diet update: It's two years since my doctor jabbed me in the arm, crunched some numbers and told me that my cholesterol levels were too high. I embarked upon his puritanical low-fat diet, cutting out excess stodge and living off only permitted foodstuffs. No crisps, no pie, no pizza, no chocolate, but plenty of oily fish and un-sauced chicken. It may have been grim, but blimey it worked. Then after two months I eased off a bit and started reintroducing some of the previously banned foods, and I've been gradually easing off ever since. Now I eat crisps, and I sometimes do pie, and I've even been known to gobble down a Creme Egg because I can. But my weight's still well under control, now almost two stone (and two waist sizes) lower than before, which is a bit of a result.
Fine dining therefore remains an option, which is good when BestMate is intent on taking you out for a special birthday meal. Last year he dragged me, willingly, up the OXO Tower. This year he promised another surprise venue, though slightly cheaper, with the instruction to meet at the top of Brick Lane. I waited at the precise spot where Tower Hamlets council have decided not to build a headscarf-shaped metal arch, and rejoiced at their retreat. I wondered whether our surprise destination was the legendary Beigel Bake, or perhaps the Swedish Grille nextdoor, But no, it turned out that we were starting with cocktails at Verge. Very leather sofa, very Shoreditch.
I think that wearing a pullover was a mistake. It was smart casual enough, but everybody else in the joint had come wearing something pointedly different. A shirt would have worked better, or more likely one of those jackety hoody sleevy top things that Shoreditch Man slips on effortlessly before leaving the flat in the evening. I have no such innate sartorial zeitgeist, let alone a trendy flat cap and facial fuzz, so I felt somewhat ill-dressed. Nobody commented.
We sampled a diverse range of alcoholic beverages deftly assembled by the bar staff. I plumped first for a Daquiri, not out of any prior knowledge but because the ingredients sounded nice, which they were. The Verge's Marguerita proved sharp and zingy, and therefore earned the BestMate ThumbsUp. And then there was something dark and rummy whose name I forget - I think it was Something Treacle - plus a hot Pimms-based drink that slipped down a treat. It struck me that one single cocktail here cost more than four beers had cost at a Wetherspoons the night before, but I guess the Wetherspoons didn't have a hip trendy DJ to support. We moved on.
I'm not a fan of curry, so remained a little uneasy as we walked down Brick Lane. Almost every other doorway contained an earnest bloke with a curry house to flog ("you guys eating?" "two free beers" "best curry in town"), and their chorus grew increasingly wearisome by about the twentieth request. I suspect these men are similarly insistent with folk who've only just walked out of the restaurant nextdoor, and whose bellies are already rammed with tikka and naan.
But our destination wasn't on Brick Lane, it was down at the very bottom on Whitechapel High Street. The recently refurbished Whitechapel Gallery isn't solely a display space for art, oh no, it also houses a highbrow Dining Room. There are only enough tables for about 40 crammed-in covers, but the miniature space is laid out throughout with understated style. Coats off, my ill-advised jumper again exposed, and we were led to the table in the window.
I always scan menus with apprehension, especially when the number of options per course is a limited four. But the Whitechapel's intriguing "seasonal British" concoctions appealed even to my limited palate, wrenching me happily out of my comfort zone, and I ordered with confidence. I didn't even need my usual fallback of "having the soup". Instead I opted for the quail, which was a first, and learned a little too late that the special crunchy taste was a small bone I shouldn't have eaten.
Our waitress beamed and cajoled us throughout the meal, even managing to get us to change seats so that she could seat a larger party (without jumpers) in our prime window location. Wine flowed, and my main course of duck breast duly arrived. Moist and tender it was, on a bed of tasty creamed lentils (can you believe it, I just used "lentils" in the same sentence as "tasty"). We never saw our chef, although I assume it was the lauded Maria beavering away in the kitchen doing special things with thyme mash and chard.
I could have wolfed down every single item on the dessert menu, but plumped eventually for the hot chocolate pudding over the treacle tart or fruit crumble. Like I said, I've eased up a bit on the diet since 2008. Hence a night out at the Whitechapel Gallery hit the spot perfectly (and hit BestMate's wallet, though it would have been inappropriate to ask by how much). And yes, I have put on weight since dining there at the weekend. But birthday treats only come round once a year, dammit, and I'm sure I'll have worked off myE1bellyful before too long.