When I heard Al’s Café Bar, the old Exmouth Market warhorse, was no more, I was cross. I have reactionary tendencies when it comes to London’s caffs, wanting them to live forever in a greasy fug of nostalgia (I still cry hot tears over the demise of the New Piccadilly).
But then, I reason, when was the last time I was in Al’s? Um, never, at least not since they served me a contender for worst fried breakfast in Britain. Caravan, the upstart that has taken its place is everything Al’s was not: clean, fresh, and staffed by enchanting, helpful and attractive people. Special mention to the heavenly Tom: I used to want to snog waiters but Tom I’d quite happily adopt.
The menu is crammed with intriguing stuff. Tom tells us most people have four or five small plates to share. Ha! Not us. It’s all too exciting-looking. The hectic list of ingredients – from falafel to sourdough, polenta to merguez, tahini to jalapeño to sumac – hints at the dreaded fusion but it generally acquits itself pretty well. There are simple things too, such as a perfectly ripe avocado, cubed, set on top of grain toast and dressed with olive oil, lemon and chilli flakes; doesn’t get easier or much nicer. Granular cornbread, studded with sweetcorn kernels, comes with a pat of jalapeño butter that sinks into it to make a sticky, savoury cake. Falafel are light and fluffy, glamourised with a drizzle of tahini and some lovely apple and pepper jelly.
Some of the more ambitious stuff struggles a little: soft-shell crab needs to be fried for a short, fierce time; ours, on its Asian slaw, is on the flabby side. And while we love the flavourings in salt and Sichuan pepper squid with chilli mayo, the creature itself is mighty chewy. Nor am I convinced of the dubious wisdom of putting powerful blue cheese and peanuts into a wonton. Cool, wibbly blancmange, however, comes with the most intensely guava-y guava sorbet.
There’s a short, intelligent wine list but smarties will stick to java: they roast and grind their own 100 per cent Arabica beans in a wonderfully bonkers-looking apparatus in the basement; espresso is almost chocolately and the flat white is a thing of creamy gorgeousness.
Despite being recently opened, the place has already found a hugely appreciative audience. As our early short lunch gets longer and much, much later, the skinny-jeaned hipsters give way to impossibly glamorous teenage-looking mothers and their perfectly clad babies. (Is it anything to do with the rather too generous quantities of Grüner Veltliner I’ve guzzled that I want to screech at them: ‘You wait! Just you wait!’?)
Al’s offered something for everyone, day and evening, drink and food, but it did so with dodgy ingredients and a grumpy expression. Caravan is infinitely superior. I reluctantly concede that this is what’s known as progress.
A meal for two with wine, water and service costs about £70.