Monday, July 10, 2006

Sometimes a chicken is just a chicken

On my third trip to San Francisco, I finally got to make the requisite pilgrimage to Zuni Café to worship the roast chicken bread salad. Was it everything I had hoped for? All I can say is that sometimes the only thing going against a great thing is its reputation. The fact is that I’ve read about the roast chicken in dozens of publications, heard the British “goddess” Nigella repeatedly gushing about it, and seen it in my prized Zuni Café Cookbook. In my mind, the chicken had attained a taste that no mortal chicken could ever hope to achieve, not even at the Zuni Café. This is not to say that the evening wasn’t incredibly wonderful. It was, as all dinners are among old friends.

A, whom I haven’t seen since college, had recently relocated to SFO and met up with J and I for dinner. We were an hour late for our reservation and had to wait about half an hour before a table could be arranged for us. It was an easy wait at the gorgeous copper bar as conversations flew and Turley’s juvenile zinfandel kept my spirits up. I have to mention how amazed I was to find the fantastic zin sold by the glass. Sometimes it’s just so darn easy to get a case of green envy of the Californians for having some of the freshest foods and the best American wines within arm’s reach.

Once sat, we went right ahead and ordered the chicken so it could be roasted while we enjoyed our appetizers. Having being deprived easy access to super fresh oysters in Atlanta, we welcomed a sampler plate of pacific offerings with open arms and hungry stomachs. The uneven-sized beauties ranged on the palate from briny like the sea to sweet and creamy. All were incredibly fresh and went down ultra smooth.

Considering chef Judy Rodgers' affinity for brining, we selected the house-cured ham to try. From presentation to taste, the ham was bland and rather uninteresting. We also selected the special handmade pasta of the night. The abundant pancetta in the pasta was nicely pan-fried and smoky, but the pasta itself was a bit too doughy and slightly undercooked in the center.

Finally the chicken bread salad was brought to the table. The plating is quite impressive with neat pieces of nicely charred chicken nesting on a base of browned Acme bread and among a fantastically fresh bitter green salad. The salad was dressed in a vinegar heavy dressing, which I loved. The chicken was tender and the bits of charred skin had a nice crunch, but like I said earlier, it was still just a well-roasted chicken. Knowing nothing about it, I would have loved it, but having read so many out-of-this-world reviews, I am not sure if it is deserving of all that.

The dessert menu was simple and I can't remember anything else on it except the tart we chose. It came simply embellished with just an unpretentious scoop of vanilla ice cream and had all the elements one could ask for in a nice fruit tart. The filling had the perfect mouth puckering acidity that sought balance in the creamy ice cream. The crust flaked easily without crumbing and had the integrity to stand up to the gooey fruit center without turning soggy. It was also the right size for three already stuffed diners who can't pass up dessert.

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