Monday, August 16, 2010

Lunch at the Blue Duck Tavern

It's that time of year again. Washington, D.C. Summer Restaurant Week.
I love restaurant week. The idea of it is that a couple hundred well-established restaurants in metropolitan area offer lunch and/or dinner menus at a special price. At participating establishments, the lunch menu (which is generally two or three courses) is about twenty dollars. To be cute - and perhaps to also deal a little bit with inflation - the amount of cents goes up based on the year. So last year, lunch was $20.09 and this year it is $20.10.  This price is the same at all locations.  Normally, the dinner menus offer slightly more choices, and thus their price is about $35.  Again, the amount of change is based on the year. Not all restaurants participate in the lunch; some only do dinner. Some restaurants also offer special deals on bottles of wine during Restaurant Week.
Because restaurant week is so popular and it can be a really good deal (when very expensive places offer you lunch for approximately $20, it is still the same quality as their normal food, even if the menu is slightly altered, and most of the time the menu isn't altered, just shortened), you should make reservations as soon as you know. Normally the date for restaurant week is released about 2-3 weeks ahead of time. The most expensive and popular restaurants will book up completely within a day or two.
This year, we finally got a reservation at Blue Duck Tavern. We've known about this restaurant for a while, and have heard many good things about it, but we have never been quick enough to get a reservation for restaurant week. Till this year.

For our meal we were allowed to select a starter, an main course, a side dish, and a dessert.  This was actually quite generous.  Most restaurants just do a three-course meal (appetizer, main course, dessert). There were also many more choices compared to what we normally see.  With each part of the meal, we had six choices.  The standard that I've seen during my other Restaurant Week experiences is three or four options.

We began with an oven roasted bone marrow with a vadouvan crust. I asked our waiter what the “vadouvan crust,” and he explained that it was a type of curry that they sprinkled on top of the marrow, before it was roasted. As you can see, this starter was pretty big. The toasted bread was crispy and warm, and there was even a whole head of garlic, sliced in half and roasted, which you could rub against the bread. The large (beef?) bones were sliced lengthwise, and a small spoon was provided to scoop the marrow out. The dish was fatty and smooth, as expected, but could have been better salted. It was good—and definitely nothing we had ever seen in a restaurant before—but not something we would order again. Especially compared to the other starters, it lacked character.

These roasted Maine scallops with English peas, hazelnut, and brown butter were soft and tender, and perhaps the most perfectly cooked scallops I've ever tasted. They had been caramelized on the outside, but yet did not have the slightest bit of toughness that scallops can get when overcooked. These scallops melted on the tongue, and they were sweet—the way fresh scallops naturally are—and beautifully seasoned. I liked that this dish showed that while Blue Duck Tavern is about “simple” American fare (the menu lists where the produce you are eating comes from), the kitchen is not just standing by quietly. This food did not speak for itself, it trumpeted. We applauded. (I’m lying. Actual applause would have been odd.)

Our last starter was a chilled corn soup with cilantro and a corn emulsion. This was a stunner. It carried all the flavors and sweetness of gently roasted, fragrant corn. It was silky, light, and smooth. I was afraid that it would be thick, the way pea soup is, but it was not. It was refreshing, and a perfect summer dish, although it seemed to hint towards autumn a little bit, as the soup had a this delicate undertone of some warm spice that I could not place. We declared this to be a 9.5 out of 10, if not a solid 10.

This braised escolar with minestrone broth (top) was the first of our entrees, and we were unimpressed. There was a tanginess to the fish from its marinade that was not smoothly incorporated, and while the escolar was beautifully cooked, I was bored by it, even though it was texturally interesting, with the soft white beans and al dente pasta. I would not order it again.
The side dish (on the bottom in the picture above) was the baby beets with candied orange peel and marcona almonds. It was slightly sweet, slightly vinegary, and slightly tart in a very pleasant way, and it woke up my taste buds (a very good palate cleanser). Not sure if I would order it again though, since I think that lack the oomph and depth of flavor that I had seen in the succotash, which I describe below.

This braised beef rib with homemade steak sauce had that nice fall-of-the-bone texture that slowly cooked meat does. It was good and filling, but at the same time just average. The meat had a declining finish; the flavor just didn’t stay in your mouth. It wasn’t that the meat itself lacked flavor—the seasoning was all fine—but the flavor was so… commonplace. I think that had the marinade been balanced with a little bit of sweet or spice, the dish could have been much better. As it was, it was just decent.

