I often find myself with two DJ gigs on a Friday or Saturday, and therefore a need to grab a bite between, or else risk serious hunger pangs in the 2nd set, usually followed by a gigantic late-night junk food binge the moment I have finished. In one such window recently, I found myself stood metres away from The Vurger Co, the day after eating my weight in chops at Blacklock. I felt like this could be a good way of restoring a little balance there, as I try to become a bit less meat-focused in my diet (as previous reviews have showed)
I’d heard from vegan friends that it’s good, and I liked the look of their offerings. I went for the Classic – black bean, chargrilled red peppers, chick peas and corn patty, tomato, red onions, gherkins, vegan cheese, and house made burger sauce. I also ordered a portion of skin-on fries, and a bottle of Karma Cola Gingerella ginger ale. That came to £14.20.
I took my seat with my little buzzy widget, and waited, collecting little tubs of ketchup and chilli mayo and a big glass of free water. The pint pots a big plus there, I hate having to go back and forth to refill constantly when the water is in a font like this was.
When the burger arrived, it looked really good. The portion of fries was huge which is fine by me. I also appreciated that the Gingerella was a 330ml bottle, rather than the 250ml cans many places stock, and often charge more for than I paid here.
Picking up the burger, it became apparent that it was a slippery beast, largely because of the abundant (and very tasty) burger sauce. My hands got very messy, and it was a constant battle to keep it together, but I just about did it til the end. The sauce had a zip to it, not exactly spicy, I guess its some combo of ketchup and mustard, and I liked it a lot. The patty is essentially a bean burger, which I have no problem with. It was cooked on a hot plate, giving it nice crispy edges, with the softer veggie fillings inside.
At this point in time, meat substitutes are serviceable, but generally not as nice as things where vegetables and pulses are allowed to shine on their own terms, so this sort of burger suits me. The bun was toasted, and given my travails keeping the burger inside the bun, held together like a champ. In truth, these travails may have been my own fault, as the burger came run-through with a wooden stick, I guess I could have used that to maintain structural integrity, but at the considerable risk of accidentally harpooning myself.
The skin on fries were fine – unremarkable, but nothing to complain about. Just perfectly decent fries, and lots of them. The chilli mayo was a good accompaniment alongside the ketchup, and to me fries are essentially edible spoons for condiments anyway!
I left very full, having enjoyed a simple, straightforward, comfort-food meal. The “burger” was hard work to handle, but tasted great. Was it something to convert a meat-eater? No, not really – but as an alternative for a bit of variety, or as a tasty choice for someone who doesn’t eat meat? Yeah, I’d give this the thumbs up.
All in all, a broadly positive experience, and would happily eat here again.
It’s been a long, long time since I reviewed a burger on this blog. Given the name, that’s a situation I have been wanting to address for a while. Expect a veritable avalanche of burger reviews in the coming months.
For now, a bite – sized review for a between-gigs pitstop.
I needed somewhere to grab a coffee. I am very reluctant to give my money to the big coffee chains, but few independent outlets are open at the time I found myself in this predicament – about 9pm.
Google maps directed me to Shoreditch Grind, and I do rate the coffee here highly – here’s my very pretty flat white.
Then I realised that they might be able to feed me, and as luck would have it the kitchen was still open (just)
I ordered the cheeseburger (£12.50) with bacon (£2 extra), which comes with skin-on fries included. At point of ordering they asked what condiments I wanted – amazing how many places don’t do this simple thing, that makes such logistical sense. Always annoying to have your food, and then the condiments arrived when you are already halfway through.
The burger came pretty quickly despite the place being packed, and looked decent – two smallish patties and plenty of melting American cheese. The bacon… £2 for that is a joke, and it was practically the texture of frazzles. The fries look great, and it was a pretty generous portion.
Picking up the sandwich, I immediately suspected something. And on taking a bite – yep. Stale bun. Disappointing that something a simple as that could happen with a not-cheap burger. As to the contents – actually very good, despite being quite thin patties, they were done just right, pink in the middle. The cheese, mayo, pickles, and I think crispy onion, made for a good, balanced burger, although as I said, the bacon was a pretty worthless addition really.
I really liked the fries – I’m a fan of this kind of skin on style, and these were done to perfection, and seasoned just right. Big plus points for that. The ketchup was cold – presumably straight out of the fridge. Not a fan of that myself, I don’t refrigerate my ketchup at home. Never have, even though it advises to do so on the bottle, and I’ve not died yet so it can’t be too big an issue.
All in all, a mixed bag. Probably better than I expected on ordering in what is essentially a cafe, but some basics that really let it down. A stale bun is a proper clanger (if I wasn’t in a hurry I’d have sent it back for that), and £2 for that amount of bacon is insulting, before to even look at the quality of it, which was not great.
I’d eat here again in a pinch, and cautiously recommend to a friend, as I suspect I was just a little unlucky with the bun. And the coffee was top notch as always.
One thing that is a simple reality for an amateur food blogger like myself – the restaurants visited will tend to be skewed towards the area I live and work in, which in my case is around the more central parts of East London. But when arranging a get-together of some old friends, we decided to strike out to Seven Sisters as one of the party had to get a train from Tottenham Hale. I donned my explorer’s outfit, and set off into the unknown.
A quick google for pizza places threw up LovenPresents, and some very favourable reviews.
We grabbed a drink nearby at a bar called Five Miles. A particularly sketchy man stomped into the beer garden, downed the dregs of the unattended drinks near us, sat around on his own for few minutes rubbing his head in some anguish, stomped inside, and then moments after I told the others about him, he chose to come and join us, asking us to buy him a pint before sitting down and asking all our names. We decided against inviting him into our circle, and made our way to the pizzeria. I mention this detail because it is something that some will want to consider – this is not (yet) a gentrified area, although it looks inevitable that it’s heading that way from what I saw. It’s definitely still pretty rough round the edges, it has the feel of Hackney Wick a few years ago. Essentially an industrial estate surrounded by a load of housing. Upper Street it is not. That doesn’t especially bother me, but some will find it very unsettling if they aren’t used to it. Obviously, we may have just been very unlucky. And plenty of sketchy people stomp around the more salubrious parts of Nottingham. But it feels like a relevant piece of the jigsaw, so there it is.
Lovenpresents itself is squirelled away upstairs in some sort of industrial unit, and it’s not at all obvious that there is a restaurant there unless you are looking for it. The place itself is a decent size, with the giant pizza oven and kitchen open to the left. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got The Jazz was playing on arrival, which pleased me greatly, and they played ATCQ albums for the whole time we were there. Definite bonus points for this.
I was with 3 friends, so we decided the sensible thing to do was order 4 different pizzas and have a quarter of each. After much back and forth we settled on Buffalina (cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil), Zola (Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, raddicchio, pistachios), Piccante (tomato, mozzarella, spicy salami, nduja, chillies, jalapenos), and Margot (smoked provola, sausage, mushrooms, truffle oil, parmesan). Drinks were very reasonably priced – the pizzas I felt were priced at quite a premium level given the location, so was curious to see how they were.
When they came out, they weren’t the prettiest pizzas I’ve ever been served, certainly in the case of the Zola and the Buffalina anyway, which had pretty large spaces toward the crust with no toppings. I’m not militant about pizzas being visually perfect, but that was notable. But visuals aren’t really what matters – how did they taste?
The Zola (£10) was decent, I’m a sucker for blue cheese on a pizza, although I felt that maybe there was a bit too much raddicchio and not enough pistachio. But the combo of flavours worked well. The Buffalina had it’s merits too – but 4 cherry tomato halves? Really? So the slice with a tomato was one thing, the other slice I had a very different experience. Surely a £9.50 pizza can stretch to an extra couple of cherry tomatoes so that each slice has a bit of the sweetness the set it off? And both the Zola and Buffalina had crusts that extended way too far towards the middle of the pizza for me. Nitpicking maybe? Maybe. But that’s my take, especially at the price point these were at.
I really liked both the Piccante (£11) and the Margot (£12), and no major complaints on the way these were topped either. The Piccante really had a serious kick to it, not for anyone who isn’t into genuinely spicy food. A whole one of those would get the brow sweating! The Margot was a lovely combo of flavours, with the sausage a decent quality, and the truffle oil present but not overpowering, bringing an aromatic indulgence to that one. Looking back at the pic, again it seems like the toppings were all a bit towards the centre, but I didn’t really notice that at the time, and enjoyed the pizza on it’s own terms.
The crusts on the pizzas were decent but not exceptional – a little bit doughy for my personal preference, but some prefer them that way. Not especially tasty crusts, but nothing wrong with them either.
