Sunday 30 December 2007

Telegraph Hill Park, Nunhead, London

Surrounded by quiet Victorian roads, this small, but appealing park is perched on the side of a hill and is in two sections. At the top of the hill, the upper section has a couple of basic tennis courts commanding sweeping views across much of south and central London. This park once housed an optical telegraph that was used to convey news of victory in the Battle of Waterloo to the British military's top brass. The lower section has an unusually good, mostly wooden children's playground featuring a long and fast slide embedded into the side of the hill and a couple of imaginative climbing frames. Nearby, are a couple of well-restored ponds, a basketball court and some toilets. A good choice for a Sunday afternoon potter with the kids. 7/10

Monday 24 December 2007

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The New Wimbledon Theatre, London

A rambling and lackluster production of Snow White which fails to bring out the best in its eclectic cast. Soap star Ross Kemp, as the evil henchman, has been given few good lines and, in any case, he lacks comic timing. By contrast, comedian Bobby Davro delivers some very funny asides as Muddles, but his acting is lame and it can feel like he is sleepwalking through the pantomine. The lowest and least imaginitive point comes when he has the audience standing up and sitting down while singing 'My Bonny Comes Over the Ocean.' The seven dwarves do their best with a lame script, while Snow White and her prince sing a few bland songs. It is left to the flirtatious and magnetic Rae Baker to salvage the show as the wicked queen. She is in all the half-decent scenes with the exception of one, which has Ross Kemp, Bobby Davro and the prince squeezed onto a bench doing a camp dance routine, while singing along to Ghostbusters and trying to ignore the audience shouting: 'He's behind you'. Perhaps the best thing about this production is the venue - a traditional, atmospheric and ornate theatre with a vertiginous upper circle. Ticket prices range from £13 to £25. 5/10

Wednesday 19 December 2007

The Forge, Garrick Street, London

An odd mix of bare brick walls, turquoise chairs and smart white table cloths, the Forge is a popular lunch venue with besuited businessmen. The extensive menu has some imaginative starters including a tasty truffled duck egg served with ham (£7.50) and there are more than a dozen modern European main courses to choose from. The juicy rib eye steak with Bearnaise sauce (£16) is packed with flavour, but the accompanying chips are thin, salty and crispy. Vegetables, such as green beans and spinach, can be ordered as extras at about £3 to £4 a pop. There is a vast wine list and service is slick and professional. Undoubtedly a high-quality restaurant offering plenty of choice, but the Forge may be a bit too businesslike for anyone not on an expense account. 7/10

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex

These extensive landscape gardens, designed in the eighteenth century by the aptly-named Capability Brown and now owned by The National Trust, are awash with lakes and ponds. A myriad of pathways wind their way through conifers, rhododendrons and azaleas, crossing small bridges, several of which overlook picturesque waterfalls. Although the Gothic Sheffield Park House isn't open to the public, it provides an eye catching backdrop to the gardens. In winter, when ice spreads across the lakes and the trees and shrubs are dusted with frost, the garden has a serene beauty, yet attracts few visitors. Adult admission is £6.30, while National Trust members get in free. 7/10

Monday 17 December 2007

Joe's Kitchen, the Glades shopping centre, Bromley, London

Substantial bistro which puts a lot of effort into attracting young families. The white t-shirted waiters and waitresses bring young diners a modest activity book and small toy, there are at least a dozen high chairs stacked in the corner and there is an unusually generous and extensive kids menu (£4.25). The cheesy pasta, served with chicken, broccoli and sweetcorn, is not bad, while the ice cream pudding is pretty good. A small drink, such as apple juice or coke, is also thrown in. Unfortunately, not all the adult offerings are as appealing. The potato and leek soup (about £3) can be bland and watery, while the bread in the cheese and ham toasties (about £4.50) is lightweight and anemic. The bizarre festive smoothie, which has a huge head of froth, lacks intensity and isn't worth the £3.25 price tag. Still, the sturdy pine furniture, an extended bare brick wall and the retro posters make for reasonably stylish surroundings. 6/10

Sunday 16 December 2007

Griffin Inn, Fletching, East Sussex

With several log fires, distressed furniture, boisterous clientele and friendly young staff, the Griffin Inn is a warm and convivial gastropub in which to shelter from a cold winter's day. There is a smartish restaurant at the back, but, if you have the budget, you can eat very well in the atmospheric bar. The pheasant with pancetta and a creamy potato mash (£14) makes for a fine, flavoursome lunch, while the expertly-cooked cod(£13) is succulent and comes with lovely, chunky chips and a little too much batter. For kids, you can purchase a small portion of the cod and chips, sausages and chips or pasta and Parmesan cheese for £6. Among the deserts, the apple and pear crumble (£6) with ice cream is sweet and satisfying, but would be better with hot custard. On tap is Harveys, a weak, but refreshing Sussex ale. Service can be sluggish and a little haphazard at busy times, leaving you to survey the pictures of the Inn's cricket teams past and present that are plastered all over the walls. Upstairs, are some comfortable rooms with ancient beams, homely cubby holes and creaky floorboards. Outside is a beer garden with sweeping views over the pastoral Ouse valley. The Griffin is pricey, but pretty much everything an English Inn should be. 8/10

Friday 14 December 2007

Shanghai Blues, High Holborn, central London

A stylish Chinese restaurant, buried inside a Grade II-listed building, with eye-catching reception staff and an air of exclusivity. Inside, there is no daylight, but the lighting is cool and the decor is an attractive blend of minimalism with traditional fittings, such as Chinese lanterns and ornamental Buddhas. On the menu, is a broad selection of dim sum (around £4 a dish), which is typically delicious - the dumplings are light and appealing, while the seafood and the meat dishes have delicate and nicely-balanced flavours. There is also a selection of larger dishes, but the inevitable crispy fried duck can be stringy and coarse. Still, a good option for a good lunch. 8/10

Hamburger Union, Garrick Street, central London

You queue to order and pay before taking a seat at one of the brown tables, decorated with bright yellow bottles of mustard and red plastic tomatoes, laid out in this spartan, but modernistic cafe. The chorizo burger with rocket and peppers (£5.25) is full of colour and flavour, but the chunky chips (£2.25) are a little too salty and crispy for everyone's taste. A pint-sized bottle of Hooky beer (£3.25), a chilled cross between a larger and ale, is a refreshing way to wash down the food. This is McDonald's for grown-ups or anyone with taste-buds. 7/10

Grafton House, Old Town, Clapham, London

On a Friday or Saturday night, the revellers in this cavernous bar dress up much more than those in the other Old Town drinking holes. Glamorous, dolled-up women mix it with sharply-dressed blokes. Although most of the clientele prefer to stand-up and mingle, there are some comfortable leather armchairs and sofas dotted around the premises. There is a wide and unusual selection of bottled and draught beers, but the bar staff seem to specialise in champagne cocktails, mojitos and other lavish drinks which go down well with the splashy punters. 7/10

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Pizza Express, Borough High Street, London Bridge

Split-level branch of this long-standing chain tucked away near the south side of London Bridge. There is the usual extensive range of pizzas and pasta dishes for adults, but perhaps the best thing about Pizza Express is its four course children's menu (£5.45), which is ideal for kids under eight. To start, there are dough balls with butter and a few pieces of cucumber and red pepper. Next up, there is a choice of three respectable pizzas (about the size of a small plate) or a pasta dish, followed by a sundae in a pot and a 'Bambinoccino' - a kind of cappuccino, minus the coffee. To drink, the 500ml bottles of water (£1.70) should be big enough to slake the thirst of two small sprogs. Better still, the attentive staff are tolerant of young kids' tendency to spray food around the place and shred the napkins. They certainly earn the optional 10 per cent service charge. 6/10

Monday 10 December 2007

Duck!, The Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street, Central London

Retelling of the Ugly Duckling parable set on Hampstead Heath and interwoven with a story about two children from a broken home. This imaginative play has some powerful messages about rejection and self-realisation for the target audience of kids aged seven and above. Although it has a few sluggish moments, there are also some very memorable scenes, such as the ugly duckling's encounter with two jive-talking geese who have formed their own gang and Celtic queen Boudicca, who clambers out of her grave to see off a fox who is about to devour the main character. The cast of eight have put a lot of effort into mimicking the mannerisms of the waterfowl they depict -their heads move in a staccato pattern and flap their arms when they get excited. They are also very versatile and energetic, playing perhaps two dozen characters between them, as well as singing and even playing the saxophone. The modernistic Unicorn theatre has bench-style seating, which isn't numbered, so it is best to get there early and aim to get near the unusual oval-shaped stage. Tickets for the first week cost just £5 each, but have now risen to £14.50 for adults and £9.50 for kids. Still good value for a two-hour performance, punctuated by an interval, that will keep most pre-teen children captivated. 8/10

