Roast chicken is the greatest cliché in the kitchen. The trussed, homely, tits-up bird, fatted, auburn and steaming, stickey-out calves and oysters in its back, sleek skin pocked and follicled: brown thigh, ivory breast, muscle speared, sliced and gravied. Everyone knows it, everyone has a Proustian chook. Ask five strangers what their favourite meal is and I bet one of them will say roast chicken, probably their mum's. It's the first thing you roast when you're learning to cook: it's a culinary chapter heading, a gastronomic phylum, and if you do it half-right (and though difficult to do perfectly, it's easy enough to do acceptably) it'll seal, settle and fix something inside you that you'll take to your grave.
I love - don't you? - watching a bird in the oven: the bubbling juices under the puffing, translucent skin, the whispering sizzle, the arch arch from raw to ready. Over the years, I've roasted them in different ways: wet like the Italians, with water or wine in the tin; sometimes with glugs of vermouth and floppy wisps of tarragon; sometimes hennaed with smoked paprika; sometimes larded; too rarely nowadays having stuffed the skin with pig and herbs and bread. But of course, like everyone, like you, I seem to return to the elemental: lemon, thyme, garlic: because a classic never lies.
You go to Bom Jardim for roast chicken. Naturally they do other stuff: there's a bubbling Iberian bastille pour encourager les autres, with wretched crustaceans creeping listlessly over each other. The kitchen can fix you a steak or a veal chop if you want it - but you don't, you've come here for the same thing as everyone else. Inside, fowl spin round the rotisserie like a weird planetary system. Spits, of course, are the oldest and purest cooking method, a handshake with the great ancestral epiphany that begat our species: meat tastes better from the fire.
Willie Lebus, the cheerily avuncular director of Bibendum Wine, recommended the place. It's pretty famous, but you'd never know that if you stumbled on it. I think it opened in the Sixties; the signs outside have a Havana-esque stasis, as if all design had somehow stalled between the Chatterley ban and The Beatles' first LP. What began as a single room has spilled into two neighbouring premises - it's a restaurant triptych on a cobbled, dirty backlane in the old town, daubed with the worst kind of pointlessly moronic, ugly graffiti. There's a faded holey awning, and the waiters are all paunchy 50 year-olds, hospitable but unsmiling.
We went on our first night in town, booze-fuelled and famished. We hosed back bottles of some €9 wine we all loved, stretching and wolfing and then staggering to ginginhas and inevitable mess.
And then, a few days later, I came back alone with a book and time.
To start: slivers of ham fringed with orange, pink and shiny as circumcision, and a stout stodgy croquette of baccala - cold, soggy, fraying protein, like ground-up canvas. Then the chicken, which - of course - was delicious. Skin like a trollop's tan, wrinkling and flaking here and there: every inch gold. The breasts fell in juicy shreds, the legs were plump, tender nuggets of muscle. You got a brush to paint it with piri-piri (mine had more coats than an Anchorage tramp) and the sauce seeped into the skin. Chips too, of course: hot, crisp and yellow; while the salad was a reassuringly horrible affair containing a kilo of raw carrot and a few woolly tomatoes. For pudding, a slice of pineapple with a glass of port poured over it. It looked like knifecrime, but who knew? - it turns out port and pineapple go messily well together.
I know you know what roast chicken's like. And I dare say if I'd been in Lambeth not Lisbon, I'd have found more at fault: the mañana-ey service, the murmurous flies, the fact that the menu beyond the chicken seems largely an afterthought. I might have claimed the flesh was dry, or that it was overseasoned, or have had a go at them because any meat, at this price, is not going to have had a name or seen much of the sky. But I'm not apologising for this review. Flavour depends on context and company as much as ingredients or the toss of a pan.
A friend joined me after, and together, for too long, we drank huge burpy Super Bocks. And the sun sank, and our glasses foamed and clinked.
Bom Jardim, Travessa de Santo Antão 12, Lisboa
Tel. +351 214 427 424
See on the Map
Half a roast chicken, with chips and salad, costs about €15