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Monthly Archives: August 2012

It may sound like a brothel, but in York naming things after prostitutes is quite common. ‘The Blue Bicycle’, one of York’s best restaurants, is named for the brothel that once occupied the premises. Harlequin almost tries to be a secret. The concealed doorway is reminiscent of the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter. However, what appears to be unassuming and uninteresting from the outside, actually hides not just one, but two excellent coffee outlets. They are jointly run, of course, but both have a very distinct atmosphere and their own coffees and menus.

I decided to go to Harlequin first, and had not intended to have any more than a coffee in what has become a favourite of mine in York. Harlequin is furnished like a tea room, of which York is blessed with many good ones, very few of those have coffee like this. The coffee is provided by Has Bean, which produces both single-origin and blends of high quality. I tried their ‘Jailbreak’ blend in a flat white. It was a smooth, and rounded, nothing to offend the palette. It just dances on the tongue: and I wouldn’t suggest any less than two shots, unless you want a milkshake. With it, I had a brownie, drizzled in citrus and caramel. It was a little dry (it’s from a local bakery), but I like my brownie gooey. However, the flavour mixed perfectly with my flat white, to the point where I didn’t mind about the texture. The two accompanied each other perfectly. I would even go so far as to say the brownie brought out higher registers of flavour that the light coffee may have been limited by. Very enjoyable overall, and at £2 for a flat white, fairly reasonable too.

I had heard about the Attic upstairs, and it has been open for a while, but it has limited opening hours so I’ve not yet been there. After chatting to one of the waiters I was persuaded to try it. They have attempted to replace the stuffy ambience of the tea room with a more contemporary feel. And they’ve succeeded. The Attic is open and fresh, decorated with art and coffee paraphernalia. The available beans are on a board: you choose your beans and then you choose your method of brewing (espresso, slow-drip, aero press or Chimex). I chose aero press and found that the Revolver blend came out a bit weak, and though there were chocolate tones it lacked the real punch and consistency I have come to expect from aero press coffees. I don’t know why this was: it could have been poorly brewed, a problem with the beans, or maybe Revolver just doesn’t respond well to the aero press, but it wasn’t the quality I’ve come to expect from Harlequin.

Having been through the menu, I was surprised to see the Attic offered a different food offering to Harlequin. Particularly what caught my eye was the Yorkshire Platter (ham, pork pie, wensleydale, olives, pate and bread), which I chose to accompany with a Yorkshire beer (Rudgate brewery ‘Viking’). The beer, as this area boasts, is some of the best in the world, and Rudgate is no exception. Rich and hoppy, with a beautiful amber colour, this is fine, complex and multi-layered beer, which a more skilled beer-aesthete could give a brilliant description of. As it is, I’ll stick to describing the platter. The Yorkshire Platter is designed for two (but ‘plenty for one’, as the menu states) and utilises the quality local produce that Harlequin downstairs has made a name turning into sandwiches and salads. The pork pie is just superb, peppery and not too jellied. The food is hearty and filling, and at the price of 7.25 for all this, you can afford to feed yourself and a loved one. And they will love you all the more for it!

Notes

The Attic/Harlequin website
@harlequinyork
Has Bean Roasters

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This is it. The perfect synthesis of coffee and cycling: the Rapha Cycle Club. The Club can be found in Soho, surrounded by many great coffee shops and it has a job on its hands to keep up. It has only been open for a few weeks, and I made this a must see on my stay in London. Coming off Piccadilly, and it’s so easy to find, I was thoroughly prepared to be disappointed. Or I should have been prepared, but ideas of Le Tour and espressos clouded my judgement, and I walked in prepared to be amazed.

In reality, I wasn’t disappointed, which surprised me more than anything. The Rapha Cycle Club feels as passionate about its coffee as it does about its calipers, cares as much about macchiatos as merino. On walking in, you’re greeted by bicycles (not for sale!) hanging from the walls, and set up on plinths. Two large screens and one HUGE screen adorn the walls showing the cycling, it would have been impressive when the Brad was cycling to his gold!

Rapha clothing is among the best in the world for cycling. It’s incredibly pricy, but it is used by the best. Newspaper cuttings from years ago are framed, showing Rapha-clad adonises from years ago. The clothing is beautifully presented, and, appropriately, quite separate from the coffee area. It’s pleasant just to have a walk round before your coffee, just so you can feel like a pro.

Naturally, you have to have an espresso. And it’s not cheap, but what did you expect? The coffee is wonderfully rounded and bold. My cup had complex overtones and a slightly oaky after taste. The espresso is served with a glass of water to cleanse. This is the type of espresso that just slips down the throat, not making an overpowering impact, just calmly invigorating. Oh, and it’s Square Mile coffee, nuff said.

This coffee and cycling clothes house is brilliant. It has been designed as a hub for cyclists to gather, and I think it has everything it needs to achieve that. The atmosphere is great too, because everybody there is united under common interests.

Notes
Rapha Cycle Club
@RaphaCycleClub
Square Mile Coffee

So I feel I’ve been a bit unfair recently, especially with my posts in London. They have been well-researched and planned out before I’ve left the house to ensure I get the best coffee. Well, frequently, this isn’t how we enjoy coffee. Coffee is about the stumble upons, the descend upons and the all round despairathons. So, I set off from Pimlico with no idea where I was going to get coffee, and only a vague idea of where my final destination would be.

I gave the shoulder to many places in Victoria. There are lots of coffee places to choose from, especially along the market, where you get floods of commuters desperate for their next caffeine fix. However, despite these looking attractive, I felt that they all looked too busy and whilst that can be good, I felt there was nothing to distinguish one coffee house from another. The only thing to do in a situation like that is to go for the only thing that shows any individuality. That place was ‘flat cap’ (see pic 1). I’ve been looking into a recent fashion in London of street food, and so this stood out to me as street coffee. The prices were quite good, though the cup was quite small (I did order a small, but in the days where a starbucks ‘tall’ contains enough liquid to clean a car, sometimes I foolishly forget to look at actual sizes). The guy behind the machine was really friendly, and it felt personalised, despite being a merely ‘to go’ place. The coffee itself was good (the best cup I was to have that day), and starting to develop the higher tones that make a really superb cup. It was hand-crafted and well made, and I daresay better than most of the coffee served in the coffee shops around there. Impressed, I trekked on.

Something that I struggle to find in central London is a good cup of coffee. If you’re looking for a half-decent cup, you will usually just run into one of the many thousands of Starbucks, Caffe Neros or Costas that line the country’s biggest shopping streets. This has always seemed a shame to me, though I fall prey to it as much as anyone. Today, I vowed to find an independent place to finally break this pattern. What I came across was ‘Spreads‘ on the Mall, near Piccadilly and Leicester Square. A lesson that the Intrepid Explorer must learn fast is that, even now, the independence of a coffee shop does not guarantee its quality. I have learnt this before, but was mercilessly retaught with my first and last visit to Spreads. The food was actually not that bad, but as its a deli, you would hope not. I ate the Tagiatelli with ham and chorizo, and it was fine, and relatively cheap for a hot dish. The interior was decorated nicely at the bar, but in the back where customers ate it was reminiscent of a school cafeteria. And then there was the coffee… Spreads uses ‘bonito’ coffee from Italy. I can only imagine someone at the warehouse put actual bonito in the bags, because there was something very fishy about my latte (see pic 2). It was not very well made (other than ale, no drink should be served with an inch of head). The coffee itself tasted bad. Not just poor quality, but I was very close to not drinking it because it had such a strange and unappealing aftertaste. Go to Nero or Starbucks before you go here. On the plus side, the staff were very friendly and just the right amount of attentive, but it was not enough to be a saving grace.

Disappointed, disillusioned and with the clouds circling like vultures I continued to my last coffee place of the day. I had been looking for a place to read my book, and so I though Waterstones on Piccadilly would be a good place to start. After having looked around the shop and deciding it’s not as fun as buying from an Oxfam/Second hand bookshop, I took the lift up to ‘5th View’ the bar/restaurant, which has been described by the guardian as one of the best places to read in London (okay, so maybe after the Spreads debacle, I decided to do some research before just stumbling around London). The view is really very nice (see pic 3), and it is a great place to read. People seem to have maintained the quiet etiquette that dominates the rest of the shop because it was busy, and yet I was still able to concentrate quite well. Food and alcohol is served, but I was simply looking for a quiet place to enjoy my coffee (see pic 4). I found it, though the coffee was Illy, and so rather mediocre and listless, it was a really nice place to relax, and I would recommend it on those grounds alone. It is ‘an oasis’ (to quote the guardian article) in the desert of hustle and bustle that is central London.

My advice is a sort of hybrid strategy to exploring. If you’re in a big city, by all means wander until you find somewhere that looks acceptable. But don’t just walk in. What the big chains rely on is their consistency: you’ll never have a coffee that you’ll push away through flawed taste. But independent places yield the extremes of the spectrum, so arm yourself with a tool that lets you distinguish. It used to be guidebooks, now its iPhones. Whatever it is, don’t be a hero, check a place’s rep before you go in guns blazing.

 

Notes:
flat cap’s Twitter
Spreads cafe
5th View

I never really understood exactly what a ‘hipster’ stereotype person is until I visited the Old Truman Brewery market in Brick Lane. It’s something that exists in York and other areas of the country that I have spent time in, but to really come to terms with what ‘hipster’ means you have to see a lot of them in one place. It’s a label that can only be conferred from the outside and tends to be based on an amalgam of appearance, interests and some sort of vague activism. However, seeing as it’s conferred from people that don’t know the hipster in question, it usually means judging on the basis of appearance to an inference that the hipster has a fixie. As I say, it’s not something I grasp particularly well as it new to me. I usually would not give it space in my writing, except that it struck me that I could be seen to be a hipster. But then I realised that no matter what kind of glasses I wore, I would never be as cool as that. Thank god.

The first hipster-drenched coffee shop I visited is at the Shoreditch end of Brick Lane.  Kahaila. The company itself is a charitable organisation, focussing on ethical living and working, with a quasi-religious bent (ecumenical, I believe). The decor and furnishing are mainly driftwood-like, but very clean and sheened, a generally pleasant place to be. I ordered a flat white, averagely priced, to go. It was a very good cup of coffee overall. The coffee came through the milk well, without getting trapped, as flat whites can when they are poorly extracted. A good, serious cup of coffee with hints of nuttiness and strength coming through: the makings of a great cup. Kahaila also serves hot paninis and there are also events to check out.

In Spitalfields there is a myriad of coffee shops, but my instinct was to head direct to a place that had a ‘Monmouth coffee’ sign outside. A.Gold, however, is not a coffee shop, as I learnt on entering. It’s a small deli and sweetshop, designed with wonderful props to represent an olde sweet shoppe. There is a full range of sandwiches and British products, homemade scotch eggs etc. However, this is not a coffee shop, it’s a deli that sells coffee.

The last place on my list was Nude Espresso. I have heard from various sources that this is the best coffee shop in the area. But approaching it for the first time, I was told that they had lost power, and were unable to serve! Returning later, this problem had been rectified and I was able to order an espresso. It was a rather steep £2 for the little cup of coffee joy (2.80 or so for an espresso-based drink), but you forgave them rather quickly on taking a sip of the nectar. There is a board behind the till that has the percentages of the beans that have gone into making your espresso, mine was something like 50% Kenyan and 25% of two other beans. It’s a nice touch, especially if you drink there a lot. Whatever was in my cup, it was a symphony of powerful, punchy flavours, so citrussy that it tasted like hot orange juice. The syrup-like texture showed the high-quality of the beans, which are roasted just across the road, along Brick Lane. Nude Espresso provide their beans to other coffee shops around London, a surefire badge of quality for what is fantastic coffee.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of coffee in hipster-central, and there’s no doubt that, in this case, where you find hipsters, you can find some good coffee. The area was once renowned for its market, and east-end mentality, but the area has had a lot of money put into it, and there has been room for great coffee and food to spring up. An area well worth visiting, even just for the coffee.

