17 July 2014

On turning 25

So almost a month ago I turned 25. The big 2-5, the quarter century, the- who cares? I was actually looking forward to it - whilst no-one needs to be reminded of their inevitable slow creep towards mortality, I wasn't clawing onto the final months, weeks, days of being 24. 25 sounded better than 24; almost how I imagine new brides feel about changing from 'Miss' to 'Mrs'. It just felt good. Who cares if I'm halfway to 50? And I'm a much better person than I was at 18.

I remember talking to a friend on the eve of his 25th and he was saying how, when he was younger, he'd imagined being married by now with a kid or at least one on the way. Having been a fully functioning adult (and musician) life got in the way and he said he couldn't imagine being that settled whilst still feeling so young. Five years later, he's still wife and child-free so I guess not much has changed.

As far as I can remember, I wasn't like that. I don't think I dreamed of frothy white wedding dresses, babies on my hip and a husband by 25 when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time writing stories about hamsters, chasing after my horse and feeling disbelief when a family friend was old enough to graduate university. Being 25, of course, felt like the dim and distant future.

Having said that, now that I am the age where friends and (whisper it) people on Facebook are getting married, I do catch myself thinking about said dresses, cakes and honeymoons. Which would be all well and good, of course, but seeing as there is no mister in the picture, I'm not going to get much further than mutating into Miss Havisham.

But I'm loving being 25. A little like New Year, I feel that people put a lot of stock in 'new starts' or fresh changes on or after their birthday so I tried not to hold out too much hope that I'd transform myself into this perfect being come the quarter century. But, unwittingly and perhaps subconsciously, I've changed nevertheless. For the first time in about seven years (other than a mad moment involving a box of Schrwarzkopf's brightest shade), I've changed my hair and I feel good about it, you know? I'd always stayed away from shorter locks citing how it made me feel less feminine but I'm loving having a choppy, cooler style that is a cinch to style in the mornings and which could be argued that looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards is part of its charm. I've also peeled myself way from tights and been baring my legs - no big deal, right? For someone who's as pale as porcelain, this is the first year ever (other than on holiday) that I've braved blinding people and flounced around au naturale.

What else? I bought trainers. I don't like trainers. I also don't wear flat shoes. But I joined the gym and one can't work out in wedges so a pair of Nikes have now entered my life and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. You won't catch me wearing them anywhere other than on the treadmill but it's a step in the right direction nonetheless.

Essentially, turning 25 was almost like flicking a switch. Almost overnight, I've become the type of person I used to envy - the one with the devil may care attitude, the one who says yes and the one whose self-consciousness doesn't cripple her. I'm not sure why it's taken quite so long but I'm not complaining, shedding the skin of 24 was pretty cathartic after all. Here's to the rest of the century.

16 July 2014

& other places: Duck & Waffle, The Lauriston and Stories

Duck & Waffle
It seems that everyone and their cat has been to Duck & Waffle, the bar and restaurant 40 feet high above the city that's open 24 hours. Everyone other than me. I'd been to the fantastic Sushi Samba the floor below on a date but had yet to head upstairs and sample the diurnal delights. Until now. After hitting up The Empress for a birthday meal, my friend Harry and I weren't quite ready to call it a night and a spontaneous decision based on it being 2am in the morning saw us haring over to the Heron Tower in a cab and being whisked upstairs in the blink of an eye. We were just after drinks and were happily ensconced by one of the many windows whilst we sipped on what has to be one of the best cocktails I've ever tasted. The Marmite Black Velvet is a silky little number - a Guinness and marmite reduction served with champagne - that was so inexplicably sumptuous and moreish, I had to order a second. Harry went for the Dark & Stormy twice that comes in a brown paper bag for all your prohibition needs. But two each at two in the morning was enough for both of us and so we called it a night, but not before vowing to return and sample the rest of the ingenious creations on the list.

The Lauriston
Sometimes seeing old friends calls for a pub. And pizza. And where better to go than a place that combines the two? The Lauriston in Victoria Park Village is an eye-catching black fronted building that you can barely miss. We soaked up the evening sun with one of their wood-fired pizzas (aubergine, courgette, peppers and mushroom with added chicken) and the meat deli board (parma ham, bresaola, cotta ham, Milano salami, olives, bresaola, toasted bread and oils and vinegar) before ending up inside and catching the first half of the football. With a shot of tequila for good measure. Naturally.

