There are some restaurants that immediately fill you with a sense of foreboding.
It’s usually the ones who have invested the most lavishly on their marketing budget, or the restaurants which act as shrines around a hallowed, restrictive central “concept” which interferes with the food and makes you feel like you’re in some kind of postmodern East Berlin but with overly-talkative menus.
These places, you quickly discover, have spent so long working out what the gap in the market is and how they’re going to fill it that they forget about the food. It’s like an artist who spends forever fretting about the quality of the canvas but failing to actually paint.
So I approached dinner at the Clockjack Oven – swish name, clear central ‘concept’, a shiny and polished interior – with the kind of trepidation that only a dozen previous visits to similarly well-intentioned but poorly executed diners can incubate. It’s a pleasant surprise to realise during the course of the meal that Clockjack Oven actually gets it right. It’s a good place to eat and represents great value.
You’ll have heard of Nando’s, which primarily serves chicken. You will also no doubt be aware of the Chicken Cottage-type outlets on the high street which serve greasy cardboard cages of fried chicken. The idea behind the Clockjack Oven is simple: everyone loves chicken, especially when it’s free range and freshly spit-roasted.
Generally it works. The interior is like a toned-down Nando’s: fewer clumsy references to southern European fiestas, more stainless steel. I like it: it’s intelligently unambitious; a dining hall that ultimately knows it’s a dining hall, not a Rothko exhibition which happens to serve food. Diners can elect to sit side by side along high-top bench-like tables, but since this feels too much like joining the Communist Party we go for the standard, adversarial face-to-face option.
Tellingly, the menu – a single sheet of recycled brown paper, with the full roster of options fitting neatly on one side – is compact. Chances are that if you’re heading to the Clockjack Oven, it’s not chow mein that you’re after. The expectation is that you’ll order a portion of chicken, which comes in batches of three, four or ten pieces. All the chicken is free-range and roasted in the enormous rotisserie, which you can witness rotating slowly behind the counter from your seat.
The chicken itself is plump and succulent, with the simple cooking method of roasting on the rotisserie allowing the great flavours to come through without interference. It’s a touch juicier than your standard Nandos, and the portions are heftier. Considering that four pieces will set you back £8.95, that’s just as well. We also order the appropriately-monikered Chicken Bites, a significant upgrade on high-street equivalent Popcorn Chicken. The batter is light and dry, and the chicken itself is impressively tender, having been marinated in buttermilk. Dipped in the ranch sauce, prepared on site, it makes for an excellent contrast in flavours and a great snack.
Less palatable are Herb Bites (£3.95), with their unprovoked uppercut of sage. Tasting precisely of ready-made stuffing, the kind my mum ‘makes’ for Christmas, the Herb Bites are overly-pungent and unacceptably salty. Only the soothing balm of the ubiquitous ranch dressing can make them appetising.
Dessert was passable, although if you’re going to a rotisserie for pudding you’ve got bigger problems than how crumbly the pastry is. My partner enjoys her brownie, which disappointingly lacks that inner moisture but is pleasingly brittle on the surface. Meanwhile my lemon tart with crème fraîche falls into the trap that snared a thousand puddings: it’s excessively, possibly even poisonously sweet. My teeth recoil at what is an assault of glucose. It’s a shame, because the texture itself is pleasingly gooey, almost runny. But the curd makes me wince: not since the Halloween of ’96 have I eaten this much sugar, and I only had two mouthfuls.
Still, let this not detract from the fact that in an industry of overhyped, brand-obsessed rip-offs, Clockjack Oven is a success. If there is finer rotisserie chicken in London, I’ve yet to taste it. Moreover, because they’ve invested in the dreaded ‘concept’ and concomitant marketing (which I grudgingly accept is essential), they’ll no doubt get loads of punters through the door to boot; and this being Piccadilly, they better had if they want to stay in business. But they’ve also got the basics right, and for that I’ll forgive anything.
Full menu and information available from the website
Clockjack Oven Review by Chris Zacharia