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Royal Docks: How Little Hudson cafe at Royal Wharf was inspired by New York

Owner Nicola Micah talks banking, motherhood and serving up all sorts of dishes to east Londoners

Nicola Micah outside her cafe - Little Hudson
Nicola Micah outside her cafe – Little Hudson – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

The concrete jungle is “where dreams are made of” according to Alicia Keys’ song New York.

But for Nicola Micah the Big Apple simply provided the inspiration for her Royal Docks reality.

The Londoner was living it up in Manhattan with her husband – banking by day and soaking up all the city had to offer by night

“We moved to New York in our late 20s and loved it,” she said.

“For me, the whole point of being there was to be in the centre of everything. 

“But we knew we wanted to start a family and I didn’t want to do it there. We knew we wanted to move back home.”

By 2019 she was back – running fledgling café Little Hudson around the corner from Thames Barrier Park and raising her newborn son.

It was a huge transition, but one Nicola makes seem as natural as breathing.

“In New York, brunch is such a big part of the lifestyle and I’ve always loved food – working in a bank wasn’t really me,” she said. 

“So I decided I was going to have a look into it and see if there were any units around.

“When I did, I quickly realised we needed to go for it because there were some available. 

“I knew if we waited we might miss out or other places might move in and then there would already be competition.

“Then I got pregnant, unexpectedly, and that really pushed us to do it. I could have moved back to the UK and got a job in banking, but I wanted to do something I really loved.”

Little Hudson is located in Starboard Way, Royal Wharf
Little Hudson is located in Starboard Way, Royal Wharf – image Matt Grayson

Nicola named Little Hudson to “bring a little slice of New York to Royal Docks” and juggles running it with raising her three-year-old son Rafi.

The café, in Starboard Way, is open seven days a week until 4pm with a staff of 10 and the menu is very much inspired by the brunch scene in Manhattan while also including some English classics.

Dishes include banana and caramel pancakes (£11), a brekkie bagel (£8) with scrambled egg, cheese, chives, turkey bacon or smoked salmon, and the popular ​​Hudson brekky plate (£12) with turkey bacon, two eggs, hash brown, Hudson beans, sautéed mushrooms and sourdough toast. 

Nicola said: “When we were planning I was thinking about what kind of place people would go to regularly, not just once every two weeks.

“I wanted to choose the best thing to do in terms of being able to survive.

“Our food is the kind people want to eat every day, because it’s not really greasy. I like to keep the menu fresh and change it every few months for people who come quite regularly.”

Royal Docks is no Manhattan – the population is still small – but Nicola said that was the draw for her.

“Before we went to New York we were living in the area, so we knew it really well but there was literally nothing there,” said the 32-year-old.

“Then they started developing it and all the flats were put up and I thought it was a great opportunity to open something related to food, because there’s nothing else around there.”

Nicola's food is inspired by her life in New York
Nicola’s food is inspired by her life in New York – image Matt Grayson

She and her husband left the area to move Stateside after he landed a role with financial services company Moody’s.

Data analyst Nicola had previously worked for Santander and HSBC and then found work with Citibank.

When they decided to return, Nicola used her financial skills to create a business plan, carried out market research to build her brand and organised the lease, all from across the pond.

She said of husband Salem: “I’m pretty sure he was freaking out inside, but he was really supportive of it and he always has been.

“When we opened, he was in between two jobs, so was able to help out a bit, which was great because our son had just been born.”

Nicola launched the café in September 2019 with her six-month-old strapped to her chest.

“My son has grown up in the café,” said the Beckton resident. “When everything was being put together, we set up a play area for him in the back and, when we first opened, I had just started weaning him, so he had avocado and bits from the menu, which was fun.”

Nicola is now pregnant again but setting up the business is not an experience she is keen to repeat.

“It was probably good that I was quite naive about the café beforehand,” she said. “I can’t even imagine being able to do it now while raising two children. 

“The beginning was so intense, getting everything right, getting the processes right.

“When you’re new, you really want to make sure that every customer is happy so that they come back.

“I didn’t realise how intensive it would be, but in hospitality if your main driver is to make lots of lots of money, then it’s not the best sort of industry for you.

Little Hudson serves up a range of dishes at Royal Wharf
Little Hudson serves up a range of dishes at Royal Wharf – image Matt Grayson

“Even though it’s stressful with ups and downs and a pandemic and everything, I actually genuinely do love it, especially now we’ve got a really supportive team and people who actually care about the business.

“That makes such a difference and we have a lot less stress now.”

Six months after opening, the UK went into lockdown and the café was forced to shut. It was a strange time for Nicola.

“Looking back it was actually quite nice, because I had my son so we were able to kind of spend that quality time together,” she said.

“But it was really upsetting shutting the café. 

“We kept the community involved by doing supply boxes with fruit and veg, milk, eggs, flour, yeast, bread and coffee.

“We delivered them to people’s doors using a little trolley.

“No-one in our area could get anything because we only have a small Sainsbury’s, so the queue would literally wrap around the whole development. 

“When we reopened, we actually had a lot of support then from people who bought from us. All those same customers came in, which was really nice.”

Nicola said lockdown also forced Little Hudson to launch on Deliveroo, which has prompted her to consider opening a dark kitchen.

“Delivery has just blown up since the pandemic, it is about 15% of the business.

“Sometimes, on weekends, we have to switch it off because it’s so busy already in the café.

“I didn’t think people would order brunch for delivery, but they do, especially at weekends.

“I’ve been thinking about doing some sort of delivery kitchen and maybe expanding other parts of the business as well to do more cakes for events and celebrations and expand the catering side.”

The café is open seven days a week until 4pm and has just launched a burger night on Fridays from 6pm-9pm. Nicola is also looking into holding live music events in the future.

So does she want to expand to another location now she is expanding her family?

“Maybe,” she said. “But I’ll wait a little bit until my next child is a bit older.”

Little Hudson’s interior – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How chefs created From The Ashes BBQ in Fish Island

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Fish Island: How From The Ashes BBQ rose to success from the desolation of lockdown

Co-founder Curtis Bell talks inspiration, meat and serving up pulled pork in a doughnut from his hatch

Curtis Bell, co-founder of From The Ashes BBQ in Fish Island
Curtis Bell, co-founder of From The Ashes BBQ in Fish Island – image James Perrin

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Fire can be a sudden spark that ignites with a burst or a softly glowing flame that slowly smoulders.

Curtis Bell has experienced both since founding barbecue business From The Ashes BBQ in June 2020 after just a few weeks of planning.

“It was just a burning desire,” said the Swansea-born chef, with no hint of a pun intended.

“My favourite thing was always to cook on the beach. Maybe it’s a primitive thing, but I have always just been drawn to the flame. I tried doing the posh stuff – fine dining – and it just isn’t me. 

“I just like the rawness of cooking in a very direct and simple way over the flames.”

Tucked behind a hatch on Fish Island, the takeaway experienced a rush of fame in lockdown, with its salty smoked pork served in sugary handmade doughnuts.

Customers were walking from as far as London Fields to queue for up to an hour. It was a success that took Curtis and his co-founders by surprise.

“It just exploded overnight and we were getting reviews and write-ups in the papers – we had to hire staff,” said Curtis.

“It was daunting, unexpected and an amazing thing to happen out of lockdown.”

The “we” is Frank Fellows and Martin Anderson, who Curtis met when he moved to the big smoke (pun very much intended), having landed a job at barbecue joint Temper in Soho.

Until then he had followed the recipes of another renowned restaurant, Pitt Cue, “like the bible” – bosses had even offered him a job, which he wound up turning down.

“I felt like it was ‘don’t meet your heroes’ and I wanted to keep it almost as a fantasy,” said the 29-year-old.

“By then they had gone from this really gritty, basement barbecue to this corporate steakhouse for City workers and it had kind of lost its magic.”

It is that hands-on flavour that Curtis loved and wanted to capture with From The Ashes.

That, he feels, is achieved by working directly with farmers such as Farmer Tom in Herefordshire and McDuff in Scotland to source meat.

Curtis at wok in the kitchen
Curtis at wok in the kitchen – image James Perrin

The team also does most of the butchery themselves in a tiny eight foot by six-foot kitchen, so they can stick to their whole animal approach.

“We make sausages from the legs and smoke down the necks and shoulders and bellies and then smoke the loin like a rib roast,” said Curtis.

“We get half cows and use the bones for stock and the fat for potatoes and trimmings for mince for a special. 

“It’s not only more cost effective, it’s also a much more efficient way to cook. I think everyone needs to be cooking like this.”

They launched the business thanks to a loan from his dad and a pig from Farmer Tom who said: “Pay me when you can”.

A friend made them a smoker from recycled parts, which they dubbed “The Piggy” and they began experimenting.

“The hardest thing is patience,” said Curtis. “From seasoning it right the way through, to resting it can be 12 hours and the temptation to get into it earlier is huge. 

“It does take its toll when you’re doing big events and have to start at 6am and go through until midnight. It’s endurance, stamina and hard work.

“Sometimes you cut into it and it’s overcooked. That’s disappointing, but I will braise it down and make a brisket ragu and try and make the best of a bad situation.

“We try to avoid as much wastage as possible.”

From The Ashes serves up its food from a hole in the wall
From The Ashes serves up its food from a hole in the wall – image James Perrin

So is it worth all the effort?

“Yes, I love it – all good things come to those who wait,” said Curtis.

“You can have a steak, which takes 15 minutes to cook, or a piece of rib, which has taken seven hours. I guarantee you will be way more satisfied with the latter.

“As much as my back hurts and my legs hurt, there is so much satisfaction in the joy it brings people.

“When you put all those hours in and it pays off watching those people bite into it – it’s just amazing.”

The chance to birth his own business came when he, Martin and Frank were made redundant during the pandemic.

Curtis and Frank opened a dark kitchen for fried chicken restaurant Coqfighter and decided they should “copy the formula” with barbecue.

“The person who was renting out the Coqfighter kitchen had one on Fish Island too and we went over and had a look at it and scrambled some money for the deposit and the first month’s rent, and in we went,” said Curtis.

Martin came on board and they spent four weeks testing out recipes, eventually landing on a doughnut filled with pulled pork as their signature dish, inspired by Black Axe Mangal restaurant in Islington.

“Lee Tiernan up there is a genius and did a duck liver parfait and prune doughnut which probably changed my whole life, it was that good,” said Curtis.

“We were just toying with ideas and one day ordered some really shit Tesco doughnuts and tried putting some pulled pork in the centre of it – it just worked with the sweet, savoury, salt, smoked fat.

“A lot of people are still very cautious but, because you have every sense in your mouth, it’s perfect.

“We put it on Instagram as a draw and it worked. It was a magnet and there was a time I couldn’t open Instagram without seeing my doughnut. 

“Some people may think of it as a gimmick and are not impressed, but I find that hilarious.”

A party in June 2020 with all their hospitality mates, kicked things off for the trio and they just began opening the hatch every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Del Piero doughnuts ready to go
Del Piero doughnuts ready to go – image James Perrin

“People started walking up  – it built momentum and, the next thing we knew, we had queues round the block,” said Curtis.

At the peak, he was waking at 6am on Saturdays to tend to the smoker and meats and start rolling and proving the 120 doughnuts they were selling a day.

Made over two days from a laminated enriched dough, they included sweet options such as custard in different flavours and dark chocolate Hennessy and hazelnut praline.

Other creations included a smoked pork bun with pickles, sriracha Marmite mayo, smoked garlic mayo and a slaw made with hispi cabbage, fennel, apple, lime juice, walnut, jalapeño dressing and gorgonzola sauce.

They quickly attracted queues, which stretched as far as the Premier shop on Roach Road with punters soaking up the sun and free shots handed out by Curtis.

“It was just a really special time and something I would love to relive again,” he said. “But we’re back in the real world now, sadly.”

Since London went back to business, Curtis has found himself having to stoke the flames of success in new directions.

Following their early success, From The Ashes landed spots at food venues Two Tribes Campfire in Kings Cross and Kerb Seven Dials.

And their summer has a full roster of festivals, events and private parties, including Bigfoot Festival, British Summertime, Bike Shed in Tobacco Dock, Big Grill Festival in Ireland, London Craft Beer Festival and Manchester Craft Beer Festival.

Frank left in October last year to work with his girlfriend at the cafe of local company Barkney Wick, but Curtis now has a team of seven chefs and said there is no such thing as a day off for him.

“The hatch will remain open and we want it to go from strength to strength,” he said.

“We’re looking to get an outside licence so we can have benches and seats.

From The Ashes cooks up a range of meats – image James Perrin

“We now sell some craft beers and park wines, perfect for a summer day when you’re sitting on the kerb eating barbecue.”

He’s also been implementing a huge shake-up of the menu to help with the business’ longevity.

“Now summer is coming, I’m changing the menu on a weekly basis,” he said. “I ring my farmers and see what’s available and create the menu around that.

“This weekend we have got some whole smoked chicken with some wild garlic pesto, an aged sirloin with horseradish cream and roasted beef fat.

“Last week I had an aged beef meatball sub with mozzarella, parmesan and wild garlic again. We’re going to become seasonal.”

Curtis said the founders had been a bit unsure of themselves as they tried to transition from their blaze of glory in lockdown to the more even tempered real world.

“It’s been daunting,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what our dream is but I think it is to be a bit of a household name in London and keep on enjoying what we are doing.

“I just want to keep cooking outside and doing amazing pop-ups – happy and free. I don’t want to do anything too serious. I’ll never be the person who wants a big huge chain.”

Curtis said the pressure of running a small business was enough. They’ve never had any investors and are just about breaking even.

But with prices skyrocketing across the board, the profit margin is getting smaller.

“We are increasing our prices and I hope customers understand why we need to do that,” he said. 

“I think the next year will be incredibly tough on hospitality with everyone trying to save pennies.

“I can already feel the pressure, but hopefully, we can keep our heads above water and keep going and growing.”

Read more: How Squid Markets is bringing street food and fresh produce to Canada Water Market

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Wapping: How Pop Skewer is serving up a taste of Brazil underneath the railway

Marina Simoes and Marcio Yokota opened their kiosk after both losing their jobs during lockdown

Marcio Yokota and Marina Simoes of Pop Skewer
Marcio Yokota and Marina Simoes of Pop Skewer – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Underneath the grey stretch of railway tracks in Wapping lies a surprise. Well, more than one, actually.

Venture off the beaten path of Cable Street and you will find Brazil’s most popular street food on offer at Pop Skewer

Succulent beef on sticks, halal chicken and sausage are freshly barbecued and served up on the side of the road, just like in South America.

The compact kiosk was opened by Brazilian couple Marina Simoes, 46, and Marcio Yokota, 53, after they both lost their jobs during the first lockdown.

They had never worked together, but decided to use their skills and take a chance on their new venture.

Marina said: “We were both doing something completely different before.

“I was working in property sales and then started temping because I knew I wanted to do something else but never thought of opening my own business.

“My husband was working in a coffee shop as manager but because of lockdown we were both at home unemployed, so we said: ‘Why not work together?’.

“He’s a very good cook, so we thought we’d do something that uses his skills and gives people a taste of Brazil.”

They decided to serve the skewers with another popular dish from their home country – rice and beans.

“In Brazil, they wouldn’t normally be served together,” said Marina. “But we decided to combine them. 

“The skewers are everywhere in Brazil. You grab them and eat them on the street really informally on the stick.

“They’re a really profitable business there and, hopefully, we will get the same success here.”

Pop Burger and Pop Sandwich from the kiosk
Pop Burger and Pop Sandwich from the kiosk – image Matt Grayson

They also serve up a Pop Sandwich and Pop Burger and daily specials like beef stew with cassava, beef stroganoff, beef parmigiana and, once a month, slow-cooked beef ribs.

“Every Saturday we serve the feijoada, which is black bean and pork stew,” said Marina.

“It’s made with different types of pork meat served with rice, tomato salad, spring greens and the farofa, toasted cassava flour with bacon and something else.

“Forgive me, I forget as I’ve been a vegetarian for  20 years.”

A vegetarian running a meat-based business? How does that work? 

“To be honest, I don’t like the smell of the BBQ, but I respect everyone whether they are vegetarian or not,” she said.

Marina admits she mostly stays away from the kitchen and sticks to handling other parts of the business.

The couple buy all their food fresh every few days and have items like the black beans delivered from a Brazilian supplier.

“I don’t cook anything, I’m terrible with that,” she said. “Of course, I help put the meals together. But cooking? No.”

Thanks to her, Pop Skewer also serves up plenty of vegetarian options, including a halloumi, onion and courgette skewer, a halloumi burger with courgette and lettuce, tomato and homemade sauce and a vegetarian sandwich in ciabatta bread.

Marina said: “Cooking with a charcoal grill makes such a difference to the taste. 

“We have never just aimed to target Brazilians and, so far, everyone is enjoying eating it, which we find amazing.”

A range of dishes are available from the kiosk
A range of dishes are available from the kiosk – image Matt Grayson

It’s not the first time the Bromley residents have taken a leap into the unknown.

Marina, who is of Italian heritage and grew up in Minas Gerais, left Brazil in her 20s on a one-way ticket to London.

She said: “My first job was working in silver service in hotels. I was terrible. Then I started in retail sales and then management and then property sales.”

Marcio, who is of Japanese heritage and grew up in Sao Paulo, arrived in England 15 years ago. He left behind a clothes business and found work in restaurants and coffee shops.

 Having grown up 370 miles apart, it took them both travelling 5,900 miles across the Atlantic for their love story to begin on the streets of London.

“We met through a mutual friend and have been together ever since,” said Marina.

Their relationship is being put to the test with the challenges presented by their joint venture.

They built the business in just eight weeks, launching just after the first lockdown, and have faced struggles with supplies during the pandemic, getting word out to customers on a shoestring, and working together in very close quarters.

“Sometimes I want to strangle my husband,” said Marina

“But we have separate areas with me in the front taking orders and the other two guys in the cooking area. Sometimes we do bump into each other and bicker.

“It’s been very challenging having our own business under these conditions for the past year, but I’m really enjoying it.”

Pop skewers are very popular in Brazil
Pop skewers are very popular in Brazil – image Matt Grayson

They have also taken on fellow Brazilian Lucas Montagnini and trained him up to work on the grill.

“It was very hard to find someone because of the pandemic,” said Marina.

“He was a friend of a friend who was an engineer in Brazil, but he’d had enough and decided to leave and do something else.

“That’s what we all do when we come to England – something completely different. It’s great and challenging, leaving our comfort zone.”

The Pop Skewer site was empty before they took it over and they rely on Instagram, Google and word of mouth to gain customers. 

But business can be unpredictable, with the lunch crowd sometimes arriving at 11am and sometimes not until 1.30pm, which makes it hard to plan.

“It can be really unpredictable,” said Marina.“We are not just building up Pop Skewer but also the location.

“The residents kept us going during the pandemic, but now the office workers are coming back. Hopefully, when the weather gets warmer, there will be lots of BBQ for everyone.

“We really want Pop Skewer to grow and get more customers.

“The past year has been about working hard and not getting much money, so we really want to move to the next level now and become known by everyone for Brazilian food.”

Pop Skewer is located by the side of Cable Street
Pop Skewer is located by the side of Cable Street – image Matt Grayson

Read more: BabaBoom set to launch kebab restaurant in Stratford

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Stratford: How BabaBoom combines its founder’s love of travel, running and kebabs

Latest branch of London business at Westfield Stratford City will offer £1 meals on its launch day

BabaBoom founder Eve Bugler
BabaBoom founder Eve Bugler

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A little like the kebabs her company serves, there are lots of ingredients to Eve Bugler.

There’s the degree in PPE from Oxford, time spent working for a Democrat in the States, a stint at McKinsey and a spell at a development bank in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island.

Then there’s the lifelong passion for distance running culminating in selection to compete for England at ultramarathon distances, a prospect stymied by Covid cancellations and now on hold due to the fact that she’s currently pregnant.

We’re here to talk about all of that, because it’s all relevant to her move into the hospitality industry and the decision to start her own business – BabaBoom – which is set to open what will technically be its third location at Westfield Stratford City in April.

- In celebration of its opening on Thursday, April 21, 2022, Bababoom will be offering kebabs for £1 between noon and 2pm with all proceeds going to Greenhouse Sports, a charity that supports and mentors children.



- There’s more: Starting May 1, BabaBoom will be sending its Kebab Chase from its Battersea branch to its new Stratford location and back. Participants should turn up at Battersea from 11am, do the run by 4pm (proof via selfie), and get a FREE kebab for their trouble. Usually chases take place on the first Sunday of the month. Find out more about the Kebab Chase here

“When I was in Haiti working on an infrastructure project, I realised that the people having the greatest impact were the entrepreneurs,” said Eve.

“I came back with the idea that I really wanted to start my own business, and I wanted to do hospitality – it’s great for social mobility.

“It’s the only industry where you can come in completely unskilled, and you can move up really quickly.

“Because I’d worked behind a bar in Greece and in a ski chalet in France, I knew it was a really positive industry to be part of – when you’re working in hospitality it’s easy to make someone’s day.” 

A selection of the dishes available at BabaBoom
A selection of the dishes available at BabaBoom

Having returned to the UK, Eve first landed a role at Nando’s, working for the company for four years, first in London and then Johannesburg and Delhi.

She then secured investment from the hospitality giant’s then CEO, among others, to develop her own business, launching BabaBoom in Battersea in 2015.

“Boom is my favourite word – it’s filled with positivity,” said Eve.

“My dad has been a massive influence on me – an Irishman who came to London and someone who’s always interested in the next opportunity.

“Baba is the Turkish and Arabic word for father and the two together just means we’re doing things with energy.

“BabaBoom is a passion project. As an elite runner and someone who’s lived around the world, I always found myself gravitating towards kebabs as the best sort of fast food.

Eve says kebabs are a comparatively healthy fast food
Eve says kebabs are a comparatively healthy fast food

“I can’t really eat pizzas and burgers when I’m training properly, whereas kebabs are generous, protein-filled with salad, fresh bread and good Middle Eastern flavours.

“I thought that somebody needed to do that in the UK and make it a fast food accessible and welcoming to everybody.

“Kebabs have often been marginalised as a late night snack but they’re good all day.

“We’re all about making really fresh kebabs with good quality ingredients and cooking over charcoal, which helps the flavour.

“We import a lot of our spices and flavours from the Middle East and that gives our products a fresh taste. 

“It’s bringing the fire to the table and I think that’s why we’ll stand out at Westfield – customers want that immediacy but also that theatre of cooking.”

Eve after completing the Paris Half Marathon while pregnant

Having launched in Battersea, BabaBoom’s second location in Islington fell victim to the pressures of the pandemic but with restrictions receding, a fresh opening beckoned.

“Westfield came along as an opportunity, and it’s great for us,” said Eve.

“To have a site which is a stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is incredibly exciting, because it fits the upbeat, energetic nature of our brand.

“It’s really easy to slag off kebabs, but small businesses largely run by immigrants are really successful, and I think there’s a real vibe in kebab shops – they’re a refuge, there’s a sense of fun, you chat to the people next to you.

“When people come down to us they will be struck by our friendliness – we say we’re gluten-friendly, vegan-friendly, but overall we’re just friendly.

“Then it’s about freshness and the generosity of our portions.

“Time Out said our food was as healthy as people want it to be and that’s hitting it on the nose.

“We’re not here to preach or to make you eat low-calorie food. We’re here to provide really generous plates that can be really good for you.

“Then, if you want some curly fries, you deserve them too. We’re here to be accessible to everyone.”

That extends to kebabs made with beef (a cheaper option than lamb), chicken and plenty of options for veggies and vegans.

“In Middle Eastern food, the vegan thing isn’t a cop out, it’s accidental,” said Eve.

“For example, our super green falafel and sweet potato hummus are entirely vegan, as is our Triple-B sauce – a fiery condiment made with Aleppo chilli.

“Our bread is baked fresh and all our kebabs come with slaw with apple in it, which gives it a sweet crunchiness. We’ve thought about  the detail to make everything delicious.”

Super green falafel at BabaBoom

Read more: How Humble Grape in Canary Wharf is raising its food game

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Canary Wharf: How Humble Grape is raising its food to the level of its wine offering

The Canary Wharf wine bar and bottle shop in Mackenzie Walk has a fresh focus on its dishes

Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard
Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard

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There’s a subtle shift taking place at Humble Grape.

The bottle shop and wine bar, which has its Canary Wharf branch at Mackenzie Walk overlooking Newfoundland and Middle Dock, will always be focused on supplying bottles and glasses you just can’t get anywhere else.

But the venue is also increasingly focused on the variety and flavours of the food it serves to its customers.

The man whose blue eyes are tasked with overseeing that operation across the company’s five locations is executive chef Dane Barnard.

“I started off as the head chef at the Battersea branch and, back then, there was no executive chef or a real food identity across the business,” he said.

“Each branch was doing its own thing. To an extent we still do, because you should be able to taste each head chef’s personality on the plate but as we’re becoming more and more about food – it’s about coming up with that identity.

“Now we know what we are and where we’re going – to really drive that side of Humble Grape.

“We’re not food-led, but it’s about half our business now, which is where we want to be.

“Humble Grape is a place you can come with friends or colleagues to enjoy wine along with something to eat.

Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf
Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf

“Our founder and CEO, James Dawson has done such an amazing job finding all these niche wine suppliers that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK.

“My vision is to bring the food in line with that – to use as much free-range, organic and sustainable produce as we can and to really try to mirror what we’re doing with the wine.

“That starts with our suppliers – it takes a long time to find the right ones and to build that relationship.

“For example, we use Donald Russell, which is a big one but they source produce from individual farms. We go to them with a detailed spec and they come back if they can help us.

“We certainly don’t know everything, so if they give us an ingredient then we can always try to do something with it.

“Even though I’m executive chef, I’m learning from my head chefs every single day – we have people from Spain and France and we’re constantly teaching each other. There’s a lot of passion and knowledge.

“We meet up for menu development and swap ideas – that’s what we’re looking for here and we’re always looking for talented chefs.”

Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)
Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)

That process has led to a menu of small plates at the Canary Wharf branch, including baked Camembert with sourdough bread, octopus carpaccio with compressed cucumber, stem broccoli with a lemon dressing and crab on a flatbread with chilli.

“My style of cooking is more about flavour than delicate presentation,” said Dane.

“A lot of my training was with a chef from America and we used the whole animal – that’s something we are teaching our teams at Humble Grape.

“For example, if we get a whole pig we take it apart, cure the legs use the cheeks and render the fat down to use when cooking.

“Every part of it has something to offer, you can even use the skin. You can see it on the menu where we’re using lamb neck for a small plate, served with freekeh.

“That’s more of a common cut but it has loads of flavour and you’re starting to see the upper echelons of the restaurant world jumping on that bandwagon.”

Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)
Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)

Dane, who joined Humble Grape in 2018 following stints at The Lockhart and Shotgun BBQ, is also keen to showcase vegetables.

“Spring is amazing,” he said. “If you can’t cook in this season, you can’t cook – there’s such a range of flavours and we try to use English seasonal ingredients.

“Vegan food had already come along big time before the pandemic hit – back then it was about 10% of diners and now we’re looking at perhaps 30%.

“We don’t go down the route of using products that look like meat – we’d rather use vegetables that look and taste like vegetables and try to enhance those flavours.”

With around 400 wines available at Humble Grape, the majority exclusively available through the business, the emphasis is on accessibility rather than prescriptive pairing.

“We regularly taste the wines,” said Dane.

“It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it and it really helps when we’re developing new dishes.

“Our staff will be on hand to help with suggestions, of course, but we don’t tell people what wine to have with a particular dish – this is a place where people choose.”

Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)
Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)

The venue, which offers bar snacks, sharing boards, sweets and a range of meats and cheeses, also serves more substantial dishes such as herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals, steaks and a spring pea and asparagus pasta.

“The Sunday roasts are probably the best place to start here,” said Dane.

“We serve lamb, chicken, pork, beef and nut roast – all sustainable and organic – as something traditional but more in a sharing style with Yorkshire pudding, grilled cauliflower cheese, roast root veg and gravy for £18.

“We used to do a bottomless brunch, but everybody does that, so now we do a bottomless lunch on Saturdays.

“I didn’t become a chef to cook eggs for people, so we thought it would be better to showcase our small plates

“You get three plus unlimited Prosecco, red wine, white wine or beer for 90 minutes for £35 between noon and 4pm.

“Our intention is, when the summer comes, that we will expand the food offering a bit more.

“We’ve got a massive grill in the kitchen, so when it’s sunny and people are on the terrace, we’ll be looking to maximise the use of that and really make it a place to come and sit outside.”

Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)
Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)

To go with the food, Humble Grape boasts plenty of regular wine offers including Retail Monday (our favourite), where bottles can be drunk at takeaway prices, Tasting Tuesday – a mini flight of four wines for £15 per person, and Icon Thursday And Friday, where more expensive bottles are sold by the glass.

Booking is not required to participate in any of these events – just drop in and place an order.

  • The Canary Wharf branch of Humble Grape is also launching an Express Lunch menu from Wednesday–Friday with a main course for £14, two courses for £19 or three for £22.
Humble Grape sells around 400 wines

Read more: Market Hall Canary Wharf opens its doors

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Isle Of Dogs: How The Sushi Co has ambitions to spread throughout the UK

Brand intends to open 13 takeaway restaurants in 2022 serving sushi made to order without the chill

Sushi from The Sushi Co on the Isle Of Dogs
Sushi from The Sushi Co on the Isle Of Dogs – image Matt Grayson

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When branches of The Sushi Co have swept the nation, with outposts in every major city and restaurants every couple of miles in London, remember that it all started on the Isle Of Dogs.

The business opened its first restaurant and takeaway at the eastern tip of Westward Parade opposite Crossharbour DLR in January and already it’s one of three locations in the capital. 

Targeting rapid growth, with plans for at least 13 restaurants this year, its owners believe they’ve spotted a gap in the takeaway market and they’re moving fast to claim it as their territory.

“We already had a background in food, running pizza franchises,” said Sam Reddy, who oversees operations on the ground for The Sushi Co.

“We’d seen the trend for sushi and initially we thought we’d become franchisees but we decided to create our own brand instead. 

“Doing that gives you a lot more freedom – you are able to determine the quality of everything and you can make decisions much more quickly.

“Personally, two years ago, I’d never even tried sushi so we had to do a lot of research. We ate in so many places, we must have tried every brand in London.”

Peng Zheng and Sam Reddy of The Sushi Co
Peng Zheng, left, and Sam Reddy of The Sushi Co – image Matt Grayson

That included eating at the restaurant of Peng Zheng, whose food impressed so much that The Sushi Co approached him to join the project. 

“Peng has designed the whole menu from scratch,” said Sam. “He’s our head chef, so while we’re good at building the sites, finding the best suppliers and investing the money where it needs to be, he can concentrate on creating the right food.

“We told him our idea – to create a UK-wide brand – and he really liked it.”

Part of the reason for that is a shared commitment to the quality of the food. Walk into The Sushi Co’s Isle Of Dogs branch and you’ll see a chiller cabinet with a selection of drinks and a couple of cheery signs explaining that the kitchen hasn’t run out of food, but that all dishes are made to order.

“When we were doing our research, we realised there were lots of brands storing products in the fridge,” said Sam.

“But that’s not sushi. It should never be stored that way and you shouldn’t eat it chilled. It should be eaten warm and freshly made.

“That is what we do. It’s not instant, customers have to wait five or 10 minutes. But because they want to eat good quality sushi, they’re happy to do that.

“Whether a customer has come to the restaurant to collect the food, or it’s being given to a delivery driver, it’s all made and served to order.

“Top sushi restaurants would never put their products in the fridge, so why would we?”

While the first restaurant has some seating for diners to eat in, The Sushi Co has primarily been conceived as a takeaway and is available through Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat. 

Sam said: “Our main target is that customers should receive food from our restaurants in under 25 minutes.

“Our focus now is on scaling up because there’s nobody else in this market in terms of delivering fresh sushi. There are some independent restaurants, but we want to grow quickly.”

The Sushi Co is located on Westward Parade
The Sushi Co is located on Westward Parade – image Matt Grayson

With an eye on maximising accessibility, Peng and the team have developed a menu rich in sushi and sashimi but that also includes a range of poke bowls, gyoza dumplings and hot meals as an alternative to the core dishes.

“Some people think sushi isn’t for them, but it is for everyone,” said Sam.

“To be honest, I had that feeling two years ago, but not anymore and that’s because I experienced it.

“When people see that it’s raw, some wonder if it’s safe to eat, but our brand follows the highest standards of food hygiene.

“We think we’ve developed a really good product, quite different to pre-prepared boxes you might buy at the supermarket and now we just really want people to try it.

“Once people come to us, they will realise how much better sushi that hasn’t been chilled really is. 

“The feedback from customers has been really great – in the end you can’t build a business if the product isn’t right.”

All of the brand's sushi is made fresh, never chilled
All of the brand’s sushi is made fresh, never chilled – image Matt Grayson

As for the future, The Sushi Co plans to roll out branches across London first, with slightly larger outposts in big cities across the country being an ambition for the future.

Food-wise, having found its feet, there are also plans afoot to collaborate with chefs on signature dishes on a regular basis.

The brand serves an extensive range of sushi including nigiri, uramaki, hosomaki and futo maki as well as selection boxes. Hot dishes include the likes of curries, noodle dishes and soups.

“Personally I really like the prawn katsu, which is fried in breadcrumbs,” said Sam. 

“But I also really enjoy the rolls we offer, many of which come with special sauces that we also make in-house.

“I really like to eat sushi, but my wife doesn’t, so having that variety on the menu is very important because it means we offer something for everyone.

“Not every takeaway business does this but we think it’s essential.

“There’s still a lot to learn for us on this brand, of course, but the first two branches have been really, really successful and we’ve just opened the third so we’re very excited about the future.

“I really believe you can’t get the quality of food that we’re serving in any other fast food takeaway.

“Of course you can go to an expensive sushi restaurant, but many of our dishes are only £10-12 and we use top quality ingredients.”

The Sushi Co is trading on the Isle Of Dogs and in Chiswick and Holborn with branches in Woodford and Lewisham set to be open by May 9.

Expect to see quite a few popping up over the coming years.

The restaurant does have space to dine in
The restaurant does have space to dine in – image Matt Grayson

Read more: Market Hall Canary Wharf set to open on April 7, 2022

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Stratford: How The Gantry hotel’s head chef combines his roots with travel

Why Salvatore Coco is willing to go the extra 332 miles to get the right flavours for its restaurant

Head chef at The Gantry, Salvatore Coco
Head chef at The Gantry, Salvatore Coco

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

All head chefs want to make great food. But Salvatore Coco is literally willing to go the extra 332 miles.

That’s how far it is from his job as executive head chef at The Gantry hotel in Stratford to Wageningen University in the Netherlands. 

“I recently discovered a professor there who had grown vanilla – one of the first times that’s successfully been done in Europe,” said Salvatore. 

“There are a lot of problems with the vanilla trade – it’s a money business. So when I heard about this I fell in love because it is such a unique product.

“That’s why I’ll be travelling to Holland to bring back a bit of the vanilla to use at The Gantry.

“It isn’t on sale because it’s just for research, but I persuaded the professor to give me some. It’s like gold for me.”

The Italian native will be using his foreign treasure to create an ice cream and a dark chocolate brownie dish that will feature on the new spring menu at Union Social, the hotel’s first-floor restaurant.

But he has also been looking much closer to home for his inspiration.

“Just in front of the hotel is a small set of seven beehives in East Village run by the locals,” said the 36-year-old.

“They produce a very small quantity of honey, only about 30 jars a year and I was able to meet them and get half.

“It’s a beautiful product created just a few steps away and tastes amazing.

“I have used it to create a Greek-inspired dessert, which uses filo pastry, ricotta cheese, cinnamon, orange, all the ingredients that were available during the time of Homer, which pair perfectly with this local honey.”

Union Social at The Gantry
Union Social at The Gantry

Like many Italians, Salvatore grew up in the kitchen watching the family matriarch cook.

“As a kid I would always spend time close to my grandma and was fascinated seeing her make focaccia and pasta,” he said.

“The first dish she let me cook was prawn spaghetti for my grandfather. It was so bad, tough and salty.”

By the age of 13, however, he was working in a professional kitchen at a local restaurant in his native Sicily, doing everything from pot washing to working the grill.

Next came a tourist resort where the 18-year-old Salvatore was in at the deep end.

“It had room service and three restaurants, but I was so passionate about my job that after a couple of months they left me running the kitchen by myself,” he said.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I survived and it didn’t put me off.”

Stints at hotelier school and as a chef de partie in a Sheraton hotel followed, before he landed in London and was seduced by the capital’s eclectic culture.

“The plan was to stay a couple of years, but I never left and I became a British citizen in 2019 and don’t think I will ever go back,” he said.

“You get such a variety of food here. Places like France, Italy, Spain are focused on their own food – but here there are all sorts of cuisines. For a chef, it is like a candy shop.”

The Gantry's food reflects Salvatore's travels
The Gantry’s food reflects Salvatore’s travels

His big break came when he bagged the role of head chef at the Pestana Hotel in Chelsea.

“But when the pandemic hit, it closed and Salvatore was out of a job. He returned to his roots, taking a job at Park Lane Kitchen, a small deli and rotisserie near where he used to live in Battersea.

“It was really strange but kind of nice, like going back to when I started out 20 years ago,” said Salvatore.

“The owner didn’t know I was a head chef. I just started working and after a week he was really impressed so I told him.

“It was a funny moment. It wasn’t stressful at all working there and I loved it.”

But when The Gantry came calling, he could not resist the chance to unleash his creative side.

“The general manager told me he didn’t want to have the normal international food other hotels have, like the club sandwich and Caesar salad,” said Salvatore.

“He wanted the menu to be personal to me and be created with fresh ingredients on a daily basis. 

“That’s hard to find in the hotel business and, while it was a big challenge, the menu is based on my travels, which is something I’m really passionate about so it was easy, in a way.”

A dessert at Union Social

Diners at Union Social can expect dishes such as a dessert made with crystallised violet petals Salvatore found while visiting Toulouse, a Jack-In-The-Green salad based on a mythological figure he discovered in Scotland and a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb from Kent. 

“I’m not competitive with other chefs at all,” said Salvatore.

“I just do my own thing. Of course, the food has to be tasty but it is about sustainability and the exclusivity of the food. 

“It has to have a story behind it because I’m very interested in culture and history. I call it food with a soul.

“I don’t want to just make food with a Michelin Star which looks pretty and tastes nice but has no character. 

“I’m not a fan of fancy decorations, just simple food that has value behind it. That’s really important and the main reason behind my cooking.”

Like a surgeon, Salvatore said he is “always on call” and has moved 10 minutes away from the hotel in Stratford in case of any kitchen emergencies.

“My private life is zero at the moment,” he said.

“But if you don’t have a passion for this job you can’t do it because it is so many hours.

“You cannot just be selfish and narrow-minded because otherwise, you don’t go very far. But you need to explore your own creativity and, in a way, be single-minded.

“I remember taking a boat in Thailand and the wife of the captain was cooking some noodles on board. 

“I was amazed at how easy it was for her to combine ingredients and make something that tasted amazing. 

“Sometimes you go to restaurants with a full brigade of chefs and the food doesn’t taste that good. 

“I’ll always remember that because it really made me think a lot about how food is passion.” 

Read more: The Pearson Room reopens with a new team and fresh flavours

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Canary Wharf: The Pearson Room reopens with a new team and fresh flavours

How head chef James Goodchild is serving up potent dishes at the Canada Square venue

The Pearson Room's head chef James Goodchild
The Pearson Room’s head chef James Goodchild

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“I got shouted at, I burnt my hand and I started work there the next day,” said James Goodchild, recalling his first experience of working in a professional kitchen.

“I’d finished school in Essex, where I lived, without many qualifications – I was a having a year out and my mum forced me to get some job interviews.

“So I went for a role as a barman because I thought it would be a nice easy one with plenty of money.

“That had gone, but they asked me if I wanted to do a shift in the kitchen, which I did to keep my mum off my back.

“But I absolutely loved it – and that’s where my career started. Now my mum is my biggest fan.”

It was the start of a journey that eventually led him to the role of head chef at rooftop members club Upstairs At The Department Store in Brixton.

Then a fresh opportunity presented itself. His colleague at the south London venue – Emilie Parker-Burrell – was leaving to become general manager of The Pearson Room in Canada Square in preparation for its post-pandemic reopening last month. 

“I knew she was going to Canary Wharf anyway and I was looking to do something else,” said James.

“So I came over to see the venue – it was a blank canvas, which was very appealing, so I thought I’d give it a go.

“I’d loved working with Emilie at Upstairs and I think we work really well together. 

“I’d never had a job in this part of London before or really visited it – it’s very new to me – so I was quite surprised by the number and quality of the bars and restaurants on the estate.

“The Pearson Room is owned by Third Space and we had a briefing from them, to make sure we have dishes that work for what they’re doing on the health side of things, but we’ve had pretty much free rein to do what we want in the kitchen, which is great.

“We’ve created a menu that’s a little bit more casual than some of the other venues around here, food that’s a bit more laid back, but we’ll see, over the coming months, what Canary Wharf wants from us and we’ll adapt what we do.”

Pan-roasted cod with white bean, tomato, mussel and prawn stew
Pan-roasted cod with white bean, tomato, mussel and prawn stew

Guests will find the familiar warm browns of the venue filled with the scents and flavours of James’ creativity, ranging from healthier options to more decadent temptations.

