Sunday, 20 November 2011

Eat: souper?

No snobbery, just good soups.

I don't understand people who bring in sandwiches to work. If you are desperately close to losing your house, or owe a lot of money to some very bad people, sure. But there is no justification for putting yourself through cheese and dry bread hell when you can pop out to a decent cafe and get something better.

That didn't always used to be possible. Some of the more secondary business parks still rely on Frank's burger van. But even his livelihood is under threat now, because of the rise of "gastro-coffee shop" (my term).

Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero... they all offer proper lunch now: wrapped-up sandwiches the likes of which only used to be seen in a Hampstead delhi; pastries that have left Patisserie Valerie wanting to change her name; cookies the size of plates. Oh, and bad coffee.

But these are expensive. Very expensive. So the  "coffee-house bistro" reared its head. Eat, Pret and Pod all offer sandwiches to rival Borough market; cakes that make Konditor & Cook squabble between themselves; even hot meals that are, if nothing else, hot. Oh, and shit coffee.

I used to think Eat was expensive too. Their salads are around £4.50, which is a lot for some over-cooked prawns, limp lettuce leaves and sweet chilli sauce. But then I tried the soups.

Some of them are extraordinary. They top their chicken and mushroom cream soup with flaky pastry; their sweet potato and chilli soup is like a hug in a mug; their chicken laksa spicy, sweet and fresh. They even manage to bat the classic cream of chicken out of the park. They must have a repertoire of 20 or so soups, which rotate weekly.

You don't expect to walk into their cold, clinical units and receive food of this quality. At my local Eat they leave the door open constantly, letting the winter wind whip right through to the back door. It's irritating, but it has a certain effect. People huddle over the their soups for warmth, which is kind of the way that's how soup should be enjoyed. Cradling the tub with fingerless gloves, enjoying the rising steam and inhaling the scent like you're in Bisto advert.

There are flaws of course. The Chicken Pot Pie pastry is impossible to eat with a spoon, it is usually served just a little too cold and the descriptions are infuriating - they serve an "Eat classic" every day.

But it's all so reasonably priced. The large, which is about a pint, is only £4.35 but the smallest is barely over £3, and for a few pence you can get a doorstop of bread to make sure that, if the small spoons didn't manage it, you'll dribble soup all down your chin.

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