Clockjack Oven – rotisserie chicken in Soho
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, London can be a treacherous sea to navigate in terms of dining options; whilst there is no doubt that the overall number of good quality offerings is increasing, some areas seem to remain stubbornly the province of uninteresting chains and awful, although “independent”, tourist traps. I try to avoid Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and similar West End haunts for duvet-clad Italian teenagers, bum pack- wearing paterfamilias and flocks of pre-teens on a “study holiday”. But if you must be in the area for one reason or the other, the knowledge of a few “safe havens” is invaluable. Denman Street, just around the corner from the Apollo Theatre, is one of such islands – it is becoming a little cluster of loveliness, just there next to the dreaded Eros fountain and (shiver) Jamie O. Diner, where you can eat lazy poor people’s food for middle class prices. I’ll happily ignore it and head to the new Shoryu ramen Soho outpost, or to Brasserie Zedel, and now Clockjack Oven.
[Disclaimer: apologies for the horrid pictures- my camera battery abandoned me on the evening and the phone did not fare well in low lights]. Photo top right from Square Meal
I must say that I was not sure what to expect on my first visit to Clockjack Oven- it is a specialised informal restaurant serving “free-range rotisserie chicken” and chicken only, so I knew I was set up for a “hit or miss” night. The cheerful greeting by the staff and a first peek inside the restaurant- a tasteful mix of blond wood, stone and brick with the ovens at the centre, full of roasting birds – set things off on the right foot. However, as I learnt for myself at a disappointing meal at Tramshed, you still eat the chicken, not the artwork on display, the prowess of some interior designer nor the hotness of the staff. The equation is still pretty much “great chicken=great dinner: bad chicken=bad dinner” and the rest matters little, so I kept expectations low. Also, after the life-changing experience of the underground coconut grilled chicken we ate in Malaysia last year, my “good chicken” bar has been set quite high. In fact, at a quite unattainable place. But this side of Asia, I would happily set for anything better than Nando’s.
Back to Clockjack Oven. We got a good table- for me, that is one where we could look at the birds, all propped up and slowly turning on a vertical oven. A chef busies himself with checking temperatures, turning rods and carving up the roast; our waitress brought tap water to the table, unrequested (nice touch) and did not rush us to order (another nice touch – some places make you feel like you have to clear the table for invisible customers). In fairness, the menu is not exactly long. Chicken comes roasted or fried in buttermilk and in different sizes – from 3 pieces to a “whole chicken to share” (although I was feeling so ravenous thanks to the rotisserie smell that I was tempted to order one for myself). Homemade sauces, standard sides of chips and salad, plus some “herby bites” – basically, fried balls of stuffing- a handful of wines by bottle and glass and a mix and match spirits and mixers list, and the menu ends. I wish they had more wines as I am feeling like a nice glass tonight- selection is limited, but my Albarino proved a good choice.
Ordering was a no brainer- chicken, all the sauces (greedy!), chips and those curious stuffing balls. We could practically see our order being made- and hear our tummies rumble. The problem with rotisserie chicken is that you are never sure about how long the chicken has been in the oven for, waiting for a buyer- meaning you might get it potentially both over and undercooked, none a pleasant option. With the hall only half full, this was a concern for me here at Clockjack Oven. But when the chicken arrived, it looked and smelled just right.
Moist, tender without the horrible mushy feeling of oversised caged birds, perfectly seasoned - I was all over it in no time. The sauces taste fresh and decidedly different from the gloopy nondescript bottled stuff. Sauce pots are on the small side, but it is also true that the chicken hardly needs any addition. Chips are ace as well, crispy and light and perfect to dip in the chilli sauce.
Only after several juicy chicken bites, when hunger subsides a bit, I do notice a couple minor issues- first, WHERE ARE MY CHICEN WINGS?! The chicken comes chopped up for your convenience, which is great as it’s done swiftly and allows you to easily pick up biteable pieces (get over it, Brit friends: you can and should eat chicken with your hands, it’s OK, even according to etiquette). But there are no wings in sight which is a bit of a let-down for what is described as “whole chicken”. Later on, chatting to the manager, he says that they are considering serving up the wings with the chicken- they haven’t so far for some capacity problem with the chicken wings supplier (at the moment, chicken wings are a different item on the menu). I really hope they do it soon, as it could only add to what already is a good value plate of great tasting chicken.
Delicious, moist and crispy chicken- slightly charred…wonderful. But where are the wings? Also, presentation could be spiced up a bit
I am going to sound like a patronising food snob now and who am I to give advice to restaurants [NOBODY! I hear someone shouting somewhere] but the presentation in a bare brown earthenware bowl does not do justice to the food – even in the deep of the Malaysian jungle, they do serve the birds in bright green banana leaves…and if a London place like Tramshed can serve stock-cube tasting, dry chicken and get away with it with the artsy trick of impaling it (cheap thrills for the squeamish), then this good bird deserves better. If Clockjack Oven is aiming- and I think it should- to set a new standard for chicken-eating in London, I really hope they up their presentation game a bit.
But I am been extremely picky here- we cleaned up our plates in a outrageously short time, scavenged the bones, licked our fingers (uh oh this may not be in the etiquette book) and even finished the “herby bites” which proved surprisingly pleasant to dip in the sauces. A small feast for two, including a very unnecessary dessert (Purbet Dorset ice cream in my case), would set you back at just under £20 per head (excl. drinks).
Clockjack Oven is now firmly on my “Piccadilly Circus secret food places map” as I really enjoyed their rotisserie chicken, and unlike burgers, it is something I can see myself eating on a regular basis (maybe without the chips…or maybe not). Chicken Shop is a close contestant to this proposition- but I didn’t like their marinade and prefer the more neutral approach at Clockjack. Also, before you say the N-word: this kicks Nando’s ass, as you get a meal which is n times better (and a cleaner conscience for the free-range chicken ethos) for an only slightly higher price, and it beats most meals on this price range even outside the chicken co-op. Get yourself there next time you’re in Theatreland and want to try a different (AKA non-Chinatown) side of Soho.