Thursday 14 February 2013

Books for Cooks

The lunch service began at noon sharp, and by 12.50pm the head chef was striking lines in chalk through the day's menu and disappointing lunch hopefuls with "Sorry, we've run out of food already." Apparently this usually only happens around 1.15pm, and today was a little bit crazier than usual. The lady at the cashier wasn't having the best of days, and when she realized there was no more cake left for her, she was visibly crestfallen. Having actually tried all four of the cakes of the day, I totally empathized. 

B's dissertation is on food and travel writing, so we went round to Books for Cooks in the name of good old-fashioned research. It made more sense to browse first to start working up an appetite, so I made us embark on our journey a little earlier, and we reached the store at 11.30pm. It was a good thing we did so, because the place got packed really soon after by a whole bunch of regulars who took up the rest of the tables. The regulars were enviably familiar with each other and the chefs, discussing the latest places they'd been to for a meal out and exchanging recommendations. If it weren't so far away I'd try to be a regular here too. 

Decor in the test kitchen

Books for Cooks has been claimed by some customers to be the best-smelling bookstore in the world, and while I tend to be partial to the smell paper and knowledge in Kinokuniya, it's hard to deny them this title given the lovely scent of soup and bread and cake that wafted over the minute we stepped through the door. Like many other independent bookstores, Books for Cooks is tiny, and during lunch it's impossible to browse certain sections since there are tables in the way. But there's no denying the fact that they have a massive collection of titles on hand, filling up their floor to ceiling shelves. A big table in the middle houses multiple copies of more popular recent titles, but the real gems are the many lone copies sitting on each packed ledge, like Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War: Food in 20th Century Korea, or the magnificently bound Tasting India.

Lunch is served every day the store is open, using recipes gleaned from the many cookbooks on sale, and the food is available until everything runs out. The featured cookbooks are placed in a prominent position for more browsing and to tempt you to pick them up. The test kitchen in the back of the store whips up a different three-course meal each time, but there are no options available and you get whatever they decide on experimenting with.  

Today's board
The day's offerings were adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Hugh's Three Good Things and Georgina Fuggle's Take One Pot. The cakes were inspired by multiple sources, neatly printed on their individual tags. 

Soup for Starters
First up was the Squash, Apple and Chili soup, served with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a hunk of aniseed focaccia. The soup was wonderfully warming and the chili cleared up my sinuses straightaway, which certainly helped my enjoyment of it, but it was the bread that was a wonder. Soft but sufficiently chewy, it went well with the soup, but was so good that I ate most of it on its own. 

Stew as a main
The main was Braised Lamb and Artichoke Stew, served over a creamy polenta. The stew itself was more watery than I prefer and it didn't look like much, but the lamb, sourced from Sheepdrove Organic Family Butchers, was tender and went very well with the polenta. My favourite bit of it though was the whole clove of garlic, that had been cooked with the skin on. The clove burst out easily in my mouth, and I couldn't help but think that it was where all the flavour had gone. 

Cake Selection Part 1
The portions didn't look overwhelming at first, but by the time dessert came around I realized I was full. We cheekily asked for small slices of everything instead of just sticking to a cake each, and they kindly obliged. The cakes were served with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a generous spoonful of organic yogurt at the side. From the top: Chocolate Brownie Meringue Cake (Surprisingly full of peanuts and raspberry sauce), Pear Pecan Cake (Light and the first to disappear), Rhubarb Cheesecake (Was more citrusy than I personally like, but a lady at the next table raved about the taste of oranges in it) and the Almond Cake (Much moister and less crumbly than I expected)

Cake Selection Part 2
The wine served was a very delicious deep garnet 2008 Domaine des Savarines Cahors, farmed biodynamically in the South of France. They came in the same small glasses used for water, and was a good companion to the braised lamb. 

At £10 for three very filling courses plus wine, it's no wonder the place is packed to the gills every mid-day. After the rest of the lunch patrons filtered out, we were the only customers left in the store for a brief but glorious five minutes where we had full run of the place. Then more people streamed in, browsing or pulling out in-built reading tables to set books down on, till it got a little cramped. That's when we finally left, but already hatching plans to return again soon, with more friends in tow. 

Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, London, W11 1NN,

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