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Canary Wharf: German Doner Kebab opens restaurant on top floor of Cabot Place

Berlin-born fast food brand unveils its 71st branch as it promises products made with lean meats

An Original German Doner Kebab from the Canary Wharf branch
An Original German Doner Kebab from the Canary Wharf branch

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Much change is afoot at the top of Cabot Place’s mighty cylinder of escalators. Ride to the top and you’ll find hoardings abound as a fresh crop of restaurants moves in to Canary Wharf.

Lewis Hamilton’s plant-based Neat Burger is soon to arrive as is Marugame Udon, which promises to supply oodles of noodles.

Already open though is German Doner Kebab as the chain continues its roll-out across the UK. Canary Wharf is its 71st branch in this country with a further 26 in the pipeline worldwide this year.

We called up the chain’s managing director for UK and Europe, Daniel Bunce, to find out what Wharfers can expect from this emerging powerhouse of fast food.

what is GDK?

Our brand was born in Berlin in 1989 and expanded at the end of the century into the Middle East to Dubai. Then we came to the UK in 2015. We had six restaurants here at the end of 2017 and Canary Wharf is our 71st opening.

There is a fight about whether Germany or Turkey invented this kebab concept. Germany laid claim to it in 1971. What we offer is different from a  Turkish kebab.

We serve beef and chicken – you’ll notice I didn’t mention lamb. That’s where we differ. Both our beef and chicken skewers contain 93% pure lean meat with the rest seasoning and binding – that’s probably double the meat content you’d find in a standard kebab.

what should people try?

We’d always recommend you start with our Original German Doner Kebab with either meat or a mixture.

It’s such a great product – that combination of the bread, the sauces, the salad and the meat. It’s the right one to go to.

what other options are there?

We have an option called the Doner Box, which contains all the ingredients in a kebab and fries but allows you to avoid the bread – that’s great as a lunchtime snack.

We’re famous for a product we call the Boss Box, which has a rather large and grand feel. It was conceived during lockdown, originally for click and collect but it’s proven to be a huge hit with customers.

You get a choice of kebab, sauces and a choice of fries – we do different kinds such as spicy flaming fries, cheesy fries and curry fries.

We also have a home-grown product, which we invented called the Doner Spring Roll. We take our meats, add some jalapenos and a spring roll pastry, so you get a full meal in a box, with a drink, which you could eat outside, if the sun is shining, or it’s very handy to take back to your office and it’s not going to create a mess. It’s proving very popular.

MORE FOOD IN CANARY WHARF
Kaleido offers salads in rice paper roles
Yole sells sugar-free ice cream and frozen yoghurt
Urban Greens offers punchy salad bowls

what else are people ordering?

We do a selection of burgers with kebab meat in a brioche bun. We launched the Doritos Crunch Burger as a limited offer but it’s proved so popular it’s become a staple part of the menu.

Basically it’s our standard burger jazzed up using Doritos crisps and some melted cheese, which gives us another flavour.

We also have healthier options like the gym box which has up to 44g of protein and no carbs.

The Canary Wharf branch is already attracting a flow of diners
The Canary Wharf branch is already attracting a flow of diners

why Canary Wharf?

It’s a prime real estate – a really prestigious venue and the consumer here is very much our target demographic.

We’ve opened up in very nearly every major city in the UK and we know that our customers are young professionals, although our products are also eaten by families at the weekend.

what’s the restaurant like?

We don’t look like a kebab shop – we’re very bright with lots of colours and our kitchens are all behind glass.

We don’t hide anything from our guests. All the veg that we use is prepared in the morning, or during the day, depending on the levels of business.

We don’t carry any skewers of meat or any of our salad into the next day. So if you look into our kitchens last thing at night or first thing in the morning, there’s no leftover food – everything’s fresh and every single order is prepared in front of the customer. We’re very proud of that. We like to say that we serve quality food done fast.

what about sustainability?

We operate with very little waste – we use the meat from our kebabs in your spring rolls and our vegetables are prepared on a day-to-day basis and we top up later in shift if we need to.

We shave our meat very thinly so our products need to be wrapped up well to ensure everything is kept in the best possible condition, but we’ve made a conscious effort in the last couple of years to reduce the amount of plastic we use.

We want to do more and it’s definitely something we’re working on as well as with our suppliers to overcome the challenges that are presented by a business of our scale.

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Canary Wharf: Emilia’s Crafted Pasta prepares to open flagship at Wood Wharf

The restaurant and bar is set for the ground floor at 12 George Street and features table bocce

Emilia's Crafted Pasta founder Andrew Macleod
Emilia’s Crafted Pasta founder Andrew Macleod – image Matt Grayson

Five years ago, Andrew Macleod opened the first branch of Emilia’s Crafted Pasta at St Katherine Docks in east London. Following its success he opened a second, larger establishment in Aldgate in 2019.

Born of a passion for good pasta and a desire to bring it to Londoners freshly made, served with a punchy array of sauces and at a reasonable price, the brand continue to grow.

Now Andrew and his team are preparing to launch Emilia’s flagship restaurant at Wood Wharf, with the doors expected to open in November.

That will place his dishes within easy walking distance of the whole Canary Wharf estate, not to mention much of the Isle Of Dogs, for the first time.

“Wood Wharf is an evolved concept,” said Andrew. “Part of what we do at Emilia’s is to keep everything simple and fresh. That’s what we stand by in terms of our food, our business and how we run stuff.

“Whenever we go into an area, we want to be part of it, not impostors. So, what we’ve done with Wood Wharf is to have half the restaurant as more of an all-day bar – for example, there will be a tabletop version of bocce, an Italian game similar to French boules.

“Wood Wharf is going to be a neighbourhood where people come to work, live and enjoy themselves, so what we wanted was the space to be tailored to that.

“For me, that means I want people to walk in, play a bit of bocce, have a drink, a coffee and a catch up, or for them to be hanging out, sitting on a beautiful terrace overlooking the water and the park, eating pasta and drinking cocktails.

“The idea is that you’re coming into a bustling trattoria in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy – a place the whole concept pays homage to, both its food and the techniques used to make it.

“For me, the vision is that we want to bring 100% natural, affordable, fresh pasta to as many people as possible, in a way that respects those traditions, and feels very casual and Italian

“The more we can spread that, the happier I’ll be. We’re not in a rush, we’re not here just to open other branches – we just want to make this one right.”

The Wood Wharf restaurant will feature table bocce
The Wood Wharf restaurant will feature table bocce

The new restaurant will be located on the ground floor at 12 George Street, overlooking Harbour Quay Gardens and the boardwalk along West India South Dock. Inside visitors can expect rustic wooden furniture, plenty of marble and hand-painted tiles.

New dishes are promised, alongside Emilia’s core menu, which offers bowls of pasta costing between £8 and £14 – the Canary Wharf bar is also expected to offer a range of cocktails based on locally sourced fruits and Italian spirits. 

At full capacity, the restaurant will be able to accommodate 100 diners with 70 inside and 30 outdoors.

Andrew said: “For me, launching a pasta restaurant never had anything to do with trends. When I was at university, I loved pasta, but I was really disappointed, because I’d moved out of home and was trying to find good places that did it and the only ones  were big chains.

“About 10 years ago most of it was just frozen and horrible and places were charging £15 a bowl. You could pay £20 and get something a bit more high-end but I felt that didn’t really represent pasta in the way it was traditionally consumed in Italy, informally.

“I thought if Emilia’s could make pasta that was significantly better than what people were having at home in the UK, then we would be in with a shot as a brand.

“At the heart of Emilia’s, from day one, has always been that all our food is 100% natural.

“We make it on-site, start to finish, and anything we source, comes from people who are suppliers of food that I would eat every day at home myself and be proud to do so.

“That’s how we’ve built it, and we’ve never stepped away from that. We started in St Katharine Docks in November 2016. We had some nights in the early days without a single customer, but slowly people discovered us and we built up a following.

A bowl of pasta at Emilia's
A bowl of pasta at Emilia’s – image Matt Grayson

“Then we got so busy we decided to expand. Aldgate came in 2019 and now we have this fabulous opportunity to open in Wood Wharf.

“We want to be at the forefront of showcasing that, as a young brand, without much funding, you can, with tight cost control, a good team and a good culture, build something very meaningful, and we’ve grown organically from day one. Each of our restaurants comes off the back of our previous operation.

“For us, the key thing is that, if you do something sustainably, it should be able to continue for a very long time without damaging the world or the people who are with you.

“Most of our managers have been with us for more than three years. When Covid hit, we didn’t sack anyone, we paid furlough and topped up people’s wages because that’s who we are.

“Emilia’s is like a family, it lives on. It’s got to be that people are coming to work happy, doing their shift and going home happy. That’s our company culture.

“It’s about being able to see that you’re leaving the world a better place for all the people who have been part of the journey – that’s what sustainability is all about.

“When a business is built, you create jobs, livelihoods. You develop people, help them grow and, hopefully, the soil somewhere is better because it gets properly kept as farmers are following sustainable agriculture and processes to make it better. That’s what it’s about, and that’s what we strive towards.

“I’m very excited to be opening this restaurant and that we’re continuing our mission in one of London’s most exciting developments in a beautiful setting surrounded by green spaces and water.”

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Canary Wharf: How Urban Greens salads are all about depth, flavour and taste

Recently opened in the West Wintergarden, the brand believes it’s found a gap in the market

Urban Greens co-founder Houman Ashrafzadeh
Urban Greens co-founder Houman Ashrafzadeh – image Matt Grayson

While alone in offering frisbees, Kaleido isn’t the only new salad game in town. It’s also not the only company to bill itself as delivering something fresh.

Following the success of its first branch in St James’ Park, Urban Greens has opened a second in Canary Wharf, filling space opposite Obica in the West Wintergarden with leafy plants and plenty of pickled and blanched ingredients.  

The brand is the brainchild of co-founders Houman Ashrafzadeh, Rushil Ramjee and Ioannis Divas. The three met while studying and remained friends as their separate careers flourished. 

“We weren’t business partners to begin with,” said Houman. “But we’d always explore food places together – we’ve always had a big interest in it.

“I grew up in Sweden, Rushil in South Africa, although he’d also lived in London for a long time, and Ioannis in Greece. We would travel to South Africa and other places together and spot these amazing places for food.

“We always had the entrepreneurial spirit in us and, although we had successful careers in the corporate world, we knew that we wanted to do something of our own. A couple of years ago, one thing that came to our minds – London has always been, for us, an amazing place with the best restaurants that you can find on the planet.

“But when it came to the healthy fast food side of things, we always thought it was lagging behind. 

“We discovered that in Scandinavia and the US a lot of food brands were doing things that we couldn’t even find here. 

“So we started looking into different brands to get some inspiration and we spotted that, when it came to salads, there was a huge gap – no-one was doing them properly.

“You could find salads that had been around a long time, but these were plain ingredients in a bowl with a bit of dressing chucked in.

“They were nothing special, just very traditional, boring salads, which didn’t excite us. People would have them because they were considered healthy, but there was something missing.”

Serving up salad at Urban Greens
Serving up salad at Urban Greens – image Matt Grayson

It took the trio about two years to formulate their business plan, working between Athens, London and Stockholm, slowly creating the concept, discussing the menu and eventually negotiating with a landlord to open their first site in 2019.

Rushil and Houman left their jobs to concentrate on running Urban Greens in the UK with Ioannis taking a more passive role.

“It felt scary at first, because we were leaving very steady jobs – very predictable and comfortable lifestyles – doing something that was in a new industry for us,” said Houman.

“Our approach was that, we may not have experience, but we know what good food is, what good service is – we know what we like when we go to a good place. We wanted to try to implement those things in our own business.

“We launched in July 2019 and it started picking up really quickly. People would come in and try it and be very pleasantly surprised from a taste point of view, but also by the whole concept.”

That reaction may very well be down to Urban Greens’ tireless approach to creating a core menu of balanced salads that all offer something out of the ordinary.

“Our salads are not side salads – our portions are quite big,” said Houman. “It’s also impossible to replicate our salads at home because every flavour is elevated – we don’t have any plain ingredients.

“Each salad has a few elements in common – they all have a base such as cabbage marinated in olive oil and salt. 

“They all come with one form of protein. That could be quinoa or red rice, for example. 

“Then you have something pickled but not just a plain pickle – we add flavours to it. Our carrots are pickled with ginger so that enters the salad.

“Not everything can be pickled, as that would be overpowering, so we add other ingredients but again, we don’t just put cauliflower or broccoli in a bowl – we blanch them to take away that harshness. 

“They still add crunch – we don’t boil them – it’s the elevation of taste and flavour that comes with it. There are always vegetarian and vegan options.”

Urban Greens' Canary Wharf branch
Urban Greens’ Canary Wharf branch – image Matt Grayson

Core dishes include the Jakarta with tempeh, seasame marinated glass noodles, pickled carrots, edamame, bean sprouts, coriander, toasted peanuts and seasame seeds and the Beef Saigon with Irish pulled brisket, glass noodles, blanched broccoli, pickled cabbage, edamame, bean sprouts, fresh mint and toasted peanuts.

“The funny thing is I never get tired of the Beef Saigon or the Seoul Chicken because they both come with a really nice spicy dressing,” said Houman. 

“But we always try to encourage our customers to get out of their comfort zones and to try something new.

“The prices vary – the vegan ones start from £7.85, the ones in the middle are £8.85, and the premium ones are £9.95.

“When you visit Urban Greens, everything you see is the result of decisions we have been taking consciously – we are in control of it, involved in every little part of the business.

“After we opened our first store we were approached by quite a few landlords and Canary Wharf approached us.

“We took a look into it and, although neither of us had worked in Canary Wharf – we had worked in the City – we definitely thought that it was one place we wanted to move to as an expansion, but it came much sooner than we had anticipated when we were starting up in the beginning.”

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Canary Wharf: Why Kaleido is putting all kinds of salads in rice paper rolls

Co-founder Laura Mimoun explains how she and husband Denis Dahan came up with the brand

Kaleido co-founder Laura Mimoun
Kaleido co-founder Laura Mimoun – image by Matt Grayson

Kaleido sets itself a little bit apart. First of all, its Canary Wharf branch – the latest location to open and the third in a growing chain – is tucked away off the main stretch of mall that joins Canada Place to Cabot Place, round the corner and into the lower floor of One Canada Square. 

When Crossrail opens (although we’ve given up betting on when that will be), the shop will be on one of the main routes into the estate proper. But those days are in the future and Kaleido is slowly building by word of mouth and tempting visitors to nearby Santander.

It’s also an outlier in terms of design – arranged into an angular unit that used to house ATM machines, it doesn’t so much invite passers-by in as push out into the space in front of it with its wares proudly displayed on a bright island unit. 

Bright circular murals depicting some of the ingredients used in its products adorn the walls – bright, playful colours and graphics are the thing here. And that’s a choice too because it communicates something about the brand – that it’s approach to salad stands out from the crowd.

Salad rolls by Kaleido
Salad rolls by Kaleido – image by Matt Grayson

Kaleido was created by wife and husband team Laura Mimoun and Denis Dahan.

“I wasn’t working in hospitality at all,” said Laura. “I was working in marketing for chocolate brand Green & Black’s. One night, with my husband, we were making Vietnamese rice paper salad rolls – some people know then as summer rolls.

“We’re both French and these rolls are very well known in France. We don’t like to waste food and we had some rice paper.

“We just started putting other ingredients in the rolls and found that it worked very well as a salad sandwich.

“That was how we got the idea for Kaleido. We thought that this is something you can eat with your hands, much like you’d eat a burrito. You can dip it in sauces and have all sorts of different flavours inside. It’s mix and match and this is something we really like.”

From that initial spark of an idea sprung Kaleido, a shop that offers a range of 10 different salads wrapped in transparent rice paper.

Customers can order between one and 10 ranging in price from £2.75 to £19.95 respectively. The cost is the same regardless of the salads chosen The selection currently includes Falafel And Hummus, Tuna And Cucumber, Sweet Potato And Tahini and Chicken Caesar.

“The first part of starting the business was a lot of thinking – evaluating the risk and the opportunities, looking at market trends, and then making the jump,” said Laura. “We wanted to create a fun, healthy brand, so this is why you have the name Kaleido, from kaleidoscope, and it looks a bit different because it’s fun.

“We began by making the recipes at home, and created five flavours that we were happy with and liked cooking. The great thing about rice paper is it’s only 30 calories and what you see through it is what you get. First we did food markets and grew from there. 

“In 2018 we did what was supposed to be a pop-up at Selfridge’s but has since become permanent. Then we opened up in Kingly Street  and now Canary Wharf. 

“More and more people are eating our rolls at our existing units so we are growing, which is great because it’s been a tough year. 

“We were originally due to open in Canary Wharf in 2020, but then the pandemic hit – it may not have been the best idea to put ‘coming soon’ on the hoarding. But we launched on Freedom Day in July and we’re very happy with business growing week-on-week.”

Kaleido's Canary Wharf branch
Kaleido’s Canary Wharf branch – image by Matt Grayson

Part of that growth could well be down to the sheer numerical variety Kaleido’s model offers. Eating two rolls a day, it would take a working week to try everything available at lunchtime. The combinations multiply further when you factor in the optional dipping sauces available.

“When people come here they will find 10 flavours each day – some changing, some staying the same and all prepared at our Rainbow Kitchen in Bermondsey,” said Laura.

“The product is innovative in the way we execute the salads – we are the only people doing these rolls here and the idea is to reinvent the way people eat healthy food so it’s also convenient and fun. 

“The mix and match is very much about my personality – I’m a Libra and all my life I have wanted this and then that, so here you can have different flavours and sauces.

“My husband and I both come from corporate backgrounds – we’ve worked long hours at desks so we value the benefit of variety, of rotating flavours.

“No-one wants to eat the same sandwich everyday – if they do, then bring them to me and I’ll have a chat with them.”

In addition to the extra attractions of Little Moons Mochi ice cream for dessert, a range of drinks and pre-packed boxes of rice paper rolls – for those who just don’t have time to choose their lunch – Kaleido is responsible for another first.

As far as we know, the shop is the first in Canary Wharf to lend out frisbees to its customers, with six displayed on a wall below an invitation to borrow.

“So far, one person has played with a frisbee,” said Laura. “This idea comes from the fact that we want people to eat healthy and live healthy – coming here and having a few throws with your colleagues outside is what we want to promote – embracing health.

“Our Kaleido rolls are not a diet food product and we would never position ourselves like that. But we believe they are healthy – they’re made only with ingredients you would find in a normal kitchen.

“They’re fresh, they’re simple and this is our vision of healthy food – the frisbee is a bit of fun to go alongside that. The rolls are also very filling – when you see the box, you don’t realise.

“People often don’t know how packed they are with the salad, so we’re going to do more imagery of what is inside in the future.”

Laura, who is originally from Paris said she and her husband wanted to grow the brand in London and then continue to expand.

“First we want to have more of our cabinets so that people can experience this iconic Kaleido way of serving food,” she said.

“Then we would like to branch out to other cities in the UK and across Europe. I’d love to, one day, open a shop in Paris.” 

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Canary Wharf: Six By Nico opens Canary Wharf restaurant at Chancellor Passage

Brand owner Nico Simeone brings his six-course tasting menu concept to diners in east London

Six By Nico head chef Nico Simeone outside the Canary Wharf restaurant
Six By Nico head chef Nico Simeone outside the Canary Wharf restaurant

There’s something new in Canary Wharf. The estate has played host to many different kinds of cuisine served at everything from fine-dining establishments to street food kiosks. There was even a place that only served steak frites.

Six By Nico is different. Housed in a long, single-storey space in Chancellor Passage, opposite the Wharf’s Post Office, the venue is all dark finishes, dramatic lighting, plants in pots and banquettes decorated with antique maps of Docklands.

But it’s the food that’s the contrast. All guests are served a six-course tasting menu, the content of which changes every six weeks. There’s a vegetarian variant, a few extra dishes to bulk things out if wanted and an optional wine flight, but that’s the bare bones of it.

And it’s a model that works. Honed by Scottish head chef Nico Simeone in Glasgow, Canary Wharf is his eighth site in the UK as his brand expands.

“It was all kind of an evolution,” said the softly spoken cook. “I left school and then just stumbled into kitchens. I’ve been really fortunate that I found my passion.

“I just fell in love with it – that was bit of luck. From there I wanted to keep learning, work my way up in kitchens. I did that and then I was in the fortunate position where I was able to open a wee restaurant in Cleveden Road in Glasgow.

“It was called La Famiglia – an Italian family-run restaurant and then I re-branded it as Simply Fish.

“It probably spent about four years failing, to be honest – breaking even or losing money.

“I’ve made so many mistakes over the years. It’s cost us lots of money in some cases, but nobody should be scared to do that – you’re always going to take hits and bumps along the road and you just have to keep moving forward in the hardest times.

Filo canneloni with taramasalata – part of the extras bundle
Filo Canneloni With Taramasalata – part of the extras bundle

“I had one last roll of the dice and re-branded the restaurant as 111 By Nico. That was really the first time I’d put my personality in the food and we made tasting menus work. Then another site came up in Glasgow in the Finneston area of the city and I grabbed it with both hands – spending a wee bit of money from the year we’d been trading, which was the first time I’d made a profit. 

“Then I came up with the idea – I asked the question: ‘Why can’t we just change what we cook every six weeks?’. It started with Italian, then French and just evolved into Six By Nico.

“We serve a six-course tasting menu with the inspiration for it taken from a theme.

“For example, we may want our dishes to evoke memory or a destination. Right now, for the first six weeks in Canary Wharf – until September 20 – we’re doing a menu called The Chippie.

“My parents ran a fish and chip shop, so that’s a memory for me and all the flavours and courses through that menu are things I’d associate with that environment.

“What we say is it’s a new story every six weeks. That’s something to look forward to. The downside is you can get something that’s so successful and popular and then you throw it in the bin, so we’re always trying to create and improve on the last theme.

“We change the dishes eight times a year and, about four times a year, all the restaurants sync up, but London’s never done the New York menu, for example, which we know is good so it would be silly not to bring it here – we mix it up across the country.

“As far as working on new menus goes, I’ve been so fortunate – as the company’s grown we’ve been able to get talented people in, we have an amazing creative team.

“We all sit down and come up with ideas constantly, we do tastings to tweak and improve things and that’s how we do it.

Chips And Cheese - the first course at Six By Nico
Chips And Cheese – the first course at Six By Nico

“The Chippie starts off with chips and cheese – Parmesan, curry oil and a pressed potato terrine. It all finishes off with our take on a deep-fried Mars bar.

“The main course is smoked sausage with a trio of pork smoked under a cloche with the flavours of celeriac and apple.”

Nico said opening on the estate was simply down to visiting and getting a feel for the area.

“We work with agents to find sites and somebody said there was an opportunity in Canary Wharf,” he said. “I see a lot of places, but sometimes you go somewhere and you get that feeling – a gut instinct.

“I loved the spot and spent some time going around the area. I thought it was perfect for the restaurant. 

“I don’t even know what’s coming after The Chippie on the Wharf yet – we don’t necessarily plan that far ahead. 

“The big thing about Six By Nico is that we try to work seasonally – we’d never do the Amalfi Coast that’s in the other venues in winter, for example.

“I want people who come here to enjoy themselves, to have a good experience and be happy. 

“When I go to a restaurant I enjoy everything – the atmosphere, the staff, the team and the setting.

“The vibes of a place are a big thing for me. With the team here we’re really customer-focused – everything is about that.

“We don’t look at other businesses, we try to compete with ourselves to make us better.”

Trying The Chippie

So, what’s eating at Six By Nico actually like? The first thing to be aware of is the price. The six courses are priced at £37 per head. Add the wine flight – for £33 – and aperitif for £7.50 and a snack to go with it for £5 and you’re looking at £82.50 plus service. 

The dishes arrive as perfect little morsels – Six is the sort of place that errs on the side of quality rather than quantity, so the ravenous will need the add-ons, one of which comes in the form of delicious hunks of sourdough. 

As for the main attractions, they’re well presented, with artful dabs of sauce here and a sprig of greenery there. 

It’s very much dining as theatre – each arrival preceded by a discussion of what might appear and then the excitement of hunting around the plates for the promised flavours. 

The Chippie turns out to be a complex homage to the flavours of Nico’s youth, refined well away from their genesis but nevertheless amusing.

The scampi is crisp and rich, while the smoked sausage is more pork three ways than an improbably red saveloy and the chips and cheese, a gentle nod in the direction of the deep fat fryer rather than a full-on takeaway delight.

But the restaurant is beautifully kitted out, dressed in golds and rich coppers that lift the whole experience – an engaging venue to tempt back the audience for the next performance. 

And a special mention should go to the steak pie – a smart, meaty delight of a course.

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Canary Wharf: Yole opens Canada Place branch as two friends grow their business

Brand developed in Spain sells ice cream and frozen yoghurt with no added sugar as a healthier dessert

Image shows Milad Nawaz and Salman Qureshi of Yole - image by Matt Grayson
Milad Nawaz and Salman Qureshi of Yole – image by Matt Grayson

Milad Nawaz and Salman Qureshi have been friends for about 20 years. Friends at university, the pair sold sunglasses together at Harvey Nichols before both embarking on careers in banking.

“I was probably the better salesman,” said Milad, who subsequently became a consultant. “We used to try to take each other’s customers.”

“We’ve actually had arguments over this,” said Salman, who left banking after a couple of years to go into retail, partially at least because he didn’t like wearing a suit every day.

The warmth between the two men – born 20 days apart – is palpable. As we chat they earnestly praise each other’s skillsets, the foundation of a business partnership born in 2014 as they began to discuss working together.

The pair’s first experience of franchising came in 2016 when they opened a branch of Subway in Leyton. They grew that business to 11 outlets before selling two and maintaining a portfolio of nine.

In 2019 they became the master franchisors for Wok & Go – a food store where customers see their noodles cooked fresh in front of them – in a deal that gave them the rights to the whole of greater London.

It’s a business they’re keen to grow with an east London branch expected to open in Canning Town in the coming months.

But right now the focus is on something sweeter, albeit without the usual sugar rush – ice cream and frozen yoghurt brand Yole, which opened in Canary Wharf on August 14.

“We actually debated for a while because we were looking for another venture and it was Milad’s idea to get a dessert, but something healthy,” said Salman.

“We spent a lot of time doing research – about a year searching for a brand – and we found Yole and it ticked the boxes.”

A serving of ice cream from Yole - image by Matt Grayson
A serving of ice cream from Yole – image by Matt Grayson

Milad added: “We’d been looking at bubble tea, which is a big trend, but that’s full of sugar – for me, I want to enjoy dessert and not worry about the calories.

“A medium cup of Yole is equivalent to a mango, a small cup works out at about a banana.

“Our servings start at 55 calories and then you add the fruit so you have something that has protein and fibre in it and it’s gluten free.

“Every new product that the owners are developing is also sugar-free.

“For example we’ll have a bubble waffle coming out later this year and that’s the first sugar-free one in the world. Yole started off in Singapore – the founders began by franchising for another ice cream brand but they decided they wanted to change it up and spent two years making a sugar-free version. 

“The whole concept is healthy desserts – something you don’t have to feel guilty about. That’s how we fell in love with it”

Salman said: “The products are developed in Spain and the owners are Spanish. They have massive plans to open worldwide.

“We’re looking to expand in the UK and we have master franchisor rights for that.”

Canary Wharf is the pair’s second opening in the UK, having already launched an outlet at Lakeside shopping centre. Plans are in the pipeline for further branches at Canary Wharf, Covent Garden, Shaftesbury Avenue and Westfield White City, with further hope for one at Westfield Stratford City.

“Our plan is to open five stores initially – the first thing you want to do is to make sure the customers love it and that it works in this country,” said Milad. “Then we want to roll it out across the rest of the UK.”

Yole offers its core products in a variety of different ways – in small, medium and large cups with a selection of toppings including fresh fruit, sauces and – for those who need a bit of sugar, marshmallows and M&Ms.

“The customers who have tried it at Lakeside have loved the taste,” said Salman. “We also have something unique – the cone, which we make in front of them once they’ve ordered. I haven’t come across anyone making them fresh and warm and also, the size of it is a lot larger than you’ll find in many other places, making it really good value.”

The Canary Wharf branch of Yole - image by Matt Grayson
The Canary Wharf branch of Yole – image by Matt Grayson

Cones cost around £3.95 at Yole, while other options such as having bubble tea pearls included with your ice cream or a serving of pre-flavoured Twist cost £4.95 and £4.45 respectively.

“The Twist has been very well received – people sometimes think it’s like a McFlurry but it’s covered with fruit and it’s sugar-free,” said Salman.

Milad added: “The Boba is following the trend of bubble tea, so you’ll have the tapioca balls with mango or strawberry and you have it with the ice cream instead of with the tea. Our products are great for children because they don’t get that sugar rush and they’re also suitable for diabetics. There’s something for everyone.”

Salman said: “I have a four-year-old and this is the first time I’ve let him go crazy on ice cream.

“We really believe in the ethics of the brands we’re working with now. We’re very conscious about promoting things that are healthy. I want my son to be eating healthy food and I want to sell things I’d give to my kids.

“We’re also very conscious of being environmentally friendly – everything that can be is recyclable or breaks down.

“We’ve all seen the weather recently and we can all do our bit by educating the people around us and raising awareness about climate change. We all need to work together and brands need to get behind that. Yole is certainly doing its bit.”

Canary Wharf was selected as a place to open partly due to Milad’s knowledge of the area.

“Because Milad has worked in Canary Wharf for years he had a particular vision,” said Salman. “For example, he just knew this site would work for Yole.”

Milad said: “Everyone here works really hard and they are concerned about what they eat. 

“You can see Farmer J is doing really well because it’s all freshly made in the morning.

“People don’t mind paying a little bit more for something healthy. Investment bankers work 12 hours a day, the least they can do is eat healthily. For us, it’s about getting the message out there that Yole is healthy.”

While the pair are currently working hard on their various franchise options, they said they were very happy to talk with anyone else who was considering leaving the corporate world to start their own business.

Milad said: “If there’s anyone who wants to talk about doing it, we’re very open. We’ll always try and help because we had mentors when we were younger and they guided us. I would say for those considering starting their own thing that you should stay working in your job at the start.

“There is a lot of risk involved and you should work to get it to a point where the business is stable first.”

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Royal Docks: Cyrus Todiwala’s Cafe Spice Namaste set to open at Royal Albert Wharf

Relocation of Prescot Street restaurant after 25 years sees east London welcome chef to quayside

Cyrus and Pervin are set to open Cafe Spice Namaste in August
Cyrus and Pervin are set to open Cafe Spice Namaste in August – image James Perrin

Aldgate’s loss is the Royal Docks’ gain. After more than a quarter of a century operating in Prescot Street, Cafe Spice Namaste – the flagship restaurant in Pervin and Cyrus Todiwala’s family business – has been forced to relocate, after losing its lease to a new landlord with an eye on redeveloping the venerable red brick building it occupied, as offices.

With the pandemic biting and hospitality reeling, the couple initially looked at opening on Commercial Street in nearby Shoreditch before a former employee, living in east London, got in touch.

“She said: ‘Why don’t you come to Royal Albert Wharf? It would be nice for a little cafe’,” said chef patron Cyrus. “So we looked at it and decided in the end to establish a wider business.

“There are lots of plans in my brain, which gradually we will put into action and, fingers crossed, we will succeed.”

At the heart of everything will be a fresh incarnation of Cafe Spice Namaste, set to open in August and located on Lower Dock Walk, less than 10 minutes on foot from Gallions Reach DLR.  

While the setting – overlooking the waters of Royal Albert Dock towards the University Of East London, Excel and London City Airport – provides the backdrop, there’s little doubt that the food will be the most potent draw. 

It would be easy to fill the remaining space on this spread by simply listing Cyrus and Pervin’s many achievements – not least holding a Michelin Bib Gourmand for nearly two decades, which would make the new restaurant the farthest east in the capital (by some distance) to trouble the guide, should it be similarly recognised.

But rather than cover the same ground as a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme – which has already done a great job of distilling and presenting the background to the Todiwalas’ current situation (including their notice to quit their old premises, Cyrus’ successful battle with cancer and the story of Bombay Duck) – we’re going to focus on the future. 

Cyrus intends to start things off with a few informal evenings for those signed up online to his Greedy Pigs Club before opening the venue officially.

He said: “We always had a splash of colour and I think that will come here too. This space is a lot more modern, with big windows, so it will feel different, but we want to bring back as much of the feel of the original Cafe Spice Namaste as we can. The food is a variety of Indian cuisine, not stuck to any one region or area, though we do have an emphasis on my own style of cooking which is Parsee and we do a lot of Goan food because of my background working there for several years. We try to bring in as much of the sub-continent as possible. At the new restaurant, the classics that our regulars will be familiar with will remain – the rest will evolve.

“We will do specials around seasonal British produce and we’re also thinking that, in this area, it may be easier for people to have more shared plates, which will be small plates so we can present a bigger variety and bring more choice to the menu. We’ll also hold supper-club style events once a month that people can register for online.”

Cyrus has many ideas he hopes to develop in Royal Docks
Cyrus has many ideas he hopes to develop in Royal Docks – image James Perrin

Without the goodwill and support of its loyal group of regulars, it’s likely Cafe Spice Namaste wouldn’t be coming to the Royal Docks or anywhere else, for that matter. 

It was hit especially hard by the pandemic because of its location in the City – losing almost all passing trade – and never having focused much on takeaways, so a group of three customers led a funding drive, raising nearly £50,000 to help with the move.

Cyrus said: “That felt really amazing – where else would you have customers willing to put money in and help you relocate and re-establish yourselves? 

