One of the greatest pleasures in a week night activity like a gig is the chance to roll up one’s sleeves and unashamedly indulge in a new greasy restaurant experience.
So it was when Little Comets performed at Dingwalls in London, prompting my housemate and I to roam Camden in search of some pre-gig warmth and fatty food. The many restaurants of Chalk Farm Road appear particularly toasty and enticing in the evening at this time of the year, and none more so than the orange shades of BIRD.
BIRD is the brainchild of Canadian husband and wife team Paul Hemings and Cara Ceppetelli. It opened its doors a couple of years ago, as the bargain bucket-shunning duo sought to reinvent the classic greasy-fingered fried chicken experience for a grown up London audience.
So, everyone knows that the bird is the word, but what do BIRD serve, in their own words? “The best free range fried chicken you’ve ever tasted.” A brave statement indeed for an establishment in Britain. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…
I opted for the Bacon & Cheese, which aside from the obvious ingredients, comes slavered in BBQ sauce & house kewpie mayo. Hold on, house what mayo? Call me ignorant, but I have to admit that I hadn’t come across this variant of mayonnaise before – and I was too busy drooling over the menu to investigate there and then. For the similarly uninitiated, Kewpie mayo is actually a wildly popular Japanese condiment, made with rice wine vinegar (rather than distilled). This results in a pathway to mayonnaise that some consider to be smoother, creamier and more flavoursome than your usual white stodge. Personally, there wasn’t enough here to reach a satisfactory judgement, but I’ll happily take it to the test again when I visit Japan in a couple of months – ideally in a quiet room with just a full jar, a spoon and a couple of idle hours.
But enough about the mayo. I’ve overlooked one of the critical selling points of BIRD’s Bacon & Cheese burger: it’s made with thigh meat, rather than breast. If you know your chicken, you’ll appreciate that thigh meat presents a significantly juicier bite than the average breast. On the flipside, this also results in a generally smaller, thinner cut of meat (more on that later).
I also opted for the Cheesy Korean fries on the side, along with a Coke and a healthy pot of buttermilk ranch sauce for dipping/swigging/downing (because somebody stop me).
The meat of it:
BIRD’s Camden venue is a recent addition to this growing chain, and the sheen was still evident even underneath the requisite thin layer of grease that you’d expect in such an establishment. Many of the standard British ‘hipstery’ small-chain paraphernalia were present: long wooden benches and stools, an excess of tiling and exposed brickwork, low-hung bare lighting… you’ve been here before, even if you haven’t. Putting personal prejudices to one side, however, the venue was undeniably tidy, warm and comfortable.
Despite warnings to the contrary from easily-offended TripAdvisor reviewers, we were quickly greeted and seated with a warm welcome. Orders followed swiftly, and all in all the food was with us in under twenty minutes. There was one heart-stopping moment when it appeared they may have forgotten to bring out the buttermilk ranch, but these fears were undone when a pot of the stuff was plonked on the bench shortly after the mains arrived. Otherwise, the staff were in that idyllic zone of appearing friendly and attentive – without being overbearing.
The main event arrived well presented, with BIRD’s decision to serve their mains on genuine plates being particularly well received. The brioche bun was a rather sturdy affair, which will undoubtedly please many but I found it to be unnecessary chunky (there was no beefy juice to soak up here) and a little dry, but not offensively so. The bacon was suitably hot and crispy and I was pleased to note that it had already combined well with the cheese (there’s nothing worse than still fridge-cold cheese ruining a burger). But what of the chicken itself? First, the coating. This isn’t your usual spicy breadcrumb or batter affair: the clearly Asian-influenced* approach to frying results in a pleasant and intriguing coating that was impressively crispy and flavourful. This gave way to the incredibly juicy and tender meat to produce some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted. Unfortunately, as noted the thigh meat does mean that the burger felt smaller than it should have. Or perhaps I’m just greedy.
I have mixed feelings about the Cheesy Korean fries. The chips themselves were nothing particularly special, just your standard perfectly acceptable thin-cut crispy strips of potato. But no one ordering this dish came for the fries alone: it’s all about the topping. That said, the cheese sauce was fairly run of the mill while the gochujang glaze was really more of a spicy tomato paste. Altogether the result was certainly pleasing and fairly unique, but not enough to bring me back in itself. Marks have also been deducted for serving the fries in a mini frying pan.
Finally, a word on the buttermilk ranch: this was disappointing. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to the rich gooeyness of the likes of Newman’s Own Ranch, but I found this offering to be watery and strangely lacking in flavour. Given that BIRD offer a veritable smorgasbord of side sauces and glazes (including blue cheese – hello, blue cheese), I wouldn’t order this again.
Monkey finger rating
Bun – 3/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste – 4/5
Sides – 3/5
Value – 3/5 – The burger, sides, sauce and soft drink came to a princely £18 (including tip). Personally, this is fairly de rigueur for this kind of restaurant but some may baulk at such a sum for what is essentially glorified fast food.
Burger rating – 3/5 A very solid fried chicken burger, in a world packed to the rafters with chicken burgers.
BIRD is expanding and now lays claim to three restaurants across London. I say across London, but somewhat predictably they’re located in Shoreditch, Islington and Camden. Influential folks at BIRD: if you’re reading this, we’d love to see you and your ilk south of the river too! Until then I’ll just stick with trusty old Sam’s, thanks.
They Tweet here, and if looking at glossy, overly filtered photos of fried chicken and doughnuts is your thing then you can follow them on Instagram too. Want some Facebook with that? Sure, they’ve got you covered.
*BIRD insist that its product is “not Southern fried chicken. It’s not Korean fried chicken. It’s BIRD Free Range & Fried.”