I have a passion for fried chicken. There's nothing gastronomically that I can think of which equals a piece of chicken which has been dredged in seasoned flour and then set into a cast-iron skillet filled with sizzling hot oil until browned to golden perfection. The secret of great fried chicken is threefold: start with a wholesome free-range bird, one which preferably has been raised in a yard where it can run free and peck at acorns and grain, and which has never been inoculated with any of that bad stuff. Spend a little more on a top-quality pullet from a good source, preferably not a supermarket and not too big a bird, three pounds tops... The coating ingredients must be seasoned correctly, and the oil should be fresh and heated to just the right temperature. Even when all these conditions have been met, it is still extremely rare to experience the succulent morsel of my dreams.
The best fried chicken I have ever had was at Chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc, the casually elegant restaurant in Napa's Yountville, besides his more formal The French Laundry. The first time I ate it, I almost cried with joy. This was perfection! I bought a copy of Keller's Ad Hoc At Home Cookbook and tried to replicate it, with no real success. He prepares a brine of water, kosher salt, lemon juice and peel, garlic, rosemary, pepper and thyme, honey and bay leaves... and cold-soaks the whole chicken in it for 12 to 24 hours. He uses a batter of flour, garlic and onion powder, paprika, kosher salt, cayenne and black pepper... and after coating the chicken pieces in the flour mix, dips them into a bowl of buttermilk, back and forth to the flour and milk until well-coated. He fries the chicken pieces in peanut oil which has been heated to precisely 320-330 degrees, frying the legs and thighs first -- for about 13 minutes, turning them once, followed by the breasts cooked for just seven minutes. He drains them on paper towels, sprinkles them with salt, and dispatches them out to eagerly waiting diners who then dispatch them with gusto.
Last month, when I received an email that Keller's Beverly Hills branch, Bouchon Bistro (235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills (310-271-9910) valet and underground parking) was serving the famous Ad Hoc Fried Chicken for one night, I reserved a seat at the bar and showed up at 5:30 pm, as soon as the doors opened. (Didn't want them to run out.) The dinner came in an oblong skillet... consisting of two large pieces of that fried chicken, potato salad drizzled with whole-grain mustard vinaigrette, and a ragout of Brentwood corn with sunburst tomatoes and basil. Oh, my, yes! It was perhaps the best $36 dollars I have spent in years. Sitting at the bar, Sommelier Alex Weil suggested several artisan beers to go with my meal, each more interesting than the last. The dining room quickly filled up, and the next day Laura Cunningham told me they had served almost 450 dinners by 9:30 pm. The word gets out when a really good event happens.
So here is a hint... they will be serving that self-same fried chicken dinner at Bouchon Bistro this Monday evening, July 18th, from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Chef de Cuisine Rory Herrmann follows the Ad Hoc recipe exactly, and his crack kitchen team is prepped to turn out a lot of birds by the end of the evening. If you are fortunate enough to get a reservation (tell Leslie Lopez that Jay sent you), you will see me sitting at the bar nibbling away at a succulent piece of juicy fried chicken with grease all over my face and a beautific smile on it. Life is good.
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