Category Archives: 2. CONNECT – Bars, restaurants, pubs, supper clubs, coffee shops

Bars and restaurants

In praise of London’s libraries

BrixtonCentralLibrary

The beautiful Brixton central library

How many of you are members of your local library?

I know some of you will be of course. I know some of you were very vocal about the recent cuts to library budgets. I know some of you go there for your kids, to borrow books and go to play groups. But the vast, vast majority of my friends, I am pretty certain, haven’t passed the door of a library since they were at school.

And I was exactly the same until YESTERDAY, when I joined Richmond libraries. And I am both amazed and impressed at how brilliant they are, and ashamed that I didn’t join sooner.

I have rose-tinted memories of libraries as a child – going along every week with my mum to take out books on penguins and snails; and then on my own slightly older to explore, crimson-cheeked, books by Judy Bloom, marveling at the high-tech way you could scroll through old newspapers on their machines.

But then libraries were about boring dusty books at Uni, revising and avoidance, and I never really went again.

Until now. Now I have a son, I want him to read a lot like I did, to explore books – their smells and the imagination within them, to discover authors and adventures. And I also want to start reading more myself – and having a house that is weighed down with books already, I don’t particularly need to own any more.

So I went along yesterday, egged on in all honesty by the fact that both my son and I are bored of all his books and I wanted to get him some more, and discovered that libraries now have so much more than they used to. They have free internet access. They let you borrow audio books, both kids and adults. They let you borrow MUSIC and boxsets (“The Wire? Yeah we let you keep that for 3 weeks”). They have every type of book imaginable and allow you to explore new authors and old friends alike. And they are all new-fangled with online renewals and inventories and a nifty computer thingie which you simply swipe your books to your account (yes I realise this is linked to the cuts – more on that below).

And the best thing? I am ashamed that I just didn’t know this – I simply assumed in this world where there is no such a thing as a free lunch that you would have to pay something, a few quid perhaps for each set of books you wanted (yes, I know, The Chef already laughed at me ) - that all of this is FREE. That is, up to 20 books for 3 weeks for just the price of paying your taxes. And in a London where you can barely walk out your front door without shelling a tenner here and there, that is a great thing.

The other great thing about the library? It is a community - your community. It was filled with dads looking at crime novels, grandfathers trying out this new-fangled interweb thingie, kids playing and reading about frogs, mums reading to toddlers, your neighbours all. They have baby singing classes and reading groups, fairs and talks.

It reminded me of my childhood, where life was about simplicity, and community, and where money didn’t matter so much, or certainly it wasn’t so apparent to me as it is now.

So I’m going to support the library in any way I can. Although my first challenge is to see if I can read my first bloody book in 3 weeks! Shantaram took me a YEAR…

Finally, I couldn’t talk about London’s libraries without talking about the cuts. I had read about them, of course, without really understanding how they affected me. So last night I looked at this website  which told me what’s actually happening all over the country. From a quick look, it looks like smaller areas have had their libraries closed, other libraries have had to take up the slack and open longer hours, thousands of qualified staff have been laid off, and mobile centres seem to have disappeared almost entirely. Which makes me worried about those communities, those immobile people, who are denied the thing that I have just discovered.

Where I used to live in Lambeth, Upper Norwood library is now funded outside the council, at least 6 mobile centres seem to have been lost, large branches have had their hours increased, smaller branches their hours cut, Waterloo and Streatham libraries may have to move and Streatham’s qualified staff all dismissed, other libraries at risk are Durning, Waterloo, South Lambeth, Minet and Carnegie (5 out of 11), West Norwood’s library is still closed, librarians jobs have been cut, £1.5 million has been cut from a budget of £6 million.

In Richmond where I now live, Ham, Hampton Wick and Kew libraries are all under threat with other libraries having to open longer hours, self-service is in all libraries, and £351k has been cut from the budget.

Do what you can to support London’s libraries – having discovered them I would be sad to see this bastion of community disappear. Check the website above for campaign groups such as Save Lambeth Libraries, or check out this page on what you can do to support libraries across the country.

For the love of food – Al Boccon Di Vino, Richmond

7c1268_aa4efbb429c0cf411647cf771f1469cb_png_srz_260_230_75_22_0_50_1_20_0

So, as you know, I now have a small person occupying my time so I haven’t blogged for a while, but this place is just so damn good I wanted to tell you all about it.

It’s called Al Boccon Di Vino and it’s a tiny little restaurant in Richmond owned by this impossibly cool man who managed to make me giggle like a schoolgirl simply by winking at me:

7c1268_8f2260fb5b9e2806ad771f270c715f5b_png_srz_216_132_75_22_0_50_1_20_0

And run by this fabulous lady who The Chef actually fell in love with, and who walked round all night filling up our wine glasses and offering out limoncello, with words of love and laughter.

7c1268_f0d2c0f835fa181e438ff26a39059b6c_png_srz_216_132_75_22_0_50_1_20_0

Now, I didn’t think London could possibly produce a better fun Italian restaurant than Giuseppes in Borough – I mean, when it comes to atmosphere, Giuseppes always has me up dancing by the end of the night – arms round a group of people I only just met, warbling out old love songs on the microphone and listening to Frank Sinatra while sipping limoncello.

But Al Boccon Di Vino has atmosphere in spades and is the most incredible authentic Italian feast.

First, it has to be said it’s great for Richmond, which I’ve always found disappointing food-wise. Richmond is sooo beautiful – overlooked by the deer of Richmond Park as the sun sets over the Thames that runs through it. It should be filled with fabulous eateries and river-side pubs. And yet it seems more to be filled with Zizzis and Stradas and such like, and a mixture of hooray henrys and wobbling young tykes bound for Be At One.

But this place is an institution. It doesn’t care about money, and as such there is no menu, but you squash in next to your neighbor (who you are likely to get very well acquainted with) and are served a veritable banquet of food, like an Italian wedding feast.

