By Amanda McDougall - 05/12/11 11:42 PM EDT
Blue Duck Tavern makes a dramatic first impression. You walk in through giant doors that reach 18 feet in height and stand in an even taller foyer with a viewing deck looking onto “the pantry,” a section of the enormous open kitchen that houses a mere 6-by-10-foot table wrapped in 4-inch-thick, deeply veined marble where the pastry and salad chefs plate their savories and sweets. It’s a teaser for what’s to come.
To the right of the grand entrance is the dining room, which is also partitioned; some spots have a view of the patio garden through an enormous window wall, and others look into the completely open kitchen.
Blue Duck redefines the term ‘open kitchen’ for just about any restaurant — we’re not talking about a window that gives guests a glimpse of a chef’s toque. Here, “open” means floor-to-ceiling visibility of the wood-burning oven, custom-crafted Molteni range and culinary production overseen by veteran chef Brian McBride and his new chef de cuisine, Eric Fleischer.
The open floor plan gives the space a homey, comfortable feel, and the outsized baskets brimming with featured produce and jars of house-made jams and pickles reinforce the farm-to-table ethos of the restaurant. The menu, divided into three sections (first courses, mains and sides), credits each item with the farm, fishery or ranch from which it came. Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania producers dominate, giving a nod to local agriculture. It’s all organic, the server assures, and definitively Contemporary American in its conception.
Roasted, smoked and braised are common dish descriptors—clearly, the chefs love that wood-burning oven, and for good reason. The oven-roasted bone marrow was ethereal in its unctuous, herb-and-spice-infused butteriness and gorgeous in its stripped-down, simplistic presentation, with bushy branches of rosemary, a whole bulb of roasted garlic and a bed of fat crystals of coarse salt. The bones were split lengthwise, giving maximum surface area to season and brown, as well as easy access to scoop the marrow up and slather it on toasted bread. Smear the toast with some roasted garlic and top it with a few grains of salt and you’ll understand the marvel of good marrow, if you’re not already a devotee.
The crispy soft-shell crab BLT, with a lightly pickled green tomato wedge, a bacon-smoky remoulade and wispy sprigs of colorful sprouts, was solid. The crab’s batter shell was golden and rightfully crisped while the interior was tender and moist. The watercress and shaved fennel salad, made tempting by the inclusion of robiola (an Italian triple-cream cheese, prized for its buttery richness), was less than spectacular, the cheese chunks being more rubbery than supple.
Main courses are more or less straight-up protein with a sauce and occasional garnish; you have to order side dishes for starch and/or greens. The idea is to make more of a family meal out of the experience by sharing dishes. Entrees and sides arrive piping-hot in immaculately shiny stainless steel casseroles set about the table. But don’t be fooled by the family-style label—the portions are still very much geared toward a single diner. (Word to the wise: Each person might only get a bite or two of each dish if you’re sharing among several diners.)
Getting just a bite of the overcooked, dry-as-a-sock orange ale-braised rabbit was no big loss, but doling out the melt-in-your mouth house specialty braised short rib, with its ultra-rich, beefy stock, seemed a task of self-sacrifice. (A second tip: Order two — one for yourself and one for the table.) Another marvel from the wood-burning oven was the Muscovy duck breast, cured and then smoked and finally roasted, and served over tender shreds of duck confit and a huckleberry sauce. The breast was juicy, still a bit pink and bearing a just-so touch of smoke flavor.
The hand-cut BDT triple fries are fat batons of crisp Idaho potato cooked three times (the last in duck fat). They come to the table in a precious gleaming basket seemingly made for the unique purpose of carting the signature fries vertically from fryer to table. The accompanying sauce was bland, but dredging them through the short rib’s sauce was genius.
For greens, the roasted asparagus with duck egg béarnaise and duck prosciutto was a good choice for its fresh, spring vegetable flavor. Unfortunately, the well-balanced sauce was cooked onto the serving dish and gummy as a result. Its garnish of thin slices of duck prosciutto was a nice, salty accoutrement, but another slice or two would have been appreciated (especially when it’s intended to be shared). The daily harvest vegetable, broccoli rabe with kumquat, satisfied those feeling the need to get more greens, but they were waterlogged, and the kumquat, a tiny but potent citrus, was all but drowned out.
For dessert, it’s hard to resist the grand apple pie (it’s an easy sell after you see them lining the pantry’s marble table upon entering the restaurant). Made as individual five-inch pies with high walls of golden crust that hold in fat, glistening wedges of apple, it was served warm, and its size made it easy to share. The apple filling is judiciously sweetened and spiced, but could have been a bit more lush — a scoop of ice cream on top would have righted the wrong.
Ice cream comes in three scoops and with fairly traditional flavors, but the novelty came in the manner in which it was served: in a frosty, oversized glass jar with a wooden spoon — yet another clever and handsome presentation. Despite its charming style, the ice cream was not exceptional.
Another dessert, the lemon floating island, was unexpectedly un-meringue-like. Although the flavors were fine — refreshing lemon, sweet-tart berries, vanilla custard — the island had an odd cheesecake texture. If you had your heart set on meringue, this would have been a disappointment. The chocolate cake, on the other hand, delivered on all fronts. It was abundantly chocolatey, oozing hot and flamed with whisky tableside for a bit of show.
Although a few dishes were poorly executed, the special ambience of the restaurant, the gracious service and thoughtful detail and quality in every serving vessel make the Blue Duck Tavern experience exceptional. Even better, the look and feel carries into the lounge and bar, where walk-ins are welcome. It’s the kind of restaurant that makes you want to come back as often as you can, and judging by the booked reservation list most weekend nights, a lot of others feel the same way.