The notion of cooking with beer wasn’t entirely new when The News and Courier endorsed the practice in 1982. Although the newspaper described beer as “not a common ingredient,” it had been printing recipes calling for suds since at least 1950, when a column aimed at men with grills suggested marinating steaks in beer “if you can spare it.” Over the next few decades, the paper published recipes for soused shrimp and brown sugar beer cake. But what was special about “chicken in beer” is it came from Maxwell’s Plum, a New York City restaurant that helped shift the way Americans think about dining.
Even though Maxwell’s Plum didn’t advertise its opening in 1966, people almost immediately started lining up to get into the art nouveau funhouse, furnished with “kaleidoscopic stained-glass ceilings and walls, Tiffany lamps galore, a menagerie of ceramic animals, etched glass and cascades of crystal,” as The New York Times described it. In most cases, they were looking for fellow singles, not food. Still, within a few years, the restaurant was serving 1,500 meals a day.
“Used to be (a pick-up place), maybe two years ago,” Poppy Cannon wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1970. “But now Maxwell’s Plum is a real restaurant.” She went on to praise the wild boar with gingered apples and lingonberries. Back at The New York Times, Raymond Sokolov was taken with the salmon en croute and bouillabaisse.
But what was most striking about the menu at Maxwell’s Plum was how breezily it departed from the French standards of the day. Customers who weren’t drawn to escargot or coquilles St-Jacques could order a foot-long with chili or a bacon cheeseburger. And even though owner Warner LeRoy padded about the dining room in loud paisley suits, nobody minded if patrons showed up in casual clothes.
“It is one of the true paradoxes of the city’s night life,” Peter Benchley wrote in a lengthy article published just before he began work on “Jaws.” “By being consciously — almost self-consciously — democratic, by avoiding all pretense to exclusivity, it has become one of the most smashingly successful places in the city, attracting everyone from movie stars to restaurateurs to — yes, even the fabled Brooklyn secretary.”
Maxwell’s Plum closed in 1988, the victim of a slumping economy and short-sighted management decisions. But its legacy surfaces every time a high-end restaurant serves a lobster roll or pours beer over chicken.
Today, chicken and beer most commonly meet in the form of beer-can chicken, which involves smoking a chicken vertically, atop an opened and partially emptied can of beer. But in keeping with its continental leanings, Maxwell’s Plum served a dish that was closer to a stroganoff. The recipe it provided for “chicken in beer” called for browning chicken in butter and shallots before simmering the meat in beer. Then creme fraiche went into the mix, followed by sauteed mushrooms and other vegetables. It was all supposed to be served over noodles.
“I didn’t want to make too many changes,” says Greg Garrison of Prohibition, another restaurant that stresses the connection between food and drink. That said, he made a few.
First, Garrison decided to leave the bird whole. He slipped whipped honey butter under its skin; inserted a can of Westbrook IPA and roasted the chicken at 400 degrees. “We cooked it just until the skin looked pretty close to where we wanted it, then pulled it out and took the drippings from the chicken,” he says. The drippings were mixed with stock and creme fraiche for an accompanying root vegetable sauce.
“You’re not only adding flavor, you’re adding moisture,” Garrison says of the beer trick. “You don’t want the inside of the cavity to dry out. It came out good.”