Honeymoon Chicken review: Rob Sonderman aims high and hits the mark

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When Rob Sonderman, the guy you probably know best as the pit master behind Federalist Pig, and his partner and boss Steve Salis decided to get into the chicken business, they set no modest goals. . They set their sights on the big daddy: they wanted to compete with Popeyes, both in terms of quality and price, which is a bit like the local bookstore saying it’s going to take on Amazon.

Context, of course, is important: Sonderman and Salis were talking big before the coronavirus. Before the pandemic disrupted the country’s supply lines and exposed its weaknesses. Before an outbreak of bird flu drove up chicken prices. Before a war in Ukraine drove up the price at the pump. Before inflation increased the cost of, well, everything. Before all of this, Sonderman and Salis had a plan to beat Popeyes at his own game, at least locally.

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By the time their retro-chic Honeymoon Chicken opened in January, the world had changed dramatically. Before the store served its first bucket, Sonderman was warning everyone that he might have to adjust prices on opening day menus. After six months of existence, Honeymoon has already increased the price of certain items twice. A combo of two pieces of brisket, wing, and butter roll is now $9, up two and a half dollars from the the beginnings of the store. An eight-coin bucket rose $5 (to $26) over the same period.

“It really sucks when you get your ass kicked every day,” Sonderman tells me, noting that sales nearly doubled projections. “Then you look at the income statement at the end of the month and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, we lost money after realizing the amount of sales we made.’ ”

I mention these misfortunes to underscore a few points: while setting a goal to compete with a national chain that enjoys economies of scale is admirable, if not downright bonkers, we’ve seen what the pursuit of cheap chicken can mean more far down the production line. But specifically, Honeymoon Chicken doesn’t need to go that route. It has a bankable name behind the young brand, and I’m not talking about Salis, which is always looking to explode the restaurant industry’s business-as-usual mentality. I’m talking about Sonderman, as trustworthy a leader as we have in Washington.

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People will pay to eat Sonderman’s food. They’ll pay more to Honeymoon, I guess, than to Popeyes. I know I will, even with the inconsistencies I encountered at Honeymoon, because Sonderman has generated considerable goodwill among customers, dating back to his DCity Smokehouse days. The guy is money, and Honeymoon provides even more proof of that.

If Popeyes is Louisiana cuisine, with its roots in Cajun country, then Honeymoon Chicken has set up camp next to American apiaries. The “honey” in Honeymoon is no coincidence. The restaurant, tucked away in the former Slim’s Diner in Petworth (and located inside Ensemble Kitchen in Bethesda), incorporates the nectar into many dishes, starting with its signature bird.

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The irony, if that’s the right word, is that Honeymoon’s chicken is prepared in a pressure fryer, the cooker with the long and colorful history at KFC, not Popeyes. But the deep fryer isn’t the reason Honeymoon’s Chicken has garnered so much attention in such a short time, including, I must point out, a Wink Bib Gourmand of those padded shirts at Michelin. Or not the Unique raison.

Sonderman has created an idiosyncratic recipe, based on the long history of fried chicken, but also one that bears the chef’s fingerprints. His chicken begins with a 24-hour brine in a slurry of pickle juice and seasoned flours. Technique is important: It helps keep the fried coating — a mixture of flours, cornstarch, smoked paprika, chipotle powder and more — from sliding off the chicken like sheets of ice from a hot roof. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like chasing bird bites with the broken pieces of dough strewn across my plate, like I’m piecing together deconstructed fried chicken.

When you order bone-in chicken or fillets (referred to here as “bites”), you have a choice of finishing the bird: sprinkled with the original honey powder mix (or spiced honey powder) or drizzled hot honey. Whichever you choose, you’ll find your chicken immersed in a world created by Sonderman. You’ll recognize him from his work at Federalist Pig: it’s a pungent environment in which pungent spices – black pepper, granulated garlic, chili powder – attempt to dominate the discourse against the collective voice of milder, sweeter, sometimes more acidic. In this case, the honey, whether in dehydrated or viscous form, provides much of the counterbalance, and it’s the underlying tension/harmony between these flavors that makes Sonderman’s food so memorable.

Each order of chicken comes with at least one bun, a soft, springy thing whose golden top is brushed with a mixture of melted butter and honey, then sprinkled with chives and large flakes of sea salt. How anyone can eat just one is beyond me. If I had a pile next to me, I’d pop them like M&Ms.

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Honeymoon has created a fried chicken sandwich for every application of honey, whether powdered or dipped. The signature sandwich is a bite of dusted, extra crispy, lightly spiced chicken breast, the honeyed elements of which are lost in the bread and toppings.

My favorite sandwich is the Hot Dipped in Honey, a sticky two-handed monster with spicy pickles, crispy onions and more to say than any other fried chicken sandwich on the market. The honey garlic chicken banh mi is a notable fail, a savory combination whose ingredients are hard to hold together and only loosely align with Vietnamese flavors. The vegetable sandwich, in which a salty, steroidal oyster mushroom replaces the bird, just scares the crap out of me.

Further down the menu, I’m a sucker for Fried Chicken Poutine with Herb Sauce, a dish that slyly redefines a basket of fries. To counter the grease, you’ll want to focus on the blue cheese kale salad or the watermelon-feta-mint salad, a pair of sides that will satisfy the palate and calm your conscience. After all that fried food, the last thing you might want is a hand flaky pie, made exclusively for Honeymoon Chicken by the pastry chef of sister operations Ted’s Bulletin and Sidekick Bakery, but then you take a bite out of the turnover. stuffed cherry business, and all you can think of is, can I have another one?

clarification

The notice has been updated to more accurately describe the business relationship between Honeymoon Chicken owner Steve Salis and executive chef Rob Sonderman.

4201 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-983-5010. Much of the menu is also available at Ensemble Kitchen, 4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, Md. honeymoonchicken.com.

Hours: Petworth: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Bethesda: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Monday.

Nearest metro: Petworth: Georgia Ave.-Petworth station, 800 meters from the restaurant. Bethesda: Bethesda station, 800 m walk from the kitchen.

Prices: $3 to $26 for all menu items.