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Review: Chick ‘n Sours, Dalston

in Restaurants

For most of my life I didn’t believe people who said that they preferred brown chicken meat to the white stuff. To me, the thighs and legs were greasy, fatty offcuts that you ate with a roast chicken to remind yourself that, like all good things, the breast and skin came with a price tag. Anyone who volunteered to eat the brown meat was a pathological altruist and not to be trusted.

That’s usually been my experience in restaurants, too, which in London somehow seem to struggle with deep-frying a chicken wing enough to make it edible, let alone a thigh or leg. So I was nervy about the menu of Chick ‘n Sours, which demoted breast to ‘boneless white meat’ below the leg and thigh ‘House Fry’, but I went for the brown stuff all the same.

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We started with the St Agur blue cheese salad, which came dotted with little bits of what I think was guacamole and sprinkled with bits of bacon and fried chicken skin, and the Szechuan aubergine, which was cubes of deep-fried aubergine with a spicy, sweet sauce (this was their take on fish-fragrant aubergine).

Gem lettuce, St Agur, bacon, pickled apple, chicken skin (and unadvertised guacamole)

The salad was just a little bit too understated for my liking – even good, fresh lettuce is usually quite flavourless and I was hoping for a stronger blue cheese flavour. The aubergine was crispy and the sauce so good that we drank it straight from the bowl (just as at Som Saa).

Szechuan (aka fish-fragrant) aubergine

And then came the House Fry chicken – two large, rich brown pieces with a side of pickled watermelon, along with a blue cheese dip and a sriracha and sour cream dip we’d ordered separately. It was astonishingly textured and crunchy. As we tore it apart I was shocked and pleased to discover that this brown meat was not greasy, slimy or fatty – it was more like a confit duck leg than any chicken leg I’d ever had before.

House Fry with pickled watermelon

We followed this with the Guest Fry, which was the same thing with a peanut satay sauce, coriander and thai basil. This was a little redundant – I love these flavours but the chicken coating mostly overpowered them, and eventually I just ended up dipping them into the lovely blue cheese sauce as if it was the normal thing.

Guest Fry chicken with satay sauce, coriander and Thai basil

Sides were good: the pickled watermelon rind tasted sweet and vinegary, just like my mother’s homemade pickled cucumbers but with more bite. The kimchi coleslaw was much better than any coleslaw I’d ever had before, although that might sound like damning it with faint praise. Both of these were acidic enough to cut through the richness of the chicken skin and sauces and paired very well with them.

Pickled watermelon rind, kimchi coleslaw and beef dripping chips

The beef dripping chips were the first beef dripping chips I’ve tried that actually tasted like beef dripping, and indeed the bottom of the bowl ended up with quite a deep pool of dripping that, while slightly gross, tasted very nice.

All this was so good that my companion at one stage wondered if she could go and make herself throw up so she could continue eating. I’m happy to say she didn’t do that but I understand why she considered it.

Sours cocktails

Sours-style cocktails were a bit underwhelming, although at £6 each I didn’t feel as ripped off as I usually do with boring cocktails. My daquiri-style one was just bland, and the strawberry-flavoured house cocktail was too sweet and fruity for my tastes, although my companion enjoyed hers.

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Chick ‘n Sours lived up to the impressive hype it has built, and if it wasn’t all the way up in Dalston I’d go back regularly. To cook brown chicken meat so well that even a white-meat supremacist like me loved it is an impressive feat, and the accompanying sides were interesting and delicious in their own right. Like many pop-up style places Chick ‘n Sours felt like it was being prepared for expansion into a chain. Unlike most of them, I hope it will be.

Score: Two medals. (For an explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

Review: Som Saa, London Fields

in Restaurants

Som Saa tried its hardest to stop me from eating there. When I first tried going back in May it turned out to be closed for a private party, and ended up at the disappointing (and expensive) Rita’s instead. After a few months of sulking I decided to try again. This time, Som Saa turned an “hour or hour and a half” wait into two and a half hours.

That’s annoying, but not quite as bad as it sounds – Som Saa has a fairly roomy outdoor drinking area with benches, a decent duo of beers (Camden Pilsner and Five Points IPA), and the two cocktails we had were quite tasty despite being served in flimsy plastic party glasses. Our bar snack of fried fermented pork and shredded papaya with lime and chilli was truly delicious – fresh and warming, and so good that we drank the lime-chilli-fish sauce juice left over when nobody else was looking.

But the food, once we were eventually seated, was variable. The grilled chicken leg was entirely ordinary, no different to a chicken leg you’d have at a home barbecue, but the jaew dipping sauce – similar to the stuff we’d gobbled down earlier – made for a hot, citrusy dip for the (unlimited) sticky rice we’d ordered.

Som tam, isaan style, with grilled chicken leg in the background

I had been craving som tam – a green papaya salad that is ubiquitous in Thailand – since lunchtime. Unfortunately, it was revolting. I’d opted for the ‘stronger flavoured’ isaan style that came with an overpoweringly strong fermented fish sauce called bplaa raa (‘rotten/moldy fish’), which dominated all the delicious fresh and spicy flavours I usually love with som tam.

According to this postbplaa raa ‘is to nam bplaa (fish sauce) what a fine French blue cheese, shot through with veins of mold, is to cream cheese.’ Perhaps it’s my fault for trying it, as standard ‘Bangkok style’ som tam was also on the menu, but I do wonder how anyone could enjoy it. It tasted like the smell of a fishing docks in the evening, after a slow day of trading.

Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry
Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry

Barbecued prawns with coconut were pricey at £9.50 for four, but unlike most barbecued shellfish the cooking style complimented the meat instead of dominating it. Nam prik num – a sort of cold green chilli relish served with pork scratchings and raw sliced vegetables – was utterly pointless. The relish was virtually flavourless, a bit like a lime pickle without the lime. I’m still trying to figure out what in that made them think it was worth serving, let alone worth charging £8.50 for.

Nam prik num
Nam prik num

All this was slightly disappointing, until the sea bass. This gurning little fellow was not just the best dish I had at Som Saa but was among the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Sitting in a little pond of that lovely lime-chilli-fishy sauce, the sea bass was fried to crisp perfection without losing any of its moisture inside. We pulled it apart and mopped up its juices and the pile of coriander, mint and bits of roasted rice on top of it.

Deep fried sea bass with roasted rice powder

That unlimited sticky rice is a nice touch, because what this place does best is its sweet, fermented, spicy sauces, and sticky rice dipped into those sauces padded out fairly modest portions of meat.

Som Saa was slightly frustrating: waiting for restaurants is no terrible thing, since it means you can go spontaneously and it probably guarantees a more steady stream of customers than bookings does. I suspect Som Saa and other restaurants like it make some extra money from the alcohol it sells to people while they wait, which – if it cross-subsidises the food – is fine by me.

Certainly, Som Saa was not expensive – altogether (excluding drinks), our bill came to £52 for five dishes between two people, and both of us were stuffed (and we barely touched the fermented fish som tam). I’d like to say it’s worth the wait for the fish alone – and I may well go again on a quieter night just for that – but there were too many misses in Som Saa’s menu to justify waiting such a long time. Som Saa is a good restaurant, with flashes of excellence, but it is already so popular that it may never make those flashes the norm.

Score: One medal. (For an explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

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