17 October 2014

Reasons why I love London #356661

Because last night we took our new American colleague out on the town. We started at Burger & Lobster obviously, then went to Soho Hotel for the best espresso and pornstar martinis in the city. From there we went to Freedom and caught the weirdest live karaoke experience before dancing long and hard at Ku Bar. Thursdays are great.

9 October 2014

The Noah's Ark, Lurgashall

I had to dash home last minute at the weekend to do a bit of house- and cat-sitting. The mad dash for a seat on the train home is worth it the second you step off the other end and are whisked home through beautiful tunnels of orange and red leaves. I hadn't been back since the summer - which in itself is always glorious back home - but the countryside is so much better in the autumn. Those crisp mornings, those freezing nights and wait a second, are those actually stars? I grew up outside a sleepy village in the middle of nowhere so spent most of those angsty teenage years surrounded by fields and clawing together money to escape by working in the various local pubs.

One of the places that I didn't work was the Noah's Ark, in Lurgashall. Sitting pretty on one of the most picturesque greens, this gastropub is hugely popular in the summer - and so too it seems, on a Friday lunchtime in October. This may have something to do with how gorgeous a day it was - perfect blue skies and so warm we just had to start with a bottle of wine outside.

Moving inside for lunch, we were both swayed by the daily special of scallops with pancetta. The sweet honeyed meat of the scallops was perfectly countered by the accompanying saltiness and crispiness. Expertly grilled, they were so moreish that my only gripe (which is always my only gripe when it comes to scallops) is that there weren't more. But I think my bank balance is thankful for this.

From there, I was torn between the seabass (told you I'm a safe bet) and the tempura battered haddock and chips (a pub staple) but went for the (unimaginative) baked camembert that was oozing with melting goodness and studded with garlic and rosemary. I devoured this with lashings of bread and a rocket and parmesan salad whilst dad chose the burger: a huge patty that was still perfectly pink, accompanied by bacon and cheese as standard and the added bonus of a grilled portobello mushroom all wrapped up in a toasted bun with plenty of chunky chips to keep him busy. Typical pub fare maybe but done well. 

Finished off with a latte for dad, an affogato for me and plenty of reminiscing from the both of us. The Noah's Ark is one of those places that reminds me so much of my younger years and being both sides of bars, the slow pace of life and how everyone knows your name (sometimes good, sometimes definitely not). Worth a visit if you're in the area. Or even if you're not. Just go.

8 October 2014

Mussel Men

My ever-blossoming love affair with lobster continues. I don't know really know where it's come from; my first memory of a live lobster was a family holiday to Antigua where I'd sat with my back to the tank and was completely freaked out by it's long antenna reaching out of the glass to settle on my head. A few days later, at OJ's Beach Shack down the coast I got my own back and had one grilled to perfection.

Since then, I hadn't really eaten lobster - it's not the most cost-effective way of getting your fish fix, after all - until Burger & Lobster opened and wild horses can't keep me away. It's embarrassing how often I find myself in there, lobster cracker and fork in hand, but this week I cheated on them and tried somewhere new for a change. Kingsland Road's Mussel Men.

Another restaurant, another great pun. Starting life as a seafood pop up, it's found a forever home in Dalston, tucked down from the Kingsland station and a stone's throw away from chains such as The Diner and my nemesis, Nando's. The all-in approach to decor (fishing nets, obligatory driftwood and a huge painted seascape) is actually a nice touch without being over the top and whether it's a coincidence that the really friendly front of house staff were all in Breton stripes, I'm not sure, but cute nonetheless.

Mussel Men's menu is short and sweet and ever-changing. You'll find the obligatory mussels (mariniere and a weekly special offering) of course, as well as fillets and steaks from the grill, scallops and oysters. But we'd come for the Lobster Tuesday special - half a lobster, chunky chips and a beer for £20. Not quite as good as Burger & Lobster's offering but they have size on their side, and Mussel Men's normal half costs £18 so there's a lot to be said.

Served on a (hot) slate, the lobster is steamed then topped with a hollandaise sauce that's lightly grilled. Smaller than I was expecting (huge fiend) but expertly cooked, the meat was tender and juicy and hugely moreish. I was completely cack-handed with the claw cracker and fork but the meat I did manage to salvage (and suck from the legs) I mopped up with the rest of the hollandaise and mayo on the side. Chips were huge and floury and the beer? We had a pint of the Samwells IPA - more lagery than ale and very fruity. For an extra £1, you can choose wine but there's something satisfying about devouring a lobster with a hardy pint of something hoppy.

By the time we left, the restaurant was full - a nice sign for a Tuesday night - with corks popping, mussels steaming and oysters being slurped by the dozen. Mussel Men is a great welcome addition to an area that's still coming to terms with its newfound popularity. Do their lobsters beat my firm favourite? Afraid not but I'll definitely be back.

1 October 2014

New Street Grill

Blink and you'll miss it. New Street Grill is tucked down an alley, a stone's throw away from Liverpool Street station, but far enough off the beaten track that you'd never know it was there. I hadn't heard of it until J invited me out for L's birthday; I found them all sitting outside in the very summery Old Bengal Bar garden. You see, the Old Bengal Warehouse - apparently London's oldest surviving spice and tobacco warehouse in the City - houses not one but three bar/restaurants and a wine shop. The guys at D&D have been busy.

We moved next door into the New Street Grill and while waiting for G, ordered the first of our three bottles of red (which helpfully I now can't remember the name of, other than it was a Cote du Rhone). The restaurant's dark and seductive - lots of leather and low lighting for getting lost in - and divided up into booths and tables, all flanked by a floor to ceiling wall-length wine fridge that houses some of the 350 bottles on offer. The menu is leather bound too and brought with the wine and warm bread, making decisions hard as drinking and eating take over. 

With a nod to its name, there is indeed a selection of dishes from the grill - from cuts of Angus and wagyu beef to lobster - but also a 'crustacea' section offering oysters and a shellfish platter, and partridge and grouse for the gamier tastes. Alongside the a la carte, they also offer a Saturday set menu (three courses and an after dinner cocktail for £24.50) which was far too tempting to pass up. 

I started with the venison carpaccio - the expertly thin slices of sweet were perfectly sweet, coupled with the tangy parmesan and rocket, and a nice alternative to the standard beef. From there I was tempted by the braised daube of beef with creamed potatoes and red wine jus (which looked amazing) but went for the slightly more predictable pan fried seabass, celeriac puree and braised leeks. I just like seabass, okay?! Perfectly crispy skin, smooth puree and buttery leeks - I just wish there had been more of it. Very small sides of buttery new potatoes and baby carrots were nice accompaniments but the lobster macaroni was (unsuccessfully) calling my name.

Dessert was a mixed bunch - I went for the iced brownie parfait which was a real disappointment. Sizeable chunks of brownie but the accompanying ice cream was practically tasteless and left me hankering for the Colston Basset stilton and spiced pear chutney that the others had chosen. 

We'd drank the place out of the Cotes du Rhone at this point so decided to settle up and head next door for our complimentary cocktail. A more industrial but still dark sliver of space, the Old Bengal Bar promised to get busy later but never really delivered. Nonetheless, the cocktail was pretty good - Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, Maraschino liquor, grapefruit juice with lime and sugar syrup. A bit of a knock out after all.

New Street Grill has its pros and cons - it promises to be a 'destination' and could be a real star in an area of the city that is pretty underserved in smarter restaurants, and the service is very friendly and attentive, but the food is just a touch underwhelming and the Bengal Bar a little 'Deliverance' in style. Three and a half out of five.

23 September 2014

As above, so below

We'd spent the last three weeks on buses. First, it was the beaten and battered one that we'd had to fight to get on to. We'd claimed our places on the long bench at the very back, next to one of the two open doors that passengers would use to clamber aboard, hands reaching down to pull them on. Or that the sellers would use to swing in, proffering baskets of fruit, cold drinks, and lighters. All of them were fascinated by how pale my skin was and it wasn't long until hands were touching my legs or stroking my hair - had I not been with my friend, I think it may have been difficult to get them to stop. We bounced on this broken bus for the next six hours through jungle roads and rivers, misguidedly destined for a small village on the west coast of Java.

Our stay lasted just one night; we hotfooted back to Jakarta on the same uncomfortable and unbearably hot bus the next day, but it felt different this time. We'd survived the storms on the beach, a few miles from seeing Krakatoa, that lit up the night with purple fronds of lightning, rocking the fishing boats on the horizon; we'd made friends with a volunteer at our hostel and later left her to her book; and we then made friends with a family who offered us their best room if we needed somewhere to stay in Bandarang. They even took to pushing away prying hands and eyes becoming our personal guardians as we all wilted on the sticky leather seats.

The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth buses were a little more comfortable; the sleeper coaches ever popular with us backpackers that wound their way across Vietnam this time, up hills and corners so tight you gripped onto whatever you could, hoping you wouldn't be plunged to your death. Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi - each journey was different from the one before, whether they had midnight stops, were party buses or took on locals and their chickens who slept on the spaces between beds on the floor. I always chose the upper bunks because I felt I could see more of the jungles, the clouds, the towns, the sea.

After three weeks of buses, we were finally here. We'd then spent our first night in the bay on the traditional Vietnamese junk boats. Ornate, almost luxurious, we'd been lashed to two others and we danced on the roofs until morning and then dived off the side into the cool, green water. A few days before, a typhoon had hit and the boat we were supposed to have been on was lost; sunk to the bottom of Ha Long Bay amidst the lost floating villages were fishermen built their livelihood on crates and discarded driftwood.

But here, here we were. Our night on the deserted island and it was beautiful; a small stretch of sand with a few bamboo platforms for us all to sleep. They towed a small pontoon a little way off the shore and we flipped lazily to and from it until the sun went down. The evening was spent with alcohol, packs of cards and exchanging the tamest and bawdiest stories we could think of, until there came a natural lull and everyone beatifically split up onto the beach. A few of us took one look at the water, and another at each other, and plunged into the silkily cool sea. There were no clouds - just endless miles of perfect stars where we'd already identified our very own Orion, a reassuring wordless presence above.

But it was what was below rather than above that sticks with me today. As we slipped through the water towards the small pontoon that we were ready to claim, the sea came alive with light. Thousands of iridescent sparkles shone, phosphorescence shaken up by the very typhoon that had claimed so much of what was above to the sea's depths, and as my hands pushed through the water it was like sheets of glittered satin, whole constellations, were flowing through my fingers. We reached the pontoon and hauled ourselves onto it, lying back to catch our breath, to smile, to take this ridiculous situation in. How were we all here? A world away from lives back home; the jobs, the partners, the friends, the family and all those minutes we'd lived before this place. Quiet contemplation took over and it was almost as if we'd lost our voices for a second.

For what could ever beat this moment? What could ever beat swimming with stars above and stars below.

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