Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, Salt

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Beyond the obvious geographical bias of my blog I’ve noticed that my posts so far have been very Crouch centre-centric.

I had crammed the butterflies back into my wallet in preparation to review the Haberdashery, but it was unexpectedly closed. Instead I prowled down to Priory road, to Olive, in the hope it might provide a wholesome wallet-friendly brunch. This part of town starts to peal a bit of the flavour from Wood Green.  Al Pacino’s mini-market is displaying some enormous mystery root vegetables and a scattering of builder-stuffed greasy-spoons are providing some welcome respite from the happy bunting and twee cupcakes of the centre.

Inside, Olive is a small space with basic wood chairs and a plain tiled floor. Coloured glass lanterns hanging from a lattice-work on the ceiling and Gustav Klimpt canvas prints provide the colour. On a quiet Friday mid- morning the waitresses are sitting down to brunch after the breakfast rush. A patriarch pops out of the kitchen every so often to sit out front for a smoke. In the corner by the window there’s a strangely well-groomed workman getting stuck into generous full English and sipping a dainty cappuccino. A man humours the stories of his four year old grandson whilst the grandson in question scribbles over the lines of a colouring book.

An enormous blackboard takes up the entirety of the back wall and displays the breakfast sets. The waitress takes my order and I’m presented with an impressive wheel of Menemen – a jumble of tomatoes, peppers, onions and eggs, scattered with a large handful of coriander.  It comes with a basket of Turkish bread for dipping. It’s juicy and exciting, the fresh herbs a welcome addition at breakfast to a palate bored of the usual flat carbs.

The juicy, herby, menemen.

I’ve had this type of breakfast meal before in the Saturday gauntlet at Beam on Tottenham lane, there with a pleasant dotting of cheese and a not so pleasant hour-long wait. Here it’s quiet, and within ten minutes my breakfast is proudly slapped in front of me with an efficient twirl.

The flavours are simple, and the café doesn’t pretend to be flashy. You’re not going to find artisanal homemade sourdough or organic coffee. My extra toast was your average processed white. But you cannot deny it’s excellent value for money, welcoming, and offers no pretensions or promises other than tasty food and big portions.

This is the first place I’ve seen lemon juice provided as a condiment on the tables, alongside salt and olive oil. It represents simplicity, a welcoming love of good, hearty flavours and simple pleasures that perfectly characterise this charming hidey-hole.

The Battle for Tottenham Lane

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Since the opening of the very flashy, very noisy Beam on Tottenham lane, there’s been a noticeable call to arms from the other established coffee shops lining the once low-key street. Coffee cake has rolled out a brand new display counter to show off all of its wares at the window, and on my second visit to My Kind of Coffee, I’m surprised to find that it too has transformed itself. The cakes and pastries are proudly displayed at the window, and a broad variety of exciting teas line the counter in a smart row of kilner jars.

I’ve been told by a friend that this place does the best coffee in Crouch End, however today I’m not interested. I’ve been lured in by hunger and my eye rests not on the tall specials board of coffee ranges, but the small fridge of cling-wrapped deli sandwiches. In response to my predatory gaze, the barista pushes forward a small menu.  My eyes scan it for a second before I find exactly what I want to eat on the breakfast menu:  a seeded bagel, toasted, with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and a fan of avocado. A simple, satisfying meal to pacify the hunger demon: I twin it with an American key-lime tea.

Mykindabrekkie

On my first visit some months ago, I didn’t find the place comfortable. It seemed a bit of a regular’s place, like all eyes were on me as I entered, and that I was getting shifty glances from the groups of old men mulling over long-drained cups. It felt like the café of a foreign community that I wasn’t a part of. Now there’s a young guy on his MacBook looking highly anti-social in the corner, and odd singles dotted about the place. A comforting electric heater disguised as a glowing coal fire occupies one corner. With the old men has gone a bit of the personality, but I’m relieved when the owner greats an old friend and walks around the counter to sit and chat with him over a creamy espresso. As I sit and watch, a chain of regulars pop in and out, serving themselves from the mint and lemon stuffed water jug by the till and chatting to the barista about their busy lives.

I’m a bit upset that the café no longer sells its handmade chocolates (I had been intending on trying out the £3 ‘afternoon deal’ on this visit) but it has done away with small gimmicks in favour of a more subdued tried and tested formula, possibly to win a little of the crowd lured down to this end of the highstreet by the other flashier cafés and delis opening up. It still feels a little clunky, with sacks of beans stacked unhelpfully right in front of the counter, and a slightly awkward, over-attentive staff. I’m confused as to whether the main business is the café itself or the home-roasted wholesale coffee.

For the meantime however, there’s nothing to worry about; I finish off my meal with an as promised excellent latté.

13 Broadway Parade, Crouch End, N8 9DE

Off the wagon

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January for me has been the falling off of several wagons. The new-year-exercise regime dies a little every day in the face of the cold seeping through the cracks in my windows. The blog has remained empty and silent for a solid month, with not a whisper of a review to grace its pages.

This isn’t to say I’ve not been working, though the extra 5 kilos clinging to my backside since Christmas has given me good reason to start dodging butter-filled cakes and pastries. On Saturday we braved the scourge of pushchairs to fight our way into BEAM, the new café wedged in between the charity shops on Broadway Parade.

After barging our way past a small family of four waiting desperately for a high-chair, we park ourselves on a small round table and take a look at the chalkboard menu. There’s an Arab influence somewhere: shakshuka, has top billing, and there’s a decorative wall of tall silver teapots. This is confusedly complemented by vintage advertisements for soap suds and a singer sewing machine. There’s a familiar pretentious modern/industrial with gilded mirrors and chandeliers thing going on that makes it feel like an Urban Outfitters. It gives the place a formulaic feel that does the opposite of what it’s meant to.

The breakfast menu is really exciting – eggs lots of ways on artisan bread, full breakfast sets, a veggie breakfast with spinach and cheese pie, eggs benedict, croque madame and I go for shakshuka, a North African dish of tomatoes, onions and peppers with eggs poached in it: mildly spiced and wholesome. Mozzarella sticks to the prongs of my fork as I eat and the dish comes with a generous helping of toast to mop it up. Our other dish of eggs, avocado and bacon is equally satisfying and simply executed with good quality ingredients. The Kandula teas are beautiful – the ‘pink tea;’ is more robust than normal green but with a refreshing sweet and crisp aftertaste.

Our trip is let down by the service. It’s sporadic- we have to procure our own menus from a dirty table and after waiting for twenty minutes have to practically bundle a waiter to take our order. My partner’s meal arrives half an hour earlier than mine. A waiter tells me mine won’t be long, but then returns fifteen minutes later to ask me what my order was. The staff are friendly and hard-working, but you can see that they are stretched and struggling with the volume of people.

I’d really like to come back to try the fruit waffles, which look fantastic, but until the hype wears off and it’s a little quieter, and until the place has an established Saturday pushchair strategy, I’ll be heading off elsewhere.

Beam, Topsfield Parade, N8

Have a Crouchy Christmas

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Christmas always brings with it lashings of nostalgia, and Crouch End’s old-fashioned shop frontages are helping to stoke the coals of longing for Dickensian carols and sugar plums.

My family doesn’t have many Christmas traditions, but one of them used to be that each year we would travel up to Charing Cross to view the famous Trafalgar Square spruce. We’d then walk over to Regent Street, where the windows would be alive with mechanical bears and trains. We’d buy some hot caramel peanuts. Grandma and granddad would drag us to Fortnum and Mason to wander around the displays of fine teas and expensive jams.

When I walk past Dunn’s bakery, I become eight years old again; moved with child-like wonder. The window is set-up to delight: a glorious display of suspended globes, filled with pies and meringues. A fondant fancy chimney complete with santa legs sticking out the top, marzipan snowmen, towers of mince pies.

Seasonal windows are a recurring theme at Dunn’s; at Halloween it delighted with shortbread severed fingers and marzipan witches. Their usually smiley-faced linzer biscuit was instead given an expression of comical horror.

It’s a business committed to spreading good humour and positive feeling. It gives through its displays, and its very presence, its status as the oldest shop in Crouch End, its grand green awning and its straw-hatted staff are a positive message to any small business that there is a place for them in the modern thrall of High Street shops.

Dunn’s is committed to community. It uses flour milled up the road in Enfield and buys produce from its fellow shops on the Broadway. A little trolley makes the rounds to offer out sandwiches to local businesses, its staff greeted with cheery waves.  It’s the Crouch End flagship shop; the Gringotts bank in our Diagon Alley, and a patch of old-fashioned charm with a window full of treasures. It makes Crouch End feel personable and real, a community built slowly over time with memories imbedded in stone.

And the taste test? Let it be known. I am a Christmas food scrooge. I hate raisins and currants and sultanas. I despise fruitcakes and puddings, and marzipan? I’d rather it a sheet of hot glue. But the Dunn’s mince pies are phenomenal. The mincemeat is fruity – full of apples and tangy citrus, its sweet and fudgy and lemony and exciting. There is crisp buttery shortcrust or wrapped flaky puff-pastry. A bit on the pricey side, but the quality is excellent: like you can taste one hundred years of history.

Coffee, Cake and a Handshake

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It’s a feast for the eyes: colourful salads piled up in luscious cones; at the front a pyramid of pink meringues. Each cake has its own little plinth; they’re displayed like pieces of art. A fruit tart ornamented with strawberries, an almond cake lashed with icing as though it were a Jackson Pollock.

The flavours are bold and exciting. A crab tart is spiced up with a spike of ginger, the green bean salad gets freshened with sprinklings of mint and chilli. An aubergine salad satisfies with a rich, smoky spice that melts on your tongue. And then on to the cakes: the pistachio and almond cake, a light marzipan flavour and close fudgy texture; the ricotta cheesecake smothered in a heavy slick of lemon curd and encased in a buttery pastry cup.

My eyes wander up to the cake counter as I finish a breakfast tower of salmon, eggs and nutty sourdough. One of the waiters laughs: “the pistachio cake- that’s the best one, but they’re all really good!” Another waiter clears our plates and speeds around the counter to serve at the till. He’s got a baker’s arms; wide flat hands and big biceps: kneading hands. It turns out he’s the owner and head chef, though he shrugs this off.

“It’s all of ours. We work together for nine years- we’re all the owners.”

The interior is raw industrial with exposed brickwork and simple wood. It doesn’t feel too deliberate or pretentious; the mis-matching seems almost sincere; as though he inherited the mis-matched teapots from his and thought he might as well use them, and had the odd sets of chairs just lying around in his garage. There’s no fancy script above the door, just a plain, cheaply styled sign. He’s not gotten round to buying a new one. He greets customers as they walk in with a little bow. He shakes our hands as we pay, thanks us with sincerity for visiting his restaurant and waves goodbye when we leave.

I do think that you can better the coffee: it’s just lacking the creamy foam and finesse of some other cafés in the area, but the little lunches and salads are a pleasure to eat: full of exciting flavours and spices, often wrapped in wholesome pastry. Cakes are top notch and spectacularly varied: try a chocolate and lemon tartlet, a French apple flan, a courgette and lime cake or passionfruit meringue tartlet. I’ve never seen so many things I’d like to eat in one place and though I’ve had one meringue disaster here (un-dissolved sugar), the mistakes are few and the pleasure-induced moans are many.

Coffee Cake is getting busier. My advice is to go there before it’s featured in Timeout and beat the hipster hoards. Look beyond the simple frontage, and venture a little beyond the Broadway: the rewards are well worth it.

Coffee Cake, 28 Broadway Parade. N8

Owner Ali Benammar’s cookbook Family Flavours is out now, available at http://coffee-cake.co.uk/family-flavours-book-published/

Thought sandwich

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Every time I’ve walked into Honeycomb, I’ve felt anxious. This is because some friends of mine from the Crouch have told me it’s shit. This would however, make excellent writing, so I’ve arrived to put my poison pen to the test.

On my first visit I’m not convinced: it’s one of the nicest hot chocolates I’ve had: it gloops down my throat, thick and rich, and sticks to the underside of my ribs. I’m grateful; the fatty layer will shield me from the cold. I indulge in a perfect, flaky custard tart. It’s melt-in-the-mouth buttery heaven and the only thing stopping me ordering another is the greasy patch left on the serviette that warns me of the presence of delicious thigh-sticking fats.

I can see why people might not warm to Honeycomb straight away. Sometimes the staff can be a little melancholy. Occasionally a swathe of young, bawling children take over the place in packs. Thankfully this usually takes place at mum rush-hour mid-morning and won’t upset the vast majority.

The café could also do more in terms of visual merchandising. The pastries are wonderful and the baguettes look like artisan quality. Instead of highlighting these things, the counter displays some rather sad, flat baskets of biscuits, and some simple shelves of cakes. Compared to the beautiful tiers of Gail’s, or the meringue pyramids of Coffee Cake, this display looks a little boring. The décor is also bit confused. It’s painted clean white, and there are a few hessian coffee bean sacks hung about the place sporadically. It looks as though it’s a half-hearted take on the industrial trend, not quite stripped out enough to qualify. An incongruous Audrey Hepburn poster by the door matches nothing else. Some excellent bread and pastries displayed in the window are let down by the fact that they’re in flat baskets and can’t be easily seen – you’ll notice the festive LED polar bear first.

It’s a shame, because this place has excellent substance. The Drury brand tea is wonderful and I’m never buying a Waitrose sandwich again – one from here will cost you less and taste a million times better. Mine comes in a crisp, seeded granary baguette dusted with flour- it’s heavy and satisfying. The owner hands it over with a smile and discusses local gossip with a regular.

This café is definitely not shit. The steady crowd is testament to that. In fact I would go as far to say it’s actually rather good, it just needs to show that it is.

Honeycomb, 39 Topsfield Rd, N8 8PT

(Illustration to follow)

The Mole

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There’s nothing in Gail’s that isn’t delicious. It’s the only conclusion to draw after a multitude of tastings.

The pecan crumble cake is my favourite: rich and dense, a suspected 80% butter, it’s a cake that melts in the mouth.  Also, the cheesecake is a dreamy richness of white chocolate and berries, the range of bread is crisp and flavoursome; there’s a little too much feta cheese on my brioche tartlet, but I reckon that’s a personal thing, and the ganache hot chocolate makes my eyes roll back in my head. It’s all mouth-watering, butter-infused, thigh-fattening deliciousness.

It seems like I’ve been going there enough to inspire bankruptcy, but the truth is I have a mole: a secret connection to insider knowledge and occasional freebies.

The mole has visited the Gail’s bread factory, where all new employees are required to go to understand what goes into making its finely crafted artisan bread. It is staffed by some very normal-sized polish men with arms like giant salamis. It looked as though they were spreading out a large fluffy duvet across a table; only on closer inspection did the mole notice that it was in fact an expanse of dough being hand-kneaded.

All the stock at Gail’s is one day produce. Any unsold items must be binned at 8pm when the shop closes. As a result the mole has brought back some spectacular doggie bags. Each time a flimsy cake box is placed on the table there’s an instant scramble to claim the most favoured pieces.

I make a snatch for the crumble cake, but I’m not quick enough for the dreamy cheesecake: I catch a glance of it just before it’s whisked away to someone’s bedroom. The mole favours the blueberry muffins, and as the provider gets first dibs on the swag: we’re warded away from the spoils with a deadly stare.

Everything about Gail’s sings quality. There are no flashy gimmicks, no over-promoting; any packaging or signage is understated and contemporary. Even the products themselves are simple recipes and tried and tested flavours; simple fruits and nuts, chocolate, and classic pastries.

The shop counter is clogged with a simple display of wares on various boards and baskets. You could argue that it’s even a little boring in this respect compared to the marzipan shapes of Dunns and the colourful delights of Percy Ingle. But the crowds still assemble and the expensive bread flies off of the shelves.

