A night at the Dogs
James Knappett is a pretty successful chef with a cracking CV. Ex-Head Chef of Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, Knappett has also plied his culinary trade in such disparate and incredible restaurants as Noma* in Copenhagen and Per Se in Manhattan. The Ledbury, too. Christ, this guy gets around.
It is then with a smattering of suspicion that I read a couple of months’ back that Knappett has seemingly snapped; sticking a metaphorical middle finger up at the glitzy world of Michelin Star-quality dining and jacking it all in – instead, acquiring a pokey little piece of space on Charlotte Street in London’s Fitzrovia neighbourhood, serving up Champagne – and hot dogs. It’s called Bubbledogs. Both the name and back-story conjure up wonderfully baroque evocations of whimsy. I simply had to go.
Interest piqued, I was wondering if Bubbledogs was one of these saddening examples of a concept where the name has come before the method, akin to Alan Partridge;
“Cooking in prison?”
Nevertheless, I wasn’t short of reasons to go. Come early September, there had been quite a few personnel changes in the office. The Olympics had long gone and there seemed a like a natural pause-point and respite before Human Resources kicks off again into the awards season (staff plus awards equals temper-related resignations, sleeping on duty and other associated naughty-ness). So, what better opportunity than now to conduct a ‘team-build’?
There was another reason to rope the whole office into going. A quick shifty over the sparsely-arranged Bubbledogs website informed me that bookings were only taken on groups of six or more. I hate this anti-booking malarkey, endemic around the city these days. As my experiences at MEATLiquor corroborate, I am fully prepared to queue for good food (or in the case of Pit Cue Co, queue for Cue) but for god’s sake, quit being lazy arseholes and buy a diary and pen. Better still, get the whizzkids at TopTable to do it all for you.
Bubbledogs seem to ensure that the ‘no bookings’ policy is enforced by a phone line that only works between nine o’clock and half eleven in the morning. Tuesday to Saturday. Even then, attempting to reach anything (or anyone) more than an answer-machine took up most of my Wednesday morning. It was easier to contact the Fat Duck.
Some time later…
Hoo-bloody-ray; it finally clicked through to a human.
“Hi, I’m looking for a table for six in the evening next week please” (I hedged dates; it’s new, there will clearly be an issue of popularity).
“You’re looking at October. We can do ninth of October, six-thirty”
“Um, OK then”
Five weeks. Five weeks for a hot dog. Is this for real?
Bubbledogs has been PR’ed to the hilt. The named and famed chef helps; and the restaurant comes with serious clout Front of the House as well. Knappett’s wife Sandia Chang has equally exceptional professional pedigree – head sommelier at two-year pop-up restaurant Roganic as well as the Berkeley, Noma, etcetera…
The draw may well be on the culinary contradiction but dig a little deeper and the effervescent focus is on quality – grower Champagnes and dogs made from 90% meat rather than the sorry-looking 30% seagull bait you can get in Tesco.
The restaurant seems to be in the right place at the right time; Fitzrovia – and Charlotte Street in particular – are the destination du jour if you happen to be in the restaurant business in 2012; established wonders such as Roka, Pied a Terre and the stonking Gaucho rub shoulders with new kids on the block like Dabbous (apparently it’s equally impossible to get a table there). Even Zagat lauded Bubbledogs as being one of London’s top ten new restaurant openings. All being said, the buzz surrounding this very unusual Champagne bar is enough to give the X Factor a run for its money.
As we did our HR thing, the weeks passed by and just as the X Factor hype began to lose all meaning (the week we were due to go was ‘marred’ by Louis saving Rylan in the sing-off – remember that?), Bubbledogs began to feature in write-ups – bolstering its reputation as ‘talk of the town’. Opinions were mixed; the concept seemed to seduce but the execution was evidently lacking. Tracey MacLeod in the Independent stated that some hot dogs provoked a ‘shudder’ and Ben Norum on Londonist.com suggesting that they were not too far off Ikea’s offerining (you get a drink and a dog for £1.10 there…)
The numbers had dropped as the boss needed to dash off and one of us needed to compere a retirement party. Ah, the joys of HR. Off we went. The taxi driver asked us what end of Charlotte Street we needed; the “Posh End” or the “Other End”. Keeping up appearances, we opted for the former. Once we arrived on Charlotte Street’s Posh End – home of the eponymous hotel and numerous appealing-looking restaurants, there was still no sign of Bubbledogs. The trusty iPhone guided us to what was clearly actually the Other End. We saw the queue before we saw the restaurant.
A line of cold-looking, hungry and forlorn people snaked out of the door, down the path and onto the pavement. They were all bathed in the red glow of the neon ‘Bubbledogs’ sign – first impressions were a little trashy. Actually, edgy. It’s called edgy, isn’t it?
Our party of four guiltily pushed past the waiting crowds – essentially we had blagged the system by booking a table for four – and I truly felt disgusting because of that. We squeezed past an angry-looking woman at the front of the queue and stood in the middle of the restaurant.
“You must be Mike”
The one empty table suggested that they had been expecting us, and we were late. Anyway, we sat down and surveyed the room. Wooden tables and chairs have a distinctly rough and cellar-bar feel about them, as do the exposed brick walls, extending the length of the narrow, brightly-lit room. Bubbledogs doesn’t feel busy, but it feels crowded – and I am not sure why. Then it dawns on me. The tables are too small.
Essentially, Bubbledogs is a wine-bar. The star attraction of the room is the copper and wood bar, with food menu displayed above on a colourfully creative blackboard. People perch there, eating and drinking – some others are on tables like us – high affairs, akin to bar stools and breakfast bars. The table is big enough for us four but I am at a loss to see where the other two would have sat. Other diners are sat eating on a long, narrow bulkhead, backs facing the room. It all seems a shame, but everyone seems happy enough. Our table is positioned such that we get a great few of the blackboard – and the queue, freezing to death outside (I asked the manager and the wait time when we arrived was one and a half hours). The whole ambience and room feels repurposed and upcylced – much like Crate – all the way from the chiselled looks to the champagne boxes containing napkins, ketchup and mustard.
Our waitress didn’t stand on ceremony and came straight over to sort out drinks. We told her to go away. The drinks menu is like what one would expect from a wine bar – with a goes-without-saying emphasis on emerging Champagnes starting at £6.50 a glass and £40 for the bottle. When the time came to order, I would dearly have loved to say that I tried some but the feeling of the night was for beer so a few of us settled on ‘Raging Bitch’, a ‘Belgian-Style’ IPA from the Flying Dog brewery in Colorado that was apparently banned in Michigan for the ‘obscene’ name. Raging Bitch was disturbingly easy to drink for an 8.3% IPA. It was citrusy and not overwhelming (‘whelming’?). A few more followed throughout the evening.
Our lovely but over-zealous server came over again – way too quickly – to see if we were ready to order food. Go away! Choices are much more limited than the drinks; hot dogs or hot dogs, and a few sides. When it comes to the feature presentation, they can be ordered in beef, pork or veggie variety and are promoted as exceptional quality specimens (I simply refuse to be drawn into some puns based on dogs, like ‘pedigree’ etc. Pedigree Pun?!) Since I visited Bubbledogs I discovered – much to my pleasure – that their meats are supplied by curer and charcutier Graham Waddington – of Native Breeds in Gloucestershire. How’s that for a slice of home cooking?
So in all fairness to the waitress, it didn’t take long for us to review the blackboard and order. We settled into conversation – chiefly the trainwreck that was the X Factor vote and how “That Louis knew what he was doing, he ain’t-“
Oh hang on, food’s here.
They don’t hang around at Bubbledogs. Are they cooking the hot dogs using a Large Hadron Collider?
Between us we had ordered a selection of different dogs – all beef (natch), plus a few side orders. We dug in – with our hands, as there was a distinct lack of cutlery, and it didn’t seem the ‘done thing’ to ask for some. General consensus on the hot dogs was that they were, well, fine. The dog itself was well-made and deep in flavour, a sure-fire indicator that Mr. Waddington has worked magic on what is essentially fast food.
I say Mr. Waddington – and not Mr. Knappett. The problem with gourmet hot dogs is that you can have the best meat in the world, but when it’s covered in a detritus of toppings then it will simply fall back into any old offering from any old snack bar. My personal choice – the José – was crowned with nacho-y toppings such as jalapeños, avocado and sour cream; it was nice enough, but I couldn’t help but feel that if I was given the hot dog (and the traditionally-steamed buns I guess) I could do just as well in my own kitchen. And I can cock up a bowl of cereal.
They weren’t exactly massive either. One of the team had the deep-fried Buffalo Dog, smothered in Buffalo Sauce and blue cheese – she said it was divine – but as hot dogs go, not exactly ‘well-endowed’. There are a few different dogs to choose; some with wonderfully mad toppings (the K-Dawg, with kimchi and fermented red bean paste came highly recommended) so we can at least say that all tastes are catered for.
I was much more impressed with the side orders. We ordered way too many tater tots and sweet potato fries. Both are at risk of becoming over oiled and greasy to taste but they were executed wonderfully and were – bizarrely enough – the stars of the evening. We also ordered a pot of ‘cheez whiz’ – essentially melted down American (check: processed) cheese that somehow became more than the sum of its parts when drizzled over tots. Smiley face!
Although punctuated and not exactly leisurely, the experience was relaxing – despite being under the longing gaze of the queue (which had gotten no shorter during the meal). The food is served ‘festival style’ as I call it, in latticed red plastic trays for the dogs and cardboard tubs for the sides. This is all contradicted with glassware of serious quality.
Bubbledogs does not yet serve dessert or coffee; in any case I think that all of us felt a little guilty of eating when so many young, beautiful Londoners were going hungry in the doorway so we settled up pretty quickly in the end and began the walk of shame back out and past the queue. The bill came to around £80 (for four) with service – this included a couple of rounds of beers (priced at Champagne level), dogs at £7.50 and sides at about £3. The bill was presented with a guestbook; someone had written;
Had I missed something? I left Bubbledogs that evening with very conflicting opinions as to what had just happened. By no means was it a bad night but it certainly didn’t meet what the PR and queue had seemingly promised. And to wait an hour and a half for the privilege? No thanks.
Nevertheless, Knappett and Chang have instilled a sense of pride and passion into what happens at 70 Charlotte Street; the Champagne list displays a meticulous understanding of the attention to detail displayed through their work history (the bathrooms at Bubbeldogs are adorned with old menus of the Ledbury, Fat Duck and everywhere else the team have worked). This sense of ownership filters through into the Front of House – the service was warm and friendly (exactly what the management had specified in a recent Twitter recruitment ad) – if a little wham bam thank you mam; it was clear that the whole room was having a good time too – and this is what it all boils down to at the end of the day.
I guess I could liken Bubbledogs to the X Factor; both indulge in extremely over-enthusiastic use of Twitter and both are entertaining for the wrong reasons; I watch X Factor to see Rylan get booed or for Nicole to make a tit out of herself (again). I am glad I visited Bubbledogs; it was simply a bizarre-yet-engaging experience; proof that mongrels can be just as good fun as a pure-bred pedigree.
Would I recommend? Ummmmm… yeah, go on then. But you’ll go for the hot dogs and stay for the booze.
If you’re still wondering why on earth Knappett decided to ditch delicacies and dish out dogs, he hasn’t quite jumped ship all-together. Behind Bubbledogs – in the same building – is the 19-seat Kitchen Table, run by the man himself and featuring a tasting menu that changes every day dependent on what fresh ingredients are available to be sourced. As the name suggests, diners are sat around the kitchen ‘Teppanyaki-style’, with reservations taken via Twitter. It’s been added to the Hit List…
70 Charlotte Street | London | W1T 4QG
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11.30am to 4pm and 5.30pm to 11pm
*Project Noma, I hear you ask? Didn’t work out. Off to Budapest instead. Ask me next year. Or in 2014.