Saturday, February 02, 2008

London Coffee Is Falling Down

Twin La Marzocco Lineas at Flat White.

From the Eurostar to the London Underground to Picadilly Circus, up Shaftesbury Avenue, left on Rupert Street, through the Porn Alley, go for a quickie lap dance, continue on Berwick and Flat White is on the right.

Flat White. American baristas like me wonder: just what the hell is a "Flat White"? Evidently, it's some sort of Aussie thing, or some kind of Kiwi thing, or - well, I'm from America, we just don't know anything outside of McDonald's. Whatever it is, Flat White is just about the best coffee shop in London and quite probably all of the United Kingdom.

Good thing the British aren't too hung up on national pride, otherwise they might have burned the place to the ground for showing them up so roughly. Flat White is run by New Zealanders. They've brought their style of making espresso coffee to London and are doing a seriously good job at it. The shop recently underwent renovations and the place looks sharp.

First off, I'm really surprised they can offer a food menu as well because the space is quite small. Maybe five hundred square feet, at the most. As you walk in, two La Marzocco Lineas line the counter to your right and the friendly Kiwi owner is there to greet you. On this Saturday morning around 10:30am, the place is packed. They probably seat about 25 and all the seats are full. A long banquette lines the left wall and a cash register sits next to the espresso machines and then a partitioned section is where the food is made. The girl next to me is eating scrambled eggs with toast and it's looking very tempting.

Since they're from New Zealand, little things poke out at me calling attention to that fact. The poster on the wall of an upcoming party of Kiwi DJs and the Hei Tiki made from the Maori pounamu(or material supposed to resemble pounamu) stuck to the back side of the Mazzer grinder facing customers. Cool touches from their homeland that someone like me can appreciate.

My Flat White at the eponymous Flat White.

Since this is the Flat White, I might as well order their "Flat White." The girl behind the counter is friendly and eerily reminds me of my high school crush Sarah with her dark eyeliner eyes, white skin and dark brown hair. The physique is different but the overall look is so similar to Sarah's that it's scary. I break into a sweat for a moment as I remind myself that it's been over between us for over twenty years.

The place is not only packed but it's jamming. There's not a line out the door but the customers come in at a steady pace, one after the other. I would love to chat with the owner and ask some questions but it's so busy in here that idle chatter is out of the question. Cheerily, he brings over my Flat White.

I have to say, for a drink called "Flat White," it's still quite brown. And it looks very similar to what we call a cappuccino. A glance at the menu on the wall and the price is the same as a cappuccino. So, what's the difference? I don't know. I can't tell you. Everyone is too busy for idle chatter, remember?

Either way, the latte art on the Flat White looks fantastic. Nice proportions and good definition. When I drink the Flat White the first thing that pops to mind is "bitterness." Not bitterness in the negative sense, but a bitterness that punches through the milk. The bitterness of nice coffee. And while the milk isn't sweet, the flavor blend together for a very tasty Flat White.

It's taken awhile but finally Stephen Morrissey arrives. it's been awhile since I last saw Stephen at the Canadian National Barista Championship in Toronto back in September. He's doing well and getting ready to compete in the Irish Barista Championships at the beginning of March.

After a few moments, James Hoffmann, the 2007 World Barista Champion (of the world), makes his grand entrance. Like a proper world champion, everyone here knows him and a cheer erupts from the bar. The welcome is so enthusiastic I'm half-expecting a pair of guards with spears to come in, stomp on the floor and shout "God Save The King!"

The three of us hang out and chat for a bit and then we're off on a brief and quick London Coffee Tour.

Stephen Morrissey and our loot at Fernandez & Wells.

First stop is just around the corner (literally) at Fernandez & Wells. This place is a bit bigger than Flat White with a completely different approach to interior design. Very modern, white, pine colored wood, steel and a bit on the cold side. Evidently, these are Spanish hipsters bringing their stuff to the London Coffee Scene (are there no Brits involved in this London scene? I begin to wonder). The place looks slick and they've got a wide assortment of baked goods on the front counter, as well as some sandwiches and a big, three-group Synesso Cyncra pulling shots.

I grab a custard and a piccolo while Stephen and James both have a couple almond croissants and drinks. The left wall has a long counter and steel stools to sit on. It's a sharp-looking space but the design is a bit on the cold, industrial side. Not much in the way of getting comfy and sitting for a spell. The piccolo is actually quite good and goes great with the custard's sweet baked filling. We're there only for a few minutes because we still have a bit of ground to cover between here and East London.

Londoners braving the cold as Italians would do at a corner cafe in SoHo.

As we stroll around Soho, they take me to see a few other coffee spots, notably Monmouth Coffee where I sample a Melitta brewed Indonesian that's a bit on the heavy dosing side. Heavy enough that it's coating the mouth and just making everything dead. Note to Monmouth: less coffee in the Melitta, please.

After more than a few samples at the local cheese shop and a viewing of the hip Italian joints, we're back into The Tube heading out to East London (the dodgy part of town) to see the new home of Square Mile Coffee.

Located in warehouse space, under railroad tracks in a part of London where the neighbors laughed at their original sissy padlocks, Square Mile's HQ isn't in the trendiest part of town. But beyond the barbed wire walled fence, the armored steel and cockney gangs is a new and pristine space promising to become the new "It Girl" of the London Coffee Scene.

Since they haven't opened for business, I won't disclose much about the space except that I think exciting things will be developing between those walls.

I hung out with James and Stephen for several hours. They were great hosts. We chatted about all sorts of topics. Industry gossip. Competition theory. Recipe ideas. Who knows who in the restaurant business, and whole lot more. Unfortunately, my time in London is short because there's still so much for us to discuss. Perhaps we'll have more time when James comes to America in a few weeks.

We left James at HQ and I left Stephen as he took the tube to Heathrow for a flight back to Jenny. And I made my way back to Picadilly Circus to meet my cousin.

Flat White
17 Berwick Street
Soho, London W1F 0PT
020 7344 0370

Fernandez & Wells
73 Beak Street
Westminster, London W1F 9RS
020 7287 2814

Monmouth Coffee
27 Monmouth Street
Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9EU
020 7379 3516

Square Mile Coffee Roasters


coffeesteve said...

It was great to catch up Jay. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your stay, Jenny loves you for saying I was flying home to her.

Try get out here again soon!

Scott said...

Have you ever heard of Roasting Plant Coffee ( Just saw an article in a design magazine about their completely automated coffee shop. The only human contact is when you pay for your drink... The "JavaBot" roasts, grinds, stores, and brews in an entirely automated process. I can't imagine what the quality could be...but thought you might be interested in seeing it (or avoiding it) on your next trip to the big apple.

onocoffee said...

Steve, it was great hanging out with you too.

I have heard of Roasting Plant but the last time I was in NYC, it was too late to check it out and it was just around the corner (we were eating at WD-50).