The Triple Burger Taste-Off, Round 1, Heat 1

My old flatmate ThePetebox texted me a while ago with a ridiculous, but appealing, idea. Go out into London, and sample 3 of the finest burgers around, each time choosing a winner. Do this a bunch of times, then you do the winners in 3’s, down to a grand final, thus working out the best of the best of the best.

We’ve faffed for a few months, but finally made the leap. Meeting up at Patty & Bun in Soho after Pete had bizarrely been teaching Iain Duncan-Smith to beatbox on Radio 2, we had a loose plan involving Lucky Chip and A N Other, which we hadn’t quite worked out yet.

So, to business. The rules of engagement are simple – 3 burgers, not necessarily the same burgers, just the one that we think sounds the best or that is their signature, or that we know to be kick-ass. For me at Patty & Bun, that’s the Jose Jose – in my opinion the finest burger that is permanently on a menu in London.

We ordered, and they were with us in literally a couple of minutes. As always, opening them was a risky business if you weren’t careful, due to the very messy nature of the burger. But it was as glorious as every other time I’ve had one – sweet, spicy sobrassada chorizo relish mixing with smoky mayonnaise and ketchup, the beef perfectly medium-rare (as they’d advised it would be unless we wanted it done longer) and seasoned just right, the springy, light brioche bun holding together like a champ (especially impressive given how sloppy a sandwich this is). But what I’ve come to realise with this one is that the masterstroke is the pickled onions – the acidity of these cuts through the sauces just enough to stop it being sickly, a crucial note in a symphonic burger. We were off to a flying start. The 2 burgers, service and a donation to a charity that was included and explained to us came in at £21.38.

Patty & Bun – Jose Jose Burger – 9/10

After some consideration about where to head next, we decided to include Tommi’s Burger Joint, which is a relatively new addition to the Soho area. I’d been to the Mayfair joint some time ago, and been impressed, but this was only my 2nd crack of the whip. We both ordered cheeseburgers (which come medium), and a pot of chipotle mayo. The price was a very impressively cheap £12.50 for everything. The burgers arrived quickly, wrapped quite similarly to Patty & Bun’s, yet somehow looking nothing like as appealing due to poor branding and presentation. We unwrapped, and being honest they didn’t excite – they looked a bit dry, dull, and overdone. I popped a big blob of chipotle mayo in there and chowed down.

The first couple of bites were a let-down, but once I hit the chipotle mayo, ketchup and so on, it took on an extra dimension – the chipotle mayo in particular was very tasty. However, it was far from as good a burger as I’d remembered from my first trip – the patty is quite thin, I think the burger was marginally overdone, and not as tasty meat as I recalled it having – also Pete mentioned his was a tad gristly. It wasn’t bad – indeed, for £6.25 it is incredible value for central London. But after the Jose Jose this seemed very pedestrian.

Tommi’s Burger Joint – Burger with cheese and chipotle mayo – 6/10

We took a small interlude here to grab an excellent coffee from Soho Bikes

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And then, a short hop on the tube over to Angel, and Lucky Chip at the Old Queen’s Head for their wonderful El Chappo burger.

Beef patty, smoked bacon, roasted jalapeños, blue cheese & aioli. I’ve had this burger 3 times now, and it’s a good un for sure. Chatting to our server, it turns out they press the blue cheese (a lovely, salty, almost spicy cheese) into a disc which melts atop the burger. The aioli is smeared generously over the bottom half of the bun and brings plenty of garlic to the party, the smoked bacon is excellent and cooked as it needs to be in a burger – just crispy enough to be easy to break through, but not a salty pork biscuit. The occasional jalapeño hit is very welcome amongst this all.

The combination here is delicious, but it did bring to mind the clever move of the Jose Jose – those pickled onions.

The melted cheese and aioli, and a quite fatty patty (which is a good thing for flavour, but still), make for a somewhat oily, greasy mouth-feel after a few bites. It could probably use something in there to cut through this – pickled chillies might do this, but the roasted jalapeños here didn’t, even while being very tasty. It’s nit-picking – I really like this burger. But it’s something I feel could improve it. The burgers were £9.50 each, no service as we ordered and paid at the bar.

