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.


Lahori Masala on Urbanspoon


Hollow Legs said...

How many times did you type the word 'Tayyabs'?

Chris Pople said...

14, if you count the meta-tag

Eimeardaw said...

Thank you for posting so many wonderful comments on your eating adventures. I live in Hastings and after reading your comments I think I must be living on another planet. Keep up the good work.

Jonathan said...

By my calculations you mentioned Tayyabs once every 52 words. Impressive stuff. Last picture makes it look a bit like an empty airport terminal.

Gavin said...

Ye Gods, 600 covers. Got to admire their chutzpah. If they ever fill it I'd love to see their kitchen in full flow.

Still can't bring myself to try any of the Tayyab clones, would make me feel a bit disloyal.

Derrick said...

From the moment I stepped in I felt like leaving. The decor consisted of extremely bright white lighting everywhere, tiled marble effect floor, cheap wooden tables, cash till resting by the kitchen door, gave this new restaurant no atmosphere whatsoever. It could have been a florists, or a newsagents, or plumbers merchants – zero style!

However, I live local and thought they're new so let’s give them a try.

Upon entry, my wife and I were shown to a table near the front door (despite the fact that it was near to zero centigrade in Jan), I said no and that I wanted a table further into the restaurant. I noticed a few heaters trying to warm the place up, but we both had to leave our coats on as it was still very cold.

Finally shown to our new table, we sat down on the hardest most uncomfortable metal framed seats you can imagine. Next we noticed the table (on the tiled floor) was uneven and was rocking as either one of us lent upon it.

After being handed the (extremely sparse) menu for only two minutes we were asked if we were ready to order. I replied that I needed to read it first. A few minutes later another waiter asked again. Then the first waiter came back and asked if we wanted drinks and papadoms. At this point we then found out that they didn't serve alcoholic drinks (e.g. wine / beer), but still willing to give them a try I ordered a £3.50 lassi, and my wife ordered a water. Less than a minute later a third waiter asked if we were ready to order, and again I stated that I still needed to read the menu. My (vegetarian) wife then told me that she found the menu to be very unexciting and limited and I could tell that she was not impressed, and this coupled with the pestering staff just caused to irk us even more.

After about another five minutes we then gave the place one more look around and decided – enough, lets get out of here. I then had to ask three staff for the bill for the papdoms, as they seemed unable to understand that we wanted to leave. They didn’t even manage to serve our drinks.

The main reason we went there was that it was very close to us, and felt that we needed to give it a try (support the local businesses).

I should have known better! I noticed about six months ago when the owners were refurbishing the building, that they’d made a really nice job of renovating the infrastructure and had exposed some lovely stone work with the old traders names above the doors and windows. However, as soon as Lahori Masala came along they covered the stonework with their extremely tacky bright neon light signs covering the whole front facia.

My overall experience was bad. I hope this quickly becomes a bar or fashion shop.

My advice: don’t waste your time or money here – go the extra few yards to Brick Lane and enjoy a decent restaurant like Preem & Prithi.

Chris Pople said...

Gavin: There is still no good reason to go anywhere other than Tayyabs, but it is interesting seeing how the other places do the same style of cooking

Derrick: I agree with everything you say, and yet I'd so much rather go to a mediocre Pakistani grill than a mediocre French restaurant. At least it's cheap. It sounds like I had a very similar experience to you - we had to move tables because at first they sat us by the door, and the staff were keen to get the orders in - but this is the same at all these places. If you'd stuck out for the food you may have been a little better disposed. But then again, perhaps not.

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet gone to Lahori Masala but have gone to many similar restaurants and am originally from Pakistan. In reviews of Asian restaurants like this one,
recurring topics are the lack of ambience and impatient waiters. IMHO this is due to cultural differences. Restaurants through out most of Asia are patronised
based on the quality of their food and speed of service. Expenditure on more than minimal decor is regarded as a waste, toward which most patrons would be
unwilling to contribute. In most of Asia, people go to restaurants either as family outings, or because the dishes are difficult to reproduce at home. Restaurants
are not usually regarded as places for romantic assignations, places to while away time or places to admire the scenery. Homes, offices, cinemas, parks, art galleries,
beaches and picnics serve these purposes. Restaurants are for eating; even drinking is usually a secondary issue. The Asian restauranter in the UK is faced with the
choice of either catering to the tastes of fellow Asians or to that of the natives. Since everbody judges an Asian restaurant by how many Asians go there, the
restauranter will be more inclined to favour the Asian viewpoint. This is why Michlin stars and the opinions of foul-mouthed dimwitted non-Asian chefs are of no
consequence when judging Asian restaurants.