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Day One at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt: The Trials and Tribulations of Daniel Delaney

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Senior critic Robert Sietsema dives into the eye of the food hall storm.

[Delaney Chicken.]
[Delaney Chicken.]
All photos by Robert Sietsema

As noontide struck on its first day, UrbanSpace Vanderbilt — the new food court just north of Grand Central — was already mobbed. Even getting through the crowd to the most promising counters was a 10-minute chore: People tripped over purses, would-be patrons stood stock still texting and taking selfies, and inadvertently swung backpacks clobbered the diners who’d already found their spots at the white trencher tables that crowd the center of the vast room. The scene was chaos pure and simple.

In the northwest corner of the sprawling space sandwiched between a shawarma joint and a ramen parlor is Delaney Chicken, where things were not going quite as planned. By 1 p.m., a milling crowd pressed against the glass, having already placed their orders and anticipating a 25 minute wait. By 1:30 the wait had ballooned to 45 minutes, but business had slowed at the iPad register, suggesting that things would eventually calm down. Daniel Delaney himself presided at the window on the opposite leg of the right-angle counter from the register, packing the boxes with two chicken legs ($10), along with cole slaw ($4) and potato salad ($5), making a whole meal with tax come to $20 and change, sans beverage.

Behind him, a fry cook dredged the chicken parts (there were also thighs in addition to drumsticks before they ran out) in white flour, then dipped them in a brown batter and shook off the excess before dunking them into one of the two bubbling fry baskets, each of which held only six drumsticks — not enough volume to meet the demand.

"Those are mighty big drumsticks," I said to Delaney as I approached the window. His black hair was wilder and curlier than I’d seen it before; in common with the other employees he wore a white shirt, white pants, black bow tie, and a white apron, like some fast food attendant from the 60s. His employees also wore white paper campaign caps, like soldiers. "We had a problem with our suppliers," explained Delaney, "and these drumsticks had to be purchased from the supermarket."

Since he seemed perfectly capable of talking and packing boxes at the same time, I asked a few more questions. "Are you brining the birds?"

"Yes," he pushed up at his glasses with his pinky finger as he spoke, "The solution is a simple one of water, salt, sugar, vinegar, onion, and cayenne, plus one other ingredient that you can’t tell anyone."

"Okay," I agreed, and continued describing what I saw through the glass, "And then there’s a flour dredge and a chicken dip, which looks very brown."

"Yes," he replied, "The brownness is because we bake the batter before we use it. It contains buttermilk, but we had to make do with high-fat buttermilk because we couldn’t get any of the low-fat kind. As a result the finished pieces are a little browner than we’d like, which is caused by the high butterfat burning. Another problem," he continued, "is that the supermarket birds are bigger than we’d like and for that reason it takes longer to cook them, resulting in delays."

"Well, it’s sometimes good to make customers wait," I lied, "It increases expectations."

The crowd didn’t seem to mind one bit, but around the time I finally got my chicken, the waiting throng had begun to dissolve.

I brought my box to one of the tables, opened it, and indeed the drumsticks were very brown, and still glistening from the fat. The final dip in batter rather than the usual bread crumbs had rendered the exterior smoother than, say, the fried chicken at Fuku.

That was day one at Delaney Chicken. Other vendors at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt seemed to be having similar growing pains, with supplies of many menu items depleted early in the afternoon, or simply not yet available, and long delays in serving customers. In the restaurant industry, sometimes nothing sucks like success.

UrbanSpace Vanderbilt

230 Park Avenue, New York, NY

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