Sunday 9 December 2007

The Peasant, St, John Street, London

An ornate and well-preserved Victorian boozer now enjoying a second-life as a gastropub. Too far north for City workers, it can be quiet on weekday lunchtimes, but the intricate and beautiful mosaic floor, open fire and elaborate wall tiles make up for the lack of punters. On the menu is a fine plate (£11.50) of high-quality chorizo and hams, served with sweet figs and large capers. The Baked Colton Bassett Stilton (£6.50) comes with a delicious walnut dressing, but there is too little cheese. The pan-fried chicken supreme (£9.50) with pine nuts sometimes arrives without the promised sweetness of the sultanas. The creamy parsnip mash(£3.50) makes for a tasty side order, but like the main courses, it can arrive barely warm. Still, there is a good range of beers on tap, including the mighty Czech Budvar. 7/10

Breakfast at the Tate Modern Restaurant, South Bank, London

Panoramic views encompassing St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millenium Bridge and the skyscrapers of the Square Mile make it well worth hiking up the stairs to the seventh floor of the Tate Modern or queuing for the lift. If you come on a weekday morning, you should be able to get one of the high black seats lined up against the bar, overlooking the river. As you would expect, the decor is minimalist and stylish, particularly the exceptionally slimline floorboards. Although the lattes are pricey, tepid and small, the fresh orange juice is good and the Danish pastries are light and tasty. 7/10

Monday 3 December 2007

All Bar One, north end of Regent Street, London

A roomy bar with huge windows, stripped floors, plenty of tables and scores of shelves each stacked with a different wine. This a welcoming and airy branch of the All Bar One chain with plenty of continental beers on tap, including Leffe, Peroni and Staropramen. Food is mainly salads, burgers (about £8), sandwiches and a big selection of tapas (£3-£5), including sweet waffles. But the char grilled lamb burger, which comes with onions, charmula spice, beef tomato and skinny fries, is bland and tepid. The shoppers and office workers that frequent this branch are served at their tables by a small army of white-shirted waiters and waitresses. Good for a drink, but skip the food. 6/10

Iniquity, Northcote Road, Clapham Junction, London

Full-on-bar throbbing with partying Clapham singletons and would-be singletons on a Friday or Saturday night when Iniquity's DJ plays strident pop anthems from the last two decades loud enough to persuade some of the tipsy punters to dance on the tables. A pint of beer is about four quid, but no one cares how much they are spending in the highly charged atmosphere. Unfortunately, Iniquity begins to close around midnight - too early for a party venue. 7/10

The Eagle, Chatham Road, Clapham, London

When you walk into this traditional pub, serving a wide range of rotating real ales, you could be forgiven for thinking you had teleported from Clapham to somewhere deep in the English countryside. Join the regulars propping up the bar or lounge on the large deep red leather sofas to admire the Victorian fireplaces and other period features. The Eagle has lively bar staff and, on weekend evenings, there is usually a noisy crowd of good-natured drinkers in their late-thirties sinking a few jars. 7/10

Queen's Head, Downe, Kent

Unpretentious and friendly little pub with old-fashioned fittings and patrons in the pretty village of Downe just beyond the suburban sprawl of Bromley. The best tables are beside the windows, but one table at the back of the bar has some very comfortable and battered red leather swiveling chairs. There is a selection of ales on tap, such as local brew Spitfire, and a small food menu. The beef and Guinness pie (about £8) comes with an off putting large pasty quiff, but the stewed meat below was juicy and rich. Deserts (£3.50) include a suspiciously neat, but passable banoffee pie. The children's menu (£3.50) is basically a selection of chicken nugget or fishy dinosaur-style dishes, which have an almost plastic appearance, followed by ice cream. Little nutritional value, but enough to keep the kids quiet, while you enjoy a pint of beer. 6/10

Sunday 2 December 2007

The Venetian, Macau

Monstrous in every sense of the word, The Venetian is a colossal building decked out in an ostentatious and seemingly endless succession of patterned carpets, faux Rococo paintings, vast ceiling frescoes and gold chandeliers. There are two huge, lavishly-decorated lobbies on the ground floor, but the focal point is a vast casino, which is a sea of roulette tables and slot machines. One floor up, is an extensive shopping and eating district made up of canals lined with smart retail outlets and a wide variety of eateries, ranging from street food stalls to flashy restaurants. Opera-singing gondoliers ply their trade on the canals, while street entertainers in eighteenth century garb entertain the passing shoppers. Above them is a fake blue sky complete with clouds giving the impression of perpetual, but slightly gloomy, daylight. While you can easily find anything from a Gucci handbag to a Sony camcorder, it is much more difficult to purchase more ordinary items, such as shampoo or headphones, at a reasonable price.