Dhaka, Bangladesh
'London needs this delightful piri piri chicken joint' - restaurant review

'London needs this delightful piri piri chicken joint' - restaurant review

Casa do Frango, 32 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TU (020 3972 2323). Starters and sides £4-£10, chicken £9, desserts £3-£5, wine from £20 a bottle In the summer of 1978, while my family was on holiday at an all-inclusive hotel in the Algarve, the Portuguese government fell and a day's general strike was declared. The hotel staff walked out, leaving the family who owned the place in charge. This had no impact, apart from on the food. It improved hugely. Usually we got some weird version of Anglo- continental. There really was something on the menu called Brown Windsor soup. You looked into its depths and saw your depraved soul reflected back at you. Grapefruit came grilled with brown sugar, and meats were tortured by coagulating mushroom sauces. Not on the day of the general strike. The aged matriarch had taken over the kitchen. Waiter service was abandoned and we were invited to help ourselves from a buffet. And oh, what a buffet. There were huge bowls of sweet-salty clams that left our hands smelling of the sea. There were crisp green salads and piles of a charred sausage the deep reddy-brown of a blood clot. I had never before met this thing called chorizo, but I quickly decided we would be friends forever. Best of all was the grilled chicken with its crisp, lightly charred, fiery skin, marinated in piri piri, the sauce made from African chillies and garlic and salt and oil, and all the good stuff. I wanted every day to be general strike day, but like the coma patients in Awakenings, we soon sunk back into the dark, morbid slough of Brown Windsor and grilled grapefruit. Years later, when I moved to Brixton, I found my way to a piri piri grill house on the road to Streatham. I had driven by it for a couple of years and sniffed the heady mix of charcoal and flamed chicken fat on the air before stopping to find out whether what they were cooking tasted as good as it smelled. It did. For years, when asked what my favourite restaurant was I regularly named that place, based on how often I ate their food. I got a takeaway from there once or twice a month. I loved the knobbly promise of the charred and smoky chicken felt through its foil-paper bag, where it rested on the journey home. I knew I could get the same thing on nearby South Lambeth Road, the focus of London's Portuguese community. But this was my place. They knew me. They knew I liked the medium piri piri sauce and a little extra flame. Eventually one owner died, the other retired, and standards fell. I tried to stay loyal, but loyalty didn't make it taste good. It was no longer the same. I tried Nando's. Of course I did. I have a lot of time for Nando's. If it wasn't for their bottomless soft drinks policy they'd be the healthiest of the high street chains, and they reach demographics others simply do not reach. I just find their chicken unreliable. Too often it's terribly dry. Dry piri piri chicken is a sad thing, in need of mourning. Even so I was doubtful about the need for a restaurant like Casa do Frango, which apparently would bring the best of the Algarve kitchen in general and of piri piri chicken in particular to London. Do we really need another piri piri chicken joint here? Surely we're overrun with them. The answer is, yes, we do. We need this one. It's delightful. Casa do Frango - it means chicken house - occupies a huge, airy space hard by Borough Market (incidentally, above the new home to the also admirable Native). It is effortless shabby chic, of the sort set designers strain to create: there are brick walls, distressed here and there with scraped paint, a big, airy vault of a glass-ceilinged roof, tendrils of foliage as if nature were trying to reclaim it, and massive open windows lending it an inside-out feel. I have no idea what it will be like in winter, but on a summer's evening it is just the thing. The menu is split between small plates to start and mains which are anything you like, as long as it's chicken. Of the small plates the star is the gazpacho, which is what the version at the Painswick was aiming for and missed. It's less a cold soup than a thick, rustic stew roughly blitzed and full of garlic astringency and sunshine. You will want to share it and your garlic breath with a close friend. The right kind of grilled chorizo comes with vinegary pickled peppers and a black olive mayo. Grilled prawns are substantial specimens with lots of good head-suckage potential. And then there's the main event. On the website they say the chickens are "sourced locally" which I'm going to take literally to mean they bought them in the next-door market. A chicken actually raised in Bermondsey doesn't bear thinking about. They are small, meaty, very flavourful and, at £9 a half, good value. There are three marinade options, though if you don't want the piri piri I'm not sure why you'd come. It's salty and spicy in all the right places. The chips are good, the tomato salad fresh and well dressed and for fun there's the African rice, planted with shards of crisp chicken skin. Rice with crispy chicken skin sounds to me like a great night out. Miraculously, they even make their own nata, or custard tarts. Almost nobody in London does that. They just get them in from Madeira Patisserie. To be fair to Madeira the ones here, while great, that perfect mix of flaky caramelised pastry and deep eggy custard, are no better than theirs. From an entirely Portuguese list we drink a bright, grassy Vinho Verde which fizzes away delicately on our chilli-singed tongues. They don't take bookings for small groups, and you may end up on a communal table, but that rather suits Casa do Frango. This is an elbows-out, face-down job, which gently wafted me back to the summer of '78. A quick note on pricing. For years I've listed the full cost of a three-course meal with wine and service for two, so you'd know how much you'd have to spend on the works. But going by comments on these reviews, some people seem incapable of grasping that it's the full whack and that it could easily cost less. Oh, how they whine. From now on, therefore, I'm giving the general span of pricing across various courses, and you can all work it out for yourselves. Let's see how that goes. Jay's news bites El Gato Negro, which moved from Ripponden to Manchester not long ago, gets the nod here, because it's shortly to open Canto, a new Portuguese restaurant. The mothership is an avowedly Spanish tapas place, and a very good one: alongside the standards - Padrón peppers, chorizo in cider - there's morcilla Scotch eggs and pork ribs glazed with Pedro Ximénez (elgatonegrotapas.com). Meanwhile, Manchester is about to welcome its expanding food and drink festival, from 27 September to 8 October. The free-to-enter festival hub on Albert Square, a focus for talks and demos, will be supplemented by events across the city including a jazz gig from some big-haired Observer food critic. But that's sold out (foodanddrinkfestival.com). To make up the shortfall in skilled Chinese chefs in the UK a consortium led by the Chichester College Group here and the Tianjin Second School of Cuisine in China, has launched Britain's first Chinese food diploma. The course will include online webinars and practical assessments.

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