Like most big cities in the world, fried chicken is well represented in London. Be it in the myriad fast food chains dotted around the city, or in trendier establishments like Otherside Fried, Chick’N’Sours and Billy and the Chicks, there is no shortage of places to go when in the throes of a craving. But soul food, the kind that emerged in pop culture with all its force during the Harlem Renaissance in 1930’s New York, was something I had not read or heard much about until recently. An inspiring piece about the American cuisine caught my eye while on the browse, and I was utterly beguiled by the thought of fried chicken as a positive uniting force in a culture rather than its common negative construal as unhealthy fast food. So I set out in search of a place that did some semblance of American soul food (for every culture has its own), one dish in particular being fried chicken and waffles, because I was in need of some gastronomic comfort.
A brief history of fried chicken and waffles must begin with Joseph Wells, who, in searching for the perfect meal in between dinner and breakfast at his Wells Supper Club in 1938, decided to combine elements of the two to create the poster child of American soul food. The fried chicken from dinner and the waffles and syrup, from breakfast placed in conjunction may seem odd at first, but when tasted in together becomes the stuff of indulgent murmurs and foodgasms.
Think of all the jazz artists of the time, Nat King Cole and his sultry baritone, Duke Ellington and his jazz band, not to forget the ever-entertaining Sammy Davis Jr., playing their sets for hours to audiences that danced and jived to their tunes and improvisations, closing their shows in the early hours of the New York mornings, all hungry, ravenous even, yet still buzzing from the energy of their performance.
Food too heavy and stodgy would knock the life out of them, and something too light would not be enough. Their meal in after-hours would have to be substantial, but with enough pep to keep the conversation flowing, the drinks a-pouring and the laughter a-roaring. Fried chicken and waffles. Crispy fried chicken, freshly made and perfectly seasoned, sitting as if on a throne, on a crisp yet pillowy trellis of batter that glistens with the sweet drizzle of syrup and a side of gravy. Mmm…talk about soul.
I think coming to Absurd Bird charged with such stimulating context was rather unfair of me. When I was inevitably disappointed, I decided to consider Absurd Bird as just another fried chicken joint with a recognisable concept, and not as a denizen of a rich and wholesome culinary culture. In any case, they cook chicken and waffles in keeping with the ‘deep-south’ and not in the Harlem tradition, so perhaps their chicken must be held to a different standard.
In the spirit of soul food, I invited Alex to join me on me on this adventure. The thought of eating alone in this particular outing seemed somewhat wrong. We walked from UCL through the streets of Soho, past lunch queues, and heavily trafficked roads, to turn a corner into the nook that Absurd Bird humbly occupies.
When we entered I could not help but compare the place to Chick’n’Sours. Absurd Bird has the reminiscently dark front room, a kitchen to the immediate left upon entrance, that lead down winding stairs into an even darker dining area. A bar underneath the stairs. Very similar indeed, although without the life and paraphernalia-induced vibrancies of the aforementioned. It seemed a little too dark and depressing for soul food, more a place that you would leave in search of it.
I’m not too sure the furniture was well thought out either. While you can make reasonable arguments for smaller tables, the addition of cushioned stools is questionable. Yes, you’d imagine people hunching over their choice plate of chicken, be it wings or the burgers. But no allowance is made of for the luxuriant slouching, the relaxed satisfied state of all who finish eating a large meal. Stools presage discomfort, a full belly compressed by a body not disposed to a straight back after the kind of meal you would expect to have in a place like Absurd Bird.
I only thought about this after the meal was over, so I feel bad for allowing Alex to sit where he did.
I wonder what the exact etiquette is for telling your diners that you think they’ve ordered too much. I’m pretty sure you do not double-take at two guys and say, ‘That’s a lot of food. Are you sure?’ And then walk away with a shrug, as if to dispense with your responsibility in the matter. I mean it’s a fried chicken restaurant. People come in excited and hungry, famished, rearing to engorge themselves. You do not want to disturb that vigour, no matter your altruism, at least in this matter. In all the fried chicken spots I’ve visited in London, I’ve always ordered too much, even when I’ve gone by myself, and not one person has even twitched. In any case, we sure showed her what a couple of hungry guys can mow through, and she probably will think twice about making comment again.
Eight nicely sized wings came to our petit table in two separate trays: one for crispy fried buttermilk wings and the other for buffalo. Now you’d think that with the wings being sold as double fried for extra crispiness and coated in spice mix, you’d actually get a breading with some integrity and chicken that was actually seasoned. Unfortunately for us, the buttermilk fried chicken had the breading falling off in shards after every bite, with the overall experience being essentially bland. The dish was begging for sauce, the way good fried chicken should never have to.
The buffalo wings were passable: sauce sweeter than it was vinegary, keeping the chicken crunchy with it holding the breading somewhat together. I did like how hot the chicken was though: not left too long on the pass, and still juicy.
Next the Nashville Hot Burger, a towering sandwich kept erect by a skewer, was enjoyed more by Alex than by myself. The chicken was cooked perfectly (a winningly consistent feature at Absurd Bird), an unblemished white when sliced in half but still lacking the requisite amount of seasoning. The onion rings were the best part of the burger for me, dissected from the tower and eaten on their own. With the heat being significant, though not quite ‘Xtreem’ as they call it, I did not consider the sweetness brought to the burger by the harissa mayo and the tartness of the pickles were enough for a balance of flavour. Also the best burgers are ones you can eat held in your hands. Ones you have to tip over and mess around with are an inconvenience.
I think it is safe to say that it is a scientific fact that chicken on the bone tastes better than fillets, that dark meat fillets have richer flavour than the white, so I’m not quite sure whose idea it was to serve fried chicken breasts on waffles and call it traditional. The gravy that came in a little cup was cold, and tasted more like satay sauce than real satisfying gravy. I did like the waffles though, with the maple syrup they were what would have epitomised a perfect waffle and syrup breakfast.
Rather than opt for dessert, we ordered the chilli choc wafflewich, fried chicken sandwiched between quartered waffles, and drenched in a chilli chocolate sauce (more chocolate squirt variety sauce than chilli), with the heat coming from sliced bird’s eye chillis. Besides the prior stated inefficiencies of the chicken, the actual dish does work, and it is not as strange tasting as one might think. The sweetness of the chocolate does the job of the syrup with only the chilli adding that auxiliary kick. The pristine waffles did not concede to all the liquid, remaining relatively crisp throughout.
Though it would be unjust for me to say that we had a bad meal at Absurd Bird, I will say that it was rather mediocre, made slightly better by the company. I would have been inexorably disappointed had I visited alone, I guarantee it, but having a friend along to take the edge off, someone who isn’t there to critique the food, the restaurant and the service, allowed for a more enjoyable experience. I do not think I will be going back though, not enough soul for me.
25 Peter St, Soho, London W1F 0AH
Menu & Prices: