Burger & Beyond, and beyond

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The bait that caught us

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

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

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

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

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Dutty

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

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Plenty of bacon, good good

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

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

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

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

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

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Little & Large

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

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Oh baby

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

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From an earlier visit

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

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

 

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 3

Franco Manca

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

London Pizza Round-up, Vol 1

The Lord Morpeth, Old Ford Road, E3

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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*

Siciliana 7.5/10

Diavola – 8.5/10

Overall Score 8/10

The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 5

MEATmission – XXXmas Burger

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.

 

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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.

XXXmas Burger – 8/10

Christmassyness – 9/10

Piggies in Blankets – 8.5/10

Sazerac – Boozy/10

Overall 8/10

When Expectation Collides With Reality

The Pizza Burger – Honest Burgers, Bank, London

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I love pizzas so much, and burgers are awesome. This has to be great, right?

I’ve got a lot of affection for Honest Burger, and regularly mention them when asked about my favourite burgers in London. I visited their original Brixton site when they only had one outlet, and have been impressed by the speed they went from 1, to 2, to 16 restaurants in under 5 years. What I’ve been less impressed by is the negative impact this has seemingly had on the consistency and standards across the group. Today, sadly, falls into that 2nd category.

At 11.05am this morning, while taking care of a bit of life admin, an email pinged through. And I was faced with this glorious sight…

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Honest Burger’s Pizza Burger, as advertised

Now, this is a sexy looking sandwich. My Facebook post received dozens of salivating replies from similarly smitten fatties. Check the description

“From the bottom to the top we kick off with homemade walnut pesto, add a 30 day dry-aged beef patty, bubbling hot smoked mozzarella, homemade marinara sauce, crispy pancetta and finish with a twist of black pepper.”

The phrase “get in my belly” has never been more apt. My mind was made up – dinner was at Honest. A few text messages later and it was arranged. 6.30pm at Honest Burgers’ Bank restaurant.

Now seems a decent time to clear the air. I’ve had very mixed experiences with Honest since they commenced their rapid expansion. When they nail it, they are in the very top tier. Their Tribute burger, when done right, is superb, a cheese & bacon burger of rare brilliance. But a few too many times things have not quite been right; burgers overdone, underdone, oversalted, fries burnt, one diner’s bun toasted, the other not, and so on. But when they have got their ducks in a row, it’s good enough that I take this chance on being disappointed. To their immense credit Honest once even found a tweet to a friend where I made some very mild criticism of a burger there and gave me a free meal on my next visit, and their staff are always friendly and attentive, and they have never had a problem with fixing things if they are wrong.

Back to today.

Me and my friend Charlotte arrived exactly at the same time, 6.30pm on the dot. Londoners, it really isn’t that hard. We always do it, and as a result we are always the first people by ages in our groups. How do people find it so hard to be punctual? Anyway, I digress. The restaurant follows their usual wooden and steel design, pretty basic but comfortably so, and we went downstairs to our booth, the restaurant having maybe only a dozen diners across 2 floors, which surprised me somewhat at that time midweek in The City.

Charlotte ordered the Tribute on my recommendation, I ordered the Pizza Burger, a bit of bacon ketchup to help the party along, a beer for the lady, and for me a very nicely presented bottomless supply of sparkling water, a bargain at just a quid (this year it’s my 4th Sober October in a row).

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Big fan of this bottle/carafe thingy

The burgers arrived, and first impressions weren’t great. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to look like the advert, but I expected something vaguely close. I was expecting a messy beast of a burger, cheese oozing out of the sides, gravity pulling it down the sides, marinara sauce dribbling alongside the molten trails of smoked mozzarella, something more Patty & Bun than Honest’s usual style.

What I got was this.

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Now, this is where I have to be honest with myself, and you (no pun intended).

I should asked whether the mozzarella should be melted. Smoked mozzarella is a funny beast, very different to regular mozzarella balls, or the grated hard stuff you get in supermarkets for pizzas etc. But tbh, I just wanted to eat. And I guess part of me was thinking “I want to judge what they serve me, not what they serve me 2nd time round”. Also, I had managed to completely forget that they’d claimed it to be “bubbling hot smoked mozzarella”, as I was engrossed in a typically in-depth conversation with Charlotte.

