TheLondoneer: Testing Out TasterLab in London

For the last few days I’ve been looking over ‘TasterLab’, a site that gathers together interesting experiences that you can have in London for the first time to see whether they might become part of your regular lifestyle…

Most of the taster sessions on offer are free (or at least heavily discounted) and don’t carry any obligation to continue with the provider, and there are quite a varied set of things you can try out. Looking at some of the listings you can see whether kickboxing might be for you with a free session at the Epic Gym in West London, look into your diet with a nutritionist from UrBod at three central London locations, or investigate one of the new collaborative working spaces springing up in London, in this case through HubCulture in Soho who are giving away free day passes so that you can check out their facilities. If there is a downside, most of the tasters only have one provider  and there are some noticeable gaps: there’s nothing on art classes or photography for example. However, I’m told that a new version of the site is going up in June which will have lots more options,  and it certainly seems to be gaining popularity in its current form – they have more likes on Facebook than I do for one thing! TasterLab is worth checking out I think – it might be right up your street if you’re looking to fill some time with a new hobby or two……

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The Admiralty Citadel

Sitting amongst the grand offices in Whitehall, central London, you’ll find an ugly brute of a building, the Admiralty Citadel. Directly behind the old Admiralty on Whitehall, it was built as a shelter for military personnel so that they could continue working during sustained bombing during World War II (it’s roof is 20 foot thick reinforced concrete!).

On the fascia of the building you can still see loupes where machine guns could be set up, giving the occupants a 360 degree field of fire. This indicates the second use of the building – as a redoubt in case of invasion by Nazi forces. Mind you, how well they expected the building to survive sustained fire from tanks or artillery parked right outside is another matter altogether! That being said, its solid construction means that it still has its uses, and it remains as a working Ministry of Defence building to this day – one can only hope that they might offer guided tours as part of the Open House Weekend one of these days, because I’d give my right arm to have a look around inside!

I also took the opportunity to snap a few other things in the immediate vicinity which you can find here – but check out this fine couple for a start……

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Food Secret, Soho

Earlier tonight I was down at Food Secret on Broadwick St, Soho, for one of their demonstration evenings with their head chef Neil Armstrong.


As I said in my post last week they’re really into nutrition and freshness at Food Secret – you can go along and put together a hot soup, sandwich or salad on the fly, selecting from their fresh ingredients to make up what you want. They even prepare their pastes, sauces and stocks on the premises – so you can be assured that the pesto, harisa and so on that you put into your soup hasn’t come out of a jar. Now you might say that there’s nothing new there – in Soho in particular healthy eating has caught on. There are any number of other venues around that will offer the health-conscious a similar service, so let me tell you about what I think makes Food Secret unique.

What they’ve done, with help from nutritionist Sanna Anderson, is to devise a rather neat software application that helps you select precisely the right food for your dietary needs. Go up to the counter and start to put together your meal and you’ll see, on a large lcd screen below you on your side of the counter, the number of calories, amount of protein, carbohydrate and so on, as well as their unique star rating system, building up as you add more ingredients. So, for example, if you’re absolutely determined that your meal has to come in at 200 calories and only include 20% of your daily intake of fat , you can take things away from the mixture to get you to that exact figure with this really unique little visual aide.


The other thing that I think Food Secret has on its rivals is style. The walls and ceiling are lined in intriguingly lit frosted glass, and art and fashion videos are projected onto the walls all around the space. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that when the big high-fashion people are in town for a show, such as Vivienne Westwood or Oswald Boateng, Food Secret is their first choice for catering to the nutritional needs of their notoriously fastidious models!


It certainly gets my recommendation for people who want tasty food but are watching their intake – given where I am at the moment I should probably visit them fairly often! I’ll also just mention their website, where you’ll find some sample menus but also some useful tips on nutrition. Of course they’re also on Twitter and on Facebook if you want to keep an eye on what’s happening at the store.…

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Andaz Hotel Liverpool St

Today I’m going to tell you about the interesting evening I had last night, being shown around the boutique 5-star Andaz Hotel right next to Liverpool St station in central London.

Back in the late 19th century, this building started its life as the Great Eastern Hotel, built to support the expanding British rail network – it’s from the same era as the grand edifice that sits over Kings Cross St Pancras for example. A few years ago the hotel was purchased by the Hyatt group and given an extensive refurbishment – the result was the first of their new concept ‘Andaz’ hotels (Andaz, by the way means ‘style’ in both Hindi and Urdu). There are now four others in the group, all in the States – one in San Diego, one in West Hollywood and two in New York, on Wall St and 5th Avenue. In London they’ve taken great care to be true to the area – you’ll find work by East London artists throughout the hotel, such as this for example, which runs around the circular stairway at the hotel’s centre.

