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!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Cultural learnings of St Johns Wood for make benefit dubious sense of nostalgia

These days we're all told to 'check our privilege' - I must never lose sight of all the advantages in life I get simply from being a white, middle-class male, some of them so covertly advantageous that I won't even consciously be aware of them.

My gut reaction to this is that there's probably a fair amount of truth in the narrative, but it's far from universal and things are not that straightforward or simplistic.

One of the more nuanced downsides of being a person like me can be the lack of any sense of cultural belonging when it comes to food and drink. We'll never properly know or understand the 'homecoming' that others experience. We don't get to 'feel' aloo gobi deep in our bones.

They're stereotypes, there must be more to life

What I mean is, if I was the grandson of a dirt-poor Watermelon farmer in Louisiana, there would possibly be some sort of deep longing inside me for soul-food. A big community table laden with fried chicken would mean more to me than just fried chicken.

Make me the son of Bangladeshi immigrants and the aroma of frying turmeric and cumin seeds could have an effect far beyond making me hungry.

Maybe even just a kid from a Northern mining town going back home to one of those little houses with no front garden, for chips cooked in dripping and a brass band recital, except they wouldn't call it a recital, obviously.

I know, I know, these are horrendous stereotypes. The point is that people from my background don't get to be in these stereotypes or feel, despite them, the associated emotions and sense of belonging to something bigger than onesself.

As I said the other day, french fries like the ones McDonalds used to make before they changed the recipe are fantastically nostalgic to me. But that nostalgia isn't really culturally special.

The black kids and the Asian kids and the posher kids and the scrattier kids all shared in that 1980s experience as well. It's non-tribal and not uniquely of 'my people', if you see what I mean?

I do get a little retro-cultural insight occasionally thanks to Mrs B-V. Visits to the homes of her extended family members typically reveal an elderly matriarch in the kitchen, slaving over a huge pot and a sack of chapati flour.

But again, it's not my homecoming. I'm looking in through the window.

In a final desperate stab at claiming some sort of credible ethnicity, one of my Grandads was, in all likelihood, descended from East End Jews, but had fallen sufficiently far from the foreskin that the family had no association with that culture any more, or indeed with London's Jewish Community. I don't think he had any residual longing for chicken soup and gefilte fish, let alone me.

The deli of cultural self-actualisation. Or not.
For those who do, however, I suspect these nostalgic emotions are what has kept Harry Morgan in business for almost 70 years.

Because it surely can't be the quality of the food, can it?!?

Platinum Jubilee line

I'd been meaning to try Harry's for ages. It's probably the best known Jewish restaurant in the country, not that there have ever been many. Open all day, every day, it's a fixture in St John's Wood high street and offers something just a bit different. Though 'different' isn't necessarily good.

Relatively common in US cities, this kind of Kosher deli-diner just hasn't really taken off over here, making Harry's a unique experience. I've enjoyed this kind of food in New York or Philadelphia, so had vaguely high expectations.

No, there is no bacon or ham. And it's a pulled-pork-free zone. Usually in this sort of place (well, this sort of place but run by gentiles) I'd pick some sort of mixed meat melt with salami and other piggy slices - obviously that's not an option here.

So I opt for the Reuben sandwich (£11.75), featuring the homemade, peppered pastrami for which Harry's is famous, and as pastrami goes, it's perfectly good. Salty, moist, a hint of the forest about it. But that's where the fun stops.

Rueben and very chopped liver

There is quite a lot of pastrami on the plate - not just thin slices but big clumpy bits from the end of the brisket too. I don't have a problem with the quantity, obviously, but it doesn't make for a neat sandwich.

There needs to be a whole lot more cheese in the sandwich too, because with that amount of meat it's hard to discern its presence at all. It should be hot, not lukewarm, almost overflowing with gooey, cheesy goodness binding everything together.

And I would really prefer my gherkin to be thinly sliced and built into the fabric of the sandwich, not whole and on the side of the plate. They put the - less important to me - saurkraut in there, so why not the pickle?

There's a lot of fries too, but they are forgettable, as is the generic, supermarkety coleslaw.

The bread is thin, lightly toasted with a few caraway seeds and most of the filling drops out when you try to pick it up. Meh. A good Reuben can be a delightful thing, and while they get many of the components right, it's just not very well assembled here and a bit of a disappointment, even though the pastrami itself is perfectly good.

We're also disappointed with the chopped liver bagel (£6.95). Refrigerator-cold; a plain, uninspiring bagel, and 'chopped' turns out to mean 'pulverised into a bland pate'. If I was actually Jewish, I'd probably have known this. And known not to order it, unless I was unable to chew.

Chicken soup and Gefilte fish
It's not just the misleading filling. I've had better bagels from ordinary bakeries, I've had better bagels from supermarkets. God, I've probably had better bagels from Holocaust deniers. If this is authentic, give me faux!

For starters, we tried the classic Jewish staple, Gefilte Fish, which translates as 'a cold, barely edible lump of fishy dough'. Probably. It's too cold and too doughy, though not particularly fishy as it happens. It is not pleasant and the beetroot chutney doesn't save the day in any way.

I do wonder if gefilte fish plays the same role in Jewish culture that sprouts do in Christmas dinners. Everyone expects to see them on the table but few actually enjoy eating them. Or maybe those pesky Semites are playing a joke on the rest of us?

The most enjoyable thing we sampled - and possibly the real culturally nostalgic pull - is the Chicken soup. Yep, just chicken soup. It's clear-ish and salty and comforting with molecules of rendered chicken fat adding texture and flavour. It's chicken soup, the non-creamy kind. Good old, plain old, all-curative chicken soup.

(The soup comes, as it often does in the US, with a tiny packet of crackers. I wonder, as I often do in the US, what the very fuck that is all about? I mean who wants two tiny dry crackers with a soup? What is the point?!? Why do they always do it? If you're going to serve something with a soup, make it a full-size, fully-absorbant roll, or don't bother!)

But there are enough 'special features' floating in it to keep things interesting. Proper chunks of actual chicken, which is always a good sign, a handful of noodles, and a couple of dumplings, one of which contains a filling very much like the 'chopped liver' from the bagel. (One of these is kreplach, the other is Matzo - not being Jewish, I forget which.)

I wanted to like the food at Harry Morgan more than I did. I was almost expecting a magical comfort blanket of yumminess that just didn't turn up for the party.

For a deli/diner-type experience it's not that cheap. Three courses with a beer (they do Brooklyn Lager from NY but little else of interest) is pushing £30-35 a head, and the quality overall just isn't that good. One issue may be that the menu is too big. Stuff is left out cold and then reheated, possibly.

Anway, we finish with the Lockshen pudding, which can be hot or cold - having had a lot of cold food we opt for hot and it pretty much burns the rooves of our mouths. It's not bad - essentially a spiced clump of pasta with raisins and icing sugar. This is decent comfort food, though like a lot on the menu, it is stodgy and lacking in subtlety.

If I was viewing this place through the prism of an entrenched identity, I might be more sympathetic. As it is, I struggle to care about this 'institution' and wonder if a new, 21st cenutry take on Kosher dining could do Semetic nostalgia food a whole lot better?

Where to find it...

Harry Morgan
29-31 High Street
St Johns Wood
NW8 7NH  (map)

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