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Brew Lab, Edinburgh

6 Mar

So as you know from my last post I spent a sneaky last minute weekend in Edinburgh. Pat has been working up there so I felt it only fitting to go up and pay a visit! Edinburgh is a beautiful city and we crammed a lot into such a short time – staying true to ourselves, most of it revolved around food, drink and coffee!! (Hard sessions in the gym this week to make up for it…)

One of the places which we were recommended to pay a visit to was Brew Lab, South College Street. It’s a lovely coffee shop just off the main street, close to the university and surgical museum (which much to my disappointment was closed when we were there – it looks really quite cool!)

Brew Lab looks pretty modern from the outside, but inside it retains some of its old brickwork charm. The first thing you see are the amazing looking pastries and cakes (which I somehow spectacularly managed to refrain from gobbling up), and then the smiley faces behind the counter. It’s all set up a little like a chemistry lab (in the loosest sense of the word) – all coffee making paraphernalia is on show (featuring a very high tech looking kettle type thing built into the counter) and the coffee types are arranged on the wall as though they are part of the periodic table. Appealed to my scientific side, of course! We went relatively early on a Sunday and the atmosphere was really laid back. It’s very spacious inside, with a large table in the centre of the place, perfect for friendly get togethers, and more private, intimate tables spotted around with comfy sofas, partially hidden by walls and corners. There were a few people dotted around the place but it was really quite quiet, just the ticket for a Sunday morning coffee and a relaxed lazy read of one of the many Sunday papers available (for those of you that don’t know, reading more of the news and learning more about the world in general was one of my New Years’ Resolutions…so the paper has become a bit of an old, comforting friend!).

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The coffee beans seemed to be mainly from Has Bean (they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves as suppliers! Unsurprising to me as my brief encounters with them have been more than enjoyable – the team there are just incredible), although there were a couple of other suppliers which I noticed. I chose a skinny latte and Pat had a filter coffee. My latte was made beautifully, and the flavour was quite mild and nutty, with hints of gentle vanilla. I think I would have preferred this particular one as a flat white (after a particularly strong flat white elsewhere the day before I had decided to go for something a little less intense!). Pat’s filter was a great flavour – again quite mild and mellow but lovely and nutty, with subtle deep dark fruit tones. Perhaps this choice of beans was in fact, a little too mild for our tastes. His only gripe with his filter was that it was served in a small metal jug on the side – which although aesthetically pleasing, meant that the coffee dropped its temperature pretty quickly. He is someone who normally drinks his coffee brewed at temperatures below boiling (~95C, the proper way!), but even this was a little too lukewarm for him!

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Overall the place is well worth a visit; it’s great for intimate coffee dates yet accommodates for larger friendly get togethers too. The coffee is high quality, and the baristas are lovely too! If you fancy buying any of those crazy high tech aeropress coffee making madness things, they’re on offer as well. A coffee will set you back anything from around £2.00 – £3.00 (I’m still getting my head around the steep speciality coffee prices, but I guess you get what you pay for). As prices go in Edinburgh I can’t really compare, but it’s comparable with the London prices, and the coffee is high quality. A fine coffee drinking establishment! And the cakes look amazing too….

They’ve got a fantastic and informative website which you can check out here: www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk

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Adam Simmonds, Danesfield House

4 Jan

I’ve been meaning to write about this wonderful experience for a while now, but as I’m sure is the case with all of you, Christmas planning has been rather manic! I’m back at home with the family now, and while everyone else is snuggled up in bed I am sat in the kitchen listening to gale force wind and rain outside, and tip tapping away on my little computer…instead of going out for a run. I think I’m going to wait for the weather to get at least a little bit better before I venture out – at this point I think I might take off and land in Belgium if a gust of wind hit me in the right direction.

Anyway – Adam Simmonds. I was very lucky to be taken (very generously) to Danesfield House in Marlow for a birthday treat by PD. It was such a wonderful escape from London; Danesfield House is set just on the outskirts of Marlow, smack bang in the countryside, and sits atop a lovely green hill. With around 65 acres of land (very GREEN land – not a tube or red bus in sight), it provides a perfect weekend retreat from London. Although this post is about the restaurant, I must say that the hotel itself is spectacular also. You feel sort of like royalty; the room which we were in was vast, with beautiful views of the landscape outside.

