Friday, August 29, 2014

Hip Hop Karaoke, 21st August

Oh my word, I had such a fun time at Hip Hop Karaoke at the Social!

It is what it sounds like. Karaoke, but all the song choices are rap songs. All of them. They've got loads to choose from, and if they don't have your jam, you can request it in advance. They have crowdpleasers like Jump Around and Baby Got Back to Biggie and 2Pac and they're all online with difficulty ratings so you can get an idea for what you want to do (and practise!) before you go if you want. 

The MC is pretty fly for a white guy – he’s a mix of hip hop/ironic nerd and drops the MF bomb like it’s going out of style. He doesn’t partake of the karaoke himself, but is there to make the evening even more entertaining and ensure that everyone gets at least one cheer during their set, even if they’re failing miserably.

For that’s one of the great things about it. Yeah, there are definitely people who go every week, who don’t even need the words and who are mini rapper superstars in the making. But there were also plenty of people who’d never been before, and plenty of people who were just rubbish.

It’s actually trickier than normal karaoke, even with the easiest songs because all you have is a piece of paper with the words on it and then the DJ drops the background track. It’s up to you to figure out when to come in, and if you lose your place it can be pretty hard to catch yourself up again. But the crowd is really supportive, and most of them will know all the words better than you do if you’re not feeling that confident so can kind of keep it going until you get back into it. Having said that, there were at least two performers that just couldn’t even get through half of it, and a couple more that did finish, but I don’t think you could call what they were doing throughout the song ‘rapping’.

But that makes it funny and that’s why it’s so popular. It is on every week and every week it reaches capacity. We got there at 7 and already most of the good tables had gone. By 9 there was a queue outside and some of my friends couldn’t even get in. If you are thinking about doing a song – sign up early. The karaoke doesn’t start until 9 which gives you plenty of time to drink enough to muster up some courage. But if you wait until you’ve got enough alcohol in your system to sign up, you’ll find that they’ll run out of time before they get to you. Sign up early, and then just trust that you’ll be pissed enough to get on stage. I think I signed up to do my song at about 7:30 and I didn’t get to do it until just after the interval at gone 10pm!


So, they have one interval, and before and after they play top notch RnB and hip hop tunes. If you like nights like Supa Dupa Fly or Juicy, but maybe crave a bit more interaction with your dancing, then this night is for you. Hell, if you love this kind of music this night is for you. Or if you just like watching people make fools of themselves in a friendly place, this is for you. Loved it! One of the best weeknight activities out there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

CHICK and Victus & Bibo, 21st/22nd August

I am lucky to work in close proximity to Leather Lane, which has dozens of food vendors as well as permanent places lining the street from which to choose a lunch. Some of these are markedly better than others. Daddy Donkeys started off as a van and often had queues snaking down the lane. Now it has its own shop and the queues have not diminished. Tongue and Brisket, a permanent place, does sandwiches of carvery meats and chicken schnitzel. However, if you want that kind of thing, seek out Monty’s Deli or the Beigel shops in Brick Lane rather than here. So it's full of ups and downs. Two places recently caught my attention – Chick and Victus and Bibo.


Chick have done what Pilpel do but instead of only choosing between falafel and falafel, you can have chicken (hence their name) instead. They say it’s schnitzel but really it’s just breaded chicken fillets – of which you get two in a pita – but they're nice so I don’t begrudge them the false description. My first few bites of this were good – warm chicken, crunchy pickles and onions, a layer of hummus underneath it all. A pinch of chilli heat with each bite and the tahini mayo was liberal. I wasn’t too sure about the pita itself, it seemed a little too soft and so it proved. Within a few bites, the wet salad that they put in first had disintegrated the bottom of the pita so that there was a gaping hole. If I hadn’t been holding it in the bag in which it was served, there would have been salad all over my lap. This is such a shame as I was enjoying it until the pita continued to completely deconstruct and the chicken had all been eaten, leaving me with a sorry, claggy mess of bread and wet red cabbage and saurkraut, which is now my lasting memory of it. Next time I fancy similar, I’ll just head to Pilpel again.




And I probably won’t revisit Victus and Bibo either. What I had was actually quite nice for what it was, it just wasn’t my thing. They served ‘diced’ lamb and halloumi wraps and lahmacun. Only they never seem to serve the lahmacun, so finally I decided to just go for a wrap. This place is pretty popular and always has long queues but the service is quick. I discovered 'diced' means 'minced', which isn’t my favourite way of presenting meat and is my sole reason for not going back really. It is grilled in front of you with lots of spices and onions and tomatoes and is then wrapped with salad and fresh tomatoes. I find mince meat to be quite dry and coarse, and this was too, in essence, though what it was cooked with gave it a juiciness and a really nice flavour. The whole thing got better as you worked your way down to the leaves and fresh tomatoes. They sprinkle some chilli flakes on it but these are negligible in taste. So yeah, nice, just not for me - had it been shredded, or, indeed, diced, I'd be back again in a shot.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Laughing Gas and Lemonade, Surrealists Dinner, 15th August

Laughing Gas and Lemonade are basically an events company putting on events with a twist. this one was a dinner/dance based on the famous Diner de Tetes Surrealistes hosted by Madame Rothschild. We were told it was black tie and to wear surreal headgear and we were only informed of the venue the night before.



We arrived at the allotted timeslot and were given a name tag and envelope. These were our alter egos for the night and I was lucky enough to be Princess Grace of Monaco. Inside the envelope was a 'mission' for the night - a character or two to seek out and what you had to say to them. In essence, it was a way to make people mingle. I really liked this idea but I think they could have gone further. For example, one of the characters I was supposed to find and talk to was Truffaut and I was to ask him about appearing in a film. It turned out Truffaut was in my group of friends. I assumed his character notes had told him to wait for me to seek him out and what sort of reply he would have to give me, a bit like a murder mystery, but when I talked to him, he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about and instead was supposed to find Catherine Deneuve to offer a role to. I think it would have been good for each character to be told to seek someone out, but also be told who was seeking them and why so that they could roleplay a bit better. Going one step further, it might have been nice to be allocated your alter ego a day or two before so that those who wanted to could do some research on the person and dress like them if they wanted.

As we entered the dining area, they had done a pretty good job of recreating what the guests of the original dinner may have experienced (albeit on a smaller budget) with a 'labyrinth' to enter through and creepy cats lounging on the stairs. The tables were decorated with strange and quirky ornaments such as broken dolls and lobster phones, creating a suitably surreal environment. 

I had pretty low expectations of the food (thinking it would be more an excuse to have the event rather than the main attraction) and I must admit, if never have the starter or dessert again, my life would suffer no loss. But I think they were more like props to add to the surrealism than meant to be taken seriously as food. Our meal was 'backwards' – we had cake to start and prawn cocktail for dessert. But the starter was still savoury and the dessert sweet. It was very odd to eat what looked like a cream cake but taste beetroot and crème fraiche in your mouth instead. Dessert was pieces of cake with pepper in it, and apple and raspberry curd and a basil foam (the first foam I’ve ever had and it worked a treat) which was less disconcerting.



The main, of course, if you’re having three courses, is the main whichever way around you do the meal and so this was the most normal course and was truly delicious. I’m not saying restaurant delicious, this was good home cooking, but I stuffed myself with it because it was so good. It was basically coq au vin, and I now believe chicken should always be cooked like this – for a long time and in wine, with whole roasted baby onions. And we got a very generous amount. This was served with semi-mashed potatoes, rhubarb and purple cauliflower with almonds sprinkled atop.


There were a few bizarre activities along the way as well, for example when Dali lead us in a ‘song’ accompanied by his xylophone, each table in turn making a sensual, spiritual, erotic noise of their choice to be woven into a complete musical collaboration. Then, at the end of the meal we were all solemnly lead out of the hall to watch an eerie candelit procession. This of course was a ruse for them to move us so they could clear the tables away, so that we had space to watch the erotic ritual involving a young nymph and lots of cherries. We were then directed to look at the balcony where the deity of disco signalled the start of the dancing. He came down amongst the crowd and spread his disco love with glitter aplenty. I was one such victim – he literally blew glitter all over me. I’m surprised I’m not still finding it more than a week later!

Disco God attacking me with glitter
I had a lot of fun at this event and one of my friends said it was the most fun they’d had on a Thursday ever. It is clear fun and silliness are at the heart of their events. I had been unwell in the day so didn’t stay long after the first couple of songs but I wasn’t the only one to leave earlyish as it was a schoolnight. I can imagine that the Friday and Saturday would have got quite raucous and debauched. Having said that, I think the night was quite uneven – your experience really depended on where you were sitting and which actors interacted with you. From reports I had from my group, some were better at being in character (and actually knew their character’s background) than others. My table had no seat for characters to come and sit with us, although they did come by and perch and chat, whereas other tables had one seat left free so characters could partake of the meal with them. However, I definitely had a good enough time to be interested to see what else this little company has up its sleeve.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Chez Elles, 14th August

Chez Elles couldn’t be more charmingly French if it tried. It already looks delightful from the outside but inside it gets even better, with a little boutique parlour feel to the place and French touches everywhere, complete with a little stack of books by the stairs which of course includes Asterix.

The ‘Elles’ of the place are indeed French and it seemed we weren’t the only ones in the place happy to converse with them in their native tongue (except me, I’m too shy). We kept things light – having just a main and some bread with our picpoul de pinet. The food here is classic French so not as 'exciting' as some restaurants that offer fusion foods or a lot of exotic spices. Appetisers include a lot of charcuterie and cheeses, and the mains have such things as steak tartare, confit duck and moules mariniere. I was very tempted by the duck but I have it so often I thought I’d go a little leftfield and ordered the lamb steak, which came breaded a la escalope and served with parmesan lemon, rosemary and a vierge sauce. Alison had the moules mariniere which came with frites but also some more bread to soak up the creamy, garlicky sauce that the mussels were wading in.


The lamb was cooked very well, tender and pink in the middle and while I enjoyed my meal I can’t say I was too excited by it. But it’s nice just to have a cute little, no frills, no fuss meal and if you’re ever hankering after a bijou French experience then head here without delay. And while we didn’t have dessert, from the front it looks as if they do some lovely patisserie which would be worth dropping by for.



After this we went up Brick Lane and ended up in Monty’s Bar where they have a happy hour until 10 pm! This means 2 cocktails for £12 instead of the £17 they would normally cost. I’ve always thought the place looked kind of cool from the outside, but actually, in comparison to the many other places in this area, I would say it really isn’t, which might explain why there were very few people in there. The music was pretty good though – they were playing a lot of R n B and hip hop.

Chez Elles on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Palomar, 8th August

While I had a really enjoyable day and night Thursday, Friday was my birthday proper and I’d hoped I had lined something up a little bit special. I was going to try to get into Palomar for lunch. Given the amount of hype it has had lately, I wasn't sure of my chances, but I also knew that I really wanted to eat at the counter where the kitchen was (and all the action), not in the back, so this was the risk we had to take. We timed it beautifully. We got there at just after 1:30 and there were about five spaces at the counter that had disappeared only a few minutes later.


And something special this certainly was. It only served to highlight how off-the-mark The Culpeper had been the night before.

I already knew it was loud and boisterous out the front, and had read that the Chef had a habit of doling out freebies and shots. I didn’t dare to hope that, however many weeks after opening, they were still keeping up this generosity, but I was wrong! We had barely been seated when the Chef dished out egg cups to me, Stephen and the couple next to us (as well as a couple to himself and his staff) and filled them with a house concoction, beckoning us to all do the shot together. This is my kinda place! Shots – at lunch time!

Stephen and I oohed and aahed over the ‘sharing’ menu, trying to decide what to have. There was at least one thing I knew I wanted to try already, but the rest was hard to narrow down. Behind us was a raw bar, and both Stephen and I ended up getting something from that – him, two oysters, me the kubenia – the Israeli version of beef tartar, something I’ve only had once but enjoyed. And of course, we got the kubaneh pot bread with tomato and tahini dips.

For our bigger plates we had the pork belly tagine and steak onglet to share, although (for a lunchtime anyway) they were big enough portions that I would have been happy enough if we’d had one each as a main. What with our dessert on top, I came away from the meal fully sated and only forcing myself to have a slice of cheese and toast later that night because I was going out drinking.

So, anyway, we had decided against one of the salads even though both the Fattoush and the Spring salad really appealed to me. I’m glad we didn’t order the spring salad though as they were giving out taster portions of this to those of us who were wise enough to sit at the counter. I thought this was wonderful – crunchy kohlrabi, asparagus and fennel all doused in a zingy feta vinaigrette with poppy seeds and sunflower seeds giving a nutty texture and even more crunch. Why can’t all restaurant salads be this inventive? Our neighbours had chosen the fattoush and that looked packed with plump tomatoes and plenty of dressing as well.


The pot bread was tipped out in front of us before long. The tomato dip was, well, the very essence of tomatoes, there’s no other way to explain it. The tahini was concentrated tahini, which was a bit much at times – like an even drier, more bitter peanut butter, it really needed the squirt of oil on top of it.


My kubenia came on a slick of more tahini, with bulgur and then dumped on top was pomegranates, pine nuts, coriander. Most of the flavour of the dish came from these additions but the beef was there, in the background and the tahini provided that nutty undertone which was a lot easier to take like this than using it as a straight-up dip.


The stars of the show were the pork belly tagine and the steak. The steak was cooked in the josper oven to perfection. It’s taste alone was so good that I made sure to have several mouthfuls without any accompaniments. But the egg it came with (cooked just a little runny) and the latke (potato cake) were just as delicious and welcome. The whole spring onions were a little tricky to cut into (especially with the limited elbow room for cutting and rather dull knife). As much as I love spring onions, I ended up eating them like crudités on their own which was a bit pointless.


The pork belly was rolled, giving a heart of tender meat, surrounded by the fattier stuff. This came with Israeli cous cous and a Ras el hanout, a slightly spicy seasoning that was very moreish. I tried to get every last cous I could just to taste more of it. Also with the lamb was some stewed carrot, apricot and confit potato. A perfect combination of sweet and spice, we cooed over this dish a lot.


I may have *accidentally* let slip that it was my birthday when I was ordering my second glass of Prosecco, which meant we got an extra shot on the house – elderflower, lemon, orange and vodka and of course it was the perfect excuse to have dessert even if we did share it. Having seen our neighbours get the chocolate cremeux, we did not hesitate in replicating them. A thick mousse sat upon an almond streusel biscuit and came with a coca tuile. And, in my case, a candle in honour of my birthday. 


We savoured the chocolatiness and regrettably asked for the bill when we could grab our waitress’s attention. Not content to give away shots and salad, they also comped our dessert as a birthday present. How can you not love this place? Well, unless you’re a total curmudgeon without tastebuds, you can’t. I’ll admit, the set up is a little confusing – you still order from your waitress, but she’s behind the counter along with the cooks so it does feel a little weird. And yes it’s loud (though not hot where we were) and it seems a little chaotic, though you soon realize this is organized chaos as the seven bodies duck, weave and glide among each other. But really, the place is pure joy.


