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
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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

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

The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 4

Mac & Wild Xmas Burger

Mac & Wild is a restaurant I’ve been wanting to sample after seeing this frankly filthy piece of food smut on the Facebook timeline of a friend who works there…

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And so I naturally sought to find out whether they were doing a Christmas burger – it was a yes, a table was booked, friends bailed at the last minute, all seemed lost, and then a 2nd opportunity arose. Booyakasha. And then 2 of the 3 friends bailed on that one, but I’ll take it, the friend that was left knows his stuff, being responsible for some of the finest drinking dens and food outlets London has seen in the last few years.

In we went, and what a lovely place it is. Tucked away on Great Titchfield Street near Oxford Circus, it wears it’s rustic charm proudly, with ample nods to the hunting and game that are the backbone of this restaurant. Even the door handles are rifles!

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Wooden surfaces, hunting memorabilia, Scottish bits and bobs – all abound inside the restaurant. It is a cosy little place, with room for more seating downstairs, and stock stuffed in every little nook and cranny they can find, including this rather impressive stash of bottled Irn Bru (which as everyone knows, is made in Scotland from girders). They also have loads of bottles of their pre-mixed cocktails around – more on that later.

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We decided that the best approach for the two of us (juuuuust the twoooo of us) was to share a Christmas burger (based around venison and turkey), and their highly rated Venimoo burger – a venison patty and a beef patty, apparently a prize winning combination. After my pleasant experience with Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger, I was ready to give more deer a whirl. We also ordered some haggis pops, hispi cabbage with black pudding, cheesy chips, and a venison scotch egg.

The pops arrived first, and they were a fantastic “small bites” type of dish. Little nuggets of haggis in incredibly crispy crumb, served with a dipping sauce called “Red Jon”, a delicious, sweet, sticky, mustardy concoction of redcurrant jelly and mustard. The crispiness of the crumbs was a recurring theme, I have to say that whatever the hell they are doing with their panko crumbs, it is working. If you are going to bread something, and fry it, then serve it and it’s not as crunchy AF… why I oughtta! No issues around that here.

When the rest of the food arrived, I have to say I loved the presentation. There was something about the way the Venimoo was served that really tickled me pink. The bun was darker than your average, with sesame seeds, and maybe it was the divot from some chefs thumb in the top half of the bun, maybe it was the two slightly overlapping patties seemingly drenched in melted cheese, tossed in seemingly carefree and slightly off-kilter… I don’t know, but I had a mental food boner for that sandwich just looking at it.

The Christmas Burger was less impressive to look at, but that’s a bit like saying so and so isn’t as attractive as George Clooney. It’s a high bar they’re being compared against, and there’s no shame in not reaching it. The Scotch Egg was, well, a scotch egg, with a smear of mustard on it’s platter the only visually exciting thing about that – bearing in mind I’m not really a big scotch egg fan. The cabbage – that really didn’t look like much, and had a huge amount of liquid in it, to the point that it bordered towards soupiness, although the chunks of black pudding in there were admirably large. The chips came with a little bowl of cheesy sauce to dip them in.

The Christmas Burger

 

Cross-section of the Christmas Burger

Where to start..?

Let’s start with what we’re here for – the Christmas Burger. It was… it was… good. Not outstanding, for reasons more of assembly and ease of consumption than anything else.

It was very tasty. The confit turkey was juicy, and as mentioned earlier, outstandingly crispy. It was also massive, which meant that on top of the other fillings it was a nightmare to try and eat. We may have made this trickier by cutting in half, I can’t say as I’ve not eaten one without cutting in half, but the Blacklock burger was actually far easier to handle when cleft in twain (as I did on my return visit earlier this week). At one point the last bit of the venison patty squirted out and landed in my lap, so it wasn’t ideal construction from an engineering point of view. The turkey element was simply so thick it just made the whole sandwich very hard to eat in the way God intended. Which is a dreadful shame, as the component parts were actually delicious, the two meat elements working very nicely with the brie and cranberry. The venison sausage patty was fantastic. It had bread sauce in there alongside the cranberry , which practically made me squeal with delight (I’ve become a bit fixated on what Christmassy elements make it into these sandwiches), but I suspect it’s that lubricant that made the patties slip around so much as I tried to eat them.
The cabbage really was a bit of a let-down, especially at the price. It just seemed to be lacking any really bold flavours, it needed more seasoning to my palate, the black pudding was nice enough, but that dish was definitely the poor relation of this meal. I didn’t get any real hit of heat from the mustard, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that as a side dish.

