Thursday, 16 December 2010


Born 1903, concert pianist and holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer has never lost her passion for music. In fact, she owes her life to it. She now lives in north London, with her Steinway piano.

“Art is difficult. When you know something a 100 per cent, your satisfaction is happiness. It happens very often that I’m not a 100 per cent, but it’s a good thing – I work more and more!”

Walking up to Alice’s door, I prepared myself for going back in time. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, two World Wars, Israel and London are a lot to take in one lifetime. But this remarkable woman has done it all, with beaming grace.

Alice Herz-Sommer has seen the worst life has to offer, having survived the holocaust and owing it to the talent she’s been blessed with. She was a world famous pianist, recognised amongst musicians like Gustav Mahler (“difficult character”), Antonín Dvořák, Josef Suk, and Vítězslav Novák, some of whom used to visit her childhood home in Prague, alongside intellectuals like Franz Kafka. “I played especially Czech music, and they were thankful for what I did. Everywhere in the world they played Czech music. People loved it.”

On November 26th, Alice celebrated her 107th birthday. I brought her flowers, which seemed to be assimilated in the multitude of bouquets filling her flat, surrounding her old Steinway piano. “It’s an excellent piano, but it doesn’t matter! I played on very bad pianos,” she said, tapping her fingers on the table. “It’s nice to play a good instrument, but the main thing is what you know. It takes hard work – and you must love it!”

She started playing when she was five. "My eldest sister was an excellent pianist. She was teaching me until my 16th birthday. Then I studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt."

Most of Alice’s family were musicians. “We didn’t speak about anything else,” she recalled. “Every evening we went to a concert with my mother. I heard the greatest pianists.”

At 14 she already had students, and she gave the money to her mother. “They came to learn because I encouraged them. I was never nervous.” She never stopped teaching, even after coming to London at 84. “I didn’t know the language and it was a little bit difficult,” she confided in me. “I taught my grandchildren the piano. I love children, they discover the world!” she declared so passionately.

In 1943, Alice was sent with her husband and 6-year-old son to Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp, a “show-camp” made for visitors from the Red Cross, simulating a rich cultural life amongst the inmates. “We had to work all day. I only played when I had a concert. Music is so wonderful, it brings you into another world. You are not anymore here.”

I asked her whether she was told what to play. “No, I decided. I was already world famous. They knew I was a musician. I loved playing Les 24 Études by Chopin: it’s like Hamlet to Shakespeare. Extraordinary. There were no notes, no books. We had to know everything by heart. And we didn’t eat.”

How did she have the energy to play, I wondered. “This I ask myself. The boy asked, ‘Why have we nothing to eat?’ What could you say? Not yet six, He asked, ‘What are Jews?’ What can you tell? How?“

Her husband, who played the violin, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He died of typhus shortly before the end of the war. When Israel was founded, Alice moved to Jerusalem with her son. “I had one room where the piano was, and a quiet little room where my son and I were sleeping,” she told me.

“I was never interested in operas, not like orchestras. I played the whole world. For me, playing in Israel was beautiful. I played a lot of Paul Ben-Haim and Haim Alexander.” She recalled an experience with her “pessimistic sister” while playing in Israel: “One minute before I had to go on stage, she asked me ‘Do you know how it starts?’ The worst thing she could have asked!” she said with a big laugh.

I asked her whether she plays anything other than piano. She shook her head, explaining, “You can’t do two things well. Do one thing, not necessarily music, then it’s perfect. Even when you sleep, you’re thinking of it, dreaming of it.”

Alice came to London at age 84, following her son, Raphael Sommer, a famous cellist, pianist and conductor. She takes pride in teaching him the piano. “He only wanted to work with me.” In 2001 Raphael died in Israel during a tour. “He used to come every day to eat,” she reminisced, “and he was still sitting afterwards and we spoke for hours. Wonderful relationship. He learned from me, I learned from him.”

Alice and myself, shortly after her 107th birthday

I asked her whether there’s anything she finds emotionally charged to play or listen to. She shook her head, remaining indifferent to my question. “Do you know that in Israel they refuse playing Wagner?” I insisted. “I can’t understand it,”  she said. “My best friends live in Germany. Never hated, will never hate. They did what Hitler said. Hitler was a mad man.” Hesitantly, I mentioned Reinhard Heydrich. “What do you think of him?” I asked. “Nothing,” she laughed. “He played the violin, he was a human being!”

