15 July 2014

"Music Turns Everyday Banalities into Transcendent Pearls"

I haven't seen John Carney's most famous film, Once, although I do have and love the soundtrack. Its IMDb summary does sound fairly similar to that of his latest film, Begin Again, which stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo:

Once: A modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story

Begin Again: A chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive and a young singer-songwriter new to Manhattan turns into a promising collaboration between the two talents.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Begin Again and will try to check out its less posh predecessor. As Begin Again opens, Greta (Knightley) and Dan (Ruffalo) are both having nightmare days. Greta has just found out that her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) — who is also her musical partner who has recently been signed up to a big record label — has been cheating on her. She leaves him and crashes with her busker friend Steve (James Corden) in his grungy New York apartment. Steve drags her to an open-mic night and at the end of her set forces her to play one of her songs. It's a good song but isn't very well received by the audience. Meanwhile, one-time hotshot record exec Dan manages to lose his job and the respect of his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) in a single day. He has no permanent home but drives around Manhattan in a ridiculous vintage Jag, listening listlessly to CD submissions and desperately trying to find the next big thing.

Drunk and lonely Dan rocks up in the same bar in which Greta is playing. We see this scene twice: once from Greta's point of view and again from Dan's perspective, where he loves the song and imagines what it could become with accompaniments and post-production. Dan tries to sign her up to his (now ex-) label, she rebuffs him, saying she just likes to write songs because she enjoys it. But they go to a bar and talk some more, fight some more, and he persuades her to postpone her flight back to the UK for a few days while she shows Dan's partner at Distressed Records, Saul (Mos Def), her stuff.

It turns out that Saul isn't too keen but he tells Greta to put together a demo and he'll give her another shot. Instead of renting a studio, Greta and Dan decide to record an album at various outdoor sights around Manhattan, from the boating lake in Central Park, to a back alley in the Lower East Side, to a rooftop next door to the Empire State Building. They recruit a series of musicians, including Steve, a couple of Juilliard students, a former ballet-school pianist, some local kids and even Dan's daughter Violet. They have fun and the music sounds great.

Meanwhile Dan and Greta get to know each other better, and a friendship — and maybe more — develops between them. But Greta is still processing her feelings for Dave, who is off on tour being a Big Time Musician, and Dan's relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) isn't exactly past tense, either.

Although the phrase 'feel-good movie' usually sends my inner cynic into overdrive, you do come out of Begin Again feeling really upbeat and energised. Knightley, as the uptight, introvert Brit who finds a new confidence in her talent and in herself, is really good, although it's Ruffalo's performance as the drunk, depressed loser who is trying to get back on track that carries the film, and Keener is always fun. As with Once, the songs are great too, my favourite being the fuck-you song that Greta makes up and then leaves as a voicemail message on Dave's phone while he is picking up a Grammy. No, Begin Again doesn't really break new ground but it won me over, especially because it's as much of a love story with New York as with music and among the main characters.

13 July 2014

The Saskatoon Caffeine Chronicles

When I travel to a new place – especially one that isn't especially known for having great coffee — I like to do a little online research before I go, i.e. searching Google for "independent coffee bar in X". This has two benefits: first, of course, it means I don't have to settle for a Starbucks for my morning brew; and second, good coffee bars are often located in areas that have other cafés, shops and things to do that I like. Just follow the Aeropress!

Although I wasn't worried about finding places for my morning hand-dripped coffee in Vancouver, I was less certain about whether I would find anything decent in Saskatoon. And by decent, I don't mean Tim Hortons. It turned out that my fears were misplaced and I found a couple of really nice coffee bars, both of which served good pourovers and macchiatos.

First on my list was The Local in downtown Saskatoon, which turned out to be only a few blocks from the wedding hotel, which was handy for post-run coffee on the jam-packed wedding day. The signs were good — quite literally, in fact: I liked the design of their logo. And inside, the décor is independent coffee shop 101: dark wood tables, metal stools and pendant light bulbs. Local art on the walls adds a more personal, and colourful, touch. As well as the usual bags of coffee beans and branded mugs for sale, you can also buy The Local sunglasses, which I thought was pretty cool.

Now, onto the coffee. You can tell that the pourover concept is still finding its feet in Saskatoon because both here and at Museo, it took a little longer than usual to get my coffee. This is probably at least partly due to the fact that there was only one barista, who had to prepare multiple types of drink at once. My pourover was very good, though, and worth the wait. Later in the day (about an hour later, in fact), I went back for a macchiato — produced by The Local's La Marzocco, which was slightly milkier than I prefer but the coffee was delicious: rich and smooth.

The morning after the wedding, although there was a lot of coffee on offer at the hotel brunch, it wasn't particularly good, so after exploring Pets in the Park, we crossed the river and walked down Broadway, which hosts some of Saskatoon's more interesting independent shops, cafés and arts venues. There we found Museo, which also has a branch on the other side of the river in the Mendel Art Gallery. The Broadway branch was bustling on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the aforementioned slow speed of pourover production wasn't helped by the fact that there were seven of us just in our group.

