I Went Looking for the Very Best Chicken Dinner Party Recipe. Here Are My Final Four (and a Winner)

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

This month we’ve been cooking our way through Chicken Champions, our playful quest to crown the best-of-the-best chicken recipes we think everyone should know by heart: chicken soup, pot pie, roast chicken, and (last but certainly not least!) one superb dinner party showstopper. Everyone is in need of a fancy dinner party showstopper, right? It’s the recipe for when there is an occasion, and you must rise. It’s the recipe that lets you swagger into dinner with the in-laws and sleep well the night before. It’s the recipe to remind you of the very good taste you possess, so own it.

And, if you eat meat, I feel pretty strongly that at least one of your dinner party showstoppers should involve chicken. Chicken is easy; chicken is relatively cheap. Chicken is comfort; you just have to dress it up a bit.

I personally took on this final round to assemble a selection of dressy chicken recipes to choose from — call it our Fancy Chicken Conference bracket. But — to no one’s surprise — choosing four candidates for this stage of our tournament du poulet was tough. I noodled on it for weeks. For our other brackets, we opted for a sheer popularity contest: we looked at what the masses love the most and we tallied the numbers; and that’s how we ended up with matchups like Joanna Gaines vs. Smitten Kitchen. It’s also how we handicapped Ina to keep her from sweeping the whole damn thing. What can I say? Call her the Coach Krzyzewski of recipes. (Yes, that was a basketball joke; did I do it right?)

Choosing fancy chicken showstoppers, on the other hand, is riddled with subjectivity and an existential whimsy. I was constrained by sheer time and space, and to keep at least a fig leaf of consistency I stuck with relatively Western-centric recipes (no Hainanese chicken and rice to my sadness; next time let’s all spend a month on chicken and rice around the world, OK?).

In the end, we decided that a showstopper needs to be impressive but not overly risky in taste or technique; it needs to be suitable for a crowd but also boast bit of swagger. But ultimately, it needed to have a story and a flair that transcended pure popular numbers.

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Meet Our Four Showstopper Contenders:

1. The French Classic: Julia Child’s Coq au Vin

First up, Julia Child – the great, classic, coq au vin: chicken in red wine with teeny tiny perfect browned mushrooms. Also butter. So much butter! Julia is an enduring spirit for us here and probably for you; she never goes out of style. (Don’t miss this New Yorker read if you’re in a mood to spend a little extra time with her today.) She still feels utterly modern in her clarity and energy; I was marveling again at the side-by-side recipe layouts of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Why isn’t every recipe this lucid?

The coq au vin, one of her best-known and most iconic recipes, was a no-brainer for inclusion — it practically defines showstopper. It’s a little showy and has a French authority; but it’s still comfort food you’re not afraid to bring to the table. I mean, this is JULIA CHILD’S COQ AU VIN. Who isn’t at least a little impressed by that? It deserves every bit of its fame. It’s rustic in the best ways, heady with wine and layers of flavor.

The drawback? Man, does it take time.

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

See my full recipe review for more detailed musings (and some pointers if you would like to try this one at home). But while Julia’s recipe at first seemed like a clear winner on taste, I felt dragged down by the weight of its extravagant time and expense (Armagnac! I was so happy for an excuse to buy a bottle but that $40 burnt a hole in my budget).

But is it worth making at least once in your life? By all the Armagnac in Toulouse, yes. Go slow and enjoy it. Is it the first thing that comes to mind when considering a dinner party? No, I can’t say that it does. I would rather make a pot of it slowly with no rush or pressure to set the table for anyone but my family, and hoard that good stew for myself and my husband on a greedy January weekend, with at least two bottles of wine. I don’t really want to share, especially after that much work.

And yet — at the start, Julia was the front-runner on sheer taste and pleasure.

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

2. The Star of the 80s: Silver Palate Chicken Marbella

Next up: another very easy choice for inclusion — Sheila Lukins’ Silver Palate Chicken Marbella, the darling of the ’80s and beyond. This is the most on-trend recipe I’ve ever made — if that trend belongs to a time other than now. Heaps of brown sugar, olives, and prunes. Enough chicken to feed a vast crowd. Simple preparation (just toss it all together!).

Again, read my notes for the full review, including what I would do differently next time I made it. I see why this is such a classic, but it wasn’t for me — which surprised me. It has so many things I love: olives, capers, the ease of all those chicken parts and make-ahead magic. But I found it a little contrived and in the end, just too sweet. Even after extra time in the oven, the chicken skin was a little pallid and greasy. The balance was off. It was missing something that would make me confident in serving it.

I’ve already had howls of kickback from people I shared my conclusions with, so to be fair, I don’t think I can pass this by without making it again, but for me — This isn’t my favorite (in the precise enunciation of my three-year-old at bedtime).

