0 New

29 July 2016

The Caffeine Chronicles: Prufrock Revisited

I've featured my search for good speciality coffee in London, New York and beyond on this blog since 2008, but I didn't start posting detailed reviews until 2012 when I launched my Caffeine Chronicles series. My second ever Caffeine Chronicles post was about perennial Clerkenwell favourite Prufrock, and it remains one of my most read blog posts. I can just about get to Prufrock and back from my King's Cross office in a lunch hour and I used to go regularly, but as my lunch breaks have shrunk and often vanished, my visits to the Leather Lane café have become less frequent.

Although I love to try out new coffee places, the hunt for the next great thing can mean that I neglect old favourites — and Prufrock has remained in my top ten London coffee shops since 2012 (I hadn't discovered it in time for my first list in 2011). This is a rather long-winded way of introducing my return to Prufrock for weekend brunch a couple of weeks ago, but the take-home message is that favourite places are usually favourites for a reason and that the pleasure of re-discovery is as great as the joy of discovery.

Prufrock itself needs little introduction: founded in 2009 by former World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies and Jeremy Challender, it started life as a (now-defunct) concession in a men's boutique in Shoreditch High Street, before expanding to the large, airy café and barista training school on Leather Lane. The name is, of course, a reference to the eponymous narrator of T.S. Eliot's poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, who talks of measuring out his life with coffee spoons. Whimsy is one of the café's best features: I love that the eight-ounce takeaway cups feature an illustration of an eight-legged creature (currently a crab), the six-ounce cups a six-legged creature (currently a cricket) and the four-ounce cups the signature Prufrock bunny.

Leather Lane itself is very hectic during the week when market stalls take up the road and much of the pavement, but it's usually calmer at the weekend. I arrived at Prufrock just before noon on a Sunday and it wasn't yet too busy — by the time I left, some 90 minutes later, there were barely any free tables and a queue had formed at the coffee bar. There's another motto: the early bird gets the avocado toast.

The coffee menu is, as you might expect, extensive with various single-origins from Square Mile, Tim Wendelboe and Colonna. I ordered a piccolo (£2.60) and then asked the barista for advice on my filter choice: there was a Colombian coffee roasted by Tim Wendelboe brewed through the Chemex, and two V60s, a Colombian from Colonna and a Kenyan from Square Mile (all £5). The barista recommended the latter and so I went for it. It had been at least a week since my last avocado toast so I ordered that too (£6.50). Twist ending, I know.

I took a seat opposite the coffee bar — coincidentally, I ended up sitting at the same table as on my first visit — and just next to the wall display of spoons; Eliot (and Private Eye) would be proud. My piccolo arrived first and it was both beautifully presented and impeccably prepared: rich, strong and smooth, and with the perfect amount of milk to bring out rather than mask the flavours of the coffee.

The V60 was also excellent. I sometimes struggle to pick out the flavour profiles even when I know what they are but as soon as I brought the cup to my lips, my nose picked up the blackcurrant notes right away. I looked up the coffee (a Gichathaini PB) when I got home and was pleased to see that I had got it right for once.

Prufrock does a mean avocado toast: thin slices of avocado on a hunk of sourdough toast, with olive oil and a liberal sprinkling of chilli. £6.50 is a little pricey given that it wasn't the hugest portion, but it's hard to mind when it tasted so great. If you aren't in the mood for brunch, there are a few lunch dishes too and a selection of cakes — the 50p brownie bites are hard to resist.

Prufrock is also a great place to come for a little coffee-themed retail therapy. They sell various bags of coffee beans and a bewildering assortment of coffee-making equipment and coffee-related books. And if you'd like to sign up for some barista training, they run SCAE courses at various levels.

Absence certainly did make my heart grow fonder in the case of Prufrock. It's still one of my favourite coffee shops in London and I'm going to try to go back more often — on lunch breaks or otherwise. In the words of J. Alfred Prufrock himself, "Let us go and make our visit."

Prufrock Coffee. 23–25 Leather Lane, London, EC1N 7TE (Tube: Farringdon or Chancery Lane). Website. Twitter. Instagram. My original 2012 review.

27 July 2016

Swing When You're Winning: Swingers London

When I was much younger and my dad was going through a golf phase, he would sometimes take my brother and me with him to the local driving range. I would work my way through a bucket of balls, hitting them into the abyss — too much power and not enough control was always my problem. It's an issue that is exacerbated on crazy golf courses where my solution is to whack the ball as hard as I can and hope for the best.

Despite my lack of skill, I was, however, very excited when my brother managed to acquire a batch of tickets for Swingers, a 1920s-themed crazy golf venue hidden away underground near the foot of the Gherkin. We went on a sweltering evening last week; I hadn't done my research and had assumed it would be outside with views of The City and, more importantly, a breeze but in fact it was indoors, underground and a little too warm. That said, we had a fantastic night so I would definitely recommend trying to get tickets (they keep about half of tickets for walk-ins but you can book online here). A game costs £13.

While we waited for our tee-off time, we hung out at the central club house bar. The cocktail menu was seriously impressive, with most cocktails costing £9–11. I started with a salted maple pecan butter flip (rum, egg whites and, of course, salted maple pecan butter syrup), which was rather sweet but very tasty. After our game, I opted for the more seasonally appropriate passion fruit julep, which was delicious and refreshing and came with half a passion fruit balanced precariously on top of the crushed ice. Both drinks were expertly mixed.

There are also several street-food vendors in the building: I had a hard time choosing between Pizza Pilgrims and Patty & Bun, but ended up choosing the latter as I eat there less often. Slightly confusingly, you order all food at the central bar and are then given a ticket with a number on it. When your number turns red on one of the many monitors, you can collect your food from the vendor. "It's just like Argos," one of my friends said. It is more convenient for groups, though, once you know the system. I had the 'Colin Montgomery' (£10) — a burger with bacon, lettuce, ketchup, special sauce and — bien sûr — Montgomery cheddar. It came perfectly medium rare and was juicy, messy and bloody delicious.

Finally, it was golf time. Our group of seven was split into a group of three and a group of four, so we had a girls' team and a guys' team. There are two different nine-hole courses at Swingers, The Lighthouse and The Windmill, and we were playing on the former. It was pretty busy on the course — the staff to try to space groups out but there are inevitable bottlenecks, and it seemed like there were a few too many 'caddies' on hand to take drinks orders given the available space.

I was doing OK — getting par on two holes and even a birdie on one hole — with my standard strategy of hitting the ball as hard as I could; sadly, my ability to close was less successful and I ended up taking six shots to complete a hole that I could have done in three.

Still, it was the final hole that was my undoing: a doughnut-shaped spiral with a central sandpit that had no protective ridge to stop the ball falling in. My ball went straight into the sand and in an ill-advised attempt to chip it out, I ended up hitting my sister-in-law with it (she was fine) and spraying everyone with sand. This put me in second place in our group of four by one point (shot?), which was a bit of a shame. We all had a great time, though, and I would definitely like to have another game.

We stayed on for another drink and then I decided to walk off my burger by heading home on foot. It was nice to walk through The City by night and then it turned out that Tower Bridge was closed to traffic after a nasty accident, which meant I had a rare glimpse of my local river crossing without the cars — a somewhat eerie experience.

Swingers. 8 Brown’s Buildings, London, EC3A 8AL (Tube: Bank or Aldgate). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

25 July 2016

The Caffeine Chronicles: Frequency Coffee

The King's Cross speciality scene is developing slowly but surely with Caravan, Notes, Pattern and Lanark all clustered fairly close to King's Cross station. There are some great options in Islington and Clerkenwell too but there hasn't been anywhere to get good coffee in the triangle between these three areas. That's why coffee- and music-lover Justo didn't waste any time when he spotted a vacant shop on King's Cross Road, a few minutes' south-east of King's Cross station.

