Monday, November 9, 2009

Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown

It all started with this, a gift from my lovely friend Carolyn:

That's right - a fried chicken kit that had been available through Williams-Sonoma for a limited time created by none other than Chef Thomas Keller. It was, apparently, the ingredients for recreating his legendary Ad Hoc fried chicken, an every-other Monday night staple for Wine Country locals and in-the-know tourists. So since The Colonel isn't giving up his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices any time soon, Keller's kit represented the best chance I was going to have for making ridiculously good fried chicken from scratch.

But first, a little research was in order. For although I am a Napa Valley resident, well aware of the lure of the fried chicken Mondays up in Yountville, I had yet to make it to Ad Hoc to partake in the deep-fried ritual. I knew that before I made the kit version, I had to try the real thing.

The kit sat in my pantry for months before the perfect opportunity presented itself. Carolyn's brother Ted was in town for a few weeks, and Ted knows from deep frying. He lives in Texas (by choice), the home of Deep Fried Butter. He owns a turkey fryer. Puts it to use at least once a year for a "Fry Party" during which anything and everything gets a dunk: chicken wings, cheese, battered squash and mushrooms, bacon/cream cheese stuffed jalepenos, Monte Cristo sandwiches, bacon, battered fish, Twinkies, pickles... and that's just a partial list. He's as close to a deep fry expert that I'm ever going to rub elbows with, so I had to take advantage of his proximity. I booked a coveted spot at Ad Hoc for four (Carolyn, Ted, Randall and myself), and we blocked out some time the following weekend to prepare the homemade version. A fried chicken smackdown was in the making.

Ad Hoc is one high on my list of favorite Napa Valley restaurants. For those of you not familiar, it's Thomas Keller's take on fairly casual, family-style meals. According to its website: "The building at 6476 Washington Street was originally intended to be a very different type of restaurant. While we were designing it we thought we'd experiment by opening a temporary restaurant and calling it Ad Hoc, which literally means, 'for this purpose.' The idea for Ad Hoc was simple - five days a week we'd offer a four-course family-style menu that changed each day, accompanied by a small, accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home. We wanted a place to dine for our community and ourselves. The decision to change over the restaurant, however, was taken out of our hands by our guests. The response was so positive, we simply couldn't close. So, in September, 2007, we decided to stay open permanently and now we're serving dinner five nights a week as well as Sunday brunch."

While Ad Hoc reservations aren't as difficult to obtain as those for Keller's other joint up the street (a little place by the name of The French Laundry. You may have heard of it.), fried chicken night is a hot ticket item. I was lucky to get seats for our four butts without resorting to begging, shameless name dropping, or settling for the 9 p.m. reservation. It's a good thing, because I don't even know who's name I would drop. That would have been embarrassing.

So we get there without incident, ordered up some champagne (did you know that sparkling wine is the perfect accompaniment to fried foods? I wouldn't steer you wrong!), and dug in for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #1. The menu that night was as follows (notice I did not take a moment to record the actual menu - the inadequate descriptions are my own, not theirs, and the photos were surreptitiously taken with my little camera since I can't imagine pulling out my big, conspicuous camera when patronizing a restaurant):
  • Salad of Belgian endive, spinach, pears, goat cheese and damn good homemade Green Goddess dressing
  • Fried chicken with sides of herbed white rice (maybe Basmati?) and some sort of baked black bean/cauliflower/tomato/greens combo
  • A cheese course with some variety of mild white cheese and a huckleberry chutney, served with toast points made with probably more butter than flour (that's a good thing)
  • Two kinds of chocolate chip cookies (bitter dark chocolate in shortbread, plus a take on the standard milk chocolate variety) served with homemade vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce
Of course everything tasted great, and we had a fantastic time. Admittedly, I was a little taken aback by the choice of side dishes... no mashed potatoes? No collard greens? I guess I wanted a very stereotypical fried chicken dinner, but hey - this was Ad Hoc. What did I really care? It was all going to be good. But the whole point of this long-winded description is to get to the chicken. Was it phenomenal? Of course. It was probably the most moist fried chicken I've ever eaten, every bite juicy enough to send dribbles down my chin. The golden, crispy batter on the outside was perfectly cooked; I only had one piece that I found to be even this side of what I'd call greasy. And flavorful... oh-so-flavorful. One thing irked me however: there wasn't a single drumstick served on our platter. How in the world do you have a fried chicken dinner without the drumsticks? I'm a breast girl myself, so I wasn't sad about it, but really - no drumsticks? I don't get it.

Anyhow, knowing we were going to attempt to recreate this wheel in a mere six days, we got talking to our rather adorable waiter who was more than happy to supply us with the recipe from the kitchen so that we could compare/contrast it with the ingredients in the kit. Apparently, the brine recipe is no trade secret - call em up, they'll give it to you as well. Actually, I'll give it to you right here. We were told that they brine the chicken for 12 hours. The fact that we failed to get the coating recipe is a mere oversight on my part - I'm sure they would have given that to us as well. At the very least, here's what goes into a Thomas Keller chicken brine (it's a restaurant quantity recipe; I have no idea how you'd pare it down for a family-sized meal... but at least you can get an idea of the ingredients):
  • 5 lemons, halved
  • 24 Bay leaves
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1/2 cup clover honey
  • 1 head of garlic, halved
  • 1/4 cup peppercorns
  • 2 cups Diamond Crystal salt
Fast forward to the following weekend, and our little group plus one (neighbor Gail also joined the fun) found ourselves in Carolyn's kitchen ready for Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown Round #2. Now to compare: the packaging for the kit reads, "Ad Hoc's signature lemon-herb brine and savory coating mix for making crispy, golden fried chicken." The brine ingredients were different from the restaurant version's ingredient list, but not too far off:
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Whole peppercorns
  • Honey powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Parsley flakes
  • Citric acid
  • Bay leaves
  • Thyme
And a little insight to the coating lies in the packaged ingredient list:
  • Flour
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Salt
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Black pepper
I followed the instructions to a "T." I brined our two organic 3.5-pound birds for 12 hours (the brine itself smelled divine). When the time came, we double-dredged the chicken: buttermilk followed by seasoned coating, rest, repeat. The dredging got a little ugly. Let's just say that our coating didn't go on in a smooth, even, thin layer. There were some clumps and bumps, and there wasn't quite enough of it to double dredge all of our various parts and pieces. But the majority got two layers, and even those pieces that only got one dip in the pool were well coated.

As for the frying, piece of cake! With Ted at the helm, we got the oil up to temp in a deep dutch oven and dropped in our chicken two or three pieces at a time. Ted's method for determining doneness was simply to pull the pieces out when they were crispy and golden, a method that proved to be fail proof.

This time around, I got my stereotypical fried chicken dinner. We had a spicy jicama slaw, smashed potatoes and braised Swiss chard, and washed it all down with yet more champagne. Dessert was one of Carolyn's awesome creations - a grapefruit zabaglione served over fresh berries. For the second time in a week, I was stuffing myself with an incredible meal, the centerpiece of which was deep fried. My body wasn't very appreciative (on both occasions, I felt terrible the next day), but my taste buds were on cloud nine.

So how did the homemade kit version compare with Keller's own? The verdict was divided; there was no clear winner in the Ad Hoc Fried Chicken Smackdown. Everyone agreed that both versions were delicious and extremely moist. The brine absolutely worked its magic in both instances. Randall and Carolyn preferred the restaurant version (Randall: better coating; Carolyn: better citrus flavor); whereas Ted and I both preferred the make-at-home version for the same reason: thicker, extra-crispy coating (if you think along the lines of KFC's original recipe vs. extra crispy, our version of Ad Hoc fried chicken was of the extra crispy variety. See dredging issues mentioned above.) Gail, our Smackdown #2 interloper, was just happy to be there and loved every bite.

So there you have it, a Smackdown where both sides come out ahead. This chicken is good no matter how you choose to enjoy it. Thanks Mr. Keller for not one - but two! - evenings of Fare to Remember.


  1. Great post. So true about the Southerners and deep frying. In New Orleans they say you are never more than 50 feet from a deep fryer (or a cocktail!).

  2. I rarely eat fried foods, so you know that's because I love crispy fried things! Spring rolls! Fried chicken! Hush puppies! But especially fried chicken. Thank you for making the sacrifice and doing field research, the great home experiment, and especially for the Ad Hoc brine recipe! I want to try it soon, and hopefully Santa will put this kit under the tree for me this year.

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