Reys, Cambridge

Reys, Cambridge – rotisserie chicken

Reynard is a trickster figure, a Loki-ish fox dude from Medieval picaresque. “Renard”  is the French word for fox. Foxes are of course iconically partial to a spot of chicken, and Reys is a rotisserie chicken restaurant that’s gone in hard on the impish vulpine branding. All orange and jaunty furnishings, the chairs have foxtail stripes. That’s certainly cuter than blood and feathers in the henhouse.

Reys, Cambridge - downstairsThey sell roast chicken. It tastes like good roast chicken, and it doesn’t cost too much.

Everything else is just a little peculiar. There’s this slight Korean edge running through the menu that doesn’t quite sit with the Ikea farmhouse ambience, never really explained. The starters are cursory. But the chicken is fine. It just all doesn’t quite make sense.

We went on a quiet Sunday evening.

Starters were things on toast. Good bread and plenty of it, topped variously with chicken liver parfait for me, avocado, and a ham and eggs concoction for the others. No disasters, nothing special.

Avocado was ripe and fresh, dressed with a little lemon. The chicken liver parfait was a workmanlike paste, and a little too heavy. The ham and chopped egg was those two things plus dressing, and joylessly less than the sum of its parts. Everything came with a scatter of leaves in a light mustard vinaigrette, and I do wonder if we surprised them by ordering starters at all. There was a little flurry at the counter, a turning of laminate cards, I think to check mandated presentation. This is, after all, ground zero for Pizza Express’ “new chicken concept”, so the workflow is on trial as much as the food.  With that in mind, the tablet-based ordering system they’ve saddled the staff with could use a bit of UX love. It looked baffling.

It’s possible the starters are deliberately phoned-in. If it’s chicken and branding you’re using to validate a market, it must be awfully tempting to pad out the rest of the menu by tearing a few early pages out of Practical Cookery based on what you can source for cheap.

Chicken, then

It’s a very simple menu: fowl by the quarter or half, or pulled in a bun. Pick a sauce, grab some sides. There’s kimchi. Between us we had roast chicken with two sauces, and the bun. It was all fine. Except the hot BBQ sauce – that was genuinely tasty.

The pulled chicken was in brioche, but not a bad one. It all had some palpable char which brought out the flavours, and although the sauce was a little sweet it was pretty credible. The kimchi was good, too – feisty and succulent.

Reys, Cambridge - chicken and hot bbq sauce
I feel sorry for that coriander.

The same more than goes for the hot BBQ sauce chicken. Presentation again had this slight Asian restaurant vibe – the black crockery and drizzle of sesame seeds and chili are an inexpensive shorthand by now. Odd that it should be here and in the food, but not telegraphed anywhere else. Good that it was, however, as the Korean-inflected hot sauce really saved my meal.

When they say hot they’re not joking, and it had a wonderful sour note through it. I’d guess it’s seen a little tamarind, and something not far off Ssamjang. Or they’d done a good job getting close. This was hot and sour and deep and rich. It didn’t quite overwrite the chicken, either, which was flavoursome and moist. I mean, it was chicken, and they hadn’t fucked it up. Under that much strong sauce there ain’t a lot else you can say.

The standard barbecue sauce was like the hot one, but without the fruit, chili, or garlic to mask the acid. Not a disaster, but no appeal. In hindsight, I should have tacked on a pot of the gravy – I’m curious to see if they went all-in marrow-and-reduction fancy, as is the emerging fashion.

Reys doesn’t quite add up for me. The food’s nothing special, reasonably priced. The Korean motif feels like it got carried over unnoticed from an earlier draft of the business plan. The fox thing is faintly clever but feels pasted on top.

So what gives?

They don’t make it obvious that Reys is a new venture from Pizza Express, but this is nothing to be ashamed of. Pizza Express have a credible product at a fair price and enjoy phenomenal popularity. I’ll happily eat there. It’s like an aspirational Pizza Hut, a casual dining experience that skews middle class.

When Pizza Express started looking a bit more mass-market at the end of the nineties, Gondola Holdings (its then owners) span up Zizzi as initially more of a style brand, giving them something all over the market space. ASK was theirs, too.

Pizza Express is now owned by a Chinese private equity group, and looking to diversify here and expand in Asia. Bullish EBITDA figures for 2015 suggest this may be working, and Reys is a neat extra market grab. Broadly: as Pizza Express is to Pizza Hut, so Reys is to Nando’s.

Going bright and airy, and sticking a couple of quid on everything should be a safe bet for bringing in middle class diners who’d rather their Nando’s weren’t “cheeky”. Price and style it to subtract the teenagers, and you’re probably onto something.

Or maybe they just asked their customers where they tended to go instead, and kludged together their own from the spare parts of other restaurants. Is there a half-arsed bulgogi “concept” somewhere that’s missing a bucket of vulpine decals?

Either way, Reys is what a friend referred to as “safe space Nando’s”, and this explains a bit of what they’re doing on the plate.

Chicken and sauce in an unthreatening setting is the core. I suspect everything else is up for grabs until they find something that works. By “works”, I’m not excluding a quality product (the chicken is tasty) but we shouldn’t forget that we’re also talking about the need for a slick, highly repeatable revenue-generator. It’s worked great for Pizza Express, so maybe they’ll turn it around with Reys?

Maybe. But is the core even right? A friend said:

“The reason I’ve not been in is the smell. It doesn’t have that chicken rotisserie smell – you’ve got to have the smell, all the veg roasting underneath in the juices, like the places in France…”

Perhaps old Reynard isn’t quite pulling off the trick.

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