The Chilis syndrome. Big brand = Bad food.

I love discovering new restaurants and talking about exciting new places to eat at but one of the main reasons behind this blog, was to talk about restaurants that have existed, survived and multiplied while others around them barely made it past the first year of operations.

How have some restaurant chains managed to open up a branch in every mall or every neighborhood? What is it, that drives business to these places? What makes them grow? Is it just because of the food or is it the brilliant marketing strategies? Is it the décor and lighting? Or is it just convenience?

Do people keep eating at places like TGIF, Chillis, Applebees, Shakespeare and Co, IHop and Tony Romas because the food is just amazing or is it just because they are familiar with the brand? They all seem to have identical menus and between them operate 20 odd restaurants in Dubai yet they keep expanding and drawing in customers. All this while Pedro your brilliant neighborhood chef, couldn’t keep his bistro afloat because of liquidity problems and lack of customers. There may be more than one reason for all this but I decided to go back to one of the best known chain restaurants in Dubai to try and figure out the secret formula to success.

I may have already been to every single Chillis branch in Dubai so we decided to meet some friends at Yas Mall for lunch at which is arguably the UAE’s most successful (non-fast food) restaurant. We managed to find a table with views of the Ferrari World roller coaster and were seated in a heartbeat so full marks for that. The order taker seemed to be well rehearsed, helpful and knowledgeable so that part was smooth as well.

We ordered the Melted Pepper Jack Ribeye, Margarita Grilled Chicken, Ancho Salmon and the Beef Enchiladas. Of all these dishes, the steak definitely stood out.. Medium cooked and lightly seasoned, just the way we like it. Initially, we weren’t too sure about the cheese topping but after taking a bite of the thick cut steak with the melted pepper jack, we realized that it was a potent combination.

The only other dish that came close to that was the Ancho Salmon. It was cooked all right and seasoned just fine but I wish I could say that about the other two dishes.

This was the description of the chicken margarita in the menu: Tender, juicy chicken breast, marinated with our classic Margarita flavoring and grilled to perfection. Served with citrus rice and black beans.

Yes, it was tender and it was juicy and it was served with black beans. That was about it. The Margarita flavor (whatever it was supposed to be) was not there. In fact the flavor was the taste of grilled chicken which we had to season with some salt. I had imagined a tomato purée of some sort (as in the pizza) smothered over the chicken for it to warrant that name. It did have some chopped tomatoes on the side but that was about it. Oh and the citrus Chile rice sounds like it would be infused with lemon zest or something right? No, there were no signs of any lemon anywhere. Just some rice, minus the citrus.

The most disappointing dish of the day was described as follows in the menu: Three Baked Enchiladas Filled With Taco Seasoned Beef, 3-Cheese Blend & Onion. Topped With Ancho Sauce, Melted 3-Cheese Blend, Chopped Cilantro and house made Corn & Black beans Salsa. Served With Rice & Black Beans.

Think of all the Mexican flavors you can imagine when someone says Taco seasoned beef. It was nothing like any of those. This was every Mexican foodie’s worst nightmare. It was so bland that they would build a wall around their borders to keep it out of the country. It was basically a wrap filled with salt flavored ground beef and cheese, topped with some cilantro. Sure, it was good looking and was overflowing with black beans from all sides but tasted a bit like a beef cheese wrap. Nothing more, nothing less.

So here is what I think I have learnt from this excursion to the land of Chillis. The photographs in the menu were mouthwatering, the seats were comfortable, the staff was friendly and the descriptions of the entrees were brilliant. So full  marks for packaging and presentation and all of that. The food looked pretty when it arrived and there was a lot of it too. It just lacked heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was put together on an assembly line like McDonalds. This seemed like a place where everyone follows the process but nobody has ultimate responsibility and nobody really cares. A place where nothing is personal. They probably believe in the mantra that ‘If you build it, they will come’ hence the multiple locations in every city. They also seem to know that the bigger and flashier you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

Unfortunately, the restaurants which have perfected this process are the ones that are thriving. They will expand while Pedro, your friendly neighborhood chef who prepares each order with care and personal attention will struggle. We can say it is the marketing prowess and easy flow of money that enables these places to open swanky new branches all the time but in reality it just comes down to one factor: YOU. You decide who stays in business and who packs up. You and I are ultimately the reason Pedro is having a hard time. Want your food to be prepared with a bit more love? Take a stand, stop eating at these food factories. Support the little guy at the corner of your street. As for me, all this writing is making me hungry. I think I’ll get Hardees for Lunch today.

 

Dave and his band of Famous People 

After watching Heroes (the TV show), I believed that every human being had a super power. I would ask my friends what their special abilities were and it would make for wonderful evening banter. Those who did not know were of course enlightened by yours truly. I told them to be patient because sooner or later the secret would be revealed. I knew this because that is what I did. I had the ability to identify super heroes and their special gifts. That was my super power.

Dave has some special abilities as well. Besides being the guardian for ‘Devil’s Spit’, a sinful interpretation of barbecue sauce straight from Hell’s Kitchen, he can find special people and identify their super powers. So we are not much different, Dave and I. The only difference is that Dave actually went out and did something about it.

Dave scoured the corners of the Earth to find special people with secret powers and brought them all back to the mystical Land of the River next to Dubai Parks and Resorts. It is there that he set up Famous Dave’s Barbecue restaurant and started to serve racks of lamb and beef short ribs to hungry travellers from far and wide.

OK, so that is not exactly how it happened. Dave did not scour the corners of the globe. All the people with special powers were already in Dubai because of course that is what Dubai is all about. All Dave did had to do was to find them like Professor X and put them to work in the restaurant.

Take Famous Josh for example. When he was in the Philippines, he beat the entire country at chess and was given a 75% scholarship to finish his education because of his special skill. Then there is Famous Miro, also from the Philippines. He was one of the country’s best break dancers and was the lead back up dancer for Mark Herras, a famous singer and celebrity. In short, every single person working on the floor at Famous Dave’s restaurant is already famous for something. How cool is that?

So what happens when you put all these famous people under one roof? Well for one, the service was exceptionally brilliant. Remember my review of Ihop when I spoke about the waiters coming to us like programmed robots and asking if our food was good? That did not happen here. We were left alone to enjoy our food and every time we wanted something, there was a famous guy standing next to us, ready to listen. Since they were all celebrities in their own right, they liked to talk as well but only when we were ready to listen. We got a detailed briefing on the famous sauces and how they were made. My favorite were Dave’s Revenge and Devils Spit while Mishal liked the Texas Pit.

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I had a medium-well 7-oz fillet which was a lean cut steak seasoned with coarse salt, black pepper, cayenne and garlic. It had a wonderful crust which gave way to the juiciest bit of meat you can imagine. As if Dave’s selection of sauces weren’t enough, I asked them to make my steak cheesy and was provided with some extra creamy white sauce on the side. The skin-on potato wedges were crispy on the outside but moist and fleshy all the way through. This ladies and gentlemen, was heaven.

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Mishal’s Jacked-N-Stacked burger was a grilled chicken breast topped with Monteray Jack cheese, stacked with crispy onion rings and slathered with Dave’s rich and sassy sauce in a soft open bun.  The star performers of the night however were the grilled pineapple steaks. I will never be able to look at a pineapple the same way again. For me, the only way to eat a pineapple now would be to season some juicy slices with cayenne pepper and a hint of brown sugar before tossing them on the grill for a touch of sweet heat. The cayenne would start the show with a fiery kick and the caramelised brown sugar would follow to compliment the tart sweetness of the fruit.  Try it the next time you get the bbq going and who knows? You might end up being famous too.

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Famous Dave's Barbecue Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato