On market day in France, every little village welcomes a chicken truck that opens on one side to reveal a dozen rows of golden birds turning slowly on spits. If you want to find the truck, follow the intoxicating aromas. The gorgeous birds are a vision, seasoned with spices and herbs, which might be cumin and coriander and other North African aromatics, or rosemary and lemon, depending on the cook’s country of origin, in keeping with traditional French flavors. Fries are soaked in the drippings from the trays along the bottom of the rotisserie. They never make it back to where you’re staying.
I am drawn to this spectacle as if the birds were in some sort of revue. The customer queue is always long and I like to eavesdrop, listening to the fast, colloquial conversation between vendor and shopper like a YouTube tutorial, then I watch the tightly trussed birds slipped into take-away sacks. I imagine them eaten around a lively table, along with a crusty baguette set right on the wood.
Many supermarkets here offer rotisserie chickens but mostly they’re so overcooked that when you open the bag to ease them onto a cutting board, they start to fall apart, a leg dropping off at the thigh joint, the wings no longer plump and inviting. In the end, it’s not just aromas you’re after, it’s juicy meat, skin that almost crackles it’s so crisp, and lots of flavor.
Branch Line has perfected succulent rotisserie chickens, which you can order half or whole ($19 and $32). Mahogany birds bathed in spices arrive sprinkled with fresh herbs in a metal gratin dish. Co-owners Andrew Holden and Garrett Harker took the task of figuring out rotisserie roasting so seriously that for months before they opened the Watertown Arsenal restaurant two years ago, they set up a make-shift rotisserie in Eastern Standard, which Harker owns and where Holden is general manager. They tested hundreds of birds, says Holden, to determine how long to keep them in the walk-in, uncovered; the kitchen term for this is “air-dry,” and that’s what makes the skin turn crisp. They decided on two to three days in the chiller, then a rub that incorporates coriander, sumac, dried marjoram, and thyme, and fresh herbs before serving. “I’ve become a little obsessed,” says Holden.
The rotisserie at Branch Line, which you can see from most tables, has eight long spits, on which five or six trussed chickens are threaded. It’s made by the French manufacturer Rotisol, established over 50 years ago. On its website, the company states that keen interest in rotisseries in the United States started in the 1990s. Where in France many mom-and-pop corner shops have a rotisserie wall, often outside, to tempt you as you pass by, markets in this country are fairly new to the tradition. Branch Line offers takeout dinner for two, ($32), which includes a whole bird, salad, and dessert. The night I got it, the beautiful, juicy, brown bird and a savory sauce came with a very small salad and dessert for one.
The restaurant’s free-range birds, raised in Pennsylvania, are distributed by D’Artagnan, sold under the label Green Circle. They turn on their spits for less than an hour; spits are loaded mid-morning, and reloaded through the afternoon and evening. With the drippings in the bottom, the chefs make a sauce with Dijon mustard and lemon juice. The drippings pan holds roughly torn cabbage shreds mixed with Berkshire bacon. Cabbage never tasted this good.
If the combination of juicy roast chicken with smoky, fat-drenched cabbage doesn’t give you enough of a rotisserie boost, order a side of drippings with crushed garlic and Iggy’s bread for dipping. You wouldn’t call it an ordinary dip; it’s too thin for that. Nor can you think of it as a sauce. It’s more like something you’d get on the bottom of your own roasting pan, which you’d scrape with bread when no one’s looking.
The intense drippings ($4) are offered because restaurateur Chris Schlesinger, eating at the restaurant one night, asked for them. Holden had brought bread and olive oil to his table, but Schlesinger, who was eyeing the rotisserie, said, “Can you get me some of those chicken drippings?” Some guests, says Holden, are expecting something different when the bowl of juices arrives. “Others love the hedonistic.” There is something intensely pleasurable about the bird and drippings. It makes you want to throw down your fork and eat with your hands.
You wouldn’t catch the French doing that.
321 Arsenal St. (inside Watertown Arsenal), Watertown, 617-420-1900, www.branchlinearsenal.comSheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.