Sunday, 30 August 2015

Kaspar's at the Savoy

Kaspar's is the reincarnation of the old River Restaurant, reborn with some style. I actually arrived at the Savoy by way of a very pleasant amble through Victoria Embankment gardens, so the simplest thing would have been to nip in the hotel's understated River Entrance and straight in to the restaurant. Simple maybe, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to stroll along Savoy Court and make a grand entrance beneath the famous glittering steel frontage, passing a pristine pearlescent Rolls valet-parked at the side - as you do.

Just before we go in, let me take you on a small detour along the aforementioned Savoy Court; it is a much-loved and oft-quoted piece of London trivia that this is the only road in London where vehicles must drive on the right. According to the Savoy's press officer this is because traditionally, when travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, ladies would sit behind the driver and so would exit on the right hand side; this system enabled a decorous and less muddy descent straight into the hotel. The Londonist, a wonderful and authoritative site on all things London (if you're not already following them, do so immediately on or @londonist), has pointed out that Hammersmith bus station employs the same rule, though presumably not for the same reasons. I have since heard the 'fact' re-quoted as the only named road in London where traffic drives on the right. Either way it's a rarity and still a nice little nugget of London randomness.

Meanwhile, back to the Savoy itself. Graciously greeted by numerous members of staff (all, inevitably, far more elegantly dressed than I was) I made my way through the lobby, past the shop and through the tea room to Kaspar's. The sheer sumptuousness of the hotel is reassuringly impressive; chequerboard marble floors, glittering chandeliers, cascades of vibrant orchids and gleaming polished wood. Entering Kaspar's itself is like stepping back into the 1920s, with dramatic Murano glass lighting above the circular bar, huge mirrors and stylish Art Deco detailing.

Before we get to the meal itself, for those of you who don't know the story of Kaspar, let me give you a little background; are you sitting comfortably? One evening in 1898 Woolf Joel, a South African mining millionaire, hosted a dinner for fourteen at the Savoy. One of the diners cried off at short notice and an anxious guest suggested cancelling the entire evening; superstition has it that, if thirteen people sit down to dine, the first one to leave the table will die within the year. Joel reassured his guests by ensuring that he himself was the first person to get up from the table; weeks later, he was murdered in his office. 

Erring on the side of caution the Savoy began providing tables of thirteen with a member of staff as a quatorzieme, but this meant diners could not always speak freely. The problem was solved in 1926 when Kaspar was sculpted by Basil Ionides; to this day he sits before a full place setting as the elegant fourteenth guest when required, napkin around his neck, silent and utterly discreet. 
 However, as our booking was for two, sadly there was no need for Kaspar to make a personal appearance. Settling down at the table we decided to look through the menu over a glass of champagne; dithering over the crispy duck salad to start, I eventually went for the garden pea soup, which was served poured over an asian-style prawn and salmon dumpling. The soup was excellent and the pairing with the dumpling worked much better than I expected, the different sweetnesses complementing each other really well. My companion (an effortlessly chic friend who could very plausibly have been 'in residence') chose the beautifully presented wild garlic pannacotta with white and green asparagus and sauce gribiche, a kind of tartare/aioli sauce I usually think of pairing with fish but it was delicious with the asparagus.

For our main course we had the pan-seared fillet of pollock with escalivada (a wonderful Catalan roasted vegetable dish with punchy, smoky flavours) fennel and shellfish nage, and a perfectly-textured sun-dried tomato and goat cheese risotto with basil oil. We had considered ordering extra sides but the portions were actually more than sufficient for lunch (not always the case in set meals), particularly after the very more-ish freshly-baked bread on arrival. 

None of which meant, of course, that we were going to miss out on the dessert options. We opted for the delicious but incredibly rich dark chocolate and black sesame tart, served with chocolate ganache and a delicate milk tea ice cream, and the homely artisan cheese selection with chutney. The service throughout was very good; attentive without ever hovering, and friendly without being too informal - not something I generally mind (within reason) but somehow the glamour of the surroundings requires a certain poise and professionalism on the part of the staff to round off the experience; this is lunch at the Savoy, after all. The only, tiny cloud on the blue sky of the day was the off-menu drinks prices; we had considered treating ourselves to a glass of pink fizz, but as that started at a slightly eye-watering £23 per glass, we thought better of it. But, as I say, this is the Savoy, and it did feel like a special treat.

Another little strange London fact for you, before we go; Carting Lane, that runs alongside the Savoy, was allegedly known as 'Farting Lane' in the late nineteenth century. This was due to the Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp installed there, which both burned off the unpleasant and potentially dangerous gases from London's sewers and used them to provide 24-hour lighting. Even the combined donations of the Savoy's guests were not sufficient to power the lamp alone but the methane did supplement the more standard gas supply; it does, however, give a whole new meaning to the term 'gas lamps'.
The original was all but destroyed by a careless delivery driver reversing in to it, but has been restored and there it still stands; you can see the difference in design compared to the lamp at the front of the hotel.

Yours, officially a lady who lunches,
Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Savage Beauty at the V&A

Savage Beauty is a retrospective of the late designer Alexander McQueen's work, from his MA graduate collection through to the A/W 2010 collection he began before his suicide at the age of forty. It is a jaw-dropping, utterly beautiful sensory overload of an exhibition which dramatically captures and reflects the designer's own complex vision and inspirations; I left awed by his talent and desperately saddened by his loss.

The exhibition has been fabulously curated like one of McQueen's catwalk shows, with dramatic staging and serious theatrical flair. Works are shown by theme and inspiration rather than as a timeline, which highlights how central these influences were as well as their return in reworked form as his experience grew. 

McQueen was, in many ways, a true Romantic. It is vital here to distinguish this from romantic with a small 'r'; I'm not talking hearts and flowers and kittens in baskets, but the Romantics of the late eighteenth century onwards - nature as a force of creation and destruction, inspirational and inescapable, the nature of Keats's nightingale and Shelley's Frankenstein. 

Seeing McQueen's original creations up close is not only visually breathtaking but shows his genius in recreating a creative vision in intricate, delicate and precise construction. McQueen began his career as an apprentice tailor in Savile Row and even his earliest work is clearly craftsmanlike. 

The Cabinet of Curiosities is the heart of the exhibition, in every sense of the word. Inspired by the gentleman explorers' drawing rooms displaying exotic finds from their travels, this circular section is crammed floor to double-height ceiling with treasures. Stop and take a look at your fellow visitors, necks craned, fascinated and spellbound. On the way out, there is a stunning Kate Moss video installation that is so ethereally beautiful that you just stand transfixed.

So - go, wander, wonder, be amazed. This is an unmissable event. Oh, and if you join the V&A on the day, they refund the ticket price - meaning I got guest plus one membership, including free entry into exhibitions and access to the Members' room, for another forty pounds or so. You'd be mad not to.

Yours, dazzled,
Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 2 November 2014


I would like to state for the record that it's not a regular occurrence for me to spend time in a men's toilet - and somehow particularly not at a urinal - but that's exactly where I recently passed a very pleasant half hour, so to speak. What's more, I took some friends.

Fear not gentle reader, this may be underground but it is completely above board. For those not in the know, may I present to you -  Attendant? Attendant is a wonderful, tiny, very quirky coffee bar located in what used to be a Victorian men's toilet in Foley Street, signposted by the gorgeous original cast iron surround and a sandwich board with the obligatory coffee drinkers' thought for the day. 

Steps lead down into a classic white-tiled interior (don't worry folks, the entire thing was scrupulously steam-cleaned as part of the renovation) with many of the original features intact: the cisterns became light-fittings, the urinals are now booth-like tables with stools (insert your own toilet joke here) and there is even a hand-drier on the wall. 

