Chicken Showdown – Zuni vs. Bouchon

Zuni-Bouchon

I knew it would come to this. It was unavoidable.

In the course of planning a trip to San Francisco followed closely by a trip to Yountville, I immediately thought “chicken” — a perfectly logical connection.

Well, it is if you connect the dots: San Francisco is the home of Zuni Cafe and Yountville is the home of Bouchon.

Within the span of three days, I had the rare opportunity to sample arguably two of the world’s best roast chickens.

Zuni-Chicken-2

Who could pass that up? Certainly not me.

First, Zuni’s roast chicken. It takes an hour from order-to-table. Normally, waiting an hour for food in a restaurant would be insane, but Chef Judy Rodgers has been serving her roast chicken for more than two decades, and no one seems to mind the wait.

Partly because the rest of the Zuni menu is full delicious distractions. Like an heirloom tomato and cucumber salad surrounding a pile of creamy burrata or a plate of whisper-thin Serrano ham slices paired with garden-fresh black-eyed peas and paprika oil.

Bouchon-Roast-Chicken

Thomas Keller is fanatic about chicken, too. His Bouchon bird sports gorgeous mahogany skin and a chicken jus that would go over just as well if served in a glass — to drink.

But Zuni’s chicken comes with an outrageous bread salad studded with currants and pine nuts. The bread is buttery and crisp when it arrives at the table, but by the time we get to the last piece, it’s soft and chewy from soaking in savory chicken jus.

Zuni-Chicken-3

Bouchon has killer bread, too, but it comes before the meal.

Pain d’Epi (“ear of wheat”) baguettes are placed on the white butcher paper tabletop along with a saucer holding salted butter, white bean puree drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and two toasted baguette slices.

Bouchon-Bread

Zuni’s chicken serves two and costs $48. Bouchon’s chicken serves one and costs $26.

Both chickens have been brined, resulting in juicy, moist birds. Both birds are high-heat roasted with lots of herbs.

Bouchon’s chicken has crispy skin; Zuni’s does not.

But Zuni Cafe has a secret weapon — one that tries desperately to sway my opinion about who has the best roast chicken.

Zuni-Cafe-Wood-Oven

Smack dab in the center of Zuni Cafe sits a wood-fired, brick oven. I guess it’s not really a “secret.” You’d know it’s there even if you didn’t see it, although it’s impossible to miss. Smoke permeates the room, even wafting out onto the street.

So is it really fair to declare one bird over the other? Given the opportunity, I’d ecstatically sit down to another plate from either restaurant.

Both restaurants have cookbooks with pages that painfully, minutely, spell out the detail the making of the chickens. My own roast chicken recipe borrows the Bouchon technique of high heat.

Now that I’ve sampled Zuni’s smoky version, I’m contemplating a date with the smoker box on my grill. But it won’t be the same.

Sometimes the best way — perhaps the only way — to experience the real deal is to go straight to the source. The Zuni Cafe roasted chicken wins by a log.

Zuni-Chicken-1

13 replies
  1. Heather in SF
    Heather in SF says:

    Although I haven’t (yet) tried Bouchon’s chicken, I am inordinately fond of Zuni’s chicken, and make my version of it at home almost weekly, sans the bread salad. It is a delicious salad but requires a huge number of pots and pans! Oh man, I need to make it again, soon. Thanks for the excellent comparison!

    Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Hi Heather!

      Question…do you smoke the chicken you make at home? To me, that is what pushed me over the edge to declaring Zuni the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to eat Bouchon’s chicken again, but that touch of smoke in Zuni’s just made me swoon.

      Reply
  2. Dana Treat
    Dana Treat says:

    Great post, Gwen! Even though I have never made (or eaten) roast chicken, I read through the entire recipe in the Zuni cookbook just because I love how thorough it is. I wish I could have shared a meal with you there.

    Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Oh Dana, you would love Zuni…and plenty of vegetarian options, like the bowl of polenta with mascarpone, or wild nettle and farro soup, or ricotta gnocchi with spinach and hazelnuts.

      Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Welcome, Nurit…. I went into the bakery, too. Gorgeous macarons, lovely sandwiches, and just the smell of baking bread was enough to make me swoon. I can highly recommend a stop at Zuni if you find yourself in San Francisco again.

      Reply
  3. Jolene
    Jolene says:

    Both of these restaurants sound fantastic. Next time I am up in that area, I really want to try both…thank you for the review.

    Now I know this isn’t “roasted” chicken, but just cuz I feel like putting in my two cents…I have to say the hands down best chicken I have had in Norther Cali is in Napa at the Bounty Hunter.

    They have a beer can chicken that is to die for…I actually salivate every time I think about it. It’s a no fuss, no muss, heavily seasoned chicken that is fall off the bone delish. But, now that I have more options, you never know, I might have a change of heart!

    Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Hi Jolene…. thanks for stopping by!

      You are not going to believe this, but this is the 2nd time in a couple weeks that someone has told me about the beer can chicken at the Bounty Hunter. And I heard they have a brown bag wine that’s free or discounted, can’t remember, if after tasting it, you can name the grape AND country.

      Next time we are in Napa, Bounty Hunter is on my to-do list! Thanks!

      Reply
  4. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    That Zuni chicken is what dreams are made of! Although I have to admit the Bouchon photo looks mighty tasty, it’s the whole package at Zuni that makes the dish memorable: the salad, the dressing, the croutons (oh, my, the croutons), the currants and the pine nuts. I mean, it’s perfect.

    Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Sharon, thank you for introducing us to Zuni. Everything you described was true. And the best part was sharing the experience with you. You have a remarkable palate…even if you are a super taster.

      Reply
  5. Carrie Oliver
    Carrie Oliver says:

    To think I was at Zuni during the BlogHerFood conference and passed on the chicken (jet-lag moment). I’m curious what kind of wood they use and if you decide to try this at home, how well it works. I don’t have a smoker but can fashion a reasonable facsimile. Okay, not really but I’m game for trying anyways.

    Reply
    • chefgwen
      chefgwen says:

      Hi Carrie! It was so great to meet you at BlogHerFood last month.

      I think Zuni uses oak, and that’s certainly what the stack of wood next to the oven looked like.

      I’m going to try it on my grill with wood chips. Probably applewood, as it’s mild, like oak (vs. very strong, smoky chips like mesquite or hickory).

      Will report back.

      Reply

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