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 23, 2014

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

2013-14 was a great year. Easily as good as 1982-83, and possibly even up to the high standards of 1969-70.

Anyway, here's the next batch of PotY contenders as we run down the remaining finalists from last year's competition. (That's 'run down' as in list them in order, not driving at them in a motor vehicle with murderous intent, obviously.)

The first batch have laid down a competitive gauntlet. Now let's check out the rest...

Last year's #3: Southampton Arms, Gospel Oak

The Southampton Arms has done well in this competition, finishing fourth in the inaugural contest and third last year. If this pattern repeats itself it'll be runner-up this time before winning it in 12 months time.

But we don't care about patterns here at BVHQ. We only care about great beer. And food.

Quality of Real Ale: The pub has deservedly maintained a very sound reputation from the day it opened and the quality of the beer is appreciated by both CAMRA-types and the Crafterati alike. When assessing the place in last year's competition my view was essentially 'very good, just not cool enough for my liking'.

This is as true now as it was then, and the scoring remains the same. 2 points.

Roast pork sandwich and pint of stout
Good, honest stuff at the Southampton Arms
Range of Real Ale: One of only a very few pubs to pick up the maximum in this category last time, my visits over the last year or so have left me in a bit of a beery pickle. It's so hard to quantify because you can only judge the selection available on the day that you happen to drag yourself over to the stupid side of London.

But my instinctive feeling is that it's maybe not quite as good as it once was. There's still a very decent range of beers on the eight pumps and they change frequently, but I don't recall seeing much in the way of strong ales over 6% or saisons, or wheat beers, or cask lagers or anything even vaguely quirky. Plus, there has been a stronger focus on beers from the Howling Hops brewery based at their sister pub. When you consider some of the competition, it has to be a downgrade to 2 this year.

Food: Nothing much seems to change at the Southampton Arms, including the food offering, which remains a choice of cold pies or, if you're there at the right time, a hot roast pork sandwich. Even without a proper kitchen, this was enough to earn the pub a point for the nosh, simply because the pies were the best I'd ever tried.

Cat eating from upright piano
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the piano
This might be another of those things that ebbs and flows like the fickle tide of happenstance, but when I've visited the pies haven't been quite as yummy, nor has there been much of a selection. Maybe it's a different supplier, maybe they've taken a different range. Who knows? The pork sandwiches are, as ever, a brilliant an accompaniment to your pint, but that's not enough to earn a point in a London where pub chefs are doing quite astonishing things in the kitchen.

Bonus points: It's a one-of-a-kind sort of pub, and while some folks might knock a point off for the manky outside facilities, the uriney aroma doesn't actually make it as far as the woody pub interior, so we can chalk that one up to being all part of the old-fashioned charm, I think. It's the sort of place where the resident cats eat their dinner off the top of the old upright piano - not to everyone's taste, but I'll give them a point for character. Their range of cider and perry is as good as you'll find anywhere outside of a festival, so that deserves recognition as well. I could take off a point for the poor range of soft and non-beer/cider drinks, but then I'd have to add one back on for the malt whisky selection. Either way, it's 2 bonus points.

Last year's #4: Craft Beer Company, Clerkenwell

Now three years old, the original CBC (and original BV PotY winner, of course) is maturing nicely, like an Imperial Russian Stout in a Bourbon cask.

When I've spoken to people working for the ever-expanding chain I've always been impressed by their steely determination to be the best fucking bar in London. Everyone knows their stuff and the formula has now been replicated successfully several times. So...

Ben drinking pale ale at the Craft Clerkenwell
There's nothing more refreshing than craft beer
Quality of Real Ale: I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again: I don't think anywhere keeps their beer better than the Craft pubs. Pint after pint after cool, refreshing pint, it's just plain bloody awesome. And this is far from a cask-only or even cask-centric chain, don't forget. It's telling that I've not met a single CAMRA member who has been to this pub and didn't rate the beer very highly. Staff training is clearly impeccable, and the score of 3 is a given.

Range of Real Ale: During their second year I was occasionally disappointed at the Clerkenwell Craft. Same old breweries, same old beers getting recycled over and over... Happily that trend went into reverse a while back and we've seen some real innovation on the bar, including several exclusive beers brewed for the chain and various seasonal specials from the best British brewers around - Thornbridge, Ilkley, Redwillow, Siren. Lots of hop-forward beers, as you'd expect, but always a balance and a range of strengths and styles.

