The Camberwell Arms

Sometimes you need to go back and try again.

The Camberwell Arms has become the Blewer family (Camberwell branch) HQ for birthday food and drink for about 2 years now. We’ve enjoyed probably five or more great afternoons there, but this story starts with me swearing I’d never go back.

Over the years, we did a bit of circling around, with numerous visits to the Anchor & Hope on the Cut, Pizarro in Bermondsey and Franklins in East Dulwich. All have their significant charms and have been reviewed here. However due in part to logistics (most of us live in Sutton), cost and the need to find a child friendly option, we tried the Camberwell Arms.

The first time we went, on the longish (if you have a toddler and a baby with you) walk back to Denmark Hill station I was pretty much set that I wasn’t going back, or if I did it would be adults only. Aidan & Hannah had both decided that day that they didn’t want to stay seated, didn’t really want any of the food and didn’t want to be there. The numerous adults took turns in distracting them so we could all eat but it remains my most stressful restaurant experience (apart from a night in Moscow that is best not mentioned in polite company).

We were in the secondary room with a very large party adjacent and there was a lot of coming and going, which meant the kids had to stay at the table. The large party meant the the waitress upstairs was hard to get hold of and the kitchen was under pressure and our food took a long time. Neither Kirsty or I had had much sleep for months, what with Hannah being so young and our patience was as thin as a spider’s thread. It snapped on the walk and then quite long journey home.

This has been pretty much the issue for all of the restaurants mentioned, due to where my part of the family lives (Sutton), a civilised lunch in SE1 or SE5 is pretty much in the middle of nap time. Driving sort of managed this but it meant no drink for one of us, which we’d agreed to knock on the head. Kirsty and I knew this, and knew what happened if the kids didn’t nap. No sleep for us that night.

I know all of this sounds like a spoiled middle class #firstworldproblem, but sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation. Any parents reading this will understand the challenge. You want to spend time with your family and have a nice time, but you’re so effing tired and stressed that the smallest things set you off.

Anyway, I wasn’t going back. Then it was booked again and Dad and my Uncle Mark were both really looking forward to it and I couldn’t suggest somewhere else. The best I could do was ask for as late a start as possible so that Hannah could sleep.

You’ve probably guessed now that it worked. Hannah fell asleep on the walk down from the Station. They serve passable Guinness and always have a local pale ale in hand pump. We all looked at the menus and as I now feel every time I walk in, I thought “yum”.

For many years the CA was part of the Anchor & Hope stable which had an an effective formula. Find a grotty boozer in a previously rough but now up and coming part of S London. Add a lick of paint & mismatching furniture. Decent if slightly odd wine list. The kitchen serves rustic, trencherman type food that is WAY above usual pub standards as what looks simple requires very high level sourcing and serious technique in the kitchen. All of the group were sort of hybrid pubs where you could just go for a beer but the reality is they made their names as places to eat in the shell of a former pub that retained the ambience of a London boozer without really being one.

Service is friendly and professional. These guys know their job, put you at ease and serve the food with no fuss whatsoever. They’re enthusiastic about the product without trying to be evangelists or your best mate. They’re very understanding of our needs with two small kids, for which we are always grateful.

The Camberwell Arms has recently exited the group but at the moment the style remains and I really hope this continues. Exceptional silky, porky home made charcuterie, including really lovely rich rillettes and home pickled cornichons is a statement of intent matched by the scotch bonnet and pork fat on sourdough toast. Big meaty flavour served by a kitchen at knows what it’s doing.

Starters tend to be rustically presented but actually are quite delicate at least compared to the mains. The house cured smoked salmon and crisp bead is sweet, salty, fatty and serious, with thick slices, noseclearing horseraddish and again house pickles complementing it well. Babaganouj that is the equal of anywhere I’ve had in Levant, Gulf or Maghreb is served with griddled bread that’s like a bbqued pillow. I could eat about two kilos of this stuff.

Main courses tend to be big lumps of protein cooked perfectly with a sauce that demands good staff in the kitchen. Take my most recent main. A massive roast pork chop that had a big strip of crackling. Served on wilted greens with he best roast potato / chip type spuds you can find in London and a sauce based that was romanescoish that I want to buy in pots. I’ve had a similar but lighter dish with whole roast quail.

They do bigger dishes to share; a rabbit pie sticks in my mind from the first visit as a reason to come back. Spit roasted roast chicken and trimmings to be shared by groups of 2-4 depending on the size of bird. The fish always looks perfectly cooked, because this is an excellent kitchen that wouldn’t dream of serving anything other. Pearly flakes of white meaty fish, often with a buttery accompaniment are a staple of the menu. I’m a carnivore so tend to avoid but my mum regularly leaves a Top Cat style skeleton on an empty plate.

By the time you get to desert, you’re full, but they don’t let the side down. A short list of puds that are all made on site are always tempting and tasty. Home made ice creams normally do for me, often a tart and refreshing flavour, last time it was cherry and was great. They have calvados behind the bar that is young and apple-ey and pretty fiery. It’s calva not Somerset cider brandy so there’s enough velvet to dampen the fire but it delivers the big boozy hit that you want at the end of a great meal.

That’s what we’ve had every time. A great meal. Our kids have got older and we box clever on timings which has made the whole experience easier but at the heart of things this is a brilliant local restaurant that is more gastro than pub. I’d say I wished I lived closer but actually I quite like the fact we only go a few times a year as it gives the place a sense of occasion and makes it feel special.

The Camberwell Arms deserves this because that’s what it is, special.

I’m pleased we went back.

The Guinea Grill, Mayfair

I’ve been drinking in the Guinea on and off, for over 15 years, depending on where I or clients are based. It’s a small, gloriously old fashioned Youngs boozer that has (I think) the classic picture of the Queen Mum and / or Charles pouring a pint, all the Youngs beers you’d expect and a very mixed clientele.

I’ve drunk in there with working class sth London boys made good and not so good; aristocratic ex guards officers, oil and mining types, journalists, bankers, mercenaries and spooks. Basically it’s a local boozer that services a diverse community, and does so very well, providing a discreet boot hole for a swift pint or an all day session.

The light and bitter is very good, even if I’m the only person that drinks it. Well kept Ordinary that is always perfectly clear and if I’m lucky and get one of the new staff, I can persuade them to serve me an old fashioned measure. Sorry Osh. The Guinness is probably the best in a mile or so and at lunch they have truly exceptional old fashioned pies (steak & kidney/ mushroom) and an outstanding oxtail sandwich that has shaved horseradish that is a cure for the common cold.

It’s recently been taken over by a new guvnor, an Irishman who London is fortunate enough to have received some time ago. He used to have the Ship at Wandsworth which was always a grand place in the rugby season and has enhanced the Guinea with an eye for detail and a bit of spit, polish and staff training. Most professional reviewers say he’s good at his s job, I’m not arguing.

So far, this is a review of a seemingly discreet boozer (it’s in a sort of alley of Berkeley Square) that lots of people know about. It can be heavingly busy of a Thursday evening, Friday lunch or anytime around Christmas. The difference is what’s behind the pub.

If you are a few years younger than me, you probably can’t imagine London without Hawksmoor. You could be forgiven for thinking that they introduced the idea of a top quality British steakhouse to London. Their PR has done a good job in creating this perception, especially as previous and slightly less grand competitors such as Chez Gerrard bit the dust and Gaucho pushes the Argentine brand hard. I’m not complaining, I’m a big fan and I remain very grateful to them for many good meals and drinks. Particularly drinks, they do great cocktails.

However before Hawksmoor there was The Guinea Grill. It’s a singularly old school British / Irish take on how to serve grilled and roast meat, something they do as well as anywhere in London – with the benefit of the onsite pub as well.

