Tuesday, 25 October 2011

China Town: back on the map

Kicking off London's cocktail week, Millie and I visited China Town’s new Experimental Cocktail Company (ECC) on Friday night a few weeks ago. If you like cocktails, there's now finally a reason to venture into the touristy middle of China Town.

I appreciate that's quite polarising - for sure it's an interesting place - but I've never found a great restaurant in China Town (other than Leong's which I'll get to shortly). I am more than open to recommendations though. Hit me up.

Walking through the bright lights at the heart of China Town, the air thick with the smell of fried duck, your senses may well be too overloaded to spot the discreet, unmarked door tucked away on 13A Gerrard Street behind which steps lead up to the two floor bar that is the ECC (map, 13A Gerrard Street).

The friendly, thick set doorman ushered us inside. Coats checked, we were whisked back in time by the plush, seedy, opulence of the room. Gold-coated tiles on the ceilings. Moody lighting and sleek, interesting bottles behind the cocktail bars. Waiters wearing suspenders and bowties. Certainly there's a nod to speakeasies of bygone times.

One part China Town opium den,  one part slick bond street cocktail bar. It's a mix that works.

Perched at two tall stools by the bar, our lively Melburnian barman informed us that the venue used to be a rough old dive bar that partied till dawn. The vibe was great in the new place: everyone having fun, well oiled by the exotic and supremely imaginative cocktails.  I love sitting at the bar where you can make the most of the barman's knowledge. And, with a cocktail menu this interesting, I recommend it here. These were our eventual choices:

The highlight was definitely the 'No Name Dropping' (above). It taste just like Christmas cake. It has an instant sweet taste from the cane sugar and lemon but then the salty sherry kicks in and the Falernum - made with cloves, ginger and almond - gives the marzipan icing finish!

It would be remiss of me to not stay true to my blog title at this point and say that Falernum gets its name from the renowned ancient Roman wine 'falernian', known as falernum in Latin.

I loved the fact there was even a cocktail on the menu called La Medicacion:

My mum's local Breton friend, Monsieur Le Gallo, calls the red wine he drinks to cure all known illness his 'Petite Medicacion'. Monsieur Le Gallo is an old man but is full of character, spends his days out in the air working and always has a mischievous twinkle in his eye! Yes, the French know how to live. The Experimental Cocktail Club first started in Paris so I can assume there's some strong influence driving this place too but it is a perfect addition to China Town.

After the Christmas cake cocktail we were ravenous. So we headed to my go-to China Town restaurant,  Leong's Legends (map4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX).

First recommended by my friend Sophie, it is the only China Town restaurant I seem to eat at. I love the black wood seating booths and ornamental wooden weapons lining the walls. The menu is wondrously exotic specialising in offal, dumpling and all other kinds of Chinese delight. The dumplings and the stewed pork belly are amazing and keep me coming back.

The key to eating the steamed dumplings, I'm told, is to bite the wrapper and suck out the juice. Then dunk the dumpling in the soy sauce, capturing some in the dumpling through the bite tear you made.  Then eat the dumpling. It's a noisy, pleasurable, and at times messy experience and I love it.

It was so popular that Friday night that we had to knock on the thick wood door before being mercifully allowed in out of the dark and fast descending cold snap. Entering I felt like a refugee from a Himalayan Winter as we sheltered from the wind in the dimly lit restaurant.

The stewed pork belly in a rich sauce was insanely melt in the mouth. You could cut it with a spoon. We left well sated on delicious food and the bill was not expensive for the amount we managed to eat washed down with a few Tsing Tao.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Halloween Cake Inspiration: Vampire's Delight Cake

I took this photo while getting a coffee at Konditor and Cook on Friday. Honestly, this is a cake...!

It's a dark chocolate bleeding heart cake of course. You can order it from them. http://www.konditorandcook.com/

I'm seriously impressed with this place on Gray's Inn Road (map) (I only just realised that there are a few of them in London). It was my first trip as it isn't really on my usual route anywhere sadly. But it serves great coffee, and if I were having a Halloween party I would definitely get this cake.

I'm not sure what part of me this cake appeals to? I love Halloween but I suspect there might be something more primordial going on here....

