19 April 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Cafe Viva Review

I had hoped to spend this sunny Easter Saturday in Brighton, but my plans were foiled by the ever useless BT Openreach failing to turn up promptly to fix my internets — or, indeed, at all. Although there wasn't time for me to head to the south coast, I could at least venture further into South London, more specifically to Cafe Viva, an independent coffee shop near Rye Lane.

I had tried to visit Cafe Viva last year but they were closed for a refurb. I'm glad I made it back, because the small but perfectly formed café was a particularly lovely place for a coffee break this afternoon. The tables are cheered with vases of bright daffodils and colourful local art adorns the walls.

In the absence of geeky brewing methods on the menu, I stuck to my standard macchiato (£2) and it arrived in a gorgeous vintage cup and saucer. This is probably the most stylish macchiato I've had all year! The coffee, which is from Volcano, was rich and smooth and made the perfect accompaniment to a slice of banana bread (£2.50).

Cafe Viva also serves sandwiches and light lunch options (between £3 and £5), which is worth remembering for times when I make it down to Peckham before tea time.

In the café, I picked up a hand-drawn map illustrating some of the many interesting shops and cafés that populate Bellenden Road and the adjoining roads (including Cafe Viva's home, Choumert Road). I popped into Quaint & Belle, a cute gift and home store, and Melange, a fancy chocolate shop, and made a mental note to return to Anderson & Co (another cute cafe) and The Begging Bowl (a Thai restaurant). Yes, it sure is a lovely corner of Peckham.

Cafe Viva. 44 Choumert Road, London, SE15 4SE (Peckham Rye Overground). Website. Twitter.

14 April 2014

The Caffeine Chronicles: Hej Coffee Review

The London Marathon meant that while I wasn't exactly trapped south of the river yesterday, but it was definitely easier to stay on the right side of the Thames. Luckily, it was a beautiful sunny day and I had a new purveyor of coffee to visit: Hej Coffee in Bermondsey Square. Hej, which, of course, is the Swedish for "hello" first appeared on my radar last September, when they ran a coffee cart on the square during the Bermondsey Street Festival, as Fika & Folly, their former identity.

Now, Hej's coffee shop and barista training academy is finally open in the green building in the corner of Bermondsey Square near Tower Bridge Road. Excluding Monmouth's Maltby Street outpost, Hej is now my closest independent coffee shop and it's a welcome new addition to Bermondsey.

Inside, the café is light and airy, and it's impossible to ignore the Scandi touches in the décor, including the moose on the wall, which has been upcycled from an old tractor. The big windows let in a lot of light and offer a gorgeous few of the blossom-filled trees in the churchyard and even of the Gherkin.

Hej are starting to serve food but it was a little early for lunch so I just ordered a macchiato and one of the "everything" cookies, which involved chocolate chips, pretzel, marshmallow, peanuts and all sorts of other goodies. The salted caramel blondies also looked amazing.

Although my macchiato was a little wet for a "dry" mac, the coffee was really good — smooth and rich. They get their beans from Sweden, naturligtvis, and they have the most beautiful purple espresso machine. I'd love to see an Aeropress or pourover on the menu too, but for now I'm more than happy with the macchiato. Oh, and it goes without saying that the cookie was awesome. The sweet treats are all around £2 and my skinny mac was £2.10.

Hej Coffee. 1 Bermondsey Square, London, SE1 3UN (Tube: Bermondsey or Borough). Website. Twitter.

10 April 2014

99 Bottles of Beer

It was my friend's birthday at the weekend and he organised a trip to the Meantime Brewery, just down the river in Greenwich. I've never been much of a beer drinker but the former tourist information officer in me is a sucker for a good tour, so of course I went along.

Although Meantime's Old Brewery, which serves food and — funnily enough — beer, is in the town centre, the brewery and visitor centre is a short walk towards North Greenwich. We rocked up just before noon and were taken upstairs to the tasting room, whose walls were lined with hundreds of beer bottles and pint glasses.

I had assumed that we would do the tour first and then the tasting, but instead we were introduced to our guide for the tasting and took a seat. Now, anyone expecting a more traditional approach to a beer tasting would probably be a little disappointed because our guide took a more hands-on approach. Quite literally, in fact. The ratio of facts about brewing and Meantime's history to jokes, banter and innuendo was probably about 30:70, but it was all good fun.

We got to try third-pint samples of five different beers. I took a few sips of each and I can safely say that they all tasted like beer and thus I didn't like them. I could taste the differences between them, but there wasn't any one that I liked more than the others. My friends were pleased to drink my leftovers, especially the birthday boy who, along with the two stags present in other groups, was offered a full pint in addition to the samples. I did quite like the different malts that were on the table for us to taste. I tried my best to get my money's worth!

