Murray Blake

London food blogger


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Artusi

161 Bellenden Rd, SE15 4DH
Nearest tube: Peckham Rye
020 3302 8200
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Artusi received a glowing write-up from Peckham resident Jay Rayner a few months ago, but seems to have been off the radar of most London bloggers ever since (North London bias perhaps?).  I decided to head along to offer an impartial opinion and to sniff out any potential home-bias from Jay.

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Artusi is nestled in the recently gentrified Bellenden village, a place where hip new restaurants and artisan butchers sit shoulder to shoulder with greasy kebab shops and Caribbean fruit and veg shops.  It’s interior is stripped back using a coolly understated palette of white, grey, slate and charcoal.  Plain wood tables are crammed into the relatively small dining area which is topped by an open kitchen.  The menu is short, seasonal and keenly priced, with three starters (£5), two pasta dishes (£6 or £10.5 for a larger portion) and three mains (£13) on offer.

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We opened with mortadella – a pork cold-cut from Bologna, laced with garlic and pistachio nuts.  The portion was very generous: the fatty, flavoursome, meat had a slight garlic aftertaste – for me, it was very enjoyable but I imagine that some would find it’s richness a bit heavy going.  Our other starter was seared ox heart with salsa verde – the meat was served rare but had been properly rested so it almost melted in the mouth.  The salsa verde was zingy, lifting the strong flavour of the ox heart and lending clean citrus undertones.

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For our pasta main we chose pappardelle with artichoke.  The pasta had certainly been made in-house using good quality eggs, giving it a fantastic yellow colour; it was rolled very thinly and cooked so it retained a bit of bite.  The artichokes were (I think) steamed and then soused in a butter sauce.  This dish was a reminder of the amazing pasta dishes that I have eaten on holiday in Italy – it was by far the best pasta dish I have eaten in the UK.

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We followed the pasta with old spot pork, beans and artichoke. The pork had been slow cooked and was so soft it could have been eaten with a spoon.  It had been finished in a little olive oil, with cream and a hint of parsley.  Texture was added by the earthy, nutty beans and freshness by the artichoke.  An incredibly simple, but beautifully executed dish.

Verdict: humble, great value food in a relaxed, yet stylish setting 9/10

 


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José

104 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3UB
Nearest tube: London Bridge
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website; map

Following a tenure as head chef at Tapas Brindisa, José Pizzaro opened José in 2011 – it was the first of London’s new wave of stripped-back, authentic tapas restaurants (also see Bar Tozino).  Pizzaro is from Extremadura, a distinctive region of Spain which borders Portugal – the area is famous for its agriculture and in particular, the black Iberico pigs which munch mounds of acorns in oak groves.

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José does not accept bookings and has very few seats, so expect to stand for a chunk (or possibly all) of your visit.  The staff will take drinks orders when you are in the queue and are great at keeping track of your place in the pecking order, meaning you can wait, relax and enjoy your drink.  The chalkboard menu is short and simple, featuring some old classics like tortilla but also including some more unusual Spanish regional dishes, like Catalan butifarra (described below).

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We started with a safe bet, patatas bravas (£5), the potatoes (which I think were maris piper) had good colour and were perfectly crispy.  They came smothered in a rich tomato and garlic sauce, which was finished with a hint of paprika.  There was also a generous helping of very garlicky aioli which had been freshly prepared with good quality eggs.  Our next dish was a russian roulette of padron peppers (£5) – whilst the majority were mild and refreshing, a couple of them were so spicy that they made my eyes water.  Supposedly around a fifth of the peppers turn out hot, depending on the amount of water and sunlight they are exposed to.

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When I spotted butifarra (£7) on the menu I couldn’t resist it, I have fond memories of munching butifarra in Catalonia: raw and thinly sliced, grilled with white beans or fried atop sliced bread.  José’s offering was served in pisto, which is a Spanish slant on ratatouille, featuring courgettes and peppers.  It was tasty enough, but a bit underseasoned.  The butifarra was disappointing: the quality of the meat was not great, it seemed more like offal rather than (as it should have been) leg, shoulder and loin. It must be very hard to source good quality butifarra in Britain; this was possibly an English butcher’s failed attempt to recreate it.

