Archive for June, 2010

If you’re chatting loudly enough for me to hear, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a private conversation.

The Bugged initiative, a new project in celebration of eavesdropping, has got me very excited indeed. On the 1st July, writers (in the loosest sense imaginable….meaning anyone who can hold a pen….meaning YOU) are being asked collect snippets of conversation you’ve heard during the day and pen them as either poetry, prose, or script – poems of up to 60 lines, stories up to 1,000 words, flash fiction up to 150 words, scripts up to five minutes long.

The judges are National Poetry Day director and Glastonbury festival website poet-in-residence, Jo Bell, and novelist and playwright David Calcuttthe, and they’ll be selecting the best to be posted on the Bugged blog, and the very best to be published in October in a printed anthology.

Think of the yawnsome hours spent in sweaty tube carriages, noisy buses and stuffy waiting rooms – languish no longer….pick up the pen and write! Some people are naturally inquisitive/ ear-sensitive/ nosy, some people are natural writers…..in this project it is advantageous to have both venerable qualities – but if you’re not in this camp, there’s a great collaboration to be made, I’m sure of it.

Things to remember:

1. “Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.” Fran Leibowitz advises you not to pen your own life…try someone else’s instead.

2. As Daphne Du Maurier once said, “Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.” Try not to piss anyone off tooooo much. Discretion is the magic word.

3. Submissions open July 2nd, and close August 15th. Keep an eye out (and an ear) right here.


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From early Renaissance scenes of the Last Supper to Dali’s Lobster Telephone and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, food has always been on the canvas, as well as the mind. It’s time for the relationship between the palette and the palate to be brought to the table.

Historically, art can tell us how the cavemen ate, what the Romans drank and why gout was such a fashionable (i.e. unavoidable) disease among the Edwardian elite. Culturally, art reveals just how creative dining has always been – haute cuisine is no new phenomenon.

Through ancient history, people prided themselves on creating dishes as appealing to the eye as to the tastebuds (admittedly often far more). And this was evident in the art of the day – a showcase of the edibles à la mode, left for all to ogle for years to come. Call it still-life, call it whatever you will, the focus was often the realistic depiction of the plate, and historians will always be thankful for precisely that. Before film or photography, painting and sculpture were the ways to visually record life, from a scientific experiment to a lavish feast. So, wanting to be remembered for their epic shindigs, wealthy party hosts became wealthy art patrons.

One thing that comes to mind when the words “food” and “art” flash before me is the idea of movements and fashions. Even in the last few decades, we’ve see the coming in and going out (and sometimes the resurfacing) of trends such as Prawn Cocktail and Pina Colada, Art Deco and Kitsch. The idea of ‘fashionable food’ makes the chef as much of an artiste as the designer or artist, subject to (or responsible for) the whims of the dining/ gallery-going public. Heston Blumenthal, for one, can probably take a lot of credit for the recent return of the Soda Stream, following his marvellous transformation of the cheap ’80s white wine, Blue Nun, through carbonation, into a faux champers.

Last night I had the pleasure of an 8-course taster menu at Pearl, the swanky restaurant headed up by chef extraordinaire Jun Tanaka. I make no hesitation in saying that the dishes were gorgeous to eat, but more notable was how intriguingly complex and genius they were in both visual and taste composition. An amuse bouche of heritage tomato jelly, with a tomato crisp, a light cheese foam and basil sorbet was amusing to both the bouche and the brain to decipher….and that was just the beginning of the savoury exhibition. At the San Francisco Museum of Art Café you can get Mondrian Pound Cake – why get out your paintbrush to imitate the artist when you can get out your wooden spoon instead?

Heston and Jun, along with Michel Roux, Michel Roux Jnr., Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Marco Pierre White…..are who we think of as modern day celebrity chefs, but they comes from a long line of kitchen superstars. Food as aesthetic creation is no new thing.

The only difference is the thousands of TV channels, iPods, 4oDs and iPlayers now constantly putting it into the popular consciousness.

Martino da Como was, in the 15th Century, the first “celebrity chef.” Martino’s elevation to the “Prince of Cooks” made his Liber de Arte Coquinaria one of the bench marks of early European gastronomical literature (a.k.a. cookbooks). Later, in the height of the French Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême surpassed this “Prince,” becoming known as “The King of Chefs.” Carême was an early pioneer of the elaborate style of cooking known as haute cuisine, the “high art” of French cooking: a grandiose style favoured by both international royalty and the nouveau riche of Paris.

