The Phoenix of Canary Wharf

‘Simply the most fantastic and the most deliciously cooked and prepared ingredients I have ever eaten in a Food to Go outlet.’ Nellie Nichols is simply bowled over by the quality of the food on offer at Birleys outlets.

LONDON’S financial district is still crying out for more office space. The only answer in an already dense area is more skyscrapers. The Gherkin is up and a 50 storey building is approved for Aldgate, with a 48 storey planned for Leadenhall Street, east of Tower 42. Until the Canary Wharf Tower went up Tower 42 was the tallest building in London. But all these will be eclipsed once the 66 storey London Bridge Tower, now known as The Shard of Glass is completed in 2010, making it one of the tallest skyscrapers in Europe. The Canary Wharf Tower provides six million square feet of office and retail space. When I arrive at 10.00am the retail halls are a ghost town.

Two hours later and I’m having to concentrate hard on not being trampled underfoot as the financial world rush in every direction buying lunch. Fascinating to see where the food queues are building up. The food here is contemporary, fresh and forward thinking. Modern and plentiful, there are over twenty different outlets to choose from, many with several sites amongst the many different levels and halls. Fresh juices made before your eyes; Stressbusters and Body Cleansers. Japanese ITSU, Singapore Sam’s, Wagamama’s Noodles… it’s all so very current in design, menu and packaging.

The obvious and some very interesting new sandwich players are here in abundance; EAT, Nero, Coffee Republic, M&S, Pret, Bagel factory, Oi Bagel, Crush, Square Pie, and Bene Bene – but more of them another time. They are not the reason I am here. I’ve come to visit a Phoenix who is rising from recent ashes and enjoying a huge, successful and growing revival. Shrouded in its dated but don’t care approach to design, Birleys currently has one of the most seventies style websites I have ever seen. The same garish corporate colours of Singapore Airlines; bright ochre yellow and navy blue, it is far from modern and contemporary.

The outlets are decorated with simply the most out of place objects that cry out to be taken instantly to a car boot sale in nearby Leyton; a statue of Lenin, Deco candelabra, a huge china duck, wall mounted Spanish and other themed plates, orchids, wall covering huge paintings of dogs. Truly deeply awful. And yet, bizarrely, it just doesn’t matter. Yes the website needs updating but none of the customers flocking here daily seem to care about the bizarre eccentricity.

And it takes me only a few short minutes to find the answer. Now what I’m going to say may upset a few but that’s not really relevant. What matters is that here in this deeply modern environment are simply the most fantastic and the most deliciously cooked and prepared ingredients I have ever eaten in a Food to Go outlet. Let me just think about this for a minute. Everyone starts small and hopefully with a good following wind and business sense grows to become a success.

But growth brings all companies the same ingredient issues. These only become apparent when a company commercially transforms from cooking in a CPU to buying these ingredients in. And, herein lies the issue, because only then do they become manufactured items susceptible to minimum order quantities and non bespoke recipes that just might be mass produced and consequently develop issues through their process and life. Cook it freshly each day and you are emulating something you’d cook at home.

Birley’s Roast Beef for instance is rare, tender and I’ve never eaten a better beef in a salad I’ve had to takeaway, or a sandwich for that matter. It’s not going brown at the edges, it’s not a cheap tough cut. And neither is it dry. It’s juicy and simply sensational. I challenge anyone to show me a better one. Then there’s their chicken breast, moist and succulent, black as the night at the edges, and full full full of flavour. The Prosciutto in the Roast Chicken, Prosciutto, Tomato and Parmesan Salad (£3.95) is so crisp and wafer thin it shatters on the tongue.

I could eat a box of it. And this salad has been put together, as all their salads, with so much thought it is just short of a work of art. Each thick and generous wedge of chicken is interleaved with a large wafer of Prosciutto. Then an abundance of leaves freshly washed and blissfully not smelling or tasting stale and vaguely of chlorine or beginning to brown at the edges. Their Soup and Salad bar in Cabot Place West is a very small but efficiently run store.

