Ben's Canteen officially opened on 1 August 2011. It was shortly after this, during the ubiquitous soft launch to ensure staff and kitchen are up to speed with the new menu, that I made my debut visit, having followed the build up to the launch on Ben's blog.
Ben's Canteen has a simple whitewash and blue exterior, fitting in perfectly alongside the boutiques, and independent restaurants on St John's Hill. Inside, the tables, chairs and decorations deliver an eclectic mix which all combine to give a comfortable, neighbourhood cafe/restaurant feel to the place.
A single draft lager is available on tap, and it's Meantime Lager, to which I happen to be rather partial. Exceptional!
And actually the drinks menu reflects Ben's commitment to independent drinks suppliers - notching up favourites from Luscombe, Brewdog, Beaumonts, Teapigs and many more!
Shortly after ordering a pint of Meantime and chatting with Fernando, one of a team of Brazilian FOH girls, bubbling with passion and enthusiasm, I met with Ben, the restaurant's founder, and his partner. It was just two days after London's major riots, and they talked of the atmosphere in the restaurant on Monday night (just a week after launch) when news of the riots approaching Clapham filtered through (via Ben's Twitterfeed @benscanteen) at around 8.30pm. Ben made a decision to close the restaurant early, giving all the diners their meals for free, to make sure his guests and staff were all able to get home safely.
We inevitably discussed burgers, though our chat was far more wide-ranging covering Ben's background (including at stint at Vice magazine!), his friendship with @brewedboy (Rob Lockyear), his commitment to locally sourced food, and his desire to buy the best professional coffee machine money can buy.
So here's my diagnosis of the burger:
The presentation of the burger is pretty good. It comes on the ubiquitous wooden board, topless (oo-er), with a silver bucket of 'Lumberjack Chips' (read steak cut), and a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup. So far so good.
The burger itself is a good looking beast. Melted Lincolnshire Poacher cheese (sourced from local producer Hamish Johnston) wraps itself around a meaty piece of bacon, and a fat beef patty. The bun was a lightly toasted, floured bap from Flour City (sourced from the local farmer's market), and inside the bun, the patty's bedding was curly lettuce and plum chutney.
So how was it?
The taste oscillated between good and bad. The toppings and bun all worked really well (the Lincolnshire Poacher was a brilliant touch), but the mince was very finely ground, so it was more a paste than pieces of meat welded together by heat and fat, and the seasoning included fennel which made the beef altogether too fragrant, making the beef slightly sickly. The lettuce was superfluous, not adding any value in this mix.
So where's the rating?
I decided that I wanted to document the evolution of this burger, so no rating at this stage. The menu is still in soft launch, including prices (this was priced at a very reasonable £9 inc. chips), so I want to go back and see how this bad boy has grown. At the moment this burger fails on meat but wins on bun and toppings!
Ben matched me mouthful for mouthful on the burger and we discussed each element as we went along, I think there is potential in this burger, and the first step is to sort out the patty. Ben has so many good, local suppliers, it's just a case of finding the right cut, and right ingredient composition, and he's a couple of steps on in his quest.
This is the start of a burger journey, and one I'll definitely be coming back to taste along the way - Ben has even expressed interest in joining a future burger swarm...we'll see you there!