Tuesday, 16 September 2014

DF Mexico

Being at home for two weeks at the start of August combined with work and weekend trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Margate and Bruges have meant that it's been a while since I've had the chance to eat out anywhere new in London. The upside is that I might actually finish this month with more than £10 left in my bank account by the 30th, the downside is that my list of places on my 'to eat' list has grown. 

This weekend for me was a bit of a wind-down weekend, a weekend for reading, napping and baking (if you follow me on Instagram, you'll see I made Fougasse and it was a complete success). However, I start getting cabin fever if I spend much more than a day inside and so we resolved to get out on Sunday and go and watch the Tour of Britain as it looped through London. But first, we needed to be fed and I knew exactly where I wanted to go – DF Mexico

DF Mexico opened on Hanbury Street (just off Brick Lane) on 24 July and is owned by the same people who own Wahaca (you can read about my first trip to Wahaca here), but rather than playing to the colourful masses, DF Mexico is the East London hipster sibling, a place that's not into table service, small plates and big bills but is big on atmosphere, portions and value for money. 

We made our way to DF Mexico for a late lunch via some of the best street art spots at the south end of Brick Lane and because I can't help taking a million pictures, I thought I'd share a few here.

After I'd been steered away from the art and through the hipsters, we found ourselves at DF Mexico's door, where we were ushered past a wall of succulents and to a table for two at the back of the restaurant.

We'd already perused the menu at home and so the ordering process was super speedy, my boyfriend went to order at the counter (you can use a computerised system to eliminate all human interaction but given that he was born in an era when the wheel was a novelty, he went for the person option) and came back clutching two juicy waters for us - lime and chia for him and hibiscus for me. Both were lovely, although I possibly preferred the lime and chia. The best thing is that they were bottomless, which in my opinion is always a good idea for soft drinks, because really, who wants to spend a fortune on something that's not even going to get you happy tipsy?

We started with veggie nachos to share. These are topped with tomatillo guacamole, salsa, refried beans, cheese and pink pickled onions and unlike many nachos which come with dollops of separate ingredients, these had the toppings evenly spread across them which meant that you got a good mix with every nacho rather than having to dip into the toppings of your choice. My boyfriend declared that he was not a nacho expert but that these were the best he'd ever had, whilst he can sometimes be prone to hyperbole, they were very very good.

We each ordered a torta - a Mexican sandwich served NYC style (whatever that is) served in a brioche bun with smashed guacamole and slaw. He went for a crumbed cod one and I went for the grilled chicken. I can't speak for the cod but I can for the chicken. The chicken was beautifully tender but in my meat loving opinion was a little overwhelmed by the amount of slaw.

The steak tacos were the star of the show for me. These weren't tiny tacos, these were big beefy things that you needed two hands for. The steak was slightly pink inside which was perfect and they were generously filled. They were also messy. This is not first date food, this is the kind of food you can only eat with people who love you because it's tie your hair back, finger licking stuff (and not just your fingertips but right down inbetween your fingers).

There were also two kinds of fries - regular and chilli fries (the main difference being chilli salt).

We were definitely a bit ambitious on the ordering and I blame Wahaca for that as we ordered lots of plates there and so I was expecting to do the same at DF Mexico - mistake. These are good sized portions and very filling. I would have liked to try dessert which are some interesting sounding ice cream flavours but I fear it would have been my wafer thin mint.

Our gorging done, we headed out for a slow stroll to watch the Tour of Britain and to wonder whether we'd ever eat again. We wouldn't eat again that day but it was only the next day that I was craving more tacos and wondering when I could visit again. Given that the whole thing cost us about £35, it's definitely not one of those places to save for a treat but the sort of place I'm very liable to head to after a late night at work, which is possibly very dangerous as there are quite a few long days and late nights at work after which I can't be bothered to cook. Oh dear.

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Sunday, 14 September 2014

HintHunt the escape game

If you had to guess at the top rated London attractions on Tripadvisor, you'd probably guess at things like the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Les Miserables, Lion King, any number of big tourist draws, right?

Well, you'd be right but did you know that they're all beaten by an 'escape game' called HintHunt? I didn't.

HintHunt the escape game, Euston, London

Weeks ago I was contacted through the Joe Blogs Blogger Network who were hosting a night at HintHunt with LV=. I did a bit of googling to find out more about HintHunt and read rave reviews from those who had been.

It sounded from descriptions a bit like a version of a Crystal Maze mental or mystery game. Born in the mid-80s, I grew up with Crystal Maze and remember watching it with my dad, whose favourite part being imitating the Richard O'Brien 'Start the fans please!' bit. I especially loved (but was too young for) the Christmas specials which were done with children rather than adult participants.

So, intrigued by the prospect of finally getting to play something like that for myself, I signed up. Last week the event finally rolled around and on Wednesday night 25 bloggers gathered at the venue in Euston (which is really handily located only a few minutes from both Euston station and Kings Cross so super easy to get to from pretty much everywhere in the city), ready to play the game.

What is it?

The HintHunt website describes it as follows "You get 60 minutes to climb a mountain of puzzles and mysteries in a tiny room. The goal is simple yet challenging: get out in time! Else ... you could be trapped inside forever! During this engaging and challenging game team members truly live and breathe in union for an hour".

They have two different rooms - one a detective's office and one a typical Japanese living room (the Zen room), we were to play the Zen room.  The record for breaking out was 53 minutes.

We weren't told anything before we entered the room about why we were there, and although you do work it out quite quickly, it would have been nice to have a bit of a briefing or back story before you go in for context and so you know what it is you're ultimately trying to accomplish or look for (over and above the ultimate aim of getting out of the room of course), otherwise the first five minutes are sort of spent wondering what the point is.

I can't tell you what's in the room as that would spoil it but I will say that it is a combination of finding things, unlocking things, working out codes and combinations and solving problems. It's not a physical game that involves too much exertion but you do end up moving about a bit and bending down for things, so I would advise dressing appropriately.

Although you're locked in the room, one of the HintHunt staff will be watching and listening to you play from a room next door and throughout the game you will get hints flashed up on a TV screen in the room (which also doubles as a clock counting down your time!), so when you need a bit of a nudge in the right direction or just encouragement to keep going with what we were doing then you get alerted by the screen, ie. at one point we'd tried a key in a lock and thought it didn't work (we'd been told not to force anything) and then a little message flashed up to try it again, so we'd been right but just failed to properly open it. The hints are part of the game, rather than an indication that you're failing and without them I'm pretty sure I'd still be in there now. The only problem was that you couldn't see the screen from all parts of the room so often had to rely on other people to shout out what it said or spend time getting to somewhere you could see it from.

Our game

The game can be played with up to five people and so we were all split into teams. My team was made up of me, Lucy from Foodie Force, Melinda from Miss Geeky and Catherine from Skylish. Do go and check out their blogs as they're all lovely.

This is very much a team game and so at first it was a little odd playing a game like this with people that I hadn't met before (I imagine the dynamics could be different with people you know well), but the ladies on my team were lovely and we all pulled together.

We did get quite stuck at one point and I did fear that we weren't actually going to get any further and even the hints weren't helping us, but it was our failing, not the game's.

As the clock ticked down and the music got more urgent sounding it all started to come together and we followed clue after clue until we knew we'd reached the final few bits of the puzzle. As we solved the final puzzle and the strip lights around the door turned red, we all screamed in excitement. And the clock stopped.

Our result

So did we break that record of 53 minutes? Absolutely not! But, we weren't right down to the wire like one group who had only a second to spare. We managed to get out with 49 seconds left!

HintHunt the escape game, Euston, London

One hint for you, if you make it out, you will be asked for a team name. If you want to avoid that awkward Apprentice moment where you all either go blank or bandy about terrible names until someone suggests 'The A Team' then have a think about it beforehand!

We had so much fun and now I'm trying to convince my department to do a work social at HintHunt so I can try out the other room.

You can read about HintHunt and more ideas for family fun in London in this blog post on the LV= website.

My visit to HintHunt was provided on a complimentary basis but the views expressed here are my own unbiased opinions. Thanks Joe Blogs Bloggers Network and LV=!

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Friday, 12 September 2014

GB Pizza Co

In my first post on my weekend in Margate I gave you a little glimpse at our lunch spot on our first day - GB Pizza Co - and promised to write more because I'd gone a tad sunset photo crazy and had already put together a photo heavy post. Well, here is the post I said I'd write, slightly delayed but better late than never.

Having lived in London for a few years now, I've realised that it's not that uncommon for restaurants to make their name and build up a following in London before opening branches in other UK cities. What seems less common is for restaurants to start somewhere else and then open a London branch. However, that's exactly what GB Pizza Co did.

After spending some time selling pizzas at events from the back of a campervan and al fresco in Margate, GB Pizza Co's founders found a location for a proper restaurant. After a few years of being open in Margate, they opened a second restaurant in Exmouth Market in London in April 2014.

After reading comments made by Zoe Williams from the Telegraph like "these were the best pizzas I've ever tasted", I had to try one for myself.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

Inside was decked out with sharing tables which reminded me a little of school, in a good way though. As I mentioned in my first day post, we'd had to wake up early to get the train to Margate and so were unusually hungry by 12pm and headed to GB Pizza Co soon after it opened. As it had just opened, the place was empty when we arrived but we were surprised to see so many reserved tables for lunch and were offered either seats at the end of a table tucked away in a corner or seats at the long window table. We opted for the seats at the window. 

While we sat there we saw a few people come in for lunch but who were put off by the fact that they would be seated in a darkish corner when the whole place was empty. Given that the whole meal was pretty quick (particularly as you go up to the counter to order and pay and the food doesn't take too long to cook), it seemed a little odd to have people go elsewhere when they probably would have eaten and gone by the time the people with the reservation turned up. But I have never worked in a restaurant so I'm sure there is logic behind it.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

The interior sets its school-like tables exposed walls against dark grey and fuchsia and the whole place feels very cool and maybe a little out of place along Margate's seafront which still retains a sort of seaside feel on the whole, but its location means that you can sit with your pizza and look out onto the sea, which is just what we did.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

We started with something to nibble on - olives and garlic bread. Both of which were nice and arrived quickly (although by that point we were the only ones in there so I would have hoped so).

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

The garlic bread and pizzas were all served on big thick GB Pizza Co branded paddles, which was  a nice touch.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

My boyfriend opted for that day's veggie special which was artichoke, capers and spinach which I was assured was very tasty.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

I, as usual, went meaty with the chorizo and chilli pizza which was the perfect level of chilli for me, a bit of a kick but not mouth numbing. These were pizzas you really had to get stuck into with your fingers as there's no cutlery provided so you do end up tearing apart slices and rearranging stringy mozzarella  as it gets pulled off one slice when you take another.

The pizzas are thin with crispy bases and the crusts are puffed up hollow pockets of air. These are proper pizzas with fresh toppings and the best thing is that they're crispy and light and don't leave you stuffed and bloated.

GB Pizza Co Margate and Exmouth Market, London

The dessert options were limited (a brownie or gelato) and as neither particularly took our fancy that day, we decided to skip it in favour of a mid-afternoon coffee and cake later in the day.

It always makes me happy when I discover somewhere on holiday and know that if I fancy it again  at any point that I can have the same thing back at home in London without too much effort. So I'm glad that I can pop along to Exmouth Market for one of these. The GB Pizza Co website hints at future plans for more locations across the South East and I'm sure they'll be very successful.

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Monday, 8 September 2014

A seaside weekend in Margate - day 2

There's not much better than a sea view, so waking up on our second day in Margate (see my first day post here) and being able to look out of our window, over the Winter Gardens and out to the sea and the blue sky was perfect.

We were reluctant to leave our soft bed and warm duvet behind (it may have been August but this is England and with the horrendous 'summer' weather we'd been having, we did need wrapping up) but knew we still had things to see and do. So, we packed up our stuff and checked out of our hotel, the Crescent Victoria

I hadn't been sure what to expect when I booked the hotel. It was on Secret Escapes and at the time the hotel hadn't yet opened. To be on the safe side we'd booked for a few months after it had opened (in June 2014) so any glitches had time to be ironed out. It seems like we needn't have worried, everything was lovely.

It's a boutique hotel, with 14 bedrooms, and the whole place is decorated in beautiful, calming greys and silvers. I particularly liked the nod to the area's heritage with old black and white images of Margate which lined the stairs.

It also boasts a restaurant, although we didn't sample either dinner there or breakfast (we rarely get up early enough for breakfast) so I can't speak for the food. In addition, and perfect for summer, they also have a little sun trap of a terrace for drinks al fresco.

We got a deal through Secret Escapes but I understand that rooms normally start from £100.

After checking out we took a walk via the old Lido, the sign for which seems to be iconic in Margate and features on many a print or mug, one of my favourites being by Andy Tuohy.

Along the seafront we wandered again, ending up at the harbour arm. The tide was in on Sunday morning and the boats bobbing in the harbour, rather than laying stranded on the sand as they had been the night before.

This neon - I never stopped loving you - which appears on Droit House (right between the harbour arm and Turner Contemporary) is, as you might recognise, shaped in the hand of Tracey Emin, who was born in London but grew up in Margate.

Our intention for the morning was to explore the Turner Contemporary. The gallery opened in April 2011 and was hoped to be the catalyst for regeneration in the town. The name is a reference to J.M.W Turner who had connections to Margate. It's angular, stark and stands proudly overlooking the sea.

Outside the gallery, until 2 November is a piece by Dutch artist Krijn de Koning called Dwelling. It's made up of planes of colour with windows and doorways cut into it which create angular shadows as the light falls in shafts through the space. This is only one part of the piece, the other being in Folkestone.

As you enter the gallery itself it's the light and space which hits you, with a double height window looking out to the sea, the initial space is bright and airy.

Currently there is a work by Edmund de Waal (the author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes) on display in that first area called Atmosphere, it has apparently been created especially for the Turner Contemporary and is 'a response to the changing landscape and clouds viewed from the gallery and the architecture of the space'. The gallery invites you to take a mat from their supply and lie on the floor underneath the work (and so we did).

The big exhibition that was on while we were there was the Mondrian and Colour exhibition (open until 21 September) which traced his journey towards abstraction through the medium of colour. I knew very little of Mondrian's work prior to his abstract 'grid' paintings and so it was interesting to see the evolution of his work.

Some of my favourite works were actually by Spencer Finch: The skies can't keep their secrets. Although the cloud-like sculpture dominated the room, my favourite was the one behind it - Thank You, fog which consisted of 60 photos taken from the same position at regular intervals (I believe one minute intervals) which at first appear to be nothing, but as you move along the row you start to see shapes emerge. My first thought was that it was the depths of the ocean but gradually it becomes clear that it's actually a view of a forest through fog. It's beautiful.

After spending the morning at the Turner Contemporary we were hungry and so headed into town to get some lunch.

We'd seen The Greedy Cow the day before on our exploration of the Old Town and so went there for lunch. As it was a beautiful day, everyone was sat outside and so we had the upstairs room to ourselves. We sat ourselves down on a bench by the open window.

We ordered cider and some delicious burgers (beef with stilton and bacon for me and falafel for my boyfriend) and tucked in as we watched the world go by from above.

As we were on our holidays, dessert was pretty much compulsory, so raspberry brownies it was. It's a lovely little cafe and the food and service were fab.

After lunch we went to have a look at the Dreamland Expo. Dreamland was a Margate theme park which has its origins back in the 19th century but which really became Dreamland as most people in the area know it in the early 20th century when the first ride, the scenic railway rollercoaster was installed. The scenic railway rollercoaster opened in 1920. Gradually other rides and a cinema complex were added. Through the 20th century the site changed hands a number of times and the park underwent a number of changes.

In 2003 it was announced that Dreamland would close and in 2005 it did and all of the rides, apart from the scenic railway (which had Grade II listed status by then) were removed. In 2003 the Save Dreamland Campaign had been set up though to try and keep Dreamland open. The Save Dreamland Campaign, through a lot of perseverance and effort have a plan to open Dreamland as a heritage amusement park with historic rides. Unfortunately they have suffered setbacks, particularly in 2008 when the scenic railway was partially destroyed in a suspected arson attack. However, they have pressed on and now it is intended that Dreamland will reopen in 2015.

In the meantime there is an Expo on the seafront which charts Dreamland's past, present and future. Inside are pieces from Dreamland including lights and ride parts. In addition there is a little area where a film about Dreamland plays on loop. It's really interesting if, like me, you weren't familiar with Dreamland from childhood.

There were old pinball machines which could still be played if you bought tokens. However, in my opinion (and even with me being used to London prices for things) I thought that the tokens were a tad on the pricey side (1 token for £1, 4 tokens for £3 and 8 tokens for £5) especially when my rusty pinball skills would probably mean that a go would last all of about three seconds. At half the price I could have easily spent a while trying out the various machines. 

I hope to return at some point to see Dreamland reopened. I hope they do well.

Whilst at the seaside I can't ever resist a good arcade and in particular the 2p pushing machines (Tipping Point is totally now a guilty TV pleasure), as we were on the sea front anyway, we nipped into The Flamingo. I emptied my purse into the change converter and came away with fistfuls of 2ps. After scoping out the best machine, I settled into a rhythm of pushing one coin after another and delighting when coins were nudged over the edge and clattered down into the little tray at the bottom.

Sadly, the pony keyring was not to be (does anyone ever win anything?) and so we left to eat fish and chips and to watch the sea before our return to London.

Apart from maybe a bit more sun, I couldn't have asked for more from our seaside weekend in Margate.

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