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!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Second chance saloons

I like to think of myself as a fair and reasonable man, and not the sort of person to deny folks a second chance. Sometimes even a third chance.

Hell, sometimes I'm so soft I give fourth, fifth and sixth chances to shit that I ought to have emotionally written off years ago.

I'm probably the only person who still harbours hope that Sir Jimmy might actually be innocent and it's all been a terrible mistake.

And I might even go and see the new Bond film, even though the last one, Quantity of Suckedcocks, or whatever it was called, was a tragic waste of celluloid and there hasn't been a proper James Bond since Roger Moore.

'Go on Ben, give it another go', my persistent inner voice will say, 'everyone deserves a second chance, right?'

And so, in that spirit of generosity I decided to try eating a Wetherspoons burger the other day.

I hadn't had one for ages because they're so fucking awful and I'm terribly fussy about my burgers, but it had been over two years since I described them (in the very first BV post, in fact) as 'tasteless, gristly and lipid-lumped', so maybe things had improved.

Heh. Yeah, right.

The thing is, back in the mid-1990s my friends and I would greet the arrival of a new Wethermenu with near-priapic excitement. In those days we ate most of our food in Spoons, and it was reasonably good.

The last thing an ancient Egon Ronay did before he died was to head up a quality control Wetherunit, which was quietly dropped by the organisation after only a short time when they realised it was costly and they weren't fooling anybody.

As the chain expanded relentlessly across the land, quality plummeted like Jimmy Savile's reputation, and I wonder if realising that he was on a hiding to nothing was what finally did for Old Egon.

Forgiveness is Divine

So, what's the 'gourmet' Spoonburger like these days?

Wetherspoons 'Gourmet' beef and chicken burgers
As you might expect, it's pretty much the same. A bland, tasteless, overcooked patty that has only one thing going for it - the low price.

Even in Central London, you'll pay only £8.99 for a double gourment burger meal including a pint of beer (worth £2.99).

With chips and onion rings and a few bits of salad thrown in, it's a lot of food for a low price. It actually looks reasonably appealing on the plate too, if not on the palette.

The chain recently improved the recipe for its chips, but they're still nothing special. The bun is pappy, floury and not really worth eating, and the salad, as is usually the case in Wetherspoons, is tired and flaccid.

Rumours often abound that Wetherspoons buy their beer cheap because it's approaching it's expiry date - I don't actually believe this to be true, but it might well apply to their lettuces, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes.

There aren't really any redeeming features. The onion rings are greasy and tasteless, and the small pot of tomato relish was absolutely inedible, with the foul stench of staleness, as if it had been literally gathering dust in a warm cupboard for several days.

Oh, and we ordered the brunch burger, with bacon and egg, and they forgot the egg. When we asked at the bar for a replacement, they just brought out a fried egg on it's own on a small plate.

It will probably be at least another couple of years before I eat a Wetherspoons beef burger again, and then it will only be because I give too many second chances.

In their defence, Spoons' chicken burgers are quite a bit better.

Having flip-flopped for years between the crumbed, fried chicken style, and the char-grilled chicken breast, they've settled on the latter, which is no bad thing.

The gourmet version comes with bacon and a pepper and Monterey Jack sauce, which is all entirely edible but way, way too salty. I know salty things make punters buy more beer, but this was ridiculous.

Actually, maybe a salt overdose actually killed Egon Ronay?

Anyway, let's move on...

Forty For Tea?

While it might be a bit much to expect a cheap and cheerful place like Wetherspoons to deliver quality burgers, I'd also had a more upmarket but equally frustrating experience in the past at the Cask Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico, where the strange overcooked, overpriced and overspiced burger offering left me disappointed - in contrast to their beer range which was pretty damn good.

The best thing I can say is that it's better than Wetherspoons
Recently the kitchen has become a residency for FortyBurgers, who pride themselves on the quality and age of their beef, which surely meant the Cask was deserving of another chance, right? (There I go again, dishing out second chances like there's no tomorrow).

(I'd never previously heard of Forty, though I vaguely remember eating a Forte - as in Trust House - burger when I was a small child...)

The ale was still eminently drinkable - the Buxton 'Moor Top' particularly so - but maybe now this was a pub that would do great burgers as well as great beer.

My optimism faded slightly when I went up to the bar to order. Having asked for my burger to be cooked rare - as any sensible person does in any decent burger establishment - I was told in no uncertain terms that they would only do it medium.

'It's because it uses two different types of beef' said the serving wench, semi-helpfully pointing to the menu which explained that the burgers are assembled from 40-day aged rib and 30-day aged rump.

Well, of all the poor excuses for a pathetic explanation I've ever heard, this one was particularly unconvincing. I might expect some nonsense like this in Wetherspoons, but this is meant to be serious foodie food. It's a 'residency', for fucks sake. It's supposed to be a bit pretentiously 'edgy' but basically rather good, right?

There is nothing, absolutely nothing about rib or rump meat, whatever age it might be, that requires cooking for a minimum length of time. The ghastly explanation that formed in my mind was that one of the two components probably came pre-cooked.

I'm not saying this is true any more than I think Wetherspoons buy knock-off beer, but it would be interesting to hear the truth.

A small range of burgers are available, including the usual cheese and bacon options, and priced at around £11-14, depending on how much you want on it. All come on a brioche bun with a smallish portion of crispy chips that have been fried at least twice. Decent bun, decent chips, and it's obviously all better than Wetherspoons, but that's not the important thing really.

The burger patty itself is also a bit on the weedy side (but there is the option to go for a 'Tiny' double burger) and in my view suffered from being overcooked. The meatiness was far less pronounced than I'd have expected from something aged for over a month, and there was no 'wow' factor when biting into it, no burst of unctiousness upon my palate.

Don't play with your food, unless you have to
Continuing the 'small is beautiful' theme, I could barely taste the rasher of bacon or the smidgen of blue cheese inside, partly because these were so tiddly, but also because the whole taste experience was completely overwhelmed by an overbearing sweet onion chutney which pretty much destroyed it for me.

If I go back, I'll definitely ask for my burger without this addition, although they'll probably say it has to have loads of sweet chutney to bind together the two different kinds of beef, or somesuch nonsense.

It's a real shame because they provide a range of Stokes condiments on the table which are rather good, and which would pep up any burger nicely on ones own preferred terms. The barbecue sauce went very well with the chips and I would have liked a little dollop of the stuff on a rare burger with generous quantities of bacon and Stilton...

So, the arrival of Forty Burgers' burgers are no miracle. I'm not even sure it's all that much better than the burgers they used to do at the Cask.

A great pub with real burgers is a holy grail for which I've long been searching, and while this is good by pub burger standards, it's a long way short of the burgertastic standards set by the likes of Haché, and MeatLiquor.

I guess the search will just have to go on...


  1. Why would I rate anything you say when, despite it being all over the news, you can't spell Jimmy Savile's surname correctly, and you think 'it's expiry date" needs an apostrophe in the 'its'?

  2. I agree with the above post. Pedantic comments are far more interesting and entertaining to read than anything Ben ever has to say.

    I felt physically sick when I saw that shameful rogue apostrophe, physically sick I say!

  3. I'd have to agree with Ben's comments. I have eaten burgers from both establishments, and I certainly wouldn't recommend them.

    In fact the only thing I would quibble with is that Forty burgers is slightly better than the ones at Wetherspoons. I found myself more disappointed with the former, because I had paid mre and my expectation was higher perhaps.

    I wouldn't worry about a couple of small typos, Ben. Especially a complaint coming from someone whose entire complaint consists of a rant with three commas in a row without any fullstops :p

  4. I have to cut in here.


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.