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Gourmet food vs mass market: We put a critically acclaimed London eatery head to head with a chain restaurant in a mystery shopper test to show how £35 can buy you two VERY different meals…

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The mission was simple: a restaurant rumble – gourmet versus mainstream.

I spent £35 in critically-feted restaurant Leroy – a Shoreditch eatery with a strong Italian influence that won a Michelin star in 2019 and retained it until February 2024 – and then in high-street equivalent Prezzo, a popular Italian family chain.

Why? I wasn’t hoping to kickstart type-2 diabetes, I assure you. But with people so often defaulting to a chain restaurant when they’re looking to get bang for their buck, do they really represent the best value? 

High-end restaurants will frequently offer fixed-price set menu lunches on weekdays – it helps spread word about the restaurant’s cooking and train-up staff for the more intensive dinner service. So, the three-course set menu lunch at Leroy it was – then to see what £35 would get me at Prezzo. 

So, which offered the best value for money? Are gourmet restaurants stuffy, pretentious and boring? Did I have to take a nap after my meals? (Spoiler: yes.) Read on…

LEROY

Katrina set out to spend £35 in gourmet restaurant Leroy and then the same in high-street equivalent Prezzo, a popular Italian family chain. Leroy offers three courses for £35 as a set lunch on weekdays

Katrina set out to spend £35 in gourmet restaurant Leroy and then the same in high-street equivalent Prezzo, a popular Italian family chain. Leroy offers three courses for £35 as a set lunch on weekdays

Leroy (above) won a Michelin star in 2019. High-end restaurants like this will frequently offer fixed-price set menu lunches on weekdays to spread word about its cooking and train-up staff

Leroy (above) won a Michelin star in 2019. High-end restaurants like this will frequently offer fixed-price set menu lunches on weekdays to spread word about its cooking and train-up staff 

'With hardwood floors, smoky jazz, and natural light, Leroy (above) has easy confidence, like George Clooney,' writes Katrina, who adds: 'It's a restaurant so aware of its assets it doesn¿t have to brag about them'

‘With hardwood floors, smoky jazz, and natural light, Leroy (above) has easy confidence, like George Clooney,’ writes Katrina, who adds: ‘It’s a restaurant so aware of its assets it doesn’t have to brag about them’

Haute cuisine queen: Katrina says the one chink in Leroy's otherwise perfect veneer was a pricy wine list - but the drinks were 'staggeringly good'

Haute cuisine queen: Katrina says the one chink in Leroy’s otherwise perfect veneer was a pricy wine list – but the drinks were ‘staggeringly good’

If you expect starched white linens and a reverential, solemn atmosphere from high-end restaurants, Leroy may surprise. With hardwood floors, smoky jazz, and natural light the whole joint has easy confidence, like George Clooney – a restaurant so aware of its assets it doesn’t have to brag about them. It doesn’t want anything from you but for you to have a good time.

The menu, which changes weekly, doesn’t over-write itself. No extraneous adjectives or obscure farm names in sight. No foraged foodstuffs, deconstructed dishes, or modish foams. In short – nothing pretentious.

The waiters are friendly and unobtrusive – knowledgeable and helpful when I ask questions, dissolving into the kitchen like benign apparitions when I want to be left alone to moan contentedly at my food.

I inhaled a starter of wood-roasted winter vegetables, roast garlic, and hazelnuts. Soft, hushaby-sweet veg (this is great produce) balanced perfectly with the satisfying crunch of hazelnut. An acrid knuckle-crack of raw garlic in the dressing was notably perky, leaving a pleasant burning in my throat like a dram of excellent whisky. I kept having to remind myself to slow down.

