Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Curry House and James Bond

When: 21st July 2012

Another Saturday, another trip to East London.  Today however, would be different as I was able to spend my time enjoying two of my favourite British exports, the curry house and James Bond!  For the second week in a row I wanted to dodge the chains and thought we'd try the institutional curry house Tayyabs.

A good old fashioned curry house experience is one of my favourite things.  It brings back memories from my childhood and the novelty of being given a small chocolate at the end of the meal which to me was the height of luxury fine dining.  It was also special being able to have a good meal out whilst being vegetarian.  Anyway, times change, tastes change but the curry house remains as good as ever.

Tayyabs is famous for its tandoori cuisine, which is one of my favourite cooking styles.  We meet our friend and make the short walk from Aldgate East to the restaurant which is hard to miss from the large neon signs out front.  We took the advice to book a table as apparently it can get very busy so we were a little surprised to find only 1-2 other tables in use when we arrived.  Within five minutes of being given our menus our side of the restaurant was full to bursting, it was a good job we booked after all!  We had a table near the kitchen where I could take a good look at the action.  Service was brisk and polite but nothing to get excited about.  We ordered some starters to share:  delicious giant cubes of Paneer Tikka and some Lamb Chops straight from the tandoor in a lovely acidic marinade.  We also had some very tasty Pakoras.  Our starters were accompanied by some Popadoms and chutneys.  There wasn't much wait for the food and we were off to a great start with that addictive acidic tang of the marinated meat, I was enjoying this meal.

Before we'd even finished our starters our mains came along filling up the table.  I had one of the specialty curries, Karahi Lamb Tikka Masala, my partner also had an identical looking, but totally different tasting lamb curry.  We shared a couple of amazing buttery Tandoori Naans and some Karahi Bhindi, which to my taste was the only imperfect item we'd ordered.  This was a really great meal let down only by the rushed and less than perfect service.  It seems they have only one pace of working irrespective of how busy the restaurant is.  I would come back here to eat again, though not without trying one of the other local grills in the area and as good as the food was I would not make a special journey to come here when I have the good old Star of Bombay just a short bus ride away!  Though they did present the bill with two Union Jack chocolates (for the three of us!) to complete that famous curry house experience.

Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style
Where: Barbican Centre, London

As much as I love a good curry, it's no match for anything to do with James Bond.  So after some gentle persuasion we attended this exhibition at the Barbican.  There were 14 separate areas of the exhibition, a perfectly themed entrance and the opportunity to have your photo taken with the classic Aston Martin from Goldfinger.  The exhibition was divided into the various themes that has made Bond iconic over the last 50 years and each was filled with film props including gadgets, guns and the various outfits worn by Bond, the villains and the many Bond girls from the 23 films.

The first room of the exhibition was themed around gold and included the original Ken Adam sketches for Fort Knox from Goldfinger, Oddjob's steel-brimmed hat as well as Scaramanga's golden gun.  So far so good as we squeezed into a small room documenting the colourful life of James Bond's creator, Ian Flemming.  Flemming is just as interesting if not more so than the character he created.  He was a key influence in the cinematic appearance of James Bond in terms of his dress and background.  Also a number of the characters that appear in the books/films were named after Flemming's friends.  The idea of James Bond came from Flemming's time in the military and has passion for travel writing and journalism.

The next section was one that I particularly enjoyed, M's Office.  This section contained a number of Bond artefacts including passports, ID cards, credit cards, dossiers as well as a bit about the characters of M and Moneypenny.  The level of detail in these props are one of the things I love about Bond films.  Despite all the fantastic and often ridiculous elements to these films there is always a strong authenticity to the props used.  Of course once you have been briefed it's time to pick up your supplies from the Quartermaster or Q Branch as we know it.  Here we are treated to a selection of briefcases, watches and other "ordinary" items that can be transformed into lethal weapons, listening devices and escape routes at the flick of a switch.  There was also an extended section on the boat used in the opening sequence of The Wold is Not Enough.

After this was another James Bond staple, the casino.  In this section there was a full scale mock-up of the table and gamblers from Casino Royale forming the centre piece of the room.  In addition there were numerous mock ups of the various casino outfits and clips projected of many of the famous Bond casino scenes.  There was also a dress from the forthcoming Skyfall which was exciting to see.  After the excitement of the casino there was a section on the various countries and exotic places that Bond has visited over the years and how the look of these places was created.  The main focus here was on India as seen in Octopussy and the fabulous space base from Moonraker.

There were two main sections left after this, the next being Villains.  This room was filled with the costumes and props of many of the Bond villains, such as Rosa Klebb's spiked shoe, Jaws' teeth, the "bomb surprise" and Boris from Goldeneye frozen solid with liquid nitrogen.  There was also a section on the Bond girls that help Bond out in the films including Solitaire with her card table and Jinx in her bikini.  Alas it was time to move downstairs in the Bond lifts to visit the final room, the Ice Palace which celebrated Bond and all things snowy from the famous ski stunts to the magnificent Ice Palace from The World is Not Enough.  There was also the famous cello (with skis attached!) that Bond and Kara use to escape in The Living Daylights.

