It was some time ago that my friend Elsa got us tickets to see the much-acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. When she suggested meeting a bit earlier to make more of a day of it, I was happy to go with her plans and thus I met her south of the river in Bermondsey to begin our afternoon. She’d suggested going to the White Cube art gallery but with Maltby Street market nearby, it was a ‘must’ for me to start there. I’ve been meaning to go for sooooo long! My only excuse is that it’s quite a trek from west London. And it did take me an hour and a half to get there in the car yesterday, which is pretty ridiculous for a journey of about 12 miles. But the bonus would be having the car with me for a much quicker journey home late at night.
Maltby Street market began as an offshoot from nearby – and more famous – Borough Market a few years ago when Borough seemed to be losing some of its artisan roots and was becoming heavily commercialised and a bit of a tourist trap. Well, Borough is still brilliant. I haven’t been for a while but used to go quite often a few years back when my daughter, Nicola, lived in the area and did her weekly shop there. I went past its entrance near London bridge yesterday on my slow drive across town. It was heaving and I was glad to be making my way to somewhere smaller. You couldn’t, however, do your weekly shop at Maltby; apparently some traders have moved down the road to Spa Terminus if you’re looking for a traditional market. Malby is more about street food than a shop for your weekly menu of meals. It’s become a gathering place for groups of people to eat and drink and there’s a fine selection of ‘food to go’ on offer.
It’s an ‘open door’ market, set within the railway arches, where workshops of various kinds literally open their doors on a Saturday and artisan food producers move in to sell their wares.
It’s not a very salubrious area but in recent years has been enjoying a makeover so that it now attracts a fashionable crowd on the lookout for great food and crafts too.
Elsa and I stopped for a while at St John’s bakery for a teatime snack. I was slightly disappointed that this branch of the famous bakery was more of a wine bar with only a few baked goods on offer and coffee that only came from a filter. However, the coffee was good enough and the eccles cake that Elsa and I shared simply has to be one of the best I’ve ever had.
We headed to the White Cube, a contemporay art gallery, which architecturally lives up to its name with its stark, cube-like design inside and out; bright white light everywhere. White Cube is known for giving space to groundbreaking artists and was the first to give one-person shows to young British artists like, years ago, Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin, at its original Hoxton branch, which is now closed. Yesterday, Elsa and I spent a long time looking at the work of Liza Lou and her ‘canvases’ created from putting together thousands of tiny glass beads and were fascinated to see from an accompanying film how the creation of the works brought such a beautiful sense of community, enhanced by a meditative quality, to a group of women in South Africa.
Elsa and I wandered round the Bermondsey area for a bit after. It’s a fascinating area with some wonderful shops, cafés, restaurants and galleries. We stopped by the London Glassblowing workshop and went inside and watched work in progress at the back for a short while.
Then it was time to collect our cars and head to Islington. Elsa had booked us a table for supper at the Almeida restaurant, which was taking part in the annual January Evening Standard dining offers. Conveniently, as the name suggests, this restaurant is located directly opposite the Almeida Theatre, where we were heading for a 7.30 performance. Its large open dining room has a contemporary feel with muted colours and abstract artwork on the walls which give it a calm and welcoming ambience. It has an excellent reputation and I was looking forward to the meal. Normally quite expensive – or if you’re there for a quick trip en route to the theatre – with mains of around £18-£26, our deal of 2 courses for £20; 3 courses for £25 plus a small glass of wine, seemed like a great way to try it out. Unfortunately it wasn’t a totally happy experience. They were busy; well, they’re opposite the theatre as I said. So this is normal for them, yet they didn’t cope well … or not last night with us. Normally when you book a ‘special offer’ the correct ‘special’ menu is brought to you but we were given the à la carte and had to ask for the special one. We eventually got this and were asked if we wanted red or white wine – our complimentary glasses with the menu – and these were brought with bread and butter.
It was very nice sourdough bread but I wish they hadn’t served it warm. I’m quite sure the loaf wasn’t that fresh from the oven, so why heat the bread? We arrived at 6.00pm aiming to leave at 7.15 to meet another of Elsa’s friends, Angela, at the theatre. An hour and a quarter should have been plenty. They didn’t ask us as restaurants located near theatres often do if we were going to a performance; I guess we assumed they’d realise but perhaps we should have said something. Service was slow. When our starters arrived, however, they looked good. There was a momentary mistake though when the dishes were put in the wrong place – we had to swap them. Elsa had chosen a venison pâté with autumn vegetables, which she said was very good.
I had gone for Salmon rilettes, pickled cucumber and brown shrimps.
This also was delicious and I loved the beautiful pottery plates and dishes they used throughout, which added a nice touch to the experience. Elsa chose well with her main course of chargrilled pork chop, crushed root vegetables, quince and cranberry purée. Again, the dishes were given to the wrong person and we had to tell the waiter. This isn’t good. There’s really no excuse for a good restaurant not being 100% right in putting a dish before the correct diner. Added to this, I looked at my dish and thought, Is this really what I ordered? What did I order?
I could have asked for the menu again but vaguely remembered that it had been caramelised shoulder of lamb, chanterelles, cauliflower and leeks. But I’m not sure one’s first thought on seeing a dish you’ve ordered should ever be: Did I really order this? It didn’t look very appetising; I couldn’t work it out. I had been expecting a piece of meat but this was more like a patty; it was as if the lamb had been cooked to that ‘pulled’ stage then made into a patty and fried for the ‘caramelised’ effect. I tried to be positive; it was quite tasty. But in the end I decided that I really hadn’t liked it that much and I didn’t think it had been well described to me on the menu. By now the time was getting on. It was about 7.10; it had taken us over an hour to get two courses. We’d thought we’d share a dessert but really there wasn’t time. We stopped the maître d’ and explained – the service had been very slow, we’d wanted a dessert but had to make our way to the theatre. He’d bring dessert quickly, he offered, so we ordered and asked for the bill to come at the same time. Five minutes later, no dessert. We stopped him again; it would be another three minutes. Well, really – NO! He was very apologetic and to be completely fair to him at this end of this rather troubled meal, he pulled out all stops. We should go to the theatre and come back for dessert in the interval when he’d have our food ready plus prosecco on the house; he was also happy for us to wait to pay until then. I said, well we’d be coming back with a friend who was waiting in the theatre for us; that was fine, there’s be fizz for her too, he told us. It turned out well. It was a short – only 15-minute interval – and thus going across the road to find we were expected and a table ready with three glasses of prosecco was a hell of a lot better than joining the queue at the crowded bar in the theatre. Our plates of cheesecake dessert looked pretty and inviting. We tucked in so quickly – conscious of our limited time – I didn’t get round to photographing them! The bill came and we were charged for just the 2 courses – the dessert and fizz was on the house as promised. They dealt with it very well in the end, but the meal had been a history of putting plates in front of the wrong person, long delays and then, for me, a main course that was very disappointing. I’d like to go back. I know from what I’ve heard that they can do better than this but here, on this blog, I have to write what my experience was last night – and to be honest it wasn’t great.
The play however was more than great: it was stunning, extraordinary and completely wowed us. This was The Merchant of Venice transported to Las Vegas. In a play about money, how inventive to take it to a seat of consumerism – a Las Vegas casino – and turn Portia’s search for a suitable husband into a reality TV show. The energetic production was punctuated by the transformation of Launcelot Gobbo into an Elvis impersonator blasting out songs like ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’. Merchant, however, has a tricky history and is known as Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’. Is it really anti-semitic or is it just dramatising things as they were at the time Shakespeare was writing? At a time when the world stands fearfully in a state of uncertainty following the terrible Paris murders last week, we couldn’t help saying, as we emerged from the theatre at the end, that each three of us had felt rather uncomfortable with the power of the anti-semitic theme. Although there was a touch of sympathy for Shylock and the reasons for his resentment and brutal hatred, the overwhelming message was anti-Jew. I guess that if Shakespeare was writing now he’d do it slightly differently but for me, the play can never be ‘right’ as it stands in a world too easily fuelled to violence by a lack of tolerance for and by different religions.