Friday, 1 June 2012

Follow that Duck!!!

We once had a pet duck named Elvis who tormented the dogs and molested our chickens.  He ate everything in sight and would chase the kids around the yard quacking loudly at every turn.  I admired Elvis for his bossiness and his sense of superiority over all the other animals that lived with us.  Elvis was a much loved member of the family and the thought of eating him never entered our minds.  But that didn’t stop us from trying duck while on the occasional Food Trek.  After all, it is considered a delicacy in most of the world and should be experienced.
Duck is one of those things that you either totally love or you totally hate.  Even with the best intentions I have found it very difficult to fall for the charms of this highly prized, and in many cases highly priced bird.  Many times I’ve sat spellbound as a chef fries the skin of a duck breast to crispy perfection and then leaves the flesh in an unappealing condition of rareness to the point of rawness.  Because according to the experts this is how duck should be eaten. 

Well not this little black duck.  I find the texture of (in my opinion) undercooked duck meat repulsive and totally inedible, even with the promise of deliciously crunchy crisp duck skin to lure me in, I just don’t like it.  But being a trooper and determined to discover the true taste of duck that my wife and other duck connoisseurs rave about, I have taken up the quest, which is a lot different to my calamari quest, because I actually love calamari when cooked properly.

What better place to find perfectly cooked Peking duck than China Town in San Francisco California?  The area is absolutely huge and you could easily forget you were in the United States and start to imagine you were actually in some part of Hong Kong.  The variety of food available is staggering and the quality and prices saw me eating there nearly every day.  As I wandered through the huge arched pagoda signalling the start of China town, along Powell Street and into Jackson Street, I discovered that just about every restaurant had Peking Ducks hanging in the windows, teasing me with their golden crispy looking skin.  The smell coming from all around the area was dizzying to the senses and I was tempted many times to go for the duck, but I steered towards my favourite fish dishes instead (I am a well-known fish lover). 


Finally after days of procrastination I decided I had to give the duck a chance before flying back home to Australia, and so I chose the best looking restaurant that had the best looking ducks in the windows.   I walked in, sat down and ordered a big serve of Peking duck pieces.  I can definitely say the duck was not under cooked.  In fact it was tough, fatty, chewy and dripping with oil, Yuck.  How disappointed was I?  Even that crisp looking skin was not crisp but chewy.  I don’t think I swallowed any of it.  Is this a good example of Peking duck?  I certainly hope not.  I did however swallow a few beers to make myself feel a bit better about the whole sorry experience.  Don’t worry, I still love China town in San Francisco, I just won’t eat the duck or the toads come to think of it (anything and everything is available to eat at the markets in China Town).

A few years actually went by before I was ready to try duck again.  I think I even had some bad dreams about my past duck disasters.  My next attempt at eating duck was again at a Chinese restaurant, but this time in the country town of Warwick Queensland.  The Chung Hing is an institution in Warwick, putting out their Australian style Chinese food in the area for decades.  The locals positively love the food and the all you can eat buffet on Friday nights is always a sell out. 
My family and I were there for a quick lunch one day when the gorgeous woman I’m married to pointed out a duck dish on the menu.  Oh lucky me (here we go again).  How did I not see it when I read the menu, must be something subconscious (or luck).  It was crispy salt and pepper duck, to be precise.  What the heck, my pride was at stake and I thought I’d better make a good show of it.  I didn’t want everyone to think I was scared of duck (little did they know).  The pieces of fried duck meat came in a big bowl and we all shared it.  The pieces were well cooked and really crispy and delicious.  I suppose the reason many chefs won’t cook duck well done is because it loses it unique flavour and starts to taste like chicken, because that’s how our duck tasted.  Just like crispy fried chicken, except that the meat was dark.  I did enjoy it even though I didn’t feel I had really experienced duck properly.  So, the quest continues.

Recently we found ourselves enjoying an eight course dinner at George Colombaris’ Press Club.  One of the courses was Confit of duck.  This is where the duck meat is slowly poached in a bath of its own fat for up to ten hours.  The resulting texture is soft as butter and not oily at all.  My beautiful companion (mother of my children, love of my life) was in heaven as this seemed to be the best duck she had ever eaten.  I have the greatest respect for the skill with which the dish was prepared and presented.  Truly, this must be one of the Press Clubs masterpiece creations.  Looking deep within myself and trying to be perfectly honest, I had to admit, I didn’t like it, not one bit.  I just haven’t acquired the taste for duck that it takes to enjoy such delicacies.  But so help me, I won’t give up.  Somewhere out there is a duck dish that I will not only like, but truly love and forever remember as my holy grail of duck cuisine.

Well, it wasn’t long before I had an opportunity to try another duck dish.  Once again, we were at the restaurant of a celebrity chef Gary Mehigan called Fenix.  I will go into our experience of Fenix in greater detail in my Fenix review, coming soon, but I will tell you about the duck entree. 
The Duck Pastilla with labneh, quince and coriander was an entree listed in the menu as something to share, so we did.  The name of the dish is a bit fancy because basically what arrived was a beautifully presented fried sandwich with the crusts cut off.  Looks can be deceptive because this was a taste sensation.  The bread was crisp and delicious and the filling was shredded duck meat combined with flavours that set your taste buds into spasms.  This was a piece of art.  I could have eaten four or five of them and loved every bite.  This must be what good duck tasted like.  I think I found what I’ve been looking for, and it was in a toasted sandwich.  Go figure!

Since that time, we have had other encounters with duck and even though my culinary partner loves just about all things ducky, I continue to carry a flame for the Duck Pastilla at Fenix, and to seek out the answer to why there is so much fuss in the restaurant world about duck.

Oh, and what ever happened to Elvis the Duck?  You’ll be pleased to know that he was never eaten but ‘discovered’ by a prize winning duck breeder who thought Elvis was very handsome and so had exceptional genes and he wanted to put Elvis to stud (a perfect job match if ever there was one).  So, Elvis spent the rest of his days servicing countless female ducks (and the odd male duck if they got in his way) where he lived to a ripe old age doing what he loved.  God bless that duck.

1 comment:

  1. Last time I was in Sydney a group of us ate at a restaurant in Chinatown and had a 'hot pot' which is a bit like a chinese version of fondue where you get a communal bowl of soup and you can get an assortment of meats that you dip into the soup and cook. There was one item on the menu with a strange name that was quite a bit more per plate than the others. When we asked the owner what is was he said it was duck tongues. We asked why it was so much dearer and what followed was a value statement of undeniable logic.
    "One duck, one tongue. Plate with twenty tongues- need twenty ducks!"