Thursday, 9 August 2007

A different Bill

I don't mind admitting that it was with feelings of trepidation and preemptive envy that I made the trip to Brighton to visit Bill's Produce Store (no connection to the three Bill's cafes in Sydney set up by Bill Grainger). A gaping hole in the UK market is casual cafe dining for foodies - something that Australia has in abundance. From what I'd heard, Bill's in Brighton had a very Australian feel and did great breakfasts, salads and fresh juices. What if they were doing exactly what I'd envisaged for my cafe but better than I ever could?

After getting hopelessly lost (it's 100 North Rd Brighton, not North Street or Brighton Rd) we arrived at 1pm and were seated at the last free table. Literally ten minutes later there was a queue - not bad for a weekday considering Bill's is by no means small (looks like it seats over 60). Its a food store/cafe housed in what feels like a shed with high ceilings, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables in the front, a cafe in the back half and shelves of upmarket pantry items like chutneys, vinegars and oil lining the walls throughout. I don't know how many people actually buy any of this stuff; no-one while we were there. But despite the slightly staged look, it all lends itself to the farm-shop, rustic atmosphere they are trying to create.

They have managed to fit a lot of different offerings in a relatively small space with takeaway sandwiches, salads and cakes, a juice bar, the fresh produce and goods section and the eat in cafe which is clearly what most people come for. The menu marks it as more cafe than restaurant and is weighted towards breakfast which includes all the usual suspects - scrambled eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes, grilled mushrooms, etc. For lunch there are a selection of pizzas (thick based like a focacia and heavily loaded with ingredients) and quiches (English cafes are very fond of quiches) all on display, as well as a couple of daily specials written up on blackboards.

I had the steak sandwich (9 quid) which came as a gristly, though generously sized, piece of steak sandwiched in home made focaccia bread with horseradish mayonnaise and roast vegetables including roast parsnip, zuchini and sweet potato. I'm all in favour of mixing flavours and textures but I also think that if you use really fresh quality ingredients (which given the props and setting you assume they do) its better to keep it simple. I think the roast vegetables were a mistake.

Nothing is minimalist or understated at Bill's - portions are huge, flavours are mixed together with gay abandon, and the presentation is a little overwhelming. I gave up on desert because I couldn't see what any of the cakes looked like underneath the decorative flora and fauna.

And yes, the coffee is served in cups for giants with calcium deficencies.

In contrast to all the chaos and clutter going on in ingredients, presentation and people, the waiters are amazingly calm and efficient. We had excellent attentive service, although I did take issue with the man serving at the fruit and veg counter when he mocked my Aussie accent. Ah a cunning linguist: "You don't hear me making fun of your accent do you?" "Well go on then". So I gave him a rendition of my cockney accent, something I felt I'd honed from working at a jacket potato shop in Holborn 13 years ago: "I'll have a jacket wif beans and cheese and don't be shy wif the beans". Not bad he conceded "but you still sound like an Aussie". I didn't think he'd appreciate a history lesson explaining Australia's convict beginnings so I let it go.

All in all, nothing amazing about Bill's considering the hype - they are still way superior to most cafes I've been to in the UK and are obviously doing something right to be so popular. Maybe I was just unlucky but I was peversely happy to be a bit disappointed.

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