Tom’s talking Italian at Quartieri

The latest Whampdinner took us down the KHR and (via the ever-splendid Black Lion) into Quartieri, to see what all the fuss was about regarding apparently authentic Italian pizzas…

It’s cheery inside, smart but laid-back, with one wall housing a remarkable array of herbs and chilis, quite a sight, and wonderful to know they’re going straight into the dishes.

Quartieri herb garden

Browsing the menu in advance I immediately got the impression these were ‘serious’ pizzas, as many appeared simple, without too many toppings, and no additional ones (though there were some less-standard choices available, and a special, a lemon-based one which sounded intriguing).

My table quickly devoured a charcuterie board, and looking across the room I noted an elegantly presented salad indicating care and attention. This seemed to have what looked like crisps placed on top; Mark noted several comments on these, in some cases accompanied by quirky Italian terminologies for fried this or that, but I think we’re all in agreement that yes, those were crisps!

Quartieri charctuerie

The bruschetta was good, as was the gnocchi (we tried some as a bonus starter) – somehow light yet rich, with a tantalising softness to it and just a little ‘edge’ as well. For both these dishes, I’d have liked a touch more salt, but then I’ve probably mashed my tastebuds due to decades of, well, getting mashed.

Quartieri Bruschetta

Quartieri gnocchi

I selected the Puttanesca pizza. With simple pizzas there’s nowhere to hide, so there has to be seasoning and taste; and indeed this was delicious, with strong flavours and satisfying dough. For sure, it had a touch of class and confidence to it, which I think is is what we were hoping for with this type of venture.

I was puzzled by all the toppings being in the centre (from the menu: Agerola fior di latte, slow food capers, and Caiazza black olives from Selanova), and although I admired the intention of these dark, intense olives being unpitted, this did inevitably mean it wasn’t easy to get a taste of everything in one bite. More puzzling was the omission of the stated Casa Marazzo organic tomatoes, especially as the whole menu sings-out “tomatoes!” throughout. The bonus addition of basil added a nice dimension though. Whatever, I’d happily have been back to try other options at 8am for breakfast given the opportunity. (Well perhaps 10am).

Quartieri pizza puttanesca

Service, via the friendly but professional Luka, was efficient, and we enjoyed a chat with the effusive founder, Tony, who seemed to be an exact 50-50 Italian / English mix. Us simpletons were amused and confused in equal measure initially, when Tony read menu options in vibrant Italian before sounding like a Kilburn pub landlord moments later.

We tried two reds: Aglianico Quartieri 17 – “savoury, meaty notes and plum fruit characterise this dry house red” – indeed it was dry, quite a refreshing wine to start off with, then Piedirosso Pompeiano 20 – “a medium bodied red with hints of strawberry on the nose and strawberry & blackcurrant on the palette” – a similar lightness (12.5% ABV) but with rather more to it, to match up against the grub.

A note about the chili oil – it was excellent. That sort of heat which creeps up, transpiring to be far more complex and indeed spicier than expected. Now, I tried to stitch-up poor old Goetz on my table, by assuming a nonchalant manner and suggesting “put tons of it on, it’s very mild” – however, as Goetz already knows I’m an idiot, he saw through my devious plan immediately – dismissing it with a chuckle and a bite of his calzone. Doh!

High quality pizzas, then lounging about in The Black Lion a couple of doors down – sounds like a sensible Kilburn-based evening, does it not? Welcome, Quartieri – we look forward to next time.

La Traviata at The Tricycle

As a total opera novice, I was not sure what to expect when I sat down in the Tricycle’s auditorium for two hours of Verdi. Would I be able to suspend my disbelief and go along with all the characters singing at each other? Will the operatic performances just be too big for the tricycle’s small theatre? Will I even understand any of it?!

I needn’t have worried. OperaUpClose have spent the last six years developing opera performance for small spaces, having started with La Boheme in the now sadly defunct Cock Tavern Theatre on Kilburn High Road. Their work is designed to be accessible to everyone, and for an intimate ‘up close’ performance. They have even managed to bag themselves an Olivier Award for their efforts.

This production of La Traviata has been around for a while, but has been revived for a short run at the Tricycle. Artistic Director Robin Norton-Hale has translated Verdi’s original into an English version, so there’s no need to worry about not speaking Italian, and the score has been edited, zipping along at a pacy 2 hours 15 minutes, including interval. Yes, I was in the pub by 9.30!

