Monthly Archives: March 2009

Dim sum at Shanghai, Kingsland Road, Dalston


You’d be hard pressed to find too many Chinese restaurants housed inside former East End pie and mash shops. In fact, I think there’s only one. For this fact alone, Shanghai on Kingsland Road is worth a visit. And that’s before you get to the dumplings.

The long front room, its long marble bar, turquoise tiling and bevelled art deco mirrors, is now heritage listed. It was once owned by the Cooke family, who still operate a pie and mash shop in nearby Broadway Market, until they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse. These days, red-roasted ducks and pigeons and great chunks of pork have replaced vats of jellied eels in the window display, and you can order a whole suckling pig or let rip in the karaoke room.

Now, instead of meat pies, mash and bright green liquor, you sit at the polished wooden benches and order baskets of prawn dumplings, steamed barbecue pork buns and cheung fung (rolled up sheets of soft rice paper, stuffed with prawns or barbecued pork), as well as Chinese teas from their special tea menu (I know next to nothing about tea, but a Chinese friend told me the list was very good). And chilli salt squid.


Service can be torturously slow, especially late in the day, and the cavernous restaurant out the back is a little dingy. I’ve only been there for dinner once and it was nothing special. But I don’t know of many other place serving dim sum in East London, so if you’re craving a dumpling or five, some egg tarts or fried turnip cake on a Sunday afternoon (and it’s Happy Hour(s) from 3-5pm, this is the place to go.

Shanghai, 41 Kingsland High Street, Dalston, E8 2JS, tel: 020 7254 2878

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Time for a bit of Aussie sunshine

For homesick Aussies out there, or anyone just wanting a dose of sunshine as winter trudges its way out the door, don’t miss the annual Australian Film Festival at the Barbican. This year they’ve put on a programme with a few oldies such as My Brilliant Career and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, along with the new releases – now is the chance to preview films that won’t be on general release in the UK until much later. It’s also a good chance to stock up on Cherry Ripes and Burger Rings, and take in the charged atmosphere in the foyer as people bump into neighbours, exes and old flatmates, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. 

Tropfest is also on – a short film festival that is screened around Australia for free – and it’s free at the Barbican too, although you need to book quickly. I’m also looking forward to Rhian Skirving’s documentary Rock n Roll Nerd about her friend Tim Minchin, a comedian and musician who has performed widely in the UK; he’s back over here in September and October 2009. Essential viewing for any aspiring stand-ups out there. 

Book tickets and find out more at

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Green-fingered Kingsland Road

Does this qualify as a ‘site specific response’? (spoken in art critic tones). Spotted on the way back from Vietnamese noodles in ‘Little Hanoi’, also known as the southern end of Kingsland Road.

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Stories about Hackney

p10001901It’s World Book Day today, so a fine time to mention  A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Set in Hackney, it is about a love affair between a newly arrived Chinese woman and a depressive  Hackney sculptor. Hopefully you can see the cover from this little photo. 
It begins with the sentence Sorry of my English, and describes the first few days of landing in London – the baked beans at the B&B, the ‘blood red carpet with suspicions dirty spots’ and the narrator’s total lack of comprehension of English social mores: ‘I don’t believe we same age,’ she tells someone. ‘You look much older than me’.
As the story continues her language improves and the writing changes, becoming less stilted but never losing its poetry and attention to the telling detail in an image or phrase. It’s original and brilliant but also a really good story, one of those curl-up-in-bed-and-disappear-for-a-few hours novels.

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Spring things to do in East London


The streets are alive with bird songs and the gentle hum of vacuum cleaners. Joggers are battling their way around the parks, hoping to shed that winter padding, and crocuses are starting to appear in the parks. Soon the constant, menacing hiss of central heating will fall silent, and windows will be flung open (windows apart from ours, that is, which are open even on the darkest days – not because I like to live an icebox, but because the other member of my household believes closed windows are extremely unhygienic).

So what are the best ways to celebrate spring in East London?

 Well, the festival season has started, with East from 5-10 March. Iain Sinclair will be talking about his book Hackney, that Rose Red Empire, at the Southbank, plus there are more than 300 arts, music, food and fashion events.

If you’ve got kids in tow, Hackney City Farm would make a good spring stop. Their Frizzante café does good breakfasts and snacks, the kids can go feral with no raised eyebrows and there is even an aggressive turkey to keep everyone on their toes. 

Columbia Road Flower Market has plenty of tulips at this time of year, and lots of strange little shops to look at – I quite like the cupcake shop myself. From there you can continue down to Brick Lane – stop off at the Beigel Bake for a salt beef bagel and on to Spitalfields, then wander towards Whitechapel to Tayyabs. The best tandoori lamb chops (or lamp shops as my German friend Caroline calls them) in London. Get there early to beat the queues. If the weather turns, there is always Dennis Severs’ spooky house to retreat to – although retreat is perhaps not the word. 

Walk along the Grand Union Canal from Victoria Park to Limehouse Basin, where you can have a pint and maybe something to eat at The Grapes, a tiny pub built in 1720 where Dickens used to drink. There’s a little deck out the back where you can sit right on the Thames, and a fish restaurant upstairs.  

The London Word Festival runs from 7-25 March – it’s an alternative writing and music showcase… I quite like the sound of the Ox Tales on 24 March (tbc), which will be held at the Slaughtered Lamb pub in Clerkenwell, not far from the famous Smithfield meat market. It will feature readings of meat-inspired prose and poetry, plus an ox tongue dissection to wrap things up. Not one for vegetarians, obviously.


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Ridley Road Frittata


This was going to be a post about how spring has arrived in East London. It’s all written and everything. All I had to do was take some photos of crocuses and my work here was done.

But today it’s miserable outside. So instead it’s going to be a frittata recipe – part of a new series I’m optimistically titling Ridley Road Recipes.

The first stop for this dish is the Egg Lady at Ridley Road market in Dalston. She runs the shop with her husband, although for some reason she always serves me. I think he deals more with behind-the-scenes stock control. I usually buy her free-range eggs, which come from a farm in Essex, but she’s got all kinds, even duck eggs. Very cheap (around £1.30), very fresh and much nicer than supermarket eggs. They are at the Kingsland Road end of the market – you can’t miss them.

The next stop is buying whatever veggies look good. Today I used leeks, tomatoes, a bit of leftover sweet potato mash and even a single broccoli stalk I plucked from the bottom of my veggie drawer (I have a genetic phobia of food wastage).

Simply heat up some olive oil in a small, heavy-based pan. Add the chopped veg and cook over a low heat for as long as your blood sugar will let you – this is a trick from my mate Gabby, who told me it makes the veggies caramelise. This advice has basically revolutionised my frittata experience. She also adds chopped fresh mint to hers. It will come as no surprise that her dinner invitations are rarely turned down.

Crack two or three eggs into a bowl – again, depending on blood sugar levels – and throw in a little salt and pepper. Beat briefly with a fork, then pour over your softened veggies. You can add a little soy sauce at this point too, or just leave it simple.

Let it cook for a few minutes until you can lift up the bottom of the frittata with a fork. Then pop it under the grill for another couple of minutes to cook the top. You can carefully flip it instead, but grilling will make it all golden and puffed on top. I finish with a dash of oyster sauce, but it’s up to you. Slide onto a plate and dig in.

PS Visit for another reason to support the market’s hard-working traders. In 2007 Hackney Council took action against Ridley Roaders, telling them that they must sell produce ‘by the kilo, not by the box or by the each.’

A crime against common sense and the Queen’s English if you ask me.

Or just vote with your feet (and belly) and head down to Ridley Road with your shopping basket on a Saturday morning. 

frittata Stay tuned for the next instalment of Ridley Road Recipes – Leon’s Famous Beef Curry


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Le Corbusier at the Barbican


The Barbican – does any other London landmark divide visitors more dramatically? – is hosting Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture until May 24 2009.

As usual, just finding the exhibition is a vintage Barbican experience – it’s badly sign-posted, the lifts have their own set of rules and the vast estate is almost deserted, despite its central location. The only people you pass on the windy terraces and dark walkways are bewildered souls anxious to find the centre before their performance starts. It’s all a bit post-apocalyptic until you eventually reach the buzzing foyer, which is full of people necking wine and chatting on the red leather benches and trying to find the loo before their show starts. 

Tip: If you do visit the Barbican in the future, just follow the yellow line painted along those dark, endless walkways (it really is a yellow brick road) – and you’ll get to there eventually.

Le Corbusier, according the exhibition brochure, was the most important architect of the 20th century, his built legacy unparalleled. The Barbican is the logical place to host such an exhibition – he would have felt right at home among the concrete walkways and looming tower blocks. 


Scattered among his many drawings, sculptures and models are some original, now rather tatty, prototypes – chairs and even an entire kitchen from an apartment block he designed in Marseille. I liked the postcards he’d sent from hotel rooms around the world, and snapshots of him at work. There is even one of him with Albert Einstein at Princeton, both of them looking quietly chuffed.


There is a wooden model of his beautiful church in Ronchamp, which I have visited and will never forget. In real life it’s much larger than it looks in pictures, with a roof that’s based on the form of a crab shell. Built from concrete, it has stained-glass windows that reflect watery blue-green lights across the curved walls. It’s a little like being in an vast underwater cave,  and very peaceful. If you’re ever in the Alsace region of France it’s worth a visit – you can also drink lots of Riesling and overdose on Münster cheese, but beware of ticks.  The only unfortunate part of the journey was that one of our party was bitten by a one carrying Lyme’s Disease and ended up seriously unwell. But I think even he would agree it was worth it.


Anyway – slight digression. This exhibition is worth visiting if you are at all interested in architecture and design. You are left with a clear sense of just how influential his work – and that of his many colleagues – was. His designs look modern now – its incredible  to think he was producing this work close to a hundred years ago.

It does seem, though, that there is something missing. For an exhibition about a single person it is a little starved of biographical detail, and I would  have liked more about his private life, the person behind the image. Perhaps he lived almost entirely for his work, which enabled him to be so prolific and influential. Or perhaps the curators just didn’t think his personal life was relevant. And it is also strange that the exhibition does not address the end of his life at all, and his death by drowning. You move from some of his later drawings straight into the shop and bar area, where you can buy a Le Corbusier vodka cocktail, or some £200 Corbusier-inspired spectacles. After following the story of his life’s work this felt – to me, anyway – a little abrupt.

 Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture, 19 February – 24 May 2009-02-28, The Barbican Centre Art Gallery,

corb-drawingsPhotography: Felix Oefelein ©




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