Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dinner at Otto's, 10th Jan

After our spectacular evening at the Shiori in November, it was G's turn to take me somewhere nice, and it was decided that we should attempt the Canard a la Presse at Otto's. G discovered this restaurant on the Gray's Inn Road some time ago. It's been going for two years but after the reviewers finally woke up in the summer it's become very difficult to get in and we had a choice of this Friday or some time in late March - I assume they must have had a cancellation on Friday. We grabbed the opportunity, and when we arrived G was greeted by Otto like a long-lost friend.

The famous duck press
The room is decorated in a bohemian style with vintage French movie posters, Victorian lampshades, some quite weird furniture and a big stone horse's head looking over the room. We had a table near the kitchen so I could see the chefs at work and also the duck press. The Canard a la Presse is a famous dish served at La Tour D'Argent in Paris, which I've never visited but G has. Apparently they no longer prepare it in front of you there, but Otto does. On the menu, it says "The Canard à la Rouenaise is an antique and sophisticated art form you need to see prepared and taste at least once in your life." There were other appealing things on the menu too (including a fillet of wild boar with a crust of pain d'epices) so it's not compulsory to have the duck, but on this occasion, that was what we wanted.

The duck was brought out from the kitchen and shown to us. It was enormous. These are very special ducks, and later on the waitress told us that they are bigger at this time of year. I believe it was over 3 kg, and it looked nothing like the sort of duck you find in the shops.

Otto started by making the sauce with butter, some hefty sloshes of madeira, port and red wine, and stock made from previous ducks. Meanwhile we had a dilemma as to whether to have a starter - but since the duck takes over an hour to prepare, and we were already ravenous, we went ahead. Otto advised a light starter and "not too much bread". We followed this advice and G had crayfish on a pike mousse while I had scallop carpaccio. Both went down very well. Mine was refreshing and pure, and certainly left space for the duck. With our starters we had a bottle of white Beaune 1er cru Aigrots from Domaine de Montille. We had hoped it would be the 2007 vintage but it turned out they had moved on to the 2009. Nevertheless it was very pleasurable and went well with the food.

Once the duck was cooked, Otto carved it beside our table and then we all crowded round the duck press (usually a two man job, but three of them were operating it on our evening) which is screwed down to extract the juices from the carcass which are then incorporated into the sauce. It was exciting to see this being done, and some people at another table came over to see what was going on.

I knew that the duck was served "en deux services" so when we were presented with the chopped-up liver on toast, with a little cup of 15 year old Henriques & Henriques madeira, I assumed that this was the first of the two. That duck liver was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten, and the madeira went very well with it. But it turned out I was wrong - this was really just an amuse gueule and apparently at La Tour d'Argent they don't give you the liver. I shan't bother going there then!

The actual first service was the breast, which had had its skins removed and been carved into slices, served with the delicious sauce and some "pommes soufflees" which I'd never encountered before - they were like little pillows of potato - and some green beans. It was all excellent, as was the wine G chose, a Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru "Aux Combottes" 2007 from Domaine Dujac. I haven't had the privilege to drink much Dujac but may need to reassess as this was wonderful. It jumped out of the glass with lively aromas and was very complex and interesting, and much lighter than I'd expected it to be, not heavy at all. Every mouthful was fantastic.

It's worth noting that the wine list is extremely reasonable, as he applies a fixed margin to drink the good stuff. BBR are selling the Dujac for £810 for 6 which works out at £135 a bottle, although I found it somewhere else for just under £100. On Otto's wine list, it's £147. You can't argue with that!

Blurry Soft focus photo of pommes soufflees
Once we'd finished the first service, we had a short pause before the second, and Otto came over and chatted with us. G has been to lots of Parisian restaurants and they spent some time talking about Maxim's where Otto used to work. He also told us that he was in a very good mood as he'd had a big party in for lunch the previous day and they had eaten three ducks (!) as well as various other things. It was clearly a VIP but he didn't tell us who - very discreet. Apparently Otto wouldn't normally do three ducks for a table, he did it for them as a special favour, but two ducks is not out of the ordinary so if there are four of you, that's an option...

Then the legs were served. It seems he has been tweaking how they are presented, and for us, they had been deconstructed so we had a bowl of what I can only describe as leg morsels. This worked for me, as I suspect hacking our way through a duck leg at this stage in the evening would have been quite hard work. Accompanying this was a bowl of tiny little pieces of duck skin which had curled up (Otto had removed the skin using the back of a spoon), and croutons. Again it was absolutely amazing, but this time we were defeated early on.

I cheekily suggested to G that we might request a doggy bag, and they were very happy to do this, so the leg, skin and sauce were all put in individual cartons for us to take home and we ate them along with a salad last night. Otto advised spreading the sauce on toast (he initially suggested brioche, but agreed that Poilane would work) which went down a treat.

Legs etc. being cooked up for dinner the next evening
We opted out of pudding, but nevertheless were given a scoop of ice cream and a glass of 30 year old Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez to go with. The PX was fantastic, very smooth, and not sickly sweet like most PX. I don't know whether all this generosity is normal or because we were spending a lot that evening or because G was a supporter from the early days. Anyway, it was very kind of them.

All in all, this was a wonderful evening with an unusual combination of formality and informality, atmosphere, theatre, extraordinary food and first rate wine. It's not something you'd want to do every night, but perhaps once a year... Thanks G!

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