Sunday, 30 September 2012

Red Dog Saloon: wouldn't be flying without wings

Disappointing but worth it for the wings.

Red Dog Saloon has terrible reviews. Even easier-to-please-than-a-retriever Time Out only offered it two stars. But they must be doing something right, because it's constantly spilling out onto the streets, despite the Byron that opened opposite late last year, and I was determined to find out what.

Jay Rayner had a nightmare there - involving raw chicken wings and reheated ribs - but the thing that really angered him was that the owners have never even been to America. It's shocking of course, but I'm not sure that matters in the end. None of its customers have either. Being on Hoxton Square, on a Wednesday night it's packed with suits from Old Street who fancied an "adventure" and who ignore the American beer list and instead down Amstel and worry about their ties.

Nothing about the place feels authentic, even the cliche bulls' skulls on the wall, and sat outside at their Homebase garden tables, you could be in any Hoxton bar. In fact, the fact that the owners have never been to America keeps the message of the restaurant clear and concise. This is what Britain thinks BBQ food is.

So far, so bad. But things improved. There website looks spot on, the menu extensive and appetising. In true Man-versus-Food fashion they even have a spicy wings and an all-you-can-eat burger challenge. I always worry about these places, because its often a sign that they are burying poor ingredients by loading as many as they can into each mouthful. Remember that later.

We ordered a basket of their award-winning buffalo wings, which were genuinely excellent. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, so spicy that breathing near them caused fits of coughing, and served with a beautifully rich blue cheese sauce. It was mess at its best, and even two lemon wet wipes couldn't quite clean me up afterwards.

I wish I'd ordered more than eight, because that was peak. For the main I plumped for the burger, simply because I wanted to see how they would compare to their neighbours Byron. The answer is not very well at all. My Bar-B-Q burger, aside from confusing the two recognised spellings of barbecue, was just a slur of mistakes in a slightly soggy bun. The pattie was dry, the onion rings raw and moist, the cheese virtually tasteless and the sauce slightly caked - like the spillages around the lid of a jar. As a whole it was satisfyingly trashy, but more in a 2am McDonald's way than a camp confession that the burger's next stop would be my thighs and I didn't two hoots.

In a neighbouring basket the chips were delightfully crispy, but so oily that by the time we were scrabbling around the bottom of the basket, the paper they came in (bizarrely branded "letsdough") was completely see-through. My arteries constricted as I looked through the paper and saw my friend's face in complete detail.

If I were to be brutal I'd say you could get a burger just as good at your local Wetherspoon. That would be stretching things a little and to be fair I should go back and try the smoker part of the menu. But, the wings aside, it has offered me no reason to do so. Here's my advice - if you're hungry in Hoxton, get some wings at Red Dog, then walk the 20 metres to Byron. You'll thank me.

Red Dog Saloon on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 23 September 2012

PizzaEast: given a pizza my mind

Good pizzas, bad ideas.

When it comes to food I'm down with experimentation. For example, I like chips with mayo and ketchup, and there are few things that can't be improved by the addition of Worcestershire sauce.

But perfection is just that, and I don't care if you're Chris Bianco or Mr Domino - you keep your pizzas simple, just as the Italians intended. What I don't expect is someone to put a porchetta on it, sliced up and laid across the pizza like some kind of upper-class kebab meat.

 But that's what I ate at the new PizzaEast restaurant in Kentish Town. Maybe it was on purpose - maybe it was meant to be a bastardisation of the Turkish pizza, but surely - surely - someone during the taste testing would have turned to the chef and said: "I mean, it's ok. But don't you think it's a bit much? Aren't there better things we can do with a crap load of pork and supposedly the best pizza in London?"

The answer would have been that yes, yes there are. A thousand better things. This pizza smacks of being one person's brilliant idea and someone else's nightmare. Wrapping up a pizza in meat isn't always a bad idea - with salty, delicate proscuitto it's glorious. And that's on the menu and I'm sure it's very good.

The main problem was that the porchetta (see the pic) was everywhere, but was super dry, borderline tasteless and completely devoid of the mandatory stuffing - unless you count the rosemary, which smacks you around the face about halfway through each bite. It's not that they used too much, it was that it had no other flavours to compete with.

To be fair the pizzas themselves are very good. I had to eat some of the sauce on its own so the rosemary didn't bowl me over, and it's a well-made sauce, and the slow-proved sourdough is excellent - so crispy you get microcuts on the roof of your mouth that last for days. In a good way.

And their beer list, as with all trendy London chains, is pretty good. It stocks Camden Town Brewery beers, although not the Wheat beer, which should be a no-brainer to go with the pizza. However, the Pale Ale does a great job of cutting through the big, bold flavours - although it couldn't quite cut through the rosemary onslaught.

One look at the menu tells you PizzaEast's management know a lot about good sourcing and Italian ingredients - and our starters of creamy burrata and beautiful lamb meatballs in an arrabiata sauce proved that. It's just a shame that they have taken the ingredients and none of its values. If you're headed there you'll have to be the philosopher - when choosing a dish, less is more.

79 Highgate Road
Kentish Town

Pizza East on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Okan: good hash man

Cheap, delicious Japanese street food

Occasionally I get cocky and call myself a food critic, and it's always greeted with the same derision - that food critics never write about the food.

It's true that the great food critics of our day - AA Gill, Giles Coren, Jay Rayner Marina O'Loughlin etc - tend to spend more time on the set up than the pay off. But often, the food is the least important bit - if every restaurant served the same food, some would still be better than others. The most memorable meal I have ever had, which you can read about here, involved some very average food indeed. Great food does not necessarily make a great restaurant, and Marina writes exactly that sentiment here. The joy of eating out is the experience and, as any writer will tell you, explaining the uniqueness that is a moment in time is almost impossible. Most of the time it takes most of the time; it takes words, it takes space, it takes thought. It takes a paragraph that seems completely at odds with the purpose of the review (ahem), but it always has a point in the end.

