Thursday, 28 January 2010
Lahori Masala, Shoreditch
The insurmountable dilemma facing any new Pakistani grill house - in fact, let's face it, the problem with most existing Pakistani grill houses - is the continued existence of Tayyabs. I'd be quite happy to visit Lahore Kebab or Mirch Masala or even the Maedah Grill far more often that I currently do, if it wasn't for the fact that Tayyabs quite simply makes everything, from the lamb chops to the Karahi Chicken, better than anywhere else. Sure it's a pain to get to and to get in, the smoke from the iron skillets burns your eyes and impregnates your clothes and you will be sat so close to fellow diners that you may as well be sharing the same plate, but there's a reason punters put up with such physical and emotional torment - it all fades into insignificance as soon as the first bite of dry meat passes your lips. Tayyabs is the benchmark for Pakistani grills, its consistently wonderful food and remarkably successful business model hanging over every other pretender in the capital. "If Tayyabs can do it, why can't you?"
So you have to feel for Lahori Masala, brand new on Commercial St on the site of an old wholesale cash & carry. You can't fault their ambition - this is a 600-cover restaurant. I'll say that again - six hundred covers. That's only slightly less than London's largest restaurant Gilgamesh which I think can cram in 800-odd. And the staff last night were lovely, attentive and friendly and obviously very proud of their gleaming new venture. But how would they compare? And more to the point, how could anywhere serving lamb chops and chicken tandoori pieces ever think they would not be compared to the granddaddy of them all on Fieldgate St? We decided not to ignore the elephant in the room, and in the interests of fairness ordered a selection of Tayyabs staples (lamb chops, seekh kebabs, dhal) and a couple of bowls of curry - a sag gosht and a bindi chicken.
First to arrive, though, were the popadums. All fried rather than Tayyabs' mix of fried and baked, and of the unspiced variety, they nevertheless went well with the fiery house pickles, particularly their home made tomato chilli sauce. I also think even Tayyabs could learn from the option of lime pickle - I love that stuff.
It's probably no shock to learn that the mains weren't as good as the Tayyabs' versions, but they really weren't that bad at all. Tayyabs has set the bar so high it's easy to get complacent at the otherwise pretty decent food being served elsewhere, and although the Lahori seekh kebabs and lamb chops were tamer, less confidently prepared (the kebabs in particular needed crisping up a bit more on the outside) and ran the risk of being a sad reminder of the Other Place, the fact is this stuff is all still fairly tasty. Also arriving with the starters was something Tayyabs doesn't do at all - tandoori chicken wings - and these were superb, crisply charred and powerfully marinated.
Mains were more mixed. Both the sag gosht and the bindi chicken ran the risk of collapsing under the weight of their own grease, but had a good flavour and perfectly fresh ingredients. The chicken cubes in particular were lovely and moist. The dahl was more disappointing, requiring far more seasoning to be anything approaching tasty. It was a bit like eating yellow wallpaper paste.
In the end, the biggest mark against Lahori Masala is that it's not Tayyabs, and I understand completely why you might prefer to keep walking down Commercial Road into Whitechapel. But really, we should consider ourselves lucky - I have a feeling that none of these other places would be anywhere near as good if it wasn't for Tayyabs. You need a market leader to shake up the system and show everyone else how it's done - look at the way Hawksmoor proved that there was such a thing as a world-class British steakhouse, or how Cay Tre made the wonder of cheap, authentic Vietnamese food available to Londoners. If the worst you can say about Lahori is that it's not Tayyabs, then really, that's not much of a criticism at all. I can almost recommend it - at least you won't have to queue.