After the tasting, we went with our second guide down into the factory, after a brief health and safety warning ("if you see a dripping liquid, don't touch it and lick your finger" — yes, apparently people do need to be told this) where we found out a lot more about the brewing process.

My favourite part was the packaging and labelling at the end, although sadly, we didn't get to label our own bottle. The tour lasted about 2h30 and costs £15 (including the beer samples), which I think is good value. You can book tours here.

Afterwards, we walked back into Greenwich for — you guessed it! — more beer at the Old Brewery. I just had a fishfinger burger, which was really tasty. The sun was shining and it was a lovely afternoon.

Then we caught the Thames Clipper back down to London Bridge to continue the birthday festivities. By then, the weather was starting to turn, but I always like travelling by boat and it was nice to pass through Bermondsey and under Tower Bridge.

Meantime Brewery & Visitor Centre. Lawrence Trading Estate, Blackwall Lane, London, SE10 0AR (Tube: North Greenwich). Website.

8 April 2014

"It's About Concrete"

I will watch just about any Tom Hardy film (ah hem, This Means War) — even a film about concrete that takes place almost exclusively in a car on the M6. Yes, really. I went to a preview screening of Locke last night and had time for only a cursory glance at IMDb, which somehow gave me the impression that it was some sort of crime thriller. The director's name — Steven Knight — should have given me a clue; Knight is best known for writing Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Suffice to say, Locke isn't a crime thriller, but it's the kind of film that is most effective when you know very little about it, so although I won't spoil much, look away now if you want to watch the film fresh.

As Locke opens, a man gets into his car and heads for the motorway. Via an almost constant stream of phone calls to his BMW-integrated mobile, we learn that he is a successful construction manager named Ivan Locke and that he is driving from Birmingham to London to be present at the birth of his child. The complication is that the baby's mother, Bethan (Olivia Colman), is not his wife. This decision will have ramifications for all aspects of Ivan's life — his job, his life with his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and sons, and his demons with his now-dead father.

But Ivan remains calm, offering rational instructions to Bethan, and to his colleagues: his deputy, Donal (Andrew "Moriarty" Scott), and his boss Gareth (Ben "House of Cards" Daniels). Ivan is supposed to be preparing for and overseeing a big concrete "pour" on one of their big building projects, which will take place in the early hours of the morning. If it goes wrong, it will cost the company hundreds of millions, and both Donal and Gareth are baffled by the reckless behaviour of Ivan, who is normally a model employee.

Ivan's "practical next steps" don't go down so well with Bethan, however. Funnily enough, women in labour don't like to be told things like: "That's a question you're asking because of the pain or something. How could I love you?" When Ivan is forced to break the news about Bethan and the baby to Katrina, she isn't too pleased either and somehow the fact that Bethan is "quite old. She's 43 or something" doesn't help. Ivan is blunt, honest and rational, but so driven by the goal of fixing all of the problems that have suddenly arisen in his life, that he lacks the social intelligence to help Bethan and Katrina, even if it means telling a white lie or two. He keeps driving, though, addressing, at several points, the ghost of his father. It is at these moments that Hardy's thick Welsh accent verges on hammy.

He also seems to have a cold and is clearly exhausted and distracted, taking his eye off the road to think or to look up a phone number to give to Donal to help to save the pour. Given the busy motorway, the viewer is left on edge, convinced that disaster will strike — with so many fires for Ivan to fight, how can it not? Really, though, he just drives towards the inevitable, trying to do the right thing in a bad situation and not to make the same mistakes as his father. Ivan's surname is hardly coincidental, of course, even if this isn't a film about 17th century philosophers. I also noticed that the beginning of his registration plate read "ADIO" — a corruption of addio or adios (the Italian and Spanish for "farewell"), perhaps?

Locke is only 85 minutes long and it takes place in real time, which leaves you feeling that you've just braved the M6 yourself. It's interesting because a lot happens and nothing happens, depending on how you look at it; some may find it unsatisfying, but I enjoyed it; as much as you can enjoy the snapshot of a man in crisis, anyway.

Knight's film a tense thriller, but not a typical thriller; it is tautly plotted and with a masterful performance from Hardy, who manages to portray Ivan as both frustrating in his determination to be truthful and logical, and yet still somehow sympathetic. And Hardy has to be good, really, because the other cast members are heard and not seen. Wilson and especially Colman do a good job as Ivan's women, though, and Scott is fun as Ivan's beleaguered underling.

