Apostrophe is one of London’s fast-growing sandwich stars with sixteen stores, the latest in the new Westfield complex in Shepherds Bush. But is its reputation for excellence deserved? Nellie Nichols went along to find out.
I was going to be in the last series of The Apprentice. One Saturday afternoon my doorbell rang and there stood two well dressed, suited and booted young men, asking me for some dry cleaning they could do overnight. A new company they said; a great special offer.
Well I don’t know if you would have been, but I was instantly suspicious. Firstly, I never take anyone seriously who wears a suit on a Saturday, secondly canvassing for cleaning door to door seemed an arduously weird weekend pastime, and thirdly, when challenged they were totally lacking in any credentials.
The more I said no the more they begged. I had no idea Alan Sugar had made them swear blind they wouldn’t return to HQ without any said dirty garments, which then drove them to offering me collateral in the form of a pair of mock snake skin boots (I didn’t think so, come on what would I have done with those) and rather a loud pin stripe suit jacket (ditto).
By this stage an entire film unit had appeared from thin air and recording was well underway. By now I was having a real Bridget Jones moment, starting to worry massively about the state of the shirt I had been happily gardening in when this nightmare began, not to mention my obvious lack of prime time quality make up (bits of grass and the odd smear of mud were unfortunately slightly apparent).
In the end, despite tediously having to agree to re-shoot the door opening sequence another eight times, I ended up on the cutting room floor due to my reluctance to take up the ‘value to shout about’ cleaning opportunity. Once the confidentiality agreement paperwork was duly signed the crew were able to tell me what it was all about and I could finally ask the burning question: why on earth my house?
The researcher, in charge of the initial ‘recce’ said she liked my street (frequently described as tree lined, a general attraction in London I understand), but most of all, she loved the colour of my front door which happens to be bright fuchsia pink, with a window box of, though I say it myself, very eye catching matching fuchsia pink geraniums. (I am going to get to the point of all this in a minute so do bear with me.)
A couple of years ago I wrote about Maison Vite in Piccadilly and now looking back in hindsight, as it’s no longer there, it probably was a bit of a misguided café concept. You might remember my description of the overdone fuchsia pink claddings (not to mention the same bright pink being everywhere else as well) which gave the whole place the impression of, what I described at the time, as having far too much in common with a Mayfair hairdressing and nail parlour.
Fuchsia as a colour, if not used in moderation, can just be just a touch on the sickly side. I’ve always thought strong and vibrant colours should be used with great care alongside food. Of course McDonald’s golden arches are a different thing altogether. Along with their stark and bright umbrella lighting, their brand colours are mooted to have been designed with the intention of no one ever staying in their stores for any length of time. A boulangerie/patisserie café concept, however, is another matter altogether and it’s quite by chance I’ve just come across the best minimalistic, yet striking use of knock out pink in a café environment.
Apostrophe first opened its doors in 2001 and now, nearly eight years on, has sixteen stores in some impressive central London locations and airports – the latest is one of over forty eateries in the new Westfield complex in Shepherds Bush.
The thinking behind the brand it is that no boulangerie/patisserie, traditional by its very nature, has ever offered a modern, urban and contemporary setting; a sophisticated cosmopolitan look with an urban edge, yet at the same time classically treamlined. Here there is walnut wood everywhere; cladding and shelving, along with clean square cut stools and big, brash as you like, counters piled high with unwrapped ambient pastries and sandwiches and everywhere you look, just the slightest, chicest touch of fuchsia pink.
The man I’ve come to meet who created this is Amir Chen, a softly but clearly spoken ex-banker who has followed his passion into food. Back then he set himself targets to learn every aspect needed to run a fast food business, from rotas all the way to purchasing.
After all, as he sensibly tells me, ‘nothing is rocket science except rocket science’. He has a nononsense approach to business; he knows his detail and insists his product has integrity. In no time he is showing me around, pointing out the jugs of water filled to the brim with bunches of fresh mint and slabs of lemon and the jars of f.o.c. jam for the croissants.
Ah, the croissants. He claims they are the best on the market, which I simply can’t take lightly. These are not pre-proved like most, and made with the delicious Isigny French butter from the region of the same name in Normandy, the marshy area caught between land and sea. This world famous butter is consequently rich in trace elements and high in butterfat and is the most delicious if, like me, you take your butter very seriously.
On tasting, I have to say this croissant is as close to my all-time favourite as it’s possible to be (nothing has ever come near to the king of kings of croissants at Patisserie Valerie before). And, it’s not on its own. Giant Palmier, that age old favourite of every French grandmother, deliciously crispy and retro, sit alongside pain au chocolate – some filled with sliced pear – croissants stuffed with ham and sliced omelettes, spinach and goats cheese puffs, feta and vegetable strudels.
I wonder if the sandwiches can match up to all this? Firstly there is absolutely no shortage of completely original breads on offer and I am thrilled to just once be truly surprised by what I’m seeing.
Delicious soft milk bread, big fat fresh pretzels, arctic wraps and even some lovely miniature doll like wheat free rye and raisin rolls filled with temptation; Roquefort cheese; smoked salmon, and Parma ham and parmesan.
The overall look is impressive and enticing, but above all one of opulence. Without the constraints and pressing issues of packaging, the fillings are free to be proudly on show – crisscross patterned French beans and slices of red peppers decorate a Mediterranean sough dough roll, slices of egg are lined up in a military perfect pattern.
Come and get me combinations line the counter: salami and rocket with chilli jam, chicken with guacamole, provolone cheese, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and rocket.
But I’ve got to say that these sandwiches are far from cheap and in the current maelstrom of financial worry every one of us is caught up in, even with the trade-down factor that most eateries may be luckily benefiting from, the majority of products here are well into the high £3.00 bracket and that’s perhaps a risky card to play at the moment.
For the foreseeable future the focus should be on what we can all do to energise sales and customer satisfaction and there are illustrations here that do just that: the many inviting touches of a good choice of different comfortable seating areas, all the newspapers you could want to read and Wi-Fi that is becoming the expectation.
But I’m irritated that my glass of delicious organic Chegworth apple and beetroot juice is poured from a jug with no lid and is horribly warm and not chilled, that the smoked salmon in my sandwich is so salty and cut so thickly it’s nearly impossible to eat and needs replacing with a better quality product fast. That here there is a dearth of marketing and PR that could have helped this brand become a much bigger chain in half the time. Smallish things in the overall scheme of things but ones that need vital urgent focus none the less.
But I’m sure I’ll come back. I do have to try the nine blends of fantastic herbal tea combinations that are made and sold in beautiful boxes like the wonderful smelling lemongrass and ginger. Served in a branded teapot with a central cavity for the leaves, this is a joy to share a table with. And to have another latte made with their exclusive blend of coffee from Northern Italy that is quite frankly rather good. As I look around me others sitting at the many tables must feel the same. This brand has grown organically and clearly, maybe misguidedly, just through word of mouth. But all things considered perhaps, just perhaps, sometimes it’s best to leave it that way.