Verdi's La Traviata_poster

The story, which will be familiar to many, focuses on lovers Violetta and Alfredo, and their doomed relationship. This version is set in 1920s America, and the set and costumes are really stylish, with the entire cast permanently dressed to the nines – Violetta manages to look glamorous even when wearing pyjamas! We are instantly drawn into this world of parties, dancing and champagne, but even at the opening it is clear to see there is a darker side to all the frivolity.

The set looks great, a lovely touch is the subtle backdrop of a proscenium arch and curtain, behind the set, serving as a reminder that this is, after all, theatre. There are a couple of slightly clunky set dressing moments, which are carried by the musicians and it is a shame that they end up tucked away in the corner of the action, barely visible. The trio keep the piece moving along nicely, adding backbone to the muscular vocals on display, and are given the occasional moment to shine, but this production is all about the voices.

As Violetta, Louisa Tee steals the show. Her vocal dexterity is mesmerising, and she carries herself so well, exuding charm and vivacity, it’s easy to see why Alfredo is so enamoured of her. Robin Bailey’s Alfredo has a less-polished delivery, but the raw edge to his voice really worked for the character and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up whenever he sang. In a good way. During the run, four of the five cast members are on rotation, with three singers alternating for each of them. I don’t know if this is a regular practice in opera, but I can certainly see the need to protect the performers’ voices, as they are absolutely giving their all.

The English translation worked for me, because I am only a little familiar with the Italian original, but I can imagine that purists would find it jarring. There were a few moments where the singers seemed to struggle with the phrasing, trying to fit the English words into a rhythm created for Italian, and I couldn’t help but feel that some of the beauty of the arias was, literally, lost in translation.

These moments were, for me at least, few and far between, and I had no trouble losing myself in the story and getting caught up in the emotion. Within a few minutes I had ceased to be aware that the cast were singing in this elaborate manner and I was transfixed. The drama is high, with little room for subtlety, but this is opera, after all, and a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre. I’m not ashamed to say I left the auditorium with a tear in my eye, and I will be going back for more.

La Traviata runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 4 July. Catch it while you can!

Theatre review: The Dissidents

Last week the Tricycle Young Company took over the Tricycle for a festival of theatre, film, music and poetry. Headlining the takeover was The Dissidents, an energetic play with a large ensemble cast, all aged between 19-25. It was written by Shamser Sinha for the Tricycle Young Company, and depicts life in contemporary London for young people living on the breadline.

Members of the Tricycle Young Company (photograph: Mark Douet)

Members of the Tricycle Young Company (photograph: Mark Douet)

We catch a glimpse of the experiences of brother and sister, Juan and Selena, who are struggling to make ends meet after the death of their father. Their lives are overshadowed by austerity measures, including their final moments with their father in an overworked NHS hospital, and Juan’s brief career at Poundland as part of the government’s ‘back-to-work’ scheme. The play encapsulates the anger and frustration of its young characters, who feel they are being stereotyped and criminalised, without being given the opportunities they need to improve their situation.

The production made great use of the stage, transforming it between scenes within seconds into familiar urban settings. Many members of the cast played multiple parts, and the quick changes between scenes and characters made the play a little hard to follow in places. The dream sequences were particularly well choreographed however, making use of the large cast, and creating an eerie, disturbing atmosphere.

Stevie Basaula and Tania Nwachukwu did a fantastic job as Juan and Selena, particularly in the emotional final scenes. The play could have done with a bit of polishing, but overall it was a very enjoyable evening and it would be great to see more of the Tricycle Young Company.

Review: Happy Birthday Without You

Photo by Luke Pajak

Photo by Luke Pajak

Violet Fox is a self-proclaimed “live and visual spoken word vegan solo artist and occasional collaborator”. Don’t let that put you off though; this show isn’t quite the tirade against men and carnivorism that you might expect. Fox is the fictional creation of Sonia Jalaly, the writer and star of Happy Birthday Without You. In mock-autobiographical style, Fox tells the story of the traumatic birthdays of her childhood, and her relationship with an alcoholic, balloon-popping mother.

