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Roxy's Birthday At Browns

When I was at uni, my group of friends and I had a bit of a birthday tradition going. Every time one of our birthdays rolled around, we would celebrate with a slap-up meal. There wasn't a whole lot of choice in Cambridge, so we became fairly regular customers at Côte, Café Rouge, Bill's and Byron (still so much love for that place!) And if restaurants failed, there was always formal. Usually followed by getting a little bit tipsy. See below for a stereotypical example, way back on my 21st birthday. I imagine that most friendship groups do this - but it's left me feeling that birthdays with friends are not about the food, but about celebrating friendship - and silliness.

And things haven't changed. Last month we had Roxy's birthday to celebrate, so a group of us convened at Browns in Covent Garden for a spot of post-work feasting and imbibing. All I really knew about Browns beforehand was that the one off Upper Street does a mean virgin piña colada. Suffice to say, I hadn't been since I was about 14...so my expectations were nice and low.

We ordered bellinis and a bottle of white wine while we mulled over what to choose for mains. Now, the wine was unfortunately not all that palatable (not one of us managed to finish a glass) but the bellinis were lovely - exactly what the doctor ordered on a Friday. 

Apparently, pasta was also the prescribed dish for that evening.

Crab and king prawn linguine for me, with a generous helping of pesto.

Lobster tagliolini for Gisella.

And ricotta, beetroot and white truffle tortelloni for Rox and Imarin. Was so impressed at how this was plated, seeing as it's a chain restaurant! 

But as I've said, we weren't really at Browns to eat. (I mean, we were, but you know what I mean). The food was just a backdrop for all the gossip we needed to catch up on! We definitely ended up annoying our fellow diners with loud, unsavoury dinner table conversation and ensuing raucous laughter. It made me realised that I'd missed these girls a whole lot.

And of course we had to order dessert.

Gisella had three flavours of crème brûlée, served in the most adorable little espresso cups.

Roxy and I went for the same thing - an absolute mountain of meringue, cherries, strawberry sauce and white chocolate buttons. Browns' take on a classic Eton Mess. The pudding reached an impressive altitude, but was a bit too sweet for me to surmount. 

Imarin's dessert was also a beast - the biggest slab of sticky toffee pudding I've ever seen, served with a little quenelle of stem ginger ice cream. 

Suffice to say, we all had eyes too big for our stomachs and could only chip away feebly at our monster puddings.

The coolest thing about Browns is that the building it occupies used to be a courthouse - and you can still go up and see the old courtrooms, if you so wish! It's lovely that Browns have kept them more or less intact, and I reckon it'd be so cool to have a party in one...

Birthday girl holding court from the judge's seat, flanked by a benevolent Im and a rather menacing-looking Gis. Hope you enjoyed your birthday, Rox!

So...it's my birthday next week and I can't wait to see the girls again. Any recommendations on places to eat or drink (no bookings) would be much appreciated! I've got a couple of ideas up my sleeve, but would welcome your input!

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A bite-sized post today about Kipferl, a little Austrian joint that I've fallen in love recently. Located in Camden Passage, just off Islington's Upper Street, it's got a faint air of après-ski about it, with touches like antique skis propped up in the corner and chalet-like wood panelling throughout. You can pop in to grab a coffee to take away, some Austrian items from the delicatessen or a quick lunch, as we did.

When I crossed the threshold of Kipferl, I was in the mother of bad moods. Meeting up for brunch at Angel, Alex and I found ourselves unable to get into either of the places I'd been wanting to try out, The Breakfast Club and The Elk In The Woods. In Islington, you have to don boxing gloves if you want to get into any of the hot brunch places, apparently. Forced to cross the narrow passage and get in line at Kipferl, I grumped my way through the twenty minute wait. Poor Alex. But luckily, the Austrian food more than soothed my surly outlook.

Alex ordered his favourite, French toast. Accompanied by homemade apple compote, cinnamon and fresh berries, it looked extremely inviting and I immediately wanted a bite. I've since decided that apple compote, cinnamon and sugary French toast are a total match made in heaven.

Upon sitting down and opening the menu, I pinpointed the source of my temper, and it was a hangry one. When a glistening Kasekrainer with sliced rye bread and mustard arrived in front of me, I knew I'd made the right choice. In a hangry situation, sugar tends to exacerbate my bad mood, and I needed something savoury. An incredibly juicy, hearty wurst stuffed with melting cheese was just the ticket. (Rewind to five years ago and I'd be sniggering at the sentence I just typed. Definitely not sniggering now or anything.) I know the shot above is badly focused - I blame hangry brain - but the limelight should definitely be on that sausage-shaped bad boy on the left. Although... I did sprinkle one of my Kasekrainer slices liberally with the contents of the bowl closest to me on the right, thinking it was Emmental or something equally benign. Turned out it was grated horseradish. *slow clap for Tamsin*

We also ordered a plate of steaming pierogis to share. Yup, the hangry monster needed more than one savoury dish. I've been joshing for a taste of these Polish dumplings for quite some time, being obsessed with their Chinese cousins. My verdict? Tasty, but I think I might prefer the Asian incarnations, if only by a hair. The accompanying rocket salad, meanwhile, was very welcome at a table groaning with delicious sugar and fat...

I came away feeling relaxed, full and happy - much to the long-suffering Alex's relief.

Kipferl's website tells me that they still regard themselves as a 'Geheimtip' - a little secret. Well, with a twenty-minute brunch queue, I doubt this little gem is a secret. And if it is by London standards, it won't be secret much longer. I for one plan on returning to sample another twist on an Asian favourite - Kasespatzle, or pan-fried egg noodles topped with organic mountain cheese. Looks like I'm an Austrian food convert.

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Sherlock Holmes at The Museum of London

It's no secret that I'm a massive bookworm. So it's with a little reticence that I admit that my fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle's pipe-smoking detective sprung from not the novels but the recent BBC series. The slick design of the episodes, repackaged for a 21st century audience, paired with the Cumberbatch-Freeman bromance - it was love at first watch. I've since seen all the episodes multiple times and am slowly reading my way through the novels. So it made perfect sense to drag my equally Sherlock-smitten boyfriend along to the Museum of London for the eponymous exhibition. Where better to stage an exhibition about a 'man who never lived and will never die' than in the ancient centre of London, a city synonymous with Sherlock? 

Photographs aren't allowed apart from at certain points in the exhibition, so I can only share a few pictures with you. But that's good because it means I can avoid spoiling the great Sherlock memorabilia on display! 

Alex and I fell head over heels with whoever curated and designed the exhibition when we saw the entrance. Through a bookcase panel! Too amazing. It set the scene for the rest of the display, loosely resembling the interior of 221B Baker Street.

The viewer is immersed in Sherlock-themed visual material from the outset - from the original Sidney Paget illustrations to the posters of the panoply of TV and film adaptations spawned by the novels.

There's also a wealth of mid-to-late Victorian imagery of London - paintings by the likes of Whistler, old maps, sketches - and above, an incredibly detailed engraving of London seen from a hot air balloon towards the end of the 19th century. As you can see from the boy's face, he was particularly enamoured with this section.

My favourite section? A column of postcards set into glass that invited the visitor to play detective and search for a particular missive related to the Sherlock stories...

And then we had a little bit of dressing up. This seems to be a bit of a theme when we go to museums nowadays.

Ok, I clearly wasn't the height the curators had in mind for their target audience (and this is me on my tiptoes...) And I seem to have lost my hand. Curious. Definitely a case for the one in the deerstalker...

Alex was a much more sensible man-sized height.

The door to Sherlock's gaff.

And upon crossing the threshold of the door, we were greeted with cabinets upon cabinets of props. Everything from the dressing gown worn by Cumberbatch in the latest TV series to various violins played on by a range of Sherlock incarnations (and accompanying reedy audio clips), delicious-looking type writers, the different types of tobacco ash...and, of course, a cornucopia of makeup and wigs as utilised by Sherlock, master of disguise.

The dressing up didn't end with the exhibition, by the way. The Sherlock-themed offerings at the Museum of London giftshop allowed Alex to indulge in a little wearing of his favourite Victorian millinery. Yup... my boyfriend is a hat man.

The Sherlock exhibition is on at the Museum of London until April 2015 and entry is £11.45/£9.45 concession. You can have a mosey through the website here, and there seem to be a range of events on offer that I'm quite tempted by too - Sherlock-themed cocktail hunt, anyone?

Feeling peckish, we rounded off our evening by catching a tube into central London to hang out at a couple of places we've enjoyed frequenting since we started dating a few years ago. First up...

...Wong Kei! Famed for the rudest waiters in Chinatown - and the cheapest food. It's supposedly had a makeover but the décor looked just as 90s (think the kind of furniture and flooring they used to have in McDonalds) as it always has. And I like it that way.

I know my Chinese food (maybe I'll do a post on the best affordable Chinese dining in the capital at some point!) and Wong Kei's food is nowhere near the top of my list. But like I say, it's cheap and plentiful and ideal for a date when you're a bit broke like us. And I'll never say no to a plate of roast duck and crispy pork belly...

The best thing about scrimping on your dinner is...

...you can splash out on dessert!

Al and I love Gelupo. We shared a tub of coconut, pistachio, and chocolate, ricotta and black pepper. scoops. Yum. Gelupo also had all sorts of Halloween treats on offer (yup, that's how long my blogging backlog is...) and I thought they looked great.

These are the kinds of spiders I like. Quite different from the hairy creatures that struggle out of the plughole towards me when I'm trying to take a shower...

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How Kindness Boosted My Body Confidence

We've all got our body hang-ups. On a bad day, mine make me want to crawl into bed and sob. I've got an inexplicable dimple in my forehead. Calves that will never be as long and slim as I'd like. Skin that tends to misbehave even though I'm in my twenties. The latter had me feeling highly self-conscious one day a few weeks ago. I was suffering from a breakout thanks to a cold that involved blowing my nose, thereby irritating the skin around my philtrum (the groove above your top lip!) Yeah, I know, sexy. Feeling rubbish, I'd opted for comfy (read: scruffy and old) clothes, and hadn't bothered to put on any makeup or wash my hair, let alone run a brush through it. London, unlike me, was on top form, so during my lunch break, I went outside to photograph the surrounding area on my phone (as above!) When an old lady approached me, I thought she'd ask if I wanted her to take my picture for me - but instead she asked if I would model for her right there and then. I was surprised. And frankly a bit horrified, given my appearance.

I stood there awkwardly as the  auntie (who introduced herself as Noriko) snapped away with her manual camera - all the while, telling me how beautiful I looked. And although she was probably being charming to try and get me to open up a little, I couldn't help but feel warm inside. It's so lovely to receive a genuinely nice compliment from a stranger, don't you find? It sounds horribly shallow, but my body image was so low that day that Noriko's comments were exactly the boost I needed. I'm sure I sat up straighter, communicated with my colleagues more boldly and worked harder that afternoon. And it made me think: perhaps if I had more self-confidence, I'd perform like this every day.

This week, Noriko emailed me her photos. In the accompanying message, she told me that she had come to the London Bridge area in order to take photos of the Shard. When she saw me, though, she said that she felt that something 'triggered' in her to ask me to model for her - and was glad that her intuition proved to be right, because she ended up winning a competition run by her photography club using the shots. I know that I will never ever be a model, but thanks to Noriko's kind words, I've definitely been feeling more confident since. Noriko, ありがとうございました ! Though yours was an unpremeditated, random act of kindness, you ended up making me feel so much happier about myself.  

I know my body hang-ups can impair my self-confidence - and even my productivity - a lot of the time. So I'd love to know - how do you get over yours (if you have any, that is?) 

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Art of the Brick

Are you prepared for a trip down memory lane? Well, there's an alternative exhibition in town. The medium? Thousands upon thousands of little Lego bricks. I've never seen Alex so excited to see an art show - except for the Sherlock exhibition (but more on that another day!) Nathan Sawaya, a big-shot American lawyer, hung up his legal wig in order to pursue his love for the little bricks, and this exhibition showcases all the sculptures he's made from Lego since. Including the beauty above. When I saw this incredible T-Rex piece on Lisa's blog, I knew I had to go and see it. You all know what a palaeontologist wannabe dino fan I am by now. Here's my personal highlights from the show!

In the first few rooms are Sawaya's Lego-fied replicas of the Old Masters - pieces that everyone knows by sight, and that I as an art historian must know by name (or risk humiliation)! Sawaya pays homage to van Gogh's Starry Night, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's sculpture of David, Rodin's Thinker and more. Alex and I were particularly drawn to his version of Munch's The Scream, having seen one of the originals at the Nationalmuseet when we visited Oslo in January (before I started this blog!)

On a sidenote: I love the Nationalmuseet. It was almost empty when we visited, but the work inside was fantastical and mainly unknown to me. A real gem.

The serene blue light in this room lent it a hushed, underwater atmosphere. 

What I imagine when yoga instructors tell me that I'm holding a heart-opening pose.

Lots of ways to read this one. Do the hands represent the manacles of society? Are they guiding the man's every move? Or are they trying to pull him back from the edge?

And the star piece of the exhibition, given an appropriately Jurassic Park mood with jungle sound effects piped over the loudspeakers. Let's face it, it was always going to steal the show for me! Apparently Sawaya spent a whole summer labouring over this one. Lego and dinosaur skeletons - a match made in geek heaven.

At the end of the exhibition, there's a buzzing room full of visitors making their own Lego creations. I was never a Lego aficionado back in the day, but Alex, number one Lego fan, whizzed around the room looking for bits and pieces to complete his rocket thingy. Space missile. Whatever. (I'm not jealous at all...)

So. I'm not sure I would deem some of Sawaya's work 'art' exactly - not in the fine art sense, anyway. I think the curators are aware of this from the fact that they encourage the photo-taking and sharing on social media, as usually photography is banned at exhibitions (and often for good reason, too.) If you're in London and looking for a serious art show to see, I'd recommend going to see Late Turner at the Tate Britain (preferably after seeing the Mike Leigh film!) That's got bags of emotion, colour and raw talent - and the tickets are about the same price as this. But everyone's idea of what constitutes art is different, and although Art of the Brick wasn't completely my cup of tea, it might be yours. With a lighthearted vibe reminiscent of a theme-park (Legoland) at times, it's definitely one to take the kids to. Or, alternatively, your Lego-loving significant other...

The exhibition will be running at the Old Truman Brewery off Brick Lane until January 2015, and you can buy your tickets here

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Hurricane Sunset

A couple of weeks ago, the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo swept through England, raising the usual furore on the weather reports. Truth be told, we were barely affected here in London. What the tail end of Gonzalo did bring with it was the first taste of winter - freezing rain droplets on my cheeks, gusts and bluster, and a sunset that set the sky on fire, almost reminiscent of Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons at times. Walking through the park at the time, I gaped up at the sky as other commuters hurried past me, eager to escape the icy sting of the rain. Fascinated by the ever-changing colours of the sunset, I couldn't resist photographing the process, from the initial flaming orange hues to a short respite in the form of a weak rainbow, and finally the sombre blues of dusk tinged with gold. I'd like to think that Turner, fascinated as he was by the invention of the daguerrotype, might have done the same.

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