The Square, The Coburg Bar, deVigne Bar, HUNter 486, X-Men: First Class

June 13, 2011

The Square

My shoes are falling apart.  Both soles are cracked in two, behind the right ankle there’s a bit of rubber peeling off, and they look like crap.  None of this would have been a problem though, had it not been raining heavily as brother and I walked the distance from Green Park to The Square, a two-star restaurant on Bruton Street in Mayfair.

I had anticipated the weather and held aloft my umbrella, so our clothes were mostly dry by the time we arrived, but I noticed moisture had seeped through the cracks in my shoes to dampen my socks.  We were naturally a tad miserable, but were warmly welcomed, our coats taken, and escorted to our table.

The Square presented a large and extremely spacious dining room; not cozy in the slightest.  It has a distinctly modern feel, with clean lines, a polished wooden floor, tiny spot lights on the ceiling and vibrant abstract paintings.  Impressive without being overwhelming.

The set lunch menu here is updated often.  We could tell from the website (worth visiting just to see the amazing photos by the way) it had changed at least twice during the week, with courses altered and swapped out in favour of seasonal ingredients.

Our three courses were, I thought, well priced at £35.00.  From the extensive wine list we each had a single glass (£14.50) of Chateau Gloria.  I made this choice entirely at random and we were both pleased with the result: a full bodied red with a pungent whiff of chocolate on the nose.

A selection of bread was presented to us almost immediately.  I don’t normally care much for bread with my meal, but here it was freshly baked, piping hot and canape-sized.  It was a great start to the meal.  Salted and unsalted butters were flavoursome but unfortunately rather cold and therefore hard to spread.

An amuse bouche followed: a perfectly spherical trout fish cake in a light sauce.  It was very attractive and perfectly cooked, but failed to deliver any excitement.

We both chose the same starter and were both taken aback by it.  This was a green bean salad with a twist: what might appear to the casual observer to be grated cheese drizzled over the dish was in fact “shavings” of foie gras.  I sat back for a moment to contemplate the possibility of shaving foie gras, concluding that it must have been chilled to a sufficient hardness beforehand.

Regardless of the no-doubt highly sophisticated method of preparation, the result is quite tantalizing.  The shavings do not melt as such, but instead cling to the beans and nuts underneath, so that the whole dish is elevated to another level of richness and remains consistently on that level.  I found myself scraping the last of the foie gras off the bowl once I had devoured the salad.  This was the best dish of the day and absolutely worthy of the two-star rating.

The main course of ravioli of wagyu beef, grilled asparagus, mushrooms and mimolette was very pretty before I decimated it.  Sadly I only remembered to take the above photo in the aftermath, the delicate ravioli having been torn open to reveal the tender, almost ham-like beef.  I don’t remember picking up on the flavour of the mimolette, which Wikipedia tells me was the cheese grated over the top, but all other ingredients were well cooked, especially the vegetables.  This dish did not live up to the brilliance of the bean salad, but was far from disappointing.

I did not capture my dessert—an elderflower creme brulee—at its best either.  When it was served, the single scoop of ice cream was perched on top of the creme brulee beautifully, but this time, through no fault of my own, it toppled from its kingly dais into the sweet sauce below.  I must apologise, dear reader, for failing to take my photo in time.

Nonetheless it was a truly delicious pudding.  The wafer-thin surface of the mound crackled under the slightest pressure applied to my spoon, and beneath it the creme teetered on the paradisical border between softness and gelatinousness (there’s a word you don’t get to use all that often); not quite the texture of a panacotta, but more reminiscent of a wondrous creme caramel I gobbled at The Square’s sister restaurant, The Ledbury, in January.

The seasonality of the menu was no more evident than in the name of brother’s dessert: poached “new season’s” cherries with cherry donuts and yoghurt ice cream.  As you can see it was equally pretty, but brother summarised it as “lacklustre”, the cherries contributing little or no impact.  A shame.

At this point I was stuffed to the brim, and so we brought proceedings to a close with coffee.  My capuccino was above average. I could only stomach one of the petit-fours, which were yummy, chewy blocks of popcorn encased in some sugary mixture.

The rain had at least temporarily stopped and the sun was very much out.  This was our chance to transport ourselves to the next venue without me getting my socks wet again, so I asked for the bill.  The service throughout was top notch, although a touch too impersonal.  Our desserts took a lot longer to arrive than our other courses, but not so long that I would call it a hiccup, and the restaurant was at full capacity by then anyway, so the delay was understandable.  I left knowing I would come back sooner rather than later, perhaps for the inviting nine-course tasting menu.

The Coburg Bar

A five minute walk in the sunshine brought us to the Connaught Hotel.  I had been here before, twice, and had sampled the plush Coburg Bar on both occasions.  This time we had intended to try the alternative Connaught Bar instead, but staff informed us it was closed until 16:00.  Life is a cruel bitch, but Coburg was there to save the day, with its atmosphere of undiluted class.  Waves of relaxation washed over me and I felt at ease, sheltered from the downpour which soon resumed outside.  The seats here are officially the most comfortable in the world and the drinks made with obvious skill.

From The Coburg’s splendidly detailed “Bacchanology” menu I first picked a long island iced tea.  Perhaps I am flying in the face of decades of refinement in mixology when I say that I would’ve preferred the cola to have been infused through the drink as a whole, rather than condensed at the bottom of the glass as it was.  In spite of this negative point, it proved a refreshing drink which improved measurably as it went on, the cola fading into the more interesting blend of vodka, cointreau, gin, rum and tequila.

Brother habitually ordered a daquiri and was not let down, noting in fact something intangibly unique about the Coburg version, which I too could not pin-point from the brief taste I had.  A classic made to a standard above the norm.

We followed with a second round: a negroni for me and a hurricane for brother.  I struggled with the bitter aftertaste left by the Campari contained in my negroni, but this is not a criticism of the Coburg’s expertise so much as it is another revelation about my tastes.  Brother ordered his hurricane upon my recommendation, since I had enjoyed it a great deal on my previous visit: a smooth rum-based cocktail with a strong hit of passion fruit nectar.

deVigne Bar

At 16:00 we pondered our options: either relocate to a bar brother had chosen the night before, Apres, or exert ourselves much less by moving down the hall to the Connaught Bar, as previously planned.  In the end I took charge and we left for Apres, thinking it the more adventurous path to tread.

This proved to be the wrong decision because Apres was closed when we got there (it opens only briefly during the day from 11:00 to 14:00, before locking down and beginning its transformation into a club for the evening).  Rather than hang myself in despair there and then, I took a moment on my phone to find a substitute.  The usually trustworthy World’s Best Bars app led me to the Mandeville Hotel and the deVigne Bar, touting it as “like a perfectly tailored suit rendered hip by the odd post-modern flourish”.

That is, I think, the least accurate description one could give of this place.  Far from being a perfectly tailored suit, it more closely resembles a cheap and tacky shirt.  The bottles behind the bar are the only good-looking thing about this small, uninviting room.  There is no atmosphere to speak of.  The walls are lined with freaky portraits, the tables are covered with some sort of waterproof lining, and the chairs are basic to say the least.

The drinks are no better.  My Karlsson’s Blood—a vodka and tomato mix—was well decorated with a strawberry and spiral of lime zest, but its only distinguishing feature was a peppery heat coming from unknown spices.  The tomato flavour, if it can be classified as a flavour, was little more than an earthy, vegetal undertone.  Very disappointing.  I wanted to leave as soon as possible.  Brother cannot recall now what his drink (stylishly out of focus in the background of the photo above) was called.  He describes it as “refreshing”.

HUNter 486

Back to the World’s Best Bars app (and I am now slightly concerned that this review is turning into a not so subtle advert for said app) which finds for me the trendily named HUNter 486 at the Arch Hotel, again only a few minutes walk away.