Due in part to the location, there’s muted wooden panels, velvet cushioned chairs, silver service, buttered & creamed veg and a wine list hefty enough to facilitate GBH on either a fellow diner or your wallet. The list itself is what you’d expect; a top quality traditional selection. I tend to continue drinking beer as I’ll be going back to work, but there’s some good stuff on it, including a longtime personal favourite, Musar, which is a slightly racy but imaginative addition, not seen as much as it should be.

One’s fellow punters are almost all chaps; very old Mayfair, to the point my chippy sarf London half Irish persona gets turned up to 10. Every time I walk in, I feel like a bit of an outsider, then I realise I’ve worked in energy and capital markets for a long time and this is a community of which I’m part.

And then the food and drink starts and all my chippyness falls away because it’s so bloody good. The happy contended hum of a small dining room sharing a very good lunch is a great thing. Even the bread and butter is an exampler of what bread and butter is meant to be. Chewey and yeasty balanced by rich cream. Yum.

I’m yet to have a starter or desert, because I can’t afford to nap after lunch; but you come here for the meat. The steak is as good as it gets. The thing with this sort of food is there’s nowhere to hide. Source great meat. Cook it on a hot grill with necessary seasoning. Trad sides such as spinach and chips or even fried eggs must not trample over the main event, but must be simple and therefore they are either perfect or not good enough. The Guinea does it right time after time. I particularly like the bearnaise, which has a nice tang to balance the richness.

There’s pretty much all cuts available, and a wider menu that has more trad grill classics such as chops, a pretty hefty looking mixed grill, beef wellington and the same pies you get in the pub.

There’s also the best private room in London which would be great for big birthday party, or as I did a few years ago, a massive blowout following completion of a testing work project.

So, in conclusion, it’s a great little boozer with a very good old school grill room behind it, run by a talented manager and team who make sure you feel welcomed.

As an online sparring partner suggested recently with (I hope) more humour than snark, “why don’t you work remotely from there paddy?”

Restaurant Review, MeatLiquor, Boxpark Croydon

This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-meatliquor-boxpark/ 

 

I’ve been eating at MeatLiquor since I demolished its celebrated ‘three dead hippies’ dish in a pub off Peckham Rye. I’ve been a fan of their burgers for years. I often get a dead hippie with chilli fries as a takeaway at work for our Friday blowout team lunch, and I’ve had a few great nights out in Meat Mission in Hoxditch.

You could make the argument that Meat Liquor is, along with other brands such as Hawksmoor, a genuine pioneer in bringing a fundamentally American idiom (in this case gourmet dirrrrty food, whereas Hawksmoor does upscale steak) and putting it in an acceptably British context with imagination and wit. Both have done very well in the last decade, starting in Zone 1 Central London and moving out.

I love Meat Liquor’s choice to go for a higher fat content in their top quality beef patties. The combination of high quality beef and a higher-than-what-had-been-standard fat content creates what Sam Jackson once referred to a ‘tasty burger’. They’re so juicy you need a few napkins. Bearded chaps such as me need to wash afterwards. The sides are also outstanding, particularly the chilli fries. The buffalo chicken is the sine qua non of the genus. There’s also good hoppy craft beer that complements the food and cuts through the big flavours. The cocktails aren’t my sort of thing (I’m a Martini/Manhattan/old fashioned/negroni sort of cocktail drinker) but mates who’ve had them say they’re good stuff. Want to know how good MeatLiquor is? Look how many imitations there are of the model in Central London, some of which are backed by multi million pound funds.

These are all very good reasons to go to Meat Liquor if you’re in the Croydon area, feel hungry and have £30 to spend on a tasty, but pretty swift, meal for one person including a few drinks. The food is worth four stars in itself and it’s the best burger within a mile or two.

Ready for the ‘but’? Meat Liquor (like the aforementioned Hawksmoor) is not just a burger restaurant. It’s now a brand, undergoing an (international) expansion programme. Maybe it’s because I’m a communications adviser by day (and night) but I feel that this should be taken into account when considering the overall experience there. It’s not a quirky independent joint anymore (which it really was at the start), but a business that has honed itself to appeal to a certain audience, which is one that I’m not sure I’m part of.

I was interested to read the comments of its creative brand agency Tinder & Sparks: ‘Meat Liquor doesn’t have Brand Guidelines. We like Meat Liquor. The guiding principle can be summed up in one of their many briefs to us: “Can you make this look cool?”’.

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’m not cool and have no wish to be so. I’m a thirty-seven year old who lives in Sutton and is the father of two young kids, happily married and geekily obsessive about a small number of things. This is probably not ‘cool’, or perhaps not the cool envisaged by T&S, which has created a brand designed to drive enhanced and long lasting income streams for their client from a young and affluent consumer group. They want you to feel like part of the club. Like this is your sort of place. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not mine; at least, not anymore.

This is at the heart of my issue with Meat Liquor in Croydon. I like the way that the burgers taste and the way that the buffalo chicken stings my mouth. I just don’t want to be in the environment enough to get to it. I can’t see it purely in a Croydon context as I don’t live in Croydon any more and am not going to simply pop in. Croydon is somewhere I visit for food that’s a combination of convenient for big groups of mates, something that I can’t get in Sutton or something I can’t be bothered to go into London for.

I know the MeatLiquor brand well enough so that for me it’s just another (small) chain that’s offering a quality product to an affluent audience on a repeat basis. Think Pizza Express in the 1980s before the big expansion. Sort of exclusive in look and feel, offering a premium product but in reality available to most with a bit of disposable cash.

The travel time there for me is twenty to thirty minutes door to door, and for me, it’s not worth it, especially as it’s not somewhere to linger, either due to the afore mentioned style, or because the chairs, stools and tables are clearly designed to fit the brand aesthetic, but not my slightly oversized arse.

On its value purely as a burger joint, for me it is hamstrung by its connection to Boxpark which is massively unfriendly for young children. Meat Liquor itself is very much an adult destination. I will therefore go to the two Purley burger restaurants instead whenever my family want a quality burger.

So in conclusion, the food alone gets four stars. The experience, however, wasn’t for me.

Restaurant review: Bianco 43

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-bianco-43/

I lived in Croydon for over a decade and during that time, Mirch Masala on South End was a firm favourite. Great spicy grills in a no frills environment and BYO booze policy meant that I was there a lot, lateish back from the city, grabbing a quick, cheap, excellent dinner.

However, I moved back to Sutton, and Mirch Masala coincidentally moved down to Coulsdon at about the same time, leaving the restaurant vacant. Until, that is, a small chain of traditional trattoria, based around classic Italian cuisine and a wood fired oven, moved in. Croydonians should sing an Ave Maria in thanks: this is a seriously good restaurant, masquerading as a proto-chain of the Zizzi/Pizza Express format in something of a warehouse/barn type building.

Let’s start at the start. A short list of appetisers includes wonderful buttery green olives that I’d guess were something like nocellara. Better than anything that you’d get at a chain. They also have a short classically Italian cocktail list that included a very well made negroni. This made for an epic start that in Soho would have cost £20. At Bianco it was £10. As a brief aside, the negroni was very good, but where else in Croydon could you find a well-made one? Answers in the comments below would be appreciated.

For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up
Our party ranged widely across the menu and everything was fantastic. There was a delicate hand with the deep fryer for bone dry crispy courgette and calamari. A deep, rich, gooey melanze parmigiana was great comfort food, skilfully put together, with a confident hand on the seasoning of a brilliant tomato sauce. A selection of cured meat and a tomato/mozzarella salad showed the team source very high quality ingredients and have the guts to let them sing for themselves, adding context with lovely grassy olive oil and aged balsamic.

