Wednesday, December 13, 2023

When They Do the Double Duck, That's Me Dancing*

To be honest I'm surprised that I have used the tag "duck" only six times in the history of George Eats. It is one of my favorite dishes to order out, partly because it still seems special to me--we certainly never ate it in my house growing up--partially because, even though I realize the ones you get out are farmed, it feels like someone had to hunt for your dinner, and how cool is that?, and partially because the few times I've tried making it at home have been mediocre at best, plus a mess to clean up after. 

So I have ducked twice in the past two weeks, both memorable, and both drastically different despite being versions of duck confit at their base. How could anything cooked very slowly in its own fat not be delicious? Duck has a distinct advantage being filled with duck fat, of course. The result is tender yet still gamey, with a flavor that lingers.

Above you see the duck from Gala, in Santa Barbara in the chic redo of the old Pacific Crepes (and beloved and lamented wine bar pop-up Five and a 1/4) location. Get ready for buzz--people are eating at the bar that fronts Anacapa, large groups are partying, cocktails shakers make their magic song--yet it can still feel romantic and special. The couple who opened the spot, Tara Penke and Jaime Riesco, have tons of industry experience and a restaurant in Barcelona, so sure enough, Gala has a European feel to it. 

And a delicious dish of duck. Note it's a full dish, too, and that's crucial. While you can get sides, what comes on this plate expresses all sorts of balance and delight. Confit by its nature is rich--that's why you order it--so having some greens with a piquant vinaigrette is a perfect counterweight. Those velvety mashed potatoes add creaminess to the mix, and a different kind of richness than what the duck delivers, both earthy--potato, after all--and ethereal--no doubt more than you want to know of cream and butter. And then there's the duck gravy, that embarrasses any pan-dripping alchemized into genius sauce before it.  They could sell that on its own, no doubt. The sprinkle of preserved kumquat adds just enough whimsy and acid and color.

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of the second duck dish, as I was too hungry to take one. We were in Cambria recently, staying on Moonstone Beach, and had the great pleasure doing a holiday twilight tour at Hearst Castle (bonus photo below). That meant we were dinner hunting on a Sunday at 7:30 pm, which, we discovered, was a risky position. We had hoped to just walk to one of the two places near our hotel, either the Sea Chest or the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill, but both shut down for weeks in December. Thanks, off-season! 

So we ended up at Robin's in the village of Cambria itself. Tucked in a hobbit-esque cottage decked out tastefully for Christmas with a fireplace roaring, it tuned out to be a delight. Its ethos is straight from the Moosewood era, but unlike some places you might remember from Santa Barbara's not-too-distant dining past, it also evolved a bit with the times, doing veggie and healthy without simply steaming your broccoli and dousing your brown rice in Bragg's. There I ordered Duck Colorado: duck confit, roasted polenta, cumin sumac roasted baby carrots, red mole sauce, queso fresco, and a handful of tortilla chips. The old pro of a waiter brought out the sharp knife with the gorgeous bowl of food only to say, "Not that you're going to need it." Sure enough, the meat dropped from the bone like someone losing their robe to seduce you. That mole hit all sorts of wonderful notes from its mix of sesame seeds and almonds and who knows how many spices. The heat didn't blaze, but slowly warmed, perfect for a chilly December evening. 

Clearly there's more than one way to serve a duck.

*Pardon the 32-year-old Liz Phair non-sequitur of a title....

1 comment:

  1. What a gorgeous piece about two memorable meals, George! I was right there with you at Hearst Castle (I wish), and Robin's. The latter was a favorite place of my parents and Don and I had our anniversary dinner there a couple of years ago. What a special spot!