This was one of the first dishes Lynn and I ordered at Magpie, back in those early days when it was pretty much an empty, fledgling restaurant and co-owner Janel Inouye was our server. The chicken back then was a revelation, and it seemed to encapsulate the quality and values that would come to define Magpie.
So much has changed since spring of 2009. Magpie is constantly busy and it has become a restaurant loved and admired for its earnest sourcing and honest cooking. It's real food done very, very well, as most of you know by now.
But would the new chicken dish be as good as the one we remembered? Our answer came shortly after the dish arrived at our table. Our expectations were extremely high -- and we were still blown away. And really? Who orders chicken at a top-flight restaurant anyway? But the chicken here was -- and is -- transcendent. The latest chicken for two, at $29, is one of the most impressive and thoroughly enjoyable chicken dishes I've ever had. What's more, I've never tasted spinach done as well as this -- sauteed with great finesse in the drippings of the chicken and deglazed with a cider vinaigrette, the flavors and perfect texture (not too cooked, not chewy or watery) blew me away.
I asked chef and co-owner Ed Roehr for his thoughts on the new dish, which at once rekindles memories of the original while taking it to new heights.
"When we opened, Magpie was essentially a deli counter. We had salads and sandwiches and this chicken dish," he said when we chatted by phone. "We tried different chickens and recipes. For awhile, we went to a poussin (young chicken), which was great. We started to look in different directions for the menu. We looked at what it is we're doing and the reasons we're doing it, and we said, 'Wait a minute! We don't want to leave that behind.'"
The Magpie kitchen, visible to the dinner guests, is a sight to behold. Clearly, they're into what they're doing. It's all about focus and technique back there. They pay attention.
Roehr says this wonderful chicken is actually cooked via two different methods. The main body is roasted, while the quarters are done confit style in duck fat.
"That way, we felt we could keep the integrity of the dish," he explained. "It's a really good way to cook the quarters of a chicken."
The sauce, applied generously over the chicken, is chervil, a bit of ginger and little else.
I had to ask Roehr about the spinach -- it was THAT good. Turns out, there are no real shortcuts or tricks. It's about paying attention, putting in the reps, learning from mistakes and, when you do all that, really nailing it with precision.
"Don't get the pan too hot -- or too cold," the chef said. "If you're using the drippings of a chicken, you want it to be hot enough so the sugars of the spinach will caramelize."
He also said there needs to be enough spacing in the pan to accommodate the spinach without crowding. Sure, you can try this at home. But go to Magpie first. They set the benchmark.
Roehr said he had planned to bring this menu item two back for just a couple of weeks, but it's such a good dish -- and such a reflection of what Magpie is all about -- that he thinks it's going to stick around on the menu.
The dinner was a great success, the latest of many. Excellent service. Good wine and beer. A fantastic soup. And for dessert, Lynn opted for her favorite, the now-iconic carrot cake cookie, while I had a creme brulee that had been blended with squash -- and garnished with slices of persimmon. Delicious. Delightful. And very Magpie.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.