Pied à Terre, Long Bar, Mark’s Bar, Duke’s Bar, Vista and Upper Rockwell

April 27, 2011

Pied à Terre

I nearly walked straight past Pied à Terre.  Situated on a rather dirty and unremarkable corner of Charlotte Street, in sight of the BT tower, it should be plainly visible but, like the Tardis, is hidden by some magic to all but the most shrewd observer.  In this case my brother was kind enough to be the Doctor in this metaphor, and I the newly recruited companion, struggling to locate the front door.

After squeezing through the narrow lobby, we were seated for a late lunch in the cozy, almost cramped rear dining room.  Guests were thin on the ground, entirely expected at this hour, but at no point did we feel that things were winding down for the afternoon.  The service was positively manic throughout our meal, but this didn’t create an unsettling experience by any stretch.

We chose the set lunch menu, touted “the best value Michelin star menu in London” on their website, and justifiably so.  £23.50 each for 2 delightful courses, plus tasty canapes at the onset, is astounding.  There’s also an extremely attractive £6 desert add-on: a choice between the obligatory cheese selection and an “assiette” of ice creams.  We opted for a la carte options at this final stage.

Of the canapes I thought the leftmost pastry ‘basket’ was the least impressive – a simple combination of sharp tomato and smooth cream with flavours that vanished after a couple of seconds.  I would expect this level of quality from a decent pre-made pack of dinner party snacks from a supermarket.  On the right, a dollop of foie gras suspended between delicate wafers was a sudden gear change, with the foie gras having just the right richness, not at all sickening (as was the case when it was served to me at the OXO Tower in an overwhelming artery-clogging mound) and complemented in texture by the light crack of the wafers.  Finally, the neatly layered shot glass of what I recall as langoustines (but which may have been small prawns) submerged in a buttery sauce beneath a topping of something or other delicious (no idea) was an oozy coup de grace to this three-piece preamble.

It was at this point that I turned my attention to the wine list, which was perhaps the most extensive I have ever seen: two leather-bound books—one for reds and one for whites—encased in a black box, plonked on our table by the well spoken sommelier.  Brother and I discussed how the process of wine selection to match a meal is perhaps the aspect of the fine dining experience given the least thought by most restaurants.  Not here though.  Each book was prefaced by a recommended short list of wines by the bottle and glass.  This is such a simple step for a restaurant to take, but invaluable to someone like me, whose grasp of viticulture is roughly equivalent to that of a dog slurping a spilt puddle of champagne off the kitchen floor.

I quickly scanned the reds and found an attractive name, Innocent Bystander, a Shiraz from Australia, of which we both had a single glass.  This, miraculously, did not clash with any part of the luncheon (even my light airy asparagus starter) and had a big, sumptuous fruity punch.

Said asparagus came in a salad mixed with various bits and pieces including some edible flowers.  It was beautiful to behold and a real pleasure to eat.  Tiny croutons packed just the right amount of saltiness to inject essential zing into the leafy components, and the few asparagus panacotta scoops were wonderfully soft.  The asparagus itself was perfectly wilted with a nice bite.

Brother had some sort of rabbit dish which was presented in a similar style – ingredients stacked like a work of modern art but with a more muted colour palette.  He seemed satiated by its flavours.

We shared a main course of lamb, cooked rare at our request, which was world-class and the agreed highlight of the day.  Honestly I can’t remember what cut of lamb it was, but it was certainly succulent.  Peculiarly shaped carrots, laid on top, were striking in the mouth and clearly well sourced.  The scoop of creamy vegetable and the viscous dark sauce came together with the meat to form a masterpiece.

From the a la carte menu I picked a raspberry and mascarpone pudding but was informed that the kitchen were out of raspberries.  Disappointed, I stammered something about swapping out raspberries for strawberries (the lamb having left me severely addled).  The waitress rebuffed my nonsense and pointed to a praline based option as an alternative, which I accepted, immediately kicking myself because I generally despise the taste of praline.

The result, five minutes later, was a total redemption of praline in my eyes: a silky mousse crowned with an ethereal cream in the centre of the plate, and adorned with cinnamon biscuits.  Off to one side an incendiary lemon and passion fruit sorbet somehow managed not to blast away the remnants of each mouthful of the praline mousse, making the dessert a joyous back-and-forth affair.  Little nutty crumbs added to the texture of the sorbet well.

A bitter-sweet chocolate tart was brother’s selection, and was also seemingly the most popular on the menu (across from us a party of six chaps all chose it too).  The tart itself emerged as a chiseled cuboid with a remarkably dry powdery hat.  The strange looking balls turned out to be akin to popcorn.  All met with praise.

We ended with coffee, which was not noteworthy in any way, and petit fours, which were.  The three-levelled structure on which the treats were arranged created an exciting event, and the treats themselves fulfilled their visual promise.  At this point I was stuffed and so could not stomach one of each, but found the cherry marshmallow, chocolates and apricot fruit pastel lovely.

In total, with the more expensive dessert choice, wine, still water and coffee, this was a very cheap lunch at under £120, and all expertly produced to a standard deserving of the two star accolade.  A definite winner.

Long Bar

Thence to Long Bar at the Sanderson Hotel, which was a laughably short walk from Pied à Terre.  I had intended us to sample the darker environs of the Purple Bar at the same hotel, but found it closed until 18:00 – no good for our purposes.  The Long Bar lived up to its name: spanning half the front of the hotel and separated from a bright and sunny plaza only by a sliding door and thin white curtains which blew in the mid-afternoon breeze.

After fidgeting stupidly with my high chair for a few seconds I scanned the cocktail menu and located a lychee option called “The Student”.  This was a vibrant, nutty mix served in a martini glass and well chilled.  The lychee made itself known, which I thought was unusual for this typically subdued fruit, and the cocktail as a whole was smooth, relaxing and quite special.

I sampled all of brother’s cocktails on the day and found his Black Bison—a combo of vodka, blackberries, limes and brown sugar—very nice indeed, although not as memorable.

The service was rapid and responsive and all cocktails were reasonably priced around £12.

Mark’s Bar

Mark’s Bar at Hix was very different indeed.  In fact it is hard to imagine it having been more of a departure in terms of atmosphere.  In this secluded basement lounge with old fashioned leather sofas and armchairs, we were poured a small glass of cool water (refilled later) and handed a copy of their drinks menu to share.  It’s a menu that’s clearly had a lot of thought put into it, with a panoply of quirky cocktails on offer divided into eras of mixing history, each era headed with a cheerful description of its theme.

My choice was the Toreador: a citrusy bright yellow blend of tequila and apricot brandy.  It really hit the spot and left me feeling very mellow.  I settled into a game of spying on the staff while they chatted, chortled and folded tea towels.

Brother’s Hanky Panky was a much more powerful beverage constructed from Beefeater gin and other mysterious potions such as Antica Formula and Fernet Branca.

Both our drinks were served in tiny classic cut glasses and served promptly.  I headed to the toilets immediately after ordering (guided by a ridiculous but somehow not out of place neon “tiolets” sign) and by the time I got back they were there, waiting.  Prices were entirely reasonable.  This was my favourite bar of the evening.

Duke’s Bar

On to Duke’s Bar at Duke’s, with its entrance secreted down a back alley in St James’s Place.  Think classic hotel bar with portraits of what looked like earls and baronettes coating the walls.  I had read the martinis here were legendary, and since I was a martini virgin we both ordered ours with gin.  The service was polite and put us at ease, although our drinks did take a while to arrive – not overly long mind you.

Out came the bartender, dressed in a white suit, with a trolley which he pulled up to our table.  We were asked if we preferred a particular brand of gin or if we would rather he surprised us.  This was all extremely classy.  Of course we couldn’t resist and asked for the surprise, at which point he cracked open a bottle from some obscure micro distillery, peeled an orange, wiped the peel with a flourish on the inside of each glass and poured the gin.  I thought this was quite an impressive show.

Unfortunately I very quickly realised, upon taking my first sip, that martinis were not to my taste and I wouldn’t be trying one again.  I could tell though that it had been concocted with a great deal of professionalism and careful attention.  Brother lapped his up and then kindly downed mine too.  I despise wasted booze.

I should note the crispy mini crackers here were moreish to the extreme and I gobbled an unhealthy number of them before I left.  The main topic of discussion was how feasible it might be, if one were homeless in London, to come here every night and use a martini as cover to devour all the nibbles.  We concluded that the idea was fanciful because of the dress code.

Vista and Upper Rockwell

On our way down the Mall to the Trafalgar Hotel we mused over the Royal Wedding due on Friday.  Specifically the potential for violent protest had us slightly concerned for our lunch at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, scheduled for the same day.  We shall see.

The main attraction was the terrace bar, aptly dubbed Vista.  We were charged £5 each as an entry fee and had tacky bracelets wrapped around our wrists to identify us, like cattle.  However the view from the terrace was entirely worth the inconvenience: almost level with the statue of Nelson atop his column, we gazed in wonder at the skyline and the pedestrians below, who appeared much like ants now, scurrying to and from their respective hives.

At this point I was quite drunk and became frustrated with the absence of any waiters actually waiting on us.  Brother went to place an order at the bar.  It was only a full ten minutes after he came back that the creamy liqueur-like items finally arrived.  I can only remember that they were not unpleasant to drink.

The wind was giving me a chill so we gulped the tipple and descended, ironically, to Upper Rockwell on the ground floor.  This was a much less interesting place, too spaced out for my taste and rather dingy.  We had missed our train and I couldn’t stop myself grabbing a final cocktail: something called Idyll Hands Work containing dark ‘Mozart’ chocolate, served warm with a taste like mulled wine.  This was nice, but then with a sweeping ape-like hand gesture I stupidly spilt a third of it all over my shirt sleeve and the floor.  It was time to leave.


Dragon Age II impressions so far

April 16, 2011

I’m playing Dragon Age II right now and I’m tired.  The transition from tongue-in-cheek blitzkrieg shooter Bulletstorm (highly recommended by the way, if the opportunity to kick a crazed freak into a cactus sounds even remotely appealing) to DAII‘s classic stat-heavy role-playing is proving tough.

Looking back on the 30 hours I’ve played so far, I can identify distinct high points and low points.  There are sections of the player character Hawke’s journey which are genuinely engrossing, dramatic, and laden with tense political sub-plot.  And then there are much longer and more frequent sections that make me want to quit, slide off my chair and roll around on the carpet like a lunatic just to dispel the onset of suffocating boredom.  Taken as a whole DAII is like a roller coaster, albeit a great deal more depressing.

One thing that’s not variable though is the combat, which is, apart from a single exception that I’ll come on to, extremely unsatisfying.  I will agree with most other reviewers that it is an improvement over the combat in the original DA.  But it’s not much of an improvement.  And the combat in DA pissed me off anyway, so it’s not a particularly good benchmark.

The polygon count has obviously increased and that means everything looks prettier, from the detail on characters and monsters to the environments and the pyrotechnics.  I can also applaud the animations, which are smooth but also appropriately rapid-fire.  Hawke is meant to be an action hero after all; slow clumsy moves wouldn’t have fit the bill.

But the combat itself does get very tedious very quickly.  Of the hundreds of quests I’ve done so far, I can count using my fingers (although that would be retarded so I won’t) the ones that haven’t followed the same standard template.  There are almost always 3-5 routine encounters, each encounter consisting of 2-3 waves of combatants, each wave spawning as if from nowhere (occasionally the Bioware designers have bothered to add the illusion of a door through which the enemies burst, which is a bit better) and so obviously timed that there might as well be a countdown in the middle of the screen.

Even the environments are templates.  What Bioware have done, rather than go to the trouble of actually designing a new map for every location, is design a smaller number of maps (like five), and repeatedly re-use them.  It’s exactly what they did back when they shat out Neverwinter Nights, with its 50 practically identical caverns, and it wasn’t a good idea then either.

To add to the insult, bosses are far too common, and as any economist will tell you, when something becomes more common it can only depreciate in value… or something.  I’m not a big fan of bosses in games, but I do think that if you are going to include them, you should make them rare and special, and give them some unique abilities and behaviours that challenge me in new and exciting ways.

Setting those poor design decisions aside though, the main issue is simply how boring the combat is.  Again a comparison with Bulletstorm is worth making because in that game the fight scenes are just as frequent, if not more so, equally repetitive, and yet addictive enough to cause one of those idiot ‘scientists’ to claim that it’s “poisoning the youth” or some such nonsense (which actually happened of course).

We can all name a game we’ve played that’s like that: repetitive almost to a fault but absolutely brilliant.  Batman: Arkham Asylum, with its spectacular brawling template duplicated a hundred times, springs to mind.  DAII makes the mistake of being repetitive and joyless at the same time, which is a double-whammy of tripe.

Perhaps I don’t get it.  Perhaps it’s not for me.  Perhaps true fans of the franchise play on hard difficulty (something completely beyond my ability and patience) and love the combat because that’s the sweet point at which it becomes rewarding.  If that’s the case, take my assessment with a pinch, or mug, of salt.

While I’m on the subject of the difficulty setting though, I should say that I feel as if I’ve been duped.  The interview with Mark Laidlaw, plus my own positive impressions of the demo, led me to believe that DAII had been made markedly more friendly to the casual gamer.

To an extent those impressions were accurate: playing on normal, most of the fights are about as hard as I, a pathetic noob, want them to be.  But then there are lots that are too easy, and a sizeable portion of ultra-taxing encounters on the other end of the spectrum.  It’s unsettling.

But I would be a false and vile trickster if I failed to underline the fact that, in spite of all the gameplay hiccups, the main story is quite excellently told.  Those high points I mentioned earlier have all occurred when I’ve stopped pottering about completing lame side quests and focussed on that story.

It’s about being an outsider, about regaining pride, caring for (or neglecting if you so choose) your broken family, attempting to triumph in a period of intense political turmoil, and ultimately leaving your mark (whatever form that mark may take, based on your decisions) on an ancient city with a history that’s troubled to say the least.  This aspect of DAII really is fantastic, and sufficient grounds for me to recommend the game to any fan of the genre, even if like me you didn’t enjoy the original as much as the majority seemed to.

And while I’m hemorrhaging praise, I should note that one exception to the rule that the combat sucks.  Near the end of the game’s second chapter you’re forced to confront a whirling storm of sentient rocks called an ‘ancient rock wraith’.  It’s a boss battle, and the only one so far that I’ve properly enjoyed.

It resembles a boss battle in World of Warcraft, in that there are several distinct stages requiring you to react in particular ways.  At first the wraith seems to be a powerful but dumb catapult; a simple matter then to surround it on all sides and slowly smash it to pieces with sword and spell.  But what’s this?  It pulses with electrical energy and curls up like a hedgehog, levitates and quickly enters into a raging barrel roll!

Hawke is instantly knocked unconscious and my healer is badly injured.  He recovers and resurrects Hawke just in time to witness a second assault: the wraith begins to crackle with energy once again and like Arnie in Predator, I sense my impending doom.  Ducking behind a nearby column, my party are spared the full impact of the ensuing explosion.  We all return to rock bashing and after a while settle into a tactical rhythm.  Victory comes soon thereafter.

It’s not rocket science to comprehend by any means, but it doesn’t need to be.  I don’t want to have to alt-tab and google for a step-by-step guide to progress to the next zone; I want to be placed in a situation where I can observe, learn, experiment and triumph without having to reload my last save twenty times over.  The rock wraith delivered on all those criteria and it deserves a medal.  Maybe the purple heart?

Mortal Kombat: Legacy gets off to a good start

April 12, 2011

I had no idea Tahmoh Penikett, a.k.a. Helo in Battlestar Galactica, was starring as Striker in the Mortal Kombat: Legacy web series until today.  I also had no idea the series was debuting so soon.  That shows you how much I know about current affairs, a.k.a. not very much.

Anyway this is a very positive start.  Competent acting, well paced for something so short, and top-notch fight scenes with a healthy dose of gore thrown in.

Now I’m excited to see how they handle the magic wielding characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion.  So far we’ve only seen the technological side.

Portal 2 comic is good, obviously

April 9, 2011

Make sure you check out the free webcomic bridging the narrative gap between the end of Portal and the beginning of Portal 2.  Much like everything else Valve have been associated with, it is very well put together.  Also if you’re a true fan, plaster your desktop with one of the wallpapers snipped from the comic.  I chose the one of Chell’s legs because that’s how I roll.

George Takei goes mental

April 7, 2011

If you had asked me this morning, “Chris, do you reckon George Takei is insane?”, I would’ve said no, but things have changed since then.

This morning my mental image of George Takei was of the hardened Hikaru Sulu, captain of U.S.S. Excelsior in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (the best of the Star Trek films); now all I see is a deranged grin.  Check it out:

The Ladder + Minecraft = eerie

April 4, 2011

I’m descending into an old section of my mining network in my single player Minecraft world.  It’s been a while since I’ve been back here.  Castle and fort building projects to the northeast have kept me occupied and these mines have taken on an almost nostalgic quality.

I set up a custom Painterly texture pack recently, and with it installed the narrow stone staircase ahead of me is obscured by what seems to be a subterranean fog.  The walls are a dark rock, mottled with unexcavated dirt.  It’s eerie, like a tomb in a forgotten part of a graveyard.  Then on Spotify the song ‘Homeworld’, from Yes’s 1999 album The Ladder, unexpectedly starts playing: an alien sound, the echoes of a star whale moaning, the abyss of space.  The moment is crystallised.  Epic.

Anyway I’ve seen some cool videos recently worth sharing.  First up, a new trailer for Green Lantern pieced together from scenes shown at something called WonderCon, which you can watch over at Apple’s trailers site.

And to follow, something on a lower budget.  A fan-made Left 4 Dead movie which is a worthy effort, if a little sentimental and badly written in places:

Thanks to PC Gamer for that one.