and welcoming place, and the museum gift shop is adorable! Deb and I gushed over the novel toys, the picture books (Deb did a child literature course at uni) and Gentlemen pyjamas. I couldn't resist the Retro Robot Blackboard by Ivy Bespoke - a blackboard vinyl wall decal in the shape of a robot, which lets you chalk messages then wipe them off. More fun that post-its any day.

Friday, 16 January 2009

HOT: The Oak, 137 Westbourne Park Road, Notting Hill, W2 5QL

It was an intriguing idea - a joint 29.5 and 30.5 birthday party (cos summer birthdays are so underwhelming), but really just an excuse to dress up, eat out and meet people. The Oak is a decadently boudoir gastropub/bar dressed in high ceilings, vermillion feathered wallpaper, sleek low slung black lamps and frosted oval mirrors. Jutting off from the upstairs bar is a gorgeous private dining room featuring a long wooden table and long, low benches, perfect for our party of fifteen. Our well-executed set menu featured a course of extensive antipasto and charcuterie (I loooove cured meat), a choice of three mains (roast chicken breast with herbs and mushrooms) and a choice of three desserts (a dense thyme infused creme-brulee). There's no charge for booking the room, and it's only 35 pounds for 3 courses - so highly recommended for a private dining experience.