Alice plays three hours every day: “It’s the most beautiful thing I have.” Her favourite pieces are Chopin’s Études and Schumann’s Fantasia in C Major, which are also the ones she finds the most difficult to play. But she starts with Bach – “the philosopher of music”. She works hours to learn it by heart. “Bach is the hardest thing. Extremely complicated. I write it down sometimes, out of memory.”

Suddenly she takes my hands, declaring “You have beautiful hands!” I thanked her, blushing. “Could you tell if someone has ‘hands for piano’?” I asked. “Maybe,” she examined mine, “it’s always better to have bigger hands.” She showed me that her two index fingers bend in. “It started when I was in Prague. It hurts sometimes, but I still play!” she laughed.

“Tell me,” she asked me, “what are genes? My family was all musical. My grandchildren are musical. It goes from one generation to another. What are genes?“ she wondered. “Music runs in your genes?” I asked. “Yes! This is a miracle!” she said, shining. “It makes you proud?” I smiled at her. “Thankful as well,” she added.

“The ears are bad, the eyes are bad. In spite of all, life is beautiful: spring, nature, your flowers – so big and beautiful,” she declared, smiling. Growing up in Israel, I’ve met many survivors and heard their stories. But this lady is not like any other. Nothing could have really prepared me for this unique, unforgettable experience, of meeting such an optimistic soul. “Art is difficult. Not only art, everything is difficult. When you know something a 100 per cent, your satisfaction is happiness. It happens very often that I’m not a 100 per cent, but it’s a good thing – I work more and more and more!”

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Hotel Medea

22:45 on a Saturday night. Meeting point: North Greenwich Pier. Destination? Utterly unknown. Activity? Even vaguer. Just show up. Don’t be late, stated the anonymous email, the boat leaves at 23:00.


Hotel Medea is a Brazilian group of eccentric actors who have chosen to use a very interactive method of performing, while dramatising the enchanting myth of Medea, brilliantly ‘adjusting’ it to our everyday lives in the 21st century.

For those of us less familiar with the story, Medea was the granddaughter of Helios, the god of Sun, and one of the great sorceresses in the ancient world. Jason, a handsome boy from another kingdom, tried to steal the Golden Fleece that belonged to her father, King of Colchis. But Medea and Jason fell inlove, and once Jason got holf of the Golden Fleece they ran away together, taking her younger brother with them. When the King started pursuing them, Medea killed her brother and bisected him, to delay the pursuit. After fleeing from Jason’s kingdom as well for using her sorcery to kill its King, they arrived at Corinth, where Medea bore Jason two children. But Jason had forsaken her to marry the king’s daughter, so Medea used her sorcery again to kill the bride, with a poison robe that burnt the flesh from her body, then killing her own two children as well.

Although the story goes on, this is actually where the play stops. Jason was left mourning for his two children lying in their beds, covered with roses and teddy bears that the audience, i.e. your humble servant and the rest of the random passer-byers, had thrown on their beds. Then we all moved to the main room, where a long table was set for a feast. We sat down, looking at each other, looking at all the marvellous food, looking at Medea sitting at the head of the table – finally saying, “...was it too much?” as if to share her doubts with her loyal audience. She then got up to open the doors facing the river Thames, so we all could see the crack of dawn at 5:00 am on the London docks.

It was then that we all started dining shamelessly, like starved peasants biting on warm Pain au Chocolate and some aristocratic full grain bread with butter & strawberry jam. After dancing as joyous tribe members to the celebrations of the princess’ marriage, after acting as hyped journalists covering Jason’s campaign, after being put to bed as Medea’s children (and pampered with lovely hot chocolate), after being led through alleys by the caretakers with our pyjamas when Medea decided to kill us... After being the audience for such a dynamic and brilliant spectacle, one cannot properly describe the hunger of a post white night celebration and convey this (literally) awakening experience. Giant bowls of fruit, juicy watermelons and hot porridge happily filled the magnificently long table. And once we settled our stomachs down, we got to mingle with the actors, now not in character, and listen to their perfect English that was concealed by their sexy Brazilian accents during the play.

5:30 on a Sunday morning and the game is over. My knackered date for the evening and me hopped on a shuttle that took us back to civilization, where we began our journey to bed for recovery. Sadly the distance between east London and Ealing didn’t allow me to lay my head down before 8:00, but the glorious performance hadn't left my thoughts: this was by far the most exciting and unusual night I've spent in London.

Sadly enough I don’t have any pictures of the evening, but a quick look at this video here would give you a vague idea...

And of course, the link to the guys’ official website:

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Way to Arrivals

Whenever Lona would go on one of her too frequent visits back home, she would yet again get her hopes up for nothing: approaching the arrivals doors, she’d automatically fill up with vain anticipation of someone waiting for her behind those doors. Maybe her long gone dad, who in 1987 promised to take her to San Francisco, just before evaporating there himself in the hopes of having a better life with his young and fizzy girlfriend. Maybe her first love, who had deceivingly declared his very serious intentions to be hers forever (‘and ever’) will be waiting behind those doors, still seventeen, and carry her back into the eternally romantic tragedy of adolescence. Whoever it may be, as long as there’s somebody out there waiting for me. Just for once, she thought, just one person, locking their longing eyes on her post-flight figure, with a nostalgic grin and anxious body language, is enough to make her feel missed.

But Lona was never missed. She had moved to Barcelona six years ago, hoping the alleged world’s friendliest city would bury her loneliness for good. She still had some friends back home, but every visit taught her again how easily people grow apart. Even the best of friendships could disintegrate, sometimes for reasons beyond human control.

So she always kept her eyes up, scanning the arrivals floor for anything that could possibly be waiting there for her. She would often pretend to be looking for her driver, seeking a sign with her name with deep concentration. At least those people have some kind of a home to get to, she thought, someone is expecting them.

At some point in her life in Barcelona, Lona met Juan. She met him in the most irrational scenario – a scene which would seem painfully banal for any Hollywood or Indie film, but was actually surreal in her everyday life. He was a bartender, and she found herself ordering drinks for her colleagues at the bar. The bartender noticed her Nordic accent and expressed an interest in her, which led to her blatantly asking him out.  

They spent nine solid months together before she moved into his humble flat. She loved the convenience of this relationship – to her that was the essence of sinking into her comfort zone. Now that she had her other half, it didn’t really matter that she had no friends to go out with, or that all her friends back home had moved on. It didn’t matter that she hated her job as a waitress or that one of the shift leaders at the restaurant was being aggressively over-friendly at times.

And so one would assume that Lona wouldn’t be looking for anyone accidentally waiting for her in airports’ arrivals anymore. But Lona was still never greeted by a soul, and it was eating away at her. Maybe the problem lies with the fact that I’m always travelling on my own, she thought, and quickly concluded it would be the perfect time to go on holiday with her fresh new significant other.

‘Let’s go to a far away island where none of us knows a soul,’ she enthusiastically suggested. Juan chose a sleazy resort in Isla Mujeres, one where he could rest his head in and disconnect from the human world. Luck hadn’t been on his side lately, what with the death of his wife three years before, which forced him to change his whole life. After grieving for one very long year, Juan found himself in the arms of many women around town. His method to dissolve the resisting pain away included random intercourse alongside gallons of alcohol at the local bar, where his friends used to meet him everyday at 18:00 and talk about the glorious days of Luis Enrique. Inbetween meaningless remarks about football legends and women’s intimate areas, the boys would throw a ‘she never deserved it’ or a ‘you’re gonna be fine mate’, to stop him from glaring at thin air. 

The loss of his wife brought Juan to quit his job as a travel agent, as he couldn’t stand looking at couples anymore. Not to mention selling his fake enthusiasm about holiday package deals that he was planning on going to with his late wife. He sold their house and rented a studio flat downtown. He got a job as a bartender as he couldn’t sleep at nights and needed some company. And then he met Lona.

Lona’s mystery swept him away as it would any man. She had sad eyes and a kind smile, which reminded him of his late wife’s innocence. He genuinely believed he fell head over heels for her, and was finally happy again.

On the flight to Cancun Juan fell asleep. Lona was too excited to be reading her book, so she spent most of the flight looking out the window, contemplating on how weird it feels to be travelling with someone else. How strangely well she’d feel landing in such a foreign territory that, for once, isn’t foreign just to her. She was excited about sharing this intimate feeling with her other half. But Juan never woke up; he was sound asleep with his ear plugs and eye cover, leaving no access for any outside world communication.

