Best Part: the Fresh Vibe!
Best Part: The Bread!
One needs their wits about them when they enter Baked Nation. Here you are not allowed to consider the various options of the menu, ruminating over the relative merits of a sausage roll versus jam on toast. Before we had even started to consider such weighty matters, before we had even closed the door, we were being subjected to an interrogation about out purpose and desires.
‘Coffee?’ they barked.
We certainly did not want coffee, but felt the need to quickly qualify what we did in fact desire.
‘Anything else?’ followed quickly. And so we quickly scanned the wall-mounted menu to determine our desires, acutely aware of the penetrating gaze of the baristas on us at all times. We felt a bit panicky and hot and dare I say it, not very welcome.
To be fair to Baked Nation they get a lot of take-out business, and probably assumed we were there for that purpose, but it did lead to both of us slightly regretting our choices, which we might not have gone for otherwise. Anyway, at least it was all over with very quickly, and today’s rendezvous was by necessity a speedy one. In this respect Baked Nation were ideal as everything came to our table almost as soon as we had ordered it.
With the pressure on I reverted to form and went for a bacon sandwich. It was simple, bread butter and bacon as you would expect, no hint of brie or cranberry jam thought they did provide me with a catering size bottle of ketchup. I enjoyed the big bottle of ketchup, it made me feel like a ketchup king. I also enjoyed the bacon sandwich. The bread was absolutely gorgeous on its own, and when covered in butter melted with bacon ooze and a big splodge of ketchup it was as fine as a car parked outside of a marked bay in the Westminster Lodge car park.
Mrs Midweek Lunch ordered a goats cheese, eggplant and zucchini sandwich with caramelised onion. To English people, this was a grilled aubergine and courgette sandwich with red onion chutney. It was not the heavenly sweet caramelised slices of red onion she was expecting. However, she too had a superb experience with the sour dough bread and even ate the crusts which is unlike her.
We had some tea/hot chocolate, and as the lunch was delivered and consumed so quickly we decided we had time for something from their cake selection for finishes. We were planning to share something, but wife wanted Eccles Cake and I wanted Bakewell Tart, and as she is allergic to nuts and I am intolerant of anything or anyone from Eccles we each settled on our respective Northern towns. My tart was moist enough, but jam levels were minimal (it took me half a slice to find any) and it really was lacking the flavour of a good Bakewell Tart.
My wife had her Eccles cake at home later with three other people as it was extremely large. All four parties believed it to be a fine quality, in spite of it getting slightly squashed in her handbag. The pastry was gorgeously flaky and the middle sweet and tangy. All four parties wanted more of the Eccles cake but not four times as much. We conclude that the Eccles cakes are big enough to share and probably should be but if you are ever having a bad day and need a bun or something to cheer you up, pop into baked nation, have a giant Eccles cake and hang the consequences!
After the initial intimidation the service was smiley and friendly. It was a bit chilly in there, especially right at the back by the fridge. Also the tables seem roughly hewn from tree trunks which gives the place a nice rustic feel but means they are not much use for balancing your plate on (see illustration).
However there was a well-stocked book case and as you know books do furnish a room. Baked Nation certainly excel at baking, and I have been known to pop in on my way home for my Daily Bread. I would say, though, that like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks if you face Baked Nation with imperfect knowledge of their menu options it will utterly annihilate your soul.
Best Part: The Righteousness
So, if you have any knowledge of me or gender stereotypes in general you might be able to work out that it was my wife’s idea to come here. Not that I have anything against vegan juice bars, but I tend to favour those places that serve up big piles of fried meat, generally swathed in cheese of some description. But I am open-minded, and on this occasion slightly hungover, so I went for it.
The place has a nice, laid-back sort of vibe to it. You could imagine yourself sitting there with a lap-top, working on your novel/screenplay/free-form beat poetry whilst making a single juice last far too long. Although if you were a struggling writer then you would have to eke it out as a second helping might be beyond you given that they come in at around £6 a pop. Given the price-point and the fact that they looked fairly substantial I decided to forego any solid food. The fact that there were very few options that didn’t involve avocado might have swayed the decision somewhat. At the end of the day, it was very close to Greggs in case my decision provided a rash one.
The smoothie I went for, the Breakfast Club, featured several ingredients that I would not normally countenance, including almond milk and chia seeds, but the oats and honey made it sound substantial. When it came the presentation was reminiscent of the milkshakes you get in the classier burger joints, with a jam-jar-like glass and a large straw. It even tasted like a milkshake at first, but the aftertaste took you to very interesting places. It tasted cool, but in a way that went beyond mere temperature, but a deep refreshing coolness of the soul. Like diving into a glacial lake at sunrise. It was a lot more pleasant than I had been expecting, I polished it off very happily, and after a few bites of my partners lunch I did actually feel like this was a sufficient lunch. We did wonder as we drank when “Almond Milk” became a thing and why so named. Almonds do not have nipples after all, at least not that we have spotted.
My vegetarian wife was more excited by the menu than I and yet being a nut allergist quite frustrated. That dratted almond milk kept popping up all over the place. Eventually she settled on a “Berry Me” with berries, coconut and Maca. However just to check she wasn’t going to consume anything weird first, went to ask the cool dude behind the counter what “Maca” actually was*. He smiled apologetically and said he would have to ask his manager. After a few minutes he returned to say “Well, it’s a sort of superfood” which didn’t really make matters clearer. My wife politely asked whether this meant it was a vegetable. He said he didn’t know what is was originally but now it was just a powder. Bravely my wife decided to go for it. She had been considering the cauliflower pizza until she saw it. Golly but it must be hard to be a Vegan – no cheese, just imagine! The Avacado and cream cheese bagel sounded much nicer. And indeed it proved to be very pleasant and along with the smoothie, very filling. This was just as well as I manipulated her into giving me a lot of it with my doleful eyes.
After my initial scepticism, at the concept and the price for a juice, I would actually recommend Juice Pharm. For those days when you want to feel lively and energised after lunch, rather than sluggish and bloated such as a visit to Wetherspoons would render you. The staff are friendly, it is light and airy and you can be pretty sure your inner harmony will be nudged in the right direction by a visit.
….I may have got a Gregg’s sausage role afterwards.
* it turns out that Maca is related to the turnip!
Best Part: The Baking!
Today we tried for the second time to visit St. Alban’s newest eatery. Last week we had to abandon the idea as Gail’s was heaving with visitors. Today it was pleasantly full – enough to know you had chosen a good café but with a couple of free tables allowing you to breathe. I like breathing, although when I enjoy eating food as much as I did at Gail’s it can be hard to prevent hyperventilating.
The site, formerly owned by a Pawnbrokers is next to the Boot pub and overlooks the Clock Tower. It is in short a brilliant central location. It is invitingly presented with personalised floor tiles on the threshold and an array of baked breads in the window. You don’t have to eat there, if you just wanted to pop in for a loaf you would be very welcome. However I challenge any sane person to do so because everything looks so yummy you. I was sad to hear that the Bakehouse was closing but Gail’s (part of a small London chain) is a very good substitute. They have a similar menu of mouth wateringly golden pastry coloured goods – quiches, scones and cakes with imaginative sandwiches on artisan breads. They also serve a varied breakfast menu until 3pm! The staff were enthusiastic and friendly.
Now Mr Midweek Lunch and I were overwhelmed and excited by the counter full of baked goods. Unable to choose between everything we took a tapas option and ordered four different things to share. The tables in Gail’s are small and tightly packed (my only quibble) so we had trouble fitting it all on but it was so tasty that two plate loads were emptied quickly.
A cheese straw was a must. Now, Mr Midweek Lunch and I have tasted many of these in our time and considered this one of the finest, only rivalled by my cousin’s. However Bethany lives in Essex thus her cheese straws are not often available to us. Gail’s giant offering although rosier than a traditional straw, was so soft on the inside that my own insides jumped for joy. Whoop!
I thought it couldn’t get much better until I tried the parmesan and sage scone. Oh my! My natural curiosity lead me to dip it into the lemon and olive oil salad dressing that came with the mushroom and caramelised onion quiche. Oh my word, it was an amazingly creamy and tangy combination. Suggestion to Gail’s – serve the scone with a small pot of lemon butter. Our waitress told us that the quiche was her favourite and we could see why. The onions were sweet, the mushrooms surprisingly meaty and the crust was packed full of buttery niceness.
Now whilst a normal bakery of your Greggs or Cheryl might be happy just to go with a sausage roll Gail’s look beyond the obvious and all the way to the Mediterranean with a Lamb and Pine Nut Roll that was worthy of some kind of Greek God of baking, Pastrisia or something. There was a slight quibble that I won’t go into but they dealt with it impeccably, resolving it promptly and giving us vouchers for a couple of free coffees or loaves of bread.
We took the bread option, as coffee is for people who are have been drained of their natural energy by the multiple disappointments of life and so need to prop themselves up with artificial stimuli. Looking at the range of flour types, coatings, flavourings and styles I felt frustrated by my unimaginative children. I had to buy a standard white loaf but it looked pretty good to me. I also had some great tea.
The decor was fresh and white with nothing too gimmicky. The main decorative feature was the counter of food which is exactly as it should be. The food was of a very high standard. It is of a certain type so if you don’t like baked goods or sandwiches this might not be the right place. However for most people it would be a great lunch or afternoon tea stop.
Gail’s, you are a welcome newcomer.
Best Part: Their food and pricing, but not their spelling or lighting.
We first thought of visiting The Exquisite Peacock Emporium in its first fortnight of business. That would have been a great idea for reporters with their fingers of the pulse. However, looking through the window I was intimidated by the dark environment. Time has passed and two followers have asked us to review it so here we go.
Décor and Vibe
This is a very interesting establishment because it fuses industrial theme with the “sit at my kitchen table while I cook” sort of homey vibe. Of course being British, no one wanted to be conspicuous enough to sit at that large table so they filled up the small perimeter tables instead. Eventually one lone lady eater came in and there was no where else to sit but at this table for 14. Awkward! She looked very self conscious. In this front part of the café, most of the diners seemed to be female but were of mixed ages. I saw two business men buying lunch to take away and they were excited by the Chicken Tikka Panini as was my own business man companion. The back of the café was more of a lounge affair with plush seats and low level coffee tables (a fashion that is very bad for the digestion of ones lunch). It was full of pre-school children and their tired mothers, grabbing a precious tea or coffee with their similarly frazzled Mummy friends. The children were welcome and happy. Gosh if me and my friends had this place 3 or 4 years ago I know we would have used it. However, I am no longer in this demographic and I wasn’t quite at home in either area, in spite of being a female in her thirties. Possibly this was because my earlier hunch proved right – it was far too dark and I felt stressed out. Possibly this was also because wherever I looked there was a sign demanding that I should “Love Koffee”. I don’t. I hate coffee but not as much as the misspelling on these brainwashing signs.
There were not many vegetarian sandwiches on the menu. In fact I believe there were two unimaginative ones. Fortunately I was in the mood for a cheese and pickle baguette which turned out to be very pleasant. The pickle to cheese ratio was correct. To improve on this already good sandwich I would encourage the management to source a crumblier richer cheddar or perhaps a creamy Lancashire for variety.
Mr Midweek Lunch was very happy with his business-critical tikka panini. The combination of chicken tikka and cheddar cheese is not a usual one, but it was fusion-tastic. And really, can’t we all learn something from the way Italian, Indian and English ingredients go together in perfect harmony on his sandwich. There were enough options (for those who are prepared to have a little meat in their sandwich) that he would happily come back to work his way through the options. The milkshakes are pretty good too, and a lot cheaper than most of the options in town. What’s more, it all came with obliging promptness.
We shared a sticky toffee muffin. There were a lot of muffins in the food display which is very enticing to people who like them. Ours was pretty amazing. The toping was thick and crunchy, almost like Ice Magic if you remember such a thing. Muffins can be overwhelming at times so it would have been nice to also see some smaller baked goods. There were cookies but these were similarly large. I expect the idea is to share them with a friend in the “relax in my kitchen” environment. Most people seemed to be doing this.
My tea was of a good quality but I have reservations about the way it was served. I prefer to be given nice loose leaf in a pot and the transparency of this plastic pot was a novelty that might appeal to some diners. I really liked the cute little milk bottle and I approved of the cup and saucer. However it was a very heavy cup and saucer. If you are going to choose the cup and saucer option it needs to be thin, preferably bone china. If you are going for thick china or earthen ware, you either need to serve “Koffee” in it or it needs to be in the shape of a mug. The cup was far too heavy even before the tea went in to cope with the aerodynamics of its intended use.
Would I visit again? I wouldn’t rush but yes at some point in the future for the reasonably priced tasty food. However I would take a torch.
In our fast moving society where coffee shops and Ercol furnished Scandi-style cafes tempt you in with their modernity, isn’t it nice to know that in St. Albans there is one place you can go that is proper old fashioned yet every day English tea room? Not Kanuka with it’s trendy transparent cups of (brilliant) tea and not even the Bakehouse with its wonderful array of smart comfort food no, we are talking about a place that wouldn’t look out of place in “Dad’s Army”. In fact you almost expect people to wander in with gasmasks carelessly slung over a shoulder hoping to cash in a tea ration. There may well be a hat rack, I didn’t notice. The point is, it is a nostalgic sort of place and set in the village arcade you would expect nothing less as the walls are actually lined with marble from our city’s Lyon’s Corner House.
I am a big fan of this place because I like tea in a pot served in a cup with a saucer. I also like reasonably priced simple breakfast and lunch fare. Today we visited with our children who are also keen on straightforward cuisine. There was a slightly sticky moment when I had to explain to our animal loving son what a Welsh Rarebit was but that is as exotic as it gets and indeed you would expect it to. I had the aforementioned Welsh Rarebit and found it to be the perfectly sized portion of rich cheesy goodness on a thick piece of toast. My tea was simply just right.
We had to order twice because son two became overwhelmed about a ham sandwich. Anyway, he was delighted with it when it arrived. The other son joined Mr Midweek Lunch in Bacon & Eggs. There was something about the Wodehousean and though he wasn’t having them at 3 o’clock in the morning to recover from a spree around Piccadilly the notion was still a sound one. I disapproved of this thoroughly, as I do of so many of his actions, because they had already had breakfast but no amount of tutting would dissuade them from the bacon. I don’t like the smell and messiness of it at home so perhaps it worked out well for all of us. Husband found them entirely satisfactory. Eldest said the eggs were “very good.”
This very simple yet well prepared and served lunch for four set us back around £25. A small warning is that Abigail’s do not accept credit or debit cards. This may be because they didn’t have such things during WWII. They are not the only ones as “The Courtyard Café” for one operate the same system. It is surprising but not a deal breaker as long as you come prepared. It keeps their prices lower I suppose. So good value, good tasting food in a quaint setting overlooking the Cathedral. As a family we have given it a fond…
Best Part: The Minty Drinks!
Our venue this week is a stones throw from the city station. It is nestled happily in the small parade boasting The Breakfast club and Abbey Spice and opposite Chilli Raj. It also has two good neighbours in the Crown and Verdi’s. It does seem like this particular corner of St Albans is particularly well served for culinary treats. In this hallowed company the Lebanese Kitchen still manages to stand up.
The Lebanese kitchen is very narrow and therefore there is the great danger of it being overlooked. I say “danger” because dear reader it is highly worthy of your custom. It is made in the cafe style so there are no table cloths and the waiting staff did not refer to us as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ or recommend the Chablis. It is clean, bustling and friendly serving a well priced and authentic Lebanese menu. This is our third time of eating here and will not be our last.
We took a seat by the window, as we like to do, though were warned we may have to move if a large crowd appeared. There were few spots to move to, but luckily there were no large crowds so we maintained our prized spot throughout the meal.
We were very excited to try their signature lemon mint juice. However this seemed a very intricate operation and the drinks arrived sometime after the food. This would have been less of an issue if the ordered tap water had arrived sooner but it did not, so we were left with food but no drink, which is never ideal. As an aside, this was the third time in a row that we had to ask for tap water multiple times. Are we being punished for our thriftiness? Is there a concerted effort by the citizens of Harrogate and Malvern to shame people into ordering a better class of water? If so, they will fail. I will pay for many things in this life that might be expected too be free, but I draw the line here.
But I digress. The mint juice when it arrived was sweet, zingy and extremely refreshing. A sucker for fried cheese my mind was made up quickly on a halloumi sandwich. This was served in warm fresh flat bread. Our hummus was great. As dedicated readers will know Mr Midweek lunch has had a rocky ride with hummus over the years but he won’t relive childhood traumas here (again), merely comment that it was good hummus, maybe a trifle over-creamy but with more of the lovely warm bread.
He then ordered a Koftah Kebab, following his belief that you can’t go wrong ordering lamb in a Lebanese restaurant. It hasn’t failed him yet, and worked out once again here. The meat was juicy but ever so slightly charred, the bread continued to be lovely and the crispy salad worked well with it. We also asked for Fattoush which was great last time but this was forgotten. This was a shame but by the time we remembered we had eaten quite enough food so this was not a problem, and it did mean that we still got to say the word Fattoush quite a few times.
The service was friendly and the food fresh, well priced and interesting. What more can you ask for. Don’t blink or you might miss it!
A hidden gem.