Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Moth, 7th January

The Moth is a hugely popular import from NYC – and downstairs at the Book Club seemed the perfect place for it. The Moth, is a story slam. That’s right. You’ve heard of poetry slams I’m sure. Well the same construct is applied here, but to stories. Real stories told by real people. Ten people, who volunteer on the night. And then they are judged. They are judged by other people who volunteer on the night. And, as long as you get enough people brave enough to tell their story, it works really, really well.

I imagine that getting people up on stage to tell a short, 5 minute story (you get timed) isn’t such a problem in the States where everyone is eager to have their time in the spotlight. Over here, at the event I went to, it required a lot of cajoling. Or maybe it was because the subject was Blunders and basically meant telling embarrassing stories about yourself. Actually, I suspect a lot of people went with the intention of telling a story, they just needed to work up the nerve to do it once they got there. It turned out that 12 people signed up in the end, so two people didn’t get to share their tales of shame. The order is picked completely at random so you can’t sign up safe in the knowledge that 10 people have signed up before you. You could even end up first on stage.

None of my group were brave enough, or could think of a story that could be eked out to the full 5 minutes, to put our names in the hat. But, if you are shy, there is another way to contribute: anonymously.

Everyone who attended was asked to write an answer to the question “What is a mistake you won’t make again?” on a piece of paper. These were read out, at random, every now and again to break up the storytelling on stage. Most of them were pretty snappy and hilarious, making me regret even putting in a submission. As the evening wore on I thought I would get away without mine being read but just before we left Charlie Partridge, our host, said he’d like to do one more and it was mine! Great relief, then, when it got more than a few laughs.

But, having said that, by this time the audience was well and truly warmed up. We had been treated to all sorts of mishaps ranging from being proposed to and saying yes when you didn’t mean it to taking a shower when your mates are on safari and narrowly missing a lion entering your bedroom to not noticing it was Jude Law you were serving so stroppily under a hangover.

As ever, with amateurs, the raconteur quality varied but most of them were pretty good at telling their story. They all did fit the theme and none of them were particularly boring. The best, by far (and happily the one that won) was a very simple story. It was the story of the most expensive apple in the world. Because did you know that when you order online at Tesco you get charged £6.50 delivery? Yes, even if, by mistake, you order a single apple, which is what one speaker did. Such a simple mistake, one we could all imagine doing, with such embarrassing fallout – having to take delivery of said single apple, for example, and live with the shame of having paid so much for it. It spoke to us all. And Holly’s comic timing was spot on.
The Moth is now on monthly at The Book Club and I would recommend it. It’s not perhaps as soul searching as Natural Born Storytellers can be, but it was a lot of fun. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hotbox, 4th January

I said on my Twitter that I died and went to ‘cue heaven when we went to Hotbox and I stand by that. It was everything I had expected and more. Expensive, sure – the beef rib will set you back 24 squids, but the quality is superb.

We were assured by our waiter that the Hotbox Smoked Selection was big enough to share between two, as long as we got at least a couple of sides as well, and so, wanting to try everything, that’s what we did. We also threw in an extra smoked chicken thigh so we’d have one each. I’m so glad we did as this was exceptional. So smoky and sweet, I would make sure I had this again.

In fact, I wouldn’t be able to choose what to have next time if not the selection again as it was all so good. The only thing I didn’t really like was the sausage which was a little coarse for me. We’d had it before at hawker House and Stephen liked it a lot. I know it is just my personal preference, not a reflection of the actual sausage’s quality.

The slice of beef rib was perfectly tender, and charred, good enough to eat on its own without any of the sauce that accompanied the plate. Same goes for the pork rib. Both were meltingly soft with a robust flavour. The pulled pork (collar I believe) was some of the finest I’ve ever eaten. Not dry at all, and again not really needing any sauce, although we did drizzle some over.

Beware – if you don’t like a bit of heat with your ‘cue then you might want to stay away. It was never overpowering but it was certainly there in almost everything, and the plate came with some extra jalapenos and onions as garnish.

For our sides we had the pickled jalapeno coleslaw (excellent) and the ham hock pinto beans. This seemed to be a mix of two beans – black and pinto, and the black beans were a little too firm for me. We eyed up other customers’ dishes and the sweet potato fries looked just right, as did the grilled elote (Mexican corn).

When we finished our main we were so disappointed. We wanted more! I would say that one person could order the selection and eat it all but they’d be stuff to the gills, whereas for two it makes for quite a light dinner. Getting a more stodgy side like fries would help. However, ignore all of that if you plan to have a dessert because they do not skimp on the size of these, and they are worth leaving a bit of room if you like sweet things.

I had to try the deep fried oreos whereas Stephen went with a less adventurous sticky toffee pudding. Deep fried oreos are, as you can guess, amazing. I don’t love normal oreos so much but when they’re warm and chewy like this they’re wonderful. I could probably do with a little less of the dough they are encased in, especially as you get four of them and they can become quite sickly. I gave one to Stephen. They come with a dark chocolate sauce and ice cream, which is a nice contrast of hot and cold. We chatted to one of the staff and he said they were considering swapping out the chocolate ice cream for a lighter flavour, which I think would be a great idea. A plain vanilla, or even the butterscotch ice cream that Stephen had with his pudding would work really well.

Stephen’s sticky toffee was a brick of a pudding (in size, not texture) and came with toffee sauce and the aforementioned butterscotch ice cream. We were so full after this! Full and happy.

I was quite surprised by the style of Hotbox – it’s dark and sleek and feels more like a bar than a restaurant. I expected something more Americana-themed. But the food is much more than befits a theme bar so the surroundings suit it. I can’t wait to go back - probably now my favourite BBQ joint in London. 

Hotbox on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Honey & Co, 30th December

I think Honey & Co cemented itself in my mind after a joyous review by Grace Dent back in May 2013. Being under the mistaken impression that it was no-bookings, the more it garnered love and attention, the less I was inclined to try to go; I knew it was a very small restaurant and imagined there would be queues round the block. But I ended up there on the eve of New Year’s Eve after trying to have a curry at Ragam only to find it closed. Honey & Co was more or less round the corner, and figuring that we were in the dead time twixt Christmas and New Year, I thought we would get in easily. Well, I was wrong, because it does take reservations and the place was fully booked. The only place they have for walk-ins is five seats at the window and they were all full. If I’d only known they take reservations, I would have booked myself in there ages ago! One group, however, seemed to be nearing the end of their meal... 

Our waitress guesstimated it would be about 20 minutes and we went to the really nice pub next door to wait. They said they’d call when space became available. But we were soon starving and had finished our drink without knowing whether to get another, so after half an hour we decided to call it quits. No sooner had we set off did they phone so we did an about-turn and settled in.

And I can confirm, Honey & Co is worth every bit of love it has been showered with. It was a bit of a slow burner but by the time I finished their notorious cheesecake I was certain that I was bewitched.

As it was a post-Christmas/New Year treat we decided to get the special set menu for £29.50 – a starter of nine mezzes plus a main each, and a dessert each. You choose your main and dessert from the a la carte menu but the mezze selection is set.

Although none of the dishes are what I would describe as basic, without the final two plates we had, it would be a fairly typical selection of cold mezzes – the sort you might find in many a Levantine or Middle Eastern restaurant. You get falafel, hummus, olives and pickles, some lovely bread (especially the potato bread), some tabbouleh and labeneh with Turkish pepper puree. But the truly unique dishes of pumpkin and pickled apple, and quince with curds and honeyed hazelnuts made all the difference. The pumpkin for certain was our favourite. I’ve never had pumpkin before but I would most definitely seek out its earthy and slightly sweet flavours again.

Quince and curds

I was surprisingly full after these little dishes. Eating in such a manner is so good at tricking the stomach. But we had our mains to come and I valiantly ate all of mine. It didn’t look a huge amount compared to Stephen’s tower of quail, but it was quite the hunk of meat. It was cooked to a perfect tenderness, with a nice bit of fat preventing it from being dry. The beef came with quince and potatoes. Having only had quince in jam form before, I enjoyed trying it as a fruit itself (twice in one meal!). It was similar to pear in its texture but a more interesting alternative.

I gave in to food envy when Stephen’s main arrived. It looked magnificent and tasted it too. The quail was cooked beautifully –  crisp on the outside, the right hit of seasoning, and lots of lovely white bean hummus and crispy onions, of which I stole several. There was perhaps a bit too much on the plate in fact. I would say we could have done with some extra bread to make use of all the remaining hummus but, truth be told, if we’d eaten more bread, dessert may not have been on the cards. And that would have been a travesty.

After the customary debate about whether to have one, or if we have one, whether to share, we went the whole hog and ordered one apiece. I had this masterpiece of a cheesecake, which has gained quite the notoriety for itself. Whatever you have read is true. It is unlike any cheesecake I’ve ever had, so creamy it’s almost like eating gelato. And forget your boring old biscuit base, this has a nest of finely shredded filo pastry called kadaif looking a bit like uncooked packet noodles. It is bloody delicious – crunchy and sweet. Each rich, sweet, crunchy mouthful was better than the last. Best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted.

Stephen’s dessert however, was no less impressive. The apple and pear pie he ordered was like an insanely good McDonald’s apple pie – warm fruit completely encased in a delicate, crisp pastry parcel with custard for dipping on the side. While being in love with my cheesecake I could still appreciate the understated splendour of this dessert.

I would heartily recommend this restaurant to anyone for any course, but they really do reserve something that little bit special for their desserts so worth coming here for those alone. 

