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Friday 26 February 2010

The Best Pizza in London - Franco Manca

Franco Manca in Chiswick - **UPDATED** on 2nd March 2010

Dr G and I recently went to the newly opened branch of Franco Manca in Chiswick with fellow food blogger Su-Lin of Tamarind & Thyme.

Unlike the Brixton joint, the Chiswick branch is a real restaurant – it feels modern and casual with a massive mosaic-tiled, wood-burning oven dominating its entrance. I liked the simplicity and understated elegance of the décor, the long communal tables, and the uncluttered and airy space.

Much has been said about Franco Manca, its slow-rising sourdough pizza base (minimum 20 hours), and the organic Italian or locally sourced ingredients (see Su-Lin’s great review on Tamarind & Thyme). I was however still impressed to find how delicious their pizza dough was – this was for me the main event regarding Franco Manca.

The dough was elastic with a deliciously chewy, dense consistency like good quality sourdough bread. The crust had been beautifully charred giving a woody, smoky flavour to the dough.

Also impressive was how affordable Franco Manca’s pizzas were, priced between £4.50 and£6.90. This is much better value than similar Neapolitan style pizzerias like Rossopomodoro or Pizza East.

We shared three of the starters “Aubergine alla Parmegiana”, “Garlic Pizza Bread” and “Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella”. The aubergine was beautifully made, and so was the rather large garlic sourdough bread.

The buffalo mozzarella was, in my opinion, not as sensational as the one I tried at Rossopomodoro, and the addition of tomato sauce to the mozzarella overpowered its delicate flavour.

As for the pizza, Su-Lin and I went for “Meat Special” @ £6.90 (wild mushrooms, wild boar, smoked buffalo mozzarella). This was very good, with a generous topping of mozzarella and mushrooms. The wild boar salami was also a nice addition. The pizza base was sensational, and the fact that it was a white pizza (with no tomato sauce) did not detract from the overall experience.

Dr G went for a “Number 5” @ £6.80 (tomato, cured organic chorizo (dry and semi Dry), mozzarella). The tomato sauce tasted fresh and had probably been made on the premises. It was again a delicious pizza with authentic ingredients.

We shared a bottle of organic Dolcetto @ £9.20, this was a simple and rustic wine and although well priced, it was disappointingly of not very good quality. Su-Lin had a 250ml bottle of organic lemonade @ £1.80, and we both wished we had ordered the same.

Cost: around £45 (£15 per person) including a bottle of wine & service.

Likes: sensational sourdough base, good quality & authentic ingredients, very affordable prices, and free filtered water.

Dislikes: limited wine choices (only one red and one white option).

Verdict: One of the best pizzerias in London, serving excellent sourdough pizza base at very affordable prices. It may lack the glamour of Pizza East or Rossopomodoro’s central location but their pizzas are second to none and will set you back significantly less. Highly recommended.

**Update** - Since writing this post, I heard from Giuseppe M. of Franco Manca, this is what he wrote:

Many thanks for you kind comments. Since your visit we have changed the house wine (which was there only temporarely) and have replaced with an organic wine. This makes possibly the best value for money in London. The wine list also includes 5 reds and 3 whites now. We work with an organic farm in Italy and this is the new outcome.

I sometimes hear from restaurants I review but I'd never had such positive response, thanks Giuseppe! The London Foodie on 2nd March 2010.

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Seeking the Best Dim Sum in London - Phoenix Palace

Phoenix Palace

After a disappointing dim sum experience at Royal China Bayswater (until now my gold standard dim sum venue in London) over the Christmas period, I thought I should broaden my repertoire and so recently decided to give Phoenix Palace a try.

Louise of Penguinette Cooks and a few Italian friends accompanied me to this well known Chinese restaurant in the Baker Street area. Despite our 2pm booking, we waited in the restaurant’s cramped entrance for 45 minutes before being seated.

As a table of 6, we could order a large variety of different dishes. Carefully chosen by Louise, who is a native Cantonese speaker, these were:

“Spicy baby octopus in chilli, garlic and pickled onion dressing” @ £3.80 – this was a recommendation by Mr Noodles and was indeed one of the best dishes we had – the octopus was very soft, it was also sour and sweet from the marinated sauce with a gentle burn from the chillies.

“Salty pork and black egg congee” @ £4.20 – I love congee, and this was as good as the ones I tried in many cafes in Hong Kong.

“Pork and prawn turnip cake” @ £2.60 – this was disappointing as the texture was slightly floury and there was little pork or prawn to be seen.

“Cheung fun with crispy dough stick” @ £3.40 – I normally go for prawn cheung fun, but this was a pleasant change – I enjoyed the crunchy texture of the crispy dough stick against the delicate cheung fun skin.

Some of the fried items like “Sesame prawn roll”, “Mashed prawn in soya pastry roll” and “Octopus patty with vinaigrette” all @ £3 were competently made but were rather unexciting.

“Prawn and chives dumpling” @ £3 – I always order this dish but Phoenix Palace’s was a big let down. The skin was white and very thick and filled with little if any chives or prawns. They looked like they had come straight out of the freezer.

“Shanghai dumpling with pork” @ £2.60 - this was the most disappointing item on the table – the skin was again very thick and the dumplings were completely devoid of broth. They ought to go down as the worst Shanghai dumplings I have ever eaten.

“Noodles, beef brisket with ginger and scallions” @ £7.50 – the brisket was very tender and sweet, making for a delicious dish that went well with our choices of dim sum.

“Glutinous rice in lotus leaf” @ £3.50 – these were smaller than the ones from Royal China and with an ungenerous filling. I would not recommend this at Phoenix Palace.

“Egg tarts” @ £2.60 – I am not a huge fan of these little tarts, preferring the original Portuguese “pastel de nata”. Phoenix Palace’s version had a strong taste of eggs yolk (not custard); they were lacking in sugar and were not to my taste.

“Mini onion pancake” @ £2.60 – we were expecting small, flat pancakes and were surprised when these little morsels arrived. The pastry was crisp and delicious, and filled with fried spring onions.

“Pork and prawn dumpling” @ £2.60 – these were hard and rubbery, and tasted as if they had been sitting on the steamer for a few hours.

“Char siu pork bun” @ £2.60 – these were surprisingly light and with a delicious filling of char siu pork.

“Black sesame glutinous ball” £2.80 – the glutinous outer layer was a tad thick on these sweets although I enjoyed both the texture and nutty flavour of this dessert.

Front of house staff were unfriendly and brusque – when inquiring about our table, we were simply told to “be patient”. It baffles me why the restaurant would bother taking bookings for dim sum if these cannot be honoured.

Since my visit to Phoenix Palace I read a positive review of their a la carte menu by Mr Noodles of Eat Noodles Love Noodles which made me think that standards might be better at dinner time. I hope to try this later in the year and report back.

Cost: total bill came to £75.60 (or £12.80 per person) including £9 for tea, and 12.5% service @ £8.40.

Likes: large & spacious restaurant, good central location, some recommended dishes are spicy baby octopus in chilli, garlic and pickled onion dressing, salty pork and black egg congee and cheung fun with crispy dough stick.

Dislikes: rude service particularly front-of-house staff, not honouring bookings, slightly pricier than other venues in Bayswater or Chinatown, some dishes to avoid are the Shanghai dumplings and the pork and prawn dumplings.

Verdict: Mediocre and forgettable dim sum experience, rude staff,  pricier than other similar venues. To my surprise, the place was heaving. Not recommended.

Phoenix Palace on Urbanspoon

Thursday 18 February 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Sedap


Since I first encountered Nyonya Cuisine in Malacca a few years ago, I have fallen in love with the heady and delicious aromas of this style of cooking arising from the inter-racial marriages of Malay women (Nyonya) and Chinese men (Baba). Think aromatic curries (rempah), fermented shrimp paste (belacan), abundant use of spices and herbs, candlenut, fruits like pineapple, and coconut milk.

Sedap is not entirely Nyonya but is, I think, as close as you will get in London to the real thing found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

The restaurant feels rather like a café with a small number of well spaced tables. It is simply but tastefully decorated, a haven from the noisy Old Street outside. Julie, our waiter, was friendly and service was overall smooth and sweet.

Apart from a few “Roti Prata” (flat Indian bread) @ £1.80, we skipped the starters and ordered a few main dishes to share which included:

“Beef Rendang” (authentic almost dry curry beef) @ £6.90 – the curry was well balanced and deliciously rich, accompanying very tender pieces of beef. My only criticism was the size of the portion - it was shockingly small with only 3 or 4 small pieces of meat on the plate.

“Malaysian Belacan Chicken” (tender, crispy fried chicken marinated with homemade prawn paste and served with sweet chilli sauce) @ £5.70 – another tiny but delectable portion of crispy pieces of chicken. These were deep-fried and as a result the belacan (shrimp paste) flavour was almost completely lost.

“Sambal Brinjal” (pan friend aubergines, spread with homemade chilli shrimp paste and prawn) @ £4.80 – this was a superb dish, having some of my favourite ingredients. The aubergines were deep fried, and had a soft and buttery texture that combined very nicely with the savoury belacan and shrimp combination.

"Sambal Okra" (stir fried okra and prawn in homemade chilli shrimp paste) @ £4.95 – many people dislike okra because of the slime it exudes if not properly prepared. However, I have always loved it, and in this case the lady’s fingers were nicely cooked, still pleasantly firm and not viscous.

"Malaysian Tofu" (deep fried tofu in peanut sauce) @ £3.90 – this was an excellent recommendation by CK of London Chow, and was indeed one of the highlights of the evening. The tofu had been deep fried until it was crispy, and had a topping of beansprouts, cucumber and mint, with a delicious peanut sauce to finish it off.

"Penang Char Kway Teow" (famous stir fried flat rice noodles with prawn, bean sprouts, Chinese sausages, egg, fishcake, soy sauce, seafood stick and vegetables) @ £6.80 - this was as good as versions I have eaten in Singapore, but again the portion was minute.

"Tow Yu Bak" (slow cooked pork with thick & sweet soy sauce) @ £6.50 – this was excellent. The meet was succulent and tender, and the combination of sweet soy sauce and caramelised pork fat was heavenly.

To finish the meal, we had "Coconut ice cream" @ £3.95, and a selection of "Nyonya Kuih" (traditional freshly made Malaysian desserts) @ £2. These were not too sweet, and ended the meal appropriately.

The wine list was reasonable – we had a couple of bottles of the Mondarra Chardonnay @ £13.90. This wine had sufficient robustness to stand up to the complex flavours of the food, and it is good to see restaurants having reasonable quality wines at this price range.

The total bill came to £97 or £18 per person including drinks and service. At first glance this may look like outstanding value however in retrospect we did not order enough food. Had we ordered two portions of each dish I estimate that this very good meal would have cost us between £25 and £30 per person. I think this would still have been a resonable price for the quality of cooking at Sedap.

If you would like to learn more about Nyonya cuisine, take a look at the great site by Petit Nyonya called A Nyonya Kitchen in my Blog List.

Verdict – despite the tiny portions, I felt that the food was overall well prepared and authentic. Outstanding were the slow cooked pork, Malaysian tofu and the Sambal vegetables. Charming, friendly service. Recommended (but I suggest you order more rather than less).

Sedap on Urbanspoon

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