The show has its dark moments, but mostly it’s just highly enjoyable silliness. At one point she literally brings her emotional baggage on stage (complete with a taxidermied cat), and although the birthday anecdotes help to give it structure, the show works mainly as a springboard for Jalaly to showcase her knack for physical comedy and impersonating Broadway dames. Her voice is actually rather good and she has the audience in fits of laughter with impressions of Julie Andrews, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, all singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their own unique styles.

Photo by Luke Pajak

Photo by Luke Pajak

As she gets the audience to pass around party bags and blow up red balloons to throw on stage, Jalaly helpfully throws out a few quotes for theatre critics – “look the lights have come on, it’s so immersive” and, to be fair, it is a pretty immersive experience. Parts of the show feel more like a stand-up performance in the way she speaks to, and interacts with the audience.

So if you like comedy, balloons and caterpillar cakes, this show is for you. Sadly its short run at the Tricycle is over, but if you can catch Sonia Jalaly in any future productions, I would highly recommend it.

Review: A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts at The Tricycle

Eight actors hang out on stage, warming up in their gym gear, chatting to the audience a little, as if waiting for a rehearsal to begin. The show has quietly started as we walk in, but gets going when one of the performers’ names is picked out of a hat by a member of the audience and they become the focus of the action. What follows is a series of vignettes; snapshots of a life lived so far, tales of love and loss, interspersed with lots of physical challenges and silliness.

Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts Tricycle


Our protagonist for the evening is Stevie (Steven Webb), who brings the audience into the action enough to make you feel involved, but not so much that you’re terrified you’ll be picked on for a bit of participation! His energetic, physical commitment to the performance is staggering and I found myself trying to catch my breath, after watching him writhe around the stage with gusto for an hour and a bit.

The cast are clearly having fun, and you can’t help warming to them and their antics, about which I will say as little as possible. For all its big energy, there are also several smaller, beautifully observed moments, which add depth and poignancy and raise the show to another level. Though admittedly there is something profoundly enjoyable about watching two people wrestle in a bid to remove each other’s shoes.

Inevitably, with an ensemble piece like this, you don’t get to see as much of some of the performers as you do others, and my guess is this varies depending on who is pulled out of the hat each night. It seemed a shame that not everyone was equally involved and I would have liked to see a few more scenes with the whole cast taking part. One stand out performance was that of Hammad Animashaun, whose deadpan comic delivery was perfectly judged.

For the most part the bare-chested honesty of the piece works but it’s not without its flaws. A couple of times the action feels self-consciously ‘edgy’ and wanders into cliché territory. One scene using very well known Shakespearian dialogue is, in my opinion, a misstep, and breaks the pacy, frenetic feel of the show.

With its stripped back set and simplistic lighting, the show often feels like a well polished student production, which some might see as a negative, but actually it’s the raw youthful energy of the performers, with their well-developed improvisational skills, that keeps the show fresh and engaging. It’s the sort of show that could work in all sorts of spaces, and at times I wanted them to burst forth from the proscenium arch and take over the whole auditorium. I felt they wanted that, too.

This young theatre company is definitely one to watch. This is exactly the sort of show that is perfect for the Edinburgh Fringe, where it ran to critical acclaim. I hope it can find the right audience in NW6, one that will embrace the non-narrative structure, admire the honesty and openness of the performances, go along for the energetic ride and be ready to laugh. A lot.

Win a pair of tickets to the show!

16 glorious West Hampstead sunrises and sunsets

As the sun sets on 2014, we thought you might like a little reminder of some of the best sunrise and sunset photos taken and tweeted this year.

West Hampstead sunset

James Taylor, March

West Hampstead sunrise

Michael Sheehan, March


@SteveWhamp, April

West Hampstead sunset

@RicksterLondon, May

West Hampstead sunset

Michael Hadwin, July

West Hampstead sunset

Joanna Miller Betts, July

West Hampstead sunset

Steven Tart, September

West Hampstead sunset

Daniel Walker, September

West Hampstead sunset

Morten Schultz, September

West Hampstead sunset

James Taylor, September

West Hampstead sunset

Matt Beveridge, September

West Hampstead sunset

Sean Patterson, October

West Hampstead sunset

@okeely, October

West Hampstead sunrise

Michael Sheehan, November

West Hampstead sunrise

Michael Sheehan, December

West Hampstead sunrise

@RicksterLondon, December

True West Tricycle

Review: True West at The Tricycle

It only took a short westerly stroll for this writer to see the new blockbuster play at The Tricycle, pity the Guardian journalist who had to go all the way to Santa Fe to interview the playwright Sam Shepard. Tuesday was press night however and it was nice to see Tricycle supporter Meera Syal and a rather photogenic chap I smiled at assuming we’d met at Whampgather but no, I had just seen on an episode of Sherlock.

True West is a wonderful exploration of the American dream. Two brothers represent different interpretations of the dream of heading out west and the flaws in both visions.  What’s success in Hollywood vs freedom in the desert? The curtain frames the stage horizontally to offer a familiar Hopper-style peek into an American domestic setting which transforms as the play progresses.  Performances from the brothers are intense as their interactions straddle affection, exasperation and violence. Credit to the toasters, golf club and typewriter that make a surprising impact. The play was written in 1980 but resonates today and although intense, is very funny at times. Buy your ticket now before it sells out.

The Czech & Slovak National House restaurant

Former Czech president Václav Havel smiled down at us from the wall. How could we fail to fall in love with the food and flock wallpaper?

We were guided through to the high-ceilinged dining room because we were interrupting the Czech sitcom on TV in the bar, or at risk of waking the guy slumped on the sofa. “It’s a bit like being in an old-fashioned hotel by the sea,” said Helen to nods of agreement. Sarah nodded too, but it was harder to see because she was standing up. Having lost the original reservation, the restaurant still managed to lay the table for only 7 rather than 8. Chairs were found, order was restored, beer was drunk.

The fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the parlour was heightened by the glamorous guests at the private party in the room next door whose beautiful dresses, elegant gloves and sharp tuxedos occasionally tumbled into the lobby. Bilingual conversations floated in to the restaurant, which was far more segregated between our raucous English chatter and the quiet Czech discussions at tables around us.A selection of starters appeared; insipid against the dark velvet of the walls, except for the Utopenec – a crimson mutant sausage designed to warn adolescent boys of the dangers of getting too close to the reactor. The Šopsky salad went down well, as did the potato pancake, which tasted much better than it looked. The avocado salad sadly looked more appetizing than it tasted – an avocado that requires a steak knife is never a treat.

Try as we might we just couldn’t polish off the last piece of fried bread topped with crumbled cheddar and the waiter punished us by leaving it on the table forlornly for the rest of the meal. Main courses arrived, ticking all the boxes in the I-Spy Book of Mitteleurope cuisine. There was goulash, there were schnitzels, there was wild boar, there was goose, there was sauerkraut, there were dumplings and there was Quorn. Yes. Quorn. In schnitzel form. More than that it was a Quorn “Club” Schnitzel, which meant it was liberally covered with – wait for it – crumbled cheddar. For real. Is this really traditional or did they just massively overorder the cheese this week?
Mark claimed his goose was “ethnically authentic” although his credentials for judging remained murky. If my goose was ethnically authentic, then I feel sorry for the Czechs. It was inedible. The meat was not so much dry as arid, while the sauerkraut had been lost in translation as it was horribly sweet. Dom manfully fought his way through a chicken club schnitzel – cheddar and all. Lisa said her Wiener schnitzel wasn’t as good as ones she’d had in Vienna (perhaps unsurprisingly). Matt barely touched his goulash, which “tasted like a school beef curry but, y’know, not spicy”. Helen declared the Quorn club schnitzel “excellent”, albeit with a deadpan expression that begged the question. Sarah’s chicken club schnitzel was “guilty pleasure comfort food”. Jerry’s wild boar and cream sauce had looked the best dish on the table and, based on his big smile and clean plate, it was clear what everyone would order should there ever be a return visit.

The bill (cash only) came to £153 for 8, service not included. Despite some disappointing food, the overall atmosphere was appealing in a mildly kitsch and unintentionally ironic sort of way. Quite what Václav would make of it I’m not sure – if he really liked crumbled cheddar then he’d probably love it, maybe write a play about it and thus cement its place in history. Which would be fitting, as the place feels far more rooted in the past than as a part of London’s contemporary multicultural cuisine.
Food 5.5
Service 6.1
Atmosphere 7.1
Overall impression 6.1
Good for: wild boar and nostalgia
Bad for: vegans
Czech Club Restaurant
74 West End Lane
London NW6 2LX
T: 0207 372 1193

(all photos courtesy of Jerry Barnett)

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