Prior to La Petite Maison I've eaten very good but never outstanding roast chicken in restaurants and pubs. I'll never forget the sight and smell of chickens on the rotisserie when entering La Tupina in Bordeaux. But the sight and smell out-shined the taste and texture, and I wished I'd merely settled for the glimmering possibility of the chicken. Similar things have happened to frolicsome friends in bars.
I tend to snub roast chicken on menus for two reasons.
The first is that I've successfully roasted chicken at home for many years. Before that my mum successfully roasted chicken for many years. So why pay a restaurant for something I can do well and have eaten all my life.
Only once was my home-roasted bird less than a wide-eyed juice-down-the-chin success. My attempt to cook Heston Blumenthal's perfect roast chicken failed. Miserably. The process is a bit different and quite long: bird in brine for 6 hours, bird in oven for 4-6 hours at 60 C and bird's skin browned in groundnut oil. Tender and succulent? Very. But creepily pale in appearance and did not smell like roast chicken. Not as I knew it.
The second is that roast chicken is a victim of my dining-out wine preferences. Chicken takes on most flavours it's cooked with. It's not often cooked with big ballsy flavours. I find that simple roast chicken works best with medium to light bodied reds or good chardonnay. As hard as I try, I can't quite seem to drag myself from the lure of full bodied red wines when it comes time to main course. And these vampires demand more blood than courses through the veins of a humble chicken.
Casting my prejudices aside I reserved a table at La Petite Maison in Brook's Mews Mayfair for Saturday lunch with the sole purpose of eating roast chicken. A whole black legged chicken stuffed with foie gras.
La Petite Maison is under the same ownership as Zuma and Roka, two very busy London restaurants. Unlike the Japanese bent of it's two stable mates, La Petite Maison's food is Nicoise with an ersatz tapas twist. You're told it's sort of "French tapas", to order lots of dishes and to share them.
La Petite Maison has probably suffered a little for the execution of its tapas premise. "We always share our dishes anyway...But they're all normal sized French starters and normal sized French mains!...What's the point if the prices are just as high as any other starters and main courses in London?..How do I share share a slippery piece of turbo?...", scorned some of the London food press. This criticism is fair enough. The staff here over-do the tapas idea. As hard as the guy in the Mickey suit may try, sometimes it's difficult to convince the adults you're a cheese-eating rodent.
Over the last few months I've heard a lot about La Petite Maison's whole roasted back leg chicken stuffed with foie gras. "Order it as soon as you're seated", I was told, "it takes over an hour to cook." So I did just that.
After an hour or so the the black leg chicken arrived on a large roasting plate, cut into about eight pieces, accompanied by a squishy lobe of foie gras and a small soft piece of bread. We started by spreading the foie gras on the bread and distributing around our table of four. This was one of the most memorable eating experiences I've had for a good while - rustic and so deeply flavoured with both the foie gras and the bread infused with the intensely delicious and unctuous juices of the chicken.
The skin of the chicken was crisp, dark brown and not overly fatty, just as chicken skin ought to be, but so much better than mine. The flesh was dense and succulent with great intensity of flavour. I wanted more and more. The wine seemed less and less important.
And the price of the black leg chicken? When La Petite Maison opened three or so months ago the chicken was 35 quid and included a serving of dauphinoise potatoes. As well as being touted as one of the most thrilling dishes to appear on a London menu in recent years it was also touted as a bargain. Now it's 42 quid and the dauphinois have gone. Ran off with the beef. So prices are now up by about 25%.
This tends to happen quite often in London - restaurant opens with low prices, a good review or two and up they go. Is La Petite Maison's black leg chicken worth 42 quid? Yes, it's stunning and comfortably enough food for three people as a main.
Any stain then on this flightless angel? The only comparable poultry dish I've eaten in London - in terms of all round greatness - is the Anchor & Hope's duck-in-a-pot. It's not often on the Anchor & Hope's menu, but whenever it is I order it. It's not just the duck and the game faggots with which it is stuffed that I enjoy so much - it's also the buzz of a room full of genuine punters and the relaxed yet superb staff who seem to be able to cope effortlessly with chaos of the dining room and the pub (mostly caused by demand for tables).
While the dining room at La Petite Maison was buzzing rather nicely for a grey Saturday afternoon in Mayfair, its waiting staff could do with a dose of the Anchor & Hope staff's relaxed competence - there's a bit too much French formality and the waiters imposing themselves rather heavily and clumsily, without both of which the place would be much better off.
Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that some of La Petite Maison's starters are pretty good. The zucchini flowers and the tuna capaccio stood out. And I've never had a better creme brulee - loads of vanilla, egg yolks and creme (yet still somehow so incredibly light) under a perfectly glassy lid of sugar.