ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create 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. Likewise, 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!
ʼʼ

Monday, April 30, 2012

Baltic Birthday

Nobody likes getting old much, do they?

I spoke to a 101-year-old recently whose refreshing and darkly candid take on her longevity was 'I hate being old. All my friends are dead!'

I've a comparatively long way to go, not that I'm likely to make it that far, but I did 'celebrate' my 35th last week, and to add insult to injury, I was accosted by not one but two market research people the very next day, and had to select, for the first time, the '35-44' box in which I shall be stuck for the next decade!

I'm now officially part of the target audience for Radio 2, The Spectator and Guy Clapperton's LifeOver35 blog, although in preperation I've been reading the latter for a few months, the Speccie for several years, and I actually like to think I've outgrown the Light Programme!

In recent months I've been acquiring new ailments left, right and centre, and a spell of extended stress at work (it would be less depressing working at a children's hospice) is taking its toll on my blood pressure. 

All I need now to trigger the textbook midlife crisis is a bad marriage - though, fortunately, I'm very happy being married to Mrs B-V who surprised me with a unique birthday present in the form of a trip to Latvia!


Beer

Chronophobia aside, the big day itself was quite enjoyable, with several beers at the Craft Beer Company to numb the pain, some of which were very good indeed. Highlights included Summer Wine Diablo, 6% and bursting with Citra hops, and a Black IPA from Arbor, though the 7.5% Breakfast Stout from the same brewery was a long and sickly struggle from the first sip to the bottom of the glass.


Birthday beer

Fortunately our flight to Riga the following day wasn't until late afternoon, so I didn't pay too heavy a price for overindulgence in strong ale. My system probably needed to stock up too, as Latvia isn't known for it's beer. Or, indeed, anything much.

Firstly, a few recommendations for anybody thinking of visiting Riga:


1. You can realistically 'do' Riga in a single day, so it's probably a bad idea to book a stay of more than two nights. We had two nights and were getting bored.

Being 35+ I'm never happier than when sitting down, but Riga is one of these 'old towns' that you have to walk around, with manky cobbled streets. Never been my kind of destination, and probably never will. Some things don't change as you get older. 



2. Try to avoid ever flying Ryanair. To anywhere. They are cheap, but their planes are cramped and unpleasant and we got stung with 'security charges' at the airport which they had deliberately not included in the upfront price to keep it cheap. Wankers.

There wasn't even a bus to take people from the gate to the plane, despite the plane being further from the gate than I've ever seen before - probably around 400 yards, which is a long way to dash in torrential rain with other aircraft moving disconcertingly around as you run across the tarmac.


3. Avoid using the strangely-named Terravision coach service to Stansted. It's bad enough having to fly from fucking Stansted in the first place, without this total shower of incompetence. 

Rather than running to timetables, they seem to depart only when there are enough bodies to completely fill the thing up, which for us meant standing in the aforementioned rain at Stratford worrying that we'd miss our flight on the way out, and standing around at Stansted late at night, knowing that we'd miss the last DLR on the way home.

It's the Ryanair of coaches.


4. In fact, don't fucking fly at all. There's too much hanging around, too much hassle getting to and from airports, too much turbulence and fearing for your life, and too few people in passport control at British airports. 

It's the Terravision of travel. Except that that's already Terravision.



5 (and back on the actual subject of Latvia rather than general whinging about shit). Don't take too much money. Riga is cheap and it's hard to spend. You can get a half-litre of beer in a bar in the centre for about £1.30 and a plate of food for the same price. I bought the best spoon ever for about a fiver. No, really. It's a great spoon.
 

The important stuff

So, what about the food and drink?


Well, with so little to do we spent quite a lot of time eating and drinking, and I noticed some similarities to Lithuania and Estonia, both of which I've previously visited. 


Grey peas; Steak with liquor
The national dish is grey peas, which thankfully aren't like peas as we know them, but a sort of cross between split peas and black-eyed beans, cooked with onion and bacon. It's not unpleasant and widely available (for a couple of quid).

What was unpleasant, however, was lunch on our first day. Somehow we seemed to find ourselves in a workers cafe in the basement of some government offices and not knowing about the food, just pointed to something behind the glass which we ascertained was a sort of potato pancake with meat inside.

The 'meat' was some kind of reconstituted pulp, almost entirely unseasoned apart from the sour cream which they seem to serve with everything in this part of the world. Maybe it was pink slime? I couldn't eat much of it without gagging, whatever it was.

Oh for some beer to cleanse my mouth...

Riga has a brewpub, Lido, located in some suburban shopping mall away from the old town that we didn't get to visit, but their beers are available fairly widely, and their old town outpost, Alus Seta offered an opportunity to try the closest thing to proper beer in the area (and some grey peas!)


This lot cost about £2.80
As expected, it's nothing to write home about. I tried their regular light lager, a honey beer which was a bit more interesting, and an amber which was darker and maltier. All of it was very fizzy and none of it was particularly hoppy.

Alus Seta is also well known for it's traditional Latvian food, though slightly disconcertingly, you have to queue up, canteen-style, with a tray and point to everything you want.



Suck it and see


Again we didn't know exactly what we were getting, but most of the stuff here was indeed very good. Skewers of moist chicken, garlic roast potatoes, thick garlic-infused steak with a parsley sauce a bit like the 'liquor' dispensed by our very own pie'n'mash shops. 

Clearly if you choose the right thing, there is some tasty food to be had here.


Garlic Bread? Garlic? Bread? Queens?
While some of the food can be bland, garlic features heavily and, as is common in this region, the garlic bread is something rather special - black rye bread deep fried in thin slices, probably in garlic-infused oil, and liberally coated with smushed garlic. 

Served with blue cheese sauce in the Queens pub, they were particularly good, though perhaps not the healthiest snack ever.


There was unfiltered wheat beer on here (passable), as well as Latvian 'Kiss' cider, which is a lot like the Scandinavian ciders that have taken off over here in recent years - horribly, horribly sweet and synthetic-tasting.

But as we were staying for a few (and some vodka, balsam and cream liquers) we were able to eat our way through the food menu, which was at odds with the 'English pub' theme.

After the garlic bread, smoky hunters sausages and slow-roasted pork belly in chilli were good accompaniments for an afternoon's drinking before we had to catch the plane home, and if I'd known how long and manky the journey home would be (we didn't get back until 2:30 AM) I'd have had more to drink!

'City of contrasts' is a cliche that's been done to death, but it's probably a fair reflection on Riga. Some of the food was very tasty, but there's not a lot to see or do (a 35 minute ride on a little cart seems to cover everything) and there are other, more interesting parts of the former USSR. Like Ukraine. And Estonia.

Am I glad I've been? Yes.

Was it a good birthday present? Yes. Thank you, Mrs B-V.

Would I want to go back, or go through the experience again? Fuck, no!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Spring in my step, Hole in my shoe

The only real downside of my visit to the West End for expressionist art and a big sloppy burger the other day is that it marked the end of my shoes. My beloved, trusty comfortable shoes!

I knew the one on my right foot was just one short walk away from wearing through, and Tuesday's aggressive rainfall finally did for it as pavement puddles squelchified my sock through the hole, forcing me to finally give up on them. Reluctantly.

‘But the left one still works OK!’ I protested in vain to Mrs B-V, who had had the foresight to line up an acceptable replacement pair which assumed service the following day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Munch, Lunch and Cousin-fucking

Never averse to a spot of culture, I took the opportunity this lunchtime to pop out and visit Sotheby’s with the wife to view Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

The horror! The despair! It's probably an appropriate picture for Cov City fans at the moment, given our current dire predicament.

Scream your heart out
One of about four versions of the same painting produced by Munch, which are very rarely displayed publicly, this was a unique opportunity to see something famous and important before it sells next week for £50 million, though the airport-style security and queues weren’t as unbearable as I’d envisaged.

Now, whilst I appreciate art in almost all its myriad forms, I’m not one to buy into this idea that one particular work is necessarily magnitudes better than any other work, and the groupthink that supports and creates this mythology always baffles me a bit.

I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, and Rodin’s The Thinker, and felt that while they were alright, they weren’t worthy of the fuss made about them. It's all art. Yeah, it's quite good but is it really worth millions of pounds? I've seen stuff by local artists that they can't sell for 50 quid which I'd put on a par.

This pastel edition of the Scream, likewise is sort of OK,  though far brighter in colour than I expected, and with almost a camp theatricality about the screaming figure rather than the haunting terror for which the image – or, more likely, peoples mental idea of the image – is known.

And I don’t really see why it merits metal detectors, crowd barriers, a team of dedicated staff and its own room in the gallery. But then, what do I know?

In the next room were various Picassos, Chagalls and indeed several other works by Munch, and many of these were, to my eye, more interesting than the open-mouthed one, though singularly glossed over by most of the visitors, some of whom even walked straight out after their five minutes looking at the Scream.


Getting down and dirty

Just up the road, but a world apart from Sotheby’s is MEATliquor, a relatively recent addition to London’s burger scene though with a lustrous heritage in the form of the travelling Meatwagon van. Some of the artwork on the walls here is actually more interesting and challenging than the Scream, if I’m honest.

MEATliquor art
There’s bears and horned monsters and bare breasts and everything.

But, more importantly, what’s the food like? How does it compare to, say, Haché or Byron?

Well, it’s good. Very good. In a baaaaaaad sort of way.

You see, whereas the excellent Haché chain is a deliberate attempt at taking the burger into new stratospheres of upmarketness, MEATliquor is your no-nonsense, all-American working class hero and proud of it.

It’s a Ford Mustang that can’t corner properly. It's a speakeasy hoedown. It’s a vote for George W. Bush. It’s one of those provocatively-knotted-at-the-front tops that comely (and, sometimes not-so-comely) American ladies sometimes wear.

You get the idea.

Certainly the look and feel is the most authentically American I’ve ever seen in London, and with food served on greaseproof paper on plastic trays, and kitchen roll provided on every table instead of cutlery, it feels only a couple of guilty steps away from fucking your cousin over the bonnet of a rusting Buick behind the drive-thru.

Dimly lit, even at lunchtime!
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes something that feels a bit dirty is good.

For some people, the edgy atmos and décor would make MEATliquor an instant no-go area. It is dimly lit, alterno-rock plays loudly at all times, and the toilet facilities are badged ‘frocks’ and ‘cocks’.

This was lunchtime but it’s easy to imagine what it would be like at night – even dimmer, even louder and chock-full of people looking for a cheap and dirty good time. On a Friday or Saturday evening there are apparently 90 minute queues to get in, and you can’t book in advance.

But if you can live with these things – which are all arguably part of the experience – you’ll be rewarded with some damn good food that might surprise you.

The vibe and attitude might be a world apart from the Sotheby’s and Armani’s in the upmarket streets outside, as if a little bit of a bad neighbourhood has been built in the wrong place, but as burger joints go, it has quality, seeping from every pore. Or maybe that’s just the juice from the burgers?

White Trash at its finest


We kicked off with the fried pickles – long, slender slivers of gherkin in a light, seasoned batter with a chunky blue cheese dip. The sort of thing you normally have to fly across the Atlantic to eat. Perfectly cooked and still cool and tangy and sweet in the middle, it makes for a strange reverse cheese’n’pickle experience.
Only in America... and Welbeck street

There are a few other options available (Philly cheesesteaks, chicken burgers and ‘rabbit food’)  but we were here for the beef and tried two different burgers from their selection, the Dead Hippy – a double cheeseburger with a mustardy special sauce – and a classic cheese and bacon.

