Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ceru, 12th February

Levantine cuisine’s star is rising and I couldn’t be more pleased. After memorable meals at The Palomar and Honey & Co, I was keen to complete what I termed the trifecta and go to Arabica. And then yet another place came on the scene in the form of Ceru, a tiny restaurant offering a more affordable Levantine dining experience.

A group of us bloggers had a foodie outing kindly organized by Sheepa of Food That Makes You Smile and Snita of Her Favourite Food and we went for a mini feast for the special offer of £20 a head. To start we could choose a fresh juice or mocktail. Almost everyone chose the Patricia for some reason (the namesake of the owner) which was a mixture of pear puree, apple juice, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves (actually reading that is there any surprise we all wanted it?) but the Percy  - pomegranate, soda, ginger ale and fresh lime also looked very nice.

Once everyone arrived we were seated and our dips and breads to share came out. We had four kinds – hummus anointed with chickpeas, green shilli and lemon; pancar which was roast beetroot, garlic and pistachio; fadi – a courgette puree with tahini, garlic and lemon and then a spicy roast pepper dip made with chilli, walnuts and pomegranate molasses. We had warm pitta with za’atar to scoop it up. I could have dived right into a whole pot of all of them but my two favourites were the garlicky fadi and the warming spiced chilli dips. When the bread ran out we kept the rest of the dips aside to eat with our mains.

Choosing what to have put us all in a quandary but the lamb shoulder cooked with shawarma aromatic spices eventually beckoned. This came as strips of fatty, crispy lamb all well seasoned and spiced and adorned with pomegranate seeds. While I love the taste of pomegranate, I don’t love the fruit itself so tried to avoid them spoiling the lovely lamb. To accompany this we had fried cubed potatoes and a very fresh, light butter bean and tomato salad with, I think, some lemon and herbs.

This part was surprisingly filling and I could have happily stopped there. However, dessert was included so I didn’t. Quite a few of us ordered the baklava ice cream. Ceru seem fond of taking a well-known dish or ingredient and Anglicising it for their desserts. So the baklava didn’t have any baklava but instead had all the components of it – nut brittle, honey sauce, and scoops of pistachio ice cream. It was very lovely to eat, though I think they could get away with a smaller serving! There was a lot of ice cream.

The place is run by husband and wife team Patricia and Barry and even without knowing you can tell they’re a couple from their closeness and the speed at which Barry could get on his wife’s nerves! They made for very friendly and amiable hosts, making it feel a bit like you were round their place being treated to dinner.

And what is really great about this little pop-up (permanent place coming soon) is that the prices are so reasonable you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to come here – it’s very much a casual, drop in when you fancy (if there’s space!) kinda place. Even without our bargain set menu, the lamb dish is only £9 and that is the most expensive plate on the menu!

Ceru Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, March 2, 2015

Liars League, 10th February

Liars League is a storytelling night with class and one that recognizes the perhaps awkward truth that just because you can write a kick-ass story, doesn’t mean you’re any good at reading it aloud. So Liars League teams good story writers with good story tellers to create a night of tales that is top notch. Each performer is a genuine actor, turning each short piece of fiction into almost a one-person play. Accents are adopted, actions are played out, and you are completely sucked into the narrative.

Liars League is a monthly event at The Phoenix on Tuesdays (The Phoenix fast becoming a place my Meetup group goes to regularly) and each event has a theme. Writers are invited to send in their submissions and then these are vetted by the ‘Liars’ who run the league to pick the cream of the crop and the ones that will work best for the event. They have to bear in mind that someone actually has to read these stories aloud and make them believable. So, for an example of one that didn’t make the grade – someone had written a story all about a person who could do all these amazing impressions. But that would mean the actor needed to be able to do all these impressions so regardless of how good the plot was, it wouldn’t work in Liars League. Once they have the stories, they need to match them to the actors. Any accents that feature prove a strong point to consider – they had to draft someone in especially for one of the stories we saw as they realized they didn’t have anyone who could do a Scottish accent. But more than that they just seemed to match the personas of the stories to the performers incredibly well so that you couldn’t imagine any of the other performers there doing any other story.