The mains kept up the quality. The wood-fired pizza adds heft to outstanding Neapolitan-style pizzas. A bit of char on the crust to combine with a lovely sweet tomato base and some great traditional toppings. My diavola was properly spicy but it also had real depth of flavour. The best pizza in the Cronx by a long way. For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up.

My wife said that her very generous portion of spicy sausage and mushroom pasta was great. Again, nowhere to hide with this. A deep rich sauce with fiery sausage and herbs. Could have been dull. At some well-known chains, or local trattoria, it would have been professionally bland. Here, it wasn’t.

Everyone else raved about their steak, chicken Milanese and lasagne. Six old mates – who due to careers, moving away and kids, don’t see as much of each other as we would like – spent less time talking than would have been expected, due to the quality of the food.
Desserts weren’t really investigated as we decided to give the all-Italian wine list some serious attention.

I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews suggest that the wine is expensive. I fundamentally disagree. Of course you can get a cheaper glass/bottle in a Wetherspoons (more on that later) but I actually thought that for the quality on offer, the wine was keenly priced. The Montepulciano was a great accompaniment to both meat and pizza; a classic spicy, savoury red.

Proper Italian dark roast espresso and a grappa provided a traditional end to a great meal. We walked out into the night very well fed and watered, all of us of like mind. This is a great Italian restaurant that might be part of a chain, but had the charm and quality of a neighbourhood favourite.

The variety on offer was reflected by the diverse range of parties dining in the restaurant
Bianco offers its customers either a cheap dinner out or something rather more special. You could pop in for a pizza and a beer and be out for less than £20. That will keep them in business on wet Wednesday evenings. Or you could range across the menu, drink a lot and spend twice that per head on a special occasion. This was in evidence with the range of parties in the restaurant. It was pretty diverse. Romantic couples; young and old; a few big tables. Lots of different accents. The place was rammed and I hope that they continue to be as successful.

A short postscript to this review is to note that the restaurant is next door to the Skylark. We met in there and then went back after the meal. It is a great example of how when a ‘Spoons is good, they can be very good indeed. Polite, engaged, efficient staff serve a great range of beer at an unbeatable price, served in a simple, comfortable pub. As is traditional when I’m out in Croydon, I was able to drink locally. Cronx American pale ale was a technicolor dream of hops and tropical fruit. Just the thing to finish off another great night in Croydon.

The Sun, Carshalton

I’m amazed I haven’t reviewed this place yet. I did some time ago on tripadvisor https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g658255-d3196479-r210306261-The_Sun-Carshalton_Surrey_England.html#REVIEWS but I think it’s worth updating that review and re-emphasising my admiration for a great pub.

The Sun has played an important role in my life. It’s been something of a constant in my drinking life in that it’s one of the places I grew up and learned to drink, that I still return to. Some places closed, some changed, and obviously I’ve moved around and changed a bit, but somehow I’ve managed to keep up semi regular attendance at the Sun since 1996 or so.

A few examples:
• I left the Sun at approx. 2 AM one St Pats. I had to be on a trading floor at 0730 that morning. I made it.
• At least 2 birthday drinks
• Winning money on darts then giving it back when the guy was deeply annoyed at my obviously staged improved performance.
• Constant lockins, back when lockins were “a thing”
• My first shift behind a bar
• Best rugby match I’ve ever watched on TV (Munster v Wasps Heineken Semi Final)
• Some important things that will remain private
• 2 Wedding Parties

The Sun has changed just as I have. From deeply dodgy Sth London Boozer which was a constant challenge to the Met to something of an Irish accented rugby community, back to a dodgy boozer and now what it’s been for years. Possibly the perfect example of a suburban community pub, that happens to serve great restaurant food.

