Category Archives: Ristretto

Coffee Cube on High Street, Rickmansworth

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Coffee Cube
Coffee Cube

Coffee House: Coffee Cube
Address: 111 High Street, Rickmansworth [Map]
Rating: Ten Buck Alley or better (Sydney-Coffee Rating)
Hours: Mon-Fri: 07:30 – 17:00, Sat: 09:00 – 17:00

Dammit! Just as I’m planning to move away from Rickmansworth another good espresso place opens. For a long time it was Cinnamon Square or nothing, but now my loyalty is divided. As far as espresso goes I think Coffee Cube now comes out on top.

When we moved to Ricky there was a little coffee place on the High Street, I tried it once but wasn’t impressed – as far as espresso goes it was a little better than Nero. It didn’t help that it was only open weekdays with hours something like 09:00 to 15:00. They used Segafredo beans, if I recall correctly, and a La Cimbali machine. Several months ago they shut down suddenly due to illness, according to the note that went up in the window. I remember saying to Kat on a couple of occasions that it was a tempting opportunity… if only I wasn’t constrained by visa requirements. (As far as I can tell the HSMP doesn’t prohibit starting your own business, but ultimately you must maintain a sufficient level of income. Starting a business always comes with the risk of failure, or mediocrity, in my case both also come with being thrown out of the country!)

Anyway, this March the coffee place re-opened under the name Coffee Cube. I was hesitant to try them at first, since Cinnamon Square has earned my loyalty. However one fateful day I ducked in and asked for a double. Surprise! It was very good. Too long, in the English style, but with excellent flavour. Doubly surprising, it turns out the coffee they’re using is from Lavazza. This is a brand I’ve never had much respect for, it is fairly ubiquitous in Sydney and certainly not associated with good coffee. (The University of Sydney Union used it, for example, and the terribleness of “union coffee” defies description – that’s a whole other story.)

It is a conceit of mine to believe that the only good coffee is boutique-roaster coffee. In this I include the likes of The Coffee Plant and Monmouth in London, The Coffee Tree in Aylesbury (I never got around to writing about them), and the inimitable Toby’s Estate back in Sydney. All at the top of my espresso (dare I say, ristretto) table. So, it turns out that Coffee Cube has thrown a spanner in my works with their use of Lavazza’s “Crema Aroma” blend (no link sorry, while Lavazza does seem able to do good coffee after all, they clearly can’t do good websites. Their 100% flash monstrosity is unlinkable, flaky, and they don’t even show up in the top 10 when Googling their own product. An insanely bad web strategy!)

On request Coffee Cube will, of course, do a less English espresso. Shorter and more intense. The crema is firm, but could do with a narrower cup (I should see about getting the double in a demitasse), and the taste smooth. If anything is to be raised in the negative it could be that the espresso is a little too smooth, a little lacking in edge. This is espresso I’d give to someone I wanted to “break in” to the espresso drinking world. Like 60% cocoa mass chocolate before graduating to 75%+.

Overall they’re definitely as good as Ten Buck Alley, possibly just a little better, but don’t make the Olympian leap to Toby’s standard. (While TBA coffee is my “second best” in Sydney, it’s still a mere mortal looking up to the god that is Toby’s – yeah, OK, I’m going overboard now.)

They do good lunches too and have all the usual pastries. Chicken and avo panini were a staple of mine back in Sydney and it’s nice to have a place doing them here in Ricky! (In general England doesn’t seem to have discovered what an excellent sandwich/roll ingredient avocado is.) On the food front you also get a biscotti with your coffee, so much for espresso being low-calorie. I might have four cups a day, which is less than I used to have back in Sydney, that’s a lot of biscotti.

