Sunday, 25 March 2018

Pop Inn Café, Redhill, Surrey

The Pop Inn Café – perfect in every way!
I won't beat around the bush: I've passed this café on many occasions, but I haven't crossed the threshold for two reasons. First, it's always packed, and second there's a 'fast food' air about the place. The tables and chairs, for example, are secured to the floor, which, in my book, means that the clientele are inclined towards stealing the furniture – or the restaurant simply doesn't trust its customers. Who knows and who cares?

Last week, on a short walk – known by myself and the international man of mystery as the 'caff combo' – I passed the Pop Inn Café, noticed it was empty, which might have been because it was market day, and decided to give it try. Inside I found that I was one of eight customers.

The format is simple (as it is in all caffs): you order your food at the counter and pay up front and then take a seat and wait to be served. It's the same deal in the M&S café, Café Piazza and the recently opened Sainsbury's Café. And just like in all of these establishments, the menu is displayed over the counter in true fast food restaurant style.

I perused the extensive menu and opted for home-made chicken curry and a mug of tea – the whole lot set me back just £6.50. The mug of tea was £1, arguably the cheapest in Redhill (unless anybody knows better). Sainsbury's charges £1.20 (the mug is much larger) if my memory serves me right.

Anyway, I took a seat and awaited the meal. I must say that I was impressed with the menu selection; there was everything under the sun: breakfasts, set breakfasts, sandwiches, roast meals, paninis, jacket potatoes, burgers, grills and lunches, omelettes, pies, kids' meals, salads and rice dishes. My chicken curry was categorised as a rice dish – understandably so as it was served with rice.

Apple pie and custard and a mug of tea!
There was also some notable dishes, like the Belly Buster Special Breakfast (basically a lot of food) for £9.90. A sirloin steak costs the same. And let's not forget shepherd's pie, chips and peas (£6.50). I must also point out the selection of 'sides' – meaning I could have ordered a shepherd's pie with a side of mashed potato, which would be akin to simply ordering two shepherd's pies, or it might be if there was also a side order of minced lamb. But enough of the jokes.

While the tables and chairs were screwed to the floor, the chair was comfortable and padded (not the usual hard, loudly coloured plastic shell seat (like the ones in nearby Merstham's Quality Café).

When my food arrived I was over the moon. The quality (and quantity) were well beyond my expectations. First, the portion size (I got as much curry as rice) but then the quality was good too – it was all perfect! And let's not forget the word 'home-made'. In a nutshell, it was a great curry, so great that I got carried away and, after finishing every last bit I perused the menu and found desserts. For me, the mark of a good caff is the dessert menu and the Pop Inn Café didn't disappoint. It offered what should be a caff staple: apple pie with custard (£2.80); so I ordered it and another mug of tea and enjoyed the experience.

Those chairs are padded and comfortable.
Overall, I'd say this: never judge a book by it's cover. While the Pop Inn Café does have that 'fast food' air about it and the furniture is screwed to the floor, the reality is an amazing restaurant offering decent food at very reasonable prices. You can bet one thing: I'll be back, along with the international man of mystery. This place is a serious rival to other Redhill establishments. It's only drawback is its location: outside of town on the A23, so it takes around 10 minutes on foot from the centre of the town, but don't let that bother you and make sure you're not tempted to visit The Garland (a Harveys of Lewes pub) as you'll get better value in the caff and you won't have to worry about drink-driving (the caff ain't licenced).

Lastly, the Pop Inn Café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a takeaway service.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Das Bruckner Kaffeehaus, Linz, Austria

Das Bruckner Kaffehaus, Linz, Austria...
I was sitting in Riva, a 'swanky' Italian restaurant, when I suddenly realised that this arrogant establishment wasn't going to bust a gut and fetch me a menu. I decided, therefore, to simply get up, put my coat back on, don the bobble hat (without a bobble) and deprive them of my hard-earned money. I would probably be sitting there now, waiting for a menu, if the truth be known. I walked out of the front door with not a word to the silly-looking waiter and searched around for somewhere else to enjoy lunch. And how glad I am that I made that decision because I soon found Das Bruckner Kaffeehaus, an excellent café with a pleasant vibe.

The waitress service was second to none – friendly, attentive and nice – and the food offering was perfect beyond belief. The menu was fairly extensive, offering everything from daily hot specials, soups, snacks, breakfasts, hot dishes (of which more later) beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks, not forgetting a fruit tea (Julius Mienl's Organic Fruit Symphony). And yes, that's the only fruit tea they have, I was informed. Whether it's the only fruit tea they have, full stop, or whether they have temporarily run out of other brands, I'll never know, although I might try to make a return visit before heading for Vienna.

Calming classical music was doing its job of keeping customers happy when I arrived at around 1316hrs ready for something decent to eat. The place was virtually empty, but as the day wore in it got increasingly busy. By 1430hrs it was jam-packed

Das Bruckner Kaffeehaus certainly lived up to its name – it was more of a coffee shop than a restaurant, but it was licensed too and the hot food was extremely good.

Home-made apple strudel – seriously, it's really, really good
I ordered beef goulash, which came with a hot bread roll. The meat was very tender and the sauce was thick and warming and tasty and with the assistance of a fruit tea – Julius Meinl's Organic Fruit Symphony – and a Fever Tree Sicilian lemon tonic (both nicely presented) I was made up, so much so that I decided to push the boat out and order a home-made apple strudel, which was equally fantastic.

This was a bright and airy establishment with friendly and efficient staff and I loved it, so much so that I paid cash and tipped the waitress with a well-earned five Euros (well deserved in my opinion).

Lastly, this is not a small place either. It's not huge, but as I got up to leave I noticed there were tables at the far end of the establishment too, so there's plenty of room!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Chartwell House, Westerham, Kent.

Nothing better than a National Trust property if you like a bit of cake and pot of tea or if you want something a little more substantial, like a hot meal. Once you've finished stuffing your face you've always got plenty of grounds surrounding whatever property you're visiting; so there's ample opportunity to stretch your legs and burn off all those calories.

Tuscan bean soup, a roll and a mince pie!
I've been to many a National Trust property and often return to my favourites, like Sheffield Park and Wakefield Place and, if I'm really honest, I don't visit these places to admire the house and its history, I'm only there for the cake or a hot meal, accompanied, as always, by tea. Wonderful! I'm also keen on the National Trust shops because they sell relaxation and comfort, from paperweights to weighty tomes on something connected to the place I'm visiting, or picnic blankets and scented candles, it's all good comforting stuff, even if there's an element of 'old fogey' about it.

Last weekend (the weekend before the beginning of December) I headed to Chartwell in Westerham, Kent. Why? Well, because it's nearby (only 11 miles) and the plan, as always, is to indulge in some cake or a savoury snack and then walk it off around the grounds. It was lunch time when we arrived and there was a Christmas market in full swing – National Trust properties are always very festive – so after a brief look at the stalls we headed for the café where I chose a warming Tuscan bean soup with bread and a mince pie thrown in for good measure (I never used to like mince pies or Christmas pudding for that matter, but now I love them). And before you ask, yes, I like sprouts too.

The busy servery counter at Chartwell House
The café here is cafeteria style and on our visit, because of the Christmas market, it was very busy. So busy I almost couldn't find a table. But eventually I found somewhere, opposite a large and well-decorated Christmas tree, and settled down to eat my soup, which really did the job. Perfect. I followed up with the mince pie and then took a stroll around the grounds. Excellent. It's so good that I'll be back again this coming weekend as they have something festive going on, which means more food!

December is a good time to check out National Trust properties (those that are open beyond October) as they offer a lot of festive activity which can be combined with some hearty food and a decent walk – not to forget some decent cakes and pastries.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

A. Schwab, Beale Street, Memphis, USA

I decided to take a stroll from my hotel, the Sheraton Memphis Downtown, to the famous Beale Street, Memphis' answer to London's Carnaby Street or the King's Road, I suppose. It's where you can buy tee shirts with 'Memphis' written on them and other 'knick knacks' that scream 'Memphis'. I did buy two tee shirts and a base ball cup and yes, they did have the word 'Memphis' on them. But where to eat?
Peanut butter and banana sandwich, Elvis Presley's favourite snack

I wanted a 'caff' but couldn't really find one and then I stumbled upon A Schwab a kind of shop and caff blended into one where, among a small selection of snacks, they serve Elvis Presley's favourite food item, the peanut butter and banana sandwich. While I'd enjoyed a fairly large and healthy breakfast, I couldn't miss out on the opportunity to try the Elvis snack being as I was in his hometown, so I ordered it and a coffee and took a seat at the long bar, which was very 1950s/1960s America.

The sandwich was pretty damn tasty and toasted, although the manager of A. Schwab told me she didn't know whether or not Elvis had his sandwich toasted. I watched as she prepared it and she did so very carefully, cutting the banana in half prior to peeling it and then only peeling the half that was going to be used for my sandwich. To do all this she'd donned a pair of surgical gloves, for hygiene purposes, and then first spread peanut butter on the white bread and then adding the sliced banana. She put the lot in a toaster for a few minutes and then served it on a plate with a chequered black and white napkin. I ordered a coffee too and the bill was a little over $7.

