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, August 9, 2017

Why does everything have to have a 'quarter' these days?

Whatever claim BoxPark Croydon stakes to being South London's premier nightlife hub, it was always going to have a little local competition in the form of the stuff that was there already.

Croydon may still be short of a genuinely world-class pub, but it doesn't lack restuarants. Indeed the stretch of road south of Croydon Flyover has a concentration of eateries of just about every nationality and the area is now branded officially as the 'Restaurant Quarter'.

Honestly there are so many here, I do wonder if the area can sustain that much food. Especially overpriced, indifferent dining experiences of dubious quality.

Beer Circus used to be round these parts too, a small continental style bar that was one of the first in London to offer genuinely interesting imported beers on draught. It's long gone though, so you'll have to make do with the two Wetherspoons that top and tail the Restaurant Quarter (and the Milan Bar, at the Northern end of the stretch, is up for sale and won't be there much longer.)

Whenever places boast a 'French Quarter', or indeed a Restaurant Quarter, I'm always slightly bemused by the expression. What if it takes up more than 25% of the available space? What if you have French, Italian, Baroque, Chinese and Bohemian Quarters, shouldn't they technically be Quinters or something?

It annoys me.

Anyway, not particularly good restaurants in Croydon. Let's go!

Turkish-Tex-Mex-English delight

Apatura is in recently-refurbed premises that haven't been a pub for at least ten years, but which preserve a nod towards history by retaining the substantial bar area and a handful of standard draught keg beers, the best of which is probably Meantime IPA.

Weirdly for a Turkish restaurant that loudly advertises their Turkishness with a big fuck-off sign outside, they also serve Tex-Mex menu items and Sunday roasts, which is the kind of multi-tasking mish-mash that sets of a lot of culinary alarm bells with me. Unless you have the skill to pull off a very clever fusion, you're probably better off sticking to one thing and doing it well.

So we decide to feast solely from the Mediterranean trough, and the starters are fairly standard, on-message stuff. Hummous, Taramasalata. Baba Ganoush. It's not the best I've had, but perfectly fine, around a fiver a throw, and it comes with rather nicely executed - though really not very Turkish - homemade flatbread. 
Normally in this sort of place for my main course I'll choose the most extensive 'mixed grill' type platter available; my reasoning being that: 1) I like meat; 2) it will likely be a hearty meal; 3) I like meat; and 4) I'll get to sample a range of the different stuff they do.

And also because I like meat.

(See Troy in Streatham or Tad in Hackney for sterling examples of this work!)

But - food crisis alert! - Apatura doesn't offer any kind of mixed grill or giant platter for two or anything like that. You pretty much have to choose one thing each off the menu.

...when you're expecting something like this!
I chose the Seftali Cypriot sausages and was bitterly disappointed. A trio of tiny, plump balls of herby lamb - fairly tasty but you can eat them in one go. The Bread, fries and salad are all pretty standard and there's a yoghurty sauce on the side that adds little. It is not worth £11.50.

(It's a different bread from the one you get with the starters, and by 'different' I mean 'inexplicably not as good', obviously.)

The shish kebab is a bit more substantial in the meat department and therefore slightly better value, though the lamb (probably mostly heart) needed more seasoning. So does the rice, which is optional in place of fries.

They do a decent seabass fillet for £15 which comes with a spicy red sauce which would be far more suited to the meat.

There are other kebab options available at similar prices, but no combinations, let alone the sort of big meaty mixed grill I was hankering after.

Or you have have roast chicken or baby back pork ribs in BBQ sauce, which makes it all the more bizarre that they don't think to offer any sort of Turkish meat combo.

Cat Ba Island seafood platter
Honestly, the food is average at best and the entire narrative is confused. I wonder if this place has any serious designs on being a decent restaurant, or if it's really a 'respectable front' for whatever shameful dodginess goes on in Croydon's dark underbelly?

And, talking of underbellies...

