Regular readers know that I have a soft spot for Manchester’s Idle Hands, and its owners, Dave and Lucy. Having started as a pop-up near Piccadilly Station, Idle Hands is now into its fourth incarnation, although this location, in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, is its first permanent home.
In comparison to previous incarnations, the new location is huge, with plenty of seating and, for the first time, a large kitchen at the back. Idle Hands has always been known both for its coffee and its (sweet) pies, both of which are on display here. A true multi-roaster, Idle Hands usually has two single-origins on espresso, another on batch-brew and five or so on pour-over through either the Aeropress or V60, depending on the chosen bean. The options change regularly: whenever a particular bean runs out, it’s replaced.
When it comes to pie, there are usually five or six choices, all made fresh that day by Lucy. When a pie is gone, that’s it for the day, although don’t expect to see it the following day, since Lucy frequently rings the changes. In addition, there are now full breakfast and lunch menus, along with beer, wine, spirits and cocktails.
Half way down Judd Street, just south of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, Half Cup has been on my radar for a long time now, probably for almost as long as it’s been open, which is three years. I visited on several occasions, but sadly, until now, I’ve never been in a position to write it up, either being in a hurry to move on (like when I had breakfast there before this year’s London Coffee Festival) or else I’ve been meeting someone (the preliminary meetings about The Philosophy of Coffee where held here) and hence not been able to take detailed notes.
Half Cup serves Nude Espresso as its house-blend on espresso which has recently been joined by a guest espresso. This was, during my visit, the Penny Rock seasonal espresso blend from Red Bank Coffee in Cumbria. If you’re dairy-free, there’s an excellent selection of non-dairy milk alternatives, including almond, coconut, soya, oat and hazelnut. If you don’t fancy coffee, then there’s organic loose-leaf tea and a range of alcohol from craft beer to wine. There’s also an excellent brunch menu, which is served until 15.45, plus sandwiches to go and an awesome selection of cake.
Brixton Blend is the slightly-more-minimalist younger sibling of Brockwell Blend, which opened last month just across the road from Brixton Tube Station. Occupying two floors of a narrow building directly across street from the David Bowie mural, it’s a welcome addition to the centre of Brixton, joining stalwarts Federation and Balance. When you consider that roasters Volcano Coffee Works/Assembly have also just moved in around the corner on Ferndale Road, you have the makings of a real speciality coffee hub in south London.
Brixton Blend is aiming for the takeaway market for the moment, even though it has plenty of space. This accounts for the minimalist nature of the seating (just two tables in the spacious downstairs, five upstairs) and the lack of proper cups, although there are tentative plans to give it a more permanent feel. Don’t let that put you off sitting in though, since the interior’s lovely and relaxed.
True to its name, Brixton Blend serves two espresso blends, one from the local Volcano and the other from Nude Espresso. These are joined by a decaf on the third grinder, while there’s a single-origin on bulk-brew. A small selection of excellent cakes is available for the hungry.
Fitzrovia’s Curators Coffee Gallery has long been a favourite of mine, a convenient stopping off point when going to the BBC Radio Theatre for recordings. However, until the start of this month, in typical Coffee Spot fashion, I’d never been to the original, the Curators Coffee Studio in the heart of the City of London. I’d been past a couple of times, but I’d always been in a hurry and, like last week’s Saturday Short, New Row Coffee, I’d always been put off by the (lack of) size. The loss has been all mine…
Curators, as the name “studio” suggests, is small, no more than a rectangle on a corner, principally catering to the office takeaway trade (it’s shut at the weekends). Despite this, if you’re staying in, the coffee is served in proper cups and there’s a neat window-bar/table, plus some handy seating outside.
The coffee is from Nude Espresso, who provide the house-blend, while there’s also a guest espresso (from Square Mile while I was there), plus decaf and bulk-brew (another Square Mile during my visit). If you’re hungry, Curators has a limited, but decent, range of cakes and sandwiches, plus, as the benches outside proudly proclaim, breakfast.
I haven’t been to the original Curators in the City. The closest I got was walking past while thinking “wow, that’s small!”. In contrast, the second Curators, Fitzrovia’s Curators Coffee Gallery, is palatial in size. This comparison holds when considering the other Coffee Spots in Fitzrovia, where it vies with the likes of the tiny Mother’s Milk, through the (fairly small) Kaffeine, all the way up to the (not very big) Attendant and Workshop. Curators is so (comparatively) big that there’s a basement, and you all know my opinion of that!
Coffee-wise, Curators more than holds its own, the space giving it the freedom to offer a wide range of coffee. There’s a La Marzocco Strada dispensing the house espresso from Nude, alongside a regularly-rotating guest from various roasters (Nude included). At the other end of the counter, a neat row of Chemex (assuming the plural of Chemex is Chemex) awaits the call, each with its own scales and brass pouring kettle. There’s a choice of two filters, again from various roasters, with Nude and Square Mile predominating, ground by an EK-43, modestly kept in a purpose-built niche amongst the shelves of coffee kit on the wall behind the counter.
February 2016: I’ve now (finally) rectified my oversight and visited Curators Coffee Studio, the original Curators.
Tucked away in Westbourne Park tube station on the Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines, two stops west of Paddington, is the delightful Bica Coffee House. Having bemoaned the absence of top quality coffee in tube stations, I’ve now found two in as many months. However, unlike Piccadilly Grind, which I believe is a pop-up, Bica is here to stay.
Serving takeaway only, It’s a small spot, occupying what could have been an old booking office or kiosk. There is, however, a generous serving hatch and shelf, which is large and deep enough for a decent display of pastries and other baked goodies, as well as affording a view of the bright red two-group La Marzocco.
Unlike many coffee stalls/kiosks at stations, Bica’s commitment to excellence is there at the outset. The coffee is from east London roasters Nude Espresso and there are no 12-second extractions here, despite the steady stream of customers, while the milk is properly steamed, resulting in a great texture. There’s a decent range of espresso-based drinks: espresso and Americano, plus macchiato, cortado, flat white, latte and cappuccino. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s mocha and hot chocolate, plus tea of various types.
Machina Espresso might just be the perfect coffee shop. Set a little back on a wide pavement on Brougham Place in Edinburgh’s west end, it’s not a huge place, with just enough room for a few tables, a counter and multiple displays for coffee equipment. However, there’s an atmosphere about the place that just feels right, a certain calm that even an intransigent toddler (who was swiftly taken home by an indignant parent) couldn’t ruin.
Machina Espresso started life in Lock-up Coffee, a city-centre, weekend pop-up run by Ben Wylie, a barista at the late, much lamented Freemans Coffee. Back then, Machina Espresso was just an equipment supplier, but in November last year it moved into its current premises to become a fully-fledged coffee shop. The equipment is still here: (very) shiny espresso machines from Rocket and Expobar; compact grinders, great cups, tampers, pouring kettles… Everything, in fact, that you need to make great coffee at home.
However, if you can’t wait, Machina Espresso will happily serve you coffee (and cake). During my visit, the espresso was from nearby Steampunk Coffee and London’s Nude Espresso, with three single-origins on filter (all made through the Chemex). Spoilt for choice!
I honestly thought that New York City’s I Am Coffee had the 2013 Coffee Spot Award for “Smallest Coffee Spot” sown up. Then I found Goodge St Espresso. Whereas I Am Coffee is wide and tall, but not very deep, Goodge St Espresso is long and thin and not very tall. There are a few Coffee Spots where I can touch both walls with arms outstretched: Goodge St Espresso is the first where I can do that while standing against one of the walls! Think of a corridor with good coffee at the end of it and cake along the way, and you won’t go too far wrong.
Setting your expectations is key with Goodge St Espresso. Don’t expect somewhere that you can linger: the only place to sit is outside on a couple of stools. Don’t expect fancy cups: the only sort you get at Goodge St Espresso are takeaway, although as takeaway cups go, they’re very fine indeed. Do expect a warm welcome, some fine coffee and plenty of homemade cakes. Surprisingly for such a small place, Goodge St Espresso offers a choice of an espresso blend and a single origin, both from Nude Espresso.
July 2016: not sure when it happened, but Goodge St Espresso is sadly no more. I walked by the other day and it had closed.
White Mulberries is one of those hidden gems of the London Coffee Scene that you really need to know about if you’re going to find it. Tucked away in the lovely St Katherine Docks, opposite the lock with the Thames, it’s not the sort of place you’d casually walk past. However, once you’ve found it, chances are you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, even though the area is awash with cafes (I walked past five on my way to White Mulberries).
Run by husband and wife team Peyman and Rana, I was immediately struck by the friendly, welcoming atmosphere. It helps that the coffee, from London roasters, Allpress and Nude Espresso, is very good, while the cakes are excellent, but what makes White Mulberries stand out from the crowd is the warm welcome you get. It’s not a huge space and there’s not that much in the way of seating, but it’s the sort of place that makes you want to come back time after time.
I finally tracked down Nude Espresso on Soho Square, despite having walked past it without noticing it for a year and a half! Often first impressions count and while I’ve had many first impressions on entering coffee spots over the years, this is the first time it’s been “wow, this smells nice!”. Clearly something delicious had been baking, either that or Nude Espresso is being very clever with piping in smells.
My other early impression is that Nude Espresso isn’t very big, but manages to pack a lot in, offering impressive breakfast and lunch menus, a range of delicious cakes, and a choice of regular, decaf and pour-over single origin, all roasted by Nude Espresso itself. Best of all, you can sit and watch the chef at work, which probably explains where the delicious baking smells come from…
January 2016: Sadly Nude’s branch in Soho Square has closed. You can still find Nude at the roastery on Hanbury Street and also in a new location on Bell Lane.