The café itself is small, with just 5 tables. A couple are booths with comfy benches, and one is a coffee-table with a couple of very comfy couches. The owners’ last business was a club, it would seem they’ve brought a bit of club-like décor with them – bright, but pleasantly different. They’d benefit from being able to put a couple of small tables or seats outside in summer. One thing that I think would be great for Ricky’s town centre is to pedestrianise the main strip of the High Street, not sure if it is logistically feasible though.

What more can I say? If you want espresso in Rickmansworth I think Coffee Cube is the place now – but you still can’t beat Cinnamon Square when it comes to anything baked (oh, the fresh Panettone!) I think it is great that there are now two good places to have an espresso. There demand is there, Cinnamon Square is often packed to a line’s-out-the-door level, and the crappy chain store never seems to have a quiet moment (until after 17:00 when all the Poms retire to pubs – sigh evening café culture hasn’t a chance in this country.)

Cinnamon Square on Church Street, Rickmansworth

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Cinnamon Square
Cinnamon Square

Coffee House: Cinnamon Square
Address: 9 Church Street, Rickmansworth, WD3 1BX
Rating: New Orleans equivalent (Sydney-Coffee Rating System)
Website | Map

Rewrite 2007-11-30: The espresso improves and I partake of it more often, a general re-write.

It isn’t entirely fair to rate Cinnamon Square as just a “coffee house”, their raison d’être is given by their catchphrase: “the theatre of baking”. That said, they have the distinction of providing the best espresso in Rickmansworth so I feel Cinnamon Square belongs here since they’re “my local”. Unfortunately “best espresso in Rickmansworth” is not, on it’s own, a great qualification. The competition is generally atrocious, although a couple of the Italian restaurants serve an excellent shot (but are not really accessible for the causal espresso).

The gory details: A Cinnamon Square espresso is high standard but not brilliant, rating at New Orleans to TBA equivalence. Cinnamon Square even comes close to filling the role in my life that both filled back in Sydney, being a short walk away from where I live and where I usually work. We have espresso at Cinnamon Square every Saturday we’re in town, when I’m working from home (permanently these days) I pop in once or twice every day, if they were open on Sunday it’d be every day of the week! Alas, the best local coffee place doesn’t follow New Orleans’s virtually “always open” hours.

Update 2007-12-30: Cinnamon square is now open on Sunday!

The length of the pour is usually appropriate but with too-frequent “fill the cup” efforts, and crema is normally full and firm. The coffee tends to the sour-bitter ends of the spectrum, but certainly not far and it is quite good. I don’t know the origin or age of the roast but it is fresh ground (the least you should expect these days). There’s potential for truly excellent espresso here, possibly just some grind, machine, and roast tweaks away. The most significant problem is barista training, which is usual for places that aren’t primarily coffee houses. Sometimes the head hasn’t been packed well enough and the volume of the pour swings between just-right and full-up (luckily the demitasse are small so full-up isn’t as bad as it could be).

The espresso covered, I can’t finish without mentioning the pusscakes[1] Their namesake product is evilly delicious, they’ve even won a “great taste award” for the “Sweet Fermented Bun” (aka “Cinnamon Square”). I have a hard time resisting these every time I go into the shop, especially since I love cinnamon, but alas a ball of sugary starches isn’t going to work out on my nutrition spreadsheet. The Cinnamon Squares keep good company with a selection of danishes, cupcakes, and other delights — we’ve never had a dud. They do well in the savoury department too, with beautiful breads and a range of lunches, the goat-cheese focaccia is excellent (but beware: their focaccia’s are huge). We don’t eat much bread but when we do fancy some this is where we go, they do a good range of large and small loaves and bake regularly.

If you’re in Rickmansworth and have a hankering for an espresso you can’t do better than Cinnamon Square, and you absolutely must try their namesake at least once. It’s also worth visiting just to see the cute little heritage-listed 500-year-old building they’re in — where even I bang my head on a padded rafter and can smugly think to myself: “Ho ho ho, I’m so tall.”[2]

Cinnamon Square, be there or be without a square!

[1] Pusscake: A term I picked up in my youth when labouring for a paver. Often I would be sent to the bakery “for pusscakes”, this pretty much meant anything sticky and sweet, but especially those containing cream and/or custard.

[2] I’m told that this reflects the fact that the average height was significantly lower 500 years ago, and you do find lintels low enough for me to bang into surprisingly often in old buildings in the UK. I’m only 5’9″ barefoot.


Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Coffee House: Caffé Nero, Rickmansworth
Address: 80 High Street, Rickmansworth, WD3 1AQ
Rating: Below even the depths of Gloria Jean’s (Sydney-Coffee Rating System)
Chain Website | Map (Hey, why’s the Ricky satellite imagery suddenly a decade old?! The building I live in is a sandpit!)

Update 2007-12-30: Very recently a sign appeared in the window of the local Nero outlet informing passers-by that Nero is switching over to BT OpenZone. I’m not a huge fan of BT OpenZone but they are my roaming wifi provider because everywhere I’ve been (US, Sydney, Perth, UK, throughout Europe) I can usually find a place that my OpenZone account works (almost every hotel I’ve stayed in uses a provider that partners with OpenZone). Of course, OpenZone aren’t the only provider to have extensive worldwide partnerships like this (T-Mobile do, and most APs in Europe I use are actually T-Mobile). Anyway, the important point is that OpenZone has a far more convenient pricing structure than “Surf and Sip”, importantly this includes a no-upfront-fee pay-per-minute account type. Even though minutes are expensive here in the UK (why? no idea, because they can be I guess) this makes “Neronet” far more useful for the casual low-frequency user. Now, they just need to elevate the average quality of their espresso above “chain store”, hah.

The only “‘net Café” in Rickmansworth is a Nero outlet. Even though the coffee is pretty terrible I’d be happy to sit here for an hour or two and tap away on the laptop, mainly because the chairs are comfy. There’s a big problem though: the cost. A day-ticket costs 10 quid, which is the cost of about 5 coffees and is the lowest price ‘net access ticket you can get. A month costs 40 quid (twice as much as I pay for my home 8Mbit ADSL and telephone combined), and a yearly access ticket is 200 quid. The access provision company is “Surf and Sip(TM)” and, on the prior-to-payment café web pages, I can’t find any listing of the outlets where I can get connected to them. I’d bet it’s probably only available in Nero outlets, and outside of Ricky I never go to Nero.

Coffee notes about Nero in Ricky: If you get the right person you can get a barely drinkable espresso, that’s one staff member in about ten. I only drink Americanos here, watering down bad espresso can make it not insult my mouth at least. I used to have coffee here most mornings (simply to get the caffeine fix) but now that I’m working from home I go to Cinnamon Square instead. On the Sydney-coffee-rating scale this place is below Gloria Jean’s. They do have some decent panini though, so on Sundays Kat and I tend to have coffee and a panini for breakfast here (there’s not really anywhere else to go).

I’d really rather have a Starbucks in town, the coffee is a little better and the ‘net access is a little cheaper (but still not very well priced).

I’m almost tempted to try the local Wetherspoon’s pub for ‘net access. The coffee will probably be undrinkable, but they give you 30 minutes of free ‘net access with each drink you buy (and a coffee only costs about a quid there). But I can’t really bring myself to step into a pub before midday, even one with coffee and a breakfast menu. Also, the Penn is a pretty bodgey chainpub that I wouldn’t normally wander into at any time of day.

It doesn’t help that it is Sunday and the only things open are Nero, the Penn, and an Italian place we don’t go to.

So, 1.5 years into living in Ricky and Sundays still suck and (legally sound) out-of-home ‘net access is still a myth. I thought it might have picked up a bit by now. Unfortunately this is a town of rich semi-to-fully geriatric professionals (many retirees I’d guess) and breeders… so there’s probably not a lot of market for a bit of modernisation.

If it fit into my visa provisions I’d seriously consider trying to pick up a little café on the high street that shut down a while back. This Nero place is absolutely packed, the coffee and food are both dull but there are no other options (hey, even I’m sitting here).

I wonder about WiMax. They say it’s long range, if I ran an AP from my balcony what sort of cover could I get in buildings. How much does line-of-sight matter? How much does WiMax gear cost?

The Coffee House on Watford High Street

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

The Coffee House on Watford High Street
The Coffee House on Watford High Street

Coffee House: The Coffee House
Address: The Parade, High Street , Watford, WD17 1LQ (inside the Presence gift shop)
Rating: Between New Orleans and Bathers’, tending to the former on good days (Sydney-Coffee Rating System)

When we first spotted The Coffee House in Watford we puzzled over whether or not it was part of a chain. It seems that it is not; but, just like Cinnamon Square in Ricky, a lot of effort has been put into the finishings, so much so that it seems like a franchise kit. Chain or not, they do a pretty good attempt at an espresso.

The Coffee House came into existence some time after we moved to Rickmansworth and is a welcome addition to Watford’s[1] retail centre. Previously the best we could do for espresso was dreary old Starbucks, yeah, that bad. There are a few small coffee shops around the town centre, I doubt we’ve tried all of them but the ones that we’ve tried (the more inviting ones) have all been a disappointment (i.e. Starbucks beats the lot).

"The Coffee House" branded demitasse.
“The Coffee House” branded demitasse.

So what’s distinctive about The Coffee House? Well, first of all, you can easily miss the place — out the front there’s a small cluster of chairs with in a branded enclosure that doesn’t look associated with any nearby café, a very small sign, and a chalked swing-board. What makes the place really easy to miss is that the entire shop-front is one of those kitschy gift shops and The Coffee House is tucked away up the back of the shop. Other distinctive features include: plenty of comfy leather sofas, free wireless, fresh roast coffee (relatively), and their self-description as Watford’s finest coffee bar.

Crema? Like light cloud cover.
Coffee House coffee

What about the espresso? Welllll… it isn’t close to excellent, and isn’t worth travelling to Watford for. That aside, it is easily the finest espresso we’ve found in Watford over the last 18 months. On the Sydney scale it certainly betters Bathers’ (i.e. it’s much better than typical Sydney restaurant coffee, which is not to be mistaken for the swill English restaurants call coffee) but isn’t quite up to the New Orleans Cafe standard. Crema is often very light and short-lived, but the wide demitasse and typical over-volume of water is probably more responsible for this than anything else. On the flavour side, they seem to use a well balanced blend and they claim that it’s recently roasted (on November 10th they had a sign up to say the coffee was roasted on November 5th, maybe getting old by Toby’s standards but certainly far from long in the tooth). I think there’s a lot of potential to be unleashed here, if I was there more regularly than fortnightly I might work up the motivation to have a chat about pseudo-ristretto.

In conclusion: Watford’s not all bad, there’s a place to hide on a comfy sofa, with free wireless and rather decent espresso. The espresso isn’t free! But no worries at 155p for a double[2]. If you’re in Watford town centre and you feel the urge for some short black indulgence you probably can’t do better than The Coffee Bar.

[1] Watford is the closest major shopping-town to Rickmansworth, where we live. The one advantage of the Metro line always being “maintained” during weekends is the free bus trips to the not-very-conveniently-located Watford tube station. If it wasn’t for the frequent free transport we’d probably go to somewhere only a single tube trip away, like Harrow, Finchley, or London proper.

[2] Ever noticed that as the espresso gets better the price goes down? 1.85 quid here, 1.70 at Cinnamon Square, 1.20 at The Coffee Plant, and 1.00 at Monmouth … curious. As far as I can recall a similar pattern exists in Sydney.
Well, given the correction on the price below this pattern doesn’t seem to hold. That said, since a couple of people left Cinnamon Square the coffee wasn’t as good anyway, so maybe it balances out. Of course, for the inner London places economies of scale must play a part too.

