Step inside...

Step inside…

I had never been to Ealing before I made my visit to check out both Paperback and another café that I’ll talk about in my next post. I had driven through, stop-starting my way along the snakelike A406, which winds through parts of the borough before throwing drivers up onto the various roads that leave London. It seemed rather grey, rather dull, lots of houses and not much else to be seen from the road. But then, having heard about a couple of cafés doing great things there, I decided to take the plunge. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is more to Ealing than the bits next to the road.

Paperback Coffee is warm, welcoming, and friendly.

It is a pretty new concern, open for less than a month when I went down with Jennifer, but there was already a pleasing fluidity to ordering and getting your stuff. The aesthetic is more local café than artisan poseur, photos and little bon mots dotting the walls rather than exposed brickwork and the like. There is a bring-and-swap bookshelf at the back, I assume a nod to the name, but also quite fun. It is light and open and a bank of seats face the counter and bar, from which the owner was happy to talk and answer questions, something I am always a fan of and especially helpful when somewhere is new. There was a cleat enthusiasm from him and is staff about what they were doing, and a sense of fun too.

The espresso. Note the pretty saucer.

The espresso. Note the pretty saucer.

The coffee was interesting, from an independent roastery called Coffeeplant who have outposts in Portobello and Wembley (I think the sales in the former, the roastery in the latter, but I may be wrong). It was quite a dark roast, which Coffeeplant are producing for Paperback as a bespoke roast, and perhaps because it was only four days old it was still a bit bright. It’s not ideal to serve coffee in that period, though in fairness Paperback were happy to discuss that and explain that, because it was such early days, they were still tinkering with the blend in consultation with the roaster. I like this kind of honesty and also the process of discussion and development of a roast, and so, while the coffee was maybe a touch bitter for me as an espresso, I appreciate what they are trying and the fact they were open to talking about it. As a piccolo, the coffee worked much more successfully anyway, rich and nutty, the darkness softened by a well-stretched blanket of milk. The espresso was £1.70 and the piccolo £2.10. Jennifer was impressed by their use of Canton Teas, a very good producer, up with Postcard Teas in my opinion (maybe just shy of them, but still…). She had a beautiful Jasmine pearl tea that was clear and light and very lovely and priced at £2.50 for a pot. It is always fantastic to see a coffee shop bothering with proper teas and knowing how to brew them; too often, I see artisan cafés skimping on this to the detriment of their overall appeal.

The bar. Chats can be had from here.

The bar. Chats can be had from here.

We also had some food, which I don’t always do, but it looked appetising. Jennifer had a very moist coconut cake, which was delightful, and I got stuck into a pesto, salami, cheddar, and sundried tomato sandwich on ciabatta. It may seem like a small point, but not only was the sandwich tasty, but it was of a decent size and priced much more reasonably than some of the miniscule, ‘artisan’ things you get more centrally, which are an insult to the sensible sandwich eater. There were a couple of other eats available too, including more sandwiches and cakes.

All in all, Paperback was a lovely spot. Unfussy, unpretentious, friendly, and serving a good range of food and drink, it’s the sort of place we felt happy to spend a few unhurried hours reading and writing. It was busy enough to have a gentle hum of things happening, but not so rammed that it was hard to concentrate. Everyone working at Paperback clearly enjoys being there, proud of what they are doing and happy to engage and talk about it. There are one or two edges to knock off where the roast is concerned, in my opinion, but the idea of a new café working directly with an independent roasters to craft something just for their café is something I am a big fan of, and a few bumps along the way are to be expected, especially when the café is new and quantities and so on are still being worked out. It is only a very minor quibble though, set against a very pleasant experience. Given the seeming lack of decent cafés west of Portobello, it is brilliant to see somewhere like Paperback appearing. Long may the further caffeination of Ealing continue!

Paperback Coffee, 153 South Ealing Road, W5 4QP

On Twitter

ChrisKitch, Muswell Hill

February 25, 2014

The outside.

The outside.

