Review: Going veggie down at Pizza Express

Tomato, basil, cheese and bread. How many of the world’s best dishes actually boil down to those ingredients? A recipe book attempting to feature them all would probably be a mighty tome indeed.
But Pizza Express has known since it opened the first restaurant in 1965 that the British love affair with the tri-colour representation of Italian cuisine is a long-term relationship and across its 400 UK restaurants continues to explore new ways of presenting our favourite ingredients in interesting ways.

I’d rarely do reviews which give a chain restaurant a rattle – after all, they all offer the same thing so there’s usually little point – but as they’ve just started to introduce some new vegetarian offers into menus just now I took up the invitation to go along and ended up trying a few of the veggie options that also appear on the Christmas menu.
I went along to the Northallerton restaurant. It’s a place that always seems to be busy in a town that’s a bit if a magnet to foodies as it also boasts a Betty’s tearoom and the remarkable upmarket food store Lewis and Cooper. Partly because it is a busy, bustling restaurant but, also because there’s something about the acoustics of the space which doesn’t make for a quiet or intimate space, instead it’s aimed much more at a family meal deal.

We decided to go for the set Christmas menu which consists of two or three courses and is kicked off in seasonal style with a choice of tipples – we went with the Prosecco then dived into the menu.

The starters all manner of differed ways of those tomatoes, basil, braed itc. The brushetta, which also features on the standard menu, is a large helping and features well-seasoned salad and herbs.

Likewise the mozzarella and tomato salad with pasta which is refreshing introduction to the meal.

For the mains we selected a goats cheese pizza – which had a light cheese and a notable velvety soft red onion marmalade to distinguish it.
The standout item of this meal was the superfood salad which was a true dinner salad with lovely fresh assortment of leaves, pine nuts, goats cheese, avocado and sweet beetroot. With a dressing of balsamic syrup this salad packs a lot of flavour into those few hundred gluten free and veggie calories. A proper plate salad and most definitely not an on the side after thought.

For desert, the Christmas snowball dough balls sounded like a fun idea – but really wasn’t. The cream’s just too sweet and the dough balls not sweet or aromatic enough for a seasonal treat at a time when fruits and the rich warming scents of spices give over the festive feeling.

The winter fruit crumble by comparison answered all of those problems with its rich berries and light sweet custard layer.
It must be difficult for a chain restaurant which everyone feels they know so well to introduce something a little bit different.

The idea of incorporating more vegetarian options into a land where the deep pan pepperoni is king is a welcome move, as are the gluten-free options.


Good value at £17.25 for two courses with apperitif and £2 extra if you decide on taking the three courses.

* Please note the food was paid for by pizza express but via the issuing of a gift card which meant I was able to visit the restaurant unannounced. I prefer to do reviews in this way in order to ensure ther’s no preferential treatment dished out.

Recipe: Italian style braised beef

braisedbeefMy latest recipe for Farmers Choice is now available online. I thought the chaging weather should be marked with something a bit warmer and this will make a change from roasting your joint.

Braising the beef in wine gives a juicy kick to the dinner table with a very basic sauce or gravy cooked in the one pot too. Whether it’s for a Sunday lunch or something more sophisticated, the long cooking time and warming spices make a dish which is tender and perfect after an autumn walk.

Get the recipe and order the ingredients at the website here.

New Italian opens in Granary Wharf

The promoters have been in touch with news of this new Leeds restaurant. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it for myself but this is what they say:
VINeataly is the newest addition to the burgeoning food and drink scene at the award-winning Granary Wharf development in Leeds.

The venue, which offers authentic Italian food, wine and coffee, is the second venture from the experienced team behind the award-winning Diva Italiana in Pudsey.

VINeataly, owned by founder Mattia Boldetti who orginates from Milan, recreates the atmosphere of an Enoteca Gastronomica, an authentic Italian wine bar, which specialises in fine wines and serves a varied menu from light antipasti to substantial mains and are commonly found in Italy as place for city lovers and loungers to meet, enjoy a relaxing coffee, have lunch or stay late enjoying cocktails into the night.

The bar at VINeataly is well stocked and offers a comprehensive menu of fine wines which are served using unique wine dispenser, the only one of its kind in Leeds, which allows customers to enjoy a wide range of high quality wines served by the glass and the ability to taste the wine before buying. Wine-related events are also planned by VINeataly and its partners, the first of which is in conjunction with the Worldwide Sommelier Association which will be running training courses and events from VINeataly in early 2012.

The Italian cuisine is hand made by some of the best Italian chefs in Leeds, using high quality seasonal produce selected from local Italian “artigiani” who make the foods using traditional Italian methods. Diners can also pick up an exclusive range of Italian deli products to take home from the restaurant’s deli shop.

Coffee is supplied by an artisan Italian coffee roaster Caffe Vero, selected for the quality and consistency of their coffee and, like VINeataly, a family business passionate about their product and famous for customer satisfaction in hard-to-please Italy.

Founder Mattia Boldetti explained: “We love food and wine – it’s our passion, our driving force, our way of life. It’s part of our family, and ourselves. At the heart of this is a desire to share our passion, to take people on a journey that we ourselves have loved and enjoyed, to open people’s minds to Italy’s true tastes, flavours – the real thing – and to create the perfect environment for this pleasure. We’re on a mission to guide the people of Leeds and to convert them to the ways of the Enoteca Gastronomica and help them appreciate what we do – we’re very excited about opening of VINeataly at Granary Wharf and can’t wait to share the way we feel about great food and wine”

3 days, 3 cities, 3 (very different) restaurants

This week I’m just back from a whirlwind foodie adventure which I organised for a surprise 40th birthday celebration. Getting everything arranged meant seeking out great places to eat in three cities and involved countless internet searches – but couldn’t have been achieved without a little help from Twitter to put together an itinerary to delight. Here’s a trio of recommendations;

San Carlo is every bit as busy and blingy as you’d ever want a venue to celebrate a special occasion to be. Thankfully you can forget the credit crunch and sit back to enjoy good food and wine plus plenty of people watching. It’s still OK to dress up, get your hair done, splurge on the fake tan (or perhaps go for plastic surgery) and order oysters and Champagne here – and it’s still necessary to book. The food is consistently good and is actually reasonable value too – well cooked traditional Italian with an emphasis on seafood. I enjoyed the spaghetti shellfish with a good kick of chili after sharing plates of interesting bruschetta and those ultra fresh oysters, but those with less of a fishy hankering are also well catered for with a good selection of meat and veggie dishes. With food quality and atmosphere scoring highly, my only criticism of this restaurant is the high-handed (maybe even disdainful) front-of-house service. While every z-lister and wanna-be starlet gets a personal welcome and booth seating, those of us who save up for a special night-out get treated less well – harried to order and even special birthday pleas (phone, email, in person) ignored.(More on that issue here).  About £10-£15 for mains.

The Frontline Restaurant. In a complete contrast, there’s no place for the fur-coat-and-no-knicker brigade with this place. It’s all about real food. As many of the ingredients as possible are sourced from the restaurant’s own farm and its unusual raison d-aitre (started life as a club where war correspondents could relax and eat out) make this a special eaterie that I’ve looked forward to visiting since hearing about it via Twitter (@noodlepie). I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. A plate of hot smoked salmon followed by the sort of cottage pie that makes you feel instantly looked after and comforted were the order of the day for me. This is straightforward food – think pork belly, black pudding, pies and bakes but executed in such a way that the quality of the ingredients is all important. Another plus is the wine policy – not only is the list overseen by Oz Clarke Malcolm Gluck, but wines are available by the glass and at sensible prices. The Sauvignon Blanc (available by the glass for £7) was particularly noteworthy. Surrounded by stunning photography the atmosphere is relaxed but refined and the service is attentive and helpful. Will definitely beat a path there again. About £10-£15 for mains.

A city renowned worldwide for its quality food and arrogant waiters. Well so the stereotype goes but our reality at Chez Astier may have been correct on the former but certainly not the latter.  According to a French friend who helpfully booked our table in advance, this restuarant is “typical” with its jaunty checkeckered tablecloths and closely packed bentwood chairs. We plumped for the set menu – not speaking French this helps! 33Euros for four ccourses including cheese. More on the cheese later. Starters of soup (sorry “veloute”) and aspapargus were nothing to write home about but the mains of perfectly cooked melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes with creamy parsnip puree or potatoes and deep sauces were what we’d hoped for from French cuisine. Then came the cheese course – before the dessert. I’ve never seen a cheese board like it – and maybe I will go through life never experiencing such a thing again. If you can imagine your local supermarket cheese counter for quantity on display,  then replace every sweaty coloured Chedder with the artisan cheeses you might find at a Farmer’s Market, you’ve come somewhere close. We sampled so many – a soft, sweet cheese with a plump raisain surround, a bumptious camembert, blue cheese with the piquancy of Christmas, cheese with rinds, hard cheeses – ohlala monsieur! Service was helpful, friendly even, and the entire experience one of warm delight. Thanks to Twitter friend @louisebolotin for this recommendation which I’m very happy to pass on.