Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hell (closed)

Kris Kristofferson once said that “the Devil haunts a hungry man”. He may not have delved into the specific food types that Satan uses to tempt us, but everybody has their own preferred indulgence; for some it’s chocolate, others a plate of curly fries. One dish you can expect to find its way into almost any list of sinful comfort foods is pizza, truth be told perhaps the most popular food in the western world! And here in Dublin, we have the added benefit of being able to order it piping hot from the ovens of Hell itself. No, not Lucifer’s cooking range; what I’m referring to is Hell pizzeria of Wexford Street (sorry, the devil’s in the details).

Now I must admit that the first couple of times I saw Hell, I thought it was just a normal takeaway with a catchy name. Then again, this had always been at ten o’clock on a Friday evening with more than a handful of banteriffic lads spilling in and out the door! It wasn’t until my good friend Áine invited us into town for what she described as a ‘hunt for gourmet pizza’ that I finally took the time to look at Hell’s menu and realised exactly what it was they were offering. Five pizzas later and I was kicking myself not only for never having taken a closer look in the first place, but also neglecting to bring my camera to take the mandatory snapshots of what we’d just eaten (not for the first, seventh or twenty-sixth time either). Ever since then I’d been itching to return and photograph the food for a proper review, not to mention enjoy it! Thankfully, my friend and DVD jockey Niamh was recently in the mood for a lunch outing and although I mentioned several possibilities, I’d already made up my mind as to where we’d be heading.

*Fade in AC/DC’s Highway to Hell*

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me fill you in on a bit of Hell’s back story. Like many a modern ‘gourmet’ restaurant, it serves unfamiliar variations on a familiar food type. Think ingredients that you look at and wonder how exactly such a combination is meant to work, yet alone when introduced to something like a pizza base. It’s the hallmark of an adventurous cooking style that originates all the way from far flung regions such as California or – in Hell’s case – New Zealand. Before this recent visit, I actually hadn’t the foggiest that Hell is a very popular restaurant chain in the Southern Hemisphere with multiple outlets feeding Kiwis and Aussies alike. The Wexford Street branch is one of a few locations to have opened across the UK and Ireland since 2006 when the franchise was being expanded further afield. Officially speaking, ours is a ‘pilot’ store, but hopefully that will change in the not too distant future. If Callum, Stu and Otis (Hell’s Kiwi founders) are reading this then here’s advice/plea on the matter: open a branch in North Dublin City, preferably smack bang in the middle of Beaumont. There’ll be little to no competition and you’re guaranteed to have one very loyal customer! Anyhow, back to Niamh and I’s journey into the pizza inferno.

Half of the fun in visiting Hell is to simply witness how stylishly designed the restaurant’s interior is. No opportunity to exploit the devilish theme is wasted, with cracked mirrors lining the wall, bare bulb lighting, red velvet curtains and a trio of big LCD screens that – depending on the day you visit – will either be displaying tongues of fire or Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Food is served on beaten metal dishes with ‘remains’ given to you in coffin shaped pizza boxes. Even the landline phone number ends with a 666! Literally everything that can be done to earn Hell the right to its name has been covered, bar being a deliberately unpleasant place to eat. It’s an altogether remarkable dedication to an image that you seldom see in most modern restaurants, yet alone one of many in a franchise.

When it comes to the menu there’s no let up in the Satanic send off either; the first handful of pizzas listed are affectionately named after lust, envy, pride and the rest of the seven deadly sins. Further on you’ll find the likes of ‘serpent’, ‘brimstone’ and ‘Mordor’, which feature some of the more exotic topping combinations.

If you’re expecting to find a basic margherita in Hell then you can forget about it; the closest thing to your average set pizza on the menu is a double ham, pineapple and cheese affair. There’s a create your own option if none of the pre-made choices tickle your fancy, and all pizzas come available in two sizes (seven/eight euro for an individual serving, fourteen/sixteen for a double). Oh, and you can order a cute ‘333’ size for the kids. In addition to Hell’s main fare they serve a decent selection of sides, salads, beer and wine, not to mention ‘dessert pizza’ which I’ll tell you all about very shortly.

So, after spending the best part of a decade oogling at not only the menu but also the restaurant itself, Niamh and I made our choice. She went for the brimstone (a Mexican style pizza with the whole shebang; avocado, onions, salsa, Cajun chicken and sour cream), whilst I chose purgatory (sun dried tomatoes, spinach, feta, onions, mushrooms, garlic and kalamata olives). The last time I’d eaten in Hell we’d tried some delicious wedges called kumara chips but unfortunately they weren’t available on the occasion. Shame, they’re almost identical to your average sweet potato chip; something I’ve a major weakness for! We settled for some Cajun wedges with a garlic mayo dip instead.

Ultimately, both of the pizzas were a success. I put this down largely to the base, which slots nicely into perfect thickness territory. It’s substantial enough to withstand the loaded toppings in most cases, but thin enough so as to not preclude any flavour – a very important aspect when you serve pizza with the likes of apricot and stilton cheese!

Niamh enjoyed her helping which had a distinct Mexican twang to it, whilst mine was definitely in and amongst the more flavoursome vegetarian pizzas I’ve eaten. The only let down was the Cajun wedges, which were just a bit too much on the salty side to properly enjoy.

As good as the savoury pizzas were, the star of the show on this particular day was the aforementioned pizza dessert. Unlike most other pizzerias that stick to the usual formula of ice cream, cheese cake and pie for afters, Hell offers us an interesting twist on their food of focus by serving a normal bread base covered in lashings of custard and other delightful sweet toppings.

At only a mere four euro, the combination of banana, chocolate and mixed berries was too enticing to resist, and it arrived looking even better than either of us could have imagined! The taste: absolutely divine. What else would you expect of hot custard laced with melting chocolate?

In total we paid just over twenty five euro for what effectively ended up being a two course meal for both of us; exceptional value when you consider the quality of food you get. Niamh was both impressed, and patient enough to wait for me whilst I chatted with the staff and Bruce, the head chef. If I didn't enough at the time, I'd like to thank him for giving me a great photo opportunity with a wonderfully presented dessert!

Hell is a rare example of a catering franchise that has a very obvious soul and sense of humour behind the ins and out of how it's run. The philosophy of their gourmet pizza is to present us with inventive and unusual creations, whilst their dedication to a very novel and 'damned' interesting theme goes far beyond anything else I've witnessed on such a large scale. Most importantly of all, they've given me a fantastic chance to get a few terrible puns into this write up. So, if you're disollusioned with any other Dublin pizerrias, then all I can say is that you should go to Hell.

32, Wexford Street,
Dublin 2
Tph: 1890-456-666