Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Counter Cafe: a taste of east London

Bizarre but kind of brilliant

Such was the sudden acceleration of the Olympic Park that the rest of east London hasn't even left the starting blocks. I loved the Olympics, but it's a little disturbing that elite sport gets a bigger development budget than some of the most deprived areas of the UK.

Politicians will argue that the Park filled a black hole in central(ish) London. But anyone who has been to the Park will tell you that, since the multinational crowd have left, it's had less atmosphere than a boarded-up boozer in Hull.

Meanwhile, the circle of east London around the Park has developed a bizarre new charm - like a desperate show of the old ways in the shadow of the spaceship-like Olympic Stadium. And the Counter Cafe is quite literally in its shadow.

From one side it's in what would be a trendy converted warehouse if it were in Hoxton. On this side of the A12 it feels like somewhere between that and the Hovis advert. The cafe is in the back of an interesting looking art gallery. It's got a huge glass façade  running cross the cafe's two floors that looks like it was built in expectation of the new Olympic view. Sadly there's a good deal of wasteland, and canal/refuse channel and an unsightly fence between it and stadium, which all but spoils the view.

To get a bit closer to the action we braved the cold and sat on the floating astro-covered platform on the canal behind the cafe. We sat gently bobbing every time we moved, ignoring the slight seasickness, and soaked up the bizarre atmosphere. It was very pleasant, but sadly things had already gone slightly wrong food wise. My planned order of hot chocolate and eggs Benedict was impossible because they had neither. Nor did they have peppermint tea. In fact, all they had in the decaf department was green, the tetanus jab of teas.

Now, how you run out of tea in a cafe is one question, how you run out of Benedict is quite another, especially when you definitely have eggs (I could see them in the kitchen). It means you lack two basic staples of even a home kitchen, and given that there was supermarket not one minute's walk away, their refusal to serve it seemed almost personal. However, I took it as graciously as a hungover, hungry man could on a Sunday morning and ordered the poached eggs, salmon and potato cakes.

Just the sound of it eased the pain in my head, and the sight of it next to my translucent tetanus tea calmed the shakes. The salmon was bright and fresh, the yolk almost as orange as the salmon, and in deep contrast the gloriously charred potato cakes. The textures were all perfect: soft potato with crunchy burnt edges, runny yolks, and plump salmon. The lime they came with was a surprising but zesty twist, although sadly the dish was badly under seasoned. I'd love to tell you how the hot chocolate was - as a man intolerant to caffeine it's a problem close to my heart that so few hot chocolates are either hot or made with real chocolate - but the only adjective I can use is "absent".

Still, for the sheer experience and view it's worth a visit to the Counter Cafe. The fact you walk past art installations to get to it; the classroom feel it has with rows of wooden tables; its complete lack of tea despite being a cafe; that bizarre almost apocalyptic view - it all makes the cafe unique. The fact they run out of stuff, despite being out in no-man's land, is a testament to much this place is loved. I can totally understand it - understated in east London, defiant in the face of modernity, and happy in its skin. I really, really hope east London changes. But I also really hope the Counter Cafe never does.

The Counter Cafe on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

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