Happily, it is not all style over substance. It may be novelty that first brings you to Attendant, but the coffee will keep you coming back. Proper baristas who know their stuff - and who, on my visit, were the loveliest guys ever despite being run off their feet - with Caravan coffee, Paul A Young hot chocolate and a selection of good food. We had literally just eaten lunch but did manage to cram in a mini salted caramel brownie with our drinks, and I recommend you do the same. They even made me an affogato (an espresso with a scoop of ice cream) which is one of my favourite things. 

So go for the random photo opportunities but don't rush the coffee; it's actually worth the visit all by itself. Add your personal tag to the graffiti board at the door (mine is there if you look carefully!) but be aware of one somewhat ironic factor; the only thing they don't have is a loo.

Yours, sipping espresso in subterranean sanitary splendour,

Girl About Town xx

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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Time: Tattoo Art Today at Somerset House

Ever coveted the distinctive style and look of a tattoo but not a fan of needles - or just plain run out of bare skin? Then head on over to Somerset House where the Embankment Gallery is host to a fascinating exhibition of original artworks by legendary tattoo artists from around the world.  
Featured artists include painter, printmaker and publisher Don Ed Hardy, L.A. graffiti and tattoo maestro to the stars Mister Cartoon, Irezume master Horiyoshi III and Ami James, co-founder of the Tattoodo website and owner of Miami Ink's famous Love Hate Tattoo studio. Admission is free and all works in the exhibition are on sale to the public.

Artists were told they could use any medium and canvas - except skin - and given a broad theme of 'time'. Intelligently curated by tattoo artist Claudia de Sabe and publisher Miki Vialetto, the original artworks range from Japanese silk painting and bronze sculpture to painted skulls and inked dolls. 

Classic tattoo motifs of life and death including ankhs, butterflies, flowers and memento mori such as skulls are represented throughout the exhibition, alongside imagery from other art forms. Pieces include the Grim Reaper with hooded robe and scythe, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory who bathed in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and a luminous beauty garlanded with roses illustrating the inevitable cycle of birth to death.

 There are also some thought-provoking portraits and some more light-hearted approaches to the theme. In the latter category, I particularly liked two pieces based on classic Japanese imagery: one with the hero, complete with t-shirt and rucksack, looking glumly at a map on his phone and the other showing an eel bandaged and bleeding, with a cartoon clock giving it the finger. The title? 'Time wounds all eels.'  

The exhibition runs until 5th October and is open daily from 10am to 6pm (last entry 5.30pm) with late night until 9pm some nights - check the website for details. Oh, and grab a free programme - it unfolds into a poster

Yours, thinking about inking,                                                             Girl About Town xx

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Happiness Forgets

I admit to still being the tiniest bit petulant about the White Cube closing its Hoxton Square gallery space (yes I know it's been two years, what's your point??) and I experienced a renewed pang of loss on my most recent visit to the Square. A leisurely mooch round would have been the perfect cultural sharpener to a fabulous birthday outing with a girlfriend; dinner crafted by one of my very favourite chefs, Cameron Emirali, at his new restaurant 8 Hoxton Square (separate post coming soon!) and then cocktails literally next door at Happiness Forgets.
Happiness Forgets is what all the gimmicky, trendy, trying-too-hard pseudo-speakeasy bars in London want to be when they grow up. It's not really hidden, it just doesn't shout about itself too much. Leaving 8 Hoxton Square you simply turn left and immediately head down the steps to the tiny, intimate and welcoming basement bar. Wafting incense and the chalkboard-type sign painted on the wall opposite guide you into a cosy and dimly-lit subterranean hideaway. 

