Category: Food

Cable Café: Must try harder

Cable Café: Must try harder

I love to support local businesses; goodness knows I blog about them enough. Like many people I’m worried about the future of the high street and want to do my bit to keep our local stores alive and thriving. Figures just released show the number of shops lying empty soared by more than 7,500 last year, with one in ten shops in UK town centres now unoccupied.

Retailers, especially small retailers, have to be at their best to attract and retain customers; service has to be tip-top. So, for all kinds of reasons, it really grates when it isn’t.

We usually buy our coffee from a small coffee roaster in York. The quality is excellent but in our continued efforts to buy local Mrs Preen suggested I pop into the Cable Café on Brixton Road and buy some of their coffee. They roast their own and we’d heard good things about it.

I went in at around 2pm when the place was just opening up. There were three staff putting out tables, sweeping the floor and generally getting the place in order. I called out and asked if I could buy some coffee.

A man at the sink said: “Sorry we’re closed, but you can buy it from our other café down Camberwell Road.”

Now here’s the thing, I was looking at the bag of coffee I wanted to buy which was sat just the other side of the bar. So, I persisted and said look it’s right there, it’ll take a second for me to pay and go.

One massive sigh and eyeroll later the bag of coffee and cash machine are banged down in front of me. I tap the card on the reader and receive not a word of thanks.

I was so surprised and irritated by their behaviour that I actually said: “What’s going on here?” But answer came there none, just glum silence.

Perhaps they hate their jobs, perhaps they just hated me, but where is the incentive for me to return? I paid £12 for a bag of coffee and the transaction took perhaps thirty seconds. What was so hard about that?

Anyway, I went home fuming and made myself a cup of their coffee. It was delicious. But do I love it enough to overlook the utter contempt with which I was treated?


 

The Oval Cook Book

The Oval Cook Book

Fed up with Brexit Britain? Had enough of Little England? Well here’s an idea, go buy a cookbook, more specifically The Oval Cook Book. As the author, Veronica Parker, says in her introduction: ‘In 2016 when we voted very narrowly to leave the EU, it felt as if all sorts of divisions had been opened up in our society.’ She wanted to heal those divisions where she could and set about creating a diversity cookbook which celebrates the lives and recipes of Kennington residents who have come from the four corners of the world.

Meet Akin Mustafa, originally from Cyprus, who runs the electrical shop on Clapham Road. He studied electrical engineering but fled the island after partition. Akin can fix anything from a toaster to an old VHS video machine and he can also fix a ‘Turkish Bean Salad’.

There’s a fine picture of Jasvir Singh receiving an OBE from Prince William for his services to social cohesion. His parents are both Punjabi Sikhs and the recipe he contributes to the book is ‘Turka Dhal’, that wonderful Indian dish with red lentils at its heart.

Walk down Coney Lane and you’ll come to Ashmole Stores run by the Patel brothers Bav and Prash. They came to the UK when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. The brother’s parents, together with their two sisters, moved to Leicester, then came to London and set up their shop in 1984. Bav is a Millwall supporter but don’t hold that against him. Their recipe is for ‘Curried Meatballs’.

Now you’re already getting hungry and wondering where this nourishing book can be found, which leads me to Jeanne Joyce who runs the gift shop Max & Melia. Jeanne was brought up in Normandy, came to England as an au pair and made London her home. Her recipe is for ‘Tomato, Onion and Hearts of Palm Salad’.

In 2018 Max & Melia was named London Gift Retailer of the Year. The book is on sale at their store and costs eight pounds. Five pounds of every copy sold is donated to the Triangle Adventure Playground just off Claylands Road. So far £1400 has been raised to support this excellent cause.

There are fascinating life stories in this book, which go into far more detail than is contained here. Find out more about the lives of immigrants who have made Lambeth their home. We are lucky to have them, and now we are lucky to have their recipes.

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Build in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Liver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Basqueing in the late summer sun

Basqueing in the late summer sun

This blog has decamped to France, so you are now reading Une Petite Vie Francaise or something like that. No doubt I’ve got the gender wrong and I’m certainly lacking a cedilla because I can’t find it on this computer keyboard. Sticklers among you will now be saying well that’s very nice for some, but what has this got to do with London which is supposed to be the blog’s USP. The answer to that perfectly reasonable question is not much, barely anything, but not absolutely nothing if I’m allowed to veer off into the double negative.

We are staying in Biarritz which is set deep in the heart of Basque Country. I know it’s Basque Country because I’ve discovered a desert called Gateau Basque. This is a pleasant cake-like thing made from ground almonds (probably) and in the case of the one I’m wading through right now, is stuffed with cherry jam. It may not be up there with the great French dishes such as Bouillabaisse or coq au vin but I seem to be able to eat it quite happily for breakfast, then as a desert for lunch and supper. Say what you like about Gateau Basque, it’s versatile.

