Ben’s Canteen promises British food done well – they deliver on that promise with cool style. So cool, in fact, that my clothes were not the most drop-dead hip thing in the building and when we arrived there were more MacBooks than customers. The music is also hyper-fashionable: the sort of stuff that people who had lots of enthusiastic sex in the noughties would love – I didn’t recognise any of it. With cool design, cool staff and cool beer it consummately crowns the dishevelled part of St John’s Hill between Clapham and Wandsworth.
That’s doing it down, really, because both dishes I had would shine anywhere. The whole experience shows that lovely Ben has seriously applied himself to his work and by polishing every aspect you can turn even a terrifying location into a desirable destination. The houses may be so expensive that only lawyers can afford to live there, but Clapham is still grotty, and I was scared.
I felt incredibly cool as soon as I walked in and stepped over the workmen ripping up the floor into the large dining room. The little touches really grabbed me, though. Salt and pepper bowls are ceramic pots of Sainsburys bloater paste of presumably moderate collectability. The Dundee marmalade pot for the knives and forks (Dundee having once been renowned for its bounteous orange groves, presumably) was even better. Seats were all unmatched but not rickety or uncomfortable and the tables gave one more than enough space to pose.
I was pleased the menu fitted onto one side of an A4 sheet, long menus are silly and normally promise nothing will be done well. There were a few good things on it, but two required eating and I’ll dive straight into the first.
Ben’s Canteen served me the best Scotch eggs I think I will ever eat. Even Editor Dani was wowed and happily admitted they eclipsed his stunning efforts. It was an all-day breakfast Scotch egg with bacon and mushroom ‘breadcrumbs’ on the outside, pork, black pudding and baked bean forcemeat and an egg with a liquid centre.
It was certainly a complex, engaging construction, but it was still unmistakably a Scotch Egg; I didn’t get the feeling anyone was being sillier than the MacBook owners were when they spent all that money. Complexity, purity, they are good, but as a lover of orbs I was transported and started doing the usual groans, moans and wild hand-gestures[ref]Dani says watching me eat a meal I like is akin to watching a torrid sex act as part of a large, not necessarily appreciative, audience and he sometimes feels I’m more involved in pleasuring myself with food than engaging with him. He’s probably right, but what can I say? I’m a man of gustatory passions![/ref].
Ben’s Canteen’s burger, we are told, is the seventh best in London, according to a magazine I hadn’t heard of before. I think such ranking is silly unless you are saying something is THE BEST EVER, but it certainly tickled my fancy. Much as the orb was very orby, the burger was extremely burgery. It wasn’t a contrived construction that was pretending to be a New York Bistro extravagance; it was an extremely burgery “British” burger.
The smoked Cheddar was just characterful enough without going overboard and the smoked tones made it slightly sweet in a processed-cheese-but-better style that worked brilliantly. No bacon graced it, but instead the finest corned beef I have ever eaten. That was just the dingo’s dirty bits. No mushy pap but fine cuts of topside salted and formed into a brilliant bit of meat. Unusually this sophisticated burger was topped with a very sophisticated burger sauce. Topping!
The patty itself was extremely good. Cooked to medium-rare and ground quite coarsely it had a brilliant texture. It tasted freaking brilliant too. This was a major success as far as a piece of minced animal goes. Pleasure-rific.
I took the tomato and lettuce out of my burger.
We drank beer with our lunch and they were smashing. Meantime lager is as good as it gets but the IPA was top tapir. The brewery is Kernel and they source a variety of novelty hops for their IPAs and bottle them all separately. The two different hop flavours we tried, Monteuka and Nelson Sauvin, were both vastly superior to anything we had at the woeful Winchester real ale festival.
The food and the environment showed that Ben’s Canteen were committed to quality, and our chat with Ben and his head chef (neither of whom would let me photograph them) clearly demonstrated their hunger for doing British food well. Those of you unfortunate enough to be foreign can snigger all you want, but one trip to Ben’s joint will silence your sniggers and leave you lusting for more.