But I won’t let that stop me; you have to keep at it if you want to get anywhere in this game. Besides, it’s all about the food, and the more said about this charming, humble café the better. I’ve been to On Café twice in the past week, tried around twenty-five percent of the menu, and every single thing was sensational. Pork and prawn wonton soup was clean, light and packed with flavour, with four plump and juicy wontons for your £4.50, putting a recent £8.25 chicken dumpling soup at The Wolseley to shame (no dumplings). Prawn and leek Har Gow came in transparent crystal skin dough, perfectly flavoured and with an immensely pleasurable bite. The Shanghai Xiao Long Bao (chicken, five spice duck), lightly spiced meat in pouches of broth, were the first I’ve ever been able to eat (China included) without the dough breaking as you grab it with the chopsticks. People often overlook how pivotal a role dough plays in the soup dumpling experience: it’s make or break. Scratch the armour, lose the soup and it’s just another raviolo. Getting the dough right, flexible yet al dente (flexidente?), elevates it to a whole other level.
It’s this kind of care and attention to detail that sets On Café apart. The menu, bar the odd Thai inflection here and Korean note there, is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s thoughtful, honest and healthy. Out go the MSG and lard, in come fresh herbs and homemade tofu. Pork is British, dips sugar free, and juices are there to cleanse as they quench. If that all sounds boringly, suspiciously Ella, fear not, these flavours feel revitalized, as though restored by the obligatory health spa panpipes playing in the background. It’s a common misconception that food can’t be wholesome and tasty at the same time, and On Café is the proof.
Well, sort of. They say the path to repentance is fraught with temptation, and after granting savoury absolution On Café faces you with a test so cruel one suspects Lent would be a lot shorter had Satan had the nous to plonk a refrigerated cabinet of luxury eclairs in front of Jesus as he roamed the wilderness. A Californian Pistachio number glistens with studded jewels of candied fruit, a sharp citrus tang to the custard underneath. The Chocolate Praline Gateau is an addict’s fix of intense cocoa, with a praline that crunches like gravel underfoot as the spoon cuts through it. Whisky caramel completes the cocktail. It’s almost a shame to eat it, but by this point you’re no longer in control. A takeaway bag of textbook macarons is a foregone conclusion.
On Café doesn’t try to be hip and it doesn’t need to; it knows where its strengths lie. Patisserie may seem like an odd match for dim sum, but in practice it makes perfect sense; not only do they require the same level of precision, the same lightness of touch, but in the mind of the sinner the light lunch provides the perfect justification for the sugary crime to come. It’s classic emotional manipulation, and it works like a charm.
31 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7EE
12:30 – 9:30pm
Wednesday – Sunday:
11:00am – 9:00pm
12 – 2:30pm
5:30pm – 12am
12pm – 12am
12pm – 9pmPhone:
+44 207 439 9989
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Less successful was Ben’s Canteen. I’d always thought this was supposed to be some sort of local favourite, but the brunch here on a weekday afternoon suggested otherwise. My daughter’s fish finger brioche made me question my parenting; limp fries and parched fish that had long since forgotten the ocean. Maybe I spoil her taste buds by cooking, like, fresh food, but this was all wrong. In the absence of anything light and refreshing on the menu for one of the hottest days of the year, (specials board?), I went for the courgette and sweetcorn fritters with tomato chutney and got two greasy testes of batter, a fingernail of sticky liquid and a half mound of unwashed baby spinach dumped on the plate so carelessly I can only assume the chef was blindfolded. A kerplunk splat of whole chives rounded off the display. Maybe it’s because I know that anyone with a wrist can scramble, that smashed avocado with poached eggs works about as well as a vegan butcher (there, I’ve said it) and brunch is a total con. Maybe it was an off day and the evening menu is better. Either way, this joyless experience was enough.
Monday – Thursday:
5pm – 12am
Friday – Saturday:
9am – 12am
9am – 10:30pm