Monday 24 September 2012

Jim Haynes' Supper Club, Paris

Have you ever really looked forward to something so much, but once you finally got there, found it to be a massive disappointment? Well, that's how I felt when I went to Jim Haynes' supper club in Paris last Sunday. As a blogger, my opinions are always my own, and I feel it is imperative that I write honestly about places I feature, even if it's not always favourable. Which I'm afraid is the case here.

Hailing from Louisiana, Jim Haynes was a bit of a legend in his heyday, and was a leading figure in the underground and alternative culture scene in London during the 1960's. Jim moved to Paris in the 1970's and set up his Sunday night supper club which he still hosts every Sunday, inviting strangers from all over the world to partake in food, drink and conversation in the courtyard of his artist's home in Paris. I remember reading about his idyllic-sounding dinners years ago and kept thinking, I must go to Paris and meet this Jim as he sounds like a real character.  So I finally made a plan and worked it around a surprise trip for my mum, taking her to Paris last Sunday as an early birthday treat. Dinner at Jim's was to be le pièce de résistance of the weekend. But sadly, it was more of le grande flop!

We arrived at 8pm sharp, armed with curiousity, excitement and a big appetite. Jim's pad is one of many lovely ateliers positioned in a neat row, tucked away behind a discreet gate which share a leafy, gravelled courtyard. Luckily it was a warm, balmy evening so the majority of the guests mingled outside. The inside space is pretty small with a limited seating area so with around 50 guests arriving for dinner, it really is a case of first come, first served on the pew front.  Jim was perched on a stool where he greeted his guests one by one with a warm smile, ticked their names off the list and collected their discreet envelopes containing payment. €30 is the suggested amount per person, but he's happy to accept more or less. In retrospect I wish I'd gone for the latter...

Once you've checked in, it's up to you to make yourself at home, help yourself to a drink and get mingling. So far, so good. A bank of wine boxes (most of which were empty) lined the 'bar' area of the kitchen, but mum and I soon found a box of red in the garden 'bar' and poured ourselves a glass. France is one country where you can buy very quaffable Vin du Plonk for just a few euros. And then there's the really cheap stuff which is what we found ourselves drinking. Well either that or it had gone off in the sun, but we certainly struggled to get through more than one glass. Hey ho, shame about the wine, but we still had a feast to look forward to, so we chatted to a few people and I must say, the other guests were a really interesting mix. People of all ages, from all walks of life and who had travelled from as far as Canada, America and Australia to incorporate a night with Jim into their holiday plans. We spoke to a really nice elderly couple from the States who were regaling us with tales of their Parisian adventure. It's just a shame that Jim spent the entire evening glued to his stool rather than chatting and circulating with his guests. I know he's been hosting these dinners for over 30 years and his aim is to introduce strangers to one another, which he does with perfect flair, but I personally would've liked to have seen him interacting more.

Diners were invited to help themselves to the starter, a bowl of vegetable soup. A tasty enough soup I'll admit, but still an unadventurous bowl of vegetable soup nonetheless. And perfect for washing down the Vin du Vinegar. Before long, it was time for the main course. Now I don't pretend to be a fantastic cook, but I can promise you that if I had to cater for 50 guests in my one bedroom flat in London, I could have absolutely produced something one hundred times more edible than the so called meal we were given. I think it was supposed to be a sort of fish stew served with rice and carrot salad. I like fish. But not when it's grey, mushy and riddled with bones. I managed a couple of mouthfuls but had to give up as I wasn't enjoying it all. Mum was equally disappointed and even our American friends who have been to Jim's before, agreed it was a real let down on the food front. I'm sure some of you are reading this and thinking what a fussy madam making such a song and dance about a below average meal! Please don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting haute cuisine, but even a simple French onion soup, spag bol and a mousse au chocolat would have done very nicely. But this was seriously one of the most disgusting meals I've ever encountered and as far as I'm concerned, a total rip-off.  Jim doesn't actually cook the food himself each week, he invites a different person to do it for him. I think our 'chef' for the evening had to leave early for singing classes. Wise move.

As mum and I decided to slip off early, we were given dessert to take away which was a slice of banana cake, and actually the best part of the meal. Still peckish, we escaped to a nearby cafe for a welcome Parisian nosh- up of steak frites and a carafe of red, which hit the spot perfectly.

I know this is a really scathing review and I apologise if I appear unkind, but this is based purely on my experience which as you've gathered, was sadly disappointing. Maybe we just had a dud night as I guess Jim must be doing something right if people are still going there after all these years. But if you ask me, I would skip Jim's and suggest you come to London if you want to check out some good supper clubs. There are loads of excellent ones which I can recommend where the food is fantastic, you can take your own wine, and the host finds time to chat to their guests.

