The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

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Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

The Patate, Kerb, Camden Market, London NW1

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The next step on our hunt for London’s best burger led us once again to Camden Market. This time we went on a dreary damp Monday in December, and still the place was mobbed. We had friends visiting from Ireland, who combined the trip with some light Christmas shopping. On a side note, the market appears to be a very good venue if you are searching for unusual and funky gifts. The Patate is unit 215, the centre of a bank of three purpose built food stalls facing into the square. The main sign says French Burger with The Patate in smaller letters underneath.
 
The have a pot of boeuf bourguignon heating on the griddle and it is this that they make their burgers from. They are very specialised, that is all they do. You can have it with or without cheese and with or without fries. They do have three different types of cheese, and they do have béarnaise sauce to go on the chips, which you can have with added chilli. When you order, they take the beef bourguignon and make it into a patty on the griddle and cook for about five minutes drizzling the gravy over as it cooks.
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We had one with Raclette cheese and one with a Camembert Blue. The hamburgers were beautifully moist and the meat was incredibly tender. This burger is probably not for you if you do not like your meat to be well done, but there is still a lot of taste in this meal because it has been cooked in the gravy from the stew. The cheeses were both delicious and creamy, unusual for a hamburger, but they set off this particular one very well. The chips were nice and crisp and the béarnaise was divine.
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Once again, being from a street food stall, there was no knife and fork, but I guess we knew this would be the case when we came. The burger was delicious but if you are a person who chooses to have their meat rare, or even medium, you will not have that option here. A great meal, lovely friendly service and for a tasty variation, I would certainly recommend it. If we were looking for the best burger in Paris it might be the one, but its a bit too sophisticated for the best burger in London.

Langan's Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.
Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.
The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.
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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.
Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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Van Dyck, The Shepherd Paris

The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
 
Cannon

Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

Vases

A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

Rembrandt, Susanna van Collen and Anna
Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.