Saturday, 20 November 2010

El Cantara: My Road to Morocco (via Spain)

The Sheltering Sky, Morrocan desert
The Sheltering Sky
I have always longed to visit Morocco. In fact, I don't remember a time when North Africa didn't intrigue me. A passionate traveller and explorer of different cultures, Africa always appeared so fascinatingly dissimilar to anything I had ever known. Highly naively (but perhaps not surprisingly), my longing originated at the cinema. Wondering with my Grandfather how anyone could look as beautiful as Ingrid Bergman in a Casablanca bar; or marvelling at Meryl Streep's Kenyan home, wildlife treks and wonderful costumes in Out of Africa. I hope that as I grew older (and cinema progressed) my appreciation and understanding of what Africa might actually be like, became more sophisticated. Still, I have happily allowed films to provide me with temporary 'transport'. Raiding my parents' movie collection, I was seduced by 'Morocco' on-screen: The Sheltering Sky, Hideous Kinky and Babel each seemed highly evocative in their cinematography, use of colour and music. And, until I visit for myself, I must rely on films, books and the media, for some African access. But wait, there's also food.
Marrakech market, food
A Marrakech market

A handful of critically acclaimed Moroccan restaurants, including several affordable options, have carved a confident place for the spicy and sumptuous cuisine in our culinary-diverse city. North African food in London is having a fashionable moment. Keen to share the spotlight is recently-refurbished El Cantara restaurant, whose head chef Noureddine Khouyi made his name in Marrakech's Mamounia and London's Isis and Pacha. One difference here: the restaurant is a Moroccan and Spanish dual-offering; the name El Cantara, means "bridge" in Spanish and Arabic. I hadn't knowingly experienced this culinary coupling before, but it's not a surprising one given their interlinked history and Moorish influence on Spanish food, for example in stews and pastries. Asked for dinner at El Cantara, I was excited about the prospect.
El Cantara, Moroccan restaurant, Soho
A selection of El Cantara's dishes

Entering from Soho's bustling and icy Frith StreetEl Cantara welcomes guests by enveloping them within its warm red and orange walls and soft furnishings. Photographs, artefacts and lanterns adorn the opulent space, all of which were sourced in the markets of  southern Spain and North Africa by co-owners Hamza Harrak and Sam Mallach, and Moroccan interior designer Nadine Rovass. Sit on the ground floor and transport yourself to a Spanish taverna, with terracotta and walnut floors. Sip a glass of sangria and share tapas, before a flavoursome 'Paella Valenciana'. Or, head to the first floor dining room, based on a Bedouin retreat with ruby-red textiles and hand-engraved brass tables. Outside, there is a private terrace, for smoking shisha or relaxing with a cocktail. Luckily, outdoor heaters make this is viable option for winter, open until 1am on weekends (when you can also enjoy belly dancers).

Paella Valenciana, El Cantara restaurant
Paella Valenciana

As for my evening at El Cantara, we began tapas-style, with a selection of Moroccan and Spanish favourites. Complementing each other well, dishes were fresh, tasty and moreish. A unanimous favourite was the 'Pastila of chicken' (pastry was thin and crispy on the top and perfectly softened under the succulent meat filling). Not to forget the super-soft olive bread ('Pan de Alceltuna'), which was delightful on its' own and spectacular with homemade houmous. Also surprisingly anything-but-simple in taste were the warming spinach and feta pastries. 

Pastila of chicken, El Cantara restaurant
Pastila of chicken

Perfect for friends who are happy to share, every diner receives a tapas-sized place for each course. So, we continued in this spirit and chose several main dishes from either country to sample. Alongside the generous seafood paella, we devoured a tender, suitably seasoned and honeyed lamb tagine. Pleased to find fluffy couscous and a tasty mixed grill nearby, I easily imagined that I could walk out onto the streets of Morocco. Or Spain. I wasn't sure which, but after a tasty fusion of both cuisines, I didn't think it mattered. 

