30 March 2015

Saved by the Hubbard & Bell

On Friday, I had a rare day off to spend in London and the first activity on my to-do list was a proper brunch. I had a date with the ICA, which meant I needed to pick somewhere fairly central, and Hubbard & Bell — the restaurant in the Holborn branch of the über-trendy Hoxton Hotel — stood out on my Instagram feed. The Hoxton, Holborn, opened late last year and has the same cool but relaxed vibe as its Shoreditch sister. As well as a place to sleep, The Hoxton also has a cool lobby café, a nail bar and even a branch of Chicken Shop; what more could you want?

Hubbard & Bell is small but immaculately decorated in shades of teal and mustard. There are a handful of comfy distressed leather booths, some long sharing tables and a few seats at the long bar, which was where I perched as I watched the chefs prepare the day's lobsters.

I had heard that the coffee was pretty good, so I ordered an Aeropress brew (£4), but they also serve Chemex, Sandows cold brew and the usual range of espresso-based drinks. The hand-drip coffee of the week was an Ethiopian coffee (this one, I think) from the Cornish-based Origin roasters, which had a nice fruity acidity.

I also treated myself to a glass of red juice (beetroot, carrot, ginger, pineapple, orange, lemon and apple; £4). I had sneaked a peek at the breakfast menu online and although both the eggs Benny and the smoked salmon bagel sounded great, I was always going to have the avocado on sourdough toast with a poached egg and pistachio (£8). Although I love avocado and/or eggs on toast, the pistachio was the selling point for me — an unusual but delicious-sounding topping for a breakfast classic.

The food came beautifully presented on an Instagram-ready flowery plate. Naturally, it didn't stay that way for long and that beautiful poached egg oozed all over the toast. The avo had a nice lime kick and the pistachios worked really well as a garnish.

Hubbard & Bell is a great place for brunch — or, indeed, any other meal. It's open all day, and you can grab a coffee in the loungey café area near the stylish white La Marzocco machine, or stop by later in the day for a burger or steak and a cocktail (Prof. Jerry's Peppers & Cherries sounds particularly good).

Hubbard & Bell. 199–206 High Holborn, London, WC1V 7BD (Tube: Holborn). Website. Twitter.

28 March 2015

A Little Princess

When I visited Tokyo last year, one of my biggest disappointments was not having time to pay a visit to the Ghibli Museum. Regular readers will know that my favourite films tend to be dark dramas and political and crime thrillers, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a real appreciation for the Japanese animation studio's movies, especially the delightful Ponyo. The latest Ghibli film is The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, which, unlike most of the others that I've seen, is directed by Isao Takahata rather than Hayao Miyazaki.

Princess Kaguya is a beautiful, joyful and unique film, based on a Japanese folk story called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. As the film opens, an elderly bamboo cutter (voiced in the English version by James Caan) discovers a tiny but perfectly formed princess inside a bamboo stalk. He takes her home to his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen) and the princess transforms to a baby, who they agree to raise as their own.

The bamboo cutter believes the child (Chloë Grace Moretz) was given to him so that he could raise her as a princess and, aided by a mound of gold, also provided by the ethereal bamboo grove, he builds a beautiful mansion in the closest big city. She would have preferred to stay in the countryside, frolicking with a group of local boys, including Sutemaru (Darren Criss), but grudgingly goes to the city to please her parents. There, she is transformed by a series of advisors from the palace into a noble girl, and is given the name Princess Kaguya by one of the emperor's name-givers. The inevitable series of would-be suitors come by to woo her, but Kaguya demands that they prove themselves by bringing her the beautiful, rare and perhaps non-existent treasures to which they have all compared her. Meanwhile, she dreams of her old life on the mountain and those happy years with Sutemaru.

The film is so beautifully drawn, with immaculate attention to detail, and it is a pleasure to watch. It is, however, pretty long, clocking in at 2h17, which might be off-putting to younger audiences. The final 45 minutes, in particular, dragged a little as I waited for the film to reach its — unexpected, admittedly — climax. Princess Kaguya is also far from a feminist tale: our heroine's wishes and dreams must always come second to her duty to her parents and to society, which is, of course, partly a cultural thing. Sure, the bamboo cutter is acting out of what he thinks are the best interests of his daughter, but he never listens to what she actually thinks or wants.

I tried to learn a little Japanese prior to my trip last year and I've just done a refresher course, so I had hoped to see Princess Kaguya in Japanese with English subtitles, but the ICA screening I went to was dubbed into English. Overall, I thought the dubbing worked well, but one thing that did jar slightly was James Caan's accent. Caan is a brilliant actor, but his distinctive New Yawk drawl seemed discordant with the delicate beauty of the film, and I found this distracting.

26 March 2015

Jude the Obscure: A Little Life Review

Part-way through Hanya Yanagihara's epic 700-page novel A Little Life, I Googled the author and was surprised to find out that she was female. I shouldn't have been surprised that a story that four male college friends over the course of three decades as they love, live and lose was written by a woman, but I think my error is a testament to how successfully Yanagihara manages to put her readers into the head of the central character, Jude. A Little Life is, by turns, brutal and brilliant, devastating and poignant, and exhilarating and exhausting.

The novel opens as Jude and his best friend Willem move into a crappy New York apartment. They are in their mid-twenties and have just finished grad school — Jude at law school and Willem at drama school — and have just moved to the big city to follow their dreams. Their two other friends from college — artist JB and trainee architect Malcolm — also live in the city and the four regularly meet up and remain close.

You think this is going to be another tale of privileged twenty-somethings trying to find themselves in the Big Apple, but the narrative shifts very quickly. First, after the back stories of Willem, JB and Malcolm have been sketched out, JB and Malcolm start to drift off-stage, as the mysterious, beautiful brilliant Jude becomes the nexus of the story, and aspects of his horrific past are slowly revealed, drip by drip. Although the narrative is largely chronological, it is pepped with flashbacks and flash-forwards: sometimes we are given Jude's age as an anchoring point, which is helpful as there are very few clues as to when the novel is set, other than the fact that there is a cell phone in use in the opening scenes.

It is hard to say too much more about the plot without spoiling the novel, and I think it really is better to go into it completely fresh, as I did, but themes of friendship and love, loss and pain, self-hatred and, to some extent, forgiveness all dominate the text. A Little Life is, as I mentioned, a long book, but despite having very few sudden plot twists, it manages to be utterly gripping and I found myself racing towards the — appropriately understated — conclusion. If you read and liked Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, you might also enjoy Yanagihara's novel: the scope, tone and immaculate attention to detail is similar in the two novels.

The lack of well-drawn female characters did jar with me (and this also contributed to my thinking the author was male), but it is, of course, Jude's world we are seeing. For a couple of chapters, the narrative voice switches from third- to first-person, and then to the second-person, and without wishing to spoil too much, I did feel slightly tricked by the second-person once I had read further into the novel.

These quibbles aside, A Little Life is a brilliant novel. It's thoroughly, unapologetically sad, but in an honest, raw way rather than being maukish or maudlin. Some passages are very hard to read without wincing or sobbing, but don't let that put you off because Jude and his friends will stay with you for a long time after you've finished the final page.

24 March 2015

Curzon's Earlybird Gets the Chop

I go to the cinema at least once a week — an expensive habit given the cost of central London cinema tickets. I try to go to free preview screenings when I can and to seize discount vouchers for the multiplexes when they materialise, but I would much rather go to a Curzon cinema or to the BFI, where there is a much more pleasurable cinematic experience.

Since I moved to London over five years ago, one of my favourite things to do at the weekend has been to go to one of the Curzon cinemas to catch one of their earlybird screenings. Any film that started before 2 pm would cost only £8. Great, huh? Yes, it was, but sadly the earlybird tickets no longer exist, which I discovered to my surprise on Saturday when I showed up to the Soho Cuzon to watch X + Y, only to be charged £14. I declined.

