Thursday 28 June 2007

Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London

Each summer, the Royal Academy displays a huge variety of contemporary paintings, sculptures, architectural models, electronic pictures and photographs in a dozen galleries in elegant and historic Burlington House. The exhibits on show this year range from an award-winning, but very missable, wooden sculpture of a candle to a vast David Hockney painting of spindly trees covering an entire wall to a vertical electronic light backed by a mirror, which briefly displays the word LOVE if the viewer moves their head rapidly from side to side. The quality and prices of the thousand displayed works, which are sourced from submissions from a wide range of established and amateur UK artists, is as variable as the styles and subject matter. Among the more absorbing pieces are a striking grey bookcase containing grey books bearing quotations from Hamlet on their spines, a large painting detailing how rays of natural light illuminate the eclectic clutter sprinkled through the artist's studio and a stark updating of Seurat's famous painting Bathers at Asnieres. In this version, each element of the picture is painted in bold, flat colours with no shading, while a factory provides the backdrop and the river runs a lurid orange. All in all, there are enough pleasing, stimulating or thought-provoking works to make it worthwhile jostling with the crowds trying to view this exhibition. Admission costs £8 for adults. 8/10

Friday 15 June 2007

The Bountiful Cow, Eagle Street, Holborn, London

Housed in a bland modern building with a tacky neon sign, this gastropub doesn't look promising from the outside. Inside, aim for a seat in the ground floor bar, which is lined with American-style booths and posters from classic Westerns, rather than the dingy basement bar with hard wooden chairs. As you would expect, the menu is stuffed with beef, including four steak dishes (ranging from £14 to £17.50). If you are hungry, the succulent sirloin steak, topped with goat's cheese and served with chubby chips, is a good bet, as are the substantial club sandwiches and burgers, which cost about a tenner apiece. But the food isn't quite good enough to make up for the toppy prices, the lack of atmosphere and the sluggish service. 4/10

Dulwich Park, South London

Despite a recent multi-million pound makeover using money from the National Lottery, Dulwich Park is still not picturesque. Although it has grand stone gateways, many mature trees and shrubs, a central lake and tasteful furniture, the park is just too flat to be much more than functional. Hordes of children swarm over the sizeable playground, play football on the wide open spaces or go for a spin on the pedal-powered go-karts (available for hire) before refuelling at the busy cafe. Head for the far north corner for peace and quiet and a pleasing view across the park and up to Dulwich Woods. 6/10

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Polesden Lacey, near Bookham, Surrey

A refined Regency mansion, painted yellow, overlooking an unusually serene and beautiful valley, Polesden Lacey has one of the best settings of any National Trust property in south east England. Adult visitors tend to sit on the great, sweeping lawn on the south side of the house, admiring the view, while their children hurtle down the slope and struggle back up again. But make time to wander through the fine walled gardens, past the herbaceous border, across the thatched footbridge and through the old kitchen garden. On the other side of the south lawn, stroll between the stone pillars topped with diminutive lions, and along the Terrace Walk, a wide grassy avenue, punctuated with stone edifices, which runs for hundreds of yards along the north side of the valley. Access to Polesden Lacey's gardens and grounds is £6.50 for an adult, but worth every penny, particularly if you linger on a summer's evening until most of the visitors have gone and you can enjoy this tranquil countryside at its best. 9/10

El Rincon Latino, Clapham Manor Street, Clapham, London

A boisterous and high-tempo tapas bar just off Clapham's main drag, El Rincon is a favourite with the hedonistic twenty and thirtysomethings that infest this area of London. Choosing from the extensive list of tapas is something of a lottery. The fresh anchovies are soaked in an overpowering vinegar better suited to fish and chips, while the lame green salad is a waste of £3.20. But the garlic king prawns with rice are chunky, tasty morsels, while the chorizo vino is rich, spicey and moreish. And the Oton Rioja, which comes in at £6.90 for a half-bottle, is surprisingly smooth and subtle. But perhaps the best thing about El Rincon is the service - despite working at a frenetic pace, the Spanish staff are patient, genial and genuinely welcoming. For a weekend table, book two weeks in advance. Otherwise you might get a stool at the bar and something of a buffering from your fellow diners. 7/10

Crown & Greyhound, Dulwich Village, London

A grand and cavernous Victorian building, the Crown & Greyhound is the only pub in pristine Dulwich Village and a local institution. The lack of competition and prime location may be to blame for the pricey drinks and the rather variable service and food. Still, there are usually no shortage of punters from all walks of life lounging on the mishmash of battered leather sofas and aging wooden chairs in the pleasingly old-fashioned bars. While the shady and enclosed beer garden is less appealing, the dozen or so outside tables at the front make a good vantage spot for people watching on a sunny afternoon. 6/10

Saturday 2 June 2007

The Bistro, Bleeding Heart, Greville Street. London

French, very French - from the Impressionist prints on the dining room walls to the language of the menu to the white shirts and the thick Gallic accents of the waiters. If it weren't for the surprisingly international wine list, which features bottles from the Bleeding Heart's New Zealand vineyard, this establishment would pass for a upmarket Parisian neighbourhood bistro. Most importantly, the food is generally cooked with the precision typical of good French restaurants. The home-made blinis that accompany the smoked salmon starter are light, fluffy and full of flavour. Although the chunky Pomme Frites are a tad too salty, the sirloin steak has just enough fat to make for a juicy and filling main course. The waiters can get confused by English accents and the convoluted booking system, but service is generally prompt and polite. While certainly not a budget option, prices vary greatly depending on the dish (eight pounds to 20 pounds for a main course) meaning it is possible to enjoy the rich Gallic cuisine and atmosphere without breaking the bank. 8/10