London Pizza Festival, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixtape Monday, vol 34

DJ Spinbad’s 2000s Megamix

Spinbad was a huge influence on my DJ growth – his 80s megamixes (especially vol 2) were absolute staples in my listening at the start of my DJ journey. If memory serves, I picked up the cassettes from legendary NYC record store Turntable Lab, the website of which I spent a frankly irresponsible amount of money at during my early years of building up a vinyl collection.

These mixes, and the subsequent 90s one, brilliantly weaved pop classics, acapellas, film soundbites and more into rip-roaring celebrations of the decades they reflected. The 2000s instalment has been so long coming that you started to wonder if it would happen. And then it landed.

It’s every bit as tightly mixed and ludicrously entertaining as the previous editions of this series, he really is a master of his craft. Enjoy!

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

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

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Score – 7.5/10

The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 7

CHRISTMAS SANDWICH-OFF!

Marks & Spencer vs Pret

After my tour around various London restaurants and diners, I found myself with a couple of long journeys to go and see my parents in their respective homes. Christmas sandwiches were purchased to see me through the long trips, both well over 3 hours door-to-door. Sustenance is crucial on such days!

This was actually a pretty solid pair of sandwiches. Although in the case of Pret, that can be taken two ways – the granary bread mini-baguette was rather dense, possibly even to the very verge of being about to be stale. Or it might just have been very heavy bread. I’m not sure, but it wasn’t great.

The fillings though? Actually pretty good. I’d gone for their vegetarian option, which means this isn’t a like-for-like comparison, which is maybe a bit unfair. But hey – life ain’t fair, suck it up Pret! As a mark against M&S, they didn’t seem to have a Christmas vegetarian option at the shop I went to, which is pretty poor. Maybe they’d sold out though, as it was Christmas Eve and a lot of people were travelling that morning.

When I broke out the Pret on my way to Dad’s, it was noticeable that the sandwich had made a lot of liquid inside the plastic wrapper, and on opening you can see the effect. Not ideal if I was short on napkins, and not very appetising.

So the bread wasn’t great, the wrapping was making the sandwich a bit greasy, it’s a bad start by anyone’s reckoning. But you know what? This was a perfectly enjoyable sandwich. The chutney and parsnip puree gave it a sweet, tangy flavour, and the grilled carrots had a pleasing bite to them. The crispy onions had lost their crunch in truth, but not too much, so they were passable. And the pistachios were a great touch. The filling quantity was about right, if not generous. In a better baguette, and having not been wrapped and getting a bit sticky and wet, this would have been a very decent sandwich. Was it a Christmas sandwich…? Ehhhhh. Not to my mind, but I suppose it had some festive flavours going on if you’re avoiding the traditional Turkey dinner combinations.

I do try to buy vegetarian sandwiches if I’m forced to eat on the go, I don’t generally eat meat at home hardly at all, or at restaurants unless it’s stuff that’s been responsibly farmed etc, and I tend to be a little doubtful of sandwiches from these places to be very high quality meat. The trade-off, sadly, is that too often they are completely lacking in interesting flavours and textures. No such issues with this one, very impressive, and something I’d buy again. This was £3.75 and clocked in at 489 calories and 1.65g of salt.

Now to Marks & Spencer, although sadly I don’t have as many photos as I should really, as I was on a much busier route, and felt all embarrassed and self-conscious about taking photos of the sandwich in front of strangers!

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I’ll cut to the chase – this was a bloody brilliant Christmas sandwich. The bread was very fresh, the filling amounts incredibly generous, none of that trickery some triangular sandwiches pull, this was the same amount throughout. The bacon was crispy, the stuffing full of sage & onion flavour, plenty of sauces and mayo, delicious cranberry chutney and a good amount of turkey. I could happily eat these all day long at this time of year – for a store-bought fridge-sandwich, this really was a very good effort indeed. This one clocked in at 457 calories and 2g of salt, which apparently is a third of recommended daily intake, so pretty damn high really.

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 Both sandwiches include a donation to homeless charities, 50p from Pret, 5% from M&S (so that’s 16p from the £3.25 price), which is a pleasing thing to see at a tough time for many people. If you feel like making a donation, I can recommend St Mungo’s, who do terrific work with the homeless.

So the verdict in this head-to-head? I’m not going to put actual scores up, as I don’t want to conflate these with the restaurant reviews, it’s a totally different game. But the M&S Turkey Feast was nigh on perfect in terms of what you could hope for from a sandwich like this, and £3.25 is excellent value. The Pret Very Merry Christmas Lunch – nowhere near as good, but a perfectly decent sandwich in it’s own right, and certainly something I’d be happy to recommend as a veggie option, and I suspect I’ll nick the basic idea for my own self-made sandwiches in future!

The winner though – no contest. Take a bow M&S, well done for a wonderful Christmas sandwich.

The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 1

Simply put, I’ll be eating and reviewing as many Christmas-related items of food as I can lay my hands on in the coming weeks in the gaps between probably the busiest month of my life, while trying to avoid becoming a total blimp.

Up first – the Honest Christmas Burger.

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I’d wanted to start elsewhere as my most recent burger review was a rather unflattering take on their pizza burger, and I was concerned that if I didn’t enjoy this then it would seem like I have it in for them, which I don’t (the Tribute is one of the best burgers in London).

But due to logistics and time constraints, this was the sensible choice, the Soho branch, just up from the theatre where me and my friend were off to watch some comedy later that Sunday night (God bless Leicester Square Theatre‘s work-in-progress events, where I’ve seen Vic & Bob, Stewart Lee and Jack Whitehall, all for about £15 each).

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Happily, it looked almost exactly as advertised, which was huge progress after the Pizza Burger Incident. The cheese oozed satisfyingly out of the huge slab of deep-fried camembert when I picked it up and aimed it towards my hopeful mouth.

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Generous blobs of thick, sticky cranberry sauce tumbled out and into the tray. I bit in, and while it was pretty tasty, the overwhelming flavour was the cheese, which almost entirely buried Honest’s excellent patty, which was done exactly as I like it, the perfect medium-rare, as requested.

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Flavours dominating others is occupational hazard with novelty specials in the burger game, and I’m certainly not saying it was an unpleasant flavour. However, I would have to say that other than the cranberry sauce, there wasn’t much about the combination I was getting that screamed “IIIIIITTTTTT’S CHRIIIIIIISTMAS” in the manner my tastebuds had been hoping. The bacon was a little lost in the mix too, smothered in an unashamedly gluttonous cheese-fest.

Christmas cheese is of course a huge part of the festive experience for many people – my family included. I’m often tasked with bringing several hundredweight of dairy up to the seasonal get together because of my proximity to Borough and Broadway markets. But if you asked me to name the definitive Christmas cheese, it would be stilton. And if you asked me to name the flavours that characterise Christmas, you’d have sage & onion stuffing, pigs in blankets, turkey, chestnuts in that list alongside cranberry sauce, with deep-fried camembert not really anywhere near my radar – maybe I’m out of the loop on that one, but that’s my perspective anyway.

The rosemary fries were standardly brilliant and generous in portion-size, Honest really do put a lot of burger joints to shame with that side of things. We tried their Christmas cocktail too – combined with the burger and fries that was a bit of a meal-deal-steal at £16, the cocktail featuring cranberry, maple syrup and bourbon, and suited the experience nicely.

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All-in-all, I’d class this as a good burger, but other than the cranberry sauce, not really a very good Christmas burger.

I have a laundry list of places I’m aiming to try out – Lucky Chip, Blacklock, Mac & Wild, Patty & Bun, Meat Liquor off the top of my head for starters – but if you have any London-based suggestions feel free to add a comment below and I’ll try to include them too!

Taste 7/10

Value 10/10

Christmasssyness 4/10

Overall score 7/10

 

Pour Some Sugar On Me, Vol 3

Kasugai – Strawberry Gummy Candy

These are are another fruit (no pun intended) of my local supermarket’s frankly bizarre stocking choices. I took a photo with no intention of buying them (£1.20 for 45g of sweets is bloody steep), but a few comments extolling their virtues on Facebook forced my hand.
A return trip was taken. A purchase was made. Another weird product was discovered – these 73% lizardfish stick things

Anyway, to the sweeties.

I tore the bag open, and was instantly hit by a strong, sweet whiff. This despite the small packet inexplicably having one of those reseal clip things at the top (is anyone going to fail to finish a 45g bag of sweets?).

I poured the contents out to see what I was dealing with – they were a touch bigger than I expected, and therefore there really isn’t many to a packet, mine had 9. They are VERY squishy. Much more than, say, Haribo Starmix dummies, which to my mind are the gold standard of gummy sweet texture. They are even more squishy than the red and black berry-jelly things you get at cinema pick n mix stalls.

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With pen for scale

The flavour – strangely far less intense than the smell, which carried a faintly chemical nose to it as well. The very soft nature of the sweets was actually not all that bad, but has left a strangely tingly feeling in my teeth, like they’ve been cheated of a few chews and are having a moan. I hope that makes some sort of sense.

Do they taste of strawberries? Actually, yeah, kind of. I’ve had freeze-dried strawberries before, on an ice-cream at a very posh restaurant, and this really is quite close to that flavour. Not actual strawberries, but it’s something. Like the echo of strawberries after a scientist beat them up in the back room behind his lab, they just want it all to end. Maybe that’s why they’re so soft?

Anyway, I digress. Are these nice? Yes, reasonably. Would I buy them again? Hell no. £1.20 for 9 ok sweets? Good god. The midget gems at Tesco are 25p for 200g, I prefer the texture, plus you get a variety of flavours. And Haribo of all shapes and sizes are generally about a quid a bag in most places these days.

All in all, curiosity sated, but these don’t deliver the high octane sugar rush they’d need to justify that sort of price.

6/10

(Value 1/10)