Unlike certain other burger places, the policy here is to serve medium-rare and this is a good thing. The meat is charred nicely on the outside but very juicy and pink in the middle, which is just as it should be.

Both burgers were messy, in a good way, like ripped denim shorts on trailer park totty. With the Dead Hippy in particular it was hard to tell sometimes where the patty ended and the cheese/mustard/bun began, but that’s all part of the attraction for me. In it's own way this, too, is Expressionist art.

Being an English gentleman, a part of me would have preferred to eat the mess from a big, sensible English plate, with an English knife and fork and an air of civilised refinement, but I fought back these emotions, took a big gulp of beer and got down and dirty, Yank-style.

Prepare to get messy. Very messy.
The bun is soft and bready but doesn’t completely fall apart, and the burgers included more slices of gherkinpickle and some token salad, which all adds up to a faceful of tasty brilliance.

We also had the fries – standard, stringy variety but lots of them – and onion rings. These were big bastards and, like the pickles, the batter was awesome, but you’ll be reaching for the kitchen roll soon enough.

Given that the burgers probably aren’t as lean as those in most other ‘premium’ burger places, it’s certainly not a place to go for a healthy meal. They might be slightly too greasy for my palette (especially when you’re having fried stuff with them) but that’s a pifflingly insignificant criticism really.

Drink!


There’s only a small selection of bottled beers available, but the Flying Dog Old Scratch is exactly the sort of beer you want with a big, badass burger. Frosted glasses are a nice touch too.

Drinking. Better than screaming.
It being lunchtime, I didn’t venture into the mixology world, but they have a good reputation for strong, no-nonsense cocktails (£6-8 each).                 

We finished up with a Goose Island root beer float, which is about as American as it gets without actually sticking flags onto a pickup truck.

A meal for two will cost £40-50, or more if you do lots of drinking, obviously. For the West End this isn’t bad, and it’s extremely satisfying food that will leave you uncomfortably full for hours if you’re not careful!

So, is it the best burger in London? Well, it’s a bit different from other places and certainly scores high on authenticity factor if you’re pining for a trashy, transatlantic dive, but I probably wouldn’t want to come here every single day and somebody like me probably has to be in a certain mood to fully enjoy MEATliquor.

The meat is probably on a par with Hache and Byron’s Big D (which is only available at certain times of the year) and a bit better than a standard Byron burger.

Slightly less expensive than these places too, although if you go around comparing the prices to McDonalds or Burger King you’ll be totally missing the point. Fucking pointmisser.

I guess the conclusion is that each of these three has something that they do better than their brethren (beer choice in Byron, brioche bun in Hache, fried pickles and unique atmosphere here) and they are all streets ahead of any other burger I’ve yet tried. I’d find it very hard to eat in, say, Gourmet Burger Kitchen these days, let alone order a burger in Wetherspoons.

So, rather than try to conclude definitively which is the best place to go for burgers in London, I shall just be glad that there are now some really good places to go for burgers in London!


Where to find it...

76 Welbeck Street
London
W1G 0AY (map)
********* 

The Scream is on display at Sotheby’s until tomorrow, April 18 (admission free)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Doing stuff in the wrong order

When I was a child, my primary hobby was probably collecting Star Wars figures. Han, Luke, Leia; Ree Yees, Bib Fortuna, The Gamorrean Guard. I had them all. Well, most of them.

The hunt to find them all excited me to such an extent that until relatively recently I still purchased vintage figures on Ebay in an attempt to complete my collection, and even now I occasionally have dreams that I’ve found a shop with a rare, new figure I haven’t seen before.

Yeah, I know. Victim of commercialism. At such a tender age. Tragic.

All my childhood hopes and dreams!
What is surprising though is that I was a bit of a late arrival on the scene, only having been born in 1977.

