The French roast: The eternal favourite

While there are some great chicken dishes in their cuisine, French chefs will tell you that a roast chicken is the real test of a good kitchen as a dal is the test of a good Indian restaurant, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Aug 31, 2014 15:46 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Bresse,Black Leg,Coq au Vin of Burgundy

You wouldn’t normally think of the French as the Punjabis of Europe. (Actually, the Bengalis like to think of themselves as the Frenchmen of India. Though frankly, they are the Irishmen of India. But we’ll save that for another time.) There is one respect, however, in which Punjabis and the French are perfectly aligned: their love of chicken.

Beats every other Chicken: At Le Coq Rico, I ordered the full Bresse chicken. A giant golden bird had a flavour I have never before encountered in any chicken

There are differences, of course. I always think that Punjabis are more in love with the texture (or even the idea of the perfect kukkad) of chicken than the taste.

Otherwise, why would they raise no objection when so many traditional recipes are ruined by the use of industrial broiler chickens, birds that have been brought up to have no flavour?

The great dishes of Punjabi cuisine – to say nothing of the triumphs of Punjabi tandoori restaurant cooking – were created around flavourful free-range birds.

Take away the flavour of the chicken and you destroy the dish. And yet, in home after home and restaurant after restaurant, they use tasteless broilers.

The French, on the other hand, take their chicken more seriously. Even a chef at the humblest bistro would turn his nose up at the sight of a frozen, factory chicken. And while free-range birds are the norm, the French also have a caste system among chicken.

Certain breeds (Black Leg, for instance) are preferred to others. And as with wine, the terroir in which the chicken grew up is vitally important. Most Frenchmen would probably concede that chickens from Bresse are the best in the world. They are limited in number, have special diets (corn-fed is the norm) and some are given individual numbers.

Most Frenchmen will happily eat fish, lamb, beef, pork, snails, frog legs, animal entrails or whatever, but when you sit them down and ask them to recall a meal they have really enjoyed, a surprisingly large number will talk about their mothers’ roast chicken. They will go into rhapsodies about the taste of the meal, the smell of the kitchen when the oven is opened and how the aroma of the cooking juices fills the house, and so on.

While there are some great chicken dishes in French cuisine (the Coq au Vin of Burgundy is a classic), French chefs will tell you that a roast chicken is the test of a good kitchen in the sense that a dal is the test of a good Indian restaurant. The recipe is simple. Every French housewife knows how to make roast chicken. But to make it perfectly, you have to have the gift, that special ability that distinguishes great cooks from those who are merely very good.

Top grade: The Bristol in Paris is my current candidate for Best Hotel in Europe

The last time I was in Paris, I asked Simon and Sebastien, the two foodie concierges at the Bristol – my current candidate for Best Hotel in Europe, though my wallet doesn’t necessarily agree – where they thought the best chicken in town was served.

We were joined by a rich American guest (a lady who, I was to discover, spent rather a lot of time by the concierge’s desk whenever Simon was on duty) who said, “Hey, I know where the best roast chicken in the world is. I’m American so don’t blame me if I mention the obvious place.”

All of us knew what she was talking about. All Americans who make the pilgrimage to Paris – and everyone above a certain income level in America dreams of going to Paris – have a favourite restaurant.

The Bristol is a long-established haunt of well-travelled, well-heeled Americans. (It is where the protagonists stay in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, which is not only the best representation of the American obsession with Paris, but is also Allen’s best movie in two decades).

And so the concierges have the number of Chez L’Ami Louis on speed dial, because it is the favourite eating place of all their American guests.

You may have heard of Ami Louis, as the American call it. Movie stars love it. Many years ago, Rishi Kapoor, the greatest gourmet in the Indian film industry, sent me a text urging me to try it. It is a smallish, distinctly unfancy restaurant near the old garment district in the 3rd Arrondissement that dates back to 1920.

I’m not sure when Americans discovered it but in the heyday of the old Hollywood studios, all the big stars were dispatched here for photo-ops by movie moguls. When the columnist Art Buchwald lived in Paris in the 1950s, he often wrote about the ‘celebrity chicken’ and the restaurant became world famous. Every non-French person of consequence who has come to Paris has eaten here: Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, etc.

L’Ami Louis does serve other dishes, but 90 per cent of the guests come only for the roast chicken, a giant bird (often from Landes), that is put in the centre of the table. You are encouraged to eat with your hands, to gnaw at the thighs and to soak up the delicious roasting jus with bread. They do many kinds of potatoes – from thick fries to upmarket hash browns. But two people will find it difficult to finish a whole chicken.

I went to L’Ami Louis some years ago and though the chicken was delicious, I’ve always treated it as one of those touristy Paris hang-outs like La Coupole or Ladurée, where the food is never the problem (ie it’s usually good), but where you get tired of blinking as the flashes of tourist cameras fill the room and where no French people are in evidence.

Celeb haunt: Chez L'Ami Louis is a smallish distinctly unfancy restaurant that dates back to 1920. Every non-French person of consequence who has come to Paris has eaten here: Mich Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, etc

I said as much to the concierges – and to the American lady – and all of them agreed. But Simon insisted that the chicken was worth it, anyway. It was, he said, easily the best roast chicken in Paris. (When the French say that, they mean ‘in the world’!)

But I had another candidate. I’m on the jury of the Foodie Top 100 Restaurants and among the many Paris restaurants listed (the Foodie 100 is as pro-French as its rival, the San Pellegrino Top 100 restaurant list, is deliberately anti-French) was one that intrigued me. It was called Le Coq Rico and was described as "a single ingredient concept squarely focused on gourmet interpretations of pedigree poultry". In other words, it was also a roast chicken restaurant.

The Bristol concierges knew it well. Simon even offered to call the manager and ask him to take special care of me. (They had no idea, by the way, that I wrote about food and wine or hotels. They do this for all guests, I was to discover.) I said that was not necessary. Could he just make a booking and ensure that I got a table, because I had no desire to sit at the counter? Of course, he said, that would be no problem.

Two things struck me when I got to Le Coq Rico. The first was that the décor was as modern as L’Ami Louis is old world – white on white and an open kitchen. The second was that it really was a temple to roast chicken. Many single diners – Frenchmen, mainly – sat silently at a counter near the kitchen concentrating on the roast chicken. Yes, there were lots of tourists too. But unlike L’Ami Louis, you had the sense that the restaurant attracted locals as well.

Beats every other chicken: At Le Coq Rico, I ordered the full Bresse chicken. A giant golden bird had a flavour that I have never before encountered in any chicken

The menu has other dishes (foie gras ravioli etc) but it is crazy to go there and not eat the chicken. You can get a plated quarter chicken, but to get the full head-on experience, you need to order the whole bird. The menu lets you choose your chicken – Challans, Landes, Coucou de Rennes – but if you’ve gone all that way, you might as well order a full Bresse chicken. It is 98 euros but it serves up to three people so it is not bad value for one of the most expensive chicken breeds in the world.

My chicken, when it arrived (it takes about 35 minutes to cook so they suggested I nibble on duck rillettes to not ruin my appetite) was perfection itself. A giant golden bird, it had a flavour that I have never before encountered in any chicken. The skin was crisp and delicious and the meat was moist and tender. They served a jus with the chicken but frankly it did not need it. And the fries that came with it were top notch.

I couldn’t finish the chicken, of course, but I overstuffed myself anyway. After all, when was I going to eat chicken of this quality ever again?

The next day, I told the concierge at the Bristol that I had actually preferred the Le Coq Rico roast chicken to the L’Ami Louis version. Simon looked surprised. Really? He thought L’Ami Louis was better.

Simon’s a Frenchman. He knows his roast chicken. But then he also knows that L’Ami Louis will make his American guests happier. So, I guess we will have to agree to disagree!

From HT Brunch, August 31
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First Published: Aug 30, 2014 20:25 IST