I'm just gonna come right out and say it: This is probably the most well documented dish in the city. Almost every current Boston-based food writer has covered, or at least made reference to, the roast chicken ($27) that put chef Gordon Hamersley and his eponymous South End restaurant Hamersley's Bistro on the food map. I'm part of that crowd; in fact, this was the first topic that came to mind when the idea for this column popped up.
Just like Jasper White's Pan-Roasted Lobster that I wrote about a few months back, this chicken made national headlines back in the '80s. Naturally, my parents were anxious to see what all the fuss was about when we visited Boston in the summer, and the conversations we've had about it since still contain that wow-factor element. I realize now that it's the irony of the dish that's so intriguing. Roast chicken can simultaneously be the most and least sexy item on a restaurant menu. On the one hand, it's conceptually unglamorous compared to, say, osso buco or roasted bluefish (two items currently on the Hamersley's menu); on the other, really good roast chicken can level even the most critical of palates.
This one sure did, and continues to do so even 24 years after making its debut. Hamersley, who candidly admitted to former Boston Magazine food editor Jane Black on the restaurant's 20th anniversary that he's pretty sick of making the dish, cleverly tucks it in the middle of the entrée list—but to no avail. As he told me in an interview a few years back, the dish sells out no matter where it shows up on the roster.
Here's why (if you have his cookbook, Bistro Cooking at Home, follow along on page 182): First, he rubs the bird (premium Bell and Evan's fowl) with a wet paste that includes a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, garlic, shallot, mustard, olive oil, lemon zest, and simple spices, and marinates it for a few hours. Next, he roasts the chicken (along with a head's worth of garlic cloves) in a moderate (350°F) oven until fully cooked, lets it rest for about 30 minutes so that the juices redistribute in the meat, and breaks down the bird into breast and leg quarters. As the meat rests, he degreases the pan juices and starts a sauce with the drippings and a double stock (made with all the poultry carcasses that accumulate in the kitchen). Finally, he tops the chicken with half-moon lemon slices, broils it quickly under the blazing salamander to get everything nice and hot and thoroughly crisp the skin. To finish the sauce, he adds half a lemon's worth of juice to the stock, reduces the liquid, and swirls in a knob of butter.
(If it sounds like a hell of a lot of work, well, it is. Not so much if you're producing it in a restaurant, but at home it's a project piece. Probably a good one for one of these cold, snowy Sundays we've had recently.)
The plated result is juicy meat, deeply bronzed skin, earthy-sweet garlic cloves, and a pool of tangy but deeply savory sauce. Alongside the bird come a thick russet potato wedge (picture an enormous steak fry) and a chrysanthemum-like slab of roasted onion. And the best part: softly charred lemon slices. As they cook, their sharp juices mellow a bit, and the usually bitter skin softens and soaks up some of the chicken-y flavor. If this one element could be packaged for sale, I'd pop chicken-y broiled lemon slices like Pringles.
I admit, there's a part of me that feels sheepish ordering a dish that I know the chef is bored with. It's like going to a concert and being that person in the crowd who yells for the band to play their big hit that they've played so many times, they can't stand to hear it anymore. Wouldn't you rather be the fan who gave the rest of their music a listen and found a new, less overplayed selection to request? (For those who are so inclined, that might be the beef borscht with mustard aioli, the pork rillettes, or the currently out-of-season bouillabaisse).
And yet, the dish obviously became legendary for a reason. Why bother chickening out?