At his home in Paris
8pm every Sunday
€30 suggested donation per person

Thursday 13 September 2012

Clandestino's Supper Club

I finally made it to Clandestino's supper club in Finsbury Park a few weeks ago and it was delightful. Run by a very friendly and welcoming host, Cristian, Clandestino's is a real home from home. As my friend and I entered the house via the white picket fence next to the flourishing bay tree, we walked directly into the dining room which had been transformed into a homely bistro complete with candles and red checked table cloths.

We deposited our coats and bottles of wine, then took our complimentary glass of homemade strawberry daquiri out into the pretty courtyard garden, where we acquainted ourselves with fellow diners and chatted amongst the pot plants, fresh roses and garden ornaments. Including a handsome Budda on a bench. Funnily enough, the night we went, nearly all the guests were female, so I tell you what single fellas, if you're looking for a lovely lady to woo, I reckon you should get yourself to Clandestinos. Girls love a supper club!

It was soon time to head to the dining room as we took our seats and dinner was served. Cristian and his team did a brilliant job and effortlessly brought out all sorts of homely dishes including homemade red pepper soup, a tasty chicken and tomato dish served with perfect rice and a fantastic rich chocolate mousse with a fruit coulis, served in vintage coffee cups. The food was simple and wholesome made with fresh ingredients and love. And unlike some supper clubs, Clandestino's don't charge silly money, just a very affordable £20 per head which I think is a bargain.

We had a great bunch on our table and the conversation and wine flowed until it was suddenly very late and time to go. Apart from my friend who was having so much fun, she stayed on and was the last to leave!.Clandestino's really is one of the friendliest supper clubs I've been to. And in the summer, Cristian sometimes converts the garden into a private dining area for those who fancy a romantic dinner for two, or perhaps a spot of al fresco dining. It's also a great place to host a private dinner party for up to 15 guests. His menu changes each time and sometimes he does a Brazillian supper club which is one of his specialities.

(Somewhere near Finsbury Park, N4)
£20 per head for 3 courses & a welcome drink. BYO wine


Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret

I know the thought of going to a museum can send some people to Yawnsville, but The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is not your average museum. Situated within an old English Baroque Church, it is fascinating (and a little bit gruesome) to think that before the discovery of anaesthetic and antiseptic, patients were literally strapped to a wooden board and had their ailing limbs amputated with only a hint of alcohol or perhaps opium to distract them from the excruciating pain. Poor sods!

The museum building looms in the shadow of the contrastingly new and magnificent glass Shard just by London Bridge. Inside the doorway, you are greeted by a cleverly-constructed skull, made up entirely of rusty antique operating implements including scalpels, saws, scissors and blades. The small doorway leads you up a very steep and winding staircase to the museum entrance where you purchase your ticket before ascending even higher into the Church rafters and the completely unexpected surroundings of the sweet-smelling herb garret.

Dating from 1822, this is the oldest surviving operating theatre in the country. It is surprisingly small with a steep tiered seating gallery where eager medical students would have congregated to watch and learn as crude operations took place. In those days, it would have primarily been the poorer folk who were operated on here, as the richer patients would have been treated at home. And as the British surgeon, Joseph Lister, didn't pioneer antiseptic until 1867, there was little to prevent the onslaught of infection, so gangrene and blood poisoning were to be expected. Internal operations in those days were too dangerous to contemplate without resulting in almost certain death.

Made almost entirely of wooden timbers and floors, the garret is a wonderful space which was created when St Thomas' Church was rebuilt in 1703 and became a useful storage space for the local apothecary. Here you can wander around and marvel at the strange array of plants, herbs and medical instruments, which would have been stored here and used for medical and medicinal purposes by the adjoining hospital. Old cabinets full of beautiful blue, green and brown glass bottles which would have contained not such beautiful poisons and other alarming concoctions. Detailed literature and drawings on how to amputate a foot. Remnants of bones - both animal and human. Dissected body organs floating in formaldehyde. It was so intriguing, I was half expecting to see the witches from Macbeth huddled around a cauldron, creating curious potions and chanting 'Double, double, toil & trouble..'.

Visiting The Old Operating Theatre Museum was a real eye-opener. It instantly transported me to a completely different era, revealing the horror and naiviety of medicine before the age of science. And it was a very real insight into what a terrifying prospect it must have been, knowing what the likely consequences were if you had a septic wound. It was quite a relief to be back outside in the safety of the 21st century where I headed straight to the local chemist to stock up on every form of antiseptic available!

9a St Thomas Street
London SE1 9RY
020 7188 2679
Nearest station: London Bridge

Open daily 10am - 5pm
Admission £6 (£3.50 children)

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