Friday, 31 July 2009

Naked coffee - Nude Espresso, Shoreditch

If there's one type of person that I find more generally annoying then an Australian it's a New Zealander. Self centred, self satisfied and generally selfish; and that's just their strengths. There's only so many conversations you can have about rugby, Crowded House, Hobbits and before you realise that that old theory about island's isolating the mind may have some substance. Admittedly I'm being a little unfair. Many of my good friends are of the Kiwi bretheren. And of course, I'm one of the indigenous ones. However one thing I will give my compatriots is that the few things that they do well, they do very well. Fantastic in fact. NZ butter is in my humble opinion the best in the world despite the protestations of Johnny Rotten. The lamb of course is world renowned. And only Kiwis could focus on two wine grapes - Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as it happens - and develop an internationally recognised and acclaimed brand.
But something else that had certainly crept under my radar has been the emergence of NZ as a force in coffee, or more particularly coffee bars. This is weirder then it sounds. We don't grow coffee beans in New Zealand, and unless my university history degree is letting me down, I don't recall us ever showing any 'form' in the coffee culture stakes. Australia with their large Greek and Italian communities, definitely. But New Zealand - full of farmers and failed rugby players? Give me a break. Now NZ readers of this blog will no doubt complain that its always had a vibrant coffee scene. But the fact is that what amounted to Kiwi cafe culture was originally one street in Auckland and one in Wellington. Not exactly little Italy.
But in London town, NZ run coffee bars are celebrated as among the cause célèbre of the genre, with Flat White, the Milk Bar and the Sacred Cafe all making their mark in the West End. Meanwhile out East there is the glorious Nude Espresso which I popped into last week whilst my company was preparing for a fire. As you do.
Nude Espresso, just across the road from the Truman Brewery on Hanbury Street, is in the heart of London's hipsville and the clientele are your creative industry favourites of graphic and fashion designers, interspersed with shop owners, craftspeople and funky Japanese tourists. The 'converted Victorian terrace is spacious and funky without feeling over-designed or trend conscious and the staff are all warmth and charm. But of course people come here for the coffee and you won't be disappointed. The Flat Whites - a double espresso with 'flat white' milk overlaid was apparently 'invented' in the Antipodes. Whether that's actually true, they certainly have been adopted as their own by the ANZAC countries, and are the benchmark for any kiwi coffee bar. Nude Espresso's are superb. Beautifully flavoured with just the right mix of coffee to milk. Easier said then done as any Starbuckers will tell you. The food is simple but organic with the feta cheese scones and toasted foccaccia sandwiches (chicken in my case) being pretty tasty. I didn't try the cakes or cookies (damned diet) but they certainly looked the part.
The place is owned by Kiwis and staffed by Australians who seem intent on overturning my prejudices by being charming, gracious and very, very friendly. All of which combine to make it a great little coffee bar. One to check out if you're ever out East.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Stairway to Food Heaven - Upstairs Restaurant, Brixton

In Auckland in the eighties and nineties there used to be a nightclub called Staircase. And if memory serves me correctly it was a terrible place – bad music, bad look, bad entertainment. However it did have three claims to fame. First it was Auckland's most famously gay club. Not much competition at the time, but this is NZ we're talking about. Second it was occasionally hosted by a one-legged 50's rock n roller who did a mean piano. And third, it played a part in launching the career of a bona fide celebrity in Russell Crowe, or Russ le Roq as he was known then. Each of these elements on their own sit at odds with the 80's Auckland of my nostalgia, and all of them combined make the Staircase seem rather out of place in the capital of Polynesia.
Many years on finds me segue waying rather awkwardly into somewhere equally out of context with its surroundings but which also makes a virtue of its stairs - the underwhelmingly named Upstairs Restaurant in Brixton. Fine French cuisine doesn’t just sit at odds with Afro-Caribbean city, it’s a complete anomaly. Nevertheless Brixton has moved on a shade from its drug fuelled clubbing scene of yesteryear (just a shade mind you) and Upstairs has been around since 2005, so maybe it was time to give the place a chance.
And that we did last week when an erstwhile crew of the Northerner, the Rock Star and his other half Betty Boo for a cheeky champers and dinner date. Upstairs resides ‘speakeasy’ style, in a converted town house just off Acre Lane, and the contrast with the street and its surroundings is dramatic. Heading up the stairs you are greeted by a groovy little bar, before ascending once more into the intimate, romantic space that works as its dining room.
Taking in the minimalist set menu (2 courses for £22, 3 courses for £26) three of us settled on the grilled goats cheese and summer vegetable starters, while the Rock Star devoured a divine looking (and tasting apparently) veal and foie gras burger. For the mains we covered all bases, with Betty Boo taking in the Pea and Girolle risotto, the Northerner and the Rock Star choosing the Sea Bream and Sauce Viere, while yours truly settled on the Duck Breast with Cocotte potatoes (whatever that means). Having a sneaky sample of all of the mains I can say that the presentation, portions and most importantly flavours were superb. My duck was the best I’ve had outside of France for a long time, and the fact that we were all equally reluctant to share our food indicates how good it was. And how greedy we are.
Desserts always had a hard act to follow and my choice of Chocolate and Ginger crème brulee was even too rich for a chocolate fanatic like me. However the Vanilla Panacotta was light fluffy and flavoursome while the Summer Pudding certainly looked good – which was as close as anyone was prepared to let me get.
We washed it down with two bottles of French red wine, which the Rock Star chose so I’ll blame him for any inconsistency. Nevertheless they were pretty good nick, and noone wept when we receive the bill, so I’ll assume fairly priced.
Upstairs is a wonderful little place to eat, certainly better then anything neighbouring Clapham has to offer and not as clichéd as other French style bistros in the SW / SE corner of London. And maybe I was wrong to suggest it sits at odds with its location, and perhaps it enhances and complements the surroundings. Whatever - no Russell Crowe no drug-fuelled clubbers (that I noticed) just great food, atmosphere and service. In Brixton even - who would have thought.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Long Good Thursday - 1802, Canary Wharf