There's usually about 15 handpumps in action, sometimes even more, and if you can't see anything you fancy, you're a contrarian meanie, and I'm not inviting you to my birthday party. 3 full, hearty points.

Food: Unlike some of the newer Crafts, Clerkenwell doesn't do Forty Burgers, and the food available is limited to very good quality Scotch Eggs and Pork pies. Not cheap but good for soaking up beer, and we've all played the 'eat a whole drum of mustard' game, haven't we? Oh, really? Was it only me?

They can't pick up any points here, but then the food isn't really what this place is about.

Bonus points: The bottled beer selection is better than any off license, and they also do well in the 'snacks in packs' department, even if Soffle's Pitta chips have gone a bit downhill since she changed the packaging. We're starting to see more events like Tap Takeovers and Meet the Brewer nights, plus the IPA-themed third birthday party with shitloads of one-off hopmonsters. The relatively recent addition of daily beer menus on every table is great too. Myriad ways to justify the 2 bonus points here.

Last year's #5: Ravensbourne Arms, Ladywell

From the conversations I've had with readers of this little blogpipe, the Ravensbourne was a real surprise finalist last year. Many people hadn't even heard of the place, let alone visited it. I've always insisted that the roadside Antic pub in a still deeply unfashionable part of London earned its place, and, with it, the right to compete again this time around.

The management has changed relatively recently, though not to any apparent detriment.

Quality of Real Ale: For me the hallmark of good cellarship is when you can order a beer that you're not expecting to enjoy and still appreciate it. For me, that usually involves ordering a Saison, a style which I just don't really 'get'. Or like. The other night I had a pint of Hop Stuff Saisonniers here, because I needed to tick the beer, and then ordered another because I wanted to. That says a lot. Antic pubs can be hit and miss on the quality front, but the Ravensbourne earns a solid 2.

Pork chop
Looks like I'm heading for the chop...
Range of Real Ale: Antic pubs can be hit and miss here as well. Some have 8-10 pumps but every single one is occupied by standard mainstream beers. Doom Bar. Ghost Ship. Tribute. Beers I don't usually bother drinking. On the other hand there are Antic pubs that might only have 4 or 5 beers on, but which make far better use of them. The Ravensbourne, thankfully, falls into this, more adventurous category. It's borderline, but it's 2 points.

Food: Lewisham and Ladywell are rather unremarkable areas when it comes to eating out. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you're better off not leaving the pub at all, because the food at the Ravensbourne is probably superior to any of the restaurants nearby.

The Sunday roasts are legendary - even Eddie the Chef from the Catford Constitutional admits that he might be bested here! - and the menu the rest of the time ain't bad either, with fresh quality produce featuring strongly and lots of stuff on the barbecue during the Summer months. If you're not in the mood for a huge, fuck-off pork chop with black pudding, try the Welsh Rarebit with fried duck egg, or a hot chunk of freshly baked sausage roll. Even something as simple as a bowl of spring greens is vibrant, zingy and buttery and full of springsome goodness.

Yes, I had some fairly poor food here a couple of years ago soon after Antic first took it over, but those days are but a distant memory now. These days it's very good and more than deserving of the foodie point. 1/1.

Bonus points: The Ravensbourne is probably the only pub in the area where you can divine something interesting from the keg fonts - think Redwell lager or Beavertown 'Gamma Ray' - and that's worth a point. They do their bit as community local with quiz nights and live music, and there's always a good atmosphere during sporting events like the World Cup. 2 points here.

And so we reach the half-way stage of the 2013-14 PotY. The really exciting stuff is still to come though, with the assessment of the six shiny spanking new contenders.

I can't wait. And neither can you. And neither can I. Yes I ripped that gag from Rat Race, but hopefully nobody will notice...

Where to find it...

Southampton Arms
139 Highgate Road,

Gospel Oak,
NW5 1LE (map)
Craft Beer Co Clerkenwell
82 Leather Lane,
EC1N 7TR (map)

Ravensbourne Arms
323 Lewisham High Street,
SE13 6NR (map) 

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