The London Review of Breakfasts

"Dedalus, come down, like a good mosey. Breakfast is ready. Haines is apologising for waking us last night. It's all right." (Buck Mulligan)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Big Jones, Chicago, USA

Big Jones
5347 N Clark St., Chicago

by T. N. Toost

I found myself, on 5 July, breakfasting with a former Tokyo dominatrix, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion/stand-up comedian, and a prostitute.

I could have predicted breakfast with Natsuki and John; she has been my best friend since college, and it was natural that I’d want to meet her amazing new boyfriend. Having breakfast with an honest-to-God prostitute was something I never would have predicted. But the previous day, the Fourth of July, we’d all gone over to pick Nora up at her apartment – or, rather, one of her apartments, because she did business out of one and lived in the other. She called it the “HOstel.” She asked if we wanted to come up to see it, and, in reality, I didn’t, but I did anyway to be polite, and, in reality, I kind of did want to see it.

Prostitution is something that I intellectually believe should be decriminalized. People should be able to sell their services and their bodies in any way they wish, provided they don’t harm others and are not being exploited. Plus, to a certain extent, we all sell sex in some way; as Brendan Behan once quipped, the difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs less.

At the same time, I had a visceral negative reaction to being in a functioning brothel that I never would have anticipated. Standing in the living room of her work space, next to a strap-on dildo and variously sized paddles and two massive deer heads hanging on the wall, listening to a detailed account of how long it took to paint the 20-foot walls, and how the massage table only cost $150, and how they had to have a pile of new sponges for washing toys, and how they had elaborate plans to soundproof the rooms from the family living below them – standing there, I realized that my arms were tightly crossed in front of my body, and my mouth was drawn grimly against my teeth, and that I was very, very uncomfortable. I forced myself to uncross my arms and relax my face, and I listened, without comment, to a story about the fight she was having with her landlord to get a separate buzzer for her room so that her clients could be independently buzzed in and wouldn’t be seen by the clients of her partner.

Writing this, one week later, it strikes me that she is actually running her business pretty professionally – the only thing that gives it any salaciousness is the fact that society is so hung up on sex. She has to think about how to report her income, and securing business, and competition, and advertising, and government overreach, and land use issues, and overhead. She has databases to check whether potential clients are deadbeats, and online forums to discuss new business developments. When she goes out of town on business, she calls it being “on tour,” and she has to find places to work, new clients, and negotiate fees ahead of time to cover her travel expenses. And she thinks of little details, like filling her fridge with coconut water and cans of San Pellegrino. She didn’t say this, but I think she had San Pellegrino because of the foil cap on the cans that you peel back in order to sip it. It makes people like me feel less worried about drinking it; the foil acts as a condom, keeping germs from getting on the can and thus to my lips. I sipped it, delicately, as she told us that one of the persistent hazards of her work was sharting.

Prostitutes also pay close attention to their health. As she sat across the table from me that beautiful, clear Chicago morning, she was sweaty, after having biked 15 miles along the shores of Lake Michigan. When the food arrived, she had a huge plate of buckwheat pancakes topped with raspberries; they were gluten free, and she paired it with a Sazerac. I had “Eugene’s Breakfast in Mobile, circa 1930,” a dish inspired by a jazz musician who decided to become a chef. The catfish was delicious, the breading was light brown and flaky, the plantains and beans and rice were all seasoned perfectly. I washed it down with strong, black coffee.

And then there was the question of etiquette that might only come up when dining with a prostitute. I had no problem passing along a piece of catfish and plantains to her, but then she reciprocated. When she cut off a piece of pancake, placed a raspberry on top, and passed it onto my plate with her fork, I paused. She saw five clients a day, at times, and I thought of the dildo on the wall, and remembered how she had licked powdered sugar off of her fork as if it were a lollipop. That was the same fork that had speared the raspberry and the pancake and then had dropped both pieces of food onto my plate, on the edge, so it wouldn’t mix with my food. I swallowed hard for a second, considering how I might decline.

But I didn’t. She was my friend before she was a prostitute.

And her pancakes were, admittedly, delicious.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Terrace Cafeteria at the House of Commons, Westminster

The Terrace Cafeteria
House of Commons
(MPs, certain staff and their guests only)

by Marge E. Reen

Parliament is prorogued—ie on a break between one session and the next—and the MPs are, according to the press, ‘on holiday’ but actually they’re more likely to be in their constituencies worrying what to do about UKIP. It’s a May morning just after the local council elections and I take advantage of the calm by having a leisurely breakfast in my workplace. The Terrace Cafeteria is where I come most days for lunch but, as I don’t want to end up like Sir Nicholas Soames, I don’t usually breakfast here as well.

The Terrace is comfortingly old-fashioned with a Pugin-tiled serving area and a wood-panelled, green-carpeted dining room which overlooks the Thames. According to a friend who went to one, it’s like being in a boarding school refectory, and on this unseasonably rainy morning, I feel especially cosseted from the outside world. Modernisms have crept in—to my dismay they now have an electronic screen, which announces the menus of the day, but, for the most part, it’s as unchanging as Michael Fabricant’s hairdo.

At 10 am the Terrace is busy with burly builders, fat policemen and thin researchers. The canteen staff are, as ever, friendly and professional. Breakfast items sweat gently under a heat lamp on the serving counter. I take one rasher of bacon, one sausage, one hash brown and one spoon each of scrambled eggs, tinned tomatoes and mushrooms along with one small cup of filter coffee. All this comes to £3.60. An absolute bargain. It tastes good too. The scrambled eggs are creamy, the sausage herby and plump, the bacon entirely decent and the hash brown a slightly naff guilty pleasure. I do like the fact the tomatoes are tinned as fresh tomatoes can be so hard and tasteless. The mushrooms are a particular delight: unctuous with dark, savoury juices. After all this I feel ready to stride the corridors of power and look David Cameron straight in the eye should I bump into him, which of course I don’t.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Op-Egg: Why I Hate Going Out for Breakfast

by Fyodor Toastoevsky

Before moving to London from a sleepy West Midlands town I’d never given breakfast 'out' much thought; it was only when time or location necessitated it that I’d reluctantly take my eggs à la God-knows-whom, and it was precisely because it was necessitated that the food’s quality had never really mattered.

The difference between a greasy spoon breakfast and a breakfast at home is enormous; I have time for the former, as I am unlikely to prepare myself a white bap stuffed with bacon and dripping with grease and brown sauce. Therefore, when, on occasion, I have found myself eating a greasy-spoon breakfast, I have treated it as a different beast and thoroughly enjoyed it for what it is.

Here, in a city offering a chance for real community, though, I have found myself, for the first time, seeing people actively going out of their way to eat breakfast away from home despite having easy access to their kitchens, ample time and good ingredients. Somewhat naively, I  initially took this to mean that breakfasts ‘out’ in the capital were a cut above the rest.

I will beat around no bushes here; I am a scholar of homemade breakfasts. I am an expert in eggs, an artist in accompaniments and a maestro of the multitasking required to produce a fine breakfast. I was not born with these expertise; I worked on them weekly, with dedication and love, for even from a young age I could see the value inherent in them. Given that these are, with just a little patience, skills quite within our mortal grasps, it seems ridiculous that we should go through life without honing them, and absurd that we should spend the veritable bags of money requested by twee cafes to consume a love-starved and unsatisfying breakfast.

I do understand spending money on dining; if nothing else it’s probably the best way of experiencing cuisine you may not at home. Breakfast out, however, is beyond my comprehension. Its creation is neither a complicated nor an expensive procedure; yet when we eat it out we often spend a sickening amount just to have it as we wish. I mean, damn it, I shouldn't have to pay extra for coffee (or again for a second cup, should I wish it) and certainly I shouldn't have to do so for the basic privilege of bacon, as a fellow contributor once had to at Stoke Newington's Blue Legume. For a comparative drop in the bucket, I can feed a table of friends a lazy weekend feast the likes of which cash will not buy in the outside world.

Finances aside, it is a joy to prepare one’s own breakfast. There is no rush, there is no inexplicable wait, there is no want for space, and most importantly of all, the food is good and plentiful, every time. There is also, damn it, as much coffee as we like.

"But!" I hear you clamouring, "the washing up! The time! The effort of it all!" - well, to quote Theodore Roosevelt: "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…", and let's be honest with ourselves; investing a little time in achieving the perfect start to your weekend is surely a sacrifice of far more worth than casting a fistful of money at a small plate of lukewarm non-breakfast and a cup of coffee you have to savour.

I implore you to remember the home-cooked breakfast, each of which is your own work of art, never quite the same twice. Don’t risk your valuable time and money on the whims of stony-faced cafe staff and nameless breakfast chefs.

Take control of your breakfasts and you take control of your weekends; take control of your weekends and you take control of your life.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Erba Brusca, Milan

Erba Brusca
Alzaia Naviglio Pavese, 286, 20142

by Maggie Arto

The phenomenon of brunch has arrived in Italy, though I guess, fairly recently. The late-middle-aged gent on the adjacent table, enjoying a chilled red with his wife, leans over to our plate of pancakes and enquires which item on the menu they are. Pancakes di farino di riso con semi di papavero e bacon, I say, with the thought that if the word pancake has not been widely adopted into the Anglo-Italian vocabulary, they must not be particularly prevalent. But good pancakes they are: rice flour with poppy seeds; light, wide rounds; slightly sweetened, with thin, almost caramelised bacon atop.

Erba Brusca is situated alongside one of Milan's canals, on the outskirts of town. The city was once weaved with these mercantile waterways, which Leonardo da Vinci worked on in the 15th century, but most were covered over by the 1930s, leaving only certain strips open to the air. Wandering along the banks towards our reservation, wed spotted a pair of dancing cyan dragonflies, and so were already feeling peachy as we sat down on the early summers terrace and our mimosas arrived. The owners have spent time in New York – as you might imagine what with the pancakes and the typical drink types – but in New York they don't always make mimosas with freshly squeezed blood orange; nor do they consider a hamburger, or roast beef, an item for brunch (or do they?). 

Indeed, the other brunch plates are more of a lunch affair, though executed with a freshness that is welcome for the first meal of the day. I have cured trout in pink slices, horseradish cream and fat redcurrants, with mustardy leaves picked from the garden. Here, we could be in Sweden. My companion chooses a panzanella of fried stale bread, cubed cucumber, basil and plentiful ripe tomatoes, dotted with buffalo milk mozzarella that tastes like the pastures of Lombardia itself. This mix of salty carb and proteins is befitting of brunch – and say what you like about Italians, but you can't fault their tomatoes. There is an egg dish - fried with salsiccie and asparagus - that called itself Eggs Benedict, but we don't order it. It looks more like a Spanish huevos revueltos; another breakfast item so lost in translation it ended up close to lunch. There are a couple of baked goods, including a plum cake made with ricotta (plum cake, in Anglo-Italian equals moist madeira-like cake, nothing to do with plums), which people are treating like dessert. Perhaps the only thing that truly distinguishes brunch from other meals in Italy, I think to myself, is its occurrence on a Sunday – that, or the absence of pizza and pasta from the menu.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Global Breakfast Radio

Global Breakfast Radio is a month old today. You may have spotted it when I discreetly added a link to the sidebar, but if for some reason that passed you by, it's here.

What the hell am I talking about? Global Breakfast Radio is an internet radio station made out of other radio stations, always broadcasting from wherever it's breakfast-time right now. It's a collaboration between me and the sound artist Daniel Jones, and maybe isn't really that much about breakfast at all.

Press play on the website and you'll constantly follow the sunrise, dropping in on one radio station after another for ten minutes at a time before randomly moving on to the next. You might hear college radio from Canterbury, news discussion from Lagos, rock & roll radio from Anchorage, crackly Spanish music from Montevideo, and so on, all the way around the planet.

Since Global Breakfast Radio launched we've been surprised by how many places people are listening from. It's done really well in the UK and US but is also pretty big in Japan and Russia. Listeners from 135 countries have tuned in, including in the US Virgin Islands, Myanmar, Togo, and Zimbabwe. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the sunrise images in the background, and the local weather data pulled from networked weather stations across the globe. For the former we had to filter over 10,000 creative commons-licensed sunrise images sourced from Flickr. It was interesting and gruelling: some people will tag anything with the word ‘sunrise’.

