Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Dogs (revisited) and Philosophy

When I first started studying photography ten years ago, digital cameras were insanely expensive and only used by top professionals and early-adopting amateurs. Although film was fairly cheap, it still cost £4 or so to buy and develop a roll of pictures. This had the advantage of making people think twice about clicking the shutter.

Now, everyone has a digital. Even a basic mobile phone will have a camera with a decent number of megapixels on it. Although this has allowed people to capture moments they wouldn't have been able to afford to catch on film (such as action shots where 30 pictures are blurred but 1 is amazing), it also makes people quite unthinking with their cameras. I once went on holiday with a friend who obsessively documented the whole trip. While she got some nice snaps of the Sagrada Familia, I was less happy about being constantly photographed in the airport, on buses, eating my dinner and while trying to apply suntan lotion. Sometimes it's better to just put the lens down and experience what is happening first hand.

I've been following the recent chat on the WoM blog about modern etiquette, and I still think that taking pictures of your dinner in restaurants is generally bad form. The only blog I have ever deleted from my RSS reader was 90% pictures of restaurant meals, and as well as making me feel that the blogger would be the most irritating person to go for dinner with, it was just boring. Why do I care what a salad in a restaurant 2000 miles away looks like? I want to know what made the meal special, and in the case of far-flung restaurants, if there are unusual flavours or methods I can recreate at home. I can forgive photography on very striking looking dishes, but most of the time I am not a fan. Looking back over my past reviews, most of the ones with photos were taken either when I was on my own, or hastily snatched while dining companions visited the bathrooms.

So it is for these reasons that this article contains only one photograph, and one that was not taken by me.
Dining Room at The Dogs (from their website)

After raving about The Dogs all year, I finally dragged my flatmates along there for dinner. Things got off to a bad start, with us arriving late for our reservation and two people short. Just as we were about to give up and order for him, E arrived from his waiting job just around the corner. The waitress was very nice about the delay we caused, and gave E plenty of time to peruse the menu, while the rest of us worked our way through a bottle of house red and some very tasty warm bread.

For starters, E had the mushroom and vegetable pate, which was had a large dose of woody, mushroom flavour in it. The pate was deliciously rich and thick, although the portion of pate outweighed the slice of toast that accompanied it, forcing E to leave half his portion as he had nothing to spread it on! A had a whitebait salad, which was a small mound of leaves covered in a giant portion of tiny spicy fish. Again, the main complaint that it was a little too large as a starter, nonetheless A was very pleased to receive such a good amount of fish instead of the stingy toppings you sometimes get with salads. I ventured in to offal territory, and had lamb sweetbreads on toast. I've never tried them before, so have little to compare them to. They had the texture of the melting fat you get with pork crackling, but without the greasiness. My portion was well sized, but the drizzle of sherry sauce meant that some parts of the dish were a little bit dry and bland.

At this point, we also got a portion of chips cooked in dripping to share. While the chips on my last visit had been good, this portion was transcendental. The thick cut chips were perfectly crunchy on the outside, almost shattering when cut. Inside was creamy and smooth. They were possibly some of the most delicious chips I have ever eaten.

Given E's current experience working in the restaurant industry, we also spent a lot of the meal discussing the ethos of The Dogs. On some levels, the informality is almost off-putting. The cutlery arrives in your water glass, and a jug of tap water is given to every table as soon as they sit down. Instead of the restaurant staple of cracked pepper, each table sports a salt and pepper shaker, in the same glass cone style beloved of the greasy spoon. Yet the food is far more adventurous than restaurants of a similar price range, and often far better cooked. My humanities degree lead me to suggest that The Dogs is in some way a deconstruction of what makes a good restaurant, with some accepted conventions deliberately ignored and challenged. This is perhaps taking it all far too seriously.

Moving on to the main course, L (who had skipped the starter) opted for the tomato barley risotto. The plate was filled with fat grains of barley, and large chunks of tomato. The barley added a layer of nuttiness to the tomato sauce, and was very tasty indeed. It was also very filling, and anyone without an enormous appetite is probably best sticking to the small portion.

A ordered the vegetable and pulse bake, which came with a goat's cheese mash topping. This was also declared delicious, although rather stodgy and heavy. Again, not an option for the light appetite.

E ordered the tomato seafood stew, which came with a large hunk of soda bread. I found this rather sour tasting, and E complained that the mussels had overwhelmed the other ingredients. This potentially could be a great dish, but it just didn't seem to come together the way it should on this occasion.

I had a the grilled trout with green salad broth. I did not have any food envy at all! The trout skin was crispy, while the flesh underneath was tender and flaky. The green salad broth was heavy with the scent of mussels, and tasted like a salad that had seafood dressing. It was quite a strange sensation to eat! There were also a couple of fat mussels hiding in the broth, which also featured chunky celery, cucumber and potatoes. Unfortunately one of my mussels was a bit gritty, but apart from that it was a stand out dish.

We finished up with a bowl of ice cream, raspberry rice pudding and lemon thyme posset. I am officially in love with posset, and I couldn't fault the creamy texture with the zing of lemon. The dish was topped with crystallised strands of lemon zest, which gave a crunchy contrast to the posset, which was studded with chopped thyme. E's rice pudding was also a hit, with A proclaiming that the taste took him back to childhood in the same way that Anton Ego's ratatouille did in the eponymous film.

Overall, I would describe a visit to The Dogs as similar to visiting an eccentric aunt and uncle, who happen to be channelling Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater to various degrees. The food will be delicious, with the occasional major triumph and minor slip, and the atmosphere quirky but friendly. It is a very strong contender for my all time favourite restaurant, and I dare you to find a better chip!

The Dogs on Urbanspoon


Lizzie said...

I can't say I agree with you. I like to take pictures - it's not like I use a flash or anything - as it's a nice reminder of what you had. More often than not I won't read blogs that are just a block of writing.

Jenny said...

I'd agree that subtle pictures without flash are better than turning dinner in to a photoshoot! I guess there are always exceptions (such as the Amateur Gourmet's recent post on El Bulli) but I guess it's all about balance in the end.

Katiecakes said...

My word, I couldn't agree more! I've just deleted a restaurant picture heavy blog from my google reader. I find them so tedious!

I prefer to see what people have made with their own hands. Professional food is always going to be beautiful as it's what is expected of a qualified chef but something made with love and adoration by an amateur cook is so much more interesting. To me anyway ;)

Katie xox

Kate ( said...

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