Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Lost Lectures, 16th May

The Lost Lectures aim to turn discover and learning into nighttime entertainment – something exciting and interesting far and above your usual lecture. And this they do. Picking unique and glamorous settings, such as The Troxy for this event, they encourage dressing up and making it a bit of a party.

To this, my first, there was a loose 1920s theme to fit with the art deco venue, though most people didn’t make that much effort with their costumerie. There was a regular bar, a cocktail bar manned by Barchick no less, and as well as popcorn they had street food from Speck Mobile (If you felt like braving the queues). I had been to the Troxy before and hadn’t expected them to make full use of the place, as it is huge. I thought we’d be kept on the ground floor around tables set up and I rather wish we had as I forgot to take my glasses with me, meaning the speakers and they accompanying visuals were all rather blurry.

Bizarrely, had we turned up a little earlier, we could have just grabbed one of the tables that had been sold for a higher price – no one was checking the sort of ticket you had, and indeed, I walked in without anyone checking I’d paid anything at all to be there.

The evening started promptly at 7:30 but still managed to overrun somewhat. Each of the speakers only had 20 minutes or so to talk, meaning they couldn’t delve too far into their subject but they were still able to give more than just a superficial overview.

First up we had Dame Sally Davies imploring us to wash our hands when we go to the bathroom in a big to fight the antibiotic-resistant bacteria which threaten to wreak havoc on our relatively disease-free countries. It was interesting and scary to hear all the routes that antibiotics can take into your body and why bacteria are building these resistances. Put simply, we took antibiotics for granted, pumping them into animals, vegetables and ourselves with nary a care for future generations and how they would fare when the ones we had ran out. And they’re running out now.

Then we had Vicky Pryce who, at first, I thought was telling us trivial stories about her time in jail, but who actually talked in a meaningful way about reform of the prison service, especially for women, many of whom, in her researched opinion, are there through circumstance rather than being evil people who need to be locked up. It was hard not to empathise with her way of thinking (and I am a liberal lefty after all).

We then heard all about the dark web and how it will soon be more accessible to everyone. Our speaker was keen to point out that, yes, it may be somewhere terrorists and paedos can lurk without fear of prosecution but there is also a more altruistic, moralistic side to it that cannot be dismissed out of hand. It’s not just a place to buy drugs, although, yes, you can do that pretty easily too.

Before the next act we had something of an intermission which we used to buy a cocktail from the Barchick bar. They lived up to my expectation, being so alcoholic they made me cough. Mine came in a fake medicine bottle and my friend’s was served in two water pistols. Yes, you had to shoot the cocktails into your mouth!

After watching some rather odd dance moves while the stage was set up for the scientist Andrew Szydlo, we watched his mad cap experiments unfold. This guy was like the Keith Floyd of Chemistry – in that I mean he was the very definition of eccentric, speaking so quickly you could barely keep up, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he were drunk. Hilarious.

We then had Nir Paldi speak on what it means to provoke an audience, and what happens when you manage to do so, but not in the way you had envisioned, recalling one of his drag performances on the Israeli-Palestine conflict that threatened to get too heated, which was thought provoking in itself. And we rounded off the evening with a thigh-slapping performance from the Hackney Colliery Band doing modern songs to a swing rhythm, which, as the loyal readers of my blog that you are, you’ll know I adore.

Interesting, education and entertaining in equal measure.

*Photos (c) Richard Davenport (except for the crap one of the cocktails).

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Two Floors and The Dark Room, 12th May

All together now 'You awake! And find yourself in a DARK ROOM!' How do you get out? Well, I don't bloody know and I sat through about 12 different people trying. So far, out of all the shows he's ever done, only TWO people have managed to escape this mysterious Dark Room guided, or should I say taunted, by the floating head of John Robertson...

After some introductory laughs (John Robertson is a standup of sorts) and explaining (kind of) where the show gets its inspiration and what is about to happen, the lights go off and John dons what looks like a pared down version of a Ghostbusters pack. Only (or, well, mainly) his head is illuminated and thus begins your adventure simulating one of those choose your own adventure type 80s video games. The rules are strict - you must say the color and word of the route your wish to take, or you get told off and ridiculed by the floating head. And beware... most routes lead to... Well, a not very happy ending.

It's a weird, twisted and above all funny ride as John randomly picks people from the audience to try their luck in the Dark Room. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason to what happens in this room, except that John thought it funny to put it in there.

