28 August 2015

The Burger Bulletin: National Burger Day with Mr Hyde

Caution: the following content may not be suitable for vegetarians!

If you spend even a modest amount of time on social networking sites, it probably feels like almost every day is #NationalSomethingDay, and while I might roll my eyes at many of these tenuous celebrations, yesterday's #NationalBurgerDay is a different matter. Mr Hyde, the UK-based daily email for men and those interested in meat, music and men's fashion, has co-opted the hashtag for several years. They usually arrange a 20% discount for Mr Hyde readers on the day at a whole host of different burger restaurants, which I have taken advantage of before.

This year was the first year I went to the National Burger Day party, which was held in conjunction with Big Eater at Dalston Yard. The event cost £15, burgers not included (a shame), although you did get a free lager, pickleback and chilliback. Dalston Yard — home to Street Feast — is a large, open-plan, warehouse-style space near Dalston Junction. It's mainly undercover, although there are a few areas exposed to the elements. Luckily, the rain held off for the most part last night.

Twenty different burger vendors and restaurants each offered their own special burger du jour. The menu card helpfully listed the weight of the burger as well as the price so that you could try to gauge your appetite. Most of the burgers were smaller than usual, which meant you could try a few. Attendees were advised to eat a light lunch to save room for as many delicious burgery offerings as possible. In my case, this may have backfired because the first two burger joints I targetted had crazy queues.

My first burger of the night was Lucky Chip's Donald Trump Burger (£6), which came with a bourbon and vanilla BBQ sauce, bacon, grilled onions, American cheese and pickles. I've wanted to visit Lucky Chip for some time but am rarely in Stokey, where they are based; also, I love a good political gimmick. The burger was bloody good, actually, and although the 20-minute wait was a bit annoying, especially when my brother and sister-in-law only had to wait a few minutes for their first burgers, it was definitely worth it. The burger was juicy and flavoursome, and the BBQ sauce was top notch. The team also had a pretty good production line going too.

When the three of us parted ways to find our next burgers, I said, naively, that at least I had got the biggest queue out of the way. Not quite. It took me five minutes to find the end of the queue for Burger Bear and when I did, I figured that I would probably be there for about 30 minutes. Unfortunately, it took about an hour to get to the counter to pay, only to find that I had to then queue again and wait for my number to be called, which took another 20 minutes. One of their two grills had broken, I found out later, and the other had lost one of its four burners. I must have picked exactly the wrong moment in the evening to queue, because later on, things looked more under control.

Anyway, when I finally got my Super Angry Grizzly burger (£6), I was, if not super-angry then at least super-hungry and wolfed down the burger in no time at all. To be honest, even I don't think any burger is worth an 80-minute queue and my grumpiness probably did impact my enjoyment of the burger. That said, it tasted marvellous. The patty was dripping with juices, and the cheese, smoked pancetta, pickled jalapeño relish and Holy Fuck bacon jam all worked wonderfully together. I guess it says a lot that in a room filled with some of London's top burgers, people were willing to wait for over hour for Burger Bear's when they could have had almost instant gratification from other vendors.

I didn't think I could manage a third burger, but my brother and sister-in-law both spoke highly of PYT Burger's Pickleback Slider (£5). Philly-based PYT is the self-proclaimed "Home of America's Craaaziest Burgers"; no one could tell me what PYT stood for, but that didn't matter. Their petite NBD burger came with applewood bacon, fried pickle chips and a Jameson glaze. I'm not normally a of pickles on burgers but these crispy ones added an interesting texture to the burger and contrasted nicely with the glaze.

I didn't have room but there was even a vendor selling burger-shaped cupcakes, which looked awesome. I did enjoy the chilliback (shot of tequila followed by a shot of chilli pickle juice) while looking down on burger fans below (most of whom were probably queuing for Burger Bear) and then the Jameson Pickleback.

