Welcome back to OpenTable’s Signature Dish column, in which we take a look at a restaurant’s standout item and how it rose to the top. Up now are the lollipop chicken wings from Portland hot spot Departure.
Chicken wings, a down-market American staple for sports lovers, are the humble best-seller at Portland hot spot Departure. The pan-Asian restaurant with a killer view goes through tens of thousands of wings each year, amounting to six digits’ worth since the dish first debuted.
“It’s pretty high up there,” Gregory Gourdet says incredulously.
For over a decade, Gourdet has helmed the kitchen at Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Oregon’s largest city, first as executive chef and then culinary director. His bestselling dish — an inspired twist on a crowd-pleasing appetizer that’s complex in both flavor and technique — is so popular that it even bears the restaurant’s name.
The Departure chicken wings with sweet chili glaze have been on the menu for over a decade, even though they’re “pretty labor intensive and complicated to make,” Gourdet says. He uses the wing paddle, removing the larger bone and forming the meat into a ball around the smaller bone. An overnight marinade in a Japanese-style mixture of soy sauce and ginger makes the wings ultra-tender; then, he dredges them in potato starch before finishing them in a reduction of fish sauce, palm sugar, chiles, even more garlic, and a bit of cilantro.
“The result is a lollipop-shaped, perfectly tender wing with one tiny little bone,” he says. “First there’s savory meat that’s really crunchy from the breading, and then this tangy, sweet, spicy, funky sauce all over the outside. You can literally just nibble all that meat off the bone with little force, so they’re really tidy to eat.”
The Top Chef alum and two-time James Beard Awards semifinalist honed his skills at various Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants before moving to the Pacific Northwest and eventually settling at Departure, where he cooks an eclectic mix of dishes that range from a popular Chinese Peking duck dinner to sushi and dim sum. Gourdet’s experience as runner-up in 2014 on Top Chef season 12 propelled him to explore a wider range of cuisines through extensive travel.
“I walked away feeling like I knew nothing, and I was determined to be on a lifelong mission to learn as much about culture and food around the world,” he says. “I started traveling immediately after my first season, all around the world, to eat, work in different kitchens, see different cultures, and experience different ingredients at the source.”
That includes his Haitian heritage, which he plans to incorporate into his own, unnamed restaurant in Portland in 2021 — a definite departure from Departure, and a very personal project.
“It’s a live-fire concept using different elements of wood and charcoal to cook global food with a strong Haitian focus,” he says. “I’m returning to my roots and bringing Haitian cuisine to light in America. It’s something a lot of people aren’t familiar with whatsoever, but are excited about it once they do eat it.”
In the meantime, Gourdet will also stay on at Departure and keep cranking out those chicken wings — once the restaurant reopens following social distancing.
“I’ve never wanted to change them. It’s a timeless flavor that everyone always, always loves and can relate to: the combination of sweet, salty, crunchy, and just a touch spicy,” he says. “I still think they’re just the perfect dish.”
Reservations for Departure: