Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sounds Familiar, 24th April

Ok, so take your regular common or garden pub quiz with its general knowledge, history, current affairs rounds etc. and throw away all the rounds that you don’t like. You’re probably left with the music round – the one everyone secretly thinks will bring redemption to the team, the one everyone is relying on in order to prove their worth to their teammates.

And if you feel that way, then why bother with the other rounds at all? Why not just get yourself to the Sounds Familiar Quiz which have built a pub quiz completely centred on the music round. That’s right, every single round is listening to some music and writing down either the artist, title, or both.

And it really is as good as it sounds.

It is incredibly popular and you really do have to get a bit organised and book in advance if you want to go. As the team names were read out (yes - there’s a prize for the best, no - we didn’t win that), one team had called themselves “Where the fuck is our table?” The reply to that came at the end of the night when anarchy was all but breaking out (people were drunk and impatient to know the winners/no longer cared about the quiz) and the compere couldn’t help but answer that question with “Maybe if you’d booked you’d have had one.” Moral: You need to book.

The place was crammed and even though we HAD booked, there still wasn’t enough room for us at our table and there was a short burst of frenzy as the hosts tried to find a table with space (there wasn’t one) and so had to improvise by playing around with the floor plan. We were happily accommodated after not too long.

On each table is a pack with the Rules, the Rounds and the paper to write on. They also give you an idea of what the rounds in the upcoming Sounds Familiar quizzes will involve, and by looking at them it seemed our evening was a bit of an anomaly. While they normally have rounds such as “Wet Fart” (I dread to think) and “Hard Cheese” or “Got it Covered” this time each round was based on the number of people in the band.

So for Round 2 – “Six me Up” you had to write down the title of the track and the band who did it. You were told in advance it would be a band with 6 members. Round 3 was bands with 5 members and so on and so forth down to Round 7 which was solo artistes.

The First  round was full of mashups where you just had to identify the bands. I say “just”. While on the whole the evening wasn’t too challenging and therefore definitely more fun than frustrating, it wasn’t a complete walk in the park either. The second song for instance mashed up Tweet ft Missy Elliot with Queens of the Stone Age. Yes, Tweet. Ring a bell? I doubt it, though you’ll probably recognise the song she did (Oops there’s goes my shirt up over my head, oh my). Of course recognising the song without knowing the artist didn’t help in this case.

And there were also two half-rounds thrown in where MC Quizzical got up and spat some rhymes, describing someone who was of a topical nature. You had to figure out who it was. Pulling some sense out of his fast-flowing rap was tricky but we just about managed to understand enough to make a good enough guess at who he meant. Didgeridoo is a word that stands out in most contexts and can only mean one person given recent events.

The night really reminded me of Musical Bingo in its revelry.  Almost every track they played was a track you wished you could listen to until the end and towards the end, or maybe even the middle of the evening people were up and dancing, some on tables I am sure.

Revellers up and dancing
The final song played was All Night Long by Lionel Ritchie (although we’d also had some Abba,  Chemical Brothers and Hung up by Madonna along the way) and the party vibe was complete. I think some people were so caught up with dancing in fact that they forgot to hand in their answers at the end.

We ended up in a mid-league position, but none of us really cared, even though we thought we’d answered a hell of a lot right. We’d had such a good time just listening to the music and challenging our brains to recall songs without the aid of Google or Shazam. Almost all of the songs were familiar and the artists were just on the tip of your tongue. That was the most challenging part as they were quite careful to choose songs that, in the main, were named for their chorus. And they always played the chorus. Or if not, then the song title was mentioned at some point during its play. At first we’d recognise the song and begin wracking our brains to remember what it was called but we soon realised that if we just waited, we’d hear what it was soon enough.

If you need any more convincing about how good it was, they play the theme from Fresh Prince of Bel Air while they tot up the scores. Amazing.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Electro Swing, 20th April

Sometimes you go on a night out and it is so exhilarating it leaves you smiling all the next day. Electro Swing on Saturday night was a night like that.

Now, I do think a lot of credit has to go to the people I was out with - a lovely bunch who were up for making the most of the night and not afraid to get dancing. People after my own heart. But the music on the night must take it’s due.

Vintage nights are all the rage at the moment, and most have some sort of musical aspect to them – music from the era, or more likely, modern songs done in a vintage style. Electro swing takes that and turns it on its head. It uses vintage music – swing, jazz – and puts modern beats behind it. Any kind of modern beat will work as long as it is skilfully done. So, after a slightly out of character ease in with The Cure’s The Love Cats, we gradually entered the world of Electro Swing – a world where you could easily be dancing to a classic house beat one minute, then a jungle track the next, all with this slightly surreal old-timey music over the top. It’s very high energy, it’s infectious, the crowd loved it and so did I. And anyone remember the Doop song? I didn’t until it cropped up in the set either. It fit in seamlessly with the ethos of the night.

Upstairs, was a quasi-silent disco happening. It wasn’t silent, but there were headphones being handed out (if you were lucky enough to get one) that you could wear on whichever floor you wanted and tune in to either the music being played at the bar or the electro swing downstairs. I thought this was a little odd, as one of the fun things about being in a silent disco is the silent part when you take your headphones off, but whatever, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Downstairs in the increasingly sweaty basement where the main event was taking place, there was a makeshift stage in front of the DJs which people eagerly clambered onto. The place was absolutely rammed. It’s clearly a popular night – it used to happen monthly at the Book Club but they seemed to have taken a sabbatical from it for a while – I kept my eyes peeled for months before I noticed they were back and perhaps it was so full as people were making the most of this rare opportunity. Or perhaps it is just a testament to the popularity of The Book Club, no matter what night is on.

And now, please join me in a rant...

As I have attested before, I have a bit of a love affair with The Book Club. I love the variety of nights it holds, the venue is cool, the street parties it hosts are fun. But that love affair has soured somewhat.  For while Electro Swing exceeded all expectations, leaving me with a surplus of good vibes, The Book Club failed to live up to my own expectations and seriously marred my evening, due to the rather puzzling behaviour of the head door man.

Last night was actually a Meetup I was hosting and I had already entered the club with around 20 or so people but a few people had yet to join us. I got a text from one of them saying they weren't being allowed entry.

There had been a misunderstanding about how the three of them knew each other and for some reason this was cause enough to deny them entry. Naturally they weren't very happy about this as they had done nothing wrong. Everyone knows you cannot antagonise the door staff; sadly, they hold all the power and it doesn't matter how irrational, or how petty or how just plain wrong they are, they have the final call on whether your night sinks or swims. And should you have the gall to voice your opinion on their behaviour within ear shot, then apparently that is also a valid enough reason to refuse you entry (presumably because their feelings have been hurt - bouncers seem to be unnaturally thin-skinned). I had come out and explained what the situation was – but to deaf ears. The bouncer had been ‘insulted’ and no explanation or even apology would persuade him to change his mind. There was no one else I was allowed to talk to about this. It didn’t matter that if he'd been reasonable to begin with, no angry words would have been uttered at all. In any other customer-facing arena the fact that once the situation was explained and he could see that he’d been in the wrong, we would have probably, in fact, been let in and offered an apology. But no, not when it comes to door staff.

I was in a bit of a bind – I had 20-odd other people whose night I didn’t want to spoil by taking them out of the Book Club, with no Plan B, or I had to let these three go off and try to find something else to do – three people I felt responsible for. In the end they went with good grace towards me, luckily Shoreditch isn’t short of places who would welcome their custom. But it left a bitter taste in my mouth and it took me a while before the magic of Electro Swing could sway me out of the funk. There is a lot to be said for how much feelings of frustration and injustice can prey on you.

I know the Book Club isn’t the only venue guilty of having bouncers that are Little Caesars. If I swore never to set foot in any venue at which I'd been less than impressed by the door staff I would spend most of my Saturday nights drinking in my flat. But I will certainly pause for thought before going here again, and if any other venue is holding a similar night, I would choose that venue over this. Perhaps the disappointment is greater because I had held the Book Club in such high regard.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

La Gelateria, 20th April

On one of my many wanders around central London I passed by a cute little gelateria called La Gelateria. From the doorway I spotted intriguing flavours with stuff like 'rosemary' and 'balsamic vinegar'. My interest piqued, I put it on the list for a sunny day.

And this weekend I deemed sunny enough for ice cream, even though it was only warm when the sun was shining directly on you. So after my umpteenth visit to Wahaca for lunch, I made a beeline for La Gelateria for dessert. 

They had your standard vanilla and chocolate and stracciatella (choc chip) but there were enough of the more unusual flavours to make choosing a bit of a chore. I was in the mood for indulgence though so I eschewed the lighter, fresher sounding flavours like basil and chilli or custard cream with lemon zest and went for the black treacle toffee and the tartufo (chocolate truffle). 

I can't fault my choices. The treacle toffee was rich and cindery. It wasn't just a posh name for caramel, it really had the treacle flavour. The chocolate in the tartufo was very dark and there were crunchy bits of praline I think throughout. Heavenly. My only complaint was that, and this might sound weird, it didn't really seem to melt - I like it when the last few mouthfuls are all slushy and almost like a really thick milkshake.

But you can tell this was a minor thing as I went back the next day! They seem to change their flavours daily so while some of them were the same, both the ice creams I'd chosen Saturday were gone, and the caramelised chestnut, vanilla and rosemary had also been replaced. I wanted to try another one of their unusual flavours and something I could fool myself into thinking was a touch healthier. This I achieved by ordering things which had some gesture at fruit in them - the custard with lemon and the honey, rosemary and orange. I took Stephen with me this time and he had chocolate with sour cherries and dulce de leche.

My favourite of my two was the honey ice cream - the rosemary totally worked in combination with the sweet flavours. I thought the custard wasn't as custardy as I'd have liked and mostly just tasted of lemon. Similarly, Stephen thought the dulce de leche was maybe a little too subtley flavoured but he loved his chocolate and cherry scoop. The other 'crazy combos' on offer today were pannetonne and caramelised fennel seeds which part of me wanted to order but I had to remind myself I don't really like the fennel taste so ordering it simply because it sounded cool was a daft idea.

Gelupo has some competition on its hands for my favourite ice cream parlour!

La Gelatiera on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rita's bar and dining, 12th April

Rita's Bar and Dining were resident at Birthdays from the end of last year up until this weekend. They are moving on to pastures new and that was just the prompt I needed to get in gear and get up there. (I hear they're likely to pop up again in a similar area but still it was a good excuse to go.)

Rita's is doing 'dirty' food, that ever trendier, ever popular 'cuisine'. It's everywhere, being done to various degrees of success (Success: Pitt Cue, Epic fail: Wishbone). Rita's as you will probably have heard is way way at the top end of the scale.

It's simple food but it is terribly effective. I tweeted shortly after my meal that I'd had the best chicken burger I've ever had and that was no word of a lie.

The chicken burger arrives in a brown paper bag which is gimmicky but still fun. It's certainly got some heft to it once you take it out of the bag due to the slightly sweet yet quite dense brioche bun. On a bed of lettuce with a mayo sauce that had a hell of a kick, the burger itself, made of a battered chicken thigh lies. Conjure up in your mind all the great words to associate with good chicken and you'll be spot on. Juicy, succulent, well flavoured. All of that. Tender? Mouthwatering? Yeah, add those too. It was just a shame there wasn't a bit more of the actual meat. I missed it once it was gone.

We also ordered a side of macaroni cheese to split. And that was great too! Most of my experiences with mac n cheese have been ubercheesy, heavy creamy dishes hence deciding to share. But this was done with an incredibly light touch. And on top a fresh salsa that was almost like a mousse. It was gorgeous. 

Before that we'd chosen some bacon brittle from the snack menu. It was a bit too sweet to fulfill the role of a starter but in and of itself it was a tasty thing to consume. The bacon worked the way salt does in chocolate and caramel - counters the sweetness and gives it a depth of flavour. Would love to be able to buy bags of that to eat. I'm a big brittle fan.

And then, finally, we had to share a dessert of course - chocolate pie with clotted cream. Stephen thought they skimped on the cream, I thought the pie didn't even need it - it was an added luxury when the pie itself was so light and yet full of flavour. It was like eating a mousse in pastry.

Add to that a couple of reasonably priced drinks (mine a frozen 'rita at £6.50 - one of the cheapest cocktails I've had in a long while, his a beer) and it was a no-muss-no-fuss yet hugely satisfying meal. I'll go back in a heartbeat when their new venture arises.

Rita's Bar and Dining on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, April 19, 2013

Itchy Feet (Dance Academy), 11th April

I have been saying for ages that I’d love a chance to swing … dance that is! (ha ha ha… sooo hilarious) Or jive. Or lindy hop. Any of those moves that drive me green with envy when I go to a retro night and watch everyone else who seems to know what they’re doing and just look so damn good doing it tearing up the dance floor. (And some of them go pretty quickly - you need to be pretty brave to venture on there.)

And I know there are plenty of places offering lessons in such things, but I wasn’t sure about going to proper lessons on my own (my boyfriend not being inclined to join me).

During one of my customary sweeps of my List to see if anything on there is coming up soon, I discovered that Itchy Feet run something they call a Dance Academy, where they teach you some jive-type moves! Not only this, but rather like Dr Sketchy, where the focus is on the drinking rather than the drawing, there was a heavy emphasis on the cocktail side of things. They said you can turn up without a partner and it all seemed geared toward the curious amateur. It sounded perfect.

I organised a Meetup to it, so there were quite a few of us going. We had a couple of drinks beforehand for some dutch courage and then went into the Book Club where we had a couple more just to be on the safe side. I don’t need to document here my love of the Book Club, least of all because I will be back there fairly soon to give my judgement on Electro Swing which is hosted there sporadically. I love the Book Club for its eclectic lineup of events and tasty drinks.

Anyway, so we were all down in the basement waiting for the lessons to start. Only 100 tickets are sold for this, which doesn’t sound like many but actually showing some dance moves to such a number in not a huge space is a bit tricky, and the group had to be split in two and take turns. (This gave everyone plenty of time in between to either practise what they’d just learned, or have another drink and start to forget it.)

You lined up with your partner across the aisle from you and the girl first showed us two basic moves – the first of which I didn't catch the name, the other the box step. We then practised this on our own until we felt a bit silly. Then we advanced towards our partners, and attempted to mesh what we had been doing with what they had been doing. I must say, I had quite an accomplished partner and we seemed to be doing rather well at it.

Our instructor then went slowly through the moves of incorporating a turn, and even this didn’t put us off our stride. She went around the room to check on the couples and give little pointers if needed, but I’m pretty sure she uttered a ‘whoop!’ when she went past us. *smug much*

Then it was a break and the next lot were taught what we’d now ‘perfected’.

I had an aperol spritz, a cocktail I’d just discovered at a wedding and went through some of the steps again. Dressing up is optional but if you don’t have anything to hand to wear, Itchy Feet provide a little treasure trove of accessories and whatnot to jazz up your outfit and the breaks in between give you a chance to rummage a little – just remember to return what you’ve borrowed!

Soon enough our group was called back to the floor.

This time, the instructor was a little sneaky. We lined up as before, but she took one of the girls from the girl side down to the other end of the line thus ensuring weshifted along by one and had a new partner to work with. I ended up with some guy I didn’t know, whose girlfriend was next to me. Naturally - because the likelihood was that you were dancing with someone you didn’t know - this was when the instructor introduced the most intimate move we’d learned all night; a back turn that lead you to being pulled into your partner. The guy I was dancing with wasn’t quite as savvy as my previous partner, but he was fun and friendly, and luckily so was his girlfriend who didn’t seem to mind us practicing such moves on each other. One of my friends reported she was in a similar situation and the girlfriend next to her wasn’t as happy about it, snatching her man back as soon as possible!

After the second group had had their go that was that. We’d learned as much as we were going to that night and I was satisfied with that amount. We’d been practising our moves to some 50s music and that music continued after the lesson was over. Almost immediately everyone's just-gleaned knowldge was thrown out the window and they resorted to stock 50s moves like the ‘mashed potato’ and the ‘twist’ but a few of us tried to consolidate our learning for next time. The music was top notch – all recognisable rock n roll classics of the era – some Elvis, some Little Richard, Do You Love Me from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. All stuff it was hard to resist dancing to.

I’d definitely recommend the Itchy Feet Dance Academy to anyone who wants to get into this kind of thing but is hesitant to start. I’d go again myself though I don’t know if they teach different things each time. It really is for the complete beginner. Still – it remains to be seen whether I’ve definitely remembered the moves and if I’ve forgotten I’d certainly go back for a refresher course. And of course, having had a taster of the kind of music they play, I will also make sure to go to one of their regular Itchy Feet parties.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Silk Road, 10th April

Chinese is arguably my boyfriend’s favourite cuisine, but, while I enjoyed the odd chow mein or spring roll, it wasn’t something that I routinely craved. Discovering the regional cuisine of Sichuan, Hunan and, now, XinJiang has rather changed that.

While they’re all, obviously, different regions, they do have similarities in their liberal use of hot peppers and offally ingredients. Ba Shan is an excellent example of this and Silk Road, where I went on Wednesday, is another.

There’s at least a handful or reviews and blog posts about this place and I must admit I’m not really adding anything new to the canon. Silk Road is cheap, delicious, and a pain to get to. More of a cafĂ© than a restaurant, we remembered to book a few days before we planned to go and as we heard them turning people away, saying there was a one hour wait, we realised it had been essential. From just after we arrived the place was full and stayed that way all night. On a Wednesday! In the depths of Camberwell!

I had heard that the menu was quite short but it was still long enough for it to take us quite some time to decide on which dishes to choose. They all sounded pretty good and we didn’t want to waste our long trip down (and back) by ordering something sub-par.

There were four of us and we went for the following:
  • Big plate chicken
  • Double cooked pork
  • Pork and celery dumplings
  • Eight lamb skewers
  • Bak choi in garlic sauce (we felt like just ought to have some veg – our mothers would be proud)
  • Shredded tripe with onions and chillies (a wild card dish at Stephen’s insistence that we try something different)
  • Two boiled rice.
The pork and celery dumplings came first. You get ten for £3.00 and each dumpling was very generously filled. They were great, slightly chewy dough with juicy pork and finely shredded celery inside. It’s not a combination I’d had before but it really worked, with the celery adding a lightness and freshness to the dumplings.

Shortly after the double cooked pork arrived – thin slices of it thoroughly coated in a sweet, hot sauce with liberal red and green chillies. That sauce was fantastic – the first bite had quite a kick to it but it was manageable if you didn't eat too many of the fresh chillies at once. The pork was soft and each bit had a bit of naughty fat on its edge.

I worried that they might bring my least anticipated dish at the end – the tripe, but luckily, it came out as we were halfway through the pork. It didn’t look that appetising – the onions and tripe were pale and drab with the fresh green chillies the only vibrant and inviting thing on the plate. We all had a tentative bite and pronounced it – OK! The tripe was soft, the texture not unpleasant, and, to be honest, didn’t have much of a taste. It was inoffensive. We had a few forkfuls each and then eagerly went back to finish off the pork.

Then the skewers arrived. From my reading I knew not to let these sit on the table for too long and quickly grabbed my two skewers. Each skewer had about 6 little morsels of crispy, fatty lamb dusted with cumin (I think). They were amazing. My favourite dish up until that point.

The piece de resistance was, of course, the big plate chicken. A massive bowl was brought to the table full of a steaming brown sauce, star anise scents emanating from it. There were the requisite chillies floating about – fresh green ones and those dried red chillies that must have been soaking in the broth for so long they had rehydrated. There were large chunks of potato and of course the chicken pieces on the bone.

We scooped out several pieces of chicken and potato into little bowls, with a bit of the broth and all marvelled at the taste. I have never tasted chicken like it. It didn’t even look like chicken – it looked like barbequed pork. It was so dark, so fully had it absorbed the flavours from the soup. They must marinate the hell out of that chicken. The broth had a very savoury taste to it that was incredibly more-ish. But this was also where the heat lay and it was easy to forget this when you were spooning it out. There were sniffles all round.

We’d only taken a little out of the pot when the handful of noodles (the largest noodles I’ve ever seen) were dumped into the plate. I’d thought this happened when you’d completely depleted the dish of meat and potatoes, but no matter.

