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17 January 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Omotesando Koffee

One of the high points of my first trip to Japan in 2014 was my visit to Omotesando Koffee, located, as you might expect, in the Omotesando district of Tokyo. I enjoyed the calm atmosphere, minimalist decor and the best macchiato of my trip. I had hoped to return some day and was sad to learn that it closed at the end of 2015, although there are sister cafes in Toranomon Hills, Tokyo; Singapore; and Hong Kong. There's also the related Tokyo beans specialist Koffee Mameya, which Brian of Brian's Coffee Spot has highlighted.

Unsurprisingly, I was delighted to hear that Omotesando would be adding a London coffee shop to its petite but perfectly formed posse. The new cafe opened in the dying days of 2018 in the sleek Rathbone Square development in Fitzrovia. I've visited twice now, managing to arrive both times — on Twixmas Friday afternoon and on a Saturday afternoon — during particularly busy periods with the queue stretching out of the door. Its location, not even a block north of Oxford Street, may have contributed to the crowds but it was great to see such a positive response to such a new coffee shop.

The minimalist design shares several Omotesando Koffee hallmarks, including the empty-cube-like structure preserving empty space above the coffee bar and the strong use of light wood and geometric lines. There are just a few seats — suspended stool seats perched at the window — and on both visits, many customers opt to take their drinks away rather than drink in.

Walking into the shop, you order and pay at the counter in front of the door, head to the bar with your receipt, which you hand to the barista, who then makes your drink. In this way, it's almost like being in an Italian espresso bar and yet this zen-like temple of coffee couldn't be more different. The charming, skilled baristas wear white lab coats and produce special drinks, such as the famed Omotesando iced cappuccino, alongside more traditional offerings.

On my first visit, I order a macchiato, for old time's sake, which is excellent, and when I return, I go for the hand-brewed filter coffee. The open structure of the coffee bar allows me to watch the expert preparation of my drinks and to chat to the barista. The coffee is roasted by Ogawa Coffee, a Japanese roaster I actually sampled at their Boston, MA, cafe, but the barista tells me that a new blend, roasted especially for Omotesando by London-based Assembly, is coming soon.

The beans for the filter coffee are stored in test tubes located at the end of the counter. I am invited to smell the beans before they are ground, and the barista tells me that coffees for the Japanese market are usually darker roasts, even in the speciality coffee space. I usually prefer lighter roasts, but brewed through a Kalita dripper, the Panama–Guatemala blend that I try is very well balanced and rich without being too overpowering. The subtle flavours come through very nicely as the coffee cools. Fortunately, I spy a spare seat at the window and leave my post on the corner of the counter to engage in some Fitzrovia people-watching.

They also serve kashi — cube-shaped custard pastries — but I've missed out on these so far, more's the pity. I plan to return soon to try the Assembly coffee, so I'll have to arrive earlier in the day to improve my odds of scoring a sweet treat. Omotesando is a wonderful and unusual addition to London's speciality coffee scene, this will be an absolute pleasure.

My photos of the original Omotesando Koffee, taken in 2014

Omotesando Koffee. Rathbone Square, Fitzrovia, London, W1J 5EZ (Tube: Tottenham Court Road). WebsiteInstagram.

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

9 January 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Le Café Alain Ducasse, Coal Drops Yard

When I first started working in King's Cross, nine years ago, I used to have to walk 20 minutes at lunchtime for a good cup of speciality coffee (The Espresso Room was my usual port of call). I've often written about the rise and rise of the neighbourhood as a speciality coffee hub, and the latest coffee spot to open up in the area is really quite special.

Le Café Alain Ducasse — and the neighbouring chocolate shop Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse — has hopped over from Paris, a short ride on the Eurostar, whose terminus is nearby. The coffee is roasted in the Bastille area of Paris, in the 11th arrondissement, but the Gallic influences don't end there.

Most of the slender shop is occupied by the sleek counter reminiscent of many of the ubiquitous comptoirs en zinc you'll find in France. The espresso machine sits at the end closest to the French windows that look out onto the shiny Coal Drops Yard development. At the other end is the brew bar, where pourovers are very much the order of the day. In front of the counter, there is a row of leather-seated stools — these are the best spots for maximum interactions with your barista, but there are a few more seats against the other wall, and a couple of tables outside too.

An impressive range of single-origin coffees is on offer, including a coffee from France — the island of La Réunion, in case you were wondering — and a beautiful coffee from Yemen, which goes for £15 as a filter coffee. On my first visit, that's exactly what I try, encouraged by the charming baristas, whose passion for coffee is as evident as their attention to detail and customer service. The tasting notes describe the coffee as delicate and sophisticated, and indeed, it is a subtle drink, whose flavours come out beautifully as it cools. I wait until I've finished my coffee before enjoying the Alain Ducasse praline I've been given, to avoid ruining the flavours.

I return twice more in the first week of the year, sampling a super-smooth Ethiopian espresso with strawberry and white chocolate notes and a noisette (the French for macchiato or piccolo, depending on your point of view) with their signature coffee, a Kenyan that tastes lovely with a little milk. Each time, the service and presentation are excellent and the coffee tastes great. And the baristas are always just as keen to welcome and to share their caffeinated delights with speciality coffee novices as with those, like me, who have long since fallen down the rabbit hole. I'm so pleased to have a coffee bar like Le Café so close to my office. On y arrive, King's Cross.

Le Café Alain Ducasse. Unit 16, Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard, London, N1C 4DH (Tube: King's Cross).WebsiteInstagram.

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

31 December 2018

My Top 5 Books of 2018

One of the problems with being a serial reader is that none of your friends and family understand when you lament that you 'only' read 111 books in a year. But compared to the 148 I read in 2017 and the 200 I read in 2016, it does sound like a lot less. I blame my incredibly busy year at work, and my hectic itinerary in Peru didn't give me much chance to catch up on my reading.

Before I get to this year's list, I also want to celebrate two books written by friends of mine, which were published this year. Ingrid Alexandra's The New Girl is a dark and satisfyingly twisty psychological thriller about a young woman whose new housemate's strange behaviour threatens to awaken dark secrets from the past. Meanwhile, in his concise but comprehensive work, The Philosophy of Coffee, Brian Williams of Brian's Coffee Spot charts the global ascendancy of coffee and the rise of coffee shops, and shares his personal journey down the coffee rabbit hole. I'm really proud of both Ingrid and Brian, and Ingrid's publication has even encouraged me to recommence work on my own novel, which is now up to 60,000 words. 

Without further ado, here are my favourite five books of 2018: 

1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. In the sultry summer of '69, the four young Gold siblings visit a travelling psychic who claims she can tell each of them when they will die. The rest of Benjamin's soaring novel glides through the next half-century, following each sibling in turn and asking us to assess whether — and if so, to what extent — the predictions influence the Golds' fates. The Immortalists is broad in scope, skipping from the 1970s San Francisco gay scene to a longevity research lab in the present day. It's also moving, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

2. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan's novel — part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama — feels very timely in 2018. At its core, a prominent politician, James, is accused of a terrible crime. The story hits the press, the case goes to trial, and James's wife Sophie stands by her man. And Kate, who is prosecuting the case, is convinced that James is guilty. It turns out that some of the answers both Kate and Sophie are seeking lie in the past, where James enjoyed a fabled existence at Oxford University as the popular, privileged golden boy. Anatomy of a Scandal is smart, sharp and a real page-turner.

3. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. A must-read for coffee lovers — and anyone else who enjoys an inspiring and fascinating true story. Dave Eggers' book tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the titular Monk of Mokha who goes on to found the speciality coffee company Port of Mokha. Eggers' beautifully written and hugely compelling book tells Alkhanshali's story with colour, wit and compassion.

4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. There's a lot of heart in Honeyman's tale of isolation and loneliness. The unusual eponymous character leads an orderly but solitary life, steering clear of interactions with colleagues and others, and drinking her way through weekends. This makes for uncomfortable and sometimes devastating reading. But everything changes after Eleanor's chance encounter with a colleague outside work, as Eleanor — and Honeyman — highlight that there's no one 'right' way to live, but that it's never too late to find companionship and respect.

5. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. A witty and impeccably plotted Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, Magpie Murders is really a whodunnit inside a whodunnit. Detective Atticus Pünd clamours to solve the mysterious murder of an unpopular housekeeper at a 1950s country house. But it's Susan Ryeland — the editor of the writer of the Atticus Pünd mysteries — who is left searching for clues both inside the manuscript and out. I read a lot of crime novels but this was one of the cleverest I've read all year and it's very well written.

And here are five more books that I loved and which didn't quite make my shortlist this year:
  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh. As I read so much crime fiction, I often like to return to some of the seminal works of the genre. In Waugh's 1952 police procedural, detectives are investigating the disappearance of a college freshman at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. The novel is meticulous, understated and satisfying.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French. The novels in French's Dublin Murder Squad series are no stranger to my top fives, and her latest standalone novel is almost as good. Rather than focusing on a detective, French introduces us to Toby, the easygoing narrator, whose life of privilege and good fortune is about to come to an end when he becomes the victim of a crime. Dark, gripping and suspenseful, French's novel succeeds despite our uncertainty about how much we like — and trust — any of the characters.
  • This Could Hurt by Jill Medoff. Set in a struggling research company, Medoff's novel offers up the stage to five members of the HR department, who jostle for position, schmooze, support and backstab. They share the hopes, fears, heartaches and back stories that underlie their ambitions and motives. Touching, warm and sometimes sad, This Could Hurt does what it says on the tin. You may never look at your HR team the same way again.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Epic in scope, Lee's multi-generational saga tells the extraordinary story of a family of Korean immigrants in 20th century Japan. Lee's novel is beautifully written, with rich, elegant prose that brings the complex story to life.
  • Educated by Tara Westover. In Westover's memorable memoir, she describes her childhood in rural Idaho as the daughter of survivalist parents, isolated from mainstream society. She discovers a deep passion for learning and, after seeking solace in books, gets into college and eventually goes on to do a PhD. It was appropriate, perhaps, that I read this memoir while on the Inca Trail — about as remote a location as I've ever been — and Westover's quietly powerful prose and riveting narrative kept me gripped throughout.

