"You can always judge the quality of a cook or restaurant by roast chicken," Julia Child once wrote. I'm not sure if she was the first to utter those words, but they have been hers ever since.
They're words I happen to believe in. I've devoted too much time to roasting birds, and would roast more if my favorite technique, borrowed from Michel Richard, a popular French chef in Washington, D.C., could be executed without a convection oven. I've also ordered roast chicken every time I've seen it on a menu, partly as a test of quality and craftsmanship but mostly because, when done correctly, it beats the glaze off a salmon fillet and other mundane proteins.
Ryan Carberry, of the now-defunct RedFork Tavern, plated up a noteworthy bird that I sampled last fall. It was tender and succulent, but its near perfection was jeopardized by flabby skin — the bane of much roast poultry. Tim Bevins' roast chicken at Craft was artful: crisp-skinned, juicy and fine in every way. He learned his technique from Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, whose steadfast commitment to no-fuss preparations let the heritage bird shine. Craft's roast chicken is at once simple — it tastes of nothing but roast bird — and expertly refined. Every aspect of it is perfect, from juicy flesh to skin so crisp it will confound home cooks for eternity.
Jeff Harris learned the same techniques during his tenure at Craft. He worked there for six years before Bevins took over, and learned that using a sautée pan to sear the chicken would yield the crispest skin, but that the temperature had to be just so. Otherwise it would burn. It's also where Harris learned to listen to the pan to determine when the temperature was just right, and that the source of the bird was just as important as his technique. That attention to detail paid off: There isn't a single review about Craft that doesn't fawn over that chicken.
So it would seem that chicken would be a must-order at Bolsa, the Oak Cliff mainstay reinvigorated last fall by Harris' arrival. He came with Matt Balke after the pair tried and failed to elevate gastropub grub at RedFork, a project marred by its owners catch-all vision. (Turns out head cheese and televised sports don't make a good combo). The two bolted shortly after the front doors opened — and the doors closed permanently shortly thereafter.
Harris landed at Bolsa next, and surely, I thought, he took with him what he learned at Craft about chicken. I pictured the golden crackling exterior of a small half-chicken, left on the bone and plated with simple sides. But what arrives when you order Bolsa's Windy Meadows Farm chicken is something different altogether — something Julia Child never envisioned when she said what she said.
Which, it turns out, makes perfect sense. Craft is a full-service fine-dining experience, and its kitchen's arsenal includes massive ranges and multiple stations for multiple chefs. Bolsa has six burners, a pizza oven and three guys who bump elbows every time the expeditor fires a ticket. To expect the same chicken here is like expecting Wylie Dufresne to turn out an aerated foie gras sandwich for an A-train full of commuters. In a hot-dog cart.
But Harris found his own solution to the problem.
Nowadays, there's more than just the postage-stamp kitchen you see when you walk through Bolsa's always-swinging doors. Bolsa Mercado, a small market that serves both restaurant and neighborhood, recently opened just down the street. It may look like yet another over-priced market storefront, but the back boasts a kitchen and commissary with tools Harris uses like a mad (and quite hungry) scientist. Among them: an immersion circulator. It's the key to that pin-up worthy chicken.
After a two-hour brine imparts moisture and subtle aromatics, Harris roulades each chicken breast into a tight and perfect cylinder. Then he uses that circulator to cook it sous-vide — stuffed in a vacuum-sealed sack and submerged for an hour in a flowing bath of 140-degree water. The serving temperature might make some squeamish, but the result is chicken so juicy it weeps when you stab it with your fork.
Lots of other ingredients are prepped at the Mercado, too. Every day around 4 p.m., cooks with bus tubs walk down the street to collect pre-cooked meats, charcuterie, stocks, sauces, vegetables and chicharones, a band of misfits out for the night's kill. (The market, by the way, sells many of these items to take home; the only thing you'll need to prep is your wallet.)
Back at Bolsa, the cooks work their magic. When they're done the chicken arrives sliced into tender, pale medallions like a stack of poker chips pushed to the side. They sit on top of peas, cooked to retain their texture, herbaceous fiddleheads and tender roast potatoes, all wading in a shallow pool of light mustard jus. It's a balanced plate and a celebration of spring that supports chicken almost too lush to be real. And then there's the skin.
Crisp skin living in harmony with succulent flesh has always been the cook's conundrum. If the flesh of a cooked chicken is moist enough, the skin that surrounds it often absorbs that moisture and becomes flaccid. Alternately, crisp skin tends to be a harbinger of dry and mealy meat. At Craft, the solution is precision pan-roasting followed by an immediate trip to the dining room. But Bolsa doesn't have the burners for that. Instead, Harris removes the skin completely, sandwiches it between two sheet pans and bakes it into thin, snappy window panes. The broken shards, scattered about, are the final component of a beautiful plate.
Other plates are almost this good. Smoked steelhead trout presents subtly smoky, cold and firm-fleshed fish, paired with a red-beet puree and acidic pickled celery. My table fought with forks for the last morsels. The quail, served with briny collards flavored with tomatoes and bacon, invited even more savagery. The little birds may have been a touch salty, but I ate them greedily, crunchy bones and all.
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Flatbreads have mucked up many Dallas menus, but here they actually enhance it. "Twig and Branch" has been a Bolsa mainstay since the beginning, and locals have grown fond of its tart chevre play against sweet roasted grapes on a bed of spicy arugula.
Skip the mussels, which offer nothing new, but don't pass on the charcuterie plate to share. Salami and prosciutto come from suppliers, but pâté made from antelope and duck rilletts are prepared back at the Mercado. Spread on toasted bread from Empire Bakery and accented with mustard and pickles of ramps and other vegetables, the plate is worth a visit all on its own.
It's not all perfect. Braised dishes troubled me more than once. Pig cheeks, though still tender, were either too lean at the start or braised too long. I missed the unctuous fat and collagen I've tasted in other versions. And lamb breast — a cut that was completely unheard of a year ago and now is on multiple Dallas menus — was far too fatty. While picking at the dish I checked out the same plate at a table next to me. The guy cleaned house in perfect silence. Not a single artichoke, mustard green leaf or scrap of lamb remained. I'm convinced I got a bad cut. If you do, send it back.
Spring is clearly the most exciting culinary season. The green shoots of new life accent the last threads of winter's hearty, comforting braises. Fiddleheads, fava beans, ramps and peas all bring a vibrant flavor that somehow put turnips and winter kale to shame. All of these are on display in Harris' cooking right now. Morels are coming soon, too. If you see them on his menu, try them — especially if he's paired them with that chicken.