The Vurger Co

I often find myself with two DJ gigs on a Friday or Saturday, and therefore a need to grab a bite between, or else risk serious hunger pangs in the 2nd set, usually followed by a gigantic late-night junk food binge the moment I have finished. In one such window recently, I found myself stood metres away from The Vurger Co, the day after eating my weight in chops at Blacklock. I felt like this could be a good way of restoring a little balance there, as I try to become a bit less meat-focused in my diet (as previous reviews have showed)

I’d heard from vegan friends that it’s good, and I liked the look of their offerings. I went for the Classic – black bean, chargrilled red peppers, chick peas and corn patty, tomato, red onions, gherkins, vegan cheese, and house made burger sauce. I also ordered a portion of skin-on fries, and a bottle of Karma Cola Gingerella ginger ale. That came to £14.20.

I took my seat with my little buzzy widget, and waited, collecting little tubs of ketchup and chilli mayo and a big glass of free water. The pint pots a big plus there, I hate having to go back and forth to refill constantly when the water is in a font like this was.

 

 

When the burger arrived, it looked really good. The portion of fries was huge which is fine by me. I also appreciated that the Gingerella was a 330ml bottle, rather than the 250ml cans many places stock, and often charge more for than I paid here.

 

Picking up the burger, it became apparent that it was a slippery beast, largely because of the abundant (and very tasty) burger sauce. My hands got very messy, and it was a constant battle to keep it together, but I just about did it til the end. The sauce had a zip to it, not exactly spicy, I guess its some combo of ketchup and mustard, and I liked it a lot. The patty is essentially a bean burger, which I have no problem with. It was cooked on a hot plate, giving it nice crispy edges, with the softer veggie fillings inside.

At this point in time, meat substitutes are serviceable, but generally not as nice as things where vegetables and pulses are allowed to shine on their own terms, so this sort of burger suits me. The bun was toasted, and given my travails keeping the burger inside the bun, held together like a champ. In truth, these travails may have been my own fault, as the burger came run-through with a wooden stick, I guess I could have used that to maintain structural integrity, but at the considerable risk of accidentally harpooning myself.

The skin on fries were fine – unremarkable, but nothing to complain about. Just perfectly decent fries, and lots of them. The chilli mayo was a good accompaniment alongside the ketchup, and to me fries are essentially edible spoons for condiments anyway!

I left very full, having enjoyed a simple, straightforward, comfort-food meal. The “burger” was hard work to handle, but tasted great. Was it something to convert a meat-eater? No, not really – but as an alternative for a bit of variety, or as a tasty choice for someone who doesn’t eat meat? Yeah, I’d give this the thumbs up.

All in all, a broadly positive experience, and would happily eat here again.

Score – 7.5/10

Shoreditch Grind

It’s been a long, long time since I reviewed a burger on this blog. Given the name, that’s a situation I have been wanting to address for a while. Expect a veritable avalanche of burger reviews in the coming months.

For now, a bite – sized review for a between-gigs pitstop.

I needed somewhere to grab a coffee. I am very reluctant to give my money to the big coffee chains, but few independent outlets are open at the time I found myself in this predicament – about 9pm.

Google maps directed me to Shoreditch Grind, and I do rate the coffee here highly – here’s my very pretty flat white.

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Then I realised that they might be able to feed me, and as luck would have it the kitchen was still open (just)

I ordered the cheeseburger (£12.50) with bacon (£2 extra), which comes with skin-on fries included. At point of ordering they asked what condiments I wanted – amazing how many places don’t do this simple thing, that makes such logistical sense. Always annoying to have your food, and then the condiments arrived when you are already halfway through.

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The burger came pretty quickly despite the place being packed, and looked decent – two smallish patties and plenty of melting American cheese. The bacon… £2 for that is a joke, and it was practically the texture of frazzles. The fries look great, and it was a pretty generous portion.

Picking up the sandwich, I immediately suspected something. And on taking a bite – yep. Stale bun. Disappointing that something a simple as that could happen with a not-cheap burger. As to the contents – actually very good, despite being quite thin patties, they were done just right, pink in the middle. The cheese, mayo, pickles, and I think crispy onion, made for a good, balanced burger, although as I said, the bacon was a pretty worthless addition really.

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I really liked the fries – I’m a fan of this kind of skin on style, and these were done to perfection, and seasoned just right. Big plus points for that. The ketchup was cold – presumably straight out of the fridge. Not a fan of that myself, I don’t refrigerate my ketchup at home. Never have, even though it advises to do so on the bottle, and I’ve not died yet so it can’t be too big an issue.

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All in all, a mixed bag. Probably better than I expected on ordering in what is essentially a cafe, but some basics that really let it down. A stale bun is a proper clanger (if I wasn’t in a hurry I’d have sent it back for that), and £2 for that amount of bacon is insulting, before to even look at the quality of it, which was not great.

I’d eat here again in a pinch, and cautiously recommend to a friend, as I suspect I was just a little unlucky with the bun. And the coffee was top notch as always.

7/10

Christmas Sandwich Round-Up, with DJ Yoda!

Christmas Sandwich Round-Up!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that time when all the retailers start stocking variations on a simple, delightful theme – the Boxing Day leftovers sandwich. This presents an excellent opportunity for any sandwich fan, but with so many options on the high street, which to part your money for?

Well, legendary disc jockey and snack-food expert DJ Yoda and I decided to take it upon ourselves to sample 8 of the leading contenders, and pass our learned judgement.

I whipped around town to collect the contenders, and headed to DJ Yoda’s London studio to get this show on the road.

The contenders, in alphabetical order…

Co-Op
Eat
Greggs
M&S
Pret
Sainsburys
Tesco
Waitrose

I tried my best to go like-for-like, essentially the generic “turkey & trimmings” leftovers sandwich. Sadly, Sainsburys had sold out of that, so we had the next-nearest option, and Boots was omitted due to their half-hearted approach – lots of variations on these flavours, but no “all-in” option.

Yoda was fresh from a recording of his brilliant song London Fields at Jazz FM, recorded with a 7-piece band, and treated me to a few of his works in progress from his forthcoming album, as well as scratching a load of The Young Ones video clips along with it all. Normal start to the week for one of the best DJs the UK has ever produced.

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A bit of chat about his forthcoming shows over the Christmas period, and his spectacular collection of novelty breakfast cereals, then we settled down to the real business at hand – our sandwiches, electing to start with those we guessed would be somewhere in the middle of the rankings. Quotes are DJ Yoda’s comments.

It was notable that there is a very generic “Christmas sandwich” visual style, right down to the shade of red used by almost all brands. Greggs were an exception in the triangular sandwich posse (a much more straightforward red, and white at the bottom end of the package), and Eat really went to a different place with their bloomer effort. We appreciated the “Carb Diem” slogan on that one. Most sandwiches clocked in around the 500 calorie mark. Prices ranged from £2.50 to £3.99

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Other trends – wholemeal/granary bread seems to be the standard, but there is a clear split about whether leafy greens belong in there, and that seems to be a choice for the more “luxury” brands, and omitted in the more budget outlets offerings. Several included a donation to charity, which is certainly something to be applauded.

Tesco – Turkey & Trimmings (£2.50)

An inauspicious beginning. Claggy, sticky bread, very heavy on mayo, VERY low on flavour. The “sausage”, discs of the worst sort of school-meal banger, the bacon completely passed us by until we noticed it on the list of ingredients. Cranberry weirdly lacking in any real taste too.

“Characterless, a poor start”. The sandwich was reasonably well filled, it’s just that the fillings were rubbish.

DJ Yoda – 3/10
Me – 4/10

Sainsburys – Turkey & Pigs Under Blankets (£2.40)

A little off-piste, but I felt Sainsburys should be represented even though they had sold out of their equivalent of the other sandwiches. This was close enough that I included it.

The sausages were still in “banger” territory, but sliced diagonally, giving much bigger pieces, and visibly contained herbs, and that was reflected in a marginal better taste. The bread had the same issue as the Tesco sandwich. Marginally better ingredients throughout, and marginally more flavour, and certainly a LOT of meat (working on the basis that there is meat in those not-great sausages)

“One for pig-lovers, more bang for your buck, and a better seasoned sausage”

DJ Yoda – 5.5/10
Me – 6/10

Co-Op – Turkey Feast (£2.95)

Surprisingly not as bad as feared, although we went to this one with spectacularly low expectations. The best bacon yet, at one point in the process this was probably in fact quite crispy (not now though, after sitting inside a sandwich for however long), and it had a little flavour to boot. Less mayo involved, and the bread not as claggy as either of the above. And yet still, it felt like there was too much mayo. We were starting to look at the sandwiches that contained some greens and wonder aloud if these sandwiches would be improved by some of that.

“Very perfunctory, one to insert in your cake hole while other shit is happening”. The overall view was that this one is a sandwich you might forget you ate 10 minutes later.

DJ Yoda – 5.5/10
Me – 5/10

Waitrose – Turkey, Stuffing & Bacon (£3.20)

One bite in and – “We’re entering the realm of flavour” This was soon mitigated somewhat by the observation “It tastes a bit like nightclub floor. Not that I taste nightclub floors”. This had a weird and not especially pleasant flavour and aftertaste, we suspect from the rather bizarre cranberry, port & orange chutney. Whether it was the alcohol or the orange, we couldn’t quite work out, but we weren’t into it. I had a bit of pretty chewy bacon fat in mine too, which wasn’t ideal.

The rest of the sandwich was fine, although we observed that turkey is quite possibly the most uniformly bland meat ever committed to a sandwich. In all 4 it had been identical, in that it had been entirely flavourless, dry protein chunks.

“I appreciate the effort, at least something is going on. It at least felt like I was eating an actual lunch”

DJ Yoda – 6.5/10
Me – 5.5/10

We took a moment to refresh our palettes with a bit of watermelon, and discussed Yoda’s forthcoming trip down under (gig details for him at the end of the piece), his love of open water swimming when away for gigs, something he tries to do whenever possible to maintain mind & body, and combat the fatiguing effects of long distance travel.

And then onwards to Sandwich #5 – a bit of a wild card in my mind, as I really think of them as a pasty shop

Greggs – Xmas Lunch (£2.70)

Most will be familiar with their famous Festive Bake, I had my first of the year a couple of weeks ago (it seems to get earlier each year!), and lord knows I’ll have plenty more before the end of 2018. This sandwich was very well filled, bursting at the seams inside it’s packaging.

This had by far the best bread yet, which an excellent, tasty crust – which makes sense, coming from a bakers. It was quite unevenly filled, but actually very decent. The lettuce inside was poor choice of leafy green – that had simply become soggy. There was good flavour to the stuffing, and while it was a little uneven in the fillings, there was plenty in there.

DJ Yoda – 7/10
Me – 6/10

Pret a Manger – Christmas (£3.75)

And now the clear favourite at the bookies, Pret’s near-legendary Christmas sandwich. I hadn’t realised how revered this was until a couple of years ago, when I foolishly chose a Pret veggie option in a taste-off, angering legions of devoted fans.

The packaging was oozing the confidence they clearly feel – no description, name, ingredients. It was verging on arrogance to my mind, but that’s just me being a tit.

“Well proportioned, with a good balance of texture and flavour”. The bread is genuinely tasty, and it’s filled with decent quality ingredients. Hard to criticise it, although for me I didn’t think it was quite the beast many make it out to be.