It was extremely busy at the National Burger Day party but there was a nice atmosphere and it was a great way to try out burgers from a number of different vendors. Many of my old favourites like Honest Burgers and Bleecker Street were there too, but I tried to focus on new-to-me burger purveyors. It would be better still if more of the offerings were slider-size (and slightly cheaper) so that I could try even more varieties. If you live in London, you probably have access to most of these burgers year-round, which makes the NBD party's £15 entry fee seem pretty steep, but it was an enjoyable, sociable night and a must for any burger fan within easy reach of Dalston.

26 August 2015

"I'm Not Going To Sit Here and Get Comfortable Watching You Die"

If you can imagine a funnier, big-screen version of Dawson's Creek but where one of the main characters has cancer, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's new film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn't far off. OK, so the movie isn't that similar but like my younger self's favourite TV show, it does centre around a teenage male protagonist who loves films but is struggling with both self-doubt and narcissism. There's even a scene where Greg climbs through the bedroom window of the female member of the central trio.

The teen in question is Greg (Thomas Mann), whose oh-so-meta narrations frame the movie. He gives us an almost anthropological tour of the different tribes at his high school — reminiscent of Mean Girls — and tells us proudly how by maintaining a low-level friendship with all of them, he doesn't have to commit and becomes socially invisible. His closest companion is Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he has known since childhood but whom he describes as his 'co-worker' rather than his friend. They make short movies together: mainly remakes of classic movies with clever titles, such as A Sockwork Orange and Grumpy Cul-De-Sacs. Earl is not too far off a Pacey to Greg's Dawson: he takes himself less seriously and is generally more fun and thoughtful.

Greg is relatively happy in his solitary existence until his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go to visit one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Greg doesn't know Rachel very well and thinks she would find it weird for him to visit her, but in the end, he gives in and is promptly greeted by Rachel's over-friendly mother (Molly Shannon), who must be an homage to Stifler's Mom in American Pie. Rachel is suspicious and unimpressed by Greg's visit, but they talk a bit and begin to hang out. Sometimes he offends her — intentionally or otherwise — and sometimes he makes her laugh.

If this were a standard rom-com, Greg tells us, this would be where he and Rachel start falling for each other, but he assures us that it isn't. Instead, he continues to go about his regular life, applying for college after immense pressure from his mother and tenured-anthropology-professor/stay-at-home-dad (Nick Offerman), and trying to remain invisible.

To say more about the plot would spoil the ending, but the plot isn't really the point here, so much as friendship and self-discovery. I really enjoyed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It's funny and quirky and although its central character is sometimes obnoxious and infuriating, the film isn't. It is also touching and more than a little sad without being mawkish. Cooke's performance really stands out among the young cast, although Cyler's Earl is hilarious and down-to-earth — the perfect complement to Mann's Greg. Offerman is, as ever, great in his supporting role, as is Jon Bernthal as Greg and Earl's history teacher, Mr McCarthy, in whose office the boys spend their lunch breaks watching Werner Herzog and eating pho.

It goes without saying that Gomez-Rejon's film is also a great movie for movie-lovers: there are many great quips and references, and some of Greg and Earl's remakes need a separate screening! I saw a preview as part of Odeon's Screen Unseen series, where the film is kept secret until the screening begins, save for a few cryptic clues on Twitter; it goes on general release in the UK on 4 September.

24 August 2015

Brunch at Milk, Balham

In an effort to use up some annual leave, I booked the day off work on Friday. My plan was to go for a run, go for brunch and then chill out. The day ended up becoming a lot busier than that but I did at least complete the first two objectives. My brunch destination was Milk (formerly known as M1LK) in Balham, which I've been wanting to visit for a while. I don't often end up going that far south and I had heard rumours of huge queues for the café's weekend brunch, so I thought a weekday — even a sunny Friday in the summer holidays — might be a better bet.

Milk occupies a bright, airy space on the corner of Bedford Hill and the lovely pedestrianised Hildreth Street, which is also the home of a branch of Blackbird Bakery and Brickwood. All of the outdoor seats at Milk were taken when I arrived just before noon, but I found a seat inside near the counter. It was pretty busy but no one had to wait very long for a table. The décor is very rustic-chic, with exposed-brick walls, tables that wouldn't be out of place in a Scandinavian farmhouse kitchen, and a gorgeous white-accented Spirit Triplette espresso machine.

