Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sketches from a smoker's album: Christmas annals

Half the best smoking moments come during the festive period. It was on a solitary session listening to the dulcet tones of Phil Collins and the lesser know Andrew Gold that I appreciated that some of the best moments in writing are to be had on the tod as it were! 

A flight was enjoyed this evening, starting with a very superior smoke, a No. 2 Montercristo was the first of my venture and it had a wonderful plume against a fabulous flavour paired next to (dare I say it) a brilliant gingerbread rum - a la M&S - and cola. I fell no shame in the combination despite my previous incredulity, it was a very nice combination. the drink sat well against a potent havana with quite a plume. 

Next was a lovely little cigar, a Trinidad to be exact, given  to me by a great friend who knows my preference to tobacco! I am sure that the smoking of the very item in front of our mutual relations would have caused quite a stir but I refrained on this occasion...maybe next year in SW19! It was a beautiful, light draw and a rich cadence of smoke which followed, well chosen by a fellow who has little idea of smoking (or maybe he does)!

I wish I had the foresight to choose something that was of great heritage to the last but you should always finish, after a couple of great character, with something of the mainstream like a Villiger Grosseformat coupled with a very apt band... The Doobie Brothers...I smoke as I write, a great crime! But like those cool cats of the 70s I live ‘minute by minute’ and enjoy the occasional can of lager!

Their rather catching tones made me think and reflect on another couple of moments had over this short but festive era...

Bolivar No. 2 has haunted me this Yuletide season, we have go through family, feast, famine and fun in equal turn. Buying the two cigars, as i did at Wimbledon’s finest purveyors of  tobacco goods ‘Sutherlands’ (not finest - that is reserved, for Wimbledon Wine Cellars), I had no idea that these two little tubes of Cuba’s finest would afford me such enjoyment over the Christmas period. 

My first was had standing outside a floor to ceiling glass window, I understood that no one else wanted to share my enjoyment of the cigar and luckily I had already seen the film they were watching. Listening to some raw Rickie Lee Jones (‘Company’ if you want the song), it was a moment, the chill night against my cheek set against the rich smoke. It was a wonderful feel, reflective and indulgent, a slight guilty pleasure was discern in addition as relations cast a few disapproving glares at the, pretentious as he is, ‘catcher in the rye’

The second: sitting down with sympathetic company and enjoying a few scotches we were chopping a mountain of red cabbage and peeling potatoes, I knew this stogie well but it must  be one of the moments where this cigar both came in useful but captured my heart. I have recommended it in an earlier post but it is definitely something to have when you are up against it, as a real morale booster. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bloody Good Chap's last minute Christmas shopping list

It was not too long ago that I sat down to make a list of things that I really wanted for Christmas, or would have wanted to recieve on this year’s yuletide had I not purchased them myself over this year. Perhaps you yourself are stuck with what to buy a friend of a loved one? Well fear not, for I have made a list of my favourite purchases or received gifts over 2012 which might give a bit of last minute inspirations...

Books might seem a bit old hat but I think that this is far from fair, if anything the market has become more exciting the more it is squeezed, encouraging authors to be a bit more creative in their content and their design. As many of you will know, food is something of a passion and I am quite the avid collector of books focusing on all culinaria. I have purchased a number of fascinating and beatifully bound tomes but by far my favourite of the year is Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat (£16.99, 4th Estate). I have not read such an original book about food for a very long time, it makes you take a step back and question the decisions that you make from shopping in the supermarket to how you treat your ingredients when you get them home. Not only is it highly informative, you can tell that Joanna is as passionate about cooking the food as she is analysing the production, the logistics and the impact of the food supply chain. 

If you (or someone you know) love food and like books crammed full of factoids and fancies, make sure that this is the one book you purchase. For fiction lovers, may I suggest the rip-roaring and adrenaline filled novel Shogun by James Clavell (£8.99, Hodder). I was gripped by this beautifully crafted and unputdownable book about a British sailor shipwrecked in early 17th Century Japan. Apparently it is incredibly accurate as a portrait of Japanese culture as seen through the eyes of a Westerner, but for me this is merely complimentary to a tale in the true spirit of high adventure with forbidden love, outrageous courage, rugged terrain, feuding warlords and a great sense of humour. Some might be put off by the large number of pages (roughly 1100 in total) but you should tear through it soon enough as you become engrossed in the story. 

This year I was particularly focused on 25th Anniversaries, my own being one, but also of some great films that came out in 1987 (the year I was born) and also in the following year. Whilst there was plenty of dross during a period where there were still companies like Cannon Films and Golan Globus ruling the roost of b-grade, but highly enjoyable actions films (something sadly lost to the mists of time). One such film is the 1988 tour de force Blue Jean Cop (AKA Shakedown) starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott as a mismatched ambitious lawyer and a maverick detective looking to bust some bent coppers who are running their own drug dealing/money laundering service. This film has everything from a tense game of Russian roulette, a drag race, a brothel shoot out, a gun slinging chase on a moving roller coaster and a slew of one liners delivered with panache by Weller’s slimy lawyer and Elliot’s world weary rozzer.

 Another film from the vaults of laughably bad but highly entertaining films is the 1991 homage to the thoroughly dated ‘New Jack Swing’ craze, New Jack City starring a stellar cast of Mario van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Judd Nelson and a young Chris Rock (doing his very best to play a crack addict). To be fair it is a great watch and the soundtrack will take people back to an era of berets, parachute pants and the pulsating rhythms of Bobby Brown, Bel Biv Devoe, Guy and Color Me Badd.  Snipes tries to be menacing as drug lord come Scarface wannabe ‘Nino Brown’ but he comes more across as Uncle Abanazar in the pantomime Aladdin. However, in a film with characters called: ‘Scotty Appleton’, ‘Pookie’, ‘Nick Perreti’, ‘Frankie Needles’ and ‘Duh Duh Duh Man’ he seems positively conservative. Still a fun experience and worth sitting in front of instead of the fifth showing of Zulu! 

I made much ado about the NUB Cameroon in a previous post, wittily called ‘The Pelican’s Brief’ as I saw a pelican in St James’s Park when I was last smoking one. That aside, I must briefly reiterate that it is a fantastic smoke and also something very different from the norm. It is a wide, stubby creature with a long rich smoke. You can either by it regular or pressed, I prefer the latter as I find it a more satisfying smoke but that is a matter of taste really! Another recommendation if you don’t want to trawl around the boutique shops trying to scout out one of these is the admirable Bolivar No. 2 tubed cigar. These are very reliable and made by my favourite brand, they have a rich smoke but not overpowering. The other bonus is that until you break the seal the cigar will remain fresh so you can keep them by until you are ready to use them. Discourage any ignorant vendor who claims they are checking for quality from unscrewing the cap, take the risk on this one. 

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of the strong stuff and there are two drinks that I ask for each year and invariably receive. How predictable I have become in my tastes. Blackwood’s 60% Gin is one of the most original and tasty tipples on the market at the moment, although its availability is somewhat limited, however I have included the link to one stockist who I know still purveys this fine liquor. At a whopping 60% this drink packs quite a punch and should be drunk sparingly. Made in the Shetland Islands with the finest botanicals, hand-picked by the team at Blackwoods, each year’s batch is different allowing the makers to truly call each year a vintage. Their regular gin is also worth seeking out but stockist are becoming thinner on the ground each day as I believe Blackwoods have ceased to do business, a great shame, so if you do decide to buy some get two bottles and save one to have somewhere else down the line. 

Another old favourite that mine and your Christmas really shouldn’t be doing without is a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky. Single Malt lovers will be scoffing at my choice of this smooth, blended variation from across the pond but to my mind it is the perfect whisky for a casual drink and by far the best should you like yours with a mixer. Sometimes nothing can beat a double Canadian club, a couple of ice cubes and a shaving of white grapefruit peel in a tumbler topped up with Canada Dry ginger ale. Refreshing, versatile and a real crowd pleasure, definitely something to both appear under the tree and on the sideboard. 

Finally, I draw the reader’s attention to a bit of light music. Compact discs might be on the way out but this is not to stop you from looking at the large number of online options available to you from the iTunes store or Amazon’s MP3 services. Two albums really appealed over this year and both are from very different genres: Stardust (1978) by Willie Nelson, and Synchronicity (1983) by The Police. The former is a glorious paean to the golden age of the gramaphone with the country and western star Nelson giving his idiosyncratic rendition of classics like ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘blue skies’ and most importantly his unequalled version of ‘Georgia on my mind’. Lilting guitars and wailing harmonican bedrock the album in the country genre but this is definitely a cross-over with plenty of jazz, blues and pop elements to keep even non-country fans happy. 

The latter is an album recorded at the height of their fame and their popularity. By 1983 The Police were the biggest band in the world having played monumental dates at gargantuan Shea Stadium and recording albums involving grandiose arrangements and production. This, their final album was an acrimonious recording where the band imploded through a mix of artistic differences and in fighting. However the results are pleasing and includes a trilogy of songs that are perhaps their most consistent and some might say their best: ‘Every breath you take’, ‘King of pain’ and ‘Wrapped around your finger’. The second is by far my favourite and if you would like to see why I think it is so good, take a look at my last post on this blog about my favourite songs over this year. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Bloody Good Chap's top 10 tunes of 2012

In brief - or as brief as I can be - here are my top ten tunes over this year, a real mix of the good, the bad and the downright groovy! 

Woman’s gotta have it - James Taylor (In the pocket, 1976)

This smooth interpretation of a Bobby Womack original is one of the most seductive and sultry tunes I have ever listened to. Rising strings, Taylor’s inimitable vocals, the 70’s funk it’s all there, making for an eminently hummable tune. The best bits are his ad-libing towards the end of the song, after all, ‘your woman needs it the same as mine, woman’s got to have it from time to time’.

King of Pain - The Police (Synchronicity, 1983)

Sting has been responsible for writing some magic but in turn he has been responsible for some lyrical atrocities - ‘Walking in your footsteps’ being one examples. Not so on ‘King of Pain’ a fantastic, idiosyncratic track which captures the band at what they do best, jumpy, frantic and reggae-influence pop. Who cares who the King of Pain is? I don’t! the best part of this song is the rousing chorus, Summer’s clucking guitars and Copeland’s unmistakable drumming. this is a song by a group at a time when they truly were one of the biggest bands in the world and it shows, hats off to the fellows! It took me until 2012 to discover this great tune but from now on in it will always find a place on one of my playlists.   

We’ll be Together - Sting (...Nothing like the sun, 1987)

Yes, I am following a track by the Police with one by their most successful spin-off. Like ‘Fraiser’ was to ‘Cheers’ Sting was to the Police and had a period in the mid to late 80s of being as truly original and inventive as his former group. He had cemented his credibility as a solo artist with The dreams of blue turtles (1984) but on the follow up ...Nothing like the sun he really rose to the occasion making a somewhat sanctimonious cut - if beautifully sung and played by the artist. My particular favourite is a funky track that would have give Michael Jackson that missing piece of the jigsaw for Bad (1987) - what a duet that would have been, Sting and MJ! The track in question was written originally as a Japanese beer commercial and it is quite apparent (similar in structure to, but shorter than, Genesis’s ‘Tonight, tonight, tonight’). It is a jaunty tune, with a deep groove, guaranteed to get you on the dancefloor. The video for the track, in which Sting sports a snazzy Tintin & Snowy wool-knit is not to be missed. 

The way I feel - Adrian Gurvitz (Sweet Vendetta, 1979)

Who is Adrian Gurvitz I hear you ask? Well I can safely say he is a bit more that the appalling one-hit-wonder lambasted in such an amusing way by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on ‘The Trip’! He did have one great album (Sweet Vendetta, 1979) under his sleeve which, whilst dated, is a homage to the underrated ‘soft rock’ genre of the late 70s and early 80s! This tune is one of the most self-indulgent tracks I have ever heard, full of some of the best musicians of all time. The late Jeff Pocaro (Toto) was on drums, and it is a masterclass of his amazing playing as well as many others. The song itself has awesome tempo, real strings and the dirtiest groove on the chorus, you could almost imagine yourself on the lit dancefloor busting out your best Tony Manero impressions to this cut! 

Love you inside out - Bee Gees (Spirits have flown, 1979) 

From one dancefloor killer to a real piece of dancefloor filler! I am sure that back in 1979 you couldn’t move for the static of the nylon on the deck as the discoball twirled above and the Bass flowed freely from the keg. This tune speaks of a bygone era when the Bee Gees ruled the charts - so it must have been a while ago - but it is a goodie. One thing you can say about this band is that in their golden age, in which this tune falls, that the playing, production and sheer style was awesome. Barry Gibb’s falsetto is so distinctive, and the synth strings soaring into the background make this a tune to strut down a street in Queens, paint pot in one hand and slice of pizza in the other!

Rocket 7” - Def Leppard (Single, 1989) 

Edited down from a track of the same name on the monumental ‘Hair-Metal’ album Hysteria (1987), Rocket has to be one of the great rock tracks of the 80s up there with ‘Paradise City’, ‘Here I go Again’, ‘Heat of the Moment’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’ - it is hard to believe from the Americanised sound that the band was from the steel mills of Sheffield, but you can tell that they were enjoying themselves when they recorded this breezy track dedicated to all their heroes from the ‘Glam Rock’ era of music with references to ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Major Tom’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’. It also benefits from some masterful production, courtesy of the legendary Mutt Lange, larding an already pompous track with edits, dubs and sampling to making a quite brilliant anthem which lends itself well to some drunken air guitar playing! 

Solid Air - John Martyn (Solid Air, 1973) 

Taking it a little lower, a little more mellow, we come to a British folk classic by the underrated and unequalled John Martyn. Recording just before the artist discovered his signature ‘echoplex’ (a reverb/echo which gives the guitar a clean, sustained sound). This is a seductive mix of acoustic guitar, fretless bass, vibes, saxophone and a hi-hat to create a brooding masterpiece. But it is Martyn’s unique vocal talents that really evoke atmosphere in the tune, it really sounds like solid air might feel!

Down for the third time - Bobby Caldwell (What you won’t do for love, 1978) 

‘left your mark in a distant past...’, say what you like about Bobby Caldwell - and I’ve said a lot - he writes great, cynical lyrics. This closes his best-selling album, his debut, featuring the famous ‘What you won’t do for love’ sampled by all and sundry rap artist looking for horn drenched backing for their brash lyrics. This track though is a subdued affair, which benefits from a hypnotically repetitive rhythm and some gentle musing on a gibson guitar. Caldwell, a session musician by training, is always best on these workouts and it becomes even more impressive when you find out that he played pretty much all the instruments on the cut!

Teardrops 7” - Womack & Womack (Single, 1988) 

The original will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary next year and it still hasn’t lost its ability to fill the dancefloor with its catchy drum machine riff and varied percussion (very Stewart Copeland-esque) and easily recognizable vocal hook: ‘reminds me baby of you’. When you list to the lyrics it is actually a pretty depressing track of lost love and regret, but its funky back beat makes it one of those tunes that you cannot help but tap you foot to. The track has been given a new lease of life by a very pleasant version by Joss Stone, but for me the original is by far the best.

This one’s from the heart - Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle (One from the heart OST, 1981) 

It’s four in the morning, the last few fingers of bourbon are being poured into a tumbler and the last Villiger is being unwrapped from its paper parcel, it’s time to take it down a notch with the sultry croonings of an unusually clear voiced Tom Waits and the sublime Crystal Gayle taken from the soundtrack of the same name (and one of the great Hollywood flops). 

That’s your lot music wise for this year apart from a short paragraph on a particular album to feature in my next post on Christmas stocking fillers a la Bloody Good Chap! Until the weekend then...

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Sketches from a smokers album: The birthday bonanza and the sheltering sky...

Birthdays come but once a year but I feel that they should be celebrated in some style. That’s why I found myself sat with one of the densest, richest cigars hot-boxing a room of close friends at a little lunch thrown the other day. 

The cigar in question had been given to me by the fantastic colleagues I have at my establishment of work. As well as being very chuffed I was damn well looking forward to smoking it in the carefree leisure and comfort of a Saturday afternoon. 

Picture the scene if you will, bottles and ashtrays festooning the table; gin and tonics, red wine and many a toast had be drunk before the star moment - excluding the sterling company - presented itself forth from a pair of Victorian Port decanters. Australia’s Seppeltsfield VP Touriga 1987 (incidentally the year of the author’s birth) is a classy drop, holding up to any great vintage port from the same era, perhaps a little lighter on the brain than its Portuguese counterpart! It matched beautifully with the heady, smokiness of the Cohiba VI, a marriage made in heaven. 

One of the marks of a great cigar is consistency and this one delivered in spades. A fantastic plume of smoke emanated from this beast - for it was quite the monster even when I first inspected it on opening the case! As always happens when smoking indoors, the kitchen was filled with smoke which some found pleasing and most found an acrid inconvenience, but that’s the great thing about being the birthday complaints were lodged!

The winter nights are drawing in with a vengeance, forcing us all to wrap up warm. Temperature drops, rimy mornings and wet evenings can cast something of a dampener on the latter part of the year, by gum it makes Christmas seem a million miles away when in fact it is just around the corner. This was my very feeling until a wonderful smoke - which I would urge you to try - beat away those Autumnal blues! 

Sitting outside in the garden, wrapped up in many layers and my trusty puffer jacket (90’s nostalgia), I gave some attention to an old friend from my favourite make, the Bolivar No.2. Generously given to me by a great friend, this was indeed a treat. Sat under a bay tree with my copy of James Clavell’s addictive historical thriller Shogun and a pot of delicious, thick and viscous black coffee brewed a la Rubinstein, I embarked on a joyous smoke! 

As I chugged away, I kept an eye on the gathering heavens above. It was an ominous sky in every sense of the phrase, close and looming. The clouds threatening to pour down their deluge at any moment with each toke taken on the delicious cigar, washed down with a mug of hot black coffee, warming the depths of my soul against the gathering winds and closing sky whilst the gripping plot-line of Shogun struggled for attention amid all the drama...a typical Sunday afternoon in London you might say. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cat in the hat revisited...

While I will be posting later today I am also going to be revisiting the archives of the blog for personal indulgences only! here is a fantastic album that most will revile from their first exposure but perhaps a couple - and I'd like to know who - might enjoy. Here is the review of what has come to be the best album I have ever listened to...

05/04/2012 - Cat in the Hat - Bobby Caldwell (1980)

I wish I could persuade others to like Cat in the Hat and stop them guffawing with incredulity when they find out it is my favourite album, this sadly is very much an album I fear that I am going to be consigned to placing on a pedestal whilst others place it in the charity shop bargain bin. I truly don't know anyone of my peers and contemporaries who own this album, but then again, I guess they are missing out and I will be left to enjoy this pleasure, much like my homemade orange brandy - which I still maintain tastes like Cointreau - on my own!

Cat in the Hat is the sophomore album from the smooth jazz/blue eyed soul songster Bobby Caldwell. To read the glittering if short review on All Music one would be surprised that this album hasn't been snaffled up by more people and to my mind one phrase stands out 'not one duff track on the album'…how true! 

A bit like Christopher Cross's debut album that I reviewed a few weeks ago, Cat in the Hat is definitely stuck in the soft rock genre and has probably suffered at the hands of the critics and changing times as a result. But I cannot resist it and if I was to say that there was one album I come back to more than any other then it would be this one. 

Each track is a meticulously played, meticulously produced and has real passion. Funky and soulful, Caldwell had already dazzled with his debut album and the smash (and oft sampled) 'What you won't do for love'. This album was different, very slick and soulful lacking the harder edge and resonating chords of Cat in the Hat. Nowhere on the record is this more apparent than on the most famous and sampled track 'Open your Eyes' an oft overlooked 80s pop classic with echoed vocals and rollocking piano chords descending into a dirty guitar riff which will imprint itself on your mind for hours after listening to it. 

But the other tracks are great too. The amount of air guitar time I devoted to the rip-roaring solo from 'Coming Down from love' and in time clapping to the infectiously funky 'Mother of Creation' does not bear thinking about. The slower more romantic numbers are also thoroughly please, Caldwell pulls out all stops on tracks like 'To know what I've got' and the disco rhythmed 'Wrong or Right?' giving a truly powerhouse performance… although many of my mates still remain unconvinced, the philistines! :-)

Like Christopher Cross, I maintain the view that some artists make consistently good albums and others have a flash of greatness that seems to reach the stratosphere only to plummet back to earth by the next album. This is the case with Cat in the Hat, a wonderful album that I will unsuccessfully defend for many years to come for it affords me such great aural pleasure on every listen. 

Perhaps I have poor taste in music, then so be it, I won't stop enjoying this album all the more on each play through. And Since this is a day for breaking with precedent (See my review of Al Moro on the main page) I am awarding this 11/10, and put it in a class of its own - if you can find me a better album, I'd like to know! 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fish and chips come to SW19 - my review of Ocean's 11 chip shop

Leopold Road in Wimbledon is a place that has never be able to boast excellent restaurant or for that matter excellent watering holes. It is a collection of newsagents, off licenses, a butcher and a string of mediocre restaurants including an indian, a kebab shop, a chinese takeaway, a Turkish restaurant (with belly dancers) and a cafe that constantly changes hands because it can never drum up enough business to meet the overheads - after having one of their bacon sandwiches I can see why. In fact, most of the shops (especially the eating establishments) change at an alarming rate on this parade, and that’s been the norm even before the arrival of a large Waitrose on the adjacent road. 

You would have thought that after 12 years of witnessing each one of the world’s cuisines come and go from Leopold Road that I would be quite apathetic to new developments. That was until a month ago, when the Moroccan - which had astoundingly stayed open for 4 years despite never having a customer - finally shut its doors and papered up their windows. However amongst the broadsheets, like a disappointing cracker toy, was a crudely drawn fish under which stated that the premises was to become a ‘fish restaurant’. I was quite excited and in my naivety was imagining something like a rustic taverna with grilled sardines, fresh baby squids and crusty bread. Alas...

I suppose that in the loosest possible terms that you could call a fish and chip shop a restaurant by filling it with more tables than there will ever be customers. It soon became apparent as the renovation of the establishment started that this was not going to be the Mediterranean fish frenzy that I had hoped for. Images of crunching down on fritto misto whilst sipping a chilled glass of Gavi de Gavi was immediately shattered as I witnessed mutt and jeff trying to force a chip shop fryer/counter/warmer through a doorway, taking most of the frame with it. Suspicions that this was not to be one of those charming if simple ‘1-knife-and-fork’ bistros found so often in the Michelin Guide were confirmed as I saw the chosen name for the establishment Oceans 11. What did this mean? Was I to receive the ‘rat-pack’ of the fish world, or perhaps a harmonised chorus of Big Mouth Billy Basses ironically mouthing Al Green’s classic ‘Take me to the river’? I couldn’t wait to find out. 

Truth be told I missed the grand opening, it must have been very understated, and for a while I walk by casing the joint, judging the right moment to go and get my plaice, chips and mushy peas. The opportunity soon presented itself in the form of a fun but rather lacklustre game of football delivered by local team AFC Wimbledon at their ground in Kingston enjoyed in the company of an old school chum and former SW19 resident. 

