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!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

BV London Pub of the Year 2012-13 - part one

Alright, you. The waiting is over.

It's time for this years Pub of the Year award, and what a Pub of the Year award it's going to be. We're gonna get a trophy and everything this time!

Today we'll be reassessing last year's top five to see if they're still up to scratch, while in part two the five new challengers will be unveiled.

Following some feedback from landlords I have decided to change things a tiny bit - pubs that don't have 'a kitchen' but who do provide cold snacks like pies and scotch eggs will now be eligible for a point (or indeed a minus point) for food. Otherwise, the scoring system is the same as it was last year.

I've drunk in (or perhaps been drunk in) all ten pubs several times over the past year and in between pints of Black IPA and bags of pork scratchings I've formed some strong opinions. Then I've discarded them, re-formed them, like re-formed ham, and finally come to some pretty fucking conclusive conclusions.

Hold tight, we're going for a ride. To the pub:

Last year's #1: Craft Beer Company, Clerkenwell

The original Craft celebrated their 2nd birthday the other day, and in those two short years they've built up a sterling reputation, expanded into newer branches in Brixton, Islington and Brighton and stuck resolutely to the winning formula that has made them famous. Well, mostly.

Quality of Real Ale: The Craft continues to serve cask beer in condition that can only be described as fan-fucking-tastic. It's obvious that nobody joins the team without a good understanding of the product or solid in-house training, and the result is a brilliant pint, time after time after time.

BV's Birthday at the Craft
The big thing that some pubs get wrong is serving their cask ale too warm, especially in these sticky Summer months when we're all sweating like a bastard and desperate for something colder in our throats. But at the CBC, they always get the temperature right. 3 points out of 3 here.

Range of Real Ale: It pains me to say it, but if I could turn the clock back 18 months to when I worked just around the corner from this place, I probably would. Last time out, they picked up maximum points, but while the quality is as good as it's ever been, the range over the last year hasn't been a ticker's wankfest.

Don't get me wrong, the beers on offer are good; they still have a shitload of handpumps and try to keep different styles represented, but the same beers from the same brewers tend to show up over and over again. Time was when you could turn up in Clerkenwell and be more or less guaranteed several pints you had never heard of before. Nowadays it's more hit and miss, with beers from the standard Dark Star and Thornbridge ranges taking up a lot of space on the bar - and while they might be in better condition here, these are beers that you can find in lots of other places.

Maybe they put in bigger orders these days now that there are other pubs in the estate, but, like Viz, it's not as good as it used to be. Unfortunately this means a downgraded score, though it's still a solid 2. (And, as luck would have it, on my birthday there were plenty of interesting beers on!)

Food: Limited to a range of pork pies and Scotch eggs with mustard, the cold fayre provided is of high quality and is good for soaking up the beer. Would you go out of your way to dine here? Fairly obviously not, and there's no veggie alternative as far as I know, so the Craft will neither gain nor lose a point.

Bonus points: As well as 16+ handpumps, the Craft boasts, I believe, 21 keg lines and the range of interesting keg beers from Europe and the US as well as British craft brewers is obviously worth a bonus point.

They can have another one for a snacks range that usually includes unusual barbecuey pork scratchings and Soffles Pitta Chips, and while I'd possibly consider deducting a point for their sometimes rather high prices, they'd get another in the plus column for the bottled beer range.

Whichever way you slice it, the maximum 2 bonus points apply here.

Overall the Craft is almost as good as it was a year ago, with just a slightly more predictable beer range, but the competition has definitely improved over the last 12 months - some of it provided, ironically, by the new pubs in the CBC chain.

Last year's #2: Harp, Covent Garden

The winner of multiple CAMRA awards, the Harp's location and small size ensures that it is always packed to the rafters - indeed it might hold some sort of record for the most handpumps per square foot or something.

Quality of Real Ale: I have to admit, I think the Harp has gone downhill, just a bit, over the last year. I know the pub is famous enough and decorated enough that it could probably keep on running forever on reputation alone, and maybe that's part of the problem.

Spot the duplicates
The beer here is still good of course, but most of the time it doesn't blow my mind. Really good cellermanship can make even the sort of bland, crystal-malty beers I don't like come alive, and I'm just not getting that at the Harp any more. Good, but not exceptional, and this year it's 2 points in this category.

Range of Real Ale: Every year on The Apprentice there is a 'smell what sells' task, which basically involves finding out popular products, stocking and re-stocking the bastards and selling the same shit over and over again.

I think this is happening at the Craft and it's clearly an ethos that has taken hold at the Harp too. They have lots of handpumps and there are usually one or two interesting surprises, but a lot of the real estate on the bar is reserved for their favourites: Sambrook's, Dark Star, usually one or two from Red Squirrel.

It's another case of 'good, but not great' this year. 2 points.

Food: The 'menu', such as it is. is limited to sausage sandwiches, and then only usually for a couple of hours each day. These are perfectly fine, but it's really not a food pub so no points gained or lost here.

Bonus points: The Harp has one of the biggest range of real ciders you'll find in central London, which is worth a point and the bar snacks are worth another one. I'm going to take away a point for the toilet facilities though which really are quite disgusting at times - so much so that I try to hold on until the next pub or even pay 30p to use the beacons of cleanliness at Charing Cross station.

Overall it's a net 1 bonus point, which adds up to a rather disappointing showing from last years runner-up.

Last year's #3: Catford Bridge Tavern, Catford

What a year it's been for the CBT.

CAMRA Pub of the Year, but will it be mine?
Back in the Autumn they were under threat of closure. Then the worst happened. The owner tried to sell the pub, and there was real danger that a supermarket would spring up in its place.

Although the pub did end up closing temporarily for a few weeks, people-power saved the day, with an unprecedented display of pro-activism from the local community. The pub then won CAMRA SE London Pub of the Year and has become, without a doubt, the jewel in the crown of the Antic Pub company.

Unfortunately - as of today - we've just found out the pub is now at risk of closure once again and we could be facing a battle to keep it in it's current hands.

Quality of Real Ale: The pub has gone from strength to strength in every way, and this is illustrated in no better way than the quality of the beer.

It was always pretty good, as are most Antic Pubs to be fair, but over the last year it's got even better and I now feel confident that the place deserves the highest accolade - a 3.

Range of Real Ale: The number of ales on at the CBT varies depending on how busy they are (which is, of course, related to their ability to ensure every beer is in top condition) but whether they have three ales on or eight, there's almost always something interesting and a big choice of styles - strong IPAs, milds, porters and fruit beers from myriad breweries all share bar space, which is exactly the way it should be.

It's a community pub with a few nice surprises rather than a dedicated ticker destination, but a score of 2 is well deserved. 

Food: Quite simply some of the best food I've ever eaten in a pub. The menu is concise but varied and consistently delicious, and available until 10 PM.

The CBT's excellent food
I've tried the steak (which comes with a stunning chilli butter-soaked mushroom and huge chips), the Sunday roast, the bangers and mash, mushrooms on toast, some honey, whisky and oat thing... and generally everything I've eaten here is superb. Fair value too.

It's not the time nor place to bang on about it, but they'd hold their own against good restaurants and it's a shame that food is only worth one point here.

Bonus points: Where do you begin? It's a proper community local with quizzes and live comedy'n'shit, but none of this is ever intrusive because of the multi-room nature of the pub.

They recently hosted an excellent beer festival with plenty of rare and interesting ales - it was a struggle to tear myself away from the place.

And then there's the range of real ciders and perries, craft keg, a strong wine list, local fruit cordials... they get the maximum 2 bonus points in a heartbeat.

All of this makes the thought of the place closing down a truly chilling one.

If the CBT survives the latest threat of closure - and we all pray that it does - I'd suggest that the staff of every other pub in the Antic chain haul their impressionable arses down to Catford to see how it's done, because it's done fucking perfectly.

In less than two years the team have transformed this pub into something - and somewhere - very special indeed.

Last year's #4: Southampton Arms, Gospel Oak

The bare-bones, 'back to basics' charm of the Southampton might not be to everyone's tastes, but for those who like their pubs beer-oriented and their pies better than any other pies in the world, it's a great place to while away big chunks of your life.

Quality of Real Ale: If they only served their beers a tad cooler, I'd be giving this place maximum points because they really do know how to look after their beer. I know that temperature is very much a personal preference, but pubs that win brownie points with me will probably lose them with CAMRA who'll find them too cold, so it's swings and roundabouts. In a big subjective playground of beer.