We are both instantly filled with joy.  The long room oozes style in its design.  Lights in the shape of volleyballs hang from the ceiling by their wires in clusters above our heads.  Behind a tall divider, we spy cool alcoves and overhear a conversation about art or somesuch.  All the staff are impeccably dressed.  We can see the kitchen from our table and a roaring fire, perhaps for cooking pizzas or loaves of bread?  I have forgotten the collosal let-down at the Mandeville.

Cocktails come, as they do when you order them, in a timely manner and in glasses.  Brother gets two glasses: one shot-size and filled with prosecco, one containing his “hoochie” martini, which he grants me a taste of.  “You made the better choice” I say.  It is superb and bursting with the familiar passion fruit, as well as being one of the most bright, practically luminous, drinks I have ever seen.  My ginger and passion fruit martini (foreground) is excellent too.

I highly recommend HUNter 486.

X-Men: First Class

To end the day, we hopped on the Circle Line to Vue Westfield and to the cinema contained therein.  This time we have tickets to an “Xtreme” showing, which is the finest approximation of IMAX quality I’ve yet seen, although to give IMAX credit where credit is due, the two theatres are miles apart in image size, visual and audio quality.  I will say it is worth paying the extra for the bigger screen.  It also helped that this picture was in 2D, without the horrific colour wash-out that seems to be the hallmark of the 3D movement.

As for X-Men: First Class, it’s a mixed bag.  I can’t say that it starts well and ends poorly, or vice versa.  It’s not that clear-cut.  There are plenty of fantastic scenes—action-packed, epic, contemplative, character-driven, emotional—that hold it together, and I was thoroughly entertained for the duration.  And as in Thor, some clever humour is frequent and well placed to break up the seriousness of the story.  This is, after all, a tale of the origins of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr; Professor X and Magneto.  Both pillars of comic book history, both archetypes, one an idealist and the other driven by passion and political realism.  The fiction deserves to be treated properly, and as a fan I emerged from the cinema satisfied that it had been.

But there are some very weakly played (or poorly written – I can never really tell which it is) parts.  Some characters, I felt, were entirely redundant—simply there to fill out fight scenes.  And an unsettling amount of cheese—excessive even by superhero film standards—cannot be overlooked.  The placement of Michael Ironside (of Total Recall fame) as a United States navy commander in the final action sequence in particular, was beyond ridiculous, and I found the symmetry of several climactic scenes a little too perfect.  At times this old world of the X-Men felt unreal; a weird hybrid of thoughtful exploration of personal themes and truly wacky montages.

I will say as an aside that if, like me, you loved Ian McKellan’s Magneto in Bryan Singer’s films, you will no doubt appreciate Michael Fassbender’s carrying of the torch.  I also delighted in MacAvoy’s young Xavier, chatting up Oxford undergraduates in bars with practiced lines about genetics.  I can imagine a parallel universe’s version of First Class consisting entirely of these two playing chess, fencing, sipping whisky and debating the future of mutant-kind.  The possibility that such a universe exists is perhaps the most compelling reason for physicists to unlock the secrets of inter-dimensional travel.


Kitchen W8 and Library Bar

May 30, 2011

Kitchen W8

In the The Gilbert Scott and Kitchen W8 I could not have picked two more different restaurants to juxtapose.  Where The Gilbert Scott vomits grandeur in its enormous setting at St Pancras, Kitchen W8 is a small and unremarkable space lurking down a quiet street in Kensington.  Where The Gilbert Scott is marred by impressively poor quality of service, the staff at Kitchen W8 are generally (with one or two exceptions I will mention in a bit) extremely responsive, well spoken and discreet.

It is in the cuisine that I found the two places not so far apart.  Although my meal at Kitchen W8 was presented with superior artistry, it tasted ordinary for its class (1 Michelin star awarded this year).

The first thing you will notice when you visit will be the prices.  Our three course set lunch set us back a barely perceptible £19.50 per head.

Wines are reasonably priced, although only a few whites are available by the glass (the rest by bottle only), which could prove restricting for a lone diner.  Thankfully there were three of us on this occasion, and we picked a bottle of Gruner Veltiner (£38.00) from Wagram, Austria, to share.  The set lunch menu, with its fish and poultry, seemed to recommend a white.  The wine was above average with floral notes on the nose and faintly sweet on the palette.

Brother, mother and I all found our starter, a raviolo of ham hock in a pea veloute, pleasant.  The ham hock stuffing bore a taste and texture not too dissimilar from a well cooked sausage.  Thin ribbons of cabbage added a nice hint of crunch.  Overall this course was very easy to eat.  There was nothing awkward about it and none of the flavours clashed at all.  But that’s as far as it went.  None of the ingredients packed any punch, especially the veloute, which only contributed essential moisture.

My main course, a jambonette of chicken with herb spatzle, girolles and an almond and truffle pesto, did not wow me either.  Like the ham hock in my starter, the dominant flavour here came from a single component – the chicken, which was tender, juicy and moreish.  The rest of the dish was neutral and earthy, which again left me wanting.

Brother and mother’s main course of haddock, crayfish and crushed jersey royals was the best presented dish of the day, finished with an obvious flair.  Both seemed to enjoy it.  I began to suspect that I had either picked the wrong dishes, or my taste buds were malfunctioning.

Up to this point, the restaurant was almost empty, but slowly now, more diners began to trickle in.  The speed of service very quickly and irritatingly slowed, almost to a halt.  It seemed there were simply not enough hands on deck.

My dessert of strawberry and elderflower soup finally delivered a straightforwardly fruity kick to the tongue, and was unveiled by the waiter with a smooth pour of the soup over the ice cream, which was at first alone in the centre of the wide bowl.

The soup licked at the sides of the ice cream and swirled to form a sparkly marble effect.  This course was incredibly refreshing, but, once again, lacked pizazz.  The triplet of madelines on a side plate were a complete waste of effort, especially as I find the texture of spongy puddings like these absolutely revolting.  I forced myself to swallow one, then ignored the others.

Brother and mother seemed delighted with their vanilla panacotta served with shortbread, assorted berries and a scoop of basil ice cream.  I tasted a small spoonful and agreed with brother that the combined tastes were redolent of a herb scented garden.  I tested these remarks this morning by picking a sprig from a geranium (just past first flowering) and eating it.  The test results were far from positive.

To conclude our lunch we partook of tea and coffee.  My cappuccino and brother’s americano were satisfactory, but mother’s english breakfast tea, she said, was much too weak.  Chocolates, served on a saucer, were deliciously gooey on the inside, with an acceptable nuttiness.

I twice tried to hail a waiter for the bill, but either because of my timid mouse-like nature or because they weren’t paying attention (the place was rather busy by this point), I failed.  We waited a full ten minutes in a mood of moderate frustration before I commanded brother to “take care of it”, at which point we were noticed, and served shortly thereafter.

As snail-like as the service became later on, I don’t hold a grudge.  In fact my lasting memory of the staff will be of their generally excellent attentiveness.  They just need one or two more waiters on station during the lunch hour.

It was the food, I felt, that really let the experience down.  In this aspect Kitchen W8 is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, just barely worthy of its star.  There was nothing bad or offensive about what was on offer, and ultimately it does represent supreme value for money, but I wasn’t blown away at any point.

Library Bar

From the restaurant we sojourned through the expansive and beautiful Hyde Park.  A dog with shaggy black fur (I’ve no idea what breed) approached us and greeted us warmly.  I thought this was a nice touch.

Anyhoo, Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel had been on my list to visit for a long time, ever since I read some glowing reviews of it online at World’s Best Bars.  The venue did not disappoint.  The Lanesborough’s lobby and long halls are opulently furnished with luxurious sofas, armchairs and statues.

We were directed to the bar, which is immediately to the left as you enter the main hall.  The walls of the bar are decorated with books, or at least what seemed to be books – we couldn’t tell for sure whether we were, in part at least, being given the IKEA fake book treatment.  There are some neat little alcoves too, but we chose a table by the window.

The service was a tad slow, but we managed to fit two drinks each into an hour, or thereabouts.  My first was called The Godfrey – a sweet combination of grand marnier, cognac and creme de mure.  It went down very smoothly, but I found it hard to detect the alcohol content.  A good start but in need of some inspiration, I thought.

Brother’s Space Race—a pretty mix of vodka, lychees, cointreau, guava and cranberries—also came off of the Library Bar’s own collection of recipes.  It was dry and hefty compared to The Godfrey.  It was more up my alley, and I felt like asking for a swap.

Mother’s more expensive champagne cocktail, which I cannot remember the name of, did not meet with approval.  I had a sip and concurred that it was no good.  I have yet to enjoy a champagne-based drink other than plain champagne, but will of course keep you posted if and when it happens.

Second drinks included a respectable ‘classic’ daiquiri, an attractive non-alcoholic invention called the Strawberry Field, and my own first try of a caipirinha (pictured above), which was a success – delivering a welcome dry bitterness and a strong punch of lime.

All of this came with some decent nibbles, including some very large olives.  Brother’s cocktails, and mine, were priced £13.50, a pound or two too high if you ask me.  If you don’t ask me, I’ll just carry on eating my nibbles.

The Gilbert Scott, Montgomery Place, Thor at Vue Westfield

May 14, 2011

The Gilbert Scott

Google Maps has no idea where The Pancras Renaissance Hotel is.  It finds the right city, London, and the right road, Euston, but beyond that it doesn’t care much about being precise.  As far as it’s concerned, anywhere along that road will do.

The clue, of course, is in the name ‘Pancras’ – something that hadn’t quite clicked in my head until we arrived.  And so, after enduring a thoroughly unpleasant hike and tube journey from Regent’s Park (where Google thought it was located) to St Pancras, which almost made me leap in front of traffic out of frustration, I vowed never to rely solely on Google to direct me to a restaurant again.

The restaurant in question was the newly opened The Gilbert Scott, backed by Marcus Wareing and managed by someone called Chantelle Nicholson.  Chantelle actually appeared several times during our meal (I recognised her from a photograph online), striding affirmatively back and forth, presumably seeing to various management tasks, such as telling people what to do and counting money.

Regardless, the restaurant was indeed located in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the building in which the hotel and station are located is indeed bloody impressive.  I had read beforehand that Sir John Betjeman, supposedly a poet of some renown, had campaigned vigorously against calls for the building’s demolition.  I can appreciate why.  This is a building with spires and grand arches, large windows and so on – something to stand and stare at for a full minute at least before you have lunch.

Since we were already twenty minutes late for our reservation however, lunch could not wait, so standing and staring were postponed.  We proceeded through the main entrance to the hotel, spotted a sign directing us to The Gilbert Scott, and followed it, as you do.  Sadly this was where the management had made its first mistake, by hiring a moronic oaf to guard the hotel.  Rudely, and with an almost incomprehensible foreign accent, he instructed us to about turn and find a separate entrance.

Though we protested (in a state of sheer disbelief at this point), he remained, bouncer-like, insisting that we move along.  I was on the verge of whipping out my rapier and challenging the man to a duel when brother, seeing the mad rage in my eyes, swiftly wheeled the party (mother had also joined us for the day, making it a party rather than a duo) out the door.

Round we went to another corner of the building, and found the staff on this side infinitely more welcoming.  A charming lady escorted us through to the dining hall, an obviously grandiose place, with high ceilings, enormous paintings and gold leaf decoration.

Continuing the string of annoyances, we were seated in perhaps the worst position in the hall – scarcely two metres distant from the counter on which the waiters and waitresses carried out all their clumsy tasks: shuffling through cutlery, cracking open bottles of wine, processing payments on their register machine with touch interface, the usual.  None of these are things I want to see during my lunch hour.  A simple screen erected between our table and their workstation would’ve been a straightforward solution.

