Vegan pizza @ Pizza Express

A while ago, I wrote about trying the vegan pizza offerings at Pizza Express and Zizzi. The Pianta at Pizza Express, which seems to have been taken off the menu, was a reasonable experience. On the other hand, Zizzi’s rich tomato sauce and its smattering of vegan cheese was a significantly tastier meal. But, having revisited Pizza Express, I wanted to report back on the progress made since.

One point that must be highlighted: the vegan pizza game in the UK keeps getting better. Pizza Hut are grabbing a slice of the action, offering vegan cheese on their bases. Dominoes offer VBites vegan cheese on their pizzas in Israel, with plans to bring this on to Australian menus next year; but in the UK, not even the bases are vegan. I’m hoping that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see this change.

So, how did a vegan and her almost-vegan friend fare at Pizza Express?

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Dough balls

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Veneziana with vegan mozzarella

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Vegan Giardiniera

We began with dough ball starters, perfect little balls of carby bliss. Although we missed out on the accompanying garlic butter, the garlic and chilli oils were a reasonable swap. Both plates were quickly demolished. The marinated olives, roasted tomatoes, and bruschetta (without pesto and butter) are also suitable for vegans.

My friend ordered a Veneziana pizza, subbing the mozzarella for the vegan alternative. Toppings included pine kernels, red onion, capers, and olives. I have to say, I was bemused by the sultanas. Isn’t pineapple a controversial issue? What about the outrageous sweetness of sultanas?

I ordered the vegan Giardiniera, awarded Best Vegan Pizza at PETA’s Vegan Food Awards 2017. It’s a step-up from the Pianta, loaded with red onion, olives, artichoke, and mushroom. Artichoke has a meaty texture which works well. And the cheese? Creamy. I’m really not keen on coconut-based cheeses, but their own version melts well and tastes good.

In terms of desserts, there is a Raspberry Sorbet and Coconut Delight available for vegans. Perfect for when you’ve inevitably not left enough space for afters.

So, overall, Pizza Express have done a great job. The possibility of swapping dairy cheese out on any vegetarian pizza is fantastic, and a real upgrade from the days when you could bring in your own vegan cheese to top your pizza. What’s more, signing up for offers with the company means you can snag a deal of £10.95 for a starter and main. Bargain.

 

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Review: V Rev, Manchester

For those who still hold the assumption that vegan food is all salads and spirulina, a visit to V Rev in Manchester’s stylish Northern Quarter is a must. Not only is there no single head of broccoli in sight, there’s no limp side-salad available for the sensible vegan, either. Entering the doors, you go all in for unhealthy eating, the stuff of parents’ nightmares and American fast-food dreams.

V Rev is a completely vegan diner, specialising in beefburgers, chk’n burgers, and fully-loaded fries. There’s a range of organic and fair-trade soft drinks to complement the meal if one doesn’t opt for a huge milkshake or beer. Most strikingly, the creative powerhouse behind the menu has utilised all of their pop culture knowledge in naming each item: from the ‘Hell-vis Presley’ beef patty to the ‘Wake Me Up Before Mojito’ cocktail, the levels of pun are atmospheric. It’s canny marketing, capturing the diner’s modern aesthetic and giving the traditional vegan stereotype – long-haired, anaemic, tree-worshipping – a right kick up the backside.

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Guac to the Future

Walking in on a Friday night, the diner is busy and bustling, but it’s not long before I’m guided to my reserved table in a quieter zone. We order beer, cider, the special donut burger, and a ‘Guac to the Future’. The first consists of fried chik’n, cheez, baecon, fried onions and maple sriracha sauce sandwiched between two sweet donuts, and it’s an interesting combination. Hard to get your mouth round – but the different layers of sweetness bring it home. The Guac is made from breaded, deep-fried seitan, and I try it in that hope that I get over my first average experience of it – but I don’t. The texture isn’t chicken, but it’s chewy and reminiscent of it in a way which doesn’t twist your brain wondering if it actually could be the dead stuff itself. Also included is cheez, guacamole, chipotle mayo, salsa, and lettuce – all good toppings. Both burgers come with sides of fries, which I drown in slightly luminous and watered-down ketchup. The drinks are great, though, and the service friendly – “Where did you get your blouse?” – so we tip gratefully.

A factor close to my heart is cleanliness, with no complaints. The decor fits in with the old-school American diner feel – food’s served in red plastic boxes, with squeezy condiment bottles. The wall prints had me Googling “You’re the nutritional yeast to my macaroni” to self-mail next Valentine’s.

So, V Rev have an awesome thing going with their unique menu and whole aura of what my dad calls ‘trendiness’. While the food’s no Temple of Seitan, it’s still tasty, and I’ve heard excellent reports on the milkshakes. Most importantly, it’s idolised by vegans and omivores alike, if their social media feeds are anything to go by. You can find their Instagram here and website here.

V Rev, 20-26 Edge St, Manchester, M4 1HN

Eating raw vegan at Vitao; vegan pizza at Zizzi & Pizza Express

I’ve written about Zizzi before, back in my pre-vegetarian & vegan days. But having paid them another visit to take advantage of the 2-for-1 offer on vegan mains – running Sunday to Thursday all through Veganuary – another post on the subject is due, coupled with a little review of the vegan option I recently sampled at Pizza Express.

Off-topic, but briefly, I’d like to mention my lunch-time fuel on a recent trip to London: devoured at Vitao, a little raw vegan cafe. Ideal for tourists and workers alike, a plate or box is bought prior to loading every particle of space with buffet-style food. Although I sat down to a very un-photogenic box of amalgamated salads, hummous, curries and alfalfa sprouts, the overlapping flavours were glorious. We shared a slice of raw vegan chocolate cake topped with ganache, god-sent from heaven. The whole affair was very quick, as we were starving, but it was thoroughly energising: perfect for workers on their lunch hour, or tourists keen to sight-see as much as possible. If you’re in Soho and in dire need of good food, whether you’re raw vegan or not, I would recommend Vitao for a quick fix.

So, vegan pizzas. Can I just thank Zizzi for an offer actively encouraging those who are curious about veganism? If a vegan pizza is cheaper than anything else on the menu, then unless you are a fussy eater, it makes perfect sense to save some money. To serve specifically vegan mains legitimises vegan food as a separate entity, to those who are sceptical of its worth; it is not merely omnivorous fare stripped of the meat and dairy. The only aspect I’d disagree with is the necessity to ask for the separate ‘allergens and dietary requirements’ menu, as it perpetuates the idea that veganism is a special or faddy diet for an alternative few. Why not expand the menu a little to encompass all?

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Classic vegan margherita at Zizzi

On offer were the classic margherita and a larger ‘rustica’ version, with a tomato base and coconut-based cheese; three additional toppings were charged at 80p each, ranging from balsamic tomatoes, artichokes, spinach, and roasted garlic cloves. I chose sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and mushrooms, with a side of tenderstem broccoli. My apprehension grew as I waited for it to arrive: I was desperate to like this alternative to a food I’d once worshipped, and praying that the coconut would not linger on my tastebuds. My fears were not realised. Although definitely not much akin to the real thing, there was still an odd ring of cheesiness about the rather thin substance on my pizza. I’d have liked a thicker smothering of the stuff: but never mind. The tomato base was very defined in flavour, not like the more pitiful offering at Pizza Express, which I’ll get on to shortly. On the whole, my first vegan pizza was a pleasant experience. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or bloated after eating, and my gut did not react badly to the much higher intake of oil it was confronted with – takeaway food is something I’ve never much enjoyed, originally from a fear of fat and calories, and then more naturally from realising it’s often tasteless.

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Vegan Pianta at Pizza Express

The vegan option at Pizza Express is the ‘Pianta’, made with no cheese, and arriving with a layer of spinach over mushrooms, pine kernels, artichokes, and tomato. What is fantastic about Pizza Express is their willingness to use your own vegan cheese, brought in from home, on any pizza. Bringing in your own ingredient would normally be an imposition to a chef, but with this, vegans and the lactose-intolerant aren’t made to feel like outsiders. Next step: introduce an option of dairy or non-dairy cheese, as Zizzi has implemented. My first pizza was inferior to Zizzi’s in terms of taste; while the former was average, the latter was good. And, they kindly accepted my offer code despite it being invalid on a weekend – most definitely customer service to appreciate.