Starters (£7-£14) can all be served as mains and include the likes of seared tuna with watermelon, sesame and ginger; quinoa, mint and spring vegetable salad; and poke bowl wakame with daikon and shiso.

Larger plates (£16-£21) include dishes such as roast chicken with carrot salad and whipped Feta, foraged mushroom risotto and pan-roasted cod with white bean, tomato, mussel and prawn stew.

 “Flavour is the number one thing we look at here,” said James. “It’s the reason to go out for dinner – to be hit with great big flavours – and that’s what we do throughout our menu.

“I really like simple food. When I was younger, everyone had ambitions to win Michelin stars, but the older I get, the cooking and the food become more relaxed and I think that’s a much better direction to go in.

“I want people who eat my food to be full, content and happy having experienced some bold flavours. A full restaurant, with happy customers, is success in my eyes.

“Staff play a huge role in that. The team of people I have around me is absolutely phenomenal.

“I have great faith in my colleagues. They are all outstanding chefs and we’re all on the same page in the kitchen – everyone can work on every section.

James' poke bowl wakame with daikon and shiso
James’ poke bowl wakame with daikon and shiso

“We discuss the whole menu at the end of every session and, if we need to tweak, we do, and so it carries on.

“We never sit still – we’re always looking to be better, and hopefully that will show on the plate.

“We did an incredible number of tastings before we opened and I love the banana tarte tatin because I have a sweet tooth, but my favourite dish is the cod.

“I’ve always loved eating cassoulet – it’s a chef thing to try and get a huge amount of flavour out of it and this recipe started off as a dish we used to have for lunch in the kitchen.

“There are lots of fresh herbs in it, and lemon at the end, which is very French.

“With mussels being in season at the same time as cod, and the prawns adding a bit of luxury – we use the shells for the sauce – it’s great that it’s become a restaurant dish.

“One thing I hate is to change the whole menu on one day – it’s a recipe for chaos and disaster.

“After we’ve been open for a couple of months, then we’ll start introducing new dishes when ingredients are in season.

“We will have an ever-changing menu so when people come there will always be something new.

“It keeps the chefs on their toes as well and gives them a chance to develop their own dishes, get these on the menu and get a bit of recognition.”

A Hoist The Colours cocktail with rum and coconut
A Hoist The Colours cocktail with rum and coconut

The Pearson Room’s bar has also been refreshed with a new cocktail list including beverages such as Fraisier (East London Dry gin with Fraise liquor, lemon and raspberries) and Hoist The Colours (a showstopping combination of Discarded Banana Rum, coconut syrup, pineapple juice, lime juice and kiwi).

James said while there were plenty of healthy options on the menu for those visiting Third Space, The Pearson Room was very much a separate entity.

Plans for the future include creating more dishes inspired by the venue’s wine list, bringing in a dry-ageing cabinet so guests can see the meat they will be eating and setting up an oyster bar to pair with the English fizz on offer.

The Pearson Room is now open Monday-Friday from 10am for lunch and dinner. The venue is also available to hire for events with an extensive range of food and drink options available.

James said: “You have to be approachable – we’re always  happy to work with people so they get what they want.”

Banana tarte tatin at The Pearson Room
Banana tarte tatin at The Pearson Room

Read more: How Brookfield Properties supports makers and galleries

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Canary Wharf: Why Emilia’s Crafted Pasta is all about combining shape and sauce

Wood Wharf opening for restaurant and bar features table bocce and plenty of dishes to explore

Emilia's makes pasta fresh every day
Emilia’s makes pasta fresh every day – image Matt Grayson

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You’ve seen Hawksmoor’s barge floating in the dock from Montgomery Square. You’re aware Amazon Fresh has a walk-in, walk-out convenience store opposite.

But now is the time to explore a little deeper into Wood Wharf. Water Street, Park Drive, Harbour Quay Gardens and George Street – these are the locations you need in the back of your head. 

Right now it’s the last of these that should be on your radar because, after much pandemic-related delay, Canary Wharf’s emerging residential district has its first bricks and mortar restaurant and bar.

The doors to Emilia’s Crafted Pasta have finally opened at 12 George Street offering Wharfers a place to eat and drink their fill and maybe play on what’s believed to be the first table bocce set in the UK. 

For Andrew Macleod, founder and CEO of the business, which has branches in St Katharine Docks and Aldgate, it’s a welcome sight.

“There were times when I didn’t know whether the day would come – the build took six months,” he said.

“We’ve tried to create a very laid-back, rustic feel, where customers feel a bit of a buzz, a bit of action, but a bit of calm too.

“This is not a big fancy restaurant with lots of finesse. We’ve used natural materials throughout, with various types of wood and a terracotta plaster from Cornwall, to recreate that look you see in Italy alongside tiles from the country itself.

“We also like to pay homage to the local area and what’s here – that’s the reason we have kept a lot of exposed concrete throughout the interior – it’s because that is what this area is about, the big new buildings.

“We’ve even left the builders’ pencil markings on the walls from George Street’s original construction.”

The Wood Wharf branch of Emilia’s – image Matt Grayson

The undisputed chief attraction, however, is Emilia’s dedication to the core dish on its menu – pasta made fresh every day on-site and paired with specific sauces.

It’s a process diners and drinkers at Emilia’s can watch taking place.

“When they come in, they find the premises split into two parts – one a fully open bar and the other a trattoria-style dining area with a fully open kitchen,” said Andrew.

“On one side you can watch cocktails being made and drinks being served and on the other you can see the activity in the kitchen.

“In terms of the pasta, the first thing to say is that all shapes are not made equal. I would never tell people what they can and can’t pair with what – that’s their choice. All I can say is what we do here. 

“In my opinion, and the opinion of many chefs, you can optimise taste based on the geometry of the pasta you use with a particular sauce.

“When we look at different pasta shapes and sauces, we’re trying to make it so that in every mouthful the customer gets a full set of flavours.

“If you’re ever served a bowl in a restaurant and the sauce and pasta have completely separated then you have a problem.

“It could be the pasta hasn’t been made fresh, that the pasta water hasn’t been used in the sauce or that the wrong shape has been used for the pairing.

“What’s vital is getting the sauce to stick – you shouldn’t see sauce at the bottom of the bowl, oil around the side and the pasta on top. 

“I’ve picked three of the dishes we serve to explain why we serve pasta the way we do.”

Pesto with casarecce
Pesto with casarecce – image Matt Grayson

ONE

  • homemade basil pesto, £12
  • pasta – casarecce

“We serve our pesto with casarecce – a strange, twisted shape,” said Andrew.

“It’s a very creamy thin sauce and with this shape of pasta you have lots of twists and turns so, when you mix it in the pan, you get the pesto on every millimetre of the pasta.

“If you had a much thicker sauce, it wouldn’t get into these ridges. There’s also a shape called trofie, which is similar.

“When you serve this sauce with either of these two shapes they pick the sauce up and you get the full set of flavours in your mouth.”

