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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

The chicken man

Josiah Citrin, chef at Melisse, is crazy for the bird. No wonder he has a few tricks up his sleeve for preparing the most succulent, flavorful fowl.

August 11, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

It comes to the table with its own parade, borne on a wooden cart accompanied by two waiters and trailed by the chef, who looks on proudly. Nestled on a porcelain platter, the bird is golden brown and glistening, surrounded by perfect tiny vegetables shining in a buttery glaze.

You can see the rest of the dining room patrons spinning in their seats to get a better look. They speculate in a low murmur: What can it be? A partridge? A wild grouse? No, it must be woodcock to get that kind of treatment.

The captain wheels the cart back into the kitchen, where the breast is carved, arranged ever so precisely with the vegetables on individual plates, and returned to the customers. The dark meat will be presented in the next course, with different accompaniments but similar ceremony.

What kind of bird could warrant this kind of pomp and circumstance? Actually, it's roast chicken. But if you think that means some ordinary dish, you haven't eaten at Melisse, where the rotisserie chicken is always on the menu -- and costs $84 a bird.

Chicken is usually thought of more as a rubberized staple of the political banquet circuit than as the exalted centerpiece of a fine dining experience. Melisse chef Josiah Citrin can't figure that out. Ever since his earliest days in the kitchen, he has had it on the menu -- and not just because it's a dining room requisite, like salmon.

Depending on his mood, he may poach chicken in a truffle-scented broth, pan-roast the breast so the skin is crackling crisp while the flesh stays moist, or maybe roll the breast into a roulade to be poached until it is buttery. He may even bake the bird with hay. In the course of a conversation, he might mention a dozen more preparations.

"Even back when I was growing up, my favorite thing to eat was a soy-and-honey-glazed chicken that my mom made," says Citrin. "Remember, that was back in the '70s when people weren't using all of the Asian influences that they do now. And when I was 17 and decided I wanted to become a chef, one of the first things I cooked for my parents was a chicken fricassee from a Wolfgang Puck cookbook my mother had. It just seemed like something I could make."

That's only the beginning. Give him enough time and Citrin will spin a seemingly endless series of variations on the poultry theme, drawn from a long love affair with the bird. It's not an obsession, he insists, but the sheer volume of ideas would seem to belie that claim -- especially when at other fancy restaurants the bird is so scorned.

That's something Citrin can't understand. "I think chicken has been stigmatized; it's kind of gone out of fashion," he says. "Back in the '80s, everybody had chicken on the menu. Now you don't see it so often. It's weird -- people won't think twice about serving duck, but not chicken."

Luxurious touches

Why one fowl should be considered gourmet while the other is simply, well, foul is hard for him to figure. Especially considering that rotisserie chicken sells well even at such a rarefied price ($42 per person, served only for two). "It really moves when someone orders it early in the night," Citrin says. "When people see it being served, everyone wants one."

Granted, for that kind of money, you're getting something more than you would at, say, the local Democratic fundraiser. Though the accompaniments change with the seasons, you can expect to find luxuries such as truffles slipped under the skin of the breast and a delicate forcemeat of chopped fresh morels spooned into the cavity. The white meat may be served with glazed baby vegetables, the dark with a salad of chopped heirloom tomatoes with Banyuls vinaigrette.

"When you put chicken on the menu and charge $42 a person, is that taking advantage, or is that finding a really great ingredient and making something delicious with it? That's got to be a concern," Citrin says. "Still, I don't think price is always just the cost of the individual ingredient, but the value of the overall experience. And that's a great dish."

Making a great chicken dish is not just a matter of simply gussying up an ordinary piece of meat with impressive accessories. It requires close attention to even the most basic of details, starting with the bird itself.

"It sounds strange, but it's really about finding people who care about the chicken," Citrin says. "No matter what you're talking about, it's always more of a special thing if someone has put the time and care into doing it right."

There's more to it than just finding a bird raised without hormones or antibiotics.

"What makes a chicken great?" Citrin asks. "It starts with the way it is grown. Free-range chickens are allowed to run around, so their meat is firmer. What kind of food it's been fed is important. Corn is great. What's really important is how fresh it is, how long it takes to get from the farm to you."

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