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.