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!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BV London Pub of the Year 2013-14 - part one

So, it's the height of Summer, and that means only one thing.

Well, actually it means quite a few things. Like higher ambient temperatures than during the rest of the year. And flights to the continent becoming more expensive. And schoolchildren hanging around city centres in the daytime because it's the holidays.

But in Ben Viveurland it means this one, specific thing: London Pub of the Year.

The prestige that comes from winning the PotY trophy cannot be understated, of course.

The Ben Viveur Pub of the Year trophy
Last year's winner - no longer with us
Last year a team of professional understaters from the UN spent six weeks attempting to understate the prestige, and all of them went home bitterly frustrated at their abject failure to understate the prestige. One subsequently split from his wife after the feelings of shame failed to go away and began to affect their marriage.

That's how fucking prestigious it is.

It all kicks off today, and, yes, it all feels a little unusual because last year's winner is no longer with us, but we've found a way around that. The scoring system is the same as ever, and personal bias and preference will undoubtedly play a significant role.

Parts one and two will feature the four surviving finalists from last year plus the two natural successors to the Catford Bridge Tavern.

Parts three and four will showcase six fantastic new challengers, and then around a month from now, we'll be announcing the winner and getting the trophy engraved.

Exciting times. And, for one pub, a colossal faceful of prestige is splurging your way. Soon.

Last year's #1-ish: Catford Constitutional, Catford

I'm a massive supporter of Antic pubs. Great beer. Great food. Great atmosphere. As creative visionaries in a world of mostly bland pub chains, they're hugely impressive. Where they're possibly not so hot is in the more mundane aspects of business management and long-term strategy. Short-term leases. Sudden closures. Employees not certain where they'll be from one week to the next. (Some of the tales of ineptitude I've heard from former Antic staff made me want to laugh and cry at the same time...)

It's a tragedy that last year's winner, the CBT, now stands derelict and boarded-up, but Antic did at least act quickly and within just four days of its final closure back in November, opened up this place as a replacement just down the road.

And it's a good pub. Drinking in a former Conservative Club might not be to everyone's taste, but I reckon that 80 or 90% of the CBT regulars transferred over seamlessly. Importantly, CBT landlord Alex and Head Chef Eddie also made the switch, ensuring that the reputation for good ale and food could be re-established in the new premises. But is it Pub of the Year material?

Quality of Real Ale: I don't think I ever had a pint in bad condition in the CBT, and I haven't in the Con club either. I have to be brutally honest in order to be fair though, and while the beer quality is consistently very good, there possibly hasn't always been the 'OMG' factor that I experienced both at the CBT during the previous year, or at some other pubs I've drunk in this year. 2 points.

Range of Real Ale: Like all the best Antic pubs, the philosophy is simple - keep changing the selection and let the punters discover new and exciting beers. Local and semi-local brewers are well represented alongside ales from all over the country. Late Knights, Kent, Hastings, Brighton Bier and Pitfield all make frequent appearances, and even hardened tickers such as I will usually find something of interest. A reasonable spectrum of styles too, although it could possibly do with a few more lighter, hoppier beers - a lot of the beers I've drunk in there lately seem to have been strong and dark. Not that there's 'owt wrong with strong, dark beer! Another 2 points.

Sea bream at the Catford Constitutional
Sea bream at the Catford Constitutional
Food: OK, if Eddie the Chef didn't win maximum points there would be something very wrong indeed. It's always a pleasure eating here, with brilliant steaks and sausages always on the menu, as well as more experimental options like the squab pigeon with black pudding. Try starting with the mussels in cider with fennel or potted brown shrimp. It's all good. Very good.

It almost seems mildly insulting to the excellent food that the maximum is 1 out of 1, but bear in mind that I'd be giving most pub grub a zero or even a -1.

Bonus points: The weekly quiz is a riot, and while I'm hardly ever on the winning side, I usually manage pick up a spot prize of a free pint. Other pointworthy features include the real cider and a strong line-up of craft keg beers (though fewer than at the old CBT).

I've been asked by one couple to dock a point for the dank, dark décor, but I've resisted. I think it adds character and suspect that their unease stems from their being Labour supporters! A maximum 2.

Last year's #1-ish: Baring Hall hotel, Grove Park

Opening its doors just as the CBT closed, and taking on several of their staff, Antic clearly had big plans for this long-closed pub in a part of London where decent drinking holes are thin on the ground. Thus it's lineage technically qualifies the Baring Hall as one of last year's winners, but is it really a serious PotY contender?

A large pub in a good location opposite the station with fast services to London seems promising - but then it probably seemed promising in the past and ended up abandoned for years.

Pork nachos at the Baring Hall hotel
These pork nachos are great...
Quality of Real Ale: This is a category where many pubs would score 0 or less. There is still an awful lot of bad cask beer around, despite CAMRA's best endeavours. However, Antic pubs generally get this right, and as such the Baring Hall serves a decent pint. That's decent, mind, not earth-shattering. 1 point.
Range of Real Ale: The Baring Hall was fitted with 12 handpumps, but it seems that local trade hasn't flourished as much as they'd have hoped for. Consequently the place is often fairly quiet, and many of the pumps lie barren.

That said, you can usually take your pick from five or six different cask beers and on most occasions I've been there, there's been something I've not had before and a range of styles. It just squeaks 2 points.

Food: Another Antic triumph! A trademark concise but quirky menu is complemented by homemade snacks like freshly cooked pork scratchings and fried pickles, and with the number of good restaurants in the area comparable to the number of good pubs, they should be doing a roaring trade. But, for whatever reason, the restaurant section often seems to be near-empty, which is a crying shame.

Bleak interior of the Baring Hall hotel
...but it's like a fucking haunted house
Their nachos with spicy pork belly is a strange starter that works surprisingly well, and everything I've eaten there (confit duck, a big fat burger, sausage rolls, chocolate pot) has been of a high standard. The 1 point is well deserved here.

Bonus points: It can be annoying when you're hoping for a huge range of beers to choose from, but the Baring Hall gives over a couple of it's handpulls to real cider, and that's worth a bonus point. And the crisps and snacks selection continues the good work of the CBT.

However, this time I am going to give a minus point for the décor, bringing the total down to 1. I know it's not the fault of the staff, and I reckon the place being empty makes it look worse than the Con Club, but the heavy fire damage is pretty much unconcealed and the pub just feels, well, inconsolably bleak.

Last year's #2: Craft Beer Company, Islington

It's been a busy year for the CBC chain, expanding into Brighton and opening two new outlets in London - not bad for three years work - and you can bet your sweet hoppy ass that there are more of them coming up in this competition. But how has the Islington branch faired since a surprise second-place finish in last years competition?

Quality of Real Ale: For me, the Craft pubs are now the absolute epitome of how beer should be served. Some old-fashioned CAMRA types disagree, usually on the basis of temperature, but I like my beer, even cask beer, to be served fairly cool and these guys deliver where others fail.

If you've never drunk in a Craft Beer Company, you may be surprised. Yes, they do lots of keg beers, but the condition of their real beer is simply a notch above almost every other pub in the world, which means the full 3 points.

Range of Real Ale: The Islington branch offers a smaller range than some of the other Crafts, and you will often find a sort of tap-takeover in place, with most of the 10 handpumps given over to one or two breweries. This might not give you a huge choice in terms of provenance, but it usually means that a wide range of styles are covered. What's more, the focus is always on the 'Premier League' brewers - Thornbridge, Fyne Ales, Dark Star. It's good, though perhaps not quite as good as it was during the first year of operation. 2 points.

Forty Burgers
Class 4T, we're having Forty for tea. With beer.
Food: The Craft pubs that do food have a long-term catering arrangement in place with Forty Burgers. And this causes me no end of internal burger strife.

Don't get me wrong. I've tried to like Forty Burgers and I've wanted to like them. Really, I have. But I just can't buy into the ethos of a burger chain that insists on cooking everything 'medium well'. That just kills it for me. Beef should be rare, and at the very least, people should have a choice. The best option on their menu is the one that's smothered in fiery-hot buffalo sauce to the extent that one doesn't really care how overcooked it is.

Their free-range chicken burger offering is alright, but for £9 sans sides it should taste completely different to something you'd get from Chicken Cottage in the middle of the night, and for me it just doesn't taste different enough. And 'Bacon dust fries' sounds nicer than it really is.

London has Honest Burgers, MeatLiquor and Lucky Chip at the Sebright Arms these days: True burger deities which set the bar far higher than this. Yes, Forty is still way better than a burger at, say, a Wetherspoons, but it also costs a lot more, so 0 points here, or, to put it another way, Forty-love!

Bonus points: Happily, Forty burger's presence doesn't mean that snacks on the bar are banished. The meat pies, rice crackers and spicy Cajun nuts mean that Islington still picks up a point in the snack department. The fairly unobtrusive entertainment from local jug bands and visiting musicians taking to the piano (which even included me on one occasion) gives the place a more 'community' feel than most of the Craft pubs and earns another point. The only real negative can be the stupidly high prices of some of the keg and bottled beers, but this is more than cancelled out by the unrivalled range available and nobody is forcing you to buy them. 2 points.

And that, friends, is merely the end of the beginning. With nine (count 'em, nine!) awesome pubs still to be assessed, a Summer of excitement (yes, and prestige) starts right here!

Where to find it...

Catford Constitutional
Broadway Market
SE6 4SP (map)

Baring Hall Hotel
368 Baring Road
Grove Park
SE12 0DU (map)

Craft Beer Company Islington
55 White Lion Street
N1 9PP (map)

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