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!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yule Blog

Well, festoon my hearth with Yuletide mirth and gluttony, it done be Christmas Eve here, and one of those very special times of the year that I usually spend indulging in fine food and drink. (Not unlike the rest of the year, in fact!)

Merry Christmas!

Cheese @ Borough Market
Sadly this year the festive flu has rather curtailled such intentions thus far -  I've been pretty much housebound for the past week or so, with tastebuds so jaded I could probably eat a whole filet-o-fish without sicking up chunks of reformed pollock, and have thus been unable to sample much in the way of seasonal flavours.

There have been a couple of exceptions though - I made it as far as Borough Market the other day to stock up on high-quality cheeses (Comte, Mont D'or, and Worksop Blue on the Ben Viveur cheeseboard this Christmas!) and was able to neck a few festive ales en route in the excellent pubs nearby.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Big Fat Asian Wedding Food Tasting

I had anticipated eating rather well this past weekend, mainly because we were taking a friend out for a belated birthday dinner to a new contemporary English steakhouse in Newbury, and given my recent musings on the topic, I was eager to see how their fayre would, err, fare.

(if you’re wondering, the sirloin was admirably thick and juicy – though it could have been bluer – with a slightly smokey flavour, the vegetables were mismatched and plain, the so-called buffalo wings were a disappointing starter with little to no heat, and the crème brulee a perfectly acceptable sweet)

Anyway, in order to work up an appetite, I’d already decided I probably wouldn’t have a pie at the footie, and as it happened, I was completely stuffed as I watched Reading 'beating' us 0-0, and still not vastly hungry by the time we arrived at the restaurant.

The reason for my unexpected all-day satiety? Getting married next month! Not in the sense of romantic loss of appetite (which has never seemed to manifest itself in me, strangely enough) but because we had a ‘food tasting’ at a place we were looking at doing the catering for our reception. And, boy, what a tasting it was!

Blumenthall ain't the only Heston in town

I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we ventured gingerly into brunchtime Heston (yes, the place near Hounslow, known only for it's motorway service station), and the slightly scratty industrial estate where Premier Rouge are based.

Tikka taste test
All we knew is that my girlfriend had enjoyed the food at an event they had catered for a few years ago, and upon getting the name of the company from a friend of a friend, we realised that they were very competitively priced, which is a good start as we're hoping to get married as cheaply as possible, and ideally make a profit on the whole thing!

We opened their door, caught a glimpse of their kitchen, and wandered upstairs - the interior was far plusher than anywhere for miles around, with a dreamlike incongruity. One corner of the room was like a small office, another a bar area, another was like the waiting area in a massage parlour with big red sofas a wall-mounted TV (though not showing hardcore porn, admittedly) and the last was a mini restaurant with just one, elaborately decorated, table.

Out came the first of many, many courses, a big yoghurty plate of Dahi Aloo Papri Chat, bursting with different flavours and textures. Not knowing how much we were meant to take, or what was to come, we just took a couple of mouthfuls each, barely denting the dish. That turned out to be a wise strategy as the table was furnished with the mango chutney and mint sauce that heralded a range of starters to come.

There was well-executed chicken tikka and seekh kebabs, which is just what you need to kick off an Indian style banquet, and some of the veggie starters were to die for - potato pakora with chana massala, a perfectly cooked paneer tikka with a deep tandoori flavour, and the gloriously sweet and spicy chilli paneer.

They kept on bringing up plate after plate, then once the starters were done, they began to bring out plate after plate of main dishes, with a robust, classic Chicken curry, a lovely Rogan Josh full of tomatoes and really tender lamb pieces, and various other dishes I've lost track of. Rice, Naan and salad were all provided of course.

The only really unpleasant thing out of around 25 different starters, curries, bhajis and sweets, was the massala fried fish, which looked lovely, but the batter suffered from a really metallic taste, a bit like those low-sodium salt substitutes.

Personally, I hate peas and so the muttar paneer weren't things we'd be choosing, but the quality was generally exceptional throughout. I've also never particularly enjoyed Asian desserts, but did eat half of my gulab jamun, as it wasn't too sweet, and that's way more than I'd usually manage.

When we could eat no more, we wondered if we'd be presented with some kind of a bill, maybe deductable from our catering order, or at least some high-pressure sales pitch to ensure that we didn't take our business elsewhere.

But there was nothing. We actually had to ask one of the guys if we could discuss the business side of things. I guess they are confident enough in the quality of their food and reasonableness of their prices that most people who try the tasting will go with them anyway.

Their food is better than most restaurants I've dined in - and I've dined in a lot of Indian restaurants. Premier Rouge's owner explained how and why - banquetting menus are chosen way in advance, so they can properly prepare and marinate and get everything right, whereas restaurants have to respond to an unpredictable range of short orders in rapid succession.

You know it makes sense
It makes sense, so it does.

Free for all

Even now, a few days later, I can't get over the fact that this delicious multi-course tasting menu experience was free. Yes, we're going to book them, because they're very tasty and exceptional value to boot, but we never felt under obligation to do so.

How many other caterers are out there offering similar deals to people who say they are interested in booking catering for their wedding (or indeed any other event)? For years after we're married we can go around pretending to be newly-engaged just so we can get freebies from different caterers.

Don't take this as endorsement for blagging plate upon plate of free banquetting food, but it would be pretty easy to pull off this scam. Even if you only get away with it once, you'll save yourself the cost of a meal out. Not that I told you that. It's tempting though, isn't it? 

After eating so well on Saturday I needed to be brought back down to culinary reality on Sunday, and Mr. Wetherspoon duly obliged with a truly execrable turkey dinner. A karmic warning in the light of my scamtastic thoughts, perhaps. With peas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'd rather be Tiny Tim

Work Christmas party last night - the first one of the year - and at the risk of offending my otherwise lovely bosses, it was the culinary equivalent of a multi-vehicle pile-up with no survivors. But then these sorts of things usually are.

For years, my work Christmas parties consisted of eating a plateful of shit food, drinking uninspiring house red, trying and failing to cop off with girls I fancied, getting a bit pissed (both in the English and American sense of the expression), trying and failing to cop off with anyone at all, ranting and raving about the futility of life, then finally stumbling home home alone in a raging, dispairing, sobbing, drunken heap of messed-upness.

These days, now I'm all grown up and cohabiting, a work Christmas party merely consists of eating a plateful of shit food then going home early. Which is, I suppose, rather better.

I guess it was too much to hope for that the standard of Christmas party menus would improve in the way that other aspects of my life have done though. As meals go, 'christmas dinner with all the trimmings' has to be one of the most overrated, overhyped, overpriced dishes ever conceived. Yet we eat it every year, often on more than one day.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Steak Out?

I've seen a lot of people on the tube lately wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. They look like twats.

In fact, they looked a bit like fringe Star Wars character Lobot, and he looked like a twat.

I've stopped telling people that though, because the first couple of people I mentioned it to said 'nah, they look cool. Big headphones are back in. Big headphones look cool'. 

If I'd let them carry on, they'd probably have told me Lobot was cool.

OK, I suppose it's a change from the tiny white iEarphones which have become the height of ubiquity, and an oblique homage to the Rebel Alliance, but they still look like twats. Twats.

Anyway, I realised a long time ago that I'm not the arbiter of what is cool and what isn't and that 'fashion' is a cock I don't particularly wish to suck.

But, like it or not, the prevailing perceptions of coolness impact on all of our lives, no matter now little we want to play along. It affects how easy it is to dine in certain types of restaurants for a start.

Where are all the steakhouses gone?

When I were a lad, this whole town used to be steakhouses. 'Twere all you could see for miles around, so it were.

Well, not quite, but back in the 1980s (and for a long time before that by all accounts), going out for a steak was pretty much the height of gastronomic cool. It was where you took somebody you wanted to impress. It was what you ate when you were doing well, or had something to celebrate.

The predominant meme was a fundamental belief that 'steak' was the king of foods, and it had a cachet about it that set it apart from just plain, ordinary beef.

By the 1990s, we were all more sophisticated - food had to be more Ms. International Vegetarian Sophisticate, and less alpha man meat. 

London's once-thriving network of traditional English steakhouses has now dwindled to a handful of fairly naff places in the West End whose target market seems to be tourists, hungry after a long day's sightseeing and shopping for union flag t-shirts. The only places selling steaks in any great quantity are Wetherspoon pubs on Tuesday Grill Nights, and even they offer non-steak options

Steak became the plain, ordinary beef that it used to look down upon, and after more than 20 years, it still hasn't really ever come back into fashion.

Sirloin, Rump, T-bone, Fillet - whatever cut you preferred, and whether you had it rare, medium or (shudder) 'well-done', you weren't eating coolness personified, and even a peppercorn or bernaise sauce wasn't going to give it the credibility of sushi or shaved Parmesan.

My skills with music and writing'n'shit have earned me a bit of a cult following myself - or possibly a cunt following, I'm not sure - but I'm under no illusions that I'm ever going to be the epitome of cool, and maybe steak doesn't either. 

But enough people fundamentally enjoy the flavour and cavemanny experience steak to make it a possibility.

Gaucho - the big beef comeback?

Steak needed a new angle and, frankly, to taste a bit better than it did 25 years ago, if it was ever going to make a return to the echelons of coolness.

The Argentinian outfit Gaucho might just be the chain to do this. Their outlet on the wharf - one of half a dozen or so in London - and I approached with an open mind when taken there for lunch this week. It's steak. With a bit of a cult following. Just like me.

Gaucho Canary is different from the slightly tacky Gaucho restaurants found in the States where skewers of meat are theatrically cut at your table, but these guys are clearly out to impress, and that's reflected perhaps in the prices (£50-75 a head for a good meal with wine).

The seats are upholstered with real cow hides, the kitchen is open and buzzing, and the various cuts of meat are brought to your table so you can make an informed choice as to which steak you'd like, and how big you'd like it.

All the cuts are there, albeit with South American names like Lomo (fillet) and Cuadril (rump), and some are available Churrasco-style, marinated to perfection. 

They do all the sauces you'd expect (not that you'll really need them with a Churrasco Cuadril), and you can choose your side orders from an exciting range, including sweet potato with chorizo, wild field mushrooms and spicy roast potatoes.

The wine list is extensive, perhaps too extensive even, and a spicy Argentinian Shiraz was just the ticket; one of many which would I'm sure have been a more than acceptable accompaniment.

Dessert of the day was a well-executed Tiramisu, accompanied by a generous portion of pistachio butter, which didn't really go with it, but which tasted like a dessert in its own right. Two sweets for the price of one can't be bad. And at Gaucho prices probably affords much-needed fiscal relief!

Premium pricing aside, I do have a couple of criticisms - they don't offer steak knives ('because their beef is so soft a regular knife will just cut through it') and I found this a little arrogant, not to mention unhelpful. Yes, a well-done fillet might fall to bits on the plate, but if you're eating rump, cooked blue, it's going to need a little assistance on the way from plate to mouth.

And they insist on using metric weights, which just seems wrong when ordering steak. Give it to me in ounces, man, ounces.

But these are trivialities really - Gaucho has reinvented the high-end steakhouse for the age of Beats by Dr. Dre, and done so pretty convincingly.

Maybe steak will never become the ultimate food again. Maybe we're all too diverse and worldly now, but if anyone can make it cool, Gaucho probably can.

On The Wharf...

Gaucho Canary
29 Westferry Circus
Canary Wharf
E14 8RR