Roast Chicken #2 - Zuni Cafe's Roast Chicken & Bread Salad
It's not surprising that this particular roast chicken popped up early in the rotation for my roast chicken experiment. Zuni Cafe's roast chicken is a cult favorite, revered here in SF and beyond, and it wasn't long after I moved here that I began to hear whispers of it and how I just had to try it. After all of the advance hype, I was certainly ready to buy in the first time I went to Zuni a few years ago. My friends and I put in our order, waited the requisite 75 minutes, and were presented with a truly beautiful burnished bird nestled in a scrumptious looking bread salad. I took a bite, and then another, and then, if I had been a cartoon, you would have seen me deflate like a punctured balloon. I'm sorry to say it, but that particular example of their famous chicken was on the dry side. It wasn't awful, but it was unremarkable enough to make me wonder what all these people, magazines, and fervent bloggers had been talking about. I found myself apologetically telling devotees that no, this was not the best chicken I'd ever had, and any new glowing reviews of it I continued to come across just perplexed me.
Still, I knew I had to include Zuni's chicken in the Roast Chicken Project, both because it is so well-regarded and also a local SF favorite. As a home cook with her share of unplanned kitchen fails, I was willing to bet that my friends and I had just experienced an off-night at the cafe, or even just an off-chicken. So, before I took it upon myself to try at home, I went back to Zuni last week for another try. This time, the chicken was perfectly juicy, with not one dry piece on the platter. As a bonus, my table was positioned directly across from the brick oven, where I watched one hard-working guy roast and carve up countless chickens for two hours (I want a cleaver now).
Next, it was time to try and replicate this chicken dish at home. I found a version of the recipe on Epicurious by Judy Rodgers herself, the creator of the dish. There were quite a few steps involved, and some very specific instructions as to the size of the chicken and the heat of the oven, but it seemed doable and I dove in. I found a suitably sized bird, prepped it and set it in the fridge to chill, and two days later, I got to try my home version.
So what's the verdict?
Let me say first off, if you have a contentious relationship with your oven as I do, this dish will not be as easy as it should. For one thing, the recipe calls for roasting at a temperature ranging from 450 to 475 degrees, and my oven thermometer refused to budge above 425. This gave me a bit of anxiety as to whether my chicken would cook in the time called for, but since my chicken was on the smaller side, I decided it would be ok (and also crossed my fingers that my hardware-store thermometer is just inaccurate at high temps). Maybe my chicken didn't brown as much as it otherwise would have, but the end result was actually perfectly cooked. And as for Judy's specifics on chicken size, I have to agree with her that a smaller chicken really is better. For one, the cooking time is so much faster, and second, smaller chickens are really a lot tastier than their bloated cousins.
But is Zuni Cafe's chicken really that amazing? Well, I would say that at least on my second visit, I ate some pretty damn good chicken, and my home version was delicious. But I've also had plenty of other good chicken elsewhere. Really, I suspect that the cultish devotion to Zuni's roast chicken is built up not on the poultry but on that bread salad they serve it on. Because their bread salad is astoundingly good. Like, please bring it to me for my last meal good. Despite the many elements that go into it, it is also not at all difficult to make. Should you visit SF for the chicken? I don't know, but I would definitely recommend buying a plane ticket for the bread salad alone.
Seriously, I am probably the gazillionth person to write about this cult classic roast chicken, and the recipe is looooong, so instead of rewriting it all out , here are some links to a few different iterations.
Epicurious - Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad
The New York Times - Zuni Cafe Chicken
Smitten Kitchen - Zuni Cafe's Roasted Chicken + Bread Salad