“That money gave us a big stepping stone. Hospitality has been decimated and we were certainly not alone in many of the difficulties we faced, but we had other problems and issues as well. We weren’t able to benefit from local sales as the City was deserted.”

His other restaurants, based in Hilton hotels, including Mr Todiwala’s on the Isle Of Dogs and one near Heathrow, remain closed too, victims of business models upset by Covid-19. In the short-term, then, it’s up to Cafe Spice Namaste to be the lead in the charge for recovery. 

During the photoshoot for this piece, a service boat was visiting Royal Docks, loading up on fresh water to supply a recently arrived superyacht in central London. Having not used the craft in a while, its crew were allowing the excess to gush through the system and down into the depths below to Cyrus’ visible discomfort. The spectacle of so much water apparently going to waste was a tough watch for a man from Bombay – a visible sign of one of the key ingredients in his makeup.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Todiwalas were able to find support in the community is that Cyrus has been persistently outward looking, keen to get deeply involved with the creation of the produce he uses and to ensure as light a touch as possible on the planet. 

“I grew up in an area with acute water shortages and no electricity for most of the day,” he said. “I wish I could get more people to see how the culture here is so wasteful – nobody considers what happens to things once they’ve been put in the bin.

“We started recycling bottles in 1992 – nobody had heard of it then and nobody wanted to do it, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of throwing them away.”

He’s also run farms producing pigs and poultry as well as agricultural plantations of pineapples, coconuts, cashews and mangos. More recently, he was the first chef ambassador for the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, presenting Mudchute Park And Farm on the Isle Of Dogs with its approved status in 2017 and in June took over from the late Albert Roux as group chef ambassador with The Clink Charity, which delivers training to inmates in British prisons. He’s also in talks with a farm project in Greenwich to supply Cafe Spice Namaste with seasonal vegetables to minimise food miles.

As part of his latest venture he is also hoping to establish an academy to train young people at Royal Albert Wharf.

“We will start with one-off classes for four hours and it will grow slowly,” said Cyrus. “But some people will want to do a week and, if there’s interest and demand then we’ll build that in.

“As the restaurant opens it will be a stressful time – it’s always difficult to find your feet, but we’ve been at this for many, many years and so we’re prepared, compared to the newer operators.

“I want this to be a place that the community accepts, that draws people to us, supplying their needs at different levels. 

“One gentleman living across the water has already asked us to supply a week’s menu to him every seven days, so we’re doing that, and other people may want the same. If people sign up to our newsletter then they’ll get all the information about what we’re doing, what we’re developing. There are loads of ideas that are brewing and, when we are established, we can start to implement them.

“I’ve had a great life and a good career so far. It’s been hard, but that’s because I take on extra things, thinking about how I can help the community and what I can do for young people. But if I’d done it differently I probably wouldn’t have learned as much as I have.”

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Canary Wharf: MMy Wood Wharf by Mercato Metropolitano set for the estate

Image of Mercato Metropolitano founder and CED Andrea Rasca

George Street facility will house traders selling pizza, gelato, beer and wine plus a jazz club

Mercato Metropolitano founder and CED Andrea Rasca – image James Perrin

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Andrea Rasca has two gifts. Spend even a little time with the founder and self-styled chief executive dreamer of Mercato Metropolitano and it’s not long before his talent for simplicity emerges. He can take a complex area like sustainability, for example, and cut through the crap, the greenwashing and the often tepid attempts by big corporations to polish their images.  

This feeds into his second gift – vision. Andrea can see potential, conceive of successful places that don’t yet exist. So it’s easy, sat in the sunshine on the meandering wooden benches stretching down to West India South Dock, for him to conjure a future where the waterside park becomes the most attractive destination for visitors to Canary Wharf.

The exquisitely finished boardwalk and the emerging residential community at the eastern end of the estate are two of the reasons his business has taken space in George Street to create MMy Wood Wharf, set to open later this summer.

To understand the potency of this opening, it’s important to look at where it’s coming from. In 2015, Andrea set up Mercato Metropolitano on the site of a former paper mill in Elephant And Castle. Today, the 45,000sq ft facility attracts millions of visitors every year and is host to more than 40 vendors, a micro brewery, a gin distillery, a jazz club and an extensive grocery. 

But it’s also an expression of Andrea’s goals and ideals. It’s a platform for small businesses to trade, but to do so they must fit in with MM’s sustainable economic model that strives to be socially responsible and an asset to the local community it operates in.

“I want to make food become the centre of our lives,” said Andrea. “We eat three times a day. It’s our first medicine. Food connects us to environmental issues, to farmers and to our health. There’s nothing more important. For the last 70 years, food has been treated like a normal commodity The big corporations have decided to sell us food regardless of the provenance or chemical content – they just want to make more money out of it.

“Five years ago I arrived at a point where I said: ‘I think I’ve got it, it’s enough for me. Why don’t we try to go back to how things were – this should be the normal state of things. There’s no genius here.

“With this model, we created a physical platform where we could allow small entrepreneurs and producers to operate without the hassle of rent, the business rates, things like that.

“We would give everything to them and help them grow their businesses so they could concentrate on the food. That meant they had to align with our vision, our manifesto for sustainability and food as a human right, which means adequate food  – accessible nutritious and compatible with the local culture.

“We vet every single one of each business’ suppliers and they have to change if they don’t conform to our model.”

Having created a successful pilot in Milan, Andrea turned his attention to London, a city he’d been visiting since the age of 15, having struck a deal with his father that the cost of his trips to stay with a cosmopolitan family in Harrow-On-The-Hill would be covered so long as he was learning English. 

It was an arrangement that allowed him not only to indulge his passion for opera, musicals and jazz, but also to uncover the good things in the capital’s food scene at the time.

“I have always been attracted to London for the kind of soft power or energy that it has,” said Andrea. “So I decided I wanted to test my idea in one of the best markets in the world – for me, that was Borough Market.

“But on a trip to look for locations there was some misunderstanding about what I was looking for. I was being shown places where there was footfall from a marketing perspective.

“So I said I couldn’t care less – I didn’t need historical data because what I see is what is not yet there. I wanted to feel the vibe of a location for people’s needs they didn’t yet know they had.

“So when they showed me the Elephant And Castle site – an abandoned printing factory full of drug addicts – it was beautiful. I fell in love. I had a feeling, crazy, but it was there. So I told my friends I was going to do it, against all of their advice.”

Having opened in 2016 on a shoestring with Andrea and his friends doing much of the conversion work themselves, the first year saw MM rack up £9million in sales, more than doubling that in its third year with more than 4million visitors coming through the doors.

“We call it a circus now – food is very important, but it’s 50% and the other half is the atmosphere of artists, community and accessibility,” said Andrea. “We realised that somewhere like this could reach more people in a city like London.” 

MMy Wood Wharf is set to open later this year – image James Perrin

Which brings us to MMy Wood Wharf – the latest project – as Andrea expands across the capital, having already launched at a second site near Elephant and in a converted church in Mayfair. November is expected to see a 30-vendor venue open on the Redbridge Town Hall car park site in Ilford with seating for 600 people. But before that, his Canary Wharf venture will open its doors.

“I had the idea in my head that whenever we open a big one, we need to have smaller ones too to provide a bit of an alternative to the delivery system for takeaway food, which is not a model with love,” said Andrea. 

“First they sell anything, like McDonalds, and I don’t want to be in that space, secondly, they have dark kitchens and you don’t know what they’re cooking in there and, thirdly, the delivery guys are underpaid.

“In the restaurant business we control everything – the safety regulations are amazing, so my idea was to combine a smaller version of our grocery, not a big variety but everything you need, with a smaller version of Mercato and deliver in a different way to the people who live a few hundred metres from the market.

“It’s called MMy, because it’s the customer’s space, their community. Every one will be different and I want people to tell me if they like it or they want to change it.” 

So what can Wharfers expect when MMy Wood Wharf opens its doors later this year?

“First of all, good food not compromised by conglomerates, or chemicals – everything will be healthy and natural,” said Andrea.

“We’re going to have 10 small corners inside, so you will have the chance to buy your own cheese and ham, freshly baked bread and olive oil.

“You will also have the chance to eat the most amazing gelato, freshly made every morning, great meat from our butchers, oysters, fresh fish, amazing craft beer and a wonderful corner of wines.

“We’re going to have amazing pizza, which is the same as we have in the other locations, with 48-hour raised dough, Neapolitan tomatoes and Mozzarella, which you need to have for a good pizza, and pasta made freshly in front of you – there will be such a big variety.

“On the lower ground floor we’ll have an amazing jazz club with music and food and drinks – wines from all around Europe and further afield.

“The most important thing, which I really want to stress, is that food, people and environment are at the centre of everything we do, not shareholders’ revenue.

“This is vital, because the only way forward is not when you talk about sustainability, but when your business is based on it.

“Sustainability is not just showing that 1% of your business is green, but when 100% of everything you do is – maybe not perfect yet – but aiming towards that. We are plastic-free and all our staff are paid the London living wage as a minimum. It’s easy to be green and then pay nothing to your employees.

“I believe – first of all – you have to create your own community. Then we need to talk to kids about it, that’s the future. 

“Everything we do is about creating the right balance for a better city.”

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Greenwich: Flow Farmers Market brings fresh sustainable product to the Peninsula

Developer Knight Dragon teams up with Bompas And Parr and Urban Food Fest for regular event

Sweet treats on offer from Oh My Sugar at the market – image Matt Grayson

A clutch of food traders are plying their wares on the banks of the Thames as Greenwich Peninsula hosts Flow Farmers Market every other Sunday. With the next one set to take place on June 13 – and with dates running throughout the summer until September 19 – we caught up with the organiser and stallholders to discover what residents and visitors can find on the strip of land between the end of The Tide and the river.

“We really wanted to expand the artisan food element that is part of our urban design market Sample to create a regular farmers’ market,”  said Kaia Charles, cultural projects manager for Greenwich Peninsula at property developer Knight Dragon.

“So we worked with creative food firm Bompass And Parr to develop an idea about what that could be for the Peninsula – to bring a range of fresh produce, organic meats and cheeses here. Flow is inspired by the river itself, its location and, as it grows we really want to feature local producers.

“We want it very much to be for the residents here so it’s about what they want and need – that’s what will drive what we have here.

The idea is the selection of traders we have at the moment goes really well together with organic bread, cheeses, olives and meats.

“It’s gone down really well with residents so far and the stalls are also near two of our retail tenants – Choy House and Ardoa – so people can visit them too. We want to enliven the river and celebrate the resilience of our community after the pandemic.”

Flow Farmers Market, programmed by Urban Food Fest, takes place every other Sunday from 10am-3pm. Here we talk to some of the traders taking part:

Oh My Sugar owner Aysar Kalkanel at the market – image Matt Grayson

OH MY SUGAR

cookies – brownies – sweets

Oh My Sugar owner Aysar Kalkanel said: “I started the business in 2020. I’d been travelling and I wanted to come home and open a brunch bar, but I arrived back just as we went into the first lockdown, so I had to think of an alternative. 

“I’d never baked before, but it blew up completely. Originally it was going to be more about sweets, but everyone kept ordering the brownies and cookies.  We started doing just online and then a couple of people suggested markets and it’s been the best thing I’ve done. 

“We mainly sell cookies, brownies and blondies which is a version of a brownie made with white chocolate – they’re very sweet, but people love them. We basically offer a variety of chocolate-smothered goodness.”

Samaneh serves customers at Flow Farmers Market – image Matt Grayson

OLIVETO BAR

olives – garlic – sundried tomatoes

Oliveto’s Samaneh Khazaei said: “The business has been established for almost 12 years now. We marinade everything ourselves and source our olives from Italy, Greece and Spain.

“All of our products are homemade and sold freshly at markets, whether it’s the olives or the hummus. 

“Our flavours include olives flavoured with mixed fresh herbs and chilli. We are also selling Persian garlic and artichokes. We don’t use vinegar or salt in our marinades, just extra virgin olive oil. We also do vegetarian stuffed vine leaves. 

“Personally I love our olives stuffed with almonds and anchovies – they’re really tasty. I also have to mention our hummus, which is delicious.”

Produce from Pick’s Organic Farm on sale – image Matt Grayson

PICK’S ORGANIC FARM

vegetables – meat – bacon rolls

Pick’s Organic Farm’s Hannah Patterson said: “The farm is based near Leicester in Barkby Thorpe and we come down every Saturday and Sunday to trade at farmers’ markets in London.

“We do a range of hot food – cooking sausages and bacon at our stall – as well as selling meat, fresh eggs from our chickens and fruit and vegetables too, although not at every market.

“All the meat we sell is produced from our own animals. We have a variety of sausages including Welsh Dragon, flavoured with chilli, a good selection of beef, lamb and chicken as well as burgers – a bit of everything you could want, really. We sell burgers, hot dogs, bacon rolls and egg rolls or any combination customers want.” 

Cheeses from The Big Wheel at the market – image Matt Grayson

THE BIG WHEEL

cheese – crackers – condiments

The Big Wheel’s Hazel Cross said: “We specialise in artisan British cheeses, which come from up and down the UK. For example we stock Lancashire Bomber, Colston Basset Stilton and Keens and Montgomery’s cheddars plus Lincolnshire Poachers and Cornish Yarg.

“We also have an international classics section because there are certain things that no cheese board should be without. Our customers come and they want a Parmesan or a Langres, which comes from the Champagne region of France and has a lovely orange colour. My personal favourite is the Ribblesdale Goatesan, a hard cheese from Yorkshire.

“The Big Wheel exists only at markets in London and that allows us to keep our prices competitive.”

