Sunday 28 December 2008

Pitcher & Piano, William IV Street, central London

This branch of Pitcher & Piano feels like the bar of an aspirational, modern hotel. It is decorated using a mishmash of materials from transparent plastic to coarse wooden tiles to mock leather, against a backdrop of off-white walls, mixed up with the odd panel painted bright red or mustard yellow. The overall effect seems confused and incoherent. Still, the mostly be suited wide boys and girls enjoying a lunchtime drink don't seem to mind. And there are plenty of drinks to choose from: the Pitcher & Piano Drinks Blend Guide lists two dozen cocktails and plenty of wine, mostly available in two glass sizes or in a bottle. Although bitter-enthusiasts have to make do with Pedigree, lager drinkers are well catered for: A pint of Amstel, one of the five big brands on tap, is £3.30. There is also quite an extensive selection of food ranging from calamari (£5) to burgers (£7 to £14) to salmon en croute (£10). Similarly, the mellow middle-of-the-road music seems designed to appeal to as many off-duty office workers as possible. 6/10

Saturday 27 December 2008

The Bishop, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, south London

Well-placed to serve shoppers on Lordship Lane, the Bishop is buzzing on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy mix of hip and square middle class families, couples and groups of friends. The interior, with its bare black floor, its wall of mirrors and large black and white prints, is slightly Hammer House of Horror. The food menu looks good and there are some decent beers on tap, but dropping in for a drink and a snack isn't cheap. A pint of Budvar, the king of beers, for example, is £3.80, while the crisps come in fancy flavours in a fancy cylinder at £2.50 a pop. You're better off getting a bowl of fat, salty chips for three pounds. Still, the tap water is free and the young, quirky bar staff are pretty good with kids. 7/10

Monday 22 December 2008

Boswells, Russell Street, central London

In spite of the gentrified English name and a history dating back to the eighteenth century, Boswells doesn't feel much like a local institution. Rotund and cheerful eastern European women, in white shirts, serve the tables and the menu is made up of routine international fare, such as burgers, croque-monsieur, lasagna and ravioli, supported by the odd English dish, such as cottage pie and gravy. Moreover, the filter coffee (£2.20) comes continental style - strong and small. Still, for seven quid you can get a decent English breakfast made up of a couple of rashers of good bacon, two greasy fried eggs, a sprinkling of mushrooms, toast, a grilled tomato, a hash brown, a short fat sausage and baked beans. You eat at old-fashioned wooden tables surrounded by maroon walls and tourists from nearby Covent Garden. 6/10

Olley's, Norwood Road, south London

A famous fish and chip restaurant in a dilapidated row of shops facing Brockwell Park, Olley's has acquired a bit of a theme-park feel. The interior is a riot of blonde wood, exposed brickwork and kitsch tiles. The large plastic menus list just about every possible connotation of fish and chips (£9-£22), plus some tempting seafood starters, such as ginger and garlic prawns (£4.95) or grilled sardines or mackerel (£4.95). At lunchtimes, you can get a haddock, cod or Nile perch and chips with mushy peas for £7. The haddock is a tender, but modest, piece of fish, nicely-cooked in a fine layer of surprisingly ungreasy batter. The fat squidgy chips are very filling, but the side salad, consisting of shredded lettuce and a tomato slice, is lame, while the messy mushy peas are not to everyone's taste. You can wash it down with a bottle of Bud (£2.70), another beer or a glass of wine. The kids' options (£4.50 including a small drink) are pretty substantial. They include five large calamari rings caked in batter or a sea food platter, featuring mini, battered portions of calamari, goujons, scampi and fish, both served with an adult-size helping of chips. Fussier kids might opt for the long, low-meat content sausage, which you can have without batter, plus chips. The waiters, kitted out in white, are friendly, but the service can get very slow in the rare event, such as an end of term lunchtime, that Olley's is full of middle-class families mixing it with the more earthy regulars. 7/10

Sunday 14 December 2008

Christmas Carol Concert, Horniman Gardens, London Road, Forest Hill

Once a year, on a Sunday before Christmas, the hill-top Horniman Gardens stay open after dark to host a free carol concert. From this high vantage point, you can see thousands of lights twinkling across London, providing a magical backdrop to the English Baroque Choir and the Crystal Palace Band. Mostly middle class families grab the rows of seats in front of the Edwardian bandstand, while the latecomers stand around the edge in a large huddle, sometimes bobbing up and down to the music. Although parts of the audience seem to sing along with the well-known carols, most of the volume comes from the microphones projecting the powerful and pure tenors fronting the choir. The singing, punctuated by the Geordie compere, goes on for about an hour and, if you have a seat, your legs and feet might go numb in the cold night air. Still, the programme includes a few lively Christmas jingles, such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to keep the kids interested.

Santa's grotto
Nearby, a long queue snakes up to the refreshment stall, which sells tea, rudimentary hot dogs and cups of Batchelors' soup for £1 apiece. Alternatively, you can head over to the Hornima Museum cafe, which has a broader range of fancier snacks. Also near the museum, in the elegant, white cast iron Victorian conservatory, is a picturesque crafts market, selling toys and other presents, plus Santa's grotto. If you want to see Father Christmas, you need to be there early as the queue builds up quickly. But save some cash to give to the collectors' tins, as the museum puts on this enjoyable concert just to raise money for charity. 8/10

Wednesday 10 December 2008

The Langley, Langley Street, central London

A cavernous bar-cum-restaurant-cum-nightclub in the basement of a side-street near Covent Garden, The Langley is a warren of large, dark rooms and alcoves. On a week day, even in December, there is too much space and the punters rattle around, failing to create much of an atmosphere. The dining area has a series of booths big enough to sit about six, plus some standalone tables. For about twenty quid, you can order a three-course meal in advance. Among the starters, the goats cheese salad, served with shavings of tasty chorizo, is a good choice. Less impressive is the steak main course - the large portions of solid meat can be tough and the accompanying chips mediocre. For desert, you can choose a reasonable raspberry cheese cake. The a la carte menu, which is a little more adventurous, has about ten main courses, such as seambass and chive mash, costing between £10 and £20. Like the food, the drinks can be pricey - a 330ml bottle of Staropramen is £3.90. At times, The Langley feels too much like a business and not enough like a party. 5/10

Birthday party at Mile End Climbing Wall, Mile End Park, east London

A laid-back hang-out for hardcore climbers and beginners alike, Mile End Climbing Wall is a series of halls peppered with plastic holds and ledges catering for a wide range of abilities. Experienced instructors, with varying levels of patience, are available to run 90-minute birthday parties for kids aged eight and above costing as little as 10 pounds a head. After being kitted out in climbing shoes and helmets, the kids start by working their way horizontally around a small wall directly opposite the serious climbers sipping tea from plastic cups at the reception desk. Once everyone has had a go, the party heads off to another room with higher walls and big crash mats. Again, the kids climb horizontally, but the holds get trickier the further they go.

Relish the thrill
Now it gets serious. The instructors get the kids into harnesses and take them into a room where, roped-up, they try and work their way up climbing walls about 12 metres high. Two kids keep the rope taut while their friend attempts to get to the top of the wall and then abseil down. Next up, the party scales a series of ladders to get to a platform suspended high above the floor from where they will be winched down one by one. While some kids will relish the thrill, others will be racked by fear. Fortunately, at least one of the instructors is adept at coaxing both children and adults to overcome their vertigo. Finally, the party ends up in the so-called monkey room where they play games, which often involve hanging onto the walls in increasingly precarious positions. Afterwards, you can use a basic portakabin, free of charge, to serve the birthday tea. Adventurous kids will get a big kick out of this party. 8/10

Sunday 7 December 2008

No Man's Land, Duke of York Theatre, St. Martin's Lane, central London

Performed by a talented quartet of actors and directed by the acclaimed Rupert Goold, this production of Harold Pinter's 1974 play No Man's Land looks promising on paper. But in practice, even the fascinating combination of the entrancing Michael Gambon and the bawdy satirist David Walliams (of Little Britain fame) fails to ignite Pinter's meandering and sluggish script, making it hard to justify the £48 needed for a ticket in the stalls of this small, but charming, theatre. With an unchanging set - a smart, soulless reception room dominated by a large bar - the play certainly isn't a visual spectacle. Although Gambon gives a masterclass in how to mimic the overly-deliberate movements of a drunk, the lack of a real narrative means No Man's Land grinds slowly towards the interval. At least the acting is mostly first class. David Bradley, playing the aging and philosophical Spooner, is often a match for Gambon's Hirst, offsetting his grating, lengthy monologues, with the occasional one-liner delivered with comic panache.

itsu, Wardour Street, central London

An emerging chain of restaurants and shops with a garish yellow and pink logo, itsu specialises in selling fresh and mostly healthy food. Decorated like a sleek corporate canteen, the Wardour street branch has conveyor belts loaded with small dishes snaking around the small tables and benches. You can pick portions of sushi, bowls of soup and deserts off the belt. How much you pay (between £2.50 and £4.50) depends on the colour of the dish rim. You can order bigger or hotter dishes or drinks by pressing the red button on your table to summon a waiter or waitress. But the service can be haphazard and a bit dour. For example, your waitress might neglect to mention that the sashimi you ordered is off the menu until after the rest of your meal has arrived.

Subtle and moreish
The food itself is generally fresh and flavoursome, if a bit salty. Among the better dishes is the salmon shiso handroll (£4.50), which is wrapped in seaweed, and the mouthwatering chicken teriyaki (£6.25) served with a sweet sauce. Accompanied by a tangy, green herb dressing, the chilli crab crystals (£4.50) have a subtle and moreish flavour, but are tricky to eat as the filling slips out easily with the first bite, while the miso soup (£2.50), garnished with coriander, tofu, wakame and spring onions, is a bit watery and lackluster. Few of the dishes will fill you up and you will need the stodgy, but tasty, steamed rice (£1.50) and, perhaps, the green beans (£2.50) in their tough, salty hides. There are also deserts (£3.50), such as chocolate mousse or creme brulee, but they are quite small. All this soon adds up and the drinks can be pricey - a pint-size bottle of Asahi lager is a fiver, while a small bottle of water is £2.50, but you can get free iced-tap water. With a recession on, the itsu formula may need refining - on a Sunday lunchtime, the Wardour Street restaurant can be more than half-empty. 6/10

All Bar One, Regent Street, central London

Well-placed for a lunchtime pit stop while shopping for Christmas presents, Regent Street's All Bar One is a very light and airy branch of this widespread chain of bars with their trademark white walls, wooden floors, newspapers and shelves loaded with bottles of wine. The young waiters and waitresses will serve you at the solid wooden tables, most of which are near the big windows. Before noon, you can choose one of the dozen breakfast options, such as gammon and eggs or a bacon sandwich. After twelve, breakfast gives way to an extensive food menu, which includes tapas, sandwiches, burgers or 'big plates', such as salmon and haddock fish cakes or cumberland sausages. Service can be slow, very slow, particularly as the bar fills up, but your order usually comes with a smile. As well as a respectable selection of draught beers, All Bar One does decent coffee (£1.80 for an Americano) served in large cups branded Costa Coffee. But the food is hit and miss. The disappointing eggs benedict (£5.50) can be rather runny and bland. Better is the fried chorizo (£4.50), served with several small pieces of ciabatta. Although the meat can be tepid and a little greasy, it is full of salty flavour and goes well with a big bowl of lukewarm, skinny, but firm, chips (£2.50) and mayo. 6/10