The full list of books I read in 2018 is as follows (as usual, repeat reads are marked in italics):
  • Dead Letters — Caite Dolan-Leach
  • The Break Down — B.A. Paris
  • Pachinko — Min Jin Lee
  • What Happened — Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Lullaby — Leïla Slimani
  • The Girl in the Snow — Danya Kukafka
  • Anatomy of a Scandal — Sarah Vaughan
  • Fire and Fury — Michael Wolff
  • The Thirst — Jo Nesbø
  • The Wife Between Us — Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Woman in the Window — A.J. Finn
  • The Philosophy of Coffee — Brian Williams
  • The Rooster Bar — John Grisham
  • Death at La Fenice — Donna Leon
  • The Monk of Mokha — Dave Eggers
  • A Column of Fire — Ken Follett
  • The Guilty Wife — Elle Croft
  • The Perfect Stranger — Megan Miranda
  • Now You See Her — Heidi Perks
  • Macbeth — Jo Nesbø
  • Ready Player One — Ernest Cline
  • An American Marriage — Tayari Jones
  • Friend Request — Laura Marshall
  • The Late Show — Michael Connelly
  • Call Me By Your Name — André Aciman
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles — Hiro Arikawa
  • The Anonymous Venetian — Donna Leon
  • Twins — Dirk Kurbjuweit
  • A Little Life — Hanya Yanagihara
  • Anything You Do Say — Gillian McAllister
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine — Gail Honeyman
  •  Bring You Back — B.A. Paris 
  • Death and the Virgin — Chris Skidmore
  • Every Note Played — Lisa Genova
  • Let Me Lie — Clare Mackintosh 
  • Then She Was Gone — Lisa Jewell
  • The Female Persuasion — Meg Wolitzer
  • Crimson Lake — Candice Fox 
  • Magpie Murders — Anthony Horowitz
  • All the Beautiful Lies — Peter Swanson
  • The Party — Elizabeth Day
  • Everything I Know About Love — Dolly Alderton
  • Clean — Juno Dawson
  • Our Kind of Cruelty — Araminta Hall
  • The Elizas — Sara Shepard
  • The Good Liar — Catherine McKenzie
  • The Perfect Mother — Aimee Molloy
  • Sisters in Law — Linda Hirshman
  • That Kind of Mother — Rumaan Alam
  • Darling — Rachel Edwards 
  • Paper Ghosts — Julia Heaberlin
  • The Italian Teacher — Tom Rachman
  • My Absolute Darling — Gabriel Tallent
  • Fear — Dirk Kurbjuweit
  • Social Creature — Tara Isabella Burton
  • Last Seen Wearing — Hillary Waugh
  • Pretty Girls — Karin Slaughter
  • Providence — Caroline Kepnes
  • The Favourite Sister — Jessica Knoll
  • This Could Hurt — Jillian Medoff
  • MEM — Bethany C. Morrow
  • 1974 — David Peace
  • Everyone Is Beautiful — Katherine Center
  • The New Girl — Ingrid Alexandra
  • Laura & Emma — Kate Greathead
  • The Last Time I Lied — Riley Sager
  • All We Ever Wanted — Emily Giffin
  • Day of the Dead — Nicci French
  • Last Breath — Karin Slaughter
  • The Ensemble — Aja Gabel
  • Girls Burn Brighter — Shobha Rao
  • 1977 — David Peace
  • The Last Enchantments — Charles Finch
  • Warlight — Michael Ondaatje 
  • 1980 — David Peace
  • 1983 — David Peace
  • Pieces of Her — Karin Slaughter
  • Mean Streak — Sandra Brown
  • All the Hidden Truths — Claire Askew
  • The Surgeon — Tess Gerritsen
  • If I Was Your Girl — Meredith Russo
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree — Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • The Mars Room — Rachel Kushner
  • Friction — Sandra Brown
  • Our House — Louise Candlish
  • Educated — Tara Westover
  • The Incendiaries — R. O. Kwon
  • If You Leave Me — Crystal Hana Kim
  • The Kiss Quotient — Helen Hoang
  • A Spark of Life — Jodi Picoult
  • China Rich Girlfriend — Kevin Kwan
  • The Witch Elm — Tana French
  • Rich People Problems — Kevin Kwan
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant — Lillian Li
  • The Immortalists — Chloe Benjamin
  • Love Is Blind — William Boyd
  • The Gunners — Rebecca Kauffman
  • Sting — Sandra Brown
  • The Death of Mrs Westaway — Ruth Ware
  • Miss Ex-Yugoslavia — Sofija Stefanović
  • The Anatomy of Dreams — Chloe Benjamin 
  • Transcription — Kate Atkinson
  • A Dark Time — Sophie Hannah 
  • Home Fire — Kamila Shamsie
  • Death and Judgement — Donna Leon
  • Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng
  • The French Girl — Lexie Elliott
  • The Flight Attendant — Chris Bohjalian
  • Force of Nature — Jane Harper
  • Give Me Your Hand — Megan Abbott
  • Grist Mill Road — Christopher J. Yates
The bookshop featured in the photograph at the top is the wonderful Topping & Company in Bath.

My Top 5 Movies of 2018

1. Lady Bird

The complete list of films I watched this year is as follows (re-watches are in italics:
  • Molly's Game
  • The Social Network
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
  • The Shape of Water
  • Darkest Hour
  • The Post
  • I, Tonya
  • Get Out (free)
  • Goodbye Christopher Robin (plane)
  • Murder on the Orient Express (plane)
  • Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (plane)
  • Lady Bird
  • Reasonable Doubt (Netflix)
  • Me Before You (Netflix)
  • Phantom Thread
  • Snowden (Netflix)
  • Notting Hill (Netflix)
  • Julie & Julia (Netflix)
  • Dazed and Confused (Netflix)
  • Isle of Dogs
  • A Quiet Place
  • Ready Player One
  • Roman J. Israel Esq. (plane)
  • All the Money in the World (plane)
  • Kramer vs Kramer (Netflix)
  • Miss Sloane (Netflix)
  • Vertigo
  • Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
  • The Children Act (free)
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • American Animals (plane)
  • Tully (plane)
  • Game Night (plane)
  • A Simple Favor
  • Leave No Trace (plane)
  • Ocean’s 8 (plane)
  • First Man
  • Widows
  • Three Identical Strangers
  • A Monster Calls (Netflix)

30 December 2018

A Year in Leaps: 2018

It's been another busy year of travel for me, with 11 overseas trips to seven different countries, three of them for the first time (Poland, Hungary and Peru). I've been back to Toulouse, Amsterdam and Berlin, which have all been on my return-visit list for many years. I also visited KrakówAustin, TX; and Budapest for the first time, completing the Inca Trail during my stay in the latter. And, of course, I managed a few visits to New York, Washington DC and Cannes.

Despite these fun-filled and fascinating travel opportunities, my leaps this year have rather left the side down and I had very few leaping photos from which to choose my annual top travel memories shortlist. I'll put this down to a higher than usual amount of work travel this year and to travelling more often in cooler climes, when I feel less inclined to leap. Nonetheless, here are a few leaping snapshots from the year that was 2018. I will have to plan more carefully in 2019, which is likely to be the year when I visit my 40th country — a good opportunity for a special leap, methinks.

1. The 'Dead Woman's leap'
Day two of the four-day Inca Trail is often thought to be the toughest, with steep climbs up Dead Woman's Pass (so named because it resembles a woman lying supine) and the Second Pass. Our group was lucky with the weather and with the llama companions and we made it up to the top of Dead Woman's Pass ahead of schedule, and were rewarded with beautiful, panoramic views. I definitely earned this leap.

2. The 'highest navigable lake' leap
After my time in Cusco, I took a bus to Puno, a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake. Puno itself was a little underwhelming but I enjoyed the boat trip I took out onto the lake. We stopped for a couple of hours on the island of Lake Taquile. Despite the warmth of the sun, the water was cool and there wasn't really time for a proper paddle or swim anyway, so I made up for it with a Lake Titicaca leap.

3. The citadel leap
In June, my mum and I spent a long weekend in Budapest, the first time in Hungary for both of us. The weather was hot and sunny, which meant we spent as much time outside as possible (though I still couldn't resist visiting several Turkish baths, despite the heat). On our last morning, we climbed up the steep path to the stop of the Citadella and Liberty Monument, which offered beautiful views over the city. It was really too warm for a leap, but the view was too good to resist.

4. The Blue Lake leap
I spent a delightfully sunny long weekend in July with my family in Barmouth, North Wales. After many cold, rainy visits to the region in my childhood, I was amazed to see the transformation when the sun came out. One day we hiked up to the Blue Lake near Fairbourne, and although the sun had gone in when we arrived, the waters of the abandoned quarry were still a vibrant teal hue. The water was rather cold, so I chose to leap rather than swim.

5. The leap that wasn't
I visited New York twice in 2018, once in the spring with my family and once in the autumn for work. I love the city in both seasons and packed a lot in on both trips, including several runs, over Brooklyn Bridge and in Central Park. I thought we'd taken a leaping photo at the pond, near the southern end of Central Park, before I went off my run, but it turns out that we did not. I was particularly proud, however, to be wearing my Wolves shirt after my football team's impressive performance last season. To bring it round full circle, I got to see them play at Wembley yesterday, defeating Spurs 1–3.

It's that time of year when I start to make travel plans for next year. If you too are seeking inspiration for your next adventure, check out some of my city and country guides here. And if you prefer to let the speciality coffee scene guide your travels, you may like to read my coffee city guides.

26 December 2018

Bex's Food and Drink Awards: 2018 Edition

It's that time again: time for my annual round-up of my coffee, food and cocktail favourites of the year. I've used the same categories as last year — coffee, brunch, street food, restaurant and cocktail. And as usual, I've included new-to-me picks from both London and my travels around the world. This year, I visited seven different countries (France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Peru, Poland and the United States) and enjoyed some fantastic meals and cups of coffee.

1. Best coffee shop
United Kingdom
Rosslyn Coffee (London)
It's been another good year for speciality coffee openings in London, but my overall favourite was one where the coffee was equalled only by the hospitality. The coffee is roasted by Modern Standard and by Aussie-based Commonfolk, and they serve filter coffee, brewed through the Marco Precision Brewer, as well as the usual espresso-based drinks. Located in the City, the busy coffee shop has plenty of spaces to perch at the high bar along the window. Its minimalist design — and the display of the day's newspapers on the walls — reminded me of the lovely Patricia Coffee Brewers in Melbourne.

Honourable mentions go to Melbourne in Lichfield — whose second Lichfield cafe on Bird Street is thriving and which has just started roasting its own coffee — and Curve Roasters, whose Margate roastery I finally visited this year.

Runners-up: Melbourne in Lichfield (Lichfield) and Curve Roasters (Margate)

Bocca Coffee (Amsterdam)
I only spent two days in Amsterdam but managed to visit six speciality coffee spots. First up was Bocca Coffee, where I had one of the finest pourovers I've had all year. The large, airy cafe is beautiful and thoughtfully decorated too. I bought a bag of beans to take home and several weeks later, the Myanmar coffee is still producing some excellent brews.

Runners-up: Tamp & Pull (Budapest) and The Barn (Berlin)

Stumptown Cobble Hill (NYC)
It's usually pretty tough to narrow down my favourite New York coffee shop of the year, but as soon as I walked into Stumptown's new Brooklyn coffee shop, I knew this was the one. Located in Cobble Hill, the cafe still retains many of the original design features of the firehouse that used to occupy the building. The hand-painted La Marzocco Linea PB that sits on the marble counter is one of the most beautiful espresso machines I've seen for some time. And the coffee, of course, is excellent.

Runners-up: Merit Coffee (Austin, TX) and Neira Cafe Lab (Lima)

2. Best brunch spot
Origin Coffee, Southwark
Origin has long been one of my favourite UK-based roasters, and I was delighted when their newest cafe opened up in one of the railway arches on Scoresby Street, Southwark, not too far from my home in Bermondsey. The coffee is spot on, of course, but the food is excellent too, with a tempting and creative brunch menu served all day at weekends. With its relaxed ambience, it's a great place to hang out for a coffee or a bite.

Runners-up: The Good Egg and Abuelo

Golda (NYC)
In the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant, there's a fab eatery called Golda. The coffee is from Brooklyn-based Parlor Coffee, and comes served in gorgeous, locally produced ceramic cups. The all-day menu, meanwhile, is Middle Eastern-influenced, and offers plenty of creative brunch dishes. I got a very warm welcome when I visited too — and it's the kind of neighbourhood eatery every neighbourhood should have.

Runners-up: The Avocado Show (Amsterdam) and Good Thanks (NYC)

3. Best street food
Peckham Levels
For various reasons, I ended up not visiting many new-to-me street food markets this year, but I have enjoyed several trips to Peckham Levels, located in a disused car par in — surprisingly enough — Peckham. There are several different street-food-style eateries and bars, and it's a casual but fun place to hang out — and particularly good for birthdays and big groups.

Fareground (Austin, TX)
I didn't have a lot of free time during my business trip to Austin, Texas, in February, but luckily, my hotel was directly opposite the newly opened Fareground gourmet food court. Some of the city's best restaurants have opened up concessions therein and I ate there twice. If you don't have a car while in the city, it's a more convenient way to sample some otherwise tricky to reach eateries.

4. Best restaurant
Flour & Grape
As you can probably guess from the name, Flour & Grape specialises in handmade pasta and wine. Based on Bermondsey Street, it's dangerously close to home for me, and I've eaten my way around most of the menu — the pappardelle with beef shortrib ragù is my favourite. After dinner, you can retire downstairs for more cocktails at Two One Four.

Runners-up: Pollen Street Social and Coal Shed

Central (Lima)
I was lucky enough to enjoy tasting menus in various restaurants around the globe this year, from Pollen Street Social in London, to Costes Downtown in Budapest, and the River Cafe in New York. The one that trumped them all, however, was Virgilio Martínez's Central in Lima — a 16-course exploration of Peru's foods, regions and ecosystems. The service was immaculate, the presentation was impeccable and everything tasted wonderful, even the things I would never have thought to order (hello, crispy piranha skin). By the end of the evening, I felt I had learned a lot about Peru as well as enjoying one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

Runners-up: Emily (NYC) and BRLO (Berlin)

5. Best cocktail
Bar Termini
I've been to Bar Termini in Soho for espresso a few times, but I'd never tried their famous negronis until this year. The petite cafe–bar's peppercorn-infused negroni was punchy and powerful but perfectly mixed, and the service is always great, whether you're there for a coffee, cocktail or both.

