Sunday 18 January 2009

El Rincon, Clapham Manor Street, Clapham, south 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 (about a fiver a dish) is something of a lottery. The mussels can be bland and the chicken risotto anemic, while the lackluster green salad is a waste of £3.20. Better is the tasty chorizo, even though it can be a little overcooked, and the patatas bravas, doused in a spicy tomato sauce with a surprising kick. One of the best dishes is five large, juicy and fresh garlic king prawns with a side salad. As a rule, the tapas portions are generous, but the food needs more seasoning. The house red (about £12 a bottle), Oton Rioja, is surprisingly smooth and subtle. But perhaps the best thing about El Rincon is the service - despite working at a frenetic pace, the lively Latin staff are patient, genial and genuinely welcoming. For a weekend table, book in advance. Otherwise you might get a stool at the bar, plenty of buzz and something of a buffering from your fellow diners. 7/10

Private dining at Tuttons, Covent Garden, central London

A smart brasserie in a serious tourist trap, Tuttons has a couple of private rooms in its vault that you can hire for free provided you meet the minimum spend on food, drink and service. With their rough walls, arched ceilings, white table cloths and candles mounted in traditional candelabras, these rooms have character, while the service by the white-shirted waiters is professional and tolerant. Even on the cheapest menu (£25 a head), the food is generally very good. To start, you can opt for soup, a mozzarella and basil tortellini, which melts in the mouth, or a couple of tasty discs of goats cheese served with baby artichokes. Among the three main courses, the breast of chicken, served with tagliatelle, broad beans & wild mushrooms, is full of flavour, while the honey glazed pork fillet, with potatoes and roasted apple, also gets good reviews. The mains portions are small, but the hefty and delicious warm chocolate brownie, doused in vanilla ice cream and plenty of chocolate sauce, will fill you up. To drink, you can shell out close to a fiver for a pint of Grolsch or a large bottle of London Pride. Offering much more choice and slightly better value is the New World-dominated wine list, on which bottles start at £15, climbing to £42. Tuttons is pricey, but polished. 7/10

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Opera Tavern, Catherine Street, Covent Garden, central London

Opposite the Theatre Royal, the Opera Tavern's suitably theatrical facade has a pair of suspended front windows painted gold. Inside is a traditional pub that can attract quite a large and fairly glamorous crowd of after work or pre-theatre drinkers, reducing service at the bar to a desperately slow crawl. This isn't the most comfortable pub, relying more on high stools than cosy chairs and you may even smell the odd smoker disobeying the ban on lighting up. Still, mid-week, the Opera Tavern tends to get quiet later on and service speeds up. On draught, are a couple of obscure, but very drinkable, Cornish real ales, such as Doom Bar, plus London Pride, Fosters and other better known beers. There is also a blackboard menu touting a selection of sausages in a roll, in keeping with the defiantly old-fashioned ambiance. 6/10

Sunday 4 January 2009

Riverside 2 Cafe Ristorante, Kennington Road, Lambeth, London

Near, rather than beside, the river, Riverside 2 is a budget cafe opposite a large police station, close to the Imperial War Museum, but well off the tourist trail. Inside, the sanitised, speckled grey decor, adorned with plenty of mirrors, is spotlessly clean. Young, but rather dour, eastern European waitresses dressed in black patrol the dozen or so tables. The cheap food is served piping hot, but tends to lack flavour, as does the coffee. From the breakfast menu, for less than a pound, you can order a bland sausage, mediocre toast or greasy chips. Even the oily mushrooms are just £1.40. The Italian food, such as paninis and pasta, on the main menu is probably a better bet. 6/10

Godstone and Tandridge walk, Surrey

You can park next to the large picturesque village green in Godstone for three hours - plenty of time to amble around this three to four mile walk, stopping for a pint half way round. From Godstone you follow the lane eastwards past the large pond down to Church Town - a hamlet made up of handsome Eighteenth century houses and some beguiling Victorian timber-framed almshouses clustered around a substantial medieval church. Walk through the churchyard, a knot of trees, under the A22 and into Tandridge. A narrow footpath behind the houses in the village takes you down to an unremarkable, but friendly, pub, the Barley Mow. Almost opposite the pub, you can take a different footpath west, back across the rolling fields, the A22, past another clutch of ponds, through the woods and up a minor road into Godstone. 7/10

Friday 2 January 2009

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London

Crammed with machines, devices, gadgets, vehicles, planes and spacecraft of historic significance, the Science Museum is much more hands-on than London's other renown museums. Its huge halls are dotted with electronic touchscreens and there are several large zones, aimed primarily at children, given over to interactive, effective and very robust exhibits demonstrating how everything from levers to pulleys to periscopes to electricity works, while the enthusiastic staff sometimes give demos and talks. But these zones are often very busy and there can be an unseemly scramble to play with some of the kit.

George Stephenson's Original Rocket
More peaceful are the main galleries, which contain plenty of diverting models, full-size replicas and actual examples of groundbreaking cars, boats, satellites, spacecraft and aeroplanes. These include the ridiculously fragile, wooden biplanes of the early years of flight, and the very first steam engines, notably George Stephenson's original Rocket, which will send a tingle down the spine of anyone with a passing interest in the industrial revolution. Suspended from the ceiling is a large shining wheel, the Energy Ring, displaying short text messages about the future of energy inputted by visitors to the gallery. Back on the ground floor, there are glass screens protecting large displays of nostalgia-laden innovations from different phases of the twentieth century taking in everything from the Rubik's Cube to early mobile phones to vintage typewriters to 1960s screwdrivers to the Chopper bike.

Quite commercial
Although entrance is free, the Science Museum can feel quite commercial - it has several shops, including a branch of Waterstones, an IMAX cinema and several simulators, costing anything from £1.50 to £8 a ride, plus some temporary exhibitions with an entrance fee. Of the places to eat, the Deep Blue restaurant, located in the futuristic Wellcome Wing, seems rather dark and gloomy. The Revolution cafĂ©, with its multicoloured walls, is more cheerful, but the benches are uncomfortable and you have to make your own tea in paper cups. While the Science Museum's twentieth century building isn’t as distinguished as those of London’s other great museums, it does have a part-glass roof allowing natural light to illuminate the memorable collection of flying machines on the third floor. But the galleries can get uncomfortably warm and the interactive exhibits uncomfortably crowded. Moreover, the untrained eye may begin to glaze over after seeing too many often-nondescript engines and the innards of electronic devices. 8/10

Thursday 1 January 2009

Jack & the Beanstalk, Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, south London

Unlike many of its rivals, the annual pantomime at this modest theatre is performed by a cast of unknowns rather than C-list celebrities. Written by the multi-talented Andrew Pollard, who also plays Dame Dotty, Jack & the Beanstalk is as much a musical as a pantomime. It is peppered with toe-tapping rock and pop anthems from the seventies, such as Grease Lightning and a fine rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, with lyrics cleverly tweaked to fit the pedestrian plot. Jack (Matthew Waine) can sing well, while the rotund fairy and cook (Linda John Pierre) has a strong, soulful voice. The costumes and props are also a cut above the usual pantomime fare - the Boogie Nights medley at the beginning of the second half is performed in a dazzling array of Afro wigs, while the puppet of the giant is the size of a small house. Impressively, his huge fists slam the table when he gets upset.

Tired jokes and borrowed catchphrases
While the cast and script have charm and warmth, most of the performers, when they aren't singing, lack charisma and comic delivery. The Dame and the king (Paul Critoph), who seems to be modelled on Stephen Fry, trot out a succession of tired jokes and borrowed catchphrases, such as Catherine Taite's rapid-fire "whatever". Although the Greenwich Theatre, with its bare brick walls, is spartan, the seats are spacious and relatively cheap. Through a discount for families, you can get seats for as little as £13.75 apiece. 7/10