For an area that, ostensibly at least, ticks so many of the ‘artisan’ coffee boxes, Muswell Hill is oddly bereft of the sort of establishment to which one would want to travel up that steep hill. The high street concerns dominate, cluttering up the two main drags that run out of the roundabout. There are no cafés that make me go wow. However, tucked away down a leafy, otherwise residential street is a gem of another sort: ChrisKitch.

We went to try the coffee, but we stayed for everything else.

Those salads.

Those salads.

Set up fairly recently by a husband and wife team, ChrisKitch is an intimate, quiet venue beautifully appointed with sturdy, thick wooden tables and the reassuring clutter of a busy, family-run business. The kitchen is visible from the back of the shop, always a healthy and welcome sign of owner confidence. The counter brims like a harvest altar with freshly baked goods, mountainous salads, and an assortment of other goodies. When the accomplice and I visited the first time, we went to get a late, late Sunday lunch, and we were not disappointed. We both chose the three salads option, though there are also rotating main courses to go alongside. Between us, we had a green salad of beans, peas, mange touts, freshened with olive oil, mint, and given some fatty chunkiness with various nuts. There was a red salad of tomatoes, both sun-dried and roasted, pulses, and raisins. We also had an earthy chickpea and mushroom salad, made more sprightly by capers, onions, and dill. All were beautifully balanced, with varying tastes and textures through the mouthful, which was testament to the care and interest taken in sprucing up what could have been a pretty ordinary set of dishes. There was also a bread selection, all baked on site, comprising a cheese cornbread, crumbly and light, a thick, rich Guinness and blue cheese bread, and a beautiful garlic and onion bread. It was all delightful, robust home-cooking but with a degree of invention and care that elevated it above the ordinary.

Breads.

Breads.

The coffee was decent enough, but not amazing. I had to explain what a piccolo was but Chris made it gamely enough, and was also happy to accept that coffee was not the main thing they did and so he was not too clued up on it. They source their roast from a local shop in Muswell Hill who I think roast their own stuff. It comes up very dark and a bit too bitter for my tastes, but it is part of ChrisKitch’s ethos of local sourcing and so it is hard to be too critical. They get their tea from the same place and it is much better. Jen had a very pleasant, light Earl Grey. It wasn’t of the quality of a Canton or Postcard brew, but it was loose leaf and eminently drinkable.

Coffee.

Coffee.

The great joy with ChrisKitch is, aside from the food, the pleasure and the pride that Chris and his crew clearly take in their product. It reminds me of where I used to work in Oxford, the Rose, which was run by the woman who first taught me about cafés, coffee, tea, and cooking. Marianne, an inimitable Danish woman who had moved from being a very successful architect and interior designer into running a tea house and bistro to follow her passion for food and drink, ruled every aspect of her place with care and dedication. She loved talking to customers about what she was doing and why, and would have forthright discussions about ingredients or brewing methods, sometimes resulting in an amusing difference of opinions. I suspect that Chris is not quite as combative as Marianne could be, but I saw the same love of what he was doing, the same interest in what his customers thought of his product. He dallied at our table to talk about seasoning salads and thoughtfully went through all the breads, explaining why he had chosen them and what he liked about them. This is a chef who is fiercely committed to what he does, but also manages to be friendly, helpful, and engaged with his customers, an attitude that pervades through his staff as well. It is an attitude, an ethos even, that to me is a must for people running smaller scale enterprises like this, and indeed most artisan cafés. The attention to detail, the care for even the little things, is what elevates a place and drives it to be more successful. Responsiveness to and engagement with customers is probably the best way to make yourself stand out. Find what you believe in, food-wise or coffee-wise, and then advocate it in everything you do. That is what the team at ChrisKitch are doing, and I would urge you to go and find it for yourselves.

ChrisKitch, 7A Tetherdown, Muswell Hill, N10 1ND

Website with details

Also on Twitter

Little Gem, Highbury Fields

September 9, 2013

A cant name is a name that gives a clue, sometimes wholly obvious, other times tangential at best, to the character of the owner of that name. Little Gem is a cant name of the most obvious sort. A café with a strong Japanese flavour and influence, Little Gem is to be found nestled in the quieter back streets to the east of Highbury Fields, on the junction of Corsica Street and Calabria Street. These few streets make a small part of town that is calm and residential, rows of little red-bricks that are off the beaten track but very close to it. We discovered it not by chance, but following a heads-up from the Highbury Fields twitter feed; I fear that without it, this little gem (see?) would have passed the accomplice and me by.

I went arty for this one.

I went arty for this one.

We popped in on a Saturday afternoon, when many places would be heaving. This was, beneficially for us, not the case, and it was clear that the café owners, who were working the bar too, were happy to use the lulls to chat to customers about what they were up to, what they were serving, and even, in one instance, how to alter bags bought in charity shops to make them look more fun. I personally love to see this though: interaction between café owners or staff and customers is the lifeblood of any good place and LG seemed to thrive on it. Any questions I had were thoroughly answered as well, and I reckon I would have been welcome to stand there all afternoon fire off queries without becoming annoying; for a reviewer, there are few better feelings. There was a very friendly atmosphere aided by a comfy but intimate layout; size is yet another reason why this is literally a little gem.

Lovely cup, lovely piccolo

Lovely cup, lovely piccolo.

The coffee is Monmouth’s organic roast, which is in keeping with the general thrust of the venue towards organic items. The roast is quite dark and it’s not what I would call an explosively exciting blend, but the quality of the espresso and piccolo were high: the milk was especially creamy and well-stretched and the espresso was well-extracted. I don’t think I would choose this roast as a matter of course, but it is good enough and the barista had more than sufficient skill to make it, if not sing, at least dance a little. The coffee was beautifully served in little pottery cups from the Maze Hill potters from Greenwich. I don’t know enough about the subject to know what this style of pottery is called, but suffice it to say, I thought they were beautiful. The wooden spoons are classy too. The accomplice also made a very bold claim: she stated that her green tea, which is called Kabusecha and is from Gion Tsujiri in Kyoto, was the best green tea she had ever had. And trust me, she knows her tea.

The best green tea ever.

The best green tea ever.

I also had a very tasty little chicken teriyaki sandwich and a fine, soft and squidgy lemon cake; snack-wise, LG did well too. Add to that some fine illustrations of rioters and tree-loving cyclists by Eliza Southwood, which really caught my eye, and Little Gem is a superlative collection of details, beautifully assembled into a small, but beautifully formed café. A short walk from Highbury & Islington tube station, but far enough from the hubbub to be calming, this place is certainly worth a visit. Little Gem is no wet lettuce. Sorry to end on such an awful pun, but I couldn’t help myself.

Little Gem, 15 Corsica Street, N5 1JT

Facebook page with details

Also on Twitter: @LittleGemCoffee

Cake and forks.

Cake and forks.

Book & Kitchen, W11

May 7, 2013

This is a slightly different post to normal, in that it is not a full review, or even a part one. It’s simply an exhortation to go somewhere, and an excuse to post some photos. The accomplice and I had drifted to west London in search of another café which we attended with great success, more of which another day, but wandering back, we stumbled upon the absolutely delightful Book & Kitchen on the All Saints Road. They do coffee, and so I had a very fruity, exciting Yirgacheffe from a French presse as a take-away, and we both marveled at the layout of the shop, the selection of books, and loved the friendly, engaging manner of the people who worked there. There are also food items on offer, a sumptuous set of salad trays which looked very appetizing, especially the beetroot and feta amalgam, and the whole feel was of a relaxed, welcoming shop which does a variety of things very well. I would urge you all to get yourself down there. And now, some photos:

Book & Kitchen, 31 All Saints Road, W11 1HE

Website with details

Also on Twitter: @BookandKitchen

Some more books

Some more books

The kitchen area of B & K

The kitchen area of B & K

Innovative shelf titles

Innovative shelf titles

Front room feel

Front room feel

Flying tomes

Flying tomes