We were there for almost 5 hours!!! And were solidly eating for most of it, although there is a well-timed pause before the mains and after the antipasti. We spent quite a lot of time chatting with our neighbours about this incredible feast which gave the place a real community feel. This is what we ate (or what we remember we ate at least):

Antipasti of lightly tempura’d vegetables

Aubergine with the most delicious mozzarella and parmesan mousse

Fried Mozzarella

A plate of prosciutto

2 Types of Scallops

Langoustines

Beef Carpaccio

Pasta with wild boar

Mozzarella and tomato ravioli (which The Chef declared to be the best pasta he’d ever tasted, before declaring his undying love for Simona, and ordering a second bottle of wine)

A whole roast suckling pig that was shown to the diners to a great mass of applause, served simply with roast potatoes

Strawberries and pannaccotta

Some other desserts perhaps (neither of us can remember)

Complementary coffee, grappa and limoncello

Hic

The meal was fabulous. Fabulous! A real event, a showpiece meal served with a feeling of joy and community. The cooking was fantastic in the most part brilliant. All I would say is that the scallops were perhaps a bit overdone, but the rest of the meal was incredible, and generous in it’s cooking and presentation.

The cost for all this? £40 a head, which is quite ridiculous when you think of the amount of food and the quality of the ingredients. But as they say, they don’t do it for the money.

We went for the house wine (2 bottles given how long we were there and, well, because we don’t get out much) and this was fantastic, particularly the white, and it comes in at £25 per bottle.

I can’t recommend this place enough, although suggest you don’t go as a surprise as you’ll need to set aside tons of time and don’t eat for say a fortnight or so beforehand. Prepare to be full, happy and a little sozzled by the end. It would be a GREAT place for a group for a birthday or similar.

Al Boccon di'vino on Urbanspoon

A Tale Of Two Cities

I’d wanted to go to the Experimental Cocktail Club in Soho for ages but it was one of those places I’d never got round to trying. But The Chef and I planned a long overdue “Date Night” last Friday, and I suggested we might start there.

Oh how very wrong was I. We didn’t book a table – well, we were only 2 people and meeting pretty early at 6.30pm. Again, wrong. I rocked up on a cold January day on my own, and was “welcomed” by a humourless French bouncer who looked me up and down like I was something squidgy and brown he had just stepped on. AND I WAS DRESSED UP AND EVERYTHING!!! Now in my mid 30s with a decent job, good clothes, an expensive haircut and a credit card, I can safely say I have not felt intimated or belittled by door staff for a good decade or so, but this man made me feel about an inch tall. After asking if we had booked a table (no) he then proceeded to tell me that they were so very busy that I might be allowed in, but he could not promise that my companion would also be allowed in.

OK so let me get this straight. I am dressed up, obviously not a tramp, wearing nice shoes, obviously willing to spend money on your ridiculously overpriced and undoubtedly pretentious cocktails, and you are telling me that my choices are (i) wait in the January cold on my own until my date gets here; or (ii) go alone into the cocktail bar and presume you are going to treat my companion with the same patronising disdain and shoo him away, leaving me alone for the evening.

I went with the former option and this lovely bouncer kept me outside, in the cold, on my own, for a good 10 minutes, letting others inside who came after me, which made me want the ground to swallow me up, never speaking to me nor once suggesting I go inside to warm up. I should also mention in this time he let 2 couples in who had not booked. It seems I was on his blacklist for daring to turn up solo or to question their booking policy. Finally, The Chef arrived and Monsieur Le Cockface (I believe I dropped the C-bomb on him on twitter later that night, perhaps a little uncalled for, but I was a fairly merry by that time) kept us waiting for another 10 minutes before finally telling us that they were far too busy and we would have to wait another 30 minutes but even then we could not be assured a seat.

By this time, I’m ashamed to say I was freezing, annoyed, upset, humiliated and angry, a feeling I recall from trying to get into cool Soho clubs when I was in my 20s but which I had long forgotten. Well, you know what Experimental Cocktail Club? FUCK YOU! Yeah, FUCK YOU and your stupid pretentious look-you-up-and-down patronising derogatory bullshit. You genuinely made me feel like a teenager again, standing outside Oddfellows in Edinburgh in the cold, while you let my friends in and made me wait outside all night, contemplating another lap round the block and changing jackets with my best mate in case you didn’t recognise me the second time. You made me feel that small and pathetic and uncool. And yes, I admit it, I CRIED when I left, walking up Dean Street, freezing and shivering, and away from your patronising stare. I’m ashamed to admit that I cried and I felt like crap and you almost, almost ruined my night. And I will never ever go to your crappy establishment again and I hate you and everything you stand for and the way you make people feel, and the way you think that WE, the paying public, the people who pay YOUR salary, should feel we OWE YOU anything – that WE should feel HONOURED to sit our stinky pleb bottoms on your gold-covered sofas. You got it wrong ECC, you owe US you see, and little did you know, The Chef and I like a cocktail more than most and would have shelled out a ton of cash if you’d treated us right.

Anyway as The Chef said, don’t let them get to you and I won’t. But never ever go to the ECC, unless you enjoy being treated like a dirty little cockroach.

We had booked a table that night at Quo Vadis – the re-done Soho institution on Dean Street. So we decided we might just go there early for a cocktail. And how bloody right we were.

The difference between Quo Vadis and the ECC was astounding. When we came in several staff members smiled. They took our coats, said hello, showed us to the bar. The barman smiled, gave us a menu, asked us what what we liked, explained a few things, let us try their homemade pomegranate juice. And – hello – the cocktails ranged from around £6.50 upwards. How wonderfully refreshing. And the barman was lovely and the cocktails gorgeous. My vodka martini was perfect with delicious little olives, The Chef’s whisky sour fantastic. Add to this a lovely little English fizz and some Campari cocktails and we were happy little bunnies once more. And this is the annoying thing about the ECC – people like us might not look the part to you, but we like nice things and good service and are willing to pay for it.

