Radio Alice x Club Mexicana

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

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

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

First up – it looks beautiful.

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

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

Score – 9/10

Dirty Vegan

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

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

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

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Happy idiot

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

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

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

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

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Buffalo Aubergine “Wings”

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

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

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Cauliflower “Chicken” Waffle

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

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Mac & Cashew Cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 8 – Vegan Edition!

Yard Sale, Clapton

It’s been a long while since I added to the London Pizza Round-Up, and this time it’s with a slight twist – trying out Yard Sale‘s guest vegan pizza, the Jack To The Future. I’m intending to try out a lot more vegan and vegetarian pizzas and burgers when the opportunity arises – for the last few years I’ve gone from a very meat-heavy diet to one where I hardly eat it at all at home. This has seemed to coincide with an explosion in the popularity and availability of vegan and vegetarian food around London – much of it very good indeed.

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The pizza that brought me and my friends here is a collaboration with Biff’s Jack Shack – a jackfruit themed vegan-friendly street food trader. I’ve come to really quite like jackfruit – I usually have a few cans knocking about at home, and I’ve had some excellent meals with that in there as a meat substitute. I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s indistinguishable from pulled pork. Anyone that says that, I can only assume they’ve either never actually had pulled pork, or it’s been so long they’ve forgotten what it’s really like. But, jackfruit is a tasty and versatile ingredient in it’s own right, and it works well for the things I’ve seen it used in.

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Dough!

So to this meal. Yard Sale are a very well-regarded pizza joint – they were awarded “Best Cheap Eats” in the 2017 Observer Food Monthly awards, and best restaurant in the 2016 Time Out awards. They have 3 locations (Clapton, Finsbury Park, Walthamstow), with a 4th in the pipeline in Leyton. Full disclosure – I have done paid work for Yard Sale as a DJ, and they comp’d this Jack To The Future off as a freebie. I’d rather be open and honest about that – I hope you will still trust my judgement on the pizzas here.

In the pizza that brought us here, the jackfruit is served in Biff’s crispy fried style, with chipotle slaw, buffalo sauce, and blue “cheese” sauce. We also ordered a 50/50, TSB (tender stem broccoli, manchego, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil) and The Aubergine (garlic roasted aubergine, parmesan crumb and fresh basil).

 

As you can see from the pics, these are big ol’ pizzas – 18 inchers. Prices are about consistent with their obvious rival, Homeslice, where a 20 incher is £20.

The first we tried was the Jack To The Future. And I have to say, it is really good. The combination of flavours works brilliantly. The chipotle slaw had a surprising kick to it, and would make an excellent side in it’s own right elsewhere – I guess maybe it is at Biff’s? If it isn’t, it should be.

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The buffalo and blue “cheese” wings sauce combo is an old classic, and works as well as you would expect – and the blue cheese sauce is quite amazing considering that it’s actually vegan. No idea how they did that, but it’s really good. The base at Yard Sale is one of their real strengths – very tasty, and done to perfection on both pizzas here. One of my few criticisms of Homeslice is that they sometimes under-do their pizzas a bit, so you struggle to pick them up as a slice – no such issues here.

 

All in all a success – ironically, it’s the jackfruit that is the least impressive ingredient. It does add a little crunch to the texture, but is only a bit-part player to the overall pizza. And for saying how many toppings are on there, and how generous they are with the sauce, the base doesn’t get at all soggy, even after it’s been sitting there for a while.

 

The other pizza (half TSB, half Aubergine) was a good pizza too, if not at the level of the Jack To The Future. The better half was The Aubergine, the garlic aubergine and parmesan crumb working really well together, with the generous fistful of fresh, aromatic basil a nice touch – the TSB was something of an anti-climax after being heavily recommended by several friends. It was perfectly decent, but probably the least impressive of the pizzas I’ve had at Yard Sale (I’ve been 4 times now and sampled 7 or 8 different toppings). The broccoli was cooked well, and it looked the business, but after the flavour-party of the Jack To The Future it didn’t grab me how I expected it might given the manchego and garlic combo. I think they suffered in comparison to a really interesting, unusual and well-executed special. Saying that, the tomato sauce at Yard Sale was as excellent as usual on both pizzas.

We also had a green chimichurri dip for the crusts that was amazing. Like, really, really good, I’d happily have bought a jar of that there and then for whatever it might have cost, absolutely lovely with a fresh, complex and slowly developing flavour that followed through with some real heat. 10/10 for that stuff.

So at the end of it all, a very enjoyable meal, and an excellent guest pizza (that I strongly think should become a fixture on the menu). The TSB and The Aubergine weren’t outstanding, but were good enough in their own right to recommend as vegetarian options for pizza lovers. Having eaten plenty of their offerings now, I’m happy to say Yard Sale are in my top handful of pizza joints around London.

My scores

Jack To The Future (£21) – 9/10

TSB (£9 for half) – 7/10

The Aubergine (£9.50 for half) – 7.5/10

Flo’s Scores

Jack To The Future – 9.5/10

TSB – 7/10

The Aubergine – 7/10

Amy’s score

Jack To The Future – 10/10

Black Bear Burger

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I found myself in Shoreditch ahead of a gig last night with an hour to kill, and a stomach to fill. The universe clearly detected this, and a picture was placed in front of me on Instagram that made my decision quite simple.

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I set to finding the vendor, Black Bear Burger – you’ll find them upstairs at Boxpark, by the outside area on the Shoreditch High Street Station side.

Here’s what they had available

I ordered myself the Brisket Burger and a portion of nuggets, and took a seat outside while I waited for them to make my order. The burger was offered to me as medium, and I gladly agreed to that. There was an abundance of seating space up there, and a view out over a busy, bustling part of the area.

My radio buzzer went off after 5 minutes or so, and I went to collect my food. Both the burger and the nuggets looked the business.

I started with the nuggets. These were little chunks of chicken breast, in a wonderfully crunchy buttermilk coating that was well seasoned, and apparently still subject to regular tweaks to improve it as they go along. If they get any better they will be getting towards being one of my favourite side dishes going, and at £5 they are an absolute bargain. The buffalo sauce was superb – based on Frank’s buffalo sauce, and mixed with mayo. The blue cheese dip was only so-so, that could handle being a lot blue cheesier in my view, but then I am a sucker for a strong, sharp blue cheese so maybe others would prefer it’s subtle tone.

The burger was very good indeed too – super juicy, and the slab of brisket on top was incredibly tender, easily pulling apart when I tugged an edge. The combination of quite a fatty patty and this moist brisket made the addition of the pickled red onions very necessary. The American cheese in there was fully melted, and the garlic mayo added to the luxurious, indulgent tone of the burger. It maybe was a little too indulgent on that note for some palates – the onion fought bravely alongside the other ingredients to create the balance you want from a great burger, but I’d imagine some might find it a bit rich. The seeded bun held together very well considering the content of the sandwich, and allowed the contents to speak for themselves without adding loads of sweetness as some buns do. The burger patty itself was decent, and served medium as promised. It didn’t, however, quite have that mouthgasm effect that my absolute favourite burgers have delivered, I’m not sure if that’s the beef they use or the degree to which they seasoned it or what.

That, however, is nitpicking. This was a really very enjoyable meal. Served fast, by friendly staff. Very reasonably priced indeed. Tasty, attractive, and it filled me up for the night.

I will happily be back here to try their other burger out, and ordering plenty more of those excellent nuggets.

Burger – 8/10

Nuggets – 9/10

Overall – 8.5/10

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