I recently made a video where I talk about the food and food-related things I’ve been enjoying recently – restaurants I’ve been to, dishes, and particular food products. It’s a new departure for me since I’ve always been very focused just on writing, but it was a lot of fun to make – although the editing process was admittedly a slog! Anyway, if you like discovering new food things it would be lovely if you’d take a look; I hope to make them a more regular thing as and when I have the time. I anticipate it will be a new and fun way to get to know the food community!
I felt compelled to write about the London-based upmarket/artisan pizza mini-chain Franco Manca because I have recently eaten there for the third time (across two of its whopping 19 locations), which is enough, I think, to make a decent assessment of the chain, and have finally collected my thoughts.
Say ‘Franco Manca’ (or type it into Google) and very soonthe phrase‘best pizza in London’ will out. Franco Manca is famous for its slow-risen sourdough crust, a crust which is baked, naturally, in a wood-burning oven on-site. It’s pleasantly chewy, pliant and has a deep, complex flavour. The attention paid to the crust at the pizzeria is a definite shift in perception: so often, pizzas are all about the toppings, piled incongruously on a lacklustre base.
It’s a place where there is a relentless commitment to everything being artisanal, with no shortcuts or mass-produced products. This applies to the beverages as much as to the food – you won’t be drinking a Diet Coke here (although you can order a San Pellegrino). The insides of the restaurants (I haven’t been to all of them, obviously) tend to be simple, with simple, graphic accents on the walls, and you have the choice to sit on communal benches or tables, which have a mixture of seats and backless wooden blocks. I hate those blocks, to be honest – firstly, where can I hang my coat and scarf (et cetera) in winter? Grr.
I’ve had some decidedly mixed pizzas at Franco Manca. Obviously, when food is handmade from start to finish, inconsistencies and differences are to be expected – you aren’t going to have 15 identikit, perfectly round pizzas – but given the almost inextricable link between ‘best pizza in London’ and ‘Franco Manca’, I would expect the quality to be equally high each time, which hasn’t always been the case.
I’v tried two specials, which I have found, on the whole, slightly weaker than the pizzas featured on the normal menu. This does make sense, in that presumably the specials aren’t as practised and perfected as the usual stalwarts.
One of the Specials was quite similar to the No. 3 on its usual menu, featuring, as it did, Old Gloucester Spot sausage crumbled over the top; it also had mozzarella and raddichio. There was only a small amount of sausage crumbled over the entire pizza, and the chunks were quite large, so unless you cut them up further yourself, most mouthfuls were sausage-less (hmm. I’m not sure about that turn of phrase). The herby sausage was delicious and pulled the pizza toppings together really nicely, so its relative absence was a shame. I did enjoy eating it, but I didn’t think any of the flavours stood out – radicchio is meant to be quite strong and punchy but there was just no impact this time, none of that characteristic bitterness which would have given the food some edge. This pizza ordinarily came without tomato sauce on the base but the waiter did ask if we wanted it, and we did – it was nice that the option was offered.
The other special I’ve tried, on another occasion (okay, it was Valentine’s Day) was also a ‘white pizza’ (no tomato base), but did have a few cherry tomatoes as a topping. It also featured prosciutto and parmesan. I normally really hate cooked tomatoes but the cherry tomatoes here were still fresh and juicy. This pizza had a well-cooked, slightly crisp base – which I noticed because the other pizza we ordered had a limp, soggy base, a fact which really surprised me, given Franco Manca’s reputation. I love both prosciutto and parmesan, and the base was delicious, but I found the pizza to be, on the whole, quite salty, with very little creamy cheese or anything else to balance it out.
The most disappointing pizza I’ve tried at Franco Manca was the No. 4 from the regular menu, which features Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms. Despite the ham I found this to be very bland, with a uniformly creamy texture from the cheeses, which actually overwhelmed the base. I only really enjoyed it when I poured over some of the chilli oil (provided, along with garlic oil, as standard, on each table), which gave the flavours some lift and kick. The ham was completely overwhelmed and I hardly tasted it.
