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, August 1, 2012

Could this have been my big break?

It's been a surreal few days, what with losing my Grandma, and then starting a new job today - the day after leaving the previous one! And going back for a meeting at the place I just left on my first day!

Our family seem to have suffered rather a lot of bereavements over the past year, and coupled with the stresses of job insecurity for much of that time, it's been a bit of a rough ride. But, hey, I can cope with pretty much anything, me.

Anyway, in preparation for leaving my old job I had to allocate several hours to 'digital tidy-up', sorting out anything I wanted to copy off my work laptop before I had to give it back.

For some, this task is inconvenient and tiresome, but I actually find it quite cathartic, not just because of the whole 'putting stuff in order' therapy, but also because I'm constantly finding little bits and bobs that I forgot about. Humourous jpgs, revealing and salacious emails, 'To Do' lists of stuff that never got done, that sort of thing.

All flights grounded...
The exercise also turned up a little gem about which I'd completely forgotten - a copy of a foodie article I'd written for Maxjet's in-flight magazine in 2007, just weeks, or possibly even days before they went bust.

The funny thing is, I actually got paid for the piece, but was never sent a proof (or indeed a final copy) and to this date I've no idea if this issue of the magazine ever made it onto a flight. I suspect it didn't.

I'd rather have not had the money but got the article into the skies though - and if Maxjet had survived, there would have been a series of these fuckers, which might possibly have propelled me to minor stardom, but alas this was not to be.

And so, I've reprinted the article below in all it's glory - hopefully not violating copyright legislation in the process - for all to see.

I've not edited it, and there are some concessions to contractual obligation in the copy, but overall I think it's a decent piece and one that Maxjet passengers would have enjoyed, if only they'd ever got to read it...

(oh, and I've no idea what the 'pic to your immediate right' would have been as I sent them a whole load of photos to work with - some involving beer, some not!)

The Dining Room - with Benjamin Nunn

On both sides of the Atlantic I’m occasionally mistaken for an American – at least until I open my mouth and speak the King’s English in all its immoderate glory.

Look at the pic to your immediate right, and you can probably tell why.  Yep, I like my food, and I enjoy eating on both sides of the ocean too.

And today, I’m going to share with you a little culinary secret that many people in the US, both tourist and resident, haven’t quite figured out yet.

If you’re travelling on a Maxjet flight to Washington DC, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or New York today, you could be just a few short hours away from a delicious meal as there is no shortage of dining establishments in these fine cities – but where to eat?!? Not all food is good food – far from it, in fact, and even somebody who takes an XXL can tell you that.

Now, in the UK, the ubiquitous McDonalds – that great dual-Arched American icon - is probably about as bad as bad food gets, with the occasional exception of late-night kebab takeaways in dodgy areas and burger vans outside football stadia.

But across the pond, there is an even lower circle to Gastronomic Hell. I’ve seen roadside fast food vendors selling hamburgers for 49 cents, crudely fashioned from MRM and assorted cereal waste products, with the texture of sludge and the taste of… well, it’s hard to say because they’ll only ever be eaten covered liberally with synthetic  ‘ketchup’ made mostly from corn syrup!

And people eat this stuff. In their millions. Every day.

Fine dining has arrived Stateside too – but it doesn’t quite work.  Trust me, I’ve eaten in some of the ‘best’ (e.g. most expensive) restaurants in New York and Chicago, and they’re lamentably overrated and overpriced.

Sure, they’ll have a scarcely-audible pianist, and a trained sommelier , and everyone will wear a tuxedo, and you’ll pay a hundred bucks a head or more for the experience…

But the food is often nothing special. It lacks the ‘wow’ factor you’d get in Britain at the Fat Duck, or the sense of authenticity and occasion one experiences at Simpsons in the Strand. It’s way nicer than their trailer-park fast food, obviously, but Posh Nosh in the US is nonetheless distinctly underwhelming.

