Friday, October 30, 2009

Dans Le Noir

Dans Le Noir is a restaurant with an incredible concept - you eat in pitch black darkness. I've known about it for years, they started in Paris, and now there are several around the world, including London. It was only recently, however, that I got round to visiting.


Located just off Clerkenwell Green just up from Farringdon, the place looks relatively unassuming from the outside, and I'd cycled past many times without noticing it being there. Inside, there is a smallish front-room bar, where one is greeted by staff who explain how everything works.

First up, you are requested to dump any bags and especially anything that potentially gives off light - phones, lighters etc, into lockers. This done, one examines the menus. Except that there's no detail - the choice is either the complete surprise menu, the meat surprise menu, the fish surprise menu, or the vegetarian surprise menu. The wine list is more normal, unless one goes for the "surprise bottle" of course!

I went for the fish surprise, my partner in the dark culinary arts Cat, the complete surprise. And of course the surprise (red) wine. This all done, it was time to head in. We were introduced to our semi-blind waiter Derek. I realised he wasn't completely blind when he responded as I proffered my hand to shake as we met, he shook. The waiters are all blind or partially blind though, the logic being that they are much more competent in complete darkness, plus part of the ethic of the restaurant is to support people with this sort of disability.

To go in, one has to hold the shoulders of the person in front of you, and the group is lead in through a series of curtains into the dining room, with the waiter at the front guiding you. Cue lots of excitement as ones eyes attempt to adjust. This, of course, is impossible, it is completely pitch black. Doesn't stop you trying though.

The dining room

Your waiter helps you to sit, which is a rather clumsy affair, then explains that in front of you on the table is a napkin with a knife and fork, and two glasses, large and small, for water and wine respectively. Regular knife and fork?! I assumed there would be simple spoon-like implements, but no!

The table

Anyway shortly after, we were brought a carafe of water and our bottle of wine. I went to pour the wine. First, locate glass. Right, then hold up glass, fumble with wine bottle, then slowly pour, listening intently for the liquid to start flowing. By the time the bottle was horizontal, I knew something was up. Of course, the bottle was a screw-cap and the cap was still on. Doh!

Then of course, you have the problem of deciding how much to pour in. The tip is to place a finger just inside the rim as you pour, but it's still bloomin' difficult. Wine and water poured, we waited for food. Whilst waiting, we tried to lay out our table. Surely they wouldn't seat anyone else immediately adjacent to us (we could feel their glasses and napkins). Wrong! As we started, a Russian couple living in London were seated immediately next to us. I apologised for having stolen one of their glasses as I'd misplaced mine!

Our neighbours

In pitch black people seem to over-compensate by talking louder, and this was certainly the case this evening. There was a loud group to my left, and a group the other side who burst into a rendition of happy birthday at one point. I can only assume the room has wooden floors and bare walls as the sound really seem to bounce about, and the whole place was intimidatingly noisy later on. Maybe not being able to see makes you more aurally sensitive?

So the food arrived, and a plate is stuck in front of you. Knife and fork up, then an embarrassing prodding game around the plate to scope the task ahead! I hadn't washed my hands before coming in, which was a big mistake, you need hands involved just to find the food, never mind eat it! Time after time I would raise my fork only to find that whatever I'd pushed on to it had returned to plate without me realising, and at one point my napkin was covered in a creamy sauce, thankfully not ending up on my clothes!

The food.

The food was good, but too salty in my opinion. Either Cat is a fast eater, or she seemed to have much less food than me, or perhaps, like with my main course, she missed a whole section on her plate - I found a pile of mussels late on that I'd completely missed early on!

By the end of the meal, frankly, I'd had enough of being in there, although Cat seemed to be enjoying it! We chatted to the Russian couple adjacent, they were here on a 5 year anniversary dinner, awwww! Outside we met face to face, as we squinted, adjusting to the glorious but dim (for the sake of those coming out!) light.

They show you the menu, and I discovered that I hadn't been too far off with my guesses, although apparently one of Cat's dishes that she had guessed was some sort of seafood was apparently kangaroo!! How did that happen?! I was amused to learn that the bottle of wine that I thought was a Malbec and Cat a Shiraz was of course... a Malbec-Shiraz! Half marks to each of you!

Tips all go to the blind waiters, and overall I like the ethic of the place. It would be fascinating to see the actual dining room though, just to understand the dimensions of the place. I guess I'll never know! Anyway, it's a very random and fun experience that I'd thoroughly recommend people visiting if they want something different. Will I go back? Err, probably not!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Too Many Husbands

London Film Festival 2009
Too Many Husbands and Like You Know It All - very different films with a common theme - the men don't come off well in them!

Too Many Husbands

Too Many Husbands is a 1940 comedy film about a woman who loses her husband in a boating accident and remarries, only to have her first spouse reappear. The film starred Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas.

It is apparently based on the 1918 play by Somerset Maugham : Home and Beauty. In the play apparently neither husband wanted the wife and each kept trying to out-noble the other and step aside, but in this film they vie for her affections, a joke which becomes slightly repetitive by the end, but is kept alive by the comic scenarios and witty dialogue.

The print is a recently restored copy by Grover Crisp from Columbia Pictures.

Like You Know It All
Hong Sang Soo's 2009 film focusses on a small-time director, Ku Kyung-Nam, and his approach to life and love now he's nearing 40.

Director Ku has been invited to serve as a judge for a small film festival. Whilst there he experiences some acidic comments from Ms Gong, the festival programmer, who seems to have some sort of emotional history with him. He also has a run in with an old friend who used to be more wild than Ku, but is now happily settled and married. Lots of drinking means he gets into trouble overnight and sleeps through all the films during the day.

Two weeks later he is in the southern island of Jeju to give a lecture when he bumps into an old teacher from his student days, who is now a famous painter, and turns out to be married to a woman Ku himself once dated and lost.

The situations are parallel in some ways, including the imagery, but ending in very different ways, and with different emotions. The film often made me laugh, but overall leaves one feeling melancholy and frustrated with Ku's self-imposed position, along with the pain of suffering the many embarrassing scenarious the film throws up. I wonder what Koreans made of it all.

Ryanair's Illegal Fees

Whilst we wait for the German courts to enforce their ruling that Ryanair's payment terms are illegal, there is a way to get round at least one of the fees:

The 5 pounds per person per sector payment fee.

Specifically, you need to pay with an Electron card. Does anyone issue these any more? No, which is why Ryanair have chosen it as the one card for which they do not add a fee. They can then claim that they offer a payment method that doesn't involve the extra cost, and so they don't need to include this cost in the up-front price for the flight. Sneaky, huh?

The answer to this, then, is to apply for a Post Office TMC - Travel Money Card. It's designed for those who don't have credit cards to take abroad, but basically acts an Electron card, and can be loaded up (for three quid a pop) with cash that you can then use with Ryanair. Simple!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

London Film Festival 2009

I Fought the Law
I Fought the Law is a collection of short films chosen by Simon Young, described as "Short films with added fighting: from verbal disagreements to clashes of ideology, to full on machine-gun in face Mexican stand-offs."

I enjoy the shorts as generally they have to be powerful and to the point, and if they're not, you've only about 10-15 minutes to endure! At the beginning of the screening, Simon introduced a number of the directors, who each spoke briefly to the audience. This is the value of seeing things at the film festival, you usually get access to director and cast, which sometimes adds immeasurably to the experience.

X Returns

X Returns
The opening piece was by a new director, his first piece and first screening! Well filmed, it seemed more like a trailer for a feature film than a short in itself. Still, how can one not enjoy anything starring Holly Valence?

The Man in the Blue Gordini
A bizarre yet enjoyable French animation about a world of Orange totalitarianism and a brief flash of Blue revolutionary action (and naughty bits) by a masked rebel who drives an R8 Gordini car.


A slightly weak short about two American wise-guys being hired to do a job by a gangster.

