Monday, 28 June 2010

Jamie's Italian Milsom Place Bath - Italian Food in Ye Olde Roman Town

Whilst on a day trip to the glorious city of Bath, home of the Bath Spa and Johnny Depp amongst other things, my better half and I were intrigued at the prospect of visiting a Jamie Oliver restaurant, especially the Italian. Since we are both fans and I have managed to follow his Italian recipes churning out some truly tantalising food (not so much a testament to my cooking abilities but to the recipes themselves) it seemed inevitable that even a glimpse at the place was needed. Thanks to a lovely local lady who gave us some helpful directions (without whom we would never have found the place), we made our way to Milsom Place, a very plush and intricately laid out shopping centre thankfully devoid of any high street chains that seemed to have graced the Southgate Shopping Centre.

The first thing that strikes you when you are greeted at the entrance of Jamie's Italian is the decor which is an interesting blend of rustic wooden floor and wall panels combined with chrome and white metallic furniture. The shelves and window ledges of the building are strewn with all sorts of Jamie related memorabilia in particular of course his library of books but also that of his Italian father Gennaro Contaldo. The main level has a bar and also a Deli counter with an assortment of breads and cold meats hanging over the counter, which will no doubt have to be sampled on the next visit.

There is indoor seating available on two levels and of course there is the open rooftop for alfresco dining on a dry bright spring or summer's day making for a pleasant dining experience accompanied by views of Bath’s historic and modern buildings. However it is recommended that if you do make it to the rooftop be sure you are armed with hats and sun cream as the location is a veritable sun trap which coupled with the rays reflected off the white metallic tables  may leave one vulnerable to getting sunburned.

To Kick Things Off

Whilst there is an assortment of tempting starters there was only one that caught our eye: the Season Meat Antipasti Plank priced at £6.65 per head. This consists of a selection of prosciutto ham, salami assortment, mortodela ham, and pecorino cheese with a dollop of chilli jam sitting on top of some crispy flat bread. Accompanying the meat are some pickled green chillies, a sprinkle of fresh olives (not marinade or pickled) and two small terracotta dishes, one containing shredded fennel, carrot and red cabbage in an olive and mint dressing, and the other, two small mozzarella balls coated in herbs. All of these are presented on a long wooden board (antipasti is traditionally served on wood) resting on a tin of tomato puree on either side.There is no questioning the quality of the food or its presentation.

The meat is tasty and full of flavour although the slices are very thin so they almost seem to evaporate in your mouth. However with the accompaniments, this makes for a truly delightful start to the meal and beautifully presented. The shredded root vegetables with the oil and mint are the perfect summer appetiser, fresh and invigorating. Given the variety of items on the board there is something there for every one (and even a Vegetarian Antipasti). The price may seem a little steep given the quantity of food presented, however this is more than made up in quality, especially the meats which have a far superior taste than the plastic slabs you might find in your local supermarket.

The Main Event

Seafood lovers looking for extravagance should try the Shell Roasted Brixham Scallops. Basically you are presented with four grilled king scallops wrapped in crispy pancetta, and a crunchy fennel and lemon salad with salsa rosso crudo. With a price at £15.25 this might seem steep but this is about the same price you would expect to pay for a scallop dish in any sea food outlet. Each scallop is presented in its shell, all lying on a bed of salt presented on a white oblong dish. The scallops are tasty and packed with flavour but seem overpowered by the chilli contained within the dish, leaving nothing but heat lingering on the palate. However by disassembling the scallops from the rest of the dish, and eating the components separately this allows one to enjoy the sweetness of the scallops and the salty chilli heated pancetta without one overpowering the other. If you prefer something simple and more conventionally Italian then Jamie’s Italian Spaghetti Bolognese is the one for you.

This may seem a little simplistic and unimaginative however rest assured this Italian classic is several dimensions removed from the perceived image of the British “Spag – Bol” and you can have a small serving for £6.45 or the larger dish for £9.95. Jamie’s Bolognese consists of ground pork and beef (not mince), cooked in a herby ragu sauce with breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and chianti wine all mixed in with a generous helping of perfectly cooked al dente spaghetti. The ragu sauce is rich and tasty. The blend of tomato and herbs with the saltiness of the parmesan and fruity undertones of the wine makes it a simply divine dish. The serving is not skimpy on the meat which is tasty and tender and of course the spaghetti pasta completes the dish. This is as authentic an Italian taste as you are likely to get outside of Italy (or a top Italian restaurant). So while your accompanying guests may mock your boring choice, the flavour will remain long after the plate is empty.

A Sweet Finish

If after all that indulgent dining you feel the irresistible call of your sweet tooth then by all means tuck into what the menu describes as “Our Special Tiramisu”. There is a distinct absence of the booze one would expect from this classic Italian dessert but it is the only disappointment as all the other flavours are there, chocolate, coffee and creamy mascarpone. Although lacking a moorish element one might expect from such a decadent dessert, it is delicious in a dreamy way and one in which you are happy to take your time devouring. The Tiramisu rounds off any meal perfectly and at £4.95 is a reasonably priced dessert. Also highly recommended are the fruity house Sorbets which come in three flavours: apple, lemon, and orange.

