Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Chooks, Muswell Hill, and Orange Buffalo, Brick Lane
"Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series'?"
"There's too many of them?"
"That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is, 'people like them, let's make some more of them'."
The joke in the above exchange between Alan Partridge and the Chief Commissioning Editor of the BBC was that, bereft of successful ideas himself, Alan merely spotted the most convenient bandwagon and attempted to ride it to success. And as well as being a handy way of shoehorning an Alan Partridge quote into a food blog, it has a (slightly tortured) parallel with what's happening in certain corners of the London restaurant business.
The Giraffe group has by no means the monopoly on bandwagon-jumping but they have definitely been one of the highest-profile offenders over recent years. Strike One was Guerilla Burgers back in February 2010, where, spotting the frenzy surrounding the Meatwagon appearances in South London, they decided there was money to be made selling 'authentic West-coast burgers' in a desirable Marylebone location. Unfortunately 'authenticity' is a subjective term, and to various people's crushing disappointment, not least my own, Guerilla Burgers turned out to be a glorified pub burger served with frozen crinkle-cut chips at a massive mark-up. It was quietly rebranded within the year.
And now, as any food geek will tell you (don't look so surprised, you know who you are), the Next Big Thing is going to be chicken - whether fried, rotisseried or served as wings. Giraffe knows this, too, so they've rushed into field with Chooks, a desperate trend-chasing exercise in creative bankruptcy that has recently reared its ugly neck in Muswell Hill. It is, and I'm saving you the miserable experience of travelling to Muswell Hill to find out the same for yourself, completely awful; overpriced, ineptly constructed food served slowly by inexperienced staff in a room that's a bit like - actually, very like - Meatliquor with the hard edges filed off. The sweet Margaritas are served in jam jars, the cutlery comes in white metal tins, there's even ironic corporate "graffiti" in the toilets. As for the food itself, well, the fried chicken tasted of water and grease, and flabby buffalo wings came with a "blue cheese sauce" that was as thin as mouldy milk. Please promise me you'll never go.
But! But. Thank God not everyone with the desire to operate a food business in central London has timid investors to please or the imagination of a sand fly. I'm not going to waste any more words on Chooks, it doesn't even deserve the SEO score, so instead let's focus on a stall just off Brick Lane that treats its chickens - and its customers - with respect.
Orange Buffalo care about what they do. The wings themselves come in a choice of four flavours, from 'Original' (tangy, mild) through 'Woof Woof' (hotter, more complex) and to the top level 'Viper' which I'm yet to try but given that it contains the fearsome naga chilli I assume packs quite a punch. They are deep fried to a marvellous crispy skin then (correctly, as per the authentic New York state method) rolled in the hot sauce by hand before being presented on a paper tray of chunky blue cheese dip, sticks of celery and side of either onion rings or fries.
The wings themselves are fantastic, made with skill and using very good quality, meaty chicken. The onion rings are little bitesize things, greaselessly fried and with a good crunch, ditto the fries. The blue cheese dip, though, was almost the standout element - a chunky, creamy pile of cooling dairy that provided the absolute perfect antidote to the chillified chicken. Six wings, with the blue cheese dip, celery and a generous pile of either onion rings or fries was £6.50.
I know Orange Buffalo aren't the first people to serve chicken wings. The Meatwagon weren't the first people to serve bacon cheeseburgers, Big Apple didn't invent gourmet hot dogs, and Banh Mi 11 didn't invent Vietnamese pork paté baguettes. But each of these operations were successful - and great - not because they saw a trend and tried to make some money from it, but because they started selling the kind of food they wanted to eat themselves, and their passion for doing so was evident in the end product. The lesson to be learned, time and time again, is this - make the kind of food you want to eat, make it with care, and to hell with what anyone else thinks. A bandwagon is never a good enough reason for a restaurant.
Orange Buffalo 9/10
EDIT 01/11/12: I have been asked to make it clear that the relationship between Chooks and Giraffe is familial not financial - Chooks is owned and run by the son of the founders of Giraffe and is a separate entity. That said, you can see the family resemblance...
I was invited to review Chooks