Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Archive for May 2010

32 Great Queen Street

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Well, that comprehensively obliterated the memory of S&M. Both restaurants ostensibly believe in the same thing – great British cooking – but whereas for S&M that means microwaving some mushy peas, for 32GQS it means sand eels, pig’s cheek and pickled rhubarb.

Since I am a decadent, cosmopolitan metrosexual I often start dinner with a glass of prosecco or, in this case, a glass of rhubarb and prosecco fizz. Nom nom nom. My mum’s house red, on the other hand, was “a bit rough” but followed up by a much better carafe of Douro. I failed to match her unit for unit with a half of Hullabaloo which, despite its lovely gingery colour, was surprisingly bitter for a cooper ale and a bottle of Stiegl, an Austrian lager that tastes a bit like Amstel. And then another rhubarb and prosecco fizz for pudding. Nom. N just had water as she felt her kidneys were in need of pampering.

For some reason we were feeling all continental and decided to share four starters between the three of us. Or sort of shared. The cutest of these was a soft-boiled duck egg in a little eggcup with a duck on it and five asparagus soldier. After burning my fingers on this I regressed to five and let my mum cut the top off. Then I wolfed down sticky, orange goodness and left the albumen for her. She, in turn, turned her nose up at sand eels, leaving me and the missus to tear through these. “They’re like whitebait” our lovely waiter helpful informed and so they were, albeit slightly milder, and they disappeared into a nice big splodge of aioli and thence into our gobs. Then I declined smoked mackerel and, judging by their comments, I was right to as it was clearly well fucking strong. I did try a bit of the pickled rhubarb it came with – a kind of British take on the way Scandanavians serve herring – and that was lovely. But then rhubarb always is. Finally, there was a plate of bell onions, tapanade and babaganoush which I would have been disappointed with as an individual starter because it is really more of a sharing snack. So it was perfect in these circumstances and they are very liberal with their bread (take note, other restaurants) so we had something to scoop it up with.

As you might have noticed the ingredients are little out of the ordinary, half way towards the nose to tail philosphy of somewhere like St John. This was even more noticeable – and exciting – with the mains, although there were quite a few options, including all the specials, that we unfortunately had to discard out of hand because they were for sharing (a good concept in the abstract, I reckon). Instead, N had skate wing in nettle and anchovy butter and said it was the nicest piece of fish she’d ever eaten. My mum had kid ragout which was a gigantic mound but when I tried a mouthful was amazingly delicate and zinging with mint. As for me, I went decadent again with scallops, peas and pig’s cheek. It was pretty much all my favourite things on a plate but as I forced in the final mouthful of delicious, gelatinous cheek I thought I might have overdosed on indulgence. I remember reading a question once about how cooking at a restaurant differed from cooking at home. The answer? More butter and salt that you can possibly imagine. In fact, if I had any criticism of 32GQS it would be that they really don’t hold back on the seasoning; our salt and pepper remained untouched and neither of my companions usually hold back.

£40 a head, all in, and that is a bloody bargain.

Written by Martin

12 May 2010 at 16:53

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Silence Is Golden

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Yes, it has been quite quiet here recently. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Despite illness, work, weddings and elections, I haven’t been entirely dormant though: I am now on that Twitter. I’m also planning to write something for SMS and start on Part Two of The Ascent Of Wonder.

And then there is food. I had an absolutely awful meal in the Islington branch of S&M, the sausage and mash restaurant that my work email filter blocks on the grounds of rudeness, at the weekend. As we were leaving we spotted an advert on the door seeking a chef, kitchen assistant and waitress so maybe that explains it. Tonight I’m off to 32 Great Queen Street – a restaurant without a name or a website – which is guaranteed to be much better.

Written by Martin

11 May 2010 at 15:58

Posted in food, short stories

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District 9

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I had been planning to review the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form category of the Hugos for Strange Horizons. That was before I saw Avatar and realised I had absolutely nothing to say about this idiotic, worthless film. So, instead, I thought I would post some thoughts about the films on the shortlist here.

Along with Avatar, District 9 was one of the two films I hadn’t seen before starting the process and it was a shock to my pre-conceptions. From what I had read, I had expected Neill Blomkamp’s film to be a promising but flawed debut; I hadn’t expected a work of such pervasive cinematic incompetence. Perhaps this is understandable in a first time director expanding his own short film, Alive In Joburg (2005), but then where was Peter Jackson who, as producer, received higher billing than Blomkamp? It starts with a great science fiction premise: a giant spaceship appears over the skies of Johannesburg but instead of a glorious moment of first contact there is only silence; when humanity forces its way into the ship, the alien inhabitants are disorganised and dying. The problem is not only the story Blomkamp uses this to tell and the way he tells this story.

The aliens arrived in 1982 and, by the time the film starts, twenty years later, there are over a million of them inhabiting the titular slum district on the edge of the city under the aspices of MNU, a private security contractor. As they grow the slum grows too big to contain, tensions between the “prawns” and the humans rise. This backstory is deftly sketched out in the form of a faux documentary, a venerable tradition – it is the ripping-off-a-plaster theory of infodumping – which works well here (even if it is presumably a legacy of the budget constraints of the original short film). Blomkamp then doubles down by making his protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the subject of a documentary himself. Unfortunately these dual documentaries set up an interference pattern because it soon becomes clear that whilst this new ‘day in the life’ documentary is being told forwards as the bulk of the film, the extracts from the initial ‘talking heads’ documentary were filmed after the events of the movie. The idea is to set up some tension by foreshadowing that something major will happen to Van De Merwe but this is laboured and unnecessary; he is the protagonist, we know something major is going to happen to him. This sort of clumsy redundancy becomes a feature of the film.

The format does have some rewards. Copley – who also produced and starred in Alive In Joburg – gives a brilliant, naturalistic performance as the everyman MNU middle manager with inevitable David Brent-ish overtones. He is one of the best things about District 9 but he is a locus of realism in a film that otherwise has all the nonsense of a Hollywood shoot ’em up whilst taking place in a context (post-Apartheid South Africa) that makes the stakes for failure considerably higher. For example, nothing abot MNU makes sense from their mandate down to their name – Multi National United? Really? More importantly, the whole catalyst for the film – MNU’s resettlement of the district to a “reserve” hundreds of kilometres away – only makes sense if you consider it as exactly what it is: a direct analogy for District Six.

This was the designation of the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town as a whites-only area in 1966 and the subsequent forced relocation of all non-whites. District 9‘s attempt to revisit this injustice means that while the aliens’ presence in Johannesburg starts as a nice piece of cinematic nose thumbing at American cultural hegemony, it quickly sees them being crudely bludgeoned into symbolic representations of black people. This deprives the aliens of any existence they might have in their own right and means we have, for example, the ridiculous spectacle of Van De Merwe going door to door serving eviction notices to the aliens on behalf of MNU. This is not to mention the problem of getting a bunch of aimless, scavenging drones who breed indiscriminately to stand in for black South Africans. This is a shame because the film is actually very strong on depicting prejudice and institutional racism. Early on Van De Merwe unselfconsciously defends the use of the term “prawns” as a slur because “that is what they look like” and is then filmed awkwardly bonding with his black colleagues. It is this which – if you are able to put to the back of your mind the fact that what you are watching is stupid and potentially offensive – makes the mass eviction serving an impressive piece of film making.

Unfortunately, we then have to snap out of our rigid analogy to accommodate a new film. One of the aliens is apparently less lazy and unintelligent than the rest of his species and has been secretly working on a plan for the last two decades to fix the mothership which has been hanging motionless overhead. This plot element is, in itself, very silly but it also shows that Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell haven’t thought ahead. This is the point where they have to abandon the documentary style as they need to show events elsewhere yet they do not abandon it entirely. This leaves the film an unsettling patchwork of styles with the continuing but sporadic uses of found footage increasingly unlikely and the talking heads increasingly superfluous.

Not long after this departure, Van De Merwe gets splashed with some magic fluid and the film barrels down its new trajectory as an action film. Van De Merwe goes straight home after his hard day’s work because – surprise! – he doesn’t bother to tell anyone he has been contaminated. MNU – surprise! – reveal itself to be a standard Evil Corporation hell bent on grinding Van De Merwe’s bones for bread in search of biotech profits. (Van De Merwe’s boss is also his father-in-law but that does stop him from cheerfully allowing himself to be filmed approving live vivisection. Bloody in-laws.) To survive Van De Merwe must – surprise! – team up with the clever alien, overcome his bigotry and learn important life lessons. It is remarkably hackneyed stuff, a painfully familiar blend of plot holes, clichés, sentimentality and blowing shit up. I said this was incompetent film making but perhaps a more charitable way of describing District 9 is as a film that runs on instinct. This is sustainable at the level of the individual scene but beyond that it disintegrates.

Written by Martin

11 May 2010 at 10:25

Posted in awards, films

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The Compass

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Yeah, sorry, I went out for dinner again last night. I was making up the numbers and for any number of reasons I shold have stayed at home.

The Compass used to be The Salmon And Compasses, a pub done over as a trendy bar, where I used to go and neck Stella and listen to my friends DJ. I am now older and wiser and drink Amstel – that one percent makes all the difference – and the pub has similarly been given a mature make over as a gastropub. Actually, everytime I go in the dining room seems to have expanded so by now it is more gastro than pub (the kitchen is actually behind the bar).

I’ve eaten at The Compass before and it has everything you could want from a gastropub: good food, a nice spread of beers (bitter and lager), decent atmosphere and friendly (and attractive) bar staff. Last night everything seemed to go a bit wrong though. This was augured when I arrived by Snow Patrol playing in all their deafening, anthemic glory and a volume knob that seemed to be being twiddled at random throughout the evening. And is F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E. really dining music?