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But the restaurant is the focus of the review, so here we go.

Taken from Danesfield House website:

“Earlier this year, Adam retained a Michelin Star in the current edition of the Great Britain and Ireland Guide, which is one of many accolades achieved by Adam and his Brigade in the last few years. The Good Food Guide rates the restaurant with an impressive 8/10, placing it as the 13th top restaurant in the country. The AA Restaurant Guide 2012 confirmed four prestigious rosettes, for the fifth year running.”

The restaurant itself appears rather unassuming from the outside – mainly because all you see past the hotel reception is a door. There is no pompousness associated with Adam Simmonds, bar a few framed accolades on the wall next to the smartly presented person checking reservations by the door. The room is small, it must seat only around 5-6 tables of 6-8, but it’s high ceilings and Renaissance designs make it feel much larger. It was decorated beautifully, and had an incredible sense of grandeur (I must admit, I did move my seating arrangement a little closer to Pat, as I felt a little far away on our 6 person table – it seems that there weren’t any tables only for two, but perhaps this was only on this particular day).

The servers made us feel very at home straight away, and had the perfect balance of friendly and familiar versus leaving us to enjoy our special night. It wasn’t intrusive at all, yet very attentive. The first course was an amuse bouche of a tomato mousse with a vodka granitee. It was a wonderful introduction to the tasting menu – light, but full of flavour, and presented beautifully. We chose to have the matching wines, which had been very cleverly matched the particular flavours in the food. It definitely added another dimension to the meal (and possibly a few tipsy giggles by the end of the many courses!).

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The second amuse bouche was an interesting rendition of what I think of as thick pea and ham soup (erwt soup, back here in Holland), it had all of the flavours of a pea and ham, but was light and frothy. Again, a lovely introduction to what was going to be a fantastic meal.

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The first course was langoustine and caviar, with mackarel, anchovy, pickled cucumbers and English wasabi. The flavour combinations in this dish were absolutely wonderful, and complemented each other perfectly. The only nitpicky criticism we could come up with, would be that the pickled cucumber could have been a little more thinly sliced. As the langoustine was quite a delicate flavour, matched with the milder English wasabi, the pickle came through a tinsy winsy bit too strongly at times. It was matched with a 2008 Pinot Cuvee Silver Lake Willi Opitz from Austria.

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The second dish was confit foie gras with frog legs, a duck consomme, compressed apple and pickled turnip.  The consomme for me was the highlight of this dish – it completely lifted the flavours, and the apple added a slight sweetness against the very savoury duck. Beautifully cooked, and wonderful flavours. This was definitely one of my favourites taste-wise. Again, it matched the wine (same as above) perfectly.

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The following dish was by far the stand out dish of the night. Cod was served with shavings of truffle, leek puree, goat’s cheese and a truffle bouillon.  The flavour combination was fantastically memorable, and matched to the wine (2010 Chablis Domaine Colette Gros) the dish was one of my favourite dishes of all time!

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The following treat was roasted breast and leg of chicken prepared in various ways, with onion puree and yeast potatoes. It was all wonderfully prepared and beautifully cooked, and was served with a 1998 Urbina Rioja, Reserva Especial from Spain.

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We opted for the cheese course, and when the trolley rolled round I was initially a little disappointed. Having been completely overwhelmed by the size of the cheese trolley at Le Gavroche, I was rather underwhelmed by the size of this one. How silly I was! The cheeses had all been very carefully selected (both French and British), and each came with a very carefully thought out and designed accompaniment. Do not miss this dish if you’re going; the flavour combinations were so clever in this course, and although each was so different, the matching wine (a 2011 Gruner Veltlinel from the Kremstal region of Austria) complemented each flavour. This course made it particularly clear that Adam Simmonds puts a great deal of thought into his dishes. The highlight of this plate was the cheddar with chocolate coated hazlenut – delicious, yet a little bizarre on paper…!

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I think this dish was probably one of PD’s favourites. In my mind it was a bit of a modern take on banoffee pie, but so, so much better! This wasn’t even on the menu…it was a ‘pre-dessert’. In my opinion, pre-desserts should be served with every meal as an excuse to eat more dessert. Yes please!

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The first actual dessert appeared a little like a deconstructed lemon meringue. It was lemon parfait, fennel pollen ice cream, lemon curd and some very accurately cubed olive oil jellies (or pate de fruit if we’re being posh). It was a very refreshing dish; all light flavours, and lovely variances of texture. The two desserts were matched to a 2009 Monbazillac, Domaine L’Ancienne Cure.

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The final dish (sob) was a frozen white chocolate mousse (methinks liquid nitrogen may have made an appearance in the kitchen for this one), blackberry puree and dehydrated white chocolate. I’m not sure what the dehydrated white chocolate was to be completely honest, as it was just like a very thin slice of white chocolate…however, I had had an awful lot of wine by this point so it may just have been that I wasn’t paying enough attention (and not that I was complaining, of course, I love white chocolate!). I didn’t want this dish to end – the frozen white chocolate mousse was absolutely divine!

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Finally we finished off with some coffee and chocolates. I don’t quite remember which coffee I ordered, but PD and I had two different types. They both came in a nice individual cafetiere, and I was really quite taken with my coffee. It had subtle chocolatey undertones and was really quite delicious. PD’s only slight criticism was that the coffee had been brewed with boiling water, whereas it should really be around 95C to preserve all of the flavour qualities. Apparently there is only one hot water tank in the kitchens with no way to regulate temperatures, so I’d advise the purchase of a temperature controlled kettle! (yes, these do exist…I wondered what on earth had replaced my much loved standard kettle which changed colour from blue to red when the water boiled – simple things – but it is a very clever new kettle. Despite the fact that it doesn’t change colour).

All in all this is a real treat for anyone looking for a fantastically intimate night out with incredible food, wine and service. I would most certainly recommend the weekend package; it was such a memorable weekend made all the more pleasurable with the countryside surroundings and beautiful scenery (not to mention the very relaxing spa!). I am unable to comment accurately on the price as I don’t know exactly how much it was (PD kept this from my prying eyes), but I know that the prices are available on the website…and from what I understand, it was great value for the quality. The wine arrangement wasn’t cheap, but it certainly added a spectacular dimension to the meal that we would have really missed out on had we decided not to go for it.

Danesfield House and Adam Simmonds – definitely my foodie highlight of 2012!

As a side point, if you do decide to follow in our footsteps and make your way over to the Danesfield, I can heartily recommend a nearby pub called the ‘Dog and Badger‘ which we visited on our second night (review below).

Dog and Badger, Marlow

We were looking for a good local country pub as we were spending a weekend at the Danesfield. The hotel recommended the Dog and Badger, and we’re so glad they did; upon walking in the atmosphere was cosy and familiar, with an open fire and beautiful comfy chairs. The bar is nicely laid out so that one has to pass the bar to reach a table, meaning that no one can be missed! The service was wonderful – friendly and warm from the moment we entered. Even the locals struck up a friendly chat; we felt very at home.

Having had a michelin starred dinner the night before, our food expectations were high and we were not disappointed. The duck spring rolls were incredibly tasty and presented wonderfully (lots of duck, too!). My boyfriend and I both had the steak to follow – great meat, tender and perfectly cooked as ordered. The chefs (I believe to be the owner’s son and friend) had been very thoughtful in the way in which the food was both prepared and presented, with little gems of bacon wrapped green beans which had been crumbed and fried, and delicious chips. Much to my dismay I popped to the ladies and returned to find that my other half had ordered dessert (thought I might be rolling home at this point…) however I am rather grateful that he did as the sticky toffee pudding was one of the best I’ve had out. The toffee sauce was perfect, and the pudding was spongy and light. The ice cream served alongside was a perfect accompaniment and very tasty (we were even given another scoop as we liked it so much!). 

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The experience surpassed my expectations and was the perfect end to such a wonderful weekend away. Everyone at the Dog and Badger is so lovely, and I was surprised to find out that the pub had only been running as it is for 20 months. It seems so well established and thought through, from the trivial pursuit cards on the table (provided hours of entertainment!) to the layout of the pub itself, and the fantastic food, this place is definitely worth a detour if you’re ever in the area and I hope to return again soon. 

