eating out: Lap it up

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The Independent Culture
ISN'T LUNCH boring? Here we are on the verge of the 21st century, in a country that boasts, with arguable justification, the richest and most varied food culture in the world, and what do most of us have for lunch, most days? A pretty second-rate sandwich. (Or, if we happen to work near a Pret-a-Manger, an OK sandwich that's nevertheless not quite as good as we'd hoped it was going to be.) Anyone who can come up with a really viable alternative to the sandwich would not only be making a sizeable contribution to the sum of human lunch-break happiness, they might be making themselves very rich into the bargain.

On the face of it, soup doesn't seem the obvious solution to the millennial lunch crisis. For a start, it's not exactly new. In fact, apart from chunks of mammoth or antelope tossed into an open fire, it's probably one of the oldest "dishes" in the human repertoire (being, essentially, leftover bits of mammoth or antelope boiled in a pot with the odd leaf or root). It's not intrinsically sexy either (only a short hop from soup to gruel). And there's the ever-present danger of spillage, always a matter of concern for besuited lunchers on the run.

On the plus side it is comforting. Familiar. Soothing. Friendly. Unthreatening. And when prepared by skillful hands it can be quite delicious. Worth a punt? The creators of Soup Works, a slick new take-out operation which has just opened its second outlet, obviously think so. I went on a weekday lunchtime to sample their wares.

They've got the ergonomics right. The place looks clean-cut and businesslike, without any overblown style statement, and the queue (of 20 or so on my visit) moved rapidly. As the clued-up staff ladled up the soup and trimmings (optional extras include croutons, parmesan and a dollop of sour cream), I realised that soup really is a naturally fast food: no messing about buttering baps or slicing avocados. I selected five "large" cartons from the dozen or so on offer and, rather than "eat in", I "took away", hopping in a cab back to the flat where Marie and her French mum were waiting and hungry.

Madame pointed out "traditional bouillabaisse" (pounds 5.10) was a bit of a misnomer: a real Marseilles bouillabaisse has whole pieces of fish and shellfish returned to the broth in which they have been cooked, after said broth has been boiled rapidly with olive oil. This version, being ground and smooth, was more a classic soupe de poisson. But it was very tasty, with plenty of crustacean sweetness countering the sea-salty flavours of the base fish. We also loved the chicken and shitake (pounds 4.20), which was based on an exemplary chicken stock enriched with a little cream, and in which the pieces of chicken and fresh mushroom were generous in size and frequency and, impressively, not at all overcooked. The sweet potato and coconut (pounds 3.65) divided us: Marie loved it; her mother and I found it a little sickly sweet. But it was undeniably bold and flavoursome.

We were all a little less sure about the Welsh cawl soup (pounds 3.65), which was a bit gloopy and sticky in texture and slightly over- salted - although there was no doubting the essential lambiness of the stuff.

What impresses is that all these soups, even the ones we only quite liked, are clearly based on well-made "real" stocks and quality raw materials. There is depth of flavour and sound combinations of ingredients in every case. You get a take-out lunch that tastes as if it has been created not by a machine or, God forbid, an entrepreneur, but a chef - or, even better, a good home cook. Someone who cares. This may be fast food, but the journey from the mind's eye of the conceiver to the heated cauldrons of the serving counter is appropriately slow and thoughtful.

As well as soups, Soup Works does "froups". These are what Australians and Americans call smoothies - thick drinks made from pureed fresh (one hopes) fruit. I gulped one down in the taxi. Although it said on the label "apple and passion fruit" (pounds 1.95), what I consumed was quite clearly made from peach and raspberry. The fact that this was also really delicious was reasonable compensation for the shock to my taste buds.

Niggles (my favourite bit) are few, though calling their rather precious wedge of "1,000 seed bread" (45p) a "hunk", as they do on the menu, is a bit like calling Kate Moss a "buxom wench". Another mild gripe is that the menu is too heavily weighted in favour of chunky soups and almost- stews. I can understand the desire to deliver real meals which feel like value for money, but they shouldn't lose sight of the joys of simpler and smoother soups - a good cream of mushroom, pea and lettuce, or curried parsnip would go down nicely.

If Soup Works keeps on its toes, ahead of its imitators, its logo could become a very welcome sight on any high street - one of the very few fast- food outlets to bring a smile, rather than a scowl, to the face of the discerning luncher. Or, to put it another way, in this luncher's humble opinion, if all McDonald's were Soup Works, the world would be a far more joyful place.