It’s hard to stand out in the food world. Perhaps that’s the reason concepts are flourishing, from bare, pared-back menus (burger/lobster, steak/crab, anyone?) and novelty dining experiences (computerized tables/eating in the dark/meat meat and more meat), to the pop-ups colonising the city like clustering mushrooms.
But what do you do when your concept is one as comfortable and familiar as a well-worn pair of slippers? When chains around the country deliver direct to loungerooms, when every second celebrity chef has a restaurant dedicated to your cuisine, when your menu is the spitting image of thousands across the country? A: you do it very, very well.
The restaurant in question is Mayfair Pizza Co; the tucker, exactly what it says on the jar, along with the usual starter and pasta suspects. In fact the menu – an unwieldy affair with jumbled fonts and a photoshopped ‘rustic’ vibe – looks startlingly similar to that of your average local family restaurant. I say startling because, tucked down a cobbled Mayfair alleyway, opulently furnished, candle-lit and clearly a haunt of be-suited regulars, Mayfair Pizza Co is anything but. With its enormous windows and high skylights it’s tempting to imagine the space once housed an array of tropical plants or perhaps a cloud of live butterflies. It would be a glorious place to lunch in the summertime, but on this particular evening the windows are best employed in keeping the rain out, while the wall (yes: wall) of wine bottles behind us adds to a comforting, cellar-like dimness. Still more comforting is the smell of baking pizza infusing the room: just in case you forgot what you came in for, there’s an enormous domed pizza oven behind the bar. In an extremely canny olfactory touch, they’ve squirrelled the main kitchen away in a different part of the building so the smell of stone-baking can circulate uninterrupted.
But back to the menu. The non-pizza offerings – bruschetta or burrata for starters, surf & turf and Caesar salads, lasagne and Mac & Cheese – look pretty standard (and if I see the words ‘Superfood Salad’ on many more menus I may burst into flames). The hints are in the particulars: crab in the mac & cheese, a saffron aioli with the salt & pepper squid, the delicate, buttery Nocellara olives that I can’t stop nibbling at. And in the wine: some bottles just about nudge the triple digits, but our house white, a Journeymaker Chenin Blanc (£16), is crisp, light, and eminently drinkable.
Our sharing starters are faultless. Antipasto Carne and not-carne alike are generous and bursting with flavour. The veggie one in particular stands out for its variety, with no less than eight different elements jostling for space on the board. They pass through the full spectrums of flavour and texture, with crunchy ciabatta, melt-in-the-mouth strips of chargrilled pepper, and salt-sweet sunblush tomatoes. Better still are the balsamic shallots and the cool, delicate artichokes. The meats – coppa, prosciutto, mortadella and salami – are likewise satisfying, blessed with some fiery Calabrese peppers.
The pizza menu is wildly varied, just shy of bewildering. Options include a pulled pork pizza with crackling, a spicy number involving chilli and nduja, a lobster and tiger prawn affair, and a take on Eggs Florentine. Anyone angling for the peculiar might cast their eye over the new Bloody Mary Pizza menu: there’s veggie, Bloody Barbeque, and Superfood (there we go again…) options. Is it perverse to go to a posh pizza palace and order off the pasta menu? Probably, but I do it unfailingly. Perhaps it’s to check that the less-touted dishes are prepared with the same care & attention, or maybe I just feel sorry for the underdogs. Whichever it is, I’ve committed to the Crab Risotto, while my partner opts for the Truffle and Porcini Mushroom pizza. We both opt for more wine.
As soon as the pizza arrives I’m cursing my perversity. Sorry New York, sorry guy-hauling-stone-pizza-oven-on-a-trailer-around-the-countryside, sorry (gulp) Italy: this pizza is perfection. Silken bursts of truffle wrapped in a creamy mushroom sauce are layered with just the right amount of mozzarella on a crisp floury crust. I’m seriously regretting my risotto – strewn with micro coriander and plump tiger prawns, wafting enticingly under my nose – until I taste my first mouthful. With nicely bitey grains of rice, generous shreds of crab, and beautifully balanced flavours lifted into sublimity by the leaves, it’s all I can do not to pick up my plate and drink it. I’ve asked for a starter portion (£8); either they’ve misheard me, or my dish is quite a steal.
Before we know it we’ve made the rookie mistake of filling up on mains. We have to forego the vanilla pannacotta with strawberries and mint and the intriguingly named salted caramel chocolate pot with popping candy in favour of simple sorbets. A sunset trio of mango, lemon and blood orange vie for our hearts: lemon loses, but only just.
There’s little, visually, to distinguish Mayfair Pizza Co from a host of other casual, high-end venues serving classic menus in a certain price range. The difference is in the details: the relaxed yet professional service, the warm, gentle ambience, and above all the truly excellent food – which just goes to show that you don’t always need novelty to stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd.
words Marion Rankine