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!

Monday, July 23, 2018

BV London Pub of the Year 2017-18 - part two

So, this is it. Five new Pub of the Year contenders. If you haven't read the first part, it's probably better to check that out first, otherwise you'll have to wear your trousers backwards and go to bed in the morning.

If you're already up to date, then let's go...

Contender #1: Cock Tavern, Hackney

To keep things fresh this year, there are four pubs absolutely brand, spanking new to the PotY competition to consider, but for our first contender we actually welcome back the Cock Tavern after a years absence.

For a pub that has looked the same for several years, a lot has changed in the basement. Once home to the Howling Hops brewery, things changed in 2015 when they moved to a far more spacious site down the road in Hackney Wick with its own taproom, but brewing continued with the brand new Maregade brewery taking over the premises. They've now moved on to a railway arch nearby, and while you might still find Howling Hops or, less commonly, Maregade beers in the Cock Tavern, its taps now boast beers from a broader spectrum of brewers than was previously the case.

Apart from that, fuck-all has changed, obviously!

Range of draught beers: This is one of those pubs where, as soon as you enter, you are struck by the number of pumps and taps in front of you, running pretty much the entire length of the bar. Granted, several of these are for the extensive array of cask ciders, but the beer selection is still very impressive. Howling Hops beers are typically available, on both cask and keg, but these exactly don't dominate the real estate, and quality breweries from across the country are well represented. There is a decent mix of dark and light, malty and hopsome, though if you're a fan of either really strong beers or a lager drinker, you might find your choices a bit more limited.

Overall there's a nice range (usually 6-8 each of cask and keg) that changes often and it's worth 2 points.

Quality of Real Ale:
I wonder if quality has slipped just a little since the beer selection broadened to include more beers from outside the former in-house brewery. There is also the possibility that the Cock's clientele and drinkers in the Hackney area in general have moved more towards keg and away from cask, and this might also be a factor.

The Cock is back!
Or it could be something else entirely. What I am sure of, however, is that I've had too many indifferent cask pints in here. Not bad. Certainly not bad enough to merit a negative score, but only worth a middling 0 on the quality scale, compared to the other pubs in contention this year.

Food: This isn't a foodie pub, with only cold cuts and pies to keep you going - I've made the point many, many times: this is not a bad thing per se. God knows, we need the 'wet-led' pub to survive. But we only give food points out where the kitchen is doing something special enough to draw custom away from restaurants.

Bonus points: The cask cider selection is one of the best anywhere in London and it's good quality too. This is worth a fruity bonus point, as is the bar snack selection. This was one of the first pubs to champion Serious Pig charcuterie and pork 'snackling' products, which have raised the bar in this department.

This is a bare-bones, no-frills sort of pub that might not be a winner yet, but you can do a lot worse in this trendy part of London, particularly if you're an old-school cask drinker.

Contender #2: Antelope, Surbiton

More than any other pub, the Antelope comes up when I ask readers and fellow beer writers for suggestions. And I can well understand why.

It's home to Big Smoke, which is just about the most ironically-named of the many, many breweries in the capital, given that it sits by the river in Surbiton, right on the absolute edge of Greater London. They do, however, have a solid reputation for beers like their session pale ale Solaris, and the 8.5% monster IPA The Judge.

I'll confess - the reason this place hasn't featured in the competition until now was purely and simply that I didn't get to this particular backwater often enough to give it a fair hearing.

Range of draught beers: Typically around 10 cask and 12 keg beers are on at any given time, with about a quarter of these coming from their own brewery. Otherwise beer flows from some of the best breweries in the country - Arbor, Thornbridge, Oakham... all my favourites, basically. Being ticker-friendly, the one-offs and seasonals that everyone tries to track down often turn up here - the pub knows its market well.

They like to make sure drinkers of darker and/or stronger beers are well catered for with a judicious mix. It's not quite the biggest range in the contest, but it's very solid and worth 2 points.

Quality of Real Ale: 
The Antelope has won the local CAMRA branch PotY for the last couple of years, and while they're not just about the cask here, they certainly do it well. They get that the pale, hoppy beers need to be cool, and I've talked to the bar staff here about how some beers need cellar time and can't be served too green - they know their shit. A lot of pubs could learn from these guys and they pick up the maximum 2 points.

This was absolutely delicious
Food: I've only eaten here a couple of times, and on both occasions my expectations were exceeded. A simple chicken burger was moist and succulent, with crispy fries and a really good mayo. Then, during a recent beer festival, I got to enjoy the Antelope's take on a hog roast - chunks of slow-cooked, highly seasoned pig, bursting with flavour and served with simple but highly complimentary accompaniments. It all makes you want to go back to sample the rest of the menu, and they pick up the foodie point.

