Roast chicken goes from homey to hip
The ultimate comfort food rules the roost on upscale menus
A whole roast chicken is the homiest of home-cooked dishes, the ultimate Sunday supper. Brine the bird, rub it with butter, stuff the cavity, slide herbs under the skin, or just sprinkle it with plenty of salt and plunk it in a blazing oven without fanfare. Whether the preparation is elaborate or simple, the results are the same: a comforting meal and a house that smells great.
And yet the whole roast chicken has left the home kitchen, making for restaurants around town. It should come as no surprise — we’ve done the same. Chefs are putting the dish on menus, using their culinary training and high-test equipment to turn out the best version of roast chicken they possibly can. Servers bring out the whole bird for diners to admire, then whisk it away. Magical elves in the kitchen carve and plate it, and one’s dinner is then returned. On menus, the dish is often billed as “whole roast chicken for two.” As dining becomes less formal, such shared items — rib eye for two, pig’s head for two — are increasingly appearing.
Whole roast chicken’s home-cooked qualities are the very reason chef Matthew Gaudet put it on the opening menu of his new Cambridge restaurant, West Bridge, where turbot, lamb shoulder, or goat for two might also appear. “I love the Sunday supper thing, communal dining, shared plates,” he says. “There’s nothing better than the basic, straightforward, tried-and-true, perfectly cooked, beautifully raised piece of meat. And there is nothing homier or more comfortable than a chicken. People can come home to roost and have a comforting meal. It’s Sunday supper every day.”
It can also be argued that restaurant kitchens are better equipped to turn out excellent roast chickens, with crisp skins and juicy meat. “We have better ovens and more spacious ovens,” Gaudet says.
And restaurants have the setup to brine birds for several days, then let them air-dry for several more, as executive chef Robert Sisca does at Bistro du Midi. He gives the skin a final layer of crispness under a salamander just before serving.
At Craigie on Main, chef Tony Maws first cooks his chickens sous-vide in a bag with roasted chicken fat. For the final step, the bird is rubbed with butter and togarashi salt and browned in a combi oven until the skin is crisp. This is probably not a method the average home cook can undertake. And the average home cook’s roast chicken will probably not be featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” as Craigie on Main’s was.
These restaurant chickens are indisputably delicious. But there is something just a bit sad about them, too. Have we become too unmotivated or unconfident in the kitchen to roast our own? Some argue that food is the new rock ’n’ roll. Maybe it’s more like the new religion: something everyone can believe in. (Rock ’n’ roll, of course, being the old new religion.) Restaurants are our community gathering spots now, and often our family gathering spots, too. They bring us together, they ease our physical hunger, but perhaps we need more. A roast chicken makes us feel cared for.
“I think a lot of people do trust restaurants to do things better than they can,” Maws says. “Cooking a roast chicken at home is a little bit of a time investment. In this day and age, people don’t spend as much time eating at home. There’s the nostalgia. A whole roast chicken for me brings back memories. I’m certainly not alone in that.”
How much are we willing to pay for nostalgia, being cared for, a home cook’s dish prepared with all the skills a chef has at his or her fingertips? At local restaurants, whole roast chickens are generally priced in the mid-$40 range: West Bridge’s is $43. French bistro La Voile offers one for $44. Bistro du Midi’s bird is $48, although it’s billed as “$24 per person,” a reminder that this is on the reasonable side of Boston restaurant entree prices. Certainly, one can roast a chicken at home for less than half the cost. Eating in a restaurant still means paying for time, labor, ingredients, rent, and all the costs of doing business, even when what one is eating is a turbo-charged version of home cooking.
There are price outliers. Saloon in Somerville offers whole roast chicken for $28. And ordered a la carte, Craigie on Main’s bird costs $74. How does a simple chicken wind up with that price tag?
“I could see a population of people being like, ‘$74 for a chicken!,’ ” Maws says. “Most customers haven’t wrapped their minds around what food actually costs. If you want a good chicken, a chicken you trust, where you know what it ate, where it was raised, that you would be happy to put that product inside of you or the people you love, that’s just what it’s going to be.”
And the restaurant does offer diners the option of taking home the carcass at the end of the meal, so in some sense, soup is included. Of course, you’ll have to do your own cooking to enjoy it.
Craigie on Main’s chicken has gained considerable renown, possibly due to its television stardom. “The Food Network was really kind to put it on,” Maws says. “People come in and say, ‘I heard about the chicken,’ which is great because they’re not saying, ‘I heard about the burger.’ ” The chef, a James Beard award winner, presides over an adventurous brand of cooking — the likes of pig’s tails, boudin noir, and cock’s combs are combined with seasonal ingredients in an ever-changing roster of dishes. Yet Maws’s roast chicken and his burger, which has received national recognition in publications such as Bon Appetit and Food & Wine, may be his best-known creations.
This is the hold comfort food has on our hearts. There’s nothing wrong with that. We look to restaurants for something different than we once did — as Gaudet says of the chef’s take on whole chicken, “The technique is there but also a comfort level. People don’t want to spend that kind of money, get dressed up, and go through the pageantry [of fine dining] that often, but they still want and expect the quality.”
Still, let’s hope home cooks continue to roast their own chickens at least some of the time, and make their own homes smell good. And let’s hope diners continue to seek out restaurants for fare that goes beyond comfort — that inspires, excites, and teaches our taste buds something new.
In the meantime, when you tire of chicken, head across the street from Craigie on Main to Salts. There, chef Gabriel Bremer has long served a famous whole roast duck for two, bones removed, glazed with lavender honey. It’s $68, a comparative bargain.