For more in-depth writing about the project, I recommend this brilliant piece at the Guardian TV & Radio blog, and these interviews at Wired UK and The Line of Best Fit.

And if you like your background material meta then there's some breakfast radio on the subject of breakfast radio that went out a couple of weeks ago on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday morning show, Broadcasting House.

Seb Emina
4 June 2014

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Café Margaux, New York, USA

Café Margaux
Marlton Hotel
5 West 8th Street
New York
NY 10011

by Séggolène Royal

New Yorkers are a demanding lot.

I say this with affection, because as a native New Yorker they are my lot. It’s a loud, dirty place with tiny living spaces and the potential for atrocious weather that still retains much of the grit Giuliani and Bloomberg tried so hard to scrub off. Given this, New Yorkers feel that they are entitled to receive whatever they want, whenever they want, to make up for the fact that they are tethered to the “island that is their lives’ predicament,” as Maeve Brennan once put it. Nowhere is this entitlement more in effect than in a restaurant.

I feel bad for wait staff in New York. Not only are they probably the next Sir John Barrymore and Vanessa Redgrave waiting on me, but they have to wait on all those demanding New Yorkers, who demand to know if there is gluten, dairy, raw eggs, nuts, or whatever the latest bad thing is in what they want to order. And they want this on the side and they want to hold that and so on and so forth. They’ll tip you well for it, though. Visiting from Paris I remember with a jolt when I get the bill that my meal or drinks costs 20-30% more than I thought it would because of the generous apologetic tip at the end. And if you’ve been an easy table, if you haven’t asked for the sun (hold the moon) on your plate, you’re still a scheister if you don’t pony up.

As a native New Yorker I occasionally like to take this privilege for a ride. This morning at Café Margaux at the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village, I ordered oatmeal with almonds, cranberries, and pomegranate seeds. But I was concerned that the oatmeal wouldn’t be sweet enough - I usually like it with maple syrup. Hey, it’s New York, I thought. I can have maple syrup if I want it. So I asked the waiter if I could have a little on the side. He hesitated, but was duty-bound to give it to me, and said he would look for some in the kitchen.

When he brought the oatmeal, it came with what looked like honey on the side. “Is that honey on the side?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Oh ok, then I don’t need the maple syrup,” I said, as he was about to pour me my coffee. “Oh!” he said, and stopped pouring the coffee. “No I did want more coffee please yes please,” I said, to get him pouring again, and he said “Yes, I just have to go tell the kitchen right away that you don’t need the maple syrup,” and fled. When he came back he finished pouring the coffee.

I dressed my oatmeal in honey and it was delicious, though the kitchen had been a bit stingy about the pomegranate seeds. Halfway through the meal, a little dish of maple syrup arrived, borne by a busboy, by which point I didn’t need it, but I poured a little in just to be nice.

Meanwhile there was the coffee. It was delicious, but the milk they brought with it was skim milk. Even though that’s what I grew up on, having been raised by New Yorkers, I have since gone off its tasteless watery whiteness. But I felt I had made enough of a fuss over the maple syrup, and so I accepted the skim milk as meekly as an out-of-towner.

Malcolm enjoyed his salmon but complained that his scrambled eggs were overdone. “That is standard scrambled,” I told him. “An American would react with horror and salmonella fear if they were served runny. But they’re entitled to their overdone eggs; it’s our responsibility to remember to ask for them the way we like them.”

There are some things, however, that a New Yorker should not be able to order. The menu included scrambled eggs with chicken, and this is one of them.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pret a Manger, Euston

Pret a Manger
Euston Piazza
Euston station
020 7932 5432

by Haulin' Oats

What is it about the service in Pret a Manger? From where comes the unforced, invigorating, positive energy? The busier it gets, the happier they seem to get. There’s a spirited ‘all hands on deck’ atmosphere. I swear I can hear the white sails ripple and snap as this honest crew, this band of merry brothers and sisters navigate, undaunted and thrillingly alive, the storms of hungry office workers.

