Café case study: Heaven on earth

Café case study: Heaven on earth

If you want a snapshot of the most innovative food outlets the country has to offer, head to the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. Amid the boutiques nestle quaint cafés, hidden bars and some of the newest restaurant concepts to grace the eating out market.

Look even closer, though, and you’ll spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance to Neal’s Yard, tucked away behind London’s bustling main streets like a secret community. But this colourful, vibrant collection of businesses are beaming with warm welcomes – none more so that the ultra-cool Jacob the Angel, which only opened a few months ago.

You may have heard of siblings Layo and Zoë Paskin before, but if not, they operate two of the capital’s most notoriously hard restaurants to get into – The Palomar and The Barbary – the latter having been awarded the top spot in Time Out’s Best Restaurants 2017. Both restaurants centre around an intimate dining concept, and this culinary culture has crossed over to their latest incarnation Jacob the Angel.

I’ll be frank: the café is tiny (300 sq ft, to be exact), and its central foodie location means it fills up with people as quickly as it empties again. There are a small number of sleek wooden stools and compact tables to perch at if, like me, you’re one of the 10 people who are able to settle down and soak up the atmosphere a little. It is possible to tuck yourself away out of the firing line of hustle and bustle; taking time to notice its finer embellishments like the brass logo inset into the smooth cement floor, and the jars and boxes of ingredients stacked up as high as the ceiling behind the servery.

What struck a chord with me, though (on my very own angelic harp), was the staff. Friday lunchtime at the start of Christmas shopping season in central London is an unenviable shift for hospitality workers, but despite the size of Jacob the Angel, there were nearly as many team members busying themselves serving quickly as there were actual customers. The pace they work at is exhilarating – but they aren’t rushing people in and out the door either, which would be an easy but bad habit to slip into. Every person nurtures your presence there, taking the time to ensure the items you order complement each other, that you are comfortable in your place, asking if you work locally to Neal’s Yard and generally looking genuinely pleased that you chose to eat and drink there.

With space a priority, it’s no wonder the café’s focus is on teas, coffees, soft drinks, cakes, banh mi-style sandwiches and salads to take away – although I highly recommend staying a while to enjoy them if you can fit. The food offering at Jacob the Angel has been created by the head chef Daniela Gattegno, recently sous chef at The Barbary and previously at Ottolenghi, and the menu features freshly baked cakes, pastries and pies, plus generously filled sandwiches and seasonal salads.

The salad menu reads like the pages of an exciting recipe book that I’d bought in earnest and never gotten around to creating myself. How does fennel, orange, tarragon, goats’ cheese and nigella seeds sound? Or how about purple kale, green beans, freekeh, pistachios, garlic oil and apple vinegar? Each creation is piled high on plates and is a multi-sensory explosion. The team has emphasised English ingredients and works with suppliers including London’s award-winning Square Mile Coffee Roasters, Cannon & Cannon for British charcuterie, Hackney-based Newton and Pott for jams and gin-pickled treats, and Swaledale Foods for British game and pork. In addition to this, Seven Dials neighbours Neal’s Yard Dairy provides the selection of cheeses featured on the menu.

Jacob the Angel is bubbling with culture, featuring ingredients often found on timeless eastern Mediterranean and north African menus, in modern snacks that champion wellbeing and grab-and-go eating. It might be adjacent to its often booked up sister restaurant The Barbary, but it’s setting its own standard as a daytime celestial retreat you can access on your own terms.