Zen and The Act of Kindness

IMG_0772“Seriously?  You have a bath and a kettle in your room?” I said to new Club Med friend Els. “It must be a deluxe one: I was told they’d done away with most of them in the refurb – part of an economy drive around water. I agree with that – but I do love a soak in the bath after a hard day’s table tennis and lounging by the pool.”

It was the first of many changes I spotted during my week at Da Balaia. It seemed that like some of its guests and the world at large, Club Med is also partial to an identity crisis: Rooms are refreshed; a newly decorated bar upstairs is all blonde wood; the nightclub area bright and airy, however in the communal areas the same old comforting carpet greeted me – a little tired around the edges now.

I followed crowds of beards from a tech company visiting for a conference to the dining room for lunch.

Ines, a Gentil Organisateur (G.O.) tore me away from frowning at chipped plates and cups, and the large round table next to me of eight French bloggers superglued to their ‘phones.
“So, how was your morning?” she asked, smiling. I told her what I’d done and hadn’t done and we found shared experiences to bond over.

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Japan Calling

IMG_0390“I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m on holiday, not in Maida Vale” I said to The Brunette – my dinner companion for the evening. Contemplating the decor of our newest local restaurant  immediately imbued a sense of relaxation and calm. Dark wood, mirrored strips on walls – a nod to Japanese lacquer – minimal tables and a soupçon of light jazz to be heard in the background provided the comfort of the traditional with the frisson of the new.

A Gordon Ramsey type restaurant this isn’t.  If you’re after cooks shouting orders: ‘SERVICE! NOW!!’ you won’t find it here. Instead, sitting up at the kitchen bar – possibly the most action packed location of any restaurant – Ken and Masato Nezu noiselessly and respectfully went about their business creating exquisitely simple, wonderful to behold dishes.

fullsizeoutput_27a0Manners maketh man and most certainly add to the enjoyment of dinner out on a Wednesday night.  Politely we were asked what we’d like to drink.  We discussed the options with Toru the owner: “Try the sparkling Sake” he told us, “It’s light, not too strong, I think you’ll be okay.” He was right; gently floral, the colour of effervescent water it was to be relished for itself rather than any unwanted effects.

IMG_0377We took our food recommendations from Ken: “This is nothing special” he repeatedly told us. Yellowtailed carpaccio with truffle oil, grilled asparagus with sesame dressing defined with threads of chilli as a starter told us otherwise.

Venturing into the territory of the mains our reactions seemed to surprise him; but when sushi and sashimi plates are this good it’s hard not to express delight. The smoked eel sushi took me out of my comfort zone into a new level of enjoyment. This is not the challenging eel of cockney lore, rather a super tender smokey hot mouthful with the delicate crunch of cucumber, wrapped in rice so good the entire experience was synergy personified.

Finishing up with sesame and Yuzu fruit ice cream followed by a cup of Genami tea, Toru gave us some backstory: “Our chefs are from a sushi family, we invited them from Nobu. It is an art to create this food.  In Japan an apprentice doesn’t touch the fish for three years – they just watch. How you cut the fish alters the flavour; knives have to be sharp. How you press the rice requires just the right amount of pressure; the temperature is vital. Everything has to come together – into one. It takes time.

We left ‘Japan’ light but replete, warmed but refreshed: “How appropriate that two friends from choir should have such a harmonious evening” The Brunette remarked as the Murasaki team bade us ‘Good Night.’

Many thanks to Toru, Ken, Masato Nezu, Piyumi and Kauri for a delightful evening. Murasaki, 12 Lauderdale Road, London W9

Farmaceuticals

img_4357There was a time, not so long ago, when the word that a new restaurant in town had opened, had you hot footing it down there to steal the ashtray and collect the matches while dining on all the alcohol you could possibly manage and shooting the calorie counter up to eleven. The naughtier and more generously appointed the dish the better.

As the years have gone by however the courses, as opposed to the prices, have gotten smaller: We had nouvelle cuisine morphing into bacon and egg ice cream, and eventually just bits of air floating about in a clear glass dome on a plate.

So, just when the menus of hip and happening restaurants had become so absurd and gone beyond you even asking for the chef’s recipe book for Christmas – solely for coffee table decoration – we finally pulled ourselves together and decided what was interesting was what actually might be good for us to eat.  Good in a kind of ‘I am superhuman, I live in the Noughties (are we still in those by the way?) I am immune to any new disease mankind may throw at me.  Bring on the kale! Bring on the bizarre South American herbs! Bring on the sense of worthiness/smugness I will obtain just by looking at this food on my plate!’

Farmacy, one of the latest restaurants currently fascinating London town fits this particular bill.

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A Christmas Evening

img_4503I laid the loaf of sourdough bread down on the floor, alongside my faux fur and handbag.  “Jeez, it’s hot in here”  I said to my Goldie Hawn Lookalike (GHL) of a neighbour.  A glass of Walter’s Royal Riesling Sekt Brut in hand I spied the canapés on offer.  Geraldine – the generous owner of Raoul’s and solely responsible for starting off this annual Christmas event in the ‘hood noted it.  “It’s okay, every year our glasses get mixed up with The Winery’s next door, but eventually they find their way to the right home.”

I was glad about that, because even as I sampled the Riesling from David’s wine gaff, I had one eye on Raouls’ Prosecco – both pink and white on offer.

The chat started to flow, a local beautician joined us as we talked botox, Trump and blind dates in no particular order.  Niblets of chorizo and beds of bruschetta laiden with mozzarella, pesto and dried tomatoes stimulated the taste buds, and before I knew where I was I found myself one glass of rosé bubbly down.

“Let’s go next door!” GHL cried.  It seemed a good idea, as we were down to our last sophisticated sausage roll and the hostess of the evening had bade us ‘goodnight’.
“I’ve got a piece to publish tonight and Christmas cards to write, I can’t stay out much longer..!”
“Just one!” she replied.

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House of Crab

IMG_1948When you’re in the West End of London town and feeling peckish at lunchtime, it’s hard to escape the pull of the ubiquitous fast food chains for a re-fuel: Mayfair, home of the £20 cocktail is especially challenging.

Crossing New Bond Street through streams of Bentleys and revving Maseratis I sought sustenance and respite from the main drag. On Grosvenor Street I spied a couple of brightly painted tables and chairs sitting outside a cute wooden facade.  An entrance gaily thrown open to the street dared me to walk past without investigating.

I walked in to more cheery furniture and a whitewashed bar at the back, behind which a young bearded man industriously attended to business.

“Are you a pop-up?” I asked, “Specialising in Crab by any chance?”

He grinned and gave me the lowdown.  Open since early this year they are indeed that, and plan on staying in Mayfair for the duration of 2016, business depending. “Sit down! Sit down!” he insisted handing me a menu.

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The One and Only

IMG_1705“Whaddya mean you’re having another double espresso?! What’s the matter with you Al?!”
“I dunno, something’s gotten into me, and the coffee is pretty good here.”

It was all my fault as usual.  Having left a rather brilliant but harrowing movie – Victoria – we needed something to take the edge off.  The cinema bar told us it was closing: “Well, we are in London after all and it’s almost midnight, so that makes sense” said my droll companion.

We walked out onto the festival type crowded streets of Soho wondering where to go, when it occurred to me.  There really is only one place for such a moment. “Bar Italia” I said, “Let’s go there.”

Like a homing pigeon I found my way easily.  Perhaps 20 years have elapsed since I last visited but on walking past the jovial heat-lamp-lit tables outside, I was relieved to see absolutely nothing had changed. The large screen at the back relayed football; even the waiters looked the same.

Miraculously two stools appeared free at the counter top. I quickly commandeered them whilst Al did the honours in the queue. Reaching for one seat nestled up close to another on which sat an elderly gent in animated conversation with a distinguished looking waiter, my hand was seized. “You’re trying to touch his ass?” Roxano, the latter, asked.
“No! No!  I just need to grab the stool next to him!”  I said laughing.
“You will see, it is as hard as a rock.”

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Blackberries and tea

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For my Mum.

“I can’t understand why it’s so hard to find tea cosies, or tea caddies for that matter” I said to M, as we meandered through the streets of Oxfordshire in search of either.

Our first stop was the local hardware store. “You might find something in here” M said, as the ding ding of the door sounded.

I’ve always loved a hardware store. The utilitarian nature of the ambiance – to say nothing of the products is deeply appealing.  Bygone weekly Saturday morning trips to one of the most interesting shops in small town Ireland may be partly responsible.  I’d cycle in, eagerly anticipating what I would find there.  My trusty Dawes bicycle left to lean up against the shopfront window, I’d open the door to wood-infused scents, the steel of nails and screws, drawers and aisles of everything you could possibly need to do and fix with under a ceiling that seemed endless.

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Rectuma

IMG_0652 2“Ah, the crystal of Belarus; unsurpassed” said a man leaning against one of the many bars at this elegant townhouse club in Soho, holding his whiskey glass up to examine it.
“What?  More crystal than Waterford?!” I exclaimed.
“Oh yes” he said.  “I remember being in Soho House in L.A. once, picking up the water jug and the handle just fell off in my hand. It happened straight after I noticed that the bottoms of the glasses were all different depths.”

Special indeed.  P and I forged on ahead.  “We need to find James, P” I said. “I want to find out more about this crystal.” Someone heard me:  “I know him!” called out a passing waiter.
“Brilliant – can you page him?” I enquired.
“Jeez S, What decade are you in?!” came P’s retort.

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The comfort of strangers

IMG_0254One of my favourite things to do is to take myself out for dinner.  The venue is crucial. One has to feel at ease – dining alone is not for the faint hearted after all. But, if you should happen upon the right place, it’s heavenly.

I switch my phone to silent, log out of various ‘social’ media websites – utterly stultifying to one’s creativity – then sit back and enjoy my own company.

Most restaurants don’t excel at entertaining sole diners; they’d much rather you were there with 20 of your nearest and dearest or at the very least your other half.  It’s rare to find an establishment that says ‘We love you no matter what’.

Carluccio’s in Paddington Street is just such a place. I wandered in tired from a day treading the boards and glanced around.  At one of the softly spotlit tables sat an elderly lady, elegant with coiffed grey hair, a glass of chilled rose to one side.  A couple of feet away another solitary diner, young and dark haired placed his phone on the table, looking up as the waitress put a plate of steak and frites before his dinner-ready face.

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Blessings to be counted, one, two, three

P1070161You know you’ve got a good New Year’s Eve on your hands when you sweep through two sets of grand curtains to be met by a kilt wearing Scot brandishing a saxophone. I say sweep, because that’s all you can do in a Tiffany-style charity find of a designer LBD, accompanied by one of your most favourite people in the world (Blessings to be counted, one).

‘Rach, I don’t think I’ll wear that Alberta Ferretti tonight, I’ve had two more mince pies and several large peaks of Toblerone. I’m just going to go for the trusty lurex’ whooped my text to her one hour earlier. ‘Just wear what you feel comfortable in’ came her consistently gentle, but firm advice.

Two minutes to leaving for The Vault @ Putney Pies I checked the result of my final decision in the mirror. ‘It is New Year’s Eve after all’ I texted.  ‘I feel lucky to be alive and vibrant’ (Blessings to be counted, two).  ‘I’m seizing the moment cuz!’

A ‘hello’ to Matt, our host in SW15 was swiftly followed by his stellar bar manager David, and fellow Glaswegian, serving us up some champagne.  None of your glass three quarters full here: Generously filled to the brim it knocked any sophisticate notions on the head and tripled my enthusiasm for this – traditionally least favourite – night of the year.

We raised our glasses, chatting easily with David, relaxing into what felt like home.

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