This side dish was the summer succotash, which was actually my favorite of the sides. It was warm and rich with flavor. I loved the corn in this. I would order this again.

This wood oven roasted confit of duck leg with roasted plum vinaigrette and fresh greens was good. The portion was very generous—I only ate one of the duck legs out of three—and the meat was tender and perfectly seasoned. I like that the salad was lightly dressed and that fresh, sweet plum worked well with the confit. The dish felt light; though it was filling, it did not weigh me down.

The duck was fragrant, and my mother's eyebrows rose in surprise at her first bite. This is what I mean when I say I go out to eat and expect to be wowed. I do have one complaint though. There was a strange bitterness to the duck that I just couldn't place, and it diminished my enjoyment of the dish. I think it was actually from the wood roasting, which is odd. The meat was not burnt, just bitter, in the way that a non-sugar coated pill of medicine can be.
The side dish above was the hand cut BDT triple fries (you can see a bitten one the picture above, and the bowl in the picture above that one), which my father declared to be a 10 out of 10, although I disagree slightly. They were very good fries—there’s no doubt about that—but they weren't perfect. They were very thick cut, which my father said he liked because it allowed you to taste the potato and to really get that starchy texture in your mouth, which contrasted nicely with the golden brown and crispy outside of the fry, but to me, the fries were just a little too thick. I could have done with a little less starchiness. What was nice, though, was that the fries came to the table already salted and herbed (cilantro?), and so they didn't lack flavor. A garlic aioli stood as a dipping sauce for the fries. I found the aioli to be a little weak for my taste; it could have been bolder and more garlicky. Overall, perhaps a 8.5 out of 10 for both the fries and aioli.

This was the key lime blueberries tart with white chocolate cream and a citrus crisp. My mom, who does not like sour things at all, declared this to be too tart for her to handle, but I enjoyed the silkiness and creaminess of the filling, which had the strong scent of citrus, but the slightly subdued flavor of key limes, along with the sweetness of summer blueberries. The word which comes to mind when I try to describe this dessert is dainty.

This was the warm blackberry and nectarine crumble with crème fraîche. I liked the big chunks of soft nectarine, which were full of the flavor, and the huge blackberries which burst sweetly in my mouth. The crumble had scents of cinnamon and nuttiness, and the crème fraîche was a perfect foil for the balanced sweetness and tartness of the dessert. But, as much as I enjoyed it, I also couldn’t help but think as I was eating it that I could make this at home. I don’t like to think that about food when I eat out. The portion was huge though. Both my father and I ordered it, but together, even with the help of my mother, we could not finish one. We packed the other one—untouched—to bring home.

During our meal, not only did we get an excellent view of the open kitchen, but we also enjoyed stellar service. Our main waiter, as well as his helping servers (dishes are all served at the exact same time, so our table required three servers), and the general manager stopped by the ask us about our meal. They also replaced a napkin that I dropped with a new one, and very kindly wrapped up the food that we couldn’t finish, including the dessert. After we paid our bill, our waiter stopped by one last time to tell us that he hoped we enjoyed our experience, and then slipped a tin of sugar cookies into our doggie bag, telling us that it was an extra treat for us to enjoy. I thought it was a very nice touch.
I have to wonder, though, if our treatment was due to the fact that 1) I took pictures of every single dish that came out, 2) I took notes about the food, and 3) we all tasted each other’s food. Perhaps this made them nervous. This is not the first time that such behavior has caused increased attention. A few years before, at Hook in Georgetown, our waiter also seemed alarmed by my constant picture taking and our food sharing. I think this makes servers wary that we might be reviewers. They are not wrong. But now you know a way to get better service! (Sometimes.)

Blue Duck Tavern
24 & M Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20037
Tel: 202-419-6755

Overall rating: **, 2 stars out of 4

*Note: Restaurant Week in D.C. this year runs from August 16th to 22nd.


  1. I LOVE your review on the Maine scallops dish. Very beautiful writing! Very creative description of the dish!

  2. wow impressive review although you're a tough one to please. how many stars did you give oya?