Sunday, 28 June 2015

Secret supper club in North London

Ok, maybe not that secret... The Glass Kitchen Supper Club has a website and everything, but you don't get told the address until you've paid (£45) and the booking is confirmed, so it's kind of secret...

If you haven't tried an 'underground' dining experience, this is an excellent place to start. I went to another a couple few years ago and, while it was lots of fun and I met all sorts of interesting people, I honestly can't remember a thing about the food. However, I won't be forgetting my meal in the Glass Kitchen for a long time...

First of all, the setting: literally a glass extention built on the back of a Victorian terrace in Crouch End (as they give this much away themselves on the website, I'm sure they won't mind my saying that). We visited on a balmy summer evening, so a number of the glass doors were open, which muddled up the concept of inside and outside very nicely.

The next thing of note were the hosts, Ian and Fran. Fran is an actual chef who worked in a number of central London restaurants for many years before starting this enterprise; Ian is the perfect host, handing 'round drinks and canapes and more than happy to share ingredients and culinary methods.

We were 10 guests, who all arrived in pairs, some couples, some friends and there was an instant convivial atmosphere. It's effectively a dinner party where everyone only knows one other person, but everyone is very keen to get to know each other – making it a wonderfully sociable atmosphere.

We began with a bit of fizz mixed with strawberry purée, as people wandered about oohing and ahhing at the architecture and introducing themselves, and Fran and Ian passed round trays of two kinds of canapés: crab and sriracha on little homemade crackers; and goat's cheese and caramelised onion on little round toasts. I could have quite happily continued eating these perfect mouthfuls, but noticed a couple of second- and third-timers saying they'd better stop, as they knew 'what was coming', ie, three more generous courses.

We took our seats – that is, we sat wherever we liked at the prettily laid table – and were asked if we'd like our wine. This, like all supper clubs, is a BYOB event and my companion and I had stopped off at Prohibition Wines in Muswell Hill on our way, to buy one of the recommended wines we'd been emailed. In fact, Fran suggests a matched wine for each course, but we – as it seemed most of the others – simply went for one bottle to see us through the meal. Prohibition Wines has a special relationship with the Glass Kitchen: they know which wines have been suggested and will give you a 10% discount on them if you're going on there for dinner.

The starter wasn't small, as my picture shows. As a pesky pescatarian, my dishes all omitted meat, so my plate had two slices of a potato and vegetable terrine, rather than one slice of this plus one of a chicken version. Delicioius, savoury and yes, quite filling.

By now we were making great friends of the folks around us, which included a fellow American who had lived in New York. Also at the table were two other women, both of whom had worked in New York, so I felt very at home...

The main course for most of the folks was lamb. My version was herb-crusted cod cooked absolutely just so, so that it was perfectly moist and beautifully complemented by the herbs. Nicely roasted new potatoes and a pretty salad that included pomegranate seeds provided a very nice bite (think I'll steal this idea...!) were passed around family style.

Finally – well, almost finally – came dessert: caramelised pear with filo pastry and macadamia and praline parfait. Everything had been perfectly delicious up to now, but truthfully, this was the most amazing pudding I've ever had. It was just... I wish I could find the words that would describe the combination of nutty cruchiness and smooth coolness combined with the sweet tartness of the pear... You see? Too difficult. But trust me: gorgeous.

By now, as a table, we were all best friends, sharing stories, babysitter's numbers and laughing so hard that, at the end of the meal, one of the women at the other end of the table came down to find out what was so funny (I'll share in a moment*). At this point, Ian brought out the homemade brandy and blackberry liqueur and very kindly explained how he'd made it, so that we could make it too. Truly, the best sort of host. And, when the evening drew to a close, the good-byes were of the sort old chums make when they can't bear to tear themselves away. What? We were there five hours? That can't be right – it all went so quickly! There's only one thing for it: we'll have to go again...

Ian and Fran at work
*OK, here's the funny story... The woman of the couple sitting opposite said that the first time they'd come (this was their 3rd visit to the Glass Kitchen), she hadn't told her husband where she was taking him, only that it would be a surprise. So, on the way, she said, "Do you remember that Louis Theroux programme where he interviewed swingers?" To which her husband of eight years said, "You wouldn't take us somewhere like that – would you?!"

She didn't answer, just went up to the front door of the house, which was open, and in they went. There was another older couple there, very warm and friendly, who enthusiastically greeted them, with the words: "Have you been before? No? It's our first time too!"

The husband started sweating at this point. He said to us, "I was 95% sure it wasn't a swingers' party, but there was just that 5% where I wasn't sure...!"

As others arrived, they all seemed to unwittingly play into the deception: all couples that night, all asking each other if they'd been before or if it was their first time....

Eventually, of course, it became clear it was a supper club, but still, it made for a good tale...

Friday, 12 June 2015


In the UK, at least, if you say Canary Islands, folks will try to give you the idea that only past-it old couples or gauche sunseekers who want the all-inclusive deals so they can drink from dawn to dusk head there. The truth is, there's another, altogether more interesting side to each one, as I'm discovering, as I slowly (as in, one every year or two) make my way around them.

This time, it was Tenerife's turn. Of course, there is a slash of modern development in the form of high-rise hotels and sprawling resorts that run up the south-western coast from the airport. But, as is so often the case, you only need to go a few klicks inland or up island and, boom, you might as well be somewhere else entirely.

As well as Masca, which takes a lot of clutch control getting up and around those hairpin bends to get to, but is, of course, worth it for the incredible volcanic ravine you finally find yourself in, Mount Teide and the national park surrounding it rewards plenty more than the faint effort it takes to visit.

As we drove up, the first thing we noticed was all the churned up black earth. "What's going on here? Do you think they're going to build something?" we asked each other, because it looks exactly as if the bulldozers have been in, moving the earth about. Uh, no, actually, this is what lava looks like roughtly 100 years after it's been spewed out of the middle of the earth and come crashing down to rest. Other bits look as if they must be muddy, though they're not, because they look shiny and mashed about; still others look like – OK, I'm going to say it – mouldy dog poo. I know, not a nice picture, you'd think, but that's what came to mind!

Then there's the green rock, with a very polite sign saying the park loses several hundred kilos of the stuff every year, but to please remember there will be many generations coming after you who also deserve to enjoy it...

We were rather lucky and got to eavesdrop on a tour guide, who was saying how many films and commercials get shot in this landscape, including one of our favs, Star Wars. Yep, looks like Tatooine to me!

I've decided that volcanoes are kind of a thing of mine. I just really, really like them. And I'd really, really hoped we were going to go up to the top of Mount Teide via the cable car and then use the permits I'd applied for that would allow us to walk to the crater's edge and look in... Alas, every day we got the disappointing news that the cable car was closed due to high winds. But, my number one tip is, even if this happens to you: go anyway. There is plenty to see and learn and the information plaques are the best I've ever seen. Like, we absolutely wanted to know that the third-largest volcano on Earth (Mount Teide) is 8km high, compared to the highest volcano in our Solar System (Olympus Mons) on Mars, which is 25km high.

Here's tip two: book your cable car trip online in advance. For a start, you'll save about €3 per person and, also, it will save you having to line up to buy a ticket when you get there. Also, if the trip gets cancelled, you'll get sent a text message or an email (depending on which you opt for) letting you know in the morning. While you're at it, you should also book a permit to walk to the crater at the top. This is free, but you have to have one and it will only be issued in advance, not on the day.

If you don't get to go up, you can still do lots of walking, if that's your thing; stop for lunch at one of the two cafés; or just enjoy the incredible scenery, which is rather Martian-like itself.

We stopped at the café by the parador, where you can stay the night, and got to meet a number of Gallotai galloti galloti – or Tenerife lizard, for short. You could almost mistake them for the geckos all over the Meditarranean, except these guys have blue heads and are a bit bigger. They're also considerably friendlier: the ones we met were being fed bits of someone's lunch and were in no hurry to run away.

We had a great drive down too. First we got to look out over the Sea of Clouds – very cool – and then we got to drive into it – also very fun.

And then back to sea level and Playa Paraíso, which is, of course, a black-sand beach. I have to admit I kind of liked that too. Tenerife, you're full of natural wonders.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Discounted hotel rooms!

For real! A great website, where you get to 'bid' on how much you want to pay for a room (typically 65-75% of the published price). I've written a review of it and the folks who run the site are counting hits for a week - if I get enough, I get to work for them (yay!) - so please go take a look! You'll be helping yourself to a great idea, and helping me too!