A tale of two chickens
The big food news from our office this week is about a certain five-star experience I had at the Lobby in the Peninsula Hotel. Crucial to that experience was the chicken. I've met a lot of chickens I've loved (see my ode to the Bavette's chicken here, and my general ode to all chickens here), but in the Lobby's chicken, I may have met the city's most supreme.
But is this really Chicago's best chicken? Or does this chicken belong to New York?
As I mention in the review, the Lobby's chicken looks strikingly like the chicken served at New York's Nomad. At both restaurants, the chickens have skin that's so dark it's almost black. At both restaurants, the chicken's cavity is stuffed with a bouquet of herbs. And at both restaurants, the chicken is served in waves: First, it is shown off to the table. Then, it's carved in the kitchen. The breast arrives first; the dark meat is pulled, tossed with a sauce, and presented in a small crock a few minutes later.
There's a logical explanation for why these chickens are so similar: The Nomad is the second restaurant from the Eleven Madison Park folks, and the Lobby's chef, Lee Wolen, worked as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park for several years. But are the chickens indeed the same?
To investigate, I asked Jordana Rothman, the food editor at our sister magazine Time Out New York. Just last week, Rothman put the Nomad's chicken on the cover of TONY's 100 Best Things We Ate issue—so I knew she was familiar with the bird. I asked her to describe it for me.
"In short order the chicken for two at Nomad became a visual icon," she told me. (I know she's right, because even a Chicagoan like me was aware of Nomad's legendary chicken, which is why when I saw a similar bird show up at The Lobby, my heart fluttered—yes, fluttered—with excitement.) "The skin is cracklin'-crispy, the breast is served with truffles and pomme puree; the dark meat shredded in a crock with brown butter, more truffles and morels."
Crispy skin sounds familiar. The rest? Not so much. The Lobby's chicken is served with roasted apples and squash; the dark meat is tossed with cream and chives. Maybe most striking, the Nomad chicken's skin is stuffed with "the rich man's triumvirate of truffle, foie gras and brioche," as Rothman put it. Meanwhile, the Lobby's is stuffed with brioche and butter.
So technically, the chickens are not the same. In fact, they probably taste pretty different, the Nomad's version woodsy, the Lobby's a little sweeter.
But are these the same birds in spirit?
I asked chef Wolen about it. I told him I noticed the similarities, and wondered if this was straight from Nomad's handbook. For the matter, I asked, is anything else on the Lobby's menu from the Nomad/Eleven Madison Park handbook?
The answer to the latter question was "no." As for the first question, Wolen responded that he was never at the Nomad, but that when he was at Eleven Madison Park they put out a duck in much the same fashion. "That's why you work other places—to learn," he said. "It's a great dish, why would I change it?"
Of course, he did change it—not just the ingredients but also the price. The Lobby's chicken for two is $55; The Nomad's is $79. Conclusion: Chicago wins again!