Alice in Sunderland

Alice in Sunderland is an one-of-a-kind, 320-page comic book tracing the unlikely connections between the effete Oxford lecturer and writer Lewis Carroll and Sunderland, the gritty shipbuilding town in north east England. Author and artist Brian Talbot uses a bewildering array of literary techniques, from ranging back and forth across history to frequently swapping narrators, to explore how the art of story-telling is influenced by real life. The creative force behind several acclaimed adult comic-books, Talbot produces polished drawings in an impressive range of styles, supplemented by photo montages depicting the many faces of Sunderland and the surrounding area. With guest appearances by Sid James, the Venerable Bede, the Lambton Worm and George Formby, amongst many others, Alice in Sunderland is entertaining, but meandering. While the craftsmanship and the scholarship are impressive, you need to be seriously interested in either Lewis Carroll or Sunderland to really enjoy this book. 7/10

Malmaison Brasserie, Charterhouse Square, Farringdon, central London

Belonging to the Malmaison chain of smart boutique hotels, the brasserie is housed in the basement of a fine Victorian red-brick building - a former nurses' residence -overlooking a pretty cobbled courtyard. After entering through a grand white archway, you pass through a large ground floor reception decorated in dark, cool colours and head down the stairs to the slightly dingy brasserie, brightened only by a few skylights and the gleaming white tablecloths. Service by the young staff tends to be over-enthusiastic and the prices rather high. The main courses (around £17) are an unusual and contrived mix of two conventional meals, such as mildly-curried monkfish served with a clam chowder or roast saddle of rabbit, diced into anemic slices, accompanied by a stingy pot of shepherds pie and some slim orange and yellow carrots. The main courses typically need a side order of carbohydrate, such as a tray of creamy mash potato (£3.75) to fill them out. Deserts (about £6) include some respectable vanilla ice cream served with honey and a tepid chocolate sauce. Not surprisingly, Malmaison can be half-empty on a week day lunchtime as, unfortunately, you don't get what you pay for. 5/10

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Skate Cafe and Bar, Somerset House, The Strand, central London

In a cobbled square enclosed by the neo-classical splendour of Somerset House, the Skate Cafe and Bar is housed in a glass-panelled prefabricated building well-placed to watch the thrills and spills on the adjacent temporary ice rink. Skate's adjustable stools, arranged around small round tables, rise and fall with the tweak of a lever, creating much amusement for kids. Not quite so entertaining is the sometimes chaotic service at the bar or the sometimes high prices - £1.20 for a pretentious bag of crisps, £2.40 for a cappuccino in a takeaway cup or £3.20 for a cold(!) pint of London Pride in a plastic glass. Still, the bar also serves hot dogs, soup and other comfort food at more reasonable prices, while the loud pop music and the buzz of excitable skaters, including the odd recognisable television actor, makes for a good atmosphere. Set in a fine location, Skate is a good spot for winter people watching. 7/10

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand, London

A small, but world-class, art gallery housed in a wing of the charismatic, neo-classical bulk of Somerset House, the Courtauld Gallery is home to a clutch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Degas, Renoir, Pissario, Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet and van Gogh. After paying the modest five pound entrance fee, you should climb to the top of the gallery via the elegant, stone spiral staircase with its ornate banister. On the second floor is a temporary display of fairly insipid and washed-out watercolours by Turner. Much better are the permanent exhibits, such as a handful of works by Seurat painted in his distinctive style using thousands of tiny dots of colour to create a sense of motion and life. Other highlights include a beautiful study of ballet dancers by Degas, the strange, but absorbing, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Manet and the endearing Pipe Smoker by Cezanne.

Miniature ivory carvings
But the Courtauld Gallery's treasures are not limited to priceless paintings. The centrepiece of one of the 15 distinguished rooms is a glittering collection of Eighteenth Century household silver featuring an array of charming objects such as an elaborate inkwell with a little sand shaker use for blotting. Elsewhere, you will find venerable old chests and delicate harpsichords painted with dramatic Christian frescoes. Among the eye catching exhibits in the ground floor room, which is largely devoted to religious artifacts, are some extraordinarily detailed miniature ivory carvings from the Middle Ages and a handsome pair of Venetian gold candlesticks from the Sixteenth Century. Complete your visit by taking the quirky spiral staircase down to the warren-like basement which houses the toilets and a small cafe selling drinks, cakes and other fare. 9/10