Saturday, February 02, 2008

Getting Serious at The Crown

Phil and the fried calamari at The Crown.

In spite of my best intentions, I always seem perennially late. Just when I think I've got the timing down, it's off. This time it was way off. The last time I spoke to my cousin, Mimi, I thought I'd meet her in an hour. I was off by two hours.

You know how it is, you just get so into what you're doing that time flies past and you didn't even know it. Luckily, family is family and mine are very patient. Mimi and her husband, Phil, were out shopping in Picadilly Circus when I arrived.

I hadn't seen Mimi since I was last in Manila at the beginning of 2001 when I was able to participate and cover the EDSA2 Revolution. That was seven years ago and since then she closed up her shop and moved to the London area. Outside of the pastries at Flat White and Fernandez & Wells, I hadn't eaten anything, and I had consumed a large quantity of coffee and espresso at Square Mile, so I was pretty hungry and jittery.

Like all good Filipinos, Mimi and Phil suggested we eat Chinese.

Hell no. I didn't travel all this way to London just to eat Chinese food. I wanted real, traditional English food. I wanted Curry Chips.

Of course, we're around Picadilly Circus, which is an absolute madhouse of people and tourists. Prospects of eating well in a tourist area are low indeed. When searching the internet via iPhone turned out to be fruitless, we turned to people on the street. Lots of people with good intentions recommended all sorts of places. One even suggested a vegetarian place. God Bless That Girl.

In the end, hunger and desperation won the day and I chose a place called The Crown. It's a pub on the street level and a restaurant upstairs. The pub area was packed with rugby fans watching the Six Nations Tournament of England vs. Wales (Wales is my choice) and the upstairs restaurant was largely filled by Spaniards in red uniforms with a big, automatic handgun silkscreened onto their jerseys. Futbol or rugby, I couldn't tell. They were Spaniards, sans botas.

Home Baked Aberdeen Angus Cottage Pie with chunky minced lead beef in a rich gravy, cheesy mashed potatoes and fresh, green vegtables.

The room was manned by a woman who was somewhere between grumpy and rude (I really couldn't tell anymore). Maybe she was just British. Whatever the case, I was more concerned with passing out that understanding what her troubles were.

For our dinner, we ordered several dishes. First off was Fried Calamari (decent enough) with a sweet and hot Asian-style dipping sauce (that was pretty good). Phil went with a steak (not bad). Mimi had salmon and boiled potatoes (I didn't try it, but it looked pretty bland), and I went with both the Fish and Chips and a Cottage Pie. Of course I did because I wanted to try a variety.

Fish and Chips.

I hate to say it, but there's really no point in belaboring it any longer. If these dishes were indicative of traditional English food then it's no wonder the American Forefathers wanted to get the hell outta there. The fish actually smelled fishy when I cut into it. The batter was crispy, but so thick. Neither the tartar sauce or vinegar really helped to enliven the fish. Even the chips were bland.

The pie wasn't mush better, just a lot cheese. And a lot of mush in the form of mashed potatoes and the meat and gravy filling. Actually, the brown gravy and meat were pretty tasty - with some salt, but where was the "life"? Where was the "ooomph" in the cuisine?

Perhaps that's why I've like Curry Chips so much. There's actually flavor and spice in the curry. Layer that over my favorite french fries and how can you go wrong? I just wish they had it here on the menu.

Mimi and the salmon.

The rest of our time was spent catching up on family gossip, how things are in England and plans for the future. Like a good family member, the inevitable question came up early on. The question of: "When are you going to find a nice girl and settle down finally?"

A loaded question indeed but one that no amount of diversion would divert. Sooner or later (always sooner than later), she would bring the story around to my needing to settle down (it's really amazing how women in my family are so good at that). We could go on and on about my womanizing (or desire to womanize) and she'd bring it right back.

Finally, I had to tell her the only thing that made any sense. That I thought I had found someone who I wanted to "get serious" with and plan for a future, but that relationship was over now. That as much as I had tried and hoped for the best, that's not the way it's going to be - and that maybe one day I would be ready to try again, but right now, I don't.

That worked for about half an hour, then it was back to scheming and planning on how I should meet a nice girl to settle down and get married...

This must be a conspiracy orchestrated by my mom.

C'est la vie!

The Crown
64 Brewer Street
Soho, London W1F 9TP
020 7432 9711

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

En Route to London

The morning sun peeking over the French countryside.

