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, December 17, 2014

Tiny Tim II - Revenge of the Festive Set Menu

There are lots of annoying things about Christmas, right?

The Godless over-commercialisation, the pubs full of fairweather drinkers, the bandwagon-jumping attempts at seasonal ales made by unimaginatively stuffing a bland, weak, twiggy bitter with nutmeg and cinnamon...

But a greater offence against the senses, possibly than all of these combined, is the shitty £25 Christmas set menu.

You know the one. Three courses. Three options per course. Inoffensive to the point of blandness. Where you have to try really hard not to look like a grumpy old scotal sac in front of co-workers as you wash down dry, overcooked meat with rough-as-fuck house red?

(I know that I had a bit of a whinge on this topic in the very early days of this blog, but it's been four years, so I'm entitled to another one. Consider it an early Christmas present.)

They wish it could be Christmas every day

For the restaurants these things are like all their Christmasses coming at once. Every Christmas.

They usually make a substantial mark-up versus the a la carte prices and also benefit from the economies of scale due to having fewer options to prepare. Diners get drunk and don't think to complain 'because it's Christmas'. The quality of the meal may even be secondary to the experience for some.

So, I can understand why they do it, but as a diner, when you have to endure three or four of these meals every Christmas it gets a bit much.

Now, I'm not saying all festive set menus are terrible. I had one last week at the Gorringe pub in Tooting which, while possibly not quite as good as their full menu, wasn't all that bad. Their 'Blue cheese creme brulee' starter, although essentially just a good old-fashioned Potted Stilton, was bloody awesome.

And on Friday I'll be seeing what Elena's L'etoile has to offer. Again, I expect it to be pretty decent stuff (and at a price-point where it really ought to be!)

But last night I experienced - nay, suffered - possibly the worst Christmas meal ever. One that made a Wetherspoon turkey dinner appear deeply enticing.

So utterly bad I just stopped eating half-way through
The location was Azzurro, London Bridge, and I'll try not to mention the name again as I really don't want to give them publicity.

At a time of year when their entire operation is geared towards presenting large groups with simple choices, they fucked up several aspects of our (pre) order, so many in our party of 15 ended up with courses that they didn't order.

I wouldn't be bothered in the least if the food was good, but it just wasn't.

My starter - not the one I chose - was a large-ish portion of bruschetta that was edible but truly tedious. The basilly tomato and onion on top tasted quite nice and fresh, but the toasty underlay was overly hard and actually quite difficult to eat with a knife and fork.

More to the point, it was a zero-effort dish and instantly forgettable. No, really, I had to undergo regression therapy just now in order to remember what it was I'd eaten!

But compared to the main course it was great. Fucking great.

'Tis the Season

With the order fuck-ups I had the option of a plate of roast beef, which I immediately passed up at one glance having seen how grotesquely dry and overcooked it looked.

So, it being Christmas, I ended up with the turkey, which is pretty hard to overcook - though they managed to achieve just that with jingle bells on.

Bad roast potatoes are a peeve of mine, and these were amongst the worst I've ever seen. Everybody knows, you should cut them small, with lots of sharp edges, so they go crispy. These were smooth, large, ovoid and downright unpleasant with a slight taste of rancid fat.

The parsnips and carrots were fairly al dente but horribly bland, and I wasn't even going to try the shrivelled, overdone sprouts.

Rarely is food so abyssmal that I do this!
The hard, dry stuffing ball was inedible, with an indescribable chemically flavour, and the fruity jus was an ill-advised attempt to try and add some semblence of interest.

Oh and somebody bought a pack of economy cocktail sausages from Netto and boiled them for 48 hours in a washing machine before accidentally leaving them on my plate. Ugh.

To be fair to them, Azzurro (shit, I mentioned the name again!) is an Italian restaurant. Roast turkey and beef isn't their thing (and clearly shouldn't be!)

But, why, why on earth then don't they compose their set menu of a few pasta dishes and salads that they might have a hope in Valhalla of actually getting right?!?

I tried a colleague's veggie risotto and it was perfectly acceptable. But hardly anybody is going to choose veggie risotto, are they?

Dessert - I had Tiramisu and it was OK, a little supermarketty, but by then I'd pretty much abandoned hope and was mentally heading for the exit.

So, way to go, guys, you've completely reinforced my already fairly staunch views on the abject shittiness of Christmas set menus.

Well done. In fact, over done.

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