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

Monday, May 28, 2012

Unchained eateries - a treble-mega review

One of my faithful readers - as opposed to an unfaithful one, presumably - recently noted that I’ve been reviewing a fair few chain restaurants lately.

While she didn’t quite stray into ‘criticise the critic’ territory, I detected a hint of ‘you can do better and I’m ever-so-slightly disappointed’ in her general tone, as if she thought somebody as interesting and eccentric as I should be looking beyond the boring, everyday chains.

In my defence, there is a method to the blandness, if you will: I aim for most of my reviews to be relevant to a pretty wide audience, and a broader range of readers will be able to experience Café Rouge or Haché by simply locating their nearest branch, rather than having to trek somewhere a long way away.

But I do take the point that independent restaurants are generally – though not always – superior, and so today I give you three of my favourite independent, one-of-a-kind restaurants. My 'chain reaction', as it were.

(OK, I'll stop making the sort of bad pun that has to be followed by 'if you will' or 'as it were' now. I can't believe I did it in consecutive paragraphs. What the fuck was I thinking?)

You might have to travel further to check them out, but these are places worth going out of your way for. Even if that means going to Tooting.

I’m talking Curry. I’m talking Pizza. And I’m talking Kebabs. Three of the major food groups.

And if you happen to live locally to one of these undiscovered gems, you're in for a big fat bastard of a treat. I guarantee it.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The B-V popularity contest

If I gave you three guesses as to what the most read post has been, since I started this little bloglet 18 months or so ago, you'd almost certainly fail.

Perhaps one of my insightful reviews of a top eatery such as Gaucho, or maybe a bold, experimental recipe like the Full English Breakfast Linguine?

Nope. Not even close.

So, what can people actually be arsed to read around here? How about the recent Cattle of Waterloo? Surely that deserves immeasurable popularity just for having such a brilliant title?

Apparently not. I hope you like surprises.

The winners

In fact, the most popular post according to Google Analytics (who, like the man in the pub, are never wrong about these things) consisted of a bit of faux-reactionary right-wing ranting and an indifferent review of a tiny, obscure hummus and falafel stand in Canary Wharf which might not even be there any more.

Organic Chickpeas. What. The. Fuck?

They'll be as surprised as I am!
Are you all fucking sandal-wearing hippies?

What's more, it's over 50% ahead of it's nearest rival. Astonishing.

While I had no idea that organic chickpeas were the single most important thing in the world to my readers, the second place is rather less surprising though.

My open letter to James Watt built on a piece I'd written in the London Drinker magazine, and given that Brewdog have been in the news an awful lot over the last couple of years, it's not that unlikely to imagine people stumbling upon my views thereon.

Indeed, I've blogged on subsequent occasions about them as my relationship with the company deteriorated before your very eyes, and that unrequited letter, written over a year ago, now seems eerily prophetic.

And bad news for drinkers is clearly something we're all interested in, as the third most-read article was last week's report on the tragic closure of St Jude's, proving that news does indeed travel fast in the Blogosphere. It's still gaining on the top two, not that this will bring any comfort to Frank or any of his ex-customers.

But a thrashing for Gaucho and the breakfast linguine, nonetheless, both of which are nowhere near the top three.

The losers


So, which posts have been read the least? What have you bastards been callously eschewing in favour of watching paint dry, or the One Show?

Well, there's this year's Shrove Tuesday blog about pancakes. Obviously nobody gives a fuck about them these days.

And my review of the food at last year's Lambeth Country Show which, ironically, featured chickpea dishes that were a lot tastier than the falafel and hummus from that wretchedly noteworthy place. Surely that deserved better?

But the least-read post of all was what I hope is actually a rather intelligent and considered opinion piece questioning why the government lowered duty on beers below 2.8% ABV when there were hardly any such beers available.

Obviously if the Organic Chickpeas stall did a low-alcohol Hummus Ale, people would be clamouring for a piece of that blog action like flies unto a turd...

None of this really means very much, of course, and all the posts that I've mentioned today will now benefit from the trackback links and will disproportionately gain, so we'll see Organic Chickpeas extend its lead and the bottom-feeders edge up slightly to be replaced by some other post that no cunt can be bothered to read.

Meanwhile, I'll send the falafel hippies a telegram of congratulation. On ethically-sourced recycled paper, obviously. Smug wankers.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Maple Shortbread Sandwich - the feelgood dessert

Following a busy Saturday of drinking and bidding a fond farewell to the St Jude's Brewery Tavern in Ipswich I felt I was due a nice restful Sunday.

