WHY DO San Francisco chicken fans cross the Bay Bridge? To get to Poulet on the other side. Gastronomes throughout the Bay area flock to Berkeley for Poulet (French for chicken), a charcuterie with a decided flair for fowl.
Chicken cacciatore, chicken cannelloni, chicken pie, chicken curry, chicken enchiladas, cassoulet, chicken teriyaki, lemon-garlic chicken, chicken tonnata, coq au vin, chicken crepes, chicken marengo, szechuan chicken, sesame chicken, chicken grandmere, chicken blintzes, chicken piroshki, chicken empanadas, chopped chicken liver, chicken liver mousse, chicken soup and chicken salad with homemade mayonnaise are just some of the reasons followers of feathered fare seek Poulet.
"I never could find anything I wanted to eat when I went to a deli," explains owner Marilyn Rinzler. "I didn't want cheese or salami. I didn't want cholesterol or sodium nitrate. I wanted something tasty but light and nutritious. At home I was always cooking chicken, and one day I thought, 'you know, I should open a chicken restaurant'. "
Two and a half years ago, Rinzler, a 40-year-old divorced mother of two, did just that. She invested her nest egg and hatched the chicken emporium of her dreams on a busy street near the University of California's Berkeley campus.
When Poulet opened, it was just a tiny carry-out serving 30 or so customers a day. Now doubled in size, Poulet serves nearly 300 chicken lovers a day, including many who choose to eat at one of Poulet's thick wooden tables.
In addition to the restaurant and carry-out trade, Poulet does a thriving catering business ranging from cocktail parties to weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
Not one to put all her eggs in one basket, Rinzler also offers exotic duck, goose and pork dishes plus a variety of selections to sate lacto-ovo vegetarians: pasta pesto salad, zucchini frittata and spanakopita. But chicken definitely rules the roost at Poulet, and Rinzler says that she foresees no change.
"As meat prices continue to go up, people will continue to want chicken," she says. "It's so reasonably priced, and you can do so many things with it. People who are concerned about dieting and health eat lots of chicken. Many people eat chicken as their only meat source. It's low in calories and high in protein, second only to fish, which is so expensive."
Chicken at Poulet is not confined to the menu, however. Poulet's logo, a demure hen inked with the primary tricolore of the French flag, is displayed on purchasable aprons, T-shirts and post cards. Chickens and other birds of feather, in every medium possible, adorn the walls and cupboards in a riot of chickenalia.
From tiny painted Italian ceramic chicken egg cups to gigantic chicken wicker hampers, calico chicken cozies to clay chicken crocks, there's a chicken on every pot, potholder and soup mug for sale at Poulet. Poulet offers chicken for play in the form of imported toys like wind-up pecking chicks from China, German chicken whistles, a red rubber blow-up chicken and a book of chicken jokes and puzzles.
When it comes to real chicken, capon roasters are the chief ingredient in Poulet's many offerings. Chef Bruck Aidells explains, "Roasters give you a higher yield of meat, and they have a much better taste. And you can use them as fryers." The 37-year-old chef stays away from broiling hens. "To me, if a chicken weighs less than three pounds, it's useless -- mostly bone. Those are mostly leghorns, egg-factory chickens. They lay a fantastic number of eggs, but they're not good cooking."
For boiling purposes, Aidells prefers a type of chicken called Rhode Island Red or colored hen. "They're the best for stews and fricasses," he says.
Aidells, who purchases 800 to 1,000 pounds of a chicken a week for Poulet's kitchen, says he'd rather buy organic chickens -- those not injected with hormones or fed hormone-laced feed -- but they are too expensive for bulk purchase.
"An organic chicken is so much tastier," Aidells explains, "but the cost would drive our menu prices up too high. If you don't mind the extra cost though, it's worth it for the flavor."
Aidells should know: After earning his doctorate in biology, he spent a number of years as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda before turning chef. From his Washington days, he recalls that organic chickens were available at the Bethesda Farm Women's Cooperative and through local health food stores. Aidells also used to journey to Baltimore's Lexington Market for tasty game hens and pheasant.
"Check the labels," Aidells advises, "and try to buy locally grown chickens. They're fresher. You definitely don't want a chicken that's been frozen over three months."
Aidells is the culinary mastermind behind Poulet, the creator of dishes like chicken Wellington and chicken lasagne from standard beef recipes.
"Chicken really has a nice neutral flavor and will take well to anything," says Aidells, who strives for, "honest cooking -- not a lot of fancy pink peppercorns."
Since Poulet has a French accent, Aidells uses classic French herbs like thyme and rosemary for many dishes. Lately, though, he's been journeying to New Orleans and is happily experimenting with chicken-cayenne/chili combos. The chef also appreciates oriental ways with fowl.
"Orientals really have their chicken cooking techniques down pat. Their sauces are superb," he exclaims admiringly.
When it comes to cooking the birds, "We don't mess around," Aidells says. "We use a microwave thermometer, and we pull the chickens at exactly 180 degrees. At 180 degrees, the chicken is perfect. There are no red areas left. 190 is killing it.
"I know there are a lot of folkways with chicken, like wiggling a leg to test whether it's done, but I think by the time that leg is loose, the chicken is overcooked."
Despite all the choice chicken parts that pass through Poulet, both owner Rinzler and chef Aidells prefer those much-maligned parts, chicken wings and chicken livers, respectively.
Rinzler shrugs and laughs, saying, "You can still find me in the kitchen nibbling on a wing." Especially if the wing is smothered with Aidell's tangy teriyaki sauce. Rinzler points out that the wings on capons are plump with tender meat. "I like to serve them as cocktail hors d'oeurves. They're also terrific in paella."
For Aidells, chicken liver is the real essence of the bird. "It's pure meat. There's no waste," he explains. "I like to saute' them with sausage. Sausage adds flavor to the preparation, and the two meld together really well." He also teams the meat with chopped saute'ed vegetables.
Aidells saute's the livers in either pure olive oil or butter only until they are slightly pink in the center. (If cooked longer, the livers become dry and hard, he warns).
"Cook livers at a high heat," he advises. "Otherwise they lose their juices." Aidells also cautions against frozen livers. "They tend to be grainy and fall apart."
With a repertoire of chicken dishes as unlimited as his imagination, Aidells transforms every bit of chicken in Poulet's kitchen. Nothing is wasted. Gizzards are ground up and used like hamburger in empanadas or pasta sauces. Livers appear in the guise of pa te's or mousses or simply as tangy chopped liver. Even fat is saved and frozen until there's enough to render into schmaltz.
Aidells cooks down his schmaltz with onion in a heavy covered pot. He then saute's with it, in place of oil or butter, for extra chicken flavor in items like chicken crepes.
Every bit of chicken left over from the day's preparations winds up in Poulet's rich chicken stock, which is eventually ladled out to customers in soups or stews.
"Beware of any chicken soup that's yellow," Aidells advises. "That means it's been made with a commercial base. Real chicken soup should be greenish brown in color."
From Poulet's kitchen, here are some favorites.
STUFFED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH LEMON CAPER SAUCE (4 servings) 2 whole chicken breasts
Stuffing: 1 pound spinach, blanched and chopped 1 sweet fennel sausage, about 1/4 pound 1/2 pound ham, finely chopped 1 cup leeks, finely chopped 2 shallots, finely chopped 1/2 cup bread crumbs, diced 1/4 cup parmesan cheese 1 large egg 1/4 teaspoon tarragon 1 tablespoon parsley Salt and pepper, to taste
Sauce: Flour, for dredging 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup white wine 2 cloves of garlic Juice of 1 to 2 lemons 1 tablespoon capers 1 tablespoon parsley
Blanch spinach, drain, chop and set aside. Crumble sausage and fry. Add ham, chopped leeks and shallots, then cover the pan and let the contents sweat. Put meat and vegetable mixture in a bowl. Add chopped spinach, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, egg and the herbs. Taste and season for salt and pepper. Split and bone each breast. Cut a pocket in breast half and stuff with sausage-vegetable mixture.
Dust each breast with flour and fry in a mixture of butter and oil until golden on each side. Remove breasts and deglaze the pan with wine. Add garlic and cook until the wine becomes syrupy. Add lemon juice, capers and parsley. Pour over the chicken and serve.
BRAISED CHICKEN WITH GARLIC HEADS (4 servings) 6 heads of garlic 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 frying chicken, cut up 2 cups rich chicken stock 2 cups dry white wine 1/4 teaspoon tarragon Salt and pepper, to taste 1 cup cre'me fraiche or sour cream 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, for garnish
Slice off top of each head of garlic so that buds are exposed and fry, cut side down, in a mixture of butter and oil until the surface of the garlic begins to color (about 7 minutes). Remove the garlic and fry the chicken in the pan until it has browned. Return garlic. Add stock, wine, tarragon, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 35 to 40 minutes, until chicken is done. Remove garlic and chicken and reduce liquid until it becomes syrupy. Remove from heat, beat in cream. Cook 5 minutes more -- do not let boil. Pour over chicken and garlic. Garnish with parsley and serve.
CHICKEN LIVER MOUSSE (8 servings) 1 pound fresh chicken livers 1/2 pound (1 cup) unsalted butter Salt and pepper, to taste Pinch each allspice, nutmeg, ginger and clove 2 tablespoons brandy 1/4 cup madeira 1/2 onion, chopped fine 2 shallots, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced
Saute' livers in half the butter. They should be firm but pink. Season with salt, pepper and spices. Remove livers and set aside. Deglaze the pan with brandy and madeira. Add onion, shallots, garlic, pinch salt and pepper. Cover and cook until soft. Grind livers, vegetables and butter in a food processor until smooth. Pack into a mold, chill and serve.
SHATTUCK AVENUE CHICKEN CHOWDER (12 servings) 1/4 pound bacon, diced 2 onions, chopped 1 carrot, diced 4 ribs celery, chopped 1/2 cup flour 1 pound white boiling potatoes, diced 1 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 2 teaspoons salt 1 bay leaf 2 quarts rich chicken stock 1 cup white wine 1 cooked chicken, deboned and diced 2 cups half and half Chopped parsley, for garnish
Brown bacon pieces in soup pot. Remove, leaving fat in pan. Saute' onion, carrot and celery in fat until soft, about 10 minutes. Add flour and fry for 1 to 2 minutes. Add diced potatoes and toss in flour. Remove from heat and add thyme, pepper, salt, bay leaf, stock and wine. Stir well, removing lumps. Cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Add diced chicken and cook 10 minutes more. Add half and half, cook 5 minutes and serve garnished with chopped parsley.