Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Polpo, 30th July

Polpo Smithfield had its soft launch last week if the number of people inside as we walked by was anything to go by, but it officially opened yesterday, and to kick things off they were offering a 50% discount on the total bill. Drinks included! This was too generous an offer to pass up considering I had been wanting to try one of the branches in the Polpo kingdom for some time.

I think Russell Norman was probably at the vanguard of creating these stripped back, shabby-industrial areas for eating, and he has done it again in Polpo Smithfield. We arrived at about 5:45 and were immediately seated at the window table, all of us commenting on how impressed we were with the décor and ambience. I love a place that lets you eat at the bar, yank-stylee. Within 20 minutes the rest of the restaurant had filled and there were people waiting at the bar, or outside with drinks, and we were feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Thanks to the discount, and there being three of us, we were able to sample quite a few of the dishes, choosing three each but sharing most of them, and also getting dessert. Instead of listing them all here, I’ll just dive straight in to what we thought of them.

The favourite dish of the evening was unanimously the cured pork shoulder with pickled peppers pizzetta (above). That truly was delicious. But then, when you think that for a pound less, you can get a huge pizza from Franco Manca, you appreciate it a little less.

I also really enjoyed the rabbit, chicory and radicchio salad – it had shaved radish and thinly sliced red onion and the dressing was fresh and pleasantly tart. It was like having a chicken salad but leveled up. I could easily eat that again. I thought the arancini were pretty good too – nice and crunchy on the outside, a pleasant surprise of some creamy mozzarella (I’m guessing) in the middle, and very herby – thyme and oregano I think. But it needed something to dip it in, some aioli would have gone down a treat. I think the same can be said of the fritto misto (squid, prawns and octopus) – Stephen kept dipping his into the meatball sauce, which suggests it needed something to give it some moisture.

The steak flank with truffle cream, which sounded the most luxurious of all the dishes, was in fact a bit dry and boring. (Not a patch on the one I had on Friday at Flat Iron.) I didn’t really partake in either of the seafood dishes enough to judge them thoroughly. The one prawn I had was nice, and the potato and celery I had from the octopus salad was also fine. But the fact that the guys didn’t feel the meal was outstanding probably shows that I wasn’t missing too much by not eating them.

Of all the various things you can do with meat, making them into meatballs is my least favourite, second only to meatloaf. However, Polpo’s pork and fennel meatballs were on Time Out’s 100 best dishes so I thought ‘when in Rome’ and ordered them. Stephen ordered the veal and porcini versions. They both came slathered in the same tomatoey sauce which Stephen and Ifran thought was underwhelming but which I quite liked. And my veridict on one the 100 Best Dishes in London? Well, I guess for meatballs they were nice, but they didn’t wow me or convert me to a meatball lover. But what do I know? I don’t really like the form. The guys, however, who do, much preferred the veal and porcini, which they seemed to really like.

The cotechino sausage with borlotti beans tasted it good but I thought the texture was too mushy. This didn’t bother the others who gave it the thumbs up though.

And after all that we managed to squeeze in dessert. I had the tiramisu pot, which I loved. I love Tiramisu anyway, but this was a really good version. The guys shared (aww, sweet) a strawberry and pistachio cake, and a couple of cannoli with strawberries. I didn’t try either of these, but when I asked Stephen how the cake was, he said I wasn’t missing much.

So, a bit of a mixed bag then for Polpo. Maybe if I hadn’t already been to Salt Yard last year I would have loved it. As it was, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though my expectations were extremely high, given all the hype. With the discount applied (and tip only added on to the final discount amount) I was happy with the meal. (It came to £20 a head.) If I’d been paying full price, I think I would have been more irked with what we got. 

I may not go back for the food, but they have a Negroni bar downstairs, which we didn't visit, and I'd rather like to give that a shot.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Flat Iron, 27th July

Flat Iron is a new pop-up restaurant above the absolutely lovely Owl and the Pussycat pub. Ever since I had heard about it on Twitter, I had been dying to go. It is only in residence for six weeks (but this could be extended if it proves popular) and I was pleased to be able to go in the first two weeks and feel like I was slightly ahead of the pack.

It’s another place specialising in only one thing, and another place that doesn’t take reservations. We decided to go on Friday, when hopefully everyone would be elsewhere getting ready to watch the Opening Ceremony, and we went straight from work to be doubly sure we would avoid queuing for ages. We were, in fact, the very first two people in there and we didn’t have to queue at all! An excellent start. I don’t know if we were just lucky, or if it is always so easy so early in the night. Quite a few people had trickled in by half an hour later, but it wasn’t packed to the rafters, and, while we decided to leave after we’d eaten and finished our drinks, we could easily have stayed for another one or two drinks without feeling like we we were taking up valuable space.

So what is Flat Iron’s handle? Well, it’s aim is to make steak affordable for the masses, and they have done this by serving one type of steak – the Flat Iron – which rarely gets used and is thus cheaper. After the first night of opening, the next day I waited with baited breath for the reviews – but almost more importantly – the prices. I wanted to know what they considered ‘affordable’ considering steaks in the good places (Hawksmoor for example) can go for around £30, sometimes more depending on the cut. Good reviews were flooding in but no one was mentioning the price. Why? I was suspicious. Someone reviewed it on their blog, again without mentioning the price, so I asked. I could scarcely believe her when she said that steak and a salad was £10. That was unbelievably good value. And it doesn’t stop there. Sides come in at a mere £2.50, and cocktails are also very reasonably priced at between £5.50 and £7 (most places start at £7.00).

The restaurant space is also delightful. It has a bit of a rustic, slightly Wild West feel to it. As we went in fresh horseradish was being pounded in a pestle and mortar. There’s a lot of dark wood. The place feels relaxed and comfortable. But it is clear that great attention to detail has been given – from the mini-cleavers that take the place of steak knives, to the little jars of ketchup and mustard, to the way your bill is presented at the end of the meal – on small but heavy letter presses. This sort of thing might not be strictly necessary but for me added to the enjoyment of the experience.

Flat Iron asks, please don't steal the cleavers!
But what of the food? Well, I enjoyed it. The chips were tasty, though not mindblowing, and we were also persuaded by our very lovely and knowledgeable waitress to split a side of roasted aubergine (at these prices, why on earth not?) which was absolutely delicious. This may be verging on blasphemy to say so, especially coming from a meat lover such as myself, but I think it might have been my favourite thing of the night!  Seriously, seriously good. I wish I’d had a whole one to myself. For vegetarians, this is what you get as a main dish so you shouldn’t feel at all short-shrifted. 

The steak itself is also good, I think. Stephen wasn’t too enamoured with it. It has a ... how shall I say this? ... distinct... smell to it which is not overly pleasant, and Stephen thought it leaked into the taste, which he didn’t like. To be honest, for me it wasn’t exactly STEAK. I think people who go out for a STEAK will know what I mean. It’s not a thick, juicy porterhouse, with chewy, bitter char on the outside giving way to melt in the mouth meat in the middle. The steak at Flat Iron is altogether more delicate, laid out on the board almost like a charcuterie delicacy. I liked the taste – it did taste different to other beef, a little bit gamey. And I thought it was cooked beautifully (medium rare as standard though they will cook it to your liking if you request otherwise). But I couldn’t help but feel that if I was in the mood to go out for a STEAK, this wouldn’t have satisfied and I would still probably head to Buen Ayre, or Hawksmoor and pay the extra. I want to feel like a man when I eat STEAK.

But if what you want is expertly cooked meat (or steak with a lower case ‘s’) at a truly affordable price in a completely charming restaurant, then head over to Flat Iron. The cocktails were tasty (and created especially to complement the steak) - I had a smoked thyme bramble which was lovely and yes, very smoky and thymey, and the wait staff are incredibly friendly. I think it would make a lovely addition as a casual place you can drop in with a group of friends before a night out or a few jars downstairs. Even the presentation is geared towards a convivial group sitting as you can fit several portions of steak on each board, to then pass between you. 

Meat for two with bloody mary sauce and bearnaise
They are also currently serving for dessert (again at only £2.50) a scrumptious chocolate caramel ‘mousse’. Nevermind that the consistency of it was completely different to any mousse I’ve ever had (it was thicker and more solid, heading towards ice cream territory – maybe like semifreddo), the taste was amazing. Our waitress put them down before us and took a pinch of sea salt and crumbled it over the top. It went perfectly, which will come to no surprise to anyone who has tapped into the current salted caramel craze. We really do need to put more salt into sweet stuff.

Flat Iron is only around for another four weeks as it stands. I really like what they’re trying to do and the amount of effort that has gone into the place. They're not just making steak affordable, they're making eating out in general affordable. Everyone go and ensure it makes the transition from pop-up to permanent. 

Press presenting your bill

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MPs Secret Tunnel, 21st July

I shall keep this entry relatively short and sweet as there’s not a whole lot to say on this one.

After my little sojourn down Westminster Bridge Road, I crossed the bridge, and in keeping with the government/spy theme walked through the crowds near Parliament and made my way to St. Ermin’s Hotel off Victoria Street.It is said that this hotel was privilege to several covert conversations – a place where real spies used to meet to discuss their trade secrets, and also where MPs used to gather, being so close in proximity to Parliament. In fact, the bells that summon MPs back to Westminster to vote still rings here. And apparently, how did they make their way over there? Not by street, like a common person, but through an underground secret tunnel. Which apparently you could get to through a door in the stairs.

I was a little nervous walking in to such a grand building as St. Ermin’s Hotel, knowing that I wasn’t even a guest there and not really knowing what I was looking for. However, I gave the doorman a friendly nod and smile, as if I was just popping in to fetch something from my room and had a quick glance around. About halfway up the very grand staircase, which splits in two, there is a little landing, and in it, a little door! This had to be it. Naturally, I didn’t feel I could go up and have a peek inside, so I satisfied myself with taking a picture and then leaving slightly hastily. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Notting Hill Manholes, 22nd July

You would almost definitely never notice them unless you looked for them, but dotted around the Notting Hill area are seven decorated manholes. I finally got around to hunting them out this weekend. Of course, half the fun of finding them is the actual searching, and Time Out, from whom I found out about them, only gives you a starting point – outside Daunt bookshop on Holland Park Avenue and tells you the rest are around Notting Hill Gate. I think this is rather misleading and after thoroughly scouring what I considered to be ‘around Notting Hill Gate’ I had only found two. Very discouraging. I hate to cheat, but I realised that I could wander for days without perhaps stumbling upon the others. I needed, at the very least, to know how wide ranging they were, but in the end I found something on the Net that told you exactly which roads they were on. Now, I don’t want to give the game away for any who might be tempted to have a look for them themselves, so I won’t list where they all are here. However, I have roughly indicated the area in which you have to walk to find them all. As you can see it’s pretty big! 

If, after a while you’re thinking of giving up the ghost, then you can always refer to the source I used to discover them all here.

I love stuff like this. I love how they’re just dotted around and no one would ever know they were there. Someone may be lucky enough to happen to look down and see an unusual manhole but they would never guess that six more of similar ilk were out there. I also like that someone took something so ordinary and unnoticeable, so everyday and functional, and turned it into something interesting and appealing to look at. While I was scrutinising every manhole on the stretch of Notting Hill, I came across a few others that I actually thought might be candidates for the decorated ones; I hadn’t realised before that there were such variations. Or maybe it is only in the Notting Hill area that there are. Whatever the case, it will make me look twice at manholes from now on.

The other benefit of stuff like this is that it encourages you to walk around and take in an area. I don’t often go out to West London and I forgot what a nice place it is. Not just amazing, grand houses that will make you green with envy, but also the very lively Portobello Road, and, walking down some of the lesser known streets, I walked past lots of inviting cafes and bars. The sun was shining and people were dining and drinking al fresco. It was very pleasant to wander among them. One in place particular caught my eye – Julie’s Wine Bar. It had tables strewn outside it, all occupied with smiling, happily fed people. One for the List I think.

The manholes themselves I think looked good, even if some of them were rather lacking in content. The text was provided by artists/writers all from or residing in the Notting Hill area. I didn't really recognise many of the names apart from of course Sebastian Faulkes and P.D. James. The photos are captioned with their authors. And so, as proof that I did track down all seven manholes, here they are:

Margaret Drabble

P.D. James

Sebastian Faulkes

Michael Holroyd

Hugh Thomas

Colin Huborn

John Heath-Stubbs

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Westminster Bridge Road, 21st July

After my breakfast at Maltby Street Market, I strolled along up the Southbank, taking in a few of the spots on my Map of London Peculiars, and working towards Westminster Bridge Road, another thing on my list from Time Out’s 1000 Things to do in London. I was already beginning to feel a bit peckish and remembered that Engine hot dogs is now perched outside the National Theatre. I’d wanted to try them so I stopped by and got myself a regular hot dog. They had three other variations with various toppings, but I thought it was best to keep it simple to determine how good it was. All I added to it was ketchup and the interesting-sounding lager and lime BBQ sauce. Alas, even these two basic condiments were too much for the Engine hot dog. They completely overpowered the flavour of the dog itself. Now, you might think that it is my fault for choosing sauces with their own distinctive flavours, but I think if you’re going to have a choice of condiments, you shouldn’t be serving hot dogs that are all too easily masked by them. I tried a bit of the frank on its own and it wasn’t up to much – it seemed like a typical English attempt at a hot dog: weak and watery in flavour. The bun itself was quite dry. Rather than waste calories on it, I actually threw half of it away! The other versions you could order had stuff like coleslaw and chilli-salt pickle spears, or teriyaki sauce and wasabi mayo. Perhaps the hot dogs are intentionally bland and in fact the main event is the unusual toppings you can put on them? I’m not sure, but I’ll be sticking to Big Apple Hot Dogs in future.

So I went up to Westminster Bridge and walked south down it. Soon enough I came to no. 121, a gothic looking building that doesn’t disguise the fact that it looks a bit like a railway arch. This is because it used to be the terminus for the London Necropolis Railway, which opened in around 1850 to transport corpses from London to the outercity cemetery in Brookwood. The London Necropolis Company hoped to be the sole transporters of bodies to outer London but it didn’t really take off, and after the London station was bombed in WWII the line was closed down and the terminus reinvented as an office.