A. Schwab on Beale Street, Memphis, sells Elvis Presley's favourite snack
The manager told me she preferred it toasted and I think I agree with her and then we, that is me, the manager and her assistant, started talking about time zones and how, in the USA, there was Eastern, Central, Pacific and Mountain time zones. Nobody was really sure about the latter, I certainly wasn't, not hailing from these parts, but they eventually decided that mountain time was in places like Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. It also covers parts of Canada and Mexico, I discovered by checking out Wikipedia.

A. Schwab was a great place, it sold wooden catapults for kids as well as teeshirts and other 'stuff' too numerous to mention. In fact, there's a lot of history behind A. Schwab. It is classed as a dry goods store and is the only remaining original business on Beale Street. It  is a family-owned store with the following motto: "If you can't find it at A. Schwab, you're probably better off without it!" 

The Schwab family sold the business towards the end of 2011.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Sainsbury's café, Redhill, Surrey, UK

The newly expanded – and vastly improved – Sainsbury's in Redhill has opened and with it comes a strong competitor for other foodservice brands in town, although I'd imagine that the M&S cafe and Cafe Piazza will probably survive because I wonder how many people already in the Belfry Centre, shopping at lunch time, will want to haul their sorry arses over to Sainsbury's unless, of course, they've got to pick up the weekly shop and don't want to pay M&S prices. 

The new Sainsbury's cafe is an impressive establishment. For a start, it's big. There's a variety of seating (round tables, square tables and four booths with padded seating. 

Large mug of tea for just £1.20 and a ham and cheese panini
I'm not sure if the Sainsbury's café has a name, other than 'the Sainsbury's café, but it occupies a large space and boasts a long servery counter offering cakes and pastries and paninis plus a range of main meals (fresh salmon fillet, £6.00; hand-battered cod & chips, £5.50; Yorkshire ham, egg & chips, £5.00; cottage pie, £4.50, Mac & Cheese, £4.00; beef lasagne, £4.50; and a range of jacket potatoes starting at £2.75 (with butter) and ranging up to £4.50 for prawn with mayo). 

I'm intrigued by that 'Mac & Cheese', presumably they mean macaroni cheese, unless they are borrowing from McDonald's, but this, of course, is something I need to investigate on future visits. What is a 'Mac' other than a computer or a fast food burger sold by McDonald's?

Hot snacks include a range of baguettes (bacon, sausage and meat-free sausage) all for £3.00 or £3.50 for hot beef. Omelettes are £3.75 and soup of the day with a roll is just £2.75. 

Specials exploit the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference brand, offering smoked haddock fish cake with peas and mash, £5.50, or sausage mashed potato, peas and gravy, £6.00. 

The usual hot drinks are on offer and a large mug of tea is a respectable £1.20. The cup is huge. So for £3.95 you can have a large mug of tea plus soup and a roll. Brilliant!

When I arrived there was an unacceptable 40-minute wait for food – probably because the place has just opened and people are sussing it out for themselves – so I ordered a cheese and ham panini (£3.85) and a tea (£1.20) which set me back £5.05. Not bad.

The servery counter at the new Sainsbury's café
I was given one of those vibrating pieces of plastic that shake and flash when the food is ready to collect. When it went off I stood up and walked over to the counter to grab my panini. It was good but unlike in Café Piazza, where crisps are offered as an accompaniment, free of charge, at Sainsbury's you simply get the plain panini, all alone on a large white plate. I'm being unnecessarily picky.

It goes without saying that I'll be returning to this excellent foodservice operation – it might prove to be the best in Redhill (if you're talking pure 'caffs'). There are plenty of other dishes to sample. 

What I also like about the new Sainsbury's caff is its huge windows, which let in a lot of light and the fact that, apart from Sunday, it's open until 7pm six days a week.

Postscript: I've been taking maximum advantage of the Sainsbury's caff all week (week commencing 6 November 2017). Foodwise, I've had jacket potato with tuna and sweetcorn, jacket with baked beans twice and today, 10 November, just like on 6 November (Monday) fishcake, mashed potato and peas washed down with a peppermint tea. It's all good, I can tell you, and far better value than the M&S café in the Belfry Centre. The food is fairly well presented too, especially the jackets, which are served in a square, white, deep plate (alright, a bowl) along with a crisp salad. There are sachets, portion packs, of sauces and dressings and yes, they have Heinz Salad Cream – what could be better?

Problems: Not many, to be honest. In fact there's only one problem and this is the occasional time when there's a long wait for the food. Lunchtime, 17 November 2017, I was told there would be a half hour wait so I settled for a cheese salad baguette.

Other problems: Sometimes the cutlery is a little dirty.