By the time we had made the grueling journey back from Norbiton to Wimbledon and sunk a couple of pints in the ever reliable Prince of Wales (although it hasn’t been the same since they got rid of the IT Box) we decided that a portion or two of fish and chips was the order of the evening. After a short walk we arrived and were initially relieved that there was another customer in the establishment a rare occurrence for many of the other restaurants on Leopold Road of a Saturday night. However, I was struck immediately by the distinct lack of frying, surely as a chip shop the place should be filled with the sounds of scalding fat on silken batter? 

‘What’ll it be?’ Asked the rather burley if vacant looking chap behind the counter who looked like he had experienced a day of very slow trade. 
‘One plaice, large chips, mushy peas and one battered sausage and chips’ 
‘Coming right up.’ He sighed as he called the order to his shorter, mustachioed companion who was tending to the fryer. And so 10 minute passed, which I felt was a rather long time to wait, then fifteen more. It was my turn to sigh before my friend's battered sausage arrived but no plaice. The vacant fellow turned to me and asked me what  was having.
‘Plaice and chips.’ 
‘did you ask for that the first time?’
‘Yes.’ I was a little miffed, as I realised he had forgotten my order despite the fact that I had been standing by the counter for around 25 minutes. Now I felt like a fool. 
‘Oh I forgot, sorry, I will get it cooked from scratch now, it will be another 10 minutes.’ 
‘Fine,’ I once again sighed in slight exasperation. Suddenly the small man snapped.
‘Don’t be so impatient! I am trying to cook it, you will have to wait until it’s ready. You should have been clearer’. Well that told me, had he really just said that? how strange! I spluttered and stifled my frustrations, I was too hungry to cause a a ruckus. 

FInally I got my fish, over which my vacant server tipped almost the entire salt shaker -if you go in there yourself make sure you bring your own salt and do it yourself. Despite this, the fish was relatively alright (it was pre-filleted, probably from frozen), well cooked with a nice, home made batter (i saw him prep the fillets) but the chips were disappointing and I got the feeling that they hadn’t been chipped on the premises, nor fried in beef dripping. The mushy peas were certainly not homemade. Let’s say that it was passable but not excellent, certainly not anywhere near the league of establishments like The Laughing Halibut on Strutton Ground.

At the end of the day, It isn’t awful, but keeping consistent with most of the eateries on Leopold Road, it isn’t great. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Sketches from a cigar smoker's album 5: Night at the Lanesborough

It is a very rare occasion for me to feel flush. I had just had a pay check come in and looking to my balance I saw I had more than I had at first thought. I started to get very excited, culinary and gastronomic possibilities opened up before me. There would be new recipes to try, new restaurants to visit and fresh drinks to sample in order to keep both my blog readers satisfied and material for my book-in-progress fresh.

I had a free evening last Thursday (something that seems rarer and rarer as the weeks go by!) and so I decided to check out the Garden Room at the Lanesborough. A number of websites and critics had sung the praises of this establishment pointing out to the discerning, if inexperienced cigar enthusiast that this was one of the only public places that you could smoke underneath a semi-permanent roof with the same comfort of an indoor bar. I was hooked, the reviews were dazzling – they talked of glamourous ‘Mad Men’ like women and suave men in sharp suits and dark glasses similar to modern day Dean Martins all supping on Martinis and Manhattans! I made a call to one of my close friends who was only too happy to join me on a journey to see how the supposed ‘high society’ spent their evenings!

Meeting my chum outside Hyde Park Corner tube, my wallet was bulging with notes. Having been to smart hotels before I am well aware of the prices that their drinks command and so I had come prepared. A Cohiba Siglo IV was pressed against my right breast by my perfect fit 1938 three-piece suit as we both entered in over the threshold. Ushered this way and that by an attendant through carpeted corridors, marble staircases and brass railing we finally made it to the Garden Room. We were greeted by a very professional but jovial fellow who I surmised by the receipt was called Pasquale who informed us that the room was fully booked and that we would have to wait about 45 minutes to be seated. Seasoned men of the world, this did not bother me or my mate who were lead by yet another attendant to the Library bar so that we could pass the time in style (although I think their business acumen presupposed that we would have at least two drinks in the upstairs, non-smoking bar before decamping downstairs).

We were taken to a bar which was smart, but which was decorated in a style which I think was more international than national. I had the feeling that they were trying to create the feel of a London Club but it lacked the eccentric characters that one associates with such establishment. True it was full of glamorous individuals, but I consistently got the feeling that we were the only Brits in the room. I joked that I hoped that the other patrons were looking at us as if we were big business (as we must have been the youngest people there by about 10 years) dressed as we were in City suits and silk ties.

One glance at the drinks menu told us that we weren’t in schoolboy territory. At first I stammered over the hundreds, even thousands of pounds being asked for vintage Cognac, Scotch Whisky and Port. Luckily a quick flip through six pages of currently unaffordable luxuries revealed that they made a range of classic cocktails which were more in our price range…


When I was at my very liberal boarding school, I was asked – at the tender age of 16 – by one of my tutors what my favourite alcoholic drink was? Of course, I had tried a few different liquors up to that point but I had become a big fan of Campari and Orange. Duly informing my tutor (for I was never one to mince my words) that I was partial to this particular tipple I was met with incredulity and insult: ‘my god!’ he exclaimed, ‘you might as well grow a pair of breasts whilst you’re about it!’. Typical oaf behaviour! But not to be unexpected and I have gone on enjoying my Campari ever since all the more certain in my cultural superiority to this tutor for it is indeed a delicious drink to the discerning palette!


Dear reader… I apologise for my slight digression. I hope that I haven’t lost your attention (as many of you will be wondering why I have mentioned this little episode from my past)! I felt that I had to justify my ordering of that classic cocktail, the Negroni. A potent mixture of Gin, Campari and Red Vermouth this is a drink suited for those with a good tolerance for the bitter. The rewards for disciples are great, a burst of aromatics and a real alcoholic kick make this a cocktail for champions and is a must for anyone looking to give themselves the airs and grace of the 1920s and those halcyon days of cocktail drinking!

My friend ordered a Caipirinha which tasted fantastic but I am not much of an expert so I cannot comment with any authority. My Negroni was perfectly made and slipped down far too quickly for the liking of my sobriety! After one more apiece we were informed that a table had become free in the Garden room. Full of anticipation with my cigar, cutter and matches metaphorically burning a hole in my pocket we made our way to what, for the last few months, was one of my most hotly anticipated drinking spots.

As we sallied forth into this rarefied venue we were once again greeted by Pasquale who gave my hand a warm if ultra-firm clasp and said how glad he was to have ‘Mr Rubinstein’ as a guest – the once and only time I feel that I will ever be assumed as a Russian Oligarch. Once seated in this lively if a touch overheated room, a comprehensive menu was thrust into our hands. The drinks here were even more expensive as if to challenge morons with more money than sense to order a bottle of Croft’s 1900 port at £1200. On first glance at the cigars I was thoroughly glad that I had taken my own. I saw make, then date, then price and my eyes started to boggle! I had always thought that Davidoff on St James was pricey but nothing had prepared me for this. Like the booze we flicked over page after page of special smokes until we came upon the affordable page (which still wasn’t cheap but not ruinous). I’m glad the waiter didn’t hear the fluctuating sighs of horror and then relief that emanated from our small area as we flicked page after page of ascending and descending prices!

Luckily I had my own cigar so I was quite content with arranging my own affairs and cut the smokable to tried and tested methods with my NUB (another cigar make) cutter. My compadre ordered a Davidoff Short Robusto which was skilfully cut and lit by one of the waiters and we settled back with a fresh round of drinks to enjoy a lengthy smoke with two very formidable cigars.

Politics was discussed at lengths and, as I’ve made it a pledge to myself never to descend into such subjects in my blog, I will leave you guessing as to the general gist and the outcome of the discussion! There was food chat, banter about women we fancied from acquaintance and celebrity (then realisation that they were well out of our leagues!) and general outlandish statements that accompanies all serious drinking. The cigars kept getting shorter and the drinks coming. Tiring of Negroni and its formidable price I got a craving for a cool lager. This was the first of a couple of stumbling blocks for the establishment, The lager wasn’t  chilled enough and didn’t have that refreshing bite that I like in a good quality version of the product – but that is just me. I noticed the couple across the room enjoying theirs so I feel that this is a bit pernickety.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic time at The Lanesborough (and the two respective bars that I attended) but there was one aspect that bothered me. I felt that my experience at The Lanesborough would have been perfect if it was not frequented by obnoxious people. Of course this is a pipe dream, if people are prepared to pay the money they are entitled to the service, here lies the root of my complaint.

Both my friend and I were shocked at the appalling behaviour of the fellow guests at both the Library Bar and the Garden Room. The majority were rich foreign businessmen and I was disgusted by the way they treated the hotel staff as if they were lesser people. I feel that many – and it goes for a number of fellow countrymen as well – think that it is fair game to regard very hard working staff (especially at somewhere like The Lanesborough) with contempt. I was especially shocked to see two Italian men being incredibly, verbally rude to the fellow Italian who was serving their drinks, then laughing about their hilarious joke as the sullen waiter walked away. For a handful of the guests it was embarrassing, others shrugged indifferently, some shared the joke. Treating staff badly is not on! They have a hard job and as the customer – while it is our right to demand good service – it is also our duty to treat those who serve us with proper respect.

In spite of this minor setback I would urge you to go, especially if you are a smoker. It is one of the last bastions where tobacco aficionados can enjoy their favourite pastime and they make a damn fine Negroni!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Hold the Line, love isn't always on time: Toto IV (1982)

‘Oh no’ someone groaned at a party I once hosted, ‘he’s going to put Toto on again’ as I racked up the tunes for the riotous night ahead. 

I am sure that they weren’t alone in their misgivings, many critics were flabbergasted when Toto IV (1982) unexpectedly scooped up the 1983 Grammy for best record. Session musicians winning such an award was unheard of at the time! Outrage, man the barricades! So what if they had played on Steely Dan’s Aja (1977) and scored a number of radio-friendly hits, this was just not cricket for many. Let me now take this opportunity to leap to the barricades myself and defend this fantastic record. 

The plain fact is that this is a very well crafted album released at a time when ‘soft rock’ - incidentally my favourite genre, hence my overplay of this album - was at its peak, after all Christopher Cross (1979) (whose album i have previously review on this blog) had won the Grammy in 1981. This was probably why the album was the great success that it was despite the stellar production and playing. Yet it wasn’t enough at the time to spare the album from the snipping and nashing of critics who would have readily given the award to some drivel trotted out from a band with more ‘alternative’ credentials.

Well sod them! I was introduced to this work when I had a brief spell playing the Bass Guitar (in which time I realised that I was a great music appreciator but no accomplished player!) by my teacher, the great Alan Ross, who introduced me to much of the music I now love today. As you can imagine most of the lessons were spent dissecting the merits of the production on whichever album was under discussion rather than actually playing the instrument - music production has always been my dream job, perhaps I should have applied myself a little more at my scales back in the day! 

But now to the album. From the iconic drum riff of the opening track ‘Rosanna’ created by the genius of the legendary, late Jeff Porcaro to the warm keyboards of ‘Africa’ (these wre both huge hits) the album just begs to be listened to. I love it when I can write that none of this album is filler, and that the track order is balanced. To be honest, Toto have released a lot of rubbish but here they brought it all together and made something well worth purchasing. 

‘Make Believe’, the second track, has a killer piano intro and seductive sax fill which makes for rollicking cut which I am sure sounds incredible when they play it live. Follow this up with a seductive slow number like ‘I won’t hold you back’ - a showcase of multi-faceted guitarist Steve Lukather’s talents. You are not event a third of the way through this infectious album before you get a killer guitar solo after the manner of Jeff Beck on ‘Cause we’ve ended as lovers’.

