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.

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.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Muffin Break, Belfry Centre, Redhill, Surrey, UK

I've paid about four visits to Muffin Break in Redhill since it arrived a year or so ago, probably longer, not exactly sure. Four visits. It's not a regular haunt, put it that way, as there are plenty of other offerings in Redhill, such as the M&S Café, which is always a safe bet, or Café Piazza at the opposite end of the centre on the first floor level. There's also a coffee shop on ground floor level opposite Waterstone's, Ho Sete, which is fine if you don't mind being 'exposed' to passing shoppers.

But let's get back to Muffin Break, so-called because it sells, among other things, muffins. You could say that muffins are the 'signature dish' of the place. Which is fine if you like muffins, but I don't. I hate them with a vengeance. They're too doughy for my liking and no amount of convincing me otherwise will change my mind. I have a similar aversion to scones, but I'd eat one if the only other choice was a muffin. If muffins were the only choice, I'd starve.
Muffin Break, Belfry Centre, Redhill, Surrey

I was in Muffin Break this week. It's a bright place with a fast foody air to it; there's a counter with a menu on the wall behind it and, in essence, the range of food on offer includes various filled ciabatta breads, toasted sandwiches, and a few other hot snacks plus the aforementioned muffins and a few cakes. There's the usual array of hot and cold drinks (tea, coffee, hot chocolate etc) and that's about it.

My companions chose a cheese and pickle sandwich each plus hot chocolate and a mug of tea and I chose a cheese and jalapeno ciabatta sandwich with a medium-sized black coffee (that's an Americano in pretentious speak).

The cheese sandwiches were fine, the tea was good, the hot chocolate fine and the Americano was good too, and so was the jalapeno and cheese ciabatta There's nothing wrong with the cuisine, the service is pretty good (although the man forgot my ciabatta and I had to get up and ask for it again) but other than that it was fine. But it's a little pricey for what it is, I find. Some might beg to differ, but my bill hovered around the £20 mark and while that's probably the norm these days, there's something lacking for me that means I'm not a regular customer at Muffin Break. Perhaps the reason I think it's not good value for money is simply that I can't seem to relax there, it's not cosy, and while one could argue that the M&S café isn't cosy either (it's also a brightly lit cafeteria style operation with the menu displayed behind the counter like a fast food outlet) it has something, possibly the banter with the 'dinner ladies' who run the place. Similarly Café Piazza, although I would argue that the Piazza is cosy because it's darker and the food is more hearty, even the 'meal deals' which include a drink.

Out of 10 I'd give Muffin Break a five and I would rate the M&S café and Café Piazza both around seven.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

EAT, Finsbury Pavement, London, UK

Sometimes, very rarely, good things happen. In amongst all the rubbish and attitude you get on the streets and anywhere, there's something decent. For me it just happened. That's often the way in life. Things happen. Good things happen when you least expect it and for me it was because I found myself with a choice.

I could have gone into the Starbucks and had the usual huge cup of tea and an almond croissant, but no, I'd already been to this particular outlet so I opted instead for the EAT outlet next door. It was easily the best decision I'd made in a long time. Alright, I still opted for the large tea and an almond croissant, but this place had something that the Starbucks was clearly lacking.

Eat on Finsbury Pavement, London, near Moorgate
First the service was top notch, there wasn't a big queue, but there was a sense of efficiency, which I like; I knew I was going to get served and quick and that the end result would be good, and it was.

Card in machine, 'remove card', take large tea and almond croissant to a table. And guess what? Decent power points meant I could charge my phone and free WiFi meant I could write this. Yes, I'm writing a review on EAT while in the establishment and I'm well-positioned to give you a good run down on what's on offer.

But let's first look around. There's a mix of wooden floors (it might be laminate, it might be linoleum, it might be real wood, but I'm not going to ask as I reckon they wouldn't know). There are round tables, square tables, high tables by the wall, a large table near the front, on which I can be found typing this review while sipping my large tea. There are angle poise lamps, bright yellow, meaning that this place is all set up for people to just come in, grab a tea or a coffee and a snack and do a bit of work if the fancy takes them. After my meeting I might come back here and write some more.

There's music playing and I'm so glad I found this place, peppered as it is with power points. I'm even charging my phone as I pen this review. There's a man opposite me with a Samsung lap top and a sweat shirt with the word 'animal' printed on the front.

Behind the counter there's a couple of people, busy serving people. Over their heads is a light box display, like you get in fast food outlets, offering the breakfast menu. You can get porridge here in small and regular sizes, classic jumbo oats for £1.49 (small) or £1.99 (Big); there's quinoa and buckwheat with banana, honey and seeds for £2.29 (small) and £2.69 (big) and there are extra toppings available too.

Then there's an Egg Pot (£3.89) which consists of egg, avocado and beans with feta (if you're vegetarian) or ham hock if you're not.

Sourdough toast is on offer ranging from just 99p for sourdough toast with butter, then avocado sourdough for £3.49 and the same with feta or the ham hock for £3.99. Great.
Inside Eat – what a great place...

There are rolls ranging from £2.95 for egg, avocado and chipotle ketchup, British back baco for £2.95, the same bacon with a poached egg for £3.50 and a roll containing the whole lot for £4.50.

Chilled and hot drinks are offered (a small tea is £1.55) and I think a large is £1.65 (I just got up and checked). Then there's a cold display unit offering packaged stuff like fruit juices, sandwiches and salads and, well, this is a class act I can tell. I'll definitely be coming back here and that's a fact.

EAT is a chain operation, but sometimes it's good to recognise excellence when you experience it, and that's what happened this morning when I bowled into the Finsbury Pavement outlet in London.

Top marks.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Steyning Tearooms, Steyning, West Sussex, UK

You can tell a decent tearoom when you see one. Normally, it's busy. So busy you can't get a seat. When I stumbled across the Steyning Tearooms that's how it was. There was one table vacant close to the cash register and the espresso machine. It was cramped, but it was a seat and we were luckier than a woman who turned up after us only to be told she'd have to see if anybody wanted to share.

"Would you mind if I shared your table?" the woman asked two women.
"I'm sorry, but we're having a private conversation about work," said the younger of the two women dismissively.
Ham and cheese sandwich with salad....

I felt like getting involved, but decided to keep out of it. The rejected woman stood around for a few awkward minutes and then left the tearooms and stood outside cooling off. Now, I know one thing. Had I been asked the same question by the same woman I would have welcomed her with open arms, but my table only just seated two.

My lunch companion ordered a savoury scone with cheese and onion marmalade. I ordered a cheese and ham sandwich on brown bread, served with a richly colourful salad. We ordered a pot of tea for two and when it all arrived it was wonderful. The cheese and ham sandwich was perfect and the scone, I was told, was also pretty damn good. And let's not forget the tea. It was perfect too.

The Steyning Tearooms offer a wide variety of different foodstuffs, but it's not cheap. A ploughman's lunch would set you back £8.10 and if you wanted one with cheese and ham, it would cost you £9.10. A warm local bacon and goat's cheese salad was £8.10, a smoked salmon and crayfish salad was the same price and a wide range of sandwiches, like mine, would cost anything between £5.10 and £6.95 (for crayfish mayonnaise, mature Cheddar and bacon). My cheese and ham sandwich was £5.65.

Scone with cheese and onion marmalade...
There's other stuff too. Crumpets are £2.55 for two, a toasted teacake with butter is the same and if you want a slice of toast it'll cost you £2.00. Then there's a Sussex rarebit – Sussex Cheddar and mustard served on toasted local 'chewy' brown bread with a side salad (£7.45) or a children's special Teddy-Bears Picnic – a basket of home-made teddy-bear cheese biscuits, a little cup cake, grapes and juice served in a teapot (£5.95 or £6.25 if you add a ham, Cheddar or tuna mayo sandwich).

Famous scones!
The Steyning Tearooms, however, is famed for its 'famous scones'. Despite their fame, they're not pricey in the slightest, the most expensive being the one ordered by my wife  – cheese and apple served warm with butter, cream cheese and onion marmalade (£3.80). The second most expensive scone was a plain or fruit version served warm with jam and Roddas Cornish clotted cream (£3.60).

Afternoon tea with a scone or cake is £10.95 or £11.95 if you want both a scone AND a cake.

Daily blackboard lunch specials are also available – and looked very tasty, I can tell you.

Our bill was just over £13 and it's worth remembering that credit and debit cards are NOT accepted here. Not that it presents too many problems as there's a cashpoint machine a short walk from the teashop.

This is a great place and we will return – but only if we get a seat.