One of the unspoken truths of New York dining is that the finest rotisserie chickens aren’t the domain of upscale restaurants, but grocery stores or takeout spots. Walk into any neighborhood market and you’ll find, next to the deli counter, rows of handsome whole birds, their skin flaunting the color of worn leather. A modern restaurant would call this “large format” and charge Champagne markups. A more practical gourmand, however, would pay $10 for the same thing at Gristedes and call it dinner for the week.
Such are the complexities of the rotisserie chicken conundrum. We pay more for sushi at an omakase bar to experience that sublime contrast between cool fish and warm rice. We shell out a few extra bucks for steaks at chophouses to sample dry-aged cuts unavailable at more casual venues. But for a spit-roasted bird, an ambitious restaurant doesn’t bring much extra to the equation; the dish is already excellent the way it is. Hip brasseries with shiny rotisseries and 38-item menus will almost inevitably serve a worse bird than a local Peruvian haunt hawking a more chicken-focused bill of fare.
This carnivorous poultry puzzle, of course, is not an unsolvable paradox. Consider the Fly, an admittedly fashionable, natural wine-slinging hangout on the Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill border. The menu is studiously lean: There are no pastas, avocados, or burgers. In fact, there are no appetizers or desserts at all. If you don’t count the three vegetable sides, only two of which are vegetarian, the only real offering is chicken, the quality of which is on par with any stalwart sending out hundreds of birds a night. That product, predictably juicy and drenched in olive oil, is fairly priced too, considering the environs: $13 for a gloriously drippy sandwich or $18 for half a bird seasoned with sausage-like spices.
The Classon Avenue space is buzzing on any given evening. The wrap-around bar, with 22 seats, is almost always at capacity. The walk-in-only dining room, too, is typically on a wait. Warm lighting gives the space a McNally-like glow, while a prominent cookbook author (think: #stew), on a recent Tuesday, chats with the bartender and swirls a glass of wine. Ten of the 14 by-the-glass selections are $13 or more, which makes them as expensive as the diminutive chicken sandwich.
The sandwich, though, packs as much nourishment as a specimen twice its size. Cooks fold hunks of white and dark meat in with a mass of finely chopped skin. This pile of poultry would be indulgent on its own, but the kitchen goes even further, warming up the meat in a fortified jus before tossing it on an aioli-slicked potato roll. The compact richness would make pulled pork taste like spa food by comparison.
Take a bite and watch the umami-laden juices dribble down onto your plate; the flavor is poultry to the power of 1,000. The roll functions to absorb all the moistness, while a light slaw of radishes and celery provides just a whisper of tang. The acidity doesn’t provide anything close to balance in this extravagant dish. It only gently refreshes the tongue, allowing the user to continue eating unabated. And if you’ve got $16 to spare, a skin-contact sauvignon blanc from Slovenia cleanses the palate with even greater efficiency, imparting thirst-quenching acidity, gentle tannins (for structure), and peachy aromas (because it’s spring).
The Fly, at just two months old, is firing on all cylinders. Call it a win for chef-partners Katie Jackson and Nick Perkins and for owners Nialls Fallon and Leah Campbell; they’re the quartet that brought Hart’s down the block to national acclaim (the team also runs Cervo’s on the Lower East Side). Their newest restaurant is the cheapest of the three, a fact that’s particularly meaningful in an era when poultry, like burgers, has been susceptible to rampant upscale-ification.
A good chicken, whether burnished in a conventional oven or crisped under a brick until the skin is as dense as a chicharron, has long functioned as an affordable luxury on even the priciest menus. But that reality is slowly changing. At tony spots like Dirty French, Wild Ink, the NoMad, and elsewhere, chicken ranks among a menu’s most expensive dishes, with “for two” pricing in the $68 to $100 range.
Things are a bit more affordable here at the Fly. Well, mostly. A proper meal for two — a half chicken, an order of roast potatoes, plus four cans of Budweiser — will run $61 after tax and tip. Those who opt for the smart selection of wines, however, which happens to be the restaurant’s specialty, can expect a tab closer to $100 or more.
It goes without saying that value is a relative thing. An influx of young white professionals has put pressure on housing prices and on Bed-Stuy’s historically black population, which has declined by nearly 25 percent since the turn of the 21st century. Gentrification here and in Clinton Hill has also meant that many (but not all) of the new restaurants, with $15 cocktails and $27 burgers, feel built for newer residents.
The Fly’s whole chicken takes on a different air when viewed through this lens, or when one considers that, at $32, it’s nearly double the price of Pio Pio’s in Hell’s Kitchen. And while the half bird is just a dollar more than what nearby Peaches Hothouse charges for its Nashville-style fry (which comes with a side there), that comparison, alas, might not placate longtime Brooklynites who’d prefer rotisserie prices that aren’t quadruple that of the local gourmet market.
But those who find themselves in the Fly will discover the main event is quite good. Most rotisserie poultry falls within a reliable band of deliciousness, and the Fly’s is no exception. Chefs dry-rub the “just-killed” birds, a Cornish breed from the Finger Lakes, and then let them spin on the rotisserie for up to 90 minutes. The meat practically confits in its own fat. The kitchen then lets the birds rest, reheats them on pickup, chops them into quarters, and douses them in tomato-laced jus and a “a glug or two of Sicilian olive oil,” as one of the chefs writes via email. That final touch adds a bit of fruity lightness, though really, they’re just cutting fat with more fat.
The dry rub, a mix of Indian fennel, coriander, Spanish paprika, garlic, Aleppo pepper, and Greek oregano, simultaneously imparts notes of citrus, chorizo, and pastrami. The deeply flavored thigh meat ranges in texture from firm to springy, while the preternaturally soft breast mimics silken tofu. The skin, like any rotisserie bird, isn’t crispy, but rather pleasantly floppy; sometimes it sports a soft give like raw pancetta — in which case you can use it to scoop up fries like a ssam wrap — and sometimes it simply disintegrates on the tongue like tissue paper.
Pro tip: Fries are consistently overcooked, while the salad is just a pile of vinegar-laden lettuce for $11. The side of choice here is a generous mound of jus-drenched potatoes ($7), cooked so delicately they exhibit the mouthfeel of slowly braised onions.
Such hearty fare calls as much for a martini as it does an orange wine, perhaps a smoky Chilean torontel. That pour will hike up the price of your meal by $17. If nothing else, it would be nice to see the owners introduce a few sub-$10 wine options (aside from the $7 sherry), and start the poultry portioning at a quarter bird, rather than at a half. The Fly’s current setup is a good start, but it might make a few extra concessions if it doesn’t want to feel like yet another transplant to the neighborhood.