Sofas and low tables provide spaces for long conversations or you can grab a stool at the bar if you're feeling sociable. There is a no-standing policy which means that once the seating is taken, that's it; on the down side, you do need to book in advance or arrive early to guarantee a spot, but on the very welcome up side you can sit at the bar without an ever-increasing crowd pressing into your back and drinks being perpetually passed in front of your face as you are trying to chat. This, together with the lived-in decor, scattered candlelight and muted music, give the bar a relaxed, embracing feel. 
Staff are both knowledgeable and genuinely friendly, and were happy to advise on the ever-changing and quirkily-titled drinks menu. There is a small but carefully chosen selection of wines should you prefer, but the cocktails are what really makes Happiness Forgets stand out from the crowd. Owner Ali Burgess has serious barkeep pedigree, most notably under the illustrious Audrey Saunders at NYC's Pegu, and his expertise and guidance shine through. These are proper cocktails, balanced and crafted, and so very easy to drink. Oh, and the cocktail list arrives with a glass of cucumber-infused water (which is topped up throughout the evening) - unexpected but perfect for palate-cleansing rehydration. 
The menu is short but varied, featuring several classics with a twist. Usually my heart sinks a little at this phrase; a classic is a classic for a reason, and it is notoriously difficult to do anything positive by fiddling about with something that clearly ain't broke. The exception to this rule, in pretty much any area of artistry, is when someone is knowledgeable and experienced enough in their field to understand exactly how and why the rules work, and so how they can successfully bend them. This is evident at Happiness Forgets.
As I mentioned, the menu changes regularly depending on season, a drink's popularity, and the general whim of the talented guys behind the bar. They are happy to mix your favourite if you prefer but I would recommend sticking to the list, at least long enough to try these: 

Kydonia Daiquiri - fruity, lively blend including cider brandy, light rum and quince liqueur. 

Dante - ridiculously moreish mix of tequila, chartreuse, K├╝mmel and lime, with a fresh herbal note of basil and celery bitters.

Perfect Storm - a fresh and zingy version of the classic Dark and Stormy, this is a perennial favourite and the closest they get to a house cocktail. Made with Skipper's dark rum but using fresh lemon and ginger juice, balanced with honey and a dash of plum brandy. Perfect indeed.

Baptiste - Remy VSOP cognac blended with lemon and maple syrup, topped up with Breton cider. Warm and wonderful. 

Industry insiders voted Happiness Forgets an impressive sixth place in the Top 50 Bars in the world last year - not too shabby for a place that is understated, unpretentious and which was only opened in 2011. The drinks are fabulous it's true, but for me a big part of their success is that the whole experience is somehow genuine; by which I mean that nothing feels fake, or forced, or guided by the whims of fashion. Happiness Forgets feels like it has been there forever, and by the end of your first drink you feel like a welcome regular. 
And where did they get the intriguing name? Rumour has it that it's from a Dionne Warwick lyric:
'Loneliness remembers what happiness forgets

And when you fall in love too fast
The sunshine doesn't last forever after . . .'

So - go to this wonderful tiny bar, drink, relax and be happy. Oh, and don't forget to look at the back of the menu for random, cocktail-related quotations. My favourite? 'Sometimes I drink a glass of water, just to surprise my liver.'

Yours forgetfully,

Girl About Town xx

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


So it's a warm, drizzly Saturday afternoon in Fitzrovia and I'm just off to Michelin's hottest star Ollie Dabbous's restaurant. No, not that one - I mean Barnyard, his newest venture round the corner, where I'm reliably informed the wait is mere hours rather than months thanks to a 'no reservations' policy.

The first surprise; we appear to have fortuitously turned up between busy periods and are shown to a table immediately - nice. The second surprise; that the famously precise Ollie Dabbous, whose endive salad contains endive to orange to mint in an exact 3:3:4 ratio and who reputedly once roundly berated staff for leaving a ragged edge on the toilet paper instead of a clean line, has chosen to open a restaurant that looks like - well, like the inside of a ramshackle old barn. 

To be fair to Dabbous though, nobody gets that good without a fierce eye for detail and a relentless drive for perfection. (Actually, in Dabbous's case, hardly anybody gets THAT good at all.) Barnyard, then, feels almost like an alter-ego: reclaimed fixtures, sunflowers, mottled corrugated iron walls, manly staff in checked shirts who look like they've just finished pitchforking hay, white enamel plates and cocktails in half-pint dimpled beer mugs. It's very Of Mice and Men, but in a good way. It's fun. I'm already looking forward to good things.

