Escape Caffe

The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, is a pleasant space to visit. But it isn’t calming. It focusses on the many conflicts around the world in urgent need of resolution and peace.

There’s a children’s centre, a shop, and rather a good restaurant, where Chefs Rune Pal and Terje Ness present fine dining in the evenings, upmarket café food during the day, with a quip on the menu cover – “Food first, then morality”.

The service and the food are what you’d expect of a place with this profile, and given its central and harbour location, it is reasonably priced. A simple lunch menu covers the bases – fish (try the catch of the day at 169NOK /R225), poultry, pork, beef and salads.

The centre also has a high-tech interactive exhibition where avatar Masika, an 8 year old African, gives you a tour of a refugee camp in the Congo. You can have your photo taken with a cutout of Fridtjof Nansen and get a free black and white newspaper printout of it.

The final exhibit is the Nobel Field, a room dimly lit by the ghostly glow of LCD screens like flowers atop their thin tensile stalks, each one dedicated to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. As a South African one swells with pride having Nelson Mandela (who features prominently in the museum literature), FW de Klerk, Desmond Tutu and Albert Luthuli; only eight countries in the world have four or more peace laureates.

Cape Town has another man linked to the Nobel Peace prize in its midst – Muhammed Lameen Abdul-Malik. In 2005, the prize was awarded jointly to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Mohamed ElBaradei “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way”. Abdul-Malik was part of that IAEA team and so shares the prize.

The award at that time was seen by many as censuring the United States for their catastrophic invasion of Iraq. ElBaradei and his team had correctly concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

It seems unlikely, but Lameen (as he prefers to be called) Abdul-Malik now owns a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Bree Street, the Escape Caffé. The Nobel certificate hangs at the entrance.

Born in Basle, Switzerland, he spent the first 12 years of his life in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to London. He eventually worked for the British Government, and then in 2002 joined the United Nations’ IAEA as a programme management officer until 2009, when his 7-year contract expired.

During his time with the UN he worked in southern Africa – in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. One forgets that nuclear energy is also used for medical purposes.

He first saw Cape Town in 2002 on an intensive UN conference which allowed no free time; he had not much more than a glimpse of Table Mountain from the aeroplane. It was only to be on a family holiday in 2006 that he fell for the mother city.

I ask him why he chose the name Escape (the logo is a winged coffee cup). Originally, he explains it was to be an anagram of sorts – ESpresso CAPpuccino Eat. But it has come to mean an escape to his dream and childhood ambitions of being an artist. Lameen designed the interior and the eclectic furniture. He finds baking a form of self-expression too. All the cakes served he has perfected through trial and error, then taught the formulae to his kitchen. The cheesecake, however, he makes himself based on the recipe that pleases his wife.

I see the word cheesecake and my heart sinks. You seldom find a good one; often they’re only good as doorstoppers. But Lameen’s is lighter than most, using amaretti biscuits for the base and mascarpone and ricotta for the slab. It’s all in the timing, he says. “Ten minutes more in the oven and it would be like any other.”

A sign says the croissants are “imported from France sort of” by which he means the flour is French.

On a blackboard the various styles of coffee are listed. There are some lesser known styles such as Caffe Cortado, the Spanish version of cappuccino, and Hario V60, Japanese style. The prices are in two columns for small and large, described here as “I like it” and “I love it”. I opt for the potent triple shot large Americano.

The coffee comes from an artisanal roaster in Hermanus. Lameen then blends it. He says he likes to vary it – one day it could be Ethiopian and Columbian, then next day Brazilian.

There are also organic teas and organic juices, including blueberry and lemonade. You might try freshly brewed strawberry ice tea.

For breakfast I try a no-frills plate of scrambled eggs and salmon, a sliced tomato, with some rocket garnish and toasted sour dough bread.

Lunches are served from 11:30am, simple, inexpensive sandwiches and salads.

Before I go, I ask Lameen what he thinks of the déjà vu surrounding the war drums once again beating, this time for Iraq. He diplomatically refers me to the IAEA site and it official position.

Escape Caffé, Manhattan Place, 130 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 422 1325.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 26 April 2012.

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