Plus points: Read the review, but for me it's food quality, the peppermint tea (which is Sainsbury's own brand) and the size of the place, not forgetting that there are 'normal' tables as well as booths and sofas. Also, it's open weekdays (all days except Sunday) until 7pm. I'm planning on leaving work early one of these days and chilling with a book and a cup of tea – perfect!

Hinterland Urban Refuge, Brussels...

Hinterland Urban Refuge, Brussels
I'm constantly on the search for peace and relaxation and I'm always convinced that I'll find both in a coffee shop. I'm looking for somewhere I can chill out with a decent book – I'm currently re-reading 1984 by George Orwell – but in all honesty, I think if you look too hard for anything, you'll never find it. Or rather you will never find exactly what you want, there will be something awry, something missing.

Well, Hinterland Urban Refuge in Brussels looked like being the perfect place. It was mid-afternoon, the weather was perfect and I found myself mooching, as I'm prone to do. I stumbled across what looked like (and to be fair was) a decent little coffee shop: slightly trendy, actually very trendy, mildly pretentious (well, alright, very pretentious) and deliberately a bit 'down at heel' (by that I mean the decor was deliberately a bit 'distressed' (bare brick walls and a mix of wooden and tiled floors as if the place was in the middle of being decorated).

Queen was playing on the sound system (not ideal if you wish to read quietly while enjoying a coffee and a cookie); there were 'trendy' magazines hanging on the wall, such as hole&corner, Drift and Conde Nast Traveller, not forgetting a magazine with Zayn Malik of One Direction fame on the front cover (immediately any 'trendiness' goes out the window if there's an image of Zayn Malik in view).

So, exposed brickwork, wooden-topped tables with black metal pedestals, Queen on the sound system, spot lights on the ceiling, all the makings of a place of relaxation were there and to be fair, I enjoyed my brief stay. I ordered cappuccino and a dark chocolate cookie (both excellent) and I did try to read my book, but the general hubbub, the Queen soundtrack, and what have you made me give up and thumb instead through the aforementioned trendy magazines. Drift had a small article on the names of coffee-based drinks.

What's the difference between a flat white and a cappuccino, or a long black and an Americano? Most baristas will tell you they're practically the same. In each pair, the former is the Australian name of the traditional, Italian name for the drink. But the name isn't the only thing about these drinks that has changed in Australia. Few baristas use the traditional foam once spooned over cappuccinos, dismissing this stiffer, drier fluff as a product of improper technique. Now, most baristas finish all milk-based espresso drinks with microfoam. It's finer, more tightly knit bubbles not only create a silkier texture, but can be poured to create designs on top of drinks, better known as 'latte art'. 

And there was an image of a cappuccino that was the exact replica of that on my coffee (see image below).

Coffee and cookie!
It was around 4pm, probably a little before the hour, when I arrived and the place was full of women, there were a few kids and a 'trendy dad' with long hair and jeans.

This was a good place, it had a trendy name, the coffee tasted good, the cookie even better and even I don't mind a bit of Queen now and then. The chairs, however, were a little on the hard side, not ideal in terms of chilling with a book, but I'll let them off. Would I return, yes I would.

Hinterland Urban Refuge can be found on the Chaussee de Charlerol 179, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

West Country Food Company, Winchester, UK

West Cornwall Food Co, Winchester
I love Cornish pasties and I'm so glad that somebody had the good sense to develop a foodservice brand around them. Today there's a handful of operators and most of the time they're kiosks on railway station concourses or part of a shopping mall food court. Fine, but make no mistake, the pasty is one of those difficult-to-eat products, especially on the move. Countless times I've dropped chunks of meat on myself while trying to take a bite out of something that really needs a knife, fork and, of course, a plate and a table.

Imagine, then, my delight when I found myself in Winchester looking for something to eat for lunch and spying a West Cornwall Food Company outlet bang in the middle of town – and what's more there was an upstairs seating area! Coffee and a pasty! What could be better? Well, a table and some knives and forks made the whole experience that little bit better as I left the place without gravy stains on my trousers.

If you're hungry, you can't beat a pasty; they're very filling and will keep you going until dinner time, which is all I really want. So, hats off to West Cornwall Food Company for a great traditional pasty and a decent cup of coffee.

The only negative point about the Winchester West Country Food Co. outlet was that they were slow clearing the tables. I had to move somebody else's debris to another table and I noticed that other tables needed clearing too. This, of course, is basics, and needs to be addressed, but other than that, there's not much to say about a pasty and a cup of coffee, they're not exactly the height of culinary excellence by any stretch of the imagination, but they fill a hole and they're fantastic.

As for Winchester, in all honesty I found it a bit boring. Alright, there's the cathedral (yawn!) and a Turner exhibition (yawn!) but outside of that, for me at any rate, the pasty was the highlight of my day.