I then wandered a few feet further up and came to no. 100 Westminster Bridge Road, a building that is the antithesis of the ex-railway station being all modern, curvy and shiny. This is a block of flats called The Perspective Building and used to be where MI6 called home, and instead is now where Kevin Spacey and other rich people live.  I was actually quite underwhelmed by this building. I was expecting something more imperious. Perhaps the façade hides lots of ‘spy’ type touches inside.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maltby Street Market, 21st July

I think Maltby Street Market might be my new favourite market. This little market is located just over Tower Bridge in Bermondsey and is only open on Saturdays between 9 am and 2 pm. What had motivated me to finally get down there was Time Out's description of St. John's custard doughnuts which they advised go quickly. My friend at work had also sung the market's praises. I intended to get down there at about 10 in order not to miss anything but well, it's a Saturday so that was always going to be ambitious. 

I did manage to get there before 11 though and at first I was rather underwhelmed. There's not much to it. But then I thought, well, how much do you need? Probably two cheese places, tops - a couple of places that do meat, a bakery, and a few options of food to eat on the go. Maltby Street Market provides all this with the added bonus that the hordes that crowd Borough Market just a stone's throw away still haven't discovered it. I was really surprised that there were so few people here. What it does mean (I felt) was that, unlike Borough where you can practically go there for lunch and have your fill by grazing on all the free offerings, here I felt I could really only try if I was serious about buying. 

The market isn't a traditional market of makeshift stalls - a lot of the vendors have permanent pitches within the railway arches. If you're a foodie then there are a few familiar names - Monty's Deli, Speckmobile and Sorbitum. And also Bea's of Bloomsbury's and St John's bakery have arches on the other side of the tracks on Druid St as opposed to Maltby Street proper. But it all counts as the same place. There was an amazing looking bakery with both sweet and savoury stuff but I didn't see what it's name was, and had already bought my delights from St John's so couldn't allow myself something from there as well. If anyone knows it, please feel free to leave a comment letting me know. And there were a few unfamiliar names to me - somewhere doing Latin American type food (mental note made to go back to try their cheese bread), a Turkish place serving coffee in little copper pots lovely enough to make me wish I drank coffee and a sweet-looking little gin bar, but it was a little early in the day to try them out. There were also a couple of grocery stalls, one boasting it supplies top London restaurants. But I wasn't there for healthy stuff.

So I went round to St John's and bought myself a custard doughnut. I also succumbed to the lovely looking mini Eccles cakes and bought one of them as well. I must confess I had no idea what an Eccles cake was although I did suspect it would have raisins in it as all English 'buns' and 'cakes' seem to have fruit in them. Sadly, this was the case, but happily, they were just one big ball of them so I just picked off the incredibly delicious pastry around them. 

The custard doughnut was also pretty good, although I don't know if it's worthy of a Time Out 100 Best Dishes. I needn't have worried about them selling out - there was practically a full tray of them. The custard was admittedly fabulous - so light and with just the right hint of vanilla. But the doughnut pastry I found only so-so. 

As you walk into Maltby Street market there's a garage dedicated to Porsche's and round the corner there is an antiques store. And as you go in, there seems to be a stall also selling antiquey bric-a-brac. I saw this:

Anyone think it's genuine?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Duke's Brew and Que, 18th July

Having reasonably recently been to Red Dog Saloon, going to Duke’s Brew and Que was inevitably going to invite comparison. And yes, they are broadly similar, but there are some important differences. They’re both in trendy areas (Red Dog is in Hoxton, Duke’s is in Haggerston) but Haggerston is decidedly more down-at-heel than Hoxton and consequently Duke’s had a higher hipster to normo ratio than Red Dog. In fact, I think my party were the only normos in there, with the girl in the shiny lycra pants and neon trainers lifted straight out of an 80s aerobics video, and the superhairy Serge from Kasabian lookalike at the next table only marginally standing out from the rest. That was inside, anyway. On the tables outside some men of the older generation were happily supping pints and braving the unpredictable weather. 

Duke’s is a lot more stripped back than Red Dog, the vibe a bit more laid back. It has various sizes of wooden tables and benches/seats, a small bar in the corner and few decorations save, for some reason, a pram at the back with a doll sporting a Jedward hairstyle. It feels more Wild West than Red Dog even though it doesn’t have ‘Saloon’ in its title, especially when you go to the toilet and wash your hands in the metal tub with a foot pump.

To go with the bare vibes, the menu is also pretty pared back. There are no starters and only a handful of mains, plus one special written on paper with marker (fried chicken. For some reason I suspect it is always fried chicken. And what’s wrong with a chalk board? It’s easier to see and surely more environmentally friendly?). There are no American-style challenges here, like the naga viper chilli hot wing challenge. In fact, there are no hot wings at all. Or starters. Or variations of burger. That didn’t matter. Almost everyone went for the same thing - pork ribs, with Stephen going for the beef ones so we could see what they were like, and his friend ordering a burger. Ribs come with a half pickle, some coleslaw and pickled onions (I love pickled onions!) but we ordered some sides as well. We got some beans with burnt ends, some friend pickles and okra, some seasoned fries and some mac ‘n’ cheese.

The sides weren’t amazing – I think there could have been more meat in the beans and the mac n cheese, while very gooey and cheesy could have done with a bit of a crust on the top I think. Stephen wasn’t too fussed with the fried pickles and okra but I thought they were quite pleasant and light even though they were fried. The only thing was I think they were supposed to come with some chipotle mayo but we didn’t get any. I didn’t mention it though, as I was happy to dip them in BBQ sauce.

And so, on to the main event. The ribs at Duke’s are as different as ribs can be from those at RD. They came stacked, a bit like a meat jenga and lookswise, they were the business. Tastewise they did the same. There was a lovely smokey flavour throughout, a bit of a char on the edges, and the marinade coating them had formed a lovely sweet, sticky tar but also had a bit of a kick to it once you’d had a few bites. This goes for the beef ribs as well, meaning that they had achieved what I thought the beef ribs at Red Dog lacked – the essence of barbeque. Their texture was also quite different from the Red Dog ribs. While some were soft enough to slide easily off the bone in one go, you did still have to put in some effort to tear the meat with your teeth to get bite sized chunks; the meat didn’t fall off into your mouth at the slightest touch. To be honest, I sort of wished they did so in that respect Red Dog was superior. The general consensus at the table was that the pork ribs were the better rib but I preferred the beef ones! The friend who had the burger said it was a decent burger, nothing to write home about. He does, however, say that about every burger. In this case his only real criticism was that the patty was a bit crumbly. 

Beef ribs
Pork ribs
Unfortunately no one went for the sliders but I saw them being taken to another table and they looked fabulous – the brioche was so shiny they looked like little meat candies perfect for popping in your mouth. I’d like to try them, although they looked so dainty I don’t know if three would be enough. Another good thing about Duke’s was that the portion sizes were very sensible. You get four pork ribs or three beef. After polishing off two pork ribs and half a beef one I was most definitely full but knew I had enough room to try a dessert.

These were also written on the paper roll. When we arrived the choices were sweet potato pie, cheesecake and bread and butter pudding which all sounded exciting. While we were there though, the roll was moved on and new desserts written which rather disappointed the cheesecake fans – the choice was now Hackney mess, brownie, or bread and butter pudding. The Hackney mess apparently changes every night and our waitress wasn’t sure what was in it, but I quite like a surprise so I ordered it anyway to share. As did the other couple. Even though it didn’t have any meringue in it, it was definitely the sort of mess I appreciate. Not being a fan of berries, I was very happy that this one had made only the slightest gesture to Eton mess and its usual berry swirl. There was a raspberry on the top and the occasional dot of it throughout – not enough for me to really notice the horrible pips that I’m so against. Instead there were chocolate chips! So it was more or less an ice cream sundae – cream, ice cream, chocolate chips and chocolate sauce – but that was fine by me. The same black sheep who had gone rogue and ordered a burger, ordered the chocolate brownie, but I was too far away to sneak a taste. It came with cream and ice cream and looked pretty good though.

So, Duke’s has its merits and I am sure I will be back, not least because their brunch looks fantastic. A word of warning though: book ahead because a) it's a novelty these days for a restaurant to let you reserve but most importantly b) it gets crazy busy. We only got in because there was a cancellation and they were getting plenty of calls and walk-ins that they had to turn away. The downside to being able to book is that they only give you a slot of an hour and a half. Personally, I think this is a small price to pay for not having to wait for upwards of an hour for a table. We finished our meal within that time without being rushed, and while we may have hung around and had a few more drinks normally, it was no hardship to repair to a local pub.

Duke's Brew and Que on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Shacklewell Arms, 13th July

The Shacklewell Arms was revamped and taken over by the people who run The Lock Tavern in Camden (also on my List) and regularly holds nights in association with Eat your own Ears or Bugged Out! which is how I came to hear of it. I always thought of it as a live music venue (even though I hadn’t yet been) rather than a pub, but I was mistaken. It is equally both and does both equally well.

But first, we ate. Just down the road, practically opposite the Dalston Junction station is StreetFeast, another outdoor arena for the hottest food stalls to congregate and tempt you. I had been craving a Big Apple Hot Dog for a few weeks now, so that was my reason for going but once there, the variety on offer did much to tempt me away. I decided to try a stall I hadn’t yet tasted and got some pani puri from Horn OK Please. Unfortunately, they didn’t live up to expectation. They are little pastry shells filled with potato and lentils and a salsa verde. I asked for spicy but they weren’t at all, and they were also rather unpleasantly cold. Stephen had some ribs from the Rib Man, when normally we go for the Rib roll. He was also disappointed and not as full as he expected to be. What could we do but get a hot dog anyway! Normally when I get one from Big Apple I get the beef frank at about £3.50. So I ordered the Big Frank. It was £5 and it was massive! I ate it all because it was sooo good, but I really did not need that much meat in my stomach. StreetFeast is there every Friday and has different vendors every week. I often go to Eat Street and there is definitely some crossover, but with the addition of a bar and being in the middle of Dalston, Street Feast feels very different – much buzzier than a lunchtime crowd. There’s also a marquee so that you can actually sit down and eat. “Waitresses” take your order, alert the stall in question, and then take it over to you when it’s ready. Very handy if it’s raining, which it seems to be, constantly, this summer. Unfortunately, we weren’t in this seated area, so as soon as we’d eaten, we were off!

We walked up Kingsland Road and up Shacklewell Lane. And just as I was beginning to wonder how much farther it was, and whether this was about to turn into a dodgy area in which we had no business being, I saw what looked like the building from the photos. It was strangely quiet considering there was supposed to be a band on, and from the outside it wasn’t much to look at at all. We tried the nearest door to no avail. We then heard a “Hullo, over here!” type noise and turned to see the two bouncers beckoning us over to show us the way in. I really don’t think I’ve ever come across a nicer pair of door security staff. Yes, they checked our bags, and even frisked Stephen (which worried me a little – do they get many clientele who actually need to be frisked?) but they did so very courteously. One of them, obviously being a bit of a detective, slyly deduced we had not been before (I think going to the wrong entrance may have tipped him off) and when we confirmed, opened up the door and gave us a ‘tour’ directing us to ‘the back’ for the outdoor beer garden and ‘the back’ for the Dance Hall. We then went inside. It became pretty obvious once we were in that we would have managed to find both the beer garden and the Dance Hall without any hints as the actual pub is quite small and there is nowhere else to go but ‘the back’. They also have put up helpful signs directing you to each area of the building, and back again to the front. Lost people wandering around aimlessly is clearly a concern of theirs.

I was delighted by the pub itself; it had a warm and intimate ambience, and also, a pool table, which pleased Stephen. If we lived closer, this would definitely become a regular haunt for drinks. They have Frank’s hot dogs in residence at the moment but as we’d already just had one from Big Apple, we didn’t sample. I’ll have to go back to compare though. We had a wander around and a peek in the Dance Hall which is where the live music takes place. Nothing was happening yet, and it was too  wet to go outside into the garden so we propped ourselves up at the bar and had a drink. Mine was a large wine, and I was even charmed by the wine goblet I was given and how it was filled absolutely to the brim. 

Unable to hold a single drop more!
The pub bit was busy but not crowded – all the seats were taken but there was space at the bar and you weren’t constantly jostled as you stood there. This is probably because the Arms is so far off the beaten track that it is unlikely to get passing trade – the people there have made the effort to be there. And that effort is well rewarded.

On our side of the bar there was a door that opened into the Dance Hall so we knew as soon as the band started. We wandered in and enjoyed the support act (I didn’t catch their name) who were pleasant enough. This back room is great for a live act venue, although the stage is tiny. Any more than four of you in the ensemble and extras have to be relegated to being at the back of the group, hidden in an alcove. God knows what a band would do if they had a drum set. The rest of the band would probably have to perform from among the audience. I don’t know what the capacity for this part of The Shacklwell Arms is but, for the types of acts they tend to have – lesser known/upcoming or unsigned, it seems perfect. With only a smattering of people lining the walls it doesn’t feel too empty, but if you have an act that’s a real crowdpuller, there’s plenty of room for people and plenty of room for dancing around as well (as witnessed on Friday). Gorgeous George themselves were quite fun. They have a very current sound – a bit vintage in style and an act I can imagine playing at something like White Mischief with trombone and fiddle. If I was at a festival and I was drunk and Gorgeous George were playing, I’d pass by and probably have a bit of a dosey-do to their gypsy swing. But I wouldn’t go to said imaginary festival in order to seek Gorgeous George out. They clearly have a bit of a following though so I’m sure they won’t notice my absence.

The gig on Friday was free and they have a lot of free nights there, as well as better known acts that require paid entry (normally entrance is under a tenner). The gig on Friday finished before 11 but then they had a DJ playing and the Shacklewell itself stays open until 3 am. Now that I know I like it, I will definitely keep an eye out for more reasons to head back, or if I’m going to something in the area, it will be worth going slightly out of my way to pop in for a drink on my way or way back. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Eagle's Steak Sandwich, 5th July

The ‘eagle-eyed’ amongst you (geddit) may have noticed that the Eagle pub features on my Food List and not my Drink List. It is on my Food List for one reason alone – the Bife Ana, or steak sandwich, as recommended by Time Out’s 1000 Things to Do in London. It was on my List when I read it, and then I went to the Eagle and saw someone order it and knew it belonged on my List.

So yes, I had actually been to the Eagle once before, but was either a) trying to save money, b) trying to lose weight or c) going to the gym which has the added benefit of achieving both a and b. This meant I only had one drink and no food. But I had seen the steak sandwich, couldn’t get it out of my mind in fact, and was glad when we needed to kill some time last night before the Shard laser show as it gave me the chance to finally try it.

The Eagle itself is a rather shabby looking pub on Farringdon Road. It is credited with being the first ‘gastropub’ in that it started serving decent food, but was also a pub. By today’s definition of gastropub (all big fireplaces, kitchen and restaurant in the back, brass fittings) it wouldn’t really deserve such a title. It’s affiliated with Great Queen Street and the Anchor and Hope, which I hear are very good (and may need to go on the List) and their ex-cook has gone on to work at the Canton Arms which I know first-hand is fabulous. So it has a high food pedigree.

