There is a craze for what is called “dude food” – the sort of food you eat pissed, on your way home from the pub – but done properly, with love, care and good ingredients. Burgers, hot dogs, kebabs, that sort of thing.
Here in Brixton we’ve got a few such places, including the very wonderful Honest Burgers. Honest serve great burgers, using good quality well-hung meat, cooked à point so they’re juicily pink in the middle, with fabulous chips, crisp and seasoned with rosemary salt. It’s consistently rated as one of the top ten burger joints in London.
Wishbone Brixton have jumped on the Brixton-is-Cool bandwagon and spent a small fortune, and several months, doing up a unit in one of our covered market arcades – Market Row, to be precise. They’d tweeted for months beforehand that they were opening a new fried chicken place in Brixton Village (which real Brixtonians know as The Granville Arcade), and I spent some time trying to locate which of the very few vacant units in the Granville was likely to serve fried chicken. Turns out that these out-of-towners couldn’t even tell the difference between Brixton Village and Market Row. Just to be clear, guys: you are not in Brixton Village.
Brixton has lots of fried chicken places – KFC itself on the corner, dozens of KFC lookalikes named after most of the Confederate states as well as Morleys, which is nothing to do with our department store of the same name. All these places sell chicken of dubious origin, intensively-raised cheap broiler-house birds, where welfare isn’t a consideration and flavour comes well below cost. Chicken that you’d really rather not eat, but which is often (when alcohol blurs the animal welfare conscience) surprisingly good. Crisp on the outside, succulent in the middle, greasy, nasty, genuine dude food. Just think how great it would be done properly, with good, flavoursome chicken, chicken that tasted of chicken. I know that if I spend ten pounds on a free-range organic chicken to roast at home, it will have much more flavour than one costing three pounds. I was really looking forward to Wishbone’s fried chicken. After all, if they could improve on KFC a tenth as much as Honest Burgers improves on McDonalds, it would be a real treat.
So I finally made it to them, one lunchtime. Turns out the place is really a bar. All one side is taken up with a big cocktail bar serving “sours”. Well, it was lunchtime. I wanted tasty chicken, not a cocktail. The menu offered wings or thighs in various coatings. The quarter and half chickens were off. I idly wondered what they did with all the drumsticks and the breasts (not to mention the oysters…). I like a bit of wing myself, in fact when a roast bird is being carved at the table, I usually ask for wing rather than breast or leg. But a chicken thigh is more substantial, you get that rich succulent meat right up to the bone, so I went for the thighs. The waiter told me they come off the bone. Right. Well, at least he warned me. I can’t really see the point of boning a chicken thigh, but it’s just a few strokes of the knife and it lets a marinade get right into the meat.
So my thighs arrived. It was a box of chicken nuggets in artfully-crumpled deli paper. The salt-and-pepper coating was about five millimetres thick, all the way round each nugget of thigh meat. Crunchy, very crunchy. Dry. No sign of the skin. Fried chicken should be served skin on, with the skin crisp and greasy under its seasoned coating. Whoever thought up this abomination obviously doesn’t much like chicken. Doesn’t get what chicken is. Doesn’t get thighs.
I also ordered fries to go with my chicken. Now Honest Burgers have raised the bar for chips, and next door to Wishbone is another dude burger place, Bukowski, owned by the same set of hedge-fund managers who have bought out our beloved Franco’s Pizza. I’ve not been there either, but I’ve heard that their chips are really good too, and that they fry them the proper way in beef dripping. (Honest use rapeseed oil). These fries at Wishbone were just frozen ones, powdery in the middle, no different from any McCain’s fries. They probably were McCain’s.
It takes a bit of chutzpah to open a fried chicken place in Brixton. I don’t think these guys even realised that. It’s a tick-box exercise, Brixton, cool, dude-food, cool, burgers are done, hot dogs are done, so let’s go for chicken. But there’s no love for chicken there. No love for the nasty greasy crispy succulent nibbly gnawing-at-the-bone experience. No love for food – they could have made an effort with the fries, it’s not that difficult to get them right, just a bit more than tipping a portion out of the poly-bag into the fryer and waiting until the beeper goes.
You just need to be a lot more passionate and a lot less cynical. Unfortunately, this is what Brixton is coming to. The passionate people, who made Brixton Village what Jay Rayner described as “the most exciting thing on the restaurant scene” are being pushed out by the cynical money people. Wishbone isn’t the only guilty party; there’s a vile pink frozen yoghurt franchise thing next practically next door to it. The places in Brixton Village – like Honest Burgers, Kaosarn, The Brixton Village Grill, Elephant, LabG – are shoestring startups run by people with a passion. That’s why and how they make great food. There’s absolutely not sign of any passion for fried chicken at Wishbone. It’s a terrible shame, and an even greater shame that the hipster crowds flocking for Brixton cool probably won’t even notice how shit their food is.
Anyway, I bet the cocktails at Seven are much better than the sours at Wishbone too. Just a hunch – I haven’t tried the Wishbone sours – but I suspect passion vs cynicism will apply here too.