Monday, 27 February 2017

Tandoor Chop House, Covent Garden

Much as I try and keep an open mind about these things, I've been doing this restaurant blogging thing long enough, and have been burned enough during that time, to build up quite a healthy prejudice against proto-chains. Objectively there should be no real reason why a proto-chain (that is, a restaurant designed from the get-go to be the first of many) wouldn't be any less enjoyable than any independent joint - both, after all, are still in the business of feeding you food you want to eat at prices you want to pay - except, well, the reality just doesn't bear this out.

There are, I'm sure, more reasons for the gap in quality between proto-chains and other restaurants than I could ever realistically go into here, but perhaps the main issue is simply one of attitude. If you start up as an independent restaurant, do better than you'd hoped and scrape enough money together for a second branch, well there's a dignity and humility in that - you've started up for the right reasons, and through good fortune have tapped into a demand. All chains have to start somewhere, I suppose, but how much better to be MeatLiquor or Bone Daddies, growing from a single branch to a nationwide (and international) chain through the sheer superiority of your product, rather than having the gumption to gather a group of investors, ask them to cough up a few million quid and have a nice logo designed. It all seems a bit... cynical.

You may quite naturally assume I'm setting Tandoor Chop House - unashamedly a proto-chain - up for a slating, but of course these things are rarely black and white; if they were, my job would be a lot easier. There's actually a lot to like about the place, not least of which is the seekh kebab roll (not pictured sorry, my photos didn't come out), which comes in a nice earthy coriander dressing and has a remarkable kick of spice. Well worth a fiver.

Or this beef dripping keema naan, which (on my first visit at least) had a great fluffy naan base and a hugely enjoyable beef mixture on top. Cherry tomatoes didn't add much, but then they never do.

"IPA" battered squid and prawns were interesting too, not very Indian perhaps but with a nice tasty batter and containing good chunks of tender seafood.

I didn't much like this tuna tartare thing. Maybe it was just difficult getting my head around eating raw fish in an Indian restaurant, or maybe it just didn't taste very nice - a bit bland and unsettling. Yes, pretty sure it's the latter.

On the subject of the main courses, there are two stories to tell. On my first visit, the lamb chops (above) were superb; perfectly chargrilled, expertly spiced and fantastic fun to eat. You could not want for a better lamb chop. Well, you could, there are probably a few better ones in town (*cough* Tayyabs *cough*), but the point is, they were very good, as you might well hope at a price point of £16.50 for three.

Also excellent (on my first visit) were the chicken tikka pieces, moist and tender and coated with a beguiling spice mix easily the match of any "posh" Indian restaurant in town. With just a touch of char from the tandoor, and a scattering of fresh coriander, they too just about made sense of the £12 price point.

Had my review ended there, with a couple of decent starters and a couple of genuinely enjoyable mains, Tandoor Chop House would have been in the running for at least a 7/10 score and a pat on the back. Unfortunately - for them and me - I went back one lunchtime and ate the above, "green masala pollock", which is probably the most disgusting fish dish of any kind I've ever paid for. Pollock, a cheap, nasty fish, grey and mushy and with a horrid thin flavour, needs a great deal of intelligent treatment to make it edible (I believe it's the main ingredient for fish fingers, which is fair enough), but here, soaked in a weird grassy, underseasoned dressing, it just tasted all kinds of wrong, the memory of a good idea gone old and ill. Try and imagine the exact opposite of the wonderful Haryali Sea Bream dish from Trishna, as if cooked by the demon from Stranger Things in the Upside Down, where everything is decrepit and evil.

And in fact, on my second visit even the Chicken Tikka was a bit sad and dry, not wholly unedible (certainly not as bad as the pollock) but still not quite right, as if some of the joy (or at least the expertise) had left the kitchen. This could have something to do with the launch week chef moving on, but you would have at least hoped he'd leave a competent team behind him.

On a similarly concerning vein, the naan bread, which had been so fluffy and bubbly and full of life in launch week, had settled into the sad, dense, doughy thing you see above by my second visit. As to the cause, who knows, but clearly something wasn't right.

Consistency, especially for a proto-chain but really for any restaurant, is the difference between success and failure. And though I moan about the drop in standards at Tandoor Chop House since opening it's still relatively early days and they still have plenty of time to inject a bit of passion and attention to detail back into their offering. I'm pretty sure nothing would be able to redeem that awful pollock dish but in the case of the bread and the chicken it's probably just a case of going back to basics. Who knows. In a way, I'm glad it's not my problem and all I need to do is carp from the sidelines.

But it's important to stress that I didn't have an uneven time at Tandoor Chop House just because it's a proto-chain. Yes, I do carry a prejudice about them and maybe even with my most objective head on they would have had to try a bit harder to curry my favour (no pun intended... OK maybe a little pun intended). But I mainly can't recommend the place because the food is only occasionally worth the money they're asking for it. And that's a problem, chain or no chain.


I was invited to the launch week meal, but have paid my way since. Apologies for the lack of bill photo, I forgot to take one, but their website have the prices. Ennismore have asked me to point out that the head chef is still most definitely there and hasn't moved on, but was on holiday for one of my subsequent visits.


Martin said...

So critic gets invited to restraunt where special effort is made for a good review. Afterwards restraunt returns to whatever passes for usual service. I have often wondered about this. Surely it's a problem? Crittics are invited to review but it doesn't matter how impartial he/she is they're going to get special treatment that Joe public wouldn't? Wouldn't it be better to be anonymous and review restaurants? Maybe I'm just too cynical or just jealous in don't get my meals for free :) well, it's something to think about!

charlie said...

Agreed. Food critics have a mania for being 'first to review'. Don't bother.

Decline the invitation, wait a few weeks, then visit anonymously.

Unknown said...

But most critics don't review a meal they've been invited to. Jay Rayner books under a pseudonym. He undoubtedly gets recognised but only on arrival. Fay Maschler books under a pseudonym and visits several times. As has been said many times before, a restaurant can lay on the five-star treatment when they recognise a critic, but they can't spontaneously learn to cook. And you'd be surprised how many even manage to cock service up when they've recognised a critic.

On Cheese n Biscuits, Chris always states if he was invited to review so we're free to assess his meal on that basis.

And obviously there's the sublime Marina O'Loughlin who reviews anonymously (disclaimer, I'm in love with her).

Chris Pople said...

Timbuc: Yes, Marina's is the only whole *experience* you can trust out of anyone. As you point out, service can actually be *worse* for a known critic, as front of house panic and overcompensate...