You're spoilt for choice on Broadway Market - from bars to delis, fishmongers to butcher shops, there's always somewhere worth checking out. Stories is one of the best brunch spots going - slap bang in the middle of the street, with prime people-watching real estate out front and a cool, airy eatery inside. We'd spent the crazily hot morning cleaning out the old house and getting ready to hand the keys back after two years there. In need of a breather and a beer, we grabbed a table inside and refuelled. The Bloody Marys are build your own (and not bad at £5 a pop) and the brunch menu's available til 4. Ash went for a quinoa and tahini salad with halloumi whilst I went for old favourite avocado on sourdough with chilli flakes, poached egg and cripsy bacon. Brunch of kings, for sure. And washed down with a bottle of ice cold Krusovice, you definitely can't go wrong at Stories.

14 July 2014

The Empress, Victoria Park

Trying to find somewhere that will cater for an estimated 10-12 people, all with different budgets, tastes and appetites on a Saturday night for a birthday was never going to be easy. I wanted somewhere that served a mixture of small plates and large, didn't take a credit card reservation and wouldn't squeeze us into a tiny room somewhere. I ran through some of my East London favourites such as Bistrotheque, 8 Hoxton Square, Dead Doll's Club, Raw Duck... but none of them quite worked. Suddenly I was struck with inspiration and booked in at The Empress in Victoria Park Village.

This place first stole my heart a couple of years back when I went to catch up with my friend Harry who was sous-chef under Rosette-winning Head Chef Elliot. A bright and airy restaurant, deep leather sofas, wooden board games, exposed brickwork and an open kitchen make this place somewhere that you instantly feel at home in. The first time I went I sat at the bar and chatted to the friendly barmaid while plate after plate of food was put in front of me - on the house. I gorged on the worth-writing-home-about crispy pigs ears and apple sauce, savoured a tangy mackerel fillet with bulgar wheat and pickled beetroot main course and lost myself in a fruity panna cotta. It was somewhere I vowed to go again.

Fast forward a couple of years and, despite Harry no longer working there, I couldn't resist popping in to celebrate turning 25 in with six of my pals. After a couple of much-needed Bloody Marys at The Crown on the way, we jumped straight on to our table and began the hugely arduous task of deciding what to eat.

The Empress' menu is perfect for those who like to try a bit of everything. They offer generous helpings of bar snacks as well as usual starters and mains and there's nothing wrong with jumping around a bit. Whilst we were deciding we ordered a couple of baskets of freshly baked bread from the E5 bakehouse that we then proceeded to smother with unsalted butter, topped with fresh salt flakes. Choices made, we asked for our food to be brought out all together so that we could all chow down at the same time. This we were promised, but in reality it definitely didn't happen.

I chose two dishes: the first, raw beef with avocado, lime and chilli. The citrus zing complemented the meat perfectly, adding a cool bite to the tender bit of steak. Presented prettily with pea shoots and other microherbs, this was a dish that I could eat over and over again without any semblance of guilt. And for my second, other guilt-free dish? I went for a perennial old favourite of whole baked camembert with homemade chutney and thin slices of sourdough toast. Coming long after everyone else had finished their onglets, polenta and courgette, whitebait and ham croquettes, it was a typically countrified affair presented on a beautiful wooden board with the crisp slivers for dunking. Warm, gooey and oozing I definitely polished off the entire lot but had to ask for another round of toast that only came just as I was scooping out the last of the cheese with a fork. Hmm, disappointing.

We decided to forgo dessert (although my friends did buy me a shot of tequila instead and proceeded to sing Happy Birthday whilst I buried my face in my hands) and finish off the second (or was it third) bottle of red we'd ordered. The food in The Empress is definitely something to write home about (told you those pigs ears were good) but the service let it down this time. But I'll definitely be going back and this favourite gets a four out of five, nonetheless.

