3 July 2015

The Burger Bulletin: Granger & Co King's Cross

After sampling the brunch at casual–cool Aussie all-day-dining venue, Granger & Co, I was keen to go back for dinner. The opening of their latest branch — tantalisingly close to my office in King's Cross — was the perfect opportunity to do so.

The restaurant occupies the ground floor of one of the many shiny new buildings that have opened up in Pancras Square, between King's Cross and St Pancras stations. Various restaurants and cafés have been springing up there over the past few months, including Vinoteca and Notes, but Granger & Co is the latest. There are a handful of tables on the 'square' itself, and the rest are indoors, all arranged around a peach-tiled, brass-topped bar. It's not a particularly big space and although there were plenty of free tables at 6.30 on a warm, if not sunny, evening, the place soon filled up. Oh, and they don't take bookings, so it is worth arriving early.

The first task was to tackle the cocktail menu. The cocktails (most are £9.50) don't have names, but simply contain a spirit plus three or four fruit and vegetable ingredients. I was sorely tempted by a rose gin, cucumber, lemon verbena and celery concoction, but the Mexican-inspired tequila-avocado-agave combo won me over. The creamy smoothness of the avocado contrasted nicely with the sharpness of the tequila. If I closed my eyes, I might almost be back in DF. For my next move, I tried the rum, honeydew melon and green chilli cocktail, which was just as refreshing, and more piquant, if not quite as green.

The menu is divided into small plates and big plates, although the BBQ and Bowls & Grains sections also offer main-course-sized dishes. To start, my friend and I shared one of the small plates: the Korean fried chicken (£8.50), which came with a spicy sesame dip and some lettuce. The chicken was really good and the portion was quite generous — with a side dish, you could probably make it into your main course.

We both ordered burgers for our main course. My friend went for the shrimp burger with jalapeño mayo (£15), but as I'd been to Granger & Co several times and never tried the grass-fed beef burger (£14.50), I felt that the time had come. I was saddened to hear that medium was the minimum amount of cooking for the burger. I asked to have it 'as rare as legally possible' but it ended up being on the medium-well side. That said, the beef was really flavoursome and juicy. Not dripping with juices and grease, exactly, but moist, for sure. The burger was served with fries and club sauce — it also comes with 'impatient pickles' (lightly pickled gherkins), but I'm a purist and so gave them a miss.

We didn't really have room for a pudding, but half a pudding was another matter, and we shared the salted caramel and bitter chocolate pot (£7). Some days, it seems, you get peanut butter mousse instead of salted caramel, which would have been even better, but I still enjoyed the latter, which was served in a cute piccolo cup.

It wasn't an especially cheap meal — we paid about £45 each, including service — but the food was creative, well thought out and high quality, the drinks were top-notch, and the service excellent. It certainly beats the old days when, stuck waiting for a train back to Cambridge, the only food options in King's Cross were a Cornish Pasty Co and a Caffe Nero, that's for sure! Vive la régénération!

Granger & Co. Stanley Building ,7 Pancras Square, London, N1C 4AG (Tube: King's Cross). Website. Twitter.

1 July 2015

June Favourites

Considering that I don't feel like I left my desk very often during the month of June, I managed to find quite a few enjoyable things.

1. Shoryu Ramen. I had serious food envy from my boss's trip to Japan and when I found myself in Carnaby Street one rainy Saturday night, the thought of a big comforting bowl of ramen easily won out over the prospect of shopping for food and cooking. I had some great ramen while I was in Japan, of course, and these days it's not too hard to find authentic options in London either. In an effort to be the most popular customer on my bus home, I ordered the Dracula Tonkotsu (£11.90), which is served with caramelised black garlic oil and extra garlic chips, and which was delicious and filling.

The cocktails looked great, the service was friendly but efficient and the long canteen-style tables are great for people-watching — I enjoyed eavesdropping on two cute American guys, who sounded like they had walked right out of a mumblecore film with their discussions of the romantic compatibility of Myers-Briggs personality types, Citizen Kane and Humphrey Bogart, and airline seats. Shoryu has a few other branches around town too. G3-5 Kingly Court, London, W1B 5PJ.

