London and New York: two global food capitals, where you can find any food at any time of the day. Over the past century New York has become the symbolic home of the Jewish deli, typified by the iconic Katz Delicatessen. But the East End, where tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews found a home, once had an equally vibrant Jewish food scene.
Remnants of Jewish food culture remain in Brick Lane’s 24-hour bagel shops, but Monty’s Deli is leading the charge to repopularise classics like chicken soup, potato latkes, salt beef and pastrami. Having acquired a large following at Maltby Street Market, co-owners Mark Ogus and Owen Barratt have moved to a permanent location in Hoxton, where similar foods were once common.
The restaurant has maintained a relaxed atmosphere, with New York-style booths, and stools along the bar. Meat hangers from the original 19th-century butcher add a rustic feel. I’m a sucker for salt beef bagels, the ultimate sandwich, and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to come to Monty’s.
For starters we ordered chicken soup. Sadly it was bland, more like chicken essence. But it was the only hiccup. Our sandwiches arrived promptly and the meshuggener, a mouthwatering blend of chopped liver, made using Ogus’s grandmother’s recipe, salt beef, pastrami and coleslaw, was the highlight. Servings are certainly generous, and my bagel (which I requested instead of rye bread after learning they are made on site) failed to hold everything in. After some DIY, I was able to enjoy one of the best salt beef sandwiches in London.
The Reuben, a New York classic, was also superb. Layer upon layer of salt beef was topped with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing inside toasted rye bread. Sides of tangy sauerkraut and a fresh fennel, caper and parsley salad helped justify the meat overload. We finished with cheese blintzes, light pancakes filled with ricotta and topped with cooked grapes, which were excellent.
The staff, aside from a grumpy waitress, were polite and attentive. We were lucky to bag stools by the chefs, and Barratt was unfailingly polite, handing us samples, offering top-ups and answering questions. By our count they went through 10 slabs of salt beef and pastrami in an hour. If they keep it up, there is certainly potential for a new classic Jewish Deli in the old East End.
London has long been a centre of immigration, from Irish, Jewish and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century to Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and West Indian arrivals after the fall of the Empire. Contrary to popular jibes against ‘British’ food, the successive waves of immigration have all left indelible marks on the island’s cuisine. Salt beef, fish and chips, chicken tikka masala and jerk chicken are all now as British as tea, which of course, came from China. In short, true British food is a wonderful amalgamation of a variety of cultures and tastes; it tells the history of immigration and empire on a plate.
Visitors to London readily head to Indian restaurants, or fish and chips shops, for a traditional local meal. Yet there is one cuisine that is often overlooked, a cuisine that is increasingly popular among Londoners themselves. Middle Eastern and North African food, which, of course, is not one cuisine but a rich and diverse set of food cultures, has emerged as a favourite in Britain’s capital. With the help of famous chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, the Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula, in terms of culinary influence, are in vogue. Thankfully, a dodgy kebab at 3am or a tub of supermarket hummus no longer constitutes our relationship with Middle Eastern food.
And to prove the point, here are three of London’s finest restaurants from the region. The restaurants demonstrate a variety of influences, from Turkey to North Africa via Lebanon, and offer a range of prices.
Harringay, in North London, and its main thoroughfare of Green Lanes, is the epicentre of London’s Turkish and Kurdish communities. Along the scruffy, unpretentious road, fried chicken and pizza places fight for commerce with bookmakers and hipster burger joints. But the Lanes’ main pull is the stunning array of Turkish food on offer, with bakeries offering mouthwatering borekand patisseries serving the finest baklava.
Though there are many excellent restaurants, the best, and the busiest, is Gokyuzu. Just a few minutes walk from Harringay Green Lanes overground station, Gokyuzu is worth the slightly awkward trip from central London. At nights and weekends, it is perpetually busy, and queueing is likely for those who haven’t booked. Once in, you’ll be greeted by an impressive range of Turkish classics, such as the tangy, lemony Kisir and the best lahmacun, Turkish pizzas topped with minced lamb.
Despite a potentially confusing selection of mains, confusing in that you will want them all, there is only one serious option for those in the know. Available in several sizes, depending on the party, the platter involves a combination of the finest, juiciest grilled meats, such as chicken wings, lamb ribs and chicken and lamb shish. The hefty portion of meat sits atop a bed of rice and bulgur wheat, reliably soaking up the juices. On the side, warm Turkish bread and a fresh salad offer perfect accompaniment.
Quite reasonably, for the quality of food and size of portion, it is difficult to spend more than £20 per person. For Turkish food, this should be the first stop in London for all food lovers.
Edgware Road, which heads north from Marble Arch in central London, is home to a significant Middle Eastern community, and is often dubbed Little Arabia. Just a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, it boasts, in particular, several excellent Lebanese restaurants, notably several branches of the excellent Maroush chain.
Maroush cater to a diverse audience, with smart and casual outposts along Edgware Road. For exquisite, cheap shawarma in an unassuming, friendly environment, look no further than Beirut Express. Open until 2am, Beirut Express is perfect for a late-night meal, after a night out in Soho or the West End. If kebab shops were this good in the rest of London, they wouldn’t have such a poor reputation. By all means, the kebabs at Beirut Express are suitable for the sober.
The cold and hot mezza are all superb, especially the sautéed chicken liver and the kibbeh, deep fried lamb meatballs filled with cracked wheat and herbs, and the Lebanese pastries are second to none. Likewise, the mains are fantastic, though slightly pricey.
But Beirut Express is not the place to eat a full meal, there are several top choices nearby. Come for the shawarma wraps, a cheap option at roughly £5, and bask in the glory of a juicy, greasy kebab filled with the finest marinated lamb and the freshest herbs and salad.
London is full of terrible kebab shops offering bland or overly-salted meat presented on top of a soggy pitta with raw onion and commercial garlic sauce. Visit Beirut Express, if only for proof that the kebab, when made right, is the mother of all fast foods.
Situated in the now trendy Exmouth Market in Farringdon, Moro is the more sophisticated of the three. Opened around 20 years ago, it predates the current wave of smart casual, reasonably-priced, North African-inspired restaurants in London. It remains one of the best.
Moro, whose name comes from the Spanish for Moor, isn’t strictly Middle Eastern. It is a modern, fusion-type restaurant that mixes Moroccan and Spanish influences to perfection. It is the type of place that serves freshly-baked sourdough alongside its starters, and that is a very good thing.
The menu changes regularly, but is likely to feature staples of North African cooking, such as harissa, za’atar, dates, apricots and pomegranates, mixed with traditional Spanish ingredients like chorizo, morcilla and jamón ibérico. It works to perfection. On my last visit, the highlight was grilled skate with paprika and farika, a form of roasted wheat common across North Africa.
Moro is a special occasion sort of place. The customers are unfailingly cool and well-heeled, sometimes too much for their own good. It isn’t cheap, with mains upwards of £20 each, but the food is consistently superb; seasoning and herbs are subtle, hints of the Maghreb beautifully presented and delightful to eat. Next door, a sister restaurant, Morito, offers tapas and small plates on similar lines. If you can, however, stick to Moro, and you will experience fine, modern Euro-North African cuisine and immediately plan, and save, for your next visit.
I arrived at Escocesa misinformed. My limited research led me to believe I was coming to a Spanish-Scottish fusion restaurant. The very name, meaning ‘Scottish’ in Spanish, seemed to suggest Stoke Newington’s hipsters had run out of ideas. What was I setting myself up for? Battered chorizo? Deep-fried manchego? Morcillawith neeps and tatties?
Fortunately, as we arrived on a Sunday evening it was clear I was wrong. The front room houses an open kitchen, complete with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and bar stools for casual dining. Behind lies the main dining room which thankfully takes bookings, unlike many similar outlets, such as The Barbary in Covent Garden. The restaurant was full of families celebrating Mother’s Day.
My preconceptions swiftly evaporated; this was no half-baked fusion, but a quality tapas restaurant, with a menu celebrating Spanish classics, from patatas bravasto platters of chorizo and jamón ibérico. Escocesa takes its name from a focus on Scottish ingredients, particularly seafood, which is among the best in the world. Much of it is sent to Spain, but owner Stephen Lironi, helped by an array of Spanish chefs, has brought the good stuff back to the UK.
We started with pádron peppers, a Galician classic of grilled small green peppers doused in olive oil and salt, which were remarkably moreish. A second helping was mistakenly offered to us; we happily accepted the orphaned peppers. Fellow starters came swiftly. Catalan pan con tomate, bruschetta-like bread with a garlicky tomato topping, were the best I’ve had outside Spain. The jamón croquettes were creamier, cheesier and tastier than the average London fare.
The attentive and well-informed staff recommended three sharing plates each, but we ordered more as there were too many enticing items on the menu. The first larger plate to arrive was from the specials board, grilled squid on a bed of tomato and fried chorizo, and was beautifully executed. Grilled prawns in garlic and olive oil came next, and we made a highly satisfying mess of them.
The piece de resistance was a superb squid slider. Rings of lightly-battered squid and a heavy dollop of aioli engulfed by a magnificent squid ink brioche, a nice touch of creativity. The meal was accompanied by some excellent Rioja and a fine bottle of craft beer brewed in Barcelona. We ended our night with homemade ice cream, the highlight of which was the salted caramel.
The only hiccup, apart from a couple of long waits between dishes, was a greasy deep-fried aubergine. Perhaps the Scottish influence did creep in after all? But Escocesa has a laid-back, unpretentious decor, classic Caribbean tunes adding to the atmosphere, and is cheaper than many of its rivals. We focused on the seafood menu, leaving plenty of enticing meat options for next time.
Muswell Hill, at least the Muswell Hill I’ve known since the mid-1990s, has always been a typical middle-class London neighbourhood. Parents were lawyers, journalists and teachers, did yoga and pilates, bought muddy vegetables, and read the Guardian. It was a relatively idyllic place to grow up, with four or five parks within walking distance and safety to play on the streets.
The Broadway feels much like a traditional English village centre, enhanced by its lack of tube station. More importantly, it houses several long-established, independent shops, such as W. Martyn, a quaint coffee and tea specialist opened in 1897, or Broadway Pet Stores, whose friendly staff have remained unchanged over the past two decades. These independent outlets make the area feel more like a community than many London neighbourhoods.
Food-wise, however, Muswell Hill has lagged behind its more ethnically-diverse neighbouring areas, particularly Crouch End, Stroud Green and Hornsey. As a boy, it was always exciting venturing south and east with my parents, to authentic Turkish food in Green Lanes, to trendier outposts in Crouch End, or to the ethnic melange of Stroud Green.
Not that there wasn’t anything good in Muswell Hill. La Porchetta, which proudly proclaims its independence from London’s other Porchettas, was a childhood staple; Kilim offered reliable Turkish fare; Toff’s was always proudly, if somewhat dubiously, affirmed as one of Britain’s best fish and chips shops; and Ask and Pizza Express were always there, for those times when your parents wanted pizza but found the superior La Porchetta too noisy. In short, there was always good food, it was just simpler, less adventurous, and somehow felt less authentic than in other areas.
In the past couple of years, however, the hipsterisation of London’s food culture (street food, small plates, cheap, better-quality fast food, and ‘artisanal’ produce), has belatedly ensconced itself into Muswell Hill’s leafy streets. The pioneers, bizarrely, were characterless chains like Carluccio’s and Côte, corporate behemoths serving blandly generic Italian and French fare. Fortunately, they blazed the trail, putting the area on the map for some more interesting restaurants, delis and cafés to emerge.
