Monday, 28 November 2016

Gatecrasher review: La Mar, Buenos Aires

Ok, here's an experiment; normally this blog does what it says on the tin and gives you the heads up/low down on what's happening in and around London. However, at this precise moment I am sitting on a terrace overlooking the pool in a gorgeous zen hideaway just outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina after a wonderful dinner last night and I have decided to go off-piste and blog a non-London restaurant. So, here is the very first 'gatecrasher' review - La Mar, a Peruvian cebichería in the Palermo district of the city of Buenos Aires.

La Mar was probably the hottest new restaurant opening last year and it is still buzzing. There were doubts that a restaurant focusing on fish and seafood would last once the novelty had worn off but it is clearly still the place to be and be seen; we were guests of some very chic and well-connected Argentinian ladies so were shown straight to one of the coveted outdoor tables, right next to the bar.

We started off with a bottle of red while we looked through the menu, which arrived with a bowl of sweet potato crisps accompanied by two dipping sauces, one mild and one gently spicy. There isn't an English menu but the wait staff are very helpful. One of our companions ordered for us, which worked very well; it was a real treat to sit back and have dish after wonderful dish arrive magically at the table. The first was Causas Barranco - prawns with avocado on a shaped and seasoned mashed potato base, a traditional Peruvian starter. (Potatoes are the major crop of the Andes, region, with over 3,000 different varieties growing in Peru and the surrounding areas.)

Next to arrive was - I think - a Ceviche Mixto and a Clásico, fish and seafood of the day in the fabulously-named leche de tigre, literally 'tiger's milk'. This is the marinade that the ceviche has been steeped in, a mixture of lime juice, garlic, fresh coriander, chillies and red onion, often served in a shot glass alongside. 

The wontons that arrived next were particularly good - light and crisp, packed with a juicy seafood filling and served with a tamarind dip.

The Quinoa Caprese salad was not the most obvious accompaniment somehow, but was really good; excellent creamy burrata which contrasted well with the freshness and chilli-citrussy sharpness of the ceviche.

To finish we had a traditional Peruvian dessert, a Suspiro Limeño (literally, 'sigh of Lima'); this is a caramel-type base not dissimilar to Argentina's famous dulce de leche (but slightly less dense) topped with meringue made with port. It is still very sweet - we shared one between four so we could all have a taste and were happy with that!

The bar in the courtyard is very cool; we stuck to the red wine and so didn't get round to trying the pisco cocktails, but if you go, try the chilcano and tell me what it's like. 

Yours, loving the outdoor dining in November,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

 When I have mentioned to friends and colleagues that I went to this exhibition, I have generally been met with a kind of rabbit-in-the-headlights look somewhere between fear and bafflement. If you're not familiar with contemporary art it might sound a bit highbrow but please, PLEASE don't let that put you off; you absolutely do not need to be any kind of expert to go and to enjoy it (exhibit A, my good self). Perhaps more than any other kind of art, it is all about feeling, not knowing. However, if some kind of definition helps . . .

What is Abstract Expressionism (or Ab Ex to its friends)? Well, if we agree that abstract art is generally art that is not 'representative' - i.e. is not a 'representation', or copy, of something in the outside world - and that expressionism is about expressing your thoughts, feelings and ideas - then I guess a reasonable working definition would be that Abstract Expressionists aim to communicate something from the artist's inner world without necessarily using anything in the external world to do this. (Apologies to all the art historians out there who are currently doing a very good impression of Munch's Scream, but hey, it works for me.)

Actually, there are those who would argue that Abstract Expressionism is not a movement or group at all - primarily, most of the artists within it. Rothko famously stated, 'I am not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on'. The paintings don't really share a particular style; in fact, the canvasses are so full of spontaneity and individuality that apparently the CIA covertly funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions during the Cold War as an act of propaganda, to lure intellectuals and artists away from Communism by comparing the freedom of these deeply subjective works with the the rigid confines limiting creativity under Soviet rules.

However, the term has stuck as a useful way of referring to a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s and 50s. This period just after the Second World War was, as you might expect, a time of freedom and release, of great explosive energy and creativity, of jazz and Jack Kerouac. One of the comments I found most interesting on the audio guide was about Jackson Pollock and the physical act of creating the works, sometimes called 'gesture' or 'action' painting; it did not just involve the wrist and hand, like traditional painting, but the whole arm - even the whole body; expansive, sweeping movements, requiring a completely different energy and control. Also, suddenly the artist was not standing still in front of a vertical canvas but moving around above a horizontal one; in Blue Poles, paint was dropped from up to two feet above the canvas.

Another common factor you will notice is the scale of the canvasses. Pollock was commissioned to paint Mural for the entrance hall of Peggy Guggenheim's Manhattan townhouse; this was his largest canvas to date and was followed by both Rothko and Gorky producing their largest works the following year. The temptation when viewing it is to stand back and look at the whole painting from a distance, but it was always meant to be seen up close, in a relatively confined space compared to a gallery. Viewing it like this you both appreciate the detail and feel almost engulfed by it, drawn into the energy.

At the heart of the exhibition, in the Central room, are the Rothkos. I will always have a special place in my heart for Rothko and these gorgeous, hypnotic, melancholy paintings; years ago, being taken to the Seagram Murals room in the Tate Modern was a revelatory experience for me and sparked my love of contemporary art. For me, in this exhibition, it was No 15 (Dark Greens on Blue with Green Band) 1957 that drew me in and kept me standing there; somehow, once you stop trying to rationalise them, they connect with you in a way I can't explain but which fascinates me. Luminous, intense and captivating, no print or photograph will ever be able to do them justice.

One of the unexpected gifts of this exhibition was the work of Clyfford Still, an artist I wasn't familiar with before this. In my defence, Still rejected the commercialism of the art world (a pet hate of Rothko's too) and moved to a farm in Maryland, selling hardly any of his paintings; 95% of his work is in a museum dedicated to him in Denver, Colorado and this is one of the few times they have loaned it out. I'm very glad they did, as they are powerful and striking pieces, again designed to actively involve the viewer.

So, even if you think you're not into abstract art, go to this exhibition. Go on your own so you don't have to react in any particular way, and go with an open mind. Don't worry about understanding them, don't try to define what they are about, or of; just stand, look and wait.

Yours, enthralled all over again,

London Girl About Town xx

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