Words and Photography by Su-Lin Ong
The pink neon by Tracey Emin with its short and meaningful message breaks the hush of the handsome dining room. Its few words could be a more fitting review of my duck dinner, if I were any lesser a devotee of duck.
Anyway, dining in its glow, we are at a table hosted by Mark Hix at Hix Mayfair, Brown's Hotel. It’s a venue where I’ve eaten two dozen meals over as many years, but tonight’s will be an extraordinary one, I know it.
The duck dinner is lined up: duck broth, wild duck salad, then a flaming spectacle of glorious Goosnargh duck.
When the food police tell you to avoid consecutive courses of the same central ingredient, one usually abides. But when the intrigue of the night is in the hands of Hix and Executive Chef Lee Streeton, the experience takes on something akin to nose-to-tail eating. Except that it’s not pig, it’s duck.
Our broth is served with sharp-cubed mini dice of duck and glistening pearls of barley in perfect suspension. What follows is a salad with duck delicacies set like jewels amongst the leaves. It’s an adventure to discover slivers of buttery soft heart and melting liver. In contrast there are also cubes of duck scratchings aka. in this establishment as ‘quackling’. I can’t figure out how it’s made without the fat melting away, until Mark Hix explains that the skin and fat are blanched before being quickly deep fried.
A velvety Long Island Chardonnay gives the seamless transition between these first courses.
Waiters quietly slide the necessary accoutrements up to the table. There’s a line-up of whole roasted ducks. I count at least one between two guests; almost a whole one per person, if one could care to. Now the theatricals start. In sequence, each duck bursts into fire. Dancing red flames are engulfing my duck, then licks of piercing blue flames!
Presented vertically on bespoke platters, the ducks parade their crispy, caramelized skin in the round. It’s like watching opera at the Albert Hall rather than at Covent Garden. The scored skin takes on a luminous shine as the cider brandy gravy is poured round. Wait, some work is needed before we eat. I’m allowed to carve my own duck, and I manage clumsy, thick slices. The breast and body are a deep blush pink all through. Stubbornly I still also choose the dark meat, as I figure out that the legs are clad in more fat and skin. I’m convinced of it; fat equals flavour, and I want a decadent dose. Glassy potato drums with a cheese richness and darkest green sprouts with frivolous fronds are served. This duck roast is billed as a kind of romantic dinner for two; one duck, two people. Our table is ten. More ducks, more people; I wouldn’t have any fewer!
Our wine is Tonnix Grand ‘Crew’ Douro. It has ripe, deep berry smoothness, giving more with every sip. This was created by Hix and restaurateur friend Mitch Tonks and the detail is in Tracey Emin’s doodled sailing boat on the label.
We are eating slow-reared Reg Johnson ducks which come from the Goosnargh valley in Lancashire. They enjoy a totally natural wheat and corn diet, and have a nice life with 50 percent more space to socialize with each other, than Government regs. Slaughtered at eight to ten weeks old, rather than the usual six, they are hung for 24 hours to give intense flavour. I am always amazed that such prime duck usually costs less than a joint of beef at the butcher.
For dessert, old fashioned Sussex pond puddings are tipped out of their basin. As we plunge in, a whole bergamot oozes like molten lava. The combination of this Earl Grey citrus fragrance and the syrupy beef suet crust makes it my no.1 pud of the year (whole of 2012-13, that is). We sip Kingston Black Apple which at 18 percent abv. gives a light rich flourish, not dissimilar to a Pineau de Charentes. The pairing echoes the citrus and cider notes of the preceding duck course.
Our table of ten has truly bonded. Memories of tonight will be our first greeting when each of us meets again. I thank the nation’s great northern ducks, the duck fat, the duck skin and the convivial carbs.
The menu & wines
Swainson House Farm duck & winter vegetable broth with pearl barley
Ripley Estate wild duck salad with ‘quackling’ and elderberries
Reg Johnson’s whole roasted corn-fed duck with flamed blood oranges
Earl of Sussex pond pudding
Lenz Long Island Chardonnay 2007
Tonnix Grand ‘Crew’ Douro 2009
Kingston Black Apple aperitif
Hix Mayfair, Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BP
Tel: 020 7518 4004
Su-Lin Ong attended on behalf of The London Foodie and dined as a guest of Mark Hix, Hix Mayfair, 84PR.