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 17, 2012

BV London Pub of the Year - part six

And so, the BV London Pub of the Year 2011-12 competition hurtles towards the finishing line like an inebriated Mo Farah.

For this, the final batch of shortlistees, we're heading to the deep South... of London.

Before I come on to the pubs, I'd just like to say that I completely and utterly regret the decision to put 16 pubs on what is supposed to be a 'short' list, which has made for bloody hard work. I'm a fucking idiot, especially given that some of the 16 haven't even been that good.

It has, however, clarified my thinking as far as next year's competition goes.

Next Summer, the 2012-13 BV Pub of the Year shortlist will be limited to 10 pubs - this years top five, plus five new entries, nominated by readers over the next few months, or CAMRA award winners or whatever. Maybe even just pubs I happen to like a lot.

Hopefully then the competition can continue in this format for years and years and years until, well, either I die or I get bored of blogging.

It does mean that there will be 11 pubs who are guaranteed not to be in the hat next year though, so the pressure is on...

Pub #14: Catford Bridge Tavern, Catford

The second of two Antic pubs on the shortlist, the Catford Bridge Tavern opened its doors in its current guise just a few months ago – though clearly the actual pub building has been there a lot longer. Probably about 100 years longer, though it’s sometimes hard to tell with Mock Tudor.

It's easy to find, being right next to Catford Bridge railway station, which itself is right next to Catford railway station, giving you a choice of trains if you're into that sort of thing.

In keeping with the Antic ethos, they're putting in plenty of effort engaging with their customers, both in the pub and via social media, and the Catford drinking scene has been transformed utterly.

Quality of real ale: As with most Antic pubs there’s a commitment to doing real beer well. Probably about as well as a ‘something for everyone’ chain can expect to. There’s still some work to do before they get maximum points, but the beer is usually pretty good and worthy of a solid 2.

Range of real ale: Typically between four and seven ales are available, usually each lasting two or three days. The range changes all the time, but I sorta get the impression that turnover isn’t always as brisk as they’d like (or I’d like, come to that) so occasionally the selection looks a little disappointing, particularly at the start of the week. But usually there’s a couple of interesting beers in the mix and they ensure a range of styles including plenty of stronger and darker beers. Another score of 2.

Some very good food!
Food:  I've had some disappointing food at Antic pubs and I've had some very good food at Antic pubs - it's not like Wetherspoons where menu decisions are made centrally and you know exactly what to expect.

Fortunately the Catford Bridge has a very good chef, with his own twitter presence, and a concise but varied menu is available every day except Mondays.

This week, for example, I enjoyed a nicely season potted crab with Laver mayonnaise and homemade soda bread (£6) followed by a Rib-Eye steak with chunky chips, a beautiful giant mushroom, watercress and delicious pink peppercorn butter (£14). And to finish, a warm walnut and whisky tart with clotted cream (£4.50) which went very well with a glass of Lagavulin.

There's a separate table-service area for food, and it's about as good as pub food gets. My only criticism would be that they would only do the steak rare rather than my preferred blue, but it was a fine piece of meat nonetheless. The Catford Bridge definitely picks up the food point, and it would be nice if the kitchen staff from the Leytonstone Red Lion, an Antic pub that got a negative point for their food, paid them a visit to learn a few lessons!

Bonus points: Three dedicated cider pumps with an ever-changing range from small producers earn an extra point, and the range of snackettes including Soffles Pitta chips are a sure-fire way to earn another.

Only two bonus points are possible, but they could also theoretically have more for their enjoyable quiz nights, enlightened music policy (entire Beatles albums, 70s and 80s classics, 90s Ambient, contemporary alternative, you name it!) and the overall laid-back atmosphere. One Saturday night recently, Mrs B-V and I stayed here until it closed at 1 AM and I commented that I hadn’t enjoyed myself as much just sitting, chilling in a pub late at night for absolutely ages.

The Catford Bridge is only a couple of miles from me, which won't affect their score, but I consider it a blessing!

Pub #15: Trafalgar, South Wimbledon

If you're lived in the area, you'll know that South Wimbledon is a very different area from Wimbledon itself. It's probably the fault of London Underground who, in the 1920s, built a tube station in an area only ever known Merton and called it South Wimbledon (Merton), giving rise to the name. They were even able to drop the (Merton) suffix after a time, and South Wimbledon was born.

