This week’s review came about for a fairly simple reason. Two weeks ago I went to London with my friend James, with an uncomplicated plan: to visit Casa do Frango in Piccadilly to see if it did the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal (regular readers may have already read that review). A couple of days before the big day, I got a text from him.
“Do you think we could do the holy trinity? Two chicken places with craft beer in between?”
I immediately knew where he was referring to. Could we? Should we? Was this Bacchanalian excess even by my standards?
“Are you suggesting… Chick ‘N’ Sours?”
“Yes. Two in a day.”
And so I made a dinner reservation a suitable interval from lunch, had a light meal the night before, skipped breakfast and wore my loosest garments on the train to Paddington. Two of London’s best-known chicken restaurants in a single day was a serious endeavour. As I was heading for Gare du Ding my phone pinged with a text from James: It’s Chicken Day. Praise be the Lord.
Chick ‘N’ Sours might be the capital’s most fêted fried chicken restaurant. Their first permanent premises were in Haggerston, on the edge of Dalston, and when Grace Dent, then at the Evening Standard, went in 2015 she raved about the place. The following year they set up shop in Covent Garden, just off Seven Dials, and the acclaim has been constant ever since; Marina O’Loughlin, then at the Guardian, visited the second branch in late 2016 and enthused in her inimitable manner.
Since then they have been universally praised to the rafters: even the FT and the stuffy old Telegraph rated the food there, the latter in a so this is what the kids are eating these days kind of way. By now it feels like every half-decent blogger under the sun has paid it a visit, along with a number who only aspire to that standard. So after a very enjoyable time at the Mikkeller Brewpub on Exmouth Market, sampling terrific al fresco beers and finally feeling like spring had sprung, James and I pulled up in an Uber to try it out. Better late than never.
Chick ‘N’ Sours is a basement restaurant, and like all the best basement restaurants it has a slightly illicit feel to it. It sits somewhere between speakeasy and dive bar – neither of which, by the way, is a pejorative term – with faux zinc tables and chairs that are a mixture of Fifties American diner and Fifties British classroom. Our table was next to four office bros who had clearly fallen into the pub straight from work and then fallen into the restaurant straight from the pub. They were making inroads into what looked like most of the menu; turned out not everybody works from home on a Friday after all.
The menu is a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Most of it involves chicken in a starring role, with the exception of one small plate and a vegan burger made of goodness knows what: it’s not a menu that even pretends to make concessions. It’s also compact – just the three starters, four burgers, chicken on the bone and tenders. You can have wings if you want, and there are a handful of sides, but that’s very much your lot; one other option, a whole deep fried chicken, is available if you give them forty-eight hours’ notice, which we sadly didn’t.
The tendency to pepper a menu like this with puns or edgy references has fortunately passed Chick ‘N’ Sours by, in the main, although describing a condiment as “seaweed crack” did strike me as unnecessary – showing my age, probably – and I was curious about the “strange flavour sauce” that came with the bang bang cucumber, although not enough to order it. For a restaurant with this reputation in this part of Covent Garden, prices are reasonable – starters are around seven quid, burgers thirteen, sides about four. It was a menu full of bold flavours and gastronomic primary colours, and it made me excited about what was to come.
That’s the “chick”, so to speak. The “sours” element comes from the restaurant’s stripped-back drinks list, made up of a narrow selection of wine (one of each, if you catch my drift), a couple of beers and the four sour cocktails that give the restaurant the second half of its name. James went for a “Chick ‘N’ Club” – typing all these unnecessary apostrophes is starting to irk me, just so you know – a fruity gin and crème de mure concoction which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
I on the other hand chose something called the “Habanero Jungle Bird” with rum, Campari, lime vinegar and habanero in it. This, perhaps, is where the problems started to come in: I expected this to do a truly chaotic conga in my gob, that combination of hot and sour, so when it was muted I wondered what that might mean for the food we were about to eat.
The thing is, every review I’ve read of Chick ‘N’ Sours talks about how you get walloped by massive flavours from start to finish and emerge at the end sweating buckets, palate ravaged, desperate for more and feeling alive for the first time in years: or maybe it’s the “seaweed crack”, you never know. One review I read, and I’m not even paraphrasing, said “I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good tastebuds” (see? there are bloggers out there even more unbearable than me).
The high point of the meal, ironically of the whole day, was the first thing they put in front of us. Chicken toast – think sesame prawn toast but with chicken instead – was a really, really outstanding plate of food: clever, delicious and beautifully executed. Three hefty pieces of chicken toast, lacquered with a sauce they called “chilli tamarind caramel”, surely the best what3words of all time, and served with a simple sesame studded slaw.
Honestly, they could just call the restaurant Toast ‘N’ Sours, sling these out all day and I’d have liked the place considerably more. I wish we’d ordered one each, with one on the side for good luck. But in the wider context of the meal it felt like a breakout star in search of a spinoff, a Saul Goodman or a Frasier Crane. Nothing else we ate would approach those heights.
Take the Mexinese nachos, for example. I read up on these after the fact and everything I saw made me pine for a dish that, in truth, I feel I never had. They come, apparently, loaded with Szechuan chicken and bacon ragu, kimchee, chilli and cheese sauce in a sort of multi-continental mashup of epic proportions. The review in the Guardian talks about fermented chilli paste and a touch of anchovy, the FT talks about gochujang. With all that thrown haphazardly into the mix, the risk is that it would be a bit much, that you’d be asking them to show a bit of restraint. In reality it was a slightly forlorn plate of food, of nachos draped in thin mince and tasting of not enough.
Wings, “disco wings” according to the menu, were better. James liked them – and he’s more a wing aficionado than I am – whereas I thought they were okay. You had a choice of naked, kung pao or hot and we’d picked the latter. It was still what James likes to refer to as “white people hot”, but was plenty hot enough for me. The wings, properly tossed rather than sauced, were decent enough – and if I wasn’t wowed that’s probably because I’m the sort of heathen who never feels this kind of thing balances reward and effort as I’d like. “They would have benefited from not being breaded” was James’ comment, as part of our post match analysis. “A naked fried wing tossed in that sauce would have been much better.”
Mains arrived before we’d finished our starters, which at least gave us an excuse to abandon the nachos. I’d heard from a few people that the House Fry – drumstick and thigh on the bone with pickled watermelon – was the thing to order, but when James tried to he was told they didn’t have any.
Instead he went for my regular order in places like this, the tenders, and they were positively underwhelming. You got three of them, big flattened pieces of chicken, and having gazed lovingly at a fair few pictures of Chick ‘N’ Sours’ food online I can honestly say they’ve always looked more golden, more crinkle-edged, more alluring than this. These looked like they could have been bought from the chiller section of Marks or Waitrose and finished off in the oven, beige-blond boring things.
James concurred. “The coating wasn’t great – it lacked crunch, too soft. It needed another two minutes in the fryer” he told me. “They could have been seasoned better coming out of the fryer, too.” He dipped them in his gochujang mayo, but didn’t finish them. And James, like me, is not a man to leave fried chicken.
My burger, the K-Pop, also failed to shine. This was chicken thigh with, again, a riot of flavour shoved on it – gochujang mayo, sriracha sour cream and chilli vinegar. Again, it just sounded so good: I’m used to the heavenly combination of gochujang and sriracha from Gurt Wings’ outstanding Lost In Translation fried chicken, so I had high hopes.
How did this manage to taste of so little? And how had they managed, while achieving that, to also put so much gunk in there that the bun underneath soaked through, making it almost impossible to eat? Normally a restaurant needs to outgrow its two small branches, fall into bed with some venture capitalists and roll out all the way to Reading to be this middling: how had Chick ‘N’ Sours pulled it off without doing all that?
I feel like I’ve already said enough, but let’s dot the Is and cross the Ts of disappointment by talking about the remainder of the food.
For some reason they brought us an additional portion of chips, by way of apology. Initially I wasn’t sure what for, then I thought it might be because they didn’t have the house fry, but with hindsight I think it might have just been for the food in general. It’s interesting that Chick ‘N’ Sours’ menu makes much of their chips being cooked in beef dripping and yet they turned out to be fairly indifferent, while earlier that day Casa do Frango had made no bold claims about their fries and they were infinitely superior.
Oh, and we also had a pickled watermelon salad. Ever wondered what pickled watermelon tastes like? Me too, and I’m still wondering: this just tasted of watermelon.
You get the general jist by now. I spent a little time looking at the other tables – the place was doing a roaring trade – and wondering what I was missing; I’ve rarely felt so much of the emperor’s new clothes about a restaurant as I did that night in Covent Garden. And that’s not to say it was an awful meal, but it was an ordinary one. Service was pleasant, if brisk, and the one thing I can say is that, especially for that part of London, it was affordable: all those starters, sides and mains and a couple of cocktails each came to a hundred and six pounds, including service.
This has to be one of the weirdest summaries I’ve ever had to write, of a place I’ve wanted to visit for something like five years, of a place which in theory serves some of my favourite food and which everyone, and I mean everyone, loves. The only logical conclusion, really, is that I’m wrong and that if fried chicken is your thing and you find yourself in the centre of London this is the place to head for. Everybody else says so. It’s me: I’m wrong, and I don’t know why I’m so out of step.
It could be expectation – that I thought the place would be incredible and so, when it was merely quite good, I felt like the sky had fallen in. But I don’t know if it’s even that; I guess my expectations were that it would be even better than Eat The Bird, which I encountered and loved on a recent visit to Exeter. But in reality it didn’t come close to their food, and if you asked me which one I’d want to open a branch on my doorstep it would be Eat The Bird every time.
All that makes this review especially frustrating, of somewhere I hoped to love, wanted to love, expected to love but just didn’t. A so-so review of somewhere in London you were probably never going to visit anyway. That’s the thing about these reviews outside Reading – when they’re a belter they’re fun to write, hopefully fun to read, and everybody wins. But when they’re mediocre, the so what factor is sadly lacking. So I must apologise: hopefully better, and more local, restaurants lie in both our futures.
Or maybe I just have really shit tastebuds. It’s a distinct possibility.
Chick ‘N’ Sours – 6.8
1A Earlham Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9LL