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!