Food & Drink: So simple it's sophisticated: Jim Ainsworth finds the kind of cafe where the decor is canny, the cooks serene and nothing happens by accident
Saturday 22 October 1994
What surprised me, all that time ago, was that people calmly walked in, ate the food we had prepared and paid for it - just like that. No awkward so-and-sos to deal with, no reviewers, and everybody considered it completely normal. Except me - I was terrified.
The fundamental difference between me and Caroline Brett, 32-year-old chef-proprietor of the Union Cafe, is that she knows what she is doing. She worked at 192 under Maddalena Bonino, briefly did lunches at trendy All Saints (also in Notting Hill, west London), and then took over O'Keefe's for a year until August 1993.
For the past year, Brett has freelanced while organising the new place: a spacious ground-floor room just north of Wigmore Street, which treads a canny path between the bare-boards, shoestring, we-just-ripped-the-place-to-bits decor of some Nineties cafes and the carefully constructed, fresh, bright meeting place with the dash of elan demanded by the smarter shoppers and Bond Street auction clients - who must surely be in her sights.
The place is free of clutter. Tables, chairs and floor are bare wood; counter fronts are stainless steel. White paint covers the ceiling and walls, apart from one bit that is a cross between Tuscan olive oil and electric lime green. If you like this colour, there is plenty more downstairs on the way to the loos.
Overhead, the eye tracks a trim piece of ducting to the gleaming open-plan kitchen, bright as a new pin, inhabited by a posse of serenely composed cooks. Service is calm and natural, too.
This is not just any old cafe, or rather new cafe, though it is open most of the day and serves light lunches. A plate of Neal's Yard cheeses or charcuterie, with pickles, good bread and olives, costs between pounds 6 and pounds 7. Either would make a satisfactory lunch by itself; so, too, might the bowl of red onion soup with goat's cheese croutons followed by caramelised walnut tart and thick cream, for about the same price.
But this is not the kind of cafe where cheeses and cold meats are tossed mindlessly on to plates and 'garnished' with bits of red and green. It is the kind of cafe that produces a wonderful bowl of tender squid and perfectly textured monkfish in a tomato-based soupy mix: herbs and gloriously tasty olives add to a depth of flavour you know has not happened by accident.
The flavour of grilled chicken breast - maize-fed, with lightly seared skin -reminded me of one I ate at Sally Clarke's earlier in the year. There is often a great temptation to 'add' flavours to chicken breast, even a tasty one, to show people you really can cook, which is the sign of an insecure chef. But Brett has the confidence born of knowing about good ingredients and what to do with them.
Restraint is an admirable quality in a chef - and Brett's unadulterated chicken is served with no more than a strewing (a 'relish', the menu calls it) of thinly sliced carrots and chopped spring onions sweated in oil.
Nothing is approximate here. It all looks simple on the plate - it may even appear simple to produce, as indeed it should in a cafe - but Brett applies the kind of care and intelligence we normally associate with the better restaurants. She does not throw herself on to the plate in a riot of extrovert showmanship; rather, she engineers as direct a line as possible between, in this case, the chicken and the customer. Or, in another case of disciplined self-control, between us and a simple pile of lightly dressed salad greens. Imagine, in other kitchens, the itchy fingers fighting to toss in some bits of bacon or a few croutons.
Obviously Brett has a sense of purpose. If there is something 'Italifornian' about the style, it is leagues away from the formula food that lesser cooks trot out. And if Englishness pervades the puddings, it is far removed from the sticky nursery stodge that is now associated with it.
Excellent chocolate cake is mercifully free of the rich sweetness that afflicts many comfort puds. Walnut tart combines first-class pastry with fresh-tasting walnuts and a dribble of toffee-ish caramel sauce, yet avoids heavyweight over-indulgence. As one who does not have a particularly sweet tooth, I was impressed. The food is healthy without being doctrinaire.
Drinks run from a dozen wines - four by the glass - to Theakston's Black Sheep Ale; from fresh carrot juice to elderflower cordial; from a dairy-free blueberry smoothie to good espresso and cappuccino.
Union Cafe, 96 Marylebone Lane, London W1 (071-486 4860). Open Mon-Fri from 10am, last orders 10pm. Approx pounds 15- pounds 20 per person. Light meals from pounds 10. Vegetarian dishes. Cash, cheques, Switch, Delta. A pounds 2 charge is made for using Access and Visa.
Jim Ainsworth is editor of 'The 1995 Good Food Guide' (Which? Books/ Penguin, pounds 14.99). Emily Green returns next week.
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