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

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The food of Kings(meadow)

It's a little odd, but although I've been to over 100 different football grounds supporting the mighty Sky Blues, I'd never once experienced match day hospitality - until last night.

I know what you're thinking. 'B-but, you're a world-famous food blogger and Coventry City's highest profile fan after Richard Keys, Jon Gaunt and that guy from Westlife. Surely you get the red carpet treatment every time you attend a game, with only the very hottest of the players' spouses feeding you truffles, bare-breasted, from a golden plate?!?'

Sadly, while this probably should be the case, it isn't. And in any case I usually prefer to be in with the real fans and have a half-time pie. Directors' boxes always seemed bit stuffy and sterile and detached to me.

The closest I'd ever come to stroking the big Corporate Hospitality Cash-cock was one Christmas, about 8 or 9 years ago, when I was living and working in Ipswich and the office party was held at Portman Road stadium.

The FA Cup
As far as I can recall, the food was your standard overpriced, turkey-and-trimmings-and-house-red set menu, but the facilities looked quite impressive. A private dining room that led directly out onto an almost-as-private balcony overlooking the pitch where you could watch the game from the comfort of a leather armchair-style seat. Barely relevant, obviously, as this wasn't a match day, but I got the impression, such an experience would be pretty luxurious.

But that was Ipswich, who have a Premiership-quality ground even though they've been out of the top division almost as long as we have.

Last night, on the other hand, was a first round FA Cup tie against AFC Wimbledon, who currently groundshare with non-league Kingstonian FC. I was surprised that the Kingsmeadow stadium even had hospitality facilities, and given that it only cost about 20 quid more than a standard match ticket, I was interested to see exactly what you get for your money.

(Also, I have to admit I was just a little concerned that, given CCFC's current fine form, we wouldn't be able to get standard tickets in the away end and I'd miss out on ground no. 102!)


Guessing game

Travelling to the heart of deepest New Malden for the game, Mrs B-V and I diverged from our usual 'predict the score and be hopelessly wrong' conversation, and attempted instead to wrongly predict what the three promised courses would consist of.

I guess we go in here...
I tried to be clever, and figured that because it was a Friday game, it might be fish and chips with manky peas, probably with a very safe tomato soup and a roll to start, and some kind of hot pudding with custard, maybe sticky toffee. With Christie scoring the opening goal.

Mrs B-V suggested they might be a tad more adventurous: Goat's Cheese salad; Some sort of steak with Dauphinoise potatoes, and cheesecake to finish.

We both had a vague suspicion that it might all be a bit bland and inoffensive though - and that turned out to be right on the money.

It was clear right away that this wasn't the sort of Corporate Boxy stuff offered by the big clubs (a relief as I wasn't wearing a suit or anything) but maybe that could bode well from a foodie perspective? A bit more freedom for the chef to do interesting stuff, maybe?

Or quite possibly not.

There's no private dining here - just a substantial room with a mix of big tables, some round, some long, each seating somewhere between 10 and 30 people. Bar at one end. Kitchen at t'other. Lots of cutlery and tablecloths and napkins'n'shit. But a distinct lack of glassware (maybe they're worried it would all kick off if rival supporters disagreed over the vintage of the Merlot or a refereeing decision from 1978 or something?)

Not having done this before, the closest thing I can liken the experience to is a wedding reception or conference where you don't know any other guests on your table. (Though the food, as it turned out, is arguably more like what you get in economy class on a plane!)

Everyone gets a complimentary programme
And no leathery private box either - you just get given a ticket and have to go out into the rain and back into a different part of the stand with all the non-hospitality ticket holders, where you get a standard plastic seat. (The legroom was the most generous I've ever seen at a football stadium, but I think this was just the way the back row happened to be constructed, rather than some sort of Club Class treatment for us corporate types).


The décor wasn't particularly upmarket and folks were surprisingly casually dressed. Given the fairly low prices I suspect that for many of the regulars, it's just a convenient way of grabbing a bite to eat before the game, and cheaper than eating in a restaurant and buying your own matchday programme.

If you don't mind your food being blander than a cup of hot water, obviously.

