Several years ago, Farmbird co-founder Dan Koslow worked as a software developer for a small start-up in New York City. It demanded a lot of his time. He also moonlighted as a cook. It demanded a lot of his roommate.
Koslow’s second job, you see, was not a professional gig, but more of an R&D project in the 500-square-foot apartment that he shared with a former college pal, Matt Isabel, and a large hunk of metal known as a controlled vapor technology oven. Whenever Koslow wanted to cook chicken, he had to wheel the oven from his bedroom and into the living room, the only space large enough to operate the machine without making everything within a 10-foot radius smell like a Chick-fil-A outlet.
The problem? Whenever the oven took over the living room, the contraption blocked part of the television. If Isabel sat at the far end of the couch, he could, sort of, watch his favorite shows. “You were looking at the TV from an angle,” Koslow remembers. “You weren’t looking straight on at it.”
Isabel put up with this chicken-oven home invasion for nearly two years — two long, fowlsmelling years — as Koslow used the humidity-controlled cook-and-hold unit to perfect his recipes for chicken breasts and thighs.
After dining several times at Farmbird — the fast-casual on H Street NE that Koslow launched in June with another college bud and catering partner, Andrew Harris — I feel as if Washingtonians owe a huge debt of gratitude to Matt Isabel. Koslow’s work in that cramped New York apartment has led to the methods now used at Farmbird, which sells some of the finest bird meat this side of chef Frank Ruta’s roast chicken.
I’m serious. This is chicken in its full voice, the result of a naturally raised bird placed in the hands of a cook dedicated to conserving, concentrating and (slightly) enhancing its flavors.
That said, Farmbird doesn’t deal in whole chickens. Diners who order one of the four signature plates must decide whether to top their brown basmati rice with breast or deboned thigh meat — or, I guess, tofu, for those committed souls who have conditioned themselves to look past a restaurant’s meatier strengths.
Normally, when presented with a choice between breast and thigh, I behave as if there is no choice. I pick thighs 99.9 percent of the time, content that the dark meat won’t bleed out its essential juices during the cooking process, as breast cutlets often do. But at Farmbird, I discovered that Koslow’s cooking techniques leave both cuts juicy and delicious. You’re golden with either one.
The secret is a controlled vapor, or CVap, oven, which allows Koslow and his team to cook the skinless breasts in a 100 percent humidity environment, preserving every last drop of those lean cuts brined with bay leaf, honey and black peppercorns. The dry-brined thighs are cooked in a lesshumid oven — Koslow is smart enough not to reveal all his secrets — simply because too much moisture can make it difficult to crisp up the skin later on a griddle.
My favorite way to enjoy Koslow’s chicken is as part of Farmbird’s dinner plates, which come with your choice of two sides. The spicy roasted Fresno plate merits a two-chile-pepper rating — the highest on the compact menu — even if its heat would barely tickle the throat of, say, a South Indian. Regardless, it’s spicy enough and, even better, it complements the sliced chicken without overwhelming its central flavors. Same goes for the one-pepper-rated chipotle masala, a restless little sauce that clings to the bird slices, perfuming them with cumin and coriander without distracting from their fundamental chicken-ness.
Farmbird starts to lose me with its saucier preparations. The chicken salad sandwich, served on a soft roll, features diced breast meat swimming in a tarragon-heavy dressing of mayonnaise and creme fraiche, the chicken reduced to filler. The pulled barbecue chicken sandwich has similar issues, with its standard-issue sauce coating thigh meat that deserves something more distinctive and less intrusive. I can’t think of anything good to say about the tofu, these lifeless cubes, other than I was glad that I paired them with a plate of fresh avocado, basil and cucumbers to provide some flavor.
Koslow and Harris changed out several sides right before my deadline. I won’t miss the woody, virtually saltless Brussels sprouts. But I dig the new chile-lime cucumbers, crescent-shaped slices that still have plenty of crunch left in them. The mac-and-cheese remains on the menu, and I’m grateful; the al dente pasta is all cheesed up with sharp cheddar and Velveeta, its richness offset with toasted bread crumbs. You might skip the last few bites of mac-and-cheese to save room for the salted caramel cookie, a big sucker punch of flavor from Sweet Street Desserts, based in Koslow’s home town of Reading, Pa.
But don’t let the sweets and sides sidetrack you from Farmbird’s main attraction: the chicken that Koslow spent years learning how to cook. Should you forget, the owners have painted a reminder inside their spare, semi-industrial space. In a cursive script, a phrase is repeated over and over on one wall: “I will not eat any more boring chicken.”
You won’t if you step up to the counter at Farmbird and order a dinner plate.
By the way, that old CVap oven from New York can still be found behind the counter at Farmbird, where it now serves a bread holding unit. Isabel hasn’t left Koslow’s side either. He’s not a partner in Farmbird, but the former New York roommate will serve as a groomsman this weekend in North Carolina, where Koslow will marry his college sweetheart. You have to like a guy who holds fast to those people and things important to him, whether old friends or an oven on which he learned how to cook some crazy good chicken.
625 H St. NE, 202-506-6778, farmbird.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Union Station, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $2.85 to $11.35 for sides, salads, sandwiches and plates.