Pizza Express, Museum Street, York – Restaurant Review
By Roger Crow
British pizza chains have to do something special to impress me. I’m of an age where I grew up with an annual visit to the long defunct Pizzaland; graduated on to posher venues, and then just got bored . Maybe because I started trying them in other countries.
Pizza Express has never been a chain to wow me. The last time I went three years ago, it was pretty uneventful. Maybe it was the restaurant at Castleford that was having a bad day or the bland menu that failed to impress. Either way, I haven’t been back since the summer of 2014.
When offered the chance to try their new menu at the refurbished restaurant at River House on Museum Street, York, I wonder if matters have improved. Thankfully we have one of the best seats in the house. The restaurant is inside a former gentleman’s club, decked out with vintage paintings. A random series of plates look like they’ve been frozen in time while being thrown towards a wall, and a collection of ephemera appears as busy as a pub wall, but still looks classy.
The overhead lighting is a mix of stylish glass globes and humdrum spotlights. In short: it’s slightly schizophrenic.
Connie, our waitress, wastes little time bringing us our starters. I opt for their Pennette Formaggi from the specials menu. A creamy mix of mustard sauce, Mozarella and Gran Milano cheese baked with Pennette pasta, garlic oil and black pepper. Like Mac and cheese, it’s simple comfort food which acts as the warm-up act for the main event. I get exactly what I want: familiarity.
Rachel opts for Bruschetta Con Fungi: “Pizza base with mushrooms and bechamel sauce,” as she describes it. It’s a tastier alternative to mine, though both are good. There’s nothing worse than a support act eclipsing the star of the show, so I’m glad my starter is a little generic because the pizza main is terrific.
Barbacoa Romana is a flavoursome mix of smoky pulled Barbacoa beef, with salsa, garlic oil, Mozarella, red onion, tomato and coriander. Just the right amount of spicy sweetness to keep me interested even after the dish has gone cold. And that crucial element, the base, is beautifully cooked. It’s a good variation on the ubiquitous pulled pork theme that dominates menus these days.
Though the plates are too small for the mains, it’s the best restaurant pizza I’ve had in some time, and restores my faith in the brand. However, the best is saved until last.
I go for the heavily promoted Chocolate Fondant: cake with melt-in-the-middle chocolate centre and vanilla gelato. It’s that perfect mix of hot and cold with a satisfying choc hit which leaves me making a series of multiple vowel sounds. We repeat the ooos and aaas when I discover the good old stand-by of profiteroles has a fresh twist with a salt caramel version. Served with a cappuccino, it’s a masterstroke, and one of those rare meals which keeps levelling up with every course.
Rachel has Padana pizza as a main: goat’s cheese, mozzarella, tomato, caramelised onion, spinach, red onion and garlic oil. “The starter is nice but nothing to write home about, and the main is not bad, but a little bland,” she explains. “For £12.50 I’d want more flavour. As a vegetarian I’ve had better pizzas. ” I’d agree that more caramelised onion would have helped enormously.
However, the decor does get a thumbs up from her: “It’s eclectic and confusing in a good way. I want to know why the elements are all together; I want to know why we’ve got random plates together and random bits of artwork. Why there’s a shoe on the wall, or penguins.”
The Museum Street branch is a sight to behold. It’s like having dinner in an art gallery, though the real selling point is that view of the Ouse and the Station Road bridge at sunset. For the first hour, it’s not the warmest restaurant in York, so wrap up if going on a chilly day.
For a residence I’ve spent 25 years passing but never entering, slightly deterred by its formidable 1868 entrance, I’m glad to finally discover one of York’s most interesting buildings, and menus.
Consider me wowed.
Pizza Express, River House, 17 Museum Street, York, YO1 7DJ
Open 11:30am – 23:00pm daily
01904 672 904