February 2nd must have been a big day for America’s most reliable meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil. He probably noshed nervously on a soil-crusted parsnip root before emerging from his hole, only to return right back again, spooked by the dark shadow of his plump ground-hog body. He predicted 6 more weeks of winter. What he did not predict was 10 more weeks of it. He also did not predict that winter would swing right into summertime, forcing D.C. to adjust quite quickly. I must admit that I didn’t mind. After months of ruddy Syrah I was ready for a Grüner, a Prosecco, a sangria on the rooftop. I’m done, for now, with brown braised meats and rice bowls and Scotch. I want freshness, lightness, hydration and color.
At Blue Duck Tavern‘s patio opening media event last week I picked up plate upon plate of food that I needed to have a nice long look at before devouring. The restaurant’s new line of salads and seasonal light fare is a compilation best witnessed with rays of setting afternoon sun beaming down. They would not exist to their fullest in the oaky dark taverns I’ve been frequenting as of late. I could not think to eat them with my harshly hoppy IPA’s of wintertime past. They require chilled rosé. The dishes were showcased in the best way I could’ve hoped for. They were arranged in person by Executive Chef Sebastian Archambault and Chef de Cuisine Daniel Singhofen at two adjacent prep stations with BDT’s outdoor herb garden serving as the cleverly appropriate backdrop on their outdoor patio on a lovely afternoon. The seasonal dishes were recreated as minis, allowing guests to try a variety [read: all] of them without filling up on just 1 or 2. And, well, they were paired with rosé.
My first bite came in the form of a circulating canapé, one of 3-4 brought out from the kitchen. It was a jiggly disk of seared foie set atop a thin wedge of toasted brioche. A tangy chutney of strawberry and rhubarb was spooned on. As a foie purist, I usually prefer the stuff smokey and savory without any bright, fruity compote present to balance (or take away from) the mineral musk and the fattiness of the liver. I want to feel as much of that funk and fat melting down the sides of my tongue as possible. Maybe one of the only pairings I’ve enjoyed with foie has been a few modest mouthfuls of Tokaji, that nobly rotted golden dessert wine from my homeland. I had that at Gundel. I’ve also had it with a nice grape jam at 1789, where the preserve was democratically not smeared on, allowing the guest to determine how much of it to leave on the foie. The strawberry-rhubarb was a pleasant surprise. It had a lovely, lively pink hue, and was more tart than sweet, complementing the savory foie as opposed to overpowering its character with sticky dulzor.
On another tray were kebabs of Muscovy duck breast and what I think was some crispy dark meat, two delectable bits of the restaurant’s plump mascot tangled around each other and brushed with rhubarb butter to add luxury while also balancing that same richness with a bit of acidity. The textures here were great, the firm and plump and slightly chewy breast juxtaposed with the sinful crunch of the leg.
While the canapés fed those who chose to remain stationary and social, the main attraction of the event was the garden of fresh, local produce set out in ramekins and bowls at the salad station, where Exec and ‘de Cuiz worked ceaselessly to assemble plates featuring Blue Duck’s summer line. I peeled myself off the wine bar and toddled shyly over to this interactive mecca of green things. I ogled at baby radishes and kohlrabi shoots like “disagreeable looking” little Mary Lennox discovering her Secret Garden after a long, gray winter. There were six specific concepts lain out, though really there were infinite combinations possible with the vibrant lettuces, peas, fava beans, baby radishes, edible flowers, fennel, squash blossoms, white and green asparagus, rainbow of heritage baby carrots and various purees and dressings made of these. The six were also highly customizable. Proteins, which included smoked trout, beef tartare, guanciale and a house-made jerky could easily be left off or replaced by a veg with similar texture. At no point did I feel such replacements or leave-offs were necessary but I guess some people have dietary restrictions and are picky about these kinds of things.I was happy to see a beef tartare, of Wagyu no less, laid out with a paper-thin shaving of bright green asparagus and one of carrot, both slightly pickled. There might have also been translucent wings of raw onion melted against the meat as its prickle was undeniably present. There was a crunchy thing which I think might have been a parmesan crisp or toast of some sort, a firm base to smear the classic cubes of minced red beef onto. The latter were chopped to a nice texture and glued together by the smooth yolk of a hen, that also added a luscious texture to the little mound of meat. The flavor was nice, fresh and clean Wagyu with just some finely chopped parsley and whole grain mustard to perk it up. There was some thick, sticky mustard on the side to dab the meat into as well as a cornichon for tart freshness. A single spongy, moist morel was also present on the plate. It had a woodsy, beefy flavor and was perhaps placed there to serve as a nod to the more aged forms of the dish’s protagonist. Tuna salad, eat your heart out! A single wedge of charred gem lettuce was paired with a Smoked Trout Rillette, a pea puree and some shavings of baby radish. Tart bits of pearl onion pickled in red wine offered a great contrast to the nutty, velvety smoke of the fish. The rillette had a flaky, fatty, moist texture to which the crunchy, charcoal-laced lettuce offered a firm backbone. There were also some olive oil croutons lacing the rillette to add extra texture. The only warm dish coming from the bar of crudos was the Carolina Gold Rice Risotto, which appeared in a saucepan brought out from the kitchen and scooped, still hot, onto the small tasting plates at the station. The risotto (rice from Anson Mills) itself was fantastic, thick but not too goopy, comforting but still light. Plump green peas and tender sautéed chanterelles were laid over the top, along with some shavings of parmesan which wilted from the heat and steam of the risotto and infused the dish with its nutty, salty flavor. There was a one-bite Wedge Salad, a concave little leaf of lettuce with plump green peas, zingy scallion, crisp sugar-snap peas and a few thin shavings of baby radish, topped with a creamy green goddess dressing. It was perhaps the “greenest” tasting of all salads, with the lettuce providing a platform on which the very subtle vegetal sweetness of the peas contrasted with the mild heat of the scallion and baby radish. To shake things up a little, some miniature shards of house made beef jerky were sprinkled over the lush green garden, introducing a nice smokey, savory element to add an extra umph to the dish. While some of the other salads were a tad awkward to eat while holding the plate with my left hand instead of a knife, this bundle of stuffed lettuce could easily be scooped up with hand and eaten in one or two bites. The popular favorite seemed to be the Baby Carrot Salad, which came with crunchy slices of fennel, tangy white wine pickled onion and thin juliennes of multicolored heritage baby carrot along with the carrots left whole. There was also some trace of orange flavor – I believe a few small slivers of blood orange had snuck into a bite or two without my seeing them. I usually prefer my savory salads to be fruit-free (in the same vein as preferring foie gras to not be topped with jam). If there is a strawberry or grape or – the horror! – pineapple floating on my lettuce I puck it right off, even if there is blue cheese to mellow out the fruity sweetness. But in this case the orange flavor was very mild and its floral citric acidity was more present than ripe sweetness, so it worked with the root-y, earthy flavor of the carrots and fennel. My personal favorite was the Asparagus Salad made with heritage white and green asparagus prepped in various ways – left whole, julienned and slightly pickled, the stems chopped into disks that resembled heart of palm, pureed into a leafy green base. The different forms of asparagus were assembled into a neat little salad, dressed with a chile lime vinaigrette and topped with snow white flakes of nutty parmesan that melted readily on my tongue. There were also some delicate sprouts of kohlrabi which (marvelously!) had just as much peppery and floral sweet flavor as its meristem form. I enjoyed this dish for the great variety of textures achieved with a single underused ingredient. The julienned slices were slippery, with a crunch while the disks had a meatier, firm bite. And to offset all the leafy green vegetal freshness, a few cubes of guanciale were sprinkled over the plate. The salty, fatty bits of pork exploded like hidden landmines of flavor and contrasted the asparagus beautifully. It was also a clever re-working of the asparagus wrapped in bacon classic. Another gorgeous dish, the green and white veg accented with a bright purple flower. Upon first glance, I confused guanciale for chicharron and when I inquired about it, Chef Singhofen sent a server in for a plate of their house-made chicharron to try. They were awesome. Crunchy and very light, with the perfect amount of piggy fat, the flavor brought to the forefront by coarse salt sprinkled over the top. I don’t remember which dish Chef said they used this guy in and after poring through the lunch and dinner menus I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. But the fact that they have it at all is pretty cool. A canapé that found me rooted to the garden stations towards the end of the event was Blue Duck’s version of the all-too-popular-these-days Fried Green Tomato. And yeah, there was Pimento cheese. I’m getting a little tired of this dish but BDT’s version is not bad at all. The Pimento is a sauce here, not a topper – that’s new. And the texture of it is smooth and thick like hummus. The tomatoes are thin and the breading is a “well done” and crunchy blanket of actual bread crumbs, not Panko or cornmeal or anything gimmicky like that. There’s also a bright little spoonful of cool green tomato relish on top to add contrast. A simple and well done version of a too often “reinvented” and often butchered classic. Better late than never for the Southern Blossom Cocktail, the Park Hyatt’s way of being part of the whole Cherry Blossom thing. It should be noted that this event was rescheduled due to rain, with the original date falling right at in the middle of Cherry Blossom season. So, not as relevant, but definitely still appropriate on a hot summer afternoon. It’s made with rye infused with cherries, some lemon juice, sweet vermouth and cherry bitters. The orange and black cherry garnish are both flamed for extra flavor. It’s good, refreshing despite the rye and not too sweet.
While the garden station boasted the best that this planet has to offer, the dessert station (featuring the newest creations of Pastry Chef Naomi Gallego) kind of looked like a convention of extraterrestrials. Jars of dry ice breathed forth white smoke, clear push-pops with neon green innards almost glowing in the dark. There were bright pink alien space ships and towers of choux that resembled the grim residences of some creepy Catholic magisterium. They were all pretty delicious though. The pink alien spaceships were actually tartlets, silky smooth strawberry mousse atop tart rhubarb with a buttery, flaky pie crust as the base. Little beads tasting of vanilla added a busy texture that contrasted nicely with the glossy mousse.
The towers were religieuses. And yeah, they’re creepy, especially to an atheist who is generally spooked by the power of the Roman Catholic Church. I admit that this is perhaps completely irrational but these pastries scared me. I kept my distance and neglected to take a photo. Here’s one by Priya Konings:
I was half expecting to be a handed a pair of laboratory goggles as I approached the jars of Mint Chocolate Chip Push Up Pops which reminded me of a zoomed in diagram of a bacteriophage or a syringe containing some magical antidote. They were actually a light-hearted take on a childhood favorite. The pops pushed up delicious ice cream that tasted of real, fresh wintergreen mint and was laced with lumps of chocolate. An interactive mint chip ice cream that seemed to be everyone’s favorite thing of the night.
The party ended rather abruptly due to impending hailstorm warnings but the restaurant did a good job at easing the transition and at no point did I feel like being rushed out the door. Service was charming, the event well-organized, the food beautiful and genuine and delicious.