The Shaved Duck fries its potatoes in duck fat. "As the good lord intended," the menu states — and I agree. Fat is the secret to flavor, whether it's a richly marbled steak or the beef tallow that once made McDonald's fries great. And duck fat might be the richest, sweetest fat in the cook's arsenal.
What's more, there is no elegant way to eat these babies. Pluck a single fry from the tangle of very thinly spiral-cut spuds with fork or fingers, and you'll end up with a handful. Share an order with someone else, and the two of you might re-enact Lady and the Tramp, munching on opposite ends of the same crisp, golden shoestring until you meet at the center of the table for a Daffy-flavored kiss.
The duck-fat frites are served with twin tiny dishes of housemade ketchup — tangier than the bottled stuff — and mayonnaise. But for me the flavors of duck fat, potato and salt are enough. The only downside is that you have to eat the fries quickly. Duck fat isn't a food of the gods owing to lightness, and as the frites cool, heavy can become leaden.
Those fries alone are reason enough to visit the Shaved Duck.
But wait — there's more.
The restaurant, which opened in May in the former Pestalozzi Place digs at the corner of Pestalozzi Street and Virginia Avenue in Tower Grove East, also boasts one of the best beer lists in town. And if anything can improve on the perfection of an order of duck-fat frites, it's a hop-addled IPA.
Few St. Louis restaurants can brag about their wine lists, and beer is often a second or, if you count cocktails, third thought to these sorry efforts. The Shaved Duck has dedicated its list to American craft beers. There are only four taps, but the selection rotates. On my visits it included one of the best locally brewed beers, O'Fallon's 5-Day IPA (a great choice for introducing a novice to craft brews), and the brawny, delicious Morimoto Imperial Pilsner from Rogue.
The bottled list includes craft beers from breweries that will be familiar to the casual aficionado: New Belgium, Goose Island, Bell's and, of course, St. Louis' own Schlafly. There are a few lesser-known choices, too, like the North Coast Old Rasputin Stout.
The wine list isn't too shabby either: brief, but focused, with only one or two selections for each varietal or region, and with most bottles priced under $40. The cocktail menu includes gentle tweaks on classics and popular favorites, like a mojito with orange and rosemary or a gimlet with ginger.
That the Shaved Duck excels at libations shouldn't come as a surprise: Behind the new restaurant are Alistair Nesbit and Brendan Noonan of the popular Central West End pub the Scottish Arms.
The restaurant is cozy. You enter into the bar area: a few tables and bar seating for maybe half a dozen. Separating the back of the bar from the dining room is an attractive stained-glass partition. The dining room features a soothing dusky-blue color scheme and seating for about two dozen. (In good weather, sidewalk tables are available.) Wooden ducks grace a few of the windowsills and ledges. The sign for the restroom also features ducks and is hilarious.
Brendan Noonan's menu features small plates: ten dishes labeled as such and separate listings of cheeses and charcuterie that might as well be. There are only four traditional entrées or "large plates." You can build your meal from several small plates or from a small plate and an entrée. On my visits, I tried both approaches. The servers happily accommodated each, and the kitchen did an excellent job of pacing dishes accordingly.
As the restaurant's name might suggest, duck makes several appearances, all of them among the small plates. (This includes "Duck Soup," the soup of the day — which, the menu explains, may or may not actually contain duck.)
I enjoyed the duck confit, a leg and thigh served over slices of candied apple accented with thyme. The apple provided textural contrast to the duck, and a note of sweetness, but this dish was all about the duck: crisp skin and tender meat that, I have to admit, I eventually just picked up with my hands and gnawed from the bone.
The most striking small plate is an apparent oxymoron. "Scallop-Wrapped Bacon" features three scallops cut into strips, then wrapped around the restaurant's house-cured bacon and dotted with honey and balsamic vinegar. The cleverness here is in the presentation: The result looks something like a flower blossom. (OK, you have to really squint to see it. But still.) The dish itself provides the simple pleasures of the main ingredients.
The pasta small plate changes daily. When I tried it, the kitchen served housemade ravioli stuffed with chorizo and jalapeños in a spicy cream sauce. The ravioli were good, but too thick: The texture overwhelmed the filling, and the dish emanated more heat than flavor.
The cheese selection is small, numbering a few hard and soft cheeses. The charcuterie menu features a terrific cured salmon, with a light, clean flavor and dense texture that reminded me of sashimi as much as of a classic smoked salmon. A terrine of duck and rabbit studded with pistachios and blueberries was just OK. The forcemeat was good, but it would have been better with either the pistachios or the blueberries. With both, the dish was too busy.
I tried two of the four large plates. The "Meat & Bone" is beef filet served alongside a marrow bone and a few roasted root vegetables. The name conjures up images of Fred Flintstone chowing down on a dinosaur steak, and the bone, at least, lives up to the hype. It towers over the rest of the plate, with enough buttery marrow to spread on the steak with some left over for a slice or two of bread. The filet, though, is small. I don't mind restrained meat portions; if you do, consider yourself forewarned. At any rate, it's a good cut of meat, and the kitchen amps up its richness by poaching it in butter before grilling it. The root vegetables seemed more for decoration than consumption.
The fish preparation follows the market. On my visit it was trout stuffed with spinach, served over couscous with raisins and almonds. This was a simple dish, prepared well, the trout sautéed to a golden crisp, the spinach flavorful and not at all wilted.
Simplicity is the watchword here. The dishes aren't extravagant — except, perhaps, in richness. (Seriously: Order "Meat & Bone" and the frites on the same visit at your own risk.) The food is prepared well and appealing, and depending on your mood, the restaurant as a whole can feel like a neighborhood spot or like destination dining.
I'm lucky enough to live within walking distance. Which is especially good, since I'll need to work off all that duck fat.
If it walks like a duck and talks like a blowhard, it's probably me.