The Leroy starter: Wood roasted winter vegetables, roast garlic, and hazelnut. Katrina described it as 'soft, hushaby-sweet veg' that was 'balanced perfectly with the satisfying crunch of hazelnut'

The Leroy starter: Wood roasted winter vegetables, roast garlic, and hazelnut. Katrina described it as ‘soft, hushaby-sweet veg’ that was ‘balanced perfectly with the satisfying crunch of hazelnut’ 

Katrina said the garlicky winter salad 'left a pleasant burning in my throat like a dram of excellent whisky'

Katrina said the garlicky winter salad ‘left a pleasant burning in my throat like a dram of excellent whisky’

Not a looker: Choux farci of veal and chicken livers with mashed potatoes. What it lacked in appearance it made up for in taste, Katrina declares

Not a looker: Choux farci of veal and chicken livers with mashed potatoes. What it lacked in appearance it made up for in taste, Katrina declares

The Leroy dessert was 'a sticky, plump doughnut, titivated with pearly pink rhubarb and carrying a custard payload'

The Leroy dessert was ‘a sticky, plump doughnut, titivated with pearly pink rhubarb and carrying a custard payload’

The main: choux farci of veal and chicken livers with mashed potatoes. Yes, choux farci is French. Please let that go – it just means stuffed cabbage, as the waiter obligingly explained.

It was not a looker. Indeed the hefty dumpling – complete with clearly demarcated veins from the cabbage leaf – did look a little like a bull’s testicle. But what it lacked in appearance, lord! Did it make up for in taste. Buttery mashed spuds – the kind you wished your mother made – smoothed out the iron-rich diced veal and chicken, happily cuddled up to the ferrous tang of oil-drenched spinach.

No element overpowered any other: it felt perfectly harmonious. Yes, veal is an ethically dubious foodstuff; yes, chicken liver is scary seventies food. But boldness in ordering and faith in Leroy’s chefs paid dividends. I wasn’t eating food as punishment; it wasn’t a showboating dish designed to ‘challenge’. This was what I refer to as a ‘bedroom meal’ – a dish so good it elicits low groans and delicate sighs as if… well, you catch my drift.

Dessert: a sticky, plump doughnut, titivated with pearly pink rhubarb and carrying a custard payload. Here I had to put down the spoon – ineffectual at piercing the syrup-drenched skin – and rip apart my pudding by hand. Lips, fingers, cheeks ended up sugar-tacky. A giddy, child-like sugar rush to an otherwise elegant, relaxed time.

The bill for Leroy: £35 for three-course set menu, £24.50 for two 125ml glasses of wine and an £8 gratuity

The bill for Leroy: £35 for three-course set menu, £24.50 for two 125ml glasses of wine and an £8 gratuity

I was utterly replete but not bilious. What a meal.

PROS

Inventive yet simple food, knowledgeable staff, staggeringly good wine, great vibe.

CONS

Wine was pricy (£11.50 for a 125ml white wine), only two options per course.

Star rating: 4/5.

Cost: £35 for three-course set menu / £24.50 for two 125ml glasses of wine / £8 gratuity.

Total cost for food: £43.50.

Visit: www.leroyshoreditch.com.

PREZZO

Prezzo, on Brighton's Marina. Adore choice? You¿re well served - Prezzo offers 34 main courses

Prezzo, on Brighton’s Marina. Adore choice? You’re well served – Prezzo offers 34 main courses

In Prezzo, Katrina noticed that the leather seats were 'frayed and weathered'

In Prezzo, Katrina noticed that the leather seats were ‘frayed and weathered’ 

Pumpkin and mozzarella arancini, 'bobbling atop a moat of truffle mayonnaise'

Pumpkin and mozzarella arancini, ‘bobbling atop a moat of truffle mayonnaise’

Katrina enjoyed a 'small bucket of fiercely chilled Gavi' in Prezzo that proved 'reassuringly unobtrusive'

Katrina enjoyed a ‘small bucket of fiercely chilled Gavi’ in Prezzo that proved ‘reassuringly unobtrusive’

Prezzo on Brighton Marina is a cavernous space: seated at a booth, I noticed the leather seats were frayed and weathered – this wasn’t a spot that cared too much about its appearance. No matter. The food is what I cared about.

This is clearly a multi-generational restaurant. There is nothing here to alarm, and something to satisfy – if not precisely impress – any palate. Pastas, pizzas, even burgers, billowing big desserts. The menu items feel reassuringly familiar, even the Italian words.

Adore choice? You’re well served. While at Leroy you had two options for each course, at Prezzo I counted 34 main courses.

My waitress was a lovely woman. I asked which was driest white wine. Wide smile. ‘I don’t know!’ No problem. I ordered what turned out to be a small bucket of fiercely chilled Gavi, which was reassuringly unobtrusive. By the meal’s end, I was glad of the size of the pour.

Don’t get me wrong. I really liked my waitress. I’m not sneering at her. It was just a stark contrast – a lack of food and beverage training in evidence versus the Leroy staff, who could have written a dissertation on their menu, which changes every week. The menu at Prezzo is fixed. You can tell from the wipe-clean plastic.

To begin, I went for pumpkin and mozzarella arancini. Four arrived, bobbling atop a moat of truffle mayonnaise. They roused a note of optimism – gosh, how light these were, when arancini can so often offer a claggy wallop.

Spinach and mozzarella cannelloni: Katrina's issue with it was that she 'could have made it better'

Spinach and mozzarella cannelloni: Katrina’s issue with it was that she ‘could have made it better’ 

The flavours were muddy, yes, but as deep-fried mush went it was very reassuring. I couldn’t taste any truffle in the mayonnaise but it did smack gorgeously of lemon. So far, so good. Worth the £9.25 price tag? Not if I thought about it, no, but I did have a good time snuffling them down and drawing on my wine.

For my main, I opted for the spinach and ricotta cannelloni. A warming pile of fresh pasta, cheese and sauce sounded restorative. Oooh, it was piping hot. That’s where the superlatives ended.

I am not a snob, but my primary issue here is that I could have made the dish. In fact, I could have made it better: the tomato sauce had the thick thwack of a supermarket jar of passata, homogenous to the point of anonymity.

It wasn’t bad, but we were back in the realm of hot mush – a nursery dish. I ate most of it, felt stonkingly full, and wondered why a restaurant that operated at scale charged £17.95 for a meal a hair better than one you pierced the film on.

Sicilian Lemon Meringue Pie: 'An abundance of albumen agitated into a comically large peak'

Sicilian Lemon Meringue Pie: ‘An abundance of albumen agitated into a comically large peak’

'The slightly wet, granulated meringue' let Katrina down, but the curd was 'great' and the pastry shell 'would have the judges on Bake Off waxing rhapsodic'

‘The slightly wet, granulated meringue’ let Katrina down, but the curd was ‘great’ and the pastry shell ‘would have the judges on Bake Off waxing rhapsodic’

I had high hopes for pudding: Sicilian Lemon Meringue Pie, my desert island dessert. The meringue wobbled promisingly; an abundance of albumen agitated into a comically large peak. Tooth-tinglingly sweet, the slightly wet, granulated meringue let me down, but not for lack of grandeur. Props, though, to a great curd, and a pastry shell that would have the judges on Bake Off waxing rhapsodic.

I used to live with four teenaged boys – I know how important portion size can be to many. I’m not sniffing at the notion of providing an abundance of food, which is what one theoretically gets from Prezzo.

But if it’s value for money, it’s not really offering that. The only truly unique selling point for Prezzo was that it was out of the house – there was nothing to the food that you couldn’t eat at home having raided Marks and Spencer’s ‘Our Best Ever’ range.

The bill broken down: Starter £9.25, main £17.95, dessert £8.50, £12.25 for 250ml wine and a £4.59 gratuity

The bill broken down: Starter £9.25, main £17.95, dessert £8.50, £12.25 for 250ml wine and a £4.59 gratuity

PROS

Generous portions, plenty of options, genuine, friendly waitstaff.

CONS

Hefty price tag for average food: it’s a great thought, being able to satisfy a whole family, but not if you have to remortgage the house to feed your brood spag bol.

Star rating: 2.5/5. 

Cost: Starter £9.25 / main £17.95 / dessert £8.50 / £12.25 for 250ml wine / £4.59 gratuity.

Total cost for food: £40.29.

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