Friday, 1 May 2015
You'd be forgiven for thinking the last thing East London needed was another fried chicken joint. Scourge of the high street, bane of the nation's health, they are seemingly beaten only by betting shops in their ability to suck the joy and life out of a place, and have a similarly virus-like capacity to multiply and conquer an urban center. Where once were charity shops and Poundlands are now Tennessee Fried Chickens and William Hills. It's not exactly progress.
But not all fried chicken shops are created equal. Proper fried chicken from the Southern States of America, the kind popularised by Colonel Sanders before he sold his share of the business and standards slipped in the 1960s, was by all accounts - and is, if you know where to find it - a wonderful thing. The closest I've come to the real deal is Streetcar Merchants of San Diego, whose salt-brined chicken, served white or dark to order, was almost enough to banish the memory of Chicken Cottage forever. My friend Helen wrote about it here; you can see why we fell in love with the place.
Even if Chick'n'Sours served nothing but seasoned drumsticks and thighs it would still be better than anywhere else in London doing the same, thanks partly to some extraordinarily good fowl (good strong bones and plenty of rich dark meat, a million miles away from the usual broiler birds) but also to a nifty hand with a pressure-fryer, which welds the coating onto the skin and ensures every bite has a mix of crunch, seasoning and good, firm flesh. This is extremely good fried chicken, enough reason to visit in itself.
On top of that though, the menu offer a range of variations on an Asian-inspired theme that (somewhat against expectations, I have to admit) compliment the house fry whilst also making the whole lot feel more attractively London, or at least more Kingsland Road. I love chicken with biscuits and gravy, Southern style, but I also love crunchy fried chicken doused in sharp Thai chilli jam, toasted shallots, Thai basil, mint and spring onion. And in this part of town, the light, fresh notes of colourful SE Asian herbs and spices seem a lot more relevant.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with your bog standard breadcrumbed chicken fillet with sweet mayonnaise in a bun (in fact even modern KFC's version has a certain ersatz charm) but how much better is this beauty, a vast juicy chunk of breast meat with Korean mayonnaise, chilli vinegar and coleslaw? A lot better, I'd say, even at the £10 price point given the huge amount of meat inside.
Salads are many and varied, continuing the Asian theme. Szechuan aubergine had a beguiling mix of spices and chilli oil, texture provided by some striking monochrome sesame seeds. "Yaw bean slaw" was light and fresh and had an addictive miso savouriness, again a twist on a classic that was different not just for the sake of being different. But my favourite was pickled watermelon with peanut and coriander, an astonishing mix of chilli heat and watermelon cool, studded with crunchy peanuts, that hit just about every pleasure point a salad could aim for. Only a broccoli and green bean arrangement seemed out of place - nice enough but a bit soggy and forgettable.
Mostly, though, Chick'n'Sours gets things right. Wines are by (here's that name again) Zeren Wilson, a man who has the ability to conjure up wines of personality and power for a meagre £18 a bottle. The "sours" are lovely sharp fruity cocktails served in half pint glasses, colourful and ice cold and so easy to drink you risk an ice cream headache. Even the fries are good - cooked in beef dripping, aggressively seasoned and just soft enough rather than the cardboard-crunch so many places favour over flavour. Try them dipped in the blue cheese sauce - you'll never want them to end.
Perhaps objectively there isn't anything radically new going on here - fried chicken concepts have come and gone over the years, you can get things like Kara-age in most decent Japanese restaurants (Tonkotsu's is good), similarly Mama Lan's do a good line in crunchy Chinese style wings and for Southern US, Lockhart's is hard to beat. But you don't have to reinvent the wheel to be very good at what you do, and there are enough terrible attempts at even high-end fried chicken (if that's not a contradiction) to demonstrate that getting it right - and certainly getting it so very right as Chick'n'Sours do - is not at all easy.
I loved Chick'n'Sours not because of what it's trying to be but what it is - a relentlessly entertaining, energetic little operation serving near-faultless fried chicken complimented by a range of punchy pan-Asian sides that are never anything less than enormous fun to eat. It has runaway success written all over it.
There's every chance Chick'n'Sours will appear in the next version of the app. Meantime, see where else is good in Dalston by downloading it here.