Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

Espresso and extraction

lisb

 

Back in about 1995, I decided to leave the dental practice where I was working. I went to one or two job interviews, but did not feel that I would have been happy working in them had I been offered a job in any of them.

Then, I visited a dental practice next to the Portuguese Lisboa Patisserie in Golborne Road (near London’s famous Portobello Road). The owner of the practice, who has long since retired, knew me, but I could not remember him even though we had studied at the same dental school. 

The interview began well after my future boss had gone next door to get each of us an espresso coffee from the Lisboa. It was one of the best espresso coffees I had ever tasted in London. We got on well, speaking for hours, for so long that I was late for a pre-arranged dinner engagement. 

I took the job and worked in the practice for five interesting years, fixing and/or extracting many of the local’s teeth. I do not believe it was only the espresso coffee that persuaded me to join the practice, but it certainly helped. 

I have long since retired from that practice in Golborne Road and also from dentistry, but still visit the Lisboa Patisserie regularly. The quality of the coffee and Portuguese snacks, both sweet and savoury, has not faltered over the years, and some of the staff are those who were there back in the late 1990s.

I can strongly recommend a visit to Lisboa and its coffee, which was so perfect that it helped direct my career pathway.

 

57 Golborne Rd, London W10 5NR

Under the trees

The outdoor café at Airlines Hotel in Bangalore has been in existence for many decades and still remains a popular eatery and coffee place. What a great joy it is to sit induer the leafy branches of the trees surrounding the outdoor chairs and tables.

People can be served while they sit in their cars parked in the small car park next to the outdoor seating area. At times, this parking lot can become very full. Cars queuing for entry to Airlines can cause traffic congestion in the street (Madras Bank Road) on which the eatery is located.

The walls enclosing Airline’s compound are decorated with paintings and quotations about tree leaves from the poetry of Kabir Das (1440-1518).

I have been visiting Airlines regularly since 1994, when I first visited Bangalore, and my enjoyment of the place had never diminished.

Some cafés and an Ottoman princess

WE WERE ADVISED TO PAY a visit to the “new Niloufer café” in Hyderabad to try its Irani Chai. We hired an Uber taxi to take us there.

The New Niloufer Café turned out to be a rather scruffy place across the road from a newer looking place called “The Niloufer Café”.

Irani chai is prepared by boiling tea leaves continuously in a large kettle. This produces a strong decoction, which is poured through a muslin filter and then added to boiling milk before being served in cups.

As the New Niloufer did not serve milk without sugar, we crossed the road to the Niloufer Café, which did. This café was very crowded. In addition to tea, it sold a wide range of biscuits, cakes, and breads. One of the breads looked like an oversized bagel or an obese Turkish simit.

After taking tea at this café, we walked past several Hindu temples, mostly dedicated to Hanuman, and many medical clinics until we spotted yet another Niloufer Café. This one is newer and more luxurious than the previous café but belongs to the same company. It described itself as the “Niloufer Café Premier Lounge”.

On reflection, we realised that it was the new Premier Lounge, rather than the unrelated New Niloufer Café, that had been recommended to us.

By the way, Princess Niloufer (1916-89) was one of the princesses of the Ottoman Empire. She married the second son of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Moazam Jah. He died in 1952 and then she married an American, Edward Julius Pope in 1963.

Photo shows kettle for boiling tea to prepare decoction

No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

Coffee with ginger

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of very low benches for customers to sit on. The owner of the café stands behind the counter surrounded by metal pots and a gas stove.

This tiny outlet is famed for its Arabian style ‘kava’. This coffee is served in small thick-walled glasses. I have never tasted coffee like this. At first, I thought I was drinking biryani flavoured sweetened coffee. It was delicious. Quite unlike any other coffee that I have drunk, this kava is flavoured with dry ginger, cloves, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and other spices.

The café is located close to a bustling intersection of two main roads. Cars, two-wheelers, autorickshaws, and small trucks whizzed passed us a few inches away from where we were sitting. Two goats wandered past, seemingly unconcerned by the traffic.

The coffee shop was set up long ago by the now aged Kochumuhammad, who, as a boy, was taught by Arab migrants how to prepare the special kava. For the past 20 years, the shop has been run by one of his 26 grandchildren, a man called Riyaz.

We spent about 10 minutes sipping our coffee, which is good for the throat, so an autorickshaw driver told us. During our brief stay, there was a steady stream of customers buying kava.

I am very grateful to the intern Amala Rose Boben, who wrote the newspaper article, for alerting us to this fascinating little coffee house.