Lucky Chip – El Chappo – 8/10

So, a clear winner in Patty & Bun’s Jose Jose, despite my affection for the El Chappo. Tommi’s disappointed this time out, although I’m sure I will give them another crack – the price is excellent and the first time I went it was a corker, so this could be an aberration. On to the next trio!

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Remaining heats in this stage (subject to change!)
Honest Burgers, Hawksmoor, Burger & Beyond

Mother Flipper, Dip n Flip, Haché

MeatMission, Burger Bear, Hoi Polloi

Dirty Burger, Bleecker Street, Smokehouse Islington

Mac & Wild, Elliot’s Cafe, Shake Shack

There’s a few obvious contenders I’ve left out because they are only available on specific days that don’t really suit my schedule, and also some well known brands that I feel don’t deserve comparison with most of these. But feel free to leave suggestions for wild cards in the comments, as I suspect I’ve missed a few out!

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 Festival 2017

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 7

Mama Dough, Brixton

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So far in my round up for London’s best pizza joints, there’s been a definite Eastern bias, a product of where I live and where I spend the majority of my time socially and with gigs. However, this last Sunday I had the opportunity to expand my horizons somewhat, courtesy of a Bonobo gig at Brixton Academy (Bonobo featuring on the blog last May in fact!). I have been eyeing up Theo’s in Camberwell for some time, and hopefully will be visiting them later this week, but for this one I looked closer to my final destination, and hit upon Mama Dough. I’ve passed by that a couple of times and fancied that it looks good, the reviews online were generally favorable, and so a booking was made.

On arrival at 6pm on a Sunday it was relatively quiet, somewhere around 1/3 full. The restaurant is a spacious, open well-lit place on a street corner on the way toward Camberwell, the kitchen and pizza oven in full view, and some nice modern art adorning the walls, with a rough & ready decor of exposed brick and wood. I ordered a glass of very decent Rioja (£4) and waited for my friend to arrive while I took in what they had on offer.

The menu certainly appealed to me, and had a decent amount of variation in the pizza toppings, especially when you factored in the specials board (which annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of, whoops). The starter selection is a bit on the thin side, but that’s forgivable. The drinks selection is pretty simple and, from what we had, high quality stuff at very reasonable prices.

We ended up ordering a special,the Lady Royale (with tomato, burratina, basil and pesto, £11), and the cured meat pizza (with tomato, mozzarella, salami napoli, salami calabrese, parma ham and chilli, £10.50). My friend order a Kraken rum and homemade ginger ale (£6) which was nice enough that it became my 2nd drink of the night.

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When the pizzas arrived, I have to say they were beautiful – in particular, the Lady Royale which was like Jackson Pollock in a more orderly moment had turned his hand to Italian food. And this proved to be the star of the show – the cured meat pizza was decent, but not outstanding. The base was pleasingly crispy and bubbly, and held together well throughout, but not especially flavourful for a sourdough effort. The meats were larger cuts, which made divvying the pizza into slices a little bit trickier than it really needed to be. The meat itself was good quality and tasty though, so I’m nitpicking a little there.

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The Lady Royale, on the other hand, was outstanding. Absolutely delicious, and quite different to any pizza I’ve had before. There was a lot more tomato on this than the other offering, a deep red covering the whole base, and atop this the incredibly creamy, delicate burratina, the generous drizzlings of a lovely, fresh-tasting pesto and a huge handful of fresh basil. The flavours combined wonderfully well, the abundance of sauces and burratina making for an incredibly satisfying, juicy mouthful each time, yet even by the last slice the base was still doing it’s job as a handheld vessel to safely get this delicious team of tastes into my mouth.

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The service was more than a little wonky, even while being friendly – more than a few times I needed service, but ended up waving and trying to call attention to no avail, so was sat without a drink a few times. Also, we had to wait ages for the bill, then after that arrived they never came to take payment, so we had to walk to the bar to make payment; as a result, this was one of the very rare occasions that I didn’t tip (I’m normally a pretty generous tipper by UK standards, about 15-20% if I’ve been treated well, and very, very rarely fail to tip or ask to take off the service, which in London is usually 12.5%). They only had two waiting staff on, and by the time we left it was pretty much full, but there was no indication from them to us that they were struggling with the numbers or short-staffed, and none of the turbo “walking” from A to B that I’ve seen at so many busy restaurants over the years when they are trying to manage a busy room. They just came across as a bit lackadaisical, with a blind spot for us in the far corner.

