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!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Croydon boxes clever

Since we moved out of London into more rural pastures, our nearest 'town centre' for 'doing stuff' has become Croydon (which, technically involves venturing back into London, but you can't have everything.)

Oft maligned as a humdrum 1960s concrete jungle in the same vein as Coventry or Slough, Croydon is nevertheless an important hub for South London and indeed substantial parts of Surrey and Kent. East Croydon station is actually the busiest in all of Greater London apart from the central termini, which - if you don't know the area - gives you some idea of its prominence.

Following this months thunderingly calamitous election result, which was even worse than my pessimistic prediction, Croydon Central is also our nearest Labour seat. As I say, can't have everything.

Eat. Drink. Play. Apparently.
One thing we do have now in Croydon, right bang in the centre, immediately next door to East Croydon station and therefore impossible to miss, is a shiny new BOXPARK. Which means eating, drinking, socialising, and general happeningness. The sort of 'contemporary space' that you really wouldn't ever associate with Croydon. Until now.

Number Two

So, the original Boxpark in Shoreditch has been around for a few years now and at was one point was the bleeding edge of Hip. You could go there (ok, you couldn't go there, rather one must 'rock up') on a child's scooter, mixing decks on the WASP T12 Speechtool, and not an eyelid would be batted. It was, in the local parlance, 'Well Specious'.

But this is Croydon. Hipster capital it fairly obviously is not. We're quite a bit more 'street' down here, but this part of the world is also frequented, err, frequently, by people like me who travel into Croydon from the Tory shires. It's an interesting mix, but can Boxpark work here?

Love the lighting in the Cronx bar
Whereas the Shoreditch park resembles a strange double-decker caravan train of metal crates, the Croydon version has the shipping containers around the outside and a high overall roof, creating a substantial, airy space that, dare I whisper it, would be superb for hosting a beer festival.

Beer does play a part. There are moveable pop-up type bars around the venue selling keg Meantime beers, which are only manned at busy times, but this doesn't really matter because there are plenty of places you can get a beer here.

Foremost of which is perhaps the Cronx bar, the closest thing that the New Addington-based brewery has to a brewery tap. Cronx have been around for five years or so, so are almost veterans of the London craft beer scene.

They usually have six cask beers plus ten on keg; with about a two thirds-one third split between their own beers and guests. Their range is relatively conservative but they do a range of standard beers and do them well (their 3.8% regular bitter is actually called 'Standard'!)

The best Cronx beers are probably their range of single hop IPAs which showcase generally New World hops on a healthy 6% base platform. More recent seasonal efforts have included a tasty hoppy Anglo-American pale ale and - push that boat out a little - an Oreo Cookie stout.

The only thing missing is the Craft Beer Co...
You can drink in the Cronx bar and admire the handiwork (seats made from casks; T-bar fonts turned into lighting) or take your pint in a plastic glass and explore the rest of Boxpark.

Friends old and new

I was gutted to learn that the planned Craft Beer Company outlet in Boxpark fell through fairly late in the day. The chain has utterly dominated the London Pub of the Year competition, and one thing Croydon lacks is a truly outstanding pub.

However, several old friends from Leather Lane have opened up here, as if there's some sort of ley-line of good food and drink connecting Clerkenwll to Croydon; There's a Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, well, a miniaturised version thereof, and the long espressos are still divine, though the long beer-hall style bench tables at Boxpark aren't really a substitute for an intimate coffee shop experience.

Chillin' at Chilango
The DC&SA must be doing something right (Occam's Razor would suggest it's probably the coffee!) as they appear to have expanded all over the place in just a few years. They're also now doing their own Nespresso-compatible coffee pods, which I'm definitely trying just as soon my stocks of coffee run anywhere near below 'you still have shitloads, Ben'.

Another Leather Lane favourite that has shown up is Chilango, where the burritos are soft, the fillings are fresh and the spices are, well, spicy.

Of course there are loads of chain places all over the capital where you can pick up a hot Mexican, but the indie outlets at BOXpark offer something a bit different from the usual.

Try Nanny Outar's for authentic Guyanese street food - you can watch your roti being freshly made and served with a range of sauces, salads and pickles.

Turning Guyanese, I really think so
There are a few options available - the pulled lamb filling is incredibly, well, lamby, with a rich, fatty, almost gamey quality. There's plenty of spice too, with big flavours of tamarind, chilli and pickled cucumber.

Their veggie option is perhaps the star of the show, with okra and split peas topped with all manner of yoghurty, pickley, jerky condiments that almost defy description. Guyana is a fusion of the Caribbean and the Asiatic, and it shows in its tasty food.

There's homemade mini beef patties too, not to mention cold, refreshing lager on draught from the local Signal brewery. What's not to like?

Greek on the Street is an offshoot of the successful 'Real Greek' chain, serving delicious souvlaki and gyros at extremely reasonable prices (£4.95 for pork gyros in a fresh, puffy flatbread with all the traditional trimmings - Tzatziki, onion, tomato and oregano-y fries!)

I'd like to see this concept expanded and ideally open late at night. We all want a better class of kebab after a few pints!

The big space that presumably the CBC were hoping for hosts a MEATliquor, which remains one of the best burger joints in the country, even if the decor isn't as strikingly sleazy as in the Soho branch.

The menu is admirably concise, the beef is of great quality and they have no qualms about cooking it rare for you, plus there's a lunchtime offer of £10 for a burger, fries and a soft drink or £12 with a beer which is really very good value.

Meaty, gooey goodness
Go for the mustard-coated Dead Hippy burger, a meaty, messy, juicy slab of joy, and don't forget to indulge your guilty pleasure cock by dipping it into some fried pickles with blue cheese.

MEATliquor aside - you eat in there - most of the food outlets are small units with either very limited seating or none at all - the idea being that you can take your street food into the open, communal space.

You could eat here every day for a month and probably not get bored, though I wonder if maybe there are too many concessions here and some of the smaller or less popular outlets may find themselves victims of a squeeze once the novelty factor of having a massive new Boxpark in the area wears off.

I also think about what effect it could all have on the rest of Croydon. When I was a lad, West Croydon was the place for shopping and dining and generally hanging out, whereas East was pretty much just where you'd go to get a fast train to London or Brighton. These days West Croydon is really quite down at heel, and East is where everything - including Boxpark - 'gwan down'.

That said, it's a great focal point for Croydon and the 'Deep South' of London in general, and I hope to sample more of what Boxpark has to offer in the coming weeks and months.

Where to find it...

99 George Street,
CR0 1LD (map)

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