Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bone Daddies

If you haven't heard of Bone Daddies yet, it's not a rib shack or a steakhouse as the name might immediately suggest; it's a newcomer to London's burgeoning noodle scene. However if you're a foodie then you'll already know that Aussie Ross Shonhan, formerly head chef at Zuma and Nobu, has combined his love of Japanese food with the party-hard vibe of Soho and opened a no-reservation ramen restaurant where the pork bone broth base is cooked for 20 hours.

This place is also nothing like the exquisite, temple-food calm of nearby udon restaurant Koya; Bone Daddies is loud and kicking, with classic rock blaring and conversations buzzing from Soho's finest, squashed together at communal tables and knocking back the sake and cocktails. The tiny interior is stripped back and decorated with pictures of Japanese rockabillies; you're not going to want to perch on one of the stools for an entire evening but it's a perfect place to start a night out, or to end one.

We started with the soft shell crab. This was an immediate winner; deliciously crisp with a delicately soft interior, served with a punchy green chilli and ginger dip. Now is probably a good time to tell you that if you're not a fan of spicy food, let the staff know and ask for recommendations as the flavours here are big, bold and in your face.

The staff, on the other hand, are incredibly friendly and chatty and will happily help with anything you need. To drink we had some warm sake, served in a flask sitting in hot water, plus a fresh carrot and ginger juice; both were good.
For mains we went for the T22, a chicken bone broth base with soy ramen, chicken and cock scratchings - don't worry, they are in fact little nuggets of crispy fried chicken skin and add an interesting crunch to the dish - and the Tantanmen, dan-dan noodles piled in a chicken bone broth with pork mince, sesame, chilli and bok choy.

There are lots of options for customising your food; you can order extra meat, vegetables, egg or noodles from the menu (we did try an extra egg in the T22 but I doubt you'd want extra noodles) plus there is a fabulous range of condiments on the table including garlic and presses, and a sesame grinder. You can even order a pipette of pork fat to add flavour but I honestly don't think it needs it; my Tantanmen was wonderful, a rich and creamy sesame  base and a big chilli kick, perfectly cooked egg and spicy pork adding taste and texture.

Bone Daddies is a welcome addition to a part of London already blessed with some of the best restaurants around; my visit was an early evening pre-drinking stop, but I can see this becoming a staple for late night hangover prevention. If you start with the homemade pickles or miso soup and stick to tap water you can slurp your way through any of the warming noodle dishes and be on your way for less than £15 - just what you need at this time of year.

Yours, rocking the ramen,
Girl About Town xx

Square Meal
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Monday, 10 December 2012

Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall

Fellow tennis fans will commiserate with the long wait for January; rejoice, then, in the Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall. Not only can you get to see real legends of the game such as John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Pat Cash but more recent retirees Henman, Ivanisevic, Moya and Enquist will also be holding court. Tickets vary dramatically in price but start from a measly £17.50 so even if you're feeling mugged by the festive season, you can beg an early Christmas pressie and get yourself down to one of the most stunning tennis venues ever. Speaking of which, I feel a slight historical diversion coming on . . .

The Royal Albert Hall is a Grade 1 listed building, a distinctive London landmark, truly gorgeous inside and out, and literally majestic. Opened in 1871 as a place for the public to discover and appreciate art and science, it was championed by Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, and paid for by the profits of The Great Exhibition of 1851. Albert was passionate about social reform as well as art and science and saw promoting their understanding as a way of both celebrating and continuing England's industrial success (are you listening, Prime Minister?).

Londoners have much to thank him for (Albert, not the Prime Minister); the entire complex of South Kensington museums - and the ethos that museums are places of self-education and should be free to the public - are down to his influence. Albert was also responsible for bringing the traditional Christmas tree to England; he had a tree brought to Windsor Castle in 1841 and decorated it with glass ornaments, candles, fruits and sweets. A published engraving picturing the Royal family around the tree soon made it a popular yuletide tradition. Albert died suddenly of typhoid in 1861, at the age of just 42. Queen Victoria never recovered and remained in mourning for the next forty years, until her own death. At the official opening of the Royal Albert Hall she was so overcome with emotion that her son had to speak for her. The Hall was named in his memory and has been in continuous use since that day; one of London's grandest music venues, it has hosted performances from Wagner to Sinatra and Hendrix to Jay-Z.

Transformed from concert hall to tennis arena, the Hall retains its grandeur but makes for an intimate setting. This is a very relaxed event where players have fun and interact with the audience, but there is steel beneath the showboating; these guys can still really play, and the sight of Ivanisevic thundering down a trademark serve at 128mph is pretty impressive. We saw Moya vs. Santoro and Britain's Jeremy Bates against Guy Forget (standing in for an injured Ivan Lendl) but for me the highlight was seeing self-styled court jester and indisputable genius Mansour Bahrami.

If you're not familiar with Bahrami's exhibition doubles play, get on YouTube now; it's not a patch on seeing him live, but it will give you an idea of his natural comic talent and his ridiculously skilful tennis. Amongst his many skills he can serve holding six tennis balls in one hand, rally with an opponent on the opposite side of the net whilst facing his own doubles partner and teach Federer a thing or two about the hot-dog. Make a note in your new diary for the first week of December 2013; I'll see you there.

Yours, realising that to tennis players love means nothing,

Girl About Town xx

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Skate at Somerset House

If you're still struggling to get into the festive mood, I have the solution; grab your gloves, sling on a scarf, head off to Somerset House and Skate!

Skate is the annual transformation of the courtyard of Somerset House into one of London's more glamorous outdoor ice rinks. Glide (or wobble) your way across the ice between the majestic, beautifully-lit Somerset House and a huge, twinkling Christmas tree; it's enormous fun, with everyone bundled up against the cold and hanging on to their friends in a vain and desperate attempt to defy gravity.

Ticket prices vary according to date and time (although they go up from 8th December - be quick!) and include skate hire and an hour on the ice. Do make sure to get there early though, as there can be a bit of a queue to pick up the skates and get them on. It's a good idea to either wear or take a pair of thickish socks for best fit and cosy toes; this is ice, after all! You can book online; if there's no availability, nip in early on the day and pick some up from the box office - a small number are held back for sale on site. I haven't been yet, but the club nights sound fabulous; late night sessions with top DJs on the decks and the rink-side lounge open for post-skating mulled wine or cocktails. Full details are on the website here:

If you're looking for something warmer, less energetic and altogether more indulgent, just soak up the atmosphere as a spectator for a while then amble off indoors into Somerset House's pop-up shopping event, the Christmas Arcade. Gorgeous hats from Christy's, covetable jewellery from Tatty Devine, yummy treats from Hope and Greenwood, cool British fashion and fabulous ceramic pieces, cushions and suchlike for your home.

Wander round with a mince pie and some mulled wine or hot chocolate and start your Christmas wish list off with a little luxury. Go on, you deserve it - after all, you've been good all year, right?

Yours, chilling out with Twitter star Skate Penguin,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Alternative London tour

Bored of expensive, uninspiring tours? Think tours are for tourists? Forget the freezing open-top buses, the droning guides shoving through crowds with their umbrellas aloft and the same dry old monologues about Big Ben or Tower Bridge; what if a tour could give you an insight into today's real and living London, the chance to discover the East End's most incredible street art alongside enthusiastic local guides - often street artists themselves - and even the chance to (legally) try it for yourself?

Alternative London (beware of bandwagon imitators) offers pay-what-you-like walking tours as well as great value bike tours and tours with hands-on workshops, making this a really different and affordable London experience. I took my teenage niece with her mum for a birthday treat and it opened our eyes to a whole range of incredible art in the maze of East London back streets.

Our guide, street artist Josh Jeavons, was fabulous - friendly, knowledgeable and really happy to explain how graffiti and street art began, how the pieces were created, what kind of techniques were used, and the individual artists' backgrounds and inspirations. Here is just a taste of the things we saw and learned on our day.

Cranio is a Brazilian artist from São Paulo, in town for a recent exhibition at the Red Bull Studios. His distinctive character paintings highlight the tension between the indigenous people of Brazil and the commercial pressures that are leading to deforestation, seriously endangering the rainforest. He was one of the first artists to help decorate the new Alternative London bus, which is the tour company's headquarters and their workshop - a very cool place to work on your stencil skills!

Artists like Mobstr and Ben Eine focus more on typographical pieces; Ben Eine is probably most well-known for his transformation of the shutters in Middlesex Street with huge brightly-coloured letters - or perhaps for the fact that David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his pieces as a presidential gift.
We saw his fabulous monochromatic Anti Anti Anti graffiti in Ebor Street; apparently the morning after he painted this he was asked if he wanted to paint something on the other side of the street, this time with permission. Keen to have made his mark on the whole street, he painted the contrasting Pro Pro Pro in bright circus font along the opposite wall.

Mobstr specialises in stencilled messages which challenge the inexplicable love of those in authority for a dreary blank wall. The eternal nemesis of the street artist, council employees will post warning notices of prosecution - hence Mobstr's retort 'Didn't Get Arrested' - and will paint over existing art with neutral-coloured paint, known as 'buffing'. Often they only cover as far as they can easily reach, leaving a far uglier  dull wall with the remains of the art still visible at the top; this prompted Mobstr to stencil the taunt 'Buff This . . . And This' high up on a wall in New Inn Yard. So far, they haven't.

I guess no London street art tour would be complete without a Banksy or two - nowadays they are covered with Plexiglass. This one has an Anthony Lister version right next to it, the Australian artist making his point by adding 'Lister is over stencils'.

Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop collaborator Shepard Fairey (for more on this, see my August blog post on Mr Brainwash) also figures on the tour; we saw his 'Shoplifters Welcome' indictment of corporate greed dominating a huge wall space.

I could go on, but you know what? Book yourself on the tour and find out for yourself. The workshop option is fabulous as after the tour you get the chance to create your own stencil and/or wield a can freehand, spray-painting your own design onto pieces of board, or the bar.

Here's my London skyline . . .

. . . and my niece's finished piece for her  to take home. I'm setting up a board on Pinterest (check it out with the link at the top of the page) with more pictures and artists but street art is ephemeral, so your tour could look totally different. I'm already booking my next one for a couple of months' time; maybe I'll see you there. Trust me, you'll love it.

Yours, loving streets as the new galleries,

Girl About Town xx

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The V&A Café

The V&A Café looks like any other museum or gallery café at first glance; brightly lit, bustling staff clearing trays, signposted stations for hot or cold food, coffee or cakes - and all heavingly busy. A modern, functional place to take the weight off and fortify yourself with tea and cake before venturing back out into the world's greatest museum of art and design (their words, but does any other venue even come close?). Now take a look at the suite of three interlinked rooms off to the side and it's like stepping back in time; together these rooms make up the world's very first museum restaurant and it is a seriously impressive setting.

The Refreshment Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum were intended as a showcase for contemporary design and craftsmanship and are a wonderfully Victorian mix of the ornate and the practical. The main central section is the Gamble Room, designed by James Gamble, Godfrey Sykes and Reuben Townroe. Originally the main doors to this room were directly opposite the museum entrance so this would have been the first room visitors saw; even by Victorian standards this must have seemed imposingly grand. Look more closely; the ceiling is enamelled iron and both the walls and the huge columns are completely covered with ceramic tiles, making this most majestic and opulent of dining rooms completely washable and practically fireproof.

Mottoes espousing the joys of food and drink adorn the beautiful stained glass windows and the frieze is a quotation from Ecclesiastes II:24: 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour.' Hard to argue with that.

The Morris Room (the Green Dining Room) was the first major commission for William Morris's company Morris Marshall and Faulkner. The dado panels based on signs of the zodiac were painted by Edward Burne-Jones, who also designed the stained glass windows. The influence of William Morris and his pattern-making is most recognisable in the plasterwork leaves and flowers on the walls (although if you are a Morris fan, the rest of the museum has plenty to offer). This room, although beautiful, has a more restrained, quiet feel.

The Poynter room (the Grill Room) designed by Edward Poynter has a homely cosiness to it, with blue Dutch tiles and wooden panelling. The large tiled panels of the months and seasons were actually painted by students from the ladies' tile-painting class at the Schools of Design; this was very much in keeping with V&A Founding Director Henry Cole's  radical idea of involving students and the public in creating this public space. Giving such an important commission to female students would have caused quite a stir in Victorian times.

The beautiful iron stove where a chef in whites would have grilled steaks and chops to order is still in place; the V&A website has sample menus from 1867 - both first and second class - which include options such as jugged hare for 1/6 (i.e. one shilling and sixpence, or 18p) or, from the second class menu, stewed rabbit for 10d (ten pence). That may sound like a bargain until you consider that an unskilled labourer's wage was about a pound a week.

Nowadays the catering side is handled by Benugo, so expect freshly-prepared basics and great cakes (although as everything is made fresh on the day, quality and availability can inevitably dip if you arrive too near closing time). I hear the cream tea is good, so that's my next visit sorted.

Yours, scratching the surface of London history just for you,

Girl About Town xx

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Casa Brindisa

Casa Brindisa (the name comes from the Spanish 'brindis' meaning a toast, i.e. to drink someone's health) is the middle sister in a growing family of Tapas Kitchens: first came Tapas Brindisa London Bridge (opened in 2004), then Casa Brindisa in South Kensington and twin sister Tapas Brindisa Soho (also 2008) and most recently new baby Tramontana Brindisa in Shoreditch (2012). Brindisa founder Monika Linton was established in the import and wholesale side of the business at Borough Market for many years before opening her first restaurant - with encouragement from regular customer Mark Hix.

By the way, if you haven't been to the Brindisa Borough Market shop, what on earth are you waiting for? It's a glorious Spanish Aladdin's cave of gastronomic treats, from Marcona almonds to freshly-sliced ham and boquerones to Manchego. Even the tins and packages look like they belong in Nigella's walk-in larder. It's a dream destination for foodie browsing but if you can't get there - or can't carry all your swag home on the bus - you can order online. If it's not too early for Santa to be listening, I covet the beautifully packaged La Paella gift box at a jolly reasonable £30 - and if you order before 30th November they throw in a seasonings box free!

Casa Brindisa is literally just around the corner from the museums, on the new-look semi-pedestrianised Exhibition Road; I will manfully (girlfully?) resist my usual tendency to head off at tangents this time, but the design concepts behind this new open streetscape are intriguing. If you would like to take the scenic route, check out the story of the Exhibition Road transformation here:
I had just spent a joyous couple of hours ambling around the V&A with two of my girlfriends and this was very conveniently located for a non-touristy, laid-back quality lunch.

We started with a little bowl of Habas Fritas (toasted broad beans) and a plate of deliciously moreish Padrón Peppers - generously salted little green Galician peppers with just enough kick to go perfectly with our Fino sherry. There is a good selection of wines and sherries by the glass so we had decided to defy the blustery showers outside and recreate a particularly memorable summer trip to Barcelona, which consisted largely of the odd gallery, endless tapas-bar hopping, quite unreasonable amounts of icy bone-dry Fino and long semi-comatose siestas in a hammock.

Next up was a wedge of the Traditional Potato and Onion Tortilla, a dish that makes me marvel at how the most basic of ingredients can be combined to make something so tasty and comforting. Served with a generous swirl of aioli, this was just right - the perfect texture. We had also ordered the Fresh Squid to come with, but it only appeared after gently reminding our waitress; this looked lovely but was perhaps just a little on the chewy side.

The Charcuteria Selection was great value at £12.50 - a selection of chorizo, salchichón, lomo and Teruel ham served with bread and a gutsy green olive oil. The outstanding quality of their produce is most evident here where it stands alone; the ham just melted in the mouth and the freshness and flavours were totally authentic. More Fino was clearly required.

One of my companions is unable to countenance a visit to a tapas restaurant without ordering her favourite Patatas Brava; sadly this was the only dish that really fell below expectations. The potatoes were suitably crisp but lacked the freshness of flavour that had been the hallmark of the meal so far, and although the sauce was good, there was not nearly enough of it.

Fortunately my other friend is a particular fan of spinach in all its incarnations and so we had ordered the Catalan Spinach with pine nuts and raisins. This was the stand-out dish of the day; a really skilful blend of flavours and textures, unusual, perfectly balanced and delicious. My vote had been for the Croquetas de Jamón y Pollo, cured ham and chicken croquetas, which were excellent - crisp outside, with a yielding centre and good meaty flavour, again testament to the quality of their basic ingredients.

As a devoted fan of sharing plates, Brindisa is a definite addition to my hit list and I will be trying the other restaurants - all of which have slightly different menus and specialities - at the next chance I get. The restaurant was full and buzzy on our Friday lunchtime visit and the service, whilst a little patchy, was warm and genuine; our waitress was particularly helpful with a food allergy issue, going off to quiz the chefs about the precise ingredients of the salad dressings. Overall a very welcome way to escape to Spain for a few hours without the torture of Ryanair.

Yours, spiritually still in Barcelona,
Girl About Town xx

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Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Affordable Art Fair

The Affordable Art Fair pretty much does what it says on the tin; take a convenient London venue (Battersea Park 25th-28th October and Hampstead Heath 1st-4th November) and pour in over one hundred galleries offering a huge range of contemporary art - paintings, prints, photography, sculptures, ceramics, glass - anything in fact, as long as it is priced between £40 and £4,000. Started by Will's Art Warehouse owner Will Ramsay in 1999 as a further push towards demystifying and democratising art, there are now Affordable Art Fairs across the world from New York to Stockholm and the brand has been voted one of Britain's coolest brands for 2012/13 - see their website for details.

When I first started going to the Affordable Art Fair the upper limit was £3,000 and inevitably prices have gradually crept upwards; however there is now significantly more sculpture available, particularly bronzes, which would have been impractical for the artists beforehand. Happily there is still plenty of art available under £500 (look for the pink stickers) and even under £100.

One lucky early bird had landed a potential bargain from the wonderful Recent Graduates' Exhibition at the front of the fair. In a series of works questioning the validity of placing a monetary value on art, Andrew Reeve had cut a range of numbers into the canvas of existing paintings displayed back-to-front; the number displayed was the price the buyer had to pay.

This exhibition is a great opportunity to support young artists and spot the stars of tomorrow. The standard was high but I think my favourite piece was Downfall, Hollie Mackenzie's beautiful melting and fractured wooden staircase.

True to Will Ramsay's ideal of art for all, the fair offers free entry for under-16s, free crèche facilities and kids' activities, and even a warm welcome for the family dog. There are activities for adults too if you fancy unleashing your inner creative self.
Alternatively there is a Laithwaites wine bar in the centre of the exhibition where you can nab a seat (if you're quick, or a skilled pouncer) and a welcome glass to revive you; we had a nice crisp Prosecco and a fruity New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that were delicious and unexpectedly well-chilled. There is also a (packed) café with hot and cold food, and an excellent coffee stall that does a fabulous Americano.

So, to the art. As you would expect given the size of the fair there is a huge variety available for all ages, tastes and budgets, and I would be surprised if you didn't find at least one piece to covet. There was a host of London-themed artworks perfect for first-time buyers, from bold graphic prints of classic landmarks to these less obvious delicate birds in flight cut from old maps.

Oil paintings glowed next to the high-gloss finishes of acrylics and collages, landscapes next to portraits, Oriental art between coloured glass and tactile sculptures, huge wall-sized statement pieces and tiny miniatures.

If you feel a connection to a particular piece, or are just curious, the fair provides a perfect opportunity to quiz the gallery owners who will have developed a relationship with the artists they represent. Far from the elitist and condescending art snobs that you fear may lurk behind the doors of the imposing traditional gallery, we found the owners - and the artists themselves, many of whom were present - welcoming, enthusiastic, and happy to have an opportunity to chat and explain the background behind the works.

Chippy Coates and Richard Scarry of the eponymous Coates & Scarry are a perfect example - warm, witty and incredibly approachable, they talked us through the work and background of Angela Lizon, whose quirky and challenging pieces had drawn us in.

Moving away from her abstract work, Lizon has shared gallery space with Tracey Emin and been awarded John Moore's Painting Prize. Exploring the themes of popularity, good/bad taste and kitsch, Lizon takes twee ornaments, fluffy kittens and babies as her subject and subverts them into something altogether darker and much less straightforward.

The series of miniatures depicting the small ceramic elephants, pixies and winsome children that form the backbone of any self-respecting charity shop or seafront gift shop are perfect above the traditional fireplace, but I fell in love with this unsettling baby with its sinister, sophisticated Venetian mask and its Renaissance-like calm and knowing gaze.

The Affordable Art Fair is a fabulous way to strip the intimidation and fear from the idea of buying art in the same way that choosing wine or visiting a top restaurant has been made more open and accessible to a wide range of people. Even if you don't buy anything it is a great day out - but take your cards just in case, because with original art from £40, some temptation is beyond endurance.

Yours, able to resist anything except temptation,
Girl About Town xx