The reason is simple: if it’s from Gail’s, it will taste good.

GAIL’S Bakery, 48 the Broadway, N8 9TP

GAILS

Tea with the Timelord: The Hornsey library café

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I can’t help but stare at the Tardis in the corner. It’s a full-sized one, sitting incongruously next to the toilets, and occasionally a child pokes their head around the door to check if it’s hiding a secret black hole. To add to the surrealism, there’s also a pirate manning the counter.

In truth, the pirate isn’t a pirate at all; he’s a very nice, interesting chap who just happens to dress in 18th Century clothing. Today the attached gallery is hosting a life drawing class and artists keep popping in and out to replenish their teacups and chat with him about the evolution of portraiture.

This is the Hornsey library café. It’s tucked away on the first floor; a modest affair with a laminate floor and wood-effect IKEA bookshelves. In the corner a stack of dusty Encyclopedias prop up a droopy houseplant, and the walls display a web of posters advertising local meet-ups and classes. It’s the meeting place for the Nearlyology writing project (a documentation of things that nearly happened) which has a small display on the bookcase, and the Saturday knit café, responsible for the guerrilla knitting that occasionally adorns Crouch End’s trees and shrubs.

Hornsey library café is not the place to go if you’re into french patisserie and finely roasted Arabica coffee- here you’re going to get a distinctly builder-esque style of beverage at a refreshingly builder-esque price, though there is also a nice selection of herbal teabags. The eats on offer are basic calorie-infused fuel; the sort of stuff required to bash out a long awaited article, or draft some coursework, and consist of pot noodles, hoola hoops, Tunnock’s teacakes; and a small cheery sign that promises “hot buttered crumpets.”

The real charm of the café lies in the fact that it’s a quiet place, void of the usual background clatter associated with coffee shops. The only sounds are the hum of the refrigerator in the corner and the distant wails of children from the junior library downstairs. It’s dotted with people on laptops; evacuees to a noiseless, well lit space, avoiding the distracting creative vacuums and procrastination of their homes. The frowning man by the fridge has paperwork spread across an entire round table, and a younger guy by the door has spent an hour staring intently at his mac and is now pacing the stairwell deep in thought.  It’s a hub of productivity and creativity: a secret refuge.

I enjoy the feeling of sitting somewhere so humble. There’s no moody barista eyeing my dirty cup and wondering why I haven’t left and I feel at perfect liberty to relax and read as long as I please. The large windows and skylights provide copious amounts of natural light and the window overlooks the library courtyard, at least something of a view and a nice contrast to looking at a road. There’s a worldly silence in which to gather yourself and your thoughts. I nurse my mug of tea and read my book. It’s a home away from home.

I glance over to the Tardis, waiting patiently for the moment when Peter Capaldi steps out of it on his route home from the studio, and settles down for some hot buttered crumpets.

Hornseylibrarypic

It’s feeling a little Chilli…

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Today is an absolute armpit of a day. It’s 2pm, dark, and rain is driving viciously into the pavement. Up and down the street people are battling with their umbrellas.

The shop is half empty; lone diners huddle over hot soup and steamy lattés. I’ve got a cheerful green and orange teapot full of a nice, flavoursome loose leaf that’s somehow making the side of strawberries on the edge of my Mississippi mud cake look less incongruous with the season. The cake’s a giant tower of a slice; a moist body with a sickly rich aftertaste of treacle infused chocolate ganache.

A crash of thunder rattles the windows. The man sitting at the table in the bay window jumps, and all the customers exchange nervous glances. The proprietress laughs and walks toward the window to peer out.

“How many seconds was that? Between the flash and the boom?”

“I only counted one” she says, looking at the clouds “it must have been close!”

It’s funny how different this place is on a sleepy rainy day. It has a rustic, homely feel which I can only see now it’s quiet. When it’s clogged full on a sunny weekend morning it’s all loud fun and noise with its sunset yellow walls, union jack bunting, chilli-themed paintings and pretty vintage-styled waitresses.

The man by the window orders a soup, and I watch jealously as the steam rolls off of it in little clouds. I’m reminded of the home-made hash browns: flavoursome crispy mush laced with rosemary, and the other delights of the breakfast menu: halloumi cheese, avocado, smoked salmon, Mexican beans. The best choice of veggie options I’ve seen anywhere and of course, toast with the famous café trademark, the hot pepper jelly itself.

I run through the tastes in my head: American hot pepper jelly, thick and sweet with a tingly chilli aftertaste round the entire mouth; the hotter Inferno chilli jam – a blast of heat that hits your tongue right away and burns the mouth for minutes afterwards and the newly launched Naga, described as ‘only for the brave!’ and ‘100 times hotter than jalapeños!,’ a slow burner. It hits the back of your tongue first and then builds a slow, snowballing heat that explodes onto the roof of your mouth and stings until you find something to quash it with. All of these taste fantastic with a thick slick of peanut butter.

The bell tinkles and I watch a group of schoolgirls scurry in from the rain, hair sopping, mascara running, clutching their phones in freezing fingers. They squeak to the back of the shop to talk to the proprietress, who laughs and offers up a hairdryer. I peer outside and see silver breaks in the sky. With my soul perked up with tea and sugar, and rejuvenated by the mouth-watering smells of good, hearty grub, I’m ready to brave the remainder of the day.

Hot pepper jelly, 11 Broadway Parade, Tottenham Lane, N8 9DE

HPJ

Old ladies, jazz and the pistachio monster: Coffee Circus

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I don’t know anything about jazz; but the lady squeezed into the corner with me is loving it; closing her eyes and swaying out of time with the double bass. She leans her head over and croons in a soft Irish voice, “this style of jazz is called ‘barossa.’ All melancholy, but with an upbeat rhythm to it. Lovely.”

As I walked in the brown varnished surfaces and flashes of bold wallpaper implied that I would be greeted with an army of moody media types, flashing their Macbooks. But, in welcome contrast to my preconceptions, I’m now sitting amongst a swathe of old ladies, soaking up the music and clicking their fingers in slow circles.

The air in the tiny shop is thick with the rich, heavy smell of coffee; the music floats lazily through it in heavy loops and massages my temples. The bassist plucks deftly on her huge instrument. The piano player is brushing the keys so lightly you forget it’s there. The whole vibe is so relaxed I feel I might dissolve.

To save myself from absorption into the furniture, I’m clutching a teeny glass of café latte, and nursing an enormous slab of pistachio-studded carrot cake. The coffee is finished with a perfect floret in textured foam. The carrot cake comes in a monster of a slice, heavily pebbled with whole pistachios and cream cheese icing layered on thicker than Sharon Osborne’s make-up. The party here is on the outside – the inside is moist and rich, but the nuts on the topping provide all the texture. The cake as a whole is incredibly sweet, but also satisfying; according to the friendly barista, it’s the shop’s signature cake.

The entire vibe of coffee circus is relaxed. The staff are a cheerful breezy bunch, bar the enigmatic quiet Frenchman swirling some coffee art into a takeaway cup with learned precision. There’s an art focus too: one of the baristas proudly points out his own paintings displayed on the wall opposite, and the bright rear room is decorated with leaves of sheet music and smartly framed local artworks.

Because the shop is small, it doesn’t appear to have the usual army of pushchairs that crowd most of the shops in Crouch End. There’s a father sitting with his very well-behaved daughter, gleefully tackling a cake bigger than she is. There are some quietly amused looking people who, like me, saw the tiny event postcard in the window and wandered in off of the street.  The old ladies, clustered onto a myriad of old chairs and teeny tables are definitely here for the jazz, but they’re delighted by the fact that there are some fat almond croissants and excellent coffee to compliment it.

I extract myself from the corner and shuffle awkwardly around the tables and chairs to make my exit. With my mind simultaneously buzzing from coffee and cruising in a nice dreamy fuzz, I walk out of the shop feeling that I’ve been seated in deep meditation.

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Next week: Braving the Naga at Hot Pepper Jelly