Think of New York's greatest foods, and your mind might leap to pizza, or bagels, or a huge pastrami sandwich. But fried chicken?
New York has never been a first-class fried chicken town, but these days, it's popping up on more high-end menus than pork belly. And though we've eaten our fair share, we hadn't done an exhaustive survey. Until now. With Momofuku and Locanda Verde birds still fresh and crisp in our minds, we set out to find the city's best fancy-pants fried chicken: newcomers, old standards, specials, and all.
What qualifies as fancy-pants? Any fried chicken at a chef-driven restaurant, costing more that $15.
In ranking it all, we looked at the following criteria--in each category, giving the plate between one (worst) and five (best) Serious Clucks:
- Skin and batter: Was it crisp and crunchy? Did the batter and the skin become one? Was the exterior light, or did the batter and the crust overwhelm everything else?
- White meat: Was it tender? Was it juicy? Did it have any discernible chicken flavor?
- Dark meat: Again, is it tender and juicy? It's easier to get the thigh and the drumstick moist and juicy because there's a lot more internal fat in those parts of the chicken--but is it cooked through to the bone? Often, even carefully cooked fried chicken is bloody at the thigh bone. This should not be.
- Spiciness: Was the chicken well-seasoned? Enough salt? Enough pepper? What other spices were discernible in the crust? Did the spice mixture work together as a whole?
- Sides: What was included on the plate? Worth eating?
- Price-Value Proposition: Was it a good deal considering the quality of the food, the care that went into cooking it, and the setting you ate it in?
Possible perfect score: 30 Serious Clucks.
Our top eleven birds, and the title of The Best Fancy-Pants Fried Chicken In New York, after the jump.
Blue Ribbon Brasserie
Skin and batter: 5 clucks. This is no daintily fried chicken--the crust crackles and crunches and seems to have a life of its own. It's a mouthful to get through, but in a good way. It's the kind of crust so good you keep gnawing on the bones when the chicken is gone, in hopes of getting one more morsel of fried goodness. This is a crust for the ages.
White meat: 5 clucks. Amazingly tender, for white meat, with a deep chicken flavor that I associate more with roasted chicken than fried.
Dark meat: 4.5 clucks. Fatty, tasty, cooked through, but without the real on-the-bone richness of the very best chicken.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. A little too well-spiced, particularly where the paprika is concerned. In some cases, you take a bite and think "Wow, that tastes like... paprika." Other than those spice-saturated spots, dead-on.
Sides: 4 clucks. Garlicy greens and super-creamy mashed potatoes.
Price to Value: 3 clucks. Blue Ribbon is a lovely SoHo restaurant, with attentive servers and flattering lighting and individual loaves of crusty French bread. Of course it'll charge more than Rack 'n Soul. But $25.99 for four pieces of chicken and (admittedly tasty) mashed potatoes and greens? Yikes. If it weren't so good, it'd be much harder to swallow.
Total: 25.5 clucks
Blue Ribbon Sushi
Skin and batter: 5 clucks. Extremely light and crisp Asian-style Panko batter coated the chicken in a way that rendered the skin invisible.
White meat: 3.5 clucks. Reasonably moist but not at all juicy.
Dark meat: 4.5 clucks. Perfectly cooked and juicy enough.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. The spice rub seemed to be dominated by paprika. Just sweet enough jalapeno honey dipping sauce packed a real punch.
Sides: 2 clucks. No sides except for a bed of shredded lettuce. A nice little bowl of chicken fried rice would have hit the spot.
Price to Value: 3 clucks. $24.50 for a small high-quality half-bird is still pretty steep.
Total: 22 clucks
Skin and batter: 4 clucks. Nice crunch with great big fried bubbles.
White meat: 3.5 clucks. They brine the bird, which definitely helps the moisture levels, but it's still not as juicy as it could be.
Dark meat: 5 clucks. Moist in a well-balanced way. As in, juicy but didn't leave your hands drippy.
Spiciness: 3.5 clucks. A good salt factor, like most of the food here. Though some of that taste could have been lingering in my mouth from the boiled peanuts amuse bouche.
Sides: 5 clucks. Buttery (as in, Popeyes-style good buttery) biscuits and a white bean salad.
Price to Value: 5 clucks. The half-chicken portion ($16) takes up practically the whole platter. A mighty fine deal.
Total: 26 clucks
Skin and batter: 3.5 clucks. Is there such thing as too crispy? I felt like I was going to break my teeth gnawing into that thick, dark skin. But hey, at least it wasn't soggy?
White meat: 3.5 clucks. Not straight-up dry, but bordering on dry. If you used the balsamic-maple syrup dipping sauce (served on the side for the cheddar waffles) maybe that would help, but that doesn't seem like the right thing to do.
Dark meat: 4.5 clucks. Nicely moist, the way dark meat should be.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. Peppery enough to see the flecks but it still felt a tad underseasoned.
Sides: 4 clucks. A tasty cheddar waffle (it's hard to argue with cheese, flour, and butter) and cole slaw, which was somewhere in between creamy and vinegary.
Price to Value: 3.5 clucks. The half-chicken portion ($18) was a generous size, but for only decent fancypants fried chicken, seemed a little steep.
Total: 23 clucks
Skin and batter: 3.5 clucks. Good balance; crust was light and crispy (not hard-crunchy) and didn't overwhelm the chicken, but it fell off a bit more easily than I would've liked.
White meat: 4 clucks. Satisfyingly tender and juicy.
Dark meat: 3.5 clucks. Cooked through and also juicy.
