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, June 16, 2012

The Duke of Pork (and Beef)

I've been having a tough time lately - mostly work-related stuff, though there is an end in sight, but also my ongoing health issues - and so I frequently need cheering up.

Fortunately I'm quite easy to cheer up. Good food. Good beer. Indulgent treats. (Although these probably don't do anything for the health issues, admittedly - the doctors in their infinite medical wisdom have decided now that my calcium channels need blocking, as well as my ACEs inhibiting!)

So the other night we opted for one such indulgent treat. Several pints of excellent beer (including Arbor 'Goo Goo G'Joob' at a hefty 11%) and a few bags of Pitta Chips at the Craft Beer Company, and then on to Duke's Brew & Que.

I'd been meaning to try Duke's for several weeks, since reading about it in the London Drinker. (Which reminds me, I've not written an LD article for absolutely ages. Must do better.)

It's the Haggerston home to one of London's newest breweries, Beavertown, whose beers I hadn't tried before, but they also specialise in authentic American barbecue. Real ale, and big fuck-off piles of flavoursome comfort food. What's not to look forward too?

But you know what they say about first impressions...

The beer

Unfortunately it seems that we caught them on a bit of an off-day.

Maybe my expectations had been unduly raised - not unlike my blood pressure - but the thought of a big, tasty American-style meal combined with real ales from a new and exciting brewery seemed too good to be true.

Normally, I'd be happy to find a barbecue and burger joint with three cask beers available, but it was bitterly disappointing to make the considerable trek to an East London backstreet and be told that there wasn't any of their own beer available.

The handpumps featured Oakham 'JHB' and 'Citra', and Redemption 'Hopspur', which, don't get me wrong, are all pretty good beers, but I wanted to try something new and different. 8-Ball or Neck Oil, about which I'd heard good things. Disappointed.

Beavertown beer was available in bottles, however, so I tried a bottle of the Smog Rocket smoked porter,  which bodes well for their cask offerings - if I ever get to try them! At 5.4% it's dark and intense, and very Yank-influenced, which is no bad thing. Ironically it was my second smoked porter of the day as I'd been drinking Redwillow 'Smokeless' at the Craft earlier in the evening. They're like buses, these smoked porters.

And so, on to the food:

Already annoyed at the lack of their own beers, on draught at least, I might not have been optimally-placed to judge their skill in the kitchen, which is why I'll give them another go another day just to make sure.

But, it has to be said, my initial impression was one of distinct underwhelm.

The food

The menu is short, sweet and straightforward: Burgers. Ribs. Steaks. Pulled pork. And that's pretty much that - though a substantially different 'brunch' menu is available earlier in the day at weekends only - during the week the place doesn't open until 4 PM, and doesn't start food until 6.

It was the Duke's, it was the Duke's... burger
Obviously I wanted to try their burger (£11.95 or £13.95 with cheese and bacon) to compare it against recent beefy triumphs served up by the likes of MeatLiquor and Haché. What we got was a disappointment, more akin to the Ravensbourne Blandburger.

The burger weighs in at seven ounces, and even including fries, 'slaw and a segment of pickle, it's not the hugest plate of food ever. And the 'medium' concept extends beyond it's size - despite the menu claiming that it would be cooked 'medium rare', there was nothing remotely rare about it!
Although the meat had a nice course texture, there wasn't a rush of juice or a huge hit of flavour. The bun was a bit floury and didn't hold the burger together, while the cheese and salad components all felt a bit like they didn't really want to be guests at the same party.. This is a crime in the burger world where everything should be gooily melding together in perfect harmony.

The bottom line is, you can get a bigger, better burger for less money elsewhere.

We also tried some of their pulled pork sliders (three for £10), which were nice enough with a sweet, barbecuey sauce and crunchy coleslaw. But again this plate of food was on the small side, and the bun-to-meat ratio was all out of kilter. I didn't really feel like I'd had enough of the pork to fully appreciate it. but I've had enough of their buns to know that they're nothing special.

One of the features of American Barbecue is that you should feel overwhelmed by huge hunks of meat, and that just wasn't happening here.

The baked beans with pork (£2.50) sounded like a nice idea for a side dish, but were on the bland side and - you've guessed it - light on pork, though it was easy enough to spice them up with the house barbecue and hot sauces that are provided on every table in anonymous plastic bottles.

The 'seasoned fries' were perhaps over-seasoned, and certainly too salty. Eating a few of them was pleasant, but after this they became a bit took much. This was a shame because if they'd cut them a bit thicker and swapped some of the salt for more chilli powder, they'd have had something akin to the legendary Cajun Fries from Potato Moon that I fell in love with at the GBBF as a teenager.

I was beginning to think that maybe they'd served me small portions of everything out of a noble consideration for my hypertension, but the amount of salt in the fries scotches that theory!

It was the Duke's, it was the Duke's... cheesecake
Unsurprisingly, we still had room for some dessert and opted for their cheesecake (about £6), which was of the baked variety, and topped with various fruity, nutty accessories, rather than trying to embody one specific flavour.

It tasted very cheesy, and the texture was very cakey, but the whole thing wasn't particularly cheesecakey, if that makes sense. Nice enough, and we ate it all up, but it's unlikely to win Best Supporting Cheesecake at the International Cheesecake Awards.

I might have been a tad harsh on the Dukes, and to be fair, their draught beers and their ribs and steaks could possibly be amazing.

So, first impression = not great, but I will be going back for seconds.

Sometimes I think I'm too reasonable for my own good...

Where to find it...
Duke's Brew & Que
33 Downham Rd,
N1 5AA (map)

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