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, March 4, 2011

The good, the bad and the Unagi

‘I look down on him because I am upper class’; ‘I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class. I am middle class’; ‘I know my place’.

These old lines seem rather dated now, and the sketch has fallen out of favour, primarily due to our perceptions of any implicit class system in our self-identity changing drastically over the last 45 years, and also because the visual effectiveness of the skit relies on deploying a trio of actors who just happen to be as significantly diverse in stature as Cleese, Barker and Corbett. Which probably is a solicitors firm somewhere.

Class-ic Comedy?
Anyway, the demise of British class identity aside, the sketch does hint at one of the great truths of life – the rule of three. That is to say that a substantial number of different things can be broadly broken down into three varieties – one good, one averagey, and one that’s just a bit underwhelming, or maybe even abject shite.

Kinda like how the Ford Capri existed in a sluggish 1.3 litre entry-level variant that flattered to deceive, a perfectly respectable 2 litre Ghia, and the big fuck-off 3 litre V6 what The Professionals done drove around in. And John Cleese’s character from that sketch, presumably.

If these three characters were alive and real and happened to be working in Canary Wharf today… stay with me on this one please… if they were real in the here and now and fancied some contemporary Oriental fusion food for lunch today, where would they go to eat?

Trim Level 3

Well, the top of the range option, the Cleese, the 3 litre V6 if you will, is surely Roka.

Roka is stunning. The flavours, the visuals, the ambience. If you’re a normal sort of person and not an oversalaried, suited, banking tosser, you might feel as though you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone. I know I did.

But the food is simply brilliant. Expensive, yes, but brilliant. And I’m not sure all of the oversalaried, suited, banking tossers who lunch there actually appreciate it.

I ‘ve been lucky enough to sample their multi-course tasting menu. Once. At around £70 per head excluding drinks (and you’ll need the solventy-sweet warmth of a good Sake) it’s not something the Ronnie Barker character eats every day, let alone the Corbetts of the world.

Roka desserts
But it is stunning, and includes a range of different sushi, delicately flavoured and vibrantly presented, then miso soup, subtly-spiced crab cakes and crispy tempura, followed by the robatayaki (grilled meat) courses, which include Korean style lamb cutlets and Teriyaki chicken, and finally a selection of mini desserts of the day. Including crème brulee. And green tea ice cream. Yum.

There’s fresh chilli heat, there’s garlic, there’s ginger, there’s soy, there’s all the flavours you’d expect from modern Japanese cuisine, and so much of it that the entire eating experience becomes a very pleasant blur.

It’s a fine dining experience, and you’ll look out of place if go in there not wearing a suit. You’ll forget exactly what you ate, but you’ll come away remembering that it was good. Very good indeed.

Sam I am

But suppose you drive the 1.3 litre Capri rather than the V6? Head up the escalators above Tesco at Canary Wharf DLR, and in the Food Court you’ll find ‘Singapore Sam’.

It’s a strange ‘food court’ because the only two outlets that have opened there are Burger King and the aforementioned Sam.

This makes it possibly the only place on the Wharf where you can get a takeaway at lunchtime and actually have space to sit down and eat it, though that might be purely because cheap fast food really isn’t much to write home about.

Singapore Sam sounds like the kind of small-time chain you’d see signposted on the interstate driving through Ohio. I’ve never seen another outlet of theirs, although apparently there are a few dotted around the country.

In theory, it looks good, especially with Burger King next door. The food is right there in front of you, freshly cooked in big woks. The menu doesn’t overstretch itself, so only a few dishes are available plus rice or noodles, and it comes at a bargain price. Two meals for £7.95.

It’s standard Anglo-Chinese stuff. Sweet and sour pork, chicken and green pepper in black bean sauce, chicken and cashew nuts – that sort of thing.

But it’s just all very bland, and so unbelievably salty that it might actually be less healthy than a Bacon and Cheddar Angus burger.

There’s a bit of an illusion taking place, in that while Singapore Sam looks like it’s giving you fresh, honest food, it actually tastes very tired and reheated and just lacking in any kind of oomph. All the dishes taste more or less the same, and all contain large amounts of green pepper as filler.

And if you watch the footfall while eating, you’ll notice that there are maybe 20 BK customers for every one of Sam’s, so how long they’ll last is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t surprise me if turnover was so low, they’ve been serving portions from the same wok of egg fried rice for several weeks now.

It’s an inexpensive and filling meal for the little Ronnie Corbett character, but to be honest you can get microwave Chinese meals with more flavour.

The middle ground

‘So’, you cry, ‘where’s the middle ground? Where do ordinary, middle class people of average height like me go to eat this kind of food?!?’

Wasabi. Fairly obviously, you go to Wasabi. On the lower level between the tower and the DLR station.

Wasabi wasabi
It’s strictly takeaway only, so you’ll have to take it back to your desk to eat it (or possibly up to the seating in the food court) but a very good way to get a quick fix of East Asian food that actually tastes of something without costing the earth or requiring you to dress like a twat.

There’s a varied sushi and salads section (maybe not up to Roka’s standard, but a cut above the sushi sets you can purchase in Tesco) and a hot food counter, where curry dishes, rice and noodles are prepared.

Prices are reasonable – you can get a sashimi or nigiri plate, including chopsticks, soy sauce, ginger and, yes, a little sachet of wasabi for under a fiver. You can mix and match your sushi too, rather than taking a whole set, which means some more interesting alternatives to the standard salmon and tuna are available - try the Unagi (eel) sushi, surprisingly meaty but subtle.

Just one of the King’s pounds gets you a little cup of cloudy Miso soup, with a few bits of seaweed and tofu lurking at the bottom, and if you’re feeling properly hungry, a big tub of chicken noodles or curry, or spicy pork will fit the bill. I don't personally care for the quantity of peas in the Teriyaki (e.g. more than zero!) but most people won't mind.

The flavours are bold, if a little straightforward, the dishes contain plenty of fresh, crunchy vegetables, and unlike Singapore Sam, it all tastes like it was just prepared a minute ago, with people queuing up to eat it so they have to prepare more.

It's all generally pretty good stuff, and does exactly what you want at a very fair price. The only major exception I’ve encountered thus far is their king prawn tempura, which is dry, brittle and everything that tempura shouldn’t be - avoid. 

Lovers of deep fried items shouldn't despair though - the chicken karaage is cripsy and gingery, and two pieces are available for a quid. It's hard to see why anybody would go to Singapore Sam, when the 'middle class' option is really only slightly more expensive and a whole lot better.

I'm guessing that when they lined up in a row to deliver their lines, Mssrs. Cleese, Barker and Corbett didn't perhaps realise they were actually positing a metaphor for 1970s coupes, let alone Far-Eastern food choices in Canary Wharf in 2011.

The important thing is that you now know where to go, depending on your status, and I'll be sure to look out for you in Singapore Sam in your flat cap, looking wistfully into the distance!

On The Wharf...

1st Floor, 40 Canada Square,
Canary Wharf
E14 5FW
Lower Level, Cabot Place East,
Canary Wharf,
E14 4QS

Singapore Sam
Upper Level, Cabot Place West,
Canary Wharf
E14 4QT

1 comment:

  1. Boy, you are a damned fine writer, of whom I am actually envious! I like how you lead with a seemingly incongruous subject, such as threes, and so seamlessly blend into a stunning food description and equally delightful recipe! Well-played, Ben, well played!
    (Can you please repost your chili recipe??)


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