The chips were good, if nothing to write home about – I’m not someone who is easy to impress with chips, but am quick to fault bad ones. These were crispy, and fluffy inside, the cheese sauce was great (although this seems an odd way to serve cheese sauce to me, but there you go, and you could always pour it over the chips when they arrive). The price is about par for the course for London, and I’ve no negative things to say about these. They were chips, executed well.

Scotch Egg – super crunchy crumbs!
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Will you look at that egg… LOOK AT IT!

The venison scotch egg was, to me, the surprise package. I would never normally go for a scotch egg, for the simple reason that I rarely eat egg. This was, as with the other breaded items, phenomenally crunchy. The venison inside was juicy and moist and flavourful, and just a little pink. The egg… I don’t really understand how the chef did it to be honest. It was remarkable. My companion called it the perfect sous vide egg I think. It was jelly-like, but distinctly cooked. The yolks was runny but glutinous, all at once. It was delicious, I could happily stick one of those in my packed lunch any time. The mustard was a great, warming, sharp accompaniment.

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Instagram strikes again – the Venimoo
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Yes, it’s upside down

And finally the Venimoo. A beef patty and a venison patty with cheese, bearnaise and caramelised onions, and we added the candied bacon. I’d insisted we order this, as frankly it sounded amazing. You know what? It was amazing. It is amazing. It knocked the Christmas Burger out of the park. I need to go back and try it again to really be sure, but its a real contender for my favourite burger that you could go and buy tomorrow (the best two I’ve ever had were limited editions that are apparently not to be repeated sadly, the Super Fatty Patty and the World Peace Burger).

The marriage of the venison and beef as flavours and textures was just superb. The melted cheese and bearnaise sauce gave it an incredible juicy succulence, aided by the sweet caramelised onions. The candied bacon added snap and another touch of sweetness, but also salt. It really is a phenomenal burger. I was actually a little taken aback by how much I enjoyed it – I’d remarked to my server about how burger’d out I was after so many trips for this Christmas specials project! At a tenner (or £11.70 with the bacon), it’s actually pretty reasonable value in the grand scheme of fancy London burgers, bearing in mind the Fitzrovia location and the fact that you get two substantial patties in there.

As for the drinks, I had a  Drygate Bearface lager (heavy on the hops, light on the tongue it proclaimed on the bottle, and that was pretty much accurate), I liked this, Damian did not, c’est la vie.

I then tried glass of their Forager bottled cocktail that so impressed me a bottle was purchased for a Christmas present for my dad, kind of reminiscent of an old fashioned, but the honey in there was tangible on the tongue, giving it a somewhat velvety mouth-feel, and there was a almost a note of cinnamon or something in there, presumably something to do with the pine leaf tincture? Not that I have the faintest clue what a tincture is. And finally a warm mug of their Yuletide bottled cocktail, which was a great hot toddy type of drink, lovely spiced, warming flavours perfect for the season.

Damian in his happy place

I’m not much of a desserts man, but we got a sticky toffee pudding in too. This was sensational. Probably the best I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something considering how good the Hawksmoor one is. Much lighter sponge than many, the warm sauce and ice cream combined for a delightful sensation. Highly recommended, although there’s no way I’d be able to handle a full one on my own, that would be a bit too sweet for my palate.

So all in all, a bloody brilliant meal. I’ll definitely be back, that’s for sure. The Christmas Burger maybe didn’t quite hit the heights I’d hoped, but the Venimoo is a marvel, and I’m genuinely wondering if it might be my new favourite burger, I can’t wait to try that again.

The rest of the food was excellent, apart from the rather disappointing cabbage. But there’s a heap of other items I’m keen to sample, and I could easily see this restaurant being a regular haunt for me in the future.

Christmas Burger – 8/10 (would have been higher if it was a little more manageable as a sandwich!)

Venimoo – 9/10

Breadcrumb Crunchiness where applicable – 10/10

Yolk sexiness – 17/10

Value – 8/10

Overall – 8.5/10 (Can’t justify it matching the Blacklock score, but a better side choice than the cabbage and it might have matched it)

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