Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Secret Cinema 21, 20th April

When I was invited to Secret Cinema with fellow Nuffnang bloggers The Prosecco Diaries and Hectophilia, I was told I could write about anything I wanted, as long as I didn't reveal the location, film, or even what time the film starts. Should be a cinch!

I'd actually been to Secret Cinema once before so I kind of knew what to expect, but they still managed to surprise me. Prices have steadily gone up through the years, but you can see where it goes. They're getting close to rivalling Punch Drunk in terms of creating a whole new world, with amazing attention to detail. And there was a lot more interaction this time, making you feel part of the wider story, with characters you could follow, as well as a few set pieces to give you a clue to the movie you were living within (once again it was a movie I'd seen but I still didn't guess it!).

But first, to gain entry to this illicit world, we had a certain person with whom to rendez-vous. In this era when you have to have your wits about you, I thought I'd best go under an assumed name. I was Maria Smith (try and trace that!) and I was about to enter a world where you didn't know quite who to trust but one thing was clear - money talked and law and order wasn't much more than a notion.
We wandered all over the joint, stopping for a drink or two before mingling with what I would say were some of the more unsavoury characters in town. They tried to get us to to help out with one of their schemes, and being of a curious nature, I went along with it, but before long we were being whisked into the kind of company I'm more accustomed to. Or, well, I thought I was speaking with a fine, upstanding politican. Sure, he was sweet-talking us because he wanted our vote but all politicians do that. Then things got kinda nasty - he started roughing up his secretary and I began to have my suspicions he was no better than a crook! As luck would have it, it was election night and I was able to immediately take a stand against him by voting for the other guy. At least, I hope I did... the polling station was right by the bank and just as I was enquiring as to what sort of loan would be available to me (I'm starting to expand my extremely well regarded beauty shop chain), we were rudely interrupted by some hoodlums! They took everything so who knows what they did to the votes. I was left with barely enough to ensure entry (if you know what I mean - like I say, money talks) for me and my gals, to the swankiest bar in town. 
There may have been a little gambling going on the side, I'm sure I don't know. What I can tell you is that this place was jumping and the cats in the band were swinging. 
Time in this shady world flew by, before we knew it the movie was about to start. And all I will say is... keep your eyes open even then.

Back in the cold light of day, Ieaving my alter-ego behind, I have to say I was hugely impressed with this 'edition' of Secret Cinema and it has stoked in me a desire to go to more, whereas with the first one I wasn't convinced it was worth the now almost-60 quid asking price. 

So leave yourself behind and become a part of this fictional world. You'll have an amazing experience. But Tell No One.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Troy Bar, 18th April

It wasn't my intention to go to Troy Bar, but as we stumbled round the corner from the Dead Dolls House, in our cocktail fug, realising it was 11 pm and places were shutting, there it was shining like a beacon, beckoning to us. A light of recognition went off in my mind - I had this place on my List!

And so we entered and had a wicked end to our evening. So good, that we implored our friend who had a transatlantic flight at 10 am the next morning to stay out just for one more, and one more after that - and he did!

I think they have different gigs going on every night of the week, but Fridays is jazz jam sessions and we were probably a little too boisterous for the serious stuff going on in the main room. We were aware of this though and kept our hijinks to the bar area where we wouldn't disturb anyone but the fabulous bar staff whom I'd like to think we befriended.

The place is low key and, as I said, has a live-music focus though there's plenty of room by the bar for socialising away from the performers. They call themselves 'London's Best Secret' and it's not too preposterous a claim. I've been out in Shoreditch countless times and had only heard about the place through a friend. It's not hard to find at all - it's in the middle of Old Street, just sitting there, waiting to be discovered, on Hoxton Street. But it's not the kind of place to attract the Essex hoards, it makes no claims to be a hipster haven and won't be serving Korean anju any time soon. That's probably what keeps it under the radar. It's a perfect late night venue in Shoreditch for a more discerning clientele. 

