Benito’s Hat with Isambard Kingdom Brunel

benitos-hat-e1526937951336.jpg
Whose hat? Benito’s Hat.

Burritos were for a time perhaps my favourite food. I always enjoyed the simplicity of wrapping various things I enjoyed individually together in a tiny flour blanket to make something greater than the sum of its parts. A good burrito is a special thing, something not too heavy and stodgy that it sends you to sleep, but something fresh and zingy that makes you think you could probably have another one if you didn’t have a life to get on with. Hoping to find such a burrito, today’s food adventure was to Benito’s Hat.

Benito’s Hat is a burrito chain that started in London’s West End back in 2008, and has since expanded to 7 shops across London and Oxford. It holds a special place in my heart for being one of the first places I ever went for lunch in my first proper job. Back then I was new to restaurants (I lived in a small village in the countryside and Wagamama was probably the fanciest place I had ever been), so in a way this was the beginning of my food adventures. Having expanded my horizons since then, I wanted to go back to Benito’s to see whether it would still capture the magic in the same way it did all those years ago, and who better to try it with than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, fabled engineer and runner-up of the 2002 ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll.

I had told Isambard to meet me at the restaurant at 6 PM for dinner, and Isambard, being the precise technical architect that he is, arrived precisely at 6. I, on the other hand, found myself running late due to a broken-down tube on the Bakerloo line. When I finally made it to the restaurant at 6:30, I found Isambard had already started working his way through the margarita menu, and was now four deep. “ALAN!” He shouted at me as I walked in.

“It’s Andy, actually.” I said, as I shook his hand. I forgave him the slip, as in his defence it was the first time we had ever met as he had been dead for the last two hundred years, though at the same time I was a little bit taken aback that he hadn’t at least scanned my LinkedIn profile in advance.

“Sorry, Aldy.” He said.

“Andy.”

“Ando.”

“Andy.”

“Hahahaha! Yes!” He said, as he slapped my back. “As in Andi Peters.”

“How do you know Andi Peters?” I asked, confused.

“And Edd the Duck! I love that duck!” He added. I was no clearer about what was happening than before. “Let me get you a drink. It’s two for one!”

“Let’s maybe have some food first shall we? Give this place a fair review before we start drinking.”

“Hahahaha! Andi Peters!” He said. “Ok.”

Benito’s Hat is a very casual dining spot, as burrito joints often are. You design your burrito at the counter, choosing from the usual options of black or pinto beans, salsa heat and designated meat. Benito’s Hat offers a decent selection, with chicken, beef, pork and a vegetarian option of sautéed vegetables too too. I on this occasion had chosen to go for the grilled chicken, my typical go-to for a burrito due to the succulent nature of the filling and its frivolous interplay with the other components within. Isambard meanwhile plumped for a steak burrito. “Steak.” I heard him say. “Pinto beans… Yes… Mild… No. A passion fruit margarita, please.” Before we knew it, we had a chicken and a steak burrito, and Isambard had another two passion fruit margaritas.

Benito's Hat Margarita.jpg
One of Isambard’s many margaritas.

“I thought we were waiting until we started drinking?” I said. Isambard smiled and cheersed himself. “Ok, so mainly what we’re looking for here is the quality of the ingredients. Is the meat cooked well, how do all the ingredients work toget-” I had not finished my sentence before Isambard chomped into his burrito and began to drunkenly chew with his mouth open. “Ok, so the steak, is it tender? Is it quality meat? Would you say it’s more rib eye flavoursome or fillet tender?”

“I got steak.” Said Isambard.

“Yes, I know you got steak, but how is it?”

“Have you ever had pheasant?”

“Yes.”

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

I could see that this review was all going to be on me. I took a large bite of my burrito, careful to make sure I got a bite significant enough to enjoy the combination of all the flavours at once. The smokiness of the chicken was met by the zinginess of the salsa, which in turn played wonderfully with the creaminess of the cheese and the guacamole, rich in both taste and additional cost to the burrito. It conjured up memories of a lunchtime back in 2011, a delicious Mexican interlude in an otherwise sad day in media planning and buying. A summer’s treat to brighten the se-

“F**K!” Shouted Isambard at the top of his voice.

“What’s the matter?”

