Friday, July 15

Food: Five Lads Click for more info

Sometimes its the basics that matter. Five Lads has a limited menu both in selection and pricing and so isn't really outstanding in this current sea of gourmet burger joints, but manages to present their food with such excellence and quality that it doesn't really matter. There's a striking feeling of homeliness in the place, a care and attention that only comes from these kind of indie run joints.

If there was one complaint it's on the number of covers; Five Lads may not be the place to go for a quick sit down meal. It's a classic case of being a victim of success really, which is unfortunate as part of the enjoyment of the meal was eating it fresh - take away might not have quite been the same.

Still Five Lads was a decent place and a definite pick for the area. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 12

Film: Ghostbusters Click for more info

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. It was always going to be a risky proposition going to see a remake of Ghostbusters. The fact that it would shatter any cherished childhood memories was a given really, all that remained to be seen was whether we would hate ourselves for even trying.

As it turned out the remake wasn't that bad really. The gender change worked well, as did the modern setting. It was still fun and zany, and the ghosts were able to walk that fine line between scary and amusing.

No, the main issue with the film wasn't the concept or the attempt, but with the film making itself. Ghostbusters was badly edited, the plot underdeveloped and half baked, with the characters not progressing much at all throughout. It's a shame because if these basic fundamentals (which had nothing to do with the concept itself) had had a bit more attention paid to them Ghostbusters could have been really great; even as much as the originals. As it stands it's a little forgettable and unfortunate.

Saturday, July 9

Food: Umami Click for more info

Sometimes you eat in a place that would have been great if not for a pretty major flaw. Umami is the latest place that manages to confound in this way - the Asian fusion menu was pretty outstanding both in choice and quality, while the vibe and decor of the place lent itself to our party of seven or so having a decent enough time. Pricing was midrange and as a result we may have underordered a little.

But the main issue with Umami was with the service. We're not sure if it was a one off, but the kitchen closed at 9:45pm which was pretty incredible. Food took a while to arrive, with us having to ask multiple times for basic things like cutlery.

It was enough to put us off, which was a shame because as I mentioned the food was pretty sublime. As such Umami just falls short of a recommendation for now.

Thursday, June 2

Food: Fatburger Click for more info

The thing is that Fatburger is actually kind of different. It's more basic than some of the usual joints (Stax and Proper being the benchmarks really) with a flat menu and a "pay before you eat" queue at the till. I guess that places it somewhere around the Nando's level of service. You'd think that this would manifest itself in the price, but no - I left Fatburger after having paid a colossal £17.50 for a meal, albeit with a milkshake.

Okay so it's pricey - surely the food justifies the cost? Well no. The meat wasn't actually too bad, but the burger itself was bland; confusingly there were no variants in the menu either. The fries were hard, and possibly stale, while the chicken wings must have come from a really small chicken. All in all it was pretty disappointing really.

So yes different from what I'm used to... but alas not in any positive way. Faced with competition that makes burgers look easy unfortunately Fatburger is one to avoid.

Wednesday, June 1

Book: New Spring, Robert Jordan Click for more info

New Spring is a welcome change to the saga that is A Wheel of Time. It's short, digestible, coherent... and pretty much fixes all the issues I've been having with the current volumes in the main series that I'm reading. It's also a surprise to find what it is about: after being warned that it was full of spoilers for the main timeline I was excited to start it... only to find that a lot of it was pretty redundant. That doesn't make it a bad read - on the contrary in fact since it make it less vital and more of a pleasure. That said, I'm a bit reluctant to say too much in case it does spoil it for anyone reading.

I liked it, and in some ways I'm a little cautious of having to go back to the slog that is the main franchise - and yet it has me eager to continue on that journey. Which is pretty much the whole point of a prequel really, so the job's done here.

Friday, May 27

Food: The Savoy Grill Click for more info

Although this wasn't my first visit to The Savoy it was my first time at The Grill, the smaller of the two headlining restaurants within the hotel proper. I have to say I was slightly disappointed at first glance - the place was cramped, dark and perhaps even a little sleazy... but in hindsight this was only in the context of the particular party of six we arrived in - we're used to more well lit and vibrant places. That said, we quickly adjusted and easily managed to enjoy the lush atmosphere.

We had the pre theatre menu to pick from and although pretty comprehensive overall it didn't leave much option for those on a halal diet - we had to request at least two menu changes to satisfy everyone present. The food itself was good - not great - and as always at these places deceptively small. The service was, again as expected, astonishingly good and perhaps even better than the food.

The final price came to a well measured £33 for two courses and some shared sides. It's not the most memorable figure in terms of value, but not too bad considering the number of times I visit The Savoy. With the right party and context I can imagine the place being pretty fantastic actually.

Thursday, May 26

Film: X-Men: Apocalypse Click for more info

On the one hand, Apocalypse could have been so much worse. The last time we managed to get to X-Men-number-three the series had degenerated into something that almost mocked itself... and thankfully the new teenage version has managed to avoid that particular pitfall.

On the other had, Apocalypse could also have been so much better. I can see what the makers were trying to do - to link together a series of amazing set pieces while also building up a sizable plot (you know like a real MCU film would attempt to do), but it does fall short on a fair few levels. I could blame the lack of talent in the cast, but I suspect that they didn't really have much to run with in the first place.

But as far as comic book adaptations go X-Men: Apocalypse is okay. You wouldn't be missing much if you chose to save this for the sofa.

Wednesday, May 4

Film: Captain America: Civil War Click for more info

The MCU is a funny beast. Despite the titling, it's now become pretty difficult to isolate any single film as standalone - in my view they should have just stopped messing around and named this film MCU 13. That's not to say the labouring of the MCU is a bad thing; on the contrary really since Civil War really is one of the best film to have come out of the franchise so far. And yes, that includes Assemble.

Despite being the easiest way to explain, it would be unfair to directly compare it to that the lynch pin movie of 2012. CW is mature, grown up, relying less on gimmicks and set pieces. There's more to the film than just the action and fan service. And yes, it does make you think (well, kind of). All of the characters come into their own (another reason why calling this a Captain America film could be seen as odd), and have been given more than enough potential to grow even more.

The downsides include some shoddy filming, especially during the fight scenes. Overall though the movie does get away with it, as it injects the blue, red and gold blurs into your eyeballs.

I won't go on because it'll just end up being gush. Needless to say Civil War is a great film and very much recommended.

Sunday, May 1

Food: Pictures at Dorsett Click for more info

Sometimes I feel like a very lucky chap. Without being too wet, this luck stems from knowing various groups of friends, all of whom are drivers in a particular field. Some know about board games, some about religion, and some in this case for instance, have a knack of finding some amazing places in which to eat.

Pictures is a relatively posh hotel restaurant situated on site at the Dorsett in Shepherd's Bush. It's clean, quiet and classy. The service is as you would expect, the food of a high quality. Granted, the place was empty but for our party of 12, but I put that down to ignorance rather than reputation.

And the best bit? With the assistance of a diners club membership the bill for a wonderful soup and fish mains came to the princely sum of £10. Like I said: amazing.

Saturday, April 30

Food: Sultan Click for more info

Oh man. Yes, another East London grill... one of many situated on Cranbrook Road. Is it different? Well maybe. I would suggest that the spices are spicier perhaps.

Ultimately with such optimised menus the unique selling points come down to a few things - cost, decor, service. Sultan manages an above average mark on all these things and so remains a choice out of many options.

Friday, April 29

Book: The Universe versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence Click for more info

Alex Woods is a fun book. It's well written (and by that, I mean it's laugh out loud hilarious), the plot is adequate enough and the pacing is just about right to keep the reader engaged. What it lacked is depth. In particular, characterisation. "Formulaic" isn't quite the right word, but the characters as they stood were pretty shallow and one dimensional - there wasn't much development either.

And so the book sits at "fun", which is ultimately a shame because it could have been so much more. In passing (or between two heavier books) however you could do much worse.

Sunday, April 24

Homebound

And just like that, our ten days in the two holy cities come to an end. For many this is a sad time - I can't remember anyone ever not saying that they "wanted to stay forever". I've already written about my relationship with these cities perhaps being a little more academic and comfortable and as such I do feel content and fulfilled with the time I've had here.

It's been a good trip in terms of the ever important worship but also in acclimatising to the continuing ongoing changes Makkah is going through. I feel that my approach and relationship with the haramain evolves each time I visit, and this trip has been no different.

It's also probably due to my relative familiarity with the place that I, Godwilling, feel confident that I'll return. There's really no reason for anyone to ever consider this a once in a lifetime trip... so all that's left to do now is to restart the countdown to the next trip.

Saturday, April 23

More Banning

Suggesting to ban anything will always be controversial, but I'm particularly proud of this one:

  • Ban all children under 5

I'm sorry (well not really) to say that it's pointless and puts the will of one (usually the mum, most certainly not the kid themselves) ahead of a whole congregation. And all for that WhatsApp picture of chookidums in front of the Kaaba in an Ihram. It's a waste of money and experience, so do the right thing... leave your dear little ones at home.

Makkah: Come For The Prayer, Stay For The Food

I mentioned the other day how I like the Clock Tower precisely because of the glitz it brings to the area. Of course the flip side is that this glitz permeates itself into us, the audience. I've suddenly realised that Makkah is now seen as a resort by many.

Which explains a lot of the issues we see now - the selfies, the self-preoccupation, the behaviour, the videocalls. If you consider something a fairground then it makes sense you'll play in it. Add to that the current obsession with the validation of life by recording it (see here) and you have the typical pilgrim in Makkah.

The irony is that the self control can be seen in the most decadent of places - you won't see photos being taken in a Vegas casino for instance simply because it's not socially acceptable. Neither would you do the same in your local place of worship.

In short: it's a mosque, stupid. Put your phone away.

Crowd Control

Despite initial reactions, crowd control in and around the Haram is actually improving. It can be frustrating as first, the constantly changing routes and variable barriers a little bewildering - with the natural reaction being to just go early and avoid the mess.

But once you understand the reasons and the methods it does make sense. And what more, it enables one to avoid crowds and leave the hotel room later.

Of course it'll be another reason some use to berate the Saudi overlords, but it is clear that the mosque remains comfortable and safe mainly due to the restrictions on entry.

Tawaf Tales

As the trip winds to an end, our thirst to complete tawafs increase. Today was an especially good day for me, having been able to complete three tawafs, the quickest of which was 19 minutes long. So a bit of a win then.

It wasn't completely uneventful either, with us feeling at least two drops of rain (unless it was actually sweat in which case ew). The eternal battle to kiss the black stone was also carrying on as usual, this time with a poor little pretty girl in tears during her own post-aswad attempt. I'm not sure if she actually managed it, but she sure learned that looks and gender don't count for much in the face of religious zeal.

Breakfast Tips

I wrote before how much of an... experience breakfast can be in the haramain. Aside from the usual advice (which more or less reduces to "keep your head and manners even if nobody else does"), I do advise sticking to the prepared scrambled eggs over the custom cooked eggs. It's faster, you get to have as much as you need and you don't have to queue alongside the great unwashed.

Friday, April 22

Food: Fardoos

I have no point of reference, no link and no way of even describing how to get there... but Fardoos near Aziziyah (perhaps) really is the best Pakistani food in Makkah.

The saag was worth the entry price alone. IF you can hunt it down make sure you give it a try.

Working Women

I noticed something today which has always been the case here - there are no women to be seen working. None behind the counters, none leading groups and none in hotels be it in front desk positions or in providing services like housekeeping and the like. I did get a courtesy call to our room to see how we were doing, and that was made by a female and some of the security services in the haram are made up of women (for practical reasons)... but otherwise nothing.

This shouldn't be surprising - the situation here in Saudi is well documented and known. But what I actually found more interesting is how it hadn't been noticed before. I certainly haven't missed it.

My Secret Shame

I actually like the clock tower.

I think it gives a Vegas like feel to the place. I don't think there's anything wrong with that - it's not like it gets in the way of worship or anything. In fact I'd suggest that it's only if you keep a superficial approach to faith that it would ever be a problem.

Thursday, April 21

Infiltrating The Third Expansion

After having discovered that a part (albeit a small part) of the currently under construction third expansion was open to the public I just had to go check it out, camera in hand. Now there's plenty of photos and videos of the current progress online so I won't bore you with how amazing it all looked - I'll leave finding those as an exercise for the reader.

What might be worth writing about is the rest of the extension, otherwise closed off to the public. After accidentally (honest gov) taking an unfinished staircase I found myself wandering throughout the rest of the complex pretty much at my leisure. And I got to say, the place is awe inspiringly huge.

The extension takes a different approach in a few things - more thoroughfares and mezzanines on each of the six floors. Whudu facilities are also dotted around the upper levels, something which will be welcomed I think.

The views from the roof were just as amazing - the height above the Kaaba gives an unparalleled view, although one spoilt by the ongoing construction.

I think I mentioned before how although it seems finished it really isn't - I think there's at least another couple of years, if not three, left before it can be considered done. Maybe I'll get to see the final product on my next visit?

Zamzam: Miracle or Something Else?

The thing is that there's just way too much of it. Between the haramain and the volumes shipped out, I just find it incredible that so much volume can be extracted on a daily basis. I mean hey, either it's all fake or it's a miracle eh?

Wednesday, April 20

Tip of the Day

Wear socks. I know it sounds crazy and it's definitely counter-intuitive, but it's a sure fine top tip.

You will wreck your feet otherwise.

Something New

In an outstanding example of how you see something new every day, today was a first for me. I mean despite my "observations" I do believe that the haram belongs to all of us, and I do feel I'm less sensitive than most to some of the behaviours seen here.

But nevertheless seeing a woman breastfeeding today did stop me in my tracks. Thankfully I resisted the double take. I don't even know if such an act is legal in the haram, but needless to say I jogged on anyway.

The Cave of Hira

I've had the good fortune to have visited the Cave of Hira a few times in the past. I remember it being quite the adventure, a fairly decent hike up a mountain to the inconspicuous space where The Prophet used to meditate and received his first revelation.

As expected, it's changed quite a bit now. The most striking is that we now have concrete steps heading all the way to the top of the mountain - something which makes the whole thing more accessible while also detracting from the sanctity of the place accordingly. The obvious correlation is that the place is much busier now. What hasn't changed I remember very clearly - the little shacks and drinks stalls at the peak always made me smile.

Approaches have adapted too: whereas before people may have visited for academic reasons, it now has become a place of worship for many, with some even going as far as to offer two units of prayer in the cave (qiblah direction notwithstanding). I imagine it not taking long for the authorities to clamp down on this by cordoning off the whole mountain. People are indeed why we can't have good things, but I suppose I should feel lucky to have seen it at all.

Oh and in other news, I dropped my phone at the cave's entrance.

Tuesday, April 19

Optimising The Haram

Or for my hipster readers: "Hacking the Kaaba".

The trick is to avoid the sheep and not be a passive pilgrim. A simple example of this is to pick the higher floors for salah - if a view is what you're after you're much more likely to have a good one from up there.

Secondly realise that the tawaf has plenty of short cuts and can be seen as being on a bit of a bell curve. Going in deep will slow down your pace but also reduce the distance travelled by a far large amount. Alternatively you can go wide and breeze around a longer track. It was the latter strategy that brought my tawaf down to 19 mins from the 35 yesterday.

This isn't about being clever, but about quality and opportunity. The easier and faster these things become, the more you can do them. I expect to get in at least a couple of tawafs a day now.

Ban This Now

Here's my list of things to ban from the Haram (I may settle with just the mataf):

  1. Smartphones. This one is probably (hopefully?) obvious.
  2. Prayer books. First because they're impractical and stop people from looking where they're supposed to, ie where they are going. And secondly because sometimes scripture defeats the point of why you're even there.
  3. Groups larger than four. Crowds of this nature need to be fluid, not lumpy.
And people thought wahabism was extreme. Give me control of this place and I'll sort it right out.

Monday, April 18

The Great Unwashed

Now look, I know I can be a both bit of an elitist and anti-elitist sometimes. But that doesn't mean any observation of the masses can be totally rejected outright.

For instance I'm amazed at the behaviour of some of the pilgrims here. Breakfast is a sight to behold - I don't mind stockpiling as long as stuff is eaten, but it rarely is (and based on my conversations with some of the staff there is zero inclination to address this behaviour).

And the treatment of people is, for want of a more fitting word, pretty dire. I'm not just talking about mataf violence, but even simple manners towards people on the street or in service leaves much to be desired.

Muslims should really know better, but ironically I suspect this is the issue; once you've seen yourself as a member of a special club a sense of entitlement and immunity against any wrongdoing is pretty difficult to avoid.

Deceptively Busy

Our fear of heavy rush and busyness turned out to be pretty unfounded. We managed to find a decent, less travelled spot with a good view. That alone is a bit of a win since over half of every floor (including the roof) here has a wall that blocks any view of the mataf.

We came super early today but I feel we have room to optimise our timings.

The Kaaba Paradox

If any one thing demonstrates the dissonance amongst Muslims, it's the Kaaba.

For some it is simply a pile of man made bricks, continually maintained with hard work - albeit a symbol for something much bigger. It's aim is to unite and inspire.

For others it's a miraculous shrine, almost idol like, and is to be adored, rubbed and wept upon - just by being in its presence is one closer to god.

For others still, it's the background for a selfie due for some heavy duty WhatsApp sharing action.

Many paths of Islam or what?