Do you think that the long, booze-filled City lunch is a thing of the past?
Not at Otto’s, it isn’t.
The specialty at this French restaurant on London’s Gray’s Inn Road is pressed duck, using a recipe from the early 19th century, a time when mobile communications meant envoys on horseback or messages delivered by carrier pigeon.
“This will take an hour,” owner Otto Tepasse says as he seats you in his quirky restaurant, where kitsch meets kitchen. He’s being optimistic. The sauce takes that long, and the liver, breast and legs are served in separate courses.
It’s easy to while away three hours exploring the wine list and chatting with Tepasse as he prepares the dish, which was invented by a restaurateur called Mechenet.
In French, it is Canard de Rouen a la Presse, but the English name, Duck in Blood Sauce, may give a better idea of what you are in for. The birds are from Maison Burgaud, a family business that dates back 70 to 80 years, Tepasse says.
The ducks are lucky enough to live on the marshes at Challans, in the Vendee region of northwest France. Their luck runs out after about eight months, when they are strangled. That method of killing retains the blood.
The dish was developed at La Tour d’Argent in Paris, which uses the same ducks and where Tepasse, 58, once worked.
He has a colorful history. One of his earliest memories is of being a small boy in Frauenstetten, Bavaria, when U.S. Army convoys would roll through his village.
“I used to stand there, three or four years old, and they chucked me chocolates and sweets,” he said in an interview. “It went on for hours and I would stand there with wide open eyes.”
Tepasse followed his father into the hotel business, training at Drei Mohren, in Augsburg, Germany, before going on to the Kempinski in Berlin. He worked in the Grill restaurant, where dishes were prepared at the table, as at Otto’s.
When Stringfellows opened in London in the early 1980s, Tepasse was head sommelier. At the time, it was a nightclub rather than a lap-dancing venue. He remembers it fondly:
“Peter Stringfellow used to come in at 11 p.m. and the girls used to go on the table. He had a real presence. And there were people like Stevie Wonder playing the piano at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Tepasse is a restaurant veteran. His resume features famous London establishments such as Mirabelle, Inigo Jones, Magnos, Cafe du Jardin, Soho Soho, Chez Max, Bleeding Heart and the Don, where he worked before opening Otto’s about 2-1/2 years ago.
Back to now and he is at the table, caramelizing a sugar cube in a small pan, adding orange peel, port and cognac, then flambeing before adding red wine and reducing to a syrup. He adds stock made from the pressed duck carcass.
The silver press was made by Christofle in 1927 especially for Hotel Provencal in Juan-les Pins, France, Tepasse says.
In the kitchen, the head chef sears the duck in a pan for 15 minutes, roasts for 20 and then rests for another 15.
Tepasse adds seared and chopped duck’s liver and Madeira to his gravy, passes it through a sieve and serves it on brioche with sweet wine. After that comes the breast, with blood and bone marrow (not to mention butter) thrown in. That is served with pommes souffle. You still have the legs to go.
Describing this as a rich meal would be like saying Bill Gates has a bit of money. It’s true but doesn’t convey the scale. It is monumentally, heart-stoppingly rich.
Pressed duck may not be for you. I have tried it three times, with men of large appetites. None of us has managed to finish it. It is also a slow meal. It wouldn’t work for a first date, unless you would enjoy also having a stranger at your table, cooking and telling jokes in a German accent.
Only One Duck
It costs 140 pounds ($239) for two and must be ordered in advance. Only one duck is prepared at lunchtime and two over the course of an evening. (There’s also a pressed lobster option.) Starters and desserts cost extra. Otherwise, the menu is traditional, old-fashioned French.
The mark-ups on the wine list are modest, which is good because you may drink rather more than you plan during the long wait for food. It’s a bit like a theatrical experience, except that you don’t have to consume your alcohol from plastic cups.
It is a meal to die for.
Otto’s, 182 Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, London, WC1X 8EW. Information: +44-20-7713-0107 or http://www.ottos-restaurant.com/.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)