Quo Vadis has been taken over by Head Chef Jeremy Lee, a charismatic Scotsman who welcomed us to our table and chatted amongst the guests all night. He was formerly head chef at the Blueprint Café which I also loved – a little jewel on the Thames which seemed overlooked, much to my surprise, as the food and service were amazing and the views incredible. As a Scot I just loved the Scottish touches – a weather forecast on the menu: “bonny”, heather on the tables, haggis.

The service was genuinely perfect – Michelin standard. Waiting staff were friendly and knowledgeable and totally unintrusive. Wines were ace. Starters of salsify, mallard and eel sandwich were just delicious. The Chef by now was going off into his trance-like misty-eyed silent mode, eyes rolling back into his head, which meant he loved the food (and didn’t care for conversation) – last time I saw a similar reaction was at the Ledbury, and Leong’s Legends.

And onwards. The Chef had mutton chops which were incredible, a real depth of taste, you could actually picture a wise old sheep gambling up the hillside. I had a delicious hake with parsley mash which reminded me of San Sebastian. This is The Chef’s type of food – simple, rich, and all about the ingredients. Pudding was an amazing almond tart, and cheese, with a glass of Sauternes.

I cannot rave enough about the new Quo Vadis – lovely, friendly service that makes you feel a million dollars (SO important to me, still fuming ECC!), delicious fairly-priced food (starters from around £6, small bites around £3.50, mains around £8 – £15) so for me Quo Vadis has to be the pick of restaurants in Soho.

The cost? Well it was £100 a head, but once we sat down and started smiling because they got it JUST right, we knew we were going to blow the doors off. For £100 each we got: 3 cocktails each before dinner (norty), a £48 bottle of lovely wine (after ECC I suggested we splash out), 3 starters to share between 2, 1 main course each, pudding and dessert wine. It was so worth it, we went home with a smile on our face and a skip in our step. Highly recommended (and did I say already, avoid the ECC).

UPDATE 8 FEBRUARY 2012: After I wrote this blog post, I was inundated with tweets and emails and comments from others saying they had had the exact same experience so it seems it was not just me. However, on the evening I wrote the post, I got the following email from Xavier Padovani, one of the owners of the ECC:

Good Evening,
Firstly I would like to introduce myself, I am one of the owner of the ECC Chinatown.
I have just read your blog and I am horrified, I can not find the word to express how sorry I am, how sorry I am to discover the way you have been treated, this is not how we are or how we want to be, in a few words I am speechless!!
Firstly I would like to sincerely apologise for the way you were treated  at the door, I am sorry, and I understand if you want to tell me to “bugger off” or even so if you wish yo use other words to express your feeling, I totally get it, this is unacceptable!
Again I would like to apologise.
I am tonight on my way to the bar and I can only promise you that I am going to firstly investigate exactly what happened at he door Friday night and once I understand exactly what happened, I will act in consequence.
Yet clearly you must hate us and be upset with us, so the only thing I can do at that stage is to assure you that this is not who we are and who we want to be but rather the opposite, this is not an acceptable attitude for our people to take at the door.
So firstly I wanted to apologise and secondly, and only if this is ok by you, and after investigating on my side what happened, I would like to get back in touch with you to be clear on what exactly what happened and learning from our mistake share with you what we are going to change to make sure this never happen again at he bar!
I can only promise you that we will learn from that horrible experience and I will do what I have to in order to make sure this never happens again!
I will get back to you after speaking to the management and the team.
Best wishes
Xavier

After investigating, he sent the following email:

Good Evening/Morning,
I have now personally investigated the matter further as I told you I would since it is what we do when we get a complain.
I understand you came to the bar and you were told that you could come in but when you mentioned someone was going to join you later the door staff told you that they could not guaranty entrance for your guest.
This is because by the time your guest would have arrived we may have reached the authorised legal capacity number.
I understand that you decided to wait. By the time your guest arrived, the bar had reached capacity as a result you two could not enter the bar.
After reading your blog comments it sounds like the staff did not communicate properly with you and may have had quite an attitude while dealing with the issue ; believe it or not I am genuinely embarrassed if that is the way they made you feel and tonight I have had a word with the staff.
Again I can only appologize if you feel the door staff did not act properly.
Clearly you did not appreciate the experience so there is nothing we can do to change that. I can only assure you that we have read your words and this will help us improve in the future.
This is a genuine “I am sorry email and we have taken note”. I am genuinely sad this has happened, I really hope you understand that blog or no blog I am totally sincere.
We will continue to get bad reviews and good reviews since everyone can write whatever they want on the net, this is the beauty of it and this is the game we all play.
However I am completely honest and truly thought what happened was a shame, voila, hope you understand.
Regards
Xavier

To this I wrote the following response:

Hi Xavier and thank you for your response.
For the sake of fairness and with your permission, I will publish this on the blog – let me know if you object.
What I may say is that I have genuinely not been treated so badly by door staff for over a decade in London, and from the twitter responses to my blog post, a huge number of people in London have been treated the same by your door staff and will not go back.
If you geuinely don’t want your establishment to be seen as somewhere you have to put up with abusive door staff then I suggest you entirely re-train them, or get new people who are able to be friendly!
In any event, I am grateful for the time and effort you have taken in responding and for the concern you have shown.
All the best
Sasha

Since then, I am still hearing stories on twitter about poor treatment at the ECC, including tweets from last night by @bittenwritten saying they had the following exchange with the doorman: ECC – “Can we come in?” Answer: “No.” Why? “Maybe wait 45 mins.” Us: Go fuck yourselves.

They are making a mistake here – I’ve heard from people including previous Masterchef winners and influential food bloggers that they have been turned away in similarly rude style. Who passes through the door of doom then? Only those who have booked, or those who look a certain way? Is this Parisian service for you? And why didn’t Xavier offer us to come back and try it if he was so sorry? I suspect we just wouldn’t get in.

Quo Vadis on Urbanspoon

GUEST POST – CULTURE IN LONDON: Fridaze by Leonie Ellis

Note from Sasha: So our celebrant tells us that organising a wedding should be fun as the day itself flies by, and y’know what, it is. Yes, it is, really. Planning menus and tasting wine and talking about flowers and eating cake and planning a fantastic party for all the people you love, is fun. I even bought Monica-from-Friends style cocktail sticks so we can do a pop-up table plan. But, it means daily life sort of goes on hold for a bit (thank god we decided to get married quickly, I couldn’t keep this up for more than 6 months) so I’m not really checking out much of London – apart from gyms, yoga classes, facialists and wedding shops. So I’m leaving the exploration of London to my brilliant friend Leonie who has summed up all that is fabulous and beautiful in London in January. She does a weekly round up of what’s on in her “Fridaze” emails – tweet her to get on the list @Leonie_Ellis.

_________________________________________________

ART

A couple of weeks ago, the West end art galleries held their first opening shows of 2012 after the Christmas break. Eastcastle Street and Mayfair was heaving with a throng flitting between each gallery like a swarm of fevered bees with impoverished artists scrambling for the free beers at each stop. I would recommend heading to ‘Sex and Friends’ by Tobias Rehberger at Pilar Corrias on until Feb 17th.

Irene Alvarez has taken the art of tapestry to a new level with an exhibition of lurex, Walt Disney, synthetic flou inspired pieces. Check out her work here.

Martin Parr has curated an exhibition featuring Richard Simpkins and Simone Lueck entitled ‘Richard & Famous’ which explores our burgeoning celebrity culture and its increasingly blurred boundaries. The exhibition takes its title from Australian star-hunter Richard Simpkin’s extraordinary project Richard & Famous. Since 1989 Simpkin has pursued celebrities to have his photo taken with them. LA-based photographer Simone Lueck posted online adverts inviting older women to pose in the guise of their favourite movie star. The image below is Mara as Brigitte Bardot shot in 2009. Dazed and Confused interviewed Martin Parr about this exhibition.

Future Map 2011 - Future Map is an annual survey show exhibiting the best cutting edge talent from the graduating year at University of the Arts London. Reviewing all the graduate and postgraduate courses in art, design, fashion and communications, an illustrious panel of industry experts chose works they feel best represent the next generation of creativity. On until 5th Feb.

Graffiti artist Stik started out by spotting likely looking walls, sketching and planning his ideas for them and spraying them in just hours, or even minutes, in order to run off before the police found him, but these days  bookshops, galleries, cafes and social centers in both London and Bristol are commissioning him to paint their walls. And for the first time he’s started to rent a studio and to sell canvases and sculptures through galleries. A map has been created on Google of where to find Stik’s work around London. Here it is.

Need some creative inspiration? Haw-Lin is a website with nothing more than than a collection of random images that might just spark that idea you need.

PARTY

I have never entered into the futile attempt of a ‘dry’ January and just as well I haven’t disappointed my tradition this year as I have discovered these 2 drinking establishments:

The Whistling Shop - This bar takes elements of Victorian and Dickensian drinking culture, fusing them with very forward thinking and bar tending techniques. They have a laboratory in which to experiment with flavour, multi-sensory perception and theatrical cocktails which can then be enjoyed whilst being surrounded by wood and glass pannelled rooms and gaslight. This just about trips every switch for me.

69 Colebrookerow - Tony Conigliaro is widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s pioneering drinks creators, and is continually working to break the boundries surrounding drinking experiences. A team of lab-coated bartenders habit this Islington hideaway. Old school charm is at the centre of the bars ethos combining 30′s jazz, faultless service and the odd bow tie.

Artists LuckyPDF are hosting Bubblebyte after party at the Bussey Building in Peckham on the 27th Jan with  Will be good. Check out this link for details.

Main Room
✺ AIDS-3D hot from Miami, cold from Berlin
⊙ DJ SKYPE beaming in from Amsterdam
✺ CRAXXXSMRYF ?????? (¿Germany¿)
⊙ MATTHEW STONE returns from NYC, finally
✺ EDDIE PEAKE = www.eddiepeake.com
⊙ FELIX LEE (NATIONAL GRID)
✺ BRADLEY ZERO (RHYTHM SECTION)

Bunga Bunga Lounge
✺ Enchante (Greco-Roman / TopNice)
⊙ STAN IRADANOV (HOUNDS OF HATE)
✺ Paul B. Davis (Beige / TopNice)
⊙ Hampus Time (Top Nice)
✺ Burning Bush (Top Nice)
⊙ T-Trak

MUSIC

Some new blood going under the name of Pandr Eyez. Have a listen here and read Don’t Panic’s interview with the band here.

Some more new talent Peepholes. Have a listen to their soundcloud here and read their interview with Dazed and Confused here.

This list an excellent list of the recent albums you need to listen to.

Go and discover some new musical  talent at HMV’s ‘The Best New Bands’ event

FASHION

Steaming, bubbling geysers on the verge of explosion, blue lagoons and wishing wells carry particular significance in Tze Goh’s S/S12 collection after a trip to Iceland to witness the Northern lights. Read Tze’s interview in AnOther about the stunning country and how it inspired here.

My friends at Barebones have created this frankly amazing T Shirt that I will be wearing permanently until it falls apart over the summer. You can buy one too for a mere £15 from the BareBones website where you will also find a spectacular array of illustrations.

AND JUST BECAUSE I LIKE IT……

GUEST POST – A layperson’s guide to vino by Suzanne & Justin @ Griffinwell Wines

Note from Sasha: Guest post season commences! As anyone who reads this blog will know, wine makes me happy*. And my love of wine has developed from teenage glasses over dinner at mum’s house, to bottles of pinot grigio with the girls after work, to wine-tastings in the Hunter Valley and Mendoza, to now – as a sort-of grown up with more developed tastes – to wanting to pay a bit more for a beautiful bottle that makes a meal incredibly special (yet, lets face it, I still enjoy a £5 Lindemans Sauvy B from time to time too…). I still don’t know enough so I asked lovely friends Suzanne & Justin from Griffinwell Wines, who were kind enough to let me drink all their wine  help out at their Taste of London stall a few weeks ago, to answer some basic questions.

 Suzanne & Justin at Taste of London

1. One problem I’ve found with French wines is that when I go to a French restaurant, I get handed a wine list with the names of Chateaux and dates, but without helpful pointers like the type of grape. This is the same when I’ve gone to a French supermarket. How can I pick a great white and red wine with only this information?

Honestly, the French make the some of the best wines in the world but they wouldn’t win any awards for making their product easy to understand. It’s kind of like walking into a modern art gallery and trying to make sense of the latest “masterpiece” when the extent of your art knowledge was that last colouring book you had when you were five. With restrictive labeling laws, tremendous regional diversity, and often complex blends, how should a mere mortal approach French wine?

First plan of attack should be to ask some questions and to describe what you tend to like and what kind of wine you’re in the mood for. In a restaurant setting, the sommelier should be able to provide guidance on the entire wine list. In the supermarket, look for shelf-talkers that will provide you with a bit of information. Also, be sure to look at back labels when they are available as the grape varieties are often found there.

Secondly, pay attention to regional differences in pricing. “Brand names” likeBordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne tend to carry more prestige so often come with an associated markup. A wine from Languedoc-Roussillon or the Loire at the same price point as a Burgundy is almost certainly going to be better value for money. Another good rule of thumb is to look out for “Premier Cru” or “Grand Cru” on the label. These are wines which typically come from better sites.

It’s true that French wines can be intimidating but don’t let that put you off! Taking a class or a going to a couple of wine tastings is a great way to get educated. If that’s not an option, organize informal tastings with friends around a particular region.

2. Summer is all about bottles of rosé in beer gardens – not too heavy or sweet preferably. What should I be looking for and are there any you can recommend?

Rosé wine got a bad rap a few years back because of the sickly sweet stuff coming out of California. The trend in recent times has definitely been toward drier styles and even the guys are getting on board! As a rule of thumb, things to look out for when shopping for that perfect summer rosé are:

  • If you see “demi-sec” on a bottle of rosé, that means it is semi-sweet so stay away if you don’t want the sweetness.
  • Provence-style rosés tend to be very dry with high acidity which makes them very refreshing and perfect for summer. Rosés from the Loire are often lighter in alcohol and generally are overlooked and under-valued so keep an eye out for some of those.  Outside of France, Portugal in particular is worth a try.
  • Price – Don’t be afraid to pay upwards of £8 for a rosé, you won’t be disappointed with the difference in quality.

At Griffinwell, we have a number of rosés in stock that definitely fit the bill – Le Guêpier from Domaine de Ravanès went down a treat at Taste of London this year, and we’ve got a new highly rated rosé from our Sancerre producer just in. All are dry and light but with enough roundness so as not to be aggressive. If you are into spicy foods then a little hint of sweetness can help to balance the heat – we’d recommend our Cabernet d’Anjou if you want rosé with your curry.

3. When I go to a wine tasting, apart from the taste, what should I be looking for?

Get a spot close to the food, and watch out for lots of people looking overly pretentious whilst they swirl the wine around in their glasses. In all seriousness, wine is truly a sensory experience so you can spend as little or as much time as you like enjoying the ride. Sight, smell, taste, it’s all there. Colour can provide indications of a wine’s age and whether or not it has been filtered. Swirling serves to release aromas in the wine, and palate cleansers like bread or crackers can help you taste differences between wines. Some foods can really help a wine shine so be sure to try any suggested food pairings.

It’s easy to get caught up in wine analysis but at the end of the day, it should be a pleasure. Have some fun and don’t be afraid to expand your horizons!!

4. I used to spend no more than £3.50 on a bottle of wine but my tastes have got more sophisticated and I find it hard to find wine I like in my local supermarket. Where should I be looking to buy wine from and how much should I spend on a decent bottle? Is it just a big mark up or is it worth paying more?

It is DEFINITELY worth paying more for wine if you’re looking for something of higher quality and with a little more sophistication. When buying wine, take the following into consideration:

  • Approximately 50% of a £5 bottle of still wine goes straight to taxes (it’s more for sparkling). This doesn’t even start to account for cost of transportation, storage, packaging, etc.
  • Thus, only about 10p of a £5 bottle actually goes into making the wine
  • A £10 bottle has more than 20 times the available cash to go into making quality wine than does a £5 bottle

Always try to buy from someone who will provide the support you deserve when picking out some decent wine (see question 1). We have a special section on our site called “Ask Suzanne” for this very purpose. Whether you are buying from us or not we are happy to act as a sounding board!

It’s amazing how much of a leap in quality you get by spending just a few pounds more – aim for £8 and above as a starting point for higher quality juice.  

5. What is the perfect red wine to drink with steak? And the best easy-drinking white wine for after work drinks?

With wine, “perfect” is in the eye of the beholder. That said, tannins can help in the digestion of protein so we tend to go for bigger style reds when pairing wine with steak. Personal favourites would be Bordeaux, Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon. If you’re an Argentinean Malbec fan, try a wine from Cahors, made from the same grape. From the Griffinwell collection, be sure to try the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine de Ravanès or the Cuvée Del Ros from Domaine Mas Rous.

In terms of easy-drinking whites, there are so many to choose from! Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc have been popular for a while and those are great choices of course. Unoaked Chardonnays are increasingly fashionable and can be wonderfully refreshing. If you want to expand your palette, we would encourage you to try Riesling from Germany or Alsace, Chenin Blanc in a lighter style, or Torrontes from Argentina. And don’t forget the bubbles! We particularly recommend French crémant  - “the other champagne” - or Viognier from Domaine Brescou. (Note from Sasha – I’m a big fan of cremant, especially served in those lovely flat French glasses, and Viognier since I tasted it in Hunter Valley – amazing with Thai food, and Rieslings from Austria that Lady B let me try…sigh…)

6. Does the alcohol percentage of the wine matter? And is there any way (apart from the obvious!) to avoid white wine hangovers?

Alcohol is a byproduct of grape fermentation and as such is a key element in wine so it definitely matters in that context. Alcohol percentage is a legally regulated element – table wine has to be less than 15% ABV or it is considered fortified.  

The hangover question is one that haunts us all! To avoid, try to pace yourself, always have food with wine, and drink lots of water in between sips. Going for lighter alcohol wines is another way to keep things under control.

7. Why do you get “bits” at the bottom of your glass when you drink heavy red wine? Is this a good thing?

Sediment is more common in unfiltered wines and/or wines that are designed for long ageing. The “bits” you sometimes see in a bottle or a glass are nothing to be concerned about and usually indicate a fine wine that has already spent some years in the bottle.

8. Can you recommend some amazing vineyards for me to visit next time I’m in France? What is the etiquette for wine tasting – can I just rock up or do I need to book? Am I expected to buy anything?

So many to choose from!! My advice would be to start with a guidebook. Alistair Sawday has a one called “French Vineyards” which is a great starting point.  

In terms of etiquette, it is always best to call and book, particularly for smaller vineyards. If you have paid for a tasting, you are not necessarily expected to buy. However, if you have gone through a range of wines and have spent time going through the winery, common courtesy is to make at least a small purchase.

9. Apart from snobbery, is there any reason why I shoudn’t buy screw top wine? And if cork, how can I tell if the wine is corked?

There’s no reason not to buy screw top unless you’re a traditionalist – some of us just can’t resist the sound of a cork being pulled! For wines that are intended for long cellaring, the jury is still out as screw top technology is fairly new. But particularly for wines that are intended to be enjoyed while young, the convenience of a screw top is hard to dispute.

Corked wines are easy to recognize once you’ve encountered a tainted bottle. Basically, if you sniff the wine in your glass and it gives off a distinctly musty odor without the expected wine aromas, it’s probably corked.

10. Tell me about the wines you sell.

All of our wines are hand-selected by the two of us from small, independent French winemakers. We seek out those bottles that punch truly above their weight in terms of value for money. We like to pay special attention to some of the lesser-known regions and styles, as France has more to offer than many consumers are aware of. For more information, be sure to visit www.griffinwell.com or ask Suzanne any wine question you might have!

The Griffinwell story
 
 
Suzanne Griffin and Justin Rudwell are longtime buddies and Americans from the South who first met at South Carolina’s International MBA programme well over a decade ago. The decision to start Griffinwell Wines came to them after copious amounts the stuff had been consumed in the French hill town of Sancerre. Two years on and fast forwarding to present day, the guy from Kentucky and the gal from North Carolina find themselves in London selling French wine to the British public.
 
The aim of Griffinwell Wines is to help wine lovers expand their wine experience in a way that is easy, reassuring and fun. By working exclusively with artisanal producers who control quality from vine to bottle, Griffinwell can always source the best hidden gems at the best prices. Griffinwell’s tagline, “What Wine Today”, is a nudge of encouragement to people who are up for trying great wines that punch above their weight. 
 
Griffinwell Wines offer a range of services for private, corporate and trade clients. More information available at www.griffinwell.com.
 
* Not medically proven, and not like tons of it, just over dinner and stuff, etc etc….

Sitaaray, 167 Drury Lane, New London Theatre building, Covent Garden, WC2B 5PG

Wow just looked at the Sitaaray website and even A A Gill liked it (more than one can say for poor Hawksmoor). From Monday to Saturday it has an unlimited kebabs and curries menu for £18 until 31 July (normal price £22.95) and that is what, dear reader, I tried for you a couple of weeks ago. And can I firstly say *ooof* and next *yum*, for that is what I came away with.

Sitaaray is a shrine to Bollywood- photos of Bollywood stars adoring every space, music pumping out, even the cocktails are named after the Bollywood films, and I noted with excitement that their opening exhibition was inaugurated by Aishwarya Rai. It is gorgeous and decadent inside AND allowed me to be nostalgic about the best.time.ever I had in India – seeing a Bollywood film in Rishikesh, hundreds of excited people, SCREAMING when the heroine came on, in slo-mo, hair swooshing and launching into an impromptu dance by the lakes of Kashmir that had nothing very much to do with the plot, LAUGHING hysterically when the hero carried out dastardly practical jokes in the manner of Benny Hill oops I’ve just pulled the chair out so you fall on the floor when you sit down. And that music, so catchy and dancy and happy, from the latest hit movie playing out of every radio from Kovalam to Manali. I’d come back to Sitaaray to reminisce alone.

It is right next to the New London Theatre which reminds me I MUST GO TO WAR HORSE soon and before the film comes out next year. I would have seen it recently if someone hadn’t come to London and got their equine-based plays mixed up and said “oh but I’ve already seen that play what Harry Potter gets his thingie out in” and so we didn’t get tickets.  MOTHER!!!

Anyways, after a vodka martini at Kopapa round the corner – sweeet (see above) – I started with a pink Awara cockatail and then the food came, and then it kept on coming for a very very long time.  Sitaaray is one of the few Indian kabab (Grill) restaurants in London and it was these grills that it excelled in. Seriously tasty, perfectly cooked, delicious. And, dare I say it, at times better, more delicately done, than the lovely Dishoom round the corner.  

We had samosas and lamb kababs and chicken tikkas and juicy chicken in marinade and grilled fish tikkas which were incredible. The chicken and fish kababs were especially amazing, melt in the mouth and I also LOVED the veggie kababs (see bottom piccie below) – the tandoori cauliflower was amazing as was what tasted like a curried sweetcorn fritter.

The only downside, and I have to be honest here, was that the curries didn’t work for us. Chicken tikka massala and dahl tasted odd to me, as if created on a Heinz tomato soup base, and the veggies were as if they were from a tin. You know what Sitaaray, just scrap ‘em – your kebabs are so amazing you don’t need the curry – we were far too full by the end to eat them anyway.

I’d definitely recommend you go for a giant feast and Bollywood night out, and if you have a spare ticket to War Horse, seriously, then let me know. The Chef and I were guests of Sitaaray and thank them very much for filling us up and being so friendly.

Sitaaray on Urbanspoon

The Landor pub, 70 Landor Road, Clapham North, SW9 9PH

One of my pet peeves about Clapham and Brixton is that there is a real dearth of really good pubs. Not so North London with amazing gastropubs like The Albion, Draper’s Arms,  The Scolt Head and the Bull & Last. West London’s also pretty good with the Prince of Wales in Putney, the Dove in Hammersmith, and all those lovely little pubs along the Thames. Brixton has some good places (particularly The Prince Regent and the Florence but these are more towards Herne Hill) but Clapham lags behind. Sure you can squeeze yourself into The Sun or The Falcon – and that was much fun in my 20s – but now I’m getting on a bit, I need a seat, and, y’know, for it to be quiet enough to talk and stuff. I’d also like some decent food and good wine, not served in pint glasses at £5 a pop. I’d also like everyone I know to move to Brixton and the moon on a stick, just so we’re clear.

And so for me, Clapham finds a winner in The Landor. It has a pool table for lazy Sunday afternoons. It has been done up and looks right nice. It has lovely new management who come out when you’re having a fag to suggest you might want to try the garden later on. It has a brilliant singer on Friday nights with a lovely voice. They’ve done up the beer garden out the back with a lovely covered walkway and trees with lights in them. You can always get a table. But the atmosphere’s still good.

Truth is, The Landor is an integral part of my London story. Lady B and I lived practically opposite for a couple of years in our 20s and were there all the time, often the morning after the night before pretty much in pajamas and with whoever had ended up crashing on the sofa in tow, often playing pool, eating Sunday roasts, drinking pints of beer and bottles of rose in the summer. Lady B once laid down full length on the pool table. She also once spilled a full glass of red wine on her white jeans and stuck her leg up on the bar in order to “salt” herself to get rid of the stain. We had birthdays there. We often invited half the pub back for after-beers. Lady B has settled down somewhat since then but going back there still makes me laugh at the fun times we had.

There’s even a theatre there seating 60 people – I bumped into the theatre director last Friday night in the garden and he is quite a character. I’ve not been yet but its on my list.

So there you have it – an ode to arguably my favourite pub in London, to fun times, and what I love about living here - a good old fashioned pub, with regulars at the bar, good music, Sunday roasts, a game of pool and a pint. Now just to tempt Lady B back to London so we can hang out there together again…

A roundup of recent posh dinners – Dean Street Townhouse, Les Deux Salons & Andrew Edmunds

1. Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

This is the perfect place to take your mum for pre-theatre dinner, or to sit outside drinking cocktails. Its lovely inside – all can-I-take-your-coat and chandeliers and chrome and candles and uniformed staff – and the service was brilliant. Fab toilets. My only complaint was getting told off for taking photos inside – apparently the artists who’d painted the wall art don’t approve, hmm. I ordered a main of monkfish and scallops and it was beautifully and delicately done, as was my mum’s pork. We were surrounded by American tourists and bankers, so it wasn’t quite the romantic atmosphere that screams date night, but it was perfect for me and El Madre.  It feels quaint and old-fashioned and elegant – I’d definitely like to go back with a wad of cash and try a bit more of the menu, or treat a friend on their birthday. The early evening menu is pretty good value – and they do special offers for pre and post theatre supper, and for lunch – check out the website.

Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon

2. Les Deux Salons, Covent Garden

So I cycle past this little slice of France every day on the way to work and I had le soft spot for it – I love French bistros with their candles and white tablecloths and wood, the nice wine and the simple tasty dishes. It reminds me of naughty lunches with girlfriends, weekends in Paris and Brussels, and old-fashioned dates.

I tried it in a *slightly* different way – I went on a hen night of 21 girls in their awesome sound-proofed (thank God) private dining room, beautifully decorated with pink stuff, personalised menus, balloons and table names. What followed will stay amongst us 21 although I should say thank you (and sorry) to our lovely waiter Roman. The food was lovely too – fairly simple but great quality and really tasty – a lovely set menu of warm salt cod brandade, chicken with lemon and garlic with gratin dauphinois, followed by cheese - although the main restaurant was really quiet by the time we left. I’d put it down as a fantastic posh lunch place and I do recommend the brilliant private room – you can even play your own iPod – who’d have thunk behind those solid brass doors we were grinding to Rihanna? (Actually I think the hostesses thunked it – we got fantastically dirty looks on entry and exit – might have been the wigs and cork hat that did it).

Les Deux Salons on Urbanspoon

3. Andrew Edmunds, Soho

I have literally wanted to go to Andrew Edmunds for YEARS, ever since Lady B recommended it after a romantic evening with her now husband, and Time Out said it was a great place to take a long distant lover (Lady B had obviously done her research).  I’d heard people say it was overhyped, that the tables were too close together and the food was pretty average, but its a Soho institution, filled with media types, and as I’ve said before I love romantic bistros – candles in empty wine bottles and chalked menus on blackboards here, it didn’t disappoint - and booked a table for late supper with The Chef who used to take people there in his wine merchant days.

I was *so* excited about going there that my camera stayed resolutely in my bag – partly so I could savour the meal and enjoy the romance of it all, and partly because I was worried about the tables being so close. Sadly my work had other ideas and I was pestered pretty much non-stop throughout by a demanding client and a beeping blackberry - such is life.

Distractions aside, I really liked it – we got a booth and I did think it was a romantic, pretty restaurant, as did the other diners who were pretty much exclusively made up of couples. It is certainly one for date night rather than the girls. Service was friendly but pretty quick and although I don’t think The Chef was too impressed by the food (but then again if it isn’t Sechuanese at the moment, he’s likely to complain), I really liked it – a simple but tasty bowl of mussels to start, potted shrimp, stuffed rabbit with mash. It reminded me of the food at Vinoteca - homely and traditional and simple and really tasty, with a really good wine list. Our 2 course meal plus wine came to £35 each so it  was decent valud too.

Andrew Edmunds on Urbanspoon

Kaosarn, Brixton Village, Granville Arcade

Oh Khao San Road, Bangkok. How many times have I wandered down your bonkers strip, waiting for a bus to take me to Laos or Chaing Mai or the beaches in the South. How many times have I peered in the window of a tattoo parlour, panicked and walked away. How many times have I sniggered at the white kids getting corn rows or dreadlocks on your pavements, coo-ed at the stray puppies, admired ladyboys (but not their consorts), wandered round the surrounding alleyways with their Thai boxing dens and street food stalls where I ate phad thai and drank Singha or Beer Chang. Oh the fake Diesel jeans and the silver jewelry and the fisherman’s pants and the slogan t-shirts. How many times did I sleep in the Ghekko Guesthouse for a couple of dollars a night, lying under the broken fan to cool down. How exciting it was to find that secret rooftop pool to get away from the heat and humidity. But how sad I was to go back a couple of years ago and discover that you are now inhabited by drunken 16 year olds from Derby with a penchant for starting fights and peeing publicly. Ho hum.

I have no idea if Kaosan in Brixton is named after the Bangkok street so excuse me for the nostalgia-fest, but ANYWAY, Brixton has always lacked a brilliant dinner venue. Sure there are plenty of decent places – Hive Bar, Upstairs, The Ritzy, Satay Bar, Fujiyama - but nothing to get excited about. And of course for lunch options you’re sorted – Franca Manca, Rosie’s Deli, Wild Caper, Brixton Cornercopia – but the market shuts in the evening. You can always shimmy along Herne Hill way to the Lido Cafe, The Florence and The Prince Regent, but sometimes you just don’t want the walk.

So when Jay Rayner gave a glowing review of the family-run Thai restaurant Kaosan in Brixton, The Chef and I and it seems a huge number of other Brixtonites got terribly excited. And it is utterly brilliant. We went there on Tuesday night and had the most amazing meal. You can sit outside or inside and its BYO so we sat under the stars drinking bottles of Sol and eating deliciously spicy food – the atmosphere is brilliant and it had that holiday feeling which is soooo invaluable when you’re living in London.

The food was consistently excellent too. Tender and juicy pork skewers, delicately battered goong tod (king prawns), crispy gaew tod (prawn and pork filo parcels). And then the mains of gai yang, kow neaw, somtum (chicken in a gorgeous marinade with a spicy peanut salad and sticky rice) and the most delicious deep lamb massaman curry. And all this for £15 each.

We both agreed it was the best Thai meal we’d ever had in London and that (shock!) it was probably even better than most of the meals we’d ever had in Thailand. I’m dying to go back and try the pork ribs and the green and red curries and to bring friends and lots of wine and try pretty much everything else.

We met the owner Noy (Noi?) afterwards who was lovely – he runs it with his wife, neice and daughter, a proper family business, and he really cares about the atmosphere and ingredients and his regulars. He did start talking about the “concept” but I chose to ignore that part. He said if you brought a party along he’d make special bespoke meals for you, and he was an incredibly lovely and happy man.

I am so so thrilled to find a fantastic resto in Brixton so thanks to JR for finding it! Icing on the cake was seeing the big man himself on the way there…

Kaosarn on Urbanspoon

The Riding House Cafe, 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia, W1W 7PQ

 The Riding House Cafe has just opened opposite Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street and its a beautiful sight to behold. From the same peeps who brought us Village East and The Garrison, it has lovely warm orange leather lounge seats (reminds me of a beloved jacket I bought from Armstrongs in Edinburgh circa 1993 and the wallpaper I had growing up – 70s burnt orange, mmmm good one parentals), beautiful lights and antique wooden tables, wooden sideboards and tiles, lots of tiles (very Spuntino darling). Little cosy booths for gossip and wine and dates – this would be a great date place – and long tables for big groups and a nice long bar with people on their own reading papers and looking happy. Its a lovely set up, and I just loved the squirrel lamps (although I hope that all squirrels died of natural causes and / or of old age).

Pippalippa and I were lucky enough to go there on their opening day and tried their sharing plates – the food was incredibly yummy, delicately cooked and looked beautiful and well priced at £2-5 for each. Here’s what we had:

Sea bass ceviche – incredibly light, refreshing and tasty and perfect for ladies on diets with hangovers (hypothetically speaking) 

Squid and chorizo – yummy

Anchovy pepper-y crostini thing – very tasty

Moorish lamb – incredibly tender, beautifully cooked

AMAZING pork belly – deliciously crispy skin and melt in the mouth middle – absolutely wonderful (note we did manage some broccoli for some green stuff, veh nice too)

Food is 50% off at The Riding House Cafe until 3 May so go along for lunch, coffee or dinner. We shared 6 small plates, had a pudding each and coffee (nicer than Kaffeine’s imho eek) and it came to £12 each – bargain. Sadly no wine as we are very responsible and busy people (Pip can we go back to have lots of food and wine there please?!). Even at full price, I reckon you’d pay £30 each for food (the sharing plates are between £3 and £5 each and sides are a couple of quid) and wine, and it would be such a charming post-work dinner spot. A lovely addition to an already stunning assortment of places to eat in Soho, Fitzrovia and Covent Garden (I cycled past Kopapa tonight which was buzzing) - we’re spoiled for choice London! 

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon