Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Breakfast Club

One of the benefits of a working week based mostly at home is the opportunity it affords to pop out for breakfast now and again. I find a good fry-up in a neutral space promotes thinking time, provides reading room…..and encourages Racing Post study.

Berkhamsted is surprisingly well endowed with breakfast options, ranging from greasy spoon tradition to gastro pub exuberance. So what is the best breakfast experience in Berko? Which establishment provides the perfect balance between a top fry-up (I consider myself to be an expert) and an honest environment in which to scoff it? I intend to find out.

My artery-clogging mission begins at The Crown, a Wetherspoons pub opposite Tesco’s. I’ve had more breakfasts in here than anywhere else in town, so it seems reasonable to begin the odyssey here. This is where I first discovered the delights of lingering over the racing pages in the middle of the morning, feeling like a naughty schoolboy bunking off lessons. I’ve met others down here too. Nick and Pete have all joined me for a fry-up on the odd occasion, to set themselves up for the day. So I know the breakfast routine well. Take a seat, note the table number order at the bar, collect the condiments from the sideboard.

There’s nothing very sophisticated about the Wetherspoon’s philosophy. Heavily influenced by the Tesco’s mantra pile it high, sell it cheap the breakfast formula is straightforward. It is big: two sausage, two bacon, three hash browns, two fried eggs, two toast, beans, half a tomato and a choice of mushrooms or black pudding. And it is a bargain: £6.74 with a limp cappuccino. Pick the bones out of that!
Big Breakfast. The Crown
But let’s get down to brass tacks. This breakfast experience is good, but it isn’t a Rolls Royce job. Squishy sausages, watery mushroom, sauce in sachets (brown sauce test: fail. See below) and – to be picky – the butter is served up in cold foil-wrapped pats so that I can’t spread it on the toast. What about the environment? Again it’s that formulaic approach. One Wetherspoon’s is as faceless as the next – especially out the back in the dim recesses of the extension where the carpets are sticky and the early morning drinkers are already in to their 2nd pint of £1.55 Carlsberg. That never feels quite right.

So this is a good solid start. I’m very full and pretty satisfied.

Where next. Back out to the top of the town for the Yeovil Café to take its chance. This is the greasy spoon end of the market: school chairs and formica table tops. It’s about half full this morning. The other punters are mainly white van men and most seem to be regulars, “Dorofy, splash a bit more tea in that mug will ya luv? Ta”.
Yeovil Cafe
I order my brekkie from the crowded menu board behind Dorothy. Option two at £6.55 including coffee. Option one (£6.90) seems to have a bit too much ingrediential repetition for me, and option three comes with tinned tomatoes. Unforgiveable.

I grab an empty table. Pinned up on the wall is a laminated copy of a vaguely amusing story about a Manchester taxi driver. I notice there is different one at every table. Odd, but perhaps an attempt to add a bit of individuality. The surroundings are fine, but perhaps it could be a bit cleaner. Little globs of egg yolk and bacon bits are on the floor. But the tables are spotless.

First off, the brown sauce test is passed. There it is ready on the table in a brown squeezy bottle. No hiding it away behind counters or in cupboards as if an unwelcome guest, brought out only on request. Flowery B&Bs do this when they pretend they are small hotels and think that removing sauce distances them from the local caff. This pretentious behaviour must be stamped out.

 A big oval platter of top nosh arrives. Nice to see the plate is not swimming in beans. I love the black pudding. The egg is very tasty too. There are, however, a few too many fried potatoes here, piled up as if to bulk out the serving. Oh, but there’s no bread and butter here! Mistake. It should be in there as standard. 25p extra to order a couple of slices. I don’t bother, it’s too late now.  

But I polish off the lot and I’m full. Job done. A solid enough start. Good on quantity and quality overall. Couple of niggles but OK and surroundings and service all fair enough. Onwards, then.

Feeling sprightly, despite my increased grease intake, I pitch up at Berko’s Café at the bottom of Kitsbury Road. This is a small establishment with high tables running down either side of the one room. It’s empty when I walk in, but a couple of others arrive after me and it starts to feel full already. I’m at the big window looking back up the High Street. Great for people watching. On the other hand, I feel a bit on show, too. So I plug in the laptop and the free wifi works like a dream. No crazy registration process. I’m online looking at the form for the July Cup in two clicks.

Here I plump for the Double Fry Up, which with a coffee is £6.80 all in. There’s a bargain fry up on offer at £3.95. But I can see from the menu that this wouldn’t have been enough to get me through til tea-time. I’d have been munching chocolate hob-nobs well before the 4.30pm fillies maiden.   