I’d asked for medium-rare, and this is how it came – I’d say this is on the rarer side of things right in the centre, but nothing I’m offended by, and I’d rather this than overdone.

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You can also see that the mozzarella is a long way away from being melted – it was also cold. And again, I should have just said something – I had ample opportunity, as we were asked 3 times if everything was ok, an unusual situation. I’m not sure if this was overzealous staff (one came before we’d taken a bite, and again after, then another staff member a few minutes later), whether it was because they’d noticed me taking pics and were getting paranoid, whether it was because they weren’t confident in the chefs, or what. But either way, it’s on me that I didn’t send it back, which I should have done, as it wasn’t what was advertised and what had brought me out for the night.

The burger patty itself was typically flavoursome, the strong, savoury beefiness that I’ve come to expect from Honest, seasoned just right. I would say that next time I’d order it medium, but given that I’ve had them come well-done when I’ve ordered medium-rare, I don’t really know how to offset that level of erratic production. It’s really strange, as these guys are superb maybe 70-80% of the time – I guess it’s just a numbers game, there’s only so many staff who are reliably able to hit the mark every single time, and when you expand this quickly it must be tricky to maintain the highest standards. But they risk becoming the next Byron if they don’t arrest this trend – well known, but a 2nd division player. Byron is just a bit average – in Honest’s case, they have brilliance in their locker, but too often slip up.

The bun held together well and was pretty neutral taste-wise – it didn’t fight against the flavours it was holding, although the walnut pesto offered nothing much that I noticed (I literally forgot it was in there until Charlotte asked what that was like!). The marinara was pleasant, and had a zesty tang to it. But there was nowhere near enough of it – much had absorbed into the top half of the bun, and I was expecting it to be a messy beast to handle. Look at the photo at the top – you know full well that if you squeezed that and bit down on to it, the marinara is going all over the shop, and that’s what I thought I’d signed up for! Same with the pesto – it’s spilling all over the shop in the advert! The pancetta was great – I really liked that – very thin, with a lovely crispy crunch, and I think that makes for an excellent substitute for bacon just as a general observation, if done this way. Sometimes bacon for burgers is underdone and the fat becomes something of an obstacle to be chewed through.

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Bacon Jam is gosh-darned incredible

The rosemary fries were outstanding, as they almost always are. They seemed ever so slightly thicker than I remembered, although that might be a trick of my memory. Cooked to perfection, cripsy outside, fluffy inside, just the right amount of salt, a decent kick from the rosemary. And the bacon ketchup… the sooner Honest start selling that stuff, the better! Amazing. This stuff is actually possibly even better – highly recommend it, I picked up a jar at home in the Peak District last Christmas, yet turns out it’s made up the road from me in East London!

I demolished every last crumb in my dish, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this was a crushing disappointment. I was entering tonight thinking that this was a possibility for my favourite ever burger, and I got… that.

It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t particularly good either. This has happened before at Honest actually – at Spitalfields I had a special (I forget which), and again was bitterly disappointed. I should just order the Tribute, it’s genuinely superb, but they keep creating these Instagram-friendly beasts, and I keep falling for it!

A friend who works for Street Feast says she’s had it, it looked nothing like mine, and was delicious – and that may well be true, but then just adds weight to the other issue, the wild inconsistency from kitchen to kitchen. Hopefully they can address this, as Honest have it in them to be the top burger joint in London.

Pizza Burger – 5.5/10 (£12.50 inc rosemary fries)

Overall experience – 7/10

The Pizza Place That Dared To Dream

Pizza East, Shoreditch, London

I must have been to Pizza East dozens of times over the years, and it only just occurred to me to review the place. Owned and operated by the Soho House group, and with outlets in Shoreditch, Kentish Town, Portobello Road and, errr, Istanbul, Pizza East is, rather unsurprisingly, known for making very good pizza. I’d say it’s definitely a contender for a space in the top 10 in my experience. The Shoreditch one is located in The Tea Building, which is also home to Shoreditch House, and is slap bang in the heart of the area, opposite Shoreditch High Street overground station and Boxpark.

 

However, today I will focus my attention on an oft-neglected side to their menu, what could colloquially be referred to as “The Other Stuff”.

They have antipasti, a wood oven selection, vegetable-based sides, salads, a veritable pick ‘n’ mix of a menu before you even look at the pizzas. And you know what, I think that these things are even better than the pizzas.

Full disclosure before I continue – somewhere along my path, I picked up one of their fabled key-fobs that score you a 50% total bill discount every Monday (and certain other times too), so part of the reason I have been so often recently is that somewhere at the upper end of mid-range pricing becomes ridiculously cheap. But I will mention the actual, undiscounted prices and try my best to review the items based on these prices, and their relative value or expense.

On to the food. The pea, mint and pecorino croquettes are a work of art. You get 5 for £5, which are about the right size to cut in half and wolf down in 2 mouthfuls. Honestly, bring me a bucket or two of these wondrous little bastards and a bib, and leave me be. I will die a happy man several hours later. They ooze their delicate, cheesy goodness from their crunchy exterior the moment you take a knife, fork or set of teeth to them. I’ve had them for 3 visits in a row, and I doubt I will ever not order them if they are on the menu.

The lamb meatballs, served in a sweet, tangy (but not spicy) tomato sauce, with a little bonnet of melted cheese atop the trio, are good, but not quite great. About the right density you want from a good meatball, clearly made from proper meat and not sporting the weirdly processed smooth meat texture you get within some meatballs I’ve known at some places over the years, and much bigger than you would expect to be honest. These clock in at £6.

One of my recent obsessions has been Burrata – the example I’ve had at Pizza East is excellent. Incredibly creamy, served mushed up on crusty tomato bruschetta, with broad beans. Nothing allowed to overpower the very gentle flavours of the burrata itself, rather they complement each other, with the crunchy bruschetta base adding a pleasing texture to the party, again this is £6. Sadly my obsession is such that I have no photos of it. No time for that nonsense when there’s burrata to eat.

One thing I’ve discovered in recent visits is the excellence of the seafood at Pizza East – a couple of notable example, costing £8 each, are the razor clams, soppressata (a type of italian sausage) and green beans, and the sea bream carpaccio, which comes with new potatoes and a duck egg. The razor clams have this wonderful breadcrumb type of something or another (and I have no idea what that actually is) which gives each mouthful the most fantastic texture. I’d always been slightly obsessed with the idea of razor clams after seeing a TV show where they dived for a load then cooked them there on the beach. Razor clams are long and thin, but here are served sliced into bite sized pieces, with the meat not a million miles away from the texture of well-prepared octopus.And the sea bream is again wonderful, much like the burrata, this one is very delicately balanced flavours balanced against each other, so it pays to start with these lighter dishes before getting into the stronger tastes.

On the recommendation of a friend I tried the salt-baked salmon main course – this was a revelation, and possibly my favourite dish of all that I’ve had at Pizza East, clocking in at £17. Apparently a whole salmon is salt-baked and then dished out as needed, with varying sides – when I had it, it came with greens, capers, what I think was butternut squash, and a lovely creamy dressing/sauce with diced tomato. I hadn’t realised quite what a substantial plate of food this is – it’s easily enough for a meal on its own, having a side with it took it into food coma territory! The salmon is just magnificent, so full of flavour and with a superbly meaty texture, the exposed edges of the salmon pleasingly crusted by exposure to the heat.

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Salt Baked Salmon

Another big favourite of mine, which I may start to order again now summer is heading out, is their magnificent beef lasagne. This is remarkably meaty, and served in the dish they baked it in. Not one of those sloppy, all-sauce monstrosities, this bolognese has clearly been reduced down to the very essence of what it is, and they don’t go overboard with the bechamel. This is £11, which at full price is still, in my view, one of the best bargains in London’s restaurant scene. I make a mean lasagne (using this recipe), but this one is pretty special. I imagine some would prefer a bit more tomato or bechamel, but I’m definitely a big fan.