All of which is ironic because the guy who serves me is a real c**t.

No eye contact, not a flicker of evidence that he's interacting with a fellow human being. This is rude, it’s belligerent, it’s bad service – but it doesn't earn him the c-word moniker. It’s this that promotes him; the girl behind me is tall, blonde and pretty. He’s smiling at her, animated, he’s all small talk and charm. He shoves a coffee loosely in my direction without a glance. What a c**t.

He's a Pret exception. They exist. Of course they do.

As I sit down at my table that thing happens which we will never know or understand. I throw my coffee all over the floor.

One of the crew is there quickly. She’s trying to make me feel as if the spill is absolutely nothing to do with me. ‘It happens ten times a day, or more! I blame the cups. There’s something wrong with the cups...’

A former or off duty brother/shipmate walks in (you can tell by the warm camaraderie of their greeting). They talk about her being pregnant. Then she's down on the floor, pregnant and vital clearing up my coffee. She brings me a replacement, offers to fetch sugar. The spirit of Pret Service fills the sails once more.

And now a sentence that would utterly horrify my teenage-self: what I wouldn't give to get the inside track on Pret’s hiring processes.

The little granola in a pot is pretty good. The granola has crunch and cluster (though there’s too little of it in proportion to the rest). The yoghurt is tangy and crisp. The compote has a good fruity zing. Overall the portion is small for breakfast, but then you’re paying a little less than a full blown regular cafe granola.

The indie idiot in me, the part that can't help but slightly go off a band if they get hugely successful, feels a little concerned about this gush of positivity for such a large chain. But you know what? Pret revolutionised grabbing a quick lunch for urban dwellers, and their service is a modern wonder, so well done them.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Green Room Cafe, Stoke Newington

Green Room Cafe
113 Stoke Newington Church St
Stoke Newington
N16 0UD

by S. Presso

A Church Street florist has grown to occupy the entire ground floor and garden of its shop front, and now calls itself the Green Room Cafe. The staff bring menus after you sit down but they are not particularly good at bringing anything to you, including menus. Once they arrive we can order cappuccinos, a vegetarian breakfast and a lentil stew.

The cappuccinos are virtually babyccinos. The food, although prompt to arrive, is accompanied by only forks. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of fork-only eating when appropriate. But these dishes need more: the stew needs a knife as it comes with rice and salad which needs to be gathered (if I’m honest, it could do with a spoon too) and the vegetarian breakfast is in every way a knife-and-fork meal. We put in our requests for knives and we wait. When you have hot food in front of you and you can’t dig in, impatience mushrooms, so, ninety seconds later, I request knives again from the owner who promptly delivers them with apologies, followed moments later by more knives and eye-rolling from the other waitress.

Home-made baked beans are rare: these are good. My vegetarian sausage is dense and tasty and you can tell it’s home-made as it is shaped like a penis. The eggs were listed as fried. I ordered scrambled. They arrive poached. But poached well. The fried tomato is exactly that. The fried mushrooms are the borrower variety: tiny but delicious. The bubble and squeak is the disappointment. As a main constituent it needs to hold the dish together and work with everything on the fork but it is bland, mushy and unseasoned.

The lentil stew is not my dish but the mouthfuls I had were good if also a little under-seasoned. Obviously this is not a breakfast but I brandish it as evidence of a limited menu.

The bland interior contributes much to the lifeless atmosphere. The main attractions are repurposed sewing-machine tables and wall-mounted crates that serve as storage. Constantly under-served tables drive diners to approach the counter for their own menus and again to order. Most tables have someone twisted in their chair vying for attention.