The only frustration with the show comes from being powerless while other people make all the decisions, unless of course you're picked on to guide the group. Most of the time the participants in the show I went to see ended up going down almost exactly the same route as someone who had just played, which is annoying as obviously you want to see as many of the different outcomes as possible, even if they all (seemingly) end up with the same result. Luckily there is a round built in to stem this frustration... The Dark Room seems to have a bit of a cult following among some who come again and again in the hopes of figuring out John's twisted mind and getting out into the light. In one round, one of these gets to have a go and show us all how it's done. No, they too end up ... well, in a not very happy ending... but it opens up a whole new range of possibilities that the audience can then take advantage of in the next round... The crowdsourced round.

This one relies on popular opinion - the audience decides as on which choices to take but not by voting per se - just by everyone shouting for the option they want and John trying to determine which is the most popular. Those who have been paying close attention in the previous round try to replicate that to get us as far as possible. I think when I went we managed maybe 12 in a row before we ended up... well, not in a very happy ending.

Every participant wins a prize - a prize you would never want, but a prize none the less.
John Robertson is a funny, Aussie, not afraid to goad his audience, who keeps the whole thing ticking along at a fast pace. I don't want to go into too much detail as discovering how it works and what it is all about is half the fun. You should go and see for yourself.

Two Floors

Just before we went over to Gem Bar for the Dark Room we had a couple of drinks in Two Floors off Kingly Street. It was a dark and rainy day and Two Floors wasn't at all what I'd imagined. It has a tiki bar so I was picturing kitsch and colourful, but actually it's quite a cool, kinda dark, laid back bar. The tiki bar is downstairs and I don't think it was open when we went so I have that yet to explore. This is a good place if you don't quite fancy a pub, but also don't want a tacky, overpriced Soho bar.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Stranger than Fiction, 7th May

Stranger than Fiction is a new literary night that brings together several elements to entertain you. Perhaps even, slightly too many elements, because I think by the end of the evening our attention spans had rather drifted, but it was still a really good evening and one I'd recommend to the literary lovers out there.

Predominantly (just) it’s a night of performance by writers and spoken word artists on a given theme. They can speak, emote or perform for 7 minutes and at the end the audience picks their favourite. This inaugural event chose First Love on which to linger and we had some excellent performers. First up was Gemma Weekes who did a spoken word piece which raised the hairs on the back of my neck about a love that might not have been her first, but was certainly seismic, and she also performed a song to a backing track, which was slightly less effective.

Our second performer was Rhodri Marsden, the winner of the evening, who charmed us with his tale of first love (well, second if you don’t count the Wombles) and how you can be so convinced someone is right for you (mainly because they are a girl, and in your vicinity) and then over the years discover just how wrong you can be. It was delivered with touching, and sometimes rather cutting, humour. For his troubles he was presented with a small, but life changing prize - a ukelele. Given that he professes to hate the instrument, it could indeed change his life should he choose to give it a chance.

The third performance was a comedic set from Grainne Maguire who supported Rob Delaney on his tour recently, which just proves Stranger than Fiction aren't pulling any old performers off the street. I really liked her tale of lusting after the boy who wasn’t interested, only for it to lead her to the guy she’d been ignoring who was right under her nose. The story ended with hands brushing and realisation beginning to stir…

And finally we had a piece from France, otherwise known as Dan Carpenter, who was participating in the United Nations (a field trip) and had a crush on the United States (a girl). Oh, how France believed that together, diplomacy could be more than made but for some reason the US just wasn't interested.

So with only four acts, the night was surprisingly varied. Interspersed with each performer, is a literary pub quiz of sorts. I love a pub quiz and this was the right level of challenging yet answerable. There were also two rounds which weren't your usual – one where our inimitable host Dixe Wills shouted out words or phrases that related to a book and whoever shouted out the answer first got the points. This is where I think we scored quite well, getting two of the answers, and depriving other teams of those much-needed points. Another round was for all those foreign candy bar lovers out there – deciding whether a flavour of Kit Kat was a real Japanese flavour or not. We scored abysmally here, only getting about half right.

Naturally there was a prize for the winner, and even the runners up, which I’m happy to say, was my team, after I delivered the tie-breaker answer. As a prize, we got a book. That's right one book to share between the six of us. Oh well - clearly it was meant as a symbol of winning rather than an actual prize. First prize was, of course, booze, as it always should be.

On top of this, running through the evening, we were encouraged to tweet our own mini-stories of first love, and then Dan Carpenter picked his favourite to also win a prize (or it might have just been recognition, my memory is a little hazy, and the night was wearing on).

I think they’ve got a good thing going here, and they’re doing enough to set them apart from the other literary nights already in existence. They are probably most similar to Literary Death Match but that can be a bit hit and miss whereas this, I think, actually delivers more interactivity, and more fun. The next Stranger than Fiction is scheduled for June 4th and promises to explore a person's 'darkest hour'...

Friday, May 16, 2014

Lazybones and Trapeze Bar, 6th May


Lazybones suffered a bit from the same syndrome as Caboose – my food was nice enough but couldn’t quite reach the giddy heights of some of the other places cooking low and slow meats. I had a pulled pork bun which came with coleslaw mainly because the beef one came with yoghurt, which I thought was a weird accompaniment to guacamole. The meat was juicy, and had a good flavour, the coleslaw added a bit of crunch and it even came with a pickled pepper (which actually was rather bland, I ate it without even remembering it was there). A similar verdict was given to the beef version - tasty but not particularly memorable. If we really wanted food of this kind while you were in the area, on a whim, we'd come back, but we'd be more likely to travel to somewhere else for a superior version.

Especially as Stephen had a burger and even as a non-burger eater, I could tell when it was placed that it looked pretty poor. A boring bun encased an overcooked burger. A disappointing eating experience for him. 

From the outside the place looks like a City wine bar, which is at odds with the food it serves and its interior. While we were there, sitting outside, two girls actually walked in and then left again abruptly when they realized it wasn’t what it looked like.

Inside the place looks lively and I like the yellow and black combination. Unfortunately the atmosphere doesn’t live up to this – when we went there was barely another soul in there. Tucked away behind the main drag, I can’t imagine it gets much passing traffic at all, and, while there isn’t really anything else in this area doing this thing, it’s not quite worth seeking out especially. 

Lazybones on Urbanspoon

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The decor is faded circus glamour and it looks great. However, as much as on paper it sounds like the kind of place I would frequent, I can't see myself coming here on a regular basis, which is a shame. Service is a little strange. I went in on a Saturday evening to see it at its peak, and it wasn't full, yet it took me an age to get served. The bar staff seemed pretty blase about making sure people at the bar were actually able to order.

On the Tuesday, service was much better, and friendlier, than on the weekend. But we ordered a bottle of wine and were then left to the whims of the bar staff to keep our glasses topped up. For some reason we weren't allowed to keep the bottle of wine with us at our table, and instead they came round and topped us up when they noticed our glasses were nearing empty. They weren't too bad about it, but I didn't like them controlling the pace at which I drank. I don't know if this is a normal policy, or if it's because we were there for an event (Sounds Familiar, just as fun as the first time I went).

We'd already eaten at Lazybones so I wasn't hungry when complimentary food of a similar ilk was placed before us. We duly gave it a try though and it was nice enough (and uninspiringly on trend - wings and Korean-style pulled pork) but I don't think you'd come here for the food especially, unless you wanted a burger from Burger Bear on a lunchtime. 

On top of our wine we had a house cocktail and this was really nice actually - vodka and berries, it was light and fruity and the dusting of cinnamon on the top was pretty clever.

I did like Trapeze, but it's main downfall is that there's just no getting away from how expensive it is! The house white is £5 a glass, but that's for a 175ml serving, it then jumps to £7.50 for the non-house alternative. Beer is sold in cans for the same price as pints in most places: £4.50 to £4.90.

Trapeze on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hackney Bureau, 5th May

Many’s the time I have walked past Hackney Bureau after a trip to Broadway Market and have been struck by its popularity. On a weekend, you’d have to be quick off the mark to get in there and get a space for brunch.

My friend and decided to meet there for a late lunch on the last bank holiday afternoon to check it out. Lunch specials are written on the blackboard inside and we were both attracted to the two dishes featuring avocado. In the end, Alison got the smashed avocado with feta and poached eggs on sourdough, and I had the harissa chicken and avocado sandwich. Other options included truffled mushrooms on toast, butternut squash, and a variety of cooked breakfasts.

We also had a cheeky spritz to go with it – Campari for her, Aperol for me.

The food arrived and we were both more than happy with our choices, although I admit, after having a forkful of Alison’s combination, I felt I'd chosen the slightly inferior dish. Her poached eggs were perfect – oozing thick yolk over the creamy avocado, and the feta gave it all a salty tang to it that was very agreeable.

I did enjoy my sandwich as well though. Delicious sourdough held together the strips of chicken and avocado, of which there was a generous amount. The chicken was soft and the harissa was more than just a token description.

Our spritzes were a little on the small side but were a perfect choice if I do say so myself for a spring day.

Hackney Bureau on Urbanspoon

With appetites sated, we enjoyed a wander around Spitalfields with a glass of prosecco (for only £3.50!) from Bedales before dropping into the Hawksmoor bar for their Cinco de Mayo festivities, courtesy of the many-years-closed Green and Red Bar where Brewdog sits now. They had five different tequila based cocktails, all for £5, or you could have a tequila sangrita or verdita. This was a double shot of tequila to be followed by a concoction of coriander, pineapple and chilli. This was so good we decided to sip them instead of shooting them.

Finally, our wanderings took us up Hackney Road, where popping into Sager and Wilde for ‘one’ turned into a whole bottle plus a couple of their new small plates. We had a generous plate of manchego cheese (with a rather mean portion of quince) plus some gorgeous bread with oil, and a plate of speck with piquillo pepper. It confirmed how right I was to fall in love with the bar the first time, and Mr and Mrs Sager and Wilde were excellent hosts as before.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sichuan Folk, 4th May

When Stephen told me about a new Sichuan place in Brick Lane, I was in no hurry to go. I don’t know – I guess I just felt that there were a few places doing good Sichuan and did I really need to try another one... would it stand a chance of bettering places like Ba Shan or Silk Road?

Well, I’m not saying Sichuan Folk was necessarily better but it is definitely worthy of a visit. The place itself is really nice – the exterior doesn’t give you an accurate impression of the peaceful, tasteful d├ęcor inside.

Service was warm and just lovely. Our waiter asked us if we’d been before and when we said we hadn’t (and that we liked it spicy) he went through the menu and picked out the best dishes from each section for us. He highlighted way more than we could actually eat so we narrowed it down to two mains and a starter but there were plenty of choices that I thought sounded really good and that I’d like to come back and try, not least the cumin lamb.

So, in the end, we had their signature pork dumplings, the twice cooked pork and 'beef in a spicy and lip-tingling sauce' with some steamed rice. Each dish had a varying element of spiciness to it, but none of them were overwhelmingly so – they weren’t so spicy that you couldn’t make out the unique flavours of each one. The beef had, as you might expect, a deep, meaty flavour and hidden among the broth of chillies were bean sprouts and bok choi as well as tender pieces of beef. It was, indeed, lip tingling.

The pork I think might have been my favourite. It was thinly sliced pork belly with onions and peppers and was served with four hirata-style buns for you to stuff with filling. Despite the oil this had an almost dry taste to it, the meat being practically crispy it was so thin.

As our dumplings arrived, our waiter, up to the very moment he set them down, continually spooned the soy and chilli sauce over them to be sure they were completely coated. They were a decent size too – big enough to take a bite then spoon some more sauce into what remained before finishing it off.

I was holistically impressed with this place – really good food, a lovely setting and helpful, friendly service. I think this place will get a lot of custom from us.

Sichuan Folk on Urbanspoon

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Design Museum, 3rd May

It has taken me so long to visit the Design Museum because it is one of those rare museums in London that actually charges. You can browse the museum shop for free (and you should – all sorts of cool oddities in there), or have a coffee and cake but you can’t set foot into an exhibit without handing over a bit of dosh.

So, I waited until there was something I was pretty sure I was going to like before going. This does mean, of course, that I can’t really talk about the place in general, as the exhibitions change, and I can’t guarantee you’ll always find them worth the entry fee. But the current exhibitions, I think, are.

The museum is, as you would expect, quite modern in feel – a blank canvas on which to arrange the exhibitions. When we went, the first floor was given over to a retrospective of Paul Smith. As a girl I’m woefully uninterested in fashion and both knew and cared little about Paul Smith. But I rather enjoyed this and it succeeded in making me more interested in him and his brand. Starting off with a reconstruction of his very first shop, taking you through his story, complete with mock-ups of his office, or the studio where his designers work, and interspersed with video and audio, I thought it was very effective. I appreciated his design more, and I liked him as a person.

The real reason for going, though was to see the Design of the Year exhibition. Almost 30 entries were put on display along with explanation of what they did. If ever you want to be inspired by the innovation, creativity and motivation to better the world that humans can possess, then head here and soak it all in. There was gadgetry on display, such as the mobile phone made out of separate, replaceable components, or the Citymapper app that I’ve been using constantly since getting it a few months ago. There were improvements to transport – things as simple as a removable mud guard, to completely new types of cars.

 There was recognition of architecture and artistry. And design didn’t just mean physical products and fixtures. One of my favourites was a fashion show where the designer used models of all shapes and sizes, and instead of ‘doing their little turn on the catwalk’ they performed an aggressive dance to drum beats, with feet stomping and body slapping and war cries. It gave me chills actually.

On top of that were advancements in medicine – a needle which indicates whether it has been used or not to avoid contaminating patients. A place where children with cancer can live with their families. 

You even get to vote on which one was your favourite, although if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that a difficult decision to make. So many of them seem so useful either in an everyday kind of way, or in a sweeping, benefit for mankind kind of way. And it’s fun to wonder which ones actually will become a part of our lives in the future. As I read somewhere – you get to see the things that will likely end up in other museums some day as artefacts, back when they were barely more than ideas.

Be amazed with the human brain. Go.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Far Rockaway, 2nd May

Far Rockaway is a riot of colour and art. Every surface is covered in it, even the support structures and pillars and bathroom walls! It’s loud and it’s fun and I liked it straight away.

I had been invited to come down and review a meal. I’d seen a few comments and knew they did big, American-style pizzas and wanted to compare them to the other scant offerings in London. I didn’t have very high hopes, expecting another quantity over quality affair a la Earlham Street Clubhouse.

As for the other food, I strongly suspected that, for the type of American diner stuff they were offering, you could get it better elsewhere (thinking Red Dog, Orange Buffalo etc). But I am always willing to be convinced otherwise.

I got there at about 7:30, and while waiting for Stephen to arrive ordered us a couple of wine cocktails on tap. Being as I didn’t actually see the cocktails poured, the novelty was rather lost, but they were a pleasant enough, summery drink, nothing particularly special about them.

I already had an idea of what I wanted to try – I haven't seen a mac n cheese spring roll on anywhere else's menu so we had to get one of those. And Stephen wanted some wings to start. And then, we just had to share one of the 18-inch pizzas, choosing the 'Garbage Pie'. A very unattractive name belies a rather grown-up sounding pizza - pancetta, USA sausage and artichoke.

The table looked like it was (and indeed turned out to be) only just big enough to hold said pizza, so we got our wings and spring roll to come out beforehand.

The wings were ok - a little spicy, kinda on the small side, not much meat to them, a touch of sweetness. I ate them quite happily but knew they weren't a patch on others I'd had elsewhere. The mac n cheese spring roll however, was rather delish. It was more like a big mozzarella stick - the cheese inside all stringy and gooey rather than runny. I dread to think how bad that was for you.

Both plates came with some side crudites and a dip, but we didn't even get a chance to pretend we were going to eat them – as soon as we'd finished the main event, our plates were whisked away. Probably no one does bother with the veggies, in which case it seems a shame to waste them as mere decoration on the plate.

Soon after that came our pizza. Set up high, with room for chilli oil, parmesan and chilli flakes underneath, this certainly looked the real deal. 

And honestly, it tasted as close to it as I reckon you're ever going to get over here. A crispy, thin base, lots of cheese, and toppings that each had a really good flavour of their own made a bit of a masterpiece altogether. I was so surprised! The sausage was garlicky, the artichoke was beautiful – possibly marinated in lemon. And, crucially, after the equivalent of two US slices of the pizza, I was pretty stuffed. However, we were going for a few drinks after and I couldn't bear this pie going to waste, so I forced in a fourth, feeling proud of myself for conquering half the pie, sipping red wine as I digested. They give thanks to two guys from NY on their menu, and these guys deserve thanks and praise indeed. 

As we ate, we surveyed the other customers' food and saw quite a lot of burgers. I had no food envy – they didn't look particularly appealing. No, the pizza is where it's at here. I would be hard pressed to choose between Voodoo Ray's and this joint. So I won't. Voodoo Ray's has more adventurous toppings but I reckon Far Rockaway might just pip them in authenticity. Hats off to you!

I was way too full to contemplate dessert, or even one of their dessert cocktails, so I didn't get to judge the Mississippi Mud Pie I'd have gone for. But it won't be the last time I grab some pizza from here, I'm sure. 

Far Rockaway on Urbanspoon

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