Below is a review from The Independent by John Walsh, recently voted (for the second year running) Restaurant Reviewer of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers
Cafe Also Review, John Walsh, The Independent
‘Restaurants and literature are such natural bedfellows, it’s amazing nobody’s done this before. Remember Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler? Or The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers? Remember the little Parisian cafés where Ernest Hemingway claimed (in A Moveable Feast) he used to write when living on next to nothing in 1920s Paris?
So loud huzzahs for the Café Also, a restaurant in a bookshop – not actually inside among the shelves, but a bread roll’s throw away, through glass doors. The Café is connected to Joseph’s Bookstore where for 20 years Michael Joseph, a Czech-born Jewish lawyer, has ploughed an independent furrow – offering Jewish-interest books, remaindered books, self-published books, paintings and DVDs (some in Yiddish). Howard Jacobson is a fan (“If I lived in north London I’d never be out of the place; I’d write there”) and now so am I.
There’s been a café of sorts in here for years, in fact, but only recently has Joseph properly integrated food and fiction, dishes and dust-jackets. He hasn’t, thank heavens, tarted up the place, except for the double-frontage – a fantastic combination of half-frosted windows and pale-pistachio décor.
Inside it’s like you’re in the canteen of a serious seat of learning, with Quakerish tables, leather chairs, globe lights, a long bookshelf in distressed, green-painted wood. Beside our table hung gorgeous naive paintings by Dora Holzhandler. It’s all very cosy and very old-fashioned. If this restaurant were a person, it would be a rumpled but charming English teacher at a minor public school, with leather patches on his tweed jacket.
Joseph’s co-owner and chef, Ali Al-Sersy, is Egyptian (he trained at Le Gavroche under the Roux brothers) and his menu pulls in influences from all over the Mediterranean and the Aegean. (It’s also a non-meat menu because this bit of north London, Temple Fortune, is strongly Jewish and Café Also isn’t kosher.) Lots of subtle spices, but also searings and smoke, have been applied to very British ingredients: cauliflower kofta and vanilla-infused parsnip purée, say, or aubergine Parmigiana. I was intrigued by the promise of smoked Jerusalem artichokes with flamed Brussels sprouts, cured swede and chestnuts, while frankly alarmed to think of the gastric eructations that would surely follow it…
Gina’s white asparagus tart came with half a dozen miniature white spears sticking up out of it, like the minarets around the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It was miraculously light and melting, the out-of-season baby asparagus given a wallop of flavour by a gribiche dressing that involved hardboiled egg, tomato, pickled cucumber, capers and parsley. The soft-poached egg on my smoked haddock was a little too runny, but the nicely firm fish held its texture in the creamy sauce. Cod tempura offered the lightest batter (it must have been the wheat flour) and an interestingly complex tartare sauce was tricked out with lemon, cumin and garlic.
Eva, our charming Polish waitress, served the main courses with a flourish. Such drama! My hake casserole came in a double-handled dish the size of a butler’s breakfast tray. Like karsts poking out of the Andaman Sea, humps of sweet potato, icebergs of hake and lumps of marjoram-sweetened carrot and tomato poked out of the seething liquid. I had to dip in lots of the Cafe’s delicious seedy bread to soak up the delicious residue. This was winter comfort food in extremis. Gina’s baked, spiced sea bass was a delirium of north African flavours, sharpened with hot paprika. The mash was smoked and buttery, and a whole head of boiled pak choi stood up out of the dish like a bonsai sycamore.
There were more surprises to come. Apple cheesecake didn’t sound very exciting, but was comprehensively deconstructed and re-imagined: a cheesecake roundel flavoured with honey, raisins and pistachio nuts, plus three spheres of spiced apple on long sticks that poked out of the dish (what is all this obsessive phallic poking upwards, Ali?) and a final flourish of candyfloss on top. Cheesecake candyfloss! And whatever you think when you hear the words “bread and butter pudding”, it won’t have prepared you for the light, graceful napkin-folds of pudding, along with ice-cream the density of kulfi, and some ground pistachios to bring some grit.
There’s something rather lived-in and bashed-around about both Café Also and Joseph’s Bookstore that won’t appeal to everyone. The menu is small, and the wine list not madly interesting. But goodness, what a find in the gastro-wasteland of north London. The cooking is a series of small revelations from a chef with utter confidence in his seasoning and display. And the restaurant is as cosy as opening an old leather-bound volume of Dombey and Son. It’s a one-off. Do try it. ‘
Café Also, 1255 Finchley Road, Golders Green, London NW11 (020 8455 6890)
The following is a feature on Cafe Also from the JC
When the Chef Met the Bookseller
Cafe Also, at Michael Joseph’s Temple Fortune bookshop, is fast becoming a gastronomic destination thanks to the arrival of Egyptian cook, Ali Al-Sersy
‘He loves to eat, but when he opened his eclectic bookshop in London’s Temple Fortune and added a little cafe, lawyer-turned-bookseller-and-restaurateur Michael Joseph never imagined it would one day become a dining destination.
“Howard Jacobson is a fan, but when he first came here it was just for book readings,” says Joseph, who is now almost as busy with food critics piling into Cafe Also as he is with customers at the adjacent Joseph’s Bookstore, which has been a fixture on the north London scene for 20 years. Amos Oz and other scions of the Israeli and Jewish literary world have also visited, although Joseph does not want to be pigeon-holed as a seller only of Jewish literature, but one who blends the genre with the best of world literature.
And food and books go together, he insists: “A cafe, which we opened in 2001 when we took over the ladies’ clothing boutique next to the bookshop, was a natural addition. By that time we had evolved into perhaps the only place a lesbian rabbi might meet a Chasid, and find reading matter of mutual interest they might want to sit down and talk about over coffee.”
So although Cafe Also has segued in the past year from a casual eatery into a much more serious restaurant, winning plaudits for its innovative food, the walls are still lined with books for diners to browse through over breakfast, lunch or dinner. This is a restaurant, which serves food 14 hours a day, and the bookshop does not close until the last diner has crept home.
“My good fortune was being introduced by a mutual friend to a really talented chef with a great local reputation who wanted to return to north-west London,” says Joseph of Cafe Also co-owner Ali Al-Sersy, the Egyptian-born chef who took over last year. He has created a sophisticated menu heavy on vegetables and fish, which has been garnering rave reviews, and for the last three months dinner has been added to the offerings several nights a week.
The marriage between the Jew who loves to eat and the Egyptian used to pleasing a Jewish clientele is one made in heaven, according to the partners.
“When we met just over a year ago I realised he was no ordinary chef, but a food poet,” says Joseph, admiringly, while Al-Sersy smiles and retires to the kitchen to prepare a little something to tickle our palates. “He goes to market several times a week, composing in his head the dishes he is inspired to create by the produce he’s looking at. And when he makes the dish, the plate is as beautiful to look at as the food is to eat.”
As if to prove Joseph right, Al-Sersy comes out to present a dish of candy-striped beetroot garnished with apricots and blackberries and dressed with fromage blanc. It is an assembly which dazzles like bright, edible jewels on its white porcelain plate and provides a reminder that Al-Sersy trained with the best, at the multi-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, but has never renounced the eastern Mediterranean influences which inform his food.
It was actually in New Barnet where Al-Sersy made his name with his first restaurant, Mims, after leaving Mayfair and the Roux brothers — and a spell cooking for the Qatari royal family — with considerable culinary skills under his belt. He branched out into his own building with Mims in Chelsea in 2002-5 before deciding he wanted to return to north-west London and a clientele who already knew and loved his kind of food. Al-Sersy is at the stove at Cafe Also virtually all day and evening, cooking, experimenting and sending out delicious brunch, lunch and cocktail hour dishes to the noshers and browsers who ensure there is always someone there wanting to tuck into a tasty morsel.
They could be offered anything from a tempura of Jerusalem artichoke (an ingredient which reappears in smoked form on the dinner menu) to roasted haloumi cheese or a chestnut veggie-burger in a brioche bun. And although Al-Sersy left Egypt when he was 13, he makes a mean shakshouka, the spicy dish of eggs in tomatoes and peppers so relished for breakfast in Israel and the Middle East.
Everything at Cafe Also is now home-made, from the pitta bread to the ice cream, and naturally there is a cake du jour to go with the coffee — sometimes made from courgettes, sometimes a more conventional banana or blueberry.
Although the decor — simple, even spartan — has not yet evolved to match the cuisine, local celebrities like the actress Eleanor Bron have become regulars since Al-Sersy took over. And now Jacobson makes sure he visits whenever he is in town — even when he does not have a reading.’ http://www.thejc.com/lifestyle/food/104603/when-chef-met-bookseller
A very interesting article, also in the Independent, on the smoking of food – and Cafe Also gets a mention at the end!
Debbie, customer review on the Time Out website:
“I’ve eaten here both at lunch and dinner a number of times and I’m never disappointed. This restaurant caters beautifully for the growing bunch of us who are now pescatarians ( or perhaps lapsed former vegetarians who still don’t want to eat things with legs or wings). Its so good to have somewhere where nothing on the menu is out of bounds. Everything we’ve eaten whether vegetarian or fish has a modern twist – some unexpected take that makes it not just tasty but intriguing in a good way – fresh and layered with flavour. So we keep coming back and have noticed that others do too. There’s also a great wine list and nothing is overpriced.”
Thank you to Annabel B for your enthusiastic review on Trip Advisor.
“IT looks like a very ordinary café in a remote suburban location, but don’t walk by, there is a very serious chef here! Elegant and imaginative food with very artistic presentation at surprisingly low prices. One can park after 6.30 without any trouble. Wine choice is limited and they only do fish & veggies, but what is done is done very well indeed.”
For a selection of recent customer reviews take a look at our page on Trip Advisor below: