Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

No more paltry poultry

There are few foodstuffs more homogenised in our culture than chicken.

In Britain we eat more than a pound per person per week, but the vast majority is consumed as a staple commodity, without pride or pleasure. It's the 'sliced white' of the meat industry, for sure. 

We're happy eating it in nugget, tikka or Coronation form, but are we maybe doing a disservice to the humble chicken by passing it off as a mere canvas for more interesting things? I like a Chicken Jalfrezi and I'll happily polish off a giant plate of buffalo wings. But, let's be honest, none of these are really about the chicken, are they?

A nicely roasted free-range chicken can be a thing of beauty for sure, but we hardly ever eat it these days. Sadly, we're far more likely to be stopping off at Chicken Cottage at 2AM for cheap battery chicken scraps, where the lack of underlying flavour is concealed by swathes of fat and a secret blend of herbs and spices. It's depressing; probably more so if you're a chicken!

Don't read if you work at Hen Cabin

A while back, when I was doing jury service, one of my fellow jurors - a Languages teacher as it happens - bemoaned the utter ubiquity of fried chicken shops in our high streets. I sympathised, and speculated as to whether there would ever be a market for premium quality free-range chicken outlets.

He was far from convinced that this could ever happen. Everybody expects to get a chicken burger, fries and a soft drink for £2.99, he said, and you'll never get them to part with much more than that for chicken, even if it's a far better product. Chicken has been irrecoverably devalued.

Pale ale and chicken skins - an awesome combo!
I had to admit that he probably had a point. What would constitute a high-end chicken outlet? Nandos because highly-paid footballers like to eat there? Because it's replaced Megabowl as the place where teenagers absolutely have to have their birthday parties?

Nope. In reality, that's pretty overrated, just as ubiquitous as KFC, and ultimately, still cheap chicken for the masses, with the selling point being the spice rubs and hot sauces, rather than the actual chicken.

'So, you're saying that as a society, we've chickened out of giving the bird the respect it deserved', I quipped, feeling very pleased with myself. (Before basically agreeing.)

But, he was wrong. I was wrong. Somebody at least, is having a go. Whyte and Brown, it turns out, are doing exactly the sort of thing that I loosely had in mind but couldn't quite conceptualise.

Located in a bustling food court in the West End, just off Carnaby street, the restaurant is decorated in the kind of post-industrial urban chic style that typifies modern, quality burger joints - and that's really not a bad thing. If there is a sustainable market for high-end chicken than it's a good bet that the hipster crowd will be a big part of it, at least initially.

There's just the one branch, but the concept looks ripe for expansion, with a varied but concise menu and the obligatory list of craft beers.

We start with the crispy chicken skins, which are simply divine. Conceptually similar to the homemade pork scratchings that every fucking gastropub in the galaxy started doing a few years back, the initial crunch soon gives way to the succulent subcutaneous fat where chickens, like so many other species, wear their best flavours.

Salty and delicious, I could eat these all day, and they are a magnificent accompaniment to the hoppy Paxton Pale Ale (5%) from the London Beer Factory. Me. Want. More. No, seriously, more. More!

The anatomy of fowl

Another side effect of our processed and sanitized chicken consumption is that people don't know much about the birds themselves these days. (These are the probably the same kids who think that bacon comes from the moon and milk from snails or something.)
Winging it
For example: Chicken wings contain three major bones: the ulna and radius are sort of strung together at both ends, with a finger of meat down the middle and one end connected to the humerus, a sturdier bone that joins the wing to the chicken. This goes off at a right-angle, with a flap of skin covering the gap.

For some reason, in this country these are almost always broken in half, so that one 'chicken wing' is actually only half a wing, either an ulna-radius pair, or a humerus. I'm guessing your typical KFC customer doesn't  know this.

Anyway, Whyte and Brown serves up whole chicken wings (complete with flappy skin and the pointy nub from the outer end) so you won't miss out. You get four wings (equivalent to eight in most places, obviously) for £6.50 and it's a pretty filling starter, probably one better shared between two.

The maple and chilli glaze provides sweetness and a kick, but doesn't detract from the flavour of the chicken which is nicely charred and spirits itself away from the bone with tender ease.

We tried the Chicken Souvlaki (£12.50), served on wooden skewers with tzatziki and olive tapenade, and again the garlicky seasoning (authentically Greek Islander in my view) complements, rather than cancels out the chicken.

Then there's the buttermilk-fried chicken burger (£11), which comes in a toasted bun with shredded lettuce, tomato, a pickle spear and chipotle mayo.

Yes, it's a simple idea, and, yes, you can get a chicken burger just about anywhere, but you'll rarely find one as good as this. The chicken itself is meaty, and while the spicy coating delivers a full whack of flavour, it allows the creamy flesh of the bird to melt in the mouth.

If I'm being picky, there are bites where the chicken gets slightly lost amongst the lettuce and other fillings in the sandwich, though this is something they could easily address by offering a 'double burger' option that achieves a greater chicken-to-bun ration.

A range of sides are available (though it's probably the only restaurant in the country right now not forcing mac'n'cheese on people!)

Parmesan and truffle oil fries (£4) are thin and crispy, with a subtle but impressive flavour - again, seemingly designed not to knock the chickeny goodness off the table but to play a supporting role.

One chicken burger meal, please!
For me, the surprise hit was the Puy lentils and bacon. When first confronted with this dish I was a tad disappointed by the apparent lack of bacon, but the lentil-centric appearance swiftly proves deceptive as it has a seriously deep bacony flavour that elevates the humble pulses to a new level. If I had to guess, I'd say they whack a massive bacon bone in to stew with the lentils for hours. Sneaky.

We finish with their White chocolate, stem ginger, caramel and banana cheesecake (£5.75), which has a lot going on, but is nicely balanced, with all the elements complementing the creamy cheese well. It's so rich that one portion between two is about right. Hot buttered rum tea is a quirky, comforting way to end the meal.

The quality notwithstanding, it's not exactly cheap, but then this is Central London. A meal for two is likely to be in the £60-80 range, pretty much comparable with the top burger and rib joints in the area.

Whether the Languages teacher's £2.99 argument will hold up and W&B remain a one-off curio, I don't know yet. But we've seen over the last few years that people are prepared to spend a lot more on quality burgers, so there's no reason why these guys can't do the same for chicken.

They're open from 8AM for breakfast (I'll be back to check it out) until 11 at night, with limited afternoon-only opening on Sundays.

Whyte and Brown have managed to create a chicken restaurant whose target audience isn't kids on their way home from school or hungry night owls for whom all other food options are closed. People will come here because they want to eat chicken.

And that's quite an achievement!

Where to find it...

Whyte and Brown
Kingly Court,
W1B 5PU (map)

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