My own roast chicken is precisely like the celebrated dish served at The NoMad restaurant in Manhattan in one way. It isn’t the ingenious stuffing (theirs, not mine) of brioche crumbs, black truffle and foie gras that separates the crisp and burnished skin from the supple and juicy breast. It isn’t the appearance of the chicken (theirs, not mine), which comes to the table with its clawed feet sticking in the air and a massive tuft of green thyme sticking from its cavity as if it were a confused Chia pet.
The similarity in the two chickens lies in the cooking method. Like me, chef Daniel Humm likes to roast his bird just to the point where the breast is at its peak but the legs are still pink at the bone and tough. He cuts the meat away and finishes it in a sauté pan to serve as a side dish to the breast. My technique is a bit more inadvertent. I carve into the chicken, realize the legs might send my family to the hospital and finish them in a hot oven while we eat the breast.
That is the thing about roast chicken: As much as you may love the dark meat for its superior flavor and chew, you’re always looking for that not-dry slice of breast with its sheer, salty patina of skin. You love roast chicken because every serving varies so. You know to look for that nugget of goodness called the “oyster” by the thigh joint, and the crunchy, knobby bits of the wing joint, and the soft purity of the torpedo-shaped tenderloin muscle nestled alongside the keel bone, and that slippery strand of meat between the tibia and fibula, and that piece — wherever it may lie — that rested against the roasting pan and fried in the chicken fat.
As much as you may love a good roast chicken (or even a pretty good roast chicken), it might be a stretch to declare roast chicken has become trendy. If something never goes out of style, how can it go in?
But trendy it is. After word of the NoMad chicken got out last summer, various publications began pointing out that roast chicken has been shaping up as a breakout dish in restaurants around the country.
It is perhaps not a coincidence then that three of the biggest names in the Atlanta food world have turned their attention to the roast chicken. Giovanni di Palma of Antico Pizza Napoletana has turned the former Brinks cash depository next door into Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, where the house specialty is Sorrento-style lemon chicken and the menu does not cater to the avian-averse. Chefs Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere (of Shaun’s and the Shed, respectively) have teamed to create Bantam + Biddy, a casual Ansley Mall restaurant. Though this restaurant has a full menu (that Jenny Turknett reviewed quite favorably recently for the AJC), the chefs hang their hat on simply roasted rotisserie chicken.
So I tried both chickens and, for comparison’s sake, pitted them against my favorite carryout from the small Decatur restaurant Las Brasas. There, chef and owner John Koechlin has his own method to prepare a classic Peruvian-style roast chicken.
All these chefs have their tricks and methods for non-dry breast, cooked legs, crispy skin and all those other qualities that make us all a little gaga for roast chicken, whether it’s trendy or not.
Let’s see how they stack up:
GIO’S CHICKEN AMALFITANO
Type of chicken: Di Palma says he tested the recipe with nine different chickens before settling on the birds from Bell & Evans, the same chickens sold at Your Dekalb Farmers Market. “I’m all about air-chilled chickens,” says di Palma, who says most other producers chill their chickens in a water bath, which washes away flavor. “These come from a Pennsylvania Dutch farm and have a higher fat content. They’re all natural, raised with no antibiotics and a total vegan diet.”
Pretreatment: Di Palma brushes the chickens with extra-virgin olive oil, then lets them sit for 12 to 24 hours in a dry rub made from Sicilian wild oregano, sea salt, cracked black pepper and garlic.
Cooking method: The chickens cook in a roasting oven set at a “slow, low temperature” for a little more than an hour. After it roasts, the cooks chop the chicken through the bone into chunky pieces, then charbroil it in sauté pans with flavor-infused olive oil and seasonings until the skin crisps. Gio’s serves several flavors of roasted chicken, including one with sliced blood oranges and rosemary, and Amalfi style chicken with roasted olives and onion. After the chicken crisps, the cooks add some chicken stock and Romano cheese to the pan juices and serve it up.
Did di Palma ever consider a rotisserie? “That’s French!” he laughs. “We’re Italian. We roast our chickens in the oven.”
Price: An order of Sorrento lemon chicken costs $15 and consists of half a chicken with potatoes, homemade focaccia bread and a house salad. Other flavors may cost a dollar or two more, and family-style chicken dinners that feed four to five people start at $34.
Tasting notes: These are chicken pieces you want to eat clean to the bone – cooked through and bloodless, but still tender. Though we took the chicken to go, we tried a bite on site to check out the skin, which was flavorful if not particularly crisp. The Sorrento lemon chicken — with its rush of lemon, oregano and garlic – was our runaway favorite.
Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, 1099 Hemphill Ave., Atlanta. 404-347-3874, $
BANTAM + BIDDY
Type of chicken: Doty buys a brand called “Naked Bird” from Joyce Foods in North Carolina. Joyce is the same producer behind “Poulet Rouge,” an expensive crossbreed chicken popular on the gourmet circuit. Doty cites the price-to-flavor ratio as well as lower-density housing for the chickens as reasons he went with this brand.
Pretreatment: Joyce Foods brines the chickens at the plant for Bantam + Biddy in a saline solution with fennel and garlic powder. Because the chickens are pre-brined, the kitchen at Bantam + Biddy simply brushes the chickens with oil and seasons them with salt and pepper before roasting.
Cooking method: The kitchen uses an Old Hickory electric rotisserie and cooks them for 35 minutes at 450 degrees.
Price: $10.50 for a quarter-chicken with two sides, $14.50 for a half-chicken with two sides. A family meal to go features a whole chicken with three sides, great cheddar-jalapeño bread, salad and a half-gallon of tea for $42.50.
Tasting notes: We loved the flavor, which was simple but spot on. The pre-brine gave the meal a gentle but persistent saltiness clean to the cavity, and the white meat had that wonderful nearly sticky texture that makes your teeth clamp together for a second. And the dark meat had lost most (if not quite all) of its gooiness at the bone. The skin was well-rendered of fat and nicely seasoned.
Bantam + Biddy, 1544 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 404-907-3469, $
Type of chicken: Koechlin works hard to find the best chicken he can and deliver it at the price his customers expect. He says he uses an all-natural chicken from restaurant supplier US Foods that is hormone- and antibiotic-free but not certified organic.
Pretreatment: Koechlin marinates the chicken for 12 hours with salt, garlic, pepper and cumin, among other spices.
Cooking method: The restaurant uses a special Peruvian-built rotisserie called a “Planetario,” so named because the chickens rotate on skewers set on a device that also rotates. It’s like the way the moon circles the Earth, which circles the sun. The chicken cooks over glowing natural charcoal, slowly. The smoke created from the fat hitting the embers flavors the chicken. After the chickens cook, they are quartered and kept warm in a steam-heated bin.
Price: $10.99 for four chicken quarters; $6.99 for two chicken quarters. Sides are extra.
Tasting notes: I always welcome Brasas night in our house. The skin, while never crisp, is so imbued with the flavors of smoke, garlic and cumin that I can never resist eating every bit from every crevice. It’s best to go early in the evening before the steam softens the meat. The creamy house sauce made with aji peppers and huacatay (Peruvian black mint) adds on another layer of flavor.
Las Brasas, 310 East Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-377-9121, $