We are living in a time when grilled duck breasts–sliced, fanned out, never cooked enough to make them tender–dominate the duck department on most restaurant menus. That leaves duck lovers longing for the great, bone-in, crispy-skinned, juicy ducks we used to get before the nouvelle cuisine era.
But there is good news. I detect a resurgence of interest among chefs in serving duck the traditional way. In face, we’re finding new ways of preparing whole ducks, involving smoke, Asian flavors, and ducks from nearby farms. As I made up this list, I was pleasantly surprised to find more than ten excellent versions, forcing me to leave off good ones at Irene’s, Martinique, Austin’s and Zea.
The cool weather ushers in the duck season. So did Thanksgiving just past. Anything less than a robust, rustic, flavorful bird would be an insult to the weather.
1. Tommy’s Cuisine. Warehouse District: 746 Tchoupitoulas. 504-581-1103. Duck Tchoupitoulas is half duck with a well-hidden but tasty sweet-heat sauce–and that’s what makes this the best dish in Tommy Andrade’s great Creole bistro. A more elegant but equally good duck from Chef Guy Sockrider goes under the name duck Julia at Tommy’s sister restaurant, Tomas Bistro, across the street. They’re tied for first.
2. Brigtsen’s. Riverbend: 723 Dante. 504-861-7610. It’s a simple process that Frank Brigtsen uses, but it turns out a half-duck that will please the duck purist. He just roasts it slowly, seasoning it Cajun-style. Some bites will seem to melt in your mouth.
3. Cafe Minh. Mid-City: 4139 Canal. 504-482-6266. Here is one of very few Asian-style lacquered ducks you will find locally. A lacquered duck lives up to its name; it’s roasted to carefully that the glaze becomes dark and shiny. The meat of the duck filters through a background of Chinese five-spice powder.
4. Gautreau’s. Uptown: 1728 Soniat St. 504-899-7397. Gautreau’s confit of duck leg is one of the few items that’s been on the menu for most of the restaurant’s history. And with good reason. It’s so tender and delectable that it’s offered as an appetizer (although a lot of people get a double as an entree). Doesn’t even need a sauce.
5. Pelican Club. French Quarter: 615 Bienville. 504-523-1504. Some years ago it occurred to a lot of chefs (all at the same time!) that since the breast and leg quarters of a duck cook differently, it would be a good idea to separate the two and cook them two different ways. Chef Richard Hughes took this another step further and added some smaller bit prepared in a marinated, Asian way. The resulting trio of duck comes with a citrus-and-cranberry sauce and dirty rice. Crisp and tender, sweet and meaty at turns.
6. Upperline. Uptown: 1413 Upperline. 504-891-9822. You can get a half-duck two different ways, both of them wonderful. The more unusual of the two is the duck with ginger-peach sauce, a creation of the late, great Chef Tom Cowman. But just as good is the version with a port wine sauce sharpened (and mellowed) with garlic.
7. Broussard’s. French Quarter: 819 Conti. 504-581-3866. Although orange is the fruit flavor most famously associated with roast duck in this country, in Europe cherries are used at least as often. It’s a cherry-glazed duck with kiln-dried cherries and red cabbage. As beautiful to look at as it is to taste.
8. Nola. French Quarter: 534 St Louis. 504-522-6652. Nola’s menu is ever in flux, but nobody there yet has found a reason to improve on the half-duck, roasted in a wood-burning oven. It comes out with the further smokiness of a whiskey-caramel glaze. The sauce is a duck stock reduction with jus. Candied pecans on the side.
9. Bombay Club. French Quarter: 830 Conti. 504-586-0972. During Chef Nick Gile’s long tenure at the Bombay Club, he made his duet of duck into a specialty so alluring that it’s still on the menu, even though he’s moved on. The breast is grilled medium-rare and sliced. The leg quarter is made into a confit by slow cooking in duck fat. Especially good if you get a Bourbon-based cocktail at the great bar.
10. Nuvolari’s. Mandeville: 246 Girod St. 985-626-5619. The duck is glazed and sauced with cherries, which is conventional enough. What’s a little wild is the presence in the sauce of jalapeno peppers. The result is good enough that the dish has been essentially unchanged since the restaurant opened almost thirty years ago.
11. Zea. Harahan: 1655 Hickory Ave. 504-738-0799. The best dish at Zea is so good that it almost seems out of place with everything else there. A half-duck gets cooked most of the way on the rotisserie, then sits around waiting for you. Then it makes a quick pass through a flash-fryer, to crisp the skin. The sauce is a sweet-heat Asian-tinged concoction. Since the seasoning on the duck has a sort of Thai flavor to begin with, it works nicely. Get the dirty rice as one of the sides.
Kenner: 1325 West Esplanade Ave. 504-468-7733.|| Lee Circle/Lower Garden District: 1525 St Charles Ave. 504-520-8100.|| Metairie: 4450 Veterans Blvd (Clearview Mall). 504-780-9090.|| Covington: 110 Lake Dr. 985-327-0520.|| Harvey: 1121 Manhattan Blvd. 504-361-8293.|| Slidell: 173 Northshore Blvd. 985-273-0500.
12. Austin’s. Metairie: 5101 West Esplanade Ave . 504-888-5533. Here’s the kind of duck you used to find in every ambitious local restaurant in New Orleans. It’s a roast duck with a crisp skin, set off with a sweet sauce. In this case, two sweet sauces–orange or cherries.