Friday, 31 October 2008

NOT: Quantum of Solace, Barbican Cinema

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

HOT: Murano, 20 Queen Street, Green Park

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

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

Thursday, 30 October 2008

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

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

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

NOT: The Walworth Farce, National Theatre, Southbank

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

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

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

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

Sunday, 26 October 2008

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

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

Saturday, 25 October 2008

HOT: Oedipus, National Theatre, Southbank

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

HOT: The Archduke, 153 Concert Hall Approach, Southbank

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

HOT: No 14, 14 Holland Street, Kensington

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

HOT: Minkie at Topshop, 42 High Street Kensington

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

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

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

Friday, 24 October 2008

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

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

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

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

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

Sunday, 12 October 2008

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

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

Saturday, 11 October 2008

NOT: Kate Summerscale at Living Literature Society, Dickens House

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

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

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

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

HOT: Apple Store, 235 Regents Street W1B 2EL

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

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

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

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

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

HOT: Gia London, Portobello Road Markets

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

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

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

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

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

HOT: The Olive Bar, Portobello Road

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

Friday, 10 October 2008

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

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

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

Monday, 6 October 2008

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

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