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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die(t)!


The day after the Eagle came around for supper I met up again with Helen at 1901, the upmarket restaurant and wine bar in Liverpool Street that we had frequented earlier in the year. I am not normally keen on modern fine-dining which regards smearing a dinner plate with sauce as being the height of haute cuisine, but the food at 1901 is a delight. We were served complimentary shot glasses of prawn cocktails served with freshly baked bread. I had little balls of goats’ cheese rolled in herbs with a green salad, tomato jam and balsamic vinegar, followed by sea bass. Helen had beef as her main course and insisted it was well done. She ended up sending her dish back three times until it was cooked to her complete satisfaction. I warned her that either she would be presented with a heap of ashes on a plate or else the outraged chef would storm into the restaurant armed with a flame thrower. As it was the waiters were unfailingly polite and acceded to Helen’s demands with a good grace. Being a connoisseur of puddings I felt the dessert was not such a success. It was a play on Eton mess. I felt it did not quite work. The cream was more like a mouse and a sliver of jelly was too gelatinous for my tastes.

I knew I would have to sing for my supper as Helen had invited me along as her guest as she needed help with her latest MBA assignment. She claimed a fellow student had been green with envy that I was prepared to help her. I did offer to pay for my share of the meal but it was politely brushed aside. I felt no qualms about accepting Helen’s generosity as she had recently started an interim assignment. Like me, money is extremely tight at the moment and she and her husband had been forced to re-mortgage their home as I had done earlier in the year to try and keep the wolf from the door. Helen had high hopes that her interim assignment would prove to be permanent. Whether it will or not, she did not regret the cost of the meal. She rang me a few weeks later to say she had scored an extremely high mark in her essay thanks in part to the comprehensive notes I had sent to her after the meal, having spent the best part of an afternoon completing a questionnaire she had devised which drew heavily on my specific work related experience in HR.

Mandip having treated me to a meal at Tate Modern earlier in the year when we went to see the Arshile Gorky retrospective, I returned the compliment in September when we met up at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. She was keen to see Budrus, Julia Bacha’s film documenting the non-violent protests by the Palestinian residents of the eponymous West Bank town in the Occupied Territories. Israel had decided that its security needs required the construction of a so-called separation barrier, a measure which might have been more palatable had it not involved unilaterally pulling up the town’s olive trees, the chief source of its income. In addition, the proposed security barrier would run close to the neighbourhood school and, even more contentiously, run right through the local graveyard. Julia Bacha’s does not take a political stance but even-handedly seeks the opinions of those directly involved in the struggle from the Palestinian olive-growers and their families to the Israeli soldiers protecting the bulldozers sent in to forcibly raze the olive groves.

I feared that the film might prove to be an earnest but dreary polemic. One reason why I agreed to trudge all the way over to Hampstead to see it was because it afforded me my final opportunity to visit Fenton House before it closed for the winter. In the event, I was pleased I had made the effort to see the film. It was both poignant and heartening in equal measure. At one point I feared the situation would end in tragedy. To my relief the Palestinians achieved their objectives without breaking their commitment not to descend into retaliatory violence. By virtue of the subject matter this film will have a very limited release but I would urge others to seek it out.

When I lived in North London as an adult, I would often visit the Everyman cinema in Hampstead. It was a surprise and a pleasure to find it still going strong. To pay its way and stand out against the cinema chains, the interior has been revamped. The standard seats have been replaced by two-seater sofas covered in plush velvet and waiter service. Mandip had a glass of wine whereas I selected a small tub of ice-cream for myself. After the film, we went to Ping Pong, a Chinese restaurant whose cuisine met Mandip’s special dietary requirements. We both had dim sum. It was truly delicious and very reasonably priced a not inconsequential consideration for me as I insisted on picking up the bill.

In November, Michael, a former colleague, invited me to join him and his wife on the Lotus, a floating Chinese restaurant in Docklands. We had all been there together for a meal before. Given that Michael and his wife are Chinese I always leave the choice of food in their capable hands. When my Chinese friends talk in Mandarin to the waiters I often toy with the idea that what they are really saying is: “I only know a few words of Mandarin but I am trying to impress my guest with my fluency. Humour me and pretend you understand exactly what I am saying”. It used to be something of a bugbear bear of mine that I would sometimes order a dish in French in a Parisian restaurant and the waiter would repeat back to me my order in English.

Michael insisted in advance on picking up the tab, something I did not refuse. I know I have always been quick to do the same whenever I have been able to afford to do so in the past and should my personal fortunes ever revive would do so again. The Aviatrix told me recently that she wished people would show more consideration where such delicate matters were concerned. She complained of a colleague who expected her to pay for both their snacks at an upmarket hotel after a day course held there. My friend had already driven him to the seminar and he had made no attempt to offer to pay for his share of the petrol bill. The Aviatrix also spoke of her boyfriend who is more than happy to knock back bottles of spirits in her flat but has never reciprocated in kind. He might be much younger than her but he has been part of a highly successful film franchise and could therefore certainly afford to be more generous. His name means nothing to me as I have no interest in either the films or the series of books that inspired them. But apparently for fans of the series his name, or at least that of his character, would be instantly recognisable.

Michael and his wife are committed Christians and they were telling me about the power of prayer. His spouse gave examples of how she had been able to turn around other people’s lives through prayer alone. I was left bemused by the case of the senior policeman who had made a friend’s life hell. After prayers were said on her behalf the policeman had been caught in a house fire in which his small child had been killed. I was appalled. How exactly did the policeman’s bad behaviour warrant the death of his son? Having been in a house fire myself I know first hand some of the horror that poor boy must have endured. Michael’s wife said the life of the policeman had been spared so that he could repent.
“Small comfort to his child, “I replied. “Why should he be robbed of his life?”
Michael’s wife muttered about the sins of the father. I pointed out that was in the Old Testament and that I should never want to inflict such pain on an innocent child however badly the parents behaved.

Later, whilst travelling on the tube, we were informed over the tannoy that the Central Line was down because of a passenger under a train. Michael’s spouse was shocked at the general lack of reaction to the news and thought it symptomatic of an uncaring society. I explained that it was more likely because we had not been informed as to whether the passenger was male or female. In addition, anyone likely to be using the line later would not wish to dwell too much on the incident. I felt it would be a very different matter if the story were ever published in the newspaper. To my surprise it made the national dailies a week but only because of the passenger’s apparent friendship with Prince Charles. Serious money and health issues had caused him to take his life. I hope he has found peace.

Today I am baking some Finnish rye bread loaves using a fail-safe Nigella recipe from her Domestic Goddess book. I am going around to the Eagle’s flat tomorrow for tea and promised to bake some loaves. I shall bake some lemon cupcakes and also an apricot cheesecake if I can buy the ingredients tonight. I might as well enjoy myself whilst I can. Knowing my luck the light at the end of the tunnel will turn out to be an on-coming express train.