Stoke Newington was at the vanguard of the second wave of middle class bohemianism in Hackney. Back when London was a bit more grey and staid, when people still went out in the West End, and when the Overground was called the Silverlink and was disgusting and unreliable, Stoke Newington was an enclave of farmers' markets, Mediterranean cafes, vegetarian Indian restaurants, and slightly smug earthy types who knew about life beyond the tube.
When I lived over in Tufnell Park, we'd take the 393 bus up to Church Street to snaffle a table for brunch at Blue Legume, grinning at our luck as twee indie types would gather round tables, waiting to pounce as soon as people put down their tip. In those dark days, the quiet bohemianism of N16 was a breath of fresh air for those of us who had a taste for the brunching life - mine developed while living in Berlin.
But Church Street developed in a funny kind of way. Loads of cafes and restaurants opened, but few of them exceptional or even half decent. High rents pushed margins to the max, and so high margin products such as pizza, low grade cakes and coffee are sold at premium price to endless willing punters keen to embrace the cutesy cafe culture of Church Street. It's a timely reminder of what happens when word catches on, landlords realise what rents they can charge, and businessfolk open restaurants because they can, not because they love.
So I was very pleased to check out Esters, located amidst a sleepy warren of N16 backstreets, and discover top notch, top value coffee, cakes and seasonal food - and love.
Esters took over from Fred and Fran, which was a similarly anomalously excellent cafe, and has kept much of the light, spacious interior intact, but with some nice rustic tables, hanging pendants with brightly coloured wires, and a nice line in plants.
The menu changes regularly with the seasons, and has an eclectic mix of influences - from a Levantine labneh to Caribbean jerk chicken, all pressed between proper bread and good British produce.
We enjoyed roast rhubarb on sourdough cardamom french toast - a revelatory take on the classic of plain ol' white bread. The rhubarb was delicate and fragrant, and worked beautifully with pistachios and labneh, for a bit of pungency.
My jerk chicken sandwich was also delicious. More sourdough, stuffed with aromatic, spicy chicken, hot and dripping with its cooking sauce. Also stuffed in this mammoth sandwich was a coconut, fennel and lime slaw, giving a crunchy, fresh counterbalance to the chicken. At £8 it's not cheap - but it was gigantic and bloody tasty - and enough to power me on for an afternoon of traipsing around in the cold.
The menu features some more open sandwiches (my friend had a butternut squash caponata and minted creme fraiche beauty), some tasty sounding baked and poached egg dishes, and some spectacular looking cakes and tray bakes, which unfortunately we had no space for.
Esters is a refreshing break from the bland Church Street norms, with chummy service, high quality innovative food at reasonable prices. Once you've been here you won't be back at any of those derivative cafes serving up dishwater coffee for £2.40.