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Regent's Canal to The Wapping Project

Canals are cool. If you live near Regent's Canal then the chances are that you will know this already.
I've cycled down Regent's Canal a few times from Angel to Limehouse Basin (near Canary Wharf). Normally my goal is to build up a fine thirst covering the 4.5 miles then sup a well-earned pint overlooking the Thames from a pub balcony like that of The Grapes. This narrow pub, dating back to 1720, has a small wooden-decked balcony perfect for sunset reflections on a by-gone age. I recommend Joseph Conrad's from the opening of Heart of Darkness:

"The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth...  Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires." (full passage here)

Today's cycle however was to a different destination. I was on a mission to The Wapping Project, an art installation and restaurant in a gutted ex-power plant, The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station (E1W 3ST, map). This magnificent conversion of a dilapidated building into a beautiful space used for exhibitions is similar to that of the Tate Modern on a smaller, more intimate scale. Shelts, Millie and I were having dinner there that night.

September's Indian Summer was forecast to end soon and we were determined to make the most of the heatwave in London. The canal cycle and visit to the Wapping Project for a well earned dinner were an ideal option.

The cycle from Angel to Limehouse takes you through some interesting parts of East London and gives you a view you'd never get from the street. The stunning modern redevelopments, side-by-side with derelict building still hoping for a second lease of life are typical of the route. If you've never been before you'll be amazed to see that the waterway is still very much in use. Canal boats glide past swans and ducks, kids dive bomb into locks. As you move from Angel through Hackney, Victoria Park and London Fields, you'll see BBQs, the occasional pub and the trendiest people lining the banks. There's even a book-selling barge at London Fields. You get all sorts by the canal, to date I've seen a pirate and a stomach turning swimmer...

After much ringing of your bike's bell as you pass under the numerous impossibly low bridges and round blind corners (with no barrier between you and the murky, green waters of the canal), you will be in Limehouse. Here the canal meets the Thames and there is a marina filled with beautiful white yachts. You will be able to see Canary Wharf in the distance. If you have timed it well you might catch the setting sun reflected in the glass of One Canada Square tower.
A few minutes cycle later and we were at The Wapping Project.

Here we met Shelts, already supremely content basking in the last ray of sunlight with his glass of Pinot Noir.

Millie followed suit and I opted for a refreshing Elderflower Collins (lemon juice, soda water, gin, elderflower syrup, ice). I walked into the building to order leaving the others to find a spot on the grass. The outdoor area was a quirky mix of random pieces of welded and wooden art as well as a screen for projecting films. They found a bench and some beach deck chairs to sit at.

Inside the building the scene was stunning. Entering  through the tall doors and dodging a hanging metal chain and hook from the original power plant, I approached the bar. This area had strip lighting but throughout the rest of the building strategically placed candles were almost all that kept the dark at bay. Dining tables were positioned throughout this hall surrounded by abandoned pieces of industrial machinery covered in candles and TVs showing scenes from fashion shows.

The staff were extremely helpful and brought our drinks out to us. Enjoying the last of the summer heat we were allowed to stay outside for well beyond the time of our diner reservation. As it got darker outside we moved in and taking our seats ordered a bottle of the Pinot Noir.

The room was buzzing. If there were only a few diners, the building's high ceiling and cavernous space might have made the room seem cold and uninviting but we will never know, for us the candles and chatter of conversation throughout the room made the room warm and cosy. A gentle breeze flowed through the open doors.

The waiter talked us through the menu - quality meat, game and seafood - and we learned that the chef was ex-St John's which boded well and may have influenced my choices. The food was excellent.

I went for a full rabbit banquet. Starting with rabbit offal, I moved onto braised rabbit for main.
Millie had an artichoke salad to start followed by braised rabbit.

Shelts had fig and blue cheese salad and then a rare Welsh onglet with red cabbage.
To finish we all shard a warming armagnac and prune ice cream.
The cycle home was quick. We opted for the main roads; less fun but less chance of falling in the water. London, never boring, showed us St Paul's Cathedral and The Tower of London on the cycle home. Not a bad day out...
St Paul's Cathedral

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

London Coffee Walking Tour

Wanting to make the most of this last glorious weekend I took to the streets on a walking tour of London's historic coffee shops. It's a great way to see Covent Garden through a new lens giving you a view of the history of the area and getting you buzzing on caffeine. You can definitely do it in a lunch break.

Now before you jump to conclusions, this is not a tour guide-led, lollipop sign in the air, tour for foreigners (though I'm sure they're fun too). This is a tour for self-respecting Londoners to get better acquainted with their fine city and its heritage.

The tour is taken from the Guardian's free guide. It's an interactive mp4 track that you download and listen to in real time while you walk around through your own headphones, under your own steam. Millie and I shared a headphone set which worked great. It's accompanied by the above Google map overlay with all the sites listed.

The walk takes just over 30 minutes and takes you through the history of coffee in London from its 1650's introduction from Turkey and influence on the great playwrights hanging out in Will's to the 3rd wave of coffee pioneered by the Ozzies and Kiwis and their flat whites. Confused? All is explained in the guide... and below.

The start is the Marquis of Anglesey (described as a 'gastro-pub', overkill if ever I have heard the phrase). Don't let the pub get you down though. Stay just long enough for the audio guide's actors and narrator to stir your imagination out of the generic pub and whisk you off back in time to the 1600's (when it was called Will's Coffee House) as they conjure up Samuel Pepys describing the poet laureate, Dryden, and the other 'wits of the town'.

Now follow the audio instructions and leave. I opted to avoid drinking here.

Walk to Covent Garden and peak into Buttons, 10 Russell St, where the coffee scene moved to after the death of Dryden. The house was set up by Mr Addison in 1712 to coincide with the launch of the Guardian, the journal that he set up that year and edited and published each day. Button was the name of his butler. Inside there was a white marble lion's head statue that people posted literary work into. Addison would review submissions and publish the best every few weeks in a special magazine called the 'Roarings of the Lion'.

Wander through Covent Garden market. Less whores now, apparently you couldn't move for them once, the guide says.

Onwards now to the 1900's and Frith Street, Soho.

Bar Italia, opened in 1949, with a competition: whoever could drink the most coffee won a coffee machine. Probably no longer a viable competition I imagine. 1950's binge drinking?

Bar Italia is a prime time people watching spot. You will have to pay for the pleasure at upward of £3 for a coffee but then where can you see a man drinking coffee off his Italian scooter? Take a paper, bask in the sun and enjoy your time - they won't hurry you.

Refueled, time for some shopping? Visit the Algerian Coffee Stores opened in 1887 and still open. A small shop lined wall to wall with coffee beans and teas from all over the world.

Coffee had a major influence on rock and roll. You didn't know that? Check out the plaque on Old Compton Street. This commemorates the site of the 2i's Coffee Bar where a young Cliff Richard found his first band mates and formed the Drifters (later known as The Shadows).

Lastly to the 3rd wave of coffee (bypassing the 2nd wave - Starbucks and the other mass globalised brands). The 3rd wave is geek coffee. These are the perfectionists who have made coffee an art again. They are always searching for the perfect bean, the perfect way to roast it, the best way to indulge all your senses from taste to smell and sight. Arriving in Flat WhiteBerwick Street Market, our final destination, we could understand. Look at the results of their trademark flat white. Beautiful.

Here's an extract from Flat White's website:

flat white noun /Austral. flaat whyette/ /NZ flet wyte/ 1 An antipodean style coffee which is served as a strong shot of espresso served in a small cup with textured milk; a damn good strong coffee. 2  51.51 (51°30') | -0.13 (0°8').flattie noun. colloq. flat white; I'm gonna smash back a couple of flatties bro /NZ/ mate /Austral./

If you've ever spent any time in Melbourne you'll understand for these guys it's an obsession. Australians rejected Starbucks when it arrived on their shores and tried to colonise. With their rich history of Italian and Greek immigration, they were well tuned into good coffee and had no desire for generic stores serving $5 liquid confectionery. Now they're teaching us what great coffee is again. Good call.

Two coffees down in quick succession, we were wired.

When coffee arrived in London in 1651, five hundred coffee shops sprung up in the first few years. Now there are thousands. So the walking history of coffee in London finished, the challenge for another time: where are the best London coffees brewed?  Begrudgingly we walked up home down Monmouth Street passed Monmouth coffee shop. Another coffee shop for another day....