Humble Chicken, 54 Frith Street, London W1D 4SJ (humblechickenuk.com). Yakitori £3-£4.80, other dishes £5-£16, desserts £6-£8.50, wines from £30
Faced by the menu at Humble Chicken, it’s difficult to remain fully adult. One item is listed as “Inner Thigh”. Would you like some inner thigh? Always, love. Always. It adds a special charge to the accompanying offer of breast, tail and soft knee. Would you like some soft knee to go with your inner thigh? Oh, behave. Well, I’m sorry. I can’t behave. I want it all. For while the menu brings out the sniggering schoolboy in me, it is also deadly serious. Seated at the counter of what was once the original outpost of tapas maestros Barrafina in London’s Soho, I watch head chef Angelo Sato tend his grill, hachimaki headband in place. I feel the heart-fluttering joy that comes with the insufferably smug knowledge that I am in exactly the right place.
Yakitori is not new to the UK. Lots of restaurants have offered selections of small items, cooked on sticks over coal. I very much liked the burly nature of the London version of Bincho Yakitori (now in Brighton). But Humble Chicken takes it somewhere else: to a place where they speak fluent intensity, furrowed brow and pathological attention to detail.
Japanese-born Sato has worked with Clare Smyth in London and at Eleven Madison Park in New York. He has done the precise, furiously tweezered, multi-Michelin dance. With the deceptively named Humble Chicken, in which the dear chicken is lifted far above the humble, he has circled back to Japan. A couple of years ago, on the first night of a family holiday there, we were sent by a clued-up Tokyo local to a backstreet yakitori place. Equally intense young men tended to small sticks of precisely sliced animal over precisely calibrated, smouldering charcoal. It was a revelation. Part of that detail lay in a menu that recognised the different parts of each animal required a different approach. You do not cook pork belly the same way you cook pork loin.
The same is true here. Humble Chicken is everything I adored about that humid night down a Tokyo back alley. I have a mantra: authentic is not always the same as good. In this case authentic absolutely is the same as good. At the heart of the menu is a grid of 19 of those skewers, priced at between £3 and £4.80, plus a chef’s choice of five for £16. Other than shiitake mushrooms and meatballs, it’s those cuts of chicken all the way. This evening they have run out of the mixed offal and the liver, which is a disappointment. Sitting kitty-corner on Frith Street from Humble Chicken is a branch of Nando’s, glittering with Pride Month rainbows. I muse on suggesting they pop over there to top up their supplies of livers. Have you tried the Nando’s chicken livers? God, they’re good.
No matter. Cubes of thigh, alternating with slivers of grilled spring onion, are seasoned with just a little salt and pepper. Inner thigh gets a glaze of spicy miso and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Pale pieces of fillet have a nose-tickling punch of wasabi. None of these are dried out by the heat. Crisp seared outers give way to something soft and gorgeous within. They have been cared for. But for me the true joys lie in the bits others might reject. I’m thrilled by a line of four triangular parson’s noses, grilled to a fatty crisp, but still running with juices. I delight in concertinaed folds of darkly glazed and crunchy chicken skin. I am utterly taken by those soft knees; by the squeaky, savoury, salty bounce of the extremity. If you are not a meat eater, nothing I say now will make you sigh with relief and say, “Well that’s OK, then.” But the rest of us should surely applaud both the elevation of the humble and the negation of waste. Certainly, I’m standing and applauding. You can stay seated and be very cross indeed. I understand. Hate me. I have enough love for us all.
There are other dishes. While our eyes widen at the menu’s chicken anatomy lesson, they give us a bowl of cool, crisp white cabbage in a sparky soy ponzu dressing. We keep emptying it. They keep refilling it. There’s a single warm oyster in a creamy dressing flavoured with citrus and chilli. Lozenges of cured mackerel arrive, skin side up, in a tomato and ponzu-flavoured jelly with curls of battered and deep-fried seaweed. Thin folds of velvety tuna lie in a puddle of another soy citrus dressing and are dotted with toy-town cylinders of fermented white asparagus. A plate of pickles turns up looking like things raided from the candy jar: there are glossy red crescents of cherry tomato and shiny pink segments of turnip and the pale green of crunchy cucumber. The palate is cleansed. The palate says thank you.
We finish the savoury end with two dishes from the section headed “Bigger”. A round of fatty braised pork belly, falling apart with a mere nudge, comes with cured egg yolk and a seed-dotted mustard sauce. Then there’s the crispy chicken thigh, which is simply one of the best rice dishes I’ve had in a very long time. The boneless meat is encased in a square, round-edged envelope of golden batter as if it’s just been fished out of the bubbling oil at a Glasgow chippy. It is shredded in front of me and mixed in with warm rice, which is banging with ginger, citrus and cured vegetables. It is £13.50 of comfort eating, for people too old to call for their mum. Of the desserts, the star turn is the “everything strawberry” cheesecake. It’s a bowl of whipped and sweetened cream cheese, with purées and finely diced fruit and shards of meringue. It’s pretty enough by itself. Then they use a microplane to grate a large frozen strawberry over the top to make an instant granita. Now it’s everything.
It’s a huge amount of fun here, side by side at the fat-lipped counter, watching the smoke plume and Angelo Sato lean in over his grill, his face fixed in his version of “death or glory”. Then another dish pops over from the kitchen side and we hunker down into the serious business of dinner. We’ll see a few new openings in the coming months. I may even enjoy some of them. But I can’t quite imagine any of them making me swoon like I did at Humble Chicken. This sniggering schoolboy has to confess: inner thighs aside, in the end it really did turn out to be properly grown up.
You wait ages for a serious yakitori restaurant, and then two come along at once. This week also saw the opening of Junsei in London’s Marylebone, from chef Aman Lakhiani. The yakitori menu offers heart, neck and gizzard alongside more standard cuts. There’s also a list of larger plates including citrus soy-marinated prawn with nori and rice, and scallop with trumpet mushroom. Among the desserts is a birch wood-infused crème brûlée. Visit junsei.co.uk.
During lockdown 12-year-old Alfred Moisan started sending question-and-answer interviews to leading chefs and people in the food industry. Now, with a bit of help, those interviews have been compiled into a book, called In Conversation With. All profits are going to FareShare, the anti-food waste charity, which supplies many food banks and community food projects. The line up of interviewees is astonishing. Among them are Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, Ferran Adrià, formerly of El Bulli, Stephen Harris of The Sportsman in Kent and Magnus Ek of Oaxen in Sweden. For more see inconversationwithalfred.com.
Oxford, which has never been especially rich in standout restaurants, is shortly to see a new opening with one of Jason Atherton’s head chefs, Chris Emery, at the helm. Alice, named in recognition of Oxford alumnus Lewis Carroll, will be located inside the Randolph Hotel. The launch menu lists trout with Porthilly oyster and charcoal mayonnaise and lamb with asparagus, black garlic and morels.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1