Three weeks ago, I lost my shit over a rotisserie chicken. Admittedly, it wasn't my finest hour, but having gone to five different stores in search of the suddenly elusive spit-roasted bird, I found myself so filled with white-hot rage at the universe that the only reasonable thing to do was direct that ire at the teenage deli attendants, who shrugged their shoulders and replied with a "Ma'am, I don't know what to tell you. Get here by 4?"
Looking back, this meltdown had little to do with grocery store rotisserie chicken, a fact that was driven home when I finally got my mitts on one a week later. Cutting through the damp twine that held the bird together, I dug into its rubbery skin, revealing a dried-out, saline-injected shell of what was supposed to be the ultimate comfort food — a golden-hued solace I'd pinned my hopes to only a week prior. Surely, someone could do better.
Nate Hereford thought so too. An acclaimed chef who worked at Chicago's famed temple of molecular gastronomy, Moto, before joining Gerard Craft's team at Niche, Hereford has spent the majority of his culinary career in the tasting-menu-centric world of high-end cuisine. After leaving Niche in 2016, Hereford moved to California to take on a role in culinary research and development, but there was something inside him that told him he was not yet done with the restaurant business. He began musing about a spot of his own, and it became clear to him that there was no better place to open it than in St. Louis, a food scene that he felt deeply connected to and one he knew would support his efforts.
As a chef who has swum deep in the waters of esoteric cuisine — he cooked with lasers at Moto — Hereford knew that he wanted to buck that sort of cerebral, and frankly inaccessible (at least to the masses), style of dining. He felt compelled to provide something warm and comforting to as many people as possible, and nothing ticked those boxes for him better than rotisserie chicken. The idea came to him when he was working out in California and he noticed such concepts popping up around the Bay Area: simple, spit-roasted poultry joints where the menus consisted of little more than carved chicken, pita and sauce. Hereford knew that no one was doing anything like that back in St. Louis, so he and his wife packed their bags and returned to town determined to bring something unique to their beloved city.
After looking around for a storefront, Hereford settled on City Foundry as the right fit for his concept, Chicken Scratch (3700 Forest Park Avenue). Armed with a French Rotisol brand rotisserie and a commitment to bringing diners the best chicken of their lives, Hereford opened Chicken Scratch this past October. Though the form of the restaurant, a fast-casual comfort-fare food stall, might look like quite a departure from the food he was cooking for upscale dining rooms, Hereford does not see what he is doing as all that different. As he explains it, he is still using his creativity and technical skill to bring about the best food he can; the vehicle for that is simply a more recognizable source of pure comfort — and one that will just as strongly make you rethink what you're eating.
Hereford understands that there will be comparisons between what he serves and the grocery store bastardization that was the source of my angst. He also knows that, as soon as one bites into a Chicken Scratch bird, any question about why what he is doing is different will fly out the coop. Succulent, golden and so flawlessly cooked the thigh and leg quarter slide away from the carcass with barely a tug, a rotisserie chicken from Chicken Scratch is the Platonic form of the dish. Hereford credits his success in executing a flawless spit-roasted bird to his use of high-quality chicken, void of saline and chemical injections, unlike the ones at the store. He dry-brines the chicken with salt and just a little sugar, a process that helps to remove moisture from the bird so that the exterior of the meat crisps up when cooked. After the brine, but before it goes on the spit, he gives it a dry rub with traditional poultry herbs and spices, then cooks it in the Rotisol to a beautiful, caramelized hue. It's so stunning, it's the gold standard by which all other roasted chickens should be judged.
Chicken Scratch offers its rotisserie chicken as either a half or whole bird. Though this masterpiece makes it nearly impossible to want for anything else, Hereford makes a strong case with some excellent sandwiches. The Chicken Dip takes hunks of pulled chicken, dunks them in savory jus, then tucks them into a soft baguette with marinated kale, provolone cheese and horseradish mustard. A side of Liquid Gold Jus, a delicate sauce made from the chicken's drippings, is served alongside the sandwich, like au jus for a French dip.
Hereford's Crispy Chicken sandwich is perfection of the form. Not only is the meat itself so juicy; its crispy breading is enlivened with herbs and seasoning and is crunchy without being a thick shell like so many other versions. As with all Chicken Scratch's offerings, the Crispy Chicken comes with a side of sauce; the creamy herbed buttermilk Scratch Sauce is my preferred choice, though the searing hot sauce or piquant Horsey Mustard are worthy alternatives.
The chicken-salad sandwich, served on a soft, subtly sweet potato bun, hits the exact note you want from such a picnic staple. Made with pulled white and dark meat, the chicken is tossed in the Scratch Sauce, which gives the dish a tangier, more verdant bite than traditional mayonnaise. Pickled red onions cut through the richness beautifully. Even a simple kale salad shows how just a few key ingredients acting in perfect harmony — lemony parmesan vinaigrette, crunchy panko breadcrumbs, tender pulled chicken — can meld together to form something magical.
Like the main dishes, Hereford keeps Chicken Scratch's sides simple and well executed. Jojo potatoes are a golden, subtly seasoned cross between a steak fry and a potato wedge, their creamy interior as soft as whipped potatoes. Brussels sprouts have a pleasant bright funk thanks to a concoction of anchovy capers, lemon and parsley, and a macaroni salad, flecked with carrots and celery, is the quintessential picnic side.
Digging into a forkful of that creamy pasta, followed by a piece of juicy, paprika- and herb-crusted, skin-on chicken thigh, is enough to make you lose your mind — but for all the right reasons.
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