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.