There is something afoot: 2023 is becoming the year of the fancy chicken restaurant. Posh, sustainable versions of Nando’s – loosely – and each flapping in with a straightforward concept that won’t surprise but may well electrify.
Why is this? It might be because Britain is in tatters. People don’t have all that much money but they still want to eat out. And they want to go somewhere decent rather than an old-school chain that puts chorizo in everything and pays its staff terribly.
It is well known that the safest bets in hospitality are quality pizzas and credible burgers. Chicken, fried or not, is nearly there, too. Here we have a recognisable product, one that some might consider boring but isn’t – not when it’s done well. After all, one of the best books about food ever written, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, by Simon Hopkinson, is named after poultry, quite obviously.
I tend to think chicken, like an omelette or a bowl of tomato pasta – easy to do, hard to do well – is a surefire way to test a cook’s mettle. Most people in Britain ruin omelettes and dry chicken isn’t rare. So often I encounter videos on social media where people put chunks of breast meat in a pan, probably for some sort of poorly spiced curry, for almost as long as the newly felled Sycamore Gap was standing. No bones for flavour? Not even deboned thighs, which at least offer something? I know it’s about accessibility, convenience and ease, but it’s also irritating.
But hey, as I said before, treat chicken well and it can be affirming and transportive. It will help to restore an ailing patient. It is unifying to boot – most cultures cook it, and nearly all of those have some classic roasting technique. The world is universal in its appreciation.
So it isn’t any wonder restaurateurs are latching on to the bird’s tender promise. Russian-born Leonid Shutov has just launched Bébé Bob, a smaller, slightly more casual sister restaurant to his celeb-favourite Bob Bob Ricard. The premise, in short, is excellent rotisserie chicken, sourced from Vendée and Landes in France. The champagne regions of poultry.
Then there’s the team behind the widely popular TĀ TĀ Eatery, which has opened Solis, a playful grill space specialising in chicken (and steak) making use of flavours from the Iberian peninsula together with those from South America.
Finally, there’s Fowl, a pop-up in a pub from the group behind Fallow, one of London’s prime hotspots these days for cool people; find someone who wears Veja trainers, listens to The Last Dinner Party and holidays in Santorini who hasn’t been. Fowl has been described as a “chicken shop like no other”. There will be guest chefs. The first is the great Frenchman Pierre Koffmann, who’s made a chicken leg corn dog with Aleppo pepper, and “La Grande Coque Pie”, filled with confit chicken hearts, livers and cockscombs.
Here’s another superb chicken dish – a hearty hotpot for autumn. It’s the work of Yorkshire chef Tommy Banks, who champions northern produce with aplomb at The Black Swan in the North York Moors village of Oldstead, and Roots, in York.
Tomato & Chicken Hot Pot
4 skin-on, boneless chicken thighs
1tbsp coriander seeds
1tbsp fennel seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
150ml white wine
4 large buffalo tomatoes
250g cherry tomatoes
1 bulb of fennel, cut into quarters
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
Preheat oven to 200ºC (180ºC fan). In a dry frying pan over high heat, toast the coriander seeds, fennel seeds and peppercorns until aromatic. Remove, and grind into a coarse powder using a pestle and mortar.
In the same pan over medium heat, add a splash of oil and fry the chicken on all sides until golden. Remove chicken from pan.
Add a knob of butter until melted, then add the onion and garlic and cook until they start to caramelise (approximately five minutes). Once they begin to caramelise, add ground spice mix and cook for 30 seconds. Add wine, and allow it to bubble and reduce.
Meanwhile, add your buffalo tomatoes to a blender, and blend until liquid consistency.
Once the wine has reduced, add blended buffalo tomatoes to the pan, and allow to cook slowly until the excess water has been cooked out, about five to 10 minutes. Transfer the entire mixture back to the blender, and blitz on high speed for about one minute.
In a heavy-based pan with a lid, add chicken thighs, tomato sauce, scatter your cherry tomatoes and fennel evenly on top. Submerge your thyme and rosemary into the sauce.
Pop the lid on and cook in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes. Remove lid for the remaining 10 minutes to help caramelise the chicken skin.
Serve with buttered, toasted sourdough.