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18 March 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Crispin

Crispin, a new all-day eatery in Spitalfields, might be the pointiest café I've been to, and happily, the coffee and food are also on point. The geometrically striking glass and zinc building is located on the corner of Crispin Street and White's Row, a block south of Spitalfields Market. It's run by the team behind Lundenwic, the small Aldwych coffee shop that made it into my 2016 food and drink awards. As such, my expectations were high.

I first came across Crispin late last summer on my way to Spitalfields Market, but I was a day early: the venue hadn't quite opened. Several months later, I return for a late Saturday brunch. I worry that I'm a little too late as it's very busy inside, but the staff find a space for me at the high table at the window, just opposite the counter. There are more tables further back, and with its large windows and light-wood furniture, it's very light and airy inside despite the confines of the shape of the space. On more clement days, there is additional seating on the terrace.

The coffee is from Assembly and Round Hill Roastery, two of my favourite UK roasters. There's a Costa Rican Round Hill coffee available as a filter coffee, but I opt for a piccolo with a Guatemalan Finca Rabanales espresso roasted by Assembly. With its smooth milk chocolate and caramel notes, this coffee tastes great with a little milk.

The brunch menu is very appealing, with some more classic brunch dishes, and others that offer a few creative twists. The French toast with ice cream, seasonal fruit and pistachio sounds great, for example, and the couple sitting next to me wax lyrical about the coconut daal. I decide to order the parmesan scrambled eggs on sourdough, with avocado, chilli and chorizo. When it arrives, I'm delighted to see the pillowy clouds of parmesan that cover the egg. The dish reminds me of the last brunch I had at White Mojo during my trip to Melbourne in 2017. Needless to say, it is delicious and I finish every last bite.

If you are in the mood for something stronger than a coffee, there's an extensive wine and cocktail menu at Crispin. And if you're too late for brunch, there's a small but well-curated and ever-changing evening menu too. I particularly like the option to have 'one of everything' on the evening menu for £28 per person. What's not to like?

Although it's busy, with a regular stream of customers ordering coffee to go as well as would-be brunch patrons, the service is efficient and friendly. When I say, "oh wow!" on seeing my brunch dish, the server beams and replies that that is exactly the kind of reaction they love to hear.

Crispin. The Pavilion on The Corner, White’s Row, London, E1 7NF (Liverpool Street). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

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

11 March 2019

A Sumptuous Sunday Supper at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

A few months ago, my parents invited me to attend a 'come-and-sing Fauré's Requiem' they had organised as a special celebration in the church of Great Milton, a village just down the road from the Oxfordshire village I grew up in. I accepted with pleasure — on the condition that I didn't have to sing myself — and I then found out that we would be going to 'the local' for a celebratory supper afterwards. And yes, the local in Great Milton happens to be a certain establishment called Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

After a successful concert, we walk five minutes down the road to Raymond Blanc's two-Michelin-star hotel-restaurant. It is dark by then but I managed to catch the honeyed-stoned buildings — resplendent in the golden hour sunshine of an unseasonably warm February day — during a break. Just inside the door are assorted pairs of wellies — guests of the hotel are encouraged to explore the gardens and grounds. We hand over our coats and then take a seat in one of the lounges.

The first challenge is to decide whether to order the seven-course tasting menu (£190) or a three-course à la carte (specialités du moment; £175). It's already 8 pm on a Sunday and so we decide to opt for the latter. I order a lemon, raspberry nectar and gin cocktail, which I enjoy with a beautifully presented amuse-bouche selection. The textures and flavours are tantalising, the tuna tartare being my favourite. Needless to say, my bouche is very satisfied.

After we have ordered, we are led through into the dining room. It may go without saying that the service at Le Manoir is good, but it really is exceptional throughout the evening: warm and unobtrusive; nothing is too much trouble for the wait staff. The place settings at our table are lovely too, with a centrepiece of early spring flowers.

Before the starters arrive, we have another 'snack': a small glass with pumpkin soup, served with blue cheese and a biscotti; this, I remember, also appeared on the tasting menu so I'm glad I get to try it. I'm also trying hard not to eat too much of the delicious fresh bread (I go for the one with bacon, of course). My starter — langoustine with truffle and Jerusalem artichoke — materialises soon afterwards. I am not usually fond of truffles or other fungi, but the delicate slices here are beautifully prepared and make the perfect foil for the langoustine.

Torn between Dover sole and beef for my main course, I end up ordering the latter, a medium fillet of Angus beef, with braised Jacob's ladder (short rib), pomme purée and a red wine jus. This was one of the nicest beef dishes I've had for a long time — juicy and perfectly tender — and my plate was soon clean.

For pudding, I choose the pistachio and cocoa soufflé, which is rather larger than I expect. It's sinfully rich too, although the pistachio adds a lighter contrast, and I finally regret eating so much bread (although only a little bit). Although I don't usually go for chocolate and coffee combinations, on seeing my dad's pudding (a chocolate cup containing the layers of a cappuccino), I think I could have made an exception.

We retire to the sitting room for coffee and petits fours. Well, I choose a manuka infusion rather than a coffee, which is a nice complement to our final sweet treats. The raspberry 'jelly' is my favourite, although the chocolate and caramel concoction is lovely too. After polling our group as to whether the chocolate mushroom tastes of mushroom or just resembles a mushroom, I decide to give that one a miss; it has been a fun-filled night, but I have had my fill of fungi.

Overall, it has been a wonderful evening. Every meal — and snack — is delicious and beautifully presented, the setting relaxed, and the service impeccable. I am lucky enough to have eaten at Le Manoir before, although traffic problems on my way out of London meant my meal was rather more rushed than planned. And I'd certainly be more than happy to return for another special meal some day.

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, OX44 7PD. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

18 February 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: I Will Kill Again

We have our fair share of railway arches turned eateries here in Bermondsey, but for coffee to die for and a mean weekend brunch, I head north to I Will Kill Again. On Wednesdays through Sundays, Dark Arts Coffee's Homerton roastery turns into a café serving coffee and brunch. It's taken me a while to visit — it's my Apple Watch's overly optimistic activity goal for February that finally prompts me to walk the five miles from home (there are also plenty of buses and two Overground stations).

It's almost 2 pm by the time I reach the arch, which is just off Ponsford Street, which itself straddles Homerton High Street and Morning Lane. I may have missed the worst of the brunch crowds but I've also missed half of the brunch menu, judging by the 'sold out' stamps. The menu isn't fully veggie but there are plenty of veggie and vegan dishes therein, and I decide to go for the muffin with za'atar, rosti, cream cheese, avocado, smoked tempeh, oven-blush tomatoes and kasundi. I also order a piccolo — the usual espresso-based drinks are on offer, as well as a couple of different coffees available as a batch-brew filter coffee.

I take the devilish playing card with my order number and score a seat at the table opposite the counter and next to the coffee roaster. The arch is surprisingly spacious inside, with the kitchen on the small mezzanine area. There are also some tables outside, which were full despite the weather. I love the vintage décor inside, and especially the mural at the back proclaiming, 'Dark Arts Coffee relieves fatigue,' just above a movie poster for The Blood on Satan's Claws.

My coffee arrives promptly and I finish it very quickly. It's a very well-balanced and well-brewed piccolo. My fatigue is indeed relieved. The food takes a little longer but it's worth the wait. The muffin is piled high with smashed avocado, topped with chives and the tomato. The rosti and the smoked tempeh make it even more filling, and although I'm not a fan of cream cheese (vegan or otherwise), the rich tomato kasundi was an excellent condiment.

I've had — and enjoyed — Dark Arts Coffee before, but given how long it took me to visit their Hackney lair, I figured I should buy some beans to take home. There were four varieties available, and I went for the 'Long Gone Daddy', a Peruvian coffee with an "ice cream mouthfeel with orange acidity and cola sweetness." The tasting notes compare it to the best coke float you had as a kid. Well, how could I resist?

I Will Kill Again. Arch 216, 27A Ponsford Street, London, E9 6JU (Homerton or Hackney Central Overground). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

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

31 January 2019

A Weekend in the North Cotswolds

"How can I visit the Cotswolds by public transport?" I spent several summers working in the Oxford tourist information centre and this — along with questions about Harry Potter filming locations — was one of visitors' most common questions. However, the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located between Oxford and Gloucester wasn't especially accessible. You could take a train to Moreton-in-Marsh, or a bus to Chipping Norton or Burford, and then, if you timed it well, travel by local bus to one or perhaps two more villages in a day trip.

More than a decade later and it's still quite tricky to see much of the Cotswolds if you're short on time and don't have a car, although at least the bus timetables are online now. Luckily, when we head west for a family weekend in the countryside, my parents pick us up at Moreton-in-Marsh station. The train takes about 1h40 from Paddington, passing Reading and Oxford before trundling through Charlbury and Kingham, and then speeding past the now-defunct Adlestrop station made famous by Edward Thomas's poem of the same name.

If you imagine the Cotswold region as a tiny upended United Kingdom, Moreton-in-Marsh would be Southampton, located in the north, although not quite as far as Evesham. We are staying in Broadway, ten miles north-west, but stop for a short walk and lunch in Snowshill, just to the south. The National Trust property Snowshill Manor is closed between November and March, but we wander through the village looking out for snowdrops and peeking inside St Barnabas Church, whose honeyed limestone building matches the rest of the village (and the region) even though this incarnation only dates to the 19th century. The drizzle persists and we seek shelter and sustenance inside the Snowshill Arms, a cosy 15th century pub with a roaring fire, local ales, good pub food and plenty of muddy walking boots outside. We soon warm up over steak and ale pie and toad in the hole.

It's only a short drive to Broadway and we soon reach the Lygon Arms, our lodging for the night. This coaching inn turned luxury hotel has more than 600 years of history ingrained inside its thick, labyrinthine walls. My deluxe room, in the connecting annexe, is very cosy and of a decent size; the décor is Cotswold chic. The bed is extremely comfortable, and I'm pleased to find a kettle in addition to the Nespresso machine, which means I can brew my own coffee in the morning.

The spa treatments are all booked up, so I venture out into Broadway, whose picturesque high street boasts a combination of pubs, lifestyle boutiques, and clothing and outdoor stores. I buy a cashmere jumper at one and some locally produced lavender oil at another. I stroll up the gently sloping road, hoping to capture the perfect shot of the village with the moody hills in the background, but the weather and the bends in the road put pay to this.

Instead, I return to the hotel, for some pre-dinner R&R in the spa. I use the small gym and make use of the small pool, spa bath, steam room and sauna. Feeling very relaxed, I return to my room to change for dinner and join my family for a snifter at the hotel's cocktail bar. I start with a Cotswold's Fashioned, which puts a local spin on a classic drink, and then try the walnut and pistachio caipirinha, both of which are potent and very well mixed.

Dinner is two minutes down the road at Russell's. The à la carte menu puts a creative spin on modern British classics. I start with the lobster ravioli (actually, one giant raviolo), followed by lemon sole with parsley mash and turnips. My dessert is quirkier and vibrantly coloured: butter milk panna cotta with apple and celery gel, olive granola, walnuts and beetroot sorbet; the flavours and textures contrast nicely. The restaurant was completely full and there was a lively, welcoming ambiance.

After a good night's sleep, I drag myself out of bed and over to the gym. Breakfast at the hotel isn't included, and at £10 for continental or £20 for a hot breakfast dish, I pop over the road to the Broadway Deli. My doorstop of a bacon sandwich (£4) invokes feelings of envy when I bring it back to the hotel lobby. It's a good thing I have pounded the treadmill already.

After checking out, we drive to Broadway Tower, a late 18th century folly, which, over the years, has served as a retreat for artists like William Morris, and as a nuclear-fallout monitoring site, among other things. It costs £5 to ascend, and there's some historical information on the way up and a good view at the top. On clear days, you can apparently see 16 counties, but a smaller range is on offer for us. There are lots of walking routes if you have more time and better footwear.

Next on our itinerary is another classic Cotswold villages, Chipping Camden. Its high street is not dissimilar to that of Broadway, with its yellow limestone buildings and antiques shops competing for footfall with homewares stores and purveyors of avocado toast. We eye up some vintage cocktail glasses, but at £75 a pop, I decide to stick to a marbled candle instead.

We then drive back to Moreton-in-Marsh, via the pretty village of Bourton-on-the-Hill. Sadly, we don't have time this trip to see some of the other iconic Cotswolds destinations like the Slaughters, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold. (Yes, they like their compound place names around here.) We are booked in for lunch at the Mulberry restaurant at the Manor House Hotel on Moreton's high street. You don't have to have a roast lunch but we all do, and my roast beef is just the ticket.

Trains back to London are every hour on Sundays. If possible, try to reserve your seats like we did. Although it isn't too busy when we get on, many of the seats are reserved from Oxford and most passengers have a fair bit of luggage. By the time we return to Paddington, we've been away from the city for less than 36 hours, but I feel refreshed and revitalised by my low-key weekend in the Cotswolds. January isn't necessarily the best time to visit — the weather isn't usually great and some attractions are closed — but it was still quite busy, although nothing like as crowded as it can get in the summertime. If you're there in summer, it's worth reserving accommodation and restaurants well in advance.