Bechamel bolognese with pappardelle
Bechamel bolognese with pappardelle – image Matt Grayson

TWO

  • bechamel bolognese, £12.70
  • pasta – pappardelle

“This pasta – pappardelle – is like tagliatelle but wider,” said Andrew. “The bolognese or ragu has a lot going on. We cook it for four hours – there’s tomato, vegetables and meat. It’s a very hearty sauce.

“What happens with a big ribbon like that is that everything sticks to it.

“If you take a strand up with all the chunks of veg and meat sticking to it, then you roll that and you eat it, so you have the whole ragu.

“If the pasta isn’t made fresh, the sauce won’t stick so well. Of course, some people like this sauce with spaghetti and I’m not saying there’s only one right way to eat it, but for us this is the combination that works.”

Radiatori with tomato sauce
Radiatori with tomato sauce – image Matt Grayson

THREE

  • tomato sauce with basil, £8.50
  • pasta – radiatori

“The final pasta I want to mention is the radiatori – so-called because it’s shaped like cast iron radiators,” said Andrew.

“I loved the novelty of it – a shape you’re not likely to have seen before – and that’s what we’re about at Emilia’s.

“We’re trying to create a pasta experience which is familiar, but a bit different. We serve our tomato sauce with the radiatori.

“It’s quite thin, but the shape of the pasta is able to capture it perfectly. Then you have small chunks of Mozzarella in the bowl and you need to get one of those with a piece of pasta to get the best from the dish.”

Read more: Discover The Well Bean Co in Royal Docks

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Isle Of Dogs: Why La Nina Caffe And Mercato has been reborn on the Island

How Monica Olivieri and Alberto Pagliara have filled a Skylines Business Village unit with Italian culture

Monica and Alberto at the new La Nina
Monica and Alberto at the new La Nina – image Matt Grayson

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It was ancient Greek philosopher Plato who wrote: “Our need will be the real creator”. Necessity has also been the mother of invention for Monica Olivieri and Alberto Pagliara.

Having opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato last year in Pepper Street on the Isle Of Dogs, the Italians were forced to look for a new home for their business towards the end of 2021.

Developers were set to start work on demolishing their previous premises to preserve long standing planning permission for blocks of flats, sparking a search for a new space.

That need has resulted in a move into one of the sharply angled buildings at Skylines Business Village – not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for a cafe and food shop.

But La Nina’s new home presents a welcoming face to Marsh Wall and comes with about triple the space of the original business and that brings fresh opportunity.

“It’s best to think of Pepper Street as the pop-up store that launched us,” said Monica. “This is the settled version of La Nina because we’ll stay here for five years. 

“For those who don’t know us, we’re a place where people can experience Italian culture through food, art, music and people.

“We’re Italians and we’re here to share our background with our customers.”

As with the previous location, that means an extensive range of edible products, carefully sourced from Italian suppliers, art on the walls, fresh coffee, wine and plenty of food to try.

The grocery on the ground floor -
The grocery on the ground floor – image Matt Grayson

But with the extra real estate, everything has intensified.

“On the ground floor we have the coffee shop and the grocery, on the first floor we have a seating area with tables and a separate kids room, and at the top of the building we have a small cooking school, where clients can learn to make very simple recipes with the help of our chefs,” said Monica.

“Downstairs we have tables outside and also something very new – a machine to roast our own coffee.

“We have partnered with a company called URoast so we’ll receive green coffee beans, roast them daily and have our own La Nina blend.

“In the shop we also have a new machine that can make an express tiramisu, which customers can customise with pistachio, strawberry or just enjoy the classic flavour.

“Of course, we have a range of fresh products made by our chefs including cakes, pastries and pasta dishes.

“Then there are the products we sell, which are sourced from small suppliers – we have one in Puglia where I’m from, for example, that produces food exclusively for us.

“And on the walls downstairs we currently have paintings from Stefano Pallara, an artist who is from my home town of Lecce.

“Upstairs in the dining room we have work from an Italian photographer – Francesco Congedo.

The seating area on the first floor
The seating area on the first floor – image Matt Grayson

“It’s a place where people can relax, have a drink, read a book, do some work using our wi-fi connection and enjoy what’s on the walls.

“Across from the dining room we have the kids room where they can come and play. We can have parties here and also there will be kids cooking sessions.

“Next is something I really want to introduce people to because it’s completely new. On the third floor we have our cooking school – it’s cosy, we can only take six people, but it’s a great way to learn to use our products.”

Sessions have already started running at the venue with many more planned.

Classes already scheduled include hour-long tutorials on carbonara, amatriciana and puttanesca sauces for £40 per head on March 4 and kids classes on fresh pasta and pizza and focaccia by arrangement. 

“We’ll also be hosting live events,” said Monica. “There will be live music every Friday and stand-up comedy too, as well as storytelling for kids and sessions where they can make their own T-shirts.

“We teamed up with fashion designer Roberta Ripa and got our youngest customers to come up with designs for cushions. We printed them and now they’re in La Nina.

“I also have an idea that I want to teach kids to create their own kites for Easter because in Italy, after you’ve eaten your chocolate egg, you make one out of the silver paper and fly it to launch the spring season.”

The kids’ room – image Matt Grayson

That spirit of invention is also present in the fabric of La Nina itself with some of its tables made from doors Monica and Alberto found in their new unit.

“Alberto loves carpentry and he has built everything from scratch,” said Monica. “He is the person who has physically made La Nina.

“The space was used for a clinic before we came here and we used some of the old doors as tables.

“We left the handles on because I wanted to leave a little of the history of what the tables were before so people understand things can be reused.

“It’s good to have a business partner who is also a life partner because Alberto can translate all the ideas I have in my mind. This is not so easy to find.”

Also in the offing is a long-awaited return of an event that had its debut on the Isle Of Dogs in 2019.

The cookery school -
The cookery school – image Matt Grayson

Monica’s first Carbonara Day In London, held at Mudchute Park And Farm, attracted more than 3,000 people and she is working on a second edition to take over Island Gardens in the summer.

“We hope to hold this on July 16 and 17, hopefully in that location,” said Monica.

“It’s a beautiful view of Greenwich and is close to the DLR. I really want the Isle Of Dogs to be seen as a live place for food.

“Carbonara Day is a festival in honour of this iconic dish where people can taste the correct recipe made with the best Italian ingredients.

“Chefs will be coming from Rome and they will cook for our attendees. We will also have chefs from London cooking their carbonaras.

“It’s something I’m passionate about – that people can try the real thing and that’s true at La Nina too. For example, here we don’t serve hot drinks flavoured with syrups or anything like that.

Art by Stefano Pallara on display at La Nina
Art by Stefano Pallara on display at La Nina – image Matt Grayson

“There’s no chicken in our lasagne or with our pasta because if you went to Rome, Florence or Bologna you’d never find that.

“I want to show people the right way to eat Italian food and it can be a hard mission, but we’ve already had some of our old customers come and visit as well as new clients and curious people.

“I’m sure we will have a line of people very soon, the more we increase the communication of what we’re doing and word spreads – it’s just a question of time.”

La Nina, named after Monica’s grandmother, is open daily from 8.30am Monday to Saturday and from 9.30am on Sundays.

It closes at 8pm except on Fridays and Saturdays, when it’s open until 9.30pm.

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