So, if you read this, keep it under your hat - we want to keep it that way.

P.S. I was having too much fun to take any pictures!

Troy on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Joker of Penton Street, 12th April

My first visit to the Joker was on a balmy Thursday before heading to Smokehouse and we just had one quick drink sitting outside, which meant I wasn't really able to assess the place.

I had the chance to come back three days later with some friends for some early evening drinking on a Saturday. We got there at about six and were practically the only people in the place. It's not on the 'strip' of Upper Street's bars and restaurants so if you don't know it's there, you wouldn't know it's there. Luckily, I do.

It's a cool pub with a modern style. Definitely a pub not a bar, but light and airy with a few quirky decorations thrown in. I loved the huge wooden comedy/tragedy masks and the 'Be Here Now' clock.

They also currently have Tongue 'n' Cheeks in residence serving up their famous heartbreaker burgers (so-called because beef heart is mixed in) but they've got a few other things to choose from as well if you don't like burgers, offal, or the idea of them both combined. I would fall into this camp so I had the picchiapo fries - chips topped with some fantastic, juicy pulled brisket that had been cooked with peppers and onions in a tomatoey sauce, a take on a traditional Roman dish apparently. And the chips this was heaped on weren't bad neither. They also do a philly cheesesteak which one of my friends had. This was a pretty hearty serving of meat and cheese overflowing from a hoagie-type roll.

Two of my friends did order the burger and loved them (I don't think they actually realised any heart was involved and I didn't want to tell them!). We then settled back and had more than a few pints and bottles of wine between us, before leaving at around 9.

It was a really chilled out place, perfect for a bunch of friends to catch up, and actually be able to hear each other - no din of music or crowds. In that respect it shares elements in common with an 'old man's pub' but this is definitely for the younger pub-goer. They also have gigs and quiz nights on in the week if you want to do more than just sit and drink. An excellent haven from the hustle and bustle of 'Supper Street'.

The Craft Beer Co is also just around the corner and doesn't get too rowdy, so we went there for a couple, before making our way to Dalston for Scared to Dance, which I'm pleased to say was much livelier and rocking than the first one I went to!

Square Meal

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Le Mercury, 11th April

Le Mercury makes its name by being cheap and cheerful. Well, not exactly cheerful, more romantic. You see, the whole place is lighted by candles rather than artificial light which makes it a perfect place for a date. In my case, a girl date with my best friend.

Everyone who knows Le Mercury knows it has a reputation for doing decent food at really cheap prices. I mean, really cheap. ALL main courses are a mere £9.95, and ALL starters are just shy of £5. That's right. Want rib-eye steak? £10. Want fillet of sea bass? £10. It's quite ridiculous.

At these prices of course it is silly not to get a starter and a main (and you should probably get dessert too, as they're only £3.45, although we didn't). For our starters I had the Terrine de Jambonneau - ham hock terrine with piccalilli and toast and my friend had Ravioli de la Mer - crayfish and lobster with spinach and a shellfish sauce.

Ok, my terrine was not amazing, and terrines are something I have much experience of. It came out resembling a patty and wasn't as course and chunky, or well, meaty, as I'd like. And the piccalilli was pretty lacklustre compared to other homemade versions I've been served. This was watery and I suspect came out of a jar. But I didn't really mind - it was only a fiver!

Alison's ravioli was actually a raviolo - one big pocket of seafood. It certainly looked good, and my friend said she really liked it but I didn't try it myself as I didn't want to deprive her of her sole piece.

The mains, however, totally won me over. They were of a much higher quality than I was expecting for the price. I had the roast saddle of lamb with grilled courgettes and rosemary jus (how good does that sound? Rosemary jus!) and Alison had the rib-eye. Well, someone had to at that price. We got some chips to share but it turned out my lamb came with pomme puree anyway.

And the meat was great. I'm not pretending it was organic, hung for however-many-days, grass fed and massaged with beer, but it was juicy, tender and flavoursome and cooked to our preference.

I can see why this place has the reputation it does and why it rapidly filled as we ate. What a great place to eat without breaking the bank.

Le Mercury on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Caboose, 11th April

Bloggers often lament that it is much easier to write a post about somewhere you loved, or somwhere you hated, but somewhere that's just middling is much more of a challenge.

And so it is with Caboose, a little shack in Dray Walk off Brick Lane serving up smoked meats either in buns or boxes.

They were already a little in my bad books; I've tried several times to get down there only to discover they're not open, and they aren't always great about keeping you informed on Twitter. Finally, I got there and the hatch was open. I took several minutes eyeing the short menu before deciding that, what the heck, I'd go for the Derailer - a combination of 10 hour pulled pork and 12 hour rib of beef, and gosh darn it, I'd have cheese on it as well.

The guy before me had a similar idea but was told they were all out of beef because they'd had an event earlier that day. I almost flounced off in a fit of pique, annoyed at being deprived even when they were finally there for once, but Mother Clucker had too long a queue and I didn't fancy Orange Buffalo again so I just settled for The Fat Controller – pork on its own. Actually, I did add the smoked cheese. I'm not normally a pork and cheese proponent but seeing them melt it with a blow torch decided me.

The sun was out and I hadn't yet eaten anything that day so I sat on the curb and had my breakfast. And yeah, I liked it. It was a touch too sweet for me – probably as a result of the pork being smoked over fruit wood chips, and being served in a sweet brioche bun, with quite a sweet BBQ sauce. It came with pickle but that was marooned in the very middle of the bun – I would have liked the vinegar tang with every bite. I craved some hot sauce on it. The cheese on it, however, was pretty good – I hadn't been sure I would like cheese with pork but I was converted.

It wasn't incredibly filling either, but then, it was only a fiver.

So yeah, I enjoyed it but it's not one of the big-hitters in the pulled meat and bun arena. Maybe the Derailer or the 3:10 to Yuma (beef on its own) would have set it apart from the crowd but I can only judge it on what I had. Pleasant enough. I'd go back if in the area (and if the Rib Man wasn't around), but I wouldn't make a trip for it all on its own.

Caboose on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 21, 2014

Smokehouse, 9th April

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the big draw of Smokehouse is Neil Rankin of Pitt Cue Co and John Salt fame. He is a maestro of barbecuing and smoking things and here that is what you get in abundance.

There was five of us but we all pretty much ordered the same things as they sounded so good. About half of us had decided to try the ham hock, pig's head and cuttlefish romescu 'sphere' until we were told by the waiter that they were out of that. It was fairly easy to decide to have the short rib bourguignon instead though, especially as we kept seeing them come out of the pass and they looked very good indeed.

To start I had the chopped brisket roll with gojuchang, an immense croquette of chunky meat. At first I was disappointed that it was a bit dry but as I worked my way through it, the meat and fattiness of the brisket came through, providing some juiciness, and of course there was the spicy gojuchang to smear on it. I'm not saying there wasn't enough of this vibrant orange sauce, but I am saying I wish there had been more.

Those of us who didn't have the brisket roll had the chicken liver, toast and duck hearts. I didn't try it but I was told it was 'lovely' - that the chicken had a prominent, almost sharp flavour and that the duck hearts rounded it out. There was uncertainty about the sauce that came on it, which was a cheese sauce** and that they thought clashed with the other flavours. 

On to the mains - ticking into my bourgignon and I all but forgot about the existence of the 'sphere'. I'm not a mushroom fan, but these were easily scooped out of the light broth that the meat came in. The meat was a star, a rightful contender to our favourite 'cue joints - BBQWhiskeyBeer and Pitt Cue. I loved the addition of pancetta and crispy onion strips as well. We didn't realise that this dish came with mashed potato, which made me feel a bit of a pogger as I also added a couple of roasted potatoes to my plate. 

Again, we were a two-dish table - those that didn't have the shortrib had the peppered ox cheek which came with cauliflower cheese. No real complaints there - the ox cheek was tender with a good smokey flavour but apparently some of the cauliflower could have done with a few more minutes to soften up. 

It wasn't exactly a special occasion but the Smokehouse isn't a cheap place and so we doubted we'd be back for a while - we decided to make the most of it and get the Korean pulled pork as a side. What a dish. Between five of us, we basically had one mouthful which wasn't nearly enough, though the kimchi was potent enough for that one bite to knock your head off a bit. My favourite pulled pork specimen by far.

After all this we were easily full but I had seen a lot of love for the sticky toffee apple cobbler on reviews and knew I wanted to give that a try. Only, upon hearing what Vanilla Vanilla Vanilla consisted of, my convictions were swayed. Luckily Stephen had the apple dish so I was still able to try it, and it did trump my Triple V, although that was also very good. It was a bit like a tres leches - vanilla sponge soaked with vanilla liqueur with vanilla fudge and vanilla ice cream (really should be a Quadruple V). It was basically cake and ice cream for grown ups.

The cobbler though - sweet dense pudding, many, many more stewed apples than expected, and a light toffee sauce, with ice cream to top it off? Heavenly.

And we all rather enjoyed our character of a waiter who clearly had a little more than his fair share of the gift of the gab. It all made for a hugely enjoyable meal. What more can I say? Believe the hype. 

**I have been reliably informed (by Neil Rankin himself no less) that it was not a cheese sauce but Thai mayo which makes more sense.

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Cock Tavern and Rita's (permanent place), 4th April

The Cock Tavern

Now that you've finished laughing at its silly name, I shall tell you that this is a rather good little pub, at the top of Mare Street, attracting the overflow of hipsters from Broadway Market. Actually, there was a mixed crowd – sure, there was a lot of the younger generation, but also some older, more traditional pub-going folk – you know, people with dogs and beards before they were cool.

We only had time for one but I'm sure when I'm in the area I'll be back. They serve the usual suspects of Kernel, Camden Hells etc, but they also apparently have an in-house brewery called Howling Hops, which we didn't try. And they served my large wine in a carafe which I always like. 

Square Meal


I'd already been to Rita's when it was just a little residency at Birthdays, serving fantastic 'down-home' southern cooking, so I have had their permanent place on my List ever since seeing they had finally got new premises.

The permanent place has given them a chance to flex their muscles and really show us the kind of sophisticated, 'all growed up' cooking they can do.

There was definitely an element of asian fusion in the dishes on the menu, but they haven't completely turned their backs on the southern influences that made them so successful during their pop-up. The green chili mac n cheese is still on the menu, and while the chicken burger wasn't, they have instead a half chicken with warm honey and gravy. As delicious as that sounded, we balked at paying £25 for half a chicken, no matter how good it might be. 

We had a couple of cocktails, which were nice enough, though next time I'd probably just go for wine as an accompaniment to my meal, noticing that they sold it in 500ml carafes as well as bottles and by the glass. 

I had really wanted to try the goat tacos, another nod to their 'dirtier' roots but by the time we got there (our reservation was for 8:15) they were already sold out!

So, instead we had quite a mature meal that ranged across the different styles on offer. There were several vegetable dishes that we were torn between, which is unusual for us; the asparagus special with duck egg yolk (cooked in a water bath) and miso butter, the tokyo turnips with soy butter, or, the one we did go for - poached calcots with szechuan minced pork.

The calcots were like mini leeks and came with dry-fried crumbled pork all over it, sitting on a delicious and subtly fiery red sauce. This was my favourite plate of the night!

Stephen then overcame his aversion to ordering a vegetarian dish to get the mushrooms with burnt onions, a ragout of grains, and parmesan cream. This dish would not have been out of place in a high-end restaurant – a fabulous blend of earthy flavours and rich, creamy cheese. I'm not a mushrom person but this dish came close to winning me over. Stephen was almost stunned by how good it was.