They have six pieces per night and an interval after the first three, plus plenty of time to chat and hang around after (when I got to talking to the compere for the night, Liam, who is a writer himself. Never a storyteller apparently although he does a bang-up job of hosting in an amusingly arch manner).

For this event we had the theme The Beautiful and the Damned (it was close to Valentine’s Day) and so we had a range of love-themed stories with many a non-happy ending. First, Selkie, the eerie tale of the disappearance of a man and his entire family – had he married a silkie and they’d all been taken out to sea?

Next we had a unique and unsettling story of this poor sap who had a tendency to fall and fall hard for people who didn't return his feelings. His tendency to pour out his emotions in poetry lead to his exploitation to create renewable energy. There's nothing like the pent-up energy of unrequited love to create a source of power!

We also had the hilarious story of Ger Sheen and the Satanists involving a literal motherf*cker and a bunch of satanists terrorising a poor sheep farmer. There was the sweet love story Gerald the Absolute Swine who finally meets his match. The rather sad Lag, about a prisoner on day release to attend a uni reunion, seeing the now-married ex he still has feelings for. And even a wizard story on the origins of Guinevere's beauty. You can watch the performances of the stories, or just read them yourself here.

And just to keep it even more interesting, at the end of the break there is a short, literary quiz. With books for prizes of course! This time they were giving out tacky YA romance novels in the main although one ‘real’ book was also a prize. This was much more informal than I expected – if you knew the answer you just had to shout out as soon as you knew it, as they read out clues to the title. So even though I figured out a couple I wasn’t brazen enough to pipe up. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ragam, 7th February

It is a sad fact that Stephen and I have bad luck when it comes to opening hours. Many’s the time I’ve taken a special trip to a street food stall only to find it shut, or we’ve taken a random Monday off and everywhere we’ve wanted to eat was closed. So it was when we first tried to get into Ragam, in the limbo time between Christmas and New Year. As we advanced on the front it became clear they too had decided to shup up shop for the holidays, but it luckily provided us with an opportunity to go to Honey & Co.

It also made us determined to try again. The sole reason I know about Ragam is because I follow Ben Goldacre on Twitter and about 3 years ago he raved about it. He’s a pretty sensible, logical guy – always tweeting about evidence – and so I considered him trustworthy even on food. I was right to do so.

Stephen had been doing PescaJanuary (no meat, fish allowed) and we decided to celebrate him rejoining the carnivorous fold by going for a curry with a few friends. Having a few of us gave the perfect excuse to have a smorgasbord of starters before getting a main dish each. Some of these weren’t the easiest thing to share but we just about managed.

So, what did we have?

Stephen had a lamb vindaloo which, strangely, didn’t seem to have any potato in it. This was rather vinegary and, I thought, really, really hot. He begged to differ but I think he was just trying to be macho. I don’t know whether I liked the taste all that much and I know I couldn’t have eaten much of it. I just dipped some paratha in every now and again.

Paratha is all they serve on the bread front but that’s fine with me as I think they’re as good as, if not better, than nan breads. As with nans elsewhere, these came in lots of different flavours. I almost ordered the chilli but as I’d asked for extra heat in my curry I thought that may be foolish and instead had a garlic one. This was so garlicky it was verging on bitter. I think a plain one would have been best.

My butter chicken curry was delicious and there was plenty of it. It is not traditionally a particularly hot curry so I asked for extra spice and they got the heat level just perfect for me. Noses were running but the flavours weren’t masked. It was exactly what I want when i have a curry – good consistency, spicy, plenty of flavour and plenty of meat. 
Butter chicken and stack of paratha
My friends have a favourite curry house in London – Gopal’s. They’re almost regulars there. But after visiting here their allegiance was certainly wavering. While the curries were good (they also had the butter chicken) I think the starters were what was swaying their loyalties. So here’s a run through of them:

Cashew nut pakoda – cashews dipped in spicy batter and fried. Amazingly moreish, just takes a nut to a completely new level. They disappeared in seconds and I haven’t stopped thinking about them.

Sambar vada – doughnut in a lentil gravy – this was incredibly savoury and deeply flavoured, reminding us of the dipping curry at Roti king. Not the easiest dish to share, as it is one doughnut but we managed to cut it up so that everyone could have a bite.

Onion bhaji – these are easier to get wrong than you might think but we were really happy with the ones we had. They weren’t too greasy and heavy and came with a raita-style sauce to dip them in. 

We also had pappadums of course and even these were a little bit special as some of them were not just plain pappadums but seasoned.

And we’re not even done yet. We also ordered some poori masala – puffed bread stuffed with potato masala. These were a little dry and not our favourites but easily tasty enough, especially when dipped in the sambar vada gravy.

Finally we also had a side of bhindi which came with onions and tomatoes as we wouldn’t have felt healthy without a bit of veg!

Apologies for the quality of the photos, I was too excited to get stuck in to worry about being arty, or even in focus!

The food is ridiculously well priced even for Central London – curries were around the £7 mark, the other dishes ranged from £3 to £6. Book ahead if you can as the place is pretty popular and yet not that big so was all but full when we went on a Saturday night.  

Ragam on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, February 20, 2015

Motown Desserts, 1st February

Cakes in the window and a glittery sign attracted me to Motown Desserts a very long while ago and one balmy winter’s day I decided to pop in, having walked back from the Annual Clown Service and feeling like I’d walked off some calories. It was bigger inside than I imagined meaning I could sit in the back and ‘take advantage’ of one of their house specials rather than nabbing a piece of cake to take home.

This I regret. I think a piece of cake to take home would have been far more pleasurable than the mess I had. I wasn’t really sure what I fancied – mainly cake and ice cream but they didn’t have that exact combo so instead I had the Cloud Nine. This was lady fingers soaked in coffee with coffee and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and a wafer. Sounded like a different take on tiramisu. But it was pretty horrible. The lady fingers seemed to have been soaked in warm coffee, and unevenly. Some of them were still rock hard, others had turned to complete mush which was an awful texture in the mouth, especially coupled with being warm. I didn’t expect the ice cream to reach Gelupo standards and it didn’t. It even had slightly chewy bits which I’m not really sure were intentional. I ate about three quarters of it until all that were left were the awful lady fingers and then I got out of there, paying £7 for the privilege.

The one thing I liked about the place was its main feature – a section of glass floor from where you can look down on sacks of coffee beans and records. Otherwise it was a swing and a miss for me. 

Motown Desserts on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stokey Crawl, 30th January

Another Friday, another bar crawl. Quite an extended one this time – it was time for some list ticking in Stoke Newington/Dalston.

125 Church Street

I met Stephen at the relatively recently opened 125 Church Street where White Rabbit Cocktail bar was previously, and before that it was the Baby Bathhouse. I don’t know why but places that open on this spot don’t have much longevity. We shall see whether the folks behind the Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker have better luck.

The place looks very different from the last time I was there – it is clean and bright, and feels more like a café than a bar. We had just the one drink here and some food. Their food menu is short and simple – American-style sandwiches: The Cuban, The Reuben, a Grilled Cheese and a sandwich of the day. Being that reubens are somewhat proliferative in London now, I gave the Cuban a go. Stephen, still in his pescatarian month had the grilled cheese. They each came with crisps and some coleslaw that had a very light touch on the mayo and included mint; a simple twist that made a big difference.

The sandwiches were lovely. Mine had gherkins and American mustard giving it a nice tang, and had a decent amount of pulled pork in it along with the ham and cheese. Stephen’s sarni was so full of cheese it cascaded down the side of the basket. He was duly impressed with the taste – it had everything but the kitchen sink: mozzarella, swiss, cheddar and an American-style cheese. Pretty good value at £5 for his and £6.50 for mine. I also had a fruity but dry white wine at £5 for 175 ml. Would happily revisit but it’s a little out of the way for me, and I suspect many others, and this could lead to its downfall. I hope not though.