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We finished with fried calamares and octopus (£9) which were wonderfully fresh, encased in a light and thin batter – the squid was melt in the mouth and had a mild, sweet flavour; the baby octopus was firm and meaty.  And a final note on the (entirely Spanish) wine and sherry lists: these are generally served by the glass and are listed on the blackboard by vineyard (not grape) – so unless you know a lot about Spanish wine I would advise you to ask the staff for some guidance.

Verdict: simple, great value Spanish food in a fun, bustling atmosphere 7.5/10


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Gymkhana

42 Albemarle St, W1S 4JH
Nearest tube: Green Park
020 3011 5900
Gymkhana on Urbanspoon
website; map

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Gymkhana opened in September 2013 and is the sister restaurant of Michelin-starred Trishna in Marylebone.  It has received rave reviews from all the major critics (scoring 10 out of 10 from Giles Coren in the Times) and was recently voted as the best restaurant in the UK in the national restaurant awards.  Gymkhana is a British colonial term for a sports club and the decor (leather, dark wood and marble) emulates an ex-pat Gentleman’s club.  Chef patron Karem Sethi is a North London boy who started his working life as a caterer, and following a stint in the kitchen at Zuma, opened Trishna at the tender age of 23.  He has since set up the Sethi group which provides financial backing for a number of restaurants in London and abroad, including Bubbledogs.

The menu at Gymkhana is relatively short and relies on British ingredients, including an interesting range of game (roe deer, guinea fowl, pigeon, quail, muntjac). In addition to a selection of fairly typical Indian starters, they offer “nashta” which are tapas style sharing dishes, and a range of meat, seafood and vegetable tikkas.

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We started with the now infamous kid goat methi keema, with bheja (brain) on the side (£14) – this was the highlight of the meal for me, the minced goat meat was full of flavour, almost gamey but with just the right fat content so that it was not dry.  The pao buns served alongside were slightly sweet and similar to brioche, they were a perfect way to mop up the fenugreek stock of the curry.  And finally, the brain (top right in the picture above) was glorious – rich, gelatinous, melt in the mouth……certainly my culinary highlight of 2014.

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The rather diminutive duck dosa (£8.50) was served in a pancake tipi, the sheltering meat was dense, fibrous and only lightly spiced.  Our final starter, a quail kebab with green chilli chutney was rather underwhelming – the meat was characterless and the chutney, whilst light and refreshing, needed stronger spicing to tart up the lackluster meat.

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Tandoori Guinea Fowl (£20) utilised both leg and breast – the meat was superbly tender and had the perfect level of tandoori smokiness; the charred skin added texture and depth of flavour.  The menu advertised a “green mango chat” and I was hoping for a light mango salad, rather than some splinters of mango atop a whole chopped red onion (see above).  The quality of the meat in the Nalli Lamb Kebab (£25) was again very good and the light spicing allowed the deep flavour of lamb to come through.  We finished with suckling pig vindhaloo (£18) – the waitress had warned us that this was very spicy but the resulting dish was, by modern British standards, at most medium spiced.  The curry was delicate enough, the sweet subtleness of the suckling pig was lost in the spicing.  And a final note on the pricing – I think that the main courses are a tad overpriced, especially given portion sizes are small, but I am happy to pay a premium for cooking of this quality.

Verdict: a certainty to get a Michelin star this September – book as soon as you can 9/10


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Reviews from North to South

(Far) North
White House Express
63 Brent Street, Hendon, NW4 2EA
Nearest tube: Hendon Central
020 82032427
White House on Urbanspoon
website; map
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White House is a Kosher Israeli grill restaurant in the London-Jewish heartland of Hendon.  Bizarrely, the menu strays into Thai dishes, but I would stick to the traditional middle eastern grills, which include Shishlik (Israeli lamb Shish kebab), Sharwarma and Shnitzel.  You can choose from a wide range of salads and sides with all the meat dishes – I opted for a bit of everything and was rewarded with creamy coleslaw, tart red cabbage, sour refreshing gherkin, and the star of the show, sweet roasted onions.  My beef kebab (£15) was served with a tasty char on the outside; the inside was slightly pink and completely melt in the mouth.  The meat had just the right fat content to make the kebab juicy, but not fatty.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hummus was fantastic – it had a deep, earthy flavour with bitter tahini undercurrents.  The photo below does not do the meal justice – this was a truly refined and perfectly executed dish.  I washed my food down with a quaffable kosher red from Argentina which was very reasonably priced at £4 for a large glass.

Verdict: Geshmak! 9/10

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North
The Elk in the Woods
37-39 Camden Passage, N1 8EA
Nearest tube: Angel
020 72263535
Elk in the Woods on Urbanspoon

website; map

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Elk is a Scando-British restaurant/bar a few steps from Upper Street.  The decor owes inspiration to Swedish summer houses, hipster East London bars and Victorian public toilets…..it is a real mismash, but manages to achieve both individuality and comfort.  They serve an extremely popular and diverse breakfast menu including elk sausage baked eggs and smoked cod kedgeree (they also use Monmouth beans for their coffee).  Unfortunately, it is a bit far for me to drag myself on a weekend morning, so we went for dinner on a busy Friday night. The menu is long, rich and rather spendy: we started with elk kebab (£6.5) with apple and bacon, the meat was smoky but rather chewy – a rather disappointing signature dish.  More pleasing was the special of smoked cauliflower (£5) which had a nice balance of creaminess and smokiness.  For main course I had home smoked duck, braised chicory, dumplings and pickled cherries (£15.5) which was also a bit disappointing, the dish was too sweet and the duck overly smoked.  The accompanying dumplings were under-seasoned and their texture was stringy.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the homemade popcorn ice cream sandwich with salted caramel (£5.1) but in reality the dish was highly calorific, the sandwich was made of pan loaf and the popcorn stone cold.  I pride myself on having a tummy of steel, but after all of the rich dishes, lots of meat and very few greens I felt rather ill.  I think the menu needs to be slimmed down, the smoking tamed and portion sizes (and prices) trimmed.  The concept is good but the execution needs some more work.

Verdict: less is more 5/10

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Central
Koya
49 Frith Street London,
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Rd
020 74344463
Koya on Urbanspoon
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There was great hype and long queues when Koya opened a few years ago, but now things have calmed down and you should only expect to wait on weekends and even then for a short time only.  They specialise in udon (thick wheatflour) noodles which are served in four different ways: hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles in hot broth, cold noodles with cold dipping sauce, or cold noodles with a cold pouring sauce (do you follow?!).  There is a lot of labour in the production of the noodles – they are made fresh every day and painstakingly rolled out by foot (thankfully covered in plastic sheeting).  I opted for the day’s special of hot noodles in hot pork and miso broth, topped with a tempura langoustine (£7.9).  The broth was complex and salty, with bags of umami; the noodles were firm and slightly sticky – simple but very tasty food.  Udon is essentially fast food in Japan and I suppose the service/atmosphere at Koya reflects this – it is rather clinical and does not encourage you to linger for long.

Verdict: simple, good value Japanese fast food 7/10

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South
Brindisa Food Rooms
41 – 43 Atlantic Road, SW9 8JL
Nearest tube: Brixton
0207 733 0634
Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon
website; map
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Brindisa have a London mini-chain of tapas restaurants and Spanish produce shops – their home base is at Borough market and they have restaurants in Shoreditch, South Kensington and Soho.  They have recently opened up in Brixton, a few minutes’ walk from the tube station.  The shop has a tiny kitchen and mainly serves “Llescas” – a Catalan invention of stale bread slices rubbed with tomato and garlic then topped with cured ham or vegetables.  We started with a wonderful white asparagus, chive and soft cheese dish (£5.25) – the asparagus was earthy and fresh (we should really grow more white asparagus in the UK) nicely complemented by the mild soft cheese.  We followed with some decent Salchichon (£3.95) and Chorizo (£5.25) which was of better quality than you can buy in the supermarket – the portions were generous and the dish was served with side salad.  The menu is small and not very diverse, which lead us to order a Manchego Llesca (£5.45) even though I think that Manchego cheese is rather boring, again the cheese was of decent quality but it did not have enough character to be exciting. We finished with a grilled anchovy dish (£5.75)- the anchovies were large and meaty with a nice level of saltiness.  Their wine list is very reasonably priced – the cheapest glass is £3.75.