6 April 2014

London Coffee Festival 2014

I missed last year's London Coffee Festival as I was getting closer to the source in Costa Rica, so I was very much looking forward to the 2014 LCF, especially after a small taster at SPIN x LCF. I booked a ticket in today's brunch session (10 am to 1 pm), which turned out to be a good call, given the length of the queue outside The Old Truman Brewery for the 1 pm session.

I didn't have much time to read up on the event and much as I like tasting coffee from new cafés or roasters, I was wondering if I would reach caffeine saturation too quickly and run out of things to do. I shouldn't have worried because the LCF was very interactive, with plenty to hold the interest of the discerning coffee drinker. I paid £18.75 for my ticket, which included the booking fee, a copy of the 2014 edition of the London Coffee Guide, a goodie-filled LCF tote bag, and a donation to clean-water charities, and most of the stands were offering free samples — in exchange for a voluntary donation to charity.

While I got my bearings, I stopped by La Cimbali for a macchiato. They have some seriously stylish coffee kit, including a grinder with a bluetooth connection to the espresso machine, for optimum coffee geekery.

I then made my way to the Volcano Coffee Works stand. Volcano is based in south-east London (yay!) and they supply my office local, Drink, Shop & Dash, with their excellent coffee. At the LCF, Volcano were letting people have a go at making their own drink. It's been a long time since I last made a macchiato on a professional machine, and the espresso machines at the sandwich shop I worked in back in the early 2000s was nowhere near as nice as the beautiful, shiny Rocket machine I got to play with today. I think I did a decent job (you can see it brewing in the second photo below), although my macchiato art needs a lot of practice.

As I headed out from the "Hyde Park" section to "Soho," the offer of a "coffee slammer" stopped me in my tracks (I think the La Marzocco crew were behind this). This was awesome: chopped hazelnuts replaced the salt lick, then a quick shot of espresso, followed by a spoonful of chocolate-hazelnut spread. Delicious. A raspberry and popping candy version was also available.

There was a lot of cool merchandise for sale, including limited-edition glass versions of the KeepCup. Even though I have way too many coffee receptacles, I was tempted by the pink one, but they didn't have it in the small size.

Make Decent Coffee were also demonstrating and selling cool coffee kit, including the V60 dripper and the Aeropress. I am thinking of buying a dripper at some point, but I think the Kalita Wave is the most stylish version and no one at the LCF seemed to be selling it. Phew, say my Aeropresses!

Union Hand-Roasted Coffee organised a number of activities. First, I tried my hand at the timed coffee-tasting competition, where you got to try four sets of three coffees, identifying the odd one out each time. Unfortunately, I had already had quite a lot of coffee when I started and I don't think my palate was at its best. It was good fun though. Later, I listened to one of their roasters talk about the art and science of coffee roasting, which was a geekier version of the demonstration I got at the coffee plantation I visited in Costa Rica.

The Make Decent Coffee folks encouraged me to stop by the Orang Utan Coffee stand. I tried a sample of their Sumatran coffee, which was very good: light, floral and refreshing (perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up). The Orang Utan Coffee Project is dedicated to helping Sumatran farmers manage coffee plantations that produce great coffee without destroying the rainforests in which orang utans make their home. It's great to know that as well as drinking a good cup of coffee, you are supporting a worthwhile sustainability initiative. I would have bought some beans but have a surfeit at home; they will be selling them online from the end of this month, though.

The finals of the UK Barista Championship were taking place today and I stopped by to watch one of the finalists, Estelle Bright, as she produced the required drinks — four espressos, four cappuccinos and four espresso-based speciality drinks — in under 15 minutes. It was really impressive to watch her work calmly under pressure, even with a big audience, and talking through what she was doing. And bonus points for coordinating the cups with her hair!

Finally, I took a look at the Coffee Art Project, where various coffee-themed pieces of art were on display. This piece reminded me of my desk at work on many an under-caffeinated morning.

The LCF was a great way to spend a morning. I learned a lot and got to try some great coffees, and to sample chocolates and various other coffee-associated products. I would definitely recommend next year's event to any coffee aficionado or anyone who wants to learn a little more about their favourite caffeinated beverage. If you can get to one of the morning sessions, it will probably be slightly less busy and easier to navigate.

