Long beleaguered, still often awful, the paradigm of coffee in restaurants is rapidly shifting, and like all good trends in the food world, it’s forward-thinking chefs leading the way. We’ve talked restaurant coffee in the past with noted chefs like Roy Choi in Los Angeles and Hugh Acheson in Georgia, and today Sprudge London contributor Vic Frankowski sits down with James Lowe, head chef at Lyle’s, a revered new London restaurant with a serious dedication to quality coffee.
Lyle’s London opened just a few months ago in the Tea Building, a creative space hub in the bustling, hip Shoreditch neighborhood. The renowned young chef behind the restaurant is James Lowe, of Young Turks fame. Lyle’s is a clean, quiet, and serene space offering lunch and dinner service while also providing a daytime drop-in coffee bar, headed (quite improbably) by another man called James Low.
For creatives working upstairs in the Tea Building as well as coffee pilgrims from near and far, the coffee bar at Lyle’s is a destination. But for diners, whether at a set menu for dinner or during a more casual lunch, Lyle’s coffee is that wondrous, rare thing: table service espresso & filter coffee at a restaurant with a high degree of execution. In the future, perhaps all restaurants will look and feel like this, but for now, in 2014, Mr. Lowe and Mr. Low have positioned Lyle’s at the very forefront of coffee service in the London dining scene.
Coffee in great restaurants has for decades been looked upon as a bitter finish to an otherwise perfect meal. But over the last few years, this lament has been slowly eroding, with younger chefs paving the way forward to provide clientele with comprehensive experiences in which every part of the menu has been considered and executed to the highest of skills. At Lyle’s, that means a rotating selection of fine coffee roasters, like London’s Square Mile, Paris’ Belleville and Sweden’s Koppi, prepared on top-end gear, including a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II espresso machine & Mythos grinder, and a Mahlkonig EK43 grinder for filter.
I took some time to have a chat with James Lowe to tell us a little bit about Lyle’s and poke again at the sore subject of why restaurant coffee continues to fall so short for so many.
Hello James Lowe, and thank you for speaking with me. Tell me a bit more about the wider inspiration behind Lyle’s.
I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant, and the reason I started cooking was to open my own place one day. At Lyle’s we try not to mess around with the food too much; instead we focus on getting the best ingredients possible. We do that by speaking to our suppliers, and keeping a very close eye on what’s available from the farmers and fishermen I use. Years as head chef at St. John Bread & Wine allowed me the time to find and build those relationships, and I’m still using many of the same suppliers for Lyle’s.
At lunch we have a list menu and at dinner it’s set. The idea of a set menu comes from my love of cooking for friends, and allowing people to relax in the restaurant. It allows me to take care of them for the evening. It also means that we get to put things on the menu that guests might have not necessarily had before, maybe something they might not have even ordered, but because they have no choice, they have to eat it and that hopefully makes it more memorable for them.
Espresso has been a part of the restaurant experience for decades, why do you think the quality of it has been overlooked for so long?
Ultimately I feel coffee is overlooked in restaurants because demand isn’t that high and people tolerate what they’re given more often than not. Restaurants tend to use relatively cheap coffee and machinery on contracts, which means they have low overheads and a high profit margin. We’re approaching it in the same way a coffee bar might, which is a significant investment. It’s around ten times more outlay than a “normal” set up in a restaurant. It will take time to recoup the money we’ve invested in doing this. One of the reasons that we’re able to, however, is because we’re an all-day restaurant, so people come in just for coffee and we also offer take-away, something that most restaurants can’t or don’t do.
Something else you have to bear in mind, is that the majority of people tend to not want coffee at the end of their meal, they either want to continue their evening and drink wine, or they go to bed. I don’t think it’s really part of British culture or tradition to have coffee after food.
When did you start looking a better cup of coffee? Was there a coffee bar that influenced your palate?
I guess the first time I had one… I really loved the Monmouth Coffee stand that used to be at Borough Market around five or six years ago. When I first started going there they used to have wooden drip filter racks, and I just loved the simplicity of the set up. I’m not a big fan of espresso personally. I much prefer filter coffee at the end of a meal and that’s part of the reason we offer various filter options.
A younger generation of chefs is now looking at providing a full circle of quality in their restaurants. For you at Lyle’s, that full circle includes food, drink, and coffee. Do you think coffee will become more imbedded in culinary experiences? Will it ever reach the level that wine has over the past 30 years?
To some degree yes. I think that eventually coffee will become more a part of a meal as people become aware of the possibilities, but drinking coffee with food is a very different experience to drinking alcohol with food.
Coffee is usually thought of as an after-dinner drink, but is that strictly the case at Lyle’s? Can I get an espresso while I’m looking at the menu?
Of course, you can order as and when you please really. We don’t normally provide sugar when serving but if you ask for it, we’re more than happy to provide it. It’s the same as with the food: if someone wants salt or pepper we’ll give it to them, if they want something cooked more, we’ll do that too.
Where do you like drinking coffee around London? What’s your go-to drink?
I like Association Coffee in Aldgate. Another place I really rate is MacIntyre Coffee, just around the corner from us on Hoxton Street. I get filter coffee when I’m out, but at the moment I’m in the restaurant all the time where, luckily for us, we have James [Low] on hand! It’s been great and I’ve learnt so much more having access to the amount of coffee we’ve been trying since the opening.