The large salad choice is divided into three types: Small at £1.75-£2.50, House Salads (Pasta, Rice or Noodles) at a reasonable £2.95 or Themed Salads from £3.95-4.95. Again very acceptable when you see what you get. I also tried the Mozzarella, Tomato, Courgette and Basil at £1.95 and the Roast Beef, Parmesan and Rocket at £2.50. In an ideal world I could happily eat these or any of the other salads every single day for lunch for months and months and never get bored of them.

Immaculately put together, the miniature balls of Mozzarella are alternated with sharply cut halved Cherry Tomatoes, kept in neat lines by blackened perfectly cooked, thick still crunchy slices of Courgette. With this comes a generous heap of the freshest of baby Spinach Leaves and Basil with a slightly too sweet French Dressing in a very clever resealable tiny pot. This pot is the perfect portion. Not so much you leave some and with a lid that’s attached so you don’t have to find somewhere to put it.

In the Beef Salad the beef is rolled neatly Futon-like and placed snugly between thick shards of Parmesan and a big pile of Rocket with a good Caesar dressing again in the wonderful tiny pot. I wanted to try them all and will have to go back to try the Chargrilled Chicken with Ratatouille and Lemon Orzo and the Roast Salmon with Cous Cous. Here is without doubt a salad revolution. We get so use to seeing salads of layers of grated cheese and sweetcorn, and carrot sticks everywhere.

This is serious food fresh air. When you look at these salads they look so clean, simple and inviting and you think why can’t I do that, and if enough effort goes into it, and yes a little more cost, there’s no reason why anyone can’t. In the same tiny shop is the Soup Bar. Again this shows a different take on soup and goes to prove it can be done very well in a small space. It’s outstanding value and quality. Tiny tasting cups of any soups are offered immediately to help you make your choice and soup accompaniments of Rice, Fresh Herbs, Croutons and Red Chillies are offered by the spoonful at no extra charge.

The soups are in two sizes both with bread thrown in; 12oz for £2.75-£3.25 and 16oz for £3.25-£3.95. Buy any soup and salad together and get another 10% off. I loved the Moroccan Chicken with Chickpeas and the Santa Fe Chilli. If I worked in Canary Wharf I’ve be in here everyday. Across the way from the Soup and Salad Bar is one of their sandwich bars. Here amongst the paraphernalia are impressive mountainous displays of filled sandwiches made from fantastic breads from all over the world.

Anything is reheatable in a few minutes and bespoke invent your own recipes are terribly popular. I had to try the special of the day at £4.50; Toasted Roast Duck Breast with Brie, Spinach, Aubergine and Roasted Onions on layers of wonderful thin Barbaree Bread. I was told when I asked that it came from “over the sea,” not the most informative of answers, but I deciphered this as Manoucher in Canada.

At that moment in time I just knew it was going to be one of the most memorable sandwiches I know I will ever eat. Truly outstanding. There were so many other delicious combinations but let’s just say here is effortless innovation and a lot of it to choose from. Downstairs they’ve opened a Salt Beef Bar, mainly from what I could see for the boys (no girls buying at all for the whole time I was there).

A line of six expert carvers make whole (£2.75- 4.95) or half (£2.50-2.95) Hot Sandwiches with impressive speed from a choice of Roasts; Beef, Salt Beef, Lamb, Gammon, Turkey and Sausage. Good meats, mustards to make your eyes water and a choice of fantastically fresh crusty bloomer breads and baguettes. Totally simply, delicious, spot on. Their delivery service of sandwiches, buffet and lunchbox menus have to be the most extensive and impressive I’ve seen.

From Seafood, Antipasti, Surf and Turf, and Asian Buffets, to Pacific, Med, Asian and American Salad Boxes. Individual lunchboxes are ideal with a sandwich you choose, crisps, drink and a generous brownie. Everything is in their attention to detail and driven by relentless quality. Hard as I tried I couldn’t find average in any of their outlets I visited. And you know the other thing ? They are refreshingly understated about what they do.

Admittedly their menus really should be made to look a little more new century along with their website but as a customer for once you are not swamped in marketing speak. There is only a short and wholly reasonable statement inside the delivery leaflet. “Delivering lunchtime quality and excellence to you for nearly twenty years”.

I would like to take my hat off to them as a new devotee to a business which has been around the block and back again, and, for the moment, definitely the best I have found.

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