That was the year that the first of the three Star Wars films was released (there are only three Star Wars films and if you think otherwise you are a Stormtrooper's cock) and the first that I saw 
was actually the final part of the trilogy: Return of the Jedi.

This was 1983. In the Streatham Odeon back when it had three proper, big auditoria instead of 138 micro screens. Good times.

It opens with the resolution of a cliffhanger from Empire Strikes Back, but, being six, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I got to see Ree Yees, Bib Fortuna and the Gamorrean Guard brought to life and so, to me, ROTJ was Star Wars, at least until we rented the first and second instalments from the video shop and I got to see the earlier portion of the trilogy.

I was also fascinated by the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus by virtue of not having seen it. When I was about eight they showed series 2 and 3 on TV and I was addicted. Utterly.

But in those days there was a very strange policy that the BBC could or would not repeat programmes more than three times, which is why the first series wasn’t shown in my lifetime until the rules were relaxed in the late 1980s, by which time I was 12 and Python was 20!

It’s hard to imagine this kind of reality these days, when channels like UK Gold and Dave show the same episodes of the same programmes ad infinitium, and you can watch them on Youtube whenever you feel like it.

I swear, every time I notice that an episode of Fawlty Towers is on, it’s always The Anniversary – Series 2, Episode 5 – which includes memorable appearances from the late Ken Campbell, and strident comic actress Pat Keen who used to live in the flat above me in Ipswich!


Why am I banging on about this shit?

Anyway, one thing I concluded from all this is that there isn’t necessarily any harm in ‘doing stuff in the wrong order’. Except when there is, obviously.

This lunchtime - following a pint or three in the consistently excellent Craft Beer Company - I finally made it to Daddy Donkey in Leather Lane. And given my enthusiasm for the Craft, I must have walked past the self-styled 'Kick Ass Mexican Grill' more times than I've seen Polly pretending to be Sybil Fawlty. Which, UK Gold and Dave, is a lot of times!

There are perhaps two reasons why the order of events could be said to be 'wrong' in this instance:

a) I’d already been a couple of times to their spin-off Burger van, ‘Boom’, which appeared on the scene far more recently and;
b) Daddy Donkey actually pre-empted all the other conveyer-belt Mexican food chains, like Tortilla, which I’ve previously favourably reviewed.

The twin towers of takeaway street
Boom Burger was never going to win any prizes in my search for the best burger in London.


It's fast and cheap (£4.95 for a burger with a couple of toppings and £6.50 for the deluxe version with fries and 'slaw - toppings extra) but the quality of beef just isn't up to the mark, and the char-grilled meat has a strange, burnt, shish-kebab-like flavour.

Whack that in a bog-standard toasted sesame bun and you've got a burger that tastes like it's come from a kebab shop late at night, and if you were in a kebab shop late at night you would, surely, have a kebab, no?

Also, food that might be acceptable late at night, when everywhere else is closed and you're staggering pissed, seldom hits the spot in the cold light of lunchtime, which is the only time that Boom is open.


Burr(it)o!

But I can probably forgive Daddy Donkey his lacklustre beef offspring for the simple reason that the 'Kick Ass Mexican Grill' does indeed kick ass and I really wish I'd sampled it earlier.

The formula is the same as that which has been copied by Tortilla. You choose your meat and rice and veg and salsa and they wrap it up in a big, err, wrap, and you're tucking in within seconds. Simple.

Fresh, fresh, fresh
It's classic street food and fairly good value at £5.95 - certainly given the choice between a substandard burger and a good buritto at a similar price, I know which one I'd plump for, and that might explain why Daddy Donkey typically sports a lengthy queue, while Boom Burger can serve you straight away.

 
Sometimes when things are assembled 'fresh', the components taste anything but, having been lying around all day, but this isn't the case here. The charcoally flavour in the burgers is nowhere to be found, and the grilled beef here is lean, tender and nicely seasoned. 

