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Monday, February 6, 2012

The Annals of Fried Chicken

Saturday, February 4, 2012, mid-day. I was on my rocking chair, smoking my pipe, half-conscious, half-not-conscious, in a subliminal state, contemplating fried chicken.  That evening I would be returning to The Cardinal, a new-ish place in the East Village, the cook hailing from North Carolina, a place serving Southern food, including the infamous dish known as FRIED CHICKEN.

What was unique about my first trip to The Cardinal was that I felt very comfortable saying it was one of the best fried chickens I have ever tasted. For me, this was a revelation, for my normal reaction to fried chicken is more along the lines of "good but not great."  The Cardinal was much closer to great.

As I sat on my rocking chair, I was quite nervous.  A friend and fellow blogger has expressed fried chicken anxiety quite well:

"The initial bite of new fried chicken is the most nerve-wracking for me - so many questions running through my head!: Will it be crunchy?  Will it be well-seasoned?  Will it be sufficiently juicy and moist?"

Indeed, the initial bite is the most nerve-wracking; yet this in no way precludes other moments from being nerve-wracking!  I knew I was returning to a place that was special.  In my mind, I had the idea, the memory, that this fried chicken was excellent.  Would that night's return visit prove my memory correct?  This is the anxiety that plagued me, turning me into some tortured character out of an Edgar Allen Poe story.

I met my friend, the very one just mentioned, for what would prove to be quite the banquet.  Said friend had purchased some sort of Groupon that offered a real feast for an extremely reasonable price.  We arrived and were promptly seated. As mentioned in my first chronicle of The Cardinal, the place is just cool.  It's warm, laid-back, dimly lit but not too dimly lit, and like I said, cool, without really being pretentious. The hostess is the girlfriend of the cook, and they both own the place and live in an apartment underneath the restaurant. We also learned that one of the waiters lives in an apartment upstairs, and his girlfriend bakes the pies that are served (more on that later).

Here is a list of what was consumed:

Two salads, one in particular that had beets, buttermilk dressing and bacon and was delicious
Fried green tomatoes
Black-eyed peas
Mashed potatoes
Candied yams
Fried catfish
Homemade Sausage

The salads were served first, but otherwise everything else came at the same time.  I couldn't bring myself to eat the fried chicken right away.  I knew my moment of reckoning was coming, yet, in much the same way we will do anything to delay death just one more day - one more second! - I put off my moment of truth for as long as possible.

Everything was delicious.  Wholesome, savory, rich, delicate and light and crispy (as in the catfish), delightful.  My friend took a bite of the chicken and seemed very pleased.  I knew I would have to man-up soon.  And indeed the time came.

The initial bite thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
This is indeed great fried chicken!

Yay, as I took more bites, my soul lifted.  This was really good fried chicken - not good, not fine, really good.  Indeed, the finest I have had. Yet I did find myself wondering if the fried chicken had been elevated by the entire experience: the warm atmosphere, the deliciousness of everything else I was eating.  Yes, the fried chicken was really good on its own, but was it being pulled up into the heavens by a pair of fried green tomatoes with wings?  Were the light-as-air candied yams lifting up the fried chicken, much like fizzy-lifting drink had done in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?  Again, I am left wondering: is excellent fried chicken able to exist in a vacuum, or must it be part of a lavish meal, an ensemble of tastes and textures?

 I know not the answers to these questions, and my sorry soul may never.  But that night, that night was a delightful gastronomic experience, and my being took solace - or at least whatever solace is possible - in a fried chicken that was clearly superior.  To top off the experience, we were served an absolutely delicious pecan pie that had just come out of the oven.  Warm and rich, it was topped with whipped cream. 

For at least a while, life was good.