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, October 17, 2013

Two Unlimiteds

It's now been well over a year since my Grandma died and a lifetime of home-cooked Sunday lunches came to an end.

The rest of the family still meet for lunch on Sundays, but these days it's not usually one of us that's cooking it. Sometimes we'll go to one of our old favourite restaurants where we used to go with Grandma; sometimes we'll go to a pub; sometimes we'll try somewhere new so I can blog about it.

But, more than anywhere else, we go to the Princess of India.

It's an all-you-can eat buffet in Morden - a part of South London that has seen better times and which generally doesn't trouble the hit parade of foodie destiations. No, it doesn't look like much from the outside either, but then neither do the finest restaurants in India.

Apparently they do home deliveries from a normal menu, but then I don't live anywhere near Morden, and if I did live near enough for them to deliver to me, I'd make the effort to go out for all I could eat. Every time.

The Princess...

Now, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the all-you-can-eat format: On one hand I find it deeply comforting to know that I'll definitely be feeling full when I leave ('fit to burst' as Grandma used to say) and that I can pick and choose the bits I want, eschewing any mankiness by simply not allowing it onto my plate.

Warm welcome; Hot curry
But there's also my innate inner snob that finds it all a bit trashy, a little bit Jeremy Kyle if you like (mainly when I see folks indiscriminately piling their plates up like there's no tomorrow with all manner of stuff that doesn't really go together).

I definitely prefer the 'multiple visit' strategy, assembling cohesive courses from the dishes on offer and at the Princess there is a sufficiently wide range of dishes on offer that it seems foolhardy to do it any other way.

While the menu is usually pretty similar every time we go, they do vary the dishes a bit from one day to the next and always try to include a good mix of vegetable, chicken, lamb and prawn dishes in a variety of styles - from a mild creamy korma to a thick, spicy karahi and a hot and sour dhansak.

All mouth-watering stuff, and generally 99% as good as if you'd had it freshly cooked and brought to your table, which isn't always the case in some buffet restaurants.

Some perennial favourites like Chicken Tikka Massala, Lamb Rogan Josh and onion bhajis always seem to be there, but on the whole they don't dumb down the selection for those with wussy tastes, and instead warn them by marking dishes 'hot' or 'very hot' as appropriate, which is an admirable approach.

It's not always on, but one of my particular favourites is the keema curry where the spices permeate the minced meat in an explosion of salty richness. The mushroom bhaji is also very pleasant indeed.

Starters orders
There's usually at least two, often three different types of rice to choose from, and add to that the startery things like tandoori chicken and potato pakora and you have well over 20 rather tasty and very varied dishes to choose from.

Plus, if you're a vegetarian and it's a particularly meat-oriented selection that day, the staff will cook you your own veggie dish at no extra cost, which is a nice touch.

With so much on the menu, it's quite an amusing spectacle watching the waiters rapidly trying to remove all the lids whenever they see anybody approaching the buffet.

If you're in a particularly schadenfreudic mood, you can wait until they've just finished painstakingly replacing them all, then stride up to the buffet and chuckle to yourself as they hastily remove them all again... not that I advocate the cruel and unusual punishment of curryhouse staff, you understand.

A couple of tips:
Spoiled for choice

While a nice, moist curry can sit in a chafing dish all day, the same is assuredly not true of naan bread and onion bhajis. These dry out and lose much of their appeal,  so it's best to avoid these if the stock is running low and wait for them to bring out a fresh batch, which happens frequently.

It's also well worth ordering a few popadoms before you head for the buffet. Not because they're particularly amazing popadoms or anything, but because you'll get a tray of chutneys and sauces and onion salad which also happens to go very well with the starters on the buffet.

The buffet will set you back just £6.99 each, any time of day or night (well, they shut at 11:30) which is cock-strokingly good value for money. Drinks are exceptionally cheap too - a pint of Cobra or a liqueur coffee is about £2.50.

Fine dining it ain't, but all in all, it's tremendous value, they don't rush you, and over the last few years it's built up a reputation as one of the best Indian buffets in London - it used to be quite small, but they expanded into the premises next door which is a surefire sign of success.

...and the Pauper

But while I'm consistently impressed with the food at the Princess, there are plenty of all-you-can-eat restaurants out there where the quality doesn't always match the quantity, what with the quantity being theoretically almost infinite'n'shit.

A couple of months ago Mrs BV and I found ourselves hungry in the Islington area (having imbibed modestly at the BV London Pub of the Year runner-up) and stumbled upon a tiny oriental buffet, a couple of doors down from the Angel Wetherspoons. Currently called 'One and One' it's changed it's name several times over the last few years.

And it wasn't half bad. There was a decent enough range of dishes and the vegetable tempura was absolutely delicious - all fresh and crunchy and natural, with tender strips of carrot and broccoli in a lovely light batter. With just a gentle baptism of soy sauce I could've eaten it all night.

Overall I was pretty impressed, so we went back the other night to try it again and give the place the BV Review treatment. (And to avail ourselves of the areas fine drinking establishments, obviously).

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear

What the fuck happened?

In just a few short weeks, something seems to have gone terrible wrong because the place was a feeble shadow of its former self.
Yes, those are fish fingers!
Firstly there was none of that gorgeous tempura on the menu  - the closest thing was a rather unappetising batch of onion rings. Yes, onion rings - in a Chinese! Other bizarre and unwelcome items on display included fish fingers. What the fuck? Has Captain Birdseye's crewe violently hijacked the menu?

Worse still, there was a preponderance of 'veg beef' dishes - 'veg beef curry', 'veg beef mince', 'veg beef with black bean'. This didn't mean vegetables and beef, but rather some sort of Quorn-like substitute.

There were some spicy shell-on king prawns, which were pleasant enough once you got past the fiddly messiness, and a fairly synthetic sweet-and-sour chicken that tasted as though it had been out on display for too long (unlike the Princess of India, they don't have lids to cover the dishes here.)

About the only things that were as I remembered them were the prawn crackers and the Jasmine tea (£1.50 for unlimited refills, which is good value).

Towards the back of the restaurant is some interesting and quirky decor - part temple, part junkyard - though this is at odds with the bland, contemporary shopfront and there is no real sense of cohesive design, which is perhaps unsurprising given that they have fish fingers alongside their special fried rice.

But that ain't beef!
At £8.90 a head (£6.90 at lunchtimes) it's another cheap and cheerful buffet, though neither as cheap nor as cheerful as the Princess of India.

I wonder if that first time we just happened to catch them on a fluke day when the food was good. Maybe the all-you-can-eat inspectorate OFBINGE was paying them a visit?

Perhaps most of the food there has always been crap, and I was simply blinded by good tempura which was conspicuous by its absence on our return?

Regardless, on this latest showing One and One is just a bit shit, and with all-you-can-eat Chinese places ten a penny in Chinatown, not too far away, it's hard to really see what the point of this place is.

Maybe it serves a niche for vegetarian diners who want to eat fake meat in traditional Chinese dishes who have children who only eat fish fingers and onion rings?

If you're looking to eat out (and eat heartily) on a budget, it's hard to go wrong with all-you-can-eat, but it's worth remembering that not all buffets are created equal.

So I'll continue to search for the best and worst buffets in London until I've had all the all-you-can-eats I can eat!

Where to find it...

Princess of India
10 London Rd, 
SM4 5HJ ‎ (map)

One and One
11 Islington High Street,  
N1 9LQ (map)

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