DJ Yoda – 8/10
Me – 7.5/10

Marks & Spencer – Turkey Feast (£3.50)

“Bread very processed, not very good. High marks for creativity, but doesn’t all work, a little bitter”. Yoda immediately picked up on the onion flavour even before we noticed them on the ingredients list – this contains fried onions, but looking, they seemed to be more of the crispy fried onion variety, which are as much about texture as flavour – in a sandwich the crunch disappears entirely once it’s been on the shelf a while. And since when are onions a flavour we associate with Christmas?

The rest of the sandwich was decent, but any praise tempered by the issues above.

After the comments made, I was a little surprised at the score Yoda gave here, but here it is.

DJ Yoda – 7/10
Me – 6/10

Eat – Festive Full Works Bloomer (£3.99)

And finally, another slight wild card – I only included this after hearing that Eat had a great Christmas sandwich, and it just happening to be near some of the other shops I was buying from. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten from here before – there’s something about the name “Eat” that I really dislike, and that has put me off them. Yoda concurred – “It’s like those homeware shops called “Dwell” or whatever, just a literal description of the thing they are selling”

It has to be said, by bucking the triangle-slice trend, this stood out, and it looked the business. Well layered, well balanced, and extremely well filled. A clear focus on slices for the ingredients – even down to the stuffing.

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“Substantial – it had the best texture, wasn’t mushy, but wasn’t dry.” The choice of smoked ham instead of bacon was a wise one, and worked very well indeed. The chicken stock mayo was subtle – “Mayo is like special FX in films – it works best when you don’t notice it”

For me, this was by far the best sandwich – each mouthful was a satisfying balance on textures and flavours, plus the bread was great (I really liked the oats on the crust which gave a little crunch, and the multiseed bloomer bread was tasty in it’s own right). Carb Diem, the packaging boasted – and at 614 calories, this one is a bit over it’s rivals (other than the 2nd placed Pret sandwich, which clocks in at 617 calories – interesting that the top 2 should have a lot more calories than the others…). But is anyone eating these to lose weight? For both of us, a clear winner anyway.

DJ Yoda – 8.5/10
Me – 9/10

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DJ Yoda looking delighted to be about to eat his 8th Christmas sandwich

Average scores

Eat – 8.75/10
Pret – 7.75/10

Greggs – 6.5/10
M&S – 6.5/10
Waitrose – 6/10

Sainsburys – 5.75/1-
Tesco – 3.5/10
Co-Op – 5.25/10

Eat are crowned champions of the Christmas sandwich, with Pret a worthy runner-up!

As we sat and dissected our findings, Yoda opined that 8.5 was as high as he was prepared to go for something that is inherently never going to match the full majesty of a proper leftovers sandwich. We noted that the clear winner was the one that looked and felt the most like an authentic experience – does anyone at home slice their sandwiches into triangles? There was a uniform blandness to many of these sandwiches (and a LOT of mayo at times), just about rescued by the fact that it’s hard to go too wrong with these basic component parts.

It was certainly a big surprise to me that Pret didn’t come out on top, I had next to no expectations for the Eat one, and everybody I’ve told in the time between tasting and publication has responded with a sort of “huh… maybe I should try them out, I’ve never been in there before”, which is interesting given how many seem to be around.

For now, happy hunting with your Christmas sandwiches, if you find any that I should sample, leave a comment, and look out for a Christmas Crisp round-up with Rob Pursey (Merry Crispmas?), and possibly a mince pie one too if I can find a co-taster to join me for that!

Catch DJ Yoda at these shows in December

Sat 8th December – The Red Lion, Leytonstone, London
Fri 14th December – Winterville, London
Sat 15th December – St Ives Theatre, St Ives
Wed 26th December – Breakfest, Upper Swan WA, Australia
Thurs 27th December – Fitzroy, Vic, Australia

London Pizza Round-Up – Vol 11

Genuine Liquorette

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As someone who has given up booze this year, my finger has somewhat slipped off the pulse of what is going on in the extremely competitive world of London drinking dens. One that has come to my attention is Genuine Liquorette, which originally hails from New York. It opened towards the end of summer this year, and has quietly been doing it’s thing ever since. So far, not all that interesting to me to be honest – when you stop drinking, cocktail bar openings aren’t very high on the priority list! But then I discovered that they are knocking out pizza, and a friend told me it was worth checking out. Well, it would be remiss for me not to at least give it a whirl…

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I popped by, and being fair, it’s a really, really great looking place, especially upstairs. I did get a pang of “I bet this would be an amazing place to get plastered in” go through my head, but thankfully they had a sufficiently interesting selection of soft drinks to keep that thought at bay!

Upstairs, they’ve put the vast majority of drinks in cabinets around the walls, meaning that patrons can casually browse them as they drink, rather than peering over the bar past the bar staff, which can sometimes make things a bit intimidating or pressured for some – the whole concept is built around blurring the lines between bar and home drinking. And as part of this casual approach to things, they have half a dozen cocktails on tap (available as take-aways, and even on Deliveroo apparently!), and a selection that are based around piercing a can of a soft drink, pouring a bit out and topping up with a flavouring and a mini-bottle tipped upside down in the top – they call these “cha-chunkers”, presumably after the sound the mad massive drill thing they use to pierce each can makes.


The “Island of Misfits” section had me experiencing flashbacks to my teen years… The previous incarnation of me would have loved all this – I made do with a mocktail (which I have to say was excellent, just based on me saying “something zesty and citrussy”) and some kombucha.

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But I’m waffling about something I wasn’t there to experience… this is about the pizza. We ordered 3. The Vegan (seemed appropriate given my recent reviews on here), and two with meat (the Hot & Bothered, & The Veal Deal).

They came out pretty promptly, and immediately I was taken aback, as these look like no pizza I have ever had before.

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The crusts are folded into 5 star points, and sliced along those lines to give 5 slices per pizza. It’s visually very striking, that’s for sure. My big fear was that the visual novelty was there to mask a deficient pizza, and also that it might mean a LOT of crust. I don’t mind crusts, so long as they are tasty, but there’s a limit!

Thankfully, the fillings go into the 5 points of these pizzas, meaning that each slice has a handle to grab on to, and once you’ve eaten the more conventional end of the slice, you are left with a kind of “hot-pocket” mini calzone thing. I do think they are missing a trick by not having a few dips available for these end bits, and when I mentioned that, it seems that’s something they are talking about.

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The base itself is a very decent sourdough – springy, light, bubbly, tasty. I’ve had a fair few pizzas recently where I was disappointed by the base – it’s such a fundamental part of a pizza that it’s strange to me that some just see it as an empty vessel to put some toppings on.

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The Veal Deal

I’ve become something of a white pizza convert this year (I almost always order white pizza when I can now), so it was a surprise to me that I didn’t fall head-over-heels for the veal pizza. It was good, don’t get me wrong – but it didn’t quite hit the heights I’d hoped. The balance, and amount, of toppings was very good, the broccoli done just right. Very, very cheesy, which can only be a good thing. I don’t know quite why I didn’t go loopy for this one, but something didn’t click to take it from good to great – still a damn fine pizza.

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The Vegan

The Vegan was a very interesting one. The vegan mozzarella, apparently made from soy, did a decent impression of melted cheese, although still wasn’t something I’d say compares in flavour or texture, and as the pizza cooled it did become a bit “claggy” and cloying compared to how real mozzarella behaves as it cools down. But one of the better efforts I’ve seen for sure.

The sweet potatoes were great, almost melted in the mouth, done thoroughly so as to not add any unpleasant hardness to the bite when chomping through a slice. There was maybe a touch more spinach on there then I would have liked, but I was able to take that off if I wanted, and the pine nuts were a lovely touch. The balance of flavours was excellent, with the red onions giving a touch of acidity to offset the sweetness elsewhere. Really a very good pizza – I actually think I preferred this to the Purezza one I had the other week, and that has won awards, so they’re doing something right here.

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Hot & Bothered

And finally, the star of the stars. This one was banging. I’d only had honey on a pizza before, the winning effort at this year’s London Pizza Festival. I’d actually found that a little overwhelming in the mouth-feel department, whereas this seemed to be done a bit more sparingly, so you just got the occasional hit of sweetness in between the spicy salami and jalapeno chillis and chilli flakes. The heat isn’t overpowering for anyone that likes it spicy, and the salami is obviously good quality stuff.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the Bo Derek-themed wallpaper of the gents when nature called. All very in keeping with a distinctly retro, 80s kitsch aesthetic that pops up throughout the venue.

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All in all, this was a very good meal – generously topped, tasty pizzas. What’s not to like there? I do think that the design of these still means you are left with a pretty doughy handful at the end, hence why dips would make a lot of sense, to maximise enjoyment of this style. But I will definitely be back (in fact I popped in yesterday to meet a visiting friend, and we shared a Hot & Bothered!), and for the booze-hounds amongst you, this looks like a fun place to get drunk and eat some jolly good pizza.

The Veal Deal 7/10
The Vegan 8/10
Hot & Bothered 9/10

Final Score – 8/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Volume 10 – Another Vegan Special!

Not long ago, something caught my eye on my twitter timeline between the bitter political squabbling that fills much of it. A new pizza had been crowned the best around in some awards show – already, that is my interest piqued. But then the extra nugget that it was vegan really caught my attention. I’m not vegan, or even vegetarian, but I’m trying to limit my intake of meat when I can, and so welcome the vast leaps and bounds that are being made in those areas.

As luck would have it, a vegan friend of mine works around the corner from Purezza (which you can find in Camden or Brighton). A lunch date was set, and off I went.

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The restaurant itself is very appealing. Some seats outside, but it was too chilly for that, so we settled down to order inside, the tables and chairs a homely wooden style. Yasmine was straight on to the chocolate oreo milk shake – I stupidly didn’t try that, but at £6 it had better be pretty damned tasty. She seemed to love it – it wasn’t small, and it lasted about 90-120 seconds before she’d drained it. I had the ginger kombucha, which was lovely, certainly as good as any other brand I’ve had, and I’ve had as many as 3 others. Total expert.

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“Cheese” 😐

We shared the vegan “cheese” board, at £11.95. This, to me, was not a great start to the meal – of the 4 “cheeses” (based on cashew “milk”), only one was something I’d choose to pay for again, the parmesan-styled effort (top left in this).

The others just weren’t up to much, either on a texture or flavour level. It came with some fancy crackers that, honestly, I didn’t really care for, and two small ramekins with a creamy spread/dip and an oily one. I didn’t get involved much in them other than to quickly taste.

The more I sample vegan and vegetarian food, the more I think that it’s a bad idea to mimic meat and dairy, and a much better approach to just showcase ingredients to reflect their strengths. Shoehorning plant-based ingredients into mock cheeses or fake meats… it rarely ends well in my experience. I guess the argument is that technology will get there in the end, and these are the stepping stones to get there.

Not a great start – but I was here for the pizza, and those that were arriving at other tables looked fantastic.

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We both ordered the award-winning Parmigiana Party – fried aubergine, plant-based mozzarella, tofu sausage, tomato sauce, basil. This wasn’t a million miles away from the winning pizza at the 2017 London Pizza Festival, so I had high hopes for a real comfort-blanket of a pizza.

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It looks great. The sourdough base is excellent, the crusts rising an encouraging amount round the edge, and with plenty of flavour. I really should have taken more pics from when I’d started getting stuck into the pizza, but you get the idea, and the fact that I was too busy shovelling it into my face tells it’s own story. This is a tasty pizza. The tomato is excellent, and the various toppings work well, although personally I found the tofu sausage a bit pointless – which takes us back to my earlier point. There’s surely a tastier, better ingredient to put in here that isn’t pretending to be a meat product? Take these off and the pizza would lose nothing. Replace them with something interesting and it could lift the whole thing up a level.

The “mozzarella” stuff melted well, although wasn’t really comparable to mozzarella in my view, in flavour or mouthfeel – more like thin slices of an incredibly mild cheddar I’d say. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but I do have a bit of a pet peeve of people being stingy with basil like this, if a pizza deserves one leaf, it surely deserves a few? Hell – the menu says “topped with basil leaves”… But that is nitpicking really. The garlic mayo we got to dip the crusts in was lovely.

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Is it the best pizza around? No.

I am very surprised it won this award – it’s not even the best vegan pizza I’ve had this year (Jack To The Future at Yard Sale is my best, closely followed by the Club Mexicana effort at Radio Alice). And it’s not as good as the parmigiana pizza that I mentioned earlier, which you can get at Adommé in Streatham. I’m curious to know what it was up against, and the degree to which it’s being vegan impacted the ratings – I can’t help but suspect it was rated on a different scale to it’s competitors.

This all makes it sound like this is going to be a negative review – that’s not the case. This is a good pizza, if a little overpriced at £12.95. But I’d happily go back and eat here again. It’s just that, as someone who is fine eating dairy and meat, I’m not convinced that a pizza with fake meat and fake cheese on it is the best way forward, given where food technology is currently. It’s not quite there yet I’d say. But for a vegan convert seeking some old comforts, I can see why this would hold a lot of appeal.

The long and short of it – this is a good pizza, but no more than that. At a time when there are dozens of pizzerias serving great pizza, I’m more than a little surprised that this won the award it did, but it’s great that vegan pizza is in the frame for such things.

Rating – 7/10

 

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 9

LovenPresents, Seven Sisters

One thing that is a simple reality for an amateur food blogger like myself – the restaurants visited will tend to be skewed towards the area I live and work in, which in my case is around the more central parts of East London. But when arranging a get-together of some old friends, we decided to strike out to Seven Sisters as one of the party had to get a train from Tottenham Hale. I donned my explorer’s outfit, and set off into the unknown.

A quick google for pizza places threw up LovenPresents, and some very favourable reviews.

We grabbed a drink nearby at a bar called Five Miles. A particularly sketchy man stomped into the beer garden, downed the dregs of the unattended drinks near us, sat around on his own for few minutes rubbing his head in some anguish, stomped inside, and then moments after I told the others about him, he chose to come and join us, asking us to buy him a pint before sitting down and asking all our names. We decided against inviting him into our circle, and made our way to the pizzeria. I mention this detail because it is something that some will want to consider – this is not (yet) a gentrified area, although it looks inevitable that it’s heading that way from what I saw. It’s definitely still pretty rough round the edges, it has the feel of Hackney Wick a few years ago. Essentially an industrial estate surrounded by a load of housing. Upper Street it is not. That doesn’t especially bother me, but some will find it very unsettling if they aren’t used to it. Obviously, we may have just been very unlucky. And plenty of sketchy people stomp around the more salubrious parts of Nottingham. But it feels like a relevant piece of the jigsaw, so there it is.

Lovenpresents itself is squirelled away upstairs in some sort of industrial unit, and it’s not at all obvious that there is a restaurant there unless you are looking for it. The place itself is a decent size, with the giant pizza oven and kitchen open to the left. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got The Jazz was playing on arrival, which pleased me greatly, and they played ATCQ albums for the whole time we were there. Definite bonus points for this.


I was with 3 friends, so we decided the sensible thing to do was order 4 different pizzas and have a quarter of each. After much back and forth we settled on Buffalina (cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil), Zola (Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, raddicchio, pistachios), Piccante (tomato, mozzarella, spicy salami, nduja, chillies, jalapenos), and Margot (smoked provola, sausage, mushrooms, truffle oil, parmesan). Drinks were very reasonably priced – the pizzas I felt were priced at quite a premium level given the location, so was curious to see how they were.

When they came out, they weren’t the prettiest pizzas I’ve ever been served, certainly in the case of the Zola and the Buffalina anyway, which had pretty large spaces toward the crust with no toppings. I’m not militant about pizzas being visually perfect, but that was notable. But visuals aren’t really what matters – how did they taste?

The Zola (£10) was decent, I’m a sucker for blue cheese on a pizza, although I felt that maybe there was a bit too much raddicchio and not enough pistachio. But the combo of flavours worked well. The Buffalina had it’s merits too – but 4 cherry tomato halves? Really? So the slice with a tomato was one thing, the other slice I had a very different experience. Surely a £9.50 pizza can stretch to an extra couple of cherry tomatoes so that each slice has a bit of the sweetness the set it off? And both the Zola and Buffalina had crusts that extended way too far towards the middle of the pizza for me. Nitpicking maybe? Maybe. But that’s my take, especially at the price point these were at.


I really liked both the Piccante (£11) and the Margot (£12), and no major complaints on the way these were topped either. The Piccante really had a serious kick to it, not for anyone who isn’t into genuinely spicy food. A whole one of those would get the brow sweating! The Margot was a lovely combo of flavours, with the sausage a decent quality, and the truffle oil present but not overpowering, bringing an aromatic indulgence to that one. Looking back at the pic, again it seems like the toppings were all a bit towards the centre, but I didn’t really notice that at the time, and enjoyed the pizza on it’s own terms.

The crusts on the pizzas were decent but not exceptional – a little bit doughy for my personal preference, but some prefer them that way. Not especially tasty crusts, but nothing wrong with them either.

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All in all, a perfectly decent meal, but not something I’d go out of my way to repeat, and for most people in London, to go here is pretty far out of their way. Given the location (both area, and where it is in that area) I’m a little surprised that the prices are what they are, given what the prices are at competitors who I feel make pizza as good or better, but of course, I don’t know what the costs etc are in any given place, and tbf, the drinks were very well priced too.

7/10

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London Pizza Festival, 2018

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Long time readers of this blog may remember my post last year about the 2017 edition of London Pizza Festival, Daniel Young‘s brilliant annual event. That was my first trip to a LPF, and this year is the 4th time it has been held.

The format is simple – punters buy their tickets (all in mine cost me £30.77), and in exchange, 6 vendors create their pizzas, and attendees get 1/4 of each of the 6 pizzas (as well as a beer or soft drink, plus free bottled water and coffee), then vote for their favourite. The winner last year was Adomme, from Streatham, and very fine it was too (although my favourite was the Sud Italia effort!). The popularity of the event was proved by it selling out well in advance!

This year, the contenders were The Perfectionists’ Cafe, Wandercrust, Santa Maria, Hai Cenato, Mother and ‘O ver. A handy pizza tasting tips card was part of the welcome package, with advice from the highly respected Gino Sorbillo. Also available were Italian sweets at the cannoli stand – although who was eating these after 6 pizza slices I’m not sure! They looked great though.

The weather Gods were smiling, and treated us to a gloriously sunny May afternoon at Borough Market. I was with a pair of old friends from Nottingham and their partners, and we arrived just in time for the 2pm session (to avoid massive queues it is broken up into 4 time-slots I believe).

In we went, to be instantly handed a welcome bottle of ice cold sparkling water on this lovely day. We got our bearings, and then headed to the nearest stall – ‘O ver, a new name for me.

Of all the stalls, these guys seemed to have understood the importance of presentation most, on a day when a lot of people had their cameras out! The stall was immaculately laid out, and they took great care in explaining what was on their pizza and why – even showing us the bottles of sea water that they use in creating the dough. Smoked mozzarella, chiodini mushrooms, pancetta arrotolata, black pepper, and fresh basil. This was a wise choice as the opening pizza, as it had by far the most subtle combination of flavours, which might have been spoiled slightly if we’d come to it later on.


The crust was immaculate, and the wafer thin, fatty slice of pancetta glistened as the sun above and pizza below gently melted it slightly. The tiny mushrooms popped up every few mouthfuls, and all in all it was agreed to be a very decent start to proceedings – simple, light, uncomplicated, with a very flavourful crust to enjoy once the toppings had gone down.

Next up, Hai Cenato, Jason Atherton‘s NYC/Italian place in Victoria – confit lamb neck, spiced aubergine, ras el hanout, mozzarella, yoghurt, mint. A bit of a curveball, but then the one I plumped for last year was one of the more leftfield offerings. First up – watch this video. That’s some stretchy dough right there – apologies for portrait mode, it was filmed for Instagram stories!

 

This probably had an even tastier crust than the first, but the group was quite split over it’s merits. I liked it, the combination of flavours worked well to my palate, but would say it was maybe only a 7 or 8 out of 10. It definitely improved when I added a few chilli flakes and a little chilli oil to it to give it some extra zip. I’m all for experimentation with pizza toppings, and this one worked in my opinion – but it was a very middle eastern experience for a pizza, which I think hurt it in the final vote.

We took this opportunity to go and grab our free drinks (I had a very nice Dalston’s Lemonade, the others mainly went for Five Points Brewing Co beers). While enjoying these we had a little wander around – there was a lovely atmosphere, a really nice friendly bunch attending, with the DJs providing the usual selection of classic funk and soul, delivered on their own 7 and 12 inch platters!

Round 3 – Mother’s Tribute pizza. Tomato sauce, Prosciutto di Bigoncia, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, fresh basil, fresh oregano, black pepper. Of all the pizzas, this was maybe the most traditional. As we waited in line, we were able to sample some of the ham, and one of the staff sprayed a little of the sea water they use on the back of our hands to let us get a sniff of it. It was definitely sea water! I’d never known of this approach before, apparently it means using less added salt, and introduces various minerals and so on to the dough that are beneficial.

I really liked this one – It was probably my favourite so far in the afternoon, although the crust was not as good as either of it’s predecessors. A couple of the guys suggested it had too much tomato on it, but the sauce was so tasty that I was happy for it to be smothered in it! The combo of toppings worked very well together, the fresh herbs giving a lovely fresh, floral note against the sweet tomato and salty cheese and ham. It wasn’t especially adventurous, but was certainly very well executed.

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Next up, we made out way to The Perfectionist Cafe queue – a simple sidestep from where we were already. Having done literally no research about the contenders until the day of the event, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a Heston Blumenthal offering, having recently been to his incredible, triple Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck for one of the most amazing meals of my life. I should really knock up a little write up for that, keep your eyes peeled!

The Perfectionist Cafe can be found at Heathrow of all places, airport food must be improving! Anyway, to the pizza – San Marzano Tomato, buffalo mozzarella, buffalo ricotta, ‘Nduja, confit tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano.  The mountain of incredibly fresh ricotta (apparently made less than a week ago) was incredible (they let us have a little spoon of it each, as well as the blobs on our pizza).

This one… this one was the star of the show for me. A truly excellent pizza. The flavours combined brilliantly, one moment the heat of the ‘Nduja rolling in, the next the intense sweetness of the confit tomatoes, the blobs of that ricotta and the mozzarella bringing light, creamy notes to proceedings, and the sprinkling of Parmigianno Reggiano a little umami touch. The crust was excellent too. I absolutely loved this slice.

But from glancing occasionally at the scoreboard, we could see that it was developing into a 2-horse between Perfectionist Cafe and our next pitstop, Wandercrust.

Their pizza showcased San Marzano Tomato, mozzarella, Ventricina salami, Roquito peppers, Moon chilli honey and fresh basil. This one was a beauty to look at, and their finishing touch of drizzling the Moon chilli honey (a London-made honey infused with scotch bonnets) across the pizza was one to get the people salivating.

This was another belter of a pizza, the dominant sensations being the dalliance between sweet and spicy, as embodied in the Roquito peppers. I personally felt that the Moon chilli honey was a misstep – the flavour was pleasant enough, but I didn’t care for the slick mouth-feel that honey brought to the party. But in spite of this, I would probably have this down as my 2nd or 3rd favourite slice of the day. The salami was excellent, and the overall pizza thoroughly delicious. Indeed, this pizza did get at least one vote from our group (possibly more, my memory is failing me there though!). As the photos and short video above suggests, the crust was excellent too.

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And the final pizza was one I was looking forward to – Santa Maria. I’d eaten at their Ealing restaurant a few years ago, and recently at their new Fitzrovia outlet. Both times the pizza has been excellent, although served on a plate to be eaten with a knife and fork, so a somewhat different experience to this slice extravaganza!


Their offering comprised San Marzano tomato, smoked mozzarella (and how beautiful that was to look at as they sliced away at it!), salami piccante, burrata, crumbled tarallo, Grana Padano, and fresh basil. The crumbled tarallo was the eye catcher here – taralli being a kind of biscuit or cracker from southern Italy. This added a lovely crunchy note, I think there may have been nuts in the taralli too. It brought to mind a pizza I had at Yard Sale by Anthony Falco, which has breadcrumbs on it. It’s a detail I’ve rarely seen, but I’m a fan.


The toppings on this were fantastic, right up there with the Perfectionists’ Cafe effort – however, I felt that the base and crust let it down somewhat. By comparison to the other 5, it seemed a doughy and heavy – I’d have to go back to Santa Maria to try another to check if that’s by design, I’d never noticed it before there, but of course when I’ve eaten there before I’ve not sampled 5 other pizzas in advance! It was still tasty – it just had a texture I didn’t much care for by comparison.

Despite that, I would still have this one slipping into 3rd place behind Wandercrust, as the toppings selection was right on the money. I’m a sucker for Burrata, which paired off well against the smoked mozzarella, the salami had just enough spice, and the tomato (San Marzano again, proving it’s worth by being the sauce on my 3 favourites) absolutely spot on. These toppings on one of the other bases may well have been my winner, but there you go – it takes all sorts to make up the pizza galaxy!

And there you have it – 6 very good slices indeed. As I’ve mentioned, my pick was Perfectionists’ Cafe, with Wandercrust and then Santa Maria in silver and bronze positions. But the other 3 were all damn fine slices in their own right too, I’d say that not a single slice was less than a 7 or 8 out of 10. I will certainly be adding them all to my “to-do” pizza list!

We treated ourselves to a much needed pick me up from the free coffee stall to stave off the food coma, and made our way off into the sunny London afternoon!

In the popular vote, Wandercrust triumphed, pipping Perfectionsts’ Cafe by 219 votes to 215! An incredibly tight result, reflecting the quality of both.

I’d like to also say thank you to Daniel Young and his team, for making such a brilliant event for pizza lovers. The whole thing ran incredibly smoothly, the crowd was lovely, the teams competing all fantastic, friendly and helpful, the queues short, and crucially, the pizza excellent.

At a time when lots of amateurs are trying to hop on the food festival bandwagon without a clue how to do it properly, this is a shining beacon of how to run an event, and I for one know that I will be buying a ticket for next year’s the moment they become available!

Radio Alice x Club Mexicana

This will be short and sweet – I’ve reviewed Radio Alice before, although I think I was a little harsh in the score I gave (7.5/10 at the time); it has since become a firm favourite in my pizza adventures.

To business – for 5 weeks Radio Alice is hosting a different guest pizza each week. I missed the opening week with Bubble Dogs, the hotdog specialists. This week, it’s Club Mexicana. They are based at The Spread Eagle, a vegan pub (more fun than it sounds apparently), and are very highly thought of by many of my friends.

This offering brings jackfruit carnitas, pink onion, salsa verde, sour “cream” and coriander to Radio Alice’s incredible trademark sourdough bases.

First up – it looks beautiful.

Next, it is absolutely delicious, a very gentle Mexican spice note underpinning it, a welcome crunch to the pink onion, the tomato just sweet enough, a genuinely excellent combination of toppings. The base is light and flavourful, the crusts bubbling up delightfully. I’m generally not a fan of coriander, but this worked really well both aesthetically and to the palate. For a pizza it is very light and fresh feeling thanks to the great combination

All in all, an absolute triumph, I think possibly even better than the Yard Sale x Biff’s Jack Shack “Jack To The Future” pizza which I reviewed here. I’ve always wondered how a pizza could exist without cheese, and these two have made me sure that it can be done. I mean, I still would prefer it to be smothered in lovely melted cheese and all that, but vegan pizzas appear to have worked out how to please even committed cheesaholics such as myself. More power to them, and for now, I heartily recommend that you try to get down to Radio Alice and try this before it’s gone.

Score – 9/10

Dirty Vegan

As I’ve mentioned previously, in recent years I have switched to a much more plant-heavy diet. I’m certainly not vegetarian or vegan, but I eat maybe 20% of the meat I did a few years ago. So when things like Dirty Bones‘ venture Dirty Vegan pop along, I’m always curious to try them out (and by pure coincidence, this is National Vegetarian Week!).

Full disclosure – I DJ at Dirty Bones every so often, including the Saturday before this visit. I hope you will trust me to be fair in my review.

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I knew little of how this would operate – I assumed a menu much like their regular one, only with vegan food instead. In fact, it was a fixed menu at £25pp, with sharing plates. They also had a selection of vegan cocktails – not something I’d ever really thought about, but it makes sense for certain things that use dairy and so on.

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Happy idiot

Very generously, they brought over a pair of glasses of bubbly to welcome us. I’m not drinking, so my dining companion was able to drink in stereo. She was very, very happy about this.

So – the openers. Padron peppers, and mac balls. The Padron peppers were pretty much as you’d expect – I love them, and as far as I can tell, any half decent restaurant struggles to get them wrong. I’d maybe have had a tad more salt on them, but then I’m a salty sod.

The mac balls were a revelation though! Super crunchy panko crumbed, deep fried balls of macaroni – the pasilla chilli and cashew cheese filling worked well as a filling alongside the macaroni, but the key was the amazing sweet chilli sauce they were served with. The texture was very different to the sweet chilli sauces I’ve had before – this was more like if a really high quality spicy chutney was blitzed in a blender, smooth but with a tiny little residual coarseness. Sweet up front, with a gently glowing heat following through. Addictive stuff! I could happily have been given a bucket of these balls and left to my own devices. All in all, a very promising start

Next up, the main courses – buffalo aubergine wings, cauliflower chicken waffle, mac & cashew cheese and a gem lettuce side salad.

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Buffalo Aubergine “Wings”

These were visually all very appealing. We waited til we had the full lot in front of us before deciding which to go with, and dived in on the Buffalo aubergine “wings”. Now, obviously they had a completely different texture to a standard chicken wing – and frankly, having tried the “chicken” at Temple of Seitan (which was rank, and made me feel ill for the next day or so), I’m happy for restaurants to use these things as jump off points to showcase veggie items, rather than just badly mimic meat.

These were tempura-battered, giving a satisfying crunch to the bite, which masked the inherent mushiness of cooked aubergine. The cashew ranch dressing and buffalo combined really well, the buffalo having just enough of a vinegary-peppery punch. They weren’t anywhere near as satisfying to me as a good chicken wing (Randy’s Wing Bar, Wingmans and The Orange Buffalo are probably the best I’ve tried). But they are a fine dish in their own right, and a very imaginative use of aubergine, one of those vegetables I rarely think to cook at home.

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Cauliflower “Chicken” Waffle

The cauliflower waffle was probably the most interesting looking dish. The huge block of cauliflower itself was served brined and then “chicken fried” (not entirely sure what that means in a vegan context tbh!) in a crunchy coating, atop a sizeable waffle wedge. Incredibly, I don’t think I’ve ever had this style of waffle, so I’m poorly qualified to judge it’s quality relative to others, but the cauliflower was fantastic, cooked through really well, satisfyingly surrounded by that coating to give it some crunchy textures. The grilled lemon and maple syrup combo was a bit of a moment for me – the citrus really lifting the whole dish, and working well against the sweetness of the syrup. I’ve never really “got” maple syrup, but in this dish, with the acidity of the grilled lemon there to offset it, it suddenly made sense to me.

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Mac & Cashew Cheese

The 3rd main was actually a bit of a reimagining of the mac balls – essentially the filling of that served as conventional mac & cheese, with toasted almond panko breadcrumbs sprinkled atop. According the menu, this was a slightly different version (pasilla chilli, garlic and almond milk vs the balls’ pasilla chilli and cashew cheese), but it was very similar. It was ok, but in my opinion not a patch on the mac balls, and I felt like have two mac & cheese based dishes out of 5 was a little unimaginative. We’d actually requested a pot of the sweet chilli to have as a condiment for the mains, and that gave this dish a little more zip, but while it was a perfectly serviceable mac & cheese (especially considering it is vegan, in that context it was actually really rather good), this was the one false note for me. Saying that, we pretty much licked the dish clean, so it certainly wasn’t that bad

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It was all served with a side salad of gem lettuce, shaved radishes, avocado, savoury mixed granola, and green-goodness vinaigrette (again, not entirely sure what that means!).

This was ok – it’s a side salad, not a lot much more to say, but added a nice fresh note to offset the heavier main dishes.

Between the pair of us, there wasn’t a crumb left with either the starters or the mains, so it certainly kept us happy.

The final dish was chocolate pudding – pure cacao and tofu pudding with whipped coconut cream, and cacao nibs sprinkled on top.
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My first mouthful, I wasn’t at all sure what to think – but that was partially because I hadn’t bothered to read the menu properly, so the coconut flavour took me aback slightly!

After that it was swift work to get to the bottom of the glass. I think I would have liked it to have had a slightly thicker texture and more intense, darker chocolateyness, but it was certainly still a tasty and satisfying way to end a thoroughly enjoyable meal, with the nibs giving a little crunch to proceedings, and the coconut and chocolate flavours playing well off each other in the silky feeling pudding.

We managed to forget to order either of the vegan cocktails, so sadly can’t report in on those, but the meal in general was a real pleasure. I don’t imagine a time where I will ever become fully vegan, I just love cheese too much, and a good steak or burger is one of my life’s great joys, but I’m delighted that more and more places are offering options like this. I tend to take the view that if you double the number of vegans or vegetarians, then sure, that would make an impact – but if you get everyone who eats meat and/or dairy to halve their consumption, that would actually have a far greater effect. And so there being this kind of option available on a night out is fantastic news.

For £25 a head (plus service), we’d had 6 dishes, and were extremely satisfied with our night out. I imagine some meat-eaters will scoff at this – the idea of deep fried cauliflower instead of chicken on the waffles, the absence of real cheese and so on – and I am not going to pretend that this was as good to my palate as it might have been with those alternatives when done well.

But on it’s own terms, this was a really good meal at an excellent price. If you are vegan and seeking this style of American comfort food, I highly recommend trying to get a table either during this run of Tuesdays (I believe it’s on until June 5th, but I’ve a feeling it may already be sold out), or down the line if they repeat it, which I’m sure they will based on this.

Reviewing this from a non-vegan perspective, I reckon I’d give this 7/10.

In the context of my experiences with vegan food (which have been generally decent, but occasionally a little sketchy), I’d say this is deserves 8.5/10.