All in all, a perfectly decent meal, but not something I’d go out of my way to repeat, and for most people in London, to go here is pretty far out of their way. Given the location (both area, and where it is in that area) I’m a little surprised that the prices are what they are, given what the prices are at competitors who I feel make pizza as good or better, but of course, I don’t know what the costs etc are in any given place, and tbf, the drinks were very well priced too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I did very muchenjoy 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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the rather annoying quirks of an otherwise lovely job is that I miss out on some weekend based activities. With the previous London Pizza Festivals I had been out of town for gigs elsewhere, and so each time had to pass up the opportunity to sample the increasingly excellent offerings that the best pizzerias in London bring to the table.
No such problems this year! After a little assistance from the very helpful host, the esteemed Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish fame) I managed to purchase a pair of tickets to the shenanigans, and I invited a regular pizza compadre along for the adventure.
The event itself is held at Jubilee Place at Borough Market, and takes the form of a 6-way contest, with attendees sampling 6 quarter-pizzas, and a beer or soft drink thrown in, the tickets clocking in at £28 plus booking fee. This year, the contenders were L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Radio Alice, Sud Italia, Addommé, Napoli On The Road, and 2015 champion Made of Dough.
First up was Addommé, from Streatham. Aubergine, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano. Kind of like aubergine parmigiana on a pizza, but far more delicious than that description makes it sound! The host of the event referred to it (if memory serves!) as being real home style, comfort pizza, and that’s a great way to describe it. I loved it, as did my friend Amy. The base was pretty floppy, so it necessitated rolling and stuffing into my waiting pizza-hole, the tomato sauce was just the right level of sweetness and a great consistency for pizza, the aubergine basically melted in the mouth. A really strong start to proceedings!
Next up was Sud Italia. A bold selection of ingredients here – pumpkin, nduja, mozzarella, basil, Bleu de Laqueuille (a lovely strong, salty blue cheese), pecorino sardo DOP, parmigiano reggiano. The flames in the oven of their mobile unit were absolutely hypnotic as they snaked round, the photos don’t come close to doing justice.
The pizza – majestic. I was stunned at how good this one was – I’ve had the pumpkin sauce one at Homeslice, and to be honest it was not good and I didn’t finish it (which is quite something for my favourite pizza place). This was a delight, each mouthful a slightly different combination of sweet, savoury, salty, spicy. Just a joy to eat, even if it doesn’t look like much visually! They more than made up for this with the brilliant design of their pizza van. Loved the Naples themed art, anything to do with Maradona is alright by me!
Next up, another rather experimental selection of toppings, from Napoli on the Road. Tuna carpaccio, grated bottarga, mozzarella, yellow tomatoes, lemon oil. Amy is so militantly against fish on pizza that she declined the tuna (double tuna for me wooooooo!).
This was a strange one – I have to say I enjoyed it, but there’s no way I could have eaten a whole one. The freshness of the lemon oil worked well with the tuna, but the yellow tomatoes seemed to still have their skins on, which I personally found rather unpleasant as they were a little tough and chewy, although the flavour made up for that somewhat. A very interesting combination, a slice I’m happy I have sampled, but for me it was a gamble that didn’t quite land.
On to the 2015 champs, Made of Dough. I suspect their previous experience (and success) in this festival was brought to bear in the selection of their pizza – a crowd-pleasing Brindisa chorizo, piquillo peppers, tomato, mozzarella, basil. It looked the business, and was served with a delicious aoili (with basil in if memory serves, but I didn’t write it down), for dipping the crusts at the end, which was lovely and fragrant, very summery.
The pizza itself was very good, but we both agreed it was just lacking… something. The chorizo or the peppers could have used a fraction more heat I think, but my friend Phill who attended the first sitting had this as his favourite, and cited the subtle flavours as a big part of why.
5th, was L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, serving their famous margherita – tomato, double mozzarella, Pecorino Romano & basil. Initially, there was a very upsetting moment, when they dropped God’s own food on the Borough Market concrete. A terrible waste, and so we had to wait the very short time it takes them to knock up a new pizza in their ferociously hot ovens.
This, I felt, was slightly better than the already excellent margherita I had sampled when they first opened in Stoke Newington. On a day where all the pizzas had outstanding dough, this one was exceptional, and the tomato very good indeed. I am still left with my non-purist view though – at the end of the day it’s “just” a margherita. An outstandingly good margherita, but I like the variety of flavours and textures that experimentation brings.
