Tuesday, October 25, 2011

ChocStar Van, 21st October

It was pure coincidence that I was able to cross another thing off my list today. Stephen and I bought tickets to the Experimental Food Society’s exhibition at the Truman Brewery. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I thought some food may be on offer, but I knew it was more about showcasing the different things you could do with food, rather than eating it. They were hosting some kind of feast on the Saturday night where clearly eating would be the main aim but that was £60 – a little out of my price range. The exhibition was a fiver – much more like it. We walked up to the first entrance and were directed to the building where we could get our hands stamped (the exhibition was across three close together sites). I think the exhibition made a bit of a schoolboy/girl error in the set up. The place where you got your stamp was also, by far the best room. It was filled with cake, chocolate and sugar. This in itself is normally good enough to get my seal of approval but even better was what it all looked like. There were actual structures, sculptures and models made out of the stuff. The first thing to greet you was an Eiffel Tower made out of Curly Wurlies and raspberries, then The Flying Scotsman made out of a variety of candy bars, and a candy cottage made out of penny sweets. Giving only a brief glance at the gluten free veggie cakes and brownies (the only thing there offering any samples) the next thing you came to was a magnificent dodo made out of cake. I was mightily impressed with it from my first impressions. This was elevated when I realised that all the delicate little feathers that I thought the baker had taken time to stick in, were in fact made out of sugar. Stupendous! There were also grand owls made entirely out of sugar, and a house and head sculpted out of chocolate. Appropriately awestruck we were looking forward to what was in store in the next two buildings. But first, we needed food. We decided to get a salt beef bagel from The Beigel Bakery as we were pretty much on Brick Lane and as we walked up Dray walk to get there, we passed the ChocStar Van.

The ChocStar Van is on my list. It serves up chocolatey treats, from a van and as it is a mobile establishment, it turns up here and there. You can look up online where it is likely to be on a given day, something I have been meaning to do for over a year now, so I was very pleased when I found it without even looking for it. But we hadn’t even had lunch yet so we couldn’t have dessert and went up to get our bagels. I’m sure everyone knows about the Brick Lane Bagel places. We always go to the Beigel Bakery for our salt beef as I think they’re a tad more generous, but I think they’re run by the same people so they’re both much of the same high quality. And amazingly cheap. They were offering chicken bagels for £1.50 when we went in. We scarfed our bagels down (with just the right amount of mustard for me – just a touch) and eagerly went back to the Exhibition.

Where we were a little let down. The second building we went into was massive but had only a few things in it. One being the only place in the exhibition to sell food. Food I had no interest in eating. They were snackboxes prepared by Stefan Gates, author of The Extraordinary Cookbook and you could sit down and listen to him give a bit of a talk and explain to you what was in the snackboxes and why, as you ate them. Considering the snackboxes contained things like mealworms and cochineal bugs, I was not interested. 

Otherwise, in that room, were some tea infusion things, and some coffee, and the little area where talks etc were being given. On to the next one.

The next one was marginally better than the second but nowhere near as impressive as the first. There was an artist there who does ‘foodscapes’ and I really enjoyed them. There were also a couple of people with samples tucked into dim little corners – one person showcasing unusually flavoured marshmallows, and another with unusually flavoured liquers that also glowed in the dark. We had one of those and it was a bit sweet for me.

There was also some camel milk chocolate you could sample and I had some of that as well. To be honest, thought it tasted like that cheap chocolate you get at Easter or Christmas. And then, finally, there was some edible clothing on show, which was impressive because of the idea behind it and what it was made of, rather than the actual appearance of it.

It was now about 3:00 and we went back to building number 2 to see what was termed half talk half gameshow, presented by some woman’s new incarnation of Miss Mertle or something like that. She was supposed to be a 50s housewife character with upper class pretensions – throwing the odd word in a French accent out there every now and then. I thought she was amusing enough. The format was strange – she got two people out of the audience to be contestants and their job was to dress a scantily clad woman with food that could be found in the fridge and see who made the better outfit. It was surprisingly entertaining. After that was done we went back to the first room for one final look round – people had been hanging up a deconstructed cake on wires that I wanted to see the final result of. It wasn’t yet finished but still looked quite good. And then, what I had been waiting for… ChocStar!

It was pretty cold so we were put off the ice cream sundaes and my boyfriend was with me so I was also put off prevented from ordering lots of different things. He even vetoed my idea of buying a chocolate truffle in addition to the brownie – that we shared. As far as brownies go, though, this was one of the best I’ve had in a good long while. Dense and chewy, but with the delicious crusty top and sides that I think make a proper brownie. I’m not exactly making a list of best brownies, but if anyone were to ask I would recommend this one, the one that can be found in the Hull Library cafĂ©, and the caramel one from Konditor & Cook.

I really want a brownie now.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Revolutions in Sound, 13th October

Ok, so this wasn't actually on my list, but it was so unassailably cool that I feel I have to write about it. It's definitely the sort of thing that would be on my list, if it wasn't a one-off thing, which you could only go to by winning tickets, and even then I still might have added it except that it all happened so fast.

I'm not sure where I heard about the event, but it was one of those where tickets go on 'sale' at a certain time and it turned out to be first come first served. I happened to be in a training thing all day that day and so I knew that by the time I got on the website, there was no way I would get a ticket. I'd asked my boyfriend to try to get us some, but I think he got on the website even later than me so there was no hope for us. 

So what was it? Red Bull had taken over control of the London Eye and were giving you the chance to win tickets to one of the pods, inside which would be a well known act - a DJ or performer. The pods only hold about 30 people so you would be in for a pretty exclusive treat. Runner up prizes were tickets to the silent disco at the base of the Eye and runner runner up prizes were to be able to listen to it live. Big whoop. 

Luckily for me, one of my good friends had also entered the competition, early enough to be in with a chance, had won a pair and invited me along! She, like me, had thought she would just have to submit interest and then the act you saw would be allocated at random. This was not so. When you applied for tickets you also had to say which act you wanted, and aware of the time pressure, she picked the first one she recognised (and liked) - Beardyman. 

I had heard of Beardyman but never seen him before. He's a beatboxer who now uses looping to create songs live and he also has a bit of a comedy act too. We turned up as early as we could to make sure we got in our pod. We were in pod #3 which meant that being early in this case was not at all nerdy (lest you were judging) but in fact the sensible thing to do. Once the pod had gone by, there was no getting in if you missed it. It looked like several people didn't have our sense of timing though, as there were only 12 of us who made it into the pod out of the 22 on the gurstlist. It was incredibly surreal. You hopped in and there was Beardyman making announcements as if to welcome you to outer space. He clearly found the whole thing strange as well, and it inspired his first 'song' about how 'odd it was to be in this pod'. Him alluding to the slight awkwardness made it much more relaxing and along with the free drinks on offer, by the time we were halfway through our first revolution, people had got over the novelty of it all. Some were barely paying attention to the act they'd come to see, treating it like anything else and chatting among themselves. Beardyman was definitely worth paying attention to, though, as he's a great performer. Twice he asked his audience for inspiration, leading to such instant classics as Ginger Biscuits and Fuzzy Box. One of the good things about seeing him, instead of say, Ms Dynamite is that because as a beatboxer, he was inclined to show us the range of his talents, which meant not being limited to a particular genre. He went through house, hip hop, dubstep, drum n bass and even some seventies style funk I dare say. The time passed much too quickly and before we knew it we were disembarking from the wheel. 

I would describe the whole experience as amazing. And I wasn't the only one. Everyone that entered the main concourse straight from their pod was breathlessly gushing about how amazing it was. Everyone, that is, except those who had drunk too much and were sprinting to the toilets because they'd had to hold it for the last hour. It was truly a unique experience, so thank you Sophie for taking me along! Definitely the coolest thing I've ever done on a Thursday.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mulberry Street, 7th October

We were supposed to eat at Mulberry Street the night before, a pizza place I’d heard of from Yelp because it was close to the pub we were going to. But we skipped food in favour of more drink. However, we ended up there the next day. Alison’s hotel was in Lancaster Gate and when we were finally able to get up and get out (we’d ‘retired’ to bed at about 7 am) we were in the mood for brunch. And we knew just the place that was close by – Harlem. We’ve been there several times before when Alison lived in that area and we absolutely loved it. Much to our dismay, we got to the end of the street it was on and realised it wasn’t there. It seems to be Tiny Robot now, which I think also does brunches but it was shut when we got there. As we’d searched for Harlem, we passed Mulberry Street and we decided to try it instead. Why not stick with the New York theme?

This place boasts about serving NY style pizza. They even go so far as to match the water they use for the dough to NY samples. And I love American pizza. So thin, so big, it’s hard to describe what’s so good about it and I don’t know why it tastes different to English ‘pies’. Maybe it’s just because they use the word ‘pie’ and we don’t. They had a lunch deal on – 2 courses and a soft drink for £10 which seemed silly not to do. You get a choice of two things in each course – bruschetta or salad to start, then a veggie Mediterranean pizza or a pepperoni pizza. The choice of pizzas on the a la carte was fairly standard, but you could also customise them. Anyway, we didn’t have those, we had the deal. The starters were average. Stephen got the salad and that was impressively large. Alison and I got the bruschetta which was definitely nice and fresh but the bread wasn’t at all toasted. It was much better once we’d poured the chilli oil provided all over it. Alison had the Mediterranean pizza, I ordered the pepperoni pizza and Stephen also had the pepperoni pizza even though he’d ordered the vegetarian one. (I don’t know why he did this, he loves meat). The waiter had not written our order down and had inevitably messed it up.

I don’t think I can say that these pizzas were genuine NY pizzas. I think the whole problem is the size. A real NY pizza is so big, you only eat two slices of it, and you’d buy one for everyone to share (which you would probably be able to get half of one kind, half of another). As soon as you scale it down to something one person can eat (or at least make a good stab at), you lose something. The bendiness, the foldability. Taste wise, it was good, and it was the right thickness (meaning it was very thin). And being able to add your own chilli flakes and parmesan also helped. I’d definitely go back there, but I can’t say it was the real deal. Just a damn good pizza.

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YoYo at Notting Hill Arts Club, 6th October

Another one I read about in Time Out’s 1000 Things to Do and one I have been very keen to get to. Unfortunately the only people I know who I thought would like to accompany me to this live elsewhere and I had to wait for the arrival of one of these friends to coincide with a Thursday night. Happily, this happened while Alison was here and she is into a bit of hip hop, r n b and general bass-heavy music that constitutes YoYo. I was very excited. Yet I had some trepidation. We had ended up at The Social the Wednesday before at their hip hop night (we thought we were going to an indie night, but no matter) and we ended up infuriated with the place. Apart from the fact that there were far too many young nubile girls gyrating around for my liking, the music policy was gash. They played some great tunes, but only snippets of them. And the MC talked continuously over it all which meant you couldn’t get into a groove on the dance floor. We worried a bit that this was the way of things on nights like this, and we were perhaps too old, with longer attention spans than the youths of today, to appreciate it and ergo YoYo would be a disappointment. Unfortunately, it was just that.

We first met two of our friends at a lovely pub called The Champion not too far from Notting Hill tube station and drank copious amounts of a lovely Pinot Grigio. We were nicely liquored up when we made our way down into the club. Entrance is guestlist only but you still have to pay. I’d put our names down a couple of days before and we duly paid our £5 to get in. I quite liked the club. It was a good size and there was a good number of people in it. I was accosted several times by girls asking me if I had a spare hairband they could have, which I found quite strange, but that’s neither here nor there. What is, is the fact that they subjected us to the same ordeal that had befallen us at The Social. No more than 40 seconds or so of each song. We counted. If you’re familiar with the song What’s Your Fantasy by Ludicris and L’il Kim – sing/rap the chorus of that and that’s how long they played each song for. How are you expected to dance to that? We couldn’t. I like mashups and remixes but this was too much.  We had more tequilas and tried our best but it didn’t work. I was very sad about this night. Very sad. And then at the end it got a bit electro/housey, which I like but it’s not what I expected from that night. Clearly we had to go back to the hotel and drown our sorrows.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Androuet, 5th October

Androuet made it onto my list in part thanks to a place called The Bourgeois Pig in New York. Before that I had never tried fondue and hadn't really wanted to. But I went there, had this delicious melted cheese creation and when I moved back to London, hoped to find somewhere similar. I haven't quite done that yet, but Androuet has charmed me anyway.

I found it while cutting across Spitalfields one day. The aroma of cheese wafted through the air and drew me closer, like a cartoon character being pulled along by tendrils of perfume. It was the cheese shop, and then I noticed that there was a restaurant attached to it that did fondue and raclette. Someone was eating raclette at that very moment. On the list it went. And last night I had the chance to try it with some of my friends.

The place is very, very small. The majority of the seating is outside so if it's not a nice day, you're going to suffer. Luckily last night was quite balmy. I hadn't been able to get through to the restaurant to secure a table so I decided to stop in in person and it's a good thing I did as most of the tables were booked up already. The owner/manager had one area where he said we could sit though. I then turned up again about 4 hours later, on my own as all my friends were running late and he greeted me by name. When I said my friends might not get there for another half an hour, assured me that was fine.  He seated me and I ordered a glass of Viognier to pass the time. I resisted the temptation to order some parmesan and cardamom crisps, even though I am sure they would have made my wait even more enjoyable.