Thanks for reading!

Vegan cuisine at El Piano

Today, flicking through a food magazine, and yesterday, scrolling through Pinterest, I noticed something important. Something which has been bothering me for a while now. It’s this: ‘vegan’ used heavily as an adjective. Vegan dinners, vegan sandwiches, vegan breakfasts: ‘vegan’ bandied around lightly, tacked on to articles and descriptions to give it a little glamour. Veganism is regarded by some as a vogue, a fashion: this is a problem because it implies that it’ll pass, as ponchos and leopard-skin did, when in reality, it’s not so superficial. I’m quite tired of seeing ‘vegan’ as a way to attract consumers on the basis of its contemporary status, as something to make you look on trend: although in the short term it may spark individuals to change their lifestyles for good, it shouldn’t be advertised as ‘cool’. It’s a way of life requiring commitment and serious thought, if you want to do it properly. Yes, it’s great that the current attention veganism has in the media is inspiring larger numbers to adopt a vegan way of life – estimated numbers have increased from 150,000 in 2006 to 542,00 in 2016 in the UK – but once (I’d like to say if) this attention naturally reaches the end of its course, the less dedicated may lose interest. I’m not trying to say that vegans aren’t committed: just that for a small number, this desire to conform to trends may outweigh the desire to live an ethical and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

I suppose that this a fairly negative perspective to take on the trend; in a more optimistic outlook, it’s fantastic that current media attention is inspiring many to change. What I’m trying to get is the worry that veganism is being trivialised, commodified, for the sake of selling. There’s a much more serious message which I feel is a little obscured.

Of course, this is probably hugely hypocritical, from the perspective of a vegetarian. But I am conscious of this hypocrisy every day. Fashion doesn’t hugely interest me, and I prefer to do what makes me comfortable in my own skin, than sacrifice my happiness for the sake of following others. This is why I see problems with recipes in a food magazine described in big letters as ‘vegan’: people ought to make decisions for themselves, rather than be guided by what the media tells them is popular.

Which brings me on to El Piano, a small vegan restaurant in York, part of a family-run trio. It’s been in business since 1997, well before veganism became fashionable. Of veganism, it says: ‘For some it’s a fad, for others an obsession, it can be a way of life, a conviction, a calling.’ This aptly sums up how I feel. I visited with two friends, one of whom is a vegan, and the other who is a determined meat-eater – justifying her choices with fact that she chooses to buy organic, ‘high-quality’ meat only. (She’s adamant that if everyone went vegetarian, farming won’t be able to cope with plant demand. Yes, perhaps if everybody transitioned all at once.)

It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we ate in the enclosed courtyard. Two of us ordered a bottle each of Samuel Smith’s organic cider, which is always difficult to come by in bars and restaurants – organic cider tastes so much cleaner, and so much crisper: it’s not sickly-sweet, and doesn’t leave you feeling parched.

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(Take note of the beautiful jug – if it’s true that food and drink tastes better out of pretty dishes, then El Piano have their tableware bang on.)

The staff are friendly, and unusually smiley underneath their turbans (apparently for hygiene purposes, should anyone need to pop in to the kitchen). We ordered a starter to share, of breads and an olive oil for dipping; the sun-coloured bread, which we presumed was cornbread, was warm and satisfying.

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The small size of the dinner menu reflects how much is invested in sourcing the ingredients: produce is local and organic whenever possible. An indicator of a good restaurant, for me, is how visually overwhelming the menu is; if it’s double-sided, serving everything with extra sauces and dips, then it’s likely compensation for a lack elsewhere. There’s a choice of platters to share, a veggie burger, or a variety from the set menu of a main dish, a fritter, and a salad. I chose an Indonesian-style tempeh satay skewer, with peppers and pineapple, accompanied by falafel and a salsa; my friend decided to try the daal. I added a side of ‘mathematical chips’ to my order, purely for curiosity’s sake.