The Palomar on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Culpeper, 7th August

After our lovely drink at The Discount Suit Co we went to the newly opened Culpeper (where the Princess Alice once was, on Commercial Street). Their USP is having a garden on the roof from which some of your dish might be made but other than that they’re basically a pub in the front and a gastropub in the back and I’d read really good things about the place. 

For some reason it wasn't quite as satisfying as I'd hoped. Perhaps our choices didn’t give them a chance to show off their flair, but when it came to choosing, there weren’t that many items on the menu I was particularly taken with. Fish and chips seemed a little too boring (and didn’t look anything special when I saw someone get them). The pie looked quite good but I don’t like mushrooms, and it was one of those where you only get a pie topping, not the whole pastry shebang. I don’t like sardines. And I don’t really like mustard either but I thought ‘how mustardy can they really make potatoes?’ so ordered the pork chop. Stephen had the sardines.


To start we got some of the porkcorn. This was good if slightly chewy but basically just tasted of pork scratchings. I'd like to fool myself that it was healthier than actual pork scratchings though. 



Stephen got the anchovy salad and I had the artichoke with crab butter because it sounded the most interesting.This dish is not made for one person to eat. It is basically liquefied butter with crab meat in it and is one of the richest things I’ve ever eaten. It tastes good with the artichoke leaves but they don’t provide enough ballast to counter the grease and I began to feel a bit queasy as I neared the end. I more than encouraged Stephen to tuck in and have his fill as well. What we really could have done with was some house bread to dip in it, and fill my stomach so that all that butter wasn't sloshing around in there - but if I wanted bread I had to pay for it. Why don't we get free bread anymore? When did it become a 'starter' or part of a 'cover charge'? It's only flour and water. (Ok, ok, oftentimes a sourdough starter as well.) I feel this is stingy on the part of restaurants these days. While I’m at it, I kind of feel the porkcorn could have been a freebie too – such gestures are appreciated!


Anyway, Stephen was more than happy to give me a hand with this as his was a little underwhelming. He described it as a caesar salad without the good bits. I’m sure that all the ingredients were of the highest quality and fresh as a daisy, but I guess we’re just the kind of people for whom quality isn’t the thing that makes you say ‘wow’ when you’re eating a salad (unlike a steak, say, where quality is everything) - we want some more interesting ingredients as well.


So, our mains. My pork was cooked to almost rare in some places, which was a touch underdone for my liking. I know the trend is to cook it pink these days, and I’m pretty okay with that, but towards the bone it seemed to get a bit mushy and hard to cut and it didn't look that appetising. I am happy to report I didn’t suffer any side effects from this though! The potatoes were pretty full-on when it came to the mustard. They were thickly coated in a mustard sauce, rather than a mustardy vinaigrette as I’d expected. I could bear with them with the rest of the meal but couldn’t eat any of it on its on its own. Even Stephen, who loves mustard found them a tad overwhelming. 


Stephen’s sardines were fresh and cheeky-looking. But, in a similar vein to the pork, they were a little underdone - there was some blood towards the spine, and apparently one or two of them didn't seem to be properly gutted. He also didn't like the romesco it came with, which he thought was too sweet but I thought it was really good and kept nicking it to dilute the mustardiness of my potatoes. He got some chips on the side and of course I had to have one or two but I can't remember much about them. They definitely weren't bad but they weren't stand-out either.


We weren't even tempted to have a dessert, instead deciding to head over to the Peg and Patrio to finish the night. 

I've been back to the Culpeper since for a drink mid-week and enjoyed the light and airy space, with only a few people having a quiet drink. This in contrast to the Thursday evening we went when it was so busy, with people dribbling out to the pavement outside, that we were quite lucky to get a table (it doesn't take reservations). It doesn't exactly feel like a proper (read - old man's) pub, but nor does it seem to be just a restaurant with a bar attached. It's two very separate spaces and I would happily go back to share another bottle sitting in the window, but am in no hurry to get back to the other side for food. 

