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12 July 2019

Three Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Lausanne

As soon as the train pulls out of Geneva station just after noon on a sweltering Sunday, I am captivated by the glorious views of Lac Léman (also known as Lake Geneva). I am bound for Lausanne, 45 minutes along the train line, for a conference and despite the heat, I can't stop gaping at the clear, turquoise waters of the lake, bordered by rolling green hills and mountains.

I don't have much free time in Lausanne but I've researched speciality coffee options, and after a quick brunch at Blackbird (one of the few restaurants open on a Sunday) with an Ibex Coffee cortado, I head straight to The Coffee Project, a small coffee shop on Rue Marterey in the old town. The friendly barista talks me through their beans, and I opt for a Colombian Gesha from ELDC, which is new in. Although they serve iced coffee, I order the coffee as a hot V60 pourover. The notes of jasmine and lemongrass come through beautifully and it is extremely refreshing.

There is another branch of The Coffee Project further west, on Rue du Grand-Pont, which is close to my hotels and which I visit almost every day on the way to the SwissTech Convention Centre. This cafe is also on the petite size but still offers a pourover bar alongside espresso-based drinks. Like its sibling, it only has a few seats, but is always busy with takeaway customers. I try a cortado one morning, which is nice, but the best drink of the week is the Ethiopian Dambi Udo natural coffee, which tastes delicious brewed as a V60 pourover.

A bag of the Ethiopian beans costs 25 CHF (£20) while the Gesha is 50 CHF — like the city itself, on the steep side, although well worth it given the quality. Lausanne is not a cheap city in general, of course, but, for reference, a speciality coffee pourover runs at about 5.90 CHF (£4.75) — not much more than some London equivalents.

On my morning off, I go to Sleepy Bear, a coffee shop on Rue Simplon in the Grancy neighbourhood. While I wait for the barista to finish serving another customer, I eye up the coffee menu. The coffee is from local roaster, The Coffee Society, and there are a couple of varieties available: a Brazilian and an Ethiopian. After inhaling the aroma of both, I go for the Ethiopian, and take a seat at the window seat while I wait for the barista to prepare it. I order my coffee as a V60, but they also use Aeropress, Chemex and French press brew methods. My pourover tastes great, with delicate floral notes — just what I need to help me cool down on another hot day.

The cafe is cosy and rustic, with wooden panelling on the walls and on the L-shaped coffee bar that occupies most of the space. It's a very welcoming place with friendly service. They also do coffee tastings and classes from time to time.

Things to do, places to eat...
On the day I arrive, after my visit to The Coffee Shop, I explore the old town but it is so hot, I find myself hurrying down the hill to the Ouchy neighbourhood by the lake. I only plan to dip my feet in the cool, clear waters, but in the end, glad that I have worn my swimsuit, I jump right in.

It cools down slightly at night and, after a (very good) burger at Holy Cow, another rare Sunday-night opening, my colleague and I walk up to the 13th century cathedral, which has good views of the city. The following day, I take lunch at Café des Artisans, a great neighbourhood cafe-restaurant (the lunch menu du jour was good value for Lausanne at 21 CHF).

Most of the rest of my trip is spent at the conference, but there are a couple of particularly special socials. One evening, we go to the Olympic Museum for a drinks reception overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, I don't have time to visit the highly rated Musée de l'Elysée next door. The following morning I run up the very steep hill to the Olympic Stadium.

On our last night, we are taken up into the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyard terraces. The village of Grandvaux is closed down for our conference, and we are able to visit many different caves, enjoying the wine and local food with stunning views of the vineyards and the lake. I'm more of a gin drinker than a wine connoisseur (and I also enjoyed trying some Glyph whiskey), but this visit makes me want to schedule another trip to Switzerland as soon as possible.

