Tuesday, October 21, 2014

East London Liquor Co, 6th October

Once again London Cocktail Week was badly timed for me. Last year I was on holiday, this year I was in the middle of a month of ‘not drinking’. Of course, I had to make an exception for London Cocktail Week but not so much of an exception that I took full advantage of everything LCW had to offer. I didn’t attend any masterclasses or tours, I didn’t go to a different bar every night and I didn’t even get to Monkey Shoulder’s Cowbell Bar. But I DID manage to go out a couple of times in the week for a few drinks at discount prices.

My first stop was meant to be the Craft Cocktail Co. After much checking of Google, the LCW booklet and more I was assured the places I’d planned to go would be open on a Monday. Not so. We rocked up to the arch and found nothing but a shutter, forcing us to revisit Satan’s Whiskers up the road instead. On a Monday, getting in was easy peasy and we enjoyed their LCW offering of their Silver Pineapple (like a pina colada but without the horrible coconut) before ordering one each off their menu – a classic champagne cocktail for me, a New York Flip for Stephen. Mine was as expected, but Stephen’s was absolutely delicious, like a mini, liquid dessert, perfect for the cold weather outside.

From there we headed on to the East London Liquor Co, which is a fairly new addition to Mile End, and thus of much interest to me. It is closer to Victoria Park than Mile End so may get a little footfall, even though the area doesn’t get many visitors beyond those who live there. This place is also set back from the road, and it was a Monday, so I wasn’t surprised to find it bereft of clientele. It literally was empty when we walked in, making us feel guilty at putting the bartenders to work. They took it in good spirits though and we had a little chat with them about whether and how busy the place gets. Stephen recognised the male bartender and it turns out he was working at Hoxley andPorter when we went.

We stuck to the LCW cocktails here - the Darjeeling Sour, made with the East London Liquor company’s own Batch No. 1 Premium gin distilled on site. This was a light, frothy concoction, which would make pleasant sipping on a summer’s evening. The exact opposite of this evening in fact, but it was nice enough to warrant a cheeky second as a nightcap before heading home. I feel the place didn't have its best side on show as it was so very empty. I can imagine it doesn't ever feel exactly homely as it does have a warehouse feel to it, especially with the grand machinery of the distillery peering from the back of the bar. But, with the calibre of bartender, and based on our drink, a second visit is very much warranted. I"m feeling positively spoiled - this place and The Victoria right up the road from me!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Natural Born Storytellers, 5th October

Everyone is interested in other people’s lives. That’s why soap operas and reality TV (even if there isn’t much reality to them anymore) are so popular. We all want to know what secrets everyone else is harbouring. Tapping into this desire, are a few storytelling nights where people get up on stage and tell a story to the audience – one that has to be true and has to have happened to them.

Spark was my first event of this sort, and I suppose Cringefalls under this category as well. The other day I went to another – Natural Born Storytellers. They have been going for roughly a year, and this event was a ‘Best of’ so everyone there had already performed at a previous event and was telling a story they’d told before – meaning they’d had a chance to refine and, perhaps, update it if anything had unfolded since then.

It was wonderful. There were three sections, with three speakers in each section, two of them being the guys who run it. There was a welcome ratio of female to male storytellers, and one slot was held for a volunteer in the audience to get up and give it a go. Normally, the events have a theme, but as this was a ‘best of’ it meandered all over the place, although funnily enough, unwittingly being paid for sexual services came up twice.

To start us off, we were asked to share with our neighbor one of our own stories, falling under the banner of shame or humiliation. I’ve done many embarrassing things in my life, normally involving alcohol and men, but at that moment I couldn’t think of anything. (And I should admit, that with the benefit of time having passed, I’m actually more proud of those things that embarrassed.) My friend luckily had a recent story I hadn’t heard which took up the time.

Then the storytelling began, and it began with a toe-curling, yet hilarious recounting of the time our host got a big splinter in his eye, while at a music festival, high on LSD. He only had one good eye at the time, so something happening to it was his worst nightmare. Having to go to hospital while high, as he did, is probably not the most fun way to spend an evening at the best of times but it did make for a very funny story. And one with a happy ending as he was forced to see a specialist who said they could in fact do something with his ‘bad eye’ and improve his sight.

Next up we had a lady, also telling a humorous story, and the first of our dabbling with prostitution. As a green young girl out of uni, working at an estate agents, she somehow became embroiled in a kinky spanking party, courtesy of the worldly female boss she so admired. And, of course, at that age she was just too polite to excuse herself as things became more bizarre… I won’t tell the whole story here just in case you have the chance to see it live.

But everything wasn’t all fun and (kinky) games. One very powerful story was told by the other organizer about the strain put under his long-distance relationship when his girlfriend was attacked by her thuggish neighbour. Listening to his inner turmoil and struggles as he had to deal with his urge for revenge, his desire to not propagate violence, and of course wanting to comply with his girlfriend’s wishes not to retaliate, we all felt his frustration and were powerfully affected by this story.

