The Canteen is in a good location, and has a large, lively and animated room, with doors which open out onto the street. The staff are cheerful, attentive, and everything is relaxed and welcoming. The specials board has lots and lots of variety on it, with everything from cod cheek to oxtail risotto, via a brunch, lunch and dinner menu. The kitchen is run by Dave Aherne, and it's a go-to local place for everything from your breakfast to your Sunday lunch. It's also very proactive at keeping its customers informed via Twitter and Facebook on the day's specials etc. On this occasion the menu was set in advance, and we would all be served at the same time.
To begin we had a pigeon breast spring roll - the pigeon may look a little pink in this photo, but I must apologise for the flash, I couldn't find my normal camera! The pigeon was perfectly cooked, gamey but light, good texture, not as fibrous as duck, much finer and more delicate. The pigeon breast is wrapped in filo pastry and served with a smoked aubergine puree (the best I've had), candied red beetroot (sweet and smooth), a brandy soused date and a slice of soused yellow beetroot (the sousing liquor was a little too fierce compared to the finesse of the other ingredients).
The second dish was a partridge breast dusted in a spice mix, then pan fried. It was served with pearled spelt (lovely, texture just right), tadpole radishes (small, intense, and a brilliant way of incorporating radish in a beautiful format), and a variety of micro leaves, including borage, which added a lovely light and bright note to the dish, and peppery nasturtium leaves. The confit leg had an excellent flavour, but was too tight and dry, almost air dried rather than confit. I spoke to Mark after the meal and almost the first thing out of his mouth was his dissatisfaction with this element of the menu. Hubby thought the rest of the dish was so good, the confit should have been omitted altogether.
The main dish was venison, served with red cabbage, a thyme fondant, a very good celeriac puree and a bone gravy. The venison was a little too rare, which altered the texture, but the quality of the meat still shone through. Under the cabbage was an excellent braised haunch, rich, deep and earthy. The plate was beautifully decorated with radish flowers, and not swamped with gravy - a very good dish.
For dessert, an excellent fondant, perfectly cooked, and you can find Mark's recipe here. It was served with a cocoa sorbet (rich, dense, good texture) and a really great combination of raw rhubarb dressed in rosewater - this perfectly cut through the richness of the sorbet.
Overall I thought Mark's menu was a great success and I look forward to following his progress. Ben's Canteen is a great, fun, go-to place. I think your appreciation of it may depend on your age range - I think in my 20/30's I'd have hung out here a lot! In my 40's, the wine list is just a tad light for me (chablis being the height of the burgundy list), though the wine chap had very good wine etiquette, a known bug bear of mine. I'll need to speak to the eponymous Ben (charming btw), and convince him to hold a case of something more serious in the cellar, and I'll definitely come back to try some of the other dishes on the menu.
140 St John’s Hill
London SW11 1SL
Pigeon Spring Roll, Smoked Aubergine, Candied Beetroot,
Somerset Cider Brandy Soused Dates
Warm Salad of Spiced Partridge, Confit Leg,
Radish Tadpoles, Pearled Spelt, Fennel Pollen
Berkshire Venison Fillet, Braised Haunch, Thyme Fondant,
Celeriac Puree, Red Cabbage Pressing, Roasted Bone Sauce
Chocolate Fondant, Cocoa Sorbet, Rosewater and Rhubarb, Floral Salad