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Monday, 31 October 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 75

Winter coats are a real pain to find and buy... I mean who wants to spend money just to keep warm? Unfortunately, in this country, they are a necessity and the sooner you buy one the sooner you can cross it off your winter wardrobe shopping list. I have been through various coats, particular favourites include: the patterned forest green full length Miss Sixty coat I got for Christmas when I was 16, my secondhand lemon yellow Moschino 60s style one and a cute red babydoll number from Topshop that saw me through my school years.

This season I have felt rather underwhelmed by the British highstreet’s offering of overcoats. There is a beautiful selection in Burberry, but at around £795 these are sadly a little out of my price range! I have wanted a camel coat for a while, they are versatile and stylish and work with most outfits; I was hoping the final Jil Sander for Uniqlo collection might bring some joy but annoyingly all their coats are black or brown. Just as I’d given up and stopped looking I found a winner in Topshop Boutique in Edinburgh, where coats are even more essential with the biting Scottish wind. I have always liked the Boutique section of Topshop as the materials are better quality and the look is more sophisticated than the usual range.

The man's wool mix coat stood out in Topshop as a beautifully tailored but comfortable camel coat. As it is meant to be a loose fit, the sizes are on the big side, I ended up getting the smallest size. Made from 79 % wool, this coat should keep me warm all winter without needing endless layers. I also love that it can be washed in the machine, avoiding hefty dry cleaning bills. Buy online for £175 here.

Sophisticated and on trend this is my highstreet coat of 2011.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Malmaison Hotel, Edinburgh

My brother’s room in Edinburgh University halls is a lot more pleasant than my dingy first year cupboard room at Manchester... however I was still very glad to be staying at the luxurious Malmaison Hotel for the night. Located in Leith, a district in Edinburgh that has recently undergone a transformation, the Mal hotel is part of a stylish cluster of lovely restaurants, bars and galleries along the waterfront. The building itself is a 19th-century former Seaman's Mission and oozes with history.

We were in the 'concept' room, a beautiful brand new spacious room decorated with the utmost care to evoke the beach and summer memories. The room, number 117, was so new the smell of paint could almost be detected in the air, and everything sparkled with freshness. With muted striped walls, matching comfy armchairs, a woodland coffee table, mirrored wardrobe, high tech TV and hanging retro photographs... the room seemed fit for a queen. The place was so big, our huge King size bed could neatly be tucked in the corner to allow space for all the other glamorous amenities. I felt I should be entertaining in such a commodious suite!

My favourite features were the Nespresso coffee machine and gorgeous vintage tea set that were available for our use.

The bathroom was minimalist and chic with a large bath and sink and a selection of sweet smelling Malmaison toiletries. It was here that I discovered the ultimate high tech invention... after my hot shower in the morning I stepped out to a miracle on the mirrors... all steamed up apart from two large rectangular sections that remained pristinely clear so I could still see perfectly in them, an unbelievably useful gadget that gave me quite a fright!

Being so new, there were a few teething problems with our room, no glasses for water and a few issues with the hot and cold taps in the morning but these were soon rectified and the staff were only too happy to help out, everyone was polite and friendly and very attentive, keen to make our stay as special as possible.

Supper is served downstairs in the elegant bistro. First we sat in the plush bar to sample the cocktails... and I can say from my ample cocktail drinking experience, that these drinks were mixed to perfection. The raspberry Bellini was particularly good, and looked stunning too.

I have eaten in the Malmaison London before and Edinburgh was not dissimilar in style, a glorious menu of British classics with particular attention to good quality meat and local Scottish produce. We tried a few quirky starters, the crispy frog legs with sauce gribiche and the chicory, walnut and Strathdon blue salad. Both were beautifully presented, and exciting for the palate. I was proud of myself for eating the frog legs and surprised to find them quite tasty, or maybe that was just the talent of the Mal chef!

The mains were extravagant and rich and we were glad to have left room by resisting the bread. We tried the Mal burger, the ‘St Brides’ coq au vin with pommes puree and the amazing aged entrecote steak (a meat feast for my starving student brother). Everything was delicious, and there were no complaints around the table, in fact everyone was very quiet concentrating on the food entirely. Quick mention also to the hand cut fries that were a huge success with this group of discerning chip critics.

Amazingly we had room for pudding, and ordered a creme brulee with spiced Madeleine and baked Alaska flambee to share between the three of us. The brulee disappeared almost instantly and was a definite hit. The flambee looked sensational arriving on fire (intentionally of course) and was life threateningly sweet, and couldn’t quite be finished despite our efforts!

Retiring to bed after supper was very welcome as I was exhausted after walking around Edinburgh all day. Our bed, aside from being huge, was exceptionally warm and cosy and ultra soft, perfect for freezing Scottish nights.

It is difficult not to gorge yourself on the breakfast, and I would have if I hadn’t eaten such a big supper the night before. There is endless choice if you opt for the continental, a spread of favourites with fresh fruit, vanilla infused yoghurt and cereals as just a few of the treats on offer. I ordered a bacon and sausage sandwich which was perfectly cooked and very tasty, I could tell that the meat was of a high quality. To drink we were brought fresh orange juice and large frothy cappuccinos.

Every time I visit a Malmaison I fall more and more in love with this chain of luxury hotels, they have a great philosophy and welcome every guest with open arms, making every stay extra special. If you are visiting Edinburgh I cannot recommend this hotel highly enough, if you are lucky the concept room might be available to try.

Visit the MALMAISON website here for more information and booking.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Tsuru, Sushi Restaurant, Mansion House

I'm not generally a big fan of sushi but at Tsuru there is nothing not to like. Three friends are on a mission to offer fresh Japanese food with sustainability and authenticity very much in mind. Now three Tsuru restaurants are open in London, I went to try out the Mansion House branch.

It is a petite venue with a lovely seating area outside for warmer months and tidy casual furnishing inside. We sat at a nice light window table for an early supper, despite being half empty the place had a nice relaxed atmosphere, perfect for a Friday night girlie catch up. To start, we ordered a few dishes to graze on: the vegetable gyoza, free-range chicken kara-age and a bowl of edamame with chilli. Our verdict on these was very positive, delicious gyoza arrived piping hot, perfectly crispy outside with succulent steamed vegetables inside. I was a little disappointed the edamame were served cold as I much prefer them hot, however the real treat for me was the chicken kara-age, chicken goujon-like but with a much more exciting crackling crunchy batter and a vibrant garlic ginger flavour, very moreish.

Next a selection of the sushi was delivered, fresh and beautifully presented. I don’t eat fish so had to rely solely on my friend’s opinion (she is a sushi fanatic so is trustworthy on the subject!) She was particularly impressed with the yellow fin crisp roll: 8 pieces of salmon, asparagus and tempura crisps uramaki topped with tuna sashimi and flash seared with garlic oil. It wasn’t on our original must-have list, but our waiter recommended it, and it was obvious why. It came plated up like a work of art, gorgeous colours carefully composed, apparently it was very tasty too. The salmon and avocado is my friend's favourite - she felt the nori (the black seaweed paper used in the sushi) was a little thick and tough, aside from that it seemed to be a hit.

For my main, I tried the Chicken Katsu which was described to me as 'the best in London'. It was scrumptious - a fruity slightly spicy curry sauce with crispy breadcrumbed chicken breast and a lovely accompaniment of crunchy salad. I inevitably compared this dish to the Wagamama version and in the Katsu competition I have to admit that Tsuru wins, the sauce is much healthier and richer tasting and the meat used at Tsuru is all free range.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice-cream. The cake arrived steaming and was lovely with the vanilla ice-cream. To accompany the sweet pudding we drank soothing Jasmine tea. It is served in lovely ceramic teapots and is made from handrolled pearls of jasmine leaves, it is comforting and cleanses the palate.

For all those sushi mad girls out there, Tsuru is a must try restaurant. Very reasonably priced and deliciously fresh and healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more branches on London's streets soon.


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre

Jerusalem (the anthem) immediately denotes patriotism, in fact I sang it for the English Rugby team in the middle of the pitch at Twickenham once upon a time and with my national hat and scarf on, I certainly felt like a mascot for my country. Jerusalem (the play) deals with associated themes.