When they landed in Cancun, they took a bus to the port from which they shipped to the island. It was a sunny, windy day, and as the boat sailed, Juan reckoned that more sleep would ease his unclear stress away.

Just as he was covering his tired eyes again, he felt the warmth of the Caribbean sun penetrating his aching bones. It felt like tiny worms invading his body, crawling through his ears into his intestines, twirling ceaselessly in his stomach. He felt strangled in his own body and was overwhelmed by it. After a long hour Lona turned to him with her enchanting smile, gently uncovering his eyes and festively announcing, “we’re here, my love.” She was flooded with immense tranquillity that she never would have thought existed in her.  

But Juan only got more ill under the blazing sun. He would stay in bed all day long watching the Spanish news on the hotel room TV and missing home. And Lona, well, she was well aware of what’s coming. She tried to spend her days outdoors, taking long walks outside the claustrophobically cheesy resort of Juan’s choice, going for a swim by the ocean every morning, chatting to the other tourists at the pub down the road every evening. She would come back late and find Juan watching a football game with aching indifference.

On the fifth night, Lona came back to a different Juan. When she got to bed, he reached her cool body with his warm arms and started kissing the back of her neck, letting his soft fingers slide down her stomach. It was as if he was acting out of mere impulse – there was no real passion there, just the kind of automatic foreplay that bored married couples perform on birthdays and anniversaries. Lona refused to give in to that apathetic deed. As he was turning her fragile body to face him, she reached for the kitchen knife that was conveniently laid under the bed. She did it quickly, fiercely, and mercilessly. His body bended to a fetal position and a soundless shriek came out of his pierced lungs. It didn’t take long. As he stopped panting, Juan’s stomach started to discharge funny coloured organisms in the shape of worms. There was no blood, just tiny worms spitted out slowly until finally covering the entire bed.

Lona got on the next plane back. When she landed in Barcelona, she smiled as she saw the Spanish police waiting for her at arrivals.

Sunday, 30 May 2010


Brian, the talking dog from the surprisingly-witty Family Guy, walks into a bar where he chats up a hot young girl. This 1990s born bird is flirting while simultaneously playing with her iPhone, until randomly suggesting sex in the toilette, never removing her bored eyes from the cellular machine.

This ridiculously realistic scenario is now taking place everywhere I look: from colleagues supposedly doing their job while trying to beat a score on some overly noisy game on their iPod Touch, to friends checking the latest bid on ebay – while their conversation companions (i.e. people who do not own an iMachine) are trying to get their attention over an intimate drink in the local pub, to my ex-boyfriend lazily laid on the hotel room sofa, obsessively checking the Arsenal score, while your humble servant is desperately trying to convince him to finally get out of the hotel room – during the late afternoon hours of our supposedly romantic getaway weekend.

Clearly the sanctity of conversation (not to mention intimacy) is forever lost thanks to this western society’s antisocial time-killing wonder.

Now imagine those scenarios again, but replace the iAccessory with a book. I would love to see my boss’s reaction to my X-raying commercial cargo while reading a book, or my date’s facial expression as I open this innocent book of mine while he’s checking out the menu or speaking to the waitress. After all, wherever an iToy is applicable, why wouldn’t a good old harmless book be in place?

But what bugs me the most is the fact that an extreme antisocial like myself can see the acute impoliteness of it, whereas the so-called social people around me cannot. Now where’s the sense in that?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Playing with Poo

Winey the Poo felt held back. He had been feeling quite passive over the past few weeks, and though his master had tried several times to get him to come outside, he had consistently refused to leave his warm comfort zone. Every time Winey opened the door, he was suddenly filled with immense agoraphobia and couldn’t fully step outside.

Often Winey would stress himself out in an autosuggestive effort to stay indoors. He would get this way whenever his master conveyed stressful experiences from the outside world.

So instead of going out, Winey chose to entertain the guests that his master used to consistently bring in. He made friends with them easily, and some of them even stuck around for a while.

Until one day, when his master has decided to stop letting guests in. He was worried about Winey and decided the healthiest solution to get him out would be to make him feel lonely.