OK, so now you’re probably convinced that I’m simply going to criticise all aspects of Colonial cuisine, right?

Actually, no. Because, to coin a phrase I first heard used by Larry, chef at the District Chophouse in Washington DC, ‘mid-market’ food in the USA is T.F.A. (The ‘T’ stands for ‘Totally’, the ‘A’ for ‘Awesome’).

In the UK, that sector is the one that we just can’t get right for love nor money. It’s the carvery and steakhouse market – for so many years synonymous with abject blandness. You know the kind of places I mean.

But go to DC, and Larry will rustle you up a fantastic steak. And He’ll choose exactly which steak to serve you depending on how you’d like it cooked: If you order it blue, he’ll choose a thicker cut so that it will retain all its bloody centralised goodness, and if you’re a wuss who wants it ‘well done’ , well you’ll get one of the thin, flat ones, consistently (over)cooked throughout just the way you like it.

How cool is that? And yet eminently sensible. And a world apart from the typical English steakhouse where they’ll endeavour to give everybody a product of uniform size and shape, and end up being completely unable to cook half of them the way people want them.

When places try to do American food in the UK, there’s something not quite right. The ribs and Buffalo Wings you’ll find in London just seem like a pale imitation once you’ve tried the real thing.

And that’s not the only difference between the nations.

Do you like drinking good beer? In Britain we have lots of truly superb pubs, but how many of the places where you get really good ale are the same places you’ll find really good food?

Usually the best you’ll get will be a bag of pork scratchings and a pickled egg, and the better the beer is, the less focus there is on eating with it, which is a great shame.
Conversely, the exact opposite is true across the pond – often the taprooms and brewpubs where the tastiest microbrews are served are the very same places where you’ll find the best food.

Go to Boston, seek out the Back Bay Brewing Company, and try their gloriously hoppy IPA. And when you get hungry order some potato chips (that’s ‘crisps’ to the Anglican palette).

The potato chips there will be freshly sliced and fried while you wait, served still warm, and accompanied by an equally homemade chunky horseradish dip. Six dollars will get you a huge basket of them – enough for three or four people to snack upon.

How many pubs in England can offer something like that?

Go anywhere near the coast and you’ll find fresh, locally-caught fish and seafood on the menu, in unpretentious surroundings, at more-than-reasonable prices.

In the heart of Manhattan is the Times Square branch of the Heartland Brewery. I ate the best mussels ever there – yes, better than any I’ve had in Belgium. A huge panful, steamed in White Ale with garlic and shallots, served with fresh bread and a side salad will set you back a mere $13. That’s good eating.

If you’re headed to Vegas, there will be plenty of ‘all you can eat’ buffets to choose from, and if you’re a serious gambler, the Hotel-Casinos will almost certainly ‘comp’ you unlimited free food in these places.

But for the cost of a few minimum-stake spins of a roulette wheel, you can do much better. Try the NASCAR café at the Sahara (right at the top of The Strip) for inexpensive cocktails ($5-10), monolithic, meaty burgers ($9-12) a world apart from the twin arches, and possibly the crunchiest, creamiest crème brulee in the world ($6).

Some people view American food with universal disdain simply because it’s frequently served in giant-sized portions. I don’t think that’s vulgar at all – just good value.

And don’t forget, it doesn’t necessarily mean gratuitous wastefulness. Nobody will judge you in America if you want to share an order between two or three people, or if you just want an appetizer and no main course.

That you can spend $20 a head and eat like a King in many US cities makes me wonder why anyone goes to the $200/head places.

Ask yourself: Why are you flying MaxJet today? I’m guessing that you probably appreciate good quality but don’t like being ripped off.

So, when you’re flicking through the restaurant ads on the pages overleaf don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the smartest or most exclusive restaurants will be the best, because you’ll almost always find out that the ‘casual dining’ experience two blocks along will deliver more taste at a fraction of the price.

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