Review: The Eating Week – On Cafe, Bo Drake, Ben’s Canteen

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Chicken Bao, Shanghai Duck Xiao Long Bao, Prawn and Leek Har Gow at On Cafe, Clapham
​It’s tough trying to be a food writer. In this day and age, where anyone with an iPad and working knowledge of a knife and fork has invariably already published their own variation on “the starter/main/dessert was delicious/inedible” about every restaurant that’s ever opened, there’s very little you can say that isn’t either repetitive or redundant or both. When the natural evolution of an establishment seems to follow the model of supper club to street food to pop up to permanent, even those restaurants whose future-bastard concepts are currently nothing more than ungerminated microherb seeds on a Hackney rooftop are guaranteed to open with reputations pre-packaged and ready to go, whipped up into a frenzy by the sort of crazed food loons who base entire weekends around kebabs.

On Cafe

It seems you only have two options to get yourself noticed; either say something inflammatory about avocados, or set about finding the diamond in the rough, that elusive, undiscovered gem that none of the others have sunk their inky paws into, generate a buzz around it and ride the coattails of their success into a perfect break of peer recognition, newspaper commissions and, ultimately, Masterchef guest appearances. This week someone else beat me to the avocados, so I had to make do with the latter. In fact, I lie. I’ve been staking out On Café for quite some time. A local resident, I did a macaron baking course a year or two ago at Loretta Liu’s kitchen premises off Wandsworth Road. She was passionate and clever, and clearly knew what she was doing, so when I noticed a spotless looking restaurant quietly taking shape on the dusty road to Brixton, I kept a close eye on proceedings. I watched as it opened and set aside time in my toddler’s busy schedule, certain to be the first to herald the arrival of a new local star, then gasped in horror as Jay Rayner published his glowing review in last week’s Observer, one day before my planned visit.
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Patisserie display at On Cafe, Clapham.

​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.

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Chocolate Mousse Gateau at On Cafe, Clapham

​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.

On Cafe
31 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7EE

12:30 – 9:30pm
Wednesday – Sunday:
11:00am – 9:00pm

+44 203 759 0162 (for Clapham Common Cafe)
+44 7789 818 477 (for Cookery School)
Email: (General) (Cookery Classes)

Visit On Cafe’s Website
​Follow On Cafe on Twitter

Bo Drake

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Wild mushrooms, seaweed, tofu, gochujan, sourdough at Bo Drake

​In an unexpectedly active week of eating I managed to eat out almost every day, either by taking advantage of meetings in town or taking my daughter with me. At the other end of the Asian spectrum was the reasonably priced Bo Drake on Greek Street, which somehow managed to pull of some frankly hazardous sounding fusion with serious conviction. A wild mushroom, seaweed, tofu and gochujan dish with sourdough, a baby octopus soup and KFC (Korean Fried Chicken with soy garlic, grapes and rosemary) were the standouts. Great fun, though the kitchen staff must be sadists if they expect diners to balance half slices of grape on the rugged edge of a chicken wing in order to get everything in one bite.
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Sticky Rice Cakes at Bo Drake
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Spicy Baby Octopus Soup at Bo Drake
Bo Drake 
6 Greek Street,
Monday – Thursday:
12:00 – 2:30pm
5:30 – 11:00pm
Friday :
12 – 2:30pm
5:30pm – 12am
12pm – 12am

Ben’s Canteen

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.

Ben’s Canteen 
140 St. John’s Hill,
SW11 1SL

Monday – Thursday:
5pm – 12am
Friday – Saturday:
9am – 12am
9am – 10:30pm

+44 0207 228 3260

Visit Ben’s Canteen’s website.
​Follow Ben’s Canteen on Twitter.

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