Friday, 6 December 2013
Already home to London’s most enviable collection of South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants (you can’t go far wrong with any of them but Apollo Banana Leaf and Jaffna House are my pick of the bunch), the arrival of Chicken Shop on the High Street is yet another reason to travel to Tooting for dinner. The first branch, up in Kentish Town, has had them queuing down the street at times, although given the competition in that area perhaps that’s not surprising. More unclear is how the concept will go down in a part of London not exactly crying out for more dining options.
Anyway, here it is, and very decent it is too. This isn’t going to be a huge post - there’s only so much you can write about a restaurant with one menu item - but then Chicken Shop isn’t a place that really needs all that much publicity anyway; nearly every table was taken on an opening weekday evening at 6:30pm. Five of us sat at the bar - the only space left - and ordered “two chickens and all the sides twice”.
Not pictured is a nice enough coleslaw and an actually very nice indeed lettuce and avocado salad which was dressed and seasoned faultlessly. Apologies for the lack of photos but it was pretty dark in there and anyway, I’m sure you can imagine what coleslaw and a green salad look like.
The main event is, of course, the chicken and for just £14.50 for an entire bird I can forgive them it tasting slightly low-rent, and even for overcooking it in parts. It was, in the end, a very acceptable bit of bird, with some good charring from the rotisserie, and we all enjoyed it, even more when coated in one of the two house hot sauces. They were so good in fact that I would have happily paid for a jar to take home if they were for sale.
So, helped along by efficient service, some crinkle-cut chips and a couple of jugs of house red, a good time was had by all. There’s nothing to swoon over at Chicken Shop - it’s a solid, friendly place doing one thing and doing it well enough - but even so, in a city where plenty of people manage to get chicken so horribly wrong, even this modest achievement is to be admired. And for a bill of £15 a head, there’s really not much you can moan about. So I won’t.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
We started, as you often do, with a selection of house breads. In most Italian restaurants in London - probably in most Italian restaurants in Italy, although I can't pretend to have been to an exhaustive number of them - the house bread is the first thing that passes your lips. It is a barometer for what is to come, an early indication of whether the people responsible for your pending meal really have a grip on what they're doing and if their attention to detail reaches into every corner of what they do.
I don't think I've ever had a faultless selection of house breads from an Italian restaurant. They're not very often awful, just usually some combination of stale, soggy, underseasoned, overseasoned, cold or otherwise mediocre. Maybe they're going for quantity over quality - why offer just one house bread done incredibly well and warmed to order (they probably think) instead of five or six forgettable options in different sizes and shapes? Surely that's what the public want?
Well, it's not what I want. I'd take a single solitary square of good, bouncy, fresh focaccia over any number of regional Italian specialities made with any less than someone's full attention, and I'm sure plenty of other people would too. I only mention any of this because the bread at Tozi was alternately cold, soggy, underseasoned and underwhelming and set, for better or for worse, the tone for a meal which while having some merits, involved too many unforced errors for it to be quite worth the money.
I liked the idea of the barrel-aged house Negroni, for example, poured theatrically tableside, but I got the feeling it wasn't quite as strong as one you'd normally get from the bar. And if it was, then there was something else missing - not as bitter, not as punchy. Not as good. The house martini, though, was excellent, so that made up for it, and each were served pretty smartly by friendly staff who rushed about with commendable energy.
But I wish we'd been told that the soft-shelled crab formed part of the fritto misto while ordering both. I like soft-shelled crab a lot, but we didn't need more than one load of it. And the seafood itself, whilst perfectly dry-fried and of decent quality, was a rather miserly portion for £13.50 when you bear in mind that Polpo's is at least twice this amount for £9, and just as accomplished.
The "Grand selection of cured meats and cheeses" wasn't quite as grand as we'd hoped, including some pretty bog-standard cuts of Parma ham, mortadella and salami, nice enough but very familiar to anyone who's ever eaten Italian meats, and some fridge-fresh chunks of blue goat's, a cheddar-a-like aged in grapes and something that had the taste and texture of a crumbly pecorino, none of which set the pulse racing. For £18.50, is it too much to hope the cheeses be served at room temperature?
Veal ravioli was pleasant enough, £6.75 for three pieces seeming almost a bargain in comparison with what had preceeded, but still had us hoping for more. The sauce was quite thick and salty, the pasta a bit crunchy in parts. Not enough to completely spoil the enjoyment of it, just to bring a faint sense of disappointment.
We probably could have gone easier on the booze (it was a Friday), so I'll put that aside for now, and report only that without alcohol the bill would have come to £55 for two for what amounted to a plate of cold meats and cheese, a fritto misto and three veal ravioli. And that all would be well and good if any of it had been better than just "fine", but we hardly had anything that you couldn't sit down in any number of Italian restaurants in London and order more or less the exact same thing for the exact same price or less.
So maybe my problem isn't with Tozi at all. Maybe it's that Italian food in London generally seems increasingly prescribed. There seems to be this very strict formula - the same dishes offered in exactly the same way, the same ingredients treated identically, even the same price ranges, and a distinct unwillingness to stick your head above the parapet and do something different.
