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!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

BV London Pub of the Year - part four

There has been plenty of interest in my search to find the best pub in London, so I shall push the fuck on with the latest installment.

This trio of contenders are all in the heart of the capital, and we kick off with a real belter that took me by surprise. And I'm not easily surprised - except when I am, obviously.

Could there even be an unexpected victor lurking on the mean streets of the West End?

Pub #8: Harp, Covent Garden

A classic central London backstreet boozer, the Harp on Chandos place has long had a sterling reputation, and over the last couple of years this has reached the rather dizzying point where it won not only CAMRA London Pub of the Year, but also National Pub of the Year!

Yep, the best pub in the country. The entire fucking country! Whether I end up completely agreeing or not is another matter (and I don't always agree with CAMRA bigwigs), but credentials such as these make the Harp a must-visit and must-shortlist pub.

A pub worth Harp-ing on about!
Now, I have to admit that I've pretty much completely overlooked the place until recently. I think I'd been just there once in my lifetime, probably sometime in the 1990s,  despite it being bang in the middle of central London where I frequently go. I've no idea why I hadn't checked out the Harp recently, but it was definitely time to rectify this.

Quality of real ale: A pub doesn't get to win the CAMRA national gong without being possessed of seriously good cellar skills. While drinking here I actually witnessed a couple of customers being voluntarily offered replacement pints not because they asked for them, but simply because the bar staff realised the beer they were drinking wasn't at it's best and needed to be taken off!

The number of pubs where you'd find consciencious service like this can probably be counted on one hand. Top stuff, and clearly worth the full 3 points.

Range of real ale: I don't know why, but I tend to associate small West End pubs with big crowds and rubbish beer ranges consisting only of Doom Bar, Harvey's and London Pride. (Actually I do know why - most such pubs are like this!) But I swiftly learned that I should to leave this prejudice outside the front door when entering The Harp.

They do have Harvey's Best on tap, but, mercifully, there are several pumpsworth of interesting beers too. I sampled a Raw 'Anubis Porter' (one of three dark beers on), the excellent Bristol brewery 'Sunrise' and a couple of others, and have to admit the range is far more varied and colourful than I had anticipated. In fact, it's good enough to earn a maximum 3 points.

Food: Limited to a range of freshly-cooked sausages, which sound rather good, but which had all run out when I arrived. I'll have to check again in the future to see just how good they are.

Bonus points: The range of real cider on offer (It also won the London Cider Pub of the Year award!) is definitely worth a bonus point - again, something that I wouldn't have expected based on external appearances. And given that pubs serving good pork scratchings get a bonus point from me, they pick up another one there. +2.

Frankly, the Harp surprised me with it's awesomeness and highlighted my prejudices based on outward appearances. Maybe it's the harp name and imagery itself that makes me subconsciously think 'Guinness. Irish. Harp Lager. Welsh Harp. Not worth bothering with'?

But I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong. And I might have been wrong about the Craft Beer Co being a shoe-in for this award too.

Pub #9: Lord Moon of the Mall, Whitehall

The second (and final) Wetherspoon pub on the shortlist is probably my favourite Spoons in London.

I suppose this is partly fuelled by nostalgia - it was one of their earliest Central London conversions and one of the first Wetherspoons I ever visited, back at the start of my teenage drinking days. Back when Tim Martin could list all his pubs in a double-page spread in the middle of the London Drinker magazine!

It also happened to be the first pub I visited with Mrs B-V on our first date, four years ago!

But I also like the Lord Moon because the beer seems to matter to them. Wetherspoons send their top people to look after the place. And they do this despite being in an area where clueless tourists would guarantee them trade no matter how shit they were. Efforts worth appreciating, I feel.

Quality of real ale: For all the uniformity across the chain, the fact is that quality varies wildly in Wetherspoons pubs. Some would score -1, some would get 0, some would get 1 and some would get 2 points. I can't think of any that would merit the maximum, but The Lord Moon serves reliably good beer and sits atop the Wetherpile.

Range of real ale: As is the case at the previously-reviewed Crosse Keys, this is one of the best Spoons for choice, particularly during their twice-yearly beer festivals. There are usually around 10 beers on, with a mixture of relatively local breweries and stuff from Spoons national list. There aren't many Wetherpoons with a bigger range, and it's worth 2 points.

Food: Unfortunately, Spoons menus have trundled so far downhill in recent years they lost a point because so many of the dishes are just a bit manky. If we'd eaten here on that first date, Mrs B-V might never have become Mrs B-V!  -1.

Bonus points: OK, it's Wetherspoons, so it's good value, and they get a bonus point for that. In fact, you can basically just re-read the Crosse Keys review here. Plus one more for the beer festivals and minus one for the poor bar snacks. The net +1 score would apply to almost all Wetherspoon pubs, and that's what you get for centralised control of a vast chain.

But I have to admit that when I think about all the times I've been drinking in this area, and come here instead of the Harp, I feel not a little remorseful and foolish.

Pub #10: Melton Mowbray, Holborn

I wanted to include at least one tied house belonging to an independent London brewer on the shortlist - but these days that's easier said than done.

There are more breweries in London now than at any point in the last 40 years, but most of them are tiny micros - which is no bad thing, of course. This means that apart from a small handful of brewpubs, the only pubs in London now tied to a London brewer are those in the Fuller's estate.

I also wanted to include a food-led pub, and given that I occasionally dine at the Melton Mowbray (it being right opposite my office) the stage is nicely set for it's inclusion in the competition.

Quality of real ale: Beer quality here has never been bad, and often it's rather good (as indeed it probably should be in a tied house where they deal with the same beer all the time).

It's hard to make bland, malty beers like London Pride taste really great, but I've generally enjoyed the pints I've supped here, and it's good enough to earn 2 points.

Range of real ale: Being a Fuller's tied house, the selection is, sadly, limited to their own beers, and that range isn't all that brilliant. As well as the ubiquitous (and not very nice) Pride, they also stock the weaker, nicer Chiswick Bitter, the stronger, nicer, ESB and the blonder, nicer Discovery.
But these beers are just a spectrum of bitters, and the only other beer on is usually Fuller's current seasonal, which changes every couple of months. Currently it's the American-hopped Wild River, and a few months ago it was Black Cab Stout. Wow, a stout. Not a bitter! Lap it up while it lasts!

The truth is that the tied house system will never mean an interesting range of beer, unless they either take guest beers or brew loads of different one-offs (and most of the breweries that do this aren't in the business of owning tied pubs). So, only 1 point, but that's a weakness of the system, not the Melton Mowbray in particular.

Sausage and cider pie at the Melton Mowbray
Food: One of Fuller's Flagship 'Ale and Pie' pubs, the menu here is focussed on, yes, pies. The range has been reduced recently, with the tragic loss of the Venison, Port and Prune and Beef and Oyster pies, but they are still very good.

Pies like Steak and Ale, and Sausage and Cider come with a shortcrust pastry base and a flaky pasty lid, which works extremely well. There's a choice of mash, chips or new potatoes and vegetables of the day (carrots, broccoli, cabbage, butternut squash, whatever they have to hand) which are always nicely cooked.

They also do a cold Melton Mowbray pork pie (well, it would be silly not too, wouldn't it?) and other dishes on the menu are classic pub fayre, with occasional interesting flourishes. Late last year I had an excellent meal here of chicken breast stuffed with black pudding and wrapped in bacon, with spring greens and a creamy mustard sauce!

Main courses are reasonably priced at about £10 and generously-proportioned. Clearly this is the kind of pub you'd come to for eating rather than drinking, and they get 1 point for the food quality - the first pub in the competition to get this point.

Bonus points: The beer is what you'd expect from Fuller's, the food is pretty good, and there's not much more to say. At first sight there's nothing that merits the addition or subtraction of any bonus points... but Fuller's have a history in Wine merchantry as well as brewing, and the pub can get a point for it's restaurant-quality wine list. +1.

With six pubs still to be reviewed, there might well be further surprises in store, but my resigned expectation of a one-horse race has already been shaken to it's very beery foundations. This one might go to penalties...

Where to find it...

47 Chandos Place,

Covent Garden,
WC2N 4HS (map)
Lord Moon of the Mall
16-18 Whitehall,
SW1A 2DY (map)

Melton Mowbray
18 Holborn
EC1N 2LE (map)

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