 

Notes
http://www.kahaila.com @kahailacafe
http://www.agoldshop.com/ @agoldshop
http://www.nudeespresso.com @nudeespresso

The area of Notting Hill, made famous by the film, has seen a revival over the past few years. When I say ‘revival’, I mean that it has gained ‘chicness’ at the expense of some of its ‘authenticity’. I never visited the market before it became famous, and so have nothing to compare it to, but it doesn’t require detailed statistical analysis to see that this place has tourists. Lots of them. Nevertheless, the place is like its own organism; a living, breathing entity that maintains its own atmosphere. On a busy Saturday like today, where the sun beats down on the youthful throng, it scarcely matters that most people are here at least partly because of Hugh Grant, and some sort of romanticised fiction of what London should be like.

That being said, something ought to be made clear about the nature of Portobello Road. It’s a long stretch of road that has both stalls and shops, and is primarily an antiques market. However, the actual antiquey part is only obvious at the Notting Hill gate end. The road becomes more food-oriented as you continue North, though it is not properly a food market, and the quality reflects this. The food stalls there are very good, but the lack of focus means they are not very varied. You can expect bakers and fruit & veg stalls mostly. At the northern most end, the stalls become more antique and vintage focussed again. The coffee shop that came highest-recommended to me was ‘Coffee Plant‘, which is in the middle section of Portobello Road, and this is the area that has seen most development recently, and so is ‘trendiest’.

Coffee Plant has something special about it: it is its own roaster. The beans it roasts are for sale to the public (wholesale, or direct from the shop, where they have a huge selection of fresh coffee to take home). The coffee house is simply furnished, with a lot of space (and seating outside). It opens directly onto Portobello Road, and makes a great pitstop whilst perusing the market stalls. As far as I know, it’s the only artisan coffee place on Portobello Road (though this may be inaccurate), they are, at any rate, rare, despite the surplus of hipster types that crowd the streets.

They sell a selection of standard coffee types, at a reasonable price (my flat white [single shot] was only 1.80), though the sizes are a little smaller than you might be used to. There is also a full selection of pastries available. There are benefits to roasting the coffee one sells. Freshness and organicness are guaranteed. However, I found that the coffee I had was slightly lacklustre in flavour. Though well made, and well served, the coffee lacked the complexity I would have liked. It was strange and left me feeling rather disappointed, not because it was poor coffee, but because I got the feeling that on other days, when there were different beans on offer, I would have had a much nicer cup of coffee. The passion and expertise were apparent in the staff and should have been in my coffee cup too, but it wasn’t.

Overall, I think I would like to give this place another shot because the roasts that were on offer (they have their own purchasing counter), looked so varied and comprehensive. I can imagine this means that this was just an off-roast that I had. It had the right atmosphere and was well-priced, but everything pointed to a quality that wasn’t delivered on.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Usually I wouldn’t bother mentioning a bike as short as this, but it was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first ‘leisure’ cycle lasting a significant amount of time that I have cycled my project Peugeot on. I’ve had loads of problems getting this bike rolling, but finally its in a cycleable condition. And secondly, the Kyptonite New York bike lock I was raving about finding a week back broke.

My lovely new Peugeot is not new, nor is it particularly lovely. But it is mine. I’m proud of the work put into this, and it has improved my knowledge of cycling anatomy no end. After weeks of working on-and-off on it, replacing the tyres and innertubes, fixing the rear brakes and replacing the rear derailleur. It still requires a new front derailleur, the front calipers don’t work (may need replacing), the front reflector needs screwing on and really the wheels could use replacing. Not to mention, despite my best efforts, the rear cassette and bottom bracket still need a good scrub. But it actually runs considerably smoothly, so long as I don’t want to go up or down any hills, which, living next to the North Downs, limits my range considerably.

So I looked at a route (now a dead end thanks to the local garrison) that would avoid too sharp inclines. It was a pleasant ride, though the roads in some parts of Folkestone are really horrendous for road bikes. You feel every bump. My bike felt smooth, mostly, and actually performed well (to my surprise), no unexpected jumps, and the brakes served me satisfactorily. However, the one thing that shouldn’t have been an issue was the Kryptonite U-Lock attached to my
frame.

The Kryptonite New York lock comes with an attachment that means you can carry it on the frame. To connect to this attachment, there is a metal connection (silver bit on the picture) that slots in. After around 20 minutes, I noticed that the lock kept knocking the inside of my knee: I continued by nudging it back to be in line with the frame. I realised that every time my bike went to one side or the other, the lock would move, obstructing my leg movement. On closer inspection, I realised that the silver attachment was moving freely on the lock. When unlocked, the attachment would even come off (see pic). Needless to say, I was unimpressed at a lock that is supposedly as close to unbreakable as one can affordably purchase. It is most likely that this was a factory defect, and so I won’t say this is a representative model, but it’s not good publicity. It did me no damage, but on a couple of occasions I trapped my knee and lost my footing. I think it was a potentially very dangerous fault. I sent off an email to Kryptonite, and I’ll let you know how that goes.

Last cycling blog for a while as I will be away from my bike for the next couple of weeks. Though I will be in London, so plenty of coffee hopefully (and sunshine please!).

The first time I tried to find good coffee in Canterbury I looked online. Relying on the web in the middle of a city meant I was hardly giving the reviews I read the scrutiny that all reviews deserve. In this case I really dropped the ball. The review in question was in response to the question (on Yahoo answers or some such) ‘Where can I find good coffee in Canterbury?’ I scrolled down on my phone, and read the responses before I found one that seemed perfect: ‘[questionable ‘coffee shop’] is in the centre of Canterbury. We’re not a fancy, destination coffee shop, but we do have great coffee!’ It seemed perfect. What could go wrong?

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have paid attention to a review that was clearly (and unveiled) written by the owner. Upon arriving on this ‘coffee shop’, I found a small room which could barely seat a romantic evening for two. The famous ‘great coffee’ was very reasonably priced. However, it was also poured from a DeLonghi filter machine (something I happen to own myself, for when I’m up early, and because it’s preferable to Nescafe). The place had the ambience of a school cafeteria. Or it would have, if there had been anyone there.

Drinking as much of the coffee I as I could bear, I binned the rest and continued with my day. Next to a cycle shop I had been snooping in I found what has become one of my favourite coffee shops in the South East. A real hidden secret of Canterbury, hidden down Stour Street and attached to the Punting tours: Browns Coffeehouse.

I was at Browns again yesterday. It hadn’t lost any of its charm. Comfortably furnished: cosy but open. This is definitely a place to meet people, and every time I’ve been, any time of day, the place has had people visiting it; despite its secretive nature. Though no matter how good the milieu, and how friendly the staff, the thing that would make this place my preference in Canterbury is the coffee. I tried the Nicaraguan Zeledon from the regularly changing specials board. The coffee is provided by Origin, and served in Latte, Cap, all the favourites. What is really special though are the guest filter coffees that are drip fed using paper filter, straight into the cup. Not something for the time conscious: the process take 4 minutes. But, together with a tremendously fresh and complex bean, it produces absolutely fantastic coffee.

The Nicaraguan Zeledon itself was smoky but sweet, not as powerful and bold as some I’ve tried there, but can hold its own for individuality of flavour and tone. The coffee is served without milk, though you can fetch it if you want to water it down (personally I do enjoy my filter with milk, but it seems like the suggested presentation is bidoon haleeb). Don’t miss the cakes either: homemade and imbued with quality, and a touch of ruggedness. The whole place has a touch of aborigine.

The place ain’t cheap, but if you’re committed to great coffee then it doesn’t really matter. The standard menu is about the same as most coffee places but the specials are exceptionally priced. But then they are exceptional quality.

Notes

www.origincoffee.co.uk
www.brownscanterbury.com
Browns Facebook and Twitter