Published May 27, 2008 - (Updated Dec 5, 2012)
While chicken is a mainstay of many a diet, my own included, I rarely treat myself to duck, considering it a special occasion poultry. And, truth be told, when I do indulge it’s either in Peking Duck or Duck a l’Orange – not only because I love them both, but until recently they were the only duck dishes I knew! But thanks to an assignment to check out how five of our top local restaurants prepare and serve this elegant waterfowl, I intend to be much more experimental from now on because I realize that their very different approaches to duck are only a choice selection of the many duck dishes in town waiting to be discovered.
Some claim duck is too fatty for their liking. And yes, since ducks live in the water, often in cold climates, they have an extra layer of fat under the skin. So, the challenge in cooking it is to get the fat to suffuse the meat and make it extra moist without overpowering it, one cup of duck meat and skin containing about 472 calories, the meat alone about 281.
Pato aficionado and cook Pamela Evans says that what you’re looking to achieve is moist flesh with crispy skin and no obvious pieces of fat. Well traveled, she notes that the Chinese hang them over steam pots to pull out the grease and then fry them, the crispy skin highly prized in all their preparations. Meanwhile, the French salt with spices – every country possessing a different way of preparation.
“Duck is now easy to find here and good,” she adds, “as well as cheaper than in the States. Up North we tend to think of it as a gourmet food, whereas here it’s just another bird, so you can find it at most supermarkets.”
Research tells me that China is the world’s top duck market, followed by other Southeast Asian countries. Peking Duck is said to have originated some 1,500 years ago, during the Yuan Dynasty, and is considered a national food. Prized for its crispy skin, the duck is roasted while hung in a special closed oven, and sliced in front of diners by the cook. Then a special sauce is spread on a thin pancake, the meat and green onions are placed on top, and it is rolled up into what these days would be called a wrap and enjoyed.
El Arrayan’s Signature Duck Carnitas are by far one of the most popular plates served in this welcoming, hacienda-style Mexican restaurant. Committed to rescuing recipes of this country’s original gastronomy and giving them a fresh new slant, owner Carmen Porras roasts the bird confit-style, slowly for hours, so it loses the fat. Then a special technique makes it wonderfully crispy and juicy. The portion size a third of a duck, it is presented with an arrayan-orange-guajillo sauce traditionally served with pork carnitas. Yet it translates very well with the duck, providing great contrast. Completing the picture are sautéed, chunky country-style potatoes with garlic and epazote and freshly made corn tortillas. So, you can build your own tacos – three additional homemade sauces always on the table.
Peking Duck at is served on a tranquil airy terrace just steps from bustling Olas Altas. Chinese chef Xu Ji Feng, known here as Miguel, masterfully prepares a plump duck that is crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. Both the restaurant and the dish are named after the town of his birth, where he learned the fine art of cooking duck in the traditional Peking style. Presenting the duck whole at your table to lots of oohs and aahs, he then cuts it into manageable pieces, spreads a thin whole wheat tortilla with a fragrant mélange of plum, ciruela, Hosein and bean sauces, tops it with meat and spring onions, and rolls it up in front of you. Delicious!
“Avant Garde” Duck at Café des Artistes can be enjoyed in the Bistro dining room or in a romantic airy garden, where I was presented with both a duck appetizer and main course. The first course consisted of a lasagna-like tower of maigret breast, corn, onion, cream and tomato with tortillas to hold it all together, crowned with arugula drizzled with oil and vinegar. Then the piece de résistance: thinly sliced breast over a leg on a bed of creamy polenta, surprising touches including a honey-ginger sauce and innovative turnip and pumpkin balls dressing up the plate.
French Duck at La Petite is presented in a charming European ambiance with romantic lighting and live piano. Of the three ways it is served here, Duck a l’Orange is the most popular. “It’s a very old recipe from the east of France, close to Italy in the high Alps,” says chef-owner Nacho Cadena. “Yet it is not easy to cook. One must have a technique to get it just right.” Duck Chinoise is roasted, then covered with a special syrup and put back in the oven so it comes out super crispy – like Peking Duck. And Duck a la Beraud honors his grandfather, who was also a chef. Roasted with foie gras and Armagnac liquor, it has a delicate yet hearty taste. Half a duck the normal serving size, the iron roasting pan is lined with a bed of mirepois – a mélange of meat broth, carrots, onions and celery that absorbs the fat and keeps the duck from touching the pan so the heat distributes evenly. Recommended wines to accompany duck are French from the Burgundy region, Chilean made with the Carminiere grape, or a Mexican Casa Madero Shiraz.
Asian Duck at Ztai appears in the form of fabulous tacos, which are often requested in the bar, as well as in the fantasy-like garden and chic dining room. Roasted confit style, chef Roberto Venegas says he sautés the maigret duck with garlic, ginger, red onion, olive oil and a bit of butter and white wine. And these are no ordinary tortillas it’s served on! Mexico’s influence is felt via the delicacy huitlacoche, or corn mushroom, which is also sautéed and then added to the corn masa. This intriguing dish consists of five tacos surrounding a molcajete tomatillo salsa in a covered basket to keep them warm.
Trio’s Second Annual Duck Festival at the end of November 2008 is an excellent opportunity to sample more than a dozen duck dishes. The 2007 15-day Temporada de Pato event in December proved so successful it will run for three weeks next time, says chef and co-owner Bernard Guth. And what a wide-ranging menu it offers! Duck consommé, foie gras, rustic terrine, ravioli, classic confit, smoked and much more, prepared with love, as always. Meanwhile, Trio offers a lot of duck specials throughout the year.