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Food & Dining A chicken joint with posh neighbors

December 2, 2018

What is it about New Canaan that just speaks of well-bred, preppy, horsey, Ivy League lifestyles. I guess I could be silly and blame it all on the influence of the legendary Whitney Shop on Elm Street. If the Stepford Wives had a favorite store, the Whitney Shop would be it.

I have always been fascinated by the Whitney Shop for no other reason that it is the exact opposite of todays big box stores like Costco or couch shopping with QVC. It is pure traditional good taste, the kind of elegant sensibility seen in Town and Country magazine and similar glossies.

You may be wondering what on earth the Whitney Shop has to do with a fried chicken joint? I am not sure I can give a profound analysis, but there is something soul lifting about a little fried chicken joint being able to hold its own on a street with the highest of high-end merchants.

What is now New Canaan Chicken was originally a small place called Chicken Joe’s. A few years ago it was bought by Pren Lleshdedaj, a Croation native who had come to America in 2002 and learned the restaurant business. After learning the ropes at a Bronx restaurant called Frankie and Johnnie’s, he bought Chicken Joe’s. He kept on some of the original line cooks, so the fans of the old Chicken Joe’s recipes would not suffer undo trauma. He was also smart enough to not rename Chicken Joe’s to Chicken Lleshdedaj.

I am sure the crowd at New Canaan Chicken changes with the time of day but on my visit it was filled with local teenagers. Bright cheeked, polite and well dressed they were very much the same crowd that hung out at my generation’s “malt shops.” As an homage to their youthful clientele, the wall of New Canaan Chicken feature blow-ups of black-and-white photos of generations past. Taken from New Canaan yearbooks, we see an array of recent and past high school wrestling teams, baseball players and rugbyites. Such good looking people are hard to find outside a Ralph Lauren ad. It must be something in the chicken.

Least I forget, New Canaan Chicken does not serve only chicken, it offers a broad menu of hots dogs, hamburgers, omelettes and composed cold salads. This is an interesting factoid, but I was set on the chicken. I ordered the chicken dinner, I ordered chicken nuggets, I ordered chicken strips, and chicken on a salad. On the side, I got jalapeño poppers, french fries, corn fritterd and some ziti in marinara sauce that I do not remembering ordering but there it was.

I ate more then the teens all around me (which is saying something) and I was the only one whose massive meal came in styrofoam “clam shells” instead of a white paper bag. This seems of no importance except when I left I noticed that I had declined the large shaker of “seasoning” which all the paper bag people used liberally. I suspect it was a blend of seasoned salt, but the amount the kids asked for must make it addictive. Next time I will try it.

When I dived into the meal I was pleasantly surprised at how greaseless the fried chicken was. Compared to any of the chain chicken joints, the skin was delicate and held its place on the chicken, not skipping off like a sheet of greasy paper. The fries were also tasty, again not oily or greasy.

Of all the ways I ordered the chicken here I liked the classic fried legs and thighs best. They had a nice clean taste, good quality and fried when ordered. In my humble opinion, chicken nuggets are for 5-year-olds; the chicken strips are merely extended nuggets. I did love the jalapeño poppers, mild little peppers that when bitten into, gushed mild yellow cheese. The corn fritters were rather odd, the size of marbles and although they had kernels of corn in them were so sweet they could be dessert.

Although this is a teen hangout, I was impressed by the line cooks. They looked like veteran grill and fry masters. They keep everything moving quickly, while keeping an eye out to make sure no young ones acts rowdy and everyone behaves themselves.

One rarely finds such a true neighborhood place these days, and certainly not in posh New Canaan where a “neighborhood” meal might cost a hundred bucks. I so wanted to see what was happening at the Whitney Shop just a short walk away, but even though I like to be daring I didn’t have the nerve to admire their fine lace napkins and smocked children’s dresses while smelling like fried chicken.

I will return to both the Whitney Shop and New Canaan Chicken again but on separate adventures.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.

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