30 September 2012
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.
Given this wait, perhaps it the 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 and 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 (kudos 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 food wasn'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”.