Thursday, 5 May 2011
St Ali - London
I love good coffee. But It hasn’t always been so. I’ve found that as I’ve got older, more into food, I’ve become something of a coffee snob. Nowadays I sneer at the acrid essence of crumbled mud in glass jars that passes for coffee from the supermarket chains, but years ago, a more innocent, a more naïve me deemed it a perfectly acceptable brew. Later I felt the same way about the coffee from the doggy-style-humping-evil-world straddling-corporate chain, Starbucks, as I blindly ambled to work sipping my tasteless yet ridiculously expensive fix from a two gallon cup.
But I’ve matured. I’ve grown. I’d sooner neck a litre of my own piss than drink an overpriced Shattachino (TM) from the aforementioned Seattle based company, at least my ‘home brewed’ is cheap, steaming, and tastes of something.
Nowadays, I want to buy my coffee from a little independent place. I want it made with love and care. I want it to taste smooth and amazing. I want a flat white. And I want leaf patterns drawn in the froth to show just how damn skilful and artistic the person who made my coffee is. Oh, and they simply must have lots of tattoos.
Not much to ask is it?
Luckily, London is sprouting a rash of decent independent coffee shops like a pubescent teen developing a particularly fine crop of acne. Pop your head into any of these places, and it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be an Antipodean behind the coffee machine. In a somewhat surprising development, whilst we were all gormlessly sipping on awful brown coloured pish, across the other side of the globe, the Aussies and the Kiwis were developing a café and coffee culture that is second to none. What they don’t know about decent coffee isn’t worth knowing. And God bless them, they want to share it with us.
All of which brings me to the latest, coolest place to get your premium caffeine fix, all the way from Melbourne Australia, supposedly the pre-eminent café in a city that is absolutely heaving with serious competition. Yes….Clerkenwell in London now has a ‘St Ali’.
But why St Ali? I hear you ask. Well, apparently it’s like this. Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili (St Ali) was the patron saint of coffee, who in the 15th century introduced coffee beans to Muslim mystics. Who knew eh?
So, a couple of weeks ago, I made the pilgrimage back to my old and much loved stomping ground of Clerkenwell (Some of you will know that I was cruelly mistreated and banished from this wondrous area of London, last April by my one-time evil ex-employer in a savage and entirely unwarranted act of redundancy). In fact, I more or less worked right across the road from the new St Ali site.
Happily my pained and tortured countenance was rapidly replaced by a look of serenity and total calm, as I greeted my pal Nicola who was joining me for lunch, and took in the vast and light flooded space.
Seriously, the place is bloody huge. (You could fit my entire flat into the toilets). At one end of the main room, beyond the central bar is an absolutely massive free standing roasting machine. Next to this, a ‘living wall’ of plants, which added considerably to my feeling of zen…
…A feeling which, doesn’t last long for two reasons. Firstly my ordered flat white is absolutely excellent. Smooth but packing quite a wallop, it’s a bloody nice cup of coffee. The problem is the ‘coffee art’ gracing the foam.
I’ve had a few goes at doing this on a professional machine myself, and basically, I can’t do it. It’s much harder than it looks and all my attempts have been frigging diabolical. The example that I now held in my hands didn’t have just one fancy palm frond. It had a three. To my eyes, that’s just taking the piss and reinforces what an utter dribbling incompetent of a coffee maker I am, with all the subtlety of a boot heel grinding my face into a gravel path.
I throw a look of utter contempt at the smiling unknowing barista.
Strangely, the other ‘calm killer’ was the beautiful old communal antique bench we were sitting at. Absolutely cracking to look at, battered, full of character, one end covered with vases festooned with flowers. It looked like it belonged in a glossy magazine photo shoot. But…it’s set at just the right height that when seated on the proffered stools, it’s impossible to put your legs under. So we both ended up sitting ‘side-saddle’ whilst eating, which isn’t a comfortable dining position at all. Solution, raise the bench up – or cut the legs off the stools, right now it’s definitely a case of style over comfort.
On the plus side, apart from the excellent coffee, the food menu is very interesting. With an obvious emphasis on brunch/lunch, it’s full of fresh, Bill Granger’esque dishes and combinations, with unusual foreign sounding ingredients –savoury French toast with bacon, maple labna and apple balsamic, grilled sardines with skordalia (What the hell is skordalia?) dukkah, kasundi, zhoug all feature (Aren’t they characters from Star Trek?). Trust me. It’s an intriguing menu.
Mystery ingredients aside, those in the know had flagged up one dish as being absolutely cracking. The weirdly named ‘My Mexican Cousin’ (I have no idea why its called that – as far as I can tell, based on the ingredients, it has sod all to do with Mexico).
Consisting of corn fritters, baby spinach, halloumi, kasundi (A spicy Indian tomato chutney) and two poached eggs. It’s lovely. Just simple, fresh food and therefore pretty much the perfect brunch dish.
In fact, St Ali is the perfect brunch place. I just wish it was down the road from where I live. It’s the sort of place you want to grab a late weekend breakfast, chill out and read the papers. Sadly it’s in the wrong frigging city.
F*ck my luck.
Build it in Bristol next time Ok guys?
27 Clerkenwell Road
Telephone: 020 7253 5754
I've just been informed by the owner of St Ali, through the wonder of Twitter, that 'My Mexican Cousin' is so called, because it was literally his Mexican cousin who came up with it. So, now we know.