Duck furnishes a fascinating form of animal protein. While the raw flesh resembles red meat in many ways, it becomes more like dark meat turkey when cooked. And how is it categorized on restaurant menus? Sometimes as poultry, sometimes as red meat, and even occasionally with its fellow oddity frog as seafood due to its aquatic habitat and preference for swimming over running. But develop a fondness for it, and nothing else — not even greasy goose or lean ostrich — will quite suffice.
Though you may have eaten wild duck if you know a hunter, nearly all duck served in restaurants is raised on farms. China first domesticated the duck 2,000 years ago, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, but the ancient Romans were not far behind. Nowadays, almost all ducks served in New York, among 14 varieties native to the state, may be classified as mallards, though a few Muscovy ducks are occasionally spotted.
Mallards are prized for the ease in raising these omnivorous waterfowl, and easy accessibility of its flesh. Long Island was once famous for its duck farms, now the industry has moved elsewhere. (So if you see Long Island duckling on a menu, it may be a lie.) Whatever the variety or source, here are my five current favorite places to eat quackers, in reverse order of preference.
5. Duck at L’Accolade
L’Accolade is one of those new wine bars that specialize in natural vintages, with the food specially formulated to magnify and complement the quirky wines. It’s also one of those places with single word entrees, like “duck.” But that refers not just to the waterfowl, but to the complicated landscape in which the flesh fits, featuring fava beans, fava bean leaves, and almonds, among other surprises. Cut in timbers, the duck is smoky and succulent, with a crisp skin adhering, but not calling too much attention to itself. The whole plate reminds you of an untouched wetlands somewhere on the East Coast. 302 Bleecker St, between 7th Avenue South and Grove Street, West Village
4. Duck roti at Singh’s Roti Shop
Duck is a significant part of the diet in several Caribbean islands, including Trinidad, where there are 16 native varieties, and where wild ducks are often served. Wild ducks tend to be tough, so the waterfowl is most often curried, which tenderizes it. These curries are sometimes served over rice, but at Singh’s Roti Shop on hopping Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, which doubles as a bar and dance hall in the evenings, the duck is most often enjoyed as a roti. In this case that means a flatbread called “bust up shot” is served alongside for dipping and scooping, and the dark flavor of the duck is accentuated by the curry spices. 131-14 Liberty Ave, between 131st and 132nd streets, Richmond Hill
3. Duck frites at Frenchette
Steak frites is a bonafide bistro staple, and it’s often the best thing on the bill of fare. But Frenchette decided to do the common bistro one better by offering duck frites, and it became a durable classic. A skin-on duck breast, imperial in its length, is first steamed, then roasted, and then seared, so the flesh remains rare and the skin crisp as all get-out. It’s difficult to eat with a fork and knife because the flesh retains some fight, and one can’t resist picking up the pieces and gnawing at them for maximum enjoyment. And the frites are great, too. 241 W Broadway, between Walker and White streets, Tribeca
2. Thai duck salad at Ayada
The middle of the summer is perhaps not the best time to indulge in a rich, steaming duck dish. When the weather turns hot, I head for the Thai duck salads that can be found most prominently in Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Hell’s Kitchen. The one at Ayada in Elmhurst features mainly boneless duck cut in slices, fried with the skin on, then tossed with shredded papaya and green matter in a very tart dressing. Fresh pineapple in chunks adds needed sweetness, and the spice level is best set on “high.” There’s now also a location in Chelsea Market. 77-08 Woodside Ave, between 77th and 78th streets, Elmhurst
1. Peking duck at Hutong
Peking duck is not only a century-old recipe, but an eating ritual as well. And Hutong — a Hong Kong import that landed in Midtown’s Bloomberg Building this summer — does the best in town, much better than DaDong, the Bryant Park branch of a Beijing chain that specializes in it. At Hutong, the skin is thinner and crisper, the flesh fattier, and the meat richer tasting, as the morsels are wrapped in gossamer pancakes with cucumber, scallions, and a superior hoisin sauce that doesn’t taste too sweet. Available by whole or half duck. The carcass is then cooked into a second dish of ground duck cradled in a lettuce leaf, presented as a separate course. 731 Lexington Ave, between 58th and 59th streets, Midtown
If you enjoyed this ranking, take a gander at Critic Robert Sietsema’s Top 5 Octopus Dishes Around NYC