Monday, 12 August 2013

10 Greek Street

10 Greek Street is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it white tile and matt black-fronted restaurant in the road parallel to Frith Street down from Soho Square, an area already blessed with some of the best eateries in town. Opened around 18 months ago and run by Luke Wilson (ex manager of Exmouth Market's The Ambassador and Liberty Wines rep) at front of house and Cameron Emirali (former Head Chef of the Wapping Project) in the kitchen, there is a no-reservations policy for dinner, although you can book lunch or the private dining room.

The no-frills approach continues inside with a stripped down but stylish, relaxing interior: dark-grouted white rectangular wall tiles (which always remind me of those grand Victorian bathrooms, but in a good way), garden flowers in milk bottles, bare walls and blackboards displaying the daily changing menu. The cutlery is in a container at your table, which gave me a sudden post-traumatic stress flashback to eating in Texas until a glance at the menu brought me back to the here and now.

The menu segues between tasting plates, starters and main courses; we had a sharing head on, and our unflappable waitress was happy to oblige. You can have tapas-y nibbles, starters, starter portions of main courses and/or main courses shared between two, and that's before you get to the desserts. Oh, and even though the menu changes daily, they still have specials: while we were perusing the menu, we plumped for the starter special, a Parmesan-crusted duck egg with truffle mayonnaise.

Truffles are like expensive perfume - a little goes an awfully long way, and they can very easily become overpowering and unpleasant. I need not have feared, as this was a spectacular introduction to our evening; the egg was perfectly soft-centred, the coating beautifully golden and crisp and the truffle mayonnaise flavoured with a deft but sparing hand.

We decided to share a combination of starter options and then see how we felt about ordering a main. The first to arrive was the octopus, potatoes and paprika; for me, this was a perfect summer dish that looked beautiful and reminded me of long mellow evenings at a beach-side taverna or trattoria. Generous pieces of unexpectedly tender octopus, peppery olive oil and the spike of paprika balanced perfectly with soft chunks of potatoes to soak up all the flavours - wonderful.

10 Greek Street also has an excellent and very reasonably-priced wine list that gives you the choice of a small 125ml glass, a 375ml carafe, or a bottle for most of the wines available, meaning you can easily and affordably marry up wines and dishes should you choose to. We went for a carafe of the crisp and citrussy Vermentino, which was really good and went well with everything we ordered.

Next to arrive was the spaghettini, girolles, leeks and summer truffle: again this was a really carefully put together dish, the flavours complementing each other beautifully. It was quite a sizeable portion for a starter, especially considering that it is very buttery and quite filling. We then had the clams, chorizo and peas which was again a good size, served with toasted home-made bread. I was beginning to appreciate that the decor (and indeed the website) reflect the whole ethos of the food at 10 Greek Street: nothing fussy, nothing pretentious, nothing unnecessary, concentrating on quality and balanced (although sometimes unexpected) combinations that really work. This was delicious; excellent chorizo, again not allowed to overpower the dish but complementing the clams and the fresh peas beautifully.

It was at this point, just as we had decided that we couldn't fit in a main course and would head straight for desserts, that the table next to us got their dish of rare spring lamb, white beans, preserved lemon, watercress and chilli. I knew I wasn't hungry enough but I couldn't help feeling a pang of envy, it looked so good. I suspect that every diner in the place was mentally planning their next meal there - although of course you can't as the menu changes daily, depending on seasonal influences and Emirali's gifted imagination.

Chatting to owner Luke Wilson, I asked how he would characterise a menu that offered dishes as diverse as monkfish wrapped in vine leaves, spaghettini with girolles and plaice with brown shrimp. Acknowledging a strong Mediterranean influence together with a classic British feel but given a fresh and inspired twist, and given that 'Cam's cuisine' is not yet a recognised term in food writing (though give it time - Cameron Emirali has both vision and talent, and lots of it), 'Modern European' is about the closest fit.

We chose two very different desserts to share - a gooseberry and elderflower crumble with crème anglaise (basically a very light pouring custard) and raspberry sorbet with vodka. Neither disappointed; the crumble was light and beautifully textured, the fruit retaining just enough sharpness, and the sorbet was smooth, fresh and zingy, with the vodka adding a little kick of interest at the end.

If you haven't tried 10 Greek Street yet, or if the pared-down look has put you off, go. Go now. Trust me, you won't be disappointed - this place is a gem. I'm already planning my next trip.

Yours, a new card-carrying Cam Cuisine groupie,

Girl About Town xx

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Monday, 5 August 2013

Visions of the Universe

Visions of the Universe is the latest exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (on now, until 15th September), dedicated to the memory of the wonderful Sir Patrick Moore and showcasing incredible images of the stars, planets and galaxies above us. You don't need to be an astronomy boffin either; photography fans are in for a particularly supermassive treat but anyone who has ventured outside of London's light pollution and just stared up at the night sky will be transported back to that feeling of sheer wonder.

The exhibition includes photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA, The Royal Observatory's Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and über-hip Turner Prizewinner Wolfgang Tillmans. Some images are coloured to show topographical detail (high and low ground) or the gases which make them up; this image of the moon clearly shows the craters, scars caused by billions of years' worth of asteroid bombardment. The largest crater on the moon, the South Pole-Aitken basin, is nearly 1500 miles across - that's roughly from here (London) to Moscow - and over five miles deep. No wonder asteroid collisions are the subject of disaster movies; and this is just one of the many instances of scale in this exhibition that are truly mind-boggling.

There are some beautiful and fascinating photographs of the sun, using ultraviolet images to show the seething surface and soaring arcs of gas flowing around the sunspots, and some awesome shots of nebulae from the Hubble Space Telescope. This one of the Eagle nebula looks like a illustration from a fantasy novel but the reality would be hard to beat; this is a photograph of stars being born.

I hadn't realised the extent of the information coming back from NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, which has been on the surface of the planet for a year now; apparently remnants of ancient stream beds show that, billions of years ago, conditions on Mars would have been favourable to life. There is also a cool 13-metre long panorama of the Martian landscape which gives you an idea of what it might be like to stand on Mars and look out over that barren red desert stretching away before you.

A potentially cautionary note to parents desperate to entertain their little cherubs over the summer holidays; I visited on a Sunday afternoon and the atmosphere was still quite grown-up, all subdued lighting and respectful hushed voices. This may or may not suit: I have an endearingly eccentric 11-year old godson who would absolutely love this exhibition, and he has an equally endearing eight-year old sister who would run riot through it. Having said that, the National Maritime Museum itself is kid heaven (even without the special family activities on over the summer) so you could always let them run themselves ragged first and earn yourself a few moments to just stand and stare.

Yours, in quiet amazement,

Girl About Town xx

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Coco Nail Bar

Lately I've taken to treating friends to a day out in London rather than buying presents for birthdays and special occasions; most of us would be hard pushed to remember what a particular friend bought us for our last birthday, but an experience tends to be much more memorable, and doesn't gather dust in their flat. Plus I get an excuse to spend a day in my favourite place with one of my favourite people: what's not to like?

I was horrified to learn that this particular friend - let's call her Sarah, largely because that's her name - had never been to Portobello Road market. Faithful readers know of course that I have (see my blog post in October last year) but I am always very happy to go back and it happened to tie in nicely with somewhere I had been planning to try that seemed perfect for a day of girlie pampering and chat.

Coco Nail Bar is on Portobello Road itself, near the bottom of the hill just before the Westway. As most people sensibly start from the Notting Hill end and walk downhill this meant we could peruse almost all the market first and finish with a well-earned sit down. All my friend knew was that I was treating her to a pedicure; what lifts Coco out of the ordinary are the unexpected and seriously cool extras.

Massage chairs: Coco has those huge massage chairs you get in high end hairdressers and airport lounges, so you can get unknotted and de-stressed whilst getting fabulous nails.

Minx nails: I am a recent convert to these, particularly over the summer. Funky pre-printed and/or metallic designs are gently heated under a lamp and then applied to your nails, whether natural, gel or acrylic. Celebrity favourites, I love them because everybody notices them, you don't have to worry about drying time and they last for absolute ages - four to six weeks for a pedicure. Or you can go for standard OPI polish, obvs.

Still not impressed? Okay, how about . . .

Sushi: Coco have teamed up with another of my favourite places, Ukai (another blog post from October 2012) to provide absolutely delicious sushi in situ. We had just pigged out at the wonderful Books for Cooks, or this would have had to be done.

Scented candles: heaven forbid you should have to sit in a place that smells of street market and nail polish. Ancienne Ambiance candles provide a gently fragrant background to your pampering - and if you love them, you can buy them at reception.

Apple TV: watch the big screen, or the individual tablets mean you can watch catch-up TV, update your Ocado order or listen to your own choice of music. We didn't bother, because we were very happy with . .

The DJ: Saturdays see their resident DJ setting the scene with old school R&B and dance tunes - perfect for chilling out whilst being pampered. All that's missing from this picture is a glass of wine or an ice-cold margarita. Lucky, then, that they have a . . .

Cocktail bar: Seriously. Wimp out with freshly-made Illy coffee if you must, but we shunned the coffee, wine and bubbly for cocktails - classic margaritas and mojitos and Coco signature cocktails Nailed It, White Coco and Peach Bum. Now that's what I call a proper girlie day out. Happy birthday honey!

Yours, pampered, polished and feeling no pain,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Bouquets are okay and candy is dandy but nothing says 'Happy Anniversary' to a foodie like a fabulously indulgent three-course lunch at Gordon Ramsay's flagship restaurant in Chelsea. One of only two restaurants in London (and only four in the UK) to hold three Michelin stars, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is headed up by partner Chef Patron Clare Smyth, 2013 Good Food Guide Chef of the Year and recent MBE.

Unassuming at first glance and quietly elegant within, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is situated on Royal Hospital Road, just around the corner from the Chelsea Physic Garden. The recently refurbished dining area is intimate and unfussy and I was relieved to find myself in varied company, having feared an entire roomful of CEOs and Chanel-clad ladies who lunch. In fact, the ambience was relaxed and genuinely welcoming - unlike the starchy self-importance of some other 'top' restaurants.

Greeted and seated, we decided to go with the impressive set lunch menu - considering the location, actually pretty good value at £55 per person.  The first indication of three-star status was the seamlessly professional and utterly charming maitre d' Jean-Claude; think of a conductor directing an entire orchestra of highly-trained musicians with the tiniest flick of a baton or raised eyebrow. His staff ensured we were settled quickly, checking on drinks, any allergies or dislikes and whether it was a special occasion within minutes of us arriving at the table and he personally welcomed every guest with genuine warmth. Our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable, happy to discuss ingredients and preparation methods as we placed our order. We were then brought an amuse bouche of pea and mint mousse with ricotta and baby vegetables which was fabulous; light but absolutely full of flavour and a lovely summery start to the meal.

For the first course I had the tartlet of confit salmon, shaved fennel, radishes, grilled piquillo pepper, quail's egg, rocket and basil, while my companion had the lobster, asparagus and herb tortellini with broad beans, tomato and lobster consommé. If the first bite is with the eye, my first bite of the tartlet was sensational. It was beautifully presented, a larger portion than I had expected (for a sense of actual proportions in the photograph, think about the size of a quail's egg) and delicious from start to finish; a perfect mix of fresh, delicate seasonal flavours. I nabbed a bite of the tortellini, which was also excellent - get used to meal envy here, because you're going to have a real pang every time you see a plate set in front of somebody else.

At the risk of stating the obvious for a Michelin-starred restaurant, the wine list is extensive and not cheap; prices run to four figures. On the more unexpected side, the Head Sommelier (and 2012 UK sommelier of the year) is younger than you might expect and, despite his obvious passion for wine, was refreshingly unintimidating and non-judgemental about us deciding against a bottle and ordering instead the £6 glasses of Bordeaux Blanc sec - which, incidentally, was really good. The selection of breads - sourdough, bacon and onion brioche, wheaten and pretzel - was excellent, readily replenished and served with a choice of salted or unsalted butter.

For our mains we had the miso glazed cod with black quinoa, squid, grilled shiitake mushrooms and lapsang souchong broth, and the roasted rabbit loin with Bayonne ham, salted baked turnips, toasted hazelnuts and pickled mustard seed. Again, these were as beautifully presented as they were delicious, with the individual flavours coming together perfectly; our waiter served the broth at the table, encouraging me to smell it first to appreciate the smoky subtlety. I finished my glass of wine and idly wondered how long it would take a member of staff to notice and offer another. The answer? Forty seconds.

Dessert was roasted pineapple with coriander financiers (tiny French almond cakes), coconut sorbet and vanilla cream for me and banana parfait, peanut butter mousse and bitter chocolate sandwich with caramelised bananas for my companion. These were both wonderful, although I don't really have a sweet tooth; if I hadn't been starting to feel quite full, I would have been almost homicidally jealous of the diner at the next table who ordered the cheese. Available at a small supplement, the cheese trolley selection looked and smelled as good as any I have seen in France and was served with a range of accompaniments from grapes to breads and oatcakes.

Coffee ordered, extremely happy with the fabulous food and outstanding customer service, and starting to feel a little regretful that this remarkable experience was drawing to a close, I caught a glimpse of something spectacular being placed on a nearby table. A lidded silver dish was uncovered to oohs and ahs, and a theatrically billowing cloud of dry ice. Before I could question a passing waiter, the same dish arrived at our table; it was four bite-size balls of strawberry ice cream encased in white chocolate. These were swiftly followed by a glass tray of the most delicately rose-flavoured turkish delight and rich chocolate ganache, on tiny cake servers to avoid those pesky cocoa stains. Yes they really do think of everything.

As if that wasn't enough, we then had a delectable chocolate truffle dessert, complete with single candle, discreetly delivered to the table as a gift for our celebrations. A wonderful touch - but the best was yet to come. Maitre d' Jean-Claude approached the table, leaned close and whispered the question every foodie wants to hear: 'Would you like to see the kitchen?'