Coffee Plant on Portobello Road

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Coffee Plant on Portobello Road
Coffee Plant on Portobello Road

Coffee House: Coffee Plant
Address: 180 Portobello Road, London W11 2EB
Rating: TBA verging on Toby’s (Sydney-Coffee Rating System)
Website | Map

Discovered on busy Portobello Road thanks to an “I had a good coffee at this place” comment from a co-worker Coffee Plant has a special place in my caffeinated heart: my first good UK ristretto. It’s hard to describe the moment. About two weeks after getting into the UK I had decided that coffee was a thing of the past, so any halfway reasonable attempt at an espresso would have knocked me out. Trying to explain feeling of sheer glee in discovering that I was wrong would just make me look loony (as if I don’t already). I think I had four doubles — not wise after two weeks of very litle caffeine (I had switched to drinking a lot of green tea though).

Coffee Plant is a decent sized café with a mid-floor counter populated with barristas and a counter up the back where they sell beans (including green beans for home roasting). Their prices are just not London – with a single espresso clocking in at only 80p (but I must say that all the good coffee places I’ve found have remarkably below-chain pricing for espresso, including back in Sydney). They’ve been busy every time I’ve been in, but with the high customer turnover means you often do get a seat, the atmosphere is lively and has an almost un-Londonian friendliness (another common trait amongst the coffee places I like here).

They’re fair-trade up to their eyeballs and what a friend of mine would call long-haired-tree-huggin’-hippies. Peace symbols scrawled across a wallpaper of anti-war, anti-golbalisation, anti-Bush, anti-Blair and anti-anything-non-long-haired-hippy propaganda. In fact the owner of the place is known for such politics and has even written book about the inconsistencies in the US governments “official story” for September-11. I’ll neither agree nor disagree with any of this, I must admit that some of it seems a bit far-out. But hippy politics and good coffee seem to go hand-in-hand, Coffee Plant is merely the most extreme example I have seen thus far. Fair-trade is an excellent and sensible way for things to be and since my own political views lean Left and have a strong hippy bent to them I don’t mind the extended politics.

But this is about the espresso! At Coffee Plant you can have your excellent espresso and rest assured that third-world farmers have got a reasonable deal (as at any coffee house that really cares about their coffee).

On the ristretto front the only negative is that occasionally you’ll get a barista who doesn’t quite pour one that is up to their usual standard (but I’m not the sort of person who can make a point about this so unless it is terrible I don’t say anything – and it has never been even close to terrible!). On a measure of personal taste I rate them just below Monouth Coffee and on-par with Coffee Tree in Aylesbury – I think this may have more to do with the roast than anything else. Honestly, I can’t specifically fault anything at any of these three places and they’re my “top three” for the UK – thus far.

Portobello tempts
Portobello tempts

The photo on the right was taken from the same point that the façade photo was taken from, but facing 90° to the left — so this stall of sweet carbohydratic delights is directly outside Coffee Plant. If you’re visiting London the Portobello Road market is one of the top-ten locations to visit in my mind (especially if one of the movies you grew up on was Bedknobs and Broomsticks!), it’s chaos stretches along the road for a mile or more on Saturday so wear good walking shoes. You’ll need to fight your way down the road (from the Notting Hill end in my case) to get to Coffee Plant, but it is well worth it (it is a lot easier on weekdays).

Trellick Tower
Trellick Tower – Nothing to do with coffee

The market area around Coffee Plant is devoted to food, mainly fruit-and-vege but with a smattering of meats, cheeses, spices, preserves and take-away. If you wander further along towards W10 it’ll degrade to clothes and trinkets, then to garage-sale quality junk and finally to tip-quality junk and bodgey furniture. If you go far enough you’ve hit Golburne Road where you’ll find a variety of interesting delicatessens and cafés (including a seemingly Australian one, it matches the street name I think) — and in the distance you’ll see the absurd looking building pictured on the left.

So for an interesting morning out and excellent espresso hit the Portobello Road market and drop into Coffee Plant a couple of times, or maybe more.

Yvan’s Sydney-Coffee Rating System

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

My Sydney-Coffee Rating System is what I use to “score” a coffee house. It is simply a comparison to well known Sydney coffee houses. The comparison is to either an espresso or a ristretto (where they understand the term) and is considered based on use of the “house” coffee blend (i.e. Woolloomooloo for Toby’s). It should also be noted that my image of coffee places is typically circa 2005/2006 – prior to my being exported to the UK. This list may grow a bit over time, as I need to remember new comparison points to match places I find outside of Sydney. As a result this document will occasionally float to the top as my edits alter the date.

First, I should clarify ristretto and why it is my preferred coffee. The term ristretto is basically Italian for “restricted” and when applied to coffee can simply (and inaccurately) be thought of as: espresso with half as much water (really half to three-quarters, and extraction time is also important). In my mind, and that of many more qualified coffee lovers (but there is some disagreement!), the ristretto gives the best flavour of the coffee. Just enough water to to miss out on stronger flavours overriding more subtle and interesting nuances, just enough to get more flavour and less bitterness and acid. I wont go into any further technical details, the old ‘net is already packed full!

  • Good ristretto information: Espresso Mini-FAQ
  • Rancilio Silvia, the machine I want to buy when I buy a machine (but not the matching grinder), no coffee at home for me for now though. This page also has good information on making espresso and ristretto and an indication of the variability of opinion on size (I’m at the smaller end of the scale): Rancilio Silvia Espresso HOWTO
  • Amusing and cynical ristretto article on (not a bad site in general, a lot of noise though), it really does sum the whole “thing” up though: Coffeegeek Etiquette & The Ristretto Shot
  • Beware, there is a lot of shitty information out there. The Wikipedia entry on ristretto is, at this time, pretty terrible.

Asking for a ristretto also gives a good early indication of the quality of the coffee house. A very good coffee house will attract coffee lovers who order ristrettos – and thus the baristas will know what this is. It is almost always good sign when asking for a ristretto passes without comment or question (except when they’ve misheard you and bring you a latte, it has happened). It simply isn’t worth ordering a ristretto from a big-chain store, you wont enjoy the experience, if I really need a “coffee” from such a place I get it watered down: americano style.

All in all you don’t really want a ristretto unless the coffee, grind, machine and barista are all just-right – only when lent a lot of confidence by the atmosphere of the place will I try to order a ristretto without having first sampled the default espresso of the house. In the UK, if you’re game and some of the factors seem okay you can, at a stretch, ask for: espresso with half as much water. This works okayish because on most café machines (especially in the UK) the pre-set espresso volume is set very high, in fact in many places “half the water” will give you a reasonable espresso volume rather than ristretto. For this reason I’ll try to wrangle this sort of pseudo-ristretto out of many more places than I expect a real ristretto from. Beware: It is possible to cause mental damage to the typical base-class barista you find in the average café and chain-store if you go off the plot.

Last note: Add milk to coffee and you’ve got something that isn’t coffee. My rating of a coffee place has nothing to do with milky stuff and good ristretto doesn’t imply good latte (but it is possibly a safe bet).

And finally, the rating “scale”, ordered from “coffee utopia” to “coffee purgatory” (I dare not venture beyond):

Rating: Toby’s Estate aka Toby’s

Typically: ristretto

Location: A few, but I always went to the Woolloomooloo café on Cathedral Street.

Description: The highest honour. I’ll go well out of my way for a Toby’s ristretto and they consistently make it just-the-way-I-like-it. Toby’s is the place that taught me to like ristretto the way I do and the first place I started experimenting with tasting different single-origins (thanks to them having a two grinders, one for the standard blend and one for a “single origin of the day”). I will emphasise at this point that my rating of coffee houses is, clearly, based on detailed personal preferences. While I place Toby’s at the top of my list a good friend and fellow ristretto drinker back in Sydney preferred TBA’s offering (see next) – based upon personal tastes adjacent ratings in my scale could easilly be swapped around in somebody else’s eyes.

Rating: Ten Buck Alley aka TBA

Typically: ristretto

Location: Bourke Street near William Street corner, Darlinghurst

Description: Very close to Toby’s (physically as well as coffee rating). Dave at TBA knew how I liked my ristretto and when he made it it was good, possibly they have somewhat of an advantage here since they were the closest good coffee to the office in Sydney and I had coffee there a couple of times every day! The only significant point that puts TBA below Toby’s is my preference for Toby’s earthier blend. It helps that that every barrista at Toby’s did my ristretto just right, but with Dave almost always at TBA that was rarely a problem. TBA’s and Toby’s are both well above the Sydney standard, let alone London, and a place comparable to either is likely to be worth a trip for the ristretto alone. (When it comes to food TBA wins without competition, Toby’s advantage is that they’re really only about the coffee. But this is only about coffee.)

Rating: New Orleans Cafe (omission of acute their own) aka New Orleans

Typically: espresso

Location: Corner of Pacific Highway & Willoughby Road, Crows Nest

Description: A funky café in Crows Nest, this was the closest good coffee to us back when we lived in Sydney, in Wollstonecraft. In the coffee “ball park” a level below Toby’s and TBA, New Orleans offered a consistent, though slightly too long, espresso with good, though slightly too acid, flavour. A New Orleans standard coffee stands out as excellent in London.

Rating: The Bathers’ Pavilion aka Bathers’

Typically: espresso

Location: Balmoral Beach

Description: One of those trendy destinations that I love to hate. In truth they do some pretty good food and usually provide an entirely adequate dining experience. The coffee is what one would expect of a good Sydney restaurant, consistent, a little dull and always too long. A place to have coffee because it isn’t bad and happens to be in a beautiful spot. A Bathers’ coffee is merely adequate, this is still a reasonable achievement however and can be said to be “above average”.

Rating: Gloria Jean’s aka GJ’s

Typically: espresso or americano

Location: Every-bloody-where.

Description: Chain coffee. The lowest grade coffee and only Sydney chain-coffee I’ll drink, if I’m after a coffee more for the caffeine than for the taste this is it. In fact I’ll often order an americano just “to be on the safe side”. GJ’s biggest problem is their size, the roast isn’t terrible and is actually above average (of all coffee the average is pretty low) but with a high rotation of young staff you’ll rarely get a decent barrista who can make the coffee into an espresso that is worth drinking. Places like Nero and Costa in the UK get a GJ’s rating. A rating of “not even GJ’s” can be interpreted as: You’d be better off getting a diseased cat to drink it and regurgitate it back into your cup before touching the stuff; places that deserve this rating are unfortunately common, especially in the UK.

Caffé Vergnano 1882 on Charing Cross Road

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Caffé Vergnano
Caffé Vergnano

Coffee House: Caffé Vergnano 1882
Address: 62 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0BB
Rating: Hovering above New Orleans (Sydney-Coffee Rating)
Website | Map

Caffé Vergnano 1882 on Charing Cross Road has a sign out the front claiming “Coffee Shop of the Year 2005/6”. It honestly isn’t too bad, but it is not in the same league as Monmouth or The Coffee Plant.

No questions when ordering a ristretto – on both my visits the same girl was operating the machine and she’s Italian, so no ristretto problems here. Both times the coffee has been a little on the watery side, but with good flavour. Possibly the roast isn’t fresh enough (I don’t know where they roast, their flash-based website leaves me disinclined to investigate further) or, more likely, the head was packed too loosely (or, honestly, one of many other possible errors).