Runners-up: Coal Office and Pollen Street Social

Tales & Spirits (Amsterdam)
If you want a creative and perfectly mixed cocktail that will knock your socks off, head to Amsterdam's Tales & Spirits. You can choose from the extensive cocktail menu or ask the charming and talented bar staff to whip up something of your — or their — choosing.

Runners-up: The Up & Up (NYC) and Espita Mezcaleria (DC)

19 December 2018

A Speciality Coffee Tour of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Berlin

I last visited Berlin on a school history trip in 1998 and I've long been wanting to return. As my company has offices there, I've held out, hoping a work trip would materialise. Of course, when that finally happened, I had to fly out the day after returning from Amsterdam and only had one free day in the city. There wasn't much speciality coffee to be found near my hotel nearish Potsdamer Platz — although it sounds as though I will have at least one very good option next time I come if I'm staying in the same area. I used my day off wisely, however, catching the U1 U-Bahn from my hotel to Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg for a caffeinated walk through the laid-back, artsy neighbourhood and neighbouring Neukölln.

Nano Kaffee
I start my walk at Nano Kaffee, which is the closest speciality coffee shop on my list to Kottbusser Tor. Coincidentally, it was also the first speciality roaster to open up shop in Kreuzberg, more than four years ago. The small cafe–roastery is tucked away down a quiet side street but is well worth seeking out. It's a lovely space: simple but elegant, with a beautiful wooden coffee bar and a vibrant yellow painting on the wall.

It is quiet when I arrive, early on a cold but sunny morning. I order a piccolo — if there weren't already too many words for small, espresso-based drinks, I might say 'nano' — brewed with precision using a delightfully fruity Peruvian espresso. I chat for a while with Ramin, the friendly and passionate owner, about Nano Kaffee and the Berlin speciality coffee scene more generally. It wasn't my intention to buy beans at my first stop, but I'm so impressed with Nano Kaffee that I select a bag to take home as a gift for Brian.

Nano Kaffee is located at Dresdener Str. 14, Kreuzberg. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Bonanza Coffee Roasters
I head back onto the main drag, Adalbertstraße, and walk north a few blocks until I reach my next destination. A small 'Bonanza' sign indicates that I have arrived, but I have to walk around the back to the large yard, with its characterful red-brick buildings, before I find the entrance. Several fellow coffee-lovers, including Tom, recommended this beautiful, spacious speciality coffee spot. Inside, the décor is minimalist, with a few tall plants providing colour, and the clever use of mirrors making the high-ceilinged cafe appear even larger. The roastery is visible through the 'windows' in the wall behind the counter.

I don't notice that the menu is written high up on one of the mirrors and thus don't realise that they offer a filter coffee flight. This is unfortunate because all three of the small-batch filter coffees on offer sound delicious. Regular readers will know that I'm a sucker for lavender in flavour profiles (or cocktails, chocolate...pretty much anything, really), so I opt for the Ethiopian Israel Degfa–Uraga. Although the citrus and melon come through more strongly, I can taste the lavender too. It's a complex, delicate coffee but very well brewed. This is also a good spot for a sweet treat: the salted caramel pastries look divine. It's also a good place to shop for beans, but I have already run out of space in my bag. Next time, I must come with a bigger — or emptier — bag.

Bonanza is located at Adalbertstraße 70, Kreuzberg. WebsiteTwitterInstagram.

Populus Coffee
I retrace my steps and walk past Kottbusser Tor, crossing over the Landwehr Canal into the Neukölln neighbourhood to the south. Bearing east along the canal, I weave through the busy market on Maybachufer and stop for a vegan salted camel–pecan doughnut at Brammibal's. I notice that they serve Populus Coffee (with oat milk), but they don't offer pourovers or white espresso-based drinks smaller than a flat white so I continue on to Populus's bustling coffee shop, a short walk to the east.