Lamb tagine, El Cantara restaurant
Lamb tagine

To finish, we enjoyed 'Baklawa' which were soft, nutty and delectably sweet. 'Crema Catalana' (the Spanish Creme Brûlée) was one of the best I've ever tasted and pistachio ice cream proved the perfect palate cleanser. As ever, I thoroughly enjoyed the Moroccan fare and my determination to visit continues. The Spanish infusion was surprisingly welcome and ensured a unique menu.

City Girl (EC1) was a dinner guest of Jori White PR.

Images: 1) Stylus magazine, 2), 3), 5), 6) Thank you to El Cantara, 4) my own.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

David Koma S/S 2011, Modus Publicity

Last week, I attended Modus Publicity's impressive press day in West London: a buzzing expanse of prominent fashion labels, people and plenty to get excited about for Spring/Summer 2011. Amongst many brands I was pleased to peruse up-close, my eyes darted excitedly to David Koma's exhibit, as soon as I walked through the door. The fashion world has taken David Koma under its (highly-selective) wing, since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2009, with a distinction in MA Fashion. He has since won the Harrods Design Award, the Vauxhall Fashion Scout Merit Award and landed The British Fashion Council's NEWGEN sponsorship, which financed his S/S 2011 collection (Holly Fulton was also sponsored, whose S/S 2011 collection I also viewed at London Fashion Week). Striving to cement his style and continue to impress the fickle fashion world, it must be difficult for David (and Holly) not to feel the pressure. However, David's latest and only third collection, wowed the vast majority of critics. Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue and Rhianna, are also fans. 

Beyonce wearing David Koma dress, MTV Awards
Beyoncé wearing an A/W 2009 David Koma dress, MTV Awards

Central to David Koma's popularity thus far have been sculptured silhouettes (often architecturally-inspired), bold, theatrical embellishments and a powerful use of colour. The proud wearer of his clothes need not be shy, but confidently ready to take on the world, albeit perhaps, a futuristic one. See how the geometric-shaped metal tubing on Beyoncé's dress accentuates and celebrates her curves, while referencing Italian futurists Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni as inspiration. Alongside such experimental elements such as the metal tubing, David mostly selects natural materials, such as silk, wool or leather. 

David Koma A/W 2010-11
A/W 2010
David Koma, S/S 2010
S/S 2010
David Koma, A/W 2010
A/W 2010
David Koma, S/S 2010
S/S 2010
David Koma, A/W 2010
A/W 2010
Some are clearly more wearable than others, despite my delicious desire to turn up at a dinner party wearing one of the more cinematic creations. However, I've no doubt that David's celebrity following will provide the latter with a spectacular showcasing. Now back to the S/S 2011 collection, which I set my impatient sights on, arriving at Modus' press day.

First spot: a slightly different, softer initial offering, as was displayed at London Fashion Week, where David unveiled his dainty models to the haunting sound of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. However, just as the music upped tempo, so did David. Everything got tougher and darker (presumably as the swan story unfolds), but even the fiercest of looks were infused with a grown-up glamour. Quite a transformation for a same-season collection: from blushing, pale-pink tutu skirts, delicate organza and ladylike peplums, to python (!), signature geometric leather and strong panelling. A big fan of Art Deco, I was delighted to witness its unmistakable inspiration here. suggests that "this young talent is still learning to refine his ideas." That may be, but I relished the experimentation, particularly up close. What's it like to feel these clothes? Magnificent. The shapes, textures, strength of material and craftmanship are remarkable. And, while the fashion world craves a 'statement style', I'm confident that David's ability to diversify (alongside his proven talent) will give him a long fashion life. Besides, it is only his third collection (not including his graduate collection). All pics below are David Koma, S/S 2011:

David Koma, S/S 2011David Koma, S/S 2011
David Koma, S/S 2011David Koma, S/S 2011
David Koma, S/S 2011

David Koma, S/S 2011David Koma, S/S 2011

Here are some of my close-ups:

Images: 1) Vogue, 2-6) David Koma on Facebook, 7-14), 15-18) My own, thanks to Modus Publicity.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Avril (April in Love) review

If you are staying in tonight and sheltering from the icy winds, there is a really charming French film on Sky, called Avril (or April in Love). On first reading the synopsis, I didn't expect to become so completely captivated by this unique feature debut from Gerald Hustache-Mathieu. But, from the opening scene, it is mesmerising. From Avril herself (played by the talented Sophie Quinton) and her excellent cast-members, to the charming story and exquisite cinematography, this is a must-see for fans of French cinema and will strike a chord with other viewers as it explores universal themes of identity, family, change, religion and the journey of life. There is also a wonderful soundtrack - check out the trailer below! I won't give the whole story away here, but I have written a fuller article on Avril for Cinemoi's website, where you can read about the plot and cast. Here is the trailer (brief nudity):

Avril won Le Prix Cinema de la Fondation Diane & Lucien BarriereI'd love to hear your thoughts.

Avril (April in Love) is showing tonight, Saturday 13th November, at 5.30pm on Cinémoi (Sky channel 343). Here you can subscribe to Cinémoi

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Return to EC1: The Modern Pantry

Following an exhausting but exhilarating schedule of press events, meetings, writing assignments and social activities, I still feel don't feel like my feet are touching the ground, nor my fingers touching these keys. Confusion and bewilderment, à la Stephen Dorff? Not quite, but I should know better and endeavour to blog throughout the whirlwind that has characterised (or engulfed) City Girl's recent diaries. So, where to start? How about the London I know best, for one of my fondest methods of relaxation and comfort. Brunch. At The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell, EC1. 

The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell
External view

The Modern Pantry sits comfortably but rather unassumingly on the edge of St John's Square: a characteristic-Clerkenwell mix of old and new, offices and historical monuments, hip hotels (The Zetter) and homely, restorative food, like The Modern Pantry fare. With cobbled streets on one side, a pristine and recently laid courtyard in-front, the restaurant's core philosophy centres on this contrast. It's name, devised by culinary creator and chef Anna Hansen, embodies "the desire to please and excite the palate by fusing everyday cooking with modern ingredients." And that, it does. There are two sections, the Café and Restaurant. The latter comprises two dining rooms upstairs and, overlooking the square, you can enjoy a more private eating experience. You can even hire both rooms out. But, after my tiring recent timetable, the more informal café was exactly what I craved.

Muffins and flapjacks, breakfast at The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell
Breakfast at the Pantry
The chic cafe at The Modern Pantry
The Café
Visit for Sunday brunch, as I did, and encounter the traditional cooked breakfast that we all enjoy, but with an enticingly tastier and international twist. Fancy an omelette? Try 'Sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, with spring onions, coriander and smoked chilli sambal'. How about waffles? Go for 'Danish potato and beer waffle, with bacon, pea shoots and maple syrup'. Or, if your palate prefers a reliably fond favourite, select (free-range and organic) eggs as you like them, with chunky, crispy homemade bread, smoky streaked bacon, slow-roast tomatoes and buttered mushrooms. Which is what I devoured, although it was incredibly difficult to choose. Testament to the originality of the menu and laid-back ambience, I wouldn't blame anyone for ordering more than one dish; tasting plates would certainly be a treat.

Lunch to take away, The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell
Lunch to take away
As for my chosen eggs and accompaniments, the extremely fresh ingredients were perfectly cooked and the balance between comfort-food and not-too-greasy-fry-up was spot on. Of course, this is no ordinary breakfast, so team yours with a Lychee Bellini (delicious) or a Japanese Mary (apparently, a Bloody Mary with wasabi); I wasn't looking for such a kick with my comfort food, but maybe next time I'll try it. The café houses one long, communal table and several smaller ones; you do need to arrive early to secure a table for two. The atmosphere was relaxed via minimalist surroundings, which managed to be both quaint and contemporary. A white-washed New England with rustic bread baskets, meets cocktails before noon, in Soho, New York.  

Miso marinated steak, The Modern Pantrym Clerkenwell
Miso Marinated Onglet Steak, Cassava Chips

To my delight, The Modern Pantry isn't only open for breakfast/brunch (see opening times here). I will surely return with a review of the restaurant at a later date, but for now I can only speak for the café. You can enjoy an all-day menu and share small plates with friends, such as rock oysters, roast chestnuts and date and feta fritters. Choose later from main courses and desserts that are equally creative and sound like they're infused with flavour (I must return to confirm). I particularly like how the main dishes are coupled with suggested wines and desserts are so freshly inventive, despite reasonable prices. On my return, I am eager to sample the 'Green tea and kaffir lime leaf meringue, poached feijoa, candied green chilli and vanilla cream' and the 'Baked lemon custard, cashew and cinnamon shortbread'. Palate-pleasing, indeed. 

Peanut pannacotta, The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell
Peanut Pannacotta, Kalamansi Lime & Wasabi Jelly

So, brunch is great. The rest sounds equally as appetising. And who to thank? Anna Hansen. You may know the Canadian-born, Australian-raised chef from her partnership with Peter Gordon at the award-winning Marylebone restaurant, The Providores. Previous to that, Anna worked in New Zealand, for Stephanie Alexander in Australia and at The Sugar Club in Soho. She first trained as a chef under Fergus Henderson, at The French House Dining Room, also in Soho. Henderson later founded the renowned St. John restaurant, around the corner from The Modern Pantry. Similar to St. John, The Modern Pantry boasts a separate store, well, 'Pantry', selling sandwiches, soups, pastries and cakes to take away. If you wish to pre-order for home/the office, call John on 020 7553 9210. The Mobile Pantry also offers a full service for coporate or private clients and includes a full menu: cocktails and canapes to buffets/banquets and matching wines. 

Private dining room, The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell
Private dining room
An extremely exciting venture, The Modern Pantry is a must-visit if you're in my part of town and well-worth the transport fare, if you're not. Open since 2008, it enjoys continued success and has gained two AA rosettes and a "Bib Gourmand" in the Michelin Guide 2009.

Images) Thank you to The Modern Pantry.

Monday, 1 November 2010

SOMEWHERE enchanting : Sofia Coppola's latest film

(Apologies for a 'technical fault' with this post - will be rectified soon!)

On Thursday, I attended the UK premiere of Sofia Coppola's new film Somewhere, one of the final screenings of the BFI's 54th London Film Festival. After winning the 'Golden Lion' (the ultimate prize) at the recent Venice Film Festival, there has been an exciting buzz of anticipation about the film and its director. Daughter to Francis Ford Coppola, who directed my all-time favourite The Godfather trilogy, Sofia has gained my affection all by herself, for her own distinctive filmmaking and contribution to a non-Hollywood cinema. From the stunning, hypnotic cinematography in The Virgin Suicides to a shared loneliness and dislocation in Lost in Translation, Coppola's writing and directing have stood out from the Hollywood blockbuster crowd. And, for her off-beat, observational direction, the independent film community adores her. Somewhere, had quite a reputation to uphold. Eliciting mixed reviews so far (and I expect more will follow), I found it, in the words of Tarantino at Venice Film Festival, "enchanting". The trailer is below (see here for a fuller Somewhere trailer).

Johnny Marco, Hollywood actor and party-boy with glamorous girls falling at his feet, is not content. It's not that he's particularly depressed (although his lethargy and apathy are palpable). Rather, Johnny appears bewildered; he doesn't seem to understand why he's in such an enviable position or why he receives relentless attention. Certainly, he does nothing to encourage it; his speech consists of monosyllabic answers, he dons the same jeans and old t-shirt and he actively refuses to court press and fans. Instead, we see Johnny as an ordinary person, caught up in an alien world of excess at the Chateau Marmont hotel (where he's staying for an unspecified time). For most of us, celebrity equals an extraordinary existence, but for someone who's supposedly accustomed to such a lifestyle, Johnny seems no more comfortable within it, than we would be ourselves. Johnny is numb. He is nonchalant. He lets the superficial, empty world in which he's found himself, wash over him, hoping that no one notices his lack of interest. He is a fascinating anti-hero, masterfully played by Stephen Dorff, who achieves so much in so few words or even body/facial movements. In one scene when Johnny's left alone, wrapped in bandages for a mould of his face, his heavy breathing and stilted silhouette become some of the film's most poignant forms of communication. Significantly, Coppola's playful and satirical humour punctuates any melancholy with other brilliantly executed scenes. The curious yet distracted eye movements made by Johnny as two pole-dancers 'entertain' him, is one highly amusing example. If you've seen Lost in Translation, you can almost picture Bill Murray's character Bob Harris (another famous actor) propped up in bed alongside Johnny at this point, or in Johnny's reflection as he repeatedly washes his face. You might also remember Bob's bewilderment during the "Lip my stockings" scene. (Watch the trailer for Lost in Translation, at the bottom of my blog page).

Bill Murray/Bob Harris in Lost in Translation
Surely, Coppola had been thinking of Bob Harris, in her creation of Johnny and, despite an altered time and place, that's one reason why Somewhere may elicit mixed reviews. It's a clear continuation of the earlier film's theme, ambience and character. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this film more if I hadn't seen the former, however this is a self-contained story in its own right. You could argue that Somewhere is Coppola's thematic sequel to Lost in Translation, but would that be any more of an issue than other directors who return to the same genre? Tarantino, for example, is most on-form when concentrating on his signature preoccupations, genres and impressive stylization. If people write or direct 'what they know', Tarantino is no doubt recalling his endless thriller/gangster/horror movie-watching as he grew up. Coppola, here, is perhaps channelling her loneliness as a daughter of a famous, travelling film director; who knows whether Dorff himself is supposed to share any similarities with her father. If this is an autobiographical piece, Coppola almost certainly deserves a critique of the film by itself, not to have it grouped with others.

Stephen Dorff & Elle Fanning, Somewhere

Similarities or differences aside, I found Somewhere enchanting. Coppola's trademark flair for an unhurried filming pace, lingering shots and character-driven narratives are all evident. Here, we are forced to be more observational than ever (perhaps an ironic comment on our celebrity-invasive culture?) and what we see before us, is very real.  

Somewhere captures real feelings that we all have from time-to-time and, through indulgently slow, observational camerawork, the audience becomes a fly on Johnny's wall as he goes about his (vacuous) daily life. We remain interested as Johnny washes his face or drives his car round in circles, because whether real or metaphoric, we can relate to what's happening. We all experience moments when we lose direction and struggle to re-find it. And, it's often our relationships that stir us on to re-claim our path. Like Bob Harris, Johnny is ensconced in a past-his-celebrity-peak-slumber and half-tries to wake himself 

up, but he doesn't try hard enough. Until, the entrance of a pivotal female character (for Bob, travelling 'companion' Scarlett Johansson; this time Johnny's daughter, Elle Fanning). In both films, the female lead becomes a catalyst not so much for an on-screen, radical and revelatory journey of self-discovery, but for the recognition that change is possible. Like Dorff, Fanning is superb and filming of her is equally intimate and laid-back, as she cooks breakfast or practices ballet. The delicately portrayed relationship between the two is enough of a reason to see this film, if you're not already convinced. 
I'd love to hear your thoughts! x

Images: 1), 2) + 3) Los Angeles Times.

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