Hi, I’m Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the Times and unarmed duck hunter.
Each October, I get hungry for duck. There’s no good explanation for my timing. In some parts of the country, fall is when you pull on waders, whistle for the retrievers and crouch in a marsh waiting for mallards and teals to take wing. But we don’t usually shoot birds in New York. When I want to bag a duck, I go to a restaurant, where they’re rarely laced with buckshot and never out of season.
When the first chilly night of October rolls in, it’s the breast of the duck I crave. The skin that I picture is brown and somewhat crunchy. The meat, like a steak, should be dry-aged and cooked to a color somewhere between rosé-pink and bloody.
Roast duck as spectacle
Duck breast, once a fairly straightforward dish, has been a showpiece for chefs since the mid-2000s, when Daniel Humm’s duck glazed with honey and lavender waddled on to the menu at Eleven Madison Park. If there were a trophy for the most spectacular version in town, Chris Cipollone, the chef at Francie, in Williamsburg, would walk away with it. A whole roasted breast (Francie calls it a crown roast) is carried to the table in a wreath of leaves, flowers and herbs that makes it look like a pagan queen. Then it is sliced and returned without its crown but with fruits, vegetables and a scene-stealing soppressata jam.
There is less song and dance when the “BBQ Duck” appears at the Noortwyck, in Greenwich Village. This is also a whole, dry-aged Rohan duck breast, but while Mr. Cipollone brushes the skin with honey, Andy Quinn here rubs it with molasses and spices. It’s a stripped-down barbecue sauce, and the kitchen follows through on the cookout theme by grilling the breast over charcoal.
Torrisi, on Mulberry Street, matches its excellent dry-aged roasted breast with pungent mulberry mostarda. The roasted breast in green-peppercorn sauce at Libertine is part one of a two-part dish; the second half is a gratin of duck confit parmentier, shredded leg meat under a golden crust of broiled puréed potatoes.
The bird, the whole bird and nothing but the bird
With so many aged and rendered duck breasts around town, it’s easy to forget how good the rest of the bird can be. I went to Frenchette the other night, hoping for a reunion with its duck frites — only to find that the dish has been put on hiatus. In its place was a rich and flavorful confit duck leg on top of a ragout of white beans and fresh pole beans, which French cooks and others will recognize as a very high-level cassoulet hack.
Whole birds are required for Beijing duck, the most skillful local version of which can be found these days at Juqi, in Flushing. And Cosme, north of Union Square, slowly roasts entire ducks with evaporated milk, oranges, chiles and Mexican Coke, among other things; the meat is shredded and reassembled as duck carnitas.
But what about those of us who like the odds and ends and organs? Well, we can zip out to Falansai, in Bushwick, to eat confit duck necks with our hands. We can forge onward to Elmhurst, where liver and bits of fried skin punctuate the minced duck breast in Zaab Zaab’s magnificent larb ped Udon. In Manhattan, Justin Smillie’s fried duck wings are still on the menu at Upland, served with a dab of yuzu kosho to burn through the richness. And of course, virtually all the foie gras in New York is made from duck livers.
Then again, as Chico Marx asked, why a duck? Why-a not a fish? If waterfowl aren’t your thing, maybe you should try “Bombay duck” at Dhamaka, on the Lower East Side. It’s a fish, an Indian lizardfish to be precise, frozen and shipped around the globe to Dhamaka. There, it’s fried in a shell of semolina and served with cilantro chutney. Unlike the aquatic waterfowl, Bombay duck is meant to be eaten whole, bones and all.
What I’m reading
I suspected there would be a lot to love in Dwight Garner’s Grub Street Diet. Dwight has been a book critic at The Times for years, and I had some inkling that he was a little obsessed with food. Well, let me tell you: I had no idea.
A few weeks ago, I saw a sign on Houston Street that made me stop in my tracks: “Bereket Is Back!” Anybody who lived in the area in the 1990s remembers, and probably still pines for, Bereket’s fantastically affordable doner kebabs, red-lentil soup and other Turkish foods. In The Times, Kaya Laterman has the story on why Bereket went away and how it managed to stage a comeback just a few yards from its old site.
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