Thursday, 29 March 2012

La Bodega Negra

There’s a new Latino restaurant in town, and it’s causing a bit of a Mexican wave amongst fajita fans. (Apologies, the pun was just too good to resist). This newly-opened eaterie, La Bodega Negra- the Black Shop - is a slinky, fun spot in Soho that is hugely popular with young trendy types and sharp businessmen fresh from the office. We arrived to find James Corden merrily chowing down at the table next to us, and at just 6.30 the place was already spilling over, a small queue snaking out the door.
We dined in the café-taqueria, accessible from Moore Street, which boasts a buzzing, magnetic atmosphere. Retro posters beam down from the walls onto a diner-style setting – complete with booth seating, low lighting, and soulful jazz music. In this sense, Bodega boldly imitates its older sister, La Esquina, set in hip Nolita in Manhattan: it’s a throwback to the Mad Men era, fizzing with sleek but playful charm. The food, too, was highly stylised, each tortilla and taco perfectly round. Think little soft circles of delicious delight, topped with street-style fillings such as avocado, steak picante, and duck. You might think duck would taste better merrily stuffed in a Chinese pancake (and do I love a good pancake), but strangely Latino duck does sort of work. Nothing a lick of salsa verde won’t fix, anyway. Sure, Bodega’s menu doesn’t try to be completely authentic; in fact, it’s a Spanglish-style take on a decent selection of Mexican favourites, chucking down its sombrero in the face of tradition. Portions are slightly on the small side, which is frustrating, as they do leave you wanting more. But on a brighter note, the service was faster than you can say Speedy Gonzalez, so at least you won’t have to wait long when you decide to order more (as you will inevitably want to do). One word of warning, though: the chorizo tortillas are only for those who can handle a bit of jalapeño spice and I found its flavours somewhat overpowering. So much so that it ruined my wine, disaster.
For those willing to dig a bit deeper into their pockets, the basement restaurant dishes up the same taqueria selection but also offers slightly bigger (and pricier) dishes. Cue heavy steaks, stews, and proper seafood dishes. And whilst a whiff of Esquina’s hipster influence can be faintly detected upstairs, here it reigns supreme: from the moment you walk through the black entrance off 9 Old Compton Street, saucily marked “Sex Shop”, it’s dark, daring, and seductive.
Whichever section you choose, La Bodega Negra is undoubtedly a heaving hangout for adventurous Soho revellers – a nightspot for you and your amigos that’s as bright and promising as a piñata, and full of beans to boot. And with a list of tequila as long as the wine menu, this is one Black Shop that knows how to show its guests a great time. 

La Bodega Negra on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


At first glance, it looks like an eerie still from a Tim Burton film. A gothic sprawling house with precarious, pokey turrets perches uneasily on a desolate dock. Jagged rocks loom in the foreground beside a ragged highway, as a flock of black crows suspiciously hovers in the air. They might even dive bomb at any given minute. There’s a burning pier in the distance – clouded by thick black smog. It’s all a bit disturbing and disorientating, yet somehow magnificent and awesome. A wonderfully atmospheric, but horribly haunting, landscape. You wonder where this place is, who set the pier alight, and how the house hasn’t crumbled into the sea. In short, you’re scratching your head in utter confusion (well, this was my immediate reaction anyway) wondering what the hell is going on. Or, to be more precise, what hell is going on.
But then you peer closer and it all becomes clear. Well, sort of clear. Despite appearances, this photo (simply entitled "House") cannot be a photo at all. For starters, you realise that the fairytale house is an impossibly layered mansion of chimneys, windows and porches that structurally defies reality. This is not reality, nor is it a Tim Burton-esque still. No, this is just one of artist Jim Kazanjian’s many surreal, swindling landscapes. Designed to fool you. And you were fooled by the tricky thing. To label his work as photography would be misleading. You see, Jim’s a bit of a meanie (and a magpie… let’s call him a meanie magpie) – chopping and changing photos from his huge archive and digitally reassembling them into deliberately realistic landscape prints. His mission? “To defamiliarise the familiar” in photography. I genuinely shudder at these words (anyone who studied English Literature will understand my pain) – so to translate from Pretentious to Nutshell, he basically asks us to question today’s mass digital photography by confusing us with something that seems authentic. And he definitely succeeds. His work is a series of fascinating collages, both impossible and impossibly real. It’s all a bit apocalyptic in Jim’s imaginary world: houses regularly seem to implode upon themselves and he’s a big fan of monochrome graphics and sci-fi elements. It’s intriguing. In a world of endless digital photos, where even the most ridiculous can be made to seem real, this is brilliantly conceived art that makes you peer that little bit closer. Jim, you meanie magpie, just two words. Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Beautiful Chaos

Sometimes names can be deceptive. Dover Street Market sounds like it should be a bustling seafood bazaar, perhaps located somewhere in the East end – all wet streets, loud street hawks, and a whiff of fish so strong it makes your eyes water. But it's not.Instead, the only fish that come anywhere near this super stylish, upmarket department store that is the real Dover Street Market are mercilessly taxidermied and triumphantly on display in one of the many fascinating (if admittedly pretentious) wooden cabinets dotted around the shop. There's certainly a smell in the air- but it ain't fish, it's the whiff of fashion snobbery sniffing their noses at anything priced at less than four digits. For here, cutting-edge haute couture meets derelict art gallery. Designed with the concept of “beautiful chaos” in mind, it’s the brainchild of Comme des Garçons’ visionary founder Rei Kawakubo- a 6-floor palatial market just off Bond Street retailing only the most influential designers in fashion. From Hussein Chalayan to the ever-covetable Alaia, this is the shop where fashion dreams are made and destroyed (by lack of cashflow). Perhaps one day in a gazillion years' time I might just be able to afford an Alaia dress. Or, to be more precise, the belt of an Alaia dress. Hell, who am I kidding: the buckle of the belt of an Alaia dress.
But for all the expense and exclusivity, Dover Street Market is undoubtedly London fashion's first port of call for sartorial elegance and incredible design. Everything here is thoughtfully contemplated - from the designers' individual spaces to the main window display (this year crafted by irreverent wind-up artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, featuring smiley faces on flags and dinosaurs- wacky, yes, but also a little underwhelming given their rich imaginations). Each year, the marketplace undergoes a biannual Tachiagari (Japanese for beginning) – a transformative period when the marketplace retreats into its chrysalis for 3 days, only to emerge with reworked spaces and new collaborative concepts. 2012’s first Tachiagari has recently been unveiled- and with its scaffolding remnants, untreated white floors, and exposed electrics, the entire feel is one of scrubbed down chic. Rebooted spaces from the likes of Alexander Wang, Ann Demeulemeester, and the hotly-anticipated introduction of Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen (visionary creator of that royal wedding dress) continue to put DSM firmly on the map, proving it is still the destination for cherry-picked, to-die-for style. Even if you're only here to window shop. My secret tip? The market is now newly-opened on Sundays , and with the delicious Rose bakery on the 4th floor serving up a mouthwatering brunch menu that includes smoked salmon (oh look, they do sell fish after all) and scrambled eggs, pancakes with banana and maple syrup, muesli with fresh berries and more, now you have yet another excuse to visit. After all, at reasonable prices, this brunch is probably the one thing in the entire 6 floors which normal people can realistically afford. All diehard Sunday shoppers, just make sure you shop first and eat later: brunch this good means you're sure to be one little piggie rolling out of the market.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Hare and Tortoise

