Saturday 28 May 2011

Dining With Alice

Have you ever imagined what it must be like to fall down a rabbit hole and end up in Wonderland? Well, a friend and I recently had the pleasure of doing something just like that, as we attended the most fantastic event called 'Dining With Alice'.  Produced by those clever folk at Artichoke (creators of unusual large scale events), it was a completely absurd dinner party set in the stunning gardens of Elsing Hall in Norfolk, and certainly befitting of a Mad Hatter.

After booking the tickets, I received an entertaining letter from Her Vivacious Majesty, The Queen of Hearts, with full written instructions for the evening.  So off to Norfolk we headed, and before long we were on the bus from the normality of Norwich to the surreal splendour of Elsing Hall.  It was early evening and the sun was shining as we entered through the perfectly manicured topiary garden (not exactly a rabbit hole, but definitely more exquisite).  As we made our way along the neat grass paths, we caught a glimpse of pale blue and blonde dashing between the topiary.  Alice.  We then knew we had arrived in Wonderland and filled with sudden excitement, we carried on our merry way.  Whilst Alice continued lurking behind the bushes.

Elsing Hall is a privately owned 15th century medieval moated manor house set in its own parkland with an arboretum.  Serenaded by peacocks, we found our way to the marquee where we were greeted by a string quartet and a wonderfully refreshing Hendricks gin and ginger ale cocktail (my new favourite tipple).  As the guests (approx 250) gradually arrived, Sally and I took in our surroundings and studied the rather baffling table plan - 'Imogen Parson: Yellow 6' didn't give much away, and Sally's 'Purple 2' wasn't any help either.  Curiouser and curiouser indeed.

Before long, all the guests had congregated and just as the anticipated chatter reached fever pitch, a bugle sounded and everyone hushed.  Across the lawn, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dum/Dee, the White Knight et al, all arrived and took to the stage to introduce themselves with a daft ditty, including her Vivacious Majesty annoucing "We're late and it's still quite early. Let us leave no bird unstoned."  The bugle sounded once more and we were all ushered outside to witness an army of sixty waiters and waitresses dashing through the woods towards us, each donning a colourful turban and a number.  As they all lined up in neat rows, performed a little song and dance whilst waving their white damask napkins, the table plan mystery unfolded. "Blue 8!" shouted one. "Green 7!" called another.  Slowly but surely, all the guests started filing off to meet their respective Turbaned Chiefs. I bid farewell to Sally as she trotted off with 'Purple 2', whilst I disppeared with 'Yellow 6'.


With around 4 guests per waiter, the next sene was very surreal as each waiter marched their posse of guests in various directions across the vast gardens to strategically placed and beautifully laid white tables, scattered absolutely everywhere.  The Yellow 6 team were taken right up into the woods and I took my place at a table set just for me, complete with a pineapple, jars of worms and colourful potions.  Next to my name card was a teacup full of Mock Turtle Soup and a small glass phial containing orange quinine with a tag saying 'Drink Me'.  Which I obediently did.  In true Alice 'Drink Me' fashion, I was hoping I might start shrinking (if only it was that easy!) but alas no shrinking to be seen.  It was quite strange looking around to see all the guests seated at individual tables, engaging in soup and potion with an equal amount of amused bewilderment.

A short while later, the bugle sounded again and we were off.  Team Yellow 6 left the woods and headed towards the rather lovely walled herb garden, passing diners along the way, all walking around in ever decreasing circles, heading for their next table.  I spotted Sally and gave her a quick wave. The second course was at a table set for two - myself and a stranger (mingling is definitely the name of the game). We said hello and indulged in delicious crab pate and 'Drink Me' Chardonnay whilst listening to the nearby harpist.  Meanwhile, the White Knight, Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatter were dashing here, there and everywhere, stopping for a quick chat with the guests.

By the time the bugle sounded again, we had all got the hang of it and were ready to bid our fellow guests farewell and make our way to yet another table.  I wisely decided to take my glass of wine with me as a necessary accompaniment for such intrepid dining antics. Sally and I were relieved to finally be reunited for the main course and were lucky to be seated at a perfectly positioned table under the trees, next to the moat overlooking the house.  We were joined by a nice couple and all tucked into a very tasty hot pie (we gave the cold veg a miss), and a bottle of red - this was definitely my favourite table and course. As dusk fell, I was grateful that I'd heeded the advice to 'dress up warm' as it had turned into a very chilly evening.

The final course was the most magical, as by now it was completely dark apart from an endless array of pretty tea-lights, fairy lights and paper lanterns reflecting on the moat.  All the guests were escorted to the rear of the house which looked so beautiful, illuminated in gorgeous glowing colours - it was a romantic and breathtaking sight to behold.

A platform of tables and chairs awaited us, so we took our seats and enjoyed miniature cakes, titillating elderflower and raspberry jelly, cups of tea and more wine, whilst our eccentric host of loveable characters took to the stage with the house as a backdrop, and performed their batty finale. We all joined in the Victorian parlour song, "Come into the garden, Maud". Alice finally appeared (joined by a few other younger Alices) protesting her disgruntlement at the ridiculousness of it all.


The evening drew to a close and we were soon heading back 'up the rabbit hole' to Norwich and mundane reality. 'Dining With Alice' was really very special and I was particularly impressed with the incredible organisation and attention to detail. Bompas & Parr did an excellent job providing the food in their imitable bonkers manner. It was an utterly brilliant evening of chaotic fun and nonsense, a feast for the imagination and something I will remember forever.  Lewis Carroll would have been proud.

Thursday 19 May 2011

All Aboard The Gingerline

There's a pop-up restaurant with a twist in town, and it's called Gingerline.  The name derives from the old East London underground line which was orange, hence 'ginger'. That line has recently become part of the rapidly expanding London Overground network, and that particular leg now stretches between Highbury & Islington down to West Croydon. 

An all female posse of food-loving chums created Gingerline last summer - a project to incorporate creative dining and artistic expression in strange places easily accessible along the line. Their unusual venues have included a fancy dress costumiers and an old Victorian shop, and they even held a dinner at the brilliant Brunel Museum and tunnel which was reminiscent of the banquet held there in 1827 (see my previous post about the Brunel Underwater Concert).

Gingerline events take place every few months and you need to book fast as places sell out like hot cakes! I was fortunate enough to secure two places for me and a friend to attend their latest dinner event - HMS Gingerline.  One of the exciting things about Gingerline is that even once you've booked and paid, you have no idea where you're actually going or what to expect until literally an hour beforehand.  All you know is that the dinner will take place somewhere along the Gingerline and will be within a 5 minute walk of the station. So, at 6pm sharp, filled with excitement and trepidation, the eagerly awaited text appeared on my phone to reveal the destination.  Shoreditch. Phew!

I forwarded the destination onto my friend and then we were off.  The meeting point was a location on Rivington Street, EC2 in the form of an interesting art space. As the various Gingerliners congregated, 'gingerly' approaching the man in the hat to establish they were at the right place, the anticipation grew. We joined the other guests as we were led inside the dark building by a butch female 'sailor' complete with HMS Gingerline tattoo, who took us right down into the doldrums of what appeared to be a large vessel.  The decor was really well done and the team had clearly worked very hard to recreate the interior of a submarine which was lit with subtle uplighters, tealights and clever light projections of portholes and underwater scenes along the walls. 

A long table dominated the room, all laid with interesting sea-faring artefacts and the special arty menus. We took our places and enjoyed a welcome enamel mug of rum and ginger ale, whilst taking in our surroundings and engaging in banter with our fellow Gingerliners. 

Being an underwater theme, we had a sea-inspired feast which was very good and cleverly thought out. Although I did find the offering of a single crab claw as an amuse bouche, quite an unrewarding palava, and was grateful for the plate of garlic pesto crostinis we received instead which were very tasty. The hearty Jerusalem artichoke soup served in a can was a fun, novel starter, and the creamy fish pie brimming with prawns, pollock and haddock was definitely the hit of the night.  Pudding was a namesake ginger arctic roll which finished the meal off perfectly.

The wine and conversation flowed and it was apparent that everyone was having a really good time. The Gingerline team even did a little performance for one of the guests who was celebrating a birthday, much to everyone's delight. These girls have really got it right with their creative concepts and attention to detail. And the fact that no two Gingerline events are the same, means you definitely want to go back and experience another one.  I know I do. So book now and get on board the Gingerline!

£40 per person 
3 course dinner, welcome drink and an artistic menu to keep
BYO wine.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Simon Drake's House of Magic

Do you believe in magic?  I do. In fact, I recently saw some pretty excellent magic at Simon Drake's House of Magic. Some of you may remember Simon Drake from his Channel 4 programme 'The Secret Cabaret', during the early 1990's. Simon Drake performs dark, mysterious, innovative magic and shocking illusions. He became a legend amongst Magicians, and even worked with Kate Bush, devising visuals and characters for her 1979 UK tour.

Simon Drake has been performing monthly public shows at his home since 1996. The House of Magic is a converted Victorian building situated in a secret location in South London.  So a friend and I went along to check it out and we weren't disappointed. I won't divulge the address as that's part of the mystery. In fact, there is a vintage car service who can arrange for you to be blindfolded for your journey, so you have no idea of your destination!

We arrived through the gate, straight into The Enchanted Garden, a pretty courtyard garden lit by fairylights and bathed in fog.  On closer inspection, I spotted several peculiar things including miniature stuffed birds in the trees, and a small graveyard.  An eerie seven foot tall butler greeted us, revealing the live head of a man on a silver dish.  

We hastily made our way inside and straight into the gothic interior of The Red Room and its welcoming candlelit bar where we got ourselves some wine and began to explore. There was so much to see and take in, including strange paintings, spooky paraphenalia, magical penny-slot games and the special Whispering Chair which you sit in, pop on some headphones and listen to your destiny unfold.

We then made our way upstairs to the Drawing Room. A wonderful room of faded glamour and chock-a-block with books, antiques and endless magical artefacts.  Elvis and Frank Sinatra blasted from the speakers whilst we sat in leather armchairs, enjoying our wine and taking in the curiousities. I particularly liked the framed photographs in the hallway of people from days gone by, which had a subtle hologram effect causing the images to change into something quite unexpected as you walked past.

Next stop was the Haunted Cellar with the wigged-butler and his lovely vampire assistant, Betty. Groups of 10 go down into the depths of the basement for a slightly tongue in cheek, amusingly scary tour of ghosts, cobwebs, coffins and things that go bump in the night.  Suitably frightened, we returned upstairs to take our seats for dinner.

Although you can buy show-only tickets, it's worth paying the extra to be seated at a prime table in front of the stage and enjoy the buffet dinner.  The food, although not exceptional, was tasty enough with lots of salads, quiches and Blackforest Gateau. We had an excellent table right at the front which we shared with a friendly bunch. It felt a bit like being at a Goth's wedding! During dinner, a couple of close-up magicians performed some amazing card tricks right under our nose. One of them asked me to write my name on a fiver, made it disappear and miraculously retrieved it from inside a fresh kiwi fruit. That's magic!

After dinner, it was finally time to see the man himself.  Simon Drake appeared on stage with his various sexy Morticia-esque assistants and did some truly mind-blowing acts, including decapitating a member of the audience's head; elevating himself a foot off the ground; producing hundreds of colourful flowers from a rolled piece of card, and suspending a lit candle in the air with no strings attached (which he proved by putting a metal ring all around it). Photography is not allowed when it comes to the show, hence no pictures here of Mr Drake in action. But believe me, it really was thrilling and mesmerising and confirms my belief that magic does exist.  True magic, haunting magic, sexy magic and retro magic - Simon Drake does it all. He is a brilliant illusionist with a terrific stage presence and a cheeky twinkle in his eye. I would love to meet him off stage and see what he's like in 'real life'.

I thoroughly enjoyed my night of magic and felt completely transported, only waking from the sense of hypnosis and back in reality once we found ourselves at the nearby tube station.  I would definitely return to the House of Magic and think a dark winter's evening would add to the magic even more.  Abracadabra!

House of Magic
Monthly dinner/show nights (tickets £45 - £85)
Available for exclusive hire
020 7735 4777

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