I spilled a drink on Alice Waters.
As you might expect, she was nice about it. The chef, restauranteur and slow-food pioneer — who teaches public-school children to grow their own food — is a forgiving person.
We were at Zuni Cafe on Market Street in San Francisco several years ago and it was mobbed. Unable to book a reservation, husband Eric and I took our chances and showed up. Luck was with us: If we were willing to wait a bit, they could seat us. I was moving away from the bar, drink in each hand, when the crowd shifted — and Eric’s martini did, too. I apologized profusely. We both moved on.
“Do you know who that was?” a passing server asked. Whoops. But points to Alice for being nice about it.
Eric and I were there for Zuni Chicken with bread salad, an unparalleled meal for two. A small bird is roasted at very high heat in the massive brick oven that sits in the center of the dining room. You have to wait; your chicken is cooked to order. But you don’t care. It’s one of those things that can’t be improved upon and you can’t get anywhere else.
The “Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” written by Judy Rodgers and published by Norton, showed up under the Christmas tree after that visit, and I flipped right to page 342, where the recipe for the famous dish begins and runs on for the next four pages.
I found notes from one visit scribbled on the back of an ATM receipt from a bank on Crocker Street, tucked into the cookbook: “Friday at 5:30 every table full. Walls and ceiling yellow, wood tables and chairs.”
It explains that Zuni roast chicken depends on three things, most importantly the small size of the bird. They recommend a 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pound bird, what used to be known as a fryer. That is not easy to find these days, as most birds that size are destined for the rotisserie and sold cooked. Second, it has to roast at very high heat. At home, that would be at least 450 degrees. Lastly, the bird must be salted at least 24 hours in advance to improve flavor, and keep it moist and tender.
The chicken parts are then nestled into a warm salad made of baby greens with chunks of rustic bread, slivered garlic, scallion, currants, and pine nuts dressed with vinaigrette and chicken drippings. You can’t replicate the San Francisco bread, but the book recommends a “chewy, peasant-style loaf,” at least a day old.
Here are the directions in broad strokes:
Wash and pat the chicken dry, slide sprigs of fresh herbs under the skin. Season liberally with sea salt (kosher would do.)
Remove the crust and break the bread into large pieces, brush all over with olive oil and broil, turning to crisp and color all surfaces. Tear the chunks into irregular large and small pieces and dress. Taste — and try not to eat it all.
Preheat a shallow roasting pan or ovenproof skillet over the stove on medium heat. Pat the chicken dry and set it in the hot pan, breast up, and slide into the preheated oven.
The chicken must sizzle and if 450 degrees doesn’t do it, turn the oven up to 500. The skin should blister. Flip it over halfway through. Total cooking time should be 45 minutes to one hour.
Meantime, sauté the garlic and shallots in olive oil and toast the pine nuts. Toss with greens, along with the bread and currants. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Joint the chicken and serve on a platter over the salad. Heaven.
I’ve made it using Murray’s wonderful free-range chickens and had pretty good results. I don’t have a brick oven or bread made with San Francisco’s yeast.
It’s trickier than it sounds and the oven ended up a mess. But it was delicious, if not exactly authentic, and it brought back the memory of the packed bar on a busy Friday night, and spilling a drink on the famous chef.
Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected]