ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, August 19, 2011

A week in the life of a Birley king

One of the things I’ll miss most about Canary Wharf when we leave will be Birley's.

In an area where hungry bankers and regulators are decadently spoilt for lunchtime choice Birley still stands out like a bready, meaty beacon in an uber-competitive field of lunch.

Unless you obsess about these sorts of things in the way that I do, you may not be aware that there are actually five, no, six Birley outlets on the Wharf, all with different specialities? That’s one for every day of the week – if you fudge the maths, which we will, obviously - and whereas going to the same place for lunch everyday would normally turn out to be rather tiresome, I always felt that Birley’s range is so diverse that one could quite happily go there every day and not feel cheated at all.

So guess who’s spent this week going to a different Birley shop every day?

Pic from Birley's website but  they do look like this in real life!
That’s right, Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone! Oh, alright, it was me.


This was, apparently, the first Birley’s to open on the Wharf and it’s home to the Ben Viveur award-winning BLT. As well as assembling a sandwich in front of you, you can also choose from the large and varied range of pre-prepared (but fresh) sandwiches on display, many of which are designed to be toasted.

I went for one of these - the roast beef, mushroom and cheddar in Barbaree flatbread – and it was a gooey, meaty delight, perfectly balanced, and with onions and pesto adding plenty of bite. Nearly five quid, but plenty of it, and one of the best toasted sandwiches I’ve had for a while.

The filling and bread combinations are bold and exciting here, and if you’re after any kind of ‘premium’ sandwich you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

I also took the opportunity to try their caramelized pecan cheesecake which was a full-fat winner, with a buttery biscuit base, subtle caramel flavours running through the cheese and sweet, crunchy pecans on top.

Even if Birley just consisted of this one shop they’d be pretty fucking good.


About five yards across the shopping centre floor from the original Birley’s is their ‘Soup and Salad’ outlet, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

There are two counters inside, one with a vast salad bar where you can choose exactly what combination of iceberg, cous-cous, croutons and blue cheese dressing you choose, and one where you can pick up hot soup with bread which is what I plumped for.

The Cazuela and Muligatawney both tempted me, but not quite as much as the flagship Cuban Beef soup. Birley seem to be good at doing stuff with beef, so who am I to argue with that.

And it’s a decent soup too. Good chunks of proper beef , tempered with potato and kidney beans, just the right level of chilli and plenty of bitter herbs

There’s a choice of half a dozen or so soups - maybe eight or nine, I wasn’t counting - and at £3.95 for a ‘large’ tub with bread it’s pretty reasonably priced

My only criticism is that ‘large’ isn’t that large and I’d rather pay a quid more and have a larger portion with a bit more bread.

As lunches go, it’s ‘light’ rather than ‘filling’, but then who said that everything Birley do has to be huge and satisfying? And it is literally five yards away from a place that does big fuck-off sandwiches if you’re still hungry of course.


With a vast and delicious team lunch at Byron in my calendar, today’s Birley had to be breakfast, and ideally something not too heavy.

The Birley Salt Beef Bar, about which I’ve previously blogged glowingly, offers a breakfast salt beef hash, made from the previous days leftovers, which I’d been meaning to try for months but the problem with this place is that it’s so popular they often run out of things. By half, their flagship breakfast product was all gone I had to choose something else.

Nevertheless, a bacon and egg sandwich with brown sauce and a large black coffee was just what I needed. It’s hard – though not impossible - to screw up and they didn’t.

Birley do a lot of fairly fancy stuff – they call it ‘artisan’, mind - and do it well but they can also get the basics right, and this was as good a breakfast butty as I’ve had for a while.


Feeling the need once again for something big and satisfying I sought out the baguette bar underneath Canada square.

You might not be able to tell at first glance that this is a branch of Birley’s as it’s an open servery slap bang in the middle of the shopping centre thoroughfare, just before you get to Waitrose.

All they do is long, thin baguettes, with a modest but well thought-out range of hot and cold fillings – and in keeping with the Birley ethos, plenty of it.

I like this place a lot, and usually go for cold rare roast beef with rocket and horseradish or ham, swiss cheese and spinach, but today I plumped for a hot filling – chorizo with roasted red peppers and spicy mayo.

The baguettes here are particularly good value, generally costing somewhere one side or t’other of £3 each, and you don’t have to pay a premium to eat it in the small seating area either.


I had been expecting to go to five Birleys in five days, but as the week drew to a close I realised there was yet another outlet I was vaguely aware of but had never been to, hidden on the indoor route to the Jubilee line from Canada square – just around the corner from the baguette bar, in fact, but I hadn’t been past it for a few months and kinda forgotten about it.

This brought the total to six, and thus in order to get through all of them this week, Friday would have to be a double Birley day. What a hardship!

So I grabbed breakfast from this branch – which is actually pretty big and does the hot soups and an extensive sandwich range – opting for a tub of porridge with maple syrup and nuts.

It’s probably been at least a couple of years since I ate porridge, to which I’d always been indifferent but what a pleasant surprise. It was properly oaty, rather than sludge, with a hint of cinnamon, the almonds and pecans gave a nice crunchy texture and combined well with the maple syrup with added sweetness and depth.

They say, well some do, that porridge is particularly filling for its mass and calorie content. Something to do with high GI or something. Anyway, they're sort of right because at lunch time I didn't feel particularly like lunch.
But the quest had to be completed, and I headed off to the farthest afield Birley on the Wharf - the only one you actually have to go outdoors to reach, in fact.

It's located in the Churchill place food court, it's the newest and biggest Birley of them all, and it does a bit of everything, specialising in salads and toasted paninis.

I was planning to have a salad, maybe with prawns, but in a last minute change of heart I went for the turkey, bacon and emmental panini.

Unfortunately the last Birley sandwich of the week turned out to be the most disappointing. Perfectly edible, but a little lacking in flavour and not all that filling and certainly not worth £4.95.

I guess Birley has to provide smaller, blander options for people who like that sort of thing and I just made a bad food choice on this occasion and I'm not the kind of person to let a moment of indifference poison a reputation for the spectacular.

If you're some kind of God and you're thinking of creating a world or something in a week, make sure you eat Birley every day.

When we move to Holborn I'm really going to miss you guys...

On The Wharf...

Birley - Cabot Place West
Cabot Place West
Canary Wharf,


Birley Soups & Salads
Cabot Place West
Canary Wharf,

Birley Salt Beef
Lower Level, 1 Canada Square,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5AX  

Birley Baguettes
Canada Square Mall,

Canary Wharf,

E14 5EQ

Birley - Canada Place Mall
Unit 23a, 1 Canada Square,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5AX  
Birley - Churchill Place
2 Churchill Place,

Canary Wharf,

E14 5RB


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