If it’s true that we are what we eat, then did my feasting on poulet rôti in Paris last summer render me more French or more chicken? Based on the sheer volume of roast chicken consumed, I would have to say “more chicken.”
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
Back home in Berkeley, Calif., there is so much really good traditional roast chicken available in restaurants and takeout shops — with French names like Poulet, Café Rouge, Bistro Liaison and Nizza la Bella (“Beautiful Nice”) — that I’m not sure whether my Paris binge was an homage to the gallocentric traditions in France that helped shape my passion for the humble roast, or merely a transatlantic extension of a preexisting culinary condition.
Granted, our farm-raised (poulet fermier) chicken production in the Bay Area (and the U.S. generally) does not yet measure up to France’s Label Rouge poultry program (See French Chicken, Part 1). And we are about 15 years behind European standards for animal welfare, according to advocates I’ve talked to.
But if Paris beats Berkeley in the overall quality of its poultry, not so in the roasting. Parisians seem to be taking their well-bred birds for granted these days, at least in their bistro kitchens if not in their homes and outdoor markets.
A tale of two birdies
At celebrity chef Guy Savoy’s L’Atelier Maître Albert in Paris’ 5th Arrondissement, the handsome wall-sized rotisserie had two enticing birds (from the les Landes region) twirling away on their spit, just waiting for me, right? Wrong.
About 25 minutes after ordering the 22-euro (about $28) Volaille fermière rôtie, my two small so-so-tasting chicken pieces, a small leg and quarter breast, arrived nestled against a typical mound of buttery bistro purée.
Those love birds, still spinning as I left, were apparently all show and no go.
So where had my chicken pieces come from, the stork?
French chicken loves garlic
Equally disappointing was the Provençal-style roast chicken with thyme and whole cloves of garlic touted at La Bastide Odéon in the 6th Arrondisement. The traditional Provençal combination of chicken and garlic was popularized in the U.S. by folks like James Beard with their variations on the classic poulet aux quarante gousse d’ail (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic).
Either Beard was dreaming, or there was a garlic harvest blight in France last summer because my skinless chunks of white meat and a small leg were served with just one clove of garlic! It hadn’t even caramelized into that soft, sweetly nutty puddle of garlic heaven one expects. And what was with the skinless breast meat? Poulet rôti sacrilege!
The best chicken in the world?
Of the many poulet rôtis I gobbled down in Paris bistros, the only real standout was the 85-euro (about $108) whole chicken for two at Chez L’Ami Louis in the 3rd Arrondissement. This is the notoriously high-end, old-school bistro that food critics love to hate — including A.A. Gill who labeled it “the worst restaurant in the world” in his rather hilarious 2010 Vanity Fair thrashing of the place.
Inducement enough for me to go! I’m a bit of a rubbernecking ambulance chaser when it comes to hatchet-job restaurant reviews — I like to see (and taste) the damage for myself. On occasion, like this one, I even write rebuttals.
Not only was L’Ami Louis’ bird (a black-legged Label Rouge “noir” bird from the Challans region) moist and flavorful and its delicate skin crisp, but the bird was graciously served (Gill found the servers at L’Ami Louis “sullen”) in two brilliant courses — white meat first, then dark — both accompanied by ladles of perfect jus. If anything at L’Ami Louis was sullen, it was the limp mound of pommes frites served with the chicken.
Adding to the pleasingly retro pomp at L’Ami Louis, our server had first brought the whole roasted bird to the table for our inspection before carving, like a proud father showing off his newborn.
I have experienced this kind of poultry love ritual — usually reserved for home-roasted turkeys at Thanksgiving — only once before. Counterintuitively, it was at Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steak house, Cut, in Los Angeles, where the server shows off a small, locally-grown and brined poussin before carving and plating. Was I envious of the person at the next table with their $150 Japanese Wagyu rib eye? Well, just a little, though my $38 chicken was plenty good.
All you need is love, love, love
One of the tastiest, and surely the most love-infused roast chickens I had all summer was at the home of my American friend David Jester and his French wife Evy. Our Label Rouge plein air “jaune” bird (yellow skin and feet) purchased from Boucherie Dumont near Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, was raised in the Ain region in eastern France, where celebrity Bresse chickens come from. After 90 minutes in the oven, the coarse salt-rubbed five-pound bird had deliciously crisp skin and juicy, rosemary-scented meat. Evy served the bird with the pan juices and the caramelized carrots, garlic cloves and lemon rind that had roasted alongside the bird for the last hour in the oven. Heaven.
Evy says that the secret of her chicken’s succulent flesh and crisp skin, learned from her mother, is to start the bird out in a cold oven set at 400 degrees F. An interesting technique to be sure, but I can’t agree. Evy’s real secret, I believe, which I think too many Parisian chefs and restaurateurs have sadly forgotten, is that you must — and I say this at the risk of sounding pathetically Berkeley — love poulet rôti, love making it well and love those you are serving to do gastronomic justice to an honored bird, whether in Paris or Berkeley, or anywhere else.
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris