24 June 2015

Restaurant Review: Chicken Shop

Last week a new branch of Chicken Shop opened in Balham. Chicken Shop is the sister restaurant to the just as accurately descriptive Dirty Burger and Pizza East, all of which are owned by Soho House company. It's strange that this exclusive private members club should open a string of restaurants dedicated to the very populist concept of fast food. However, Chicken Shop is not your bog standard chicken shop. All the chickens used are free range and hail from Banham's farm in Norfolk. As a former vegetarian, any restaurant serving free range meat instantly has my attention, as I know I can eat there relatively guilt free.

So as I was saying, Chicken Shop opened its fifth London location in Balham last week. This new opening had been on my radar, but evidently my invitation to the opening night got lost in the post (ahem). On the opening day they were offering a 50% discount on meals. Unfortunately I only realised this two days later whilst making my way to a pre-arranged dinner date at the Tooting branch with Hannah. They do say timing is everything... this time we evidently got it wrong (by 2 days and approximately 1 mile). Nonetheless, it turns out that Chicken Shop is pretty good value, even at full price.

Chicken Shop has a super short and simple menu. Which I generally see as a good thing - I'd rather a restaurant do one thing well than have a menu that's longer than my arm but full of mediocre dishes. The chickens are marinated overnight and then cooked on a rotisserie. Depending on how many of you there are and your hunger levels, you can choose to have a quarter chicken, a half or a whole. Then you can choose from a handful of sides: chipscoleslaw, corn on the cob and a butter lettuce and avocado salad. With a menu that short it doesn't take long to decide. Nor, it turns out did it take long for the food to arrive - I think it was placed in front of us less than 5 minutes after we ordered. This is nothing less than efficient, but I personally prefer a few more minutes to soak up the atmosphere, sip my drink and chat before a meal arrives, but I suppose this is a fast food restaurant. And soon after our arriving there was a queue that led out the door, so I can understand why they want a quick turn around.

Leg, breast, thigh, wing: half a chicken

The chicken was really tasty with its lightly spiced marinade and chargrilled flavour. It was basically what Nando's chicken wishes it was. The skin was nice and crispy too (especially on the wing - yum!) and the meat was mostly succulent, apart from the breast unfortunately. Usually rotisserie chicken succeeds in not being dry because the meat juices are redistributed through the meat as it rotates and cooks. I can only assume that this chicken must have stayed on the rotisserie a few minutes too long. Luckily we were provided with two sauces (hot and smokey) to tackle any drier meat. I used the smokey one which had a good flavour and didn't overwhelm with chilli spice. We also had some mayonnaise on the side which was really tasty... it took me most of the meal to figure out why it tasted different and then I realised it tasted like it had been made with olive oil. Which was kind of unusual, but good. I'm not sure whether the mayo was home made or if it's that new Hellman's they've been advertising on TV. Either way, I liked it.

The works.

The sides impressed too - the crinkle cut fries were crisp, the coleslaw was nice and tangy and not overly doused in dressing/mayonnaise, and the corn on the cob had a delicious garlic butter on it, which had melted and formed little pools between the lightly charred kernels.

When it came to dessert, the menu was just as succinct as the mains, with three choices: deep-filled apple piezesty lemon tart and warm and gooey chocolate brownie. All of which were served with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. As a chocolate fiend, the brownie was obvious choice. With ice cream of course.

I was slightly concerned when the waitress mentioned that the brownie had nuts in it, because to my mind chocolate and nuts should be kept entirely separate. I love them both individually, but I just think the world's a better place when the two don't meet. However, my fears were alleviated when I discovered the brownie was full of macadamias, which are, after all, the king of nuts and my favourite. And their smooth texture and creamy taste actually work really well with chocolate.

The brownie was so tempting and delicious that we dove straight in and I forgot to take a photo, so you'll just have to imagine the warm, fudgey brownie with crunchy macadamias studded through it like diamonds, and the creamy vanilla ice cream melting all over the top of it. Sorry about that.

How do you feel about single dish restaurants? Have you tried Chicken Shop / Dirty Burger / Pizza East?

