Food - Pressed duck at King + Duke
Experiencing a French classic, Atlanta style
Chances are slim that you've ever tried duck à la presse, aka canard au sang, aka canard à la Rouennaise, aka that fancy duck dish made famous in Paris where they cart out an elaborate Medieval-torture-looking device and squeeze the bejeezus out of a duck carcass to make a rich and flavorful sauce that is absolutely delicious and costs hundreds of dollars. No? Haven't tried that? I didn't think so. But chef Joe Schafer at King + Duke is hoping to change that in a uniquely local way.
The majority of people who have tried this dish have done so at Paris' renowned La Tour d'Argent, where it becomes an elaborate, multi-act spectacle. The star of the show is, of course, the press. In La Tour d'Argent's case, it's a silver sculpture of a device that would be at home in any fine museum, manned by staff clad in tuxedo who elegantly turn and tighten the press upon the partially cooked duck to extract the juices into a waiting sauce pan. There are flames and flourishes and a test of your credit card limit at the end of the evening. Oh, and every diner who orders the duck is awarded a numbered card showing exactly where that duck stands in a great lineage of ducks served to well-heeled patrons. If you went today and ordered one, you'd be number 1,131,515.
Schafer invited me in to see King + Duke's take on this famous dish, which is much less expensive ($75 to easily feed two people) and much less of a spectacle than its Parisian counterpart. Here in Atlanta, the dish starts with a pasture-raised duck from GrassRoots Farms in Tattnall County, Ga.
At King + Duke, the whole duck, minus a few interior parts, first goes into a skillet over open flames. If you've ever eaten at King + Duke, you know that the restaurant's wood-fired hearths churn out extreme heat. After a few minutes to brown, the duck then goes into the "smoke box" over the flames to cook at a lower temperature, just to the point of being rare inside. The breasts and legs come off and are reserved to go back in the skillet, then the rest of the duck is carved up and set in the press.
King + Duke's duck press is on the utilitarian end of the spectrum. If it showed up at La Tour d'Argent, it would politely be turned away, or possibly offered a dinner jacket and escorted over to a dark corner of the restaurant. The kitchen staff here takes to it, though, with gusto, twisting and turning the large dial at the top of the press to extract the precious juices from the duck. It's a thick red stream that dribbles forth, the essence of duck that makes this dish so rightly famed. The juices join Cognac, red wine, duck stock, and a big scoop of duck liver pâté in a pan, where they're all whisked mercilessly over the flames to make a silky sauce with a deceptively muddy appearance.
With the breasts and legs back in the skillet and a few last preparations, the dishes are ready to go out — one plate with both duck breasts sliced and coated in the sauce, another plate with the deboned leg meat over a black bean miso paste topped with kale and turmeric-tinged pickled daikon. These two dishes that share the same starting point offer a contrast of approaches. The breasts — the true duck à la presse — embrace their duck-ness, rich and intense with a hefty dose of liver very present in the sauce and the sweetness of Cognac lurking behind. The legs, meanwhile, are actually more elegant (and entirely unique to King + Duke), with a crisp vinegary bite from the kale and daikon radish to counter the richness of the duck, and an earthy sweet bass note from the black bean and miso.
We sat down outside on the patio with the two plates of duck and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône from Domaine Pélaquié. The wine and the dishes and the setting all seemed to align at the sweet spot between rustic and refined, a feel many Atlanta restaurants are trying to capture these days. Despite the Old World technique and the rich history that King + Duke's duck à la presse (not to mention the Côtes du Rhône) represents, the experience still felt Southern, born and raised in the fields of Tattnall County. My duck was number 38. We're a long way from La Tour d'Argent.