Jez Butterworth’s unique drama is “a comic, contemporary vision of rural life in our green and pleasant land”. The play comments on modern day mores and antics while lamenting the loss of freedom and corruption of country life. It is the eve of the annual Flintock fair, and the new May Queen is to be crowned. Johnny “Rooster” Byron, local daredevil and leader of the wandering rebels, is protecting his home and existence which are both under threat from the local townspeople who are petitioning to evict him. He is unperturbed and continues on with his rowdy drunken parties and drug fuelled gatherings.

Mark Rylance, tour de force extraordinaire, makes this play what it is and I just cannot envisage it having the same success without him. In fact as I attended a Saturday matinee, I was terrified I'd only see an understudy as is often the case in the earlier weekend performances. But Rylance was there, in his full glory, and just as magical as I had heard he was. He must now be used to daily standing ovations. Playing this unlikely hero, Rylance seems to embody the character in such a seamless fashion that it is impossible to find where one man starts and the other continues, it is completely mesmerising to watch.

There are other outstanding cast members too, MacKenzie Crook excels as Rooster’s sidekick, wannabee DJ, Ginger. Dazed and out of it, he stalks about the stage provoking hilarity as if by mistake. Danny Kirrane is utterly convincing as the slightly plump abbatoir worker and Johnny Flynn is his usual aloof self, which fits for the part of Lee, the boy who is radically going to leave Wiltshire. I saw Flynn in a similar role in The Heretic (Royal Court) and the similarities are uncanny.

The design by Ultz is first rate, an atmospheric woodland grove, I could tell it had originated from the Royal Court as its slick naturalism is of the same genre. We are confronted with a silver mobile home, a sodden sofa and many, many cans of beer, bags of drugs and other detritus in a clearing in the Wiltshire countryside. The design is so vivid, the trees are windslept and appear real, mud coats the floor, and live hens, a tortoise and goldfish! appear on stage.

Back in the West End and better than ever, Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ is a must-see. Book tickets here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Pitmen Painters, Duchess Theatre

When I walked into the Duchess Theatre to see The Pitmen Painters, I had no idea what the play was about. I assumed from the title that art and painting would have a major role but aside from that I didn't know what to expect. On press night the theatre was full and had a real buzz, obviously everyone else was intrigued too.

The Pitmen Painters is set between 1932 and 1947 and documents the lives of a group of working class pitmen who turn to art to learn and escape the harsh reality of their jobs in the mines. With the encouragement of their teacher, they create work that is both sensitive and beautiful; it is a revelation to themselves and the world. Through their own experiences and creations they learn what art ‘means’. I found the story very powerful and moving, a real narrative that translates wonderfully to the stage.

We were in row B, very close to the stage, so close my neck ached by the interval, and the fountains of spit from the energetic and angry actors were not far from our faces! Though the real Pitmen Painters consisted of over thirty members, writer Lee Hall focuses on five men to depict, characters that are all based on their historical namesakes.

After hearing so many dodgy accents recently, I was delighted by the cast of Pitmen Painters who all seem totally at ease with the Geordie accent, it is believable throughout. The acting is superb, each and every man seems totally involved in the play and manages to balance the feelings of enthusiasm and confusion towards the new found interest. Trevor Fox is astounding as the most talented artist, Oliver Kilbourn, his nuanced performance is very affecting and made me feel both joy and sorrow with him. Joe Caffrey expends endless energy as the sniffling grumpy WEA union official, though convincing and hilarious he shouts perhaps a little too much. Ian Kelly strikes a contrast with the pitmen as the posh uptight art teacher who is initially perplexed by the men but gradually becomes devoted to them and their work.

I felt genuinely sad at the end of the play when, despite all their efforts and exhibitions these ‘Ashington Painters’ remain unknown and their artwork seemingly forgotten, hopefully this play will help to revive interest in these talented heroes.

The Pitmen Painters continues at the Duchess Theatre until 21 January, 2012. Buy tickets here.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Hot on the Highstreet Week 74

At London Fashion Week I was introduced to the funky footwear and eccentric accessories of the Cleo B girls. I was stunned by the happy bright colours and wild unique designs. I was especially drawn to the shoe clips, a genius invention to jazz up any weary pair of shoes. These innovative decorations work just like vintage clip-on earrings but are worn on your footwear. I snapped up a pair of the Pink Crystal shoe clips online, reduced to £29.50.

Cleo Barbour launched in 2008 in London’s Dover Street Market with an exciting collection that illustrated her desire to create footwear that is wearable, feminine and reasonably priced. All of Cleo’s designs are glamorous and eye-catching, for women who want to make a statement. The shoes are curvaceous and sculptural and are often made in bright jewel shades of pink, turquoise and purple.

The shoe clips come in a variety of forms: crystals clusters or clown-like fluffy pompoms or gold and silver art deco half moons. They are versatile and individual and will revitalise any pair of plain ballet flats. I love wearing mine, perfect for converting my outfit from day to night if I am out and about blogging an event.

In March 2010 the Cleo B flagship boutique opened, located at 147 Ebury Street in London. This sophisticated space is adorned with Cleo’s collection of vintage posters and antique furniture.

Visit the shop to view and buy Cleo’s glittering shoes and shoe clips, or see online here.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Culinary Carnival, David Galmiche, London Restaurant Festival

With London Restaurant Festival underway, I was invited to review one of the star events: the Culinary Carnival, a series of chefs each offering up a menu for a day or two served in the prestigious Fortnum and Mason gallery restaurant. Our chef du jour was Daniel Galmiche, a French creative who has an impressive 22 years of Michelin star cheffing under his belt and now heads up the kitchen at the magnificent gastronomic destination, the Vineyard.

We were the first to arrive for supper and were seated at a quiet table in one corner of the dining room. After a busy day, I was grateful to be sitting somewhere quiet where we could chat and enjoy the surroundings. My last memory of Fortnum and Mason is from many years ago when I came with my best friend from school and her granddad... we had a delicious meal, of which a decadent praline milkshake was the highlight and then we went downstairs to the shop to each pick out our own mini box of chocolates from the glass cabinets, it was a dreamy day.

Galmiche had compiled a healthy but exciting menu; with five courses and lovely wine, it was a special meal... I was impressed to be given the choice of three options for each course (meat, fish, and vegetarian) especially considering the menu is only temporary for this event. First up we were brought eccentric looking glasses filled with intriguing pale green speckled foam: Cucumber Granite, Yoghurt and Lime Espuma, Marinated Salmon with Coriander Cress. It was a refreshing start but although the flavour was intense, the texture was disappointingly airy and wet - I prefer something I can sink my teeth into.

For my starter I chose the Pumpkin Veloute, St Maure Goats Cheese Espuma, and Pea Shoots. The dish was elegantly served in a thick rimmed white bowl, the warm thick orange liquid was smoothly poured around the frothy cheese and pea garnish already sitting in the bowl. The veloute was divinely comforting with wonderfully adjusted flavours but again I felt the ‘espuma’ (a Spanish word for foam or froth) was a tad unnecessary, I would have preferred a chunk of real rich goats cheese. My guest chose the plate of Autumn Game Terrine, Fig Chutney, and Toasted Farmhouse Bread... a large portion arrived but it was polished off without any complaints!

Mains were easily chosen: Organic Chicken Leg Stuffed with Pancetta, Braised Baby Gem Lettuce, Light Poultry Jus, Wild Mushrooms for me, and Pan-Fried Sea Bass, White Bean Ragout with Toulouse Sausage for him. My chicken was delicious, with a sublime stuffing and all cooked to perfection. The vegetables looked slightly unhappy draped over the meat however, the gem lettuce wilted and soggy and the mushrooms left in a heap. I thought perhaps a dish of steamed greens or creamy mashed potato would have worked better. I tasted a little of the sausage that accompanied the fish and loved the full bodied earthy flavour, the Sea Bass looked caramelised and enticing.

The puddings were the grandest of the courses yet, presented with bursts of sauce and dressing splattering the elegant long plates, in that typical Jackson Pollock style. My Orange Savarin with Citrus sorbet, Lime syrup and zesty cream was an interesting mix of fruity and creamy tastes, the cream complemented the savarin sponge cake well and the sorbet was an energizing palate freshener. My friend opted for the devilish Praline Cheesecake with poached pears and chocolate sorbet, a deliciously luxurious dessert.

Just when we thought it was all over, and we drained the final dregs of our wine, a lavish board of cheeses and fruit arrived. Elaborately stacked, it was difficult to know where to start; I also don’t know what cheeses we ate, but I most enjoyed the strong gooey camembert type which oozed from two teaspoons. Just as we were tucking in to the fennel and raison bread that accompanied our cheese, David Galmiche appeared visiting each table to ask how the meal had been. An endearing touch that made the whole evening much more personal.

Leaving Fortnum and Mason, it was a strange sight to see the frozen shop still and gloomy without the lights on. We tiptoed out into the busy Saturday night chaos of Piccadilly reminiscing about the special meal of culinary delights.

More information about London Restaurant Festival and Culinary Carnival here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Office Party, Product Solutions, London

Office Party is not your conventional piece of theatre: assume nothing, expect the unexpected . The secrets of the production are not mine to tell... to discover them you'll have to go along yourself, but I can guarantee a night of excitement and surprises.

The drama is located at Product Solutions Head Office, Islington North Road, next door to the Pleasance Theatre. Beginning as a smaller project showcasing at Edinburgh Fringe 2007, its popularity and unique appeal has brought Office Party to London. It is a clever concept from the show’s creators, Christopher Green and Ursula Martinez, who also perform and direct.

The most fun comes from the accidental drama provoked by the audience which inevitably varies each night. Speaking to one of the actors after the show, he commended our group as being particularly enthusiastic, bringing the best out of the show’s intentions. I enjoyed myself immensely but found there was a little too much waiting around between the action, and those less patient audience members seemed to be lagging around the edges of the room looking bored.

It is a night of comedy and cabaret with some brilliantly witty performances. I must mention actor Jonathan Broke who I particularly interacted with during the show and who gave a hilariously funny and spontaneous performance. Anil Desai is genius too, plunging himself into his stereotypical character and making the audience chuckle. There is a fair amount of audience participation for those willing and my friend and I revelled in this opportunity; this definitely made our experience more enjoyable.

Office Party is an interactive evening of fun and insanity, be prepared for anything.

One more thing, the show doesn’t start until 8pm but if you’re looking for a bite to eat beforehand there is a lovely establishment just next door: Carpenters Mews is a vibrant gastro pub definitely worth a visit.

Visit the OFFICE PARTY website and book tickets here.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Bedruthan Steps Hotel, Cornwall

It was unfortunate that we visited the Bedruthan Steps after a night at the Scarlet, because any hotel would seem drab in comparison. Sister hotels, and separated by only a five minute walk, these two Cornish establishments are very different. Bedruthan caters for the whole family, with large homely rooms, regular children’s activities, and a relaxed inclusive feel. Naturally this meant the hotel was full of young families; the more sophisticated Scarlet caters for couples and smart getaways.

Everyone was very friendly, welcoming us to the Bedruthan, we were shown down to a Villa suite: a lovely large room with a huge double bed, and a separate additional area with a bunk bed suitable for littler guests! The room was very comfortable with tea and coffee facilities and a TV; a petite bathroom had an adequate bath and shower. Yet again phone signal and internet connection were nowhere to be found - luckily I didn’t need it, but I can imagine for some it would be an inconvenience.

After exploring and having a lovely treatment in the impressive spa, we went to the dinner lounge. Our meal was a little disappointing... inspired by the fresh innovative cooking at Scarlet, I was surprised to find Bedruthan's food of a lower standard. Bread and wine were brought to us and we were given the set evening menu to select from. My Alsace caramelized onion tart, Miss Muffet cheese, walnut crust & hazelnut dressing arrived lukewarm and though the taste was pleasant it was rather like bought quiche from M&S. The Vitello tonnato, tuna mayonnaise, capers & rocket also came a little misrepresented and wasn’t a hit with my friend.

Mains were better: Marinated roast lamb rump, chargrilled Mediterranean vegetables, lemon ricotta & mint oil for me, and Aubergine & marinated mozzarella balls with smokey aubergine mash for my guest. The lamb was a little oily and wasn’t a great cut of meat, the accompanying vegetables and chips were good though and soaked up the sauce from the meat deliciously. The aubergine was the best course, the cheese was encased delicately in lovely rosemary flavoured grilled aubergine and the mash was an interesting addition.

For afters we opted for the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, and the pecan pie with cinnamon mascarpone & maple syrup. These were warm and sugary and a comforting end to the meal. The waiter kindly let us take the rest of our bottle of wine to our room where we enjoyed it while watching X-Factor!

I slept miraculously well at the Bedruthan, our bed was soft and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was deep in sleep. Our breakfast was wonderful, an array of options set out for guests to help themselves, everything you could wish for including the delicious Cornish apple juice! We ordered two massive cappuccinos that were particularly good and croissants and fruit to munch on.

For the reasonable price you certainly get a good deal at the Bedruthan Steps. In certain areas they excelled: lovely comfortable rooms and exceptional service, and a very high standard spa. For a family this is the perfect place to stay for a lovely Cornish holiday, but unfortunately, for me, the newer more glamorous Scarlet Hotel outshone the Bedruthan.

Visit the Bedruthan Steps website and book here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Backbeat, Duke of York Theatre

Backbeat is the story of the Beatles, unarguably the most popular band of all time. The show is a cross between historical documentation and retrospective musical compilation, which predominates I still can’t work out. Following Ian Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, the production is rocking the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End.

The show centres around the ‘Germany years’ in the early 60’s when the Beatles were starting out, an unnoticed Skiffle band. Aside from the brilliant Beatles songs, this show manages to fit in some rock’n’roll classics by other artists; Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’and Isley Brother’s ‘Twist and Shout’ were two of my favourites.

The cast is stellar, a tight knit ensemble of muso-actors, who sing and play and act with equal vigour, I was very impressed. The stand out performance for me comes from Andrew Knott as the sarcastic but loyal John Lennon. Knott is completely committed to the role and is a joy to watch perform on stage. Nick Blood also gives a shudderingly good performance as the dark and distracted Stuart Sutcliffe, he comes across as a suitably tormented artist.

Having watched Ruta Gedmintas in the TV series Lip Service (I had a bit of a girl crush on her), I was delighted to see her strutting her stuff on stage as the femme fatale of the show, Astrid Kirchherr. She certainly has attitude and an instant magnetism, perhaps thanks to her steely good looks and piercing green eyes. Gedmintas is a good actress but her faltering accent led my concentration to stray a frustrating number of times.

The show resembles the format of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ and ‘Jersey Boys’; giving an insight into a world famous band. For me it was a revelatory history lesson to learn more about a group of musicians who have always intrigued me. Aside from that, it was great fun, and with musicians this good they give the real Beatles a run for their money!

BACKBEAT continues until Saturday 29th March, book here.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Minotaur, Old Vic Tunnels, London Restaurant Festival

My inbox was flooded with invites as London Restaurant Festival kicked off in the capital last week. I took a foodie friend along to experience the Minotaur, a creative project that combines art, theatre and food, all taking place in the spookily atmospheric Old Vic Tunnels.

I was already a massive fan of this unconventional location, and this project certainly utilises it well, with sound and art installations beautifying the place and creating a wild and wacky underground world. Lazarides Gallery are collaborating with Kofler & Kompanie, pioneers of PRET A DINER, a celebrated pop up restaurant in Europe. During their two-week residence in the Old Vic Tunnels, they hope to redefine the dining experience in the form of a Michelin Star pop-up restaurant, while exhibiting some groundbreaking sculpture and artwork.

On entering we were unsure about what to expect, but obviously it was a sought-after invite as a queue was snaking round the building. Inside the artwork draws one's attention through its luminosity, strange pieces glow in every corner. I was most intrigued about the food but hugely disappointed to find there was none on offer, not even a few measley canap├ęs! We did get a nice glass of wine and wandered round enjoying the buzz. I also spotted a few familiar faces within the crowd, Lily Cole and Eliza Doolittle were there.

The event coincides with Frieze Art Fair and London Restaurant Festival to offer an alternative cultural experience to excite inquisitive guests.

The Minotaur continues until 25 October, 2011, visit the website for more information here.