Praise be to Jesus, I have been doing a jig because restaurants have begun to open in Renzo Piano's ground-breaking St Giles development in Covent Garden, London. For months, I have excitedly passed the five large double-height glass box restaurant spaces in the courtyard, hoping that something fantastic, independent and unique will come of such a talked about space. Unfortunately, my jigging has not turned into jiving, as I fear that the space is most likely going the way of most High Streets in the UK or America - choca-block-full of (higher quality) chain restaurants (think Zizzi, Byron, Fishworks, Sofra......).
|Post-industrial distressed interior|
Ms P and I were however dancing a tango after we learnt that Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, the man who supposedly makes the best pizza in US was teaming-up with Jamie Oliver to open a new joint in one of Renzo's glass boxes. Our dance steps were slowed slightly when we discovered that they would be offering British-themed retro inspired food - including pizza (Ms P's nonna would be turning over in her very Italian grave).
|Simple sausage and bacon|
We were still excited to launch ourselves on the venue this week, during its soft-launch period. The once cavernous glass box has now been filled with a retro-fit post-industrial distressed furniture look that only partially succeeds (making new look old is an art form best left to Chinese and Italian antique dealers - otherwise try to buy some of the real thing). The large wood fired pizza ovens and BBQ station did add a warming note and a sense of theatre.
|Bloody mary mussels|
On the food front, I can report that London's obsession with small plates has not abated. Union Jack's is offering small mini morsels such as prawn & Morcambe bay shrimp cocktail (£6), smoked trout pate with feisty horseradish on baby Yorkshire puddings (£5) or Cumbrian ham hock terrine with radishes and piccalilli (£4). Ms P opted for the wood-grilled sausage and bacon with ale and mustard sauce (£4.50). She noted that the sausages went down a treat, offering the right mixture of meaty-smokey flavours but that they were a little overcome with the strong mustard sauce. My bloody mary mussels in a bag (£5) offered all the great parts of a the drink (tomato with Tabasco but perhaps too strong celery overtones) with fantastic mussels. (I couldn't however see a bag anywhere - I presumed that they would be baked and presented in a parchment bag). Perhaps a slight change to the menu is required).
|The Stargazy Pizza|
|The Old Spot|
Union Jack's doesn't 'do' mains in the traditional sense, but offers a selection of 'flats' from its roaring wood-fired pizza oven. We were assured by the staff that these were very different to pizzas and owing to Mr Bianco's reputation, we took their word for it. Ultimately the offering is pizza. I can report happily that my Stargazy pizza of sweet melted onions, fennel seeds, squashed tomatoes, Cornish sardines, rocket and shaved fennel (£10) was delicious, with a very thin crisp base that you associate with pizza that you find throughout Italy. Ms P opted for the porky goodness offered by the 'Old Spot' that mixed roasted shoulder pork, quince & Bramley sauce, Bishop Stilton, crackling & watercress (£12). The crackling was a winning note, and even though it mixed meat and fruit (a no-no for Ms P's palate), she lapped it up.
Puddings were a glorious sounding mix of such things as sticky treacle tart with clementine soured cream (£4), bitter chocolate mousse with "gary-baldy" biscuits (£4) or a retro take on an Arctic roll (£4). I had heard that the cheese on offer was some of the best British cheese in town, and I can assure you that the huge hunk of Stilton I was presented had the right mix of acidic, salty creaminess (I also really liked the homemade crackers and fruit paste) especially for the cheap price on the menu.
Coffee and tea (proper pot, not teabag!) were on the right side of good and I can report that the wine list is sensibly priced for punters on a budget.
So have Jamie Oliver and Chris Bianco created something fantastic, independent and unique? Will Ms P and I be tangoing down there constantly for many years to come? Well, I can assure you that the staff we engaged with were some of the most enthusiastic and friendly that we have come across in our many years in London (Store Street Espresso should take classes from them). Generally the food was good, very well priced and I can say that the pizzas were a shining light. Independent and unique, perhaps, owing to the marriage of British themes and pizza - but overall the twining of the two just doesn't gel for me. Whilst a British topped pizza and Mr Bianco's reputation enticed me through the door, I will return, but I won't make it my regular. I am sure others will flock, if you are in the area try them out, but alas alack, whilst we will return there will not be a constant tango from us at the front door. Not London's best pizza, but in the days and months ahead, perhaps with changes to what's on top of the pizzas, that assessment will change.
Central St Giles,
St Giles High Street
London WC1H 8AG