Bonus points: The Antelope really comes into its own during their beer festival weekends, and these are obviously worth a bonus point. Another bonus comes their way courtesy of their loyalty card scheme - every ninth pint gets you a free tenth (you don't have to use it all in one session!) They also pick up a point for their snack range which is an important consideration if you're not quite hungry enough for their tasty food. I could give them a bonus point for their range of real ciders too - there is much to recommend this pub.

And that is a fairly breathtakingly strong debut performance from the Antelope, isn't it?

Contender #3: Four Thieves, Battersea

To call the Four Thieves a 'pub' barely covers the beginnings of the story. Should it even have a place in a pub competition? I say Yes, obviously, because it is a pub, but it's also a brewery, an amusement arcade and a sort of general play area for 30-45 year old children!

Previously a decent enough Antic pub, the Laines chain of breweries took over a few years back and installed brewing kit, giving the good people of Clapham Junction a brewpub. Since then, the premises have been expanded both physically and conceptually to become the almost indescribable mini theme-park of microbrewed beer that one might expect to find in the trendier parts of Seattle, but probably not in a South West London side street!

Range of draught beers: The Four Thieves typically serves 6-8 cask ales and about 10 keg beers - including their own lager, straight from the lagering tanks. The range is dominated by Laines own beers, which can be fairly experimental including cask saison, blood orange IPA, fruit porters and other eccentric treats. There are also more conventional offerings, like their keg American Pale Ale, and sometimes beers from other breweries will show up, particularly on 'theme' nights - e.g. US beers on the Fourth of July.

Once you've worked through the house beers, it might not be the most rapidly-changing range or offer the biggest brewery choice, but they do mix things up and keep turning out new brews. It all adds up to a score of 1.5.

This is actually a pub, Dhalsim
Quality of Real Ale: The Four Thieves are trying to be a lot of things, and they're trying to do a lot of things. I've had some cask beer here that just hasn't been in perfect shape, and this might be because it isn't their top priority. Nothing bad enough to send back (which might mean a negative score) but some indifferent enough to warrant a score barely above zero. It's a 0.5.

Food: One thing they do get right here is the food. Even if you just have a £3 portion of fries, you get (possibly homemade) ketchup and mayo with it, and it's perfectly salted and flavoursome. Other delights here have been the Buffalo Wings (they get the thin, crispy exterior and piquant spicing just right!) and the pork belly tempura - utterly unctious and delicious. It's a good place to eat and they fully deserve the foodie point.

Bonus points: Where? Where the fuck does one start? There's a bloody amusement arcade upstairs (with its own bar) where you can play Street Fighter, Table Football and other games - and beyond this they run Murder Mystery type events alongside the more conventional pub quizzes. At the more beery end of the spectrum, they have also started hosting festivals, which is commendable. The thing is, some of the things for which one might add a bonus point will be anathaema to others. It's such a contentious issue that I'm going to give them 2 - on balance all the stuff going on here is a good thing, but it's not going to be for everyone.

Contender #4: Green Dragon, Croydon

Recently refurbished, the popular (and sometimes a bit too noisy for a 41 year old!) Green Dragon is on the edge of Croydon's heaving town centre.

The recent makeover upped the focus on craft beer, though it remains a typical 'something for everyone' town centre pub, still just as likely to attract a pre-club Hen Night crowd as a group of bearded craft wankers.

It's almost coming full circle, as this was apparently once a Whitbread 'Hogshead' pub - the first pub chain to really focus on beer choice and quality, albeit before the c-word entered the beer lexicon.

Range of draught beers: Unlike many of the pubs competing here, the Green Dragon has a 'mainstream' market to consider. So the beer range divides neatly into about eight cask ales, eight 'c-word' keg, on a wall behind the bar, and a few more mainstream keg lager offerings - the only beers that don't regularly change.

Still only about 2% of the total menu
Favoured breweries here include Tiny Rebel, Wantsum and Southwark, and sometimes the cask range can feel maybe a tad too biased in favour of 'ordinary bitter and pale ale' - though this is perhaps understandable as they are casting the net as widely as possible. But it's a decent selection and it has improved in recent months with the addition of the extra craft keg lines. 2 points. 

Quality of Real Ale: 
Be warned: When I go to a pub and expect to drink keg, it's possibly not the most encouraging sign. If I was giving this award a year ago, I'd score the Green Dragon -1. (I had a truly terrible pint of a Gloucester brewery beer that put me off both the pub and the brewery for months.) As it happens, there has been an improvement, but the quality score has to be 0.

Food: It's by no means a phenomenon specific to pubs, but a lot of places fall into the trap of offering too many different sorts of thing on their menu. The Green Dragon offers burgers, pizza, pulled pork, seafood, and god knows what else, in various different formats - meal combos, small plate 'tapas' and various get X for Y shillings  deals.

