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, May 30, 2013

Spaghetti Louse

I’ve been to Brecon twice in my life, and I’ve been to the Brecon Tandoori twice in my life too.

Because it’s a fantastic restaurant that lures people back to Brecon time after time with its irresistible food? Because it’s so good no trip to the Brecon Beacons would be complete without sampling their delicious curries?

Well, no. It was because it was the only place in town where we could get a bite to eat after about 8 PM. That's small towns for you.

The first time - I think was 13 - was on a camping trip to West Wales with my father and my brother. On the way back we stayed overnight at the Gremlin hotel in Brecon and ate at the Brecon Tandoori.

It was nothing special, and we didn’t particularly feel like eating there again. Ever. 

The following year (or quite possibly later the same year – it was a long time ago) we returned to the area to climb Pen y Fan, staying once again in the Gremlin, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of their famed Billiard Room ghost. 

What's Welsh for 'Déjà Vu'?!?

Determined not to have to dine at the Brecon Tandoori again, we soon realised that there really was nowhere else around to get a meal, and ended up dining at the Brecon Tandoori again!

It hadn’t improved.

We may not have seen any apparitions at the inn, but the bland spectre of the Brecon Tandoori continued to haunt us!

Now, I’ve no idea if either the Tandoori or the Gremlin Hotel are still there, and as this was more than 20 years ago, things might well have changed for the better now.

But it just shows that stuff doesn’t have to be good to be memorable in its own way.

Last Summer, we were in one of the pottery towns, Hanley I think, and the ‘small town; shit restaurant syndrome’ reared its ugly, bland head once again. This was an Italian place, and the only thing I can really remember about the pizza or pasta or whatever we ate is that it was eminently unmemorable. 

This happens in small town Britain. You expect it. There are places that have a very limited choice of eateries and this lack of competition often means that they’re a bit shit because they don’t need to be any good.

The house spaghetti
None of this can explain how Spaghetti House has managed to expand across Central London in the last few years though.

House of Mediocrity

See, Spaghetti House is awful. Really, really  fucking awful. Quite how they get away with being so awful has been perplexing me for some days now. Since we ate there on Tuesday night, in fact.

Even the things that aren’t truly awful are mediocre, which in some curious way actually makes the whole more awful.

Look, if you run a restaurant in the West End and it’s no good, people will know they’re only a few steps away from somewhere better or cheaper or more exciting, and they’ll vote with their feet.

So how is it possible that this Italian chain, supposedly established in the 1950s has not been found out yet? I hadn’t eaten in one before this week and thus only found out this week that they are just like an uninspired small town restaurant. But surely someone, somewhere knew? 

People must be eating in them in order for the chain to have grown, no? So what’s the deal?

Are they some kind of loss-leading front for Mafia money laundering?

Do they survive purely on back of the hunger of foreign tourists who know no better? (As  I can’t imagine any Londoner would ever go back a second time).

I was expecting standard formula Italian chain-restaurant fayre, like a Pizza Express or Prezzo or Ask. But while the menu is startlingly similar, the quality is several notches beneath any of these places, which are themselves only average.

OK, so it's just possibly that we might've just caught the Covent Garden branch on a very bad day, but given that they feature exactly the same menu across the 12-strong chain, I think I can proceed with confidence in my scornful derision.

Dullness and Disintegration

We started with the Calamari fritti with Aioli and Gamberone all’aglio on crostini which appealed on paper. But only on paper, mind.

Antipasti or Antichrist?
The Calamari was very drab, standard stuff -  crunchy, not particularly flavoursome and a bit too rubbery. Squid is usually better than this these days -  more tender, with nicely seasoned batter - but nobody has told Spaghetti House yet.

It was a bit of a throwback to a time, probably in the 1980s, when calamari could sell itself on novelty value alone and didn’t need to be any good.

The prawns were in a sloppy, watery, vaguely winey sauce with a little heat, slivers of garlic and not a lot else. But this concealed a far greater horror: 

Apart from the very edges, the crostini was horribly soggy, which is a needless culinary crime and probably the result of some retard in the kitchen plating up several minutes before the order was taken to our table. A couple more minutes and it would have completely disintegrated. Unacceptable.

It was just about edible, though not at all pleasant, and at about 7 quid a pop these are some of the poorest value starters I’ve eaten in London for a long time. (OK, we were using up a bunch of £4-for-every-£1 Tesco Clubcard vouchers and so weren’t paying anything remotely approaching full price, but that’s not the point, and if it hadn’t been a freebie I’d have been outraged.)

Things didn’t get better with the main courses.
Tastes like it came out of a tin when you were five.

Their flagship Spaghetti Bolognese is simply appalling. It should be a straightforward, comfort foody dish that’s easy to get right just by throwing wine, tomatoes and herbs at it, and my own recipe, lovingly honed over time, has won many admirers. But this was shocking.

I remember, back when I was a very young child,  the unpleasant taste and aroma of Heinz tinned Spag Bol and Ravioli. Somehow, a chain of West End restaurants has managed to recreate that combination of synthetic tomato and bland cheap mince. But why the fuck would they want to do such a thing?!?

The spaghetti itself was entirely uninteresting. If I had to guess, I'd say it wasn't even fresh, let alone freshly made on the premises. The Bolognese they briefly did in Wetherspoon pubs a few years ago was substantially better. No, really!

Is this the most scathing write-up I've ever given?

The garlic bread with mozzarella was fairly uninspired and on a par with what you’d get at Pizza Hut, and I spent most of my main course picking at the mixed salad which is one thing even they couldn’t screw up too much.

Mrs B-V had the Puttanesca, which was, at least, a lot better than the Bolognese. You can’t go wrong with anchovies, olives, capers and garlic, although it was probably a bit over-salty and needed something to balance the ingredients, and it would’ve worked better with a pasta with a larger surface area – tagliatelle, farfalle etc.- rather than the probably-dried spaghetti it came with.

We didn’t finish our main courses, and by now had rather low expectations in the dessert department.

They do some standard ice cream sundaes (which they call ‘gelato’ – proper Italians should know the subtle difference between gelato and ice cream but these fuckwits don’t) with nutty bits and chocolatey sauce. We tried one with Amaretto, which was average.

Il piccolo culo!
I tried the Delizia Mocha, which was a reasonable chocolate moussey thing, let down by out-of-a-packet amaretti biscuits mixed in with it, and a lack of coffee flavour.

Oh, and the presentation. It looked, rather unfortunately, like an arse in a puddle of poo. 

The espresso was decent espresso machine stuff, which you’d expect in any Italian restaurant these days, so it’s not going to win them many brownie points.

A meal for two is in the £60-80 range, which, if you’re paying full price is simply a joke, given the lamentable quality. And if you’re on a loyalty points spree, go to Pizza Express instead.

I’m still baffled as to how Spaghetti House has been able to expand in the way that they have because, on this showing, they really are on a par with the most bromidic and unadventurous provincial restaurants.

Like the Brecon Tandoori all those years ago...

Where to find it

Spaghetti House
30 St Martin's Lane,
Covent Garden
WC2N 4ER (map


There are several other Spaghetti House locations in Central London. Not that I'd recommend bothering.


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