Nando’s On A Peri-licious Road To Self-Discovery

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Nando’s needs no introduction. This chain of casual dining restaurants takes Portuguese cuisine to a whole new level and proudly serves the meanest flame-grilled chicken money can buy. Starting in 1987, Nando’s now operates in around 24 countries worldwide and there’s no stopping it. The secret of its success is the uniqueness of its Peri-Peri sauce which is the base for almost everything you eat at Nando’s. What is even more interesting is the fact that Nando’s is a cuisine in its own right. “So what do you want to have today? Chinese, Pakistani, Italian, or Nando’s?”. In other words, Nando’s doesn’t have any direct competitors, at least not in Pakistan, which is a huge advantage for the chain.

I have always been a fan of Nando’s and I commend them on their consistency to provide delicious food, their tastefully decorates restaurants and their witty advertising campaigns. I associate this restaurant with a lot of fond memories and a visit there is always nostalgic. Whether it is getting together with friends after ages or celebrating my wedding anniversary, Nando’s is the best place to be. The fact that I can eat with my hands without being judged doesn’t hurt either.

In an attempt to redefine itself, Nando’s has come up with a revamped menu that incorporates most of the regular favorites while adding a bunch of new items that are sure to take your heart away. I was recently invited at a Blogger’s meetup for the launch of their new menu by my friends at Food Connection Pakistan; the evening was spectacular to say the least.

The Ambiance

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I generally visit the Nando’s that is closest to my place but in this particular instance, I was invited to the Boat Basin restaurant. As I stepped in, I couldn’t help but admire the burst of colors that surrounded me. Everything from the brightly painted wall mural to the art pieces placed all over the restaurant were mesmerizing. I was greeted by a hostess who graciously took me to my table on the first floor. On my way there, I saw some more art pieces that adorned the walls and I felt like I was walking through an art gallery. What made the experience more realistic was the fact that the artists were properly credited; impressive and something worth appreciating.

The Reception

When I approached my table, I could see that my friends were already there and I was the last one in. Ali from the Nando’s team was our host on this culinary journey we were about to embark on. As I shook hands with everyone, a waiter approached me and asked me if I wanted anything to drink. I requested a Portuguese Lemonade without missing a beat.

After we were all seated, Ali revealed the gorgeous new menus that Nando’s had designed. Featuring original artworks from South African artists, these menus are a sight for sore eyes. They are everything that Nando’s is (bright, bold and authentic) and brilliantly capture the essence of the restaurant.

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I told Ali how much I loved the look and feel of this restaurant to which he responded, “Yousuf. We at Nando’s think of our restaurants as museums, where people come to appreciate the creations of up and coming artists. This is our way of celebrating the local culture and the art that originates from here. We curate these pieces from diverse sources including students and community farms. This is what our identity is and this is what we have tried to portray in the new menu design too.”

Next, Ali took us through all the changes and upgrades that had gone into the menu.

“As you can see, we’ve added quite a few things to the menu. There are new entries in the Appeteasers section, namely the Roasted Veg Dip and Altogether Now. We’ve also tried catering to the Chicken Wing lovers by introducing wings as part of our main course. Since people love sharing Nando’s, we’ve added some platters ideal for a group of 2 to 6 people. We’ve incorporated some vegetarian options too, like the Veggie burger/pita sandwich and Caesar salad. To tie it all up, we’ve introduced Corn on The Cob, Fino sides, and Garlic Bread to make your meals even more memorable.”

All this food-talk was making me really hungry and I was sure it was having the same effect on the rest of the diners. What Ali said next was music to my ears.

“To give you a taste of our new offerings, I have taken the liberty of ordering everything for you.”

The Food

The buttery Corn on the cob was the very first treat of the night. As I bit into my ‘mild’ corn, I could sense a conflict between the corn’s natural sweetness (highlighted by the butter) and the spice from the peri-peri sauce, the sweet overpowering the spice by miles. Sensing the lack of heat and the fact that I always use the ‘hot’ peri-peri, I drizzled a few drops onto the corn and took another bite. What resulted was an explosion of taste that is hard to define in words and the combination couldn’t have been more intense. I enjoyed the rest of the corn and regretfully moved on to the next dish; a solid 9 out of 10 for me.

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Next came the Altogether Now platter, featuring a bowl of Olives, Hummus, and Roasted Vegetable Dip served with Pita Bread. The hummus, as always, was very tasty but the roasted veg dip failed to impress me much as it was a bit under-seasoned. A 7 out of 10 for me on this one.

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The Caesar Salad was a revelation. Featuring fresh lettuce leaves with a surprisingly refreshing Caesar dressing, croutons and Parmesan cheese, this dish managed to steal my heart. I would have liked a little more cheese but maybe that’s just me. I’d have it any day of the week and I’d rate this a solid 10 on 10.

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Then came the warm aromatic Garlic Bread with grill marks. I couldn’t help myself comparing this with my favorite garlic bread. Even though this bread was fresh and tasted great, I really missed that strong garlicky flavor that it is supposed to have. A reasonable 7 out of 10 for the Garlic Bread.

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Fino is Portuguese for ‘posh’ and this is the feeling these sides are supposed to evoke. While the Grilled Veg featured on the right side fail to deliver this feeling, the Sweet Potato Mash on the left hit the ‘posh’ out of the park. Nando’s redefines the concept of ‘mash’ by presenting these cinnamon-flavored chunks of sweet potato with a drizzle of your desired peri-peri heat. The sweetness hits you first when you pop a chunk into your mouth. As it progresses down the tongue, the sour, salty and spicy profiles of the potato hit you and it is suddenly transformed from ‘just a potato’ to a tantalizing delicacy. Just sitting here writing about it makes me want to rush to Nando’s and get a fix. Whereas the Grilled Veg was a disappointing 5, the Mash gets a 10 out of 10 from me.

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For the main course, we were offered a selection of one of their breaded options. We could either go for a wrap, a burger or a pita sandwich. As the other two options were Veg and Aubergine-Chicken (I hate Aubergines), I went for a basic grilled chicken breast fillet in a pita. My other friends ordered the same in burger or wrap form. The only exception was Ali, who went for the Aubergine version in a burger. I had ordered my main course with a side of wedges and I dove into them as soon as the platter was placed in front of me. The wedges, as always, were crisp on the outside, tantalizingly soft on the inside. The Pita, however, was a different story. For some reason, I have never found good Pita in Pakistan and the one being served at Nando’s is no exception. While the filling in the pita was outstanding, the Pita itself was thick, damp, and soggy, owing to the absorption of all the tasty juices from the filling; I wish I would have tried the wrap or the burger variant but it was too late and I was too full. I gave the pita sandwich an 8 on 10; had the pita been thin and dry, I would have gladly bumped it up to a 10.

When Ali offered dessert, we politely declined; if I say ‘No’ to the Nando’s chocolate cake, I have to be really REALLY full.

The Verdict

Restaurants willing to re-discover themselves and open to incorporate customer feedback are truly appreciated. Nando’s has done just that and I must say it is a bold and exciting initiative. Even though I miss the old hard-bound menu that had these ‘one-liners’ Nando’s is famous for, I’m impressed by what they have done to the menu. As with any change, there are a few hits and a few misses, but in this particular case, Nando’s delivers most of these with a bang.

As for the pricing, there are some items on the menu that fail to deliver value for money, for instance the Caesar Salad and the Grilled Veg, but overall, Nando’s pricing is consistent with a lot of other fine dining restaurants across Pakistan. A per-head cost comes up to around 600 to 800 PKR per person which is slightly expensive, but worth what you get in terms of taste. Everything tastes good with Peri-Peri and the sauce is a permanent entry on my grocery list. If  you want to get a taste of what Nando’s has to offer, I recommend you get some of their sauce and try making something around it. 

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Finally, I’d like to thank the entire Nando’s team for having us over and sharing this evening with us. The team was exceptional, professional and made sure we all had a great time!

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Ginsoy’s Extreme Make-over

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For far too long have a few ‘Pioneer’ Chinese restaurants monopolized the Karachi oriental scene. Don’t get me wrong; I have always admired them for their trend-setting ways, their innovative, albeit overpriced, menus and their personalized spin on Pak-Chinese cuisine. There have, however, been a few entrants in recent years that have given these pros a run for their money, and then some. Hello, Ginsoy!

Ginsoy has been serving mouthwatering Chinistani (it was either this or Pakinese) since January 2012 and has developed a cult following, myself included; this is not only for the exciting tastes this restaurant has to offer, but also for the value-for-money you get there. Ask any of Ginsoy’s regular customers what they feel about the restaurant, and the three words that you are most likely to hear are, “Reserve In Advance!” Such is the popularity of this joint and having been denied the chance to sample their cuisine on more than one occasion myself is pure torture. Luckily, for all Ginsoy-a-holics, the restaurant’s going through an Extreme Makeover. Err, well, this is not a makeover per se, rather a nice addition to the already overcrowded packed-to-the-rafters dining area, and rightly so. Enter Ginsoy Extension!

Located a few doors down the original Ginsoy location, this extension is a rather intelligent move on the restaurateurs’ part. Generally, a restaurant this size requires months, if not years, of planning, but shockingly, this restaurant was created in a little over 20 days, which is virtually unheard of in the restaurant world. With quite a few celebrities from the cooking world sitting around me, I felt honored to be part of their inauguration a few days back and had a jolly good time with my friends at Food Connection Pakistan.

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The Reception/Ambience (8 out of 10)

Whenever you visit a restaurant that is an extension (or a branch) of the original, you are bound to compare them with each other, and I’m no exception. Personally, I rather prefer the light refreshing feel of the extension over the dark subtle feel of the original place. The immaculate tables are set extremely close to each other; you cannot help but overhear every word of the conversation taking place on the table next to/behind you. I do, however, applaud the effort to optimally utilize the limited space that the restaurant offers. I could probably live without the music playing in the foreground (I mean, background) as the restaurant tends to get quite rowdy (in a good way) when packed. Overall, I rather enjoyed the upbeat vibe the place exudes, ergo an 8 out of 10.

Inaugurations can be larger-than-life affairs and the extension’s was no exception. I did get to meet one of the owners, Hassan Baweja and it was a delight seeing someone as young and exuberant as him running the show (rather efficiently). As usual, I would have loved to do a one-on-one interview with him, but the overcrowded place prevented me from doing so. He did, however, give a mini-speech of sorts so I’ll try as best as I can to put his words into this post.

“We cannot thank our customers enough for the overwhelming response we’ve gotten from them since we opened about a year back. Our main focus has always been on providing quality food at a good price. Unfortunately, we were unable to cater to a lot of our customers because of the space restriction at Ginsoy. My uncle, who’s also my business partner, and I had been trying to work out this space constraint until we finally came up with the idea of Ginsoy Extension.

Why ‘Extension’? Well, we could have called this restaurant Ginsoy 2 but that sounded a bit cliché. Since this was an expansion of the original restaurant, the ‘Extension’ suffix suited perfectly. Why so close to the original restaurant? We wanted to keep a strong hold on our quality and taste, and management-wise, it seemed like a wise decision. What’s more is that our loyal clients won’t mind walking a few steps to the Extension if they don’t find a place at the original Ginsoy. People have grown to like and appreciate the ‘desi’ taste that we have to offer and we would hopefully be able to cater to most of our customers.

What you see here today is the result of our tireless efforts we’ve put into this place for the last 20 days. Yes, you heard it right. We got this place up and running in approximately 20 days. This place was occupied by a restaurant before we took over, so the space was already there but we still needed to create our own vibe. Alhamdolillah, we were successful in finishing this project and we look forward to serving great cuisine to many more of our customers simultaneously.”

The Food (9 out of 10)

Having tried quite a few of Ginsoy’s dishes on my previous culinary escapades, I tried ordering food I had not tasted thus far. While we were waiting for our order, a waiter came out with a platter full of assorted appetizers, featuring Fried Chicken Wontons, Butterfly Prawns and what looked like Spring Rolls (I really couldn’t tell). Since the platter was all out of rolls before I could get one, I’ll stick my comments to just the other two starters.

The Butterfly Prawn was one of the best I have ever had. Flattened, crumb-coated and deep fried to a golden crisp, these crunchy delicacies packed a powerful punch with just the right amount of spices. I could have gladly eaten all of them had I not been in the company of friends; moments like these make morals and etiquette seem so overrated. I gave Ginsoy a 10 on 10 for this brilliant dish!

The tortellini-shaped Fried Chicken Wontons were a major disappointment. With a chickpea-sized chicken filling, the flavor of the phyllo pastry overshadowed the taste of the chicken and rendered the whole thing bland, the only saving grace being the sweet tomato-chili sauce served on the side; a disappointing 4 out of 10.

I was so busy feasting myself on the prawns that I forgot to take the photograph of the platter; the rest of the meal, however, has been documented in detail for your drooling pleasure.

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Golden Deep Fried Finger Fish

Our order was delivered after a customary 25-minute wait, and the first starter that was placed in front of us was the Golden Deep Fried Finger Fish. These crispy fingers of perfectly cooked fish, served with a sweet tomato-chili sauce were extremely delicious, despite having very subtle flavors. What made the fish more interesting was the coarse coating on top, owing to the use of fresh bread crumbs. This gave the dish a very rustic/homey feel as compared to the pretentiously perfect fingers served at other restaurants; a solid 9 out of 10 for me. I could have probably done away with the sauce as the fish tasted pretty amazing on its own.

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Thai Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce

The Thai Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce could have been a better dish, had it been a little less oily. Also, the flavors were really one-note and the meat wasn’t as tender as I would have liked. The peanut sauce looked extremely unappetizing as it showcased a thick layer of oil on top. I have started appreciating food with sweeter profiles and I really wanted to love the satay too; unfortunately, I could only come up with a 6 out of 10 on my satisfaction meter.

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Original Orange Chicken

The Original Orange Chicken is a Ginsoy specialty and came with a glowing recommendation from one of my friends. The presentation was sloppy at best and it was extremely difficult to get into the orange-cups with the serving spoon accompanying the dish. In all fairness, I decided to look past the presentation and boy was I rewarded. This right here is Ginsoy at its best; the tender pieces of chicken lathered in an exquisite orange-based (or should I say kinoow-based) gravy, sweet yet tangy, blew my mind away. I couldn’t help but give this dish a solid 10, solely on the taste; otherwise, it would have been a very reluctant 8.

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Tamarind Fish with Chili Sauce

I was a little skeptical about digging into the Tamarind Fish with Chili Sauce because I didn’t really want to eat what could supposedly be a sour tangy mess. Leave it to Ginsoy to metamorphose unconventional ingredients into a delightful dish, and this was no exception. Amazingly, the crispy deep fried fish hadn’t lost its crunch even after sitting in the tamarind sauce for almost 10 minutes. The slight tang of the tamarind fused with the underlying sweet taste (could have been honey or brown sugar) went well with the generous garnish of green chilies. What I liked most though was the fact that this dish was served with a side of rice, unlike all other gravies. It deserved nothing less than a 10 and was, hands down, THE best dish I had tasted all night.

Beef Chowmein

Beef Chow Mein

I was hoping to end the meal on a high note as I plated the last dish of the evening, i.e. Beef Chow Mein, but that wasn’t the case. Even though the noodles were good, they weren’t the best I had had. The dish predominantly tasted of soy sauce, could have used more seasoning, and garnered a mere 6.5 out of 10 from me.

The Pricing (9 out of 10)

When you first glance at their menu, Ginsoy’s prices might seem a bit steep, but the portion sizes fairly compensate for them. An average meal costs around PKR 700 to 800 plus tax per person, and from personal experience, you even get to bring home a few leftovers.

The Verdict

In all fairness, I based my review on my overall perception of Ginsoy rather than focusing on the meal I had had at the inauguration. There are a few other dishes that I’d highly recommend; Cherry Chili Chicken, Crispy Fish in Sticky Red Sauce, Stuffed Chilies and Prawn Balls.

I also have a few suggestions that the management can follow:

  • Managing two kitchens can be a daunting task, especially when people expect to get the same flavors at two different places. Ensure that you serve the same great food consistently and you will have much longer queues at your front desk than you already have.
  • Keep getting feedback from your customers and incorporate that in your decision-making. That will help you go a long way.
  • The restaurants are crammed to maximum capacity. Reevaluate the seating and try finding a way to improve it optimally.
  • Where most restaurants go wrong is with the pricing of their food; they fail to balance what they serve with what they charge. When revising your prices, keep in mind how it would impact your loyal customer-base; a slight error can result in a major loss of goodwill.
  • The wooden fixture that has been placed at the top of the staircase causes a lot of problems, especially when several people are navigating the narrow space simultaneously. You really don’t need that.

The world’s a changin’ and so is our palate. We now favor more authentic flavors and are capable of appreciating rare (even outlandish) ingredients. Seeing Ginsoy’s popularity and the fact that the restaurant prides itself on serving desi Chinese confirms this hypothesis. From fried calamari to Cantonese lobster, classic crab to Mopu tofu, Ginsoy has something for everyone (in case you were STILL wondering, they serve chicken and beef too). Needless to say, it hits it out of the park with everything from the tempting flavors to the affordable pricing. With the space issue seemingly resolved (for now) too, we Ginsoy-a-holics can finally say what we have always wanted to say (in three words); “I’m lovin’ it” (no offense, Mr. Ronald).

Burger Inc.: Redefining The All-American Classic

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Karachi (or shall I say, Pakistan?) witnessed what I call a food franchise frenzy (FFF) in the 90’s, when a bunch of international chains decided to grace us with their presence. Out of nowhere, trendy restaurants started popping up all over the place, overshadowing local food chains that just couldn’t compete. While the consumers were happy with a wider food selection, I saw several home-grown restaurants that I had grown up with, fade away into nothingness.

Luckily for us, there are still a few passionate people like Syed Mohammed Ali Raza, who are willing to tread the turbulent waters and make their name in the local fast food scene. Syed Mohammed Ali Raza is the owner of Burger, Inc., a restaurant serving all-American burgers and classic southern fried chicken. I had this opportunity to meet with Ali through my friends at Food Connection Pakistan. Seldom have I come across someone who is this honest, open and straight-forward.

Burger, Inc. is a grab-and-go burger joint located in the posh DHA area in Karachi and I had the pleasure of visiting it a few days back. As soon as I got in, I saw Ali walking towards me. What struck me was the lack of seating for the customers. What can I say? I just don’t like eating in a car. After a brief round of introductions, he led me up a narrow flight of spiral stairs to his office/bakery/prep-area on the first floor. Once we were seated and he had ordered tea for the both of us, I fired away with some burning questions.

Yousuf: Opening up a restaurant highlighting burgers is a bold move. Why introduce burgers in an already saturated market?

Ali: (laughs) Karachi is not a city; it’s a country in its own right. With a population of around 20 million, there definitely is a place for my restaurant too. When people ask me who my competition is, I laugh at them. Unlike others in the fast food industry, I don’t believe in camouflaging the quality of the burger behind a bunch of sauces & mayonnaise. My focus, on the other hand, is for the people to be able to taste the original flavor of the meat. Burger, Inc. isn’t a fast food restaurant as my burgers are more on a gourmet trajectory. I hand-pick prime cuts of beef to create a perfect patty that is moist, light, and packs the maximum taste.

Yousuf: Who/what inspired you to open this restaurant?

Ali: To be very honest, the restaurant business is perhaps one of the very few good/clean business models, if you know what I mean. This and the opportunity to grow in Pakistan by selling a quality product at a fair price is what inspired me most. I want to turn Burger, Inc. into a national brand.

Yousuf: What sets you apart from your competition?

Ali: The first thing you should notice is that I have nothing to hide. The kitchen is practically open to anyone who wishes to see what’s going on. If I see a customer complain about delays in his order, I open my doors, lead him into the kitchen and let him see how his meal is being cooked. Our burger patties are not half-cooked then frozen to save time when they are put back on the grill. We cook the patties to order and this significantly increases our serving times.

I don’t believe in sourcing my supplies and have kept it to a bare minimum. Even the buns that we use are baked in our own ovens; it’s a simple recipe, nothing fancy, with potatoes, flour, salt and yeast. I don’t use any preservatives in our buns and that is why, we prefer calling them Artisan rolls. A burger is as much about the bun as it is about the patty, if not more, and it’s the bun that you taste when you first sink your teeth into it.

At Burger, Inc., we understand that each part of the cow has a different flavor/texture. As I said earlier, we blend different parts of the cow to create the perfect burger. All the cuts we used are marbled meat and we do not add any additional fat to it. To ensure this, I oversee the procurement of the meat cuts myself.

I’m big on hearing what the customers have to say about out food, especially if they have a negative critique. Such evaluations help us improve the quality of our food and service. I personally make it a point to scour the internet and respond to any queries that the customers may have (on forums, facebook, etc.). That way, the staff respects me more as they know I’m getting direct feedback from our consumers.

Yousuf: Are there any ‘secret’ spices/techniques we should know about?

Ali: There is no secret – PERIOD. We don’t put any spices in the meat as I want people to taste it the way God meant it to be tasted. A little salt and pepper is added onto the patty at the time of grilling and that’s about it. Even our chicken is not marinated, just classically deep fried in the southern American style.

Yousuf: Besides burgers, what is your favorite food?

