If she builds it, they will come.
Whenever Stephanie Izard moves, the tectonic plates shift, the stars tremble in the sky, and fish sauce pours from the faucets. Duck Duck Goat is a natural extension to Izard’s casually refined global approach, a less-greasy version of Chinese takeout. It’s an ambitious plunge into China: darting all over the map from Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs and Cantonese dim sum to Sichuan classics and Americanized-hybrid guilty pleasures. Already finding reservations is like panning for gold, but will the menu prove similar to a jaded eater of all-things Sino-centric?
Dramatic answer: Sort of.
We begin with seafood fried rice, a strange choice to course first when we’ve also ordered three dim sum-style appetizers. Sadly, it’s a little overfished for $17, missing a Finding Dory‘s worth of the promised bass, clams, and shrimp. We’re offered chili sauce to complement the dish, but it never materializes, product of a hospitable staff that you can tell is a little in the weeds. Though our hearts hearten from the duck hearts, tender and texture-forward for the offaly adventurous, and compellingly accented by a sesame-horseradish sauce they should bottle and sell.
The crab rangoon is where we might start to disagree. Some people like the crunchy bits. My good feelings rely on how much cream cheese and chum they can stuff into one. Is it shameful? Yes. Do I care? Also, yes. But not enough to stop. These fall somewhere in the middle, but the accompanying pineapple relish beats the subtle delicacy of real crab into submission and lacks a necessary tartness with the sweet. Together, the whole thing tastes and looks like an apple turnover.
Shrimp toast is crackly-soft bread, skillfully balanced with cilantro, peppers, and aioli. The shrimp could use a touch of salt, but the dish is a welcome take on the recent fancy toast trend. Then a long lull in the coursing happens, so I use the opportunity to admire the interior. This is kitsch and high-concept work done right, each room with a different personality: soaring exposed brick in one, candied teal and eye-snagging Escheresque chandeliers in another. The centerpiece is a wood-heavy canopied bar, decorated with amusing signage, while our own room has a pink-blush salon feel, big spiky ferns and gilt mirrors in a style my companion describes as Pushing Daisies. If you mistakenly didn’t watch that short-lived show, Duck is a hot pot medley of Chinese iconography, cobbled together and translated into exaggerated fairy tale style broth. It’s gorgeous and visually arresting.
Right around here we’re starting to feel the inaccuracy of our cheerfully optimistic waitress’ 4-6 dish recommendation, and I’m starting to regret that the Cold Dish section is a little lacking. Chinese food is unappreciated for its lighter fare: cold and bracing gai choy mustard greens, chilled noodles redolent with anise and Sichuan peppercorns, delicate seafood–all perfect for this steamy, summer night. Throw in some of those peanut and pickle snacks into the other dishes and call it a day. Those spicy, fermented and textural flourishes are something you expect from Izard, not to mention her dab hand at making excitingly muscular, vegetable-driven dishes at smash hit Girl & the Goat. For someone with her bravado, you want a little more confidence, a little more sheer, brazen don’t-give-a-rat’s-assery.
When the beef slap noodles finally arrive, a take on the classic chow hor fun, you recognize a dish with potential. The lack of crisping on the edges make it a bit more akin to Thai-style peanut noodles, creamy and comforting, with a nice contrast from the peppers and shaved radishes. But like the fried rice, it’s light on the wow and light on the short ribs, tiny meat nubbins with their collagen broken down to soft gelatin in the best possible way. Drunk on a wintry night, I’d eat a ton. In the middle of July, I feel weighed down.
Taiwanese Pineapple Cake – image via Jasmine Chang
But some doubt is swept away by a Taiwanese pineapple cake, a play on traditional snack feng li su. Child-version of me may or may not have eaten a ton of these and gotten sick of them. Except in a tragedy they will put down in the storybooks, Girl & the Goat took its miso-butterscotch budino off their menu, so I honed in on the familiar pineapple and cashew elements like a diabetic bloodhound. Fullness be damned–this was our cross to bear. The dish is nearly as good, fruit-filled cake crunchy with candied nuts that deserves more of the delicious soy-caramel ice cream. If you want temperature and texture play, this is it.
Our check comes with little fortune cookie pins, and I’m unsure as to whether mine is purposefully misspelled. That’s the thing about Izard: with someone of her immense talent, you can never tell if the perceived missteps are intentional. I don’t know if it’ll take a big name like hers or some anonymous Chinatown up-and-comer to push along the grease trap takeout scene into something bolder and brighter, but I’m cheering for all of them.