An ode to an iconic dish.
The one and only meal I got to eat at Lutece came toward the end of the restaurant’s fabled 40-year run. My lunch companion had lived in Paris and was well versed in haute cuisine. I was a twenty-something punk, writing my ass off for an amalgamation of music, business and sex magazines while embracing every excess I could my wrap my arms around. Of course, I looked at the Frenchy menu and ordered the most decadent velvety-sauced entree in Andre Soltner’s arsenal. The guy I was with? He went for the roasted chicken.
Chicken? In this joint? I was surprised. I feared that maybe he had a heart issue. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the artery-clogging good stuff. I mean, who would go to the most famous French restaurant in Manhattan and order chicken? I said as much and he patiently replied, “The sign of a really fine French restaurant is the roasted chicken. I’m expecting this to be superb.” Then he ordered a very good white Burgundy.
Of course he was correct. The chicken emoted juicy flavor with just the right amount of herbaceousness and brine. My entrée was pretty damned good, but, truthfully, I remember exactly what he ordered and can recount little more than the richness of my lunch. Hence, after that I opened up to chicken. Few birds have been as good as the exemplar from Lutece, but knowing when to pick and choose goes a long way.
Still, for years, pickings were rather slim. I mean, if you get chicken in a restaurant, it better be superb. The main go-to in New York had long stood as Barbuto: Jonathan Waxman’s spot in the West Village, which serves as a virtual commissary for Industria Superstudio and plates awesome chicken—wood-grilled and dressed in Italian-style salsa verde. My idea of a great dinner there is to split the chicken, get a salad and go halves on an order of pasta with spicy sausage. It’s the perfect amount of food and every bite is delicious. For as long as Barbuto stays open – it’s been announced that the restaurant will be relocating—the place is a bit of a no-brainer for lovers of fowl.
But then, about a year ago, wandering half-drunk down Christie Street—long evening of slugging whiskey at Forget About Rochelle—a friend and I stumbled into Le Turtle for a nightcap (you know, we needed one). The place is simultaneously cool and formal and there were enormous chickens passing through the dining room. The roasted birds rested on beds of smoke-emitting hay. Culinarily, stylistically and location-wise, it’s a long way from Lutece but—as I would soon find out—definitely worth the trip. The chicken-for-two from chef Greg Proechel (he previously cooked at Blanca, the fine dining chamber of Roberta’s, famous for its superb pizzas in Bushwick) is initially presented, on its smoky bed of hay, skin glistening and brittle, with head and feet intact. When it reappears, carved up, the head is gone but the feet remain. My dining companion was less than thrilled by the inclusion. I was the opposite—remembering lunches with my Hungarian grandmother who had a habit of serving boiled and roasted chicken feet, which perfectly suited my habit of gorging on the bony and fatty extremities.
That meal and others auger well for the New York chicken renaissance. During a recent dinner at Standard Grill, I made the mistake of ordering the bacon and cheddar burger. It was tasty but it also meant that I missed out on the chicken for two. On a follow-up visit, I corrected that error. Apparently, it used to be called The Million Dollar Chicken, but the hype has been taken down a notch. Now the menu simply refers to it as Roasted Whole Chicken for Two. Fortunately the poultry still comes out sizzling on a cast iron pan, crispy on the outside, oozing juice and flavor, large enough that you just might have leftovers for a sandwich the next day.
While the Standard chicken follows the Lutece mandate of standing on its own without a need for too much in the way of showy, cheffy moves from the kitchen, no such concessions to restraint are made at Nomad Restaurant inside Nomad Hotel. There the chicken for two might rank as the most luxurious bird in Manhattan. It’s prepared with brioche, foie gras and black truffles tucked under the skin. The finished, succulent chicken is presented whole, then taken back to the kitchen for carving and saucing. Sauce is made from the carcass, which is why it’s gone when the dish reappears for actual eating; the breast enjoying one preparation and the leg swimming in stock, morels and shallots.
Whole chicken is only served for dinner at Nomad. But lunchtimers can enjoy the modified version: a fat chicken burger, amped up by black truffle paste and topped with foie gras spread plus gruyere. It’s fantastic and, to everyone’s benefit, not the sort of thing you get in lieu of a beef burger because you want to “go easy” during lunch.
Newish on the high-flying hit parade of New York’s luxury birds is a restaurant so devoted to poultry that it is in the name: Le Coq Rico, a spin-off of a similar enterprise in Paris. The place serves appetizers of chicken hearts, an array of egg-based starters, of course chicken soup and a coup’s worth of fine-feathered varieties for the main course—including the French bred Brun Landaise, which goes for a stunning $100 but feeds parties of four. Cooked in a clay casserole dish with veggies and chicken-stock, this one stands out as the pageant queen in a restaurant subtitled The Bistro of Beautiful Birds.
Clearly, my friend at Lutece is not the only one entranced by the allure of poultry well prepared.