Makings of a Renaissance

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Jason Stratton pulls a page from an enlightened past to celebrate and savor the short spurt of spring.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY MATT MORNICK

Europe arose from turmoil into tremendous cultural change and achievement 700 years ago. A newfound hunger for discovery illuminated teachings from classical texts, which transformed contemporary thinking. Art and creativity were conspicuously displayed, and breaking from the old to create the new was paramount. We know this period as the Italian Renaissance.

This revival comes to mind when walking into Mbar, the latest creation from Wassef and Racha Haroun. Every aspect of the rooftop restaurant and bar drips with artistic intent. The avant-garde space is itself an extension of the many inventive expressions within it. Mbar is a mash-up of the best of Seattle, which ties less to its past and more to what the city could become. 

It is no surprise, then, that Executive Chef Jason Stratton is leading Mbar’s kitchen. A son of the Northwest, Jason began his career in Bruce Naftaly’s kitchen where he learned the art of seasonal cooking. After working as a Sous Chef under Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita, Jason took the lead at Spinasse in Seattle. He went on to open Artusi, a Bon Apetít Best New Restaurant in 2012, and Aragona, a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2014 before taking on the General Manager and Executive Chef position for Mamnoon. In 2016 Jason competed on Bravo’s Top Chef. When Wassef and Racha began to envision Mbar, they turned to Jason to help them bring it to light.

I met with Jason to learn where he draws inspiration this time of year. A self-ascribed book worm, Jason studies food history to understand how culture, trade, and the environment influenced diet during different historical periods. For spring, Jason pulled a page from the Italian Renaissance.

“Spring in the Northwest is a micro-season. It marks the brief period when new shoots outpace winter, and gardens begin to green. I make a braised chicken dish in early spring, using the ingredients we have on hand, some of which are unripe. The recipe is a classic Florentine dish from the Renaissance. Ultimately it is about what you do with ingredients before the ripening.”

Jason continues, “The recipe also marks a turning point from when cuisine was unpolished, maybe unformed, and based entirely upon what could be grown around you. It also nods to the simplicity of modern Italian cuisine. Today, we consider chicken commonplace. But at the time, the whiteness of the meat meant chicken was an extremely sophisticated food. Add herbs and spices, and this dish marks the step out of medieval times to when spices became a symbol of refinement and power.” Jason continues, “It is interesting to know what people ate at different periods throughout history and how culture and trade influenced diet.”

The braise begins with a sofrito of leeks, celery, garlic, caraway, and a little pancetta. Add spices – cinnamon, caraway, a little cumin – and braise the chicken in verjus. This acidic juice made from unripe grapes is not as powerful as vinegar, but carries the fruit’s potential. It is bright, which ties nicely to springtime, and gives the chicken a tart quality. The braised chicken sits overnight, but the longer it sits, the better.

When finishing the dish, Jason adds a portion of crème fraiche to thicken the sauce. He also adds mint, dill, tarragon, and parsley. “The herbs almost become a side vegetable with distinct aromatics,” he explains. “Once the herbs turn bright green and soften, and the sauce has barely thickened, that is when you serve it.”

When preparing the dish, you first notice the soft, juicy, tender meat. Braising chicken on the bone preserves much of the moisture. The verjus’s potency comes through in the sauce, countered by the richness of the crème fraiche. By then, herbs envelope your taste buds. The base spices – the cinnamon, caraway, and cumin – begin to build. As you take new bites, you discover new flavors. You are drawn back for another bite.

Though this dish is historically accurate, it seems more like a mix of influences you can’t quite put your finger on — just as Jason and Mbar intended.

For this dish, Jason recommends an aromatic, slightly-off, dry white wine to play with spice and herbs in the tart, rich braise, such as the Francis Tannahill Gewurztraminer from Washington State, or a lighter-bodied red from the Loire Valley or Sicily.

Mbar
400 Fairview Ave. N.
206-457-8287 • mbarseattle.com

West Coast photographer Matt Mornick specializes in photographing food, people, and travel. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.

Young Chicken Braised in Verjus with Baby Turnips, Herbs, and Golden Raisins

Serves 4 | 1.5 hours active cooking time

This dish is drawn from an Italian Renaissance recipe. It is equally delicious with other spring vegetables: radishes, leeks, fava beans, English peas, morel mushrooms, and other combinations.

Ingredients

4 poussins (or substitute Cornish game hens or 2 small roasting chickens)
1/4 cup olive oil
12 baby turnips with greens attached, washed, and split in half lengthwise
1/2 pound pancetta, cut into small dice
8 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 leeks, whites only, soaked in cold water to remove grit, drained, and cut into small dice
2 carrots, cut into small dice
2 stalks celery, cut into small dice
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
2 tablespoons cumin
1 teaspoon caraway
1 1/2 cups verjus
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 bunches dill, 2 bunches stripped of stem and rough chopped
2 bunches tarragon, one bunch stripped of stem and rough chopped
1 bunch mint, 1/2 bunch stripped of stem and rough chopped
1 bunch Italian parsley, 1/2 bunch stripped of stem and rough chopped
4 cups chicken stock (ideally, homemade)
1/2 cup creme fraiche
salt to taste

Recipe

Preheat oven to 325°F.

With sharp kitchen shears, spatchcock the poultry by cutting down the backbone, splaying the bodies flat, then cutting down through the breast bone with a sharp knife into halves. If using roasting chickens, cut each bird into 8 pieces. 

In a heavy-bottomed braising pan, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Season the baby turnips on the cut sides with salt, then sear in olive oil until deeply browned. Flip turnips over and brown the other side. Remove and set aside.

Pat dry chicken and season well with salt. Place chicken into the braising pan, skin side down, and sear until chicken skin is well browned and crisp. Remove and set aside.

Add pancetta and garlic to the pan, and turn the heat down to medium, rendering about 10 minutes. Add leeks, carrots, celery, and spices, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes, until the vegetables are wilted and turning translucent, but not browning.

Add verjus and raisins and bring to a simmer. Tie the whole, unstripped herbs into a bouquet garni and put in pan with chicken, baby turnips, and chicken stock. Bring back up to a simmer, first cover braised chicken with a piece of parchment, then cover pan with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil. Once covered, put pan into preheated oven and braise for 1 hour or until chicken is very tender. Chicken may be made in advance up to this point (indeed, the braise improves in flavor sitting overnight).

To serve, add creme fraiche and the stripped, rough-chopped herbs to the braise. Bring to a boil and reduce sauce, basting the chicken and turnips with the sauce until the sauce thinly coats a spoon. Taste, adjust salt level, and serve immediately.

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