Frequency, whose name reflects Justo's musical interests, opened a few weeks ago but I only noticed it when I was walking past on the way home from work one evening last week. I went back the following day and am pleased to report that the café makes a great addition to the neighbourhood. The décor also echoes Frequency's musical theme: rather uniquely, the coffee bar is kitted out with sound-proofing — to great effect — and red cords that mimic sound waves hang from the ceiling. Wooden bar tables skirt around the café's perimeter and there are a few smaller tables, more suitable for working, near the door and in the back room.

The coffee is from Workshop — down the line, they hope to offer a few guest coffees too — and there were espresso (Cult of Done) and filter (Los Altares) options available. I'd been having a tough day at work and double coffee seemed to be the answer, so I ordered both a piccolo (£2.80) and a filter coffee, brewed through the Aeropress (£2.80) — they will also brew you a V60 if you would like.

My piccolo was on the long side — it was probably closer to a flat white in volume, and the price reflected that — but it was well prepared and the latte art heart endured right to the bottom. Despite the greater quantity of milk than I usually prefer, the coffee was smooth and flavoursome. The filter coffee was the real star, though: the subtle sweet and fruity and notes came through very nicely indeed. Plus, the milk came served in two tiny little vials — I drink my coffee black but the presentation was adorable.

Frequency also sells a few sandwiches, cakes and sweet treats — the chocolate chip cookie looked particularly delicious, although £2.70 felt like slightly too high a price point. There is a bigger room in the basement, which isn't open yet — the plan is to host live music and other musical events down there but, understandably, Justo and his team are focusing on the coffee for now. And why not when they're doing such a great job?

Frequency Coffee. 121 King's Cross Road, London, WC1X 9NH (Tube: King's Cross). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

20 July 2016

The Right Side of the Tracks: Bone Daddies, Bermondsey

Since my trip to Japan in 2014, I've been on a bit of a ramen kick but somehow hadn't made it to Bone Daddies, which opened to much acclaim in 2012 thanks to its tasty bowls of Japanese comfort food. The Soho original now has several sister restaurants, including one in Old Street, which opened a few weeks ago. Of more interest to this Bermondsey blogger, however, is their Spa Terminus location in one of the railway arches on the Old Jamaica Road.

The Bermondsey ramen bar is officially designated the 'development kitchen' and is, at present, open only on Saturdays from noon until 10 pm. Most of the other producers in the area are open to retail customers on Saturdays too — as is the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Indeed, one of the beer mile stops, UBREW, is right next door to Bone Daddies, and during my visit, there was a party of Hawaiian-shirt-clad lads, who were weighing up the pros and cons of mid-Beer Mile ramen.

There are a dozen or so small tables inside and a few more tables in the yard outside. It was an unusually clement summer Saturday, so I decided to sit outside. Most of the dishes on the menu are ramen noodle based but there are also plenty of snacks and sides. The fried chicken is supposed to be amazing and there was a special fried chicken bun on the menu that day, but given how filling ramen can be, I decided to leave room for my main course.

I had made up my mind that I would order the T22 (mustard leaf, nori, chicken and cock scratchings in a chicken bone broth; £10) but when I heard the specials I changed my mind. The Bermondsey Bone Daddies often offers sneak previews of future menu items at the other restaurants, and I really liked the sound of the special salmon ramen, which came with fried salmon, nori (seaweed) and chilli in a salmon bone broth (£11).

Well, I think I made the right call. The salmon was delicious and a little less heavy on such a hot day. The broth was very rich and flavoursome and the noodles had just the right amount of 'bite'. I added a few cloves of garlic because I love garlic; next time I might be tempted to add one of the extra toppings, which range in price from 50p to £3. £11 is a lot of money for what is essentially a bowl of noodle soup, but the ingredients were very high quality and the portions generous. I was still full nine hours later and ended up skipping dinner.

