Monday, 29 August 2016

HR Cafe, Windsor Street, Stratford-upon-Avon

This is one of those places Stratford-upon-Avon does best. Small, but perfectly formed, chicly resplendent in glowing whites and natural woods and a front courtyard that, while tiny, is the sunniest spot in the town all day. The emphasis is on the local and organic, food cooked on the premises by friendly, ebullient staff. Access may be slightly limited but such staff as these will always go out of their way to help.

My breakfast was poached egg on granary toast. Served with a little tumbleweed of watercress (which I studiously ignored) the eggs were creamy white with deep golden yolks on lovely crumbly granary. Drew chose the vegan breakfast and designated it the best in the town. This is no simple exercise in substitution ('if in doubt, replace it with quorn') but an original combinations of mushrooms and avocado served on sourdough bread dished up in a generous portion.

The coffee is Monsoon, a brand I once designated on this very blog as tasting akin to having phone sex with Alan Rickman (rich, dark, leaves you feeling lightheaded afterward). Due to the gentleman's untimely demise this year*, I contemplated adjusting the comparison. Perhaps comparing it to a similar experience with Keanu Reeves? But since such a definition would run along the lines of 'flat, monotonous in tone and lacking in surprises', then I will let the comparison stand, if only in memoriam. Like the late, lamented Mr Rickman himself, this coffee is made of worthy, likeable stuff.**
*I have missed him dreadfully. Oh, you've noticed?
**Yes, yes, alright, I'll say it. 'Espresso Patronem!' Sheesh! Happy now?


Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Zebra Cafe, Natural History Museum, Tring, Hertfordshire

This is not really a café as such just a small room on the Lower Ground floor that does a selection of sandwiches and various snacky bits. Access is fine, there's a lift - although busy - and a ramp from the outside. My tuna and cucumber sandwiches were generously filled, scone with butter and jam was generic, but tasty enough and the tea was fine and free refills available.

But this place is strange. It's a museum of stuffed animals. That's all it is. Oh, yes, there are various signs and notices that use terms like 'science' and 'research' and 'zoology' and they even bung in the odd apologetic 'eccentric' and 'rich' in case you're wondering how on earth this vast collection of taxidermy actually exists. Someone with pots of cash and a mania for nature somehow leads to this dark wood and parquet-floored repository of glassy-eyed, inert lions and tigers and bears (oh my).

Still, it's interesting. If only because you have the opportunity to snort with derision at signs that announce that a species is 'extinct' and announce loudly that 'well, it's no wonder, is it?' If only for the culture clash of 'twenty-first century eco-hippy sensibility meets misguided Victorian paternalistic altruism'. And because, occasionally, the sheer cumulative oddness of the place bends reality enough to create its own universe of the fantastic. When there is just you, standing in the quiet, under the subdued lighting between these vast glass cabinets, staring at the masses of fur, feathers and fins, there is a creeping tingle in your bones that makes everything before you and behind you seem palpably, feelingly alive.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Boston Tea Party, Stratford-upon-Avon

This place occupies the old school at the top of Henley Street that was once the Buzz cafe and then a branch of Hudson's coffee shop and tea rooms. The layout is essentially the same - steps up to the entrance but a garden round the back for easier access. There is a humungous staircase to conquer if the place is full, though. Having said that, the staff are so chirpy and friendly, they will do their best to help you out.
The menu is the same all day as this is a cafe not a restaurant. So do not expect to go at 7-8pm at night and be offered a more traditional evening fare. Just the daytime array of breakfasts, variations-on-a-theme-of-sandwich and burgers. All of which comes highly recommended by me, especially the poached eggs on toast. Free range eggs, granary bread and real butter, accompanied by a hot, creamy latte.

There is also a slightly different clientele. Younger, for one. It offers up for your delectation an array of willowy young men, bearded, earnest-looking doe-eyed hipsters, DILFs and silver-haired elderly gentlemen of lean and lissom build*.



*I'm back on the steroids again. Can you tell?

Coughton Kitchen Restaurant, Coughton Court, Alcester

I cannot really give a fair review of this as my mind was preoccupied at the time, but I have used this restaurant before. It is not as small as you think it is. There's the seating area by which you enter which is in the form of a conservatory/marque. Then an indoor seating area opposite the kitchens and service space; but, venture further and there is a small, brightly lit room at the back offering plenty of seating since no one seems to know it is there. Particularly useful for access if the entrance is full.

I only had a cup of tea here and it was perfectly acceptable although served in a slightly too utilitarian style. I had the aluminium-tea-pot-and-plain-white-crock-cup-and-saucer combo that, while serviceable, I always think of as not very National Trust. Still, at that time, my mood was such that I soon abandoned the place to roam the gardens in the lamping rain trying my best to get thoroughly soaked, switching off the oxygen to exacerbate the maudlin feelings, hoping to align myself with that most Romantic of fates, the onset of a fatal, consumptive cough. Think Wollstonecraft on Putney Bridge, Keats on top of a coach in a pelting rainstorm, Byron in the swamps at Missolonghi.

