Fernandez & Wells have to be one of the best, if not the best, sandwich and coffee bars in the UK. Their latest opening in Somerset House, London sees them pushing the boundaries even further. Nellie Nichols goes along to revel in this new heaven.
It’s rarely I tell anyone about my odd hobby but I’m going to let you all into the secret now. I feel you know me well enough for me to share what started as a mere innocent bit of research but has turned into something of an investigative obsession: the history of disused London underground stations. The reason I’ve never told you about it before is because you’d all have me down as some kind of mad train spotting type. Honestly, as if I’d ever own (let alone wear) an anorak.
I suppose it all started in 1994 when the Strand underground station closed, less than eighty seven years after it opened. I was working at Pret the first time round and their HQ then was a stone’s throw down the road on Fleet Street, just past the High Court. It was such a marvellously exciting location to work in, being right in the thick of the legal system, never knowing who you might spot outside the Court, or walking into El Vino in Fleet Street for a drink after a hard day arguing at the Bar.
I remember clearly the Strand tube station simply closed on 30th September. It was on the Piccadilly line and no particular reason was given. It transpired the lift was man operated, like many at that time, with a lovely heavy duty metal lever that always looked such hard work to activate. It was going to be costly to replace it with an automatic version – some £5 million, but with only 600 passengers a day it was deemed unviable.
I suppose the interest came for me as the years went by and the station just stayed there, and then I discovered how many others there were. Over seventy in total have been closed, many brimming over with history like Down Street in Mayfair, (1907-1932) another of my favourites, used as an air raid shelter by Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet.
Today I walk past the old Strand underground again and there it is in all its shabby glory. Being a branch line still connected to the main network it is the most used of all the disused stations, no longer, alas, by passengers but by film and TV companies instead. If you stand back from the old entrance you will see ‘Piccadilly Rly’ above the unique underground station’s hallmark big semi circle window and ‘Strand Station’ below, surrounded by the original brick red shiny tiles. It’s nice to know it’s just stayed safe over time, like Somerset House, my destination just a little further up the street.
Okay, I’m very ashamed to say I’ve never visited Somerset House. That’s the problem when you live in London, it’s easy to avoid making the effort to visit the marvellous historical landmarks under your nose that are on every visiting tourist’s list of ‘must sees’. One day (if ever any of you want to join me) I’m going to get on an open top bus and have a whale of a time, stopping off to see the ravens at the Tower, along with the Crown Jewels and have a Mr Whippy Ice Cream with a Cadbury’s flake in it afterwards to boot. But sadly there’s no time today to visit this fabulous old palace on one of the shiniest days of sunshine we’ve had in all these recent weeks of rain.
I’m here to visit the latest Fernandez & Wells in the East Wing of Somerset House, four years after I reviewed their Beak and Lexington Street shops, when they were just a year old. Even though nearby St Anne’s Court opened shortly afterwards, it was three years later when Somerset House approached Rick and Jorge in August 2011 to open a café there. How could they say no; Somerset House would provide the architectural plethora that they seek out as vital criteria in all their locations and unable to turn it down they opened just three months later.
Standing in the fountain courtyard of Somerset House I might be in Florence, or Paris or indeed many parts of Europe. It’s as grand as grand can be and a big ask, I think, for any brand to have the right synergy to blend into such awe-inspiring architecture, not to mention the ability to deliver the required understated style and charm.
If you asked me who I thought could possibly step up to the mark, I could have only answered Fernandez & Wells. But it’s still with a little trepidation I walk in through their courtyard entrance.
Why on earth did I worry? I’m standing in the doorway and I don’t know which way to look first: at the stunningly sympathetic interior design or the Alice in Wonderland tea party cake counter display, all hand baked by their Executive Chef, Deidre Rettali.
It’s all just too inviting, like walking into a wonderful department store at Christmas filled with eye watering displays left right and centre, all designed to make you throw retail caution to the wind. Luckily, Jorge Fernandez is sitting on a York stone bench to distract me. The bench itself, I discover, is a distraction all of its own, thinly yet invitingly covered with a neatly folded horse blanket, that does nothing to soften the brutal cold hardness concealed below. Jorge thankfully wants to take me on a tour.
Thin and long, their space is utilised to give the feeling of endless different day part opportunities. Chalk boards along the white walls describe delicious beers, wines and sherries by the glass, with wonderfully inspiring names; Camden Hells Lager has to be a favourite of mine. There are temptations up there too in the form of deliciously descriptive cheese boards and wicked breakfast specials; Taktouka – eggs poached in spicy tomato and grilled pepper sauce and Organic Irish Porridge.
The counter (again York stone, better utilised as a counter than an unforgiving seat) is literary covered, dripping with temptation; a Black Pudding and Egg Mayo Ciabatta Dusted Roll, and another filled with Old Spot Sausages and Isle of Wight Relish. Chimney pots cleverly balance wire trays piled with fruits for juicing, trays and plates bear brownies, Polenta cake, Strawberry and Almond Tarts, and my favourite: a Victoria Sponge oozing at the edges with buttercream (I just wanted to run my finger along the edge of it, if only I thought no one would be looking). There is a central table in front of the counter, surrounded by a group of trendy, arty types enjoying their early morning coffees.
One neo-classical room leads onto another, four in total, and the next reveals a second original fireplace, surrounded by whole hams hanging from the high ceiling above it, suspended by metal chains. There is a Jenga display of beautifully just-baked baguettes waiting to be sliced into, pots of brightly coloured mustards and chutneys and recently carved hams. This is urban, slick, but above all elegant, all with a powerful food presence that firmly whispers from every corner: quality, quality and more quality.
The sandwich menu is, as always with Fernandez & Wells, ripe with adventure and filled with journeys of flavours to explore: Bocadillos (sourdough flutes) filled with 36 month cured Jamon Iberico de Belota with fresh tomato; Grilled Lomo, thinly sliced Pork Loin with Manchego; Sea Salt and Rosemary Focaccias filled with Grilled Chicken, Rocket and Tarragon Mayo, or Roasted Aubergine & Feta.
The Ciabatta rolls are made with Buffalo milk and filled with Mortadella, Aioli, Italian Salami and Shaved Parmesan, another with Ortis Tuna with Dill, Capers and Oak Roasted Tomatoes. There are so many more it must be near on impossible to choose one’s lunch under such culinary pressure, all reasonably priced for what is so lovingly made at around £5.00. Perhaps the rare Roast Beef with Horseradish would be hard for me to turn down on another day I might be passing.
I’m going to come back one summer’s evening and sit on this glorious terrace outside, with my chilled glass of the driest sherry imaginable and a plate of Finocchiona, that wondrous Tuscan salami seasoned with fennel seeds and pollen by Carlo Pieri, a family butcher in Saint Angelo Scalo close to Montalcino. No wait, I must also have a plate of Nardin Smoked Anchovy Fillets with some bread to mop up the smoky oil, and some Padron Peppers lightly grilled with olive oil and sea salt.
Oh, I’m so glad the next Fernandez & Wells is due to open before the Olympics, even closer to home at the old Victoria & Albert Museum’s bookshop in the newly pedestrianised part of Exhibition Road in South Kensington. I’ll be one of their very first happy customers, on that you can put your money on.
Fernandez & Wells Star Rating: * * * * *
* * A lot of potential but a lot of work to do
* * * Outstanding food and service
* * * * Remarkable
* * * * * I don’t believe it can get any better than this