After a week of lazily languishing in bed, the alarm and the phone started ringing at 6am for my wake-up call. Nothing hurts more than getting up at six when you went to bed at two. It's killer and I just want to laze around the bed, but I can't. I've got an 8:07am Eurostar train to London to catch today.

After a quick shower, I'm off to the taxi stand. Here in Paris, you just don't flag a taxi down like you do in New York. There are civilized ways of hailing a cab and Parisians aren't like the barbaric Americans (or so they think). It's still dark outside as we pick our way through the Paris streets to the Gare du Nord, or North Rail Station. Since it's a Satuday morning, it's a quick ten minute ride that costs nine euros. I give the guy ten euros and start to get out of the cab. The driver makes a motion to give me my change but I tell him to keep it.

Then it hits me: maybe I don't need to leave a tip because the tip is included?

The Little Black Book of Paris that I've been using states that you can give your taxi driver a ten percent tip. It also says it's okay to leave a little tip at the restaurant. Are these people pulling my leg? So far, I haven't had to leave an additional tip at any restaurant (I was even told by the owner of Chez Pierrot that it was unnecessary) and now this cabbie wants to give me back my change? This ain't New York.

First course on the Eurostar: yogurt, orange juice, croissant, mini baguette, butter and jelly.

Taking the Eurostar is like checking in at the airport. You have to go to the counter, go through security screening and passport control (I thought the UK was part of the EU?) and then you're released into the terminal waiting area compete with shops, coffee bar, magazine store and duty-free shopping. I grab a sausage and cheese combo for Stephen and a book titled: Talk To The Snail by Stephen Clarke for the ride - especially since I left my iPhone earbud headphones on the desk at the flat.

But one thing I didn't leave was my passport - and I was thinking about leaving it behind since I'm just heading to London and aren't they also part of the E.U.? I guess not.

Once the train is ready, everyone makes a mad dash for the coaches. Each is numbered and you're assigned both a coach and a seat number. There are three classes of service: Economy, Leisure Select and Business Premier. I chose Leisure Select since the Business Premier seat was $450 each way. To board, you walk along the train until you've come upon your coach number and a conductor checks your ticket to make sure you are where you belong (God knows we don't want those tourist riff-raff in Economy invading our foot massages).

The Main Course: cheese omelette, mushrooms, bacon and tomato.

The seats are wide and spacious - three across the width of the coach. Half of the seats face in one direction, half in the other, which means some of you are riding backwards (and I hate riding backwards) Half of all the seats are also in a face-to-face configuration so you can make gaga eyes at the cute curl sitting across from you, as well as play footsie under the table.

I get seated and, of course, I'm facing backwards. Our coach is pretty empty so I quickly switch to the four person face-to-face going in the right direction and I've got it all to myself.

The train gets underway and it's just like any other train. We start gliding out of the city and once we clear the city limits, the train escalates in speed to 186 miles per hour. Not as fast as the Shinkansen in Japan, but certainly faster than the Acela on Amtrak. The train is smooth and quiet at that speed and the French countryside speeds by while I get comfortable and wait for the meal service.

Today's meal is a cheese omelette, bacon and mushrooms with tomato. The food is standard airplane food. Nothing to get excited about. Actually, the most exciting part of the meal is the yogurt.

Like I said, I didn't sleep much and I'm pretty exhausted. I want to sleep, but I can't get comfortable. I squirm and I move, but the velour fabric on the seat keeps catching onto my jeans, twisting and contorting them into an uncomfortable twist.

I'm hating life at 186 mph.

Riding on the train is odd. As we blow through an underpass or careen through a short tunnel, the speed of the train causes such turbulence in the air that it creates pressure zones that fill the ear cavities. Every once in a while, I have to equalize my eardrums.

Then there's the Chunnel Tunnel. Thirty-five miles of water flow above us in one of man's greatest engineering achievements. If it somehow collapses, we're dead. If the train decides to derail at this speed, we're dead too. Good thing it's dark in the tunnel. We never have to know it's coming.

But the tunnel only lasts twenty minutes and then we're in the United Kingdom. Those blokes are driving on the wrong side of the road, but they couldn't care less. I vision for a moment forgetting this nifty fact and getting creamed by a lorry as I try to cross the road at Piccadilly Circus. Hopefully, that won't be the case.

After two and a half hours, we arrive in London at St. Pancras International Rail Station and onward to a London adventure.