Restaurants and literature are such natural bedfellows, it's amazing nobody's done this before. Remember Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler? Or The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers? Remember the little Parisian cafés where Ernest Hemingway claimed (in A Moveable Feast) he used to write when living on next to nothing in 1920s Paris?
So loud huzzahs for the Café Also, a restaurant in a bookshop – not actually inside among the shelves, but a bread roll's throw away, through glass doors. The Café is connected to Joseph's Bookstore where for 20 years Michael Joseph, a Czech-born Jewish lawyer, has ploughed an independent furrow – offering Jewish-interest books, remaindered books, self-published books, paintings and DVDs (some in Yiddish). Howard Jacobson is a fan ("If I lived in north London I'd never be out of the place; I'd write there") and now so am I.
There's been a café of sorts in here for years, in fact, but only recently has Joseph properly integrated food and fiction, dishes and dust-jackets. He hasn't, thank heavens, tarted up the place, except for the double-frontage – a fantastic combination of half-frosted windows and pale-pistachio décor.
Inside it's like you're in the canteen of a serious seat of learning, with Quakerish tables, leather chairs, globe lights, a long bookshelf in distressed, green-painted wood. Beside our table hung gorgeous naive paintings by Dora Holzhandler. It's all very cosy and very old-fashioned. If this restaurant were a person, it would be a rumpled but charming English teacher at a minor public school, with leather patches on his tweed jacket.
Joseph's co-owner and chef, Ali Al-Sersy, is Egyptian (he trained at Le Gavroche under the Roux brothers) and his menu pulls in influences from all over the Mediterranean and the Aegean. (It's also a non-meat menu because this bit of north London, Temple Fortune, is strongly Jewish and Café Also isn't kosher.) Lots of subtle spices, but also searings and smoke, have been applied to very British ingredients: cauliflower kofta and vanilla-infused parsnip purée, say, or aubergine Parmigiana. I was intrigued by the promise of smoked Jerusalem artichokes with flamed Brussels sprouts, cured swede and chestnuts, while frankly alarmed to think of the gastric eructations that would surely follow it…
Gina's white asparagus tart came with half a dozen miniature white spears sticking up out of it, like the minarets around the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It was miraculously light and melting, the out-of-season baby asparagus given a wallop of flavour by a gribiche dressing that involved hardboiled egg, tomato, pickled cucumber, capers and parsley. The soft-poached egg on my smoked haddock was a little too runny, but the nicely firm fish held its texture in the creamy sauce. Cod tempura offered the lightest batter (it must have been the wheat flour) and an interestingly complex tartare sauce was tricked out with lemon, cumin and garlic.
Eva, our charming Polish waitress, served the main courses with a flourish. Such drama! My hake casserole came in a double-handled dish the size of a butler's breakfast tray. Like karsts poking out of the Andaman Sea, humps of sweet potato, icebergs of hake and lumps of marjoram-sweetened carrot and tomato poked out of the seething liquid. I had to dip in lots of the Cafe's delicious seedy bread to soak up the delicious residue. This was winter comfort food in extremis. Gina's baked, spiced sea bass was a delirium of north African flavours, sharpened with hot paprika. The mash was smoked and buttery, and a whole head of boiled pak choi stood up out of the dish like a bonsai sycamore.
There were more surprises to come. Apple cheesecake didn't sound very exciting, but was comprehensively deconstructed and re-imagined: a cheesecake roundel flavoured with honey, raisins and pistachio nuts, plus three spheres of spiced apple on long sticks that poked out of the dish (what is all this obsessive phallic poking upwards, Ali?) and a final flourish of candyfloss on top. Cheesecake candyfloss! And whatever you think when you hear the words "bread and butter pudding", it won't have prepared you for the light, graceful napkin-folds of pudding, along with ice-cream the density of kulfi, and some ground pistachios to bring some grit.
There's something rather lived-in and bashed-around about both Café Also and Joseph's Bookstore that won't appeal to everyone. The menu is small, and the wine list not madly interesting. But goodness, what a find in the gastro-wasteland of north London. The cooking is a series of small revelations from a chef with utter confidence in his seasoning and display. And the restaurant is as cosy as opening an old leather-bound volume of Dombey and Son. It's a one-off. Do try it.
Café Also, 1255 Finchley Road, Golders Green, London NW11 (020-8455 6890)
Around £80 for two with wine
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge are split equally between the staff'
Side orders: A little extra
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