Saturday, April 16, 2011

Best bets in Brixton for a lazy day out

OK, so the Rest Is Noise might have shut up shop, and you might get harassed by the halal butchers’ creepy spruikers every time you walk through the market (if you’re a lady, that is), but there’s no reason to avoid Brixton on your next hot date. It’s lovely this time of year when blue skies and high-teen temperatures are semi-regular novelties, especially on a Saturday afternoon when Brixton Village is in full swing. The hipsters haven’t ruined it yet (RIP, The Rest Is Noise) and £15 will well cover a foodie’s day out with a difference.

Red Stripe
It’s no time for warm ales and uncarbonated ciders as the muggy summer months approach; it’s all about ice-cold lager straight from the can. Given Brixton’s significance as London’s Caribbean heartland, what could be more appropriate than a plastic bag full of Red Stripes? We justify the placcy bag as a nod to the ‘hood’s ghetto origins, but who’s going to argue with ghetto prices (if you’re lucky you’ll score six for £5)? That’s your pre-d’s, dinner and evening drinks taken care of, right there.

Kaosan, Brixton Village
Holy shitake mushrooms, could the jewel in Brixton’s crown get any better?! Evidently, YES, with the opening of family-run Thai restaurant Kaosan (it’s on the right at the Coldharbour Lane entrance to Brixton Village). Visit #2, the Friday before last, was met with a 15-minute wait for a table (boo – the secret’s out!) and a certain south London food reviewer looking pretty impressed with his order (a tweet’s ok, but please – no Observer review).

The so-homemade-it’s-not-funny poh pia tod (vegetarian spring rolls , £3.90) and geaw tod (deep-fried pork and prawn filo parcels, £3.90) make deep frying seem nutritious. Gang keaw warn gai (green chicken curry, £6.90 with rice) and penang gai (red chicken curry, £6.90 with rice) proved to be equally impressive with tofu, and best when ordered “spicy hot, not English hot” (FYI, this didn’t mean retardedly Thai hot). Kouy tiew tom yum Bangkok style (£6.90, pictured above) was a tom yum on ‘roids, with fish balls, minced pork, and topped with two of the most perfectly battered king prawns ever tasted. A starter and two mains should set you back about £17 and, with no corkage or service charge, it’s well deserving of a fat tip with your “kop khun ka”.

Ms Cupcake
Moseying down Coldharbour Lane you’ll stumble on the fairy godmother of London fussy/ethical foodies, super baker Ms Cupcake. Some say the greatest accolade for vegan food is when you can’t tell the difference. We say it’s when you want a picture of the colorful confections (£2 each) tattooed on your bicep after you’ve woken up from the diabetic coma. Don’t play safe with a plain chocolate or vanilla – although they’re great – try the Cherry Bakewell (almond cake and amaretto frosting), the banoffee or the pina colada (complete with cocktail umbrella).

Stockwell Skate Park
Unless you want to trek to Brockwell Park or Clapham Common - no - get to the skate park next to Brixton Academy for a patch of grass in the sun to devour your take away cupcake (pictured above). On a sunny afternoon this is where all the cool kids hang with their ciders and skate gear, and Sunday mornings are primo for perving on hot dads teaching their toddlers how to kick flip on south London’s best bowls. Technically it's a park - there is some grass there - but thankfully you won't be subjected to middle-aged dudes playing rounders in their unmentionables (if that's more your bag, head to Clapham or Battersea Park). If you’re lucky you might even see some London Rollergirls practicing their lateral skating.

The Piccadilly imposter roadtests a five-star pampering deal

The closest I’ve come to staying at a five-star hotel in Piccadilly is waiting out the front for an hour for a night bus home from Westbourne Park. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to hang out for the day at Le Meridien Piccadilly Health Club & Spa, as part of a promotion on The thoroughly pimped-out pool, squash courts and gym are free for hotel guests and club members, and ordinarily the spa’s beauty treatments hover around £60 a pop for facials, massages and mani-pedis. The promotion I trialed included full use of the health club facilities, an hour-long facial, and a cocktail in the hotel bar, all for £50. I really can’t imagine seeking out these services unless I was already holed up in the hotel and someone else was paying the tab, but there are worse ways to spend a day recovering from a large weekend.

Let’s cut to the chase: hospitality operators wouldn’t need to flog their wares on Travelzoo if they were offering a slick, in-demand service. When I arrived on the Monday morning, the white robe I was given at reception was missing a waist tie, there was no orientation tour on arrival, the spa’s treatment room was a rabbit warren away from the change rooms in the bowels of the hotel, and there was no wi-fi. It would have been nice if the spa’s relaxation room wasn’t dimmed into semi darkness, which made it impossible to do anything other than stare at the pretty impressive fish tank.

Now, in terms of facials, the only one I’ve ever had was part of bridesmaid duties for a friend who’s been divorced for five years. When my lady pulled out the fluorescent strip lamp to highlight god knows what kind of crustifarian phenomena lurking in my crows feet and jowls, I felt a wave of anxiety usually reserved for pap smears and dental check ups. But over the next hour, my visage was treated to an offertory procession of scrubs, creams, potions and lotions… I lost count of the number of courses after the eye pads were applied (slathered in burnt-caramel-scented cream – yum!), and the face massage made me melt into the treatment table. The whole-body nirvana was comparable to the final savasana after a 90-minute Bikram yoga work out… actually, to be honest, it was like finally crawling into bed after being stowed in the luggage hold on a long-haul flight from a third-world country. The only technical info I can offer is that all the products they use come from the Gerard’s skincare range – an Italian company used exclusively in the spa on Richard Branson’s Necker Island luxury resort.

When I begrudgingly left the calm oasis of the treatment room (prompted by the “I’m just out here waiting to take you back to reception”, natch), my face had the glossy sheen of an embalmed corpse that’d been shocked back to life. In a good way. 24 hours later, it was impressive enough for my housemate to remark on. A week on, it’s still pretty luminous. I think I’m a convert.

The pool was absolutely epic – luxuriously tiled, wider than it was long, and of the same ilk as Daddy Warbucks’ and Jay Gatsby’s aquatic facilities. The hot tub and sauna had all the bells and whistles, as did the two gym rooms and squash courts.

It’s unfair to judge Longitude 0°8’, Le Meridien’s cocktail bar, off a single visit on a Monday afternoon – after all, who the hell hangs out in a hotel cocktail bar on a Monday afternoon other than jet-lagged agoraphobic hotel guests? Noone, evidently. The ‘First class’ Bloody Mary (mixed with your choice of Chase or Chiroc vodka) is £16.50 – ouch – but is served with a trio of tasty bar snacks which I suspect would be replenished on demand. It does not, however, pose any threat to Bar Off Broadway’s rep as London’s best bloody mary mixers (where a measly £9 will get you the best breakfast cocktail known to man – complete with OTT garnish – AND a soy latte).

So, all in all, a pleasing day out that my face won’t forget any time soon. Sans voucher though, you’d get more bang for your buck (and lashings of TLC) at Spa London York Hall in Bethnal Green, where you can hit Bistroteque afterwards for a dinner and show.