Anyway, I ordered steak because I was feeling braindead and unimaginative. The meat was well seasoned and cooked (though not quite as rare as I would have done it myself) but a bit fatty and I would hope for some more flavour from ribeye. As is compulsary in all gastropubs the chips were triple-cooked, there are good reasons for this and it does make a good chip. If done well. The Compass completely ballsed it, creating hollow, rectangular crisps. Maybe they should stick to twice-cooked in future. The final insult was the bearnaise which was far too buttery in both taste and consistency. The one thing they did get right was a good sized clump of watercress to accompany it. This really is the daddy of salad leaves and the perfect companion to a steak and they had set it off nicely with just a touch of bit of lemon.

The main point of interest, however, was my slightly bizarre, almost magnificent but ultimately sickly starter. This was cauliflower pannacotta with parmesan crisp on a bed of rocket. Pause to consider that. The first mouthful was delicious, the second – using the crisp as a delivery vector – was even better, with the third I ran into a problem: there was about 100g of cauliflour-flavoured cream, milk and sugar on my plate and nothing to go with it. I valiantly mashed it with my rocket but though it helped, it was a losing battle. As I reached the end, I was feeling slightly nauseous. All it need was some Melba toast or something and it would have been a triumph, instead it made me go a bit wrong.

Written by Martin

6 May 2010 at 15:56

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The Chancery

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There was an article in the paper last week about the increasing popularity of vegetarian restaurants in UK as well as increased number of “meat-reducers”. In particular, they talk to the head chef of Vanilla Black and mention that “between 50% and 60% of its clientele are meat-eaters”. Now, I’ve eaten at Vanilla Black and very nice it was too but the cynic in me wonders if most of that 50%-60% consists of blokes taking their birds out for dinner. Because yes, although it pains me to type it, I am a meat-reducer; this is the inevitable consequence of being married to a vegetarian (well, technically a pescatarian). This means that usually the only place I get to eat meat is restaurants so I was pleased that last night we went not to Vanilla Back but right next door to The Chancery.

Actually, our original choice had been The Terrace. Did you know there was a Caribbean restaurant in Lincoln’s Inn Fields? I didn’t but unfortunately its kitchen closed at eight. This was too late for us because we were at an Iain Sinclair talk at Somerset House beforehand. This was part of a series of talks and films to coincide with Bill Fontana’s River Sounding installation in the lightwells and tunnels around and beneath the courtyard. If you happen to be going passed it is worth popping in because it is a transportive experience and just the exploration of this usually unseen space is worthwhile. As for Sinclair, he is someone I’ve always admired rather than actively liked but he is a far more engaging speaker than he is a writer. His discursive style is perfectly suited to addressing a roomful of engaged punters.

Then it was a short walk up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane to The Chancery which is a bit of a stark prospect from outside. The area is Lawyer Central and there was an unmistakably corporate feel to the decor and clientele. We had been worried about this possibility in advance but there was enough warmth in the lighting and the staff to make it welcoming. In fact, the service was the opposite of the fussy, high pressure waiting I had feared, top marks for mixing attentive service with a relaxed atmosphere.

Inevitably there was an amuse bloody bouche and inevitably it was orange soup in a small glass bowl. This time it was butternut and very nice it was too but I could have done with a spoon, rather than being left to slurp it. Then, to start properly, I almost went for the aubergine, basil and mozarella schnitzel – vegetarian indoctorination – but then decided on the pressed smoked haddock. This was essentially a terrine of haddock, potato and leek with an unadvertised but entirely welcome trio of soft boiled quails eggs and a drizzle of hollandaise. N stayed with the ocean for a fluffily delicious tian of crab, crayfish and avocado. Two small problems just took the shine off them though: my potatoes were just on the raw side of al dente and N’s penultimate mouthful contained a small chunk of shell.

Nothing took the shine off the mains though. Despite me protestations about being a poor, hard done by meat-reducer I actually spent the weekend gorging on lamb and beef. I’m sure my colon will thank me later. So, my urge for red meat sated, I did something I never do: I ordered the chicken. This came as a substantial little tower of peas, braised gem and dark meat surrounded by battlements of gnocci. On top sat two cuts of white meat, the skin perfectly crisp, and round it all a moat of truffle jus. It was just absolutely faultless. It was similarly coastal on the other side of the table with roast halibut rising out of a foamy sea of tomato and mussel veloute. I didn’t try it, I’m not sure I would have been allowed so jealously was it guarded.

Let’s skip over desserts because that’s what we should have done. Not because they were bad, although they were both much too sweet, but because we didn’t need them at all. What we did need – to our surprise – was a quite startling glass of muscat with really vivid violet tones which perked us up and salvaged this stage of the meal.

£34 a head for three courses (although this was another Taste London restaurant and hence we paid that for two) with another £30 for service, a lovely glass of Sauvignon Blanc, an okay glass of rose and that muscat.

Written by Martin

5 May 2010 at 13:35