Tuesday, 26 July 2016

LONDON LOVES: Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall is an iconic London venue. I've been to so many gigs here and the sound and atmosphere is always perfection. There's something special about watching your favourite bands in a 150 year old, opulent concert hall, so much in fact that I will continue to return to the hall again and again. In fact, I've already been here five times since the beginning of this year alone, and each gig has been incredible.

The year started with New Order who did a charity concert in aid of Teenage Cancer Trust. New Order are Steve's favourite band and this was the first time we'd seen the band together. We were sat quite high in the upper circle but despite the height the stage still looked amazing and the sound was crisp and clear. The band were still touring their latest, critically acclaimed album, Music Complete, so it was great to hear some of my favourite tracks live (Singularity, Tutti Frutti). I'd only seen New Order once before, way back in 2012 and I wasn't really a huge fan (despite being quite fond of Joy Division) so didn't appreciate many of the songs. Now, with Steve by my side, I am extremely familiar with their back catalogue and very much enjoyed hearing the old hits. Temptation is my favourite and when played live it really is a phenomenal performance. I'm sad they don't play Ceremony any more as it's a great Joy Division / New Order cross over but I got to hear it live back in 2012 so all is not lost. 

Anyway, it was a wonderful gig and whilst New Order's stage shows are a very much a rehearsed affair compared to their ramshackled shows of the 80s, they put on a very enjoyable live performance.

A week or so later we were back at the hall to see the Manic Street Preachers celebrate 20 years of their hit album, Everything Must Go. We were standing in the pit this time and the atmosphere was electric. The gig was split into two parts, the bands played Everything Thing Must Go in it's entirety first and after a brief interval they played a greatest hits set. The gig was excellent and due to the anthemic nature of the songs there was an awful lot of mass singalongs, something I absolutely love. It was nice to get so close to the stage this time as the atmosphere really helps make the gig feel more special. I've seen the bands live quite a few times now and this performance was definitely one of their best.

A few months away from the hall saw us return to see the mighty John Grant. I adore John Grant, he is quite the enigma, creating sublime music and his captivating live performances are beyond enjoyable. There was no standing area this time but we had seat in the pit with a great view of the stage. It had been a good while since I'd last seen John Grant live and his performance at the Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Northern Sinfonia is was one of the best gigs I've ever been too. This time saw his perform a full on rock show which sounded and looked magnificent. He had a few special guests perform with him throughout the night; the lovely Welsh singer-song writer Cate le Bon, the legendary Richard Hawley, and, no-one could quite believe it, the astounding Kylie freaking Minogue. I think I screamed when Kylie came on the stage, I wouldn't even call myself a huge fan but it was the sort of pairing that is hard to understand. How on earth did Kylie and John become friends? I didn't think John Grant could top the Royal Festival Hall gig but he more than blew it out of the court this time. I am forever impressed by his incredible talent!

Our last visit to the hall, for now, was to see one of my all time favourite bands perform two night on the trot. Belle and Sebastian celebrated the 20th anniversary of their incredible debut and follow up albums, Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister. Their shows are always sweet, twee and full of nostalgia. They don't have many special effects but that doesn't stop them from being entertaining, especially as Stuart Murdoch is extremely charismatic. We were standing for both nights but due to Belle and Sebastian's hard core fan base we weren't able to get super close to the front which is mainly our own fault for turning up just before the band were due on stage. Alas, both evenings were lovely and fun plus it was great to hear some songs live that aren't played very often.

I was able to visit the hall another time this year, for a completely non music related event, and that was to try the new afternoon tea menu, created in collaboration with the East India Company.

The tea is served in the Verdi restaurant and has an innovative spin on otherwise traditional afternoon tea choices. The sandwiches are lovely and included personal favourites like ham and mustard and smoked salmon and crème fraîche. The homemade scones (plain and sultana) with clotted cream and strawberry jam were absolutely delicious as well.

The selection of cakes and sweet treats was impressive to say the least. From white chocolate, mint and rum macarons, mango, passion fruit and Jivara éclairs, strawberry and rhubarb custard tarts, raspberry almond cake with a tonka bean meringues, dark chocolate mousse with salted caramel, and Grand Marnier infused carrot cupcakes served with extra injectable Grand Marnier there is an awful lot of choice. I enjoyed the macaron which tasted not too dissimilar from a mojito and the custard tart which exploded into a fruity mess once bitten in to. The chocolate mouse was extremely indulgent tasting and whilst I don't normally like éclairs, these were quite enjoyable thanks to the fruitiness.

East India Company offer 11 different teas and whilst I'm not a big tea drinker myself I did loved the Blend 68 White Tea which had touches of hibiscus, rosehip and orange peel. I also drank a (few) very delicious Staunton Earl Grey Martini which I highly recommend if you like a strong cocktail.

Afternoon tea at the Royal Albert Hall is £25 per person which is extremely reasonable for similar venues in London. The selection of sweets is especially impressive and the venue itself if beautiful. You can pop in even if you're not attending a concert but for an extra special treat whilst seeing your favourite band, why not make an afternoon of it and have an afternoon tea before hand.

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Saturday, 16 July 2016

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Balls and Company

I love meatballs, in fact I am quite prone to cooking Polpo's spicy pork and fennel recipe at least once a month. There's something so delicious moorish about little blobs of meat and rich tomato sauce that keep me cooking the recipe time after time.

When I heard about Balls and Company, a dedicated meatball restaurant in Soho I knew I had to check out to see if anything could beat my favourite home cooked dinner.

I'm fortunate to have friends who are just as enthusiastic about food as I am. Cindy is no exception and our impromptu dinner date at Balls and Company was probably one of are more subdued evenings, but that's not to say it was any less enjoyably than previous catch up sessions.

We started with cocktails and parmesan churros. I had some sort of gin sour (standard) that was delicious, so much in fact that I drank several over the evening. The churros were just as lovely. The crispy dough melted in the mouth and tasted strongly of cheese, with the aioli helping to cut through the sharpness.

There's a few different meatball and sauce options to choose from. We decided to go for a classic combination at first; pork meatballs with a classic tomato sauce. The meatballs were succulent and perfectly sized. The sauce was  rich, thick, and delicious. An excellent combination.

The short rib meat balls were rich in flavour and paired with romesco sauce this was another great combination. We ordered a portion of chips which I forgot to take a photo of but you can see them on the side here, sort of. Lovely and crispy, this was a generously sized portion that we ended up struggling to finish because oops we ordered too much food as usual.

This was one of the creamiest burrats I've ever had, teamed with the fresh vegetables it was absolutely heavenly.

We thought it would be best to order something green and vegetable related. The asparagus and quail eggs were the special of the day and was a lovely dish this was. Perfectly cooked asparagus with perfectly runny eggs, what is not to love?

I really enjoyed our meal at Balls and Company. The restaurant is more refined that I was expecting, being a meat ball place and all. The menu is definitely geared up for sharing as the portions are quite small which means it isn't the cheapest option in Soho but it's very enjoyable nevertheless.

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Thursday, 14 July 2016


Continuing with the theme, new restaurants in London doing 50% off, my next mention goes out to Sardine where I enjoyed a very lovely brunch last weekend.

Sardine is situated on City Road, slap bang between Angel and Old Street, next door to the Victoria Miro gallery. It's the brainchild of former Rotorino (delicious Italian sharing plates in Haggerston) head chef Alex Jackson and you can definitely see the Mediterranean influences between both places.

The restaurant itself is beautiful with a relaxed atmosphere and strikingly colourful artwork on the otherwise white washed walls. Small wooden tables are dotted around a long, metallic sharing table slap bang in the middle of the dining room, next to the open kitchen.

Steve and I took full advantage of the 50% off offer and ordered a few different dishes. The portions sizes aren't huge so I'd definitely recommend sharing 3-4 dishes between 2 people depending on how hungry you are.

We started with the potato cakes and optional bacon. The cakes were crispy and tasty, the herby crème fraîche was a great accompanying sauce and the bacon was cooked perfectly.

The veal and pork stuffed tomato was the stand out dish for me. It was rich, flavoursome and absolutely wonderful. The buttery gravy was the perfect dip for the toast. Whilst this is a very meaty option you wouldn't want to order this on it's own as it's more of a side dish.

The fried cheese sandwich was nice but not outstanding. For £8 I'd expect something pretty special but this just didn't stand out for me especially as it wasn't that big and didn't come with anything on the side.

We finished out meal with a breakfast dessert, crepes with cherries and ice cream. This was great. A perfectly cooked crepe, sweet cherry compote and delicious vanilla ice cream. I couldn't ask for anything more.

Sardine is a lovely location for brunch with some well executed, unusual dishes. There is a definite Mediterranean vibe to the menu and the small plates makes it great for a sociable meal. I'm keen to experience the dinner menu as I think the plates will be even more impressive compared to the weekend brunch.

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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Picture Marylebone

July has been a great month for me when it comes to quality dinning out on a budget. I managed to grab a few reservations at newly opened restaurants in London to take advantage of their 50% off soft launches.

The first restaurant on my list is Picture in Marylebone which promises English fine dining at an affordable price. This is the second neighbourhood restaurant from Tom, Alan, and Colin with the first being found in Fitrozia. Picture had been on my radar since it opened in 2013 but I'd never been able to visit. Thanks goodness for new openings and 50% off! In the evening a 6 course tasting menu for £40 is always available and there was no way Steve and I were going to turn down this £20 bargain.

We started with a pale ale and gin cocktail alongside freshly baked bread and whipped butter. Shortly afterwards we were presented with the first course, a delicious chilled, red pepper soup. I felt a little apprehensive about cold soup but my worries were quickly subdued as I drank this rich, flavoursome liquid. This was a perfect little dish for a muggy summer day.

Next up was the charred cauliflower, accompanied with a pea and leafy salad. This was a highlight for me. The charred vegetable had a faint taste of the middle east and the salad was wonderfully light and fresh. I'm not sure what the sauce at the bottom of the plate was, but it tasted akin to a light mayonnaise that helped pull all the various elements of the dish together.

The smoked pork and potato salad tasted heavenly. The rich meat was crispy with melt in the mouth moments thanks to the fatty pork. The potatoes were perfect with the pea puree and crackling adding a wonderful contrast in texture to the salad.

The generous serving of stone bass accompanied with orzo, courgettes, aubergine, tomatoes, and peppers had a lovely Mediterranean taste.

The lambs neck and sweetbreads was designed for sharing and what a wonderful dish this was. I'm not sure I've ever had sweetbreads before but they tasted lovely nonetheless. If you're not sure what sweetbreads are, it's the thymus gland from a lamb or calf. They're tender with a crispy exterior thanks to the frying. The lamb neck was beautiful, the meat fell away from the bone with the slightest tough.

I normally skip the cheese course as it's not something I'm that interested in but given that everything was 50% off I was intrigued to try the cheddar and brie. A blue cheese was also available but alas I am not a fan. Both cheeses were lovely and creamy but it was the cheddar that really stood out for me.

A picture of Steve and myself in case you'd forgotten what we look like.

I knew I'd love the dessert, dark chocolate mousse and salted caramel crumble is my idea of heaven basically. The mousse was rick and the crumble added a much welcomed crunch. I loved this.

Our meal at Picture was wonderful and not just because there was 50% off the bill. Even with a full priced menu I'd expect to pay a lot more for the quality and flare of the dishes presented. Picture is the perfect neighbourhood restaurant and whilst it isn't cheap you'd be hard pressed to find a better value, fine dining option. At £40 the 6-course tasting menu is terrific value - with attentive service, an original cocktail menu, and a casual but refined atmosphere I could not think of a better way to spend a Friday night in London.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

AFTERNOON TEA REVIEW: Hello Kitty at Cutter and Squidge

Hello Kitty afternoon tea at Cutter and Squidge was a date I'd been looking forward to for a very long time. My friends and I booked as soon as it was announced and I patiently waited until the months rolled around. Before I knew it we were in July and that meant cake, and lots of it, with the girl dressed in a cute kitty costume.

Despite being a well known cake lover I'd never managed to visit Cutter and Squidge. It's a lovely shop with a relaxed cafe on the ground floor and a long counter over flowing in incredible looking cakes. The ethos at the cafe is too make delicious cakes without loading them up in unnecessary sugar and fat. The cakes aren't healthy, they're still indulgent but it's nice to know that they aren't prepared with wads of butter and sugar just for the sake of it. 'Healthy' cake isn't something that I normally care about it, if I'm trying to watch what I'd eat I'd rather have an apple then a substandard brownie but the cakes here are just as delicious as any you'll find elsewhere. 

The afternoon tea is served in the basement of the cafe which has been transformed into the most delightful Hello Kitty garden. As I walked down the stairs and around the corner I was loudly cooing about the sheer cuteness of the garden. In all honestly I was completely shocked by the attention to detail as I didn't realise how visual the entire experience was going to be. Yes it was childish and kitsch but I absolutely loved it.

As for the afternoon tea itself, my expectations were surpassed. I'm normally a little fussy when it comes to afternoon tea, I adore sandwiches and cake but I like them on the simpler side of the ingredients list. The child proof menu meant that everything is kind of simple but still delicious. I absolutely loved cheese and pickle sandwiches and the hummus and red pepper weren't bad either. The cheese scones were rich but the cream cheese and red pepper relish helped cut through the sharpness. There were so many cakes I don't even know where to begin. My favourite was the simple, circular cake truffle which is basically a cake pop without the stick. I loved the sourness of the pink lemonade marshmallow and the strawberries dipped in rich chocolate sauce were absolutely perfect (I wasn't a fan of the matcha dip). The chocolate mud pie is my perfect idea of a heavenly chocolate cake and the strawberry milkshake biskie was the most delightful cake / biscuit sandwich combo I'm yet to try. There's a ton of other food on the menu but these were the bits that really stood out for me.

As for drinks, I could not get enough of the pink lemonade, I think I drunk about 4 bottles of the stuff (yay for free refills). The lychee peach white tea is a lovely sweet but subtle drink whilst the Hello Kitty spiced apple tea was a little too festive for my liking, it it July after all.

The food comes in bamboo steamers which is a lovely Asian take on the traditional cake tower and as I mentioned everything is refillable if you ask. We ordered lots of extra drinks and a few extra sandwiches and cake. The cost of the afternoon tea is £40 per person which is on the expensive side but for the attention to detail and overall experience I think it is more than worth it. As the cafe is so small there's a quick turn around on the tables which meant our experience felt a little rushed but we were given the choice to finish anything we'd yet to eat in the cafe upstairs.

If you're a fan of Hello Kitty or you're looking for an afternoon tea experience with a difference then I thoroughly recommend booking yourself a table (if it isn't already fully booked). The salmon sandwiches were the only meat option on the entire menu meaning this is a great choice for vegetarians. I'm hoping to pop into the shop again this summer to pick up some bits from the Hello Kitty shop and maybe a slice of cake before the tea finishes on 31st August.

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