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Beef Lasagne

One antipasti I’ve missed is this ox cheek, pea & spaghetti thing which I can’t find a menu for, so I can’t remember what it cost or exactly what was in it – it was really very tasty though. The beef in particular was delicious, as these slow-cooked cuts tend to be.I’d never seen spaghetti used in this manner before, but with the heavy taste of the beef, the freshness of the peas, the little smattering of pasta in there worked really well.

In truth, I’ve had very few disappointing dishes at Pizza East from The Other Stuff – probably less than I’ve had disappointing pizzas (I find when I go off-piste there from the tomato-sauce-based ones its very hit and miss). One item which didn’t work for me was the fried cauliflower, coated in breadcrumbs, served with yoghurt and salsa verde. The fried cauliflower dishes at Pull & Punch and City Social are both exceptional, so I was excited to see this on the menu, but it was bland, and a little heavy for a vegetable based dish.

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Deep Fried Cauliflower, with Yoghurt & Salsa Verde

One vegetable dish that is on the money though, is the sweet potato, quinoa and chive side, which is £8. The sweet potato is done to perfection, huge wedges that have been cooked through but retained a little bite (you could cut them with the side of a fork with a little effort, but they aren’t the mush that you can get if you overdo sweet potato), this is a staple side for me on my visits, also including a bit of roasted red onion, broccoli and a nice big blob of yoghurt/creme freche on top, within which you’ll find many of the chives the dish mentions on the menu!

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Sweet potato, quinoa, chives

They have an extensive salad selection on the menu too, one of my favourites there is the butter lettuce, avacado and vinaigrette dish. Nice and light with the vinaigrette absolutely spot on, I’m not quite sure how they get the avacado this soft without going brown, but they do it, and I’m not complaining! This clocks in at £6, with the various salads ranging up to £12 for more substantial items.

I don’t have any pics, but the brill, clams and fregola dish is a superb seafood main, the white fish done to perfection, fantastic with a salad on the side.

I’m generally not a big one for the dessert menu (mainly because I’m such a fat pig in the hour or so prior to being handed that menu). But I have sampled a few things from the menu – the cinnamon churros look amazing. They don’t taste that way, a huge disappointment, the delicious chocolate sauce not enough to save the day.

The white chocolate semifreddo with pistachios and cherries on the other hand… my goodness, what a dish. Outstanding, and certainly something I will order to myself after sampling a mouthful of my friend’s on my last visit. A semifreddo is a semi frozen dessert made usually from eggs, sugar and cream. I have no idea if this is an exceptional example, or an ordinary example of an exceptional dish, what I do know is that it is delicious, the sweetness just at the right level, and helped along by the sharpness of the cherries and savoury crunch of the pistachios.

I ordered a sorbet selection, which was nice in the moment (a hot day in summer), but really didn’t do much else for me, and ended up being 2 blobs of sorbet, and one of ice cream as they were out of stock of the last one – but I suspect that’s because I’m not a massive fan of ice-creams and sorbets, they were perfectly lovely examples of posh frozen desserts if that’s your bag!

The cocktails are uniformly excellent, and if you wish you can order cold cuts of meat or cheeses as small dishes to complement your meal. The wine list is extensive, and I’ve never yet had a bad bottle. I did in fact discover my favourite red wine here, the Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir 2013 – £39 a bottle at Pizza East, so not something I’d normally order, thank God for the keyring! But good enough that I ordered myself a half crate ahead of Christmas, lets see if it lasts that long…

As you can see I’m a bit of a fan – it would be easy to dismiss this as being because of my discounted experienced, but the fact is that I’ve eaten there many more times at full price than with the benefit of the 50% off. Some of the dishes are a little steep perhaps, but only a tad, and it’s rare to see such a broad menu, with something for pretty much everyone, alongside such excellent drinks and such a friendly, pleasant dining environment. I’ve had a tiny handful of disappointing dishes here over the years, and most of those were carelessly ordered pizzas – I do tend to find pizzas without tomato on a bit fatiguing on the palate about halfway through, not sure why but there you go. But generally, this is a hugely dependable and thoroughly recommended Italian restaurant, and I will be there many more times while ever I live in London!

8.5/10

My New Favourite Pizza Place

It took me a while to go and try it, and there’s still a laundry list of pizza joints that I need to sample, but for now, I feel comfortable saying this.

To the best of my knowledge, Homeslice make the finest pizza in London.

Oh yes. That’s a big statement, and not one I make lightly. But I’ve now been there maybe half a dozen times and tried different pizzas every time, and never once been disappointed. The competition is intense – there’s really very little to pick between the top dogs of the London pizza scene. But Homeslice stands tall amongst this landscape as a consistently outstanding purveyor of the finest food a pizza addict could hope for.

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Calabrian Peppers, Chervil & Lincolnshire Poacher cheese / Salami, Rocket & Parmesan

As you can see, they don’t mess about. You can buy their pizza by the slice if you are on the go, but the real joy to be had comes in the shape of this 20″ monster. It’s easily enough for two people with a normal appetite, and maybe 3 people who just need to fill a hole. You can have all one style, or split it half and half, which is what I’ve done every time I’ve been.

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To give you an idea of some of the menu options available, here’s some of my favourites. Salami, rocket & parmesan (as pictured to the right above); Chorizo, corn, coriander (the corn in the form of a creamed corn sauce which replaces the traditional tomato sauce – the delicate flavours of that and the coriander perfectly offsetting the salty, slightly spicy chorizo); aubergine, cauliflower cheese sauce base and spinach with harissa (although the time we ordered it they forgot the harissa, it was still lovely – would very much like to sample the full deal though, I suspect that would take it towards the heavens), and Calabrian peppers, chervil & Lincolnshire poacher – the left half of the above pizza.

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Aubergine, Cauliflower Cheese, Spinach & Harissa (Photo from here)

In the past I’ve been a relatively conservative pizza fan, often being a bit disappointed when I’ve ordered pizzas that came without the traditional tomato sauce, but the alternatives that I’ve sampled at Homeslice have been uniformly excellent. Occasionally it’s taken a slice or two to “acclimatise” to the difference from a regular pizza, but I’ve never left feeling disappointed. Even the one with sorrel cream (alongside Oxtail, watercress & radish) had me convinced by the end of my 2nd slice, a really unusual flavour but the combination of ingredients worked extremely well, and was unlike anything I’ve tried elsewhere.

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Oxtail, Watercress, Radish & Sorrel Cream / Chorizo, Corn & Coriander

One of the key factors that I’ve come to judge a pizza on, and in truth its strange that I didn’t used to pay too much attention to this, is the dough base. Franco Manca‘s incredible sourdough crusts were a real game-changer for me in that regard, and while this pizza doesn’t quite match the Franco Manca bread for taste, it is still very tasty, but also tends to be that little extra bit crisper; enough that you can slice the pizza and pick them up New York slice style as opposed to being stuck with a knife and fork, as is often the way with Neapolitan style pizzas.

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The pizza comes out on a wooden board, with a pizza slicer neatly tucked under for you to slice as you prefer (you can see it to the bottom left of the above pic) – I tend to go for 8 generous slices. One very neat trick they do which works very well is that they seem to sprinkle the wooden serving board with sea salt before laying the pizza down on there. These salt crystals then stick to the base, which really brings that savoury base to life on your tongue as you munch through each mouthful.

I’ve been to both the original Neal’s Yard venue, and the new joint on Old Street near Shoreditch Town Hall, and in both places the staff have been warm, welcoming and friendly. Drinks are at respectable prices by London standards  – a fiver for a pint of Camden Hells, with various craft beers by the bottle. The wine has always been decent to my unsophisticated palate, £14 for 500ml of red or white, or £18 for rosé. The open kitchens mean you can see them preparing the pizzas and blasting them in those fantastic pizza ovens (one day I will have a back garden with one of those in it!). I’ve not been during peak times (one of the aspects of being a DJ is you generally don’t get to eat out on Friday or Saturday nights with friends), so I can’t vouch for it being as good when its busier, but there’s no indication anywhere that I’ve seen to suggest that their standards drop at all.

To be honest, there’s not a whole lot more for me to say. Pizza is great. This is great pizza. What’s not to love about that?

9.5/10