Winey found this really difficult to deal with. For days he would rebel by not moving a single cell of his solid body in an impressive Italian strike.

But as the days went by, Winey found it more and more difficult to stay in. He wanted to be with his fellow creatures, maybe even continue his journey and never look back. It was time, he concluded.

So one early morning, Winey had decided to discretely sneak out while his master was asleep. Of course, the unbearable noise woke his master up, and the latter prepared to start celebrating in the hopes of Winey finally sending himself away to sweet freedom. And so Winey gently opened the door, but as he tried to sneak out he had sadly discovered that his body was too fat to slide through the door. Winey had stayed in for too long, and it seemed like an impossible mission to leave the house now.

Winey didn’t give up without a fight. He aggressively tried to squeeze his full water-retained structure out the door. His skin was aching and his master felt it.

But Winey just couldn’t slip out the door as a perfect being, so he finally decided to bisect himself. He chopped up both his legs, then the rest of his limbs, one by one, and tried to pass through the door again. But his head was in the way. By now he had quite a massive head what with all the thoughts that had taken over his mind. And so Winey finally decapitated his own head.

Once he had done that, everything turned much easier. His heart was surprisingly empty and light and he finally managed to get through to the outside world, leaving his mind behind. He wanted to analyse what he’d just done, and what it feels like to be without a head, but he just couldn’t be bothered anymore. He was finally free, just as any creature should be – with no excessive weight to carry, the world suddenly didn’t seem so shit.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Another Bloody Love Story

It was Yuki’s birthday when Wolfgang realised that he loved her. That morning, Wolfgang got up before dawn to make her a special birthday cake. He was suddenly filled with energy.

Yuki and Wolfgang had been seeing each other for about six months then. They met at a contemporary art exhibition that they both loathed. Wolfgang was sitting outside on the curve, chain smoking his Winston Lights, waiting for his friends to come out and take him binge drinking after his horrific week at work. Yuki was there with her parents, keeping busy by forcing more wine upon her already contaminated body. When she stepped out for a cigarette their eyes met and they both smiled. From there on it was a typically boring boy-meets-girl story. Wolfgang went out of his way to make Yuki like him, and Yuki gradually became infatuated with his manners. She seemed the shy type, always looking down while smiling when she was with him, as if amazed by her own euphoric feelings that were never revealed to her before, and at the same time restrained by her lack of experience in regards to handling them.

Wolfgang‘s baking skills were never meritorious, to say the least. Once he put the cake in the oven, he quickly wrapped Yuki’s gift and prepared himself for a lovely weekend with his new love.

“What is it?” Yuki asked excitedly as she opened the door. “It’s a cake,” he innocently replied. Yuki lead him to her bedroom and sat him down by the bed. She opened the box and evaluated the goods for a long minute, then decided to stick a fork in the core of it and take a gluttonous bite. “It’s nice,” she apathetically concluded. Wolfgang was satisfied with his seeming success. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Happy birthday,” he added, handing her his gift. It was an old world map that he had bought in a shop by the flower market she took him to on their third date. “I love maps!” Yuki had declared when they had entered the shop. She seemed so fascinated by the various maps on the wall, passionately discussing the map scales evolution throughout the years, analysing the perception of the ‘new world’ as it was manifested on the maps, articulating her philosophy about how politics must have affected the ratio. “Thank you, honey,” she said with content after tearing up the wrap, then kissed him passionately as if to remind him how happy she is being with him.

When Wolfgang was with her, he was a different man. She would change him in ways he hadn’t thought could be changed in him. Wolfgang loved it, and for the first time in his life felt as if he had truly achieved something. We had all noticed the change in him, but disapproved of his total devotion and blind faith. We warned him many times of the consequences of losing oneself, but Wolfgang denied any logic: he was inlove, and that feeling alone empowered him to go through fire if needed.

As time passed, much like with any relationship, Wolfgang and Yuki had experienced ups and downs. When the relationship was down, Wolfgang spent his nights cleaning his apartment, so as not to be lying awake in bed analysing what he had done wrong. He would clean until he had utterly tired himself out, then have a Winston light and fall asleep. Many times he had consulted me about leaving her, but he couldn’t face the fear of being alone again, regressing back to his old life – which, much to his surprise, he barely remembered anymore. Sometimes it seemed as if he had been in this relationship for years, and everything beforehand never existed. Other times it was quite the contrary. But whenever he’d see her, she would make him forget everything by simply smiling, a smile he knew he couldn’t resist.