03 June 2015

Ride London training: Getting started with cycling

So in February, this happened:

Ballot success! I'd watched Ride London the last couple of years (it began in 2013, a legacy of the London 2012 Olympics), and had always fancied doing it. I'm not quite sure why, because I am NOT a cyclist. At least I wasn't at the time. I think it was the combination of the incredible route, the freedom of riding down traffic free streets, and the endurance challenge of riding 100 miles that captivated me. I entered the 2014 ballot and was unsuccessful. I entered the 2015 ballot expecting a successive rejection but ended up getting a place!

I was really excited when I found out I had a place. But I also felt slightly sick. I was less scared of the prospect of the endurance element (having done a marathon in October last year, I knew I could push myself to my physical limits), it was more the prospect of having to become a proper cyclist. Or at least get to the point where I could just about pass for one. For a few years now, I've considered myself a runner: so to have to become something else entirely was a bit daunting. Running is so unintimidating because you need very little kit - as long as you have a good pair of running shoes you are good to go. And the only technique you need is the ability to put one foot in front of the other. Cycling is a different matter. You're sharing the road with a lot of vehicles much larger than you, you need to constantly be thinking about signalling and manoeuvring, just as you would do when driving a car. You also need a fair bit of kit to be both safe and comfortable: more than just a pair of shoes. My initial list for the basics I needed to start cycling looked something like this:

Bike lock
Padded shorts
Jersey (with back pocket to store bits & pieces)
Cycling gloves
Cycling shoes
Puncture repair kit
Spare inner tube
Bike cleaning kit

That's just for starters. I still haven't got everything (cycling shoes and cleaning kit, I'm looking at you). Some of the bits and pieces I managed to get quite cheaply (the cycling gloves I bought from Lidl), but it still all adds up. It turns out that cycling is quite an expensive hobby.

Oh and of course you need a bike. Luckily I already had one of those, but whether it was fit for purpose for a 100 mile road race was another matter. I'd had the bike set up to my specifications already (ensuring the seat is at the right level for my height, handle bars are at the right level/angle etc). But it's a mountain bike, so not suitable for such a long ride on the roads. After a bit of research, I quickly realised that the easiest way to get it closer to what I needed was just to get it fitted with road tyres, which are slick and narrower, and so allow me to move more quickly and efficiently on the roads. Thanks to the fabulous Blue Door Bicycles for fitting those for me.

As well as getting the kit I needed to get on with cycling, one of the most important elements for me in the process so far has simply been getting comfortable with being on the bike. I'm trying to get to the point where hopping on a bike feels as natural as going for a run. I'm not sure it will ever feel just as natural, but I'm definitely getting closer.

One thing that has really helped me with feeling comfortable on the bike was some lessons with Cycle Confident, which I would recommend to anyone who's a bit rusty on the bike or not used to cycling on roads. I think they offer free lessons to residents of most boroughs in London. They are one to one lessons and so they can very much tailor them to what you want to work on - be it bike handling, technique or how to ride safely on roads. Living in London you're always going to have to navigate some road unless you live right next to a park.

My first proper training session which I did at the end of May (I'm starting to think I may have started training a bit too late!) looked like this:

A cycle to and from Dulwich Park, with several loops of the park thrown in. I'm hoping to get faster than this first effort, because at 10mph Ride London will take me 10 hours!! Luckily the actual route is a lot flatter than where I live, which is surrounded by hills, so hopefully that will help. The only really big hill on the route to contend with is Box Hill, which takes up just a small proportion of the entire route.

So far it's been quite a steep learning curve, but I've really been enjoying getting out on my bike, especially now that the weather is warmer. For anyone else starting to get into cycling, my top tips would be:

1. Get a bike fit, so that you have the correct riding position - your local bike shop can do this for you

2. Get some lessons, especially if you haven't cycled for a while or aren't used to riding on roads

3. Get the essential kit so that you're comfortable & safe

4. Get on your bike as often as you can: no journey's too short!

I'll aim to post another update before the big day. I'm hoping to go on some group rides for some of my longer training sessions - it would be good to have company and ride with more experienced cyclists.

Are there any other novice cyclists out there doing Ride London this year? How is your training coming along?