My favourite tracks are found towards the end of the album on the b-side ‘We Made It’, a rollocking feel good number in the style of Asia or Trevor Horn's incarnation of Yes. It has one of the great choruses in 80s music and puts a smile on my face every time I listen. ‘Waiting for your love' is just fluff, but great fluff, it has a feel to it that reminds me of the Tina Turner albums we listened to in the car on summer holidays when I was younger - in addition it has some of Bobby Kimball’s (lead singer) finest vocal work in his time with the band. The music video for this track is also worth a gander as a great example of how cheesy they could back in the early days of MTV (although it still comes nowhere near close to Phil Collins’s ‘Sussudio’). 

At the end of the day this really is a marmite album, you either love it or you hate it! Thankfully my preference falls very much to the former. It is a work that puts such a smile on my face every time I listen that I cannot help but play it anytime I have guests round for a party... you have been warned! 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Wessex Tale - in praise of Thomas Hardy

What is it with the Toms (Beef and Tomato and Tom Waits) over the last few posts, a theme perhaps? I’m not sure? But this post will give a fanfare to one of the greatest of authors, I own (to employ a term oft used in his works). Indeed, he evokes a lost Britain in a most humane way and invites the reader to question their own moral judgements and preconceptions to boot. Of course, I am writing of none other but the great Thomas Hardy now so frightfully unfashionable but I feel due a comeback! 

I am sure many have a passing acquaintance with Hardy’s life - especially if like me you did and English Literature A Level -  a born and bred Dorset man trained as an architect who spent most of his adult life as an author and poet recounting the trials and tribulations of a fictitious Wessex (Mainly Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire) and its both tragic and eccentric characters. 

Many books have been written about Hardy, including Claire Tomalin’s very comprehensive biography which (whilst very accomplished) could be used as an effective draft excluder it is so thick! On this occasion, I want to concentrate on the fiction itself without exploring too much into the man behind it - you can find this out in the plethora of analysis on his works or Wikipedia if you want it paraphrased. My piece is more a personal praise of a few works which I feel are deserved of their place as classics in the English language. 

I remember disliking Hardy intensely when I first read him as an angry young 16 year-old and attempting to conquer the bleak and draining Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I also remember going back to school the next term and wrongly dismissing him with a string of unfair adjectives which youth is so prone to bring to mind. It was a good four years before I picked up another one of his books, Far from the madding crowd, where I should have started in the first place. Far more light-hearted than the works that followed it gave me a real flavour of a bucolic country and bygone people ever clinging onto the past whilst the future ever encroached more and more on their traditional way of life. 

I once used to sneer at Hardy’s detailed decriptions of the natural world, mistakenly calling it ‘laboured’ prose where really it was more ‘nostalgic’, wistful for a world that the author could see rapidly vanishing. That was the feeling at the beginning of The Woodlanders - to my mind one of his most underrated novels. Telling a story of dissapointment, class ambition and unrequited love set against the backdrop of a woodland community where aspiring middle classes lived hand-in-hand with itinerant labourers - bearing similarities to one of his most famous works Return of the Native. In both books whist he evokes the beauty of the nature, it is destructive, ominous and fickle; driving men and women to the depths of despair as much as it offers them security. 

Having finished reading Return of the Native recently, I was more captivated by the setting of Egdon Heath than the plight of the main characters, for the Heath was written as a character in itself, almost a God-like entity, ever present throughout the tale, unchanging, constant. The characters either praise it or they resent it, much like the woods in The Woodlanders

This is just one side of Hardy, with ensemble casts of characters and vivid natural scenes. His other side focuses on tragic figures slowly ground down by the - pardon me for employing a much overused term - ‘wheel of fate’! Novels like the aforementioned Tess and the groundbreaking Jude the Obscure concentrate on the futility of human existent that makes for very hard, depressing reading. As such this theme brings me to my favourite of the Wessex writer’s works, The Mayor of Casterbridge

I wish I could be impartial about this book, yet it is still one of the best pieces of fiction I have ever read and to me, is certainly one of the best writings on the male psyche I have ever come across. Vaulting ambition (to use another A level taught cliche - thanks Claudius), bitter disappointment and the natural course of fate combine to show the rise and fall of a man who cannot escape the shameful deeds of his past in spite of redemption. I am not ashamed to admit that I shed a few tears for the tragedy of Michael Henchard - even if, in my view,  the current Penguin cover notes give a wholly inaccurate depiction of his character. 

Henchard is certainly an unlovable character yet, I think that every man could see something of himself in the doomed character who carries with him a bizarre degree of dignity which I have only ever found in the works of Turgenev. The book gripped me from start to finish, a page-turner if you will. It was after reading this particular work that I realised that Hardy was a truly great novelist and thoroughly deserved of his place as one of the great writers in English literary history. 

I fear that I have only skittered over the surface in a rather blasé form, but I don’t want to spoil any of these fantastic works for you should you not have read them. Too often do I read reviews that cannot help but spoil the plot, this is is more a mere praise for a favourite author and one whose work never tires. Hopefully this should act as a recommendation to you to pick up some of his works should you have never come across him. Thomas Hardy I salute you! 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Never recognise yourself... Heartattack & Vine (1980) - Tom Waits

From the opening of this album you are hit with the sleaziest of riffs, dug from the depths and denizens of a seedy LA Hell. Heartattack and Vine is often dismissed as a ‘transitional’ album, straddling two distinct phases of Tom Waits prolific career, but for me it is the 'Great Rasper' at his very best. Sombre but groovy licks, potent lyrics and vivid scenes of LA street life and nostalgia combine for one of the most enduring of listens in my music collection. Without a doubt I would put this in my top five it is that good! 

