Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Birth of the "Duckeasy"

San Francisco is no stranger to getting around regulation. A city best known for giving Prohibition the finger and pioneering the decriminalization and legitimazation of cannabis sales is not going to bat an eyelash when you try to take away its most opulent and savored of edible offal; I'm referring, of course, to foie gras, arguably the crowned jewel of haute cuisine and hot cuisine alike. From seared torchons with toast points, to the secret ingredient in a $50 hamburger that people will swear on their grandmother is worth every penny, foie means a lot to a lot of people. And when you snatch something like that away with little warning, and minimal justification, you're bound to get some resistance.
It's a good thing SF chefs are a naturally clever bunch, because as long as you know the right people, you'd never know it was gone. Just like the Speakeasies that peppered this city during Prohibition, pioneering the way for those who weren't willing to let go, weren't willing to be told "No, I know better than you what is good for you," and the first Bay Area cannabis dispensaries to open their doors in turbulent and uncertain times, the chefs with the means and the know-how are doing their part to keep alive an important piece of food culture; and not just because of its potentially exquisite texture and flavor (though those things do matter very, very, very, very, very much), but also because this ban was improperly and hastily galvanized by a special interest group and forewent much of the standard review and research to which a regulation of its nature would typically be subject.
The fact of the matter is, the production of foie gras is not a black and white matter. There are, naturally, shades of grey among the ways ducks and geese can be raised, fed, and slaughtered, just as there are with any animal. And not to completely digress, but how can foie gras be categorically banned while industrially farmed chickens suffer conditions that would pass for extreme in Guantanamo? You've seen the truckfulls of birds going down the highway at 60 miles per hour, leaving a trail of feathers and emitting the stench of filthy, bacteria-ridden sadness just waiting to be an E. Coli outbreak. But I digress...
When will we learn that banning something is an ineffective way to prevent it? It arguably increases its popularity, it certainly doesn't make it hard to get, it adds mystique, and, if anything, creates competition, which, in our beautifully capitalist society, inevitably drives the improvement of product quality. So, in essence, by banning something, you are ensuring that it gets better, and that it gets to more people.
And one thing is for sure: those people are going to enjoy it that much more. I know I certainly did.
Last Sunday I was able to attend one of these so-called "Duckeasies," thrown by a couple friends at a disclosed-last-minute location downtown. The amuse bouche, foie gras mousse and Welch's grape jam on Wonderbread, was delightfully playful and set the tone perfectly for the dinner: playful and whimsical, toying with the concept of foie as haute cuisine and using it in atypically rustic presentations and nestled among comfort foods. The foie was a more than welcome substitution for peanut butter in the amuse, without interrupting the inevitably pleasing nostalgia of Welch's on Wonderbread. It brought smiles to every face it was placed in front of.
Next came a cold wonton spoon; while enjoyable, it was not my favorite course. Its textures of quail egg and cherry tomato ran together and were a bit too gooey for me. Perhaps such texture was intended, but it just didn't blow me away. Then came a beet salad with a foie torchon, both impeccable and brilliant in its presentation, the beets cut into impressive cylinders about 2" thick and sandwiched together around some chèvre, so that the effect was something like a giant, exaggerated, purple Oreo. Looks aside, the salad was delicious, the texture of the foie marrying with that of the chèvre in delicate harmony and coating everything else in your mouth.
A corn soup came next. It was the sleeper hit of the meal, which I have to say, forgoing humility, that I had predicted it to be; the thing is, when you put foie in a soup, it attaches itself to every drop and the whole entire bowl becomes so unbelievably velvety and rich you'd swear you were a vampire feeding on a faerie (my apologies if you don't get the True Blood reference). With any other serving of foie, you inevitably end up with a foie-less bite or two. In soups like this one, you maximize every drop of your sordid affair, and it's soooooo good.
The hits just kept coming: Poutine with duck heart gravy (maybe the best part of the dish), béchamel, mozzarella curds, and shaved foie. I will never have Poutine as good as that, ever. Unless I eat that one again. So much love went into that dish, you could taste it in every bite.
After that came skewers of foie and grilled peaches, stood up on a thick wooden chopping block; in the center of the block sat a fluffy pile of amaretto whipped cream, tiny pieces of salty, crispy duck skin sticking out, and a pile of warm raisin atrium bread with date butter. Visually and gastronomically, this was probably the most impressive piece of the night. Julia had called it early; she devoured hers in the time it took me to photograph mine.
The Chawanmushi that came next was probably my least favorite course. Not to say it wasn't enjoyable, but its cold nature made it a more challenging vehicle for the foie to shine through. I got more flavor from a lot of the condiments (daikon, wakame, cucumber, nasturtium pod kimchi, and togerashi) than I did from the foie. Plus, I am not the biggest fan of cold, savory puddings and porridges, popular as they may be in many Asian cuisines. All that said, I did still find plenty of enjoyment in what were clearly a carefully selected array of flavors and textures.
Finishing off the savory side was a big slice of seared foie, chanterelles, and a duck egg, set up perfectly to create your own special open-faced sandwich; which I, of course, did. It was everything you'd want it to be: warm, in every possible sense of the word, texturally satisfying on a number of levels (crunchy bread, tender mushrooms, seared foie, runny egg), and exploding with favor. Umami ran around the insides of my mouth like a riot, lighting up my taste buds like they were in a pinball machine. You just wanted to chew it forever.
They finished us off with some vanilla ice cream topped with shaved foie, and some "foiecolate chip cookies"(chocolate chip cookies made with foie gras in place of butter... drool) to take home, just to make sure they didn't fall short of complete and total excess. It was an unforgettable and unequivocal experience, and it went off beautifully, completely heedless of an arbitrary, unjustified ban on a very beautiful and wonderful product.
So raise your torchons, your lobes, your burgers dripping goose fat, and your chocolate covered foie gras bonbons (yes, they exist). And toast the ban on foie... because it's never been so good!