When Soho House Group announced it was launching a pizza restaurant in Shoreditch, few expected it to be anything but a runaway success. Tom Vaughan finds out why.
Nick Jones seems to have the Midas touch. Of course, most of us were already familiar with the Soho House founder's talent for hospitality before Pizza East arrived, but any lingering doubters out there should visit for a meal.
Few could convert a bacchanalian Shoreditch nightclub, with its Friday night outflow of wired and tired revellers, into such a cavernous, stylish and popular pizza restaurant.
Drawing inspiration from Los Angeles favourite Mozza Pizzeria - and its devout commitment to produce - the concept is based around thick, chewy ciabatta pizzas in settings as carefully thought-through as the toppings.
"It's inspired by but not based on Mozza Pizzeria," says Pizza East general manager Kelly Taylor.
"The pizzas here are more geared for the European market - they're chewier and have thicker bases rather than crisp, thin ones."
The menu elevates a food now synonymous with the mid-market sector to a much more innovative level. Gone are the pepperonis, Fiorentinas and Hawaiians, replaced by altogether more inventive options - such as clams, tomato, oregano, garlic, chilli flakes and pecorini (£12), or the almost over-bearingly rich duck sausage, artichoke, Parmesan and boschetto al tartufo (£13). The most popular by far, and now something of a signature pizza, is the veal meatballs, prosciutto, sage, lemon, parsley and cream (£12).
Everything, says Taylor, is assiduously sourced. The deli manager, who buys all the meats and cheeses, came from the River Café, so knows her pecorino from her paglierina. A design-it-yourself meat and cheese board, available to share as a starter, arrives with a pick of 12 different cured Italian meats and cheeses such as lardo, speck and gorgonzola dolce (all £4).
Elsewhere, starters - in Taylor's words - mix rustic with more modern ingredients, and beg, borrow and steal ideas from around the Mediterranean. There's a mackerel escabèche with lentils (£4); lamb meatballs with tomato sauce (£5); wood-roasted mussels with a garlic and fennel aïoli (£4); or a hearty remake of the Fergus Henderson dish of wood-roasted bone marrow with radish, parsley and bread (£7). And among the desserts, it's worth mentioning the salty-sweet masterpiece that is the salted chocolate caramel tart (£5).
Seasonality plays a big part. As we speak, the girolle bruschette is making way as the mushrooms die down for the winter, with tastings taking place to move on the ever-evolving menu.
The food, naturally, forms the backbone of the operation, but as you might expect from a Soho House site, design is also paramount. With its stripped wood flooring, exposed concrete pillars, tiled bar areas and large hanging lights, the urban-meets-rustic-front-room feel that the group conjures up in its private members' clubs is transposed wholesale to the cavernous interior. Seating 200 on a mixture of communal benches, tables and bar areas, a Saturday evening might see the restaurant do 600-plus covers.
Behind the scenes there's a 15-strong kitchen brigade, with a production line of seven on pizza duty - two kneading and stretching the bases, two on toppings detail, two working the oven and one slicing. One concession the restaurant makes to the large number of covers is that dishes arrive as they come - although waiting staff are briefed to check this is OK at the outset - so starters may well arrive at the same time as pizzas and so on.
The group's choice of Shoreditch as the setting for Pizza East is something of a no-brainer. Shoreditch House, the group's huge private members' club, is a stone's throw away, while the vast swathes of twenty-somethings that the area attracts are a perfect clientele. It all comes together perfectly - the buzz, the setting, the food - but then no-one ever really expected anything else from Nick Jones and his stable, did they?
56 Shoreditch High Street
London E1 6JJ
Tel: 020 7729 1888
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Sheep's milk ricotta bruschette, lamb's lettuce, honeycomb, sea salt, £6
- Mixed beetroot salad, pantaleo cheese, horseradish, £6
- Cauliflower carbonara, £5
- Potato, garlic, rosemary, fontina, Parmesan pizza, £10
- Salami, tomato, mozzarella, red onion, chilli flakes pizza, £10
- Wood oven-roasted sea bass, butternut squash, puntarelle, pumpkin seed vinaigrette, £15
- Lemon pot, £5
- Gelato selection, £4
- Hot cinnamon doughnuts, Valhrona chocolate, £6