The Sun remains a pub. They have a lot of beer, and it’s very well kept. There is always at least 3, normally 4 real ales on hand pump, plenty of craft on keg and in cans / bottles and all the usuals. I was mildly surprised but really happy to find the governors take their younger staff on brewery tours so they can better understand the core product. The Guinness is still excellent. The couple that owns the place are experienced in the trade and know that a pub lives or dies on the quality of its beer and welcome. They do both brilliantly. I’ve got a lot of time for Jo the manageress. One of the best publicans I’ve met.

Whilst food is clearly important to the Sun – and they do it very well, more of which later – this is not a restaurant in pub’s clothing. You can come in, grab a table and just drink and keep drinking. Because it’s a pub. They’ve kept the Victorian pub vibe and some of the wood and glass that I remember, but there’s been a fair amount of remodelling since I was a kid to make the interior more practical. It’s just one big space now with 3 separate areas that facilitates a kid friendly area for food (including board games etc), drinking only and a mix of food and drink for adults.

There’s a great outside area of patio and garden, where I believe there’s a wood fired pizza oven that we always seem to miss. It’s a very pleasant place to be through spring / summer / autumn. It’s not just for smokers but provides a different option and vibe, whether you’re eating or drinking – and it takes the pressure off the not massive interior. Make no mistake this place is popular, they need that extra space.

The food is probably the best you can get in Carshalton. Whilst there’s a lot of good pub classics, there’s clearly ability in the kitchen, which is often best shown by fairly intricate starters, such as homemade lamb koftas that have great subtle spicing with a perfect Greek salad on the side to cut the richness of the meat. Alongside the bangers and mash and exceptionally tasty burger, there’s serious restaurant food. There’s been a trend for multiple things with one animal eg roast partridge (in season) served with a conft leg that was breadcrumbed and deep fried. Kentucky Fried Partridge. One of the best things I’ve eaten in the last 5 years, including at Michelin starred places. This theme was repeated later in the year by roast pork belly / crackling with a pulled port scotch egg with runny yoke.

blewers in the sun

Blewer boys enjoying an impromptu day off and some great food

My mouth is watering at the memory of an impromptu day off with Kirsty and the kids where we went to the sun for lunch, I had the double pork dish and was VERY happy.

Finally there’s the function room. Often they’re sad corners / sheds that bring in a bit of extra income. At the Sun, it’s a very special space that has been thoughtfully designed. Funky and modern but not jarringly so, it feels like a boutique hotel’s sitting room.

Kirsty and I had our belated family wedding party there and then again for our friends. It’s a wonderful space, unique in the area. Good for 40 people for relaxed buffet, or 20 for formal it’s a very attractively designed long room, with its own balcony. The natural ambiance creates a relaxed atmosphere which is complemented by really friendly and smart staff who were a great addition to the party.

wedding sun

2 happy Blewers in the Sun’s function room

Then there’s the food. Unlike other places, you get to work with the kitchen to create what you want, not what they want to give you. We decided on a Caribbean theme as we ran off to Barbados to get married. The kitchen responded with an intelligent and subtle understanding of spicing that was big on flavour but not burn your face of jerk. Pulled pork, salt fish, spicy and mango prawns were all great. The rum punch was as good as we got in Barbados. There were kids at our party who were well catered for with a special kids menu and lots of games and toys in the room. They loved the balcony as well. Basically if you’re in the market for a private party in the Sutton / Croydon area, I can’t think of anywhere better. As I say, it was so good, we did it twice.

So to conclude:
• Attractive place
• Smart, friendly, knowledgeable staff
• If you want to drink, it’s a pub
• If you want to eat, the food is outstanding

Guess where I’m going on Saturday when a mate visits?

Welcome to The Sun

Craft beer; leaving a bitter taste in my mouth

A few days ago I had a discussion online regarding the popular perception of craft beer and those who drink it. We both took different positions on the subject. My opponent believed that craft beer was a broad and open church that was working hard to convert the non-believers to the true faith. My feeling that whilst this may well be the case for many breweries who want as wide a market for their product as possible, it is not necessarily the case for some hard-core craft drinkers who actively like the small footprint of craft and feel that they are part of the beer cognoscenti.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this issue. I’ve written previously for an online magazine about my love of beer and how impressed I’ve been with craft beer festival organised by a collection of local Croydon businesses – http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/event-review-the-croydon-craft-beer-festival-ii-17th-19th-march-2016/. That I happen to be a CAMRA member is not, (I believe) an issue because I drink a lot more “craft” at home than I do “real ale”, my fridge often having a few Beavertown, Kernel and Wild cans for when I get home. My point is that I genuinely love drinking the stuff. The bitter, hoppy, refreshing flavour of a cold craft ale is just what I crave after a long day of making the unpalatable slightly more acceptable. I like the fruity notes of new style pale ales and understand why some of the new style porters / stouts are looking to repeat the “big flavour” style, despite (if I’m honest) preferring Guinness on draft as I think the gas provides body and there’s something comforting about the creamy texture of Dublin’s most famous export.
However….

I’ve been thinking a bit about the development of “craft beer / ale” in the UK and how I now react to what might be loosely termed as “the Craft Beer Scene”.

Not that long ago, real ale was for old men in flat caps and was dull in both flavour and as a lifestyle accessory. Few youngish men wanted to be seen drinking Youngs or Fullers on a Friday night. Even fewer youngish women fancied it either. On the other side of the fence, the big multinationals made a repeatable product that may have been more socially acceptable to men in their 20’s-30s but the flavours were deliberately conservative and increasingly unpalatable as beer was “brewed” as a concentrate then mixed with water and carbonated in different countries, despite being branded as something aspirational and of heritage; Peroni probably being the best example.

Craft beer in the UK was therefore born out of a reaction to products that didn’t tickle the taste buds and was a reflection of the massive success of the same process in the US, where small breweries rebelled against the mass produced power of AB et al to create a flavour and lifestyle alternative. I’m also delighted that this process happened. As mentioned I drink a lot of craft beer, particularly the breweries from Bermondsey  that have done so well.

But……

I’ve always felt that craft either always was or has essentially become a brand in of itself to help define and create a sales market. Craft beer in the UK, particularly with the likes of Brewdog, was attempting to appeal to a specific sort of personality, one that wants to be seen, or wants to see themselves, as different, rebellious, discerning etc. Of course  flavour matters, but even then the original idea of making a hop forward style of beer that offered a flavour alternative to John Smiths or Becks morphed into a need to push the envelope and develop flavour extremes that if I’m honest are great for a sip but aren’t my bag for any sort of enjoyable night out, especially given the hefty ABV in play.

Craft Beer, at one time or another, became a product for those that wanted to be seen as outside of the mainstream. This concept was picked up in their branding, visual identity, copywriting , marketing and PR, which meant that the concept snowballed. The success can be seen by the US end game recurring in the UK, where AB / Imbev etc buy out successful craft operations and big established brewers like Fullers create their own craft offerings.

The reaction by the craft beer community / market market to these takeovers is instructive. For a vocal community, it’s like someone’s harmed their sister. There’s a lot of ranting online. Comments that the corporates will change their favourite beer for the worse. I’ll never drink their beer again. All of the above comes before they’ve tried the batches made under new ownership, or before they’ve considered quite how slick and corporate Meantime, Camden and the defiantly independent Brew Dog have become.
The aggressive reactions and opinions on craft beer are at the heart of my issues with the term. The attachment to either craft per se or particular brands demonstrates an emotional attachment that will delight the brewer’s marketing departments but also show that it’s no longer just about flavour. It’s about how drinking craft beer and being seeing to drink and talk about craft beer matter to a certain section of beer drinking society.

If I’m honest, this is where my problem lies. Craft beer bores that are convinced that they’re right, and I’m wrong, but more specifically, they have a level of knowledge and sophistication which allows them to belittle others that might have a different view.

When drinking after work in Shoredtich, I’ve been known to strike up conversation with fellow drinkers at the bar and chat about beer. Most of the time this is a brief, fun exchange of views about a product we all like. However, a few times after chatting, I’ve heard a number of people return to their groups of mates and say something along the lines of “what would a @?*+ suit know?”

I know this makes me sound deeply chippy but it does make me wonder. Why is the craft beer community so engaged with the brands and identity of craft beer? Is it the British love of an under(brew)dog? Is it the perceived and real conservatism of organisations such as CAMRA which have helped create a narrative of conflict for the new craft scene  to fight against?

Either way, I’ve got to the point where I’ve written 1000 ranting words which describe my frustration at an attitude I’ve found to be far more representative than many craft cognoscenti would want to recognise.

Make great beer. Drink great beer. Just don’t sneer at anyone that dares to prefer something else, even if that is John Smiths, Fosters or Stella.

I’m going to go and open a can of Beavertown Neck Oil. Cheers.

Chez Bruce: 21 years of making me feel like I’m at home

I noted a few days ago that it was the 21st anniversary of Chez Bruce’s opening. For those not in the know (eg those not of a foodie disposition living in London), CB started as a small local brasserie when Wandsworth Common wasn’t quite as leafy or as well-heeled as it is now. Now it’s bigger and grander, as many of us get as we get older and put on weight. Like CB however, I hope I manage to retain a lightness of touch.

CB has been given all sorts of accolades that it wears fairly lightly. It’s also been the place the various different Blewers have chosen to mark important dates, or celebrate something. The food is worthy of a great celebration. Outstanding old fashioned technique and an understanding of gastronomic history are combined with some surprisingly modern consideration.

CB lunch

First and foremost, the food is outstanding. Given all those accolades, such as a Michelin star, it should be; but I’ve been over 20 times and have never, ever, thought anything other than “wow” when contemplating the food. The familiar (my favourite chicken  / fois gras starter) is mixed with experimental, but it all delivers on flavour, finesse, but above all, comfort.

This thing for me about CB. It is deeply comfortable. So many “destination” restaurants feel like being in church. I once made a loud and frankly filthy joke in a Ramsay place because I couldn’t stand the hushed silence. There’s no need in CB, as there’s always a nice hum of happy chatter.

Given it’s antecedents and the local punters, this is perhaps not surprising, but take the standard of the food, then consider the sort of food that it is (rich / flavoured / filling), and then add genuinely warm and personable service; it’s not surprising we all seem ever so slightly smug to be there.

It doesn’t have to be this good. There are hundreds of restaurants in well heeled parts of London that have good food and smart staff that haven’t made it. Racine was a kindred spirit to CB. Whisper it, the food might have been just a fraction better on occasion. But Knightsbridge changed and it went the way of the dodo. So what is it about CB that has helped it last the test of time?

Location is always important. You don’t have to drive to get there as its right on a good train line. It’s also benefited from the gentrification of what was already quite a nice area in the first place. However for me, the main thing is that it is comitted to making every single person that comes into CB feel great.

There’s the top quality content that is almost unrivalled at the price point. Lovely bread etc. Interesting beer. Outstanding food. A wine list that should have evangelists it’s so long (but don’t worry, the team are imaginative and sensitive). Then there’s the people. CB has always had brilliant, engaging, friendly staff that give advice if asked and don’t push if they don’t.

I think my point is that CB is run and staffed by people that understand the concept behind the industry: “hospitality”. Treat guests as you would wish to be treated: with humour and grace and intelligence, and make sure they are fed well.

Frankly I wish I could get this at home, but with 2 small kids and both my wife and I working full time, this is a fantasy. CB therefore is the fantasy of being at home, and for that, and for 20 years of genuine pleasure, I thank  all involved.