The exposed-brick walls, colourful flower arrangements and shiny La Marzocco Strada are textbook independent espresso bar, but the staff have created a really lovely space to hang out and escape the killer mosquitoes. As this is Canada, the staff are also super friendly.

I ordered a pourover, although later wished I'd had it on ice because it was such a hot, humid day. When it arrived, however, I was happy and everything was right with the world again. I didn't have a macchiato too, but the latte art on the espresso-based drinks was pretty impressive.

Google turned up a few other coffee bar candidates in Saskatoon, but consultation with local caffeine fiends indicated that The Local and Museo are definitely the best. So there you have it! It is indeed possible to find a pourover in the Prairies!

The Local. 167 Third Avenue South, Saskatoon. Website. Twitter.

11 July 2014

The Vancouver Caffeine Chronicles

I spent just over three days in Vancouver, but still managed to sample a fair bit of the city's coffee culture. Here are my four favourite coffee bars:

1. Revolver (Gastown). 325 Cambie Street. Website. Twitter. Tucked away on a quiet block of Cambie Street, Revolver offers a vast array of coffees and an even bigger selection of brewing equipment. Exhausted from running and from lack of sleep, I stopped by on my first morning in the city and ordered an Aeropress-brewed cup of Costa Rican coffee from Anchored Coffee Roasters. As I was still hot from my run, I also picked up a bottle of their cold-brew coffee, which comes served in the coolest little medicine bottle — currently adorning my bookshelf.

I was also tempted by the brew flights they serve but that would have to wait...at least six hours, anyway. I was back at Revolver that afternoon and ordered the flight with a Guatemalan variety. With the flight, you can either have three coffee varieties brewed with the same method, or the same coffee brewed through three different methods. I opted for the latter, and when I opened the answer booklet, I was surprised to find that my favourite was the Clever dripped brew, rather than the Aeropress.

On the day we left for Saskatoon, I went to Revolver again for another Costa Rican coffee, but went for the Clever-brewed version this time, and really liked it. I sense another coffee purchase coming on. Revolver has plenty of seating inside — all exposed brick and reclaimed wood — and a gorgeous brew bar, where they prepare all the fancy coffee.

2. Timbertrain Coffee Roasters (Gastown). 311 West Cordova Street. Website. Twitter. I spotted Timberlake on my first morning run, on my way to Revolver. I admired their cool logo and their super-stylish brew bar and made a mental note to come back. Indeed, on my second morning, I was eagerly awaiting my pourover. They have the most beautiful copper Kalita drippers and pouring kettles at Timbertain, and my coffee was great. Plus, the staff are all super-friendly.

3. 49th Parallel (Mount Pleasant / Kitsilano). 2902 Main Street / 2198 West 4th Ave. Website. Twitter. I had singled out 49th Parallel while doing research for this trip, partly because of its name (inspired by Vancouver's latitude) and partly because of its new Lucky's Doughnuts project. It took me until my third day in the city to visit their Mount Pleasant Café on South Main Street, as it's a little further away from the downtown area than the others. It was worth the trip though.

Although they don't serve hand-drip coffee, I had a decent americano on my first visit and an excellent macchiato on my second trip, to the West 4th Ave branch. I also love their duck-egg blue crockery — my alma mater would approve! The doughnuts were also awesome, the peanut butter and jelly variety being the winner, although the salted caramel one was great too. Both branches have plenty of seating, including patio seating, and free wifi, and the West 4th cafe also has cool bike parking racks.

4. Innocent Coffee (Fairview). 1340 West 4th Ave. Website. Twitter. Innocent's cute logo loomed on the horizon on my final day in Vancouver when I was desperate need of caffeination and cooling. Their delicious iced pourover killed both birds with the same stone! Innocent is a bright and airy but tiny, dollhouse-like coffee bar and café, run by a brother-and-sister team, who also bake all of the pastries. Its design and concept reminded me of Omotesando Koffee in Tokyo. It's a really cool place and if you're in the area (just south of Granville Island, and just east of the more interesting part of West 4th Avenue), you should definitely check it out.

9 July 2014

La Fin de Vancouver

I had a 12-hour layover in Vancouver yesterday on my way back to London, but I didn't mind too much as I could leave my suitcase at the left luggage and take the Sky Train into the city. It takes about 20 minutes and a day pass, which gives you access to most public transport within the city, is under $10. My first destination was the Lululemon Lab, a design hub on West Broadway, where local designers collaborate to produce technical clothing that is a little hipper (i.e. less colourful) than the regular Lulu kit. It's all locally made — very locally, in fact: in the room adjacent to the store.

Having woken up at 5.15 Saskatoon time, by this point it was 10.30 and I was in desperate need of a proper coffee and luckily, I had earmarked a few places nearby. The closest was Innocent Coffee on West 4th Avenue — a small, dollhouse-like house containing a tiny coffee bar on the ground floor. Innocent is run by a brother–sister team, who made me an excellent iced pourover, which woke me up and cooled me down in the hot Vancouver sun.

Caffeine crisis dealt with, food was my next requirement. I thought I would have a quick bite to eat and then a late lunch, but it turns out that West 4th is a great place to get brunch or brunch-like fare. I stopped at Sophie's Cosmic Café, partly because I liked the look of the patio seating area, and partly because I'd heard good things about their eggs Benedict — the primary brunch dish in Vancouver. I can't resist an avo–egg combo, so of course I ordered the Santa Fe eggs Benny, which came with guacamole, salsa, black beans and home fries. It was delicious, although kind of ruined my 'quick bite to eat' plan.

After brunch, I made a brief stop at the original Lululemon, which is just across the street from Sophie's, although I didn't buy anything. The ten or so blocks of West 4th Avenue between Fir and Macdonald are a great place to shop and to wander. There are tons of cute boutiques and nice restaurants and cafés. I headed into 49th Parallel for a macchiato and a salted caramel doughnut (I was full, but I knew it would be the last doughnut for a while).

The sun was getting seriously hot by then, so I headed down to Kitsilano Beach, which is a great place to spend the afternoon on a sunny day. The beach is sandy, there are wonderful views of the city and the mountains, and you can swim, rent kayaks or just lie down and enjoy the sun. I didn't have my swimming kit with me, so I just lay in the sun and paddled. Oh, and leaped, of course.

I then walked around the waterfront to Granville Island, stopping to browse all of the cool design-inspired gifts at Make, before catching the sea bus to Yaletown, an area in the southeast part of downtown Vancouver. As well as lots of interesting restaurants and bars, Yaletown has a lot of cool boutiques. I would have liked to have spent more time there, but time was not on my side.

Instead, I walked back to downtown to do a bit of last-minute shopping, stopped by Japadog — a food truck serving Japanese-style hotdogs — for a quick dinner, and then caught the train back to the airport for the flight back to London. An action-packed day, but a fun one. It would have been nice to spend a couple more days in Vancouver, so that I could have explored Yaletown and Fairview, and done the Grouse Grind (or taken the cable car, at least), but you can see a lot of the city in three or four days. I'll be doing round-up of some of my favourite Vancouver and Saskatoon coffee bars later in the week.

8 July 2014

Prairie Wedding

I'm back in Vancouver now, about to head back to London, but I've been getting a bit behind, so here's what happened in Saskatoon.

We woke up pretty early on Saturday morning, and some of us managed a brief run along the Saskatchewan River. It was very hot and humid, but it helped to work off some of Friday night's excesses.

I also went to the first of two independent coffee bars I had scouted out. Yes, Saskatoon has two places that will do a pretty decent pourover. A full review will follow, but The Local, which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel, is a really good choice for those craving caffeine and not yet accustomed to Tim Hortons.

While the boys went off for some guy time, the bride and the bridesmaids went to have our hair and makeup done. It's only the second time I've had my makeup done professionally — and it will probably be the last time I ever get false lashes! — and I was pleased with the end result. It was also nice to spend a little more time with some of the other bridesmaids.

After a quick lunch and an even quicker wedding run through, we all went to get dressed. I'm not going to blog the wedding in detail — there was enough social meedja from the hashtag they set up (a really great way to share photos and videos during the day, including selfies with the bride and groom — but suffice to say it was probably the most fun wedding I've ever been to. The bride was beautiful and my brother scrubbed up nicely too. Good stuff.

As I only crawled into bed just before 2 am, after many hours of dancing, there was no run for me yesterday morning. I did make it to the 10 am wedding party brunch in our hotel though. It was a buffet, so I could at least control the portion size, and I did feel a lot better after some coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon. Then it was time to explore the town. Yesterday was Pets in the Park — an annual event where, surprisingly enough, people bring their pets (mainly dogs) into the park. Saskatoon was looking very pretty in the afternoon sunshine.

Everyone enjoyed a bit of puppy window-shopping, and then we crossed the river and explored the Broadway area, which has a number of independent shops and cafés, including the second coffee bar on my list, Museo. Although the service was a little slow, the pourover did me the world of good.

After a quick swim, whirlpool and sauna at our hotel, it was time for a few Canadian food experiences. First, I had my first double double from Tim Hortons — a terrible coffee with double cream and double sugar — as well as some Tim Bits (doughnut holes). Then we had poutine and Caesars (a sort of Bloody Mary with clamato juice) at Hudsons. By this point, the double double and the tiredness had got to me and I started acting a little silly.

But not so silly that I couldn't enjoy my second Caesar, which came with a bacon straw (I'll repeat: bacon straw!), with dinner. We went to a Brazilian steakhouse called Saboroso, where the severs roam the tables with giant skewers of different meats, which keep coming until you turn your coloured dice red side up. The chicken with whiskey maple BBQ sauce, was my favourite, followed by the sugary, cinammony pineapple for pudding.

It was so sad to say goodbye to everyone after such a lovely weekend of celebrations. It helped that I had to get up at 5.15 this morning for my flight back to Vancouver, and more adventures on the Pacific Coast.