When places do offer a more interesting product - Trullo and Zucca come to mind, and to some extent Tinello although they are constrained by the part of town in which they operate - the results are often extraordinary. So why then can I pick up a wild boar ragu, crab linguine, aubergine parmigiana and so on and so forth from so many identikit Italians in a town where, for so many other cuisines, experimentation is welcomed with open arms? I'm not sure I know the answer. I do know that I'm getting a teensy bit bored of it all, however much of a horrible spoiled food blogger brat that makes me sound...
EDIT: Someone's been in touch to point out that I don't mean ALL Italian restaurants, just the mid-range sit-down trattoria/cicchetti places like the above. We are spoiled for good pizzerias in London, and people like Forza Win put on fantastic popup Italian events that are nothing like anyone else is doing.
Monday, 2 December 2013
There used to be two pubs, each the kind of place where the England rhetoric put up in the windows veered just the wrong side of provocative and where if you weren’t accompanied by a dangerous dog you were very much in the minority.
One, on Hackney Road, was called the British Lion, which, when the BNP voter base dwindled sufficiently, closed down, remained derelict for a year or two then triumphantly opened as fancy wine bar Sager and Wilde. That’s gentrification for you, and whatever your feelings on the myriad of changes the East End of London has been through in the last few years, I’m afraid I do not miss The British Lion. Partly because I am not the target demographic for a far-right drinking den on Hackney Road but mainly because Sager and Wilde is so bloody good.
The other pub, The Ravenscroft, was never quite as openly belligerent as the British Lion, but still had the kind of atmosphere that created a metaphorical ‘needle slipping off the record’ sound as soon as you stepped through the door. Or maybe that was just me. Either way, it was hardly a friendly place, and when it too finally succumbed to the creeping gentrification from nearby Columbia Road and was billed to reopen as a “guilt-free, ethical fried chicken” joint (at least according to a press release so full of chicken and egg puns it put me off my lunch) then despite some doubts I prepared to welcome it.
Clutch makes one long for the days of warm pints of flat Fosters, sticky carpets and tacit aggression. There is so much wrong here it’s hard to know where to start, but the first thing you’ll notice is the service, shared between three people who seemed to find the whole business of ‘finding out what people want to eat then bringing it’ to be a challenge on the level of completing a PhD.
There was one woman, young and blonde and apologetic, who said she could take our drinks order but not food because “she didn’t know the menu well enough yet”. You’d think five minutes reading the thing would be an easy remedy for that, but anyway, her call. After far too long trying to attract someone else’s attention, a slightly more senior Irish woman appeared who went through the motions for a few seconds before literally losing interest between mains and sides and went off for a far more interesting chat with a male colleague. Then said male colleague came over a few minutes later and started the whole process again.
But if the service was traumatic, it had nothing on the food. Best of the two mains was a roast of sorts, consisting of a teaspoon of mash, two (!!) minuscule roast potatoes, what tasted suspiciously like packet stuffing, what tasted even more suspiciously like frozen Yorkshire pudding, and a quarter of roast chicken hacked into pieces and turned inside out like something from a Ridley Scott film. That picture is exactly how it was presented. This was £14.
But oh God, the “fried chicken”. A picture tells a thousand words (even one of my pictures) so I’ll give you a few seconds to take in the full horror of the “peanut chilli crust half bucket” before coming back to this post. Are you finished? Have you washed your teeth? Right, I’ll continue. It was, as you can probably see, burnt, and not just by a bit - the dried chilli was black and acrid, the peanuts huge and distracting, each forming part of a crust so thick and bitter and unpleasant it beggared belief anyone - the chef, the staff, anyone - would have considered it fit to serve.
Inside the ‘Ferrero Roche’ crust (as some wag pointed out when I shared my lunch on Twitter) was some slimy poached chicken but getting to it involved so much digging I soon gave up after unwrapping just one piece of thigh. Even more distressing was the fact the chicken itself - and this applied to the roast too - was actually of fairly good quality, which possibly went some way to explain why three bits of it came to £11.
A £4 bowl of very mayonnaise-y coleslaw (from a section headed “Sloppy Sides”) was eaten because it was edible, and for that we were most grateful, but if I’m paying £11 for three bits of chicken, even if they had been any good, is it too much to expect dipping sauces (sorry, “Dippety Dips”) to be free? Here, a small pot of “roasted garlic & creme fraiche” cost £2, and would have been another £2 if we’d had a small bowl of the “citric curd” as well. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s for the best we didn’t.
We ordered the bill, it came, it was wrong, we sent it back. It came back again, it was still wrong but this time in our favour so we shrugged and paid it. Even the two mains on their own, though, came to a total of £25 without service - this is not a cheap place. So it’s hard, really, to see why anyone should bother eating at Clutch. It’s expensive, the food is objectively not good (and repeated on me throughout the night), the service makes you feel like an inconvenience and there are better places (this is East London remember) within a minute’s walk. Come back, the Ravenscroft pub - all is forgiven.