What? Though I’m a southerner who lives (very) east and works (very) west, you’d be mistaken to think I’m a fully- fledged, compass-conquering Londoner. In fact, there is a very big, north-shaped gap in my familiarity – it’s one of the main things that attracted me to Café Hampstead. That, and the fact that it offers neighbourhood dining by way of Tel Aviv, read: an insight into the lives of Hampstead-ites with copious amounts of hummus thrown in to fuel the people-watching.
New? Café Hampstead opened its doors a couple of months ago, a refreshing new addition to a postcode full of Côtes, Café Rouges et al.
On The Menu: I don’t know much about cafe culture in Tel Aviv but I do know a thing or two about hummus and pitta – luckily I learnt there is a lot more to Israeli cuisine than whizzed-up chickpeas. Here the menu is split into Baking and Dipping, Small Plates, Grill Over Coal and Large Plates but as long as you think of sharing starters followed by more substantial mains then you won’t go far wrong. Familiar ingredients are accompanied by ones you may need to Google (think akawi and sabaneh) but be a bit experimental and it will pay off.
The Look: A large brass bar is the centre of attention and I would suggest having a drink there before your meal if you have time. The food comes thick and fast so don’t worry about waiting hours for each course; you won’t be left hungry. The walls are adorned with botanical prints and forest-green banquettes sit round the edge of the room. Hanging plants added life, though the white walls seemed a bit of a cop-out, as did the single feature wall of palm-leaf wallpaper hiding round by the staircase – they could have been a lot bolder with the decor.
What We Ate: On the Friday night we visited it really was packed. Though, by 9pm we noticed a surprising amount of covers had taken place, there was a steady flow of dog-clutching, designer-clad couples arriving all evening. The tables are really close together so if you don’t have any interest in marital tiffs (“put your bl**dy phone away”) or work debriefs (“he was a “so**ing nightmare today”) then you may want to request a more isolated position, but we loved it – it is a local bistro after all. One set of neighbours taught us to stagger our ordering so that small plates didn’t come with the mains (their chicken schnitzel went back to the kitchen till they were ready) while the other side congratulated us on our decisions – thanks to our new friends, neighbours #1. In fact, neighbours #2 told us they come every week, and when we realised they complimented our waitress on her new hair colour and shook hands with the staff as they left, we knew they were telling the truth.
It didn’t require praise from neighbours to know we’d ordered well. ‘Burnt’ aubergine with tahini was wonderfully charred on the outside and perfectly soft in the middle and hummus was just as I’d hoped for. Calamari was crying out for a bit of zing but the pitta was clearly freshly made and a refreshing change to a bread basket. Some of the portions were quite inconsistent though – while the bowl of calamari was overflowing, the mains very noticeably on the small side (unless you get the schnitzel. The schnitzel was huge. Neighbour #1 told us to get the schnitzel but it was too late.) Prawn kebab was loaded full but sat on a huge plate that was basically full of lettuce. Hanout lamb cutlets were the better choice by far, though my boyfriend could definitely have done with a third hunk of meat to tide him over till our ice-cream and chocolate mousse. Neither pudding was quintessentially Israeli but I came to learn that that’s what Café Hampstead is all about really. It’s a little bit eclectic, a little bit inconsistent but very buzzy and very welcoming. Just what you want from a neighbourhood eatery.
What We Drank: Though we did try a mouthful of the Israel red on the menu it was back to Italy we went: a bottle of Sardinian Carignano del Sulcis slipped down with our food very nicely.
Where: 48 Rosslyn Hill, NW3 1NH, www.cafehampstead.co.uk
Final Word: While I would say South West London has similar offerings I wouldn’t say you need to go out of your way to visit NW3. But, if like me, the leafy streets and yummy mummies have you all intrigued then Café Hampstead is one to add to the list, perhaps after a long walk on the Heath or once you’ve whet your appetite at one of the unbeatable local pubs.