19 November, 2008

Sloane Square beckons

You would think, wouldn't you, that a day in anticipation of seeing "Ivanov" with the divine Kenneth Branagh would be a day out of the kitchen? Not in my house. Avery is going swimming without me this evening, in the company of her beloved friend Elsa, and then the two of them will come back here to meet up with Hannah, the friend of a friend who is looking after them for the duration. And they have to eat, don't they? So I have a chicken roasting, boiled Charlotte potatoes in a skillet awaiting being sauteed before I go, another skilletful of haricots verts in olive oil. And since Saturday is the Christmas Fair at school, a banana and apple cake reposes in the oven to be donated to the cake and cookies stall which is receiving everything today at school pickup. So even though I have no child to pick up, she being occupied at after-school Gymnastics Club, I will still be at pickup, donating a cake. Life does get complicated sometimes. Somewhere in there, I must fit in a tennis lesson with the always-entertaining Rocco. Then race home to get presentable for the play, which has got rave reviews and should be amazing.

Yesterday, however, I was out of the kitchen, in fact out of the house and the postcode, with my friend Gigi on a Chelsea adventure. Have you heard the term "Sloane Ranger"? It's meant to designate a sort of super-spoilt, rich as anything Princess Diana sort of socialite, living in an upscale flat with her equally rich and spoilt mates, dating everyone in sight and spending money. Sloane Square is the natural habitat for these creatures, and it was here that Gigi and met up for a dose of culture, believe it or not. Because just steps from the Sloaniness of Sloane Square is the unmatched grandeur of the new Chelsea Saatchi Gallery, housed in the former Duke of York's military management HQ, believe it or not. Pillared glory it is, several old and lovely buildings stripped of all their administrative clabber, emptied of their civil servant dullness, and painted white, streamlined, connected by elegant minimalist staircases. And filled with Chinese art, at the moment. Most of which we found stunningly unappealing if not downright disturbing: bodies marked with identifying sort of tatooes, hanging from the ceiling by ropes around their ankles, giant installations of black rubbery rock called "Indigestion," massive cartoon-like portraits. But among all this stood out one piece that made the entire exhibition worth a visit.

Called "Love it! Bite it!", it is an enormous installation of architectural-model renderings of famous buildings around the world: St Paul's Cathedral, the Guggenheim Museums in both New York and Venice, the Roman Coliseum, Les Invalides in Paris, the UN in New York... all sculpted out of... edible dog treats. Of course this designation of the material implies that there might be a dog treat that was NOT edible, but no matter: it's rawhide. Gigi and I just looked at each other and burst out laughing. A marvellous, wonderful thing stretching right the length and width of the enormous room. "What if you brought your dog?" Gigi whispered. There were lovely young scratchy looking students with wonky hair and skin-tight jeans lying on the ground all around it, taking pictures. And old elegant European gentlemen walking its circumference, looking gravely analytical. The piece reminded me very much of my favorite New York show almost of anything I've ever seen: Tara Donovan at the old and grandiloquent Ace Gallery on Hudson Street. In that show, she filled the entire back wall of a whole room with drinking straws pointing outward (you've got to click on the thumbnails on her hotlink to appreciate what I mean), the entire floor of another room with pencils of varying heights looking for all the world like a tiny Liliputian city, filled a whole room with layers of tar paper, like the lunar surface. Magnificent! By an artist called Liu Wei.

You'll love it. Take the kids. But not the dog.

From there we headed to a fabulous new-ish restaurant called The Botanist, in Sloane Square itself. Filled to brim with Sloane Rangers in all their highlighted, blingish glory, the restaurant was like a single beacon of affluence in a sea of credit crunch. There wasn't a sign of austerity as far as the eye could see, and far from tightening belts, there must have been quite a bit of loosening of them to accommodate the marvellous food. I had, as is my wont lately, two starters and no main. It's perfect for me: two different lovely dishes but not too much of any one thing. I started with a quite perfect and very simple creamy cauliflower soup that would be an absolute doddle to make, studded with diced seared scallops and topped with a drizzle of truffle oil and tiny little cauliflower beignets, or doughnuts. Really! Then it was onto one single and very rich lobster and salmon ravioli, the thinnest pasta I have ever eaten and so tender, resting on a bed of pea puree and floating in a tomato crustacean "dressing," according to the menu, but I would sooner call it a broth. Flavored very subtly with lobster shells, no doubt, very delicate.

Gigi had what she described as the perfect rocket salad: absurdly fresh greens, shaved parmesan and a balsamic glaze, and then a pan-fried sea bream with mussels in a saffron broth, and something called a crab and pepper escabeche, which was a new word for me. It turns out to be nothing more or less than a seviche, a marinated dish of fish and other ingredients that has cooked in its acid. Gigi was very pleased. Our only complaints were trifling ones: the rather pretentious front of house fellow told us that while he could give us a table (this uttered in tones that indicated a mild reluctance on his part), we would have to vacate it in an hour. I simply hate that. Either the restaurant wants you, or it doesn't. Time limits are not on. And then, after we rather rushed ourselves out of a cup of tea or even a glance at the dessert menu, we could not get our bill for love or money. Honestly.

And the waiter kept wanting to take our bread and butter away! Why? Why was it all right to have it on the table for the starter, but not for the second dish? I love bread with soup. We persevered and kept it, but I was reminded of the insanely clever Jeffrey Steingarten's edict in his "The Man Who Ate Everything" that you can judge a restaurant entirely by its bread. I think not only by its quality, but by the very simple act of offering it up, and letting you eat it.

These are carpings of very little significance. We had a glorious time and felt quite, quite self-indulgent. It's one of my favorite things: lunch with a girlfriend, and they don't get any better than time with Gigi. It's amazing to me what sheer intelligence can bring to a friendship: you laugh more, you say more, you listen better. Thanks for a great day, Gigi.

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