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!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Just desserts?

If the best starter I've eaten this year was the foie gras at the Gay Hussar, then the best dessert I've had must surely be...

Well, let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

This week my Royal British Legion colleagues and I celebrated the public launch of our MoneyForce programme with a post-launch lunch and were keen to try somewhere new and different, near the office in the Borough area.

The rooftop take on shabby chic?
And so we found The Rooftop Cafe @ The Exchange in London Bridge street.

Merely finding it is a challenge in itself as it's extremely well hidden.

One has to go into a fairly nondescript office building next door to 'All Bar One', up a couple of floors in a lift (or take the stairs as I did), then ascend several more flights of rather shabby, fire-escapey stairs before finally arriving in the loft space where you'll find the Rooftop Cafe - an open kitchen, a few tables and one private dining room where our table was waiting for us.

I try not to be swayed by the fickleness of first impressions, but getting into the place isn't a red carpet experience - it all feels sort of unfinished right now. By the Summer there will be a proper outdoor rooftop bit which will increase their capacity, and being so close to the Shard, you can see where they think the money is.

That does rely on people actually being able to find the place though.

But who cares what it looks like if the food rocks?!?

Menus are admirably concise and change daily depending on what fresh ingredients are available, although it wasn't the kind of menu that dances on the table with inspiration. Nonetheless, I've nothing against simple dishes executed well.

We'd asked for a special £25 set menu, which included a choice of four starters, four mains and four desserts (if you count cheese as a dessert, which I don't, obviously).

Uninspiring fungii...
My starter was the Mushrooms with Garlic and Hazelnut Butter, and I have to admit to feeling a little underwhelmed. Not to mention underfed.

It was small, a bit drab-looking, half-heartedly artistically presented, and a bit lukewarm, which wasn't a good start. The mushrooms were of the wild, tangly, earthy variety, which is all well and good, but the dish was subtle to the point of blandness.

It needed more oomph - specifically more garlic and more salt - and I'd have mixed in some more flavoursome shroom varieties, and perhaps gone for an anchovy butter or a cream-based sauce.

I could also have chosen a beef broth, a salad of radish, mint and scallions, or pancetta with stilton and pear. It was hard to get too excited about any of it. I should mention that the crusty artisan bread on the table was very nice indeed and was actually the best bit of the first course!

Now to the main - a Lamb Shank on a bed of Cous-Cous, which was on the menu as a replacement for 'spicy lamb with sweet potato' which had run out.

The lamb was slow-cooked to a state of tenderness and the meat fell off the bone when probed with a fork, but my criticism again would be the lack of any serious seasoning.

...followed by uninspiring lamb
The cous-cous was nice enough (well, as nice as cous-cous can be) with raisins, olives and the occasional little piece of dried apricot, which gave it a North African feel, but the lamb should have been done the same way and it wasn't.

Where was the cumin? Where was the fiery ginger? It should've been bursting with flavour and it wasn't. It was just a shank of lamb.

There was a big dollop of sour cream on top, which seemed to make little sense in the context of either the lamb or the cous-cous.

They gain brownie points for talking about the wines with customers though, and their Argentinian red was surprisingly robust for a house wine, and it certainly wasn't required to stand up to a lot of aggressive flavours on the plate.

Other main course options included a smoked haddock fish cake which looked a bit meagre for a main course and a ham hock salad.

Bread and Butter

So far, so not-particularly-good. The Rooftop cafe needed to pull a gilt-edged rabbit from their hat if they were to salvage their first impression.

Which brings us to the dessert... which was quite simply the best dessert I've had for a long time.

Maybe it was due to the indifferent nature of the preceding courses, but I don't think so.

The best pudding I've had this year
See, I don't even particularly like bread and butter pudding, or indeed old-fashioned English puddings in general really. If done badly, with pappy white bread in a milky goop, it can be a sloppy toilet of horribleness, and truly terrible examples made with margarine are capable of making me gag before I've even tasted the bastards.

But this example was just about as perfect as it can be - firm, not milky, with crispy edges and perfectly cooked sultanas.

The slices of briochey bread were absolutely, gloriously saturated with butter, and the balance between sweet and salty was bang-on. I've no idea how they did it, but dessert perfection was achieved - without (presumably) any chocolate or alcohol, which is absolutely remarkable.

The bread and butter were transformed into a complex whole far greater than the sum of it's parts - bready, cakey, biscuity, pastry-y... and it came with a very good and poddy vanilla ice cream that hadn't started to melt and which wasn't too sweet.

The coffee wasn't at all bad either - unlike the homeopathically weak Americanos you find in some places, this was richer and more intense than some undiluted espressos. I'd be interested to try their actual espresso which must be stronger than a very strong thing.

It breaks my heart to think that people might eat here, have a starter and a main that aren't anything to write home about and then decide to skip dessert on that basis. Because the pudding was totally fucking awesome.

It's like sitting through Toto IV to get to 'Africa'. With the artisan bread being 'Roseanna', obviously.

So, the Rooftop Cafe is clearly still a work in progress. If they let people pop in for a bread and butter pudding and a coffee then wend their merry way home it would be great, but an obscure location on the top floor of an office building doesn't exactly lend itself to that sort of setup.

A three-course meal for two with wine will be in the £75-100 range, and at the moment, the Rooftop Cafe  doesn't really live up to that kind of price tag, given the competition in the area.

Where to find it...

The Rooftop Cafe @ The Exchange
Fielden House,
28 London Bridge Street,
SE1 9SG (map)

(but maximum stars for the Bread and Butter pudding!)


  1. Dear Sir,

    Thanks for the review of our resturant. I'm sorry that you seemed so dissapointed by your visit, but in the wider scheme of things, your review really doesn't matter.

    What does matter is that many of our customers are satisfied, and they make a point of returning for the smoked haddock fish cake that you seem to so despise. I am, of course, very happy to debate your "review" further, but do not see the point. You have made up your mind.

    Suffice to say, I feel that it has been very unfair to me and my colleagues.


    Rooftop Cafe Staff member

  2. WTF. Seriously, I'm glad you're not doing the customer relations for my restaurant!

    ben gives a mixed and I think quite balanced review and actually describes the pudding as "the best pudding I've had this year" and you come with some BS attitude about despising a fishcake that he didn't even claim to have tried?

    Seriously, do you want potential customers to stay away from your restaurant?

    Someone is being "unfair" here but on this occasion it's not ben!


  3. Yep, best dessert I've had for a long time, and I stand by that despite the churlish and confrontational response from somebody who doesn't even appear to have read the review properly.

    The starter and main course I happened to choose on the day just happened to be uninspiring. Maybe I got unlucky in choosing these. Maybe I got lucky when I chose the B'n'B pudding. Who knows. I can only review the food that's in front of me, and I do so *with honesty and candour*.

    (Maybe it would be less 'unfair' to touchy restaurant staff if I just said that every plate of food I ever eat anywhere is the best food I've ever had. I'm not sure how much use that would be to readers though...)


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