City U short courses – a £230 door to a new world?

What was the trigger really? I’m not sure. Was it the poster up the stairs out of Barbican station that beckoned me? At least that’s how I found out about the short courses at City University. Browsing through all the course listings I found myself narrowing down to “Creative Writing.” Some distant dream from childhood bubbled up: I imagined myself being a writer. As an adult, I had scraped that dream just a tad by becoming a financial reporter and had sort of ticked it off as done. But what if I gave it another shot? After all, my clients seemed to truly enjoy my tiny morning anecdotes that I posted every day.

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And so it came that in January of this year, I enrolled for the 10 weeks class “An Approach to Creative Writing”  taught by Caroline Natzler.

This being my first creative writing class, I did not have any grounds to compare it to nor expectations. My initial impression of the class was that it was extremely diverse (with neither positive nor negative connotation, just diverse). The lack of any requirements when joining apart from being proficient in written and spoken English made it an accessible class for almost anyone willing to spare some time and money during the week after work. There was a veteran English journalist wanting to write something creative at one end of the spectrum and a totally novice black young writer whose ambition was to publish a children’s book by the end of the year on the other (I know to not judge a book by its cover but the latter even though I sincerely applaud the courage seemed rather unrealistic).

In retrospect, I believe the class was good as an entry point because of its low requirements. It was like a kindergarten class, not necessarily driven towards anything, just providing the caring parental guidance while letting us sniff at how creative workshops work, similar to kids seeing numbers and letters, singing songs for the first time.

Without this class, I would have probably never made the next step to keep on writing and sign up to “Novel Writing and Longer Works”  the following term. It may be too early to make such a bold statement but I already believe this course has changed my life.

This course, just as the previous one, had no entry requirements and my naive reasons for signing up for it then were 1. I wanted to continue the creative writing path and 2. it ran at the same time as the first course I’ve taken, making it easier to coordinate with my work colleagues.

This course though once it started, was very different from the first one I had taken. It wasn’t a Kindergarten anymore, but closer to an A-level class. Just as much as Katy Darby taught us, we were also expected to perform. Goals were clearly set. Goals which were much higher than I had expected at first. A 500 word synopsis of our novel idea was the first hurdle that hit me. Following that, we then had the first half of the course to finish up the first chapter or up to 5000 words of our novel. The same deadline for all of us, works to be printed out and sent to everyone. After the first half of the course tackling specific topics on writing, the second half was then almost fully dedicated to workshopping our chapters à la UEA style (something Katy adapted from her UEA MA experience). Katy is very encouraging, pushes you to believe in yourself but also expects you to perform at your best. Katy is clearly an A* at what she does.

But as important as the teacher is in this setting, so are your peers who are going to review your work and whose work you will learn from. And so I consider myself truly lucky to have met all of those on my course, reflecting an incredible diversity (in the most positive sense!) in life (ranging from a young Indian primary school teacher to an English librarian in her sixties) as well as in writing topics and styles (from Brazilian prostitutes in London to dystopian futuristic science fiction novels). Those that were not 100% into this dropped out rather quickly, leaving a very dedicated crowd. It wasn’t only their writing that was great. They were the sort of people that in trust exercises, you’d be happy to let yourself fall backwards knowing that they would catch your fall. Creative writing is an extremely personal experience and having people there you can trust, to whom you can open up is really what you need.

I went in with the goal to just keep on writing and came out with a synopsis, a written and revised first chapter and the sudden belief that I could possibly write an entire novel. Backed by all the encouragement, I have now sent in my work the UEA-Guardian Masterclass “How to complete the first draft of a novel”  and was accepted. No matter what comes from here, City University’s short courses were the first step.

So did it have to be creative writing? For me I think the answer is yes. But part of the course experience was to meet people I may not have met otherwise who still had one passion in common with me. This is probably true of any subject. I won’t vouch for the quality of any other City University short courses but for £230 (£23 for each week?) it was well worth it for me.

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The chicken disguised as a mandarin

Isn’t it good to almost always have an excuse to go for a special dinner? This one now we had out planned for more than two months because it is just that hard to get a reservation… The second restaurant in Heston Blumenthal’s collection has only one Michelin star to boast compared to the well-known Fat Duck but is listed number 7 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal welcomed us in the Mandarin Oriental on Monday night. The airy and bright simple interior was the perfect setting on such a hot day (especially after my office’s A/C gave up and died halfway into the day leaving us to bake in the heat). We were off to a good start.

I must say the menu wasn’t simple but those things rarely are in Michelin starred restaurants. But wrapped around it were individual small drops of knowledge related to food. That’s the sort of thing I like.

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I chose the Meat Fruit as a starter.

Meat Fruit (c.1500)Mandarin, chicken liver & foie gras parfait, grilled bread
£16.00

Ingenious indeed, the chicken liver mousse appeared disguised in the shape of a mandarin orange next to a piece of toast. “Everything is edible, apart from the green leaf,” the waiter added. As I found out later, one of the signature dishes and most talked about plates from this restaurant, it wasn’t only visually entertaining but absolutely delicious as well.

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2013-07-22 19.12.48That was followed by the cod in cider.

Cod in Cider (c.1940)Chard & fired mussels
£27.00

Again, absolutely nothing to say against a magnificent dish. I was suspicious about having mussels around my fish but every single one of them with quite strong flavour was a delight. The fish had a very mild but juicy taste to it.

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Now comes the dessert… Or, the dessertS? We just couldn’t resist the tempting offer of the liquid nitrogen ice cream.

First things first though: my dessert was a chocolate cake.

Bohemian Cake (c.1890)Chocolate, citrus & London summertime honey ice cream
£10.50

2013-07-22 19.55.59While the fruits within the chocolate weren’t really my thing, the honey ice cream melted perfectly on my tongue leaving a refreshing taste.

Now to the highlight of the evening: the liquid nitrogen ice cream made right there at a table like a mini magic show.

2013-07-22 20.08.32While this won’t have the same effect the second time around, it’s definitely something to enjoy and get entertained by the first time. We surely were!

After all this positive talk, would I make this my favourite restaurant in London then? The answer is sadly a clear no. Why comes probably mostly down to the service. The food didn’t necessarily change my world view but it did a pretty decent job which was disappointingly not reflected by the service. Firm and good, but lacking that extra edge I’d expect from a place light that. Like possibly more description into the food or better answers to our question.

An example maybe? My friend was interested in the brown bread ice cream but as it came with malted yeast syrup and we were unsure what that was (both non-native English speakers), we enquired. The conversation went as follows:

Us: “What’s the malted yeast syrup like?”

Waitress: “It’s a syrup. On the dessert.”

Us: “Ok, but what is it like? What does it taste like?”

Waitress: “Like… malted yeast.”

Us: “Is that like marmite?”

Waitress: “No.”

Us: “So… What is it like then? Is it bitter?”

Waitress: “No, it’s sweet.”

You can think I’m picky but at this price, I just expect a bit more than being regurgitated the words on the menu.

In any case, if you do decide to go, try the Meat Fruit and spend that extra few £ to marvel at the ice cream magic!

Price: £££££

Food: *****

Service: ***

Decor: ****

Square Meal

City summer runner

I live in London, work in finance in the city and run… And so it was about time that I took part in the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge under the flag of my bank. The two-day event in Battersea Park has around 13,000 runners each day for their 5.6km run.

Last year, right around this time, I remember a poor bunch from my office who had to go into poring rain. Waiting before the start of course was a pain but was followed by the muddy trail and no relief later on, as unlike some of our competitors it wasn’t like we had a tent or anything. After that experience, many chose not to participate this year. Who can blame them.

Not marked by that fowl experience, I was more than happy to give it a go and was rewarded by wonderful weather. It’s a bit of a pain to get there, being a slight walk from Sloan Square station where me and my colleagues chose to go from the City. Yet, who’s really to complain when the aim is actually to do something healthy and run 5.6km? Our group passed the massive tents in the two villages representing major participants with their large running groups to join our little team which had organized picnic mats and a few flags next to the goal. Thank god it wasn’t raining…

I joined the slowest group and waited for the staggered start to take place. Surprisingly this was done rather efficiently and we didn’t have to wait all too long before we were on our way. Like all such bigger events where the biggest couch potatoes take up the challenge (which is of course great!), it was like an obstacle course not to run into anyone who’d decided to walk after a few meters. I got to admire many corporate t-shirts, actual technical running shirts with company logo unlike ours that were heavy cotton with the charity we sponsor. At the end of the day though, with all these costs, I suppose I should be thankful enough I could run this.

All in all, a beautiful run. Not the sort of place to mark a PB, at least for me, but a nice way to finish off a work day with colleagues. The JP Morgan Corporate Challenge t-shirt is another nice addition to the runner’s collection.

JP Morgan Corporate Challenge

In the same week, actually the following day, that I’ve completed the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, I also ran the Standard Chartered Great City Race for the first time.

Despite being a 5km run through the City, this seems to be the run that’s less driven by financial companies with all kinds of company logos surrounding me on the day (I ran not for my own but a friend’s workplace).

The start seemed a bit less clear than at the JP Morgan run and a complete standstill around Barbican with a human traffic jam building under the tunnel was annoying.

Running past my own office was enjoyable for a split moment but running through the City gets old quickly (at least for me) and I realized I preferred the river and the park to those concrete buildings all around. The good thing about 5km runs is that they are over rather quickly whether you liked the race or not. Positive surprise towards the end was an unexpected cheering from my colleague waiting in front of Mortgage station.

I’m also weak when it comes to goody bags and so took the (for a 5km quite impressive) medal with all the foods and samples quite happily after the run.

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Checking out the results later, the top man and woman on both races were the same… The City’s fastest couple, Phil and Emily Wicks!

If you’d ask me which one I’d do again… It would probably have to be the JP Morgan one even though at the risk of rain, I’d rather abstain from both…  By the way, even if I keep on forgetting, all these runs are for a good cause!

sketch – dinner with a loose purse string

I’m not much of a gourmet and definitely not a Michelin star hunter but sometimes the occasion calls for it. And so I recently indulged in a dinner at Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room and Library, a short walk off Oxford Circus station. Honestly, the website didn’t tell me much apart from giving me the feeling it might be an overly pretentious place… I was in for a very positive surprise.

Walking in, the girl at the entrance entertained us talking us through the art in the reception area, especially her favorite piece: a light art that spelt out LOVE if you moved your head quickly. Clearly this has nothing to do with the food and some may find this just too distracting. I personally enjoyed the entire experience that started right there in the funky entrance.

Once up the stairs, we entered our venue for the day, the Lecture Room and Library. The decor, very different from downstairs, was in colorful red and orange shades with comfortable armchairs in the image of a hip lecture room. The restaurant was very spacious, giving off an air of calm and peace.

Looking at the menu, I was too lazy to read all the details of the dishes (way too much sophistication for me) and chose what came to me naturally:

Lobster (there were other dishes with less straightforward names… Perfume of the Earth (£37), wth?? looked beautiful on my friend’s plate)

Native Blue Lobster / Jellified Sardine Infusion / Green Pepper with Horseradish / Red Orach Lobster Mousse / Traditional Bisque

Lobster Claws / Jersey Potato Salad

£46

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John Dory and Red Mullet

Pan-fried John Dory Fillet with Fresh Bay Leaves / Bouillabaisse with Baby Squid Red Mullet “Bellino” / Broccoli

£46

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That all accompanied by a fruity and lively white Australian wine recommended by our very pleasant waiter from same origin.

And… Last but not least…

Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert

Spiced Meringue / Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream / Apricot and Basil Compote
Green Pepper Ice Cream / Raspberry and Tagete Marmalade / Coconut Shavings
White Peach and Lemon Verbena Bavaroise / Poached Peach / Rose Water Marshmallows Green Chartreuse Granité / Candied Kumquats / Rhubarb and Angelica Compote Strawberry Sorbet / Crispy Parmesan Cream / Balsamic Vinegar Tartlet
Pistachio Chocolate Frozen Parfait / Caramelised Almonds / Baileys Fudge
Six Desserts £30 (there’s also an option of three for £18)

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As if this wasn’t enough, the attentive waiter did ask what occasion led us there that night and surprised us with a beautiful (and delicious) piece of chocolate cake.

2013-06-26 22.40.33All dishes were highly sophisticated, tastes with a finesse I have rarely experienced elsewhere (even with specific clockwise eating order of the starter plates). If you’re looking for a quick dinner, this is NOT the place to go (at the end of the night we were there for over three hours without even realizing). But equally, you won’t have to worry about being fed with miniature dishes that are only artistic to look at, because this will fill you up for sure. The waiters matched the food equality, not only being polite as required but genuinely friendly and warm.

Upside for me of course was that I didn’t have to see the bill at the end of the day. But even the one who did (a generally very critical man) said it was an experience that was worth the price tag.

The only regret? Not having had the time to wander around and have a look at the other bar.

So, if you have a special occasion (where someone else may foot the bill), give it a go!

Price: £££££

Food: *****

Service: *****

Decor: ****

Square Meal

Burger & Lobster – the £20 choice

It always seemed to me like the answer was pretty obvious when you’re offered a lobster, lobster roll or burger for the same price of £20. Yet, surprisingly some people still go for the burger and then end up complaining that it wasn’t that amazing… 

Well, my advice then is: go for the lobster! Grilled or boiled, whichever calls out to you more, adding some garlic butter sauce to it along with the salad and chips. Borderline, go for the lobster roll if you prefer a cleaner style of eating and don’t enjoy all the work involved with eating a lobster.
Boiled lobster
I’ve actually never been to the original “Burger & Lobster” near Green Park station myself, only having recently joined the fans with the opening of the City restaurant on Bread Street which is easily accessible after work and has become my team’s favourite hang out.

Apart from the appeal of the £20 lobster, the casual atmosphere is very welcoming with a very polite and charming waitressing staff. With the food menu easy to decide on and only displayed on a blackboard, you can spend more time on the wide selection of cocktails and drinks. Dessert is a simple choice of two again, both served in unimpressive paper cups (a bit like the small size soup cups from EAT) but fear not, the taste is very satisfying!

Unlike the Mayfair shop, City takes reservations for up to 8 for both lunch and dinner. But as half the tables are saved for reservations they fill up pretty quickly, making an early (or late) walk-in another option.

The websitewon’t tell you a lot, but here are the details you can find on it:

1 Bread street, London EC4M 8SH 
Monday to Friday
from 11.30am to 10.30pm (last orders)
Closed on Weekends and Bank Holidays
We take reservations for parties up
to 8, at both lunch and dinner. Telephone: +44 20 7248 1789
E-mail: city@burgerandlobster.comTwitter: @Londonlobster

Seemingly, unwilling to be found, a search by “1 Bread street” or the postcode alone will lead you to a different place on googlemaps. So here’s the actual location.

Price: £££

Food: ****

Service: ****

Decor: **

Square Meal