Expecting the dining room to be the elegantly gliding swan above the water and the kitchen to be the furiously paddling legs beneath, we entered the inner sanctum. Clare Smyth's team were unexpectedly calm and apparently unhurried, although in the way the workings of a Swiss watch would be: meticulously synchronised. Clare took a minute out to chat although she and her Head Chef personally check each and every dish before it reaches the diners and the standards are beyond exacting.

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay deserves every one of its three Michelin stars; the food is exquisite and if anyone wants to learn about customer service, then these guys have it absolutely nailed. This was an outstanding dining experience: not fussy, not pretentious, just totally focused on the diner and delivering more than they promise - this is the dining equivalent of being ushered to the front of the queue, past the rope and bouncers and straight into the VIP lounge.

Yours, lunching it large, Girl About Town xx

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Saturday, 9 March 2013

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

The unpredictable weather may not be inspiring you to stroll idly around the city streets at the moment but it's absolutely perfect for planning a day in a museum. The Museum of London should be high on your list anyway but there is a must-see exhibition on right now (until 14th April) with a true and wonderfully gruesome London tale behind it. Ready to immerse yourself in the murky depths of nineteenth-century London? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let's begin . . .

In the summer of 2006, Museum of London archaeologists stumbled across an unmarked burial site at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, believed to have been used for patients who had died and whose bodies had been unclaimed. What they found was unexpected and disturbing: many of the graves contained bones from several different bodies, some human and some animal, all showing clear evidence of dissection and anatomical study. Even more disquieting was the fact that the graveyard was used between 1825 and 1841 - despite the fact that before the Anatomy Act of 1832 it was illegal to dissect any cadaver other than that of an executed criminal.

The exhibition sets the background perfectly, with a finely-balanced blend of history and theatre. Medical science was still in its infancy: the accepted treatment for a broken limb was amputation and as there were no anaesthetics any surgery was a brutal experience, with many patients dying of blood loss or shock. Speed was vital: for this, surgeons needed a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, and for this they needed fresh corpses to practise on. The only legal source was hanged murderers from the gallows and competition was fierce.

Grave-robbing became prevalent, with a fresh adult corpse fetching over five times the average weekly wage. Grieving relatives would take shifts watching the graves of the newly-interred, watchmen with dogs patrolled the cemeteries and special iron coffins designed to secure their contents from theft became popular with those who could afford them. As so often, the poor were most at risk; many could not afford burial costs and even for those that could, it was common for several bodies to be in one relatively shallow grave - easy pickings for the so-called 'resurrectionists'. The exhibition has a fascinating diary belonging to a body snatcher, detailing the phases of the moon - careful preparation for planning a raid under cover of darkness.

In an age when many of us carry an organ donor card, it is difficult to appreciate the dread and horror that nineteenth-century Londoners would have felt at the prospect of dissection. At that time dissection was a terrible punishment meted out only to the vilest criminals; mob outcries and riots at public executions had prevented the bodies of those hanged for relatively minor offences being taken, resulting in an official policy of using executed murderers only. In addition, the commonly-held religious belief of eventual resurrection on the Day of Judgement led to a fear of the body not being whole for the afterlife. With donation almost unheard of and the graves becoming harder to rob, some resurrectionists looked to another supply - the living.

In a practice made infamous by Edinburgh's Burke and Hare, London's poor and homeless were now in danger of being 'befriended' before being drugged, murdered and sold for dissection. The case that made headlines, and ultimately led to the passing of the Anatomy Act, was that of London 'Burkers' Thomas Williams, John Bishop and James May - and their victim, the Italian Boy. The corpse's  intended buyer at King's College was alerted by the fact that the body was 'suspiciously warm' and kept Bishop and May talking until police arrived. They were arrested, the house that Bishop and Williams rented in Nova Scotia Gardens was searched, and several items of clothing found in a well. Bishop admitted that he and Williams would offer lodgings to those sleeping rough, drug them with rum and laudanum, then tie a rope around their feet and pitch the unfortunate victim headfirst down the well to drown whilst they went out drinking at a local tavern.

Bishop and Williams were convicted and hanged for murder. In a karmic twist, as executed murderers their bodies were  then sent for dissection - one of the more macabre exhibits is pieces of tattooed skin said to be from their bodies. Another is a plaster cast of murderer James Legg, whose corpse was taken fom the gallows, crucified and then flayed to expose the muscles. A cruel and terrible punishment for some unimaginable crime? No, merely a way for artists and sculptors of the time to settle an argument as to whether depictions of Christ's crucifixions were anatomically accurate or not. Whatever the intended purpose, it is a dramatic sight that will stay with you.

The exhibition ends in a brightly lit, clinical and modern look at where we stand today with medical science and politics and a film where young Londoners discuss how they feel about what happens to their body after death. It's not for the squeamish (or children under 12) but it is a fascinating, thought-provoking and excellently-presented exhibition and I really enjoyed it. Check online for discounts.

Yours, delving into London's dark past just for you,
Girl About Town xx