Sunday, 31 July 2011

Cold Soup, Coconut Beer and French Resistance - Another Weekend in London

Clare and I had first been to see the wonderful Les Miserables in May of 2010. It's fair to say we were pretty impressed. Hooked in fact. We soon treated ourselves to the soundtrack CD and the DVD of the 25th Anniversary show at the O2 arena. This DVD introduced us to an amazing singer called Alfie Boe, who plays the lead role of Jean Valjean in the show. So, when we found out that the aforementioned Mr. Boe, and also Matt Lucas (who played the comedic but villainous innkeeper Thenardier in the 25th Anniversary show) were reprising their roles in the West End, we just had to get tickets.

Never ones to miss the chance of a bit of posh nosh, we decided to tie the visit in with a lunch at a nice restaurant. A bit of internet scouting led us to choose L'Atelier Robuchon, a 2 Michelin starred restaurant near Covent Garden who were offering a very reasonably priced set lunch menu.

The big day got off to an interesting start with us bumping into CJ De Mooi (of TV show 'Eggheads' fame) in Nottingham station, then turned annoying as a half-size train with no buffet cart turned up. Upon arrival in London there was a moment of alarm as the tube from St. Pancras station was closed, but this was due to nothing more sinister than overcrowding caused by engineering works on other lines. It did mean we had to walk to our hotel, but no harm done really (apart from to Clare's feet!)

After checking in and freshening up we headed off to the restaurant. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is part of a three-story trio of restaurants close to Covent Garden. L'Atelier makes up the ground floor, with La Cuisine on the first and a bar and terrace on the second. L'Atelier however is not set up like a traditional high-end restaurant. Instead it is inspired by the Japanese 'counter' concept, where tables surround a central cooking area so diners can see what is being prepared for them before their very eyes.

Upon arriving at the restaurant we were shown to our seats. Not, unfortunately, right by the counter, but still close enough to see what was going on. We'd already chosen to go for the set lunch so the only decisions left were what to have for each course, and whether to have the wine accompaniment. I did. Clare went instead for a glass of bubbly.

The customary amuse bouche took the form of a large spoon of filleted tuna with a sliver of Melba toast. Akin to a spoonful of posh tuna mayo. It was very tasty but caused some confusion over how to eat it. I shovelled it into my mouth in one go while Clare took more refined nibbles.

For our first courses, Clare chose the egg cocotte topped with wild mushroom cream, while I went for the tomato gazpacho with cucumber jelly. Clare's cocotte was a light, foamy dish topping some rich woody mushrooms and very pleasant indeed. My gazpacho was delicious. Not something I'd usually choose, it was thick, rich and beautifully seasoned. The cucumber jelly added a touch of refreshment and the accompanying goats cheese toasted gave crunch and sourness.

We both plumped for the main course of chicken ballottine and it was definitely a good choice. The chicken was tender and almost smoky in flavour, with the skin left on too. It was stuffed with caramelised onions and served with crunchy beignets of aubergine. It also came with a delicious side dish of carrots, cooked in butter and flavoured with cumin.

After choosing the same main course we differed again on the desserts. I went for a 'cheesecake' of cappuccino ice mousse topped with Mascarpone cream and tangy summer fruits. Very tasty indeed with a nicely subtle coffee flavour. Clare, having spotted another diner ordering it, chose the selection of tarts. An inspired choice! The quintet of small tart slices included lemon, chocolate, coffee, cinnamon and pistachio and almond. The three I sampled (the last three) were all delicious, with the cinnamon in particular standing out.

Service was, in general, good, though one of the waiting stuff seemed a little aloof and reached across to top up my water glass while I was still eating, which I found slightly unprofessional. It would also have been nice to have been given the chance to sit by the open counter as there was room. These were minor faults however and certainly didn't detract from the overall experience. The lunch was excellent value and I'd definitely recommend L'Atelier to anyone who'd like to try fine dining with a bit of a difference.

Following lunch we headed back to our favourite bar in Covent Garden, The Porterhouse. After sampling their deliciously creamy Plain Porter we thought we'd try something a bit different, in the form of a bottle of Mongozo Coconut Beer. Sounds odd, and it was quite, but refreshing and not too sweet. You definitely couldn't drink too many of them though. A very quick shopping trip, snooze at the hotel and change later and we were off to the Queen's Theatre for our evening watching Les Miserables.

As mentioned above, we'd first seen Les Miserables in 2010 and really enjoyed it. This time was even better, because we now knew the story and songs and so could concentrate more on enjoying the performances. This was further helped by our seats which were on the very front row - though off to one side. Being so close to the stage and performers added a whole new dimension to the show and meant we picked up things we'd missed the first time.

I won't go into the story as you'll either know it already or can go and find out. Instead I'll mention a few of the standout performers, and where better to start than with Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean? The most stunning voice I've ever heard live. Listening to him belt out 'Bring Him Home' was something to behold, and it was good to see that his actual acting seemed to have come on in leaps and bounds since the 25th Anniversary show.

Hadley Fraser as Javert was also brilliant. A young man playing a role suited to a much older one he pulled it off amazingly. Another beautiful voice and a sneering, broodingly menacing performance - which was totally at odds with how nice he was off stage!

Craig Mather and Liam Tamne as Marius and Enjolras respectively were both excellent, strong voices matched with impressive performances. The female roles were a bit more of a mixed bag. Zoe Doano as Cosette was fabulous and worked really well with Marius. Lily Fraser's Eponine was good but not ballsy enough.

Finally a special mention must go to Matt Lucas as the scheming innkeeper Thenardier. Not a professional singer by trade, but not out of place at all. If you didn't know he wasn't a full time West End singer before seeing the show, you wouldn't know any different afterwards. Good singing and a great performance, really making the most of the role.

I have nothing but admiration for the performers. Putting such energy and intensity into a show once a week would be hard. These guys sometimes do it twice a day; combining singing live and acting with emotion and all with no clapperboard or shouts of 'CUT' to save them. We were lucky enough to meet a few of the cast members after the show and they were all charming and happy to take time out to sign autographs and pose for pictures. They also seemed to genuinely love what they do - overpaid and arrogant footballers please take note!

So, another great weekend done. Now when's the next one? Anyone for a spot of Phantom in October.....?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

No Roman No Fly

For many people, the annual holiday abroad is one of, if not the, highlight of the year. It is something to look forward to; from the moment it's booked to the second that the first, ice-cold beer is downed by the side of the swimming pool. It's an event the excitement for which builds and builds as the departure date grows ever closer. It is the same for me too. However, as well as the excitement building for me, the dread builds as well. Because as well as being a source of excitement and fun, for me the annual holiday abroad is also a source of anxiety and fear. Why is this? Because I'm afraid of flying.

Flying is something I didn't first experience until quite late in life. As a child and teenager my family were never really well enough off to holiday abroad. Mablethorpe was our usual destination of choice. After that, for many years I never had the need to fly. Then finally in 1999 a football trip with work took me to Dublin and my very first flight, aboard a 50-odd seater twin-propeller plane. I loved it. And the return flight too. The sensation of power as the plane gathered the speed required to lift off, the view of the clouds underneath me. The novelty of it all was great.

Then, in November of the same year, my friend (and eventual Best Man) Tim and I booked a late deal holiday to Fuerteventura for a week. The outward flight again was fine. This time it was longer (around 3:30 hours) so I had my first experience of a TV on the plane (gasp!) and was fascinated by the updates on our flight, speed and distance to our destination.

All good so far, until the return flight. We were seated near the back of the plane. The faint smell of aviation fuel hung in the air. There was no TV close enough to watch. No MP3 player to distract me. And it was windy and rainy. Not 'items falling out of overhead lockers' windy, but still 'seat belt lights on and stewards/stewardesses not allowed to walk round' windy. It was my first experience of turbulence and I didn't like it one bit.

Tim - an experienced flyer - didn't help matters by cheerily informing me that the seat belts on planes are primarily to keep the bodies in one place should the plane crash into the sea. The Captain's announcement of 'we're just flying into some 90mph headwinds' didn't help much either. Time seemed to crawl. The plane bobbed up and down like a dinghy on a choppy ocean. The sky was grey, so no hint outside of how far we'd traveled or still had to go.

Then, finally, it was over. I don't remember much about the landing other than feeling profound relief. The Pope at the time - John Paul II - used to kiss the ground upon arrival in a new country. I sincerely felt like doing the same.

Since that one flight I've never enjoyed the experience. I've suffered it where unavoidable (three flights in a day once to travel to Latvia for another football tournament), but I've also avoided it where possible (a 24 hour train journey from London to Krakow for Tim's Stag weekend). I went several years without having to fly, until meeting and marrying Clare meant a return of the need to be airborne. Initially on our first holiday abroad together to Menorca, and since then on our honeymoon to Egypt, and subsequent holidays to Majorca, Benidorm, Salou and - most recently - Cyprus.

As bad as it is for me, it's not much better for Clare. For days before the flight I'll be withdrawn and moody. Clare, who is naturally caring and attentive, finds it hard to leave me be, when all I want is to be alone with my thoughts. Tablets have helped somewhat (I have been tempted to have BA Baracus style drugged hamburgers), but I'm just never comfortable up in the air. The feeling of relief when we touch down safe and sound - as we have done every time of course - is wonderful. As another friend once put it: 'it's like someone switches you back on again when we land.'

I'm sure I'll fly again, and I'm sure I probably won't enjoy it, but for a few months now at least the need to fly is put aside.