A few weeks ago I spent some time at a Corporate talking about food trends. The main focus of their get-together was breakfast. Preparing for this was an interesting process. Actually, change that. Preparing for this was a sad process.
For whilst I’ve spent my adult life defending our national breakfast options from naysayers, and bigging up various spots around town, the more I looked into it, the clearer the truth became – we don’t do breakfast and brunch very well.
It’s depressing to think about most people’s morning feed: a bowl of sugar filled cereal; sugar filled shite sliced bread turned into burnt toast; or sugar filled cereal bars and muffins eaten on the go. Ditto the reality of most pre-11:30am menus in restaurants and hotels throughout London and around the country. If you’re lucky, the kitchen has sourced a few decent pork bits and nailed the art of a poached egg. But don’t expect more variety or innovation than that (and generally don’t expect that at all). The average breakfast – in or out – is poor.
Even the positives are bleak. Google ‘best breakfast’ in London. You’ll see that most articles regurgitate the same names. For once this repetition is not lazy journalism. I’ve written a few myself, and there really just aren’t many standout options. The pool of talent is narrow and the entry point is not that high. Basically, breakfast is like football, cricket and all the other great modern sports: we invented it, but it appears the old colonies do it better.
M1lk in Balham is a beacon of hope. A massive, raging, white hot flame.
It’s no surprise that there’s a strong Antipodean influence here. A key effect of this is that M1lk is not tied to or blinkered by a devotion to the Full English. But there are bits and pieces from the Middle East, Asia and Skandiland too, as well as a focus on local suppliers. The offering would seem confused were it not tied by one principle that’s so simple, you wonder why others don’t follow it: just be good.
So in an unassuming corner building on a street in deepest Balham, you get top quality coffee from Koppi (Sweden) and Workshop (Clerkenwell), juices and smoothies blended to order, Heron Valley bottled drinks like ‘wild nettle fizz’. The room is light and airy thanks to windows running the length of both sides. On each occasion I’ve been, the staff have been hospitable, welcoming and resolutely ‘can do’. Might M1lk run training days for their cousins at some of the East London cafés I frequent?
The locals know they’re on to a good thing. On a weekday it’s full (there’s just enough space for the myriad prams); at the weekend you’ll queue. For all of the positive points made above, I’m sure the biggest pull is the food.
It’s harder than it should be to decipher the menu. Once you’ve worked it out, you’ll find it’s harder still to choose from the options that are there.
There’s a full English of sorts. But the national dish is exposed by the alternatives listed above and below it. Poached eggs on sourdough are topped with a divine looking (and tasting) brown butter hollandaise. Choose premium quality bacon, salmon or spinach to sit between the toast and the eggs.
Baked eggs are a house special. Try the kaesekrainer, crispy spinach and labne option. Or look at M1lk’s instagram feed and weep over their weekend pancakes … like burnt apple, milk marshmallow, lemon verbena and lavender topped buckwheat pancakes. A touch more interesting than maple syrup and out of season blueberries, right?
On a recent visit I tried sweetcorn fritters with grilled halloumi, an intense, spiced, tomato stew, dry cured bacon, avocado and lime. The stew was a little overpowering, but the dish delicious nonetheless. Something like this awakens the tastebuds, sates the stomach, but stops short of clogging the arteries and sending you back to sleep.
That said, on the same morning I reckon the best dish was sourdough with honey, honeycomb, goat cheese and thyme. Now I’m a fan of Marmite on toast, but this stomps all over that. The honey was sweet, but not overpowering. The goat cheese was neither cloying nor chalky and matched the honey well. Thyme drew it all together (one more sprig would have been perfection). Have you ever seen a better morning pick me up?
Nothing M1lk do is rocket science. It’s just quality sourcing, light touch cooking, a tiny bit of innovation and the right amount of care. Most significantly, they get breakfast. The food doesn’t just wake you up and set you up for the day, it actually makes you want to get out of bed.
Quite why this should be such an outlier is faintly baffling. Fingers crossed that siblings and copycats follow suit soon.
M1lk in 3 words
The breakfast kings
£10-15 per head for food, juice and coffee
m1lk.co.uk – 20 Bedford Hill, SW12 9RG – 020 8772 9085
(8am-5pm Monday – Saturday. 9am-5pm Sunday.)