Fine wine frolics at Ben’s Canteen

I hope you will forgive me if this is not my longest or most coherent article, things got a bit quaquaversal in the early hours of this morning. However, yesterday evening was lavishly loaded with laughs and it might return a bit of order to my mind to try and report on the wizard walrus experience that chums Ricard, James, Dani and I revelled in at Ben’s Canteen in St. John’s Hill, London.

Ben’s Canteen is undoubtedly a cool destination, but it’s unpretentious and a lot of fun. It was made even better because Ricard is such a good customer he gently twisted Ben’s arm to allow us to bring our own wine for an entirely reasonable corkage charge. With one exception (and that was bloody my bottle) we drank exceedingly well and demonstrated extremely well the only food and wine matching rule that matters: drink wine you like with food you like.

The starter of choice at Ben’s is the super scrummy ‘all-day breakfast’ Scotch egg. It has bacon in the bread crumbs, black pudding in the pork, and they time the cooking of the eggs to a ‘T’. It’d be better with Hampshire pork, of course, but the meat they use is certainly up to enjoyable eating standards.

Ricard said his fish tacos were nice, but I suspect he was after a taste of my orbs. I don’t blame him – I gave James a helping of my meat and he was rather taken with the experience.

We had three Burgundies with our starters. Ricard’s Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2010 from the super cool Humbert Freres was a delicious, joyful expression of Gevrey. Clearly benefiting from the ripeness and good acidity of the vintage this throbbed with life and was so givingly accessible it performed the beverage equivalent of ripping your clothes off, pinning you to the floor and lewdly pleasuring you every time you so much as sniffed it. I liked its tannic structure, too. This was a gratifying, giving Gevrey Villages.

Now, I’m told by my neuroscientist associates that psychosis interferes with memory formation and retention, and that’s what I blame for having no recollection of the vineyard of James’ Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru 2003 from Denis Bachelet. You have no idea of the intensity of crushing failure forgetting a wine vineyard by the next day causes me. The pictures are illegible, alas. But I’m sure James will chime in with the vineyard name so I may as well give you my impressions. It was ripe, with alcoholic warmth, most certainly, but it was soft and sexy, oozing with sensory gratification and intellectual titillation. The ripe fruit character was just lewd and it was well-supported by a deceptively serious tannic structure. I’ve had a few 2003 red Burgundies recently that have been throbbing with pleasure but none quite so wantonly lubricious as this. I want to drink more Bachelet and I want to drink it soon – this was freaking tits.

Psychosis has entirely bleached my memory of the Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Vaucrains 2002 that Dani and I bought. Can’t remember a blooming thing, not opening it, not sniffing it, not tasting it, not anyone’s comments about it, NOTHING! That’s a bit worrying, eh? Bit of a rubbish wine writer if you have no memory of what could well have been one of the wines of the evening. Deary me.

Main courses were generally a great success with the exception of Dani’s pulled-pork roll. He said the roll was extremely uninteresting and the pork a bit dry.

My 100% beef dog was brilliantly overblown with fried onions, mustard, chilli and cheese on top. These flavours had soaked into the roll making it really delish and the whole construction worked an absolute treat for me. Perhaps a bit of a challenge to eat and have it retain it’s coherency, but I’ve been challenged to retain coherency on many occasions. Don’t let this put you off, you want to go for the ‘extra chilli and cheese’ option as it makes the whole dog.

I suppose the winner was the BC Burger, Ben’s Canteen signature burger and the seventh best burger in London according to a magazine I had never heard of and now cannot even remember. I wrote more about the burger in my first review of Ben’s Canteen. I’d be torn between  having one of these and my ace dog on my next visit. Top stuff both of them.

Our final two wines didn’t quite live up to the heady heights of the Burgundies (assuming the Chevillon was good, no idea personally). Ricard’s Marques de Vargas Rioja Reserva 2001 had good fruit and was reasonably soft, but for one only beginning to appreciate Rioja I found the oak character and slight dryness on the palate a touch distracting. ‘A touch distracting’ clearly wasn’t so bad because I made sure I kept this bottle near me once the Burgundies were gone – down to getting a big mouthful of sediment at the end of the evening.

That could be because my magnum of Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine 1999 was woefully disappointing. The nose was lovely and soft, with an attractive perfume of dark fruit and grilled meat. However, if you’ve got a magnum you want to drink it not just sniff it and once we’d all tasted it we didn’t want to drink it. The tannins were tough, angular and had a metallic edge. It’s acidity was harsh and jarring and there wasn’t much fruit to show on the palate. It had no harmony at all and there was nothing attractive about it. We left the magnum hardly touched.

The failure of my mag of Bandol did not detract from what I remember being an excellent evening. We had a lot of fun with the Burgundies and the food was largely a hoot and we revelled in its fun value with great delight. Ben was very kind to let us pay corkage, but even with our impressive volume of wine we were all distinctly happy when we were presented with a deeply modest final bill. It was a real joy to eat fun food with nice people and excellent wines at Ben’s Canteen. I shall return soon.

  • Dids

    Nice to see you in London again David. I have a case of Bachelet GC VV 03, so will broach one of them weekend after I get back from London tomorrow. Shame about the Tempier. Mind you a wine I find can be surely at the best of times.

  • Tom Blach

    The Bachelet 1er is Corbeaux, David. I’m interested in the idea that psychosis can cause complete obliteration of a memory, and I wonder if the opposite can happen. I remember once dreaming an entire dinner at Pierre Koffmann, one of the most enjoyable dinners of my life though irritatingly I didn’t realise I was dreaming so was cautious with the wine list though the Jadot Cote De Nuits villages Le Vaucrain was delicious, and just the same as it was when I located a real bottle.

  • Tom Blach

    PS I think the Tempier was too young!

  • Last night was extremely weird and unpleasant, but apparently I was at least vaguely productive. I have had a bunch of replies to emails I have no memory of writing. Similarly I wrote an article for someone else, not a glimmer of when that happened in my mind. They all seem up to my usual standard of prose with no mention of the sinister whelk plot or anything similar. I’m rather confused and not entirely happy.

    I’m pleased I managed to write something, though, even though it’s ropey enough to make me want to delete it. Recently things have been a strange mixture of happy with myself also proud of my achievements dealing with insanity and on the other hand feeling woefully inadequate with the idea that I’ve done something horribly wrong and am a bad person. This doesn’t lend itself to writing knob jokes about wine. I shall continue to remind myself what a lot of friends have taken to saying to me, “I’m great just as I am”, and hope that bullies me into feeling more like writing droll articles.

  • Oh yes, Cabassaou 99 was glorious a few months ago. No reason why La Tourtine should be trailing that. I suspect that magnum might have been one of the ones that was not stored ideally when we were moving.

  • Tom Blach

    Without wishing to make light of your affliction, David, it seems to me that it is only those who believe themselves completely sane of whom we should beware.
    Is Tempier so fragile? I remember this Tourtine being utterly, utterly unapproachable about two years ago. I find unapproachable wines very encouraging in our instant-gratification seeking times.

  • James

    Thank you David, Dani and Ricard for a most enjoyable evening- and sorry to hear the aftermath for you, David. Yes, the Bachelet 1er Cru was Les Corbeaux – and a wine that was consistent both with your write-up and the distinctive pleasures of other large-scale 03 red burgundies, lots of everything and very hedonistic. The Chevillon 02 was super and we were all appropriately enthused- it had a degree of power too, but was obviously a bit more measured, with a purity of fruit and energy that moved the theme back nicely towards the (also most hedonistic, albeit in a different key) “Nabokov” wine with which we started. Burgundy is best again!
    Quite right that the Rioja (very good fruit, but agree the oak was a bit offputting) was indeed more pleasurable than the Tempier on the night. Always good (?) to have one’s pre-conceptions dispelled, eh?! My theory on the Tempier (which I know far less well than you) was that lots of decanting might have enabled it to harmonise- not exactly easy in the circumstances.

  • I was sorry to read that the La Tourtine did not please. I looked back at my notes, David, and see that in the summer of 2011 we enjoyed a horizontal tasting of Tempier wines from 1999. We enjoyed the La Tourtine, which we found rather tough and best left longer, but absolutely harmonious. Perhaps in magnum it was even less forward? I confess to having been surprised at how down on Tempier you were when we met in Greenwich last weekend.

  • James, thank you for filling in the gaping chasms in my memory – lawks what a night that resulted in them!

    Peter, I think my comment was that Tempier have not been as good since they sold out in 2000. I don’t think that is something you must confess to having been surprised about. It was a quick comment in answer to the direct question you asked me, “When did Tempier go down hill?”. All wineries change hands and go through dodgy patches, that’s just been my experience with recent Tempier; hardly ‘so down’. So please don’t try and paint me as a shocking revisionist when I was only answering you question which you already seemed to agree with the answer (given date uncertainty).

    It would be a satisfying story, for some at least, if the mag of La Tourtine simply needed more time or decanting, but it was suffering something more fundamental than that. I’m pretty sure it has suffered from some less than ideal storage conditions and that’s just fractured the final drinking experience. I need to make sure people don’t do that to my big ones again.

  • James, I’ve just read your comments again. Weren’t the Lolita Gevrey and Bachelet good? So much to please in those two wines. I think they spoke clearly of their origins of and vintages, but did so with big, gratified grins on their faces. I’ll look out for Humbert Humbert in the future. I think things like our allocation of 2011 Roumier will provide even more brilliant, joyous pleasure.

  • Jeremy

    Call me wrong, but is it possible that extra chili and cheese on your beefdog did the Tempier and Rioja no favors? Spicy heat does bring out the tannic side of any red wine.

  • Wow. I’ll take care not make contrarian comments in future.

  • Jeremy, that wouldn’t explain why three other people (eating other things) all thought it was as horrible as I did.

    With all the attempts to defend it some might think bad bottles of wine simply didn’t exist. They do and this was.

  • Jeremy

    I can’t contest that bad bottles do exist, even where a wine is typically good. Sorry to hear that this was one of them. And it’s more upsetting for a magnum than for a bottle.