Sunday, 30 October 2016

Brighton's Salt Room is a fine dining star

BBQ mackerel and accompaniments
It’s some time since, on a trip away from London for work, I’ve treated myself to a lone fine dining experience.

But in Brighton in June, the The Other Half and I tried a new(ish) restaurant on the seafront, The Salt Room, and back in the city for work this weekend, I booked for myself.

From that, you’ll be able to surmise that it was a good experience – but perhaps that was luck?

On Saturday evening, I was seated at a spacious table, with a view across the promenade to the Channel as night slipped in.

The Salt Room has a short menu – always a good thing ­– but nevertheless, it was no easy choice. There is little on the list that I would not appreciate.

That, of course, is where a nice dry sherry comes in as you browse and salivate.

I opted, in the end, for BBQ mackerel as a starter. Three slices of impeccably cooked fish – and you can easily taste just how fresh it was in the first place – came with a sea buckthorn curd, passionfruit, beetroot, slices of almost translucent raddish and a garnish of dill.

It looked beautiful and it tasted beautiful.

The flavour combination might sound odd, but it was not: the curd in particular was a gorgeous revelation, the beet supplies earthiness, the raddish a spot of crisp bite and the fruit a little zing.

For a main, I opted for partridge with more beetroot, smoked bacon, kale, quince and a bread sauce.

Some might have also selected side dishes (a peculiarly British dining thing), but I had no need. Portion size was perfect for me and when food is like this, why change what the chef has designed?

Again, the beet added earthiness, if it was a little undercooked for my usual taste. The partridge was simply superb ­–­ moist and tender and with excellent flavour.

The bread sauce was a delight and the kale and bacon added textures and tastes to a thoroughly pleasing dish.

Both these dishes simply sang of autumn: bold, earthy flavours from excellent seasonal produce reminds the diner – if this is needed – why seasonality is not simply sensible, but a joy.

One of the joys of dining on your own is that nothing need come between you and mulling the flavours you’re enjoying – and that was certainly the case here.

Chocolate ganache
To finish, I opted for a chocolate ganache, with frozen blackberry meringue, compote and liquorice ice cream – another hit.

Blackberry – when not sweetened by processing – has a wonderfully tart taste and also simply reeks of autumn.

I enjoyed some Riesling Trimbach to accompany. The wine list is not particularly lengthy, but there are far more wines available by the glass than is often the situation.

The service is informal  and friendly, but also efficient and knowledgeable.

Back in June, The Other Half observed that he could not think of anywhere in the UK where he’d eaten, that was not Michelin starred, that was as good as The Salt Room.

A second visit did nothing at all to make me disagree.

To find out more and to book, visit

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The doctor may be strange, but the fun is spot on

The world might seem to be going to hell in a handcart, but the big screen entertainment just keeps on delivering.

Having not been inside a cinema for 16 years until July last year, the first 10 months of 2016 have already seen me make 10 visits – and given what’s on offer between now and the turn of the year, there are more to come.

Last night saw the 3D glasses make another appearance – this time for Dr Strange – another piece of superhero escapism from Marvel.

Dr Stephen Strange is a brilliant, pioneering neurosurgeon. Unfortunately, his ego and arrogance are on a similar scale, and when these traits help bring about a massive car crash that cripples his hands, he descends into a self-pitying, destructive mess.

Eventually, having heard of a man who made an apparently miraculous recovery from massive injuries, he heads out to Nepal, to search for a secret place called Kamar-Taj.

But all is not what he expects and, meeting the Ancient One, he finds all his beliefs about the nature of the world and life challenged, before finding himself in the unexpected position of having choose what path to take, with huge rammifications for the whole world.

We might have seen such a plot more than once – Ironman, anyone? – but this has been done with great aplomb and in very entertaining manner.

As with the decision to cast a major actor like Robert Downey J as Tony Stark, this benefits hugely from the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous doctor.

The wry humour that he brings to the role helps give the character roundness ­– and the same is very much true of his performance during Strange’s deepest levels of despair. Add to this that he can bring great charm to the screen even when he’s playing arrogant alpha male.

Tilda Swinton is the Ancient One ­– casting that caused controversy, since the character was originally a Tibetan man. But she’s the sort of actor who revels in being mysterious and ‘different’ ­and that’s perfect here.

Mads Mikkelsen turns in a strong performance as villain of the piece, Kaecilius – and manages to look slightly like a demented Vladimir Putin on occasion, a reminder (deliberate or not) of the of the global sabre rattling we find ourselves witnessing.

Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a good Karl Mordo – an upright master who acts as a balance to the flexible Strange.

Benedict Wong as another master, the librarian Wong, forms a fun relationship with Strange. The actors bounce off each other nicely.

And Rachel McAdams as a former medical colleague – and lover – of Strange also turns in a gutsy, rounded performance.

We’ll pass over the Stan Lee cameo – and move onto Scott Derrickson’s direction.

After opening with an action sequence that introduces the Ancient One and Kaecilius, the plot turns to creating the character of Strange. But Derrickson never let’s you feel as though as though it’s flagging and makes it feel that we’re getting some meat and not just fluff.

The special effects are stunning – and the 3D really does add to the overall experience.

The spells and the different planes of existence both benefit from a sense of almost being like gossamer, while the warping of the physical world is simply incredible – it can make you feel as though you’re nearing motion sickness!

The whole has a sumptuous, glossy look and has been set up easily for further outings.

Dr Strange is quite simply enormous fun. If you want to be entertained, catch it soon.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Halloween the British way

English Heritage carved turnips at Dover Castle last year
Pumpkin Day was trending on Twitter in the UK yesterday and ever more shops are selling them for carving. Indeed, on Broadway Market in Hackney – the epitome of trendy hipsterdom these days – an empty restaurant had been turned over to the sale of pumpkins and pumpkins alone last weekend.

People all over the world have long carved vegetables for all sorts of reasons, but there is evidence that the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns at this time of year originated in Ireland and, by the 19th century, turnips and mangel wurzels were being used to create grotesque lanterns at Halloween in both Ireland and the Scottish Highlights, where Halloween was also the festival of Samhain.

Jack-o’-lanterns also cropped up in Somerset on Punkie Night, which is possibly linked to Halloween – ‘punkie’ is an old English name for a lantern.

In Cornwall, Allantide was celebrated on 31 October – although it has also been called Allan Day as part of attempts to claim it as being connected with a little-known Cornish saint, Allen or Arlan, rather than anything older and pre-Christian.

Allantide involves giving large, polished red apples as gifts – and sometimes, carving turnip head lanterns, plus the lighting of ‘Tindle Fires’ – the latter being in common with the traditions of other Celtic peoples.

Whatever the origins, there’s no history of carving pumpkins in the UK. It always comes back to turnips and swedes.

For instance, there’s evidence that turnips were used to carve a ‘Hoberdy’s Lantern’ in Worcestershire in the 18th century.

Jabez Allies – one of the earliest English writers on folklore – said that, “in my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a ‘Hoberdy’s Lantern,’ by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night.”

In an article titled Halloween Sports and Customs, penned for the American magazine, Harper’s Young People, in 1885, Agnes Carr Sage clarified the trans-Atlantic differences: “It is an ancient British custom to light great bonfires (Bone-fire to clear before Winter froze the ground) on Hallowe’en, and carry blazing fagots about on long poles; but in place of this, American boys delight in the funny grinning jack-o’-lanterns made of huge yellow pumpkins with a candle inside.”

So, if you feel tempted to buy and carve a pumpkin – thing again and get yourself a turnip or a swede for the job.

And lest we forget, trick or treating is NOT a British tradition either: instead, we have Mischief Night, a pranking holiday that usually takes place the night before Halloween itself.

Like so many traditions, the exact roots of it are unclear, but it’s thought to date from the 18th century, when a custom of Lawless Hours or Days still existed.

It only appears on record as Mischief Night in the 1830s, when it took place on 30 April. Indeed, in Germany, Mischief Night is still celebrated on 1 May.

There seems no certainty about why it moved or how – or even when it takes place. Some say it’s on 4 November – some, the night before Halloween, although this confusion may be linked to the country’s shift from Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752, meaning that 11 days were ‘lost’.

But while we have Halloween, Bonfire Night and Mischief Night at different times, but they all originate from the same festival.

“These were times when normal laws were suspended and tricks could be played ranging from throwing cabbage stalks at people, to the swapping of shopkeeper’s signs and gates, Simon Costin, the director of the Museum of British Folklore, told the BBC in 2009.

So if your gate is taken off its hinges on Sunday night – just remember: that’s a proper British tradition.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Pink Martini leave the Royal Albert Hall jumping

It’s a rare week indeed when The Other Half and I see two live performances of any variety. But the last few days have gone beyond ‘rare’ and into the downright surreal.

After witnessing a chorus line of tap dancing noses at the Royal Opera House on Thursday, Saturday offered up the sight of his excellency the US ambassador to the court of St James on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, playing the triangle.

But sure enough, friend of the band Matthew Barzun – presumably intending to enjoy a quiet eve-of birthday celebration by watching Pink Martini – had been lured on stage for a number.

And, of course, it gave him the opportunity to call on any compatriots in the 5,000-strong audience to vote next month in the US presidential elections. He didn’t say who they should vote for, but Pink Martini is a big band that describes itself on Twitter thus: “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we'd be it.”

In other words, you might be able to take a guess at the type of people likely to be in attendance.

Along with the moment when the son of Palestinian refugees introduced a song he’d written for the band in Egyptian Arabic – and then hugged the vocalist, Ari Shapiro, who is Jewish – that was it with politics for the night.

These concerts really should be formally described as ‘Pink Martini and friends’, because not only did we get the US ambassador taking part, we were introduced to a young pianist band leader Thomas Lauderdale had just happened to meet, plus Ikram Goldman.

Credited with getting Michelle Obama interested in fashion, Goldman is the hugely influential owner of a high-end boutique in Chicago, but having introduced Lauderdale and co to the Arabic song Al Bint Al Shalabiya, she joined them on stage to sing it.

A brand new album
The band has recently penned three songs for the forthcoming French film, Souvenir – sung on screen by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert and on stage by the equally wonderful China Forbes, one of Pink Martini’s two regular lead vocalists.

And then there was a three-song guest spot by Australian singer-performer-cabaret artist (she defies easy label) Meow Meow, whose initial song, with two unwitting male ‘volunteers’ from the floor of the house, reminded both The Other Half and I of a routine by the late, great Eartha Kitt.

We get a spot of Schubert on the piano as a segueway into a pair of songs about a couple having a row: one from her perspective, one from his (radio journalist and regular guest Shapiro gets the latter of these, after Forbes has given us the first).

A lot of the current material in the concert features on the new album – Je Dis Oui! – which was given it’s global release on the UK leg of this tour.

The Pinks are all superb musicians, from Lauderdale, with his flamboyant style of playing the piano, through the likes of Forbes and percussionist – and occasional vocalist and dancer – Timothy Nishimoto.

This is sophisticated easy listening with a global sensibility.

A fabulous show that had the entire joint jumping by the end, with their marvellous version of Brazil (you can catch a flavour of the final few minutes here), Portland, Oregon’s finest leave you with a wide grin on your face, a spring in your step and optimism in your heart.

For details about more dates (in the UK and elsewhere) visit The new album is available in the UK now, but details of its wider release are also on the band’s website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On The Nose – a brilliant ROH debut for Kosky

It’s entirely possible that the greatest sight at a London theatre this year is that of a chorus line of 13 giant noses, tap dancing across the stage of the Royal Opera House.

It might not be what many Covent Garden aficionados expect, but the reception at last night’s premiere of a new production of Shostakovich’s The Nose would suggest that, whatever some of the more culturally po-faced might imagine, opera goers in London enjoy a farce as much as anyone else.

Shostakovich’s first opera, completed in 1928, is just bonkers.

But there’s a simple reason for that – because it is based on Gogol’s short story of the same name, which is, err, three stops short of Upminster.

To precis: Kovalev is a pompous bureaucratic who wakes up to find that he has lost his nose. Looking for it, he finds that it has become rather larger and, indeed, overtaken him in terms of social standing.

His nose does not want to return to its former position. The police are no help. He advertises with a local paper after being ridiculed by the journalists – but then the nose itself gets caught up with populist sentiment and is almost lynched, before being returned to Kovalev.

Initially, he cannot re-attach it, but that happens miraculously over night. And that's it – or maybe not.

A chorus line of tap dancing, err, noses
There is neither logic nor sense here – it is entirely surreal. And entirely hilarious.

Or is it?

The scene I mentioned at the top is one that director Barrie Kosky has inserted into the piece, but it’s a perfect fit. The audience absolutely fell about.

Kosky is currently the artistic director go the Komische Oper in Berlin and has something of a reputation of being an operatic enfente terrible

In this, his ROH debut, he proves his maxim that no movement is ever pointless and presents the house with a wonderful first production of the piece. There is so much movement – but none is simply indulgent.

Now it flags in the middle (the whole is just over two hours, with no interval) – but that’s less Kosky and more the young composer. However, so much else is good that one forgets that by the end.

The house band, under Ingo Metzmacher, is first rate with a varied score, from very modern (at the time) to folk and conventionally melodic, – it even includes a balalaika accompaniment to one song from Ivan, Kovalevs servant, delightfully sung here by tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (making his ROH debut)

Martin Winkler as Kovalev
David Pountney’s translation to English helps to make it an immediate feel, and just adds enough to give us a sense of the transgressive nature of the work that the first audiences must have felt. 

It’s a superb ensemble cast, but special mentions go to renowned buffo performer Martin Winkle in the role of Kovalev, while Sir John Tomlinson as Kovalev’s barber reminds us (should we need it) just what a great bass he is – and how he really can still do it, vocally and in terms of the acting.

There are moments when you feel that Kosky was channelling the Weimar era of his now home city of Berlin – but that works well here, along with Russian Keystone cops and corruption at all levels, because we’re looking at a decaying, corrupt society. Yet within the church scene, before Kovalev challenges his wayward nose, it is both musically and emotionally beautiful and powerful.

And ultimately, beneath the farce, there is a sense – and it is a sense, but this is part of what I think makes the production so good – of both the vodka-soaked Russian tragedy, and indeed, the perverse insanity that threatens even now to engulf us all.

The obvious satire nods to a decaying society obsessed with the insignificant; to social standing and form, even as the pillars of that society crumble corruptly around it.

The Nose is subtle even at the same time as being quite the opposite: but there is also a darkness here that we can see in the world around us right now. And an element of ‘fuck you about a piece that perhaps gives us the hope that, having survived such possible apocalypses before, we can do so again.

I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that, while I am now a friend of the ROH, our tickets – with fab view and even fabber sound – were under £30 each. The ROH is NOT beyond the pocket of all but a few in this country.

Anyway, to find out more about The Nose and more, visit

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Death's vengeful daughter, alien invasion, over-reaching geniuses and uncensored Judge Dredd

The last few weeks have seen my comics enjoyment – and involvement – broadening and moving beyond the realms of simply being a reader.

But for this post, I’m going to stick with what I’ve been reading and begin in mid September, when The Other Half was away on a brief Rugby League trip and I leapt at the opportunity to visit Gosh! comics in Soho, where staff took the time to recommend a number of titles for me to try.

The first of these that I have read thus far is volume one of Pretty Deadly, a quirky fusion of westerns, folklore and fantasy by Kelly Sue DeConnick, centred on Death’s daughter and a bitter, savage search for vengeance.

Within this, we get a sense of something ancient and timeless in the power of stories.

The excellent, stylised artwork by Emma Ríos adds to the strange and magical quality of the story, with a fascinating palette that includes, almost as an act of artistic irony given the storyline, pale pastels.

To give you an idea of just how weird this is, each chapter is introduced by the ‘living’ skeleton of a dead rabbit talking to a butterfly. And yet somehow it all works, ensuring an immediate order being placed for the second instalment.

Next up was Y: The Last Man, Brian K Vaughan’s story of Yorick and his capuchin monkey, who find themselves as the last males on Earth when an unknown plague wipes out all other males – and with an awful lot of women wanting them dead too.

Vaughan is a bright new(ish) star of the comics scene, but it took me an age to get going with this and, with the flatness of Pia Guerra’s artwork, I’m not sure whether I’ll follow the story on to a further volume.

By contrast, the first Wild’s End trade knocked my metaphorical socks off.

Dan Abnett’s tale unfolds in and around a peaceful 1930s English village populated by a cast of anthropomorphic animal citizens, who suddenly find their rural idyll shattered by an alien invasion.

This is Wind in the Willows fused with War of the Worlds – with a dry humour underlying the whole and a very clever invocation of a semi-mythical England, from character names such as Captain Wainmaring to two pages of a delightfully realised travel guide that nods to the likes of Wainwright, Bradshaw and Pevsner.

INJ Culbard’s art is a joy. Deceptively simple, it absolutely pings off the page in vibrant colour. And the space ships are Deco lights!

Wild’s End is funny, violent, with a fast-paced story and strong characters – it’s an absolute delight. Whether I will be reading more of this is not even a real question.

The doormat at home is just beginning to get used to Forbidden Planet subscription packets landing on it.

But when the first issue of Hadrian’s Wall descended, it left me with the giddy delight of having my first ever subscribed-before-the-start-of-a-completely-new-comic experience – and that was before I’d even turned the first page.

Once I had read it, my pleasure was increased.

Set some time in the future, it sees pill-popping detective Simon Moore sent to solve an unexplained death on board the space station Hadrian’s Wall, where his ex-wife wants to avoid any trouble.

To be strictly accurate, the death doesn’t take place on board anything, but in space. Which makes this less a locked-room mystery and more an open-space one.

With a story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, and art by Rod Reis, it’s also further evidence that you can hit the ground running a new series.

Talking of comics that are slow to get going, Injection fell into this category. Volume one was confusing – yet also intriguing and well-illustrated enough that I pre-ordered the second trade.

Indeed, I actually went back and re-read one before starting two – and now it’s all coming together.

The central premise is that five geniuses have ‘poisoned’ the 21st century in an effort to drive innovation and growth and avoid stagnation. But ion course things have got out of hand and now they need to put things right. Which isn’t going to be easy.

In the second trade, everything tightens and, in particular, the concentration on one of the five, consulting detective Vivek Headland, works wonders for drawing the reader further in.

Warren Ellis’s storey is intriguing and the artwork, from Declan Shelvey and Jordie Bellarie, helps create a dark, brooding feel.

Also on the recent reading list was Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored.

Over the years, I’ve picked up the odd copy of 2000AD, but never really been able to get into it.

This, on the other hand, made it easy. The “uncensored” was what drew my attention to it in the first place – chunks had been removed from the original 1978 story because it used the McDonalds, Burger King and Jolly Green Giant trademarks, without asking permission.

And as they showed at the time, those companies are not exactly averse to litigation.

Fast forward to 2014, when the EU introduced a new directive stating that the use of copyright-protected characters for parody was not banned. Thus in June this year, we got the publication of the entire Cursed Earth storyline in a stunningly nice hardback version.

Written by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Chris Lowder, with classic black line art by Mick NcMahon and Brian Bolland, plus a smattering of colour spreads, it’s a fun romp and a perfect intro to the Judge if, like me, you’ve only really dipped in before.

So, that’s a little round-up on recent reading – coming soon: beyond the reading.