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, July 15, 2016

I should Cocoro

Pokémonimania, or whatever the fuck we should call the phenomenon, doesn't really interest me. I wasn't into it the first time around, and I have so much of a 'collector' mindset that if I ever started trying to 'catch em all' I'd literally be unable to stop until I did. And I've got better things to collect, like beers.

What this fad does afford me, however, is a rather tenuous angle with which to introduce a blog. Take that, Pikachu! I'm the one exploiting you!

Anyway, I've never been to Japan, and could be completely and utterly wrong, but my view of Japanese culture is that it's more insanely polarised than Brexit Britain.

On one hand you have a younger generation that is creative, exciting and spontaneous, leading the world in innovation, technology and brightly-lit things, and then behind the scenes there is an older Japan with very conservative values - family-oriented with a stereotypically strong work ethic. Quite the contradiction.

This truth - if indeed it is a truth and not just something I've plucked from my anus - seems to extend to Japanese eateries in London:

Often the design of the restaurants themselves feels novel and vaguely exciting and your might find yourself sitting on some weird communal bench made of clear plastic tubing, wondering how it can take your weight, while plates of sushi pass you by on a miniaturised baggage claim. There might be an ipad on the table that you can press and have your glass filled with Asahi from a font built into the table itself.

Yakitori - Chicken and Chicken skin
But the actual menus are often really rather conservative and haven't changed in decades. A bit of Sashimi, bit of tempura, maybe a big bowl of soupiness with ramen noodles floating in it. It's generally the same sort of stuff. No bad thing, but hardly the sort of constant innovation and trend-setting.

Bloomsbury Set meal

So it was a great pleasure to recently discover Cocoro - where there is a real sense of innovation and experimentation, alongside more standard Japanese dishes if you prefer to play it safe.

I've only been to the Bloomsbury branch, but there are two others, in Marylebone and Highgate, with different menus that I hope to check out in due course.

It's pretty much free of modern gimmickry, but a good marker of the authenticity of the place is the proportion of East Asian people dining in there - probably around 80% of the custom, which is a very positive sign.

In a Japanese Country Garden...
Small snacking plates include Yakitori, which are little skewers of meat, a bit like Satay but without the sweet peanut sauce. Instead you can choose either dry-salted or Tare sauce, both of which are delicious.

Various Yakitori are available, all at about £2 a pop - we tried Pork belly, chicken, chicken liver, and chicken skins, which were particularly tasty with the sticky, spicy sauce. The flavours are deep, the pork fat, chicken skin and liver is all melty-mouthy stuff, and for the brave, there is a chicken gizzards option too.

Vegetable tempura has been one of my favourite foods since I was a child, and the Vegetable tempura here is among the best I've ever had. The batter is crunchy and delightful, the light soy sauce brings bags of zippy saltiness, but none of it overpowers the fresh, al dente veg inside which retains all its goodness and the flavours God intended.

You get onion, carrot, red and orange pepper, aubergine, broccoli and cauliflower. And every mouthful is another step on a delicious journey through a vegetable garden. At £5.80 it's an awesome and substantial starter.

Champon Nagasaki ramen
The Japanese have made eating fresh veg fun - no wonder they live longer than anybody else on earth, even taking into account hara-kiri rates and sumo wrestlers.

Other starters we've eaten here include the pork dumplings, squishy, almost like a profiterole but with a nice porky interior and a serious kick in the hot sauce. The stir-fried squid (£6.80) is just a little disappointing, nicely cooked but fairly simple.

The Honbasho

The menu is long, but it's all (vcry) freshly cooked, and a lot of it is just a bit more exciting than what you'd eat at, say, a Wagamama or Itsu.

Beef Foie Gras Don
Main courses include the Champon Nagasaki (£12.50) which is one of those Ramen noodle dishes in a slightly creamy, lemongrassy soup with plenty of pickled ginger. There's king prawns, baby squid tentacles and two different kinds of pork in there, along with plenty of pak choi and other lightly cooked vegetables.

It's bright, varied and flavoursome, but perhaps one of the more conservative dishes here and if I had a criticism - more noodles please!

On the other hand, the Beef Foie Gras Don (£19.50) is a very interesting main meal - you get a big bowl of nicely fried rice with plenty of flavour, but that's just the beginning.

It's topped with slices of rare, peppered steak, perfectly cooked and rather lovely, and as with everything on the menu here, fresh and crunchy vegetables.

Completing the dish is a Foie Gras Karage, something I've never seen done before. Crumbed and deep-fried, the foie gras goes very gooey like a fried Camembert, and contrasts nicely with the crispy coating.

Salmon Teriyaki
I'm not convinced that it's the best ever use of foie gras, but it adds an interesting dimension to the plate and the flavour is unmistakable.

More importantly, this is tasty, innovative food. It's a good plateful of stuff that works surprisingly well together.

More conventional, but nonetheless splendidly executed is the Salmon Teriyaki, with just the right balance of saltiness, sweetness and stickiness. Importantly the salmon isn't overdone and again the vegetables completing the plate are a delight.

We've also tried the seafood egg fried rice, perhaps not quite as impressive as the other dishes, but well executed with juicy king prawns and tender squid pieces.

Seafood egg fried rice

They boast an impressive range of Sake, if you like drinking hot solvents, plus the usual Japanese beers. 

A meal for two will typically be in the £50-75 range and could easily approach double that with desserts and drinks. Obviously more expensive than your Wagamama-type chain places, but not bad for very good food in central London.

There is the option to play it safe (and we've not even tried the extensive sushi menu) but for the more adventurous, the Japanese take on chicken skins and foie gras makes for some very interesting dishes.

One day I'll go to Japan and be able to develop a more informed view of the country. Until then, this is definitely one of the better Japanese restaurants in London, and not a Pokemon gimmick in sight!

Where to find it...

Cocoro Bloomsbury
25 Coptic Street
WC1A 1NT (map)


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