When you go in, you see that half the bar is converted into a cooking area. Fresh bread is cut on the bar, and vegetables to be used in the dishes sit on top of it. The menu is chalked onto boards above this area, and you order and pay for the food at the adjacent part of the bar where you also get your drinks served. Normally when I eat somewhere, I try to have something different to everyone else so that we all try as much as possible. Not this time. Two steak sandwiches were ordered and I handed over my £20 (they’re £10 each). We already had a couple of drinks on the go which we finished off while waiting for the food. Very, very reasonable prices in here. My wine was actually less expensive than Stephen’s lager, which is almost unheard of in pubs these days. Granted, it was a medium (175 ml) glass but I think my point still stands.

As Stephen was waiting at the bar to order another round, the waiter came over and plonked our behemoth sandwiches down. He then noticed Stephen waiting and told him he would bring our drinks over as the food was served and clearly it wouldn’t do to let it get cold. I thought that was very thoughtful of him. Because there’s really only half a bar in this pub, any more than a few people waiting and it takes quite a long time to get served. Stephen asked about mustard but we were firmly told that we didn’t need any of that.

I think they were right. This is the best steak sandwich I’ve had in a long time. I can’t really think of a better one. I’m not saying it’s the best steak I’ve ever had, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the best way steak can be served in this form. It is sliced and cooked probably medium well. It comes in a crusty Portuguese-style (or so I think) roll and sits on a few large, robust lettuce leaves and is all doused in chimichurri sauce (again, I think), which gave it a very Latin American taste. It also made it quite slippery and difficult to eat, and you can tell that a firmer bread is necessary, as even with this one, by the end, the upper half was getting soggy.

It was actually bigger than I remembered. I took the approach of cutting it into three and then picking it up with my hands. Stephen’s method was a little more avant garde, deconstructing it and building it again in smaller pieces to eat his. I enjoyed every bite of mine. Before attempting my last third I asked Stephen if he would like some of it, but my greed got the better of me and I finished the whole thing. The only downside was that the crusty bread did cut my mouth a little. Maybe I have supersoft gums.

I’m not sure how crazy I am about the pub in general. There’s a wide range of people there – people having a drink after work, young girls sharing bottles of wine and bread and olives, and even families. It was all a bit chaotic and incredibly noisy. Not the place to go for a romantic drink, and I think if a drink is all I want I’d probably go to other places in the area. But it wasn’t a drink I was after, it was a steak sandwich and I was very much more than pleased with mine.

NB. The Shard laser show was a bit crap, but what did you expect? It was only the completion of a building, not the Queen's Jubilee or anything.

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Square Meal

Monday, July 2, 2012

Antichrist, 29th June

Chances are that you may have heard of Torture Garden, one of the longest-running, biggest alternative/fetish nights in England. They're so 'overground' these days that there are three full pages dedicated to the night in Time Out's 1000 Things to do in London. But you may not have heard of Antichrist. And you should, if you're into that kind of thing.

One question you tend to get asked when you chat to people in Antichrist is 'Are you here for the Goth or the Kink?' The other question you get asked is 'Have you been to Torture Garden?' Torture Garden seemed to polarise opinion among the Antichrist clubbers. I am theorising here, but it seemed if you were mostly at Antichrist for 'the Goth' then you had a lower opinion of TG because you don't like their music, but if you were at Antichrist for 'the Kink' then you enthused about TG because it has all the kink but better tunes. And this may be why Torture Garden is so well known compared to Antichrist. TG apparently plays a mix of music from electro to pop mash ups (I will confirm once I've been) but Antichrist is a lot more 'Rock'.  However, Antichrist is a little more relaxed when it comes to dress code apparently. They don't want you wearing ordinary daywear but as long as you've made a bit of an effort (black jeans, black gig t-shirt) you don't have to worry about being turned away. TG is supposedly more strict. Naturally, I made an effort because I need no encouraging, and with this kind of crowd, you knew most people would. I would say, that, once inside, you would be more likely to feel self-conscious if you didn't have your butt cheeks showing or a dildo somewhere on your costume. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in there so I can’t show you what weird and wonderful things people were wearing.

So. Antichrist happens six times a year at Club Collosseum. We went for their 8th birthday party and we were promised 7 main areas, plus a few little ones - one was the Theatre of Sin where there were live acts and then 'metal' until 6 am, one was an Industrial dance room and one was a goth/alt dance area. Then there was a chillout bar area, a smoking area, a couples' dark room and the devil's playroom or dungeon.