In July 2014, Alexandra Palace hosted its first street food and craft beer festival. The fair brings together some of London’s finest food trucks, craft beer stalls and alternative bands. This welcome addition to the local scene arrived late (Street Feast first opened its doors to hungry East London hipsters in 2012), but better late than never.
Bodean’s opened it’s newest branch in Muswell Hill in late 2016. In 2002 Bodean’s was a trailblazer, bringing the now-ubiquitous concept of American-style ribs, wings, and pulled pork to Londoners. As ever, we Muswell Hillbillies got our share late, long after Soho and East London were crawling with American diners, some good, some terrible. While not perfect, Bodean’s is a welcome, and self-consciously hipper, upgrade on Giraffe.
The Broadway’s culinary range has diversified, and to a large extent improved, in the past two years. The extortion of Planet Organic notwithstanding, Muswell Hill has received the once-cool but still-good Franco Manca, a trendy salt-beef selling café (salt beef is always a good thing), and even purveyors of fine sourdough bread and Monmouth coffee at Flesh & Flour. There will always be a place in my heart for traditional cafés like Feast on the Hill, but I am thankful for the superior coffee at Flesh & Flour, and obviously for their artisanal lard.
The belated hipsterisation of Muswell Hill’s food scene, the term in itself an oxymoron, is not completely benign. The snootiness of Muddy Boots, a new deli that looks down on those unable to afford organic meat, is uncalled for. A recent sign outside the shop stated that “most people are totally happy to buy their meat from supermarkets. For everyone else, we’re here”; most people would buy their chops if they could afford them.
Furthermore, trendier stores and eateries threaten the existence of many of the area’s long-established and popular locations. The fishmonger Walter Purkis & Sons came to the area in 1987, and still commands lengthy queues every Saturday morning. The recent imposition of a more modern fishmonger on Colney Hatch Lane may threaten their existence. Sable D’or has recently closed for refurbishment. The café is certainly modernising to compete with the influx of coffee sellers.
Until recently, Muswell Hill was, if not quite a gastronomic Siberia, somewhat limited food-wise. Recent years have seen vast improvements, and providing that traditional outlets are not pushed out, that can only be a good thing.
In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts’ character famously falls in love. Though a man was the object of one of her desires, the film’s best love story involves Roberts and a pizza. Not just any pizza. At L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of Naples’ oldest and best-loved institutions, Robert declared she was “having a relationship” with her Margherita. Not quite “I’ll have what she’s having”, but a memorable scene nonetheless.
In 1870 da Michele began producing pizzas for hungry Neapolitans. 147 years later, they have brought their world-famous pies to London. Unparalleled hype means da Michele has had no problem attracting customers to its first London outpost, situated in the hippest of locations on Stoke Newington Church Street. On my first visit, a week after opening, it took two hours to finally get a table, though we were free to wander and wait for the restaurant to call. The clientele was mostly Italian, always a good sign.
The restaurant is small and unpretentious despite its trendy surroundings. The hustle and bustle of 40-50 hungry foodies waiting for a table or a takeaway makes for a challenging environment, but the staff calmly dealt with it. The menu is short, a big Italian middle finger to unnecessary ostentation; there’s no venison or kale here. There are only two options: the classic Margherita, and a Marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano), and the drinks menu is equally concise. The customer next to us was denied chilli oil. This is my kind of place.
The pizza arrived promptly, and my god was it worth the wait. Da Michele have flown in Neapolitan experts, and have even adapted their dough recipe to suit the British climate. Meticulous attention to detail is crucial for such a simple dish, and da Michele pulls it off as well as anywhere in London.
“Jesus, those are huge!” was my first impression as the waiter brought our giant Margheritas (£7.90). The dough was beautifully chewy, light, and bubbly, with charred spots providing the characteristic Neapolitan look, taste and texture. Mozzarella was sparsely dispersed, allowing the real party piece, the sweet, fresh tomato sauce, to shine. It is brave to strip down to the basics, especially to Londoners used to artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables atop their pizza, though da Michele will offer a rotating specials menu. But when the basics are this good, there is no need for more.
