Over the years my many trips to San Francisco frequently included a stop at Zuni Café. This iconic restaurant was founded by Chef Judy Rodgers back in 1987 and was a regular stop for chefs and foodies who either lived in or visited San Francisco. It’s an airy, glass walled, two story restaurant serving chilled Pacific Northwest oysters, Bloody Marys, what some called the best Caesar salad in the world. mesquite grilled steaks, seafood and pizzas baked in a large wood burning oven located in the dining room. The style of cooking and presentations are what I would describe as ‘rustic European.’ Unfortunately, Judy died at the age of 57 years old in 2013 cutting short the life of a truly gifted chef.
Whenever I dined at Zuni, which normally meant a long, wine fueled and lazy lunch, I always ordered what was, and still is, their signature dish: their wood oven roasted whole chicken for two. In fact, it’s on Eater SF’s 20 Most Iconic Dishes list. It’s a dish that takes 45 minutes to prepare as they roast it in the wood burning oven to order, hence the leisurely lunch.
The genesis of this dish came when Rodgers installed the wood burning oven in the restaurant. The story was that she didn’t want to end up being pigeonholed as a pizzeria so, remembering her time living in France she recalled how spit-roasted chicken was such a simple, delicious and affordable dinner. In an effort to keep the dish light she topped the roasted chicken with a simple salad of rustic greens, pine nuts and currants. Eventually, however, she felt that the dish needed another something added so she borrowed the idea of the Italian ‘Panzanella’ salad and added torn pieces of rustic, country bread to the pan as the chicken roasted in the oven and, as such, it became Zuni’s signature dish.
I had a personal experience with Judy years ago. Back when I was enamored with contemporary Southwestern cuisine. I opened a restaurant in Orange County called Zuni Grill, which I named after the New Mexican Indian tribe. Never once did I think there would be any conflict with her Zuni Café but one day I received a letter from her attorney demanding that I change the name of the restaurant because it was felt to infringe on Zuni Café’s brand. I really thought this was a stretch so rather than engage an attorney to fight this I decided to call Judy instead. Initially she was adamant about wanting me to change the name. I asked her if she had any plans to open more Zuni Cafés and she said no. I explained to her that I didn’t either and that my menu was nothing like hers and that I highly doubted that anyone would confuse my restaurant, located in a small retail center in a residential Irvine community, with her iconic Zuni Café.
As the conversation continued, I shared with her the many times that I had dined at her restaurant and how much I loved her cooking, which seemed to soften her position.
I explained to her that this would only end up costing us both some money. She would have to pay her attorney to pursue this name change and eventually I would have to acquiesce and pay to have a new sign installed. We both laughed about that and agreed that it didn’t make sense to press the issue any further. After the call ended, I was left thinking that someday I’d like to do something to thank her for her understanding in this matter and so the time for this has finally come.
As a posthumous homage to her, I have added a version of her roast chicken dish, albeit a single serving portion, including the Zuni name, to our menus. My version is only slightly different from her original using sun-dried cranberries instead of currants and our sweet & spicy cornbread croutons instead of rustic bread. I think she would have liked my version and I’m certainly pleased to be able to add this dish to our menu.
Every time I make this at home I think back to the many wonderful afternoons I spent at her restaurant.
I hope you all will enjoy it as much as I do so it might become a permanent menu item at Tavern House. It’s simply, healthy and incredibly satisfying. Given the popularity of roasted chickens at almost every grocery store these days, you can easily make this dish at home so I’ve included a simple recipe reflecting Judy’s use of rustic bread and using a pre-roasted chicken for your convenience.
Zuni Café’s Famous Roast Chicken Salad
1 each Whole Roasted Chicken, room temp or held warm
As needed Ciabatta bread, crust removed
2 ounces Rendered chicken fat, olive oil or butter
As needed Mixed greens (I like using arugula, frisee and radicchio only)
1 TBS Olive oil
½ cup Chicken stock
1 TBS Chopped fresh thyme
1 TBS Chopped shallots
2 TBS Sun-dried Cranberries
2 TBS Pine Nuts, lightly toasted
2 Ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved not grated...feel free to
substitute your favorite cheese as I often do...in
particular, I love the Smoky Blue Cheese from Oregon’s
Rogue Creamery that is cold smoked over hazelnut
Place the rendered chicken fat, olive oil or butter in a roasting pan with the ciabatta and bake in a 400 degree oven, turning once or twice, until lightly browned and crusted on all sides. Reserve at room temp.
Cut the chicken in half, then separate the breasts and cut them in half crosswise. Cut off wing tips then separate the legs from the thighs. Place all pieces of chicken, skin side up, in roasting pan with chicken stock, shallots, and thyme. Place in a 500 degree oven for 10-12 minutes until skin is lightly crisped.
Place chicken pieces around two plates skin side up then pour pan juices into the center of the plate. Toss greens with olive oil, cranberries, pine nuts, Ciabatta croutons, and Parmesan in bowl and pile into center of plate between chicken. Top with freshly grated pepper and serve.