Whether you grew up having charcoal chicken on Sundays or you just get cravings for a good bean salad, the concept of the chicken shop is something that's as unique to Australia as a jar of Vegemite or a pair of bright red budgie smugglers. It's a place that conjures up many memories for Australians who grew up in suburbia. But Henrietta's Chicken Shop is much more than your mid-week dosage of chicken and chips.
It was an idea born in London in the mid '90s, explains sommelier-turned-coal stoking co-owner Stuart Brookshaw. And so, together with wife and fellow Albert St Food and Wine compatriot Ruth Giffney, chef Daniel Morgan (The Fat Duck) and Tim Hocks, he's brought chicken shop culture to inner city Melbourne. They've pooled their extensive restaurant experience and applied it to more accessible food — that is, chicken, potato and salad.
From their choice of produce, it's clear Henrietta's firmly delivers on that vision. There's no such thing as an en-masse factory-bred meat bird here. All poultry comes from smaller free-range suppliers. Bannockburn provides the base-level bird ($8 quarter, $14 half, $26 whole), but there's also an organic option from Milawa ($18-58). Once in season, they're even hoping to bring in some of the famous Bresse birds from France, courtesy of Sommerlad Poultry in Daylesford (one of only two farms with the license to breed these rare birds in Australia).
Regardless of the source, all chooks receive the royal treatment, beginning with an eight to ten hour injection-brine technique. Doing it this way leaves the skin dry to crisp up, and the inside of the chicken ultra-tender. They're then rolled in a "fairly traditional" dry rub. It's Brookshaw's own concoction of 13 secret herbs and spices. Oregano features heavily, and native Australian peppercorns are also in the gluten free mix, but the real trick is in the finish — lemon myrtle is added right at the last moment, just before serving.
The chicken shop's focus on local, sustainable produce even extends to their use of coals: a mix of mallee root and red gum. The smoke from the coals is essential to the flavour, but so is the spit itself. "It keeps everything inside," says Brookshaw. "You've got the brine in, you've got the fat, so the chicken should be amazing if you get it right."
You'll find that restaurant level of detail in the salad bar as well, with up to 19 seasonal combinations on rotation ($5-10.50). Pumpkins are charred up over the coals before being finished off in the oven. The potato salad dons a herb dijonnaise — real herbs and real dijonnaise — which is made from scratch and finished with fried shallots at the end. They're also fully licensed with wine, beer, cider and a range of cocktails.
In a city that's saturated with the fried, fatty and All-American, the team behind Henrietta's are refreshing the charcoal chicken shop and giving new meaning to modern Australian food. They're also taking it to the rest of the world, with pop-ups planned for Dubai and Montreal.