Anyway, on to my experience at the hotel. I always feel a tinge of trepidation when accepting invitations to tour hotels and the like, particularly classy establishments because I don’t feel that I can whole-heartedly recommend venues that I can neither afford to eat or even sleep in! For the most part that’s not a problem here, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Let me tell you first about Andaz’s distinguishing features…

For a start, the check-in experience here is rather unique. Walking in through the main doors you find yourself in a double-height reception area with subdued lighting and full of comfortable seats scattered around the space, but there’s no check-in desk in sight – the staff actually come over to you, netbooks in hand, to sort out all the details. An intriguing approach I’m sure you’ll agree! The surprises don’t end there either – while on the outside the hotel has that unmistakeable Victorian grandeur, on the inside it’s all very chic and modern. They’ve only retained the original features of the building where it actually adds to the experience – for example, the grand Italianate marble staircases remain as does the Masonic Temple on the building’s first floor (yes, where genuine Masons used to meet!). Most of the time this unique room hosts dinners and corporate events, but there are no weddings allowed in the space because of all of the Masonic symbolism. It’s all here – the astrological symbols, all-seeing eye, compasses and so on, and only intact because the room was forgotten, remaining hidden behind a boarded up doorway for many years… how spooky!

Elsewhere in the hotel you’ll also find a double-level atrium overlooked by some of the rooms and which has the hotel’s exposed industrial-style lifts in one corner, and a very funky open-plan ‘New York loft’-style space with a completely exposed kitchen at one end which …

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Beautiful Thing @ The Arts Theatre – A Review

This new production of the seminal coming-of-age story is directed by Nikolai Foster, and stars Suranne Jones as brassy South London mom Sandra, with Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard as Jamie and Ste. Sandra’s love interest is played by TV regular Oliver Farnworth (Hollyoaks, The Royal, Doctors) while Zaraah Abrahams plays Leah, the slightly unhinged girl from across the landing who has an obsession with American songstress Mama Cass.

Photo: Alastair Muir

The acting in this production really is spot on – Farnworth is particularly effective as the louche Tony and Surranne Jones plays a lovely mom, while Davies and Hatchard are perfectly convincing in their roles as the young gay lovers. The play itself has aged surprisingly well  too – the comedy lines are still strong, and while some of the South London spots name-checked in the script may be a distant memory an honest love story is timeless, and Beautiful Thing is about as honest as it gets. The love scene featuring ‘peppermint foot lotion’ was controversial twenty years ago, but thankfully society has shifted around the play in the intervening years – rather than drawing gasps from the audience, these days it elicits gentle ‘aahs’ – many of the patrons no doubt drawing on their own fond memories of early romantic encounters.

These days much of the West End’s serious output does seem to go out of its way to eviscerate audience members, and its a great relief to go and see a play that is as uplifting and joyful as Beautiful Thing. The killer soundtrack helps too of course – in what other setting could the Sound Of Music and the Mamas & Papas work so effectively together?…

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Party Like It’s 1922 With The Candlelight Club

There’s absolutely no doubt that pop-up restaurants and bars were the London dining craze of 2012, and it looks like this year is going to offer more of the same…

One of the quirkiest and most well-established of the bunch is The Candlelight Club (they’ve now been in the business for a positively middle-aged three years). Themed around the prohibition era of the 1920s they positively encourage diners to pitch up as gangsters and molls, and as well as the illicit booze a night at the club usually involves some authentic period jazz and a cocktail menu specific to each appearance.
I don’t know about you, but while I find the food at pop-up experiences generally exemplary the same usually can’t be said for the drinks, with cocktails being a particular stumbling block for many venues. There’s no fear of that at The Candlelight Club however – the top mixologists from the likes of Artesian, Soho House and the Langham moonlight behind the cocktail shakers and highball glasses.

Events planned for this year include ‘Sakura in Old Town’ on the 5th and 6th of April, ‘A New York Speakeasy Crawl’ on the 19th and 20th and ‘Kentucky Derby’ on the 3rd and 4th of May. Lined up on the 10th and 11th of May are two super-secret nights planned around the release of The Great Gatsby on the silver screen, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and launches at the Cannes Film Festival on 15 May. Discover the door that you have to knock on to gain entry and you could find yourself centre stage as Daisy Buchanan or the  dapper Jay Gatsby himself……

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The City Of London Distillery & Bar – A Temple To Gin Making

For centuries London was a prodigious producer of gin – Nicholson’s operated their huge facility at Three Mills, Bromley by Bow until bombing caused their production to cease in 1941, and Gordons and Tanqueray continued to be made in Islington until the early 1980s. Of the big distillers, only Beefeater remains – their gin is still made on an industrial scale at a facility down in Kennington.

Up until last year, however, there had been no small-scale production of gin in the capital for decades. That’s all changed since the City of London Distillery & Bar opened its doors last November, and last night I was lucky enough to visit this temple to gin-making, which you’ll find on the narrow Brides Lane in the heart of the City.

Descend the stairs into this intimate bar with its low ceilings and the first thing that you’ll discover is their gleaming distillery, its shiny copper vessels looking like they’ve just been born out of the pages of some cyber-punk novel. These are tended by master distiller Jamie Baxter, who has years of experience in the field – his equipment here is capable of producing just over 200 bottles of their London dry gin per batch. They use a whole range of what are called ‘botanicals’ (a posh way of referring to a complex mixture of juniper berries, herbs, spices and fruit peel) to flavour their base grain spirit, which is then mixed with purified water to bring it down to 40% proof – a typical strength for a classic London dry gin.




The associated bar (which must have the largest collection of different gin brands anywhere in the country on display behind the counter) is owned by Lewis and Nate, collectively known as the London Bar Consultants, who have been one of the main forces behind London’s rediscovery of the art of cocktail-making over the last few years. As well as popping down to sample their range of gins, martinis and the like (which of course includes the very drinkable gin that they make on the premises) you can also participate in distillery tours where you’ll discover the intricacies of the gin-making process, masterclasses on gin tasting (there are three traditional types of gin and new styles being devised all the time) and also have a crack at making your own!…

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‘Smoke – A London Peculiar’ Finally Makes It Into the 21st Century…

As you’ll know if you’ve been reading the blog for a while, I really love receiving the little magazine which focuses on our wonderful city; ‘Smoke – A London Peculiar’. It has unique mix of short stories, poems, photography and of course the regular ‘Bus Of The Month’ column, and it usually keeps me occupied for weeks as I dip in and out of it.

With that in mind, you might be interested to learn that the guys behind the magazine have finally come up to date with their own Facebook page. I’m copying the missive I just received from them in its entirety so you can find out a little more, and get a feel for the sentiments of the creative team behind it…

“Hello, dearly beloved supporter of Smoke: A London Peculiar!

I, Jude Rogers, co-founder of the quarterly love letter to our city that many of you have known and loved since 2003, is here to tell you that our magazine – Good God – finally has a page on Facebook.!/pages/London-United-Kingdom/Smoke-A-London-Peculiar/157174527655789

Regular (and nervous) readers, fear not… we have not turned ourselves into something fancy and “virtual” in our sabbatical from print. But we *are* preparing ourselves for a Very Exciting Announcement, and wanted to prepare you all properly too…

So like us, share us with your friends, and get ready!…

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Smoke – A London Peculiar #16

It’s time for another edition of Smoke – A London Peculiar. Number sixteen includes a tall tale about Leyton, a letter from Columbia Road, and an enticing little story by Tricity Bendix, ‘The Nun With The Eagle Tattoo’. If that doesn’t persuade you to pick up a copy, this month’s bus is the No 100, and the ‘elephant’ of the month is the weird three-pillar statue at Bakers Arms…

You can order a copy of Smoke – A London Peculiar online here, and it’s also available in a couple of the specialist bookshops across town. It’s only £2.90 a go, well worth it for it’s interesting slant on all things London.…

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Londoneer: Two Foodie Events – Ben & Jerry’s and Free Bagels

There are two food-related events coming up that I thought readers might be interested in.


First is the annual Ben & Jerry’s Double Scoop Sundae Festival, which takes place on Clapham Common on the weekend of the 23rd and 24th July. 15,000 tickets are available on each day and this year’s festival is being headlined by Maxïmo Park and Ocean Colour Scene. Maxïmo Park will be supported on Saturday by Ash, Fun Lovin Criminals and others, while on Sunday Gary Numan, The Duke & The King, Little Comets and Sound Of Rum will be adding to the atmosphere for headliners Ocean Colour Scene.

You’ll also be able to visit the staple of Ben & Jerry’s festivals, a petting zoo, and there’ll also be a fairground and bare toe wrestling competitions… Unsigned bands are also being invited to take up slots on the main stage through a competition called ‘Be Herd’. Acts can submit music and video at the festival site and also be in line for a cool £1000 prize to the overall winners. Tickets are now on sale at £17, but as this is a decidedly family-friendly festival children 5 years or under are admitted free (as long as they’re with an ice-cream loving responsible adult of course!). Keep an eye on Ben & Jerry’s Facebook and Twitter for further announcements regarding acts that will be appearing on stage. 


Secondly, there’s a freebie coming up in the form of free bagels from the New York Bakery Co. who are celebrating American Independence Day on 4 July. Head over to Canvey Street, behind the Tate Modern, from 12 lunchtime and you’ll be able to sample one of their bagels, but don’t wait too long otherwise the bagels will run out!…

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