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!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Possibly the best £30 you'll ever spend

Whatever you think of my views, I'd hope that one thing nobody can accuse me of is being a sell-out. I call stuff the way I see it, whether that means a glowing review, scathing criticism or something in the middle.

And I'm not a huge fan of food and drink blogs (or any other blogs for that matter) which are thinly-veiled affiliate sites; where the 'reviews' merely serve as effusive clickbait for syndicated advertising.

It's not really because such blogs cannot offer impartiality - it's that they stifle partiality! Robust, honest opinion is always sacrificed in favour of meek, uncontroversial positivity that usually needs to be pre-approved by their marketing twats. (I've refused to put my name to enough things like this to know just how much control these people want in exchange for a few pence per click-thru or booking!)

I also hold a fairly low view of 'deals' websites. Sometimes it's a no-brainer, like getting cashback from Quidco on stuff you're planning to buy anyway. But very often 'exclusive' deals are available in multiple places, cannot be combined with other offers, and result in almost everyone paying more or less the same price, with only the most stupid and lazy ever paying 'full fare'.

No raw deals here
What was that totally fucktarded site that was heavily advertised a couple of years ago? Something like 'the exclusive members-only club that anyone can join'?!? Christ, that really put the 'moronic' into 'oxymoronic'.

Thing is, the nonsense is actually true, which makes it more nonsensical. I used to have a very bad bank account, for which I paid a monthly fee, which offered 'online deals' for its customers. Only anybody could go to that deals page, click the links and get the deals. There was nothing to check that you were a customer of this shitty bank with its shitty packaged account. So what was the fucking point?

So, yeah, I hate all that kind of shit. But one thing I do like, and like a lot, is The Hawksmoor chain. And that's why, over the next few paragraphs, I'm going to sound like everything I hate.

Because I'm going to recommend an online offer, with no small degree of enthusiasm.

No shilling asked or given

If I haven't made it clear enough already, I'm not an 'affiliate' and I don't get paid commission or anything for pointing this out.

It's just that the Hawksmoor is pretty great. I wouldn't argue with anybody who claims that Hawksmoor do the best steaks in London (OK, I might argue half-heartedly that it's a score draw with a couple of South American places). And I've not had a better breakfast than that served at Hawksmoor Guildhall. If you've never been to a Hawksmoor, you've a treat in store. Really high end food, but without the attitude or the dress code.

The drinks here are good too
That comes at a price, of course, and this is where the Bookatable offer I'm about to cream my pants over comes in.

Three courses and a cocktail for £30 is a seriously good deal. And I shouldn't even need to explain how and why.

Mrs B-V and I went to the Guildhall branch the other night to take advantage of the offer and celebrate our 6th Wedding Anniversary (thank you, thank you, you're too kind...)

Everything checks out. There are really no catches (unless you consider the application of an optional service charge to be unacceptably sneaky), and the offer appears to be running indefinitely. Not that this should stop you from booking a table there as soon as you possibly can.

In classic set menu fashion, you'll mostly be selecting from a choice of three, though in this case there probably aren't any weak options, unless perhaps you're a vegetarian, in which case you really shouldn't be darkening the Hawksmoor door in the first place.

Both the cocktails we sampled were delicious and properly alcoholic - the French house is fruity and intense with a decidedly English base of gin and strawberry, while the Tom and Jerez gives you gin, sherry, pear, lemon and almond which is a perky combination with a solid spine.
The other cocktail option is their sort of house Pimms-y fruit cup thing with Ginger Ale, which I've had before and is a longer, lighter drink, perhaps better suited to the Summer.

The starters are generous in both size and flavour, though this isn't a place where you'd want to fill up prior to the main. The Doddington Caesar Salad is one of the best I've ever had: Studded with little morsels of salty anchovy, the leaves are consistently but not too heavily dressed, the Doddington cheese works as well as anything from Parma, and it's all pulled together with crunchy, slightly oily croutons. Balanced and beautiful.

We had the chance to try a starter that was a change from the advertised menu - that old Hawksmoor favourite Bone Marrow. Served with sweet caramelised onions, thick slices of toast and a special spoon for scooping it out of the bones, it's an unctuous, fatty treat.

The Main Event

Obviously you want to eat some meat at the Hawksmoor, and it would be a cop-out if their set menu didn't include a steak option. Fortunately it does, and the 55-day aged rump is one of my favourite cuts.

I have a bone to pick with this starter...
We tried it both blue and medium-rare (you can guess which choice was mine and which was Mrs B-Vs, but given that she would've ordered it 'well done' a few years ago, I think we've come along way with our little re-education programme!)

Yes, a steak is a steak is a steak. Except that it isn't, obviously. A good rump steak is a world apart from a bad one, and that's why it's all about quality, breeding and butchery. It's not like a stew or a curry or a stir-fry. There is nowhere to hide with steak.

Hawksmoor gets this. It's juicy, it's succulent, it's rich, it's the purest form of meaty, bloody goodness. You don't really need anything with it (though Hawksmoor do happen to do some terrific sauces to complement, not overpower the steak).

I promise you, this is about as good as steak gets.

They cut the rump thick, as it should be - possibly they reserve the thicker cuts for those of us who want it very rare to blue, and serve the flatter, thinner steaks to those misguided chaps who require more cooking.

The other main course options on the set menu are their highly-rated burger, sea bream and something vegetarian. I'd be surprised if they shift many of them, other than to the token veggie in a big group who really doesn't want to be there!

You get a choice of side included, one of which obviously has to be the triple-cooked chips, which are about as good as you'll find in a proper restaurant and only really beaten by the best chippies.

We also tried the creamed spinach which is really, really creamy. You know those spinach cannellonis you can buy? It's like somebody squeezed the filling out of one of those, basically. You can have a side salad, but then the Caesar starter is probably a better way to get your raw leaves.

You don't need me to mention the excellent drinks menu here - obviously the wine list is well-chosen, the cocktails are fab, and there is a good choice of very decent bottled beers. I went for Kernel's latest IPA (Citra, Ella and Galaxy). Kernel IPAs are usually pretty good, and this one is basically a big 7% party to which all your favourite hops have been invited.

Just desserts
I don't believe there is a better £30 set menu available anywhere in London. Moreover, you can order anything else you feel like from the main menu. We chose a couple of sauces (the classic creamy Peppercorn and a delightfully zesty Anchovy Hollandaise which goes particularly well with the chips) plus a portion of onion rings which were super-crunchy but cut thickly to retain the oniony goodness on the inside.

As a result we didn't have a whole lot of room for dessert, but they can't be faulted either. The Sticky Toffee Pudding is rich and dark, with really bold burnt toffee flavours and a quenelle of very lovely clotted cream.

I loved the Plum tart too, with it's thin, flaky, Gallic-style pastry and sour-sweet fruit. We didn't try the peanut butter shortbread option as it had run out for the day, but it's hard to see where they could go wrong with that.

So, if you're still sitting there thinking £30 for a set meal is actually rather expensive, then quality is probably lost on you. This is a steal.

It isn't some prissy little set menu designed for the convenience of kitchen staff, or a fixed price that, when broken down, works out at only a quid less than the same dishes ordered from the main menu. If you happened to choose the most expensive options from the main menu, it would cost you £51.75. That's a saving of more than 40%, though you'll come close to that even choosing the 'cheaper' dishes. 

Like I say, a steal. Go and book.

Where to Find it...

The deal appears to be available at all Hawksmoor restaurants in London. We ate at my favourite, the Guildhall Branch, but see their website for details of others. 

Hawksmoor Guildhall
10 Basinghall Street,
EC2V 5BQ (map)

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