The title track - which opens the album - encourages you to dim the lights, pour yourself a large bourbon and indulge in a pack of Lucky Strikes. As I sat and wrote this review I was working to just a desk lamp, shot and a beer by my side (a cigar would also feature had I not been in throws of Stoptober). The atmosphere is set by the music, sparse and dirty with Waits unique delivery working its way into the finer recesses of your mind. Like the Pot Noodle of the previous post, this chestnut transports me back to my first year at University in Leeds, Bodington Halls. 

I listened to this album over and over as I prepared to embark on some ill-advised club night or another, sipping on my drink of choice back then, bourbon and dry ginger and smoking Royal Dutch cigarillos as the title track slipped into the lilting instrumental ‘In Shades’ a tune that evokes shifty characters brawling in West Coast bars - the guitar playing on this track is particularly awesome. 

Suddenly the album takes a different, macabre tone, as if you’ve stepped into a graveyard or an empty house in great disrepair. ‘Saving all my love for you’ is in no way related to the Whitney Houston song of the same name, the tone is so different, the 80s soulstress was full of hope and expectation, Waits is full of despair, regret and resignation but no less romantic. It is a song you could imagine a lamenting Clym Yeobright from Return of the Native singing. 

‘Downtown’ takes us back to the Chivas Regal, $4 rooms and hookers - Hammond Organ a-swirling - the gritty world of Waits’s LA before an oft copied original ‘Jersey Girl’ gets its first outing in its illustrious history. Atmosphere follows with ‘Til’ the money runs out’ giving an indication, if an ever so slight one, of where Waits was to go with the experimental Swordfishtrombones (1983). But this is mere frippery compared to the album’s zenith ‘On the nickel’ 

A fully orchestrated track, like something from a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, ‘On the nickel’ both showcases Waits extraordinary voice but also his gift as a musician. A wonderful story, like a great show tune offset with an emotional impact not found on the stage, I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been at the recording session for this song. The cut focuses on depression era Los Angeles and the strife of many destitute labourers and families, Waits taps into them, he gives the characters meaning but most importantly he paints a picture that everyone might appreciate. If you listen to one Waits song in your life then please make it this one. 

The rest of the album includes a raucous, bluesy track ‘Mr Siegal’ which certainly helped many a drink slip gently down the little red lane in the past and the final ballad ‘Ruby’s Arms’ which for me is the weakest track and one that I tend to disregard, not out of doubt for the musical ability but that I don’t care for it that much! 

Whatever your fancy, this is an album that you simply much invest in, 10/10 for me!

Back to the future or a cup full of dissapointment?

‘Well I’ve been a prisoner all my life...’  sang Phil Collins in his 1985 epic ‘Take me home’ and it seems that I have! For many years I have been blind to a cruel and erstwhile mistress that has chosen to raise it’s blunt and ugly head after many years dormant. 


Let me set the scene, it’s 2001 and I was freezing my socks off as a 13 year old recently started at a school in the heart of a cold and blustery valley. The wind whipped and shook the very rafters of the boarding house; little solace could be found in both the latin grammars and compulsory rugby. The kettle may have produced a cup of builders brew strong enough to melt girders but it was of little comfort against the chill February air that seemed to linger and embed itself in the 18th Century cornicing of the building. 

Prep, although it was but an hour-and-three-quarters long felt arduous as, chilled to the bone, we attempted to cram in the deeds of Publius Decius Mus and ponder on how Horatio kept the bridge in which the only respite was in a quick and furtive reach into the treasure trove of your tuck box. 

Weaving a grubby paw through this hoard of cola cubes, pork scratchings, twiglets and kit-kats the wearying hunter would finally alight on the mecca, that pep to give one hope and courage to last an evening of banter and beats...the pot noodle. 

I suppose it was all in the preparation and the anticipation. I like to think that perhaps, in some distant time, people thought that these gaudy and cheap looking containers held the future of human comestibles. The exciting one felt even in the noughties filling that receptacle with the hardest boiling water known to man (after all the flakes of limescale where hard to distinguish from the textured soya matter). 

I was always a chicken and mushroom man, I had no care for the curry or the beef & tomato. After opening the spot-welded foil lid in one swift motion I would take in the pile of desiccated stock cube, dehydrated sweetcorn and peas (which had probably not seen the fields from whence they came for many years) and of course the textured soya sitting atop a nest of anemic noodles. I can still hear the kettle click in the lonely brew room and the crackling of the sleepy noodles waking up after a long stay on the off licence shelf as the sandy Chicken-flavoured dust gave way to a lurid yellow soup flecked with green ‘herbs’. The savoury smell of MSG wafted up, hitting the nostril with the aromatic subtlety of a squadron of Red Arrow jets. 

The taste, well we all know it, ersatz to the full but, like the barbecue ribs from a cheap Chinese takeaway very more-ish. Cold and hungry at 13 I couldn't control myself as I hovered up the noodles and gulped down the liquid which - as the pasta supply was depleted - became disconcertingly viscous. 

It was soon finished and one was left with both an abiding sense of dissatisfaction and a certain degree of shame for having decimated with such relish a really sub-par product. One went to bed on those nights feeling ever so slightly sordid!


Imagine my surprise when I found myself purchasing one the other day! It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening the previous night, in fact, some might say too enjoyable. I had got up for work on time, showered, dressed but in my rush neglected to prepare some lunch for the rigours of a day in the office. 

Working in a small village just outside of the Capital there is little choice on the shelves of the local shop (unless you are a fan of the disturbing array of vacuum-packed, processed pork that lingers interminably on the shelves). Then I saw it, like some shitty grail of mediocrity, the toxic green almost sang to me as I reached for it and before I knew it I was walking out of the shop with a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle. 

‘Do a favour for the flavour’ the slogan on the complimentary packet of soy sauce teased me. ‘Oh go on then matron’, if I must! Adding it to the stewing mass of water and detritus I stirred for the last time before taking the flabby, shivering strands of pasta to my lips... on the first mouthful, and the second and the third the memories came flooding back in droves... It was bloody delicious. I am ashamed!