Saturday, 30 April 2011

A very special day

I'd been looking forward to Friday April 29th 2011 ever since the special event was announced. An occasion to bring people together in a common interest, and for all those involved to rejoice and be happy. A day to spend with your comrades to celebrate the best of all things British. Yes, that's right, it was the annual trip to the World Snooker Semi-Finals in Sheffield. Did something else happen on that day? I didn't hear about it.

The pilgrimage to the Home of Snooker - The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield - has become something of a tradition now. For the last four or five years, a group of us (my friends Tim, Mike, Paul, Pete and Aidan) have made the short train journey from Nottingham (or the somewhat longer journey from London and Exeter in the case of some) to watch the Friday morning and afternoon sessions of the World Snooker Semi-Finals. It just so happened that this year, the trip coincided with the Royal Wedding. I'm neutral as far as the Royal Family goes, but this worked out great - it meant we didn't have to book the day off work.

Snooker day takes a familiar form each year, which looks something like this:

  • Meet at The Cosy Teapot near Nottingham train station for the biggest breakfast they offer
  • Get the 08:45 train to Sheffield, arriving at 09:38
  • Take the short stroll from Sheffield station to The Crucible for the 10:00 start
  • Watch x* amount of frames in the morning session
  • Have y** amount of drinks at The Brown Bear and a curry from the curry stall in Sheffield city centre for lunch
  • Watch z*** number of frames in the afternoon session
  • Get the train back to Nottingham (or the hotel in Sheffield for those staying over)
You may have noticed a number of variables in this schedule. Let me explain what effects them all...

x* is an integer between 0 and 8 (the maximum amount of frames in a session). It is influenced by the following factors: time of arrival, players playing, interest level of snooker and thirstiness. When we first started going to the snooker, x would always be at least 7. As time has gone on, this number has gradually declined. In fact for Pete yesterday, x was a big fat 0.

y** is an integer between 0 and theoretically infinity, though it is usually around 3-4. This also has several determining factors, namely: duration of morning session, length of queue at bar, number of attendees, hungriness and thirstiness. The Brown Bear is, putting it kindly, a spit-and-sawdust pub just round the corner from The Crucible. It is, however, ridiculously cheap (just over £11.00 for 7 pints) and serves a decent pint of Sam Smith's.

Finally, z*** is an integer between 0 and 8 again. Its influences are similar to those of x*, but replacing time of arrival with time leaving The Brown Bear. It is also influenced by y**, and by strength of bladder.

Over the years we've seen a number of the greats of snooker at The Crucible. Standout matches include a couple of ruthless destructions of Stephen Hendry at the hands of Ronnie o'Sullivan, and a thrilling match between Peter Ebdon and Marco Fu. This year's protagonists were, in the morning, two first-time Semi-Finalists in Ding Junhui and Judd Trump. The afternoon session was contested between two Crucible veterans: Mark Williams and John Higgins.

I was excited by the morning match as I've not seen either of the players play live before. Unfortunately the snooker didn't live up to the billing. It started well, with Ding winning the first frame with a 91 break. That was as good as it got though. The following frames were scrappy and of poor quality, with neither player making the most of their chances. This led to an early departure to the bar and, in my case, an x score of 5.

There was no total escape from the Royal Wedding. The bank of televisions surrounding the Betfred booth near the Crucible bar was showing the ceremony. Well, on one of the TVs anyway. This gave us the slightly surreal image of Kate and Wills on one screen, and the 11:15 greyhound race from Walthamstow on another. The greyhounds took top billing in fact.

The morning session dragged on an awful long time, which meant lunch and beer time were significantly reduced. There was still time though for the aforementioned curry, a spicy Polish sausage in a bread roll, and for y to equal 2 this year.

The afternoon session was much better, as the nervousness of the younger players was replaced with the assuredness of Williams and Higgins - both multiple World Champions. This match ebbed and flowed but again without either playing showing fully what they were capable of. The lateness of the first session and the subsequent delayed lunch meant we missed the first three frames of the afternoon, giving a z total of 5 as well. Spotted in the afternoon crowd were CJ de Mooi of Eggheads fame, and World Cup Final referee Howard Webb.

As it stands as I'm writing this, Trump overcame Ding 17-15 to reach his first World Championship Final; congratulations to him on that fantastic achievement. Higgins is leading Williams 15-14 in the other Semi-Final which looks like it could go down to the wire. Should make for an interesting Final whoever gets through. Whoever it is, snooker day will return next year - and we will be there.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Clare's Birthday (Hawksmoor and Love Never Dies)

*Dusts cobwebs and removes tumbleweed from blog*

Oh, hello there. Forgive my inactivity on the blogging front recently. It's not that I don't like updating it - I really do. It's just that I find it hard to think of subjects to write about. I usually end up using the crutch of food to inspire my writing, which, funnily enough, is what I'm going to do now.

My lovely wife Clare turned *mumbles age under breath* on April 2nd and we decided to spend the day in London. Clare wanted to see Love Never Dies, so I dutifully booked tickets and transport, while Clare herself arranged our lunch at a restaurant we'd not tried before called Hawksmoor.

The day finally arrived, presents were unwrapped and a taxi trip and train journey to the Smoke were undertaken, all thankfully without hitch or delay. A short hop on the tube to Covent Garden took us to the unassuming street where the Hawksmoor is located (along with Pineapple Dance Studio and the Royal School of Film).

Upon entering, we were led downstairs into an impressively stocked bar where we ordered drinks to take to our table. A sweet but tasty Porter for me, and a marmalade cocktail for Clare (which tasted very marmaladey indeed). Drinks duly ordered and received we went through to the main dining room. It seemed to be located in an old warehouse, with bare-brick walls and concrete pillars, but was still quite open plan. With our early sitting the restaurant wasn't full, but the room gave the impression that during a busy serving it would have a cracking atmosphere.

Our waitress asked if we'd been before (we hadn't) and explained how things worked. You choose your cut of steak, the size and your preferred method of cooking. They do the rest. We went for the Porterhouse - a bone-left-in combination of fillet and sirloin - done medium-rare, with a number of sides (Bearnaise sauce, beef-dripping chips, flat mushrooms and grilled bone-marrow).

The food arrived promptly, and even if it hadn't, it would have been worth waiting for. The beef-dripping chips were deliciously crunchy on the outside but with fluffy innards, like mini roast potatoes. while the mushrooms were large, succulent and flavoursome. The Bearnaise sauce was wonderfully creamy and rich, but not too much so. As for the bone-marrow: erm.....interesting. We'd not tried it before and probably won't again. This isn't a slight on the cooking, it was just rather strange and gloopy and not what we'd expected. The bone-marrow that is - not the cooking.

And so to the steak. Wow! In fact, WOW! Easily the best steak we've ever eaten. The outside was charred and crusted to perfection, while the middle was the pink, squishy embodiment of medium-rare that we'd requested. The seasoning was spot on as well and the plateful didn't stand a chance. Every slice was devoured with gusto and thoroughly enjoyed. The meal was a real carnivore's delight. The only greenery on view was in the sauce.

During the meal our waitress came over and presented us with complementary drinks (another Porter for me, and a charmingly named cocktail called 'Corpse Reviver No. 2 for Clare). She said that a little bird had told them it was Clare's birthday, though we were at a loss as to how this was. Turns out it was via Twitter. Fantastic use of social media and a lovely addition to the already great experience.

All in all we had a fantastic lunch and would definitely recommend the Hawksmoor to any steak-lovers out there. It wasn't cheap (though that was mainly due to the amount we ordered!) but was worth every penny, and the little touch of the free drinks just added the icing to the succulent, meaty cake.

So, from the lunch it was on to the theatre (via a quick drink at a charming little London pub called the Nell Gwynne). As mentioned earlier, we were booked to see the matinee performance of Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Set ten years after the original Phantom, it tells the story of what happened to the Phantom as he fled from Paris, and what became of Christine and Raoul.

I don't want to talk too much about the story in case any of you wish to see it, but I can certainly mention the performances, which were breathtaking, and the production, which was dark, brooding and wonderfully atmospheric. Christine and Raoul were played by Celia Graham and David Thaxton respectively, with Christine in particular standing out. Her rendition of the title track was something to behold.

The lead role of the Phantom belongs to the wonderful Ramin Karimloo, who we've championed since seeing his portrayal of Enjolras in the 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables. Ramin as the Phantom was magnificent, subtle, menacing and tortured yet powerful. Also noteworthy were Haley Flaherty as Meg and the young boy who played Gustave. The performances, music, songs and production were all first-rate and we thoroughly enjoyed the show, though there was much snuffling and sobbing at the end (I won't go into why...)

Following the show we took a quick wander into Covent Garden to sample the Oyster Stout at The Porterhouse, which was as creamily satisfying as I'd remembered from previous visits. Then back to St. Pancras for a drink at the longest Champagne bar in Europe. A fitting end to a fantastic day.

Happy birthday Clare - and roll on next year!