Verdict: a limited choice of good quality produce treated well 7/10

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Berners Tavern

10 Berners Street, W1T 3NP
020 7908 7979
Nearest tube: Goodge Street
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website; map

2013 was a big year for Jason Atherton.  He was declared the best dressed chef in the UK by GQ (surprising, given when seen on TV he normally looks like a gaunt East Enders underling) and then much more importantly, the Social Eating House was awarded a Michelin star, becoming his second starred restaurant.  His  restaurant empire (up to 13 at my last count) continues its expansion across London and South East Asia, with Berners Tavern being the most recent addition.  It is situated in the swanky Edition hotel a few minutes’ walk from Oxford Street; the dining room has grand pretenses – it is capped with an immensely high ceiling adorned with intricate cornicing and dribbling nouveau riche chandeliers.  It is trying very hard to be stylish and it is certainly an apt setting in which to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail.   From a small and generally citrusy selection I chose “Dill or No Dill” (£11.50) which was a refreshing mix of Tanquery gin, smashed cucumber and fresh dill, with a hint of lemon juice and elderflower syrup. Surprisingly, the weedy sourness of the dill worked very well with the fragrant gin and sweet syrup – highly recommended.

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The head chef is Phil Carmichael who has served under Atherton for almost ten years, starting as a senior sous chef at Maze London, then going on to work in Prague and Cape Town.  His menu has a nice mix of meat and seafood dishes (but only has a token handful of vegetarian options) – the focus is on French bistro food, supplemented by some grand sharing plates, including chateaubriand and whole baby line caught bass.  It has received rave reviews from the majority of critics – Zoe Williams in the Telegraph archaically stated that “one struggles to find fault” with the Tavern.

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However, it is with a heavy heart that I report that we made a horrendous ordering error…..we chose the appealing sounding “British Fruits of The Sea”, which included dressed crab, langoustines, clams, cockles, whelks and periwinkles, all served over ice for a cool £65.  The dish was very grandly served and looked extremely pretty, but unfortunately did not deliver on any level.  Everything was very cold and slightly congealed – it seemed like it had been cooked at best first thing in the morning, and worst the day before.  The clams were tasteless and contained a lot of sand – I don’t think they had been left to rest in water to tease the worst of the sand out of them – I suspect a lazy commis chef may have plopped them straight into boiling water. The periwinkles were small, black “common” winkles – I attempted to skewer the body out of around 50 of these little buggers but I only succeeded in actually retrieving about 4. The whelks were plentiful but extremely dull – I struggle to believe that they were not cooked from frozen.

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The meal was somewhat salvaged by the chunky, sweet langoustines and the creamy/salty dressed crab, but these did not sufficiently wash away the bitter taste from my mouth – it is not acceptable to charge £65 for a dish of such poor quality.

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Thankfully, we finished with a remarkable coconut creme brulee with pineapple, coconut and Malibu sorbet (£8.5) – the texture of both the brulee and the sorbet was silky smooth, the alcohol and sweetness perfectly balanced.  Our other dessert was possibly my favourite so far of 2014: chocolate rice pudding with orange star anise jelly, white chocolate and orange sorbet (also £8.5) – the quality of the chocolate was excellent, the rice was still firm and the consistency perfect, a real triumph. The desserts were fantastic, and a reminder of the fatal error we had made earlier in the meal.

Verdict: order anything but the fruits of the sea

 

he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf


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Peckham Refreshment Rooms

Unit 4, 12–16 Blenheim Grove, SE15 4QL
Nearest tube: Peckham Rye
020 7639 1106
Peckham Refreshment Rooms on Urbanspoon
website; map

You could easily miss the refreshment rooms – it is on a quiet street of Afro-Carribean hairdressers and the exterior is unadorned, save for a little printed menu by the door.  It’s name is a nod to Peckham’s past, deriving from what is now the Bun House pub on Peckham High Street but was originally called The Refreshment.  I am going to avoid ranting on about the gentrification and Hipsterfication of South London – have a read of Jay Rayner’s glowing review if you are interested in the changing sociology of the area.  Instead, I will focus on the food, which was delicious……

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The restaurant may seem a tad ramshackle, but don’t be fooled – a lot of thought has gone into the concept: it is the brainchild of Sven Munder, an Oxbrige educated arts strategist who is one of the crew behind the ever popular Frank’s cafe.  He has been one of the driving forces behind the regeneration of Peckham and works closely with local artists and galleries.  The interior is stripped back, with high formica tables and uncomfortable seats: this is not a place to linger; the service is quick and efficient, the atmosphere bustling.  As is typical of new wave restaurants, the menu is pared down, offering bar snacks, cheese and charcuterie plates to start, followed by seven main course choices.

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We started with some wonderfully meaty, sweet mussels, swimming in a light cream sauce with shallot and garlic (£7) – simple and homely, but very well executed food.  We followed this with parmesan and truffled honey (£6) – the slices of parmesan were large and generous: crumbly, dry and full of flavour – the truffled honey a perfect sweet and punchy counterpart.

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The gnocchi (£8) were much larger than I was expecting: their texture was soft and they had a rich crunchy exterior enhanced by a touch of parmesan.  They were light, fluffy and not at all gloppy – anyone that has been put off gnocchi by chewy, tasteless supermarket offerings or the efforts of highstreet Italian restaurants would be converted by this dish.  We rounded off a fantastic meal with a decadent treacle tart which had been freshly removed from the oven.

Verdict: rustic and homely, but ultimately great value, fantastic food 9/10.

 

 

 

 


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Coffee reviews – No. 2

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs
14–16 Leather Lane, EC1N 7SU
Nearest tube: Chancery Lane
Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Urbanspoon
website; map

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In spite of the terrible name, they serve outstanding coffee at TDoCaSA.  I went to their original branch on Leather Lane for a pre-work pick me up and was served with a truly beautiful macchiato.  The espresso came from Gedeo in Ethiopia and was called “The Earl’s mistress” due to it’s distinctive bergamot orange nose and dry tannic aftertaste.  It was extremely unusual (though possibly an acquired taste) but I would highly recommend trying this (and please drink it in espresso/machiato form before you add extra water or milk which will dull it’s unique flavour).  Certainly the best macchiato I have had in London.

Coffee score: 9.5/10

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Coffee score: 8/10

Rapha cycle club
85, Brewer Street, W1F 9ZN
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus
Rapha Cycle Club on Urbanspoon
website; map

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Rapha is an upmarket cycling brand (readers in London will probably have seen riders wearing their black jerseys with pink flashes on the road) and it’s flagship store has an attaching cafe.  They screen live cycling throughout the season and along with Look Mum No Hands! this is one of the best places in London to watch a race and drink good quality coffee.  They source their beans from Workshop and treat them well – I opted for a long black made with Cult of Done espresso (a mix of two thirds Ethiopian and one third El Salvador single estate robusta). The resulting cup was citrusy and light, very drinkable, but with only a subtle caffeine hit.  They do a limited range of food and baking which is aimed at fueling the legs with carbs and calories.  The menu is split into three: “pre-ride” sandwiches & eggs,  “on the bike” rice cakes & granola, “post-ride” tuna on rye & minestrone.  I had an unremarkable ham and parmesan sourdough sandwich and if you visit I would recommend sticking to the coffee.

Coffee score: 5/10

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Taylor Street Baristas
125 Old Broad Street, EC2N 1AR
Nearest tube: Bank
Taylor Street Baristas on Urbanspoon
website; map

Good coffee is surprisingly hard to find in the City generally, and especially around Bank, but Taylor Street Baristas is a real gem amongst the pebbles.  Started by a couple of Aussies, they now have 9 branches spread across the Square Mile, Canary Wharf and Shoreditch.  Their coffee is sourced via Union Hand Roasted who work directly with coffee farmers in an attempt to bypass big business supply networks.

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The Bank branch has table service and the staff place customers at tables; the decor is all wood and mismatched furniture, but manages to achieve both character and comfort.  The espresso used in my flat white was sourced from Central America and was initially zesty, but with rich chocolate undertones.  The milk treatment was reasonable but unfortunately it was served cold.  Overall, my flat white was not as good as the equivalent at Association coffee but it is still the best coffee within walking distance of Bank.

Coffee score: 6.5/10

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