It’s fair to say that Nandos holds the general population of the UK to ransom when it comes to piri-piri but, believe me, there’s a whole world to explore beyond the high-street chain. There’s a deep and multi-layered history behind the popular flavour, and really when you think of piri-piri, you should really be thinking of places like Casa do Frango.
What Sets It Apart
Casa do Frango launched in London Bridge in 2018, with its menu paying homage to the the flavours of co-founder Marco’s childhood home in the Algarve. Safe to say it has been phenomenally successful, and recently opened its fourth London outlet in Victoria, which we investigated to see if this expansion has too been met with a continued emphasis on quality.
The philosophy is simple – a specific localised cuisine done properly. That means the small plates (Petiscos, the Portuguese version of tapas) are chosen carefully, the pastel de natas are made freshly in house – a rarity in London, and it offers an entirely Portuguese wine list, including its very own Vinho Verde, Boa Pinga.
It also means that while its main selling point, the Frango Piri-Piri, is ostensibly a more upscale version of Nando’s, it’s in fact in a whole different genre of food, instead using traditional Algarvian cooking techniques and their own secret piri-piri sauce.
The last few weeks the weather has been such that you could have convinced me, without much deceit, that it was in fact November and I had just got my calendar horribly and consistently mixed up. Wearing a down-jacket on a far-too-chilly-to-be-July evening, I was on a mission for at least my taste buds to be transported to the Algarve, if the rest of my body wasn’t going to be.
Full disclosure; Being pescetarian, I don’t eat chicken. But really, you don’t need anyone to tell you that the chicken here is really good (for any avoidance of doubt, the name of the restaurant translates as “Chicken House”) . What this means is that I can review the rest of the menu. Sure, they’ve nailed their signature dish, but are they slacking elsewhere? Has the quality of the Frango piri-piri led to complacency? Thankfully, the answer is no.
What We Ordered
I started with a Cairpirinha and my friend started with a red wine Sangria, which is about as good as any meal can begin. Then began the usual dance of small plates that come one-by-one, and you get into deep discussions about which each of you prefer. The piri-piri garlic prawns hit that rare sweet spot between enough garlic and chilli, which then was perfectly tempered by the cool acidity of the charred cauliflower with honey and lemon, like the culinary version of an athlete hopping between the sauna and an ice-bath after 2 hours of gruelling excursion.
The only minor downside was when it came to the main – or lack there-of. There aren’t any vegetarian alternatives, which means your only option is to go and order more small plates. This isn’t an issue when that means you can try the salt cod fritters and African Rice you had your eye on, but it’s something to be aware of.
When I read that they made their pastel de natas freshly in-house, instantly my mind turned to my last trip to Lisbon, which inadvertently turned into an odyssey through the city to discover its very best pastry. Safe to say, expectations were high. Served warm, with the option of a cinnamon dusting, the custard oozes out forcing you to dip your chin steeply down towards the table. It easily exceeded the high bar I had set.
For me, a successful Mediterranean shared-plate experience is as much the atmosphere as the food. One of the more boring facts I like to bring out on dates is informing people – who inevitably already know – that the traditional philosophy it was built upon was that you don’t actually pay for the food; you pay for the wine, and the food just keeps coming so long as you keep drinking.
Of course, for modern restaurants this isn’t a reality, but creating a similar environment reinforces the feeling of genuine authenticity about the place. Casa do Frango feels like the result of someone very – and rightfully – proud of the cuisine and culture of where they come from, and who has decided that if it’s going to be exposed to Londoners anyway, we might as well show them how it’s done properly.