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But that Lady Royale pizza… make no mistake, if I get chance to eat that again, I will do, sketchy service or not. It was absolutely wonderful.

Lady Royale – 9/10

Cured Meat Pizza – 7.5/10

Service 5/10

Overall score – 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 6

Homeslice, Old Street, Shoreditch, London

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Today’s review will be relatively short and sweet, as I did a full review last year, which you can find here. This is more of a quick recap, with a couple of relevant observations based on some trips since that review.

Last night I headed down with my old buddy ThePetebox to stuff my face with half of one of Homeslice’s 20″ wonders. Before I tackle this trip though, a quick mention of a meal I had in the week between Christmas and New Year.

I went with a vegetarian friend, which was no biggie as I actually am pretty much vegetarian in my diet at home, but in a restaurant obviously restricts our selections considerably. We went half & half – mushroom, ricotta, pumpkin seeds & chilli flakes on one side, and butternut pumpkin, broccoli, pecorino & crispy onions the other. The former did look spectacular when I’d seen others ordering on previous visits, and my dining companion enjoyed it, but I found it below average, with a strangely pungent scent. The latter combination I really didn’t like at all. And the pizza was, to my mind, underdone – Homeslice do tend to have their pizzas right on the line between flopping around and crispy, so a few times they’ve come out slightly underdone compared to how I like them, and when you are dealing with slice from a 20″ pizza, and no knives and forks, that can be a pain in the neck to handle.

That was the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by a trip to a Homeslice, and it shook me somewhat. But this was mitigated by the knowledge that I’d have happily chosen basically any of the topping combinations with meat over these two, so I am not going to condemn them too harshly for one bad experience.

With that out of the way, let’s rattle through this one. I met Pete, we asked for a table and were seated immediately. The servers were friendly and helpful. We went for a classic (salami, parmesan & rocket with tomato sauce) and then a new one I’ve not seen before, XO pig cheek, collard greens & crackling furikake with tomato sauce. A few minutes later it arrived at the table on their signature wooden board with pizza slicer, and we got to business.

I’m a big fan of the salami pizza they do, this was maybe the 4th time I’ve had it, and it was as good as ever. Pete reckoned that the parmesan was overpowering the other flavours, and I can see where he was coming from there, but I don’t care, I like it the way it is, therefore he must be wrong. Worth noting that the salami is great stuff, and cooked to perfection – not too crispy, but just enough crunch around the edges of each slice to add a little something.

However, the pig cheek pizza – wow. This was absolutely delicious – big, juicy blobs of what seemed to be a thick, rich, slow cooked pig cheek stew, which interacted with the tomato sauce in a delightful way. The little crunchy bits of crackling added a fantastic textural aspect to the slices, the cheese melted into the mix almost imperceptibly, and the collard greens added a touch of freshness and lightness. Really, really very good indeed. Maybe even my favourite toppings combination at Homeslice yet, which is saying something. My mouth absolutely luxuriated in the flavours on offer with this one, it knocked the salami into a cocked hat, which is saying something.

The base was done pretty much to perfection, right in my sweet spot between super floppy neapolitan style and mega crispy NY style slices. However, during the meal I kept thinking “something is different, something is missing”, but just couldn’t place what. When we retired to a nearby pub after the meal, I was midway through my pint when I suddenly exclaimed “SALT!” to a bemused Pete. It was his first visit to Homeslice, so he had no way of knowing, but they have this neat trick where I think they sprinkle sea salt flakes on the wooden serving board before the pizza goes on there, which means the base ends up lightly encrusted with little flavour bombs that explode periodically in your mouth. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but that would have elevated this pizza even higher, and I’m curious to know if they just forgot or it was a deliberate choice for these toppings to exclude this, or what.

In conclusion, a triumphant return to form for my favourite pizza place after the Christmas aberration. I can’t recommend them highly enough, they do some amazing and unexpected toppings, including some really leftfield sauce bases (creamed corn, blitzed cauliflower cheese and so on), so you can go quite far off piste. This, as I found, carries some risk, but the rewards are so great when they get it right that I’ll happily forgive them. The total bill for the 20″ pizza, a pint of Camden Hells lager and a fruit juice was £30 including service, which is quite a bargain in London.

Salami half – 8.5/10

Pig cheek half – 9.5/10

Overall score – 9/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 5

Radio Alice – Hoxton

Since commencing this attempt at going round London’s pizza scene, I’ve been inundated with recommendations for places I’d not previously heard of. Arguably the most surprising to me was Radio Alice, as I have a monthly residency DJing a few yards away at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen‘s Friday night party Night Call. But several people told me it is excellent, and so a dinner was booked alongside my friends Rich and Elliot (a fine pair with excellent knowledge of food and drink from their work in hospitality over the years).

We took our seats and perused the very appealing menus. After a little discussion we settled on Burrata (£5.50), speck and apricots (£6) and anchovies with bread and butter (£3) as our starters, and then the pork sausage (£9.90), Anchovy (£8.50) & nduja (£10) pizzas. We were asked if we’d like the pizzas to arrive together or as soon they came out of the oven – as we were sharing we asked for the latter.

 

Even going out for a meal I end up stuck behind the decks

The starters arrived, and very well presented they were too. In particular, the burrata excited my tingle zone. I love burrata. This was an excellent example, one of the best I’ve had in London. Delicate and creamy, with the oil, pepper and oregano generously added to it offering a wonderful counterpoint. The speck was fragrant, delicious, and remarkably lean. I actually would have preferred a tiny bit more fat on there, which is not something I would normally say about cooked meats. The anchovies were pleasantly meaty and as salty as you’d expect, although personally I far prefer the white anchovies known as boquerones. Given the progressing strength of the flavours in play, it was pretty much essential to eat the items in the order I just described them, or risk spoiling the experience of something as simple and light on the tongue as a good burrata.

 

Anchovies, red onion, lemon zest, tomato, oregano
Elliot in his happy place
Bubbly

 

Pizza number one to arrive was the anchovy one. Presentation was immaculate, and cheese was notable by it’s absence. As the photo above shows, the bread was cooked to perfection, with seemingly a little sprinkling of semolina flour giving it that particular dusted texture on the crusts, which were springy and spongey in just the right way, while the base held together to be eaten by hand as slices brilliantly. They weren’t quite as tasty as the crusts at Franco Manca at it’s best or Homeslice. The tomato was relatively crudely chopped/crushed compared to the sauces most pizzas would have on, and I rather liked that. The sweetness of the tomato and red onion worked nicely against the saltiness of the anchovy, and I have to say that the lemon zest (which was one of the main reasons I ordered this one, from sheer curiosity) was a stroke of genius, lifting the whole thing with it’s citrus notes. So we were off to an excellent start with a very good pizza indeed.

 

Nduja, caciocavallo, tomato

 

Up next was the nduja offering. I was first made aware of this spicy, spreadable meat through it’s use by Pizza Pilgrims (who will feature soon in this round-up), and it does work well on a pizza. This presentation did confuse me somewhat though – the caciocavallo cheese was clearly added immediately before being sent to the table, resulting in a pile of unmelted dairy atop the blob of nduja. The base was perfectly cooked again, the tomato once more very tasty in it’s somewhat cruder form than most use. But the cheese… why not just show it to the heat of their oven for a moment to creating a little cheesy envelope for the nduja? That would seem the obvious approach, whereas this left a pile of grated, sweating cheese that didn’t really do it for me visually or on my palate. The nduja itself seemed strangely tame as well, and the pizza as a whole didn’t quite sing. A perfectly respectable effort in the grand scheme of things, but we were all a little disappointed after the slightly unexpected heights of the first arrival at the table.

 

Pork sausage, tomato, parmigiana reggiano, black pepper

 

Pizza number 3, and the meal was sitting on the edge of a razor blade – able to be a true top contender, or merely in the chasing pack. This one – pork sausage, parmigiana reggiano, tomato, black pepper. Interestingly, although again seeming to using the crudely crushed tomatoes as seen on the previous two pizzas, this one seemed a lot “wetter” than the previous two, with some small amount of standing liquid. But it looked the business – a good sausage pizza can really be fantastic, and if I’d had to choose one ahead of the meal to have, it would have been this. The sausage was good and meaty, but the pizza as a whole lacked a certain something. To me, the sausage wasn’t strongly flavoured enough – it needed a much more herby, aromatic meat on there, or the addition of something alongside it to bring the package to life. On the first, the lemon zest just elevated the whole thing to a higher level – both of the follow ups lacked that killer “punch”, that certain something on your tastebuds that really excites you. A more interesting, intense sausage flavour on this and it would have been excellent – as it was it was “just” pretty good.

