Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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, October 28, 2010

Non-evasive answers to existential questions

So, what are we doing? Why are we here? Why am I writing this new blog? Why are you reading it?

Well, to put it simply: I done likes me food, and I done likes me drink, and I done do writing'n'shit, and if you add up all them there things and multiply them by the internet, you come up with this blog what I'm done writing.

Makes sense, no?

Teh Wharf

I shall be reviewing eateries and drinkeries, mostly around the Canary Wharf area initially as that's where I'm based, and there will be general comment on developments in the epicurean realm. As you'll have undoubtedly noticed a couple of days ago, I moaned about the dubious gourmetness of gourmet burgers in my first blogpipe here - and that's pretty much the kind of thing you can expect.

I daresay there'll be some comment on the beer and brewing scene from time to time (and you can, of course, read my beer writing in the London Drinker magazine, available in all good pubs in the London area).

I hugely enjoy cooking myself (not in the auto-cannibalistic sense, obviously), so there'll be recipes from time to time, which is a tad ironic as I'm from the 'never ever bother with following recipes ever' school of cookery.

You'll learn what I adore (anchovies), what I despise (margarine), and what I'm utterly indifferent to (sauvignon blanc). You'll also learn how to dress a crab wearing only a pair of skimpy briefs. 

I do hope we can enjoy this journey of good food and good drink together, in good company.

No? OK, fuck off then. I don't care.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Burger Me!

I recently returned from my latest trip to the USA (the ‘Four Corners’ area around the rocky mountains and Monument Valley as it happens) and as usual, I drank plenty of uber-hoppy microbrews and polished off a few big, meaty burgers.

Now back in The Wharf, with a shiny new food’n’drink blog to pen, I’m left to reflect on what is ultimately a bittersweet experience, because trips to the US tend to remind me that, with scant few exceptions, our beers are generally nowhere near as uncomprising as I’d like, and most hamburger products available in this country are crap too.

You can get crap burgers in the States too, of course. They pretty much invented fast food and have sustained a passionate love affair therewith for decades. But you don’t have to look too far to find something much better; much beefier; much more flavoursome. Pretty much any bar will grill you up a thick injection of beefy goodness, topped with whatever you like. It’ll taste damn good, it’ll fill you up good and proper, and it won’t cost the earth either.

And, unfortunately, it’s an experience that seems so difficult for British restaurants to recreate.

It’s not all about the toppings either, or we’d have it sussed by now. Yes, it’s great to have your half-pounder bursting with chilli, avocado and sour cream, or (my personal favourite) Canadian Cheddar, bacon and BBQ sauce, or whatever. But so the fuck what? Any donkey can whack stuff on top and sell the burger off the back of the other ingredients, but it should be the bovine slab of delight underneath that matters.

A few years ago the Gourmet Burger Kitchen exploded onto the London restaurant chain scene, giving hope to burger aficionados everywhere. Run originally by exiled New Zealanders, they've expanded across the country, specialising in some inventive topping combinations – try mango and ginger on ‘The Jamaican’, or aubergine and tahini on ‘The Babaganoush’.

GBK’s chunky fries and aioli and polenta chips and coleslaw are all pretty good but none of these tasty things are burgers. And their actual burgers are, compared to their transatlantic brethren, pretty average (though, it has to be said, half-decent compared to most of their local competition).

One thing that has always really annoyed me about GBK is how the lack of table service completely detracts from the 'restaurantness' of the experience. It's all so 'fast-foody', deciding what one wants rather hurriedly whilst queuing to pay for it upfront, then returning to the counter to pay again if you want something else. The last thing you want to do when stuffed with Kiwiburger is to struggle to your feet and sift through your loose change just to get a coffee

Over the last few years Wetherspoons and similar pub chains have leaped onto the bandwagon to promote their own ‘gourmet’ burgers, as if it’s the toppings that somehow make them good, but it doesn’t fucking work. Try the regular and gourmet burger in our local Spoons, The Ledger Building – you’ll see it’s exactly the same burger, and there’s nothing much gourmet about it.

'Gourmet' Wetherburger, now with plate-corners

I read on Wetherspoons Facebook page this week that they've now upgraded their gourmet burger... to be served on a rectangular plate! Great. That'll make it taste so much more awesome!!!111one1

Thing is, you could put the finest foie grois and truffle oil on the sort of tasteless, gristly lipid-lumped patties that routinely pass for burgers in this country, and succeed only in ruining your foie grois and truffle oil.

But Why, I ask you, Why?

So, one has to ask the question. Why are so many British burgers uninspiring and bland when just across the Atlantic, a similar type of outlet can sell a similarly-named product at a similar price point that tastes like proper cow.

The quality of the beef cattle probably has a lot to do with it. I’m guessing here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of the meat that goes into hamburger mince in the US would have remained intact and become rump steak or perhaps a roasting joint of some sort, had it come from the flesh of an English cow.

It also wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if our burgers were made from the lowest-grade meat available, but from the next level up over there – their decent burgers get made from ‘premium economy’ beef, or maybe even business class, because all the economy stuff gets used by the low-end fast food outlets, with which we’re unconcerned, and whose burgers taste the same all over the world.

I think I've hit on something here: Wetherspoons burgers, say, aren't really much better than those from Burger King or a van outside a football ground, because they probably come from the same off-cuts and offal silos, if that isn't some sort of culinary libel. (If it is, I didn't say it, obviously). 

Here’s a little tip: one pretty good indicator of a good burger is that the taste holds up (and, as far as I’m concerned improves) when cooked on the rarer side of medium and eaten without extraneous toppings.

Burgers in outlets where there is no option other than the house ‘medium-well’ tend to be less good than those in places where they’re happy to give the customer the choice, knowing that it won’t disappoint, however it’s cooked. It’s all about the quality of the beef.

This rule holds true for haemophobes too – even if you’re always going to ask for your burger bien cuit, a burger that tastes good when rare will taste better when well done than a burger that tastes strange and falls apart when rare will taste when well done, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t, but I don’t fucking care because I’m lost in burger fantasy right now anyway.

New kids on the meat block Byron opened their Canary Wharf outlet a few weeks ago so I was naturally keen to see if their self-proclaimed ‘Proper Hamburgers’ could hold a candle to those I’ve eaten in the US - and the good news is that they can. Pretty much.
Get past the deliberately quirky branding, and toilet facilities eerily wallpapered with comics and the fundamentals are all there.

Byron, Canary Wharf

They’ll ask you how you’d like your burger cooked, and actually listen to you and act on it, which is a great start! The menu includes a few suggested topping combinations (the signature ‘Byron Burger’ comes with cheddar and bacon, and their tangy house sauce), but doesn’t make too big a meal out of toppingness and lets you choose your own, or indeed none at all.

(i've no idea who the Byron in question actually is, but it's reassuring that their slogan is 'Proper Hamburgers' rather than something convoluted around 'lording it over the competition' or 'club foot sandwich' or somesuch!)

The burger itself is more flavoursome than any I’ve previously sampled in a country with taps and pavements; the meatiness wafting through the toppings and working with them rather than hiding behind sauce like some frightened, beefy bastard.

Maybe they fly their cattle over from Montana first class and slaughter them en route to The Wharf from City Airport? It certainly tastes like it.

There are proper bottles of various sauces on the table, including Tabasco, which adds to the American diner-type feel, and which is no bad thing.

You can mix and match and share your sides (crispy courgette fries are a particular highlight) rather than be shoe-horned into a meal combo you might not want which is great, especially at lunchtime, and there’s Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager on the drinks list for an authentically modern American experience (or you could go for an old-fashioned milkshake served in the frozen bucket it was made in!)

Another reliable marker for the quality of a burger is to ask yourself if you could happily drink wine with it. Byron offer a succinct list, 'helpfully' self-rated from 'Good' (Pinotage) to 'Best' (a Californian Pinot Noir) via 'Better' and 'Great', though I'd suggest that in this context it's pretty much of a muchness and the scale goes from 'Alright' to 'Alright'.

They have a similarly-rated quartet of Whites, but who on God's fat earth would consider drinking white wine with a burger?!?.Come on.

There are myriad places to eat on The Wharf, but even with the presence of GBK, there was a burger-shaped gap in the market which has now been filled admirably.

OK, they ain’t quite perfect. The dessert menu is safe and bland (though GBK doesn't even have one). There’s no choice in the bread department, and the standard bun isn’t very inspiring, and I’ve been told the vegetarian and healthy salady options are disappointing and come across as an afterthought.

But then who seeks out the best burger joint in town only to eat something that isn’t a burger? Possibly the same people who are drinking Chardonnay when they eat something that is?

Anyway, a substantial meal for two with a couple of beers or a bottle of wine will set you back £35-50, which is about comparable with GBK (and 3-4 times the price of Wetherspoons but fuck 'em).

Bottom line is that I might have been to a dozen or so places that are better than Byron Burger, but they are all a lengthy plane ride away. So go to Byron for your burgers, dickwad.

On The Wharf...

The Ledger Building (JD Wetherpoons)
4, Hertsmere Road,
West India Quay
E14 4AL

Gourmet Burger Kitchen
Unit 24, Jubilee Place,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5NY 

Byron Hamburgers
Second Floor, Cabot Place East
Canary Wharf
E14 4QT

(Other branches of all three chains are plentiful across London