Café Boulud is about the last place you’d expect down home cooking. Long renowned for his raffinée take on Lyonnaise cuisine, Daniel Boulud and his chefs, currently Gavin Kaysen, have been churning out perfectly prepared foie gras torchon and striped bass en paupiette for the last 20 years. The recipients of their skilled ways are, invariably, well-suited, well-heeled and well-informed diners. Many are what you might call Bouludheads. They eat at the Upper East Side restaurant (pictured below) once a week, sometimes even more.
On a recent Thursday night, little seemed out of the ordinary. A golden glow, a hushed buzz, the clink of crystal, clank of China. On the banquette, two Bouludheads chatted with the captain as if they were old friends. They were. Plates of composed dishes flowed from the kitchen in a steady stream. But there was an interloper.
Wheeled over on a table cart, a tray was borne through the dining room. All eyes—Botoxed, pulled, plumped—followed it. On top of this tray was a red-and-white placemat, the kind you’d find at a barbecue joint, and a few Ball jars, the type you’d find in Brooklyn, and—in a fancy All-Clad dish, the pièce de résistance: a pile of fried chicken.
That fried chicken is served, at least for the summer, at one of Manhattan’s most lauded restaurants is simply confirmation of what has been true and getting truer the last year: haute fried chicken is a thing.
First there was Momofuku Noodle bar, Chef David Chang’s flagship restaurant in the East Village. In 2009, Chang introduced his fried chicken dinner, available by reservation only. For $100, you’d get a massive amount of fried chicken, enough to serve four to eight guests. Part of the pleasure was the chicken itself—half of which came Korean-style, the other half, standard—and part was the spectacle of it. A table, covered in butcher paper, waiting for you in a crowded restaurant is a powerful thing.
Chang’s dinner continues to be the hallmark for the high-end take on the meal, but recently other restaurants have jumped on the fried chicken thing. NoMad, whose “ordinary” chicken for two is a spectacularly rich foie gras-stuffed roasted chicken for $78, now serves fried chicken on its snack menu in addition to special occasions. (On August 26th, to celebrate the release of Somm, a documentary that stars Eleven Madison Park’s sommelier Dustin Wilson, the restaurant will serve its fried chicken at a rooftop screening. Tickets are $65.) And there is too much fried chicken on Brooklyn menus to even begin here.
But fried chicken hadn’t found a champion above 14th street and below Harlem, where Charles Gabriels holds it down at Charles Country Fried Pan Chicken. That is until Kaysen started serving his take at Café Boulud. “We wanted to do something fun,” says Chef Kaysen, “for the regulars.” So Mr. Kaysen, who grew up in Minnesota (where, he says, “they eat a surprising amount of fried chicken”), reached out to Sylvia Pryzant of Four Story Hill Farms. Today, the restaurant gets 35 to 40 birds a week and serves the family-style meal every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday until the end of summer. “The response has been amazing. People love it. There’s something about eating with your fingers,” said Kaysen excitedly, “that brings people together.”
The chicken—brined, soaked in buttermilk and coated with a flour breading—would still turn heads in Charleston, South Carolina, where Chef Kaysen was first inspired. But here, surrounded by a homemade barbecue sauce, watermelon slaw and tiny skillet cornbreads, it silences the room. That is until you pick up a drumstick and take a bite. It’s the crunchiest thing on the whole Upper East Side.
Fried chicken dinners (for two) at Café Boulud can be ordered for $52 per person. The dinners begin on Tuesday and run until there are no chickens left, usually sometime on Thursday night.