29 September 2014

On the Buses

On an unassuming street corner on Deptford Church Street lies a new pizzeria that has really reinvented the wheel(s). Quite literally, in fact, because The Big Red Pizza Bus is based in an unused double-decker bus that has been repurposed as a pizza restaurant and bar. I'm always looking for new places to fill the south-east London pizza void, so the family and I went to check it out on Saturday night.

It was pretty busy when we arrived — there was a large group sitting on the tables on the heated outdoor terrace — but luckily, we were able to sit on the bus itself. And on the top deck, no less! Although there are a few pastas and salads, the menu is all about the pizza and the prices are pretty reasonable, starting from £7.50 for a Big Red (margherita). I ordered a glass of Prosecco (£5) while we perused the menu. It was slightly flat, so I might try to persuade the others to share a whole bottle with me next time, but a nice, fruity flavour.

To start, we shared one of the meat platters (£9.95), which came with Serrano ham, salami, buffalo mozzarella, rocket and some bruschette. The food was very tasty — the mozzarella was particularly good — and the platter-for-two was about the right size for the three of us to share to start.

The pizzas themselves were good, although not quite great (they were mainly let down by the cheese, which wasn't as fresh and delicious as the mozzarella we had to start). I ordered the margherita, as usual, and for the money, I think it was pretty good value. Next time I might try one of the buffalo mozzarella pizzas, although a lot of them had quite a few ingredients on top and I'm a bit of a pizza purist. We thought about staying for another drink, but the call of the cocktails at the Job Centre was too strong.

As well as serving food and drink, The Big Red also screens movies, and Tuesday night is comedy night. Check out their events page for more information. Sadly, you can't pay by Oyster card — not yet, anyway — but then nor do you have to wait for a short while while the drivers change over, or find yourself on an unwanted diversion.

The Big Red Pizza Bus. 30 Deptford Church Street, London, SE8 4RZ (transport: Deptford Bridge DLR). Website. Twitter.

27 September 2014

We Didn't Start the Fire

My preference for dramas over comedies and the dark over the footloose and fancy-free is well documented, but even I found David Cronenberg's new film Maps to the Stars pretty damn bleak. As the film opens, the young, brooding Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) steps off a bus in Los Angeles and gets into the limo she has hired, driven by Jerome (Robert Pattinson). You can tell that something is off right away, because who travels by long-distance bus from Florida and then hops right into a $90-an-hour limo? She then asks Jerome if he has the eponymous map to the stars' houses and asks him to drive her to an empty lot just under the Hollywood sign, where some famous folks used to live.

It turns out that all of the characters in Maps to the Stars have troubling secrets and tragic pasts, and none of them is very likeable. Thanks to her Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (!), Agatha gets a job as the personal assistant to Havana (Julianne Moore), an ageing, narcissistic starlet who is facing numerous demons of her own. Most notably is that she is haunted by the ghost of her dead mother (Sarah Gadon), who won a Golden Globe and then died young in a fire — Havana's involvement in the fire remains unclear, especially given the hints that there may have been some abuse at the hands of her mother and step-father.

Havana's shrink, Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), does his best to treat her in his own unique, hands-on way, but he is having some family troubles of his own: his precocious, child-actor son Benjie (Evan Bird) has just got out of rehab at the tender age of 13 and, having reached the awkward not-that-cute-anymore age, is struggling to get the roles he is used to. He, like everyone else in the film, is an entitled little arsehole and treats everyone, from his mother (Olivia Williams) to the tween girls with whom he hangs out, like crap.

The characters circle around one another, as we learn more about them and how they got to where they are, until the film's chilling climax. Wasikowska really steals the show here, with her unsettling portrayal of a troubled young woman, but Moore is also excellent and obviously had a lot of fun filming her role. Maps to the Stars isn't an easy film to watch and the story it tells of Hollywood and the people who occupy that world is disturbing and uncompromising. It reminded me in some way of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which remains one of my favourite films, with its dark themes and confused realities. Cronenberg's film is oddly compulsive — just don't go into it expecting a nice cheerful Saturday afternoon movie.

26 September 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Pattern Coffee House

Since the closure of the short-lived Brewhouse on York, I've been hoping that King's Cross would once again support a friendly independent café serving great coffee. Drink, Shop & Dash is great but doesn't have much room for sitting and lingering, and I love Caravan, but it gets pretty busy and they only do some of their hand-brewed drinks if you're drinking-in.

Enter Pattern Coffee House, which opened a few months ago a few blocks north of Drink, Shop & Dash on Caledonian Road. I was attracted, funnily enough, by the patterned interior walls, but only got round to visiting last week. The first things you notice when you enter are the eponymous patterns. The colourful geometric wall is my favourite, but there are designs to suit all tastes, including some vintage sewing patterns and upcycled Hendrick's bottles bearing the wifi code.

It was a fairly quiet lunchtime, so I ordered a macchiato and chatted to the friendly owner while I waited for me coffee. She has been doing everything for the past few months, which is no mean feat given that Pattern is open from 8 am until 7 pm during the week, but you can tell it's a labour of love.

My macchiato was very good: rich and smooth and with no more than a dab of foam on top. The coffee is from Bristol-based Extract Coffee Roasters, which I haven't tried before. For now, the coffee menu includes only espresso-based drinks, but if things go well, they could be adding some hand-brew options (which aren't very practical when you only have one barista and a big queue), as well as some single-origin coffees. In the meantime, you can also opt for a smoothie or a shake, and there are a few breakfast options, cakes and pastries. It's just around the corner from my office so I know where I'll be going when I haven't had time for breakfast at home.

I really enjoyed my visit to Pattern and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great coffee with a chilled-out vibe in the King's Cross area. The café is slightly out of the way but only five minutes' walk from King's Cross station and a much, much more pleasurable experience than any of the coffee joints in the station.

Pattern Coffee House. 82 Caledonian Road, London,  N1 9DN (Tube: King's Cross). Facebook. Twitter.

24 September 2014

Bubble Trouble

What could be more Shoreditch than sitting in a hot tub on the rooftop of a grubby building on a grey autumnal Monday night watching a screening of Anchorman? Not much, to be honest, but Hot Tub Cinema was great fun. I've wanted to go for a while, but there are always so many unique things to do in London that it takes a while to work through the wishlist. The Anchorman screening was part of a Best of the Noughties Hot Tub Cinema series. I hadn't seen the film before and it probably wouldn't have been my first choice, but it worked pretty well.

We rocked up at this season's venue — Rockwell House, near Shoreditch High Street — just after 6.30, and after we had signed in and picked up our wristbands, we headed upstairs to change. There are a couple of large-ish tents on the building's rooftop in which to change; the facilities aren't exactly plush, but then Hot Tub Cinema isn't exactly spa day. You can leave your bags in the cloakroom and because most UK money isn't especially waterproof, you can exchange your cash for booze tokens and they will even loan you a handy wrist-wallet for the princely sum of 1 token.

Up on the rooftop, the hot tubs were all laid out under a canopy, but the weather on Monday night was pretty clement. Besides, who cares if it rains when you're in a hot tub? We had a little while before the film started so we bought some drinks at the bar (beers and most cocktails are around 2-4 tokens (£4-8). My dark and stormy slipped down very nicely as we admired the view over the rooftops and skyscrapers of Shoreditch.

You don't have to rent a whole tub if your group is smaller than six (standard tub) or eight (deluxe tub), but it's definitely more fun and probably more pleasant if you are with friends. It worked out at about £32 each for the six of us, and our tub was in a pretty good location with views of both of the two screens. Soon it was time to get into the hot tub and start the movie—we were told to keep the bubbles off during the movie (I think this is because each tub has only a limited amount of generator power, so if you use yours too quickly, it gets cold). They displayed subtitles on the screens, which was handy because it got quite raucous (the Wittertainment Code of Conduct was definitely not being adhered to).

After the movie ended, the screens switched over to '90s music video mode, letting everyone sing and dance to the likes of Haddaway, Peter Andre and Britney. Oh, yes. It was a shame it was only a Monday, although many of the other people there didn't seem to care that they had another four days of work until the weekend (or maybe they were students). I brought my new waterproof camera, which was fun to play with, although the darkness and the steam made for some tricksy photography.

Hot Tub Cinema has finished its current run, but it will be back, I'm sure. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter to find out where and when. I'd definitely consider going again — maybe not to see this movie though...

22 September 2014

"Being at Oxford, It's Like Being Invited to 100 Parties at Once"

When Lone Scherfig's new film The Riot Club opens, it's all very Brideshead Revisited, as two new first-year students arrive for their first day at Oxford University. Alistair (Sam Clafin) shows up with his pushy parents who try to bully the college porters into giving him the room his older brother occupied previously — a fancy suite in the college's honey-stoned central quad — rather than the "rabbit hutch" in one of the college's newer buildings to which he has been assigned. The porters protest but the room's intended inhabitant, Miles (Max Irons), agrees to switch. The Brideshead analogy soon falls away because both Alistair and Miles are posh. So are all the male students in Laura Wade's screenplay, which she adapted from her acclaimed stage play, Posh.

Alistair and Miles soon fall into a bitter rivalry, although it isn't made clear exactly why: possibly because the latter went to Westminster not Harrow, possibly because of Miles's burgeoning relationship with Lauren (Holliday Grainger) — northern and definitely not posh — and possibly because Alistair is something of a sociopath. Before too long, both boys are tapped to join the Riot Club, a Bullingdon Club-like society with centuries of history and famous for its exclusivity and debauchery. The club has always had exactly ten members, and Alistair and Miles complete the equation. To signify their entry into the club, the other Riot Club members thoroughly trash the rooms of the two new initiates. Miles is slightly hesitant (because he's a Nice, Thoughtful, Liberal Posh Guy, OK?), especially when Lauren makes it clear that she is far from impressed, but he loves being a part of the club and feeling special.

Everything comes to a head at the Riot Club's annual dinner, which takes place in a sleepy village pub several counties away from Oxford; previous Riot Club events have been so destructive and, well, awful that finding a venue proved tricky and, for obvious reasons, they booked their private room under the pretence of being the Young Entrepreneurs Club. The pub's owner, Michael (Michael Jibson), his daughter Rachel (Jessica Brown Findlay), and the other staff members work hard to try to ensure that the boys have a good time — at the expense of the pub's regular clientèle, who start to complain about the noise and the slow service.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that this isn't going to be just your average display of drunken disorderliness, and the hedonism, the violence and the sense of entitlement spiral rapidly out of control. The dinner is The Riot Club's centrepiece — and indeed, Posh focuses only on the events of that night — and it's a brilliant, if scary, set piece. Although the ensemble cast, which also includes Sam Reid and the very busy Ben Schnetzer (last seen in Pride), put in good performances, it is Clafin who really shines as the brooding, unlikeable and slightly unhinged Alistair. I always like watching Max Irons, but the character of Miles felt rather more wishy-washy than the complexity I assume Scherfig was aiming for.

The Riot Club was entertaining enough and pretty hard to watch at times, but by the end, I'm not sure that it added up to very much. The politics and the bite of the play seemed to have been cut, leaving in its place some rather caricatured tales of spoiled rich boys behaving badly, which reminded me at times of the ridiculous and short-lived TV show Trinity. I think the film suffered because it is neither tongue-in-cheek enough to succeed at camp, OTT satire nor serious enough to make interesting social or political points — such as how the power and influence that the members of the real-life version of the Riot Club have gone on to have. If you're interested in a behind-the-scenes-with-the-Oxbridge-elite story, I would recommend Christopher Yates's novel Black Chalk, which is less stereotypical, more original and much scarier.

15 September 2014

In Cannes, Life's a Beach

I've travelled to some awesome places this year and have really enjoyed all of my adventures. Sometimes, though, you just want to go somewhere for a few days with good food and a good beach. Luckily, Cannes has both in spades, and even more luckily, my parents have a flat there, so I jetted off there last week with a couple of friends for a long weekend. There are interesting things to do in and around Cannes, but all we really wanted to do was eat delicious food, hang out on the beach, drink gin and play cards, so we didn't really venture more than about a five-minute walk from the apartment all weekend.

September is a great time to go to the South of France, because some of the crowds have dissipated, but it's still very hot and sunny. Well, on Friday morning it was rainy and cloudy for about an hour, but soon that tiny patch of blue sky took over, and we hurried down to the beach.

When the food in the local shops is so good, you don't really need to eat out. We picked up a rotisserie chicken from the local traiteur, Chez Pierre, for a princely sum of €12, added some perfectly ripe avocados, fresh bread and a few gin and tonics, and we had the perfect picnic. Pierre's chickens are delicious: so juicy and with the perfect crispy skin. The best bit was dipping the baguette into the leftover juices at the end. On Saturday night, we switched gears and bought some fillet steaks from Pierre — they were about €12 for each 250g steak. Add a bottle of Champagne and some salad and that's dinner.

The breakfast offerings and sweet treats are pretty damn good too. Our local boulangerie is called Césarine and they do the best pastries and cakes. I enjoyed my shark-shaped croissant, but the trilogy of desserts we shared was amazing. I ordered the chocolate praline mousse cake, which was awesome, although I did also covet the neon-pink raspberry offering.

On Saturday night, we went to the Quirly ice-cream shop on the Croisette, where there are far too many flavours to make choosing easy. In the end, I went for the lavender-honey ice cream, which was a bit different, but very tasty. We ate in on the Croisette, listening to a saxophonist busk and watching all of the Yacht Festival party-goers, and then went for cocktails at one of the slightly less pretentious bars.

Other than that, we just played a bit of paddle-ball, tried to burn off all of the calories with periodic swims along the Croisette and rediscovered the underwater camera. Every time I take underwater photos, I hope I will look like a mermaid, but somehow I usually end up resembling a drowned rat. A great ending to a fun-packed — if not action-packed — weekend in the sunshine.

11 September 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Black Sheep Coffee Review

My day job doesn't often overlap with my blogging — science communication and writing about food and films don't have a huge amount in common — but occasionally the two worlds collide a little. Last week saw the publication of the genome sequence of Coffea canephora, also known as robusta coffee, which happened to coincide with a review post I had lined up about Robusta Revival, a coffee from Black Sheep that I tried recently and that is, of course, leading the robusta revival.

When I travelled to Cuba in 2005, back in the early days of my caffeine-junkie status, I couldn't work out why the coffee was so mediocre, but most of Cuba's arabica coffee is exported, which meant that the bitterer robusta variety was usually the only one on offer. I've avoided robusta ever since, but when Black Sheep's PR team sent me a bag of their coffee to review, I was intrigued. Maybe it was finally time to get over my arabica snobbery.

As you can tell from their name, their URL — www.leavetheherdbehind.com — and their FAQ, Black Sheep doesn't care for herd mentality. I hope, then, that it won't offend them that I enjoyed their coffee as much as some of the other coffee-by-mail services I've tried. The taste was quite distinctive, though. I ground the coffee at home and tried it in both my home Aeropress and my office V60 dripper, and yes, it is quite bitter and quite strong, but not in a bad way. I think I would prefer to drink Robusta Revival on a cold winter's day rather than in the height of summer because it does have quite a heavy, full-bodied and, er, robust taste. I also though the coffee tasted better brewed in the Aeropress.

With great bitterness comes great caffeine content — Black Sheep say their coffee contains twice as much as "your average cup o’ Joe" but I'm not entirely sure how Joe takes his coffee. In any case, I didn't feel any more of a buzz with my mug o' robusta than I usually do in the mornings, but at this point it takes quite a lot of caffeine to give me the shakes, so that doesn't mean a lot.

Black Sheep's coffee is sold in a few London locations and you can also buy it online: a 227g bag of whole-bean or ground Robusta Revival coffee is £5.40, which is a fairly standard price for coffee delivery services. They also have handy brew guides on their site. Check out their Twitter and their Kickstarter campaign to fund a Black Sheep café.

Here's the science bit. For those who are interested in finding out more about the coffee genome, I would recommend Carl Zimmer's story for the New York Times. Essentially, though, the researchers found that the genes involved in producing caffeine in the coffee plant are different from the caffeine-associated genes in the distantly related species of chocolate and tea, suggesting that caffeine has evolved twice among plant species. The authors also suggest that the evolution of caffeine may have helped the coffee plant to survive and thrive (long before coffee bloggers started religiously Instagramming their daily brew) — the plant's caffeine-laced leaves and berries could have served as a deterrent against predators, perhaps, or to make the neighbouring soil less inviting to would-be neighbours.