Upmarket Wimbledon Village with it's million pound houses at the top of the hill recently lost its only decent pub, the Brewery Tap. And Wimbledon Broadway - an exciting area for drinking in the mid-1990s - has been going downhill for some time and is usually swarming with young nightclubbers which really isn't my sort of thing these days.

The Traf
But humble South Wimbledon still has 'the Traf' - a tiny, friendly local set amid a housing estate which often featured in The Bill when they wanted a gritty, rough estate to film on. But this little gem keeps on winning South West London CAMRA Pub of the Year. And it keeps on winning for a reason!

Quality of real ale: I've never lived close enough to the Traf to be a regular, but I've been going there sporadically for as long as I've been drinking. The current licensees have been there for over a decade now and the beer has always been good. 2 points.

Range of real ale: Apart from a house ale from the Pilgrim brewery, the range changes all the time, with a focus on relatively local breweries from London and the southern home counties. Beers from Dark Star, Twickenham, Ascot and Kent all appear regularly, and there's usually a mild and another dark beer available.

It's not always the best pub for 'ticks', but normally a solid, varied selection and that's worth another 2.

Food:  Being so small, it's not really a food pub, but they occasionally do foodie specials, like their 'curry and a pint' nights which are decent enough. No point, but no point taken away either.

Bonus points: It's a genuine local freehouse, and the Traf does things their way. You might not think that such a small pub would be suitable for hosting live jazz bands, but somehow they can and do, and it works! Local Morris Men also occasionally perform outside, and free, traditional entertainment is definitely worth a bonus point.

They have also hosted some excellent beer festivals which earn them a further bonus.

Whenever I drink in the Traf I always muse that if I lived on the 'Sun Hill' estate I'd probably be in here every night. I'm acutely aware that you can't always fully glean the specialness of a true local from you're looking from the outside in, but even to an outsider, the warm and welcoming nature of the Traf is obvious.

Pub #16: Le Gothique, Wandsworth Common

The final pub on the shortlist fairly unique, existing as it does within a vast former prison-cum-hospital-cum-MI5 base!

Their all-you-can-drink beer festival earlier this year pretty much guaranteed them a place in my heart, and on the shortlist, even if the place is a pain to get to.

A perfectly typical pub exterior...
Quality of real ale: It's seems to be a common theme, but this is another score of 2. The beer is perfectly good here, but doesn't usually have the 'wow' factor that the tiny number of pubs which earn 3s manage to achieve somehow.

Range of real ale: The range is smaller than at most of the pubs I'm reviewing, except during special events and beer festivals, and there's not always a choice of different beer styles.

It sounds a tad harsh, but unless for some reason I happened to be in the Wandsworth Common area, I'd probably only come here for a beer festival or a special event as at other times the beer range is, I'm afraid, only worth a 1, which isn't worth going out of ones way for!

Food:  There's a proper sit-down restaurant as well as the bar, and it's good quality with a French theme. It's been a while since I dined there admittedly, but I can recall some excellent cold meats and cheeses, and sensitively cooked fish dishes. It's proper food, and worth a point.

Bonus points: Le Gothique specialises in interesting events. As well as the excellent beerfests, there are themed food evenings (such as American on the 4th of July and an English Country Garden Party next week, which I'm planning on attending). Clearly a bonus point for these, and another for nice snacks available in the bar (you'll know by now how important pork scratchings are to me!)

I could also see a case for giving a point for the sheer uniqueness of the building, so they definitely get the maximum of 2 bonus points.

So, that's Le Gothique...

... And that's 16! Phew! I've now got some deliberating to do amongst my myraid personalities, but it shouldn't be long before I'm able to reveal the top five, and, of course, the outright winner!

Until then, all these pubs are good - go and visit them!

Where to find it...

Catford Bridge Tavern
Station Approach,
Catford Bridge,
SE6 4RE (map)


23 High Path,
SW19 2JY (map)

Le Gothique
The Royal Victoria Patriotic Building,

John Archer Way,
SW18 3SX (map)

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