Thursday, 30 October 2014

Bibimbap and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Until I was about 17 I'd never really eaten food that wasn't typically British, not curry, not Chinese, not Thai, nothing. It sounds ridiculous thinking about it now but I was really quite a picky eater and it  took me until I was about 20 to actually eat a tomato. It's funny because now there is very little that I really won't eat (shellfish is one of the few mainstream foods I won't eat). I'm very much making up for lost time now though and particularly making the most of the fact that London offers just about every cuisine imaginable. 

Earlier this year I had my first taster of Korean flavours via Kimchinary which does fusion street food in the form of 'Korean burritos', but I'd never had proper Korean food until this past weekend when I was invited for a meal at Bibimbap. As we were in Central London for the matinee of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, it was the perfect place for a pre-theatre lunch.

Bibimbap have two branches, one in Soho and the one that we visited in Charlotte Street. Although the Charlotte Street branch looks small from the outside, it stretches backwards and provides much more seating than you would expect. The decor was minimal but colourful and fun, with polaroid photos of customers enjoying their bibimbaps decorating the walls. In addition there are photos of K-pop groups and Korean film posters which line the walls.

Once seated and after having considered the menu, we ordered two 'sides' which came as starters rather than side dishes; the chives mandoo dumplings and the kimchi pancake.

The vegetable and chives dumplings were fried and served with a ginger soy dipping sauce. I am a bit of a dumpling fiend but my boyfriend always takes some convincing to order dumplings as he's often put off by the 'sliminess' of boiled or steamed dumplings. These were fried though and so they lacked that soft sliminess he finds off-putting and he became a complete dumpling convert, even going so far as to requisition the lion's share of the dumplings.

The kimchi pancake was fried kimchi (which is pickled cabbage) cooked in a thin pancake together with other vegetables. I was expecting the spicy sourness of the kimchi to come through stronger in this dish but it lacked that punch. It was perfectly nice but needed the flavour of the garlic and sesame soy sauce it was served with.

Although Bibimbap sells a whole host of dishes including noodle dishes, rice dishes and salads, the real attraction are the bimbimbaps. Bibimbaps are a traditional Korean dish and the word 'bibimbap' literally means 'mixed rice'. Essentially the dish is rice, topped with vegetables and optionally, meat. The bibimbaps served at Bibimbap are dolsot bibimbaps which mean that they are served in a hot stone bowl (seriously, do not touch them, they are phenomenally hot). As the bowl is so hot, the rice which is touching the sides gets all crispy and delicious and the dishes can be topped with a raw egg which cooks on the sides of the hot bowl.

There are ten different bibimbap options on the menu at Bibimbap and my pescetarian boyfriend delighted in the fact that five of them were vegetarian and one was seafood. The fact that vegetarian foods were placed front and centre in the menu was really good for him given that he's used to vegetarian dishes being very much a conciliatory attempt by restaurants to appease those who don't eat meat, they're rarely marketed as a really attractive option. In the end, after a lot of dithering, he ordered the Nutritious bibimbap which was ginseng, gingko, dates and chestnuts with vegetables all served on a bed of brown rice. When it arrived at our table it was unbelievably colourful.

To accompany the bibimbaps are two sauces - not mustard and ketchup as they might appear to be, but gochujang (a Korean hot sauce) and a miso sauce.

After adding your choice of sauce and letting the dish sit for a few minutes to get nice and crispy against the sides of the bowl, then it's time to mix everything in together. The thing to remember is that it's not a race to finish it before it goes cold as this dish actually gets hotter the further you go down as you get to the bits which have been in direct contact with the hot stone bowl, so it would be a wonderful dish for spending time chatting with friends over.

Packed full of healthy, good things, he declared his bibimbap to be delicious and basically his ideal dish. While he went with the nutritious health foods, I went for the Fillet Beef bibimbap with white rice (you can choose brown instead) and an optional raw egg.

Once I'd added my chilli sauce and it had all been mixed together and the heat of the bowl had cooked the strips of beef, it was time to abandon the chopsticks and really dig in with a spoon. This is not high cuisine, it's good, hearty food, the sort of filling, warming dish which is perfect for winter and the cold weather which will soon be setting in.

My bibimbap was delicious and left me warm from the inside, exactly the kind of food I enjoy, unpretentious and filling. After our meals we felt in need of something cold and sweet, an ice cream or a sorbet. Unfortunately, at least as far as I could see, Bibimbap don't offer desserts and so we were forced to try and find a little corner shop so that we could buy an ice cream. That was probably the only way that our experience could have been improved - the mains were delicious, the staff were attentive and polite and the prices are really reasonable (the bibimbaps are all under £10). My boyfriend is already wanting to go back for another visit so he can try out the other bibimbaps on offer.

After leaving Bibimbap and locating an ice cream, we headed down to the Gielgud Theatre to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. We booked months ago and then ended up postponing our visit further (thank god for the National Theatre's policies on refunds) due to circumstances out of our control, so we were looking forward to seeing this at last.

I read the book when it was initially very popular following its release, so it must be about ten years since I read it and other than general impressions and specific parts, I didn't have a clear memory of the story, so I was approaching the play without the book hanging over me. However, saying that, I felt that the play lacked the charm that the book had and maybe it is more of a realistic impression of the main character, but I felt that the lack of the strong first person narrative that I remember coming away with from the book (there is some which is cleverly put across) did hinder the play for me.

I hate to say that parts reminded me a little of my youth theatre days and the combination of physical theatre and some fairly demonstrative acting made this feel less professional and slick than other plays I've seen. The set was marvellous though and there were some phenomenally clever moments from what was, in essence, a fairly blank (albeit technical) canvas.

A very nice touch though were seats scattered through the audience which were 'Prime Number Seats'. They had a special cover on and a little pocket with a leaflet in.

The leaflet explained that if your name adds up to a prime number (A=1, B=2 etc) then you could claim a prize from the lobby (it's a happy face badge). My first name adds up to a prime number but my full name doesn't. It's a nice little touch.

Overall, a very good way to spend a Saturday.

Our meals were provided on a complimentary basis by Bibimbap Charlotte Street but the views expressed here are my own unbiased opinions. Thanks Bibimbap!

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Open House London 2014

This is a very overdue post as it seems like forever since Open House London took place (it was actually 20 and 21 September) but I feel at the moment like everything is getting on top of me a bit and when I haven't been working (there have been a few rather late nights in the office this month) I've been studying as my postgraduate course has now started in earnest. So blogging has had to take a bit of a back seat to my real life. But, better late than never, right? Hopefully. 

I love Open House London and although I do worry that it has now become a bit of a victim of its own success as queues have started to spiral out of control for the more popular venues, it still draws me back in every year with the promise of previously undiscovered London gems. So, here's a little rundown of the buildings I snooped around this year (and if you want to see the places I visited last year, read my blog post here). Oh and if you have no clue what I'm going on about, you can read more about the annual event here.

Lloyd's Register Building

The Lloyd's Register building, located on Fenchurch Street is one that I have walked past many times and always been intrigued by. The brief glimpse through the courtyard and the tree growing in the middle of it through to the glass and metal structure beyond always had me curious to know what was inside and so we joined the small but growing queue.

Once inside, we found ourselves in the glass and steel lobby of the Richards Rogers building which was added in 2000 to the original Collcutt Edwardian building (completed in 1901). It really is a juxtaposition of the old and the new, two buildings from different eras joined together like a Fiji mermaid to form one building, slightly at odds with itself. 

Although the Rogers part is modern and light, it's the Collcutt building which surprised and impressed me the most. Stained glass and marble sculptures are found around every corner and every aspect of the building has clearly been done by craftsmen with real attention to detail.

Ascending the marble staircase there is a gorgeous round stained glass window depicting a ship.

The General Committee Room is stunning with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and painted panels depicting nautical and maritime symbols. Below this gorgeous roof are curved tables which host meetings of the General Advisory Committee.

St Botolph without Aldgate Church

I'm not entirely sure whether St Botolph without Aldgate was supposed to be part of Open House London this year as I couldn't find it in the guide but they had banners out as we walked by so we decided to pop in, especially as I've walked past it many times before. The church dates back to at least 1115 but has been rebuilt and restored several times over the years.

Inside, the church is light and open with a gallery running around three sides of the church. At the front, panels using a method of batik are hung with the Tree of Life taking centre place between panels with angels holding Alpha and Omega. 

When we visited there was a woman playing the piano and I began to recognise a slower piano version of Go West by the Pet Shop Boys, which was certainly not what I was expecting to hear but which was a pleasant surprise.

Lloyd's of London

All Londoners will (or should) know the Lloyd's building, it's the steel inside-out building on the Leadenhall and though now dwarfed (both in terms of size and Open House London visitor demand) by the Cheesegrater across the road, it remains a solid draw for visitors over the Open House weekend every year. This wasn't the first time I'd been inside the Lloyd's building as I'd previously visited for Open House two years ago but it was one of my favourites and so I took the chance to visit again. The building is designed by Richard Rogers and is designed to have things like the pipework and lifts on the outside of the building which creates an open and minimalist space inside.

