Whole Foods’ Bird in the Hand Takes Wing

The flavor, convenience and multiday consumption of rotisserie chicken is trending, according to Collab Hospitality CEO Manny Bornia. With an eye toward meeting this demand—and, hopefully, exceeding diners’ expectations—his culinary team has opened Bird in the Hand, a “fast fine” dining experience inside the West Palm Beach Whole Foods Market.

The restaurant is Collab’s second foray in the Palm Beach region, on the heels of TYCA (Thank You, Come Again), the fast-casual sister establishment to Hai House. With a separate entrance from Whole Foods proper, Bird in the Hand is both its own destination and an extension of the venerable upscale grocer, offering in-store dining, takeout and delivery.

The look is clean, minimalist and rustic, with a semi-open kitchen, a bar with a dozen craft and prosaic beers on tap, and the restaurant’s name unmissable in large block letters. Whole roasted cluckers are at the menu’s center, along with half- and quarter-bird servings with two sides, family-sized portions (“For the Flock,” in the menu’s cute parlance), salads and an “In the Hand” appetizer section of holdable comfort dishes, including its spins on chicken sandwiches and burgers.

“We’re not trying to be overly cheffy,” Bornia said at a media preview last week. The goal is to serve “high-quality, classic food,” where everything is prepared on-site.

I tried nearly a dozen dishes at last week’s press event, and while a handful certainly hit the spot, others need more finessing to reach their potential. On the plus side, the Caesar salad is a notch or two better than most—it’s tangy and peppery, festooned with both shaved Parmesan and cheese crisps, and it doesn’t need to drown in dressing to tickle the taste buds. The garden mashed potatoes side is simple, and simply delicious—creamy, lip-smacking and addictive. The maple-roasted bacon Brussels sprouts are a winning variation on this now-ubiquitous appetizer, with the soft vegetable pairing well with the crunch of the well-done bacon.

The pretzel mac-n-cheese also reaps rewards from this dichotomy of melty and crunchy textures. But without the shaved pretzel toppings, the dish is a too-familiar rendition of the cheese-smothered spirals, one that could be pretty well replicated at your average Sweet Tomatoes, or even your microwave. Also in need of improvement are the timid black truffle fries—whose dusting of truffle was so subtle as to be nonexistent to the palate—and the Pee Wee Potato Dippers drizzled with avocado aioli. This topping served the bite-sized potatoes well, but any forkful without it is bland.

I was expecting much from the rotisserie birds, served with the restaurant’s “signature secret blend” of 20 spices, or a lemon rosemary version. Rubbed and roasted daily in-house, this is clearly a specialty of Bird in the Hand, but I couldn’t taste much distinction here: All of the flavor in the Twenty Spice Bird lay in the skins; when removed, you’re basically tasting a Publix bird. The cauliflower, that most fashionable and adaptable of vegetables, is available as a vegan alternative, with its own fire-roasted, 20-spice rub. I’m an easy mark for cauliflower anything, but this dish is served room temperature, which dilutes its impact; it also needs more spice, which shouldn’t be an issue since there are 20 of them allegedly present.

All of which is to say that the foundations are there for a superior fast-fine restaurant; it just needs to go bolder to fully distinguish itself from Boston Market and its ilk. It’s worth noting that the menu went through at least three rigorous taste tests with the Amazon Whole Foods team before settling at the formulas arriving on patrons’ plates.

Bornia is a nice guy and an enthusiastic evangelist for Bird in the Hand, but I must admit: Given my reflexive disgust for corporate consolidation, I cringed a little every time he mentioned “Amazon Whole Foods”—clearly, he’s been trained on the correct verbiage—because it’s plausible that this partner organization is the reason for the restaurant’s flavor shortfalls. Were its culinary chemistry projects left to the people, and not the suits, we might have had different results.

One thing is gloriously certain: The restaurant’s desserts are perfect. Bird in the Hand’s “Cup o’Cake” options present its red velvet, chocolate peanut butter or carrot cakes inside sizable to-go cups, layering the flavor so the bites never taste uniform. The red velvet is rich and sinful, and one serving can easily be shared by two—ever more reason to order dessert first.

Visit Bird in the Hand at Whole Foods Market, 1845 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach.

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