A Rough Diamond

London’s new Leon offshoot Flat Planet may be an unorthodox operation, but its flat-bread sandwich offer is inspired – so good, in fact, that the El Diablo has now been added to Nellie Nichols’ current top five favourites, along with Mooli’s Goat Roti.

Flat PlanetAugust has to be one of my favourite months of the year: I can whizz round London in a heartbeat due to the scarcity of traffic and, to boot, I can walk into any restaurant I choose that normally has a wait list as long as your arm.

The kids are off and the roads are so clear I can just stroll across them at mad angles, without using a crossing (yes this is one of my most irresponsible habits). So, all in all, apart from the non-existent sunshine and the riots, everything this August has been pretty rosy.

Of course, none of this is good for retail, whose vibrant sales, as we know, thrive on good weather and coach loads of tourists. Neither have been very much in evidence; even the numbers for this year’s Notting Hill Carnival were well down on the previous, so I’m more than a little surprised to come across a very visible snaking queue at 10.00am in Great Marlborough Street for coffee at the relatively newly opened Flat Planet.

You could mistake Flat Planet as a spin off from Leon – and it is really. Not only is it a stone’s throw from the Leon Fast Food round the corner on Carnaby Street, it was started last November by one of Leon’s founders, John Vincent. Now he wants to spread the Leon ‘idea’ – not the restaurant, but the ideas that inspired it in different areas.

I like John Vincent, even though I’ve never met him. I spoke to him on the phone when I was in the back of a taxi a few days ago and he was on holiday. I was clinging on as if my life depended on it, as it lay in the hands of a dodgy out of London driver, and Vincent was yelling at his (family?) who wanted him off the phone to clearly get on with their holiday. Between the two of us, we managed a half-way decent conversation about his new fledgling business and values. I got out of my cab at the train station feeling, firstly, quite convinced that there is definitely more method in the madness of Flat Planet than I first thought when I visited it the day before, and secondly, that this had to be one of the scariest telephone interviews I’ve ever conducted.

The queue outside Flat Planet was for good reason. Firstly, it opens right on to busy Great Marlborough Street, a stone’s throw to Liberty’s and Oxford Street. Then there is the beautiful 50’s Elecktra Barlume American pastel coloured coffee machine, which whizzes and grinds and exudes fabulous fresh coffee bean smells on to the street.

Flat Planet interiorThis stunningly designed machine is operated with panache and charm by the captivating Otty, John’s PA. Otty knows everyone and everyone knows her. She effortlessly remembers some finite detail of every customer’s life, and manages a personal interaction with each of them, all without a moment’s delay to the production of her long line of Flat Whites.

We are on the Soho border, and, not unlike Surry Hills in Sydney or some of the back streets of New York, this is what everyone likes and comes here for. It reminds me of the Bourke Street Bakery in Sydney where the line for coffee can snake around the block and no one minds. It’s all part of the enjoyment; you’re not just buying coffee, you’re buying the experience.

But I’m not here for the coffee. I’ve heard the jungle drums about the food. Flat Planet, based on a flatbread concept in Bath is about global street food that isn’t a sandwich or a pizza, but purports to be a healthy snack. Made with organic wheat free spelt, the bases are part-baked at night from scratch by hand, and topped and finished off in the oven to order.

There’s a kind of mismatched, student, retro feel to the place you can’t help feeling affection for when you walk in. 50’s baby lampshades hang off an unfinished, un-cemented wall. Bare modern light bulbs hang above odd chairs with different seats at every table.

A large map hangs on another wall depicting, of course, a tongue-in-cheek flat planet. All in all, its oddness is endearing. There is live music at night and that in itself makes the nocturnal product on offer seem so reasonable at roughly £4.50 each.

The reality for me is that during the day the price, self-described as ‘affordable’, is exactly the reverse against the spectrum of competition within a short walk away. But I mustn’t judge this before I’ve eaten it.

I’ve choose the El Diablo as it’s their best seller and a Med Chick. You know I’ve got a thing about cheesy-trying-to-be-witty names and these are those indeed – only Wikileeks passes as amusing, as far as I can see. El Diablo is one of the hot flats and the Med Chick, a cold filling on a hot base. There’s a two-tier Blodgett oven which heats just the bases through the top and the whole made up flatbread through the bottom.

Flat Planet menuThere’s no doubt they are producing a lot of products, with several people working in an insanely small space, but the impression I’m getting is of a slight over- complication. The range may be manageably small but the number of ingredients and therefore the complexity high….but this is where I must stop pre-judging.

First impressions: the products are very beautifully presented – when you eat in they are served on a black slate serving as a dramatic plate. Albeit a little visually on the small side it also initially looks remarkably like a crisp pitta bread.

A handful of rocket is balanced, dancing on the top of my El Diablo which oozes rose harissa and garlic sauce, the chorizo and sun dried tomato nestling hidden underneath. It’s hot in every sense of the word…

A handful of rocket is balanced, dancing on the top of my El Diablo which oozes rose harissa and garlic sauce, the chorizo and sun dried tomato nestling hidden underneath. It’s hot in every sense of the word and very, well, luscious. There’s no questioning why this is their top seller and I can imagine it being the most perfect lunch on a dry freezing cold winter’s day. And now I’ve made a mental note to put it in my ever evolving top five for that very reason, along with my favourite Goat Roti at Mooli’s.

The Med Chick is the polar opposite and a very different eat altogether. Cold ingredients on a warm base I’m not sure about, but on eating it the delivery is spot on. The free range chicken is tender beyond any reasonable expectation and it’s cunningly been gently marinated with thyme and lemon – one of the most delicious chicken combinations I’ve come across in a very long while. What a great succulent sandwich this would be. Then there are the sweetest of baby plum tomatoes which have been tossed with fresh basil, and sweet peppers, all uber tasty.

There are others I didn’t try that I somehow feel with conviction would hit the spot too, amongst them a Moroccan Chicken made with coriander salsa, tzatziki and tabbouleh, Lamb with cinnamon, cumin, garlic and mint and an All Day Breakfast made with crispy pancetta, a soft free range egg, tomatoes, basil and onion marmalade.

Flat Planet CustomerThe rest of the menu is sensibly necessary and compact. There are salads which use the same ingredients as the flats in lovely plain brown boxes; a little green side salad, the Moroccan with and without chicken, lots of delicious looking cakes, several of which have health credentials of no gluten or sugar. You sense there is a lot of culinary experimentation here, a changing menu depending on what works and what might not.

I remember the very early days of Pret when we were small enough to do this too. By constantly honing you get a good menu even better; by taking the odd risk, making the odd mistake. I think this is a good way to build a business and strive for its excellence. Never be afraid to take a chance, but always bolster it with great customer service and the greatest recipes you can achieve, with the best ingredients you can afford to buy.

John is definitely trying to do something very different in building a new food to go concept, which is not just about food but will be a series of businesses and a wider movement which he is calling Flat Planet. They will be profitable but also socially worthwhile.

I’m quite intrigued to see what will happen next. So, for now I’m putting away my tendencies to even think about criticising the production systems that may not be as orthodox as I expect, because just sometimes it’s very good to do things differently and I’m loving it.