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, September 22, 2011

Appointment with disappointment

It’s an interesting feature of the human condition that we judge a lot of stuff not by how good or bad it is, but by how good or bad it is relative to our expectations of how good or bad it will be.

I went to see Final Destination V this week, fully prejudiced-up with broad expectations based on the preceding four films and a sense of ‘they’ll probably be running out of ideas now’.

I laughed a bit, cringed a bit, and it delivers all the gory set-pieces one expected, and delivered them well, but there’s also a delicious twist at the end which I didn’t see coming, and the 3D effects are, it has to be said, the most inventive and spectacular I’ve ever seen, being a bit of a 3D-sceptic until now.

That’s an example of something that is decent enough in itself, but which seems better because it exceeded modest expectations.

Today I went to Starbucks for the first time in months and discovered that I had over £25 on my Starbucks card. Woohoo. That's about 11 large Hazelnut Americanos with free extra shots. Indifferent because it's Starbucks, yes, but splendid in it's freeness. 

See - it's just a bit 'meh'
But it's not all good; I ordered a Ben Viveur logo from, and was disappointed. I was expecting something so bad it would actually be good – as is true of this guys other work – but instead it could hardly have been more bland and indifferent.

Olley Olley Olley

The disappointment continued last weekend when I took the family to lunch at the award winning Olley’s Fish Experience in Herne Hill.

Having discovered, a couple of weeks ago, a surprisingly good fish bar in Ladywell - which definitely falls into the ‘expectations unexpectedly exceeded’ category – and in response a couple of people pointed me towards Olley’s, which I have to admit I’d never got around to visiting even though it’s been there for years.

You can get a takeaway, but their primary strategy has clearly been to position themselves several notches above your standard chippie; the eat-in section is 80s bistro meets Captain’s Cabin, with not a formica surface or industrial fryer in sight.

It has a bar and a winelist and everything but I’m not quite sure why. Who drinks wine with fish and chips? Nobody, obviously, and the limited range of beers available are completely inappropriate and overpriced. Would you like to pay £4.50 for a 330ml bottle of Innis & Gunn bitter?

Overpricing seems to be a recurring theme here – a piece of fried fish on its own starts at around a tenner (for cod) rising to £15-ish for swordfish or mahi-mahi. There are apparently 15 different kinds of fish on the menu.

The grilled and steamed options - which are garlicky or gingery or chilli-i depending on your mood - and extensive selection of fish sets it apart, though the trade-off is that the menu doesn’t feature other stuff you’d expect to find at a fish and chip shop like minced beef and onion pies and pithy battered sausages – I guess such things are too downmarket for Olley.

A lorra lorra fish
I went for the one of the special platters, the 'Cilla Black experience', which included a medium-sized piece of haddock, three bits of scampi, three king prawns, chips and a handful of mini pickled onions. Oh, and a salad garnish, a wedge of lemon, and a sprig of parsley.

It’s a reasonable plateful, but then for approximately 20 quid, it ought to be. It’s still just fish and chips after all - unless you choose one of the interesting grilled options which is more like something you'd have at a high-end fish restaurant but which kind of seems to defeat the object of good old fish and chips somehow.

There are some things that Olley’s does right: Proper malt vinegar, sea salt and a big dish of tartare sauce on the table. The fish is nicely cooked and the batter is very good indeed. The chips aren’t the best I’ve tried, and the grilled, marinated options, while tasty, seem out of place - and no I’m not going spell place with an ‘i’ just for the hake of a pun…

But they also lose points for a few things: I ordered a pickled gherkin, and it arrived on a plate, sliced into a dozen pieces. How am I meant to pick that up and squeeze the juices over my chips?

And the haddock was battered without the skin on, which, frankly, is just missing a trick. Their batter would be even better with skin still attached, and fish skin is good for you because that’s where the Omega-3s are concentrated or something.

In a cheap and cheerful chippy, the imperfections are almost part of the furniture, but because they charge pretty much double the price of most other fish and chip shops, Olley’s needs to be exceptional to justify its reputation and self-satisfaction.

And it isn’t exceptional, it’s just good.

Final Destination V had more wow factor, and is cheaper. Bear these things in mind, young Olley, bear these things in mind.

Where to find it...

Olley's Fish Experience
65-29 Norwood Road 
Herne Hill
SE24 9AA (map)

Final Destination 5 is still showing in selected 3D cinemas

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