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Beyond Beauty at Two Temple Place

There's the most amazing exhibition space on the north bank of the Thames. Unknown to even me, a native Londoner, until I came across it in the hallowed pages of Time Out, Two Temple Place is the Gothic fantasy palace of William Waldorf Astor, built at the turn of the 20th century. Every year it flings open its doors for a fleeting few months for an exhibition: this year, the compelling Beyond Beauty: Transforming The Body In Ancient Egypt.

Stepping into the warmth of the first room, the sound of the outside world muffled with omnipresent mahogany panels, the visitor is greeted by an array of artefacts housed in glass cabinets: zoomorphic stone palettes for grinding cosmetics pigments, perfume jars, amulets, polished bronze mirrors and hairpins. This is a collection that far surpasses my own artillery of makeup and jewels and shows just how vital beautification of the self was in Ancient Egypt, even in the afterlife.

I had wrongly believed the first room to be the full extent of the exhibition. Pushing through a door, I came to an intricately carved wooden staircase, its newel posts upgraded to pedestals for lively characters in Stuart costume. A wander up the stairs took me to another rich set of rooms with breathtakingly beautiful stained glass windows, their contents even more impressive than the first.

Morbidly fascinating canopic jars carved in the image of the Four Sons of Horus: monkey, falcon, jackal and human. These were used to house the bodily organs during mummification. 

Naturally, the next set of rooms is absolutely packed with mummies and their accoutrements - from colourful cartonnage cases complete with painted faces and false beards to the later Coptic fayum portraits, so disturbingly life-like that you might think them painted perhaps two or three hundred years ago, rather than relics dating back to mere centuries after Christ.

The mummy room reminded me strongly of my discovery of the Ancient Egyptian collection in the British Museum as a small child, so bewitched by the ancient bundles of rags and desiccated human remains within that I could think of nothing else on subsequent trips to the museum. I still can't help but feel small and awed in the presence of the cases.

This gorgeous gilded mummy mask looks quintessentially Ancient Egyptian, but a glance at the back of his head, inscribed with Greek script rather than hieroglyphs, reveals his provenance: a Roman citizen at a time when the Roman Empire had taken control over Egypt from the Greeks.

I would strongly recommend Beyond Beauty to anyone looking for a day out with a difference in London: whether you're a budding Egyptologist, a beauty junkie interested in examining 2000-year old make-up routines, or simply keen to have a nose around in a beautiful heritage building, there's something for everyone here. The exhibition makes for an intriguing morning or afternoon, whiled away in charming surroundings, and it's totally free. It runs until April 24, so if I've convinced you to have a look you've got plenty of time to see it!

After the afterlife, a spontaneous detour to Soho for noodles at an old favourite. Because bone mummies have to be followed by Bone Daddies.

Petals of salmon sashimi with shiso and lime soy.

Lipsmackingly good chashu pork and corn croquettes.

Spicy miso ramen with pork chashu and silky sesame oil.

T22 topped with mustard leaves, chicken and cock scratchings (keeps straight face).

I've been to Bone Daddies so many times I've stopped counting, and yet I still love it. Although they've stopped doing my favourite ramen (baptised in an unholy amount of miso butter and corn), Bone Daddies continues to deliver as a fun place to come with friends and family for a style of ramen quite unlike the more solemn (and authentic) Kanada-Ya.

Frosty, chewy mochi balls filled with yuzu and matcha ice-cream. Deliciously icy and with a good level of flavour, and though I felt I could have eaten at least three more it was great to finish the meal on such a light note. Ancient Egyptian artefacts and a pseudo-Japanese lunch: a truly multi-cultural day out in London. I couldn't have constructed a more perfect Saturday if I tried.

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Commuting into the City is a slightly unnerving experience for me. Not only have I been transplanted into a concrete jungle from marshy, spire-strewn Cambridge, it's actually a journey that is incredibly familiar to me. I took the tube into school in the Barbican every day for seven years and six years later here I am again, rejoining the Square Mile rat race for law school. It's no wonder that certain City landmarks fill me with nostalgia. St. Paul's was once a favourite lunch spot; I know I'm at a very different stage in my life when it forms the backdrop to a celebratory dinner with Roxy at Barbecoa.
The Basque word barbecoa is the origin of the word barbecue, so it will come as no surprise that this restaurant places a heavy focus on meat, particularly steaks. (Vegetarians, I promise I will find a veggie restaurant to blog about soon.) But it's a steakhouse with a hell of a view. Christopher Wren's instantly recognisable dome is visible at all times through the floor to ceiling glass windows, and with a view like this and a cocktail in your hand it's hard not to feel like you own the city, SATC-style. Especially when your best friend has just been promoted (well done, Roxy!)

