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?

St Ali
27 Clerkenwell Road

Telephone: 020 7253 5754

*Added Note*
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.


chloe said...

Yeah, I absolutely loved it too, shame it's all the way over in Clerkenwell!
BTW I got a stool that fit both times I went, maybe there's only one, the one next to me was to tall...

Dan said...

Chloe - Could be worse. It could be all the way over in London! (I'm in Bristol nowadays). A Stool that fitted the cool antique bench?!!! what the hell! They must have liked you.

The Grubworm said...

Yum, and just round the corner from me - hurrah! I've been watching this take shape and assumed it would be good from the enormous coffee roaster I saw going in one day. Now all I need to do is to head in, take a pew, swivel sideways and dive in, because it sounds like it's well worth a visit.

Greedy Diva said...

Thanks for the link Dan and so glad you enjoyed your Mexican and flattie as much as I did! Another great London coffee shop to add to our list!

Dan said...

The Grubworm - How envious am I of your work location. I miss being around Clerkenwell loads. The coffee is cracking, as is the brunch/lunch menu. Well worth a visit.

Greedy Diva - I first read about The Mexican on your blog, so thanks for that! Couldn't agree more. Cant get enough cracking coffee shops in London.

TheFastestIndian said...

Not really the point of your post, but as far as I'm concerned kasundi is a sort of spicy mustard sauce/condiment that is strongly associated with Bengalis (in India/Bangladesh). It's the type of thing my folks complain about not being able to buy here and bring back bottles of from India. End of off topic comment!

Pavel said...

Sadly I can't drink the coffees but love the sound of some of those crazy brunch items!

Dan said...

The Fastest Indian - Aha, so this Kasundi, as far as you're concerned, is not the Kasundi you know. To be honest, I had no idea what it was till I came across it at St Ali - so, little confused here.

Pavel - You can't drink coffee mate? The crazy brunch menu sounds frigging awesome.

Anonymous said...

This looks excellent - again, a shame it's not exactly my local!

Also, really inspired by your food photography. I must do better!

Hannah @ Love to Dine

Anonymous said...

Came across your blog while searching for good places to eat in Essex. Am a Kiwi living in Essex but spent the last 5 years in Melbourne, where I often went to St Ali. Amazing coffee and food to match. Will definitely be making the trip to Clerkenwell. This is what I'm talking about London! Now, if only I could find a flat white in Essex....


josordoni said...

just checking the comments, and amazed nobody has put your mind easy about skordalia!

It's fabby Greek potato and garlic sauce, like a mayo. Makes your tastebuds tingle and your breath stink. Good stuff.

Peter Thomson said...

I hope you've found a decent flat white in Essex. Your review of St Ali is spot on. The food is excellent but there are a few wobbles. I wrote a whole review about the coffee itself on I'll have to try the Mexican Cousin again. Your photos of it look yummy.