Hipster Nando's. That was my clever friend Rebecca's quip about Chicken Shop, after her visit on the first night it opened. She's not wrong. This latest outpost from Nick Jones, of Soho House and Pizza East fame, is a fast-food joint, dishing up rotisserie chicken and a few side dishes in a no-bookings, wipe-clean tables, menu-on-the-wall environment. The difference, of course, is in the detail.
Not least the clientele; Kentish Town is peopled with trendy twentysomethings who live in flats and their affluent, house-dwelling cousins. Judging by the thronging crowds, this is exactly what they've been waiting for. Everybody loves roast chicken, right? But not everybody wants the (shriek!) non-organic, rapper-beloved Nando's.
Then there's that interior. Behind an unmarked door, stairs descend to a dark, smoky room. OK, I lied about the smoke, but there's definitely a waft of char in the air from the huge wood fire at the back, above which chickens twizzle in the heat. It's sexy, noisy and once down there, I'll do anything for a table.
"What, wait 45 minutes?" My three friends and I trudge up the stairs and out past the heaving Pizza East on the ground floor in search of a sit-down and a drink while we wait. Luckily, Highgate Road is well served for hipster pubs too. The Vine across the street looks good, but five minutes further up is The Southampton Arms, where you can consume artisan beers and ciders and artisan pork (if that didn't already exist, it does now) in artisan surroundings. A bloke at the bar in an artfully battered trilby attests to the beauty of the meat.
But alas, no sooner have the pints been pulled than a call on my mobile summons us back to Chicken Shop. Turns out it's almost impossible to tell just how long anyone is going to sit at their table. And I soon find out why.
With barely any choice – quarter, half or whole spit-roast chicken; crinkle-cut chips, coleslaw, corn on the cob and butter lettuce and avocado salad the side dishes – ordering takes but a second. Wine comes in three sizes: glass, small jug or large jug, and three types: house, decent or good. There's such a din of music, cutlery and a semi-stampede up and down the stairs that I don't catch what makes the difference between a decent and a good white wine, but the decent, at £19 for a large jug is, well, decent.
We've barely opened our napkins and glanced around before a series of enamelled dishes starts arriving. The first two are empty. Turns out these are for the scraps. A big dish follows with a whole chicken on it (£14.50). It's been jointed already, which helps, but the light is dim enough that I make a few unwise chomps down on to bone. It's delicious chicken, though, which is a blessed relief – restaurants have been built before around one ingredient which they've then failed to deliver in taste or quality.
It's sticky and tender, skin slathered in salty, herby juices. There's hot sauce (again, no Nando's, this stuff creates beads of sweat on the brow at first bite) and smoky sauce. The excellent, although super-salty, crinkle fries (£3) come with ketchup and garlic mayonnaise. Four chunks of corn cob (£3) arrive, with a waiter brandishing another jug. This one has melted butter. Why, yes please. Coleslaw (£3) is proper; simultaneously crisp and sodden with creaminess. The salad (£4) has big chunks of ripe avocado.
I'm struggling to find much fault with Chicken Shop except the frequent interruptions by staff. I don't mind most of the time, because it's to proffer sauces or more chips – yes, we went there – but it's all a bit eager beaver. It might be new-gaff nerves, or it might be part of the technique to keep things moving along. The prices are pretty keen, so they need to pack in the punters to make Chicken Shop work (and presumably to roll out a mini-chain, like Pizza East). If the plan is to be an NDR – industry speak, non-destinational restaurant – then pudding is a flaw in that plan.
There's warm chocolate brownie and lemon cheesecake – both good examples of their sticky genre – but it's all about the apple pie (£4). It arrives at the table in a family-sized dish and as much or as little as desired is ladled on to the plate. An enormous jug of cream is placed at my elbow. This could take a while…
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Chicken Shop, 79 Highgate Road, London NW5, tel: 020 3310 2020 Open Tue-Thur 5pm-12am, Fri-Sat 5pm-1am. About £45 for two, including drinks
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Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012 www.hardens.com