A sandwich place inspired by classic dishes
It’s a lazy and listless weekend perhaps, but even I’m surprised to find myself seated in somewhere termed an ‘Urban Jungle Brunch Room’. This fairly new venture on Leith Walk attracted some social media derision upon opening, sounding a little too Shoreditch, a new high watermark of gentrification on The Walk.
In reality, it’s a cheerful café that sells houseplants. As a recently converted urban gardener and long-standing fan of hot beverages, I’m impressed by their excellent coffee and smiling service. Although not quite enough to fork out over 15 quid for a small bag of the upmarket hipster dirt I need to repot my plants. It’s a complex and sometimes contradictory conversation, but regardless of your take, Leith Walk has changed dramatically.
Some nights later I glide across Leith’s widening spectrum of gentrification in a single fluid movement. Starting in a long-established boozer, I meet our Dear Editor for Tennents aperitifs – as is his want, always. Condensation collects over chilled amber. A woman enters, ambles over, attempts to punt two stolen gammons from under her arm. Then 10 minutes later and only a couple of streets away, we’re eating smoked BBQ pork collar on focaccia. Such is Leith’s porcine multitudinousness.
We’re in Alby’s, a sandwich joint sitting in a basement slot towards the bottom end of Portland Place. This area saw signs of change pre-2008, when the Portland Bar became the dedicated rum joint, Rhumba. The owner anticipating a wave of development that, like the global economy, broke and crashed far closer to Shore. The Portland returned to its previous name and, sadly, seems currently closed. Alby’s own door has featured many names above it and until this recent incarnation was a traditional and affordable café and takeaway.
The development into a £10-a-shot specialist sandwich shop in 2019 could easily have drawn those aforementioned accusations of gentrification. But sometimes change is simply evolution; you’re getting old, the world is turning and you’re not turning with it. Some new joints are grey squirrels or knotweed. Others are fresh green shoots. Alby’s feels very much the latter.
BYOB means that – ever loyal - we descend their stairs carting a carrier bag of Tennents, the tins will continue the conversation the pints had started. Alby’s window signage is a three-word manifesto: ‘Big Hot Sandwiches’. No waiting staff are obligated to provide a lecture on concept. Big hot sandwiches is the concept.
So, to the meat of this piece. Rather than recreating classic sandwiches such as the Monte Cristo or Reuben, in the most part Alby’s takes inspiration from classic dishes more broadly - subverting, refining or gilding the traditional. Instagram tells me there is a pork souvlaki sandwich, with whipped feta and tzatziki. Also, a salt and chilli Sichuan squid number, or the primetime culinary coupling of the fried chicken Caesar Kiev. Vegetarian and vegan offerings include spiced polenta or fried cauliflower, beetroot fritters and goat’s curd. All feature a multitude of homemade condiments and additions for both taste and texture. These sandwiches are in fact fully conceived meals sat between two slices of bread, easily warranting the seemingly high price point.
From the selection on this day, Dear Editor and I share the aforementioned smoked pork collar with bread and butter pickles, house sauerkraut, jalapeño and tomato relish, onions, mustard and rocket - an ode to the hot dog. That variety of parts not only swallows this article’s word count, it also creates a delightful mess. One that spills across the waxed paper that wrapped the sandwich on arrival and now serves as picnic blanket. The constituent parts become a smorgasbord, a deconstructed New York deli. The patiently cooked pork crumbles, its pairings the perfect combination of texture, freshness and acidity. The focaccia that houses this larder of ingredients is slick with quality olive oil and jewelled with salt.
In a backhanded compliment, a cameo outshines the main star. A prawn toast side dish defies any preconceived expectations and is as your local takeaway never made it – crisp, fried bread filled with fresh meaty prawns and coated in a sweet and viscous hoisin sauce It is studded with sesame seeds, sprinkled with coriander and should be made compulsory. A salad looks the loser of the bunch when set beside this and our spiced paneer fries with sweet curry dip, but is impressive in its balance and palette cleansing properties. Al dente green beans sit on shaved fennel and frisée, dressed in a summer wardrobe of lemon and olive oil. The monotone green of the leaves contrasted by a rainbow of flavours - the aromatics of aniseed and citrus sing out.
Coffee and soft drinks are available, including the welcome addition of a £1 cup of builder’s tea that appears like a phantom from the previous occupier’s menu.
We leave smiling and full. Like phantoms ourselves, of some previous era before quite so many of the young, hip and handsome roamed these streets. We climb back into the sparkle of a Leith summer’s evening. The low hung sun squares off against the vibrant blue and yellow high-rise, Persevere Court.
Dear Editor takes me for a few rounds of digestifs. Amongst all the change surrounding us – the good and the bad - we tour pubs that shrug and defy it all. Those that have, for the best possible reason, barely changed at all. ■
Alby’s interior and half of pork sandwich