'My' dish was the rare tuna with radish, blood orange and pickled cucumber. It was the polar opposite of the mushroom dish - light and delicate, crisp and fresh. Another exquisite plate. 

And finally, lest we start taking ourselves too seriously with all these 'adult' plates, we had a side of the mac n cheese we'd loved so much the first time, and happily, it was just as good.

We rounded off dinner by sharing some 'beignets' without the fois gras. I was very tempted to try it, just to try the combination. I know they're famed for them. But I'm not even sure I would have liked it so much, adn it would have been a shame to not enjoy the dessert as much as I had the rest of the meal. The beignets came with a large puddle of dulce de leche, and it was all really tasty, although maybe just a tad too fried-tasting for me. The doughnuts had a lovely, almost gooey, doughy middle though, and the outside was crispy, almost caramelised in some places. And look at the size of them! Definitely a sharing dessert.

Stephen and I both came away in awe a little bit with what they are doing here. The restaurant is unassuming from the outside, but has a clean, yet warm interior - it might look like a typical new hipster joint but what Rita's doing here is that little bit extra special.

Rita's Bar & Dining on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Juno and Grimm Tales, 3rd April


Juno is such a great little bar, and one that for some reason gets overlooked, at least, compared to the others on the Shoreditch High Street strip.

I know the whole area has a laid back vibe compared with the glossy bars in the West End - Shoreditch is known for stripped back brick walls and purposefully shabby decor. But Juno really is relaxed, without even trying. It's just a nice place to hang out. But while you're there, don't just lounge around - make sure to grab a bite to eat, as they do some really good food too!

I had nachos - some of the best nachos I've ever had. They do not skimp - not on tortilla chips nor toppings. Plenty of cheese, sour cream, and most importantly for me - jalapenos. They plump their salsa on top of beans and corn and it makes a very filling meal, or ideal sharing plate if you want something else as well. My friends had some plantain chips with paprika - not just chunks of fried plantain like I had expected but thinly sliced, crunchy crisps, like potato chips. Sound odd? Well, it works.

One of them also had the beetroot salad with kale, goats' cheese and pumpkin seeds with a honey balsamic dressing. It looked fantastic for a salad - healthy but filling and I was assured it was as tasty as it looked.

They have a happy hour serving basic cocktails on a two for £10 basis until 7 pm, or you can get jugs of cocktails, or two wines for the price of one.

So we took advantage of that and then moved on to Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales...

Juno on Urbanspoon

Grimm Tales

I shall be keeping an eye on the people behind these grim and gruesome performances of the Tales of the Brothers Grimm, as reimagined by Philip Pullman, as the whole thing was brilliant.

It's a family show, so it never gets too disturbing, but they still manage to stay true to the dark warnings at the heart of the stories. They had a distinctive way of bringing these to life - recognising that these were passed down by word of mouth, and that they're the sort of stories read aloud, they kept all the narrative in, folding it into the speech of the characters.

It was billed as immersive but actually it isn't - you move around to watch each of the vignettes, but your movements are completely controlled by the performers, and then you are static to watch each story unfold. 

The actors were wonderful. There were two cast ensembles, each playing several different characters. They managed to strike the right balance between tongue in cheek humour appreciated by the adults, and hamming it up, appreciated by the kids. As children do when they play, they used everyday items as important props - Rapunzel's hair was a long length of sturdy rope, the bird in the Juniper Tree story was a cleverly transformed umbrella. And Hans My Hedgehogs costume was a creation out of broom brushes. It's as if they give you the outlines to set the scenes but it's up to your imagination to colour them in.  

Afterwards we were left to roam. As we travelled between sets we could get glimpses of other scenery but couldn't yet explore. Now was our chance to marvel at what they had done. Ok, it wasn't on the scale of The Drowned Man, but it had been given every bit as much attention to create a fantasy world full of hints at other stories (they had created the bedroom of the Seven Dwarfs for example). It was, fittingly, magical, but also slightly sinister - conjuring up feelings of wandering through the woods, not knowing what might befall you. 