For dessert, they were serving mix-and-match mochi ice cream at £1.50 per mochi. I am not normally a huge fan of mochi but the hazelnut and coconut flavours tempted me so I ordered one of each and they were rather good, although I think I was too full to properly appreciate them. There was one cocktail on the menu — a frozen yuzu margherita, which sounded great but a little hardcore for a quick early lunch — and a few beers, wines and soft drinks. Oh, and there is sake, which I would definitely order if I was going back with a group of friends but felt a little extravagant.

Bone Daddies' Bermondsey ramen bar is a short walk from Bermondsey Tube station and from the Spa Terminus and Maltby Street markets. The geography around the railway arches can get a little confusing so do keep an eye on your map (Google Maps places it further from UBREW than it is); there are also helpful signs along the way and once you've reached the Old Jamaica Road, you are almost there. It's well worth the hunt, in any case, because the food is great and there is a fun but casual atmosphere.

Bone Daddies. Unit 27-28 Old Jamaica Business Estate, 24 Old Jamaica Road, London, SE16 4AW (Tube: Bermondsey). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

18 July 2016

10 Great Places for Speciality Coffee in Oxford

Regular readers will know that I grew up in Oxford before jumping ship to The Other Place for university. I still go back several times a year to visit my parents and it was on my most recent trip that I realised that Oxford finally had enough speciality coffee spots for me to put together a guide and map (excuse the seasonally incongruous photo). But first, a brief 'origin' story...

When I was at school, it was pretty difficult to find good coffee in the city but it didn't matter to me because I used to hate coffee and, in fact, all hot drinks. It was only when, in my last year of school, I started working long weekend shifts at a popular Oxford sandwich shop and had full access to the espresso machine that I started to drink the stuff — first out of necessity and then because I liked it. This was back at the turn of the millennium — some years before the third-wave rolled into the city (Oxford is quite far inland) — and although latte art wasn't part of my training, I could whip up a mean cappuccino at the perfect weight and temperature. To my shame, as recently as 2002, I had to apologise to a customer for not knowing what a macchiato was (eek!). However, I soon achieved the status of coffee lover and I have never looked back.

Starting with the arrival of The Missing Bean in 2009, Oxford has also been on a coffee journey over the past seven years or so. East Oxford has become a 'hub' for speciality coffee, but there are a few other options in the city centre and elsewhere. Here are a few of my picks:

City Centre
Society Café
A haven of calm, great design and even better coffee right in the heart of the city, Society Café is a very welcome addition to Oxford's coffee scene. There are two single-origin filter coffees and two single-origin espressos on offer from Origin and Round Hill, and both the Aeropress-brewed filter and the piccolo I tried were excellent. The café itself is highly Instagrammable — the turquoise coffee machine and the wooden coffee bar are particularly beautiful — but crucially, this does not come at the expense of top-quality coffee.

Society Café is located at 12–16 St Michael's Street, Oxford OX1 2DU. Website. Twitter. Instagram. My review.

The Missing Bean
You'll notice that The Missing Bean comes up a few times in this post and that's because it is — rightly — credited with kickstarting Oxford's speciality coffee scene. The first Missing Bean café is located in the historic Turl Street, opposite the alma maters of Tolkein and Dr Seuss, among many others. The café is often busy and has a vibrant, bustling atmosphere thanks to the combination of students and locals who form its customer base. They now roast their own coffee (see the East Oxford section) and brew up very good espresso-based drinks. There is usually a good range of pastries, sweet treats and sandwiches on offer too.

The Missing Bean is located at 14 Turl Street, Oxford OX1 3DQ. Website. Twitter. Instagram. My review.

Modern Art Oxford Café
Despite having lived in Oxford for many years (and worked in the tourist information centre for three summers), I had never been Modern Art Oxford until my brother got a temporary job at the café and told me that the coffee was rather good; he received training from Monmouth. When we went back a few years ago, they were serving local Ue coffee (they now use Da Vinci coffee), and I had a pretty good macchiato. There are better coffee spots in the city centre, but if you are passing by and in need of a coffee or cake break, this is a good option.

Modern Art Oxford is located at 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP. Website. Twitter. My review.

The Handle Bar
Just along the road from Society Café is Oxford city centre's premier cycling café. A sign outside The Handle Bar proclaims that it serves the best coffee in Oxford, but sadly, when I walked past earlier this month I had already had eight coffees that day (!) and didn't get the chance to assess this claim. It seems to have developed quite a following, though, and is acclaimed for its food (especially brunch) as for its coffee. It's on my list for my next trip to Oxford, but let me know in the comments if you have already been.

The Handle Bar is located at 28-32 St Michael's St, Oxford OX1 2EB. Facebook.

North Oxford
This tiny and beautifully styled coffee shop has the honour of serving me my first ever Oxford pourover. BREW is located on North Parade (NB, this is south of South Parade!) in Parktown, a 15-minute walk from the city centre. You can't help but admire the gorgeous copper coffee machine on the bar or the quirky vintage décor, but the coffee is excellent too — both in espresso and pourover formats. If you head up here, Walton Street makes for a more interesting route than the Banbury Road.

BREW is located at 75B Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE (enter on North Parade). Website. Twitter. My review.

East Oxford
The Missing Bean Roastery
The Missing Bean opened its Magdalen Road roastery in 2014 and you can now stop by from Tuesday to Saturday to buy beans, watch a roast or enjoy a cup of speciality coffee. They serve espresso-based drinks, pourovers, cold brew and espresso tonic, made using a dizzying array of single-origin varieties. Both the pourover and the V60 I tried were very good and I took home a bag of Rwandan beans, which have been tasting great in my Aeropress at home. It's a cosy, colourful spot and well worth the walk from the city centre.

The Missing Bean Roastery is located at 1 Newtec Place, Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RE. WebsiteTwitterInstagramMy review.

Quarter Horse Coffee
Based in one of the most interesting stretches of Oxford's vibrant Cowley Road, Quarter Horse opened up in 2012. When I visited last summer, the décor was cosy and rather rustic, but it has since had a bit of a revamp. I also enjoyed the Aeropress-brewed pourover and cold brew, as well as the bag of beans I took home with me. I've also had very good macchiatos there.

Quarter Horse is located at 76 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JB. Website. Twitter. Instagram. My review.

Joe Perks & Co
If you are on the hunt for the finest espresso martini in Oxford, look no further. Joe Perks is really a cocktail bar but they also serve fine coffee and brunch. During my visit, I talked the staff into making me an espresso tonic. Unfortunately, it didn't make it onto the menu but once you see the creative cocktails they serve, you probably won't mind. If you are lucky, you may even meet the elusive Joe Perks — but don't count on it!

Joe Perks & Co is located at 76 St Clement's, Oxford, OX4 1AH. Website. Twitter. Instagram. My review.

Mostro Coffee
The Bear & the Bean
This is where things get a little complicated... The Keen Bean Coffee Club, which used to be based inside the indie music shop Truck Store, has now moved across the Cowley Road to The Bear & the Bean. I reviewed the Keen Bean in its Truck Store home two years ago, but haven't had the chance to check out Mostro Coffee yet. I loved the ambiance in the Truck Store and the Keen Bean baristas made me a mean pourover (it's currently featured in the centre of my blog header).

Meanwhile, The Bear & the Bean is cute, cosy and colourful. They sell a few photography-themed products and serve coffee from local Jericho Coffee Traders. The cold brew I had was slightly on the weak side but the espresso was very good.

Mostro Coffee is located at 101 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1HU. Website. Twitter. My (Keen Bean) review.
The Bear & the Bean is located at 98 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JE. Facebook.