Monday, August 2, 2010

Good Eats by the Bay: Zuni Cafe

Chicken.  Chicken.  Chicken.  Chicken.  Chicken.  Chicken.

That's basically the only word that came out of my mouth for all six hours of our flight from Boston to San Francisco.  I said "chicken" so often that my husband, who initially thought my poultry obsession was adorable, had to institute a chicken moratorium.  I could only say "chicken" silently to myself for the last hour of the flight.

chicken.  chicken.  chicken.  chicken.  chicken.  chicken.

The object of my logorrhea?  The Zuni Cafe.

Somehow I figured out that our drive from the San Francisco International Airport to Napa would lead us almost directly over the mecca of roast chicken -- yes, THAT roast chicken . . . the recipe that has all food bloggers salivating . . . the foolproof chicken recipe that I pull out almost every other shabbat . . . the recipe that makes the heavens open, birds sing, hungry Chews dance.

We had to go.

Maybe it's because we arrived way after the lunch hour rush or maybe because I was so positively giddy with joy and anticipation when I got to Zuni that the host sat us at a cute little table directly facing the open kitchen so that I could experience every. agonizing. moment. of waiting for my chicken to arrive.  You see, the "roasted chicken for two with warm Tuscan-style bread salad" requires one hour of preparation.  One. Full. Hour.

As you might know from the recipe, the chicken needs to roast for about 45 minutes on high heat and then to rest for 10 minutes while the juices are reabsorbed and the bread salad is assembled.

The waiter came to take our drink orders, but if I recall correctly, before he even completed half a sentence, I barked out "chicken."  "CHICKEN."  He probably deals with poultry-obsessed nutcases like me every day, so he was totally unfazed.  My husband, however, looked mortified.  He mumbled something about having to check on something in the car and left me drooling at the table by myself.

That was okay, since I love watching pro chefs at work.  From the calls of the expeditor, it seemed that the most popular dishes at Zuni that afternoon were the burger, the "special" (which I think was a wood-fired pizza of some sort), and, of course, the chicken.

Our table was right in front of the wood-fired oven in which they made the pizza and the chicken.  The chef on the right was pretty awesome: he made the pizzas, fed the oven, chopped the chicken, and made the Tuscan bread salad.  His proximity to that oven -- and my chicken -- made him seem unusually hot.

To tide us over until the CHICKEN arrived, we ordered a bowl of polenta with parmesan and a side of shoestring potatoes.  The polenta was lovely: silky, comforting, subtly cheesy.  And the fries were crisp and nicely salted.  Yet neither of these dishes would have been worthy of a six-hour flight.

But then the CHICKEN arrived.  

So beautiful.  Nestled in a bed of frisee.  Under a bed of currants and pine nuts.  On top of toasted peasant bread.

So with all that anticipation, how was the chicken?

It was . . . good.  The dark meat, especially, was juicy and flavorful.  (I'm not a big fan of white meat anyway, so the breast meat didn't inspire me.)  The skin, while gorgeous, wasn't as crisp as my version of the Zuni chicken recipe, which was a little bit of a disappointment.  I probably set the bar so high for this chicken that there was no way reality could ever comport with my expectations.  

Surprisingly, the star of the show -- and what made the whole detour worthwhile -- was the bread salad.  The bread salad recipe alone takes up a few pages, and I've always been too lazy to make it.  But it turns out I've been missing out, because it's really the raison d' etre of the dish.  The toasted peasant bread soaks up the juices from the chicken and is so flavorful and delicious.  The currants work so well with the vinagrette and chicken jus.  The salad made and elevated the dish.

One of the commenters on Yelp said of Zuni that roast chicken could only be so good -- that even if this were the best roast chicken ever, it was still simply a roast chicken.  I'm not sure I agree with that.  I've had -- and made -- some pretty bad roast chickens and some darn good ones, and it seems wrong to lump them all together.

But what matters is that at the end of our meal, my husband actually said that my version of the Zuni chicken was better than Zuni's.  That's pretty great and well worth a six-hour flight, right?


Try Anything Once Terri August 2, 2010 at 7:36 AM  

Looks fabulous! I am very sure your version is better. I haven't heard of Zuni Cafe, and I'll have to put it on my list the next time I go to SF!

lavenderpug August 2, 2010 at 10:11 AM  

i remember having "hen" (i.e. chicken) at chez panisse once, and i had a similar reaction to you--it was...good, but not holy moly, and not as awesome as a few other recipes that i've had. but! so glad that you got to go!

Katie August 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM  

Seriously...drooooool. Not only does that chicken look freakin amazing, I think I could eat about 3 full plates of those fries- they look so crispy and beautiful!

Mrs. Hot Cocoa August 2, 2010 at 10:05 PM  

@ Terri: Definitely try out the chicken recipe. It's foolproof! (or me-proof, anyway!)

@ lavenderpug: Yum . . . Chez Panisse. That will be on the list next time. I bet the hen was organic, free-range, hand-massaged, bottle-fed, yadayadayada.

@ Katie: The fries were pretty good, and every table seemed to order them. They would have been awesome with some rosemary and parmesan though.

Nicole Peterson August 9, 2010 at 9:19 PM  

Now I am upset. We were just in San Fran for a whole week and didn't know about Zuni. I hate when I miss out on good food.

Judy January 15, 2011 at 7:42 PM  

I had the same experience as you when we ate at Zuni Cafe a couple of year ago. I had been making The Chicken Salad recipe for a while and just had to have the Real Thing. And my OH and I both thought mine was ... and is ... better. It was good to know that I was doing it right, though.

I use more salad leaves in mine. And Judy Rogers' method for roasting a chicken is definitely the best way ever!

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