There is nothing delicate about fried chicken. Eating it—as it should be eaten, that is—requires a degree of abandon. You hold the bone in your bare hands and tear into it with your teeth. The deed is greasy and unpretty, but it helps if you are not the only person in the room who is really getting into your food. That’s why a place like Southern-suave Crispy Bird, the latest addition to the Patachou restaurant family, feels like a safe haven for those who appreciate this complicated, delicious medium.
A snug 56-seat dining room with a full bar and counter stools that tuck right up to a bustling prep area serves as chef David Hoover’s second act in Indy. After launching Bar One Fourteen across the street (arguably among Indy’s most inspired new restaurants of 2017), where he wrapped truffle-topped burgers in foil and arranged bespoke crudité on crunchy ice, Hoover set out to perfect his fried chicken game in this Meridian-Kessler packed house owned by his mother, Martha Hoover (Eater.com’s Restaurant Empire Builder of the Year, one of Fortune’s Most Innovative Women in Food, and the subject of a recent Vogue profile … maybe you’ve heard of her). And that was brave of him, even if restaur-entrepreneurship runs in his family, because people tend to debate fried chicken the same way they eat it: viscerally, territorially.
I’ll get to the point. This is not legendary fried chicken. It is, however, good enough to satisfy a craving—heavy, impressive, and aggressively coated so that the brined meat stays juicy beneath a rippling deep-brown crust that can shear off in sheets, a structural triumph. This exoskeleton just seems more complementary to the thicker, sexier pieces—the breast and the thigh—while the bonier, workhorse leg and wing get lost beneath it. And the flavor doesn’t work its way to the bone. You want a hit of pepper on your lips or a pop of salt on the tongue, and it’s not there.
Even the Hydro Bibb salad gets a hit of buttermilk dressing and a few of those sizzled chicken skins tossed in just to keep the cardiologists in business.
I realize we have reached the point in this story where you’re either with me or you’re already typing your rebuttal for the comments section. I understand. I hear you. I’ve read user reviews of Crispy Bird hailing it as as a winner, winner—the best thing since Casper mattresses. I’ve also nodded in sympathy as friends, flush with indignation, complained that their chicken came out overcooked and burnt-tasting, or weirdly over-salted. These diners seemed poised to form a picket line outside the buzzy restaurant with big display windows onto 49th Steet and just a shingle sporting the Crispy Bird logo (two stick-figure chicken feet) but not its name.
Why wouldn’t they take to the streets? We have so many passionate schools of thought regarding tasty fried poultry, enough to fuel a debate as old as the chicken-egg brouhaha. Team Iron Skillet and Team Hollyhock Hill could argue this topic all afternoon over jars of iced tea at Kountry Kitchen or bowls of crispy hominy at The Eagle. We are Hoosiers, after all. Fried chicken is our thing. So of course fighting about it can get as messy as eating it. Can we all just agree that Gray Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville sets the gold standard and move on?
Crispy Bird isn’t just a fried chicken establishment, anyway. Hoover, who attended cooking school in France and worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen before returning to his Indiana roots, applies his culinary touch to a sweet roster of soul food classics as well. He serves fried chicken skins (rendered to puffy chips that taste like chicken soup) alongside a dipping bowl of aioli flavored with Meyer lemon and the fermented Japanese condiment yuzu kosho. A bright green-apple gelée tops the mini chicken-liver tart served slightly chilled as a starter, with fresh herbs tufted over it. The liver has a rich texture and complex, nutty flavor that pairs well with the variety of bubblies poured at the bar, along with impressive cocktails ranging from an unapologetically girly Aperol Spritz slushie to a bracing Michelada made with lager, lime, and clarified tomato.
Potlikker emulsion—a rich and salty nod to the lovely utilitarian juice that cooks out of boiled greens—thickens a bowl of black-eyed peas that you might not recognize for the pretty yellow blob of yolk confit and fan of crisped greens. And a deep bowl of fried rice made with the coveted Carolina Gold chewy long-grain variety is bound with persimmon sauce, scallions, and a slow-poached egg stirred at the table. It tastes like a slightly altered bibimbap.
Dishes edge in the general direction of French-inflected richness. A sheet of skillet-singed cheese tops the custard-style macaroni and cheese that is cut into blocks and served like a casserole. Thick-sided twice-baked potatoes share the “sides and small plates” section with popcorn-topped grits and a salad of kale and Brussels sprouts, all of which can be upgraded with truffle shavings or caviar. Pork tenderloin sliders are dressed with the herby sauce gribiche, which is made of finely diced egg. Even the Hydro Bibb salad gets a hit of buttermilk dressing and a few of those sizzled chicken skins tossed in just to keep the cardiologists in business.
Perhaps the biggest diet-buster, the fried chicken sandwich, isn’t just the best thing on the menu, but also an important part of Crispy Bird’s established creation story. While studying entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, Hoover was so impressed with a certain fried chicken sandwich he ate at a Los Angeles restaurant that he became obsessed with re-creating it. By the time this trendy “chicken shack” came to life in December of last year, he had zeroed in on this solid two-hander inside a glossy brioche bun that has the perfect chewy give and hint of sweetness. This sandwich has a lot going on. A crunch-enhanced slab of white meat nestles inside the bread with tangy slaw, sweet pickles, and a swipe of aioli that gets even better with a hit of housemade jalapeño hot sauce. I don’t know what that L.A. prototype tasted like, but this one deserves a hometown fan club of its own. Now go discuss that amongst yourselves.
115 E. 49th St., 317-744-0000, crispy-bird.com
Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11a.m.–10 p.m.
VIBE: Southern tableau
TASTING NOTES: Fried chicken and all the traditional fixings—made untraditional with the culinary finesse and playful imagination of a French-trained chef
MUST-ORDER: A bowl of starchy and sticky Carolina fried rice and the hulking fried chicken sandwich, stacked with rough-chopped coleslaw and sweet pickles. Homemade maple-syrup soft-serve ice cream encased in a chocolate shell for dessert. Lipitor digestif.
TAB: Snacks, sides, and small plates $6–$9, mains $10–$14
3-STAR RATING: ★★