Who orders the chicken at a restaurant “Famous For Sea Foods?” Plenty of people, it turns out, when the dish in question is “Chicken a la Clinton,” a creamy, Sherry-accented specialty of the former Henry's restaurant on Market Street, the ne plus ultra of Charleston fine dining from about 1932 until 1985.
Like the restaurant's fishier specialties — Pompano a la Gherardi, Snapper a la Chambord, Seafood a la Wando — Chicken a la Clinton is described on the menu in florid, almost recipe-like prose, making the re-creation of it today far easier, in theory.
In developing this recipe, we took a few liberties in technique, burnishing the mushroom and onion components in a skillet. The original was almost certainly more thick, floury and white. (The 20 minutes of smothering specified on the menu produces leathery, overcooked chicken; we fixed that.)
The cream-bacon-onion-sherry hits all the comforting mid-century flavor buttons. Re-creating this dish is like singing any period piece, whether a ragtime tune or a Bach cantata: familiar sensations compete with exotic ones, the trick of being transported for a moment to another time and place.
Time: 40 minutes
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 slices thick-cut bacon (about 4 ounces)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces cremini or button mushroom, sliced
1/4 cup chopped shallot (one medium shallot)
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried red chile flakes
1/2 cup Madeira or sherry
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup chopped curly parsley, divided for use
4 ounces bulb onions, leeks, scallions, or a combination thereof, white and green, sliced thinly crosswise (about 3/4 cup)
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Season the chicken breasts all over with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper.
In a 10-inch skillet, gently cook the bacon to golden crisp over medium-low heat, turning frequently, about 6-8 minutes. With tongs, transfer the bacon to a cutting board. Turn off the heat under the skillet and leave the bacon grease in the pan. Chop the bacon and reserve.
Mix flour and cornstarch with a fork on a dinner plate and roll each chicken breast in the mixture to coat. Shake off excess.
Add the butter to the bacon grease in the pan and turn heat to medium-high. When butter has frothed, add two chicken breasts to the pan and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the browned chicken to a cutting board and repeat with the remaining chicken breasts. Shallowly slice each breast crosswise into about 5 or 6 pieces without cutting all the way through.
Turn the heat under the skillet to low, add the sliced mushrooms and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have darkened and shrunk, about 5 minutes. Scatter the shallot in the pan, stir, and cook a minute longer. Crank the heat to medium high, add the paprika and chile flakes, stirring. After the pan is noticeably hotter, almost smoking, pour in the Madeira or sherry and stir occasionally until the liquid has mostly boiled away. Pour in the broth and continue cooking until the broth has reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Then add the cream, bacon, half the parsley and the onion (bulb onions, leeks, scallions, or a combination thereof) and stir to combine.
Nestle the chicken breasts into the mushrooms and onions in the skillet and add any juices from the cutting board that have run off the chicken. Cover the skillet and place in the upper half of the oven, baking for 6 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven and spoon some of the mushroom/onion/gravy over the chicken. Return to the oven uncovered and bake for another 3 minutes, until the gravy has thickened a bit more and the chicken is cooked through. Garnish with the reserved parsley and serve immediately over rice, spooning some extra gravy over each serving. Any leftovers keep two days, covered, in the refrigerator.