This week’s review came about for a simple reason: I went to Nando’s. Six weeks ago Zoë and I were in town on a slow Sunday lunchtime, neither of us could face cooking that evening and we longed for the comfort of a known quantity. Judge all you like, but when I feel that way Nando’s makes it on to my long list, which means that occasionally it makes the shortlist, and sometimes it winds up on the podium.
I mean the Friar Street branch – no offence if you prefer the one in the Oracle – and my usual order is butterflied chicken, medium, with macho peas, spicy rice, garlic piri-piri sauce on the side. It always delivers, and it did on this occasion: I left sated and happy, putting a picture on Instagram to show that I’m not all preaching and indies. Later that day I got a message from my friend James (last seen on this blog living it up in Marmo).
“I’ve recently cracked how Nando’s do their chicken” it said. This was a very James thing to say: naturally I was intrigued.
“Don’t they just cook it, keep it in a drawer and then finish it on the grill after you’ve ordered it?”
“They slowly cook the chicken at about 90 degrees over a couple of hours, almost poached in a basic marinade.Then they grill and layer on the piri piri multiple times to create a layer of flavour: baste, seal and grill, turn, baste etc.”
Doing this sort of painstaking research was also very James. But better was to come, because when Zoë and I went to stay with him and his partner Liz over Easter weekend, he went a step further. “I’m going to recreate it”, he said. He was true to his word, so one night we sat down to the most glorious slow-cooked, basted and grilled piri piri chicken. James cooked the chicken, Liz made the macho peas, the coleslaw and fries were from the supermarket. The whole affair was even more soothing than the real thing: Nandos-esque rather than just Nandos-ish, if that makes sense.
“The place I keep meaning to try is Casa do Frango.” I said, between mouthfuls. “They started out with one near London Bridge and now they have three across the city.”
“Let’s do it!” said James.“I’d love to accompany you.” So we did: some people might find this eccentric, but James and I booked a Friday off work and headed to London on the train, on a pilgrimage for the best piri piri chicken outside Portugal.
Casa do Frango (the house of chicken: in Portuguese it sounds far more exotic than, say, the hut of pizza) came to my attention five years ago when the original branch got a glowing review in the Observer. And I always intended to go at some point, to see if it could get anywhere near the best piri piri chicken I’ve ever had, in a little Lisbon alleyway. That was at a place called Bonjardim and it remains a real death row food memory, the skin brittle and intense, rubbed with lemon and salt, the meat underneath a yielding feast. Nando’s, much as I like it, has never displaced it in my memory, but perhaps Casa do Frango could.
For this review I decided to visit Casa do Frango’s newest, most central branch. It’s on Heddon Street, just off Regent Street and a stone’s throw from Liberty, and I picked it partly because it’s become their flagship, partly because it fitted better with our plans for the rest of the day but mainly, in truth, with you lot in mind. After all, a decent affordable place to eat not far from from Piccadilly Circus might potentially be of use to a lot of you (although not one of my readers who recently got in touch to tell me that, although he read the blog religiously every week, the recent ones hadn’t been hugely useful given that he was allergic to chicken – sorry Tom!).
On the way in I realised that it must be the best part of three years since I’d set foot in central London, over three years since I’d taken the Tube. That means I’m a tedious Johnny-come-lately when it comes to how game-changing the Elizabeth Line is to Bond Street (although I enjoyed my guided tour of the Elizabeth Line, thanks to James who is quite the public transport enthusiast). It also meant I wasn’t prepared for how quiet it was on a Friday – not Vanilla Sky Times Square levels, but I’d never seen Regent Street so sparsely populated. “Thursday is the new Friday” said James.“Everyone’s working from home today.”
Heddon Street is a little alley literally lined with restaurants – a ramen place, an outpost of Gordon Ramsay’s empire, a pub called The Starman (the cover of Ziggy Stardust was shot outside) and a café called Ziggy Green, because people are nothing if not unimaginative. We walked past Michelin-starred Sabor, which looked gorgeous inside (“I’ve been, it’s great” ventured James) and I wondered if I’d have restaurant regret. But Casa do Frango is a handsome-looking spot, and I loved the tiles outside reading RUA HEDDON. The muggy drizzle said we were in London, but it still had the potential to be transformative.
It’s a big site, with two large dining rooms upstairs, some private dining and a very swish-looking speakeasy bar downstairs. We were in the back dining room, their first customers, ultra keen at high noon. It was a great space, ceiling fans whirring, the whole thing surprisingly well lit, tasteful bentwood chairs, brick, tile and warm burnt orange tones. We got a good table up against the wall so we both got a view of the dining room, and it slowly filled up over time. They lunch later in London, the lucky blighters.
The menu only has one main course – that chicken – so it’s all about the starters and sides. The chicken is twelve fifty – back in 2018 when the Observer visited it was still less than a tenner – but most of the small plate starters (billed as “to share”) clocked in between eight and ten. Technically you could eat here as a vegetarian, if you were dragged here, but you’d find it all foreplay and no shagging, so to speak.
I was particularly impressed with the drinks list. The compact selection of cocktails is more than skin deep Portuguese, so licor Beirão and ginjinha both make an appearance: I have happy memories of both. The wine list is one hundred per cent Portuguese, even down to the dessert wines, with a separate section for vinho verde, much of which is available by the glass. Even the port is the lesser-spotted Offley rather than a bigger name. We started with a gorgeous, zesty white port and tonic – I picked up the habit for these in Porto five years ago, they can quite make you forget about G&T – and made our choices.
To begin, that meant trying to eat a representative sample of the small plates. Bacalhau fritters were the best of them – salt cod is one of my favourite things about Portuguese food and these were light-shelled with the perfect balance of carby potato lending bulk and the fish landing the perfect hit of flavour. The aioli, golden and sunny, rounded things off nicely, though I wasn’t sure they needed to glue the croquettes to the dish with more of the stuff.
The pork croquettes were also decent enough, although they lacked the same wow factor. These were served with a mustard bechamel I liked slightly less, and although the flavour of the croquettes was good, the texture suitably silky, I couldn’t help thinking we’d ordered two dishes too similar. The chorizo, grilled with black olive mayo and pickled chillies, might have been a better choice. The croquettes and the fritters, at eight pounds, felt a tiny bit sharp for what you got.
I did love the salgadinhos – little empanadas stuffed with kale, mushroom and onion – though. It’s interesting how the mind can be redirected by pricing: at two pounds each these were technically the same price as a single croquette or fritter, but they felt bigger, better and better value. The salt flakes liberally sprinkled on top gave each mouthful a pleasing little saline spike.
Our final starter promised much but didn’t entirely deliver. A whole head of cauliflower, marinated so effectively in piri piri that its centre had a pinkish tinge, had been charred and then drowned in a vivid green slick of yoghurt and pistachio. Eating this dish felt like reading a well-written novel and not enjoying it as much as I thought I should. Everything worked – the flesh of the cauli firm, the sharp tang of the yoghurt augmented with lime – but by the end it felt like a slog. If the other small plates were a little small, paradoxically this could have benefited from being smaller.
The eponymous chicken arrived as we’d polished off a cold glass of Super Bock. This is where I’d love to dust off my hyperbole but instead, I fear I’ll be delivering some faint praise. There was literally nothing not to like, but perhaps nothing to rhapsodise over either. You get half a chicken per person, and yes, it was juicy and swimming in brick-red juices (“the key is to use smaller chickens” said James, knowingly). But the flip side is that tender though it was, there wasn’t masses of meat and some of it took more persuading off the bone than I’d expected. I was hoping for that hit of crispy skin, too, but the whole thing felt a tiny bit underpowered.
It didn’t compare to my memories of Bonjardim – perhaps the power of nostalgia meant it never could – but I wasn’t sure it was better than the rendition at Casa do James, either. I should add that James liked it more than I did, and he has the added benefit of knowing what he is talking about. We both largely eschewed the little tub of piri piri sauce it came with – “that’s for tourists”, said James – instead trying to get every bit of the glossy, spicy oil coating the bottom of the steel plate.
I should also mention the surprise MVP of our meal, hidden at the back of the photo above. Casa do Frango’s chips are nothing to look at – verging on blond and, on appearances, unlikely to deliver much. In reality they were phenomenal – salty with huge amounts of crunch and staying hot, seemingly, for ages. They didn’t have to be this good, god knows the ones from Nando’s rarely are, and yet this was the dish James and I kept coming back to for the rest of the afternoon. Those fries, though.
Perhaps the reason the chicken was lacking in crispy skin is because Casa do Frango had the genius idea of stabbing huge shards of it into its African rice. This was a phenomenal side, the rice studded with chorizo and sticky plantain and, with the exception of a few clumps, virtually flawless. If they sold a side that was just a bowl of crispy chicken skin I’d have bought several. And taken a doggy bag.
Our final side of Hispi cabbage, though, was too similar to that cauliflower starter, being a brassica charred and festooned with yoghurt. This one was accented with red pepper and a parsley sauce a little like a chimichurri or salsa verde. But even more than the cauliflower, this felt more like a virtuous trudge than an indulgence. The way it was plated was frustrating, too: one wedge of cabbage was perched on top of the other, with the end result that only one of them, really, was properly dressed.
I was ambivalent about dessert, but James had his heart set on one – for research purposes, no doubt – and so we acquiesced. It helped that we accompanied them with a glorious glass each of Moscatel de Setubal: Portugal never gets the credit it deserves for its superb dessert wines and this one was a glowing schooner of sweet, sweet sunshine (I neglected to mention the vinho verde we had with our chicken: superb and ever so slightly effervescent). The service was excellent throughout and our server steered James in the direction of the almond cake which she said was her favourite – she couldn’t eat gluten, which was part of why she loved it so much, but James adored it too.
Settling into my role as designated party pooper, I had a pastel de nata. Well, you have to: any coffee without one in Portugal feels like a coffee missing its soulmate. And although Casa do Frango’s looked the part, it was a fascinating study in contrasts where everything was not quite as it should have been – the pastry, which should be ethereally light, was heavy going and the custard, which should be just-firm with a little wobble, was gloopy. I should have seen the warning signs when they brought it with a teaspoon. What kind of egg custard tart needs to be eaten with a teaspoon? This one, it turns out.
So a proper mixed bag, with plenty to celebrate. But, like Joni Mitchell in Both Sides Now, I worry that it’s Casa do Frango’s illusions I recall. So let’s try and focus on the positives – the wine list is fantastic, some of the small plates are delicious, that rice will live long in my memory and I’m still astonished that the fries were so much better than they looked at first blush. The service – attentive, endearingly laconic, properly Portuguese – was a joy and every bit worth the twelve and a half per cent. It’s a beautiful room and, as I discovered on a foray to the basement, the handwash in the gents smells heavenly.
But I do wonder if the things I really enjoyed about this meal were more about the context of the meal than the food itself. I was on a day off, on a Friday with a good friend, with nothing to do but drift from restaurant to shop to bar to restaurant again. I was in London properly for the first time in eons and it almost felt like we had the city to ourselves. In those circumstances, many meals would feel special. It’s important to try and push that slightly to one side and focus on what we ate.
The whole thing – all that food and four different alcoholic drinks apiece – came to a hundred and sixty pounds, including the service charge. And that’s where you have to stop and think. Is the place better than Nando’s? Objectively yes, of course it is. Is it easily three or four times better than the significantly cheaper Nando’s? I’m not so sure about that. Does it command grudging affection like Nando’s? No, I’m afraid it doesn’t.
And, on Heddon Street at least, Nando’s isn’t even its competition. If you’re in this part of town there are plenty of other ways to spend your money at superior reimaginings of nationwide chains – a short walk away off Carnaby Street, for instance, you could stop into Pizza Pilgrims. It may be a step up from the likes of Franco Manca and Pizza Express, but if you manage to spend a hundred and sixty pounds between two there I’d be very surprised.
The strangest thing about my visit is this: even though pedestrian old Nando’s is an identikit recreated across the country, without the beautiful decor and attention to detail of any of Casa do Frango’s sites, I found this visit made me appreciate the former more than the latter. In fact, shameful confession time: I went back to Friar Street in between visiting Casa do Frango and publishing this review, just to check that I wasn’t on mushrooms, and I stand by what I’ve said. Doubtless that will get me excommunicated from the Guild Of Food Snobs, and I know I’m disagreeing with Jay Rayner again. But would you expect any less from me by now?
Casa do Frango – 7.1
31-33 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BL