Again this may seem like another dull and unimaginative choice but considering it was a hot day proved to be a very wise selection. Perhaps the most disappointing of the trio was the orange simply because it lacked the strong fruit taste the other two possessed in droves. A taste of the lemon flavour and the palate is instantly awash with an ice cold sea of sharp and sweet, whilst the apple is sweet and refreshing. However when you combine the tri-colour of flavours it’s as if there is an apple orchard and citrus grove having a party in your mouth. The crisp fruity flavours combined with the ice cold not only cleanse the palate but also leave those pleasure centres of the brain well and truly satisfied, a bargain delight at only £3.95 for three scoops.

The Culinary Conclusion

The service at Jamie’s Italian is very friendly, and the waiting staff very knowledgeable about the food they serve which is to be expected. There was a notable lack of efficiency however as the wait between courses simply seemed a little too long given that the place was not overrun with customers. This would have aggravated any visitor on a strict timetable for which waiting would simply have not been an option. Yet all in all it was enjoyable with a return visit most definitely on the cards. It all made for a memorable experience with some delightful food overall and two sunburned faces.

Image Credits Really Short

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Terry Jones in Bristol at Special Python Screening

Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the comedy classic Monty Python and The Holy Grail, by showing it on the big screen may not seem such a big deal. The fact that it was to be shown at the Arnolfini Cinema in Broad Quay, Bristol as part of the a 10 year celebration of the founding of Bristol Silents (an organisation dedicated to promote and celebrate silent cinema) may seem even less of an event.

The Arnolfini is not a popcorn and coke serving multiplex cinema and probably very few people have heard of Bristol Silents (although after this blog hopefully many more will have). What made this double celebration a wholesome trio is the introduction to the screening and a Q and A afterwards, featuring the film's co-director and veritable real life comedic python, Mr Terry Jones, hence that whiff of celebrity that graced the air on Sunday 13th June.

Holy Grail Celebrates Essence of Silent

Before delving into the great man's musings over the film he described as a "nightmare to make", a brief explanation is in order as to why Bristol Silents featured a talky in their celebration of silent cinema. Co-founder Chris Daniels explained that the film had all the virtues of a silent movie in particular its use of slapstick and visual humour which would have made it an ideal silent comedy. This seemed a tenuous inclusion of a talking picture amongst a myriad of silent features and Daniels' explanation doesn't necessarily wash, however the sentiment is there and appreciated.

Mr Jones Steps Up

The floor was thrown over to Mr Jones who strode up to the specially prepared podium, dressed all in black (jacket, open neck shirt, trousers and loafers) to a thundering applause. Considering the man is 68 years old he looked well, a little grey and filled out but healthy and bubbling with energy, which was evident when he addressed the audience. At this point I should point out that there was a sense of genuine thrill in being in the presence of this man that was felt throughout the auditorium, and must confess to having felt a little star struck myself.

Jones kicked things off by regaling the audience with on set tales of the first day of shooting. He referred to the shared directing responsibilities with fellow Python Terry Gilliam as "tag team directing" since they would take turns directing on alternate days. Apparently the first scene to be filmed was the infamous (and my personal favourite) bridge of death scene. Incidents included a leading actor shaking from a bad case of gin withdrawal resulting in Delirium Tremens (or a touch of the DTs as Jones put it), and the gears and guts of the camera falling out after filming the scene. None of this bade well when standing on the mountain side.

Such tales were met with a mixture of laughter and intrigue but not for too long as the lights dimmed, the curtains, complete with unintentional comic squeaking, opened up and the film commenced. It may seem pointless and a waste of £12 to watch a film that as a DVD graces the shelves of shops everywhere, or our plasma/LCD screens through repeated broadcasts, however there is something truly dramatic about reliving a classic on the big screen. Scenes are more poignant, and the general atmosphere cannot be recreated in the living room.

Post Screening Q and A

The lack of formality in introducing the session was a welcome relief, particularly as less than hour had been allotted for this once in a lifetime opportunity to pose questions. Which meant that after a brief chat the proverbially inquisitive door was thrown open through which the audience entered with glee. The questions asked were surprisingly varied and interesting. We learned, for example, that for Jones, The Holy Grail is by far the least of his favourite films, frequently referring to it as a nightmare.

The film was notorious for its problems in addition to the ones already stated. Problems included costume problems, especially with chain mail made from wool (only Graham Chapman donned the genuine article) and location problems. Filming permissions in the Scottish castles were withdrawn by the Scottish Department of the Environment after seeing the script and felt the team would disrespect and degrade the essence of the castles. Jones pointed to the irony of this decision with some amusement when you consider the acts of human degradation and torture previously committed within those walls. Thankfully a couple of generous benefactors who just happened to own a castle each, charged in on their virtual horses saving the day, and allowed filming to take place at their privately owned stone fortresses.

Embarrassing Moments

As an avid historian (he also hosted the BBC produced Medieval Lives in 2004) Jones wanted the film to represent the age in which it was set as accurately as possible. For authenticity Jones insisted that much of the peasant cast have their teeth blackened. However he was stunned to learn that when the Mary Rose was raised from the depths of the Portsmouth Sound in 1982, the remains of the crew were examined and found to have near perfect teeth, thereby disproving Jones' view of Medieval dentures. After much reflection he concluded that a Medieval population probably had better teeth than most people today, and that the decline in our dental health may have been brought about by the sugar trade.

Jones also talked about how the success and his experience working on the project inspired him and the team to spearhead their next project, Life of Brian. Jones talked to some extent about filming this controversial classic, particularly with regards to casting the lead, in which he championed Graham Chapman over the John Cleese. The story that came as the most surprising (and embarrassing) concerned the film's budget.

It is well known that the late Beatle George Harrison put up funds that saved the production from collapsing. Jones recalled that his only goal at the time was to finish the project regardless of its commercial success and giving no consideration to the risk undertaken by the film's investors. Ten years later Jones shared an interview chair with Harrison in which Jones learned he had in fact put up his house as collateral against the sum loaned to Python, hence feelings of guilt washed over him. Luckily of course that film was a huge success and Harrison went on to form Handmade Films the company behind such classics as Time Bandits and Bob Hoskins starrer Mona Lisa to name a few.

Happy in Reflection

Jones had felt that he balanced the dual roles of actor and director effortlessly since he did not consider himself a serious actor but just a comic who uttered his lines in a silly voice before heading back behind the camera.  The shooting had been a nightmare experience for the novice director and it didn't necessarily end there. Post production work also proved tiring as did test screenings in which the overlain soundtrack and music score made the film unpopular, resulting in a return trip to the editing suite.

Despite having moved on to different projects, Jones maintains that Python is still very much a part of his life, as the team collectively own the rights to much of their own work, in particular the Flying Circus television show currently enjoying syndicated repeats and respectable DVD sales. "It is still very much a business" said Jones and in order to maintain the business all the Python team maintain regular and sometime hearty contact, even with John Cleese residing in sunny California.

All said and done however, Jones expressed renewed appreciation whenever he viewed the finished Monty Python and The Holy Grail with an audience. Their laughter and general enjoyment of the film, for Jones made it all worthwhile, and his appreciation seemed to be even greater with an audience still laughing heartily at the on screen antics 35 years later. As a member of the audience I felt the combination of an enjoyable comedic romp through Arthurian England (or Albion) and the genuine thrill of sitting a mere 20 feet away from one of the Python team made for a sensational evening, a £12 ticket price happily parted with.

Big thank you to the Arnolfini for staging this amazing event.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Otto Zitko and Louise Bourgeois –The Ultimate Duo of Abstract

If the purpose of abstract art is to create a composition that exists with a degree of independence from visual references in the world, then Viennese king of abstract Otto Zitko, has achieved that in droves.

His work is unique and epitomises the very essence of abstract in that they principally consist of lines travelling in all directions be it horizontal, vertical or circular and of varied density, seemingly in a random pattern. The truly unique feature however is that the canvas is the walls and ceilings of the buildings in which his work is housed. Bristol’s very own Arnolfini down on Narrow Quay is the latest to have Gallery 1 as well as its halls decked with the great man’s free handed improvised visual scribbles.

                                    Otto Zitko Gets Abstract at The Arnolfini
It is however more than just a few randomly scrawled lines up and down walls. They form part of an exhibition entitled “Me Myself and I” an exploration of the individual’s relations to the world testing the boundaries of our psyche. In contrast, there is also a display of work by the late Louise Bourgeois, who through her own abstract style explored the deeply complicated nature of personal relationships.

Lines and Boundaries – Otto Zitko

Staring intently at the stand white canvas with a random scribbling of blue and black lines I did question myself “What is it I am supposed to see?” The more intensely I gazed however I soon realised that there was more to this than just random lines. The varied shade and thickness of the lines are drawn in such a way that it brings the stark white of the canvas they are composed on, to the fore. This effect can be further felt as you follow his work through the halls and stairways of the building.

As your eye gently follows the lines, you might find yourself mentally untangling them like you would your Christmas lights that have been languishing in storage. It is human nature to unravel things that are seemingly tangled in amongst which an image formulates. In this regard Zitko has succeeded, as I found myself not just viewing his work but interacting with it. Even from a purely aesthetic view, the vibrant blue against the stark white is pleasing to the eye, and adds real decorative character to the building. I am still unsure as to how this defines my relationship with the world.

Complex Relations – Louise Bourgeois

This half of the exhibition is made up of sixty drawings entitled Je T’Aime and focuses on the centrality of relationships and what it is to be human. It is difficult to detail the specifics of these works without giving away the exhibition’s content. There is however one piece featured, a drawing from 1946 which depicts one person being consumed by a much larger person. The plethora of metaphors on the nature of relationships can be quite staggering and there is much to be sought from this work alone.

The other sixty pieces seem to follow the path of human relations, but whether this is a chronological journey leading to an inevitable end, or a multitude of possible outcomes, I guess is down to the viewer. Je T’Aime is quintessential Abstract in how it manages to challenge perceptions.

Me Myself and I will be on show at the Arnolfini until Sunday 4th July.