On the first night, I stay at Hôtel des Voyageurs in the Flon area just north of central station. It's a small, well-run boutique hotel in a great location. A buffet breakfast is included and my room is clean, quiet and comfortable. There is no air con but a powerful fan was provided. For the final four nights, I move to the Ibis Lausanne Centre, a very basic business hotel that I pick for several reasons: 1) it complies with my company's hotel rate policy, 2) there is air con and 3) it's in a quieter location, albeit still very close to the Vigie M1 metro. It is fairly characterless but the staff are very friendly, and after hearing about aircon-less nightmares of fellow conference attendees, I am happy with my choice.

One thing to note about Lausanne is that if you stay in a hotel, your city tax includes a free pass for all public transport within the city. As the train from Geneva airport costs 27 CHF, this is a good way to save a little money. Lausanne is small, but because of the hills, the M2 line, which runs up the hill from the Ouchy port, is a boon for tired legs.

8 July 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Second Shot Coffee, Edgware Road

I first visited the original Second Shot — Julius Ibrahim's coffee shop and social enterprise in Bethnal Green — during its launch event three years ago and have been back a number of times since then. It's been great to watch Second Shot, which aims to bring people together to tackle homelessness 'one espresso at a time', grow from strength to strength.

And now there's a second Second Shot, which has just opened on Church Street near Edgware Road, funded in part by a crowdfunding campaign. I was out of the country during the pre-launch event, but I was in the Marylebone area on Saturday, their first full day, and so I was glad to be able to stop by and say hi to Julius and his team.

Long-term readers will know I lived in Marylebone for three years before I moved to Bermondsey, and my old flat is only five minutes' walk from Second Shot. There weren't any speciality coffee shops in the neighbourhood when I left, in 2012, but I did used to enjoy visiting the busy market on Church Street, where Second Shot is based. The market was bustling when I arrived and a steady stream of local residents, shoppers and coffee lovers alike had found their way to the new coffee shop.

The social enterprise element of Second Shot works in several ways. They train and hire people who have been affected by homelessness and then help them to find longer term jobs. There is also a 'pay it forward' system, where customers can pre-pay for a coffee or a meal, which people in need can then receive free of charge. I pre-paid for a meal when I paid for my lunch and coffee, although was a little embarrassed by my drawing skills when I added it to one of the bricks on the 'pay it forward' wall. It is, of course, the thought that counts.

As for the coffee, as usual, there were several single-origin coffees from some excellent roasters available. I first tried a washed Peruvian San Ignacio coffee from Cast Iron, a Sussex-based roaster, served as a very fine macchiato. Afterwards, I sampled a Guatemalan Red de Mujeres coffee from Square Mile, which was available as a batch-brew filter coffee, and which had very nice apple and gooseberry notes. There will also be some exciting coffee coming soon, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on what they have in their hopper.

As well as pastries and cakes, Second Shot are serving smoothie bowls and chia bowls, and several sandwiches. I had a ham sandwich on focaccia, which was tasty and very filling.

The cafe shares common design elements with the original — most notably the bricks, which here line the coffee bar and repeat in the pegboard on the back wall. In the main seating area, a handful of small tables face the bar, with teal chairs that coordinate with the coffee cups. There's another seating area in the basement, including a large communal table, helpful for those who need more space to work. There will be a second brew bar down there too in time, which will serve as a training area.

If you haven't yet had the chance to visit the original Second Shot, now you have a second shot — the new cafe is a short walk from Edgware Road and Marylebone stations, and offers a very warm welcome and coffee as good as its ethos.

Second Shot. 49 Church Street, London, NW8 (Tube: Edgware Road). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

17 June 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Nkora, Shoreditch

Over the past few months, I've made a few trips to Columbia Road Flower Market to replenish my small balcony garden and to buy several new plants for inside my flat (bonus tip: Pot Luck is my favourite shop for plant pots). The busy flower and plant market is very busy year round, but particularly on sunny Sundays in the spring and summer, when even just reaching the end of the stalls can feel like a real endurance test. To psych myself up, I like to go for coffee first at Nkora on Hackney Road, a five-minute walk away.

Nkora takes its name from a region in Rwanda — not a colloquial pronunciation of the Italian word ancora (still/yet), which was my first guess! — and there are now three locations: Shoreditch, Cambridge Heath and St Albans. So far, I've only visited the Shoreditch cafe, but have been a handful of times over the past year or so.

The coffee shop is located on a bustling section of the Hackney Road, just east of the northern end of Shoreditch High Street. The décor is rustic and minimalist, with a few pops of colour and works from local artists on the walls. Most of the main room is taken up with the large, slate-grey counter that matches the storefront. There are three seats at the slim table in front of the large window, several more small tables inside the shop and in the small courtyard at the rear, and a bench out on the pavement. On my two most recent visits, when I took some photographs, the sun streamed in through the windows, bathing the cafe in beautiful afternoon light.

Nkora serves coffee from a variety of roasters, but there's usually coffee from Union on offer. The menu includes standard espresso-based drinks and batch-brew filter coffee (as well as matcha, chai, tea and hot chocolate). When I visited in April, I sampled an impeccably brewed Guatemalan Xejuyu single-origin espresso roasted by Union served as a piccolo. It tasted great and I enjoyed sitting in the window seat watching the world go by.

On my most recent visit, a couple of weeks ago, I tried the filter coffee. It was a hot day and a lot of customers were ordering cold brew and iced lattes, but I found natural-processed coffee from Round Hill Roastery to be very refreshing indeed when served hot. I don't recall the origin, but the brew was bright, fruity and very jazzy. All too often, batch-brew filter coffee can be disappointing, but this was excellent.

I'd already had lunch, and so didn't have room to try the all-day breakfast menu or the sandwiches. I did, however, find room for a peanut butter brownie, which came topped with half of a Reese's peanut butter cup — just to make sure there was sufficient peanut butter. My sweet treat was delicious, and paired nicely with my coffee.

The baristas are friendly and knowledgeable and despite its busy location, I found Nkora a very relaxing place to sit and enjoy my coffee — and not just in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the flower market!

Nkora. 21 Hackney Road, London, E2 7NX (Shoreditch High Street or Hoxton Overground). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

7 June 2019

A Long Weekend in Berlin: Bex's Guide

While exploring last-minute city breaks just before the recent UK bank-holiday-weekend, I found a great deal on a two-night trip to Berlin on astminute.com, a site I've never used before. Return flights with BA (going out on Saturday lunchtime, returning on Monday night) and two nights at a boutique hotel in Alexanderplatz cost me about £325; the same flights alone were £100 more on the BA website. I'm not usually very spontaneous when it comes to travel, preferring to research and plan every last detail, but I hit the purchase button on Friday morning, and just over 24 hours later, I was on my way to Berlin.

I last visited the German capital on a brief and frosty work trip in December, and before that, I was last there on a school trip in 1998. My main memories of the latter are: stumbling upon the Love Parade with our history teachers; sneaking out to see Sylvester Stallone at Planet Hollywood; and, perched on the window sill of my hotel room, watching celebrations of France's World Cup victory. I was a vegetarian at the time and the veggie options were pretty poor; happily, Berlin is now one of the most veggie- and vegan-friendly cities in the world, according to the guide of the walking tour I took.

Forty-eight hours in Berlin is nowhere near enough time, but I made good use of the U-Bahn and managed to see a lot of the city and its diverse — and dispersed — neighbourhoods. I've already written about the speciality coffee shops I visited, but here are some of the other things I enjoyed.

Discover Berlin walking tour. Last time, I squeezed in a free tour of the Reichstag dome, and briefly visited the Brandenburg Gate and the chilling and thought-provoking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. For a more comprehensive overview of central Berlin's sights and history this time, I booked a four-hour Discover Berlin walking tour with Berlin Walks (€14). Our guide Sam Z, a wry Scot expat, was informative, entertaining and very knowledgeable. We covered a lot of ground — and a lot of Berlin's history — but the route allowed Sam to walk us through the city's history (literally) from its early origins, through the Prussian era and the darker times of the 20th century, to its regeneration since 1989. If you're short on time and want to see many of the city's key historic sights, I would recommend this tour.

Berlin Wall Memorial. This interactive outdoor memorial extends for 1.4 km on Bernauer Strasse and includes photographs, audio and displays that describe the history of the Berlin Wall, from its construction in 1961 until it was taken down 28 years later, as well as various pieces of public art. I started at the eastern end, near Mauerpark, and walked west almost all the way to the end, stopping to climb the viewing platform for an aerial view of the site border strip. If you're further east, in Friedrichshain, you can also visit the East Side Gallery, a long remaining section of the wall painted with many murals.

Exploring Prenzlauer Berg. I spent several hours in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, with its beautiful, colourful buildings. Although the excellent shops in the area are closed on Sundays (like most shops in Berlin), the craft and flea markets in Mauerpark are in full swing, while many of the eateries are bustling with the weekend brunch crowd. I really enjoyed browsing the markets, and had my first currywurst at one of the street-food vendors. The sun was out and there were buskers and street performers entertaining visitors of all ages. I also stopped by Kulturbrauerei, a brewery turned arts and street food venue.

Bergmannkiez and Tempelhof. Soon after arriving in Berlin on Saturday afternoon, I took the U-Bahn to Bergmannkiez, a small neighbourhood with many independent shops and interesting eateries, south of the central Mitte district. Bergmannstrasse, the main drag, is a particularly good spot for wandering, and the gorgeous architecture on Chamissoplatz is also worth a visit. A few minutes' walk to the south is Tempelhofer Feld, a former airport that is now a large public park. There were many Berliners soaking up the evening sunshine in the park, and if you're an airport aficionado, you'll enjoy the disused buildings too. Just outside the park is the Luftbrückendenkmal — the memorial to the Berlin Airlift.

Tiergarten. Speaking of parks, the sprawling, 520-acre Tiergarten runs from the Brandenburg Gate west to the Berlin Zoo. I wasn't staying close enough to go running there, but I did enjoy strolling through on Monday afternoon. The park was in fine form, with pink and purple flowers in bloom, birds singing and even some bunnies hopping across a tranquil lawn (well, Tiergarten does mean 'animal garden'). If you'd like to peek into the zoo without paying the entrance fee, head to the rooftop of neighbouring Bikini Berlin, a shopping complex with pop-up stores, for a great view of various primates.

A colleague recommended that I visit Peter Schlemihl, a cosy neighbourhood restaurant just opposite Chamissoplatz in Bergmannkiez. With great cocktails, very reasonably priced modern takes on classic German dishes and friendly staff, it is a lovely spot. Do note that there are no English menus, so you may need a bit of help from Google Translate. And it can get busy on weekend evenings, so try to book, if possible; they do also have tables available for walk-ins, though. I had some meatballs, served with a spicy condiment and a sweeter one, followed by a pork belly burger with two salads. The food was tasty and the portion sizes generous.

After Peter Schlemihl, I had a couple of hours to kill before my 10:30 pm reservation at CODA, a fine-dining dessert bar in Kreuzberg. During the late-night shift, diners can order either a three- or four-course dessert menu with drinks pairings. I limited myself to three courses (€54) and each dish was delicious, with creative combinations of flavours, textures and tastes. I started with a tarragon ice cream with poached rhubarb, tofu and biscotti (paired with a drink that combined sherry, a distilled-juniper liquor, lemon and celery). Next up was the baked apple with apple and shallot jam, smoked salt ice cream and biscuit crunch. Finally came the Amelonado cacao with cashew and a sort of sweet, congee rice. "I'm just going to grate some bonito on top," the server said, "but don't worry, it won't taste of fish; it just adds some umami." He was not wrong and this was my favourite course, although the apple and shallot jam was my favourite element. Impeccable service and wonderful presentation make this is a special and unique place to dine.

While shopping in Mitte on Monday, I stopped for lunch at Mädchenitaliener, a casual modern Italian spot on Alte Schönhauser Strasse. I enjoyed the fried gnocchi with sage butter I ate at one of the pavement tables — great for people-watching. There are plenty of eateries on this street, so if you're in the mood for a different cuisine, you'll have no problem finding something tasty.

