[ review ]
When the wisp of a counter clerk at Rotisseur asked what sides I wanted, I don't think she was expecting me to reply, "All of them."
"All of them?" she echoed.
"All of them," I confirmed, and she was off, moving down a buffet of countryfied fixins like an assembly-line teamster, filling eco-chic Bio-Pak takeout boxes full of potato salad, citrus-y fennel slaw, mac 'n' cheese and more. Just beyond, owner Aaron Matzkin cut up two gorgeous, golden chickens as quickly as an experienced criminal dismembering a body to dump in the Everglades.
"Did you want the side of corn muffins, too?" the cashier called across the sleek glass partition dividing the kitchen from its 18-seat, white-and-yellow dining room.
"All of them."
Sides are a big part of the chicken-dinner experience at this bright Rittenhouse rotisserie, a business inspired by Matzkin's post-collegiate, "starving-artist" years in L.A. "I found myself eating at a couple rotisserie places a few times a week," says the Philly native, born and raised in Powelton Village. "They were reasonably priced, and there were always leftovers that were great the next day."
When he returned to Philly, he wondered, "Why is this not here?" So he partnered with longtime buddy Dean Kitagawa to open Rotisseur in a former dress shop near 21st and Sansom. Kitagawa is no longer involved in the business, and since his departure, chef Geoff Boehme, a veteran of Bar Ferdinand, has come on board to take some of the cooking duties off Matzkin's never-formally-trained hands.
Akiko Moorman, former Speck sous chef, is also loosely involved in Rotisseur as Matzkin's recipe consigliere. Those corn muffins are hers — she used to bake them for family meal at Etats-Unis in New York — just tweaked with a swirl of honey and Matzkin's housemade corn milk. Southerners would likely turn up their noses at the moist, fluffy interiors and lingering sweetness, but this is Philadelphia, and we Yankees don't know any better.
The muffins are one of about 10 sides that Rotisseur has on tap any given day. Some, like the peach cobbler and watermelon salad, are seasonal choices that rotate among mainstays. At only $2.50 for a small side and $5 for a large, you should follow my lead and order them all, even if only half of them are worth writing home about.
Among the winners, the resounding favorite was the beyond-belief-buttery roasted potatoes. Rich and golden as pirate doubloons, the spuds are confit-ed in the magical chicken fat collected in the rotisserie and rendered from trimmings. Serious. Crisp little assorted pickles (okra, green tomato, cucumber) rang with tang, as did the bright salad of shaved pickled fennel, apple slices and orange segments turned in a sophisticated tarragon vinaigrette. I also loved the combo of summery succotash, sweet corn, sautéed zucchini, roasted red onions and blanched lima beans all mingling like guests at a perfectly seasoned pool party.
Not so hot were the potato salad (due to an off-kilter ratio of boiled tater to housemade aioli) and kale chips that would disintegrate in a stiff breeze. The mac 'n' cheese's five-queso blend is top-secret, but what the penne really needed was some not-so-secret salt. Under a limp, rolled-out topping, the apple cobbler was weirdly sour. Wish I could tell you about the walnut-pesto pasta salad, but in her scooping-and-boxing, double-checking frenzy, the clerk forgot that one. It was only after I got home that I realized it was on the bill.
But good or bad, the sides are just that. At Rotisseur, the bird's the word. Matzkin taste-tested specimens from 15 providers before settling on the one that would grace his French-engineered Rotisol rotisserie ("the preferred choice of Parisian bistros"). The best bird hailed from Senat Poultry, a halal operation so clear-conscious they've put pictures of their Paterson, N.J., slaughterhouse on their website and invite y'all to come down for a visit now, ya hear! A co-op of Amish farmers raises Senat's chickens without hormones and antibiotics in Lancaster, where the free-roaming roasters develop the all-important "fatty skin" that turns to sheets of crackly gold leaf in the blazing rotisserie oven.
The chickens arrive at Rotisseur, where they're cleaned up and submerged in a brine seasoned with a "secret Japanese ingredient" we can only suspect are the tears of Hideki Matsui. Soaked overnight, the birds are glazed, salt-rubbed and slid onto spits in the rotisserie, which can accommodate 35 3-pounders at a time. Exactly one hour later, they're perfect, all moist, tender, intensely chicken-y meat enrobed in yards of crispy skin. Absolutely perfect. No wonder Rotisseur rolls through 200 of them a week.
Rotisseur sells its chickens by the quarter ($4 to $5), half ($8) and whole ($14), or as meals with two sides ($7 or $11.50). Packed into the environmentally friendly equivalent of a Dunkin' Munchkins box, my twin whole birds with the full fixins roster fed four people for about $20 a head. And there was plenty left over. So order generously; as Matzkin learned in L.A., chicken is always better the next day.
Rotisseur | 102 S. 21st St., 215-496-9494, rotisseur.net. Open Mon.-Fri, noon-10 p.m. Chicken, $4-$14; sides, $2.50-$5.