Spiciness: 3.5 clucks. Well-seasoned, but otherwise unremarkable.
Sides: 3.5 clucks. A generous mound of chunky mashed potatoes with scallions. A bit bland, but the scallions were a plus. I liked the spicy honey more, if that counts as a side.
Price to Value: 4 clucks. $16 for four large pieces of good fried chicken and mashed potatoes in a pleasant, laid-back setting isn't bad.
Total: 22 clucks
Skin and batter: 4.5 clucks. I know Blue Smoke Executive Chef Kenny Callaghan was trying to emulate the lacquered sheath-like crust I led him to at Gus's World-Famous Fried Chicken in Mason, TN. He doesn't quite get there, but damn, this is a fine crispy and crunchy crust that sheathes the chicken beautifully.
White meat: 4 clucks. Moist, not at all dry, but I didn't see any juices running down my mouth when I took a bite of the breast.
Dark meat: 4.5 clucks. Juicy, well-cooked thigh and drumstick with no blood near the bones.
Spiciness: 5 clucks. Just the right spice mix as far as I'm concerned: salt and pepper applied judiciously but forcefully.
Sides: 4.5 clucks. Excellent mashed potatoes with gravy and a good, solid, but not quite flaky enough biscuit.
Price to Value: 4.5 clucks. $18.95 is a fair price for this plate of chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuit.
Total: 27 clucks
Clinton Street Baking Co.
Skin and batter: 4 clucks. Flaky and crisp, the skin and batter holding together, but thin and somewhat scant in parts.
White meat: 5 clucks. So clearly five clucks that a few former five-clucks got knocked down a notch. Tremendously juicy and well-seasoned all the way through. "We brine our chicken in buttermilk before frying," chef and owner Neil Kleinberg told us. It shows.
Dark meat: 4 clucks. Equally tasty, but a bit too juicy--soaking through the crust.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. Salted and peppered, with hints of garlic and thyme, but none packed a particular flavor punch.
Sides: 5 clucks. A generous loaf of crusty jalapeño cornbread, plus coleslaw, and Clinton Street's incredible mini-biscuits.
Price to Value: 4.5 clucks. $17 isn't that cheap, but for four sizable pieces of chicken plus the plentiful sides, it's not a bad deal.
Total: 26.5 clucks
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Skin and batter: 5 clucks. The crust and batter on both the Korean-style fried chicken and the Southern-fried chicken was super-crunchy. No complaints on exterior textures at all.
White meat: 5 clucks. Tender, juicy, easy to scarf right down.
Dark meat: 5 clucks. Cooked through and fatty in just the right way.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. Southern-style chicken was certainly well-seasoned, but I found the Old Bay unnecessary.
Sides: 5 clucks. Vegetables, pancakes, a multitude of exciting sauces--obviously an unusual Asian-style array of side dishes.
Price to Value: 4 clucks. You have to spring for the package--and good luck getting in--but $50 gets four people the equivalent of a whole chicken and sides. Good deal!
Total: 28 clucks
Skin and batter: 4 clucks. Light, ultra-crispy, and very dark.
White meat: 3.5 clucks. A little dry.
Dark meat: 4 clucks. Thigh cooked all the way through and juicy enough.
Spiciness: 3 clucks. Too much Old Bay. It dominated my taste buds.
Sides: 5 clucks. Solid mashed potatoes with gravy, unusual collards with bacon and honey, and white bread.
Price to Value: 3 clucks. $18 for a half chicken with the above-mentioned sides in a bowling alley seems a bit high.
Total: 22.5 clucks
Skin and batter: 3.5 clucks. Certainly light, but man, did I miss me some crispy crunchiness.
White meat: 5 clucks. Moist, strong chicken-y flavor, which is unusual in white meat.
Dark meat: 4.5 clucks. Juicy, not stringy at all.
Spiciness: 4 clucks. Plenty salty through and through.
Sides: 5 clucks. Delicious thick-cut Char No. 4 bacon and beans to start, biscuits from heaven, simple piece of steamed sweet corn, tasty greens, and light cucumber and tomato salad... oh yeah, and an amazing piece of nectarine-plum pie for dessert.
Price to Value: 3 clucks. $38 gets you a lot of food (see above, it's easily enough for two), but then again $38 is a lot of money to pay for a fried chicken dinner. Plus, you also have to pay an additional $3 cover charge for the band.
Total: 25 clucks
Locanda Verde: 377 Greenwich Street (map); 212-925-3797; by advance reservation only
Related: Locanda Verde: Come for the Fried Chicken, But Stay for the Pie
And the Winner Is... The Redhead
Skin and batter: 5 clucks. Just the right about of crunch, not too thick or too thin, this is what serious fried chicken is all about.
White meat: 5 clucks. Tender and juicy, it's the best white meat can hope to be.
Dark meat: 5 clucks. Serious fried chicken lovers know dark meat is where it's at. Perfectly cooked, all the way to the bone.
Spiciness: 5 clucks. The most well-seasoned chicken we tasted, inside and out. This is one savory piece of chicken.
Sides: 3.5 clucks. Served with a spinach, strawberry, and almond salad, and corn bread. Fine accompaniments, worthy of the stomach space.
Price to Value: 5 clucks. Worth the price of admission. $17.
Total: 28.5 clucks
So the Levine-beloved, Bruni-approved Redhead walks away with our title of the Best Fancy-Pants Fried Chicken in New York. But there's plenty of good eating at all the places above. What do you think, serious eaters? What's your favorite fancy fried chicken?