Saturday, 15 October 2016

Pollen Street Social

I had a huge treat recently - an invitation to Pollen Street Social for a fellow foodie's birthday celebration. This was my first visit to Jason Atherton's flagship restaurant, which famously was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening, and it more than lived up to expectations.

The tables are simply laid with white linen and country-chic design tableware in a buzzy dining room area with contemporary art from the likes of Gavin Turk. The overall effect is relaxed and welcoming, making it a perfect choice for anyone who might feel intimidated by the idea of Michelin-starred dining - or for a casual but wonderful birthday dinner.

Once greeted and seated, we had this very welcome selection of amuse-gueule, a literal taste of things to come: smoked salmon, sweetcorn muffins and my absolute favourite, crisp and delicate little beetroot and blackberry tartlets, full of contrasting flavours and perfect balanced.

For starters we had the Wye Valley asparagus with native lobster and shellfish hollandaise, and the Eyemouth crab salad with apple, coriander, lemon purée and black garlic, and brown crab on toast. Gorgeously plated and precisely balanced, this was an outstanding dish.

Central to Pollen Street Social's ethos is a commitment to sourcing top quality seasonal produce from British suppliers; exhibit A, the Wye Valley asparagus.

Mushroom tea, served from a very elegant and covetable white tea set, was next up; earthy yet delicate and a great transition into the main course.

Again, a near-impossible choice for our mains; I opted for the Cornish lamb loin with braised neck and roasted artichoke, served with a salad of crisp baby vegetables, merguez sausage and curds and whey. I can't help but think that this was a good call. The combination of the two cuts and cooking methods of lamb was really interesting, with the beautifully rare, springy loin contrasting with the deeper, soft braised meat, cut through by the sharpness of the salad. It was again one of the most beautifully plated dishes I have seen.

My companion chose the South Coast Dover sole, which was served with Cornish fish soup poured over at the table and an Orkney sea scallop on the side. If I hadn't been feeling quite so smug about the lamb, a serious case of meal envy would have ensued. 

I've never quite understood why the portions always look comparatively small in top restaurants, yet you leave feeling perfectly full. It could be that there is another little tasty something brought to you at every feasible opportunity - this one being pre-dessert and a perfect basil and foamed yoghurt ice.

I don't really have a sweet tooth but you can't really go to Pollen Street Social without having dessert, courtesy of Leo Maple and the crew. Chocolate heaven comes in the form of the bitter chocolate pave with chocolate ice cream, olive biscuit and olive oil conserve.

And just when you think you've seen it all . . . along comes the banana soufflé with the wonderfully retro rum and raisin ice cream and lime. It looks spectacular and tastes even better.

We briefly debated ordering a coffee somewhere else on the way home but decided we were way too comfortable; yet another good call, as it turned out. Not only is the coffee fabulous - single estate from El Salvador - but it comes with 'mignardises', which in this case turned out to be an array of yummy extras including chocolate ganache, Turkish delight beautifully presented in an antique tin and a Bakewell tart, still gently warm from the oven. 

Wandering around downstairs on my way to the ladies' I stumbled (did I mention the awesome house white?) across this slightly Lord of the Flies glass-sided meat locker; quite a lot of the prep takes place at bars in the dining area so you can see the masters at work.

I don't know why, but this is my favourite shot of the evening; a bit blurry, rushed, but for me - a glimpse of where the magic happens.

Yours, Michelin-star struck,

Girl About Town xx

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Vogue 100 - A Century of Style

Just a quick blog today, as this is the last week of the Vogue 100: A Century of  Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and I thought you might like to grab a ticket before it closes.

This exhibition concentrates on the photography rather than the fashion itself and there are some stunning portraits in here. As you might expect, there are several designers featured - my favourites were these wonderful shots of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. 

Kate's meteoric rise is charted, from dewy-skinned teenage discovery to London Look icon, and there are of course the stalwarts of the supermodel generation - Claudia, Linda, Naomi, Cindy et al. 

My visit was last weekend, when shots of the other famous Kate had been hung (visible here through the arch) and which for me have a slightly retro, almost seventies feel. In the previous room, I particularly liked the striking intensity of this black and white portrait of a boxer.

The exhibition is set up in straightforward fashion, if you'll pardon the pun: it's in reverse chronological order by decade, so you go from current day back to the magazine's birth. There are plenty of the shots I associate with classic Vogue - impossibly beautiful women in impossibly glamorous clothes and/ or surroundings. To address the point raised in other reviews, do these offend my feminist sensibilities? Absolutely not. I might not have Christy Turlington's killer cheekbones or Linda Evangelista's endless legs, and my life largely does not involve standing semi-naked on deserted palm-fringed islands or hanging off the arm of a chiselled, tuxedo-clad man by a private pool with champagne glass in hand - but for me these images provide a harmless fantasy, a girls' version of a James Bond movie. They are escapist, not genuinely aspirational, and surely we all need to dream?

As you move onwards into the exhibition, and back into Vogue's history, you can see how the images reflect the mood of the eras; there is a wonderful portrait of Charlie Chaplin and some languid shots of intellectual and literary greats, as well as the post-war backdrops providing a visual summary of the age. 
In summary, Vogue 100 won't change your life, but it is an enjoyable and gently indulgent way to spend an hour or so, looking back at the cultural phenomenon that is Vogue. And FYI ladies, the gift shop is selling the fabulously long-lasting Lipstick Queen lipsticks, including the bizarre and wonderful green Frog Prince lipstick that changes colour on your lips, and some fab hair bands that this summer I'm wearing as festival type wristbands. 

Thanks for being there, Vogue - here's to the next 100 years. 

 Yours, fashionably late, 

Girl About Town xx

Monday, 2 May 2016

Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare

 The last time I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream, I was a groundling at the Globe; it was wonderful, an experience about as close to the original Shakespeare as you can get. Except, perhaps, for the version currently showing at the Leicester Square Theatre where one member of the cast - along with a sizeable proportion of the audience - is totally hammered. (There are two bars and you can take your drinks to your seats, so you can catch up before the show).

 The night we went, it was Lysander's turn. Inevitably my companion and I were wondering if he was genuinely drunk - the programme assures us that he was - but actually it is genius either way. The play is cropped to the scene in the woods with the four lovers - two eloping, two in pursuit, one in love with the wrong person, you remember Shakespeare - and mischievous spirit Puck, who thinks that what this situation really needs is a magic potion that will make them fall in love with the first person they see upon waking . . . what could possibly go wrong? Oh yes - half a bottle of rum and three cans of Special Brew.

 This isn't highbrow, sophisticated or sensible, but it is boozy, bawdy and boisterous, a cross between serious Shakespeare, panto, and a student house party at 2am. The ad-libs are fabulous, be it from the intoxicated actor or his fellow thesps trying to keep the play going in a vaguely recognisable direction. Audience interaction is encouraged (although I'm glad I wasn't the one with the bucket!). On the evening we were there, Lysander decided that it would be much more fun if they ditched the score for the fight scene and got the audience to sing the Game of Thrones theme tune instead. He was right, it was. 

The play runs until 11th June so grab yourself a ticket, support the production, have fun and be prepared to laugh - a lot - but as the t-shirt says, Always Enjoy Shakespeare Responsibly.

 Yours, with the teensiest of crushes on Puck,

Girl About Town xx


 The sure-footed Sethi siblings have done it again - in fact, this might just be my favourite so far.

 Hoppers brings Sri Lankan street food to Soho, serving a mix and match menu of snacks, curries, mains and desserts on the site of the much-missed Koya on Frith Street. The tiny venue has been unfussily kitted out with exposed wood and brickwork, casual groups of framed movie prints and carved masks, and a mixture of table and bar-style seating which helps create a relaxed but buzzy atmosphere.

The menu is varied, with a glossary of terms to help you identify the options and knowledgeable staff happy to guide your choices. The biggest problem is what to leave out; the food is affordable and filling, and so good that you keep picking for the sheer pleasure of it long after you are full (or is that just me?). 

Hoppers, like all the hot places in London at the moment, has a no-reservations policy; this means that you are going to get seated more quickly if you need a table for two than if you are in a larger group. The good news is that they have now introduced a wait system where you turn up, leave your name and mobile number and get put on the waiting list. You can then pootle off and wait in seated comfort in one of the many bars nearby (we whiled away the time over a pisco sour in Chotto Matte over the road, but feel free to differ) and track your progress on a site link they text to you. You also get a text when your table is available, and ten minutes to get back before they give it to the next in line - a perfect compromise.

Once you're in, staff will explain the menu if you're a newbie. For me, the don't-miss items from the short eats are the mutton rolls and the hot butter devilled shrimps; for a mere £4.50 you get two sizeable mutton rolls per portion, like chunkier spring rolls, and they are packed with full-flavoured spiced mutton, so maybe share with a friend to save room. The devilled shrimps can vary in size but are tender and in a wonderfully more-ish sauce. Mop this up with a podi dosa, a spiced, folded lentil pancake - and get a set of three fresh sambols or chutneys (£1.25 a set), just because you can. 

Next, the eponymous hopper - a bowl-shaped pancake made from fermented rice and coconut milk that is thin, delicate and wafer-crisp at the top, and softer, almost spongy at the base - particularly if you opt for the version with a lightly-cooked egg in it, which I heartily recommend that you do. Match this with one or two of the karis (or curries), one of which just has to be the black pork; for me this is probably their stand-out dish, with complex, balanced flavours and just the right amount of bite. It really is ridiculously good. 

From the larger dishes, I have only tried the spit chicken and, guess what? It was fabulous - like everything on the menu, singularly fresh and full of flavour. I am ashamed to say that I haven't yet made it to the dessert stage as I just can't resist the rest of the menu, but apparently they are also good. 

To drink, I would probably stick with the Sri Lankan lager; the wine comes in half bottles and is the only thing I have had here that I thought was less than fabulous - although to be fair, I'm not a big fan of wine with this kind of spice - but they will bring you some to taste if you're not sure. The Hoppers lemongrass-infused G&T is recommended, and I also want to try the black pepper cream soda at some point. . . oh dear, looks like I'll just have to go back. . . 

 Yours, seriously converted to Sri Lankan street eats,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Like many people, my first introduction to Ai Weiwei was his sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern; I remember looking out over the huge space of the Turbine Hall and thinking that the combination of painstaking detail and sheer scale produced a perspective shift that was almost meditative, like looking out over the sea. In his new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Ai Weiwei again delivers work that masters its impressive surroundings and grabs your attention - even before you enter the building, in the case of his courtyard installation 'Trees'. (photo courtesy of the Royal Academy) 

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political activist, son of a dissident poet and sent along with his family into exile in labour camps as a result of his father's work, not returning to Beijing until Mao's death. I usually like to go round an exhibition once without any form of guide just so that I can come to it without any preconceptions but in this case the historical and political background is so intrinsic that I did take advantage of the audio guide included in the ticket price and I recommend that you do the same.

At every turn there is something beautiful, thought-provoking and challenging. Ai's signature large-scale work, coupled with wonderful curating which allows you to walk around, through and under the installations, means that you can really immerse yourself in the exhibition. You can find one-metre cube versions of much smaller precious objects made of crystal, tea, or intricately-carved wood, or disparate items such as sex toys and human remains reworked in different materials.

In 'Marble Stroller', the worker-bee-like segments of marble grass evoke his famous sunflower seeds, all similar but individual. The stroller, and the petrified surveillance camera, represent a chilling encounter when Ai Weiwei was out with his young son and challenged a man photographing them. Weiwei took the memory card from the man, who claimed to be a tourist; checking it later at his studio, he found hundreds of images of his child.

'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' is here, along with 'Coloured Vases', a group of Neolithic vases (or are they?) destroyed/transformed by industrial paint. This, for me, was perhaps the least engaging part of a magnificent exhibition - possibly because the rest is so raw and visceral, this paled by comparison. The questions of value, authenticity and art are interesting but they are ongoing and I feel if they had been exhibited separately they may not have been immediately identifiable as his work; I didn't feel powerfully drawn to these in the same way as the rest of the rooms.

The opposite is true of 'Straight'. This is my absolute favourite section of the exhibition; by which I mean, it brought me close to tears. 'Straight' is a response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 in which over 5,000 children died as a result of shoddily-built schools collapsing; film footage shows distraught parents attempting to resuscitate their lifeless children amid the wreckage.

The names of the dead - originally not released by the Chinese authorities - line the walls in bare chart form along with their dates of birth, while in the centre of the room a huge undulating row of rusted metal rods echoing the seismic activity graph of an earthquake, or the wave itself. These are the cheap rebars used to reinforce the concrete in the schools (there is a suggestion that the money intended for rods of a suitable strength may have been diverted to line official pockets) collected by Ai Weiwei and his volunteers and then hammered straight again. It is incredibly moving.

Ai Weiwei started a blog at the end of 2005, stating 'If to express oneself needs a reason, let me say that to express oneself is the reason.' This was shut down by the Chinese authorities after it started getting 100.000 hits a day and he used it to call for freedom of information so now he spends hours a day on Twitter. For me, one of the most elegantly powerful statements about this came in his 2012 Guardian interview: 'The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It's as simple as that.'

S.A.C.R.E.D is set of six large, rusting industrial tanks containing half life-size dioramas of scenes from his illegal incarceration on the vague grounds of alleged 'financial irregularities'. The works show Ai Weiwei eating, showering, sleeping and using the toilet whilst two impassive uniformed guards stand feet away, watching. Disturbing enough, you have to view the scenes by standing on a step to look in a small gap at the top of the tank, or stooping to peer through a narrow window along the side, forcing you to become part of the intrusive voyeurism of the work.

You leave the exhibition under the twinkling glamour of an extravagantly huge chandelier, constructed using thousands of crystals and the humble Forever bicycle, ubiquitous in China.

The Royal Academy have extended their opening hours for the last few weekends, including an unprecedented 56-hour marathon for the final one. So don't miss this; it has gone straight into my top five exhibitions ever and will stay in your mind long after you leave.

Yours, newly thankful for the ability to write and post this at all,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Breaking Bad pop-up bar

Yo bitches! As a fan of Breaking Bad I was very happy to get my hands on tickets to ABQ's themed pop-up bar in Hackney last week - and it didn't disappoint. I'll try not to give away any spoilers for those who haven't seen the series but if you are in the know you will recognise some key features. . .

There are three time slots per evening and despite taking time out to admire the street art on the way from Hackney Wick station (East London for me is still the best place for this) we arrived early for ours and so had time for a couple of pre-drinks. There are some nice details: the menu is in a copy of Walt  Whitman's Leaves of Grass, cocktails are served in beakers and blue is the colour of choice. You can even buy a charred pink bear with one eye and round off the evening with fried chicken and chips from Los Pollos Hackney, which clearly had to be done. 

The main event happens in an RV; you are hustled in by a DEA agent but, once your credentials have been established, it's time to get cooking. You get to make two different cocktails in teams of six, using an impressive array of equipment straight from a high school chemistry lab and assisted by guides in yellow overalls, all under the steely gaze of a huge backlit Heisenberg. Tread lightly.

Once you have done your thing with dry ice and nitrous oxide, the cocktails are served up for you to enjoy. It's dark, a bit cramped and lots of fun; you bond with your fellow meth cooks over the tasks and recounting your favourite characters (Jesse, obviously, and Mike - and as a character, Gus is fab) and quotes from the show (I am the one who knocks!).

Win the competition for the best version of cocktail two and your team is rewarded by a test tube rack of violently blue shots. Do you even have to ask, of course we won! Yeah bitch! 

Tumbling back out of the RV into the night, I was slightly envious of the next group as they got rounded up by the DEA. If you're missing your Walter White fix, or you fell for the new season prank and got your hopes up (really??), then get on the ABQ website now and grab yourself a reservation. Show them some love; rumour has it that they might make it a permanent bar, and I think I need this in my life.

Yours, cookin' some blue, bitch!

London Girl About Town xx