The average age of the combat soldier was 26

Literally next door, or across the road, depending on how you see this subjectively brittle world, is Cat Ba Island.

Vietnamese food. Slow service. Breast tissue.

Recycling in action
Overpricing is something you expect in the West End, not the scrattier bits of Croydon, but the theme continues here:

Their seafood platter is a pleasant enough starter, with crab claws, salt and pepper squid with delicious onions, and a host of tasty dips. But you don't get a whole lot for 16 quid.

The cold spring-roll type things weren't brilliant either, and I couldn't for the life of me work out what the satay sauce was supposed to go with.

One thing that annoys me is when lazy restaurants repurpose stuff from their starters to the main course section without making it clear - you know the pitch: the descriptions on the menu are subtley different, but the actual ingredients and flavour profile are identical.

Looks good, but...
Not a problem if you order something that is obviously completely different, but a bit of a disappointment when you're expecting at least a slight change of pace but your tastebuds are already familiar with most of the components.

This was the case here. The crispy fried sea bream (Ca Trap Chien Sot Mam Dam) main course was fresh and tasty, but the seasoned coating and onions came straight from the starter, as did the salad garnish.

Looking at the menu, I suspected several other seafood dishes here may have been made to exactly the same formula.

Thit Kho (caramelised slow-cooked pork) was pretty good value at £9, though you'll need rice with it and ideally some sort of vegetable.

...there's a nipple
There's a lot of meat there, simmering in a salt-sweet soy-based broth - it's tender and fairly tasty and you get a soup spoon, which is a thoughtful touch.

But there's a lot of fat too, and while I wouldn't mind that at all in the form of crispy crackling, I really don't want to eat huge amounts of slimy, gelatinous rind without the crunch factor.

Worse still, one of the chunks clearly contained a porcine nipple, which might be some sort of prized delicacy in Vietnam, but is so rare on a dinner table here that it tends to provoke instant squeamishness.

Look, I'm a red blooded chap. I'm not averse to taking the odd nipple in my mouth but on the whole I'd prefer that it didn't belong to a dead pig!

Open-minded though I strive to be, this somewhat put me off the rest of the meal - which is fucktarded I know, given that I didn't have to actually eat the nipple and every piece of pork belly I've ever eaten must've been in reasonably close proximity to a nipple at some point!

It's a shame because this dish could be really great with the skin crackling-i-fied and any pigtits removed.
An actual nipple. Look at it!

The highlight here, strangely enough is the Morning Glory, a sort of spinachy leaf, which is stir fried with insane amounts of garlic and consequently really, really fucking tasty. £7 for a vegetable side dish, mind, but it's almost worth it.

A range of ice-creamy desserts are available from the freezer, plus the traditional Vietnamese Che Dau Den, a cold and gloopy 'soup' of sweetened black beans with coconut milk floating on top.

It is not pleasant, but I've had similar dishes in Thai and Indonesian restaurants and it is, at least, fairly similar to those. I should learn to stop ordering any dessert made from black beans I guess.

The pork aside, this is not a cheap place to eat, with drinks you're looking at £30-40 a person quite easily as with portions on the small side, you'll want three courses with side dishes.

Beans means dessert in Vietnam
Service is slow and the staff not particularly well informed - they should be pointing out when you've ordered a starter that is very similarly flavoured to the main course, advising how many rices you'll need and so on.

This criticism is largely true of Apatura too, come to think of it, and their food is probably a shade less interesting than Cat Ba Island, although they aren't, to my knowledge, serving pig's nipples either.

On the whole I have little desire to return to either of these places. This part of Croydon town centre feels just a bit humdrum and run down, and the truth is that you can get more interesting, better quality, more competitively priced food at Boxpark.

If this was a football match between Vietnam and Turkey, it would be a dire, low-scoring draw.

Where to find it...

14 South End,
CR0 1DL (map)

Cat Ba Island
16-18 South End,
CR0 1DN (map)


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