The Isle of Wight’s a small place, but Islanders more than make up for this with their enthusiasm for gossip and entertainment.
Perhaps that’s why Twitter has been a big success here, with even the veritable Isle of Wight County Press awarding a ‘Tweet of the Week‘ accolade these days. Now, locals are capable of generating plenty of excitement on their own, but one of the rumours that has been keeping the Island’s movers and shakers at a fever pitch recently has been the persistent but unconfirmed suggestion that a certain fast-food chain is coming across the water to share its franchised munificence amongst grateful, chicken-starved locals.
There are some big chains, like Starbucks, that Islanders feel they are missing out on. This could be a genuine loss or, more likely, a very lucky escape. For every fabulous Yo Sushi on the mainland, there’s an underwhelming Brewer’s Fayre carvery. With several national retailers withdrawing from the Island’s high streets, some holes have appeared leading inevitably to speculation as to who might plug them. Fans of budget clothes are solidly in the Primark camp but there are plenty of locals keen to try Joey Essex’s favourite restaurant – Nando’s. The permatanned star of The Only Way is Essex advocates this chicken eatery at every opportunity, leading to rumours that he might be a holder of a coveted Nando’s black card.
Joey, employing the best of his sparse vocabulary, prosaically tweeted of Nando’s: “#chickchick #chicken #LOVECHICKEN #:)“. Despite this masterclass in reviewing Matt and Cat presumptuously thought they could probably give a more enlightened assessment to potential customers and, one Saturday night, set about doing so.
As Nando’s has yet to cross the Solent, M&C and a bunch of fellow tweeters took a ferry to Portsmouth’s shopping mecca, Gunwharf. It being a clement Saturday evening, there were plenty of distractions along the way as the people of Pompey paraded in their finery – or as little they could get away with without being either arrested or looking like a patsy from Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked – clearly unconstrained by the ‘looking good’ bit.
Entering the venue, Matt and Cat were struck by the bustle and noise. Sure, they are provincial diners stupefied by the big city in a way not seen since Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Still, Nando’s seemed unnecessarily chaotic; some people were queueing for food, others busied themselves at a sauce station, waiting staff zipped hither and yon and there was a sprinkling of customers apparently idling about.
The party of seven had not thought to make a reservation nor, apparently, could they. As Nando’s is an unusual hybrid of fast food joint and restaurant, there was likely to be a moderately swift turnover. Nonetheless, Matt and Cat’s party were told there would be a thirty to forty minute wait and were offered drinks. Clearly Nando’s is used to having potential customers loitering in this way and helpfully provided seating areas for such a purpose. M&C imagined that getting pre-dinner drinks in a restaurant would involve giving their orders, drinks being dispensed and the cost being added to the bill. But no. In Nando’s, everything is charged individually so each of the party made their own arrangements for the purchase of drinks. Matt and Cat, who both ordered coke, were stunned to have to cough up £4.80. It wasn’t explained by the staff but other diners who, on seeing their slack-jawed horror, clarified that this cost was apparently reasonable if you intended to avail yourself of ‘unlimited’ coke. It’s possible that someone exists who could stomach more than a pint of this syrupy beverage, but surely even the most hydrophilic sodaphile couldn’t redeem £2.40’s worth in a single night.
Houmous with PERi-PERi drizzle £3.35
Chicken breast fillet with salad £8.60
Butterfly chicken with chips and peas £10
Macho peas £2.15
Cheesecake x 2 @ £3.95
Coke x 2 £2.40
As it happened the wait for a table was nearer the half an hour mark and, duly summoned, the group squeezed itself into the horseshoe-shaped booth. It seems to be a feature of chain restaurants that a vast and complicated menu is a necessary adjunct to the purchase of what turns out to be a small number of suspiciously-similar end results. Frankly, when your menu has more panels of instructions and explanations on it then food, you’re probably doing it wrong. Cat, whose brain was possibly befuddled by the sharp intake of coke, stared unseeingly at the menu, which seemed insanely complicated to her uninitiated eyes. Despite the copious instructions it seemed that all chicken was flavoured with “unique Afro-Portuguese PERi-PERi sauce”, leading her to wonder where the choice was. Eventually someone in the party took pity on the Nando’s virgin and helped her navigate her way to some kind of outcome. Matt, equally bemused, after similar coaching winkled himself out of the booth like a mollusc pinned from its shell, and went to order.
Back to the drinks counter Matt went and requested their meals, which required further payment upfront. Grabbing one of each sauce bottle and some cutlery on the way back to the table, he cast his eyes about. Like Dr Frankenstein when assembling his creature, Nando’s had seemingly taken successful aspects of other eateries – a front-facing griddle here, a waitress service there – and fused them into a monstrous hybrid; in Matt and Cat’s opinion the worst of all worlds. Perhaps they are a pair of fuddly-duddies who can’t move with the times but, by the end of the evening they’d had to squeeze themselves in and out of the booth on at least half a dozen occasions and undertaken four separate payment transactions. Moaning about having to leave the table for drinks may seem a bit petty but extricating oneself was like manoeuvring the rings in a game of the Towers of Hanoi. If you have a restaurant with such a Byzantine process for obtaining food, why torture your customers further by designing booths that oblige every occupant to rise whenever any one of them has to get up?
And the food? Well, Cat’s chicken breast burger looked awfully lonely on its big platter. Regular readers will know that Cat hasn’t got the most robust of appetites but even she was agog at the puniness of Nandos’ offering. In its favour, the bread was pleasingly lemon-shaped but it was dry and dull. Inside was the lemon and herb chicken breast. On a scale of breast size, think not of Jordan’s succulent wangers but more of Kiera Knightley’s ironing board physique. A slice of beefsteak tomato, a leaf and a squirt of mayo completed the butty. In keeping with her pretensions, Cat had ordered a ‘fino’ or ‘posh’ side dish of mixed leaf salad. It was a good combination of leaves, cherry tomatoes and red pepper and, although undressed, there were plenty of sauces with which to cover its modesty.
Matt’s chicken butterfly had come with chips and peas. Although bigger than Cat’s pitiful burger, it could probably be most kindly described as modest in ambition. The peas were not bad, served in a jolly earthenware pot they almost conjured up the vague illusion of somewhere generically Mediterranean. The chicken was described as “succulent chicken breasts in crispy skin” – which mistakenly implied more than one breast. As it was, a single breast had been hammered into a flattish shape, and covered with some kind of sauce. Which wasn’t bad. And the chips. Now Nando’s, listen carefully to Matt and Cat. When you’re selling cheap, franchised fast food to large groups of people, in this country chips are your staple product. You think you’re selling spicy chicken? Wrong. You’re selling chips, and the chicken is there to make people feel good about the chips. And in this case, you got it humiliatingly, embarrassingly wrong. The chips were sad, floppy and tasteless apologies for food, slumped pathetically on the plate. Matt could only just bring himself to eat them. Yes friends, Matt could hardly eat his chips. That’s how poor they were.
Cat, having been offered a taste of macho peas, concluded that this rugged pea mash with whole peas, parsley, mint and chilli was pretty good and set about ordering herself a portion. This time everyone managed to keep their seats as a passing waitress kindly offered to procure this additional dish. Again it was cash on delivery which necessitated further wriggling as Matt tried to access his wallet while wedged in the horseshoe. Cat had ignored the macho peas on her first pass of the menu as she thought it would be mashed potato with peas in it. It wasn’t. In fact, the bowl of peas was easily the best food on the table. Which, if you think about it, isn’t saying much.
Curiously, despite her charges having to bob up at down in their seats more than gongoozlers at a narrowboat convention, the waitress decided to take their order for dessert at the table. All chose cheesecake and, as soon the puddings arrived so, once again, did the business of fumbling for change. Matt and Cat found this all a bit unnecessary and vaguely insulting. It was almost as though Nando’s didn’t trust its customers not to do a runner. Also, although there are many other places where you have to pay upfront for your food – pubs, fast food venues and the like – usually a place with table service concludes the meal with a bill. Although, was Nando’s a venue with table service? Anywhere where you have to collect your own cutlery, sauces and napkins and refill your own drinks almost comes under the category of buffet – yet another eatery style for Nando’s to suture onto its creation.
Matt and Cat were gently mocked during their dinner at Nando’s for exclaiming at the price of coke and then moaning about being forced to buy enough pop to drown all the world’s kittens. They grumbled at the constraints of the horseshoe booth and scratched their heads at the vast, yet surprisingly narrow-choiced, menu. They muttered openly about having to constantly interrupt their dinner with financial transactions and above all, the food wasn’t all that.
If Nando’s does come to the Isle of Wight, it’s possible that the population will embrace its idiosyncratic ways and rejoice in underwhelming chicken feed. Matt and Cat’s opinions aren’t due to snobbishness or even anachronism; they’ve eaten better chicken at KFC where the menu is clearer and the food tastier. Nando’s is clearly successful and, for some, a regular treat. But if looking for fast food in Newport, M&C will definitely choose from a mix and match menu, with a choice of chicken, additional sides and free sauces – all from the fabulous Noodle Pot.