OK, so this place has no pretentions. That’s good. The condiments are all on the bar in original bottles. Full marks. And neither do the see-through white melamine cups in any way try to hint at fine bone china. Or even basic artisan pottery, to be fair. 
Note the hi-spec melamine mug
I’m not waiting long before an attractive-looking platter arrives. The toast is already spreaded. Don’t think its butter though. There’s fried bread as well. I don’t like fried bread. But that’s just my foible. At least there’s toast here as well. On the other hand, fried bread and toast is starting to smack of imbalance. Nice pile of tasty mushrooms. The plate looks bean-heavy from the pic, but actually it is fine. The black pudding is a fraction overdone. It’s a bit crispy and so loses some flavour. I end up not finishing the second round. Squishy sausages betray their cheapness. Everything else is proper good.

So I leave full and satisfied, having had a pukka fry-up experience. The environment is a notch up from the Yeovil café, too. It’s picking up.

Next up, I haul my spreading girth to The Olive Tree on the High Street. This is somewhere between a traditional caff and a restaurant. For instance, I’m treated to table service, which is quick and friendly. The flip side is the amount of noisy kids here in the garden with their Mums who are doing cappuccinos.


It’s a straight fiver for a 'traditional' and an extra 80p for a filter coffee. The cheapest so far. We are moving upmarket here: the milk has arrived in a separate jug; granary bread sliced on the premises and served on it's own plate. But nice to see the HP there proud in its bottle. 

beans...
The fry-up is pretty good on quality but marginal on quantity. A solitary and lonely sausage, no mushrooms, no tomatoes, no black pudding. But the best bacon so far and lovely fried egg with beautiful yolk. And lots and lots of beans

So better presentation here, but the end result is a little deflating. A fraction style-over-substance I fear.   

Onwards, then, with cholesterol-fuelled verve and vein-hardening resolve to Berkhamsted’s branch of the small chain Brasserie Gérard based in the gothic Old Town Hall.

The petit dejeuner anglais weighs in at £6.95, which isn’t so bad, but the whopping cappuccino I indulge in takes the bill up to a round tenner by the time I’ve left my stingy tip. So we are into a different league here, pricewise.

And that’s reflected in the clientele. No white vans parked outside. This isn’t all human life in here by any stretch of the imagination. No great leveling going on in here. That said, I can’t fault the feel of the place. There’s some low-key jazz oozing from the surround-sound and I get on to the wifi after a relatively simple registration process.

Soon the mountainous coffee sighs on to my table, rising out of the mini-soup bowl like a muffin, it’s head slathered in thick chocolate sprinkles.

Mount Cappuccino
 It’s a very well presented fry-up too. Especially when, although there is no sauce on the table, I ask for some and it arrives in the HP bottle. The sausages are beautiful. There is a hint of spicy piquancy beneath their firm exterior. But it is not overdone. The beans are delivered in a separate pot. I don’t mind that. I can put them where I want ton the plate. Flavour-packed tomatoes. Massive slab of butter with the thick toast. The sweet cure bacon is lovely. Oh my God, this is unexpectedly brilliant. Absolutely no complaints. This sets the standard.

The business

Views. And pictures. 
Just as well, because my ante-post favourite for the breakfast gong is up next. The Attic Cafe occupies the top floor of Home and Colonial giving great views over Berko. It’s just that negotiating those three flights of narrow stairs with my new, rounded profile and handy, shelf-like, cantilevered stomach extension takes some care.

The place has a wonderful atmosphere. Non matching wooden tables and chairs; distressed wooden cupboards bearing afternoon cakes hidden beneath glass cloches; unobtrusive light jazz and soul on sound system. I’m surrounded by antiques and paintings for sale. This is about as far from greasy spoon as it's likely to get. And yet I’ve been here when dispatch riders have peeled off layers of leathers to sit down next to blue-rinse Mother’s Union volunteers and tuck into proper fry-ups.

So I’m all set. I’m anticipating the dog’s bollocks. The full English is there loud and proud on the menu. £8.15. And a pot of tea for one at £1.80. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most expensive yet. The tea is an unconfined joy. Look at that.

Yes, a tea strainer!
Expertly non-matching cup, sauce, milk jug and tea strainer. (Tea stainer…yes, real tea!) The knife, however does seem to be from the same set as the fork. The napkin is paper. Not cloth. Is that a point off? Churlish.    

The strap line on the menu is “fresh not fast”. I agree with those sentiments. But I’m getting ravenous here. And here it is. No brown sauce, but I ask and it arrives in a bottle. Test passed.

The butter for the toast is already warm and served in another little dish. It’s these touches, you know.  

Well, let’s get stuck in. Loads and loads of mushrooms….is that the merest hint of garlic? Good halved-tomatoes, served in their skins. The plate is a fraction bean-swimmy. Excellent firm sausage from Eastwoods, the town’s multi-prize winning independent butchers.  Two slices of bacon, if I’m honest, too much on the crispy side. Hmm. that’s a bit more than a hint of garlic on the mushrooms too, now that I’m ploughing in with gusto.

Garlic mushrooms? 
I’m a fraction underwhelmed. Despite absolutely top marks for décor, environment, service, the view, attention to detail…in the end the quality of the breakfast is letting the place down. There are just too many beans. I need either another sausage or some fried potatoes of some description to soak them up. And the garlic infused mushrooms are simply too much. Garlic is not needed in a fry up. I left some.

For lunch, afternoon tea and just about any other occasion this place would be untouchable. But when all said and done the fry up doesn’t quite cut mustard today.

I’m still going strong, relishing the challenge. However, my turning circle is a little wider than it used to be. I’m wheeling around, taking out a few pensioners and small children as I do, and heading back up the High Street to Cafe Rouge. “Hi Dave. Cool fat suit” says a mate.

Café Rouge is another chain going for a similar market as Brasserie Gérard.  A few people are in having morning coffee and croissants and the feel is relaxed enough. I don't feel hurried or harassed and that is important. Still can't see an 18 stone HGV pilot making this his first port of call though.

And what this that intrusive showbiz crooning blasting out of the lo-fi above my right ear. Not needed.

Here comes the super-sized cappuccino berthing like a container ship at the shallow end of the table. It’s not quite the Gérard muffin-ice cream affair, but there’s a big slab of frothy milk and chocolate here to coat my top lip stubble. £2.40 for a regular.

I’m offered a three-way choice of eggs, which is a nice surprise. I opt for poached for a change. That is always going to be a mistake and I sense it as soon as the words are uttered.

What  a load of old tut
The price tag is £7.50 for Petit Dejeuner Anglais. For the first time, the brown sauce test is failed. There is not a drop to be had in the whole damn place! Big minus points. I'm offered ketchup in a little pot which I accept graciously but with a thin smile. The butter is presented in cold pats.  One mushy sausage. No beans. Why no beans? Baked beans in tomato sauce are the glue that binds together the egg and sausage, mixed with brown sauce, it opens the pearly gates to savoury heaven. At the very least. The bacon is an insult. Scrappy, shriveled and tough. The mushrooms are OK, but the poached eggs are rubbery. That was always the risk and I only have myself to blame. They are not inedible but they are no great culinary masterpiece either.

Now I'm being picky but I swear the toast was made with yesterday's bread. It’s like pieces of charred cardboard.

The piped music is worse getting worse too. Dreary crooning has given way to an accordion and mandolin work out with an undercurrent of Gallic nasal mumbling to accompany the limp juices of the mushroom and tomato reduction on my plate. Fitting.

And the damning verdict is, even though I made a decent fist of this second rate breakfast, that I am not full. That’s criminal. Especially at these prices. £9.90 with the coffee.  And they'll expect a bloody tip! Safe to say I won't be back for here for a great British breakfast.  

I’m waddling down the other end of town to the Kings Arms next, stopping only to prop my expanding girth in a Tesco trolley as I wipe sweat – tests reveal a dangerously high lard content – from my dripping brow.

The Kings Arms was taken over by the Oakman Inns last year who run the Akeman in Tring and the Red Lion in Gaddeson Row. This bright morning it is busy enough without being mobbed and I’m seduced by the pleasant and relaxed atmosphere (open fire, original beams, etc).

I order the fry-up at the bar, a la Crown, but this is a much plusher pub. More expensive fixtures and fittings that aim to carve out a gastro market. £8 buys a full English and a hot beverage. Good value.

I could do with me tea now. Parched.

We’ve been in here a few times of an evening. It’s OK, but sometimes the atmosphere can be rank with the smell of burger fat, burned steaks and chips which wafts over to the restaurant from the open kitchen. Design fault. But this morning it's fine.

Still no tea.

Whilst I wait, I’m overhearing snippets of other people conversations. Always a laugh. One well-dressed middle age lady remarks to another, between sips of latte, “….and her Yorkshire's were awful, terrible...”. Round the corner , there’s a gobby businessman giving a smarmy, dramatic and noisy pitch to a long-suffering, largely silent client. This man is bigging himself up and dropping enough names to make Jonathan Ross look diffident. 

The tea arrives with an apology and a smile.  That’s a top quality ensemble there.  Milk goes in before the tea. But only when Mrs A’s not looking.  

I’m impressed with the main event too. I have to ask for brown sauce but it comes in the bottle and with great service. Again, first class presentation. Little cherry tomatoes on the vine! What’s that all about? Absolute taste explosion though. They are little balls of culinary dynamite, all sweet and sun-flavour packed. Thick rashers of griddled bacon. Firm, peppery sausages. Two nice fried eggs (oo-er, sounds like a naturist beach) and simply the best juicy and earthy mushrooms. Brown and White toast on the side, supported by butter in warm pot. Only one fault. No beans. Again.



I’m putting this feast away with alacrity. Really lovely. Finished off by wiping my dribbling chops with a cloth napkin. All in all, a top brekkie in lovely surroundings. I can almost forgive the absence of beans.  

OK, it’s the final push. Deep breaths, gritted teeth and a fixed stare propel me to the very ends of the earth. The Old Mill is located on the outskirts of Berko by the canal. I arrive at about 10.30am and once the staff have resuscitated me with an oxygen mask and reassured the customers that they have not just witnessed a total eclipse of the sun, I wedge myself into a nice bench for two.

It’s moderately busy. I’m surprised to see the big function room near the door is rammed with plasterers and brickies on some kind of special deal. In the bar area at least half a dozen tables are occupied: business meetings over coffee, mums and pre-school brats doing their post-NCT thing.

The Old Mill is a gastro-pub these days. Trying to bring a London feel (and London prices) to the outskirts of Berko. Largely, it gets away with it. We’ve had some good meals here, but – certainly in its early days – a few disasters as well.

The Full English – order taken at my table - is £8.75. With a cappuccino the bill weighs in at a hefty £11.15. The coffee comes with sugar cubes in a syrup tin and Smarties in a glass! Ha! Nice touch, but not sure all that sweetness will add anything to the fry up.



Apparently they are out of black pudding, but I’m offered the option of something else instead.

I’m getting proper mardy about the music these places offer to accompany my breakfast. Here, I’m being subjected to Bob Dylan. Think I prefer the maudlin French Crooners in Café Rouge. Almost. That’s better, they’ve turned it down a bit. The two blokes on the next table are still wincing though, trying to block out Whitney Houston from joining in their conversation about punishing gym routines. “Yes, they’ve got this belting new rowing machine. See what it’s done for my triceps”.  “Eyyee-aaa willll alwayyyyyyys-aaa lurrrrvvvve yooooohhhooooooo”.

The brekkie arrives and I’m a bit disappointed. Two strips of tiny bacon with lots of fat. Fried bread (ugh), one – admittedly fat – sausage. Small fried egg, toms, mushrooms. No beans. Again, again. What have beans ever done to anyone? OK, I can think of a few things in my time. But still, with the breakfast it’s a must surely?  

The sausage is good though and tasty mushrooms. But I’m really struggling with that fried bread. It’s not their fault that I don’t like fried bread. On the other hand, the menu just says Full English without listing any of the wide-ranging ingredients and permutations encompassed by that generic description. If fried bread had been specified I would have had the opportunity to ask for toast instead. And I would have been happier.

But only marginally.

Even with toast this would have been disappointing. I’m not really satisfied. The quality of the fare on the whole was good. But not enough. It’s overpriced for what it is and I’m left thinking that the coffee experience was the high point.

So, my breakfast marathon is over. And the winner is…. Being strictly objective, balancing quality and value of the fry up as an overall experience, this is the ranking:

1.    Brasserie Gerard (Can’t fault it)
2.    The Kings Arms (Good. But no beans was the deal breaker)
3.    Berko’s café (That overdone black pud)
4.    The Crown (Good quantity, quality needs to improve)
5.    The Attic café (No to garlic mushrooms and cardboard bacon)
6.    The Olive Tree (Just a bit more imagination needed)
7.    The Old Mill (Drop the pretentions)
8.    Yeovil café (Clean the floors)
9.    Café Rouge (Where to start….)

Ok, I’m off for my gastric band fitting now, before I tackle the take-aways….

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Microscopic analysis! Hope your arteries survived. Good stuff. Cheers, Fx

Yorick said...

Hi Dave - Wow, what a feed! And a rollicking good read. I'm feeling very full. I like a good fried breakfast especially for lunch! I intend to be sneaking a few in as lunches on some time soon. Cheers Yorick