Red Dog Saloon has been on Forks-Up’s “must visit” list for quite some time, but we’ve never quite made it there – due (in part at least) to the original branch’s rather awkward Hoxton location. But when a second branch (Red Dog South) opened up in Clapham, a mere stone’s throw from Forks-Up HQ, there was no stopping us. On arrival, we were struck by the décor – the spacious dining room has high ceilings and plenty of light floods in through the floor length front windows. The wood panelled walls, bedecked with animal horns and framed sepia photographs, and the low-hanging lamps, give the impression of a Wild West movie set. Against this backdrop, the somewhat over-loud “chilled house” music that pumped from speakers at every corner did jar slightly, but the overall atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed.
The main event at Red Dog is the meat, and we will come onto that shortly, but to mix things up a bit my dining partner and I decided to start by sharing the fried catfish with remoulade sauce. We ordered 6 pieces, a plentiful portion for a starter, and we were thoroughly impressed. The fish was delicate, flaky, and enrobed in a batter reminiscent of matzah meal or panko breadcrumb – fabulously light, with a subtle crunch and a tongue teasing dusting of cayenne pepper to provide a bit of heat. The accompanying remoulade sauce was smooth and creamy, with a sharp vinegary tang and shot through with flecks of caper – it made an excellent dip and really brought the dish to life.
Red Dog is justly proud of its hickory smoked meat – the Clapham branch smokes its own, on-site, every single day. The Bar-B-Q Meals section forms the centrepiece of the menu, offering one meat for £16.50, or a combination of two meats for £17.50, each served with a choice of two sides. I opted for the ribs & chicken combo, with sides of mac ‘n’ cheese and coleslaw, while my dining partner went for the ribs & pulled pork, with fries and barbecue beans, plus an extra side of onion rings. As expected, the meat was excellent. The ribs were tender, thick-cut, and smothered in a sweet, sticky glaze that we relished licking from our fingers at the end of the meal. The chicken was beautifully succulent, with skin crisped from the chargrill, and a hickory smoke flavour that was perfectly pitched. The pulled pork too was fabulous – but we were slightly disgruntled by the fact that it tasted identical to the rib meat – had he known that this would be the case, my dining partner would have gone for pulled pork on its own (same taste, less work) or a different combo. Another gripe we had was with the portion sizes: at £17.50 each, the Red Dog combos aren’t cheap, and with meat being the main event, we were rather hoping there would be more of it. The ribs & pulled pork combo consisted of two individual ribs, plus a small mound of pulled meat (we’d estimate no more than 150g). The ribs & chicken combo also included two individual ribs, plus what was apparently a quarter chicken. A quarter chicken would have been perfectly reasonable, but the leg and thigh portion on my plate was minuscule – to the point where I wondered whether it had come from a fully grown bird. My sense of injustice grew when I saw the piece of chicken on the combo plate of the lady at the next table – a large, plump breast piece, at least double the size of my leg piece. We were initially surprised that the kitchen would send out such inconsistent dishes, but our opinion of their quality control practices took a nose dive with dessert (on which more later), in light of which the meat portion differentials were perhaps not so astonishing.
As for the side dishes, they were a bit of a mixed bag. The coleslaw was delicious – finely julienned carrot, onion and white cabbage, with a creamy yet light dressing, well-seasoned with black pepper. The fries were well-executed, with crisp outsides and fluffy middles, and the serving size was impressively generous. The barbecue beans were very much what one would expect – a sweeter, tangier, more enjoyable version of baked beans. The onion rings were ok – the batter was light and crispy, and the dipping sauce was a delectably smooth, smoky spiced mayonnaise whose flavour we loved, but the onion itself was thick cut and not quite cooked through. The real disappointment was the mac ‘n’ cheese – a glutinous yellow mush, the macaroni itself was overcooked and the cheese sauce was so over-seasoned with nutmeg that eating a forkful was like sticking your nose in a bowl of Christmas themed pot-pourri. I would have stopped after one bite, but I really wanted to give this mac ‘n’ cheese a chance, so I went back to it several times during the meal in the hope that the nutmeg wouldn’t be quite such an assault on the senses the next time. Needless to say, my strategy failed, and the mac ‘n’ cheese had to be abandoned uneaten.
Main courses (mostly) devoured, my dining partner and I were hungry to try dessert, but we were slightly concerned that we would be told there was no time. We had booked online through Opentable, and couldn’t recall seeing any notice about turnaround times, but when the restaurant called us to confirm the booking, they threw in a “reminder” that we would need to give our 7.15pm table back by 8.45pm. A one and a half hour turnaround time is extremely tight – and unusual in an industry where the norm is two hours. On our visit, the restaurant was busy, but by no means full. We had been ready to order as soon as we were asked, and we didn’t linger unduly over our food, but we were still only 7 minutes off the return time when we finished our mains. As it happened, nobody asked for our table back, and we were able to order dessert – but we would question why Red Dog tries to operate a seemingly impossible turnaround time at all.
The dessert menu offers a panoply of decadent American classics – Pecan Pie, Mississippi Mud Pie, Chocolate Brownie, etc. Wanting something a little lighter, my dining partner and I decided to share a Key Lime Pie – a famous Floridian treat, this should be made of Key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk in a pie crust. Traditionally, the egg whites are used to make a light meringue topping. I’m still not entirely sure what we were served, but it certainly wasn’t a Key Lime Pie: it looked rather like an over-baked cheesecake, topped with a miserable swirl of squirty cream; and (surprise, surprise) it tasted rather like an over-baked cheesecake, topped with a miserable swirl of squirty cream. The filling was thick, heavy, grainy, with an indistinct citrus flavour that could have been lemon or lime, while the crust was actually burnt, to the point where we couldn’t even bring ourselves to eat it and were shocked that it had ever been allowed to leave the kitchen. In retrospect, we should have simply sent the dish back, rather than struggling through the filling and leaving behind an empty crust and a puddle of deflated squirty cream. Even so, we were surprised by the nonchalance of the waitress who remarked on the abandoned crust when she cleared the plate away – she seemed totally un-concerned by our comment that it was burnt. Apart from that, service throughout our meal was generally acceptable, though we were waited on by so many people that we never quite sure who was responsible for our table. We were sat quite close to the reception desk, which seemed to be a popular hangout for the many staff, and our overwhelming impression was that there were far more waiters than necessary for the number of tables.
As for drinks, Red Dog offers 5 white wines and 6 reds, ranging from £17.50 to £40 per bottle (of which several are available by the glass). But my dining partner and I were rather more tempted by the cocktail menu – particularly the margaritas, which can be served straight-up, on the rocks, or frozen. My strawberry margarita, which I chose to have on the rocks, was delightful – made with muddled fresh strawberries, it was intensely fruity and perfectly balanced. My dining partner’s straight-up classic margarita was perhaps a touch too sweet, but this was easily sorted by an extra squirt of lime juice from the garnish. With cocktails costing around £9 a pop, the bill could quickly rack up if you were to drink them throughout your meal. Luckily, Red Dog also offers a wide variety of beers and soft drinks – including an excellent home-made iced tea, which I would thoroughly recommend.
Despite having shared a starter and dessert, and gone for cheaper second drinks, our bill still came in at over £42 per head including service. Had we walked out feeling full, and fully satisfied, we would probably have thought this was far from cheap, but fair enough. Instead, we walked out feeling short-changed on meat, saddened by sides, and depressed by dessert – with the result that the price felt rather closer to a rip off. There is a lot of good in the Red Dog, and we love the concept, but the overall execution fell short of our expectations. In sum, therefore, Red Dog scores a rather disappointing two and a half Forks-Up.Red Dog South
27 – 31 Bedford Road
SW4 7SH T: 020 3714 2747