If anything deserves a toast, it's a promotion. And to our delight, we discovered that Barbecoa serves £5 cocktails from 5-8PM - if that's not a deal in the City, I don't know what is. What followed was genuinely one of the happiest hours I've had so far this year. I chose a chartreuse daiquiri - a spellbinding concoction of white rum, chartreuse, lime and cane sugar which made my lips tingle. For Roxy, the Barby 75, which might as well have been made for her - London dry gin, prosecco, rhubarb bitters, lemon and sugar.

To begin, we shared a plate of crab hush puppies with a sweet squash salsa and chipotle mayo. I thought the fruity chunks of squash went exceedingly well with the crab and gave the fried hush puppies a much-needed light, fresh touch. 

But it's the main event everyone's really interested in. Particularly when it looks like this. Roxy is a steak connoisseur (she's also pretty good with the wines - I let her take over the reins on this one) and immediately went for the fillet. It's one of the pricier cuts on the menu, but oh man, was it good. Tantalisingly pink from the outside, this steak rolls deep with the most appetising of companions - a hefty dollop of smoked bĂ©arnaise and luxuriant bone marrow dressed in a herb salad. I took one bite and immediately fell prey to the most insidious food envy. 

Steak ordered, I decided to pick a main with a palpable barbecue element to it, and guided by the very helpful Charlotte (always patient, smiley and very knowledgeable about the menu - a real credit to her team!) I chose the pit beef from the Low & Slow section of the menu. The beast that arrived must honestly have been the same size and weight as one of my calves. Encrusted in a beef-dripping crumble, it came with a dash of bacon and Worcestershire sauce ketchup and a New York slaw. 

The meat itself had a supremely smoky flavour, as expected! Probably owing to the fact that it was such a huge piece of meat, I found the top part of the cut slightly dry, but this was easily remedied with a splash of ketchup and the underside was juicy and tender enough to keep me happy. My vegetable cravings, meanwhile, were seen to by the little mound of slaw on the side.

Rather incredibly, Roxy managed to not find the bone marrow until the steak had nearly been polished off. We were wondering how she'd unintentionally avoided it at the time, but now that I see the photos I have my own theory on the clandestine bone marrow: Roxy's over-enthusiastic inclusion of the beef dripping chips. DCI Lim at your service. The chips themselves were fine, but at £5 I expected them to be a cut above - crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, all that jazz. Yes, I'm spoiled. Any dryness was again, easily offset by sauce - in this case, a pot of classic mayo.

The other side we chose was a delightful creamy spinach with nutmeg. Had Roxy not been there I would have hoarded this in the manner of Gollum and the Ring. My preciousssssssss

A marathon of a meal like this practically requires an intermission for digestion. Luckily, it wasn't quite 8PM yet so we ordered a second round of £5 cocktails...

...and prompted by the dazzling array of bottles at the back of the restaurant, a few glasses of wine. To Charlotte's horror, Roxy daringly ordered a well-priced white in spite of the red meat-heavy meal (quick disclaimer: sacrilege committed, culinary or otherwise, when we're out together is her fault and not mine - I allude to what happened later that night. My halo remains thoroughly intact.) 

Our second cocktails of the evening: femme for me and butch for Roxy. Coming Up Roses was an ecstasy of rose liqueur, cranberry, vodka, lemon and sugar complete with single floating rose petal worthy of Valentine's Day. For Roxy, Unkie Steeners Old Fashioned: a short masculine tumbler filled with a liquid so dark it'd prompt a warning from the bartender (do any guys out there get cautioned that their drink of choice is a bit strong, or is it just us delicate gals?) - bourbon, fernet branca, Islay whisky and a root beer reduction. 

Our hunger for all things savoury wholly sated, our thoughts turned to pudding.

Our choice: the Snickersphere, a name that brings to mind childhood excursions to the newsagent for chocolate bars as well as something a little more sci-fi and fantastical. And that's pretty much exactly what we got. Topped with a sliver of gold leaf, this chocolate dome rivals St Paul's Cathedral.

A bisected Saturn ringed with peanut fragments and orbited by a scoop of malt icecream.

Inside the sphere: the ice-cream freezer tucked away at the back of the newsagent's. Icy strata of peanut praline, chocolate and vanilla parfait with a glistening river of salted caramel. Exceptional.

Thank you for a fantastic meal, Barbecoa! Knowing that there's a new Barbecoa-to-go branch on Watling Street is going to be a serious temptation where it comes to my lunch hour in Moorgate from now on. For now, I'll content myself with fantasising about the Snickersphere. And next time I visit, I'm heading straight for the steaks and no one can stop me...

Disclaimer: I was invited to review Barbecoa on this occasion; all opinions remain firmly my own.

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Silk Road

Today I'm wrapping up my holy trinity of Chinese New Year posts with Silk Road. We started our voyage at C&R in peninsular Malaysia with six centuries' worth of migrant southern Chinese recipes. Next we travelled back up to mainland China for the refined yet familiar Cantonese fare of Pearl Liang. Finally, I invite you to journey with me to Silk Road, serving food from the furthest reaches of northwest China by way of Camberwell. Silk Road serves food from the gigantic Xinjiang province which borders on Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a culturally unique location immediately discernible through its flavours. I'm embarking on new territory here as this is a style of Chinese cooking that is completely new to me; chances are it will be new to you too!

There's a kind of magic in stepping out of the pouring British rain and into the warmth of the restaurant, the rough and tumble interior of which would not be out of place in China itself. The huddles of people waiting around the door and the buzz of the packed long tables are testament to the overwhelming popularity of this place (and indeed, don't bother turning up if you don't have a  dinner reservation here as you'll be queueing all night). Hustled to the back of the restaurant, blessedly miles away from the wind and rain, we started safe with dumplings. Yet what dumplings. Fried to perfection and stuffed with soft, wonderfully flavourful beef and onion. A strong start.

But it's where the menu takes a sharp turn away from the easily identifiable dishes that things start getting exciting. A plate of shredded kelp salad with chilli, Szechuan pepper oil and garlic was reminiscent of a Japanese sunomono salad in texture, but with far punchier flavours.

As soon as the waiter set these grilled swordfish skewers down in front of us I knew we'd found something special. This dish speaks volumes about the rich culinary history of the Silk Route: kebab dishes immediately conjure up visions of the Middle East. In fact, shish actually came to Xinjiang through the Uyghur tribe, a Turkic ethnic people who migrated from Mongolia into Northern China over a millennium ago. This fish had an amazingly smoky flavour brought out with paprika and I found myself fighting my family for the meat. For an incredibly cheap lunch, a fish skewer plus vegetables would suit me just fine.

Another set of skewers, and not one that you would immediately associate with a Chinese kitchen. These lamb shish, roasted over charcoal and rubbed with cumin and chilli, were absolutely spectacular. And of course, memories of Central Asia immediately sprang to mind as I bit into the meat - particularly images of snacking on kofte in Istanbul. 

Another interesting dish, especially to a girl who considers herself somewhat of a noodle connoisseur. These Xinjiang style noodles are hand-pulled into all shapes and sizes, stir-fried for a deliciously chewy texture, and doused in a broth flavoured with tomato, onion, chillies and pieces of lamb. It's a flavour profile that irresistibly reminds me of Italian pasta, and leaves me in no doubt that Marco Polo must have brought noodles back to Italy (controversial, I know...)

An undisputed highlight of the meal was the double cooked pork - incredibly thin slices of pork belly with shallots and onions, coated in a tangy sweet sauce. One of those dishes where the family ate in silence, interrupted only by sighs of contentment. Make sure you order this.

This 'big plate chicken' wasn't what I expected at all. I'd pictured a large dish of Chinese-style chicken. The reality was far more interesting: a trough of soup brimming with wide, hand-pulled 'belt' noodles added at the table. These were unlike any noodles I'd ever eaten before and actually comparable to sheets of lasagne, spiced up with chunks of chicken, potatoes and green peppers. This was hearty, filling, simple food that I can imagine has been eaten by rich and poor alike for centuries. It's apparently the most popular Xinjiang dish in China, and it's not hard to see why.

And at the end of it all...the remnants of the home-style cabbage. Crunchy young leaves drenched in silky sweet soy sauce and piquant red chillies - well, they obviously went down a treat. So much so that I didn't realise that I hadn't taken a picture until I'd had three helpings.

Silk Road is undoubtedly one of my new favourite restaurants in London. It's been around for a good while but shows no signs of decreasing in popularity. It's also incredibly good value for money (our bill came to about £13 per head). Don't be put off if you're not a south Londoner - this sort of food is worth travelling for.

I hope you've enjoyed my trilogy of Chinese New Year posts! C&R, Pearl Liang and Silk Road show just how amazingly diverse Chinese food can be in the different regions in and outside of China. All three are worth venturing to for different reasons and I would recommend each and any of them to any brave soul wishing to expand their knowledge of Chinese food beyond prawn toast and spring rolls! Tomorrow marks the end of CNY (and the Lantern Festival), so a final gong xi fa cai to all: go out and feast on the food of the Middle Kingdom for one last night.

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