Square Meal

Original Sin

Then off we went to Original Sin, the new cocktail bar from Happiness Forgets which just oozes American at you as you enter its subterranean sepia setting – it’s a bit like walking into an Instagram filter. A long bar down one side and booths down another plus a pool table (with brown felt) at one end create a sophisticated but fun ‘Mad Men’ atmosphere. And the pool table is free! I was surprised at how big the place was, especially compared to Happiness but it soon became quite full so the space is needed. 

We had two drinks in here but I would have happily stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to try. The cocktail list is not overwhelming and prices are a pleasing £7.00 for highballs and £8.00 for the rest. My Mr Sandman tasted strongly of the all spice it was flavoured with, which I liked, although it felt more appropriate for the Christmas season, to be drunk with a ginger biscuit. (Funny I should end up ordering a drink made with Remy Martin when it was Remy that got me to Happiness forgets in the first place.) Stephen’s Perfect Storm was fiery with ginger and sweet with plum brandy and I loved it. 

He liked his second one, the Kashmir, even more though it was a bit too heavy on the cardamom for me. Actually, my second drink was a misstep for me as well – the Sea City didn’t have enough of the smokiness I associate with mescal for my taste and was way too salty for me. It was a bit too much like drinking the sea, rather than the refreshing drink I’d imagined. 

We played a couple of games of pool while the place filled up before sitting down in our booth to finish our second drink. It was both cosy and lively once a few people were there, playing some easy-on-the-ears blues and soft rock (there was some song overlap with here and High Water so this must be the music to drink cocktails to) Overall though, this is a great bar to get comfy in but we had two more places on the list to cover so we moved on.

Square Meal

High Water

Next we went to High Water which is where Bar 23 used to be. While I liked the bar itself, and the bar staff, the cocktails didn’t do much for us. They were rather plainly presented and the tastes weren’t as complex or as rich as I would have liked. And, especially compared to where we had just been, it seemed expensive for what you got (£9 or £9.50 standard). I couldn't resist the ridiculous-sounding Foo Foo Band Night but it didn't live up to its crazy name and flavours of peanut butter rum, lime and banana. It was incredibly subtle. Stephen's French Leave was the same - tasted alcoholic and faintly fruity but not enough of its ingredients to make a huge impression. We switched to beer and wine after, and while I’d be happy to come back here, I wouldn’t make a special effort for the cocktails again.

Square Meal

Dalston Victoria

Final stop for the night was the Dalston Victoria, something of a Dalston institution I believe, and frequently a gig space, though not on the night we went. There was no getting away from the fact that it smelled awful when we arrived but our noses soon acquiesced to it and we rather liked the place. Definitely of the ‘dive’ variety, it was kind of bare and not even very busy when we were there on a Friday night. A round cost £10 on the nose (rare to find a place where two drinks is £10 or less) and the drinks were good. It had that typically east slightly shabby, eclectic thing going on with a lightbox of Victoria's head and a wall of books making it feel a bit like someone's house. I believe this has either just changed hands or is about to (a quick search reveals the Dreambags crew are taking it on), and that they might even have a street food residency in the kitchen soon. From this lot I wouldn’t expect it to lose too much of its ‘diveyness’ and should remain a proper boozer with a gig space out the back as it has been for so long. One to remember.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Listen Softly London, 26th January

If you are a lover of words then you’re spoilt for choice in London. There is a litany of spoken word, poetry, literary and storytelling nights out there (and many of them have been blogged about by me). A fairly new arrival to the scene is Listen Softly London, run by Dominic Stevenson, in a room at the top of the Crown in Southwark. Dom works in the charity sector but still felt like he wasn’t doing enough good in the world and so decided to put on a spoken word event to raise some money for a good cause. When it was a success and someone asked him when the next one would be, it became a regular occurrence.

Dom curates four people who deal in the currency of words, as well as performing some of his own works. These are not the same people at each event and so subjective taste as well as their own objective talent will determine how much you enjoy it, but to go by the event I attended this is another gem in the literary crown of London.