As far as my friends and I are concerned, the piece de resistance is the No. 6, the tomato, chorizo and mozzarella pizza. Mostly because…chorizo. The sausage is juicy and delicious, not too spicy, and well-distributed over the pizza. (This pizza is a middle-class pepperoni, let’s face it). I’ve eaten this one three times. The first time I had it, I thought it was really, really, really nice, but I was a little surprised that this pizza was considered so ground-breaking. The second time, I thought it was absolutely delicious, the most perfectly balanced, delicious pizza, with the warm, slightly sour crust, the sweetness of tomato and the saltiness of the chorizo coming together really beautifully. The chorizo is a little thicker than a standard pepperoni slice, so you feel like you’re getting a good chew, too. The third time…the base was flabby and undercooked. The crust around the edges was a little doughy (if Paul Hollywood has pressed it, it would “have gone back to dough”) and the base was slightly rubbery in the centre. Although the pizza was still really tasty, it very much felt like eating a more hastily-banged out product than the ‘handmade’ ethos of Franco Manca would suggest.
This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job or a warning against Franco Manca at all: I should mention that the prices for pizza here are insanely reasonable, and they are all good eating. I do think, given my experiences, that I might have enjoyed the experience more if it hadn’t been so insanely hyped-up. Franco Manca’s pizza is definitely a big step up from such chains as Pizza Express (I like Pizza Express too, but they’re not really comparable), but I have had really nice handmade pizzas elsewhere in London which have been as satisfying as a Franco Manca product. When the Franco Manca pizza is as perfectly cooked as some of the ones I have had, they are utterly delicious and hard to beat; if the base isn’t tended to with as a great care, they definitely become much more average. The emphasis on the base and quality of toppings means the toppings can sometimes be a little sparse, and I haven’t always found the flavour profiles well-balanced. But I still really enjoy going there – just keep your expectations in check, and enjoy.
Place: Dollar Grills and Martinis
2 Exmouth Market
Nearest Tube: Farringdon
A large group of friends and I went to Dollar Grill in Exmouth Market for a birthday dinner. It was a generally unpretentious place. The thing about Americana in London is that it’s inherently kitschy, and you can’t get away from that.
I really liked the fact that music wasn’t playing – I even commented to a friend on this during the meal – as we could actually hear each other talk, a rarity at places in London.
Service: attentive and generally excellent. The wait staff were friendly and informal, they took our orders quickly, and didn’t seem impatient to chase us out: I didn’t feel rushed. The staff checked that everything was fine and were quick to bring additional items requested like condiments. No complaints, in fact it was flawless (in a casual and relaxed way rather than a fancy fine-dining way) and really made my evening.
Food: my friend Juliet and I split calamari, french fries (they were sadly out of their hand-cut chips) and a goat’s cheese hamburger with slow-roasted tomatoes. She ordered a pear and elderflower martini, but I wasn’t feeling well and settled for a vanilla milkshake. The milkshake was extremely rich – I just about managed to finish half. It was sweet and thick, basically like drinking melted ice cream. I would save this for dessert in the future! They had other flavours too, like Oreo. I later had a sip of Juliet’s cocktail, which was rich and grainy (in a good way) with a true pear flavour. Again it was sweet, but delicious.
We were given complimentary bread and a herb and oil dip before starting the meal proper. They were both absolutely delicious. The bread, thick-cut white, had a fantastic texture, and the oil was flecked with coriander and chilli. It was a very light, flavourless oil, delicately bringing out the taste of the herbs. It may seem a small point but the fact that something free was actually delicious rather than a thoughtlessly offered sop to the masses was really lovely.
The burger arrived, and on the plate it looked a little disappointing: it just sat there alone on its white plate, admittedly piled quite high. It was tasty but overwhelming – I was glad we had chosen to split it. Admittedly it was one of the most luxurious burgers on the menu. There was a lot of goat’s cheese, maybe a little too much, actually. I think the tomato was raw rather than roasted, as well, but the fresh flavour was welcome in this case. If you go for this burger, split it unless you have a large appetite.
The calamari was fine, with that slight characteristic bounciness, although the coating was disappointing. It was too oily and thick for my liking and was soggy rather than light and crisp. I also thought it was a under-seasoned. The lime mayonnaise that came with them was a lovely condiment, though.
The bill was less than £20 for everything (bearing in mind I had split the appetiser and main), and the portions were definitely generous enough. We could even have done without the chips and were I to do it again I would have foregone the milkshake…if only to keep my appetite up, because it was tasty. If only they did half sizes…
Verdict: it’s worth a visit if you want a casual place good for hanging out with friends, where you can actually talk to people, and if you’re up for some hyper-real American kitsch
Place: Yum Cha
27-28 Chalk Farm road
Nearest Tube station: Camden Town
A few friends and I went to Yum Cha to celebrate / commemorate another successful year running our student society. Yum Cha had come highly recommended by word of mouth, and the reviews I checked online were all glowing. All of them repeatedly stated how delicious and authentic the food was. I admit I had high expectations when I went, and was deeply desiring, particularly, pork buns and soup dumplings. (Soup dumplings are really exciting – a thin membrane of a dumpling skin encasing a mouthful of hot soup that explodes into your mouth once you rupture the surprisingly resilient wrapper. The quintessence of fun food!).
We went on a Wednesday evening at 6pm, which meant the dim sum menu had slightly less choice than during the day, but also meant the dim sum was half price! Well, we are students. The photo of the spread below was taken by one of my friends – the lighting wasn’t great but it gives an impression of the atmosphere.
Service: highly variable. When we arrived there was almost nobody else there, so after a bit of back-and-forth between staff about where to seat us, we were brought to a table almost immediately. It took us a while to decide on all the dishes and we ended up writing down the ones we wanted and passing the note to the waitress (as we couldn’t keep track of which dishes we wanted otherwise). Service at this point was attentive and food arrived extremely swiftly after ordering. Later in the evening, the restaurant become extremely busy and unsurprisingly service became more brusque. We had to ask for our bill three times before receiving it, and waited so long to pay by card that we ended up going to the counter rather than remain at our table. The waitress then instructed us to go back to our table as it was too crowded by the counter (in fairness, it was fairly narrow).
Food: the overwhelming impression was that of sweetness. A lot of the dishes had a strong, sweet component – for my taste, too sweet. We ordered the honey-roast pork buns. The bun was deliciously fluffy, not dry at all, but even if it had been a foil for a salty filling, it was slightly too sweet to be a savoury dish. The filling inside was also very sweet, and the flakes of pork were small. In all I felt there wasn’t enough taste or textural contrast in this dish.
The sauce for the chickens’ feet was also sweet, so much so that I didn’t end up eating them, even though I’ve been curious about trying them for a while. They were also garishly orange. The mandarin-glazed ribs were lovely and moist. Obviously with a mandarin sauce they had a sweet edge, but maybe because they were the first thing I ate, it didn’t bother me so much – there seemed to be a balance between moist, rich meat and sweet-tangy glaze.
The soup dumplings were as fun as they always are. I was impressed by the dumpling skin, which despite repeated pokings as I manouevred it out of the steamer basket didn’t break till I bit into it. Excellent!
The salt and pepper squid was delicious – perfect, light, crisp batter, which was a pleasant contrast to the bouncy squid beneath. Saying the squid was a little bouncy or rubbery sounds negative, but it wasn’t chewy, just lightly springy, like al dente pasta can be.
The pig’s ears came sliced into ribbons of cartilage-rippled meat. The first impression was of chilli and spice, followed by an almost too-intense hit of musky porkiness. They were served cold, which I felt was a mistake – I wanted something crisp, shattery and hot, and the coldness didn’t bring out the flavour or texture of the ear in its best light. There was a crunchiness, from the cartilage, but it all felt a bit…clammy. Exactly like chewing on a dead animal’s ear, actually.
The jellyfish with smoked pork knuckle was interesting – crunchy/rubbery/bouncy, not unpleasant, but something I had to get used to. I can’t comment a to the technical qualities of the dish since it was just so strange to me.
I didn’t try the shrimp and scallop dumplings, as I don’t like shrimp, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I also didn’t try the duck tongues.
We finished with the custard dim sum. We ordered one portion each of the fried and steamed versions, to see which ones we like best. Most of us preferred the fried version, and I did too. While the steamed version was soft and fluffy, the texture was too similar and the bun a bit too clammy, cleaving to the palate a bit too much for comfort. The fried version, on the other hand, had a sumptuous, crackling crust to contrast with the fluffy bun and sweet, firm filling. It also seemed a bit less eggy than the steamed version, and I’m not very fond of egginess in desserts. We didn’t try egg tarts as they only serve them at lunch, not dinner.
All in all, this was an extremely cheap dinner (about £10 a head, and we ordered so much food!), and there were some delicious parts. However, I really felt it didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe if my expectations had been lower I would have liked it more. A friend who’d been there before said he felt the food was fresher tasting during the day compared to the evening, which may have played a part. However, ultimately, I’m not compelled to go again to try it out. The food was just too one-dimensional, with too many very sweet components to supposedly savoury dishes, to be satisfying to eat.