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Bird Bites

New Petaluma restaurant riffs off humble fried chicken

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BAWK BAWK  Poultry is the heart of Chicken Pharma’s menu, but there are non-poultry items worth exploring, too.
  • BAWK BAWK Poultry is the heart of Chicken Pharma’s menu, but there are non-poultry items worth exploring, too.

When you walk into Petaluma's new Chicken Pharm, the first thing that strikes you is its size: the place is vast, with a big dining room, a patio and an additional seating area consisting of cozy sofas and low tables.

Next to the city's other recently opened restaurants like the Drawing Board and the Shuckery, Chicken Pharm feels like a food court. Ordering at the counter contributes to this atmosphere, as well as the abundance of communal seating. Its name, borrowed from Petaluma's poultry-producing past and the history of the building the restaurant occupies (it used to be the Tuttle Drug store).

The chef, however, is local. Adam Mali, a longtime Petaluma resident, is the previous executive chef at Nick's Cove. His menu is food-court-meets-gourmet, the key ingredient being fried chicken in all its varieties. While the fried chicken sandwich is a trend that has stood the test of time, Chicken Pharm is riffing on it while being careful not to overdo it.

Elaborate sandwiches appear side by side with more straightforward options, and the sides and salads are creative but not farfetched. The tiny, crispy popcorn chicken bits ($10) were a good example of a classic made right. The little nuggets, made from Rocky's chicken, were pleasantly salty and had the perfect balance of buttermilk batter and meat. The dipping sauces, honey Sriracha and Point Reyes blue cheese, were delicious.

The kale salad ($10), shredded lacinato kale, shaved carrots, hazelnuts, Bellwether Farm's Carmody cheese and turmeric vinaigrette, was satisfying but not outstanding. Chicken Pharm's attempt to make kale more interesting didn't amount to much, but the golden turmeric vinaigrette was a refreshing addition.

From the sandwich department, the hot chicken ($13) brought together spicy buttermilk fried chicken, jalapeno sauce, chili slaw and charred shishito peppers in a sweet brioche bun. Mali's decision to go with a brioche for most of the sandwiches is a good one. Fried chicken offers plenty of breading, and you want the sandwich vehicle to be as light and airy as possible. The bun did a great job of containing the components—juicy, crispy chicken thigh; moist, crunchy slaw; and the charred peppers. The peppers added a satisfyingly slippery texture to the dish. But given its name, the sandwich should be spicier.

Curious to try Mali's take on non-chicken items, we ordered the most expensive sandwich on the menu, the grilled albacore tuna burger ($15), which turned out to be a hit. The thick, generous chunk of tuna was packed onto brioche as well, with caramelized onions, pickles and tomato jam. Unlike the slaw, the bright and acidic jam offered plenty of heat and complemented the tuna.

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