14 November, 2008

from Chelsea to Olympia

What a crazy Londony couple of days I have had: the sort when I emerge from my self-imposed Shepherd's Bush cocoon and enter the world of culture that's living on my doorstep in this wonderful town. And actually there's nothing more Londony than what happened last night at about 2 a.m. (I know, what on earth was I doing awake?) when, upon opening the window for some fresh air, I spied a silvery fox, reclining in the street, licking its tail! Now, seeing a fox in the middle of my neighborhood is not unknown to me, but it's still a bit unexpected, and this one was far from the usual desperately thin, tail between its legs version. This fox was quite magnificent: a plumy tail and glossy coat, perky ears. I whispered, "Hey you," and he looked up, right into my eyes and we stared at each other for a rather long moment. Then he went right back to his bath, smack in the middle of the (admittedly deserted) road. A Little Prince moment.

There was, actually, a reason I was awake at 2 a.m. We spent the evening with our friends Joyce and Matthew, next-door neighbors Sara and Selva, and another couple Emma and Chris, at the Chelsea Arts Club. And dear readers, may I report that this experience goes down as the single most eccentric, truly English adventure I've ever had here? Forget stomping the divets at the Prince's polo field, or picnicking at Glyndebourne for the opera, or watching Avery ride her pony to Buckingham Palace on New Year's Day. Those are all massively cool and to be appreciated. But the Chelsea Arts Club? As my Devon friends would say, "Oh. My. God."

First of all, you could walk right past it and not notice the tiny little sign, along with two ratty buzzers to let you in. But you enter, and it's a world of uneven floor and ceilings (John's head nearly touched at times, and Selva's at least as tall), paintings of every description lining the walls, salon style, floor to ceiling, a bulletin board announcing the recent deaths of members ("So you know how many names there are left on the waiting list before YOURS comes up," John hissed and I smacked him to shut him up, but of course it turns out to be true. Then there's a further bulletin board crammed with notices: "yoga instructor and mother-to-be looking for room to share from March," and "will trade studio in Shoreditch for bungalow in Ibiza beginning June," and so on. And this was merely the entryway, through which streamed, both in and out, men mostly, in elaborate satin waistcoats and cravats, long white beards, gesturing long fingers, or impossibly young men in trousers half falling off reaching out to take your coat, or scruffy looking men my age looking desperate around the eyes and talking sixteen to the dozen to other men looking just like them.

We were taken to the bar, a room entirely taken up with a green-flannel-covered billiards table and peopled with more of the same characters. Everyone, I mean everyone, looked famous only I didn't know who they were. I never know what painters look like, how do you? Where does anyone see them? I thought they should each have a representative sample of their work tatooed upon their foreheads because I could at least identify THAT and get excited. And no Americans. Which can be nice. We took our drinks out to a tent in what is allegedly a spectacularly neglected and beautiful garden in back, and chatted. Chris turned out to be rather a massively famous portrait painter who has just finished commissions from the King of Saudi Arabia and, oh yes, Queen Elizabeth. He proved incredibly modest and charming, and whipped out his iPhone to scroll past photos of his three daughters and come to the paintings. Unbelievable. It is this fellow's membership that will propel our friend Matthew into his own, if he lives long enough.

Finally in to dinner, which takes place in one of two rooms that one is FORBIDDEN to call a restaurant, but are "dining rooms." And they are, too: one with an enormous communal table around which were more famous-looking people, looking up to see if we were anybody important, then returning instantly to their food and conversation. Because people were constantly leaving from every possible doorway to smoke, there was a sort of old-fashioned smoky air to the room which was a nice combination of the old days and the smoking ban: just enough to give the place character, but you didn't have to choke.

We squeezed past everyone to our own table in the second room and sat down to paper menus and really average bread, but who cared? We were in a place Whistler founded, for God's sake, just on a whim, where invaluable paintings and drawings hang in seemingly forgotten splendor. And I was lucky enough to be sat between Matthew and Selva, two of the most attentive and charming of men, so it was an embarrassment of riches conversationally speaking. Matthew, the painter, is a gentle, vulnerable soul who punctuates many of his soft remarks with a beseeching glance and a gentle stroking of his fingers along one's arm. Selva, quite the opposite, epitomises the Anglo-Indian Oxford-trained barrister, with his tennis-player muscles filling out an impressive cashmere jacket that deserved some stroking too, but I restrained myself. Brilliant, supremely self-confident hand gestures of that Oxbridge English type I am totally a sucker for. We've been invited one day to lunch at the Law Court Dinings Rooms in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and that would rank as well as an amazingly English thing to do.

We tucked in to starters and mine was a surprisingly fresh and tasty tuna sashimi with a mouli (white radish), carrot and celeriac coleslaw and toasted peanut dressing: lovely and light. I had harbored a totally unfair fear that the Club could not possibly be massively old-fashioned and English AND serve edible food, but happily I was wrong. John had lamb's kidneys with green beans and hazelnuts, and for once I was glad to be separated from him as he would have wanted me to try them and I'm too close to the venison experience to have any unknown offal, thank you.

The waiters rushed around looking annoyed and harrassed and as if they had left paint drying on their canvases at a MOST inopportune moment, in order to bring us our undeserved food. In fact, all our main courses arrived and were plonked down unceremoniously on the table. "Who has the lamb shoulder?" the waiter barked, to silence.

"SOMEONE had the lamb shoulder!" he insisted, only to be joined by a colleague who instantly whisked away all the food except for mine, a lovely plate of sea bass. Hmm. Selva asked, "Doesn't anyone else look hungry? Well, I know Kristen will share." Finally mine was taken away too: we'd been given some other table's order.

It was a delightful evening. Because I am a food writer, I was given lots of samples from other people's meals: Matthew gave me my first taste of sardines not from a tin. Gorgeous! I would definitely cook them. Which would bring our family acceptable-fish list up to an impressive... five. Better than none. And Selva donated a scrap of pheasant with pearl barley and red cabbage, and sure enough, there was a little piece of shot in it. "That's how you know you're in England," he assured me. "Do you hunt?" I asked, and he said immediately, "I don't kill things." Interesting answer.

Although there was occasional talk about everyone's children (ranging from 4 to 22), the conversation was refreshingly undomestic: we talked about painting, writing, the Queen's personality (sweet), gardening (can't), the food, Obama (of course). Joyce has spent time as a food writer and as such was completely encouraging to me about my upcoming meeting next with with the Radio 4 fellow, which I'm steadfastly not thinking about in order not to flip with nerves. She's keen that I join the Guild of Food Writers, which I'd be more than happy to do, but first I have to sell, literally sell, two pieces before I can. Want to buy a blog post?

All too soon the cab was outside to take us home, since we all live within six blocks of one another, and we trooped out, again past all the ageing (mostly), dandified, slightly past their sell-by date artists lingering over their dinners. Fabulous. And in the cab Matthew asked if I'd like to write restaurant reviews, and I laughed and told them a bit about the experience in Devon where we all reviewed the previous night's meal and how I hated doing it. "I know what you mean," he said, "One of my best childhood friends is a food critic and he's so hateful about it! I don't know how he lives with himself, sometimes, and he's really a nice chap." "I always think about A.A. Gill," I said, "why anyone would want to incur that karma." "Oh, that's my friend!" Matthew laughed. For heaven's sake. Gill did write a hilarious piece for the Sunday Times Culture section a couple of weeks ago, railing against personal farming. I''m paraphrasing, but it was something like, "Of course you can grow your own food, but it's like whittling an automobile. You can do it, but it's stupid."

I would have liked to be a lazy bum today and rest on a fabulous evening out, but I had a ticket to the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia, and so I was a good compliant girl and went. Now here I want some praise: unlike my usual method of telling you about things that are over, or will be over so quickly you'd have to helicopter in to do them, today is the first day of the Show so you can go Saturday or Sunday. It was good fun, although I have made a mental note as usual not to go on my own next year. It's missing some of the fun not to have anyone to ooh and ahh with, frown critically with you, eat the last bite of something you don't like, convince you to stop sampling EVERY cheese you encounter. So I'm taking names to accompany me to the next thing. Still, I had fun.

What you do, as with the Taste of London, is buy little tokens that represent a certain amount of money (in this case a pound each, which made me wonder what was wrong with using the little token called a pound coin) and then you go around with a map of participating restaurants and have little two or three bite samples of their signature dishes. It's a great bargain, especially for someone like me who likes a little bit of a lot of flavors and for whom a restaurant portion is always too much. For five tokens I got Kai of Mayfair's unbelievably tender Wasabi Prawns, huge tiger prawns sort of napped with a wasabi mayonnaise and sprinkled with tiny cubes of mango and basil seed. Two of them! So exotic and while something I probably COULD do at home, I never will because of John's anti fruit+meat stance. Of course this lovely restaurant is about five blocks from our old flat, but did I ever go? No.

Then I moved on to Sumosan's T+T Roll, an improbable-sounding but astoundingly good sushi roll with tuna and truffle oil. Oh my. It does sound odd, and I was skeptical, but it's a marriage made in heaven. The softness of the tuna with the hint of aromatic truffle was hugely pleasing, plus there were some very nice crunchy fried leeks tucked in for texture. Three whole portions!

I really, really wanted to like Alan Murchison's cooking because he's such a big personality (and very interesting on nutrition), but I did not. Perhaps I chose the wrong thing. He himself was there, and enormously appealing: a rocklike, aggressive face that you wouldn't want to encounter in a kitchen close to a knife if your dice wasn't small enough. A true chef's face, which is both good and bad: good because it reflects strong character and impressive achievements, but bad because there's a LOT of attitude present as well, which is a massive turnoff. I always prick up my ears when chefs say there is no room for ego in their kitchens... methinks they doth protest a tad too much? So I had a portion of his smoked ham hock and foie gras terrine, topped with far too much apple chutney, and all I could taste was smoke and salt and sugar. The texture of the terrine was nice and firm, but I want my chutney on the side if at all, and I don't want to feel like I've smoked a cigarette and had a saline rinse when I eat. But you go, and try his fillet of salmon in oriental broth, or the lemon mousse which looked nice if you have a sweet tooth.

I knew I was defeated and had to turn in my remaining tokens. Next time, I swear, I will not eat so many cheese samples, but it's hard to resist! When there's Snowdonia's Red Leicester with Chili and Crushed Peppers, and Cornish Blue, so smooth and creamy, and ... stop me.

OK, there were also the Rossmore oysters on the half shell stand... but I couldn't resist the address. Listen to this, my American friends: Lakeview, Old Hollow, Worth, West Sussex. I'd eat anything that came from there. And I sampled (I know!) and bought a packet of fantastically expensive but delightful jambon iberico from Iberico Foods, which I think will work for dinner tonight in an improvised carbonara: not even cooked, just trailed along the top of the creamy sauce, with some porcini mushrooms from The Mushroom Troop, who were giving samples of porcini pate, yum. I may ever eat again.

Finally I visited the upper gallery with something like 100 food producers' stalls (more cheese! be strong), but by then I was flagging. I'm sure the Slow Food Movement people were interesting, so give them a try, but I was too tired. There were an awful lot of people, and it was HOT, and I hate to be hot. Amazing crowds: school tours, old people in wheelchairs, silly spiky-haired young men talking earnestly about wild boar, people with kids on leashes, elegant European tourists, you name it. But no Americans. I think I was the only one, honestly. Two days in a row! Life is looking more interesting.

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