The final contender was Radio Alice. By this point we were flagging badly – 6 quarter pizzas each is a substantial amount of food, even for a pair of pigs like us (we demolished 2 x 18″ pizzas on a Yard Sale review trip I’ll be publishing soon). This was by far the most attractive pizza slice on show – a work of art. Naturally I didn’t get a good picture of it. Well done brain. But it was gorgeous to look at.
Topping this pizza was Yorkshire fennel & pork sausage, tomato, lemon thyme & parmigiano reggiano, which I’d tried in my review a few months back. Again, this seemed better than the one I’d had in the restaurant – the fennel and lemon thyme both seemed more prominent, which added a lot, and I’d forgotten just how good their tomato sauce is, definitely the outstanding effort of the day for me in that department, they use Pelati peeled tomatoes, and I will be hunting those down for my pizza parties!
The sourdough base on this one was very different to the others, much crispier on the bottom, and a wonderfully airy, springy crust, presumably partially a result of using quite a different oven to their competitors.
So, at the end we sat, barely able to move, let alone think. But think we did, we talked through our preferences, and ultimately both ended up lending our vote to Sud Italia’s bonkers-but-brilliant effort. A close 2nd for the pair of us was Addommé, with Radio Alice tucked in a close 3rd for me.
But I have to say, the standard of pizzas was impressively high. All of them were done to perfection, the bread was at worst tasty, at best delicious, something that I feel is underrated in its importance by some pizza restaurants.
The 6 contestants provided a really broad spectrum of what the modern London pizza scene has to offer, and when you consider the amount of big hitters that were absent, you have to say that for lovers of this magnificent dish this is a great time to be in London. I did see some people complaining about the cost of the tickets, and honestly I can only assume they hadn’t thought their complaint through – where else could you sample 6 outstanding pizzas in one setting for that sort of price? And the mark-up vs what it would cost to buy one and half pizzas and a beer in a restaurant (with service added of course) is negligible really.
As a side note, I loved the all-vinyl selection of funk & soul classics the DJs treated us to!
However, our choices didn’t quite chime with the rest of the attendees – above isn’t the final tally, but gives you and idea. Addommé and Made Of Dough were clearly the crowd favourites. In the final count, Addommé emerged as the 2017 champions, and despite my affection for the Sud Italia entry, I certainly have no problem is proclaiming them worthy victors, and I hope to visit their restaurant soon for my 2nd go on their brilliant pizza!
As a post-script, I’m publishing this the day after Borough Market re-opened following the awful events of the evening of June 3rd. I have lived in London for 6 years, and Borough Market is absolutely one of my favourite places to go, or to take visitors. This pizza festival took place less than a week before the attacks, and I was there just a couple of days before. It’s a wonderful place that fully celebrates one of life’s great joys, food.
I really can’t recommend enough that you sample it if you’ve never been before, if you are visiting London try and take the time to check it out (although expect it to be very busy if that’s a Saturday!), if you’re a Londoner and live or work nearby, pop down for lunch one day and show your support for the oldest market in an even older city.
One thing I know – when the arseholes who committed this attack are completely forgotten, barely even a footnote in history, Borough Market and London will be getting on with what they do so well – being awesome.
Today’s review will be relatively short and sweet, as I did a full review last year, which you can find here. This is more of a quick recap, with a couple of relevant observations based on some trips since that review.
Last night I headed down with my old buddy ThePetebox to stuff my face with half of one of Homeslice’s 20″ wonders. Before I tackle this trip though, a quick mention of a meal I had in the week between Christmas and New Year.
I went with a vegetarian friend, which was no biggie as I actually am pretty much vegetarian in my diet at home, but in a restaurant obviously restricts our selections considerably. We went half & half – mushroom, ricotta, pumpkin seeds & chilli flakes on one side, and butternut pumpkin, broccoli, pecorino & crispy onions the other. The former did look spectacular when I’d seen others ordering on previous visits, and my dining companion enjoyed it, but I found it below average, with a strangely pungent scent. The latter combination I really didn’t like at all. And the pizza was, to my mind, underdone – Homeslice do tend to have their pizzas right on the line between flopping around and crispy, so a few times they’ve come out slightly underdone compared to how I like them, and when you are dealing with slice from a 20″ pizza, and no knives and forks, that can be a pain in the neck to handle.
That was the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by a trip to a Homeslice, and it shook me somewhat. But this was mitigated by the knowledge that I’d have happily chosen basically any of the topping combinations with meat over these two, so I am not going to condemn them too harshly for one bad experience.
With that out of the way, let’s rattle through this one. I met Pete, we asked for a table and were seated immediately. The servers were friendly and helpful. We went for a classic (salami, parmesan & rocket with tomato sauce) and then a new one I’ve not seen before, XO pig cheek, collard greens & crackling furikake with tomato sauce. A few minutes later it arrived at the table on their signature wooden board with pizza slicer, and we got to business.
I’m a big fan of the salami pizza they do, this was maybe the 4th time I’ve had it, and it was as good as ever. Pete reckoned that the parmesan was overpowering the other flavours, and I can see where he was coming from there, but I don’t care, I like it the way it is, therefore he must be wrong. Worth noting that the salami is great stuff, and cooked to perfection – not too crispy, but just enough crunch around the edges of each slice to add a little something.
However, the pig cheek pizza – wow. This was absolutely delicious – big, juicy blobs of what seemed to be a thick, rich, slow cooked pig cheek stew, which interacted with the tomato sauce in a delightful way. The little crunchy bits of crackling added a fantastic textural aspect to the slices, the cheese melted into the mix almost imperceptibly, and the collard greens added a touch of freshness and lightness. Really, really very good indeed. Maybe even my favourite toppings combination at Homeslice yet, which is saying something. My mouth absolutely luxuriated in the flavours on offer with this one, it knocked the salami into a cocked hat, which is saying something.
The base was done pretty much to perfection, right in my sweet spot between super floppy neapolitan style and mega crispy NY style slices. However, during the meal I kept thinking “something is different, something is missing”, but just couldn’t place what. When we retired to a nearby pub after the meal, I was midway through my pint when I suddenly exclaimed “SALT!” to a bemused Pete. It was his first visit to Homeslice, so he had no way of knowing, but they have this neat trick where I think they sprinkle sea salt flakes on the wooden serving board before the pizza goes on there, which means the base ends up lightly encrusted with little flavour bombs that explode periodically in your mouth. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but that would have elevated this pizza even higher, and I’m curious to know if they just forgot or it was a deliberate choice for these toppings to exclude this, or what.
In conclusion, a triumphant return to form for my favourite pizza place after the Christmas aberration. I can’t recommend them highly enough, they do some amazing and unexpected toppings, including some really leftfield sauce bases (creamed corn, blitzed cauliflower cheese and so on), so you can go quite far off piste. This, as I found, carries some risk, but the rewards are so great when they get it right that I’ll happily forgive them. The total bill for the 20″ pizza, a pint of Camden Hells lager and a fruit juice was £30 including service, which is quite a bargain in London.
By sheer chance, I happened to move to London just as the fast-food-that-is-actually-bloody-brilliant revolution was kicking off in earnest (I know that sentence is awful, but I didn’t know what else to describe it all as). I was living in SE5, so I was just up the road from both Honest Burger’s and Franco Manca’s first restaurants (in Brixton Market), and duly became a regular at both places.
Both have since exploded in popularity and number of outlets – Honest with 18, and Franco Manca with an incredible 29 (including a couple on the South coast). As a previous review of Honest made clear, I have mixed feelings about this, as it can lead to huge difficulties in maintaining standards and consistency. This is something I have occasionally run into with Franco Manca – I’ve probably eaten there 20+ times now, and not all Franco Mancas are created equal…
Anyway, to this review. I linked up with the one and only DJ Yoda for lunch at the London Fields outlet for a new year catch up, and we set about sampling their wares. Both of us had exhausted the regular menu options in our previous visits, which I will talk about later, so decided to go for the two specials – a meat one, and a vegetarian one. We also ordered a mozzarella & salami starter to share.
The mozzarella was decent if unspectacular. However, the fennel salami was delicious, three big slices that had a very strong flavour and aroma, which worked well against the delicate milkiness of the mozzarella and the simple rocket and tomato salad.
The pizzas arrived promptly, and I must say they were lovely to look at, and instantly allayed one fear I’ve had when visiting Franco Mancas in recent years; namely, that they have sometimes had a tendency to keep the prices static and gradually reduce the amount of toppings, forcing you to pay a relatively high sum extra to get what should really be on there already, but as an extra topping. Personally, I would much rather have the extra (or reduction for that matter) built into the price as ingredients ebb and flow in cost, rather than find out that they are cutting corners when a mushroom pizza arrives with two or three tiny mushrooms (as happened to a friend some time ago) and have to wait for it to be remedied, spoiling the flow of a meal.
But as I said – no such issues here. Mine was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, organic tomato, cime de rapa, and capocollo from Martina Franca, for £8.25. As you can see from the pic, there’s a generous amount of tomato and mozzarella, 3 substantial pieces of capocollo, and plenty of the greens.
I am a big fan of the tomato that Franco Manca use, but the real star of their pizza is the sourdough base. You know you are on to a winner when the crusts that many people might discard are as tasty as any of the toppings. I have to say, on this occasion it seemed slightly less flavourful than it has been at other times. It was cooked to absolute perfection, the little bits of char just present enough, the crusts bubbly and chewy, but the flavour was slightly less intense than in trips I’ve had before – nothing to cry over, but noticeable. It’s a knife and fork job unless you are after very, very floppy triangles of pizza and toppings all down you chin or over your lap.
These toppings were excellent, with the ample fat marbling of the capocollo meaning that it easily cut and pulled apart, as the heat of the pizza softened the fat running through each slice. It had a delicious, gentle flavour (it’s not too salty, presumably as it’s not brined), and that sat nicely with the cime de rapa, which I would describe as being like the world’s most skinny and delicately flavoured tenderstem broccoli – the bread, tomato, mozzarella and toppings really were a brilliant combination, and I would happily have this again and again.
The other pizza was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, San Marzano DOP tomato, wild caper berries from Salina, organic kalamata olives, and watercress, at £8.15. This type of tomato is famously considered the premium for pizzas, and is slightly sweeter from this sampling, but nothing massively consequential to my tastebuds. In truth, this one wasn’t a patch on the meat special. It was perfectly decent, but lacked magic. Looking back at it, it looks like too much watercress, and something missing. Both of us agreed that the meat special was superb, and this one just good. The watercress was just a bit overwhelmingly everywhere once you started into it, and while the saltiness of the olives and caper berries is something that worked nicely with the sweeter San Marzano tomato, it just didn’t quite work for me.
Looking at the regular menu, you can see the prices are very reasonable for a London restaurant. It’s perfectly possible for 2 people to have a great pizza and a good beer for around £20 plus whatever tip you want to leave (incidentally, I’ve almost always had good, friendly service at all the Franco Mancas I’ve eaten at, this trip was no exception). It’s good that they list which pizzas are lacking in tomato, as I’ve been caught out by this before – I know that’s the wide, wide world of pizza, but I rarely get on with the ones which lack any tomato. The chorizo pizza in particular (number 6) is great, and £6.40 for a brilliant margarita really is stunning value in an expensive city.
The flipside of the menu goes over a few testimonials, as well as the source of their excellent ingredients. It’s always nice to know where what you are about to eat came from, and it’s good that such a rapidly growing restaurant chain takes such things seriously, and long may that continue to spread as a practice in this industry.
As you can tell, I’m a fan. I got ridiculously excited when this London Fields branch originally opened, and have eaten there both in the restaurant and the little courtyard out the back many times now. I have run into issues when eating at the Westfield Stratford one – my paranoia makes me wonder if it’s just the food court vibe making it seem less good, but I feel confident that the standard of pizza there has failed to hit the heights that Brixton and London Fields dependably have served up, along with a couple of other London sites which I’ve been to for one-offs. I don’t know if that’s an oven issue, or the better staff not wanting to be in that environment, or maybe not feeling like the competition in that courtyard necessitates full commitment to excellence. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I now wouldn’t bother going there even if hungry when I know there’s another so close.
So in summary, Franco Manca is ace. It has successfully ridden the tricky wave of sudden rapid expansion and maintained remarkably high standards in my experience, with the exceptions along the way which I’ve noted. The value is remarkable compared to many other eateries and pizzerias, and the meat special I had was a top 10 job, absolutely exceptional stuff.
Up next… oh, its only L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which I will be visiting with a Naples native by the name of Michele, how perfect! Can it possibly live up to the hype? Let’s see!
Meat Special – 9.5/10
Veg Special – 7.5/10
Franco Manca overall score (this meal) – 9/10
Franco Manca overall score (across the chain) – 8/10