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, November 11, 2010

Sandwich Course

They say that a man in Canary Wharf can live a hundred lives and eat a hundred different lunches every day.

Actually, nobody has ever said that as far as I'm aware, since I just made it up, but it's true that there are so many places to grab lunch around here, the choice is almost too much.

With the weather turning colder, salads and sushi are becoming less appealing, and hearty steaming soups rather more so, but what of that evergreen favourite, the humble sandwich?

At a conservative estimate, there are probably some 50 different sandwich outlets on The Wharf, with each offering maybe 20-30 different sandwiches - that's at least a thousand to choose from, without taking into account individual customisations ('extra mayo, hold the butter... Because it's actually margarine and I don't like it, fuckwit, that's why.')

There are probably more Prets per square mile than anywhere else on the planet here, which is perfectly acceptable, plus the usual supermarket offerings, but I'm interested in the more distinctive, bespoke sandwich options.

Ooh La La

A little piece of France on the Wharf
French patisserie Paul do a decent line in croissants and petit fours,  but they also serve up one of the best lunchtime experiences on a cold day. It comes as a surprise that they can do hearty as well as delicate, but believe me, they can.

Their range of cold sandwich and pastry offerings is petit but passionant, and authentically French but seeing as it's cold outside, let's go for something hot!

And they don't disappoint - the Jambon et Camembert tartine is one of the finest toasties I've enjoyed for a while, crunchy and gooey, with hot butter and cheese seeping out through the pores in the rustic wholemeal bread. They also do one without the delightfully salt-sweet ham but unless you're vegetarian and/or Jewish, there's no good reason not to have it.

Actually, if you're only one of the two, do consider having it avec jambon, because it really does complement the Camembert and the sweet chutney so awfully well.

Paul also make probably the finest hot chocolate I've ever had the indulgent pleasure to slurp - rich, dark, thick, warming and intensely chocolatey. Forgot the milky, creamy, frothy concoctions you've had in the past. This is the real deal, the espresso of chocolate drinks. It's like the God of Cocoa ejaculating down your throat from a big, celestial chocolate cock!

If you drink only one hot, French, drink this Winter, make it a Paul hot chocolate.

It's sweet enough that you won't feel you need a dessert, but with creamy macarons, fruit tartlets and coffee eclairs to tempt, you might want to go for the multi-course petit dejeuner if dining in.

Something a little less Gallic and a little beefier

Birley sandwichs (and soups and salads) have several outlets across The Wharf where you can pick up a hearty, handmade baguette with decent fillings, but their bœuf de résistance has to be the specialist Birley Salt Beef outlet, underneath 1 Canada Square.

A roast dinner betwixt two slices
It’s essentially a lunchtime carvery – simple but highly effective. They have a bunch of people carving big, hot joints of meat and slicing big loaves of bread – you choose your bread, your meat, and any condiments you might fancy, and that’s that. Fast food at it’s finest.

The salt beef is juicy and flavoursome, and you can go for the full-on Yiddishman in New York experience by ordering it on rye bread with sliced gherkins.

The range varies slightly with the season, but they’ve also offered roast beef, lamb and turkey and big, thick Lincolnshire sausages. No, there isn’t anything for vegetarians.

But the highlight, surely, is their distinctly non-kosher roasted pork belly – served with crackling on the side. My preference is to order it on French bread with mustard apple sauce and black pepper, and for those who might baulk at paying over a fiver for a sandwich – trust me, it’s worth it.

Roast pork on baguette
Birley’s trademark generosity with their fillings makes one of their hot meat sandwiches a meal in itself. It's also probably exactly the kind of thing that John Montagu had in mind when he came up with the concept in the first place.

One thing to bear in mind is that Birley's Salt Beef tend to sell out pretty early - I've turned up at 2 o'clock before now, only to find most of the meats all gone by then, so get there sharpish.

The thin end of the wedge

If you only want to stump up £2.50 (correction, I’m told it’s recently gone up to £2.65!) then get your tight arse to Bene Bene in Canary Wharf DLR. But don’t blame me if your stomach disintegrates in a bloody, pustulous mess of goo.

They’ll do you a pre-packed sandwich ‘plus any two side items’ for a very low price. The trouble is, it’s crap.

The side items are an eclectic selection, ranging from one week to the next, with a distinct ‘back of a lorry’ feel about them. Along side the usual ‘small bottle of water’ and ‘packet of Doritos’-type offerings, they have included large bars of obscure foreign chocolate, whole packets of biscuits and sometimes even non-food items such as childrens toys. What. The. Fuck?

But the sandwiches themselves are so horrible, containing usually some withered salad leaves that are turning to slime, and equally slimy undercooked chicken pieces, smothered in a slimy, one-dimensional sauce (Cajun, Jerk, Spanish etc.) to disguise their inedibility. Slime.

I've been physically unable to eat my meal on a couple of occasions when I've checked out B*ne Bene, and have resolved never to go back.

Yes, the price is dirt-cheap, but don't forget that for just two quid you can get a sandwich with a drink and some crisps or fruit or a Kit Kat from Tescos. And you'll feel a lot safer, even if the sandwiches available in the deal are the plainer, more basic varieties.

There are similar offers at the likes of Superdrug and Boots and other supermarkets, so there really is no need to resort to B*ne B*ne.

In fact, if you're poor, rather than going there you could skip lunch every other day, and go to Paul or Birley on the alternate days. There. I've done gone and solved all your problems for you. Isn't that kind of me?

On The Wharf...

Cabot Place East,
Canary Wharf
E14 4QS (also at Jubilee Place and all over London)

Birley Salt Beef
Lower Level, 1 Canada Square,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5AX 

Bene Bene
Canary Wharf DLR Station, Canada Place
Canary Wharf
E14 5AH

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