Saturday, 5 January 2013

I love the panto - well, that's not strictly true. I am not generally a fan of comedies or musicals and pantos combine elements of the two, but I love the pantomime at the Hackney Empire. 

Fittingly, this holiday season has paid tribute to London, and specifically Hackney, which has had a glorious 2012 as host to the Olympics. Creative director Susie Mckenna, who has been at the helm since 1998, has done it again with another panto that is a crowd pleaser for all ages. 

I thought the sets were a little lacklustre compared to previous years, and - dare I say it - some of the costumes were from previous pantos. I am all for a little upcycling, but was the giant gorilla doing on stage at the end? And not making more swipes at Boris as Major of London was a wasted opportunity, but that's a small quibble.

The street dancing rats were captivating, and Steve Elias as the pantomime dame an absolute joy. Rina Fatania does a fabulous job as a timid trainee Bollywood fairy and there are some really gifted singers in the strong cast; most notably Dick (Joanna Riding).

Even though this season's run may have wavered a little, it's one of the best shows in town. There are bags of gags, loads of energy and a feel good factor that remains with you long after you have left the sumptuous Georgian theatre that is a spectacle in its own right. Predictably Dick Whttington at the Empire was a sell out, so I suggest you buy your tickets as soon as they come on sale in 2013.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Empress

You will never get me to move from my much loved Hackney locale, but this E9 eatery has a real draw. The Empress of India in the lovely little neighbourhood that is Victoria Park offers something that we are sorely lacking in Chatsworth Road. Well, two things: somewhere good to eat and somewhere good to drink. Head chef Elliott Lidstone, with a wealth of experience of working in Michelin starred restaurants, presides over the Empress at 130 Lauriston Road. I love the fact that the Empress uses supplies from its nearby shops. Meat comes from the much-loved Ginger Pig and the splendid Jonathan Norris supplies the fish.

Expect light, tapas style dishes with a British/Mediterranean flavour that are good for sharing and grazing.  My waiter kindly advised me that I shouldn't miss the crispy pigs ear with apple sauce and he was right. This is the kind of bold offering that the Empress does very well. The ham croquettes, on the other hand were rather bland and underwhelming. Other appealingly strong dishes are centred around snails, mackerel or shoulder of lamb. The menu changes frequently according to which seasonal British produce is available and is pleasingly paired down,  which tends to signal a confident kitchen.

The light-flooded interior makes an equally powerful statement. Diners sit under large pendulum lights surrounded by exposed brick decorated with giant dog prints, while drinkers at the long pewter bar can catch glimpses of Victoria Park from the enormous windows. I will return for supper, but not before visiting to sample a dish or two from the delightful sounding brunch menu.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Night Jar

I pride myself on knowing Hackney well, so it is beyond me how I managed to miss Night Jar which has been open over a year. Admittedly, it deliberately keeps itself a bit 'underground'. This little find is tucked away between two unassuming cafes on City Road and you would never know it was there unless someone told you.

Go for the good music, even better cocktails from pre-prohibition to modern signatures and intimate, speakeasy vibe. It's open every night but make sure you reserve on Wed to Sat nights. I thought the people at Night Jar were taking the prohibition theme a bit far when our arrival had to be announced downstairs by radio, but when you get down there it's soon clear this procedure is not just for show: space is strictly limited in this exclusive basement venue.

As bossa nova from the fine Brazilian band bounced off the walls I set about ordering my cocktail as the people around us knocked back their drinks as if Prohibition were suddenly about to hit London. Night Jar, I am told, is about celebrating those of another age who made drink one of life's pleasures, not one of its evils. I am afraid I can't tell you the name of my first cocktail: just that it was laced with vodka and prettily decorated with a tiny starfish and that it was so smooth that I nearly downed it in one.

Night Jar has an exciting programme of events which included a tempting Menage a Trois with live music and cognac cocktails, and the appealing Top Shelf – fine purveyors of filthy swing. My husband suggested 'hanky panky' for my second cocktail because it sounded nice. It was. And arrived with a delicate egg shell filled with grenadine floating in a pool of apricot coloured brandy.

The tapas menu is designed to accompany the drinks – not the other way around - with some tempting charcuterie and flamboyant flambed dishes. One one side of us were two first dates – I guess the Night Jar is somewhere to take someone you want to impress. On the other side of us was a couple from West London who had been having a long term affair (the seating is intimate), with the mistress announcing after one or two post prohibition cocktails: 'you have been married for 20 years. I have been single for 20 years.'The verdict: never a dull moment in Night Jar and always a superb cocktail.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Taste of Vietnam in Shoreditch

It was a cold, wet, blustery day in Shoreditch, in London's East End, but I felt warm and soothed as soon as I stepped inside Hôp Namô's beautifully custom designed sea container in the brand new Boxpark. Billing itself as the world's first pop up mall (although it will actually be around for five more years), I recommend going to Boxpark – but for the food, rather than the fashion.
Hôp Namô is run by husband and wife Colin and Linh Vu (owners of one of my favourite restaurants in Hackney - see my rave review here and whose parents run the ever popular Huong Viet on Englefield Road). I had managed to forget my notebook on my visit to Hôp Namô (Hop means 'Box' in Vietnamese), but the waiter sweetly and unblinkingly fetched some paper for me. I had also forgotten my glasses - but luckily the huge print of the pared down menu written on the stainless steel counter was easy enough to read.
The food on offer is very much 'express' – to suit shoppers and workers diving in during their lunch hour or after work. But its no less impressive for that – this is delicious, authentic cuisine that just happens to be served fast. Most dishes – Star Anise Beef Shin with pickled red cabbage, lemongrass free range chicken and caramelised organic salmon with honey and lime glaze – ring in for just a fiver, with soups (Pho, a homemade broth of beansprouts, basil and coriander) or (Hue – spicy noodle soup with lemongrass, garlic and chilli), both served with either rumptail beef, chicken or prawn only £6.50.
A cute blue and white enamel bowl arrived filled with melt in the mouth chilli squid, accompanied by a delicate, papery spring roll filled with richly flavoured five spice duck and pools of dipping sauce. The chargrilled lacquered pork appeared, blackened and glistening, with a simple salad a welcome foil to its lovely intense sweetness while the thick spicy chicken curry with tangs of lemongrass and coconut was more than warming, it was heart-warming.

I blissed out to the chilled out sounds of electronica as the weather raged outside and felt an overwhelming desire to visit Vietnam. I have never been, but was convinced by my experience at Hôp Namô and gentle urging of the owner who says I must go...

Friday, 2 December 2011

London’s Best Panto – Oh Yes it Is!

‘A little magic can go a long, long way’ sings the FG (Fairygodmother) in Hackney Empire’s Cinderella. This slick production with lots of good old-fashioned fun, up-to-the-minute quips and some belting musical numbers certainly provides plenty of sparkle and a little bit of magic on a dark midwinter London day. This show skilfully combines the best British theatrical traditions with knockabout comedy and musical spectacle.

I got a sneak preview before the rest of the press were allowed in and found myself grinning, giggling and roaring with laughter pretty much the whole way through this relentlessly-paced performance. And I was not the only one. The whole audience ranging from toddlers and teenagers right through to pensioners lapped up this gag-a-minute show, eagerly joining in with the audience participation and swaying their arms and singing along with the songs.

The stars of the show were the sluttish Ugly Sisters described as ‘fastidious’ because one was ‘fast’ (and Jamaican) and the other ‘hideous’. They made their memorable entrance belting out the soul classic ‘Hold on, we’re coming’ from a (nicked) hot air balloon descending onto the stage. Their hilarious headgear included a cupcake, flowerpot, candelabra and giant cocktail. Cinderella and Prince Charming (who happened to be Indian) was a suitably pretty pair with the requisite pop star voices.

There were a few local references that only locals would get – jibes at upmarket Islington and a mad horse named Clapton after one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods. There were cracks too about the new Westfield shopping centre and the upcoming Olympics – both major East London features. But this was inclusive entertainment and the audience was from all over the world, with the United States and Australia particularly well represented.

‘Our professor told us that pantomime is an important English tradition and this one was the best in London’, an American student told me in the interval. I was pleased to hear her teacher had done his homework. Hackney Empire’s pantomime has been hailed as the city’s best for several years now. And its high energy never flags – I saw it right at the end of the run last year in the dog days of January (read my review here) and the performers were just as impressive.

With tickets from £9.50 there’s no real reason not to go but I would suggest you book as soon as possible though the Hackney Empire as tickets go very quickly and it will sell out – it does every year.

This article appeared in CD Traveller.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Hackney Central Put on The Map

Hackney Central has now been put on the map through the Greeters programme, which used to take place all over London but now Hackney Central has been added to the list. Less than a year before the Olympics, the initiative was inspired by the overwhelming success of a similar programme in New York. This was set up in 1992 to take people off the well worn tourist trails and show them something they might not usually see. It was also motivated by the desire to show people that New York wasn't the dangerous place it was perceived to be and now offered in cities such as Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. They are not professional guides, but knowledgable locals who can show visitors the best their neighbourhood has to offer – for free.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A Local Light in Chatsworth Road

'Chatsworth Road is raw and diverse. I love it around here', declares Lumiere, owner of the local juice bar which shares his name. 'It’s a real community, which is something quite special in London, but it’s not too in your face: it’s just right.' Lumiere is a big fan of villa holidays but Chatsworth Road is his favourite place in the world. All of the juices on offer are named after local streets. Berry Blurton is made up of strawberry, peach, papaya and blueberries while a Clifden Cherry is a startling combination of cherry, strawberry, banana and mint. All around are heart shaped signs. 'I opened this place because I wanted to give something back.' It is hard to define: yes, it’s a juice bar with organic elements, not least the reclaimed tree trunks outside, but there is velour wallpaper on the walls, smooth jazz playing in the background, trickling from water features and the sound of the sea can be heard when you open the toilet door. There is even a VIP room downstairs, complete with red rope. Lumiere insists it is not a café. There is no tea on sale and he has only recently started selling coffee, but then he does a brisk trade in Yummy Mummy – a mixture of fig, date, vanilla and banana that is a clear nod to the changing demographic, Clapton Carrot, a refreshing blend of carrot, ginger, orange, apple, celery and a unique combination of banana, strawberry, orange, milk and granola, which he chooses to call a Homerton Hangover.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Hackney Honey

The producers of Hackney Honey only started keeping bees in their garden two years ago but have already taken two honey harvests this year - one in June, and another in August. Their regular home insurance covered them until they sold their first jar, when they had to take out a special beekeeping policy. The early spring harvest produces a very light coloured, fruity honey, they tell me. The later honey is probably a real mix of the many different flowers in the gardens and parks around Hackney. It is much darker in colour and has more of a toffee taste.

Hackney Honey is joining Hackney Homemade Saturday market in St John at Hackney churchyard next week. You can't get more local than this as the bees are kept in a garden in central Hackney and it is thought that they probably collect most of the early spring honey from the trees in the churchyard, although it is of course almost impossible to keep tabs on the bees whereabouts.

All of Hackney honey is kept unfiltered, which leaves it with just a slight cloudiness. This means it contains local pollen. Many hayfever suffers swear that eating local honey alleviates their symptoms, which is a very good reason to buy Hackney honey – apart from supporting your local producer, of course.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Corner Room

The aptly named Corner Room, the latest offering from Michelin starred chef, Nuno Mendes, is tucked away in the Town House Hotel, Bethnal Green. When I finally found it, the staff seemed rather vague and asked for our booking, even though the restaurant doesn't take them (tables are available on a first come, first served basis). Open only just over a month, the idea of Corner Room is to provide a more affordable, more accessible alternative to the hugely successful – and expensive – existing hotel restaurant, Viajante which only offers a set menu for £65, and is booked up for at least the next three months.
The whole experience is intimate – it's like dining in a front room, with only 10 tables or so – and quirky: a flight of stairs leads bizarrely to nowhere. Fellow diners included a man with two babies, a group of Japanese tourists who fiddled with their phones but didn't seem to eat anything and two pretty young locals who were delighted with their food, even letting me taking photos of it.
The food menu is gratifyingly concise, although the drinks menu was frustratingly and strangely focussed solely on wine. My husband, who can't drink wine, did manage to get a beer although he was told that a cocktail was out of the question.
You get much than you bargained for from the descriptions on the menu, which are rather understated. My starter was a wonderfully pleasing combination of intriguing textures: jelly-like, slow cooked eggs with tapioca like meaty caviar, tender baby asparagus and flaky parmesan. My husband's starter of squid, jersey royals and fennel was also excellently executed as were our mains of sea bass with crushed potato and watercress and lamb rump.
A couple of minor criticisms which I think will be ironed out easily in due course: the staff seemed nervous and the food could have been a bit hotter. But, all in all, a highly enjoyable meal and at credit crunching prices too: £6 for a starter, £5 for dessert and £12 for a main is unbelievable value, especially when you are talking about this quality of food.