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!
ʼʼ

Friday, July 20, 2012

BV London Pub of the Year - part three

OK, so with a week to go, this Olympics shit is starting to annoy me just a little now.

It's not just the overcrowding (which is going to get a hell of a lot worse with every passing day) or the nonsensical changes to bus routes and train timetables, but the fact that most of us Londoners who will have to contend with weeks of hell haven't even managed to get decent tickets ourselves thanks to a ridulous ticketing system.

Having spent hours selecting stuff and submitting forms on their website at various times over the past year, I've ended up with the brilliant footballing spectable that is Gabon vs North Korea at Wembley, and one session of Paralympics athletics. Pfft.

And then there's the beer. Or, rather, there's the lack of beer. That's making me angry too.

The corporate sponsorship monster has decreed that our national drink, real ale, will not be served at any of the Olympic venues because the only food and drink that may be consumed must come from one of the tiny number of grotesquely massive corporations that have paid megabucks for 'exclusivity', namely Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Heinekin. Fuck that.

So London 2012 will be as lacking in London beer as it will be lacking in Londoners. It could have been a great platform to showcase some of the many excellent breweries that have sprung up throughout the capital in recent years, but, no, everybody will have to drink fizzy Dutch lager instead. For shame, you cunts, for shame!

Furthermore, despite being several miles away from the games, Brew Wharf is going to be closed for many months with the site given over to some sundry Olympian purpose. Will it reopen, and if it does, will it ever be the same again?

I've no idea, but it's yet another Olympics-related thing that's pissing me off, and while I'm sure the owners have been handsomely paid off, the uncertainty means that they miss out on a BV Pub of the year nomination. Hah, take that!

It's a shame because they do excellent food and agreeably hoppy beers, but an award from us will have to wait.

There are, however, two other pubs in the Borough Market area on the shortlist, and indeed one that is very close to the Olympic Park. How will they fare against the other contenders? Let's find the fuck out...

Pub #5: Market Porter, Borough

Over the last 15 years the Market Porter has attained legendary status amongst beer tickers, and indeed was probably the catalyst in the transformation of the Borough Market area from a bunch of mediocre pubs for tourists and office workers into London's de facto beer centre.

Actually, thinking about it, they can't take all the credit. The first pub in the area to really specialise in interesting guest ales was the Wheatsheaf, two doors away. The Market Porter was merely the first pub to copy them in earnest, but then the Wheatsheaf was taken over by Youngs and it's own range deteriorated somewhat, just as the MP was going from trength to strength. The old 'Sheaf ended up closing some years ago now, so a huge railway bridge could be constructed over it, though it might possibly be reopening at some point.

A home from home for beer tickers
Anyway, the past is pretty much irrelevant as far as this contest is concerned. It's what the pub is like now that matters. And it's still a ticker-Mecca, but is it anything more than this?

Quality of real ale: The range is everything here, and while the beer is generally fine, it's not usually outstanding and very occasionally, I've had a bad pint. For that reason, it's only worth a 2.

Range of real ale: Here there can be no arguments. About 12 beers on at any time, and almost all are seasonals, rarities and one-offs. Basically the beer range is aimed squarely at the ticker market, and every one of their 3 points is richly deserved.

Food: I've eaten at the MP far less often than I've drunk there. While there is a separate restaurant area upstairs, I've never considered it anything other than fairly basic pub food (and last time I ate there, they put some kind of margariney spread in my sandwich without asking, which meant I couldn't eat it). With all the amazing places to eat in Borough Market, there's no reason to dine here, and no reason to give it any points either.

Bonus points: The churlish, reactive part of me would be tempted to do things like deduct a point because it's often so fucking unbelievably crowded, or award one because there is plenty of eye-candy behind the bar... but I won't. (Not that it would make any real difference if I did because the two things would cancel each other out...)

They can have +1 for the Black Country pork scratchings though, especially as they were one of the first London pubs to start doing them. And after that it's hard to think of areas where they really excel. A few years ago, the Market Porter would have been walking contests like this,  but there's more competition these days. Including some just around the corner...

Pub #6: Rake, Borough

Just a couple of minutes walk away from the Market Porter is London's smallest bar. Probably. It's certainly one of the smallest, though they punch above their weight in the beer department.

It's also pretty unique with it's continental styling and emphasis on beer from all over the world. Initially spun-off from Utobeer, an off-licence in Borough Market, so they could start doing draught beer, the Rake has grown in reputation over the last few years and inspired a surge of modern-styled craft beer bars.

The tiny little Rake
Quality of real ale: Fairly obviously, cask beer is only a small part of what the Rake does. There are only three handpumps, compared to about eight keg taps and one of the biggest selections of bottled beers from around the world you're likely to find anywhere.

That said, they only used to have one real ale at any given time when they first opened, so this has been an improvement, and, crucially, the quality is always very, very good indeed. Uncommonly good enough, in fact, to earn a 3.

Range of real ale: A year or two ago, I'd have given the Rake two points, despite them only having three handpumps, for the simple reason that the three beers on were almost always beers that you'd struggle to find elsewhere.

Unfortunately they have deteriorated a bit in my view. Maybe it's because they've opened the Tap East and are sending the interesting beers there? Maybe it's just because the beers that would once have been more or less exclusive are now showing up at other pubs? Maybe they just realised that their customers would rather drink a relatively common but excellent beer like Dark Star 'Hophead' or Otley 'Columb-O' than something obscure at a higher price?

Whatever the reasons, the current selection at the Rake is only really worth 1 point, but I must point out that sometimes new and rare cask beers are launched here. Just not often enough!

Food: No kitchen, obviously, given the size of the place, so no points lost or gained.

Bonus points: The special events at the Rake are usually worth attending. Their beer festivals, where the range of real ales available increases dramatically guarantee them one extra point. On the other hand, the keg and bottled range is interesting enough to give them another, so while they're not really cask-focussed, they do care about beer. 'No crap on tap' proclaims the signage. Good stuff.

So it's +2 I guess, which befits the uniqueness of the Rake. I've resisted the temptation to deduct a point on the basis of price. Some beers here are very expensive indeed, but these tend to be the rare occasional imports (at £13.20 a pint, Brooklyn 'Blast' was the most expensive I've ever bought! And it wasn't even all that great!)


Pub #7: Tap East, Stratford

Located in London's newest postcode, E20, and a (peripheral) part of the vast Westfield Shopping Centre, the Tap East impressed me with their beer when I visited shortly after it opened. I visited again recently and it continues to impress.

By far the easiest way there is to go to the new Stratford International station and follow the signs for Westfield, though I wouldn't recommend going anywhere near this part of the world over the next few weeks, obviously.

Quality of real ale: It's run by the same people who run the Rake, and clearly beer quality is extremely important to them. It's hard to fault their own beers (well, they should know how to serve them the right way, shouldn't they!) but it's also noticable that many of the guest beers here actually tasted better than when I'd tried them elsewhere.

They come close to matching the Rake with a maximum, but it's 2 points won here.

Bratwurst and beer
Range of real ale: Typically there are six beers on at any one time, with a good mix of their own varied ales and ever-changing guests. The number of handpumps isn't vast, but being a brewpub means that their beers aren't normally available elsewhere, and the range of styles is enough to earn them a solid 2

Food: The menu is fairly limited and the kitchen is usually limited to salady things with sandwiches or pies, but there are exceptions. The other day they were launching a new German Koln-style beer, and were serving hot bratwurst with smoked cheese and sauerkraut to go with it. Some innovative touches, but you wouldn't come here to eat so no points gained or lost here.

Bonus points:  As with the Rake, the range of keg and bottled beers is interesting enough to earn an extra mark, but the toilet facilities (I'm sorry, facility, singular!) are a real issue when the place is crowded, and this has to mean a point taken away.

But they'll get a plus one for the bar snacks - cashews, chilli rice crackers and pork scratchings served in little dishes. Always something you want to see when you're in the midst of a drinking session, and worth the extra point. This works out at the full +2 bonus points.

There are clearly little things Utobeer could do to improve both their London pubs, but it's another respectable performance - and that sums up this latest batch of contenders, really. A bunch of respectable pubs, but nothing really in a position to challenge the Craft Beer Co.


Where to find it...

Market Porter

9 Stoney Street,
Borough Market,
London
SE1 9AA (map)
********* 
 
The Rake

14a Winchester Walk,
Borough Market,
London
SE1 9AG
(map)
********* 
Tap East
Lower Ground Floor,
Westfield Stratford City
London
E20
1EJ (map)
********* 

2 comments:

  1. I would have to agree with most of the above. A fair review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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