|Cluck, Quack, Gobble|
|Written by Liz Campbell|
|Friday, 01 June 2012 00:00|
Chicken, duck and turkey are inspiring chefs’ creativity, but while two have taken flight, one remains grounded in tradition
It used to be rare to find a restaurant menu without at least one chicken dish. It might have included anything from breaded strips or zesty wings, to breast meat in a rich sauce. Duck was uncommon, and generally served in upscale establishments accompanied by a sweet, fruit-based sauce — orange (à l’Orange) or cherry (montmorency duck aux cerises). And, apart from sandwiches, turkey was restricted to use at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Today, although sales are not growing, according to The NPD Group, poultry continues to be the most popular protein at restaurants, with more than 1.3-billion servings in 2011. But, while approximately 22 per cent of restaurant meals include poultry, chicken strips and wings are losing ground (down one per cent and four per cent, respectively). This could reflect a desire for more wholesome meals, or, on the other hand chefs’ growing desire to innovate. In fact, says Linda Strachan of the NPD Group, quoting a recent story, it’s clear the majority of FSR visitors
Frank Berthelon uses free-range chicken. “It’s a little more expensive, but you start with an advantage — the flavour is there already,” says the executive chef at Le Crocodile, a French restaurant in Vancouver. He’s not alone. The 2012 Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Associa-tion’s Chef Survey places local, free-range and organic poultry in the first three spots for white-meat trends. Berthelon adds, “some people mix everything with everything, but chicken has been used for hundreds of years by people in the countryside. If you go to the past for inspiration, you can’t go wrong.” His menu includes roasted free-range chicken breast with Pommery mustard sauce served with shiitake mushroom risotto ($26.50).
While chefs are returning to classic, healthy cooking methods, such as roasting, to highlight the intrinsic flavour of the bird, they are rising to the creative challenge by giving chicken a slightly new taste profile. At Winnipeg’s Terrace Fifty-Five, the menu might include seared free-range chicken, finished with truffle-thyme scented jus ($28) or roasted chicken leg might be served Niçoise style with olives, tomatoes and roasted potatoes or couscous ($24). “Chicken is so versatile,” says Simon Resch, executive chef at Terrace Fifty-Five. “Virtually every cuisine in the world includes chicken. It’s like a blank canvas; you just take your inspiration from the season.”
Indeed, some chefs take chicken as a challenge. “The joy of having something less glamorous is in the innovation it allows. It challenges you to do something unique,” says Nicholas Lim, executive chef at Gusto di Quattro in Vancouver. “Chicken is the most common meat but adding a sharp new flavour is a good way to enhance it. It’s familiar, yet different.” Lim pan sears chicken breast in duck fat to crispy on one side, then flips it and cooks the other side in Pinot Grigio. He then adds chicken stock, reduces, and adds butter for the sauce ($27).
Poultry and stuffing go together. But here, too, chefs are moving into new, creative realms. At Brooklyn Warehouse in Halifax, free-range chicken breast is stuffed with cured pork, garlic, fennel and rosemary and served on a bed of braised greens with thyme bread pudding and house-made barbecue sauce ($25). Wild mushroom and chèvre form the stuffing for chicken served with roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables and sun-dried tomato cream sauce ($24) at River Mill Restaurant in Kingston, Ont. And at the Toronto Delta Chelsea’s Bb33 Bistro, free-range chicken breast is stuffed with Muskoka wild mushroom and fine herbs, topped with port wine, molasses and ginger reduction, served with potatoes Anna and sautéed local baby vegetables ($24).
But, despite the opportunities for innovation, chicken is perceived by some chefs as too mundane to include on the regular menu. If included, it’s there to appeal to the cautious diner. For example, at Bistro Le Coq in Halifax, a classic French menu includes roasted free-range half chicken prepared with fresh thyme, Dijon and savoury jus, served with frites ($17). “It’s perfect for the less adventurous guest,” says chef Ashley Davis. “They also like classic Chicken Chasseur, which gives them comfort with a little more zest.”
Many chefs are eschewing chicken completely. At The Pointe, a Relais & Chateaux property in Tofino, B.C., you won’t find chicken on the dinner menu, though butter-chicken salad is served at brunch. And chicken can’t be found on the menu at Araxi, an upscale restaurant in Whistler, B.C. At Toronto’s Vertical Restaurant, in the busy financial district, the only poultry on the menu is pheasant or duck. Even Bao Bei, winner of En Route magazine’s Best New Restaurant award, doesn’t have a single chicken dish on its menu — and it’s a Chinese brasserie.
Duck is flying high as more chefs are adding it to the menu, partly because the meat has become cheaper and partly because adding a game bird immediately trumps up the menu. And, while most chefs still like to pair its dense, fatty flesh with fruit, their creativity knows no bounds. For example, Anthony Walsh, chef at Toronto’s Canoe, serves tea-smoked duck breast with wheatberries, Northern Woods mushrooms, rapini and foie gras ($44). At Blue on Water in St. John’s, N.L., duck breast is oven-roasted and served with brown butter sweet potato purée, asparagus and a thyme jus ($34.95). And at Bistro Le Coq in Halifax, the most popular salad is a blend of roasted hazelnuts, mesclun and baby arugula with a blue cheese dressing, topped with pulled-duck confit ($9).
“Duck is a wonderful meat,” says Mark McEwan, whose mantra in the kitchen is simplicity. “Just caramelize the skin, confit the leg, leave the breast a little rare, it’s beautiful.” At North 44°, Duck Two Ways comes just like that, with spaetzle, roasted squash and maple-spiced apple ($42.95). McEwan also likes to pair duck with rhubarb or pickled cherries or even elderberries preserved in the summer. “These fruits are both sour and sweet; they work perfectly with duck,” he says.
It’s hard to get away from fruit with this meat, whether it’s the classic duck with foie gras and sauce à l’orange at Garde-Manger in Montreal ($30) or pan-seared duck breast with grilled corn, arugula, glazed butternut squash and a blackberry demi-glace ($28) at River Mill Restaurant in Kingston, Ont.
It’s not just the meat of the matter where ducks are concerned. Duck fat is once again becoming popular for cooking potatoes. At Brooklyn Warehouse in Halifax, potato wedges are fried in duck fat. And at Bistro 7¼ in Winnipeg, potatoes roasted in duck fat are served, appropriately enough, with duck breast and wild mushrooms ($29). Bistro Le Coq prepares pommes frites in duck fat, then sprinkles them with parmesan and serves them with mayonnaise ($7). And duck-fat frites come with the steak or fish at Vancouver’s Edible Canada Bistro. Prohibition, a Toronto gastrohouse, goes one step further smothering its duck-fat fries in duck confit for a unique poutine.
In fact, shredded confit of duck has become a popular topping on everything from poutine to pizza. Yaletown Brewing in Vancouver serves duck-confit pizza with toasted walnuts, roquefort blue cheese, dried cranberries, fresh arugula and blue cheese ($15). At Pizza Libretto in Toronto, traditional Neapolitan pizza takes on a twist with duck confit, Bosc pear, cream and mozzarella ($17); it was selected as one of Toronto Life’s five best pizzas in the city.
But two chefs must share the prize for most unusual presentation of duck. At Beerbistro, a Toronto gastropub, chef Brian Morin turns duck confit into corn dogs with tender duck inside a crisp exterior coating, served with cherry-beer ketchup and pineapple mustard ($12.50). And, at Montreal’s Au Pied du Cochon, avant-garde chef, Martin Picard, serves Canard en Conserve (Duck in a Can). The waiter brings the can to the table, opens it with a can opener and voilà — a generous duck breast, duck foie gras, balsamic vinegar and a head of garlic are decanted onto a slice of toast covered in a purée of celery root and lardons ($43).
Very few restaurants serve turkey, and then it’s usually in sandwiches. Turkey makes up less than one per cent of poultry meals in restaurants, according to The NPD Group, and that number has dropped 0.8 per cent since last year. “I don’t know why we don’t use turkey,” admits Simon Resch, chef at Terrace Fifty-Five in Winnipeg, “except that it’s associated in most people’s minds with Christmas or Thanksgiving.” Most of the chefs we asked agreed, citing, the large portions and the fact most customers would see turkey as something they cook at home for the holidays.
Nonetheless, a few spots, like Brannigan’s in Victoria, B.C., serve roast turkey with the trimmings ($14.99) year-round. So does White Spot, a chain of 65 restaurants in B.C. and Alberta. “It has its following,” says Danny Markowicz, executive chef for the chain. “It’s not innovative, but it’s a classic in our chain and we have to offer it.” Roast turkey breast is also used its clubhouse sandwich.
Turkey for breakfast? Fire on the East Side, a Cajun-inspired Toronto dining spot, has a following for its version of Eggs Benedict: spicy smoked turkey and sweet potato hash with poached eggs, Hollandaise, mixed peppers, onions and white cheddar ($13). “There are a lot of health-conscious people out there these days, and turkey is lean,” chef Tomas Siebert comments. “Plus, there are those who won’t eat pork or ham, but they can still have a Benny.” Nonetheless, Siebert won’t serve turkey at dinner, “It’s not upscale enough for our menu.”
It’s a common sentiment. But while chefs like Nicholas Lim are reluctant to feature turkey on the dinner menu, at Gusto di Quattro in Vancouver, lunch might include a simple dish of ground turkey balls simmered in stock, capers and lemon, then tossed with angel-hair pasta ($14).
Canadians might prefer turkey for the holidays, but the perception of turkey as a low-fat, low-cholesterol meat has boosted its popularity in the burger world. At Lick’s, the gobbler is popular with burger fans looking for lower fat options. In Halifax, the new chain, Relish Gourmet Burgers, has only two meat options — beef or turkey. Even Hero Burgers, whose ethos is based on the best quality, traceable beef, has turkey burgers on its menu.
In the end, turkey’s lack of popularity may have more to do with it being too unwieldy for chefs to show off their talents. “I like turkey, but it’s a big bird, so you wind up with medallions of turkey breast,” says McEwan. “And that doesn’t really showcase the preparation of the bird.”
Any way you cut it, chicken soars above all others, but there’s always room for another bird to take flight.
Check out our special edition of FoodPlus for expanded coverage of turkey, chicken and duck, including profiles, ingredient information and recipes.