Honey & Co on Urbanspoon

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Bar Polski and Trisha's, 23rd December

My bestie was in town, which had been the perfect excuse for lunch at the Wine Library, and was an excellent excuse for hitting the town later that evening.

First stop was our favourite little pub, Ye Olde Mitre, tucked out the way near Chancery Lane. We almost always go here for at least one when we go out in central London, and I take people there all the time. You can’t find a better specimen of a proper English pub with real history. And the wine is good too.

Next up – Bar Polski. This is a Polish bar that focuses on their favourite tipple – vodka. A bit like an indie version of Revolution, this bar has every kind of vodka you can imagine in terms of flavours. I don’t know where they get them from – whether they are in-house creations or not, but the range is certainly innovative.

The menu is split into divisions of Dry and Interesting, Nice and Sweet, Clear and Clean, and various brands of vodka. You can try flavours such as starka – a vodka aged in barrels so it becomes a bit like whiskey, or  a vodka infused with bitter digestive herbs. We tried quite a range, having about 7 between us in the short time we were there. First up we chose two each – I had honey and spice and melon, Alison had lemon drops and hazelnut.  At only £3.00 each, you can definitely try a few different ones so after these four we went back for another three. I chose these and this time I picked sweet plum, kminkowu – sweet caraway seeds and husarska – green fennel bulb infusion.

You can either take the view that they sell shots and so you should shoot them, or, you can sip them and savour the different tastes. For they actually do have quite intense flavours that are (mostly) pleasant to drink, rather than mainly tasting of vodka with a hint of something else. We didn’t shoot ours and instead shared them between us so we could try them all.  I liked all of them except the fennel one which had a more powerful aniseed taste than real fennel tends to.  The most pleasant surprise was the sweet caraway seed flavour, which reminded me of sesame. Nutty, but indeed sweet.

Being the night before Christmas Eve, with very few people in town, Bar Polski was all but empty. There was just one very drunk work party, and us. So the atmosphere was lacking, and it being rather hidden behind Holborn station I can imagine it doesn’t get too packed anyway. Obviously, this is the place to go for any vodka lover, but I’d highly recommend it for those who profess not to love the spirit as well – the flavours here will convince you.

Bar Polski on Urbanspoon

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After this we went to some godawful pub that just happened to be opened while we were passing. We were really just biding our time until we thought it was late enough to go to Trisha’s, otherwise known as 57 Greek Street.

Sure enough, you would never know it was there if you didn’t know. We knocked and were permitted to enter. I think it’s supposed to be a ‘members’ bar, but it’s a members bar in the same way that Manero’s is – basically if you can find it, you’re allowed in. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting though it was a cool little bar and one worth remembering for late night drinks. I thought it would be livelier, with people dancing, but there was barely room for this and people were quite happy to sit at the checked cloth tables or stand at the bar. It was all quite civilized, basically a place to keep drinking when the other bars were shut, not necessarily to keep partying. Or perhaps I was just there on the wrong night.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Wine Library, 23rd December

I wandered past The Wine Library on one of my many strolls around the city and of course I had to investigate what could be going on in there as soon as I got home. A Library of Wine sounded too good to ignore. It turns out it is a wine cellar and shop but it is also a restaurant of sorts during lunch where you can browse its wares, pick out a lovely bottle of wine (or two) and enjoy it with the all you can eat buffet luncheon they provide for only £20.

These are definitely the finer wines so don’t expect to pick up a bottle for the same price you’d get one for in Tesco. You’re still going to pay roughly restaurant-level prices (although I noticed a couple for around the £12 mark). But just imagine how much these would cost if you actually did order them in a restaurant and you can see this is a good-value way of wining while dining.

The food they provide is exactly the sort of thing you want to eat with wine. The table they lay out is festooned with cheeses and meats in charcuterie and ‘pate’ form, as well as plenty of bread and crackers to go with it, chutneys, fruit, dips and even quiche.

I believe they more or less always have the same thing, but when we went we tucked into a deeply flavoured venison terrine, a very fatty and moist pork belly rillete, plus several different cured meats. They also had duck liver pate which I didn’t try and a smoked mackerel mousse which I knew would be too fishy for me. The quiche that day was broccoli and they also had a lovely red pepper hummuslike dip.

Cheeses covered the range from hard to soft and were very, very smelly. In fact when you approach the Wine Library, the smell hits you before you’ve even fully opened the door. One cheese was particularly brutish on the nose, though not quite so strong when you ate it – it had a very intense tang to it, and was one of my favourites. Naturally I have now forgotten what it was. They also include the usual suspects: brie, and a blue cheese and a cheddar as well. We filled our plates and then went back for more! But just the once.

