2008 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008
"Putting the chic in chicken" reads a sign above the open grill. No kidding. A self-service import by way of South Africa, Nando's Peri-Peri serves its fast and sometimes fabulous food in a Penn Quarter space that bucks the usual corporate design formula for pendant lights that look like shooting stars, splashy African art and chairs that resemble Eames pieces. The signature ingredient is grilled to order and served at whatever degree of zip you desire, from a simple lemon-and-herb baste to "extra hot," which is true to its word with an emphasis on birds-eye chili peppers, or peri-peri. The eating is sublime no matter your choice, since the chicken (available as wings, a quarter, a half or a whole) is fresh and first marinated in vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil. Adding to the pleasure are generous side dishes (I'm partial to the sweet and creamy coleslaw and yellow rice speckled with minced bell peppers) and such novelties as the chicken liver and feta salad. Trust me, you'll love it. You'll also appreciate the big public sink in the middle of the dining room, for freshening up if you've used your fingers instead of a knife and fork. Less amusing: salads that sometimes taste as if they were pulled directly from the refrigerator (they're freezing) and spacey clerks to take your order at the counter. Even so, this is the rare chain (800 locations in 30 countries) where you might find yourself wanting to linger; the music combines African and Portuguese rhythms; there's wine to be had; and the booths are padded in leather. Coming soon: an even hotter sauce, Triple XXX, and a second location in Dupont Circle this winter.
Right or wrong, we tend not to write about chain restaurants. As hard-core food folks, we generally favor the independent guys. But Nando's Peri-Peri, a South African outfit with restaurants in 34 countries, isn't just any chain. It's a food cult.
Oprah Winfrey and comedian Ricky Gervais are groupies, the company says. On Facebook, there's an international Nando's fan club more than 30,000 members strong. There's also a smaller 13-member group called Bring Nando's to America: "This group is for people who want a Nando's Chicken restaurant to open in America," the founder writes. "1 location! Anywhere in the United States. If you build it, we will come."
Message received. Last week, the first U.S. Nando's Peri-Peri opened in Penn Quarter. And fans won't be disappointed. The restaurant, in stark contrast with some of the chain's earlier outlets I used to visit in London, is soaring and quite stylish. Pendant lights on long silver ropes glimmer like stars over the tables, an exposed brick wall displays colorful paintings by African artists, and a high counter, where you order, is made of eco-chic, rough-hewn wood.
The food is what the fans have been missing.
First, there's the grilled chicken, basted with the signature Afro-Portuguese vinegar-spiked chili sauce ($8.95 for a half-chicken with one side; $10.45 with one deluxe or two regular sides). Each bird is grilled to order, so the meat is juicy. It's also packed with flavor from the sauce, which comes in four levels of heat: lemon and herb, medium, hot and extra hot. The sides weren't as great, however. Fries were starchy and soft; the spicy rice had no spice (or salt, for that matter). Perhaps they're trying to balance the heat of the peri-peri? Stick with grilled corn on the cob ($2.25 regular, $3.95 large) or a "fino" (deluxe) side such as the butternut squash with corn and cranberries ($4.45).
The chicken platters will draw people in, but other items are worth a look. We loved the tender meat on the chicken breast sandwich ($7.45 with one side, $8.95 with one deluxe or two regular sides) served on a soft Portuguese roll. And we were wowed by a vegetarian alternative, which beautifully blended the meatiness of a roasted portobello mushroom with salty halloumi cheese and sweet chili jam. We even liked the chicken livers ($5.25 with one side, $6.75 with two). Our order had about six pieces, a lot for one person, but if you like liver, you'll love these. Try them with extra hot sauce, which cuts through the fat.
In its first week, Nando's fans already had flocked to their chicken heaven. Translation: If you're getting takeout, call ahead. A large order can take more than 20 minutes to prepare. The next location is slated for Dupont Circle (1210 18th St. NW) early next year.
-- Jane Black (Good to Go, July 16, 2008)