It's close, but it's a marginal 2. And in this part of North London where many pubs would score -1, that's an achievement.

Range of Real Ale: You don't need 15 or 20 handpumps to showcase a varied selection, so long as you think smart and don't put on too many similar beers at the same time.

This pub really gets this; while they usually have about eight ales on, there's almost always a mild, a stout or porter, and something like a wheat beer on, as well as a range of bitters from weak to strong and from hoppy to malty.

Crucially they haven't fallen into the trap of trying to have customers favourites on more or less permanently, meaning that there is more freedom to experiment. It's borderline again, but I think they can just about sneak a 3.

A pint and a big pork sandwich - life seldom gets better than this!
Food: There aren't many pubs without a full kitchen where you'd go to eat, but this is actually one of them. As I was telling you a year ago, their pork pies are, quite simply, the best I've ever tasted, but it doesn't stop there.

In the early afternoon, they put a big joint of roast pork on the bar and serve hot pork rolls with apple sauce and mustard, which is stonkingly good, hearty beer food and worth the bonus foodie point. Reasonable prices too.

Bonus points: With all that porky goodness, you might be in the mood for some cider and the Southampton has probably the best range of real cider and perry in London. With a bank of dedicated cider pumps and everything ranging from super sweet to bone dry on tap, some of it from very small producers, this is about as good as cider gets.

Other areas where they can pick up bonus points would include their decor - bare boards, no machines, old, slightly out-of-tune piano - and general atmosphere, the big friendly dog and the range of bar snacks for when the pork and pies have run out. The maximum 2 points are easily scooped here.

If I lived anywhere near the Southampton Arms I'd be in here all the time. As it is, I rarely go anywhere near Kentish Town without popping in - it's a gem.

Last year's #5: Euston Tap, Euston

The Euston Tap caused some controversy after making last year's top five by objecting to being described as a 'pub', but I won't hold that against them in this year's competition (though I might very well continue to call them a pub!)

Quality of Real Ale: Sometime, back during the Winter I think it was, I had a bad pint in the Tap - an actual unpleasant one, vinegary and everything.

This experience hasn't been repeated, and quality is usually very high, but it's not something I'd have expected based on previous experiences.

Probably the best Tap in the Euston area
I'm not sure whether it's right for one bad pint to blot their copybook, but at the same time I know that the places I give three points to have never served me a poorly-conditioned pint. Overall I'll give the Tap a 2.

Range of Real Ale: The Tap seems to like the same breweries as me, which is a happy coincidence, and they are a good bet for the rare limited editions going around - The Thornbridge Alchemy series, and Arbor's Hoptical Delusions for example.

While they tend to stick to a fairly small subset of breweries, they cover all stylistic bases and I can't remember ever going into the Tap and finding nothing of interest to me. For that reason it has to be a 3, and as at the Southampton Arms, it's proof that sometimes a pub with eight ales on can bring more choice to the table than one with 18.

Food: It's a tiny little cube outside a station. Of course they don't do food. You can order in American-style pizzas which are at the upper end of the home delivery spectrum though clearly nowhere near what you'd get in a good Italian restaurant. No points gained or lost.

Bonus points: You'll pay a pretty penny for it, but the keg range is extensive, global and occasionally even enough to tempt the most staunch real ale drinker away from cask momentarily, so that's worth a point.

Otherwise it's almost a utilitarian sort of place. Convenient for the station, good for beer but a bit cold and impersonal. The sort of place you stop in for a couple on the way to somewhere else. But we need pubs like this, just as we need welcoming community pubs where you can linger for hours and become part of the shabby furniture.

So, that's last year's top five reassessed - you can see who is in contention for the grand prize and who has fallen short this time. But there are five new contenders to review next - will one of them prove to be a game-changer?

You'll just have to wait and find out!

Where to find it...

Craft Beer Co

82 Leather Lane,
EC1N 7TR (map)

47 Chandos Place,

Covent Garden,
WC2N 4HS (map)

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

Southampton Arms
139 Highgate Road,

Gospel Oak,
NW5 1LE (map)

Euston Tap
190 Euston Road,
NW1 2EF (map)

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