I recently watched the Long Good Friday, the wonderful Bob Hoskins and Helen's Mirren film, and was struck by two things. First, the fact that it must be one of, if not the best British films of recent times. It's certainly the best gangster movie despite what the former Mr Madonna thinks. And second, what an awful, rundown god-forsaken place that London was back then. I know, it's only a movie, but other documentaries have confirmed that the place was a dump - a far cry from the Cool Britannia era that marked the beginning of my London life. Of course this can be a controversial view. Particularly among the cockney and fashionista crowds that I know, who adore London past and present with the reverence one might bestow upon a rock star or similar. However one area which everyone agrees does not enjoy the best of reputations is Docklands, now rebranded and famous as Canary Wharf - the star of the Long Good Friday, and the self-appointed 'Hong Kong' of London.
I was out there last week to 'celebrate' KZ's leaving bash from a very well-known media company which she held at 1802 - arguably the best bar in that funny part of the world. 1802 which was originally a rum and sugar warehouse, has since been given the conversion treatment and is now a highly stylised bar and restaurant which weirdly also doubles up as a museum. Only in London.
What makes 1802 unique in these neck of the woods is that its one of the only non-chain bar / venues in the area, and you can tell. A cool DJ spinning his discs while city (as opposed to pretty) young things knock bar exotic lagers and very decent wine makes for a nice bar. Best of all is the West India Quay location which means loads of outside space set against a 'Hong Kong'esque backdrop make it a very pretty little drinking place. I haven't eaten there yet - not many people I know have, but those that have swear by the food, and given the ample evidence of their expertise in gastro matters through their thickening waistlines, I'm happy to accept that. KZ had as ever attracted a sterling crowd including such Wharf luminaries as the Don and the Magician for whom age, marriage and children seems to have had little if any effect on their social lives. Outstanding.
But back to the bar. The wharf isn't everyone's cup of tea, and one has to admit that despite the frequently festive atmosphere, particularly on the Quay, the place can be a little... sterile. However 1802 is a great spot for a bit of drinking alfresco and it certainly heats up later on. I have been many times before. I no doubt will visit again.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Vintage Stuff - The Green, Clerkenwell

Listening to feedback is not one of my strengths. As per the tabs at the base of this blog, if you don't think I'm funny, interesting or cool, then 1) I assume you don't know me; 2) you haven 't heard or read me; 3) you have a problem; or 4) a combination of points 1, 2 and 3. However every so often you have to doff your proverbial cap to someone who has both superior knowledge and experience in your chosen field. Thus it was that when I met the Design Journalist - who has an impressive record of writing and editing in broadsheet newspapers and quality magazines to her name - I thought I should pay attention. 'Nice blog but you should write about the food' she said.
And in an instant the editorial direction of this blog had changed and food from here on in, would receive equal billing with drinks. Despite the diet.
So on a warm Sunday afternoon in which the Northerner and I had spent hanging with the funky and pretty young things at the Clerkenwell Vintage Fair, we decided that we needed to find a place to rest our wary legs, take a drink or three and hopefully a spot of lunch. We stumbled on The Green in Clerkenwell - a fabulous little corner pub which came complete with three hip and funky bar staff / waiters, a rock n roll charged jukebox and best of all the promise of a 'legendary Sunday lunch'. Music to the our hungry ears. And the food was definitely very good if falling slight short of legendary. The Northerner's roast chicken seasoned with fresh herbs was succulent and flavoursome. I opted for the pork (apparently it's on my diet), which despite the fact that I had to leave the crackling was nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked. The roasted stuffed apple was a nice touch. Oh and any pub that gives you five (yes five) roast potatoes each plus a healthy smattering of greens and near perfect Yorkshire puddings is worth another visit. Desserts of rhubarb crumble and ice cream, and seasonal strawberries and cream were equally top notch.
The pub itself was full of well-off 30-somethings who can afford and choose to live in what is an undoubtedly affluent area - they seemed to be recovering from or topping up their hangovers which gave the place a buzzy atmosphere. Something which was amped up several notches when by chance we bumped into Heavy D, his bro the Photographer and my new friend / cum critic the Design Editor. A couple of raucous rounds and attention-demanding stories later and I don't think anyone was in the mood for stemming the flow of drinks, much less leaving until common sense prevailed. But back to the Green, which is a lovely little pub, and merits at least a visit for the food alone. Did you see I mentioned food again? Who says I don't do feedback.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Fishing in the Market - Applebees, Borough Market

Dieting is an ugly word in the small New Zealand town where I'm from. People don't talk about or understand the concept. They certainly don't do it. So when I met the Northerner and Heavy D at our old favourite the Golden Heart for a couple of after work sharpeners, and explained to them that yours truly was 'counting calories', they were sceptical to say the least. 'It's a health thing' I claimed as I sipped on my cranberry and slimline tonic and looked longingly at their lime topped lagers.
Disbelieving friends aside, the other challenge I've encountered is finding 'good food' to eat that meets my carefully prescribed menu plan. When bread, red meat and chips are off the menu it tends to eliminate a lot of my favourite casual eating haunts.
Fortunately fish is one of the recommended dishes and happens to be a personal favourite, so having sufficiently bored my two friends with my nutritional conversation points , the Northerner and I rocked down to the wonderful Borough Market and dropped into Applebees.
This place does fish, shellfish and more fish with a serving of steak thrown in for good measure. No hip or pretty young things here, but a good collection of locals and people celebrating Friday night lights, which gave it the necessary buzz that the Northerner and I look for in a post-drinks eating place. The food was superb, the drinks were top quality and fairly priced, and the service was flirtatiously inefficient which worked just fine for the tipsy clientele. It's not as loud as nearby Black and Blue, as upmarket as Roast, nor as busy-crowded as Wright Brothers Oyster Bar, but it's a fine little venue nevertheless, and a hands down winner on the fish front. Whether it worked for my diet will be revealed in Monday's weigh-in.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The best of the best - Kaoe Bar in Athens

It's all Greek to me, is an expression that I've never fully understood until my recent two week jaunt in this wonderful country. The Northerner and I were there for one of her best friends wedding, which took place on the truly beautiful but quiet island of Andros. Given the opportunity we turned it into a full on bar, beach and island hopping tour that included Syros, Mykonos and of course Athens.
And of all the wonderful bars that we visited Kaoe was the best. In fact it was the best bar that the Northerner and I have visited in years. Honestly it was that good. Of course looking at the (deliberately selected) picture you may not see the appeal of a place with two elderly men sitting outside a tiny cafe / bar in a mechanics yard. But that is the point. Let me explain.
Before I get into writing about this bar, have you spotted the deliberate spelling mistake? If you look at the photo you can see the name of the bar peaking through in what looks like Kaoe, but in Greek is Kappa, Alpha, Phi, Epsilon - the Phi being the o with the strike through the centre. As I can't get that character on my keyboard I've had to spell it in English. Apologies to you grammarians who seem to constitute a rather large percentage of my readership.
Kaoe is located by chances across the road from the wonderful boutique hotel that we stayed in, Ochre and Brown at 7 Leokoriou in the hipper then hip Psyrri district. Think Shoreditch in the late eighties / early nineties, or the lower East side back in the day and you have Psyrri. Kaoe is set in a courtyard the entrance to which is 'guarded' by an elderly gentleman, his vintage shop and his Alsatian. The bar shares the space with a furniture maker, bronze mason, second hand radio shop, record / CD shop and a small block of apartments. And by day it is what it is - a working, functioning part of the city. However by night it is transformed. The courtyard, where the workers and local residents park their scooters becomes the main space of the bar, the apartment block becomes a screen, and the place comes to life as Psyrri's artist community and hip young things enjoy superb drinks and a great atmosphere set against a backdrop of screenings and some funky retro DJ sets. It is the sort of place that the desperately cool in Dalston or downtown Manhattan would love to try and create but just cant. They simply don't have the raw materials of an artisans and artists working side by side that a crumbling city like Athens does. Is the bar a little contrived? Possibly. But what bar isn't. This place was so good that we went there twice in two nights.
Finally you can't seem to Google it, spell it if you have an English keyboard, and therefore find it. So if you want to go I suggest you find the O&B Hotel and take you directions from there. It's all Greek to me - makes sense really.