The breakfast is turbulent if enjoyable and we are happy to leave. And appropriately, the process is long-winded. You pay at the till. A lycra-clad cyclist is skating the floorboards as we try to put jackets on inches away from a couple trying to eat. The breakfast comes to 20 pounds for two meals, cappuccinos and cookies. Not so bad. Admittedly the food was pretty good: one of the better vegetarian breakfasts in the area. Trouble is, the café feels immature. The owners are eager but some of their staff are letting them down. Small changes here could make a big winner.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Goody Goody Diner, St. Louis, USA

Goody Goody Diner
5900 Natural Bridge Ave.
St. Louis, Missouri 63120

by Louie Slinger

It's a diner, in an urban, old and rather industrial neighborhood. Connolly's Goody Goody Diner began in a converted root beer stand in 1948, and Richard Connolly has never worked anywhere else. Breakfast all day, six days a week - there's lunch, but their reputation, still growing after all these years, is all about morning food.

The kids have discovered chicken and waffles, and Goody's version is exemplary, the chicken hot and fresh and greaseless, to dab with syrup or not as you eat the waffle underneath. But serious breakfast folks have hard choices, lots of them. Which of fourteen meat options? Which of twelve ways to have them cook your eggs? Pancakes – hotcakes, as the menu styles them – or waffles or French toast? Rice, grits or hash brown potatoes? Omelets? Skillets, a sort of mashup of different things? Or just a breakfast sandwich?

I frequently succumb, though, to the country fried steak – beef pounded, breaded and fried until brown, topped with a milky pan gravy, and some over-easy eggs and grits. Or else it's the Wilbur omelet, their take on a St. Louis tradition, the omelet filled with potatoes, onions, sweet green peppers and tomato, then topped with chili and shredded cheese. (By legend, good for hangovers, better at preventing them.) Or else there's the catfish and American-style biscuits.

Much of the food style is of the soul food/Southern kitchen tradition, but the crowd here is gloriously mixed: mechanics and ministers, tourists and students, police and politicians. Al Gore stopped by during one presidential campaign. Richard Connolly is pretty much always on hand. They do lots of takeaway, and there's often a line, but it's worth waiting for. Study the huge menu while you're waiting, watch the hard-working staff, who really earn their Sundays off, and make sure you take advantage of some first-rate eavesdropping.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Bluebelles, Portobello Rd

320 Portobello Road
Kensal Town
W10 5RU
020 8968 4572

by Haulin' Oats

Oh no.

One of the most common and, perhaps, saddest of granola sins. An easily avoidable failure right at the final hurdle. My granola arrives in a glass.

The delights of achieving the perfect proportions of granola, yoghurt and compote according to whim have now been destroyed. The Pollock-esque creative freedom of sometimes mixing elements together in great swathes or perhaps making small, continuing adjustments - flicks and flourishes - is now dismantled. Even doing nothing at all, like Fonzy in the mirror, and eating the granola, yoghurt and compote separately, in the order you so desire, is no longer possible.

In a glass you’re operating in impossibly cramped conditions. Claustrophobia rises as you dig down to try and reach an element. Over mixing is inevitable. Your control has been destroyed.

Also, glasses tend to be smaller than bowls. With granola, especially, there’s nothing worse than being under-served.

It’s a tall glass. It's filled with yoghurt, berry compote and then a meagre sprinkling of sorry supermarket ‘basics’ looking granola on top. It reaches to half-way up the vessel, leaving me feeling hard done by in a, errr, glass half empty kind of way. It looks like an agoraphobic sundae. It’s the last thing a breakfast already struggling under a light-weight, frivolous image needs.

The granola has a supermarket basics taste. The compote is underwhelming and manages the ignominious trick of being not sweet enough and missing a fruity tartness too.

The yoghurt isn’t very nice.

My glass half empty of granola is finished almost as soon as I’ve embarked on my cramped spoon manoeuvring.

I do want to cry a little bit.

So much so, cake rescue needs to be undertaken. And, my, does the pear and almond polenta cake save souls. Moist, delicately sweet with a strong taste of pears complemented by a judicious amount of chocolate and whole hazelnuts on top. Much more like it.

Bluebelles does have a pleasing ambience. That cake was really, very good. The waitress gave me a pick of excellent speciality breads to take home for free because it was the end of the day (perhaps sensing my earlier disappointment?). However, the granola was obviously a careless afterthought thrown in to appease addicts, which is so often the case in London. It really is an opportunity missed though, because if you do get it right that granola addict is your friend for life. AND WE WILL MAKE YOU RICH. So, buck up, London cafes.

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