Swoons and cheers rise up through the bright Spanish night, and legions of drummers threaten to shatter the earth itself. Men are marching dressed as cooks, boys take up the colourful mantle of soldiers. At midnight the celebration will end, as the crowd sweeps into the Konstituzio Plaza and the flag is lowered in various locations.
My girlfriend and I are not in San Sebastian, nor had we heard of the Tamborrada de Donostia before this evening. But as we head out of Clapham Junction station towards Ben’s Canteen to try their commemorative Basque Burger, our hearts too pound in unison – hoping to avoid a mugging or band of prematurely drunk students.
New-builds abound in every direction, but this quiet high street still has some catching up to do. Ben’s Canteen is the only place ahead of the curve, a Shoreditch oasis of bare walls and dynamic lighting. And it’s getting its due reward: pretty much everyone in the area under the age of 30 seems to be here, and it’s only Thursday night. Ben himself is nowhere to be seen, but from the info on the website I feel like I already know him: a portly, cheerful looking chap who was ‘inspired by colleagues at VICE who were always putting together cool stuff’.
After looking them up on Yelp, I’m on the lookout for a certain French waiter whose behaviour is tanking the franchise’s reputation for service. He’s nowhere to be seen – instead I get two lovely young women who list off our order for the evening with pleasing formality. A vodka soda, a starter, the aforementioned burger and wine pairing – and a dessert if we can make it that far.
We greedily kick off proceedings with our Vodka Sodas – a new experience for both of us. I’m recommended a Scottish vodka called Blackwood, mixed with Angostura bitters, as a less sweet option; but in the end I much prefer my girlfriend’s Dutch ‘Ketel One’, which is mixed with chocolate and orange syrups. In all honesty, it all seems like rather too much fanfare for a couple of slightly underwhelming £7 cocktails.
Never mind – we’re all up for trying Ben’s ‘Epic Scotch Egg’ and some battered prawns with chorizo and jalapeños. The Scotch egg is good, with a good tactile, crispy outer coating and a fine touch of coriander, but it’s not a revelation. I’ve also had much better prawns, and the decision to batter the chorizo as well seems like a mistake to me, detracting from the meat’s natural juiciness.
The mighty burgers of the Basque now being paraded before us look and smell absolutely mouth-watering. Beef patties burst out of their buns, lavished with smoked Idiazabal cheese, truffled aioli, Basque cider-braised onions and piquillo peppers. It’s paired with a fruity glass of Hiruzta, Txakoli, Hondarribia 2015.
I so badly want to love this indulgently Spanish meat feast, but quickly realise there’s way, way too much aioli. While I dutifully hold my nose and backstroke through the sea of mayonnaise, Elisa bails after one bite and jettisons everything but the naked meat. That’s when we realise the beef itself isn’t particularly succulent, either.
There is a happy ending to this tale: the chocolate brownie with peanut butter ice cream, which is an absolute titan. God knows how or why we went for it but we’re glad we did. The way the outer surface gives way to the gooey centre is so sensual, so overtly sexual, it should come with a curtain.
Ben’s is an oddly deceptive place. It has all the trappings of a confident dirty burger restaurant. The wine pairings, the trendy vodka things, the eager throng of young people. But I can’t help but feel some of Ben’s food needs to catch up with their production values before they get some worthy competition.
Of course, I was only there to try a weekend special – I can’t speak for their usual burger options, which seem to be quite popular. But certainly for my next authentic tribute to Saint Sebastian, I think I might have to travel a bit further than Battersea.
140 St John’s Hill
Tel: 020 7228 3260