Monday, September 24, 2007


I’ve never been big on Indian Classical music. More specifically I don’t really understand classical vocal music or follow it avidly. [Gasps of horror emanating from the crowd that will now quietly disown me]. I enjoy classical instrumental music far more although that is more because the melodies are soothing to the ear and the instruments utterly interesting. But I’ve never studied it or pursued it in any meaningful way. I have had the good fortune of having seen a lot of live classical performances usually by fluke, occasionally by design. Read about the illustrious billing lined up for the Raj to the Republic concert in a flier fluttering about ages ago. It was just one of an entire line-up of events to mark 60 years of Indian Independence but certainly the one I was most keen to pursue. Convinced V that it would be the chance of the lifetime to go and see, among other greats, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. He concurred that it would be a good box to tick and we booked ourselves two places.

It was yesterday, in the confines of the enormous Royal Festival Hall, that V and I sat in the balcony and had to acknowledge that it was so much more than a tick box event. It began slightly late, like all things Indian, with the excuse of the freewheeling event holding up the crowds. The first part was Dr. L Subramaniam playing the violin, preceded and then accompanied by his 16 year old son, Ambi Subramaniam. It was fantastic, made more so by the accompanying trio of instruments, the mridangam, ghatam and morsingh [which I had never heard before]. Ambi Subramaniam stole the show. He was simply brilliant, confident and engrossed and producing leaching brilliant music from his violin. And I can't get past the fact that he's only 16.

After a short interval it was the turn of Kishori Amonkar, the legendary Hindutani vocalist. She seemed to have a sore throat but despite that the power in her voice was evident. As I said before I don’t really understand classical vocal and so this was my least favourite bit of the evening. The ovations and endless clapping showed clearly my inadequacy in understanding and appreciation.

After another break it was the lovely Anoushka Shankar, accompanied by the very talented Ravichandran Kulur on flute. She is a petit young thing, her short straightened hair framing her look alike face, her confident walk belying her 26 years. She walked on much before her father and played two pieces, joking after the first one that she knew the audience was waiting for her father but that she would play just one other short piece. She was brilliant, composed and energetic, playing with an ease incongruous with the demands of a difficult instrument like the sitar.

Then finally at 10pm Pandit Ravi Shankar emerged, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. In his late 80’s now, he seems so frail that I immediately wondered how he would bear the weight of the magnificent sitar. He sat on a small bench and played Raag Jogeshwari and within those first few chords proved that those fingers knew no frailty. When he played with Anoushka and a few other accompanying artists, it was as if no other sound existed. The music was unbelievable and simply magical. He is called a maestro for good reason and I am undeniably lucky to have heard him play.

The only two sticking points for the entire evening were that it was not a well organized show. First, it was not smart to have a seven hour long performance from 4pm to 11pm on a Sunday night when 2pm to 9pm would have meant more people being able to stay the entire seven hours instead of dashing home because of trains/ tube/ bus connections. And second, the RFH’s bar was useless and overpriced, selling soggy popcorn and little else in the way of meaningful sustenance. Had to go home and have a midnight feast like some Enid Blyton Mallory Towers characters.

I had no idea how we would sit through a seven hour concert, but when it came to it the evening played out beautifully and musically, seven hours seemed too short even. The concert far exceeded any expectations V or I had, and was certainly no box-ticking event. All in all watching Ravi Shankar play live will be the best memory I took away from an evening of scintillating music. Undoubtedly though, for me, Ambi Subramaniam and Anoushka Shankar were the highlight of the evening, their youthful interpretation and dedication to their art as clear as the finest diamond. It’s the knowledge that music lives through generations and is passed down in the genes and by sheer undaunted practice that makes my mind joyful. And it is the certain knowledge that I am hooked that makes my heart so.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Back in the middle of the week from a work trip, accompanied by a new rug and a sore throat.

Spent two days in bed, with much tissue and tea to help my self-pity train along. Feebly checked e-mail and had a little cry. Stumbled to Pizza Express for some dinner to celebrate V’s birthday and imbibed some hot Wagamama comfort at my own dining table courtesy caring birthday boy. All good by Friday evening and so kept a long ago planned dinner date with friends.

We had booked Sardo’s, just a short walk from Warren Street tube, on the basis of a verbal recommendation and some reviews I had looked up. The space is made up of two white and airy rooms, helped along by a windowed frontage and a large skylight in the rear room. The whitewashed walls had some mirror-worked mirrors (which reminded me of something Indian although I’m not sure quite what) and the seating was comfortable, intimate yet not intrusive. So just in our little back room there were 4 or 5 tables from 2 people to 4 people to 10 people and yet it never felt overcrowded. The menu is not extensive but claims to be authentic Sardinian food. Having never been to Sardinia I can’t vouch for this but my main of Scotch Lamb was certainly not Italian. It was however cooked and served perfectly. In fact it would not be wrong to say that all the food was well portioned, elegantly presented and cooked to perfection. V and one of our friends both indulged in some sausages. Good but not as great claimed V. What was ‘outstand-O’ was the dessert. I had a divine Tiramisu, of which the others took bites, and one of our friends had a delicious Panacotta, of which I had many bites – just to even out all the stealing from mine. It was a very expensive meal (not that I was paying) but we had a good catch-up and the dessert truly completed the meal. I don’t know if I’d go back though. Maybe just for dessert and coffee?

On Sunday, to celebrate V’s birthday properly, I had booked Babylon in Kensington. I booked it a month ago and even when I booked it the person had said something snooty like ‘Oh good you are booking so much in advance, we have to turn people away, we are that popular blah blah blah’ – I paraphrase. The big draw was the promised views over London and magnificent Kensington Roof Gardens. Tables outside could not be booked but a request could be put down with the booking. So I did, request it be put on our booking. Asked about looking at Gardens and was told nothing was booked for that day so it would be fine. Mentioned that it was my spouses birthday and please could they write something on our dessert, they said ‘Of course, no problem, we charge you the earth, we’ll write whatever you want’. I paraphrase again. So shoot me.

Babylon is in a building right by High Street Kensington’s tube station. The gardens are on the 6th floor and a short walk up to the 7th gets us to the restaurant. Murphy and every one of his darn laws was our lunch companion. We got a table inside on a perfectly sunny day. The lady who showed us in did not even glance at our booking, just asked our surnames and assigned us a squashed table inside (like she knew our surname from the list of people who had booked - too good to be true and something I noted right away). The outside sun-dappled deck, of which we had a perfect view, was nearly empty. So we asked again and were told that it was all fully booked. FULLY BOOKED! I thought you couldn’t book. Not wanting to make a scene and thinking we’d go down and wander around the gardens afterwards we settled into our 3 course meal. I had smoked salmon with blinis and sour cream as a starter, V had an omlette with haddock in it. Both were excellent. Then I had plaice in a beer batter with chips and V had Welsh lamb with a fondant of potato and beans. Mine was delightful, V’s not so much. He liked the lamb, but the potatoes were nothing but compressed mashed potatoes and the beans looked like they had seen better days. Finally, the jus over the lamb was sweet, just how he hates it. My plaice was just perfectly cooked, the chips were thin and crisp, the tartare sauce well seasoned.

For dessert we ate some sort of chocolate sundae deal: a huge tall glass piled high with brownies, chocolate sauce, ice cream, thick and heavy cream, crowned by a chocolate wafer and steeped in a year of calories. We didn’t share one. We ate a whole one each. The tables outside were sprinkled with people but many of them remained resolutely empty. The sundae was what my teenage self would have called ‘groovy’ but no one wished V a happy birthday or wrote anything on his sundae (which is unreasonable, but there are other ways to tackle that) and that was not so groovy. All a result of no one having looked at our booking. One misstep at the beginning rolled over into an entire experience. I was seething at it not having been a perfect birthday lunch for V but I was too full and sedated by all that sweetness to complain out loud. Wrote out a comment card to go with the huge bill, complaining about the tables being empty and not acknowledging the birthday. Walked down to the gardens only to be told they were shut for a wedding. So as a result we paid too much for a meal to look at the tops of trees and partially view some tall buildings in the distance, something we could do from anywhere.

Even though I never put in our names or numbers on the comment card, the manager matched us to the booking and called the same afternoon to apologise. Apologised that no one had looked at booking and said we should have mentioned it to which I said I thought that at such an expensive place which needs to be booked so far in advance should have better service standards. Only offered to ‘give us a better experience the next time’. Not a chance I am going back. Tough love, people, tough love.

I have worked in the hospitality industry. I know right from wrong. I know good service from bad. I know how monetary value equates to service value. I know rudeness from apathy. I know mediocre food from delight on the palate. I know how restaurants operate and how they try and pull the proverbial rug over gullible customers eyes. I know that Sardo's will get my business and recommendation again. And that Babylon won't.

Meanwhile this week is turning out to be very hectic. My new wool rug is by my bed and each morning as I put my feet on the floor it catches me and my sore throat bacteria dies a little death.

Sardo’s: 45 Grafton Way, London W1T 5DQ. Tel: 020 7387 2521
Babylon: 99 Kensington High Street, London, W8 5SA. Tel: 020 7368 3993

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Forever away

I was away on work in Eastern European, working longer hours than I am used to, trying desperately to soak in the culture. The blurred news on the TV each night lulled me to sleep, the extreme otherness of the language like some harsh lullabye. The pictures were all to do with local political news - who said what about whom and lots of hand shaking and air waving -not worth keeping my eyes open for.

And so I came back to the news of two deaths: Luciano Pavarotti and Anita Roddick.

Inspriations in my life in different ways, in different times. One for the love of his art, the other for her love of the fairtrade and the environment.

I consider myself immeasurably lucky to have seen Pavarotti perform live in 1998. And even though I understood less than nothing of Opera or the language of that music, the power of his voice took precedence over it all. I was hooked and I wore down a CD of the Three Tenors in the years after. I still don't really understand Opera but that night taught me to appreciate music in a whole new way.

Anita Roddick was one of the funders of an early project I worked on. Her Body Shop products were becoming a household name for being 'not tested on Animals' and 'not using sweatshops anywhere'. She was full of energy and life and passion - her Foundation exuded her beliefs and worked tirelessly to promote anti-violence messages, fairtrade and a generally better world. From humble beginings to a Dame-hood, she showed the world that there was an ethical way to do business.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Ze Food

Eating my way through New York City

Scene Now: It’s been weeks since I got back and life has been moving at a clip I don’t normally relish. I more of a slow mo and this is killing me. It’s September already! I have no excuse except work and more travel and sheer laziness in between. I hope this post makes you drool and forgive me.

Scene 1: I have arrived in NooYaark on a sweltering Friday mid-day. It’s been five long working days in London, busy socially but without my boy, a state I am never happy in. V can’t escape office but two of my school friends can escape theirs and so we have arranged to meet for tea at 4. We go to an all American Diner in Midtown Manhattan, with its neon 50s billboard and faux leather upholstered booths and no-nonsense look and drink milkshakes instead of tea. No one makes milkshakes quite like the American’s. Just 2 Litres of thick and creamy flavoured milkshake in a glass and the remains in the mixer all left at your table - enough in one serving to feed 4 people anywhere in the world. All mine. All mine.

Diners: All over NYC

Scene 2: At a crossing in the grid of streets that are mid-town Manhattan, V and I reunited. Beaming faces we head to a restaurant he has been to with colleagues a couple of times before and raved about. Hatsuhana is a wonderful sushi restaurant on 48th street, a quiet retreat in a bustling metropolis. The calm interior is spread out on two floors but without a booking you would be hard pressed to find place. There are lots of beautiful calligraphy hangings whispering about on rice paper, encouraged by the breeze of the air conditioning units and tables of Japanese people enjoying a fine meal. The sushi kitchen is behind a counter and you can watch the chefs prepare your meal from bar stools going around it. The hot food kitchen is tucked away. We shared a number of freshly made sushi and sashimi beautifully decorated on a platter and a salmon teriyaki with some rice. An utterly delicious meal, and a sublime evening.

Hatsuhana: 17 East 48th Street, New York, NY 10017. Tel: +1-212 355 3345

Scene 3: This Monday evening, after a day of wandering I meet the office-weary V and there is no question about where we will eat. We have returned to the greatest steakery in the known universe to get me some steak: Keene’s Chophouse. It’s been around for over 120 years and seriously knows a thing or two about good steak. From the pavement this non-descript frontage does not look particularly inviting. This is probably a good thing to avoid great teeming crowds although once inside the crowded belly of the restaurant it is clear that a door is just a door. We sat in its wood paneled bar, surrounded by the huge collection of old photographs and clay and wood pipes and listened to the chatter of New York while eating the BEST steaks in the world, tender, tasteful, done just right and accompanied by sides that are so tasty yet quietly complimentary so as to not intrude or hold court. There is no argument about this. Keene’s is truly too good to adequately describe and too wonderful to ever miss.

Keen's Chop House: 72 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018. Tel: +1-212-847 3636

Scene 4: Bobby Van’s is a chain and the one we are at is on a main street with its entrance tucked into an alleyway. You could miss it amidst the bustle of the suited and booted people on the sidewalk if you did not know where to look. At a large round table we share with V’s colleagues the conversation is all business. A huge seafood platter, gleaming on ice, for those so inclined. I have a giant Portobello mushroom in something herby instead. And my steak is the main meal. It’s a good meal but not a patch on Keene’s. It’s all very loud as Manhattan seems to descend on the packed bar and it’s fully booked tables on a mid-week evening. Conversation shifts to include me and my holiday-while-her-husband-works. I get suggestions for sightseeing, museum viewing, Broadway shows and shopping; very helpful tips on timings/ popularity/ the good stuff/ sales/ independent stores. It’s a wonderful evening and I feel befriended and like I met the soul of New Yorkers and it’s no cold thing.

Bobby Vans: 230 Park Avenue, S.E. Corner of 46th St & Park, New York City. Tel: +1-(212-867-5490

Scene 5: I am in Café Europa nursing a steaming cappuccino and watching Nyorkers skidaddle like ladybugs, crossing streets, rushing somewhere, anywhere but here. It’s Starbuck-sy in here but just a great giant tad more refreshing. They make a delightful Chocolate yogurt slice for $1.95 and I trick myself into believing that anything with yogurt in it has got to have health benefits. Even though its busy busy busy I am never rushed out of here. Service is great and customer is king in Yam-erika.

Café Europa: Everywhere you turn in NYC

Scene 6: It is our last evening in Now Yawk and on the suggestion of someone who knows what they are talking about we are looking for the door of Felidia. It’s is on a street of restaurants, many of which were not in the least bit inviting or encouraging. We had walked the length of the block and I was tired (from dawdling and shopping) and near losing my patience and any hope of finding it when there it was, just across the street, an unassuming door with an understated sign. Behind it was a treat I did not anticipate. In a modest space, past a long mahogany bar, was the most comforting restaurant possible, with soft lighting and amazing wine racks built into the deep yellow walls. The gentle clinking of glass and cutlery and the divine aroma of fine food was enough to even my jagged mood out. A set of breads with 3 different dipping accompaniments set up the meal. Dinner was sumptuous to say the very least, with freshly cooked pasta gently coated with its accompanying sauces/ ingredients on a small tableside trolley. A lot of unusual and yet fairly traditional dishes, with game and seafood and rich sauces accompanying amazingly light and flavourful pasta’s. Not a bowl of regular Spaghetti Bolognaise anywhere in sight. Sated stomachs everywhere.

Felidia: 243 E 58th Street, New York, NY 10022-1201. Tel: +1-212-758-1479

Scene Present: Hunger pangs at just the thought of all this food. The first week of August marked one year of gym-working-out and I am proud to say I stuck it out this long, if with decreasing levels of motivation. I have realized one thing: As long as there is fine food in the world and I have access to it I will never lose any real weight but really I do not care. I will however be a happier person thanks to the tastes and textures of good food all over the globe.

Don’t take this opportunity to comment about the need for moderation please - let me live by my words and memories please.