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!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dum Dum Donutterie, 1st April

After our filling (at least physically if not in terms of contentment) lunch/dinner at On the Bab it was time for dessert – a wander down to Boxpark to nab a doughnut. It was nearing 4 pm and I was under no illusion that we would have the pick of the bunch. Most of the doughnuts had sold out but they still had three flavours to choose from - an almond pistachio cronut, a creme brulee, and a morello cherry ring doughnut. I felt compelled to opt for the creme brulee while Stephen was enticed by the promise of cherry.

We took them home and Stephen finished his in about four bites and proclaimed he wasn't too impressed. He felt like he was eating an iced bun rather than a doughnut. I had mine and was also underwhelmed. I knew already that they were baked not fried and so expected a 'healthier' taste, but the dough to mine seemed very dry. I know they'd been sat there a while but still. The shell on top which mimicked the top of a creme brulee I actually thought was too sticky – it got all stuck in my teeth in an unpleasant way. It was filled with a vanilla cream though and this was its saving grace. Sadly, even making allowances for the lack of fat, they weren't a patch on Glazed and Confused's inventions. 

Not wanting ot give up on the place, I wanted to go back and try the thing I'd been seeing so much praise for on Twitter – the zebra cronut. And I ended up doing so when I got a hot dog from Coffee Dogs - they stock Dum Dum's wares.

This was definitely better than the doughnut I'd had - with chocolate cream piped through it. Had I not had a crodough from Rinkoff's I might have forgiven Dum Dums the creme brulee. But I had and Rinkoff's were a work of art. These ones were more akin to their bread brethren than their doughnut cousins and just lacked that indulgence I want from a doughnut. I wouldn't be so rash as to say I wouldn't bother with another but, for me, they're not hitting the spot.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Coffee Dogs, 1st April

I don't really like burgers. While the rest of my family embraced them, I grew up eating hot dogs. And not the weird, slimy kind you get in cans over here, nor the banger in a bun that used to double as a hot dog. No, the real kind. The American kind. And I love 'em.

So even though there are more than a handful of places in London serving pretty good dogs, I will never say another one is a band one. If we had a hot dog cart on each corner, like they do in NYC, I'd be happy.

So it was with an open heart that I wanted to embrace CoffeeDogs to the scene. I had half a mind to get there over the weekend to enjoy a 10% discount but was too busy. Instead I made a pit stop there after work. They've just got a shack outside King's Cross station with a few stools to perch on - already feeling closer to your average hot dog in the States than the gourmet hot dogs a lot of places are serving. And there ain't nothin' wrong with that.

I ordered the Chicago beef pulled through the garden - beef frankfurter, chopped onion, jalapeno sport peppers, strip of gherkin, green relish and then the weird bits - cucumber, tomato and celery salt. All served in a poppy seed bun.

They also do burgers and frozen custards and concretes (oh - and coffee) but I spied a zebra cronut from Dum Dum Donutterie and had one of them for dessert instead.

So, the hot dog. Priced at £5.00 I thought it was just a touch more expensive than it should have been given the toppings. The other hot dogs were all cheaper than this, and I don't think the toppings you're given warrant the extra. Yes, the toppings - most were great - classic toppings for hot dogs that work well with the slightly smokey, briney flavour. Relish - check. Onions - check. Dill pickle - check ('tis what relish is made of after all). Jalapeno sport peppers - double check - they were great. And the celery salt - delicious. The cucumber and tomato? For me, a big no. I don't really want my hot dog to seem like a salad. The tomato was just about ok, but the cucumber? Just weird.

The bread was pretty good - soft like a hot dog bun should be and the poppy seeds were nice. It was just the wrong side of soft (or perhaps not quite wide enough) and tore a little in the middle as I was eating, making the last few bites a bit more awkward. Also, why have buns that aren't as long as the frank? Or, conversely, why make sausages too long for the bun?

Anyway, after having picked it apart, my final verdict is that actually, this was pretty good, capturing the essence of what a hot dog is all about - some simple but ever so satisfying fast food. I'll be back and I'll be giving the Concretes a go next time too. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tongue Fu, 27th March

From the ridiculous Bright Club to the sublime Tongue Fu. 

I expected a similar format to Poejazzi or Bookslam - some spoken word type stuff and then some music, not for the two to be intermingled with each other, creating an absurdly brilliant night, that managed to somehow transport us back to the beat generation. This was in honour of the current exhibition of photos taken by Warhol, Burroughs and Lynch, from which our performers took their inspiration a to which of their pieces to perform. 

Two guests and Chris Redmond the organiser, treated us to some of their magnetic, emotive, funny and sexy spoken word poems, all set to music improvised by the Tongue Fu house band according to the beat or style set by the performer.

We were enthralled. Visuals added to the atmosphere, and evoked the sensuality or moods of the poems, and by the second half almost everyone was sitting on the floor as if it were a massive sit-in – of appreciation rather than protest.

First Chris kicked it off with a challenge - the audience shouted out three disparate styles of music for the band the mesh together (I think we had calypso, blue grass and cha cha) and over that Chris 'rapped' a welcome message. 

Then Toby Thompson took to the stage. This guy was, unbelievably, only 19, a fact only given away by his arms occasionally flailing about in the way young people who are a bit gangly do. His words though were much older than his years such as pieces on missing a lover – imagining an absent toe to stroke – and then another one taking us on the best festival experience ever.

We then had Salena Godden, the doyenne of spoke word (I have been trying to get to her Book Club Boutique for an age). As she took to the stage with cool ease it was obvious she had not only been doing the spoken word thing for a long time, but had participated in Tongue Fu events before. 

We had a brief break during which we browsed some of the photography, and then we came back and did it all again, in the same order. Salena closed the show – after performing my favourite of the night 'Dear Winter' where she explains to Winter why just has to break off the relationship she's been having with the season in favour of another - Spring, she brought the night to a close by freestyling a poem! Magnificent. 

Everyone in my group enjoyed it – we felt like we had witnessed something special (though no doubt it is always like this) and that maybe this was what it felt like to be a part of that beat generation - having your eyes opened to something you hadn't experienced before. 

If this has piqued your interest then you can catch them next month at Udderbelly

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On the Bab, 28th March

On the Bab is a cute little Korean place on Old Street serving up 'anju' (food meant to be eaten with beer) plus a whole host of other Korean staples and otherwise.

Unfortunately, the food flip-flopped between tasty and tasteless or 'takeway Chinese'.

We ordered a range of dishes to try out all the different things they did. First to arrive were the kimchi jeon – a kimchi pancake, and the bibimbap with bulgogi beef. The pancakes - delicious and cripsy, working well with either the surprisingly light chilli oil, or the more pungent chilli sauce.

The bibimbap was pretty hopeless. We were advised to put some of the chilli oil on it, which we did but even this didn't really give it much of a taste. It all comes in a bowl and you're supposed to stir it all together, normally making sure it all gets coated in the flavouring. This had none, not even any lovely meat juices gathered at the bottom. Also, I'm sure when I've had it before it has come in a really hot dish, with a raw egg on top which cooks when you stir it in. This had a partially fried egg which was too cooked to really get distributed throughout and the whole dish was verging on cold. There was also rather a lot of it, which, when it's not that great, is not a good thing.

Next came the yangyum chicken which was a tale of two halves. The soy garlic nuggets really allowed the crushed peanut to come through and were nice and crispy, with a strong garlic and possibly lime flavour. The sweet and sour were also crispy but were too reminiscent of takeaway sweet and sour chicken for me, getting quite cloying and sickly after a while and overpowering any peanut. The garnish of julienned cabbage with a sauce was really nice though. I had ordered the 'small' serving (as opposed to extra small) and we must have had at least eight pieces - it was another substantial dish.

We ended on a high with the kimchi rice balls, bab twigim, which were packed with gooey cheese and came with a knock-your-head off chilli sauce.

I wanted to like this place, and hoped it would be a better alternative to Jubo, where we liked the chicken but didn't like anything else. But it was too much pot luck as to whether you would like what you got. And if it was really good fried chicken I was after, I would forgo both the Korean places and head to Clutch!

On The Bab on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bright Club, 25th March

So, it turns out that the people who work at the National Trust aren't that funny.

Welcome to Bright Club, where I hope there are no rules about not talking about Bright Club or I'm about to seriously break them.

What I thought was going to be a series of talks about the speaker's pet love/area of special interest within the National Trust was, instead, basically an amateur stand-up night where clearly the people 'performing' had no prior experience and didn't manage to make us laugh that much through either being too nervous or just not actually very funny.

This is a little unfair. Some of them were. The last guy in the first half made us laugh about his Big Brother obsession and his visit to the Big Brother house and how that lead him to volunteer/intern (they're kinda the same thing) at the National Trust.

And the three in the second half were a notch above the ones in the first half again. First up was a girl's amusing presentation on her area of research – street art, including an idea I just loved, of instigating street art tours where you visit and ponder all the shitty, scrawled graffiti on the walls, ignoring all the famous pieces. 

More than one of guys 'on stage' seemed to use their 15 minutes as an excuse to have a rant about where they worked and get away with it in the name of comedy. So we heard a lot (a lot) about how 'frugal' the National Trust is, including one guy's anecdote about moving into a house infested with mice on the inside and rats on the outside, on National Trust grounds. Which was a vast improvement on the woman who stood up and jabbered on about dehumidifiers for ten minutes.

The last speaker was also particularly good, again following more closely the format I had been expecting and telling us about her research on early travellers and the exploits and discoveries they made, including live unicorns no less! (Something tells me these travellers were wont to get a little carried away.)

The compere, in contrast, Andrew O'Neill, was very funny, with quite a wicked sense of humour that I appreciated, even if some of the more genteel NT audience did not. 

I feel a little unfair judging Bright Club on this night alone as I don't think they usually get National Trust affiliates to come up and try their hand at comedy, so I think this was a bit of an experiment that didn't work. Normally (as some of them were in this instance) it is researchers only who share their projects and try to make you laugh at the same time. And this night is run by the same guy who organises Science Showoffs and that is very good.  But just to be on the safe side, I'll probably stick to Science Showoffs. 

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I work as an editor in educational publishing by day, and then spend most of my spare time discovering interesting things to do in London, and taking people there with my own Meetup.