Giles worries about the decline in London ‘caffs’ but finds reassuring solace in Audrey’s bosom.
The London café has long provided the food for the beating heart of the city. For decades, great spades of calorific fuel have been shoveled into the mouths of hard-hat henchman and city slickers alike. Their propellant, a mixture of oil-soaked eggs, slabs of gammon, great heaps of chips and the not so humble, 20-rasher-butty.
It’s the food that greases the joints of labourers and sponges the alcohol from bankers in equal measure. A place that sees the coming together of people, uniting them not by appearance, but their need for a sustaining meal at an inoffensive price. It’s a place where nobody is judged by the colour of their collar, but by their ability to consume.
Sadly however, the London café is a dying breed. Many old cafés were shuttered in the early 2000s, likely through a combination of rising rents and a change in tastes. But this issue is not unique to the humble café of course, our high streets are now unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. In the words of the great author and educator Peter Drucker, businesses must “innovate or die”. In other words: stay ahead of the pace or you’re toast.
Hoping to find a café that could brace itself against the headwinds of tomorrow, my guest and I headed to Audrey’s in Bankside, to try out their new menu. Arriving on a cold London evening after a day of professional monotony, we were braced for something reviving.
The first thing to note about Audrey’s is it feels very modern. Freshly upholstered benches hug the perimeter and designer light fittings adorn the walls and ceiling. Shiny cream and avocado tiles splay the walls, disguising themselves as easy-to-clean, functional additions, when in fact they better serve as a visual showpiece.
The menu is predominantly French muddled with some Asian and British inspired dishes owing to their new head chef, Vincent Hiss, who is French by all means except for his training, where he also worked under a sushi chef. The variety of Vincent’s repertoire translates onto the menu too, where you come across things like miso glazed aubergine, shakshuka and spring vegetable risotto.
There were, however, some reassuringly familiar cast members. A full English and an array of poached eggs were offered on the breakfast menu, whilst veg hot pot, fish pie and a sherry trifle on the evening menu served as the country’s culinary equivalent of ‘This is Your Life’.
Still slightly disorientated by the menu, we surrendered to our waiter Daniel, who ordered an array of dishes that he assured us best characterised Audrey’s.
For starters, a buttery smooth parfait, rich with chicken livers and cream was delivered in unashamedly generous portions and accompanied by red onion jam and hunks of toasted brioche. The dish, no doubt a love letter from Vincent’s home, succeeded in charming the napkins off the both of us.
A chunky fish cake crowned with a plump prawn and served on a healthy portion of potato puree, was consumed in two fell swoops. Some warm sourdough with salted herb butter helped to fill the gaps, before a miso glazed aubergine with pickled cucumber acted as the final accompaniment. Though enjoyable, I felt this dish was scratching an itch for Vincent, rather than that of his customers. Within the context of the menu, it felt out of place.
Relenting again to the persuasions of Daniel, we ordered a main course of ribeye steak, peppercorn sauce and a side of fries for the impending “operation mop-up”. I’ve eaten steaks that best resemble a backpacker’s flip-flop, lumps of charcoal and everything in between, so like the famous omelet test, it’s a sure way to examine a chef and by association, the eatery itself.
To cut to the chase, it was delicious. Well cooked, juicy and dense with a rich, beefy flavour, my guest and I ate the entire thing, even taking the opportunity to gnaw at the hard-to-get but prized, fattier parts. A sure sign of our approval.
As a celebratory end to the meal, we ordered a (very) sherry trifle and the crème brulee. The trifle was how I liked it, spiked with enough booze to sink a pirate ship and thick with creamy, fluffy things one normally dreams of. The crème brulee came as an egg and soldiers’ parade and was more of a show piece than a well-executed dessert. It did however succeed in putting a smile on my guests and I’s face, so full marks for the spectacle.
To round off the review, it must be said that Audrey’s is not a traditional café.
Unlike the cold, surgical interior of an incandescently lit caff, Audrey’s interior is modern, warm and inviting, its appearance seemingly intended as a prologue to the meal that will follow. Its style of service is different too, stepping away from the overfamiliar and towards the familiar.
As for the food, the menu feels like a biography of head chef Vincent’s past and perhaps, a plan for his future. A menu that blends cuisines and serves distinctly different plates of food can be confusing and to some extent, Audrey’s lives up to this notion.
But what Audrey’s lacks in consistent themes, it more than makes up for in delivering generous portions of what we all turn up for: delicious food. No different than the cafes that have come before it, Audrey’s is full of love and like the mothers that raised us, delivers soulful, heartwarming sustenance. And unlike the cafés that have come before it, it’s my hope this one survives. Long live Audrey’s and long live the London café.
1, FLAT IRON SQUARE, Union St, London SE1 0AB