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, February 13, 2014

Better beerfests and Big bears in Battersea

Following my comments the other day about Batemans brewery making some great strides forward, I should probably conserve some of the same breath to mention last weeks Battersea Beer Festival, another once sickly patient showing great signs of life and strength.

Because it was the closest one to where I grew up, Battersea was one of the first beer festivals I ever attended, and consequently became one of the first I got a bit disillusioned with.

OK, a lot disillusioned with. And probably with due cause.

Set in a small space within the Battersea Arts Centre, it would often fill to capacity, meaning a lengthy queue outside. And when you got inside there would only be a few beers on, mostly bland, boring, mainstream stuff that you could drink in greater comfort in a pub just down the road anyway.

Sometimes you wouldn't even get in - turned away after 45 minutes standing outside in the cold, because they'd run out of beer. I remember one occasion when they let people in for free because the only beers on were Young's Ordinary and Winter Warmer or something. It really wasn't much of a festival.

And so some years I wouldn't bother with Battersea at all.

This is all going back a few years, mind. I don't know if CAMRA's National Executive put them on special measures or something, but, last week's fest suggested that Battersea have completely turned things around.


The cramped location is still a bit of an issue (this part of London could clearly support a substantially larger fest if the conditions were right), but everything else is substantially better than it used to be.

Drinking outside after the fire alarm went off...
Firstly the beer list, arguably the most important thing of all.

While Battersea still might not appeal to the most hardened tickers who seem to have already sampled every beer known to man, they have a good mix of styles and strengths, and I didn't struggle to find loads of beers that I personally needed.

All of it was in decent condition too, and that's more than good enough for me.

Apparently around half the beers on the list had never been seen at Battersea before - and that's a very good strategy to adopt, ensuring a mix of old and new.

Secondly they got the size of the order right. A more than decent choice on the opening night and reportedly over 100 different beers still left on the final day. No sign of folks being turned away here.

And they're really maximising the space now, with the cider bar and games in the basement, creating room for a new strong ales bar in the main hall. I don't know what they're doing differently but the crowd management seemed a bit more streamlined - even when everybody had to evacuate because of a fire alarm.

Yes, I criticise when I think things are poor, but I like to think that I'm fair when things improve. Good stuff from Battersea this year, and I hope it continues for many years.

But all that drinking makes me hungry

Just down the road - very conveniently if you haven't availed yourself of the festival food - you'll find the Big Fat Panda. (Not literally a giant panda sitting by the side of the road, obviously, that would just be weird!)

The strangeness that is Hot and Sour
There are some fairly poor all-you-can-eat Oriental buffets out there of course, like One and one in Islington which is more of a Small Scrawny Raccoon. But this place is pretty good and just the ticket after several pints.

(I've no idea why they don't advertise in the beer festival programme, because the restaurant was as empty as the festival was full, and it would appear to be a missed trick.)

There's plenty of choice on the buffet, with around 30 dishes in total to choose from. The range of appetisers and starters is particularly appetitising and, err, startery.

If you like to kick off with a soup you can choose between Hot and Sour (a unique flavour profile that doesn't seem to exist anywhere else in Chinese or any other cuisine) and Sweetcorn. Or indeed have a bowl of each. Or mix the two together if you're really drunk.

There were two different types of prawn cracker (crispy normal ones and pink ones which seemed a bit stale), mini spring rolls, sesame prawn toasts, satay chicken and sweet and sour chicken balls. It would be so easy to fill up on starters - but that would be foolhardy.

One of the unique selling points here is that as well as the extensive buffet, your £10.80 also includes small plates cooked to order - as many as you want, within reason.

Cooked to order - but included in the buffet
These are the stars - individual mussels in their shells with black bean sauce, Sweet, sticky king prawns on skewers, and my personal favourite, salt and chilli squid.

My guess is that because not that many people are into seafood, the wisdom of the panda say it's more cost effective to cook it as and when required rather than let it sit on the buffet and dry out. Obviously this benefits those of us who would like to eat it too, because it's all fresh.

While freshly cooked, it all comes up pretty quickly - you barely have time to get your soup and prawn crackers from the buffet before it arrives.

The main event

When it comes to the main course(s) there is, again, a veritable horn of plenty to choose from. I think I counted three different kinds of rice and a couple of variations on the noodle theme, as well as various curries, black bean and sweet and sour dishes.

Oh, and crispy peking duck with pancakes and all the trimmings, and a choice of sauces including a lipsmackingly hot chilli oil.

There's so much to choose from, but for me the highlights from the buffet were the roast pork - ever so tender with crunchy skin and a sweet glaze - and the broccoli which was cooked al dente with a gentle splash of soy sauce.

I strongly recommend the roast pork and the broccoli
Open from midday to 11 PM, it's less than 7 quid for the buffet if you go at lunch time. There is a fairly standard drinks list, with a very small selection of wines, Chinese beer and whathaveyou, but after a visit to a beer festival I'm happy to have a pot of China tea with my all-you-can-eat.

They do takeaway boxes (under £5 a time) but I can't understand why anybody wouldn't want to eat in.

My only criticisms are the lack of chopsticks and the lack of custom, which means that some of the stuff on the main buffet has been sitting there since before the panda became extinct. On this occasion the egg noodles and spare ribs looked a bit manky - but there's still loads of choice even if you avoid these things and stick to stuff that looks fresh, and of course the freshly-cooked seafood dishes.

I'm already looking forward to next year's Battersea Beer Festival, and if I can find another excuse to go to the Clapham Junction area, I'll arrive hungry and head for the Big Fat Panda. Excellent value, decent quality Chinese food, and in a quantity of your choosing.

The 25th Battersea Beer Festival is provisionally scheduled for February 4-6 2015

Where to find it...

Big Fat Panda
218 Lavender Hill,
Clapham Junction,
SW11 1LP (map)


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