Biarritz was once popular with the Beau Monde who came here to gamble and party, particularly in the early part of the last century. There is still a grand casino, large Art Deco hotels and wide sandy beaches which are now sought after by surfers rather than the crowned heads of Europe.

Come the sixties the better weather in Nice and the attraction of Brigitte Bardot and her ilk meant the money moved a little further South East to the Mediterranean and away from the more stormy pleasures of the Atlantic seaboard.

Miremont Biarritz
Miremont Café Biarritz

For breakfast we ventured, en famille, to a rather grand cafe called the Miremont. On the outside window there is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII visiting the Miremont with his ‘young’ wife. I’m not fully boned up on Alfonso V13, nor entirely sure which country benefited from his beneficent rule, but it looks to me like this might be Mrs King II, or the younger trophy wife.

The maitre d’, told us proudly that Biarritz was once the ‘Queen of resorts and the resort of Kings’ and that it was once said that at teatime there were ‘fewer pastries than Queens and fewer rum babas that Grand Dukes’.

Well the Preens are not easily intimidated, so barging a few Barons out of the way and treading a couple of Earls underfoot, we made our way to our table. The thing about mixing with The Quality is that it doesn’t come cheap. The creamy rich cafe au lait came in at €5.90 a pop while the croissants were a bank busting €2.20 and the daughter’s orange juice or fruit presse was €6.60. But Grand Dukes don’t complain about l’addition and neither do the Preens when the food is this yummy.

The Miremont prides itself on its ‘cosy charm and grand style’ which is a tricky combination to pull off. As we are leaving the maitre d’, who the daughter described rather unfairly as an old goat (vielle chevre), told us that King Edward VII, used to stay every year at the Hotel De Palais, while ‘remaining faithful to the Miremont’s confections’ and of course remained faithful to the wife who cost him the throne. We were also shown the Royal Coat of Arms that was bestowed on the Miremont by Queen Victoria who apparently used to send Albert down to pick up the buns.

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Green-fingered Mrs Preen is responsible for a bumper crop in our modest market garden this year. I guess the industrial strength sunshine may have helped a bit too.

Favourable Spring weather, meant the tomato plants went in early and as you can see from the pictures, we are overwhelmed by the little beauties.

The cucumber plant we call the chicken plant; it lays a new cucumber every day. They sprout so fast, I swear you can see them growing.

Peppers are tricky in our temperate climate and we are only growing them this year because we were gifted a free plant, but as we now live in what seems like Southern California rather than Southern London we have four incubating.

We are growing broad beans following a project management cock up at the highest level. Mrs Preen meant to order runner beans, but because of an administrative error scored broad beans instead. Now I love a broad bean as much as the next man, but they are tricky to grow and are suffering as they went unwatered for a week while we were away. The poor loves seem to be bouncing back, but broadly speaking, there’s not much bean action.

The only ne’er-do-well, lazy backsliders in our garden are the strawberry plants. Beautiful, healthy looking specimens they may be, but totally unencumbered by any fruit. Shape up strawberries, or you’ll be ripped up by the roots. It’s survival of the fittest round our way.

Shop Local

Shop Local

Our neighbourhood is fenced in by Brixton Road, Clapham Road, South Lambeth Road and Wandsworth Road all of which fetch up either at Oval or Vauxhall. Lots of roads, but no Hight Street; no banks and no big destination stores, but what we do have are great independent shops.

Use ‘em or lose ‘em may be a cliché, but when it comes to retail it’s quite literally true. Shop local because if you don’t, what do you get? More boarded up buildings, more chicken nugget boutiques and yet more bookies. That’s a future we can do without.

So here are three local shops for your consideration: Max & Melia, Blissett’s and Mimi’s Deli. I took a stroll round to all three and asked the owners why people should pay them a visit.

Max & Melia

  • 16 Clapham Rd SW9 0JG
  • Opening Hours
  • Tuesday to Thursday: 1030am-7pm
  • Friday and Saturday: 1030am-6pm
  • Monday and Sunday: Closed

Max & Melia is a gift shop; go in for a card and pick up a present. The owners have a terrific eye for quirky gifts, so while there are plenty of scented candles, greetings cards, and a rather fine Queen & Corgi salt and pepper set, you will also discover ‘shabby chic’ antiques. The owners scour auctions and markets for the unusual and idiosyncratic. They don’t claim to be antique experts, but they buy what they love, and they know what their customers want.

M&M opened its doors in November 2012 and originally intended selling furniture and other bigger homeware items, but customers started calling it the Little Oval Gift Shop, so that’s what it became.

Maxine, one of the owners, makes the point that what they offer is personal service. Come in a few times and you’ll be greeted by name, made to feel welcome and offered informed suggestions as to what you might want to buy.

The shop has just won a prestigious award. Battling against other top independent outlets from across London they received a Greats Award and were named ‘Independent Gift Retailer of the Year’.

They are dog-friendly (they own two), they have goods from all over the world, but they are on our doorstep so: think global and shop local.