I have also fallen in love with their beautiful and wonderfully well behaved 17 year old family ‘pup’, Judge, who came to make friends with me after a lot of coaxing. But don’t worry if you’re not too much of a dog lover – he’s small and quiet with a fabulous temperament, and only made a timid appearance after everyone was completely finished up with their meal!

Milkbar, SoHo

6 Sep

Monmouth coffee is undoubtedly one of the best places to grab a coffee around the Covent Garden/Leicester Square area, but unfortunately it wasn’t open on a Sunday so I had to look for other options. Interestingly it seems that many of the more popular coffee haunts are ‘ferme’ on a Sunday, however I stumbled across Flat White Cafe during my excitable googling, and it had good reviews. Good start! It actually comes in two parts – its other cafe, Milkbar, is just round the corner. On the website it said it was for people who liked ‘coffee, food, art and music’, so Milkbar it was. I met my friend A at Leicester Square and it was an easy 5 minute walk to find the place. It looks pretty cool from the outside, modern big windows and a couple of nice benches for people to perch and enjoy their coffee outside should they wish. Walking inside it was ever so slightly reminiscent of an upmarket dairy parlour (my mind does work in bizarre ways); benches with comfy cushions and tables and chairs lined the left of the long room, and an almost clinical counter sporting glass cabinets of scrummy looking cakes rested atop. The boys appeared to be cooking all the food freshly just behind the counter (I’ve heard good things about the eggs), as I couldn’t spot a separate kitchen.

A and I had a lot of catching up to do and managed to find a nice comfy table tucked around the back of the counter, giving us a bit more privacy. We ordered our drinks; I had a skinny latte and she had a mocha. Prices were relatively reasonable for a speciality sit in coffee in the heart of Soho (though my frugality still can’t come to terms with the spectacular rates of inflation) at around £2.50 each. The coffee I had was … good. The flavours didn’t blow me away, but the coffee itself was incredibly well made with a smooth, silky texture, and perfect temperature. The coffee was a blend of Columbian and Brazilian beans (Capao and Bella Vista), with almond and hazelnut flavours, sweet undertones of chocolate and a mellow richness. It wasn’t particularly bold and I wonder whether it would have been better enjoyed as an espresso. I’m not a big mocha drinker but the mocha appeared to have been made with actual dark chocolate (yum). There wasn’t much of the coffee flavour coming through, but I personally enjoyed the chocolatey-ness!

When I spoke to the guy behind the bar, interestingly he didn’t seem particularly excited about this blend either, and he actually mentioned that they had some new blends coming in very soon. They change their beans seasonally (supplied from Square Mile), so seem to get a fair few different flavours in. They also sell beans in 350g bags (prices on website – I think it’s around £7).

Overall I did very much enjoy the atmosphere – the music was very laid back, there were random painted skateboards covering the walls, and there were comfortable tables. The coffee was very well made but the blend on this particular day didn’t blow me away – the fact that they’ll be changing the blend makes me intruiged to go back and try it out again. The one thing I am a bit puzzled about is the advertisement on the website about it being the place to be for lovers of coffee, food art and music. The coffee I get, and from what I hear about the food I can understand that too, but the music seemed to be pretty standard relaxed sound tracking – there didn’t appear to be any links to local musicians or what-not (which would add a nice touch given such an artistic area), and there didn’t seem to be much reference to art either (apart from the ten or so skateboards). The website does mention that the art changes, so perhaps I missed something, but as a keen artist I was hoping for more of a story behind some of the art, and again, perhaps some local artistry. For a catch up over a very decent cup of coffee in the heart of Soho though, it’s a no-brainer!

Score: 8/10 – I would like to try a different blend of coffee, and also feel that a bit more of a story behind the art and music would give Milkbar a bit more of an edge. Overall it was a good, laid-back atmosphere, friendly service and well made coffee.

Price range: ~£2.50 (cheaper for t.a.)

Would I go back? Yes, if I was in the area.

Camden Coffee House, Balham

8 Aug

Edit 16/08/12: I have had to amend my score, as I went in to Camden Coffee House this morning and there were four people in the queue. Sunni was behind the counter and could remember everyone’s regular order. He even remembered PD’s, despite the fact that he’d not been in for about two months. That my friends, is attention to detail, and in my view, fantastic service. I’ve not experienced that in a cafe in a very, very long time, especially one in London. The coffee was faultless (made by Sunni on this occasion), beans still very reasonably priced, and the conversation was friendly and familiar. Yes, the music was still there, but it was much less overbearing this time!  


