RESTAURANT REVIEW: Ernie Whalley has chicken overload at ‘Crackbird’

These are the protected Gallina Padovana. NOT on the menu at Dublin's new chicken shack. (Photo courtesy of SLOW FOOD)


The ‘pop-up restaurant’, a phrase I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot more of, was conceived as a fly-by-night dining event where a chef with a background in fine dining takes over a restaurant or vacant space for a brief window. There’s an indie, even underground vibe to the concept. The menu changes daily at the whim of the chef; the price is often fixed, and you usually need to make reservations. Pop-up restaurants might serve for only a single evening, or several days, or several weeks. But the menus and locations are never permanent. The internet and the associated social networking phenomena are key tools in marketing these “now you see me, now you don’t” eateries.
Pop-up restaurants are said to have started in Los Angeles and the man most commonly charged with inventing them is French-born, California-domiciled chef, Ludo Lefebvre. He prefers to call his restaurant, Ludo Bites, a “touring restaurant’’ declaring that “like many a band we have been ‘touring’ locally since 2007 and we’ve played at various locations all over Los Angeles”. Since then many prominent chefs have identified themselves with the concept. Many of the roving supper clubs in the US have acquired reputations that are the stuff of legend along with serious waiting lists.
London has its far share of these guerilla dining establishments, perhaps the most famous being The Loft Project where fledgling chefs from The Ledbury and other top establishments were permitted to strut their stuff. The food served is frequently sophisticated or, at least, well off-piste; sample: ‘carpaccio of roe deer with walnut-oil mayonnaise, burnt bread, flowering claytonia, pennywort and hairy bittercress.’
Pop-up restaurants have until now been conspicuous by their absence in Ireland (apart from a couple of RTE staged stunts involving, among others, Kevin Thornton in unlikely locations like the Rock of Cashel). However this may be about to change with chefs and restaurateurs monitoring the success or otherwise of the new Crackbird in Crane Lane, Temple Bar. In Ireland, we like to do things different. Our first pop-up restaurant, brainchild of Joe Macken of Rathmines’ Joburger and open only until 22nd of May, is no sort of homage to gastronomy. Crackbird, a singular name you’d imagine would attract a dodgy clientele, can only be described as a sort of ‘KFC GTi’ selling but one product, chicken, which comes in two versions – ‘skillet-fried buttermilk’and ‘super crisp soy garlic’, priced at €9.95 per half bird per person or €17.95 for a full bird. Wings are sold by the dozen (€11.95) and there are semolina or chilli ‘chicken crunches’ with a choice of dip included at €4.95. Value-addeds for the restaurant include five sides at €3.75 each and a choice of seven dips at a euro a throw. The room is dimly lit and noisy, with music that can only be described as ‘foreground’. You wouldn’t come to Crackbird for a quiet read or a heart-to-heart with your bezzy. Some of the furniture is distressed to the point of busrting into tears. Cutlery and crockery are very ‘church fete lucky bag’.

We hadn’t booked, indeed we’d hardly have known how to as there’s no phone number listed and booking a restaurant on Twitter is, as yet, an alien thing. It took half an hour’s wait to gain a table, during which time the three of us (me, Daughter One and her partner) placed our order, sat at the bar and drank Pilsner Urquell, only beer on offer and sold by the bottle, four-pack or case, discount for quantity. There was wine – a NZ Sauv B, surprise, surprise and a basic Rioja but beer seems more appropriate. Around us the place was packed, the clientele, I’d say, 25-35 and 70-30 female to male on the night. There was one empty table which apparently is reserved for ‘Tweets’ on a bi-hourly basis. If you are lucky enough to book this table you get the food free gratis. This seems a smart marketing ploy, further helping to spread the word.
We ordered a whole bird of the soy-garlic variety plus a dozen wings. This took another half hour to arrive. Whether through design, organisation or lack of practice I can’t say but Crackbird struck us as being by no stretch of the imagination a fast food restaurant. We chose three sides – a slaw, a roast parsnip & nigella seed salad and had some couscous pressed upon us by the helpful waiter. The others praised the slaw, especially for the lightness of the dressing but I found the cabbage a tad bitter. The parsnips (small portion of)were unmemorable, we agreed, and the couscous (masses of it), excellent. We took four sauces. I’ve often found that the hottest chilli sauce is the one that’s hardest to spell or pronounce so we kept clear of ‘Srirracha’, opting instead for ‘Chipotle’. Pick of them was the burnt lemon and whipped feta which D1 vowed to emulate at home. Seeing the mountain of bones from afar, the waiter returned to offer us dessert – there was only one, a huge chocolate gateau –gorged to our tonsils, we declined. We did take three filter coffees which turned out to be truly excellent – quite the best coffee I’ve had in a restaurant for ages, emphasising that good filter coffee is preferable to average espresso.
Were I to pick two words to crystallise the night they would be ‘fun’ and ‘salty’. There was far too much NaCl on the chooks, the flavour I came away with was that of neat salt, as if you’d been sucking on a rock of it. The wings, in particular, should carry a health warning, so those with cardiac problems could steer clear. The whole bird was drenched in dark soy sauce. Later, as I lay in bed, I felt that ‘Chinese take-away buzz’.
We had good craic at Crackbird and, for sure, that’s half the point of dining out. As I’ve said, fast fast food, it ain’t and we could have done with a bowl for the bones but these are niggles set against the joyous cacophony of people having fun. Nor is it particularly cheap when you factor in the sides and sauces. We spent €82.65, ex service, which included two beers each – rough equivalent of 3 x an early bird and a glass each of wine at a ‘proper’ restaurant.
Food wise, I have reservations. I’d had a fun evening but, when push came to shove, the ‘craic’ was better than the ‘bird’. I felt it was an opportunity missed, a chance to show us that simple  food could be tasty and of honourable provenance. Considering Crackbird goes beyond the call of duty in name-checking suppliers – 3FE coffee, Hall & Keogh’s tea and David Llwellyn’s ‘local’ cider all get a mention – the chicken man’s name is curiously absent, reinforcing my view that these birds may not be the Mae West when it comes to texture or  flavour, hence the soy and salt overload. In the unlikely event of my getting a craving to eat chicken I’d probably head for Georges Street and the cuisse de poulet a l’oignon at Café des Irelandais – although I note that, even there, they’ve stopped flagging the bird as ‘Label Rouge.; Now, on their website, it’s just chicken tout court. C’est la vie.

Crackbird, Crane Lane, Dublin 2
Food **
Wine *
Service ****
Ambience ****
Volume 5 bells
Overall **