Cheap Eats: Seven Hens
Fast-food chicken schnitzel in DecaturMonday January 7, 2013 04:00 am EST
Sometimes opportunity hides in plain sight; sometimes it hides so well that most people can't even see it once it's pointed out. For example, despite the fact that chicken seems to be the new burger in Atlanta (see Bantam & Biddy and Gio's Chicken Amalfitano), it took a man from Israel to show this town that it needed a Subway-ish sandwich shop dedicated to chicken schnitzel. You didn't see that one coming, did you? Yet Michael Gurevich, owner of Decatur's Seven Hens, sees the schnitzel, aka chicken cutlet, as a tabula rasa of opportunity.
Seven Hens is to the chicken schnitzel fast-food joint as NaanStop (subject of a recent Cheap Eats) is to the Indian fast-food joint. Both, sparked by the passion of their owners, take a somewhat quasi-foreign concept and massage it into a familiar format, and both show the thought-through professionalism and quality that many small fast-food places don't bother with.
Open since July, Seven Hens looks slick, with the type of polished logo and clean design that shout out, "Franchise opportunity!" With expanses of contemporary-rustic wood on the walls and bright, clean colors, Seven Hens looks especially inviting relative to its neighbors at North Decatur Plaza, a somewhat shabby collection of random shops and casual eateries.
Does the food at Seven Hens rise above those surroundings? Mostly, yes. The first task, though, is figuring out how to order. The menu on the wall poses three demands. First, choose one of six "countries" — which essentially determines what spices and sauces accompany your schnitzel. That means things like pesto and sun-dried tomato for Italy, or chipotle and cilantro for Mexico. It feels a bit like Epcot-does-schnitzel, but most of the combinations deliver interesting, if somewhat stereotypical, representations of their respective countries.
Second, choose your type — it turns out that schnitzel is not mandatory; you can also choose grilled chicken or even tofu. Third, choose your style — a white or wheat baguette or wrap ($7.50), salad ($7), or a platter with two sides ($8). Once you maneuver the obstacle course of options, fine-tune your choice with additional toppings as Seven Hens builds it in front of you. The guys behind the counter are genuinely helpful in making suggestions, which is a good thing given the myriad choices for customization.
For those of you averse to birds on steroids, I should point out that the schnitzel at Seven Hens starts with all-natural, Georgia-raised chicken. Behind the scenes, the boneless filets are pounded down to an eighth of an inch, dipped in flour, then egg, then seasoned bread crumbs, and finally get fried to order in canola oil. The cooks at Seven Hens put on a bit of a show when they bring the schnitzel over to a wood chopping block on the counter and then rock a curved mezzaluna knife back and forth to slice the chicken into thin strips. The seasonings come after the cooking. Dry spice mixes are sprinkled depending on which country you chose, followed by the corresponding sauces.
Of the various country combinations, almost all make for a satisfying sandwich or salad. I found the American to be the lone clunker, with a mix of Cajun seasoning and barbecue sauce that tastes way too much like artificial potato chip flavoring. The Indian packs a lot of flavor with its sweet curried yogurt sauce, Indian spices, and crisp cucumber salad with cilantro. The Mexican spices things up with a nice duo of chipotle aïoli and cilantro mojo sauce — for a healthier version, I recommend choosing the grilled chicken and salad version with hot peppers and avocado. The French feels the most classic (there's no Austria, or Israel for that matter), with Dijon mustard and an olive tapenade aïoli. Really, it's a matter of whatever mood you're in, and you can always go rogue and make up your own combination.
As for the sides, there are two that stand out. Seven Hens uses its fryer to turn out some excellent Yukon gold french fries. They're cooked to order, hot and crisp, tossed with a generous sprinkling of flaky sea salt.
With an Israeli owner, it's no surprise that Seven Hens' hummus also kicks butt. It's thick and fresh, with a true chickpea flavor and a strong hint of cumin, served with tomato and green pepper slices. The American and Eastern European coleslaw sides are simple and crisp, but uninspiring.
Seven Hens delivers a tasty chicken cutlet, and a variety of flavor profiles keep fans coming back to try different versions. Can it lock up the lucrative schnitzel fast-food market? That remains to be seen. But I don't think a big chain like Chick-fil-A will jump on the schnitzel bandwagon any time soon. It might be an opportunity that only an Israeli can see.