None of my companions were all that familiar with Spitalfields and required some careful direction to get them to the right place. But we soon had the full complement of us sitting at the table. We were all there for one thing and one thing only. Ok, if you include wine, two things. But the main thing was cheese. Androuet does have a menu with other things on it such as salads and lamb chops and whatever. I barely glanced at it while I tried to choose between the fondue (comte and emmenthal), the raclette or the tartiflette. I decided I had to go full on cheese and rule out the tartiflette. Two of my friends ordered this. Alison was happy to have raclette so I had the fondue, ensuring we all more or less had something different. I think I made the right choice. The tartiflette looked delicious but it was, in all honesty, tiny. It came in its individual dish, whereas I was expecting, once two people had ordered it, that it would come in a dish from which they would share it. I had my own cauldron of fondue which came with gerkins, some charcuterie, some bread, and some other crudites type stuff. Alison's raclette came with similar, only without the meat (silly half veggie that she is) but with potatoes. 

I have no complaints about my fondue whatsoever. Melted cheese = yum. I can only say a very similar thing about Alison's raclette. The others' tartiflettes were too small to warrant sharing so I can't speak personally about them but they said it was good. Just too small. My friend Chris who was there, ordered some extra bread and that did take a while to come. I probably wouldn't have noticed but his appetite clearly wasn't sated so he did and wasn't very happy about it. We shared a bottle of the wine they recommend to go with the fondue. And it was so reasonably priced! I instantly expected their recommendation to be a dearer bottle, but it was only £15. Our cheese dishes were £12 each so the whole thing came to about £20 including tip.

If you're ever in NY and want some gooey cheese then the Bourgeois Pig will knock your socks off - the sheer range of fondues they have is ridiculous. But if you're in London and want a good place for it, head down to Androuet. It's got no frills, honest charm.

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Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, Tuesday 27th September

We hadn't managed to get to Shochu the night before and I desperately wanted to show Alison it's sleek glamour that made you feel like you were part of the elite (the steep cocktail price helps a lot with this as well) so we went for one in there before heading up to Hackney. We both of course had to go for cocktails with Shochu in them, I went for a Tanuki Peach (the green one, surprisingly) and I can't remember what Alison had! It was pink and fruity but mine was better!

I'd heard of The Dolphin as a bit of a late night Hackney party venue, so it was on my list, and very close to Buen Ayre, also on my list. It made sense to head there for one before going for dinner to see what it was like.

What it was like, was a dive. No one was in there and the jukebox karaoke they keep tweeting about was clearly not being used. But with a few more people in there I can imagine it could have a certain dishevelled charm to it. We only had one drink as we had to get to our reservation but I want to come back here, at a later time, maybe even on the weekend to see exactly what this place has to offer and give it a fair shot. They seem friendly and didn't scowl when Alison and I asked, like pretentious knobs, to try their house wine, or get miffed when we subsequently decided to order something else. Cider, if you're interested.

Anyway, off we went to Buen Ayre. This place has a sister restaurant in Clerkenwell (which is a little pricier and didn't get such good reviews) and is also possibly linked to the Santa Maria del Sur in Battersea. My boyfriend had been to that one and thought it was great, so we had high hopes for this one. I was not disappointed. It's right on Broadway Market and is quite small - you could easily walk past it and not know it's there. Someone had cancelled on me, so there were three of us not four, and we were asked if we minded moving to a smaller table. We didn't. Especially not with the food and service we received. We were waited on by a guy named Chico (I'm not making this up), an exuberant person of Latin descent (so exuberance came as standard). We all decided we had to have steak as that's what it is famous for, and we all went for the sirloin. Even though we suspected the portions would be sizable, we also ordered some empanadas to start. They were tasty but not the main event. We debated about how many portions of chips to order and Chico told us one each would be too much - go for one or two. We all really appreciated his honesty about that, and it was good advice. The steaks were massive (I couldn't picture what 14 oz actually translates to on a plate) and probably would have made a meal on their own. Not that I didn't appreciate the chips - they were great too, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. We got one portion plain and one with garlic and parsley.

Did I mention the steaks were massive? Massive and FANTASTIC! We all got medium rare and they were perfect for me. Nice char on the top, lovely and tender in the middle, and the chimichurri sauce didn't go amiss either. I couldn't eat all mine. Neither could Alison. My boyfriend, being the strapping lad he is, did finish his, but there were still chips going spare. We declined dessert. I think this is the best steak I've had in London and I'm placing it as #2 in my just now invented list of best steaks, behind the porterhouse at Peter Luger's which I don't think anyone will ever beat. Apologies for the very amateur photographs.

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