You could forgive me for thinking, nay hoping, that this restaurant would be some sort of country pub serving proper helpings of traditional British fare. In my head, Hare and Tortoise sounded like one of those rural pubs you drive past in a sleepy little village in the backend of nowhere, run by a sweet but ancient couple who were probably around when Aesop first wrote his fable. You know the type: pubs so old they’re practically inns. Or to put it allegorically: pubs more tortoise than they are hare. So you can imagine my surprise, if not slight disappointment, when we arrived at said restaurant – only to be handed Oriental menus. Confused, yes I was. Now, don’t get me wrong: I will always be partial to a little bit of noodle. It’s in my blood, after all. But I had spent the entire day in the office happily imagining, and I mean properly crafting, the dream burger I would be utterly devouring come dinner time. With fries on the side, of course. Those who know me will testify that really is no exaggeration. (I often wonder how I am still slim. One day, my metabolism will revolt in disgust against my rudely healthy appetite, and I will wake up positively obese. Until then, please keep feeding me).
But although my initial reaction to the Oriental menu (handed to me by an Oriental waiter, the clue was there from the start, wasn’t it?) was one of outrage – as my dream burger disappeared in a cartoon puff of smoke- I can now happily report that this restaurant is great. Yes, its name is cruelly misleading, and you often have to queue if you haven’t got a reservation (luckily I swanned straight in with my super-organised friend) – but the food is delicious and best of all, it’s cheap. The menu is one massive Oriental umbrella, covering everything from noodles and Thai curries to sushi and Malaysian rice dishes. The ingredients are fresh and despite the Western name, the food genuinely tastes authentic. Think Wagamama’s but this time cooked properly. And with comfier seating. Best of all, if you order a green tea, you are eligible for endless free top-ups all evening. Perfect if you back your epic conversational skills (as we most definitely did…peeling ourselves out of our seats many, many hours later). With various branches around London, this Asian restaurant chain is well worth a visit for tasty yet affordable food. And whilst the service can sometimes be a bit slow, if anything it just proves that, like the tortoise, slow and steady always wins the race.

Hare and Tortoise Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 February 2012

All at Sea

Inside the theatre, it's almost as cold as the unforgiving winter outside. Although it's mid-performance, many of the audience remain huddled in their overcoats, scarves wrapped around themselves like blankets - their breath foggy vapour in the chilled air. This is not your average theatre. Instead, we are deep in the Old Vic Tunnels, a sprawling maze of unused space beneath Waterloo Station- and currently the venue for the recent revival of Eugene O'Neill's early Sea Plays. Cavernous, dimly-lit, and steeped in history, these atmospheric vaults are the perfect setting for these plays- an exciting and brilliantly original interpretation that leaves us all at sea. From beginning to end, director Kenneth Hoyt expertly steers us deep into O’Neill’s turbulent mind- navigating us from the unremarkable venue entrance, underground into the tunnels and then past half-naked men stoking coal in a fiery furnace en route to the theatre. Plunging us headfirst into the visceral, gruelling life aboard a 20th century tramp steamer. And to think this incredible venue lies below people on their everyday commute. A subterranean diamond in the rough, if ever the West End Fringe had one. 
Penned between 1914 and 1917, this trilogy of one-act sea plays, inspired by O'Neill's own seafaring experience, is a brief but intense snapshot of the gritty life at sea. Opening with Bound East for Cardiff as a violent storm lashes the vessel, the unique tunnel setting instantly comes into dramatic force- as the rumbling of trains overhead double for roars of thunder. Together with dramatic lighting, a few buckets of water (so glad I wasn’t sitting in the front row), and the whole cast shouting, the storm was utterly convincing. Hello acoustics. Alarmingly, it felt as if we too were aboard the weather-beaten ship - rotting below deck alongside these battered and homesick sailors. As one sailor, Yank, is severely injured in the commotion, the storm simply dies down into the mental anguish of the dying Yank and his sentimental Irish colleague who tries to comfort him. This is vintage O’Neill, after all. To say his works are depressing would be a vast understatement. The excellent Matt Trevannion conveys the anguish and despair as his friend slowly dies - and as the cast sing "For Those in Peril on the Sea" whilst casting Yank's body to the waves- it would be safe to say a collective chill went down the audience's spine. 
But in the second play, In the Zone, O'Neill reminds us that such claustrophobic living quarters below deck brews suspicion and distrust almost as readily as it breeds this opening homoerotic relationship. A reticent shipmate is falsely accused of being a German spy as cabin fever breeds trouble and unrest. There's a restlessness to all these men at sea who dream of nothing but a happy life at home. As Yank observes, this is a life of "travellin all over the world and never seein none of it". A line that takes on added poignancy by the final play, The Long Voyage Home, which tells the story of a homesick Swedish sailor who is cruelly shanghaied as he attempts to pay his passage home. This is trademark O'Neill intensity blowing a full-force gale throughout- by the interval, I guarantee you will need to escape to the nautical-themed bar for a drop of something strong. 
But although it's an intense production, it's a bracing one- a tidal wave of powerful drama that resurrects these rare plays and brings O’Neill’s foggy pea soup world to life. The roll and swell of the sea echo loudly throughout O’Neill’s plays - it leaves its tidal mark without restraint.  Take The Iceman Cometh, set in a waterfront saloon, or Edmund Tyrone recalling the ecstasy of his past life at sea in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “For a moment, I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky!” Such is the intensity of this production that we too get lost in the rhythm of this seafaring life. From the tiny theatre as crammed as below deck itself, to the dramatic sound and lighting and the magnificent ensemble cast (their sailors' vernacular is spot on), this is brilliant stuff. My advice? Set sail with the cast now. With the production washing ashore on February 18th, there aren't many days left for you to become a stowaway. Just make sure you wear a coat... 

Monday, 30 January 2012


It’s 5pm and I’m walking down a narrow back alley somewhere deep in Hackney. Up ahead, a tall slim woman is waiting for us, illuminated by a halo of light spilling out from a fire exit behind her. She is Laura Villasenin, the visionary founder of independent urban shoe brand Miista- a self-proclaimed fashion-forward label that has retailed in high street stores such as Topshop and Urban Outfitters whilst simultaneously making waves across the pond in New York and LA. Miista’s speedy success (they drafted a business plan last May and have since expanded into the global market with effortless ease) should come as little surprise. Villasenin knows exactly what market niche she wants to march into: to make shoes for women with character but at realistic prices. And Miista’s style is definitely unique: bringing together conflicting elements with elegance, irreverence and confidence. These are shoes to strut the street: affordable, out of the ordinary, and with a creative twist. You just need to admire the sky-high heels, the exquisite leather crafted into uncommon designs, and the robust platforms to realise that these are not aimed at the ultra-feminine- all pastel colours, floral dresses, and lollipops. No, these shoes are for women who want to kick up a style storm- and then tower over their contemporaries to boot. Take the Naia Grey, for example. At 12 cm tall, these heels are not for the faint-hearted- and the beautiful woven design (fashioned from cotton shoe laces and leather) juxtaposes the pragmatism of Mexican huarache influences with the delicate, if somewhat impractical, aesthetic of the high heel. Walking the fine line between refined and hedonistic, headstrong and submissive with utter conviction. And with price rates below £200, Miista proves that such incredibly unique designs needn’t break the bank. My advice? Get a head start now: as the brand goes stellar, stock is selling out quicker than you can say Miista- and with their website currently on sale, you’re sure to walk away with a steal.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Pocket of Spain

One of the main things I’ve missed since moving back from Spain has been the food. Besides inventing the perfect excuse to nap mid-afternoon, tapas is easily Spain’s best contribution to the world. My flatmate and I made tapas bar crawling a hobby (best hobby I ever had) so it’s a relief to discover a tapas bar in the heart of London that effortlessly matches the quality of authentic Spanish food. Thank you Tapas Brindisa Soho for bringing a little pocket of Spain to cold, rainy London. Cosy and bright with its rustic red walls, this cafe-like tapas bar serves authentic dishes made with freshly imported Spanish ingredients. We arrived mid-week for lunch and already it was buzzing- any earlier and we would have queued for our seats. This is a bar designed in the style of proper tapas eateries- with the bar overlooking the kitchen and diners rubbing elbows with their neighbours as they enthusiastically tuck into their food. The only thing noticeably missing was the upturned wine barrels for tables, but hey you can’t have everything. 
Seated at the main tapas bar at the back of the restaurant- a bright airy space beneath a wide skylight overlooking the kitchen- it felt like we could have been back in Spain. Especially as the menu was slightly difficult to navigate - with its confusing subheadings, it may as well have been written in Spanish. However, once served, the food proved that steering through the menu was well worth it. The iberico recebo ham was delicious, fragile thinly cut slices that had clearly been cured and carved by a professional.  So, too, was the seafood: the octopus could easily have been served in any self-respecting Galician outpost, and the scallops in pumpkin sauce were great if slightly lukewarm. It was the morcilla tortilla that sadly let down the whole affair- tragically lacking in anything remotely resembling egg, it was more like a confused bundle of ingredients than a traditional pan-fried tortilla. Think omelette without the egg, or worse, a sandwich without the bread. Sacrilegious, isn’t it? For all their tortilla offences, though, this little tapas bar was a brilliant find. Sure, you won’t quite be able to tapas bar hop like any true Spaniard, for fear of fighting for a seat, but as a one-off place to enjoy great food, this should definitely be your first stop. If you play your cards right, they may even give you their famous croquettes on-the-house. Not sure what we did, but anywhere that serves free food gets my vote…
Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 22 January 2012

North of Piccadilly

Yotam Ottolenghi is something of a gourmet sensation. Since bursting onto London’s restaurant scene last year, this Israeli-born gastronome has gone stellar- rapidly rising through the restaurant ranks from his upmarket takeout spot in Notting Hill to his most recent venue, Nopi, which regularly attracts queues of culinary customers eager to sample his delicate flavours and signature salads. And no wonder, too: Nopi (bizarrely named for being located north of Piccadilly) is a bright spark on Soho’s dining scene- with its all-white tile interior, marble floors and many, many mirrors (the disorientating toilets seriously play with your head). It’s fresh and clean- the perfect setting to enjoy his punchy, unique cuisine that wonderfully fuses Middle Eastern and Asian influences. Fans may know him for his bestselling vegetarian cookbook Plenty- his sunny salads and creative dishes with a twist- but the team at Nopi successfully deliver his food philosophy with innovation, dedication, and delicacy to Soho’s restaurant racket. Here, exotic ingredients and fresh, full-bodied flavours are the order of the day. Meat-lovers need not worry: the menu is divided into vegetable, seafood and meat sections, to ensure there is something to suit all tastes. But selfish diners should take note. Dining here is something of a lesson in generosity, with dishes exclusively designed to share. Goodbye food envy. No starters, no mains: it’s just one big bun fight once the plates are put in the middle. Forks and knives at the ready, everyone. 
Vegetable-wise, we tried the aubergine with spiced yoghurt, dukkah and pomegranate seeds and the five-spice tofu with cardamom passata. The flavours were exquisite and wonderfully fresh, and the tofu in particular easily carried the curious blend of Orient and the Middle East. From the ocean came baby octopus with skordalia, ras el hanout spices and hibiscus, whilst the land offered tea-smoked quail with cumquat and satsuma. Both were delicious, particularly the aromatic quail- each mouthful an explosion of strong flavours and creative zest. There’s no denying the portions were tiny, especially given their price tag, but hey- you can always just order more of the menu’s incredible dishes. Just make sure you save some space for dessert: to finish, we had the guava compote and the caramel and pecan icecream- a cherry on top that perfectly crowned this culinary feat.
NOPI on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Lion in Winter

A lion should rule his kingdom with territorial ferocity. Yes, he’ll laze around in the sun for most of the day - but every now and then he’ll roar loudly to remind the savannah who’s boss. But this fictional history play, written by James Goldman in 1966 and currently enjoying a revival at the Haymarket Theatre under the artistic direction of Sir Trevor Nunn, is more like a Cub in Spring.
It’s 1183 and it’s Christmas time in King Henry II’s royal court. The whole family is assembled: King Henry, ageing but with his wits intact; his young mistress Alais; his estranged wife, the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine, who he has granted temporary release from imprisonment for leading a revolt against him; his “greedy little trinity” of sons Richard, Geoffrey and John; and the King of France. Henry needs to choose an heir - and whilst he wants the small, spotty John, Eleanor backs their strapping eldest Richard. (Poor Geoffrey, suffering typical middle child syndrome, feels forgotten). As Henry and Eleanor bicker over who should succeed the throne, the Christmas gathering quickly turns wintry – becoming a cold game of chess in which everyone else is a pawn. Like every family at Christmas, there’s definitely enough drama and political scheming going on here to make a good play. As Eleanor quips, “What family doesn’t have problems?”
But Goldman’s script is disappointing. Historically and politically inaccurate, it’s filled with anachronistic one-liners that reverberate limply in the medieval setting. In short, it’s a Plantagenet soap opera, a preposterous 12th century sitcom. Imagine one of the great Shakespearean history plays has descended into a farce of Blackadder proportions. At times, it works. It’s light-hearted and fun, a history play plonked on a modern stage. Robert Lindsay shines as the powerful, swaggering King Henry, delivering his lines with just the right amount of wisecracking humour and sardonic roaring. His verbal sparring with Joanna Lumley’s Queen Eleanor is often hilarious- words dripping in poison and then coated in barbs. They’re just your regular dysfunctional, estranged husband and wife- with occasional flashes of long-lost chemistry and tenderness. After all, there’s a very fine line between love and hate. And Lumley’s performance as Eleanor is apt. “Of course he’s got a knife we have all got a knife, it’s 1183 and we are still barbarians,” she bellows to the delight of the audience, and any Ab Fab fans. She may as well have been clutching a fag between her two bejewelled fingers. Her Eleanor is all catty sniping masking a shrewd, scheming mind. Largely, however, the jokey script seemed weirdly incongruous against the medieval backdrop. Goldman attempts to give Henry’s political decision a modern-day relevance but it doesn’t work. Instead, this is a Christmas family romp filled with fairly farcical action (namely the scene where Henry comes to the King of France’s bedroom for a serious political discussion only to discover all three sons hiding behind a tapestry and that Richard has been indulging in a gay affair with the French King). Ridiculous, to say the least. 
In the end, though, Nunn effectively revives this limp turkey of a play. It tickles the audience and Stephen Brimson Lewis’s incredibly stylish set is brilliant: designed with receding marble arches to give the convincing impression of a castle hall, the actors’ voices even echoed atmospherically throughout the dungeon scene. The cast, Lindsay and Lumley in particular, deliver their lines as best they can even though the script offers them nothing meaty to play with. For me, it’s the script that lets down this whole affair. It lacks real tension and the one-liners end up wilting into a pointless stalemate. In short, nothing memorable happens. As loud as the leonine King Henry roars, in the end this is one lion who almost gets rather lost. It’s just lucky that Nunn and his cast were on hand to show him the way.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

"It's all make-believe"

Fashion has stepped through the mirror and into the illustrated world.  Lula, the illustrated editrix of the sketched blog, has turned her pencil to a newly-launched biannual fashion magazine HERSELF- and it’s entirely made up of sketched self-portraits and cartoonised celebrities, even down to the hand-illustrated ads. The magazine is the first of its kind to turn contemporary fashion completely on its pretty head, its pages overflowing with dreamlike drawings and fantastical ideas. Beginning as a simple sketch, the editor Lula- a strange sort of comic strip superprincess- has walked into the illustrated pages of HERSELF magazine- acquiring expensive diamonds, beautiful dresses, and killer heels along the way. The Portrait Issue, as the first edition is called, is more than just a collection of self-portraits by stylish superwomen such as Anna Della Russo and Margherita Missoni- at 248 pages long, it’s a sketchbook tome. The illustrations are certainly magical- whimsical drawings of famous women past, present and imaginary, including Michelle Obama, Kate Moss, Barbie, Cinderella, Frida Kahlo- and even the Greek goddess Athena. There are make-believe interviews with Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy; features with Audrey Hepburn and Maria Callas. In this sense, it’s a celebration of fashion as a dynamic, creative and visually striking industry- a reminder that behind today’s perceived ideal of beauty lie real women sketched from legend. In short, the magazine erases all boundaries to the imagination- and instead draws women as they want to be seen. No wands, no magic lamps- just pen and paper.  
Some might see HERSELF as completely pointless and utterly pretentious, and in many ways it’s easy to understand why. What’s the point in drawing comic strip conversations where Marilyn Monroe tells Lula that it’s all make-believe? What’s the point if none of it is real? But I disagree. Isn’t that the point of fashion- it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or drawn, what matters is how you react, whether it makes you think and see the world in a different light. Fashion is art, after all. It exists in the same way Vogue exists, or the same way an art catalogue or comic book exists. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just a new magazine trying to give free reign to our imagination. In the words of that famously-drawn female Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way”.