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

Casa Brindisa on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

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

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Sadler's Wells

Here's a little piece of trivia for you; Sadler's Wells Theatre has continuously occupied the same site in Islington since 1683, making it second only to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane as the oldest entertainment venue in London. It first came into being when the entrepreneurial Richard Sadler discovered natural wells in the garden of his wooden 'musick house' and realised their marketing potential; the area had been famous during the Middle Ages for its healing waters and was soon a fashionable spa destination for seventeenth-century socialites. However, even the most architecturally clueless (c'est moi) will realise that the current incarnation is not particularly aged; in fact it opened in 1998, rebuilt thanks to fundraising spearheaded by a National Lottery grant. The story of the journey can be found on their website here:

Sadler's Wells describes itself as 'uniquely dedicated to bringing the very best international and UK dance to London audiences' and they do this by not only staging but also commissioning productions - nearly seventy over the past five years alone. And we're not just talking tutus and tiaras; the performance I went to see (a triple bill by the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet) felt much less formal and more immediate than most people's idea of traditional ballet and the Peacock Theatre, Sadler's Wells' Holborn venue, is currently showing ZooNation's Some Like it Hip Hop.

This range of dance, from ballet to hip hop and tap to flamenco, is central to the Sadler's Wells ethos; 'We believe dance is the art form of the moment. No other form has the potential to reach so many people, crossing cultural boundaries and appealing to diverse audiences.' Like visual art there is no language barrier and anyone who has cut through Trocadero Underground from Piccadilly Circus will know that teenagers from all cultures who wouldn't be caught dead in a theatre or gallery will focus for hours on getting a new dance move right.

I am absolutely no expert on dance and went with a completely open mind but I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible it was and by the connection between audience and dancers. Whilst some pieces were quite intense others were unexpectedly funny, making the audience laugh out loud. I was made to think, and to feel, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time; you can't ask for too much more than that. Oh, except that the theatre even has its own bus stop, so you're delivered right to the door. That's service.

Yours, wondering how they can possibly bend all that way and thinking I really should take up yoga again,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ukai Sushi

Ukai Sushi in Soho is a restaurant/bar hybrid that really works; the sleek, dark, stylish interior with dimmed lighting has a row of standard tables along one wall as you go in, then a section opposite the copper-fronted bar with lower tables and more casual seating that is great for groups or couples and would work for sushi and/or cocktails equally well.
The cocktail menu includes a range of sake-based martinis and some interesting flavour combinations such as blackberry with fresh rosemary; my Ukai raspberry martini was delicious. My companion had a non-alcoholic 'tea cocktail' from the standard drinks menu, a refreshing iced jasmine tea muddled with kiwi, mint and lime. We also asked for some tap water; top marks for serving this with as much care as the other drinks, glasses loaded with ice and fresh lemon, rather than just dumping a plain glass resentfully on the table as can so often be the case.

The cornerstone of all great food has to be the freshness and quality of the basic ingredients and nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than with sushi. Minimal preparation and seasoning means that the meal rests on the quality of the fish and Ukai have clearly embraced this. We ordered a Salmon Mixed Platter - four sashimi, two nigiri and five hosomaki - along with some tuna sashimi and an Ukai salad, a salad leaf/soybean/seeds mix. The salad didn't really work for me but the sashimi was excellent; thick slices of vibrantly-coloured, meltingly fresh salmon and tuna served on a bed of crisp shredded daikon with wasabi and ginger. The sushi too was really good, generous slices of salmon curved over well-flavoured rice (neither too vinegary nor too dry) in the nigiri, and plumply filling the nori-coated hosomaki rolls.

Then on to some of the hot dishes: duck rolls, soft shell crab tempura and stir-fried udon with chicken. The duck rolls had a good meaty flavour and were nice and  crisp. The crab too was very tasty, the coating not as feather-light as somewhere like Koya but perfectly fine, as were the noodles. Don't misunderstand me; it's not that there is anything at all wrong with Ukai's hot food - in fact it is better than many local options - it's just that the sushi is Cinderella stand-out good, and tends to leave the rest of the menu languishing Ugly Sister-like at the ball.

So, I do recommend a visit. I've only been at lunchtime but am quite tempted by the DJ deck in the corner and the siren call of the cocktail list to go back one evening. They have a loyalty scheme, which makes ordering a couple of platters of sushi and sashimi not only healthy but financially wise. Your parents would be proud. Now go and blow the savings on cocktails.

Yours, healthy, wealthy and wise,

Girl About Town xx

Ukai Sushi on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Portobello Road Market

Portobello Road Market is actually a series of markets stretching over half a mile from Notting Hill Gate tube station to just past Ladbroke Grove; I usually take several leisurely hours to cover this allowing for dodging the crowds, browsing and the odd purchase, plus a pit stop or two for refuelling.

