Thursday, 6 December 2018

Chicken Shop, Holborn

It occurred to me the other day that a good number of the "wishlist" dishes or cuisines I've griped about not having access to in London over the years have, gradually, one-by-one, been ticked off. For a while it was burgers, where years of crushed hopes and disappointment were finally answered in a little white van in Peckham and since then we've had more than enough decent options. Then attention turned to Mexican food where following a disastrous false start at a grotty US chain, suddenly like the buses Breddos and El Pastor opened in the same month, and now I don't need to wait for a twice-yearly trip to Southern California to get my taco fix.

So what's left? Well, I enjoyed trying the Salvadorian cuisine of San Francisco, with their pupusa and curtido, although perhaps not quite enough to start a campaign, and besides the chances of us being able to scrape together enough El Salvadorians in London to run a lemonade stall never mind a full restaurant are slim to none. The generally lacklustre offering of Greek food is perhaps harder to excuse - there's a pretty healthy Greek community in London and yet if the best it can come up with is Lemonia, something's gone wrong somewhere. I've had high hopes for a few places not least the relaunched Real Greek and they've all come up short so here's hoping some budding entrepreneur fills this gap in the market in the near future.

But there's one thing I've been desperately searching for almost for the entire time I've lived in London, which despite certain steps in the right direction has remained stubbornly just out of grasp, and that's Mediterranean rotisserie chicken. In Catalonia, every small town boasts at least one (in fact usually two or three) pollo a l'ast peddler, with banks of stainless steel spits full of birds, rubbed with obscene amounts of salt and herbs, slowly bronzing away. For the best results, and at the best places, you put your name down earlier in the day and turn up just as they're cooked, to whisk it home to eat with pan con tomate and salad, but even lesser pollo a l'ast from tourist spots near the beach can be well worth the effort. In Barcelona, as you might imagine in the regional capital, the humble roadside rotisserie chicken as been given the full posh treatment in places like Chez Coco but even here the concept is the same - plump birds rubbed with salt, lemon, thyme and bay, served with a salad or patatas fritas. Wonderfully simple, and simply wonderful.

Now, I should say in case you think this post is building up to something, Chicken Shop is not the answer to all our (ok, my) rotisserie chicken dreams. It's great, and I love it, but there's not the same depth and agression in the seasoning, or crunch in the skin. Perhaps I'm on a hiding to nothing expecting a chain of London restaurants to be able to exactly recreate the experience of a trip to Kan Kilis in l'Escala of a hot summer afternoon but even so I'm holding out hope that one day someone will get their act together.

In the meantime, anyway, Chicken Shop is very good. The seasoning, though not particularly complex, is still fairly robust - mainly lemon and salt which means the skin has a good colour and citrus tang. The flesh is - remarkably - never in the least bit dry, a result I believe of a day of marination and some fiendish steaming process, which means that yes some of the fire and flavour of the Spanish style is lost but hey, at least on quiet days you don't run the risk of recreating the National Lampoon's Christmas dinner scene. It's not perfect, but it is the best rotisserie chicken in London, by quite some stretch, which is of course to be much applauded.

On top of this, the crinkle-cut chips are great, the sauces are fantastic (particularly the chilli which is great to dip chips into), and they do a genuinely lovely butter lettuce and avocado salad, not to mention a great big apple pie and ice cream for £6. Oh yes that's the other thing worth pointing out about Chicken Shop - it's cheap; a whole chicken for £19 and on weekday lunches you can get a quarter chicken and chips for £8.50. For Holborn (my usual haunt), this puts it in direct competition with Chicken Cottage over the road. And I know which one of those is more deserving of your lunch money.

So though the wait goes on for the truly authentic Catalan experience, perhaps forever, us Londoners really should be grateful for Nick Jones, whose attention to detail and sense of style and occasion made Soho House such a runaway success and which make Chicken Shop such a friendly and reliable little spot to have a chicken dinner.


Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Bar Néstor, San Sebastián

If I were to follow properly in the footsteps of the countless food bloggers and writers that have beaten a path to San Sebastián's old town before, by rights this would be a multi-part post covering a good selection of the best pinxo bars, from the mini hamburguesas of Fuego Negro through a plate of Tigress mussels at La Mejillonera and finishing with cheesecake at La Viña. And indeed we did visit all those places and very good they were too (if occasionally quite stressful; more on which later) but of all the brilliant, bustling and boisterous spots in town, none served food quite as brilliant, or was quite as bustling and boisterous, as Bar Néstor. So I'm going to tell you all about how no trip to Donostia is complete without a meal here, and how it represents everything that is wonderful about this part of the world.

The first thing any self-respecting food nerd has to do on arrival in San Sebastián is poke your head through the window of the then-shuttered Néstor at midday sharp (experience suggests the Northern Spanish are much, much better at timekeeping than their Southern countrymen) and put your name down for the tortilla. If that sounds a bit of an odd arrangement, well I suppose it is, but it's borne of the fact that they only make two of the things a day, each divided strictly into no more than seven portions, and if you just rock up expecting a slice without being on The List, as a group of rather dejected Japanese men did the way we were there, well, you're going to be disappointed. The act of your name being called out and then being handed a plate of warm tortilla (a warm, deeply comforting arrangement of potato, caramelised onions and egg just exactly halfway between runny and set) over the heads and dismayed gazes of those less fortunate is, I imagine, how wars have started.

But the tortilla is only the beginning of the true Néstor experience. Next, there's the matter of the beef. The txuleton of the Basque region is rightly famous - usually ex-dairy, deeply marbled, aged a couple of weeks (not often much more than that) and cut into obscenely thick chops almost as high as they are wide, you're not short of options even in the square-km San Sebastián old town; Gandarias would have been a good comparison piece on the steak had they not been closed for holidays. Sad face.

Even so, it's hard to imagine anywhere serving beef much better than Néstor's. Having been lucky enough to bump into a group of fellow Londoners we'd met in the tortilla queue earlier, we conspired to select a vast 1.5kg chunk of cow which was whipped away for a brief grilling over coals and returned not too much later cooked rare and covered in a good healthy layer of salt. It was, as you can probably guess just from the picture, a truly remarkable thing, with a powerful taste and only enough aged funk to provide interest, not to distract. Despite its size and the fact one of our party was pregnant and therefore couldn't even touch it, the poor thing, it disappeared in a matter of minutes.

But I think even if you weren't eating raw beef, or drinking the txakoli or beer served by the effortlessly charming and attentive staff, you'd still have a blast at Bar Néstor; in fact it's close to impossible not to. True, we were lucky with our prior knowledge of the tortilla ordering system and the fact we fluked a corner table to enjoy it all on, but it's worth noting that the group of Japanese men who missed out on the tortilla also missed out on a txuleton (you have to be pretty smart to snag one of those too) but still hung around most of the afternoon (only occasionally stealing pained glances at our food), such is the joyful atmosphere in the place. It's the very essence of the San Sebastián experience - unbelievably good food, reasonably priced, served with a smile. With or without the smug bonus of having prepared properly.

Later that day we were to visit the aformentioned Mejillonera, and La Viña's cheesecake, and countless other places I only vaguely remember through a fug of Estrella and table wine, and though the food was never less than enjoyable - excellent, even - I was variously shouted at for not paying while ordering, attempting to pay while ordering, asking what these pickles were, standing in the wrong place, thinking 'xampi' meant langoustine and wasn't short for 'xampignon' (mushroom) and so on and so forth and it's safe to say that by the end of the evening I was looking forward to sitting in a darkened room somewhere and listening to whale song. Maybe I'm just getting old.

But I'd go back to Néstor in a heartbeat, and let's face it, despite the stress I'd go back to every other place we visited too because getting a bit knocked around is all part of the authentic pinxos experience. To eat like this, at these prices (our entire bill at Néstor, including all the booze, an incredible tomato salad and plates of "angry" (padrón) peppers came to just over €90 which is crazy value), I think is worth a bit of discomfort - it really is as good as everyone says. I'm just kicking myself it's taken me until my 40th birthday to find this out.


I didn't trust myself tearing around the old town with my big camera, so thanks to @hollowlegs and @foodstories variously for the above pictures.