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!

Monday, September 3, 2012

The mystery of the missing cheese

Of all the myriad, diverse parts of London, Hackney is one of the few areas that I really don't know very well.

It's partly because it's somewhat hard to get to, despite being relatively close to the centre, but also because I've never given it much of a chance, dismissing it in my mind as a pointless inner-city shithole swarming with assorted chavs, cunts and Labour voters.

Possibly a tad harsh, I know, but life's too short to be completely unprejudiced!

I am, however, open to evidence that changes my mind. In the last couple of years, the London Borough of Hackney has gained something like five new microbreweries which is rather astonishing.

And I've known for a while that the area also has it's fair share of Turkish restaurants, some of which are pretty good - I went to one somewhere near Dalston a few years ago where the pitta bread was toasted directly below the grill where they barbecued the kebabs, allowing it to absorb the meaty juices. Yum yum, and no namby-pamby warning signs for vegetarians.

(I've no idea where exactly this place is, and I'll probably never know, given that I was taken there on a date by a Turkish girl who I never saw again!)  

Anyway, this weekend we took our niece out for her birthday and she chose a Turkish restaurant in Hackney. Tad, on Mare Street to be precise.

I'm a big fan of this type of grilled, meaty food, and it afforded me the opportunity to check out the Howling Hops brewery's beer at the Cock Tavern beforehand, so it seemed an admirable choice...

Tad means 'small', right?!?

Located on one of Hackney's main thoroughfares, not far from Hackney Central and London Fields stations, it's relatively accessible by Hackneyan standards and feels open and modern, with a kebab-shopfront and expanded eat-in rear.

It was more or less full at 9 PM on Saturday, which was an encouraging sign, but there wasn't the music or decor or atmosphere that makes Greek/Turkish/Lebanese restaurants special, and no sign of Shisha pipes for smoking either.

Take that for starters
We went a bit overboard ordering starters - a selection of cold mezes including Hummus, Tarama etc., Arnavut Cigeri (Lambs liver), some Haloumi cheese and two portions of Sucuk.

The thing is, often these starters are a bit on the small side, but ironically the portion sizes at 'Tad' are anything but. Not so much a 'tad' as a 'big fuck-off plateful'.

The Sucuk was lovely, but then it's almost always delicious, so it's hard to give too many brownie points. Salty, smoky and tangy, it's the unctious umami shortcut of Turkish food, and it really doesn't matter that it looks like slices of a dog's cock on the plate.

It has to be said that the liver was very nice too, delicately seasoned to perfection, with the charring giving way to a livery melt-in-the-mouth experience.

But it was another vast plateful, the starters came up with plenty of bread and salad, and the three of us were filling up rapidly before the main courses even showed up.

At around £4-5 each, the starters are reasonably priced, and they really are generous portions.

I was drinking a Long Island Iced Tea (£4.50), which was surprisingly one-dimensional - it wouldn't have surprised me if it was just Rum and Coke. Perhaps they had run out of Tequila, Gin and Vodka and hadn't told us, but that would be casting aspersions. Aspersions, it turned out, I'd be recasting later.

The main event

I realised half-way through the first course that there was probably going to be a whole lot of food left on the table, and these suspicions were duly confirmed when the mains were brought out.

Wanting to try lots of different things, Mrs B-V and I had done the sensible thing and ordered the 'Tad Mixed Kebab for Two persons' (about £25). Well, I say 'sensible'...

If you've had lots of starters, the portion for two could comfortably feed four, and the 'Mixed Kebab for One' which our niece had would do for two.

What do you get? Well, apparently it's lamb fillet, lamb chops, lamb ribs, kofte kebab, lamb shish kebab, chicken shish kebab, chicken wings and quail! With roasted peppers on tomatoes on a bed of rice!

I'm casting aspersions again, but I'm not convinced all the things that were meant to be on there were actually there, but there was a huge pile of chicken shawarma meat on the plate which wasn't mentioned on the menu and which only added to the vastness.

A 'tad' of meat...
It might even have taken two people to bring the plate to the table. Big, burly Turkish oil wrestlers, they were. OK, I'm exaggerating a, err, tad. But it was a huge, huge pile of food.

Now, here's the important stuff:

Size isn't everything.

See, I've enjoyed platefuls that looked very similar at Troy in Streatham, but while the portions here are even bigger - quite a lot bigger in fact, and the Troy special mixed grill is pretty fucking big in it's own right - they're just not as tasty.

The lamb cutlets were nice and crispy, and the kofte was pleasant enough, but the rest of the meat was just a little bland and my palette was crying out for some heat.

A leafy salad and a balsamicy onion salad were provided, but there were no sauces - unless of course, they'd run out of them.

It wasn't a bad meal, exactly, but the most memorable thing about it was the sheer, unrelenting quantity.

Bring me the dessert menu!

Now, I'm one of these people who has a separate compartment for dessert, no matter how stuffed full of savoury goodness I am, but on this occasion that didn't really matter.

The only sweet available was rice pudding, which really doesn't hit the spot in these scenarios.

There was no Baklava, no ice cream and not even any Turkish coffee. Feeling the need for something sweet, as I frequently do after big, meaty meals, I asked for a Brandy Alexander.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the ingredients for that either. It felt like we were playing our part in some sort of contemporary Turkish arrangement of the Cheese Shop sketch.

And then it hit us...


On the journey home - whilst changing trains at Greenwich, in fact - we suddenly remembered that the Haloumi we'd ordered never actually arrived. I could only conclude that they'd run out of that as well but forgotten to tell us.

Also, they'd forgotten to remove it from the bill. Which arrived without Turkish delight on the plate or any other nice suprises.

Obviously we hadn't needed it, given the Goliathan quanties of food on the table, but I resented paying for it nonetheless, which I don't think is unreasonable.

A no-frills meal for two will cost in the region of £40-50, but you could probably eat here for a lot less, given the portion sizes - though they might compensate for this by charging you for dishes they don't bring to your table.

Otherwise it's average Turkish fayre, the service is pretty poor, and they tend to run out of stuff, but if you happen to be in Hackney for some reason and have a huge appetite I'm sure you could do worse.

Where to find it...

261 Mare Street,
E8 3NS (map)

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