Joris Minne: Le Coop
Chicken shacks are now hip as hell, but does the poultry served up on trendy Hill Street really warrant such a fashionable status?
Chickens are chic. At first they were cheap and fast as in KFC. Then there was Herron's Country Fried Chicken and two years ago, poultry became fashionable. Bird Cage in Stanmillis redefined chicken as a modern trend and spurred on the recent arrival of two further newbies: Yardbird and Le Coop, both in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.
Shed on the Ormeau Road was meant to be a kind of chicken shack a l'Americaine but the owners had a change of heart and instead went for the more conventional, and slightly more varied bistro menu.
But anyway, chicken is the new gourmet burger. Deep fried or from a rotisserie, the everlasting appeal of chicken (look at how the mighty O'Kanes, Crossgar Poultries and Moy Parks have commanded the market which now sees literally millions of birds produced each year) has at last been noticed by proper restaurants and suddenly we're all talking about breasts, wings and legs.
I had been saving a trip to the super urban, post-futuristically on-trend Le Coop restaurant in Belfast's hip-as-hell Hill Street because I like Made in Belfast which is owned by the same people and they were always good with Fermanagh chicken. How much better might it be now that they were getting rid of variety, focusing entirely on the chicken as the lead role and investing in a mega rotisserie?
Perhaps the expectations were too high but as soon as I walked in through the glass door the smell hit me in the face like a slipped shovel. A mixture of buttermilk and burning cooking oil filled the senses and I could feel my eyes smarting. I sat down and looked into the kitchen at the back and watched a pall of smoke hang over the rotisserie, too heavy for the ventilators to shift.
This was a shame as the interior of Le Coop is a triumph of style over cheap building materials. There are yellow and orange plastic folding chairs, walls and tables made from varnished chip board and lots of applied white-on-black graffiti in the little corridor to the bathrooms.
The menu is funny in a cutely insolent way with purposely bad GCSE French references and the look is very Metale Hurlant, the French punk cartoon monthly so beloved of teenagers and loathed by their bourgeois parents. Le Coop's branding is the best thing about the restaurant.
I started to get used to the smell but couldn't contain my OCD of fretting over how my clothes would smell when I left, what people might say in the meeting I was supposed to attend after lunch and if I had time or not to take the suit to the dry cleaners before going home. Which kind of wrecked the meal before it had started.
My lunch buddy came in 15 minutes after me and he said something about the funny smell as he sat down. And he's from Crumlin.
Naturally, we ordered the whole chicken ("beaucoup pour deux") as this had been marinated for 24 hours, rotisserie roasted and glazed with honey butter and, for £20, came with two side orders.
A couple of beers later (mind how you go here: there are tiny 25cl Biere D'Or bottles at £3 a pop: avoid these and go instead for the 50cl bottle of McGrath's Irish pale Ale at £4.50; you can do the maths) and we were presented not with a whole chicken but four quarters of a chicken including a breast and leg but no wings or undercarriage where all the deep flavours are.
A whole chicken should be a whole chicken, and one that's just been unskewered from the rotisserie should be browned and crispy and accompanied by lots of golden salty jus. A whole chicken should not be presented as four damp amputations with flappy loose skin served in a black plastic basket.
The disappointment did not stop there. Crumlin said the Tesco rotisserie chickens had more flavour and if you've ever had these you'll know this is fighting talk. But he was right: the meat was tasteless.
The marinade must have been Evian and any evidence of a honey butter glaze was absent; in its place was something invisible whose effect was to dampen down the skin instead of crisping it up.
And there was no golden jus. The only joy on the table was the side order called Hot Mess: spiced potato wedges with jalapenos, sour cream, cheese and hot creole sauce.
We ran out of Le Coop without coffee or dessert as by now Crumlin was starting to develop his own OCD and kept sniffing the arm of his jacket and I wanted to stop crying.
We rushed into the Harp Bar across the street and sat in silence for half an hour. Nobody came near us. Well one did, but she had a cold.
Biere D'or x 2 £6.00
McGrath's Pale Ale £4.50
Whole chicken £20.00
French onions £3.00
38 Hill Street, Belfast.
Tel: 028 9545 8120