It was too warm a day for a black filter coffee, so I ordered a piccolo (£2.50) instead, which meant I got to test out the Spirit — well, the barista did; I just drank the end result. The coffee was an espresso favourite of mine (and of many others), Workshop's Cult of Done, whose rich, chocolatey taste works well in a piccolo. My piccolo was well prepared, with rather good latte art on top, and tasted great. I almost ordered a filter coffee anyway to try the single-origin Koppi coffee from Sweden, or one of the gorgeous-looking smoothies, served in milk bottles, but I had several other coffee dates that day and didn't want to peak too soon.

The menu offers everything you could want from a brunch menu and more. I was seriously tempted by the fillet o' fish sandwich and the Sweet Maria (sweetcorn fritters with all sorts of awesomeness), but I saw someone else's Young Betty and knew I had to order the dish, which included poached eggs on Brixton sourdough with burnt butter hollandaise sauce and dry-cure bacon (£8.50). You can ditch the bacon or swap it for salmon or buttered spinach, but my perfect brunch always involves bacon.

The food was delicious, beautifully presented and just about the right size for an early brunch. The bacon and the sourdough were both good, but it was the brown butter hollandaise sauce on the poached eggs that really won me over. The sauce was creamy and with an excellent depth of flavour. Needless to say, Young Betty didn't last very long!

Milk is a great place for a coffee, relaxed brunch and now even for dinner. The staff are friendly and the food and coffee make it well worth the trip down the Northern Line. They don't take bookings, so do go early if you don't want to face a long wait at the weekend.

Milk. 18–20 Bedford Hill, Balham, London, SW12 9RG (Tube: Balham). Website. Twitter.

21 August 2015

Teenage Kicks and Joy Division

This week I saw two coming-of-age movies, both set in San Francisco, and although completely different in genre, mood and scope, they do share certain thematic similarities. They both get thumbs-up from me too.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller's directorial début, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name, opens boldly with a dear-dictaphone-diary entry from our 15-year-old heroine Minnie (Bel Powley): "I had sex today. Holy shit!" It is the 1970s and Minnie is just starting to understand who she is and who she wants to be — and the power that she is starting to exert over the opposite sex. Desperate to lose her virginity, she pursues a relationship with her mother's (Kristen Wiig) mustached, layabout boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is some 20 years her senior and who, intentionally or otherwise, has shown signs of interest. "I didn't want to pass up the chance because I may not get another," she confides.

Minnie wants to be an artist and spends her free time drawing often rather graphic pictures in Indian ink and hanging out with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters). Her mother, Charlotte, is image obsessed and not entirely helpful as a role model, hosting drunken parties where the adults get high and lewd. Perhaps this is why Minnie never seems very guilty about her affair with Monroe; instead, she is determined to maximise her own enjoyment of the relationship, which is an empowering sentiment, even if Monroe is a sometimes sweet but ultimately weak and unworthy recipient of her affections.

Not much else really happens in the film, but Powley's excellent portrayal of a talented and sensitive teenage girl's efforts to find love — and herself — elevate what could have been a mawkish and hackneyed story into something more interesting. The adult characters were a little more two-dimensional, although Wiig does manage to convey some degree of personal growth in Charlotte, and Skarsgård's Monroe has a necessary ambiguity. The Diary of a Teenage Film is a thoughtful film that is, by turns, sassy and sweet, and I would definitely recommend it.

Like Minnie, the heroine of the latest Pixar movie, Inside Out, is also having something of a crisis. Eleven-year-old Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have just uprooted her from Minnesota to San Francisco and the once joyful girl turns promptly into a sullen, tearful tween. But although Riley is the protagonist, the film's real stars are Riley's emotions: principally, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), but also Disgust, Fear and Anger, whom we see running the show in terms of how Riley acts and reacts from 'control centre'.