We got there at around 11 so that we could see most of the acts in the Theatre of Sin, which started at 10. To be frank, this was not worth making the effort for. We missed the first two acts but were in time to see a live band, supposedly a mix of electronica and drums and guitars. It didn't hold our attention and we used the opportunity to wander around and get familiar with the club as we'd never been to the Collosseum or Antichrist before. After a very long hour of the same band, we came back to catch the magician. Someone I was with had seen him before and said that he could be very 'meh' until all of a sudden he did something and you were like 'whoa'. We watched and waited but 'meh' was the order of the day for us. Then we came back for the strippers. A lot of people had been eagerly anticipating this part  - it was obvious because when we came in as it was very crowded - too many people for me to see past given my short stature (even though I was in some killer heels). So I can't really pass judgment on them but Stephen wasn't all that impressed. At this point we more or less gave up on the Theatre, even though there was only one act to go and went to the chillout area where there was free cake in honour of the birthday, and to have a few more drinks.

You might be wondering what my answer was when people asked me whether I was there for the Goth or the Kink. Well, for me, it was a little of both. I had imagined that we would end up spending most of our night in the Pretty Fucking Industrial dance room as I thought it would be playing quite dark, clangy metallic-sounding dance music (like Closer by NIN). But that room turned out to be a total disappointment as the music was more like (to my ears) hard house. This may just show I know nothing about music genres. Having said that, I am not completely averse to a bit of rock/metal. In fact, my late teens, when I was beginning to get into music, were spent at a few different ‘rock’ nights (none too aggressive, being as I lived in rural Suffolk at the time) and my favourite club at Uni was a place called Spiders; where we would all dress up in black, get drunk on vodka for 50p or Pan Galactic Gargleblasters for £2.00 and jump around to Marilyn Manson and Crazytown. But for some reason I didn’t expect this kind of thing at Antichrist – I thought my taste would be too tame, that when the Theatre of Sin turned into a rock and metal dance floor, I’d probably like one song, but wouldn’t want to spend much time there. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was amazing! It was like a playlist of all my favourite rock songs, as if I was transported instantly back to being 20 and in Spiders. It was in this room that they played Closer, plus System of a Down, plus Slipknot’s Wait and Bleed, plus Beautiful People, plus Korn. The list goes on. There wasn’t a mosh pit, so no getting trampled on, but plenty of room to let your hair down (literally) and jump around and head bang away, which I did to my heart’s delight. Fantastic.

So it turned out I was definitely there for the Goth, whether that had been my original intention or not. But I was also curious about the other side, and felt that, if for nothing than journalistic integrity, I had to see everything Antichrist had to offer. Downstairs in the Industrial room was a man, rolled up in carpet daubed with a plea to the Ladies to stand on him. I duly obliged. And upstairs in the Theatre was a dom lady, using her submissive man as a bench from which to watch the acts. But I knew this couldn't be as kinky as it got. It was time to visit the Devil's playroom. Inside there is an area within where people who want to get involved can do so, and then an area where you can sit and watch. We sat and watched people getting trussed up in all sorts of positions, and flogged and whipped, in various states of undress. And then we took a trip into the couples' darkroom, which, by the way, is a total misnomer. Instead of shadowy figures moving in the dark by which you might be able to hazard a guess as to what they were getting up to, it was pretty bright in there and no guesswork was required at all.  So it seems it would be well suited to the voyeur or to exhibitionists craving to be watched. However, it is a couple's room, which means the people in there are (in general) busy doing stuff with each other, attentive to each other, not watching what everyone else is doing. Any kick out of voyeurism is therefore more imagined than real. And it was pretty busy in there with people getting up to all sorts. Mostly there are chairs and sofas to relax or get frisky on, but there is also one medical chair complete with fastenable stirrups. And yes, it did get used during the night. Did I participate in this room I hear you ask? Well, I couldn't possibly say! (Am I keeping quiet to give you the impression I did when I didn't, or because I did and I don't want to admit it? YOU DECIDE!)

I will disclose that towards the end of the evening/early morning we went back to the dungeon to see if it was even still going. And it was, but the numbers were far reduced. Some guy who seemed to be getting electric shocks passed over him with something that looked like a miniature plastic garden fork, caught my eye and I went in for a closer look. The guy doing the 'electrocuting' beckoned me in and told me to hold a silver bar. Then he ushered Stephen over and told us to touch tongues. The tiniest of currents passed through us, tickling our tongues and making us giggle a little in shock. It was an intriguing and not at all unpleasant sensation. This machine was called a violet wand and came with all sorts of attachments. I wasn’t brave enough to have a go with the ‘garden fork’ but I did let him run one of the attachments over me and it felt pretty good! Not good enough for me to spend £900 on acquiring such an instrument, but it was pretty good having a go with one for free!

I had a whale of a time at Antichrist. I’ve always known that alternative/goths are some of the nicest and friendliest people you can ever meet, no matter how much rubber they have on and Antichrist just furthered my beliefs. Everyone was there to have a good time, in whatever form that meant to them. People were drinking, but no one was crazy-ass drunk. There was a really good atmosphere, and by the end of the night, everything felt so natural, nothing could surprise me. Coming back to work today has felt a bit like entering an alternative reality. I miss Antichrist!