It comes to the table with its own parade, borne on a wooden cart accompanied by two waiters and trailed by the chef, who looks on proudly. Nestled on a porcelain platter, the bird is golden brown and glistening, surrounded by perfect tiny vegetables shining in a buttery glaze.
You can see the rest of the dining room patrons spinning in their seats to get a better look. They speculate in a low murmur: What can it be? A partridge? A wild grouse? No, it must be woodcock to get that kind of treatment.
The captain wheels the cart back into the kitchen, where the breast is carved, arranged ever so precisely with the vegetables on individual plates, and returned to the customers. The dark meat will be presented in the next course, with different accompaniments but similar ceremony.
What kind of bird could warrant this kind of pomp and circumstance? Actually, it’s roast chicken. But if you think that means some ordinary dish, you haven’t eaten at Melisse, where the rotisserie chicken is always on the menu -- and costs $84 a bird.
Chicken is usually thought of more as a rubberized staple of the political banquet circuit than as the exalted centerpiece of a fine dining experience. Melisse chef Josiah Citrin can’t figure that out. Ever since his earliest days in the kitchen, he has had it on the menu -- and not just because it’s a dining room requisite, like salmon.
Depending on his mood, he may poach chicken in a truffle-scented broth, pan-roast the breast so the skin is crackling crisp while the flesh stays moist, or maybe roll the breast into a roulade to be poached until it is buttery. He may even bake the bird with hay. In the course of a conversation, he might mention a dozen more preparations.
“Even back when I was growing up, my favorite thing to eat was a soy-and-honey-glazed chicken that my mom made,” says Citrin. “Remember, that was back in the ‘70s when people weren’t using all of the Asian influences that they do now. And when I was 17 and decided I wanted to become a chef, one of the first things I cooked for my parents was a chicken fricassee from a Wolfgang Puck cookbook my mother had. It just seemed like something I could make.”
That’s only the beginning. Give him enough time and Citrin will spin a seemingly endless series of variations on the poultry theme, drawn from a long love affair with the bird. It’s not an obsession, he insists, but the sheer volume of ideas would seem to belie that claim -- especially when at other fancy restaurants the bird is so scorned.
That’s something Citrin can’t understand. “I think chicken has been stigmatized; it’s kind of gone out of fashion,” he says. “Back in the ‘80s, everybody had chicken on the menu. Now you don’t see it so often. It’s weird -- people won’t think twice about serving duck, but not chicken.”
Why one fowl should be considered gourmet while the other is simply, well, foul is hard for him to figure. Especially considering that rotisserie chicken sells well even at such a rarefied price ($42 per person, served only for two). “It really moves when someone orders it early in the night,” Citrin says. “When people see it being served, everyone wants one.”
Granted, for that kind of money, you’re getting something more than you would at, say, the local Democratic fundraiser. Though the accompaniments change with the seasons, you can expect to find luxuries such as truffles slipped under the skin of the breast and a delicate forcemeat of chopped fresh morels spooned into the cavity. The white meat may be served with glazed baby vegetables, the dark with a salad of chopped heirloom tomatoes with Banyuls vinaigrette.
“When you put chicken on the menu and charge $42 a person, is that taking advantage, or is that finding a really great ingredient and making something delicious with it? That’s got to be a concern,” Citrin says. “Still, I don’t think price is always just the cost of the individual ingredient, but the value of the overall experience. And that’s a great dish.”
Making a great chicken dish is not just a matter of simply gussying up an ordinary piece of meat with impressive accessories. It requires close attention to even the most basic of details, starting with the bird itself.
“It sounds strange, but it’s really about finding people who care about the chicken,” Citrin says. “No matter what you’re talking about, it’s always more of a special thing if someone has put the time and care into doing it right.”
There’s more to it than just finding a bird raised without hormones or antibiotics.
“What makes a chicken great?” Citrin asks. “It starts with the way it is grown. Free-range chickens are allowed to run around, so their meat is firmer. What kind of food it’s been fed is important. Corn is great. What’s really important is how fresh it is, how long it takes to get from the farm to you.”
Citrin often uses local restaurant favorite Jidori brand chicken, grown in Lancaster by East Olympic Poultry. Jidori owner Peter Mao describes the bird as “beyond free-range,” explaining that his daily deliveries ensure restaurants poultry that was running around the yard just the day before.
For special occasions, Citrin will have fat poularde roasters flown in from Pennsylvania’s Four Story Hill Farm, which also sells to the likes of French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Daniel in Manhattan.
But you don’t need to be a fancy restaurant to get a good bird. “We’ve always had good chickens around here,” Citrin says. “I know Rocky [the Range Chicken] is a great chicken, and so was Zacky Farms, until they got sold. My grandmother still complains about that almost every day.”
Nowadays at home he likes the so-called Smart Chicken, which he buys at his neighborhood Whole Foods. Grown by an association of farmers, the Smart Chicken is typical of high-end producers in that all of its birds are free-range and grain-fed. After slaughter, the chickens are chilled in super-cooled air chambers rather than the more commonly used ice-water baths. This way the birds don’t absorb any extra moisture.
Then there’s the little matter of how to cook them.
The trick, Citrin says, is not to disguise the delicate complexity of the bird’s flavor. “You don’t want to overpower it with what you’re serving it with,” he says. “Maybe a little truffle, maybe some foie gras butter. We try to keep it as natural as we can with the sauces. You just want to get the flavor of the chicken.”
One of Citrin’s favorite ways to roast a chicken is in a cast-iron oval casserole -- the type you expect to find in a French farmhouse kitchen. The cast iron provides the perfect radiant heat, he believes.
He starts it slow atop the stove, uncovered and turned on one side. “After about 10 minutes, we turn it to the other leg,” he says, “then onto its breast and finally onto its back. Then we cover it and stick it in a hot oven. It couldn’t be easier.”
Citrin enthuses over a simple, foolproof technique he uses for pan-roasted breast; the result is moist and tender. Begin by seasoning the breast generously with salt and placing it skin side down in a very hot skillet with just a little oil. Cook it until the skin begins to turn golden, then stick the whole thing in a very hot oven. Pull it from the oven when lifting a corner of the little fillet at the center of the breast shows meat that’s clearly cooked. At that point, place the breast skin side up on a heated plate to rest and finish cooking through.
“The skin will be absolutely crisp because the fat has rendered out of it, and the meat will be moist,” Citrin says. “That’s an amazing chicken.”
This summer Citrin serves it with a ragout of corn and lima beans. In winter, it might be accompanied by broccoli puree and a small cocotte of pearl onions and fingerling potatoes baked together.
As seen on TV
Other winter favorites are the simple poule au pot poached with root vegetables that Citrin glams up with shaved black truffles. Or confit chicken leg -- this he cooks for three or four hours in enough rendered chicken fat to cover it completely. When the meat is falling-apart tender, he trims it and crisps the skin for contrast.
As for those $84 rotisserie birds, they are cooked in the kind of Ronco machine you see advertised in infomercials on late-night television. He always has a couple of them in the kitchen.
“There’s lots nicer ones out there,” he says. “But that’s all I can afford right now, and it works fine.” He admits to lusting after one like the glistening multi-bird setup at Lemon Moon, the high-end cafeteria he just opened nearby with Raphael Lunetta.
Preparation is simple: He rubs the bird with olive oil and sprinkles it with sea salt. Then he trusses it carefully with butcher twine to hold a nice shape and ensure that it cooks evenly.
The chicken is done when a skewer inserted in the breast is hot when it’s touched to your lip. Citrin says also to listen for the rapidly sizzling “tttzzzssss” sound that comes when the bird starts expressing its juices into the rendered fat in the bottom of the pan.
Another way to highlight the delicate flavor of the breast is to prepare a roulade. This is a boneless, skinless breast rolled into a cylinder in plastic wrap, sealed in a Cryovac and slow-cooked in simmering water to an almost silken tenderness.
To contrast with its delicate texture, Citrin likes to pair this with a crisped confit leg and maybe some seared foie gras. To complement the three meats, he serves three vegetable purees. One recent night they were carrots, pea shoots and corn.
Sometimes Citrin even roasts chicken with hay he purchases at a local feed store. He lines the bottom of one of those heavy casseroles with the aromatic grass and adds just enough water to keep it from charring. He nestles the whole chicken on top, covers it tightly with a sealed lid and roasts it in a 350-degree oven.
“It gets a light smoky flavor that way,” Citrin says. “It’s really delicious.”
That is a traditional French farmhouse technique, but he learned it from Alain Passard, chef at the three-star restaurant l’Arpege in Paris. It seems this prejudice against chicken is an American thing.
“In France, everyone has chicken on the menu,” Citrin says. There’s the famous Bresse chicken, of course. “Georges Blanc has chicken on the menu all the time. There’s that classic poularde en vessie, where the chicken is cooked inside a pig’s bladder. I think that started with Fernand Point, then Alain Chapel did it, and I know Alain Ducasse does it too.”
But, says the guy with the $84 roast chicken, “that’s one I don’t think I could get away with.”
Going for the flavor
WHEN it comes to supermarket chicken, you get what you pay for. That’s the lesson we learned in a tasting of half a dozen chickens cooked last week in The Times Test Kitchen.
We pan-roasted the chicken breasts using Josiah Citrin’s method and found a marked difference in flavor and texture between the premium chickens, such as Rocky the Range Chicken and Smart Chicken, and the lesser-priced birds, even those labeled “natural” or “kosher.”
The more expensive birds, which ranged in price from $4.69 to $5.99 per pound for breasts, had much fuller flavor and much meatier texture than their less expensive counterparts, which cost between $1.49 and $2.99 per pound. The textures of the lower-priced birds tended to be much softer, almost rubbery, and the flavor was -- to put it most charitably -- neutral.
On the other hand, the birds labeled “organic” fared no better than the free-range birds. In fact, when comparing standard and organic chickens from the same producers (both Smart Chicken and Rocky have organic counterparts), our tasting panel unanimously favored the slightly less expensive standard free-range chickens (both of which are raised without hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics).
Smart Chicken, $4.69 per pound. Full chicken flavor and meaty texture. Huge portion (one breast weighed more than half a pound). Available at Whole Foods Markets and Vicente Foods.
Rocky the Range Chicken, $5.99 per pound. Very good flavor and appealing texture. Available at Whole Foods Markets and Bristol Farms.
Smart Chicken “Organic,” $5.99 per pound. Very good flavor and texture, though perhaps slightly dryer than Smart Chicken and Rocky the Range Chicken. Available at Whole Foods Markets and Vicente Foods.
Rosie Free Range Chicken “Organic,” $5.99 per pound. Good texture but a little more neutral in flavor than Smart Chicken and Rocky the Range Chicken. Available at Whole Foods Markets, Bristol Farms and Gelson’s.
Aaron’s Best Kosher Chicken, $2.39 per pound. Slightly rubbery texture, neutral flavor. Available at Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s “Natural” Chicken, $1.49 per pound (whole chicken). Soft, slightly rubbery texture and a neutral flavor. Available at Trader Joe’s.
Foster Farms, $2.99 per pound. Dry, not much meat, fairly flavorless. Widely available.
-- Russ Parsons