Out in West Berlin, the unassuming Preussenpark turns into ThaiPark on weekends from April to October. For many years, Berlin's Thai community have gathered here at weekends to cook, eat and be merry. Although I arrived slightly late on Sunday evening, there were still several stalls in place and I was able to purchase a huge and delicious bowl of pad thai and watch the sun set over the city.

For lighter bites and cakes, the coffee shops I visited had a great selection of sweet treats. I also stopped by Black Isle Bakery, a minimalist cafe on Linienstrasse in southern Prenzlauer Berg, for breakfast one morning. The hazelnut banana bread really hit the spot. I just had a pretzel at the luxurious food hall at the KaDeWe department store, but there were also many sweeter, richer and generally more decadent options too.

Although I was travelling light — and saving space in my small backpack for coffee beans — I did plenty of window shopping in Berlin, and ended up buying two large cushion covers that I managed to squeeze into my bag. Do note that almost all shops are closed on Sundays in Berlin — even many larger grocery and food shops.

My favourite area to shop was the northern part of Mitte and southern part of Prenzlauer Berg, where there were lots of independent stores, including plenty of design and lifestyle shops, and fashion boutiques. My favourites included: Amazing Crocodile Design Store (design concept store; pictured below); Atheist Shoes (handmade shoes); Blumenfisch (unique, Berlin-themed souvenirs); Broke + Schön (fashion); Fundamental Berlin (furniture and homewares); Motel a Miio (gorgeous ceramics; pictured below); S.Wert (stylish Berlin-themed gifts); Schee (homewares); and Spreeheidi (clothes and homewares).

Bergmannkiez, as I mentioned above, is also a good place to shop. There's a branch of Picknweight, a pay-by-the-kilo vintage store, and a nice gift / homewares store called Herrlich ('gloriously').

Further west, the historic Kaufhaus des Westens department store (AKA KaDeWe) reminded me a lot of Selfridges and had a similarly good food hall. A few minutes' walk away is a newer development: Bikini Berlin. The complex of pop-up shops and eateries is a bit like Shoreditch's Boxpark, but with a view from the rooftop of excited young primates strutting their stuff in Berlin Zoo.

I stayed at the Hotel Indigo Alexanderplatz, a small boutique hotel a short walk from Alexanderplatz. My room was on the small side but comfortable, stylish and quiet and the hotel staff very friendly and helpful. Although Alexanderplatz is very commercialised, I was ten minutes' walk from several excellent speciality coffee shops, and the area is very well connected with several bus, tram and U-Bahn lines, which makes it easy to zip across the city. Last time, I stayed at Fjord Hotel, which is sort of near Potsdamerplatz. The hotel itself was fine but I made the mistake of assuming that because it was in the middle of lots of interesting neighbourhoods it would be a good place to stay; instead, it was mainly residential and very quiet.

Arriving and getting around
From Tegel airport, you can take the frequent TXL bus to Alexanderplatz, which takes about 40 minutes. On my previous trip, I took the 109 bus and then transferred to the U-Bahn to get to the area just south of the Tiergarten where I was staying. In both cases, you can buy a single AB zone ticket (€2.80), which lasts two hours and includes transfers onto all public transport types. You can pay with a credit card at the machines at the airport; just don't forget to validate your ticket before boarding (on my way back to the airport, I witnessed a rather unpleasant encounter between a ticket inspector and a ticketless passenger — there is a hefty fine even if you have a ticket but forget to validate it). I bought one-day tickets (€7) on Saturday and Sunday, which are worth it if you make more than two journeys per day. I walked a lot (about 15 miles per day!), but Berlin is a big city and so I took the U-Bahn several times each day.

I speak a little German and understand a bit more, but many Berliners, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries, speak excellent English.

Germany's currency is the Euro and although credit cards and contactless are becoming more common, especially in the hipper establishments, cash is still king. I was able to pay by card in most places but was glad I had cash with me for smaller shops and casual eateries.