One summer evening, I was practising Chopin’s Waltz Op. 69 No. 2 at my modest rural apartment when Wolfgang rang the doorbell. When I opened the door I was suddenly introduced to a sorrowful weeping creature who had immediately broken into my petite arms. “I did it,” he whispered with tears, “I finally ended it.” I rolled up two thin cigarettes and took out the half empty bottle of whisky from the cupboard. “Did you tell her everything?” I asked while pouring him a generous shot. He had told her everything. He had explained to her that it wasn’t her fault, that he was still madly inlove, that he is so sorry for having to do this. But there’s no other choice, he tried to justify his decision.

Of course, it was not soon after that he had realised he had made a mistake. “If you really want her back,” I said, “it has to be a Grand Gesture.” It was her birthday again, and Wolfgang was filled with guilt for not being there for her this year. He still had strong feelings and used to torture himself every night for hurting her fragile heart and abandoning the love of his life because of internal ghosts from his past. “the Grand Gesture...” he repeated, pondering while I was lighting my second rolled tobacco.

“What is it?” Yuki asked suspiciously as she opened the door. Wolfgang decided to let her see for herself. She invited him in and they sat down on her wooden bedroom floor. He was panting heavily and could barely speak. Yuki slowly opened the wrapping paper, revealing a fist size box. She looked up to meet his eyes for any clues, but all she could spot were weakness and exhaustion. When she removed the lid, her throat produced a somewhat of an inhumane sound, resembling a squeak. In the box there had been a semi living organ, swimming in a maroon puddle, still pumping as if refusing to die out. Yuki picked it up from the box, holding it against the light and examining it, evaluating its condition. She felt it with her fingers while it was dripping on her wooden bedroom floor. “What is it?” she repeated insistently. “It’s my heart,” Wolfgang simply replied with an apologetic smile. The smell of fresh blood had finally reached her gentle nostrils when she put the living heart close to her nose and breathed in deeply. A light grin of victory was shown on her tiny face. She licked the heart gently, and a few drops of blood had stained her cheek, running down her neck through to her white blouse. She closed her eyes and joyously took a bite of the heart, chewing on the internal organ and relishing every bit of it. “It’s nice”, she finally concluded while licking her fingers, as Wolfgang had slowly fallen asleep on her blood stained bedroom floor.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Lemon Chicken

I came across this wonderful dish one evening while doing a late shift. Skeptical as I was about the olives - not my favourite ingredient to say the least, I still found this aromatic casserole wonderful and couldn't stop thinking about it until I got the recipe.
so here I am now sharing this mouth watering experience after translating and typing this sought after recipe, donated by Lior Zilberstein:

Lemon chicken
4 portions
1 kg chicken (thighs)
1 ginger (small piece – matchbox size)
2 normal sized white onions
200g mixed pitted olives (with the water)
4 lemons
4 limes
1 medium red chilli
saffron (about 4g)
chicken stock
olive oil
salt & pepper

Preparation method:
Slice the onions. Peel the ginger & chop it finely. Chop the chilli (leave seeds out). Chop garlic. Grate one lime peel.
Add olive oil to a flat pan and fry everything. Add the saffron. Add 2 spoons of cumin + 2 spoons of turmeric. Add salt & pepper. Stir for about 6 minutes over high heat until onions are golden.
Add the chicken and cook for 3 minutes over high heat, then lower the heat.
Separate the olives from their water, saving the olive water. Add the olives to the pan.
Squeeze 5 or 6 lemons & limes (according to taste) into the pan. Add ¾ of the olive water.
Boil 2 cups of water. Melt 1 cube of chicken stock in the water and add it to the pot, until the chicken is fully covered. Bring to boil with no lid. Stir.
Taste! Add lemon/lime juice and/or olive water according to taste.
Lower the heat to cook for 20-30 minutes and cover.
Remove the lid and wait 5 minutes before serving. 