A powerful short about a burglary that goes wrong, ended up with a new life for one of the thieves as a pig farmer. Slightly bizarre yet enjoyable.

The Odds

The Odds
Directed by the beautiful Paloma Baeza, this short is simple yet clever, with a couple of twists. The story revolves around a suspicious casino floor manager confronting a very successful punter.

The Little Dragon
Thirty-five years after his death, Bruce Lee is reincarnated in the form of a toy figure in a French short. Hilarious and to the point, this animation had the audience laughing out loud.

Two college students spend a long hard day in the desert that they'll never forget. A predictable variation on an old theme with some shocking twists.

The One Last Time
An amusing short sketch of a bank robbery where multiple gangs all with themed masks attack the same bank. Watch for Lion Witch and Wardrobe coming up against Marvel and Starwars!

Overall - a good start to the festival. More tomorrow!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYC in Autumn 2009

No Shannon
My latest trip to NYC doesn't start well - Shannon Air Traffic Control is apparently down, this means we can't fly anywhere near Ireland, which of course is the standard
route for London to New York.

How to get from right to left avoiding the box?

After much faffing and delay, the genius solution is to... fly round Ireland, which we proceed to do, over the top, and despite a 150 mph headwind, without too much delay. It's raining in New York as we touch down. I should mention - not the royal we, but we as in with Will, or "Broken Wrists Will" as he is known to some!

Public Transport from JFK to Manhatten
The public transport way into town from JFK is to use the Airtrain. This does a free loop of all the terminals then heads off to one of two stations where one can transfer to the subway. It takes about 15 minutes from terminal, depending on which one.

You pay at these two stations (Jamaica or Howard's Beach) rather than at the terminal end, and it's $5. The subway is then a flat rate of $2.25, and you pay for both through the simple MetroCard ticket system.

The optimum route should usually be via Jamaica and the E Line, but if you want downtown it may be worth considering the A line. Also I note that one can take the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) from Jamaica direct to Penn Station, which apparently gives a JFK to town time of 35 minutes, so if you're anywhere around that part of town (34th Street) then that could be better.

I'd say it's absolutely worth doing this route any time traffic will be busy on the roads or if there's a queue for cabs outside the terminal. You also get into town without having to tip taxi drivers for just doing their job, always a bonus. This weekend however is slightly confusing as there are engineering works, so the E train uses the F track, a concept with which tourists struggle with, but the on-board station information system completely flounders upon.

Staying Central
Staying in the Shoreham Hotel on 55th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is a fabulously central and well-connected spot. Unfortunately as a hotel it is rather less polished than its web-site, having the feel of a boutique hotel that is in need of a refurb. Definitely less impressive than the Chambers one block up, but their rates were too high for us this time. On a positive note it has free wifi, but as breakfast is not included in the rate this benefit is cancelled out. That said, I think this forces you out to visit the fabulous cafes and brunch spots around town, so no bad thing!

Secret Burgers
Will and I head out to find some food. After much dithering, we decide to check out the Burger Joint in the Le Parker Meridien hotel, a few blocks away. This is one of those badly-kept secret spots - an unmarked eaterie tucked away in a hotel. You go in, and just near the check-in desk there is a large curtain. Round the side of this down a corridor one finds a neon picture of a burger. This is the clue!

Down the corridor, one turns through a door to find a tiny classic American diner, with a busy central serving counter and a dozen cramped tables around the edge.

There's a queue, and the sign says that if you haven't decided what you want when you get to the front of the queue you will be sent to the back! Luckily the choices are limited - cheeseburger or hamburger, how well-done you'd like the burger, the topping selection (or a simple "The Works" for everything), whether you want fries or not, and what you'd like to wash it down with - beer, soda or milkshake. The girl behind the till asks me my name as she takes my order, presumably so I will be called when the burgers are ready. The second she repeats my name in confirmation as she makes a note of it, the girl beside her yells "SAAAM?" proffering my burgers! Snappy service! It isn't cheap, but you're paying for good quality meat, in a burger that for once in the US is not over-sized.

