Friday, 31 August 2012

Celebrate a Secret Wedding

Occasionally I like to take a break from eating and drinking my way round our beloved capital or wandering round one of the many galleries and museums and show a bit of initiative. Inspired by the history of this amazing city, I search out the sites of its tales and secrets. Here is the first story; are you sitting comfortably?

On September 12th, 1846, a studious man of 33 married a woman in delicate health six years his senior at St Marylebone Parish Church. The wedding was secret, as her father had forbidden her (or any of his twelve children) ever to marry; afterwards she returned to the family home alone and lived there for a week while arrangements were made before eloping to Italy with her new husband. Her father never spoke to her again and the many letters she wrote to him were returned unopened.

The marriage of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the culmination of a romance that had been conducted mainly through love letters; they corresponded for almost five months before their first meeting and had exchanged 573 letters by the day of their wedding. The original letters are at Wellesley College in Massachusetts but digitised images and transcripts can be seen online here:

St Marylebone Parish Church is quietly beautiful, with carved wooded pews and moulded ceilings; standing before the altar it is easy to transport yourself back to Victorian London and empathise with the conflicting emotions and divided loyalties of that marriage over a century ago. There is a service at 11am on 9th September organised by the Browning Society to commemorate the day or you can visit the Browning Room, a small room off to the left just inside the door of the church, which has a small stained glass window dedicated to the poets. It is usually kept locked, but if you let them know you are coming they are happy to arrange a suitable time for you to view it. 

During this time Elizabeth wrote her 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' ('Portuguese' was his pet name for her) which trace the joy and doubts of their courtship, although Robert Browning had to convince her to make them public. They include probably her best-known poem, 'How Do I Love Thee?':

'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.'

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence in 1861. In a letter to a friend her husband wrote: 'Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again and longer - the most perfect expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge of her. Always smiling, happily, and with a face like a girl's, and in a few minutes she died in my arms, her head on my cheek . . . God took her to himself as you would lift a sleeping child from a dark uneasy bed into your arms and the light.' Browning returned to London with their son, never remarried and would not return to Italy for seventeen years. He died at his son's home in Venice in 1889 and is buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Somehow, I just don't think showing my future grandchildren texts and tweets will be the same.

Yours, missing the romance of old-fashioned letters,
Girl About Town xx

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Mr Brainwash

The Old Sorting Office on New Oxford Street (just along the road from the British Museum) is currently hosting the second London exhibition by film-maker turned street artist Mr Brainwash. You can't miss it; the outside of the building features giant images of the Beatles in bandanas, Kate Moss, and the Queen next to the graffitied slogan "God save the People', pink paintbrush in hand.

Mr Brainwash, aka MBW, aka Thierry Guetta first came to the notice of the general public in Banksy's Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary (mockumentary?) Exit Through the Gift Shop, where he is encouraged by Banksy and Shepard Fairey (of Obama Hope fame) to swap film-making for art.
Opinion has been divided since then as to whether MBW is a Banksy hoax, a late developer or an indictment of hype and gullibility in the art world. Either way, Mr Brainwash has since designed an album cover for Madonna, sold over a million dollars' worth of work in his debut exhibition and had work auctioned at Sotheby's alongside that of Andy Warhol.

So is Mr Brainwash nothing but a huge practical joke, a flipped finger to the world of art? You can get quite Dan Brown about the possible clues if you look for them. The name Brainwash itself . . . labels on the giant paint cans in the exhibition boast 'Improved hiding for better coverage' . . . Banksy's iconic rioter is pictured throwing not flowers but a copy of 'Street Art for Dummies' . . .

The portrait of a brooding Banksy (don't get excited, his face is hidden by a hood) in a Van Gogh-inspired room, ironically an artist whose talent is without question but who sold only one painting during his lifetime . . . hmmm. Also when you leave the exhibition you have to walk either to the left or right side of a rope, one marked 'Exit' and one marked 'Free gift'. Those who wandered down the exit only side and then asked for a free poster were told to go back and walk on the correct side of the rope . . . i.e. to Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Or perhaps Mr Brainwash just is who he is and what may have started as a prank has snowballed itself into reality. Interviewers have commented on how genuine he seems, how the exuberance and optimism of his work appear to be an outpouring of his own irrepressible personality. He describes himself as Banksy's 'biggest work of art' and in an interview published in the Evening Standard said 'Banksy pushed me to what I am today . . . but he didn't know that I was going to run and run!'

So if he is a Banksy creation - intentionally or otherwise - in going to see a Mr Brainwash exhibition, are you actually going to see Banksy? For his part, Banksy has made him a coat which reads 'Mr Brainwash is a phenomenon. I don't say that in a good way.' and Shepard Fairey has said, 'It was fascinating to observe a lot of suckers buying in to his show'. Confused? I think I need a lie down and a large gin and tonic (not necessarily in that order).

Anyway, back to the exhibition. Mr Brainwash's work has been described as 'happy art' and it is certainly that. Whilst it lacks the scathing social comment that makes much of Banksy's work so compelling, it is undeniably enjoyable; the serious, sober-suited security guard said that the exhibition had had over 2,000 visitors per day and certainly everyone there on my visit was having fun. The atmosphere was very relaxed; once past a cursory bag check (I was allowed to keep my bottle of water, they were more worried about pens, paint or crayons) you just wander around the exhibits, taking photos on your phone, chatting and pointing out new finds.

Pose next to a life-sized London black cab in a giant souvenir toy box, Mickey Mouse fashioned out of antique Coke signs or a 20ft gorilla made of rubber tyres, wielding the ubiquitous pink paintbrush. There are pop icons aplenty from Elvis to Elton; I particularly liked the series of music icons incorporating broken vinyl records (although some photographers of the original images are suing).

Th exhibition is free, runs from 1pm (not 11am as mentioned in Time Out) and has been extended until 7th September.
Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Is it art? I have no idea - ask Banksy.

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Lady Ottoline

The Lady Ottoline is a refurbished gastropub in Bloomsbury, owned by Scott Hunter and Maria Larsen (so a sister pub to the award-winning Princess in Shoreditch) and presumably named after Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bloomsbury society hostess and avid patron of the arts. The bar area has been thoughtfully restored and has a relaxed bistro feel (more formal dining is available upstairs), whilst the barstools, dark wood bar and ales on tap ensure one foot is kept firmly in the pub world.
I'd read some good reviews about the food here so had eaten a deliberately miserly breakfast in preparation for a full-on, blow-out Sunday lunch. Greedily perusing the menu I decided to start with the fish cake, poached egg, hollandaise sauce and fennel salad, followed by a mixed roast: beef, pork and chicken. All roasts are served with duck fat roast potatoes, green beans, broccoli, roasted carrots, Yorkshire pud and gravy, so all I had to do was choose a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the wine list and we were away. The staff, may I say, were excellent; friendly and chatty, attentive without being pushy and genuinely helpful. Sunday papers and supplements are spread across the bar for your perusal, which is a nice touch.

Fish cakes for me are borderline comfort food. I adore the contrast of the crisp golden coating and soft, yielding centre; add some buttery garden peas to that and I'm happy, but a poached egg and hollandaise sounded blissful and suitably Sunday brunch-esque. Sadly this didn't quite hit the spot. The poached egg was perfect and the hollandaise was rich and buttery but the fish cake itself - whilst generously packed with fish - lacked texture and had a slightly bitter aftertaste. I was expecting the fennel salad to be a small side of shaved fennel, probably dressed with olive oil and lemon; in fact it was a vinaigrettey rocket salad with some bits of fennel in it - not terrible, but I think a simpler salad might have gone with the dish better.

The roast arrived, with a large slice of beef, a smaller one of pork and a chicken leg, along with the accompaniments (I would normally have gone for just the beef but I felt I owed it to you, dear readers, to sample the lot). It was, I'm afraid, disappointing. It was also a little confusing, as some of it seemed to have been rushed whilst other bits seemed to have been hanging around in the kitchen keeping warm. Here are the winners, losers and also-rans of my roast.

The beef: moist and tender but with some unpleasant gristly bits and cooked without a trace of pinkness. Personal choice I know, but roast beef to me is at its most glorious when rare.
The chicken: tending to dry but okay.
The pork belly: very fatty still, as if it had perhaps been roasted too quickly.
The Yorkshire pud: dry and overcooked, a shadow away from burned.
The broccoli and peas: undercooked to the point of being hard. And this from someone who loathes mushy veg and steams everything to the firm side of al dente. (Well, except cauliflower for a cauliflower cheese, naturally, as that is the only example I can think of where resistance is futile. Anyway, I digress; back to the roast.)
The roast carrots and beans: perfect - flavoursome and with just the right amount of bite.
The roast potatoes: awful, frankly. One was okay, the others were solid to the point that I felt if I tried to apply any more pressure with my knife, the whole thing would shoot sideways off my plate at great speed and probably kill a bystander.
The apple sauce: good, chunky and clove-scented.

Perhaps it's not a good idea to be the first customer at 12.30 (and indeed the only customer for the next half an hour) in a place that opens at noon. Perhaps their regular chef doesn't work on Sundays. Perhaps the standard is actually dropping, as one recent reviewer felt (I reread the reviews when I got home, perplexed). I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, as the lovely waitress looked genuinely alarmed when I asked for the bill (over £30 including service) with my food barely touched and asked if everything was all right. Now I'm absolutely not someone who enjoys complaining for the sake of it (in fact I really dislike those people) but I can politely send back an overdone steak or a cold soup without too much embarrassment; after all, if it was my restaurant I would want to know. But faced with her obvious concern, I just didn't know where to start.

Disappointed, I perked up when I realised the Charles Dickens museum is only a hop and a skip from the pub. Guess what? It's closed for refurbishment until December. Sometimes it's just not your day.

Yours, under my own personal raincloud,
Girl About Town xx

Square Meal
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Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Phat Phuc Noodle Bar

Worth visiting for the Facebook check in alone, Phat Phuc is apparently Vietnamese for 'Happy Buddha'. That may be so, but the fact that they have t-shirts for sale indicates that the implications of the Western pronunciation (and its financial opportunities) are clearly not lost on the owners!

Located in a small courtyard down a flight of steps at the beginning of Sydney Street, just off the King's Road in Chelsea, the Phat Phuc Noodle Bar is a welcomingly affordable spot to grab lunch. Seating is outdoors on chairs and benches with plenty of umbrellas to protect you from whatever elements the British weather feels like throwing at you. The seats are a tad rickety, the cushions worn and the food is freshly prepared in a beautifully-decorated hut that their Chelsea neighbours probably wouldn't countenance as garden storage - all utterly perfect for a Vietnamese noodle bar. Phat Phuc has really friendly staff and a relaxed, unpretentious feel that on a hot, muggy London day made me half believe I could feel sand between my toes.

We had prawn summer rolls and dim sum to start, followed by Bang Bang chicken noodle salad and Duck Pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup with duck and vegetables in broth). Each of the main courses was under £7, perfect for a frugal foodie in a very pricey part of town - although we did choose to match that price in drinks with a couple of beers at £3.50 each! I've not been to Vietnam yet so I can't comment on the authenticity of the dishes but I am a big noodle fan and I enjoyed my meal. The summer rolls were chunky, bursting with freshness and flavour; there maybe could have been a little more prawn in the filling, but then again these were twice the size I was expecting them to be, so perhaps that is churlish - the portions here are generous.

 My Pho was good; a nicely balanced broth base with plenty of noodles, several slices of moist roast duck and accompanying vegetables. There are a couple of chilli sauce options on the table so you can customise the spiciness ( beware the oil - it's HOT!) but it's perfectly fine without any if you prefer. My companion's salad was refreshing and flavoursome.

I wouldn't necessarily say the Phat Phuc is somewhere you should immediately rush your noodle-loving foodie friends to (that would be Koya in Frith Street) but the food was great, the staff lovely and I would absolutely drop in again if I was in the area. I fancy trying the Prawn Laksa next. Anyone out there know if it's any good?

Girl About Town xx
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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Crazy golf? You bet!

Not a lot of people know this but in the 1930s the roof of Selfridges boasted a pleasure garden, cafe and golf course. This summer it has been reopened to host the Big Rooftop Tea and Golf Party; it's golf, but not as you know it.

British food architects Bompas and Parr have designed a 9-hole course that puts the crazy right back into crazy golf. Each hole is a tribute to a treasured London landmark, modelled as if made of elaborately iced cake or jelly - and realistic enough that one of the club rules is 'No licking the obstacles'. Now that's not a sentence you hear every day.

Step out of the Express lift into a 'Mad Hatter meets genteel English village fĂȘte' blur of bunting, teacups, strawberries and golf balls. Collect your putter, choose a pastel-coloured ball, grab your gloriously cherry bakewell-scented score card and make your way to the first hole - the Portal of Destiny. Big Ben, Nelson's Column, and a rather wonderful Tower Bridge (complete with rather thoughtful shrimp net to retrieve errant balls from the water) are all here.

St Pinbaul's is a rather tricky fifth hole, complete with tempting jellyesque models of St Paul's (I did manage to restrain myself from licking, but only after a prod or two revealed them to be more solid than you would expect from the real deal). One of the joyous side-effects of freely-accepted madness is the inevitable shedding of reserve between strangers. How can you hope to adhere to social norms when you are belting a pink golf ball at a giant piece of cake?

The final hole is a twirly lilac Gherkin (okay, 30 St Mary Axe) and then you can tot up your score and retire to the cafe for some well-earned refreshment. I know we probably should have had the afternoon tea, but my companion and I were waylaid by the menu into a glass of Prosecco and a Gin, Elderflower and Violet jelly; a delicately-hued and delicious treat to round off our superbly random London afternoon.

You'll have to hurry as 2nd September is the last day. Online tickets sell out pretty quickly but they keep tickets back for walk-ups each day; go through the Fragrance department on the ground floor and you'll see two lifts on the right. The left hand lift is the Express lift straight to the top floor and should have a hostess with a clipboard standing next to it. You can book your tickets there - time slots should be available throughout the day.

If we're talking high tea it doesn't get too much higher than this.

Yours, in fabulously British randomness,
Girl About Town xx

Monday, 20 August 2012

Saatchi Gallery: Korean Eye 2012

The Saatchi Gallery is in the beautiful and perfectly proportioned Duke of York HQ building on the King's Road in Chelsea, less than five minutes' walk from Sloane Square tube, and entry is free. Membership to the gallery is also free and gets you invites to special events, talks and members' evenings as well as advance notice of exhibitions; get proactive and sign up in the online room on the second floor.

Korean Eye is the largest exhibition of new Korean art to date and the first time these artists have been shown as a group. Thirty-three artists were chosen from around two thousand applicants, providing a huge range of influences and styles in the works on show. Here are some of my snippets, pictures and highlights but I strongly recommend you go and wander round yourself and make your own choices (by the way, the gallery is fiercely air-conditioned - bliss on the muggy day I went, but you might want a warmish top).

I found shapes crafted from the porcelain deliberately broken and discarded by ceramic masters when the finished piece is not up to standard; Yeesookyung has taken these unwanted, destroyed pieces and made them into something new and desirable, covering the joins with gold leaf.

One room shows huge pictures with embedded photographs on acrylic like holograms that change as you walk past; people (and clothes) appear and disappear, details change, your interpretation of the work alters.

I loved the mesmerising portrait of an elderly Mother Theresa by Hyung Koo Kang painted in oils on aluminium, and pictures of braided hair painted using a single-haired brush.

Huge, photo-realistic pictures of cacti by Lee Kwang-Ho flank a delicate latticed sculpture in one room, and a selection of vases atop packing crates in another.

Cho Duck Hyun's apparently traditional portraits force their way into the present and trail fabric over the gallery floor, contrasting with Kim Buyoungho's wall-mounted bursts of twigs or aluminium.

The lower floor houses 20:50, a site-specific installation by British sculptor Richard Wilson and my favourite piece in a very rewarding visit. The viewer looks down on the piece from a gallery on to what appears to be a drop of several feet and white rectangles on the floor. As a fan of - but no expert in - contemporary art, I dutifully kept looking and awaiting enlightenment; it was the distinct smell of oil that dropped the penny for me.

The rectangles on the floor were in fact reflections of the ceiling lights, there was only one row of windows, not two. In one of the moments I love in art, when you suddenly have to reassess everything you thought you were looking at, I realised that there was an almost impossibly smooth reflective surface over the whole room, and that it was one of the least glamorous (Chris Ofili aside) substances possible; used sump oil. Deceptively simple, disorienting, genius.

Really, go. If you like contemporary art, I'm betting at least one thing there will make you catch your breath.

Yours, impressed,
Girl About Town xx

Friday, 17 August 2012

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre

If you were one of those kids who used to fight with your brother or sister about whose turn it was to push the button for the green man when crossing the road, then you're going to love this exhibition.

This was pure nostalgia for me. These automata used to be downstairs at Covent Garden where, being fun and free, they were an intrinsic part of a teenage day out along with buying hand made silver earrings from students at the market and hanging out by the street performers before filling up on cheap and fabulous veggie stir fry at Food for Thought.

If you're making a special journey, be aware that the selection here is quite small; the exhibition space is basically the size of a shop and you'll be here fifteen to twenty minutes tops. However, size isn't everything. These wonderful and ingenious contraptions are great fun and guaranteed to raise a smile; there is something about pressing the buttons and making them whizz into action, be it rowing pirates, kissing couples or a lion-tamer retrieving his head from the lion's mouth just before the jaws clamp shut, that is very satisfying in a toddleresque kind of way.

I can't decide if my personal favourite is the man eating spaghetti from his bathtub or the waving Queen, but I marvel at the imagination and workmanship in them all.

I didn't have time on this particular visit. but if you are trekking out to the area, Dulwich Picture Gallery is a short bus ride away and is on my hit list, so watch this space. There are plenty of places to grab a bite or a caffeine fix in the nearby High Street, which incidentally has some very nice charity shops worth browsing for a pre-loved bargain or two.

One word of warning; I nearly pitched up at the Kennington branch of Space Station 65, which doesn't have an exhibition on at the moment, having glanced at their website and just seen a tube station within walking distance. This exhibition is in the East Dulwich site - check their website for details.

Delightful, amusing and free. What more do you want? Go push some buttons.

Yours, making things happen,
Girl About Town xx

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Hawksmoor Seven Dials

It's not every day I get to try a top-twenty UK restaurant (eighteenth according to last year's National Restaurant Awards) but hooray for birthdays, as on mine I got treated to dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials - happy days!

If you're eating at the Hawksmoor, you're eating steak. I had therefore thought my customary faffing around over the menu and angsting over meal envy wouldn't be an issue, having forgotten about their legendary cocktail list. Reminiscent of a time when cocktails were considered practically medicinal rather than served in fish bowls with umbrellas and sparklers, the list is divided into wonderfully-titled sections such as Antifogmatics and Pre-prandials, with fascinating little historical snippets about each drink. (The bar serves these with food from either the main menu or their bar food menu, which includes burgers, hot dogs and a whole grilled lobster in a bun with a side of BĂ©arnaise. In Arnie's immortal words, I'll be back.)

I eventually went for a Fancy Gin Cocktail (precursor of the martini, apparently, and delicious) before turning to thoughts of food. With steak as the main event, we chose a supporting cast we thought would complement it: dressed crab to start, Heritage tomato salad and triple-cooked chips to go with and peppercorn sauce on the side. The staff are attentive in that chilled, laid-back way I prefer and very knowledgeable, happy to advise on which cuts of steak are better cooked rare or medium and to help navigate their eclectic wine list. 
The £12 crab starter was comfortably enough for two people to share, particularly with a slab of steak on the horizon; impressive chunks of moist white meat on a base of dark, served with big slices of toasted sourdough bread. I love crab and as a regular visitor to Cornwall I have high expectations but this did not disappoint.
I had the fillet cooked rare to follow; this was awesomely good, the charcoal grill really adding texture and bringing out its full flavour, the meat just meltingly tender. Hawksmoor steaks come from Longhorn cattle (Heston Blumenthal's breed of choice for steak), reared by the incomparable Ginger Pig and dry-aged for 35 days; all I can say is that it is totally worth it. This was probably the best steak I have had in London  (there is a place in Argentina that carves it with a spoon, but that's another story). Right here, right now, Hawksmoor is where it's at. The chips are also excellent and the colourful tomato salad added just the right note of freshness and balance, aided and abetted by a glass or two of Syrah.

I don't normally do pudding - sweet enough, me - but didn't take much arm-twisting to try the intriguing option of cornflake jelly and ice cream. I was ambivalent about the jelly, but the ice cream was unexpectedly good; it sounds faddy, but the flavours really work. (Apparently they also do cornflake milkshakes, and why not? Bagsie me one of those on the next visit.) And bless, they not only wrote Happy Birthday round the edge in chocolate and served it with a candle, they were endearingly discreet about it. Hawksmoor, you're a class act.

Yours, another year on, 

Girl About Town xx

(Thank you for my cards guys - anyone see a theme?) :)

Square Meal 

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