2. H&M Home. I've been spending most of my spare pennies on travel lately, but if you are looking for affordable and often stylish homewares, check out H&M's current home collection. I particularly like the black, copper (sorry: rose gold) and wood range. I treated myself to one of the black wire baskets pictured below, which was about £6, I think, and which makes a great receptacle for my apples. They have some nice candle-holders and wooden crates too.

3. Whenever I go the Stratford Westfield, I always look forward to having a pizza at Franco Manca. The awesome pizza mini-empire has been teasing us Bermondsey residents with a potential new branch on Bermondsey Street for over a year now, but alas, it has not yet materialised. I always go for the margherita (£5.90) because it's delicious and doesn't need any extra toppings. The sourdough base is so delicious that I always end up eating all the crust too. Please come to Bermondsey soon, Franco Manca! Various branches throughout London.

4. The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene. I read a few fun books this month, including Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood, an addictive and twisty friendship-gone-wrong — or has it? — thriller. Just as twisty and with just as much of a case of the unreliable narrators, but a little more literary is Greene's novel about a middle-aged headmaster of a top New England prep school, who is arrested for acting 'oddly' in Central Park, and then begins to recount the events that led up to his arrest. It's hard to say more without spoiling the surprises, but other than a slightly weak closing act, The Headmaster's Wife was sharp, suspenseful and compelling.

5. The Oliver Conquest. My brother picked this Aldgate East pub based mainly on its proximity to the Lahore Kebab House, where we celebrated his birthday. But it's also a gin palace and has a bewilderingly impressive menu with over 200 gins, arranged by botanical, and various geographically organised gin flights. I tried several different gins before and after dinner, including Dorothy Parker gin, an old favourite of mine, and, in honour of the bro, Sibling gin from Cheltenham. My favourite, though, was the Bitter Truth Pink Gin, pictured below. Each gin is served with an appropriate garnish or two: pink grapefruit with the pink gin, natch, and they even served it with pink lemonade. Delicious! The Oliver Conquest is smallish but relaxed and friendly and a great place for juniper-based libations. 70 Leman Street, London, E1 8EU.

29 June 2015

Cambridge Day Trip: Hot Numbers II and a College Reunion

I don't have too many reasons to return to Cambridge, the town in which I studied and worked for a total of seven years, these days, but a reunion lunch in my college yesterday brought a number of my friends back into town. After weeks of sunshine, the heavens opened almost as soon as the train passed under the North Circular, and as I had a little time to spare before lunch, I sought shelter in Hot Numbers' second branch on Trumpington Street.

I visited the original Hot Numbers on Gwdir Street two summers ago and only recently discovered that they had opened up a new location, which also houses their roaster. Both cafés are located slightly south of the city centre, and they are both about 10 minutes' walk from the train station, although in opposite directions. The Trumpington Street branch, which opened last December, is smaller and although it was very busy, I managed to find a place to sit.

They were serving several espresso blends, and a caramelly, nutty filter variety that came, unusually enough, from Vietnam. If you like hand-brewed filter coffee, you are spoiled for choice at Hot Numbers, as they serve pourover, Aeropress and siphon methods, all for £2.50. I would have liked to try the siphon, but was in a bit of a hurry, so stuck to the Aeropress, which was flavoursome and full-bodied — the perfect complement to the grey, rainy morning. Local artworks adorn the walls and there is a friendly, buzzy vibe. The two Hot Numbers cafés are easily the best places to get a good coffee while you're in Cambridge — a town better known for its tea shops and chain restaurants.

After my coffee, I walked into the town centre and into my college. It was nice to catch up with friends and former course-mates, boat-mates and old acquaintances. Eventually, the sun came out and I walked along the backs, admiring the punting pile-ups on the River Cam.

I am more than slightly biased, but I still think my college is the most beautiful, with the almost-symmetrical 19th century New Court (new being a relative term in Cambridge), the pair of bridges over the Cam — Kitchen Bridge and its more famous sister, the Bridge of Sighs — and the red-brick buildings of First, Second and Third Court, the oldest parts of the college.

First years are housed in the apparently award-winning, brutalist 1960s concrete wing of the college, but I had nicer digs in my second and third years. My second-year room is one of the second-floor windows in the top photo. In my third year, my room was located right above the college's grand dining hall, two windows up and one along from the central arch in the second photo. Every time I return to Cambridge, and especially when I visit my old college, I remind myself how lucky I am to have spent so much time in such a beautiful place.

26 June 2015

The Caffeine Chronicles: Counter Café Review

It's a bit of a faff to get to Hackney from Bermondsey, and I often forget how lovely it is to amble along the canal there on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Last weekend, I went to a preview screening of The Overnight at the cinema at the Stratford Westfield, and afterwards, a quick search of the interwebs for a new café to try in the area took me to Counter Café in Hackney Wick, a quiet 20-minute walk from the mega-mall. Nice Carly Simon quote on the A-board too!

Counter is located within Stour Space, an airy art gallery and exhibition space in a red-brick, canal-side building. The weekend brunch menu looked rather epic — I'd already eaten, so I'll definitely have to visit again to try the eggs Benedict or the bacon sarnie with home-made relish, and egg and/or bacon (because why choose?).

Instead, I settled for a white chocolate and hazelnut cookie (£1.50) and a coffee. They roast their own coffee and sell bags of their Secret Stash and Sugar Daddy single-origin filter beans. There weren't any hand-brewed filter coffees on offer, so I ordered a flat white (£2.50) and went to take a seat outside. There are a number of canal-side tables on the pontoon out back and I managed to nab one by the canal, where I could watch the boats and bikes dawdle and whiz by, respectively.

The table I chose also seemed to be one of the wobbliest, and just seconds after taking a picture of my coffee, a rather energetic customer stomped by and some of the coffee spilled into the saucer. This happened again, leaving about as much coffee in the saucer, and the barista kindly offered to make me another. This time, I decided that a macchiato was safer and I was able to prevent any further spills. The coffee was very good: rich, smooth and chocolatey — I'm not sure which espresso blend they were serving, but it went perfectly with my cookie.

Counter also has some covered and indoor seating areas for those days when the weather isn't quite so summery, but wherever you sit, you will probably like the view. And you'll probably like the café; it's already on my list of favourites.

Counter Café. 7 Roach Road, London, E3 2PA (Hackney Wick Overground). Website. Twitter.

24 June 2015

Ho! For the West

If you can imagine a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set amid the sprawling, outlaw-ridden landscapes of the American West, John Maclean's accomplished new film Slow West is not far off. A sort of hybrid of True Grit (but with better weather) and pretty much any Sergio Leone film, Slow West features gorgeous, vibrant cinematography and strong central performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender.

As the film opens, Jay (Smit-McPhee), a Scottish teenager is lying on his back somewhere in the middle of the United States shooting stars — or at least pointing his pistol at them. After a bodged Mexican standoff — not the last in this film — he is rescued by Silas (Fassbender), a gruff outlaw of few words. "You need a chaperone and I'm a chaperone," Silas insists when he hears of Jay's plan to reach the west. There is, of course, a fee for such a service, and perhaps even the tempting $2,000 bounty that has been placed on Rose (Caren Pistorius), the love of Jay's life, whose flight with her father to America prompted Jay's own journey.

Jay and Silas make an unlikely double act, although perhaps not as unlikely as Mattie and Rooster in True Grit, and as they travel slowly west, they learn a little about each other, love and life. We also learn a little more about Jay's past and what brought him to this point, mainly through brief dreams and reveries of his life back in Scotland with Rose. Amid the almost-bonding, however, it becomes clear that Jay and Silas aren't the only ones interested in finding Rose, and the limits of Jay's faith and his love for her are soon put to the test.

Slow West clocks in at just 1h25, but although there are many action-packed scenes, it still feels like a slow-burner in places. But the chemistry between Fassbender and Smit-McPhee is great, as we watch them to build an understated relationship that is somewhere between father-son and friendship. By giving the audience, but not Jay, reason to mistrust Silas, Maclean is able to create an air of unease and tension. Fassbender is excellent throughout, but Smit-McPhee takes a little longer to ease into the role; he comes into his own during the final act, though.

There are some sadder, more reflective moments, some great fight scenes and a couple of scares, but there are also some good lines and more than a few laughs in Maclean's script. During the film's gruelling but immaculately choreographed finale, there are a couple of great visual metaphors, especially one involving a jar salt during a particularly tense and emotional scene. The beauty of the photography and the attention to detail in Slow West are also particularly impressive. The end sequence takes place in and around a small hut so pristine and attractively styled that it looks like it came right out of Ikea's summer catalogue. New Zealand was doubling for the US in the film, and it makes me want to visit the former even more.

22 June 2015

"This Is California, Maybe This Is What Their Dinner Parties Are Like"

Patrick Brice's new film The Overnight is the kind of movie I might not have paid to go to see, but I got a ticket to a free preview screening of the film yesterday morning and decided it was at least worth the trip to Stratford. There are some good lines in the script, but I felt that it didn't quite strike the right comic balance: it wasn't funny enough to be a comedy or serious enough to be a drama.

In some ways, The Overnight reminded me of Roman Polanski's Carnage — two couples are brought together by their children and spend a day in each other's company. Of course, in Carnage, everything goes all Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pretty quickly, whereas the plot takes a rather different turn in The Overnight, but both feel rather stagey, almost all of the action taking place in a single house. In Carnage, though, the fine acting performances elevated it for me, whereas two of the four central actors in Brice's film — Taylor Schilling and Jason Schwartzman — often irritate me on screen, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it less.

Emily (Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott) have just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle, and feel that they should start to make some friends. Their young son R.J. (R.J. Hermes) is invited to a birthday party where he meets a boy called Max (Max Moritt). Max's father Kurt (Schwartzman), the self-declared mayor of the neighbourhood, takes a shine to Alex and Emily and invites them over to his house for dinner that evening. They show up clutching R.J. and a bottle of wine, which, as they pass through the gates of the beautiful mansion, is far too cheap.

Inside, they meet Kurt's beautiful French wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), and as the four adults and two kids sit down to dinner, they all get on swimmingly. When the children start to grow sleepy, Alex and Emily say that it's time to go home, but Kurt suggests — insists, in fact — that they put the kids to bed upstairs and allow the adults to continue having fun downstairs. And that's when the evening takes a turn for the, er, unusual. Kurt — a rich and mysterious artist / water-filter salesman — brings out his bong, and the two couples begin to get to know each other better. "This is California, maybe this is what their dinner parties are like," Alex murmurs to his wife.

Perhaps better than Emily and Alex would have liked, as they are subjected to a rather questionable DVD of Charlotte's latest 'acting' experience and Kurt reveals his — surely rather niche — artwork. In fact, as well as getting to know the other couple better, Emily and Alex begin to learn things about each other, as secrets are revealed and insecurities and inhibitions are stripped away in a drugged-up, boozed-up haze. "I'm firing on cylinders I didn't even know I had," Alex says when Emily suggest that they make a getaway.

Brice's film is a based on an interesting premise, and it was, in places, quite amusing, although more darkly comic than rom-com. Its 1h20 length was also a blessing — I'm not sure I could have stomached more time in the company of any of them. Godrèche's performance was the most nuanced and her character the most interesting, whereas the others seemed to be playing the same characters they always play: the quirky egotist (Schwartzman), the self-absorbed whiner (Schilling) and the smart and wry but often insecure worrier (Scott). Maybe with stronger performances, The Overnight could have been more likeable, but I found it somewhat lacking in laughs and just the wrong side of uncomfortable.

18 June 2015

A Weekend in Wales

When I was younger, we used to go on family holidays to mid-Wales two or three times per year. As teenager, I resented being taken to the middle of nowhere to hike in the rain and wander through sleepy countryside villages, where there weren't enough shops or boys. It was only when we went back for a little family getaway last weekend that I realised I hadn't been in over 15 years. Mid-Wales hasn't changed much, but I have and we had a lovely time.

