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Flying high

Diners are flocking to chicken, duck, and other birds when they're prepared with signature touches. Chicken consumption in the U.S. increased by almost 25% in 2004, according to a leading commodity group. And turkey and duck are on the rise too, thanks in large part to lower prices in comparison to beef. With cost and versatility working in its favor, poultry is an all-American—and global—favorite. Preparations cut across all ethnic boundaries.

Almost every restaurant offers a chicken dish on the menu, and it's usually one of the most cost-effective and least expensive on the entree list. Even so, it can be a challenge to make this everyday bird distinctive enough for customers to order when they go out for a special meal. Many chefs and menu developers pique patrons' interest by stamping it with a signature—whether they use unique seasonings, ingredient pairings, cooking techniques, or breeds of poultry. These signature touches not only improve the menu item, they boost its perceived value—allowing operators to tag a dollar or two onto the price.

Shea Gallante, chef-partner at the upscale, 58-seat Cru in New York City favors the baby chickens known as poussins for his signature Chicken Club. This appetizer, which appears on Cru's $85 tasting menu, combines the typical flavors and ingredients of the classic club sandwich in a contemporary guise.

To prepare it, Gallante smokes and gently roasts a 1/3-lb. poussin. "The spin comes from my cooking technique," the chef explains. "I prepare the poussin sous vide-style, resulting in unusual tenderness." The smoked chicken is then wrapped around cubes of braised pork belly that's cooked at 70°F for 30 hours; the combo provides the bacony flavor characteristic of a club sandwich. Arugula puree and pickled rhubarb round out the dish, standing in for the traditional lettuce and tomato.

With free-range and/or organic chickens almost a given on high-end menus, innovative fine-dining chefs are turning to specialty poultry products to distinguish their offerings. Poussin has become a favorite choice. Michael Psilakis of Onera, a new Greek-inspired restaurant in New York, created Pan Roasted Poussin with frisee, asparagus, fingerling potatoes, caramelized apples, and smoked pancetta ($18) for his spring menu and Jean-Louis Gerin of Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, CT, oven-roasts poussin with a "whisper of allspice" and deglazes the pan with natural jus and pumpkin pulp. His Poussin a la Courge is accompanied with carrot and salsify and goes for $38.

At Sona in Los Angeles, chef-owner David Myers serves Jidori Chicken with Potato Bacon Pave and Roasted Chicken Jus as part of his tasting menu. Jidori is a breed raised in Japan that's prized for its superior flavor. In Iowa, capon—a young rooster that is surgically de-sexed and raised free of confinement—is the bird of choice at the Victorian Rose in the Winneshiek Hotel in Decorah. Here, executive chef Chad Elliott features grilled capon fillet with Colorado sauce, sliced avocado, roasted grape tomatoes, and roasted garlic Yukon gold potatoes as a special for $18. "Our customers prefer items that are a little different but not too crazy," he says.

Elliott sources as much locally produced food as he can from nearby farmers, and capons are bred and raised right in Decorah. "Capon can be kind of dry, so right now I'm playing with an apple cider and juniper berry brine to add moisture to the meat," Elliott notes. "We have a large Norwegian population here in Decorah, so I'm thinking about doing a sauce with Norwegian gjetost cheese." In summer, he pairs local organic vegetables and fruits with cooked capon in sandwiches and salads.

A perennial problem in cooking poultry is keeping the white meat moist and flavorful as it reaches the proper degree of doneness. At Park Place on Main in Louisville, KY (avg. check, $50), director of culinary operations Anoosh Shariat more than meets this challenge. He starts with locally raised natural birds and is "clever about keeping the breast juicy. I use different methods and ingredients to make this happen," he says.

Brining the bird is one of his preferred treatments, as is cooking it in sake or wine. But one of the best-loved dishes on Park Place's menu is Stuffed Chicken Breast ($19), in which spinach, goat cheese, pine nuts, and cranberries are stuffed between the skin and flesh to impart a delicious dose of flavor and moistness. "It's especially popular on weekends, when we get a more diverse family crowd and chicken orders go up," says Shariat. During the week, many of his customers come in for business meals and gravitate toward more expensive items, including his signature Duck Two Ways ($26)—seared duck breast, duck confit ravioli, brandy cream, and wild mushroom and salsify relish with a white truffle demi-glaze.

For Joey Campanaro, executive chef at the 130-seat Pace (pronounced Pa-chay), a contemporary Italian spot in New York City, the secret to the success of his Pollo Arosto (pan roasted crispy chicken; $18) is in the cooking. To achieve that perfect contrast between crispy skin and juicy flesh, he pan-sears a half-chicken, skin-side down, in a blend of canola and extra-virgin olive oil. Then he places the pan in "an extremely hot oven—about 500°F" and finishes the cooking, never turning the chicken. "Cooking it only on the skin side, getting the pan hot enough, and timing it just right are what makes it work," Campanaro explains. He's been cooking chicken this way since he became a chef, but feels it fits in best at Pace.

Right now, he's serving the chicken on a bed of garlicky spinach with sweet oven-dried grape tomatoes and truffled wild mushroom polenta, but during the winter, it was menued with escarole, meatballs, and egg. Although Campanaro developed Pollo Arosto, his line cooks pan-roast it on a day-to-day basis, competing with each other to see who makes the best. Sous chef Gustavo Machuca is the current winner.

Out in Seattle, Walter Pisano, executive chef of Tulio in Kimpton's Vintage Park Hotel, achieves roast chicken perfection with a different approach. He combines blanched, sliced garlic with caramel and melted butter, then inserts the golden mixture under the skin of an airline breast from a Washington state-grown chicken. After the chicken is roasted at 400°F for 20-25 minutes, Pisano deglazes the pan with stock and plates the chicken with risotto blended with preserved lemons, shallots, and onions. "Turning the chicken a few times during cooking keeps it moist and crisp," he reveals.

Pisano created his Roasted Chicken, Caramelized Garlic, Sage and Lemon Risotto ($18) for Tulio's opening in 1992, and it quickly became a signature. "The recipe is based on ingredients I tasted and saw in Italy, although you might never see this particular combination on an authentic Italian menu," he says. The signature chicken was taken off the menu when Pisano left on a sabbatical a few years back, but regular customers vehemently demanded its return. "It's always been among our top one or two sellers," Pisano reports.

Pino Maffeo, executive chef of Restaurant L in Boston, was also inspired by Italy for his unique Hay Roasted Chicken. "Back where my parents come from in Southern Italy, they roast whole chickens in damp hay, so I adapted that idea for this restaurant," he says.

Maffeo starts by brining bone-in chicken breasts in salted water flavored with apples, honey, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Then he places the chicken in a heavy skillet under a blanket of hay soaked in water and cooks it very slowly in a low oven. "The hay steams the chicken and makes it very succulent," Maffeo says, "but people want a brown bird. So just before the proteins set, we take the chicken out and brown it in a sauté pan." To complete the process, the chicken goes back into its original pan and the hay is torched. When the flames subside, the pan is covered so the hay can gently smoke the chicken.

"This imparts a delicious smokiness— a comforting layer of flavor," Maffeo explains. "When guests see the flaming hay, they say 'let me try that,' and chicken sales here have gone way up." Accompaniments and price ($24-$27) vary with the season. Maffeo is currently serving Hay Roasted Chicken with ramps, spring potato puree, and rhubarb freezer jam.

Certain QSRs also rely on signature chicken preps to keep customers coming back. At the Irvine, CA-based El Pollo Loco, an authentic Mexican recipe sets the chicken apart from its competitors. "The recipe is so near and dear to our hearts, it's kept in a company safe," says Jon Miller, director of R&D for the 332-unit chain (avg. check, $8.40). Although it's a closely guarded secret, Miller does disclose that the marinade includes fruit juices, herbs, and spices. But that's only part of the equation—the actual marination process and open-flame cooking method also contribute to the chicken's uniqueness.

"The combination of marination and flame grilling promotes good flavor and juicy texture at the same time," Miller claims. The showmanship of El Pollo Loco's cooks in grilling and cutting up the chicken adds to its draw, too, as does the healthfulness of the product. The appeal of this core product has made it possible to spin off several successful line extensions, including burritos, quesadillas, salads, and entree-sized bowls. But grilled chicken on the bone remains "the hero—the engine for our brand," Miller adds.

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