Thursday, 17 June 2010

Fig, Off

I could blame the Blumenthal zeitgeist, I could bemoan the jaded palates of Islington which demand the culinarily arcane be proffered in their domestic midst, but the main draw to ‘Fig’, a smallish shop-front gastro in otherwise mid-posh residential Barnsbury, is curiosity - chef Christoffer Hruskova has quickly snagged a reputation for alchemical cookery with a Nordic twist. Jeff and I went for what was approximately my birthday.

Unfortunately, the main aroma on entering the place was the drains. Urgently dispatched to investigate, the proprietor ‘solved’ the problem by opening both front and back doors of the restaurant, replacing the sewage smell with cigarette choke drifting from the pub-like courtyard.

Less than half-full even on a non-footy Friday night, Fig lacks warmth, either in d├ęcor or charm: service mixes gay hauteur with insouciance, and the lack of engagement between front of house and customers is a flaw in what should be a favoured ‘local’.

Menus are complex but at least in English and we congratulated ourselves on only having to ask one ‘what’s that’ question (Koldskaal is a bland Danish buttermilk soup). Smoked diver scallops with apple flavours was accurate except that the scallops were only just plural and had no taint of smoke other than the fag-waft from the back yard, but the combination of tart and dessert apple, radish and shoots was a lovely foil to the sweet flesh. Four would have been a better portion.

Jeff's starter was wild sea trout which he was informed was served hot. It wasn’t and the tiny tranches of fridgy flesh were wrapped in some salty black substance and each crowned with a fingernail of crisped skin. The barely-attendant carrot, sea buckthorn and rye were subliminal in their involvement with the dish.

Of the mains, my ‘Suffolk roe buck’ (venison) was the star with perfectly cooked loin fillet and a sharply seasoned jellied terrine of the leg, with some interesting mushrooms dotted on the plate including a morel. One morel. His seabass was well-cooked but dull by comparison.

There’s a cleverly-sourced wine-list of unusual varieties including Picpoul de Pinet, Malvasia, Cannonau and Tannat, mostly in the £25-35 bracket. Selling unusual varieties does bamboozle the customer who has no idea what the shop price might be for such obscure wines.

Desserts were again hit and miss, one involving four blackberries and a cream-filled cannelloni was derided in favour of a series of cherry confits, jellies and sorbets which looked fine but weren't saturated with juice or sweetness.

For three courses with one bottle of wine, tap water and no coffee we paid £110. There’s a tasting menu at £45 with wine selections for £35, all plus 12.5% service. Fig is at 169 Hemingford Road N1 1DA, handy for the new Overground station at Barnsbury.

Originally written for

Friday, 11 June 2010

Thursday in the Park with Karen


Why should you go to a basement venue condemned for redevelopment to hear a tall slender American woman you probably haven’t heard of sing the works of a long-dead composer and lyricist? Because, trust me, you should. For three good reasons.

: Karen Akers has a ten-album back-catalogue (much of it available on Amazon, some of it actually on cassette) and a Tony-nominated Broadway pedigree but most of her celebrity didn’t cross the pond and she’s a vibrant and elegant delight still to be ‘discovered’ in London. At 64.

Two : closing in a couple of months Pizza on the Park is the nearest thing we have to New York’s Oak Room at the Algonquin, or Cafe Carlyle, where experienced singers appear in a truly intimate cabaret setting. Since Akers has a beguiling way of catching your eye - when she sings directly at you, it’s almost alarming - this is a connection we simply can’t experience in today’s ever-expanding music venues.

: The songs are by Cole Porter, arguably the finest 20th century American composer and lyricist - and one of the few to pen all the words and all the music to almost all his works.

Akers works the lyrics in hear clear, strong, just-above-baritone conversational voice (her speaking and singing voices are close in timbre) only occasionally pressing the point too firmly as though lecturing deaf foreigners. She sings eighteen numbers, and you’ll know at least a dozen from classic interpretations by Ella Fitzgerald or Merman or Sinatra.

Porter’s verse introductions are so ingeniously wordy, and Akers milks them so thoroughly that it’s a bit like a game of ‘Name That Tune’ but those you’ll nail easily include ‘Anything Goes’, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and 'Always True To You Darling In My Fashion'. She spins them too, taking the usually-belted cowboy anthem ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ at a sultry pace and finding new meaning by delivering it softly as a torch song till you wonder why they never chose her version as the theme to ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

It's good too to hear the chattery pattery songs like 'Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby' or the rarely-performed 'Tale of the Oyster' from Porter's (deservedly) rarely-performed musical 'Fifty Million Frenchmen', and Akers obviously relished sharing these with her audience.

Consummate. It’s a good word. Go and experience it, before it’s gone.

and I made a slightly scurrilous AudioBoo after the show.