2 July 2014

Currently #2

eating // Fairly hand to mouth. I've just moved into a new (beautiful) houseshare and the room in the fridge leaves a lot to be desired so it's all about buying little and often. Last night, I baked a sea bream fillet with lemon and garlic butter, and asparagus, and served it with crushed lemony and wholegrain new potatoes. 
drinking // Late night marmite and guinness martinis at Duck & Waffle. Divine!
practising // How quietly I can walk up and down the creaky wooden stairs in the aforementioned new houseshare.
learning // That I hate the majority of my wardrobe; it needs a total refresh.
reading // Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies. I finally decided to give them a go, following all the hype. 
enjoying // Escaping the city with old uni friends - and hitting up Leamington's finest destinations.
listening // To a lot of new music. Including thisthis and this. And also to Les Miserables live. 
needing // A whole new wardobe (see above).
wearing // Bare legs in London for the first time ever. Thanks to the little Italian break, I am no longer transparent and shock horror, don't blind anyone when they catch a glimpse.
working // On my fitness. I decided to join the gym and so early morning workouts are becoming a thing. 
watching // The new series of True Blood. Whilst not a fan of the reams of other vampire-based shows out there, I'm lapping up the final season of the show that has me screaming 'Why are you doing that stupid thing?' every episode. (Another show this applies to: The Walking Dead)

You can find other Currentlys here.

(Photo via)

1 July 2014

Italy: where we ate

Terrazza Goffredo
The night we arrived in Conversano, our hotel had booked us into the gorgeous little rooftop restaurant for an introduction into Italian (and Apulian) cuisine. Having spent most of the afternoon travelling and learning to drive on the wrong (right) side of the road, we were in need of some Italian hospitality and boy, were we not disappointed. Over a romantic, candlelit table for two (mum and I), plate upon plate of ridiculously amazing food was set in front of us and we ended up so full I could barely shuffle back to the room afterwards.

They kicked off the fare with two platters of typical Puglian appetisers. On one, a gorgeous swordfish ceviche with tangy fresh lime juice and tart red peppercorns; a pearl barley and cucumber salad; and a fresh seafood salad of prawns and octopus served in a clamshell and squeezed with lemon. The second, deep fried courgette flowers; a cheese souffle; and aubergine stuffed with minced pork and vinegary slices of red onion, all drizzled with local balsamic vinegar. Following this, in typical Italian form, was a primi of pasta - handmade orrecchiette pasta in a fresh tomato sauce made with the tastiest olive oil - small bites stuffed with softly roasted warming cherry tomatoes. Then for the secondi, we had grilled sea bream instead of the veal and after that, vanilla pannacotta with tangy blackberries and fruit coulis.

We coupled this with a dry Apulian red and lashings of self-congratulation. And a reduced appetite for the rest of the holiday.

Taverna dei Duellanti
We discovered this little place whilst making like the locals and 'promenading' late at night. It was belting out some great funk music and people were pulling up as many chairs to tables as they could, with kids scattering around as their parents sat back and ordered more wine, more food, more everything. There was a very limited pizza menu and I went for the pizza with crudo, stracciatella and lemon but I could have chosen everything on it, the toppings and flavour combinations were to die for. The light and creamy coolness of the cheese mixed with the salty meat and the citrus tang teamed up to make the best pizza I've ever tasted. Finished off with a shot of limoncello, this was one achingly understated but perfect little late night meal.

Osteria del Porto
One thing that we'd been craving whilst in Italy was fish. The Adriatic Sea was constantly within our eyeline yet we were surprised that, despite being only a few kilometres from the coast, restaurants serving fish in Conversano were a little thin on the ground. When we moved hotels on my birthday and were even closer to the coast, we knew we had to do something about it and after a quick bit of Trip Advisor searching, I chose the Osteria del Porto in Savelletri for my birthday meal. We managed to book a table and a taxi to take us down and were greeted by a little nautical-themed, harbourside restaurant teeming with local customers and really friendly staff. We ordered a bottle of Verdeca (a sparkling Apulian white that we'd learnt about during a casual bit of wine tasting) and decided to forgo the four course tradition with some cleverly chosen dishes instead.

Mum went for the classic Caprese - fresh twists of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil with grilled bread to mop it all up with - whilst I started with the plate of bresaola and grana padano cheese. We then had to have the gamberetti al brace (grilled king prawns) that came in a steaming buttery bowl of garlic, chilli and fresh herbs. Searingly hot to tear into it, they were the sweetest prawns I've tasted in a very long time and we eagerly mopped up every last morsel, sad to see the end of them. So sad, that I ordered another portion just because you don't turn 25 in Italy with prawns every day, right? After that, we each ordered tartufos (pistachio for mum, chocolate/amaretto for me) and a shot of Disaronno each, as the waiters buzzed around us with whole fish baked in salt and live lobsters. Much to my embarrassment, Mum told them it was my birthday so they very sweetly brought out an amaretti ice cream with 'happy birthday' looped around the edge. Thankfully there was no singing but we were very sad to leave what was one of the best meals of the holiday behind. 

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