The working lunch has become synonymous with grabbing a vacuum-packed sandwich from the chiller cabinet at a Tesco Metro. Hilliard, however, a self-styled "gastrocafé" in London's Blackfriars, is out to change all that.
Open since January, Hilliard aspires to provide seasonal, predominantly British cuisine prepared simply and well. Ingredients are painstakingly sourced and pricing - the same for food eaten in or taken away - extremely competitive.
In charge of the kitchen and the daily-changing menu is 23-year-old Louis Solley. A graduate of Westminster Catering College, Solley has done stints at London's Lindsay House and Windows on the World, and is a former sous chef at the popular Perseverance gastropub on Lamb's Conduit Street.
The menu incorporates one large main, a number of smaller dishes, salads and sandwiches, and is decided upon the previous night. "We're in constant contact with our suppliers and trust them completely," the chef explains. "What they tell us is good today dictates what's on the menu tomorrow."
Dishes are generally robust and uncomplicated. "We don't try to do froths, foams or any overhyped, macho food," says Solley.
Such techniques wouldn't be feasible anyway, as there's no table service at lunch. Instead, in true café style, customers order their food from the counter, and then take it away or to one of the tables. This means that apart from fish (there's always a fish main on Fridays) the kitchen doesn't cook to order, and mains are generally braising dishes, stews and slow roasts.
This is perfect for Solley, as it allows him to explore a love of classic, slow-cooked cuisine. It also accounts for Hilliard's keen pricing. "People's tastes tend to be dictated by what they see in restaurants, and think steak fillets or lamb cutlets are the essence of quality food," he says. "But there are fantastic, cheaper cuts of meat out there: oxtail, shin of veal, belly of pig. Slow-roasted or cooked in good stock, these can be unbeatable."
An example is Solley's braised rabbit (£6.95), which has proved to be one of the café's most popular dishes. Chopped rabbit is wrapped in pancetta, lightly browned and removed from the pan. Shallots and garlic are fried off in the juices. The meat is then reintroduced, and prunes, chestnuts, thyme, salt, good red wine and a strong veal stock are added. The dish is covered and cooked in the oven at a low heat for a couple of hours. The lid is then removed and the dish is finished at a very high heat for the last half-hour.
Lighter lunchtime meals are also available, such as pork and rabbit terrine (£4.95), foie gras (£3.50) and mackerel pâté (£2.95), all prepared on the premises. A favourite is potted shrimps (£3.50).
Solley also prepares all the jams for the breakfast service, as well as the pickles that complement the café's array of Neal's Yard cheeses.
Argentinian pastry chef Maria Arata works alongside Solley in the kitchen. She produces upside-down cakes, blood orange tarts and South American specialities such as pecan alfajorcitos, made by sandwiching dolce de leche between light, crumbly biscuit.
The level of thought that goes into the food sets Hilliard apart from what's available locally. "The café had to have a restaurant feel," says Solley. "The goal was always to produce food people would be delighted with at a quality restaurant."
The dining room is bright and airy, with high floor-to-ceiling windows, long, communal wooden tables and handsome, metallic service counter. It creates a much more spacious environment than 25 covers should allow.
The restaurant dynamic is also boosted by a well sourced and fairly priced wine list picked by Spenser Hilliard, who owns the business with his wife Frances. Exclusively French and Italian, and using small, independent producers, it's obviously the result of a lot of love, time and effort. The list is further complemented by Hilliard's evening menu, with emphasis on sharing platters of charcuterie (£7.50), oysters (£7.50) and cheeses (£6.95).
The battle to wean local barristers and office workers away from prepackaged sushi and all-day breakfast sandwiches may prove difficult. But, as Louis points out: "Where else can you get braised rabbit to take away?"
- Celariac and chestnut soup, £2.50
- Pork and pigeon terrine, £4.95
- Grilled fennel with mint and celery salad, £3.50
- Whole lemon sole with lemon and parsley butter, £6.95
- Pheasant and chestnut pie with wild mushrooms, £6.95
- Slow-roast belly of pork with braised celery and apple sauce, £6.95
- Alfajorcitos, £1 each
- Blood orange tart, £2.50 a slice
- Chocolate and almond cake, £1.80
Chef's tip When preparing a terrine, line your mould with good, fat, streaky bacon rather than pancetta.
Hilliard, 26A Tudor Street, Blackfriars, London EC4Y 0AY
Tel: 020 7353 8150
Menus of the Quarter The three winning menus for the November 2005 to January 2006 quarter are Le Comptoir Gascon, London; Addendum, London; and Pebble Beach, Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire. All three go through to the shortlist for the 2006 Catey Menu of the Year award, sponsored by Quorn.