While I was glad I made it there for the final night (the last of the beer, Blackfriars Yarmouth Bitter ran out at about 10 PM), my heart was heavy with sadness on the long train journey back to South London.

Big Frank's embittered goodbye speech at St Jude's
I'm certainly less enthused than I was about the prospect of starting my own brewery and pub than I was a few days ago. Seems like no matter how good your pub is, the bank can, as Frank eloquently puts it, 'fuck you over without warning' at any time.

Sigh.

And so, to the kitchen for some theraputic baking, which isn't something we do all that often, but it's a rewarding activity when we do. An indulgent dessert might cheer us up, mightn't it?

This is a simple but very tasty recipe. The secret is to use good quality butter (Beurre d'Isigny or something from the Channel Islands is usually ideal) and a proper maple syrup rather than a 'maple-flavoured' version made from carob or high-fructose corn syrup or some other crap.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Adieu, St Jude

I'm aware that I've blogged rather a lot about pubs and beer lately, and deviated a bit from my original intention to mix things up by alternately interspersing recipes and restaurant reviews'n'shit here and there, so as to ensure a constant stream of variety.

Well - sadly for those strange folks who aren't at all interested in beer - this is going to be yet another beery one because I heard some rather sad news last night.

The patron saint of lost caus
The St Jude's Brewery Tavern in Ipswich is closing. This Sunday.

And it's one of the best pubs you'll ever find.

It was the undoubted highlight of my last visit to Ipswich just over a year ago - shortly after the place opened - and I feel a bit like I've just lost a relative who I didn't visit as often as I perhaps should've.

A little bit of background: I lived on the west side of Ipswich for many years and moved away in 2009, before the tavern opened. But I was there when St Jude's started brewing, in tiny, quirky, backstreet premises and I got to know the owner/brewer/visionary Frank fairly well. And his appalling jokes. And his excellent beer.

Ironically I first met him in another truly great former pub on the west side of Ipswich - the Rose and Crown - to which he supplied beers like John Orford's Strong Chocolate Malt and St. Mary's Stout. He invited me round to see his brewery the following day and plied me with free beer. That's Frank. Always generous. Always cracking bad jokes.

The closure of the Rose and Crown felt like losing a limb, and the loss of St Jude's will hurt too, even though I don't live locally and thus haven't been able to make it my local. God knows what the regulars must be going through right now. It's ironic that Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.

Located just around the corner from where I once lived, I'd probably never have left the place had it opened while I was still there.

Although in a converted photographer's studio, it's styled after the taverns of old London town.

Wall of beer!
The philosphy is simple: a vast 'wall of beer' on gravity and kitch, gothic decor that makes the place feel like a ghost train or haunted fun house for adults. The staff all know their stuff and there are no handpumps and no keg beer at all.

There is plenty of space for some cracking guest ales in addition to regular beers from the St Jude's brewery and the pub is as friendly as it is quirky. Paradise.


So sad it ends


Unfortunately Frank is now suffering from health problems and the opening of a second St Jude's pub in Felixtowe didn't go as planned, closing just a couple of months after opening, adding financial problems to his health concerns.

Gloriously, Tastelessly Gothic!
The way I see it, Frank got pretty much everything right, which makes it all the more heartbreaking that somehow things haven't worked out. He certainly doesn't deserve this.

Despite being a justified success in it's own right, fate has conspired against the St Jude's brewery tavern, but it's got to be worth one last visit.

I've rearranged my weekend plans to make the trip up to Ipswich for a few beers, and to toast Frank and his wife Colleen who made this dream happen, if only for a short while. 

I might even offer up a prayer to St Jude.

If you're anywhere near the Ipswich area this weekend, I'd strongly recommend doing the same.

There might never be another pub like this! 



NOTE: photos here have been taken from the St Judes Brewery Tavern Facebook group.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Czech this out

The Tweetosphere can be a great thing

OK, so 99.9% of it consists of boring people telling the world stuff that they either know already or don't want to know, but occasionally it throws up nuggets of usefulness.

Earlier today the White Horse in Parson's Green (aka the Sloaney Pony) tweeted that this evening they would be featuring something very rare indeed, and a few hours later I was there, drinking the stuff.

It interested me as a beer ticker looking for rare scoops, but this wasn't just any old one-off, special beer. It was an unfiltered, unpasteurised cask version of Pilsner Urquell

While the vast majority of output from the Czech brewery for decades has been fizzy keg beer, at which I'd turn up my nose, I applaud them for at least making gentle movements in this direction. Let's not forget that they are a part of the International SABMiller group, which has hitherto done fuck-all for real beer. It's a bold step.

