It’s not off-putting being the only diners in a restaurant, far from it. When the mood is right, it can provide the perfect opportunity for a romantic pas de deux, a spot of clandestine intrigue, or a catch-up with an old friend.
Exmouth Market Grind – not to be confused with Bump ‘n’ Grind, Grime music, Grindr – is the newest of the artisan coffee shop group that turn their hand to pleasant brasserie dining once the commuters have left for the day. And this Grind, being in Exmouth Market, is one such place that, one parky spring evening, provided the setting for a long overdue RV with an old pal.
The lack of clientele might be attributable to the fact that it’s a devil to get to. Having lived in London for twenty years, Exmouth Market was not somewhere, to my knowledge, I had ever passed through. It sounded trendy, though, so it doesn’t surprise me that it should have ever appeared on my radar.
I looked it up on Googlemaps. A blue dot appeared an inconvenient equidistance from three frustratingly inaccessible tube stops. The closest looked like Farringdon. So Farringdon I set off for.
Having landed, I can confirm that it is indeed a spot in vogue – it’s Clerkenwell, after all – and I can see why they might have opened here. It did look like much of its footfall was commuter coffee traffic, so a good spot for that. And better for us that, once said patronage had left for the evening, we have an empty restaurant all to ourselves.
At first I thought it was closed. Occupying the corner of a building, through the near total glass frontage I couldn’t make out anyone inside. We entered, tentatively. A table of diners nearby looked like they were finishing up. “Err…I think you might be expecting us?” I asked. “Of course, sir,” he didn’t even check the bookings, “Mr White, is it? Please, sit, where you wish…” I surveyed the room. A collection of small tables split down the middle by a large central bar. One could almost tell where the coffee shop finished and the brasserie began.
We took a small two-seater by the window, the furthest end of the banquette along the far wall. Everything had an understated, charming feel. Whitewashed brick, hanging ball light fittings, marble table tops for two. Perfect for our needs.
I swept up the menu, a printed pink sheaf of A4. This was a good sign, somewhere a menu might change regularly is always a draw. I spied the cocktails highlighted, the prominence of Coffee Cocktails hinting at this venue’s principal outlay, but I liked the sound of the Espresso Old Fashioned and Hot Flat White Russian. Hmm, lovely, save those for later.
Instinctively, I ordered a negroni from the Classics, disappointed not to see more than four cocktails on offer, only later noticing the line in heavy type ‘Please ask to see our full cocktail list’. Oh, well, another after then.
The patient waiter admirably hid is irritation at being sent back four times for our not having reviewed the menu, until eventually we broke off from our discourse long enough to order, the pink neon above our heads subliminally urging us on, “Don’t just stare at it, eat it.”
Split into small and large plates, there’s a Mediterranean tapas feel to the Grind’s menu; again, suggesting it’s for passing nibbles while one catches up over a drink or two, but there were some rather elaborate entries on offer: grilled octopus, fennel, grapefruit and white beans; beetroot, burrata and pistachio; butchers steak with red pepper and almonds, this was far more than something to dip into while enjoying a glass of Montepulciano.
Speaking of which, the wine list on the other side of the sheet showed some careful consideration. Piedmont Gavi di Gavi, Sardinian Vermentino, Argentinian Torrontes; all happily affordable, making selecting which bottle to enjoy with the lamb shank, sweet potato and raita a tricky affair indeed.
What started out as a quick catch-up over a cocktail or two swiftly evolved into a sumptuous three-hour repast; quinoa, cauliflower and blood orange were complimented by the most extraordinary chorizo-stuffed dates the size of bulls’ gonads, plate after plate making us hit our zenith too soon and passing on some delightful desserts in favour of a sorbet and the aforementioned Russian.
By the close, as waiters swept up around us, never once encouraging us it was time to depart, we whiled away the evening, sharing news, swapping gossip, and reliving memories. To passing traffic in the darkness outside we must have looked like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, lit by smoky tungsten and a smattering of pink neon.
As we parted company into a passing taxi, aware that it may be another year or two until we caught up again, as unfussy and unpretentious as it is, it made me think there’s something far more memorable about Grind than simply a stop-off for a coffee.
Exmouth Market Grind, 8-10 Exmouth Market, London EC1. For espresso, cocktails and long-overdue catch-ups. For more information, visit www.grind.co.uk.