At Populus, I order a cortado, which is brewed using a house-rousted Kenyan Karimikui PB coffee, which tastes great and which isn't too milky. The baristas notice me scouring their retail bags of beans and hurry over to offer advice. Next time, I must not only come with an empty bag, but also have empty hoppers and cupboards at home; I want all the coffee souvenirs!

Populus Coffee is located at Maybachufer 20, Neukölln. WebsiteInstagram.

The Barn

Just around the corner is the newest cafe — for now — of well-established Berlin roaster The Barn, which opened in October. A large portion of the small coffee shop is taken up with a huge round table. Lancelot and Arthur must have the day off but there is a copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung for me to scan. (I studied German for a year at school but, ever the linguist, I've studied enough of the history of English and other European languages that I can get the gist.)

The coffee menu is the most exciting I've seen on this trip, with signature drinks (a beetroot flat white and a Rooibos spiced flat white; interesting but not my taste) and three hand-brewed filter coffees to choose from. The Brazilian Christmas coffee sounds nice but not quite what I'm after. The barista recommends the Los Chorros coffee from Honduras — the head roaster's choice. She asks how long I'll be in town for as the head roaster is giving a talk a couple of days later, but sadly, I'll be back in London by then.

The coffee is served in a glass jug with a tactile white tumbler. It comes with a card that provides details of the coffee's farm, farmer and origin, as well as the tasting notes. I enjoy my coffee a lot, its grape and vanilla notes really singing as it cools, just as the barista advised. They take their coffee seriously at The Barn but the atmosphere remains very welcoming. I'm much too early but two blocks south is a dessert bar called CODA, which I hope to visit another time.

The Barn is located at Friedelstraße 27, Neukölln (and other locations). WebsiteTwitterInstagram.

Five Elephant
Crossing back over the Landwehr, I return to Kreuzberg where, by happy coincidence, my fifth speciality coffee stop is Five Elephant, another celebrated Berlin roaster. It's lunchtime when I arrive and the cafe, which occupies several small rooms, is packed. I manage to find a stool at which to perch and then join the queue at the counter.

There are hand-brewed filter coffees on offer, but it's very busy so I order a cortado with the Guatemalan Buena Vista espresso. It arrives promptly and I drink it underneath one of the vintage maps that hang on the walls, trying not to take too much inspiration from my close proximity to Antarctica. As for the coffee, it is excellent. I've tried Five Elephant's coffee back home in the UK before, of course, but it is always nice to sample it closer to the source.

Five Elephant is located at Reichenberger Str. 101, Kreuzberg (there's a second Mitte cafe). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

After all that coffee, I am in need of sustenance and I walk a few blocks north to Burgermeister, a burger bar inside a former public loo under the train tracks near the River Spree. It's cash-only but I manage to break the €50 note the ATM in Amsterdam unhelpfully provided. Revitalised by the cheap but tasty cheeseburger, I cross over the Spree and walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile-long remnant of the Berlin Wall now painted with (mostly political) murals. It's a colourful and thought-provoking place to visit.

I stroll back towards the city centre and take a few photos of the Brandenburg Gate, which has a menorah and a Christmas tree in front of it. Other than the museums and historical sites, I remembered little from my 1998 trip, but somehow, ambling down the Unter den Linden brings it all back.

Later, my colleague and I dine at the mainly veggie BRLO Brwhouse, which is near our hotel. You can order a BBQ meat dish if you wish, but we stick to their 'statement vegetable' formules: one veggie main with a side and an 'on top' for €18. We both get the cauliflower, which comes with a vadouvan rub, BRLO pale ale glaze, juiced and dehydrated red cabbage, fermented Granny Smith apple and nut butter crumble. It's absolutely delicious. Of course, I go for an Old Fashioned rather than sampling the beer.

After dinner, we take the free self-guided audio tour of the Reichstag Dome. We had to book in advance, but it's worth doing if you fancy a little bit of architectural and historical information while enjoying some great views of the city. Yes, it has been a short stay in Berlin but it's been fun, interesting and very caffeinated.