Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Cookhouse Joe, Soho
One of the more distasteful things about the way the London restaurant arena operates - and despite the occasional whinge (like this one), there are still more reasons to be positive than not - is the relentless inevitability that as soon as a popular restaurant or style of eatery establishes itself, there will be a good half dozen or so weak, cynical clones attempting to cash in on its success.
The frightening number of sub-par burger places trying to mop up the dregs from the MeatLiquor crowds, or the nationwide sandwich chain that added a pulled pork bun to its shelves (for shame) in a pitiful attempt to grab a bit of the Pitt Cue custom, are proof that for every innovator, every creative force, everyone wanting to genuinely and honestly make nice food to make other people happy, there's a group of suits with a chequebook and the moral code of a tarantula ready to leap in and laminate some menus the second they see a queue forming.
The Next Big Thing, kicked off by Chicken Shop in Kentish Town and followed swiftly by Clockjack Oven in Soho, is rotisserie chicken. And why not, because rotisserie chicken, done well, is a very wonderful thing indeed. One of my happiest memories from childhood holidays in the Costa Brava is queueing up for a plump bird fresh off the spit from a roadside stall, skin darkened with Mediterranean herbs and crunchy with salt, accompanied by a portion of frozen chips. There are logistical reasons why this setup isn't quite right for London - at least not just yet; they dry out pretty quickly unless they're snapped up just when ready, so in Spain you book your chicken and turn up at your allotted time, something which would take the patience of a saint to organise in central London.
But I can dream, can't I? And anyway there are still ways around the problem, such as Clockjack Oven's brining method, which means they stay lovely and moist and firm for longer, or the turnover thanks to the hordes of hungry North Londoners piling through the doors at Chicken Shop, meaning nothing hangs around for long. Street stalls are a good bet, too, as they get through their stock pretty sharpish - see if you can't catch Spit and Roast at a market near you soon. Rotisserie chicken is yet to reach its zenith in London; imagine - just imagine - if one day a temple to spit-roast chicken such as Barcelona's Chez Coco opened here, serving golden-browned pollo in plush surroundings, but in the meantime, if you need a roast chicken fix, there are options.
What you shouldn't do is go to Cookhouse Joe. At first glance, it looks like a bargain; enough of a bargain in fact to tempt not just myself but a healthy crowd of Soho diners through the doors of a weekday lunchtime. For £6, you are offered a half of a free-range chicken, with fries and either salad or corn or coleslaw, a price point which gives even Nando's (£10 for the same) a run for its money. We ordered at the bar, and then waited on the artfully mismatched furniture for our order to arrive. Half a chicken, plus chips, AND corn, for £6. That should be enough to set the alarm bells ringing - which corners are being cut, here? How can they make the numbers work on a meal deal that's about 60% the price of an international chain?
We soon found out. The chicken itself was pretty much inedible - overcooked to the consistency of wet cotton wool, the flesh dripping off the bone in sad, slimy chunks. A salty brown skin stretched over the cadaver, the texture of used bandages and with an unnerving taste of cheap stock cube. It was, in all ways, repellent.
Sides were easier to eat, but then probably so were the napkins. I finished most of my dry fries not because they were any good but because I was hungry and they were just about edible where the chicken was not, although a very weird yoghurt mint dip thing remained largely untouched. Coleslaw was just moist cabbage, unseasoned and unloved.
A small portion of wings, ordered in a happier time before the mains arrived, was lazy beyond belief, just plain chicken, presumably pre-cooked somewhere then "finished off" ("finished off seemingly code for "burned in parts") on a grill. These, too, resisted any attempts to enjoy them. Where was the flavour, the spicy marinade, the selection of dipping sauces? Had they not eaten out in another London chicken restaurant in the last few years? Was any of it taste-tested? Where had it all gone so wrong?
It's worth making the point that I do not hate Cookhouse Joe because it's a proto-chain. Clockjack Oven is, demonstrably, a proto-chain but I liked their chicken, I liked their chips and although the pisspoor drinks list and stupid t-shirt slogans are annoying, they are not enough to spoil the experience of eating there. I hate Cookhouse Joe because they have one job - to serve roast chicken - and they are absolutely no good at it at all. And with the competition improving all the time, there is no point in valuable Soho retail space being wasted on such a half-arsed facsimile. Jog on, Joe.