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Curious London by Emily Gibson - 1M ago

Statistically, the most dangerous job in the world is king crab fisherman. In terms of mortal peril, it is 75% more fraught than piloting, flight engineering and logging, apparently the next most likely professions in terms of coming a cropper.

I know this because years and years ago I caught the ‘flu, and in my delirium became inexplicably hooked on The Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, a documentary series that chronicles the lives of the people who earn their living dredging up crab pots from brutal and unforgiving seas. The fishermen are at sea for weeks at a time – king crabs live in pretty deep waters, and can only be got at three or four months of the year. The chances of being maimed, thrown overboard or killed are not insignificant (though apparently it’s a lot safer now than it used to be), and, for those who dare, there’s pots of money to be made.

But despite having devoured six seasons of Deadliest Catch in a week, I’d never actually had a chance to eat one of these crusty beasts. They’re cripplingly expensive, for a start, and not that many places in London actually sell it. I recently rectified this at Fancy Crab in Marylebone, which specialises in king crab meat, and I’m a bit cross I didn’t do it sooner. Truly, it is the Kobe beef of seafood and everyone should try it at least once.

Considering its USP, the restaurant is actually pretty unpretentious. There are no white tablecloths and I was very much taken with the gigantic mural of a lady riding a crab, and all the mildly horrifying ‘paintings’ of medieval ladies in compromising positions with monster crustaceans.

Once you consider that a crab is just an enormous armoured spider, a sort of monster truck in arachnid form, and also looks a lot like the face-huggers in Alien, they do give you the heebie-jeebies. The last time I ate a crab that still looked like a crab was in San Diego aged 23, where our waiter made us wear plastic bibs upon which he wrote ‘MY WAITER GAVE ME CRABS’ in Sharpie. (Afterwards I got leglessly drunk at the bar and started an argument with a marine about whether or not people should be allowed to shoot burglars. It was not a classy affair.) The bibs were necessary because eating crab is a messy business, except at Fancy Crab it isn’t because they do all the tedious claw-cracking for you, so the meat is just there ready to be scooped up into your gaping maw. And what meat it is! It’s hard to describe, but it manages to feel meaty and substantial but also delicate and sweet. It’s light and summery but strangely filling… basically, it’s magical stuff and it is so bloody typical of nature to put it down at the very bottom of the ocean where it’s hard to get at.

There’s plenty of other seafood on the menu too (as well as a few half-hearted meat dishes for anyone who misses the point). We started with the sublime ‘Fancy Ceviche’ (£10), unusual in that the cured fish – a mix of yellowfin tuna and sea bass – was served up with the usual tiger’s milk on a layer of smooth sweet potato puree; and the crispy chilli squid (£10) which was individually fried, delectably crispy little squiddies served with a homemade chipotle mayonnaise.

Aside from the crab legs (£18/100g – and two big legs are about 300g), which were exquisite, and our cheery waiter who sported a turquoise and orange crab motif dickie bow, the absolute highlight of the evening was the guacamole. Now, we all know that guacamole is good. Until recently my favourite kind was the stuff they do at El Pastor, which has the option of adding chicharrones (i.e. pork scratchings) to use as dippers, but the guacamole at Fancy Crab is on another level. Truly, they could rename the restaurant to Fancy Guac and redo their mural with a lady riding a big old avocado, and I would still go. They mash it all up table-side, and they SMOKE the avocados beforehand, so the whole dish has this incredible bonfire flavour to it. And then, if you are not a complete idiot, you pay an extra £5.50 to have a generous smattering of king crab chunks mixed in. And then you scoop it out with topotos and shove it in your fat face. The downside is that regular guacamole is now ruined for me. No longer will I enjoy my peasant guacamole, unsmoked and sadly devoid of any crab whatsoever.

The Singapore Chilli Crab seemed like a must-order, and at £28 feels like a more accessible route to that luscious crab meat you’re here to try, but alas was the only disappointment of the meal. The sauce was lurid orange and much too sweet, and tasted more like a really well made chicken tikka masala than anything else. I say that with love – in my view the humble CTM is Britain’s greatest contribution to world gastronomy, but I don’t want to pay £28 for one. Nor do I want a version with the world’s most expensive seafood – it’s a shocking waste. You wouldn’t mince up wagyu steak to put in a burger, would you? (Well, some restaurants do. But the point is that they shouldn’t.)

Naturally, sustainability is a big thing here. King Crabs live only in the darkest, deepest, coldest waters, which is probably why they are so scary looking, because you don’t get to be a bad-ass bitch 600 feet underwater being cute and fluffy. Fancy Crab apparently uses a supplier that throws all the lady and baby crabs back in the water, so it only uses fully-grown males, and also freezes all its crabs on the boat. Apparently king crabs can get quite fighty, and also if one of them dies and goes off it releases a sort of spite toxin that can spoil the rest of the catch. (On the way home I was feeling a bit pissed because I’d drunk half a bottle of Chablis and also swung by Pachamama on the way home for a Pisco Sour worried about the effects of pressure on these crabs, especially the rejected ones that were going up and down in the crab pot like a whore’s drawers, but I googled it on the train and it turns out that crabs don’t get the bends or anything like that. Which is nice.

Finally, I feel compelled to mention the lunch deal Fancy Crab’s got going on, which though only available Monday-Friday is worth keeping in your back pocket for the next time you’re on staycation. Admittedly, the lunch menu is a little light on the star ingredient, but you can’t argue with the price. There’s a good selection of seafood (and non-seafood, for the heathens), and you can get two/three courses and a glass of wine for £16/£19, which is truly bonkers value for a fish restaurant. (PLUS the insane guacamole is on there as a starter.)

Fancy Crab, 92 Wigmore St, Marylebone, London, W1U 3RD

I was invited to visit Fancy Crab and my meal was complimentary. 

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Curious London by Emily Gibson - 1M ago

Although our cultures are sometimes total antitheses of each other, I think that Japan and the UK do have a lot in common.

We’re both small, well-developed islands densely populated with prolific tea-drinkers, and we both have our own idiosyncrasies that, to the rest of the world, must seem quite mad. For instance, the Japanese have toilets that wipe your arse for you and the kind of unfussy appetites that come from living on an island where only a fifth of the land is suitable for growing anything on. Meanwhile, we’re sat in Blighty eating black pudding and watching Fawlty Towers, apparently a source of much bewilderment to literally everyone else on the planet. 

One of the things we do have in common is a tendency to cluster our bank holidays together. I’ve seen some people complain about how close Easter is to May Day and the end of May holiday – people, I might add, who need to get a hobby – but in Japan it’s even more extreme. Today is the beginning of Golden Week, a clump of public holidays so close together everyone just takes the week off. Sort of like half term, but for everyone.

This is really all quite a roundabout way of telling you about my Easter Saturday lunch at Sake no Hana, Japanese sister restaurant to Hakkasan and Yauatcha. Anyone who knows me will know how much I rave on about these places – I’ve visited them collectively about 25 times over the years (and bought a few birthday cakes from the Yauatcha Patisserie in Broadgate Circle), and although most times I’ve paid my way I am occasionally on the receiving end of a blogger invitation. On this occasion, I was in to try the Koinobori Golden Week menu (£52/head), which runs until 11th May.

If you fancy there’s a special cocktail to start with, though at £15 you’re horribly aware of the St James’s postcode you’re sitting in. It contains sakura (cherry blossom) tea cordial, which tastes subtly of apricot and almond, and is balanced with lime juice. It’s a foamy one (listed as ‘foamer’ and not egg white, so I assume it’s vegan-friendly), and decorated with rice paper cut-outs in the shape of koi fish. It’s quite easy to forget about these and have them cling wetly to your lips in a very unattractive fashion (read: it makes you look like a lizard eating human skin), but it’s all very pretty. 

Cups of warm miso soup arrived shortly afterwards, light and comforting, laced with the umami flavours that make Asian food so satisfying. We each chose a main course: for me, fleshy and succulent chicken yakitori skewers with yuzu chilli sauce; for Carla a wedge of soft, flaky miso salmon with asapragus (’tis the season) and wild garlic sauce. 

Before that though there was sushi, which is the real reason to visit Sake no Hana because the things they can do with bits of raw fish is simply exquisite. The likes of Yo! Sushi and the stuff of supermarket fridges are ruined for me.

Spicy tuna was predictably my favourite but the crab was a close second. It was interesting to try inari, which I’d never had before. It’s a little pocket of tofu stuffed with sushi rice, which doesn’t sound particularly flavourful or inspiring but has quite an interesting flavour profile of salty and also slightly sweet. Apparently it’s a popular picnic food in Japan, so I guess it’s their equivalent of a mini Scotch egg.

Some of the sushi was decorated with laser-cut nori, which was absurdly extra but also kind of amazing.

‘Koinobori’ is actually the name of the carp-shaped streamers hung up to celebrate Children’s Day at the end of Golden Week. (The menu explains that koi carp are considered the most spirited fish and can fight their way up streams and waterfalls and are therefore ‘a fitting metaphor for a child’s journey through life’, which is sort of beautiful and very bleak at the same time.) Maybe the association with children is why there are FOUR puddings to finish. Mochi is a sort of sweet dumpling made of gelatinous rice flour, and this made the basis of two of them, bizarrely my favourite and least favourite. The ichigo daifuku (strawberry mochi) is the one all in one piece, and stuffed with the traditional red bean paste. The mitarashi dango was two little mochi balls on a skewer, but these felt a little gummy in both taste and texture.

Dorayaki was something I’d never tried before, red bean paste sandwiched between two sweet blini-type miniature pancakes, and the matcha roll kace, very similar to a Swiss roll but with lighter sponge and, of course, bright green.

The Koinobori Menu is £52 per person, though if you’re going on a Saturday lunchtime my pick would be the Umai Sushi Saturday menu (available 12pm-3pm), similarly priced at £51pp but inclusive of half a bottle of champagne and a cocktail. During the evenings though, it’s a well-priced, lighter alternative to one of the more comprehensive tasting menus providing you’re not absolutely ravenous. (If you are absolutely ravenous then go to Yauatcha for dim sum instead. I always emerge from there looking and feeling like a human blimp.)

Sake no Hana, 23 St James’s St, London SW1A 1HA

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Sure, London has some of the world’s finest theatre, but shit me it’s expensive. Top price seats to most West End shows start at £70 each, if you’re lucky, and ‘premium’ seats for the most popular shows, like Hamilton and Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, can be well over £200. Factor in that often a trip to the theatre is a treat or a gift so you’ll usually be buying at least two at a time…well, for that money you may as well have yourself a little mini-break. Pop over to Lisbon or somewhere.

And don’t even think about pinning your hopes on the ticket lotteries. I have it on good authority that each performance for Hamilton gets about 10,000 entries, so your odds are about 1 in 400. They’re still worth entering though, gives you something to do when you’re having a wee. Moneysavingexpert.com has a great list, and the TodayTix app is absolutely worth downloading. You can set it to automatically enter lotteries for Matilda, Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, Mamma Mia and other productions on shorter runs. Within a few days of downloading I’d scored two £25 Band A tickets to see Matilda on a Friday night, so it does happen sometimes!

I’d also recommend signing up to mailers from LoveTheatre and the like. I never actually buy from these sites because they put a service charge on everything and it’s always cheaper to get them direct, but often they alert you of preview sales, where tickets to the first couple of weeks of a new production go for about half price. I found out about previews for the Adrian Mole musical this way and got top-price tickets for £39.50 each. (I loved Adrian Mole as a child but even I admit the show is going to be either really good or really shit. Seemed to get good reviews on fringe though so fingers crossed!)

But I do think people often forget that there is SO MUCH more to London theatre than the West End. So much even than the ‘off’ West End theatres like Victoria’s The Other Palace theatre, notable for its truly excellent in-house restaurant, The Other Naughty Piglet; the Leicester Square Theatre, a popular warm-up venue on the comedy circuit (the last time I went I saw Bill Bailey for about £15); The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, which offers concessionary rates to anyone under 25; and the Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, the UK’s only full-time LGBT+ theatre. (There’s a very comprehensive list of over eighty of these wonderful institutions here.)

I lived in Islington for six years and still regret not making the most of the fact that the wonderful Pleasance theatre was only a ten minute walk away. I only went a handful of times, despite its acts being consistently excellent and tickets costing as little as a fiver. Mike and I went on a date there once in the early days and saw a magic comedian who made Mike get on the stage and have a total arse made of himself. It was the best £6.50 I spent all year. It’s worth signing up to their mailer because if you are incredibly lucky (and nimble-fingered), you can sometimes get tickets to work-in-progress shows for really big names, like Jimmy Carr, Dara O’Briain and Frankie Boyle, and even those tickets never cost more than £15 each.

Also in Islington is the Old Red Lion Theatre just around the corner from Angel tube station, which just goes to show what you can do with a spare bit of attic and a can-do attitude. It’s literally three rows of wooden benches and a stage you could piss across, and it is handily above a pub so you can do the whole night there. My fondest memory of it is going to see and then unknown production called The Play That Goes Wrong, which has been running on the West End now for years and has spawned a number of spin-offs. (I’ve seen it on the big stage too and it’s still hilarious. Essential for anyone who used to love Fawlty Towers. They’ve got a magic-themed one coming at Christmas and I can’t bloody wait.)