“My burrito split!” Said Isambard. I looked down to see that his trousers were covered in a mix of pinto beans and steak. “These are my best engineering trousers!” He said, as he drunkenly licked the palm of his hand and attempted to rub the stains off. “F**king hell! You!” He said, as he got up and marched back to the counter. “Your construction has fallen apart!”

“I’m sorry, sir. Sometimes that happens with burritos.”

“Not on my watch it doesn’t!” Shouted Isambard. “Make it again! Better this time!”

“Black beans or pinto beans?” Asked the burrista.

“Pinto!” Said Isambard. “Pinto, yes, mild, no!”

The burriterer made up the burrito, wrapping it as tightly as they possibly could to compact the filling.

“And a passion fruit margarita, please.” Added Isambard. “They’re still two for one, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great.” Said Isambard. He somehow paid in shillings and crowns for the second time that evening and returned to the table with another tray of margaritas and a second steak burrito.

Benito's Hat Burrito.jpg
My chicken burrito complete with nachos.

“Ok.” I said. “So the nachos too. Let’s try those.”

Isambard took a bite of the nacho, and crunched ponderously.

“Thoughts?”

“Have you ever had pheasant?” Asked Isambard. Bloody hell. Ok, so the nachos had the perfect level of crunch. I find that with nachos, some restaurants try to overcomplicate something that’s actually at its best when simple, but these had the perfect depth, crunch and flavo-

“F**K!” Shouted Isambard at the top of his voice again. I looked over to see that he was once again covered in beef.

“Isambard, for the love of god can you just keep it together for five minutes while I review this bloody restaurant?”

“Andle.”

“It’s Andy!”

“Ah, Andros! Like the villain from Starfox!”

“Where the hell are you getting these cultural references from?”

“These bastards can’t build a burrito to save their lives!” Said Isambard. He downed another margarita and stormed over to the counter. “You! Look at my trousers!” Said Isambard, gesturing to his once plain but now distinctly savoury trousers. “Great Western Railway? More like Great Western Beef Trousers!” He slurred, nonsensically. “Make it again! Pinto, yes, mild, no!”

“What?” Stammered the burriterer.

“Pinto! Yes! Mild! No! Make it again! Again! AGAIN!” Said Isambard. He flings the remnants of his beef burrito over the counter.

“Isambard, please!” I say, attempting to hold him back. “Come on, let’s just go!”

“The Clifton Suspension Bridge would be in the river if it were up to you!” Said Brunel, downing his margarita. “You’re all bastards!” He said. He spun on his heels to leave, but lost his balance, and fell to the floor.

“Isambard? Are you ok?” I said, rushing over. He did not respond, then came the sound of snoring. “I’m so sorry for all of this.” I say to the staff, as I look down at him lying there. I take a sip of my margarita. It is an absolute delight, the perfect blend of sweet and salty. I contemplate whether I have time to sit here and finish my review whilst Isambard takes a nap on the floor, but the faces of the staff (one of whom is covered in shards of lettuce from Isambard throwing his burrito) says otherwise. I sigh, take a minute to finish the drink, then I pick Isambard up from the floor and walk out of the restaurant.

“Gandalf…” Mumbles Isambard.

“It’s An- Oh, forget it. What?”

“We should build a railway together!”

“I don’t think we should.”

“But first, let’s get drinks.” He slurs. “Two margaritas, please.” He says to a bin.

“I think we should go home. Do you want me to call you an Uber?”

“TWO MARGARITAS, PLEASE.” He shouts, as he climbs into the bin. I now find myself watching one of the world’s greatest engineers fumble through a bin, somehow still believing it may be a bartender. “This is my home now! Let me introduce you to my parents.” He says, picking up an empty can of Sprite and a Kit Kat wrapper. “Well done on that bridge and things, son. We’re real proud of you.” He continues, in a squeaky voice.

“Any more thoughts on the restaurant?” I ask, wearily.

“Have you ever had pheasant?”

I give Isambard a pat on the shoulder and head home. Overall we’ve had a… time, but I think the fun has now come to a close. Would I recommend Benito’s Hat? Yes. Would I recommend going crazy on the happy hour deals before eating your burrito? No. Overall…

9/10. Good burritos with nice flavour.