To be clear, these were not bad pizzas at all. The bases were all absolutely bang on, the ingredients clearly high quality, and I did like the tomato very much. I also appreciate that there is clearly thought going into doing these in somewhat unusual ways that differ from pizza to pizza. But 2 of the 3 were unfortunately in the “nearly, but not quite” category where they didn’t get my juices flowing in the way they had been ready to.

The service was very friendly and helpful, and the meal with a few beers and a bottle of very good house red wine clocked in at about £30 each including service. It is a restaurant I would happily recommend, and will almost certainly revisit to try some more of their pizzas as they are definitely a place that takes pizza very seriously – hell, look at this for a pizza oven, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so high-tech.

In summary, a qualified success from a restaurant that is obviously unafraid to try out some ideas others might back away from. Worth seeking out and giving a go if you are in the area.

Starters – 8/10

Anchovy pizza – 8.5/10

Nduja Pizza – 7/10

Sausage Pizza – 7/10

Overall score 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 4

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – Stoke Newington


The last ten years has seen a revolution in the standard of food in London. Few areas is this improvement more rapid than in the world of pizza, but last autumn a man who is in the rare category of having eaten more pizza than me (Daniel Young of Young & Foodish) posted online about a very, very exciting development. A pizzeria reputed to be arguably the greatest in the world was heading to London. Rumours of opening dates swirled, reports of a 2300kg oven surfaced. Much anticipation built.

And then, it was announced that they would open on Friday February 3rd. Photos of gigantic crowds of people queuing outside on the opening evening were posted, and early reports were uniformly favourable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where my next stop on my round-up had to be.

So, exactly a week after it opened, I headed down to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele with an Italian by the name of Michele – the thoroughly excellent Miky J.

We arrived at roughly 1pm on Friday afternoon. A small cluster of people were huddled outside, but no obvious sign of what the process to get a table was – I asked, and was told I had to go inside to get a ticket. In I popped, to the very smart, simple restaurant (which holds maybe 30 or so diners at a time), scanned around and went over to the nearest staff member, who was at the till. This bit, I’ll put down to the sheer volume of customers in a brand new restaurant with new staff being a bit like someone trying to land safely on a treadmill going at 30mph – I was literally ignored for maybe 5 minutes as I stood there patiently and politely waiting for her to finish whatever she was doing (various bits and bobs for various tables), with no “be with you in a second” comments or gestures, not even eye contact. Not the end of the world, but pretty poor form on the customer service front. Once they turned to me, I asked if I needed a ticket, told her it was for 2, grabbed my ticket and headed back outside to the snowy London afternoon. After 5 minutes more she emerged from the front door calling numbers. “55?” Answer came there none. “56?” Nada. “57?” The two girls I had spoken to on arrival went in. “58?” Yay! And so that wait was pleasantly brief. We were seated inside, mercifully away from the door, which seemed incapable of shutting properly, meaning the customers sat by it had to keep their winter jackets on throughout their meals, and spent as long trying to keep the door closed as eating.

The restaurant was packed. Obviously, all the seats were taken. But also all available space between seats. This is Stoke Newington. Of course there were 18712875418 giant prams in the restaurant at 1pm. Why on earth had I not considered that simple universal Stokey reality? I think I saw more babies at tables than pizzas. Mercifully, the babies were all being pretty quiet. We sat at our seat, and were handed our menus.

The menu is classically Neapolitan – a choice of margherita (£7.90), margherita with double mozzarella (£9), and two sizes of marinara (£6.90 & £7.90). We ordered a margherita and a Moretti beer each, and made ourselves comfortable.

The pizzas took a surprising amount of time to arrive given the simplicity of recipes and the short cooking time that these pizzas would have in a monster oven such as da Michele’s, and considering that there were at least 4 or 5 staff in their kitchen dealing with the several dozen customers. I didn’t time them, but I’d guess it was at least 10-15 minutes before our pizzas arrived – strangely before the girls to our right who had ordered before us, the same combo of two margheritas.

There’s no getting away from it – these pizzas looked the business. The bread was charred to just the right degree, the mozzarella melted to perfection, plenty of tomato. Time for business.


