A Noble Bird

While writing my review of Ya Hala (see page 47), I actually stopped halfway through and headed back to Colorado Boulevard to pick up a couple to-go orders of the unbelievably addictive baklava, because I only had a half-order at home and I knew that wasn't going to be enough to hold me through the night. While I was there, I also had the kitchen knock off another one of its grilled half chickens. Why? First, because the wife was making faux posole and needed some picked chicken to get things rolling. But also because after the baklava, Ya Hala's simple chicken was the dish that most impressed me.

Included on nearly every menu, maligned, oppressed, forced into roles it was never meant to play, the chicken is a bad chef's best friend. Chickens, you see, are cheap. Chicken parts are cheap, whole chickens are cheap, chicken wings and feet and legs and breasts all blessedly inexpensive and capable of holding up under nearly any imaginable culinary abuse. Like the slutty cheerleader in high school, a chicken can have almost anything done to it, be complicit in nearly any vile or profane act, and still be popular the next morning.

In the grand hierarchy of deep prep and menu design, chicken is the dish used to dispose quickly of customers who don't really know what they want to eat. If they're not going to order the pavé of salmon, the beef daube, the duck breast or oily garbage fish that, through a chef's own skill and genius, has been turned into something edible; if they're not going to order anything that they don't immediately recognize, that they can't pronounce or that (like an unfussed-with steak or chop) costs more than eighteen dollars, they're going to order the chicken. That's just a given. And many chefs, understanding this and accepting it with a certain veteran grace, will devote a slot on their boards to some simple chicken preparation: a marsala, breast-over-starch, a grilled chicken with potatoes and mixed veg, or chicken par-cooked, flashed under the salamander to order, then hit with some recognizable sauce before it's slung to the rail.

Sling hash long enough, though, and this kind of thing starts to eat away at you -- seeing the same bullshit chicken plates going out again and again, seeing the same meat orders of pre-pack breasts, tenders, flash-frozen cutlets and fingers coming in week after week. At some point, a good cook or chef will take a long, second look at a chicken and see not just dollar signs, but a good animal out of which good food might be made. There's nothing inherently wrong with the chicken: The meat is sturdy but not tough, bland but not entirely tasteless, and it takes flavor well, bearing up under innumerable cooking methods. A good cook will begin to see the possibility of doing something decent with his chickens -- at which point the poor bird stops being Susie Flatback, the skanky pompom girl, and becomes Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, a whore garlanded in Tiffany gems.

Poulet chasseur; blue-footed Bresse chickens, their necks broken to order by the specialty meat man, dressed up in frills and sauces excavated from the depths of Escoffier, Bocuse and Beard; capons nutted in their youth so they get fat and lazy like suburban husbands, plucked, rubbed down with salt and packed with truffled stuffing; chickens injected with emulsions and fluids and unguents in the sweet spot between meat and breastbone, skins peeled back with the tip of a clean paring knife, lifted and stuffed with frozen slivers of beurre d'Isigny, sliced truffle (ungodly expensive), their organ cavities filled with smashed lemons, penetrated by sprigs of whole rosemary, thyme, lemongrass; chickens glazed with patissière's concoctions of orange or apricot or (fuck me, I'm so guilty of this one) honey and tamarind; chickens split in half along the breast (the knife always questioning which side to come down on, often making up its mind unexpectedly to a spectacular bloom of the cook's blood on the board), massaged with Normandy butter; or, in the best cases, chickens just broiled, skin-on, legs cotted with foil, and served over a mountain of crisp frites with a simple sauce moutard and maybe a couple of French olives on the side.

This final preparation is what the good cooks eventually fall to as a means of expurgating their chicken-related guilt. It's a solid, traditional workingman's presentation that does honor to both the chicken and the person ordering it. But it's only after years of chicken abuse that the white jacket lands here, and even this admittedly fine method is not the best way to treat a chicken. Even this is a bit...gaudy. A little too chi-chi for the perfect asceticism to which a good cook aspires.