My brother, sister-in-law and I caught the train from London to Oxford on Friday evening, and my dad then drove us as far as Montgomery, a small, charming Welsh town near the English border, about 20 miles southwest of Shrewsbury. We made good time and with the long, mid-June day, we arrived just before sunset, and just in time for dinner at The Checkers, a chic restaurant with rooms run by a 'Frenchman and two farmer's daughters'. As it was the eve of World Gin Day, we started with a gin and tonic in the lounge, while we waited for our table. They serve several gins, but we decided to try the Brecon Botanicals — when in Wales, and all that — a fresh, citrusy gin.

Our dinner was exceptional. I've never been so excited about a soup before, but the garden pea velouté with bacon, quail's egg and mint (£9) was delicious: simultaneously fresh and creamy. The fillet of beef (£29) I had for my main course was also fantastic: the meat was perfectly rare, tender and juicy, nestled in creamed potato 'bath' and red wine jus. I didn't have room for a pudding, but somehow found a pistachio crème brûlée (£8) in front of me, and somehow made short work of it. The service was immaculate and if you're ever in this part of the world — and even if you aren't — you should really pay them a visit.

There was no room at The Checkers, so we stayed elsewhere and after a hearty breakfast, went to explore Montgomery Castle, a Norman castle dating to the 13th  century. The rain had set in, by then, so we didn't linger for too long, but we did enjoy the views over the town and the valley. From Montgomery, we headed west to the small town of Dolgellau (dol-geth-lee), 40 miles and about an hour's drive. We spent a lot of time in Dolgellau when I was younger and not much has changed. I did find one independent coffee shop, T.H. Roberts on Glyndwr Street, where the macchiato was rather better than I expected. Sadly, the milk bar was no more.

Between Dolgellau and the coast, the Afon Mawddach river broadens into an estuary — the small seaside towns of Barmouth and Fairbourne sit on opposing sides of its mouth. Barmouth has a lovely railway bridge, which offers moody, misty views over the town, the estuary and the surrounding mountains, such as Cadair Idris. We took a few photos and went into town to get some lunch.

There isn't a lot to do in Barmouth: a past-its-best fairground, a few fish-and-chip shops (one called Arousal Café...), some second-half bookshops and a particularly excellent homeware store on the high street called Pieces for Places (pictured below), which has a great selection of furniture, kitchenware and accessories. After lunch, we went to Shell Island, a large camping site on the beach in Llanbedr, a few miles north of Barmouth. Again, it is a little past its best, but you can't deny the beauty of the beaches and the views across the bay to Harlech. While we were there, there seemed to have been an jellfishocalypse — dozens of large jellyfish were washed up and dried out on the shore.

After checking into our B&B, the lovely Farchynys Farm, just outside the village of Bontddu (bon-thee), about halfway between Barmouth and Dolgellau, we went for a late dinner at Bwyty Mawddach, a restaurant just outside Llanelltyd, which has stunning floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views across the Cadair Idris mountain range. The sun had come out and although I've seen Cadair many times, I didn't recognise the view in he glorious sunshine. I felt like I had arrived in Yosemite. Dinner at Bwyty Mawddach was rather good.

We started with another Brecon Botanicals G&T on the outdoor patio, before heading inside for dinner. We all ordered the homemade tagliatelle with pork ragu (£8) to start, and my brother and I both followed with a steak and chips (£21). Our steaks were rather more on the well side than medium, but was still tasty, and the head waiter took one of them off the bill, without prompting. My pine-accented, custardy, toffee-apply pudding (£7.50). The views and the setting at Bwyty Mawddach are wonderful, but the food was good too and it's a lovely venue for a special meal.

In the morning, the sun was out again and so we went for a walk along the estuary, taking some photos in the gorgeous morning light and working up an appetite for the excellent full-English breakfast at Farchynys Farm. Various tame blue tits and woodpeckers came to eat their own breakfast while we filled up on ours.

Afterwards, we drove to Fairbourne to take some pictures of Barmouth Bridge from the other side, and then began the long, slow journey back to London. You can travel by train all the way from London Euston to Barmouth, with a change at Birmingham, but it takes about half a day and isn't cheap, and you will probably need a car at the other end anyway, so it's better to drive. There is plenty of hiking in the area, various other outdoor activities, great beaches and plenty of country pubs. Of course, it does rain a lot, but it's such a beautiful part of the world that you probably won't mind it too much.