Operator interview: Casa do Frango

Operator interview: Casa do Frango

An old Victorian building in Southwark has recently become home to two restaurants that are garnering a great deal of attention. On the lower level is the new Native, a celebration of wild, foraged food that recently relocated from Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden. On the upper floor is Casa do Frango, a chicken restaurant.

This ‘house of chicken’ – as it translates to from Portuguese – has been set up by business partners Marco Mendes and Jake Kasumov, aka MJMK, in collaboration with Reza Merchant’s co-living business The Collective.

Mendes and Kasumov are no strangers to hospitality – they are the brains behind healthy eating cafe Homegrown and Brixton bar S11. Just a week after opening Casa do Frango, they launched the neighbourhood pub The Belrose in Belsize Park. Oh, and they also co-founded Dirty Bones, now at five sites, which they were involved with for two years.

So, why all the attention on Casa do Frango? Since opening this July, there have been reviews in the Evening Standard, The Telegraph and The Observer. Its offering of piri piri chicken has been likened to that of a certain high street chicken chain, which I’m told the guys are a little bit tired of hearing about. But, besides there being chicken on the menu, Mendes and Kasumov assure me that that’s where the similarity ends.

Nandon’ts

While their fingers may seem to be in variously different pies, Casa do Frango is a little bit special. Mendes is half Portuguese – his father lives in the Algarve – and the food being served in the restaurant is the food that he grew up with. As a result, there’s an inner drive and passion to represent Algarvian and Portuguese cuisine in London.

“I’m not sure there are many Algarvian restaurants at all here,” says Mendes. “Stockwell has a number of great Portuguese restaurants, but they don’t tend to cover Algarvian cuisine. When Jake, Reza and I were in Portugal, we saw that there wasn’t coverage of this food outside the south of Portugal anywhere, really. Especially not in London.”

Therefore, the suggestion that this restaurant is like Nando’s is not greatly appreciated. But it’s also not fair. The menu itself speaks volumes. While Nando’s serves its signature half a chicken or chicken wings with sides such as ‘spicy rice’, corn on the cob and peri-salted chips, Casa do Frango is offering octopus rice, bacalhau and chickpea salad, Algarvian gaspacho, and batatas fritas.

It’s not just what’s on the menu that Mendes argues strikes a difference between the two restaurants, but how the food itself is treated.

“There’s no reason to suggest there’s anything wrong with Nando’s, but it’s not the same thing,” maintains Mendes. “The reason is the way that the chicken is cooked in the south of Portugal – it’s cooked from raw over wood charcoal. That process is completely different; and the chickens are different – they’re 900g-1kg in size, as opposed to 1.6kg.”

Kasumov explains that using smaller chickens results in a more even cooking – cook a 1.6kg chicken in this way, and the breast may be edible but the leg is likely to be undercooked. Another difference in the method is the sauce.

“We don’t marinade,” explains Mendes. “There are many different methods of doing it, but the Algarvians even approach this chicken a little bit differently than the rest of the country. Generally speaking in Portugal, you take the bird, reverse butterfly it, put it on the grill, and brush it only after it comes off onto the plate. It’s not marinated beforehand, whereas Nando’s chicken is sous vide and then thrown on a gas grill for three or four minutes before being served to the customer – that’s our understanding. That would never happen in Portugal.”

Representing Portuguese tradition in the restaurant is important to the company in order to be authentic. As more and more people travel to far flung destinations and discover that, in fact, there is not just one cuisine in a country, there’s a stronger demand for complete authenticity – so much so that there’s a risk people will start to see through the charade. It is this dedication to authenticity that makes Casa do Frango not just another chicken restaurant.

Authentic Algarvian

“A lot of people that come here have been to the Algarve and they associate a lot of what they experience with their experiences there,” says Mendes. “That nostalgic feeling is great. But, also, the people that haven’t been there, they can’t believe that they’re trying this food for the first time because a lot of it will seem familiar to the palate.”

With Mendes’ childhood spent eating Algarvian fare, the restaurant approaches the preparing, cooking and eating of food in the same way. The bacalhau, for example, is not necessarily strictly Algarvian, but is made with an Algarvian interpretation.

One item on the menu that has been receiving comment on social media is the batatas fritas. In Frankie McCoy’s review for Evening Standard, she describes the fries as “pale, oil-tasting Mediterranean chips that taste funny when you’re a kid, but as an adult become the purest taste of summer.” On Twitter, I’ve seen them likened to Chipsticks. Kasumov explains that it’s all in the name of authenticity that they’re served in this way.

“We use the kaufman potato, which is not that common,” he says. “The reason we use it is because the batatas fritas have quite an interesting consistency. They’re quite fluffy inside, almost like a roast potato, and they’re not as crispy on the outside as the average fry because we cook them on 180°C for a short period of time three times, and then twice at 150°C for slightly longer. What that means is that when you look at them, they’re not as brown or crispy, but when you eat them they’re much fluffier. Some people look at them and think they’re undercooked – they’re not!”

Mendes adds: “It takes a little bit of getting used to for people that have never had them before, but it suits all of the dishes in Portugal. We decided to apply that traditional aspect to it. I personally really enjoy them. It’s easy to do a French fry or a fry like everybody else, but it should be done the same way that it’s always been done in Portugal.”

While the aim of the restaurant is to bring Algarvian cuisine to London, Mendes has been encouraged to compromise. The team has put together its own homemade piri piri sauce for the table, so that if customers want their chicken or prawns spicier, they can make them so. Influences also come from further afield than the Algarve, and even Portugal itself. The African rice is driven by the African influences in Portugal and Kasumov states that “everyone has their own version in the Algarve and there’s no set recipe.” As it stands, the Casa do Frango recipe includes chorizo, crispy chicken skin and plantain.

Like any good restaurant claiming to be serving a specific cuisine, the Portuguese focus doesn’t just apply to the food menu. The bottled water is brought over from the Algarve, Super Bock is available bottled or on draught and the wine list features vinho verde – green wine.

“We’re bringing green wine to people for the first time,” says Mendes. “It’s grown mostly in the northeast of Portugal. It’s a white grape, but is far less mature, much younger, more crisp and fantastic with chicken. The Portuguese would much sooner drink a green wine than a rosé. It’s very summery, very light. Muralhas, which we have here, is incredibly popular and has been a big part of the customer experience. We recommend it, they return, and they have it again.”

A summery beverage couldn’t be more appropriate in such a restaurant. The space the team has managed to snap up fills with sunshine thanks to an enormous skylight and huge windows. Having opened in July, you can see why many would have enjoyed a meal here, even if it does turn into a greenhouse when the sun shines. Spicy chicken and seafood aside, the extra touches to the design are enough to fool you that you’re dining in the Algarve – or at least somewhere other than Southwark.

Greens and oranges

So striking is the Casa do Frango site in its rawest form that the team has done quite little with the shell – the patchy brick walls are on show for all to see. The same can be said about the custom-built kitchen, tucked away in the corner of the dining room at the end of the bar. Kasumov echoes the thoughts found within our kitchen and restaurant design feature (page 36) when it comes to the positioning of the kitchen to determine how it will operate and create a natural flow.

Furthermore, as far as the more decorative elements can be considered, the branding of the restaurant has been front-of-mind to take guests to the Algarve, from the traditional ceiling fans to the orange napkins.

“The furniture that we have would typically be found in the restaurants in the south of Portugal,” says Mendes. “We wanted to create the same feeling. We‘re taking a lot from produce – the orange from the oranges, which are a big part of the south, while the dark green is the orange trees themselves.”

“It takes you back to 1900s Portugal, the early turn of the century,” adds Kasumov. “The design on the bar is taken from the trams in Lisbon, the tables have these cast iron bases, which is everywhere in Portugal.”

The addition of potted plants sitting beside tables and live greenery hanging from the beams enhances the feeling of summer. As we head into winter, the team will aim to make this open space more intimate with curtains over the windows and the official opening of the Green Room – the hidden bar which, so far, has largely been used to hold guests waiting for a table.
Looking beyond winter, I dare to ask the owners of this brand new operation what they want the future to hold, so soon after opening, and you get a sense that the Nando’s comparison is in the back of their minds.

“I don’t personally see it developing into a chain concept, I don’t like the idea,” says Mendes. “But to open more – yes. Also internationally. We don’t want to open for the sake of it. We want to make the right choice. This is not a complete project and we have a lot of work to do.”

The market

How do Mendes and Kasumov feel about opening a new concept in the London restaurant environment today?

“We’re aware of the market at the moment and it is a worry to open anything at the moment,” says Mendes. “The key to it is differentiation. I think people are looking for different dining experiences and to try something new. We always want to achieve new things. The same could be said about The Belrose, because, as pub goers, we wanted to offer an elevated dining experience while also offering a drink. We always felt that we couldn’t eat at the pub that we were drinking at. That can be a problem in London – there are very few that combine the two successfully.”

“The other note is the uncertainty with Brexit,” adds Kasumov. “It’s not ideal, especially when it comes to staff. The number of Europeans looking for work has decreased, statistics show that people are leaving. From a personal perspective, I think it’s a shame. London is incredible for having such a melting pot of cultures. When you look at our team, we have possibly every single European nationality present.”