If I had one complaint about this exhibition it would be the lack of any interactive display areas, it would have been amazing to have been able to go hands on with some of the Bond gear as well as take some photos of it, though from reading about the lack of available items it is perhaps understandable.  This exhibition is clearly a must for suckers like me who can't wait till Skyfall later this year!  After finishing up at the Ice Place it was time to go home and reflect on a wonderful day of famous British exports, the curry house and James Bond.

Tayyabs - 83-89 Fieldgate Street London E1 1JU
020 7247 6400

Designing 007:50 Years of Bond Style - Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS Until 5th September 2012

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Best of British

Best of British
St John Bread and Wine
When: July 2012
I planned this day with one idea in mind, "Think like a tourist." although my day did not turn out in quite that fashion I had planned it was still a lot more fun than my usual unplanned wanderings.  Sometimes it is easy to take living in Central London for granted.  My original plan was to start the day with a filling breakfast at St John Bread and Wine followed up with an exhibition, then a nice early dinner with a good film to round off the day.

The first key difference between think like a tourist and act like a tourist is getting up.  I had planned to get up for breakfast, but after a hard week at work (or in my case half a week of work and half a week of PS3) it's hard to get up, get ready and go get some breakfast on the other side of town.  Also the inertia of there always being another time to do this starts to kick in.  Anyway, by the time we made it out the house and on to the tube it was approaching lunch time.  Liverpool St is around 25 minutes away on the tube and Spitalfields is only a few minutes walk from the station.  Taking the scenic route along Commerical Street we arrived at St John to take a look and see if we felt like lunch and also like spending good money on lunch.  After some debate, a quick circle of the market and some persuasion on my part we ended up back at St John Bread and Wine and settled in for lunch.

The restaurant is sparsely decorated despite its smart white and black exterior, there are simple tables and chairs inside with wait staff decked out in all white chef-style uniforms.  We were seated and quickly given menus, a jug of fresh water and a plate with some very tasty slices of brown and white sourdough bread.   The crowd inside was pretty mixed, not fitting a particular scene in terms of age or dress but erring on the casual.  I washed down my food with some Meantime lager, our other drink was apple juice.  The food menu changes daily depending on what is available and today we both went with rabbit after I was talked out of a 40 minute wait for the pigeon.  There was a short wait for our food, a full plate with two large pieces of rabbit each, some nice greenery, baby carrots and some aioli on the side.  The food was really good with everything complementing the rabbit.  The only negative was having to watch out for bones in the rabbit but the food was delicious and filling leaving us with the debate of dessert.

The debate was short lived, though in hindsight we should have had one dessert to share rather than one each.  We had the brioche with apricots and the chocolate cake with crème fraiche ice cream.  The brioche was fresh and buttery to the point of almost tasting like a good croissant, they contrasted well with the sweet, yet sharp apricots in their juices and a little bite of the crème fraiche ice cream to cleanse the palate and set off on another round.  The chocolate cake was almost brownie like and tasted like it was made with good cocoa or chocolate and again the ice cream acted as a cleansing respite from the intensity of the chocolate.  At this point we were stuffed to bursting after enjoying some great food.  Despite the quality of the food with the bill at just over £50 it was not a cheap lunch and perhaps would have made a much better dinner.  Anyway, St John certainly lived up to its Internet hype and is somewhere I'd like to dine at again.

Damien Hirst

We then began a brief and much needed walk through the city of London and across Southwark Bridge towards Tate Modern.  We had mixed expectations of this exhibition, which I have to admit I was keen to see after reading some of the reviews.  Not having booked we joined a fairly long queue for tickets as there were only two people issuing tickets for a fairly significant queue.  We made our way upstairs to the exhibition which thankfully was not too crowded.  The exhibition is divided up into 14 rooms displaying Hirst’s work largely in chronological order.

The first room had a rather striking picture of a young Hirst posing with a head from the anatomy department of Leeds University, there were also some pots and pans stuck on one wall and some rather attractively placed coloured boxes in the corner of another wall.  In the next two rooms there were some spot paintings and medicine cabinets.  We also had some   animals suspended in formaldehyde, in this case the famous shark, sheep, fish and sheep's head.  This room was a bit like a larger than life museum exhibition and was quite fascinating to look at.  You can spend time out staring the shark, watching the fluffiness of the sheep's coat and the tranquil but dead eyes of the fish suspended in time and space and strapped to the walls.  My highlight of this room was A Thousand Years, a large glass cabinet with a fresh cows head in it, the cabinet is used to breed flies and you can see them flying around, lying dead or resting.  Somehow it all feels very human when you talk about it, the fear and fascination of the bloody head stuck on the floor and the distance the glass casing gives is quite un-nerving.

Room 4 looks like the kind of thing you might see in a museum on 20th Century life 100 years from now.  The large glass case with the empty office chair and desk.  There is also a cabinet in the style of the pill boxes but filled with various cigarette butts.  Do we see ourselves like this now, or is this how our great grandchildren will see us, in a museum display case much like we now see life in the mines or on a traditional farm today?  Room 5 was overshadowed by Room 6.  In this room butterflies are living their lives in a controlled environment, in the room before they are stuck onto painted canvas to make works of art.  Who is the artist running our lives, it doesn't feel like God/a god.

Room 7 was a giant pharmacy which made me feel quite uncomfortable, the giant floor to ceiling cases filled with medicine and the lack of humanity made the experience of walking around the room in silence with strangers quite unusual.  Being an observer rather than a participant in what is otherwise a familiar domain makes it take on a whole new perspective.  After taking our pills in Room 7, Room 8 gave us the hypnotic Spin Paintings.  Room 9 I found much more fascinating, walking between the halves of a cow and its calf suspended in time and the huge white ashtray filled with the stench of cigarette butts was truly an unpleasant sensation.

Moving into Room 10 we entered a giant supply cupboard for a hospital with wall to wall cabinets of beautifully organised, spotless pieces of metallic medical equipment.  We were being prepared for death and now that science has failed to preserve us we head back to Religion and Room 11.  In this room there are beautiful stained glass style butterfly paintings and a marble statue of an angel, however one that is distinctly and fatally real with its organs and insides on show.  In Room 12 maybe we head one step closer to hell with a 70s shag rug made of flies and a beautiful sheep in a case to keep the neighbours talking.

Room 13 offers its own vile conclusion as we are offered a selection of recent Hirst works which feel like horrible blinged our parodies of his previous work.  All the mysticism of life, death and beliefs have been replaced with cold, hard cash.  Items sold for auction and private consumption rather than placed in a gallery for all and everyone to see.  What's left after you buy into consumerism, maybe just death or perhaps an inner peace from selling all your things and a more simple life?  The serene beauty of the dove frozen in time feels like the right way to end this journey.

This exhibition throws up lots of questions on the nature of art.  For me the exhibition was like walking through a museum depicting the last 50 years of life on Earth in abstract.  The emotions gained from the experience though are quite different from walking through the National History Museum, looking at the animals in London Zoo, or wandering through a prefab house at the Science Museum. 
In all we had a day that was much more than the sum of its parts, things we could feel, taste and experience but that felt familiar and close to home and try as we might to break our patterns and do, feel or behave in a different way we ended up exactly the same.

St. John Bread and Wine 94-96 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LZ.
Tate Modern  Bankside,  London, SE1 9TGDamien Hirst till 9th September 2012

Monday, 2 July 2012

Found In Nostalgia

Tokyo Diner

When: June 2012
Where: Chinatown, London and Odeon Covent Garden

I think this combination was a match made in heaven, simple delicious Japanese food with a heartwarming, nostalgic romance to follow.  We started going to Tokyo Diner as an alternative to Okawari, a Japanese/Korean restaurant a few doors up the road.  However, as Okawari has now changed name and possibly owners at least twice in the last few years we now are left with Tokyo Diner for cheap Japanese food.  The restaurant is supposed to be authentic Japanese complete with Japanese staff, small chairs and tables and a no tips policy.  The owner is authentically eccentric English.  A perfect combination indeed.

As we sat over green tea debating whether I should join my partner whilst visiting her family that weekend I realised how much I missed coming here and how long it had been.  The menu had changed a little and the prices had increase but once my Katsu Don arrived with steaming hot rice, freshly scrambled egg and pork in breadcrumbs I felt right at home.  As such a simple please was devoured with a cold can of beer and a warm glass life felt really good right down to the last grain of rice.  The one thing I really love is how fresh the food feels, though maybe one day I'll try something else on the menu that isn't Katsu Don!

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

After a filling and tasty meal it was time for the film.  We finally decided on Odeon Covent Garden, I can't remember exactly why.  For some reason they had three films starting at the same time and whilst I'm sure it helps with staffing costs the small lobby area was totally over-crowded and it was quite unpleasant to wait for the doors to open.  I was glad we got there early as the surprisingly (even though it was a Wednesday) the screening was completely full bar a few of the Premier seats.

I liked Moonrise Kingdom, the casting, acting and atmosphere was great but in particular it captured a world in transition where the outcasts become the wanted ones and the wanted ones become cast out a little, yet through human decency we all pull through.  I loved the nostalgia of the scout camp and of being 11 years old and taking your fist steps into an adult world.  In the case of our hero it is love and responsibility.  For our scouts it is acceptance of those different from yourself.  Bruce Willis' character is able to start a family and give someone a home.  For Ed Norton his Scout Master saves the day in the face of disaster after he overcomes his own mistakes.

The film is tied together with some Coen Brothers style narration that somehow made me think of the Big Lebowski and adds a layer of distance to the film that we often forget about.  We are watching a re-telling and not the story itself.  I think it also fits well with Wes Anderson's nostalgic images that look like a cross between a fashion shoot and a glossy magazine from the 1960s with a nice dose of exaggeration that comes from re-telling a story.

So in all a perfect evening of warm nostalgia from the copy of an authentic Japanese restaurant in the heart of London to the re-creation of small town (or in this case island!) American life in the 1960s.