Original post:

I was around about Tooting and Balham today doing a bit of stocking up for my latest wedding cake adventures, so I thought I’d rest my weary feet and have a coffee at Camden Coffee House at about 3pm. PD and I have been here a couple of times previously and enjoyed the coffee, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to rustle up another review.

I want to start off by saying the service here is always really, really friendly. Sunni is always happy to have a chat, and is incredibly personable. The barista behind the counter I met today was equally lovely, attentive, quick working and very polite. I wanted to start off on a good note. I’m not so good at being critical, and I really do hate to be a bit negative because the people in here are such absolute sweethearts, but if I’m going to to this properly, I do need to be honest. Deep breath.

Here goes.

The atmosphere in there today was unfortunately not to my taste – there was some really overbearing dubsteppy/house music which really made me unable to concentrate on anything and frankly gave me quite a headache. I’m very sure that they would have changed it if I had asked them to, they are the type of people who do care a lot about their customers, but I’ve not yet gained enough courage to be that person who complains about things in cafes or restaurants. Sadly it really did not go well with the nice relaxing cafe ideal I had in mind for settling down with my book and enjoying my coffee. In fact, I didn’t even end up opening my book. I must say though, that the last time I went in with PD the music was a lot more laid back and relaxing – so perhaps it was just a one off.  I’m not entirely sure what audience they are going for; given the location (right next to the tube/train station) and the free wi-fi, I think it has inevitably become somewhat of a stop-in for commuters. Indeed, the two-three people sat in the coffee shop today were businessmen, but a number of non-suits in summer clothes (including two children) did also pop in for a take-out coffee and some ice cream. There are about five tables, each able to sit two to three people, so I do wonder whether they may be focusing on gaining business from more of the take-out options?

Anyway, on to the coffee (and a more positive note!). Camden Coffee House use ‘Has Bean’ coffee, using the Blake espresso blend. Today I went for another flat white (skinny version), through which the flavour boldly stood up to the challenge. It was rich and intense, with hints of dried fruit, toffee apples and a very dark chocolatey aftertaste. It was almost a little too much for me as a flat white, so I’d be inclined to try it as a latte next time. The coffee was well made, beautifully presented, and a good temperature – although I do wonder whether the milk had been just that tad over heated as it was ever so slightly losing a bit of smoothness (I’m talking a matter of seconds). On the other hand, I had chosen a skinny version which makes it a lot more difficult to make the milk as smooth as the non-skinnies. Camden Coffee House also sells the same beans by the bag, and it’s really quite reasonable at £4 per 250g bag (they do bigger bags as well which work out even cheaper), and PD often buys his beans here.

I had a glance at the food menu and the prices are incredibly reasonable, starting off at £1.60 for a toasted bagel and £2.25 for a sandwich/wrap. Drinks were also very reasonably priced, ranging from £1.30-3.50.

Overall, good coffee, fantastic service, comfortable place to perch but unfortunately awful music today! I do wish that the music had been different, it really sets the backdrop for the atmosphere and just didn’t work today. Great option if you need a quick coffee, especially when you’re about to jump on the tube or if you’re on your way home (also if you need a quick bite to eat, their pastries and cakes are very reasonably priced starting at only .50p). Next time I’ll be going for the latte instead of the flat white.

Score: 8/10 – good coffee, the service is always impeccable, sociable and kind and the pricing is very reasonable. Unfortunately the music let the atmosphere down today – if it had been more relaxing I would have been more generous with my score. There are also no alternative bean options which could offer a bit more variety.

Price range: £1.30-3.50 for drinks, pastries from 0.50p and sandwiches from £2.25.

Would I go back? Yes.

M1LK, Bedford Hill, Balham

2 Aug

I lived in Balham a couple of years ago and I must admit, I found the café culture a bit disappointing. Many places seemed to be trying, but nowhere really had the goods to match the atmosphere; Bertie and Boo was the only place which served decent coffee and which was a great place to hang out. Recently however, it seems that Balham has truly become a hub of coffee activity, with such places like Camden Coffee House and Lavish Habit becoming increasingly popular amongst coffee lovers.

