I knew it would come to this. It was unavoidable.
In the course of planning a trip to San Francisco followed closely by a trip to Yountville, I immediately thought “chicken” — a perfectly logical connection.
Within the span of three days, I had the rare opportunity to sample arguably two of the world’s best roast chickens.
Who could pass that up? Certainly not me.
First, Zuni’s roast chicken. It takes an hour from order-to-table. Normally, waiting an hour for food in a restaurant would be insane, but Chef Judy Rodgers has been serving her roast chicken for more than two decades, and no one seems to mind the wait.
Partly because the rest of the Zuni menu is full delicious distractions. Like an heirloom tomato and cucumber salad surrounding a pile of creamy burrata or a plate of whisper-thin Serrano ham slices paired with garden-fresh black-eyed peas and paprika oil.
Thomas Keller is fanatic about chicken, too. His Bouchon bird sports gorgeous mahogany skin and a chicken jus that would go over just as well if served in a glass — to drink.
But Zuni’s chicken comes with an outrageous bread salad studded with currants and pine nuts. The bread is buttery and crisp when it arrives at the table, but by the time we get to the last piece, it’s soft and chewy from soaking in savory chicken jus.
Bouchon has killer bread, too, but it comes before the meal.
Pain d’Epi (“ear of wheat”) baguettes are placed on the white butcher paper tabletop along with a saucer holding salted butter, white bean puree drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and two toasted baguette slices.
Zuni’s chicken serves two and costs $48. Bouchon’s chicken serves one and costs $26.
Both chickens have been brined, resulting in juicy, moist birds. Both birds are high-heat roasted with lots of herbs.
Bouchon’s chicken has crispy skin; Zuni’s does not.
But Zuni Cafe has a secret weapon — one that tries desperately to sway my opinion about who has the best roast chicken.
Smack dab in the center of Zuni Cafe sits a wood-fired, brick oven. I guess it’s not really a “secret.” You’d know it’s there even if you didn’t see it, although it’s impossible to miss. Smoke permeates the room, even wafting out onto the street.
So is it really fair to declare one bird over the other? Given the opportunity, I’d ecstatically sit down to another plate from either restaurant.
Both restaurants have cookbooks with pages that painfully, minutely, spell out the detail the making of the chickens. My own roast chicken recipe borrows the Bouchon technique of high heat.
Now that I’ve sampled Zuni’s smoky version, I’m contemplating a date with the smoker box on my grill. But it won’t be the same.
Sometimes the best way — perhaps the only way — to experience the real deal is to go straight to the source. The Zuni Cafe roasted chicken wins by a log.