From Diner-town to the Middle East: London’s Brightest Breakfasts

1 November, 2013

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Often ignored, but, if done well, a delight – breakfast is, often, the most debatable of mealtimes. Some say that breakfast offers a rather limited selection of acceptable ingredients or dishes and others argue that it allows for exceptional creativity. Either way, breakfast is an age-old tradition.

British bacon as we know it today originated from Wiltshire in the early 18th century when pigs were regularly imported from Ireland and cured in a sweet-tasting brine solution known as “Wiltshire Cure” – Britain’s much-loved full English was a natural progression from there. And as for cereals, the rest of the world beat us – in around 7000 BC the first cereals were cultivated in the Middle East and in 100 AD Roman soldiers had a penchant for porridge.

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More so than with its siblings, lunch and dinner, there has always been a strong link between personal health and the first meal of the day; as it is the only meal attributed with speeding up metabolism. So what makes a good breakfast in Fork Talk’s eyes? It’s simply got to be worth waking up for.

Early this week we headed to the nearly new Grill Shack on Soho’s Beak Street, a far cry from breakfast in the classic, humble sense, Grill Shack champions an American diner-style cuisine, with grilled sourdough with your choice of protein, cinnamon French toast, buttermilk apple pancakes, a (full) grilled breakfast or a bacon brioche roll.

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Now, this may sound like heart-attack territory for our feeble English palates, but Grill Shack’s presentation has a surprising integrity to it – with delicate assembly, bright colouring and rather sensible portions. Hannah Bass, operations director at Grill Shack explains, ‘the presentation is crisp and clean and we try not to make it look too heavy or greasy…and we are neither deliberately American nor English, though the grilled breakfast is very similar to a full English.’

It is a lovely breakfast at that – though it scrimps on the expected baked beans, mushrooms and black pudding, it is delightful with its slim bacon strips streaked in fat and flavoured in maple, and its bright yolky-yellow freshly scrambled eggs.

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There is also a real element of fun that is tied to the service – sauces and drinks (with one free refill) are all self-serve in true American diner style, and the customer is given the freedom to choose their preferred mode of ordering: deciding between either old-school face-to-face, on a touch-screen ordering kiosk or on the Grill Shack app.

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This system has been hailed as the future of ordering, and it is nifty and time-efficient if you are in a rush, though Hannah insists that they are not a tech restaurant, ‘technology has crept in to be a solution to some of the operational things…and people have picked up on it because we are the first ones to do it.’

Trading apps, pancakes and a Richard Caring-funded site for hand-written labels, Middle Eastern mezze and daisies in tin cans, we head to the critically acclaimed Honey & Co in their tiny home on Warren Street.

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Itamar Srulovich, who runs the restaurant with his wife Sarit Packer, explains to me their surprise at Honey & Co’s vast success, ‘we didn’t expect anything – we thought this place was going to be for the neighborhood people and the office people, we didn’t think people would come from across England.’ And it is the type of person that Honey & Co attracts that has made all the difference, ‘it is a community place and a neighbourhood place, but our definition of neighbourhood has changed – it is more about the food people and people whose passion is there.’

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And it is easy to see why; breakfast this morning consists of inventive Middle Eastern pastries such as lahma: a type of Middle Eastern pizza that today is topped with spinach, egg and yogurt sauce, ma’akooda: a potato and caper fritatta from the kitchen, as well as an admirable array of breads and cakes from the counter.

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Itamar says that the best thing they make, in his eyes, is the toasted fig, walnut and orange loaf. We are served a big piece, the ends glistening in a dark layer of brown sugar and try it topped with fresh butter and their homemade marmalade – this is a delicious slice of comfort, or, perhaps for Itamar, home.

Though I think their Fitzrovia bun trumps this – a light and sticky-sweet take on the Chelsea bun with cinnamon, pistachios and sour cherries – if I lived nearby it would be a must for most mornings.

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Itamar tells me how Honey & Co were approached by publishers for a book deal even in their first few weeks of opening, ‘its because this food translates really well – you can cook it at home so I think the progression to a cookbook is really quite natural.’

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Now signed with Salt Yard Publishing, the book will be released on June 14, 2014 and will truly be an extension of what they are doing here. Expect the book’s structure to be similar to their menus’ – with variety in tastes and textures from the slow-cooked and sticky to the traditional and the zingingly fresh. Itamar proudly shows me some preview staff shots from the book that are hanging from a fridge downstairs, ‘these people are just as instrumental to how this place is to we are, we would not feel right not including them.’

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American journalist John Gunther once said, ‘all happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast,’ and I could not agree more. Though opportunity for leisure in the morning is generally sparse, there is something about your first morsel of the day, whether buttermilk pancakes with stripy bacon or a burnt aubergine and feta burekka with tahini along with your first cup of coffee, that makes it just a bit special.

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