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!

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Tragedy about a Daylight Robbery

Earlier this year, we saw The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. All things considered, it's a pretty good production, subverting as it does a wide range of theatrical tropes to comedic effect. I laughed quite a bit. All good so far.

Then, a few weeks later we went to see the spin-off, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which was less fun - perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the supply of ideas for stuff that can go wrong was probably thin on the ground following the sheer number of things that, rightly, went wrong in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Nonetheless, it was still just about worth watching, in a sort of pantomimey, passing-the-timey sort of way.

Nothing and everything goes wrong

So last night we caught the latest production from the Mischief Theatre Company at the Criterion, a 'comedy' about a bank robbery, called The Comedy about a Bank Robbery.

Any 'comedy' that needs to tell the audience it's a comedy...
And, by the very Trumpets of Jericho, it was absolutely fucking awful. By some distance the weakest comedy I've ever seen on stage. No, really. It's that bad.

Nothing 'went wrong' this time (which is probably just as well as there was fuck-all left for the company to scrape from that particular barrel) but nor did anything go even vaguely right when it came to making me laugh.

I think I gently chuckled exactly three times during the entire show, and not at all in the first 40 minutes. I felt like walking out in indifference.

The play consists almost entirely of piss-poor Leslie Nielsen-style wordplay gags and tortuous set-pieces blatantly cribbed from Blackadder and Fawlty Towers, plus the standard physical elements of a Ray Cooney farce to pad out already long-drawn scenes. A huge let-down, given that this came from the masterminds - ok, moderateminds - behind the Play that goes Wrong.

Honestly, the best thing about it was the largely a capella singing arrangements, and those might well have been pre-records - it was hard to tell from up in the Gods.

Strange decor choices from the thick-tongued one...
Having almost left at the half-time interval, I was well ready for a decent meal afterwards, so across the road we went to Jamie Oliver's Diner. It would have to be pretty bad not to improve the evening, right? And Joliver wouldn't lend his name to anything bad? Would he?!?

The Dinosaur in the room

The problem with restaurants in 'Extremely Central London' is that they don't have to do much. Yes, there are squillions of them and thus potentially some fierce competition, but then there are zillions of squillions of tourists around the place, and if they only visit once and don't like the place, it doesn't matter.

So a diner-type joint on Piccadilly Circus doesn't really need to be any good at winning repeat business through excellent food and service, it just has to get enough people through the door. Which this one does through the name: Jamie Oliver. And dinosaurs, for some weird reason, probably leftovers from the previous identity of the place that nobody could be bothered to remove!

Take that for starters. Actually, don't!
Even so, this was about 10 PM on a Thursday evening, the streets were thronged with the post-theatre crowd, and the place was practically empty.

The menu is your standard burgers, dogs and fries, with a few more interesting variations. We started with the fairly unpleasant garlic buns (oily and doughy without a whole lot of garlic flavour) plus the barbecue pork rib fingers.

This was essentially a small portion of ribs - the meat was tender enough and fell nicely from the bones, but the sauce was one-dimensionally sweet and not a patch on the sort of ribs you can find fairly easily these days at places like Chicago Rib Shack and Bodeans. Not worth £6.50 either.

Would Jamie Oliver really be happy eating these starters? When there are better alternatives at a similar price-point within a few yards?

Drive me to drink

My Steven's Point 'Pale Ale', all the way from Wisconsin, was barely chilled, which really isn't good enough. If they can't even get that an American beer should be served cold, the signs really aren't good.

We asked if they had any Root Beer. The waiter talked about porters and stouts. Oh dear.

Strawberry and Vanilla milkshake tasted disconcertingly like sour milk, or possibly some sort of yoghurt drink, in which case, that's how it should've been advertised really.

Good, bad AND ugly
A group of American tourists on one of the few occupied tables were praising the Margaritas, but then again, they were praising the food and service too! Fucking hell, if they'd been to see the Comedy About A Bank Robbery, they'd probably have praised that!

(They hadn't - they'd been to see Thriller, which might be why they were in a better mood than I was!)

So, on to the main courses:

One of them was actually fairly tasty. In places.

The Jerk Pork Belly in a basket (£14.50) had nothing remotely 'jerk' about it and had ne'er seen a scotch bonnet, but it was sticky and tender, with a light, vaguely mustardy seasoning. The crackling was good too, and it had obviously been slow-cooked with at least some degree of care and common sense.

However, serving it on a basket of fries with coleslaw on the side completely missed the point. This bit of pork deserved to be on a bed of unctuous, buttery mash, ideally with little bits of skin in there, with a pot of spicy barbecue beans, and possibly a bit of wilted greenery on the side.

That's what a real American diner would likely do, and you'd think Mr. Oliver would get that.

Bad burgers

It's easy to get a good burger in London these days. There's a Byron 5 minutes away from Jamie's Diner. There's MEATmarket just down the road. There's Honest Burger. There are so many places one can go, so surely this place won't risk their reputation by serving a shit burger and making me think I'm in Planet Hollywood in 1997, right?!?

Pukka? Or doo-lally?
Unfortunately the message was lost.

I wasn't even asked how I'd like my burger cooked (a very bad sign) and what was served turned out to be about as oxymoronically 'well done' as is possible without causing the building to burn down.

Burnt, dry patty. Lifeless, stodgy, sesame bun. Pathetic, limp lettuce and tomato. This was pretty bad, and it wasn't rescued by a small quantity of untempered cheddar that completely failed to bind the insipid wreck of a patty to the borderline-stale bun.

I'd asked for the burger with chilli con carne as well (fearing, correctly, a bland, wizened abomination) but they forget to whack that in, and brought it over later in a tiny dish. Not good.

A 7oz burger with cheddar and chilli is £11.50 and includes coleslaw (not bad), a pickle spear and an actual chilli. Considering what you can get elsewhere in the capital, this is a disgrace.

Just a dessert
As far as the other sides go, the fries are perfectly fine but nothing to write a bad play about, while the Iceberg Wedge salad (£5) - which everyone and his uncle are doing these days - had a nice creamy blue cheese sauce, but nowhere near enough bacon and no croutons at all. Again, head elsewhere and you can get the same dish, executed rather better, for roughly the same price. 

Has Oliver Desserted his fans?

So, on to dessert. We shared the Piccadilly Mud Pie  (£6) which was actually pretty tasty with more mousse and sauce than sponge, and a lot of smooth, gooey chocolatey goodness. This felt more like what you'd expect from Oliver.

I'm not convinced it needed the toffee popcorn accompaniment, which tasted a bit stale and had an odd flavour that I eventually identified as Sugar Puffs!

You ought to be ashamed, mate
While not everything was truly terrible, this wasn't the sort of eating experience you'd expect from a celebrity chef. I know that in practice Jamie probably did little other than sign over the rights to his name, but somebody so much in the public eye should be doing more with these ventures.

He should be supervising the menu designing and actually trying the fucking food - surely he would realise just how piss-poor some of this stuff is, particularly the terrible excuse for a burger.

We're not stuck in the 80s/90s any more. 'American diner' isn't an excuse for shit food now that people understand how good it can be, and burger joints are finally meeting this demand.

A meal for two here will typically cost you around £50-75, and while that is par for the West End Course, it's really not worth it on any level.

Don't eat here, and don't bother watching TCAABR over the road either, unless you consider variations on 'don't call me Shirley' the height of comic attainment.

Where to find it...

Jamie Oliver's Diner
23a Shaftesbury Avenue,
W1D 7EF (map)


The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is currently playing at the Criterion Theatre

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