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!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cattle of Waterloo - Browns vs Rouge

What do you lie awake at night wondering about?

(If indeed, you lie awake at night wondering about anything at all, obviously)

Perhaps you're a City tosser worrying that the FTSE is losing billions of pence at the expense of the Franc, whatever that means?

Perhaps you wonder whatever happened to Ringos crisps or the original entrance to the Louvre?

Or maybe you're just extremely curious about which mid-high-level 'smart-cas' chain restaurant does the best steaks: Is it the classic quintessentially English Browns or the cheeky French pretender Café Rouge?

I rather hope it's the latter, actually, because I've been doing a little research in this area by eating steaks at both places in the last week.

It makes for a fairly scientific comparison as both chains resolutely set out their stall vis-à-vis the nationality of food on offer, both are typically in the £75-100 range for a meal for two, and both sort-of feature steaks as their flagship offerings, albeit as part of an extensive English/French menu.

And both have branches in Canary Wharf - a good excuse to return to my old stamping ground for a big meal. Twice.

I set out to order pretty much the same main course in both places to ensure a fair comparison - a rib-eye steak, cooked blue, with chips/frites and peppercorn sauce. 

Anything else included on the plate as standard is factored into my evaluation process, but the starters, desserts, cocktails and wine I consumed won't affect the result.

While I wasn't expecting the best steak ever at a chain restaurant, even a fairly pricey one, it seemed to have the makings of an interesting contest, and one that could get quite ugly.

Let cattle commence!

Browns started life in the 1970s and, by all accounts, was typical of restaurants in this country during that decade - eg really not very good. The 70s gave us some great music and cars, but one seldom hears positive sentiments about the cuisine.

During the 1980s and 1990s it's probably fair to say that Browns was still stuck in the 70s, before they underwent a bit of a rebrand, moved upmarket and became a chain of fairly trendy brasseries with reasonably-priced cocktails and a 'place to be seen' vibe, albeit without abandoning the commitment to traditional English food.

And it remains as English as Yorkshire Pudding decorated with bunting, which, incidentally is one of the side dishes on the new menu...

Café Rouge probably showed up some time in the late 1980s or 1990s and have been springing up branches in various chic places ever since. 

It's as French as the proverbial cheese-eating surrender-monkey. Everything set up nicely for a cross-channel clash of the titans then.

Blue Bar G & T
There was one other little thing I had to do to ensure a fair comparison - spend several hours drinking first.

(It's a long story, but on the evening we went to Browns it happened I'd spent the afternoon drinking G&Ts in the Blue Bar at The Berkeley, and then several excellent beers at the Euston Tap, so I felt it was only fair to drink a similar quantity before our visit to the red caff!)


'21 Day Aged West Country Rib Eye Steak' is the last item on the flagship 'grill' section of Browns menu and, at £18.95, is the second most expensive dish there.

A nicely thick cut of beef topped with sizzling anchovy butter, I'd guess it was probably about 10 ounces, which isn't vastly huge, but it comes with a few big, chunky chips, plus grilled mushroom and mushroom, and a few watercress leaves, which all adds up to a decent plateful, particularly if you've had one of their big starters.

As seems to be common with rib-eye steaks these days, the 'eye' bone had been removed, or rather, the steak had been cut around it, but I'm not unduly bothered about these things.

A strong contender from the English there
The jug of peppercorn sauce (£1.45 extra) is an addition that probably wasn't really necessary, because the melting anchovy butter does such a good job all on it's own and the meat itself has depth of flavour.

Anchovies are a miracle ingredient, of course, and quite possibly the most important fish in the world, so that wasn't necessarily a surprise.

It could perhaps have been served just a fraction bluer, but the crimson succulence inside was hard to fault and the charring on the outside had a lovely caramelised character.

The chips were excellent and had clearly benefited from a twice- or thrice-cooking process, while the vegetables balanced the dish, with the mushroom particularly juicy and flavoursome.

In some ways Browns has lost it's lustre compared to a few years ago (and I have to admit I hadn't been for 18 months or so having gone off them a bit) but they proved here that they can still do a good steak and do it pretty damn well.
Whether or not it still expects, England delivers. Take that, Napoleon!



OK, so onto the French offering... the 'Classic Steak Rouge',

It comes in at 250 French grams, sans bone, which is a bit more than half a pound in the proper weights and measures, and costs £16.95, which you might want to convert to Euros. Or not. 

A not-overly-generous bowl of fries is included, and the poivre sauce is an extra £2.45.

Sans je ne sais quoi...
The steak was tender, juicy and nicely marinated, but the garlic isn't as dans votre visage as one might expect from the French. 

But my biggest complaint was that, despite my asking for it to be cooked blue, and the waitress confirming said blueness in a meekly Gallic accent, the steak that actually showed up was distinctly medium-rare.  

Even pressing down hard with my fork failed to produce very much 'blood', which was a big disappointment. 

This is a simple thing that the French, of all people, should be able to get right. Last time I was in Paris I had a lovely, properly bleu steak, although I'm not convinced that those in the kitchen at Cafe Rouge are necessarily légitime Francais. 

I've even had a blue steak successfully delivered at Wetherspoons in the past, albeit not very often!

 The fries are extremely salty, and while typically French in style, there could be a few more of them to dip in the small bowl of peppercorn sauce, which is perhaps the only area where Le Rouge scores a victory over Le Brun. 

It's a thick and intense sauce with just the right level of heat and bursting with whole peppercorns that crunch delightfully in the mouth. Like the fries, it's also very salty but more balanced because of the pepperiness. But it looks a little lonely and unimpressive on the plate. 

There is undoubtedly some tasty shit on the Cafe Rouge menu, but when I order a rib-eye steak in this sort of establishment, I want it to be better than this. 

The verdict

So, all things considered, the contest isn't as close as I would have expected, and it's largely due to the French delegatation overcooking the steak and lacking the ammunition to fight back in other areas. 

On another day, there might possibly have been a different result, but on this occasion the winner is clearly Browns, and so it's England 1 France 0... 

... except that the best chain restaurant for a steak on Canary Wharf, albeit at a higher price point, is actually Gaucho.

England 1 France 0. Argentina 2. Maybe.

On The Wharf...

Unit A, Hertsmere Road
West India Quay
E14 8JJ 

29-35 Mackenzie Walk  
Canary Wharf
E14 4PH (map)

1 comment:

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