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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since commencing this attempt at going round London’s pizza scene, I’ve been inundated with recommendations for places I’d not previously heard of. Arguably the most surprising to me was Radio Alice, as I have a monthly residency DJing a few yards away at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen‘s Friday night party Night Call. But several people told me it is excellent, and so a dinner was booked alongside my friends Rich and Elliot (a fine pair with excellent knowledge of food and drink from their work in hospitality over the years).
We took our seats and perused the very appealing menus. After a little discussion we settled on Burrata (£5.50), speck and apricots (£6) and anchovies with bread and butter (£3) as our starters, and then the pork sausage (£9.90), Anchovy (£8.50) & nduja (£10) pizzas. We were asked if we’d like the pizzas to arrive together or as soon they came out of the oven – as we were sharing we asked for the latter.
The starters arrived, and very well presented they were too. In particular, the burrata excited my tingle zone. I love burrata. This was an excellent example, one of the best I’ve had in London. Delicate and creamy, with the oil, pepper and oregano generously added to it offering a wonderful counterpoint. The speck was fragrant, delicious, and remarkably lean. I actually would have preferred a tiny bit more fat on there, which is not something I would normally say about cooked meats. The anchovies were pleasantly meaty and as salty as you’d expect, although personally I far prefer the white anchovies known as boquerones. Given the progressing strength of the flavours in play, it was pretty much essential to eat the items in the order I just described them, or risk spoiling the experience of something as simple and light on the tongue as a good burrata.
Pizza number one to arrive was the anchovy one. Presentation was immaculate, and cheese was notable by it’s absence. As the photo above shows, the bread was cooked to perfection, with seemingly a little sprinkling of semolina flour giving it that particular dusted texture on the crusts, which were springy and spongey in just the right way, while the base held together to be eaten by hand as slices brilliantly. They weren’t quite as tasty as the crusts at Franco Manca at it’s best or Homeslice. The tomato was relatively crudely chopped/crushed compared to the sauces most pizzas would have on, and I rather liked that. The sweetness of the tomato and red onion worked nicely against the saltiness of the anchovy, and I have to say that the lemon zest (which was one of the main reasons I ordered this one, from sheer curiosity) was a stroke of genius, lifting the whole thing with it’s citrus notes. So we were off to an excellent start with a very good pizza indeed.
Up next was the nduja offering. I was first made aware of this spicy, spreadable meat through it’s use by Pizza Pilgrims (who will feature soon in this round-up), and it does work well on a pizza. This presentation did confuse me somewhat though – the caciocavallo cheese was clearly added immediately before being sent to the table, resulting in a pile of unmelted dairy atop the blob of nduja. The base was perfectly cooked again, the tomato once more very tasty in it’s somewhat cruder form than most use. But the cheese… why not just show it to the heat of their oven for a moment to creating a little cheesy envelope for the nduja? That would seem the obvious approach, whereas this left a pile of grated, sweating cheese that didn’t really do it for me visually or on my palate. The nduja itself seemed strangely tame as well, and the pizza as a whole didn’t quite sing. A perfectly respectable effort in the grand scheme of things, but we were all a little disappointed after the slightly unexpected heights of the first arrival at the table.
Pizza number 3, and the meal was sitting on the edge of a razor blade – able to be a true top contender, or merely in the chasing pack. This one – pork sausage, parmigiana reggiano, tomato, black pepper. Interestingly, although again seeming to using the crudely crushed tomatoes as seen on the previous two pizzas, this one seemed a lot “wetter” than the previous two, with some small amount of standing liquid. But it looked the business – a good sausage pizza can really be fantastic, and if I’d had to choose one ahead of the meal to have, it would have been this. The sausage was good and meaty, but the pizza as a whole lacked a certain something. To me, the sausage wasn’t strongly flavoured enough – it needed a much more herby, aromatic meat on there, or the addition of something alongside it to bring the package to life. On the first, the lemon zest just elevated the whole thing to a higher level – both of the follow ups lacked that killer “punch”, that certain something on your tastebuds that really excites you. A more interesting, intense sausage flavour on this and it would have been excellent – as it was it was “just” pretty good.
To be clear, these were not bad pizzas at all. The bases were all absolutely bang on, the ingredients clearly high quality, and I did like the tomato very much. I also appreciate that there is clearly thought going into doing these in somewhat unusual ways that differ from pizza to pizza. But 2 of the 3 were unfortunately in the “nearly, but not quite” category where they didn’t get my juices flowing in the way they had been ready to.
The service was very friendly and helpful, and the meal with a few beers and a bottle of very good house red wine clocked in at about £30 each including service. It is a restaurant I would happily recommend, and will almost certainly revisit to try some more of their pizzas as they are definitely a place that takes pizza very seriously – hell, look at this for a pizza oven, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so high-tech.
In summary, a qualified success from a restaurant that is obviously unafraid to try out some ideas others might back away from. Worth seeking out and giving a go if you are in the area.
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.
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.
By sheer chance, I happened to move to London just as the fast-food-that-is-actually-bloody-brilliant revolution was kicking off in earnest (I know that sentence is awful, but I didn’t know what else to describe it all as). I was living in SE5, so I was just up the road from both Honest Burger’s and Franco Manca’s first restaurants (in Brixton Market), and duly became a regular at both places.
Both have since exploded in popularity and number of outlets – Honest with 18, and Franco Manca with an incredible 29 (including a couple on the South coast). As a previous review of Honest made clear, I have mixed feelings about this, as it can lead to huge difficulties in maintaining standards and consistency. This is something I have occasionally run into with Franco Manca – I’ve probably eaten there 20+ times now, and not all Franco Mancas are created equal…
Anyway, to this review. I linked up with the one and only DJ Yoda for lunch at the London Fields outlet for a new year catch up, and we set about sampling their wares. Both of us had exhausted the regular menu options in our previous visits, which I will talk about later, so decided to go for the two specials – a meat one, and a vegetarian one. We also ordered a mozzarella & salami starter to share.
The mozzarella was decent if unspectacular. However, the fennel salami was delicious, three big slices that had a very strong flavour and aroma, which worked well against the delicate milkiness of the mozzarella and the simple rocket and tomato salad.
The pizzas arrived promptly, and I must say they were lovely to look at, and instantly allayed one fear I’ve had when visiting Franco Mancas in recent years; namely, that they have sometimes had a tendency to keep the prices static and gradually reduce the amount of toppings, forcing you to pay a relatively high sum extra to get what should really be on there already, but as an extra topping. Personally, I would much rather have the extra (or reduction for that matter) built into the price as ingredients ebb and flow in cost, rather than find out that they are cutting corners when a mushroom pizza arrives with two or three tiny mushrooms (as happened to a friend some time ago) and have to wait for it to be remedied, spoiling the flow of a meal.
But as I said – no such issues here. Mine was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, organic tomato, cime de rapa, and capocollo from Martina Franca, for £8.25. As you can see from the pic, there’s a generous amount of tomato and mozzarella, 3 substantial pieces of capocollo, and plenty of the greens.
I am a big fan of the tomato that Franco Manca use, but the real star of their pizza is the sourdough base. You know you are on to a winner when the crusts that many people might discard are as tasty as any of the toppings. I have to say, on this occasion it seemed slightly less flavourful than it has been at other times. It was cooked to absolute perfection, the little bits of char just present enough, the crusts bubbly and chewy, but the flavour was slightly less intense than in trips I’ve had before – nothing to cry over, but noticeable. It’s a knife and fork job unless you are after very, very floppy triangles of pizza and toppings all down you chin or over your lap.
These toppings were excellent, with the ample fat marbling of the capocollo meaning that it easily cut and pulled apart, as the heat of the pizza softened the fat running through each slice. It had a delicious, gentle flavour (it’s not too salty, presumably as it’s not brined), and that sat nicely with the cime de rapa, which I would describe as being like the world’s most skinny and delicately flavoured tenderstem broccoli – the bread, tomato, mozzarella and toppings really were a brilliant combination, and I would happily have this again and again.
The other pizza was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, San Marzano DOP tomato, wild caper berries from Salina, organic kalamata olives, and watercress, at £8.15. This type of tomato is famously considered the premium for pizzas, and is slightly sweeter from this sampling, but nothing massively consequential to my tastebuds. In truth, this one wasn’t a patch on the meat special. It was perfectly decent, but lacked magic. Looking back at it, it looks like too much watercress, and something missing. Both of us agreed that the meat special was superb, and this one just good. The watercress was just a bit overwhelmingly everywhere once you started into it, and while the saltiness of the olives and caper berries is something that worked nicely with the sweeter San Marzano tomato, it just didn’t quite work for me.
Looking at the regular menu, you can see the prices are very reasonable for a London restaurant. It’s perfectly possible for 2 people to have a great pizza and a good beer for around £20 plus whatever tip you want to leave (incidentally, I’ve almost always had good, friendly service at all the Franco Mancas I’ve eaten at, this trip was no exception). It’s good that they list which pizzas are lacking in tomato, as I’ve been caught out by this before – I know that’s the wide, wide world of pizza, but I rarely get on with the ones which lack any tomato. The chorizo pizza in particular (number 6) is great, and £6.40 for a brilliant margarita really is stunning value in an expensive city.
The flipside of the menu goes over a few testimonials, as well as the source of their excellent ingredients. It’s always nice to know where what you are about to eat came from, and it’s good that such a rapidly growing restaurant chain takes such things seriously, and long may that continue to spread as a practice in this industry.
As you can tell, I’m a fan. I got ridiculously excited when this London Fields branch originally opened, and have eaten there both in the restaurant and the little courtyard out the back many times now. I have run into issues when eating at the Westfield Stratford one – my paranoia makes me wonder if it’s just the food court vibe making it seem less good, but I feel confident that the standard of pizza there has failed to hit the heights that Brixton and London Fields dependably have served up, along with a couple of other London sites which I’ve been to for one-offs. I don’t know if that’s an oven issue, or the better staff not wanting to be in that environment, or maybe not feeling like the competition in that courtyard necessitates full commitment to excellence. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I now wouldn’t bother going there even if hungry when I know there’s another so close.
So in summary, Franco Manca is ace. It has successfully ridden the tricky wave of sudden rapid expansion and maintained remarkably high standards in my experience, with the exceptions along the way which I’ve noted. The value is remarkable compared to many other eateries and pizzerias, and the meat special I had was a top 10 job, absolutely exceptional stuff.
Up next… oh, its only L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which I will be visiting with a Naples native by the name of Michele, how perfect! Can it possibly live up to the hype? Let’s see!
Meat Special – 9.5/10
Veg Special – 7.5/10
Franco Manca overall score (this meal) – 9/10
Franco Manca overall score (across the chain) – 8/10
Today, a restaurant I reviewed not that long ago, so this will be a relatively brief scan through the other items before getting to the pizza, which didn’t get much attention in my previous review.
I visited with a group of friends the other night, and while I usually stick to the antipasti and wood-fired menu, I naturally got stuck into their pizza this time. But let’s do the decent thing and quickly run through the antipasti I did sample, which was all very lovely (as were the cocktails and wine). Just to mention – this meal was bought using the 50% Monday discount fob I have, but the prices I am listing are the full price as per the menu.
So what’s up there – a selection of lamb meatballs, smoked swordfish with capers and chilli, burrata and figs, pigs cheek in a delicious jus/gravy and calamari, prawns and courgette fritti. The burrata and swordfish in particular were fantastic, and the rest very good indeed. Prices ranged from £6 for the meatballs and burrata to £9 for the calamari and prawns, which were all very reasonable to my mind.
But to the main event, the reason why we were there – the pizza. I have to say, as much as I have enjoyed their pizzas over the years, I do tend to think they are slightly overpriced in Pizza East. I went for a classic – salami, tomato, mozzarella, chilli flakes, which was priced at £14.
The pizza itself was really good – the base done just how I like it (and amongst the 5 at the table, all the pizzas were done to perfection in that regard). The tomato was delicious, a decent amount of cheese, and clearly high quality salami. It had a solid kick to it with the chilli.
The major criticism I would have is that although the base did a great job of providing a solid platform for the toppings and an easily handled vessel to get everything in my face without need for a knife and fork, the bread itself was somewhat flavourless. I’ve grown to love those sourdough bases that are just delicious in and of themselves, turning the crusts into a treat in their own right rather than a handle to be discarded once the main part of the pizza is consumed.
