South Street Standard Head Chef Ben Corcutt – Anything But Standard
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
It was a cold Saturday afternoon in December 2018. A locally-based man and his then ten-year-old daughter had just been to see the mighty Exeter City Football Club triumph in the daughter’s first ever visit to St James Park. Their bodies were freezing but their hearts were warm, basking in the victory and adrenaline of the live football experience.
As they wandered back towards the city-centre where they had parked their car, it became clear that their primary need – both in terms of avoiding ‘hangriness’ and getting out of the cold – was a bite to eat. And, so, the age-old family discussion – or should that be argument – of “Where should we eat then?” began. Perhaps a pizza? Maybe some meatballs? Pub-grub perchance?
And then, like a tempting oasis in a parched desert, exposed light bulbs hanging from the ceiling of a building near the top of South Street began to glow in the distance. Drawn like obedient moths to a summer-nights light source, the father and daughter picked up their pace until arriving at South Street Standard, a bar and restaurant that, upon reflection, the father realised he had heard good things about from some of his friends and colleagues.
With a healthy dose of parental suggestion, the father made his case for choosing this as their temporary home from home. In his mind, he appreciated the edgy vibe, the demographic of the fellow clientele, the musical choices on the in-restaurant sound system, the rough New York warehouse apartment style décor and, most importantly, the ‘dirty food’ menu.
Of course, over a decade of parenting had taught him that making something appealing to his daughter was an altogether different challenge and, so, he pointed to the array of tasty desserts, the cosy table situated in the corner and the fact that ‘this was the sort of place that Mummy and Daddy liked to come when they go out for a date.’ In a rare moment of patriarchal pride, the father observed his daughter pause, smile and start to walk over towards the aforementioned table.
And how do I know this story, I hear you ask? Well, because the father was me and I was with my eldest daughter Darcie. In a dining experience that is still talked about frequently in our household to this day, Darcie and I enjoyed a superb meal – excellent in its simplicity, yet complex and tantalising in its flavour mix and ingredient composition. Pleasing to palates young and old. Capable of stimulating nostalgia whilst allowing new memories to be formed too. It really was superb.
And so, when I was kindly invited in by South Street Standard Head Chef Ben Corcutt for an advanced review of his first fully-controlled menu since joining about a year ago, I jumped at the opportunity quicker than a Steak Bleu being turned in a Parisian frying pan.
Having done a few restaurant reviews in my time, I sat downstairs and perused the menu thinking about what I might try (but forgetting that I was going to be trying dishes from a brand-new menu which hasn’t even been fully finalised yet). As I sat and took in the warmth of the spring sun through the window that I was seated at, I waved at the occasional familiar face that I recognised walking past and I started daydreaming about the food I was about to enjoy. The door swung open and in strode Nick Hook, photographer extraordinaire and self-confessed foodie. As we went about our usual hugs and hellos, I noticed that he also had the same look of gleeful excitement on his face that I had struggled to keep under wraps for a few days in the run up to this menu tasting.
It wasn’t long before Ben came downstairs from the kitchen to welcome us and I was immediately struck by his warmth and his laser focus as a man. We navigated some initial small talk – mainly about metal music and tattoos – before climbing the stairs to the second-floor dining space, with front row seats looking through the pass and into the small but perfectly formed kitchen.
With what I came to recognise as a trademark confidence, Ben explained how he had thought long and hard and chosen which dishes he was going to serve us. Whilst this could have made Nick and I feel an absence of choice, in fact it filled us with confidence that Ben knew what he was doing and that he had carefully selected a range of dishes for us to try. In some small way, having the choice taken away from us made us relax and not have to overthink or over-analyse things. We got to just sit back and let Ben give us his very best dishes.
First out were the all-new Turkish Eggs which will be found on South Street Standard’s new breakfast menu. Reminiscent of many a meal I have had in Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern settings, this was a beautifully light dish, comprised of two poached eggs served in a ring of garlic and lemon labneh, seasoned with chimichurri and smoked Aleppo butter and served with a Khobez flatbread on the side.
Much like a film with a gripping or hilarious first scene, this dish – with a taste profile that balanced multiple powerful flavours without any single one overpowering the others – grabbed our attention and set us up perfectly for the dishes that were to come. Every single flavour was detectable, with moments of sharp citrus, bold garlic, peppery butter and comforting egg yolk. And all mopped up with a perfectly cooked flatbread – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Accompanying our starters were our first liquid refreshments of the afternoon – for me a Black Americano and for Nick, a pint of IPA called Double Standard which is made by Bristol-based Arbor Ales and has been bespoke brewed for Anything But Standard (the group that owns the four Standard restaurants in Exeter, Bristol and Cardiff).
No longer had we polished off the Turkish Eggs than Ben strode out of the kitchen with a pregnant anticipation. When someone seems so excited about something they have just cooked, that is usually a really good sign and this was to be no different. With pride and excitement, Ben presented us with The Double Standard Burger, their brand-new house burger which will shortly be arriving on the South Street Standard menu.
With an all-new recipe beef patty, onions caramelised in Double Standard IPA, Swiss and American Cheese and homemade ketchup all contained neatly within a buttered and toasted brioche bun, the first bite of this burgery beauty was nothing short of sensational.
I wasn’t fussed with the ketchup in my beard. I wouldn’t allow myself to be side-tracked by the sesame seeds in my teeth. I was focused solely on my next bite. And the one after that. And the one after that. The only thing distracting me was the need to be socially polite and allow Nick to have a bite or two as well. To put it bluntly and without exaggerating, I think this may have been the best burger I have ever eaten. Period. As soon as it is confirmed as the new house burger, I am going to be at the front of the queue for my next one.
Although selfishly lusting over another Double Standard Burger, our attentions quickly turned to a bowl of Korean Cross Cut Short Ribs with Kimchi which had seemingly arrived from nowhere during our hazy burger nirvana. I’ve never really been a ribs guy so, in my head, I said to myself “There is always one dish which you don’t like as much, so maybe this is it”. Oh, how wrong I was.
Marinated in Soy Sauce with chilli, this dish reached up off the bowl that it was served in and struck your taste buds with a taste explosion that I can only explain as volcanic. So strong and punchy was the flavour that you almost couldn’t escape its potency. Not unpleasant in any way, but just so full of flavour. This tender but compact meat was complemented perfectly by the Kimchi (fermented cabbage and carrots in a spicy sauce) which had a slightly watery consistency. Eaten together, this was a perfectly balanced Korean BBQ dish and, on account of the short-cut rib bones, was incredibly neat and clean to eat. No finger bowls or hand/face wipes required here, as per the usual rib eating ordeal. And as if all of that wasn’t good enough, it is also a completely gluten-free dish, so enjoyable for all meat eaters, even those with intolerances.
With our experience having been so positive thus far, and with no knowledge of what or how much we were going to be tasting, it was a wonderfully playful take on a menu review. In what was to be the final instalment of our tasting session, we were presented with Ben’s take on a dish which he nostalgically looks back on as one of the common orders that he would cook when he first started working in kitchens – a Buttermilk Fried Chicken Caesar Burger inspired by Chicken Caesar Salad.
A piece of succulent chicken, twice dredged in flour with Smoked Chilli Salt and fried in buttermilk then served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, garnished with Caesar Aioli and topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese – all served in a garlic buttered toasted Hobbs bakery brioche bun. It was expertly constructed, with every element well-thought through. Texture, temperature, flavour and portion size. Every detail was executed to perfection. Particularly the comparatively cool cheese on top of the warm cooked elements of the burger made for a real palate party.
As soon as it had started, this foodie whirlwind was finished. It had been an onslaught on the senses and I for one was floored by its knockout flavour combos and finesse. I had expected it to be good, but our food had been of the highest class. As far as street-food or dirty-food inspired menus, I would challenge you to find a better offering in the region, let alone Exeter.
So, with a full stomach and a happy heart, I sat down to chat with Head Chef Ben to find out a little more about him. Granted, I had a case of the ‘after-food-sleepies’ but I was awake enough for a fifteen-minute chat.
Exeter born and bred, 31-year-old Ben told me how he had fallen into his first cooking gig seventeen years ago at The Barn Owl whilst looking for part-time work at college. He had subsequently gone on to work at several other Exeter-based eateries including Harrys Grill Bar and Exeter Golf & Country Club.
It was a chance visit to North Street Standard in Bristol last year when Ben and his fiancée Hannah were visiting friends that introduced Ben to the Anything But Standard crew. The food was so good that, when he returned to Exeter to find out that they were opening a Standard on South Street, he walked in to enquire about a job and, soon after, started as a Sous Chef. After just two months, with his passion and vision, Ben had secured the Head Chef role and has relished making the menu and the role his own ever since.
With the input of his team, Ben has gone about custom designing their brand-new menu which is due to launch in mid-April and he explained,
“It’s all about passion man. I do fourteen-hour days and then go home and watch a few hours of cooking shows on TV. It has to be something that you live and breathe and you’re either all in or not at all! Whether it is Man vs Food, Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives or Ramsey’s Boiling Point, I just have to keep feeding my brain with ideas and inspiration. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Dude Food’ which is just smothered in cheese and almost inedibly rich. I prefer to aim for Dirty Food – still refined and well balanced, but with strong BBQ and fast food influences. My aim is to give people food that makes them go ‘DAMN! When am I going to have that again?’”
Ben was keen to stress that the Anything But Standard restaurants are a small group of independent businesses. Modern, minimalist and simple they aim to provide easy and comfortable spaces for people to come and enjoy great food with the people who they love. With two floors of dining space and a top-floor function room to rent, South Street Standard is perfectly placed to mop up in a serious way on the Exeter foodie scene. It brings a bigger city feel to the compact and growing city of Exeter and, in my opinion at least, is a welcome and superb addition to the local menu of eateries. And, with an impressively balanced menu catering for vegans, vegetarians and people with multiple intolerances, it is also a restaurant mindful of those with narrower dietary options. Ben added,
“Whatever your dietary requirements, we’ve got you!”
So, my visit to South Street Standard had truly been one of those experiences that, as a writer, challenged me to find enough superlatives to explain how splendiferous it had been. And if all of my words aren’t enough to convince you, just take a look at the photos. I mean, really? Come on! Ben is producing exceptional food, with global influences right here in the middle of Exeter and all at reasonable prices. You would be a fool not to try it for yourself. By name and by nature, Ben, his team and their food are anything but standard.
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