Walking into the place is a happy experience. World music is swirling around, vaguely connecting diners to the Afro-European roots of the peri peri chili pepper. The mood in each of the locations is a bit different: busy and bustling downtown; a bit more off-beat in Dupont, with just a few wide rough wooden tables in front and some booths crammed in at the back between the counter and the wall. Still, although it is pleasing to walk in to, once I am settled down with my meal, all of that fades away, both the sound and the décor. It’s as if my focus on the chicken takes up all my sensory capacity. Losing track of everything else, I become one with the complex of flavors, all the way down to the bone. I like to get the ½ chicken with two sides ($11.85). Usually I get cole slaw, and then, depending on how uptight I am feeling about calories, either the baked squash or the fries. These accompaniments are themselves very good. But it is the chicken that is sublime. Spiced to the temperature you like (mild, medium or hot), it is fiery, sweet, and wood-smoky, all at the same time. The marinade has penetrated deep inside the chicken, and there is really no need to use the extra sauce that is available over by the silverware (which you have to pick up yourself, after you place your order at the counter). Sometimes I even feel that the extra sauce takes away from the dish, masking its perfectness. On the other hand, if you want to heighten the experience, try pairing it with the Adega, a Portuguese white wine whose fruity dryness contrasts beautifully with the fiery chicken (it’s second on the list of white wines). Bliss!
Central Asia Farewell
Surprisingly for a no-frills place, the Dupont location has a second floor loft which is quite suitable for hosting dinners. The room to the right of the staircase has a private feel to it, with low lighting, wine-racks lining the walls, and wooden ceiling beams. Once, looking to stretch a lean non-profit budget, I organized a farewell dinner there for a group visiting from Central Asia. Just a few days before, I had hosted the welcome dinner at my home. I had prepared my acclaimed 4 bean chili (kidney, cannellini, garbanzo and black bean), simmered in a pint of guinness, and rounded out by a square of chocolate. For toppings I had lime-marinated avocado, cilantro, pitted black olives, and freshly grated cheddar cheese. The dish had worked famously for my non-meat eating Indian colleagues, and I opted for it again given that I had to consider my vegetarian boss, who had also been invited. Big mistake. What for me had seemed an exciting spin on an American classic, for my visitors was merely rice and beans: meatless, and therefore, mundane. Nando’s, then, was my chance to make up for this. I ordered two jumbo platters of chicken and an assortment of sides, and they arrived piled high and sumptuous looking. I sensed a silent cheer go up. Or perhaps it was me, cheering myself for getting back on the right path. We ate; we drank; we made toasts. At the end of the evening, it was gratifying when Nikolai Lukyanov, the elder statesman of the group, asked for a doggy bag to take home the remaining pieces, even after eating his fill. High praise from a meat-loving Kyrgyz.