For well over a century, Charleston restaurants have been famous for their duck. In 1912, A New Guide to Modern Charleston raved about the mallard duck served at the Palace Café on Market Street, and the author boldly declared, "It is well known that South Carolina duck, particularly of the Georgetown brand, being fed rice, are the most delicious in the world, especially when prepared a lá South Carolina."
Duck in those days was a game bird, roasted and served whole for carving tableside. Things have changed in Charleston's new era of upscale dining, and it's quite difficult to find whole duck, and certainly not wild duck, on local menus. Instead, what you will find is duck breast — lots of duck breast. For some time it seems that our local duck options have been pared down to just two parts: the omnipresent breast and the less common but still popular confit of duck leg.
There's nothing wrong with a good pan-seared duck breast. In the hands of a skilled cook it can be a thing of rich, silky beauty. But, like double-cut pork chops and tenderloin filet, it is now so overexposed as to be almost formulaic. A cook takes a whole duck breast, sears it on both sides, and slices it into medallions to be served over a bed of something — mashed potatoes being the most popular choice. Seared duck breast isn't quite a dime a dozen yet, but it's getting there.
But hope is not lost. While it doesn't seem likely that we'll return to the glory of the Georgetown duck any time soon, some chefs around town are taking pains to do a little something more with their fowl.
Duck Entrée ($22)
Let's start with a baseline. If you're looking for a superior example of the standard duck preparations, turn to chef John Ondo at Lana. With his duck entrée you can get both of the varieties on a single plate. A crispy leg confit is served over what Ondo calls a root vegetable "cassoulet" — a selection of veggies like peas, carrots, and zucchini cooked tender with plenty of smoky bacon. Slices of seared duck breast are fanned out around the side of the plate, underlying it all is a deep-purple port wine reduction. The skin is crisp and golden, the meat is tender and rich. It's about as good as a duck breast and leg confit can get, and a fine illustration of why duck became such a fine-dining fixture in the first place.
Charcuterie Plate with Pâté, Duck Liver Terrine, and Rillettes ($13)
Slightly North of Broad
The sheer number of kitchens cranking out duck breasts and confit of duck leg raises an obvious question: what's happening to the other parts of all those ducks? After all, there hasn't exactly been a glut of duck hotdogs or buffalo duck wings on the market. Slightly North of Broad has its own duck breast and leg confit combo, which they are currently serving with butternut squash casserole, asparagus, and — in a nice local twist — a Muscadine glaze. But, SNOB is one of the local charcuterie pioneers, and Chef Frank Lee and his team put the rest of the bird to good use. They buy their ducks whole and carve off the breasts and legs for the entrée. The duck fat is rendered and used in the confit, and the duck tenderloin finds its way into sausage. The livers and the leftover bits show up on the charcuterie plate as pâté, duck liver terrine, and rilletes, and you might fine shreds of duck meat topping a salad for a lunchtime special. Going whole hog is all fine and good, but whole duck is even better.
Grilled Duck Breast ($12)
The grilled duck breast on the appetizer menu at Muse takes the old duck breast standard and throws in a few exotic twists. For starters, it's grilled instead of pan-seared. Before it hits the grill, it's rubbed with sumac — a remarkable flavor not often found in Charleston kitchens. A dark red spice of Middle Eastern origin, when it combines with the high heat of the grill it imparts upon the duck an unbelievably smoky, slightly charred, tart-fruit flavor. Alongside this solid base are a scattering of medjool dates, which have been cooked until reduced to a syrupy sweet mush, and Madeira-braised onions that are sweet, tender, and brimming with flavor, plus a scattering of pomegranate seeds for good measure. The duck fat renders out on the grill, leaving behind little crispy remnants that add surprising little bursts of flavor amid the sweet jus. It's a delightful combination of sweet and tart that will make you look at duck breast in a whole new light.
Pulled Barbecue Duck Sandwich ($10)
Out on Johns Island, they'll barbecue anything, even a duck. Keeping true to its French country theme, the Fat Hen has a tasty duck confit on the regular dinner menu, but more in line with the rural South Carolina setting is the pulled barbecue duck sandwich ($9.95). A big round bun is filled with hunks of pulled duck topped with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce and a generous portion of blue cheese slaw, which is liberally studded with bits of the restaurant's housemade bacon. It's proof positive that duck is every bit as suited to the barbecue pit as is pork or chicken. The dark meat turns out slightly smoky and very flavorful, and you can pull the big chunks into strands just like you can pork. This is a rare duck — it can be found only on the Sunday Brunch menu — but it's a tasty one.
BLT with Duck Confit ($9)
Long Point Grill
Duck isn't just for French-themed restaurants, and it isn't just for upscale dinners, either. Over at the Long Point Grill, they dress up a BLT ($9) with some duck confit and create a new twist on an old lunchtime favorite. Big, tender slices of cool duck meat are piled on thickly-sliced, buttery toast and topped with strips of bacon, mesclun, and tomato. The bread is nice and soft, and the duck is too, making for a chewy, filling sandwich — perfect if you want to just duck in for a quick bite at lunch.
Duck Sliders ($6 for 3, $9 for 6)
Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge
There's nothing run-of-the-mill about West Ashley's Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge, and their duck club sliders ($6 for 3, $9 for 6) are masterpieces of bar cuisine. Duck confit, smoked cheddar, and bacon are piled on a King's Hawaiian dinner roll along with lettuce, tomato, onion, and a piquant garlic aioli. The outsides of the roll are toasted so they're nice and crispy, but the rolls themselves are sweet and soft. Within this tender package, the flavor of rich, salty duck explodes with each bite. It's hard to imagine a better bar snack, but you can take it up one level more with a side of truffled tots ($2.50) — old school fried tater tots tossed with white truffle oil and smoked sea salt. Never has high met low with such delicious results.
House-Cured Duck Roll ($6.25)
39 Rue de Jean
Like most duck-serving restaurants, Rue de Jean has its confit and duck breast entrées. And — as one would expect from a French-style brasserie — they're pretty darn good, too. But Chef Jason Murphy and his crew don't stop there. It's a bit odd to find sushi in a French café, but amid the hamachi and unagi, Rue throws in a Gallic touch with the house-cured duck roll ($6.25). The plate of the day at Thursday lunches is a salad with smoked duck breast over baby spinach ($10.99). But, the piece de duck resistance is the duck and grilled corn hash ($9.99), a highlight of Rue's Sunday brunch. It might just be the ultimate hangover food, and it's pretty appealing even if you behaved yourself the night before. Duck confit is chopped and mixed in with yellow corn kernels, diced potatoes, onions, and red and green peppers, all in a succulent, slightly-spicy sauce. Topping it all are two fried eggs (try them over medium) and some tarragon-laden hollandaise. The runny yolk merges with the velvety duck meat, giving a sinful richness to the bowl, while the potatoes and corn make a hearty foundation. It's not a light brunch item by any stretch of the imagination, but it will help you duck whatever ails you on a chilly Sunday morning.