Memory snapshot in the film are portrayed as balls that change colour depending on which emotion has dominated the moment, and at the end of the day, while Riley sleeps, they may play a part in that night's dreams or be sent down to 'long-term storage'. Joy is usually Riley's dominant emotion and she runs a tight ship, but after the San Francisco move, Sadness starts to intrude, touching joyful memories and tarnishing them with sadness. Even Riley's 'islands of personality', which are activated whenever an activity triggers something fundamentally Riley-like about our heroine — family, friendship, zaniness and hockey, for instance — start to malfunction. Then, disaster strikes when Joy and Sadness are transported out of control centre to other parts of Riley's mind/brain, leaving the other three emotions to try — unsuccessfully — to keep things in hand.  Much of the rest of the film is spent watching Joy and Sadness try to make their way back to save 'their girl' from herself, but will Riley ever be the same again?

I work in science communication and neuroscience can be complicated to explain at a level appropriate for non-scientists and especially children, but I thought directors Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen did a great job at simplifying concepts from memory and dreams, to emotions and even earworms. A colleague of mine wrote a great review of some of the neuroscience and psychology that underlie the film. Inside Out is joyful to watch, although, of course, with moments of sadness if not, for me at least, disgust, anger or fear. To be honest, I could watch 'Amy Poehler reacting to stuff' for at least 90 minutes without much of a plot, but Inside Out is clever, touching and downright hilarious. Fun and science for all the family!

19 August 2015

Exploring Netil Market

A few years ago, I headed east to Hackney in search of the Designers/Makers Market, an ill-fated journey as it turned out that they weren't holding it that Saturday (it now seems to have found a pop-up spot at Spitalfields). I did come across a small food and vintage market nearby, however, which could well have been on the same site that now hosts Netil Market.

I love to have a wander around a new (or new-to-me) market on a Saturday afternoon, so I hopped on the bus to Shoreditch and then walked along the canal to Hackney. Netil Market is located in a small yard near the railway arches on Westgate Street, near the south side of London Fields and just around the corner from the lovely, bustling Broadway Market. I had heard on the social media grapevine that Netil Market combines food and drink, with vintage and design-oriented shopping. My kind of market, in other words.

It was smaller than I was expecting: just a handful of wooden shacks serving the food and drink, and a few more and some market stalls for the shopping. It was early afternoon by the time I arrived — way past brunch o'clock — so I headed straight for the food. I had a quick scan of the options and then made a beeline for Bao. I've been wanting to try Bao's Taiwanese buns (the eponymous baos) for some time, and although I was tempted to have one of each of the fried chicken and the classic pork baos, I just went for the latter to save room for other comestibles. With hindsight, I should have done the double because the pork bao (generously stuffed with braised pork, pickles, peanuts and coriander) was bloomin' marvellous, and only £3.50. The pork was juicy and the flavour combinations were most excellent. No wonder there was a big queue!

Other food choices included Pizzas Don't Cry, which stakes a possible claim as the world's smallest pizzeria (the sourdough pizzas looked ace, but one bao in didn't leave me with enough room to try one); Morty & Bob's, which serves grilled cheese sarnies and bloody marys; and the Gamby Shack, which offers Afro-Caribbean soul food. All of this had to be savoured for another visit, but I did finally get to sample a macchiato from Terrone, an Italian coffee producer and Netil Market resident. It's been way too long since I had a coffee roasted in Italy and produced, made and served by Italians, but my macchiato was worth the wait. If the sun is already over the yardarm (or even if it isn't), Terrone also serves cocktails.

Then it was time for some shopping. Actually, I ended up window-shopping as I'm on a bit of budget prior to my next overseas excursion, but when all of the goods are so beautiful and lovingly curated, it was a pleasure just to look. My favourite stall was Hopscotch, where every object was beautiful — and most were useful too. They sell candles, stationery, vintage cards, ceramics and much more. Rebecca Gladstone's delicate silver and golden jewellery is also lovely and exactly my style.

 There are also lovely cards from Barney and Claude, teeny terraria from Arma Glass, and some really fab vintage pieces.

Despite being full, I found myself ordering a slice of orange and lavender cake from Victoria Yum, which was very good. On a warm but not especially sunny Saturday afternoon, there was a lovely atmosphere at Netil Market. The vendors were all very friendly and happy to talk about their wares, and although there isn't a huge amount of seating areas, there is just enough space to sit and enjoy your food and drink. If you haven't been yet, check them out on Saturdays from 11–6 pm.

Netil Market. 13–23 Westgate Street, London, E8 3RL (Cambridge Heath rail). Website. Twitter.

18 August 2015

"The Bad Things, They Can Be a Gift"

I have tried to avoid spoilers in this review, but if you're curious about the ending of The Gift, check out The AV Club's take, which, as an added bonus, has plenty of hilarious Arrested Development references in the comment threads.

I wouldn't say that the PeckhamPlex on a Saturday nigh was the ideal setting to watch Joel Edgerton's smart, tense thriller, The Gift. Almost all of the Wittertainment Code of Conduct rules had been breached within the first couple of minutes and apart from a particularly tense couple of scenes in the middle, most of the audience talked pretty much the whole way through. Still, you can't really complain when your ticket costs a third of the price of some West End cinemas, can you?

As The Gift opens, a young married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), move into a gorgeous new house in an affluent suburban neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Ostensibly, they have relocated from Chicago because Simon, who works in computer security, has just been offered a great new job. We soon learn, however, that there may be other reasons why the couple is seeking a fresh start and why Robyn has left her high-powered consultancy job to freelance.

Their new home is not far from where Simon grew up and, while shopping for furniture, they run into someone from Simon's past — a rather unsettling guy named Gordon (Edgerton), who says he went to high school with Simon but whom Simon seems to struggle to place. They have an awkward conversation, Simon takes Gordon's number and they part ways. Later, Simon explains to his wife that he and Gordon weren't friends; Gordon was an outsider at the school, and given the creative nickname of 'Gordo the Weirdo' by his bullies.

Before long, though, gifts start showing up outside Simon and Robyn's house, with signature red bows on top and hand-written, smiley-punctuated notes from Gordon. Sometimes, Gordo comes to present them himself, usually during the day when he knows Simon will be at work and Robyn at home alone. This results in an awkward and way too long dinner-for-three at their house, one night, and a weird evening that soon becomes scary for Simon and Robyn when Gordon insists on returning the favour.

So far, so standard thriller. However, the constant subtle shifts and changes of perspective elevate Edgerton's film into something more interesting. We learn more about Simon and Robyn's relationship and a little of what has happened back in Chicago and before. We also see Simon's ambition in the workplace as he angles for a big promotion. It soon becomes clear that our initial assumptions about the role of each character in this film may have been completely mistaken.

Edgerton's film is suspenseful, tightly edited and great fun. There are a few some great scares — which managed to quieten even the PeckhamPlex audience for a few minutes — but better still is the constant air of unease. It's a hugely uncomfortable film but in a good way, and it's just a shame that the ending goes some way to ruin that uneasy moral ambiguity that has been accruing nicely throughout the film.

Edgerton and Hall both put in good performances in their respective roles, but it's Bateman who surprises and delights. I thought Bateman was great on Arrested Development (and Juno) but several seasons of the show have conditioned me to always think of his characters as the archetypal nice guys. It's to his credit, therefore, that he is able to pull off this darker role where we only gradually begin to realise that he may not be the perfect guy we initially thought.

The Gift isn't perfect but it's an impressive and entertaining directorial debut from Edgerton with good acting and a thoughtful, thought-provoking script. If you're looking for a film to keep you on the edge of your cinema seat, this is it.

14 August 2015

King's Cross Food and Drink Guide

It's been more than three years since I last put together a guide to food and drink options in the King's Cross area. Back then, there were a few interesting places, if you knew where to look, but no great coffee, burgers or pizza, and little in the way of fine dining. Thankfully, the area has since become a foodie hub with exciting new openings almost every month. As such, I thought it was time to make an updated area guide; scroll to the end for the Google Map version.

Where to go in King's Cross for...

...a quick breakfast
Aux Pains de Papy. A traditional, family-run French bakery that serves the best pastries in King's Cross. The almond pain au chocolat is particularly divine: it's flaky and rich, and saves you from having to make the difficult choice between a pain au chocolat and an almond croissant.

Aux Pains de Papy is located at 79 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8EB.

Notes. For years, I mourned the absence of a decent coffee shop in King's Cross, but now I am spoiled for choice. Notes, on Pancras Square, is my favourite, with its excellent espresso blends and cold brew, and lovely café. If you're taking away, I would also recommend DASH on Caledonian Road, and if you want a hand-brewed filter coffee, head to Caravan.  My review.

Notes is located at 1 Pancras Square, London, N1C 4AG.

Caravan. The only problem with Caravan's brunch menu is that they only serve it at weekends, which means I don't get to eat it too often. You can't really go wrong when ordering but my favourite dish is the cornbread French toast with bacon, rocket and avocado. If you're in the mood for something sweet, try the pumpkin waffle with ricotta, maple and pecans. You can also sample the salted-caramel hot chocolate or the excellent coffee, which is roasted on-site. Granger & Co, on Pancras Square, also does a top-notch brunch, although it's a little more expensive.

Caravan is located at Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London, N1C 4AA.

...when you can't decide what you want
KERB. The nomadic street-food market formerly known as eat.st was one of the first exciting foodie venues to come to King's Cross. The market has rebranded as KERB, grown and relocated to Cubitt Square, just behind Granary Square. Most days, five or six different street-food vans come along for lunchtime serving everything from poke and fried chicken, to summer rolls and fish and chips. There are benches, fountains and grassy areas on Cubitt Square, where you can enjoy your lunch on a nice day. KERB is open from 12–2 pm on weekdays.

KERB is located at Lewis Cubitt Square (off Stable Street), London, N1C.

Honest Burgers. It was a very happy day when I found out that Honest was opening up a new branch in King's Cross. I was even happier when I managed to wangle a 20% discount for my company during Honest's first month; as I go there about two or three times per month, they have definitely got their money's worth! The burgers are consistently in my top three London burgers — the Honest Burger, with red onion relish, bacon and cheddar, is bloody great — and the rosemary salt chips are delicious. The King's Cross branch is fairly small but you never have to wait too long for a table. My review (of the Soho branch).

Honest Burgers is located at 251 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9NG.

Pizza Union. Super-fast Roman-style pizza in a stylish, colourful restaurant for under £4? I was skeptical when Pizza Union opened up on Pentonville Road offering precisely this, but the pizza is very good indeed: thin and crispy and with good-quality toppings, for the same price as a sandwich in a chain shop. Pizza Union also serves delicious ice cream and has some of the prettiest tiled tables in town. Caravan also does great pizzas, but they are twice the price and are more suited to a long lunch than a quick bite. My review.

Pizza Union is located at 246–250 Pentonville Road, London, N1 9JY.

Dishoom. There are plenty of reasons to go to Dishoom: the delicious, interesting and reasonably priced Indian street-food, and the gorgeously designed, multi-level interiors, for example. The cocktails are also rather epic. The basement bar at the King's Cross is decked out like the coolest train station waiting room you've ever visited, with sleek booths and gorgeous teal accents. The cocktail menu is extensive, with plenty of Bombay twists on the classics. My favourite is the Edwina's Affair, which pairs gin, rose and cardamom with mint and candied rose petals. It's refreshing, subtly sweet and comes served over ice in a copper cup. The chilli martini and the chaijito are my other recommendations.  My review.

Dishoom is located at 5 Stable Street, London, N1C 4AB.

...a special meal
Grain Store. The fruit- and vegetable-centric menu at Bruno Loubet's restaurant often surprises and always delights. Carnivores, fear not: there are meat dishes on the menu, even if the meaty elements sometimes fall into the shadows of their showier vegetarian counterparts. The dishes are inventive and come impeccably prepared, and the cocktails are creative and well mixed. The service is also top-notch. I went for my 30th birthday and would whole-heartedly recommend it for a special meal. My review.

Grain Store is located at 1–3 Stable Street,  London, N1C 4AB.