The wine we chose was a Chablis for £18 and making it last long enough to accompany the two plates of food we had was a challenge. Good wine really is such a joy to drink, none of that back of the throat acidity that makes you wince. It is worth splashing out on every now and then. Happily, in this instance, we didn’t have to.

Wine Library on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Soul of the 60s, 19th December

I have been looking forward to writing this blog post because I couldn’t wait to share the sheer joy that is Soul of the 60s at The Phoenix. It is exactly the kind of night I had been looking for. Sure, the Northern Soul nights like Mousetrap and Crossfire I’ve been to are good – really good for authentic 60s soul. But I never know any of the songs they play and sometimes you just want to dance to something familiar. Familiar but fantastic.

And that is exactly what Soul of the 60s provides. If you can think of a well-known 60s soul song, they will play it. It is basically non-stop bangers and they even take requests (not sure if that is the general policy or if it’s because the DJ was, self-confessedly, quite tipsy)! Once we got on the dance floor it was a wrench to leave. I had every intention of going home at 12:30 as I had a treasure hunt to get to at noon the next day but I couldn’t tear myself away. I ended up dancing for another hour after that before I decided I would regret it in the morning if I didn’t leave now.

So what do they play? Strictly speaking, not just 60s soul. There was some 70s funk in there too – a bit of James Brown (Get On Up), a bit of 50s as well. But all of it was excellent music. They played Land of a Thousand Dances, they played Soul Man and Sweet Soul Music. I seem to remember they played ‘Stay’ from the Dirty Dancing Soundtrack. Name a song you like from that era, they probably played it, and if they didn’t that night, they probably will at some point.

This is some of the best music to dance to in my opinion – upbeat, happy, sexy, you don’t even have to think about it and your feet start moving. An absolutely stellar night which is definitely going to make it into my repertoire of regular nights I go to. I cannot wait to get back there.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mission and The Craft Cocktail Co, 13th December

We had a bit of a mishap to begin with. I had made a booking for 9 but when we turned up the hostess couldn't find my reservation. I got out my phone which luckily had some battery on it and found the email with the booking confirmation, which she glanced at and tried to dismiss as it didn't show my name. It was hard to tell if she didn't believe we had a booking or if she was saying that someone (not her) had made a mistake but either way she didn't seem to care that much. I managed to click into the email and show her my name, whereupon she apologised and said they would fit us in somewhere. She offered us a table by the door - not ideal on a chilly night. And then, somehow, she spotted my name on the system! She was almost suitably embarrassed and blamed being a bit of a technophobe before leading us to our table. As mitigation the couple who came in after us also said they had a reservation under the name 'John Smith' and then admitted they didn't so perhaps the cold approach was because they get a lot of people taking the piss and trying to claim bookings they don't have.

We'd had a large and lovely lunch at Launceston Place so we weren't here to pig out. Just some light refreshment to recharge and soak up all the alcohol we'd been drinking since lunch. So we got a couple of dishes with our drinks and said we'd likely get some cheese after - we had duck pappardelle and goose terrine.

The duck pappardelle, which was a big reason for me wanting to come was my least favourite - it was on the bland side and the duck was quite dry. The goose terrine was the opposite - meaty and fatty. Of course, we did get some cheese as well. We had the lightest, most subtle and creamy goat's cheese. For someone who can only take a smidgen of goat's cheese before finding it overpowering, this was perfect . We had a robust cheddar and also a blue cheese which again was just the right intensity for a novice blue-cheese eater like myself. A gripe would be that I would have preferred bread or proper biscuits rather than the thin crackers that accompanied the cheese.

Wines, it goes without saying, were a joy to drink. This is what Sager + Wilde are all about after all. 

So, Mission was lovely. It really was. And yet for me, I didn't fall in love. There was just one thing wrong with it - it wasn't Sager and Wilde. Being a much bigger operation, it doesn't have the same friendly quality that the little wine bar has. Sager and Wilde just has a certain je ne sais quoi, which has made it one of my favourite bars in London, bringing me back time and again.

Mission Wine Bar and Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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Craft Cocktail Co

After this we went to the Craft Cocktail Co, brought to you by the same person responsible for the London Cocktail Clubs. They specialise in bottled cocktails (similar to White Lyan in this regard) or cocktails on tap. I was worried the place might be empty but there were a few people buzzing about, even if it wasn't full and we were able to sit down no problem. I was rather merry by this point so my memory isn't crystal clear, but I do remember it being quite cold and me not wanting to take my coat off. So I didn't 'warm' to the place the way I might have. The drinks we had were strong enough, tasty enough but not particularly memorable. Having said that, I would quite happily duck in here again for a quick drink, much as we did this night, when spending an evening among the arches of Bethnal Green. A lot of cocktail bars are the sorts of places that you would save for a special occasion but this just felt like a bar that happened to serve cocktails, and that is not meant as a criticism. 

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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.