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I'll Have the Chicken 

After reflecting on the excesses of the past year, we turn to low-cal takeout

Wednesday, Jan 4 2006
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When I assembled last week's list of the best things I'd eaten in 2005, there was a lot of pain involved. One kind was the torturous elimination of many, many dishes that made the first cut but not the second, creating a Salon des Refusés rife with pleasures that deserve mention. I praised Cinderella Bakery and Café's (436 Balboa, 751-9690) spinach soup and pelmeni, but lost the equally beguiling rassolnik, a soup full of fat barley grains, earthy with bits of kidney and sharpened with pickle juice, and also its puffy blini served with smoked salmon, sour cream, and snipped fresh dill. Sea Salt (2512 San Pablo, Berkeley, 510-883-1720) was represented only by smoky grilled squid, when I was also haunted by memories of creamy clam chowder with bacon and chopped parsley and a lobster roll containing nothing but lobster and melted butter. I lost Café Bella Vista's (2598 Harrison, 641-6195) sopa de guisantes con jamón, a fabulous thick pea soup studded with ham and made with both dried and fresh peas; Capannina's (1809 Union, 409-8001) lovely corn soup swirled with basil purée and studded with corn kernels and plump clams; Oola's (860 Folsom, 995-2061) foie gras à la torchon, accompanied by persimmon and brandied cherries, and its decadent, luxurious little ravioli stuffed with a smooth paste of chicken and foie gras, in truffle sauce; Chenery Park's (683 Chenery, 337-8537) beautiful pâté plate containing creamy pork rillettes, a faintly peppery rabbit terrine, and lush foie gras pâté; and Shanghai Dumpling Shop's (3319 Balboa, 387-2088) boiled chive dumplings stuffed with minced pork and garlic chives.

I've never had better fried catfish than the meaty cornmeal-crusted fillets, as easy to eat as potato chips, served at Andrew Jaeger's House of Seafood & Jazz (300 Columbus, 781-8222). I wanted second helpings of the adana kebab (a juicy, fat, skewered ground lamb "cutlet" lustily seasoned with red pepper, paprika, cayenne, and garlic) from Newroz (3321 Steiner, 931-2023), as well as Jack Falstaff's (598 Second St., 836-9239) slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork shoulder, exquisitely sided with chopped Savoy cabbage braised in champagne and an onion compote with Granny Smith apples and guanciale, with house-made grain mustard. I sigh at the memory of Tallula's (4230 18th St., 437-6722) lovely warm almond cake, shaped like a tiny Bundt cake, drenched in orange blossom consommé, and served with vanilla bean kulfi.

I could go on -- but I won't. The reality is that I won't be able to taste most of these dishes again, not just because a restaurant is losing its space (Tallula) or its chef (Jack Falstaff), but also because I'll be dining at other restaurants, new and old. And another harsh reality is inevitable when I reflect upon the excesses of the past year in gastronomy, a reality expressed above in foie gras and butter, in foodstuffs fried, stuffed, sauced with truffles, and topped with sour cream. Talk about your visceral fat. I think about two books I read last year: Tucker Shaw's Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth, a tale told in pictures plump with plot and philosophy, and Kirstie Alley's How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life: Reluctant Confessions of a Big-Butted Star, a thin gruel indeed. I was amused, maybe even bemused, by Alley's response to the question, put to her in the January 2006 Vanity Fair, "What caused you to balloon in the first place?": "I believe I got fluffy," she says, "because I got lazy."

"Fluffy"? That's a new one on me. I look at my list of favorite dishes and I know why I'm getting fluffy: I eat too much and too rich. So I turn to chicken.

Not the sad boneless, skinless breasts I see in supermarket cases, ready to become dust on a grill or in a pan. I'll remove the tasty, fatty skin (alas) from the juicy rotisserie chickens I favor: the irresistible, if overbrined, $4.99 birds that gleam in serried shining ranks at Costco; Café Rouge's smaller, more upscale, and more expensive fowl; or the even pricier thyme-scented organic chickens at Mistral Rotisserie Provençale in the Ferry Building.

For many years my standby was the justly famed, singularly tasty, dependably juicy Zankou chicken, from a small Southern California restaurant chain with Middle Eastern origins. When I heard that the rotisserie chicken at Goood Frikin' Chicken came with little containers of a pale garlic sauce, I got excited: So did the bird at Zankou, where the inimitable thick, white purée was (legend had it) just garlic, lemon, oil, and salt, but combined in such a way that the resulting silky paste had its fans exchanging recipes for the elusive mystery sauce.

The coy name of Goood Frikin' Chicken and its even coyer logo and slogan ("GFC: Weee ... Do Chicken Best"; another indignity for the poor Colonel, already revolving from the indignities perpetrated on his Original Recipe by the corporation that sullied his good name) put me off a bit. Even Google asked, meekly, "Do you mean good frikkin' chicken?" I can't help but think of the apocryphal (but good) story about Tallulah Bankhead meeting Norman Mailer and saying, "Oh, you're the young man who can't spell 'fuck,'" since the GIs in his novel The Naked and the Dead sprinkle their conversation with "fug." But the lure of a well-seasoned and -browned bird, and that elusive garlic sauce, is stronger than a little etymological distaste.

On my first visit to Goood Frikin' Chicken, I find a small, humid, wedge-shaped room dominated by an open grill behind a counter, with a few tables that seem like an afterthought and no décor to speak of. Robert and I try both the rotisserie chicken ("marinated overnight in a zesty garlic lemon marinade, cooked in our special rotisserie until golden brown") and the open flame chicken ("marinated overnight in an herbal marinade, cooked slowly on open flame until tender and done"), plated with green salad and our choice of side dish (from house potatoes, baked beans, basmati rice pilaf, mac and cheese, hummus, and baba ghanouj, we choose potatoes and rice, and then get an additional side of hummus because the one our neighbors are eating looks good).

I'm disappointed. Both the chickens seem dried out to me, the open flame much more so than the rotisserie, and I'm also dissatisfied with the grilled chicken's heavy coating of musty-seeming herbs. The crusty chunks of potato are floury and fine, the rice is OK, and the garlic sauce seems less pungent than Zankou's; what I like best are the thick slices of what Goood Frikin' calls olive oil pita and the really excellent hummus. I'm also pleased with the creamy rice pudding scented with orange blossom water, which can be dusted with cinnamon or chopped pistachios -- your call.

I return to Goood Frikin' Chicken because it has added a long-in-the-works dining room (and removed the tables from the grill room, now open for takeout only) with comfy banquettes, soothing beige walls, and pretty Mediterranean murals. I also am hoping for a juicier couple of birds. Alas, the whole birds I order this time (along with a rerun of the suave hummus and an equally good baba ghanouj) are, again, overcooked for my taste, especially the almost-crumbly open flame version. I'm saddened, because the people who run the place are so nice, and the new room so pleasant. The tastiest item I sample is the lamb shawerma wrap sandwich I throw in, layered with tomatoes, onion, and parsley and anointed with tahini sauce, but the place isn't called Goood Frikin' Lamb Shawerma.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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