From start to finish the service was pretty poor.  Our menus and still water took an unusually long time to arrive, despite the fact that we were among the first diners to be seated and there were young waiters and waitresses standing to attention, seemingly with nothing to do, at the counter.

A peculiar blunder took place with our wine, when after having requested it, we waited a full five minutes only to have two glasses (one absent) with wine already poured into them (strange) hurriedly placed on our table.  This task had clearly been entrusted to a simpleton, who returned a few seconds thereafter and apologised.

Eventually I was presented with the bottle in the manner I’m accustomed to.  It was a Chardonnay from Tuscany called Al Poggio.  The wine was poor value for money at £60 – satisfying and suitable for our fish courses, but in no way remarkable.

We all chose a la carte options, and all picked the same starter: a crab salad containing pear slices and hazelnuts.  This was a decent course—the nuts and crab a fine match—but I was reminded of the similarly styled, and unquestionably superior, asparagus salad I had at Pied a Terre.  The quality of food continued in much the same vein: pleasing, but not extraordinary.

Next was an excellently poached piece of Scottish halibut with mussels (these lacked somewhat in flavour) drowned in a tasty Camel Valley Brut sauce.  I liked the texture of the fish, which was soft and chunky.

I scavenged from mother and brother’s vegetable side-dishes of asparagus (lovely – I’m a real fan of asparagus) and spinach.  The spinach was perfect for the halibut.  Again, everything in this dish was cooked with above average competence, but none of it surprised me or made me hum with pleasure.

Brother had Cornish sea bass, with something called Cullenskink, and seemed mostly happy.  Mother’s ‘Soles in coffins’ came not in coffins, but in a bowl, and were also judged as “ok” overall, although the so called crispy potatoes, in fact very creamy, were remembered fondly.

From the extensive dessert menu I picked the ‘Orange marmalade Jaffa cake’, which was impressive looking (very orange) and accompanied by a scoop of earl grey ice cream.  At least it was meant to be earl grey ice cream – I could not detect even a hint of tea in it.  The cake itself was rather dry, but this was counter-acted sufficiently by a glob of chocolate sauce hidden within.  ‘You can’t go wrong with chocolate’ as they say.  At least, I think that’s a saying.  People say it.  I say it.

Mother’s strawberries, served in a glass with clotted cream, meringue and some weird cider called Polgoon, were not appreciated at all.  The strawberries were reported as overly sharp in flavour, and the other ingredients lacklustre.

Brother partook of a baked apple sponge—something I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole if you paid me—crowned with yet more meringue and accompanied by a nice bit of clotted cream.  Apart from the presentation, which he considered crude, he liked it a lot.

We ended with coffees.  My cappuccino was very well done, and we speculated that there must be someone with an interest in coffee exerting their influence behind the scenes, picking some quality beans and such.

I certainly don’t regret dining at The Gilbert Scott.  It’s just being let down at the moment by poorly trained staff and a lack of flair in the presentation.  I won’t say I’ll never eat there again, but if I do it will only be to check in and see if they’ve improved things.  It’s not a place I desperately want to revisit.

Montgomery Place

With seats booked to see Thor later in the afternoon, we decided to sample just one watering hole.  Montgomery Place was en route, in the Notting Hill area, and well spoken of on the web.  Kensington Park Road was alive with activity, with tables lining the pavement and people sipping their cocktails and digging into chocolate tart.  It’s possible the locals were celebrating something.

There’s a squirrel climbing along the trellis in my garden right now.  Totally irrelevant.

The bar itself was not at all busy.  We, a couple of chaps and a vaguely oriental bunch were the only bodies there, but that wasn’t off-putting.  The place felt very casual, almost pub-like, but unlike a pub, clean.  You have to come here just for the toilets – they have music playing in there and the sinks are filled to the brim with pebbles.  This was a welcome change from the Gilbert Scott, where the toilets were stupidly designed, and also crap.

As for drinks, I was on the brink of breaking a sweat and picked ‘Thrilla in Vanilla’, a special take on the mojito with vanilla infused rum and cherries.  It hit the spot, exhibiting the refreshing mintiness I expect from a mojito, but its flavour vanished as I reached the bottom of the glass.  This was only slightly better than a variant I make at home.

Brother’s ‘Thai Flower Cooler’, a vodka, elderflower and bitters mix served in a tall glass, and mother’s ‘Dark and Stormy’, a blend of rum, lime juice and ginger beer, were both well received.

I voted to relocate to a second bar at this point, but was overruled.  Instead we picked second cocktails.  Mother had, like a bird of prey, spied two ladies outside with iced coffees, so she had one of those.  An iced coffee, I mean, not one of the ladies.  The waitress mumbled something under her breath about the bartender not liking this choice, which I thought was a tad out of order.

I resigned myself to a ‘Missionary’s Downfall’ which was a great deal more impressive than the mojito thingy, not least because it was served in a thick glass goblet with a design on one side that seemed to be a fat man’s grinning face.  The drink was made of rum, honey, peach liqueur, pineapple and mint, and was delicious.

Brother had a classic daiquiri, which—and again I flatter myself—was about is good a daiquiri as I can make.  This isn’t to say it was badly made, you understand, just not spectacular.

Thor at Vue Westfield

With little time to spare, we hastened to the Westfield Shopping Centre, which mother was very excited about.  I was only excited about seeing the film, and found the shopping centre an abysmal minefield of cretinous children and other assorted ingrates.  There was even a tarot card and palm reading session going on.  Sadly we lingered for far too long around the shops after the feature, against my express wishes I might add, which once more submerged me into a suicidal malaise.

The Vue cinema is a big one, adjacent to a slimy tapas restaurant and some other hell hole specialising in serving beef.  I should say I had promised myself a long time ago, soon after seeing The Dark Knight in fact, that I would never go to a cinema that didn’t have an IMAX screen again, so the decision to come here was not taken lightly.  As expected the foyer was crowded with fat people, more children, and general pestilence, so I grabbed our tickets and bottled water as quickly as I could.

Once we passed the ticket checkpoint though, the ambient temperature dropped and a soothing quiet descended upon us.  This was much better.  The screen itself was slightly below average in size, and the sound setup was underwhelming, but we had nice VIP seats in a perfect central position, and no one else was sat anywhere near us.

Thor was better than I had expected it to be.  But I had expected it to be a major screw-up for the Marvel superhero film franchise, with Iron Man and its sequel being as superb as they are.  What you get with Thor is solid entertainment, an enormous whack of special effects on a galactic scale, and something unforeseen and totally indispensable: comic relief.

The first twenty minutes consist of an extremely dry mix of high fantasy, deadly serious dialogue between the gods and demigods of Asgard, and thumping battle sequences.  This is worth watching, and provides needed context for the rest of the story to proceed, but would, if prolonged, ultimately bore any audience.

After that twenty minute mark you’re brought crashing (literally) back down to Earth, and repeatedly treated to joyous and highly poignant moments of contrast, between Thor’s world of good versus evil in the heavens, and the messy, smelly, frequently amusing world of modern day America.

Kat Dennings is cleverly cast in the role of a dopey, impulsive research assistant, working under Natalie Portman’s higher ranking physicist.  Portman’s character is of course the romantic interest, which might have been acceptable were it not that she suffers from being totally besotted with Thor (played adequately by Chris Hensworth) from the moment she meets him, which was a bit hard to believe.

Without its humorous core, Thor would’ve been a huge train-wreck.  As it is, I’d recommend it to any fan of what one can I believe now call the superhero ‘genre’.  Also it’s a must see for anyone who wants to follow the entire story leading up to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.  Now I wait for Captain America to reach the bar set by Thor, or better yet, exceed it.

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.