The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 5

MEATmission – XXXmas Burger

I’ve never reviewed MEATmission or MEATliquor, as I felt that my involvement with their now defunct MEATtransMISSION radio show made it a bit of a conflict of interests, but now that I don’t have that issue, my first time casting judgement on one of the big hitters of the London burger game.

 

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I managed to sneak in between a pair of gigs on a Friday night, and it was a simple task for me to choose the sustenance from the offerings available – piggies in blankets and the XXXmas Burger, as well as one of their excellent sazeracs. As the meal was an in-and-out hit job, so too will this review be a lot shorter than the others I’ve done so far.

The piggies in blankets were absolutely bloody lovely. Fantastically juicy and meaty, with a wonderful flavour that danced around savoury with a hint of sweetness in there, you could tell that these chipolatas are made from great pork. The bacon they were wrapped in was as crispy as you’d hope, giving the right combination of textures as you bit through that and into the softer sausage they encased. A little blob of mustard to add heat made for a genuinely delicious side dish.


The main event didn’t massively impress me at first glance. The turkey is thin slices kind of folded up in there, going against the grain in the Christmas burger which seems to favour a big lump of, breaded, deep-fried breast.

But if we’re looking at this logically, MEATmission’s approach is more “authentic” – a lot more people will have thin slices on their Christmas dinner plates than breaded, deep fried pieces! The top filling is the rather clever bacon disk they make – basically smushing and cooking a load of bacon so it fits in the bun better than the more normal slices people would use. The stuffing crumbles were a little dry I thought, presumably because of being smaller pieces, but a good touch – stuffing is quintessentially Christmassy for me. The Old Spot patty was excellent, with the cranberry adding that traditional sweetness aspect of a Christmas sarnie. The turkey was super juicy, a result of it being sort of “basted” with the gravy it mentions. An extra tray of gravy to the side to dip this in, a la Blacklock, now that would have been fantastic.

It was a really proper feast of flavours and textures – the turkey was so juicy, savoury and succulent in particular. I demolished the thing in no time at all, and it really did evoke the season to my palate. As I mentioned, stuffing is a big Christmas food at my home – sage & onion being my favourite. A lot of these specials seem to use that as the vehicle for pork, but personally I’ve never really gone down the meaty stuffing route, so this was a welcome choice for me and my tastes. All in all, a success, if not quite at the level of Blacklock or Mac & Wild.

XXXmas Burger – 8/10

Christmassyness – 9/10

Piggies in Blankets – 8.5/10

Sazerac – Boozy/10

Overall 8/10

When Expectation Collides With Reality

The Pizza Burger – Honest Burgers, Bank, London

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

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

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

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Honest Burger’s Pizza Burger, as advertised

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

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

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

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

Back to today.

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

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

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Big fan of this bottle/carafe thingy

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

What I got was this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bacon Jam is gosh-darned incredible

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

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

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

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

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

Overall experience – 7/10

You Put Your Left Leg In, Your Left Leg Out, In, Out, In, Out, Burgers All About

So, one of the fringe benefits of my job as a DJ is having my days relatively free. I obviously still have Stuff To Do, but the deadlines are often quite nebulous and regularly have to be self-imposed. As such, when I heard earlier this week that legendary LA Burger chain In-N-Out Burger were coming to London for a 4-hour pop-up, I was pretty sure that I would be there to check it out.

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In classic style I managed to accidentally get a little drunk at the gig I had the night before, but mercifully, the texts I sent to various friends looking for the next pitstop got negative responses, and no further drinking, dancing or debauchery took place. Although I did get my ass handed to me by my flatmate when I tried to play him on the new FIFA 17 demo before bed.

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The plus side of this poor planning was that I was goddamned starving on Wednesday morning. Coffee was purchased from my favourite spot (Pavilion Cafe, by the lake in Victoria Park), and then my burger buddy for the day arrived (the wonderful Ben Gomori of Turned On Podcast, who’s made an appearance in my Mixtape Monday series). Off we trotted, heading westwards to Swiss Cottage, where the pop-up was taking place.

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When we popped back above ground and wandered down towards the venue, we were met with a substantial, but not intimidating, queue. We took our place at the back of the line after stocking up on the essentials for a potentially long wait, and settled in. Arrival time was 10.15am or thereabouts, and the pop-up was scheduled for 11am-3pm. The venue itself seemed to be fairly large inside from what we could see, although strangely little effort had been made to transform the front-end, just one banner in the window, and various In-N-Out staff members in their distinctive uniform milling about, and then a counter inside that looked like some effort had gone on making it pretty close to how they presumably are stateside.

