For centuries great caravans crossed the shimmering sands of the Sahara, laden wonders bound for the great trading cities of the Mediterranean: Istanbul, Tripoli, Venice and Cairo. It was a hazardous and hot route and inevitably some of the goods didn’t quite make it.
And that was what happened when we ate at Caravan, a bar-restaurant kind of place the in foodie oasis of Exmouth market. There were some winners and some duds. Some humble dishes that revealed wonders, and some exotic sounding creations that were a let down.
The day we went in, Autumn was settling in. It rained, there was a cold breeze and leaves were swirling along the street. Yhe only thing I could think of whe I got through the door was getting a hot drink.
All the good things I’ve heard about the coffee here didn’t quite prepare me for the reality. Coffee in London is so often burnt, bitter, badly made and pricy. Not this. This wee glass of caramel coloured latte was magnificant. Smooth, nutty and almost lightly spiced, these were superb beans roast to perfection and made by a proper barista.
The restaurant itself is very antipodean in character, no baked mud walls here, it’s all stripped wood and white walls. A simple and relaxing space. The menu encourages lingering over a coffee with a multitude of dishes small and large. And like any chest of treasures from distant climes there were all manner of intriguing titbits.
Four of us managed to get a pretty good spread considering we were only stopping in for a quick lunch. We ranged from small – cornbread and grilled sourdough – to large, squid pancake and veal schnitzel.
The cornbread was superb. Loose crumbed and sweetly flavoured, with little nuggets of corn embedded in the slices. It had been sliced and then lightly fried to add a crispy edge. Perfect. As was grilled sourdough bread, springy, stretchy and with just the hint of a sour edge.
The salmon was decent – a tasty piece of fish, but not outstanding, I’ve had just as good from a deli. But good nonetheless. Butternut squash with curd cheese was bright and colourful, but curiously devoid of the deep sweet taste it usually displays. Maybe the problem was the curd which was pretty uninspiring.
Things picked up somewhat with the veal schnitzel which was tender and tasty and well cooked. But then we dived into the intriguing sounding pancake. Pieces of squid and octopus cooked in a thick and springy batter, with some sort of strong Tonkatsu sauce with something mysteriously mayonnaisey squirted over.
It was a mess
. The worst of what fusion food can be - of an okonomyaki, a clash of flavours and textures fighting for doinance. The squid and octopus were a little over cooked and bouncy. What little flavour they had was completely overwhelmed by the sauces. The whole thing left me with a weird taste in my mouth.
So my trip to the Caravan bazaar was well a little, well, bizarre. It’s rare to get such a mixed bag in a single meal. But at least it showed that they are unafraid to experiment. So, I’ll be back, perusing the menu with a beady eye. Because when it was good (coffee and cornbread), it was very very good. But when it was bad…
Caravan, 11-13 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QD. 020 7833 8115 www.caravanonexmouth.co.uk