It's all table service - including drinks from the bar (not included in the price) and tickets for the half-time lottery (equally non-included) - but the service is mostly of the conveyor-belt 'plonk stuff in front of the diners and hope they don't ask any challenging questions' type.

Surprisingly, they did have a real ale available - Box Steam 'Tunnel Vision' - which is an uninteresting beer, but was in perfectly reasonable condition.



Choices, choices, hmm...

So, let's cut to the chase. The actual food. That's what really matters, right?


Less than 1% of your daily recommended Haddock intake
The starter was a choice of a haddock fishcake or tomato soup (correct prediction, Ben!), so naturally we tried one of each.
As fishcakes go, it was one of the least fishy I've eaten. Mostly mashed potato, with scant seasoning and just a bare hint of smoked haddock.

It was on the small side too, though the plate was filled out with a bit of extremely dull salad and a dollop of pink cocktail sauce.

But the soup was blander still, with the texture of thin gruel and a distinct lack of real tomato flavour. If you've ever tried the powdered tomato soup from an instant hot drinks machine then you've had worse, but not by that much.

Cream of blandness soup
OK, it wasn't exactly unpleasant. I ate the whole bowlful because I was hungry, but it had absolutely nothing else going for it, other than being all warming on a bloody cold evening.

You get a basket of fairly standard white and wholemeal rolls on the table (replenished automatically after they ran out, due to me eating more than my fair share) and a plate of miniature butters (real, but nothing special).

Having enjoyed a choice of starter, I assumed that this would extend to the main course and possibly even the dessert, but this was not to be.

The sole main course was chicken in a creamy sauce with red peppers, with a tiny blob of potato (a cheesy, sort of Dauphinoise, almost like a soufflé) and a few vegetables - green beans, carrots and, I think, strands of parsnip, though it might've been celeriac.

Chicken is one of the blandest forms of protein it's humanly possible to build a meal around, so it needs to be cooked in ways that land a merciless flavour punch - Curry, Kiev, roasted with bacon and sausagemeat, that sort of thing.

An explosion of flavours... would have been better than this!
Unfortunately the sauce was just horribly mild. An almost tasteless cream concoction with perhaps just the merest suggestion of mustard and white wine. It's as if the Kingstonian caterers deliberately planned the dish so as not to offend anybody, not realising that people like me do actually get offended by extreme blandness.

On the plus side, the vegetables were nicely al dente, contrary to my expectations, and the cheesy potato was fine, although there wasn't anywhere near enough of it.

The dessert - again, no choice - was a hot fruit pudding with custard. Spotted Dick, essentially, but they can't say that at Wimbledon since legendary left-back Dicholas 'Dick' Dickson died of acute acne of the penis back in 1965. Alright, I made that bit up.

Baked, rather than steamed, the crust was crisp and pie-like, rather than sloppy, and each mouthful revealed currants and raisins and little cubes of apple. There was even - shock, horror! - a nice bit of spiciness, which gave it a sort of mince pie/Eccles Cake quality.

The shape is modelled on a Goblin meat pudding, clearly
About three times the size of the potato that came with the main course (which makes no sense) it was fairly hearty and satisfying, and a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't want to eat it every day, but it was a definitely a more convincing dish than the preceding courses.

The custard was rather sweet and insipid - the sort of stuff you'd get out of a Bird's packet - but then you can't have everything.

Filter coffee was available, but it was very weak, and not particularly pleasant. You can also have tea - these are the only drinks that are included.

We didn't get the full hospitality experience of a pre-match briefing from the home manager, because he arrived late at the ground. Former Dons and Cov striker Terry Gibson was supposed to be giving an after-dinner/pre-game speech, but was also stuck in traffic, so we missed out on that too, even with kick-off delayed by 15 minutes.

And as for the actual football... well, Wimbledon acquitted themselves well, and made it difficult for us to play our usual counter-attacking game. Our first half performance was as lacklustre as the food.

After the break we resorted to plan B. They took the lead, but a goalkeeping howler let us back into the game instantly, and we added another couple of goals in quick succession to run out comfortable 3-1 winners in the end, though this scoreline was maybe a little flattering.

If I ever come to a game here again I'll definitely pass on the hospitality, though I'd be interested to see what the experience is like at the higher echelons of football.

Maybe Wembley, if we go all the way to the final?!?

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