Enjoying a good burger

Next up, a beer, in the Whiskey Trader bar on 55th, just a few doors down from the hotel. This is a basement sports bar, with "Happy Hour All Night"! We decide to do the proper American thing and order Bourbon shots, though don't progress to slinging them along the bar to each other.

The rather beefy-looking bouncers would presumably kick us out. After some tequila and a mohito we feel it's getting late and call it a night. Back at the hotel we consider a nightcap at the hotel bar but no, it's sleep time. Only when I tuck myself into bed do I glance at the time on the radio.... 9pm!

Run Club and Brunch

Sunday morning starts with Run Club around Central Park, then off to the Lower East Side for the Clinton Street Baking Company.

Clinton Street Baking Company

This is the top brunch spot that foiled my efforts last time. Surely this time at 9am there would be no problem. About an hour's wait we are told. Check back in 45 minutes. As it turns out, when we return in 45, we end up waiting another 45! So the same delay as last time. We're hungry, so pop in to Schiller's Liquor Bar whilst we wait for a coffee, but unfortunately are induced into ordering the smallest items on their menu, a bagel for me and an obscene pile of waffles fruit and cream for Will.

So much for just a coffee. Back to CSBC, and after the second wait, we are finally seated. Yes, their food is damn good, they're friendly and quick. Is it worth an hour and a half wait? No. That said, their muffins are a bit special, so I'd advise popping in and taking these away. Award winning!

Ice-cream is health food

Needing to walk off the two breakfasts plus muffins, we decide to head over Williamsburg Bridge, though not before we've walked round the neighbourhood to find some suncream for Will for protection from the gentle autumnal sunshine!

Cheeseballs, American-style

It's a bit of a mission to get on to Williamsburg Bridge as a pedestrian, but we manage it, and there's a slight breeze mid-river, which is appreciated as it's getting quite warm now. Plenty of cyclists whizzing across the bridge, good to see!

Over in Brooklyn we hit Atlantic Avenue for the annual "Atlantic Antic" festival, a street party where a long avenue is pedestrianised and lined with shops, food and drink stalls and live bands. To my pleasure, there are Real Ale tents too!

Blues on Atlantic Avenue

We migrate to a pub, then end up back at Andy's place where Tracy cooks crab. Let's just say that they start the evening alive. Chop! After I wind up Will about this being a mirror of last time when I was pick-pocketed on the subway home, we end up taking a car. 35 dollars back in comfort and speed - not more than 15 minute journey, it's definitely worth it.

The Work Week


Monday I manage a bit of shopping, in Anthropologie, which is Lucy's favourite shop, and luckily for her now with a branch in Regent's Street in London. We also manage an obscenely large ice-cream, so I was pleased when Graham arrived and we met in Fifth Avenue for a run. Will has his customary poop in the park, then we rendez-vous in the Waldorf Astoria where Graham is staying for a beer before heading out to eat. The evening's choice? Fatty Crab, which I discovered through a hotdog they do being advertised in BA's High Life magazine.

The restaurant is a Malaysian/Asian fusion place, with a "Asia de Cuba" sharing food ethic, and real ales. Marvellous!

On Tuesday evening we were supposed to have a boat trip on the Spirit, but due to a booking problem we ended up going instead to Wolfgang's Steakhouse (the Tribeca one). I was quite pleased with this switch in all honesty, and was especially happy to enjoy delicious Porterhouse steak, which was a huge slab of meat cooked for sharing, washed down with plenty of decent red wine chosen by Jesco.

Wednesday evening we visited Tao, under a rather crazy contract which they insist on a minimum spend for the group, and charge an incredible amount per half hour if we stay after 11:30pm. Otherwise an interesting place, apparently featuring in Sex and City, with an enormous Buddha in the middle of the large restaurant space.

The food was fairly mediocre Asian fusion, but I guess it's fun for a group - and to people watch. Apparently this is the place that colleagues get suppliers to take them to when it's being paid for!

Thursday evening, Graham and I do Run Club, then after popping in at Macys for a quick shop, go to the Kitano Hotel for a highly-rated Japanese restaurant, Hakubai.

It's never going to win any awards for design, being bright and very typical Japanese, but their full Kaiseki dinner is something special!

The Kobe Beef was marvellous, but the highlight of the dinner was a bizarre fungus soup with cream of yam in it. Sticky, creamy, and very disconcerting, my only thought as I took a mouthful was "spit or swallow"!

As we were leaving, we heard some music upstairs. That's live, I thought, and indeed when we headed up, we found the lovely Kyoko Oyobe playing Jazz Piano with a double bass and drums backing her. Free entry with a minimum drinks charge of 15 dollars, what a bargain!

Kyoko Oyobe

Friday morning I finally locate the famous Hallo Berlin hotdog stand, New York's "Wurst" Fast Food!

There's always a line waiting for his reasonably-priced proper German sausages. This down, it was over to Brooklyn to try Egg, aka "Pig and Egg", one of the top brunch spots in the city. I still wasn't that hungry after the dog, but forced myself to endure "Organic grits and eggs" with bacon. Not bad, not bad at all! In case you're wondering what "grits" is, I don't really know! I was first introduced to it by Travis from Alabama. According to wikipedia it is maize-based porridge.

Back over to Chelsea to visit some galleries, first via Grand Street and the Team Gallery for a small but enjoyable Muntean/Rosenblum exhibition, consisting of large paintings with a variety of scenes, usually with one of the characters in the scene staring out of the canvas at the viewer. Over in Chelsea in West 21st I popped into a number of places, but nothing impressed me that much. What I did greatly enjoy was the High Line.

The High Line
The High Line is a wonderful idea. An old raised railroad running through an extended stretch of Manhattan, disused for some time, has been taken over by the local community and converted into a garden.

High Line promotional map

Access is through any of the stairwells that formerly led up to the line for stations etc. Once up, one finds sleepers now over-run with wild grasses and shrubs. Benches allow people to sit and enjoy the tranquillity mere yards above the busy avenues below.

In development

I walk the current length of it, down to the Meatpacking area. There is a further stretch under development currently - watch this space.



Next, up to MoMA, which has free entry on Fridays between 4 and 8pm. There's a huuuge queue, but it moves fantastically fast and so within a couple of minutes I'm in, and here primarily to see Monet's Waterlilies, which don't impress me that much. A bit wishy-washy in all honesty!

I popped into the Sony Store and after choosing a cheap point-and-click camera and some bassy headphones, ended up there for a full hour as they tried to sort out the receipts for my new laptop which they had apparently entered into the system incorrectly.

In the evening I headed over to Union St station to visit Union Hall, a bar, gig venue and Bocce stadium. Bocce is basically the same as Boules - how cool is that?

They also had some good ales, though downstairs where the live music was to play it was incredibly loud, so we decided to head off for a bite to eat before coming back for the main bands.

Unfortunately after a reasonable trek we were turned away from Piquant, the new opening that looked very cool but was too busy on their first night. Instead we went to Convivium Osteria, a great little Mediterranean place with good food and wines. Unfortunately we enjoyed this so much that we missed the music I wanted to hear, just catching the last band when we came back to Union Hall!

Saturday starts with Schillers Liquor Bar, a fantastic Lower East Side spot where Tracy turns up first. She's not a happy bunny, having had a rather traumatic driving lesson that very morning. When Andy arrives, we get cracking on brunch:

Eggs Benedict

Being rather full, we aren't mad about getting any more food, but after my previous experience, I insist on picking up some take-away muffins from Clinton St Baking Company before we walk over Manhattan Bridge.

Lower East Manhatten

The bridge runs pretty high, and I feel quite tense walking over it until we get back down to street level! Amusingly, some chaps are working on the bridge, on a raised platform. Just looking at them makes me feel a bit queasy!

On the other side is an area called DUMBO that Andy has suggested we visit. DUMBO apparently stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. They like their acronyms here!

A large part of the area seems to be taken up with a Jehovahs Witness complex, but there are also plenty of galleries springing up. It has the feel of an area that will be Williamsburg-like in about 20 years.

In addition to visiting various galleries in the area, we head down to the waterside and enjoy the view looking across to Manhattan as we scoff our muffins from Clinton Street Baking Co.

No art

Before leaving I insist on us visiting the very cool reBar, which has loads of ales and an eclectic "Jewel Bar" style decor. Some dancers appear to be doing a photoshoot there, lots of trendy types sit around with their laptops, a smart function happens in one part, and we just enjoy our beers.

Beer and girl

I realise that it's not just London with engineering work nightmares every weekend - NY suffers from this too, and we end up taking a rather convoluted route back to their place before having marvellous and spicy hotpot.


Tonight we behave and only have limited beer and no vodka (the secret to an evening remaining sensible). I manage to tube it back to Manhattan without getting robbed (hurrah) but am too tired to go out.

The day starts with a panic when at 9am reception calls me. Are you checking out today, they ask? Yes, I say. It's late, they say. What? I suddenly worry that my clock is wrong, but no, it's just the incompetence and illiteracy of the front desk staff not explaining what they mean. I point out that checkout time is mid-day, and that's when I will be checking out. So it's time for my last run of this trip, up to Central Park and around the lake. It's sunny but cool, perfect for running. Today feels a lot less painful than some of the other runs, either I'm getting in the zone or more likely I just set a slower pace than usual :)

Brunch was supposed to be with Kunjal, an old colleague, but whilst waiting for instructions, I went camera shopping, looking for a slide scanner to convert Grandpa Cliff's old slides. The big camera store in NY is B&H, but after a convoluted journey there (weekend subway engineering works), I find the whole shop shut. So not only were they not open on Saturday (Jewish shop - not open on the Sabbath), but it turns out that due to a Jewish holiday it's closed for a couple of weeks, reopening tomorrow! Drat!

Never mind, not too far away is another big store, Adorama. I turn up... to find they're closed too! Why do Jews own all the camera shops in this town?! After a third large store is also closed, I give up, and give up waiting on Kunjal to go for brunch, hitting Rosa Mexicano, a large latino restaurant that does brunch with Mexican variations, so tacos instead of muffins, and for me I went for two poaches eggs on crab cakes. It's not bad, though brownie points lost for a latte style coffee after I specifically asked for it dry!

From here, a nice walk across Union Square through to East Village. The target? Luke's Lobster. But not being hungry yet I need to hang around for a bit. The answer:
Native Bean Coffee Shop, a rather random place filled with tat, fragments of menus on boards all over the place, and free wifi.

When I finally make it to Luke's Lobster, I'm still not hungry, but it has to be done. For about 14 dollars I get the large lobster roll. They bring seafood down from Maine daily.

Luke's Lobster

Lobster Roll

Observations from this Trip

Chain Shops: Compared with the UK, urban life here seems to consist of way less chain shops. I can't say whether this is merely a NYC thing, but here independent shops rule, and it warms my heart to see all these interesting quirky places to visit, compared with Boots, M&S and Wetherspoons which seem to account for 50% of the high street in the UK. I guess part of this is that there doesn't seem to be a separation of residential areas and shopping areas, or at least not to the same extent, so every area has its little row of shops, none of which are probably profitable enough for the big boys to wade in.

Street of independent shops

Less politeness: No one thanks you if you stand aside to let someone pass, which irritates me greatly. That said, if you force people to interract with a hello or similar they respond quite positively.

VAT Reclaim: It seems that it's not possible to claim back VAT on leaving from the airport, supposedly because the tax here is a "sales tax" levied by the state, rather than any kind of national tax. Poor excuse if you ask me, but it's way lower than VAT in the UK anyway, so I suppose I can't complain too much. And if you happened to be lucky enough to hit the city on one of the sales tax free weekends..!

Credit Card Usage: No chip and pin, no checking of signatures, just a mere swipe! Card fraud must be rampant here!