Kudciea Khan selling Rodgis’ bread at the market – image Matt Grayson

RODGIS

sourdough – sausage rolls – pastries

Rodgis’ Kudciea Khan said: “We offer a range of sourdough bread with loaves for £4 or, if someone wants two, it’s £6.

“There’s rosemary, olive bread, rye and multiseed on offer. The products are all freshly made at a central kitchen and  and we have savoury food and pastries as well, including chocolate cheesecake and pasteis de nata.

“We’ve been really busy at Flow, with people queuing despite the rain and we hope to add even more products to our stall here. 

“Rodgis is a family business which operates at various farmers’ markets around London and via its website.”

The business also produces a range of charcuterie, pastas and olives available to purchase online, shipped from its base near Peckham

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Isle Of Dogs: La Nina Caffe And Mercato brings Italian flavours to Pepper Street

Monica Olivieri has opened a coffee shop and grocery store complete with tastings and live music

Monica Olivieri has opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato – image Matt Grayson

“It would be amazing – if we could have the right support from Tower Hamlets Council, we could make the Isle Of Dogs a real food district,” said Monica Olivieri. The exuberant owner and creator of La Nina Caffe & Mercato is abuzz with ideas, when we meet to talk about its recent opening.

Located in Pepper Street on the western side of Glengall Bridge, Monica’s shop and cafe is decked out in white furniture and natural wood, completely packed with Italian produce, ready-to-cook meals and savoury and sweet treats to consume on the premises or take elsewhere.

Like the cheery looking sausage dog-shaped draft excluder that holds open La Nina’s door, it’s playful – with art on the walls and an ebullience that matches its owner.

“It was born during the first lockdown,” said Monica. “I’m a marketing and events expert, mainly working in food but with the pandemic I was completely closed. I couldn’t do anything, because I usually work with chefs and restaurants, and they were shut and events were banned.

“So I said: ‘Let’s do something’. I moved to the Isle Of Dogs four years ago and, at home, I have art, good food and good music and I just wanted to take it out and put it along the street for the community.

“I grew up in my grandmother’s shop in the province of Lecce in Italy and I’d always had these feelings to create something similar here on the Island – something authentic, familiar but with my spirit in it.”

UPCOMING GIGS AT LA NINA CAFFE AND MERCATO in 2021

June 4
E&E Acoustic Duo, Guitar and piano

June 11
Mackerel Skies, Guitar and percussion

June 18
Mariska Martina, Guitar and piano

June 25
Cinelli Brothers, Guitar and percussion

With branding drawn from an old family photo of Monica on her grandmother’s hip, the celebration of family is clear, but the logo is also an expression of deeper roots.

“My grandmother Joanna opened her first shop in my home town – a very tiny village in Lecce – just after the Second World War, so I consider her an entrepreneur,” said Monica.

“In Italy you have Joanna, then Joannina and the nickname is Nina, so that’s where the name of my shop comes from.

“My grandmother was a businesswoman. She started selling paper and pencils, because she was living in front of a school and understood the demand.

“Then, after that, she started to sell pasta, vegetables, clothes, everything. I grew up inside that shop and for me it was like a funfair because I could eat everything.

“My grandma was probably the first to have a TV in the village and, every time we were watching, there was advertising going on often for biscuits or chocolate or whatever.

“She’d ask me and my sisters which we wanted to eat and then she’d buy them so we could try and decide whether to stock them. I think that’s where my interest in marketing came from.”

La Nina offers a wide range of produce from across Italy – image by Matt Grayson

Monica’s career has seen her working with numerous chefs and restaurants as well as for big brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks and Ducati. Islanders may also be familiar with Carbonara Day In London, which saw more than 3,000 people come to Mudchute Park And Farm to enjoy the classic Italian dish in 2019 and is set for a second physical edition this year. 

For now, however, her focus is on establishing La Nina with an energetic   programme of events and a monthly roving spotlight on different Italian regions. 

“In the shop, customers will find cheese, salami, pasta, tomatoes and olive oil,” said Monica. “We pick some products where we know the producers, have visited them, and stock others recommended by friends of friends.

“We want people to try gourmet food and to understand that it is not always expensive – for customers to take advice from us because, for example, you can buy good quality olive oil without spending a fortune.

“Eventually we want people to visit the farms and companies that produce these products so we can say to people: ‘If you like this, here’s a business card, go and stay there and eat there. This is how people gain a proper knowledge of food.

“Italian food is, of course, some thing that comes naturally to me because I eat it every day. When I speak with English people they often say they love Italian cuisine, but this doesn’t mean anything because our food is so varied. 

“Italy has 20 regions, so it’s wrong to say the food is just pasta and pizza. We are rich in vegetables and there are so many varieties of fish and different ways of eating meat.

“As a cuisine, it’s very diverse and very different, so my goal is to tell our customers about food from different parts of Italy, changing the focus each month.

“We’ve already looked at Puglia, Sardinia and Campana and in June we‘ll have Tuscany, with olive oil, wines and some special dishes available at the shop and online.

“We’ll also be launching our Pranzo Con Opera – a set lunch menu available to pre-book on Saturdays and Sundays with a performer from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire  Of Music And Dance. 

“In July we’ll move on to Veneto with a selection of products as well as launching Aperitivo Veneziano, serving spritz cocktails.”

Furnished in part with unwanted chairs and tables found on London’s streets by Monica, the space’s other key function is as a cafe, having opened for outdoor guests in April as lockdown restrictions eased. 

“Mercato, of course means market and caffe, because La Nina is a coffee shop,” said Monica. “We serve Italian coffee and only one size with no syrups or anything like that. 

“If people want to make their coffee sweeter, they can use sugar. It’s been going fantastically – we’ve had queues outside and we really love to invite people in.”

Each month there’s a special focus on a different region of Italy – image Matt Grayson

La Nina has also become a venue for live music, as Monica works to attract more people to a part of Pepper Street that has suffered mixed fortunes in recent years, with a busy programme of events.

“It should be more active,” she said. “I want it to be vivid – an honest food district like Brick Lane or Borough. I want it to come alive.

“In England attention has completely shifted onto food. People really know about the quality and authenticity of Italian food and I’m very happy about that.

“To complement that we have a very rich calendar in June including wine tastings on 10 and 17 and olive oil tastings on 18 and 25. 

“The space also acts as an art gallery and we have artist Stefano Pallara Vernissage introducing his exhibition on June 19. We’re also set to have a jewellery making workshop with glasses of wine for participants, hosted by Isle Of Dogs-based designer Yago on June 12.”

As well as working on the second edition of Carbonara Day In London, Monica’s ambition is to open a second venue – Tavola (table in English), which will have a kitchen to serve Italian food. Until then, watch this space, there’s bound to be something going on. 

La Nina also operates as an online shop with free delivery on the Isle Of Dogs for orders over £35. Ticket inquiries should be made in person at the shop or via its website. 

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