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Jun 12, 2008 10:15 AM

what's the big deal with zuni?

Coming from Toronto for a few days, we had heard that Zuni was a San Fran institution and were excited to try the famed 'chicken dinner for two'.

I could see how for someone who has no ability to cook, doesn't have access to an oven or, perhaps is a student missing mom's cooking, the chicken dinner could be a nice treat, but if you have roasted enough chickens in your day to sort out the kinks then chances are you have sorted out a roast chicken as good if not better than this. Ho hum.

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  1. That's a common opinion.

    Personally I find Zuni's chicken better than any I've roasted at home, partly because I don't have a wood-burning oven.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      While the price has gone up ($6.50 for a 4 lb bird), Costco BBQ chicken is as good as Zuni for my taste.

      1. re: OldTimer

        Gonna have to disagree with ya Oldtimer. While a Costco chicken can be tasty, the difference in quality of the bird itself is most noticable in the texture of the breast meat. While tender and moist, the breast is a bit mushy, mealy, and artifically tender and not firm and moist like the Zuni bird.

        A perfectly roasted chicken is nothing to pooh-pooh.

        1. re: Porthos

          i'm with porthos and robert on this one. the zuni chicken is salted for three days or so and baked in a wood-fired oven. tastes are delicate. what little fat there is is expertly captured by the croutons underneath (think best supporting actor, err foodstuff).

          deb and i make judy rodgers' chicken in a very hot oven here in the states and in our rental in rome. it's good. very, very good. but not quite the same.

          we calibrate our taste buds three, four times a year at zuni. pure comfort food. don't forget the fresh-shucked oysters and vodka gimlets. burgers at lunch, of course, work for me.

          1. re: steve h.

            forgot to mention. we're cooking the zuni brined pork chops tonight. very thick chops, four days in the brine. just rinsed and dried 'em. first time at home for these bad boys.

            we'll see.

            1. re: steve h.

              follow-up. the two-inch thick chops were flavorful and juicy. maybe the best we've had. ever.

        2. re: OldTimer

          I find Costco chickens dry although huge..but not that tasty.

          Any way, after 10 p.m., get a burger. Quite nice.

          1. re: OldTimer

            I respect that it works for your taste, but for my own taste, I disagree with this notion more than I have disagreed with any I've seen on Chowhound. Costco's chicken is a fine thing for a quick, zero effort dinner at home if you happen to have been at Costco shopping already that day. No complaints about Costco's chicken from me. Zuni Cafe's roast chicken is sublime and is the best chicken I've eaten anywhere.

            1. re: ccbweb

              I find the texture of Costco's chicken disturbing. I'm probably just not used to eating binders.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                I can't argue with that. Wasn't clear on the "binders" part until I read your post below...might have to rethink that a bit now.

        3. Zuni is about more than the roasted chicken. I personally would never recommend ordering it as your entree the first time you go there, since nothing can consistenly live up to that level of hype.

          But it is a quality of chicken I don't have the capability to purchase, prepared in a method I don't have the patience for, and cooked in an oven with a temperature and quality I cannot duplicate at home. So hat's off to your poultry source, skills.

          And I think if they took it off the menu there would be riots.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Absonot

            You do have the capability to purchase the chicken, because it's Fulton Valley and you can get one for approximately $9 at Bi-Rite.

            1. re: Atomica

              Santa Rosa Meat and Poultry on Lugwig Ave in Santa Rosa has Fulton Valley birds for $1.45 lb. Just cooked one on the rotisserie last week and I still prefer Costco.

              1. re: Atomica

                Good to know! I have the cookbook, so perhaps I might get ambitious and try my hand at it soon.

            2. So, I posted on this board a few days ago regarding restaurant recommendations, etc. Zuni was, and is still one of the places I have lined up to visit when I'm in the city at the end of this month. So, certainly the roasted chicken was going to be my pick from the main dishes. What else is worth trying there? I was trying to check out their web site, but it's not fully operational yet.

              It seems to me that it's more about the experience and the cooking method (wood fired oven) than a simple argument on the merits of Zuni's chicken vs. a well prepared bird in the comforts of your own home. I love a great roasted chicken and prepare it often, but it still seems that ordering it at Zuni would be a real treat.

              22 Replies
                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I don' t want to hijack this thread, but a lot of people here are talking about Costco rotisserie chicken. I have like them for years and rarely returned from a visit to Costco without one. I thought they used to be Fulton Valley, like the rest of the chicken they sell in the Costco on 10th in San Francisco. However, lately I noticed that the chicken is the Kirkland Signature Brand. What concerns me is that there is not mention of the fact that the chickens are not given antibiotics. The label is pretty vague. Does anyone know the original and pedigree of the Kirkland Signature brand of chicken. I'm pretty sure Fulton Valley does NOT use antibiotics.

                  1. re: bestefar

                    Aren't the Costco chickens giant? Fulton Valley chickens are really on the small side.

                    From what I understand, nobody puts antibiotics in chicken feed anymore, not even Perdue, Tyson, etc.

                    1. re: Atomica

                      I think they increased the size of the chicken and raised the price by a dollar when they made the change.

                      1. re: Atomica

                        Right. They started phasing out routine use of antibiotics in chicken feed a few years ago (they still use them when the chickens are actually sick, but then they're not supposed to slaughter them for 60 days after the last use of antibiotics).

                        I thought Costco used Foster Farms chickens. I've tried the rotisserie chickens at Costco a few times, but they're usually too salty and too greasy for my taste.

                      2. re: bestefar

                        The Chronice reported in 2004 that Costco's chickens were Foster Farms, "factory-injected" with "a solution containing salt and sodium phosphate plus binders that trap moisture in the meat."

                        The article also quoted Zuni chef Judy Rodgers as saying, "The sort of scary thing is that this is the concept I've been doing at Zuni. It's the same theory at the basis of all processed meat. If you get salt inside the muscle, that meat will not dry out as much." Though I don't think she uses "binders," whatever those are.


                    2. re: Tyranisone

                      I've gone to Zuni and not had the chicken, and enjoyed myself. To me, the truly 'must order' dish on the menu is the espresso granita!

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        Another fan of the espresso granita here!

                      2. re: Tyranisone

                        I'd recommend the chicken for the first time there with a caveat. Those types of cooks who feel no one in the world can make a roast chicken like them seem to be the type that are underwhelmed by the Zuni chicken.

                        Don't know. I don't cook but I do eat a lot of roast chicken in restaurants and the Zuni bird remains at the type of my list. IMO, the Costco bird is good for a supermarket chicken but not in the same class. Actually, IMO, Roli Roti makes a far superior bird to Costco ... not to mention how annoyed I was about the Costco bird ... I don't have a membership and went to the trouble of tagging along with someone just to try it. For my money, if I'm going to get a supermarket bird, I'd rather have Raley's.

                        ... but that is just my taste. Our favorite topic ... Zuni ... love it or hate it.

                        1. re: rworange

                          I just LOVE the bread salad that comes with the roast chicken. At about my 5th visit to Zuni (ordering the same roast chicken dish each time), I asked the waiter what else went into ensuring the juiciness & taste of the chicken (besides the 3-day soak in brine solution treatment), he said "champagne" (?!)

                          1. re: klyeoh

                            I don't know about that, but the bread salad is dressed with champagne vinegar. Maybe that's what the waiter meant, or maybe the waiter left out a word.

                            1. re: farmersdaughter

                              The last time I ordered the chicken (this was years ago) the bread salad ruined the experience -- it was soaked in grease. I don't know if it was dressed with too much oil or it was fat dripping down from the chicken. But it was really gross.

                              I hesitate to write that because I had previous chickens that were mind-blowing and I wouldn't want to dissuade someone from ordering it themselves. But it did happen, and it did put me off ever ordering it again -- although I'm certain it was an aberration. Something to keep in mind for the home chefs, I suppose.

                              1. re: Absonot

                                The bread salad contains a lot of olive oil, but since you'd had it before and liked it, then most likely the greasiness resulted from the cook either not slashing and draining the bird properly after roasting, or not skimming the fat properly before adding some of the pan juices to the salad.

                                If it was bad enough to put you off the dish forever, you should really have sent it back.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Yeah, I gotta go with Robert on this and that was my first thought ... especially since you had it before and it was different. At the price Zuni charges for chicken I'd have no problem calling it to the attention of the waiter and sending it back ... now given how long that chicken takes, I probably would have asked for a different dish.

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    I totally agree. Two reasons I didn't send it back:

                                    1. I was a newbie foodie and I was too intimidated (no real excuse, but the truth).

                                    2. I was sharing it with a new friend to whom I had RAVED about the chicken for days, and my stupid pride kept me from admitting to her that it sucked. She's also one of those "I hate meat on the bones" people so she didn't like the dish for other reasons.

                                    I have evolved since then, thankfully.

                                    Come to think of it, there's probably some sort of psychological reason I don't order it again because I'm so embarassed I didn't send it back the last time...

                                    1. re: Absonot

                                      OH ... yeah ... I am less likely to make a fuss when taking someone out.

                              2. re: farmersdaughter

                                I think the waiter meant that champagne's one of the ingredients that went into marinating the chicken.

                                I think they must have improved the bread salad somewhat, Absonot. That, more so than the chicken itself, made me want to return to Zuni again & again. But then again, it could be my personal taste.

                                1. re: klyeoh

                                  I think farmersdaughter is correct. The chicken is dry brined, to my knowledge--that's what the recipe says. I don't think champagne is used for actually marinating the chicken. There is champagne vinegar in the dressing for the bread salad.

                                  Don't overestimate the skill or knowledge of the waitstaff at Zuni. I've had some doozies.

                                  1. re: Atomica

                                    You're right, Atomica. It's a dry "brine" (the chicken is salted well in advance of cooking and refrigerated). No wet marinade, no champagne in the marinade. I too have had some crazy experiences with the Zuni waitstaff. The most egregious one is that I asked about a berry ice cream they had on the menu, but then ordered the gateau for dessert. The waiter brought the cake with a side of the berry ice cream (not requested by me) saying, I think you will like this. Then charged me for it. That is the only downside of Zuni to me - the quality of the service there is just so variable that I have to assume it's a training issue. But that doesn't stop me from going there often - it's definitely one of my favorite 2 or 3 restaurants.

                              3. re: klyeoh

                                There's Champagne vinegar in the bread salad.

                                No marinade. The chicken's rubbed with salt and pepper, and fresh herbs are stuffed under the skin.

                            2. re: Tyranisone

                              Whatever you do, order a side of fries!

                              1. re: Carrie 218

                                love the fries. eat 'em with your fingers.

                            3. No matter what else you order at Zuni, be sure to get one of their fantastic Bloody Marys!

                              Edit: Oops, this should have been a reply to Tyranisone.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Euonymous

                                a few weeks ago, two ladies with a beautiful pooch parked themselves at an outdoor table along market. the dog was wonderfully well behaved.

                                the ladies had oysters and bloody marys. the zuni staff treated them like friends. they were having too much fun. i suspect they do this on a weekly basis. i owe it to myself to order at least one bloody mary next trip. also need to know where i can rent a good doggie.

                              2. Had a just about perfect dinner at Zuni last night. We went specifically to get the chicken so I didn't even consider the other main dishes.

                                Fritto misto with squid and lemons ($11.50), roasted Piquillo peppers with cherry tomatoes ($10.50), and a split of Gosset Grand Rose. I'm sure some people would have found the squid inedibly salty; one of the things I love about Zuni is that they don't pander to saltophobes.

                                Delicate, almost fluffy ricotta gnocchi with butter and pea leaf ($13.50), nicely chewy garganelli with mushrooms ($14.50), and a light and fragrant Hofstädter Alto Adige pinot noir.

                                Roast chicken for two ($48) with a delightful 1989 Tempier Bandol Tourtine. We had a good laugh about trying to make roast chicken this good at home.

                                Apricot ice cream ($7.50), which was the best apricot dessert I've had in years, a rich and intensely nutty almond panna cotta ($8.25), and a glass of Beaumes de Venise ($8).

                                Espresso ($2.50), a perfect ristretto without my having said anything.

                                A shot of Didier Lemorton reserve Calvados ($10.50).

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  I'd fly half way round the world for Zuni's chicken.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    Too bad they didn't have the ricotta gnocchi when my veg. friend went there over July 4th. I had told her specifically to try the gnocchi:-(