The London Review of Breakfasts

"Dedalus, come down, like a good mosey. Breakfast is ready. Haines is apologising for waking us last night. It's all right." (Buck Mulligan)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cereal Killer Cafe, Shoreditch

Cereal Killer Cafe
139 Brick Lane
E1 6SB
07590 436 055

by Haulin' Oats

I'm stood on Brick Lane, East London. It's 6.45 on a Wednesday morning. It's 2014. And I'm lost in thought.

Was it always like this? There was always posturing. Style everything, substance just for abuse. But wasn't there also creativity, spirit - original, fresh energy? Something more than the mechanical application of formulas for being and doing?

I notice that everyone else has gone in. It's opened. I walk in the door and a thousand fizzing characters, human, animal and indeterminate, gleefully enthusing me to imbibe sugar from their box-source stare down at me. I walk past two girls with undercuts planning yoga, festivals and polo for next summer, and then I see them. The twins. Grey hair, beards, sparky eyes and grins. They're discussing childhood TV.

'But you know The Magic Roundabout was all about drugs?'

'Ah it was GENIUS. They had to be on so many drugs to write amazing stuff like that...'

They notice me.

'Ah! You're the reviewer?!' says one. I nod.

'The reviewer!!' they exclaim in unison, 'we hope you like our cereals'.

'Well I've tried a lot of them already,' I reply. 'You'll answer my questions?'

'Questions? We've been known to answer questions,' says one.

'By all means!' cries the other. 'I'm a veritable question answering expert! I used to play Bamboozle on Teletext every day. Do you remember Bamber Boozler? What a genius! I love Bamber Boozler!'

'Yeah, he was a geeeenius,' says the other.

'What's your favourite cereal?' I ask.

'Marshmallow flavoured Rice Krispies.'

'Vanilla Chex - with strawberry milk! Strawberries and creeeeeeeeeam! Mmmmmmmmm!!!'

'Which celebs, other than Nathan Barley, do you think will come to your cafe?'

'Oh we think lots! All of them!' Pronounces one.

'Ones even more famous than Nathan Butler,' says the other.

A wave of nausea suddenly hits me. I'm staring at my notes and the room feels like it's breathing. Then the rest just pours out.

'Is your cafe ironic? Do you really like ADHD kids' food? Or just jokingly like it? Is there really anything to celebrate here beyond a profound efficiency in the delivery of deadly consumption habit forming food to minors? Or is that the point? Is this an indictment by celebration and submission? Hence Cereal 'Killer' Cafe?'

The one that played Bamboozle every day is perfectly still, looking at me with thunderous eyes. His beard is prickling, rising on end. The other is wiping his hands down his face, turned slightly away, skittering between a high pitched titter and a sort of wet, bubbly whimper.

A pause, a no-man's land. All meaning, the great cultural edifice of our psyches melts away.

His fist flies, I duck, but at the same time plant my hands on the the counter and roll across it, smashing into them amid wet grenades of cereal inspired cake. Bamboozle tries to pull the till down on my head but I'm rolling away. Springing up I head butt him in the neck, sending him flying into the wall of cereals. I spin around bringing up my elbow as I do and sharply crack his twin in the temple. He melts unnaturally into the mass of cereal. Three twitches and still. Bamboozle is charging at me swinging a Tony the Tiger skateboard that he's ripped from the wall. But I'm ready and I plough forward taking the blow in my midriff, my weight crashing onto him and he falls backwards. We land with me straddling him. I've got one hand on his neck, squeezing, the other grabbing handfuls from the multicoloured sea of cereal surrounding us, stuffing it in his mouth.

'It's more than a fucking crap ironic joke. You are the fear and the meaninglessness and submission to The Man, you are his insidious veil of baubles. You are the destruction of truth and beauty. You are the sick infantilisation of our culture. You are adult humans running around in fucking Teletubby costumes slathered in wacky goo goo baby sentimentality. You are the irony stitched Buffalo Bill cloak of kiddy culture skins, masking reality, obscuring the cage we're in. Your cafe is seventh tenths horrifying, and two tenths a really good idea I wish I'd had, and one tenth... one tenth...'

Bamboozle is still.

There's a lot of cereal in his beard.

As I rise up the two girls have overcome their shock and start running for the door. 'Mummy's - Sloane Square,' one shouts. I walk across the Cereal Killer Cafe covered in Lucky Charms, Chocohoops and blood. I step out onto Brick Lane, East London.

I start. I'm stood on Brick Lane. It's 7.15 on a Wednesday morning. It's 2014. I've been lost in thought. Deeply daydreaming.

I walk in to the Cereal Killer Cafe, a place that serves a huge selection of breakfast cereals - over 60 from all around the world. It's £2.50 for a small bowl and £3.20 for a large, with milk on the side included. They have thirty different types of milk. And they have toppings too, such as Mini Oreos, at 20p extra. This all translates into the neat concept of cereal cocktail creations, for example:

Double Rainbow: Trix, Fruity Pebbles and freeze dried marshmallows served with strawberry milk.

Bowloccino: Nesquick and Cocoa Pebbles served with espresso milk and a flake.

Chocopotomus: Coco pops and Krave served with chocolate milk and a Kinder Happy Hippo.

The Cereal Killer Cafe has most definitely captured folks' imagination, kicking up a good old multi-flavoured stir. Buzzfeed love it and have done a list or two on it, Vice have assessed its pop cultural significance and compared visiting it on DMT to visiting it on aspirin (probably), Time Out like it but also allow that you can hate it - because that's cool too. The owners have received marriage proposals and death threats and there's been a mighty furore about one of them cutting an interview short after being asked whether charging £3.20 for a bowl of cereal can be justified in one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, an interview question so preposterous that you'd be horrified to witness it in some kind of deranged daydream, never mind from Channel 4 in so called reality.

I walk past a Tony the Tiger skateboard on the wall and a portrait of TV cereal killer Dexter constructed out of various shades of toasted Cheerios. I'm in a theme cafe. It's like something you'd find in Japan. Or Shoreditch.

I decide to go for the Bowloccino. I enjoy the first two spoonfuls. A lot. But the sugar overwhelms me. It's sickly and samey, a two dimensional dish. Maybe in just the right situation and mood I'd relish the whole bowl, and this maybe would have occurred much more frequently when I was a younger man.

Cereal is a food almost entirely created by entrepreneurs and marketeers, which is why being able to see all the design and paraphernalia is an important part of the visit. A mini, niche, museum-cafe, a fun experience and a fine addition to the hipster theme park that surrounds it (which, as we wind our way towards Spike Jonze's vision of the not so far future presented in Her, may extend indefinitely).

However, as for eating there...Well, if you like a lot of sugar, delivered with blunt happy flavours, or you're in that kind of mood, then, grrrrreat. But on the whole I'd say it's just like with kids' TV shows: you should never go back. You remember them as magical, but try watching them now and you discover that they're mostly terrible. Their poverty was swept away by the transformational imaginative energy of youth. And, unfortunately, I just don't have the energy for fruity pebbles with marshmallows and strawberry milk any more.

The bearded twins seem like nice guys. They wave me goodbye with warm smiles. I pause for a quick final look at the Tony the Tiger skateboard on the wall and step out onto Brick Lane, East London.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A history of Soho in five cafes

by Malcolm Eggs

Amid all the talk of Soho's slow drift into becoming just another homogenised part of central London, here's a piece I wrote in 2012 for Esquire magazine.

Maison Bertaux (est. 1871)
This salon du thé was founded by refugees escaping the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune and now stands as the most enchanting remnant of a time when Soho was also the ‘French quarter’. Amazingly, the business has only changed hands twice in the last 140 years. The current owner, Michelle, started working here as a ‘Saturday girl’ in 1971. Her establishment deploys replica roses, French café music, pink netting and paperback novels to create an atmosphere that makes you want to get into handwritten correspondences with women of unclear motives. Breakfast is coffee with buttery croissants and pastries made, as they have been since forever, fresh on the premises.

The Star Cafe (est.1934)
The ‘Star Special’, served all day, is two eggs, bacon, sausage and tomatoes. It comes with a round of hot buttered toast and is delicious, especially the eggs, which have been basted in hot oil so as to slightly seal the yolks. This dish hasn’t changed much since the cafe was founded, although the owner Mario notes that the menu has gradually lost the likes of bread and dripping, to be replaced with things like eggs Florentine. His father, Pop, bought the business for £320, at a time when the building also hosted the mysterious Baudha Manoli Yaghurt Company.
Note: Mario Forte sadly passed away in the spring of 2014 and The Star is now run by his daughter Julia.

Bar Italia (est. 1949)
At breakfast-time Bar Italia is authentically Italian or in other words completely indifferent to the idea of eating. If you must have food, there are a few pastries on the bar, but the main event is coffee, preferably espresso, flowing from a clanking Gaggia machine and then drunk either perched inside on a high stool, or around one of the crowded stainless steel tables on the street outside. The onetime subject of a Pulp song, Bar Italia has a large plasma TV for sporting events: fitting given that this is the building from which John Logie Baird transmitted the world’s first recognisable television images.

Bar Bruno (est. 1978)
In a strip of shops containing Pret a Manger, Carphone Warehouse and a brash arcade called Las Vegas, Bar Bruno is a comforting sight – one of those classic London hybrids of trattoria, sandwich bar and greasy spoon. The original Bruno sold up just over a decade ago, and the site of his cafe began its life as a food establishment in around 1960 when an entrepreneurial couple found they could do a roaring trade selling tea, coffee and biscuits from a small space next to where you’ll now find the crisp rack. Today, good, hearty, greasy breakfasts and strong cups of tea are dished out to an endless stream of regulars.

Balans Café (est 1987) and Balans (est 1993)
There are a lot of chain restaurants in Soho, but the key difference with Balans is that it started here. Founded when the Soho clubbing scene was at its peak, Balans was designed to fit in with the resulting clock-indifferent lifestyles. Among other things (‘chill-out room chic’ furniture and soundtrack) this meant serving breakfast in the middle of the night, after the clubs shut but before the first train home. If you want excellent cinnamon French toast or a breakfast burrito at 3am, this is still where you come.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Old Coffee Pot, New Orleans, USA

Old Coffee Pot
714 Rue St. Peter
New Orleans
+1 504 524 3500

by Louie Slinger

Given the New Orleans habit of carousing, it's no surprise to anyone, I guess, that there's a tradition of great breakfasts that are served until sometime in the afternoon. The Old Coffee Pot, right in the middle of the French Quarter, has been feeding folks, both hungover and otherwise, since 1894. A nice old townhouse with both inside dining and tables on its patio and covered driveway, it draws locals as well as tourists. It was a local who took me there the first time, in fact.

The menu offered lots of New Orleans specialties. Louisiana is rice country: calas, rice cakes rather like rissoles that were once sold from baskets by street criers, show up, paired with syrup. They're dense with a crunchy outside, just the thing to absorb any alcohol lingering in one's gut.

New Orleans likes to play with the eggs Benedict formula. There were four variations here, including eggs Sardou, which poses creamed spinach and an artichoke heart under the eggs instead of ham, and eggs Conti, which begins with a tender split American biscuit, piles on sauteed chicken livers and spring onions all in a winy sauce laced with a suspicion of garlic. Rich? Well, just. On this trip I succumbed to the Rockefeller omelette, which was full of oysters, creamed spinach and cheese, and probably packed enough flavor to raise some of the bodies buried behind St. Louis Cathedral, over a the next block.

Ladies who've worked there for years kept things humming, as they always do. In early December, late one quiet morning, five customers held hands and said grace before beginning their meal. (Not all visitors are sinners; occasionally there are church conventions in town.) When their meal was finished, they paid their check and the waitress wished them a merry Christmas, and added, "Remember, Jesus is the reason for the season." And then she planted her feet, squared her shoulders and let fly with a spontaneous, stunning gospel rendition of 'Silent Night'.

Never forget - this is a city where anything can happen. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mani's, Hampstead

12 Perrins Court
020 7435 0777

by John LeCafe

Mani’s had been somewhat of a tradition for me a few years ago. I worked in an office close by where meat was banned by the vegan boss. Pork Fridays, as I and a colleague termed them, were our way of protesting against this.

On the morning I returned, the weather was beautiful. It was one of those clear, crisp, cloudless days that seemingly only autumn can produce. As the cafe is set down a lovely cobbled street with no passing cars, I decided to sit outside. It had provided blankets on the backs of the chairs, but given both the weather and the speed with which I had walked up the hill, these proved unnecessary.

They had two kinds of fry-up. One was a bit pricey and the other even pricier. Tea was not included either. Still, this was Hampstead. When the waitress came, I surprised myself by going for the expensive option and surprised myself even more by going for wholemeal bread. I must have been swayed by the location and ambience.

The staff were friendly, polite and incredibly quick. They offered me choices about everything that seemed pertinent (sauce, bread and type of tea) and smiled warmly whenever they passed. The tea arrived within moments, toast shortly after and the rest of the breakfast was not far behind. The toast was made from thick and hearty bread, and the breakfast featured a higher class of sausage and perfectly cooked eggs. But something seemed to be lacking.

I was struggling to put my finger on it. Here was a trip down memory lane on a glorious autumnal day and an excellent breakfast, but soon I realised it was the other customers who were affecting my experience.

One couple a few tables down from me were sat quietly enjoying coffee while at their feet a small dog scuttled about. The dog had a pink jacket and a hairstyle which is normally popular with young girls and, I believe, is called a pineapple. However, this was simply amusing and not affecting my meal.

It was the estate agents sat a few tables in the other direction who were coming close to ruining it. They spoke loudly and boringly to each other of million pound deals and commission cheques. Often they took calls from clients who they would talk to as if interested while indicating to their colleague what a bore they were: smiling, laughing and joking on the phone as they made derogatory hand signs to their dining companion. Finally, once their phones had stopped and their talk of money ceased, they moved on to discuss shooting in unnecessary detail or to just staring at any woman who walked past.

This is a wonderful café with fantastic staff and a top-notch fry up, but I will take a closer look at who else is there before sitting down next time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hog Island, San Francisco, USA

Hog Island
Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
+1 (415) 983 8000

by Des Ayuno

The last time I saw H, it was also over breakfast – ten years earlier, at a smart café on Melrose in West Hollywood. I think we both thought it safest, it being too civilised for coffee or knives to be flung. I’m pretty sure he had eggs Benedict, while, trying to distance myself from him, from our heretofore near-perfect culinary harmony, I ordered something sweet, probably French toast. It was uncharacteristic. I am not, as I’m sure he would agree, a “sweet” person. I didn’t even have the option of delightful crispy bacon to soak up the maple syrup – I didn’t eat meat, then. But, well, he didn’t eat cock, then. We’re different people now.

When I arrived, San Francisco was suffering an uncharacteristic heat wave. Already fuming at the early-morning start and at my own weakness in thinking this was a good idea, I clambered up hill after hill, the bright-green Prada heels I’d been determined to wear slipping across the sidewalks, and arrived dripping with sweat at H’s aggressively trendy ad-agency workplace. Reception was at the top of two flights of marble stairs and as I tried to catch my breath, I reflected on the grotesqueness of its gold-patterned wallpaper. Then I realised it was shelves upon shelves of glassed-in Clios and Roses and those chunks of gilded tin they hand out at Montreux, stretching into the distance. 

After fifteen minutes or so, he bounded down the big central staircase, unapologetic and skinny and glowing as ever. We dawdled down to the waterside as he rambled with mock chagrin about all the trips to Delhi and Dubai he’d had to make recently; the time-sapping TV pilot he was developing; the expensively decorated, lonely city-centre apartment; the much older boyfriend, whose ex-wife and children dared to stake a claim on his time and substantial bank account. We stopped at a chic oyster bar where the waitresses all knew his name and, ever the gentleman, he guided me solicitously to the seat with the most picture-postcard-perfect view of the Bay Bridge, with hands that had always felt like soft, nimble brown paws. 

Americans have funny ideas about what constitutes brunch. Or maybe it was normal for ad men, or for borderline-eating-disordered gays in San Francisco. H ordered a massive platter of oysters (“All Pacific, obviously,” he reminded the waitress with a wink) and a crispy, gooey, three-farmers-market-cheeses-on-grilled-artisan-sourdough sandwich that he suggested we split but only watched me eat with hungry, shining eyes. 

Afterwards, I sat down in front of the Ferry to watch the pigeons. They were bigger than London’s nervy, ragged birds, glossy and sedate. I wanted to tell H that they chose marriage and kids and got fat and stupid. I wanted to ask if he remembered the icy winter night a few months after we met, when we argued, even worse than usual – him screaming, me sobbing, somebody coming down from upstairs to scream at both of us to shut up. He had stopped instantly. Then he had poured two shots of whiskey, looked at them for a long minute, and flung them out the window into the snow. He had taken my hand in the newly echoing silence and pulled me into a wordless, graceful waltz until I slumped into him, exhausted. 

My phone rang. I ignored it for a minute, then reached inside my bag. Next to the phone was a small package. Under the brown-paper wrapping and narrow red ribbon was a crinkly bag of very expensive jasmine-flower tea, and another of dried orange slices, which I’d bought in Beijing two years earlier, seeing them next to each other on a supermarket shelf like glowing talismans and suddenly panicking that I hadn’t seen H in eight years and might never see him again. We’d listened to Leonard Cohen nonstop in those first few months, although that day on the waterfront I was thinking less of “Suzanne” than of another song, the one I still can’t bear to hear, with its extraordinary, searing selfishness. “If I have been unkind,” he croons, “I hope that you can just let it go by.” I guess we’ve both tried in our way to be free.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Smiths, St Leonards-on-Sea

21 Grand Parade

St Leonards-on-Sea
East Sussex

TN37 6DN

by Nelson Griddle

To St Leonards for the weekend, where my sister has recently bought a one-bedroom flat there for a sum of money that would only get you a shoebox in London,  and a pretty poky shoebox at that.

Late autumn sunlight shimmers on the sea, the shingle is endlessly entertaining to my one-year-old son, and not very much seems to happen on the streets lined with faded, slightly wedding-cakey Victorian stucco houses.

In total, it feels a bit like Brighton in the early Nineties, kept from more rapid development by the slow train – and even slower A21 – to London.

But we’re not here for the travel details, I hear you cry. What are the breakfasts like?

We go to Smiths on the sea front (their strapline is “Real Food”) to find out, and taste a truly excellent full English. My New Year’s resolution a couple of years ago was to eat more quality pork products – something which, like most of my NYRs, I have failed to achieve. However, this sojourn to sunny St L’s helps me to make up for lost time.

The Cumberland sausages are superb. Ditto the bacon and black pudding.  The baby tomatoes, moreover, are bursting with flavour, and the poached eggs (territory on which your average short-order cook often slips up) are top notch.

Which only leaves the service. They are friendly enough, these St Leonards folk, but I have to articulate a gripe when it comes to our waiter’s shirt. On this particular Sunday morning he was sporting a pale blue Ralph Lauren number. Difficult enough to take exception to, you might think, were it not for the fact that the back of this garment was soaking – literally soaking - in sweat. I’ve no doubt waitering is hot work, but at what point does waiterly perspiration put your punters off their grub?

This is a question for Smiths to ponder. Along with the issue of what on earth “real food” means. The opposite of ontologically non-existent food, perhaps? Or existentially inauthentic food? I suspect the issue of sweaty shirts will prove less philosophically abstruse.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Café Bon, West Hampstead

Café Bon
94 West End Lane
West Hampstead
020 7624 7548

by John le Café

West Hampstead is not blessed with a lot of good breakfast options. There is only one proper caff but it is sub-standard, and there are posh cafés, but on a Sunday, with a hangover, I didn’t want to spend £9 on something involving sourdough bread.

When I neared Café Bon I saw a sign outside which advertised it as a ‘Caffee’. Now, I have often considered the differences between a caff and a café but a ‘Caffee’ was a new one on me.

Inside I found out that it was a hybrid: part caff and part café. They had a full range of healthier sandwiches and salads but still offered a full English for £4.50. A few of the tables were busy with people talking or reading the newspapers. I was encouraged.

I ordered from the slightly surly owner and waited. I began to worry when my tea did not come. I waited and eventually it did arrive but not on its own. It came with the rest of the breakfast. Upon tasting it seemed that the tea bag had been left in the whole time the breakfast was cooking. It was thick, bitter and also too hot to enjoy with the food. Not a great start.

There were, however, some positives. The sausages were good – the expensive end of cheap caff sausages. Probably full of sawdust and cheap cuts but undoubtedly the best type of sausage for a Sunday morning. There was also enough toast. Four slices of wonderfully cheap, thick, white bread. And loads of beans.

That’s where the positives end. The toast, though plentiful was in the wrong place. It was all under the beans. This meant it was impossible to enjoy a piece of toast which wasn’t slathered in tomato sauce. Now I, like most people I presume, enjoy beans on toast but I also wanted other things with my toast.