 

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The dishes were presented beautifully, in the plates and bowls I longed to sweep into my bag and take home with me. Tempeh – an Indonesian take on tofu – was a new experience for me: it’s flatter in shape, but firmer in texture, and also packs more protein. The satay sauce was delicious, especially with the complimenting flavours of the pineapple and pepper; and the mathematical chips turned out to gain their name only from their precise form.

None of us opted for dessert, feeling heartily full from the main meal (who says that vegan food isn’t satisfying?).  I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate (perhaps excluding the bread in the starter – a tad bland!), and I encourage anyone who is sceptical of vegan food to visit: animal products will not be missed. There is no attempt, either, to imitate meat: plant-based food needs no model to match here. In fact, attempting to compete with meat seems to be there grave mistake the veggie movement has made – it will always fall short, and really, it doesn’t need to try. Plants are plants, not meat alternatives, and form a cuisine in their own right.

 

Jamie’s Italian, York

Have you ever enjoyed a meal out at a particular restaurant so much, that you’re back within the week? It sounds rather luxurious, the spontaneous whim of a spendthrift. But after visiting on one Friday for a friend’s birthday, I recommended it to my family visiting the next Friday (for a dinner I happily didn’t have to pay for).

I always look forward to other people’s birthdays, and for the excuse to eat out. My friends and I discuss our options with the gravity of politicians before making a rational and well-reasoned decision on location, time, and day. The birthday girl was eager to introduce us Jamie’s Italian, being a big fan herself, and came armed with her shiny Gold Card.

The York restaurant is quite tucked away, to the extent that some aren’t aware of its existence. Outside, there is a pretty al fresco seating area, which I can imagine is lovely in the summer. Inside is stylishly furnished, spread across three floors; although with slightly dim lighting, and limited bar seating, the bathrooms surprised me with their Italian piazza-style tiling, golden taps, and pink toilets.

The menu consists of a range of pasta dishes, grills, salads, and sides, with an extensive starter and dessert list. There’s an impressive range of cocktails, well worth their price, and beer is served in classy glasses. One thing to bear in mind before ordering is that the menu offers small and large portions of pasta dishes, meaning that you can fit in a three course meal without leaving uncomfortably full; or, if you’re a budgeting student, you can feel pleased with yourself for saving a few pounds. And then there’s the Jamie’s Gold card: by signing up for free, you’re entitled to a free bottle of Prosecco or Lambrusco, a complimentary mini-starter, and a discount.

 

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Jamie’s Mojito

 

The two visits sufficed to give me a very favourable impression of the restaurant as a whole. Staff are friendly and chatty, service is prompt, and the food is great. I’ll pick a few selections from the dishes my two respective groups ordered over the two evenings.

The starters menu is very diverse, putting a spin on classics: there were pork scratchings with apple sauce; crab and avocado bruschetta; baked chestnut mushrooms; Italian nachos; and olives ‘on ice’. The bruschetta had a strong chilli kick, fantastic with the creamy avocado; the mushrooms were loaded with gooey mozzarella cheese (although probably overpriced at £5.75), and the nachos were fantastically flavoured: stuffed with threes type of cheese with a hint of smokiness, and accompanied by a chunky and sweet tomato dipping sauce.

 

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On my first trip, I opted for the meat pappardelle with a rocket and parmesan salad; when it arrived, I was concerned that it wasn’t enough: but I was happily mistaken. The sauce was rich in flavour, the pork tender. On my second visit, I chose one of the specials – pan-fried cod with butternut squash, on a bed of lentils. My dad shared my concern regarding size this time, and we ordered some garlic bread to share. For the £15 price tag, it did seem expensive for the portion size: but bearing in mind that good quality fish is not cheap to come by, I’m not complaining. The fish was soft, and the squash sweet: all was served beautifully with a drizzle of oil. I also sampled the pumpkin ravioli, deliciously sweet with nutty overtones. This time, though, portion size was undeniably petite.

 

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Desserts were a molten chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream; lemon meringue cheesecake; ice cream with a variety of toppings, including berry compote and butterscotch; and tiramisu. If anything, do not leave without tasting the ice cream – it’s fantastic. I savoured every mouthful of the cake, and helped to polish off my friend’s slice of fluffy and rich cheesecake.

 

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I’d reccommend Jamie’s Italian on the strength of its dining experience, service, and food. Although some portions could have been a bit more generous, taste was faultless; everything was well worth its price.

 

 

Chia Café: venturing into veganism

Vegans? I admire them for their dedication. When I consider their reasons for not eating animal products, I start to wonder whether I should be doing the same thing. After watching a video enlightening me to the artificial insemination of cows, I was quite horrified. The video, with its quick montage of distressing images and clips, had quite a strong impression on me; but I’m still not vegan: nothing ‘clicked’ in my brain. Does this make me an uncompassionate person? I suppose that a vegan would believe so.

As a student, I do not have a huge amount of control over the quality of meat I buy, due to limited finances: so, I’ve taken to only buying British chicken, and avoiding red meat altogether (at home, we buy from a local butcher). These are the efforts I make to support farmers who rear poultry and cattle more humanely; yet, for a vegan, that question becomes irrelevant in the long run of animal welfare – if you really cared, you wouldn’t eat an animal at all. Similarly, can dairy farming ever be cruelty-free if we’re altering a cow’s natural mode of living, and physically adapting their bodies to our own needs? These are questions which I’ve been pondering a lot more recently. Yet that sudden revelation, the desire to abandon animal products once and for all, has not come to me. I don’t know if that makes me a less moral person; or that I’m still very much socially conditioned; but I just don’t want to stop eating meat and fish, leave behind cheese and milk, and say goodbye to proper cake and chocolate.

Moving on. I visited Chia, a vegan café in a little town called Hitchin, with my vegan friend (who, by the way, was the least likely vegan in her teenage years. A rack of ribs was no match for her; she’d devour packets of meaty crisps; and she loved cheese just as much as I do. But she made the transition, and has never looked back.) For a vegan restaurant to open in a place nearby to me is a great thing, and reflective of a bigger market in healthier, more environmentally responsible ways of living.

 

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We were seated upstairs, and ordered nachos and bean chilli to share, followed by individual ‘buddha bowls’. The nachos disappeared rapidly as we waited for the bowls, and were satisfyingly tasty. There’s no need for meat in chilli, I find, and sweet potato is my much-preferred alternative; and this version substituted that nicely with a variety of beans, served with guacamole, cool salsa, and a sprinkling of nutritional yeast. I did, however, lament the absence of warm, slightly coagulated cheese on the nachos: the nutritional yeast gave a good flavour, but, alas, not quite a sufficient replacement.

 

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The ‘buddha bowl’ is something I’ve been recreating myself for quite a while, and it’s one of my favourite comfort meals. At the end of the week, I pile whatever needs eating up into a bowl with sweet potato chips, and perhaps lentils, sweetcorn, broccoli, kale, and olives; and because I’m not vegan, I’ll cut off a slab of feta cheese and crumble it in. A nice hummus or dip compliments this perfectly, with the lentils drizzled with balsamic dressing, and topped with coriander and cracked black pepper.

 

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Back on subject: Chia’s buddha bowls. They were presented with a beautiful array of bright colours: avocado, red cabbage, kale, red quinoa, and carrots, finished artfully with a lime and tahini dressing. I happily ate the lot, but my friend and I both did have our reservations: the avocado was shamefully underripe; the cabbage came in sizeable strips and was difficult to cut; the carrots, warmed by the quinoa, were slightly sickly sweet; and the dressing was a bit too tangy for out tastebuds. I felt great after eating the buddha bowl, but hungry again a few hours later; according to my friend, this is a common feature of her diet – to eat a big plant-based meal and feel peckish soon after.

 

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Before leaving, we ordered hot drinks. I opted for a raw cacao hot chocolate, an entirely new phenomenon for me, but one which left me quite disappointed. Cacao – unrefined cocoa powder – is very bitter, and there was nothing in the drink to mitigate this taste. Even after having requested a shot of peppermint syrup, I had to resort to returning the drink downstairs in embarrassment: the bitterness was gone, but replaced with an overpowering mintiness (too much syrup!) The waitress kindly exchanged it for an almond milk latté, which proved a much better choice. I also sipped a matcha latté, which I shall never return to again – the taste was strongly reminiscent of boiled greens. A distasteful throwback to dinners of my childhood.

I feel as though I have been slightly overcritical in this post – but I did actually really enjoy my lunch at Chia. It’s got a lovely atmosphere, simple decor, and a team of young and polite staff. Bearing in mind there were only three people working there, service was prompt; and everything was extremely well-priced. I would love to go back for brunch and try their chia porridge, give the superfood salad a go, or drop in for a slice of banana bread and a hazelnut mocha. As my friend said, for those new to vegan eating, what we ate may not give the best impression – but this isn’t a fair reflection, bearing in mind that there’s a variety of dishes on the menu. I just perhaps won’t be ordering a cacao hot chocolate or a matcha latté on my return.

 

http://chianaturallyhealthy.co.uk/

(Photos courtesy of Rhiannon @ http://vieenvogue.blogspot.co.uk/  )

 

 

Dinner at Zizi

I love the odd meal out. The little splurge, the termly treat, the special occasion. This time, the occasion was my lovely friend Laura’s birthday. She decided that she wanted to go to Zizi, an Italian chain restaurant located on Lendal, near the River. With a generous 40% discount using an NUS (National Union of Students) card, Zizi beckons to the discerning student, on their continuous prowl for a bargain.

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Already decked out festively for Christmas, Zizi’s interior is warm and inviting. I particularly appreciated the quirky water jugs, and the sight of the huge open oven behind the counter.

After the opening of birthday cards, and much studious examination of the menu, we ordered starters: I shared a dish of jewelled gnocchi with a pepperonata dipping sauce, and spent an enjoyable ten minutes musing over the possible flavours of each colour. Having never tried gnocchi, I was quite pleased to become acquainted with it; it reminded me strongly of the potato croquettes eaten on the occasional school-night dinner in my childhood. But, of course, these gnocchi were slightly more grown-up.

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Also on the table were two starters of garlic bread, a starter of ‘Little soul’ bread (available with dips), and a generous pot of calamari with a garlic and aioli dip. The bread was served on rustic wooden platters.

Moving on to mains, I ordered lamb meatballs, with casareccia pasta (miniature penne), spinach, garlic, and plenty of mozzarella, all baked in the oven. The meatballs were soft and coated in a flavoursome tomato sauce. I thoroughly enjoyed the dish, finding the portion size exactly to my liking. To drink, I tried a seasonal strawberry and peach cooler; very sweet but still refreshing, with a sprig of rosemary adding a complimenting splash of green.

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Between them, my friends ordered two lasagnes, which came to the table bubbling quite fiercely, as freshly-cooked as could be. Zizi’s menu consists of generic Italian dishes such as bolognese, and a wide range of classic and skinny pizzas, fish dishes, calzones, salads, and risottos. The waitress was friendly, and the waiting time between courses wasn’t long, but left enough time for us to decide on dessert. The drinks menu is very diverse, and I do wish I’d opted for a cocktail – the spiced apple mojito was a temptation I sadly resisted.

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Lasagne al forno

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Spaghetti bolognese

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Skinny pizza primavera

Dessert was a no-brainer, it being a birthday, and the discount rendered the extra expense nothing more than a trifle. The popular choice between us was the chocolate melt, a pudding oozing a warm chocolatey sauce, and served with a scoop of vanilla gelato. I bowed instead to my craving for ice cream, and savoured a scoop each of chocolate (by far my favourite), honey, sea salt and mascarpone, and white chocolate and caramel swirl. The seasonal scoop on the menu unfortunately didn’t exist; but I enjoyed the chocolate substitution all the same.

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Overall, the meal formed part of a very enjoyable evening, and I would visit again – the food trumped the likes of Pizza Express, and with that NUS discount, it makes for an affordable night out. But with or without that bonus, I’d reccommend Zizi with good faith!