4 April 2014

Tokyo via Copenhagen

Last night, I had planned to go with a couple of friends to the Earlham Street Clubhouse for some '90s TV- and film-themed cocktails and pizzas. They told me I couldn't book for only three people, but I assumed that if we got there at 6.30, we might have to wait for just half an hour or so. In fact, there weren't any tables free, which would have been fine if there was a wait-list, some indication of how long the wait might be, or if any of the staff showed any interest in helping us to get a table ("we aren't a restaurant," one of them said when I asked why there wasn't a waiting list).

Instead, we walked down to Maiden Lane and after finding that the new branch of The Big Easy was, unsurprisingly, full, we headed hopefully into Sticks 'n' Sushi, a wonderful Japanese-Danish hybrid I've been wanting to try for a while. Contrary to the poor service we'd received earlier, the Sticks 'n' Sushi crew couldn't have been more accommodating, helping us to set up a table for the three of us near the bar.

As you might expect for a place that marries Scandinavian and Japanese culture, it was very stylish inside: all sleek, minimalist wood and dark interiors.

The menus are a little overwhelming and come with helpful pictures of the numerous, beautifully presented combinations of sushi and yakitori on offer. While we mulled over the food options, I ordered a Kamahi cocktail with sochu, mint, cucumber and elderflower, which was refreshing and delicious.

In the end, we all decided to share the Four Wheel Drive combo, which, for £69.50, was more than enough food for the three of us. The platter, when it arrived, spanned most of the length of our small table, and contained salmon, tuna and shrimp ngiri, various varieties of inside-out rolls, and some inari.

I hadn't tried inari (in the bottom-right of the two photos above) before, but they are essentially rice wrapped in a slightly sweet fried tofu. I don't normally like tofu, but it was really good — I'm glad I followed our waitress's advice by eating it last. In fact, all of the food tasted very fresh and the quality was great.

I wasn't expecting the dessert menu to be that great — I'm not really into Japanese puddings — but when I saw it, I was sorry that I was already way too full, because the various chocolate and caramel fondants, and four-piece dessert 'tasters' looked really good. Next time. I know I always say that, but they did look amazing.

Sticks 'n' Sushi. 11 Henrietta Street, London, WC2E 8PY (Tube: Covent Garden). Website. Twitter.

31 March 2014

Blind Gin Tasting at The London Gin Club

Somehow, I've made it this far without paying a visit to The London Gin Club, a temple devoted to the worship of the juniper berry in The Star at Night pub, just steps from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street. This weekend, though, a fellow gin fan was in town and it seemed like the perfect time for some reverence.

Inside, the bar has a cosy, vintage feel with low lighting and retro signage on the walls. It was lucky we booked a table, because it was already full at 6.30 on a Friday night.

At any one time, The London Gin Club has several different tasting menu options, two of which tell you in advance which four gins you will be sampling. However, in the country of the juniper, the blind gin tasting flights are king, and so we both ordered the four-gin blind tasting, which was £26 (LGC members get a small discount). There were, I think, gin cocktails and single G and Ts on the menu but we didn't get that far.

The waitress brought over our eight small numbered vials of gin, a couple of bottles of Fever Tree tonic and an assortment of garnishes. We also got our first two glasses and were encouraged to smell the gin and taste it neat before adding tonic and the garnish we thought was most appropriate.

I had a fair bit of gin-tasting practice during Dry Ginuary, but I'm not sure how successful I was at the blind tasting. I could definitely taste differences between the four gins, but I wasn't very good at describing the flavours (beyond "junipery" and "citrusy").

I had hoped that at the end we would get a nice printed "answer sheet" listing the gins we tried and the tasting notes, but instead the wait staff just scribbled the names down on a sheet of paper. Less ceremonious, but still useful. We both agreed that our favourite was the number three, which was the G'Vine Floraison gin, which was clean, fruity and very drinkable. My second favourite was number two, the Geranium Gin that had turned up in Ginvent, followed by Hayman's 1850. Number four, Elemental Cornish Gin, was my least favourite: it tasted too harsh and bitter for my liking.

The blind tasting was great fun and I highly recommend it. I'm pleased to have discovered the G'Vine, for instance. When I go again, I will peruse the menu and select a couple of gins I would really like to try instead. Four G and Ts is also quite a lot to drink in 90 minutes, even with a few nibbles (the antipasti plate of meats, olives and a tiny amount of bread was reasonable value at £8). The only minor problem with our evening was that the vintage clock on the wall was actually 15 minutes slow, which meant we had to rush to finish our last G and T before yielding our table to the next guests, which was a bit annoying. Next time (and there will be a next time), I'll check the time on my own phone. Time flies when you're having gin!

The London Gin Club. 22 Great Chapel Street, London, W1F 8FR (Tube: Tottenham Court Road). Website. Twitter.