Monday, 1 October 2018

Jidori, Covent Garden

After so long writing about restaurants in London, you get used to the pace of change and ebb and flow of things, and accept that there's no restaurant (with the possible exception of Rules) that will be around forever. Mostly, restaurant closures are sad but understandable, victims of a changing market or a shift in focus from the owners. It's a shame that Typing Room is closing its doors but its time had come, and the knowledge that chef Lee Westcott is heading to Worcestershire to open a very interesting looking place in a fancy country hotel, well that sounds like a step up to me.

Of course some closures are more than welcome. Arguments about blameless staff losing their jobs and the state of the economy generally aside, I'm not going to mourn the collapse of Jamie's Italian or Strada any more than I would the cancellation of Brexit - these were bad chains that served bad food and didn't deserve to survive. In fact if Frankie & Benny's, Garfunkel's, Chiquito, Las Iguanas, Pod, the JRC Global Buffet and the Rainforest Café could also go tits up in the next few months I - and the wider world - would be most grateful.

But just occasionally, a restaurant disappears from London that I really, really miss. Bincho Yakitori used to occupy a cosy little spot on Old Compton Street and served the very best yakitori, up to that point (this was before my trip to Japan), I'd ever had in my life. It was informal, and friendly, and served tasty skewers to grateful Soho lunchers for not very much money but what really impressed me about the place was the willingness to offer bits of a chicken I didn't even know you could eat, such as painstakingly-filleted neck, and cartilage. Sure, this more specialist stuff wasn't for everyone, but for a tragic food spod like me just having the opportunity to try something so unusual was very exciting, especially with the added theatrics of being sat at the bar at the open kitchen, clouds of charcoal smoke filling the air.

The most obvious disadvantage that Jidori has, then, is the lack of an open kitchen and bar. The very best omakase experiences rely on that interaction between you and the chef, the immediacy and honesty of the cooking process and the fact the pacing is entirely guided by how fast you want to eat. The pacing at Jidori was admirable, and there's no faulting the friendliness and competency of the staff, who were assured and confident throughout. But would I have been happier sat at an open kitchen swatting away charcoal smoke than in a rather boxy upstairs room overlooking Catherine Street?

Well yes I would, but I would also happily sit in a cupboard in the dark to eat food this good, starting with crackers of puffed corn and seaweed topped with chunks of raw tuna. Seasoned properly and bound with a nice amount of wasabi mayo, these were easily better than the version served at Louie Louie a couple of weeks ago.

Cold roast aubergine is never going to win any beauty competitions but had a lovely flavour, salty and smokey, and dressed in oil. I should say at this point that yes, I know the photos are terrible. Weirdly it wasn't even that dark in there so I don't know what happened other than given my skill as a photographer it's more incredible that any of my pictures are any good at all than some occasionally look like they were taken underwater.

With the snacks out of the way we were on to the main event - bits of chicken on sticks. Breast first, apparently because the Japanese (quite rightly) are so uninterested in the boring breast meat that they want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. These were tender enough though, dressed in a sake and shiso dressing that just softened the bitterness of the charcoal.

Thigh next, neatly rolled and served next to little bits of spring onion, fattier and therefore more enjoyable than the breast, but with that same crunch and smoke from the coals.

Then wing, carefully threaded on the skewer keeping two bones in, presumably to help keep it from drying out. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a carefully, expertly deboned chicken wing that's not turned to cotton wool from overcooking. If you're very, very clever about it (and I'm thinking mainly of the Chinese style, deboned then stuffed with prawn mince) then you could end up with something worth eating. But most of the time, you're better off leaving the bones in.

So far, so recognisable. Jidori were hitting us with the familiar parts first, the crowdpleasers. But next came the skin, neatly folded into even rows, gently crisped on the grill and satisfying with bags of flavour. I could be wrong but I don't think this was 100% separated skin, I got the feeling there was a slight amount of flesh there too, to bind it together and stop the whole thing becoming overwhelmingly fatty. Very, very good anyway.

Usually omakase diners have to choose between hearts and liver for the next course - for all their undoubted skill Jidori can't, after all, do much about the composition of a chicken - but with there being four of us we were able to choose both. So here's the liver, soft and yielding and lightly seasoned in some interesting dried herbs...

...and here are the hearts, all bouncy and jolly, with some rolls of crisp bacon to season and contrast. I think heart might be my favourite bit of a chicken overall; the texture is always a delight and the flavour is of rich offal without being bitter or difficult.

Next was what they called 'drumstick', but looked rather more like thigh meat. I think perhaps they'd carefully removed the largest portion of dark meat from the legs and pressed it into shape somehow. Clever stuff.

The next course was more of a surprise - minced chicken skewers, like mini koftas, with a bright egg yolk and soy dressing. We were instructed to whip up the egg and soy into a smooth paste, then dip the mince in before eating. This was great fun, without a hint of the dryness that can affect chicken mince, and very nicely seasoned.

Another unexpected course was this, a bowl containing good soft rice, fresh herbs, some incredibly sour lumps of something citrusy or fruity which I'm going to have to leave unexplained as I can't find anything on Google or the restaurant menu, and all of it in a kind of half chicken consommé half tea broth. If it sounds like there's a lot going on here well you're not wrong, but the flavours all mostly complimented each other (though the citrus element did occasionally threaten to derail things) and I certainly haven't had anything like it before. Also, this was the twelfth individual course of a £30/head tasting menu - extraordinary value for money.

And unbelievably we still weren't done. Coconut water sorbet with elderflower sake was light and refreshing and full of summer flavour, and looked pretty as a picture.

Part of me wonders whether Jidori should charge a little more than the frankly ludicrous £30/head and do the above with some seriously high-end chicken. People are always banging on about those poulet de Bresse that cost £50/pop and I bet if anyone could make the most of them Jidori could. But then, having said that, I once spent £50 on Poulet Dimanche at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught (it's now an eyewatering £90) and the chicken itself was a bit dry and disappointing. So perhaps Jidori do know what they're doing after all.

Anyway, what a way to spend £30. Or rather, what a way to spend £62.50 but there's no need for you to go quite as crazy on the booze as we did. Yep, that's a bottle of wine each. I'm not proud of it. But if you can't spend double the food bill on booze in Covent Garden on a Friday night with a group of old school friends who are all turning 40 in the next few months, well, when can you? The road to my own significant birthday starts now, and Jidori has got it off to a cracking start. Bincho Yakitori is dead*. Long live Jidori.


*Bincho Yakitori is not dead. They moved to Brighton and by all accounts are doing a roaring trade. In fact we tried to get in a few weeks ago and they were full. The bastards.

1 comment:

Nick said...

You can get the same food at the Jidori branch in Dalston, and that one *does* have an open kitchen with charcoal.

I agree, the hearts are superb, btw