Chefs Show How They Can Entice (Sound 8/09)

When cooking chicken soup with rice

In July I’ll take a peep
Into the cool and fishy deep
Where chicken soup is selling cheap
Selling once, selling twice
Selling chicken soup with rice

In August it will be so hot
I will become a cooking pot
Cooking soup of course—why not?
Cooking once, cooking twice
Cooking chicken soup with rice…

“Chicken Soup with Rice”
from Really Rosie
by Carole King (1975)

Month after month, Dish-Off challenges chefs to create multi-course meals based on an ever-changing song. This time around, I’ve chosen Carole King’s rendition of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice, which he penned as “A Book of Months” to teach children about the different months and seasons. It’s full of contagious rhymes and clever whimsy. For example, King sings that “In April I will go away to far off Spain or old Bombay.” Bombay works for rhyme, but my culinary trip this month is actually to Spain and France. I’m wishing for some whimsical interpretations from chefs known for their classical Spanish and French preparations.

Portage may pay homage to Chef Vuong Loc’s hometown in Michigan, but it’s more like a piece of Paris. At this petite French brasserie with buttery yellow walls, black and gold striped banquettes, and white linen tablecloths, Loc tells me “I put together a meal to stay on pace with the song and illustrate the changing seasons.” The starter symbolizes the opening January verse, as golden chicken glacé ringed by truffle rice looks like a skating rink, immediately conjuring up the song’s “slipping on the sliding ice.” The enticing smell of truffle and clean taste of reduced chicken stock in its cold, gelatinous form mark a delightful start to the meal.

Belltown’s Taberna del Alabardero also has yellow walls, though more of a saffron shade, and servers wearing shirts to match. But my pork-loving eyes catch two other workers and, more specifically, the precious hams that they’re “guarding.” (Indeed, the restaurant name means “tavern of the palace guards.” Seattle is Taberna’s second location in the States—the other is in Washington, D.C.—with the original of the four in Spain in the capital city of Madrid, just outside the palace gates.) Shavings of the much-coveted ham appear with pieces of hard-boiled egg in Chef Jose Maria Larrosa’s salmojero, another cold soup starter. Salmorejo is like a Spanish gazpacho, only smoother and richer. Strikingly salmon-colored, it’s made with tomatoes, garlic, bread and olive oil and is absolutely refreshing, enhanced by the alternately sweet and salty properties of jamón Ibérico ham.

Spring garlic soup with potato nest, chicken and quail eggIt will be a round bowl of soup (and chicken, and rice) in every course at Portage, which serves up its own garlicky concoction next. Spring garlic soup is gorgeously green, with a mellower taste than I expected. Inside a crispy potato nest is a quail egg that sweetens the dish, and below that are some small pieces of chicken and crisp Arborio rice. I’m enjoying the interpretation, conjuring up spring as I recall the lyric “In May I truly think it best to be a robin lightly dressed concocting soup inside my nest.” Getting in touch with my inner child, I also notice that here, the chicken comes after the egg.

While the chicken and the egg question is perplexing, I’m more confused about why some restaurants serve little drumsticks and call them wings. But when they’re as good as Taberna’s chicken wing bombón, who’s to complain? Inspired by Sendak, Taberna writes up my menu in storybook fashion, explaining that the three drummettes are “reminiscent of a drum mallet, [and] are marinated in garlic and parsley and set a beat for what’s to come. “ The raisiny and molasses-like Pedro Ximénez reduction is a perfect counterpoint to the salt and garlic in these cute bites. The plating is beautiful, with a sprig of rosemary providing an accent.

This reminds me of Portage’s entrée: rosemary roasted chicken. Loc presents the whole bird, perched atop a bed of fall harvest rice (brown jasmine and wild rice, along with yellow and green lentils, split peas, pecans and raisins), its legs clutching a rosemary sprig. He then brings the platter back to the kitchen, reappearing soon with a re-plating. A few choice slices of chicken are on a small piece of toast, above the rice, which now sits in curried butternut squash. Loc tells me this is a tribute to the fall lyrics, particularly the October hosting of witches, goblins and a ghost who are served chicken soup on toast. The soup is creamy with a hint of curry spice, the chicken is moist and tender, and the overall dish is deliciously herbal.

Taberna also goes the re-plating route for its entrée: paella de pollo y chorizo. Some restaurants, like past Dish-Off participant Ponti, have served their paellas soupy, but this one is cooked down, with chicken and chorizo the star proteins. There’s a bit of saffron aroma, but when I comment that olive oil and garlic are again the prevailing flavors, manager Iñigo Oyarzabal tells me, “We use few spices in Spanish cooking, but lots of garlic.” The dish is so ubiquitous in Spain that they just call it “rice” (bomba is the variety for making paella); the portion is so large that Oyarzabal suggests I do as Spaniards do and eat the leftovers with a fried egg. Ah, what a wonderful breakfast!

I’m not surprised when both restaurants dish up rice pudding as the dessert course. Each, though, has a twist. At Portage, it’s in brulée form (firmer than the usual rice pudding, and with a welcomed salt kick), floating in a warm chestnut chocolate soup that’s made with chicken broth to complete the superfecta of chicken and rice in all courses. The chestnut harkens the holidays, bringing us to year’s end in the song. Meanwhile, Taberna serves up a typical Spanish version: espuma de arroz con leche (rice pudding foam). It’s a light ending to a lovely meal, with the addition of fried rice “krispies” adding texture to the otherwise foamy dish that features hints of cinnamon, orange and lemon.

The bordering countries of France and Spain may do battle on the soccer fields, but in this Dish-Off, I detected many similarities between the restaurants. Best of all, both offered creative interpretations of the song, making me agree with its final verse: “I told you once, I told you twice, all seasons of the year are nice for eating chicken soup with rice.”

The menus

Portage

  • Chicken glacé with truffle rice salad
  • Spring garlic soup with potato nest, chicken and quail egg
  • Rosemary roasted chicken with fall harvest rice and curried butternut squash
  • Rice pudding brulée with warm chestnut chocolate soup

Taberna del Alabardero

  • Salmorejo (tomato-bread soup)
  • Bombón de alitas de pollo (chicken wing bonbóm)
  • Paella de pollo y chorizo (chicken and chorizo paella)
  • Espuma de arroz con leche (rice pudding foam)

All photos in the post (excluding chef headshots) by Rina Jordan. (Click to enlarge them.)

Here are photos of the other dishes from this Dish-Off.

Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.

Portage on Urbanspoon

Taberna del Alabardero on Urbanspoon

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