Serving The Whole Bird
Yet another menu item gaining notable traction in the nation’s newest restaurants are chickens and other related poultry, served whole. This style of preparation results in dramatic plate presentations and represents yet another opportunity to leverage the popularity of shared plates with dining consumers.
Chef Antoine Westermann has created a restaurant in New York dedicated to this concept. Le Coq Rico offers a menu of heritage-breed birds that Westermann sources from local farmers in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. These are slower-developing breeds that are allowed to grow from 98 to 130 days before harvesting, in contrast to the 35 to 42 days that conventionally raised chickens are given to mature.
Five varieties are on offer each day, including a 130-day Catskill Guinea Fowl and a 120-day Brune Landaise, which Westermann considers his signature bird. The chickens are oven-roasted and presented whole at the table before returning to the kitchen for carving, and served simply with a lightly dressed salad and an intensely rich chicken jus.
All parts of the birds are used, making their way onto the menu in pâtés, terrines and shareable dishes, such as a Roasted Chicken Liver on Horseradish Toast and an Apple and Heart Brochette that is skewered and grilled.
All of this would amount to so much menu gimmickry were it not for the quality and flavor of the finished product. The birds served at Le Coq Rico possess an explosively rich and complex poultry flavor that is apparent from the first taste.
Of course, this is a highly specialized restaurant appropriate for only the largest metropolitan locations. However, while Le Coq Rico takes the “whole bird” concept to its ultimate expression, chefs at many new mainstream venues have incorporated the idea onto their menus as well.
Also in New York, restaurant Le Turtle has garnered attention from both restaurant critics and Instagramming diners with its Whole Sasso Chicken, yet another slow-growing heritage breed. The chicken is brined for two days before roasting, and is brought to the table, head and feet intact, on a platter of smoldering hay. While this presentation takes visual drama to a higher level, the chicken also delivers with a clearly superior poultry flavor.
From an execution standpoint, one challenge in offering a whole bird is the requisite cooking time. One solution is to prepare the chicken “spatchcock” style, which involves removing the back and breast bones and flattening the bird, which not only significantly reduces the cook time but promotes more even cooking. At Hearth in New York, Marco Canora, chef/partner, employs this technique for his Whole Spatchcock Chicken, which he serves with an arugula salad and a pan jus spiced with Calabrian chile.
In Los Angeles, Kris Tominaga, executive chef at Mardi, takes the procedure a step further by also removing the leg bones, resulting in an evenly crisped Whole Chicken with Garlic Brown Butter, served on a large wooden board adorned with a mixed salad of greens, Persian cucumber, watermelon radish and pea tendrils.
Another path to quicker cooking is to simply offer a smaller bird. Both Michael’s in Los Angeles and 21 Greenpoint in Brooklyn serve a poussin, which is a young chicken that is harvested at about four weeks, the former garnishing the roasted bird with lavender, sunchoke and apple, and the latter chicken-frying the poussin and serving it on a bed of sautéed cress with a creamy rutabaga purée. Cornish game hens are yet another option, such as the one on offer at Here’s Looking At You in Los Angeles, served chicken-fried with a peanut mole glaze and shaved jicama.
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