The atrium is the centrepiece of the building which is flooded with natural light from the glass roof. Escalators connect the first few floors but beyond that the other floors can only be accessed by lifts.

One of the most interesting things I find about the Lloyd's building is the Loss Book which had traditionally been a place for the gathering of intelligence and record keeping regarding ships lost to the seas. Although it is no longer an active tool in this electronic age, the Loss Book continues to record the few marine losses that occur. Non-marine losses are not recorded. Although it is no longer the prime source of information on marine losses, they are still recorded here in keeping with tradition. When I visited two years ago the most recent entry was that of the Costa Concordia, this time it was the MV Sewol, the Korean ferry that sank in April.

The Lutine Bell in the atrium was apparently carried on board the French frigate La Lutine which surrendered to the British at Toulon in 1793. Six years later the ship sank off the Dutch coast carrying a cargo of gold and silver bullion. The cargo was insured by Lloyd’s underwriters who paid the claim in full. After numerous salvage attempts the bell was retrieved, hung in the underwriting room and was rung when news of overdue ships was received - once for bad news, twice for good.

The building is in a great location for views across to other iconic buildings like the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie.

From the upper floors of the Lloyd's building we could see the queue for the Cheesegrater and were quite glad we weren't spending hours in it (even though I imagine the view was amazing).

The view outside across to buildings like St Paul's Cathedral is fantastic, but the view down into the atrium is amazing too!

Cabbie shelters

If you've walked around certain parts of London (near Temple, Russell Square or maybe Embankment for example), you may have seen some off little green huts and wondered what they are. Well, they're Cabbie Shelters.

Originally established in 1875, they were designed to allow cab drivers to have somewhere to obtain a hot drink and meal and to shelter from inclement weather as by law they could not leave the cab stand while their cab was there. A charity was set up, the Cabmen's Shelter fund which paid for the running of shelters. Although the shelters aren't large (no longer than a horse and cart) they house small kitchens and an area that seats up to 13 men. There were originally over 60 of these shelters, but now only 13 remain and although entrance is usually reserved for cabbies, you can purchase drinks and hot food from them at reasonable prices. Open House London was the perfect chance to squeeze inside one and sample a cup of tea cabbie-style.

Wilton's Music Hall

Wilton's Music Hall wasn't entirely new for me as I'd previously visited their Mahogany Bar for a work social but this was the perfect chance to have a nose around at the Music Hall itself. Located in East London (the closest tube being Tower Hill or Shadwell on the DLR), it's not somewhere you'd stumble across unless you knew it was there but it's well worth a visit.

Wilton's Music Hall is apparently the world's oldest surviving Grand Music Hall, having been converted from a concert room to a music hall in 1850. Although it fell derelict and suffered structural damage from 1956 onwards, since 2004 it has produced a programme of work encompassing music, theatre and dance. Both the bar and the Hall itself are strewn with fairy lights and despite the fact that works have been carried out to deal with structural issues, the place retains a wonderful untouched air about it. 

They run regular history tours, details of which you can find here and of course, the bar is a great place for a drink or two.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret 

On the Sunday we were having lunch at the Masterchef restaurant, which was in Southwark and so I checked the guide for places around there that we could visit before heading to lunch. A lot of places weren't open on Sunday but one that was was the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret which intrigued me. For my History GCSE course we actually covered topics that weren't wars – The American West and Medicine Through Time and much as my history teacher made the whole subject slightly tortuous for me, I did really enjoy learning about aspects of history that didn't involve trenches or ghettos. 

The Old Operating Theatre brought to life all of the things that I learnt all those years ago. Located in St Thomas' Church, on the original site of St Thomas' Hospital, the Museum is accessed via a very narrow spiral staircase, you ascend into a giftshop (which is always a good start for anywhere for me) before climbing a further set of stairs up into the herb-perfumed air of the wooden attic. 

Here in the Herb Garett you get to learn about the different uses that herbs were put to in curing various ailments and they are displayed alongside a whole host of other objects that might have been used by the apothecary.

In 1822 part of the roof garret was converted into an operating theatre which in operation before anaesthetics and antiseptics were used. Surrounding the operating area were rows where students could stand and watch the surgeons operate. The risk of death was considerable and undergoing surgery was definitely not a first resort for a patient.

The Museum is open every day and adult admission is £6.50, you can find more information here.

Did you go anywhere for Open House London? Is there anywhere you'd recommend I go next year?

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