This is the second installment of “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Comment online or email reporter Benjy Egel at email@example.com.
Magpie Cafe is a family affair, with husband-and-wife ownership team Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye each flanked by one of their siblings. So it’s perhaps fitting that the most notable dinner entree is a dish meant to be enjoyed among multiple people.
Chicken for two has stayed on Magpie’s ever-evolving menu since Roehr and Inouye started out on R Street nearly 10 years ago, though the item has changed some over time. Vegetables have moved in and out and grilled slices of bread have disappeared from the bowl, but the $38 sharable entrée remains one of Magpie’s best-sellers.
“For me, just having something to share, having something in one vessel on a table is really comfortable,” Roehr said. “You can really order the dish for two people and maybe not eat anything else. Maybe order a bottle of wine.”
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Chicken for two starts with a base layer of reddish-black japonica rice, a grain family Magpie largely neglected in its dining room until about six months ago, from Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst. A rotating medley of greens from West Sacramento’s Del Rio Botanical currently includes sweet potato leaves, dinosaur kale, beet tops and fava leaves.
The star of the dish, a half chicken sourced from various Central Valley producers and distributed by Preferred Meats, is cooked two ways: breasts pan-roasted in a wine sauce, legs coated in duck fat and cooked confit-style on low heat. The duck fat is delivered already rendered from Pitman Farms, the Fresno County-based makers of Mary’s Chicken.
“It’s very rich. It’s even richer than the legs and thighs on their own,” Roehr said. “Then with the pan-(roast), we get the skin to be real crisp on the breast and it stays light, true to the nature of the white chicken meat.”
Everything in the large white bowl is drizzled with a sauce made from sesame oil, olive oil, sesame seeds, ginger, chervil and a house vinaigrette from Two Rivers Cider Co. dregs that Roehr described as a mix of chimichurri and “a trip to the Asian market.” Bartender Carmen Artrip recommended pairing it with a sangiovese or cabernet.
A roasted half chicken marinated in lemon and olive oil and cut in thin slices like Peking duck was the first item to show up on Magpie’s evening menu back in 2009. Magpie then used an entire young chicken called a poussin for several years before reverting back to half an adult bird.
“It’s a very good way to eat in the beginning of the week,” Roehr said. “Sometimes we have diners that are looking for something a little more elegant on Friday night, so maybe we sell less of it on Friday night, but earlier in the week we have a lot of people who want to make supper out of it.”
Inouye and Roehr opened Magpie as a counter-service deli at 1409 R St. Suite 102 after years of catering. They initially used the same menu throughout the day before deciding customers might like heartier dinner entrees, leading to the chicken dish’s birth.
Celebrity diners over the years have included 90s alt-rock band The Pixies and the Dalai Lama, whose 2016 visit to the Capitol included a catered lunch of vegan bean soup, duck in herb sauce over rice and a salad containing tomato, stone fruit and burrata.
After Magpie moved to a larger space inside 16 Powerhouse in 2015, Inouye and Roehr opened counter-service cafe Nido in its place. It lasted less than two years before closing, which Roehr blamed largely on the R Street Corridor’s shift from a dining destination to a place for the 2 a.m. post-bar crowd.