Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dinner with Darwin and a diplodocus

Last night I went to the final in the series of "After Hours" events at the Natural History Museum which have been going on over the winter months. I wish I had known about them before, and will be looking out for any repeats of the idea - it was fun!

The museum central hall and the exhibition(s) are open late, a couple of bars are set up, food is available and live jazz encourages an end-of-the-week (or beginning-of-the weekend, depending on whether you're a glass half-full or half-empty type) atmosphere. The "Blue Bar" consists of round, white-linen bedecked, tealight-adorned tables in the central hall, with Darwin looking down from his throne on the grand staircase and the diplodocus' tail stretching out over the heads of the diners. Anyone not wanting food is channelled into the "Red Bar" which is sans tables, chairs or cocktails, serving just drinks and a few snacks (pint of sausage rolls, anyone?).

I arrived hungry and aching from the gym with an hour to go before my Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition entry time, so grabbed a table and ordered a Bramble cocktail (gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and creme de mur - to ease the aching, you see) while I contemplated the menu and the setting. The NHM is one of my absolute favourite buildings - it awes me every time I look at it. It's a vast cavern, but so intricately detailed and the use of colour is wonderful - it is everywhere, from the blue terracotta to the gilded ceiling painting, but the effect is so subtle and it all harmonizes beautifully. On the inside and outside there are sculptures of animals and plants (extinct on the east side, living - at least when the museum was built - on the west) and the walls and pillars everywhere are carved. Seeing it lit by soft lights shining from the arches of the second level walkways and candles, with the musicians in an alcove with a reptilian skeleton bigger than the double bass in a glass case and a rock panel with perfect plant fossils in relief behind them, was quite special (small photo above taken with my camera phone, two below taken from the NHM website).

I drank my Bramble (£7.50), which was rather heavy on the sugar and light on the lemon, and ordered the "Andalucian fish pie with an orange salad" (£9.50, as everything except the sharing platter was). When it arrived I was struck by two things: it was rather small, and there was no orange in the salad... Orange-coloured bits, yes, but I think the menu should have been more specific. A more accurate description would be cooked but cold cubes of carrot, squash and parsnip - just mentioning the words "root vegetables" would have been sensible, I think. The fish pie was adequate, but did I mention small? It was fine for me (just), but I won't be suggesting any of the boys come out for dinner there. I'd get a lot of complaints and demands to stop and pick up something else later on. A glass of Pouilly Fumé and some gazing around at everyone else sitting chatting and eating and drinking with an enormous dinosaur's tail inches above their heads (so incongruous!) took me through to exhibition viewing time.

On the website it said that to attend the After Hours event one had to buy a ticket to the exhibition, which I did though I had actually already been to see it. (I was very disappointed that Darwin finished last Sunday - a fact I discovered at 4pm that day and have been kicking myself for not looking into earlier ever since.) However, no one checked at any point other than entry to the actual exhibit that I had a ticket, so it seems one could quite easily go along and just chill out in the two bars and enjoy the music and not go to the exhibition , if desired. But I don't want to discourage anyone! The fact that I was quite happy to go again to see the wildlife photographs says it all really - all of the shots are absolutely incredible. So overall, a very pleasant evening in beautiful surroundings, with decent food and drink, provided you are not as hungry as the skeletons gazing at you look.

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