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The queue grew steadily as we waited patiently. Various baffled passers-by took photos and asked questions, numerous reporters and journalists came by to ask questions or livestream the thronging crowd of knobheads waiting hours in line for “fast” food.

I made my first appearance within Vice and marked it with a truly awful pun. Getty interviewed me on video, I have no idea if that was used, and frankly I hope I never find out [Edit – thanks to u/RichardJohn over on Reddit for finding this, turns out they not only used me, but I was the only interviewee used! http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/license/609839490%5D.

Wristbands were handed out, enabling people to chip off and come back at their allotted hourly slot – I was given gold, the 12-1 slot. The burger tab on these wristbands made it pretty obvious that we could only order one burger each, a mortifying realisation after having skipped breakfast.

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So far, I’ve said an awful lot without getting to the point. Well, here we go. After 2 or so hours of waiting, we approached the front of the line, and were greeted warmly by Eric, a genuine American fella. He was fantastic, and superbly dealt with the multiple late-comers who tried to blag their way in to get a shirt without waiting in line like the rest of us losers.

In we went, and order we did. Disappointingly, the only side available was crisps. I want to thank my friends on Facebook for asking me why a mere 91838172581 times. Apparently it was something to do with not being able to ship the fries over or get them right in the UK or something, but whatever it was, it was very disappointing to have ready salted crisps as the accompaniment to a burger you’ve queued several hours to sample. The prices were cheap as chips, ironically enough, £3 for a double double (two beef patties, two slices of cheese) which I had “animal style” (basically with a quite sweet sauce with grilled onions), a diet coke, and those bloody crisps. I was given a key-ring and a sticker, and decided to fork out £3 for one of their t-shirts, so the whole lot clocked in at a very reasonable £8! So clearly, this wasn’t an exercise in making money…

So down we sat with our drinks and goodies, and waited for the food to come to our table. One thing I was struck by was just how many empty seats there were given how slow the queue had been moving. They were clearly managing the numbers very closely to avoid any snafus with the service I guess. The food took maybe 5 minutes or so to arrive, with Ben’s being the first to land.

I have to say, the burgers looked excellent when they arrived at the table.

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Close
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Closer
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EXTREEEEEME CLOSE UP!

And now we get to the important stuff. The burger – yes, it was good. If I had to try and describe it in a very simple way – it’s like the best possible Big Mac you could make. Does it get a place in my top 10. Nope. Was it worth waiting 2-3 hours for? Not really, if I’m brutally honest.

But it was very good. I would happily eat these on the go at the right price, the sauce, the beefburgers, the cheese and the bun were all lovely and complemented each other well. The salad – well, the lettuce was fine, but the tomato was almost ice cold. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it definitely detracted from the burger in the final judgement. The animal sauce was really enjoyable – I may well have a crack at making something like that at home, having discovered various websites who think they have the recipe worked out.

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I’m glad I made the decision to check it out, as I’ve never previously really “got” this type of burger – I prefer thicker patties with them nicely pink in the middle. These thinner patties make for a totally different mouth-feel than the “gourmet” style big burgers that dominate London’s burger restaurants – often they are overdone to the point of being unpalatable meat-biscuits, but as you can see in the photo above, these are done to perfection, allowing them to remain moist and juicy, something which the melted American cheese and Animal Sauce only serves to amplify. Even as I write this out now, I’m starting to crave another one, so maybe they did make more of an impression on me than I realised – or maybe its just because I skipped breakfast again. The crisps/fries debacle… the less said the better, I don’t really understand how they can go to all the effort of this and not be able to put a proper side on the menu. And thank you to my friends for hammering that point home, relentlessly.

In truth, it’s a little unfair of me to compare In-N-Out to the top-end London “gourmet” burger places – its niche is as a really good, but really cheap, burger. A kick-ass McDonald’s. Five Guys occupies this niche in the USA too, yet is inexplicably (and totally unjustifiably) priced as a premium burger in the UK. £3 for a Double Double, animal style… now that’s phenomenal value. If they opened up over here permanently, with prices in that ballpark, they would absolutely clean up, and rightly so. If they were a tenner… just don’t bother, please. But seeing as the last pop-up was in 2012 (4 year cycle, this year in a Brazilian restaurant… I’m guessing that in 2020 they will take over a sushi restaurant…), its reasonable to guess that they are in no rush to head over to the UK – after all, they are still limited to relatively few states in the USA, which in itself probably plays its part in creating the aura that creates such daft queues as the one I was part of yesterday.

7/10

The Pizza Place That Dared To Dream

Pizza East, Shoreditch, London

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salt Baked Salmon

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

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Beef Lasagne

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

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

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Deep Fried Cauliflower, with Yoghurt & Salsa Verde

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

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Sweet potato, quinoa, chives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5/10