In January 2007, Thomas Keller opened ad hoc in Yountville, Calif., already home to his famous restaurant the French Laundry. The chef’s comparatively affordable, family-style menu was a hit, but the national buzz focused on one particular day of the week: ad hoc’s fried-chicken Mondays.
The meal spawned long lines, lots of press and even a Williams-Sonoma kit so consumers could replicate Keller’s fried chicken at home. But the most resounding aftershock in this comfort-food climate is an ongoing vogue for celebrating the humble bird.
Now that wave has hit the Burlington area, where special chicken nights have begun popping up in recent months. None of the local restaurateurs who have hopped on the trend credits the ad hocs and Momofuku Noodle Bars of the world for the idea. Rather, they say their inspiration was the simple desire to create a homey, hearty meal.
As the cold weather began to creep in, I spent a long weekend warming up to the idea, dining on fried chicken at Bluebird Barbecue and Nectar’s before finishing with a rôtisserie bird at Guild & Company. Which fowl fits your personality? Read on to choose the meal for you, or tie on the feedbag to mimic my mini-tour.
Thursday: Bluebird Barbecue
317 Riverside Avenue, Burlington, 448-3070
Owner Sue Bette says she’s wanted to add fried chicken to the Bluebird Barbecue menu since she opened the place in July 2012. For a while, though, Bluebird only offered moist fried-chicken breast served on the massive Betty’s Salad. When I reviewed the restaurant, I mentioned that I wished I could order it on its own.
Fried chicken didn’t fit neatly into the restaurant’s barbecue concept, however, so Bette eventually decided to make it a weekly event. She refers to the Thursday-night dinner as “a weekend ramp-up special,” and it’s been selling out since she debuted it six months ago.
Matt Corrente, formerly of Pistou and Boston’s Craigie on Main, has been putting his stamp on the menus at Bluebird Tavern and the two Burlington Coffee Stop locations since June, when he replaced Michael Clauss as the restaurant group’s executive chef. Recently, original Bluebird Barbecue executive chef Paul Link headed to Cherry Street to help open the new Hen of the Wood, leaving Corrente to develop his own menu at the barbecue joint, as well.
The ribs are as blue ribbon-worthy as ever, and Corrente’s mountainous new meatloaf, complete with artful, fine-dining-inspired ketchup smears on the plate, is worth a trip on its own. (On the downside, I miss Link’s brisket tacos.) But what about Corrente’s fried chicken?
The $15.95 plate includes two boneless breasts and a thigh or leg. (Corrente says he finds it easier to eat the breasts without having to navigate ribs and sternums.) A marinade of buttermilk and Tabasco simultaneously moistens the chicken and tenderizes the meat to prepare it for breading. The thick coat, resulting from a double dredge in buttermilk and flour, is perfect for lovers of the crispy. There’s so much coating that some falls off the chicken, leaving almost enough for a de facto side dish. The bone-in dark meat is even moister — but never moist enough to make the peppery coating soggy.
Country-style gravy and waffles is included with the dish, along with a choice of two sides. I went for chunky, not-too-sweet applesauce and a newly added option: creamy cheddar grits.
It was a filling meal, even after I shared an entire breast with the rest of my party. Sure, I could have tackled it, but even as it was, I didn’t have room for Bluebird’s keenly tempting new sweet-hush puppies with milk jam. And there was more chicken to be had the following night.
188 Main Street, Burlington, 658-4771
Downtown Burlington landmark Nectar’s is probably better known for launching Phish than for its signature gravy fries and hot turkey sandwiches. But that doesn’t keep co-owner Jason Gelrud from taking the venue’s food seriously. On Friday nights, he takes to the kitchen himself.
Gelrud says he wanted to bring the Burlington restaurant scene something he couldn’t find there: home-style Southern fried chicken, just like he grew up eating in southern Maryland. Gelrud’s paternal great-grandmother had an excellent recipe, he says. But the whole family still waited for the one day a week when their elderly African American housekeeper would visit and cook the “unbelievable” fried chicken she’d learned to make in the Deep South.
Gelrud has worked for years to perfect his own version of the dish, he says, and that’s what he prepares every Friday. He fries chicken in small batches, partly to increase the buzz (he usually sells out by 8 p.m.) and partly for quality control. “There’s a lot of love that goes into that meal,” Gelrud says. “I compare it to small-batch distilleries or small-batch bourbons. If you take it and do it on a level of a mass-produced whiskey, you’re going to lose that flavor that makes it so special.”
Gelrud’s brine ensures that his bone-in breasts remain admirably juicy, and the thighs nearly explode with the tasty liquid flavored with honey and lemon. While Bluebird uses a flour dredge, Gelrud makes a buttermilk batter. The simple, golden coating shatters with a crackle. It may fall off the chicken in places, but I just reattached it and kept eating the moist, Misty Knoll Farms bird.
The $14.50 meal (including tax) comes with tender collard greens flavored with smoky ham hocks and a disarming slam of crushed pepper. The accompanying macaroni and cheese is as much of an attraction as the chicken.
Gelrud makes his cheese sauce with Cabot Private Stock, lending the carefully strained, creamy mixture a stab of sharpness. The cavatappi are cooked suitably al dente to stand up to the thick sauce. I wished there had been a little more of the latter, but I couldn’t complain about such a scrumptious take on the bread-crumb-topped home-cookin’ staple.
I don’t doubt Gelrud’s one-time housekeeper would be proud of his Vermont take on her Southern tradition. He can cook me chicken any time.
Sunday: Guild & Company
1633 Williston Road, South Burlington, 497-1207
Chickens of Adams Farm, be warned. Farmhouse Group chef-partner Phillip Clayton recently doubled his weekly order from 12 to 24 chickens in response to the breakout success of Sunday chicken dinners at Guild & Company.
There’s nothing Southern — or fried — about this repast. Instead, the very special meal is more like a mini-Thanksgiving, complete with stuffing and a ceremonious carving of the bird right at the table.
Unlike the holiday, this “tradition” is just a little older than a month. Clayton says he’d long envisioned holding a special chicken dinner at one of the group’s restaurants.
Why a chicken meal at a steak restaurant? “It’s kind of the perfect family supper,” says Clayton. “We wanted to offer something that’s a good value and locally sourced for Sunday night.”
A half chicken feeds two people for $29, making it cheaper than all but one of the steaks on the regular menu. That price gets you everything included in the restaurant’s high-end steakhouse experience.
When I visited, the evening’s amuse bouche was an uncommon take on a Vermont fall standard. Miniature spoons held homemade applesauce topped with a small cube of local apple, then dusted with crumbles of spiced gingerbread and a shower of sesame seeds.
Executive pastry chef Samantha Noakes’ fluffy sourdough further whetted our appetites. But nothing could compare with the foreplay preceding the main course: our server’s grand presentation of the chicken.
She came to our table carrying a heavy board and asked, “Who wants dark meat?” — then set to carving our half-chicken in elegant slices. Having split the amply muscled clucker between my party’s two plates, she returned to present us with all the fixings.
The substantial gravy was rich with chicken flavor and, more importantly, dotted with sweet local cranberries and chopped sage. Coarsely cubed stuffing also displayed a deft balance of sweet and savory flavors. My choice of side (diners select one for each half chicken) was maple-whipped butternut squash, an ultra-smooth purée that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet but did taste strongly of butter.
In the end, of course, the chicken was the star. The fowl are cooked on the kitchen’s rôtisserie system, which turns each spit individually as the whole thing revolves. Sadly, when I arrived for dinner at about 6 p.m., the show was over, and the chickens were being warmed to order for guests in pans on the grill.
That arrangement didn’t dry out the flesh one whit, but it may have resulted in less crisp skin. Though I wouldn’t have complained about a little more crunch, I couldn’t argue with that skin’s flavor. Salted to a T, it tasted almost like bacon. The chicken’s interior was ideal, with a light, clean taste that still sang the next day when I brought my leftovers to work with a homemade kale salad.
But if you don’t have a scrap to spare after Sunday dinner at Guild & Company, I won’t judge.