2 March 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: Machine

Bermondsey is really starting to pick up the pace on the fine coffee front, and the latest coffee joint I've found is Machine on Tower Bridge Road (just around the corner from Hej).

Machine began life as a smart bike shop called Velodro, but has now changed its name and converted its front half into a cafe. It's only a few minutes' walk from my house so I stopped by on Sunday morning on my way to Shoreditch.

The first thing you notice when you walk inside is the funky, cycling-inspired — up-cycled, one might even say — design. You can perch on one of the saddle-topped stools by the window or sit around one of the bespoke coffee tables, which have been salvaged from old bike wheels.

The coffee menu is espresso-based drinks only — sadly, no pourovers or Aeropresses are available at the moment. I ordered a double macchiato (£2.20) and took a seat next to one of the bike-wheel coffee tables while I waited. There were a few sandwiches on offer too, and a selection of cakes; the sea-salted-caramel chocolate tart (£2.20) looked particularly good, but I was trying to save room for lunch.

Compared to many latte-art-topped drinks, my macchiato didn't look that impressive — I had half-expected it would come out with a bike wheel pattern on top — but it was actually rather good. Machine uses Monmouth coffee and although the milk was a little over-heated, the macchiato had a strong, smooth taste. In Bermondsey, where it can be tough to find a great cup of coffee, this was very promising.

The cafe itself is very light and airy and although the people-watching might not be quite up to Shoreditch standards, Machine is a very pleasant place to while away a spare half-hour. And if you're a cyclist, you will probably find it difficult to leave empty-handed: there is plenty of serious cycling kit in the back, and a few cycling-related cards and gifts on sale in the cafe.

Machine. 97 Tower Bridge Road, London, SE1 4TW (Tube: Borough or Bermondsey). Website. Twitter.

24 February 2015

London Gin Festival

When a few months ago, my my brother asked if I wanted to go to the celebration of gin that is the London Gin Festival, there was only one obvious answer. I've somehow never made it to Ginstock, on World Gin Day, and the festival, which also visits several other UK cities sounded right up my street.

This year's London event was in the Camden Centre and the £10 entitled you to am official Gin Festival glass, badge and gin listing. There were dozens of gins available inside, many of which you could sample, but if you wanted a gin and tonic, you had to buy a gin card, which, for £20, would entitle you to four G&Ts of your choosing. Given that the festival sells t-shirts that proclaim, "Life's too short for single gins", it was a bit of a shame that only singles were served in the G&Ts, but £5 still isn't too bad for a craft G&T in central London.

We all wanted to try Pinkster gin in our first G&T: a dry gin with raspberries. It also happens to be pink, so of course I was keen. The bars are divided into our sections, so you have to consult the programme to find which bar will serve the gin of your dreams. The programme also lists the garnish that will be served with the drink — fresh mint and raspberry, in this case. I really liked Pinkster — it was fruity and a bit different, and the pink bottle would look great on my drinks table.

I really wanted to try as many new gins as possible, but I couldn't resist the Dorothy Parker gin on the list, which I tried in Gin Palace in New York. It's a bit more traditional — with a strong juniper taste and citrus notes. The bottle (second from the left on the top row of the photo below) is also cool.

At this point, we took a break to find some samples and go to some of the talks. It is not a coincidence that most of the talks were by people from the companies who were exhibiting (and I did think there would be more distillers showing their wares), and some of the talks were more interesting than others — focusing on the history of gin and the making of their gin, rather than just running through corporate press releases. One speaker refused to use the microphone so we couldn't even hear her from the second row.

Whitley Neill's African-inspired citrusy gin was great; it also helped that the presenter gave us all two 50 ml miniatures, rather than just a splash in a tiny cup. Brockmans, with its blueberry and blackberry flavours, was really tasty — you could really smell and taste the fruity notes — but I feel like their boring, un-gin-like black bottle will get lost on a lot of shelves. If you like a little spice in your life,  Opihr's smooth, coriander and cardamon notes might make it the gin — I've tried it before in 214's 'nice and spicy' tasting flight.

Then it was time for our final two G&Ts. For my third, I asked the bartender to surprise me and he picked the Sir Robin of Locksley gin, with its notes of elderflower, which came with a grapefruit garnish. It was quite tasty and refreshing, although the bartender seemed confused when I asked if it was named after Robin Hood. Hmm.

For my last drink, I tried St George's Terroir Gin, in honour of my recent trip to California. It's San Francisco and includes locally-foraged Douglas fir, among other botanicals. The gin has a fresh, clean taste and the rosemary garnish worked really well. This was probably my favourite of all the gins I tried, but I did enjoy sampling four really quite different G&Ts throughout the night.

There is a small 'off licence' selling some of the gins from the programme, but the prices weren't really any cheaper than you could find online. I was also hoping that the festival would be bigger and that there were would be a more varied programme of events — G&T masterclasses, mixology and the history of gin, for example. Maybe these festivals work better outside of London where it isn't so easy to find such interesting gins in bars and shops. Also, the website said that there would be food — veggie and non- — but all we found was a hot-dog stand. Still, if you love gin and like to taste numerous new gins in a short space of time, the Gin Festival could be the event for you.

22 February 2015

My Picks for the 2015 Academy Awards

My taste in movies obviously matched that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year, because I have seen almost all of the films nominated in the eight categories I normally consider. I have linked below my reviews of the films I have written about on this blog.

Best PictureWhiplash [8/8 watched]
Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood [5/5 watched]
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything [5/5 watched]
Best Supporting Actor: J. K. Simmons, Whiplash [5/5 watched]
Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice [4/5 watched]
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood [4/5 watched]
Best Original ScreenplayThe Grand Budapest Hotel [5/5 watched]
Best Adapted ScreenplayWhiplash [5/5 watched]

Picking my favourite Best Picture nominee was particularly challenging because other than American Sniper, which didn't impress me much, I liked all of the nominated films and was only really able to narrow it down to a top four: Boyhood, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash. Although the biopics of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking share certain similarities, both thematically and in subject matter, the other two are really quite different. Ultimately, though, I thought that the two biopics were well-made, compelling films and that Boyhood was an astonishing piece of work, Whiplash was the film that excited, captivated and entertained me the most. It was also the film for which I had almost no expectations when I entered the screening.

If I couldn't vote for Boyhood as Best Picture, I do think Richard Linklater truly deserves the Best Director award. Sure, there is some tough competition —Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel is a meticulously detailed, impeccably choreographed masterpiece and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is bonkers but brilliant — but my vote is for Linklater, although I had hoped Christopher Nolan would get a nod for Interstellar, which I loved.

I think Best Actor will come down to Redmayne vs Keaton and I think the former's total transformation into Hawking should win him the award. Maybe Steve Carell will win best nose job for his performance in Foxcatcher; I think David Oyelowo deserved Carell's spot in the line-up for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. All of the Best Supporting Actor nominees were great, but I think J. K. Simmons clinches it (Mark Ruffalo was easily the best thing in Foxcatcher).

I haven't seen Two Days, One Night, but of the four films I've seen that appear in the Best Actress category, Julianne Moore's performance in Still Alice blows the others out of the water, great as Rosamund Pike was in Gone Girl and Felicity Jones was in The Theory of Everything. Of the Best Supporting Actress nominees, other than Meryl Streep (whose Into the Woods I haven't seen), Patricia Arquette should win for her role as the mother in Boyhood. I wouldn't feel too bad if Emma Stone clinched it for Birdman, however.

Finally, in the writing categories, I hope The Grand Budapest Hotel wins Best Original Screenplay, not least because I feel it ought to win one of the major categories. My vote goes to Whiplash in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, but major kudos should go to Paul Thomas Anderson for translating the oft-thought-unfilmable Thomas Pynchon to the big screen.

Finally, the awesome infographic that features the dress worn by every Best Actress Academy Award winner — evs — has been updated to include Cate Blanchett's 2014 dress. Very cool.

My reviews of the nominated films: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Selma, Still Alice, The Theory of Everything and Whiplash.

20 February 2015

"Mastering the Art of Losing"

I hadn't heard of Lisa Genova's 2007 novel Still Alice until awards season rolled around last year and Julianne Moore picked up a whole host of nominations for her performance as the titular Alice in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's film adaptation. Genova is a neuroscientist-turned-writer and Still Alice tells the story of a brilliant 50-year-old psycholinguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

I wanted to read the novel before watching the movie, and I thought Genova's work was a powerful, moving and thoughtful depiction of what it really feels like to experience such a terrible disease. The film was good too and Moore's nominations are richly deserved — she will almost certainly win the Oscar this weekend — as her portrayal is by turns sensitive and multi-layered, inspiring and heartbreaking.

The movie opens with Alice celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband and fellow scientist John (Alec Baldwin), and two of their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish — whom I still haven't forgiven for what he did to Will Gardner in The Good Wife) in a New York restaurant. It is a celebratory moment and Alice, at the top of her academic game and with a loving family, is very happy. Soon, though, she finds herself forgetting things. While giving a talk, she can't remember the word 'lexicon' — pretty crucial for a linguist — and before long, the 'thingies' become more common and when she gets lost in the middle of her university campus, she realises that she has to go to see a doctor.

After a barrage of tests, early-onset Alzheimer's is the diagnosis she is given and she is baffled and devastated. She tries to hide it from her family at first, but eventually, she lets John in on the news and, once it is confirmed that she has the familial version, they decide to tell their children. Anna and Tom — a sensible lawyer and doctor — want to get tested to see whether they have the implicated genetic mutation, but the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the rebel of the family and an aspiring actress, decides not to.

The decline, then, manages to be both achingly slow and all too rapid. In the book, this time lapse is expressed more clearly — the film feels faster. And it's Moore with her heart-wrenching sobs who carries the whole film. "It feels like my brain is fucking dying," she cries, becoming increasingly frustrated as ever simpler tasks become too challenging. "I wish I had cancer," she says on another occasion. People understand cancer, she explains, and aren't embarrassed by it. Later, in a slightly more accepting frame of mind, Alice quotes Elizabeth Bishop: "The art of losing isn't hard to master." And that is the key to the film, because it is damn hard to master the art of losing your faculties, losing your life and losing your self. It's a devastating thing.

If you think Mark Wahlberg makes an unconvincing English professor in The Gambler, wait until you see Alec Baldwin as the most implausible cancer cell biology PI you have ever seen. To be fair, the film keeps the science on the sidelines and Baldwin does play a convincing husband here. You can feel his pain, anger and frustration as he watches the wife he has loved for decades slip away from him slowly. Stewart, to my surprise, also performed well as the renegade daughter who comes home when it counts the most. The older children don't have a lot to do other than act sad and grumpy.

Overall, I still preferred the book, but the film is well done. There is a high probability that you will cry, although there are also more uplifting elements to it. There are a few changes in the transition to the big screen — the setting has moved from Harvard, Cambridge, to Columbia, New York, and the characters have ditched their BlackBerries in favour of iPhones, Skype and FaceTime for the film.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the story was that Alice is a linguistics professor — naturally, this is of interest to a former linguistics student, but for someone like Alice for whom language and communication is so utterly central, the prospect of losing even a tiny amount of ability must be a truly terrifying notion. For a good explanation of the genetics of Alzheimer's disease, the US National Institute on Aging has a good factsheet.

19 February 2015

The DC Caffeine Chronicles

I spent under four days in DC but I managed to pack in a fair amount of caffeine chronicling. I did some coffee-shop research before I left and was pleased to find that a lot of the coffee bars on my list were fairly close to my two hotels near Logan Circle and near the White House. At Dulles Airport, on my way to California, I picked up the Jan/Feb issue of Washington Flyer magazine, which had a feature on DC's burgeoning craft coffee scene. We had obviously done some similar delving because most of the coffee bars I visited were also on their list.

I've listed the cafés I visited by neighbourhood, and because I was only in the city for a few days, I've also included the details of the other places I would have checked out if I had had more time. I also made a little map:

Logan Circle
Peregrine Espresso.  Only a few blocks from my hotel, Peregrine was the perfect stop-off on the way back from my morning run. It's pretty small inside—the few outdoor tables were deserted on such a wintry morning—but they serve pourovers with a choice of three coffees. I tried the Ethiopian Idido ($3.50), which had a nice fruity acidity and melted away my jetlag. The baristas are friendly and knowledgeable, and their key lime muffins are delish. 1718 14 Street bet. R & S St (other locations: Eastern Market and Union Market). Website. Twitter.

Slipstream. When I read on Slipstream's website that it was a top-notch coffee bar by day and served kick-ass cocktails by night, I knew I had to visit. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to sample the cocktails, but the coffee was really good. I tried a single-origin Colombian pourover ($5), which was rich and flavoursome—just what I needed while I got used to the chilly DC climate. I was on a shoe-shopping mission and didn't have time to drink in, but the staff kept assuring me that I wouldn't have long to wait, which was sweet given that it took as long as a pourover normally takes to brew. Slipstream was just across the street from my hotel so I could see the transition to night-time through the windows—MacBooks shut down and candles come out. A lovely place. 1333 14 St nr Rhode Island Ave. Website. Twitter.

Compass Coffee. The Shaw neighbourhood is east of Logan Circle and northeast of the central downtown area. Compass is located on an otherwise unassuming block—you can't miss the red-brick building. They roast their own coffee on site and the owners, who used to be in the Marines, have done a great job with the industrial-chic cafe. As well as the usual espresso-based drinks (and a Nutella mocha, which I clearly missed!), you can choose one of three coffees to have brewed in a French press or as a pourover. I ordered a Bali pourover and a delicious, sugary brioche and took a seat at one of the tables and watched the baristas at work. The coffee is really good—if I wasn't heading on to California, I would have bought a bag of beans—and it's a cool place to hang out. The food all comes from local suppliers: the pastry chef, for example, is a local lawyer who works all day and then wakes up in the middle of the night to bake and deliver her goods. How awesome is that? 1535 7 St bet P & Q St. Website. Twitter.

Other options:
La Colombe. I've always had a great coffee at their New York branches. 924 Rear N St bet 9 & 10 St. Website. Twitter.

Mockingbird Hill. Coffee bar with a *huge* selection by day, sherry bar by night. 1843 7 St nr T St. Website. Twitter.

Chinatown Coffee Co. I ducked in here out of the rain but the music and the coffee were both so good that I could have stayed much longer. I ordered an Intelligentsia Colombian pourover and took a seat near the bar. The coffee was rich and chocolatey, which I always think is perfect for when the weather is less than clement. If you're there later in the day, or don't have to work, they also serve absinthe, which is pretty darn cool. 475 H St nr 5 St. Website. Twitter.

Foggy Bottom
Filter. The first thing you notice about Filter is that they really like orange. That's OK: I quite like orange too, especially on grey mornings when I need cheering up. Their I Street branch is close to my second hotel so I went for breakfast after my run on my penultimate day. They serve a selection of pourovers (around $4) and I went for the Colombian (detecting a theme here?), which had notes of maple syrup, cocoa and cola. This went very nicely with my raspberry and peach muffin. The café itself is industrial-chic and pretty small downstairs, although there is also an upstairs area with more tables. NB, the Foggy Bottom branch is closed at the weekend. 1916 I St bet 20 & 19 St (other location: Dupont Circle). Website. Twitter.

Baked & Wired. I didn't have time for coffee in Georgetown, but my notes say, "Good coffee, great cakes, terrible puns". Make of that what you will, but it is supposed to be fab. 1052 Thomas Jefferson St bet M & L St. Website. Twitter.

Adams Morgan
The Wydown. 1924 14 St nr U St. Website. Twitter.

17 February 2015

Six Hours in San Francisco

I would have liked to have spent a couple of days in San Francisco after my conference finished — long-term readers will know that I spent a fair amount of time in Fog City in the noughties but it's been over six years since my last visit. Sadly, though, I had to make do with six hours. However, it's hard to complain too much when it was such an unseasonably warm, sunny day and the city was as beautiful as I remembered.

I took the first train out of San Jose, which got me to SFO for 9.10. I dropped my suitcase off at the Airport Travel Agency (which, at $35 for the day, was rather pricey but worth it for the time and hassle saved) and then took BART into the city. I had a fairly strict itinerary for the day, amnd task number one was to visit one of the serious and cool coffee bars in the Mission — my coffee tastes have evolved since my last visit to SF, and a creamy cappuccino will no longer do it for me. Top of my list was Four Barrel Coffee on Valencia.

They roast their own coffee on site and even have a pourover bar. I picked up a bag of Colombian beans, a Colombian pourover and a chocolate and rose doughnuts and enjoyed my breakfast in the airy, industrial-casual-chic cafe. The coffee was really good, with some surprising fruity acidity after the initial taste.

I suspect that I am not the only person for whom the Golden Gate Bridge acts as core of nostalgia for San Francisco, so my next activity was to head to Crissy Field and walk along the beach to the overlook point for the bridge. Initially, I thought I would take a bus, but it was such a nice day that I decided to walk up Fillmore Street through Japantown and Pacific Heights, where there were plenty of shops to browse and restaurants for another time.

No matter how many times I see the Golden Gate Bridge, my heart still leaps when I catch a glimpse of it, and I spent a good 20 minutes snapping photos, including a couple of selfie-stick selfies and a few self-timer leaps. Crissy Field is glorious in the sunshine, especially on a holiday weekend, where families picnic, barbecue and take a dip in the Bay.

Sightseeing completed, I walked back to Pacific Heights for lunch. Although I spotted a bunch of great-looking burger places (Super Duper Burgers and Roam, for example), I decided to make the most of being in California and had some tacos from Tacolicious. I wasn't the only one with the same idea, however, and there was no room at the inn, so I ate my delicious tacos (one cod, one chicken mole) outside in the sunshine. Then it was time for a bit of shopping on Union Street and Chestnuy Street, where there are a huge range of boutiques and independent shops — including Chronicle Books, Eurasian Interiors and Itoya Topdrawer. This is also a good place to shop for sports and yoga clothes and juices!

By this point, I was in need of more caffeine and by happy coincidence, I was only two blocks away from Saint Frank Coffee on Polk Street, another coffee bar on my list. I planned to order an iced pourover but when the women in front of me asked for a Kaffe Tonic, I was curious. Kaffe Tonic turns out to be a shot of espresso poured over an iced Fever Tree tonic water. I love coffee and I love a G&T but I wasn't convinced. Somehow, though, the two flavours combined well and it was both tasty and refreshing. If you are feeling less experimental, Saint Frank pulls a mean espresso and serves a selection of tempting pourover coffees.

Starting to run short of time and faced with yet another massive hill, I decided to hop on a bus down to Union Square; my aching feet were grateful for the brief respite. I spent 30 minutes rushing around my favourite shops — Madewell, Nordstrom, Kate Spade and American Eagle — in the shopping centre on Market Street before power walking down Market Street to the Ferry Building, a foodie haven. I had hoped to get something to eat so that I didn't have to rely on plane food later on, but the queues at all of the little food concessions and shops inside were huge, so I only had time to pick up a couple of snacks, snap a quick picture of the Bay Bridge and rush to get the 4.30 BART back to the airport.

As you can tell, I packed a lot in to such a short time, but my half-day visit has inspired me to plan another trip to San Francisco — maybe combined with a few days in Portland. I do love the city and have a lot of happy memories associated with it. Also, there are plenty more coffee joints for me to check out, including Ritual, Sightglass, MA-velous and Blue Bottle (which I've visited in New York).