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not a trail blazer in the London pizza scene. Since 2008, when Franco Manca first opened its doors, Neapolitan pizzas have become overwhelmingly popular, and several establishments across London serve excellent versions. What the doyens of da Michele have done, however, is to bring the original, humble pizza back to its simplest form.
And finally, a message to Julia: you may have entered a relationship with your pizza, but, sorry to break the news, your pizza has moved on, finding a new lover in London. As soon as the crowds die down, I’ll be back.
Anyone who’s read this blog will know how much I love pizza. When made well, it is quite simply the mother of all dishes. Anything that can taste so good with just flour, tomato and cheese as its base ingredients deserves special recognition. The pizza proves that simplicity is key to a good dish; less is indeed more.
My love for pizza was reignited by a recent trip to Naples, where an authentic Neapolitan pizza will rarely cost more than €5. Thus my quest began to find the best pizzas in London, with only two important categories in mind. I wanted to concentrate on Neapolitan pizzas, with their chewy base, thick crust and simple, top-quality ingredients. A happy side effect of my Neapolitan adventure was that, while never quite as good as in Naples, there are a plethora of joints serving very good Neapolitan-style pizza.
The ideal pizzeria has few options on the menu, concentrating on sourcing the finest toppings rather than gimmicky ingredients (disclaimer: I love a good ham and pineapple, but anywhere willing to feature this in there restaurant is immediately disqualified, there is no place for pineapple on a Neapolitan pizza). Pizza should also be cheap, so nothing over £10 was considered, though a margherita shouldn’t cost more than £7.50.
The following is not an exhaustive list; I haven’t been to every pizzeria in London. I have, however, been to many, and these five, in no particular order, plus one because I couldn’t decide which to demote, are currently my favourites.
At £7.50, a margherita at Sacro Cuore is (slightly) above average price, but well worth the extra pennies. Originally opened in 2012 in Kensal Rise, the owners recently expanded to trendy Crouch End. Thankfully, the new branch has maintained high standards. The restaurant’s website sets out its stall as a serious pizzeria, “for us it is all about the pizza!”, and they certainly mean it: aside from a few starters and salads, there are no alternative mains tarnishing the menu. Sacro Cuore is for pizza and pizza alone. On a cold Wednesday afternoon, I was the only customer, and within a couple of minutes of my order, a piping hot, beautiful pizza arrived on my plate. The base was up there with the best, light and chewy, filled with air bubbles. In addition to the normal margherita ingredients, parmesan added welcome saltiness, and the chef was generous with his basil. There’s nothing worse than a pizza with two measly basil leaves. A minor negative was the tinny flavour of the tomato sauce. Overall, however, Sacro Cuore thoroughly deserves its status as one of London’s foremost pizzas.
Cost of Margherita: £7.50
Where: Kensal Rise, Crouch End
In some ways, Soho’s Princi is a victim of its own success. A visit to the Italian patisserie, bakery and pizzeria often requires a long wait to be seated, thanks to the no bookings policy and the quality of food on offer. On one half of the restaurant is the more informal patisserie and bakery section, where customers can purchase pastries, salads and meals at the bar and find a seat. The other half houses the pizzeria, and one can expect to wait up to an hour for a table. Be patient, the pizza is worth waiting for. Princi was introduced to London in 2008, a branch of a renowned Milanese bakery, and swiftly became one of the most popular Italian restaurants in London. In a huge wood-fired oven, the pizzaiolos produce some of the finest pizzas in London, with thick, chewy crusts and the finest toppings. Some of the more interesting options include Bresaola, rocket and parmesan, and beef ragu, olive and radicchio. Princi is slightly smarter than the other places on this list, a dinner date location rather than the place for a quick snack (unless, of course, you choose to eat from the bar on the informal half). On a recent visit, the margherita, at £5.50, was a bargain, though the website still lists it as £7.50. Most other pizzas hover around the slightly overpriced £10 mark. Nevertheless, it is an authentic and smart pizzeria right in the heart of London.