It would be tasty enough on it's own, but it's even better with the accoutrements of sour cream and salsa - which comes at a temperature of your choosing, though even the 'medium' version is actually fairly hot. 


While the beef is probably best, you can also choose from pork or chicken, and the number of possible combinations available, depending on what exactly you want on it, is almost beyond calculation.

Beany Breakfast burritos are available from 7 to 11 AM, when the lunch service takes over. They pack up at 4 PM, sometimes earlier.

That'll do, Donkey, that'll do
For my money the quality of the food is superior to the Tortilla chain and the portion is a tad more generous. Then again, Boom burger is a one off, run by the same people, and yet it's notably inferior to chains like Byron and Haché, so there are no hard and fast rules.

I could admit now that 'Jedi' is actually my favourite Star Wars film, but then I'd probably get beaten up by somebody, or force-fed Boom Burgers or something...


Where to find it

Daddy Donkey
Leather Lane
Clerkenwell,
EC1N 7TE
*********
Boom Burger
Leather Lane
Clerkenwell,
EC1N 7TE
********* 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Trailer Park Foie Gras


‘Lean finely textured beef’ aka ‘Pink slime’ – the highly-processed beef that finds its way into American fast food to keep the cost down – has now received such negative PR that it’s become a no-go area in much of the US food industry. 

It looks like another battle won by Mr. Oliver, and for those of us that prefer our food tasty and natural, that can only be a good thing.

Yes, he can be a bit of a twat at times, and his girthy tongue sometimes runs away with itself, but on these sorts of issues I’m largely in agreement with him.

But even prior to the Oliverian backlash, it was still easier a hell of a lot easier to find a really good quality burger in the US than it is in this country, which rather begs the question of what goes into some of the manky burgers we get over here?!? Possibly something just as slimy and pink that hasn’t yet been tarred with such an unappealing name?

As a Libertarian I wouldn’t want to ban ‘food’ like this altogether, and because so many people will be boycotting Pink Slime it might develop a mystique and become the foie gras of the poor.


Sick and wrong


One of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten – and it was only a tiny smidge, which was all I could bear – was some ‘Potted Meat Food Product’. You find it occasionally in small tins in gas station minimarts, particularly in the Mid-West and South.

The product that has to tell people that it's food...
I took a can back to share with my then-colleagues and most refused to try it outright. Some couldn't stand to be in the office kitchen when we opened it - such was the unpleasant aroma. The only person who ate an entire crackersworth is now the Labour PPC for Ipswich and might possibly end up as some kind of junior food minister in a future government!

Generally I find tinned food hard to stomach anyway, but this lurid, salty sludge was particularly grotesque. I reckon it probably had some Pink Slime in it, in addition to the mechanically separated chicken, partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissue, beef hearts and tripe.

I just can’t work out why people – even very poor people – eat these things. It’s like the (largely apocryphal) stories about students eating dog and cat food, which make no sense as they could buy value baked beans and pappy sliced loaves for a lot less. Do they need meat that badly?

And, incidentally, prior to the 1970s Pink Sludge was considered only suitable for use in pet food products!

Surely even vegetarianism is preferable to these sorry excuses for ‘meat’?!?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why the Internet is Bad and Seafood Risotto is Good

I’ve been playing a stupid-but-addictive Facebook game lately – Solitaire Blitz, which is basically a form of Patience, against the clock, with a bizarre nautical theme.

I logged on at the weekend, hoping to beat my highscore and accrue some more treasure… Oh dear - my score, my treasure, indeed my entire Solitaire Blitz history, had been erased!

Everything was reset to zero, as if I’d never played the game before. Everything.

Damn you, PopCap, if that is your real name!

And it’s not like this is the first time something of this shitty nature has happened on Facebook either - around Christmas time I decided I wanted to play Super Snowman, surely the most amusing drag’n’drop Flash application ever devised.

I’d played it the previous Christmas and the Christmas before that. It was cool.

But...