Last year my partner and I were fortunate enough to have a month off work and two business class round-the-world tickets in hand. Our first leg was the longest and most indirect flight. We set off from Sydney to San Francisco via Hong Kong. The planned two and a half hour stop-over turned into three and a half, but that gave us plenty of time to explore this huge airport. I didn’t even recognise it from my last visit two years ago. We’d had plenty to eat and drink on board a very pleasant Cathay Pacific flight, so while we were tempted to sip champagne at the caviar bar, our stomachs were definitely not going to cooperate. Back on board and a few movies later, we arrived in San Francisco. It was Saturday so once our bags were in our room, we headed off on foot to the famous The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on the Embarcadero.
Unfortunately my sense of direction was still in Hong Kong, and instead of the Embarcadero, we ended up at Fisherman’s Wharf! I have managed to avoid the place each time I’ve been to San Francisco, and I was right in doing so…although once we got there we were too tired to rund to the Embarcadero, so we sat in The Wines of California Wine Bar, and did a few variety tasters which was not bad.
Strangey, after our brief stop in Hong Kong were dying for some Chinese, so we had a late dinner that night at R & G Lounge in Chinatown. There was a short wait for a table, then we were seated and promptly served some very good classic Chinese food, in the slightly bland surroundings. There were tourists galore, but also plenty of American Chinese diners which I always think is a good sign. My partner ate about a kilo of their Live Crab With Salt And Pepper (a house speciality). The bill was reasonable and we left very full and satisfied.
I have always wanted to dine at Zuni Café so we had booked two months in advance for the following evening. I have owned Judy Rogers Zuni Café Cookbook for a couple of years. In fact I believe this was my first American cook book. I had previously resisted the idea that American’s knew anything about good food, so had never bothered about their cooks or cookbooks. Of course I was very wrong. Many of the world’s great chefs (and restaurants) are American. I particularly admire chefs who have maintained links to long established restaurants such as Judy Rogers at Zuni Café, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Tomas Kellar of the legendary French Laundry (Per Se and Bouchon (amongst many others). Unfortunately I have not yet had the opportunity to dine at Chez Panisse or in fact any of Kellar’s stellar restaurants, but that’s part of the goal of my blog. To explore the great and not so great dining destinations in Australia, New Zealand and the world, and share my humble opinion and thoughts with all you other food obsessed individuals out there.
We both just loved Zuni Café. It is the perfect restaurant for both of us. Relaxed, excellent service and wine list and the tastiest food. The kind of place you can go a little dressed up for for a special occasion, or in your jeans with a bunch of friends. It suits whatever mood or dress you are in. And the food! Simple ingredients cooked to perfection. The sad part is I don’t even remember what we ate. It was all so….good. We also drank some beautiful Californian wines recommended by the very competent wait staff. I know our entrées were one offal, and one seafood, followed by a game dish and a great steak. We ended the meal with a serve each of Zuni’s Café’s classic single cheeses. Each served with the perfect accompaniment.
For a foodie, our table was in a perfect position with a bird’s eye view of the kitchen. We watched dozens of roast chickens and bread salads being prepared. Although we had not dined there before, I had cooked these at home so despite it being a classic Zuni dish, we didn’t order one but watching them being prepared was just fantastic. In fact, the guy at the wood fired oven must be the hardest working chef in the kitchen. He juggled roasting and fry pans all night, whilst topping up the wood to maintain a perfect temperature.
It was all so good, neither of us wanted to leave so once we had finished our fortified wines, we headed to the bar for a few tequilas. That’s probably why I no longer recall what we ate!
In case you don’t get it, we LOVE Zuni Café. We had plenty of wonderful meals on our trip including an incredible lunch at River Café, London; a very fine dinner at Grammercy Tavern, New York; and dinner at the legendary Grand Vefour in Paris amongst others. Zuni was our undisputed favourite!
Just so you get an idea of how good it all is here is a slightly condensed version of their Roast Chicken and Bread Salad. Once you try and love this dish - like thousands of other devotees, including Rockpool Bar & Grills, Neil Perry – go out and buy Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe cookbook. A novice may find it a litte intimidating, not because the food it hard to cook but the recipes tend to be long and involve detailed steps and descriptions (like this Roast Chicken and Bread Salad). None the less, its a very inspiring book and you'll be rewarded if you persevere.
ZUNI ROAST CHICKEN WITH BREAD SALAD
Half quantities for two
For the chicken:
2 x One small chickens, 1.2 to 1.5 kilos
8 tender sprigs fresh thyme
About 4 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
For the salad:
Generous 1lb slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
13 - 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
2-3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons dried currants
2 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
2 tablespoon warm water
4 tablespoons pine nuts
4 to 6 garlic cloves, slivered
1/2 cup slivered shallots (about 4), including a little of the green part
4 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
Lettuce leaves: A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried. All I had the other night was iceberg which worked fine.
The Zuni roast chicken is best made with small chickens, 1.2 to 1.5 kilos, which cook beautifully at high heat, roasting quickly and evenly, and, with lots of skin per ounce of meat, they are virtually designed to stay succulent. Salt the birds 24 hours in advance.
The salad is a sort of a scrappy stuffing. A mix of crispy, tender, and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and spring onions, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings. Tasting as you make it is obligatory, so Judy Rogers recommends extra bread and vinaigrette the first time you make the recipe so you can taste to your hearts content but still have enough for the salad! For the best texture, use chewy peasant-style bread with lots of big and little holes in the crumb. you'll need a half or a quarter loaf, per chicken. As wonderful as it is, don’t use sourdough bread for this recipe, as the sour flavor too strong and rich for this dish. Day-old bread is preferable, as fresh bread can make a soggy, doughy salad.
Seasoning the chicken (Can be done 1 to 3 days before serving):
Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough-a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.
Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove and herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (use just under one teaspoon per 500g chicken). Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Starting the bread salad (Can be done up to several hours in advance):
Preheat the broiler.
Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks. Carve off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust. The top and side crusts can cut up and frozen and used as croutons in salads or soups. Brush the bread all over with olive oil. Broil whole very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.
Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.
Roasting the chicken:
Preheat the oven to 475. Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven, and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 or as low as 450 during the course of roasting the chicken to get it to brown properly. If that proves to be the case, begin at that temperature the next time you roast a chicken. If you have a convection function on your oven, use it for the first 30 minutes; it will enhance browning, and may reduce overall cooking by 5 to 10 minutes.
Choose a baking or roasting pan barely larger than the chicken. Preheat the pan over medium heat, wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
Place the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.
Assembling the salad:
While the chicken is roasting, place the pine nuts in a small baking dish and set in the hot oven for a minute or two, just to warm though. Add them to the bowl of bread.
Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold in. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread-a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well. Since the basic character of the bread salad depends on the bread you use, these adjustments can be essential.
Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl aside. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time.
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Leave the bread salad to continue warming for another 5 minutes of so.
Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting oven, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.
Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings.
Set the chicken in a warm spot and leave to rest while you finish the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.
Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste-the juices will be extremely flavorful.
Tip the bread salad into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.
Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warm platter, and nestle the chicken in the salad.
As you can see, mine isn't anywhere near as pretty as that served at Zuni, but it tasted great. ..