Such was the size and length of them, one portion worked out to about two noodles each. Now, I like noodles, but normally I’m more of a fan of the thinner, glass or rice noodles. These were thick, but flat, and meaty, chewy. Slightly sweet. I loved them.

Our feast started to defeat us and we weren’t able to completely finish our big plate, though we did dredge the bowl for the last pieces of chicken. I finished off my share of the rice by adding lots and lots of the soup to create a savoury rice pudding, which in my humble opinion was a fantastic creation.

By this point, I’d ingested so many chillies I think I was beginning to feel a bit spacey. You don’t even really notice it at first but that burn slowly builds. Our very garlicky bak choi provided some relief from the heat, but I kept dipping mine in the soup thus defeating its cooling qualities.

We paid our bill – a princely £15 each (including tip) and departed.

Why, oh why does it have to be in Camberwell?! I’m jonesing for those lamb skewers even now, and sooo want to try the other dishes I’d heard were good – the home style aubergine and cabbage, the fried dumplings. One day I’ll venture there again. 
One day.

Silk Road on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Brompton Cemetery, 31st March

I suggested to Stephen we take a stroll around Brompton Cemetery to get us out of the house. We had decided to try to see the Boat Race (me thinking that the cold might put some people off) but we were so lazy we didn't think we'd get there in time by the time we got ready.

My suggestion was vetoed. But we headed over to West London anyway, and wandered back towards central London and what should we stumble upon but Brompton Cemetery! Naturally it would be silly not to have a look in.

It is one of the "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries built around the capital to inter the rapidly rising numbers of deceased bodies that needed a home. So it's a grand cemetery, full of majestically decaying tombs with some impressive and grand statues. Within the first few steps I'd seen several tombs and mausoleums of remarkable or remarkably spooky design.

One such mausoleum we realised had a lattice throught the gaps of which you could see into the inside. Very creepy. We didn't linger.

Yes, so we got in and walked around for about ten minutes and took some pictures. I noticed something at the back of the cemetery that looked worth investigating - possibly some catacombs? - but alas we didn't get that far. A car with a loudspeaker started cruising up the main avenue telling everyone the cemetery shut in ten minutes and to start making our way out. I didn't want to rush looking around the rest, so we duly left and ended up having a nice drink in a lovely pub not far from there - the Drayton Arms.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Simpson's Tavern, 27th March

I'm going to be honest and say that the reason to come here is definitely the novelty value and not the food. One of London's oldest Chop Houses (open since 1757), this was pretty much the only reason I wanted to visit. That and the fact that it;s tucked down a little alley and you can easily completely miss its existence (it's address is 38 1/2 Cornhill).

Only open at lunch times, I made an effort to go before I went back to a 9 to 5 office job. From perusing its menu I knew to expect comfort food not fancy food. And as I've indicated, I was right. We went down the tiny alleyway and was asked by the host if we fancied upstairs or downstairs. Downstairs looked cute so we opted for that, not realising we would be smooshed in with a party of four on a table that yes, did fit in two extra people, but not exactly comfortably. I thought this was because the rest of the dining area might be booked out but as we ate, the other tables didn't fill.

There were two ladies overseeing the dining room - the kind of women that don't take any nonsense I'm sure. Tough as old boots springs to mind. The surroundings were quaint - green banquettes, brass fittings, in little booths lining the small, very small square room. I ordered the pork and cider pie, my friend got the salmon. None of the mains included a side dish - you had to order that extra, which meant for a much more expensive lunch than I'd anticipated. Two mains, three sides and two diet cokes came to 35 quid!

There was nothing wrong with the food really. It was proper stodgy, British food - I had bubble and squeak (which had peas in it, is that weird? I thought it was a bit weird.), my friend had mash and spinach. It was decent.

In another area completely was the tiny bar. I was quite surprised by how many people (all Suits, all men) were there on a lunchtime, pint in hand. I guess it was a Friday. Actually, no it wasn’t.

Even the bar is only open on a lunchtime and I do not work in the vicinity so I shall probably never darken Simpson’s door again. I’m not too disappointed to say so, but I am glad I’ve been at least once. 

Simpsons Tavern on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Door in a Wall, 17th March

To say I'm a big fan of treasure hunts would be to grossly understate my enthusiasm. Especially if those treasure hunts have an interactive element.

Having had my first taste of such a thing in New York, completing Accomplice, I then did a couple of treasure hunts in London, one with Hidden City for some real cash money ( which I didn't win) as a prize, and one just for fun.

A friend of mine told me about A Door in a Wall and it sat patiently on my List for a good while until we found out about the 'abridged' version they were doing in Boxpark and its environs.

Normally more expensive and lasting upward of four hours, this one was about £10 and the hunt lasted 2 hours. There was an additional hour for you to ‘make your case’ and for the winner to be decided.

We gathered at the arrival time and were presented with our press packs. The premise was that, as a new fashion company were about to launch their new line (and we were the journalists covering the launch) the chief fashion designer was murdered! We had to uncover the culprit.

Press pass for launch
The packs gave you pretty much all the information you needed, but then we had to sit through a press conference in which it was all repeated, just itching to get out there and get an advantage. We had our approach mapped out and everything. Finally we were set loose on Boxpark to discover what we could about the crime.

We only just about completed in time. What at first seems like not many things to solve is deceptive – you are given six starting points and each starting point leads on to about four further clues which culminate in collecting or noting some evidence. Is it a red herring? You can only really tell once you have followed each and every lead. If you weren’t able to finish and get to each clue, you could easily end up making the wrong deduction.

Clue taking you to Redchurch Street
The clues also lead us further than I was expecting – all the initial clues started in Boxpark but some lead you all the way up Curtain Road and to Arnold Circus (forgive me if you don't know the area). With the clock ticking, to cover all this ground did require some actual physical exertion on occasion! Along the way you might meet some characters who would ply you with the information you needed, though mostly it was a case of guessing the next location, and keeping your eyes peeled and your wits about you once you were there to find the next hint.

A weblink to follow...
The exceptions to this were a recorded voicemail you had to listen to and a couple of YouTube videos that pointed you in the right direction. In this aspect it was very similar to Hidden City where you can complete the trail with no human interaction (you solve clues texted to you to guide you to the next destination where you then answer a question you can only answer by having got to the right place). The addition of some characters along the way was more similar to Accomplice.

But A Door in A Wall differed from both of these by the finale. Once you have gathered as much evidence as you can, you have a sheet to fill in – you say why you have come to the conclusion you have (both why for the culprit, and why not for the other suspects). Then the organisers look over it all and announce a winner.

We were feeling confident. We knew we’d found every clue and had covered all of them in our report. What we hadn’t done was perhaps leave enough time to write this as elegantly and eloquently as possible – we had favoured a bullet point format while scoffing burritos. And that was our downfall. As the winner was announced we were told that it had been very close, very close indeed and in the end had to be decided through articulation. They then gave ‘A Dior in a Wall’ (our hilarious play on words team name – prizes were given for that and we only got an honourable mention) another honourable mention and we knew we had lost.

Next time… next time…

Actually the ‘next time’ is already sold out so…

The time after that… the time after that…

I really, really enjoyed this. I worried at first that it would be too easy but after finding the first one, that fear was blown out the water. No, they got the level of challenge right. The other thing I worried about was that there would be so many people playing that any personal ingenuity would go to waste as you ended up just following other people from clue to clue. That was also a fear quickly dismissed.

I cannot recommend this enough in fact. Take some companions who can think laterally and are willing to put the effort in and you won’t be disappointed.

Now all's left is to do Hint Hunt!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Coal Hole, 16th March

I had forgotten I had this on my List when I picked it as a place to meet before going to the Last Tuesday Society ball! So I didn't take as much note about it as I should have.

I had trepidations about meeting here as someone told me it was small but I hoped it might be able to squeeze us in. I needn’t have worried. Even though I turned up at about half seven, once I made my way through the scrum at the door there was quite an empty space behind the bar. The pub itself was larger than I expected but had the ‘pub’ feel I was expecting.

The Coal Hole made it onto my List for its historical merits – a place where Gilbert & Sullivan used to perform and where the Shakespearean actor started a society for oppressed husbands called the Wolves’ Club. And it felt like a traditional public house. Mostly. Once the football crowd had disappeared. It's an attractive place from the outside and the inside continues this, it has a woody feel to it yet more polished.

I had a glass of wine or two, but they were bought for me so I can’t comment on the cost. I believe a bottle of house was £18 which is not unreasonable, though wasn’t my favourite white wine ever.

My friends noted a more than a pleasing number of men fair of face.

So yes, well worth keeping a note of this place if you want a boozer and you’re on the Strand. Nothing about it really stands out to wax lyrical about but neither does anything stand out to bemoan. 

Square Meal

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Birley Salt Beef Bar, 18th March

This is more of a review of a particular food item than that of a venue. Because, if you're going to a salt beef bar, there's really only one thing you should order - the salt beef. And that is what I did. Not that there aren't other things on offer. Like most of the other Birley sandwich branches, they serve various hot meats carved up for you then and there. I barely glanced at them, and ordered a salt beef sandwich on white bread.

Did I want any sauce? Why, yes, ketchup please. Unconventional I know, but more than just a smidgen of mustard is too much for me, and ketchup goes with (almost) everything.

Did I want a pickle? Of course! In the sandwich? Go for it. And in the blink of an eye my server had 'julienned' my gherkin, flattened it to separate each sliver and 'spread' it on the sandwich. It was wrapped up and handed over to me.

I took it outside and hungrily devoured it. The bread wasn't quite doorstep but easily thick enough to handle the generous beef portion. The meat itself was tender, salty, nicely sized chunks and you got some pickle with every bite.

It wasn't gargantuan like the kind you might get in Katz in New York, it was a sensible size for a sandwich, and a sensible price too - 5.75. I, luckily, don't live far from the Beigel places on Brick Lane, where I can satisfy any salt beef craving I might have at any time of the day for less than 4 quid, so the Birley Salt Beef Bar doesn't offer anything to me that I'm in desperate need of. But it does a good job of what it offers. I'd happily get my lunch from them again.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

South London Pacific, 17th March

Goodness knows why this place was on my List but it was, and who am I to argue with its appearance there? When moving my List from spreadsheet to blog page, I did research some of the ones whose existence I'd forgotten and I got the impression that, actually, this wasn't really the kind of place I'd normally seek out. It seemed like it was a little cheesy, a little 'high street'. It was also way down in South London where I rarely go. But I couldn't expunge it from the list.

Then, a few weeks ago, my friend suggested we go there for a night called Hula Boogie. This sounded like my kind of night and something of an anomaly for the bar. Voted (I'm not sure by whom) "best vintage club night in London" for the last two years, it's a night devoted to music from the 30s to 60s.

There was to be jive lessons for the early arrivers as well as happy hour on cocktails - 3.95 each until 10. Popcorn, some free chocolate and some vintage clothing stalls.

Well, I got down there too late for the dance class but it turns out there weren't enough people there for it to be held anyway. In fact, the place stayed pretty crowd-free for most of the night, although it did get busier the longer I was there. Not busy enough, however, for me to not feel self-conscious about dancing. Most of the people there really seemed into the scene and knew all the right moves. I didn't feel right sullying the dance floor when they were on there as well. I got the impression a lot of the attendees went every month and all sort of knew each other.

The popcorn was nowhere to be seen but you can't sniff at cocktails for 3.95. They were all 'tiki' cocktails and so all fruity, which isn't really my style anymore, but hey - I still had a few! The clothing looked authentically vintage indeed, with only a glance I was fairly sure nothing there would fit me! After a couple of hours someone came round handing out the chocolate - a candy bar called a 'Jive' (basically a discount Twix, which doesn't mean I didn't appreciate it!)

The music was also all decidedly 50s or 60s, but perhaps I missed the early stuff. Oh, and did I mention this was on a Sunday? It was open until 1 am but not being in the most easy to get to place (a good 10 or so minutes from the Kennington tube station, staying beyond the last tube would have made getting home a nightmare.

So I may have missed some more of the good stuff at the end. I had a nice evening there, but it wasn't busy enough or 'amateur' enough for me to make the journey down there again.