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!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Ravensbourne Blandburger

I quite like Antic pubs.

From humble beginnings a few years ago they’ve slowly and quietly encroached on the South London drinking scene, with little fanfare, and have done so by being decent little individual pubs rather than a uniform chain.

They are probably a reminder of what Wetherspoons must have been like during their early years (not so much in their style and ethos, but in the fact that they have a style and ethos, if that makes sense).

In their dimly-lit, cluttery homeliness, Antic pubs are home to vast quantities of second-hand furniture, with old lampshades that look like the ones we had when I was a kid, and comfy, tatty sofas whose cushions once accomodated the tired arses of people now long-dead.

OK, so they’re completely different from Spoons. They have music playing, they don't have a chain newsletter or limited beer list, and they’re bringing bar billiards and jug glasses back into the mainstream.

Plus they always seem to take over existing pubs, whereas Wetherspoons like their shop-, bank- and church-conversions.

But there's a drive to turn each and every pub they own into something better - and they've taken over some right shitholes, like the Royal Albert in New Cross which is fast becoming my local (despite being a long walk away).

While the beaming, avuncular presence of Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin is decidedly visible at all times, Antic head honcho Anthony Thomas prefers to keep a low profile – at least for now - and uses Social Media effectively to build a loyal fan base without 'over-branding'. It's as though every one of his pubs is an individual child of his, free to develop in it's own way and largely do its own thing. And nobody has any idea what his views on the EU might be!

'The Antic Collective', as they call themselves, have brought decent beer back to pubs that had lost their way under previous management, and it’s usually interesting beer too. Some of their pubs might only have three or four real ales on but it’s an ever-changing range, and it’s far better for a pub to have four beers that change every couple of days than ten beers which remain the same ad infinitum, no?

A proper pub indeed!
I’ve also been impressed with their approach to food, having enjoyed a duck egg Welsh rarebit and some fried pigs cheeks in the Royal Albert in New Cross recently.

The menu changes every day and is concise but varied, with about 10 different dishes available, and the quality has always been good with everything seemingly cooked fresh, to order.

So, when we popped into the Ravensbourne Arms in Ladywell the other day for a lunchtime pint of Saltaire Rye Pale and a game of table football (in which I defeated Mrs B-V 11-2) I was intrigued by the Aberdeen Angus Burger on that day's menu.

I'd spent the morning having strange, diagnostic things done to my eyes at the hospital and my vision was a bit blurry, but I can see the word 'burger' from miles away, and my eyesight didn't stop me reading the menu any more than it stopped me winning at table football. Nah nah, na-nah nah!

Beef me up, Scottie

It's eight quid, or nine with the additions of Stilton and bacon which I went for, and for that you get a huge plate of food - more than I could comfortably manage at lunchtime.

There was a veritable mountain of chunky, skin-on wedge-chips which were excellent and nicely seasoned with just the right balance between softness and crunch. These went very well with the pot of house mayo, which has a hint of chilli and garlic.

Also eminantly eatable were the onion rings (although there were only two of these, on the plate - one medium and one large). The batter was thick and unctious, with a flavour of it's own and reminded me of the king prawn/chicken/pork balls you get from Chinese takeaways.

There was also a nicely dressed salad, which I like to have with a burger as it refreshes the palate between big gobs of dripping, cheesy meat.

So far, so calorifically good. But what about the actual burger?

Well, I'm sorry to report that it was the most disappointing thing on the plate. By far.

Actually, I'm not sorry to report this. That's why I spend literally minutes writing this blog, after all!

The patty was big and thick, and cooked medium-ish, with some pinkness and juice. It certainly looked alright on the plate (to my blurry eyes) but where was the flavour?

Appearances can be deceptive...
Seriously, it was blander than watching My Family, with the sound turned down whilst listening to Daniel O'Donnell. While heavily sedated.

Whereas high-end burgers these days often use flavoursome forerib and rump meat, this was definitely assembled from lesser cuts, with too much fat and gristle and an almost absolute lack of beefiness.

Oh dear

I suspect that decades of marketing wank has led consumers to believe that 'Aberdeen Angus' somehow always indicates the highest quality, when in reality it's just a breed of cow. And while I understand why they might do it, people who put the menus together really ought to know better. For fucks sake, guys, please just stop trying to exploit this misleading stereotype, and it might go away in a few years.

Before I get complaints from the Aberdeen Angus marketing board, yes, meat from Angus cattle can be very good indeed, but I'd rather eat the tastiest bits of another breed than the blandest Aberdeenshire has to offer, thank you.

The bun was of the everyday sesame variety, perhaps a little over-toasted, and did nothing to de-blandify the affair.

Worse still, the single rasher of back bacon and tiny quantity of Stilton inside also added remarkably little in the way of taste. It's like they took the least smokey bacon and the mildest Stilton they could find to top off their insipid burger, which is a great shame because the onion rings and chips were excellent.

OK, so compared to a burger at a Wetherspoons pub, or a fast food chain it's a modest improvement, mainly due to the other stuff on the plate, but in 2012 when London diners are used to the standards set by Byron, Haché and MeatLiquor, pub kitchens should at least be raising their game in the burger department.

They could start by researching where the superior burger vendors source their meat and buns and follow suit - if it costs a bit more, then charge us a bit more. Please!

I like Antic pubs for lots of reasons, and maybe one day I'll give the burger a go in another of their pubs, in case this was a one-off.

It reminded me of my experience a few weeks ago at the Cask Pub & Kitchen. Decent pub does decent food, but when it comes to the burger the clock strikes disappointment.

Where to find it

Ravensbourne Arms
323 Lewisham High Street

SE13 6NR (map) 

But, for the burger:

Antic pubs offer a changing daily menu and have pubs across London (though concentrated in the SE area)

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