Without stating the blindingly obvious, what most people want to know about a new neighbourhood restaurant is simply a) what’s it like for lunch and b) is it worth the commitment of an evening out?
We tried the former, to test its efficacy as a daytime diner, a fresh local hang-out (an evening review might follow in due course).
As you’ll probably know by now, it’s the second branch in a small chain owned by Covent Garden-based Maxwell’s. This could explain why the interior is on-trend in a slightly corporate, focus-grouped kind of way: brickwork with parquet-topped tables, leather banquette seating, flashing neon signs, and so on.
But, on a warm day, with the windows and grand doors wide open onto the terrace (as they were when it was the longstanding Kentish Canteen) it’s still an atmospheric spot; and, as we’ve remarked on many an occasion prior, those sunsets are to die for.
What else? The previously quite limited dining space on the right has now been put to better use. The rather redundant bar has been removed, the area opened out to allow more seating and, at the back, an obligatory semi-private dining area. The new bar is now on the left hand side by the staircase down to the toilets. And the famous Kentish Town mural is, of course, no more.
The Deep South-inspired lunch menu combines sandwiches – pulled pork buns, chicken and waffles, hot dogs and so on at about £9 – with cheese-heavy salads at about the same price. There are also mains like mac ‘n’ cheese, shrimp ‘n’ grits and slow roast beef short rib (which comes in at a steep £17.95). The hyped option is, however, the signature chicken (in pieces, half (£12.95) or a whole bird at £24.95), free range from a farm in Yorkshire where, we’re told on the menu, they are air-chilled to ensure quality.
It was difficult to choose. But then, tucked away at the bottom, we glimpsed a ‘blue plate special’: on weekday lunches only (12-4pm), it’s just £10 for a ‘southern fried chicken meal with fries, chicken salt and BBQ beans’, plus wine, beer or soft drink. This was the dish to go for, surely a mainstay for the potential regular customer.
The good news? The chips were ace. Crispy, fluffy inside, moreish. And the home-made beans were rich and flavoursome. But the main event was, sadly, unremarkable. The biggest crime was that the chicken, inside quite a greasy batter, was dry – more shocking still as it was thigh and leg meat. And the supposedly signature marinade – “sweet tea-brined with lemon salt and tabasco honey” – was indistinguishable. But still, at a tenner for the whole lot, it was, we relented, an OK deal. Would we order it again? No.
To counter this it seemed appropriate to select one of the most expensive lunch dishes, a blackened catfish fillet. And this was a surprise: packed with spice, on a deliciously buttery bed of collard greens (a variant on cabbage), the easygoing white flesh proved light and exhilarating. Fired by exactly the right amount of heat, it was, in fact, a winning midday meal. With one reservation: pricey at £14.95.
Service – as to be expected – was friendly to the point of over-attentiveness, but we can forgive that; it’s only week two, and the staff in a branded venture such as this will naturally be trying to ingratiate. Despite a comprehensive wine, beer and cocktail offer, they were also completely relaxed about us just drinking tap water, served in nice chilled bottles. A home-made lemonade thrown in with our £10 meal deal was too sweet, however, and came in a jam jar (for goodness’ sake!)
A final touch was that, on every bill at the moment, they’re offering a 50% reduction to all customers who come back within a month. That seems like a sound idea for a restaurant trying to win over locals in an increasingly crowded central NW5 market.
All reviews are paid for in full. Look out for a nocturnal review of Joe’s once its Jailbird cocktail bar – which opens tonight – is properly up and running.