Dabbous himself is still somewhat busy running his aforementioned eponymous joint so the food at Barnyard comes courtesy of Joseph Woodland (The Square, Launceston Place) and has been described by Dabbous's business partner Oskar Kinberg as 'home cooking, done well and without the washing-up'. At first glance, the menu - divided, with suitably agricultural unsentimentality, into sections headed 'cow', 'pig' and so on - contains the usual suspects for a retro Americana vibe, along with some British classics: beef, eggs, fries, chicken wings, sausage rolls, milkshakes. More of which later.

In keeping with the informal feel (you are very likely to end up squished elbow-to-elbow with other diners, it's really not the place for a private chat) the dishes are designed for sharing. I love this, as in my experience meal envy can test the strength of any relationship, but it can be tricky to gauge portions on a first visit; also the tables are quite small, so expect mild juggling and balancing to be involved. We went with our waiter's advice of 5-6 dishes plus sides and plumped for the chicken in a bun, duck egg with asparagus, fries, roast beef with watercress salad, crispy chicken wings, and broken eggs with mushrooms, garlic and parsley.

Restaurants mixing high-end dining with low-end classics can face the Bubbledogs conundrum; how much can you polish up a classic dish before it loses what makes it a classic in the first place? Barnyard has balanced this well. The chicken in a bun was moist and flavoursome, in a light brioche-style bun and served with delicately-seasoned mayonnaise. The duck egg and asparagus was delicious and beautifully presented, although given that it is a sharing plate, getting both halves of the egg would have been nice. The fries were, well, classic fries; crispy and just right.

Opinion was divided on the broken eggs - basically barely-cooked egg swirled with earthy mushrooms, spiked with garlic and balanced out with parsley. The texture was a little strange, but it was somehow comforting and I couldn't help thinking that, accompanied with some sourdough toast perhaps, it would make a perfect hangover breakfast. The wings, much hyped, were actually not my favourite; there was a quite strong herby note (fennel?) that whilst not unpleasant, I just hadn't expected from the description.

The beef, on the other hand, was outstanding. Supple slices of intensely-flavoured rare roast beef, the lightest crisp of toast, fresh peppery watercress and a warm buttermilk dressing that blends nursery comfort with the bite of horseradish. I loved this. Do not, on any account, visit Barnyard without having this dish; visually, texturally, the blend of flavours - it is fabulous in every way.

My other personal must-have - although this could be just me - is the acorn flour waffle with chocolate and malt. Totally undersold on the menu, this is delicious; a perfect dense waffle (completely unlike the plasticky fast food versions), a rich, nutty chocolate sauce and a divine malted cream that tasted exactly like the inside of Maltesers. What's not to like? 

Which brings me, neatly but not really, on to the drinks. Trust me and beware, these are the archetypal wolves in sheep's clothing. Shandies? I think not. They may well contain beer or cider plus lemonade, but these are basically cocktails in a swigging glass. Extras include gin, bourbon, whisky and tequila, with not a warning umbrella, sparkler or decorative pineapple quarter in sight - and in a half pint glass. They are intriguing, delicious, and incognito. I am absolutely serving a version of these at every BBQ I host this summer. Form an orderly queue, please. (Oh, and don't think you can escape with a milkshake - even they come with an optional tot of something stronger.)

My one regret is the absence from the menu of the popcorn ice cream with smoked fudge sauce; I had heard good things and was keen to try it. During a quick chat with the utterly charming, laid-back manager he explained that their ice cream maker had broken the day before but that the dish would be back on the menu very soon. Hey ho - I guess at least I got to experience the waffle with malted cream. Ollie, Oskar and Joseph Woodland, I salute you.

Yours, in virtual gingham and petticoats,

Girl About Town xx

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