The mushrooms were greasy and tasteless and I only had two sad-looking slivers of a grilled tomato. The fried egg was hard in the middle and there wasn’t any brown sauce. I may repeat that to emphasise the point. There was no brown sauce in the entire place.

Then we have to discuss the bacon. Surely, the most important element of the breakfast and one that if done well, could have lifted the rest of the disappointing meal. But this wasn’t real bacon. It was imitation bacon. It had no fat, no flavour and a strange, almost burgundy, colour. I feel calling it bacon is a grand exaggeration.

I waited for the owner to finish the loud argument he was having over the phone and paid. One to avoid. Next weekend I will begin my search again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Café 1001, Spitalfields

Café 1001
91 Brick Lane
E1 6QL (on corner of Dray Walk)

by Marge E. Reen

Breakfast ordered: Full English

Cost: £6

Time: 9 am Sunday morning.

Weather conditions: Hot and humid.

Location: Bench in alley off Brick Lane leading towards Rough Trade East. In the evenings Café 1001 is always heaving with drunk people eating burgers and fried chicken from the outdoor grill but at this hour it was sleepily quiet, too early for the hipster hordes to have surfaced. 

Service: Charmless. 

Forensic analysis

Exhibit A (sausage): Looked like a pallid penis in a ripped condom. Barely browned, microwaved, dubious pink colour. When I complained the manager insisted it was ‘a very nice Cumberland sausage’ despite all visual and gustatory evidence to the contrary.

Exhibit B (eggs):  Bone dry, leathery and not scrambled, which was what I had asked for, although the waitress/cook insisted I hadn’t.

Exhibit C (tomato): Hard, unforgiving and had only glimpsed a frying pan.

Exhibit D (coffee): Piss-weak.

Exhibit E (beans): The sauce had a mealy, furry quality, which suggested this item had been cooked a while before and reheated, possibly several times. 

Exhibit F (bacon): Overcooked but passable. About the only thing they didn’t manage to entirely screw up apart from...

Exhibit G (mushrooms): Decent, but could not compensate for the fact that my stomach had been utterly turned by Exhibits A and B.

Exhibit H (white toast): I sent my breakfast back before I got a chance to taste this but I don’t imagine this café is capable of toasting bread properly.

Verdict: Guilty of serving badly-cooked, borderline inedible food. After a brief (and relatively restrained) confrontation with the manager I got a refund. I hope my case for the prosecution has persuaded you not to go to this café. One of the worst breakfasts I have ever attempted to eat. I did consider forcing myself to finish it as I was hungry but I feared I would get food poisoning from the sausage, or something worse. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wetherspoons, Leeds

North Concourse
Leeds City Station
West Yorkshire
0113 247 1676

by Michel Houellebrecq

What, or maybe more precisely who, in the name of God is a ‘Wetherspoon’? Sure, the website blathers on with some cheerily happy-clappy explanation, but I’m not convinced. If he (sorry) is a bloke, rather than a piece of undecidable cutlery, then I’d like to imagine he’s a pretty decent, salt-of-the-earth kind of (Northern) bloke, fresh back from a day’s honest graft to get in a couple o’t’ales for t’lads. It’s more likely, however, that he’s currently reclining on an inflatable lilo, sipping umbrella’d Pina Coladas as a fleet of nymphets (sorry, again) pamper his tootsies and buff his W-monogrammed belt-buckle.

Whoever he is, if the Leeds examples of his offerings are anything to go by, he’s onto a winner and his brand has turned things around, casting off images of sticky-carpeted hovels filled exclusively with the disturbed, the aggressive and the lonely. I was on a fleeting visit to Yorkshire and, whereas five years ago I would’ve pretended I’d gone to the infinitely classier (or slightly less shameful) All-Bar-One instead, I’m proud to publicly state that the only licensed hospitality I received during my time in the UK’s third-biggest city was from J.D. Wetherspoon Esq. Yes, you heard correctly.

I’d been impressed by the Thursday nite vibe of the Beckett’s Bank Branch. We’d wandered in there half by mistake: we were tired and hotelling in the vicinity, your Honour. I had to do a double take. This wasn’t the Wetherspoons of old. Where were the broken chairs? The shattered glass? The muscly dogs? The eight-man brawls? They’d been replaced by families, cross-cultural groups drinking coffee and having intelligent-looking debates, craft beer, real ales and fancy ciders. No-one was being beaten up, especially not me. We were so impressed, in fact, that we made a date for an early breakfast the following morning at the Station branch (this one didn’t open early enough); the newly-launched menu looked promising.

I wouldn’t normally dream of eating, or drinking (or maybe even breathing) in most British train stations, but if you put the depressing thought of the guy on the fruit machines gambling hard at 7.30am on a Friday out of mind, it was a joy. Cheap, decent, tasty, well-cooked, I might even dare ‘hearty’ fodder: what’s not to like? £4.60 for a ginormous ‘large’ cooked breakfast, £3.90 for a much more sensible ‘traditional’ version of the same. Everything you’d want was present and correct; sausages had substance, toast had poppy seeds (POPPY SEEDS!) and it was just the right side of greasy. Yeah, so the mushrooms might’ve been slightly on the soggy side, and they insisted on giving us each half a grilled tomato (who the hell actually eats them?), but I’m splitting hairs. They even have a selection of porridge and fresh fruit with ‘Greek-style’ honey. All the calories are clearly displayed for the post-5/2 generation. Coffee was good (hot, strong) and you get free refills until deep in the afternoon. Under £11 for breakfast for two. It’s a bleedin’ public service. Criticising this would be like slagging off a sunny day, although, rest assured, I’ve been known to do that. Whether Herr Wetherspoon is an honest sod, or a smily spiv, it matters not. His gaff is worth a (re)visit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

ChwarChra Hotel, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

ChwarChra Hotel
Sheikh Abdulsalam Barzani Street
+964 66 2231508

by Thom Yolke

Unless you happen to live in a cave with a dodgy router, it’s more or less impossible to avoid the torrent of unsettling news coming from Iraq at present. The black flags of the Islamic State have unfurled across the country, plunging the whole region into ever greater uncertainty. And yet, it was only in May of this year, just before ISIS (as they were then known) began literally bulldozing the borders, that I found myself having breakfast in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish territory, was, until recently, a relatively safe and even prosperous place, due largely to the steady flow of oil money that has seen shiny new hotels continue to sprout up on an almost weekly basis. These hotels, I quickly discovered, cater largely to those who want to preserve a semblance of Western continuity. Their lobbies chime with muzak versions of British or American power ballads, and their menus offer Western staples to reassure the far-from-home oil men. I would be staying in a different sort of hotel altogether.

My hotel had the look of a place that had witnessed another era, and survived it. A whitish, boxy building which had begun to flake at the edges, the entrance was adorned with a flickering neon sign, and lined with an eclectic menagerie of taxidermy. Beady eyed goats and lion cubs appeared locked into eternal staring contests. There was a distinctly bohemian atmosphere among the labyrinth of sofas that lined the lobby, as though you could expect to hear two local poets having a heated argument about form while becoming increasingly enveloped in a cloud of shish-a smoke.

On my first morning, I ventured over to the buffet and at first was underwhelmed, but on reflection I realised that’s because I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Some of the options looked familiar enough, sliced pineapple and dates, yoghurt and honey. It was only when I was encouraged with a gesture from the waiter to try a thick creamy substance that I initially passed over, that my eyes were opened. The waiter, not speaking English, nodded that I should combine it with a fine, dark looking jam which I noticed had a golden iridescence to it as I spooned a generous splodge over the fluffy cream. The waiter signalled his approval with a thumbs up and a wink as I sat down. The first mouthful confirmed that it was fresh fig jam, a Biblical fruit rendered into sin. The strong flavour of the jam was complemented by the cleansing neutrality of the cream, which after further enquiries I discovered to be Buffalo curd, also popular in neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Less rubbery than its cousin mozzarella it possesses a paradoxical lightness of flavour with a decadently whipped texture. It occurred to me that this combination was probably an ancient delicacy, enjoyed by the Sumerians or Babylonians who could afford such delights. Being a novice and aware that there were no set limits on quantities at the buffet, I may have slightly overdone the portions. Four helpings later, like any hedonistic Babylonian, I could barely move from my chair, and the sympathetic nodding of the waiter as he collected my bowl told me he was no stranger to this sensation either.

It took me most of the day to recover from the overwhelming richness of the dish, but it didn’t stop me going back for a single helping the following morning, or the next.

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