I will start this review with a disclaimer of personal ignorance. I am not a pitmaster who understands all there is to know about barbeque. I am a guy that seriously loves eating it. I have eaten a fair bit of it over the years and between Tom and I we have a decent amount of experience of what tastes good and what doesn’t. What we say in these reviews are our opinions, sometimes individual (Tom and I agreed that we would alternate reviews so that our different styles emerged), and we do not pertain to be speaking some sort of gospel. We hope that most that read these just enjoy them. With that said, webloodylovefood returns once again to Reds True Barbeque in Shoreditch…
Some of you may question why two people who had such a negative experience barely 2 months prior, returned to Reds. If it was that bad, why on earth would we go back? The simple answer is because their staff cared enough about the review to invite us back and quite frankly if an establishment does that, then you owe it to them to at least try it. Not 2 hours after our review was posted on twitter I was contacted by a Red’s representative. I think that is impressive and what is more, whilst discussions were had about our experience, prior to any of that we had already been told we would be invited back on the house. So, Tom and I agreed that in the interests of fairness and, no doubt, some curiosity on our part we would return to Reds and be objective. To that end it is me writing the review.
We arrived at Reds and it was not altogether clear whether the staff knew about the arrangement. We were due to have a tour of their kitchen and smokers but unfortunately this didn’t transpire. However, Tom and I were not overly concerned and just decided to let the evening unfold. We agreed this would be the best way to review second time around.
We started by perusing the menu which had changed since our last visit. One thing that appeared consistent is that this menu is busy, there is a lot going on. That may be a good thing for some, but it often raises doubts in my mind as to the consistency of the food. This was a concern I had the last time we visited, so after protracted discussions we agreed an ordering method for the evening. We decided to go for a number of elements that we had tried before and essentially stick to true BBQ favourites: wings, brisket and ribs and then for good measure we thought we would try a philly cheesesteak. The reasoning for this was essentially to try the elements of BBQ that any truly brilliant BBQ restaurant can knock out with their eyes closed and to test any improvement to dishes we had tried before.
As those of you who read our last review of Reds will know we had some fairly major issues with the wings. The first and most important was that they did not taste good and in addition the buffalo sauce did not coat the wings effectively enough. The final niggle we had was with the size. It has often baffled me why wings are served in their fully jointed form, they are cumbersome and rendered more difficult to eat not least because you spend half your time (and sauce!) severing the joints. Why the tried and tested serving of wings in unjointed form (meatliquor, blues kitchen) is not used I do not know. Second time around this remains as challenging as ever, the wings are seriously cumbersome in their size, Tom and I spend minutes breaking them apart rather than eating them. However, we note with interest that the flavour seems a little improved, and on the whole the wings are considerably more bearable. Are they brilliant? No, but they are passable. Nonetheless, I find it fundamentally irritating that you can order a buffalo wing and it not taste particularly of buffalo sauce. But once you get to the end of these wings you begin to see why that is, the sauce is pooled at the bottom of the dish in a gloopy, unappealing puddle. To me that is not a buffalo wing. A properly marinated chicken wing is encased in a jar or tub filled with the sauce and then the tub is sealed whilst the wings are whirled around amongst the sauce. The benefit of this method is that every part of the wing is coated with the desired flavour, instead of receiving pockets of sauce that has despeartely hung on to the wing. Unfortunately this just does not happen at Reds and I believe that it is due to the size of the wings. Because they are in three conjoined parts (the full extent of the wing) there is no conceivable way that a portion of those wings could be given the ‘rumble-tumble’ treatment that the separated out wings do. For that reason most of the sauce fails to bind to the wing and what you are left with is a large, slightly tangy bit of chicken that does not pack much of a punch. Nevertheless they were better than the previous occasion and this gave us hope that maybe something had changed.
As a result we awaited our mains eager to see, in particular, what our dry rub ribs would look like. Our previous experience had been the equivalent of eating chalk, the dry rub amounting to a sprinkling of brown sugar on the top of otherwise bone dry rack of ribs. Not the sort of slow cooked perfection one would hope for on a “pilgrimage” as promised by the website. Upon further inspection it appeared things had begun to change slightly, the ribs were moist inside with a bit of bite but fell away from the bone. These were a far cry from the crucified ribs we experienced on our first time. In our opinion a dry rub rib should not itself be devoid of moisture, it is simply that the bark adds that extra bite and dryness. The rib, having been given the “low and slow” treatment should still be tender and come away from the bone easily. These ribs did that and they were considerably more enjoyable because of it. This was a massive improvement and ironically proved the deficiencies highlighted in the first review.
This brings me to a slight negative, having experienced the superlative flavour of Shotgun Barbeque’s homemade sauces and their ability to lift all the flavours from any dish it is disappointing that Reds’ sauces seem remarkably inconspicuous. Indeed their ‘6 chilli hot sauce’ was unremarkable in its lack of flavour and heat (it was also, unlike its name suggested, made from 5 chillies and not 6 according to the label). These sauces are apparently homemade which is good in its endeavour but I believe they need some real work before they begin to elevate the food.
The next item was the brisket, last time lost amidst the greasy underbelly of an over-packed ingredient heavy and ultimately ill-thought out burger, but this time presented in two appealing slices. Tom immediately noticed the lack of a smoke ring, which I am reliably informed adds flavour whilst the bark delicately encircles the tender meat. The bark was unfortunately lacking and the flavour, whilst much improved, did lack that real punch of smokiness. The flavour was by far superior to our previous experience. Again we were genuinely pleased as this really suggested that Reds was improving slowly but surely.
So to the finale – a Philly cheesesteak, and alas a bridge too far. It was served with spring onions, red peppers and the obligatory melted cheese, but without so much as a nod to what should be the soaring ingredient – the steak. As the thing arrived I wondered if the steak was even there. I struggle to believe in an establishment that genuinely purports to be a “church” to this sort of food and serve something like this. The cheese is melted over overly sweet and unwelcome peppers which hide chunks of woefully overcooked meat. To call it steak is sacrilege and blasphemy because when you chop up a piece of steak and do god knows what to it to make it taste like a cinder it ceases to be steak. This was categorically a really disappointing end to what had otherwise been a half-decent return to Reds and it was such a shame to end on that note. Once again it appears a busy menu does not necessarily mean a plethora of good options.
Now before I round this out, it is seriously worth noting the very final point of our evening. The manageress came over as we ordered our bill (despite an email stating we wouldn’t have to pay) and told us it was on the house. This is classy, very classy. What was even more classy was her honesty about the restaurant. We admitted we had enjoyed our meal far more than the last time whilst still thinking there was room for vast improvement. She agreed with us and proceeded to discuss our issues from our previous meal. We were informed that not only had there been a very difficult chef, who had subsequently moved on, but the manager at that time had also left. These all point to something that is not yet settled where it is and an unsettled restaurant is an unsuccessful one. It was honest and refreshing that they recognise they are not perfect, in particular in their London restaurant, where we were informed they did not have the same systems in place as their northern establishment. The irony here is that this is something Tom almost instantly picked up on during our first visit, and is a perennial problem with multiple locations. In particular it seems problematic that Reds preaches itself as some sort of sacred place for barbeque. Until it gets the food right, in my opinion, they will continue to struggle to justify that branding.
So what of Reds after two visits? In my opinion it is over-reaching itself. It has set up in one of the most competitive markets in the world (London) and has marketed itself as a “place of worship” for a culinary genre that is immensley popular at the moment. To me this is not sensible, because they still cannot perfect buffalo chicken wings or a philly cheesesteak. It may be that these issues have been dealt with in their other locations but not yet in London. This is not a crime by any stretch, and the honesty of the people they have working there give me hope that Reds can begin to go upwards. With the customer service we were shown after our first visit, the improvements during our second (for the most part) and the honesty shown by the manageress, it may be possible. As yet, though, I believe it still has a fair way to go.