Zaza

Best Part: The saucy sauce

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This week Mr Midweek lunch and I decided to go Italian.

 

Now, we have an awful lot of Italian restaurants in St Albans so to stand out they need to be either great value, great quality or run by lovely people. It is possible to be all three, see our reviews of Smokehouse Deli and La Cosa Nostra. I am not mad about chains unless I am eating out with children, in which case their corporate mini menus and crayon packs are much appreciated. Therefore cutting out Zizzis, Pizza Express, Jamie’s, Prezzo and Carluccios we were left with not very much. What does this say about us in St Albans? We believe ourselves to be well educated and discerning in our food appreciation and a great deal of the residents are of Italian descent just itching to prepare pizza as it should be. What a shame that the rents in our city are so high that good honest independent family businesses struggle against the big chains. Rant over. Actually I rather like Carluccios.

 

We would have chosen L’taliana on French row had I not had a (gorgeous) lunch there with a lady friend the previous week. Had I eaten with Mr Midweek Lunch and been able to review it, it would have scored highly. This time we decided against Verdis or Kamillos. This is nothing personal, and nothing to do with them being in renovated public toilets but more because we were in the very centre of town and on a limited time budget. We didn’t chose the new Italian on Holywell Hill because we are still in mourning over the loss of Singhli, formally on the site. What did that leave us with? Zaza, formally Sazios which is a hidden treasure down a long corridor between Cote and a tailor. I like Zazas for many reasons. Firstly because it probably annoys Zizzis to have a similarly named and themed restaurant that isn’t overpriced and renown for slow service. We have been coming here for 10 years, back to the days when in its guise of Sazio diners were allowed a second pizza for free if they honestly had room after their first. Most didn’t but Mr Midweek Lunch saw this as a challenge to be embraced at each visit. These days they offer unlimited wine instead, but unfortunately only on Tuesday nights, so we did not partake this time.

In short, happy memories often bring us back. We are not the only ones. I have never seen the place empty even though it is easily missed from the outside.  And before you point it out, yes Zaza is a chain but it is a small and very localised one, so I’m going to forgive it.

DECOR

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It is fresh, airy and stylish inside.  A pleasing mix of wood, white and olive green accents. I think there was red too but this may have been the waitress’ bright trousers. I want a pair but Mr Midweek Lunch wasn’t sure. The toilets were fine but up a big staircase so not great in an emergency situation. Thankfully there wasn’t one.

THE MENU

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As well as some lovely looking specials, there is a good lunch set menu. Two courses for £6.90 or three for £9.90.  I chose the deep fried mushroom balls to start. They arrived quickly and were finished in a similar timeframe. Very tasty. I loved the creamy dip.

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Mr Midweek Lunch had Mezzaluna Croccante (little fried parcels of mozzarella, clearly he had not had enough fried cheese at our last meal). The menu claims that comes with a choice of chilli salsa or garlic mayonnaise, but no such choice was offered at ordering time and he ended up with the least preferable mayonnaise option. To be fair, he did not ask for the chilli salsa (bless him, he does tend to panic slightly at ordering time), so we shall say no more about it.

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For some reason I completely forgot that I had been dreaming of a pizza and chose a risotto for my main. Our children believe risotto to be the work of the devil so I thought I should seize the opportunity. Readers, I made a mistake. There was nothing wrong with the risotto other than it being arguably a bit too wet. I appreciated the hint of chilli. I just don’t think I chose it for the right reasons. It wasn’t what I felt like. The moral of this story is order what you want, not what you think you should have.

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Mr Midweek lunch was happy with the thing he ordered which wasn’t a cat. Rather, he decided on a big plate of pasta and meatballs, thus fulfilling his own stated dream of “a big pile of meat”. It was delightful. Although he is a fine creator of meatballs in his spare time there was something about the richness of the sauce they were provided with that was deeper than the thin plane of reality most tomato sauces exist upon, through the walls of our own dimension into a world of supremely fulfilling pasta, that put his amateur efforts to shame.

I usually drink Apple Juice but today went for Artisan Pear and Mango which made a nice change. It cost about the same as my husband’s beer, and did not get me tipsy.

THE SCORE

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The food and the price were good. The service up to the time we waited to catch someone’s eye to bring us the bill were also good. Someone explain to me why this happens in so many eateries? Service so prompt and polite that makes you consider leaving a really decent tip then when you are actually waiting for someone to catch your eye and bring you the folded piece of paper every server in the establishment disappears.   What is the deal with that? You would think the period immediately proceeding tip giving decisions they would be at their most attentive. at Zazas they almost redeemed themselves with some after-dinner mints. However to compare it overall to La Cosa Nostra I have to score it lower. It didn’t seem quite as authentic. I admit I chose badly and that is my fault, not theirs. Taking this and my husband’s meal into account therefore we must be lenient and award a

7.4/10

http://www.zaza.co.uk/restaurants/st-albans

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Number 23

Best Part: The Fried Cheese!

 

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It is the fate of anyone who has lived in St Albans for a while to be reminded whilst dining of all the previous establishments that have occupied the same location. In the case of Number 23 there is at least a thematic connection, as the location segued quite nicely from Tapas to British Tapas.

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Well, I say British, our meal included deep fried brie, risotto balls and Filo parcels. But they were cooked and served in Britain so I will accept them as truly British. The starters are generally my favourite part of any meal, so to try a number of those without the dull big lump of meat at the end is superb. It means that you can try a load of interesting sounding stuff safe in the knowledge that if any of the more experimental combinations fail to pay off for you, you can always retreat back to your reliable old friends.

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In this case our old faithful was deep-fried brie. Back in our young and feckless days, when we would dine out in the evening more than once a year, deep-fried brie made a regular appearance on the menu to be ignored at your peril. If you dared order anything else you would be consigned to staring with unconstrained envy at any other diner who went the breaded cheese route. The offering from Number 23 brought back happy memories, the crumbs crispy, the cheese oozing and the redcurrant jelly sweet though slightly sparse. This was probably my favourite of our choices.
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My wife preferred the sweet potato and carrot croquettes from the special menu. They were sweet and soft inside and had a gorgeously crunchy outer texture. Even I, often scathing about sweet potatoes was impressed. They were served with a tasty aioli which we dipped our chips into later.
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Coming in with respectable mid-table mediocrity were the spinach and feat filo parcels. These had an interesting sticky substance and the pastry flaked nicely, but the interior was maybe a trifle bland compared to some of it’s dining companions. My wife on the other hand found the pastry a little tough and the inside delightful. You can’t please everyone.
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I got the carnivores benefit of being able to eat all of the other offerings whilst having a special meaty treat all to myself. This was a couple of very nice fried risotto balls filled with mushrooms, goats cheese and pancetta. I don’t know if the experience was heightened by the joy of the balls being mine, all mine, but I found them very toothsome. A delightful crunchiness giving way to a lovely mix of both flavours and textures inside. Almost as good as these were the salad leaves below that had been covered by the excess fat from the frying process. Who knew that the way to make salad palatable is to cover it in fat?
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The only real disappointment were the chips. We shelled out an extra 25p to get the Salt & Pepper Triple Cooked Chips with Garlic and Red Onion, and the red onion was actually nice and caramelised. The rest were potato wedges, and potato wedges that tasted slightly undercooked and floury. It was ironic that even though they had been cooked three times they still hadn’t managed to get them all the way through.
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But none-the-less, if all we have to complain about are the chips then that is an enviable position to be in. The danger of Tapas of any nationality is that the bill can mount up as quickly as the little plates but Number 23 was very reasonable. We had a £5 off voucher, but these can be obtained from the entrance, and our five dishes plus drinks came to a thoroughly acceptable £25. They also do a Lunch Menu with sandwiches and chips for only £5.95 which it may even be worth a return visit to sample.
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A final point. I usually leave commenting on the toilets to my wife, who seems much more interested in such things, but in this case I am moved to write of the gentleman’s convenience. For reasons best known to the management there is a picture of a scary clown laughing and pointing at a level where most men’s flies would be whilst urinating, which I can imagine some men of a certain temperament may find… off-putting. I present the evidence below.
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Anyway Number 23 is a super place serving interesting and unique food at reasonable prices, just one of the fine George Street dining establishments we are blessed with. The other clientele on our visit included a nice old party of gourmets and for the second time we have visited at lunchtime a group of children from the nearby posh school. Now, in my day it was a treat to get a bag of chips for lunch but clearly time has moved on and I should be glad that the next generation has such good taste in lunch venues.
8.2/10