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

3. The Internet Sensation: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk

This one was also an easy pick, since I myself, with the grand confidence and hyperbole of youth, proclaimed Jamie Oliver’s chicken in milk THE BEST CHICKEN EVER, probably (no one remembers caveats on the internet). I would like to think that you, dear Kitchn readers in your avid response, had a lot to do with the way this recipe soared into a proto-viral hit. It has everything that makes for internet glory: it’s delicious, homey, but also a little weird. Chicken in milk takes some convincing.

But the flavors hold up. For full notes on this one, I am going to direct you to my original piece on the topic; I stand by my first admittedly gushing response — if not the hyperbolic conclusion. It’s a wildly good chicken, with an elemental musk where lemon meets cinnamon, and gloptastic sauce that was made for thick slices of sourdough bread. It’s gorgeous and drippy and tear-it-off-the-bone moreish.

But is it a Sunday showstopper for guests? Maybe the right sort of guests — someone you’re really comfortable with, who is there for you when you finally buy that Le Creuset and break up with the bad guy and rage-quit your micromanaging boss and is cheerfully game for all the right gossip.

But is it the first place I turn for guests to impress, or for a crowd to serve easily? No, I confess not. It’s just a little too carnal, too messy. It leaves it all on the court at the final buzzer but it’s not quite enough. (Please, humor me in my March madness.)

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

4. The Insider’s Pick: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Roasted Chicken with Clementines & Arak

Which brings me to the final pick on this list, our dark horse, an Ottolenghi recipe from Jerusalem: chicken with fennel and clementines. This one sidled into the bracket thanks to recommendations from a few of my most in-the-know food friends, who messaged on Instagram or brought it up as a matter of course. “Oh, and of course: the Ottolenghi clementine chicken.” Like that. You don’t ignore that kind of tip from cookbook editors. But it wasn’t a sure inclusion; I almost knocked it off the list a few times. What won its place were these elements:

First, it’s gorgeous. A great showstopper has a certain drama at the table, whether it’s in a pot or on a platter. It doesn’t just taste good; it looks like it tastes good.

Second, while the ingredient list is relatively long, it’s also surprisingly flexible and — the buzzer-beater here! — it can all be prepped ahead. In fact, the recipe demands that you combine every ingredient in one big bowl and put it in the fridge overnight. I think I prepped the whole dish in 10 minutes flat. Then you just spread on a tray and roast at very high heat. Serve warm or (this right here!) at room temperature (can you tell I love this recipe? I’m tipping my hand).

Even with all that, I was a little skeptical of this one’s chances. (It had to beat Julia for flavor, to have any chance at all.) Its handicap was the fennel. Fennel is a polarizing taste, with its green licorice-meets-celery scent, and this recipe calls for a lot of it. Fresh fennel, plus fennel seeds, plus a strong anise spirit from Israel (or a Greek ouzo, or French Pernod. Or leave it out entirely. See? Flex.). I’d wondered: Would this just be altogether too much?

The answer, I must say, is no. It was not too much. In fact, this recipe overcame so many of my own prejudices (fruit with chicken) and the prejudices of others (fennel to the max). The high heat does wonders; it blitzes this chicken into caramelized excellence, blackening the clementine rinds like they’ve been scorched on a campfire, and melting the fennel into its sweet, soulful best. The aggressive anise liquor mellows out; I would feed this to a baby (and I did). I brought this to the table on a busy weeknight with practically no effort and even my husband — jaded soul that he is, married to an Internet Food Person — was all, “You better take a picture of that.”

In the end, it was a rout; Ottolenghi all the way. It stood at the intersection of ease, crowd-pleasing flavor, and beauty.

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

So that is my March Madness report, a really great story where a come-from-behind dark horse emerges to win. This recipe is the full package — but that doesn’t mean the other contenders aren’t great too of course. In fact, before someone shouts out from the comments, I know that chicken Marbella has many of the same virtues as the Ottolenghi chicken: one-bowl prep, make-ahead ease, a one-tray meal good at room temperature. But I just couldn’t quite get my head around the flavors. Subjective as all get out, but that’s why this is chicken and not basketball.

Everyone needs a showstopper; quite likely you have one already and if so, I would dearly love to hear about it in the comments (including, if you please, the most memorable dinner it headlined).

But if you are in the market for a fancy showstopper still, consider these four — especially my new favorite. By the time you read this, I will probably have made it at least once more.

To the champion!

Chicken Champions: All month long, Kitchn is battling off the four classic chicken recipes everyone needs this time of year: pot pie, soup, roast chicken, and showstopper chicken. (It’s our March Madness: Chicken Edition!)

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