…..Now, for fear of this becoming a history lesson, there is one indefinable, intangible thing that both a painting and a pâtisserie have the power excite in equal measure, with no consideration of fads or fashions: desire. Did you know that Dali’s Lobster Phone has an alternative name? Aphrodisiac Telephone. This says a lot for food-as-subject in general. Think neo-Classicist or pre-Raphaelite…gorgeous women lying around surrounded by platters, men with grapes dangling above their open mouths. In the painting and in the feast, it was all about having the cake. And eating it too.
Moving on a few centuries, desire in food art takes new forms. Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans epitomize precisely what I’m getting at. Desire becomes commodity in the age of consumption, but it is still the same thing, if only in a new, plastic-wrapped new form. Ralph Goings’ painting A-1 Sauce appears just as a few condiments bottles on a table. Not a conventionally romantic image, I’ll grant you, but eye-catching and thought-provoking. Just as modern art must question, prompt and intrigue, so must modern cuisine. And food in art, also, is as prevalent today as it always was, but serves a new purpose – to communicate an opinion, expose a truth or ridicule the ridiculous, rather than showcase the artist’s technical skill.
The imitation of the real in framed, elevated art is like the description in a menu of a dish you can’t quite afford – it just makes you want it more. Along with the human form, the serene landscape and the battle victory, the image of the edible is yet another object of desire. It’s all a question of taste.

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The number 108 doesn’t really have a ring to it… but throw in a cosy village scene fused with top class cuisine and you have the makings for something very memorable indeed.

Only five minutes walk from the hubbub/ hell (delete as appropriate) of Oxford Street, nestled in the heart of Marylebone Village, 108 Marylebone Lane makes the stress of city life a distant memory for a couple of hours. As the sounds of car horns and crowds of tourists fade out, the local feel becomes more and more apparent. 108 Marylebone Lane likes to source as much as possible of the produce and goods it uses from within Marylebone Village itself. Easy to source locally when you’re based in the middle of rural Hampshire, Warwickshire or Yorkshire (and many others of the Shires, for that matter), not so easy in the centre of the capital. The restaurant gets much of its meat from The Ginger Pig, just off Marylebone High Street, and nearby Biggles, where the ”Biggles Venison Sausages” come from, as it happens. The Rococo Chocolate Brownie (just gorgeous) is made from chocolate bought at- you guessed it- Rococo, handily located just a hop, skip and a jump away on Marylebone High Street, and cheeses come from La Fromagerie, arguably one of the best cheese shops in England. Acting as a platform for local businesses and producers to showcase their wares, 108 Marylebone Lane absolutely revels in being the sum of all its (quality) parts.

The venue itself, with its contemporary interior, is divided into two sections – both beautiful, but each with a completely different tone. The bar is strikingly modern with its shiny red ceiling lamps. On the other side of the room, the arrangement of the tables in the large restaurant area offers little corners in which to enjoy food and conversation without the feeling of being in a huge, daunting venue. At the risk of sounding middle-aged, the general feel to the place was really rather pleasant.

Now, turning to the good stuff.  I began with the asparagus (what with it being in season and all), with pickled wild mushroom, quails eggs and truffle dressing, while Miss F opted for the stilton and leek tartlet. The asparagus itself was perfectly blanched, and the truffle dressing was apparent but pleasingly subtle. The quails eggs, hard boiled, would probably have been preferable poached or soft boiled (I’m a big sucker for a gooey yolk – it takes me back to my childhood), but cooked as they were they were able to hold the accompaniments well. Miss F finished the tart with gusto – the single bite I was permitted was incredibly rich; however, I did enjoy the palate teaser of the initial tang of the cheese to the final hum of the leek. We both opted for mains of fish; I the fillets of bream with potato puree and sautéed leek, Miss F, the less purist, saltimbocca of roast monkfish and mozzarella, which came with potato and fennel confit, baked aubergine and wild rocket pesto. The plate sizes, firstly, were just right (especially if you’re going to brave a starter of stilton and leek tart). Though torn by a variety of choices, including the Biggles sausages and the pork belly, the arrogant simplicity of the bream was a sure winner, with the fish perfectly cooked and the side-dishes inventive and intriguing.

Following two courses, only Gluttony and her sister Greed (Miss F and myself, incase you didn’t recognise us) could have managed a couple of desserts on top. However, word on the street is the Rococo Brownie is not to be missed (a rumour with legs, it turns out). Now I must admit that I hate rum in desserts, with a passion! (Rum’n’raisin ice cream = my worst nightmare) In light of this information, you’d think that a banana, rum and chocolate brownie would be a recipe for disaster but I decided to give it a go. My, oh my, what a treat! Spoiling ourselves further with the white chocolate cup and Bailey’s mousse, served with a delightful warm orange madeleine, really was the zenith of indulgence. If we are to believe that proof really is in the pudding then this gem of a place certainly gets my vote. Then again, the proof could have been in the starter or the main and my judgement would have been the same.

108 Marylebone Lane is a little jewel of a find on this one of London’s busiest and bustling shopping streets.  The restaurant’s insistence on keeping things local is such a refreshing change from the rise and rise of global gastronomy on offer in London’s high-end restaurant scene. This place has reverted to village life and prefers to keep it simple and fresh. And that is precisely why I like it.


108 Marylebone Lane
Marylebone, UK W1U 2
020 7969 3900

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I have only just stepped off the plane from Bangkok. Day 1 back in Blighty and I find myself sitting in a Thai restaurant on the edge of Hyde Park. After a couple of weeks out East sampling the best of my (Thai) family’s recommendations (and a lifetime of a Thai mother’s home cooking), needless to say I am bound to be a harsh critic.

Nipa, set in London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel, is the sister of the original Nipa, in the prestigious Landmark Hotel, Bangkok. Since 1995, Nongyao Toopchoi has been the head chef here, leading a 6-strong brigade of Thai women, bringing the “authentic” tastes of their homeland to the West. That’s the pitch – let’s put it to the test.

Hotel eateries, in general, fall into two camps. The first includes restaurants in establishments such as The Dorchester, The Ritz, Claridges and The Lanesborough – spectacular in design and dining, but characterised by hard-to-pronounce menus and harder-to-stomach tabs. The second are the nameless few (not out of compassion, I assure you, but by their sheer banality) in which it would be better to stick to the pork scratchings at the bar.

Nipa, thankfully, is neither of these. Though the location won’t allow you to forget you’re in London – the first floor windows overlook Hyde Park’s Italian gardens – the serenity of the So Sam Sai fiddle and the traditional wood furniture put thoughts of the adjacent tube station behind. Juxtaposing the commuter frowns, the waiter beams as if fresh from the land of smiles himself.

Starting with the Nipa platter, I was beyond amazed to find Kao Krieb Pak Moh among the spring rolls, satay and fish cakes. Kao Krieb Pak Moh, an appetiser of minced chicken, mixed with crushed peanuts and herbs wrapped in a pillowy rice flour crepe, is about as authentic as you can get. Now I have never, ever, EVER seen this dish anywhere except the streets of Thailand. Traditionally served with lettuce, whole chillies and a light dipping sauce, the offering had me very excited indeed. The menu at Nipa overall stays impressively true to the Thai palate, refusing to pander to British sensibilities.

My main of deep-fried soft-shell crab (Yum Ma Muang Poo Nim), one of the Chef’s Recommendations and another street-stall favourite rarely sighted on our own shores, accompanied by the traditional Som Tam salad (shredded green papaya, cabbage, crushed chillies and peanuts, battered tomato, lime and dried shrimp), was another delicious surprise. The Pad Thai escaped common downfalls – too much tamarind paste (too sweet), too much Nam Pla (too salty) – and instead remained light and fresh. Nipa flies the most authentic ingredients from Thailand (Thai aubergines, green papaya and softshell crab are just a few) – perhaps contrary to eco-warriors’ pleas, but definitely accounting for the authentic flavours.

Nongyao’s childhood, spent helping her mother on their food stall in Bangkok, is reflected in her menu. The Coconut Icecream, served in its shell, would trick you into the sense of being a tourist in Antigua by its appearance, were the taste not so reminiscent of that sold in small plastic cups on the Thai streets. Tab Tim Krob – another cause for amazement – is in Thailand a dessert eaten by excited young children swarming round street sellers pushing carts around on bicycles. The jewel-like, water chestnuts, coated in ruby-hued glutinous tapioca flour and served in a sweet, coconut syrup, made me feel young and carefree. The last time I tasted it I was with my 5-year-old cousin outside the gates of her school. All the kids eat it out there. And all the parents. And grandparents. Everyday. I guess it would be the Thai equivalent of bananas in custard, or apple crumble – equally comforting and nostalgic, though perhaps a little more refreshing and lot less lardy. This, if you have ever wondered, is the reason Thais remain so svelte – neither indulgence nor even depressive binging need be unhealthy when you’ve got such great alternatives. Gosh, don’t I sound just like Gizzi Erskine – really, there’s far more to Thai cuisine than its health benefits, and Nipa showcases this well. I’m still thinking about the Kao Krieb Pak Moh and intend to get it again on my next visit – which I hope won’t be too long a wait.

Nipa, Royal Lancaster Hotel, 12 Lancaster Terrace, London. W2 2TY.

020 7551 6039

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