Advertisements

Vapiano with Oliver Cromwell

I stood on the streets of Soho, waiting for my dinner companion. It was a nice, cool evening, the kind of evening that sends your mind away to a place where you can spend all day drinking Aperol Spritz in the sunshine. Summertime in an Italian plaza, wearing the sunglasses that you thought were a good idea at first but you’re now concerned are too big for your face and make you look like a fly. Tonight was the perfect evening for an Italian feast, which was just what we were in for. My thinking was interrupted, as the sound of clanging armour came ever closer.

“Sorry I’m late.” Said a voice. I turned to see Oliver Cromwell, Puritan, 17th century Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, signatory to the death warrant of King Charles I, and my dining companion for today.

“That’s ok. Have you been to Vapiano before?” I asked.

“No.” Said Cromwell. “Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s fine. I mean, they’re going to ask you the exact same question the minute you walk through that door, but it’s a very simple process so just say that you have. It’ll save time.”

“Ok, cool.” Said Cromwell. I opened the door and we strolled into Vapiano.

“Hello, have you been here before?” Said the woman at the till.

“No.” Said Cromwell. I sighed, and decided this would be a good time to do an introductory background on Vapiano.

Vapiano Soho
Vapiano Soho.

Vapiano is an Italian restaurant franchise that was established in Germany back in 2002, but has since spread across the globe. It’s a restaurant that sort of sits on the same kind of level as Nando’s and Wagamama. It’s the kind of place you might take a date, or in my case, a ghost opposed to Christmas. Their speciality is very much the home-made pasta, freshly made each day and cooked to order in front of you by their expert chefs. It’s ‘boomerang-friendly’ food, the kind that can easily drain your soul when you see a friend posting it on Instagram with a ‘SUNDAY FUNDAY’ graphic, making you think that everybody is having more fun than you are and forcing you to reconsider all of the life choices that led to you still being sat alone in your pyjamas at 4 PM watching an episode of Friends you’ve seen a thousand times where Ross is yelling about some kind of gravy sandwich, ultimately depleting your very essence until you’re just a husk of your once unlimited potential. But anyway.

“… and then you just give us your card on the way out and settle up.” Finished the woman at the till.

“Thankyou.” Said Cromwell. We walked off together towards the stations.

“Do you know what you want?” I asked, as I handed Cromwell a menu.

“What is pasta?” Asked Cromwell.

“What is pasta? It’s a wheat-based shape. You put sauce on it.”

“Ok, great. What is pizza?”

“Are you serious? It’s like a disc of wheat that you cover with other food.”

“Excellent. I will enjoy a disc of wheat.” Said Cromwell.

“Ok, I’ll meet you back here shortly.” I said, as I headed for the pasta queue. The queue for pasta was around 7 people deep, whereas pizza was always significantly shorter. This was very much typical of Vapiano. If you want pasta, you have to be prepared to wait. Being a big fan of their ‘salami e ricotta con rucola’, I was prepared to wait. Five minutes into my queuing, I heard the familiar approach of clanging.

“I’ve got my wheat disc.” Said Cromwell. I looked at his tray to see that he had procured a pizza base that was absent of any toppings whatsoever.

“Where the hell are the toppings?”

“I did not want any toppings. Toppings are pointless enjoyment that detract from a spiritual life.”

“We’re here to review this place! How many people do you think are going to come here and order a plain pizza base?”

Cromwell shrugged.

“Go and sit down!” I said, annoyed, as I continued to wait for my pasta.

 

Vapiano Pasta
My ‘salami e ricotta con rucola’

As mentioned earlier, part of Vapiano’s attraction is that you see them making your meal fresh in front of you. It makes it a little bit more of an experience, whilst also giving you the false confidence that this is something you could (but never will) make at home yourself. The salami e ricotta con rucola that I had chosen seems deceptively simple, a combination of salami, butter, rocket, garlic, white wine and pine nuts mixed in with one of five available pastas. On this occasion, I had chosen the spaghetti. The spaghetti is also available in a more healthy ‘spelt’ version, but as with all things that are more healthy, the less-healthy version is generally significantly tastier. I thank the chef and head back to find Cromwell. Scouring the area, I find that he has procured us two seats in the window of the restaurant.

“What did you go for?” Asks Cromwell, as I sit down.

“I went for the salami e ricotta con rucola.” I say. He looks at me blankly. “I went for the tiny wheat-based shapes.” I sigh. He nods approvingly.

“Now, we must say thanks to God before we enjoy the feast that he has procured for us.”

“Oh, err… really?”

“We must all say thanks to God for the food that he has provided us on this day!” Says Cromwell, standing up and shouting to all of Vapiano. A confused hush descends over the restaurant. “All of you, bow your heads!” Nobody moves. “Do it, now!” He says, unsheathing his sword. There are screams from across the restaurant.

“Cromwell, for goodness sake!” I object.

“This’ll only take a minute.” He says. “Lord God our… God. Thankyou for this generous bounty that you have given us.”

I look at Cromwell’s plain wheat disc. If there is a God, he has long since forsaken him.

“-Most merciful God, we ask that we may continue to receive your blessings as we have done today.”

I mean, literally not one topping. Not even rocket.

“-For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.”

I’d like to think that if it had been left to an omnipotent being to demonstrate its power and glory it might have at least applied a béchamel sauce.

“Forever and ever. Amen.” Finished Cromwell. “You may now feast.” He said, as he holstered his sword. The silence and sobbing gradually faded away as people got back to their meals. For the fairness of this review, it should be qualified that the atmosphere isn’t usually that of people contemplating the threat of their imminent death. It’s more casual than that.

cromwells-pizza.jpg
Cromwell’s ‘disc of wheat’.

“Let us eat.” Says Cromwell. I take a bite of my salami e ricotta. As usual, it is delicious. There is a fantastic balance between the richness of the cheese and butter and the salty salami cutting through. The texture of the pine nuts adds another level of depth too, providing a beautiful crunch that helps to hold the whole thing together. It is a superb dish. Cromwell meanwhile takes a bite of his pizza base.

“How is it?” I ask.

“There is little flavour.”

“Of course there’s little flavour! You didn’t get any toppings!” I say, angrily.

“We should leave a bad review.” Says Cromwell.

“No, this is on you! Mine is delicious!” I argue. Cromwell shakes his head, rattling his armour as he does.

“Let me try it.”

I twirl a fork of my pasta and hand it to Cromwell. He carefully removes all of the salami, pine nuts, ricotta cheese, onions and garlic before taking a bite. “It is very plain.” He says.

“For goodness sake! You think God is going to judge you if you enjoy a couple of pine nuts?!”

“Pine nuts detract from a spiritual life.”

“Do you even hear yourself? THEY’RE PINE NUTS. We’re never going to get this review done if you don’t eat anything!” I shout. “Now eat the pine nuts!” I say, as I twirl another fork and push it towards his face.

“I shall not eat the pine nuts!” Shouts Cromwell. “As the lord is my shepherd-“

“EAT THE BLOODY PINE NUTS!” I say, as I wrestle Cromwell to the floor and try to force him to eat the fork of pasta. “EAT THEM!” He slaps my hand away with his gauntlet and kicks me backwards, sending me crashing through a stool. I get back to my feet and make sure I haven’t dropped my Vapiano card. As much pain as I’m in, it would be nothing compared to the embarrassment of having to go back to the front desk to explain that I’d lost my card as I was fighting with the reincarnated spirit of a man who shut all theatres except presumably the one that’s been showing Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ for what must be five hundred years. I smash the stool on the floor, breaking off a leg, whilst Cromwell withdraws his sword. We prepare to duel when we’re interrupted by the sound of sirens outside. Concerned that the review is about to come to an abrupt end before it is done, I grab a nearby glass of white wine and take a sip. It is light and crisp, fresh apples with a hint of green pep-

We are both tasered by police and bundled into the back of a van. Whilst this does put somewhat of a dampener on the evening, I don’t feel it’s fair to score down Vapiano for this, as it’s my understanding that not every trip there ends in this fashion.

“You are well within your rights to behead us.” Says Cromwell, as we are seated in the back of the van. “We would think no less of you.”

“Will you please shut up?” I say.

“I only ask one last thing.” Says Cromwell. “Before I die, I ask that you permit me one final disc of wheat.”

“You said you hated it!”

“I would eat it again.”

“I hope this is the last we ever see of each other.”

9/10. Terrific pasta.