Radio Alice x Club Mexicana

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

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

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

First up – it looks beautiful.

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

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

Score – 9/10

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 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 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

The Pizza Place That Dared To Dream

Pizza East, Shoreditch, London

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salt Baked Salmon

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

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Beef Lasagne

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

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

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Deep Fried Cauliflower, with Yoghurt & Salsa Verde

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

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Sweet potato, quinoa, chives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5/10

My New Favourite Pizza Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.5/10

 

When Novelty Burgers Go Wrong

I’m hardly a war journalist, but I do make little sacrifices here and there in pursuit of interesting burgers to write about – yesterday was one such little disaster, when faced with a menu seemingly full of delights, at a restaurant I’d been wanting to try out for some time, Red’s True Barbecue.

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Photo shamelessly stolen from here

Yesterday, I did something I never thought I would, and can say with complete certainty will never do again. I had a doughnut burger. Typing that out, I feel like an idiot. What did I expect? I have a thoroughly British palate – if I treat myself to a cooked breakfast, the condiment I reach for is tomato ketchup (sorry, brown sauce advocates). The one thing that never, ever crosses my mind is “You know what this deliciously savoury mess needs? Syrup!”.

So why on earth did I think that sticking a double bacon burger between 2 glazed doughnuts was something I might find enjoyable?

Well, basically, novelty value. I eat more burgers than is probably healthy. Now, I realise that sticking them between deep fried sugary dough isn’t a great way to make them healthier, but it does vary things up a little. I saw something online about a charity offer, a one-day-only buy-one-get-one-free doughnut burger event with a mandatory donation built in to the price. I have a couple of friends who I’ve been saying I’d go to Red’s with for months. The visit scripted itself.

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So in we went, early evening on a Monday. After a little bit of strangely awkward and complicated to-and-fro with our waiter about some free beer vouchers my friend had been emailed (which we were told were only valid after we’d spent £10, so we should scan at the end of the meal, which is fair enough in order to prevent abuse of the offer), we ordered. It was decided to get 2 of the doughnut burgers to share, with some BBQ and sides to complement things.

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And so this arrived. Times two. I’d love to say it looked appetising, that it was a glorious mess. But tbh, it filled me with dread. In there you’ve got 2 beef patties, smoked peppered bacon, cheese and dirty sauce, served between those two glazed doughnuts, sprinkled with what they call “frickles”. I’d prepared appropriately – lunch had been a vegetarian affair, worth about 250 calories to my daily intake. A lap of Victoria Park had been run, weights lifted, 30 minutes pedalled on an exercise bike. I had plenty of spare calories to play with for my dinner, and here they all were, in one rather scary looking Frankensandwich.

We got to business. As there were 2 sandwiches, and 3 of the group eating, we sliced them in half, which in truth made them much easier to manipulate mouthwards. The first thing I noticed was the burgers were definitely at the “well done” end of the spectrum. This to me tends to mean one of two things – either they’re overdone, or they’re done just right as the meat isn’t of the quality where they can be served pink. Given that this was a BBQ place, I’d hope it was the former, and that they mince their own beef onsite. My friend who has eaten there plenty seemed to think that these were not cooked to their usual level, and I’ll take him at his word!

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What can I say of the burger? Well, I would say I will never eat such a thing again. The patties seemed to be of good quality meat, if overdone to my tastes. The bacon was excellent and pleasingly crispy, and the cheese suitably molten. The dirty sauce was intriguing, and something I’d like to try in a different context. Somewhat like a peppercorn sauce, maybe some garlic going on in there. But why on earth had I thought that sticking this lot between doughnuts would be a pleasant thing to experience? They had a cloying, almost caramel flavour. The glaze was soon all over my hands, and any pleasure I took from the traditionally “burger” parts of this meal were cancelled out (and then some) by the overwhelming sweetness of what it arrived between. Every mouthful was completely dominated by that aspect of the burger. When you are dealing with such big, bold flavours as these, and they are struggling to get a word in edgeways, you know it’s a completely imbalanced package. But then, that’s not really the point is it? It’s novelty island writ large, more about social media shares than a delicious dining experience, and I feel a little bit ashamed for being part of the machine that helps this trend rumble on.

Reading around online, there’s talk of this being a 2000 calorie burger. When I think of the things I could eat for that sort of calorific value (so many slices of pizza…), and how many laps of Victoria Park I’ll have to run to cancel that out today, it makes me want to shed a tear. What was interesting was how this sugary, stodgy feeling stayed with me through the evening. I was halfway to meeting a friend for some drinks after leaving Red’s, and decided to turn on my heel and head home, so intense was the feeling of an insulin-fuelled food coma, and I didn’t rid myself of the unpleasant aftertaste and feeling of sickliness until I woke up this morning. I wanted something to cleanse my palate last night when I got home, but God knows what would have worked in the context. A bowl of Marmite perhaps? And this after only eating fractionally over half of a doughnut burger, with a fair amount being left unfinished by those sharing them.

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Brisket and Burnt Ends – the photo doesn’t really do this one justice, it was very nice. The “Mustard Caviar” is basically a mustard seed condiment.

To be fair, the rest of the meal was decent, with some strong highlights. The brisket and burnt ends were thoroughly enjoyable, with the brisket positively melting in the mouth, and the burnt ends being a crunchy counterpoint with good flavour. The sauces provided at the table were all excellent, the fries pretty much done to perfection.

The deep fried pickles were really very good indeed. I’d never been a massive fan of the ones from Meat Liquor – which are flat strips in batter. These ones are a half pickle, a whole one cleft in twain from top to bottom, which means that they retain a happy crunch after deep frying. The creamed corn wasn’t to my taste, and apparently is a new recipe that isn’t as good as the old.

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Creamed corn

The onion rings side was an odd one. We got 1 onion ring. We definitely asked for onion ringSWe clarified this when this sad, lonely, overweight ring arrived with no company, and were informed that it was because they thought we’d ordered it as part of the free accompaniments for the burger, which seems odd to me – I would have thought a portion is a portion is a portion, the same size whatever the context. They brought us one more ring, and the bill showed one English pound for this reinforcement. There were 3 of us eating. A portion of onion rings is listed as £2.95. I don’t really understand what happened there. TBH, there were a series of communication breakdowns with the waiter from start to finish.

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Top, top camerawork from me here.

Which brings us to the end, which was nearly as messy as the burger itself (incidentally, they provided wet-wipe napkins to clean our hands, which was very necessary!). I had known about the 2-for-1 burger deal, the free beer offer was news to me on the day, but certainly very welcome. Yet when it came to that moment and we proffered our voucher codes to redeem them, we were suddenly informed that the small print said it was one beer per table. The small print didn’t say this. This hadn’t been mentioned at the top when we said we had these vouchers. The waiter basically said “hey, what can I do, I’m just a waiter? You want to speak with the manager?”.

Now, I’m not a big complainer at restaurants, but likewise I don’t have that very British terror of “making a scene” that many do. When he came over, he again said “small print”, we pointed out the absence of what he was claiming. He was a little ruffled and flustered (which I think was the restaurant starting to fill up for the evening rather than a reaction to us or anything we were saying or doing), and shot off, came back with a new bill which he chucked on the table with few words, then ran off again, firmly clobbering the chair next to me into mine. With this they’d taken 1 more beer off the bill, despite 4 vouchers being redeemed within the group. Now, this whole episode in and of itself isn’t that big a deal to me, but I think worth mentioning – I was left with a feeling of “is this offer trying to trick people through the door?”

I was going there whatever, the free beer offer was unknown to me until minutes before I arrived, so my indignation was barely existent, but I was struck with how poorly they handled a pretty simple situation, and this was in stark contrast to a story my friends had told me about a visit one Sunday breakfast when a manager there had observed them wait too long for their meal, and without prompting knocked a substantial amount of their final bill. So it’s not like they don’t know what great service is, it’s just that this time was a bit of a chaotic mess, and it did leave me with a 2nd funny taste in my mouth – one free beer per table is a really weird offer to advertise (especially when you don’t actually mention that stipulation anywhere), and is going to lead to odd, awkward moments like this.

