Thoughts in 60 words…

19 09 2011

This week I’ve been on a bit of a theatre and film binge. I tend to go through little cultural spurts every now and then, interspersed by arid wastelands of theatrelessness. This week was one such spurt. Rather than inflicting a long series of rambling thoughts upon you, I thought I’d just summarise four experiences in 60 words each.

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops

A wonderful opportunity to see one of England’s greatest actors, sadly ruined by… one of England’s greatest actors. Simon Callow gave an exceedingly ropey one man performance, stumbling over lines and prematurely giving away vital plot twists in the process. Very disappointing… And to top it off, he could no better hold an accent than I could hold the wind!

The Tempest

Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, was brilliant as Prospero in Trevor Nunn’s production of Shakespeare’s classic at The Theatre Royal Haymarket. He pitched it brilliantly: compelling and emotional, but not overstated or hyped. Definitely the most enjoyable performance of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Aside from some flat singing from the spirit chorus, the whole cast was brilliant: Highly recommended!

Franco Manca

Not a work of drama, but certainly a work of art! And well worthy of a comment. I don’t need sixty words for this. Best pizza ever! Perfect sourdough base. Go there immediately! Nothing more to say…

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I loved this film! A brilliant performance from a brilliant cast. Oldman was particularly faultless. The pace was perhaps a little slower than I had expected, but every shot was so perfectly and meticulously directed that it was a beauty to behold. A haunting soundtrack, well thought-through cinematography, and a gripping storyline that kept me guessing. Definitely well worth watching!

Getting my junk together

31 08 2011

I have an annoying habit – which may well be on account of my gender – of leaving items such as keys, my wallet or loose change scattered in random parts of the house. I walk into the house, and tend to just put down the items on whatever flat space happens to be available at that part particular moment in time.

Having been irritated by this for quite some time, my wife has devised a simple but brilliant solution: a small rectangular plate, approximately 12x5cm, which resides permanently on the bookshelf. This is my space, and we have an agreement that all my random items are to be placed on this plate, and on this plate alone. Not every possession I own, of course, just those little things that I’m tempted to dump on windowsills and promptly forget about. And it works the other way round too; if I fail to put my keys there and instead place them in some unhelpful location, upon finding them, Helen relocates them to the plate. Thus my junk is confined to a 60cm² piece of porcelain.

In recent months I have been scattering thoughts in too many locations around the web – an article here, a blog post there – and I’ve tried not to duplicate material too much for fear of boring absolutely everyone at every juncture. But now even I’m losing track of what I’ve written and when, and so I think the time has come to put all my junk in one place.

So consider this blog something of a porcelain plate!

When I write articles elsewhere, I’ll link to them here as well. That way, everything I say, do and write is in one searchable location, and perhaps I’ll remember where I’ve left my thoughts, should I ever have need for them again.

And so I start with something published today… This is a talk I gave at Newday 2011 called God’s Plan to Change the World, which can be found at the Everything Conference website along with an interactive presentation, my first foray into the wonderful world of prezi.

It was a fun challenge to try to articulate something of the Everything concept to 14-18 year olds… you can be the judge of whether I succeeded! At least, if nothing else, it was amusing making everyone look as stupid as my sister did:


Review: Krishna

30 08 2011

Were you to list the top spots in the UK you might go for an amazing curry, I sincerely doubt that Whitstable would be be a natural contender. But if that is the case, that simply means you haven’t yet discovered Krishna.

A small, unassuming restaurant in a layby near the train station, Krishna is not exactly the kind of place you would expect Indian fine dining. But truly, this restaurant is a gem. So last week it was great to go back there with my brother to celebrate his birthday… albeit his 24th birthday, 11 months overdue. I would happily make it a birthday tradition and return again in a month!

The chefs at Krishna take their cookery seriously, and have created a wide ranging menu of delights. I always feel a slight pang of nerves when I see a menu containing dishes into their dozens: what restaurant can honestly maintain consistent quality across all their dishes when the sheer range is so vast?! Here the feeling conjured up was not one of nervousness, but indecision. Choosing what to eat from such an intriguing menu may just be one of the toughest decisions you have to make for quite some time…

This is not your typical brit-curry menu with brown mush distinguishable only by the level of heat: non-existent to immobilising. These dishes are vibrant, fresh and colourful. You can clearly make out each element and spice, and everything is beautifully presented. The waiting staff know the menu well and are very happy to make recommendations for what dishes go well together to help you get a balanced meal.
Onion Bhajia

I’m normally one for having a single dish and just keeping it to myself. I can’t abide that horrible experience of completely unrelated sauces merging together on the plate in some indistinguishable slime; the cross-section of which ends up tasting like a spicy/sweet slop bucket! But the menu here is just so diverse, and given that I want to try everything on it, I have to just swallow my OCD and be willing to share. With a cunningly constructed basmati wall to stop the sauce bleed, all was ok – though I did cringe a little as I realised how sadly reminiscent it was of Alan Partridge’s critique of Sonya’s fried breakfast cooking skills:

Minor criticism… More distance between the eggs and the beans. I may want to mix them, but I want that to be my decision. Perhaps use the sausage as a breakwater.”

Hmm… I fear there may be a bit of the Partridge in me…

So between us we ordered a range of dishes, and every one of them was a winner. In fact, we have now been there twice and haven’t had a single disappointing dish; with the possible exception of a duck chettinad, which wasn’t at all bad, it’s just that the duck didn’t really shine.

After the amuse bouche, a complimentary shot of warm spiced soup, we started with Onion Bhajia: three beautiful orbs of fried onion with tangy tamarind and mint sauces, and Mogo Masala: soft cassava chips in a beautiful tomatoey sauce. For mains we went with a Chicken Merwad, which was cooked in an interesting combination of spinach, fenugreek, mustard and dill, it was beautiful, and such an unusual flavour, Lamb Dhansak with pumpkin, aubergine and lentils, and a Fish Tikka. We’d had the Tikka last time we visited and repeating the experience was a no-brainer! Huge chunks of perfectly cooked monkfish, delicately spiced so as not to obscure the fish taste; and being in Whitstable you just know it’s fresh and local.

Fish Tikka

Along with this we shared basmati rice and Baingan Bharta, smoked aubergine with corn, with a beautiful sweet smokey flavour. Each dish hit home on every level: flavoursome, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented – no generic-looking slop in tired old dishes.

Sharing dishes gave us more than enough food at a reasonable price. This time we went with three people and ordered the same amount we’d previously had for four; as a result it was slightly less good value – but still around the same you might pay in any old normal indian restaurant, yet infinitely more interesting.

Note, a number of reviews have said that the takeaway is, by comparison, disappointing. I haven’t had takeaway from there, so I don’t know about that, but don’t let this put you off going to the restaurant; There is nothing in the least bit disappointing about that!

Give yourself a pat on the back

1 08 2011

I have a theory which I suspect it will be of great interest to budding writers. I’m no mindreader. Nor am I adept in the art of suggestion and mental manipulation, but still, I believe it is possible for authors to write their own reviews through the hands of others.

You heard me right. I believe it is possible to embed within your work subliminal messages which will find their way onto the pages of the broadsheets. All you need to do is place within your work a witty, well-crafted, single sentence, which accurately sums up the entire piece, and which you would happily see at the top of a review.

There’s quite an art to it. It needs to be long enough into the work for the reviewer to have formed at least some basic conclusions, but not so far in that their minds are set already. It needs to be amusing and gripping; a fun, funny, or poignant aphorism that is so memorable that every reviewer will wish they had penned it.

Typically this phenomenon exhibits itself in negative ways; an angry reviewer picks up on a critical or deeply ironic phrase with which to lambast its author. For example, Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, which opened to mixed reviews. Some loved it, many more hated it. They felt it was abstruse, convoluted and monotonous. And many reviewers found in the mouth of Estragon the perfect line with which to begin their scathing reviews:

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

I wonder if Beckett knew that line would be used against him. I suspect not, otherwise he might have said:

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s deep!”

Just the other week I went to see a new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. I dislike Chekhov intensely, and am not overly keen on Andrew Upton’s translations either (he has lulled me to sleep in public on two occasions now), so I was amused to spot the standout line which summed it up for me, when Ranyevskaya declares boldly:

“Don’t waste your time watching plays – I bet it wasn’t funny at all”

Correct. And I needn’t give any more of my time to reviewing it…

Next time you go to the theatre, watch a film, or read a book, ask yourself the question “If I had to extract one line which accurately summarises the whole, what would it be?” It will produce some surprising, profound or at least very amusing results.

My theory is this: If it works on a negative level, why should it not work on a positive one? Why should an author not be able to implant a positive statement, a glowing report, a witticism so clever and flattering that it sways the opinions of the reviewer and makes it into print?

I shall put this theory to test and report back to you after the publication of my forthcoming book Five Stars and a Well Deserved Booker Prize.

Elephant Café

25 07 2011

Brixton Village has fast become one of the coolest areas to hang out in South West London. With an eclectic vibe, a plethora of interesting places to eat, and the brilliant Federation Coffee, there is always something new to do and see in this fast-evolving little arcade. Each time I visit, I come away with a mental list of new places I need to try…

Our latest experience: Pakistani street food at Elephant Café.

This tiny little restaurant is a great find. Tables spill out onto the street, and the kitchen area is so close that it’s positively exhausting watching the chef’s head bob back and forth as he turns out dishes at breakneck speed, inches from his customers. We were very grateful to get a table on Thursday night, being a group of five out for a birthday meal.

The menu is short and succinct – no messing – which meant we got to try virtually everything between us. Samosas and Pakoras were a perfect way to start. Both the lamb and vegetarian options were equally good, packing just a little spice; enough to excite the taste buds, without killing those of a faint disposition. Then the main courses: a choice between curry and thalis. Most of us went for the thalis (and the poor guy who took one for the team, deciding to dissent from the common option, looked a little sad as ours arrived!) Lovely, simple, warmly spiced lamb mince curry, served with a punchy daal, rice, raita, salad and naan. The chicken was equally good, with a little more sauce than the lamb. There was plenty of food, and none of us left hungry.

The restaurant has no license, so we took our own drinks: a couple of bottles of wine helped the food go down nicely. And as if the great food and fun environment wasn’t enough, the price was a real surprise: a meal for five, excluding drinks, came to £42. A bargain!

We ended the evening with a stroll through the village, enjoying the bands playing in various aisles, and the colourful lanterns dangling overhead. The newly opened ice cream parlour beckoned to us, but our full stomachs resisted… An excuse to return in the not too distant future.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

2 07 2011

Yesterday we went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Nunn has recently taken over as Artistic Director at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, and this is one of three plays he’s directing there this year (we’ve also got tickets for his production of The Tempest with Ralph Fiennes in September.) If this production was anything to go by, his appointment could be a great asset for the theatre.

The play focuses on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but transposes them into a typically absurdist ‘wasteland’ setting, where normal elements such as time, memory, chance and logic are suspended. It is an hilarious, whimsical, beautiful, existential piece of theatre playing with all sorts of lofty themes like death, art, reality, madness, determinism and language.

This production was, simply, faultless. In fact all told I enjoyed it more than the production of Waiting for Godot I saw there last year – which I wasn’t expecting. The two main characters were brilliantly portrayed by Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker; their timing and intonation were flawless, and they really brought out the humour of the play superbly. The ‘question game’ was executed brilliantly and had me in stitches. In fact, I’ve read the play three or four times and hadn’t quite appreciated how consistently humorous it was.

Chris Andrew Mellon did an outstanding job as The Player (replacing Tim Curry, who was originally meant to lend his malleable, creepy face to the role). He looked like a peculiar concoction of Jeremy Beadle, Ross Noble, Matthew Kelly and Beetlejuice… but if you could see past that, his performance was incredibly strong.

I could rave about almost every element… I’ve not been so enthusiastic about a piece of theatre in quite a while. It’s not ‘fresh’ in the sense that it’s a classic piece of absurd theatre (if you’re ever seen any Stoppard, Beckett or Ionesco you’ll know what to expect) but it is absurdism done to perfection. I do on occasion feel that absurd plays can come across as a little tired, with their torrents of futile dialogue and typically minimalist sets, but this had enough energy and focus to keep you rapt in expectation and intrigue.

And to make it better, we had amazing seats in the stalls, and for some unfathomable reason, the people in front of us didn’t return after the interval…

So if you can, you really should go. It runs until 20 August and if you shop around, I’m sure you’ll find some decent offers. I’m sure it’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but you can’t drink tea all your life! Branch out. A splendid time is (almost) guaranteed for all!

The English Pig

26 06 2011

Glancing at a restaurant menu, typically the first thing I do is decide the kind of mood I’m in, and how that manifests in my choice of meat. Imagine the struggle, then, of being faced with an entire menu comprised of only one meat… pork in abundance.

The English Pig is a restaurant in the City, near Barbican, and they specialise (as the name suggests) in pork. Of course, we knew that before we went, and are all fans of the humble pig. During a discussion over dinner the majority of our table said pork was their favourite meat, and I was the sole dissenting voice who dared to suggest a preference for lamb. I did so in hushed tones, for fear I might be ejected from the restaurant.

Everything on the menu includes some aspect of pigginess, except the desserts… but even there was a hint of swine. The menu opens with a warning to vegetarians that they may well be in the wrong place, though I did smell something resembling sea bass from the table next to us, so it would appear that the chefs show a little grace here and there.

The obsession with pig is slightly disconcerting insofar as it also extends to the artwork on the wall; pictures of happy smiling pigs. It reminded me of Leo McGarry’s line in The West Wing: “I take my daughter to a seafood place the first thing she does is name all the lobsters in the tank so I can’t eat ’em.” Thankfully the pictures bore no names.

Pork pate and bacon jam

The menu offered five options for each course, and it was insanely difficult to decide between them. We had gone with a couple of friends, and so were able to order different dishes each and try them all. I went for the crispy pig’s head, which had a beautiful deep flavour, served with a light apple puree. Other options included braised pig’s cheeks and pork scratching salad, both of which were gorgeous. But the highlight for me was the pork pate with bacon jam. It was a fun ‘building site’ of a dish, which tasted fantastic. Each element on its own was great, but together worked brilliantly; the light pate being complemented perfectly by the bacon jam to give a beautiful sweet flavour.

Then onto the mains. One glance at the menu and we were all quickly decided. The signature dish is a 21 hour slow roast belly with mustard mash and savoy cabbage. I considered being the martyr of the group and trying one of the other options just so we could try something different… but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, knowing I would be sick with jealousy seeing everyone else enjoy their pork belly. So four pork bellies it was. (Incidentally, if I had gone for something else, the smoked hock with roasted garlic, broccoli and radish sounded divine.)

21 hour pork belly

The pork belly delivered perfectly: tender and flavoursome, with a beautiful sticky jus, creamy mustard mash and wafer-thin shredded savoy cabbage, topped with a golden strip of crackling. Every element was perfectly balanced and together tasted amazing. I was satisfied that I made the right choice.

Desserts were fun: chocolate fondant with white chocolate sauce served in a bucket, kahlua panna cotta. Helen had ‘strawberries and cream’ which was the most fun and fresh-tasting option. Strawberries with balsamic jelly cubes, cream, a tuile (with, I think, a hint of black pepper in), cream, an earl gray foam and, to bring out the childish side, popping candy. I think you could pretty much put popping candy on any dish and it would bring out a smile… except maybe my pork belly – that would have just annoyed me!

Strawberries and cream

My dessert choice was… well… peculiar! I’m more of a savoury guy than sweet, and would happily do away with dessert in favour of something salty. So I went for the rather odd chocolate and bacon crème brûlée. The waiter said it’s a ‘love it or hate it’ dish, and I think I loved it. It was confusing; a taste combination you don’t expect at all, and the bacon was unmistakable, as was the chocolate. I did enjoy it, especially not having the sweetest of teeth. It’s hard to put it into words really, you’ve got the try it. (Just maybe encourage someone else on the table to order it, and then you can try it without having to commit to that being your major dessert experience!!)

The whole evening was great fun. The restaurant was unpretentious and not at all stuffy. We had gone on a Groupon voucher which we’d bought months ago, and sometimes you can feel a little looked down on when you brandish your printed bit of paper, but not here. The waiters were just as attentive as I imagine they would have been for any other customers. The food was fantastic, we had two bottles of wine; a light pinot grigio and a merlot, and we finished it off with coffee (illy) on the sofas by the window. A great experience.

Strangely enough, they are doing another Groupon offer today. It’s a slightly different deal to the one we got (we got two courses and a bottle of wine per couple, no cocktail) but well worth checking out. I’m sure you won’t regret it! Just don’t watch ‘Babe’ at any point in the preceding week…