The problem is, when places do this sort of thing, rather than focusing on just cooking a small number of dishes well, the quality is dubious. Trying to cover as much of the range as possible via a series of small plates highlighted the mixed results. A tapenade-type dip with bread was tasty enough, but the 'burnt ends' were cold, sloppy and horrible. Bacon straws and crab balls were quite nice, but the indifferent king prawns tasted re-heated. I'd much rather have a specialist menu, or, failing that, just a smaller seasonal/daily menu that's all freshly cooked. No points, sorry.

Bonus points: The refurbishment unfortunately meant the loss of the Edwardian toilet facilities - granted, they were probably due some attention, but this could perhaps have been done more sensitively, retaining the period features rather than just gutting the place and starting again. This is worth a minus point - though the staircase down to the basement level is still a fine example of early 20th century architecture, if one cares about such things while out ticking beers or on a Hen Night.

So, those two things probably cancel one another out. They'll get a bonus point for a decent range of ciders, including many fruit varieties. As with the Four Thieves, I feel like I can't really award points for things like DJs and quiz nights which can put off as many folks as they attract. And, sadly, that's the Green Dragon's lot.

Contender #5: Southwark Tavern, Southwark

We're almost there! It's nearly over! One more push!

So, our final contender of 2018 sees a return to the fold for the famous Borough Market drinking district, this time in the form of the street-corner boozer the Southwark Tavern.

Range of draught beers: While it's not branded as 'Nicholsons', the pub obviously has access to beers from the same list as that particular chain, and you'll find many of the same cask beers on sale - though these usually include seasonal specials and one-offs, even if they don't make much of an effort to ensure a range of styles. Being owned by the M&B PubCo, some larger breweries tend to feature a little too much - Robinson's. Adnams. Brain's... you might even see the dreaded D**m B*r on sale.

The keg range is mostly fairly 'mainline' too (Meantime Pale Ale and Camden lager barely qualify as craft any more, obviously) though one or two taps might have something interesting from Thornbridge or a proper imported lager.

The beer selection has perhaps gone downhill over the past year, and is now worth 1 point.

Quality of Real Ale:
One thing you notice when surveying pubs (whether for this, or for WhatPub, or for local CAMRA branch awards) is that there is still a massive gulf between the best pubs and the 'OK' pubs when it comes to the quality and freshness of cask beer. If anything, it's bigger than the gap between the OK pubs and the shit ones where the beer has turned to Beelzebub's Urethral Vinegar.

Anyway, this is another truly average pub for real ale, and I've got sick of writing that this year. 0 points.

Food: Some pubs get a point for their food. Some don't. It's rare, however, to have to award negative marks, but this is one such occasion.

A couple of years ago, I would have recommended eating here, particularly the full breakfast which was good quality, very satisfying and available until midday. But when they changed their opening hours so that the doors didn't open until midday, the best thing on the menu disappeared. But it's not that meaty withdrawal that has upset me into deducting points - it's a Club Sandwich which they served me earlier this year.

The sandwich itself was fairly indifferent, with the bread overly toasted and insufficient mayo to compensate. However, the biggest crime was the chips which had clearly been fried at the same time as some cod or scampi and which thus picked up a strongly unpleasant fishy flavour. 

This is, unfortunately, unforgivable. They might just get away with it if said chips were served as an accompaniment to their fryer-fellow, but with a chicken and bacon sandwich? Seriously? What if I'd had an allergy? Worse still, because I'd eaten most of the sandwich, they did not offer a refund.

-1. Yes, that's minus one.

Bonus points: I'm struggling here. Struggling to think of a single thing for which the Southwark Tavern could be given a bonus point. Things like the bottled beer offering, or the cider, or the bar snacks are not notable enough to warrant anything. I'll give them one point for the basement, purely because some of the seating is in old brick prison cells and this is a bit quirky. And that's it!

The five weakest pubs are, of course, excluded from next year's competition, so maybe pubs like this can go away and have a little think about what they can do to improve their offering.

Well, we've finished on a bit of downbeat note, but there have, of course, been some fantastic London pubs reviewed this year. Which is the absolute best of them all? We'll mull things over, see if the star ratings need to be tweaked, discuss things at the Beer Writers Guild annual party, and in a few weeks time, the 2017-18 BV London Pub of the Year will be revealed to all and sundry.

Now go and have a pint.

Where to find it... 

Cock Tavern
315 Mare street,
E8 1EJ (map)
website / whatpub

87 Maple road,
KT6 4AW (map)
website / whatpub

Four Thieves
51 Lavender Gardens,
SW11 1DJ (map)
website / whatpub

Green Dragon
58 High street,
CR0 1NA (map)
website / whatpub

Southwark Tavern
22 Southwark street,
SE1 1TU (map)
website / whatpub

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