But then you go to somewhere like Okan in Brixton village, where the food is so central to the experience that you want to tear up all those first paragraphs and punch some sense into AA Gill, with particular reference to the one in which he shoots a baboon.

But it's easier to focus on the food when your restaurant is four foot square, mostly kitchen and serving pancakes. Walking in from the harshly lit concrete streets of Brixton village, you suddenly feel like you've crashed a home kitchen, where a very accommodating Japanese family are trying to buy into Shrove Tuesday. If this was the case, from now on I'm doing it their way.

Okan is one of the few places in London that you can eat Okonomiyaki. Most websites will tell you this is a kind of Japanese pancake. Bollocks I say - if you tried tossing one of these you'd be finding cabbage around your kitchen for weeks. It has a lot more in common with a hash. It's hotchpotch of vegetables and noodles, seasoned, spiced and fried together, bound by one lonely egg. So far, so simple. But it's the toppings (or boppings, seeing as they are on the bottom). I ordered the Okan Special, which is bopped with prawns, squid and delicious kimchi, a tangy mess of fermented vegetables that really sang out next to the fried veg. But what really makes these hashes even more special is the sauces. They're drizzled with a thin satay sauce and special Okonomiyaki sauce, a slightly sweet and much thicker version of our own venerable Worcestershire sauce.

It's a wonderful plate of textures and tastes, varying from salty to sweet and crunchy to slimy. It's delicious, trashy and cheap. If I didn't live so far north, it would be my new hangover stop. In Japan it's very much considered fast food - if only we could have one of these on every high street, then we'd all be talking about the food.

Unit 39, Brixton Village, Brixton

Okan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Tayyabs: currying no favour

Don't believe the hype.

Tayyabs has an almost mythical status in London. "Should have gone to Tayyabs" is a well-known refrain to people who make the frequent mistake of having a curry on Brick Lane. I always do it when slightly worse for wear out east on a weekend. I stumble from "London's best curry house 2008" to "London's best curry house 2009", entering full of promise and cumin-inspired excitement and leaving wondering if Craig Charles awarded the restaurants their dubious titles.

Tayyabs is different to most Indian restaurants. For a start, it's got an android app when most curry houses opt for about 3 phone numbers instead. More importantly, it's Pakistani, specifically Punjabi. Pakistan is much like Britain in the way it has developed its cuisine, borrowing from other nations to create their own fusions and ideas. Although the menu may not look that different from your local takeaway, the differences are mostly tucked away in the kitchen and subtly into the food.

Having said that, you're unlikely to order lamb chops to start at most curry houses, as we did at Tayyabs. Apparently it's their signature dish, and it certainly sizzles cockily on the hotplate. But they were the Victoria Beckhams of lamb chops - nicely spiced but possibly anaemic. Two per person was definitely not enough; four might have just been an appetiser; and perhaps ten would make a main. It left my companion and me fighting over the poppadoms like dogs as we waited slightly too long for our mains.

Which is the best time to best time to air my greatest gripe with Tayyabs - it's size. I like my curry houses small, intimate and usually on the verge of closure. I want the waiters to be delighted to see me, I want to dine almost alone and have them hover awkwardly just to the side because there is no one else to wait on. That's how I dine in north London. But Tayyabs is massive and heaving with customers. It feels a bit like a slightly shitty City bar, with tacky decor, harsh lighting and a lot of men in suits with gelled hair. In a similar vein, it also felt like a meat factory. The high turnover means the queue constantly moves, giving the impression of the diners being on a conveyor belt. You sit down, get fed and go out with the steady stream of other former-diners. The impersonal feel of this is exacerbated by the fact that it's so loud you can hardly hear yourself think, and this means the waiters have given up trying to talk. Instead, they mutely point at tables, mouth instructions at you and, more often than not, ignore your wildly waving arms and very British attempts at catching their eye. After all, we are only wallets on conveyor belts.

Luckily for them, the chefs in the open kitchens do seem to know what they are doing, even if the food suffers from being cooked in such high volume. My korahi chicken - a Pakistani dish cooked in great big saucepans from which it gets the dish takes name - was excellent. It differs from a north Indian curry because the meat is cooked in spices, and the sauce is added right at the end. This gives the meat much more texture and the slightly burnt spices really shine through. The addition of crispy onions to the top was a simple but clever addition for a nice dish.

Sadly the Wednesday special, a Mughlai Korma, was overcooked. The description, rather blandly, said the "rich sauce generously covers succulent pieces of meat". I have two problems with this statement. First, if the best thing you can say about a dish is that there is enough sauce, the dish is on its way to disaster. Second, it came with virtually no sauce at all. It had been cooked dry so the main texture was oil and, although it was flavourful, some of the lamb was very tough indeed. I only really ordered this dish out of morbid curiosity at the terrible descriptor, and in a desperate attempt to make my dining experience in any way unique from the hundreds of other diners.

After this error, we decided not to cave in to curiosity again with the puddings, deliciously misspelt as "deserts". We paid our extraordinarily low bill (karma where it's due), which also kept the tip mercifully low, and squeezed our way past the salivating queues of people.

I have to say I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. There can't be many curry houses serving such unique curries, or indeed such a wide range, but the lamb chops weren't actually that good, nor was the restaurant itself, and the staff certainly weren't. If you're stuck in Whitechapel and need a meal, you could do considerably worse (you could go to Brick Lane for starters), but as I waved goodbye to one of my dearest friends, who was disappearing abroad for a month, I couldn't help but think: "Shouldn't have gone to Tayyabs".

83-89 Fieldgate St

Tower HamletsUK E1 1JU

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