Chicken, chicken or chicken?
A new restaurant in Kentish Town offers a simple but tasty menu
The food scene in London is becoming not just more egalitarian, but also very much more specific in its intention. Street food vendors in places like Korea and Singapore (or Camden Lock) have always specialised: each of the stalls will serve you the one thing only, very often superb. American towns and cities still are littered with hot dog stands that sell just hot dogs: the only choice is whether or not you want them loaded with the yellow or the red (and why would you not?) For many decades, all you could buy in a fish and chip shop was fish and chips – with a gallon of Sarson’s, guaranteed to turn the paper pungently soggy. Ice cream vans held to their brief, as did your local pizzeria and hamburger joint – though then came an expansion of all their menus, such diversification being generally dismal. They should have stuck to their lasts: as Clint Eastwood said so memorably (while squinting enigmatically into the sun): “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
And now the wheel is turning back to all that: tiny dedicated menus are all over the place. Recently opened in Mayfair is Steak & Lobster: and that’s all they sell. Just opened in Fitzrovia is Bubbledogs: champagne and hot dogs (geddit?) I have written before about Le Relais de Venise in Marylebone: salad, steak, special sauce – that’s it. In east London Mark Hix has opened Tramshed, with only steak and chicken on the menu. Retro vans are parked all over the city, each of them selling just one thing – anything from sushi to a traditional English cream tea. And now we have a glittering offshoot of the galloping trend on our very own doorstep: Chicken Shop, halfway between Kentish Town and Highgate, and very close to the Bull & Last and the Vine: this is quietly becoming a very cool and foodie stretch.
For cool is definitely what Chicken Shop is – as well as, believe it or not, the brainchild of Nick Jones (he of the members’ club Soho House, and famously on record as having said that his last meal on earth would be one roast chicken). The eating house is situated beneath one of his very successful Pizza East restaurants, though there is no sign to tell you this. This could be because the place is very new, or just another indication of cooldom: if you don’t know where we’s at, then you ain’t got no business being here, baby. In common with every single place I have mentioned above, no bookings are taken: what ...? Booking for an appointed hour ...? Tablecloths and waiters in black suits ...? The flapping out of snowy white napkins ...? Oh puh-leeeease ...! What do you think this is? The twentieth century?
So my wife, my son and myself duly rolled up at seven o’clock (they don’t open till five, rather weirdly). All I had told them was “It’s chicken tonight!”, and so indeed it proved. There is a great welcome from a selection of eager, young, good-looking and very smiley people, all tricked out in white T-shirts and long sky blue aprons. The ceiling is low and lined in strips of salvaged wood, still with its peeling paint. Thick iron girders hold the place up, there is a wall of handsome mahogany and mirrored old cold stores, the floor is red and white diamond pattern, chairs the same bright red, a stainless steel kitchen roaring and busy behind the bustling food bar, the lighting industrial bulkhead and twinkling tea lights ... the atmosphere just simply fantastic.
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The menu – what there is of it – is on a blackboard: chicken. It is marinaded overnight (not the blackboard, silly), steamed, and then finished on a rotisserie. You order a quarter, half or whole. Three sides: avocado and lettuce salad, corncob, crinkle cut chips (oh joy – remember those?) So we had one-and-a-quarter chickens between us, and all the sides. The waitress said “Anything else?” and I pointed out to her that I had just ordered the menu in its entirety. Red wine is classified as follows: House, Decent, Good – and our very obliging waitress let me taste all three. House is a Sangiovese and okay, Good is a French Syrah and okay, and Decent is a damned good Barbera, so we had a tin jug of that: that’s how it comes. Cutlery is in an enamel mug at the centre of your table, and the tumblers (nothing so poncey as wine glasses) are Duralex, but of course. Also on the table is a bottle of their own ‘Smokey Sauce’ which will cause your cranium to atomise, and a bottle of their own ‘Hot Sauce’ which, by way of a change, will cremate you, and then you die.
By eight o’clock the place was heaving, a queue of hungry would-be chicken eaters palpably champing. The food is served in generous platters – and the tendency is to eat too much, too fast: electricity in the air, what can I tell you? The first load of chips I had to send back because they were way too salty: excellent replacements arrived quickly, with a smile and an apology. The creamy avocado in the salad was tip-top, as was the buttery corn and homemade ketchup. And the chicken ...? It was very good indeed, but I had been so yearning to absolutely adore it. I wanted to be able to tell you that it was the most succulent roast chicken ever, but it wasn’t that: just a tinge overdone. The legs were juicy, the breasts were not. Flavour wonderful, though, and, of course, we ate the lot.
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“Are you guys having the apple pie?” asked the waitress, excitedly. “I just adore it when people order the apple pie ...!”. And then she demonstrated why: it comes, beautifully golden, in an enormous deep pudding basin, and is generously ladled on to your plate. And our waitress, see, she just loves to dish it out. It was first rate: chunky apple, chives, cinnamon, pretty fab pastry. My son said that it was the best he’d ever had, and he’s eaten all the pies. I asked the manager what they do when people die of overeating and he said that it’s quite okay because they’ve got a lift which makes it a doddle to get the bodies out. I don’t know how the chefs and waiting staff truly feel about cooking and serving the same bloody thing night in, night out, but they seem like the happiest crew I have ever seen. And there you have it: a one-trick chicken, to be sure – but believe me, it’s a damned good trick.
All previous restaurant reviews may be viewed on the website www.josephconnolly.co.uk. Joseph Connolly’s latest novel England’s Lane is published by Quercus as a hardback and an ebook.