Photograph by Katherine Bish
French fries fried in duck fat. If you are still reading after that sentence and haven’t called for dinner reservations at The Shaved Duck, we’re disappointed in you. We’ll wait … Got ’em? OK, here’s what else you need to know.
It’s an entirely handsome little place tucked in a few blocks off South Grand; the accommodations here are as pleasant as the restaurant’s name is infelicitous. With the exception of some ill-fitting artwork, the atmosphere is smooth and cool. Soft tans and grays dominate the walls that are not exposed brick. The patina glows in a wooden floor. Small tables and plush, overstuffed semicircles of banquette seat about 50. A compact, comfortable bar is separated from the dining area by a big stained-glass pane that adds to the intimacy.
The menu is small, with the “Big/Little Plates” designation currently adored by restaurateurs who apparently consider terms like “appetizers” and “main courses” too sophisticated for the clientele. That said, the food here is sophisticated, and creative, too. Diners can sense the energy emanating from the kitchen. Close your eyes and jab at the menu; you are unlikely to hit a poor choice.
Less-talented kitchens pull scallops from the fire too soon, fearful of drying them. Here, the kitchen crew allows the critical caramelized crust to form, balancing and complementing the juicy interior. The plump scallops are wrapped around lightly smoked bacon and drizzled with a honey and balsamic vinegar mix; it’s a very successful starter. Duck confit, a leg and thigh, is suitably crispy outside, the meat inside tender and smoky. A fragrant sherry vinaigrette brings together tart mesclun greens, crumbles of bleu cheese and sweet grilled peaches, a fine salad indeed.
The duck liver pâté is adequate, nothing more; opt for the superior terrine of rabbit and duck, the thick slab studded with sweet blueberries and pistachios. The forcemeat is rough-chopped, not ground, as is too often the case; the texture and taste are full and satisfying on the palate. Cheeses here are well selected. The Duck is following a welcome local trend that emphasizes the joy of cheese as a separate course. Go, of course, for the split-personality Mobay, with a layer of goat cheese topping another from sheep, for a mellow, aromatic taste. Consider, too, the gooey, golden-yellow Livarot, a Normandy classic, pungent and creamy.
Among the larger plates, although we remember Mom cooked pork until sawdust had more moisture, medallions of pork tenderloin arrive here with a dark pink interior. (Most diners now realize that you run a greater risk of illness from shaking hands at a cocktail party than from eating “undercooked pork.”) This is what pork is supposed to taste like. It is rewarding here, with a seared crust just touched with a pungent bourbon-and-orange glaze and accompanied by a stalk of licorice-smacked fennel. It’s a near-perfect autumn dish. Equally worthwhile is a fillet of beef. It’s “poached” in butter, really more a butter bath that marinates the meat as it grills, adding both a little more luscious flavor and a boost to those sagging LDL numbers. Accompanying the fillet is a welcome surprise: a shank of red wine–braised bone with all that exquisite marrow. Ask for some of the Duck’s house-baked bread. Slather the marrow on a slice. Dust on some of the thoughtfully provided rough-grained salt. Have a sip of the plummy ’06 Angeline Russian River Valley pinot noir. Eating can get better than this—but not much better.
Restaurants that take a chance on serving rabbit to a sometimes-squeamish public deserve credit. It is prepared simply here—a saddle and loin rolled around a mildly herby cornbread stuffing is roasted, then served atop a mound of wilted spinach. The meat is splendidly moist and tender and delicately flavored. Whatever your experience with rabbit—or, more likely, whatever your preconceptions—give this dish a try. A fish offering changes daily. On our visit, it was a tuna steak unnecessarily tarted up in some fussy way. So we passed. Be sure to ask, however; the notion of a daily fish special is intriguing, given the consistent quality of the other food here.
Oh, and those frites. Potato strings, lovingly dunked in bubbling, silky, hot duck fat are served with homemade ketchup and mayonnaise. The combination of golden brown, crispy and starchy soft goodness makes these not just a mandatory side, no matter what you’re eating, but a near-spiritual experience as well.
At $25, that fruity, ruby and supple Russian River pinot noir is a considerable bargain. The discerning diner will spot a few more such affordable gems on a nice-sized wine list. Virtually all are fairly priced. (So is a selection of American-crafted beers.) Among oenophiles, Argentinean Malbecs are often associated with otoño—autumn. The ’06 Gouguenheim Malbec is earthy and woody, with the scent of ripe berries that goes well with many of the Shaved Duck’s dishes. The blackberries and mint in an Edmeades Late Harvest Zinfandel roll over the tongue and make for a fine dessert wine.
Service at The Shaved Duck is all it should be. The location, in a residential neighborhood, is a little tricky to find, but streetside parking is abundant. The major shortcoming here is one shared with some other newer area restaurants: Portions are simply too skimpy. It is gauche to expect Fred Flintstone–sized portions, true. But it is unreasonable to present munchkin meals as full courses. We hope The Shaved Duck improves in this area, because everything else is first-rate. Especially those fries.
Address: 2900 Virginia
Average main course: $15
Reservations: Yes, especially on the weekend
Dress: As if, after dinner, you’re going to a reading by some smart, hip author
The Last Word: Creative presentations of well-matched ingredients, in an inviting atmosphere