I visited Le Petit Bistro on Bedford Hill last year and I was really disappointed, so I was quite intruiged when I cycled past a couple of months ago and saw that it had become M1LK. After a recommendation from a friend, I decided that today might be a good day to pop in for a coffee and see what it was about. From the outside it looks like my kind of place – it’s QUIRKY! I know, I use that word too often, but it is. On a sunny day there are plenty of tables outside as well as inside; I had wanted to go around 11am as I was worried that it might get really busy at lunch time, but my friend could only make it at 12:15. Even at prime lunch hour we had no trouble finding a table – although I can imagine that when the weather is poor it may be a bit more of a struggle at peak times. The décor is wonderfully eccentric but cosy and welcoming at the same time. Even the sandwich board outside was beautifully decorated with little colourful buttons!

I went in to have a look at the coffee options and settled on a flat white. Despite the fact that it was busy, the guys behind the counter were really friendly and were quite happy to have a little chat. I didn’t have any food this time round as I wanted to focus my entry on the coffee, but the sandwiches and cakes which were out on the counter looked wonderful (and after a sneaky peak at some of the people eating, I’m pleased to report that the cooked food looked delicious too…I’ll be going back for brunch one weekend and will update you!). Everything is paid for at the counter, and then you are free to go and perch yourself wherever you please.

The coffee beans are all from St Ali – now known as ‘Workshop’ (which incidentally is one of my favourite coffee and breakfast haunts in Clerkenwell) – and on the menu today was some ridiculously long complicated name which looked a bit like ‘Kiawamaururu’ (I’m sure I’ve spelt that wrong, but it’s along the right lines), all the way from the wonderful Kenya. I had a lovely chat with the manager this morning and he has given me a bit more background info. Kiawamaururu is (in general terms) the farming region in Kenya which produces these lovely little nuggets of beauty. [Note: The online menu refers to Workshop’s Cult of Done Espresso blend which is 50% Guatemalan/50% Costa Rican. This is out of date.] It’s a fully washed, speciality coffee, and it was fabulously tasty. The flavour was fantastic through the flat white; deep, intense and rich with a sweet and fudgey aftertaste. I seem to recall the packet on the counter saying something about blackcurrants as well, but I must admit my coffee tasting is not yet as good as my wine tasting. As google is churning up a big fat zero on the results front for ‘Kiawamaururu coffee’ I can’t give you further tasting notes. There was no hint of bitterness or burn which is so common in some of the coffee places which just don’t know what they are doing, and the temperature was perfect. It was a smooth, delicious coffee.

As my friend had arrived and we were having a good old natter about her wedding, I thought I may as well use the opportunity to be a little indulgent and try something else too. The skinny latte was next up. Again, beautifully prepared and executed, and a smooth flavour. Slightly less intense than the flat white, the milky taste came through a lot more and it was slightly sweeter than the flat white. I preferred the flat white as it packed a bit more of a flavour punch, but the latte might be a better alternative for those who prefer weaker, milkier coffee but still with the great flavour.

I want to take the opportunity here to disagree with and criticise some of the reviews which I’ve seen online. Although not my experience at all, I’ve seen many complaints that the ‘queues have been too long’ and it is ‘over-priced’. First off, if the queue is too long it probably gives you an indication of just how in demand and popular this place is. As for the price, my flat white was £2.20 and the latte £2.30. For a sit-in coffee in the heart of Balham, and for the quality of speciality coffee that M1LK serve up, I think that was a competitive and reasonable price. A glance at the menu and it does seem that the food may be a little more pricey than your average café, but as far as coffee goes, this place rocks. There is a weekly rotating filter coffee, and the espresso choices change seasonally, in line with Workshop’s beans. I have it on good authority that M1LK is constantly striving to find the most interesting beans to produce the best coffee experiences for it’s customers, so I’m excited to see what next month brings!

Score: 9/10 – the coffee was great; my only criticism would be a lack of choice of coffee beans / flavours which I’ve found at some of the bigger places, but even then by changing up the menu regularly you still get the opportunity to try new things. Can’t fault anything else.

Price range: £2.00 – 3.40 per drink

Would I go back? Definitely!