Thursday, 21 November 2013
Le Coq, Islington
I'd like to know why it took until 2013 for London restaurants to work out how to cook chicken properly. This is, after all, a skill possessed by the most reluctant of weekend chefs - even me, and I can overcook a pot noodle. But how many times have you sat down for half a bird in your local pub only to be presented with a dried-up old carcass with a texture like damp loft insulation, the flesh peeling off the bones in sweaty, claggy clumps? How many hotel restaurants have proudly unveiled a 'supreme' from beneath a silver dome and for it to taste like it's been crumbling under a hot lamp for the best part of a fortnight? I've eaten drumsticks that have been left on the barbeque coals for hours longer than they should have been and they've still been juicy and tender (albeit beneath a half-inch of carbon). Something about the processes required in a professional kitchen and the demands of service conspire to make chicken in a restaurant, almost invariably, a colossal disappointment.
So it's worth repeating a couple of the places that are Doing Roast Chicken Right. There is Clockjack Oven in Soho, a proto-chain yes and unashamedly so, but where each piece of spit-roasted poultry is bouncy and juicy and seasoned to perfection. The chips are some of the best in town, too, and although some aspects of the experience could be improved (the drinks list still reads like a wet Monday) you can't fail to enjoy their main product. And who could forget Chicken Shop, currently pride of Kentish Town but shortly to open in Tooting, where for very little money you can eat some lovely crispy-skinned bird with a side of crinkle-cut chips. It's places like these that make you wonder what the hell everyone else is finding so difficult.
And now there is Le Coq, in Islington, a sign that perhaps, oh God please, London finally has a grip on this thing. They may bristle with the comparisons with the rather more downmarket examples above - Le Coq is a classy, independent venture with a proper drinks offering and a weekly-changing menu of interesting starters and sides - but they still form part of that exclusive group of restaurants that somehow have managed to serve roast chicken without completely coq-ing it up (sorry).
Starters, despite the obvious (and understandable, as you will see) focus on the main event, were still worth bothering with. A salad of artichokes, capers and parmesan ticked all the flavour profile boxes and we particularly enjoyed the way the artichokes had been grilled to get little crispy bits on the petals. And a 'brown crab rarebit' tasted as odd as it sounded, but after the initial shock of the powerfully seafoody brown-meat had died down it was actually weirdly moreish, the cheese and crab mixture being salty and rich alongside that punch of the sea.
But we - and everyone else in the room for that matter - were here for the chicken, and the chicken we did have. Presented in two parts, the bright white flesh of the breast encased in a golden-brown skin, and the darker meat of the leg stretched out next to it, it was, every last morsel of it, quite beautifully done. The flavour of it, not least, was seriously impressive - perhaps thanks to this particular breed of chicken, perhaps the way they were reared, perhaps the skill of the kitchen at Le Coq. Whatever the reason, I can't think of a better roast chicken to be found in London, and certainly not for a very reasonable £17 for two courses. It came with a colcannon made with yet more artichokes (Jerusalem this time), a side which beats any green salad into a coq'ed hat (please somebody stop me), some excellent tarragon mayonnaise, and a teeny pot of chicken roasting juices which my friend had to stop me drinking like it was soup.
I should also make a special mention of the "rotisserie potatoes", which I like to think were gently cooked in the roasting fat from the chicken, and if they weren't certainly tasted like they were, all soft and glistening and browned with concentrated chicken flavour. Could Le Coq, not content with serving arguable the best roast chicken in London, also be home to the best roasties?
My only regret was not ordering a side of bread to soak up the rest of the juices, so if you make the trip to Islington yourself be sure you don't make the same mistake. Running your fingers feverishly round your plate trying desperately to get a final fix of that sticky chicken stock is not the most edifying way to end a meal, and I can only apologise to those around me for my behaviour last night.
Having completely failed to avoid making any cheap gags at the expense of the name of this restaurant thus far, I don't see why I should stop now, so it just remains for me to say that you really can't help falling in love with Le Coq. The main event is, as I say, impossible to fault, and if everything else had been a disaster it still would have been worth the hour-long Overground trip from Battersea. But add in the expertly-judged sides, the interesting (and resolutely British) starters and the finest roast potatoes in town you have yourself a real gem of a place. In fact they're so good even now, barely weeks after opening, the only question is where they go next. My advice is, don't get Coq'y.
I was invited to review Le Coq