Caffé Vergnano Chocolate Wrapper
Caffé Vergnano Chocolate Wrapper

The café is small and you’ll be lucky to find a seat when busy. Their branding is everywhere, this gives the place a strong “chain feel” which I find can colour my enjoyment of a coffee (it is a chain though). I’d recommend visiting just to have a look at their Elektra Belle Epoque coffee machine, a visually magnificent beast! All coffees are served with a small square of dark chocolate. Too gimmicky in my mind but it is a good bittersweet 70% cocoa chocolate so there is some feeling there. Unfortunately chocolate and coffee are only a good combination when making desserts and I don’t particularly want a chocolate with my ristretto. They also add a small glass of own-brand bottled water, this is a welcome addition since it certainly doesn’t taste like London tap water.

A good, drinkable ristretto makes Caffé Vergnano 1882 worth dropping into if you’re in the area but not worth going out of your way to visit.

With only two visits this review isn’t entirely complete, especially since I’ve had the same barista both times. Vergnano has potential to be upgraded and we’ll certainly revisit since it coincides with our Chinatown shopping trips. Watch this space.

Monmouth Coffee at Borough Market

Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.

Monmouth Coffee at Borough Market
Monmouth Coffee at Borough Market

Coffee House: Monmouth Coffee Company
Address: 2 Park Street, Borough, London, SE1 9AB
Rating: Toby’s Equivalent (Sydney-Coffee Rating System)
Website | Map

The first time I visited Borough Market I found a little coffee stall hiding next to the greengrocer with the fungi. The coffee stall was labelled “Monmouth Coffee Company” and had an alluring selection of roasts. My eyes were drawn to the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, one of my favourite singles from Toby’s back-home. I decided to risk a coffee and ventured so far as to ask for a ristretto. To my surprise I wasn’t asked to repeat myself or auto-corrected to espresso. My ristretto came almost as short as a Toby’s ristretto. It was good.

I was at Borough Market again today but the coffee stall wasn’t there! Damn! However all was not lost, we noticed that there was a large Monmouth Coffee café outside the market on the corner of Park and Stoney streets. Having not seen this premises last time I was in the area I assumed it must be new, everything looked shiny and clean, but according to their website its been there since 2001. Maybe they were renovating? The hole-in-the-wall stand I had found before had a small sideboard and a handful of stools. This time I found sideboards and stools galore as well as a central, communal table spread with help-yourself (and pay at the counter) breads and jams. Good atmosphere, great ristretto, and loads of customers.

Kathlene and I both went ristretto doppio, served without query or correction just like the first time. It may seem that I make rather a big fuss about the whole ristretto thing. It comes down to this: a place with good coffee will attract coffee lovers who will order ristretto, if the staff understand what you’re after when you ask for one it is a good sign. An interesting “proof by failure” case is Costa’s coffee chain. Costa’s actually has ristretto on their menu but almost 100% of the time the staff will need to be pointed to the menu before they’ll believe this (right above their very heads) and then need to be told what it is.

Essentially Monmouth has the roast/grind/machine/barista profile close enough to my version of “right” that their everyday coffee is, so far, the best I have had in the UK. It is a close call between Monmouth and The Coffee Plant on Portobello Road. I think that it is down to the roast, Monmouth’s coffee has an earthier hint that I find preferable to the strong tang of the coffee at The Coffee Plant.

According to their website, Monmouth has been doing it’s thing since 1978 at their site in Covent Garden. I have yet to visit that location but I must in the near future since they have a “sampling room”. The only drawback of the Borough Market shop was that they only offered their house blend for espresso (oh how I miss Toby’s “single origin of the day”). I would have loved to try their Yirgacheffe roast, unfortunately I’m not equipped to make coffee at home.

If you love your coffee and you’re in London you must visit a Monmouth café, especially if you prefer coffee that hasn’t been destroyed with milk.