In the first of a new series focusing on independent sandwich bars, Nellie Nichols visits Amano, a stone bake oven flatbread concept. The most wonderful part of being an independent must be starting with a blank sheet of paper. Find a good site, add a sound and creative template and this should lead to bearing the fruit of a successful business.
The sometime bureaucratic constraints of larger companies with endless technical rules and regulations are blissfully absent. The opportunity to test ideas and change them if needs be at the drop of a hat for the better is a healthy, valuable and versatile tool in the early days of moulding a new food business. If adhered to, attention to detail and being quality driven will, without fail, underwrite good product that customers will come back for.
So in this new series my first visit is to Amano, which recently celebrated its second birthday in Clink Street, London. Tucked down the road from the rather marvellous reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hinde and round the corner from the magnificent Southwark Cathedral, Borough Food Market and the London Dungeon in London Bridge, this site is bang in the middle of tourist land by the Thames.
This is a good location but devilishly hard to find without an A board in sight and a mass of tiny school children to fight my way through on their way to the Pirate Shop. (Yes of course I went in too, who wouldn’t. This is nothing to do with how I feel about Johnny Depp). Amano is skilfully and flexibly many things to many customers. It has a vast and varied menu and a chameleon ability to change its lighting through different circuits, and transform a wall section into a Bar for the evening trade.
This is an impressive 18 hour a day operation. Walking into the large open plan area of the main shop there’s a lot to choose from: sandwiches, salads, drinks and cakes or the Deli Bar, a large display of ingredients where you can design your own and have it made up freshly, hot or cold.
Perhaps a little overwhelming in the first instance, some customer communication is lacking to explain the diversity that awaits you. Occupying a large part of the shop is the strikingly dramatic Woodstone stone bake oven. Trained bakers lovingly and carefully pummel sheets of flatbread in front of you by hand to a precise size. Made simply from just a handful of ingredients: durum wheat flour, yeast, rye sourdough, salt, water and olive oil, each sheet is cooked by eye and experience at over 500 degrees.
These flatbreads are the bedrock of the business. Fascinatingly, enticingly baked before your eyes. They are the hero and the vital foundation of the never ending evening pizza menu. I could have sat there all day trying different recipes. Making a choice when faced with such a sweet shop opportunity was close to impossible but I decided on breakfast in and a takeaway lunch. Breakfast is everything. Hot sandwiches and wraps, bagels, pastries, yoghurts and porridge.
Each eating occasion throughout the day is an impressive and well thought through catalogue of choice. I settled for a Giant Wrapanini, a hot wrap filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, balsamic mushrooms, tomatoes and ketchup and a Fairtrade latte. I am followed to my table by a smiling girl with a stirrer, bless her, she spotted me just picking up sugar. The staff are honestly gracious and caring, enjoying what they do – they happily to go out of their way to make your visit a good one.
The Wrapanini (I can’t bear this cringing name) is packed full and delicious. The generous seating area is sensibly sectioned into modern nooks and crannies; sofas, a bar area, tables and comfortable benches. Here there are deliciously deeply padded bar stools, fascinating contemporary black and white photographs of the historical neighbourhood, cool hanging lamps, music that really is okay to listen to. My takeaway has been packed carefully, the packaging like most things here has been given a good amount of thought. Clearly minimal is the criteria. The flatbread sandwiches are wrapped in a single sheet of thick cellophane with the transparent description sticker closing the pack.
My first is called Rockpool – crayfish, prawns, cocktail sauce, avocado, lemon, bouncy and fresh mixed leaves of lambs lettuce, rocket and oakleaf. This is brimming with taste and freshness, but let down by the rather tough and inferior crayfish which surprisingly and sadly aren’t in the least bit juicy and tender. Le Tuna (who thinks them up ?, believe me there are worse like ‘Kamehameha’), is again packed to the brim. Tuna, French beans, and outrageously thick juicy slices of beef tomatoes cover the whole surface area along with Swiss cheese, balsamic vinaigrette and those great leaves again. Just lacking in some seasoning, but otherwise I’ll have it again. This is opulence in sandwiches just as it should be and I love it.
The Teriyaki Beef is a stalwart but this one needs a good sort out. The sesame seeds would deepen in flavour with toasting and give another dimension. The beef, instead of being in thin delicate slices is in cumbersome tough lumpy nuggets letting down its partners of rather good aubergine, grilled peppers and Chinese leaf. The oven fills the air with the smell of baking flatbreads and the shop with a live theatre.
Surrounded by brightly coloured juices, puddings and yoghurt pots, the stacked shelves of stuffed flatbreads and wraps look truly home made and inviting. The salad bar, full of abundantly and carefully crafted saucer like salads sits in the middle of the shop, a display worthy of being a focal point. I am hugely tempted by the Goats Cheese Caesar and the Moroccan Chicken. Amano is filled with promise.
As I leave some staff are having a well-earned break at one of the outside tables and I retrace my steps past the Golden Hinde. I do so hope more branches open soon, and that they are not in the too distant pipeline. But, most of all, I wish that such a superbly multi-facetted formula doesn’t spoil like so many can as the brand grows.