The other day I had agreed to meet the lovely Miss O for a little afternoon get-together. She was coming from Islington and I offered to find us a delightful spot to have afternoon tea in the area. I was determined to cycle as it had been so long since I'd strapped on my rather chic helmet (yes, that's right I said chic!) so I started to do some research. I had a vague memory of a cafe I'd heard about in Clerkenwell, incidentally my favourite bit of town and the area that contains my familial roots (perhaps the two things are connected..?), and after a little bit of research I found it and arranged to meet Miss O there.
As soon as I saw J&A Cafe I fell in love with it. Tucked down a little alleyway just off busy Clerkenwell Road, J&A is in a beautiful old industrial building, apparently a former diamond-cutting studio and as such, filled with light despite its enclosed location. There are a number of tables around the edge of the room but the centre of the cafe is filled by a large communal table and that's where we decided to sit. Neither of us had had any lunch so we agreed it'd be foolish to move straight to cakes and chose a sandwich each instead. And what sandwiches they were. I was a little disappointed to hear they had run out of smoked salmon (why do places always seem to run out of the one thing you have chosen?) so I opted for a cheddar and fruit chutney sandwich on Irish soda bread.
It turns out that the sisters who run the cafe are themselves Irish and one thing is for sure, they know their soda bread. It was quite simply some of the best bread I've ever eaten: soft and light in the middle with a deliciously chewy brown crust. The cheddar and chutney was good too but frankly, I would have been happy with just a few slices of that bread. The other thing that really impressed me was that the sandwiches were served up with accompanying crisps. Not only did this serve to elevate the sandwich from a mere snack to a proper lunch, but the crunchy salted crisps alongside the fantastic soft and chewy bread was a complete winner.
It soon became clear that this was going to turn into one of our marathon afternoons. Not only were we having some amazing food, the atmosphere in the cafe was just great: bustling but, perhaps because of its secluded location, never horribly busy. And not being able to see any traffic out of windows only added to the chilled out vibe. Having had such success with the sandwiches, an hour or two later (did I mention that we don't struggle to make conversation..?) we decided to sample the cakes.
They were all homemade, and all looked really good. I chose a lovely-looking Coffee Cake and Miss O went for an equally appealing Apple & Maple affair. I had already been impressed to note they were using the Zero Japan teapots I have written about before and that the tea was loose-leaf. The choice though wasn't too wide with only English Breakfast and Earl Grey in terms of black tea so I went for good old EBT. That minor disappointment though was soon forgotten as our cakes arrived. Not only did they look amazing, they came accompanied by pots of whipped cream. Just like the crisps before them, they were an unexpected but very welcome treat.
And the cakes were no disappointment. My Coffee Cake had a decent proper coffee kick and a lovely buttercream in the middle and on the top. The cake was quite crunchy on the edge, but not in a bad way, just in a "cooked for the maximum time' kind of way. In truth the cream was unnecessary given the buttercream, but I managed to force some down anyway... Miss O's Apple & Maple cake was equally tasty with a firm texture and a very sweet maple icing on the top. The accompanying cream was more welcome with this cake, not because it was dry but because it just complimented the taste and texture so well. And despite not having an enormous selection of tea, the English Breakfast that we were served was still a good cuppa, and washed down our cakes incredibly well.
After more than three hours spent enjoying the atmosphere and delicious wares of the cafe we realised it was time to go; I think the general mopping and tidying-up gave it away. We still managed to stand chatting in the alleyway for another half an hour, and I noticed with some pleasure that there were tables and chairs outside which would be very inviting on a warm day. But eventually the staff were leaving the cafe and needed to lock the gate at the end of the alleyway. If we weren't to be trapped all night there was nothing for it but to just leave. But what a lovely afternoon it had been. A great location, really good homemade food, and just the most chilled, laid-back vibe. If you find yourself in the area - or frankly even if you don't - J&A is really worth a visit. I for one, can't wait to return, and now I'm back in the saddle there's no reason why I shouldn't. Although if I keep ordering so much food I may have to cycle the long-way round to get there; you know, via Manchester...