Webbed Feat: Has Pork Finally Met Its Barnyard Match in Duck?
Drew Trautmann’s new District Kitchen in Woodley Park is just the sort of urban-take-on-rustic-charm type of restaurant to suit our decade’s back-to-basics style.
Which means it’s the kind of place you expect to see the barnyard’s most fashionable animal stamp her distinctive hoof-prints across the entire menu. I’m talking, of course, about pig. From trendy charcuterie to the prerequisite pork belly entrée, with ample doses of bacon in everything in between, it’s a time of swine, at least from a dining perspective. Around the District, entrepreneurs are devoting entire new restaurant concepts to the animal. Slated to open soon are a Logan Circle eatery called The Pig and a Petworth establishment called Three Little Pigs. Meanwhile, the logo for this winter’s D.C. Meat Week places groveling swine in place of the D.C. flag’s usual three stars. Trautmann’s previous restaurants, Sonoma, on Capitol Hill, and the defunct Mendocino, in Georgetown, were no stranger to the hog.
Trautmann, though, is an enterprising fellow, and it just may be that his newest venue is a sign that we’re on the verge of a post-pig era. Sure, there was pork on the tantalizing menu, but the document bore just as many track marks from another farmland critter—one with webbed feet.
There were bite-sized duck cracklings that don’t really crunch so much as they quickly dissolve into pure lipid lusciousness on the tongue. There was an otherwise bland soup of potato and watercress helpfully enhanced with bits of chewy duck bacon sprinkled on top. And even the tender cider-braised pork shank revealed a telling fowl touch, a side of bread dumplings flavored with more of the same duck bacon.
“Is duck the new pork?” my dining companion wondered. We soon found ourselves scouring the menu to compare parts pig with parts duck. The final tally: a 3-3 tie.
The duck—at least in the farmed variety procured by Trautmann and other D.C. chefs—is as flightless as the humble chicken. But its popularity among D.C. chefs nonetheless appears to be soaring.
And it’s not only about confit legs or duck breasts, either. Just as our lust for fatty pork has grown to encompass its delicious snout-to-tail entirety, so too has our hunger for more and more morsels of the mallard, from its meaty neck down to its webby little toes.
For instance, Toki Underground earlier this week ran a special on rice cakes and chanterelles sauced with the pedantic-to-posh-sounding duck feet mint jus. The uber-hip H Street NE ramen house, a brothy business with simmered pork bones at its very core, has been finding evermore creative uses for the bird since it opened last spring. On a given night, you can find anything from the increasingly common duck bacon to the more eclectic duck neck bones on the specials menu. Back in November, chef Erik Bruner-Yang devoted an entire evening to the pond prowler: a 10-course Thanksgiving-themed feast, including such eclectic items as duck nigiri and a duck fat-glazed pecan pie. Expect more duck delicacies at Toki around the Chinese New Year. “Duck is easy,” says Bruner-Yang. “It’s fatty, it’s rich, it cures well, it sears well, it braises well, it’s hard to fuck up.”
That an Asian-themed noodle shop would become so duckling-inclined comes as no surprise: The hanging birds are a staple of Chinese-restaurant windows from here to Bruner-Yang’s beloved Taipei. But the sumptuous meat of Peking fame has spread its wings into other gustatory genres, too. Heck, it has even infiltrated our bar food. Bourbon Steak features ultra-crispy duck fat fries; Black Squirrel serves greasy duck confit egg rolls. Blending Asian and barroom styles at the recently revamped Café Saint-Ex, chef Billy Klein spurns the traditional pork-based broth for a spicy duck alternative to sauce his udon noodle platter.
Amid all the mallard-munching, though, the District’s duck fancy has yet to reach the point of an entire eatery devoted to beak-to-webbed-feet eating. Dino in Cleveland Park may be the closest thing. Chef-owner Dean Gold routinely hosts 10-course duck dinners at his Italian-themed enoteca, exhausting every waddling, quacking pun he can think of in the advertisements. But even on a regular night at Dino, you can still hunt down plenty of duck. On a recent visit, the menu featured no fewer than five different duck-themed items, including duck wings, stuffed duck neck scrapple, duck liver pate, duck breast and a hearty pasta dish with a duck-based cream sauce, served with duck confit prepared two different ways.
Gold says his expansive duck offerings are driven largely by economics. He started out serving whole birds rotisserie-style. But the cost of each duck alone set him back about $22—a considerable sum for a restaurant that generally charges no more than $24 for a single item. “So we got creative in how to use all different parts of the duck,” he says. The wings, neck, and breasts are chopped off. Virtually everything else—from head to feet—goes into the stock pot. Reduced cream and stock, spiced with Syrian peppers, makes up the pasta sauce. The tubular noodle dish ($20 for a full plate) also comes with crispy duck meat and duck skin fried separately.
Gold’s wings (four limbs for $7 per serving) are a lot bigger than your usual Buffalo-style chicken bits; they more closely resemble a turkey drumstick. “Because the bird is a big bird, it’s got big wings,” says Gold. Yet the meat on the bone seems somewhat scrawny compared to other birds.
Meanwhile, Gold’s crispy honey-glazed scrapple ($12) makes use of the offal, with gizzard, heart, and remaining membranes added to pork and chicken bits to give the sausage more body. Its fowl-ness is further enhanced on the grill, where it’s fried in duck fat.
Gold soon plans to add another item: a duck-laden matzo ball soup.
The diversity certainly enhances the bottom line, according to Gold. “If I get two ducks, I get four orders of breast, I get eight orders of pasta, I get two orders of the wings, I get two orders of the scrapple, and I get a number of orders of the fegatini,” he says.
But it would never work if patrons didn’t pony up for the various parts. It used to be that customers only ordered the duck breast or leg. But attitudes have changed. “Now every part of the duck sells,” says Gold. “The product has been there for a long time but I think the awareness of it is different these days than it was.”
What is it about duck? You could argue that in an age where anxious diners have turned to comfort foods, the bird has the same appeal as pig does: It’s simultaneously up-market and down, fatty and complicated but still conjuring an image of bucolic simplicity.
But enough with the sociology. In real life, Gold credits two men for helping popularize duck in the District. The first is a fellow chef, Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck, whose Asian-style leanings, embodied in his signature lacquered duck, have influenced many of the city’s more Western-minded chefs.
The second mallard missionary is a farmer. Behind every protein du jour in the District these days, it seems, is a bold-name purveyor. Pork buffs have Bev Eggleston of Virginia. Duck lovers like Gold turn to Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz of Pennsylvania, whose birds are raised in what Gold describes as a more ethical fashion that better suits modern chefs’ politics than the short-fused bulbous-breasted factory-farmed variety. “These ducks are amazingly docile and they’re amazingly happy, so either they’ve been watching the Republican presidential debates and have no brains left, or they’re well taken care of,” says Gold.
In the coming months, Gold plans to host another one of his duck dinners. Just one problem: “I’ve run out of duck puns,” he says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.