22 October 2014

A Wapping Lunch

On Sunday morning, I didn't have any food at home and I was also in the mood for a brisk stroll, so I walked over Tower Bridge and through St Katherine's Docks to Wapping. Wapping Market is organised by the folks behind Brockley Market, and consists of stalls selling local produce and street-food vans. It's based in Brussels Wharf (a few minutes' walk from Wapping and Shadwell Overground stations) and opens up on Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm.

Last weekend was a particularly pleasant time to visit because it was relatively warm and sunny, if blustery, and the trees that line the docks were bright with splendid autumnal hues. As with Brockley Market, there is a real family atmosphere at Wapping Market. There are a few tables and chairs set up at the back, but there are also plenty of walls around the waterfront on which to perch.

It's always difficult to turn down my street-food favourites, such as Mother Flipper and Swine Dining (who do epic bacon and avo sarnies), but in the interests of trying something new, I went to Pasta e Basta for my main course. As you might expect, pasta is the only item on their menu, but to say they serve 'just pasta' undersells them somewhat because all three options sounded great. In the end, I went for the gnocchi with roasted peppers and pesto (£5.50), which was delicious and filling.

However, it turns out that pasta is not basta for me, and I soon found myself in the queue for Crosstown Doughnuts, a doughnutteria whose wonderful wares I have sampled previously on Leather Lane. I quite like Crosstown's take on a PB & J, although I think I'd prefer PB & chocolate, but on Sunday I tried the chocolate chilli cream doughnut (£3), which was amazing. The chocolate cream filling had just enough of a chilli kick to keep it interesting without putting off spice-wusses like me.

After lunch, I walked through the produce section of the market. I stopped by World of Zing to pick up a bottle of Bermondsey Tonic Water, which I've sampled many times at 214 Bermondsey Street. It's £15 for a bottle, but because you mix it with soda water (and gin, obviously), you get 20 servings from it and it's so much nicer than Schweppes. Plus it looks very cool on your bar cart.

Wapping Market. Brussels Wharf, Wapping Wall, London, E1W 3SG (Tube: Wapping Overground or Shadwell Overground/DLR). Website. Twitter.

20 October 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Saint Espresso

There's an angelic new coffee bar in N1. Saintly, one might even say. I read about Saint Espresso, which opened a few weeks ago on Pentonville Road near Angel Tube, in Caffeine Magazine when I was at The Gentlemen Baristas last week and promptly forgot its name but not its address. Luckily, it is only a ten-minute walk up the hill from my office, so I figured that even if I had imagined the whole thing, I wasn't going too far out of my way. More luckily still, Saint Espresso was indeed there at number 26 and it's a lovely find.

There are only a few tables inside Saint Espresso but it's relatively spacious and the café is beautifully designed: clean black lines, warm wood and copper accents. I particularly liked the sexy black La Marzocco Strada machine. Oh, and the black shelving on the wall that holds all the coffee and coffee-making kit that is for sale, including the most beautiful collection of copper V60s, Aeropresses and pouring kettle. Very stylish.

They also know their coffee and serve both V60 and Aeropress hand-brewed filter coffees (I think Chemex was also on the menu, but I didn't check). They were serving a Guatemalan coffee from Alchemy, which the barista said was better suited to V60 brewing, so that is what I ordered. All of the hand-brewed coffees are £3.50, which is a little pricey, but I'd much rather pay that much for a good-quality hand-filter than the £2 you often pay for a mediocre macchiato.

In addition to the coffee, Saint Espresso has a few cakes and pastries on offer. The toasties looked nice but one contained mushrooms and the other Brie, so I stuck to a banana muffin, which was really good: very moist and with banana chips on top.

Meanwhile, I took a seat and waited for my coffee, which was light and fruity. I could taste the raspberry and chocolate notes although, admittedly, not the cashew. In any case, it had the clean, slightly sharp taste I was hoping for, and I was a happy customer.

It was pleasantly bustling inside, although the baristas still made time to talk to me about the merits of hand-grinders. I hope Saint Espresso does well — although it's about a two-minute walk from Angel Tube, it is slightly tucked away. There are enough local businesses on that stretch of Pentonville Road to provide a decent supply of customers, though, and coffee connoisseurs from King's Cross and Clerkenwell will, no doubt, discovery Saint Espresso before too long. Hey, my walk up the hill even burned off a few of the muffin calories!

Saint Espresso. Angel House, 26 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9HJ (Tube: Angel). Website. Twitter.

18 October 2014

It Takes a Village

Soon after I moved to Bermondsey, almost exactly two years ago, I went for brunch at Village East, one of the many eateries that line the ever-lovely Bermondsey Street. It was great and I meant to go back for dinner but with so many other places to try in my neighbourhood, I didn't have chance to go back, although soon after their big refurb last summer, I did try one of their burgers at last year's Bermondsey Street Festival. The burger was a little disappointing, but it's hard to get barbecue mass-catering right, and I knew that they deserved a second chance (they are, after all, a sister restaurant of the Riding House Café).

Last night, we went to Village East for a family dinner and my good faith was rewarded. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First came the cocktails, which proved tricky because the drinks menu was varied and interesting. After considering the Smoker's Delight (£8.80) — made from tequila, whiskey, orange bitters and chestnut liqueur — I eventually went for the Pink Panther (£8.20): rum, pink peppercorn syrup, lemon and soda water. It wasn't as pink as I was expecting but it was fruity and refreshing — just what I needed after a hectic week at the office.

We shared a few nibbles to start: olives, sourdough bread with seaweed butter, and almonds doused with duck-fat. If I had been hungrier, I would definitely have liked to try the peanut and sweet potato bisque (£6) as a proper starter.

Instead, we jumped right into our mains. Most of the main courses are classic modern American dishes with quirky twists. I thought about having the soft-shell crab bap, but let's be honest: I was always going to order the burger. Actually, there are two burgers at Village East: the Longhorn beef and bone marrow burger or the cheeseburger. I'm not a big fan of posh burgers — they defeat the point, really — so it had to be the cheeseburger (£14), which came with fries, although my brother and I shelled out for a portion of bacon salt for our fries. The burger was impressive. It came perfectly medium rare and was juicy and flavoursome — a proper hearty, meaty burger. It came with an unannounced tomato relish on the burger, which I could have done without, but the burger was so tasty I wasn't going to let that interfere with my eating pleasure.

The puddings, including a fruity panna cotta, sounded good but unfortunately I was way too full. I thought about having a chocolate old fashioned, but I didn't thing I could manage even that.

Following the revamp, the décor at Village East is very New-York cool, all exposed-brick walls and insutrial-metal enclosed booths with comfy, distressed leather seats. By the time we left, it was very busy, as is the case with most Bermondsey Street restaurants on a Friday night. If you go, you should definitely book — because you can, if for no other reason.

Village East. 171–173 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UW (Tube: London Bridge or Borough). Website. Twitter.

16 October 2014

LFF 2014 Part II: The Surprise Film

Attending the surprise film at the London Film Festival is a bit like supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers (trust me). Each year, great things are promised and speculation is rife, but then there's the inevitable disappointment: from Michael Moore diatribes and tedious Brighton Rock remakes, to OK but too quirky by half indies and epic Chinese-language martial arts films. The odds should have been in my favour this year.

And just as Wolves sometimes have a good season, this year's surprise film was a great choice: Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliant and bonkers black comedy, Birdman. Past disappointments have taught me not to get my hopes up by researching potential surprise film candidates online, so I knew almost nothing about it, other than that Vulture seem to think it's going to pick up a lot of Oscar nominations. There's something awfully exciting about seeing a completely unexpected film: when the credits roll anything could happen, and in Birdman almost everything does happen.

The film's opening shot is of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wearing nothing but his white y-fronts, levitating in his dressing room, facing away from the camera. A deep voice interrupts the silence. It sounds a lot like Marv in Sin City, but it is Riggan's inner monologue narrated, it turns out, by Birdman — the Batman- and Ironman-like action-hero character that made him famous.

Riggan's acting career has tanked since the end of the Birdman franchise, but he has a plan to regain his former glory and to soar over Broadway, metaphorically or otherwise. He has written a play based on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he is also directing and starring in. But the day before the first preview, the other lead actor (Jeremy Shamos) is injured on set and has to be replaced. Luckily, Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of the female co-stars, is dating a brilliant stage actor called Mike (Ed Norton), who agrees to step in. Mike seems to have mastered not only his own lines but the whole script by osmosis ("It's a thing that I have; a gift," he explains), and is already trying to "improve" it by pumping in a healthy dose of hyper-realism. Needless to say, the previews don't go well.

The rest of Riggan's life is also a mess. His young daughter Sam (Emma Stone) has just got out of rehab and is working as his assistant while she figures out what she wants to do and she is, of course, also falling for Mike. It's not especially clear what Riggan's feelings towards his hovering ex-wife or to Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the co-star he is dating, either.

Birdman covers a lot of ground. At its core, it is a tale of ego, but it's also about success, loneliness, regret and imagination. The stage vs movie actors dichotomy comes up, as does the ever-present battle between actors and critics. Lindsay Duncan plays a particularly ruthless New York Times theatre critic. "You're no actor," she tells Riggan, "you're a celebrity." Norton steals most of the scenes he is in, with his insane but inspired performance, but Keaton also does a fine job with a complex character, with good support from Stone, as well as from Watts and Riseborough, who are somewhat underused.

Iñárritu uses a lot of long-take close-ups of his actors, especially the female characters and especially when they are ranting at Riggan. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which reminded me a lot of Wes Anderson: dramatic moments are punctuated with riotous cymbals (Riggan eventually stumbles on the percussionist—perhaps only in his imagination—in a quiet corner of the labyrinthine Broadway theatre), while a doleful cello accompanies the sadder moments. Iñárritu couldn't be there in person last night, but we did get a video message from him at the start: "The film is what the film is" — cryptic, but a reference to a note in Riggan's dressing room.

Birdman is a great film for people who love actors and acting, whether on stage on at the cinema. With its great cast and interesting themes, it is also the best surprise film for several years. The last 15 or 20 minutes could have been tightened up, but otherwise it was a delight to watch.  Well done, London Film Festival; you've got it right at last.

13 October 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: The Gentlemen Baristas

A few minutes' walk from Borough High Street, a spiffy new coffee shop has just opened. The Gentlemen Baristas is run by a pair of unapologetically dapper young chaps, who offer espresso-based and hand-brewed coffees to the denizens of Borough.

I stopped by at the weekend, and even on a rainy Saturday afternoon, their racing-green shopfront adds a cheerful vibe to a quiet section of Union Street. Inside, the décor is all reclaimed wood and exposed brick. Not exactly breaking new ground for a hipster coffee shop, perhaps, but they have done a great job making it feel both cool and cosy. There are a couple of seats in the window and then several communal wooden tables in the back. If it had been a more clement day, I would have held out for the prime real estate in the window, but I was happy to nestle in the back with a copy of Caffeine Magazine.

Several of the new coffee shops in Bermondsey, including Hej and The Watch House, only serve espresso-based coffee, so it was great to see that The Gentlemen Baristas serve Chemex, Aeropress and V60. I ordered a Chemex (£3) and went to read Caffeine.

The Gentlemen Baristas is sited across the road from a former famous hat maker and all of their coffee blends are named for hats. The blend du jour for hand-brewed coffee was the Bowler — a blend of two Kenyan varieties, which worked really well in the Chemex. My coffee had a nice clean taste and a light fruity acidity, which was just what I wanted. As winter approaches, I tend to prefer richer, more chocolatey coffees, but it's barely even autumn yet. The espresso blends included the Top Hat and the Trilby.

I talked briefly with one of the friendly eponymous gentlemen on my way out, and he even indulged my snap-happiness by donning the top hat. Well, when in dandy central... Pay them a visit — your day will be all the more splendid for it.

The Gentlemen Baristas. 63 Union Street, London, SE1 1SG (Tube: Borough). Website. Twitter.

11 October 2014

LFF 2014 Part I: The Drop

When director Michaël Roskam talked about his new film The Drop at its London Film Festival screening tonight, he explained that his vision was of a Taxi Driver directed by Frank Capra. In fact, it's more like Mystic River with a hefty dose of Marley & Me, but Roskam has created a complex and interesting crime drama with stand-out performances by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, in one of his last roles.

Hardy plays Bob, a lonely bar-tender who works at Cousin Marv's bar. Marv (Gandolfini) is in fact Bob's cousin as well as his employer, although the bar is now a money drop owned by some shady Chechens who drop by from time to time to remind Marv and Bob who is boss, and to ensure that the money dropped off by local hoodlums makes it back to the right people. Walking home one night, Bob finds a pit bull puppy in a dustbin outside the house of a woman called Nadia (Noomi Rapace). The dog has been seriously injured and Nadia helps Bob to dress the dog's wounds and then encourages him to adopt it to avoid it being rehomed with a bad owner.

Bob and Nadia develop a tentative friendship, bringing them both a little happiness — what woman could ever resist Tom Hardy bearing an adorable puppy? But Bob begins to face some troubles at work when some of the Chechens' drop money is stolen in a robbery at the bar. Meanwhile, an unstable and menacing guy called Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) keeps showing up, claiming that he is the rightful owner of Bob's dog (named Rocco for one of the saints depicted in the stained-glass window in his local church).

It's hard to say too much more without spoiling the film, but there are plenty of twists and turns, and we have to constantly update our understanding of the characters' motivations and 'goodness' or otherwise. As with Hardy's last film, LockeThe Drop is very much a portrait of a man in crisis and he is, as ever, excellent as the troubled Bob, and gives a wonderfully complex performance (Roskam, in the Q&A tonight, said he couldn't take any credit other than hiring all of his first choices for the lead acting roles). Gandolfini is also good, offering a multi-layered portrayal of a very ambiguous character, and Rapace seemed to be well cast as the sometimes-tough, sometimes-vulnerable Nadia. Powerlessness, Roskam explained afterwards, is one of the central themes in the film: characters are unable to do what they want because of forces beyond their control.

The Drop is adapted from a short story by Dennis Lehane called Animal Rescue and if you've seen Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone, you can't help but draw comparisons. Animal Rescue was set in Boston — Lehane's hometown — but Roskam moved the setting to Brooklyn where there are many outsiders. Roskam and some of the crew visited several hundred Brooklyn bars when doing research for the film, and the bar depicted is based on three or four real bars. Brooklyn itself is one of the film's key characters, and it certainly isn't the shiny, hipster Brooklyn often depicted on screen; no, it's raw, gritty and rough around the edges. The film itself is gritty too and often dark or troubling, but it isn't without its comedy — and this is mainly down to Hardy's superb comic timing and delivery.

Unfortunately, Hardy couldn't attend the screening as he was working, although Rapace was there with Roskam for the Q&A. This was a shame because it would have been fantastic to hear Hardy talking about the movie (and his love of puppies). Sadly, I'm only going to one other film at this year's London Film Festival, as I was supposed to be going to a conference next week and by the time I found out I wasn't going, most of the films I wanted to attend were already sold out. Somewhat à contre-cœur, I booked a ticket for the surprise film on Wednesday night — none of the four previous surprise films I've attended have been a particularly good surprise, and yet somehow I keep going back for more...

10 October 2014

"That's What They Want: Comedy, Love and a Bit with the Dog"

Half my lifetime ago, I fell in love with Shakespeare in Love. I saw John Madden's film with my family in a crowded Manhattan cinema and we all loved it. So much so that when I returned to Oxford, I eagerly awaited the film's UK release date so I could watch it again with my friends. I probably haven't watched it for at least a decade, though, so when I heard that it was being brought to the London stage, it felt like it was high time to catch up with Will, Viola and the gang.

My family and I had great seats in the stalls, and after some brief excitement when we spotted Tom Hollander in the audience, we settled down to watch the play. It is a faithful adaptation of Tom Stoppard's original screenplay — as far as I remember, anyway — and it is witty, funny and enjoyable, with a great ensemble cast.

Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) is struggling to finish — or even to start — the plays he has promised two theatre-owners. In fact, he can't even finish the poem that would become Sonnet 18. Luckily, with the help of his friend and rival, Christopher Marlowe (the gorgeous David Oakes), he comes up with enough of a far-fetched plot involving a young chap called Romeo and a pirate's daughter named Ethel to keep one of his two masters — Henslowe (Paul Chahidi) — happy.

Casting the perfect Romeo is tricky, however, until a talented young fellow called Thomas Kent arrives to audition. Kent is great and gets the part but is, of course, the alter ego of a wealthy heiress and would-be actress named Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Yes: a woman. And a woman who is about to be married off to the loathsome Earl of Wessex (Alistair Petrie), no less. Will also meets the 'real' Viola after sneaking into a ball at her father's house, and they promptly fall in love. Yet the course of true love never did run smoothly, especially when Will must try to avoid being bumped off by one of Wessex's cronies and keep his vain, feckless bunch of actors in order, as well as winning over Viola.

The play, like the film, is very clever and filled with plenty of references to Shakespeare's works — present and future. "Out, damned Spot!" someone cries when Spot the naughty dog runs across the stage at an inopportune moment. And the actors who weren't fond of Two Gentlemen of Verona aren't too pleased to find that the play that has become Romeo & Juliet (or, if you are Ned Alleyn (Doug Rao), Mercutio) is based in the same city. "Verona again?" The first half of the play is very funny indeed, although things necessarily become a little more serious in the final act.

The terrific performances from the ensemble cast make Shakespeare in Love's transition to the stage a success. Briggs-Owen makes a great Viola; Rao steals plenty of scenes; and Ferdy Roberts' Ray Winstone-esque Fennyman is hugely funny, especially when his character is given the role of the apothecary in Romeo & Juliet. The sets were also cleverly designed — the balcony and circle tiers of the on-stage theatre doubling up as stately homes and even ships. If you liked the film and can make it down to the Noel Coward theatre to see the play, you won't be disappointed. But if not, re-watching the movie isn't too bad a substitute.