The Espresso Room, Great Ormond St

May 15, 2012

Bloomsbury – a nebulous area mixing office blocks, expensive flats, good shopping, a literary history – always seems to me to be missing something. Perhaps it’s the transient nature of a place that feels like its trying a bit too hard to generate a sense of community where mostly there is none. I know that culturally there is a rich and strong identity here, but I can’t escape the sense that there’s just too much coming and going, too much rootlessness in an area which seems to market itself predominantly as somewhere to visit. And any locale which sees fit to identify and re-brand in the way Bloomsbury has branded itself Midtown speaks of a certain uneasiness about who it is and why it’s there; as Dave Hill points out in the link, the area already has much to commend it, but it seems to forget that in the rush to create a somewhat artificial sense of identity. And so I suppose it is fitting that my criticism of the place I’ve most recently visited, The Espresso Room, is less about its product and more about its self-presentation.

Because The Espresso Room also feels like it’s trying a bit too hard.

The Espresso Room

This is a shame, because, actually, the coffee is good. The standard roast is the very pleasant Square Mile Red Brick blend, which has bite and gusto. The espresso shot was well-made, though not perfect: the water was perhaps a little too hot which led to a slight over-extraction, resulting in a touch more bitterness than I might want. But the roast’s complexity works well in its purest form and the richness of the bottom of the cup compensated largely for the acidity until the final mouthful, which was a bit too raw. The shot was also served with a glass of cold water that I didn’t have to ask for, which I thought was a nice touch. The macchiato was poured, not dolloped, which always make me happy, and the barista asked me how much milk I wanted so that I could get the blend to my bespoke tastes. I like this approach, because it doesn’t do to be didactic about so various a product in my opinion, and I appreciate the sense that the coffee is being made for me to drink, not for them to sell, if that makes sense. The milk was done very well, light and swirly, and it produced a pleasing effect settling on the crema of the shot, as evidenced by the picture below. So far, so pretty good, so what’s my quibble?

Well, and this might seem unreasonable, but TER also demonstrates an attitude I personally don’t much enjoy in any business, especially one as subjective and personal as coffee. I think we have three main drivers for where we go for a cup: there’s the local favourite, a nearby-haunt where they know our order and we know it’s good; there’s the place near work which is quick and convenient and does the caffeine job; and lastly, there’s anywhere we happen upon while we’re out grazing and exploring. Part of the huge fun of being in London is that there is a kaleidoscope of coffee houses and mobile bars where you can chance to find yourself, and if they’re good, you can discuss it and recommend it and even write about it. The best venues know this: they know that you’ll be or become a regular, that you’ll stumble upon them and you’ll like them or you won’t. But the best venues don’t need to blurt about their quality. They know it speaks for itself and, in this vibrant environment, which is brilliantly rich for us consumers, good places become known as such and survive without the need for irksome, relentless self-promotion.

The Espresso Room

Sadly, for me, TER lets itself down here. Because it’s just a bit too smug for my tastes. In the same way that Midtown is a bit of a shouty branding exercise, The Espresso Room is not content to let its coffee to the talking. On a previous visit, I was asked if I was on a coffee tour, because if I were, the barista could recommend ‘some other great places’, such as Prufrock (which is great). There was a touch of self-satisfaction amidst the helpfulness there that I found disconcerting. Likewise, the Twitter feed states that TER is a ‘unique’ venue, serving ‘the best coffee in Bloomsbury’. I’m just not sure it’s either of those things. For one, I don’t know how it’s unique. It is very small, that’s true, but it serves a popular blend and a very good selection of other coffees to buy in bulk like lots of other places. I don’t think it’s the best coffee in Bloomsbury either. I’ll keep my counsel on that for now, but I would highlight Tapped and Packed (on Tottenham Court Road) and Store Street Espresso (yes, you guessed where) as two equally, if not more valid, contenders for that accolade. But the point is, it’s my opinion. And I’m sure that both above-named venues would not make the same claims for themselves. And once you have that impression of a place, it can be hard to shake. The basic tea brew at TER is advertised on the wall as ‘BUILDER’S’, which could be funny but comes across instead as at best a bit of an affectation, and at worst rather patronising.

All of this is a shame when set against the genuinely good coffee. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the woman who served me today was cheery and not at all smug. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but this is something I feel strongly about. I started writing this blog because I went to a place near where I live that I loved and I wanted to tell people about it. I also know that anything I write here is my opinion and no more, and that’s the fun. Drinking coffee is inherently social as a pastime and subjective as a passion, and the best places accept and even appreciate that. TER should let its coffee do the talking, or it is in danger of shouting itself hoarse.

The Espresso Room, 31-35 Great Ormond Street, WC1N 3HZ

Website with details

Also on Twitter: @theepressoroom

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