MOD Pizza, Irving Street, Leicester Square, London WC2

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MOD Pizza is a chain of restaurants that has been in the USA for some years now, it is relatively new to the UK, this is the first one in London. MOD stands for Made On Demand, it is a clever concept – we might be looking at the new McDonalds here.  It is also great value, in fact for  Central London it seems ridiculously cheap at £7.87 for an 11 inch pizza with unlimited toppings.

If you don’t like pizza, then this is probably not the place for you, it does pizza, salad… or pizza salad. However, by limiting their menu, they do what they do very well. You order the size of base that you want and then you move down the counter asking the server behind it to add ingredients to your pizza as they take your fancy as you see them. There is a surprising number of choices, there are six different base sauces from basic tomato, through barbecue to a garlic rub – and I guess you could have them all if you wished. There are also six different cheeses, including a dairy free vegan cheese (is it really cheese if its dairy free?), 8 different meat types (they calls anchovy a meat!) and about twenty other topping types. Then finish it off with swirls of pesto or glaze and add a choice of spices to the top.

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Then there is a quick opportunity to admire your creation, before they take it away for baking and five minutes later they bring the completed cooked pizza to your table. The first time I came, it was to a pizza party for about twenty five people and it was a very convivial evening. They are licensed to sell beer and wine, a pretty basic choice of each – but we are talking about a fast food type place here. It brings the American concept of unlimited soda fountain with it, the kids will love this, not only do they do the usual soft drinks, they also have three different types of home made lemonade. The original lemonade is wonderfully sharp, great on a warm day. The milk shakes are good too. If you have ordered too much and you are unable to finish, they also provide boxes for you take home what you can’t eat. I have to confess here that I am one of those (apparently disgusting) people who love cold pizza for breakfast!

MOD Pizza is an interesting new addition to the food offering in the centre of town, and although the competition here is tough, I think they have found a winning formula and we will see many more branches of this chain here in the UK before too long.

 

 

 

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Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, British Museum, London

Gates of Hell

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece is a fantastic exhibition, in terms of both content and context. The Parthenon marbles, which used to be known as the Elgin Marbles, are always in the British museum collection but exhibiting them with the Rodin sculptures, for which they provided inspiration, adds a frame of reference to both.

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We see the timelessness in the Greek pieces where the damage of 2500 years only adds to their beauty.  In Rodin’s sculptures, the incompletion is intentional, but the pieces are no less pleasing because of that.  The show cleverly depicts both sets of pieces as individual parts of a larger work. Elgin removed decorations from the Parthenon in Athens and Rodin’s sculptures are part of his, never fully finished, Gates of Hell. It is very informative to see the representation of the wall near each piece which shows exactly whereabouts in the wall it came from.

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The room is big and impact on entry is impressive. There is a large collection of Rodin’s works here, mostly on loan from Musee Rodin in Paris. We have Athena (Pallas), The Kiss, The Thinker, The Walking Man, The Age of Bronze, even The Burghers of Calais has been brought in from Victoria Tower Gardens. The Parthenon Marbles are interspersed among them and seeing, for example, the two intertwined headless Goddesses in the background of  The Athena with the Parthenon in her hair, adds to the attraction of both.

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The ancient Greeks, Phaedias mostly here, tended to use an idealised form of the body in sculpture and frieze, whereas Rodin veered more toward realism in his, but this show brings attention to the association between the piece of art and its inspiration. This is its real success.

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The British Museum holds one of the greatest art collections in the world, but surprisingly, it does not have any Rodin in its permanent collection, so if you did need an extra excuse to visit, this is it. Also, for the first time, photography was allowed in this exhibition.

Langan’s Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.

Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.

The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.

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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.

Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.

Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

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The painting above is of the NE corner of Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1888.  It hangs in Tate Britain and it is by William Logsdail. In case you missed it, the first part of my paean to Trafalgar Square is here: Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2.

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On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham,  Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.

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Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.

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There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.

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The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.

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On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.

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I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park.  Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.

 

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National Gallery from Trafalgar Square

 

While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them.  Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall,  there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.

 

 

Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2

 

 

DSC_2999Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history.  It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.

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It has been  the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.

Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.

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The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons.  There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.

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The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.

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The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.

You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.

Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

 

Browns, Cardinal Walk, London Victoria

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Victoria Station and its surroundings have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. It is now full of pedestrian areas and buildings made of glass and steel. Cardinal walk is probably one of the oldest of these but still fits nicely into this environment. The décor and the ambience of Browns matches this well too, it is set over two floors, all glass. The restaurant is on the first floor so if you get a table by the window you can watch the world go by as you eat.

Their Pinot Grigio is good, although at over £8 for a large glass, it needs to be. They have a reasonable selection of beers and the cocktail list looks impressive although we did not try any. The service was good, our waiter was friendly and helpful, but he wasn’t really that busy, so maybe he should have picked up on our indifferent response when he enquired how the food was.

The thing that let them down was the food. The fish pie was ok, but I expect better than that when I pay over £15 for it. The only way to tell the difference between the different fish was texture, the overall effect was bland and the potato topping was runny. The steak sandwich was also all right, no butter on the bread – just mayo, but the chips were only slightly hotter than luke warm and they didn’t have any English mustard. The side order of onion rings contained four rings!

I wanted to like this place because I have enjoyed other restaurants in this chain in the past. With such a large choice of places to eat around Victoria now, average food will not get repeat business.

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.

 

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Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

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A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

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Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.