Which did not work. Back outside the restaurant, an elderly lady asked me if I was alright. Which ruined the mood somewhat. Especially when she offered me her toasted teacake.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Cafe, Library of Birmingham

Intellectual endeavour should always be fed by copious amounts of coffee and cake, with the occasional sandwich thrown in for good measure. This is a library that knows its users and whacks a café right by the entry doors, clearly knowing from years of experience that any research student worth their salt will never, ever pass up the opportunity to eat instead of work.

This is the best people-watching spot ever. Tucked into the corner overlooking the cultural centre of Birmingham, watching people schlep to the theatre, the Symphony Hall and the eateries is one of the best ways of passing time I have ever encountered. Cities, to this market town dweller, are an endless source of fascination, and no little envy. Sit right by the window and watch life passing you by.*

The latte is hot, foamy and drinkable, and no one ushers you on, so you can sit and muse for hours, if you so please. Perhaps on the big questions. What is truth? What is the nature of Being? Is there such a thing as 'right' and 'wrong'? Is Love indeed a Many Splendoured Thing? Is the café all that will be left of the hacks and cuts to the services and resources this £188 million library?

*Got to be careful doing all this sitting and watching. These days I think I'm coming off creepy.

Garden Room, The Anchor, Tintern

Since Tintern Abbey is not in the care of the National Trust or English Heritage, there are some drawbacks - an entry fee, gift shops selling the most unbelievable old toot and the most disgusting public toilets I have seen in a long time. Plus, this rather odd extension to the Anchor pub. The original building has all the charm you might expect - a plethora of dark wood, uneven floors and real ales. The Garden Room is a (very) modern addition and has all the charm you might expect - a plethora of blond wood, hard tiles and stainless steel.

Still, the place probably has to cater for coachloads of the very young and the very elderly and had the merit of being affordable. I had an egg and cress sandwich, a reasonable pass at one at least, served in the packet with no accompanying crisps or salad. Though, in fairness, where salad is concerned, who cares? And there was no coy attempt to pad out the actual sandwich with bundles of damp cress in an effort to hike the 'green' credentials of the place.

Drew's quiche salad was a better offering, adorned with a bright green salad, luminous yellow sweetcorn and shiny pink and red-hued beetroot. A little psychedelic, in fact; but, then, the Abbey itself is not without its hypnotic, psychoactive qualities. The great merit of this place is the view it provides of those astounding ruins that no photo*, no painting can do true justice. Sit on the farthest bench, watch a flock of birds swooping over those Gothic arches 'neath a lowering, late summer sky and ponder the fleeting nature of existence, the winking out of small lights in a great darkness.

*Not even those on the websites which, inexplicably, no one has thought to call the Tinternet.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Eagle and Child, Oxford

While we were waiting for our food here, an elderly gentlemen shuffled past, casting a disdainful glance in our direction, intoning 'This place hasn't been the same since the Lewis people found it'.

Which Lewis he meant, whether C. S. or Inspector, I am not sure. Either way, it certainly epitomises the chief attraction of this place. It is famous for being the hangout of The Inklings, who counted C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien amongst their number. It has certainly retained it's character. Being, essentially, a long narrow, dark corridor with the occasional offshoot nook or cranny, you can see it as the kind of place where you might squirrel yourself away in a corner with your mates and laugh uproariously when they tell you they have had another idea for a book about elves.

Access is not easy since the building has retained its olde worlde proportions, down to the appropriately gloomy, almost windowless interior. And, just a heads-up, it really is dark. Enter, as I did, from the full glare of late summer sunshine and you are plunged momentarily into near-impenetrable blackness. Allow a few moments for your eyes to adjust, then grope or stumble your way through, guided by the Christmas lights festooned all over the beams, to where there is a well-lit room at the rear.

This is not a large franchise pub and so the menu is not just variation-on-a-theme-of-grilled. Being a Real Ale establishment the beer is far more important that the food; but that does not mean the quality is compromised. I opted for a fishfinger sandwich meal which was battered cod goujons served on sliced granary bread and accompanied by chips, cooked with the skin on. The fish was fine, the batter pale and gravel-crunchy, the cod flavoursome and not drowned in tartar sauce. The chips were served in a large stoneware bowl, piping hot and golden brown, not too crispy but with a good earthy flavour. A proper pub lunch, basic and filling, something to absorb the beer.

Anyway, while I was there, I had a great idea for a novel. I do not want to say too much but it's just something that takes place in a fantasy world, of trolls and whatnot. Perhaps even through a magical doorway. A wardrobe, or something.*

*Whaddaya mean, it's been done?

Access: *****