You can start at either end but as it's on a hill most people seem to start from Notting Hill and walk down, and on manically busy Saturdays when the antique market is in town it can be easier to just go with the flow.
Assuming you have picked a Saturday to visit, follow the crowds out of the station past the chocolate-box mews houses (look out for George Orwell's blue plaque) and you're straight into the antiques section of the market, which goes from Chepstow Villas to Elgin Crescent - you can download a useful map here:

Serious antique hunters should arrive by 9am latest (NOT 5.30am as some guide books say - none of the traders will be there!) but for those of us who are just there to soak up the atmosphere and idly browse, the market doesn't start closing up until around 4pm so it's a perfect lunchtime destination. Also, don't neglect the arcades off to the left; there are plenty of goodies to be had in there as well as from the stalls.

You can pick up some incredible bargains here. I don't necessarily mean investment pieces (although I'm sure that's possible), more just beautiful, characterful touches for your home that would cost a fortune in a designer shop. I love hunting around for mismatched silver cutlery and I have a friend who has gradually collected a set of gorgeous old fine china cups, saucers and tea plates, all in different patterns and styles, which look truly fabulous together and give simple tea and cake a real frisson of glamour. Amongst the silverware, glass and china there are lots of other wonderfully quirky collectables: antique printers' trays and blocks, metal advertising signs, worn leather footballs and wonderful old tins in all shapes and sizes - the old-fashioned food ones like Homepride, Oxo and Tetley make great kitchen storage!

After Elgin Crescent this segues into a food market which on Saturdays covers not only standard fruit and veg but also artisanal breads, cakes and baked goods, olives, flavoured oils, chutneys and relishes etc. If you happen to be here around packing-up time (just after 4pm) the traders are often keen to offload the fresh produce, so you can grab yourself some cut-price treats to take home. This area also offers a wide range of freshly-cooked street food, perfect for a quick energising pick-me-up before heading off down the hill.

The next section of the market, from Talbot Road to the Westway, is more like a standard weekend market with a range of new goods. Quality can vary enormously from stall to stall and you will find everything from 'original' art, jewellery, scarves and rugs to clothes pegs, batteries and watches. Keep an eye out for the regular shops as well though, as Portobello Road is home to some fabulous independent retailers; the rather wonderful Street Sensation website offers you a virtual shop-by-shop walkthrough map here:

Look out particularly for the Oxfam Bookshop (172 Portobello Road) - if you are a bibliophile like me, declutter your shelves and drop your preloved  books here, then browse their shop and take home a whole new selection, all for charity. If I lived nearer, this would pretty much be my library. Also well worth a visit is Books for Cooks (4 Blenheim Crescent), which is an unbeatable combo of eclectic cookery book shop and working test kitchen/cafe. As soon as you open the door a waft of baking lures you inside and soon you're sampling the very recipe you're looking at on the page. Genius. They also run workshops on making everything from pasta to sushi upstairs in their demo kitchen - check their website for details:

Another fabulous coffee stop is newcomer Casa Nova (140 Portobello Road), which promises 'chocolate and something more'. It delivers on both counts; my coffee was really good, gutsy with a nutty depth that really hit the spot, and arrived with some freshly-baked biscuits drizzled with chocolate. There was an extensive choice of cakes and pastries to go with, as well as a range of delicious hand-made chocolate. For those with a real sweet tooth or in need of comfort, you must try the hot chocolate. It is literally that - like drinking warm melted chocolate, an oddly Willy Wonka-esque experience but highly recommended.

As you near the Westway you start to get into the fashion market. This is a great place to pick up vintage clothing, bags and accessories as well as hand-made pieces from young designers, usually fashion and textile design students; worth it to know you're unlikely to turn up at a party in the same outfit as someone else, and fabulous bragging rights if they were to make it big! Some stalls have a theme, maybe military or evening wear, whereas others are just a treasure chest jumble.

At this time of year it is worth checking out this season's fashion for coats and then rummaging through the racks; basic shapes like the peacoat or riding jacket don't change and you can find a bang on-trend winter coat or two for a fraction of the high street price. The best stuff is under the Westway; the market does continue on and into Golbourne Road but it degenerates into car boot type second hand goods past Cambridge Gardens.

Obviously the market is a tourist attraction but Portobello Road is fundamentally a working market for Londoners and a great Saturday afternoon out; I haven't managed a trip there yet without leaving laden down with fabulous finds. Go, enjoy.

Yours, vintage clad,

Girl About Town xx