Not every speaker was as accomplished as the others, and some of the stories lacked structure, or were a little too long but they all raised a smile, or told a lesson and my group left feeling like the last few hours we’d spent peering into these lives were rich and worthy. I heartily recommend going to another of these events. I know my group will. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship, 4th October

I competed in a national championship at the weekend. And yet, I’m no athlete, training all hours of my spare time in order to become the best I can be. No no, anyone can compete in these, for they were the National UK Rock, Paper, Scissors Championships and in order to participate all you needed to do was buy a ticket. Said ticket earned you a place in the main competition, a knock-out style tournament, where in order to move on to the next round all you had to do was beat the person you were up against. Best of three.

I absolutely loved this. While there were several stratagems posted around – what were called ‘gambits’ that you could employ, in reality it was purely down to luck not skill, meaning everyone could concentrate on having fun, rather than trying to prove their ability. And this many did with gusto. There were plenty of newbies (Wacky Nation, who run it, got quite a lot of press this year) but there were plenty who obviously come every year, and some who had travelled from all over the land and beyond. We even had some competitors from Sweden.

Your number was called and you stepped into the ‘pen’ to await your turn. There must have been about 130 entrants in the end, which meant 65 games in the first round, but they’re lightning quick so you don’t get bored. Sadly I crashed out in my first game. Stephen did a bit better by lasting a further two before being beaten by the guy who went on to come fourth. 

It’s true that as people lost, the crowd thinned slightly but there were still a significant people who stayed right to the end. Why, when they no longer had a personal stake in it? Because it’s such a laugh. People really ham it up – pretending to psyche out the other contestant or mugging for the crowd by limbering up or stretching before their turn. There was a large group of lads who clearly come every year who would chant their ‘teammates’ names, going so far as to give them massages and refreshment in between their throws as if they were Rocky Balboa returning to their corner for a pep talk. Some even had overly exuberant 'coaches' getting into the ring and arguing with the ref on their behalf. It was all very seriously silly.

To highlight this, fancy dress is encouraged, though this year there was only a Darth Vader and a Superman who made the effort. Each time they played they entered ‘the ring’ to everyone singing their ‘theme tune’. I think you know what I mean.

As if to prove what a good time I had, I had this much fun and only had ONE glass of wine the whole time! The rest of my enjoyment was down to sheer entertainment.

To stave off any potential ennui amongst those unlucky ones who didn’t get past the first or second round, the organisers added in a couple of extra elements. In between rounds 2 and 3 was the Losers Round where 8 losers were picked at random to play again and compete for some RPS challenge money. Oh yeah, the RPS Challenge. This is what happens while you’re waiting for the main event, or even, if you want, during the main event. Everyone gets $3 of this money, to gamble away on their games with other players in the room. The two people who amass the most of this challenge money at the end of the night then have an RPS playoff and the winner walks away with £25.

So there’s plenty to keep you busy and hold your attention through the event, if the main playoffs isn’t enough. But I think you’ll find it is. I was pretty much glued the main table. As the rounds wear on, you get to know the 'characters' of the competitors. You start picking people to root for, so you start to care about the outcomes. And even if you don’t, it’s just a lot of fun. And truly anyone can win the £100 Grand Prize. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for next year’s and get practising! 

The FINAL in action - best of FIVE:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ribstock, 27th September

I have wanted to go to a Ribstock for about three years now but things beyond my control, rather than inability to get a ticket have always got in the way. Not this year though. I was there, at noon, finger on the mouse, ready to get my ticket, and before 12:01 I was one of the lucky 200 to have nabbed one. They did things a bit differently this year – previously tickets are around £50 and that entitles one person to try all the competition ribs  and cast their vote for their favourite. Being a Tweat Up event, they normally throw in a free drink or two with that, and I think there’s normally about ten competitors.

This year, the ticket was a whopping £79!! BUT, it was a plus one ticket – so you could go on your own and eat ALL the ribs, or you could bring someone with you for ‘sharesies’. And believe me, doing ‘sharesies’ did not mean losing out. There were only three competitors who served up a single rib, and these were gargantuan examples of a rib. Otherwise you would get at least two ribs, or, where they were baby back (by Roti Chai) we actually had four! I was stuffed by the end of it, and we had to seriously slow down our eating after four servings to make sure we didn’t ruin our judgment by being too full to enjoy them.

On top of this each ticket got you a pint glass which entitled you to unlimited refills of Frontier lager. I’m not a beer drinker myself, but Stephen made ample use of this and got through five pints in the evening before we called it a night and headed off at 9:30. Had we stayed until the end he could easily have made that seven.

On top of this – yes, there’s more! We got a free old fashioned, and a free shot of tincup whiskey – lovely stuff – smooth and sweet. But wait, there’s more!! With each ticket you also got a free bottle of The Ribman’s Holy Fuck Bacon sauce, plus some pork scratchings.

But wait, there’s EVEN more!! Some of the stalls had other freebies they were giving away with the competition ribs. Roti Chai had an apple and cinnamon whiskey shot, Breddos had a pickleback (love them!) and Texas Joe gave away packets of his fruity, lip tingling, chewy jerky (seriously – it’s delicious). Yeah, I did the math and we got our money’s worth that day that’s for sure. (I literally did the calculating as we were going along and we easily ate and drank £80 worth.)
Roti Chai's baby backs with apple and cinnamon whiskey shot
So. The Ribs. There were seven traders taking part and I won’t go into detail on them all or this post will last as long as it took to eat them. For Stephen and I there was a definitive Top 3, and we were actually split between our two favourites, it was such a close call. We enjoyed all of the ribs but there was something we couldn’t quite define yet which we knew we were looking for when it came to choosing the best. It couldn’t be too much like any old slow-cooked meat. It had to have some BBQ char, flavour and texture to it. A bit of bite, a bit of its own unique taste, not relying simply on its sauce. For us, Smokestak and Hotbox ticked all these boxes. I slightly preferred Smokestak with the rib tips it came with and a very good hot coleslaw and pickled chillies.

Winning ribs
Stephen preferred Hotbox, which came with some delicious pickled onions and also chillies. In the end, I voted for Hotbox in the name of romance.

Our third choice were Breddos tacos, although the public chose otherwise, with Roti Chai coming in third. We both liked the Roti Chai ribs but we felt they were more about the sauce than the rib – a lovely satay-esque sauce with a good hit of chilli. I really loved the Breddos boys’ short rib offering though, topped with the best mole I’ve ever had. I had thought I was running out of room and yet I got that in my stomach without pausing for breath. What kept it from the top spot for us was that it seemed more like a slow cooked pot roast than a barbequed beef rib. Damn tasty though!

We began our feasting at 6 and it took us three and a half hours to get to the final rib, and I’m sad to say we were far too full to try any of the other porky offerings for sale as part of PorkLife which was running concurrently. The pork belly croquettes from Breddos looked delicious, and I think Stephen was sad he couldn’t fit in a Bleecker burger. But what an amazing event. I’m now in my semi-non-drinking month so apart from all the free shots, I didn’t buy any drinks, and Stephen had his beer refills so we didn’t spend any money the whole night. Tweat Up, I salute you (again).

Here are the rest of the competitors’ ribs:

The Ribman's with Holy Fuck 'slaw

Texas Joe's beast

Q Grill's sticky ribs

Smokestak's pig

Monday, October 6, 2014

United Ramen, 26th September

You don’t need me to tell you noodles are everywhere right now, what with the Shoryus and Tonkotsus (not to mention Phos), and London has just got a couple new ones – Kanada-Ya and United Ramen. I was particularly drawn to United Ramen because they were doing noodle soups and shaking it up a little by serving several versions, influenced by diferent parts of the world. So they had a Yankee Doodle noodle soup with pulled chicken and sweetcorn, and they have a British-inspired version on the weekends – basically a Sunday roast in soup version, complete with little Yorkshire puddings. (Not too sure about that one if I’m honest.)

So payday rolled around and I decided to treat Stephen and I to a quick dinner at United Ramen.

You walk in to a room that kind of reminded me of  a children's nursery - chunky, funky furnishings in bright, bold colours of orange and purple. One of my favourite colour combinations. The place has personality, though one suspects the furnishings aren’t of the highest quality. Our table was incredibly rickety and had to have a door stop put under one side to stop it rocking about.

The crockery is beautiful, in not many other places have I so admired the vessel my soup was brought in. As with most places, they had condiments on the side: chilli oil, a chilli powder, and sesame in little grinders which didn't seem to work.

I chose the Chinese-inspired spicy sichuan tantanmen, which really had no real kick to it, though a bit of chilli oil soon perked it up so that my nose was sniffing by the end of the meal. It came with minced pork sitting on top, which, though quite chunky to begin with, soon disintegrated into my broth giving it a mushy, thick texture that I didn't really like! Otherwise, before that happened the flavour was quite nice, and fairly light. The ‘thick’ noodles, were not that big, not as sizeable as udon noodles, which was great, as I don't like them too thick.

One of the best things about ramen is the soy egg, in my opinion. But not here. What a woeful specimen this ovum was - no soy flavour – the egg itself didn’t even look marinated, and it was small, very flabby and undercooked as well as half crushed. Totally disappointing.

Stephen had the Chashu Pork with thick noodles (Japanese inspired) and, without meaning to sound so cutting, said it was the worst ramen soup he’d had. He didn’t mean it was awful, he just meant it wasn’t as good as at other places. And I have to agree with him. I like all the different influences they have here, which is why I wanted to come so much, but the novelty of that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are a lot of places doing it better.

We had some kimchi on the side (a generous portion for 50p!) and also some pork gyoza which were both tasty enough.

United Ramen on Urbanspoon

Find the menu and more reviews on Zomato.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Shunt, 23rd September

I wasn’t quick enough to go to Shunt when they had their permanent home under the arches of London Bridge before they were removed to make way for Crossrail (I presume). But they didn’t stop creating and I have been to several of either Shunt’s or one of Shunt’s contributor's shows since. No two are the same, and I have read interviews which say they start off with an loose idea but then they let the space they acquire influence them until the finished product can be quite different to what they’d first roughly envisaged.

So, after Electric Hotel, a play taking place in different rooms of a hotel with a soundtrack listened to via personal headphones, but no words, and The Architects, a slightly sinister voyage aboard a 'ship', they recently popped up at the newly formed The Jetty, a part of North Greenwich’s attempt to appear cool to the people who have bought or who may buy a property in the new ‘Greenwich Pier’ development.

The Jetty itself was pretty cool – sitting right on the water they had a bar, a shack serving whitebait, fish and chips, meat sandwiches and some amazing triple-cooked chips. All very reasonably priced too. You could easily come along just to hang out here, especially with the hammocks and live music they had lined up every night.

But it was also doubling up as a pre- and post-theatre lobby. Once you had your group number allocated, you awaited to be summoned, and then you all trooped into a shipping container and entered the world of The Boy who Climbed out of His Face. 

What was it all about? Well, that’s hard to pin down and everyone will have their own ideas once venturing through. For my group, feelings of abduction or smuggling and shipwreck on strange islands came to mind. There was one scene with someone who’d apparently gone mad, alone on his island that felt very reminiscent of ‘Lost’ (the TV show). They had no intention of making you feel comfortable and if darkness or close spaces, or close spaces in darkness gives you the willies, you would have hated this. It perhaps relied a little too much on darkness giving people the heebie jeebies, but in all I found it a fun, effective piece of theatre(?). Highlights included going down a hallway that shrank as you went up it, a la Willy Wonka, and sitting in a room, feeling like you were being transported, to enter into a mini-jungle, complete with wooden bridge to clamber across.

As with a lot of immersive performance, you get out what you put in. You could just be sitting in a shipping container in the dark. Or, you could be swept up with the noise and allow yourself to imagine that slowly, one by one, your comrades were disappearing as you sat there – what was happening in this dark? What sight would await you when – or if – the lights ever came back on? In this way is atmosphere made.

It wasn't a full production as such, being only 45 minutes, but it was also only a tenner. If they have more of this up their sleeves, I'd be satisfied.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Luna cinema, 18th September

The number of outdoor cinema screenings are legion these days. There’s the grand Somerset House affair (cold and uncomfortable unless you bring blankets or even sleeping bags [yes, some people did this]), there’s the Rooftop Cinema Club with deckchairs and blankets provided. There’s Backyard Cinema, which gives you a choice of deckchair or beanbag, and this summer Everyman even got in on the act with Street Feast, projecting films by Battersea Power Station. You can also watch movies al fresco with Scoop, and the Nomad cinema. And, finally (almost) there’s Luna Cinema. 

They have a few places where they set up shop, places that are a little more unusual. Such as Brockwell Lido, which is where I watched The Goonies the other week. A normal ticket gets you a stake on the poolside, and it’s up to you to bring something comfortable to sit on. But if you stump up for the premium ticket, you get to watch the move ON... THE... WATER! Yes! Very exciting. You get your own little two-person inflatable dinghy to get comfy in. It’s actually a wonderfully cosy way to watch a movie, bobbing about on the water and drifting a little when other people move around in their dinghies and make waves. Don’t worry – you don’t drift very far. Each dinghy is still moored to the side and you aren’t allowed to row out to the very middle of the pool (unfortunately).

More unfortunately for us, we (and by ‘we’, I mean my friend) got there after the movie started so we were left to our own devices to actually get into our vessel. This I did not do with much aplomb and we came perilously close to capsizing. Instead it just meant that a bunch of water got in and soaked my dress completely down one side, which I didn’t realize until the end of the movie. Travelling all the way back to East London with wet clothes wasn’t that fun.

The venue of Brockwell Lido meant that the cafĂ© was on hand to provide food – the usual stuff: pulled pork and what have you, and there was wine, beer and cider on sale as well, though I’d had quite a big night before so had a mere bottle of water.

It gets chilly on the water so I was pleased I’d packed a blanket; even though it was a very warm night, by 9pm I was huddled into it. 

For novelty value this one was hard to beat, and they clearly have excellent taste in films. Recommended. 

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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.