Blissett’s

  • 32 Brixton Road SW9 6BU
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Friday: 8.30am-5.30pm
  • Saturday: 8.30am-4pm
  • Sunday: Closed

Google Blissett’s hardware store and the reviews are spot on:

  • Super helpful staff, good range of stock and fair prices.
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff and an Aladdin’s cave of fantastic products.
  • Excellent DIY shop with very helpful staff.

Blissett’s is no new kid on the block. It was a building firm after the war employing some 27 men and was bought by the current owners’ Dad in 1981, who decided to retain the name but turn it into a builder’s merchant.

When asked why people should visit their shop, personal service and advice was again high on the agenda. While they still supply builders, many of their customers are now householders doing DIY. I can vouch for this as over the years I’ve sought their advice and products. My wife thinks I’m best at DNY (Do Nothing Yourself) but with their help, I struggle on.

Interestingly, they mentioned that many of their customers don’t have cars and so won’t venture farther afield to say B&Q but would rather use Blissett’s because it’s convenient and just a walk away.

They have a wide range of products which they claim are often cheaper than when sold over the internet and if a customer wants something they don’t have in stock they do their best to have it for them the next day.

Mimi’s Deli

  • 2 Brixton Rd SW9 6BU 
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Saturday 8am-5.30pm
  • Sunday 9am-3pm

Mimi’s has just been spruced up with some rather slinky designs of an elegant woman (is it Mimi?) drinking coffee. Any why wouldn’t she, the coffee is great in this extremely popular family run shop that is both deli and café.

Pop in for lunch or pick up something to take home. In our house their home-made pesto Genovese combined with their fiery chili pasta is always a winner. And my daughter wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention their legendary cannoli.

The café seats 20 people and is ideal for lunch with all the food being prepared in their downstairs kitchen. There’s a full menu every day which includes Italian classics such as pasta and pesto, lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

The shop has been a deli for more than thirty years with the present owners taking over in 2009. The financial crash saw off most of our specialist food stores so it’s a delight that Mimi’s has survived and thrived. As with the other shops I visited they pride themselves on giving their customers ‘that special, extra attention that you don’t get from chain stores’.

Mimi’s Deli: It’s our little bit of Italy on the Brixton Road.

You may already use these fine, welcoming establishments, but don’t leave it too long until your next visit.

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

There are restaurant premises on Clapham Road close to Oval tube that have seen many manifestations and make-overs. In our 18 years of living in the neighbourhood it’s been: The Lavender, Oval Lounge and now we have a new eatery: 24 The Oval.

The new owners took possession of the property at the back end of last year and we all expected it to be open for the busy Christmas period, this didn’t happen. The place obviously took a long time to refurb and only opened earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time but finally got around to it when Mrs Preen and I visited last Wednesday.

I walk past the restaurant most days with the dog on the way to Kennington Park and had checked the menu. I was concerned it all looked a little pricey, certainly more so than the previous incarnations I’ve mentioned, plus I wasn’t seeing many patrons.

So, I was surprised when I called to make a booking for 8pm to be told there was nothing available until later in the evening. On our arrival I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lack of punters, the place was heaving.

The long refurbishment must have more to do with the kitchens and the elements not on display as the interior doesn’t look so different. It’s all pleasantly woody with flowers and plants giving it a charming country kitchen atmosphere. Strangely the music was very loud and given all the reflective surfaces of glass and wood, conversation proved a little difficult, but almost as soon as we’d sat down someone dialled down the sounds and chat commenced.

One their website 24 style their approach as ‘old fashioned, modern British cooking’. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the menu is gratifyingly small and there were many dishes I would have been happy to order. While we were waiting, we were brought a yummy cheese fondue with savoury choux buns as a taster.

Deciding not to go for starters, my wife ordered the Roasted Skate, Jerusalem Artichokes and Rainbow Chard (£16). I opted for the very fishy mix of BBQ Monkfish, Smoked Mussels, Salsify and Seaweed (19). I’m not going to come on like a MasterChef judge and give you chapter and verse as to what was right and wrong with the dishes, largely because that’s way beyond me, but I will say both dishes were consumed with gusto and pronounced excellent.

Just one caveat, while the last thing we wanted were huge US-style portions, both dishes were a little on the small side. The Skate wing was more the size of a budgerigar wing; perhaps portion control could ease up a bit.

I had Treacle Tart and Ice Cream to finish, because I’m incapable of not ordering treacle tart if it’s on the menu.

Add in three glasses of house red wine (perfectly drinkable) a side order of Triple Cooked Chips and the bill came to a pretty reasonable £69.

A couple of other things to add: My wife is Coeliac and has to have a gluten free diet, this was speedily arranged with no fuss. There is a Tasting Menu which comes in at £38.50 per person, but best of all 24 is a dog friendly establishment.  A large silver haired mutt of indeterminate breed sat behind us beneath its owner’s table.

This looks like a really welcome addition to our neighbourhood which is not blessed with many fine eateries. A return visit to 24 is definitely on the cards, but next time with Bucket.