But not all shows in pub back rooms are created equal, because there is a bit of a trend for ‘free’ comedy shows that should be avoided at all costs. Pubs do it to get the punters in – and of course you must go early to secure your spot, and of course you must have a drink or two to pass the time – but you’ll inevitably end up standing or squished up against some bearded mouth-breather with no concept of personal space, and at the end a hat goes round and you end up putting in as much as you’d have paid for a ticket elsewhere because you don’t want to be a dick. Much better to go somewhere like the Pleasance where at least you’re guaranteed a seat and the beer isn’t total piss. Also to be avoided are the West End comedy clubs, though if you must go at least try not to wear nice shoes. They’re sticky, overpriced and seem to take pride in only selling two types of wine (‘shit red’ and ‘shit white’), and after the show they empty out to become the world’s most depressing nightclubs.

If you want a nice comedy club, other than the Pleasance, try Up The Creek in Greenwich, which is genuinely lovely and is tacked onto a brewpub that does lots of teensy-batch beers, if you’re into that. Alternatively, the Soho Theatre covers theatre, comedy and cabaret, and is priced pretty keenly too. (Book a table on the ground floor of wine bar 68 & Boston round the corner to get the night off to a good start – they do a selection of decent bottles for £20 each.)

For cabaret, Cellardoor in an refurbished public lav is a great call, but it’s pretty rammo and gets pretty hot in the summer months. I had my 25th birthday there and in all the pictures I am so sweaty it looks like I’ve dunked my head in a bucket, which is sad because compared to now I look very fresh and young. I’d have some framed if I wasn’t so damp. It’s more of a bar with incidental entertainment than a show per se, but if you’d like a sit-down-and-shut-up type evening then Udderbelly on the Southbank is a good place to look. Some shows are definitely better than others though, so do your research first. The Vaults Waterloo always has some wacky stuff on too (in fact, I went to its Game Of Thrones immersive dining experience last week and it was WILD. Wrote about it here.)

For dance, hit up Sadler’s Wells’ two theatres (in Clerkewell and Holborn), which does everyone from ballet to flamenco. They stage quite a few Matthew Bourne productions and a few wildcards – the best thing I’ve seen there is Les Ballets de Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male ballet troupe. (And by that I don’t mean they are all male ballet dancers doing male ballet dancer things, I mean they are male ballet dancers pretending to be ballerinas. It’s bonkers but brilliant.)

Finally, if music is more your thing, try Live at Zedel, an amazing underground art deco restaurant and performance space off Piccadilly Circus with sweeping ceilings and a very reasonably priced French menu. Its programme is really a mix of everything but it’s mostly music, and some of the late-night performances are free! For an extra classy night of cocktails and jazz, sister speakeasies Nightjar and Oriole are gorgeous bars (in Old Street and Smithfield respectively) worth dressing up for.

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Honestly I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to accept a last-minute invitation to the press preview of Dinner Is Coming, the new Game of Thrones-themed supper club at The Vaults in Waterloo, because I’ve been to these sorts of things before and they tend to be badly-organised, poorly-catered and horribly overpriced. But I’d just watched the first episode of the Season 8, which was a bit of a scene-setting, slow-burning jobbie, so I was gagging for something Westerosi to put me on until the following Monday.

I’m glad I did though, because it was actually a pretty fantastic night out. Maybe it helped that expectations were so low, but it was an evening dotted with what I can only describe as moments of genuine delight. Without giving too much away, it’s basically a murder mystery that you solve collectively by pledging your allegiance to one of the various houses in play – the Bannisters, the Trywells or the Tarragons. (You get a coloured wristband when you sign in which represents your house, but you can defect at any time by going to the bar and asking to swap. Be sure to pick the same coloured wristband as everyone in your party at first so you stay together – you can always switch later.)

The opening scene unfolds in the Throne Room – check out the Iron Throne replica made from knives and forks – but before it all kicks off there’s time to grab a drink from the bar and mingle with some of the characters, which include Margarine Trywell, Varicose the Master of Whispers, Kirsty Bannister and Jaffrey Bearathon, all of whom magnificently channel all the best (and worst) traits of their source characters. (Jaffrey in particular, my boyfriend Mike commented, really captured the essence of being a ‘smug c*nt’.) The cast are the real stars of the evening, delivering deftly written parody that with a bit of tweaking could be a legit show all by itself on the fringe circuit. In between scenes, they’re wandering in between tables interacting with guests and showing off their improv chops.

Food starts coming out once everyone moves to the Banqueting Room, which is impressively decked out in bunting, chandeliers and all the usual fixtures of a medieval feasting tent. (It does get warm in there though, so dress in layers!) Starters and puddings are both vegan and gluten-free: the former an acid green, creamy, smooth and garlicky pea and asparagus soup (I was sceptical but now I’m Googling vegan asparagus soup recipes. I think the secret is nutritional yeast. It’s always bloody yeast with these people.) The latter is a boozy poached pear with cinnamon and star anise, which was nice for what it was but, as Jons Know said, in an accent clearly but inexplicably based on Paddy McGuinness, “It’s fruit! Yer can’t have fruit for puddin’, it’s not right!”

A selection of mains – half vegan, half meat – are served ‘feasting’-style, i.e. on large platters from which everyone helps themselves. There’s more than enough to go around and the only dud was a ‘lightly spiced’ roast cauliflower, which could have been more accurately billed as…roast cauliflower. Crispy chicken wings were fat and flavoursome, but the surprise favourite was a rich bean and sweet potato pie.

If you’re not used to feasting/family-style dining, or maybe not very comfortable with the idea of sitting and eating alongside strangers, it’s a good way to dip a toe into the wonderful world of supper clubs, because you have something in common with every single person at the table. Small talk is completely eliminated because everyone is going to be interested in your mental Night King theories, or your weird character crushes. (For me it’s Ser Jorah, and I think we can all agree that if Greyworm wasn’t missing his cock and balls he’d be the perfect man.)

Tickets range between £35-55/head, with peak pricing on Fridays and Saturdays and the lowest prices on Tuesdays and Sundays. (There’s also a 50% off ticket deal on Time Out for a limited time, which is absolutely mental value and worth it for the show alone. Otherwise, tickets are available here.) Drinks are not included but there’s decently priced beer and wine on offer (and a free glass of Arbor Gold/Dornish Red the end to anyone who correctly solves the murder mystery!) Cocktails are both inventive and well-mixed, as well as reasonably priced at £9/each. We tried the cinnamon-laced whisky-based Waterloo Wildfire, and the Queen of Lizards, a sharp, sour combination of smokey mezcal and grapefruit juice.

Dinner Is Coming is probably the best immersive dining experience I’ve had the pleasure of trying, which is saying something as my former favourite was the wildly successful Gingerline supper club. The food is good and the production values are strong (there are even live dragons!) but it’s the atmosphere that seals the deal.

Dinner Is Coming is playing at The Vaults Tuesday-Sunday until 14th July 2019.
Leake St, Lambeth, London SE1 7NN

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After haranguing a friend who considers herself a staunch Remainer for still frequenting Wetherspoons, it occurred to me how difficult it is to go about everyday modern life without accidentally lining the pockets of some utter bastard. 

Because it really is rare that people become successful businesswomen and men without being – not to put too fine a point on it – arseholes. With a few notable exceptions, being an awful person is pretty much a requisite to success these days, and these awful people are both everywhere and seemingly indestructible. Like cockroaches. Cockroaches riding around in tiny roach-sized Bentleys, rolling in their teensy millions and basically mugging us regular-sized povvos off. It’s bollocks.

For example, if I need to take a train to, say, Milton Keynes (god help me), there’s a choice between handing over some ludicrous sum to Richard Branson and travelling in relative speed and comfort, or paying a bit less and going up in an electrified sardine can via the hinterland of rural Hertfordshire. (Has anyone ever actually MET anyone who lives in Bushey? No, they have not. Nobody lives there. It serves only to add another three mind-numbing minutes onto what is already the longest journey ever.)

And there’s more. I for one am appalled on a more-or-less daily basis that I own a cordless Dyson vacuum cleaner. James Dyson is not somebody I want to be encouraging, even if I do get what is quite frankly a bastion against domestic drudgery in exchange. Who’s the bigger sucker? I have four pairs of admittedly now-threadbare Topshop Joni jeans, even though Philip Green is a man I’d cheerfully risk a short prison sentence for if the opportunity arose to egg him in the street. Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in the world and the cruelty and disregard Amazon shows to its employees is well-documented, but I still order everything on Prime. Basically, I am a hypocrite.

Modern life is fraught with micro-guilt, and sadly nobody has the time or money to police everything they buy. (That said, there is no excuse for wearing Canada Goose. I am sorry but if you have spent £800 odd on a dog fur coat you are a despicable monster. I hope you fall into a ravine and BBC’s camera crew refuses to dig you out, and then I hope a polar bear ravages you and wears your tacky ass as a battle helmet.)

BUT there are some companies I really like, most of whom are in London, who are doing great things in terms of social enterprise, sustainability and all that other good stuff. Check them out, they deserve your appreciation (and pennies!)

HIVER (BEER)

Potentially a bit of a controversial one, because vegans argue that honey is never ethical, but it seems that these days bees need all the help they can get. Hiver makes its two varieties of honey beer from beekeepers in and around London, and also does beekeeping and beer tasting sessions in the summer, which make fabulous gifts or even a very high-brow stag/hen activity. The beer is actually delicious (I prefer the Honey Beer to the Honey Ale); they use the honey as an ingredient rather than an addictive, which means the sugar is mostly fermented away, so you get the taste of honey without the sweetness. You can try it on Bermondsey’s Beer Mile – incidentally a really top afternoon out if you’re into your craft beer.

Plus, all their suppliers are British, and 10% of all profits are donated to pollinator charities.

GUNG HO (CLOTHING)

Speaking of bees, how amazing is this sweatshirt from Gung Ho? All their gear is organic and fairly traded with embroidery done by small businesses in Oxford, and they give a portion of their profits to charity, too. (For instance, £5 from this jumper goes to supporting endangered bees.)

THE SOAP CO (BODY CARE)

I haven’t actually bought anything from The Soap Co yet because I only just found out about it, but I have used it in the bathrooms of the wonderful Brigade London Bridge (see below). It’s going on my list for next time I need to buy a soapy gift because it’s a bit posh to get for yourself unless you are feeling EXTREMELY fancy (think Cowshed in terms of $$$). Not only is it all handmade and very nice on the nose (try the Geranium & Rhubarb one!), but 80% of its 100-strong team across London and the Lake District is blind, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged.

BRIGADE, LONDON BRIDGE (RESTAURANT)

Brigade is a restaurant that takes on homeless people to help teach them employable skills and get them into full-time work. Also, all the food is sustainably and ethically sourced and the meat is some of the best I’ve tried in London! Read more about it here.

NEST, HACKNEY (RESTAURANT)

Nest in Hackney is unique in that it focuses on only one meat at a time, which allows it to support some of the best small-scale producers in the country. At the moment it’s Goosenaugh Duck from North Lancashire, but there’s something different every six weeks or so. (Next is rabbit!) There’s no a la carte, but its seven-course tasting menu is just £38pp. (And there are insane roasts on Sundays – £24pp.)

BATOKO (SWIMWEAR)

It’s not in London but who cares when Batoko has worked out how to make swimming cossies out of recycled ocean plastic, and especially when they look like this!? They’re reasonably priced too, at £40 each.

NUDIE JEANS (DENIM)

My aforementioned crap Topshop jeans are falling apart and now I’m not 24 and have more than £7.50 to my name I’ve been on the hunt for a more ethical jean. A pal put me onto Nudie Jeans, a Swedish company with a Soho store, which are pretty expensive but have an amazing, completely transparent supply chain that tells you all about the little factories churning everything out. They also do free repairs for life, so although a pair will set you back about £120, you could theoretically be wearing them forever. And the people making them are being paid fairly, too, unlike Topshop, who don’t pay anyone a living wage at any stage in manufacture.

UPCIRCLE (BODY CARE)

My sister bought me a few bits from UpCircle back when it was called OPTIAT and made only body scrubs from used grounds from London’s coffee shops. It’s black and gritty and does make a bit of a mess in the shower but in terms of sloughing off dry flaky skin it is hands down the best scrub I’ve ever used. (The peppermint one in particular is DELICIOUS. Sorts your hangover right out.) They’ve recently expanded to include coffee face scrubs, hemp face masks made from leftover husks from a farm in Oxford, and soap from second-hand chai tea spices.

LIMPET STORE (CLOTHING)

Limpet Store is an indie clothing brand that specialises in kooky embroidered tees and sweatshirts with a feminist slant. Everything is small-batch, handmade to order, animal friendly and adorably weird. Illustrator Emily’s designs are available in her online store and also in the pop-up stores of the amazing Tits London, a platform that promotes female artists and designers.

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Never seem to get wind of those awesome soft launches in time to bag a table? Bookmark this page for a comprehensive, idiot-proof list of upcoming opening offers (before anyone else can get to them).

What: Kapten, ride-hailing app (basically identical to Uber, except committed to paying its taxes in the UK, hurrah!)

The deal: 50% off all rides until 28th May, plus £2 off your first five rides with my referral code EMIGIB2. (You can use both promotions together!) Simply download from Google Play/Apple Store and enter in the ‘Coupons and Credits’ section.) You can also earn loyalty points for free rides.

Where: Ooty Station, Marylebone

Cuisine: Fancy Indian-inspired cocktails and bar snacks, opening right next door to the original Ooty fine dining restaurant, which only opened earlier this year.

The deal: 50% off food from 7th to 16th June, with reservations only available for parties of four or more.

Where: SOW, Soho

Cuisine: ‘Natural bowl food’ on-the-go, with veggie and vegan options galore. (NB: I think it’s ‘sow’ as in ‘to sow a seed’, not a lady pig.)

The deal: 50% off food from 11th-15th June. Walk-ins only (it’s more of a lunchtime cafe than a restaurant).

Where: Kanishka, Mayfair

Cuisine: Indian fine dining. I went during the soft launch and it was pretty good – the dal is on a par with Dishoom’s.

The deal: 50% off food AND drinks Monday-Saturday lunchtimes until 16th June exclusively via Hot Dinners. There’s also 50% off food only every Sunday via OpenTable until 30th June.

Where: Monsieur Le Duck, Clerkenwell

Cuisine: One-ingredient menu specialising in Gascony’s favourite food. (Review from its previous Liverpool Street pop-up here!)

The deal: 20% off the entire bill (including drinks!) between 9th May and 31st May when you book in advance quoting ‘20% LUCKY DUCKY’.

Where: The Grand Duchess, Grand Union Canal

Cuisine: Sustainable seafood aboard a permanently moored boat from the people behind The London Shell Co.

The deal: 50% off food between Friday 7th and Thursday 13th June (mostly sold out, but there are a few lunch spots left!) and 25% off food between Friday 14th June and Sunday 16th June. Reservations essential.

Where: Catch Me, Westfield White City

Cuisine: ‘The best of seafood with a twist of Provence’.

The deal: Sign up for the newsletter and get a voucher for 50% off food between Monday 3rd and Friday 7th June.

Where: Hoh Sek, St Katherine’s Docks

Cuisine: Chinese-influenced noodle restaurant from the founder of Rosa’s Thai.

The deal: Stay tuned for details of the soft launch in July.

Where: Allegra, Stratford

Cuisine: Modern European at The Stratford Hotel’s Manhattan Roof Gardens skyscraper from former head chef at Chiltern Firehouse, Patrick Powell.

The deal: TBA, but coming June 2019.

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Never seem to get wind of those awesome soft launches in time to bag a table? Bookmark this page for a comprehensive, idiot-proof list of upcoming opening offers (before anyone else can get to them).

Where: Vintry Kitchen, Cannon Street

Cuisine: Asian small plates in the Vintry & Mercer Hotel.

The deal: 25% off food AND drink from 4th February to the 24th February via OpenTable. Reservations essential.

Where: The Birds, Leytonstone

Cuisine: ‘Vegan junk food’ and ethically sourced fried chicken sandwiches for the meat-eaters.

The deal: 50% off food Monday-Tuesday throughout February.

Where: Percy & Founders, Fitzrovia

Cuisine: Modern British.

The deal: 50% off food Monday-Wednesday throughout February with Hot Dinners’ exclusive reader offer.

Where: Kindred, Hammersmith

Cuisine: Modern European

The deal: 50% off food Wednesday 20th February to Friday 22nd February 2019.  Reservations can be made online.

Where: VIVI, Centre Point

Cuisine: British.

The deal: 50% off food between 16th and 18th February (almost entirely booked up) and 25% off food between 19th and 24th February. Reservations essential.

Where: The Owl and the Hitchhiker, Holloway/Finsbury Park

Cuisine: American pub grub.

The deal: 50% off food every Monday and Tuesday throughout February. (And Tuesdays are quiz nights!)

Where: Allegra, Stratford

Cuisine: Modern European at The Stratford Hotel’s Manhattan Roof Gardens skyscraper from former head chef at Chiltern Firehouse, Patrick Powell.

The deal: TBA, but coming April 2019.

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I have given up meat for January, mainly because I am extremely basic but also because I’ve heard it’s better for the environment, and I usually find that a brief stint of vegetarianism encourages me to experiment with more plant-based recipes, which I can then incorporate into meal plans for the rest of the year. (I just made a steaming pile of these, by the way. They’re brilliant. Super easy to make, about 160 calories apiece and actually even better than the traditional lips ‘n arsehole versions, if you can imagine that.)

That said, there are a few things that would make it hard for me to be a full-time vegetarian, and one of these is a really good steak. Especially with chips, and some sort of obscene sauce, preferably blue cheese but peppercorn will do. One of the best I had last year was at Brigade Bar + Kitchen in London Bridge, which isn’t actually a full-blown steakhouse but if it wanted to could be a par with Hawksmoor, Goodmans and the other heavyweights of London’s premium meat scene, thanks to top-quality 32-day dry aged Cornish beef from butcher-farmers Philip Warren, a wood fire and a chargrill.

You can actually go and pick your steak – sniff it if you like, even – as you might with lobsters in a tank. (I mean, you might. I can’t, the plight of live crustaceans in restaurants makes me exceptionally sad. I was once at a press night at Lima Floral which had an amazing ceviche bar, and I made a total tit of myself getting drunk on Pisco Sours and BAWLING over a giant crab that was part of the decor but still waving its pincers about sadly. I cried like a mad twat and begged the PR to let me buy it off them so I could take it home and nurse it back to health from the bathtub. I figured it would be fine because in two years of living here the only thing anyone has used the tub for is hand-washing woollens, and it’s a big corner one so has plenty of space for a new crab friend snatched from the jaws of death. The PR seriously looked like she wanted to kill me and/or find a new profession and hasn’t spoken to me since, so, if you’re reading this Amy, I’m really sorry for being a bellend and ruining your pisco party.)

Steak (and crabs) aside, the plant-based options sound a bit wishy-washy at face value, especially when sat next to 700g of gorgeous, nutty Cornish bone-in sirloin (£55 with sides, enough for 2-3 people), but then you remember that almost everything gets the charcoal treatment and once you know that, the ‘wood roasted hispi cabbage, tenderstem broccoli, cauliflower, crispy kale & salsa verde’ actually sounds quite brilliant.

A handsome, roly-poly burrata with smoked heritage beetroot (£9.00) was delicious as burrata almost always is, but the confit pork shoulder with charred gem salad, apple, roast potatoes and sour apple mayo (£10) was something truly special with tart apple slicing through the richness of the pork like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cutting through one of Donald Trump’s dunder-headed global warming tweets. (God, I love her.)

I mentioned yeast butter in my post on 2019’s food trends and this is one of the places you can try it, served if thick, glossy slugs alongside slabs of charred homemade sourdough, although Brigade’s version was a shade on the salty side for me. The wine list is short and sweet, and almost everything is sold by the glass or the litre.

One of the best things about Brigade is its quiet but dogged commitment to the local community, which on close inspection actually borders on a conscientiousness that’s almost obsessive. The soap, for instance, is from The Soap Co, a London-based company that almost exclusively employs blind and disabled people. Everything is seasonal and as local as possible, from the Bermondsey-made Little Bird gin in the Negronis and the salmon from Hackney’s Secret Smokehouse, to the seasoned woods and charcoals from The London Log Company. The founder of Brigade, Simon Boyle, is also the founder of the Beyond Food Foundation, which offers certified apprenticeships to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, to help them learn restaurant and FOH skills that can get them back in control of their lives. I’m not the type to get misty-eyed over this stuff if the food isn’t up to snuff, but when almost everything we ate was so exemplary it’s hard not to feel pleased about supporting something so worthwhile.

There are a few initiatives like this in London but they’re mostly coffee shops and cafes, rather than what I’d describe as top-end casual dining. Often these kinds of do-gooding establishments have an air of one of the more cheerful family planning clinics: invariably bright and airy but slightly on the spartan side, lest any flashiness detracts from the main mission. Brigade isn’t like that at all. To start with, it’s in an old Grade II-listed fire station, the first public one in Britain, actually, and if that isn’t cool as fuck I don’t know what is. It’s a shame they haven’t managed to keep hold of any of the original poles because nothing would please me more than whizzing down a 19th century period feature to get to the lavs, but they have done a lovely job on the interiors with plenty of tastefully expensive House of Hackney fabrics and that moody Farrow & Ball blue (Hicks Blue, possibly?) that’s everywhere at the moment.

I went to Brigade as part of a press dinner, so I didn’t see a bill, but a meal for two with plenty of booze would come in at £70-100 including service. I have also popped in for breakfast and it’s a solid option for all your early morning eggs and avocado-based needs, but you can’t have one of those gorgeous gigantic steaks for breakfast, can you?

Brigade, 139 Tooley St, London SE1 2HZ

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