Cost of Margherita: £5.50/7.50.
Opened by Giuseppe Mascoli in Brixton in 2008, Franco Manca has become one of the largest pizza chains in the Southeast, with 28 branches and counting. Franco Manca has gone fromsmall, local pizzeria to pizza monolith, losing points for coolness along the way (opening in both Westfields and owned by a corporation that also possesses Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Real Greek and, heavens forbid, Pizza Express). Yet its service to mankind, at least in London, should not be underestimated. The chain’s expertly crafted sourdough pizzas, still available at unbeatable prices, have almost single-handedly popularised the Neapolitan pizza, superior to every other version of the Italian dish. While other restaurants have started to produce equally delectable pies, Franco Manca still wins for toppings, sourcing from the best local and Italian producers. The ‘No 4’, featuring Gloucester Old Spot Ham and Buffalo Ricotta, is not to be missed. Pleasingly, there are never more than five or six options, though the staff are always happy to accommodate. My advice, get there before it truly outgrows itself.
Cost of Margherita: £5.90
The website’s claim that Santa Maria’s pizza is “exactly the same as the pizza you can eat on the streets of Naples” is somewhat of an exaggeration, no pizza in London is as good as what you’ll get in Naples. Yet Santa Maria, which opened in Ealing in 2010, and has since launched a second branch in Chelsea, does serve superb pizza. Time Out named it London’s best pizza just weeks after it opened. The restaurant itself is tiny; on our visit, we were told to wait 45 minutes before a table would be free. Thankfully, pizzas are served by the dozen at the pub next door, the Red Lion. The pizza was indeed top drawer. I opted for the Santa Caterina, a margherita topped with Neapolitan salami, chill and parmesan. The base, risen for 24 hours, wood fired and as fluffy as seemingly possible, was excellent. The combination of parmesan and salami, however, was slightly too salty. Another minor complaint is one that may only affect those eating at the pub. A pizza should arrive piping hot, and ours didn’t. Admittedly it was extremely busy, but the distance from oven to pub may have played a part. Nevertheless, Santa Maria is certainly deserving of its position as one of the best pizzas in London.
Cost of Margherita: £6.95
Where: Ealing, Chelsea
A thoroughly modern eatery, Fundi was founded in 2012 by brothers Charlie and Rory Nelson, who built their own oven from scratch and plunged into London’s emerging street food scene. Four years on, they regularly serve some of London’s tastiest pizzas, at reasonable prices, with fixed spots at Street Feast’s Dinerama in Shoreditch and at Kerb Camden. Another conscious peddler of Neapolitan pizza, the pizzas are expertly crafted and baked for 90 seconds (almost double a Franco Manca pizza). The outcome is a delicious, thin pizza, up there with the best in London. I have a personal preference for minimalism when it comes to food outlets, and Fundi obliges, offering five varieties of pizza. Try the affumicata, a delectable combination of smoked mozzarella and pancetta. Most of the pizzerias on this list were established by Italians; the Nelson brothers have matched them at their own game.
Cost of Margherita: £6
Where: Kerb Camden, Dinerama
Recently, the Well Kneaded Wagon can be found in several markets across London throughout the week, catering to hungry customers at lunchtime. Founded in 2011, the outlet, which offers “wood-fired sourdough pizza with British seasonal ingredients”, has received countless awards, including winning the best pizza prize at the British Street Food Awards in 2012. And it’s easy to see why. On my visit, there were indeed several interesting “seasonal ingredients”, such as a pizza with smoked pancetta and squash. I settled, nevertheless, for a margherita, my go to pizza of choice. It was one of the best I’ve tried in London, with the fluffiest, chewiest base of all (a very good thing). The garlicky tomato sauce possibly topped that of any pizza I tried; such a simple ingredient can make a big difference. The one downside was size, about half a regular pizza. Of course, this critique is in itself praise; as I finished I was craving more.