A bitter Pils to swallow...
About eight people in 'Pilsner Urquell' shirts turned up to set up the promotional stand and tap the cask with considerable fanfare. Perhaps overkill for what was essentially just a pint of lager, but it's a significant pint of lager nonetheless. Indeed a pint of lager capable of winning arguments and potentially turning the beer scene on it's head.

Nicely but not brain-freezingly chilled, naturally carbonated, and with that slightly spicy, bready character that Czech lagers often have, it was undoubtedly superior to the same beer from bottle, can or keg, which begs the question: why isn't real Continental lager more widely produced, either here or anywhere else on the planet? It's bloody good stuff.



Get Real!


I actually purchased a half of keg Pilsner Urquell just so I could compare the two side by side, and there was no contest. The cask version was fresher, hoppier, and just, well, infinitely superior in every way. I'm not known for being a huge fan of Czech lager, but I'd happily drink this all night. With a curry it would be quite magnificent.

Indeed, the experience assured me that I'm right in my point of view, and that the arrogant approach of 'craft' brewers like Brewdog and Camden Town who dropped cask beer altogether in favour of keg is so absolutely wrong-headed and misguided that there can be no excuses. No defence. No justification.

Surely they have to admit that they're not doing it because keg beer tastes better, but because it's easier to produce and manage and more profitable - the exact same reasons all the big breweries tried to eradicate real ale in the 1970s. The same big breweries that Brewdog love to criticise.

I've always argued that any beer of any style will taste better in cask form, and that all beer was 'real' before they started pasteurising and artifically carbonating in the middle of the last century.

Some folks - like beer writer Tim Webb in his rebuttal to a piece I wrote for London Drinker - take an opposing view, but I'd desperately urge anyone who thinks that cask isn't always best to try the beer I had tonight. Sample it side by side with the keg version as I did. I challenge you.

Here in Britain we were lucky enough to have CAMRA to stand up for, and preserve traditional conditioning and dispense. Just because other countries weren't so fortunate doesn't mean they shouldn't revive the old ways though, and people who claim otherwise are missing a trick.

It would also allow marketing departments to stop misleading the public so brazenly. Kronenbourg might actually resemble the way it really was back in 1664 if they did it in cask to an original recipe, rather than the result of a reboot 300 years later when keg dispense came along.

I'm a long-time CAMRA member, but one of my biggest criticisms of the organisation is the hypocrisy at our beer festivals where foreign keg beers are regularly featured. 

There are some who would like us to move further in that direction and who would have CAMRA condone or even promote British keg beers. 

And to these people I say: Fuck Off.

Fuck Off and start a new organisation if that's how you feel.

The whole purpose of CAMRA was to save cask beer from an encroaching tide of inferior keg. Without that focus, it's a subjective beast at best.

I've long acknowledged that, yes, a good beer in keg form is better than a bad beer in real form, and it doesn't matter one jot for the purposes of this argument. The point is that the same beer is always at it's best when in good condition from the cask.

I've tried Pilsner Urquell the way it would have been decades ago and it's better than the way it's usually served now. The fact that it's lager from the Czech Republic is irrelevant. The great truth is no less true than if we were talking about mild from Manchester or IPA from Aberdeenshire or anything else.

Meanwhile, I got the impression that quite a few casks have come over from Pilsen and the promotions team will be going around several pubs, so take the opportunity to try it if you possibly can.

It might be the best pint of lager you ever drink.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Ravensbourne Blandburger

I quite like Antic pubs.

From humble beginnings a few years ago they’ve slowly and quietly encroached on the South London drinking scene, with little fanfare, and have done so by being decent little individual pubs rather than a uniform chain.

They are probably a reminder of what Wetherspoons must have been like during their early years (not so much in their style and ethos, but in the fact that they have a style and ethos, if that makes sense).

In their dimly-lit, cluttery homeliness, Antic pubs are home to vast quantities of second-hand furniture, with old lampshades that look like the ones we had when I was a kid, and comfy, tatty sofas whose cushions once accomodated the tired arses of people now long-dead.

OK, so they’re completely different from Spoons. They have music playing, they don't have a chain newsletter or limited beer list, and they’re bringing bar billiards and jug glasses back into the mainstream.

Plus they always seem to take over existing pubs, whereas Wetherspoons like their shop-, bank- and church-conversions.

But there's a drive to turn each and every pub they own into something better - and they've taken over some right shitholes, like the Royal Albert in New Cross which is fast becoming my local (despite being a long walk away).


While the beaming, avuncular presence of Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin is decidedly visible at all times, Antic head honcho Anthony Thomas prefers to keep a low profile – at least for now - and uses Social Media effectively to build a loyal fan base without 'over-branding'. It's as though every one of his pubs is an individual child of his, free to develop in it's own way and largely do its own thing. And nobody has any idea what his views on the EU might be!

