Restaurant goers can be divided into two basic groups: those who are always on the lookout for new taste sensations and those who play safe and get into a rut by ordering the same dish every time they eat out.
A friend doesn’t even look at the menu: he asks every time for an entrecôte with green pepper sauce. Another has a cursory gander at the menu and always opts for a mixed fish grill.
A friend had a small successful restaurant in London and worked only from Monday to Friday. She closed on Saturdays (usually the busiest night of the week) because her Saturday night crowd wanted only prawn cocktail, grilled fillet steak with chips (no sauces required) and Black Forest chocolate cake. She had no intention of giving up a Saturday, no matter how lucrative, to cook such boring food. She was the kind of businesswoman who thought the customer isn’t always right.
When I was in my late teens and had my first job on the Daily Herald, I had a one-hour break in the afternoon which I spent at the Glasgow Press Club over a lager and lime, except for those occasions when I was feeling a bit peckish and went to a nearby restaurant. I always ordered beef olive with freshly fried chips. It was a particularly tasty one and since then it has been one of my many nostalgic dishes.
When I came to Palma everything was new and there was no way I was going to get into a rut and order the same dishes. However, there were certain tapas, for instance, I especially liked and I was always interested in trying different versions at other bars and restaurants.
In those days we had a choice of wonderful restaurants in the centre of town. Some of them were casas de comidas (economical places serving good Majorcan and Spanish home cooking) and others were up-market with the kind of prices most of us couldn’t afford every day — and in some cases not even every week.
The cheapest of the casas de comidas were in the narrow shady streets behind the Born, which took in Calle Apuntadores and the area on both sides: going down to the Paseo Sagrera and up to and including Calle San Felio, where the Bulletin offices were in the old days.
That meant Bulletin staff had these super and very cheap restaurants on our doorstep. In those early days a meal consisting of starter, mains, homemade dessert, with olives, bread and half a bottle of wine cost less than 20 pesetas, about 30 centimos. That’s what inflation does.
At the other end of the social scale there was El Tritón in the Born, almost on the corner with Calle San Felio. It had a long bar with a fine selection of tapas, and tables where customers could chat and gossip before going up to the dining room. Prices were high and most of us ate there only on special occasions.
One of the most popular places, with Majorcans and Palma’s foreign colony, was Gina’s. It was a ‘pensión’ opposite the main door of La Lonja. I never saw any of the rooms or even the reception area (the dining room had a separate street entrance) but it was one of the best restaurants of its kind.
Gina’s served some highly recommendable dishes such as canelones, calamares a la romana, batter-fried hake, butterflied cap roig, roast lamb, frito mallorquín and other classic dishes of Majorcan and Spanish cooking. But for many people, myself included, its star dish had nothing to do with Spanish regional cooking.
It was chicken Kiev, a well known dish in those days although it seems to have disappeared — I certainly haven’t read about it or seen it on a menu during the last 20 years. I did read about it in England, but never came across it — not even in London when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Mary Quant’s mini skirt were front page news.
But a week after landing in Palma I was in Gina’s for the first time and there was chicken Kiev on the menu. I ordered it that day and it was love at first bite. From then on I ate it once a week — and sometimes twice.
During the next three years I tried other dishes at Gina’s by my mains was always chicken Kiev. I was always very willing to share starters and other mains…but never chicken Kiev. And I could never go to Gina’s and not order the Kiev.
On one occasion I was so determined to get out of the Kiev rut (it was psychological) that even before I sat down I told the waiter I’d be having canelones and batter-fried hake. But five minutes later, as I saw plates of chicken Kiev going to other tables, my resistance crumbled. I cancelled the hake and asked for Kiev.
What made the chicken Kiev so exceptional? It was mainly because the cook knew how to handle chicken breast. As it has so little fat it is a treacherous meat because if the cooking time isn’t exactly spot on it dries out and becomes tasteless.
The cook at Gina’s was in full control of the Kiev and the meat was always juicy, the breadcrumb coating crisp and free of residual oil. He was also very generous with the butter and that lubricated the meat. There was so much of it that unless you were very careful as you punctured the breast, you got herby butter spurting out on to your shirt or blouse.
Chicken Kiev was originally called ‘tsiplenokovo po-kievski’ and with a name like that you’d expect it to be Russian. But it was invented by a French cook called Nicolas Appert (1749-1841) who was a pioneer in the development of canned food.
The Russian aristocracy of that time were inveterate francophiles who adored Parisian food and fashions. The very rich employed French chefs or sent their cooks to France to learn the techniques of haute cuisine. That was why many famous French dishes were copied in St Petersburg, the old capital before the Revolution.
Some New York restaurants at the start of the the 20th century called the dish chicken Kiev in honour of the many Russians who had fled from Moscow after the Revolution.
With the chicken Kiev name the dish eventually travelled to Europe and other parts of the world. After the Second World War in became popular in many Moscow restaurants.
Making a chicken Kiev is relatively easy, so long as you don’t overcook it. Mix some butter with French whole grain mustard and finely chopped parsley and leave it in the fridge until it hardens. Allow one piece of chicken breast per person and slit the thickest part with a sharp knife to open up a pocket, and put in a generous amount of the butter mixture, pushing it well to the back.
Coat the breast in flour, then beaten egg and finally breadcrumbs, patting them firmly into place. Japanese panko breadcrumbs will give a crisper finish. Fry them in 4cms of very hot oil for one minute on each side. Drain them on kitchen paper and leave them for another full minute. Serve them with french fries or salad greens.