Ali: I absolutely am in love with Koobideh Kabab served with Bakla rice. It’s a Persian staple made with minced lamb.

Yousuf: What are your future plans?

Ali: I’m currently searching for an additional outlet in the Muhammad Ali Housing Society vicinity and I intend to open up a branch there as soon as I possibly can.

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The Food (9/10)

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With that last question, I diverted my attention towards the delicacies that were being laid out in front of me. As I took my first bite, I could instantly tell that the bun was freshly baked. I could taste a hint of something familiar (i.e. potatoes) as it melted into my mouth. Soft and aromatic, it would itself be an excellent accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The beef patty was thick, juicy, charred on the outside and most of all, pink on the inside, a sure-shot sign of it being made from good quality meat. As promised by Ali, I was welcomed by the refreshingly untainted flavor of meat in my mouth. Not too chewy, not too crumbly, it was a perfectly succulent beef patty. I wasn’t a huge fan of the accompanying home-made sauce as it had a slightly grainy quality to it.

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Out came the chicken; golden, glistening and crisp.

“Looks can be deceiving”, I thought. “How can you not marinate a chicken and still manage to keep it juicy?”

As I took a bite, I couldn’t help but admire how tasty and moist it was despite the fact that it had not been marinated. The coating on the outside was fairly basic but had a nice crunch to it, the golden skin fried to perfection. The accompanying mayo-based sauce was a cherry on the top and would be an ideal dip for the french fries. I could eat a bucket-full any given day.

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With my hunger satiated, I went back down into the kitchen to see the patties being grilled in front of my eyes. The cook took out some almost-perfectly round hand-made frozen patties from the fridge, removed them from the plastic and put them on the grill. The all-too-familiar sizzling sound was music to my ears and I stood there mesmerized, watching the patties being grilled to perfection.

The Pricing (10/10)

Burger, Inc. is an ideal place for people who demand value for money. A per-person meal costs around PKR 450 on average and is worth every penny. This is another area where Burger, Inc. gives the other chains a run for their money. Let’s take a look at the menu below for reference (courtesy FC-Pakistan).

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The Verdict

All the reviews I had read online were understated. This burger was better than they claimed it to be, and then some. In this world full of processed meat and additives, it’s refreshing to try something that is lean and clean. If you want to satisfy your burger/chicken cravings without putting a significant dent in your pocket, head out to Burger, Inc. now and grab whatever gets your juices flowing.

There are, however, a few things I’d like to suggest that may help increase the Burger, Inc. clientele significantly:

  • Cater to children by adding in a kids menu; many parents like to buy small portions for the kids so that food isn’t wasted
  • Have some seating arrangement at all subsequent branches so that people can enjoy the burgers as soon as they come off the grill
  • I’m all about keeping a simple menu but you could really use some other items that compliment burgers, such as milk shakes, onion rings, etc. to give people a wider selection of sides
  • Get the sign on the front fixed; the first impression leaves a huge mark on the customers
  • Add a vegetarian option for people who can’t/don’t want to eat meat
  • Quality comes first; never compromise on it and the customers will keep on coming back for more

Thank you for having me over and I wish you all the best for your upcoming openings. I can’t wait to bring my family out there for a bite.

Karachi Makes Way For Gourmet ‘Fatburger’!

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Fatburger recently started advertising on billboards all across Karachi. The billboards, featuring a mouthwatering Triple Fatburger, are pretty hard to miss, and being the burger-junkie that I am, I dragged my wife and kids to Dolmen Mall, Clifton for a bite last Sunday. Unfortunately for me though, the burger joint had yet to open for public. Disappointed and disheartened, I went home and ordered some pizza instead. They say that when you want something really badly, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it. The very next day, I received an exclusive invite for a pre-inaugural bloggers’ meetup at Fatburger, courtesy Food Connection Pakistan.

So at precisely 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 3, 2013, I parked my car in the Dolmen Mall basement and made my way to the second floor. Turns out, the whole area where the restaurant was supposed to be was cordoned off. I asked one of the mall guards for directions and he told me to take a barely-visible side-entrance.