'The Antic Collective', as they call themselves, have brought decent beer back to pubs that had lost their way under previous management, and it’s usually interesting beer too. Some of their pubs might only have three or four real ales on but it’s an ever-changing range, and it’s far better for a pub to have four beers that change every couple of days than ten beers which remain the same ad infinitum, no?

A proper pub indeed!
I’ve also been impressed with their approach to food, having enjoyed a duck egg Welsh rarebit and some fried pigs cheeks in the Royal Albert in New Cross recently.

The menu changes every day and is concise but varied, with about 10 different dishes available, and the quality has always been good with everything seemingly cooked fresh, to order.

So, when we popped into the Ravensbourne Arms in Ladywell the other day for a lunchtime pint of Saltaire Rye Pale and a game of table football (in which I defeated Mrs B-V 11-2) I was intrigued by the Aberdeen Angus Burger on that day's menu.

I'd spent the morning having strange, diagnostic things done to my eyes at the hospital and my vision was a bit blurry, but I can see the word 'burger' from miles away, and my eyesight didn't stop me reading the menu any more than it stopped me winning at table football. Nah nah, na-nah nah!

Beef me up, Scottie


It's eight quid, or nine with the additions of Stilton and bacon which I went for, and for that you get a huge plate of food - more than I could comfortably manage at lunchtime.

There was a veritable mountain of chunky, skin-on wedge-chips which were excellent and nicely seasoned with just the right balance between softness and crunch. These went very well with the pot of house mayo, which has a hint of chilli and garlic.

Also eminantly eatable were the onion rings (although there were only two of these, on the plate - one medium and one large). The batter was thick and unctious, with a flavour of it's own and reminded me of the king prawn/chicken/pork balls you get from Chinese takeaways.

There was also a nicely dressed salad, which I like to have with a burger as it refreshes the palate between big gobs of dripping, cheesy meat.

So far, so calorifically good. But what about the actual burger?

Well, I'm sorry to report that it was the most disappointing thing on the plate. By far.

Actually, I'm not sorry to report this. That's why I spend literally minutes writing this blog, after all!

The patty was big and thick, and cooked medium-ish, with some pinkness and juice. It certainly looked alright on the plate (to my blurry eyes) but where was the flavour?

Appearances can be deceptive...
Seriously, it was blander than watching My Family, with the sound turned down whilst listening to Daniel O'Donnell. While heavily sedated.

Whereas high-end burgers these days often use flavoursome forerib and rump meat, this was definitely assembled from lesser cuts, with too much fat and gristle and an almost absolute lack of beefiness.


Oh dear

I suspect that decades of marketing wank has led consumers to believe that 'Aberdeen Angus' somehow always indicates the highest quality, when in reality it's just a breed of cow. And while I understand why they might do it, people who put the menus together really ought to know better. For fucks sake, guys, please just stop trying to exploit this misleading stereotype, and it might go away in a few years.

Before I get complaints from the Aberdeen Angus marketing board, yes, meat from Angus cattle can be very good indeed, but I'd rather eat the tastiest bits of another breed than the blandest Aberdeenshire has to offer, thank you.

The bun was of the everyday sesame variety, perhaps a little over-toasted, and did nothing to de-blandify the affair.

Worse still, the single rasher of back bacon and tiny quantity of Stilton inside also added remarkably little in the way of taste. It's like they took the least smokey bacon and the mildest Stilton they could find to top off their insipid burger, which is a great shame because the onion rings and chips were excellent.

OK, so compared to a burger at a Wetherspoons pub, or a fast food chain it's a modest improvement, mainly due to the other stuff on the plate, but in 2012 when London diners are used to the standards set by Byron, Haché and MeatLiquor, pub kitchens should at least be raising their game in the burger department.

They could start by researching where the superior burger vendors source their meat and buns and follow suit - if it costs a bit more, then charge us a bit more. Please!

I like Antic pubs for lots of reasons, and maybe one day I'll give the burger a go in another of their pubs, in case this was a one-off.

It reminded me of my experience a few weeks ago at the Cask Pub & Kitchen. Decent pub does decent food, but when it comes to the burger the clock strikes disappointment.

Where to find it

Ravensbourne Arms
323 Lewisham High Street
Ladywell

London 
SE13 6NR (map) 
*********

But, for the burger:

*********
Antic pubs offer a changing daily menu and have pubs across London (though concentrated in the SE area)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wort Experience Boy

I've been thinking lately - semi-seriously, which is often as serious as my thinking gets – about a radical change of career direction.

Beer.

Yep, full time drinker. Saw it in the Guardian jobs pages today. £120k plus car plus performance-related per-pint bonus.

That job doesn’t actually exist, mind, and even beer tasting and writing for a living is perhaps an unrealistic aim at the moment, much as I’d love to believe otherwise.

But what about starting up my own micro or brewpub?

It’s a growing market (even within a wider brewing industry in overall decline) and saturation doesn’t appear to have been an issue for all the new craft brewers that have popped up in the last few years, so it might be a good time to get into the microbrewing scene.

The trouble is, I’ve almost no experience, and that which I do have is worthless. I’ve only once attempted a home brew, about 15 years ago, and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. Sorcerer was intended to be a session bitter at around 3.8% and I decided to dry hop it because, well, almost all beers in that style are better dry-hopped in my view.

With my shiny new equipment that my father got me for my birthday that year, the brewing seemed to go well, but for whatever reason, it came out very thin and overly astringent. I’ve no idea what the final strength was (almost certainly sub-2%) but it was almost impossible to drink because of the intensity of the raw, unbalanced hoppiness.

Perhaps more telling is that, following this failure, I had little drive or desire to repeat the experience or try to improve upon it. I also lack an appetite for manual work and long, antisocial hours, so I might have my work cut out trying to make it as a brewer, given my general reluctance to brew and eagerness to quit.

So I, to coin a phrase, 'sux major donkee dix!1' when it comes to brewing, but I'm actually a pretty good digital producer. Seems like a strong argument for sticking with my current career, and keeping my relationship with beer in the 'drinking it and occasionally writing about it' zone, no? 

But… what if I were to collaborate with somebody with a skillset complementary to mine? Somebody to do all the stuff I don’t want to do!

OK, that sounds selfish, I know, but they wouldn’t be doing all the work for none of the credit. No, really. Hear me out, guys.

See, I’m highly creative with several years experience in design and marketing, and I have a fairly broad knowledge of beer styles from all over the world, as well as experience drinking in, and writing about, pubs and bars of all descriptions. And I’m not completely clueless when it comes to general business skills either. 

And, whatever I think of them right now, Brewdog have proved, by expanding faster than probably any brewery, that these kinds of marketing and design-y things aren’t completely worthless and superficial in the beer industry.



Help Wanted

If I was writing the spec for my dream new job at a dream new brewery it would say ‘Creative Director’ at the top. The creativity is the important thing for me (though like all creative people I live in the bottom-quaking fear that one day somebody will confront me with irrefutable proof that I've never actually had an original idea).

Maybe one day...
I’d design the beers (and the marketing collateral, pump-clips, website etc.) and lead the overall business strategy. 30% more Citra hops for the Yorks and Humber region; Change the logo to include an actual Ocelot; Quintuple Stout for Russian Independence Day! Let’s kick some brewing ass to fuck!

And if we were an American-style brewpub with a full menu, I’d take responsibility for the food as well – joining up the food, the ale and the overall ethos into a holistic, singular experience. OK, I’m starting to talk toss now, but you get the idea. I’d be good at this stuff. 

If I were recruiting for this role, I’d hire myself, and I have little doubt that with the ideal business partner, we could come up with some of the greatest beers in the world and, crucially, make a success of the venture.



But, back on earth, before any of this shit can possibly happen, I’ll need to find the Yin to my Yang; The Science to my Art; The Head Brewer to my Creative Director. 

So, if there’s anybody out there with commercial brewing experience, the requisite technical knowledge to bring ideas to life, and a vague itch to get involved in something like this but perhaps without wanting to go it alone, please feel free to drop me a message. Maybe we can meet for a pint to discuss the possible venture? 



Maybe it will go somewhere, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’m a pipedreamer rather than a visionary. Maybe we’ll just drink a load of somebody else’s beer and talk about the injustice of Coventry City getting relegated? 


Or maybe we'll bring untold joy to thousands of thirsty people? That's got to be worth a shot, right?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cattle of Waterloo - Browns vs Rouge

What do you lie awake at night wondering about?

(If indeed, you lie awake at night wondering about anything at all, obviously)

Perhaps you're a City tosser worrying that the FTSE is losing billions of pence at the expense of the Franc, whatever that means?


Perhaps you wonder whatever happened to Ringos crisps or the original entrance to the Louvre?

Or maybe you're just extremely curious about which mid-high-level 'smart-cas' chain restaurant does the best steaks: Is it the classic quintessentially English Browns or the cheeky French pretender Café Rouge?

I rather hope it's the latter, actually, because I've been doing a little research in this area by eating steaks at both places in the last week.