I also appreciated that while they did a couple of the well-known stories - Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, they also chose some lesser known ones, so you didn't feel like you'd seen it all before. Having said that, my favourite was probably the Red Riding Hood story. The wolf was a delicious villain.

Tickets are still available and they're doing shows until the 26th so if you have kids, or even if not (I went with a bunch of adults) I think this is a piece of theatre worth seeing. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Central & Co whiskey tasting and Churchill's Port House, 2nd April


I was invited down to one of my favourite bars in London - Central & Co to take part in a whiskey cocktail masterclass hosted by Monkey Shoulder. I must admit, I had already made the acquaintance of Monkey Shoulder when I went to one of their amazing For One Night Only events way back in 2012 I think. So I knew I liked their whisky and that as a brand they're a lot of fun. The night I'd been to was called 'Popcorn Flip' and they basically filled a room with popcorn while plying you with cocktails. That's my kinda night!

This event was a little more sophisticated, although we all managed to have a laugh as well. First we had a snifter of the whisky in its pure, neat form. It describes itself as 'rich and smooth' and the only tasting note our impeccable host, Grant, gave us was that it has vanilla elements. My friend Alison and I had only moments before been discussing where the sweetness of it came from. Apart from that, Grant said that palates are so individual it is pointless trying to point out any other flavours as you might not get the same taste sensations.

Grant walked us through the history of Monkey Shoulder, the ethos of the company and its origins, as well as the thinking behind the label design. 

And then came the cocktail making. To celebrate spring sort of arriving, the first we were shown how to make was a refreshing, mint and apple long drink. Apple and whiskey are a perfect pairing and the mint really gave it a clean, light taste.

Next, we had to do an Old Fashioned, a drink I often have when I'm out but not one I've ever made at home. I love them as they're basically just whiskey but sweetened to make it go down easier. We learned why an Old Fashioned is so-called (because it existed before a new wave of cocktails were invented, basically) and I also discovered that bitters are actually alcoholic! I had always assumed they were flavouring only.

Finally, at the end of the night, a little healthy competiton was introduced. We all had to make a Bobby Burns (no relation to Robbie Burns, despite the use of scotch) and we were judged on it. The prize - a bottle of Monkey Shoulder! So a lot was at stake.

Unfortunately, I scuppered my chances by confusing two of the ingredients and at first not putting in enough sweet vermouth, and then overcompensating by putting in too much. It was incredibly sweet. I added more whiskey to compensate and it did improve but I knew I hadn't got the balance right. I did not win.

I really enjoyed the night - they run these sessions fortnightly with different whiskeys so do go on down and discover a new drink, or more about one you already love! Contact Central & Co for details. 

Churchill's Port House

After finishing these we were a bit squiffy and decided to head off for food. We stumbled upon a place I'd heard about on Twitter - Churchill's Port House, who offers up small sharing plates alongside an extensive port menu. They also have a nice red and a nice white wine as well.

We started with some deliciously dense and dark rye bread and butter and then shared the salmon tartare and pork belly with watermelon, and a cheese plate, after the two dishes we'd been contemplating - the chilli and garlic prawns and the Iberico pork burger were sold out!

The salmon was fantastic - plenty of tart gherkin and some black olive formed a base on top of very thinly sliced avocado and a bit of salt. Our only complaint was the the avocado was very underripe.

The pork belly was two strips served with wedges of watermelon. I'd had pork with watermelon before at Trinity and it was just as good here. The sweet melon and salty pork made a knock-out combination.

And the cheese - well two versions of cheeses similar to manchego (a favourite of mine) plus a crumbly blue cheese. Excellent partners to the lovely, deep red wine we were by now drinking, having started off with a white port for me, and a white wine for Alison.

We chatted to the guys that run the place, and they told us all about where the port comes from and what got them started in the place, and then we went downstairs to finish our drink, where we were given a nightcap of red port. It was all lovely, but I paid for it the next day!