Now, this is where things get a little tricky. This was a really good pizza. Comfortably the best margherita I’ve ever had in my life, by a distance. But I’d been sold the idea that this is arguably the best pizza in the world, so I was ready to have my mind blown, and it wasn’t. The tomato was very, very tasty, nice and just about sweet enough without going overboard. The bread was good, and the mozzarella did everything you’d hope for a mozzarella to do. I would have liked more than one solitary basil leaf on such a large pizza – it gave a bit of aroma, but the mouthfuls which actually had some basil were lifted considerably. Despite plentiful tomato and a decent amount of mozzarella, there were no issues with soggy bread or standing liquid atop the pizza. I would like to try the double mozzarella option, I suspect it’s worth the extra cash. And the marinaras look great too.

I asked Michele for his thoughts, he opined that the bread and tomato both probably needed a touch more salt to bring the natural flavours out, and this was almost exactly what I had been thinking. Don’t get me wrong – it was a delicious pizza, and expertly made. You could see that all the pizzas coming out of the kitchen were cooked to absolute perfection, to a uniform standard. But it didn’t blow me away in the manner which I had hoped it would. Homeslice have a neat trick where they sprinkle the wooden board on which the pizzas are served with sea salt, which leads to little flavour bombs throughout your meal. I don’t think that would have worked here on the porcelain plates, but certainly the bread wasn’t quite there. Fractional, but when you get to the sharp end of any industry it’s the tiny percentages that make all the difference. Another thing was that because of the size of the pizza, by the time I finished it was getting quite cold – I didn’t notice if the plates were warm when they arrived at the table, but I’m a very fast eater (that happens when you grow up around 3 brothers and first to finish is first to get 2nd helpings!), so I would guess others had the same issue.

We got to talking about the nature of this sort of transition – the role of transporting ingredients that are native to Italy when such simple recipes are so dependent on the exceptional standard of what goes in to them, and whether they could ever hope to replicate the Naples experience when, for instance, they either have to change mozzarella supplier or accept that it’s not as incredibly fresh as that which they will be able to use in their original restaurant. The water supply apparently plays a key role in the dough, due to differing mineral contents – this may be apocryphal, but I’ve been told that some high end pizza places ship water about from one place to another to maintain a uniform standard for this, and country to country that’s obviously just not feasible. I don’t know what their approach is with tomatoes, whether it’s canned, or fresh that they blitz, where they are sourcing them, so it’s hard to say whether the location might be a factor there, as I’m reliably informed that tomatoes are at their best when they have never been chilled. My assumption is that there will be some fine tuning going on in the early weeks as they adjust to making pizza in a new country.

One thing I noticed which is worth mentioning is that despite us taking our sweet time over our beers, and despite a constant half-dozen-person queue outside, they made no effort to hurry us along, which I rather liked. But being completely honest, I suspect this related to the lack of attention I mentioned on arrival – we were only offered desserts after we had already asked for the bill for instance! Clearly there’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of customer handling, and they did seem a little short-staffed on the floor, whereas the kitchen was overflowing with workers, so that will hopefully improve.

I’ve never been to the Naples da Michele, but a few commenters online have suggested that Tokyo and Rome are both really, really good, while not quite at the Naples level, and it’s entirely reasonable to assume that a similar fate awaits London. There’s no shame in that, it leaves plenty of scope to become the best pizzeria in the city, and of course there is a contextual element to eating the exact same pizza in a 147 year old pizzeria in Naples vs a one week old place in N16 surrounded by prams.

Personally, I’m not one of those purists about pizzas or burgers or whatever, who feel that if you deviate from the simple form then you’re cheating – I like simple or novel toppings when they are done well, I like the variety of flavours and textures it brings, the experimentation and surprise.

I will certainly return to da Michele in the coming weeks – I’m very curious to see if the tiny improvements I feel are there to be made are made, there is definitely a lot to be said for the simplicity of a great margherita pizza done well, and believers in that as the One True Pizza will love this place. But in truth while I left satisfied, I was somewhat underwhelmed – such is the cost of building up hype to these levels if you don’t quite deliver what is being talked about. And there is much work to be done in terms of front of house service.

Pizza – 8/10

Customer service – 5/10

Overall score – 7/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 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