Culpeper on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Discount Suit Co and Peg + Patriot, 7th August

The Discount Suit Company

This place is another basement bar serving cocktails speakeasy-stylee. Nothing groundbreaking there. Nothing groundbreaking in general really but that didn’t stop me from really liking the place. It takes its name from the shop that used to be here, and the original signage and façade are retained, giving pretty much no indication that there’s a bar below the dark hole that constitutes a doorway. It’s an odd location – near Brick Lane and near Liverpool Street but among the odds and sods of the environs of Petticoat Lane. Inside, the feeling is cosy and comfortable, with love seats in one corner to mooch into. The lighting is low (annoyingly so if you’re trying to take photos) and the music is excellent. We had some country, some soul and some disco in our short visit as well as My Sharona and that song Jessica Rabbit sings – Why Don’t you Do Right?.

The rest of the décor borrows heavily from the theme of a clothes shop with the bar made of drawers that you can imagine once held material to be tailored. In fact, the whole place reminded me a bit of a shoe shop. So far so good in terms of atmosphere.


And they kept it up in terms of drinks and service. As we weren’t sitting at the bar we had to rely on one of the staff regularly checking on us to be sure our drinks were replenished and our guy was pretty good at keeping on top of that. We stayed for two, not wanting to turn up at The Culpeper where I wanted to eat too late in case we couldn’t get in. I really enjoyed both my drinks, and even though the Peg + Patriot where we later went was good too, Discount Suit Co was the victor on this occasion.

First I had a Zizi Jeanmarie and Stephen had the Skipper. They were similar in taste, both of us having chosen drinks with fortified wine in them (mine sherry, his port) and both having pretty much nothing but alcohol in them. They were good, strong drinks.



We then had a quick second which were equally as tasteful. Stephan followed his Skipper with a Clipper, managing to make even absinthe taste good, and I had a Charlie Chaplin. Gin, more gin and apricot brandy. Delicious! Prices here were pretty good – one side of the menu had cocktails at £8.50, the other a bargain £7.50. They have a new place opening up in Bethnal Green (where else - and who decided this was the next 'in' area?) called the Sun Tavern which I shall be putting on the List.

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The Peg and Patriot

After our dinner at The Culpeper we made our way home via The Peg and Patriot, recently opened in the Town Hall, another place poshing Bethnal Green up a bit. We took a stool at the bar and took a gander at the amusingly named cocktails. I was drawn towards the odder-sounding concoctions but chickend out and ordered the relatively normal ones instead. They have a penchant for savoury cocktails, or those taking inspiration from a dish – hence the cocktail Pho Money, Pho Problems, designed to taste like pho, and the Rice Rice Baby, which uses rice ice cream liqueur. Needless to say they make all these crazy thigns in-house (where else would they get them from?!). I had the Rice Rice baby as a bit of a dessert to the evening and I really enjoyed the sweetened, bubbly drink. But first I ordered the Riot Cup Number One.


Stephen had the Barley Legal to start which tasted like a grown-up pina colada, and which he wasn’t very taken with and on the basis of this, didn’t want to stay for a second. I must admit, in comparison to the ones at Discount Suit Company, I wasn’t too enamoured either. The drink was eminently quaffable, but also reminded me a little too much of a Pimms. For drinks that sounded so different, they were a bit too familiar. But I persuaded him to take another bite at the cherry and our second drinks were much more to both our liking. His Rye your Eyes Mate came with a cherry dipped in beeswax for either peeling and eating whole, or, as he did, squishing into your drink. I’ve already said my Rice Rice baby was a lovely little number. 



The place was pretty swanky looking though not exactly full of life on a Thursday night. Prices for this kind of establishment were pretty standard – 8 or 9 pounds.



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I work as an editor in educational publishing by day, and then spend most of my spare time discovering interesting things to do in London, and taking people there with my own Meetup.