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!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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

After some strong showings from last year's top five, it's now time to get even more excited with the second part of this year's London Pub of the Year contest.

These five pubs are surely the most eagerly-awaited new challengers since T. Hawk, Cammy, Fei Long and Deejay showed up in Super Street Fighter II. (Three games for 50p. Good times.)

And in our first pub, you can actually play Super Street Fighter II. So let's crack the fuck on with the reviews...

Contender #1: Ravensbourne Arms, Ladywell

The Catford Bridge Tavern has been getting a lot of attention lately, but it's not the only pub in this little chunk of South East London.

A mile or so up the road from the CBT, and also run by Antic, it's easy to be like me and see the Ravensbourne as something of a 'kid brother', but that's probably a bit unfair, given that Antic was actually running the Ravensbourne already when they took over the Catford Bridge.

A large, roadside pub in an area where there aren't too many good places to drink, the Ravensbourne has quietly gone about leaving its own distinctive mark on the local scene and is an excellent pub in its own right.

Quality of Real Ale: My first few visits to the Ravensbourne were a bit, well, underwhelming, but in the last year things have been very good, including the quality of the beer which has notably improved.

The Antic collective do seem to have processes in place for making real beer work in their pubs, whether it's staff training or just hiring good people I don't know, but it works. Even on days when the Ravensbourne seems empty and you'd normally worry about slow turnover'n'shit, the ale has been pretty good. 2 points.

Range of Real Ale: There are two classic mistakes that pubs make. One is having more beers on than their customers can realistically drink, resulting in poor quality stale beer. The other is deciding to do fewer beers, but sticking to the same old 'safe' options that drinkers could have anywhere.

While Antic pubs don't generally make the first mistake, there are quite a few of them that make the second one. (Some folks would argue that it isn't a mistake, but fuck them!)

Thankfully the Ravensbourne commits neither sin. They usually have four beers on the pumps, but the range changes all the time and regularly turns up something rare and interesting, especially from London breweries. Beers from Brockley, By the Horns, Redemption and others regularly appear and on balance, they just sneak 2 points for their small but varied selection.

Porky, Black Puddingy thing from the Ravensbourne kitchen
Food: I once blogged, rather scathingly it has to be said, about a bland burger I forced down on these premises.

That was well over a year ago, all in the past and dead and buried. OK, I don't know if the person that cooked it technically dead, or even buried, but I know that he has been superseded by a more competant and capable chef and the difference in quality (and seasoning!) is palpable.

In the last year we've partaken of some delicious meals here. Beef and Ale pie, Morrocan lamb tagine, crispy pork belly with Black pudding... and all of it has been very tasty - close to rivalling the Catford Bridge at times.

It's a concise, seasonal menu that varies from day to day depending on what's available - this one time there was a rich, creamy Baileys cheesecake for dessert. We went back for seconds.

So, you get the idea. Food here has come on in megaleaps and gigabounds, and they duly earn the 1 food point.

Bonus points: If you arrive at just the right time, there might be a giant, still warm sausage roll behind the bar. If you don't ask for a slice, you're either fucking stupid or already very full.

Seriously, this is an opportunity not to miss as it's a delicious accompaniment to a pint and well worth a bonus point in the snack department. They have a range of unobtrusive entertainment ranging from quizzes to open mic to morris dancing outside which is worth a point. Oh, and table football. And ping-pong. And of course classic video gaming.

Warning: The cat drinks your beer while you're not looking!
They have a pub cat (called Nala) which is uncommon these days in inner London, and that should be worth a point too. And they've kept up with the craft keg trend to offer additional drinking options.

Basically, you could justify lots of different combinations that give the Ravensbourne their maximum 2 bonus points.

With the future of the Catford Bridge Tavern looking uncertain at best, there might be an opportunity for the Ravensbourne Arms. It's a large pub with, if we're honest, a bit of spare room.

They already have a good relationship with the CBT staff and many locals drink in both pubs. Dare we suggest a merger of some sort?

But for now, such speculation is the epitome of idle. What we do know for certain is that the Ravensbourne is a pretty damn great place to go drinking just as it is.

Contender #2: Craft Beer Company, Islington

The younger sibling of last year's crafty winner has proven to be an irresistable additon to the stable.

More 'pubby' in character than the Clerkenwell and Brixton CBCs, and hidden away on a backstreet corner to the West of the Angel, the Islington branch has comfy seating, an old piano, and a delightful range of beers.

Quality of Real Ale: I've said before that I think the cellarmanship of the Craft Beer Company is about as good as it can possibly get, and this branch is no exception. They only seem to employ people who actually know and care about beer and who know how to look after the stuff.

11.4% Imperial stout just starting to kick in...
This might command a price premium compared to 'normal' pubs, but I strongly believe it's worth it for the quality. I'd rather have my beer served by beer fanatics than some fucking students (without wanting to cause too much offence to fucking students, obviously!)

Every pint here, from a weak mild to a 10% ABV Double IPA is always fantastic. A cut above almost every other pub on the planet. And for that reason they get the maximum 3 points.

Range of Real Ale: You know, I never thought I'd say this, but although the Islington Craft has fewer handpumps than the original, I think they actually have a better range of beers on. The reason is simple - they don't seem to have so many 'regulars' that appear every week.

They recently hosted a launch event for the Siren brewery which had about six new ales that I haven't seen on sale anywhere since, including rare, experimental and stupidly strong beers. This was followed shortly after by a second birthday party at the original branch, which had a far less interesting selection on cask.

In this months London Drinker I've written a piece about my frustration with pubs where the keg range is always more interesting than the cask selection. All the CBCs have lots of obscure keg beers on, but I get the impression that the Islington branch might care more about the cask range than the others.

This may change in the future as the chain defines its values, but for now, they get another maximum. 3 more points on the scoreboard..

Food: As with all the CBCs, the food is limited to cold pies on the bar, though in Islington they seem to come from a different supplier and in a wider range of flavours. We've tried lots of them - pork and stilton, rabbit, even the veggie variety.

It's solid stuff, but in it's own right it's not enough to earn a point.

Bonus points: The aforementioned selection of keg beers is, of course, worth a bonus point, and they have a fridge full of interesting bottles from around the world.

The snack range is not as good as it's older brother either, but it's more comfortable to spend time in than the other CBCs and generally less crowded, possibly due to its more obscure location. Because Craft pubs are so very beer-oriented, it's not like there are loads of reasons to dish out bonus points left, right and centre, but there certainly aren't any real negatives, so it deserves the full 2 points.

I've no idea how much further the Craft boys want to expand - they've clearly stuck on a very successful formula but whether it's scalable remains to be seen. Personally I'd like to see more pubs like the Islington Craft, because they do what they do very well.

Contender #3: Sebright Arms, Hoxton

I went to the Sebright some months ago to check out the Lucky Chip burger residency which came very highly recommended in the foodie blogosphere.

What I wasn't necessarily expecting was for the pub and the beer to also be rather good, and we've been back several times now for beer and burgers.

A hip and happening Hoxton venue
A bit noisy and boisterous, with a young crowd and live bands and DJs playing upstairs/downstairs in a separate area, it's a little different from most of the pubs that have made the cut, but the fact that I salivate just by thinking about an excursion to the Sebright mandates its inclusion.

Quality of Real Ale: I could be wrong, but I get the impression that real beer is a fairly recent arrival at the Sebright. But having decided to latch onto the burgeoning East London scene, they've done so with considerable aplomb - though perhaps with a few lessons still to be learned.

Every pint I've sampled here has been perfectly drinkable, though I can't recall ever being blown away. In a category where the nadir is -1 a rather mean-sounding 1 is actually quite respectable. And don't forget, this is not primarily a CAMRA-types pub nor does it pretend to be so.

Range of Real Ale: The Sebright usually offers four beers, always changing, and overwhelmingly from London microbreweries.

This is a good thing. It would've been easy to bring in bland, standard beers like Doom Bar and Pride, but this place supports small, local brewers - East London and Five Points as well as the more ubiquitous Sambrook's -  and makes an effort to represent styles other than pale and golden ales, with milds and porters featuring regularly.

I've ticked some unusual beers here, most recently a one-off special Elderflower edition of the Hackney brewery's Golden Ale. There's not a huge number of beers, but as far as offering a range goes, they're doing well. 2 points. They're also planning a beer festival in the near future.

The awesomeness that is Lucky Chip
Food: For some time now, the Sebright kitchen has been home to a Lucky Chip residency.

I've previously reviewed this, but, in short, it's fucking brilliant. Definitely a contender for the best burgers in London, along with the likes of Hache, Honest and MeatLiquor. And if you don't feel like their excellent aged beef there is a stunning take on the 'Filet oh fish' too.

Gorgeous, scrumptious stuff, and a contender for full marks in a burger joint contest. But this is a pub competition and there's only 1 point available for food. Unfortunately.

Bonus points: In addition to the beers they usually have a couple of cask ciders/perries on the bar, which is surprising for a pub of this nature and very welcome, so they pick up a point for that. And although it's pretty much superfluous while the burger kitchen is open, I've eyed up their snacks range and that's worth a point too making a grand total of 2.

The Sebright was a popular - and sometimes infamous - music venue for decades, but in its current incarnation after reopening it's trying to be more of an everyman pub, and is largely succeeding.

When you look at the detail and crunch the numbers, it's obviously not going to win Pub of the Year yet, but as a decent pub with the bonus of truly brilliant burgers I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn't been there yet.

Contender #4: Falcon, Clapham Junction

Nicholson's-branded London pubs are concentrated in the West End, in close proximity to each other and aimed squarely at the tourist and casual passers-by market.

They're perfectly fine, usually a good bet for a decent beer in the area, maybe a tick or two, but there's nothing balls-grabbingly special.

However, the Falcon is a little bit different. For a start, it's not clustered up with all the others in town. And more importantly, this one has a huge range of beers on its big, round bar that serves about 83 different rooms.

I wanted to include the Falcon this year because a) it was recommended by a reader; b) it's nice to include at least one pub from a major chain for variety; and c) I've actually had a fair few pints in here over the past year.

Quality of Real Ale: Most Nicholson's pub would score a single point - generally alright, but occasionally a bit lacklustre. The Falcon is better than this and has built a reputation over the years as a drinker's pub, regularly picking up nominations for local CAMRA awards. 2 points.

Range of Real Ale: Most, if not all, of the beers are taken from Nicholson's quaterly list, but there's nowhere else that you'll find so many of them in one place. And their range isn't bad these days, with several specials brewed solely for the chain and a good mix of different styles (though there is a noted absence of any beers much over 5%).

You'll usually find something worth drinking here. Titanic 'Cappucino' was particularly good. Overall the range is just about worth a 2.

Confusingly, there's an 'Eagle' just down the road too
Food: As a chain pub, it gets the standard Nicholson's menu which isn't going to be worth any points. It's a little bit better than Wetherspoons food, but at a significantly higher price point and the menu, perhaps more than any other aspect of the chain, was clearly developed with tourists in mind.

It's not bad enough to lose a point (some dishes like the braised ham hock are actually quite good) but it won't win any either.

Bonus points:  One of the highlights of Nicholson's pubs is the little pots of snacks from the big jars. Pistachios, chilli rice crackers etc. I don't know, there's just something about it that feels like an old fashioned sweetshop. But with savouries.

Otherwise it's hard to think of any bonus points for the Falcon, and this illustrates the problem that many big chain pubs face - it's hard for them to forge an identity of their own and therefore hard to really stand out.

You heard me say that the Falcon often picks up nominations for awards in SW London - but it never bloody wins them!

(With smaller chains like Antic and the Crafts this isn't such an issue - and they might like to infer a note of caution from this!)

Contender #5: Pembury Tavern, Hackney 

And so, we stagger drunkenly to the final stop on this virtual pub crawl which probably should've been called off by the ref long ago. This is another pub suggested by a reader (at the Pig's Ear Beer Festival), and one which I hadn't actually visited before January this year.

Drinking some Roman God or other...
The Pembury Tavern is part of another micro-chain and is the only London outpost for the otherwise East-Anglia-based Individual Pub Company. It looks a little odd, spartan even, both on the outside and within, but there are plenty of beers to choose from inside, many of them from Cambridge's Milton brewery.

Quality of Real Ale: When the Pembury first opened in its current incarnation it had a fairly good reputation with the local CAMRA bods, though this has perhaps fallen somewhat in the last year.

If can be unusually blunt for a moment - OK, not that unusually - there have been a couple of occasions where I'd score this place -1; my ale has been so vinegary and full of flotsam and jetsam that it's been a sickening struggle to force it down.

Thankfully this hasn't always happened, and at other times the beer has been drinkable. But I've got to be fair and there overall quality score is going to be a round 0.

Range of Real Ale: Re-read the first sentence of the Quality section, replace 'local CAMRA bods' with 'tickers', and you can see where this is going.

I think there are 16 handpumps, most of which are in use most of the time, but it's often the same beers on. For the first couple of visits this feels like a veritable sea of choice, especially if you're not familiar with the Milton range.

But once you get used to Pegasus, Nero, Nike, and their thematic cousins, you're probably only going to look at the guest beer selection, which normally numbers about four or five, because the Milton beers seldom seem to change and aren't all that good either. The sheer volume means that they can have a 2 though.

Food: I've tried their pizzas a couple of times and always been impressed. Proper, thin, Italian style, nice and simple and good value too at only around £6 a pop.

A really rather disgusting 'burger'
If you're eating there, I'd strongly advise sticking to the pizzas though, because some of the other food is pretty dire. Like their strange, overcooked, low-grade burger in a sort of flatbread-cum-calzone. It reminded me, unfortunately, of the horrible microwave kebabs of the early 1990s. Ick.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Or, to put it another way, 0 points.

Bonus points: Y'all know how much I like my snacks and with good pork scratchings and Soffles Pitta Chips behind the bar, the Pembury can pick up a bonus point.

When I first saw the bar at the Pembury I thought I'd discovered something great, but the reality of subsequent check-ups has instilled a little more disillusionment in me.

Because it seems to be on a bit of a downward path I can't see myself coming here on a regular basis and unless you happen to be in the Hackney area or need to scoop the core Milton range, it's probably best avoided.

So, that's it for this years new PotY contenders.

What happens next? Well, I go into a room on my own with my big, colossal thinking brain and pleasure myself while thinking about the ten pubs. Well, more specifically the ones that scored the most points.

And then, in a few days, maybe a week, maybe longer, white smoke will emerge and I'll be in a position to crown the BV London Pub of the Year 2012-13!

Where to find it...


Ravensbourne Arms
323 Lewisham High Street
SE13 6NR (map) 

Craft Beer Company Islington
55 White Lion Street
N1 9PP (map)

Sebright Arms
31-35 Coate Street,
E2 9AG (map

2 St John's Hill
Clapham Junction
SW11 1RU (map)

Pembury Tavern
90 Amherst Road,
E8 1JH (map)

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