Crave-worthy Charmoula Fried Chicken

I wish every meal was great. Truly. I want to sing from the rooftops about magnificent moments in dining, but the truth is, even for a seasoned restaurant veteran, those moments are rare. Maybe not pink-unicorn-in-the-forest rare, but let's just say...stellar moments in dining are not an everyday thing. 

When a dish, or better yet, a restaurant stands out in my mind? I'll spend the next couple months, dining there at every opportunity. VIPs from New York or LA? We go here. Meeting with the folks from Saveur magazine? Do not leave town without trying the butter chicken wings here. Pastry and bread gurus? First stop? Here. You get the idea. 

My latest obsession is Charmoula Fried Chicken at The Old Sage. Succulent and packed with flavor, this chicken has haunted me since the first bite. And wouldn't you know...I forgot my camera. But as I've said, this obsession runs deep, and I was able to cobble together images from three different people for this post! Reporting deliciousness? It takes a village.

I'm a huge fan chef-owners Dana Tough and Brian McCracken. The Old Sage is the latest in their stable of restaurants including Spur, Tavern Law, and Coterie Room. (Food & Wine magazine dubbed their first restaurant, Spur, one of "the most outstanding, must-visit restaurants in the world.") Earlier this month, Keren Brown collaborated with Kitchenbug and The Old Sage for blogger meet up, and I jumped at the opportunity.

This haven on Capitol Hill is dark and moody with a "thinking man's" vibe. 

Old Sage's kitchen is open to the bar, so cooks can see what's happening in the dining room, without being completely exposed. From the dining room, it provides peek into the kitchen-as-theater element. Pictured: Chef de Cuisine Mathew Woolen and cook Kirby Snyder. 

Chef Mathew Woolen addressed the crowd of bloggers, food stylists, and photographers. When the passed apps came around, the food was familiar, and yet, every dish had an element of mystery. Succulence like I've never known before. A spice blend that lingered, calling up memories of souks and spice bazaars. "Chef, how would you describe your culinary style?" Woolen builds flavor with old world, forgotten techniques (souring, sprouting, smoke, fire) and spice trail ingredients (urfa biber, etc), with a contemporary spin (sous vide). The magical. 

During the social hour, I stepped in the kitchen to say hello. The tiny chef's station is compact--no bigger than a boat kitchen. And yet, two steps from the line is a Wood Stone-fired oven, Below rests a tub of yeast-risen dough, at the ready for freshly-fired breads. To his right is a small smoker. All within reach. 

Fire it up! Pork belly BLT's and puffs of yeast-risen bread. 

As luck would have it, prep was underway for a batch of their Charmoula Fried Chicken.

Something about this prep caught my eye. "What are you doing?" Cook Kirby Snyder explained, that fall-off the bone element is enhanced by first, cutting the skin and pulling the meat back "like a meat pop." 

The key here is to cut the tendon above the joint. It's the tendon that makes the meat seize up. Once you cut the tendon, it relaxes and adds to the tenderness. Genius! (Ever wonder what the difference between restaurant food and home food is? Tips like this.) 

For more on the technique, I rang up chef-owner Dana Tough. Here's the how to:

Once all the meat is prepped, season it liberally (like a rub) with salt and pepper. Let it rest for an hour. 

Next, completely submerge the seasoned chicken in yogurt and charmoula. Braise it in this flavor-packed liquid at 300 degrees for 2 1/2 - 3 hours. 

Cool the chicken to room temp in the braising liquid. Chef says, "A big mistake people make is taking the meat out of the braising liquid. Flavor penetrates the surface of the meat during cooking, but to get that deep penetration of flavor, leave it in the liquid." 

When the chicken in braising liquid is cool to room temperature, fish out the chicken and set it on a resting rack. Meanwhile, heat a deep fryer to 360 degrees.

Season the braised chicken with ras el hanout ("a Moroccan spice blend with saffron, coriander, rose petals and 20 other spices.") 

Then deep fry the chicken until golden brown. 

Once the chicken is out of the oil, lightly season with salt immediately. Chef Tough adds, "There's a very short window for seasoning fried food. If you miss it, the salt won't stick."  

After the event, chef Matthew sent this shot. See the "meat pop"  element?  And the sauce? That's  the turmeric-infused braising liquid, strained. Beautiful, isn't it? 

And if you're not up for brining, braising, and then frying your own chicken? Head over to The Old Sage. Their food is a cravable adventure in dining, worth singing from the rooftops. 

As  I mentioned, gathering all the pieces for this post was a huge collaborative effort. Thanks to Megan Reardon (Not Martha), Keren Brown (Frantic Foodie), Deanna Rivaldo, Dana Tough, Brian McCracken, Mathew Woolen, and Kirby Snyder.