The Ambiance (9 out of 10)

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As soon as you step in, you are embraced by this lively space reminiscent of an all-American diner. The place has a very casual atmosphere that is both welcoming and homely, someplace you can either hang out with friends or with family and have as much fun as you can possibly handle. The lighting is primarily done using strategically placed spotlights and is just right without being too overpowering. Should you choose, you can sit at one of the tables spread out across the restaurant, at one of the cozy sofas under the gigantic Fatburger logo, or at the sit-down counter where all the cooking, shouting and shaking (strictly within the confines of an electric blender) is done right in front of your eyes. Fatburger employees are a chatty bunch so if you’re feeling a little adventurous, the sit-down counter is THE place for you.

The Reception (10 out of 10)

Jake and Tarek with the boys

Jake and Tarek with the boys

The first person I met there was Wasif, the Director at BIL Foods Limited (local franchisee for the Fatburger chain). I started talking to him but mid-way through our chat, I was whisked away by Tarek (Director of Marketing for Fatburger, Middle East and North Africa – MENA) to meet Jake (Director of Operations for Fatburger, MENA). Turns out, Jake was holding an informal Q&A for all attendees and I was asked to join the circle. Asiya (General Manager HR, Marketing and Corporate Affairs) joined us at the table too.

Jake started off with a brief history of Fatburger (see Wikipedia page for further information) and a few fun facts about the restaurant. Since I had a few burning questions for Jake, I started firing away:

Yousuf: There are many burger joints in Karachi. What is it that sets you apart? 

Jake: Well for starters, we use freshly ground beef and the burger patty is hand-made, not manufactured in some processing plant. You should make a note of the unevenness of the patty when you order your burger; that’s because its made by hand. Moreover, we only use lean meat from 30-month old steers grown specifically for their meat. All the meat that we use in our restaurant here is high-quality USDA choice beef imported from USA and is 100% halal. The meat is flash-frozen and sent over to Pakistan to preserve its nutritional value. So in short, it’s a healthier version of your average burger where you get all the taste but little on the waist. Besides, everything is made for you fresh, right in front of your eyes, because we don’t have anything to hide from our customers.

Let me make one thing clear: we are NOT a fast-food restaurant. For most joints, the staff’s relationship with the customer ends once they take your money and hand you a receipt; for Fatburger, it’s where the relationship begins. There is a wait-time for processing each order and we like to utilize that to have conversations with our customers, making sure they are having the best time of their life. Customer service is our number one priority.

Yousuf: So have you customized your menu specifically for Pakistan?

Jake: As part of the Fatburger philosophy, we stick with what works best. Currently, we have the original Fatburgers, Jalapeno Fatburger (also in Chiken), a Western BBQ Fatburger, a Turkeyburger and Veggieburger (this option is still unheard of in Pakistan). You can customize these items using our condiments and add-ons. As part of our sides, we have Chili dogs, Fatwings, Fat fries, Skinny fries, Chicken nuggets and strips, Homemade Onion rings, Chicken salad, and Chili fries. You can choose to go with a drink with free refills or a real Ice Cream Milkshake to wash it all down.

When we launch in a new country, we start off with our core menu and after evaluating customer feedback and local trends, we add on other items. LTOs (Limited Time Offers) are also introduced from time to time.

Yousuf: I’ve eating a lot of burgers abroad but when I try the same burger in Pakistan, it tastes different, and I don’t mean that in a good way, plus the portion sizes are smaller. What are you doing to ensure this doesn’t happen with Fatburger?

Jake: We, at Fatburger, don’t like to cut corners. What you get anywhere else in the world is what you get here. We have a tried and tested recipe which works every time so we don’t try messing around with it. Tarek and I are here from the Fatburger corporate office in the Middle East because we like to keep a close relationship with our franchisees. Continuous quality monitoring and coordination ensures that the quality of our products doesn’t deteriorate.

Yousuf: What do you recommend I should try today?

Jake: You should definitely go for a Western BBQ Burger with an egg (if you’re feeling adventurous) with a side of onion rings and a milkshake. Our onion rings are actually handmade from fresh Spanish onions, not from frozen ones.

The Service (10 out of 10)

A Numbers Game

A Numbers Game

While I was waiting in line to place my order, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles on everyone’s faces behind the counter and in the open kitchen; working didn’t seem like a chore and the employees were really enjoying themselves. I was up next.

“Hello Sir. Welcome to Farburger. How are you doing?”, the lady behind the counter said.

“I’m doing good, and you?”, I inquired.

“Fine, thank you sir. What would you like to order today?”

I decided to ditch Jake’s advice and went for the unadulterated Fatburger. “Hmm. I’ll have a Fatburger without tomatoes, and some chili cheese fries.”

“Would you like a drink with your order?”

“Sure. I’ll have a milk shake. What flavors do you have?”

“We have vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and Oreo.”

“I’ll have a chocolate shake.”

“Anything else, sir?”

“No that’ll be all. Thank you.”

“Dine in or take-away?”

“Dine in, please.”

And then something really extra-ordinary happened. This lady taking my order proceeded with ‘The Call-out’, an authentic way of shouting out an order to the kitchen. I made a video of another transaction for your viewing pleasure.

“Thank you. Kindly take your receipt and this number. Your order will be ready within 10 to 12 minutes.”

“Thanks.”

As I made way to my table, all the employees there smiled at me, made small-talk and thanked me for coming to Fatburger.

The Food (8.5 out of 10)

The Original Fatburger

The Original Fatburger

While I was waiting for my order, one of my friends who had already received his order offered me an onion ring. That was undoubtedly the most unpretentious onion ring I had ever had, and I mean that in a good way. Perfectly cooked with a balanced seasoning, it was crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. I had little time to admire the down-to-earthiness of the onion ring as a waiter came up to my table and put my meal in front of me, well within the promised 10 minutes.

The chili fries looked irresistible but could have used a little more cheese. They tasted pretty good too. The chili was a perfect combination of sweet and spicy, not over-the-top but just-a-hint-o-spice. Even though my Pakistani palette craved more heat, I found the chili-fries combo pretty satisfying.

I lovingly unwrapped the burger and took my first bite. It was very good, better than most burgers I’ve had over the years. The patty was moist and nicely seasoned, not too hard not too soft. The second bite tasted even better as I got a hit of pickle with that one. Needless to say, I was enjoying myself immensely. Just then, a waiter came up to me and asked me if everything was to my liking. He also brought me some tomato ketchup and my hand-scooped Chocolate milkshake.

As I was focused on finishing my burger, I barely noticed Jake coming down to my table. I offered him a seat and gave him a few tips on what foods to try when in Karachi. While we were chatting away, I took a closer look at my milkshake. Topped with a generous serving of whipped cream, it looked really tempting. I wrapped my hand around the glass, stirred the straw to mix in the cream and took a sip. It was perhaps the best milkshake I had ever had; PERIOD. It was thick and luscious and phenomenal, everything that you’d ever want in a milkshake. I finished the burger and with a heavy heart and a full stomach, took a long loving sip, only to hear the slurp that signified the end of my relationship with the milkshake.

The Pricing (8 out of 10)

Even though the menu pricing is on the high side of things, the quality and the overall experience significantly compensates for it. Since these are not your average everyday ordinary burgers, you should keep in mind the nutritional advantage you get at Fatburger before really focusing out on the prices. Plus, there are a lot of options and a lot of variations that you can mix-and-match to your liking.

The Menu - part 1

The Menu – part 1

The Menu - part 2

The Menu – part 2

The Verdict

For me, a dining experience is not just about the food, it’s about the place itself, the people running it and the hospitality they extend to you. Fatuburger officially opens its first restaurant in Pakistan today at Dolmen Mall, Karachi and I suggest ardent burger-lovers should definitely give it a try.

Now, some words of wisdom for the team at Fatburger and BIL Foods:

  • Don’t let your quality deteriorate; if you maintain your standards, you grow your customer-base.
  • Never compromise on customer service; a customer always loves polite and civil interactions, and a line delivered mechanically without emotion just doesn’t cut it.
  • Smiles never hurt anyone.
  • The customer may not be always right, but his/her feedback should be an important part of your ongoing improvement process.
  • Keep rocking those shakes the way you are and you’ll remain the talk of the town for a long time to come.
  • Extend the same level of courtesy and politeness (that you reserved for us) to all your future customers, and you’ll never have a deserted restaurant.
  • The collaboration between the franchise and the franchisee is key; never let anything tarnish this relationship.

Fatburger brilliantly succeeds in making a meal, traditionally considered to be fatty, healthy. I salute the entire team for their blatant disregard of the norms set by the burger industry giants and thank them for giving us something original, unpretentious and nutritious. Their burgers are succulent, non-greasy, and light on the waist, without compromising on the taste. I have to say that I was honored to be one of their first few customers and I intend to remain one for a long time. All the best with today’s opening.

Jolly Good Fellows

Jolly Good Fellows

2012: Insanity in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 32,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 7 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.