Restaurants: Liquid at lunchtime

It's official: soup is the new coffee, and outlets are opening all over. Nikki Spencer reports
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The Independent Culture
As winter draws in, we can derive some comfort from the latest development in our eating habits: the sudden popularity of soup. Taking a lead from the US, where takeaway soup outlets are an established part of the food scene, UK companies are now cooking up their own versions.

Since the summer, Soup Opera has been providing sustenance for Independent journalists and other workers at Canary Wharf and, in a few weeks, Soup Works will open the first of many units in the West End. Meanwhile, the New Covent Garden Soup Company - responsible for rescuing countless dinner parties with its ready-made fresh soups - now has outlets at many stations and airports.

What all these places have in common is a belief that good soup bears little resemblance to the watery cream of tomato or oxtail on sale in takeaways of old.

"Any dish can be adapted to make a soup, within reason," says Janie Dear, who set up Soup Opera with her husband and another couple after seeing how popular soup had become in Manhattan.

On Soup Opera's menu there is Thai green chicken curry soup, beef and black bean chilli soup and even steak and kidney pie soup with a puff pastry lid. "We're not providing a starter or a snack, we're providing a meal," says Janie, who serves the soups with bread and fruit.

Over at Soup Works it's a similar story. There are plans for soups such as chicken with matzo balls, New England cod chowder and smoked ham, black bean and tomato gumbo. "We are certainly getting more adventurous with soup," says Johnny Acton, who explains that their soups will be served "a bit like Haagen Daaz".

"They have hundreds and thousands and chocolate sauce that customers can add - we will have free crackers, croutons and sour cream, as well as speciality breads."

And takeaways aren't the only ones being a bit more daring when it comes to soup. Chefs in restaurants are coming up with more unusual recipes, such as Momo's soup of chickpeas, pumpkin and aniseed, and Drones' cocoa and bourbon soup. In his new book, Your Place or Mine?, hot chef Jean- Christophe Novelli includes a recipe for a cappuccino - not a coffee, but a trendy soup. In his pea and cured fois gras version you froth warm milk with butter and spoon it on to the top of your soup; so when dusted with cep powder, it resembles a large cappuccino.

However, Johnny Acton admits: "We are trying some pretty exotic soups but the fact is that the big sellers will still probably be variations on mushroom and tomato."