Philly's latest best fried chicken: Adsum

Posted: August 01, 2010

CORRECTION: Everything old is new again, as they say. Like fried chicken. It's hot and re-happening. Hey, if Mad Men can be cool again - skinny ties and '60s martinis, the uptown picture of retro - why not a shout-out for its country-picnic cousin?

Why not, indeed? I chewed over this question. All over town. The results were published in this space more than a month ago.

I did not try every establishment's chicken. But I put a pretty big bite in what was out there - crunchy thighs slicked with spiced honey at Resurrection Ale House, served with great German potato salad. West Side Gravy's OK version in Collingswood. Jay Henson's classic bird at Silk City Diner. Jones', which riffs off KFC. At Ms. Tootsie's, the soul foodery on South, I had a notably crisp, abidingly juicy bird; it was my hands-down blue-ribbon nominee.

Ahem, I'd like to amend my remarks. Not retract them, exactly. But since then, two new chicks have landed on the block. And Lord have mercy, they're messing big-time with the pecking order.

The first of these is the Korean fried chicken that chef Anne Coll at Meritage has elevated from her staff meal to a Thursday-night-only special - $25 for a six-piece serving for two, with a 32-ounce can of Sapporo tossed in. Coll, who toiled for years in Susanna Foo's kitchen, remembers her own fried-chicken days fondly - the family heading out to a Lancaster County Mennonite, all-you-can-eat Monday-night chicken feed. The Korean accent, of course, is of later vintage.

She brines the pieces for 24 hours in a salt, sugar, ginger, and star anise solution, then marinates them in ginger, garlic, and Spanish onion puree. Coats them, and fries them once, then gives them a second, higher-heat fry, and a brush with a traditional Korean sauce of fermented chili paste, ketchup, vinegar, honey, sesame oil, and scallions. The result? An extremely moist, mildly spicy bird; not as explodingly crisp as Cafe Soho's magical wings in North Philadelphia's Koreatown, but worthy of honorable mention in the city's bulging fried chicken basket.

But I've found my new favorite at brand-new Adsum, chef Matt Levin's homey "refined neighborhood bistro," arising like a vision at Fifth and Bainbridge.

Levin is better known as the brainy artiste behind Lacroix, overlooking Rittenhouse Square. But Adsum is his latest squeeze and, like Anne Coll, he too has had a long love affair with fried chicken: "This is the food I want to eat after work - a can of beer and fried chicken and poutine," crisp duck-fat french fries, brown gravy, and lumpy cheese curd, a Montreal obsession now on Adsum's menu, as well. Oh, he adds a sizzling sliver of foie gras.

Levin wanted to give his fried chicken ($18) a more "cerebral" treatment, getting the mild tang of buttermilk into the meat, the acidity tenderizing it, mainly the thighs. (Interestingly, the chicken itself is raised on milk pellets in Lancaster County, conferring a sweetness to the meat.)

The chicken pieces are vacuum-sealed with the buttermilk, garlic, and thyme in a Cryovac bag, and simmered at extremely low heat, 160 degrees, in a process called sous vide. (The thighs spend 24 hours in the warm bath; the breasts, 16 hours.) But the coating is the science project; a powdery cornstarch product called Crisp Film is used to create a bond around the proteins in the herb-seasoned dredge of cornstarch, all-purpose flour, and Wondra, blocking moisture from leaching from the chicken into the coating as the bird fries; this makes for more durable crispness.

Since the meat is mostly cooked from the long sous vide bath, the whole breast and thigh serving takes only about six minutes at 350 degrees to fry up. It emerges from the kitchen a light sandy color (the cornstarch mitigating the caramelization of the flour), looking like the fish they fry on the Carolina coast.

It arrives at the table over toothsome collard greens (braised with smoked ham hocks, Frank's hot sauce, and honey - dark, smoky, hot-sweet greens), next to a puck of a buttermilk biscuit, and there's no mistaking its pedigree.

It is primo fried chicken, the grain of the white meat firmly tender and tight, the buttermilk sotto voce, the crust craggy and unflaggingly crisp, despite the bed of steamy greens.

As of Aug. 1, it is indisputably No. 1.


Adsum

700 S. Fifth St. (at Bainbridge)

267-888-7002


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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