All that being said, I enjoyed the BBQ enough to say I’ll probably be back at some point given the location, within walking distance of where I live. The service was a bit erratic, which is a bugbear of mine – cooking great food is hard, being organised, friendly and polite simple by comparison, and there’s really never a good excuse for getting that aspect of a restaurant wrong. Even if it’s stupidly busy and things take a long time, a friendly word and some management of expectations goes a long way – last night was a hodge podge of confusion, misunderstandings and errors.

The doughnut burger however… I highly recommend that you never, ever order one.

Red’s True BBQ Doughnut Burger – 2/10

Brisket & Burnt Ends – 7.5/10

Overall Experience – 5.5/10

London’s Reigning Champion – Patty & Bun

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I moved to London nearly 5 years ago, in the summer of 2011, just before the riots (a coincidence, I assure you). At that point, the “gourmet burger” scene, for want of a better term, was just kicking off in earnest. The Meat Wagon had scored a site they called Meat LiquorHonest Burgers was making waves from its first outlet in Brixton market (despite not having toilet facilities onsite, which caught me out the first time I went…) and queues for all the major players were plentiful and long.

Fast forward to now, and they are everywhere, with all manner of new kids on the block, corporate chains upping their game to try and get a piece of the action, major names from the USA coming over and proving to be all hype, no substance (Shake Shack and Five Guys really are both the epitome of mediocre, overpriced fast food from the times I’ve been, and I was stunned at the poor service in Shake Shack, given how great service invariably is in America), and the early pioneers are on the whole to be found all across the capital, and in some cases the world (Meat Liquor now has sites in Leeds, Brighton, Bristol and even Singapore).

It’s incredibly competitive, and many have a decent claim to being the leader of the pack. However, for me there is a clear front-runner – Patty & Bun.

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Obviously when picking a favourite, you’re looking for something that can scale the heights. But almost as important, is that it gets up to the top of the mountain each time, rather than wheezing about halfway up and deciding it can’t be bothered.

The only place I’ve been to that can claim that same sort of consistency in excellence as Patty & Bun is Meat Mission. At a rough estimate, I’d say I’ve eaten at Patty & Bun 10 times now (3 in Mayfair, half a dozen or so at Liverpool Street, and this trip to Soho). Every time it has been exceptional.

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Merch? At a burger joint? What is the world coming to eh?
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Cocktail people love puns.
Beefer Sutherland
Oh Lawdy

If anyone asks me the best burger in London, I have no hesitation in proffering the Jose Jose. It’s a messy beast, but worth the kerfuffle. The Sobrasada and Chorizo Relish is one of the greatest condiments I’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling, sweet, tangy, a little spicy kick, with tiny, crunchy nuggets of fried chorizo in most mouthfuls. I’ve had better (the Super Fatty Patty and the World Peace Burger), but they were one-month-only limited editions. My intention last night had been to treat myself to another one of these masterpieces, until I saw the casting call for their special, the Beefer Sutherland. The price tag was a little steep, at nearly 50% more than my old faithful, but I’m a sucker for a novelty burger, so in the order went.

Before the food, a word about the venue and service – there was no queue, which surprised me a little, even at 8.45pm on a Wednesday. I had only become aware that this P&B existed days earlier, that had somehow escaped my radar, but it seems to have been there for quite a while. The friendly waiter showed us to a table downstairs, the restaurant decked out in the pretty-standard-now “reclaimed wood and nick-nacks” style, and with plenty of nods to the history of Soho in the shape of neon lights alluding to sexy-time, and pin-up girl pictures adorning the walls. The bathroom was more than a little cosy, I popped in to wash my hands before the meal, and had to give the hand-dryer a miss as it would have probably sent the man at the urinal’s flow into the stratosphere. Not sure if this design choice is also a nod to Soho tradition. Oh, and major props on the music – on walking in they had Fallacy ft Tubby T – Big & Bashy playing (a track I must have played dozens if not hundreds of times in my hip hop sets back in the early 00s), and it was solid hip-hop and grime early on, switching to some very nice (proper) deep house later on. I shazamed a good 4 or 5 songs for future reference!

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Live sexy nudes. I saw none. I feel cheated.

The food arrived swiftly after ordering (worth noting you can specifiy how you prefer the beef patty cooked here, which is not always the case at burger joints), and without anything as boring and traditional as a plate. Personally, that didn’t bother me but one of my companions found that rather irritating, and I know many have a bee in their bonnet about this trend. The burgers come wrapped in waxed paper, which you can unfold to use as something of a bowl/plate substitute – the burgers are so juicy and the toppings so plentiful that you absolutely need this!

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The aftermath – delicious gravy to dip the potatoes in!

As well as our burgers, we order rosemary fries, confit potatoes with salt & vinegar aioli and Patty & Bun’s famous “Winger Winger Chicken Dinner” wings.

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Pre-munch.
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Post-munch.

 

The burger was, on first bite, a bit of a shock to the system. It wasn’t an unpleasant shock, but it had a very unusual flavour that I wasn’t expecting, a large part of which I think came from the pickled shiitake mushrooms. I remember seeing a Heston Blumenthal show where he went on at length about the relationship mushrooms and beef have, and how mushroom can really maximise the “beefiness” of a burger or steak. And you know what, I think he was right. There was a deeply pleasurable rich-but-savoury party kicking off in my house, and much like a flatmate who is woken by it then decides to join in because it’s there whether they like it or not, my tastebuds spent the first half trying to work out what was going on, and the 2nd half having a whale of a time. The lettuce seemed somewhat redundant, but everything else added something useful to the experience – little chunks of beef from the ragu varied the texture of the meat, the beef fat mayo was unlike any mayonaisse I have had before, while the roast onion ketchup provided a little sweetness to counteract the overall picture, that was very much in the realms of umami. The brioche bun, despite all the juices, held up brilliantly to the very last. There was a touch of Dip n Flip to the experience actually, although I would have to say that I preferred the Dip n Flip version of this type of burger, and it’s considerably cheaper. And in truth, this was not a patch on the Jose Jose, which is £3.50 cheaper.

As I mentioned earlier, the wings are famous, and for good reason. I was never a big fan of chicken wings until an old flatmate (how’s it going Harry?) started raving about Meat Liquor’s Bingo Wings, and while it was those which converted me, these are a completely different beast. They are cooked in an 18 hour confit process, and are reassuringly meaty, this meat breadcrumbed and coated in a fairly sweet, and very sticky, BBQ sauce, and simply falling off the bone the moment your mouth gets round them. There’s a hint of honey and ginger in the sauce, it’s possibly a little sickly for some palates, and a whole tub of them to yourself (which is about 6 I think) might have been too much for me, but 3 or 4 hit the spot just right. You will need the hand wipes they give you if you order these.

The rosemary fries do what rosemary fries do – these are a solid example, crispy outside, fluffy inside, I’d have preferred a touch more seasoning, but they weren’t my order, so I’m not complaining.

The confit potatoes, however, were fantastic. Basically they were tiny, brilliant roast potatoes with an excellent aoili, though I ended up dipping them in the juices that had abandoned the burger ship. I could happily be served a bucket of these potatoes, a bowl of this gravy, and just get stuck in. Incredibly crispy, and so fluffy inside – I’m not an expert, but I suspect goose fat or beef dripping or something was used on these to get this result.

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The beer was served in some sort of outsized milk bottle, which I inexplicably found really pleasant to marvel at. Maybe it was just the beer inside, I’ve not had a drink in 12 days and was on the water for this excursion.

All in all, I was yet again delighted with Patty & Bun, and relieved that I hadn’t bigged it up to my friends only to see them disappointed (this has happened at Honest a few times since they expanded so rapidly, even though when they are on point they are one of the best). The Beefer Sutherland was not something I’d order again given the other available options, particularly at that price point, but was a thoroughly enjoyable burger in it’s own right. The sides were superb, especially those wings. I know I’ll be back again, and again, and again…

Beefer Sutherland – 8/10

Patty & Bun – 9/10

 

The Holy Cheezus – Shoreditch Blues Kitchen

I’ve a backlog of various food reviews to finish and publish on here, but I thought I’d get this one out there as it’s a limited time offer, and so anyone interested will need to act fast! And I imagine that burger obsessives will be very curious to try this one out – the Holy Cheezus from Shoreditch Blues Kitchen.

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The carefully assembled and photographed promo version of the burger!

The venue is an old haunt of mine – before the site was bought by The Columbo Group, it was known as Bar Music Hall and I used to play there a couple of times a month as either Santero or Little 15 depending on the night. It has been completely transformed, and my dining companion and I were hugely impressed by the attention to detail they’ve gone to in sourcing the weathered and worn furnishings, decor and assorted nick-nacks to give it a run-down, rustic bluesy Americana feeling.

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I used to DJ over in that corner!

On to the food – the lunch menu was full of things I liked the look of, BBQ and burgers dominate, with nods to jambalaya and gumbo. I was on the verge of ordering the Beef Rib Sandwich (which my friend had, and was by his account fantastic), when I paid closer attention to the special. I’d initially kind of glossed over that due to the hefty £15.50 price tag. But when I properly read it and clocked that instead of a bun, it was encased in grilled cheese. So basically, its a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches with a burger inside. I ummed and ah’d for a good 15 seconds before settling on that as my order.

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Before we get to the main event, a word about the service – this aspect was absolutely spot on. Really friendly welcome at the door, I asked to be seated by a window but was made to feel entirely comfortable about them preferring to sit me on a smaller table due to the expected lunchtime rush (I arrived around noon), then without prompting they brought tap water and glasses with ice to the table, and unobtrusively kept checking in while I waited for my friend to see if I wanted anything. I interacted with probably 5 members of staff and they were all brilliant, so gold stars all round. At the end a guy called Toby who I assume was the duty manager came over to ask us how we’d enjoyed it and we had a lovely chat, exchanged names and recommendations for some hot sauces and seasonings, all in all that side of things was absolutely flawless. I also fell slightly in love with one of the waitresses, but that’s another story.

So, on to the food.

The burger arrived, alongside a decent portion of seasoned fries. It didn’t look anything like the above promo picture – although I just downloaded that now so there was no aspect of feeling cheated!

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I’d been asked for how I’d like it and had gone with medium-rare, however the patty seemed to be slightly lop-sided and as a result was only pink on one side really, not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but worth noting. The toast had just the sort of crunchy bite I’d been hoping for, to keep it manageable they’d used thin slices of white bread, while inside the cheese was a pleasant addition but in my view could have used something a little sharper in there to add a little zip – either a bit of a strong cheese added to the mix, or maybe some diced onions/shallots or something, a la Kappacasein‘s famous cheese toastie. The burger itself was pleasingly beefy, too often these days I find some joints seem to have virtually flavourless patties and mask this with outlandish toppings and sauces (I’m looking at you Byron…). As with the bread, the patty was thinner than the average, presumably for 2 reasons – to make it possible to fit the thing in your gob, and also as it needed to cover more real estate than on a bun while still clocking in at 7oz.

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The bacon added a salty punch and was pleasingly crispy (I really can’t be doing with soggy bacon in my burgers). The béchamel and glazed onions allied with basically 2 cheese toasties around the burger made it a touch too rich for me at first, but then I clocked the generous selection of sauces – the addition of their mustard BBQ sauce (according to Toby a mix of wholegrain, Dijon and English mustard cooked up with their BBQ sauce if memory serves) took it to another level, gave it that little bit of sharpness that it had been missing. I think there’s a decent case for either some mustard in the fillings, or onions in the cheese toasties, or maybe even both, to embed that extra element in the recipe, but it wasn’t a hard puzzle to solve.

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As for the fries, I was impressed – often these seem a bit of an afterthought, and often rather stingy in how many you get considering the relative cost of some spuds cooked in oil. They were seasoned with a gentle cajun spice mixture, just the right mixture of crunchy exterior, fluffy interior, and stayed warm until the last one was munched. I have no idea how the science of that works, but that seems to be an achievement in itself based on previous experience.

So in conclusion, a very enjoyable lunch time trip. The price tag is a little steep vs my usual orders, but then it’s a bit of a novelty and a hell of a filling meal. It’s not perfect by any measure, but certainly good enough that I would happily recommend it to people wanting to try something a bit different, and I will certainly be back to try a good handful of the other things on their excellent looking menu. The service was exceptional, the atmosphere and decor spot on, and its a 5 minute walk from my studio. Looks like I might be needing to go on slightly longer runs than previously to work off these calories…

7.5/10 (with 10/10 for the service)