Friday, March 16, 2007

Balls Brothers bypass

If the late 90s gave us a mixed blessing, it was the gastropub. Out went cheese-and-pickle sandwiches which had lain in a fridge for weeks before being flopped onto a plate beside a wrinkled slice of tomato. In came fried whitebait with onion marmalade and mixed leaves picked by virgins from the Bahamas on a rainy May Tuesday.

This is all rather positive, in fact; the only real downsides to gastropubs were vaulting ambition which failed - which is hardly to be criticised - and pretension, ambition's nasty sister.

But as with all artistic and cultural movements, there comes a saturation point, after which everything tends to parody. With Balls Brothers on Tooley St, near London Bridge, we have Punch & Judy style parody of gastropub food: it's loud, it's unsubtle, and you're always looking around for a crocodile.

That's not to say it's unenjoyable, but it's certainly predictable and pretentious. Sea salt and herb roast potatoes? Twice baked Welsh goats cheese soufflé? Elaborate rice pudding? Please! It's like Delia Smith exploded in the River Café, c.1999.

My slow roast pork belly (yawn) with wild mushroom, apple and tarragon risotto was competent if entirely unoriginal. It could have done with more pork, but the crispy, juicy fat went some way to compensating for this. I love risotto, but damn its adaptability: just because you can put anything in it doesn't mean you have to.

These ingredients had no obvious point other than being chosen for their seeming randomness. (Next week: banana, chilli and Frosties.) They couldn't even all be tasted, making it even more pointless.

Balls Brother, being wine merchants, claim alcohol as their trump card. My 2004 Cabernet-Merlot was nicely berried, if a little dry for my taste. The cocktails, however, were variously delicious or disastrous.

A Belvedere Berry Blush was sweet and cold (you know who you are), if rather too much like Vauxhall favourite vodka and Ribena. The Pomegranate Royale was best left in its bottles: the idea behind fruit-champagne combos (my favourite is the Bellini) is that the sweet fruit hits the dry fizz. To mix in sour pomegranate juice made it all too bitter. My minted ginger mule was all mint, no mule.

My rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon was lovely - comforting, sweet and tasty. This should have been an example for the rest of the menu: you don't have to overcomplicate the food to make it good; the pork would have been much improved with a simple risotto.

This stood in stark contrast to the mint and strawberry crème brûlée. Why, [proverbial] god, why? This isn't reinventing food, à la Heston Blumenthal, just adding in more ingredients for the sake of it, and not even adding them cleverly: make the custard with infusions of mint and strawberry - don't suspend it over a strawberry coulis. All that happens is the custard falls into and gets soggy. I repeast: why, god, why?

All in all, a profoundly dispiriting meal, although polite service and a low-key atmosphere redeemed it somewhat. Perhaps it's just time to retire gastropubs and wait for the next fad.

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