Being both a food guy and a word guy, I’ve gotten a bit tetchy about the term “bistro.”
The way it’s been used in this country for years now nauseates me. That’s actually too strong an objection, but I use it to make a point. The word “nauseous” was for so long misused by Catskills comics and others to describe the condition of being nauseated — “I’m nauseous,” to mean “I feel queasy,” when it originally meant, “I cause nausea” — that it came to be accepted as meaning both. That’s the theory of organic or evolving language, I suppose. Use a word incorrectly often enough and it becomes correct.
But enough bitching like an old lady — back to “bistro.” The problem is that our misuse, or overuse, of the word has robbed it of any specific meaning, much less its original one. At best, restaurants in this country tend to use the word “bistro” to signify casual dining, but it’s losing even that fuzzy meaning. To my fairly well-informed local knowledge, none of the metro area restaurants that call themselves bistros actually are.
Now another stickler has weighed in, and he happens to be regarded by a great many food experts as the finest chef in the United States: Thomas Keller, owner-chef of the legendary (by specific definition) French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. There could be no more driven a perfectionist in the kitchen than Keller, as anyone who has read The French Laundry Cookbook ($50, Artisan) will testify. There we learned this guy is so precise that he squeegees the moisture off raw fish to be certain it will sauté properly, rather than steam.
Now Keller’s produced an even bigger, stunningly readable and illustrated cookbook, Bouchon ($50, Artisan). The word refers to a very specific kind of bistro in Lyon, France, and is the name of the restaurant he recently opened next door to the French Laundry.
He begins by instructing that a bistro is not just a casual restaurant, but one that specializes in traditional French foods using very simple, but high-quality, ingredients prepared by equally simple, but specific, techniques.
The ultimate example of bistro cooking is a perfectly roasted chicken. Keller’s recipe calls for just six ingredients, and three of those are optional.
It’s a given that the chicken itself is of the highest quality available. (One of our best local meat wholesalers once confided that while he sells other brands of chicken, the only ones he and his family eat are produced by Bell & Evans. In this case, it’s both a question of health and quality. He’s seen how most other chicken is processed in this country, and it’s the kind of thing that’ll put you right off your feed.) Beyond that, it’s technique that drives the dish.
Follow Keller’s lead, and you’ll need no more explanation for true bistro food. Besides paraphrasing a little in adapting his recipe for this column, I’ve changed nothing. For the record, he best likes to eat a roast chicken first by quickly devouring the second joint of the wings, then the little “oysters” of meat in the back, and then a more leisurely, general assault on the leg-thigh and breast-“drummettes” quarters. I don’t share his enthusiasm for the little triangular nub at the chicken’s butt, long ago nicknamed “the pope’s nose.”
So here it is.
Thomas Keller’s Favorite Simple Roast Chicken (Mon Poulet Roti)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Thoroughly rinse a 2- to 3-pound chicken inside and out, then dry it just as thoroughly to prevent steam from interfering with a good roast.
Season the inside of the chicken with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, then truss it with kitchen twine (it’s easy; look in any basic cookbook).
Using your fingers, “rain” about a tablespoon of salt evenly over the chicken. “When it’s cooked,” Keller writes, “you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin.”
Place the chicken in a sauté or roasting pan, and cook in the preheated oven for 50 to 60 minutes. Do nothing else to the bird until it’s done, then — if you like — sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of minced fresh thyme over the pan juices. Remove the chicken to a cutting board, baste with the pan juices, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Cut the chicken into serving portions, slather each with unsalted butter (optional) and serve good quality Dijon mustard on the side (optional). All that’s needed to complete this classic bistro meal is a superbly fresh, simple green salad with vinaigrette.Ric Bohy is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org