And therein lies the problem. I know that it is a tough time for the movie industry in general and for independent cinemas in particular, and if there is a film I really want to see, I will happily pay £14 for my ticket. Well, perhaps happily isn't the right word, but I will at least accept it. The great thing about the earlybird screenings was that they encouraged me to see films about which I was on the fence; films that I thought I might like but wasn't completely convinced; films where £8 seemed like a fair price for a bit of a gamble.

I was always impressed by how busy the earlybird screenings were, even at 11 am for films that weren't the week's big hitters. It made me feel as though I was part of some secret cinephile inner circle. The seats were comfy, the audience adhered to the Wittertainment Code of Conduct, and I got to see some really great films. For the past five years, I have probably been to about two earlybird screenings per month, on average, although my visits have declined a little since I moved from Marylebone to Bermondsey.

I'm all in favour of supporting great cinemas — and the film industry in general — but as with the BFI, whose preview screenings now cost £14.50 even for members, I feel like the Curzon has made a mis-step here. I see one of the roles of such cinemas as supporting independent, offbeat or arthouse movies, and forcing its customers to pay £14 to see a film they may hate doesn't seem the best way to do this. Sure, put up your peak ticket prices (like the multiplexes do anyway), but at least give your customers the chance to catch an independent film at an off-peak weekend time for an off-peak price. In the meantime, I'll be searching for more free previews and desperately seeking another cinema that might give me the chance to watch these hidden gems at a less extortionate price.

19 March 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: TAP Coffee

Back in 2011, I wrote about my visit to the Tottenham Court Road branch of TAP Coffee (then known as Tapped and Packed), but my coffee tastes have changed somewhat since then, so I thought it was time for another review, this time of the Wardour Street branch. TAP Coffee cafés are easy to spot because their storefronts are always adorned with camouflaged bicycles and giant numbers.

No 193 Wardour Street is only a block away from the chaos of Oxford Street, but is a haven of peace and caffeine. It's also a lot bigger inside than the narrow storefront suggests — there are plenty of tables stretching back into Soho. TAP roast their own coffee, and there were three filter coffee options on offer. Naturally, I went for the Colombian Finca La Casiana brewed as a pourover (£3). If I hadn't just eaten a Big Fernand burger, I would definitely have been tempted by a brownie or a chocolate walnut cookie.

I was handed a small milk bottle containing the four of hearts and went to sit at one of the high tables near the coffee bar, where there was a large pile of Sunday papers waiting for me to peruse. My playing card's suit and number was, obviously, transmitted from the cash register to the coffee bar with my order, which meant the baristas knew where to send my pourover — a fun detail.

The coffee came served in a small metal jug with a white cup and dainty teaspoon. The serving wasn't huge, but more than enough for me and it was delicious. It had a slightly lighter, fruitier taste than many other Colombian varieties, but still had a pleasant, sweet richness.

The décor was as good as at the other branches of TAP I've visited: dark wooden tables, pendant light bulbs and a super-shiny La Marzocco. The back part of the café, which could have ended up being too dark and dull, boasts a conservatory-like glass roof, which lets in a lot of natural night, giving the place a homier feel.

Whether you are north or south of the east end of Oxford Street, the TAP Coffee shops are all good choices for a coffee break.

TAP Coffee. 193 Wardour Street, London, W1F 8ZF (Tube: Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus). Website. Twitter.

17 March 2015

The Burger Bulletin: Big Fernand Review

When is a burger not a burger? When it's an hamburgé, of course. Last week, French burger mini-chain Big Fernand opened its first UK restaurant just off Tottenham Court Road. To celebrate, they were giving away burgers to the first few hundred people who showed up wearing a moustache and/or a striped shirt, but sadly I couldn't get away from the office to enjoy such soft-launch folies. I did, however, make it over there on Sunday lunchtime.

The self-proclaimed burger workshop's London base is on Percy Street and is filled with cheerful, plaid-shirt-wearing French staff. There is a choice of five different burgers: two beef, one chicken, one veal and one veggie option. Now, the prices are not cheap — in fact, the UK menu seems to have simply substituted the Euro symbols for pounds — with the cheapest burger, Le Big Fernand, costing £11. You can make your burger into a 'formule' with fernandines (fries) and a drink for £3 extra, but £14 is still not bargainous for a fast-food restaurant akin to Shake Shack or Dirty Burger. The 'workshop' element appears on the back of the menu, where you can create your own burger, selecting your perfect combination of meat, cheese, vegetable, sauce and herbs.

I ordered a Big Fernand meal and grabbed a seat near the counter while I waited. Le Big Fernand includes a beef patty, sun-dried tomatoes, Tomme cheese, parsley and burger sauce. This being France (well, as close as you can get in W1), you can have your burger cooked however you like, and so I confidently ordered mine medium rare.

The food arrived promptly and was served on a tray, rather than a plate, adding to the fast food feel. I couldn't resist dipping a few of the fries — double-cooked and paprika-seasoned — in the home-made mayonnaise before unwrapping the burger and they were rather tasty. Slightly crunchy and very moreish.

The burger itself was very good indeed — up there with Shake Shack, Dirty Burger and Meat Liquor. I'm normally a cheddar purist when it comes to cheeseburgers, but the Tomme worked really well. The meat was particularly excellent: juicy, tender, flavoursome and pinky-red all the way through. I only tasted a little of the sundried tomatoes and parsley, but then I tend to prefer to keep my burgers on the simpler side anyway: with the 'Tata' sauce too, there were a lot of flavours going on here.

In conclusion, then, if you're in Fitzrovia, in need of a swift and tasty meal and don't mind spending a little bit more than average for a burger-based meal, give Big Fernand a try. They may even be reconsidering their prices following a review from the Hamburger Me blog. Stay tuned on that front, or restez à l'écoute!

Big Fernand. 19 Percy Street, London, W1T 1DY (Tube: Goodge Street). Website. Twitter.

Update: As of 18 March, Big Fernand's burgers are priced from £7-10.

9 March 2015

"I Had Told Myself They're Just Like Us After All — but They're Not"

June 1940. Storms — both literal and metaphorical — are coming to Paris and to the small French town of Bussy. While France struggles to deal with the realities of the German occupation, Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) and her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) are more concerned about keeping up appearances and keeping the family estate in good shape for when Lucile's husband returns from the prisoner-of-war camp where he is imprisoned. But when a regiment of German soldiers arrive in Bussy and one, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts), is assigned to live with the Angellier women, Lucile's world changes forever.

Saul Dibb's new film Suite française is based on Irène Némirovsky's excellent novel of the same name. The novel was supposed to be the first in a series (one translation of the title is "French series"), but tragically, Némirovsky was arrested in 1942 and died later that year in Auschwitz. Sixty years later, her daughter discovered the manuscript among her mother's papers and the book soon became a bestseller. The novel itself is finely crafted, compelling and moving; in its transition to the big screen, the story feels a little more standard-WWII-melodrama, but the sterling performances from the three leads — especially Schoenaerts — elevates the film.

Lucile is a complex character to portray: the Angelliers are one of the wealthiest families in the village and even before the arrival of the Germans, she faces a fair degree of antagonism from her resentful tenants, not helped by Mme Angellier's hardball approach to rent collection. Lucile is also lonely — she misses her husband, but it's unclear how much she loves him, especially when we find out that they didn't meet and marry very long before war breaks out. She maintains a sort of friendship with Madeleine (a fiery, tough Ruth Wilson), who lives with her war-wounded husband Benoit (Sam Riley) and struggles to make ends meet.

When Bruno moves into her house, Lucile wants to hate him and her mother-in-law demands that she hate him, but Bruno is kind, seems reasonable and plays the piano beautifully. Lucile doesn't recognise the song he plays most often, a piece he composed himself called Suite française. Given the circumstances, though, their relationship can hardly be allowed to blossom and indeed, the film isn't just a tale of wartime romance: it's the story of a town in crisis, as the narrative weaves in the struggles faced by Benoit and Madeleine, and some of the other residents, including the mayor and his wife, and there is a great ensemble cast.

There are about two lighter moments, but this is not a happy film. I suspect it's not a movie that will stand the test of time, which is a shame because it tells an important story and does benefit from some great acting performances. It is also beautifully shot and, as you might expect, has a lovely score from Rael Jones.