The Triple Burger Taste-Off, Round 1, Heat 1

My old flatmate ThePetebox texted me a while ago with a ridiculous, but appealing, idea. Go out into London, and sample 3 of the finest burgers around, each time choosing a winner. Do this a bunch of times, then you do the winners in 3’s, down to a grand final, thus working out the best of the best of the best.

We’ve faffed for a few months, but finally made the leap. Meeting up at Patty & Bun in Soho after Pete had bizarrely been teaching Iain Duncan-Smith to beatbox on Radio 2, we had a loose plan involving Lucky Chip and A N Other, which we hadn’t quite worked out yet.

So, to business. The rules of engagement are simple – 3 burgers, not necessarily the same burgers, just the one that we think sounds the best or that is their signature, or that we know to be kick-ass. For me at Patty & Bun, that’s the Jose Jose – in my opinion the finest burger that is permanently on a menu in London.

We ordered, and they were with us in literally a couple of minutes. As always, opening them was a risky business if you weren’t careful, due to the very messy nature of the burger. But it was as glorious as every other time I’ve had one – sweet, spicy sobrassada chorizo relish mixing with smoky mayonnaise and ketchup, the beef perfectly medium-rare (as they’d advised it would be unless we wanted it done longer) and seasoned just right, the springy, light brioche bun holding together like a champ (especially impressive given how sloppy a sandwich this is). But what I’ve come to realise with this one is that the masterstroke is the pickled onions – the acidity of these cuts through the sauces just enough to stop it being sickly, a crucial note in a symphonic burger. We were off to a flying start. The 2 burgers, service and a donation to a charity that was included and explained to us came in at £21.38.

Patty & Bun – Jose Jose Burger – 9/10

After some consideration about where to head next, we decided to include Tommi’s Burger Joint, which is a relatively new addition to the Soho area. I’d been to the Mayfair joint some time ago, and been impressed, but this was only my 2nd crack of the whip. We both ordered cheeseburgers (which come medium), and a pot of chipotle mayo. The price was a very impressively cheap £12.50 for everything. The burgers arrived quickly, wrapped quite similarly to Patty & Bun’s, yet somehow looking nothing like as appealing due to poor branding and presentation. We unwrapped, and being honest they didn’t excite – they looked a bit dry, dull, and overdone. I popped a big blob of chipotle mayo in there and chowed down.

The first couple of bites were a let-down, but once I hit the chipotle mayo, ketchup and so on, it took on an extra dimension – the chipotle mayo in particular was very tasty. However, it was far from as good a burger as I’d remembered from my first trip – the patty is quite thin, I think the burger was marginally overdone, and not as tasty meat as I recalled it having – also Pete mentioned his was a tad gristly. It wasn’t bad – indeed, for £6.25 it is incredible value for central London. But after the Jose Jose this seemed very pedestrian.

Tommi’s Burger Joint – Burger with cheese and chipotle mayo – 6/10

We took a small interlude here to grab an excellent coffee from Soho Bikes

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And then, a short hop on the tube over to Angel, and Lucky Chip at the Old Queen’s Head for their wonderful El Chappo burger.

Beef patty, smoked bacon, roasted jalapeños, blue cheese & aioli. I’ve had this burger 3 times now, and it’s a good un for sure. Chatting to our server, it turns out they press the blue cheese (a lovely, salty, almost spicy cheese) into a disc which melts atop the burger. The aioli is smeared generously over the bottom half of the bun and brings plenty of garlic to the party, the smoked bacon is excellent and cooked as it needs to be in a burger – just crispy enough to be easy to break through, but not a salty pork biscuit. The occasional jalapeño hit is very welcome amongst this all.

The combination here is delicious, but it did bring to mind the clever move of the Jose Jose – those pickled onions.

The melted cheese and aioli, and a quite fatty patty (which is a good thing for flavour, but still), make for a somewhat oily, greasy mouth-feel after a few bites. It could probably use something in there to cut through this – pickled chillies might do this, but the roasted jalapeños here didn’t, even while being very tasty. It’s nit-picking – I really like this burger. But it’s something I feel could improve it. The burgers were £9.50 each, no service as we ordered and paid at the bar.

Lucky Chip – El Chappo – 8/10

So, a clear winner in Patty & Bun’s Jose Jose, despite my affection for the El Chappo. Tommi’s disappointed this time out, although I’m sure I will give them another crack – the price is excellent and the first time I went it was a corker, so this could be an aberration. On to the next trio!

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Remaining heats in this stage (subject to change!)
Honest Burgers, Hawksmoor, Burger & Beyond

Mother Flipper, Dip n Flip, Haché

MeatMission, Burger Bear, Hoi Polloi

Dirty Burger, Bleecker Street, Smokehouse Islington

Mac & Wild, Elliot’s Cafe, Shake Shack

There’s a few obvious contenders I’ve left out because they are only available on specific days that don’t really suit my schedule, and also some well known brands that I feel don’t deserve comparison with most of these. But feel free to leave suggestions for wild cards in the comments, as I suspect I’ve missed a few out!

Burger & Beyond, and beyond

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The bait that caught us

I started hearing about Burger & Beyond last year when I attended the National Burger Day event at Hawker House. Sadly, I was unable to sample their wares that day, and despite the best of intentions I’d not made it to Kerb, the South Bank Market, or any of the other places they’d been around. Then they moved to Dinerama, in my corner of London. I had arranged to meet an old buddy for food last Sunday, we were kicking ideas around, and then it hit me – go and try these sexy looking offerings, and have the scope to test a few other things out from Dinerama’s ample selection.

We met there at 7pm on a Sunday – the place was relatively quiet but had a nice atmosphere, a gentle buzz, the DJ playing an excellent selection of nu-disco, chilled house, that sort of thing – it had me and Alfie Shazam-ing away while we were there! We ordered our burgers, £10 for a hell of a recipe – The Big Lew, with 90 day dry-aged patty (Ribeye, Brisket, Chuck, Featherblade), pancetta bacon, cold smoked American cheese, and marrownaise.

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Alfie nipped to the next hatch, Thunderbird, for some Chipuffalo wings (buffalo sauce, chipotle, coriander, pickled celery, truffled blue cheese dip) and fries (Cajun spice, awesome sauce) – I’m not mad keen on wings so I sat those out, the fries were a bit meh in honesty; nice seasoning and sauce, but they had that weirdly hollow thing going on that some thin fries get, they were good and crispy, but they didn’t have me thinking I’d ever order them myself down the line. The wings are, by Alfie and many other people’s accounts, excellent.

The burgers arrived – they seemed smaller than the impression we’d had from the pic I’d sent to him earlier to get the saliva buds going (the one at the top of the page). But in isolation they were very attractive, well presented burgers, scoring high on the filthy-stuff-that’s-probably-bad-for-you-but-probably-delicious scale.

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Dutty

On first bite, the bread was somewhat dense, heavy. Almost like a bun on the verge of going stale, but I don’t think it was that. However, it tasted great, and held together like a champ (the Kiwi Burger from Shane’s I’d had earlier in the day had disintegrated into a million pieces by the 3rd bite, the less said about that travesty the better). The smoked American cheese seemed to act like a delicious putty, holding things in place. The marrownaise was rich, the streaky bacon strips suitably crispy, if a little over-salty to my palate.

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Plenty of bacon, good good

The patty, with it’s various cuts in there, had a good, beefy flavour, but a somewhat unusual texture. I suspect they grind their meat more coarsely than is common. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was different, and that unsettled me for the first few mouthfuls while I tried to work out what exactly was different. They’d said it would be served medium, and I’d say it was leaning towards medium-rare, but regular readers will know that is absolutely fine by me!

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It looks raw in the middle, fret not, that’s just an optical illusion from such a juicy burger with sloppy toppings! It was cooked through.

did very much enjoy this burger, but it was cursed by a common problem in this Instagram era – the sexiness of the photos that drew me here set expectations unreasonably high, and it inevitably disappointed on that level. I am keen to try another burger from these guys, as this was a very good effort indeed, but I left the experience feeling slightly let down, which on reflection is an odd thing considering the quality of the burger they served me. The jury is out to a degree, so I’ll avoid giving it a score for now, I think a 2nd sampling would be very useful for me to work out it’s place in my league table! But I would certainly recommend you try it if you see them around, it’s a very welcome addition to the city.

After this, we fancied something sweet, and found ourselves looking at You Doughnut – the options pretty straightforward, just 2 choices available. We both went for the malted milk choc doughnut over the salted popcorn peanut caramel , £3 each for a small portion (£5 for a larger one), which was plenty to sweeten up our evening. These were a delight. Freshly made, light, tiny doughnuts dusted with sugar, maltesers and digestive biscuits crumbled atop, with malted chocolate sauce to finish it off. The combination and balance was fantastic. I’ve generally not got that much of a sweet tooth, so tend to dodge desserts, but the very reasonable price encouraged me to sample these, and I’m glad I did. I will definitely have these on my next visit.

Being the pair of fatties that we are, our minds wandered to other places in the area, and then it hit me – Alfie had to try the brisket bun at Smokestak. Funnily enough they had a stall at Dinerama before opening their permanent site near Brick Lane, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I consider this the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. Better than Kappercesein’s majestic cheese toastie. Better than Katz’s Deli’s Pastrami on rye (although I’ve only had the Texas version, not the NYC effort, which looks to be a different beast). Better than the Hamish Macbeth from Deeney’s. I do not say this lightly.

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Little & Large

We ordered one small, one large – £5 and £8.50. For me, the extra is completely worth it for more of that heavenly brisket. The soft bun is toasted wonderfully, so it crackles and crunches to the bite, tiny bits of char at the edges catching your lips. The inside of the top of the bun appears to have been brushed with dripping or similar, the bottom with a sheen of delicious BBQ sauce. The brisket is coiled within the confines of the bun, and topped with a generous handful of sweet, fiery, pickled red chillies.

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Oh baby

Just writing about it has me gently shaking my head in awe at this masterpiece. The balance is flawless, the brisket juicy and tender, the combination just perfect. I’ve had this sandwich 5 times now, firstly at Meatopia 2015, and each time it has been as brilliant as that first one.

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From an earlier visit

There are other items on the menu at Smokestak worth shouting about, the smoked monkfish tail with burnt lemon is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and the jacket potato smoked rarebit is a fantastic side dish, but on this trip we simply sat, ordered brisket buns, ate, paid, left, in approximately a 15 minute sitting, something I expect I will do many more times in the future.

So all-in-all, a deeply satisfying evening with a good friend and some lovely food. I need to revisit Burger & Beyond to decide whether it deserves a place at the very top table of London’s burger contenders, but it certainly is in contention. London is in a great place right now in terms of the quality and variety of food available, long may this continue.

 

London Pizza Festival 2017

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One of the rather annoying quirks of an otherwise lovely job is that I miss out on some weekend based activities. With the previous London Pizza Festivals I had been out of town for gigs elsewhere, and so each time had to pass up the opportunity to sample the increasingly excellent offerings that the best pizzerias in London bring to the table.

No such problems this year! After a little assistance from the very helpful host, the esteemed Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish fame) I managed to purchase a pair of tickets to the shenanigans, and I invited a regular pizza compadre along for the adventure.

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The event itself is held at Jubilee Place at Borough Market, and takes the form of a 6-way contest, with attendees sampling 6 quarter-pizzas, and a beer or soft drink thrown in, the tickets clocking in at £28 plus booking fee. This year, the contenders were L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Radio Alice, Sud Italia, Addommé, Napoli On The Road, and 2015 champion Made of Dough.

 

First up was Addommé, from Streatham. Aubergine, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano. Kind of like aubergine parmigiana on a pizza, but far more delicious than that description makes it sound! The host of the event referred to it (if memory serves!) as being real home style, comfort pizza, and that’s a great way to describe it. I loved it, as did my friend Amy. The base was pretty floppy, so it necessitated rolling and stuffing into my waiting pizza-hole, the tomato sauce was just the right level of sweetness and a great consistency for pizza, the aubergine basically melted in the mouth. A really strong start to proceedings!

 

Next up was Sud Italia. A bold selection of ingredients here – pumpkin, nduja, mozzarella, basil, Bleu de Laqueuille (a lovely strong, salty blue cheese), pecorino sardo DOP, parmigiano reggiano. The flames in the oven of their mobile unit were absolutely hypnotic as they snaked round, the photos don’t come close to doing justice.

The pizza – majestic. I was stunned at how good this one was – I’ve had the pumpkin sauce one at Homeslice, and to be honest it was not good and I didn’t finish it (which is quite something for my favourite pizza place). This was a delight, each mouthful a slightly different combination of sweet, savoury, salty, spicy. Just a joy to eat, even if it doesn’t look like much visually! They more than made up for this with the brilliant design of their pizza van. Loved the Naples themed art, anything to do with Maradona is alright by me!

 

Next up, another rather experimental selection of toppings, from Napoli on the Road. Tuna carpaccio, grated bottarga, mozzarella, yellow tomatoes, lemon oil. Amy is so militantly against fish on pizza that she declined the tuna (double tuna for me wooooooo!).

This was a strange one – I have to say I enjoyed it, but there’s no way I could have eaten a whole one. The freshness of the lemon oil worked well with the tuna, but the yellow tomatoes seemed to still have their skins on, which I personally found rather unpleasant as they were a little tough and chewy, although the flavour made up for that somewhat. A very interesting combination, a slice I’m happy I have sampled, but for me it was a gamble that didn’t quite land.

On to the 2015 champs, Made of Dough. I suspect their previous experience (and success) in this festival was brought to bear in the selection of their pizza – a crowd-pleasing Brindisa chorizo, piquillo peppers, tomato, mozzarella, basil. It looked the business, and was served with a delicious aoili (with basil in if memory serves, but I didn’t write it down), for dipping the crusts at the end, which was lovely and fragrant, very summery.

The pizza itself was very good, but we both agreed it was just lacking… something. The chorizo or the peppers could have used a fraction more heat I think, but my friend Phill who attended the first sitting had this as his favourite, and cited the subtle flavours as a big part of why.

5th, was L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, serving their famous margherita – tomato, double mozzarella, Pecorino Romano & basil. Initially, there was a very upsetting moment, when they dropped God’s own food on the Borough Market concrete. A terrible waste, and so we had to wait the very short time it takes them to knock up a new pizza in their ferociously hot ovens.

This, I felt, was slightly better than the already excellent margherita I had sampled when they first opened in Stoke Newington. On a day where all the pizzas had outstanding dough, this one was exceptional, and the tomato very good indeed. I am still left with my non-purist view though – at the end of the day it’s “just” a margherita. An outstandingly good margherita, but I like the variety of flavours and textures that experimentation brings.

The final contender was Radio Alice. By this point we were flagging badly – 6 quarter pizzas each is a substantial amount of food, even for a pair of pigs like us (we demolished 2 x 18″ pizzas on a Yard Sale review trip I’ll be publishing soon). This was by far the most attractive pizza slice on show – a work of art. Naturally I didn’t get a good picture of it. Well done brain. But it was gorgeous to look at.

Topping this pizza was Yorkshire fennel & pork sausage, tomato, lemon thyme & parmigiano reggiano, which I’d tried in my review a few months back. Again, this seemed better than the one I’d had in the restaurant – the fennel and lemon thyme both seemed more prominent, which added a lot, and I’d forgotten just how good their tomato sauce is, definitely the outstanding effort of the day for me in that department, they use Pelati peeled tomatoes, and I will be hunting those down for my pizza parties!

The sourdough base on this one was very different to the others, much crispier on the bottom, and a wonderfully airy, springy crust, presumably partially a result of using quite a different oven to their competitors.

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So, at the end we sat, barely able to move, let alone think. But think we did, we talked through our preferences, and ultimately both ended up lending our vote to Sud Italia’s bonkers-but-brilliant effort. A close 2nd for the pair of us was Addommé, with Radio Alice tucked in a close 3rd for me.

But I have to say, the standard of pizzas was impressively high. All of them were done to perfection, the bread was at worst tasty, at best delicious, something that I feel is underrated in its importance by some pizza restaurants.

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The 6 contestants provided a really broad spectrum of what the modern London pizza scene has to offer, and when you consider the amount of big hitters that were absent, you have to say that for lovers of this magnificent dish this is a great time to be in London. I did see some people complaining about the cost of the tickets, and honestly I can only assume they hadn’t thought their complaint through – where else could you sample 6 outstanding pizzas in one setting for that sort of price? And the mark-up vs what it would cost to buy one and half pizzas and a beer in a restaurant (with service added of course) is negligible really.

As a side note, I loved the all-vinyl selection of funk & soul classics the DJs treated us to!

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However, our choices didn’t quite chime with the rest of the attendees – above isn’t the final tally, but gives you and idea. Addommé and Made Of Dough were clearly the crowd favourites. In the final count, Addommé emerged as the 2017 champions, and despite my affection for the Sud Italia entry, I certainly have no problem is proclaiming them worthy victors, and I hope to visit their restaurant soon for my 2nd go on their brilliant pizza!

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As a post-script, I’m publishing this the day after Borough Market re-opened following the awful events of the evening of June 3rd. I have lived in London for 6 years, and Borough Market is absolutely one of my favourite places to go, or to take visitors. This pizza festival took place less than a week before the attacks, and I was there just a couple of days before. It’s a wonderful place that fully celebrates one of life’s great joys, food.

I really can’t recommend enough that you sample it if you’ve never been before, if you are visiting London try and take the time to check it out (although expect it to be very busy if that’s a Saturday!), if you’re a Londoner and live or work nearby, pop down for lunch one day and show your support for the oldest market in an even older city.

One thing I know – when the arseholes who committed this attack are completely forgotten, barely even a footnote in history, Borough Market and London will be getting on with what they do so well – being awesome.

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 7

Mama Dough, Brixton

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So far in my round up for London’s best pizza joints, there’s been a definite Eastern bias, a product of where I live and where I spend the majority of my time socially and with gigs. However, this last Sunday I had the opportunity to expand my horizons somewhat, courtesy of a Bonobo gig at Brixton Academy (Bonobo featuring on the blog last May in fact!). I have been eyeing up Theo’s in Camberwell for some time, and hopefully will be visiting them later this week, but for this one I looked closer to my final destination, and hit upon Mama Dough. I’ve passed by that a couple of times and fancied that it looks good, the reviews online were generally favorable, and so a booking was made.

On arrival at 6pm on a Sunday it was relatively quiet, somewhere around 1/3 full. The restaurant is a spacious, open well-lit place on a street corner on the way toward Camberwell, the kitchen and pizza oven in full view, and some nice modern art adorning the walls, with a rough & ready decor of exposed brick and wood. I ordered a glass of very decent Rioja (£4) and waited for my friend to arrive while I took in what they had on offer.

The menu certainly appealed to me, and had a decent amount of variation in the pizza toppings, especially when you factored in the specials board (which annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of, whoops). The starter selection is a bit on the thin side, but that’s forgivable. The drinks selection is pretty simple and, from what we had, high quality stuff at very reasonable prices.

We ended up ordering a special,the Lady Royale (with tomato, burratina, basil and pesto, £11), and the cured meat pizza (with tomato, mozzarella, salami napoli, salami calabrese, parma ham and chilli, £10.50). My friend order a Kraken rum and homemade ginger ale (£6) which was nice enough that it became my 2nd drink of the night.

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When the pizzas arrived, I have to say they were beautiful – in particular, the Lady Royale which was like Jackson Pollock in a more orderly moment had turned his hand to Italian food. And this proved to be the star of the show – the cured meat pizza was decent, but not outstanding. The base was pleasingly crispy and bubbly, and held together well throughout, but not especially flavourful for a sourdough effort. The meats were larger cuts, which made divvying the pizza into slices a little bit trickier than it really needed to be. The meat itself was good quality and tasty though, so I’m nitpicking a little there.

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The Lady Royale, on the other hand, was outstanding. Absolutely delicious, and quite different to any pizza I’ve had before. There was a lot more tomato on this than the other offering, a deep red covering the whole base, and atop this the incredibly creamy, delicate burratina, the generous drizzlings of a lovely, fresh-tasting pesto and a huge handful of fresh basil. The flavours combined wonderfully well, the abundance of sauces and burratina making for an incredibly satisfying, juicy mouthful each time, yet even by the last slice the base was still doing it’s job as a handheld vessel to safely get this delicious team of tastes into my mouth.

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The service was more than a little wonky, even while being friendly – more than a few times I needed service, but ended up waving and trying to call attention to no avail, so was sat without a drink a few times. Also, we had to wait ages for the bill, then after that arrived they never came to take payment, so we had to walk to the bar to make payment; as a result, this was one of the very rare occasions that I didn’t tip (I’m normally a pretty generous tipper by UK standards, about 15-20% if I’ve been treated well, and very, very rarely fail to tip or ask to take off the service, which in London is usually 12.5%). They only had two waiting staff on, and by the time we left it was pretty much full, but there was no indication from them to us that they were struggling with the numbers or short-staffed, and none of the turbo “walking” from A to B that I’ve seen at so many busy restaurants over the years when they are trying to manage a busy room. They just came across as a bit lackadaisical, with a blind spot for us in the far corner.

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But that Lady Royale pizza… make no mistake, if I get chance to eat that again, I will do, sketchy service or not. It was absolutely wonderful.

Lady Royale – 9/10

Cured Meat Pizza – 7.5/10

Service 5/10

Overall score – 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 6

Homeslice, Old Street, Shoreditch, London

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Today’s review will be relatively short and sweet, as I did a full review last year, which you can find here. This is more of a quick recap, with a couple of relevant observations based on some trips since that review.

Last night I headed down with my old buddy ThePetebox to stuff my face with half of one of Homeslice’s 20″ wonders. Before I tackle this trip though, a quick mention of a meal I had in the week between Christmas and New Year.

I went with a vegetarian friend, which was no biggie as I actually am pretty much vegetarian in my diet at home, but in a restaurant obviously restricts our selections considerably. We went half & half – mushroom, ricotta, pumpkin seeds & chilli flakes on one side, and butternut pumpkin, broccoli, pecorino & crispy onions the other. The former did look spectacular when I’d seen others ordering on previous visits, and my dining companion enjoyed it, but I found it below average, with a strangely pungent scent. The latter combination I really didn’t like at all. And the pizza was, to my mind, underdone – Homeslice do tend to have their pizzas right on the line between flopping around and crispy, so a few times they’ve come out slightly underdone compared to how I like them, and when you are dealing with slice from a 20″ pizza, and no knives and forks, that can be a pain in the neck to handle.

That was the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by a trip to a Homeslice, and it shook me somewhat. But this was mitigated by the knowledge that I’d have happily chosen basically any of the topping combinations with meat over these two, so I am not going to condemn them too harshly for one bad experience.

With that out of the way, let’s rattle through this one. I met Pete, we asked for a table and were seated immediately. The servers were friendly and helpful. We went for a classic (salami, parmesan & rocket with tomato sauce) and then a new one I’ve not seen before, XO pig cheek, collard greens & crackling furikake with tomato sauce. A few minutes later it arrived at the table on their signature wooden board with pizza slicer, and we got to business.

I’m a big fan of the salami pizza they do, this was maybe the 4th time I’ve had it, and it was as good as ever. Pete reckoned that the parmesan was overpowering the other flavours, and I can see where he was coming from there, but I don’t care, I like it the way it is, therefore he must be wrong. Worth noting that the salami is great stuff, and cooked to perfection – not too crispy, but just enough crunch around the edges of each slice to add a little something.

However, the pig cheek pizza – wow. This was absolutely delicious – big, juicy blobs of what seemed to be a thick, rich, slow cooked pig cheek stew, which interacted with the tomato sauce in a delightful way. The little crunchy bits of crackling added a fantastic textural aspect to the slices, the cheese melted into the mix almost imperceptibly, and the collard greens added a touch of freshness and lightness. Really, really very good indeed. Maybe even my favourite toppings combination at Homeslice yet, which is saying something. My mouth absolutely luxuriated in the flavours on offer with this one, it knocked the salami into a cocked hat, which is saying something.

The base was done pretty much to perfection, right in my sweet spot between super floppy neapolitan style and mega crispy NY style slices. However, during the meal I kept thinking “something is different, something is missing”, but just couldn’t place what. When we retired to a nearby pub after the meal, I was midway through my pint when I suddenly exclaimed “SALT!” to a bemused Pete. It was his first visit to Homeslice, so he had no way of knowing, but they have this neat trick where I think they sprinkle sea salt flakes on the wooden serving board before the pizza goes on there, which means the base ends up lightly encrusted with little flavour bombs that explode periodically in your mouth. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but that would have elevated this pizza even higher, and I’m curious to know if they just forgot or it was a deliberate choice for these toppings to exclude this, or what.

In conclusion, a triumphant return to form for my favourite pizza place after the Christmas aberration. I can’t recommend them highly enough, they do some amazing and unexpected toppings, including some really leftfield sauce bases (creamed corn, blitzed cauliflower cheese and so on), so you can go quite far off piste. This, as I found, carries some risk, but the rewards are so great when they get it right that I’ll happily forgive them. The total bill for the 20″ pizza, a pint of Camden Hells lager and a fruit juice was £30 including service, which is quite a bargain in London.

Salami half – 8.5/10

Pig cheek half – 9.5/10

Overall score – 9/10

Snack Attack, Vol 10

TGI Friday’s Crunchy Fries – Extreme Heat 

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I’m endlessly fascinated by the American shelves at my local Tesco – ludicrously overpriced imported goods of a remarkably unhealthy nature. Every so often my curiosity gets so great that I simply have to try something out. It’s a patchy record so far.

These are disgusting. Sticks of sawdust glued together with some of the least punchy chilli seasoning that you will ever put near your face. I guess the consistency is somewhat like that of cheese puffs/cheetos, so maybe fans of those won’t hate them as much as me, but the flavour claims on the bag are a downright lie. I know extreme heat, and it is not to be found within this bag. Plus they were really bloody expensive, being a novelty imported item.

1/10

 

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 4

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – Stoke Newington


The last ten years has seen a revolution in the standard of food in London. Few areas is this improvement more rapid than in the world of pizza, but last autumn a man who is in the rare category of having eaten more pizza than me (Daniel Young of Young & Foodish) posted online about a very, very exciting development. A pizzeria reputed to be arguably the greatest in the world was heading to London. Rumours of opening dates swirled, reports of a 2300kg oven surfaced. Much anticipation built.

And then, it was announced that they would open on Friday February 3rd. Photos of gigantic crowds of people queuing outside on the opening evening were posted, and early reports were uniformly favourable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where my next stop on my round-up had to be.

So, exactly a week after it opened, I headed down to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele with an Italian by the name of Michele – the thoroughly excellent Miky J.

We arrived at roughly 1pm on Friday afternoon. A small cluster of people were huddled outside, but no obvious sign of what the process to get a table was – I asked, and was told I had to go inside to get a ticket. In I popped, to the very smart, simple restaurant (which holds maybe 30 or so diners at a time), scanned around and went over to the nearest staff member, who was at the till. This bit, I’ll put down to the sheer volume of customers in a brand new restaurant with new staff being a bit like someone trying to land safely on a treadmill going at 30mph – I was literally ignored for maybe 5 minutes as I stood there patiently and politely waiting for her to finish whatever she was doing (various bits and bobs for various tables), with no “be with you in a second” comments or gestures, not even eye contact. Not the end of the world, but pretty poor form on the customer service front. Once they turned to me, I asked if I needed a ticket, told her it was for 2, grabbed my ticket and headed back outside to the snowy London afternoon. After 5 minutes more she emerged from the front door calling numbers. “55?” Answer came there none. “56?” Nada. “57?” The two girls I had spoken to on arrival went in. “58?” Yay! And so that wait was pleasantly brief. We were seated inside, mercifully away from the door, which seemed incapable of shutting properly, meaning the customers sat by it had to keep their winter jackets on throughout their meals, and spent as long trying to keep the door closed as eating.

The restaurant was packed. Obviously, all the seats were taken. But also all available space between seats. This is Stoke Newington. Of course there were 18712875418 giant prams in the restaurant at 1pm. Why on earth had I not considered that simple universal Stokey reality? I think I saw more babies at tables than pizzas. Mercifully, the babies were all being pretty quiet. We sat at our seat, and were handed our menus.

The menu is classically Neapolitan – a choice of margherita (£7.90), margherita with double mozzarella (£9), and two sizes of marinara (£6.90 & £7.90). We ordered a margherita and a Moretti beer each, and made ourselves comfortable.

The pizzas took a surprising amount of time to arrive given the simplicity of recipes and the short cooking time that these pizzas would have in a monster oven such as da Michele’s, and considering that there were at least 4 or 5 staff in their kitchen dealing with the several dozen customers. I didn’t time them, but I’d guess it was at least 10-15 minutes before our pizzas arrived – strangely before the girls to our right who had ordered before us, the same combo of two margheritas.

There’s no getting away from it – these pizzas looked the business. The bread was charred to just the right degree, the mozzarella melted to perfection, plenty of tomato. Time for business.


Now, this is where things get a little tricky. This was a really good pizza. Comfortably the best margherita I’ve ever had in my life, by a distance. But I’d been sold the idea that this is arguably the best pizza in the world, so I was ready to have my mind blown, and it wasn’t. The tomato was very, very tasty, nice and just about sweet enough without going overboard. The bread was good, and the mozzarella did everything you’d hope for a mozzarella to do. I would have liked more than one solitary basil leaf on such a large pizza – it gave a bit of aroma, but the mouthfuls which actually had some basil were lifted considerably. Despite plentiful tomato and a decent amount of mozzarella, there were no issues with soggy bread or standing liquid atop the pizza. I would like to try the double mozzarella option, I suspect it’s worth the extra cash. And the marinaras look great too.

I asked Michele for his thoughts, he opined that the bread and tomato both probably needed a touch more salt to bring the natural flavours out, and this was almost exactly what I had been thinking. Don’t get me wrong – it was a delicious pizza, and expertly made. You could see that all the pizzas coming out of the kitchen were cooked to absolute perfection, to a uniform standard. But it didn’t blow me away in the manner which I had hoped it would. Homeslice have a neat trick where they sprinkle the wooden board on which the pizzas are served with sea salt, which leads to little flavour bombs throughout your meal. I don’t think that would have worked here on the porcelain plates, but certainly the bread wasn’t quite there. Fractional, but when you get to the sharp end of any industry it’s the tiny percentages that make all the difference. Another thing was that because of the size of the pizza, by the time I finished it was getting quite cold – I didn’t notice if the plates were warm when they arrived at the table, but I’m a very fast eater (that happens when you grow up around 3 brothers and first to finish is first to get 2nd helpings!), so I would guess others had the same issue.

We got to talking about the nature of this sort of transition – the role of transporting ingredients that are native to Italy when such simple recipes are so dependent on the exceptional standard of what goes in to them, and whether they could ever hope to replicate the Naples experience when, for instance, they either have to change mozzarella supplier or accept that it’s not as incredibly fresh as that which they will be able to use in their original restaurant. The water supply apparently plays a key role in the dough, due to differing mineral contents – this may be apocryphal, but I’ve been told that some high end pizza places ship water about from one place to another to maintain a uniform standard for this, and country to country that’s obviously just not feasible. I don’t know what their approach is with tomatoes, whether it’s canned, or fresh that they blitz, where they are sourcing them, so it’s hard to say whether the location might be a factor there, as I’m reliably informed that tomatoes are at their best when they have never been chilled. My assumption is that there will be some fine tuning going on in the early weeks as they adjust to making pizza in a new country.

One thing I noticed which is worth mentioning is that despite us taking our sweet time over our beers, and despite a constant half-dozen-person queue outside, they made no effort to hurry us along, which I rather liked. But being completely honest, I suspect this related to the lack of attention I mentioned on arrival – we were only offered desserts after we had already asked for the bill for instance! Clearly there’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of customer handling, and they did seem a little short-staffed on the floor, whereas the kitchen was overflowing with workers, so that will hopefully improve.

I’ve never been to the Naples da Michele, but a few commenters online have suggested that Tokyo and Rome are both really, really good, while not quite at the Naples level, and it’s entirely reasonable to assume that a similar fate awaits London. There’s no shame in that, it leaves plenty of scope to become the best pizzeria in the city, and of course there is a contextual element to eating the exact same pizza in a 147 year old pizzeria in Naples vs a one week old place in N16 surrounded by prams.

Personally, I’m not one of those purists about pizzas or burgers or whatever, who feel that if you deviate from the simple form then you’re cheating – I like simple or novel toppings when they are done well, I like the variety of flavours and textures it brings, the experimentation and surprise.

I will certainly return to da Michele in the coming weeks – I’m very curious to see if the tiny improvements I feel are there to be made are made, there is definitely a lot to be said for the simplicity of a great margherita pizza done well, and believers in that as the One True Pizza will love this place. But in truth while I left satisfied, I was somewhat underwhelmed – such is the cost of building up hype to these levels if you don’t quite deliver what is being talked about. And there is much work to be done in terms of front of house service.

Pizza – 8/10

Customer service – 5/10

Overall score – 7/10