Bon appetite! J

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Two Breakfasts in Farringdon

The Modern Pantry, 47-48 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1V 4JJ (020 7553 9210). Breakfast for two, including service, £40
The Zetter Restaurant, 86-88 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 5RJ (020 7324 4455). Breakfast for two, including service, £35

It was a lazy, hung over Sunday morning and the Modern Pantry at Farringdon was our desired destination. After reading a praising review in TimeOut magazine, which rated its breakfasts as one of the best in London, we rushed to see what the fuss was all about, and maybe taste some of it too. But much to our disappointment, the Pantry was as packed as a London tube train during rush hour, and my significant other and I were left with two choices: sitting outside and dining in the rain, or leaving empty stomached.
Disappointed and ravenous, we quickly stepped outside the tumult, seeking the nearest place that serves food for common folk. Just a few meters away stood the Zetter Hotel and Restaurant, looking like a place none of us could possibly afford. Lack of alternatives led us inside to familiarise ourselves with the live and pretentious Jazz performance, consisting of one saxophone player and one very banal female vocalist. We were immediately thrown into a Sex and the City atmosphere. But to our empty stomachs and low expectations, the humble oasis offered an interesting menu, on which we joyously drooled while struggling to pick out just two breakfasts out of the four we were contemplating.
 We ended up ordering three: one “Avocado Bacon & Mozzarella Bagel” for myself, one “Full Zetter Breakfast” for my hungry partner, and one Eggs Florentine to share. The appetising dishes arrived quickly, accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice. That minimalistic bagel combination turned out to be nothing less than three bursting flavours that satisfied my fastidious palate with honour. The Zetter breakfast included two poached eggs and toast with smoked bacon, honey roast sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato and roasted field mushroom. This standard English Breakfast certainly pleased my companion’s stomach, and watching him relish the bacon has tempted me to verify its mouth-watering appearance: a refined English breakfast indeed. The Eggs Florentine included two poached eggs with spinach on a toasted bagel, with a tasty creamy sauce, which we both joyously gobbled down, ignoring how full we already were. We ended up having our teas with no dessert, fearing our stomachs would start sending out war signals. Amazingly enough, as fancy as the place appeared,  and after ordering three breakfasts plus drinks, the bill only amounted to £37.07.
The following Sunday morning, your humble servant and her ever-hungry assistant eagerly headed towards the notorious Modern Pantry again, this time having reserved. The Pantry was still full, though we were lead to a table rather quickly. We tried to control ourselves, ordering only two breakfasts: one potato waffle with bacon and maple syrup, garnished with rocket leaves, for myself, and a traditional English breakfast for my traditional English partner. The promising dishes arrived quite quickly, though my request for “extra maple on the side” was blatantly ignored. The waffle was a sinfully delicious combination of sweet and savoury, and the rocket leaves added a nice peppery twist. The size of the dish, however, was not too generous and I ended up with room for much more. The traditional English breakfast was a very mundane dish which included two poached eggs and toast with smoked streaky bacon, slow-roast tomatoes and buttered mushrooms. My gluttonous companion was not too impressed, nor was I.
We decided to give the Pantry (and our stomachs) another chance, ordering two desserts. I went wild with a scone accompanied by kumquat preserve and clotted cream, to go with my Gen Mai cha – Japanese green tea combined with roasted brown rice. The tea was intoxicating with its oriental aroma. The scone was plain and crumbly but the exotic kumquat preserve succeeded in upgrading the whole dessert. My companion with an eclectic taste went for the green tea muffin with Vegemite, accompanied by English Breakfast tea. As the Englishman bitterly summed it up: “Vegemite is a poor second to Marmite.”
It was finally time for the bill, everyone’s least favourite stage of the meal, which was significantly prolonged by the various waiters who had to be constantly reminded we were still there and waiting. 17 minutes later, we paid our bill of £39.09 and walked out of the Pantry, disappointed as we were when walking out the previous week.
Given the immense hype that the Modern Pantry is getting, it really turned out to be nothing but a posh restaurant that serves small dishes of plain food. True – the hidden gems, such as the kumquat preserve and the Gen Mai Cha, were a delight, but everything around it was dull and bland compared to the restaurant just next door, and the dishes were quite stingy. The fake bourgeois atmosphere and the horrific service were no joy as well.
By the end of our experience, we agreed: definitely go back to the Zetter and order that fourth breakfast on the menu!