Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Restaurant review: Esters, Stoke Newington
Despite a reputation for being wanky, full of buggies and a migrating ground for the ageing hipsters from Shoreditch, I’ve really enjoyed living in Stokey for the last three years. But although Church Street remains fiercely independent with a thriving café culture, it hasn’t half been difficult to find a decent cup of coffee. The explosion of brilliant artisan coffee around East London has kept the major chains at bay, where it seems like every beardy, check-shirted man has the ability to make a decent flat white. Somehow this has failed to spread up the Kingsland Road, and the frothy, muddy ‘cappuccino’ still rules in N16. However, tucked just away from the beaten track are a couple of neighbourhood gems. Fred and Fran was one of those, finally somewhere that took coffee seriously. And those cakes! But alas, the owners scurried back to Australia at the end of last year and the caffeine gap once again re-opened. Not even the well-meaning Green Lanes arrivals a stones-throw from my front door got it quite right, and it was with slight contempt that I noticed that Esters was opening out of the previous saviour’s ashes.
Every new business takes a little while to finely hone and settle in, but there were good signs from the start. That same balance of architectural and makeshift, designer lamps and treacle tin stands, had been maintained, as seemingly had the Marzocco. Doughnuts delivered from The St. John sat on boards alongside a short and confident hot food list. It did feel like a sickening bit of cool had tried to be injected into what had been a fairly unassuming café, though perhaps that’s just me getting old. But I was happy that as the weeks went by the attendances and coffee got better and better, and by my first sitting for breakfast Esters had happily filled the void for a weekend morning perk.
The café was full on the bright morning that Katie and I visited, but you wouldn’t know it. A glorious bustle was replaced by stony silence hidden behind a sheet of grey and that bright apple. This is no fault of Esters, and all good business to them, but a sad by-product of concentrated freelancing. Our hushed conversations seemed amplified in the small space. But it was bright and airy, the staff were cheery and that wonderful ground aroma wafted round. And yet again the coffee was excellent. For someone like me who can only take one hit of caffeine per day without climbing up the walls it was perfect. I’m not overly fussed by latte art as a whole, but it generally comes hand-in-hand with good, tight micro-foam and a coffee made with care. This one had that pleasing balance of sweet mellowness and punchy acidity.
Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern breakfasts are all in at the moment, possibly down to the spreading influence of Mr Ottolenghi, but they really are a breath of fresh air. Give me grilled leeks, sprouting broccoli, sumac and zhoug over flabby bacon and powdery scrambled eggs any day. But please don’t serve them up to me on a silly little board. For food styling purposes this might look wonderful, but half of my beans were on the table at my first attempt at a forkful. William Sitwell made a big fuss over the lack of round, white plates on the telly recently and I totally agree. The same food would have looked just as good and been perfectly functional to eat. Though aside from that and the want of a little more butter or oil on my slightly dry bread, my breakfast really was lovely. Aioli and chorizo danced around with the beans and chard and there was just the right amount. It was nice to eat a cooked breakfast that left you energised and not wiped out and wanting bed again. Katie’s black pudding and leeks were a little swamped by a very sweet tomato relish but otherwise equally satisfying.
Since returning I have noticed the menu changing regularly, and I look forward to seeing how this moves through the seasons. I also picked up one off their glorious sausage rolls, which are a total revelation. The bottom of the crispy pastry somehow manages to taste just like those joyful bits of roast potato that get stuck to the bottom of the dish after a Sunday roast.
Despite only being open a couple of months it is evident that Esters is already going from strength to strength. Despite my nit-picking it has carried the high standard left by Fred and Fran and remains one of the best places in Stoke Newington to hang out for a coffee. The word neighbourhood gets bandied around by trendy restaurants sitting totally un-neighbourly locations. But this is the real deal. For those who want a decent coffee and an interesting breakfast for a change, it really is worth the extra five minute walk away from all of those wanky buggies, greying scenesters and rushed coffees on the high street.