Pete to my left had the truffle pizza – I’ve had this before, and have mixed feelings about it. It’s one of those tomato-free pizzas that I’m never quite convinced about, for starters. But they put a barrel-load of cheese on their (tallegio & mozzarella), cream, and a LOT of truffle, so it wasn’t struggling for toppings. It is probably a crowd-splitter. I quite like it, but found a whole one to myself very sickly by the end, so exchanging a slice of mine for a slice of this was ideal – the overwhelming richness of the toppings gave a pleasant contrast to the spiciness and sharpness of mine, but a slice was enough. This one is £12.
Sam to my right went for Prosciutto cotto, chanterelle, tomato, thyme, which was £13. I have to say, I think this was my favourite. The prosciutto was delicious, not at all dried out from it’s time in the oven, and the combination of flavours and textures was great. Plenty of the toppings, and it really was mouth-wateringly good.
Nicole’s margarita was pretty straightforward – I didn’t try it, but I’d have imagined there would be fractionally more cheese on there and a bit more care when they lobbed the basil on, but there you go. £9.
Adam went for an absolute monster – San Daniele, burrata, rocket, tomato. This one confused me a bit. It’s essentially a margarita with a charcuterie item lobbed on it after it comes out of the oven, then some burrata lobbed on that, as well as a bit of rocket. Apparently it was very nice, but it doesn’t really make sense to me in the way I view pizza, it just seems like something you’d make when you can’t decide what you want, and so decide to put everything on the same plate. The burrata at Pizza East is great though, so what the hell. This was £15.
I appear to have not taken a picture of Euan’s, so presumably he had the same as someone else!
So all in all, a very enjoyable meal, but I’m left feeling that the pizza just costs too much. You can go to Homeslice and get an absolute monster that could feed two, maybe even three people, for £20. And they are better pizzas in my opinion. Franco Manca (who will be my next review!) are nearly half the price in many case. So it’s a tough one, and it’s why I always seem to order from their brilliant wood-fired menu. I like these pizzas, the toppings are clearly high quality ingredients, but they lose marks just for the simple reason of price, and also as I mentioned, the somewhat dull bread flavour.
So, all in all, a qualified success, but not quite a contender for London’s crown.
Although it’s burgers that gain a place in the name of this blog, it’s pizza that I truly love. I’ve mentioned this before I think, and wrote quite a hymn to Homeslice. But you know what? I have some huge gaps in my London pizza knowledge, and what better time to fix that than the beginning of 2017? My new year’s resolution? More pizza.
And so to the first contender. I didn’t travel far.
The Lord Morpeth is an old East End boozer that has changed considerably since I first moved to the neighbourhood around the 2012 Olympics. It was very, very old school at that point – the couple of times I ventured in, there were a couple of elderly locals nursing drinks silently at the bar, a pretty unfriendly and curt barman serving me my drinks. The reception was, if not icy, then certainly below lukewarm. The odd flyer in the window would advertise Chas & Dave tribute nights and the like, once even a Sunday evening Q&A with Greavsie, arguably the greatest striker England have ever had.
Nothing about it made me particularly want to return, but when it shut down for a refurb and reopened, I started hearing reports about it knocking out some excellent pizza, and kept seeing an A-board out front advertising this. Being a cynical old sod, I assumed that there was no way a genuinely good pizzeria had just opened a few yards from my front door, and so I didn’t sample the place for several months.
How wrong I was – they do actually make really, really good pizza. And so, barely a few days into 2017, I grabbed a neighbour and headed down there to launch my new series exploring London’s best pizza joints.
We ordered ourselves a Diavola and a Siciliana, two that I’ve tried and tested before. I’ve probably sampled about half the menu to be honest! But this was a nice combination of a spicy devil and a salty thirst-enabler (the better to get those pints down).
Up first – the Siciliana (Margherita, Black Olives, Anchovies, Garlic Oil & Oregano). This is not a pizza I would have guessed I’d enjoy a year ago, but when some friends came for a mix at mine a few months back, the girl in the party ordered this, and I was quite taken by it. I don’t think I could handle a whole one on my own – it’s really very salty – but it is very nice as something to add variety when you’re ordering a couple or more.
One thing I rather like about this is the way the olives are on there – finely chopped, or even minced, practically like a tapenade, as opposed to slices as you’d normally see, or even worse, as whole black olives, which just doesn’t work at all for me. The tomato sauce at the Lord Morpeth is doled out quite generously and is very tasty, and rather sweet, which works well against all the salt in the black olives and anchovies.
As you can see, the base is super-thin. Yet even this thin, with this much tomato, these slices handle brilliantly to pick up and eat without any need for cutlery or worries about the slice flopping into your lap – they really are brilliantly done in terms of getting the base just crispy enough, but not burning it. There’s ample cheese on there, and a good, even spread of ingredients. It won’t be for everyone, but I’m a fan.
Next up is the Diavola (Margherita, Salamino Piccante, Hot Chillies).
This one really packs a punch. The barman brought over a chilli oil (warning us to take it easy as its a hot one), but I knew enough to know this pizza doesn’t need it. Now, I love a spicy meal. I have an insane collection of hot sauces and seasonings in my kitchen. But there was one slice in this that literally took my breath away (it’s 7.30-9pm, with the green and red chillies at the tip). I spoke like someone who’d had a tracheotomy for a good few minutes after that one.
This was a fantastic pizza. Again, the tasty tomato sauce worked well in combination with the toppings, sweet and spicy is a great combo. The salami is wonderful quality, in generous slices. I suspect they carve it themselves, as there were different thicknesses on there, which added a pleasant variety to the textures.
The sourdough bread in the pizza does, as I mentioned earlier, handle like a champ. I absolutely hate pizza that flops around and you end up having to fold it up into some weird dumpling to eat it. Fine, if they’ve served it on a plate with a knife and fork, then so be it, that’s the way I’ll eat it. But just before New Year I went to Homeslice, and it was a disaster – I didn’t like the toppings on either half, and the base was a nightmare to handle, served with no option but to eat with my hands. It was the first bad experience I’ve had there, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare when I return for this series.
However, the dough here at Lord Morpeth does let itself down in one key regard – it’s nowhere near as tasty as that at Franco Manca or Homeslice. Great texture, lovely chewy crusts, but the flavour isn’t there to my mind. Fortunately, that’s not a disaster when you have such great tomato sauce and toppings as here, but it’s a black mark nonetheless. At Franco Manca the crusts are a real treat, so tasty are they.
The prices were fair across the menu, and drinks are very reasonably pitched too – I had a couple of pints of good lager for £4 each, and other drinks reflect that sort of relative value for London. The staff have always been very friendly when I’ve been in, and it gets a nice mixed crowd of people, some locals, some obvious newcomers such as myself (the accent is a dead giveaway)! They show the football, the music they play is decent, all in all it’s a great neighbourhood pub. If only it had a pool table (thank you Eleanor Arms for scratching that itch!).
So, a strong pace-maker to get this race underway. It’s hard to decide what score to give when it’s the first one, but I think it’s fair to go for…. *drumroll*
Patty & Bun – A Patty’s For Life Not Just For Christmas
Patty & Bun are responsible for my current favourite burger-that-you-could-buy-tomorrow (i.e. not a special), the frankly wondrous, messy Jose Jose. So it was only right and proper that I should head along to sample their festive offering!
I arranged a lunch to catch up with an old DJ buddy from my Ministry of Sound days, and exchange notes from a good year for us both professionally.
We met at the Soho branch of P&B, on Old Compton Street, it was busy and buzzing, but we were seated immediately, which was a pleasant surprise (queues at their restaurants are pretty standard).
I treated myself to a full fat can of Ting (one of the finest soft drinks on God’s green earth, although i actually slightly prefer Ting Light), and we ordered – their famous wings for Martin, and a Christmas burger and smoked pork nuggets for me. Cos I’m a fat little piggy.
The food arrived, the burger in P&B’s trademark wrapper, which doubles as a quasi-plate once you open it up. The burger inside was as impressive looking and obviously messy to handle as you’d expect from this place, completely over the top! Little sprouts, bits of sausage, red cabbage – on lifting the lid it revealed the bacon and stuffing, and a huge splodge of mayo.
Being brutally honest, I was ordering this burger more out of duty than a desire to have this particular sandwich. The beef patties here are really a work of art, and I’m not the world’s biggest fried chicken/turkey fan. This was pretty good though, as the multitude of ingredients, and the generous servings of them, made for a fun taste-a-rama. The actual turkey burger part was mercifully thin, making eating the thing practical, but maybe as a result of this, just a touch dry. The flavours were strangely muted for a P&B burger, which normally slap you upside the head like a hopped-up Rick James. I’m a huge fan of red cabbage at Christmas for instance, but this was a very poor relation to the recipe my mum makes at this time of year, and which makes the Boxing Day sandwiches an utter joy to wolf down. This pickled cabbage was fine, but had nothing much going on other than acidity from being pickled and the flavour of the cabbage itself, which is not anything exciting. Likewise, the sprouts were a bit overdone, and really lacking in oomph – there’s loads of ways to do them that add interest, with bacon, with ginger, butter, all sorts. It was a decent effort, but slightly missed the bullseye for me.
The smoked pork nuggets however – wow! I can’t believe I forgot to take a photo of these after biting into them, you can see the 4 balls in the pic of the food arriving. These were finely minced pork, breaded and fried, the smokiness was only a hint, but the pork was incredibly juicy and tasty, with the jalapeno ketchup absolutely magnificent as a dipping sauce – I’d happily pay a fiver for a bottle of that to take home. These were great, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Martin had their famous Winger Winger Chicken Dinner confit wings, which are breaded and coated in a sweet BBQ sauce, and absolutely drop off the bone as you eat them – they also are incredibly messy to eat! Many people rate these as the best wings in London, and they are certainly right up there in my relatively limited experience.
The service was a little off-key as well – nothing terrible, they seated me immediately, but then tried to take our order about 5 seconds after Martin had sat down to join me a few minutes later, then I had to ask several times to get a water after my Ting was finished meaning I was without a drink for a large part of the meal, and one of the waiting staff was giving off that weird “serving you and being civil but giving off an I don’t want to be here” surly vibe – I know everyone has bad days, but if you’re doing American-style food joints, I think service is fundamental.
So a mixed bag of an experience really – it’s not changed my view that it’s the premium burger place in London, but it’s not covered itself in glory for this 2016 Christmas round-up!
I’ve never reviewed MEATmission or MEATliquor, as I felt that my involvement with their now defunct MEATtransMISSION radio show made it a bit of a conflict of interests, but now that I don’t have that issue, my first time casting judgement on one of the big hitters of the London burger game.
I managed to sneak in between a pair of gigs on a Friday night, and it was a simple task for me to choose the sustenance from the offerings available – piggies in blankets and the XXXmas Burger, as well as one of their excellent sazeracs. As the meal was an in-and-out hit job, so too will this review be a lot shorter than the others I’ve done so far.
The piggies in blankets were absolutely bloody lovely. Fantastically juicy and meaty, with a wonderful flavour that danced around savoury with a hint of sweetness in there, you could tell that these chipolatas are made from great pork. The bacon they were wrapped in was as crispy as you’d hope, giving the right combination of textures as you bit through that and into the softer sausage they encased. A little blob of mustard to add heat made for a genuinely delicious side dish.
The main event didn’t massively impress me at first glance. The turkey is thin slices kind of folded up in there, going against the grain in the Christmas burger which seems to favour a big lump of, breaded, deep-fried breast.
But if we’re looking at this logically, MEATmission’s approach is more “authentic” – a lot more people will have thin slices on their Christmas dinner plates than breaded, deep fried pieces! The top filling is the rather clever bacon disk they make – basically smushing and cooking a load of bacon so it fits in the bun better than the more normal slices people would use. The stuffing crumbles were a little dry I thought, presumably because of being smaller pieces, but a good touch – stuffing is quintessentially Christmassy for me. The Old Spot patty was excellent, with the cranberry adding that traditional sweetness aspect of a Christmas sarnie. The turkey was super juicy, a result of it being sort of “basted” with the gravy it mentions. An extra tray of gravy to the side to dip this in, a la Blacklock, now that would have been fantastic.
It was a really proper feast of flavours and textures – the turkey was so juicy, savoury and succulent in particular. I demolished the thing in no time at all, and it really did evoke the season to my palate. As I mentioned, stuffing is a big Christmas food at my home – sage & onion being my favourite. A lot of these specials seem to use that as the vehicle for pork, but personally I’ve never really gone down the meaty stuffing route, so this was a welcome choice for me and my tastes. All in all, a success, if not quite at the level of Blacklock or Mac & Wild.
Mac & Wild is a restaurant I’ve been wanting to sample after seeing this frankly filthy piece of food smut on the Facebook timeline of a friend who works there…
And so I naturally sought to find out whether they were doing a Christmas burger – it was a yes, a table was booked, friends bailed at the last minute, all seemed lost, and then a 2nd opportunity arose. Booyakasha. And then 2 of the 3 friends bailed on that one, but I’ll take it, the friend that was left knows his stuff, being responsible for some of the finest drinking dens and food outlets London has seen in the last few years.
In we went, and what a lovely place it is. Tucked away on Great Titchfield Street near Oxford Circus, it wears it’s rustic charm proudly, with ample nods to the hunting and game that are the backbone of this restaurant. Even the door handles are rifles!
Wooden surfaces, hunting memorabilia, Scottish bits and bobs – all abound inside the restaurant. It is a cosy little place, with room for more seating downstairs, and stock stuffed in every little nook and cranny they can find, including this rather impressive stash of bottled Irn Bru (which as everyone knows, is made in Scotland from girders). They also have loads of bottles of their pre-mixed cocktails around – more on that later.
We decided that the best approach for the two of us (juuuuust the twoooo of us) was to share a Christmas burger (based around venison and turkey), and their highly rated Venimoo burger – a venison patty and a beef patty, apparently a prize winning combination. After my pleasant experience with Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger, I was ready to give more deer a whirl. We also ordered some haggis pops, hispi cabbage with black pudding, cheesy chips, and a venison scotch egg.
The pops arrived first, and they were a fantastic “small bites” type of dish. Little nuggets of haggis in incredibly crispy crumb, served with a dipping sauce called “Red Jon”, a delicious, sweet, sticky, mustardy concoction of redcurrant jelly and mustard. The crispiness of the crumbs was a recurring theme, I have to say that whatever the hell they are doing with their panko crumbs, it is working. If you are going to bread something, and fry it, then serve it and it’s not as crunchy AF… why I oughtta! No issues around that here.
When the rest of the food arrived, I have to say I loved the presentation. There was something about the way the Venimoo was served that really tickled me pink. The bun was darker than your average, with sesame seeds, and maybe it was the divot from some chefs thumb in the top half of the bun, maybe it was the two slightly overlapping patties seemingly drenched in melted cheese, tossed in seemingly carefree and slightly off-kilter… I don’t know, but I had a mental food boner for that sandwich just looking at it.
The Christmas Burger was less impressive to look at, but that’s a bit like saying so and so isn’t as attractive as George Clooney. It’s a high bar they’re being compared against, and there’s no shame in not reaching it. The Scotch Egg was, well, a scotch egg, with a smear of mustard on it’s platter the only visually exciting thing about that – bearing in mind I’m not really a big scotch egg fan. The cabbage – that really didn’t look like much, and had a huge amount of liquid in it, to the point that it bordered towards soupiness, although the chunks of black pudding in there were admirably large. The chips came with a little bowl of cheesy sauce to dip them in.
Where to start..?
Let’s start with what we’re here for – the Christmas Burger. It was… it was… good. Not outstanding, for reasons more of assembly and ease of consumption than anything else.
It was very tasty. The confit turkey was juicy, and as mentioned earlier, outstandingly crispy. It was also massive, which meant that on top of the other fillings it was a nightmare to try and eat. We may have made this trickier by cutting in half, I can’t say as I’ve not eaten one without cutting in half, but the Blacklock burger was actually far easier to handle when cleft in twain (as I did on my return visit earlier this week). At one point the last bit of the venison patty squirted out and landed in my lap, so it wasn’t ideal construction from an engineering point of view. The turkey element was simply so thick it just made the whole sandwich very hard to eat in the way God intended. Which is a dreadful shame, as the component parts were actually delicious, the two meat elements working very nicely with the brie and cranberry. The venison sausage patty was fantastic. It had bread sauce in there alongside the cranberry , which practically made me squeal with delight (I’ve become a bit fixated on what Christmassy elements make it into these sandwiches), but I suspect it’s that lubricant that made the patties slip around so much as I tried to eat them.
The cabbage really was a bit of a let-down, especially at the price. It just seemed to be lacking any really bold flavours, it needed more seasoning to my palate, the black pudding was nice enough, but that dish was definitely the poor relation of this meal. I didn’t get any real hit of heat from the mustard, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that as a side dish.
The chips were good, if nothing to write home about – I’m not someone who is easy to impress with chips, but am quick to fault bad ones. These were crispy, and fluffy inside, the cheese sauce was great (although this seems an odd way to serve cheese sauce to me, but there you go, and you could always pour it over the chips when they arrive). The price is about par for the course for London, and I’ve no negative things to say about these. They were chips, executed well.
The venison scotch egg was, to me, the surprise package. I would never normally go for a scotch egg, for the simple reason that I rarely eat egg. This was, as with the other breaded items, phenomenally crunchy. The venison inside was juicy and moist and flavourful, and just a little pink. The egg… I don’t really understand how the chef did it to be honest. It was remarkable. My companion called it the perfect sous vide egg I think. It was jelly-like, but distinctly cooked. The yolks was runny but glutinous, all at once. It was delicious, I could happily stick one of those in my packed lunch any time. The mustard was a great, warming, sharp accompaniment.
And finally the Venimoo. A beef patty and a venison patty with cheese, bearnaise and caramelised onions, and we added the candied bacon. I’d insisted we order this, as frankly it sounded amazing. You know what? It was amazing. It is amazing. It knocked the Christmas Burger out of the park. I need to go back and try it again to really be sure, but its a real contender for my favourite burger that you could go and buy tomorrow (the best two I’ve ever had were limited editions that are apparently not to be repeated sadly, the Super Fatty Patty and the World Peace Burger).
The marriage of the venison and beef as flavours and textures was just superb. The melted cheese and bearnaise sauce gave it an incredible juicy succulence, aided by the sweet caramelised onions. The candied bacon added snap and another touch of sweetness, but also salt. It really is a phenomenal burger. I was actually a little taken aback by how much I enjoyed it – I’d remarked to my server about how burger’d out I was after so many trips for this Christmas specials project! At a tenner (or £11.70 with the bacon), it’s actually pretty reasonable value in the grand scheme of fancy London burgers, bearing in mind the Fitzrovia location and the fact that you get two substantial patties in there.
As for the drinks, I had a Drygate Bearface lager (heavy on the hops, light on the tongue it proclaimed on the bottle, and that was pretty much accurate), I liked this, Damian did not, c’est la vie.
I then tried glass of their Forager bottled cocktail that so impressed me a bottle was purchased for a Christmas present for my dad, kind of reminiscent of an old fashioned, but the honey in there was tangible on the tongue, giving it a somewhat velvety mouth-feel, and there was a almost a note of cinnamon or something in there, presumably something to do with the pine leaf tincture? Not that I have the faintest clue what a tincture is. And finally a warm mug of their Yuletide bottled cocktail, which was a great hot toddy type of drink, lovely spiced, warming flavours perfect for the season.
I’m not much of a desserts man, but we got a sticky toffee pudding in too. This was sensational. Probably the best I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something considering how good the Hawksmoor one is. Much lighter sponge than many, the warm sauce and ice cream combined for a delightful sensation. Highly recommended, although there’s no way I’d be able to handle a full one on my own, that would be a bit too sweet for my palate.
So all in all, a bloody brilliant meal. I’ll definitely be back, that’s for sure. The Christmas Burger maybe didn’t quite hit the heights I’d hoped, but the Venimoo is a marvel, and I’m genuinely wondering if it might be my new favourite burger, I can’t wait to try that again.
The rest of the food was excellent, apart from the rather disappointing cabbage. But there’s a heap of other items I’m keen to sample, and I could easily see this restaurant being a regular haunt for me in the future.
Christmas Burger – 8/10 (would have been higher if it was a little more manageable as a sandwich!)
Venimoo – 9/10
Breadcrumb Crunchiness where applicable – 10/10
Yolk sexiness – 17/10
Value – 8/10
Overall – 8.5/10 (Can’t justify it matching the Blacklock score, but a better side choice than the cabbage and it might have matched it)