While chain restaurants aren't necessarily as interesting to read, or indeed write about as other more high-falutin' places, I still believe that if somewhere does something well it's worthy of recognition. So, here's just a brief round-up of a few good chains I've enjoyed eating at recently.
First was Prezzo in Norwich, which Alyn and I popped into for a quick pit-stop supper to line our tummies before a night of heavy revelling to celebrate Norwich's first ever Gay Pride last Saturday. Like the festival itself, the meal surpassed expectations; we shared some excellent calamari fritti, a fresh, crisp mixed salad and a tasty Vesuvio pizza, as spicy as the name suggests (the heat provided by pepperoni and red chillis) without completely blowing the mind like Pizza Express's crazily-hot, similarly volcanically-named Etna. Service was kind and charming, the decor chic and modern, and the bill pleasingly tiny considering the excellent quality.
In much the same vein, and in much the same name, Zizzi in Surbiton delivered a very pleasant casual dinner experience when Andrew and I dropped by this week for a can't-be-arsed-to-cook meal early one evening. Already busy when we arrived, by 8.30 the large, long room was packed to the rafters with suburbanites enjoying, as we were, the generous helpings of imaginative pizzas and pastas. The dough sticks with aioli which we ordered to nibble while waiting for our mains were excellent, salty and pleasingly chewy and especially moreish when dipped in the sweet, punchy aioli. Mains were both good, Andrew's rigatoni pollo e funghi offering up plentiful amounts of both chicken and mushrooms in a good tomato sauce, and my spicy meat calzone - looking for all the world like a giant Cornish pasty - was a delicious, rich parcel of meatballs, bolognese sauce, pepperoni and crunchy green chillis. Although some of the menu descriptions bordered on twee, the wine list impressed me with its concise, helpful descriptions of the mostly Italian wines; our 2006 Rioja Crianza was, as stated, 'filled with fruit and vanilla' and a great robust accompaniment to our hearty, heavy meals.
Finally, and bringing things bang up to date, I enjoyed a very good dim sum lunch with Paulie today at the branch of Ping Pong handily located just seconds from both our offices. My first, and until today only, experience of Ping Pong at another branch had been marred by atrociously slow service, but today's meal had no such problems. After an oddly laborious negotiation process as to where we were going to sit - it took two staff to agree on where the 'nicest' place to sit was - we ordered half a dozen dishes and some green tea, all brought to us quickly by smiling, efficient staff. Our selection of steamed dim sum included prawn and chicken shu mai and pork and chicken and cashew dumplings, all very good, some wonderful seafood sticky rice and a little indulgence of fried duck pancakes which disappeared in seconds. The green tea, made with fresh leaves in a pouch suspended atop tall glasses filled with hot water from a copper kettle, was theatrical in its presentation, delicious and cleansing in taste, but slightly labour intensive to actually drink. The bill for two of us including service was comfortably under £30, although Paulie had to pay this (thanks babe!) because annoyingly - and for a chain, surprisingly - Ping Pong have ceased to accept American Express which was the only card I was carrying.
None of the above were necessarily the most exciting meal I've had recently, but they were all good enough in their own way to earn a recommendation. I'd happily return to any of these restaurants or one of their branches next time I want good, quick, cheap food and can confidently recommend that you consider doing the same.
Prezzo, 2-6 Thorpe Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 1RY and branches. tel: 01603 660404 http://www.prezzoplc.co.uk/
Zizzi, 38 Victoria Road, Surbiton KT6 4JL and branches. tel: 020 8399 4160 http://www.zizzi.co.uk/
Ping Pong, 3 Appold Street, London EC2A 2AF and branches. tel: 020 7422 0780 www.pingpongdimsum.co.uk