Fire, blood, and storytelling. Those elements — burning wood, the bounty of a fresh kill, and the swapping of tales — are pretty much the bare bones of classic hospitality, and therefore civilization itself. Add a good bottle of wine, and you’re basically in heaven. That may be why the Duck a la Presse ($120) at Meritage gives diners such a primal feeling of warmth and satisfaction, despite all the high-end trappings. At the end of a day, it’s a chef (in this case, Executive Chef Jason Engelhart, pictured above) talking to you about food, history, and culture while he squooshes the jus out of a deconstructed, lightly roasted duck. The duck press itself is a show-stopper, a gorgeously steampunk device that wouldn’t be out of place in either an episode of Sherlock or a medieval interrogation chamber.
In recent months, we’ve been greatly enjoying the roast chicken dishes from Mexican restaurants on East Lake Street, and while the Muscovy duck that is prepared at Meritage with a sauce of port, cognac, and duck squeezings is worlds away in some regards, both dishes strike a similar chord: There’s something intensely comforting about a well-prepared piece of poultry served with rice.
As we stated earlier, the Duck a la Presse is not an inexpensive dish. It’s a meal for two, or it’s a (hefty) course for four, and it’s the climax of a dining experience that will run for a couple of hours, minimum. We spent about three hours at Meritage from our first tastes to dessert, and the time flew by between the wines, soups, salads, and the main event.
The Duck a la Presse has a ceremonial feel to it. This is no accident; pressed duck has been a specialty at the famous Tour d’Argent in Paris since the 19th century. First, the whole roast duck is presented. It’s then whisked back to the kitchen for deconstruction and additional cooking of the breast.
The tableside saute station is fired up, and then broken-down duck pieces are tucked into the canister of the antique press so that they produce under pressure a rich, pinkish liquid that is the base of the intense, savory sauce that is splashed upon the carved duck breast. Two legs from a previous day’s duck, given a full confit treatment, tower over the plate like absurd and delectable palm trees.
Because you’re spending so much time with the animal and watching it go through a number of increasingly delicious formats, you are compelled to reckon with your own carnivorous diet. But if you’re OK eating supermarket or fast-food poultry, there’s nothing about this duck’s story that is worrisome, its spectacular final chapter notwithstanding. (Unlike the typical French duck, American ducks going through the press aren’t suffocated, as regulations and prevailing ethical standards prevent it.)
“The duck we are using is raised by Grimaud Farms in California,” said Russell Klein in an email to us after the meal. “It is a well-raised bird, all natural, no antibiotics, etc. It is a Muscovy, which after much trial and error we found to work best for the Duck a la Presse. It is much leaner than a Pekin or other breeds, and is often the duck of choice in France.”
“We obviously have a few local options, but we did not find they worked very well. We love Christian’s ducks at Au Bon Canard (they are what we serve on the menu) but they are way too big for this dish.”
There are a number of truly special meals to be had around here — everything from a coursed meal at Kaiseki Furukawa to a spotlight dinner at Travail to any of the extraordinary seasonal meals with beer pairings cooked in partnership with breweries like Lift Bridge, Fulton, and Surly. But if you’re going to blow it out big, and you’re looking for a particularly spectacular way to mark the occasion, it’s truly difficult to do better than the fire, flash, and flavor of Duck a la Presse.
You can reserve a Duck a la Presse on the Meritage website.