Passing through the entrance of Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt Washington is, I imagine, a bit like stepping into the very own home-kitchen of Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault or Chef de Cuisine John Melfi. The tables are scattered throughout a space flanked by an open staff pantry and open cooking area. They could just as well be stools pulled up to the island counter in a good friend’s kitchen. The pantry is just that – shelves, a fridge, some potted herbs surrounding a large marble cooking srface, upon which Pastry Chef Naomi Gallego rolls out daily-fresh pastries and later places them on display. It’s the first thing any guest sees (and smells) when walking through the Park Hyatt toward the direction of the restaurant. Heaps of their famous apple pies set on authentically flour-dusted wooden cutting boards are more than enough to lure one deeper into the duck’s belly. The open kitchen is a well-oiled machine of sous chefs dancing around one another, each one at any given moment completely absorbed in the single dish in front of them. There is a nice wood-burning oven, sure, but what makes the kitchen truly stand out is the commercial Molteni Range, custom-designed in and imported from France, the first of its kind in Washington, D.C. It is a thing of beauty and elegance, with its bronze fittings and hand finishings gleaming stoically in the hanging lights, like a grand piano center-stage ready to be put to work. And, it’s blue, which is awesome.
I recently had the opportunity to try Blue Duck Tavern’s Autumn Harvest Chef’s Table Breakfast, a varied selection of seasonal breakfast items served in the gorgeous private space past the restaurant’s shiny glass wine cellar. Chef Sebastien popped over to walk us through the concept (locally sourced, allowing simplicity of products to shine without overpowering them in presentation), his vision for the future (gluten-light, healthier preparations but maintaining depth of flavor) and some upcoming special stuff (Thanksgiving dinner in-house or to go). He explained how the kitchen ditched small-batch jams imported from France in order to produce their own, from locally sourced fruit. It seems to have been a good decision, as the jams have become quite popular and are now a somewhat signature source of pride for the pantry. He also walked us through each item in our family-style spread, name-dropping allied purveyors and artisans left and right. Then, with a few sips from a wonderfully rich and creamy, fluted organic yoghurt and raspberry smoothie, and a few gulps from a refreshing (though tad watery) pineapple and mint juice, the breakfast of ladies commenced.
Jams. Quality, house-made, seasonal ones, which allow local fruit to shine in color and flavor. There was a tart, crisp cranberry with a beautiful bright red to it, as well as one with mixed autumn berries, a velvet smooth apple butter, one with ripe pears. Each of us seemed to have a favorite. Mine was a plum-honey preserve that licked the tongue with its glossy moisture, breathing life into whatever dry carb it was spread on. It had a wonderful floral lightness to it that lifted the ripe plum from becoming overwhelmingly mature in sweetness. Having worked at Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston and having for a period of about 2 months eaten their famous sticky buns on a daily basis, I am a bit jaded in general when it comes to this pastry. I overdid them a bit. Blue Duck Tavern’s version of the Wood-Fired Pecan Sticky Bun, however, revived my long lost love for this messy little guy. The texture was wonderfully chewy, yolky and dense on the inside, while the top had a thin, crunchy lattice of caramelized sugar running across. I loved that the pastry was not absolutely smothered in the sticky sweet glaze, allowing the dough itself to breathe. This also meant that the pecans maintained a crunchy texture instead of being sogged down and suffocated. The flavor was warm and comforting, a touch of the oaky barrel aged maple ringing through. Decadent but not sloppy. A surprisingly delicate coffee-side sweet. There were other wonderful, flaky, buttery pastries as well. The blueberry muffin had a nice sugar crust and a fluffy, freshly baked pillow of dough on the interior. A coffee cake crumb muffin had an equally nice texture, perfect as a side to a hot cup of coffee. The ideal vehicle for tasting all of the wonderful homemade jams was Blue Duck Tavern’s savory croissant. Not only did it have that perfect juxtaposition of crunchy, flaky “horns” and soft, buttery interior, but it was the perfect size (unlike those overgrown monster-croissants you see out there these days). The Pastrami Smoked Salmon board was brought out next, with a few accoutrements. There were miniature hen eggs, deviled with some herbs and mustard to better perform on my DIY lox sandwich, There were onions pickled in red wine vinegar, cornichons, and a few thin sliced of toasted black rye with a slight sour tang I adore in my bread. The Skuna Bay salmon was pastrami-cured with a pepper- and coriander-scented ring of spice coating the exterior of the slippery fish. The flavors had matured and the marine brine in the fish had transformed into a smokey, nutty saltiness that woke my palate up quickly. I could have used a tiny bit of some creamy spread to put between salmon and bread to bind them together, but otherwise I really enjoyed this dish. By far the most decadent item, in my opinion, was the Jumbo Lump Crab with Scrambled Egg Whites. Juicy, soft lumps of Baxter, Maryland crabmeat thrown into a fluffy scramble of egg whites and turned only a few times in order not to break those lumps into the fibers which compose them. Moist bits of skinned tomato, some sauteed spinach and (I think) a few dollops of crème fraîche were thrown in there, all very delicate ingredients that added flavor and moisture and color and smoothness, without taking anything away from the subtle beauty of the crab. Slices of buttery avocado at the perfect stage of ripeness were lain over the mound of crab ‘n’ eggs. I appreciated that the avocados were seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper cracked over the top. A dish very mild in flavor, one that is creamy and mushy all the way through, without too much textural contrast to wake one up. Crunchy slices of wheat toast on the side do the trick.
The exact opposite of the latter is Blue Duck Tavern’s famous Short Rib Hash, which comes with two fried eggs sunny side up and some horseradish sauce at the base. The hash was sinfully dak, salty, meaty and deep in flavor. Tender, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth little chunks of braised Creekstone Farms Angus short rib were sauteed together with cubes of potato and squash. When the yolks are poked, they ooze dense liquid velvet over the lumps of flaky meat and potatoes, adding a decadence that makes eyes close and chatter come to a halt. The wonderful white-hot, clean heat of the horseradish cream sauce cut the fat and salt of the thing expertly, saving it from becoming too heavy and making it possible to eat more than a spoonful of the flavor-packed stuff. As if the large bowl of hash and eggs weren’t quite rich enough on its own, it was paired with a side of creamy heirloom Grits from Anson Mills, SC, loaded with smoked gouda cheese. Dense, sticky and almost pudding-like in its texture, with the very fine grains still al dente enough to roll around on the tongue like soft beads covered in a starchy, thick blanket of cheesy cream. The grits were nutty and smokey in flavor, quite enough to stand on their own, though maybe a bit intense to eat with the already very flavor-dense hash. If a sweet tooth dominates your breakfast preferences, I highly recommend the Apple & Pear French Toast, which comes with 100% BLiS Bourbon Barrel Matured Maple Syrup and a little tub of vanilla cream to spread on as needed. Simple and seasonal, with ripe pears and apples from Fresh Link, VA thrown over the top for a bit of freshness. The fruit lifts up the dairy-soaked, bread pudding consistency of the french toast and offers a crisp, light contrast to the aged and mature flavors of the maple syrup poured on. Not the most diet-friendly dish, though the serving size is pretty decent (as in, small enough to handle).
This glorious thing is called a Dutch Baby and I’m glad my first introduction to it was at Blue Duck Tavern. The massive pancake was served with chunks of roasted pumpkin, pumpkin butter and pumpkin seeds in the center, with the edges curled up to show the outline of the skillet it was baked in. I really enjoyed the contrasting textures in this dish. The edges had a crunch and snapped when broken into, while the interior maintained an eggy richness and soft blanket quality. The caramelized pumpkin had a moist, smooth tenderness which was in turn offset by the crunch of the seeds. The pumpkin butter was a dashing, bright orange color and maintained a vegetal, caramelized sweetness without being overloaded with sugar.
Blue Duck Tavern seems to have a spotless reputation around town, one which was not exactly harmed by the fact that the Obamas celebrated a wedding anniversary there a few years back. Honestly, if they can make breakfast not just not dull but downright exciting, I can only imagine what they do when dinnertime rolls around.