Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Would you believe me if I said the tastiest pizza in London was...within (literal) spitting distance of the Olympic Park? Or surrounded by desolate streets and light industrial warehouses? And the nearest shop is probably Screwfix?

Tastiest pizza in London is a bold claim. So, a caveat: tastiest, not most authentic.

So where? At the Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick. At the edge of all things. I have an emerging theory that the best places in London are the places which are hardest to reach. That's where the vibe is the most laid back, away from the hustle and bustle of back-to-back diaries enabled by rapid mass-transport systems.

Crate Brewery is at a quiet bit of the Lea Valley, right by the water - only a few joggers or walkers go past on the other side, and you've entered from the other side through a maze of industrial streets and then a car park. The perimeter of the Olympic park is right there - complete with at least nine security cameras that we could see.

Picture the scene: it's a sunny September evening, a mixture of families, older singles and young arty types are set on communal picnic benches by the canal. Lots of interesting, deep colours of beer from their onsite microbrewery are being brought out, every now and then a couple of big pizzas are artfully presented, wafting delicious smells through the air.

Between us we ordered three pizzas - but I basically had a whole one to myself. And it was the tastiest pizza I've had in London. It was topped with griddled courgette, red onion, feta cheese and gremolata. The base was great - thin, but not too crispy, robust enough to hold the dense topping. The flavour combination on the topping was king - the courgette, red onion and feta are natural partners, but the inclusion of the gremolata was what really elevated the pizza - so fresh and zesty and complementing the other ingredients perfectly.

Our other pizzas included a Margherita - simple, but done well with a smattering of halved cherry tomatoes on top, and a more exciting one topped with thinly sliced potato, truffle oil and sage. It was another great combination - much subtler, but absolutely luxurious.

I've barely even mentioned the beer, which is another big selling point about Crate Brewery. As the name suggests, there is an onsite microbrewery, making a range of ales and lagers, which were smooth and delicious. A decent selection of other interesting ales and lagers were on tap, and a yet wider selection were in bottles.

Crate Brewery is all in all a great find for a laid back beer and pizza, away from the madding crowd. For those not in the East, I'd say it's worth the journey. Otherwise, get on your bike and get stuck in.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Who can you trust? Vietnamese restaurants in Hackney

What do you make of 'Trip Advisor' style reviews of restaurants? Have you ever been tempted to go somewhere but put off by patchy customer reviews?

I have. I eat out a fair bit (obvs) and when researching my options I'll find myself trawling comments on Time Out, google reviews or London Eating to reassure myself that somewhere is worth going to. So few places get all out good reviews - and I started to notice patterns of negativity. If it's a hyped, trendy place most of the reviews will be moaning about the waiting time, disappointment that their gourmet fried chicken wasn't more WOW ('s fried chicken, there's only so much you can do to jazz it up). If it's a cheap ethnic eat, commentators will moan about the decor and the slow or chaotic service. If people are in a big group, they'll moan about getting treated like a leper colony and sat separately with an edited menu.

There's a fair number of people whose expectations are way off, who are particularly fussy, or who think the world owes their group of 20 diners a full a la carte menu all served at EXACTLY THE SAME TIME. And it turns out they are all much more likely to write moany reviews on comment sites.

My point? Researching is perfectly sensible, but find a reviewer, blogger or friend whose opinion you trust and go with a good recommendation. Ignore the haters.


The Huong-Viet canteen on Englefield Road (De Beavouir Town/Dalston) is a place I'd been encouraged to go to by trusted friends, but discouraged by anonymous reviewers. I finally visited last night and it confirmed my thesis - my trusted friend was totally right, it kicked the arses of the Vietnamese canteens further down Kingsland Road.

Huong Viet is set back from the road in a scruffy looking former bathhouse. If you walked past during the day you wouldn't notice it. Inside it's cosily lit for a canteen-y restaurant and a more intimate buzz than its cousins down in Shoreditch. There's a localish vibe, but a nice cross-section of families, older couples, young professionals, as well as the ubiquitous bearded hipsters.

We shared a selection of starters. Dim-sum like steamed vegetable rolls...they came topped with crispy garlic and a fresh leaf salad. They were tastier than your standard veg rolls and a nice halfway house between  summer (raw) and fried. The fish cakes had a wonderful chewy texture and slightly smoky taste. I hadn't had Vietnamese versions before, but they are more interesting than most of the Thai versions I've had before.

The highlight of the starters was their fried squid. It came lightly battered, and the squid pieces were really fresh, chunky and properly meaty. They didn't taste previously frozen - and if they were, it was far better than the chewy, plasticky type you often get.They were topped with crispy chillies and lemon grass, that was perfectly salty and moreish. There was barely a crumb left on the plate.

For mains I had roasted pork and aubergine in a light sauce - it was really good, with decent portions of both ingredients. The sauce was interesting too - quite a lot of dill, which was a surprise, but it's a great herb and went well. Lots of fresh ginger making it really zesty and zingy. My friends shared a sea bass fillet and some vegetables, which came in a really nice nutty sauce.

One of the main complaints by citizen reviewers was the service, but we found it to be relaxed, friendly and efficient. There was one minor slip up - the vegetables came instead of a tofu dish, but it was so delicious (and not too far off) that my friends didn't mind in the slightest. With a drink each, it came to just over £16 with service - very good value in my books. If you were thinking of going - GO! If not - still go. It's a great restaurant and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Refreshed and repurposed

I've been writing a food blog for more than three years now. But over the last year in particular updates have been few and far between. It's been a busy few years - doing a part time Masters while working full time, a busy full time job (with lots of writing!), and then buying and doing up a flat. I've not been able to give it as much attention as I'd have liked, but I've also found the remit too broad.

Now that I'm settled in my new neighbourhood for the long term everything makes a bit more sense. I'm now living in Lower Clapton, a lovely enclave just north east of the centre of Hackney. The area is brimming with excitement - new restaurants and cafes opening all the time, a bustling bohemian Sunday market, as well as a rich history of waves of immigration bringing with it delicious, authentic and affordable eats from across the world. I've said to friends that I could probably do a blog a week about foodie happenings around here for at least a year without scraping the barrel.

I'm fascinated by the fabric of cities, how they fit together, how people live in them, what makes people decide to live where they do. In the nine years I've lived in London as an adult I've lived in areas across the north east zone two band - Dartmouth Park, Tufnell Park, Holloway, Newington Green and now Clapton, and I swear this chunk of our sweeping metropolis is the best bit. When I'm cycling back from a dinner in town it is the greatest pleasure to hit Clerkenwell and know that I'm back on The Axis.

London in itself as a focus is too wide, so I am now repurposing this blog as North East Eats, celebrating the best restaurants, shops and happenings of this part of London. That's not to say that I will be turning a blind eye to stuff happening elsewhere, or not raving about an amazing place because it's on the Wrong Side of Hampstead Heath. A more defined focus will allow me to guilt-free eat my way through Hackney and the surrounding boroughs, knowing that there are lots of people round here that might benefit from a bit more info about all the exciting options on their doorstep.

Bear with me while I get my blogging mojo back - I promise you more focused, more frequent, more food.