Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fortnum & Mason (King's Cross St Pancras) - tea before the journey


Fortnum & Mason (St Pancras)
Address: Unit 1A,
St Pancras International Station
Pancras Road, London N1C 4QP
Phone: 0207 734 8040
Nearest Tube station:
King's Cross St Pancras
Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat 7am-9pm, Sun 8am-9pm
TT stopped for tea at Fortnum & Mason's 2nd London store.

I first came across Fortnum & Mason when I received its famous wicker basket hamper with the F&M emblazoned across the front of the basket as a gift. The goodies in there might have long gone but I still have the basket which serves as a very handy (and pretty) container for cutlery and knick knacks. I love going to its flagship store at Regent Street which is an experience in itself. Fortnum might be best known for its beautifully packaged food products and hampers but if you can tear yourself away from the ground floor, you will find that it sells almost anything under the sun.

It is fitting that Fortnum & Mason has decided to open an outpost albeit a mini one at St Pancreas International. It stocks food items which would make beautiful gifts and there is a little tea room as well. This gives travellers an opportunity to stock up on any last minute gifts and have a sprinkling of the old world charm that Fortnum does so well before embarking on the inevitably dreary train journey.

The tea room may be small but it is perfectly formed. I was quite surprised at how insulated it was from the hustle and bustle of the station. The menu was short and to the point. No fancy stuff but just simple classics that one would fancy before embarking on a journey. I opted for quiche and tea. The quiche was good but perhaps it was the tea which commanded my attention. The tea menu was as long as the food menu and I enjoyed the descriptions which my waitress provided me of each tea. She said the afternoon tea blend was just the drink for a lazy afternoon when all you wanted was a snooze and that the morning blend was a lively blend guaranteed to perk things up. In this time and age when so many would just shrug their shoulders and say they do not know, I appreciated her effort to come up with stories for me. She went the extra mile and provided me with a generous serving of their rose petal jelly when I asked if I could try some. On top of the excellent service tea was served in beautiful silverware which completed the time travel experience.

Full marks to Fortnum & Mason at St Pancreas International. I would go back for the service alone.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

What not to do in London's Leicester Square - 6 things to avoid


Welcome to arguably the most happening part of London - Leicester Square, the heart of London's West End. In fact, most of everything that is worth seeing in London is within a fifteen minute stroll from Leicester Square - only Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral fall outside this area.

Having a bit of everything within the vicinity also means that there are more distractions. If it's your first time in Leicester Square, I don't blame you for wanting to try a bit of everything. But the last thing you want to do is waste that precious hours on something that you would kick yourself for on your flight back home.

Before you head to tips for visiting London, here are the six things to avoid doing in Leicester Square.

1. Getting a caricature of yourself

This is one of things that it is far better to be a spectator than a participant. Far safer to mill around to see images with too large a nose, mouth, ears, chin, hair, eyes, well almost any part of the face, than having to sit very still on a stool while wondering what the others are sniggering about.

If you are looking for a portrait that actually looks like you, you are better off relying on Photoshop's pencil sketch feature.

2. Spending an afternoon in Trocadero 

The Trocadero is no longer the great entertainment centre that it once was. Most of the gaming machines have been carted off leaving the impression that there is major renovations going on. Even that seems to have come to a standstill.

These days, a small gaming arcade resides in the basement with a buckling bull machine, which operator gives an occasional spin to show that it is functional.

Other than a motley selection of souvenir and candy shops, there is a photo gallery where you get to dress up in Medieval, Victorian or Wild West theme costumes for a set of photos. Something to show the folks back home - "Look ma, I get to dress up as a cowboy in London, yeeyaw!"

3. Wolfing down a pizza slice taste of cardboard

It used to be £1.50 each just three years back, now it is going at £2.50 per slice. These thick baked dough with barely there cheese topping floating on an equally thin tomato base is the staple for hordes of hungry tourists on a budget.

Tellingly, these takeaway pizza stalls seem to be unique to Leicester Square, at least in central London. They survive by ensnaring undiscerning customers catching a play or venturing out after an entire day in the nearby museums. Even then, one such stall, just off Piccadilly Circus was replaced by Jamie Oliver's Diner. Even the excellent could not prevent its demise.

If you find the cardboard slices hard to swallow, overpriced cans of Coke are also available. Ah, how convenient. Just north of Leicester Square is London'c Chinatown where a number of decent cheap eats await. See the top 5 cheap eats in Chinatown.

4. Trying your luck at the casinos

While the wives and girlfriends do their shopping along Regent Street or in Covent Garden, middle aged men who are neither interested in shopping nor museums are in a fix: where are they to go then? Rather than tagging along their teenage children or hulling shopping bags, some decided to head for the casinos instead.

Casinos are no longer small dingy corner shops with bright neon lights and curiously doubled up as amusement arcades. No one in the right state of mind would decide to shoot some zombies after a losing streak at the jackpot machines. With the opening of The Hippodrome Casino London, gambling is now glamourous. Craps, roulette and blackjack with live entertainment are available 24/7. The allure is tremendous.

Thing is if you are a Londoner, I suppose you can still hitch a ride home if things go south. It's a tad tougher explaining to your family that the money meant for the rest of your European holiday is lost on the poker table.

Just don't step in. Not even to shoot zombies.

5. Dining at any restaurants with someone at its doors

Have you ever wondered why some Chinese restaurants have someone (usually a young petite Chinese lady with winning smile) stationed beside their entrance, waving their menu at you and asking you to step in?

Short answer - the restaurants desperately need to fill up their otherwise empty tables. They depend on tourists for their survival, those who descend in London's Chinatown for only a day and would dine at any restaurant just so that they can tell someone they did that. The locals, on the other hand, would never come within a mile of them and for good reason too. Words spread fast; there is only so far a restaurant can go with plying its customers with overpriced wine without conjuring up something credible from its kitchen.

Go instead to those that looks almost forbidding. Even better, with a queue forming outside. Check out where to eat in Leicester Square instead.

6. Watching a movie

In recent years, Leicester Square has scored some coups of its own by premiering a handful of Hollywood blockbusters. Cue in the red carpet, the actors in dashing suits, the actresses in their skimpy number and a horde of adoring fans.

That's is probably the only use for the handful of cinemas standing on the Square itself. Surely, catching a movie at Leicester Square ranks just just below sitting in front of the jackpot machines on the big no-no list. With the premium in the cinema tickets (20-30% more than other cinemas in Central London), you are better off opting for the circle seats in multitude of West End theatres watching a musical, comedy or drama.

Or, if you fancy, some in your face stand up comedy at London Comedy Store.

Have you got anything to add to the list? @OliviaChungUK suggested M&M World but I ended up spending two hours there instead. Oh well. For more ideas on how to spend your time in London, download a free copy of London in a Weekend Guide.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

M&M World (London) - largest candy store in the world


M&M World (London)
Address: 1 Swiss Ct, London W1D 6AP
Phone: 020 7025 7171
Nearest Tube station:
Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square
Think of M&M and those little multicoloured coated chocolate candies come to mind. Everyone who grows up eating them seems to have a favourite colour. Not to mention different ways of devouring them. Are you a single, threes or a fistful? A chomper, a crusher or sucker? Me? I'm a nibbler - one at a time, twirling it round the mouth until the chocolate casing melts and soft chocolate filling oozes out. And believe me, there is no difference in taste, it's just colouring over a white based casing.


It amazes me what M&M World stores actually sell. Sure, M&M chocolate candies come in almost every shade conceivable. Even then, everything can be squeezed into a space of 10sqm. The M&M World store in London's Leicester Square spreads over a whopping 3,250sqm. Just what can M&M come up with to fill up four storeys? Quite a bit actually.




For starters, a replica of London Routemaster bus greets the visitors (not customers mind you, the shop is almost a tourist attraction on its own). Right beside it stands a huge Union Jack collage made of M&M candies arranged according to their colours - how convenient. Halfway up a stairs, a staff dispenses free candies alongside portraits of M&M royalties (Henry VII and Victoria I M&Ms). Large M&M figurines are placed strategically on all floors - perfect for photo opportunities.



Never mind that two bottles of candies go for £25, you'll most probably end up buying anything other than candies. M&M World is a merchandise paradise: keychains, cups, fridge magnets, ear rings, charms, coin pouches, paper bags, sticker books, candy dispensers, plates, BPA-free bottles, golf balls, playing cards, shirts, briefs, pyjamas, and I'm not even halfway through here.


For an additional fee, you can even personalise a gift at the Mix Lab in the basement. For those looking to splash a bit, certified collectable figurines are available on the first floor. Have a spare penny? Pop it into the coin press with a pound and you'll have the penny melted down and pressed into one of the selected M&M designs. It even has a (M&M colour) mood detector station.

No, M&M World is unlikely to replace the National Gallery just down the road anytime soon. But it is giving The likes of Ripley's Believe it or Not a run for its money. Just be careful not to spend an entire afternoon in this candy store.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Stephen Ward Musical - Lloyd Webber too good for a scandal?


Stephen Ward (The Musical)
Aldwych Theatre
Address: 49 Aldwych, London WC2B 4DF
Phone: 0844 847 1712
Nearest Tube station: Covent Garden, Temple
TT catches the latest musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and this is what she thinks of it.

Stephen Ward is the latest musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber with Richard Eyre directing. Being a fan of Phantom of the Opera and greatly impressed by Eyre's adaption of Ibsen's Ghosts, I was pleased to be invited to a preview of Stephen Ward.

The musical is about Ward's (Alexander Hansen) role in the Profumo Affair. Truth be told, I knew nothing about him or the Profumo Affair till I came across the play. Ward was a society osteopath who was close to the rich and famous which included those in the Establishment. He led an unconventional lifestyle and delighted in introducing young pretty girls of lower income backgrounds to men in position of power as some sort of libertarian experiment. He met a young Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) in a West End nightclub and introduced her to the then Minister for War John Profumo (Daniel Flynn). Keeler and Profumo had a brief affair which he lied about. The scandal helped eventually topple the discredited Tory government then led by Harold Macmillan after it emerged she had also slept with the Russian naval attaché and spy Yevgeny Ivanov (Ian Conningham). There was a frenzy of speculation on possible espionage implications. A British government minister and a Soviet spy were sleeping with the same woman, who could be passing sensitive information between them. These espionage claims are now largely discredited but at that time they were played up by the Press and Ward believed that he was portrayed as a pimp by the Establishment to shift attention away from those claims. He stood trial for living off the immoral earnings of prostitution and on the day before the last day of his trial he committed suicide. The jury found him guilty in what had since been considered by some as a miscarriage of justice. This play seeks to redeem Ward.

This is serious stuff for a musical. Lloyd Webber is known for his lush music but can it really be suited to tell the story of a scandal? The first half of the show tried to flesh out the relationship between Ward and Keeler and how he introduced her to his famous friends. Their relationship was apparently purely platonic and we were supposed to believe that he saw something special in her. Perhaps because the show was still in its early days, I could not feel the chemistry between the actors playing Ward and Keeler. There was this duet between Ward and Keeler, This Side of The Sky, which has a beautiful tune but just does not carry any conviction or emotion. He sees something in me sung by the actress playing Keeler about her relationship with Ward also fails to hit the emotional soft spots. The pace picked up with the very energetic and cheeky routine set to You've Never Had It So Good just before the interval which was probably the play at its theatric best. The second half plunged into the events leading to the Profumo Affair and Ward's trial. The pace was more energetic but still there were few high points. The best performance of the second half (and perhaps the highlight of the entire play) came from Joanna Riding as Profumo's wife with her heartfelt rendition of I am Hopeless when it comes to You though one had to question whether the spurned political wife should have a place in this story.

The show's message was clear. Ward was sacrificed for going too close to the flame. Keeler was no innocent child and knew what she was getting into. There were a few great songs and the cast were excellent but somehow the storytelling seems to have let the story down. We get the message but we can't feel it. Perhaps all the play needs is a little more time on the stage to mature.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Last minute Christmas gifts - top picks this year

Choosing a gift for someone need not be a chore (picture by Jeremy Richardson)

If you are still undecided, here are TT's top picks this Christmas. 

Time had this habit of creeping up on me. I thought I had plenty of time left for my Christmas shopping and now it is just over a week to Christmas! I thought I would share some gift ideas here, some of which are unique to London, to help those who are too running out of time for their Christmas shopping. If you just happen to be visiting London this can also provide inspiration for gifts that you could get for folks back home.

The gift for everyone

It is not difficult to find that everyday unisex gift, say a mug or something for the home but would that not suggest a lack of imagination on your part? Well, not if that something is from Rob Ryan. Rob is an artist best known for his intricate paper cut designs which have translated well into other mediums such as homeward and jewellery. Every time I walked into his shop at Columbia Flower Market I had to walk away with one of his pieces. I just had a look at his online shop and some popular designs have already sold out but I managed to find this. Cheery and positive, it would just light up someone's Christmas Day.

Rob's mugs and books are stocked on Amazon too. I love Rob's Invisible Kingdom book and for a budget yet thoughtful gift, you can't beat his Listen to The World mug.

Food gifts also work well. Fortnum and Mason has a wide range of beautifully packaged biscuits, jams and produce. I am currently in love with their rose petal jelly though I would be just as happy with a jar of the lovely pear jelly from the Quality shop.

Something for the ladies

I would pop into Space NK and browse their gift sets or you can order online and opt for complimentary gift wrapping which is such a time saver. A Diptyque candle will always be well received.

Jo Malone also offers a wonderful selection of fragrances, candles and skin care products. I bought a gift from their Covent Garden store before and the service was wonderful. Your gift would be perfectly wrapped and spritzed with fragrance. Their online shop also offers one of the latest cut off dates for guaranteed Christmas delivery (3pm, 20 December). One can do no wrong with this beautifully scented hand and body lotion.

A tote bag would also make an inexpensive but practical present. I like the alphabet totes from Rob Bryan and who can resist anything with a Liberty print?

If she is into baking you can of course buy her a Kitchen Aid but if your budget does not go quite so far, there are other kitchen gadgets with a less hefty price tag that would make her life easier. An electric spice grinder would be perfect for the cook who likes South East Asian and Indian recipes given the spice pastes required in such cuisine. You can of course play it safe and get her a cookbook. I can't do without the River Cottage cookbook but I would recommend the Modern Pantry cookbook if you want something with a twist.

What about the men

The obvious choice would be an ipad air but if you have already gotten him that, an Samsonite ipad cover would do just as nicely. Cufflinks might make a good gift though that obviously depends on how well you know the recipient. I like this Kate Spade pair. If he fancies himself as something of a cook, you could get him the kitchen gadgets described above. A particularly blokey cookbook is Tom Kerridge's Proper Pub Food. The name says it all.

Not forgetting the little ones

If you are buying gifts for children, I suggest you ask their parents upfront as to what the children would like from Santa since they know them best. Gifts I have bought for little girls before include this gorgeously twirly tutu pettiskirt from Angel's Face. Packaged in a hat box, it makes a really unique gift and is certain to make any aspiring ballerinas very happy. Hello kitty presents such as this Woodlands Animals backpack also go down a treat. For little boys I have bought This year I have also been asked to acquire robofish, the latest craze to hit town.

Enjoy shopping and Merry Christmas!

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