First up we had Dan Carpenter reading an excerpt from a story in the collection After the Fall. I am convinced I have seen Dan read elsewhere but cannot figure out where. Anyway, this story concerned a world where technology was no more, a world where technology was viewed with suspicion and fear, by those who could even remember it. We didn’t find out why, and nor did we hear the entire story so we were left with our own unsettling imaginings as to what had gone wrong. Quite clever.

After a short break, Sarah Sheldon treated us to some of her ‘comedic storytelling’. In short, she is a standup comic but she has her own very unique delivery and stage persona. I know I won’t do it justice by describing it here but she had a sort of Charlie Brown resignation about her, in relation to the struggle that is ordinary life, as she told us about her favourite childhood stories of Topsy and Tim, envying both their companionship and their lives where nothing whatsoever interesting happened. She shared with us her fear of change, and how this has lead to an almost debilitating obsession with whether or not her boss was going to leave for a new job. And finally, we were introduced to her Jewish grandmother’s fixation on chairs. It was really funny, and I was really pleased to see a female comic given some floor time.

The last two acts were your ‘typical’ spoken word complete with the pattern and cadence familiar to anyone who has seen much of this. But that doesn’t mean they were old hat. Megan was, perhaps a little predictably, quite feminist (it just abounds in these circles) and started off with a bit of a rant inspired by Jay Z’s 99 Problems (she had 99 problems and the male construct anti-women society was one etc). Not all her pieces were quite so political though – she had a good old rant about couples snogging on the tube and also covered her sincere desire to be Maria from The Sound of Music when she was a little girl, and her feelings about leaving her student life behind. Before, finally, finishing on another feminist note inspired by Mary Beard. Her work was clever and witty with vocabulary any word lover would appreciate.

And finally, we had Dean McCaffrey. I must admit, I got a little distracted by his face and tats when I was trying to listen to his words but the story he was weaving eventually grabbed my attention. He started with quite a long piece about befriending a homeless guy who turned out to be something of a muse for him when he was but a young lad, as well as providing an introduction to the realities of homelessness that we all know exist. I’ve not really heard such a long piece of spoken word before. One of my Meetup members said it was Shakespearean but it reminded me more of an epic Homerian poem. He then rather shyly performed a rap for us as he is a rapper as well, though I must say, without background music the difference between rap and spoken word is ‘subtle’.

People were encouraged to stick around afterwards and have a chat, which added to the friendly and welcoming atmosphere. These nights are monthly and if you like this sort of thing, or want to find out if you do, then you should pop along some time.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Old School Indie, 24th January

What can I say about Old School Indie other than it does exactly what it says on the tin? These guys are devoted to bringing you a weekly dose of the finest indie around. And we all know what the finest indie is – Britpop and the stuff that was around in the golden era of the 90s. As my boyfriend said later – it was like listening to a Shine compilation CD and I can think of no finer praise.

By the way – for a perfect pub to meet up at beforehand, I highly recommend the Joker of Penton Street. While it wasn’t playing just indie, the music in there definitely put us in the mood for the club ahead, not to mention the big Be Here Now clock of course.

After a few drinks here, we went up the road to the O2 Islington and into the Indie Disco. It being a January weekend I suspected that the night would be pretty much just mine and the Indie meetups attending but I was wrong, it was pretty busy! Busy enough for there to be a full dancefloor, but not so busy you had to miss all the songs you like because you were queuing at the bar.

So, what did they play?

Well here’s just a taster:
Jet – Are you Gonna be My Girl
Oasis – Supersonic
Blur – Park Life
Pulp – Disco 2000 and Do you remember the first time?
Wonderstuff – Size of a Cow

And a few even older school tunes such as Iggy pop – Lust for life and Heroes by David Bowie.

They also have a cardboard cutout of Jarvis Cocker which is basically just an invite to get up on the stage and dance around with him. Plenty of people did.

It was a really fun night out and made me want to try one of their other nights – Feeling Gloomy all the more.

About Me

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I work as an editor in educational publishing by day, and then spend most of my spare time discovering interesting things to do in London, and taking people there with my own Meetup.